The first time that Leonard realised things weren't quite on a normal keel was the fact that at 5.15 p.m. precisely, on a fairly unremarkable Monday evening in a fairly unremarkable week in November, the door to Sheldon's office was half-open.
Here was the deal--the door to Sheldon's office was never half-open. Well, aside from the not infrequent occasions in which the university held one of its 'Open Days', with staff expected to be on hand to answer any and all mundane, repetitive and/or enlightened questions from the next crop of graduates with a short-key pass to private-business funding and disgusting loads of cash (by way of a necessary degree of some sort). On those days Sheldon was forced to zip it and endure, all the while proffering a 'friendly and inviting' open door; something Howard would take advantage of by helpfully herding the least promising students in the physicist's direction with the assurance that 'he loves knock-knock jokes; introduce yourself and then hit him with a zinger!'. It was with no surprise then that on every other day the door was closed shut with the gravitas of an old and decrepit dean.
(And after all these years, Leonard still had to follow up his daily announcement of Hey, Sheldon, it's me, you ready to go? with the sigh-inducing addendum of ...it's Leonard, when Sheldon immediately and without fail enquired who me was. He would then proceed to act all surprised at his room-mate's being there at all, at 5.15 p.m. every freaking day, as if Leonard had nothing better to do than play chauffeur to the most irritating six-foot-something to ever possess an abnormally towering IQ.
Which is to say, more or less, this: that a door under Sheldon Cooper's control will, like the answer derived from a boolean sum, be either completely open or completely closed. There are no middling exceptions, such as hanging one's head through the door to 'chat', while the body in question stays in the corridor. From what Leonard had observed, only Dr. Gablehauser seemed to be able to get away with that trick without censure, but even then it was always a near thing, and likely because Sheldon refused to teach his 'class' to people outside his microscopic social circle.)
So. Half-open door. Cutting short his daydreaming (which had not been entirely unpleasant, since it involved Sheldon being made to do things he didn't want to do, which was 97% of everything even vaguely associated with normal life, and therefore 100% entertaining), Leonard shoved the car keys he'd been tossing absently from hand to hand into his pocket, and with some trepidation, knocked.
No answer. He pushed at the door. It revealed an empty office, so he wandered in and looked around. Typical Sheldon scribblature adorned the several whiteboards propped up with spirit-level neatness about the room. He squinted somewhat myopically at one, trying to make it out, but gave up when his brain began to translate equals as eggrolls. God, all he wanted was to drive home and eat and then fall into his bed--preferably in that order. Was that too much to ask?
Leonard was just contemplating having a short power nap, on his feet and in the middle of Sheldon's inner sanctum, when he noticed something on the small board behind the desk, next to the 2010 Trains of America Calendar (16 Month Edition).
In the very middle, Sheldon had written
Penny = ?
and nothing else.
Right at the point where Leonard was mouthing the words What the frak? (well, he got as far as What the fr--, but it sort of came out as What the frodo, which, okay, weird) Sheldon entered the room.
"Oh, Leonard," he said breezily, "there you are!" As if Leonard's presence in his office was the last thing he was expecting, today's meeting point being presumably in the middle of the centrifuge, or in the trunk of Leslie Winkle's car. He looked at his watch and stood there expectantly.
And in that pause, while Sheldon stood with his messenger bag, the strap in alignment with some invisible parallel, waiting for his friend to either respond or lead the way out (or possibly both), the exhaustion which had threatened to spill all day hit Leonard Hofstadter like a wave, and with so much force that he quite forgot about Penny's name followed by a question mark, and why Sheldon would even write Penny's name followed by a question mark, and they completed the drive home in silence.
The next morning, after approximately three quarters of what Sheldon liked to call his daily three hundred seconds of contemplation, but what Leonard preferred to think of as sanity-time, Sheldon said, "Let's play a game."
"Okay, but look, Sheldon, I need to ask you something."
"--I'll begin. Cadmium."
"Sheldon...um, Magnesium...why are you writing formulas about Penny?"
