In the autumn after the Federation goes to war with the Dominion, Penny moves to Pasadena to star in a mostly-Vulcan production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It's a short-term thing – her agent is telling her she should stay out there a while afterwards, maybe think about film or TV roles – but Penny ignores her and tells the computer to play happy, upbeat, energetic music, the kind that will help her throw everything she owns into probably-not-enough boxes before the movers come. It turns out that nope, there aren't enough boxes, the computer's playing sea shanties, and so many people are moving to California because of the war effort that the only apartment she can find is up on the fourth floor of a building with a broken elevator, but it's okay. It's okay. She moves out there on a weekend in early September, flirts with the girl at the local civilian transport station and gets her to beam in the couch, and when the day's over and at least the boxes are in, if not unpacked, she slumps onto the now-much-cleaner couch with a container of take-out and, this time, asks the computer to play something old and romantic. It picks The Philadelphia Story, so Jimmy Stewart is calling out, "C. K. Dexter Haven! C. K. Dexter Haven!" when Penny sits bolt upright with a start.
At first she thinks it's the screen that woke her. But as she sits there rubbing her eyes, she hears it again: the buzz of voices and a sequence of footsteps, coming up the stairs outside her door. She figures she'd better get used that – close-to, the elevator looked not just broken but kind of exploded – and gets up to get a glass of water.
"I don't like it," says a voice from beyond the door, getting a little louder as though the speaker has just turned the corner onto the landing. "I really don't. I think we're – I think it's going to blow up in our faces."
“Wait” – that’s a girl’s voice, pretty high-pitched – “you don’t like it? That’s kind of… ironic, don't you think?”
“That’s racist, Bernadette.” A pause. “Okay, racist, speciesist, Human-normative, whatever!” The speaker sounds exceptionally irritated. “Just because I’m…”
“That wasn’t what I was going to say!” The girl – Bernadette? – again. “I’m just saying, you agreed to do this. I know you've got this bullshit thing where you're all, we're academics, not weapons developers, or whatever."
“Yes, exactly!” The other speaker again. “We’re academics. We’re not – Starfleet. Sheldon, what do you think?”
There’s another pause, and Penny suspected there were more than two of them from the amount of noise their footsteps made, but this is the first time she’s heard the third voice. “I think you’re an idiot.”
“Straight to ad hominem, really? I’m just, all this stuff about the war being shorter, and the lives it'll save, but I don’t understand why neither of you are interested in the ethical mode of our research…”
“No,” says the third voice, soft and Southern and entirely expressionless, “you are standing there, in this darkened hallway, as if you assume that I am about to reach into my pocket and extract a key fob. When, if you recall, several hours ago when we departed, you said, and I quote: ‘it’s okay, Sheldon, I’ve got the keys.’ Therefore, logically speaking…"
“Oh… fuck.” A long pause. “Bernie?”
“You guys are aware I don’t actually live here, right? If you want your spare, it’s on my desk in San Francisco.”
Penny decides that’s her cue. When she opens the door, the three of them are shadows in the light spilling out from her apartment, and it takes her a moment for her eyes to adjust. Closest to her is a pretty, blonde Human woman, who turns apologetically and says, “See what you both did! I’m sorry, are we disturbing you?”
“Uh, no,” Penny says, “I just, I overheard what you were saying - if you want somewhere to wait while someone gets your spare key, I mean – I only just moved in but I’ve got, like, three whole pieces of furniture you could sit on.”
The woman smiles. “Thanks, that’s nice of you. Uh, I’m Bernadette, and I’m sorry to have to tell you this” – she grins – “but Sheldon and Leonard are your new neighbours. I’m just sleeping on their couch.”
The other two step out of the dimness, and Penny notes without surprise that Sheldon is Vulcan, or maybe part Vulcan and part something else – there’s an angular sweep to his features, but an expressive cast to the way he moves that doesn't chime with what she knows about how Vulcans behave. When Leonard turns to face her he’s pushing his hair out of his eyes, and Penny remembers the distinct annoyance in his voice as they came up the stairs and is surprised to see the points of his ears. “Hi,” she says, and they both nod, formally; it’s a little weird. “I’m Penny. Uh, do you want to come in?”
Bernadette and Leonard follow her in while Sheldon volunteers to beam back to San Francisco to get the spare keys – he's muttering something about how if you want something done round here, you have to do it yourself or at least get it done by someone other than Leonard – and once he's gone the essential awkwardness of the situation descends, Penny standing here in this half-empty apartment with these two strangers. She can’t offer them a drink or something like that – all the kitchen stuff is still in boxes – so the silence stretches.
"Hey," she says, with the snippets of conversation she overheard still on her mind, "so, what do you guys – do?"
Leonard looks at Bernadette. Bernadette looks at Leonard. Neither of them say anything; they both stare at the ceiling, for a minute, as though expecting something to be written there, and an even more awkward silence descends.
"Okay," Penny says, after another minute, "uh, I'm an actress. I just moved here for a role in A Streetcar Named Desire."
"Oh,” Bernadette says. “Blanche, or Stella?"
Penny takes a moment to be happy that this woman just assumes she'd be playing one of the leads. "Blanche," she says. "Other than me and Stanley, it's an all-Vulcan production."
"Wow," Bernadette says again, "that'll be interesting." She glances at Leonard; he doesn't say anything, but his eyes rest on Penny for a moment. Penny agrees that it will be interesting, talks a little about how in auditions her new director was talking about Human drama is taken seriously by Vulcans, something about the depth of emotion and catharsis, while Bernadette nods along, interested, and somehow that opens up the conversation a little: once they’ve talked about the play, they talk about other plays they've seen, and then, gradually about themselves, where they're from and going. Penny learns that Bernadette is married, but her husband and their other partner are in Starfleet, on deep-space reconnaissance; that she misses them but that her friends have been very good to her while they’ve been gone, especially Leonard; that she and Leonard have known each other for a long time, "and he and Sheldon come as a package, as you may have gathered."
