She tells him it's a habit.
No, wrong tense. She will tell him. Later, after the fact. When they are older and life has settled, or reached, or has been pushed gently to a place where everything has a reason and fits into an order.
Strange, strange, and stranger still, these things he can't understand. They occupy the tiniest space, but when he has to look them in the eye they are huge, frightening, the wrong size, the wrong shape, the worst distraction.
Mary Cooper always sang. She was, and is, a warm and doting parent (and you will have to imagine the quotation marks, because they are there), and if he did not possess the sort of reasoning enabling him to recognise how agonisingly, fantastically little that has to do with...with, well, with anything, he would have made a recording of frogs calling out to their young and played it every night until the robots rose up, but that is not the point.
The point begins with Penny, and maybe with Sheldon, who counters her thinking by telling himself that this is no habit; it is nothing more than sleep.
She knocks on his door with a smile and a task.
"Please?" she says, as he sighs and takes the laptop from her hands.
He wouldn't call it helping, because really, if he were truly offering assistance then he would march her to Radioshack (well, march her down the stairs and to the car—the in between part of sitting in the passenger seat, casting glances at a red light that shouldn't be lit, and holding onto his seatbelt with whitened knuckles doesn't quite match the flow of the verb, but he can work that out later), and find a basic, foolproof machine with which she can heart and blog and fill as many virtual carts as she wants until the end of time. Whenever that might be. Next Tuesday, Sheldon suspects, going on current conditions.
Code window open and fingers flying across the keys, he tries to come up with some sort of mildly logical explanation. Perhaps she does not wish to part with the stickers, or the color pink. Sentimentality, he thinks, jabbing roughly at the enter key with his little finger. So maudlin.
(Sheldon tries not to imagine the expression he would receive for saying this out loud. To have green eyes dart once to the alien on his own laptop, the bullet hole, to notice the way he smoothes them over with an antiseptic wipe because he likes things clean, and not because he is attached to something so trivial. The way she smiles because she knows. It is most disconcerting.)
Penny sits on the couch while he hunches his shoulders and moves his lips soundlessly. Bad idea to start an internal argument with an operating system, but that's helping for you. Meanwhile on the TV, Picard and Riker are explaining to a curious Data what it is to hold reverence towards a piece of machinery, in this case Cochrane's future-changing rocket. Troi's voice carries down to them, gentle and tinged with irony, and Sheldon doesn't have to turn to know that Penny is smiling.
Making a concerted effort not to comment on the image Penny has chosen for her desktop (it appears to be the actor who played Iron Man with a half-opened shirt and loosely hanging tie—leaving Sheldon to wonder what the point of wearing a tie is if only to leave it dangling like a forgotten participle, but that is a world into which he has no intention of entering, not today and not in a thousand years, thank you very much), he restarts the laptop and stands up.
"There," he says. "All fixed. Do be mindful of not letting the general upkeep and maintenance of your hardware take less priority than what's on the dashboard of your tumblr account."
Lecture over, he steps away and lowers himself onto the couch. He can feel her eyes on him, open and thoughtful, piqued with amusement. She says thank you, her lips turning into the tiniest of smiles as he takes a much-needed gulp from his water bottle. It's decidedly warmer than when Sheldon first took it from the fridge, and he contemplates getting up again for resupplies but finds he hasn't the will.
Instead he says, "You're welcome," and fiddles with the cap. He has to unscrew and turn it several times until it aligns properly, and even then he's not satisfied and wants to start over. His palms are dry and the concentration makes him blink.
Penny is concentrating too. Hers is the concentration of a softened gaze and fingers worrying at broken nails, while the Enterprise is taken over by the Borg. Sheldon, on the other hand, is quietly miffed to discover how far the movie has progressed while he's been playing tech support. If he were alone he would reach for the remote and skip back but something tells him that this would not only shatter the rather comfortable silence but that he would have to then explain the concept of seamless viewing, when really, he is as much at fault by being a good neighbor in the first place.
(And this is—
Not compounded at all because she happened to be wearing shorts that reveal a distracting expanse of skin.
