Chapter 1: The Best Friend Protocol
"But I don't want to watch the new Star Trek movie." Sheldon stated with a hint of a whine creeping into his voice.
"Well too bad." Leonard said. "We've all agreed on it."
"Why don't you want to watch it?" Penny asked ignoring Raj and Howard waving their arms around wildly trying to signal her to stop talking. "I thought you loved Star Trek and this one is all about Spock."
"If by 'all about Spock' you mean this is the movie that complete destroys his character. Do they really expect us to believe that an advanced mind such as his would choose to forgo his Vulcan reason in favor of his baser human side?" Sheldon asked, his voice full of derision.
"I'm not sure what show you were watching but that was the whole point of his character development before this movie." Howard said with a sigh.
"I acknowledge that in the original continuity his character grew to embrace certain aspects of his human side such as friendship but certainly nothing so...so common as a libidinous relationship with Uhura." Sheldon sat up straighter. "Even the presence of Leonard Nimoy, reprising his role as the Spock from the original timeline, does nothing to ameliorate the writers' atrocious pandering to the lowest common denominators in the audience by introducing a frivolous romantic subplot."
"I thought it was sweet." Penny said grinning broadly at Sheldon from her seat in the armchair.
"You would." Sheldon said shaking his head. "Which proves my point."
"What was your point again?" She asked innocently.
Sheldon opened his mouth to answer her when he realized that her question had not been asked out of a genuine desire to understand his viewpoint. "It is obvious that you lack the necessary background to fully understand my argument. Suffice it to say that you are the intended audience for this movie and not me."
Penny looked over at Leonard. "Why did that feel like an insult?"
"Because it was one," he said hitting play.
Instead of paying attention to the movie, Sheldon once again turned his mind to the Penny Problem, as he had begun to refer to his realization of their changing relationship. He had been mildly uncomfortable in her presence ever since the night two weeks ago when he had come to the conclusion that she was his best friend. The whole situation seemed horribly unresolved and the uncertainty disturbed his sense of order. He didn't have any sort of guidelines to help him navigate the situation the way he did with Leonard.
The roommate contract had proved invaluable, outlining the necessary steps he needed to take to maintain his side of their friendship. It specified everything from the frequency he should ask about Leonard's day and the appropriate etiquette for dealing with Leonard's sexual partners to the obligations should one of them develop time travel. The more Sheldon thought about it the more a new contract seemed like a good idea. Not that he expected Penny to develop time travel. Of course the likelihood that Leonard would do enough original research to manage it was also laughable.
Sheldon hiccupped a laugh at the thought of Leonard actually making any significant contribution to science. He only realized the poor timing of his amusement when four sets of eyes turned to look at him disapprovingly. Glancing at the screen he realized that Spock's mother had just died.
Deciding that explaining the joke would be a pointless endeavor, Sheldon got up from his seat and moved to his desk. Now that he had determined that a contract would be the perfect method of managing his friendship with Penny, he wanted to get started immediately.
Penny had just gotten out of the shower when she heard the first three knocks on her door. She quickly threw on her new pink, flamingo print pajama pants and a lime green camisole and made it to the door just in time for the third set of knocks.
"Penny." She heard from the other side of the door.
Penny threw open the door to find Sheldon holding a large stack of papers. "Yes?"
"Here," He said holding the papers in her direction. "Please look these over and fill in the blanks."
"Fill in the blanks?" Penny asked looking suspiciously at the papers in his hand. "Is this another friendship test?"
"No." Sheldon said. "The status of our friendship is not in doubt. This is merely a contract that outlines the parameters of our social interactions."
"You want me to sign a contract?" Penny asked in disbelief, taking a step further away from the papers he was holding in her direction.
"This is merely a first draft. There are several areas that I have left blank for you to outline your requirements. I also expect that there will be some points you will wish to negotiate before signing." Sheldon waved the papers in her direction but she clasped her hands behind her back.
"Sheldon," Penny said, completely confused. "Why do you want me to sign a contract?"
"Everything is explained in the preamble." Sheldon said avoiding her eyes.
He looked so uncharacteristically self conscious that she grabbed the papers from him. "I'll look at it but don't expect me to sign anything."
A look of relief passed over his face as he turned and walked back to his apartment without so much as a goodbye. Irritated at the lack of consideration, she leaned out of her door and called after him. "Goodnight, Sheldon."