Bernadette's smiling as she says it, and Penny has a sudden flash of awareness that she moved to this place where she'd never been just this morning, and it'll be a long time, if ever, until someone in this town speaks of her with that kind of affection. "You and Sheldon," she says curiously to Leonard, "you're... married? Roommates?" She pauses. "Married roommates?"
Leonard grins. "Roommates. Sheldon's bondmate is a neurobiologist at UCLA, I guess you'll meet her some time, if you're staying."
“I guess I will,” Penny says, a little doubtfully. She’s not sure she will be. She grew up on a farm and went to an all-Human high school on the prairies; Pasadena, with its palm trees and bright starry nights, right under the Starfleet flightpath into geostationary spacedock, is a long way from Lincoln, Nebraska.
When Sheldon finally appears with the keys they all thank her for her hospitality – although Penny notices that Sheldon has to be prodded into it by Leonard, and if Leonard really isn't his bondmate she'd like to meet the woman who is – and file back across the hall to the opposite apartment. Penny shakes her head and smiles, and tells the computer to pick up where she left off with the movie. Even if she isn't staying, it's good to meet your neighbours. Maybe they'll pick up packages for her.
Rehearsal starts the next day and Penny runs down the stairs cursing the lack of an elevator, nervousness churning in her stomach alongside the black coffee. She sits down two minutes late for the first table reading and gets a look from her new director that would be, in a Human, a death glare, and she flubs her first few lines even with them right in front of her, too flustered to enunciate them properly. She gasps for breath and starts to wonder if she should have stayed out east after all.
But it's okay. It's okay. After a while, the actress playing Stella – a Vulcan woman named Selar – suggests they take a break, and gets Penny another coffee, and Zach, who's playing Stanley, asks her where she's from and what she thinks of the play, and seems to really be listening to her answers; and when they sit down again at the table Penny is ready. The director looks at her with all that dark Vulcan intensity, but this time it's an appraising look, not disapproving; and by the time the day is over, the newsfeeds on the way to the beam-out station are talking grimly about war and Dominion counter-attacks in Alpha Quadrant space, but Penny doesn't care; she's somewhere else, in the Elysian Fields a thousand miles and four hundred years from here. She goes to sleep thinking about it, about what it will be like when it all comes together, to stand on that stage and be Blanche in all her histrionic passion, and wakes up about an hour later to the sound of a shrill woman's voice shouting, "You damn hypocrite, Leonard!"
Penny sits bolt upright in bed as another voice shouts, voice cracking, "Stop it!"
A door slams, very loudly; Penny finds a hoodie and a pair of flip-flops and goes out on the landing. Leonard and Bernadette are standing in the open doorway of the other apartment, glaring at each other furiously. "I'll go get him," Leonard says, at last, and heads down the stairs without a glance at Penny.
"Bernadette," Penny says, "you guys know how late it is, right?"
"Sorry," Bernadette says, "I'm sorry." She sounds distracted; after another moment, she says, "Sheldon doesn't like it – you know, when people fight around him. It makes him anxious."
"What were you fighting about?" Penny asks, but before Bernadette says anything, Leonard reappears, leading Sheldon up the stairs.
"Sorry, buddy," he's saying, "I'm really sorry. I promise we'll stop."
Bernadette nods, all the hostility leaving her face as she looks at Sheldon, who has real distress in his usually even features. "We both promise," she says, and Penny would think it's sweet, the way they're both so concerned about him, if these three strange strangers had not just woken her up out of a sound sleep, again.
"I'll make tea," Leonard says, decisively, and then, looking up at Penny: "I'm sorry about the noise. Do you want to – I mean, if we've woken you up, I figure we could offer you something to drink, at least."
Penny doesn't really consider saying no – she's wide awake now, and even if she weren't, she's also curious – and follows them in. Their apartment is warm and clean and full of open space, the shelves lined with paper books and comics. It's nicer than she expected – Penny doesn't know what she expected, but given they've been having a domestic crisis every time she's met them so far, possibly something less cosy – and judging from the lived-in look of the couch, Bernadette is a long-term house guest.
Sheldon is rummaging through a basket by the door, looking for something; he looks up at Penny, mutters something, then hands her a pair of gloves. “Put these on. They’re clean,” he adds, off her look. “I destroy and re-replicate them regularly.”
“Uh… okay?” Penny looks up and realises for the first time that Bernadette and Leonard are also wearing gloves – with a sundress and T-shirt and jeans, respectively – as though this is perfectly normal. Leonard walks across to the little galley kitchen and says, “Computer, rooibos tea. Penny, you want anything?”
That actually sounds pretty good; Penny’s replicator isn’t connected up yet. “Hot chocolate?”
“Sure. Computer, hot chocolate. And access sub-routine zero zero alpha, Sheldon’s past-his-bedtime tea.”
Penny smiles at that, but the computer doesn’t query it and responds by creating something that smells like peppermint. Leonard takes the tea to Sheldon, who sniffs at it, then looks suspiciously up at Leonard. “Steeped? Two spoons of honey?”
Leonard nods, and puts the cup right into his hands. "Bernadette?"
"What?" she snaps.
"Hot apple juice?"
"Yeah," she says, and Penny hadn't figured that someone so tiny could be that scary, but she's glad she's not on the receiving end of that glare. "And?"
"Computer, hot apple juice. And," Leonard says, taking the cup out of the alcove, "I'm sorry. You were right."
From the look on her face, Bernadette wasn't expecting that degree of capitulation. She takes the cup from Leonard, inhales deeply from it and says, finally, "So were you, before. It is going to blow up in our faces."
"I think it already has," Leonard says, and she smiles wryly, but says nothing.
Sheldon, turning his head so Bernadette and Leonard can't see him but Penny can, rolls his eyes; she laughs a little and disguises it as a cough when Leonard gives her the hot chocolate. "Thanks," she says, and it's comfortably quiet for a while, the only sound the spoon in Sheldon's peppermint tea hitting the sides of the glass, until the computer chimes: "Incoming voice transmission from Amy Farrah Fowler."
"In my bedroom," Sheldon says, and retreats behind the door.
