Chapter 1: just gonna stand there and watch me burn
(prologue; chapters will be off-numbered by one because of this.)
Excerpt from a summary of the two-part series finale. The author is unknown, but the summary is accurate.
The Romulan stands above him, disruptor leveled at his head, mouth twisted in a cruel smile.
“Kill me, then,” Ensign Crusher says. His hands are splayed across his stomach, holding himself together after the Centurion had slit his gut with the Teral’n. He has been forced to his knees, mortally wounded, and still his lip curls in disgust as he takes in his enemy. “Kill me,” he repeats, “It will accomplish nothing. Even now my ship is destroying yours, even now Starfleet’s victory is at hand.”
The Romulan is silent, green blood leaking down his arm from where Crusher had stabbed him in the earlier skirmish. Somewhere above them, ships are battling around this planet, Traxis. Somewhere above them, the fate of the galaxy is being decided, red blood awash with green, man and Romulan dying underneath the heavens, but here, here it is just the two of them, blood splattered on the floor, on the walls.
“You’ve lost,” Crusher whispers. “Whatever happens here, you’ve lost.”
The Romulan lifts his head slightly, and Crusher swallows, eyes dark. “You fought like a warrior,” the Centurion says. “You may die like one.”
It’s a struggle for Crusher to stand, but the camera runs for the complete two minutes and twenty-seven seconds it takes for him to work his way up to his feet, blood spilling from between his fingers, pain stark on his face. He wavers on his feet, but he faces the disruptor with a crooked smile, leaning heavily against the wall, panting through the agony that ripples through his body, and you can see that however young he might be, he’s a man now, not a boy.
The Romulan’s eyes are merciless, but there is something like respect on his face. The camera pans closer, until you can see only the Romulan and the gun in his hand, and when he fires the disruptor he doesn’t blink.
There’s the sound of Crusher’s body falling to the floor, and still we look into the Romulan’s impassive face. Finally the camera cuts away to the battle above…
—Star Trek: The Last Stand, season 4 episode 22, The Trials of Traxis
Originally aired May 23, 1989
Chapter 2: chase your shadow ‘til the sun goes down
November 29, 2003
“Today, of course, marks the 20th anniversary of the start of Russo-American War. On November 29, 1983, the first weapons were deployed that would start the most destructive conflict the world has ever seen. Lasting three years and claiming almost 680 million causalities, the Russo-American war was devastating on a global scale.
Both sides held back using nuclear weapons, but that did not stop the destruction, perhaps because civilians were not spared—bombing on both sides was not limited to military outposts, and in some cases larger cities were purposefully targeted in order to send a clear message. The once great city of New York burned, and much of southern California was destroyed in the USSR’s attempt to eliminate the naval bases and ships stationed there. Denver, Colorado was turned to ash. Rhode Island and Hawaii were razed.”
She runs a brush through her hair, feeling the bristles catch on small tangles. Practice had been long today, and her hair—which Mira had insisted stay down to add to the aesthetic appeal of the performance—is now a complete mess. She jerks the brush down, fighting the tangles, ignoring the pain. She’s eager to be done with her hair, to be done with icing her sore ankle from where she fell, to be done with everything that’s necessary and important and stands in the way of sleep.
“Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and Japan—known as The Armistice Alliance—participated in negotiations in order to halt the war before it could reach full nuclear proportions. Britain, who had sided with America at the start of the war, eventually assisted Canada in deposing then-US President Carnell and staging a coup on the American government, while Germany and Japan took Russia’s nuclear bunkers by force, at great cost to themselves. France and Switzerland oversaw the forced disarmament of the nuclear weapons on both sides, ensuring that neither Canada and Britain, nor Germany and Japan, entertained the possibility of continuing the war.”
The crackle of the radio should be distracting, but it’s an old story, and one everyone’s familiar with. It’s almost comforting in a way. Besides, it’s across the way, and she’s not putting any more weight on her ankle than she has to. Let it keep talking, she’s got about five more minutes before she passes out in her cot, finished or not, radio or not.
“While the great nuclear war many had feared did not come to pass, the effects of the Russo-American War were far-reaching. A full twenty years after it began, the world has not recovered from the loss of life, nor from the ensuing collapse of the global economy. In the five years after the war, the national debts that were called in during a desperate attempt to ease the utter poverty of various nations led to a domino effect, and the short-lived growth and prosperity during the years preceding the Russo-American War now seem a distant memory.”
They’re not meeting up with the other trucks until sometime later tomorrow, so she has at least six hours of sleep ahead of her, depending if Mira makes her get up early to do fuck knows what. The last eight weeks have proven nothing if not that Mira is a bitch who derives pleasure in screwing with the acrobats (Kinkers, she reminds herself), probably because Mira prefers the three dancers, and dancers have fuck-all place in a traveling circus. Chances are the new place is going to be just the same as the last, and if Mira keeps trying to force the dancers into the opening acts, the new Ringmaster is probably going to have her head. Darren is not known for being an easy-going boss.
(Let’s face it, he’s known for being a bit of a psychotic bastard, but he sure as fuck knows how to get crowds.)
“However, despite all of this, in the last ten years America has made startling progress in reclaiming their nation. In 1990, the Canadian-British interim-government was finally forced out, and since then America has not only seen the repairing of its infrastructure, but the rebirth of its social and cultural heritage. While much of the Midwest still enjoys a more rural lifestyle, the industries on the East Coast are helping to drive the economy back to a more substantial force. The Pacific Northwest, of course, is still leading the way in technological advances made in the last decade, and it cannot be denied that while such advances are still not readily available on a national scale, they are allowing America to shine on a global level.
While the population is still far from its pre-war 234 million, this year it has risen to 168 million, which is in itself a triumph after the devastating toll of the war. Between the rising population, the marked improvements to America’s cities and economy, and the steps taken to improve America’s place in this new global world, the 21st century is off to a slow but definite climb.”
She closes her eyes and keeps brushing her hair, counting the strokes, trying desperately to tune out—
“Penny!” Mira barks. Penny opens her eyes, and looks up at Mira. Five foot, she gives the appearance of towering over taller Penny even when they’re both standing. Mira flips off the radio with entirely too much satisfaction. “Why aren’t the lights off?”
Penny inhales and then exhales carefully. “I’m icing my ankle—”
“Lights off at midnight, Penny, you know the rules,” Mira says. “Maybe if you weren’t so clumsy in your routine—”
“I told you I wasn’t ready to make that flip!” Penny says. Mira taps her foot on the floor.
“I expected more from you,” she says. Penny’s fists tighten in the bag of ice, but she doesn’t break eye contact with her. It’s Mira who finally looks away. “You’re keeping everyone else up with these lights,” she says. “And the radio is beyond rude.”
“I didn’t turn it on!” Penny says, outraged. From behind Mira, Alicia, one of the dancers, pops her head up from her bunk with a smirk. Penny braces herself with her hand on the bunk, fully ready to fling herself to her feet and pull Alicia out of bed by her dark hair, but Mira leans forward, getting her face squarely into Penny’s personal space.
“Lights out,” she hisses, grabbing the ice from Penny’s hands and yanking it away. For one moment, Penny is honestly not sure what she’s going to do—lash out, scream, cry—and then she sucks in a lungful of air and forces everything down inside of herself. She needs this job.
She really needs this job.
“Yes, Mira,” she says, tightening her fingers into fists to stop them from trembling. Alicia is still smirking and, despite the overwhelming urge to flip her off, Penny smiles back, sickeningly sweet. Kill ‘em with kindness, she thinks, enjoying the flash of confusion on the other girl’s face.
Penny turns and curls up in her sleeping bag, trying to ignore the way her ankle is throbbing, the way she’s homesick and tired and so willing to give up but for the streak of pride and stubbornness that runs a mile wide, the defiance that slides as thick as blood in her veins.
The room is plunged into darkness, and Penny wills everything away—her hopes, her fears, her worries. Sleep, she thinks. Sleep.
Mira wakes Penny up a little after five.
(Mira hates Penny.)
“Your turn to make breakfast,” she says. Penny made breakfast yesterday and the day before. Penny’s ankle is still throbbing, and she’ll no doubt be expected to perform for Darren later on.
Penny is fairly confident that one day she’s going to strangle Mira.
She nods groggily and slurs out an “M’kay,” as Mira climbs back into her warm bunk and Penny crawls out of hers.
The truck-turned rooms, which most circuses use, work like this: In the bunk trunks, there are metal bunk-bed frames welded to the floor and the walls on either side of the inside of the truck. On average, you put two frames on each side, so you’ve got eight beds in each semi. Inside the actual frame of the bed, where in most places of the world you’ve got a mattress, there’s a hammock, which keeps you inside the bed instead of rolling off when the truck is going at a good clip, turning corners and going up mountains and generally doing its damnedest to keep you awake. You get a sleeping bag and a pillow, and there: That’s your room.
The rest of the space of the truck is taken up by the carefully installed bathroom and water tank, as well as the really quite good-sized trunk that each person gets, welded to the floor so as not to kill the poor slob who gets up in the middle of the night at the same time the truck turns.
Sometimes there are pictures on the walls. Sometimes there are fancy cloth dividers that give people a sense of privacy.
Mostly, there are close quarters, bruises from falling into each other and the bunks, and never enough quiet.
Now, proper circuses, they tend to have a kitchen-truck, and either a rotating crew or—if they’re really fancy—an actual cook. Darren’s circus has an actual cook. They’re still a good three hours away from the possibility of Darren’s circus, though, so Penny throws on a tattered sweatshirt and trudges to the front of the truck, attempting to avoid the objects in her path despite the lack of light, running her fingers along the far wall until she finds the latch that holds the sliding door shut. With a sigh she opens and slips through it.
Kurt immediately turns and looks at her, leering.
Kurt, of course, is the reason why this chore is such a punishment for her (besides the unholy hour, of course).
They may have picked up Kurt days before Penny joined the crew, but Kurt is from her hometown. Kurt was her high school boyfriend. They didn’t exactly part on the best of terms.
Now he drives trucks for a living.
“Hey babe,” he grins. She ignores him, hooking up the modified toaster, hoping against hope it doesn’t short-circuit. Again.
She pulls the bag of bread open one-handed, shoving the pieces in. Breakfast is nothing fancy—buttered toast more often than not, sometimes just toast—but the making of breakfast is an exercise in hell.
“Don’t be like that, baby,” he says.
It’s a good thing there’s not butter today…she wouldn’t quite trust herself with a knife right now.
They arrive at the meet-up exactly on time, which means in the front of the truck Mira is screaming Kurt’s head off for not getting them there earlier. Darren’s crew is, predictably, already there—and not just there, but set up. Clearly he gave them a time that fit his plans, rather than any sort of accurate arrival estimation.
Penny shrugs out of her sweatshirt and ties back her hair before slipping out the sliding door that’s been installed in the back of the truck. Alicia says something (no doubt snide) as Penny steps away from the truck, and faintly she can hear Mira’s raised voice.
The whole damn circus has evidently turned out to see them, and Penny fights the urge to duck away. Instead, her hand goes nervously to her hair, patting it down as if the light breeze is enough to throw it into disarray. They’re in a large field, trucks parked in a diagonal pattern, and the main tent already erected off to the left. And there are so very many people looking at her…
A solidly built man with slicked back dark hair and a too-sharp smile steps out of the crowd, and from the way he moves alone she knows who he is.
“I’m Darren,” he says, hand snug around hers as he shakes it.
“Penny,” she offers, and he gives her a too-close look over, eyes lingering in ways that make her long for a shower. But then, she’d known about that rumor, too. From behind her she can hear the sliding door slam open, and then Mira’s voice is cooing up at Darren as she shoulders Penny aside with a glare. Alicia isn’t far behind, nose firmly in the air.
Darren has somehow managed to turn Penny and tuck her into his side, his hand resting far-too-familiarly on her hip. Alicia looks fairly apoplectic. Mira’s smile is tight, but she, at least, is the consummate professional.
Mira, predictably, leads off the conversation by bringing up the dancers, her pride and joy. Alicia, Ashley, and Tammy preen behind her as she spouts off her flowery phrases and praises.
Darren’s fingers tap thoughtfully on Penny’s hip, and she tries not to twitch. “Dancers,” he repeats, his voice even as he examines the three girls. Mira bristles at the eyebrow he raises as he gives them the once-over. Behind them, the other three acrobats have followed the others out into the muted sunlight. Dry grass crunches underneath Penny’s feet as she shifts, but Darren doesn’t let her go.
“You should see them in action, they—”
“They have no place in my show, Mira,” he cuts in. Mira wets her lips.
“You have to at least give them a—”
“I have to do nothing, Mira,” he says. “I don’t even have to accept your acrobats, lovely as they may be.” He squeezes Penny’s side. “I’m certainly not dragging down the show with dead weight.”
“I do, however, need someone to help run the concession stand. We lost a few in the last town, and they haven’t been replaced yet.”
“Concession stand?” Mira repeats, torn between outrage and shock. Darren shrugs luxuriously.
“They can work in the concession stand or they can walk out of here right now,” he says. “It’s no concern of mine.”
Penny can’t help a twinge of amusement at the shell-shocked look on Alicia’s face, but she’s also rather distracted by the way Darren is grinning down at her. She’s saved from having to decide what to do by Mira clearing her throat.
“Do you want a demonstration from the kinkers, then?” she asks, and Penny drops a shade or two of color at Mira’s half smile as she meets Penny’s eyes. My ankle, Penny swears silently.
Darren chucks Penny underneath the chin, amused. “Go get changed, girl,” he says, clearly not remembering her name.
Fuck it, she thinks, and goes and gets changed.
It’s by no means the best routine they’ve ever done, but they stick to mostly aerial rather than the tumbling she excels at. She tosses in some flips despite herself, changing her routine to make lands and transitions only on her good leg (stupid, stupid, showy but stupid). Her fellow kinkers are good, which helps, but Penny’s always been the star, and while some of the people gathered look impressed, some don’t, so eventually Penny has to risk it.
Her ankle turns underneath her, bolts of pain flaring up the length of her leg, but she manages to stick the landing, teeth digging into her bottom lip through the practiced smile. When Darren nods his approval, she’s 99% sure they’ve got the job because she stuck her landing despite the pain.
(if she’d asked anyone there, they’d say she was probably right)
After all the touching earlier, Penny rather expects Darren to come out and talk to her, but instead he sends a short man with glasses out to her and proceeds to back a slender, dark-haired man against the wall. Whatever he’s saying, the other man doesn’t seem to like it, but she’s distracted by the short man arriving and holding out his hand.
“Leonard,” he offers, “I usually work with the animals, but I’m one of the few people here with first aid training.”
His eyes flick back to Darren and the other man, and his mouth twists a little. “Plus, he wanted me out of the way,” he mutters, clearly pissed. Penny blinks.
“What?” she asks. Leonard shakes his head.
“Nothing, nothing,” he says, “Let me see your ankle.”
She frowns, but he wrinkles his nose slightly in concentration and crouches down in front of her, all business, so she lets him at it. “I just need to ice it,” she says, and he’s silent as he prods the joint carefully.
“You’ll need to try to stay off of it until it’s healed,” he says.
She huffs out an amused breath. “I’m a kinker, Leonard,” she says. He shrugs.
“You won’t be in the show tonight, and Wil—our 24-hour man—hasn’t arrived at the next town, yet, so you’ll probably have at least a day to rest. Stay off of it, and if you’re not better by the next show, stick to the aerial, it was good.”
“But not great,” she says.
He sighs, looking vaguely disgusted. “No wonder Darren liked you,” he says, and the way he says it, as if she’s just failed some crucial test, turns her stomach.
“Wait,” she says, and she’s alarmed at how her voice has gone soft and shaky, “Wait, you don’t understand, it’s just, I can’t lose this job!”
Leonard pauses, eyes skimming across her face with reluctant understanding. His eyes flick over to where Darren is still talking to the slightly taller man who’s managing to fold in slightly on himself, and when he looks back at her, he just looks tired.