Because that is the work of a subconscious wanting sleep and striking out randomly like lightening. Honestly.)
Now Picard is showing Lily Sloane Earth's blue vastness and the nothing in between. That's Australia, he says, pointing out the viewscreen. New Guinea, the Solomons...Montana should be coming up soon, but you may want to hold your breath.
They keep watching, Penny and Sheldon. Soon there is less then an inch of water left, and the plastic contours of the bottle have become warm beneath his palms. And then something in Penny's breath registers as changed to Sheldon's ears, and when he looks over, her eyes are closed.
After considering matters for more or less the length of time it takes for the credits to run, he gets up, pulls a blanket from his shelf in the closet and folds it over Penny as carefully as he can without disturbing her. It doesn't work, the wool slips from her bare feet, her calves. Strange and stranger still. He makes to reach and rearrange the folds but finds that his fingers shake. He has to close his fist tight to stop it.
The shower is too hot, and when his allocated five minutes are up the bathroom is a mess of steam. He narrows his eyes at the fan and makes a mental note to bring up the apartment air ducts with the building super. There is always a brief but heavy sigh on the other end of the phone when Sheldon starts through his bi-weekly list of anomalies. Loose washers in taps, broken locks and squeaking hinges; a wobble on the step during his daily recital of the stars between EZ Aquarii B and C. He once argued for a fully breathless twenty-nine minutes until he had been assured that 4B's fire escape would receive its own out-of-hours assessment by the relevant authorities, and all because he'd just happened to look at it walking home one day and noticed that one of the rails was coming loose. He has been called petty, and worse, but if there is no consistency and adherence to these matters then they might as well live in free-form anarchy.
Anarchy, like bullet holes on laptop cases. Or watching the moment of first contact between human and Vulcan without any real thought because he can smell the shampoo in somebody's hair. Sheldon works at the buttons of his pajama top, wipes the mirror until his reflection is clear, and tries not to frown as it fogs all over again.
"You could have woken me up."
Penny rubs a hand over her face, yawning. Her voice is quiet. Sheldon stands at the hallway entrance. "Now, what good would that have done?" he asks, perplexed. "In my experience people are very irritable when woken up, especially if they're in the middle of REM sleep, and I had no way of knowing which stage you were in."
She gazes at him, trying to process this. "And yet you're perfectly comfortable waking me up at ridiculous hours of the morning."
"Yes, but I generally need something."
"Right..." She stretches out the kinks, slowly, carefully, one arm and the next. He looks at his feet and then to the kitchen, and walks in that direction. His slippers grip on the floor. "Don't need anything from little old me."
"Actually," Sheldon begins, and Penny, still posed with her body taught, looks back. Her arms fall to her sides, clumsily, a contrast to the grace of the stretch. "Since you're up, I do have one request."
Silence. For a brief moment he hopes she might answer this herself.
"Sing to me," says Sheldon.
Well, if he's going to not make a habit of something...it might as well be this.
Of course, she then has to ask him why.
"Sheldon, you don't let people in your room."
Penny's eyebrows are bent and there's a crease above her nose. So Sheldon tries to explain about cause and effect, and how circumstance and unfortunate twists of fate mean that some rules can be rendered null and void by the mere act of being once broken. It's possibly the least convinced he's ever been by one of his own statements, but that's the universe for you. Bleak and irrational and mostly without comfort. He doesn't want to admit that he might need something irrational to provide that comfort, and the stern eyes of his mother dance briefly before his own until he shakes his head and makes himself look at her, force his face into an expression as close to conciliatory as he can manage in bedsocks and plaid pajamas, and wait for her response.
"I'm going to be singing about cats again, aren't I?"
She tells him it's a habit. He tells her it's routine.
Whether this is accepted, one accusation, one gentle prod to another, is something that never really gets resolved. But it's not like keeping time with the laundry; in this they don't meet at the top of the fourth floor steps and walk down together (she talks about bad customers, he counts stars with stairs). It just happens. No one else knows. Leonard has a new girlfriend and for the first time seems happy to leave the worrying and overanalysing to someone else; an echo of an old Leonard maybe; so the time Sheldon had allocated to quietly huffing and shaking his head at his friend's woeful handling of relationships is freed up for other things.