Leonard shakes his head. "Guess we woke her up, too."
Bernadette shrugs, apologetically, and Penny suddenly remembers who she must be and how Vulcan marriages work. "How come they don't live together?" she asks, and it's Sheldon himself who answers, coming out of his room and shutting the door behind him.
"Someone has to look after Leonard," he says, crisply. "Dr Hofstadter, Dr Rostenkowski - Amy asks if you could give her twenty-four hours' written notice the next time you wish to have a shouting match at one o'clock in the morning."
They both look similarly abashed. Penny laughs, decides that's an apt reminder of how late it's gotten, thanks them for the hot chocolate and retreats to her own apartment, and only realises when she's getting into bed again that she's still wearing gloves.
It's fine, she thinks, snuggling down. She'll wait for their next domestic dispute and then give them back.
Unfortunately, before that can happen, something else does: a shitty one-inch rawlplug having a disagreement with a solid steel curtain pole and it, the pole and Penny all landing on the floor in a heap. It's late afternoon in her rest day, an Indian summer day that made her open all the windows and decide it was the perfect time to put up curtains and finish emptying the boxes. "Damn," she says, about two minutes too late, and lies there for a while watching the little birds go tweet-tweet-tweet around her head.
"It is illogical," says a voice from the doorway, "to ascribe anthropomorphic characteristics to inanimate objects."
"Sheldon?" She twists around and groans as the shoulder that hit the ground first twinges violently in complaint. "Get this thing off me!"
Sheldon comes in through the open door – Penny was airing the place out – and lifts the curtain pole off her easily. "Are you injured?"
Penny sits up slowly and stretches out, flexing the muscles in her forearms and hands. "I think I'm okay. Just bruised." She shuffles across the floor on her ass and leans against the couch. Sheldon is staring at her intently, and she blinks. "What?"
"It is illogical," he says again, still very intently, "to imply that an object may be, ah, damnable, or not."
"Seriously?" Penny puts her head on the couch cushion and closes her eyes. "Look, either be helpful, or…"
"That is logical," he interrupts, and Penny opens her eyes again.
"It is? Okay."
"Yes," Sheldon says, striding forth determinedly, "as I have both greater physical strength and greater reach than you, it is logical I should purvey my assistance" – and he proceeds to do just that, picking up the curtain pole and lining it up against the top of the window. He's tall enough that he barely has to stand on the tips of his toes, and Penny carries on leaning against the couch and smiles.
"Thanks," she says, and he doesn't answer – presumably logic doesn't require gratitude – but grabs a pencil and starts making marks on the paint above the window. "Aren't you working today? You're a scientist, right?"
"Yes. I was working from home," Sheldon says. "I heard the noise of your fall."
"Right." Penny thinks about it, then figures that she's got him here and she might as well ask. "Sheldon – what is it that Leonard and Bernadette do? Why do they fight all the time? I mean…" – she hesitates, but she's a good judge of people; it's why she's a good actress, in part – "they seem like they're friends. But then they just – go for each other?"
This time, Sheldon turns around; above him, the curtain pole shifts in his grip, but doesn't slip and crack him on the head, for which Penny's grateful. "I cannot tell you that."
"Because it's a secret? What if I promise not to tell anyone?"
Sheldon makes another mark on the paint and considers. "You could promise, but be lying."
"I thought Vulcans could tell when people are lying."
"Yes," Sheldon says, thoughtfully. "I could tell you, then."
"Although," Penny says, obscurely enjoying herself, "what if you tell me, and then I say, I promise not to tell anyone, and you can tell I'm lying, but it's too late to do anything about it because you've already told me? What then?"
"Awkwardly expressed, but your reasoning is sound." Sheldon lays the curtain pole carefully down and starts measuring the curtains with a mini-tricorder. Penny decides not to ask why he just carries one of those things around with him. "Perhaps I should ascertain your veracity beforehand."
"Perhaps you should. Other way up, sweetie."
Sheldon turns the curtains over so the linings are on the outside, and says: "Penny, if I tell you what Leonard and Bernadette are working on, will you give me your word that you will not reveal it to any other person?"
"Yeah," Penny says, "I will." She won't tell – at least, she'll do her level best not to. And if Sheldon is any kind of logician, he must have figured out that one of these days Leonard and Bernadette are going to yell something crucial where she can hear it, and she might as well have the context.
"All right." Sheldon puts the curtains down and turns to look at her, leaning against the window glass. "There is an organisation," he says at last, "called Section 31. They have become more prominent in recent months, in relation to the war effort against the Dominion" – and, goddammit, that would be when Leonard appears in the doorway and says:
"Hey, buddy, what're you doing?"
"Leonard, cease your inane wittering and come hold this," Sheldon snaps, a slight green flush in his cheeks. Leonard comes in with a confused look at Penny, and follows Sheldon's instructions obediently.
"Okay," he says, "we're putting up curtains. That's what's happening. Hey, Penny."
There's an awkward silence for a moment; Sheldon's clearly still flustered, and Leonard just looks confused. Penny says, "I'd, uh, I'd offer you guys something, but my replicator still isn't working."
"I can fix that," says a voice, and Penny turns to look at Bernadette on the threshold: after a moment, Penny realises that unlike her two friends, she's waiting to be asked in. Penny gestures and Bernadette immediately starts peering into the replicator alcove in the kitchen wall. The lights have been blinking orange all week; Bernadette murmurs something to the computer and one of them starts alternating between yellow and orange. "It's this trick Howard taught me," she says, over her shoulder. "He's a starship engineer, so not everything he tells me actually works down here. Damn it," she adds, hitting something with the heel of her hand.
"It is not logical…"
"Shut up, Sheldon," Bernadette and Leonard say together, and Penny grins.
"Tricorder, please," Sheldon says, smartly, and Leonard passes it up to him; after a second, Penny realises he's using the heat source in it to fuse the rawlplugs into the wall, rather than hammer them in as she was trying to do. Leonard tests the pole a couple of times, and they start threading on the curtain hooks.