“Here,” he says, holding out an arm and wrapping it carefully around her. She puts her own arm around his shoulders, noticing the way his hold on her is almost too-gentle, as if he’s worried she might break, as if he hadn’t just seen her throwing herself through the air. At least he’s not groping her like Darren had, although she does notice a hint of appreciation in his eyes that he can’t quite hide. “Here,” he says, “I’ll bandage your ankle.”
Chapter 3: and those secrets hidden in our childish lips
The truck he takes her to is far more spacious than hers. This truck has only four beds over all, and there’s several benches secured to the floor. There are four trunks, but they’re slightly larger than the eight that are welded tightly together in her truck, and overall the space is more open and comfortable.
Leonard must have caught her frown, because he shrugs, looking slightly uncomfortable. “I bunk with the ‘main attraction,’” he says, voice an odd mixture of self-deprecation and poorly-hidden irritation.
“Sheldon?” she asks. Sheldon Cooper, or Sheldon of the Seven Swords or Seven Shotguns, or whatever over-the-top moniker currently attached to his name, supposedly a perfect aim with throwing knives and all forms of guns—blindfolded, upside down, or from horseback. They said the man couldn’t miss. Of course, they send a lot of other bullshit, too. “Is he as good as they say he is?”
Leonard laughs, almost despite himself. “Better,” he says. And then, with an amused smile, half-underneath his breath, “Almost as good as he says he is.”
In other circumstances, Penny would maybe have said “Ohhh,” or “One of those,” or something similarly understanding, but partly because—despite the chagrin—there’s a thread of affection in Leonard’s voice, and partly because her ankle is throbbing, and partly because it’s her first day and she’s tired and new and just fuck that shit, Penny shrugs and turns, eyes flitting across the small chalkboard that’s braced behind one of the trunks, the haphazard assortment of junk that’s overflowing out of another that’s been left partly open.
Leonard gestures farther down, to the benches, and she hobbles down there as he grabs a first aid kit from underneath one of the bunks. “He won’t mind if we use it,” he says, when he notices her looking at the even letters that proclaim the kit PROPERTY OF SHELDON COOPER.
She shrugs again. “Okay,” she says. She glances at two of the benches, which are scattered with various things, and then sits down in the middle of the closest.
“Don’t,” Leonard says, back suddenly stiff, and she pauses, glancing down at the bench and then back at him, obviously puzzled. “Don’t,” he says. “That’s Sheldon’s spot.”
“His spot?” she asks, amused, but he doesn’t smile.
“Just don’t sit there,” he says, and she blinks and then moves, sitting farther down.
“Better?” she asks, her voice a little sharp, and his faces relaxes.
“Yes,” he says, obvious apology in his voice, but not regret. But it’s his truck, and she’s new, and he’s helping her, after all, so she smiles a little and puts it out of her mind.
They talk about light, easy things as he wraps her ankle. She can tell he’s used to doing this with animals, if only for the way he keeps an even voice and a steady hand closer to her knee, as if worried she’ll balk. They had animals on her parent’s farm, so they talk about that for a while, although Leonard deals with the more exotic breeds. (There were no lions on her parent’s farm, for one.)
Halfway through, an Indian man walks in, sees her, and stops dead in his tracks, eyes wide. She scrunches her face a little, feeling awkward and in the way, and says, “Hi, sorry, I’m Penny?”
Leonard’s mouth twitches up a little, and he nods to the other man. “This is Raj,” he says. “He bunks here, too. He’s one of the mimes.”
Despite the craptastic day, Penny does her best to give the obviously shy man a killer grin, because there isn’t all that much privacy in a circus, and she’s just invaded his last resort. He smiles slightly, faintly, back, but doesn’t say anything, and the silence stretches awkwardly until Leonard looks up from his task and finally notices.
“Oh,” he says. “Raj…doesn’t really talk to other people.”
Penny frowns, rubbing a hand along the back of her neck. “You mean because he’s a mime?”
Leonard glances from Penny to Raj and back again. “Let’s call it a quirk,” he says.
“He doesn’t talk to anyone?” she asks, feeling a mixture of confusion and shock, and Raj makes a small, unhappy noise as he climbs up into one of the cots and hunches down with a notepad. Penny winces apologetically.
“He talks to me and Sheldon and Howard,” Leonard says, voice quieter so as not to bother Raj. “I don’t think he talks to anyone else.”
“Howard?” she asks, and he nods at the second top bunk.
“He’s the fourth bunkmate,” he says. “He’s a mechanic. Keeps everything from falling apart, but unfortunately he’s—”
“Just need to brush my hair, there’s this hot blonde chick who—oh, hello,” the new man drawls, eyes skimming up and down along Penny’s body. She bristles, and when Leonard presses a hand on her leg to calm her down her eyebrows shoot up, because he did not just fucking attempt that with her.
“Not interested,” she says, and something about the way she rolls her words in her mouth and then spits them out must get to him because he raises his hands in a placating manner.
“Okay,” he says. “Okay, got it, aborting maneuvers.”
From his top bunk, Raj lets out a hefty sigh, and Howard rolls his eyes before climbing up to the bunk and half-jumping on him. Raj lets out a muffled squeak and Howard laughs and Leonard shakes his head, amused.
There’s the sound of subdued wrestling and whispering as Leonard finishes the bandage, and Penny’s feeling a little out of place by the time a fourth man enters the truck. It’s the same man Darren had been talking to in the big top, the tall slender man who had a tendency to fold in a little on himself, and she looks up, surprised, as he freezes upon seeing her.
“Penny, Sheldon,” Leonard says, gesturing from one to the other in introduction. Sheldon looks decidedly uncomfortable, but after ascertaining that she’s not about to pounce, he moves to the bench and sits precisely where Leonard had earlier declared to be his spot.
“She twisted her ankle in practice a couple of days ago,” Leonard says by way of explanation, and Sheldon nods carefully.
“I thought the landings you performed were unusual, but you did very well disguising their true purpose,” he says, his voice level, his words enunciated to a degree she’s not quite used to. Down here people tend to revel in their accents, and his careful, precise way of speaking is almost as surprising as the content. She’s not quite sure how to take it, but she shrugs it off.
“Had to audition,” she says with a tight smile, and he nods before glancing up at Raj’s bunk, where both he and Howard have stuck their heads over the side. Raj seems concerned as he looks at Sheldon, but Howard seems almost distracted.
“Done,” Leonard says, sitting back on his heels, and Penny glances down at him and smiles.
“Thank you,” she says, and he nods, and when Howard suggests lunch, Raj nods and Sheldon discreetly checks his watch, but his face betrays nothing.
Leonard suggests they perhaps wait until the top of the hour, and the others assent, chatting about various events. She moves to stand, but Leonard tugs her back down with a smile, so she stays.
Better than facing Mira, who must be in a fury.
At exactly 1pm, Sheldon tilts his head to the side and shifts uneasily in his seat, and Leonard stands immediately and helps her up. The other two scramble down from the bunk, and Leonard suggests he help her out.
(“Don’t touch Sheldon,” he tells her softly, when he’s the closest person and she almost stumbles and grabs him. “He doesn’t like to be touched.”
Sheldon had stood there, neither moving to help her nor moving away, and she’s not sure why he doesn’t speak up for himself, but she says nothing.)
She goes to dinner with them, too.
Darren doesn’t have them perform for the first show.
If Penny were still even slightly religious, she’d give thanks for small blessings. As it is, she lets Leonard help her out to a place where she’s not taking the seat of any honest ticket-payer, but where she’s still tucked out of the way.
Raj, surprisingly, drops by with a flower and a wink, which makes her smile. They go back and forth for a bit, amusing the nearby audience as he over-dramatically woos her in full mime fashion, but after a while he seems distracted and keeps glancing over to the side. Penny follows his gaze and sees Howard talking up a couple of girls in the audience, but when she frowns questioningly at Raj he waves her away and trots off to other parts of the crowd.
They’ve got a good show, with a lot of good balance between quality of acts. Nothing drags overly long, and it stays entertaining as well as impressive, but she, as well as most of the audience, is waiting for the lead act.
She wasn’t expecting Sheldon to ride out on a horse. He sits too stiffly in the saddle, his fingers tight around the reins, but he still rides it better than she would have expected from her brief encounter with him.
And he can shoot.
After all the stories, she’d been counting on being let down, because no one could actually be that good.
Except he is.
She’s been around plenty of guys who go out hunting every single year. She’s not a bad shot herself. She knows her way around a couple of different guns. She can take them apart and put them back together, knows how to keep them clean, knows how to aim, adjust for wind, all those basic things that are necessary.
She wouldn’t be able to hold a candle to the man before her.
He shoots targets that he should barely be able to see. He relaxes into the horse after the first lap, and he looks…natural up there, with the cowboy hat and the holster and the way the guns slide along his hands as he swaps them out, fires two-handed, wipes a hand on his jeans and tugs on the bandana at his throat.
She’s sure the entire costume has been planned and perfected by Darren, but she can’t deny that sitting up there on the horse, gun in hand, he can pull it off.
When he starts throwing knives, his entire body aids in one fluid movement, and she can barely see the individual muscles tightening and relaxing and aligning as he lines himself up and releases, his wrist snapping forward in the air, his eyes focused only on the target before him.
He does that blindfolded, too.
He doesn’t miss.
Around midnight, when Raj and Sheldon and Penny and Leonard are playing cards, Raj leaning over and whispering into one of the boy’s ears when he wants to speak, a sharp rap on the door catches them by surprise.
A man pops his head in—late twenties to early thirties, so older than the rest of them. “Miss me?” he smirks. Sheldon’s lip curls as he looks at him.
“I’d hoped you’d get lost coming back, given what you try to pass for a brain,” he says. Penny grins behind her hand at the man’s sneer. It’s the first time she’s seen Sheldon have some bite to him.
Leonard sighs. “This is Wil—he’s our 24-hour man. He goes to the towns a day ahead of us and makes sure there’s no problems with the lot and puts up signs and—”
Wil smirks at Penny. “That’s not the only reason I’m known as the 24-hour man,” he grins. “You’re one of the new girls, I take it?” he says. “Can’t be some gilley, no way these boys could manage a local girl who looked like you.”
Penny isn’t sure if Wil’s serious or joking, but the wave of protectiveness that hits her takes her by surprise. “I don’t know,” she says. “I think they could handle themselves quite well.”
Sheldon raises an eyebrow, but Leonard flushes and Raj looks completely mortified. Wil just laughs. “I like you,” he says, and then points at Sheldon. “Try not to fuck up everything,” he says.
Sheldon looks Wil up and down and then tilts his head to the side, as if finding him utterly lacking. “I don’t recall ever saying you could come in,” he says, and then turns purposefully away and begins examining his cards.
Wil taps his fingers on the edge of the door and then with a scowl pulls away. Leonard shrugs. “They don’t get along,” he says.
Captain Obvious, she thinks.
Howard walks into the truck sometime after three a.m. They’re pulling out at five, but they’ve been finished with their breakdown assignments for hours, and Raj can smell from ten feet away what Howard’s been doing to occupy his time. And it’s not just the alcohol he can smell on Howard’s breath (and clothes) – he’s got grass stains on his pants from where he clearly forgot a towel when he picked up someone and fucked him or her outside, stars overhead, alcohol nearby.
Raj doesn’t say anything when Howard throws an arm around his shoulders and smiles a hello. He dips his shoulder and lets Howard’s arm slide off and then walks away.
Howard follows, mouth twisting in obvious irritation. “What’s your problem?” he snaps, and there’s a slur to his words that darkens Raj’s eyes, and he looks away.
“I’m going to bed,” he says, and Howard grabs him, turns him, pushes him against the wall, and Raj lets him, pliable and disgusted all at once.
“Don’t be mad,” Howard says, and his voice dips and sways as he blinks at Raj, and Raj doesn’t move.
“I’m disappointed,” he says, his eyes skimming along Howard’s body. “There’s a difference.”
He steps around Howard, and Howard snorts derisively, moving back and giving him space.
“Don’t be a fucking bitch,” he sneers, running a hand through his hair and coming away with gel on his fingertips.
“Goodnight,” Raj says, and disappears into his bunk, drawing the curtain shut around it.
Chapter 4: it takes more than fucking someone to keep yourself warm
When Raj was twenty years old, he packed a small bag, withdrew the little money he’d collected in his personal account (the majority of what he’d earned had been brought into the joint account his parents kept tabs on, ensuring he was saving enough to be able to settle down and support his future wife), and bought a plane ticket.
The plane ticket he’d had to buy wasn’t exactly legal – tickets had to be purchased weeks in advance in order to clear security, and special circumstances, such as deaths in the family, usually came with a hefty additional cost. The ticket he bought was under a blank name, so he used his own passport when leaving the country, but the ticket itself was illegal, even if it was the sort of illegal that no one in airport security, or even the government, really paid too much attention to.
It was the first time Raj had broken the law.
He boarded a plane to the United States (and why the US? Still recovering, still in shambles, and somehow still the epitome of the pull yourself up by your bootstraps mentality—and he did, he really did want to pull himself up by his bootstraps, wanted to start afresh, wanted to find—find something, find anything).
He wandered the country for a bit after arriving. The state checkpoints weren’t enforced as well as they’d originally been envisioned, there simply wasn’t the manpower or the resources, and given other things, an expired visa wasn’t really high on anyone’s list. Still, money is money, and it tends to run out fast.
He picked up spare work. They paid him under the table, they paid him in food and lodging, they didn’t ask why he couldn’t (wouldn’t) speak.
(America, land of your damaged and lonely, where everyone’s lost someone, where you hold your pain inside and smile because grit and pride are all you have left.)
Sometimes he was a street performer.
Forget physics and astronomy and science and math and the way the world moves, the way the world works, interconnected and infinitely complex, balanced and predictable and still astonishing in ways you would have thought should be obvious by now.
Forget laboratories, and latex gloves, and computers that let you speak in the only way that has ever come easily to you.
Raj had a talent as a mime (probably because he’d been living the part for years). Darren found him outside some bumfuck town in the middle of nowhere, and whisked him away before Raj had decided yes or no, go or stay.
They billed him underneath different names, dressed him in different costumes. Some of the people there tried to talk to him, some of them didn’t care. After a while it didn’t matter anymore.
He worked and ate and slept and stared at the sky—blue and grey and orange in turn—and he stayed silent. Out of choice, and need, and want.
Out of ease.
Darren holds off adding them for the second show, as well. He’s tearing the entire order apart and redesigning it, and he pushes her harder than Mira ever did.
Mira stays, and keeps coaching from the sidelines. Her face gets pink when he overrides her directions, but she never confronts him.
Alicia is working in the concession stand, for now. Ashley is, too, but Tammy slipped off into the night, and when they checked her trunk they found it empty. No note, no goodbyes. Penny burrows into her cot and tries to ignore the fact that Mira will certainly wake her up too early once again.
At least Kurt is distracted by all the new pretty faces.
After the third show, Kripke gets in Sheldon’s face.
(Barry Kripke juggles fire and swallows fire and is basically a fucking pyro and he wants the lead act, and he’s the sort to do whatever it takes, so getting in Sheldon’s face is nothing new, hand on his arm, voice low; no, that’s nothing new at all.)
“Hey, Shewdon,” he says, smirking, “That what you cawl a show?”
Sheldon is silent as he tries to walk past, but Kripke steps deliberately in his path.
“I was tawking to you, Coopeh,” he says, his voice sharp, and Sheldon steps back, placing deliberate space between their bodies, his hands adjusting the length of his long sleeves as his eyes flicker along Kripke’s face and then back down.
“Don’t,” he says.
Penny has just seen this man shoot and throw knives and never once miss his target (blindfolded, on horseback, two at once), and all he says is Don’t.
Leonard moves from her side, grabbing Sheldon’s arm and glaring at Kripke.
“Move,” he says, clearly pissed, and Kripke laughs but steps to the side. Penny and Raj follow silently, watching as Sheldon folds in on himself, arms crossed tightly against his stomach. He follows Leonard into the truck and then sits down in his spot, back pressed against the wall. Leonard’s hand falls from Sheldon’s sleeve, and Raj slides past him and sits next to Sheldon, legs pressed against legs, arms resting against arms.
“Kripke is an ass,” Leonard says, clearly upset. Sheldon and Raj are silent, and Penny rocks back slightly on her heels, unsure of what to do or say.
