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Apocalypse Week

Chapter Text

It started on a Thursday, she thought, if she remembered correctly. It wasn't really her fault if she didn't. She wasn't some kind of eidetic memory freak, but she had her own little tricks for memory that helped her in the trade: they were eating pizza at the time, so it was probably a Thursday. She had asked the boys why Sheldon was taking so long to come out of his bedroom, as his pizza was getting cold and he had definite rules about the heat of his food. She knew because once the chef at the Cheesecake Factory accidentally left his burger to the side for too long while dealing with a small fire and Sheldon had pitched a fit at the temperature. So, for him to ignore his meal for this amount of time was an aberration and Sheldon and aberrations made her feel uneasy.

"Apocalypse Week," Howard answered in hushed, reverent tones.

Leonard looked pained and embarrassed, his eyes taking on that pinched look he got when he had to explain something that made him look particularly nerdy. "Sheldon's finalizing plans for our annual apocalypse week."

His answer didn't really explain anything. She probably could have figured that out on her own, even with the way Howard had effused about it in a manner he usually reserved for talking about Heidi Klum or the female breast in general. Leonard did not say the event like it deserved capital letters. He said it like it was something that made him want to curl up and die.

"What's that?" she asked curiously. "Is it like Shark Week? Are you guys going to marathon the best apocalypse movies out there?"

If possibly Leonard looked even more pained. "Something like that," he responded in a high pitch.

"Fun," Penny deadpanned. "But hey, if The Day After Tomorrow comes up in rotation call me over, I have a soft spot for that movie. Jake is a total cutie and Emmy Rossum has always had my vote since she nailed the Phantom of the Opera."

"What!" Howard's head snapped up. "The nubile ingénue and the Phantom get it on? I'm going to have to watch that movie."

She decided not to correct his assumption. If he wanted to take everything in a pervy light, then it wasn't her fault when he was let down by his own conjecture.

Raj met her eyes and his lip twitched. Penny was pretty sure she had an ally in that, but who really knew with Raj?

"Yeah, so if you don't see us for the next week, or if you do see us, don't be alarmed. It's just apocalypse week."

So when she saw them the next week in their paintball uniforms she smiled and waved, not realizing until much, much later that Tuesdays weren't paintball day.

She didn't hear about Apocalypse Week again until a year later when Howard swaggered into the apartment as she sat slumped against the middle couch cushion next to Sheldon, shovelling Chinese into her mouth at an alarming rate. She hadn't consumed anything more substantial than coffee in almost 36 hours, and she was huuungry. Deliberately ignoring the disgusted look Sheldon kept throwing her way was just an added bonus.

"Yeah yeah yeah Apocalypse Week baby," he said, clicking his tongue as his fingers drew guns a hip level. His tone was mostly the usual overly self-assured one he used regularly, but she thought he sounded genuinely excited. There was a slight squeak to the words that he usually tried to keep out of what he thought to be a smooth, ladies-man voice.

Unfortunately, the wink he sent her was over the top and made her roll her eyes and ignore the fact he might be human.

"What movies will you be watching this year?" she asked, only vaguely interested.

"Movies?" Howard asked in confusion.

"I only ask because I never say no to The Day After Tomorrow," she informed him, frowning slightly at the sense of déjà vu. She was about to back that line up with a comment about Jake Gyllenhaal but she was almost sure they had this conversation before.

"Movies?" Sheldon echoed. "We don't watch movies during Apocalypse Week. Why would we waste time doing something we do all year round?"

"Then what is Apocalypse Week?" she asked, almost sure the impression it was a week-long movie event had come from somewhere.

"Oh, it's just this thing we do every year to prepare for our impending doom. It's no big deal," Leonard said, dismissively. He then winced as Sheldon turned the full force of his glare on him.

"No big deal?" Sheldon asked. "No big deal? Leonard, I have explained this to you on multiple occasions. I realize the concept of being self-aware of your own limitations is a foreign one, but even you should not take your own life so lightly."

"I don't take my life lightly, Sheldon, but I doubt Penny is interested in catering to another one of your idiosyncrasies. She has a real life."

Raj and Howard looked at Leonard in disbelief, like he had just said that Captain Sisko from Deep Space Nine was far superior to Captain Kirk. In other words, as if he had just betrayed everything they held dear.

By this point, Penny had enough and at least one of her questions was answered. The reason she thought Apocalypse Week was a movie marathon? Probably because Leonard had let her think it. And while, yeah, she wasn't really interested in the more nerdy things the boys did – as if she could ever be a contender for Klingon Boggle – she didn't want to just not know about it. With the way they were setting this week up in her mind, she wasn't sure if it was something she wanted to run away from screaming or if it was something she was secretly intrigued about. Finally, she asked again, "so what is this week exactly."

"It is the one full week of the year when Sheldon is made of awesome pretty much 24/7."

At first she heard 'maid of awesome' because for the boys to claim Sheldon was comprised of anything other than spare robot parts was rare, let alone awesomeness. She looked around to gauge their reactions to Howard's statement. Raj was nodding enthusiastically, Leonard was smiling sheepishly, looking a little mulish at the idea that she hadn't been put off easily, and Sheldon didn't look impressed by the compliment. In fact, he looked pained that the week had been summarized into such generics.

"Apocalypse Week is a series of training exercises, skirmishes, and aptitude tests based on survival simulations for various apocalyptical events." Sheldon got his lecture face on, turning to face her fully. "It serves to debunk a number of myths perpetrated by Hollywood and popular culture and to ensure personal survival scenarios are reliable and well-practiced."

"Zombies?" she asked knowingly.

"Yes," Sheldon gave a small nod.

"Aliens?"

"Yes." Another nod.

"Supernatural forces?"

"Please Penny, that's hokum."

She tried not to snort in answer to that, she really did. How could he believe in zombies and aliens but not in an Omen-like scenario? And yeah, ok, what did it say about her that she could kind of see the distinction? Aliens and zombies were kind of scientifically possible, weren't they? "Killer virus?" she asked.

"Interesting that you distinguish 'killer virus' from 'zombies.' You're not wrong in thinking they are separate, but related, issues. It is a possible topic this week, though I will neither verify nor deny its presence in our schedule. I have to play some cards close to my chest or else you won't be surprised."

"Oh yay," Penny responded sarcastically. "Ok, one more: EMP bomb?"

Sheldon got a thoughtful look on his face. "I hadn't considered adding an electro-magnetic pulse to the roster. I'll have to consider it for next year. Hopefully, one won't strike between now and then," he fretted.

Penny tried to keep from sighing. Only the boys would think taking a test would let them survive against zombies or something. The last time she took an aptitude test, it had told her that her best career choice was in the service industry. While that had turned out to be accurate, it didn't really take into account that she hated it, so really she thought the test was a failure. "Sounds great," she said weakly.

"Yeah, we're gonna shoot some shit," Howard said enthusiastically.

And suddenly, Penny's interest went from nil to about a three. She wasn't entirely interested, but she wasn't entirely apathetic either. She did, after all, grow up in Nebraska where the phrase 'let's go shoot some shit' had a similar appeal to California's 'let's go get a mani/pedi.'

"Maybe Sheldon will let you join us at some point," Leonard supplied helpfully. "We all took the week off, so you can bet he has all 168 hours accounted for in minute detail, but maybe we can convince him to change his schedule to include you."

Everyone knew that the likelihood of Sheldon changing his schedule was about as likely as her winning a Nobel Prize, or at this point even an Academy Award.

"Nonsense. Don't be daft Leonard," Sheldon said in return. "Penny is part of our social group and as such is obligated to learn our safety protocols so she does not become a burden in the event of a true life-altering and life-threatening event. I have scheduled segments with mandatory participation around her work schedule. She will be expected to make herself available at the annotated times." He held up his finger to signal for them to wait, not noticing the looks they were all sending his way. Finally, he pulled four envelopes out of his messenger bag and passed them out.

Penny looked at the schedule in her hand, noting that every moment she wasn't working was taken up by places she needed to be at times that would barely even allow her to go home and change. "Sheldon, sweetie, I have a life outside of work and hanging out with you guys. I have dates and auditions and stuff."

"You're going to have to cancel them."

"Sheldon—" Penny started, anger and impatience evident in her tone.

"Penny, can I talk to you for a minute," Leonard asked, getting to his feet and drawing her out into the hallway. "Look, before you start going off the deep end, he's being surprisingly considerate by even taking into account that you need to work. The first year we did this he called in my vacation time without letting me know about it, so the fact that you still have your shifts for the week is surprising in and of itself. Just give him this, ok? This is Sheldon's version of Spring Break. He plans it for months in advance, and we're all just along for the ride."

"I'll think about it."

Leonard grabbed her wrist. Or, well, his hand hovered at her wrist level indecisively for a moment as she raised her eyebrow sarcastically. Either her expression or his own need to influence her decision had him actually taking the plunge and grabbing her arm an indeterminate and almost awkward amount of time later. "It's not my place to dictate what you should and shouldn't do—"

"You're darn right it isn't," she told him, giving his hand a narrow gaze. "It isn't Sheldon's either."

"Of course not," Leonard agreed. "But listen, this isn't the same as how he expects you to drop things to drive him to the grocery store, or how he expects you to get his order correct. This matters to him because he feels comforted by the fact that if there's a major earthquake or if aliens invade that the people closest to him know how to survive, and we do it because this isn't a burden. It's actually kind of fun."

"Kind of fun?" Penny asked, still suspicious about the benefits of spending hours a day listening to Sheldon lecture her on how to survive an earthquake, but she couldn't deny the fact that sometimes the antics the boys came up with made her a little jealous that they didn't include her and/or her other friends weren't as awesome. She also couldn't deny that her reluctance to participate was slowly waning the more she heard about how Sheldon just wanted them to be safe in his weird way. What she was having trouble with was the way Leonard seemed to act like he hated the idea, but was now telling her something else entirely.

"Yeah," Leonard said. "He always keeps the exact nature of his plans a complete secret, but let's see if I can decode this a little for you," he said, pulling her schedule from her hand. "Ok, so when he says seminar, that's kind of self explanatory."

"Uh huh," she said. "Nah uh, I don't think so."

"No, no, he just wants us to be informed, and it is kind of interesting because he uses pieces of the lecture against us later to test if we were listening, but not in a way that is like a school test. If we don't know the answer, we die."

"Die?" Penny asked incredulously.

"Not literal death," Leonard explained, his patently patient tone evident in his voice. It was almost grating to her ears and only a step below his whiny voice. She loved him, but sometimes listening to him talk made her want to kick him and run away. "Usually, the schedule is something like this. He teaches us stuff, we do some practicing of skills, some bootcamp stuff, and then we break into teams and do some skirmishes."

"Skirmishes?" Penny asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yeah, like paintball."

"I don't know, Leonard," Penny said doubtfully.

"Look, just give it a try ok? Saying no to this would be the equivalent of pushing Sheldon away when he hugged you at Christmas. He's just trying to say that he cares."

Penny was doubtful that her Christmas hug had been because he cared, but she supposed in some skewed Sheldon way it might just mean exactly that. She had been more under the impression, after the six gifts baskets he bought – an approximate value of $500 – didn't add up to enough meaning, his beautiful mind had realized it was because it wasn't personal enough, and the only personal thing he had to give her was the traditional answer to great gifts everywhere – the hug. She hadn't thought about it in terms of caring before, and she wasn't convinced the answer was as easy as that, but she supposed that it could be a factor.

Great, now Leonard had distracted her from what she had been thinking about, which happened pretty much every time she thought of Sheldon's hug. She might have gotten him the best present ever, but the one he gave her was no sneeze either. It might have been one of the best gifts she'd ever gotten because she knew how much he distained personal contact. And there she went again. What were they talking about? Oh, right, Apocalypse Week. And Leonard trying to manipulate her into joining.

"Ok, fine," Penny said grudgingly. "I'll give it a shot, but if it's too Sheldony I'm outta there."

She walked back into the apartment, noticing both Raj and Howard pause. She was used to Raj's sudden abrupt pauses, but for both of them to suddenly freeze told her that they were talking about her.

"I'm in," she said, sitting next to Sheldon's spot.

"I have already considered your inability to speak to women," Sheldon said, obviously responding to the conversation Raj and Howard were trying to cover up. He rummaged through his bag and tossed a second envelope to Raj. Raj looked at him questioningly, pouring a handful of pills out on the table. "Contained are 14 beta tested pharmaceutical designed to inhibit anxiety. They should allow you to converse with Penny without any of the debilitating effects of alcohol. I had to call in a favour and promise another so both you and Penny could participate in Apocalypse Week."

Raj looked at Sheldon in awe, and quickly turned to whisper something to Howard.

"He says he'll do you proud."

Sheldon nodded as though this was expected.

Penny looked at the tiny pills on the table, her eyes suddenly widening in shock and she had to look away to keep from laughing. So that was why Sheldon wanted the sugar pills from her birth control packets. At the time she had thought it was kind of weird that he was asking for them, especially considering she usually threw them out – or, well, threw them on top of her dresser and forgot about them – but if he wanted them for some weird experiment she wasn't going to stop him. Now that she saw what he actually wanted them for she was filled with a rush of emotions. Predominantly affection for the fact he was going through so much effort to make sure both her and Raj were able to interact, but also a healthy dosage of fear.

Sheldon could lie without blinking his eye, so long as he felt secure in the lie never being found out. It was secrets he had trouble with. It made the world a slightly more frightening place to live.

"Don't," Sheldon warned, looking between Raj and Howard, "use them in some ill-conceived animalistic endeavour to achieve coitus with x-chromosomed mammalia down at the local watering hole. This package contains your allotted testing sample. Each additional pill will cost $50 and I will not take kindly to my benevolence being exploited."

Raj nodded enthusiastically.

"Good," Sheldon continued. "They should allow you to interact with Penny without any of the negative side effects of alcohol. They are not a personality altering drug, and they're reported to increase alertness, increase concentration and overall cognitive performance, and, in general, improve mood, while decreasing user fatigue. Side effects included are urinary retention, weight loss, and decreased libido."

Raj eeped.

Penny tried not to laugh at the fact Sheldon had just listed a bunch of symptoms that would probably help Raj more than hinder him in whatever events he had planned for Apocalypse Week. The man was an evil genius. She was definitely feeling affection for him over fear, possibly because she felt like she was a partial co-conspirator in this. It was as if he trusted her not to ruin his plan, and she liked the idea far more than she should.

Sheldon shot Raj one of his superior glances. "I don't see why that should be an issue. You already promised you wouldn't use them for any untoward mating rituals, and unless you have designs on Penny, a decreased libido for the next week shouldn't be an issue."

Raj shook his head frantically, and then leaned over to whisper in Howard's ear.

"He just said..." Howard said in response, listening as Raj said something else in hushed tones with an emphatic gesture towards Sheldon. "Fine... Raj wants to verify that the side effects will only last the week."

Sheldon gave Raj a scathing look. "The side effects will last for as long as the drug is in your system. There's no set time-frame on how long it could take for your body to purge the drugs. It is dependent on a number of factors, including your metabolism. Any first year biology student could tell you that."

"Yeah Raj, even I knew that!" Penny exclaimed jokingly.

"Any more questions?" Sheldon asked in a way that discouraged them from actually asking any. "Ok people, break. I expect you back here at 0800."

Raj and Howard were on their feet, half way to the door before Penny realized that Sheldon was dismissing them like some kind of military general. "What? Does he mean it?" she asked Leonard in confusion. It was only around seven on a Friday night, a night Sheldon usually enforced his vintage games and habitual routine. It wasn't even close to being the third Thursday of the month, the only day Sheldon had ever, reluctantly, allowed for pandemonium. Given the choice, she thought the boys would be heading to a bar or would try to recreate the pivotal scene in a movie or something, but both Howard and Raj were talking about getting a good night sleep.

What the heck? Seriously. Raj had a pocketful of magic pills and he wasn't going to even try one out and pay the fine? She'd have to talk to Sheldon about supply and demand. Maybe he could have a 25% finders fee of the $50 and she'd get the rest. It could be a pretty lucrative side business, though she was wary of pushing drugs. Look at what had happened to her brother.

"Appreciate your last night of freedom," Leonard told her and Penny's stomach dropped in dread.

It sounded like she'd been played.

x.x.x.x.x.

Chapter Text

Penny crawled out of bed at fifteen minutes before eight, her hand slamming against her alarm clock a few times in a hopeless gesture to make it stop blaring at her. She had only gotten back from dancing and drinking around three in the morning and she was hung over.

Or possibly still a little drunk.

Whatever it was, the sound of her alarm clock made her teeth hurt, and after mentally consulting her calendar she determined she did not, in fact, have work that morning. So why the heck was her alarm clock going off?

Oh right, she had made a commitment to Sheldon. Part of her wanted to mentally say screw him and go back to sleep, but her brain kept picturing how hurt he would look if she had pushed him away at Saturnalia, which she never would have done, and she blamed that on Leonard's subtle (but not) manipulation. Plus, she had to admit she was a little intrigued about this whole Apocalypse thing.

So she downed two aspirin and a large glass of water, took a quick shower, and managed to enter apartment 4A with seconds to spare.

Someone handed her a mug of coffee, she suspected it might have been Leonard, but she couldn't say for sure, and she bypassed both Howard and Raj on the couch to sit on the only available seat. In the back of her mind she knew she was sitting in Sheldon's spot, so she prepared for his yelling and twitching accordingly.

Instead he stopped in front of his white board and scribbled ZOMBIES across the top.

It seemed the three boys stopped breathing simultaneously.

"Zombies," Howard sighed elatedly.

"Here you go, Penny," Raj whispered beside her, causing her to jump and almost spill coffee everywhere. He handed her a notebook with a pen jammed in the spiral. "I find it easier to remember Sheldon if I take notes."

She looked at it in dread. What had she gotten herself into? There was a reason she didn't finish community college and that was because she hated waking up early in the morning and trying to learn things that didn't really apply to real life. "Thanks," she hissed out of the side of her mouth.

And hey, Raj was talking to her only with the aid of a placebo, and Sheldon had covered all the horrible behaviour that happened when he drank alcohol as things the drug wouldn't cause, so she was about to get a day full of Raj talking to her. That was lovely. Not worth being bored to tears, but lovely all the same.

"Zombies!" Sheldon expressed dramatically, underlining the word three times. "What do we know about them?"

"They're the undead!" Howard yelled enthusiastically.

"Caused by a virus which reanimates dead flesh and can be passed through contact of fluids," Raj continued.

"It doesn't have to be a virus," Howard argued.

"Well a virus is the only thing scientifically possible dude. What else would it be? Magic? Voodoo reanimation? Maybe Anita Blake lost control of her powers."

"Large scale radiation," Leonard suggested.

"Don't you think Hiroshima would have zombies? Chernobyl?" Raj retorted.

"A different kind of radiation. A new kind. Maybe something in development now."

"Maybe something from outer space," Howard scoffed.

"Hey, don't mock outer space!" Raj defended. "There are 54 new known planets that could potentially have life, who's to say there isn't some pathogen out there that when introduced to Earth's atmosphere renaminates the dead? Clark Kent got superpowers from the sun, why can't some innocuous bacterium make zombies?" He then seemed to realize he was arguing against the previous point he had made, about a virus being the only scientific explanation. "Oh, balls."

"What else do we know?" Sheldon prompted before the boys could get into another argument about what would cause a zombie apocalypse. Penny was impressed; usually he was all over the act of expressing his own beliefs, and wouldn't allow a subject to move on before he was able to get his two cents worth in.

No one else seemed to find it strange, but Penny was starting to get a little weirded out. First he didn't say anything about her sitting in his spot and now he was ignoring his chance to correct his friends.

Observation: Sheldon's acting weird. She scrawled in her notebook.

"Usually they hunger for live humans or react violently towards humans in their vicinity. They are a threat to humans, basically." Leonard.

Observation: Apocalypse Week is about stating the obvious. Sheldon's not berating anyone for saying things that are common sense and safe. That's also weird.

She looked up to see them all staring at her to add what she knew about zombies. "Uh," she said, feeling the pressure of their gazes. In fifth grade she had a teacher who took great pleasure in calling upon students who had weaknesses in the particular subject she was teaching, and Penny had been asked far too many math questions than she ever cared for and had eventually learned to fake it. This felt like that, only worse because she actually kind of wanted to impress these people with her answer. Common sense, she reminded herself. It was her forte. "As far as I know, there hasn't been an actual zombie outbreak, so there's really nothing I know about them or how they act. I could... base an answer off assumptions made in movies?"

"Exactly!" Sheldon shouted, pointing his dry erase marker at her. He turned to the white board and wrote 'conjecture' and 'unpredictable' on the board. "So how do we prepare for a threat that we don't know the details of, Penny?"

Penny went silent, thinking of his question and of all the zombie movies she had seen in the past. "Well, we might not know anything about zombies, but we know plenty about what kind of damage the human body can take. I mean, it doesn't really matter if it's a living person or a dead person, but completely destroying the body would probably stop it. I don't know, it is difficult to answer a question like that without assuming stuff."

Sheldon was staring at her intently. She was beginning to get a little unnerved by his stare when he didn't say anything and simply observed her. What? Was she wrong? She looked at the boys for help, hoping their expressions might give her an answer as to what she had done. Their faces didn't give her any clues. Only Raj looked back at her, and he seemed just as confused as she was.

"That's a good answer," Raj told him in her defence.

"Wouldn't destroying the entire body be overkill? Destroy the central nervous system, destroy the zombie." Leonard said. "The brain," he elaborated.

"No!" Penny exclaimed, turning towards him. "You are making assumptions. If they're dead, who knows if their brain is even working? I thought that zombies were usually considered brainless anyway and that's why they're dangerous. So why can't a zombie continue moving even if we totally cut off its head? How do we know?"

"A headless zombie wouldn't be much of a threat," Howard told her, ending the sentence with something that sounded like a pfft.

Penny narrowed her eyes at him.

"It could still bleed on you dude," Raj informed him.

Observation: Raj is a sweetheart. Howard is not.

"Based off Penny's opinion on the relationship between human physiology and zombies, what would be the most effective weaponry?"

Penny might not know anything about physics, zombies, or most things in between, but she knew a heck of a lot about hunting. She smirked at Sheldon, feeling a bit destructive. "Fire," she said in a low, dangerous voice.

Howard literally jumped in his seat and looked terrified as Sheldon gave her a small smirk back.

"Explosives," Raj suggested helpfully.

"Flesh eating acid?" Leonard asked uncertainly.

"Hold on," Penny inserted, holding up one of her hands. "Where are we going to get this stuff? I mean, if the dead were to suddenly rise overnight, wouldn't we be kind of limited to what we have at home? I don't know about you guys, but I don't think I have anything corrosive enough under my sink that would melt a zombie quick enough to save my life if it stumbled through my front door." Wow, Penny realized, nerd was contagious.

"Penny," Howard answered scornfully, "we're scientists."

"Yeah, but wouldn't you need to get supplies from Caltech?"

"Well at least it isn't as primitive as fire."

"Fire is effective!" Penny yelled. "Clothes go whoosh, zombie cooks."

"Sheldon?" Leonard asked. "Do you want to mediate this with facts from your font of knowledge?"

"No," He said. "I find this fascinating."

"The human body doesn't burn easily. You'd need some sort of incineratory device or..."

"Ah ha, very good!" Sheldon exclaimed as though he had subtly directed the entire conversation to end exactly where he wanted it to. Knowing Sheldon, he probably had. His marker was scribbling across the whiteboard again, and when he moved back it said 'Molotov Cocktail.' "If you will proceed to work station one," he pointed to the kitchen island, "we can begin our first tutorial."

"No way!" Howard exclaimed in excitement, and suddenly Penny was on the same page he was. Sheldon had set up what looked like a chemistry experiment she had to do back in high school, but instead of it being some lame experiment she'd never use again, he had set up five settings, each with a recipe for a homemade bomb and the ingredients all labelled and available in the center.

This was far more awesome than high school, and possibly even something she would remember. Howard was right. Sheldon was awesome.

Then the voice of reason had to speak up and ruin it.

"Sheldon!" Leonard exclaimed. "We can't make bombs in the apartment. I'm pretty sure that's illegal, not to mention that this much lighter fluid in such a small space is probably hazardous to our health."

"It's not real lighter fluid, Leonard," Sheldon told him with a long-suffering sigh. "It is merely meant to represent the proper procedures in creating a Molotov Cocktail, otherwise known as a fire bomb, gasoline bomb or fire bottle."

Both Howard and Raj immediately looked at the instructions Sheldon had printed up and started mixing. Leonard was still staring in distaste at the whole thing, and Penny really ungenerously wondered how he could blow things up all the time on Halo 3, or more aptly, in the Resident Evil games, and be so pacifistic about his own survival against real zombies.

"Ok," Penny said, feeling a little put out in the face of all the chemistry. She could barely read the instructions, even though she had a feeling Sheldon had dumbed them down for her. "Is it like cooking or is it like baking?"

The three stooges looked at her in confusion.

"Very astute, Penny," Sheldon told her. "Though this is a recipe, ratios aren't entirely important when faced with time constraints."

Penny beamed at him.

"Gentlemen, may I remind you that Penny is not in possession of a PhD, or even a Masters, but she has a firmer grasp on the important questions than you do."

Howard scowled at her. "Teacher's pet," he mumbled under his breath.

Raj gave her a discrete thumbs up.

"Is this really necessary?" Leonard asked.

"Typically, the Molotov is made by filling a glass container with a flammable substance such as fuel or napalm," Sheldon started to lecture, ignoring Leonard completely. "A wick, typically made from a rag and soaked in some kind of combustible, is then added and the bottle is stopped. In order to activate the Molotov as a viable weapon, one simply lights the wick and throws the bottle at the target."

"I love the smell of napalm in the morning," Raj muttered, taking a whiff of the jug of water labelled thus.

"Why dish soap?" Penny asked, squirting a good amount of Palmolive into her glass bottle along with the water-that-was-fuel.

"Once the glass container breaks, the contents spray over the target and ignite. The dish detergent acts as a thickening agent and allows the burning liquid to adhere to the target. Alternatively, one could also use tar, sugar, egg whites, or even blood."

"Tasty," she muttered sardonically as she finished her first bottle. "Aren't these only as good as you can throw?"

"That's the idea."

"So shouldn't Leonard, like, learn how to make them really well so that those of us who can actually hit the broad side of a building can be used to the best of their abilities. Like an assembly line?"

Howard and Raj snickered. Leonard glared.

x.x.x.x.

They were all outside in the park across the street from their apartment building. Sheldon made Leonard and Raj drag out two trays of bottled water. At first, Penny thought they were going to be doing some sort of exercises that they would need a supply to quench their thirst, but then Sheldon dragged out a dummy from one of the bedrooms – though she'd been in both rooms, and had never seen it before – and carried it under his arm and across the street. He directed the boys to drop the water, which they did almost literally since they had no upper body strength to speak of.

Penny thought, though she wasn't sure, that Sheldon had some kind of reward system going on. The worse you did during his lectures, the more work he made you do to earn his approval. She only noticed this because he seemed to be favouring her and Howard in subtle ways. Like not making her carry bottles of water, though she was probably the only one physically able to lift them.

Sheldon moved about twenty feet away from them, setting up his dummy and then sauntering back towards them. Casually, he picked up one of the water bottles and threw it at the dummy.

It missed, veering a little to the right. Sheldon glared at it briefly, but then turned to the four of them. "We're going to practice our aim. There's no point in including the Molotov Cocktail to our arsenal if none of us can adequately throw one. Who wants to go first?"

"I DO!" Howard exclaimed, shooting Penny a triumphant look, as if she was trying to fight him for the honour of 'firsties' or something. He was sadly mistaken if he thought they were competing to be Sheldon's model pupil.

Obviously she was pwning him.

Howard grabbed one of the bottles and threw it. He didn't let go of it soon enough and it slammed into the ground at his feet, the plastic crinkling, but not breaking.

"Well done," Sheldon said. "You just killed yourself."

"At least then he's safe from zombies," Raj snickered.

"Let's see Penny do better," Howard said defensively. Oh yeah, he was definitely competing with her.

"Sure," Penny said casually, pushing up the sleeve of her shirt. "You know, my dad used to call me slugger for a reason, right?" She grabbed the water bottle and tossed it in the air once, deftly catching it. The water inside did strange things to the stability of her toss, and she realized the trajectory could be completely off. She threw, but overcompensated for the sloshing liquid and it went right over the head of the dummy.

"Oh bravo slugger," Howard said sarcastically. "Maybe you should stick to using your arm for other purposes. In fact—"

"Don't finish that sentence," Penny warned. "You saw that I just over-threw that toss, why would you think it would be smart to antagonize someone with my strength? Slugger didn't just refer to my throwing arm, I have a mean right hook. I could pummel you."

Howard eased himself behind Raj. "You're up, buddy," he said, pushing Raj forward.

"No problem dude," Raj said as he swooped to pick up a bottle and then drilled it at the dummy. It slammed against the head, knocking it clean off. Penny stared at him incredulously and she wasn't the only one. Raj shrugged off the attention humbly. "We have baseball where I'm from you know. As a child I didn't have cushy amenities like baseballs in the slums of India and had to make do with whatever the street kids and I could find. Bottles, rocks, socks stuffed with garbage."

"You didn't live in a slum," Leonard protested. "I've seen pictures of your house. Your life is basically Lalita's from Bride and Prejudice."

"That's true," Raj agreed. "I'm just waiting to meet my Mr. Darcy."

"That's sweet," Penny said, tongue in cheek. "Leonard, you gonna give it a go?" She smiled warmly at him, encouraging. He perked right up at the attention.

"Sure," he shrugged. He missed. By a lot.

Observation: Leonard sucks.

Penny refrained from pointing out that she had anticipated pitcher having a rubber arm as far as he was concerned. She didn't really have as much of a leg to stand on for this one. She had missed too, but then so did Sheldon.

Penny made sure she didn't miss again.

Chapter Text

When Sheldon Cooper said they were going to spend an afternoon practicing, he meant they were going to repeat the same things over and over again until everyone could do it right. She was starting to see why Leonard hated Apocalypse Week. Leonard very rarely got anything right, and Sheldon was entirely unsympathetic.

She was surprised to find that after the three hour lecture on how to kill zombies, with workstations on how to make crude bombs and how to throw said bombs, that she wasn't entirely bored. In fact, she was the opposite. She was a little pumped at the possibilities.

That wasn't the only surprise of the afternoon. He told them to break for lunch and gave them each a card with specific instructions. Penny's told her to wear denim and leather, because thicker material made it difficult for blunt teeth to perforate skin. Somehow, Penny didn't think he meant for her to wear her leather skirt and thigh-high boots combo, because zombies could totally bite her skin in that.

Or at least that guy she had dated who worked as an office drone had been able to. That was kind of like a zombie, right?

Penny ate a sandwich and wondered what everyone else's cards told them to do. Sheldon didn't strike her as the type to give out little motivational messages, so either each card contained orders he expected them to follow or report cards on their progress. She was voting for the orders, but there was also a possibility Leonard's said:

You Fail.

In size 36 font.

After some mental debate, Penny wriggled into a pair of jeans made out of thick material that, while form-fitting, did not have a percentage of spandex in them, which made them as durable as she was going to get, considering her tastes in form-fitting apparel. As a member of the junior rodeo circuit, she knew to do a few squats and other exercises in them to test mobility. If she could still do yoga, she could battle a zombie.

She paired this with a white ribbed cotton shirt that looked like it could be a mens undershirt but she knew for a fact that it was not only thicker, but more flattering to her shape. Finally, she slipped on a pair of soft leather riding boots that she had once worn for 36 hours straight, including a night of dancing and stumbling drunk around town, without getting blisters. Just because she was hanging out with men who had no sense of fashion didn't mean she wasn't going to look movie star perfect.

Grabbing her leather jacket, Penny slipped across the hall moments after she heard Raj and Howard arrive. Could those two ever do anything without the other? Sometimes she thought Raj might be closer to finding his Mr. Darcy than he thought.

Penny knew as soon as she entered apartment 4A that everyone's card had said the same thing. Part of her wanted to laugh, but the more predominant part wanted to both cry and rip out her eyeballs. They had taken Sheldon's suggestion far too literal, and Penny could pretty much see where their closets exploded to accommodate the rules.

Leonard had on jeans and a jean jacket, coupled with a fake denim cotton tshirt with a little fake denim breast pocket. All were different shades of blue and circa 1993, which made sense considering that was probably the last time he bought new clothes. Sadly, he was the best dressed. Howard had on an updated version of his goth outfit, resplendent in spikes and a fishnet shirt that zombies could probably gnaw off with their teeth in a very sexy fashion, and Raj was wearing both jeans and a pair of leather chaps, as well as a leather jacket – all with tassels.

Penny was pretty sure she was going to burst her appendix in an attempt not to fall to the floor laughing.

She opened her mouth to make some kind of joke about one of the New Kids on the Block, a cowboy and a goth walking into a bar, but thought better of it.

She was about to ask Raj why the tassels but also thought better of that too. It wasn't entirely their fault they had dressed like this. Sheldon was the one who had given the assignment, and if he'd asked her to wear argyle, she would have had trouble unending pieces from her closet too.

So no, Penny wasn't going to mock her friends for looking like they were about to break out into doing the YMCA, but she'd definitely keep that option open.

"Cute jacket." She grinned at Leonard and he preened, puffing out his chest and adjusting his truly hideous jacket collar.

Don't laugh, she reminded herself. Ok, so she was a little mean, but who could resist, really?

She heard Sheldon's door close before she saw him and her mind immediately went to jeans buttoned beneath his armpits and his familiar beige jacket.