Penny's laughing a little at their synchronised efficiency. "Thank you both," she says, "that's super helpful" – as Bernadette slams something shut on the replicator control panel.
"Got it," she says. "Computer, uh – mint tea" – and it materialises, although the lights are now blinking red, orange and green in tandem. "Okay, Penny, it's working, but you do still need to get the building manager to come look at it. Don't try and replicate – uh, anything wider than about four inches. Or with a molar mass of over eighty."
"Or cornmeal," Leonard adds. "Remember Polentapalooza '68?"
They all shudder identically. "Also," Bernadette goes on, "we're gonna get takeout tonight. You want in?"
Even if she didn't have to replicate her meals in chunks of less than four inches, Penny thinks she would have said yes anyway. "Sure. Thanks, all of you."
"No problem." Leonard leaps down off the stool and closes the curtains. "You like Vulcan food? It's okay to say no, Bernadette threw a bowl of plomeek soup at my head one time…"
Sheldon is the last to leave the apartment, other than Penny, who's waiting so she can lock the door behind them. "About what you were saying, before," she says, under her breath and urgent.
"You should read the Federation Charter," Sheldon says, and goes out.
Late that night, Penny does. She asks the computer to load it on the padd she keeps on her bedside table and reads it sitting up in bed, all through in order, so she reads all about suffrage and speech and assembly and citizenship before she gets to section 31(a) through (d). Once she's gotten that far, she lays it down and goes to sleep, and it doesn't give her nightmares – Penny prides herself on her ability to pull drama and meaning out of the flatness of the printed page, but this really is dry: this is all, by any means necessary; whatever is necessary or expedient for securing the public safety – but when she gets up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, she hears Leonard and Bernadette from across the hall. She guesses they're up late working, but they're talking softly, not fighting. Penny slips out silently, presses her ear to the door and hears Leonard say, "We'll tell them in the morning."
"In the morning," Bernadette says, "we won't do it, we can't" – and Penny wonders what it is they've just agreed to, after dark in whispers.
"Hey, guys, you have any eggs – okay, what the hell is this now?"
"Maybe in the refrigerator?" Leonard says, without turning to look at her. "Or you could use our replicator if you want. Sheldon, I think we're good to go. Amy, you okay in there?"
Penny isn't thinking about eggs. She's staring at the usual focal space in the living room: at the couch, Leonard's chair and the small coffee table usually covered with papers, plates and empty containers. It's black and white. The rest of the room is its ordinary full-colour self, but that small patch in the middle of the room is choppy and monochrome as The Philadelphia Story. She blinks hard, in case it's a weird kind of hallucination. It isn't. "Uh, what…"
Bernadette laughs. "It's a – um, okay, you've been in a holosuite, right? Think that, only… smaller."
"Before the war, Leonard's research centred on the physics of holographic imaging," Sheldon says, holding his hand out towards the edge of – whatever it is. The tips of his fingers disappear into nothingness as he touches it. "All right. One more step."
"Slowly," Leonard cautions, "slowly, the computer – you don't want to…"
"Oww!" yells a woman's voice, and then a stranger appears in the middle of the room like she's just jumped out of a cake. "Thank you for that, Leonard."
"Oops," Leonard says, apologetically – the strange woman is rubbing her nose in obvious pain. "Ah, Penny – this is Amy."
Amy turns to look at Penny. "I see," she says, picking up her bag from the back of the couch, "the new neighbour. Roll up your sleeve, this won't take a minute."
"Uh... what?" Penny looks across the apartment at Bernadette, now rummaging through the refrigerator for eggs, and Leonard sitting down at Sheldon's desk by the window to make a note. Neither of them have reacted. "You want to... take my blood?"
"Of course," Amy says calmly. "Leonard, you're next" - and when Leonard rolls up his sleeve obediently, still without looking up, Penny decides maybe she should try and make other friends. Maybe she should hang out with the Streetcar cast more. Maybe she should move.
"Okay," she's saying, taking a large step back, "I don't know what kind of freak show you guys are running here, but..."
"Oh," Bernadette says, "Penny - sorry. You see, the Founders, they're changelings. Shapeshifters. They infiltrate without anyone knowing, and unless you check a person's blood..."
Penny stares. "There could be enemy infiltrators here on Earth? Why don't I know about this?"
"It's not," Leonard says tightly, "common knowledge."
"Okay." Penny lets Amy takes a blood sample and notes the moment of tension before the liquid spurts red into the vial. "I thought you were going to do experiments on me or something."
Amy's guilty look, Penny decides, is not entirely reassuring. "What about Sheldon?" she asks, and Sheldon looks up with the expression that Penny knows, in him, serves as a smile.
"If I'm not a changeling, Sheldon isn't," Amy says, confidently, and Penny remembers.
"Because you're his wife," she says, then corrects, "bondmate" - at Amy's disapproving look.
"It's quite a different thing," she says primly. "Not many humans are capable of it."
"I thought," Penny confesses, "you would be a Vulcan. Or, you know, part. Like Leonard and Sheldon."
There's a pause, then, which Penny doesn’t quite know what to make of; as though all of them are deliberately not saying something. Amy says, with an unreadable glance at Leonard, "You haven't told her." And then, as Leonard looks up guiltily: "I shouldn't have said that, should I?"
"Uh," Bernadette is saying, "these are eggs here, Penny, if you want" – but Penny's lost her temper.
"Okay, I've had it," she says, stamping her foot. "I don't know what kind of kick it gives you, or whatever, but all you guys ever seem to do is keep secrets. Am I just – some stupid girl who lives across the hall, is that it? I thought" – and she realises this is true even as she's saying it, and that makes it worse, somehow – "I thought we were friends."
There's another long pause after that. Penny's considering just saying, hell with it, she can get takeout on her own from now, when Leonard suddenly makes eye contact. "Penny," he says, lightly, "would you like to take a walk with me?"
Penny ignores Bernadette and Amy making noises that sound suspiciously like oooooh! and says, "Uh, sure?"