Part of her wants to leave.
She ties her hair back and sits down on the opposite bench, grabbing Leonard in passing and yanking him down with her.
“Cards?” she asks brightly.
Penny’s only ever liked her brother out of all her family. Sure, she loved them all, but loving someone doesn’t mean you have to like them.
Penny likes her brother, though. Sure, he’s an ass, and they’d given each other plenty of bruises when they were little, but he was tough and he looked out for her. That asshat who backed her up against a wall and tried to kiss her in eighth grade – her brother knocked some fucking sense into him, sure enough.
It figures that it’s her brother that gets dragged off to jail middle of her junior year, dealing—fucking idiot. Everyone knows they’re cracking down on drugs, what with all the rumors that there’s some big ring dealing in drugs and weapons and secrets. (America still doesn’t trust Canada, what with the whole coup shit they pulled. Neutral their ass.)
But no, her brother gets dragged off to jail, leaving her what?
Leaving her royally fucked, is what.
It starts with her dating Kurt.
The middle gets complicated, but she drops out of school.
The end is where she runs away and joins the circus.
(This doesn’t feel like an end, though.
She’s not sure what it is, but it’s not an end.)
The first time Raj met Howard, Howard had flirted and Raj had smiled hesitantly, mute, and then fled.
The second time, Howard had acted like it didn’t matter. He’d chattered on while Raj listened. Raj had been skittish, but Howard had leaned in close and brushed a strand of hair back from Raj’s face.
The third time, Howard had bumped into Raj while they were walking, and then grabbed his waist to steady him.
The fourth time, Howard had stretched an arm around Raj’s shoulders and tugged him in close for a side-hug.
The fifth time, Raj had let Howard take his hand.
The thirteenth time, Raj had said Howard’s name.
To be blunt, Penny hasn’t slept with anyone since Kurt.
There’s a lot of good reasons for that, but only one that’s really held her back.
She’d liked to pretend she can’t feel it slide along the inside of her skin, coat her throat until swallowing hurts, but Penny’d rather not lie to herself. And it’s a good reason, a damned good reason, but she’s not one to stay down, she’s not out for the count, she will do what she damn well pleases.
When he touches her, fingers brushing along her bare arm, she doesn’t feel like something to be claimed, or something to be won, and that’s nice, that’s new, not being a possession, not being overlooked. Sure, he still touches her like she’s about to shatter, but there’s something sweet about that, too. No expectations, no need for her to be a fighter, to be a scrapper, Leonard seems just happy to have her there, however she is.
She kisses him because she wants to kiss him. His eyes are big and warm and kind, and that’s it, right there, that’s it in a nutshell, he’s kind, and it might not be the best reason to fuck someone, but it certainly isn’t the worst.
And she could do with a bit of kindness. It’s not like her world’s been overflowing with it lately. (Or ever.)
He’s gentle with her, as if he expects her to be skittish, as if she’s naïve and unsure, and he makes her long for when she was those things and more, because this is the sort of boy to lose it to, someone who wants to take care of you, someone who’s maybe broken in his own ways (and if he’s here, he’s got to be at least a little broken) but still wants to love you.
Wants to love you, because she’s going into this with eyes wide open whether she wants to or not. It’s her default now, after…
She helps him unsnap her bra when he fumbles for the clasp, and he shrugs out of his shirt when she pulls back to get it free, and maybe it’s not mind-blowing, but it’s safe, and he’s kind, and he makes her feel pretty, and he makes her feel wanted, and he makes her feel—
(and this is not something she will ever admit, because she can stand on her own two feet, she’s made a life standing on her own two feet, she doesn’t need anyone to help her up, hold up her, keep her safe)
Which, okay, stupid, he’s shorter than she is, and she could definitely take him, but it’s more that he’d try. That she’s worth the effort. And he seems like the type of guy who thinks most people are at least worth the effort, but that’s kinda new and shiny in and of itself.
So she kisses him, and touches him, and his eyes are glittery in the half-light, and he holds her as if he doesn’t want to let go (even though he can’t keep her, even though she won’t stay).
Chapter 5: even their sins you carried as your own
Galveston, Texas – January 20, 1986
The sirens near the ocean go off. Planes, then, coming from ships somewhere off the coast. People immediately start making their way to the bunkers. They’ve got about ten minutes to make it somewhere safe before the planes should be overhead. George, Mary, Missy and Sheldon are in George’s car.
(Gasoline is restricted for the wartime effort, but down south most people have converted their vehicles to run off natural gas.)
George is drunk.
“Let me drive,” Mary says, glancing back at the two young kids in the backseat. Missy is poking her brother, but Sheldon is staring out the window wide-eyed. They’re five years old.
“I’m fine,” George says, looking at her instead of the road.
“George, you’re drunk! Stop the car and let me drive! Or just stop the car, I’m sure there’s a shelter close—”
“I’m fine,” he repeats.
(Alcohol is rationed, but they know how to make moonshine in Texas.)
“George—” she says—
(It’s not safe to drive when the sirens go off. People panic. People forget things like signals and breaks.)
“Mommy—” Sheldon says.
Mary glances back at her two children just as a car cuts through the intersection and slams into the side of their car.
The car flips.
George is saying something—repeating something—as the world spins
Sheldon opens his eyes with a cry, his leg pinned between two parts of the crushed shell of the car.
The rest of the vehicle is silent. Outside, he can hear the sound of bombs falling. It’s night, and without the lights of the car he can barely see—a small blessing.
They find him five hours later, when the bombs have stopped, when they crawl out of the shelters, when they see the jagged metal bending in on itself.
“Mommy,” he says, crying, the lady with the soft voice trying to comfort him.
Mary doesn’t come.
Leonard sits with Penny afterwards. Part of her—part of her wants to gather her clothes and slip off into the night, back to her truck. The other part mostly wants to close her eyes and go to sleep (outside or not).
Leonard wants to talk.
His arm still wrapped around her bare waist, he twists his head a little to look at her better. “Why did you join the circus?” he asks.
The way he asks it, as if he can’t understand why she’d be here, as if she’s somehow above all this, rankles a bit, but she just lifts up one shoulder and lets it fall back down in a half-hearted shrug. “What else was I going to do?”
He’s frowning, that little crease between his eyes. “Anything,” he says, as if it’s obvious, as if she’s stupid. “There are plenty of normal jobs out there—”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for joining the circus, is all,” Leonard says, his voice softer, backtracking. She’s silent a long moment.
“You did,” she says.
“I…I had to get away,” he says. “I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
This time, she’s the one to frown, forgoing exhaustion to prop herself up one arm and look at him closely. “You’ve got first aid training. You’ve got a West Coast accent, and you’re clearly intelligent—you could’ve become a doctor or something. You had plenty of options.”
(The insinuation, of course, that she hadn’t.)
“I had to get away,” he repeats, his voice tight, his words hurried from throat to mouth. “I had nowhere else to go.”
“So you’re running away,” she says, sounding almost disappointed. This time he shrugs.
“I couldn’t stay,” he says, as if it’s an answer.
(It’s not, of course, but she’s hardly one to talk.)
Howard’s been running for years.
His father—that dearly departed fucker—brought him into mechanics when he was little. Pops used to repair whatever needed repairing, be it vehicle or refrigerator or generator.
(Pops never could handle computers, but lucky for them there wasn’t much call for them in the middle of the backwards Midwest, where they had cornfields and cows and ignored the craters the bombs left so few years ago. Howard isn’t bitter, no, he doesn’t want out of this fucking country, out of this fucking life, no he doesn’t care at all.)
Of course, Pops needed the jobs, what with the way he tended to drink their rent and groceries.
Howard didn’t become a mechanic because his dad wanted him to learn on the job, he became a mechanic because his dad couldn’t finish the job. But that’s an old story, and one everyone’s heard before.
He’s good at his job. Better since Dad dropped dead from a heart attack four years and twenty states ago. It’s why Darren snatched him up to work in the circus full-time, with a retainer and all.
And the circus keeps moving. No settling down. He’s used to moving, his entire childhood (can’t pay the bill, ducking into the car in the middle of the night and hitting the gas) was on the move, and now he doesn’t know how to sit, how to settle, and what’s the point of learning, anyway?
(Howard can handle computers.
He can take them apart and put them back together, he can build them up from scratch, the pieces smooth in his hands, and he never had no training, no, this is instinct, this is knowing what fits where, seeing how things connect, seeing how they piece together, and he has it, he can make them sing, he can—
He doesn’t get much call for them, out here.)
Howard can repair whatever needs repairing.
And that’s more than enough, in his book.
Penny retreats into the boys’ truck. It’s easier than dealing with Mira, than having a confrontation with Alicia (brunette tramp), and certainly better than dealing with Darren, sleazeball extraordinaire.
The truck is unexpectedly empty when she walks in, and she pauses, one foot balanced inside, one hovering in midair outside. She’d prefer to stay here, and yet…
A soft brush of fabric on fabric catches her attention, and she looks up to see Raj pop his head up from his cot. He smiles when he sees her, and she smiles back, definite affection flooding through her as he runs a hand through his mussed hair and nods for her to come in.
She does, although she’s admittedly a little hesitant. He clambers down from the upper bunk and gestures to the back area, miming a drink, and she laughs a little and shakes her head no. He shrugs, still grinning, and she’s surprised at how comfortable she is with him.
After a moment, he tilts his head to the side and grabs his pad and pencil and then gestures to her, and it takes a moment for her to realize that he wants to sketch her.
It’s surprisingly touching, and she grins and shrugs and plays bashful, but she’s wanted to be an actress since she was little, and this, this is her in her element, so she smiles demurely over her shoulder as he sketches line and shadow and tries to capture the sadness behind her smile, and the hope behind her eyes.
Sheldon joined the circus a little less than a year after Raj.
That’s a lie, of course. Sheldon didn’t join the circus. Sheldon (breathless, bruised, terrified) hid from his “uncle” (his foster parent), and Darren told him he could stay only if he could be useful, and Sheldon (who had been told and told and told that he was only good for shooting) picked up a gun and showed what he could do.
Sheldon was twenty-one, but not in any way that counted. He wouldn’t look people in the eyes, and he flinched when people moved too quickly around him, and he had nightmares every night.
Darren liked fucking with him, so everyone else stayed away, because it simply wasn’t worth the pain. And oh, Darren was marketing him, and changing his outfits and his names and even his style, but he was ensuring that Sheldon wasn’t going to walk off and join a different circus (”I know your uncle, I’ll find him and tell him where you are, I’ll help him take you back, and then where will you be, hmm? Think he’ll let you live after you left him? Think he’ll take you back when you’re crying and bloody?”).
He called it an investment, as if that made it okay. Sheldon was an investment, and he was just securing that investment.
Raj started sitting with him at dinner (silent always silent). Raj had grown observant from his years of self-imposed silence. He could see the way Sheldon shunned touch and appreciated routine, the way he watched the stars and poured over books when he thought no one was looking. Raj knew about the notebook tucked underneath Sheldon’s pillow, filled with symbols and equations, notes and thoughts about the world around them.
Raj sketched Sheldon one afternoon. He sketched him as Sheldon looked on horseback; gun in hand, body tense and fluid all at once.
“So you don’t forget who you are,” he said, his voice hoarse with disuse as he handed it over to him, careful to avoid his fingers touching Sheldon’s skin.
Sheldon swallowed thickly, eyes sliding along the lines and shadow that described man and rider.
Raj had smiled crookedly and walked away.
Sheldon pauses inside the truck. Raj and Penny are sitting cross-legged on the floor, the bench in front of them layered with Raj’s sketches. Sheldon can tell that Raj still isn’t comfortable enough to speak to Penny, but the fact that he’s showing her his sketches is…surprising.
There’s something about the shape of her smile, the sound of her laugh that relaxes something deep inside of him. He stays where he is and watches them, so he catches it when Raj says, “Yes,” when he nods, the word more breath than sound, but still a word, caught by air and floated over to Penny’s ears. Her eyes widen, but she says nothing else.
Sheldon knows about Raj’s past—his family, his fears, his inability to speak, to disagree, to decide. He also knows that Raj is still afraid, that he still can barely open himself up to others. Raj knew Leonard for months before he spoke to him, and that was with Leonard around all the time, sharing their quarters, with Leonard defending the both of them at every turn, standing up for them when they were both afraid to stand up for themselves. To have him speak to Penny after less than a month—
Raj doesn’t bite back the word as if shocked at himself, but neither does he say more, and Penny smiles as if it hurts, a little, as if she knows a little something about fear.
What she does do—
What she does do is take Raj’s hand in hers and squeeze it, once, before letting go.
She turns her attention full-heartedly to the sketches before her, and Raj, after one heartbeat of tension, lets it melt away into the floor of the truck. He points and smiles and gestures, his eyes endlessly expressive, and she speaks for the both of them, content to wait.
There was a look in Penny’s eyes Sheldon hadn’t been expecting—something vulnerable and fierce at the same time, a need to be protective without being pitying. Sheldon, throat unaccountably tight, pulls his arms in around himself and walks away.
Chapter 6: anger of angels who won’t return
Howard has very few memories of his mother. He knows his parents often fought. He knows she had a habit of yelling across the house to everyone.
He knows she’d hold him, wrapped up tight in her arms, and read to him, the rocking chair slowly tilting back and forth, the blanket over his legs keeping out the night chill.
These are all vague, half-memories, though.
He was four when his father took him away to visit his grandparents. His mother and his father’s parents hated each other, so she’d stayed home.
Home, in Pasadena.
Home, when California burned.
Leonard takes Penny’s hand and she pulls free. She isn’t in a good mood—practice had been utter shit, and Howard had slept with Bernadette, one of her kinkers, and now wasn’t talking to her, the bastard, so Penny had spent a good hour afterward talking to Bernadette and listening to her rail about him.
To make matters worse, Leonard seems to have decided that they’re together, now. Together.
Penny doesn’t do together. In fact, she avoids most facets of togetherness, including all those pesky things like friendship that have been preying on her lately. She doesn’t want to listen to Bernadette sob for an hour. She doesn’t want to have to keep an eye on Howard when he’s drinking, because he doesn’t know his limit and one of these days he’s going to get his ass handed to him because he can’t fucking shut his mouth with the townies.
Mostly, though, she doesn’t want Leonard looking at her with hope, looking at her with need, as if she can be everything he wants. She can’t even be what she wants.
(Television and telephones are the only things that lasted, they say. Television more than telephones, because people can walk down the street to talk to someone, but how else are they going to get their soap fix?
Penny watched the television when she was young. One of the few free things in the Midwest, it was one of those little perks of being disproportionately one of the most advanced and backward countries in the world.
Penny wanted to be an actress.
But she’s not an actress. She didn’t go to college. She didn’t finish her last year of high school, not after her brother got arrested for smuggling drugs. She dropped out and joined the fucking circus.)
She doesn’t even know who she is anymore.
Worse, she doesn’t know who she wants to be.
So when he grabs her hand and tries to pull her in close, she pulls back. “No,” she says. “No, Leonard, I told you. It was just that night.”
“But don’t you—” he says, and she can hear it all falling out, don’t you love me? don’t you care?
“There was never going to be anything more,” she says.
He’s silent for a minute, and then he nods.
(He’d known he couldn’t keep her.
He tries to bring himself to really care.)
Leonard went to a private school, but then most West Coast schools were private. The entire atmosphere was built for driving forward scientific advances aimed to improve American life on a national scale, despite the fact that innovation was limited to this one local sphere.
The arts, too, were important—somehow, the country had been split into different societies that relied completely on one another and yet stretched thin and far apart for all that. Television came out of the West Coast—television, and scientific progress, and everything except anything tangible and real.
Food, clothing, necessities, those came from out East. All the plants, all the luxuries, even, they were all developed farther out. And maybe the rest of the country was a little more rundown, but they tended to like it that way—they had their small communities, they had their lives exactly as they wanted them. There’s not really any pressure on anyone out East. You make the life you want to make.
The West Coast is another story. You can’t be average in the West Coast. There’s not enough space, there’s not enough time, there’s not enough people. You have to be extraordinary.
Leonard was brilliant, he really was. But he had Beverly for a mother. Beverly, who expected more than he could ever deliver.