"Goodnight, Penny." He responded as he closed his door.
Shaking her head at the crazy that was Sheldon Cooper, Penny closed the door and set the papers on her coffee table. She returned to the bathroom and as she brushed her teeth she couldn't help but think of Sheldon. She didn't think that she would ever get used to having him as a neighbor. For someone who was so set in his routines he sure had a knack for shaking her out of her's. No one else in her life had the ability to irritate her so badly that she wanted to go junior rodeo on them one minute and then turn around and make her so happy she could cry with just a hug the next. Not that he gave out many hugs.
Penny smiled as she remembered the first hug he had ever given her. He had been so happy about that silly napkin that she had given him two years ago that he hadn't been able to contain himself. She was fairly certain that it had been the first time he had spontaneously hugged anyone. Penny had been so touched by the uncharacteristic gesture that she had nearly cried. After all, she knew he wouldn't have hugged her unless he really wanted to. That was the thing about Sheldon, you always knew exactly what he thought. Whether you wanted to or not.
Once she was done, she retrieved the papers and crawled into bed to look at them. Penny frowned, thinking that it was a bit strange that he didn't just come out and tell her what the papers were all about. It was almost like he was nervous which wasn't like Sheldon. She glanced down at the first page and began to read.
I, Dr. Sheldon Lee Cooper, upon the realization of a state of friendship that has progressed to a level above all others do hereby outline the proper protocol to maintain said friendship.
Penny's mouth dropped open. She quickly skimmed the rest of the document, completely skipping the sections that discussed the acquisition of super powers and the development of time travel. True to his word he had left several places for her to describe her needs. There was a place for her to indicate how often he should ask about her day and room for her to list any topics that she considered off limits to conversation. There was even a space for her to fill in her medical history.
For one crazy moment, Penny was almost tempted to go along with the contract just so that she could veto a few topics of conversation. She was pretty certain that Leonard, Howard, and Raj wouldn't hesitate to fill up that section. But as tempting as it was to prevent Sheldon from ever calculating the number of men she had slept with again, she couldn't let him think that a contract could ever apply to a friendship.
She looked back at the first line. After reading it several times she was convinced that he was trying to tell her that she was his best friend. As awkward a gesture as it was it was kind of sweet and he was trying to take her feelings into account in his own completely inept way. She remembered Leonard telling her all about the roommate contract he had signed when he first met Sheldon. It hadn't sounded like Sheldon had left any room for negotiation in that one, much to Leonard's current dismay.
If he had given this to her two years ago she would have probably been offended or at least annoyed but she knew Sheldon well enough by now to know that he hadn't meant any offense when he had included an entire section about her dating habits and which nights of the week she could go out. She was able to interpret the Sheldon-speak and realize that what he really wanted to do was make sure that she still had time for him.
Penny sighed, putting the papers on her nightstand and turning out the light. This whole situation was very confusing. She had so many questions.
When had Sheldon decided that she was his best friend? Wasn't Leonard his best friend? What was she going to say to him tomorrow? And perhaps most importantly, what place did Sheldon hold in her life?
Burrowing under her covers she began to think about her friendships. She had always been popular in high school but she wasn't really very close to any of her old school friends now. Most of them were back in Nebraska dealing with mortgages, children, and in too many cases messy divorces. Their lives were worlds apart from her own. When she had first moved to California she had made a slew of new friends to go out to clubs with and watch football games with but none of those people were particularly close friends. If she were completely honest with herself, the only people that she knew she could really count on were Sheldon, Leonard, Raj, and even Howard.
There were a few girls at work that had potential but she had spent so much time with the guys since she had started dating Leonard that she hadn't spent much time with anyone else. She liked the way she could be herself around them without any expectations. But out of the four of them she was closest to Leonard and Sheldon.
She rolled over and stared at the light from the nightlight she kept on in her bathroom. As much as she cared for Leonard their friendship had always been strained. Whether it was his awkward insecurities or her self consciousness about her lack of education they were always afraid of letting the other down. They had constantly waffled between romance and friendship in a way that never let either relationship bloom the way it should.