Leonard holds out one hand to her, and she takes it, a little confusedly. "Close your eyes," Leonard murmurs, "and on three, jump. One, two, three!"
Penny has no idea what's going on, but she goes with it. Her feet leave the living room carpet and thud down on solid rock; she opens her eyes, looks up, and can only say: "Holy crap."
They're somewhere else entirely. Somewhere black and white, but not choppy – she lifts a hand to her face, and it's solid as it always is - and out in front of her she can make out the horizon at the edge of the rocky landscape, and the curve of an alien sky. "What," she says, and turns to look at Leonard, who's smiling at her slightly, eyes and hair darker now they're only picked out in shades of grey. "Where is this?"
"Believe it or not," Leonard says, letting go of her other hand, "it's an old movie Sheldon likes. Captain Proton, Defender of the Universe – something from the early twentieth century. Captain Proton defending the Earth in his rocket ship, from the villainous Chaotica and his, ah, his army of evil. I haven't built him the rocket ship yet," he adds, and Penny can't help laughing.
"You're just a couple of giant nerds, aren't you?" she says, and he laughs in return.
"Something like that."
"Can we," Penny says, motioning towards the landscape, and he nods.
"Yeah. I'm trying not to use too much computing power, so there's a lag – that's what happened to Amy. You just take small steps, though, and the computer has time to turn you around without you knowing it."
Penny giggles as they start walking along the little path among the rocks, towards that alien sunrise. "So what we're really doing is walking in tiny circles around the coffee table? Can they" – she waves vaguely, meaning Amy, Bernadette and Sheldon – "hear us?"
"No." Leonard shakes his head. "They need to link into the programme to communicate with us."
"Cool," Penny says, pausing to reach down and pick up a rock. She throws it as hard as she can and has a weird moment as it hits something in the far distance, briefly turns full-colour and fizzles into nothingness. "So, Amy seems nice."
"She is," Leonard says, after a moment. "She and Sheldon – well, I don't always understand it, but it works."
Penny nods, throws another rock at the invisible barrier and stops short. "Leonard," she says, "not that this isn't pretty cool, but you brought me here for a reason, right? What did you want to talk about?"
Leonard gives her a small, half-apologetic smile, and holds up his gloved hands. "Have you ever wondered," he says, with studied lightness, "why Sheldon and I live together?"
Penny isn't sure where this is going, but she'll go with it. "Kinda," she says honestly. "I asked Sheldon once why he doesn't live with Amy, and he said…"
"I know what he said." Leonard sighs and starts walking again. "I guess you've got to understand, first of all, that there usually is some method to Sheldon's madness. The blood sample thing - that started out as a bit of Sheldon-paranoia, but he convinced Amy and now it's everyone-paranoia. They do it at Caltech and UCLA and up at Starfleet too, it's good sense and they got it from him. And the gloves... well, if even if it was just that it helped him with his anxiety I wouldn’t mind it, but – you know, he makes everyone in this apartment wear gloves, but everyone who actually lives here is a touch-telepath, so maybe it's just another thing that's good sense."
"Okay," Penny says, a little confused. "All right."
"And then there's the other thing."
Leonard glances at her. “My father is an anthropologist,” he says, voice perfectly neutral. “He was in Starfleet for many years as a diplomatic and first-contact specialist. About thirty years ago, he was involved with an attempt by the Federation to infiltrate ch’Rihan. Let’s say – they underestimated the intelligence of the people they were trying to infiltrate, and, uh, also the things they had in common. Starfleet extracted them and their new friends in a hurry and I was born in transit on the USS Yorktown.”
Penny’s shaking her head, saying, “ch’Rihan” – and then she gets it. “Oh, my God.” She stares at him for a moment. “You're not Vulcan. You're Romulan."
“I prefer, Rihannsu,” Leonard says, embarrassed. “And, half. Half-Rihannsu, or Romulan, or whatever you like to call it.”
“Wow,” she says, and she can’t help herself: she takes a very small step back. From his expression, Leonard notices, but chooses not to say anything. “You’re… wow.” After a moment, she adds, “it’s like this movie I saw one time – the one about the Starfleet officers, and the baby – wait.” She stops. “That was you.”
"They changed the names," Leonard says. “Somehow no one could take a Romulan love-child called Leonard Hofstadter seriously, I'm sure I don't know why."
Penny laughs at that. “What’s your mom like?” she asks curiously, and Leonard shudders.
"Oh, she loves me," he says, "despite my blood taint."
"Unlike Starfleet, though," Leonard says, reflectively, "she doesn't feel the need to keep me in sight at all times. Anyway, that's it – that's what Amy meant. I'm sorry I let you think I was Vulcan – it just, it freaks people out a little."
"That's okay," Penny says. "Really, uh – thanks for telling me."
Leonard only nods in response, and she realises after they've shut down the programme and rematerialised, blinking and full-colour and accidentally standing on the coffee table, that she didn't ask what this whole thing has to do with Sheldon. But while Penny and Leonard have been inside the holoprogramme the take-out has come, and there's a mistake in their order, only there isn't – it's precisely what they ordered, which means it's Leonard who made the mistake.
“You’ll have to be patient with him,” Sheldon says, kindly, with a glance at Penny, “he can’t help being the product of the most notable failed psychological experiment of this century" – and it's such a dick thing to say that she gets it. She sits down and eats the dim sum that are not the dim sum she asked for, and notes the look of affection Leonard gives Sheldon, and figures it's probably nice, both during wartime and otherwise, to have a friend who knows not to take you seriously, and isn't afraid.
Rehearsals run late, a lot of the time, and while across the hall they're keeping their promise to Sheldon and not yelling at each other at midnight any more, Bernadette and Leonard do keep weird hours and Penny finds herself going over there for late-night takeout at least a couple of times a week. Even if the others are working, she sits in the warmth of their apartment and learns her lines, and it's okay. She still gets out of bed and wonders what the hell she's doing here halfway across the continent from everything she knows, but it's okay. Mostly, things are okay.
And then the Dominion invade Betazed.