So when Sheldon walked down the hall from his bedroom in a dark pair of jeans of normal rise, one of his thermal shirts, and a leather jacket, Penny wasn't amused anymore. In fact, she was the opposite of amused. She was pretty much stunned speechless in ways she hadn't thought possible.

She simply gaped.

Holy crap on a cracker, when did Sheldon get hot? In fact, Penny thought the apocalypse might just be real because the world just stopped.

He wasn't moving any differently than normal, but there was something about his straightforward confidence in the dark leather jacket that seemed a world away from the same, everyday motions he usually made. She wasn't sure why this made her heart trip over itself a bit in her chest. It was just Sheldon, right?

"Let's go," he said, not sparing them a glance as he walked out the door. Penny trailed behind him with no argument. She couldn't help it, this might be the most intrigued she'd been all month, and if she had an unobstructed view of his butt as they descended the stairs, well that was just an added bonus. Besides, she had to watch where she was going. Constant vigilance and all that. What if a zombie attacked? She had to be ready.

"Where are we going?" she asked him on the way down. His shoulders still did that stiffening thing he did when he was annoyed, and it was kind of a sight to behold in a leather jacket. She was definitely starting to get the appeal of apocalypse week, in ways Howard probably didn't even realize.

Unless, of course, that whole rumour about him and Raj was true, in which case he was probably just as delighted as she was.

"Sheldon?" Penny sing-songed after him. "Where are we going?"

"Patience woman!" he snapped and she smirked at him.

Of course, the issue with tormenting Sheldon now was that he made her drive Howard and Raj in her car while he drove with Leonard ahead of them in the two car caravan.

"So, what do you think Sheldon is up to now?" Penny asked.

"Awesomeness," Howard answered, still revering Sheldon this week. "Legendary awesomeness."

"Yeah, what kind of legendary?" she asked, turning behind them through a yellow light. Well, it was yellow when she started. Ok, so maybe it had only been yellow as she approached, but if Leonard was the considerate person he was supposed to be, he wouldn't have sped up to make the light, he would have slowed down instead so she didn't have to make executive decisions like that.

"Dear God," Howard exclaimed, holding on to the armrest.

"Its ok sweetie, I haven't had an accident yet." That wasn't strictly true, but it had definitely been the other guy's fault that time. Penny was actually a really good driver, she'd just learned how to do it on back country roads where traffic laws didn't even exists and potholes were the size of the entire car. Euclid really had nothing on that.

When she pulled up outside of the Caltech track and field, she had to double check to make sure she hadn't accidentally started to follow a car that looked like Leonard's, but wasn't actually his. Her mind couldn't quite wrap itself around any of the reasons they could possibly be here, but once Leonard and Sheldon got out of the car, she joined them. Howard was swearing about Sheldon, probably understanding exactly what was going on considering how much of a fanboy he was about Apocalypse Week. Raj looked uneasy, a thin veil of sweat already coating his forehead, probably from a combination of her driving and the unnecessary layers of leather he was wearing.

"Sprints," Sheldon started once they were all gathered around him, "are based in endurance. A human's top speed cannot be maintained for more than approximately thirty seconds before a build-up of lactic acid deprives the legs of oxygen. When running from zombies, it is important to know your level of endurance and how to regulate your pace so you can outrun the threat without tiring. The world record for the 200 meter race is 19.19 seconds, but I only expect you to run a 30 second race."

"You're kidding!" Leonard exclaimed, looking carefully at Sheldon's face. "You're not kidding."

All three boys groaned and looked down in dismay at their feet.

Raj moved to take off his jacket.

"No," Sheldon barked. "Leave your jackets on. If you're being chased by zombies, you need all the protection you can get. Additionally, in a real life scenario you will not have time to disrobe or change footwear."

Penny wasn't too happy about the possibility of getting her leather jacket sweaty, but she had to admit that Sheldon Cooper was an evil genius. Raj was already sweating bullets. Leonard was wearing clunky work boots he could barely walk in without them scraping against the ground, and Howard had on PVC platform boots.

"You could have warned us," Howard said unhappily.

"Do zombies stop and tell you before they attack?" Sheldon asked. "Oh hello Mr. Wolowitz, I would just like to give you the courtesy of informing you that in approximately 30 seconds I will bite your arm and the subsequent laceration will undoubtedly fester with infection, kill you, and reanimate your body."

Penny smirked at Sheldon.

"No," Howard responded sulkily.

"Still think he's awesome?" Raj jeered.

"I do," Penny said with a grin.

"You can go first," Sheldon told her, taking out a stop watch and striding forward to the 200 meter mark. She exchanged a shrug with the rest of them and watched Sheldon to give her an indication of when he was going to start. She wasn't sure if he was trying to punish her or reward her by making her go first.

She almost missed his signal, and then she was off.

Penny had been too interested in being a cheerleader to be a track star, but she could have been and being in a pair of knee-high leather boots didn't really stop her. While she was a good, strong runner, it was her starts that really shaved seconds off her time. She could go from standing to all-out running with just a twist of her ankle.

"28 seconds," Sheldon said, peering at her in interest. "Physiologically, women are at a disadvantage for running sprints due to their leg length, muscle strength, and even the shape of their pelvis."

"Yeah," she said, panting only a little as she stood next to him. "You know my time is going to be the best, right?"

Sheldon gave her his evil smirk and Penny grinned back. "You're so evil," she told him, but meant it fondly.

Sheldon, of course, didn't catch on to the nuances behind her tone. Instead, he looked bothered.

"I don't mean that badly, sweetie," she told him. "Even Batman is a little harsh every once and a while."

"Yes," Sheldon mused. "He can be rather unsympathetic towards Robin."

"Only because he wants him to survive and Robin won't learn otherwise," Penny said pleasantly as if she knew what she was talking about. The last Batman she had seen with Robin in it had been the George Clooney movie. As a teenager she had such a crush on Chris O'Donnell.

Heck, she still had a crush on Chris O'Donnell. She kept trying out for episodes of NCIS Los Angeles in the hopes of meeting him. Well, also in the hopes of getting work, but honestly, having only one motivation in her line of work was like only having one star player on a football team.

Sheldon looked pleased that she understood, though, so maybe she was getting better at pretending she knew what he was talking about. Maybe the key to getting along with Sheldon Cooper was to compare him to Batman every once and a while. She should probably rewatch those movies.

"Leonard!" Sheldon shouted next to her. "Don't dawdle. You're just prolonging your inevitable failure."

Watching the boys run was a spectacular failure which turned out to be more pathetic than amusing. Howard was the only one who finished the race at 34 seconds. Leonard tripped. Raj fainted from heat stroke before it was even his turn to run.

"For the next week, we will practice your running," Sheldon informed them, standing like a drill sergeant as the four of them lounged on the bleachers. "Since Penny is the only one who successfully completed the sprint within the time constraints, we will practice while she is at work. You men are pathetic."

That bastard had planned this, Penny realized, right down to the inappropriate clothing. He counted on her succeeding where his friends had failed. It kind of made her want to kiss him, especially considering how inappropriately attractive he looked in jeans, the muscles in his neck corded as he berated his friends.

"What about you?" Penny asked before her inner filter could stop the words from exiting her mouth.

The three stooges, which she really couldn't unsee now that her brain made the association with Moe, Curly and Larry, all turned to simultaneously stare her down with almost identical looks of vexation. It was their 'don't poke the crazy person' look.

"What about me?" Sheldon asked.

"Let's see if you can do any better, marathon man," she taunted.

Really, she shouldn't be goading him considering he had just given her a get out of jail card, but it was too difficult to resist. Plus, she thought he'd probably run all awkwardly flailing limbs and long gangly steps, so it might get her mind off the idea that he looked absolutely bite-able in those clothes.

"Is it safe?" Howard asked, looking pleased with himself when Raj snickered.

"You wit astounds me," Sheldon said dryly, handing the stop watch to Leonard and stepping up to the start line.

And ok, Penny would be the first to admit that she was wrong, but she wasn't. He did thrash around a bit when he started running, but his long legs pretty much ate up the 200 meters, and his arms didn't really flail around as much as she thought they would. It was actually oddly graceful, like a baby gazelle just learning the parameters of its body. She was almost sure that he'd hit stride if he had to go another 200 meters, and then she'd be screwed. Thinking of Sheldon in terms of agility and sexiness was something to avoid at all costs, but those impressions were quickly taking root in her mind.

"29.45 seconds. Cutting it close buddy," Leonard proclaimed. "You almost didn't make your own limit. You know what this means, right? Penny would beat you in a race against the zombies and usually survival comes down to being the fastest runner."

Sheldon shot him a scathing look.

"Yeah, well, they'd probably be too busy gnawing on our remains anyway. Sheldon would have sacrificed us to the slaughter to ensure his survival," Howard shot back.

"Dude," Raj exclaimed. "I fainted before the race even started. I probably would have been one of the zombies chasing after you."

"Not very terrifying," Leonard shot back.

"Well, he wasn't the one who tripped. Zombie Raj wouldn't have had to worry about pesky overheating issues."

"So what's next Sheldon?" Penny asked, running interference. She wasn't protecting Leonard, per se, because she really didn't care if Leonard stuck his foot in his mouth, but she did feel bad for Raj, who had taken off his jacket and the chaps and was simply sitting sprawled across the bleachers and chugging back water like he was trying to replenish everything he was sweating out. Howard looked equally as uncomfortable and kept shifting, trying to move the tight leather on his thighs and wincing.

Chafing was definitely a bitch, Penny thought with a smirk.

Sheldon simply raised his eyebrows.

It turned out what was next was even better than everything else combined. He brought them to a shooting range. At first, Penny looked at the large warehouse shaped building with the words shooting range written across the window and assumed they were here to practice using airguns or rent guns, but then Sheldon dragged a large protective carrying case out of the trunk of Leonard's car, and she was curious enough to follow closely on his heels.

"Hello Dr. Cooper, the range you booked is ready for you and your party. Ya'all will just have to show me your IDs and sign in."

After Sheldon finished scrawling his signature on the sign-in sheet, Penny quickly stepped up after him and handed the clerk her license as she signed her name in flowery print that was at complete odds with Sheldon's spikey cursive.

The clerk gave her a look of surprise, his eyes running over her and then flicking towards Leonard, Howard and Raj behind her. "You and your boyfriend teaching your friends how to use a gun?"

Penny smiled noncommittally and shrugged. "They need all the help they can get," she said, drawling in an accent similar to his. It was a game she liked to play sometimes, to see if she could convince someone she was from the same place they were. She managed it more often than not.

She was about to add that Sheldon wasn't her boyfriend, only her friend, but she didn't really care to get flirty with a guy who worked at a gun range. It wasn't that she had standards – she really didn't – it was just that she really, really wanted to see what Sheldon had in his case and getting her flirt on would take far too long.

She punctuated her signature with a smile, grabbed her ID back and hurried after Sheldon. He had his case set on an available table by the time she joined him. Sheldon's eyes flicked to her casually as he open the locks on the case, both a keypad code and a key lock. He opened the case just as Leonard joined them in the room, giving her a penetrating look.

"Oooooh," Penny breathed when the case opened, revealing a collection of guns. "Oh Sheldon, a Beretta M9! Do you know what this is?" she turned back to ask Leonard, assuming that Sheldon knew all the specs down to how much the thing weighed when loaded and how many were made per year.

"It's just a gun. You shoot, it goes bang, zombie dies," Leonard supplied.

"Just a gun?" Sheldon yelped.

"Just a gun!" Penny yelled, she and Sheldon turning towards Leonard simultaneously. "The M9, or the 9mm is the pistol of choice for the US Military, and some people thinks that makes it one of the best pistols on the market. It has a semi-automatic with a tradition double-action trigger and a short recoil. It also has a number of internal safety features like a firing pin block, which makes it safe for a n00b like you to handle and not shoot yourself in the foot."

"Additionally," Sheldon continued her lecture, "the Beretta M9 has passed a number of stress tests that are necessary to the prolonged survival of the human race in the fight against zombies, including: submersion in saline, exposure to temperatures between -40 to 140 Fahrenheit, being dropped on concrete, and being buried in various naturally occurring substances, while maintaining a firing average of thirty-five thousand rounds before failure. For those of you unfamiliar with firearm statistics, that is approximately six times the pistol's service life. If there was a gun to survive the end of the world, this would be it."

Leonard backed away from the two of them with his hands raised. Howard came through the door and almost walked into him. Craning, Howard peered around Leonard's side. "Hey cool gun!"

"It is cool," Penny responded, her fingers making quick work of loading all 15 bullets into the magazine, sliding the magazine into the pistol grip and then racking the slide, chambering a round. She gave him a toothy grin that had both of them backing up a step and knocking into Raj.

"Dude!" Raj said from the back.

"You know your guns," Sheldon said, sounding pleased.

"Heck yes," Penny said. "You should see me with a rifle." She and Sheldon shared a smile borne of growing up in the mid-west, where cowboys still roamed. And if her Nebraskan accent was prevalent, well guns brought out the junior rodeo in her. "Don't you worry boys," she said towards the doorway and holding the gun safely towards the floor. "This here is practice ammunition, and I'm a pro."

Howard moaned. "I'm terrified but oh so turned on. Do you think Penny is a terminator?"

"Which one of us is John Connor?" Raj asked.

"Maybe we're all John Connor," Leonard said hopefully. "I bet together we could defeat Skynet no problem."

"Dude, I doubt we're even smart enough to MAKE Skynet, and we certainly don't have the physical skills to wage a war against the machine. We are sooo not John Connor."

Howard nodded towards Sheldon. "I really hate to admit this, but Sheldon is the super genius. He's also the one with four emergency escape routes for any one room. If anyone could figure out a way to kill an evil computer it would be him." Howard paused thoughtfully. "But would he want to?"

"Quit dithering in the doorway!" Penny called out. "We get to shoot actual guns boys. No virtual simulations today."

"I like simulations," Leonard muttered. "No one accidentally blows off their own foot in simulations."

"Wow," Raj said bluntly. "I forgot how much of a whiny baby you are."

"Penny, will you kindly demonstrate for me as I explain the proper way to load this gun?" Sheldon asked, ignoring them.

"Sure," Penny chirped, rapidly reversing the process.

"Oh sweet Jesus," Howard moaned after Sheldon was finished explaining the process of loading the Beretta. Penny was actually an old pro at demonstrating. She might not have ever gotten any roles, but she had auditioned for hundreds of commercials that asked her to do exactly that. Really, Sheldon had nothing on some of the demanding commercial directors she'd met over the years. Some of them made Sheldon Cooper look like a amiable, loveable CareBear.

She looked up from concentrating on both the gun and Sheldon, making sure she was matching his words, to find all three boys staring at her in unveiled admiration.

"Pervs," she said with a laugh. Sheldon looked disturbed, and then told them it was their turn to put their guns together.

All three of them gave Sheldon looks of utter confusion, as if they hadn't even realized he was talking the entire time.

Howard, surprisingly, was the only one who was able to. Maybe he was so used to skeezing out on women all the time that he was a functioning pervert, or maybe it was the engineer in him. The other two failed spectacularly. Leonard got his thumb caught in the clip and dropped the half-loaded weapon on his foot (ironically) and started cursing in a plaintive tone. Raj kept trying to put the bullets in backwards.

"You fail," Sheldon told them, "try again."

This went on for half an hour until Sheldon was convinced they would be able to load a gun if he wasn't standing over them barking orders. Penny wasn't sure how long that ability would last. From the lack of surprise the boys were showing at this activity, she thought it might be annual. They then moved on to shooting practice as a group. Penny had been itching to fire the gun since they had walked into the range.

She quickly put a happy face in the target paper down the range from her station and then looked around to see how the other guys were doing. Her eye caught on Sheldon and she paused, shaken and feeling like her world was falling apart and pulling together at the same time.

Of course Sheldon Lee Cooper knew how load a gun, and of course he knew how to shoot one. He might have been a child prodigy, but he was also from Texas. Texans gave their children baby's first gun right along with teething rings and stuffed teddy bears, so Penny had already taken for granted that he could shoot. What she didn't expect was the sheer confidence he embodied with a gun in his hand and a resolute expression on his face.

Gone was the man with the awkward limbs and the nervous facial expressions. He seemed just as comfortable with a 9mm as he did with a game controller in his hand.

It was one of the facts Penny had always known in the back of her head when she moved across from the boys in 4A. If, by random chance, something happened to trigger one of Sheldon's insane safety protocols, you stuck by Sheldon if you wanted to survive. He'd know what to do.

She just didn't expect he'd know how to do it too. In the back of her mind she always thought she'd be the one who had to dig out the old SIG under her bed and use it to defend the homeland (a gun she and the Navy SEALs actually thought to be better than Sheldon's Beretta, but who was she to rain on his parade). The boys and real weaponry seems very incongruous.

Except when it didn't. She didn't really subscribe to Sheldon Cooper's brand of crazy. Penny didn't think there would ever be a zombie apocalypse, nor did she see aliens in her future, but she could see, especially after spending enough time with her boys, how there was a small possibility – not that she would ever admit that. Sheldon was right to train them now, so they at least knew how to load a gun and hide from predators.

Apocalypse Week was almost a necessity when one had friends like Larry, Moe and Curly.

And if Penny was actually agreeing with Sheldon on the actual purpose of something that on the surface looked, and was treated like, one huge game, she was plenty crazy herself.

She couldn't take her eyes off him, even as he paused to evaluate his target, looking intently down the line of his gun. His shoulders were squared, legs slightly spread for balance, and God did it look good with the strange clothes he was wearing. He looked almost... dangerous, like he was a man she should never underestimate in the future. When he had said he could shoot close enough to a racoon to make it crap itself, she thought that meant he couldn't actually hit it. Now she knew the difference. He meant his aim was that good that he could purposely shoot that close to an animal and miss if he wanted to.

Ohhhh, Penny thought with a smile. She wasn't competing against Howard because it was really Sheldon who was on her level.

"Hey Sheldon," she said, sidling next to him as he pushed the button to bring his target paper to his station. Had she taken the spot next to him on purpose? she wondered, subconsciously understanding her need to compare her skills to his. "How did you do?"

He showed her the target with all shots localized to the central forehead. If she didn't know any better, she'd say it was only one bullet hole, but it was a little too wide and not even, looking a little like Mickey Mouse ears. Penny grinned at him and showed him her paper. "I missed a little on the second eye," she yelled over the muffling headphones and the sound of the boys shooting. "But a head shot is still a headshot. Look, it's happy to see you!"

Sheldon did not look as impressed as he should. Penny simply grinned at him and slipped back into her own station, catching his eye as she set herself up another target.

It was sooo on.

Chapter Text

The boys turned out to be pretty bad at hitting stationary targets, even if they had played Duck Hunt during vintage video game night a few weeks ago, played Halo 3 ever week, and had a variety of other occasions to practice their skills. Of course, those were all virtual in nature. In real life, the ducks pwned them. Apparently, every year Leonard was unable to hit a single target while both Raj and Howard kept a complicated point system, with Howard getting 107 points and Raj 103. Considering head shots were worth 50, this wasn't very promising.

In a fight against zombies, her only ally was Sheldon. Likewise, she was his only ally.

Once they were done at the range, Sheldon dragged them all back to his apartment and made them eat MREs. Penny hadn't even known what an MRE was before that point, and truthfully never wanted to know what they were after Sheldon handed her a small package with Meals Ready-to-Eat across the front. "Why?" she asked once he walked away from her to hand the packages out to Raj and Howard powwowing about something on the other side of the room.

"Don't ask," Leonard sighed, comparing their packages of food. He then sighed heavily.

Poor Leonard, he was lucky this was all for play because he really was the weakest link. Penny wasn't sure that even with her skills and Sheldon's combined that they could keep him alive for any amount of time with actual zombies. Leonard was such an albatross around all their necks, completely and utterly incompetent. No wonder this week made him so cranky. He failed spectacularly at even the easiest self-preservation task. Of course, considering this was all make-believe, she understood that he probably just didn't have proper motivation. Running for your life when there wasn't anything chasing you was almost the same as dieting without a weight goal or a tiny dress to fit into (while working with cheesecake). There just wasn't any real drive.

At least, she hoped that was the reason. She gave him an empathetic smile.

"Why?" Penny repeated.

He shrugged. "I don't know why. It's another one of Sheldon's whack-a-doodle ways." Leonard gave her a small smile and patted her shoulder softly, in that uncertain way of his. "You know how he is."

She did, but she didn't think that was a good enough answer.

"What am I supposed to do with this?" she asked Leonard, but he had already noticed Sheldon approaching and was moving around the other side of the island, away from him, her, both of them. She was kind of relieved, but at the same time she had no idea how to get the food out of the little package it was in, and Sheldon very rarely actively helped people. He was of the school of thought that people should be able to figure things out on their own. "Leonard!" Penny called after him. "How am I supposed to eat this? It's cold and gross looking!"

"Here," Sheldon said, taking the flameless ration heater out of her pack and adding water. "You see, the packs use an exothermic chemical reaction through the process of oxidation-reduction of magnesium in order to heat the food without the use of a flame. Magnesium was selected because it is readily oxidized, owing to the fact it only has two electrons in its valence shell. Just add a small amount of water and it will quickly reach the boiling point, heating your food." He explained all this as his fingers quickly set up what was supposed to be her supper. "Combined with a generous quantity of granola bars, I have a large enough supply that the five of us could survive for about 6 months if they're rationed carefully."

Penny's heart swelled a little at the idea of being included in such a long term plan.

"Of course," Sheldon mused. "Considering Leonard's skills, I estimate he will not be using many, if any, of his allotted rations. Each of us could potentially have up to an extra 36 days."

"Why?" she asked. "I mean, what's the point of eating these?"

Sheldon gave her a surprised glace, his eyebrows furrowed in mild disbelief. "I will be lecturing on the subject later in the week. I've already prepared a powerpoint." He pulled her food out and handed it to her. Penny wrinkled her nose in distaste, but accepted the food without comment.

"But I want to know now," she told him, pointing the plastic spoon provided with her meal at the mush in front of her. "I think if you want me to eat this without plotting to go out for pizza later like Howard, Raj and Leonard are doing over there, you're going to have to explain it to me. I'm curious."

"Survival," he said, his voice stressing surprise at the fact she didn't know that. "What if the food supply is contaminated?"

Penny frowned at him. Seriously, she wasn't made to be thinking this much, but he seemed to enjoy it when she got something right, and it wasn't too bad when she was wrong, really, because he did try to educate her though it rarely worked. "Yeah, but wouldn't it be easier to contaminate the water?"

"Yes," Sheldon simply said. "That is why I have a supply of bottled water as well, in addition to a distilling system."

Penny's mouth opened. "That's impossible!" She said. "I've seen your room. There's no place for you to keep all this stuff. Do you have a secret lair or something?"

Sheldon's eyebrows winged up in shock and he jerked to attention, almost reeling backwards in surprise. "Penny, you've lived across from us for two years now. You should know about the third bedroom."

"Third bedroom?" Penny echoed sharply. "You don't have a third bedroom! You've just got two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a supply closet for your comic-con costumes and stuff."

"Penny, Penny, Penny," Sheldon chided. "That is just the front. I would have thought Leonard would have shown you. He spends an undue amount of time trying to impress you," he told her, pulling her towards the back rooms. Leonard looked up as they passed and goggled at what looked like Sheldon forcefully dragging her back to his bedroom.

Actually, the fact Sheldon's hand was anywhere near her wrist was kind of strange now that she thought about it.

Instead he bypassed both rooms and threw open the third door. She really had thought it was a small closet that they kept their various costumes stored in, as well as some of the larger props they had that weren't in the main room, but Sheldon pressed against the back wall and it slid open, revealing a large space with walls lined in metal shelves.

"Oh my god, is that a panic room?" She was gaping. Wow. This was craaazy.

"No, no, no Penny, please think before you speak. A panic room, by its very definition, is a fortified space installed in a private residence or business to provide a secure hiding location for the inhabitants in the event of a break-in, home invasion, or other threat. Leonard and I do not own this apartment and the landlord refused permission to any and all permanent structure altering changes I proposed. What you see is a lesser concept. It is simply a hidden room."

Penny shook her head at him, her mouth opened in awe. He had boxes upon boxes of non-perishable food supplies, stacked for shelves upon shelves. There were jugs of water, entire med-kits that looked far more complicated than the simple emergency first aid kit she kept on a shelf in her bathroom, and... was that a defibrillator? She was pretty sure it was. She'd once gotten a call back as a nameless paramedic on Grey's Anatomy, and though she didn't get the part, they had asked her to convincingly use one.

"Generators, right?" she asked, pointing to two machines set up in the corner. She'd grown up on a farm and recognised the crank generator. She wouldn't have been able to identify the second machine, but knowing Sheldon's organized mind, it had to be something along the same lines.

"Indeed."

"This is really impressive Sheldon," Penny told him, her eyes trying to take it all in. She was sure she was looking at years worth of purchases and collection, all to prepare for an eventuality that might not even happen.

"It's a rudimentary attempt compared to what I would like to do."

"What's that?" she asked, hiking herself up on the table in the middle of the room. From where she was sitting she could see various bedrolls and sleeping bags. One was definitely Batman, and she was pretty sure she knew who that belonged to. The one on the top looked to be Hello Kitty, and she smiled unbiddenly at the idea of him preparing for her specifically. She was sure these sleeping bags would withstand extreme temperatures because Sheldon didn't do things in halves. She kind of wanted to know where he got it.

"I would like to devise a structure that is airproof, waterproof and impermeable to outside forces. Naturally, it would have to have a number of life support systems all running off grid."

"Like a bomb shelter?" Penny asked. She was starting to get the hang of talking to Sheldon. If you asked a semi-interesting question that was related to what he was talking about, but veered off the rant he was likely to go on, they were able to maintain chit-chat for longer before she felt the need to bail on him and hide in her room when she heard him in the hallway. Of course, some things she just didn't know enough about to divert him, but surprisingly the sound of his voice wasn't as grating as it used to be, so Penny didn't really mind when he went off about science as much anymore. "We've got one of those on the farm. My grandfather and great grandfather built it decades ago. Just between you and me, I don't think it would withstand a bomb landing on it, and considering their solution to ventilation was to stick air vents back up to the surface, I doubt the family would have been very protected against radiation. We keep crops and stuff down there now, like a storage cellar, and I used to sit there and imagine what level of fear it would take to build something like that in rural Nebraska. Of course, I'm sure you'd think it was prudent or something."

"The concept isn't completely without merit but it sounds like the execution left a lot to be desired. Do you know the exact construction date? If it was during World War II there is a possibility that such a shelter would have been marginally effective against generic bombs, but if it is a Cold War relic and was built to withstand the fallout of a nuclear attack, then I believe it was a wasted effort based on what information you have told me."

Penny grinned at him. "Sorry Moonpie, I have no idea. My parents never told me and I never asked."

He gave her a disapproving look. "That's how families, and on a macro level entire societies, lose their cultural heritage."

"You turning into a sociologist now?" Penny teased, grateful she watched a lot of television so she could occasionally throw out words like sociologist and sound like she almost knew what she was talking about. Thank you Bones.

"Hardly," Sheldon sneered. "Sociology as a discipline is the study of common sense. As with all the social sciences, the use of the term science is a misnomer. Any subject that uses empirical research instead of hard fact leads to a purely subjective and inherently flawed knowledge base."

"Uh huh," Penny said, hopping off the table to distract him by movement. She sauntered over to the wall that made this a hidden room and looked closely at it, poking it with a finger. "And science is the pure investigation of fact yadda yadda. Scientist are never wrong blah blah and never misinterpret their research deliberately so it fits the hypothesis they were trying to prove. Does the landlord know you installed this? I mean, it's just some drywall and I could probably successfully throw you through it, but if he didn't want you changing the structure of the apartment then I bet he doesn't know about this huh?"

Sheldon's eye twitched and he gave her a hard look. "You are not incorrect," he finally said grudgingly.

Penny smiled cheekily. "That chuffs you, doesn't it? When I'm right about something?" She patted his cheek softly and turned to leave his secret room. "Don't worry about it, it doesn't happen that often. I promise it won't become a trend."

x.x.x.

Penny was starting to understand that Apocalypse Week was Sheldon's version of Anything Can Happen Thursday, only concentrated into a week-long event. It was like he threw out the rule book for one week only and became someone she barely even recognised. He was a force of discipline, but managed to couple it with fun and frankly surprising activities that only highlighted the difference between every day Sheldon and Sheldon fighting for his own survival. It reminded her slightly of his forcefulness while making Penny Blossoms, coupled with Halo strategy and with a dash of genuine concern for his friends. All things Penny knew Sheldon was capable of, but he rarely hinted at.

There was also that sense of playfulness she never would have attributed to crazy ol' Sheldon Cooper, but was obviously present. It wasn't like she was seeing a different side of him, but like Apocalypse Week stripped away extraneous parts of his personality and reinforced others.

It was out of the realm of things she expected to happen, but she couldn't really see it as out of character either.

This, though, this was what Howard meant when he said Sheldon was made of awesome.

"Each skirmish will last exactly thirty minutes or until there is a lone survivor, whichever happens first. We will base this exercise off the theory that the zombie virus is transmitted through bodily fluids, and so in order to turn a human into a zombie, you must mime the process of biting your prey. This will be based entirely on the honour system, so no cheating!" Here he looked at Penny. "When you die, whether from being infected by the virus or through being slaughtered by Team Human, it is mandatory that you take a two minute time-out where you fall. Are there any questions?"

"How are we dividing into teams?" Raj asked. "Are you using some kind of algorithm?"

"I wrote a computer program that randomly determines who plays the role of the zombie. It is designed to discard names after they are selected."

"Like pulling names out of a hat?" Penny asked, amused at how complicated they made things sometimes.

Sheldon bristled. "Nothing as crude."

"It's exactly like pulling names out of a hat," Raj said succinctly. "Only it probably took him longer to write the program than it would to rip up pieces of paper."

"Hardly, it's a simple program."

"That's true, it probably would have taken him the same amount of time considering Sheldon probably needs each piece of paper placed inside the hat to be exactly the same size and folded in exactly the same manner. He would have measured."

"Fine!" Penny expressed, throwing up her hands in exasperation. "It's easier this way." It really wasn't. It was just easier to let this one go. "So who's first?"

Sheldon pressed the enter button on his laptop. "Howard."

x.x.x.

Howard didn't stay the only zombie for long. Within minutes, he had bitten and converted Leonard (no surprise) and the two of them maintained a base behind the island.

"Howard knows I like the island as a defensive position," Sheldon said, crouched beside her behind the couch. Raj was on her right, and kept moving the toy plastic sword Sheldon had supplied each member of Team Human with. It wasn't much of a weapon, made of hollow plastic and less than two feet long, but all that matter was what they represented. Penny couldn't help but wonder if Sheldon had any real swords hidden somewhere for decapitating zombies. He'd hinted he had an entire arsenal more effective for fighting zombies than the 9mm guns he let the boys play with, so a sword wasn't out of the realm of possibility. She was even more curious as to whether he knew how to use one. That would be a hidden facet she couldn't even begin to imagine.

If he did, she wondered if they'd be getting any lessons any time soon. If not, maybe she'd recommend they get some for next year's Apocalypse Week. At least then she'd learn new skills.

Raj couldn't seem to find a comfortable position for his fake sword. He tried hanging it from his belt at his side but it kept sliding around and he couldn't easily retrieve it without some major fumbling. He tried putting it down the back of his shirt like he had probably seen in a dozen ninja movies, but without a sheath the hilt fell through his collar and he ended up losing the sword down his back until it fell out. Finally, he tried sticking it down his pants along his thigh, but found he was unable to crouch effectively.

"You wouldn't be able to do that with a real blade," she hissed at him. His fidgeting worried her because she didn't know whether the zombies could detect movement – not that the living room was very big or that Howard and Leonard didn't know exactly where they were, it was just that she was getting into the scenario and could instead see how all his little impatient movements could be detrimental to their cause – and the fact at most times Raj was adjusting his sword, his water gun was resting uselessly on the ground, too far away for him to grab it if they were attacked.

Her own water gun hadn't left her hands, and though her stance was relaxed, she could have it aimed and the trigger squeezed within seconds. She had shoved the sword through her belt when Sheldon handed it to her, tested to make sure she could reach it a few times and then forgot about it. Currently, the little plastic hilt was digging into her waist but she barely even felt it.

She could hear them, scrambling like mice across the hardwood floor. Penny swivelled away from Raj, her eye meeting Sheldon's for a moment. He motioned to her and then to the left and she nodded.

He returned the nod and suddenly they both stood, looking over the back of the couch. Both of the zombies scrambled backwards at their sudden appearance. Penny got Leonard right between the eyes with water from her water gun, drops spraying across his glasses. Howard had managed to turn his body part way towards the kitchen before Sheldon fell him. To give Howard credit, he dropped immediately, pressing the little timer button on his watch before playing dead.

Leonard was still standing, blinking water out of his eyes and trying to swipe his glasses with his sleeve. He was giving her a look of utter betrayal, like she had just kicked his puppy or something.

"Leonard!" Sheldon said from behind her. "If I had realized the honour system would be too difficult for you to understand, I would have devised some sort of knock out method."

"Tasers," Penny suggested happily, nodding along with him. "Then he would have been shocked into remembering. Like conditioning or whatever it's called."

"Yes," Sheldon mused. "I will make a note of that for next year."

Now the boys were all giving her varying looks of betrayal, fear and disbelief. Even Howard had lifted his head from his death, and he was the one taking the game the most seriously.

"You won't think that's such a good idea when you get shot by one," Raj pointed out.