But with Sheldon it was different. He might treat her like she was stupid sometimes but he treated everyone that way so it didn't hurt her feelings. He might be rude but he was also always there for her. She couldn't think of a single time that she asked for his help that he didn't give it to her. He had even driven her to the hospital despite being terrified of driving. And she knew that he would always be there. He had proven that when he had snuck around behind Leonard's back just to eat spaghetti with her.
Sheldon also needed her and Penny would be lying to herself if she said she didn't like that. Sure he sometimes frustrated her so badly that she wanted to scream but it felt good to be needed. This Beautiful Mind-type genius needed her to help him pick out suits and figure out first dates. Over the years he had grown to trust her when it came to social situations.
They actually had a give and take relationship. He never treated her like a sex object like the other boys did and she never turned him away like everyone else did.
"Well damn!" Penny exclaimed, sitting up. "Sheldon Cooper just might be my best friend."
When had that happened?
Chapter 2: The Best Friend Protocol
Penny stood in Sheldon and Leonard's kitchen drinking coffee and fiddling with the edges of the contract sitting on the island in front of her. She hadn't slept well the night before, her mind troubled by the contract and what it symbolized. She knew that she needed to talk to Sheldon about it but she had no idea how.
A door opened in the hallway and she saw Leonard stumble sleepily into the kitchen.
"Penny?" He asked, rubbing his eyes. "What time is it?"
Penny glanced over at the microwave clock. "6:00."
"In the morning?" Leonard asked blinking at her in confusion. "What are you doing here at 6:00 in the morning? What are you even doing up?"
"I couldn't sleep." She answered. "And I was out of coffee."
"You not able to sleep?" He asked incredulously. "I've seen you sleep through movies, car rides, and even epic physicist brawls."
Penny stuck her tongue out at him.
Leonard grinned. "Seriously though, you okay?"
"I'm fine. Just had a lot on my mind." Penny said glancing down at the contract.
"What's that?" Leonard asked following her eyes.
"It's nothing." Penny said trying to tilt it away from Leonard's curious gaze. As much as she wanted to talk to somebody about the whole situation she knew that Leonard would treat it like a joke. "It's a script for a pilot that I'm auditioning for."
"Oh." He said moving away and pouring himself a cup of coffee. "Well I'm sure you'll do great."
"So what's going on today?" Penny asked trying to take his attention off of her.
"We were supposed to play paintball." Leonard said sipping his coffee and leaning back against the counter. "But it's been raining all night so laser tag is our backup plan."
"That sounds like fun."
"Yeah." Leonard said. "At least it won't sting so badly when I get shot."
"Hey," Leonard said suddenly looking insecure. "Would you like to come? We could always use someone who can actually shoot to help us beat the chemistry department."
Penny frowned. She was tempted to say no so that she could avoid Sheldon for a while longer. She had come over to their apartment with the intention of talking to him when he got up to watch Doctor Who, but she still wasn't sure what to say. On the other hand, running around and shooting people sounded appealing at the moment and it wasn't like she had anything better to do. Not since the Cheesecake Factory had decided to cut several of her shifts, including all of her tip-heavy Saturday hours.
"I guess." She said with a shrug. "But if you're bringing me in as the muscle then I'm not paying."
"Isn't it bad enough that I had to spend Vintage Video Game Night watching that poor excuse for a Star Trek movie? Now you're telling me that instead of our normal Saturday paintball match full of strategy and true simulated warfare, we have to go play laser tag?" Sheldon asked indignantly from his position on the couch.
"If you want to go crawl around in the mud by yourself go for it." Leonard said. He gestured at Howard, Raj, and Penny who were standing near the door. "We're going to go play laser tag with the rest of the university."
"But none of our strategies will be applicable. The arena is indoors and dark not to mention much smaller than a paintball field. It will take hours to come up with an alternate strategy taking into account all of the new variables." Sheldon complained.
"Or you could just hide and shoot." Penny offered cheerfully.
Sheldon glared at her. "Strategy aside, I don't have a laser tag gun."
"No one does. That's why they rent them." Howard said in exasperation. "Even if you had your own gun it wouldn't be hooked up to their system."
"But I can't use a communal gun. Do you have any idea the number of people who use those guns? Who knows what diseases are waiting on those triggers?" Sheldon asked before answering his own question. "I do. Given the rather poor sanitary habits of children it can be assumed that those guns are covered in E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus,influenza, and any number of rhinoviruses and coronaviruses. No thank you."
