Penny pees on the stick, sets it on the toilet tank, and goes to wash her hands and brush her teeth. The two-minute timer is on the vanity; she turns it over and watches the sand start running, as she builds up a good head of minty foam in her mouth.
She’s not really expecting much. She’s pretty sure it’s the wrong time of the month, even given how many fertility drugs she’s been pumped with. So when she checks the stick at the two-minute mark and sees two blue lines in the narrow window, she splutters toothpaste everywhere.
Her first thought is that maybe she can get rid of it. Maybe she can drive somewhere interstate and find a Planned Parenthood that won’t ask her any complicated questions, like why don’t you want to have this baby? Because if she answers honestly, they’ll say no, and if she lies, they’ll see it in her face.
Or maybe there are herbs or something. Something she can take. Hell, some disease she can catch. Bernadette would know, except that Bernadette’s got her own issues to contend with. Catholic ideologies clashing with Jewish beliefs make for a difficult path to navigate.
Amy might know, except that Penny suspects that Amy wouldn’t tell her. Not that Amy would ever admit to being glad that Penny’s in this position, but since Amy and Sheldon broke up... no.
Penny slowly starts to move again. Tosses the stick into the bathroom trashcan under the vanity. Wipes up the toothpaste splatter from the toilet and flushes the tissues. Rinses her mouth and spits. And tries to figure out how the hell she’s going to tell Sheldon.
As it turns out, she needs no words. He sees her face and he knows. His own face goes whiter than ever and she thinks – not for the first time – that their roles should be reversed, that she’s summer far more than he will ever be, with her burnished gold hair and skin, and he’s so very winter with that pale skin, that dark leafless-branch brown hair.
But their places are settled in the cycle, now more than ever.
Their favorite position is spooning because of their height difference. He curls around her and makes her feel safe and secure even as he’s moving inside her. It means he can push her hair aside and kiss the back of her neck and the spot behind her ear that makes her go shivery. He can cup her breasts with his long-fingered hands, tease her nipples, rolling them between finger and thumb, until she doesn’t know whether to arch forward into his hands or backward into his cock. He does not make the choice any easier when one of his hands runs down over her still-flat stomach to press a finger tight against her clit and her brain shorts out, leaving her body in control.
It’s not all in control though because after she’s come and he’s come and they’re resting in each other’s’ arms, she realizes she’s been crying the whole time.
Sheldon doesn’t quit work.
“Having a definitive deadline makes it imperative that I finalize as many papers as possible,” he says.
“I wish you wouldn’t say deadline,” Penny says.
She has to pee on another stick to satisfy her own workplace that she’s eligible for parental leave. She does this one with an audience, because there’s a Court-appointed representative, a woman named Rhea, who’s come out to ensure that she is genuinely pregnant. Rhea will be there for the first ultrasound, and the first amnio test, and probably the first kick, if the Court get their way.
Penny finds out that it is very hard to pee defiantly with an audience.
The Court-appointed OB/GYN (Stephanie Barnett, who has been pretending not to know her, for both their sakes) gives her an approximate date of conception, and the news that she will be about three and a half months at Harvest. Stephanie says with her mouth that this should make her very physically capable of carrying out her Harvest duties; she says with her eyes that she is so very sorry.
She’s declared honestly pregnant and sent home to wait out the long weeks until Harvest, with an encouraging word or two from the Court representative – she’ll be a marvellous Queen, really she will, so young and physically healthy.
“They can’t just pick a Queen who’s not attached to her King, can they? Who’s not going to be attached to the baby? Some teenage girl who was going to give the baby up anyway?” she says to Raj, who becomes a regular visitor to her apartment once the news is announced.
“You know they can’t,” Raj says as gently as possible. “It doesn’t mean anything without attachment.”
Penny nods and tries to focus on the television, but her gaze keeps drifting to the calendar on the wall. It’s just the standard representation of the seasons, same as anyone else affiliated with the Court has. Bernadette and Howard have both a Gregorian and a Hebrew calendar, which makes organizing date nights ridiculously complicated.
At some point she’s taken a marker and circled Harvest furiously in red, and scribbled Reaptide over the week leading up to it. This fascinates her because she doesn’t remember doing it, but she wasn’t drunk because she hasn’t had alcohol since being told she was chosen as Queen-in-Waiting. (Well. Except for that night.)
She wonders how the other girls feel. The other Queens-in-Waiting, who have been granted a reprieve because her uterus was cooperative first. Will they be relieved, or will they pity her? She thinks that she’d just be relieved; whether that’s selfish or not, she’s not sure.