Penny waved him away. The chance of any of these guys actually shooting her was pretty slim. With the exception of Sheldon, who would probably tase her without prejudice.

"The problem with tasers would be that people commonly pee themselves when electrocuted like that," Penny said conversationally as she stepped behind the kitchen island. "I mean, sure it's a good thing for a single girl who works late in a part of town that gets a little rowdy after dark. Not that I really need a taser to help me take someone down. I used to wrestle bulls and all that, but junkies all strung out on drugs and stuff are a bit more difficult to take down than a bull, but then they don't really respond well to tasers either." Penny frowned.

"Is there a point to your run-on sentence?" Sheldon asked.

"There was," Penny mused as she moved. "But I forget what it was. I got distracted wondering why I would want to own a taser." She didn't miss the way Sheldon's eye twitched as he followed her around the island. "Oh, right," she continued. "My point is that if we used tasers for one of your games, the setting would have to be really low or we'd have to worry about people peeing their pants. And doesn't Howard have a bad heart?"

"Yes," Sheldon responded. "I have already taken all those factors into account and rejected the idea to use tasers at some point in the future. It was an interesting concept initially, but I do not believe it would be prudent in practice."

"Wow Sheldon, you're talking as if she suggested tasers like two days ago instead of two minutes," Raj pointed out, still standing in the middle of the living room. "I realize your brain works faster than other people—" he started to say but was cut off by the sound of Howard's watch alarm going off. Raj's eyes widened in horror at the sound, and he managed to take one step forward before Howard latched himself around Raj's legs.

Raj went down with an eep.

"Well, he should have seen that coming," Penny said sardonically as she and Sheldon lowered themselves behind the counter of the kitchen island. "Maybe we should have been better teammates and warned him."

"I do not have much use for teammates who are not aware of what is occurring around them."

"I know you don't sweetie," Penny said pleasantly, able to feel the solid length of his arm next to hers. They weren't quite touching, but she could sense him just beyond her skin and the cloth of her jacket. It was a comforting sensation, as though with him beside her she didn't have as much to worry about because he could take care of himself. "But if this was real life we wouldn't have just left him there. We would have dragged him with us."

"True. We may have needed his throwing arm if we were to establish a half-way decent perimeter," Sheldon conceded.

"Why aren't they moving?" Penny questioned, raising her head slightly above the bar and peeking. She couldn't see the boys, which meant they were either closer than she thought, directly out of her line out sight on the other side of the island, or they had regrouped behind the couch. Penny couldn't say for absolute certainty, but she was pretty sure they weren't close. She would have heard them. "I think they're using Raj's death to take a break."

"They are likely strategizing. We should remain vigilant."

"You're kidding right? They're probably searching the bookcase for snacks." She could feel him tense up beside her and she reviewed what he said in her mind. "I mean, we should totally remain vigilant, but the reality is they probably think we're impenetrable and gave up."

"I've never been able to motivate Leonard," Sheldon mused. "That man would probably walk right up to a zombie and get bitten just to get it over with, but Raj and Howard have always participated enthusiastically."

"Don't you get it?" she asked, her attention divided between him and listening for movement in the living room. She could hear murmuring, but no real sounds that would cause alarm. If she was a betting gal, she'd put money on them complaining rather than trying to plan a way to take her and Sheldon down.

"Get what, Penny?"

"Why none of them are participating the way you want them to. Why they're not taking this seriously. Why Leonard only participates half-heartedly."

"There's nothing to 'get,'" he answered, his voice strained as he emphasized the over-used colloquialism.

She snorted. "Ok, look, the problem is they don't have any real motivations," Penny said. "Howard is trying to prove himself. Raj doesn't really care but thinks it is fun, but Leonard fails at everything and doesn't think it's fun at all. He's a major cranky puss about the whole week. What you need to do is develop a skill that Leonard can do and the others can't, so Leonard will feel smart and useful for once. It'll work for all of them. They need to feel good about themselves, to believe that they're learning something. At least give them tangible rewards besides maybe living in the future, something that will drive them, like a competition."

"I don't put much stock in theories based on the vagaries of psychology and sentiment, and that sounds suspiciously like psychology, Penny."

Penny shrugged. "Sure, whatever Sheldon. It's mostly just common sense. You want the little monkeys to perform, you dangle bait in front of their faces."

Sheldon made a noise of derision.

"Just you wait and see," she told him. "They're not going to put up much of an effort now. You and I are too much of a force."

Sadly, she was right. The minutes droned on in silence, counting down to the end of the half-hour skirmish.

"What's your motivation?" Sheldon asked curiously with less than five minutes on the clock, his blue eyes briefly casting towards her.

"What?"

"By your reckoning, the reason Leonard, Howard and Raj are not performing sufficiently is they lack 'real motivation.' By that logic, you should also be performing at a sub-par level. I have observed that you rarely put effort into activities you don't want to do and being forced makes you cranky, however, today you have played along admirably. What motivates you?"

What motivated her? That was a good question, and one she didn't think she could easily answer, especially to herself. "Oh, you know," she responded vaguely, brushing him off. "It's good practice for my acting. Actresses are always asked to immerse themselves into a role, and right now I'm Penny, Zombie Slayer."

She probably shouldn't have been so relieved when he nodded as though her answer made sense. It did bad things to her denial.

What was her motivation?

Chapter Text

"Ok boys," Penny said once the thirty minutes were over and she and Sheldon were still alive. "That was a completely dismal show of cunning and showmanship. You could have at least pretended to try."

Only Howard had the grace to look a little ashamed.

"New rule," Penny told them. "If you play with everything you have tonight, I will treat you all to a pizza later from that greasy place Sheldon never lets you order from."

They muttered enthusiastically amongst themselves as Sheldon glowered at her. "No," he resisted.

"Sheldon," Penny warned, giving him meaningful and succinct glance. "We talked about this."

"I am patently opposed to this... barefaced form of subordinate subornment from you. You talked, I listened and resisted your attempts to wrestle control from my grasp. Maybe if you had a PhD, or even a Masters in psychology, I would make an attempt to apply your theories." He snorted. "Though the field of psychology is mostly misinformed drivel, I will admit that there is something to be said for understanding human motivations, but that something cannot be said by you."

Penny continued to give him that meaningful look. She amped it up a bit, reminding herself Sheldon rarely understood human expressions unless they practically screamed at him. And if that didn't work she could actually, you know, scream at him. "How is that hoity toity mindset working for you? You can't seem to rally the troops with your science, why not test my idea out like some kind of experiment."

"A social experiment?" Sheldon asked, spanning his glance over towards the boys. "I've always found fear to be a better motivator than bribery. How do you think I get Leonard to do anything? He knows there will be consequences he doesn't want to face if he doesn't cede."

"I'm right here," Leonard muttered.

"It's true, Sheldon is terrifying," Raj pointed out, looking towards Sheldon. "But I would also willingly do a lot of things for pizza right now. A lot of really nasty, dirty things that I wouldn't normally do because I'm starving dude, and that MRE you gave us was so gross I threw half of it out of the window. I think I hit someone walking by."

"I'd always do nasty and dirty things," Howard continued, "but I would give up sex right now for a pizza. Penny has the right idea."

And that was when Penny realized her mistake. Sheldon gave her a harsh look with an underlying flicker of betrayal shadowing his features. "We'll use tonight as a trial run," he agreed, the words strained as though they stuck in his throat. "Gentlemen, if you perform to Penny's satisfaction, she'll treat you to pizza." He then brushed past her, leaving her to deal with Howard's innuendoes at his phrasing and the excited murmurs of men with something to live for.

She was pretty good, dangling pizza in front of them. She also sucked, taking control away from Sheldon like that. She didn't mean to subvert his authority, and as she watched him tinker with his laptop with a frown on his face, she wondered if she had done even more than that. She had wrestled away something that meant so much to him that he planned it years in advance. Her intention had just been to help him, not to make it seem like she could do something better than he could.

"You don't have to come," she told him, sidling up beside him. "I didn't mean to exclude you, but for bribery to work it usually has to be something they don't get on a regular basis."

"I wouldn't recommend joining them, Penny. That restaurant doesn't have very high sanitation standards. They failed health inspection twice in the last five years."

Penny, a little closer to the restaurant business than the rest of the boys, knew exactly what that meant and her stomach flopped over in disgust. "Yeah, gotcha, blech."

"None of those are actual words in the English language."

"Nope," Penny said, popping the P. She watched over his shoulder as he pressed the enter button on his computer and her name came up. "Ooooh," she said with delight.

"Penny, you're up," Sheldon informed her.

For a second she wondered if he had done this on purpose to show his disapproval for her undermining his control, or for her treating the boys to pizza in cockroach central. But no, this was all random, right? That was the purpose of the program he wrote. Though, she supposed he had written it, so who knew what kind of cheats he put in it.

The three stooges looked up from their debate over what kind of pizzas to get with a look of apprehension on their faces.

Penny gave them a wicked grin. "That's right guys, prepare to be slaughtered."

Howard shivered.

x.x.x.

Penny really wanted to kill Sheldon. It seemed everything came down to that one goal. Kill Sheldon. She didn't care about Howard, Leonard and Raj. Her strategy wasn't to slowly take down the weaker of the species, she wanted to go right to the top. Remove the head, so to speak. In the animal kingdom she'd read somewhere that the lioness was the one who hunted, and she typically picked off the closest prey, or the easiest to kill. And ok, so she probably got that from The Lion King rather than a book, but it still wasn't the line of attack she wanted.

There was more glory in killing Sheldon.

Plus, she just really really wanted to take him down, to prove that she could. He seemed so untouchable, not just in this game but in everyday life, and she wanted to prove that she could so totally touch him. He might be beyond Mensa level genius, but Penny had her own strategies that he'd never really been able to anticipate.

That was because sometimes she just acted without thinking, without planning every movement. She was impulsive. The only thing Sheldon knew about impulsiveness was how it was defined in the dictionary. She wasn't sure if Sheldon knew yet or not that he was in direct competition with her as far as skills went. He had grown complacent with the competition, used to being the best when compared to Leonard, Howard and Raj. But now that the new kid was in town – well, she was ready to shake that up a bit.

Now was not the time to be completely spontaneous. She'd observed Sheldon's habits over the last few zombie encounters and she knew which side of the island he preferred to defend. What she wasn't sure was if he was playing chess master with her and anticipated that she would use these observations against him, or if he would underestimate her, confident in his own skills. Her pride hoped it was the former, but part of her highly anticipated it being the latter. She imagined the look on his face when she killed him with ease after he had given so much thought and attention to his own survival. She'd teach him a lesson no one else could, and that was to remind him that zombies would not stop just because he had managed to cleverly devise a plan against him.

Of course, she was aware there was a huge difference between Sheldon's plan for a real-life zombie attack and this game they were playing. She knew the lessons were supposed to be for the rest of the boys, and this one would include them too. It would be quite a shock to their system to experience zombie!Penny.

She didn't give them enough time to get comfortable in their positions, knowing that the sound of the three stooges settling would cover her movements. Sheldon would hear, but she doubted he'd be able to move quick enough if he even understood what the sounds meant.

She ran across the room, her sock feet barely making a sound as she moved, a skill she had learned as a child when she hunted with her father. She had taken off her jacket, not needing the protection now that she was one of the undead. This was going to hurt, but the pain would be worth it.

Penny leapt a few feet away from the island and landed chest-first on top of it, skidding across the top of the gleaming surface so quickly she thought she might overshoot her target for a moment, and panic filled her. Her bare arm shot out, damp skin catching against the marble just enough that she was able to drop down instead of soar over their heads. A sharp pain radiated up her elbow as she knocked it against the corner of the island as she fell...

...landing heavily on top of someone, their body cushioning her landing. Her legs kicked into someone else, and she could feel the domino effect of resistance of the people below her as they all tumbled and scattered beneath her weight like bowling pins. It all happened in a matter of seconds, so quickly that none of them had been prepared for an attack from above.

Penny recovered first, pulling back from the hard shoulder her face was smooshed against to find Sheldon beneath her, a stunned, wide eyed expression on his face.

SCORE.

She moved quickly, years of junior rodeo circuits had prepared her for how to take a hit and come back swinging, and she jumped back so that she could get a good hold on Sheldon, completely immobilizing him. It would have been so easy to simply bite him while they were all stunned, but she wanted to see the look in his eye as she turned him into a zombie. She wanted to see his fear and the moment realization turned into resignation.

His eyes focused on her and narrowed.

Suddenly, Penny's acting kicked in and she snarled, an inhuman sound emerging from the back of her throat. Her teeth were bared, eyes wild and feral as she scented metaphorical blood.

"What the?" Howard asked.

Penny turned her sights on him, snapping her teeth in his direction like a wild dog. Her image was more reaver than zombie, which the boys seemed to notice immediately if the way they recoiled was any indication. Leonard was rubbing his head from where her foot hit him and Raj was trying to squirm from beneath him. All three of them turned towards her as she gnashed her teeth, honest to god spittle flying in their direction.

Howard screamed.

She turned back towards Sheldon and licked her lips, toying with her prey. His eyes were comically wide and he was starting to thrash to get away. Penny had been anticipating this, hoping for it really. She knew a few tricks to keep him still and she allowed him to try to get free just so he'd understand who was in charge.

Sheldon was stronger than he looked though and almost managed to get loose and unseat her at the same time and Penny could feel the exertion of her muscles as she held him down, her hands forcing his wrists back onto the ground.

"Penny..." Leonard started, shutting his mouth and flinching away as she snarled at him again.

Howard let out another scream.

Ok, she was having a little too much fun with this. At any moment one of the three idiots behind her was going to remember they all had water guns they could use to defend Sheldon. She pressed herself tighter against him as he tried to free his arm, the water gun pressing tight against her stomach. Still snarling in an apparent frenzy for flesh she lowered her mouth to his neck and pressed a small kiss against the pulse in his throat.

His pulse was racing beneath her mouth. The girly part of her wanted to attribute that to the fact that she was on top of him in a compromising position, but the sad reality of it was that Zombie!Penny leaping on top of him, snarling and slobbering and hungry for human flesh, was probably the most terrifying thing to happen to him since Kripke chased him around the cafeteria with his killer robot.

In the space of seconds, Penny finished killing Sheldon and leapt into a crouch in front of the other boys. Howard was still screeching, a thin whining wail that made her think of a baby crying for his mother, and none of them had gone for their weapons yet.

Fools.

She attacked him next just to shut him up, diving for his leg and pulling it out from under him. She was in the zone, pumped off her triumph and the exertion it took to get this far and not even considering their safety anymore. Howard fell backwards on the floor, but dutifully set the timer on his watch, his mouth still letting out a constant stream of that high pitched sound.

Penny resumed her crouch, snarling at Raj and Leonard. Her hair was streaming over her face and she was breathing hard, her eyes fixed on her quarry. Her mind was running through the various ways she could kill them. Did she want to get it over with it quickly, or toy with them? Should she let them go for now so she could spend the next twenty minutes playing cat and mouse games until one of them begged her to kill them? That way, she'd have Sheldon by her side and she thought the two of them together would have twice as much fun playing with their food.

"Krishna protect me," Raj muttered, backing away from her. He was looking at her as though he could see the intent in her eyes.

"I used to slaughter cows for fun," Penny sneered, and while that wasn't really truthful, she'd never actually killed a cow with her bare hands in her life, he didn't have to know that. The way he turned ghost white made her think he believed her. "Your god has no power here."

Then she snapped at him with her teeth, loving the power and the dramatics of it all. Sheldon Cooper was a genius. This was the most fun she'd had in months. Raj was outright scrambling away from her, but that just made zombie!Penny mad, and she dove in for the kill.

That's when Leonard shot her in the head with his water gun.

"Oh, nicely done Leonard," she said, turning to smile at him, but he freaked out at her movement and shot her again.

x.x.x.x.

Sheldon Cooper took death very seriously. She had known this about him, had assumed that the silent and stiff way he was holding himself was part of his act. She hadn't expected him to start to shake part way through the two minute enforcement of her killing him.

"Sheldon?" she questioned, on the floor next to him. Howard's feet were next to her knees, his head in the opposite direction of hers so there was no way he could see what Sheldon was doing. "Sheldon?" she repeated sharply. "Are you ok?"

"Am I ok?" he echoed. "No I am not ok. I am not fine. I am not tolerable, satisfactory or any ill-conceived synonyms you could use to define my well-being. You assaulted my person. You put my safety at risk with your needless stunt. You may not be concerned about the condition of your cranium, but it would be a great loss to string theory, physics, and mankind if your negligence led to traumatic brain injury."

With her back against the cold floor, Penny started to laugh.

"Penny! This is no laughing matter." Sheldon turned his head to glower at her, his eyes piercing and full of indignation.

"No, no," she dismissed, still chuckling. "It's not that. It's just I've been expecting you to freak out over things all day. I'm amazed it took this long." She met his eye and realized he did not follow her logic, or maybe he just didn't find it amusing because his indignation was turning to hatred at a very rapid rate. It was the same look he gave her when she foiled laundry night, as though he was wavering between banishing her forever and blowing her head up with his mind. "You didn't hit your head that hard, did you? I don't see any blood."

She didn't think he had, he had already been crouched on the floor, so he didn't have very far to fall. She supposed the force of her body landing on him might have worsened the situation and internally she winced at the idea that he might actually have something to complain about.

"You wouldn't. It could be an intracranial hemorrhage and neither of us would even know it. A hematoma could be causing my cerebrum to swell as we speak, exerting more and more pressure on the delicate nature of the cerebral lobes until POP!"

"Your head explodes?" Penny asked.

"Not as viscerally as you're imagining. Instead I would likely die or worse, suffer some sort of insurmountable disability."

Penny rolled over towards him and slid her hand beneath his head, feeling along his scalp.

"Penny, what are you doing? You don't have any medical training. I doubt you'd be able to detect any cranial anomalies even with the use of a CAT scan."

"Come on Sheldon," Penny said, fingers carefully brushing over his hair. It was softer than she thought it would be, she realized, starting at his temples and running her hands through his hair. If this didn't distract him from thinking his head was going to explode, she didn't know what would. Plus, she loved having an excuse to touch him. "You know I was on the junior rodeo circuit. I've had more close calls with brain injuries than you could even imagine. I know more about this than you think I do."

She really didn't, but he didn't have to know that.

"Dementia pugilistica, better known as boxer's dementia, would explain your inability to remember not to sit in my spot," he mused, and then was off talking about what current issues his brain might be experiencing because she had jumped on him. His mouth ranting about intracranial hemorrhage subdural, subarachnoid, extradural, and intraparenchymal hematomas, cerebral contusions, concussions, and a bunch of terms Penny only understood the very basic significance behind. His eyelashes, however, were blinking wildly, showing his reaction to her hand carefully running through his hair.

"I don't feel any bumps or damage," she told him.

"Didn't you hear a word I just said?"

"Sure," she said with a careful smile, leaning closer to him. "You were talking about how you might have a brain bleed because you hit your head. Do you want me to kiss it better?"

Sheldon moved away from her so quickly, if he didn't have brain damage before, he probably just sloshed it around enough to have damage now. "My brain?" he asked incredulously.

"Uh, guys, the two minutes are up," Howard said nervously from the side. Penny jumped, forgetting he was there and realized that he had probably 1. heard the entire conversation, and 2. seen the way she was leaning over Sheldon, her hand in his hair. Sheldon likely would never associate something like that with anything other than checking the integrity of his skull, but Howard likely would. Especially considering how close she was to actually kissing Sheldon.

Kissing Sheldon.

Kissing Sheldon.

Oh geez.

Of course, Howard likely wouldn't comment on that, he'd be more concerned with what she could do for him. Penny tensed, waiting for the dirty joke.

"If Sheldon doesn't want it kissed, I have a brain you can put your mouth on and it isn't in my head."

"Don't be gross, Howard."

Leonard won that round.

x.x.x.

It was inevitable, sooner or later Sheldon's name was going to come up in rotation he was going to extract his revenge on her. She'd never seen him so angry. After he stopped shaking in fury, he went completely tense every time she was closer than three feet to him, a side effect of her attack (and completely disregard blah blah) that she hadn't taken into account in the three seconds she had spent planning. Something was going to have to give, and it was going to have to happen soon because otherwise he was going to start to see it as a grudge to hold. If there was one thing she learned about Sheldon over the years, it was that you didn't want him to have time to really develop a deep-set rancour against you.

For one thing it would kind of ruin her plan to prove herself to him.

For another, her name wouldn't sound nearly as nice if it was said with the same unadulterated hatred he pronounced Leslie Winkle, Barry Kripke or that Wil Wheaton guy.

Penny knew what she was going to have to do. When it was his turn, she was going to have to let him get her, but play it in such a way that he didn't realize that she had let him win. She didn't want to completely undo all the hard work she had put into being seen as the badest and bestest of his pupils, but she also didn't want him to completely hate her either.

When his turn came about and he narrowed his glances at her, eyes telegraphing his intentions, Penny's own eyes met his, her eyebrow quirking in challenge as she gave him an answering grin. Oh yes, she was going to go down fighting. Let's see how dirty Sheldon Cooper was willing to get.

"Sheldon's gunning for me, guys," Penny told the boys as they all congregated behind the couch. "Stay out of his way and I imagine he'll go easy on you."

Raj made a sound of distress.

"What happens when he catches you?" Leonard asked. "What chances do the rest of us have?"

"The two of you against the three of us?" Howard asked. "Those are terrible odds."

Raj made a second whine of distress.

"Do you have to pee?" Howards asked Raj, pausing his terrified glances over the back of the couch to look towards his best friend.

"A little," Raj answered. "Sheldon's turn is terrifying enough. Remember last year when he rigged the bookcase to fall on us and then waited until we crawled out from beneath the weight before he killed us?"

Penny shot an assessing glance towards the bookcase and nodded to herself at the brilliance of it.

"Of course I remember!" Howard snapped. "I won that round because I couldn't get out and had to wait until the three of you lifted the thing off me. For a while I was worried we'd have to call in the fire department to get it off, or worse, Penny!"

"Well, the thought of he and Penny together is much more terrifying."

Penny grinned at him. "That's sweet, Raj. Now shut up, I want to hear when he's coming."

"Guys, I think we need to protect Penny," Leonard said, ignoring her warning. "That way Sheldon won't get what he wants and we won't have to cower in fear without someone to protect us."

That said something, Penny realized, that they were all looking to her to protect them from Sheldon as though it was expected of her. She supposed that was the role she had taken on, but it gave her pause to realize that in a real-life zombie attack, they would likely expect the same thing. She loved the boys, she really did, but that was a little too much responsibility.

"Shhh," she warned, taking her job seriously, suddenly seeing this as a practice run. If she couldn't protect them from Sheldon, how could she protect them from a real zombie

"I wouldn't worry," Howard explained cockily, not even bothering with his assigned post of peering over the back of the couch. "Sheldon could take upwards to the full thirty minutes just to come up with a plan. Watch, I bet he's still way over behind the island glaring at—" Howard broke off with a strangled sound. He had been slowly twisting to look over the back of the couch.

She found her eyes following the same line of sight to find Sheldon standing on the other side of the couch, leaning over and staring down at Howard with an indiscernible expression on his face.

Raj made a third distressed whine, sitting heavily on the floor as he tried to scramble away but his legs wouldn't quite work.

Sheldon, almost in slow motion, reached out and grabbed Howard, dragging him over the back of the couch.

"Holy mother of God!" Howard was screaming, thrashing his feet wildly in an attempt to get loose.

It was like some kind of horror movie. One where the monster got a hold of one of the good guys and dragged them into the depths of the ocean/its stomach/back to the mothership. It was exactly like a real zombie attack. She had to give Sheldon credit for realism.

And she wasn't standing for it. Oh no, Penny was not the type of girl to sit back and watch as a friend got eaten by a zombie, nor was she the kind of girl to run away in fear.

Penny grabbed for her sword, her eyes narrowed in resolve, but was unable to pull it all the way out before Leonard's arms were around her. At first she thought he was trying to protect her, but she realized he was gibbering nonsensical things about Sheldon's creepy strength when fuelled by rage and how no one was safe if he was actually going to use his height to his advantage. Penny managed to yank her arm free, but not in time to help Howard.

"Save Penny, save the world!" Howard went down screaming.

That was when Penny's sword hit the back of Sheldon's neck.

x.x.x.x.

Raj went next, jumped by Sheldon on his way back from the bathroom and suddenly Penny found herself with only Leonard as an ally.

"It's ok Penny, I won't let him get you," Leonard promised, chest puffed out in an attempt to appear more confident and to give the illusion he could carry through with his promise.

She was barely listening to Leonard, on high alert for Sheldon to make his move. She had moved out from behind the couch and was standing in the area behind the chair, close to the window alcove without actually boxing herself in. She had decided that the reason Sheldon hated the couch was that it was less defendable than it seemed, especially after watching him drag Howard over the back of it. It was difficult to see over the top of it, and with three against two, it would be easy to box them in if team human couldn't even see team zombie coming. Plus, Sheldon was tricksy and after hearing the story of how he had rigged the bookcase last year Penny was almost worried he had some kind of way to make the couch fall on top of them. There was no way she was letting Sheldon win. No way at all. She had friends to avenge, honour to prove, Sheldons to triumph against.

In that moment, her eyes focused on the island as she stood in full visibility, daring them to come forward so she could dispatch of them with her sword and water gun, Penny didn't care if Sheldon hated her forever. Her breathing was composed, her sword held ready in her right hand and her gun steady in the other. There was a slight buzzing in her ears that she identified as the rush of adrenalin, the sound of traffic from outside and the faint murmuring of voices from behind the kitchen island.

"Let him come," she told Leonard in a moderated voice with a feral smirk. Later, he would quote her incessantly and say that this was the moment he started to worry she wasn't seeing this as a game anymore. Now, she barely registered Leonard's presence beyond where he was located and which way she would have to move to put Leonard between herself and Sheldon. She was almost a hundred percent sure Sheldon was instructing Howard and Raj that they weren't allowed to kill Leonard, as Leonard's death would mean she won the game. If she knew anything about Sheldon, if she could anticipate one thing at all, it was that Sheldon was not going to allow her to win and time was running out.

"Sheldon!" Penny called, singsong. "Shellll-don. I know you want me. I'm right here, ripe for the taking. Do you really think Leonard will present much challenge to you? You know what you want and you know what you have to do."

He stood quickly, popping up from behind the island and narrowed his gaze at her.

She observed him from across the room, her vision tunnelled to take in his face. He was so consumed with anger that one of his eyes twitched as he stared her down, hands against his temples as he tried to blow up her brain. Penny had never been good at resisting the little devil on her shoulder that told her to egg on moments like this, especially where Sheldon was concerned, so she stuck her thumbs in her ears and waved her fingers in a pretty good approximation of jazz-hands. Her tongue was out of her mouth and eyes crossed before she even realized what she was doing. It was so difficult to make amends with Sheldon when aggravating him was just so easy.

He made some kind of motion with his hands, and suddenly Raj and Howard were jumping out from behind the island and converging on Leonard. She frowned at the sight, so sure that she would be the target she had almost forgotten about him. Howard was screaming some kind of war cry, while Raj lopped forward in some kind of intimidating movement that seemed less frightening and more like one of those inflatable air dancer ad things.

Leonard stepped forward to confront them, surprising her with actually following through with his promise.

She was so bemused by the sight of them running straight by Leonard, abruptly turning away at the last second, that she almost missed the fact that Sheldon was approaching behind them. Sheldon, with no patience for the fact that Leonard was standing between him and his goal, actually willingly reached forward and touched Leonard. He touched him so hard, Leonard tripped sideways, falling over the arm of the couch and landing sprawled across the first two cushions.

By this point, Penny managed to remember to bring her weapons forward, but Sheldon had built up too much momentum for it to make much difference and she ended up taking a step backwards to give herself more space, and then a second because he was just scary fast and she wasn't prepared for something like this. On her third step, her back hit against the bookcase behind her and Sheldon was there, practically backing her into the enclosed space.

His hands landed on either side of her head before he became utterly motionless inches in front of her. No part of him was actually willingly touching her, but she was still trapped and there was no doubt in her mind that in a real zombie scenario that he would have her. She found her eyelashes fluttering in surprise at his nearness as his breath stirred her hair as he leaned in.

Oh my god, her brain screamed. Her heart was pounding rapidly in a rhythm she couldn't entirely explain away from zombie-related exertion. She was trapped between the bookcase and Sheldon, and it was possibly the hottest thing that had happened to her in a while, and it was Sheldon. Her brain was going into overdrive, wondering why she was reacting this way. She knew better than to look at any of his actions as anything other than platonic, so why did she feel his nearness so acutely? She lifted her chin so she could stare him in the eye, a zing of shock going through her system to find his gaze focused on her with the same intense stare he had levelled at her across the room. At this distance it felt a lot different, even if his meaning was still the same.

She took a step towards him, her breasts brushing against his chest as her eyes challenged him. She expected him to back down, to shy away and put the control back into her hands.

He didn't.

She realized that while she was trembling at his nearness and doing everything in her power to ignore how it was making her feel, he was still furious with her, not satisfied with his retribution. So close on the heels of her reaction to him on the floor behind the island, and Penny was aware of at least one thing: it was easier to forget why Sheldon Cooper had been firmly slotted in her 'don't look, don't touch' file when he was acting like this (and she couldn't forget the way he was wearing those jeans).

"You lose," he informed her, surprisingly succinct, and as per usual he was right.

x.x.x.x.

The boys were kind of getting into it, Penny noticed, inspired by her complete and utter pwning of Sheldon, and Sheldon's subsequent campaign to make her pay for it. She thought Howard just wanted to back her up against a wall. Regardless, she definitely owed them a pizza after this.

Somehow Raj's mouth came close enough to Sheldon's hand – most likely by accident, since Penny couldn't see any other way for Sheldon to be so careless with his limbs.

"NOO!" she yelled, bringing her sword down on his arm, effectively severing it above the elbow before any of them could blink. Or at least she would have severed it if her sword wasn't made of plastic and Raj was actually a zombie.

All four blinked at her.

"Is he dead or not?" Howard asked.

"This is unprecedented," Sheldon pointed out in a perplexed tone, staring at his hand. "The rule book doesn't stipulate what to do in the event of immediate amputation."

"I say we vote on it."

"That seems fair. Dead or not dead," Leonard offered. "Dead?" He, Howard and Raj raised their hands.

"Wait a second boys," Penny said with her brows narrowed in suspicion. They were so self-serving sometimes, putting their immediate needs ahead of the common good. Of course, Penny knew how to use that to her advantage. Men were relatively easy to figure out, even smart ones. It was the uber-geniuses she had problems with, and that was fine. Every girl enjoyed a bit of mystery. "You realize we're not just talking about this instance right? This isn't whether you think Sheldon should live or not, this is whether you think any time in the future where any one of you gets bit, someone can save you after... how many seconds do you think?" she asked Sheldon. "Five?"

He nodded. "It seems reasonable. Of course, such a short timeframe will lead to disagreements down the road. Was it five seconds or was it six? Who can tell without instant playback?"

Penny ignored that, focusing her attention on the three stooges. "So any of you can be saved after five seconds. Let's try this again. Dead?"

Howard and Leonard still raised their hands. They then looked over at Raj.

"What?" Raj asked. "I want to live and Penny is really quick on her feet. Sheldon's not bad either."

"Two against three. Congratulations Penny," Sheldon said, looking incredibly pleased. "You are the first to ameliorate the regulations through action rather than inaction."

"Ameliorate?" she whispered to Howard.

"Change for the better," he defined beneath his breath, so used to doing the same for Raj that he didn't even comment on her willingly addressing him.

"No problem, Sheldon," Penny said with a grin.

That was all it took. Suddenly Sheldon had forgiven her, easily conversing with her without giving her the hostile glances that had been crossing his face since the zombie games began. In fact, he was back to looking impressed and Penny's heart soared.

Sheldon was going to be a real problem if this was only the first day.

Chapter Text

The schedule didn't change much for the following days, except Sheldon scheduled track and field and the gun range during her work hours. Basically, all she got were his boring lectures in the morning and the fun skirmishes in the evening.

The next day was devoted to the process of fighting aliens, which were even more complicated and difficult to anticipate than zombies were. Sheldon started the day off asking what the group knew about aliens. They knew even more, but at the same time less, than they did about zombies, and Penny ended up being the one to remind them, yet again, that everything they mentioned about little grey men and space blobs were things they had seen off movies and television.

"Come on guys, I know Doctor Who is like amazing and stuff, but even it can't predict what aliens are going to be like."

Sheldon was more grudging about admitting she was right this time. "The one thing Doctor Who is good for is refraining from typecasting a certain type of alien, or planet. It shows a diverse range of possibilities for the infinite unknown variables that could potentially make up non-Earth lifeforms," Sheldon argued, defending his favourite show. "Given the possibility of cloaking technology the chances of extra terrestrials already being among us is 3.54 percent."

"I'd say it's higher than that," Penny pointed out, giving Sheldon a meaningful glance. He was back to wearing his not-jeans, t-shirt and long-sleeved shirt combo and Penny thought she would now be able to put the weirdness of finding him attractive behind her. Apparently, he only brought out his heavy-duty clothing for skirmishes. Penny considered it a good thing she didn't have an added distraction while he was lecturing. "What planet are you from again?"

"Vulcan," Howard reminded them all. "Sheldon doesn't have the ears or the green blood, so maybe he knows more about that cloaking technology than he's letting on, but he does share a lot of the same behavioural mannerisms with Mr. Spock."

Sheldon inclined his head towards Howard, not necessarily agreeing with him, but acknowledging what he was saying.