"Okay." Howard said opening the door. "We tried. He's not coming."
Sheldon watched Howard leave the apartment followed by Raj and Leonard. It would take an idiot not to notice the relief on their faces as they left him behind and Sheldon Cooper was definitely not an idiot. He frowned, trying to ignore the slight discomfort in his chest. He should be used to it by now. After all very few people truly appreciated him the way they should.
He turned his gaze to Penny, who hadn't moved. She was staring at him with a thoughtful look on her face. "How about if I bring a packet of bleach wipes?"
He stared at her for a moment before feeling the corners of his lips turn up slightly. "That might be acceptable."
"Well then hurry up." She said. "If we get there early maybe you can come up with a strategy before we start."
"Oh I don't think so." Sheldon said standing up and quickly getting his jacket from the closet. "The amount of time it would take to come up with a workable strategy for the entire physics department-"
"Why don't you just come up with one for us and let the rest of the physics department worry about themselves?" Penny asked as she dug her key out of her purse.
"That isn't a very good way to beat the other departments." Sheldon pointed out. He looked behind her at his three irritated friends and realized that he didn't particularly care if they spent the entire afternoon as target practice for the chemistry department. "But perhaps an individual triumph would be enjoyable."
After Penny retrieved the bleach wipes from her apartment the five of them headed downstairs. Sheldon was a bit concerned about the efficacy of the bleach wipes as they were a much lower concentration than he normally used when he cleaned but he supposed that they would probably kill most of the organisms that he was likely to be exposed to.
"You had to convince him to come didn't you?" Howard whispered to Penny a few steps down from Sheldon. If his hearing wasn't so sharp he wouldn't have heard the low whisper.
Sheldon watched as Penny turned and gave Howard a glare that he truly thought would cause Howard's head to explode. He was a bit disappointed it didn't work but it did make Howard move as far from Penny as he could in the stairwell. Sheldon once again felt his lips tug slightly up into a grin. It was nice having a best friend that actually wanted him around.
"Sheldon, I promise you that the gun and vest are clean. " Penny said, looking tiredly down at the pile of used bleach wipes. She couldn't help but think of the five dollars wasted on cleaning supplies that would never be used in her apartment.
"You don't exactly have the best track record regarding contagions." Sheldon said look at her a bit suspiciously.
"You're right, Sheldon." Penny said rolling her eyes. "I brought you all the way down here and spent the last fifteen minutes helping you scrub everything down just to make you sick. Maybe I should have just hugged you back in the apartment and saved all that time."
Sheldon huffed and glared at her indignantly.
"Now if you're done being crazy, we need to go enter our names or won't be able to take part in the first round." Penny said, smiling to take the sting out of her words.
Sheldon wordlessly put on his vest and holstered the gun. Together they made their way to the line at the desk.
"Well, well, well." Penny heard a particularly irritating voice say from behind her. "If it isn't Dr. Dumbass and Barbie."
"Winkle," Sheldon growled. "I thought you were too busy getting nowhere with your inferior research to take part in these little competitions this year. Have you managed to lose all of your funding yet?"
Penny turned to look at the annoying brunette behind her. She had never liked Leslie Winkle. At first she was jealous because Leonard had dated her but after a while she realized that the girl was just mean. Mean and selfish.
"Nope," Leslie said with a smug grin. "I just got a new grant allowing me work with Martin Bojowald on his Loop Quantum Cosmology research. How about you Dr. Dumbass, any progress with your little dark matter research? Found any can openers?"
As soon as Leslie mentioned can openers, Sheldon jerked as if he had been physically slapped. It took Penny a moment to remember that the guys had messed up Sheldon's research in the Arctic with a can opener. Penny didn't know how Leslie knew about the prank but it made her angry to see Sheldon so clearly upset. It called to mind the day when he had first found out that all of his discoveries had been a lie.
Without even thinking, Penny stepped in front of Sheldon and glared at Leslie.
'You're just jealous that Sheldon is so much smarter than you. He's smarter and more pleasant to be around than your bitchy ass. So back off!"
"Oh I'm so scared Barbie!" Leslie said sarcastically. Nevertheless, she quickly walked away.