She stays without asking. He only has to look at her as she makes one last chopstick stab at her cashew pork, wait as she laughs at something Raj and Howard are arguing about, until the conversation dies down and the evening reaches something of an end. After all, there is no need: the asking has already been said and done; Sheldon's rigid practicality is a fierce weapon, and he doesn't see any reason for needless repetition. And, surprisingly enough, neither does Penny.
He knows she's not entirely comfortable, though. There's always an implicit two or three seconds either side of his lying back and folding his hands a little too tightly into the blankets, of her sitting on the edge of the bed, when she won't meet his eyes, and she won't speak. So Sheldon's throat constricts and he has to swallow clipped words, Penny, Penny, people aren't allowed in my room—
(But Shelly always gets a song! Missy would say. Her lower lip, trembling, and Sheldon relenting, turning from his mother because he's sick of words and whole keys out of tune.)
—and near about when the two or three seconds have passed, Penny starts to sing.
When she leaves, he says her name and he thanks her. These are the rare times when he means it.
She asks him about his mother. Apparently simplistic verses about felines don't cut it in Penny's world. And Sheldon thinks that if one couldn't imagine things like amazing rocket ships that changed the sort of world she's talking about, he might be concerned for their offspring.
"I value consistency," he says instead, trying to forget that last line of thought. If it came out of nowhere he'd very much like to sit that nowhere down and give it a good talking to.
"Even when you were five?"
They seem to have these sorts of conversations regularly these days. Verbally, it's like going round in circles, and this one ends with Penny sighing and hitting the light switch. (And where are all the other conversational shapes, Sheldon wonders, like squares or dodecahedrons? He might be inclined to participate more in so-called chitchat if it came in the form of a rhomboid.) Tonight, though, she can't seem to get through a single verse without faltering, restarting, sighing and quietly damning it, him, them, everything. The longest silence comes with the fifth rendition, when she gets it right but stops at the final line, her voice so soft that he wonders if she's even there.
"Why aren't you singing?" The words come out a little slurred. The bed is warm, the air is warm, his thoughts slowed. A fact, not an excuse.
"You know..." Penny frowns slightly, runs a finger over the material, tracing the pattern. "Most people would ask what's wrong."
Sheldon sits up a little. Definitely awake now.
"Penny, what makes you think I fall under the category of most people?"
Any other time, this would be the starter's gunfire for another round of frowning and cutting remarks and Penny poking him in the shoulder until he says something in Latin that makes her laugh, but now she only shrugs and says, "I'll sing."
It's not better this time. It's not perfect but he never asked for perfect. Missy wanted the song that Sheldon got and now all Sheldon wants is for Penny to stay. His eyes close. He listens to the children's rhyme, six syllables, five, four, four and three. There is nothing complicated in it and that is where the complication comes from. Sheldon has read papers in neuroscience and psychology journals where the brain has been studied in this strange time when sleep is close but something is keeping it from getting there. And he is unsettled at the idea of trying to help when he knows he couldn't even come close. This isn't a video card he can examine abstractly from a dialogue box.
When it's over, she's quiet for a long moment, and then he can feel the downward press and the absence of something as she stands up. He blinks, trying to focus on the silhouette of her through the triangle of light at the door.
He wasn't supposed to talk. His voice is rough. It catches in his throat.
But she turns slightly, and even though the shadows hide her face, he's almost certain that he can see her smile.
He doesn't see her for a week.
Well. Possibly a technical correction is needed here. He sees her, he eats with her, he suffers endless rounds of dying in embarrassing circumstances on the Halo battlefield at the hands of her freakishly capable avatar. But he doesn't see her. Two very different focus points on a relationship graph it appears that Sheldon, against his better judgement, has been compiling.
He may have to concede that this has moved beyond strange. Unfortunately the adjective he wants hasn't yet entered the lexicon, so for now that will have to do.