Raj, bouncing in excitement over a topic that was close to his heart, spoke up. "Did you know Andrei Finkelstein recently claimed we will find extraterrestrial life in the next two decades? He wasn't basing that on any science fiction, either, but the fact we have now accounted for over a thousand exoplanets, some of which are situated where the temperature is right for water to exist as a liquid in relation to the star they orbit. Finkelstein said there will be life on such planets if there is water. And guess what, guys, there will be water because astronomers have now deduced that when a star is born it forms jets that blast epic quantities of water into interstellar space, seeding the universe in life. How cool is that?"

"The Drake equation postulates," Sheldon started, writing a long equation on his whiteboard that started with the letter N and then got progressively more eye-crossingly boring and unreadable as far as she was concerned. The irony of it, Penny realized, was that all the boys already knew this, so the only reason he had gone into lecture mode was 1. for her, or 2. he was about to pompously assume his all-knowing omni-whatever meant that he needed to educate everybody else. Fantastic. "N equals the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication is possible. Accounting for the number of recently discovered potential planets and the R factor, then..." Sheldon continued jotting down numbers and calculations at an alarming rate.

"Dude," Raj interjected, looking critically at the numbers. "Drake found that there are 10,000 civilizations transmitting signals we should be able to pick up at any given moment."

"He's wrong," Sheldon stated simply, underlining his findings.

"Drake's wrong?" Raj asked incredulously. "How about the entire SETI institute? Are they all wrong?"

"If they didn't get these results, then yes."

"Right," Raj rolled his eyes. "Because you're smarter than a group of highly intelligent, dedicated astronomers and scientists who have made it their life's work to detect signs of life in space."

"That's a given," Sheldon agreed. "As a theoretical physicist I have the capacity to comprehend and calculate mathematical variables to explain or predict any natural phenomena. I cannot be bound by mere astronomy."

"He can understand everything except for when he's wrong," Raj muttered darkly.

x.x.x.x.x.

"... so in sum, a simple blood test could detect alien traces within the human body."

Penny felt her eyes rolling in the back of her head in boredom. At first, Sheldon's lecture on alien possession, replacement (a la pod people), or any kind of infiltration scenarios seemed interesting, but then he started to get really in depth with chemical analysis and she wasn't able to follow along. According to him, human biology... and that was around the time she stopped listening, eyes glazing over as he rhymed off a bunch of stuff she didn't understand. At one point he mentioned schnapps, which made her sit up and pay attention for a moment, but quickly realized he was saying CHNOPS, which was much less interesting (but made much more sense).

"The trouble with detecting unique biological signatures is having a viable test subject. After contemplating the workshop possibilities, I decided to follow such hallmark battles as Independence Day, Stargate SG-1—"

"You want to make an Earth Defence System?" Leonard asked.

"No."

"A biological weapon?" Howard guessed.

"Did I not just explain the reason that wasn't a feasible option?"

"I wasn't listening," Howard muttered, so quietly Sheldon shouldn't have been able to hear him. The way Sheldon's head swivelled towards him told all of them that Sheldon not hearing whispered talk was a pipe dream.

Maybe Sheldon was a cloaked alien. That would explain a lot, especially why he didn't seem to want to make a biological weapon.

"Maybe we are the biological weapon," Raj pointed out.

"Like that Tom Cruise movie!" Penny joined in enthusiastically, glad she had finally recognised something.

They all winced.

"Tom's War of the Worlds is a sorry remake of a classic," Howard explained. "We don't speak of it polite company."

"As I was saying," Sheldon continued. "We shall learn how to arm and disarm an explosive device."

"You want to blow things up?" Penny asked incredulously. "Isn't that very... Texan of you?"

"Yeah," Howard inserted. "What if they're friendly?"

"What if they aren't?" Raj asked.

"Sheldon, don't you think a bomb allegories the Cold War fears prevalent in US science fiction a little too closely?" Leonard asked. "I take it we're preparing for the possibility of an occupation?"

"Certainly not," Sheldon insisted. "I have, however, taken into account that creating a coilgun like in the Halo franchises would be time consuming. When the time comes, together we have the necessary skills to put together a decent Earth Defence System if not the time and resources."

x.x.x.x.

For some reason, Sheldon thought the best way to combat aliens was to blow them up, and the best way to blow them up was to be able to work a bomb.

Honestly, Penny didn't really follow his thought process. She never followed his thought process of course, but this seemed particularly illogical.

"Are you training us to survive apocalypses, or are you training us to be spies?" Penny asked incredulously, staring at the computer program in front of her. All of them were forced to download a program to their laptops, and install it. It turned out to be a countdown to a bomb, making almost everything else on their laptops inaccessible while the countdown was running. The point of the exercise was to stop the countdown before it reached zero and the bomb exploded.

Penny knew this was one she was going to fail. She needed Raj's help just to install the program onto her operating system.

"With my engineering degree, I could probably figure out how to disarm an actual bomb," Howard told the room, practically sneering at Sheldon's little program. "Anything you wrote is child's play for me."

"You may begin," Sheldon told them, standing at the front of the room with his hands clasped behind his back, observing them with disdain. The countdown started at one minute, but Penny didn't move to do anything. There was a beeping coming through all four speakers.

All three boys started typing like mad. Howard was grinning, hopping in his seat with his laptop bouncing on his knee. Suddenly the beeping from his laptop became more insistent. "What the—a failsafe?" he jabbed his finger on a button and then hunched over his computer desperately, his fingers flying over the keys faster than she'd ever seen before. With one final beep, his computer made a sound of something disengaging.

"Congratulations, you have saved the world," Sheldon said with a nod.

Holy frig, praise, Penny realized. Praise from Sheldon was like an apocalyptic event on its own, and Wolowitz wasn't the one who was supposed to get it. She was far more deserving than Howard was. Well, maybe not for this exercise, but she damn well knew how to shoot a gun better than anyone. Had Sheldon praised her for that?

And, Penny realized with a sense of dread, she was jealous. Of Howard.

Angrily, she slammed the lid for her laptop, but the beeping continued.

Raj's computer began beeping insistently like Howard's had, but instead of disengaging it, Raj panicked, his fingers stalling over the keyboard. The speakers let out the sound of a small explosion.

"Balls!" Raj exclaimed.

That just left Leonard.

Ten.

Leonard fingers were flying over the keyboard, nowhere as fast as Howard's had been. He was staring at the screen in concentration, squinting myopically over his glasses.

Nine.

Eight.

Penny pulled the power cord out of her laptop.

Seven.

Six.

Leonard was actively sweating as he typed, ignorant of all his friends watching him.

Five.

Penny panicked. She hadn't really cared whether she won or lost this one, not really (and certainly not until Sheldon praised Howard like he was deserving of it. The boy was an engineer, he did stuff like this all the time. It was like praising Penny for being able to perform an acceptable imitation of Captain Mal Reynolds, which she could do, and which Sheldon had never commented on) but with the countdown putting added pressure, she couldn't handle the pressure without doing something. She wasn't losing to Leonard for Christ's sake. Leonard failed at everything!

Four.

Penny found the release for her laptop battery and popped it out.

Three.

Leonard broke the program and it disengaged.

"Yes!" he exclaimed victoriously, doing a small happy dance.

Two and one never came. It took a moment before they realized what the silence meant and then one by one they turned to look at her.

Penny grinned sheepishly and then held up the battery in her hand.

"Eugh," Howard groaned. "Is this another one of those common sense versus over-thinking challenges? I still maintain that I won."

Penny blew Howard a raspberry.

"Penny, you cheated." Sheldon did not look happy.

"So did Kirk," she said with a grin.

"You never told us we couldn't just cut the power," Leonard pointed out, his scowl replaced by a more congenial expression. Considering he was going so far as to debate with Sheldon, Penny realized that simply surviving one of Sheldon's challenges did wonders for Leonard's complex.

x.x.x.x.

She was being hunted by aliens or terrorists or whatever terrifying boogeyman Sheldon believed inhabited the streets of Pasadena at night. There was one of her and four of them, her footsteps almost completely silent and swift against the pavement. She knew how to use her surroundings to her advantage. In the past, she navigated cornfields and plains, tree corps and, once on her father's semi-annual hunting trip Bluffs and Sandhills. She had never tried out her skills in a city, using buildings and streetlights to her advantage, and she became aware her skills were a little rusty when she misjudged the shape of a shadow and ended up standing almost directly below the glow of an overhead light in someone's apartment.

It had been a long time for her. Nebraska was always something she tried to put behind her, but she still knew how to breathe, how to listen, and how to watch, even if her senses had been deadened by complacency of buying meat from the store and carrying pepper spray in her purse.

There was something clicking into place inside her, something she had been denying since her father caught her behind the barn with Bobby Mackenzie and no shirt and stopped calling her Slugger. Something she'd buried beneath highlights and high heels, lipstick and boyfriends. It was something primal and vigilant and dangerous, that she only let the barest gleam of it out for Halo and Queen Penelope.

She might be the hunted, but she wasn't worried in the least bit. Three of the four wouldn't even be able to see her if she edged past them, pressed against the line of cars separating the sidewalk from the street. It was the fourth who interested her, and she felt herself wanting to test the parameters of Sheldon Cooper's skills, the way he was trying to test her.

In paintball, Sheldon had always taken the long-established stand-hunting strategy, concealing himself and waiting for his targets to come to him. She'd always been more inclined towards tracking and stalking herself.

Hunting wasn't much different from dating, and she always had been a big ol' five.

Penny crouched beside a parked car, the metal of the bumper cool against her skin. Her eyes quickly scanned the street, taking in the traffic patterns, the way the overhead streetlight was burnt out, giving her a good wedge of darkness to dart across the street and into the park itself. If she was Sheldon, which was either giving him too much credit or understanding the immeasurable bounds of his intelligence, she would have eyes on this expanse of space. It was the only place she'd found that would cover her entrance into the park in darkness.

The park, she was almost sure, was where all the fun was. This was like the most ultimate game of tag and hide and go seek she'd ever played. She knew Leonard was still hovering somewhere around the entrance to their apartment building, but both Howard and Raj had taken off across the street almost immediately. Sheldon, she wasn't too sure about, he could be anywhere.

If Penny was a betting woman, she'd put money down on him being near.

Quickly, she back away from between the two cars, circling around the block until she could no longer see the burnt out street light. Then, she simply ran across the street and into the bushes, creeping along quickly, but with soft steps, feeling with her toes before she put pressure on her foot for branches or anything that might rustle or crunch beneath her foot.

She was so intent on scanning the bushes and the ground around the spot that she thought Sheldon might be hiding that she almost missed him. Then a car went by, the headlights illuminating a flash of orange up in a cluster of trees. She almost dismissed it as nothing, but a huntress never ignored her surroundings, so when the next car went by Penny's eyes looked up in the trees, expecting to see an old bag or anything that would explain fluorescent orange stuck in a branch above head-level.

She didn't expect to see Sheldon fucking Cooper up in a tree, his body blending with the branches, all narrow limbs and balanced torso pressed against the trunk. Penny had been under the impression he was frightened of heights – no, frightened of falling – and didn't do stuff like that.

But then, he had also climbed trees to get away from chickens when he was a boy. Maybe he didn't fear falling so much when he was in control of the landscape.

Whatever the answer was, he was definitely the shape she saw up in that tree, ready to snipe her when she got close enough to him. It sent a thrill throughout her body, tingling adrenalin through her limbs. She was pretty sure he didn't expect her to spot him, assuming his high IQ meant that no one thought the same way he did. He was partially right.

Maybe she'd tell him that the grips on his shoes, designed to reflect at night so cars could see pedestrians, was what had given him away. Maybe she wouldn't. She always liked having an ace up her sleeve.

Penny scrambled away in the opposite direction, putting as much space between herself and Sheldon as possible so she could have a chance to think.

She almost had a half-assed, fly by the seat of her pants plan thought up when she almost tripped over Howard and Raj. Berating herself for not paying enough attention, Penny pressed herself against the embankment of a small slope, peering down over the crest of it at the boys. They were hidden between a shrub and a parked car and arguing loudly.

She couldn't quite hear what was being said, but she got the gist of them both collaborating to take her down. It took her a moment to realize Leonard had joined them.

Et tu, Leonard, she thought with a grin. This would certainly make things more interesting. The three of them just might make a challenge whereas on their own they were a little lost and pathetic.

Man, either she was really, really good at this hunting thing or luck was on her side tonight. She wondered what the chances were she could flush them towards Sheldon's tree and let him take care of them for her.

Grinning to herself, Penny was about to edge away when a police car pulled up. The cops got out, tasers in hand, pointed directly towards the boys.

Raj eeped.

"We've received a call about suspicious activity in the park and three men who were thought to be armed hiding in the bushes."

"We're not armed or dangerous!" Howard exclaimed. "They're just water guns!"

Holy crap on a cracker. Holy crap. Holy shit. This was two parts the worst thing that could possibly happen and one part the most awesome thing ever. Leonard, Raj and Howard were about to get arrested.

Penny carefully moved off the slope and then ran for Sheldon in a direct line. He was probably having a mini heart attack at the sight of her moving so quickly and accurately towards him. "Abort," she hissed at him, once she was close enough for him to hear her with his scary accurate hearing. Or, at least she thought he could probably hear her. She'd never really tested the limits of his senses.

She probably looked like a crazy person running through the park with her hands visible where he could see her, but she couldn't get the idea of him just waiting to line up a shot to her forehead with his water gun. "Sheldon! Get down right now, the cops are here and are about to arrest the boys, and I doubt they'd take kindly to a Doctor in a tree."

The branches above her head rustled, and suddenly Sheldon was lowering himself down, landing easily beside her in a half-crouch.

"The chances of them noticing me in the tree were slim. People never look up," he informed her as she dragged him out of the park, quickly crossing the street so they were standing on a sidewalk beneath a street light. There was nothing overtly suspicious of that, right? In fact, they probably just looked like a couple who were coming home from a date.

Which, actually, gave her an idea. One he probably wouldn't like.

"How do you explain that I knew where you were, then?" she asked, swinging him around and slipping her arm into the crook of his elbow. He looked confused at her action, but was too busy ruminating on what she said to really pay attention.

"The process of hunting can be traced back to before the rise of Homo Sapiens. Your natural affinity for it in a time when hunting is not the norm simply means the anthropogenesis of your family line is stunted."

Oh super, Penny realized, he was telling her that the reason she spotted him was because she was less evolved than he was. She was starting to realize that there was scientific evidence to back up any and all of his bullshit no matter which direction he took. She wanted to point out that he was being a teensy bit hypocritical, what with his own hunting skills and all, but they were getting closer to the police now, and it was time to fill him in on her plot.

"Ok, don't look surprised and don't talk unless directly asked a question. Nod or shake your head if it can be easily answered. Just stand there and look bored and superior. Do you understand?"

"No Penny, I patently resist..." he started.

"Good," she cut him off. "Now put it into practice. Do you understand?"

He shook his head and gave her a haughty look.

Penny smiled and patted his cheek. "That's perfect, Moonpie," she told him, taking his arm and sauntering down the sidewalk. "By the way, you're my boyfriend now."

"Wha-!" he began indignantly, cutting off with a yelp as she pinched the sensitive skin stretched over his ribs.

"Walk," she hissed, her hand curved around his side beneath the dark leather he was still wearing – god, she really wished he'd keep wearing it after this week, but Howard already told her that it only comes out of his closet during Apocalypse Week, and once after a small earth quake – and kept her hand flat against the ribs she just squeezed. He stiffened like she was holding a gun to his back.

Really, the thought wasn't that far off, especially with the week she'd had. He'd actually seen her handle a weapon, so of course he thought she was dangerous and threatening.

She just kind of wished it wasn't because her hand was on his waist.

The best part, at least so far, was that she had wedged herself so tightly against his side that he had two options. One, walk with his shoulder shoved backwards and his hand hanging by his side so that it brushed against her butt, or two, place his hand solidly on her back. It took him a few paces to decide on the second option, and she thought for sure she could feel his warm palm through the thick material of her jacket.

Apocalypse Week might just be her favourite holiday, ever. Sheldon's everyday rules were definitely taking a backseat to his survival instincts. She wondered if she could convince him that making out was integral to his survival.

Not that she wanted to make out with Sheldon?

Yeah, no, yeah she totally did, and it had nothing (very little) to do with his jeans-clad butt. Whoever had told him that jeans were like the ultimate safety wear when dealing with zombies/aliens/terrorists was either her god or someone she should add to her Christmas card list.

Really, it could be hazmat suits or full body armour. This was Sheldon they were talking about. He was that crazy.

They were now walking parallel to the cops frisking down the boys. Part of her, the evil part, considering just continuing along by and letting them deal with this themselves. The nice part of her, the girl who helped her friends no matter what trouble they were in, swivelled her head in apparent surprise, widened her eyes and gripped Sheldon into halting. "Leonard?" she asked, her voice high pitched and disbelieving. "Howard? Raj?"

"Do you know these men, Miss?" one of the cops asked, stepping towards her and Sheldon and crossing the street. The boys were no match for his partner, a diminutive woman who glared at the three of them in an unfriendly manner. Raj looked to be stunned back into silence. Leonard was sheepish, and Howard, oh God, Howard. Had he said anything inappropriate about handcuffs yet? Penny couldn't see how he hadn't. "They wouldn't admit to their names."

Whoops, Penny thought. Well, she didn't really mean to give away their secret identities or whatever. Seriously, what kind of geniuses antagonized cops into arresting them?

"They're our friends," she said with a winning smile, giving Sheldon a tight squeeze. Outwardly it looked like she was showing affection, but really she was warning him of her implicit threat. "The one with the glasses is Leonard Hofstadter, the really skinny one is Howard Wolowitz and the quiet Indian one is Rajesh Koothrappali." She waited patiently as the cop wrote down each name. It was necessary for her to spell them out more than once. She actually had to ask Sheldon how to spell Koothrappali because she couldn't remember if it was a double P or a double L. "They're all really responsible and nice men, what have they done?"

"They were acting suspiciously, ma'am. We thought they had weapons, but it turns out they were only carrying water guns. It wouldn't have been an issue if they were more open to explain why they were outside after dark skulking around in the bushes across from this apartment building."

Penny allowed her gaze to grow dark, her Nebraskan accent coming out as she responded. "Oh, I can tell you why they have water guns alright. It's kind of a long story, but it comes down to this: Leonard and I used to date, and now I'm dating his roommate slash best friend. Sheldon here never really seemed inclined towards any kind of romantic relationship, he's a super smart scientist over at CalTech and his work is probably going to move the science community forward by decades, isn't that right Sheldon?"

Sheldon, bless him, paused only for a second before nodding.

"So those men, no, boys," Penny continued, emphasizing boys like it was a dirty insult. "They've been going on all week about how the apocalypse is upon us because Sheldon and I hooked up. How it must mean the world is going to end or something. Leonard hasn't been taking it well at all, which I guess is expected, right? You hook up with your ex-boyfriend's BFF and of course you're going to be in for some trouble. I suspect, though I can't say for sure, that they were waiting for us to come home so they could prank us in some kind of show of loyalty to Leonard and distaste for our relationship." Penny shrugged.

"Well your story certainly explains some of—" here the cop referenced his notepad "—Wolowitz's ramblings about something called Apocalypse Week before Hofstadter told him to shut up. We were going to haul them down to the drunk tank, but the paperwork involved in this frankly isn't worth it. Are the two of you willing to take responsibility for making sure this doesn't happen again?"

Sheldon looked horrified. Penny pinched him, hard, and shot him a meaningful glance. The type of glance that said if you don't keep your yap shut, I will not only kick you in the nads I will also cut off your tongue so you can never speak again.

"Sorry, Sheldon's very literal minded," she said, giving the officer an apologetic smile as he looked at them in suspicion. "When you say things like that, he thinks that there's no way he can possibly be accountable for what not only the three of them do for the rest of their lives, but also what other people do in the park after tonight. He doesn't get subtlety."

"I do not like lying to the police, Penny," Sheldon inserted, almost frantically.

Wow. Either he timed his protestation carefully, or it was just her good fortune that his guilty conscience broke at exactly that moment. Instead of his words throwing suspicion on all of them, her especially, it did the opposite. The officer's expression softened perceptively.

"Ok Dr.—" he trailed off with a question.

"Cooper," Sheldon supplied.

"Ok Dr. Cooper. Would you be willing to ensure your friends leave the park and go home? I don't want to catch them here tonight, and I would prefer not to catch them here any night but I understand your reluctance to commit to that."

"I will accept the parameters of your stipulation for the release of Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Wolowitz and Rajesh Koothroppali." Sheldon said formally, the tendon's in his neck standing out as his shoulders tensed and he clamped his jaw shut.

"I have one final question," the officer said, turning towards Penny. "Something doesn't add up for me. I can see a lovely woman such as yourself dating Dr. Cooper here." He paused, taking in the twitches in Sheldon's eye affiably, mistaking them for a response for flattering Penny and not for the line 'something doesn't add up'. "Sorry Doc, no offense meant. I just don't see how someone so pretty could date that guy." He gestured over the Leonard.

Penny giggled and fluttered her eyelashes.

Before she knew it, the police were leaving and Sheldon was taking his duties in escorting the boys home very seriously, wavering between completely ignoring her and glaring in her direction.

"Penny, you're brilliant!" Raj exclaimed after she recounted the story. "It takes a certain kind of brilliance to both handle Sheldon and lie convincingly to cops at the same time. Most people can't even handle Sheldon, or lie to cops, but you managed both. You are officially my hero! With this mouth and these eyes, I would not do very well in jail."

"Yeah, that's awesome," Howard agreed. "But what about my heroism? There was an attractive female cop right in front of me with handcuffs pressed against her shapely rear and I didn't say a word."

"Yes Howard, acting like a decent human totally makes you a hero too," Penny said sarcastically.

Raj patted Howard's shoulder. "Personally I was very impressed. Maybe Sheldon's training is paying off. We totally kept cool under fire."

Leonard made a strangled sound. "You guys are missing the point. This was Sheldon's fault. If he hadn't forced us outside with those water guns we never would have been almost arrested."

Both Howard and Raj turned to give Leonard their incredulous 'what's your deal' look. Penny had to admit that she was there with them.

"Blasphemy!" Howard yelled, bringing up his fists challengingly. "What's your deal? Why are you so against Apocalypse Week? If I had to choose between it and a threesome with Katee Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer, I would go with the threesome, but I would have to think about it for a minute."

"Dude, you're just upset because that cop didn't think you and Penny belonged together."

Leonard glowered.

"Yeah," Penny said sheepishly. "I probably shouldn't have mentioned that part."

x.x.x.x.x.x

It was getting rather late at night by the time everything had settled down. Leonard and Sheldon had escorted Howard and Raj home, Sheldon taking his obligations very seriously and ensuring that he didn't take his eyes off any of them until they were beyond their front doors. By the time Leonard and Sheldon returned home, Penny had managed to watch through half of the movie they had been referencing all day, not sure if the plot was giving her any actual headway with how to deal with aliens or not, but she was vaguely entertained. Leonard gave her a halfhearted wave and a general head-jerk that said 'you deal with him' as he walked through the living room and directly towards his bedroom.

Penny paused the television and glanced at Sheldon. "You look worried," she observed.

"Alien Day activities should not be ending for another fifteen minutes. From the moment you approached me in the tree, we lost exactly one hour and forty-seven minutes of training. I would be remiss if I wasn't bothered by the possibility of an alien invasion."

"You should be happy," she pointed out. "This one didn't extend beyond your bedtime like last night did."

"Happy?" Sheldon echoed incredulously. "I am distinctly unhappy. Zombies don't observe human circadian rhythms and neither do aliens."

"Sure, but since there aren't any actual aliens you don't have to lose sleep over it."

"But I will lose sleep," he responded plaintively. "If I don't prepare my friends in the twelve hours I was given to ensure they have the necessary alien defence skills, then I have no right experiencing an unworried and restful slumber."

"You've done all you can," she told him, reaching over to pat his leg in comfort and then withdrawing her hand just as quickly before she could make contact. It was just too weird to touch him when he looked like this, like her own motives weren't entirely pure and she wanted to feel his thigh beneath her palm, warm and covered in denim and so very, very un-Sheldony. "Now it's up to them to remember what you've taught them."

They were silent for a few moments, Sheldon probably reflecting on the chances of any of them remembering anything he taught them. Penny knew the chances were slim. She barely remembered what she had or lunch yet alone a lecture she could barely understand.

"You know," Penny said, shuffling closer Sheldon on the couch. Her eyes scanned the hallway to the bedrooms, making sure Leonard wasn't around to hear her concerns. She loved him, really, but she didn't need the kind of promises and assurances he would make when he heard this topic of conversation. She was a little inside Sheldon's personal space, but he didn't seem to notice and so she didn't pretend to care. "I've been thinking about your safety room. I really think you should grab Alicia from 5A or those cute college girls from 2C and bring them into the shelter."

"Why?" he asked, thigh brushing against hers as he swivelled slightly, his eyes spanning the living room. "Do they have any aptitude in survival skills not accounted for by the five of us? Can 5A find food in a barren wasteland? Can 2C use a crossbow, hotwire a vehicle, or draw blood to test for traces of alien biology?"

"I don't know, and I don't care. I just mean that I would like another girl to be there at the end of the world."

Sheldon looked perplexed, like she had just told him that light was actually caused by tiny microscopic fairies. "Is this the same as how females insist on going to the bathroom in packs?"

"Noooo," Penny said responded, drawing out the word as she looked at him incredulously. "I'm not asking for companionship, I mean I barely even like Alicia and 2C are all giggly and annoying when I see them. I'm pretty sure they're laughing at my lack of success as an actress behind my back, but think about it Sheldon. I don't want to be the only girl around in an end of the world scenario, especially when it comes down to repopulating the human race."

Sheldon looked at her sharply, his eyebrows rising as he completely took his attention away from the area he had been watching. "I hadn't considered that."

"I know," she said, patting his leg awkwardly without looking at him. "I only bring it up because I know it wasn't something you thought about, but I know Howard would have some very definitive opinions on what would happen in that scenario. So maybe you could just pretend you're considering 5A or 2C for that exact purpose. I'm just waiting for Howard to come up and say something truly disgusting, like how I should save him a turn and our children will be both smart and beautiful."

"That's preposterous," Sheldon blustered. "Howard would hardly be the best choice. He is neither the smartest, nor is he the one who could best ensure the survival of the human race. He's of inferior stock and doesn't even have one PhD."

"The point of the matter is if I'm the only girl I probably won't have much of a choice. Didn't you explain this to me once, about how early societies used to pass around the girl so the children would have varying genes or something." Penny shivered in revulsion. "I think I'd rather let the human race die."

"You forget that we're an enlightened society," Sheldon pointed out.

"I think you're over estimating your friends. Besides, at the end of the world—" he was the one who was the smartest and could best ensure the survival of the human race. AND had two PhDs. Oh wow, she hadn't picked up that before now. "You think... you?" She turned to stare at him, her mouth gaping opened unattractively. When he didn't respond, she realised he didn't understand the question. "Did you just hint that you're the best choice?"

"No. That wasn't my intent, but isn't completely without merit," he told her, not turning around to look at her. He didn't even seem to understand the gravity of what he was proposing. "I am already one of the smartest men in the world. If a major catastrophic event occurred and we survived, there is a possibility I would be the smartest man in the world. My family doesn't have any history of heart disease, diabetes, or any number of genetic landmines currently facing couples wishing to procreate. I'm a catch."

Penny was pretty sure she was still gaping, but she couldn't tell for the blood rushing in her ears. Pointed out like that, he was already a catch and not just in comparison to the other guys in the apartment. He was smart. He could use a gun. He was tall and was actually kind of attractive when he wasn't weirdly twitching or babbling psychotically. Plus, his sister was beautiful so they wouldn't be relying only on her genes to determine attractiveness.

Oh god, was she really thinking about Sheldon as potential mate material. She definitely was, and it didn't seem at all strange. It didn't seem like something she should wait until the end of the world to act on either.

She kind of wanted to date Sheldon Cooper, Penny realized with shock.

"A venn diagram of all the females in our social circle cross-referenced with acquaintances who have valuable skills yields Doctor Stephanie as the best option," Sheldon considered, continuing on as though Penny didn't just get slapped over the head by the realization that she found him kind of dateable. She hadn't even realized she found him cute. Ok, she knew she found him cute, but it was easier to lie to herself than admit it. "There is, of course, Leslie Winkle but frankly I would rather get eaten by aliens."

Penny shivered. "I suggest we orchestrate it so she's the one who is eaten by aliens. I couldn't survive a future where I'm called Survivor Barbie for the rest of my life." Her brain filter finally caught up with what he had been saying. "There's a problem with the whole Doctor Steph thing."

"I agree," Sheldon mused. "Doctors are usually the first to die. They rush into a situation to attempt to save a life and bam! the second wave of the attack hits and they're dead. Also, Doctor Stephanie lives on the other side of town I have not yet plotted the journey. She may need to move to a closer location."

"Sheldon sweetie," Penny said with fondness, trying not to laugh. "The problem isn't where she lives or the dangers of her job, it's that she and Leonard broke up and aren't on the most amicable terms. She probably won't want to be part of a future where Leonard exists." Penny refrained from pointing out that Stephanie would probably feel the same way towards Sheldon that Sheldon felt towards Leslie Winkle: she would rather die than be a part of that kind of future.

"Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Penny," Sheldon said as though he had given her something to think about and not the other way around.

Chapter Text

She was watching Sheldon closely, sitting in his spot like she had been every day this week as he set himself up at the front of the makeshift class. She couldn't possibly want to date Sheldon, she had thought with resolve once waking up. It had just been a weird trick of the lighting and all the ideas put in her head by the adrenaline of running around in the park at night, tricking the police, and pretending they were dating. It wasn't anything more than that.

The issue was, that now that the concept had been planted in her head, it was festering.

Penny was the type to poke and pick at things like that.

Unfortunately, Sheldon gave her a lot of time to do just that.

It turned out that Sheldon wasn't always made of awesome this week. He was, occasionally, made of boring professor lectures as well. If Penny had to hear more about food contamination at a national level, or extreme drought, she was going to smack him. He had a plan for everything, and yet none of them seemed to be stretched too thin for resources or thought.

Penny wondered if while other boys fantasized about sex starting at the age of 12, Sheldon invested all the time before he fell asleep on figuring out ways to survive certain death. Around 15 years worth of planning sure did explain the massive three ring binder he had as his "time travelling safety contingency" that she thought was way more information than he needed and he had responded in a horrified tone "but Penny, this only accounts up to the Middle Palaeolithic period. Not a time I wish to visit, by any means, but one only has to observe an episode of Doctor Who to understand that even a time traveller's best intentions does not mean he will not find himself astray by a millennia or so."

Penny didn't bother pointing out that if he went back in time like that he'd probably wind up wiping out the earth's population with some super flu circa modern day.

And also, he'd probably be eaten by a wild mountain lion. Or a dodo bird.

And he'd probably never survive a day without a shower, but that could be said for him travelling back to any time before bathing was popular, which was like the last 70 years or whatever.

Actually, she would really love to see Sheldon trying to survive out of his time. She'd pay good money to be there, with popcorn.

Half way through his lecture on the world's grain monopoly and what would happen if some kind of super wheat virus took out all the North American wheat, Penny stopped listening and started to watch him. He wasn't wearing the jeans or the leather jacket, but she realized her interest hadn't really diminished in the face of his blue superman shirt and beige pants. He still made her stomach feel kind of light and airy and she couldn't really figure it out. This was Sheldon as he always was, why was it suddenly different?

What was up with that?

The problem, she knew, wasn't with him. It was with her, and she didn't like it one bit. It would pretty much be the end of the world if she had a crush on Sheldon, the man who didn't even have the word crush in his vocabulary unless referring to crushing the spirits of undergrads and whatever physics-y things had to do with the third law of thermo-crushing-objects.

Unfortunately, Sheldon's passion for food shortages gave Penny a lot of time to figure out whether she liked him or not. Not that she cared, only the more she tried to tell herself she didn't, the more she thought about it, and she more or less knew she was too far gone. Every fifteen year old girl knew that the more you tried not to like someone the more you ended up liking them.

"Penny, do you have anything to contribute?"

"What?" she asked, jumping with a visible start as she realized her gaze had been focused on watching the material across his shoulders stretch as he moved. "Oh, no, nothing."

"No solutions to the food shortage problem I just presented you?"

"Nope," she responded, stressing the p.

"That's interesting. You seemed deep in thought. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt that your woolgathering was related to the topic at hand rather than shoes, procreation or other unimportant sundries."

Penny blushed, hand to God actually blushed when he said procreation.

Leonard groaned.

"Penny wasn't listening. Allow me to begin again," Sheldon said, pressing the remote to make his powerpoint presentation go back about seven slides.

"Wait, wait!" Penny said desperately. "You're right, I was thinking of a solution, but then I realized it wasn't very good and I didn't want to share it." Fib, her mind screamed. Lie for all you're worth. Put your improv skills to use. "I was thinking if there was a grain shortage, we'd all just move out to my parent's farm in Omaha. Howard could jury-rig the old barn into being a hothouse and we could grow other vegetables."

"What if there was no electricity?"

"You guys are geniuses," Penny responded. "You can figure it out."

"I'm asking you," Sheldon said pointedly. "This is your scenario."

"Fine!" she snapped, ignoring the way the other three boys were watching this verbal tennis match with wide eyes. "We've got a crank generator."

"That wouldn't yield enough energy to power a two room trailer, let alone a hot-house."

Yeah, she'd learned some stuff about Sheldon from Missy's visits. That thing about the two room trailer? He would know. Not that Penny was mean enough to point it out in a room full of people, even if they were his friends. "Well, there are a ton of old bikes around that could be made into a power source."