His life (all their lives) was scheduled and planned out beyond preliminaries. His life was a routine. His life felt like a race that he was always losing.
Leslie and Leonard would often work together or compete against each other in class. She brought out the best in him.
Beverly, though, Beverly brought out the worst.
Penny is crying.
She hates crying. Her face gets blotchy and her nose runny and her fingertips itchy, and usually she’s pissed as well as upset, and it means that she’s lost any and all of her control, which is something she truly hates.
Leonard made her cry.
(This is not true. Penny knows only she is responsible for her own actions. No one can make her cry except herself.)
Leonard said some things that seemed unnecessarily harsh, and Penny lost control and started to cry.
(Better. Still painful to admit.)
Penny is crying when she half-stumbles into Sheldon, who puts his hands on her arms and steadies her before either of them realize what he’s doing. He takes his hands off immediately, and he goes a shade or two pale, and Penny wants to throw herself into his arms and cry onto his chest, a desire she hasn’t been struck by since she was twelve and her dog died and her brother came and held her as she cried.
Penny doesn’t throw herself into Sheldon’s arms, though. He doesn’t like to be touched, she remembers that, and remembers more how fiercely the boys enforce Sheldon’s unspoken rules, as if determined to keep them up even when Sheldon cannot bring himself to argue on his own behalf. She realizes that she can feel that same surge of protectiveness blossoming underneath her skin, and so, despite her tears, despite the urge, she pulls back and steadies herself.
He doesn’t move, although it’s clear by his eyes that he doesn’t know what to do or say, that he is not used to being accosted by sobbing women, and she struggles to swallow down everything, to pull her emotions back inside of herself.
“Kurt got me pregnant,” she says (blurts out), and then she can’t stop herself. “He got me pregnant in high school, and then he left me, and my parents would have disowned me if they could. I had a miscarriage and I lost my little girl, and everyone wanted to pretend that nothing had happened, that I was never pregnant, that they hadn’t all left me when I needed them the most.”
She hasn’t told anyone this. She slept with kind Leonard (Leonard who made her cry) and she hadn’t even considered telling him, and now she’s pouring out these secrets to a man she barely knows, a man who’s unable to tell her he doesn’t like to be touched.
What is she doing?
“To…to deny the existence of something,” he says, and his voice is low and rough and his eyes trail along the dirt between them, “Is useless. Changes made cannot simply be ignored because the alternative is preferable.”
Penny nods, wiping her face on her sleeve.
“They think I should be able to forgive them, that—that I should consider myself lucky—lucky—that they want to pretend it didn’t happen, that—”
He reaches out and takes her hand in his, and she is struck silent at the feel of his smooth skin against her callused hand.
“You don’t—” she starts (you don’t have to, I don’t want to make you, please—), and he shakes his head.
“It’s all right,” he says, and she nods blindly, shudders in a breath, and looks down at their linked hands. It means more than she was expecting. More than anything, right now.
“Okay,” she says.
(Maybe, just maybe, it will be.)
Leonard checks himself into a psych facility when he’s nineteen years old.
Beverly doesn’t really believe in psychology. She tends to dismiss it offhand, usually with some sort of condescending statement, so she’s not happy when she finds out.
Leonard’s not doing it because it’ll piss Beverly off, though. He’s doing it because he can’t sleep, can’t eat, can’t control the anxiety that sweeps through him. Nineteen’s too young for an ulcer, the doctor had chided him, and what could he say?
So he checks himself in. He goes to the classes, he talks to the therapists. He truly wants to get better, wants to be able to feel in control of himself, if only for a moment.
Beverly calls him almost every day. The therapists encourage it, telling him he needs to talk to her, to explain to her, to have an honest discussion.
Leslie visits only once. She sits with him outside. He wants to take her hand, to talk to her, but he doesn’t know how to start. He’s terrified she’ll shut him out. He’s terrified that he deserves to be shut out.
He knows what people expect of him.
He knows what Beverly expects of him, that she’s not “people”—that he’s not enough, not smart enough or bright enough or clever enough for her.
He isn’t getting better. In fact, trapped within the walls of the facility, he feels claustrophobic, and the anxiety builds and circles and overwhelms him.
He doesn’t plan beforehand. He’s lived by schedules and calendars and rule books long enough. One day he simply packs his bags and checks himself out. He isn’t a danger to anyone, and he checked himself in, so the doctor shakes his hand and tells him he needs to open himself up more, that he only needs to fill his own expectations, that he doesn’t need to be anything he doesn’t want to be.
Leonard shakes his hand, smiles, and agrees, knowing everything the man is saying is utter bullshit. He hitchhikes out East.
He doesn’t call anyone. He doesn’t tell anyone.
He gets a job in a stable, in a zoo, in a vet’s office as a receptionist. He tries to keep himself around animals, and when he does he feels steadier, calmer, safer.
He never plans to join the circus, but Darren all but steals him away when Leonard helps out when the Vet is out on a case.
He finds himself with Raj and Sheldon, and maybe it’s because they don’t expect anything kind from anyone that he finds it so important that he helps in any way he can.
Howard stumbles and lands heavily against the outside of the truck. Leonard’s eyes darken a little at the way Sheldon recoils at the sound. Raj just looks exhausted.
“I’ll get him,” Leonard says. He doesn’t want Raj to have to handle it, again, and it’s not exactly a situation Sheldon would be comfortable (or effective) handling.
Howard sways and then starts cussing Leonard out when he tries to grab him.
Leonard’s never been patient with Howard, and this is no exception. He tries to reason with him for a minute, but eventually gives up and grabs him by the back of his neck. Howard swings out an arm, enraged, but Leonard’s had some experience with uncooperative animals.
“Pathetic,” he mutters as Howard pauses, hand against the truck, and wretches, but despite himself he knows that even if it wasn’t for Raj and Sheldon, he’d still be here, and he’d still be hating it.
Penny isn’t always sure what to think about Wil. He’s always coming or going, and when he’s around he does his level best to pick fights with Sheldon.
But that’s kind of the thing—the fights Sheldon has with Wil are the only fights Sheldon ever has. He deals with Kripke by backing up and Darren by giving up, but as soon as Wil pops his head around Sheldon is coolly dismissive and outright offensive, and Wil seems to enjoy every second of it.
(“So, Sheldon, you gonna try to not fall off your horse tonight?”
“Wil, I was considering adding a tribute to William Tell to my act—perhaps you’d be interested in participating?”)
Wil finds random times to bump into her, too—always random, always accidental. She goes into town with some of her girls, and he’s in a bar, buying her a drink and being amusingly over-flirtatious. They chat about random things, and she ends up telling him more about herself than she was ever planning. It should make her uncomfortable, because the boys clearly don’t like him, but…
She doesn’t think he doesn’t care. Oh, he’s an ass, and he’s selfish, and he’s mean sometimes, and he’s always edged with sarcasm. Still, she thinks.
Raj had been a quiet child. His parents had kept him sequestered in the family home, and he’d been taught by private tutors. He had almost no contact with the outside world, but it’d never bothered him unduly. He had stories to escape in, if he wished, and he enjoyed sketching what he thought the world outside might be like.
At fourteen, his parents decided it was time for him to attend an expensive private school.
Raj had been utterly terrified. The amount of people, the noise, the sheer busy-ness of the world around him was shocking.
His teachers and counselors began to call his parents. He won’t speak, they said. Raj’s father had been irritated, his mother furious. They took him to doctors and therapists. They spoke of his duties to his family, to his future wife, to his future children.
He had obligations, they reminded him.
He had to do right by his family, he owed it to them, he couldn’t embarrass them in this manner.
The more they demanded, the more he withdrew within himself.
There are dozens or unspoken rules and traditions that they live by—things Sheldon needs, things that keep them from killing each other, things that they’ve found to work, and have therefore adjusted their lives accordingly.
She’s introduced to one of the few things they all agree is fantastic once it’s clear that she’s not going anywhere. (Howard quotes an episode, and she doesn’t get the reference. All four of the boys stare at her in out-and-out horror.)
Between the four of them, they’ve scraped together recordings of Star Trek: The Last Stand. Leonard has a friend, Stuart, who owns a shop in one of the main cities – they pass near it every two months or so (Darren buys goods in the city for cheap), and they make a pilgrimage there every time.
Stuart’s a nice enough guy who routinely tucks things away to sell them, even some things he could probably sell for more to other people. But then, there’s some background to Leonard and his friendship that no one really knows about, except Leonard had some sway thanks to his mom’s position and got Stuart out of something or other.
The point is, Stuart saves things for them, and eventually all four seasons had been scraped together one way or another. Howard and Sheldon worked together (it was a rare occasion, but Howard was good with computers and Sheldon was good with anything and everything), and somehow they managed to pull the data from old VHS tapes to store it digitally on computers using nothing but five year old supplies and hand-made improvisations.
What this meant, though, was that they had Star Trek: Last Stand at their fingertips.
The four of them immediately set about forcing Penny to watch episodes. (They could quote lines back and forth in a thoroughly intimidating way. Even Raj, although he’s still skittish about talking around her.)
It was a popular show for its time—hell, they still play reruns relentlessly—but Penny’s not sure if it’s the technical aspects or the sheer backbone exhibited by the characters, who refuse to back down in a war they appear to have no chance of winning, that the boys like so much.
(Penny knows it’s just a TV show, just like she knows sometimes TV shows actually mean something. She didn’t want to be an actor because she thinks it’d be fun. She’d wanted to do something that would affect people, and now she’s being corny, and fuck it ALL she just thinks that when Sheldon’s watching Picard make the decision—and it’s hard and it hurts—to fire upon the Romulan ship, knowing that Tasha was on it, knowing he had to do it for everyone else, she just thinks that MAYBE it means MORE than television, maybe it means heartache and heartsick and doing things you have to because you have no choice.)
Penny watches the show because she knows what it’s like to not have a choice.
Penny watches the show because she likes seeing people hurt and fail and struggle and pick themselves up after all that and keep on fighting, because sometimes she thinks she needs that reminder.
Penny watches the show because the boys ask her to, and she’s fallen hard and fast for all of them, even though even friendship tends to end in heartbreak, and she swore her heart away for good.
Sheldon has a perfect performance. Penny knows this because she’s gotten into the habit of waiting on the platform above after her act and watching his. Watching his motions from above, so fluid and determined and sure, she can pretend that he’s always steady, that the dichotomy between man and act is not so wide and unbreachable, she can pretend that he is in control and safe from whatever haunts him, whatever hurts him.
After the show, though, Darren backs Sheldon against one of the tent poles, pinning him in place with his hands, his head bent close as he speaks quietly to him. She can’t hear him, but given Darren and given the pale look on Sheldon’s face, she’s sure it’s not anything good.
Leonard isn’t close—one of the animals had been acting up earlier before the show, and he’d mentioned needing to take a look—and Raj, dear lovely Raj, would be next to useless. She sees Howard across the way, but he’s got a bottle in hand and an arm stretched around the waist of a local, and she can tell he’ll not be up for it.
Besides, if she’s capable of taking care of herself, she doesn’t need their help for this.
She walks up to the pair of them, no plan in mind, just knowing Sheldon needs to get away from Darren. She’s not too specific on the whys and wherefores, but as she gets closer she hears “-take you back to your uncle if you don’t stop being a little bitch, is that what you want? Think you’ll have it as good with him as you’ve got it with me? Think you have any idea how lucky you are here? Cuz it can all go away in a moment.”
“Hey!” she calls out when she’s a couple steps away. She keeps her voice light, despite the way her fingers have curled into her palms, the way her pulse is loud in her ears.
Darren turns his head slowly to look at her, keeping his body squarely in Sheldon’s personal space. He looks her up and down dismissively. “What?”
“I was wondering, if you’ve got a second, if you could go over the last part of my routine with me—I was thinking—”
“I’m a little busy,” he says, cutting her off, his voice brisk and clearly irritated.
She hates herself a little for the way Sheldon has pulled his body in on itself, pressed snugly against the pole, eyes wide. She runs a hand through her hair, shaking it back.
“Oh,” she says. “Okay. I was just hoping for some…y’know, private training.”
Now he does look at her, and she can feel the eyes rake along her body and it makes her feel a little nauseous. Steady, she thinks. Steady.
“Well…” he says, letting the word drawl out as he pulls a little away from Sheldon, clear interest on his face. And Sheldon lets his eyes flicker to hers, his own hooded as he scans her face, the pinch of her mouth, the tense muscles in her arms.
His hand hovers in midair before settling lightly on Darren’s arm. “I think—” he says, his voice low, and it’s enough to turn Darren back to him, because Sheldon doesn’t touch people. Penny’s not sure who’s more shocked of the three of them, but Darren waves a hand at her, clearly dismissing her.
“I might have time later,” he says, not looking back, his eyes steady on Sheldon’s face, and she stumbles back a step, unsure and beyond concerned. Sheldon flicks his eyes to hers, his gaze telling her in no uncertain terms to go away, and because she has no other recourse, no other option, she takes another step back and another, and then Raj’s hand is in hers and he’s pulling her away.
“Why—why did he do that?” she asks Raj when they’re out of earshot. “I was trying to help him!”
Raj is still looking at Sheldon, at the way Darren is invading his space, hand clasped securely around Sheldon’s wrist, face too close to Sheldon’s.
“He didn’t ask for help,” he says. And then, because he knows he just sounded curt, he shakes his head. “He’d rather handle it himself than have you hurt because of him.”
“I can handle myself,” she says, sharp.
Raj bites back a bitter sort of laugh. “He never asked you to prove anything.”
Chapter 7: let me at the truth that will refresh my broken mind
Sheldon had a gift for science and mathematics. He and Missy would bicker back and forth, and she would attempt to destroy everything he did, but Mary kept an eye on them, and she could see the way her boy was, could see how clever he was, how he always wanted answers and explanations and looked for the meaning behind everything.
George didn’t find it funny. George had already lost a son.
(The first year of the war, fire and shrapnel and Sheldon’s grandmother’s house had gone up. Two coffins had gone into the ground—one adult, one child. There hadn’t been much of them left to bury as it was, but they’d made the effort, Mary had seen to that.)
He wanted to show the boy how to throw a punch, how to ride a bike, how to shoot a gun. He didn’t want his son to be some closeted genius freak, and he was never too subtle about his feelings.
Mary never cared.
”God works in mysterious ways,” she’d smile.
Sheldon, to this day, can remember her smile, and the weight of her hand on his shoulder, the pressure of her lips on his forehead.
He doesn’t believe in God, but when his foster parents took him to church every week, he let the words Mary and Mother wash over him.
Jesse, the man who called himself his uncle, was the foster parent that took him in.
(Not the first foster parent, there had been others. Those months in the hospital and the surgeries on his leg, doted on by the nurses as he sat there, silent, psychiatrists dropping by to see him, but there were always so many wounded and fucked up, and there was a war. When they healed his body he bounced from one home to another, some good, some bad, some worse.)
Jesse wanted a man instead of a boy.
Jesse said he’d known George, that George wouldn’t have wanted his son to be some namby-pamby school bitch. Jesse took Sheldon out shooting, and said George would’ve been proud that his son could shoot like that, because Sheldon could. He didn’t like to kill things, and the first time he brought down a bird he’d started crying, and Jesse had shaken him, asking if he was a little bitch to cry like that, and Sheldon had shaken his head, no, no he wasn’t.
He remembers those hours, his leg half-crushed, trapped in that car as the bombs went off. They haunt his nightmares, trail along his skin. He’d wake screaming and Jesse would grab him and haul him out of bed and shove him into the closet, and Sheldon would curl in on himself and try not to cry (not supposed to cry) and think of his sister, hand in his, think of the way she’d cross her arms or tilt her head. He was sure George would’ve been proud of her, that it would’ve been better if she’d been the one to crawl out alive rather than the freak.
So he put away his books, hid equations underneath his mattress. He practiced shooting, he learned to keep a steady stance and a steady hand. Jesse entered him in contests, his voice softly threatening in his ear, telling him to be good, to make George proud, and Sheldon would nod, silent.
