Tidings of comfort and joy.
Penny pulls the pop-up tape strip out of its dispenser and expertly seals the corners of the reindeer printed paper around the box. She picks up her pen filled with sparkly green ink and fills out To: Bernadette, From: Penny on the gift tag before attaching it to the present with a piece of curled white ribbon. She places the wrapped box on the floor to the right of her coffee table and picks up the next box. She scans the rolls of wrapping paper. This gift needs to be wrapped in some shade of blue, preferably metallic. Penny is almost positive she bought a roll last year on clearance that had a geometric pattern. She pushes the rolls this way and that, pursing her lips in annoyance.
That is when the knocking begins.
Penny raises her head and her shoulders slump. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” she grumbles.
“I’m busy, Sheldon!”
“Please leave a message after the tone!” Penny hollers.
With a sigh, she heaves herself off the couch and opens her door.
“Cookie?” Sheldon holds out a plate of snowmen decorated so elaborately they could be on the cover of Good Housekeeping magazine.
“What do you want?” Penny raises an eyebrow but takes a snowman.
Sheldon looks legitimately offended, “I come over here, bearing appropriately seasonal treats and this is how you greet me. Penny, where is your Saturnalia spirit?”
Her response is to savagely bite the head off the snowman. Sheldon cringes then shields the remaining cookies with his body.
“Very well,” he finally says. “It is true that I may have ulterior motives.”
“I’m shocked,” Penny says through a mouthful of cookie. She swallows then adds, “That was the most amazing sugar cookie I have ever had. Give me another.”
“Not until you promise to help me.” Sheldon keeps the plate behind his back.
Penny crosses her arms over her chest, “Forget it.” She lunges for the cookies but Sheldon holds them over his head.
“You don’t even know what it is I want,” he snaps
“Fine. What is it you want?”
Sheldon takes a deep breath, “I require some of your shopping expertise in procuring an appropriate Yuletide gift for Amy, who is now my girlfriend.”
Penny takes a slow, thoughtful bite of snowman, “Just to be clear here, you’re asking for my assistance?”
“And you understand that will involve me telling you what to do?” She is finding it hard to keep from giggling.
Sheldon glowers at her before saying, “I understand.”
Penny stands on her tiptoes and snags another cookie from the plate. She winks at Sheldon, “And you’re not allowed to be sarcastic or snide to me while I’m doing so.”
Sheldon’s cheek is beginning to twitch. His expression is sullen. “Okay.”
“You understand why I just did that,” Penny pulls off the snowman’s M&M buttons.
“Good. We leave in ten minutes.”
Penny is an expert shopper, which means her Christmas shopping is completed well before the actual holiday. As a matter of fact, she has a sworn oath with herself that all shopping must be completed by the second week of December. As she circles the parking lot for the third time, she remembers why she avoids the mall this time of year.
“Sheldon, I don’t understand why you just didn’t buy Amy something online.”
He mutters something unintelligible. Penny sees a car pull out two rows away and guns her engine.
“Speed bump!” Sheldon shrieks as they thud over it. Penny slams on her blinker and prepares to parallel park.
“You’ll never fit in that space,” Sheldon observes.
“Oh yeah?” Penny begins backing up, “Watch me.”
“It’s scientifically impossible given the dimensions of your vehicle in relation to that space.”
She throws her car in drive and pulls forward before wrenching the steering wheel hard to the right and shifting into reverse.
“Turn the wheel! Turn the wheel!” Sheldon pleads as Penny steps on the gas.
“Hey! Who’s the one with the license here?” Penny growls as she pulls forward again.
“Who is the one who understands the Third Law of Motion?” Sheldon screams then covers his eyes.
Penny puts her car in park and unclips her seatbelt, “Let’s go.”
She watches out of the corner of her eye as Sheldon inspects her parking job. There is barely room for dental floss between her bumpers and the cars in front and in back of her but she got the car in the space.
“Impressive,” Sheldon quips when he catches up to her.