Penny stared after Leslie's retreating back wondering what had come over her. It wasn't the first time she had confronted a bully, growing up on a farm in Nebraska she had learned how to be tough at young age, but it was the first time in quite a while that she had seriously been ready to fight someone. And there was no doubt in her mind that if Leslie had stayed she would have punched her. The image of Sheldon hiding in his room so hurt and embarrassed by what his friends had done to him had just appeared in her mind and all she could think was that she couldn't let that happen again.
"Bitchy ass?" Sheldon inquired, shaking her out of her thoughts.
"It's at least as clever as Dr. Dumbass." Penny said defensively turning back to look at her friend.
"I'll grant you that." Sheldon said moving forward in the line. "And I do find the description satisfyingly appropriate."
"How did she know about the can opener?" Penny asked hesitantly.
Sheldon's face darkened and he gestured to the corner of the room where Leonard, Howard and Raj were listening to an agitated Leslie. "I assume one of them told her. Either out of amusement at their prank or as an attempt to curry favor for coitus."
"That's awful." Penny said disgusted both at the behavior of Sheldon's friends and at the matter of fact way that he just seemed to accept that kind of treatment. It was suddenly becoming clearer to her why she was the one with a Best Friend Contract waiting for her at home and not one of Sheldon's other friends. She could also understand why he felt the need for a detailed contract to protect himself.
She wasn't under any illusions about Sheldon. He often deserved the sharp retorts and frustrated anger of his friends. He constantly belittled them and was nearly impossible to live with but that didn't excuse their behavior. There are lines that you don't cross and screwing with someone's work was one of those lines. Penny felt guilty for not taking it as seriously as she should have last year. It was becoming obvious that it wasn't something that could just be brushed off and would likely follow Sheldon around professionally for some time to come.
They were both relieved when they finally reached the front of the line and were able to give their code names to the man running the game.
"Okay Queen P and Sheldor, you'll be entering from the third door. Game starts in five minutes." The man said with a bored yawn.
Sheldon turned to her as they made their way to the group of people waiting at the third door. "We need to find a defensible position on the second level. The high ground will give us the advantage, making it harder for others to attack us and allowing us to act as snipers."
"Are you sure we can't just track Leslie Winkle down and kill her as many times as we can?" Penny asked.
Sheldon gave her an exasperated look. "I would rather take her out from above when she is least expecting it."
"Okay, okay, whatever you say General." Penny said with an exaggerated salute.
Two hours and five games later Penny was tired. She and Sheldon had found a corner where two walkways intersected against an outside wall that between the two of them they had managed to keep defended. They had stayed close, each facing down a different walkway keeping attackers away and taking shots at the people running beneath them. A part of her would have preferred to run around a bit more maybe take it less seriously but there was also something to be said for winning. And Penny didn't have any doubts that they would have some of the highest scores. After all they had both learned to shoot at an early age and that experience coupled with Sheldon's sniper strategy and she doubted many people would beat them.
When the lights came on after the fifth and final game, Penny and Sheldon made their way slowly out of the arena and joined the crowd gathered around the giant television screen displaying the scores. The highest score for all five games combined was Sheldor followed closely by Queen P.
"Yes!" Penny exclaimed turning to Sheldon excitedly. She held up both of her hands to give him a high five.
Sheldon stared at her hands for a moment before rather awkwardly hitting the tips of her fingers with his own. His face twitched when their hands made contact and he quickly withdrew his, scrubbing them against his plaid pants.
"Close enough." Penny laughed. "Come on I see the guys over there."
"You killed me twenty times." Leonard whined to Penny as soon as she walked up. He waved the print out he was holding in Sheldon's direction. "And you killed me seventeen times."
"Only seventeen?" Sheldon asked. "I counted at least 28 times that I fired at a man with your hobbit-like physique."
"It was dark in there, maybe you missed." Howard said.
"Unlikely, my father regularly took George and me out shooting rats at night when we were children. He called it 'spending quality time with his sons,'" Sheldon said a bit of his Texas accent coming out. "A much more likely scenario is that I mistook a short-haired female for Leonard."
Leonard glared at Sheldon. "Why were you aiming for me anyway? We were on the same team. You might have gotten the highest score but the chemistry department still won."
"Penny and I decided that an individual victory would be more fulfilling." Sheldon replied.