(Sometimes, he’d wondered what would make Mary proud, Mary who believed in God and justice and redemption, who’d smiled when he’d tried to cut his own hair, who kissed his scrapes and scolded him when he hurt himself, and made him and Missy hug and make up when they went at it.
“You’re my little genius,” she’d said, once, but it hadn’t sounded like an insult coming from her lips.)
Jesse had backed Sheldon up against one of the trucks when they’d visited the circus. Sheldon could barely hear anything else over the sound of his breath in his ears, his pulse pounding, a shaking hand trying to brush his shaggy hair out of his eyes.
Despite the way he remembers everything, he’s not sure what set this fight off. He just knows he was twenty-one years old, and Jesse said something, and Sheldon had realized that Jesse was never going to let him go. Let him be free. He’d made some comment about some show he was going to get Sheldon to perform at, and he’d been yelling about some mistake Sheldon had supposedly made, and it had clicked, and he hadn’t even been thinking when he’d shoved Jesse away and taken off running, twisting through people, ducking around buildings.
Someone had seen the stark terror on his face and grabbed his arm, shoved him inside the big top and then inside one of the fenced off areas, pushing him back and clapped a hand over his mouth.
Sheldon had had no reason to trust the man in front of him, who hadn’t said a word, but his dark eyes were soft, and the fact that he was Indian, of all things, eased something in Sheldon’s gut, because Jesse was a racist bastard who would’ve freaked in the same situation. Sheldon had nodded and then breathed in and out and tried to stop his hands from shaking as he sank to his knees.
“Thank you,” he’d said.
Raj had brushed a hand through Sheldon’s hair, and Sheldon had shivered. “It’s all right,” he’d whispered.
Darren had found him there, and thrown Raj out and learned Sheldon could shoot and had dragged him along, hid him from Jesse, got him clothes and bunked him in a truck with too many people and too much noise, and Sheldon had let him.
It had been weeks before Raj had begun joining him for dinner.
Longer before he’d spoken to him again.
Penny and Sheldon are walking.
It’s dark outside, and she’s not entirely sure where they’re going, but she trusts that Sheldon knows his way back, given his uncanny memory.
It’s cold outside, but the feel of it is brisk on her skin, a firm reminder that they’re alive, so she tucks her hands in her pockets but doesn’t suggest they turn back.
Howard’s gone off somewhere for the night, and Raj is a bundle of nerves. Leonard’s trying to talk him down, or at the very least distract him, but Sheldon had been too tense and finally stalked off to everyone’s relief.
Penny hadn’t meant to follow, but Sheldon had glanced at her before he slid out the sliding door, and before she’d realized it she was on her feet and mumbling out a scattered excuse.
He hadn’t waited for her, but when she caught up to him he’d slanted a glance down at her and then continued, slowing his long legs a little to accommodate her.
She’s not sure how long they’ve been walking, but she’s distracted enough that she doesn’t notice at first that he’s stopped. He catches her arm with his, and his hand is gentle but his touch is still shocking, and she’s sure her eyes are wide as she looks up at him.
He’s looking up at the sky, and his expression is almost…wistful. She glances up, too, and she’s caught off guard by how well she can see the stars, until she realizes that he’s brought them far enough away from the lights of the circus and nearby town.
“The light of these stars left some of them so long ago that they might be gone, now,” he says, his voice low but still sounding loud in the night air.
The way his face is painted in shadow, the way he’d taken her wrist to stop her, make her think he must mean something more, something deeper and inexplicable and something he feels safe delivering only in riddles too complex for her to understand.
Still, if he had only needed someone smart, or anyone at all, she wouldn’t be here.
She runs his words through her mind again.
“Just because something’s in the past doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect us,” she says, her voice hesitant. She’s not entirely sure why she’s out here, except that she needed to walk and she needed space and she wanted company.
Sheldon rocks back a little on his heels, still looking upwards.
“The Greeks wrote myths about the stars and constellations,” he says.
Penny wants to take his hand in hers, or put her palm against his cheek, but he doesn’t need comforting with touch—probably couldn’t bear it.
She wracks her brain, instead, considering his words, searching for his meaning. Finally she shrugs.
“Whatever they wrote about it,” she says, “A star is still a star. They can’t change that.”
Sheldon breathes out slowly. Painfully.
His hand bumps against hers once. Twice. The third time she slips her fingers through his until they’re intertwined.
The two of them keep looking up at the stars.
They’re quiet as they stay out there, but when they finally turn back they break apart as if they’d planned it all along.
Howard slips out of the bedroom without waking her up. He doesn’t remember her name. He can barely remember anything of the night before, but he woke up naked next to her, so it couldn’t have been all bad.
His head is pounding, but he’s smirking a little as he walks back, jacket flung over his shoulder.
The sun’s up by the time he makes it back to the camp. The circus was mostly broken down the night before, and everything else is being packed away. They’re scheduled to leave in less than a hour, so he walks through the moving people, parading the fact that he’s only now coming back from town. There’s a couple snide remarks thrown around, but he’s enjoying himself until he catches Raj’s eye from across the field.
Raj looks…devastated is far too strong and melodramatic, but something about his face, the look in his eyes, hurts, and Howard stills, hand going to his stomach as if to recover from a blow, air spilling out of his lungs.
It’s the look his mom used to give Pops when he came back late and drunk and smelling of perfume. He can see it with startling clarity, hear raised voices nearby, and these are things he hasn’t thought of for years. He can barely remember his mom, and yet he can hear her, screaming at Pops, hear the crash as glass breaks and spills across the floor.
Howard brushes a hand down his front, feeling it shaking against his shirt, and then he breaks eye contact and walks away.
He doesn’t owe anybody anything.
He doesn’t have to prove himself to anyone.
Raj had seen the books Sheldon couldn’t quite hide in the depths of his trunk, the notebook that he kept underneath his pillow, with the scrawled equations that read like memories to Raj. Except he’d also seen the question marks – the areas where the writing hesitated and then continued, almost reluctantly, into areas Raj had never learned about, had never pressed into.
He didn’t mention it for weeks, but finally, outside in the grass, Raj had pointed out Venus. Sheldon had been quiet for a moment, and then he’d pointed out the soft edges of a constellation. They went back and forth over the course of hours, until finally they were discussing stars and their composition, and Sheldon was discussing the distance between them as if he were discussing shooting.
He could fire a bullet that would take out a star, Raj had thought in a fit of absolute whimsy, the image clear in his eyes—Sheldon, riding the back of the Uchchaihshravas, the snow-white, seven-headed horse of the gods
Days later, he sketched a picture of it—Sheldon, with bow and arrow, flying on horseback in the realm of Svarga, the light of a star dying from his bow strike.
He hadn’t shown Sheldon. Instead, he placed it in a folder he keeps of things he would not want to forget.
Leslie’s dad had worked in the zoo.
(More accurately: Leslie’s dad was a zoologist, on the forefront of his field, responsible for several new ideas circulating academia, author of several important papers, and had worked in conjunction with several behavioral theorists on evolutionary behavioral patterns.)
At ten years old, however, what really stuck was that Leslie’s dad worked in a zoo, and would sometimes, if he wasn’t too busy doing research or off in some foreign country studying animals in their natural habitat (Leslie often stayed with her aunt), he might sometimes let them take a behind-the-scenes tour.
Leonard had found out, at a very young age, that he was quite good with animals. Despite his ridiculous amount of allergies to any number of things, he was not (currently) allergic to any animals. And he really thought that, given his often cowardly tendencies, he should be afraid of them. But animals weren’t like people. People were confusing and demanding and expected anything and everything, and sometimes Leonard would curl up in the middle of his bed, hands tight around his ears as if to shut everything out, because he could never do enough, never be perfect, never be what she wanted.
But animals were different. They wanted food. Some of them needed to be exercised, some of them needed to be brushed, some of them needed affection and some needed lots and lots of space, but there were rules to them, and they could make sense. They didn’t need impossible things, they didn’t need you to be smarter than you were.
They were satisfied with hard work.
And some of them—some of them would let him wrap his arms around their bodies and feel their chests rise and fall. Some of them would let him bury his head in their hair and breathe.
Leslie’s dad had a stable in the zoo—more for recreational and research purposes than as an actual attraction—and Leonard worked in the stable. He’d brush the horses down, clean out the stalls, he’d do whatever needed doing, and it would lessen the ragged beat in his chest, ease the tension in his stomach.
Leslie would come sometimes too, and they’d work side-by-side in silence, letting the work empty their minds, the slow burn of muscles welcomed into their bodies. At fourteen years old she’d pinned him up against a stable door and kissed him, at seventeen they’d tumbled in the hay loft and researched each other thoroughly.
Sometime between the two, when Beverly had announced she and his father were getting divorced, he and Leslie had worked the entire day—backbreaking work that left them barely able to move. The skin on his hands felt raw, and she’d stayed in bed the next day. They never mentioned it afterwards, but he’d felt, going in, it was either that or tearing himself apart if only to understand how to make everything stop hurting.
Sometimes it felt like the only times he was really alive was when he was there.
The year before he checked himself into the psych ward, Beverly told him he really ought not waste his time with such trivialities, and no, that wasn’t a suggestion.
Leslie had asked him why he stopped coming, and he hadn’t known what to say.
He’d insulted her, instead. She’d always taken offensive easily.
When Wil flirts with her, he flirts like it’s all a game, and maybe he’s keeping score. He doesn’t like to be concerned, and he certainly doesn’t like to show his hand, but maybe he asks questions which are too personal, and maybe when he cuts in and scares a guy away, it’s not because he wants in her pants but because the guy was in her personal space.
(She doesn’t need protecting.
Wil would be an idiot to not want in her pants.)
Still, it’s not something she necessarily notices, until Kurt is bugging her relentlessly, and Wil slips between the two of them, picks her up, and starts making out with her.
(It turns out Wil’s a ridiculously good kisser, if anyone was wondering.)
She makes a startled noise of surprise, but when she sees Kurt looking apoplectic she wraps her arms around Wil’s neck and enjoys the ride.
Also, when Kurt grabs Wil’s shoulder and yanks him backwards, and Wil decks him and then Kurt goes for Wil’s back, she takes great pleasure in breaking a bottle over his head.
Kurt falls to the ground with a satisfying thump, and Wil walks her back to camp and then disappears.
Howard comes back, drunk.
This really isn’t a surprise.
Howard comes back drunk, and wants to have a quick fuck with Raj, and that, that is definitely a surprise.
“Didn’t get lucky?” Raj growls as Howard tries to kiss his neck.
“You’re the best,” Howard says against his skin. Raj pulls away.
“No,” he says, “No, I’m not doing this with you anymore.”
Howard stops, and he looks angry.
“Is this still about me drinking?” he asks. “Look, I’ll stop if you want, just—”
“Go find some slut to sleep with,” Raj says, his voice edged, “They’re more your type, aren’t they?”
“That’s not true,” Howard hisses.
Raj turns, drawing away. “I don’t care,” he says.
“Don’t turn away from me!” Howard yells, and he shoves Raj, hard.
Raj stumbles, tripping into a trunk, the pain radiating from his shin as he falls to the ground.
“You don’t walk away from me!” Howard yells.
(And he’s drunk, and he’s stupid, and he’s terrified, and he never meant to hurt him, would never mean to hurt him—)
Howard freezes, looking at Raj—Raj on the ground, wide-eyed and terrified.
“Get out,” Raj says.
Howard gets out.
Leonard finds Raj icing his shin.
Raj isn’t speaking at all, not even to Penny, not even to him.
Not even to Sheldon.
“Are you all right?” Leonard asks, trying to keep his voice soft. Raj’s mouth twists, hating the pity he thinks he hears. He nods, grim.
Raj has always been fine.
Sheldon doesn’t do this.
He’s never done confrontations. He can feel the echo of Jesse’s breath on his face, Jesse’s hand curled in the collar of his shirt, and his hands are trembling and his face pale.
But Raj is his friend.
Raj was his friend when he didn’t remember what that word meant.
Howard is silent, eyes dark, as Sheldon walks up to him. They’re outside, and the cool breeze ruffles through their hair, against their clothes, kicking up leaves and fliers that were dropped by townies.
“Howard,” Sheldon says, and his voice is unsteady but he holds his ground, despite the way Howard takes a swig from the bottle in his hand, despite the way the world seems to tilt underneath his feet. “Howard, you have to apologize to Raj. You have to make it up with him.”
Howard wipes the back of his hand across his mouth, and Sheldon feels his lip curl up at the unsanitary act, but he says nothing. He doesn’t take a step back when Howard moves closer, but it’s a struggle.
“I understand that you’ve got issues,” Howard says. “I get that, and I think I’m generally pretty good with that. But I don’t need you butting into my life.”
“Raj is my friend,” Sheldon says, his voice low, twisting around the word ‘friend.’ Howard is a ball of tense muscles and a bitter sort of smile.
“I guess he’s the only friend you’ve really got,” Howard says. This time Sheldon does take a step back, and Howard’s smirk turns darker. “It must really hurt knowing how much he wants me more than he wants you.”
Sheldon’s hand curls into a fist at his side, and the violence of it shocks him, because this is instinct at work, turning his body into a weapon, preparing him to fight. “You’re hurting him,” he says. “He cares about you, and you’re hurting him.”
Howard’s face is dark against the night sky, and Sheldon can’t make out his expression as he takes another slow swig. “I said it’s not your business,” he says.
Sheldon—Sheldon sees white, Sheldon feels his hands flex, Sheldon moves forward, moves fast, and shoves Howard square in the chest, and as Howard stumbles backwards Sheldon stands above him, fury giving way to fear, muscles aching from the way he’s trying to hold himself together.
“Clean the fuck up,” he says, his voice a hoarse whisper, black creeping in around his vision, and before Howard can say anything more, do anything more, Sheldon stumbles backwards and then turns and runs, his long legs carrying him back to the trucks—
But not back to their truck. His knuckles rap on the door (3 knocks) and Mira wrenches open the door.
“What?” she snaps, and then realizes who it is and softens to simpering, careful to butter up the lead act. He barely looks at her.
“Penny?” he asks, and he can hear his voice crease and bend, and Penny shoves Mira’s hand off of Sheldon’s arm and steps close, and Sheldon grabs her and doesn’t let go.
“Sheldon?” she asks, because he’s holding her, his arms gripping her tightly as if she’s all that’s anchoring her to the world, and he can’t let go.
His face turns against her neck, and she can feel his nose press into her skin, hear him suck in an unsteady breath, his hands snug against her back. Things he can’t say (“I need you”), things he won’t say (“Hold me”), things he does say:
She tightens her hold on him, as if she can hold him together, as if she can hold him in place, and it’s a choked whimper against her skin that makes her close her eyes.
“I’m here,” she promises, her hands moving along his back. He examines and files away the random movements without even thinking about it, the patterns meaningless to her but now inscribed along his nerve endings, in the memory centers of his brain.
(He doesn’t forget anything, ever. Things jostle against each other, memories bumping and connecting at random turns, and he forces himself to separate them ruthlessly, bury some down, destroy the connections they hold with another—he can hold a gun without thinking of Jesse, he can see a car without thinking of the prolonged crash and the hours that followed, he can hold her and not think of those few moments of honest affection he’s ever been given.)
He’s so much taller than she is that he’s practically folding himself in half in order to wrap himself around her, so it makes no sense (no sense at all) that his heartbeat slows, his breath evens, and he feels (finally) safe (real) as she holds him.
(There must be a logical reason, he thinks.
He closes his eyes and stops caring.)
Chapter 8: you found it in Wind. you don’t worship wind anymore
Mid-performance, Kripke slips a twenty in a man’s hand, and the man calls out, “There’s my little bitch,” – his voice low and threatening – and Sheldon Cooper’s hand slips, his aim off, his wrist unbalanced, and the shot goes wild, sliding past almost two feet from the target.
The silence in the room is unbearable, as everyone who knows him, knows his talent, stares in open-mouthed shock.
Sheldon is visibly shaking, eyes darting around the area, and he must have realized by now, his brain must have caught with his ears and he must have realized that Jesse isn’t there, but the gun is loose in his hand and pointed at the earth, his eyes wild, his chest working desperately to get enough air into his lungs.