"I'm not. Molybdenum."
"Manganese. Yes you are. I saw it yesterday. 'Penny equals question mark.'"
"Erbium. I'm afraid your attempts to throw me off the notorious letter-m-train are to no avail, Leonard. And what you saw is not relevant."
"What do you mean, not relevant? You just don't write words for the sake of words, Sheldon. Everything means something, no matter how crazy or deluded."
Silence. He looked over, and was met with an unblinking and very blue pair of eyes.
"Mendelevium," Leonard sighed.
Those very blue eyes twinkled mischievously. "And how do you know that Penny does not merely stand for P-E-N-N-Y, one of several exciting versions of M-O-N-T-Y 2.0, for which I am currently sketching out blueprints? The Prototype Endgame Negative Nuclear Yeti-bot. The warbot to end all worbots." Sheldon paused with the perfect timing of a stand-up comedian, before adding, out of the corner of his mouth, "Meitnerium. I win."
"I thought you were calling Meitnerium Ekairidium?"
Sheldon harrumphed and waved a hand. "Let's just say that after reading one Dr. E. M. Bollard's scatterbrained theories in the latest issue of Nature, I'm rethinking my stance on that particular matter. His online biography lists one of his hobbies as golf, Leonard. Golf! A scientist cannot be taken seriously in my opinion when the said scientist's principal activity over the weekend is hitting little white balls about with the aim of beating a number."
Leonard quietly took in Sheldon's plaid pants and sensible shoes--excepting the Robot Evolution t-shirt, an outfit all but screaming property of Pasadena Putt-Putt--but said nothing.
He made a right into the Caltech carpark. The Prototype Endgame Negative Nuclear Yeti-bot? Please. That was Sheldonese for I've got a secret if ever he heard it.
November passed seamlessly into December, that glorious month of all things festive and candy-coated and guaranteed to drive Sheldon to fretful distraction, but to his annoyance Leonard was unable to get any further in his mission to decipher The Penny Equation.
Adding to this was the fact that he basically had no one to share the mission with, or to help come up with a better codename. Howard was in San Diego doing some late-season fieldwork, after which he would be pretty much locked in family confinement at home until almost the New Year, when the extended Wolowitz clan descended on Pasadena over the holidays. And Raj had flown back home. (Taking him to the airport, it had been like saying goodbye to a wounded deer. "If anything happens," Raj had said tearfully, clinging with impressive melodrama at one of Leonard's sleeves, "you are to take my telescope to the roof, and aim it towards Alpha Centauri, so I might look up at those same stars and remember...home..." "Raj, it's Air India. Not the last flight out of the apocalypse. Now get on before I shove you on.")
So basically, Christmas this year would see the two occupants of 4A and the single occupant of 4B merge briefly, try and be merry, and mostly fail, or, in other words, Praeteritus Relationship meets Does Not Believe In Relationships. To which Leonard could add the new mystery of why Sheldon Cooper, the man who cannot tell a lie, was suddenly keeping secrets about Penny.
Unless it really was all about warbots...or, what was that new one? Yeti-bots? No, it absolutely wasn't that. He wasn't born yesterday.
"I wasn't born yesterday, Sheldon," Leonard repeated, out loud.
The washing machine, predictably and perhaps a little sadly, did not respond. But Penny did.
"What's that you're saying?" she asked, padding in to the laundry room in a pair of fuzzy slippers. She set her basket onto the table and yawned widely. "Who was born yesterday?"
"Nobody," said Leonard, quickly. In an undertone, he added, "At least, I wasn't."
Penny stood in front of him, hands on hips. She cocked her head to one side and smiled sweetly. "What's up, Leonard?"
Well, he might as well give it a go. The mystery wasn't going to solve itself, even though on deeper consideration he was coming to the conclusion that it might be safer for his own sanity if he simply gave Sheldon and his complexities a wide berth over Christmas. But he'd come this far, so...
"Have you noticed anything strange about Sheldon lately?"