"Oh did you?" Leonard asked looking accusingly at Penny.
Penny shrugged. "I'm not a member of the physics department. Can we just go home? I'm tired."
A short, tense car ride later, Penny was at home curled up in bed for a much needed nap. As she pulled the blanket up over her head to block out the sun she realized that she still hadn't talked to Sheldon about the contract. She had spent most of the day with him but they hadn't had any time alone for her to bring it up and now she was much too tired to deal with it. Even so, she didn't want to wait too long to talk to him and after a moment of thought she had the perfect solution. Penny realized that she knew exactly where Sheldon would be at 8:15 on a Saturday night which just gave her enough time for a four hour nap.
If she was lucky she might even be able to kill two birds with one stone and get her laundry done. Penny smiled as she drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 3: The Detergent Deficiency
"I still can't believe Penny killed me twenty times." Leonard whined.
Sheldon closed his eyes in frustration. He was sitting at his desk attempting to get some work done but Leonard persisted in trying to engage him in conversation. "What is it that you are unable to believe? That she was able to shoot you twenty times or that she was willing to do so?"
"Both!" Leonard exclaimed.
"Well, as to the former concern, Penny is an excellent shot. She and I both had fathers who believed that wilderness skills were very important and coerced us into learning them. I daresay it is one of the very few things that Penny and I have in common." Sheldon explained to Leonard. "Now as for your second concern, I am unable to speak to Penny's motivations for shooting you. You would have to ask her."
Sheldon turned back to his computer hoping that the pointless conversation was over. Unfortunately it seemed as though Leonard had other ideas.
"It's not really very fair." He complained. "I'm the one who asked her if she wanted to come and paid for her to play so why did she spend the whole afternoon with you? Killing me?"
"I believe the colloquial response would be 'life isn't fair.'" Sheldon said. "What were you expecting Leonard?"
"I don't know." He sighed. "Penny just seemed strange is all. What happened with Leslie? She said Penny threatened her."
Sheldon's face darkened. He looked closely at Leonard. "Leslie is evil. She brought up the rather unfortunate events that took place in the Arctic. Penny took offense but no actual threat was ever issued."
"Oh." Leonard said fidgeting a bit.
Sheldon narrowed his eyes. "Leslie knew details that were not included in my retraction email. You wouldn't know anything about that would you?"
"No of course not." Leonard answered quickly, his eyes darting down and to the left.
Sheldon felt a twisting in his gut at Leonard's obvious lie. He had been hoping that Howard had been the one to tell Leslie about the prank. He turned back to his computer screen and tried to focus on the numbers in front of him. Sheldon couldn't let there be any doubts about the project he was working on with Raj so he had made it a habit to check and recheck all of the data that Raj collected. He didn't think that Raj would risk deportation with another prank but he didn't trust anyone anymore.
"I just don't think its right that Penny had me pay." Leonard said after several minutes of silence.
It was all starting to be too much for Sheldon. First there were the changes to his schedule, then there was the confrontation with Leslie, and now there was Leonard. Fighting the urge to grind his teeth, Sheldon stood up and got out his wallet. He took out a twenty dollar bill and held it out to Leonard. "Here. She spent the afternoon helping me win so I'll pay for her. Now can I work? Or do you feel the need to continue this conversation?"
Leonard looked up at Sheldon in surprise. "I don't need your money. I didn't really mind paying."
Sheldon forced out a laugh. "I assume that was supposed to be a joke."
Leonard huffed in annoyance but reached out and took the twenty dollar bill. Sheldon returned to his desk and once again entered the safe and ordered world of mathematics. Thankfully Leonard left him alone for the rest of the afternoon.
Penny sat on the table in the laundry room flipping through the document in her lap. Despite her natural tendency towards being fashionably late she had headed down to the laundry room at 7:40 and was keeping herself entertained by rereading the contract. This time she was actually reading the sections that she had skipped the first time.
The kinds of things that Sheldon felt necessary to include in a friendship pact were truly astounding. For example, there were several pages dedicated to outlining the procedures for a post-apocalyptic survival situation. It was completely crazy, but she found it surprisingly heartwarming that he had included a clause that would allow her to use items in his survival kit if hers was unreachable. Of course, Penny figured it would be best not to tell him that she didn't have a survival kit at all.