Penny, sitting cross-legged on the platform above, still dressed from her earlier performance, grabs the bar and flings herself into space. The net is still up below her, and she can make this flip (even with no warm-up, even from moving from sitting to flying from one second to the next), and eyes dart upward at the unexpected motion.
She flips once—
catches the bar, the metal slick underneath her palms (forgot the powder, forgot the fucking powder), and she pulls herself up, balancing on one knee, hands entwining with the ropes, and she has no routine, here, no plan or thought process.
She flips herself down, letting her body swing out, her whole form moving in one fluid movement, and then she swings herself up, the pressure building along her body as she launches herself at the far bar.
She catches it and pulls herself up, fully ready to disappear into the shadows, and down below Leonard has grabbed Sheldon and pulled him away, and Howard is talking loudly with Darren, arms gesticulating as he waves at the generators in the back. Darren places a hand firmly on Howard’s chest and pushes him backwards, but Howard steps right back up, and Penny smiles a little to herself.
Raj has coaxed the mimes and clowns out, meanwhile, and they are flooding the area, doing their best to distract and annoy and amuse the audience by various measures.
She slinks down the ladder, glad for once that the spotlight has moved elsewhere, because her hands are cold and her cheeks are flushed, and what she just risked for Sheldon – her job, her reputation, by some counts her limbs, given that she needs her warm-up, has practiced her routines with her fellow kinkers – but she can feel the fine tremors run through her body, and she knows they’re not from adrenaline or fear, that they hit her as soon as Sheldon stumbled, as soon as he stuttered to a stop, gun clasped loosely in his hand, eyes wild.
She sneaks out back for the rest of the show.
And then, she thinks, as people start dispersing, groups heading back to town, then she thinks she’d better find him.
(This is what had happened:
He’d hit Howard, and run, and found her, and she’d held him.
They stayed that way for a long time, and when he’d pulled back she’s brushed the damp away from his cheeks.
He hadn’t meant to kiss her.
He’d never thought about the structure of a kiss, about the rise and fall of the moments before and after lips met and fell apart. He’d never considered the reasons why people kissed, or the feelings inherent in the contact, never parsed the language that exists in touch and feel alone.
He didn’t know what he was doing when he leaned in, eyes dark, but she’d known.
She’d known, and she’d lifted her chin a little, and kissed him back.
And when he’d pulled away, shocked at himself, confused at his feelings, apologies falling haphazardly from his lips, she’d forgiven him freely and let him flee.
They hadn’t spoken of it since.)
Inside, she passes Kurt, who has his tongue halfway down Alicia’s throat.
The fact of the matter is that they deserve each other, so she keeps walking. Wil bumps into her, casual and accidental as always.
“Is he all right?” he asks.
She shakes her head. “I don’t know.”
Darren shoves him hard, and Sheldon falls back against the side of the truck, unable to catch himself in time. His elbow cracks loudly against the metal, but Darren is again advancing, and this time his fist catches the side of Sheldon’s face. He lurches to the side, and Darren has his fingers tangled in Sheldon’s shirt before he manages to right himself.
Wil and Penny turn the corner and see them—Howard holding back a furious Leonard, Raj mute and terrified, Sheldon wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. “Shit,” Wil mutters underneath his breath, and then throws his jacket at Penny and takes off running.
“Hey asshole!” he yells, and Darren turns to him, enraged, but Wil pays him no mind, shoving past him to get his hands on Sheldon. “What the fuck were you doing today? Are you some fucking gilley that you screw up like that? Are you a fucking rube or what?”
Wil half-drags him into the back of the truck. “Get out!” he yells at Eric and Sam. “Get the fuck out!” They scramble out, because you don’t piss off Wil, and he slams the door shut behind them.
From outside they hear a loud crash as something is thrown into one of the walls, and a pale Leonard shoves Howard off of him. Before he can get to the door Penny and Raj are on him.
Sheldon sits on the cot, shaking, as Wil kicks the wall of the truck. “You fucking idiot!” Wil screams at the air, and Sheldon folds in on himself a little more. Wil jumps once, letting himself land loudly, and then with an air of amusement he kicks the end of one of the cots. “Teach you to fuck with me,” he growls, sparing a moment to look at Sheldon.
Sheldon is shaking, clearly terrified, clearly not even there in the moment, but Wil ignores him for now.
When Leonard throws the others off (and Howard’s still fighting him every step of the way, because this can only end badly, Howard knows these sorts of fights and knows it can only end badly), he shoves open the door and stumbles in, ignoring the last stinging smack as Howard’s fist smack against his face as he tries to claw away.
Inside the truck:
Inside the truck, Sheldon is curled in on himself on a bunk, shaking. Wil is flexing his hand, the knuckles bleeding slightly. Sheldon pulls back from Leonard as soon as Leonard comes in, and Wil shoves past, shoulder knocking deliberately against Leonard’s as he shoves through the door.
Darren is watching, eyes dark, but Wil completely ignores him as he stalks off, and Darren lets him.
Penny runs into the truck after Leonard, and slams the door shut behind her.
Raj is curled in on himself outside, back to a tree, knees drawn in to his body.
He’s very close to tears, his fingers digging into his legs in an effort to hold them off. He’s succeeding, for now, but it’s an effort, and it’s not easy.
Howard has been walking for an hour, so he’s irritated when he finally sees Raj, half-blending into the night with the way he’s so still, but he swallows it down.
“Hey,” he says, crouching down next to Raj. He puts a hand on Raj’s arm, because Raj is upset and Howard is Raj’s favorite, after all (his favorite everything, his favorite friend, his favorite fuck, his favorite person, right?).
Howard is feeling a bit guilty, but the feeling is uncomfortable, and it’s not like it’s his fault, after all, it’s not like he knew what was going to happen, and he tried to help, didn’t he?
(He doesn’t like Raj being mad at him, but Raj has no right to be mad at him, no right to expect things of him, and who the fuck does he think he is?)
“Hey, are you okay?” Howard asks, giving Raj’s arm a squeeze, and Raj freaks the fuck out.
“Get off of me!” Raj yells, half-falling sideways in his rush to get away from Howard—“Get off of me, don’t touch me!”
(Howard has always been allowed to touch Raj. Raj spoke to Howard within two weeks of meeting him, and he spoke with full-sentences, hands twisting together nervously as he mentioned the fact that there was an opening in their truck because Leonard had told Kripke to get the fuck out, and that if he wanted, Howard could join them.
Leonard hadn’t been happy, but Sheldon had acquiesced because Raj had asked him, and they had made do, hadn’t they, the four of them had worked, and Raj had always touched him and talked to him and forgiven him and—
Raj was always there, Raj—)
“What’re you—” Howard asks, and he sounds breathless because he is, because he feels sucker punched, because—
“I can’t handle you right now,” Raj says, and there, the tears have finally won, wet tracks racing down his cheeks as he pulls back from Howard—Howard who looks vulnerable and angry and betrayed, but Raj can’t do this, Raj can’t do this anymore.
“Fuck, I told you I’m sorry—” Howard spits, lip curling, and Raj is shaking his head blindly—
“No,” he says, “Don’t,” he says, “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
“Raj—” Howard says, and there’s desperation in his voice (finally), but it’s much too late for that, because Raj is on his feet and he’s walking away, and this time he’s not looking back.
Leonard cleans the blood from Sheldon’s lip. Penny sits next to him, holding Sheldon’s hand tightly. Sheldon is silent.
Sheldon hasn’t spoken a word since they ran inside.
“Did he hurt you?” Leonard asks, fingers hovering above Sheldon’s body. “What did Wil do to you?”
Sheldon shakes his head. “He tried to protect me,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
Chapter 9: anything that is dead shall be reborn
Leonard’s hands are shaking when he starts up the Jeep. He didn’t ask permission to use it. He shouldn’t just be taking it like this.
Sheldon is in the passenger seat, staring out the window. He hasn’t said more than a handful of words since last night, and Leonard can still feel the fear that clung to him last night when Wil went after him.
Saved him. Saved him.
That’s going to take some getting used to.
Leonard is sure he has bruises from Raj and Howard holding him back, but that’s not what concerns him, and it’s certainly not what has him borrowing one of the circus Jeeps without Darren’s permission. Sheldon’s got a split lip, but more than that, dark bruises have etched their way along his ribcage, and it was enough of an effort to get Sheldon to show them to him.
Bruised or broken, Leonard isn’t sure, but he’s not leaving this to chance, he’s going to do this right, he needs to do this right, he—
He shifts the car into drive and pulls it away from the circus, his eyes following the big top in the rear view mirror as they pull farther and farther away, and part of Leonard (a large part, a part that sometimes fills his lungs so he can’t breathe past it, can’t think past it) wants him to push the gas to the floor and gun it, to take off and leave and not come back.
Sometimes he doesn’t know what’s keeping him there.
But he can hear Sheldon breathe in and breathe out, light shallow breaths so as not to aggravate his ribs, and Leonard knows why he’s still there.
Knows why every instinct in his body is telling him to take the Jeep and take Sheldon and run. It’s such a tempting thought, to take him to safety, to take them both to some sort of safety, but Sheldon never asked to be protected, and he certainly never asked for Leonard to make decisions for him (although even now Leonard is driving him to a doctor, and Sheldon is sitting there, passive, silent, hurt).
Perhaps neither of them asked for this. Sheldon certainly didn’t.
Leonard ran away from any and all responsibilities years ago, so he doesn’t know why he’s so eager to embrace this one, why rage bubbles underneath his skin every time Darren pulls Sheldon away, and he is left to watch, helpless to interfere because it’s not his place.
But he can take him to the doctor, at the very least.
So Leonard keeps his hands on the wheel and his foot light on the gas and pulls his eyes from the rear view mirror to the road ahead.
The doctor he takes Sheldon to is named Stephanie Barnett. She was in the yellow pages, she was close, and she took walk-ins. Whatever doctors are spread out here are used to limited money, and most of the country doctors aren’t equipped for any real sort of surgery for that reason, because they simply can’t afford the luxuries other doctors have in hospitals, but she greets them at the door with a smile and doesn’t ask too many questions.
She checks Sheldon’s ribs carefully. (She’s used to not using x-rays. She can tell broken bones by feel, she can diagnose the type of fracture and set it and put a cast on it flying blind, because she’s had practice, because x-rays are expensive, because she hasn’t much choice.)
She pronounces one bruised and one cracked, and bandages them carefully, and Sheldon sits, back achingly straight as she touches him (medical, sterile, still too much).
He tries not to fidget. Leonard can tell from the way his fingers are digging into the edges of the seat and the way his lips are pinched together.
She cleans his cut lip, and Sheldon keeps his eyes focused on the opposite wall as she tries gentle words and then explanations and finally silence.
She skims soft fingers along the bruises along Sheldon’s shoulder, but they’re just bruises. She gives him a bottle of Tylenol, and he nods his thanks, and as soon as possible he slips away back to the car.
Leonard is worried at the way he’s avoiding words, at the long silences and short sentences he’s balanced since the night before. Before he can follow him to the car, however, Stephanie stops him with a firm hand on his arm.
“Let me see your eye,” she says, and until then Leonard had almost forgotten about the bruise he’s sporting. For a moment he considers refusing, but Sheldon seems to want a moment to himself, and he’s grateful for the way she’d handled Sheldon, so he acquiesces, sitting down in the seat so recently abandoned by his friend.
Her touch is gentle as she probes the bruise, and something about her relaxes him, eases the bundle of nerves he carries around in his gut, tight and sometimes breathless against the world, terrified for the people he cares about.
“What are you doing working in a circus?” Stephanie asks.
Leonard slides his tongue along the back of his teeth, and blinks rapidly before he can find his voice. “I’m here because…” he stutters to a stop, shaking his head. “I’m here,” he says. “I’m just here. Will he be okay?”
She clucks softly, but nods. “He’ll be fine,” she says. “Did you two get in a fight with some of the local boys?” she asks. “They can cause trouble, but they’re not usually ones to act up like that unless there’s alcohol or a girl involved,” she says, a smile softening her words.
“No girl,” he says, “Or alcohol this time,” he adds. “Things just got a little out of hand with some of the other circus folk. Nothing too bad.”
She’s silent for a long moment, and it takes a while for him to realize that his eyes are shut and he’s leaning into her hand. Embarrassed, he straightens and moves to stand up, but she stops him, a hand on his shoulder pressing him down.
“Are you all right?” she asks, and the way she says it, level and certain and clearly wanting the truth, whatever it is, whatever it costs or matters, makes Leonard swallow back any easy lie and rethink his words.
“I just want him to be okay,” he says at last.
Stephanie’s hand is warm against his cheek. “Have you seen your eye?” she asks, trying for amused but falling much closer to concerned. “You’re acting like you failed him, but you didn’t, not with a shiner like that.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Leonard says, his voice rough, and she nods, but the set of her mouth is sad, her eyes flicking away from his face, her half-smile weary.
“You don’t belong there,” she says as she turns away, peeling the gloves off of her hands, her back to Leonard.
He stares at her for a long moment and then stands as if he hadn’t heard her.
“How much do I owe you?” he asks.
He smiles back at her as he walks away, but his hands are unsteady when they fumble with the door handle.
Sheldon looks out the window the entire ride home, silent.
They hadn’t shared a trunk right away, but despite himself Darren could see that Raj was good for Sheldon in those basic ways, like reminding him to eat and sleep, and however Darren felt about Sheldon, he didn’t want his main attraction getting sick or being off, so after a bit Raj moved in with Sheldon.
Sheldon, who’d been sharing the truck with Kripke (who’d hated his guts on sight and wanted him gone), and two other moderately major attractions, had felt something ease at the sight of Raj’s soft smile and quietly deliberate actions. It was Raj who’d noticed that Sheldon liked to eat at certain times, that he craved routines and rituals and a balance that had become impossibly hard to maintain in this environment, that without it Sheldon felt like he was spiraling out of control of his life, of everything.
Raj started with little things. He made sure Sheldon always sat in the seat he preferred which, given that he didn’t speak to either of the two roommates, wasn’t an easy feat. He ensured that, except for unusual circumstances, the two of them would eat at the same time each day. More than that, though, he tried to keep their friendship on an even, predictable keel.
Slowly Sheldon opened up to him. Raj could take his hand in his and squeeze it. He could work the knots out of Sheldon’s back, or brush a hand through his hair, or lay outside with him on the blanket and point out constellations.
Sheldon wasn’t quick to trust, but something about the way that Raj had to work for it forced Raj’s hand. Raj, who wandered from city to city, finally couldn’t pretend that he didn’t need anyone, that he didn’t want anyone.
Sheldon was the only one Raj spoke to. He whispered words and secrets at night as they laid side by side outside, hands clutched tightly in one another’s. And Sheldon listened—listened—like no one else had.
When Leonard came, dear, responsible Leonard, they saw him for what he was immediately. He covered for Raj when Darren was pissed that Raj wouldn’t answer, he forced Kripke to back off, he protected the both of them ruthlessly in any way he could, as if it was important, as if they mattered.
They didn’t know what to make of that. Leonard, who tried so hard to do what he thought was right.
He gave help instead of offering, which was the sort of demanding they were used to, but while they held each other’s hands, Raj learned to speak to Leonard (because he deserved it), and Sheldon learned to trust him (because he’d proved he should).
It wasn’t easy with Leonard like it was with each other, but few things are easy, and they’d both had ample cause to know that.
“Darren’s gone too far this time,” Leonard says, grim.
“This time?” Penny snaps, turning on him.
“He can’t stay here,” Leonard says.
Raj is silent, arms crossed tight around himself—he hasn’t slept, hasn’t eaten, can’t think clearly.
“Where’s he supposed to go?” Penny asks, edged.
“Anywhere but here—Darren’s gone over the edge, it’s not safe—”
“Nothing is safe, Leonard!” she says.
“He’s—he’s smart,” Leonard says. “He’s so smart, he could—I could—”
“What?” Wil asks. He sounds calm, but his knuckles are still raw from his fake fight last night and he looks scruffier than usual.
“I could call Beverly,” Leonard says.
They’re silent for a moment.
“Do what it takes,” Raj finally says, and there’s demand in his voice that none of them have ever heard before. “Just get him out of here.”