He has no reaction to her lips, the night they touch his forehead, though it is hardly any touch at all. She jerks back suddenly, looks at him, eyes wide. Her fingers brush his and she leaves too quickly.
It makes no sense. It feels empty and unresolved, so he scrambles out from under the covers, follows her retreating form through the unlit apartment and stops outside her door. He stands there for one minute and fifty-seven seconds before knocking.
"You didn't say goodnight," says Sheldon. The words come out in a rush. "You always say goodnight."
Penny gazes back for a long moment, then she ducks her head and murmurs something. To Sheldon's ears it sounds like goodnight, but it's bare and nothing, like the kiss.
Days pass. This time they move by one another other only peripherally, in the laundry room, on the stairs, like shift workers. He's reconciled now to being outright confused, and fiercely annoyed at not being able to work out why. He becomes tight-lipped and worries that the others will round him into a corner and demand he explain everything.
"Oh, I think Penny said she was working at the bar tonight," says Leonard one day, when Sheldon asks, in between sorting take-out boxes and Wii controllers, from his spot on the couch. "Why?"
Well, Sheldon isn't quite prepared to answer that. Not when Leonard is staring at him from the fridge door, eyebrows furrowed, waiting. He worries his lower lip instead, and changes the subject to the good mustard.
Next morning he runs into her at the mailboxes. He is in the process of removing his headphones when she hears the sound of his footsteps and turns around.
"Hey," she says.
Sheldon starts to move. He gets a step in before the iPod slips from his hand and he has to do some frantic juggling to stop it from falling. Penny smiles automatically but it's mixed with something odd and strained and it doesn't quite reach her eyes. She slips past and he's left with a delayed and flustered response on his lips.
(If asked—and no one does—he would not be able to say what it was; only that it began with her name.)
That night he tries murmuring the words to himself. Not the tune, just the words. He's hoping the theory will work in a sort of synthesised alternative.
It's like an experiment without data. It doesn't.
He's so caught up in this that he doesn't register the distant sound of a door opening and footsteps to his bedroom, and then she's there, standing by his side. Right there.
"Leonard isn't home," he begins, sitting up. "And you're—"
Penny's hand touches the comforter. He can't make out her eyes, only her voice, when she says, "I'm not trying to kill you, Sheldon."
"People aren't supposed to be in my room."
Hypocrite, he thinks.
Something incredibly sad fills her face, her entire body. She looks right at him. He wonders if she's fighting it.
"I'm always in your room," she says, and before he say or do anything she's got a knee on the bed, and he can see her toes and the flex of her bare skin as she moves her body until it fits by his side. He tries to say her name, and maybe he does, but it all seems far away, like the great and logical plan he's supposed to have to keep himself apart from a situation like this. Penny stares at Sheldon and Sheldon stares back, struck with the way she looks, stuck because he doesn't know what to do.
She closes her eyes.
"You're not singing," he says at last.
He doesn't hear this, not properly, so he sort of half turns, and Penny does the same and that's a mistake because suddenly they're too close, and her lips fall onto his, once, testing, and again; or maybe the second kiss is Sheldon's, an involuntary reaction that should shock him, but doesn't.
It happens slowly, and that slowness of it all makes him see things abstractly, beautifully. She's by his side and then above him, hair ticking his chest. He searches for her mouth, leaves it, touches her breast. He is not overwhelmed. He is completely aware of what he is doing; whether this is the most normal explanation or the most unreasoned, it doesn't matter.
Sheldon opens his eyes, stills himself until Penny sees his face. She stops moving, then leans down, kisses him again. He responds, carefully, by testing angles, and when he finds one that works her breath hitches. His fingers brush against her stomach. Cause and effect; time to stop thinking. She reaches for his hand, and this time they move together.
They are sleeping now.
One day, she will tell him it's a habit, and he won't remember where it began; he won't want to. Sheldon might be a stranger to change in any shape or form but he is not immune to surprise or whimsy. He is a scientist lulled by song.