She was nearly done with the section on post-apocalyptic survival when she heard footsteps on the stairs. Penny checked her watch and sure enough it was exactly 8:15. She set the papers next to her on the table and turned to the door.
"Hello, Penny." Sheldon said as he entered the laundry room carrying his basket. He glanced at the stack of papers next to her but didn't say anything as he made a beeline for the washers.
"Sheldon," Penny acknowledged with a smile. She stayed quiet while he intently separated his clothes into three washers. She knew that he would be unable to concentrate on a conversation until he had finished. On any other day she might have tried to distract him just to get a rise out of him but today she wanted him to be in a good mood.
"Oh no," Sheldon said a few moments later. He was staring in dismay between the bottle of detergent in his hand and the washer full of whites in front of him.
"What?" Penny asked.
"It appears that I do not have enough detergent to do all three loads." Sheldon said the strain evident in his voice.
Penny reached into the laundry basket next to her and grabbed her detergent. "Here you can borrow some of mine."
"How can I possibly borrow detergent? How would I return it?" Sheldon asked staring at the bottle in her hand like it might bite him. "And besides that isn't the kind I use."
Penny rolled her eyes and chose to ignore his literal interpretation of the word borrow. "It's just soap Sheldon. They're all pretty much the same."
"I beg to differ-"
"I'm sure you do." Penny interrupted before she had to listen to a rant about the chemistry of fabric softening. "But you have two options. Either use this detergent or go without your underwear this week."
"There is a third option. You could take me to the store to get more detergent." Sheldon suggested.
Penny shook her head. "Not gonna happen. You can go with me later in the week."
"Very well," Sheldon glared at her but took the proffered detergent. Once he had successfully started the three washers he turned back to look at her. "I see you have been looking over the contract."
"I read it like I promised but I can't sign it." Penny said watching him closely. Even so she almost missed the brief look of distress that crossed his face before being replaced by his usual haughty confidence.
"I believe I have made it clear that we can negotiate the terms." Sheldon stated. "Unless your objection is with the entire premise."
This time Penny didn't have any trouble seeing the vulnerable look in Sheldon's eyes. No matter how hard he tried to reject the feelings that made him human Penny knew he still felt most of them. He might not always understand them but he felt them and right now she was pretty certain that he was feeling rejected.
"I don't have any objection to the intent." Penny said trying to choose her words carefully. "It's the method I reject."
"I don't believe I follow."
"Friendships aren't something you can make rules for." Penny explained.
"Of course they are." Sheldon said. "I have observed any number of rules. For example, you yourself told me that friends must maintain confidences."
Penny sighed. "Yes there are things that you should do in order to be a good friend but you can't just make a business agreement out of it."
"I don't see why not." Sheldon said frustration evident.
"Do you trust me?" Penny asked deciding to try a different tactic.
Sheldon stared at her for a long time. Long enough that Penny became concerned that she was misreading everything.
"Yes." He said quietly.
Penny let out a breath that she hadn't realized she was holding. She gestured at the stack of papers. "Then you have to trust me to be your friend without all these rules."
Sheldon looked at her doubtfully.
"Friendship is about trust, Sheldon." Penny said. "I trust you."
"Of course you do. I'm very trustworthy." Sheldon said his arrogance creeping back into his voice.
"And so humble," Penny laughed. "I'm serious though. I trust you to be there when I need you and not to hurt me on purpose. Can you trust me to do the same without a contract?"
"It appears that you're not going to give me a choice." Sheldon said.
"I'm not." Penny told him.
"Then, yes." He said sourly after a long pause.
Penny smiled brightly. "If it makes you feel any better, I promise that if I ever develop super strength I'll let you be my trusty side kick."
"It doesn't." Sheldon said before asking, "Super strength?"
Penny exaggeratedly cracked her knuckles. "Let other people have invisibility or flight. I'll take super-human strength over those any day."
"I'm not surprised that you would choose something so primitive and violent." Sheldon said condescendingly. "I would choose telekinetic powers."
"Telekinetic," Penny said remembering a past conversation she had had with Sheldon. "Is that the one where you can move things with your mind?"
"That is correct."
"And what would you do with it? Make someone's brain explode?" Penny asked smugly. "That would be very nonviolent and evolved of you."
Sheldon raised his fingers to his temples and squinted intently at her.