"Again, that wouldn't yield nearly as much output as would be needed."

"We have cows!" Penny exclaimed, having a eureka moment. They all looked at her blankly.

"Cows can't ride bikes," Howard explained in confusion.

Penny shot him a quelling glare. "No, but they poop. Didn't I hear somewhere that manure can be made into energy?"

"Well, uh, sure Penny, but..." Howard started.

"Biomass. Interesting," Sheldon mused, interrupting. "I certainly hadn't expected you to make the jump there. The electrical energy available in one cow's daily manure contribution can produce 3.0 kilowatt hour of 'cow power.' How many cows are on your farm?"

"About fifteen," she explained.

"Ignoring the obvious catch that if cows don't eat, they don't secrete excrement, I do believe you have submitted a viable option. Maybe not the most ideal in those circumstances, but I will make a note of it as plan D. I'm sure Howard can make it work."

"Are you kidding? You think I can just MacGyver a digester out of old feeding troughs and the back of a pick-up truck? That doesn't even take into account climate issues, heating, reliability, corrosion... and who is going to handle the poop! I don't touch poop!"

"I'm sure Penny would be happy to do it," Leonard offered.

"Why me? I was the one who came up with the idea. I think Raj and Leonard should do it, since they aren't contributing anything."

"Frankly, dude, I'd rather starve," Raj said bluntly.

Shortly thereafter Penny had to leave for a double shift at the Cheesecake Factory. Sheldon assured her that they were just going to learn basic farming techniques in various conditions, skills he assumed she already knew (she did), and later they would be doing death sprints until someone vomited.

"And then tonight?" she asked. "I won't be back until 11 and I don't want to miss anything awesome." At the narrowing of eyes she received at that, Penny amended: "I don't want to miss anything important."

"You've been scheduled for this double shift since last week," he responded as though that explained everything.

"Aaaand?" Penny prompted.

"We'll be studying skills already in your repertoire."

"Yes, aaaand?" she asked again, not nearly as dense as she seemed. She just wanted to hear him say it.

"I took your work schedule and competencies into account when determining the best sequence of events this week. This isn't new information."

"No sweetie, it's not. Don't let anyone put me down for poop-scoop duty while I'm gone, ok?"

"I make no guarantees."

x.x.x.x.x.

Her shift was boring, more boring than it usually was. Typically, Penny put her acting skills to use and pretended she liked doling out cheesecake, being friendly with patrons, and working for lousy wages, but today all she could think about was missing out on something completely ridiculously awesome Sheldon (and the boys) did or said. What if Howard designed some sort of water purification system out of things in the back room and kitchen and got praised again? What if Leonard applied some physics and realized how easy it was to hit a target? What if Raj spent the day talking to women without having taken his birth control pill and didn't even notice?

What if Sheldon took out his leather jacket again?

By the time she got home, she had worked herself into such a state of worry that she practically burst into their apartment in a pique of angst, only to find Leonard in front of the tv with a potted plant in his lap.

"Crazy's sleeping," he said with a yawn. "He had us planting tomatoes. I'm supposed to be nurturing it," he pointed to the plant in his lap. "I don't know how to nurture a plant. Should I be keeping it warm?"

"You're doing fine, Leonard. Keep the planter with you tonight and it will probably grow into a fine tomato vine," she managed to inform him with a straight face as she left, grateful she hadn't missed much and uncertain as to whether Sheldon did it on purpose or if it was just a boring evening.

x.x.x.x.

The idea of how to separate herself from the competition in Sheldon's mind was eating at Penny in every spare moment, which, granted, with Sheldon's schedule meant right before going to sleep. There was a nagging competitive streak in her that wanted to make sure he knew she was far better than Howard, Raj and Leonard. Penny wanted Sheldon to be aware that if circumstances ever came down to an apocalypse, that she was his go-to girl.

She wanted him to recognise her as an authority on the subject of survival.

She wanted him to respect her.

The only way she could think to do that was to teach him a skill he didn't know anything about.

The idea kept her up at night. At first, it was simply wondering what skills she had that could be applied to an apocalypse that the great Sheldon Cooper wouldn't have already taken into account. Then, she realized how strange it was that she wanted – nay, needed – to earn his respect. Penny had certainly never cared about how Sheldon saw her. She knew he thought she was an idiot, and geez, with his intelligence she didn't really take it personally. Sheldon Cooper thought everyone was an idiot except for Sheldon Cooper.

Possibly, that made him the idiot. Either that, or he really was the smartest man in the world, and wasn't that a terrifying thought?

Regardless, she kind of blamed the jeans he wore on Zombie Day. They were evil jeans, putting thoughts into her head that had no right being there. Giving her needs.

It would probably be okay, she told herself. Apocalypse Week would end, things would go back to normal, and she'd stop trying to think of ways to intellectually throw herself at Sheldon Lee Cooper, a man it was impossible to throw oneself at intellectually (physically or metaphorically). It wasn't about Sheldon, really. It couldn't be. She just really needed to win.

"Sheldon," Penny hissed, poking his prone form with her finger. Normal people relaxed when they slept. Sheldon was the only person she knew who looked even more rigid while dreaming.

"Danger! Danger!" He yelled, bolting up in bed like a robot suddenly coming to life, back entirely rigid and eyes going from shut to wide opened all at once. His head swivelled to the right, methodically checking for what disturbed his sleep, and he saw her. "Penny? Is the world ending?"

"Of course not sweetie."

"Then what are you doing in my bedroom? People can't be in my bedroom."

Penny almost rolled her eyes, but it would have been with fondness. "I have a side-lesson for you, and you alone. To help you win the fight against the apocalypse."

"One doesn't fight against the apocalypse," he corrected her. "One simply prepares for it."

This time she did roll her eyes, without the fondness. "I mean, once it hits, I have a skill to teach you to help."

He narrowed his eyes at her. "At 3:30 in the morning?"

"Yes," she answered in a hushed voice. "You don't want to be caught, do you?"

"Caught at what? By whom?"

"Come on Sheldon," Penny cajoled. "Every day you withhold the theme until we're all gathered around and ready to go. Trust me a little and give me the same courtesy I give you. It'll be worth your while, I promise, and if not I'll make it up to you."

"You'll owe me one?" He asked.

"Yes, within reason. We'll negotiate it later. Now, we've got to go before Leonard wakes up and notices I'm in here."

Surprisingly, he listened to her. Penny really had expected him to insist on negotiating now, before he went anywhere with her. She also kind of figured he'd have made a fuss and kicked her out of his bedroom by now. Instead, he sighed, long and aggravated, and threw back his comforter before standing.

Today's pyjamas were light blue/navy blue plaid. Penny had always thought flannel pyjamas looked ridiculous on men between the ages of 12-50, but they weren't half bad on Sheldon. He did always look best while wearing all one color – or in this case, all one pattern – where there weren't any perceivable horizontal lines to cut his torso off. It made him look tall and weirdly competent.

"Here, it might be cold," she told him, handing him the leather jacket hanging on the back of his bedroom door, conveniently placed where he could easily grab it.

He shot her a glare, but took it without argument.

Whoa. Should she be checking his closet for the real Sheldon in a pod?

Should she be checking hers for making that reference?

He trailed her out of the apartment as she tried to figure him out, but all that served was to give her a headache.

Sheldon paused somewhere between the second and third floor, directly beneath one of the wall sconces. While his body stopped, his mouth seemed to pick up in response to the last thing she had said to him while he was still in bed. "How later?" he asked. "I don't take pleasure in the ambiguity of the term 'later' as a timeframe as it could extend on into infinity. Unless you can give me a context, I'd like to negotiate terms now."

"Here? On the stairwell? Where we could wake up our neighbours?"

"Yes." He nodded emphatically. "Or else you will likely try to renege on your word."

"Fine!" Penny huffed, surprised he had lasted this long. "Three visits to the grocery store at times of your choosing, no need to give me any notice or warning but it can't interfere with my work schedule. I would rather it didn't interfere with my sleep schedule, but I will look the other way if ONE is before eleven, but no earlier than... say... nine?" At his look, lips turning back as if he had a quibble and eyes squinting, she amended herself. "Ok, eight-thirty, but only once, ok?"

"No deal. You will provide me with five drives anywhere, not earmarked for the grocery store, pay your share of the internet bill, and most importantly you will observe the sanctity of my bedroom in the future."

"What if the building is on fire and you're passed out from the smoke?"

"You may enter if the building is on fire and I am suffering from smoke inhalation," Sheldon amended with a nod.

"How about if I hear a crash and when I knock on your door you don't answer and I think you might have fallen and hit your head."

"If you have reason to believe my safety is in question, you may also enter the room."

"How about the next time you're sick? Don't you want me to VapoRub your chest?" Penny teased, grinning up at him.

Sheldon rubbed his hand over his chin, almost bashfully as he glanced down at her, his eyes quickly flitting away.

Up to that point Penny hadn't been directly looking at him with his rumpled bed-head hair and eyes that were still partially hooded with sleep, but at the sound of rasping, her eyes suddenly couldn't look away. Sheldon had scruff. Sheldon's face was growing hair. Sheldon's face was growing hair that was definitely scruffy.

Oh god, why had she forced him to bundle himself in his leather jacket? His blue pyjama bottoms were sticking out from under the leather, but from the waist up he was all leather and scruff and if Penny had a weakness for one thing it was men wearing leather jackets who weren't clean shaven but also weren't sporting full beards.

Sheldon wasn't supposed to be one of them. Penny wasn't sure why, but up to this moment she thought hair wouldn't dare grow on Sheldon Cooper's face.

Like seriously, why was he appearing all manly at the exact same moment she happened to be looking?

Why was she looking? What was wrong with her?

"If I am sick or if you have reason to believe my physical well-being has been compromised, you may enter my bedroom. I expect you to exercise appropriate discretion. As any person trained in CPR knows, one must first establish that the victim is unresponsive. Likewise, you must first establish beyond a reasonable doubt that my de facto permission has been granted in the event I cannot answer for myself."

"Geez Sheldon, I'm not going to sneak attack you while you're changing," Penny snarked back. She wouldn't. Probably. Oh Hell.

He looked startled. "You better not!"

"I won't! Ok, I'll agree to the five drives anywhere, so long as they aren't outside Pasadena limits, and your rules of the bedroom. You will allow me to keep using your internet connection if you want Queen Penelope to support Sheldor in their next quest against those jerks from Michigan. Either that or I'll start stealing from the unsecure wireless signals in the building, and you know how unstable that is. Queen P could keep going AFK at inopportune times."

Sheldon gritted his teeth. "Fine. You may continue to freeload our internet connection. In return, I want a drive to the new comic book-slash-movie prop store that opened in West Hollywood."

Oh geez. That could mean hours in the car with him. She didn't like him that much. "I don't know," she hedged.

"It's approximately ten minutes from Rodeo Drive. You can window-shop while I eat lunch."

Penny stared at him. What was this? Sheldon making concessions for other people's likes and wants. Maybe she should wake him up in the middle of the night more often. He seemed to acquiesce more readily under the haze of sleepy-time. "You pay for gas. I'll treat you to lunch and you will allow me to window shop for an hour. We leave here at ten and we can be back by two."

Sheldon contemplated the negotiations, his lips pursed in thought. He rubbed his chin again and Penny almost jumped out of her skin when she realized she was grinning at him with a goofy expression on her face. "Acceptable."

"Shake on it?" Penny asked, offering her hand. "Then it will be one of those verbal contracts."

"I believe you mean oral contract," Sheldon corrected her, tentatively touching his fingers to hers. She thought he was going to give her one of those weak finger hand-shakes, but after a moment of consideration his hand encompassed her smaller one and he gave it a perfunctory shake.

Penny reminded herself that he wouldn't understand why she thought the term 'oral contract' was funny and managed not to giggle. Her mind was running through their conversation, almost in confusion as he dropped her hand quickly, not willing to touch her for any longer than necessary. She had successfully negotiated with Sheldon and came out on top. The last time that had probably happened was when he was five and still listened to his mother.

"Not that it will matter," she remembered on time, before images of haute couture could take over her brain. "Because you're gonna enjoy what I have planned."

"Doubtful," Sheldon responded as they continued down the stairs. He dutifully followed her to her car, where she opened the trunk and pulled out a thin piece of metal with a hook on the end.

Penny turned to find Sheldon regarding her with confusion. "This is a Slim Jim," she told him, running her hand along the metal and fingering the hook on the end. "It's used to lock pick car doors and not to be confused with the dried meat snack."

Sheldon simply stared at her, watching as she rounded Leonard's car.

Penny shrugged. "You said you wished someone in the group knew how to hotwire a car. I'm trying to teach you how in case something happens to me."

"I expressed interest in finding someone with the aptitude for hotwiring a car."

"Pffft. Anyone can find that stuff out from Wikipedia and Youtube videos these days." She ignored his look of abject horror with a grin. "Now, older cars are easier targets for theft. Newer models have pesky safety features that prevent lock picking and hotwiring. In this case, electronics aren't your friend. In the event of an apocalypse, you probably won't have time to hack the car computer system or whatever, if it can even be done, and so the oldschool method will probably be most effective."

"Penny," Sheldon expressed, his voice high and stressed. "This is illegal."

"Yeah, so?" she asked. "Leonard won't press charges if we're found."

"Then why not use your car?"

"Are you kidding me? This takes experience and finesse. As if I'm letting you break my car if you get it wrong."

Sheldon shot her an indignant look. "I won't get it wrong if taught properly. I don't think second-hand Youtube recounts will do the trick."

"Just watch!" Oh man, messing with him was still as fun as it was before he woke up all scruffy and cute. Penny ignored him and shimmied the metal rod between the window and the frame of the door, easing it beneath the rubber barrier. With confidence, she eased it lower, biting her lip as she concentrated on finding the internal lock mechanism. She felt the hook catch and edged it forward.

The lock clicked audibly. Penny removed the device and handed it to him, opening the car door. "That was the easy part," she told him, kneeling to look at the wiring under the dashboard of Leonard's car. "Hotwiring really depends on the model of the car. I bet you know the theory behind it, right? How you connect the wires that tell the engine the car is "on" and then touch the connection with the wire for the starter. Really old cars can be hotwired from the engine bay, but I think Leonard's should be done from here." She took a small flashlight out from the pocket of her hoodie and flashed it beneath the steering column. "Now I'm not going to start Leonard's car, but I'll figure out which wires should be connected where and then test you to see if you get it."

"I'll need more information than that," Sheldon pointed out, standing at her legs sticking out of the car as she was bent over backwards to see. She could tell he was watching her curiously.

"Completing circuits is a physics thing, right? You should be real good at it."

"Incongruous."

Penny snickered. No more poking Sheldon. He was probably liable to snap at any moment. "Ok. You're looking for two wires that are usually the same and usually red in color. One is the power supply for the ignition switch and the other is the connection to all the components that turn on when the car is started. In reality you would strip off about an inch of the protective layer and twist them together. Tonight I just want you to find them. Then you locate the ignition wire and touch it to the connected red wires. Just touch it, you know? Until the car starts. Again, you're just finding it tonight. That's difficult enough for now."

"It's hardly rocket science," he responded waspishly. "I never got that expression. It's not like rocket science – or aerospace engineering as the field is actually called – is particularly difficult. Even Howard could do it."

"Doesn't Howard do it?" Penny asked, bowing her back even more in an attempt to get a good look at Leonard's wiring.

"He likes to think he does, but he's just a glorified plumber and carpenter."

"Oh burn, Howard. Oh burn." Penny said as she sat up, using the door frame for leverage. "Ok Sheldon, I have one last thing to teach you. Sit here," she directed, reaching over to unlock the passenger side.

He slid into the car and bucked the seatbelt, settling his hands across the woven cloth across his chest.

Penny reached over and unsnapped the clasp. He jumped at the sound of the click. "We're not going anywhere," she assured him. "Now look at my finger," she told him, pressing it two-thirds the way up the keyhole in the ignition starter. "This is probably the best way to hotwire a car so long as you have the right tools. Other ways might leave the steering wheel locked and then you'd be grounded with a running engine but no steering." She paused to observe him.

"Well?" Sheldon asked curiously, paying rapt attention.

"This is where the lock pins are. You see on TV how they just jam the screwdriver in the keyhole and twist, but you'd have to be like the hulk or superman to actually break the lock pins and turn the engine over. What you need is a cordless drill and a small drill bit. You drill right here, two-thirds the way up the slot, and it will break the lock pins. Make sure to break them all, it might take a few drills, and then the screwdriver, or like a soda can tab, or even a really strong fingernail will just turn the car on AND off." Penny's eyes cast over to Sheldon and he was sitting with his lips thinned and an unpleasant expression on his face. "What is it? What's wrong?"

"I'm not as prepared for the apocalypse as I thought I was. I've spent years planning for every contingency and I don't have a cordless drill in my emergency pack. I didn't anticipate this."

Penny laughed. "Sheldon, isn't Apocalypse Week for learning new skills so we'll be ready? Why aren't you including yourself in that? Are you double-standarding us on this?"

"Hardly," he sniffed.

That seemed to be all he had to say on the matter.

"Ok, Sheldon, out," Penny pointed at the door as she left the passenger side. "Are you ready to do this?" she asked over the hood of the car, giving him a wide grin. "Are you ready to learn something no one else can teach you?"

"It is unlikely you are the only one in the world with these particular skills. The penitentiary, for instance, likely has a concentrated amount of lock pickers and car jackers."

"Yeah, well they're not very good at it, are they?" Penny snapped back. "How about I rephrase. I'm probably the only person you know who 1. Knows how to do this, and 2. Is willing to teach you without 3. Monetary compensation, travelling from Texas, or actually stealing Leonard's car."

"That is a little more likely," he conceded, following her lead as she closed the door to Leonard's car.

Penny started to realize why this was a terrible idea when Sheldon deftly held the Slim Jim in his fingers, easing it beneath the window frame with his head bowed in concentration, teeth biting into his bottom lip. He looked particularly competent at it, despite only just learning what to do less than five minutes ago, and the jacket (and scruff) was really working against her now, because he appeared to be the kind of man who belonged in a world of picking locks and finessing things open with his long, capable fingers.

Including her legs, she realized, breath catching in her throat.

Hello crush she was denying existed at all that was evolving into some kind of unresolved sexual tension that Penny really didn't want to think about.

"Zombies have now broken into the garage," she told him. "You have sixty seconds."

With a sad clunking sound, Sheldon lost his grip on Leonard's lock mechanism and it fell out of sync with the rest of the lock. Internally Penny winced. That was going to be a bitch for Leonard to get fixed and exactly why she wasn't letting a novice near her car, no matter how smart they were. Sheldon stared at the door as though it personally betrayed him, the expression turning into dismay as he faced her.

Penny almost laughed at his sincerity. "You just broke the lock and the door is now impossible to open. What do you do now? Forty-five seconds. The zombies are coming down the entrance ramp. You're lucky they're the slow moving kind. Forty-seconds. What are your options, Sheldon? Thirty-five. What can you do in thirty seconds?"

She really didn't see it coming. As she harangued him, he picked up a broken chunk of cement off of one of the parking curbs and hefted it. She gave him an encouraging nod, handing over the keys to Leonard's car as a reward, but he must not have seen them, for the next thing she knew his arm was propelling forward and the rock was flying through the air.

Penny shrieked in surprise as glass shattered and a car alarm went off. In such a tight space, more started to respond and the small lot was filled with the sound of various alarms ringing their presence and illegal activities.

"WHAT THE HELL?" Penny meant to scream but it came out sounding more like a frantic whisper. Sheldon was giving her his wide-eyed Bambi look, like hunters just killed his mother, or like a freight truck was speeding down the highway towards him, and Penny realized he wasn't going to answer her.

She grabbed Sheldon's arm and ran. They burst through the front doors of the apartment complex just as grumbling voices and stumbling feet could be heard on the stairs, and Penny had to practically shove Sheldon into the laundry room, worried his self-preservation instincts wouldn't kick in and he'd try to greet his neighbours with his unable-to-lie-nervous-tick out in full force. She needn't have worried, because Sheldon was still running – nay, sprinting – around the corner of the lobby, practically dragging her along.

What she did have to do was bodily force him into a corner and practically cover him with her body to keep him hidden in case someone thought to check the laundry room, what with all the panting the two of them were doing and the old bottle of detergent she may or may not have brushed with her sleeve and knocked over.

Oh geez, oh geez, they were going to go to jail for this. No, no they wouldn't. No one had to know, so long as Sheldon kept his mouth shut.

She must have said at least part of that outloud, or Sheldon could read minds now, because he answered with: "the parking lot has a camera, Penny," in a quiet, resigned voice.

"It's like the elevator and doesn't work," she promised him. "Never has."

"A—" he tried to speak, but Penny could hear more voices so she cut him off by clamping her hand over her mouth. By the time they were gone, she had finished her panicking and was devolving into outright righteous anger.

"What the hell was that?" she asked, gesturing vaguely in the direction of the parking lot.

"I was attempting to expedite the situation."

"By breaking the window?" she responded in a voice that was louder than strictly necessary under the current situation.

It was Sheldon's turn to clamp his hand over her mouth, which devolved her thoughts into even baser territory when she realized he was willingly touching her, and she was still pressed against him, her breast brushing against one of the buttons of his pajamas and the leather jacket rubbing against her wrists. Her hands were on his shoulders, broad for his slight frame and oh jesus, she was definitely done for now because even in the dim light he was giving her just as much of his focus as he had Leonard's lock.

Penny had a list of 4 really good reasons why she shouldn't kiss Sheldon Cooper and she couldn't remember a single one of them at the moment.

Once his hand was off her mouth, she licked her lips and leaned forward.

"Any lapse in judgement is indicative of your skills as an instructor," Sheldon was saying. "They are, in a word, lousy."

"There's a lot I'd like to show you," she told him, an almost indecently purring quality to her tone. One of her legs slipped between his, the warmth of his thigh blazing through her jeans. She couldn't breathe, but her chest was practically heaving as her focus narrowed on his mouth, moving slowly forward with it in her sight.

"A better instructor wouldn't have egged me on," he said almost sullenly.

Penny blinked, coming back to herself with a start. Her eyes frantically took in his face, noting his guileless expression told her that he hadn't even noticed she was edging in to kiss him, and she wasn't sure if she was thankful or even more worried about her future mental state that Sheldon completely missed social cues a blind man could have picked up from 100 yards away.

"Sheldon!" Penny exclaimed impatiently, and then swiped a hand through her hair anxiously, looking from side to side to make sure they were still alone. As casually as she could, she stepped away from him, so intent on undoing all the harm she almost did, she completely missed the fact he hadn't removed her from his person himself. "Oh geez, oh, ok... ok... for future reference, break the back window so you don't have to sit in glass."

He nodded. "That is practical advice."

Penny wished she listened to practical advice. Then she wouldn't be left trailing behind Sheldon as he climbed back to their apartment worried that in another few days she'd be trailing behind Sheldon like one of his grad school groupies, jumping at the chance just to be near him and having him oblivious to the entire thing.

"What was it you wanted to show me?" he asked upon reaching the hallway outside their doors.

She wasn't even going there. "Nothing, Sheldon. Goodnight."

Chapter Text

Penny arrived early the next morning, despite her late night, worried that Sheldon might need some coaching in order to face Leonard. She needn't have worried, since Sheldon had been finding ways around not out-right keeping a secret from Leonard for some time now.

She was a little concerned to find Howard and Raj sitting on the couch, Krispy Kreme coffee and doughnuts in hand, like the weirdly eager little beavers they were. Penny had to check the time twice to make sure she wasn't reading it wrong in exhaustion. She wasn't. They were just strange.

They were snarfing down pastries all lined up on the couch, Penny allowing Sheldon his seat for once. Even Sheldon was eating his doughnut with a lot less finesse than usual, and Penny wondered if nocturnal activities gave him an appetite.

That wasn't a thought she was touching with a ten-foot pole today.

Leonard, last to arrive, stumbled in bleary eyed, a patchy beard having grown overnight, and drawn by the scent of coffee. He grabbed the last remaining biodegradable cup and gulped down the contents despite the scalding nature and slightly burnt taste. Then, with almost wild eyes and a total disregard for Sheldon's presence, he wiped his mouth on the back of his hoodie sleeve. "Someone tried to break into my car last night," Leonard informed the four of them, voice tight and high with shock, clutching his potted plant to his chest like a safety net. "Broke a lock and a window."

"Maybe if you had an adequate deterrent system, thieves wouldn't see your car as a viable option," Sheldon answered, back turned as he threw out the breakfast containers. He seemed to be taking out pots. Yes. That was a frying pan she saw. Sheldon was making breakfast.

Deflection number 1, Penny counted.

"Isn't your car a deterrent system all of its own? I don't know why anyone would want to steal your car," Raj pointed out. "It doesn't even have a pimpin' sound system."

"The engine is worthless," Howard contributed.

"It would suck as a get-away vehicle," Penny agreed. "Everyone knows that make and model stalls if you try to accelerate too quickly. I doubt even the parts are very sellable on the black market. Not a whole lot of people would pay money for parts they could buy at a scrapyard."

Howard offered her a high five over Raj, which she took with glee without even thinking of Howard cooties. It was a moment of personal growth.

"What I don't understand is why they didn't just take it," Leonard lamented. "After all the work they did to get into it, they just left it there. It will cost more to repair than the car is worth."

"Possibly they were put off by the malodorous scent of wet dog and sour milk emanating from the back seat from the previous owner."

Deflection number 2.

"It's not that bad," Leonard said in defence. "It's only noticeable after the car has been baking in the sun for hours, and even then only by you."

"Yeah, you only think that because you never have to sit back there," Raj answered. "That time I made you stop to throw up wasn't because I was drunk."

"It was because you were drunk," Howard pointed out.

"Ok, true, but also because the sour dog milk smell made me nauseated. You try keeping down five grasshoppers while going down Euclid while smelling something that would make vomit smell like a preferable choice."

"It still wouldn't stop someone from stealing it!" Leonard snapped.

"Then what would you suggest?" Sheldon asked. "If you have a better solution, we're waiting to hear it."

Deflection number 3.

Leonard groaned and put his head in his hands. "I don't know. I guess they could have been put off by the odour. It makes as much sense as anything."

"Does it?" Sheldon asked, his hawk-like eyes narrowing in on Leonard from where he was standing at the counter scrambling eggs. "Does it make as much sense as a meteor falling to earth and crashing through your car window?"

"Parking garage roof," Raj pointed out mournfully after a moment of excited speculation. "There'd be a hole."

Sheldon nodded his 'I grant you that, you followed my reasoning' nod. "Possibly someone believed, the North Koreans, our own government, maybe even Howard, that you had something of worth in the back seat and they were after it."

"If Leonard had anything of worth in his car, I would have just accidentally left my jacket in there and asked to borrow his keys," Howard pointed out.

"Really? And have the blame put on you immediately?" Raj asked. "Not smooth."

"I just meant there would have been easier ways for me to do it than smashing in a window," Howard retorted.

"North Koreans, then," Sheldon amended. "Or, to continue this hypothetical fallacy, Penny or I decided that a bit of vandalism was in order and took her bat to it."

Should she count that as Deflection number 4, or 4, 5, and 6? Did the truth, presented as a hyperbole, even count as deflection?

"Why?" Leonard asked, face scrunched up in confusion.

"I don't know Leonard, why do vandals do anything? If none of those suggestions seem plausible, then the simplest solution is likely the correct one."

"Don't quote Occam's Razor to me, Sheldon!"

"And what's that?" Penny asked, wondering if she should be taking notes of this conversation for later.

"Obviously, whoever was breaking into your car got interrupted and fled before they could be caught," Sheldon suggested smugly, turning to drop his eggs into the frying pan. The scent of frying bacon was permeating the room, and Penny found her stomach growl despite the doughnut she had snarfed down a few minutes ago.

"I guess so," Leonard finally admitted. "Yeah, you're right. That must have been what happened."

And that was pretty much how Sheldon manoeuvred Leonard into believing what he wanted him to believe, all the while telling the truth and yet coming out the other side without a single person suspecting guilt. It was really impressive, and really frightening to wonder how often this happened. Fact: Sheldon couldn't keep a secret. Fact: Sheldon could lie.

Fact: Sheldon was scary-brilliant and knew how to use the perceptions people had of him to his advantage.

It was while he was eating, all tidy and fastidiously taking controlled bites of his breakfast as everyone looked on in various degrees of envy, that Penny realized she was far more entranced by his mouth than she ever had a right to be.

It was unnerving to be staring at Sheldon and licking her lips, not because of the bacon but for other reasons entirely.

Unnerving, and terrifying.

She sat, utterly still in her seat as he finished breakfast and left to complete his morning decontamination, ignoring the conversation going on around her. Most of it involved the scent of bacon and Sheldon's bastardly manners of eating it in front of them. Then it turned into speculation about what today's theme would be, but Penny was more concerned with why she was so concerned with Sheldon's mouth.

By the time he returned, she was mostly convinced she'd been coveting the bacon. Leonard had probably been giving Sheldon the same expression. That was all it could be, or else she was screwed.

Sheldon stood in front of his whiteboard and Penny automatically moved over into his spot as he began to talk.

Unfortunately, Sheldon's passion for weather patterns gave Penny a lot of time to figure out whether she wanted to know what his mouth tasted like or not. She thought probably toothpaste and Listerine at the beginning of the lecture, but as time went on that would probably fade into something less chemical-tasting and more Sheldon-y.

Plus, he had a really great mouth, and she wasn't sure she had noticed that before today (she had).

And his shoulders looked sturdy enough that she could probably drape her arms over them and have room, but not so sturdy it was like draping off a boulder. They had definitely felt great beneath her forearms last night when she had...

Oh, yeah. Wanting to kiss Sheldon was definitely not a new thing.

"Penny," he said and she jumped guiltily, wondering if she had been caught gazing at him like a school-girl, but he continued on blithely. "In deference to your apocalyptic preferences, we will dedicate today to surviving a sudden onset glacial age. The movie is hokum, I hope you realize, a cheap thrill ride that even paleoclimatologists, who are the storm-chasers of the paleo contingency and one step away from pseudo-science themselves, agree that the science is deeply flawed – impossible, even."

Sheldon said that last part meaningfully, as though she should remember all his lectures on the difference between improbable and impossible and react like she understood what he was going on about. What did it say about her, really, that she kind of did get it? She wasn't sure if it was too much time in Casa de Cooper or if, weirdly and impossibly even, he was making an effort to make sure she understood him. "I thought the point of global warming was an ice age could occur."

"There would be more warning," Raj explained. "Spread out over a longer span of time. The effects are gradual, and there is a lot of misunderstood fear surrounding the idea of an ice age. Really, it's just an inevitable by-product of living on a planet in orbit around a star and scientists have been arguing for decades, centuries even, over whether we are currently in an ice age or not. The polar caps would indicate we are. It's one of the reasons global warming is considered a myth in some circles."

Penny took a moment to register this. "Ok, so if The Day After Tomorrow is so false, why are we wasting a day on it?"

"Educating one's mind is never a waste," was all Sheldon had to say.

"Why did we do zombies? Or Aliens?" Howard asked. "It's fun."

There were some things Penny could see Sheldon doing against all odds. Basing entire Apocalypse Week days on a concept of fun was far beyond the odds, so far beyond them that even Penny noticed the discrepancy and she was the one the most likely to allow Sheldon's behaviour any leeway. Sheldon might, reluctantly and possibly unintentionally (but even that was under question in Penny's mind) allow the activities to be approachable and fun, so that they were more likely to participate and learn, but Sheldon would never, ever, ever, ever base one of the seven days out of three-hundred and fifty-two (and one quarter) that he was allowed to hammer important survival skills into their heads on something fun.

He didn't argue with Howard's assessment, but when she shot him a suspicious glance he turned away from her and turned the apartment's air conditioning up to full blast.

"The object of today is surviving extreme cold," Sheldon explained. "The conditions are a bit difficult to replicate in Southern California during this season, so I ask all of you remain in this apartment, do not open any of the doors or windows to allow the cold air to escape, and do not put additional layers of clothing on. As in any situation, you are left with what you were wearing at the time."

Penny barely even registered this as the boys groaned at the beachwear Sheldon had prompted them to don for today's theme. Penny herself, in deference to Howard's presence, had worn more than a bikini and thin cover-up as was her usual costume for hot-weather activities. Not much more, but a solid t-shirt and a pair of capris covered a heck of a lot more skin than cut-offs so short the pockets were hanging out (along with other things that seemed fine while at the beach but did not translate well to bending over in front of Howard, Raj, Leonard or even Sheldon – the later being more a case of acute embarrassment since it wasn't like he would notice, and really, they had cut-offs in Texas. He probably owned a pair of the male version himself, or did when he was thirteen and...).

She'd been thinking of something important, Penny remembered, eying Sheldon with a distinct "I'm on to you" expression.

It had been a while since she made a note in her handy notebook, but she scribbled a line on the page opposite notes about alien incursions.

Note to Self: Find out why Sheldon's up to.

Yeah, ok, so it didn't make sense grammatically, but it made sense to her, and as an added bonus if any of them read it, they wouldn't have a clue.

"Hypothermia is..." Sheldon started and Penny tuned him out. When she had made full-time employee (and what a joy that was to her pretence of living out her dreams) at the Cheesecake Factory, she'd been forced to take First Aid Certification. Sheldon had a photocopy of the certificate tacked to the inside of one of the kitchen cupboards, right up beside emergency numbers, poison control information, a list of hazard symbols that were a lot more complex than the skull and crossbones that screamed POISON to anyone with a lick of common sense or at least an interest in pirates, and the most compact first aid kit she'd ever seen. He'd taken her through all thirteen first aid kits in the apartment, not including the ones surely in his emergency preparedness kits and the third bedroom she hadn't even known about. He probably had hundreds.