“Now, tell me again why you didn’t buy Amy something online?” People press into them from all sides forcing them to stand on the same step of the escalator. Sheldon leans back as far as he can but Penny’s nose is still smashed into the Green Lantern logo. She can feel the rapid rise and fall of his breathing as he struggles not to panic.
“My mother,” Sheldon says right in her ear. Penny jerks back from the warmth of his breath but there is no where to go. Sheldon continues to speak, “She said that I had to personally pick out the gift as it is our first Christmas as a ‘couple.’” He tries to move to make finger quotes but his arms are pinned to his sides.
Penny gets off the escalator first, grateful to final have some space between her and Sheldon. She’d never been that close to him for some time and it was…intense.
“She’s right,” Penny agrees once Sheldon finishes adjusting his messenger bag and zipper on his windbreaker. “Now, what sort of things does Amy like?”
Sheldon blinks down at her, “That’s why I brought you.”
“Sheldon, she’s your girlfriend.”
“Yes I know but you are a girl ergo you have far more expertise in the area of what a girl may want for a present than I will ever have.”
Penny fights the urge to roll her eyes. “I need coffee,” she tells him before marching over to the Starbucks kiosk.
While she waits for her peppermint latte, she sees Sheldon enter a store. Puzzled, she pays for the drink then walks over to watch. Sheldon is peering at racks and watching the other shoppers around him. Penny walks up to him. He is holding two shirts and frowning.
“I see no difference between these two items yet they have a significant price discrepancy,” Sheldon says when Penny peers over his shoulder.
Both shirts are red. Both have v-necks and short sleeves. One shirt has small red sequins sewn along the line of the collar. The other is plain but cashmere. Penny reaches out to feel both of them but her fingers linger at the cashmere one.
“I like that one too,” Sheldon tells her.
“It’s cashmere,” Penny explains. “That is why the price is different. Plus, I’ve never seen Amy in this color.”
Sheldon holds the cashmere sweater up to Penny, “Nor have I. This color does not suit her.”
He keeps the sweater near Penny. She doesn’t meet his eyes which are going back and forth between the sweater and her face.
“Maybe we should keep looking then?” Penny suggests when the moment stretches too long.
Sheldon follows her obediently to the next store.
Penny walks over to the perfume counter.
“Let’s try to find something here.” Penny picks up a cut glass bottle. She turns to her left then to her right. No Sheldon. Finally she spots him by the entrance of the store.
“Get over here!” She hisses. He gives his head a violent shake. Penny places the bottle down and stalks over to him.
“Sheldon, you agreed to do whatever I say.”
“Not if it means compromising one of my senses,” he balks. “I do not believe Amy would like perfume.”
“She compliments mine all the time,” Penny tells him.
“That is all part of her misplaced hero worship of you,” Sheldon huffs.
“Then perhaps we should find Amy her own signature scent,” Penny stresses. “Something that will always remind you of her and vice versa.”
“We can try,” Sheldon’s shoulders slump, “But I am staying here.
Penny trots over to the counter and picks up four paper strips and sprays each one with a different scent. She offers them one by one to Sheldon who pronounces them “vile,” “disgusting,” “overpowering” and “bad.”
She takes her time on her return trip to give Sheldon’s nose a chance to clear. This time she has only three samples.
“Do you like this?” She holds the swatch up to his nose but he jerks away and his eyes begin to water.
“Guess not,” Penny mutters, “How about this?”
Another violent head shake.
“I smelled one I actually did like,” Sheldon says.
“Really?” Penny’s eyes light up, “Was it from the first group?” She goes back for new swatches.
Sheldon sniffs apprehensively then shakes his head, “It’s not any of these but I keep catching a hint of it.”
Penny brings him two new testers.
“No but I can smell it.”
Penny throws up her hands, “Sheldon, we’ve tried every fragrance they have and it’s not any of them.”
His hand reaches toward her, pointing at her wrist.
“What?” Penny is confused. Sheldon motions for her to bring her arm closer to him. He leans forward and takes a cautious sniff at Penny’s exposed wrist. She feels the blood creep up in her cheeks; Sheldon’s match hers exactly.