It's seven o'clock in the morning and Penny is running late, standing there with her hair still wet from the shower in the middle of her living room, watching the screen with her mouth open. They show the stark grainy news footage over and over, overlaid with a succession of talking heads, the President of the Federation Council and then some old guys from Starfleet, all saying the same things about they have to keep on going on, they have to keep fighting, while beneath them the Enterprise and Odyssey II, beautiful Constellation-class starships, take flight and run – until Penny can't take it any more, throws on some clothes and goes next door with her hair still dripping.
They're all there, wearing yesterday's clothes, gathered around a computer screen. Bernadette has her hands held to her mouth, and Penny's trying desperately to remember the name of her ship her partners are serving on before Leonard catches her eye and shakes his head a little. After a minute, the computer chimes and a voice says, "Bernie? Bernadette?"
"Howard!" Bernadette says, and Penny actually feels the tension drain out of the room. "Where's Raj?"
"Right here," says another voice. "Are you still staying with Sheldon and Leonard?"
"It's too quiet at home," Bernadette says. "We heard the news this morning – the Dominion, on Betazed…"
"Yeah," says Howard's voice, and Penny can't help herself: she peers over Leonard's shoulder for a quick peek. The connection is fuzzy as hell and she can barely make out what they look like – she thinks they're both Human, and that Howard is white and Raj is probably South Asian - but she can see how much they both love Bernadette in the way their hands are moving towards the screen, as though, somehow, if they reach out far enough they can touch her. "Yeah, that, that – that happened. But we're right here, Bernie, we're fine. We're kind of banged up, but we're fine. Longer letter later, okay?"
"Okay!" Bernadette says, high-pitched and tearful, and that's it, that’s all they get. The computer chimes as the connection is cut off, and Leonard immediately turns to hug Bernadette while Sheldon puts an awkward hand on her shoulder.
"Sorry," Penny says, suddenly feeling like she walked in while they weren't paying attention and dripped all over something that was intended to be private. "Sorry, I should – sorry, I should go…"
"No, wait," Bernadette says, wiping her eyes and taking a deep breath. "I'll go change, we can walk out together."
"The Dominion," Sheldon says thoughtfully, as though he's still turning it over in his mind, "on Betazed…"
"I didn't realise," Penny says, helplessly, "that it was so bad, that it could get so bad" – but from the looks on Leonard's and Bernadette's faces, maybe she should have. Sheldon is as expressionless always, but paler than usual, maybe. Leonard and Bernadette go to work, Sheldon declares he's working from home again, and Penny walks down the street to the beam-out station and feels a real chill beneath her clothes that has nothing to do with the change in the season.
During a break in rehearsal, she's sitting in a plastic chair watching Selar – whose name, like her alter ego's, means "star" – read over her lines, lay down her padd, say them out loud and begin again. She's Stella even when she's sitting there in her street clothes muttering her lines to herself, Penny decides.
"You are understanding," says a soft voice, and Penny turns to meet the eyes of T'Len, the director she's still unsure of – or, rather, unsure of whether she's unsure, whether T'Len believes that to cast a Human was a mistake. Maybe a Vulcan, she thinks, would have been paying attention, wouldn't have been blindsided by something as unmissable as war. "I startled you. I apologise."
"Uh," Penny says, "I was just… somewhere else." She waves a hand, trails off. She wants to say, she was really, somewhere else: awash in the sweltering heat of twentieth-century Louisiana. But the news footage was playing itself over again in her mind; she was in Leonard and Sheldon's apartment, warmed to Vulcan body heat, with her knees drawn up on their couch and her eyes on the screen.
"But you understand," T'Len says, waving at Selar, "what it is to have great emotion, but to draw it in. To make it a tool and a weapon, rather than a thing in which to drown."
She's talking about Blanche, Penny realises, and thinks about how ridiculous she thought this was, this all-Vulcan production of what is, here right now in Pasadena or twentieth-century New Orleans, a very Human play. "I guess some people think Vulcans have no emotions," she says, after a while, "but, I, uh. I have these friends, and they…"
She doesn't know how to explain it, but from the look on her face, T'Len understands what she's trying to say. Maybe back in Nebraska she wouldn't be living next door to the front lines of the war, but maybe, just maybe, she isn't going back.
"Howard and Raj?" Leonard says, smiling, and Bernadette leaps to her feet and takes the call in Leonard's room.
"Aww, that's nice," Penny says, grinning up at Leonard. "Can we take it from the top?"
But before they can, the door to Leonard's room opens very slowly and Bernadette steps out. She doesn't move for a moment, just standing there, blinking, and Sheldon and Leonard both half-stand up.
"Bernadette?" Leonard tries. "Everything okay?"
"Leonard," she says, and starts to cry. Leonard takes a step towards her, but she holds up a hand. "Computer, show image, encryption pathway" – and then she reels off a string of letters and numbers too quickly for Penny to keep up. The computer bleeps, and shows an image.
"Oh my God, I'm gonna throw up," Penny says, and she doesn't, but it's a close thing. Even with her eyes closed, she can see it: the gaps and the shadows beneath the rotting flesh. She lifts her head from the kitchen sink to see Sheldon throw a blanket over the image, an oddly ritualistic gesture. Bernadette rips her gloves off, puts her arms around Leonard, and says, half-muffled, "I did this."
Leonard steps back so she's at arm's length. "Bernadette, no," he says, low and earnest, "you told them – we both told them, we couldn't, we can't be complicit in this…"
"They said," Bernadette says, "that they're going to infect the Founders at source, all of them, they're going to" – she hiccups – "kill all of them" – and Leonard pulls her roughly to him and Bernadette just cries into his shoulder for a few minutes. Penny takes a deep breath, steps away from whatever it is that's happening here, and looks up at Sheldon mutely.
Sheldon looks – Penny doesn't know what the word is, for how Sheldon looks. "I assume you understood what I told you," he says, in a low voice, and Penny nods impatiently.
"I know what they do," she says, clearly. She knows why the war was to be shorter, and the lives that were to be saved.