Regardless, her point was that she had learned all about hypothermia then, and it hadn't been new information at the time. She grew up in Nebraska. She knew the signs of frostbite because she once came close to losing a toe after wearing beat-up sneakers to the movies mid-January and having a loud screaming match with her then-boyfriend, leaving her foolish stubborn self to walk home. She knew the signs of hypothermia because Tommy, even more foolish and stubborn than she was, had once fallen through the ice while taking a short-cut on his skidoo while on a trip to visit family in Minnesota. She'd remembered everything she'd learned both times, experience being a far better teaching tool than a book, as far as she was concerned.

She was still reflecting on Sheldon's motivations when there was silence and everyone was staring at her.

"If they stop shivering, that's not a good sign," she said automatically, mind not entirely on the subject. "Shivering means the body is trying to keep warm. If they stop then their body is trying to conserve what little energy it has left and is in the process of shutting down."

She must have said something right, because Sheldon continued on with his lecture, leaving Penny alone in her mind to consider why he was teaching them to fend off zombies or survive ice ages when the science said they were more or less improbable and there were so many other threats on their doorstep that Sheldon could be focusing on. Zombies she could understand, because hey, what better way to kick off a week of apocalyptic lessons than with some zombie hunting? Aliens too; these men were scientists and science fiction fanatics, aliens seemed as inevitable to them as someone getting trampled to death during Black Friday sales were in her world.

"Dibs on Penny!" Howard yelled enthusiastically, then, when Raj looked crestfallen, he patted his knee. "Sorry buddy, a pretty lady takes priority over partnership pacts any day."

"You are getting nowhere near this pretty lady," Penny retorted, wondering if she even wanted to know. Yeah, she should probably start paying attention now if she was going to potentially miss being paired up with Howard. "Even if you were the last man on earth, I would rather die a cold and painful death than be within two miles of you when you're trying to 'heat it up.'"

She found herself alone with Sheldon after finishing all seven of his fire-starting workstations on her first try. The boys all called for a do-over, so she finished all seven on her second try too. "I've figured you out," she informed him.

"I sincerely doubt it," he responded dismissively.

"You're not teaching us skills to survive an apocalypse. That's just a diversion, and hey, on the offchance that zombies invade or whatever, then yeah they'll be more prepared than they would have been otherwise. What you're doing is teaching them how to survive smaller scale disasters, like getting lost in the wilderness or, like, surviving a police state or whatever. Things that could happen without the world ending, and they don't even notice because they hear the word apocalypse and that's all they think of."

"My cerebral cortex doesn't function on such simplistic levels," he sneered, walking away.

That would and should have been the end of that, if she didn't notice him watching her more acutely afterwards, that mulish expression on his face that he got when a particularly difficult problem was giving him trouble.

Penny kind of enjoyed being the unsolvable equation in his life.

x.x.x.x.

It was getting cold in the apartment, and Penny couldn't help but run her hands up and down her arms for warmth. She was huddled up against Leonard, who was trying to both disguise his unmistaken glee and avail himself to all the heat he could leech, which meant he was, in turn, huddled up against Raj and Howard. They were all standing in a group, shuffling awkwardly away from each other whenever Sheldon took too much notice and reminded them in a survival situation they might not have a buddy handy.

Howard didn't even make a joke. The boy was so obviously California homegrown. This temperature was his version of a polar cap. Penny was more used to it, but there was a strong difference between the chill of a Nebraskan winter day (or night) when you knew you were in for negative temperatures, and waking up in SoCal only to find the air chilled artificially. And it was still humid air, only chilled humid air, so it was even worse.

At first, Sheldon dedicating a day to her preferences made that little school girl in her sit up and shout with delight that he was noticing her, but that part of Penny quieted down the further into the day they went and the colder it got. Part of her mind thought freezing due to air conditioning was a joke, but the way goosebumps were raised on her arms and how cold her nose was growing wasn't really a laughing matter.

It didn't really help that all Sheldon was teaching was basic outdoor survival instincts. How to build a fire. How to find shelter, or build shelter. How to read a compass. How to read moss on a tree (excuse me, Sheldon, how do you expect us to locate moss on a tree trunk if it just snowed eight feet?) how to keep warm when you were on your own (the moment afterwards, all three boys stuck their hands under their armpits, Penny refrained but only through sheer obstinacy) and how to keep warm in a group. The lack of activity didn't help matters, not even when Sheldon showed them simple exercises they could do to make sure their toes didn't fall off.

And Penny was seriously worrying that Raj's might. The poor dear was shivering. Howard kept nudging closer to him in solidarity, only to be knocked out of the way by a wayward shoulder tremor.

Parts of the day were pretty cool, like when Sheldon honoured Howard's dibs and forced the two of them together to design a heating system based solely on things found in the apartment. Penny sometimes thought Sheldon was a little sadistic and had a weird sense of humour, making Howard do an intellectual activity with her after he had claimed a partnership based on her curves and making her work with Howard, who was above all a skeezeball at the best of times. After a few moments of Howard trying to saddle close to her and Penny sidestepping out of the way, Howard had said "I'm thinking the heating elements from the stove" and Penny had retorted "I'm thinking burning all the wood in the apartment."

That created an impasse. "It doesn't count as creating something if you just steal the idea from the movie."

"Are you kidding me?" Penny asked. "They burned books. We can do that too, but they missed out on a wealth of burnable material, like the shelves themselves. Did you know that most furniture is made out of wood? Dressers, tables, desks, the inside of the couch, the boxspring of a bed. The kitchen cupboards are entirely wood."

"A homemade space heater wouldn't emit smoke," Howard retorted.

"Or at least it shouldn't, if you made it right."

"I'd make it right!" Howard retorted hotly. "I'm an engineer. I graduated from MIT. I work for the space program. The space program. Do you know how difficult it is to get into that? I damn well know how to make a heater! What do you know?"

"Fire."

"Pyromaniac tendencies aside, what about if you didn't survive that far? What if you were the one eaten by a wolf? Then what would we do?"

Penny snorted. "Do I look like little red's grandma? No wolf would eat me, I'd be bringing it back for supper, which we could only cook on a fire." Howard didn't seem to have a retort to that, so she continued. "And where would it get electricity?" she asked. "We went over this yesterday. You up to making a... what did you call it?"

"We have generators," he pointed out, completely sidestepping the question. "Or Sheldon does."

"And one of us is supposed to crank it at all hours or else freeze to death? What happens when it gets cold and we get lethargic, or what about that moment at the end of the movie where the super freeze is edging in and they're throwing books into the fire, would any of us be able to crank that hard?"

He leered. "I bet you could."

"I bet you have more experience cranking it than I do!" she retorted.

"And I bet you have more experience kindling wood than I do." He wagged his eyebrows but on one of the up-down motions he paused, eyebrows kept laughably raised and a surprised expression captured on his face. "Hybrid?"

"Hybrid," Penny agreed.

Howard did all the heavy lifting metaphorically, and she did all of it physically, and before they knew it, the blueprints were done up, the proof that it was created completely of things in the apartment were stacked in front of them, and she and Howard were high fiving and jumping around like children (and taunting Leonard and Raj for failing to consider a proper ventilation system for theirs). In response, Sheldon put an A (without the plus, but Penny expected no less from Sheldon) on their blueprint and a C- on Leonard's and Raj's, and gave them a ghost of a pleased expression. Howard and Penny cheered again, but then Howard creepily went to hug her chest, so Penny ended up punching him in the diaphragm, which consequently had him bent over the couch wheezing for an inhaler for 15 minutes, and yeah, she felt kind of bad for that, but he shouldn't have thought winning was a good excuse to motorboat her, so there.

Parts of the day sucked, like the fact it was so frigging cold.

However, she was able to suffer through the day until Sheldon ordered them to pull Leonard's mattress out of his room. Penny assumed it was for some kind of trust-building exercise, or for an awesome fort, but again her assumptions were wrong.

"Key to survival in extreme cold is sharing body heat," he reminded them. "Fortunately, I have prepared so such an occasion by purchasing a battery-operated blanket. Those of you without will have to do it the old fashioned way."

"Sex!" Howard exclaimed with glee.

Penny shot Sheldon a panicked looked.

"No sex," Sheldon said in a tone that brooked no arguments. "Keep this rated strictly G. If I hear that any of you behave inappropriately, there will be severe consequences."

Then he retired into his own bedroom and left the four of them staring at each other awkwardly. Penny considered leaving, but she was doing so well with impressing Sheldon with her ability to survive all his scenarios that she didn't want to let him (and herself) down now. She couldn't even say why it was so important to her, more important than avoiding the awkwardness of this, but she knew that if she left without trying, it would be something she regretted.

x.x.x.x.x.

There were four in the bed and the little one said "get your damn foot out of my face."

"My foot isn't in your face."

"It better be your foot!"

"I think it's my foot. See?"

"My nose!" Howard yelped. "Move over and stop kicking!"

"Personal space, Leonard!" Penny snapped as too much of him was suddenly right up against too much of her.

"Someone trade spaces with me," Leonard growled. "This isn't working."

So they all shuffled around. Time passed.

"Raj, get your hand off my butt."

"Oh sorry."

"RAJ!"

"It's not my hand."

"Sorry, it might be my foot again," Leonard replied groggily.

"You're an octopus sleeper!" Howard accused him. "Keep your flailing tentacles away from me."

"I can't get to sleep," Raj whined.

"Count catwomen," Howard suggested.

"Do you really want him thinking of all that spandex?" Leonard asked. "Count constellations."

"Booooring!" Raj pointed out.

More time passed.

"AHHHCK!" Penny shrieked as something pressed up against her back. She pushed blindly with her elbows.

"EEEEiiiii!" Leonard yelped, jarred from sleep by tumbling off the mattress on the other side of the bed.

"That's it!" Penny said hotly, crawling out of bed and snapping the blanket behind her. "You guys enjoy your sausage fest. I'm going to go give Sheldon grief and then I'm going home."

"Nooo! Penny come back! Without you it's just weird."

"Penny, that's not a good idea," Leonard said from the floor. "You can't go in Sheldon's room."

Raj snored.

x.x.x.x.

"Sheldon," Penny hissed, fingers curled around his arm as she lightly shook him. "Wake up."

"Danger! Danger!" he exclaimed, bolting up in bed. Penny had considered placing her hand over his mouth to stop him from yelling himself awake, but something naggled away at her stomach at the idea that he had developed such a reaction as a self-preservation tactic. She knew he spent time in boarding school, and her mind kept wondering what had happened to him that the only way he knew to cope was to wake up screaming danger.

Penny didn't consider herself a genius, but she did know a bit about feeling helpless, and she would never be the one who robbed him of a safety mechanism deliberately.

"It's just me," she told him, curling her fingers against the urge to put her hand on his shoulder reassuringly. Sheldon did not take such contact as comfort. So many of his little idiosyncrasies added up to a larger picture that made her stomach clench uselessly with a need to travel back into his past to confront his demons.

"You can't be in my room Penny," he informed her. "I thought we cleared this up last night."

"I know sweetie," she told him. "I just wanted to tell you in person that you're going to have to put me down as dead for this one."

"You're dead?" he asked, grabbing his notebook from the nightstand. "Of what?"

"I'm not dead yet," she said with a smile. "I'm willingly eliminating myself from this competition. Maybe if it was real life I could hold on for a bit longer, but I can't willingly allow the boys to keep groping me. I'm just going to go sleep in my own bed."

"But you're winning," he told her, showing her a list of stats that she didn't even bother trying to read, especially in the low light coming from his night light and glow fish.

"No, you don't understand. While you're here comfortable under your electric blanket, I've spent the last four hours in bed with three men I'm not in a physical relationship with."

"Are they snoring?"

Penny snorted. "Ok, let me break it down for you. All three of them find me attractive. You know that. When men find women hot their bodies tend to react to being in close proximity to said woman. I would rather die than have another boner pressed against me tonight, let alone all the times one of them tried to cop a feel."

Sheldon was frowning at her. "I told them to keep this rated G."

"What more do you expect from Howard? I had to leave when he tried to dry hump me."

Sheldon ran this through his Sheldon-colloquial dictionary and then recoiled in disgust.

"So unless you're going to let me sleep in your bed and you go snuggle up with your horn-dog friends, then I'm going to bow out of this competition, ok?"

"No, it's not ok. You shouldn't be the one who has to die because Howard can't keep his hands to himself. Howard should be the one who dies."

Penny sighed. "By that rationale there would still be only one in the bed, and that would be me." When he didn't respond, she elaborated. "All of them would be dead."

Sheldon echoed her sigh. "I guess there is only one recourse left."

"Yeah," Penny said regrettably. She'd have to die. She had wanted to survive every single one of his scenarios; that would have been awesome. Her eyes almost bugged out of her head when Sheldon shifted over. "Sheldon?" she squeaked.

"Unlike my comrades, I take Apocalypse Week very seriously. Up until this year I have always been let down by the survival skills of those around me to the point where I would not put myself in danger to ensure their survival because they could not return the favour. You have proved yourself to be worthy of my consideration."

Penny crawled into bed beside him, making sure not to touch him. The weight of what he was doing pressed on her mind. "Are you saying that because you know I would take care of you the best I could if anything ever happened that you're willing to do the same for me?"

"No," he said firmly. "Leonard, Howard, and Raj would also probably try the best they could, as you put it, but their best isn't good enough."

Penny giggled, unfurling her body down his warm sheets. She hadn't realized how cold she was until she was underneath his electric blanket. "Mmmm," she hummed. "This is really toasty. Maybe I should buy one of these things."

"It is a sound investment."

"Sheldon?" Penny asked, not surprised when he didn't answer her. He probably thought it was useless for her to add the question mark after his name considering they were already engaged in conversation. "Thank you for saving me," she told him sleepily, the warmth of his bed dragging her under. If he said anything in return, she didn't hear it.

When Penny woke up in the morning, she was pressed up against his side, her leg thrown over his. She felt sickened by the idea that she had done to him what the boys had done to her in Leonard's room by violating his personal space. Then she noticed that the fingers of one hand were tangled with his, held against his chest. Suddenly, her heart was racing despite, or probably because of, the innocent gesture. She'd slept with enough guys to know that during the night she had probably placed her hand on his chest, and he probably deliberately laced his hand with hers.

Sheldon Cooper might be an enigma, but he definitely wasn't as much of a robot as his friends thought.

Penny realized for the first time what this week meant. All bets were off, none of the norms applied, and Sheldon Cooper was starting to appreciate Penny on a level he usually reserved for fellow scientists and comic book aficionados.

Maybe the equation wasn't so unsolvable after all.

x.x.x.x.x.x.


A/N: Thanks to everyone who reviewed last chapter, I really do appreciate every single one of you. I try my best to answer back, especially in the first few days after posting (after that, despite my best intentions, I don't respond as often as I should). I waffled a bit about posting the feel-good, saccharine ending to this chapter, feeling like it was too soon in the story for this, but surprisingly 1. It's too cute to cut, and 2. There are only two (three if I can scrounge up enough for an interval chapter) chapters left to the story, so sadly it's kind of not too soon. I know, I'm giving both sad face and surprise face too.

For those of you following me on Twitter (@EternalCon) you know that I went to the states for the first time yesterday. What was the only thing I bought? Red Vines. I've been updating frequently from quotes from my NaNoWriMo fanfics – I'm working on that Sheldon and Missy as roommates one and the Time Travel story I joked about last chapter, but turned out to be one of those ideas I couldn't shake.

Secret: the last part of this chapter was written during NaNo 2010 and was one of the first scenes I put to paper after I finished Prank Wars (but before starting Caper Continuum). Additional secret: I'm kind of digging this Penny/Howard friendship.

Chapter Text

She didn't want to get up. She was warm, cozy, and distinctly comfortable with the uneasy sensation of anxiety fluttering beneath her breastbone as her fingers remained twined with Sheldon's. She knew the spell would eventually need to break and she would have to move, but she savoured every precious second, because it was precious and she knew that the moment she admitted to being awake, it would be gone forever, and knowing Sheldon as she did, there would never be another chance. Maybe next Apocalypse Week his defences would be down enough, but certainly not for the other 51 weeks of the year.

Penny thought the morning after she slept with Sheldon was going to be awkward. She thought she'd have to sheepishly tiptoe past three bemused/horrified/shocked boys to get to her apartment to shower. There was a distinct possibility that they were all still spread out over Leonard's mattress, Leonard doing his great jellyfish impressions, Raj huddled in fetal position, and Howard leering at her, since as hard as she tried, she couldn't picture him sleeping through her trying to sneak by while doing the walk of shame out of Sheldon's room.

Not that there was much shame involved, considering the warm feeling spreading out from within her tummy - one she was labelling fondness and leaving it at that. Sheldon was still sleeping as she eased herself out of his bed – or, truth be told, he was watching her through eyes opened just a slit – but if he was going to pretend, then she'd honour that and pretend too. Penny figured that if he had a real problem, he would have told her by now, so it probably just hadn't occurred to him that this was potentially awkward. He probably just wanted her to leave so he could get another thirty minutes of uninterrupted sleep. It was likely he wasn't feigning sleep, he just wanted to watch her without opening his eyes.

Though why he was watching was a mystery to her. Did he think she was going to accidentally knock over his paper TARDIS on her way out the door (painstakingly crafted for hours until every detail was in scale – she knew, because she was the only other crafty person he knew, everyone else smart enough to at least pretend to be all thumbs when he found the blueprints on the internet. And yeah, ok, if she hadn't quite literally bled constructing that thing, she might be tempted to accidentally knock it over and stomp on it, but he'd looked really pleased when it was completed and actually went so far as to offer a 'good job, team Sheldon'. Despite it being one of the most annoying afternoons of her life, it was kind of a fond memory)?

Penny found herself staring at the TARDIS for too long, because when she looked back to him, she wasn't sure if he was still looking at her anymore or if his eyes really were closed.

She paused before opening his door, turning back to watch him, unable to just leave. She wanted to blow him a kiss, which she'd done before to annoy him when he was Sheldon, but now that this was Sheldon, the man she'd just woken up next to in a completely nonsexual way, but one that transcended his rumoured asexuality enough that Penny was kind of sure that blowing him a kiss would mean something, she hesitated. This was their last moment of just the two of them for the day, possibly forever if she wasn't reading him properly, and she wanted to crystallize it in her mind.

She gave him a tiny wave, like a complete boob, and left. Already feeling like an idiot, she stepped into the living room, expecting to have three sets of eyes on her immediately.

There was no one there.

"Those rat bastards," Penny muttered, stepping over discarded blankets, picking her way across the unmade bed.

"Thank god," she responded to herself, in an even lower tone as she reached the door to the hallway.

Penny showered and found herself obsessively perfecting her hair, spending far longer than was strictly necessary considering the man she was primping for wouldn't notice the slight uniform bounce and curl to the locks. By the time she returned, all three of them were lined up on the couch, huddling in blankets and drinking coffee from mugs, not take-out, as though they'd been there the entire time. Penny narrowed her eyes at them.

She could use mad invisibility skills like that. Maybe she could get back into Sheldon's room without him knowing and – actually, forget that. That idea was more creepy than it was good.

"You're lucky you left. It was so cold last night I woke up to a cold nose."

"It was so cold last night I didn't wake up with morning wood," Howard joined in.

"Thank Krisna," Raj said, making the image of a cross, "since I was so cold last night I found myself curled up around you."

"Maybe that was why you were unhappy, eh buddy?" Howard asked, looking down at his penis.

"Hey! I'll have you know that a lot of men would be very happy to wake up next to me!" Raj retorted. "That sounded better in my head."

"There is no way that sounded like anything other than what it came out as," Leonard claimed. "Did you have a good sleep, Penny? Warm?"

Penny found herself jumping guiltily at the question, despite the whole lack of guile in Leonard's tone. "Sure. I had an incredibly good sleep all warm and toasty and not being groped. How about you?" she asked sweetly.

Leonard muttered something about flailers.

"My sleep was also pleasant," Sheldon said, joining them in the room, "and would have remained so if someone hadn't disturbed my circadian rhythms." He said this with reproach, but he wasn't staring at her.

The three of them had the grace to look sheepish.

"Hey! We weren't the ones who went into your room in the middle of the night!" Raj pointed out. "Why don't you stare at her all accusingly for a while?"

"Penny is already aware of my dissension," Sheldon dismissed as he left the room. "I let my feelings on the subject be known last night."

What did that even mean? Penny wondered. His feelings on the subject of her being in his room were to allow her to stay? He couldn't possibly mean that. He must have said something that made his displeasure known, she just couldn't remember anything particularly grating or disapproving coming out of his mouth.

Of course, considering the cloud she was floating on, she couldn't particularly remember any reason she might have to dislike him, either. Yet, she was aware that in that past there had been moments where she actively hated the things he did, if not the man himself.

Penny didn't want to look at that too closely. There weren't many reasons for a girl to forget or romanticize past sins, and the one that first came to mind wasn't something she really wanted to think about.

Since Leonard was already sitting in Sheldon's spot, the spot Penny considered de facto-ly hers when Sheldon's butt wasn't in it, Penny was forced to stand over him with a glare of displeasure. "That's my seat."

Leonard snickered into his coffee.

Penny realized he thought she was joking based on Sheldon's usual rant on his 0,0,0,0 Cartesian whatever. "No, seriously. My seat."

"Seriously?" Leonard asked with a slight choking sound on the coffee he was practically inhaling through his nose.

"I've been sitting there all week," Penny pointed out with narrowed eyes.

"She has," Raj agreed. "And Sheldon has not said a word. Do you really want to poke the dragon?"

"I can't see how it would make a difference who sits here," Leonard pointed out in what was actually a rather rational manner, but since he was chair blocking her, she wasn't in the mood for his rationality. "Why is it so important to you?"

Because it's Sheldon'swas on the tip of her tongue, but she managed to pull the words back at the last moment. Stop being so greedy, she told herself. She couldn't have everything all at once. She should be happy that she had woken up in Sheldon's bed, what with her little crush, but she was starting to realize that she didn't want just the little things (or big things, what with his rules about his room), she wanted it all, and she wanted it now.

"Leonard, seat," Sheldon said as he strode into the room and turned on the projector, barely even sparing them a glance. Penny was already seated in the armchair, so Leonard ended up sliding off the couch to perch on the floor.

Ha! Take that, Penny mentally crowed. It was his fault for not moving. Sheldon never would have unroosted her from that position.

Once that thought rang both true and false through her mind – true, because he hadn't, not a single day that week, complained about her sitting in his spot, but false, because this was Sheldon Lee Cooper, and where some men got proprietary about their cars or their women, he got overly protective of the good old quadruple-zero of his cushion – Penny felt jarred by the surprise that his behaviour might not have the same consistency as his spot did.

The thing of it was, Penny realized, that it wasn't strange for Sheldon to lay claim to his seat, even when he wasn't sitting in it. Everyone knew that. She hadn't seen it, the subtleties too small, but him allowing her to sleep with him last night wasn't the first time he had broken his rules for her, even during this week where all the rules were thrown out the window, when he wouldn't have done the same for any of the others. He hadn't once even given her a wayward glance when she was in his spot and she had attributed it to leniency since he was in front of the room and there were four possible places to sit and four people. Now she knew it wasn't due to the fact he was in lecture mode.

Everything she had been denying, protecting herself from, rose to the surface in a rush that stuck in her throat, a lump that felt impossible to swallow back down.

This whole time, while they were looking for proof of zombie/alien/yeti life, she'd been looking to Sheldon and missing the signs that were right in front of her face. She wasn't alone. Things really were different between them.

She wasn't alone in this.

Was she?

x.x.x.x.x.

They were over the hump, there being less days left in the week than there were past. It was also the most boring day in existence. "I think this one is Sheldon's favourite," Howard whispered to her. "On days where his grasp on humanity is tenuous, I worry about all the knowledge he has at his fingertips."

Penny was calling it the "Sheldon lectures on all the ways scientists could kill us all snoozefest." It wasn't that she wasn't interested in knowing the Hadron Collider existed (she already knew), or that one wrong button push could wipe out this universe and probably all the universes in existence. It was just that she couldn't do anything about it.

The really frightening thing was she was sitting with a group of men who could.

It was one thing to know that your friends/neighbours were really smart genius types. It was another thing to know that when Sheldon lectured on what to avoid doing so as not to implode the world, they weren't talking about strategy in some game of what-if. That shit was real. They had the responsibility to not make humanity unexist.

It also made her realize that all those movies where the government called on super geniuses to save the world? Yeah, who ya gonna call?

She knew who she would, and he was standing in front of her with a smudge of whiteboard marker across one of his cheekbones.

What she didn't think was that today was Sheldon's favourite. She thought today was the day Sheldon felt obligated to include because of how close to home the topic was. It was like those particularly gory videos she had to watch during Driver's Ed as a teen – there for necessity to scare teens into being careful, not because gratuitous blood was cool. So she listened and didn't really learn anything but another reason to fear for her life. Heck if she wanted any of these boys to get behind the Hadron Collider one day and cause all the strings in the universe (and all dimensions) to collapse.

That didn't mean she wasn't bored. At least in Driver's Ed the videos had been as entertaining as they were horrifying. The only thing entertaining Penny was winking at Sheldon every time he looked at her and seeing how long it would take before he asked if there was something wrong with her eye.

He didn't seem to notice, too concerned with rambling on about the ionisation potential of the Hydrogen atom or whatever.

"CERN developed the world wide web for coordinating an inter-school physics experiment," Leonard piped up.

Sheldon had his 'you're being an idiot' look, and then Sheldon had the look he gave Leonard. "Yes? Your point?"

"Not all by-products of physics experiments result in the universe imploding."

"No, some just result in thousands of layoffs and people becoming obsolete," Howard joked.

For some reason, Sheldon seemed incredibly pleased with this conversation, his entire face perking up a bit, even as he gave Leonard a stern look. "You don't comprehend the inherent hazard of physics?" Sheldon asked sharply.

"I understand, Sheldon, I'm a physicist!" Leonard argued.

"I believe a demonstration is in order," Sheldon responded shortly, striding out of the living room.

"I understand physics, Sheldon!" Leonard called again. "It's dangerous, I get it! Sheldon!"

Poor Leonard, Penny noted with amusement. He didn't seem to get that Sheldon was pretty much following a script and would have said the same line to anyone, if they had been the one to challenge him. Penny wasn't sure if any of them got it, it might be uniquely one of her talents, being able to spot a script from a mile away. Maybe watching The Hills (and, ok, Jersey Shore) was good for something!

The three of them sat there for a few moments, all watching the door with various levels of anticipation.

Sheldon popped his head back in, just his head, and Howard visibly jumped.

"Well," Sheldon snapped. "We don't have all day!"

The four of them rose from their seats with various levels of trepidation. Howard was practically hauling ass, limping slightly with what looked like a possible knee injury or maybe even a pulled back muscle. That was when she noticed that all of them were looking particularly haggard. She really, really didn't want to know why the three of them looked like they had gone through a war and lost. Did they crawl out of the cold and immediately go to a strip club or something?

"Gentlemen, lady, physics is not a subject one can be negligent about," Sheldon informed them once he reached the fifth floor in a tone that told her this was another prepared speech.

"What's your excuse for watching Jersey Shore?" she asked Raj, sidling up beside him.

"Are you thinking of how Sheldon just fed us a noticeably prepared line?" he asked back, all hushed whisper as they climbed the stairs to the roof.

"Yeah, why else would I be thinking about Jersey Shore? I'm pretty sure there's no physics involved, unless you count Snooki's hair."

Raj offered her his fist and she pressed her knuckles against his. Before she could move back to continue up the stairs, he stopped her. "I know you slept with Sheldon last night," Raj whispered to her.

"No! I didn't actually! I mean there was no..." Penny blathered. "It was just sleeping," she finally confessed.

"Please," Raj dismissed, giving her a knowing look. "You wouldn't have been so quiet if there was sex involved."

Penny shot Raj a smug look. "No, I think I would have been very vocal."

"I was talking about him," Raj responded pointedly, and they both looked across up the stairs at Sheldon, who had paused to talk about string theory mid-way up the last flight to the roof.

"Yeah? You think?" Penny asked, definitely pleased and almost in delight.

"Definitely."

She was half way through smiling, when she realized this meant the secret she wanted to guard jealously, so that the only two people who knew were the ones who were there – not out of shame, obviously, but out of a sense of it being theirs – was common knowledge. Raj had been sleeping at the time. "So everyone else knows?"

He snorted. "I doubt it. They may see, but they never notice."

That was pretty profound for someone who knew what gym, tan, laundry was.

x.x.x.x.

Before long, they reached the roof, where Sheldon adopted a similar lecturing pose with the rest of them crowded in front of him.

"You don't believe physics can be dangerous?" Sheldon asked shortly, standing near the edge of the roof. "You disbelieve the inherent hazards in something you can't see?"

"I never said that!" Leonard denied hotly, looking extremely put out that Sheldon wasn't listening to him.

Raj snickered.

"Consider momentum," Sheldon said, picking up a chunk of broken concrete that had dropped off the ledge. Penny eyed his hand carefully as he gave it a slight toss in the air. "And the effects of gravity. I challenge any one of you to pick up this rock and throw it into traffic without—"

"This rock?" Penny asked, grabbing it mid-air and judging the weight herself. She wasn't entirely stupid, she knew what the effects of a chunk of stone that size would be when thrown off a roof, but Sheldon was getting a little complacent with his pre-rehearsed speeches, and Penny considered it her job, nay, her duty to keep him on his toes.

She didn't intend to actually throw the stupid thing, but she'd been bored during his ramblings about CERN and HADRON and ADRIAN and STELLA, and liberally applied apple-blossom scented hand cream until he gave her a sniff of disapproval (or allergies, whatever). So her hands were kind of slippery, and for a rock, the chunk of concrete was surprisingly smooth, so where she had planned to fake them all out by pretending to throw the thing over the side of the building, she accidentally threw it over the side of the building.

The moment it left her hand, Penny's self preservation kicked in and she went down out of sight, grabbing Sheldon by the arm and dragging him down behind the ledge beside her. He let out an undignified squawk as his long limbs folded beneath him and he more or less collapsed on his ass.

The other three boy, all frozen with various looks of shock and dismay and confusion on their faces, hesitated before crouching down as well.

"I didn't mean to do that," Penny whispered in a distressed tone.

"No, really?" Wolowitz asked in a sarcastic tone. "Because we all thought you deliberately threw a 2 pound rock off the side of a building, endangering the lives of pedestrians and drivers alike."

"0.916 pounds. Approximately," Sheldon corrected. "Given the height of the building and the gravitational force, it would fall at a velocity of—"

"We can all do the math," Leonard pointed out, less sarcastically than Howard, actually braving the situation to peek over the side of the ledge to assess damage. "It looks like it only hit a parked car, guys."

"Only?" Penny questioned, ignoring the fact that she couldn't do the math.

"Did you not hear the part about pedestrians?" Sheldon wondered. "A direct hit could have resulted in loss of life and most certainly extreme damage to the cranium. Likewise..."

"Oh," Leonard said in the background. "OH! OH NO!"

"...the effects in traffic could have been catastrophic. The windshield is not created to withstand..."

"I know Sheldon!" Leonard shrieked, almost pulling out his hair. "My car!" he rounded on Penny. "You hit my car! The hood is entirely dented in."

"It looks like it was struck by Thor's hammer," Raj joined in.

"Or the Hulk hulked out on it," Howard agreed.

"Or Iron Man dropped his helmet on it."

"Or Captain America thought it was a Nazi?" Raj questioned.

"Or the Fantastic Four..."

"Shut up," Leonard said harshly, giving the two of them an incredibly pointed glare. "I can't believe first someone smashed in my back window, and now you threw a rock off the top of a five story building and it landed on my car. My insurance will never believe this."

"I informed you of the inherent danger of physics," Sheldon said, almost smugly. "You have all learned a valuable lesson today."

"I learned this lesson when I was five and fell off the kitchen table and my tooth went through my lip. Blood was everywhere," Howard recollected less than fondly.

"In the Indian ghetto where I..."

"Eugh!" Leonard exclaimed, pacing back across the roof, his hands still in his hair, causing it to spike up in tuffs. "This is Sheldon's fault, somehow, I just know it. Did you hear that Sheldon? Your fault! You just had to take me out of work this week so that my..."

"You know what else we learned," Penny said to Sheldon in a hushed voice, both of them still crouched together in front of the ledge where she had dragged him. There was a smudge of dirt on his pants, and some of his fingers were still tangled in hers from where she had pulled him down and held him down. "Another effective zombie fighting method."

"...you may as well have put your fist through the window yourself, with the force of all your crazy convictions of the inevitability of apocalyptic events behind it..."

He looked vaguely surprised, but then he could still be holding on to the same expression he had when she threw the stupid rock over in the first place, she hadn't quite focused on his face in the interim. "While it is commendable that you are applying new knowledge to previously learned skills, I find it worrisome that you have such a blatant disregard for the fundamental laws."

"I know I messed up, Sheldon, but do you really think Leonard is going to send me to jail?"

"...you should be locked up for this, in a loony bin. Your mom may have had you tested, but I won't believe it until my mom has you tested."

"I was referring to the law of universal gravitation as superceded by the theory of general relativity."

x.x.x.x.x.


A/N: My thanks to Seyfert for helping me with this chapter. Anything redeemable in it was probably her idea. Jersey Shore, on the other hand, was all me. Happy Holidays to those of you celebrating this year. It's my first Christmas away from home, so I'll appreciate any love you can spare me.