“Penny, are you all right? Do you want some water?”
“I want to get in the TARDIS and go anywhere but here,” Penny says.
Raj glances at the television. “Anywhere?”
“I’d rather be in the middle of a Mexican standoff between Daleks and Cybermen.”
“You’re getting better at being geeky,” Raj says.
“Yeah, I caught it off Sheldon.” She pulls her feet up onto the couch and tucks them under herself. “I wish he was here.”
“You don’t think that maybe distancing yourself from him will help?”
Raj wisely drops the subject and starts talking about how Stuart’s psychological paper on the rise of Jediism has been getting rave reviews (if that’s what you call it in an academic context), and how Stuart’s store is doing so much better since he raised the altar to pop culture in the back room, and how Stuart looks cute in brown robes.
“Does he use the Force in bed?” Penny asks, and when Raj goes brilliant red she realizes that she wasn’t actually joking.
And time passes, and time passes, and time passes, and the jokes turn to sand in her mouth, and every night when she and Sheldon go to bed she stays awake long after he does, counting his heartbeats and his breaths, memorizing the lines of his face and neck and hands. She feels like she has spent far too long taking him, taking them, for granted.
The night before Harvest, she goes up to the roof, a fortifying orange-based drink in her hand. It’s horrible without vodka but she’s pretty sure it would be horrible with vodka as well.
There’s a lunar eclipse going on, dusting the usually silver orb with a dirty orange shadow, like a ripening pumpkin. Penny’s hand goes to her belly. Still mostly flat; any curve there is probably just in her mind. She knows the potential is in there, though. She’s been poked and prodded too much to be uncertain.
She wants to be drunk. She wants to be high. She wants to be anything but stone cold sober and contemplating the next day.
It’s a long way from the roof to the ground. Penny stands on the edge for an eternity, a cool breeze ruffling her t-shirt. It’s one of Sheldon’s. She’s taken to wearing them. He hasn’t complained. He’d probably complain if she got blood on Green Lantern, though. Not to mention that she can imagine how his face would go from impassive to broken when he found her.
The thought of hurting Sheldon is what makes her step down from the edge and then kick away the milk crate she’d used to get up. It’s stupid, all things considered, but she just knows that if she’s going to hurt him she wants to at least be there in person to apologize.
She stays on the roof for an hour, looking up at the stars. Raj joins her after a while, his old silence reasserting itself, but his presence comforting. Stupid, really, to think that the group would have stayed close forever; they were really just twenty-something versions of the high school nerd clique, with her attached like one of the popular girls who took a wrong turn on her way to sneak a cigarette down behind the gym. Amy and Leonard have been gone practically forever. Bernadette and Howard have drifted away. It’s mostly just her and Sheldon, Raj and Stuart, and she’s having trouble imagining the group any smaller.
“It will be,” Raj says, and Penny realizes that she’s been talking out loud. “But you know, Stuart and I–”
“–Don’t need to saddle yourselves with me.”
“It’s not like that.”
“I feel like it is.” Penny desperately wants a cigarette. She hasn’t smoked since she left Kurt; part of her plan to start over. Back when she’d thought she could get away from her origins. “You didn’t choose to get involved.”
“That’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re choosing to get involved. You’re the one who didn’t have the choice.” Raj tries to put his arm around her but Penny pulls away.
“There are ways I could have chosen to get out of this. Don’t tell me you don’t know that.”
“I think you need to go to Sheldon,” Raj says. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“If the sun rises,” Penny says by rote. Then her mind catches up with her mouth, and Raj has to hold her hair back while she throws up miserably into a corner, sick with nerves and new ancient traditions and plain old squabbly baby belly.
Sheldon goes down on her for a long time that night, licking into her like he’s trying to taste her soul. Maybe he succeeds. They don’t spoon together this time; instead, he moves up her body and into her, fitting their bodies together, bracing himself over her on his forearms, and looking down into her eyes. She’s struck all over again by how intense his gaze can be; she remembers it from the day they first met, when she could have sworn he was giving her come-to-bed eyes as he showed off his whiteboard.
That memory leads to a torrent of others. Eight years of living across the hall from each other before Amy and Sheldon had fallen apart on the basis that Amy wanted physical contact that Sheldon wasn’t providing, and the hideous irony that was how Sheldon had come to her for sympathy and they’d ended up–
She doesn’t want to think about that. She doesn’t want to think about how angry Amy got, and how horrible she’d felt, and how feeling horrible hadn’t stopped her from taking Sheldon into her bed again the next night.