Penny did well not to smirk too much. "I mean," Leonard continued, "stranger than normal. Which, I suppose, isn't...normal per se...oh god, you know what I mean. Stranger than Sheldon normal."
"Oh. Well, he did say hello the other morning down at the mail boxes. Without being prompted. Does that count?"
"Yeah, no, that was comic book night. I think he was just excited about the new Flash. It has a kind of flow on effect with, uh, greetings and the like. He even let me pick the car game that day. We played Lord of the Rads..." Leonard trailed off nostalgically.
"Lord of the--?" Penny echoed, picking at the top of a box of laundry powder until it opened under her thumb. "Never mind. Well, then I guess not. Why, what's he done?"
"Uh, nothing. I guess."
There was something so spookily...Sheldon about the way Penny was staring at him over her basket. Are you asking me, Leonard, or telling me? He thought of the swinging blond hair and effervescent smile of three years ago, the Penny's who'd opened her door with no expectations aside from pleasantries and friendship, a girl alone surrounded by boxes. The answer fell away, swallowed by the thud of the washer as it chugged into operation. Leonard tapped the lid pointlessly, and when he'd turned back, she was humming softly and he found he hadn't the heart to continue.
Leonard, I'm working late tonight, and shall not require a ride home. Please do not include me in the dinner order. Regards, Sheldon Cooper.
He came out of the bathroom to find his mobile beeping and this message on screen. Aside from the usual bewilderment that despite having practically grown up with every technological boom at his fingertips, and that the art of composing a text message was still as elusive to fortress Sheldon as was the mystery of Penny and her devotion to the colour pink, the first question that came to mind was what sort of otherworldly force could possibly be keeping Sheldon from his dinner, his spot, and his--well, his unbreakable routine?
There was also the not insignificant fact that it was also Christmas Eve. Even taking into account his acute distain for the occasion, it was unusual for Sheldon to not at least be at home and unsociable, rather than unsociable in a locked office in a practically empty campus.
Leonard wandered into the kitchen. He opened the fridge, stared at the boxes of leftover Chinese takeout and bottles of water for approximately fourteen seconds without really seeing them, and closed it again. Everywhere was quiet, even the fridge seemed to be gurgling its white noise at a softer decibel. He took four steps towards the door when he remembered that Penny was also working late.
It had taken several weeks of hopelessly un-clandestine activity on Leonard's part to come to the conclusion that whatever he'd seen or not seen on one of Sheldon's whiteboards was of absolutely no importance whatsoever. Mentioning it again to Sheldon simply resulted in complicated answers involving either the merit of circular blades or whether Penny liked German bonbons. Other times his queries were met with a blunt 'try and be less trivial for the duration of this ghastly holiday, please Leonard', followed by silence. He was ninety-nine per cent convinced that there was nothing going on.
(And the other one per cent, well that more or less sat, like a pair of crumpled pants or awful sweater, in the draw of issues-Leonard-didn't-want-to-think-about, under lock and key in the closet of bad metaphors. Because worrying needlessly about Penny was one thing, but when Sheldon wormed his way in, and worse, when Penny didn't seem to mind, that's when Leonard began to have warped fantasies involving Sheldon being normal and Penny coming to costume parties as the Doppler effect.
Because, no. Just...no.
Although, he mused, it wasn't as if Sheldon hadn't ever--didn't--
No. It's all about the Yeti-bot. The great destroyer of robot-kind.)
Leonard went back to the fridge and performed a full inventory, pulling out anything that looked old or was heading in that direction. He then turned his attention to the kitchen floor, because really, what's one extra job when a certain someone who wasn't here had just happened to leave his cleaning caddy out on the bench. As a reward for all his hard effort, he retrieved a carton of eggnog from the top shelf, held it over a glass and watched as about a thimble-full dribbled out.
He looked at the clock. Three hours had passed, and still no Sheldon, so he gave up waiting and went to bed.