(Penny knows he can’t stay, but she doesn’t know what to do, doesn’t know where to go. She’s given up so much in her life, left so much behind, and now she’s being torn, now she’s—)
“Tell me what I need to do,” she says.
Leonard shrugs, his lips firm, his eyes helpless. Raj is looking at his feet again.
Wil looks at her appraisingly, but says nothing.
“Just get him somewhere safe,” Raj says, and he sounds broken, and maybe, Penny thinks, maybe it’s too late for all of them.
Penny isn’t sure when this became so important, but she walks into the truck as if she owns it and backs Howard up against the wall. His mouth is opening and closing, as if he’s desperately trying to think of the appropriate inappropriate remark, but she shoves him back until he’s pressed against cool metal and leans in, and from the way she’s scowling Howard knows to shut up.
“You need to stop fucking with him,” she says, and she’s more than pissed, she’s furious.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Howard hisses, moving as if to stand, and she shoves him back.
“You’re a fucking ass,” she says, “I get that. But for some reason he really cares about you, so you need to clean up your act or stay away from him. My dad’s an alcoholic,” she says, and her voice has evened to an almost conversational tone, except her hand is still pressing him back against the metal, and he’s trying to avoid looking her in the eyes.
“He comes home drunk half the time, and doesn’t know where he is. My mom doesn’t want to leave him, says she owes it to him to stay, and when he’s sober enough to know better he’s too selfish to cut her free.”
“Penny,” Howard says, but he sounds more worried than angry, now, and she shoves him, hard, not even realizing that she’d started crying until a tear falls onto her bare arm.
She pushes away from him and scrubs her arm across her face, but when he reaches out to touch her she jerks away.
“Don’t,” she says, and the raw fury in her voice makes Howard step back as if scalded.
He doesn’t stop her when she turns on her heel and walks away.
“Beverly,” Leonard says, voice soft, and he can hear the deep intake of breath, the astonishment coming off the other end of the line.
“Leonard?” she asks.
Before she can ask any of a hundred questions (and they’ll all be valid, won’t they? Questions like where have you been? Are you all right? Why did you run away, why didn’t you talk to me, why haven’t you called, didn’t you know I’d be worried, didn’t you care, didn’t you think, didn’t—) he clears his throat, and then starts speaking, his voice sharp and deliberate. It’s her tone, in fact, reflected back upon her, her inflections that proclaim that what is necessary must come first, and everything else can wait.
(And he knows about the waiting, it’s inscribed in his bones. “Not yet,” the career woman in the joke says, “I’ll go into labor when I’ve finished this.”
He knows that’s not what happened.
He also knows the anecdote isn’t funny at all.)
“I have a—I have a friend. He’s smart, he’s—brilliant, genius smart, and he’s here, instead, and he shouldn’t be here, he should—he needs to be—these equations that he writes, and he has no formal training, he needs to be somewhere on the West Coast, he needs the resources that you have.”
He has to give her credit—she doesn’t emphasize that this is a favor, that he needs her, doesn’t mention that he ran away, or ask him to come home.
She stays on point, firing questions at him. She wants faxes of those equations (as if there’s a fax machine within a hundred miles, as if they have things like that here, as if he didn’t leave all that behind when he left), she wants background on Sheldon, she wants Sheldon, hand delivered on a golden platter, if he’s half of what Leonard’s saying he is.
And Leonard knows what he’s saying.
At one point, this was his world, after all.
“I don’t know if he should go,” Leonard says. His hands are over his face, so his voice is a little muffled, but Penny makes it out well enough. She shrugs.
“It’s his choice, isn’t it?”
“I could talk him into it,” he says. She sighs, running a hand through her hair.
“There’s going to come a point,” she says, “Where you’re going to have to realize that you’re responsible for yourself, and nothing else.”
“Just because it’s easier trying to sort out Sheldon’s life than yours, doesn’t mean you can just keep running away.”
Leonard’s quiet for a minute. “I’m not running away anymore,” he says. “I have to go with him, I can’t send him off on his own.”
“Are you ready?” Penny asks, honestly worried, and Leonard shrugs, miserable.
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think I have to be.”
She nods uneasily.
“Are you coming?” Leonard asks her, and she looks down.
“Yes,” she says. (She has no other choice, she has no other option, she can’t do anything else because maybe, she thinks, maybe she needs him even more than she thinks he needs her.)
Wil sits next to Raj.
“Hey,” he says, bumping his shoulder gently against Raj’s.
Raj doesn’t say anything.
They sit there for a little while, quiet.
“This isn’t your fault,” Wil says.
Raj has never liked talking all that much.
It rained a bit earlier, and the wet ground is starting to seep through the blanket. Penny and Sheldon don’t seem to notice the way their sides are slowly getting wet, though. Their bodies are curled against one another, his arm tucked around her, pulling her back snug against his chest, her fingers interlaced with his.
We could run away, she wants to say. Just the two of us, we could start all over.
She doesn’t say it, though. She doesn’t want to run anymore.
He doesn’t hold her like Leonard did, as if he knew she was planning on slipping away. Sheldon holds her like he’s ready to let her go whenever she wants.
It shouldn’t make her cling to him more, but it does. She wants to prove to him that she can stay, to tell him that he’s worth staying for.
I won’t leave you, she wants to tell him.
She lies on the damp blanket and holds his hand as if she’ll never let him go.
(But she would if he asked, and they both know it.)
Howard sits down. No one else is in the truck, and he pulls open his trunk, letting things fall out haphazardly until he finds the case. He yanks it out and drags it over to one of the benches. Inside, he has a computer he’s half put back together—it’s something he does when he’s stressed or bored or needs distracting, but it’s sat untouched inside his truck for the better part of a month.
He pulls out pieces, resting them on the bench, his back curved sharply as he leans in on them. He blinks damp eyes, forcing himself to concentrate only on the issue at hand, but his hands won’t stop trembling. He breathes in, breathes out, and sets them down on his legs and waits. But when he tries again they’re still unsteady, and he can’t make them still, can’t force control.
He stumbles to his feet, and his pulse is loud in his ears as he grabs the glass half-filled with liquor and smashes it onto the ground. Glass scatters, liquor spilling out, and he watches it for a minute, mesmerized by the way the color dilutes against the harsh plains of the truck floor. He should clean it, he thinks—Sheldon has had enough to deal with without the mess—but his throat is closing in, and before he can stop himself he stumbles back, away from the mess.
He half-falls down against the wall until he’s sitting, the wall hard against his back. He tucks his hands in tight against his body, his legs drawn in, his face buried in his knees, and he can’t stop himself from crying, because he did this.
He doesn’t know how long he stays like that, but finally, tears still wet on his face, he stands and grabs the remaining liquor bottles from his cabinet. He opens the door and dumps them out, watching the alcohol spill into the dirt, and then he throws them into the trash. Methodically, now, still crying, he starts collecting the shards with a towel, and then finally mops up the alcohol.
He sits on the bench, legs crossed, and watches his hands shake in his lap.
“0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144… 233… 377… 610… 987… 1597… 2584… 4181… 6765… 10946… 17711…”
It helps, a little.
It’s not enough.
Penny turns, ignoring the wet blanket underneath her, until she’s facing Sheldon. Their faces are close, so that she can feel the soft brush of his exhalation as he looks at her. His arm is still wrapped around her waist, and his fingers move lightly along her back, forming some sort of pattern.
“Whatever happens,” she says, “I’m going to be by your side. If you want me there.”
Sheldon tries on a crooked sort of smile, and it hurts her, the way even this happiness seems a pretence.
“Penny—” he says, and she knows, now, that she has to risk it.
“Please,” she says, blinking wet eyes. “I need you.”
The words are hard to manage, because Penny doesn’t admit to needing anyone, she doesn’t do vulnerable, but she knows that if she wants to keep Sheldon, she’s got to earn it.
Sheldon’s eyes are wide. He’s never had someone tell him they need him before. There’s responsibility inherent in the words, as well as a request.
He’s not sure what to say, what to do, except he realizes that unlike everyone else, she’s not demanding anything of him. Asking, yes, but what she wants can’t be demanded, can’t be forced. He has to give it willingly. He has to offer it freely.
He lets the idea roll in his mind for a minute. He’s been sure that she’d been on the cusp of leaving, he’d been sure that nothing he could do could make her stay. And everyone he cares about is hurt.
But if she needs him…
Maybe he could protect her, if she needed protecting.
Maybe he could take of her, like she’d always been ready to take care of him.
Except…he’d have to be able to take care of himself, first. He could be brave for her, but could be brave for himself?
“Sheldon?” she asks, and he closes his eyes, his fingers pressing lightly into her back.
He presses his lips to hers gently.
“I need you, too,” he says.
Chapter 10: when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire
Raj is lying on his stomach on one of the benches, one arm tucked underneath him and the other working on a sketch of Sheldon sitting in the grass, head in his hands. When Howard comes in, Raj doesn’t move, or turn and look, or even shift from his position. Howard leans against the edge of the bunks, watching him silently, watching the way Raj shifts the pencil in his hand, the way the dim light in the room shades and brightens him in turn.
“I’m sorry,” he says at last, and unlike before, when his words were heated and irritated and possessive, this time Howard sounds desperate and at the end of his rope. Raj keeps sketching, silent.
“I need help,” Howard says, and the words sound half-torn out, raw and ragged over a throat desperate to close around them. Raj’s hand stills as Howard makes a choked sound, arms digging tightly around his stomach, as if he’s trying to hold himself together, keep his insides from falling out, and Raj bows his head, because he’s afraid to look at him, afraid to-to accept.
“I don’t want to be my father,” Howard says, and the anguish in those words brings Raj to his feet, and Howard buries his face against Raj’s neck, clings to him as if he’s all he has left in the world. “I’m sorry,” he whispers against Raj’s throat, “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m sorry,” he says, the words tumbling against each other, and Raj holds him together, holds him up, holds him close.
“I know,” he says finally. “I know you are.”
When Sheldon walks in, Leonard has pulled out all of Sheldon’s books, all of his notebooks. The whiteboard with the scrawled equations is perched prominently on one of the benches. The calculator has been knocked to the floor.
The scene is so familiar to one of his past—
(Sheldon walked into the house and Jesse threw him against the wall. “What is this shit?” he’d yelled, gesturing to the books pulled from the loose floorboard, the papers pulled from underneath the mattress—“Explain what the fuck is going on!”
“I—” Sheldon had said, floundering for words, and Jesse had knocked him to the floor.
Later, after he was done with his talk, he’d hauled it all out to the back and lit it on fire. Sheldon had watched from the attic window where Jesse had left him, fingers to the glass as everything he wanted went up in flames.)
—The scene is so familiar that Sheldon stumbles against the nearest set of bunks, eyes wide, air caught in his lungs.
“Sheldon!” Leonard calls out, hurrying to his side, and Sheldon shakes his head, dizzy with fear, and half-collapses to his knees.
“Please—” he whispers, “Please—”
“It’s all right,” Leonard says, a hand on his arm. “It’s all right.”
It takes a long explanation, as Leonard swallows back helpless guilt at Sheldon’s reaction.
“Beverly says you’ll have a place at one of the University’s,” he tells him. “You’ll be out of here, away from Darren, away from Kripke, and you’ll be able to do what you like doing.”
(Leonard doesn’t know what makes Sheldon pause. He doesn’t recognize the fear for what it is—fear of failure, of change, or responsibility, of risk—despite the fact that those fears have so often belonged to him.
Leonard doesn’t realize that Sheldon has been afraid of what he loves for so long that even the thought of pursuing it is terrifying.)
“You won’t be alone,” Leonard says. “I’ll go with you, and the others probably will, too. We’ll be there for you.”
(Leonard doesn’t realize that Sheldon has brought down everyone he cares about, that he’s dangerous, that the risk with them there can only be greater.)
“You deserve to be happy,” Leonard says. “You deserve more than this.”
(And Sheldon knows he doesn’t, knows he can’t, knows he—)
“It’s only logical,” Leonard says, breathless, terrified, “It’s only logical that you work in a field where you can offer something to the world beyond entertainment.”
(Leonard thinks he’s being harsh. Leonard thinks it’s too much, but he doesn’t know what else to say.
Sheldon is thinking of George, who wanted to cast him in his own image. Sheldon is thinking of Jesse, who wanted to make him into something he’s not. Sheldon can’t think of himself, not yet, nor can he think of Leonard, or Penny, or Raj, or Howard.
But the world. Academia. Science. Sheldon can think about them.
Sheldon can think about what he owes them, if not what he owes himself. He can think about what they deserve, if not what he deserves.)
“Darren won’t let me,” he says, because it’s true, because it’s maybe his last escape from change, even if it’s for the better, even if it’s necessary.
Leonard shakes his head. “I’ll take care of that.”
Raj is sitting cross-legged outside in the parched grass when Penny finds him. She stands behind him, letting him lean back against her legs as she plays with his hair and watches the circus once more curl open like a flower, petal by petal pulling back and becoming whole.
“He said he’ll get help,” Raj says, and there’s doubt in his voice but Penny knows enough to let it pass.
“Okay,” she says instead, and Raj’s hand curls along her ankle as he leans back into her and tilts his head up until he can see her face.
“I have to see if he will,” he says, and Penny smiles, a little hopeful, a little sad.
“We’ll be there,” she says. “Either way, whatever happens, you’re not alone.”
He frowns a little, as if the concept is new, as if all these years later he hasn’t realized how far he’s come, how he’s no longer trapped and desperate in a prison of blood and obligation. He blinks against a sudden well of tears he wasn’t expecting, and tries on a smile for her sake.
“He can’t stay here,” he says, changing the subject, and her face falls a little, clouded by what’s hovering over all of them. She glances up at the blue sky above them, her blonde hair spilling back at the movement, her lips pressed tightly together.
“We’ll figure it out,” she says, and if Raj had ever had any doubts he knows, now, that she’s not leaving Sheldon. He nods, because he’s not jealous that Sheldon has found someone else to trust, and he’s not worried about being alone, because he’s leaned himself back against her without a second thought, sure that she’d be there.
She’s right, he realizes.
He squeezes her ankle gently and then stands up, stretching a little along the way.
“I need to find Howard,” he says. “I’m not going to let him change his mind.”
Leonard approaches Darren with as little fear as he can manage, sure that, like an animal, Darren would be able to smell it, and would be merciless upon finding it.
“I want Sheldon out of his contract,” he says, forgoing any even vague pretence of small talk.
Darren smiles, except it’s slow and cruel and entirely too amused.
“Do you, now?” he says. Leonard very carefully does not ball his hand into a fist.
“He signed the contract under duress, as you well know, and it won’t do any good for this circus to have its reputation dragged through the mud,” he says. His words are clipped, his West Coast accent (or lack thereof) sounding over pronounced in the enclosed space of Darren’s truck.
Darren leans back a little in his chair, letting his eyes draw along Leonard. When he glances away, the lift of his lips declare exactly what he thinks of him, and the opinion is clearly not a high one.
“You really shouldn’t pick battles you can’t win,” he says.
Leonard—Leonard may have had a nervous breakdown, and he may have run away from everyone he knew and wandered aimlessly, and he may have somehow found his way into working in a circus, but here’s the thing:
Leonard, for everything he ever has been or is, has never stopped being Beverly’s son.
“Important people want him,” he says, and he can feel the sharp edge of his voice, and it sounds like his mother’s when she’s arguing with people who don’t want to cough up money for important research. “I can drown you in court fees until you’re begging me to destroy the contract. However you want to play this, Sheldon is coming with me.”
“Look at the little boy, trying to play with the sharks,” Darren sneers. Leonard’s face flickers to stone, his hands clenched at his side.
“He’s coming with me,” he says, and pulls away.
Leslie Winkle shows up at the show that night. She’s got a backpack of clothes and whatever else, and her hair’s tied back tightly. Her nose keeps wrinkling a little as she looks around the place, but she doesn’t make any comments, and no one quite manages to stop her when she walks around back after the show.
“Hey,” she says when she comes across Leonard. He’s got his back to her, but he straightens slowly and turns toward her, because he recognizes that pitch, that tone.