“That’s it,” his voice is barely audible. “That’s the one I like.”
He raises his head to look at her, his cheeks burning.
“Whaddya say we scrap the perfume idea?” Penny’s voice is pitched higher than usual.
“I couldn’t agree more.”
They walk against the crowd on the mall’s second level. Penny’s eyes dart furtive glances at the man beside her. These shopping trips with Sheldon always seem to get her in uncomfortable situations. Their first shopping trip together resulted in his trying to convince her to buy thirty years worth of tampons. She blushes as she recalls her reaction to him when they shopped for his suit the Chancellor’s award. Even now, the thought of him in that suit can make her pulse race, more so when she thinks about the small smile that played about his lips when he noted her astonishment before he arranged his face into its usual expressionless mask. For some reason, whenever they were alone, Penny ended up all flustered and unsure of herself. She laughs when she remembers she told him so when they had discussed “friends with benefits.”
“I fail to see anything amusing,” Sheldon speaks so suddenly that Penny jumps. “If I hear “Jingle bells” one more time, I may have to throw myself over this balustrade.”
“Aww, Sweetie, you just have to tune it out. I have another idea for Amy. Let’s go in here.”
She tugs on his wrist but Sheldon has his feet firmly planted.
“Penny, I can’t go in there.” His voice is a hushed whisper.
“Sheldon, its’ just a store.” Penny walks forward, still holding onto his wrist. Sheldon pulls back. Their fingers twine together. Penny swallows and keeps her back to him.
He’s not letting go.
She drags him just inside Victoria’s Secret. Women pass by and around them, oblivious to the power struggle she is currently engaged in.
“Penny,” Sheldon is pulling back on her hand. “My mother has weekly prayer meetings to close down this particular chain of stores.”
A salesgirl is approaching them but Penny waves her off. She turns to face Sheldon. His eyes are roaming all over the place, blinking rapidly. His fingers tighten around hers once more.
“I promise to protect you,” she smiles at him and he focuses on her. “They have really nice things and I am sure we can find something here that Amy would like. Although, when we had the sleepover at my house, she wore sweatpants.”
Penny takes them over to the sleepwear section which is, fortunately, on the other side of the store, far from the lingerie. She releases Sheldon’s hand and begins going through the racks. Sheldon instantly wanders off.
“How about these?” They both say simultaneously. Penny is holding a pair of plaid flannel pajamas with a white satin trim; Sheldon is holding a red and pink striped long-sleeved pajama top with matching shorts.
“Those are so cute!” Penny squeals in spite of herself. Sheldon grins. “But do you really think Amy would wear them?”
He looks at the pajamas Penny is holding, “Those look like a feminized version of my pajamas.”
“I know,” Penny smiles. “I though that would be kinda cute. The two of you in matching PJ’s”
“Hardly.” Sheldon snorts and walks away to make another selection.
Twenty minutes later, they leave Victoria’s Secret with two shopping bags.
“I can’t believe we didn’t find anything in there.” Penny gripes.
“We found plenty of things in there.” Sheldon corrects.
“For me,” Penny waves one of the pink bags in his face. “We are supposed to be shopping for Amy.”
“I am well aware of the purpose of this trip,” Sheldon takes one of the bags from her. “And you didn’t have to buy everything I picked out.”
“You have good taste.” Penny nudges him with her shoulder.
Sheldon’s eyes are hooded when he looks down at her, “Indeed I do.”
They stop in the food court for a brief lunch. Well, for Penny it was brief- she made he selection in less than five minutes. Sheldon appeared fifteen minutes later just as Penny was throwing her trash away.
“Were you cooking your lunch?” Penny snaps.
Sheldon places down his tray which holds a single slice of pizza and a bottle of water.
“I hardly think asking to see the state of the kitchen is an unreasonable request.” He fishes in his messenger bag until he finds a bottle of hand sanitizer.