Penny returned the gesture before dropping her hands and laughing. "You have to face the facts Dr. Cooper. You aren't nearly as evolved as you'd like to think. You're still down here with the rest of us lowly humans."
"Strange that you're the only person who thinks so." Sheldon commented.
Penny shrugged. "I've always been very insightful."
Sheldon gave her a look filled with doubt before moving over to the washers. As soon as he stopped in front of it the first washer buzzed. Penny shook her head, only Sheldon could keep track of the time that precisely.
Looking at her watch, Penny hopped off the table to check her own clothes. There were still a few minutes left in the dryer cycle but she opened them anyway to see if the clothes were dry. Deciding that they were close enough she dumped her things into her basket, crumpling everything up so that it would fit without spilling over the top.
"Aren't you going to fold them?" Sheldon asked in horror as she turned to leave.
"I'll do it upstairs." Penny answered. "There's a movie coming on in a few minutes that I want to see."
"Oh, Penny," Sheldon said shaking his head. "It's not another one of those melodramatic movies where an abused or jilted woman plots elaborate revenge against all men is it?"
"No," Penny said defensively. She couldn't help it if she loved Lifetime movies. "This one is about a pregnant woman with an eating disorder."
"Why would anyone want to watch that?" Sheldon asked.
"I don't know. Because it makes us feel better about our own lives?" Penny suggested.
"The one you watched at our apartment when you couldn't pay your cable bill didn't make me feel better about my life. It just made me feel irritated."
Penny frowned at the mention of her money problems but pushed her annoyance aside. "That's because you aren't the target audience, Sweetie."
"Obviously." Sheldon said turning his attention back to his clothes. "Goodnight, Penny."
"Goodnight, Sheldon." Penny said shaking her head.
As she made her way up the stairs, Penny decided that all in all things had gone better than expected.
Sheldon carefully arranged a t-shirt on his Flipfold. His mind was once again occupied with the Penny Problem. He had been so sure that a contract would be the best way to alleviate his discomfort about their new relationship paradigm but apparently he was going to have to navigate his friendship with Penny without formal rules and procedures to guide him.
The uncertainty was almost enough to make him abandon the entire endeavor and return to the status quo. Leonard would continue to be his best friend and nothing would have to change. Unfortunately, things had already progressed too far to turn back. The point of no return had occurred tonight when he professed his trust in Penny. Sheldon had realized that he did trust her. He trusted her more than anyone. In fact she might be the only person he did trust. He trusted her to always open the door when he knocked and to never run away when he got sick. But most importantly, he trusted her to never betray him.
But what was causing him the most discomfort was the fact that Penny had also professed her trust in him. It wasn't an entirely comfortable feeling. There was a sense of obligation to her trust that was worse than when she gave him gifts for Christmas or his birthday. Suddenly he was somehow responsible for her in a way that he wasn't sure he would ever be ready for. What if he didn't provide an equivalent level of trustworthiness? What if he somehow breached her trust?
Things would be so much easier if he could quantify his relationship with Penny mathematically. Unfortunately, he was fairly certain that his current problems were beyond the rather considerable insights of Stu the Cockatoo and any algorithms that he could hope to derive. In fact, he was starting to suspect that he would win a Nobel Prize for confirming String Theory long before he mastered the nuances of friendship. It did not escape his notice that four years ago he wouldn't have cared about mastering any human relationship. Actually, four years ago he thought he had already mastered friendship and had no need for anything beyond his rather rigidly defined social interactions with Leonard, Howard, and Raj.
Now here he was four years later submitting to a relationship paradigm predicated on feelings and instinct, neither of which had ever held a prominent place in his life. Things would be so much simpler if he could go back in time and prevent Leonard from ever bringing Penny into their lives. Sheldon knew that he couldn't extricate her from his life now. It would cause him much more discomfort to be without her friendship than the current confusion was causing but it would be different if he could expunge her presence from his life entirely. Unfortunately, if he went back in time and prevented Leonard from befriending Penny then his entire purpose for going back in time would be removed and a paradox would ensue.
Sheldon straightened the stack of neatly folded t-shirts and placed them carefully in his laundry basket. As he walked up the stairs he came to the rather disconcerting conclusion that he was going to be eating from the high fiber end of the cereal shelf for a long time to come.