Chapter Text

Penny was cranky with Sheldon. She was resolved on the matter, unhappy with the way he had dismissed her ideas. The night before, after slogging through a supper shift at work, she returned to 4A and wasn't even sitting for five minutes before she had to go open her big mouth, blurt out that a fantastic way to save the world against physicists was for them to stop playing with stuff they didn't understand – like how Sheldon told her to stop trying to fix her own laptop whenever she got frozen and incessantly pressed ctrl alt delete, even when it didn't work the first time– and he had glared at her so hard, she thought the force from his eyes was going to break through his cheekbones and attack her. Then, he got all huffy and started insisting that if she had nothing intelligent to contribute, she should just leave.

Penny had tried to stay, really she had, but there was an evil little voice inside her that made her push the issue when it was with Sheldon, and instead of sitting quietly and gesturing for him to go on, that she wouldn't interrupt, she smirked at him and said "It's not my fault you're playing with forces beyond your ken," and then licked her lips when she was suddenly reminded of the line Your Ken can kiss my Barbie and thought, oh, maybe it had subconsciously been there all along.

Sheldon was not thinking along those lines, because he turned a terrible shade of red and all but physically threw her out of the apartment.

Penny was unhappy about that. Heck, she was downright pissed off. So what if her idea went against the whole concept of physics and everything he believed in. She wasn't wrong! She didn't deserve to be given the cold shoulder, she didn't deserve to have her brain blown up, and she certainly did not deserve him telling her to leave and take her archaic, creationist beliefs out of his apartment. She was not someone he could just dismiss like that, like she was of no consequence, no matter how beyond her comprehension the subject matter was.

And for God's sake, she never brought up God. She's just said if you didn't want the world to implode into a pile of mush, you didn't go pressing random buttons on the Hadron Collider to see what happens.

So she went to bed cross and woke up cranky, full on prepared to kick Sheldon in the nads the first chance she got. Oh, she hoped they were doing some kind of full contact activity today, because it wasn't just Omaha on, or Second-Place-National-Junior-Rodeo-Champion on, it was scorned female who knows how to use a gun on, and that was infinitely more frightening.

"You're lucky Sheldon let you out of last night. BOOOOring," Raj trilled. "I tried to listen to my homeboy Bruno Mars for entertainment, but then Sheldon confiscated my iPod."

"Homeboy? Really?" Howard asked. "Isn't he part Filipino and part Spanish?"

"As if you Americans know the difference," Raj sneered. "Brownish skin unite. It's not offensive if I say it."

"I think it's still offensive," Leonard pointed out.

"What do you know, white boy?" Raj asked.

"Hey! I'm Italian."

"That's not even a race," Howard sneered. "Never mind, Jersey Guido."

"Now that's offensive!" Leonard cried.

"Don't look at me, I'm Jewish. Find some white person to direct your ire towards."

"I'm a GIRL," Penny pointed out before all of them could look at her. "We have our own problems."

"Sheldon," Raj decided. "Which is where this conversation started anyway."

"But Sheldon is awesome this week," Howard reminded them. "Even if yesterday wasn't inspired, he's still been pretty great. Less psychotic freak outs, more crazy Apocalyptic fun, and he even got a girl to come."

"Standing here."

"And he hasn't told her off for sitting in his spot, he didn't threaten to string up our comic book collections as obstacles to improve our aim, and not once did he try to teach us how to distil our own urine and then make us drink it."

Raj shuddered. "That was a particularly gruelling experience."

Leonard shrugged. "Haven't any of you wondered since Dune?"

"I try to forget Dune exists, to be honest. Especially in the post Frank Herbert days."

Penny was entirely lost at this. She had no idea what Dune was, and she wasn't sure she wanted to know what Dune was if they drank pee.

Even hearing Howard extol Sheldon's weird Apocalypse Week mannerisms, especially his leniency towards her, didn't put him back in her good graces. It would take much more than that to make up for how she felt rejected the night before.

Of course, Sheldon had just the combination of charm (Sheldon-esque charm, not what anyone else would even call politeness) and bluntness, and his almost superhero-esque ability to say the right thing at the right time, completely unintentionally, to fix all that. He came into the room, a commanding presence that immediately had all of them take notice, hush, and turn their attention to him automatically and without thought.

Penny wasn't sure she'd ever seen that happen before with him. She might be unhappy with him, but a commanding presence was a commanding presence, and she was intrigued by the deference the boys were showing him now. Maybe everyone's perception of Sheldon changed during Apocalypse Week. Maybe it wasn't just her.

Would it fade, she wondered, after a few weeks? All these feelings she had towards him, would she be like Leonard, Raj, and especially Howard, and just forget about Apocalypse Week Sheldon after a few days of normal Sheldon?

She didn't want it to be possible. She wanted to say that it wouldn't happen beyond a shadow of a doubt, but part of her thought it would be easier.

It made her feel so much more cranky towards him.

But then Sheldon was in front of her, and she couldn't entirely blame him for things he hadn't done yet, not when his focus was perusing her from foot to tingling scalp. He looked her up and down, eyes never lingering on one spot to tell her he was looking at anything other than her appearance in general. She still became a little warm at the idea that he was looking.

He tsked. "While it is certainly not one of your more stylish outfits, there is still enough colour to make you highly visible. Do you own anything comparable to our paintball attire?"

Penny didn't think it was time to mention that she had a shiny silver jumpsuit that barely closed in the front, a relic from her tween years when she was a ball of highly competitive energy with disgusting amounts of team spirit. She thought he was probably talking about the colour anyway, what with the big clue of the word 'colour' in his commentary on her outfit. It was good that he said it too, since with the way she was totally cranky and ready to jump down his throat at the first notice, she would have been all over him for thinking her outfit wasn't stylish, but he reminded her that he thought the height of fashion was the more colourful the better.

And hey, it wasn't like she entirely disagreed with him on that. It seemed like they had something else in common and she wasn't entirely sure she was comfortable knowing that her fashion sense could be equated with Sheldon Cooper's fashion sense in any way.

"I will take your silence as a no. There are a number of outfits in the storage room which closely replicate Battle Dress Uniforms. I laid one out on the table in approximately your size."

And he had. It was even hemmed so she still had full mobility in it but it didn't drag or bulk anywhere in a way that would be more detrimental to her safety than wearing a shiny onesie would be. She wouldn't get caught on any tree branches or slowed down too much by a sleeve covering her fingers. This outfit meant serious business.

At that, Penny realized what he had planned for the day and it was kind of wonderful.

It didn't take the boys long to utilize the bedrooms and bathroom to change into their own camouflage outfits, but they didn't leave the apartment right away, oh no, that would be too easy. Instead Sheldon sat them down and taught them how to make various snares, hunting blinds, and other strategic ways to go about hunting and killing in the wilderness.

Penny had actually made a lot of them before, helping her dad as a little girl, but watching his hands quickly make complicated knots was definitely becoming her new favourite thing. She thought that if he could tie them so well, he could certainly untie them. She had a pair of drawstring pants he could practice on, and once he mastered that skill, she had a tiny, sexy little babydoll from Victoria's Secret he could try his hand at.

Where did that come from? she wondered, almost in shock, imagining the ghostly touch of his fingers brushing against her skin.

Penny stared at Sheldon, aghast. Ok, so she had a crush on him, and wanted to kiss him, but this was not the same. She didn't know what to do about a Sheldon who could make her want him, especially since the reverse wasn't true. He didn't want her.

She could sense desperate misery in her future. She could see a whole lot of heartbreak in her future, every time she thought she was getting close to him, she could see him somehow rebuffing her. She could see countless times where she would be feeling intense attraction and fondness for him, only to realize he was oblivious. She could see a last ditch effort to get him to realize what he meant to her, a situation where Penny knew she would throw herself at him physically and emotionally, and no matter how much she wanted it to go differently, she couldn't imagine a scenario where he reciprocated.

Her hands were shaking when she tried to replicate his snare, fingers fumbling with a chill that seemed like it should be entirely imaginary, but was very real and numbing her digits into blocks of ice. He shot her a disapproving glance as her snare unravelled entirely in her hands. Her eyes began to water slightly and she pulled back from the onslaught of tears as much as she was able, knowing her frustrations would be inexplicable and weak, even to them.

There was a metaphor in there somewhere, Penny realized, as she excused herself to go to the washroom and ended up hiding in her bedroom and counting to a hundred until she was composed enough to face him again.

It would take surviving an apocalypse to get Sheldon to love her in return.

x.x.x.x.x.

She ended up riding in the back of Raj's car, a recording of Sheldon lecturing them on cyborgs playing from Raj's iPod hookup. There was no need for discussion, because Sheldon somehow managed to anticipate everyone's reaction.

When talking about how to defeat a cyborg, Howard yelled "Electromagnetic Pulse, duh!" and later Sheldon said, "I know an electromagnetic pulse makes the most sense, but who will make it? Howard, do you believe it to be within your expertise?"

That gave Penny a little insight into why Howard LOVED Apocalypse Week. When facing the Apocalypse, his engineering skills were suddenly key to survival.

"Penny," Sheldon addressed next, "you can say that anything with a base of ninety-nine percent oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, and 0.85 percent potassium, sulfur, sodium, chlorine, and magnesium, with the remainder as trace elements, can be killed easily."

"I wouldn't say that," she addressed the podcast.

"That is the composition of the human body," Sheldon reminded them. "You would believe that killing the human element would destroy the cyborg, and even if that were to work, one would have to take into account the potential for data transmission back to the hub. The true danger in cyborgs is they learn from new data provided and are constantly updating their tactics, so in a fight against them, the same idea could not be used twice."

"If they transmit data..." she started.

"Now Penny, I know your next suggestion would be to bring out their humanity again, since they supposedly are, at their core, human; however there is no guarantee that what happened in the eponymous episode Dalek of series one of the new Doctor Who would happen in any sort of reality. However, using their swarm intelligence against them does have potential."

"This isn't live, right?" Penny asked Howard and Raj.

"Nope."

"Then how is he doing this? I mean, when did he have time this week?"

"He probably prerecorded it," Raj suggested. "I know it's weird, he's in your head and bringing up things you were still trying to figure out how to word."

"He shouldn't even have known for sure that I was going to be here!"

Howard shrugged. "It's one of Sheldon's things. He's probably a cyborg himself."

Cyborgs were kind of a big deal to Howard and Raj, and they continued a running commentary on the chances that Sheldon was some kind of terminator vs John Connor, which seemed to be the nerd debate of the week, as Sheldon droned on and on about nanobytes, computer technology already infiltrating modern medicine, and the chances that someday everyone would be part machine.

Penny didn't see why it was such a terrible idea to have the knowledge of the internet implanted right into her brain.

Then he brought up the probability of being hacked.

By the time Sheldon was done his lecture, they were pulling into a dirt road and Penny was feeling distinctly uneasy about the cell phone in her pocket and technology in general. She did not want to become some kind of... cyborg. Cylon. Cyberman.

Good god, how had she not noticed that they were everywhere?

They all scrambled out of the two cars and into an area that was distinctly woodsy, wet, fragrant earth soft beneath Penny's hiking sneakers. She felt like she was betraying a childhood worth of lessons from her father not to have more protective boots on her feet, but she didn't own boots that didn't have three inch (or more) heels on them or weren't manufactured by Ugg. She'd left that part of herself behind in Nebraska with her collection of rodeo trophies, beauty awards, and her Backstreet Boys CD.

Ok, that was a lie. She brought the CD with her.

Penny inhaled deeply, smelling the forest, the scent of decaying foliage and fresh air and living, growing things.

Howard started to cough. "It smells like a dead body lathered in Irish Spring out here."

"It smells like as asthma attack ready to happen," Leonard agreed.

"We don't have the scent of nature in India. All it smells like is curry."

"Seriously? Did you learn everything from your country off American political campaigns?" Leonard asked. "Or movies from earlier than 1980? You're really from Ohio, aren't you?"

Raj shrugged. "It isn't offensive when I say it."

"Antihistamine break," Sheldon offered, dragging out a veritable pharmaceutical nirvana in a travel bag. It included pretty much every allergy medication in existence, accounting for each boy's taste and needs, including Benadryl and eye drops.

"Penny, your epinephrine autoinjector."

"I'm not allergic to anything, Sheldon," she reminded him, looking at the epi-pen he was holding out to her. Each of the boys were already tucking one into their pockets with relief.

"Regardless," he told her, shaking his hand slightly with a clear message for her to take it. "I chose a training ground with a low incidence of bees, but I would appreciate the knowledge that if you were the one who found me face-down on the forest floor, you would not have to turn me over and search my pockets."

She rolled her eyes at his dramatics. Sheldon also said he was allergic to cats, but she once caught him practically cooing over Mrs. Vartabedian tabby in the hallway when he thought no one was looking. She pocketed the epi-pen anyway because it was easier than saying no to him.

As the boys were still combing through the allergy meds like First Years faced with the Hogwarts Express tea trolley, Penny wandered away, testing the area. She took note of natural inclines, which bearing was north, the direction of the slight breeze, and tried to imagine what Sheldon had planned.

She felt like any tracking skills she might have left might be put to use tracking the boys down after they got lost in the woods for hours at a time.

Sheldon promised an accumulation of the skills they had learned, and by promised he meant he had planned an activity where he expected them to be able to draw on a week's worth of skills. Penny wasn't sure what kind of activity they could do that wasn't exactly the same as all the ones before it.

Now that she thought of it, there had been a kind of build-up in intensity of these skirmishes. The first one had been in the living room, which wasn't too difficult and put them all in familiar territory. The second had been in the park across the street, also familiar territory, but with the unfamiliarity of it being outdoors, in the wild so to speak, that was a little outside of their comfort zone. This third one, though, even Penny considered it a little outside her realm of comfort. She wasn't sure if the boys were ready.

They all stood in a semi-circle around Sheldon, listening acutely with various levels of nervousness. Excitement was palpable, but so were fear and unease.

"These are trackers equipped with GPS so you do not get lost. They are equipped to emit a small current if the person wearing it leaves a 200 foot perimeter from this central location, also for your safety. Consulting the tracking system during the game is illegal and it shall remained locked in the car at all times, but if at any time you get lost or are in trouble, you can trigger this alarm that will notify all of us of the danger and we will immediately pause the skirmish and come to your aid. No abusing this system if you feel the only certain danger is death by a comrade."

"Uh, Sheldon. What are we going to use as weapons?"

"Excellent question," Sheldon declared, pulling out the large canvas bag stowed in the back seat. "These vests and helmets are designed to calculate the efficiency of a kill shot. They are as non obtrusive as possible and, while not perfect, do account for the positioning of vital organs and the human circulatory system. Once activated, the sensors will calculate the amount of minutes or seconds the wearer has to live and will then deploy an alarm upon death. They must be worn next to the skin, or as near to as possible."

"Where did you get this?" Howard asked in awe.

"Did you think you were the only one with paramilitary connections?"

"I don't even want to know," Howard muttered, pulling off his shirt and wriggling into the vest.

"I'd rather know," Raj disagreed. "I want to keep my work visa and I would rather not be arrested for being a terrorist and sent to Guantanamo where I will be waterboarded for the rest of my short life."

"That doesn't really happen?" Leonard asked doubtfully.

"You will not be accused of being a terrorist. That is all I can say on the subject," Sheldon responded definitely. "I can assure you on that."

"Yeah? Can you assure my mother? It will be her weeping and clinging to you and getting your shirt snotty if I am disappeared by your government."

"I will assure your mother if you wish it."

"Heck no!" Raj exclaimed. "And have her worry about all the crazy people I am hanging out with in America, corrupting me with your ideas of leisure time and loose, unambitious sex."

"She'd actually comment on our sex being unambitious?" Leonard asked.

"No! I'm commenting on that. My people wrote the Kama Sutra, you know."

"You only remind us every time the subject comes up," Leonard muttered, seeming distinctly put out by Raj today.

Penny listened to all this as she ducked to the other side of the car, using a covering of sparse brush to quickly remove her clothes and put the vest on. She considered removing her bra for a moment, but, well, if she was going to be running around in the wild, potentially jumping out of trees and stuff, she wanted all the added support she could get and she sincerely doubted Sheldon had taken her bra into consideration while arranging for this equipment.

Though that was wrong. He probably had taken it into consideration, as he was the type to consider all angles. He just didn't take it into the kind of consideration Penny secretly wanted him to take her bra into (such as how to get it off her).

The helmets were more like skullcaps in an iridescent metallic colour, which made the bunch of them pretty laughable, standing in a forest looking like a bunch of jaffa or something. But with the Stargate BDUs on, because at least Sheldon didn't play games when telling them how to dress this time, so no one was standing around in flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt because he told them to dress for the beach.

It was actually kind of awesome.

"No Zat guns?" Howard asked, giving Sheldon a disappointed glance.

"Ah," Sheldon said as though he forgot, but Penny was majorly on to his ways now and could see right through him. "The vests are designed to react with a special weapon," he told them, pulling out something that looked like a normal gun to Penny, but with little added parts.

"Oh Krishna," Raj exclaimed. "It's beautiful."

"Are you crying?" Howard asked.

"No!" Leonard exclaimed, clearly sniffing and trying to subtly wipe his nose on his shirt.

"I agree that it does bear more than a passing resemblance to Jayne Cobb's pistol, however I assure you that it is entirely unintentional and is a harmless device."

"We get to use these?" Raj asked, cradling his. "I don't even care if we get arrested anymore. Worth it!"

x.x.x.x.

They scattered into the woods, man against man against man against man against woman, Sheldon proclaiming that any of them could be cyborg or human, there were no teams and no way to tell.

Penny thought the boys were fools, they couldn't even see. He was dressing it up as something pretty, something everyone could get behind: how to defeat cyborgs. It was almost laughable. She could see the larger picture now, and it wasn't comforting. Yes, Sheldon was teaching them how to survive all those scenarios. Zombies, aliens, cyborgs, it all narrowed down into survival, skills they could use for any occasion, any apocalypse, any war.

He was teaching them how to kill humans.

When the realization hit Penny, she had to pause her movements against the chills running up her spine. It was so simple, so obvious, and yet not something she had realized.

Oh, it wasn't insidious. He wasn't encouraging them to go forth and murder, but Penny got the idea that Sheldon realized that out of all the likely scenarios out there, other people were the most likely enemy. Cyborgs? sure. Zombies? sure. Foreign countries invading American soil in a right-out declaration of war? Not entirely impossible, and SoCal was as good of a landing spot as any.

Maybe, though, she was just giving him credit for the thoughts that were in her head, because that was the one that would keep her up at night wondering about. She never really worried about aliens, but she gave a lot of thought to things other people could do to jeopardize her illusion of safety.

The boys might get squeamish if they thought of this as anything other than an exercise against the machine, ideas of electromagnetic pulses circling through their brains, but Penny didn't have any issue with the truth, not when it was clearly an exercise designed to minimize personal harm but maximize the experience.

Hunting humans during the day was an entirely different process than it was at night. During the day, they could see everything around them, but unless they were highly trained or very frightened, that lulled them into a sense of complacency. There was something about being bereft of sight during the night that led to a heightened awareness of the other senses. There was something scientific behind it, Penny knew, but this was where years of training paid off, because she was aware of the limitations of those around her.

She knew they were probably all scared and would be jumping at the barest rustle of leaves, but that type of hyper vigilance would lead to mistakes.

Penny had been worried that her epiphany about her feelings earlier would throw her off the hunt and she would be distracted and incompetent, but the opposite was true. She threw herself into the distraction entirely, and she could feel the gears in her brain switch, realigning the things that were important. Nail polish and Coach handbags gave way to grease paint and ka-bars, the burn of yoga turned into long crouches behind a cover of brush, and love and attraction, well that turned into a determination to survive.

It wasn't that she had something to live for, oh no. She had something to prove, something that had been accumulating for the last 5 days and burned in her gut with a wholehearted desire to win. Part of her, a part she wasn't examining just yet, thought that emerging victorious would solve everything. Another part, the one she was currently embracing, knew that this was not a game. In some convoluted, backwards way, this was very much reality.

Above all else, Penny was a survivor.

Her hunting style had always been more proactive. It had reached a point in her childhood where her father would only bring her on excursions where they were tracking through the woods, searching for prey. On the occasions where her father set himself up in a hunting blind, waiting for the prey to come to him, he left her home. Penny would always fidget and scare away any animals far before they came into line of sight, or she got extremely bored if he was using a long-distance weapon, where any noise she made didn't matter much.

Sheldon told them that the equipment they were wearing was made to reset after fifteen minutes in a "dead" state, but the catch was you couldn't kill the same person twice in a row, that any attacks would be useless, and the other person would then have the advantage. She suspected that was to stop Raj from sitting on Howard's chest for fifteen minutes waiting for the vest to reboot, only to shoot him again. It was definitely every man for themselves, and so far Penny had come across Leonard twice, Howard once, and Raj three times (but had to let him go once).

From her perch in her tree, she could see Howard creeping by. He had his shirt off and tied around his head, the vest shimmering in the sun in a way that had her grinning ferally at the stupidity of others. Sure it was overly warm out, the damp morning evaporating into muggy, humid air, but Penny had very little empathy for stupidity.

She reached out with her gun and shot.

Nothing happened.

Penny frowned, sure her aim had been accurate, but the thing with these guns was even if she had been an inch off, Howard would still live as he bled out from a gut shot.

Howard was now looking around, hearing the small sound that emitted from the gun when the weapon was discharged.

Penny leapt.

x.x.x.x.

Howard was doing ok for himself. He was full of life, bolstered by the idea of his kills in the playing field. He was a baddass warrior, racking up his body count, muscles gleaming in the mid-day sun. In his mind, he replayed all his glorious moves, using them as motivation to be better, to move quicker, and to be the best hunter in these woods.

Raj and Leonard had both been victim to the deadly end of his gun, and once he had gotten Penny by fluke, accidentally discharging his weapon as he had been pretending to be Luke Skywalker and just happened to hit her as she had silently approached him.

It was frightening how impossible it was to tell where she was. She was moving so silently.

He had to be more like her. Maybe he should find some mud and smear it over his skin. That would certainly make him look more like a warrior.

He half-turned at a noise just as something pounced from the sky at him. Howard fell in a jumble of limbs, broken branches digging into his spine. He panicked, thinking it was a real mountain lion for a moment as a weight landed fully on him, all wild blonde mane and hard, compact muscles.

Then it shot him and bolted off into the woods.

x.x.x.x.x.

Leonard heard a scream in the woods seconds before the alarm that signified death went off. He bolted back behind his tree, heart pounding quickly. Had that been close, he wondered? Close enough that he was the next target? His head was reeling and he felt deeply resentful for being there at all. His feet hurt, his hand was cramping from where it grasped his gun, and his eyes were watering from allergens the antihistamines hadn't blocked. It took serious convincing for him to continue his habit of bolting from tree trunk to tree trunk, and the mental stress of it was what was doing him in the most. Still, though, he wasn't doing so badly for himself, years of running from the bully finally coming in useful. He knew how to hide, and once you've been shoved in some jock's locker a few times, contorting yourself into a crevice between rocks was actually preferable, despite the potential for spiders and all.

If fear wasn't taking over most of his concentration, he would be feeling confident that this strategy was working for him. When in doubt, hide. It was his personal motto, and he knew there was a nice ridge he could pull a Hobbit on and burrow into just beyond the next line of trees.

Taking a deep breath to fortify himself against any potential Nazgul hunting him, Leonard dodged out from behind one tree, aiming for another, when something rammed bodily into him, knocking him sideways and to the forest floor. Leonard had no idea what had hit him as he laid stunned on a carpet of moss, but whatever it had been set off the alarm on his vest and then disappeared entirely, like smoke or a living legend.

x.x.x.x.x.

Penny was like fucking Katniss Everdeen, but without any kind of poisonous berries.

x.x.x.x.x.

Raj was still dead from the last time Leonard had shot him, the numbers on his wrist-band making vague count-down motions he could barely see from where he had his hand displayed above his head, the band red to signify his death so those crazy cyborgs would give him a moment of peace without their incessant attacks. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a shape, barely human, uncrouch from beside a tree. It observed him for a moment before slinking back into the woods.

x.x.x.x.x.

Howard was minding his own business, the business of being a badass warrior, and sharpening a stick on a rock, shirt collecting the sweat from his forehead as he worked. It was less a sharp pointy object and more like a sheared off piece of wood, but if there really was a mountain lion out there, he was protecting himself. He felt like Rambo, all sweat and dirt and making weapons out of his surroundings.

It came from out of nowhere, silent and full of grace as feet landed on top of the rock outcropping he was sitting sheltered in. There was barely any noise except for a slight scraping of foot against rock, and Howard wheeled, weapon at the ready.

"You idiot," the mountain lion exclaimed, batting aside the stick. "You could put your eye out with that. You could put my eye out with that. You're not Buffy Summers."

"I thought you were a mountain lion," Howard told her, chastised.

The mountain lion snarled at him and left him dead.

x.x.x.x.

Leonard was huddled under a fallen branch along the side of a hill, completely blending in with his surroundings, when Raj wandered by. What would Frodo do? Leonard asked himself.

Not able to pass up such a perfect situation, he shot.

x.x.x.x.

Raj was getting really good at walking around with his red wristband showing, wishing everyone would leave him alone. He just wanted to go home, and wished people would stop targeting him. He wasn't weak, this just wasn't one of his strengths, he told himself. He did better in a group, and this every man for himself thing was really unfortunate, because he would make great backup to some strong leader.

It was also a little regrettable that these wristbands gave a little jolt when they moved beyond the perimeter, because there had been a small mom&pop diner right before the turn-off to get to these backwoods, and Raj kind of wanted to see if they had any homemade milkshakes. He was tired, and was sick of playing dead, despite the few kills he had got in. The novelty of wearing some kind of awesome wristband like Captain Jack Harkness wore off right around the time he realized he could access all their stats, and he wasn't doing too well. Leonard was doing better.

He paused, standing breathlessly unhinged from a tree from where it was watching him and bolted in the opposite direction. It was huge, a monster of a man, and looked like it ate flesh.

He'd heard tales about the American Bigfoot, but he had thought them all to be legend.

x.x.x.x.

Howard was laying a snare. Only he couldn't remember if the loop went under or over, and he wished he had spent more time listening to Sheldon and less time wondering if these knots would be useable in the bedroom.

Rambo wouldn't give up. He'd never let a simple thing like the inability to remember keep him from survival. Of course, Rambo was not an MIT trained engineer.

Howard took his best guess, and receded back into the woods to wait for his prey.

He caught Raj instead, the snare doing nothing more than tripping him. Howard guessed the loop was supposed to go under, then. It wasn't like hunting was a course at MIT or anything, he decided, advancing on Raj. It might not be the right prey, but it was prey nonetheless.

x.x.x.x.

"Truce," Raj blubbered, holding up his hands at Howard. "Good god don't shoot. Truce. There is some kind of wild thing in these woods and it is coming for me! I've seen it twice, all wild feral eyes. We need to get our friends and leave before one of us gets killed by Yeti."

"You'd be lucky if it was Yeti," Howard snorted. "It's Penny."

"That is not comforting!" Raj wailed in a high-pitched voice.

Howard shot him for leading Freyja the fucking goddess of death right to them. "You'll thank me," he told his friend. "She has no interest in people who are already dead."

x.x.x.x.

At the close of the day, the three boys eventually found each other, banding together into one cohesive unit that could try to protect themselves from all sides. They agreed that the chances of Penny coming for them was slim, as each of them calculated she had been the last one to shoot them.

"We're safe here," Howard decided, somehow thrust into a leadership role, and he knew it was because Rambo had definite leadership qualities.

"That is such a relief, dude," Raj said, sitting on a log. "You don't even know what it was like out there being hunted by a crazed beast."

"I was out there too!" Leonard pointed out, tossing his gun to the ground. He then squealed as his gun shifted upwards, falling back to his feet as a pile of leaves molted, rising from the earth and into the shape of a man.

"I told you there was a Yeti!" Raj screamed.

Sheldon rapidly rose from the forest floor, leaves and debris falling from his form as he stood before them, entirely unexpected. His gun was in his hand and pointed at all three of them before any of them could move a finger.

Raj's vest went off first, as he was the first on the left.

Sheldon moved his aim slightly over.

Before he got the chance to fire, a shadow bolted from the forest and tackled him, both tumbling into the pile of leaves.

"HOLY GOD!" Howard exclaimed. "Epic death match!"

There was a mad scramble of limbs as two shapes rolled on the floor, neither getting an upper hand, and suddenly a vest was going off. Reflexively, all three boys looked down to see if they had been wounded.

Penny stood, arms almost entirely limp with resignation. She held herself as though Sheldon's bullet had been real, and had pierced her armour, unnaturally tired and defeated.

She lost. She hadn't thought she could lose, thinking the element of surprise would surely be on her side.

"That wasn't a very good hiding spot. Did you think I didn't notice the unnatural gathering of leaves from the beginning," she asked, voice hollow. The line had been rehearsed, something she wanted to say to him when she ultimately won, but now she was standing there as the clear loser of their scuffle, and she was unable to help herself from going through the motions.

"You make enough noise when you move to alert the Rangers in the station 50 miles away," Sheldon responded with a sneer. "Did you think I wasn't aware of the moment you set yourself up in wait?"

That was patently untrue. Penny didn't make any noise when she moved. That was why she was so frightening.

"Are you crazy, dude?" Raj asked shrilly. "She's like a ghost. I peed myself alone in the woods when this squirrel ran by because I thought Penny was going to jump at me from a tree!"

Everyone looked at Raj with varying degrees of disgust, and Penny found her eyes immediately drifting down to see if he was telling the truth. Raj seemed uncomfortable with everyone eyeing his crotch, and shifted.

"I meant it as a figure of speech."

"Sorry buddy," Howard commiserated. "Just we never know for sure with you. Besides, you think just thinking about Penny jumping you from a tree is scary, Penny actually jumped me from a tree! I thought I was being attacked by Batman or a mountain lion or something!"

"I killed a mountain lion once," Penny said casually.

The three of them stared at her with various degrees of horror.

Probably not the best thing to say, Penny reflected, to get them off the subject of how terrifying she was. Sheldon's gaze was still locked with hers, direct and with clear disapproval, and it shook something in her to notice that she did something to deserve his criticism. She was slowly emerging from the zone she had fallen into, and it was a little embarrassing to think of all the ways she had attacked her friends.

But, it wasn't her fault she had played the game well.

"Look Sheldon, all of you, I was playing a game, and it isn't my fault I was better at it than any of you were."

"You lost," he said mildly.

"I did not!" she yelled at him, balling her fists and taking a step forward.

Sheldon stood his ground, but his jaw clenched and each of the other boys took a step away from her, almost tripping in their haste to get out of her way. They didn't bother her, they were known to overreact, but the strange vibes and reactions she was getting off Sheldon did bother her more than she could understand.

"Can we go home now?" Leonard asked Sheldon. "Have you demonstrated what you wanted?"

"We are not done for the day, but I believe it is time to depart if we want to arrive back in Pasadena by nightfall. That does not mean we have exhausted today's lesson. Regroup back at the apartment at 20h00." Sheldon gave her this look she couldn't decipher, and moved towards Leonard's car.

Penny turned towards Raj's car. "Oh no!" Raj exclaimed. "I don't feel comfortable turning my back to you right now. I can't spend the entire drive worried you're going to garrotte me with my seatbelt."

Howard nodded.

For once Penny was not impressed by Raj's ability to speak to her. "Come on guys, I wouldn't do anything while you were driving. I don't want to die." Rational speaking in a calm voice was key when dealing with frightened small animals.

"Sorry Penny," Raj muttered, at least looking ashamed. "Even if you are pulling a Damon Salvatore, I need time to believe it."

"I just tried to protect you from Sheldon!"

"You did not!" Howard exclaimed. "Don't even try to make it anything other than what it was. You were going for the kill and taking out your biggest competition. Don't you get it Penny, today you were the cyborg."

"Seriously?" Penny asked, eyebrow rising sharply. When neither of them looked like they were joking, she looked to Leonard, who didn't seem to be able to meet her eyes. At least Raj had been direct. "Seriously, Leonard? How do you expect me to get home?" Her frustration must have been evident in her tone, her voice coming perilously close to cracking on the last word, because Sheldon's head swivelled sharply away from where he was staring pointedly at the car door to look at Leonard.

"You can drive my car, Penny," Leonard offered, all good-guy graces and smiles.

Penny wasn't fooled, but she took the keys. "Do you have a problem sitting in a car with me?" she demanded from Sheldon, attitude clearly compensating for the betrayal she was feeling. It was a game, just a stupid game.

He frowned at her. "Leonard's car does not have a blinking check engine light," was all he had to say on the subject.

x.x.x.x.

They were silent in the car, Penny's hands tense on the wheel. Part of her thought she might be to blame, but a larger part of her was entirely unapologetic for the way she had played. She had been good. She'd been too hot to handle. She wasn't sorry for her obviously superior skills, but she might be a little sorry that she allowed herself to focus so much on survival that she forgot to be gentle with the people she called friends.

Of course, in an every-man-for-themselves situation, friends were non-existent.

"I clearly won," she told him, voice low and dangerous.

"You died twice," he pointed out rationally.

"You hid the entire time!" she told him. "I had three times as many kills as you did."

"If this was solely based on kills, you were clearly victorious. You were also reckless and threw yourself into danger every time the opportunity presented itself. A good hunter is also strategic."