Penny stares at him then shakes her head, “Okay Sheldon, you eat. I’m going to see if I can find Amy a sweater or something.”
“Wait! You aren’t going to stay here and keep me company?” He is utterly bewildered.
“I ate alone,” Penny points out. “You’re a big boy.”
Sheldon doesn’t answer; he pushes the chair across from him out with his foot then stares at her until she sits down.
“What would you like to talk about?” He smiles as he bites into his pizza.
“How about all the wrapping and packing I have to be doing before I leave.” Penny says
Sheldon puts down his pizza, “Leave?”
Penny nods, “Yeah, I am going to Nebraska on Sunday. I’ll be back for New Year’s. Don’t worry.”
“I was not made aware of this,” Sheldon’s voice cracks. “When did you tell me you were leaving?”
“I think I told Leonard. I just assumed he would tell you.” She almost pats his hand but pulls back at the last minute.
“Well, he didn’t,” Sheldon picks up his tray. ”Today is Friday. That isn’t nearly enough time. Come on, Penny. Stop lollygagging.” He strides out of the food court, messenger bag thumping against his hip.
Penny grabs her shopping bags and runs after him.
Sheldon sits morosely on a bench. Penny is next to him, rubbing her feet.
“I can’t believe we’ve been through this whole mall and haven’t found a single thing for Amy,” she moans.
“I can’t believe you are leaving and you didn’t tell me,” Sheldon replies.
Penny gives him a harassed look. What is up with that comment?
“I had no idea it mattered to you, Sheldon. I know how you are about Christmas.” Penny slips her sneakers back on and winces. “I told Leonard since he and I are exchanging gifts.”
Sheldon’s eyes widen in surprise. He frowns at her. “Great,” he mutters then looks at his watch.
Penny draws her brows together, “Do you want to leave?”
“That would make the most sense, don’t you think?” Sheldon tilts his head. “We’ve accomplished nothing today.”
“I don’t think so,” Penny counters. “I was actually having fun shopping with you.”
“Only because I keep picking out things you like.”
“Yeah, that’s part of it,” Penny laughs. “I didn’t think you knew me that well but it’s more than that.” She stands up and puts her hand in the crook of his elbow, “Ever since Amy came into the picture, you and I don’t seem to hang out as much. I guess I miss that.”
Sheldon is looking at her hand tucked into his elbow, “You didn’t miss it enough to include me in the gift exchange.”
“Is that what is bothering you?” Penny throws up her hands. “Sheldon, do you honestly think I don’t have a gift for you?”
“Penny, I am a man of science. I make no assumptions.”
Penny glances away from him. When she turns back, her eyes are sparkling.
“Sheldon, remember you promised to do everything I said?”
“Well, we’re going to do something now, you and I, just to prove to you how much I enjoyed today.”
“I’m not getting a tattoo,” Sheldon warns. Somehow their hands have joined again as they make their way through the crowds. Penny pulls him along until they reach a line. Sheldon cranes his neck and even rises up on his toes then shrugs.
“What is this?” Sheldon asks.
“You’ll see,” Penny tries not to sound disappointed when he drops her hand.
The group in front of them moves through the gates made of life-sized candy canes. The man is carrying a screaming little girl in green velvet. Flashbulbs fire in all directions and there are adults dressed as elves trying to soothe the distraught little girl who reaches new levels of hysteria when she is placed in the lap of a white-bearded stranger.
“PEN-NYYY!” Sheldon wails in his Wheaton voice.
“Uh-uh, Sheldon,” Penny wags a finger in his face. “Santa’s watching.”
Thankfully, the little girl’s photo shoot is brief and they are next. Penny skips in and Sheldon trudges in behind her. Santa pats his lap and she sits on it.
“Hi Santa. I’m Penny,” She greets. “C’mon Sheldon.”
He shakes his head so hard his messenger bag rattles.
“Come on Sheldon,” Santa booms. “Have you been a good boy this year?”
“Sir,” one of the elves says, “Can you move this along. We gotta line and Santa needs to pee.”