“What‘re you doing here?” he asks, and she shrugs, tugging the bottom of her shirt almost nervously, except he knows Leslie doesn’t do nervous, especially not with Leonard. He wipes his hands on his plaid shirt, and then glances down at himself, amused, seeing himself as she must be seeing him.
They haven’t seen each other since before he ran off from school. They’d been competitors of a sort. Friends, too, in their own way. They’d been each other’s first kiss. She’d slapped him when she had felt it was necessary. They’d worked on projects together, tested each other, tried to one-up each other.
“Your mom told me where you were,” she says. “I was due for a vacation, and I was curious about this supposed genius.”
“He is a genius,” Leonard says, his words a bit too quick, his tone a tad too sharp. She pauses, surprised, and he shrugs, uncomfortable. “He is,” he repeats.
“I also wanted to make sure you were coming back, too,” she says, her voice a little softer. “However much of a genius your friend is, it wouldn’t hurt our research department if we were to add another Dr. Hofstadter to the team.”
Leonard stares at her in open-mouthed shock for almost a full minute.
“Did you just compliment me?” he asks, clearly disbelieving, and she grins.
“It’s not going to happen often,” she says. “Don’t let it go to your head.”
“You’ve never complimented me,” he says. She shrugs and then crosses her arms, rocks back on her heels.
“You should’ve said goodbye,” she says. Leonard is quiet for a moment.
“I was worried,” she admits.
Again, Leonard is struck speechless. Leslie Winkle isn’t the sort to be worried, especially not about him, especially not…
“Worried?” he asks. She nods.
“Are you coming back?” she asks.
He is, of course. He’s not about to throw Sheldon into that shark tank alone. But, for the first time, he thinks that maybe, just maybe, going back won’t be such a terrible thing.
“Yes,” he says, and the word sounds like relief even to him, and when Leslie smiles it’s one of the most perfect things he’s ever seen.
There is a scene, in one of the final episodes, where Picard is looking out of one of the view screens, hands clasped behind his back, back bowed as if by some extraordinary weight. A final battle is fast approaching, and he knows there is no trick he can pull, no clever stunt to escape, that they must stand fast in this fight, and that they might not survive.
He was never meant to captain a warship—it was a twist of fate, that the first stirrings of war occurred when they did, that events played out as they had, and he has often felt unprepared for the weight of such a command, of the loss that comes from such circumstances.
He says nothing, as he looks out the window, but his lips are pinched, dark circles underneath his eyes. The camera pans slowly around him, taking him in, and he has aged in some impossible way and yet remains the exact mirror image of the man who walked onto the bridge a mere four years ago.
There is no gaudy background music to force emotion. It is only the image of a man facing down an impossible future, and readying himself for what is to come.
The scene runs less than a minute and a half, but essays have been written on it. This is the face of duty, they write, this is how you look when you have nothing left to lose.
Years afterwards, in an interview, Patrick Stewart had shaken his head contemplatively. “It’s funny,” he said, “I always thought that that scene was about hope, not despair.”
This is how it goes:
Everyone’s waiting. They’re not exactly sure what they’re waiting for. Maybe there’s something in the air. Maybe they just don’t know what to do next. Leonard’s considering calling up Beverly for legal counsel. Leslie’s trying to figure out where she’s going to stay. Penny is nearing the end of her rope, and Raj doesn’t have much farther to fall.
Sheldon, though, chooses not to endlessly debate the matter.
(Sheldon doesn’t like risk. He doesn’t like chance. He’s afraid, and he can feel that fear cling to him—coat itself inside his throat, tremble along his nerves, tie itself until it restricts his heart.
He doesn’t like risk, but he doesn’t like fear, either, and he’s had enough of being afraid, had enough of backing away.
He wants to be brave. For her, for his friends, for the world, for everyone and anything.
For himself. Because they said he deserves it, and maybe—just maybe—they’re right.)
The next show, Darren announces him, and Sheldon rides out on horseback.
He doesn’t hit one target.
Each shot is wide, each knife is wide, each stunt fails miserably.
The audience are on their feet booing.
Penny, watching from above as usual, is tying herself up in knots, unsure of what to do. (“Trust me,” Sheldon had said earlier, before the show. “Just trust me.”)
Darren loses it.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he yells, coming out into the middle of the ring, and Darren’s usually the consummate professional during the show but this is simply too much. If it was anyone else he might have let it go until afterwards, but not Sheldon—never Sheldon.
Sheldon’s already done with the horseback portion of his act, so he’s standing, knife in hand, guns in holsters, when Darren comes out.
Darren, who’s forgetting that he’s still miked.
“You want me send you back to your uncle and have him beat some shit into, you little fucker?” Darren hisses, getting in nice and close to Sheldon. “You want me to drag you back to my bunk and take what you’re always offering, you little fucking slut, is that what you fucking want? Is it?”
Darren’s hand is tangled in Sheldon’s shirt collar as he forces him backwards until he’s pinned against one of the poles.
“I will fucking beat you until you can’t walk for this little stunt, and you know I will, I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again you little shit, and don’t think your friends can protect you this time, I’ll tell Jesse you’re here and deliver you to him tied up and crying those pretty little tears of yours.”
Sheldon is crying, but he’s smiling fiercely through his tears.
“I don’t need my friends to protect me, you fuck,” he says, his voice hoarse, and then he pulls a gun from his holster and presses it up underneath Darren’s chin.
(Darren always said he’d never seen no one draw a gun as fast as Sheldon could.)
“Smile,” Sheldon whispers, and his hand trembles but it’s steady enough that Darren doesn’t dare move. He knows how good Sheldon is. How beautifully perfect a shot Sheldon is.
“You won’t do it,” Darren says, but his voice shakes with real fear, because he knows he’s pushed Sheldon too far.
“I could,” Sheldon says. “All that matters is that I could pull this trigger.”
And then Darren says it, because Sheldon’s eyes dark, and his lip is curling, Darren says “Please.”
Sheldon looks at him a minute longer, and then pulls the gun back and slams it roughly into his holster. “I want out of my contract,” he says, and pulls away.
Sheldon’s about fifteen feet away when Darren throws himself against Sheldon’s unprotected back, knocking the knife away and sending it skittering across the ground. Sheldon goes for the guns but Darren’s pins his hands above him, and it’s clear that he’s forgotten the audience now, completely caught up in the moment.
He’s furious and blinded by rage, and has no idea four people are already running towards him.
Leonard hits Darren, and the feel of his fist against Darren’s flesh has been a long time coming, and it hurts like a bitch, but for the first time in his life Leonard feels like he’s making a stand, and it feels better than he ever knew it could be.
Howard and Raj and Penny pull Darren off Sheldon, and then Leonard off Darren, and Leslie’s there now, trying to talk Leonard down.
“Stay away from my friend!” Raj screams at Darren, and the sound carries through the area, and he stumbles back a bit when he realizes what he just did, but Howard’s there to catch him.
Darren gets off the ground, slowly, feeling the shocked gaze of everyone there.
“I’m sorry, Ladies and Gentlemen, that was an unfortunate spectacle for you to have to see, but—”
The rest of his words are drowned out by booing.
“Out of my contract,” Sheldon says, and then the six of them walk out, together.
Chapter 11: don’t forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
“I didn’t—” Kripke sounds breathless as he steps in front of Sheldon—“You have to undewstand, I didn’t know. He said—Dawwen said you’d scwewed some guys wife, that some husband was after you, that—I didn’t know.”
Leonard and Penny both start to take a step closer, but Leslie has suddenly pushed her way next to Sheldon, her stance proprietary. “And you are?”
“I’m—” Kripke takes a moment to blink at her before shrugging it away and grabbing Sheldon’s arm, pulling him forward with a firm tug. The shock of it takes them all by surprise—that he’d just grabbed Sheldon, that—
“I neveh woohd’ve—”
Leslie grabs Kripke’s ear and yanks. Hard. “Get your hands off my scientist,” she hisses, thoroughly pissed off. “He doesn’t like to be touched.”
Kripke lets go of Sheldon as if he’d just spontaneously combusted (except not really, of course, fucking pyro that he is). Leonard gently eases Leslie away from Kripke while Penny loops an arm through Sheldon’s.
“Leslie, I appreciate the concern, but I’m all right,” Sheldon says, his free hand gently straightening his shirt.
“I—I neveh—Coopeh—” Kripke says, and there’s real remorse in his eyes, but Sheldon shakes his head.
“I don’t need your apologies,” he says, his voice soft. “You simply aren’t worth it, Kripke.”
Wil slips a number into Howard’s pocket.
“Oh!” Howard says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m kinda with Raj now, I can’t—”
“It’s a rehab facility,” Wil says, cutting him off. “Just something to think about.”’
Howard is silent, but just when Wil thinks he’s gone and insulted him, Howard nods. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks.”
“Hey,” Leslie says, bumping into Leonard’s arm. “Sorry about the—ah—incident.”
Leonard shakes his head, amused. “Kripke had it coming,” he says.
She nods, thoughtfully.
“I was thinking about buying some horses,” she says, changing the subject. “But I don’t know if I could take care of them on my own.”
Leonard looks at her for a long moment, until she can’t quite hide the smile that’s threatening to spill out onto her lips.
“Just something to think about,” she says. “It’s a big house, you wouldn’t even need to see me if you didn’t want to.”
“You haven’t seen me for years,” Leonard says with a frown. She shrugs.
“I tend to know what I want,” she says.
They keep walking, the both of them silent. Finally, Leonard glances at Leslie.
“What if I wanted to see you?” he asks.
“I’m sure we can figure something out.”
Wil finds Penny outside. His fingers curl around her wrist as he pulls her away from the others, and he brushes her hair back behind her ear with a smile.
“I made some calls,” he says. “We could all do with a face like that, a heart like that,” he says, and she frowns at him, confused, because clearly he’s babbling and after everything that’s happened—
“Leonard got Sheldon a place at one of the Uni’s, right?” Wil asks, and she nods slowly.
“His mother called, and he’s got a position with Dr. Gablehauser,” she says. “We’re leaving—well, we’re leaving as soon as we can,” she says. Wil smirks a little as he chucks her underneath the chin.
“I still have a few contacts,” he says. “I made some calls and set up some interviews. I can’t promise you anything for sure, of course,” he says. “But you’ll get the auditions, and with a smile like that you’ll get something. You’ve got the talent.”
“You set up…auditions…?” she asks, still confused, and now the smile edging around his lips is entirely too close to laughter for her liking.
“It may have been a while since Star Trek: Last Stand, but it’s not something that people tend to forget,” he says, a little grin tugging at his lips. Her mouth drops open in a slight ‘o’ of surprise, and he laughs, clearly delighted. “Ensign Crusher, at your service,” he says, dropping her a little salute. “Killed in the Battle of Traxis, never to be seen again.” He waves a finger admonishingly. “Understand that he’s been resurrected solely for you, and it’s a secret I rather hope you’ll keep.”
“You have to tell Sheldon,” she says, still wide-eyed, and his eyebrow quirks up as he looks at her.
“He has an eidetic memory,” he says. “That’s not a secret I ever could have kept from him.”
Under the big top, a growing chorus of voices draws them in.
Darren is surrounded by a group of people—a large group of people. None of them are happy.
“You fucking coward,” someone shouts, and several people call out agreement.
“Think you can fuck with people just because you’re the ringmaster?” someone else yells, and the people press in closer. From out of the center, a familiar face appears, walking forward with purpose and anger spread equally across his face.
“Is this how you wun a ciwcus?” Kripke asks, gesturing at the people grouped behind him. “You awen’t one of us anymowe,” he says.
“You aren’t one of us anymore,” the others repeat. Darren shakes his head, stumbling back a step, but Kripke follows him.
“Get out,” he says. “This is ouw ciwcus now. You don’t bewong hewe.”
“You don’t belong here.”
Darren is pale as he falls back another step and finds himself pinned against a fence.
“You’we going to weave, and neveh come back,” Kripke says, and Darren—
Darren is looking at the people gathered around him, clearly pissed off. To the side he sees Wil, but Wil is leaning back against a truck and brushing his nails against his shirt. When he sees Darren looking at him, desperate, he grins slowly, quite self-satisfied, and Darren mutters a strangled epithet.
“You undewstand?” Kripke asks, forcing himself ever closer into Darren’s space, and Darren has no choice, no choice at all.
“You’ll pay for this,” he hisses, and Krikpe just grins.
“You’we out,” he says.
And Darren says nothing, because he knows he is.
Penny, being Penny, sizes up the boy’s truck. “We’ll be short two bunks,” she says. She shrugs. It’s a couple of beds, after all. “We’ll make do.”
Kripke knows enough by now that he makes no comment when she slides by him and reaches her hand down into Darren’s inside pocket. When she grabs the key she flips it deliberately in her fingers so that the metal catches the light and shines for a moment in front of Darren’s eyes.
“I don’t think you’ll be needing this,” she says.
He stays silent. Probably for the best.
It only takes her a moment to grab her belongings from her trunk and shove them into a bag. She moves to swing it over her shoulder, but Sheldon stops her with a hand on her arm. His lip is still bleeding, and without even thinking she wipes the blood off of his chin with her thumb.
He stands there, lets her, his eyes on hers.
“Penny,” he says. His voice is soft, and when he moves to take the bag she lets him. To him, at least, she has nothing to prove.
Outside, the circus has fallen silent.
Most everyone is outside, watching them, waiting to see what they’ll do next. Sheldon puts her bag in the back of the truck, his back too straight, clearly uncomfortable with the weight of everyone’s eyes, but she’s not exactly thrilled with it, either.
“Well,” she says. Kripke moves to step forward, but she glares at him until he backs down.
Leonard stirs over to the side. “This is awkward,” he mutters, and Leslie rolls her eyes.
“Let’s just go,” she says, and Penny smiles reluctantly before shrugging. Wil steps out from the side and nods briefly to Leonard before walking closer to the two of them.
Wil grabs Sheldon firmly, and dips him, despite Sheldon’s outraged yelp. Before Sheldon can get anything else out, Wil’s mouth is on Sheldon’s, his tongue sliding between Sheldon’s lips, and Sheldon, taken completely by surprise, is frozen for a moment. He tentatively starts kissing back, and Wil makes a noise of intense interest as he explores the entirety of Sheldon’s mouth, and then, with a last kiss, he pulls him back up to a standing position.
Sheldon is still blinking when Wil runs the pad of his thumb over Penny’s lips and then kisses her softly.
Leonard and Leslie and Howard and Raj have already climbed into the back of the truck. They’ve said their goodbyes and there’s nothing holding them here anymore, but Penny’s wavers, her hand pressed against Wil’s shirt, Sheldon to her side.
“I don’t like goodbyes,” Sheldon says, voice rough, and his hand tangles with hers and he steps back. Penny climbs up into the driver’s seat as Sheldon walks around, and when the door shuts, Wil throws her a salute.
“Leave the porch light on,” he says, amused. “I’ll be out to see you sooner or later.”
Penny grins down at him and then pulls out her hair tie, shaking her hair out and letting it fall down around her shoulders.
“Promises, promises,” she calls out, and he winks at her.
Sheldon huffs as he leans over her and looks down at Wil. “I believe she’s insinuating you’re not a man of your word,” he says.
Wil smirks. “Ensign Crusher is always a man of his word,” he says. “ ‘If there is no honor in battle—’ ”
“ ‘—then why would we fight?’” Sheldon finishes. They stare at each other for a long moment, and then with a slam Leonard opens the sliding door to the back of the truck.
“Hey,” he says, “Are we getting out of here or what?”
Wil slams his hand twice against the door of the truck. “Don’t let him fuck everything up,” he says, and Penny nods, and laughs, and then revs the engine as Wil steps back.
“You flirt, you,” she says, and then pushes down on the gas.
Leonard and Leslie are bickering in the back, and Howard and Raj are playing cards, and Sheldon is sitting next to Penny, a notepad open on his lap, a pen held loosely in his hand.
Without looking, without thinking, she reaches out her hand and places it near his. He glances up at her and then takes it in his own, his palm warm against hers, his long fingers intertwining with hers.
Beside them, fields stretch towards the horizon; in front of them is a road that spills out forever.
They don’t look back.
My love and thanks to all of you ♥