Leonard, half-asleep, opened his eyes blearily and stared into the darkness. Outside the wind hummed against the glass, while inside--
--inside, Sheldon was singing. Very softly, singing.
He rolled over and buried his head in a cool corner of the pillow. Obviously he was still dreaming. Obviously. Because there was, absolutely and without question, no universe, no dimension or crossover alternate reality in which Sheldon Cooper would sing at 1.00 a.m. on Christmas day.
1.01 a.m. Good morning, Leonard. Welcome to Crazy Land.
"Good morning, Leonard."
This time when he woke it was to the smell of banana pancakes. He sat up and fumbled for his glasses. The Sheldon-like shape standing in the doorway sharpened into the real thing, complete with a calm expression and tray in hand. Coffee, he could also smell coffee.
"I believe I should offer you a Merry Christmas."
Leonard waited. "Are you?" he prompted.
"I suppose so, yes." Sheldon's face twitched for a few seconds before finally settling into a smile. In the scale of smiles, it was somewhat closer to Batman Cookie Jar than Kill Batman, but it still had enough of an unnatural quality to reassure Leonard that the world hadn't gone topsy turvy overnight. Kind of a relief, actually. "Merry Christmas, Leonard. You needn't return the sentiment."
"That's very thoughtful, Sheldon. Thank you."
"I made you breakfast."
"So I can see."
Sheldon didn't move.
"Thank you for making me breakfast," Leonard said.
"You're welcome," Sheldon replied, and proffered the tray and its contents. The pancakes were now slightly cold, as was the coffee.
Leonard poked with a fork, dislodging some of the coconut shavings from Frodo's feet. "Are you going to stand there and watch me eat?" he asked after a moment in which neither of them moved.
"Goodness me." Sheldon placed his hands into his dressing gown pockets and smiled to himself. "No." And with that he turned away.
"Wait--" Leonard called out. Sheldon re-appeared. "No recorder?"
"Oh, yes," Sheldon said brightly, as if that explained everything. "I'm just off to Penny's now. Enjoy your breakfast."
After that admittedly sweet but very slightly surreal beginning to his day, things never quite recovered for Leonard. He spent the morning feeling as if he were constantly one step behind Sheldon and his...Sheldonness.
At eleven precisely he opened the door to find Penny, Santa hat at a jaunty angle on her head and a wide grin lighting up her face. She giggled without saying anything and wrapped him into a one-armed hug.
"I'm sorry, Sheldon," she said, calling into the room. "William Shatner didn't come to the Cheesecake Factory this year, so I can't complete your DNA collection."
Sheldon looked up from his spot. "Well," he said. "I suppose one can't strike gold at every seam." And he went back to what he'd been doing all morning, which to Leonard looked suspiciously like aligning the bowls of snacks at precise latitudes around the table.
Penny glanced back at Leonard. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"I don't know. Something philosophical, I guess. But he's not freaking out, which is good."
She smiled affectionately and patted him on the arm. "Yeah, it is," was all she said.
Sheldon's gifts to Penny and Leonard were identical.
Leonard read the card. "A lifetime membership to the Natural History Museum...wow, uh, thank you."
"In London," finished Penny.
"I--what?" Leonard looked again. "Sheldon! How are we going to be able to use that?"
Sheldon appeared inexplicably pleased. "Leonard, it is not the destination that matters. A gift should say as much about the thought placed in choosing than the intended use. What you are holding in your hands is a small but meaningful philanthropic gesture to the wider science community. A bequeath to Darwin's vision, if you will. While you may never set foot upon the steps of that Victorian marvel, you are forever a part of the legacy it holds."
Leonard wasn't quite sure how to respond to that. But this little speech left a smile on Penny's face, so he knew Sheldon had done something right.