Bernadette finally lifts her head, and when she does she looks right at Leonard and says, "You're next."
"Yes," Leonard says, in an odd voice. He detaches himself gently from Bernadette and walks over almost as far as Sheldon's spot by the window, then stops, then turns around. "Bernadette, what would you call this?" he says, taking a few steps back in the other direction. "What word would you use?"
Bernadette pauses, then says, levelly: "Genocide."
"They'll have to get it into Dominion space," Leonard goes on, as though she hadn't spoken, still pacing the room in that odd arrhythmic pattern of footsteps. "They'll have to bring a ship or two back to Earth for refit, perhaps. Holographic cloaking devices are very – new. Very… experimental. Don't want to try that for the first time out in space."
"Leonard," Sheldon says, "you're speaking of your own research."
"He knows that, Sheldon," Bernadette says, clipped.
"And there's still time," Leonard says, almost dreamily. "Still time." He picks up his jacket from the back of his chair, walks across to the bowl by the door and picks out his keys. His hair is tucked behind his ears; in this moment, Penny thinks, it's very hard to mistake him for anything not what he is.
Bernadette says, instantly: "I'm coming with you."
From his spot by the window, Sheldon says: “This is not logical.”
“I know, buddy,” Leonard says, and he doesn’t sound angry, only curious, when he adds: “Are you going to stop us?”
Sheldon seems to think about that. “No,” he says, after a moment, and then: “Mene sakkhet ur-seveh, t'hy'la.”
Leonard puts his head in his hands, then looks up. "Thank you, my friend."
Bernadette says, "Leonard, you can't just beam in – your transporter biosignature…"
Penny says, "I could drive you."
All three of them turn, and Penny thinks they might have forgotten she was there, just standing there holding her script, witnessing this drama like an offstage ghost. After a long moment, Leonard says, faintly: "Drive us?"
"I still have my car," Penny explains. "I came over from Nebraska with it, there aren't so many beam-out stations out there." He's still looking at her blankly and she remembers he was born in space; he doesn't know much about ground life. "I can drive you where you need to go," she says, impatiently, "and you won't show up on transporter records."
"Oh," Leonard says, and then: "Penny, you know you'd be…"
He's going to say that word again, she knows: complicit. Or, an accomplice. Penny shakes her own keys and says: "Get your shoes."
It's a long, long way to San Francisco. Once they get out of LA and hit the long straight road north, she hits the little lever under the dashboard and the wheels curl inwards and up. "Wow," Leonard says, "that's pretty frictionless" – and Penny doesn't really know enough about the work he does to know if that's a professional opinion, but it's nice to see the moment of delight on his face and Bernadette's as they hit the sweet spot, a few metres above the ground and gliding smoothly through the crisp night air. For about the first hour no one says anything, and Penny's getting sleepy behind the wheel, the road lights blurring together in long sparkling lines, so she does a brave thing and says, "Hey, Bernadette, why don't you tell me about what your wedding was like?"
Bernadette sits up from where she's slumped in the back, and she's bleary but she gets it: she talks about her dress, and how nice Howard and Raj looked, and how Sheldon caught the bouquet. Penny smiles at that image, and talks about weddings she went to back in Nebraska, and how she always pictured that's where she'd get married, eventually; how it's where she wants, or wanted, to grow old. Leonard talks a little about growing up on board a starship, and Penny laughs and tells him if he'd gotten more fresh air as a kid, he'd be taller. And that's how they make it, finally, into San Francisco, at its brightest and most beautiful at four o'clock in the morning, with the starships above Starfleet HQ and the shuttles curving upwards into Earth orbit. Penny drives as far into the city as she can, then pulls the car into a bit of deep shadow under a tree, hovering a few inches above the ground.
There's a moment of quiet. Then Bernadette says, very softly, "Thank you. If we're not back in…"
"You'll be back," Penny interrupts, and after a second, Bernadette just nods. Penny reaches out and grabs both their hands in hers, Bernadette's then Leonard's, and then watches them go, walking downhill in step. Bernadette is wearing a little sundress with a hoodie on top against the night's chill; Leonard's wearing jeans and one of Sheldon's Captain Proton T-shirts. They don't look like soldiers. Penny settles in to wait.
She thinks she'll be way too tense to do anything but just sit there biting her nails, but it was getting to be a long night even before she drove the four hours up here. She leans her head against the driver's side window just for a moment and when she startles awake who knows how much later, her face is smushed against a layer of condensation and the sky is turning pink and purple. "What? What is it?"
Bernadette taps the window again. She and Leonard are both just beyond the glass, soft-eyed with exhaustion. "Penny! It's us!"
Penny rolls upright, snaps the doors open and gives them just a couple of moments to pile in and close the doors behind them before she's out of there, her mind suddenly sharp with adrenaline as she edges the car down the slope. "Did you do it?" she demands, as soon as she can talk.
"Yeah," Leonard says, heavily, and leans against the backseat and closes his eyes. "We did it."
Glancing at the mirror, Penny realises abruptly that that's a phaser in his loosely curled fingers. Domestic replicators shouldn't be able to produce one of those things but, Penny remembers, Bernadette knows all the tricks. "Did you guys – use that?"
"Oh, yes," Bernadette says, and she's half-laughing, half-tearful, "months of Leonard's life, up in smoke" – and then the half-laugh becomes a proper laugh as Leonard, too, sees the funny side. They head south in the freshening dawn, giggling inanely, and Penny has no idea how much trouble they're going to be in, and how bad it's going to be, but whatever happens know she knows she'll always remember this odd, perfect little moment.
"Seriously," Leonard says, once they've all pulled themselves together, "it's just time, Bernie. We've just bought ourselves some time. Till they recruit more people like us, before they try again."
"We can fight it," Bernadette says, fiercely. "We won't let them drag us" – and by us, Penny realises, she means everyone, not her and Leonard and Penny too, but everyone here on this world and in this quadrant, fighting this war – "into being like them. Like the Dominion."
"Maybe we can wait till tomorrow to start on that," Leonard says, yawns and closes his eyes again.