Penny reaches over and pats Santa’s other knee. Sheldon growls but perches on the very edge of the man’s kneecap.
“Now, Sheldon, what do you want for Christmas?” Santa chuckles.
“A Nobel Prize.”
Santa blinks and looks at Penny who shrugs.
“Anything else?” Santa asks.
Penny is watching him. Sheldon’s eyes meet hers and hold. For a very long time. Penny tilts her head slightly but she doesn’t break the stare even when Santa talks to her.
“And what about you, young lady?”
That’s when Penny breaks the stare. She whispers in Santa’s ear for a few minutes.
“Really?” Santa is clearly surprised. He looks at Sheldon over his half-moon glasses. “Are you sure?”
Penny nods. Santa looks at Sheldon again. Sheldon is only looking at Penny. Santa turns back to her.
“It’s not the strangest request I’ve gotten, that’s for sure.”
“Ok you two, “The elf behind the camera snarls. “Smile for the camera.”
Penny tucks the Santa picture into her purse then takes out her keys.
He is looking off to his right, “I want to go in one more store.” And he heads off.
Penny follows him expectantly but her steps slow when she sees he has entered a jewelry store. She waits outside while Sheldon peers into various cases. She takes out the Polaroid they just took. Santa is smiling, Penny is beaming and Sheldon is looking at her with that small smile in the corner of his mouth. Penny looks at the jewelry store again and then at the picture. Christmas puts all sorts of foolish notions in a girl’s head sometimes.
“Penny!” Sheldon is waving her into the store. She walks over.
“What do you think of these?” He holds up a pair of gold hoops with a slight twist to them.
“Um, they’re nice, Sheldon.” Her voice is flat. They are just the type of earring Amy would wear. “Really nice.”
Penny walks away from him and peers unseeing into a case. It is filled with necklaces. Her eyes fall on a white gold chain cut so it seems to sparkle like diamonds.
“Can I show you something?” The man behind the counter says.
“Oh. No. I’m just looking.” Penny shakes her head.
“It’s a nice piece”’ He takes the necklace out. “It’s on sale.” He places the necklace around her neck. Penny loves the feel of it on her skin, the way it twinkles with every rise and fall of her chest.
“It’s beautiful.” Penny takes off the chain. “But out of my price range.”
Sheldon is by her side. The jeweler looks from her to him, “Perhaps Santa will bring it to you.”
“I haven’t been that good.” Penny tells him and exits the store with Sheldon.
Penny doesn’t come back to Pasadena for New Year’s. She doesn’t exchange gifts with Leonard and Sheldon before she leaves. Instead, she uses her spare key to leave the presents on the coffee table in 4A then goes straight to the airport to plead her way onto a flight to Nebraska a day early.
Once she made it home, she turned off her phone and focused all her energy on the family she spent too much time away from.
On New Year’s Eve, her parents have a standing invitation with the McDermott’s. Penny remembers long evenings filled with board games and laughter and eating homemade fried dough until she thought she would puke. The McDermott kids are all away from home now.
“You can come with us, Penny.” Her mother stands in the doorway of Penny’s childhood room.
Penny shakes her head, “I really don’t mind being alone, Mom.”
“Well, we’re just three doors down if you change your mind.” Her mother smiles softly. She had tried to get Penny to talk about Pasadena (she always enjoyed stories of the boys’ exploits), but Penny didn’t offer much.
Once her parents leave for the evening, Penny turns on her phone and takes perverse pleasure in deleting, without listening to them, every message and missed call from Leonard, Amy, Sheldon and even Bernadette. She leaves the phone on but sets the ring to vibrate.
Penny makes popcorn and settles down to watch Dick Clark’s New Year’s Eve. Her phone has been quiet all evening. At quarter to midnight, it begins to shake. She checks the screen and sees the call is from Leonard so she sends it to voicemail.
Penny wakes in time for the last fifteen seconds of the countdown. She pours a glass of wine and holds it aloft.