He wondered, later, if that was what the formulas had been about. Giving a gift to Penny that could somehow top an actual hug, the strange and alien gesture from a man who retreated to a two dimensional world when he couldn't handle the real one. Except he wondered why his own name had been missing, because otherwise the logic didn't quite fit. The problem was that Sheldon's brain worked on a level that seemed so far from anyone or anything he knew; if he didn't want to strangle it, then he was left with little else but admiration. Leonard didn't give out admiration on a whim, despite his easygoing nature. He was a hard worker. He worked hard at friendship. And he would never take it for granted.
"Howard! Hey, how's it going?"
"I'm dying here. Dying of Jewish, womanly, crazy, affection. You've gotta help me. Can't you come up with some excuse so I can escape and rest easy in a world of old school Mario and eggnog?"
"Sorry, Howard. I drank the last drop. And once the yuletide ration of one carton goes then that's it, no more allowed in the apartment. You know Sheldon's rule."
"Damn." There was a pause. "Speaking of which...how is the Grinch today? Is he still doing that thing where he gives out strikes when we're not there to defend ourselves? I was up to about four repeat classes last I checked."
"Actually, no. As far as Christmases go, this one hasn't been at all bad. I even got breakfast in bed." Silence. "Howard?"
"And what strangled moose noises were you subjected to this time on that stupid instrument of his? Jingle Bells? I saw Mommy Kissing Sheldon? Actually, that one's kind of true..."
"Sorry, sorry. So what about Penny, did she--"
"HOWARD? I NEED YOU TO COME ZIP ME UP. I'M PAST THE TRICKY PART BUT FLAB'S FLAB AND IT'S NOT GOING ANYWHERE FAST!"
"FOR GOD'S SAKE, MA, I'M ON THE PHONE!"
"YOU'VE TWO HANDS, I KNOW YOU USE 'EM FOR SOME THINGS. COME ON MISTER MASTER'S DEGREE, CAN'T YOU TALK AND ZIP AT THE SAME TIME?"
There was a pause, then in his ear he heard, meekly, "Hey there, Leonard. Look, I'd better--"
"Yeah, go, go."
The phone beeped a goodbye in Leonard's ear, loud and continuous and kind of final. He snapped it shut.
It took another minute or so of staring into space before he realised that he was alone again. Again! What were they doing, playing hide and seek?
Grumbling to himself, he shuffled to the door and stepped into the corridor.
They were outside Penny's open door. And they were hugging. What's more, it was a hug that appeared to be going on for some time. Sheldon's back was to Leonard, but apart from the Green Lantern emblazoned across his shoulders it was hard to recognise him at all. His upper body was curved slightly and relaxed; there were no awkwardly placed hands or elbows at all angles. Leonard could see Penny's face, the soft smile from earlier when they'd exchanged gifts and had tried to understand Sheldon's tangled and impenetrable logic.
She caught his eye, Leonard and Penny, with Sheldon in between. Maybe it changed a little in her eyes, the smile, maybe, he couldn't be sure. Her lips moved. He could have sworn it was to say thank you.
He slept for eleven hours that night. In his dream he saw Raj, waving tentatively at the airport. Except it wasn't Raj but Sheldon, and even though Leonard was waving and waving, he couldn't be sure if Sheldon even knew it was him. Sheldon hated flying anyway. And Leonard was beginning to get sick and freaking tired of deciphering coded messages, so he hit the clock radio until the music blasted him awake and brought a cranky Sheldon to his door. At least some things never change.
They didn't see much of Penny over the following week. Christmas over, Sheldon immediately immersed himself in a new series of theoretical experiments, as if he'd been waiting for the humdrum festivities to die down and for life, as he saw it, to once again settle into an equilibrium. So he was mostly reluctant to divulge needless social chit-chat at Leonard's instance.
"Oh, yes. Penny and I exchanged hellos at the front door. She appeared to be on her way out for a jog, of all things."
"You know Penny jogs, Sheldon. Don't act all surprised."
"Yes, but...it seems the wrong time of year."
He sat in his spot, eyes large and somewhat bewildered. He turned and looked up at his friend, the hard intelligence so prevalent just for a moment lost to a world he didn't quite understand.
And Leonard left it at that.