It takes several very large cups of coffee to get them back to Pasadena, and by the time they get home, four flights of stairs seem like some kind of mountainous ascent. In apartment 4A, Penny is pretty sure they've just walked in on Sheldon and Amy making out – at least, she's pretty sure what that cute little fingertip touching thing stands for, in Vulcans – but at the sight of them, Sheldon's expression darkens, and Penny feels bad for laughing, even inwardly, because it's kind of obvious that Sheldon asked Amy over so they could sit here and worry together. "Did you achieve your objective?" Sheldon asks.
"Yes," Leonard tells him, "yes, we did. Hey, Amy."
"I am – pleased," Sheldon admits, and Penny wonders if he'll hate it if she hugs him, and does it anyway, although she puts her gloves on first.
"Bernadette," she says, once she's let him go, "you want to go sleep in my bed, you can, I'm going out to rehearsal. Uh. One more coffee, and then I'm going to rehearsal."
"Let me make that for you," Leonard says, quietly, and says something quiet to the computer.
"I'm not sure," Penny says, doubtfully, "that I should, uh." She gestures. "I mean, if there's a war, and there are things like" – she points to the computer screen still covered with the blanket Sheldon threw over it – "that happening. Is a play that important?"
"What was that you said?" Bernadette asks, suddenly. "About your director. About Human drama, and uh…" She gestures for the word. "You know."
"Catharsis," Penny says.
"Yeah," Bernadette says. "That. We're gonna need it. A lot of it, maybe soon."
"Sweet dreams, Bernadette," Penny says, as she takes the mug from Leonard and Bernadette hides a giant yawn in her hand. "You too, Leonard."
Penny watches as they both retreat to bed, and drains the coffee Leonard made for her, and after a while, goes out, to go do what she does.
A couple of nights after that, a guy wearing black comes to the door of apartment 4A after dark and says, "I'm looking for Dr Leonard Hofstadter."
Sheldon looks at Penny and he looks at her, and without benefit of touch-telepathy or anything else, Penny knows they're both thinking the same thing, how to warn Leonard, how to hide him, maybe smuggle him out of the bathroom window, she's been watching too many old romcoms lately but it's not like he wouldn't fit through it – and Leonard stands up from behind the kitchen counter, puts the spoon he'd dropped in the sink and says: "That's me."
He comes home exhausted and a little loopy a couple of hours later, and Sheldon wants to check him for bruises and Penny just wants to skip the formalities and kill him, but Leonard throws himself down in his chair and says, "Hey, you know who should be in your top ten of people you don't want to piss off? The Romulan Star Empire" – and though there's definitely an unhinged aspect to that smile, he's okay.
The night of Penny's last technical rehearsal, which is a total disaster – Selar forgets her lines, Zach knocks a chair out of the Elysian Fields and straight into where the front row of the audience would be, and T'Len comes perilously close to cracking an expression – Bernadette gets word that Raj and Howard's next shore leave has been cancelled. "Oh, honey," Penny's saying, taking off her make-up and talking through the open bathroom door, "I'm so sorry. I know you were looking forward to it so much."
Bernadette looks oddly happy about it, though. "It appears," Sheldon is telling Amy in the living room, "that the Odyssey II is not being recalled to Earth, after all. Certain technical upgrades that cannot, now, take place" – and Bernadette smiles behind Penny into the mirror, and offers her a clean sponge.
The morning of opening night, the Romulans give up their declared position of neutrality and enter the war against the Dominion. Penny doesn't think she ever thought she'd have so many strong opinions about interstellar politics, but she overhears Leonard talking to his mom about it and is as grateful as she's ever been about anything. Later that day Bernadette gets a sweet sorry-we-missed-you message from Howard and Raj on Deep Space Nine, and in the evening, they all get dressed up and head out. It turns out the heat of twentieth-century Louisiana before the invention of air conditioning and the artificial heat designed to suit Rihannsu-Vulcan physiology have something in common – at any rate, all those hours learning her lines weren't wasted. On the stage, she becomes Blanche, just as she'd imagined all those months ago, clashing vicious and passionate with Stanley and dancing around and around with Stella, watching as all that heat, emotion and frosted talcum is drawn together to make something new.
In the interval, there's a knock at her dressing-room door and two embarrassed smiles beyond it; Penny smiles back and says, "Come in, you two. Hey, Zach, these are some of my friends. Leonard, Bernadette, this is Zach."
"Hey," Zach says, "huh, so, are you guys like, actors, too?"
"Uh, no," Penny says, and then, in a different tone: "Guys, why don't you tell Zach what you do?"
Leonard looks at Bernadette; Bernadette looks at Leonard. Penny's about to roll her eyes when Leonard says, expressive and easy, "I'm an experimental physicist at Caltech. My research interests are mostly in holographic imaging. Think, uh, Captain Proton."
"I'm a microbiologist," Bernadette says, with a half-smile. "I work with yeast. Think vaginal infections."
"Damn right," Penny says, impulsively putting an arm around each of them, "rocket ships and vaginas, yeah" – and she feels rather than hears both of them laugh. Zach just looks confused. "See you afterwards," Penny tells them, feeling happy and full of fizz and warmth like she's a bottle of champagne. She touches up her lipstick, and then it's places again, Blanche and Stanley and Stella and the beauty in the breakdown, the inescapable loss of the old world.
And then it's the very end, just where the wash of the play and the part and the role disappears, and it's just Penny on the stage, saying to the audience: "I don't know who you are, but I have always depended on the kindness of strangers."
In the row second from back, they're all there: Sheldon is looking up with those very expressive eyebrows raised; Amy and Bernadette have eyes bright with wonder; Leonard's head is in Bernadette’s shoulder. He should cry less in public, Penny thinks, if he wants people to believe he's Vulcan. But then, he isn't; they're not; she’s not sure what any of them are, just yet, including herself; she drove five hours to enable a treasonous felony, and they all came to see her tonight, on this stage in this play, on this day in the middle of a war.
She thinks she won’t go back to Nebraska soon, after all.