“Five! Four! Three! Two!” Penny screams at the top of her lungs as the ball drops. Her phone goes off right on cue; this time it is Sheldon.
Penny stares at the screen that is flashing his name the way the New Year flashes on the Jumbotrons in Times Square. Her thumb hovers over the button that will answer the call. She pictures him standing in 4A with the phone to his ear, hunched over in that way that makes her spine hurt just by looking at him. His brow furrowed by concern or most likely, annoyance. She thinks of the way he looked at her as they shopped at the mall. The feel of his fingers gripping hers. She answers the call but doesn’t hold the phone to her ear.
“Penny? Penny?” Sheldon’s voice is a tinny whine at this distance. “Penny, are you there?”
“Let me try,” Another voice chimes in. Amy. “Penny? Can you hear me?”
Penny hangs up and throws back her glass of wine.
She returns to Pasadena two days later. Her mother will ship the rest of Penny’s presents by the end of the week. Penny is juggling her mail and her luggage as she reaches the last landing. She stops for a minute and stares at 4A. She knows they aren’t home and she plans to be out once they are, even though she could really use a nap, but time isn’t on her side.
Her phone starts ringing as she enters her apartment. It’s Amy but, true to her new pattern, Penny ignores it.
She shoves her door open. On her coffee table is a box wrapped in candy cane printed paper with a gift tag from Sheldon on it. Next to the box is the Santa picture in a frame and Penny knows she threw that picture in her junk drawer before she left town. Penny sits on her couch, frowning at the present on her table. She gives it a slight shake but hears nothing.
Penny’s ears perk up. There are footsteps on the stairs and she can hear the rumble of voices male voices.
She left her door half open when she came in and hurries over to close it before Sheldon or Leonard sees her. The click of the latch sounds like a gunshot and Penny cringes behind the door.
Her phone begins to ring.
“Crap,” she mumbles before answering it. “Hello Sheldon.”
“May I come over?”
“Ummm… this really isn’t a good time.”
He begins knocking and the force of the knocks, makes her drop her phone. She waits for him to finish and then opens the door.
“You didn’t come home for New Year’s!” Sheldon barks.
“So?” Penny sneers. “It’s not like you were alone.”
Sheldon blinks, “What does that mean?”
“You called me, remember?” Penny remains firmly rooted in her doorway. “You called me and you had Amy with you when you did it.”
“I also had Leonard, Wolowitz, Koothrappali and Bernadette with me as well. I believe it is customary to spend New Year’s Eve with friends.”
Penny sighs and turns away. She is in no mood for him now. Her Christmas wish didn’t come true; Santa didn’t bring her what she wanted. Sheldon will never realize he’s “the guy” and she realized it far too late. Penny reaches over and takes the gift off the coffee table.
“I don’t want this, Sheldon.”
“You haven’t even opened it.”
“I don’t want to open it,” Penny thrusts the box at him. “Take it back.”
“I will do no such thing until after you open it.” He crosses his arms over his chest. Penny notices he is wearing a new Superman shirt. She likes the old one better.
“Fine. If it will make you go away, I will.” She tears open the paper, letting the scraps fall to the floor. Sheldon bends down to scoop them up. Penny takes the lid off the box.
Inside, is a sheet of paper. She lifts it out and scans the words.
“You may have a lawyer review it if you chose,” Sheldon says, “but it is fairly brief and the language is hardly complex.”
“I don’t understand,” Penny is bewildered.
“I went back to the mall,” Sheldon explains. “On Saturday after I had a long talk with Amy on Friday. Fortunately, the Santa we had our picture taken with was still there. I simply wanted to confirm what became very clear during our jaunt to the mall.”
“And did you?” Penny steps back into her apartment and Sheldon follows her. She goes through her bag until she finds a pen. Sheldon waits until she signs the paper and faces him once more. He holds out his hand for the contract she has just signed.
“Do you still want me to take it back?” Sheldon raises an eyebrow.
Penny steps closer to him. His arms circle her waist and she reaches past him to push the door closed.