If Penny was being rational, she would have recognised that while she thought she had been level-headed, he was right, she hadn't been as smart as she should have been, and acted impulsively and recklessly a bit too often for something she had been treating as being more than a game. Unfortunately, it was hard for Penny to be rational, when all she wanted was his approval (and to win) and hearing what he thought of her made her feel inadequate, with a sharp edge of fury at his unfairness.

"Of course, you all lost," he continued. "Each one of you took the piece of technology and allowed it access to your vital signs, reassured by assurances it would keep you safe and your trust in the person providing it. Fifteen minutes after listening to an hour-long lecture on the inherent dangers of technology infiltrating the human race, not one of you said no to it when it was presented to you in seemingly innocuous terms."

"Sheldon."

"I'm not surprised Leonard, Raj and Howard were overcome by the tech, but I expected more from you."

"I trusted you!" she said hotly. "That's why."

"You shouldn't."

Penny was silent, allowing herself to think. She knew there had been more to this exercise than what it seemed at first glance, but she'd had it wrong. "So this was a test?"

"Think of it as a lesson learned."

Chapter Text

Penny awoke before her alarm, and it was one of those moments of perfect clarity. Her inner turmoil seemed to have eased overnight, and she felt relaxed in a way she hadn't since the start of Apocalypse Week. It might be the seventh day, but it was not the end of the world. Tomorrow would be another day, and she would still feel the same way she felt now. Sheldon going back to sitting in his spot, retiring the jeans and the jacket, and putting away his guns would not impact very much.

She knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the only thing she had left to do was tell him, ask him to think on it whether he thought there was anything there. Penny was going to confront her demons, because that was how she did things. Pining wasn't an option. That way only lead to misery, and she had enough of that in her life.

Part of her was sure that he wouldn't have anything to say that would give her any kind of hope. He wouldn't outright laugh at her, but he would be confused and maybe a little horrified that she would momentarily shake up his structured and rigid notion of his lack of sexuality.

So she would tell him.

Penny thought there was a kind of simple beauty in the idea of knowing for sure, of knowing that he knew, so she could take the required healing period and move on.

Only, she was going to give herself one last day and allow the week to play out. She thought it might mean more if any declarations of love came when he couldn't attribute them to heightened emotions during a game.

Maybe she'd give herself a month so he would know that for sure, but then if she started thinking that way, she'd give herself two, three, six, a year, and before she knew it, they would be five years in the future, she would be engaged to someone else, Sheldon would be holding his Nobel Prize (and she'd have at least a Saturn or a SAGA award – hey, it was her fantasy of the future, she could have what she wanted)(except Sheldon it seemed) and she would be staring at him across a room and realize how much time she had wasted putting off something that was painful, but could be the most rewarding thing to ever happen to her. And this was the Penny-who-won-a-SAGA talking.

That would be the worst thing that could happen: nothing, because she was too afraid, and Sheldon was too Sheldon.

And suddenly Penny was glad that Sheldon was the way he was, because of everyone she knew, he wouldn't be awkward around her if she blurted out that she loved him and wanted to take him to bed. After the initial refusal, Sheldon would just carry on as normal with her.

It took a lot of the stress off.

Penny was almost jovial as she crossed the hallway and entered the apartment. She had to pause and almost double-take, because as joyful as she felt, it couldn't compare to what Leonard was currently doing. She considered announcing her presence, but, well, it was just far too funny. The door hardly made any noise, but Leonard was also wearing headphones, so he didn't hear her arrival. He continued to fawn over his sproutless tomato plant as she stood there, pondering the merits of clearing her throat versus taking out her camera phone.

"Who is a good little fruit?" Leonard asked, pouring a bit of his coffee into his tomato plant that was still currently more of a pot of dirt. "You're not a veggie, oh no. Solanum lycopersicum of the family Solanaceae in the Order of Solanales which is nothing like the Order of the Phoenix. Asterids, Eudicots, Angiosperms are the lords of the manor, all in the Kingdom Plantae, so give me your lycopene so I can make ketchup." He took a sip of his coffee before giving more to the tomato plant. "Oh hey Penny."

"Were you just... rapping to your plant?"

"Well, yeah," Leonard said, sheepishly adjusting his glasses. "You told me to take good care of her, so I've been sleeping with her and reading to her, but that doesn't seem to work so I thought maybe some music."

"And the coffee?" she asked, mostly able to keep her laughter minimized to a grin.

"Well, I bought this book on the proper care of plants, and it says coffee grinds are a good soil fertilizer, so I thought if that was good for her, imagine what fresh coffee would be like."

Hadn't she read somewhere that coffee stunted growth or something? In humans. Who knew about plants. Penny continued smiling. "Fantastic job, Leonard. That is exactly the proper treatment of plants to keep them growing. I can't wait to taste your tomatoes."

"Thanks Penny!" Leonard said, but his arm tightened protectively around the plant, as though he would not allow Penny to pluck any tomatoes from his baby in the near future.

Apparently Sheldon wasn't the only one around here who was deaf to sarcasm.

x.x.x.x.x.

"The San Andreas Fault has sufficiently stored elastic strain energy for the next big earthquake. While impossible to predict the exact time, there will be warning signs. Once the fault has locked, continued relative motion between the plates leads to increasing stress and therefore, stored strain energy in the volume around the fault surface. This continues until the stress has risen sufficiently to break through the asperity, abruptly allowing sliding over the locked segment of the fault, releasing the stored energy. The energy released as a combination of radiated elastic strain seismic waves and frictional heating of the fault surface."

"We've learned all this," Howard pointed out. "Multiple times."

"Yes, but not all of us have the advantage of being born and raised on one of the world's most volatile continental transform faults. As transplants to this area, we did not spend our formative years learning the most strategic places to brace oneself during an earthquake."

"In an inside load-bearing doorway away from windows, glass, or heavy light fixtures."

"Beside or under heavy furniture that won't fall over and will give you a nice little air pocket if the walls collapse on you," Leonard joined in.

"Away from bookcases because bookcases are stupid dangerous-yo!" Raj looked at the four of them. "What? It is a concern in my life, look at this room! They say to crouch beside couches so the hypotenuse created by falling items will protect you, but the only falling items around are those bigass bookcases, and they'd fall right on you! It's something I remember, ok? And for someone as concerned with safety as Sheldon, you'd think he would have taken that into account."

"I did take that into account," Sheldon said pointedly. "I would never deliberately use the couch as shelter when the interior-facing side of the kitchen island is three feet in front of me, the work-area desk is two feet to the right of that in a clockwise rotation, that corner is load-bearing, as is the one in my bedroom in front of my desk, and my bed itself is centered far enough away from hazards to be an excellent place to rest while any seismic waves occur. As an added bonus, free massage as opposed to compromising the anterior longitudinal ligament or vertebral column from continuous tremors."

Free massage. Seriously? Could he get any more adorable?

Maybe that was how she should play it! Next earthquake, just crawl into bed with him citing safety protocol and then really rock his world.

"Back on task," Sheldon said, picking up one of his whiteboard markers like a pointer. "There are many...oh." He looked at the four of them. They looked back.

Penny mentally dared him to continue with his script, rehashing everything they had just talked about, and maybe he really was some kind of superior being, because he seemed to hear the dare, straightening his posture as he started his spiel on safe places to cower during an earthquake. She only half listened, in case there was something she didn't already know, because while aliens and zombies and worst-case-scenarios were possible, an earthquake in SoCal was inevitable.

It was the true Apocalypse for them.

"...and don't forget the aftershocks. One of the most common mistakes is the erroneous belief that the event is over when it has, in fact, merely started," Sheldon finished, pointedly, licking his lips and thoughtlessly twirling the marker around his fingers.

And suddenly, Penny was equating the whole conversation with sex.

"I always remember the aftershocks," Penny answered, almost breathless. "Earthquakes are pretty much the same as a female orgasm during really good sex."

"I'm never going to forget now," Howard declared.

Sheldon paused at this, eyebrows raised comically. He looked at her, he looked at the boys eying her with varying degrees of reverence, shrugged slightly. "Whatever works," he decided finally.

Whatever works, Penny heard the words, her entire body flushing with the implication of what that meant between them. For him to bring it up in another conversation about her sex life, well...

"Yeees, whatever works" Penny said meaningfully, remembering the last time he had said that and putting emphasis on it with the hopes he recognised it too. "Maybe thinking of what works doesn't work the way you meant it. Maybe thinking of that works really well for... seismic activity."

Sheldon returned her gaze evenly, no hints of confusion on his expression to tell her that he didn't understand what she was referring to, but also no signs of distaste, repulsion or denial or anything that indicated he understood. She tried raising her eyebrows meaningfully, but all that did was make him frown slightly in return.

Considering the fact she just tried to seduce him in front of his friends using vague inferences from a conversation they had ages ago, it was about what she could have expected.

"What are you talking about?" Leonard asked. "Did I miss something? That didn't make any sense, even for you. Penny?" When she didn't answer, he tried again. "Sheldon?"

Sheldon's shoulders heaved with an exasperated sigh. "I don't know, Leonard. I gave up understanding the complexities of the female mind when it comes to sexual intercourse a long time ago."

"SEX? I THOUGHT WE WERE TALKING ABOUT EARTHQUAKES?"

Leonard's shriek was enough to set the San Andreas Fault off prematurely.

"Then yes, Leonard. It seems you did miss something."

And Penny realized, so did she. A whole lot of somethings, because that short conversation told her more about Sheldon than she had previously known, or guessed, about his deal. One: he got the innuendo. Considering he rarely got sarcasm, that was a big deal. Considering she had been talking about the big-o and he followed her train of thought when she applied it to the 'whatever works' conversation, it was a huge deal. Secondly, the part where he said 'I gave up understanding' told her that at one point, he did try to understand it.

At one point he did try to understand it. Her mind was practically fizzling, and she was about three seconds from blurting out all her secrets in a bid to make him hers, her his, them mutually each other's. All of the above. Whatever.

"Penny pointed out that she remembers about aftershocks because it's a lot like orgasms," Raj explained.

"Yes, I got that part," Leonard said impatiently. "Then what happened?"

Raj shrugged. "Then Sheldon said if we want to equate earthquakes with sex, he didn't care, so long as it worked."

"I got that part too."

"Then what's the problem, dude? Sheldon just gave us free reign to think about sex and earthquakes. Howard's been sitting there buffering with that vacant expression for about three minutes. You want meaning?"

Leonard squinted in confusion.

Penny watched Sheldon as his head snapped towards Raj. "I did not give you permission to shirk your responsibility in understanding earthquakes by thinking of coitus. Penny pointed out a mnemonic device that she claims works for her, and I agreed with the veracity of paralleling earthquakes with the female orgasm as she described it. As it is very doubtful the three of you have experience with the female orgasm, it is time to return to the matter at hand."

Note to self: Matter at hand. Penny scribbled.

"I could please a woman!" Howard exclaimed, coming out of his fantasy-world once his virility was insulted.

"I could too."

"Same, no need to insult us, man."

"As if you could do any better, Sheldon. What do you even know about pleasuring a woman?"

"I was referring to the gender of your reproductive organs." Sheldon responded, rapidly losing patience with the turn of this conversation.

"I have you know I could get it."

Penny refrained from pointing out that Sheldon could probably get it, without the aid of a vibrator, and it would give new meaning to the term tremors. Probably. If not, she'd draw him a map and give detailed instructions. Then he'd get it.

That was a fantastic idea, Penny thought, unable to keep from smirking. To cover the fact she was pretty much thinking of ways to seduce Mr. Unseduceable, she finally spoke up. "Guys, come on. There's fifty-one other weeks of the year to talk about sex and you guys can make up for lost time tomorrow. Today is the last day of Apocalypse Week. Show a little respect."

x.x.x.x.

It was kind of fun, Penny reflected, to be playing a live game. Sheldon had it all set up with his Microsoft Tablet in his hand, obviously having walked these same streets and plotted out actions, counter-actions, moves and potential deaths. She had no idea how long it had taken him, and she wondered if he had consulted the programmed version of Pasadena from the driving simulation or if he had actually walked the streets.

"A fissure opens in the sidewalk in front of you," his voice read out, cold and impersonal. "It is 3 meters in diameter, extending across the two lanes of traffic and is caused by a weakening in the walls of an old sewer line. There is a shelf on the opposite sidewalk, approximately 2 feet wide. What do you do?"

"Is there really an old sewer line beneath the street here?"

Sheldon frowned at her. "You will not address the Game Master with non-game related questions."

"I wasn't, I was addressing my friend Sheldon. Have you seen him? He's about your height, weight, and structure, and he's got the same really great hands. He just acts a little less like a cyborg. Sometimes." Wow, she was really laying it on thick with the flirting today. Maybe subconsciously she was trying to prepare him for what came next, after Apocalypse Week was done. "I just wanted to know what level of reality this game is, like if an earthquake ever happened if I should know to watch this part of the street."

Sheldon gave her a cold look for interrupting his game and breaking down the fourth wall. "The point of Apocalypse Week is preparation. Where would the point of this exercise be if it wasn't based in reality?"

"Fine, good to know," she said with a wink. "I expect that you think I'm going to walk along that ledge over there, but while I want to get to safety, I have absolutely no need to put my life in more danger than it is. So we're going to go back to the last intersection and I'll go a roundabout way to work."

"A tremor hits," he read in his robotic voice as she neared the corner again. "One of little significance, but a car loses control and runs through the light, heading straight towa—ack!" he squawked as one of her hands curled around his wrist and she pulled him into a sprint and to what she assumed was safety further down the sidewalk.

"Penny! This is a delicate and expensive computing device," he exclaimed, and for one stupefying moment she thought he was talking about himself, the way Game Master was all robotic and stuff, and then she remembered the very sci-fi-like tablet he had in his hands, like something right out of Stargate Atlantis – and oh man, why did she know all these references? His fingers had a deathgrip on the pieces of metal and microchips as he stared at her balefully. "I am a non-entity in this game. Please desist from treating me as a part of it. While it is commendable that you would take into consideration my whereabouts under normal circumstances, it is not necessary."

"Sheldon," Penny sighed in exasperation. Ok, she could see his point, but it still went against her instincts to ignore his presence, to ignore the fact that if he was next to her; she would never not try to save him, even if it meant putting herself in danger. That was just the way she was.

"There is an ominous crumbling sound as the building overhead starts collapsing," Sheldon droned.

She took a step forward, crossing the street on the "walk" sign just as it started to change into walk with caution sign. "I'm heading over into that park, Sheldon," she told him with clear intent. "I'm going to avoid trees, and streets, and buildings for as long as possible, and cut through about 2 blocks of your Danger! Danger! routine."

Sheldon paused behind her, staring at his computer.

"What's the matter," she asked in exasperation, turning towards him and crossing her arms over her chest.

"The park doesn't exist."

Penny pointed. With emphasis. There was clearly a park across the street.

"It is not in the simulation."

"Sheldon!" Penny snapped, finger still pointing. "There is a park there. It exists. This isn't some kind of existential thing, we're standing in front of it so obviously the computer is wrong. Everyone knows that a park is the place to go during an earthquake because of the safety. If this is supposed to be play-as-if-real, do you really think I would avoid it and keep walking on the sidewalk like I had a deathwish or something?"

"No," he conceded, but still looked confused.

Penny huffed, and crossed the second street of the intersection, aware of him trailing behind her, albeit slowly as he tried to figure out what was wrong with his computer program, fingers dancing over the screen.

She turned to give him a fond smile with a slight edge of smugness for beating his game, only to find him paused in the middle of the street with an extreme frown on his face. She was about to make some joke about the game not computing for the Game Master, when her brain registered two things. One, he was still in the middle of the street, and two, the car.

Penny didn't even think, she just stepped forward, grabbed a handful of his cotton shirt, and yanked.

Sheldon flailed, tripping over his planted feet as she dragged him forward with a force that had him propelling toward her, stumbling over the curb, and almost falling to the sidewalk. Instead, he ended up half-draped on her as he tried to regain balance, a honking noise and the squeal of breaks echoing in their ears at the near-miss.

Sheldon inhaled shakily, eyes fluttering wildly and darting back and forth between the street and her. He was still leaning heavily on her, and her arm curved automatically around him as her rational thought snapped back into place. She'd always been good at reacting first and doing what needed to be done and saving the knee-quaking freak-outs for later, if at all.

Her hands were trembling slightly, the finest quiver in her muscles, but Sheldon's whole body was vibrating, and it prompted Penny back into taking charge, planting her hand against him to steady him. She reached for the tablet in his numb fingers before he dropped it, thinking he was about to faint.

That goddamn fucking tablet. This was all its fault, with its stupid program and Sheldon's stupid technology dependency. It was so tempting to just smash the thing on the ground in a fit of frustration, to blame his near-accident entirely on the machine and not on the man. "Sheldon, are you alright? Sheldon?" she placed her hands on his cheeks, peering into his face. When his eyes contracted and adjusted to her nearness, she allowed her hands to drop to his shoulders, feeling the solidity beneath her palms. Penny needed, in that moment to feel that he was real, and the sensation of hard bone and flesh under her fingers reassured her that everything was ok. "Sheldon?"

Sheldon seemed to draw himself back together, his skin still pale and eyes still looking a bit shocked. He swallowed once, shook his head, and opened his mouth. When no words emerged, he tried again. "You saved me, Penny."

"Don't worry about it Sheldon," Penny responded, patting his arm casually despite the fact her heart was still beating rapidly in her chest from fright. "So long as I'm next to you, I'll always pull you out of the way of crazy drivers or I'll get hit with you."

"I told you not to pay any attention to me."

"Yeah, well Sheldon," she said a little crossly, holding back a lecture that was on the tip of her tongue. "That was the game, this was reality. Sometimes I wonder if you can tell the difference."

While slightly uncalled for, as Sheldon was the closest to earth as anyone she had ever met, it seemed to do the trick. His eyes blazed at the insult, his back came up, and he faced his accuser dead-on. It took the emphasis off her, at least, Penny thought.

"As a physicist, I am firmly grounded in reality. Personally, I believe you are the one who has her head in the clouds with your chosen profession."

"Do you?" Penny asked shrilly. It was Omaha on, if he was going to insult her acting career and general sensibleness. "I wasn't the one standing in the middle of the street on a Don't Walk sign, looking for a park on a computer simulation when it was right in front of you in reality! Too bad your simulation didn't tell you a car was approaching, because maybe then you would have moved out of the way yourself."

There was a reason she was upset, and she wondered if his universal understanding of everything meant he knew it was out of fear. She was so confused, there were a myriad of emotions flitting through her head and she wasn't sure which one to focus on. There was relief he was fine, that he hadn't been hit by a car. She was also grateful that she hadn't injured herself trying to save him, but that was secondary, maybe even tertiary to the fear of losing him.

So she tightened her grasp around his arms, barely resisting the urge to shake him. "Think about it, Sheldon! Yesterday you taught us all the dangers of relying on technology, and today relying on technology almost got you killed. I don't think I need to point out the irony or the hypocrisy in that fact."

Because her hands her still grasping his arms, she did feel the slight tremor in his frame at her words. It made her face soften and her grasp relax. "I'm sorry," she said soothingly, brushing her hands down his arms. "I don't mean to yell at you. You just gave me a start, that's all."

"Fear is considered to be a basic survival mechanism in response to specific stimuli, in this case danger. Physical reactions include rapid heart rate, increased blood pressure, tightening of muscles and sharpened senses. The sympathetic nervous system goes into hyperarousal where the natural reaction is fight or flight."

"What is your point, Sheldon?" Penny snapped. The way her emotions were yo-yoing, she was pretty sure she got his point. She was coming down off an adrenalin high, and about to crash.

He simply shook his head and stepped away from her. "If we do not move now, the circular route you have chosen will leave you more than 16.490 minutes late for work."

"Sonofa..." Penny muttered, digging for her cell phone in her purse as she turned on her heel and stomped down the street. Of course he was right, she was already two minutes late and she still had to cut back the two blocks she had detoured to avoid the sink hole in the middle of the street.

"Penny, you have not completed the simulation..."

"Oh, we're done," she told him with absolute certainty. Of course Sheldon was able to keep up with her, even when she was walking with as much speed as possible without breaking into a jog. His legs were much longer than hers were. She wasn't sure if she appreciated that right now or not. Part of her wanted to hover around him to make sure he was ok and didn't get himself into danger again and part of her wanted to get as far away from him as possible before she really lost it and started yelling, and shaking, and potentially even crying from the scare and the second-long certainty that he was going to die in front of her eyes. "Leonard," she said into her phone once someone answered on the other end. "Come pick up your roommate. I don't think he can be trusted alone right now."

"Did you break him?" Leonard asked, only partially jokingly.

"He broke himself," she retorted, hanging up.

x.x.x.x.

Penny didn't start shaking until fifteen minutes into her shift – judged by when she started working, not when she should have started working. Sheldon was safely in Leonard's car and on his way home to repeat the exercise with the boys returning from their own places of work, her anger and adrenalin crashed, and she was left standing in the middle of the dining room with her legs unable to support her weight and the tray full of glasses tinkling in her hands.

Her fingers curled tightly around the tray and she forced the thought from her mind, strong-arming it into a corner of her mind where she didn't have to face it now, or potentially ever. It was harder to control the physical, but she managed that too, continuing her shift with the same determination that moved her from Nebraska to Los Angeles and had her stay for half a decade.

She did her best not to think of Sheldon again until he showed up a few hours later, fingers tightly curled around the strap of his messenger bag, and a worried expression on his face. She saw him from across the room, even before one of her coworkers came to find her.

"Sheldon, what are you doing here?" Penny asked, bundling up her apron in exasperation. Mostly she just wanted to hide the dubious brown stain spread across the front, an accumulation of spilled coffee and barbeque sauce, because if he was looking for service, he would make her change into a fresh one, and she might kind of love him, but that didn't mean she didn't think him annoying.

"May I speak with you?" he asked.

"You certainly may," Penny responded with a raised eyebrow.

"In private," he asked, clearly worried about something.

She sighed and motioned for someone to take over her tables before directing him towards the empty party dining room.

"Please have a seat," he nodded towards a chair, and it struck her as a bit of absurdity for him to be saying that to her inside the walls of The Cheesecake Factory while she was at work.

He waited until she was seated, hands not quite fluttering in distress, but he was holding them with a certain tenseness that bespoke of halted movement.

"Sheldon?" she prompted, doing a little resisting herself and not reaching out to touch his arm. It wouldn't help either of them in the long run for her to startle him while he was wound so tightly.

He finally broke. "I am worried about it, Penny!"

"About what, sweetie?"

"You said earlier today not to worry about the fact I was almost hit by that car because so long as I have you at my side you will always pull me out of the way, but it is a cause for concern. You will not always be there. Over the last week I have noticed a disturbing trend. You have a tendency towards impulsiveness and heroics, but not for the sake of being heroic. You genuinely put your life on the line for other people, and I find that an admirable trait if it was coupled with prudence. Or, at least I thought I did. If you had stopped a moment to think, I would not be alive right now."

She barely refrained from pointing out if he had stopped to think for a moment, none of this would have happened in the first place. "Sheldon, my break is going to be over in about twelve minutes. If you have a point, you should get to it soon."

"My point is that as the day progressed and I tested each Howard, Raj and Leonard, it became painfully obvious that none of them would have been able to do for me what you did. You are the only person I know more inclined towards action and aggression than freezing or fleeing, and I have been considering the benefits of a mutually beneficial protectorship."

Penny frowned at him in confusion. "You want us to take care of each other?"

"In a manner of speaking - I want you by my side, Penny. I cannot think of anyone more suited to adapting to my schedule and all it entails; someone who will also push me out of the way of a moving bus instead of in front of it."

She laughed, despite the way her stomach was clenching. Clearly he wasn't saying what she thought he was saying, because in a way it seemed almost too easy, and she hadn't been that lucky in a long while. "Sheldon, I can't go around being your bodyguard for the rest of your life."

"You misunderstand me. I have no need for a bodyguard."

"Then what do you have a need for?" her heart was pounding at the question, full of hopes and fears.

"You."

Penny's body reacted viscerally to the word, but she ruthlessly shoved that reaction aside. You. He said it so frankly that the word circled around her head, almost taunting her with the belief it wasn't real. Her first inclination was to say 'I'm sorry, WHAT?' but she managed to reel the words back in on time. Sheldon seemed to actually be saying what she thought he was, and no matter how much she wanted to hear it, part of her thought she had to be mistaken.

Penny swallowed. "Sweetie," she reached across the table, fingers sliding across his bare forearm.

Sheldon flinched, arm jerking back in an involuntary reaction before he forced himself to stay still, her hand still half-resting on his skin.

Penny slid her hand forward again, carefully, watching for an indication that he was going to bolt. Sheldon clenched his jaw briefly, and then relaxed. She could see the effort it took, and she tried smiling encouragingly at him, wondering if he could feel the way her pulse was pounding through her fingers. It was still a bit of a risk if she was misunderstanding him, but that big gaping fissure in the sidewalk didn't look nearly as wide as it had five minutes ago. Taking a running jump didn't seem an impossible leap of faith anymore.

"Sheldon, I've been thinking about this too. Do you want to try dating? See about that cat in the box?"

"Oh." The word was said with half surprise, half disappointment, and Penny recoiled, drawing away from him and getting to her feet.

"No, of course not," she filled in for him. "What was I thinking?" Foolish. She was so foolish to just blurt out the question like that. "Would you like something?" she asked, now that she was on her feet, the weight of self-recrimination making her want to move away from him as quickly as possible, to fill her brain with some activity that wasn't the fact she had just asked him out and he had looked at her like she had betrayed all his beliefs. "A diet coke? I'll get you a diet coke."

She got two steps away from him before turning back, surprised to find him on his feet behind her. "You should know that I meant it. If at any point in your life you decide... well, I meant it." There were tears gathering in her eyes, another reaction she pushed away, ignored and hid by turning away from him.

"Penny," he said in that surprisingly compassionate tone he was capable of. His hand closed around her shoulder, and Penny went still, nerves taut as he drew her back to face him.

His mouth pressed against hers, chaste lips closed. Her heart was beating so quickly, but her head was finally silent, enjoying the feel of the moment rather than the implications. She parted her lips slightly against his to feel his fuller bottom lip slide between hers. It was so soft, and perfect, and everything (and yet nothing still – there was still so much there could be). Penny's mind rebooted, understanding what this meant, and she ran her tongue along his lip, not to gain entry or to deepen the kiss, but as her own little demonstration of acceptance, before drawing away from him.

"So... yes?" she asked, taking in the slight flush of his cheeks, and the way he wasn't quite able to meet her eyes, gaze centered solely on her mouth. Penny wanted to know what his hair would look like mussed by her fingers, how his face would look like in true arousal.

Sheldon licked his bottom lip, tracing the line of her tongue, and Penny wanted to know what that tasted like too. "Yes."

x.x.x.x.

The worst part of the day wasn't the fact she had to work after almost getting hit by a car, it was the fact she had to go back on shift after Sheldon agreed to date her and had kissed her, and her world was all sunshine and rainbows and bright neon colours in happiness. She thought maybe he was right about her head being in the clouds, because she felt like she was floating, and it was difficult not to break into random, insatiably happy giggles whenever someone did so much as look at her.

By the time she was done work, she managed to moderate that down into a beaming smile. She rushed home and up the stairs, throwing open the door to 4A and startling everyone.

"Good, you're home. We just ordered pizza," Leonard told her, plant in his lap. "I don't know if Sheldon told you, but the last night of Apocalypse Week is just to relax and unwind and talk about everything that happened."

"That sounds great."

"I didn't order olives on yours," Leonard promised her.

"That's good," Penny responded absently with a grin and clear intent as she looked at Sheldon. "Olives are for martinis, not pizzas."

"That's what Sheldon said. It was weird."

"Mmmhmm, I bet. Sheldon, can I talk to you for a minute out here?" She crooked her finger at him, doing her best not to look too come-hither.

"Very well," he sighed, putting down the television remote and following her out the door. Penny closed it behind them and then reached for him, twining her arms around his neck and going on tip-toe to press her mouth against his, another sweet and innocent kiss that did very little to tame her hormones, but did unimaginable things to her heart.

How ridiculous was that? She was standing in the hallway on her return, kissing Sheldon. When she had left that morning, she had been sure it would never happen.

He looked vaguely surprised by this turn of events, so she brushed her lips against his again.

"I'm going to go change," she told him, arms still entwined behind his head. "Good?"

He nodded, a stunned expression still on his face. "Yes."

Penny giggled as she stepped away from him and crossed the hallway to her apartment, pausing in the doorway to blow him a kiss.

x.x.x.x.x.x.

Pizza was less of a painful ordeal than she thought it would be. She was able to keep her goofy face more or less under control, which was a major accomplishment given the circumstances.

"This was a good one, guys," Raj pointed out, cheese stringing from his mouth. "Less death all around. Adding Penny was a fantastic idea because she's actually conditioned to do half this shit, and I feel like the next time I'm walking down a street and see some drunk lurching towards me and my heart skips a beat because I worry the zombie apocalypse is starting, it won't be nearly as frightening."

"Penny won't be standing next to you," Howard pointed out. "She can't always be there. You'll probably be one of the first to die for not running away from the first zombie."

Penny shared a secret smile with Sheldon, who was chewing his pizza and may or may not have been reciprocating.

"Yeah, that's true. I always consider it, but what if it's just someone with a limp or some kind of deformity and I rush across the street to get away from them. Isn't that offensive? I feel like that's offensive."

"And that is why you'll be one of the first to die," Leonard pointed out. "That's fine, buddy, I do the same. We'll be zombies together."

"Terrifying," Howard deadpanned. "Our major advantage is the fact we hardly go outside. Considering how social Penny is, she'd probably be the first to die."

"If anyone tried to bite me, I would bite them back. With a bat."

"Terrifying," Raj agreed. "I can't believe the week went by so quickly. It seems like only yesterday Sheldon was making us do sprints on the Caltech track."

"It was only yesterday," Leonard pointed out.

"I mean the first time! When we all got chafing and you sprained your ankle."

Howard chuckled. "Those were good times."

Everyone looked at him with various degrees of disbelief, considering he had just spent seven days complaining about it.

"Everything goes back to normal tomorrow," Howard said with a regrettable sigh. "Sheldon will be Sheldon again. Penny will go back to barely talking to most of us. Raj will run out of anti-mutism pills. Leonard will... Leonard."

"And you'll just be a skeeze I want to punch in the face," Penny finished.

"And you will always be insanely hot and worth all the pain, especially now that I know what you can do with your fists."

"I could start now," Penny threatened, half-lunging across the table at him.

"Eek!" Both Howard and Raj recoiled.

"Too soon!" Raj exclaimed. "You're still terrifying. But seriously, guys. I'm going to miss this."

"Me too," Leonard mourned.

They all looked so dejected by the idea of it being over, that Penny wanted to remind them of all the times they resisted the activities and whined. Only, she had something a little more fun up her sleeve.

"It won't all go back to normal," Penny told them, breaking the reflective silence that enveloped the group. She reached over, placing her hand over Sheldon's forearm, fingers sliding over the material of his shirt so she wouldn't startle him entirely. "Sheldon and I are dating now."

The three of them burst out laughing, with varying exclamations of "you're shitting me!" "ahaha good one!"

Very deliberately, Penny trailed her fingers down Sheldon's arm, beyond his sleeve and over skin until her fingers rested over his. She looked at him to find him frowning at his friends, and she tapped his middle finger with her own. He turned to look at her, barely veiled fury softening as his eyes met hers. He turned his hand over, grasping her fingers in his, and to Penny it didn't matter that their friends thought they were joking, because Sheldon was sincere and that was the important thing.

"Wait," Howard was the first to notice, his eyes narrowing on the two of them. "You're serious?"

"That's not possible," Leonard pointed out, still chortling.

"On the contrary, Apocalypse Week is about stepping outside of comfort zones and exploring the possibilities of what other people believe to be improbable. I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge my altered perception towards the role Penny plays in my life, especially given the basic tenets of Apocalypse Week." Sheldon paused, looking down at their joined hands. "You would all be wise to take note. I am very serious."

It was impossible for Penny not to smile at that. "We're very serious," she promised, tightening her grasp on Sheldon. "Very serious."

"Ahahahaha," Raj continued. "All your faces. Very serious. This is good. Very good. The best, even. All the awards! It took you two long enough! I've never seen a blinder pair of fools in all my life. And you guys, sitting there all shocked as if your world was turned upside-down. Where were you six days ago when Sheldon had Penny pressed against that bookcase? Or five when Penny told the police he was her boyfriend and he didn't say anything? Or how about two years ago when Penny moved in and Sheldon started giving her sex eyes and changing his schedule to accommodate her and Penny started to come over just to poke him and pull his pigtails to get a reaction? Why is this so shocking to everybody? I can't even right now, you might be blinder than they are. Am I the only one who has been waiting for this to happen for years? Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go to a bookstore and pick up some nice girl while I can still form coherent sentences around her. Good day!"

With that, Raj got to his feet and executed the perfect storm-out.

"What the frack just happened?" Howard wondered.

The End.


A/N: Yeah, I think I might have ruined the chapter guys. Sheldon said something profound and meaningful, and then Tumblr!Raj just came pouring out of me. I can't decide if it is awesome or terrible, but I am going with awesome.

Thank you to everyone who helped and supported me over the last year and a half as I wrote this. Without you, this story probably would have fizzled off chapters ago. I appreciate every single note of encouragement, review, and PM hand-holding that occurred and I feel like I have made some lasting friends in the process.

A special thanks to my friends dictionary and Wikipedia. I started this story knowing very little about most of the topics discussed and ended it still knowing very little, but with the ability to make pretty clever jokes about it.

As always, please review.