What she wants to think about is Sheldon inside her here and now and how that feels. How she’s taught him so much in their time together. Her, Penny, teaching the man who knew everything all the things he didn’t know. She tucks her heels behind his knees and clasps her hands behind his neck, and that’s when she feels his tears dripping on her face.
Harvest day dawns cool and cloudy. The Court representatives come to take Sheldon away just after breakfast, but Penny knows she’ll see him later, so doesn’t protest as much as she might have. Bernadette comes over five minutes later; she was probably waiting in the lobby until Sheldon was gone.
“Do you think you can do it?”
It’s the first time anyone has actually asked her that.
“I know I can. I know I don’t want to.”
“I don’t think anyone thought you did.”
Penny pokes at her half-eaten cereal. “Who would want to?”
“Enough people that the Court still exists,” Bernadette says a little tartly.
“Come on. Nobody would ever have believed Sheldon if he tried to convert to any religion that didn’t revolve around the center of the universe. I know some people can balance religion and science,” Penny adds before Bernadette can trot out that old chestnut again, “but he was never one of them.”
“So he got caught up in your tradition.”
It’s the same thing that Penny has been accusing herself of since she first saw those two blue lines. “It’s not my tradition. The Court chose me.”
“You could still have converted,” Bernadette persists.
“Queens-in-Waiting don’t get to convert. We get to be pumped full of hormones, fuck our boyfriends, and try to make one of them the next King,” Penny says. She’s too sick of the discussion to even snap. “Just like you get to say your prayers and hope that’s going to be enough in the afterlife. Or like Raj gets to go vegetarian and hope he doesn’t get reincarnated as a tapeworm. Or like Stuart gets to live in harmony with the Force and hope that after he dies God doesn’t ask him what the fuck he was thinking.”
Bernadette stands up. “I don’t know what else to say.”
“I think we’re done.”
Bernadette gives her an awkward hug and leaves. Penny sits alone, dragging her spoon back and forth through her congealing cereal, until Rhea comes to fetch her. In high school being in the Corn Queen’s court was pretty cool. At first when the other Court contacted her and told her she had Queen-in-Waiting potential, that was pretty cool too. But there’s no corn scepter here, no woven-stalk crown; just the seed from her King and the inevitability of the final ritual.
Other people celebrate Thanksgiving, this time of year. Penny has nothing to be thankful for.
There’s no corn within miles of Pasadena, so they’re making do with one of the lawns dotted around the Caltech campus. There’s a crowd. Of course there’s a crowd. They’re separated from the lawn by a waist-high barricade. They all look ready to eat someone. Penny wishes they’d fuck off and follow one of the Mesoamerican paths.
Sheldon is standing in the middle of the wide green space. He’s wearing all white. Penny is wearing all black. She feels like they’re chess pieces, one King and one Queen, and the rest of the board has been swept clean. Which makes the game impossible to win, naturally.
But that’s not quite true, is it? Because she has a pawn growing inside her, a pawn with another six months left to play.
Raj and Stuart are standing to one side. She wishes they weren’t here to see this.
Rhea takes her up to Sheldon. He’s flanked by Court attendants. One of them presses the silver sickle into her hand. She remembers a conversation with Sheldon, back when she wasn’t even a Queen-in-Waiting, just Penny-the-waitress. He’d said that silver wouldn’t have the structural integrity required to be strong enough for a sickle, and Penny thinks he was right; it feels too heavy, for one thing.
But the handle is comfortable in her hand.
The Court representatives speak to the crowd, going through the formalities. The bell is rung, signifying the beginning of Sheldon’s three minute head start.
It’s only after thirty Mississippis that Penny realizes he isn’t going to run.
“Sheldon, you have to run,” she says fiercely.
Sheldon folds his arms and stays put. The crowd are getting annoyed. They’re being cheated of their spectacle.
“Did you ever think, Penny, that maybe the Summer King wouldn’t mind yielding to the Winter Queen? For her sake?”
“What if you escaped?”
His lips curl up at the corners in that familiar Sheldon Cooper not-quite-smile. “I imagine the world would end.”
Two minutes thirty and the Court attendants are getting edgy and Sheldon goes to his knees in front of her.
Two minutes forty and she kneels with him, looking up into his face, seeing a quiet acceptance there that she knows is not mirrored on her own.
At two minutes fifty the crowd starts counting down the last ten seconds. Penny takes a deep breath, puts her left hand on Sheldon’s shoulder, and lifts the sickle.
His blood on her hands marks the end of his story, and the beginning of the end of her own. So the cycle goes. But for this moment she can’t think about that, only about one simple fact:
He never would have outrun her anyway.