Leonard stepped up to the podium, waves of applause washing over him. He straightened his notes, opened his mouth, and all that came out was an insistent ring. Pausing, embarrassed, he cleared his throat to try again.
"Thank you all for this very great ring!" he said. "Riiiiiiing!"
The dream shattered around him, pushing Leonard into consciousness. His cell phone was ringing, persistent and jarring. He flailed an arm out and knocked over something on the bedside table trying to grab it; whatever it was fell to the floor with a clatter. His fingers brushed against the smooth plastic case of the phone and he dragged it under the covers to his face, hitting what he hoped was the right button to answer the call.
The person on the other end of the line didn't even wait for him to mumble a hello.
"Hello, Leonard. This is Sheldon Cooper. Do you remember when I told you I wouldn't love a child who couldn't solve for the area under a curve?"
"It's Sheldon Cooper."
The familiar sigh of frustration confirmed his identity better than anything else.
Leonard peeked his head out from under the blanket and squinted at his alarm. The numbers were nothing more than a red blur. "Why are you calling me at whatever o'clock?"
Sheldon sighed again. "I'm attempting to tell you that I believe I was mistaken."
"When I told you I wouldn't love a child who couldn't solve for the area under a curve."
"Sheldon, it's the middle of the night!"
The silence stretched out so long that Leonard was almost asleep again before Sheldon said, "...oh. My apologies. I didn't realize you and Becky had reconciled."
How did he-? Leonard switched on the light and fumbled for his glasses. Shoving them on, he quickly scanned the room. If Howard had snuck in to install another webcam the last time he came to visit, he was a dead man. "How did you-"
"Your neural activity and capacity for processing simple declarations declines at an exponential rate after you've engaged in sexual intercourse-"
Leonard interrupted before Sheldon could tell him about the graphs he'd no doubt created. "Why are you calling?"
"Please try to keep up. I am attempting to explain that I was mistaken when I said that I would not love a child who didn't know when to use an integral or a differential."
It took another minute for the sounds Sheldon was making to coalesce into words, and then a little bit longer for them to match up to the right meanings. "Oh, my God, is Penny having the baby?!"
"Honestly, it's like talking to a grad student," Sheldon muttered. "Yes, Penny is in labor. Why else would I call you at 4:58 am to admit to an error in judgement?"
Sheldon kept talking but Leonard ignored him to shake Becky awake. "They're having the baby!"
She sat up and looked at him, or somewhere near him, her eyes unfocused and her curly hair in a wild tangle around her face. "Who what?" she mumbled. "What time is it?"
Leonard checked the clock again now that he could actually see. It felt a hell of a lot earlier than five in the morning. Sheldon was still talking a mile a minute, something about the clumsy, grammatically and biologically incorrect phrase "they're having the baby."
Becky froze mid-yawn. "Wait, did you say baby?" she asked when she had her breath back. "Give me the phone! Sheldon? How far apart? How's Penny? She's not going to let them cut-"
And that was Leonard's cue to tune out the interrogation in favor of stumbling around trying to stuff both legs in his pants at the same time. Becky kept relaying answers at him while he picked up her clothes from where they'd been strewn around the room. He caught natural and five minutes and private room and sprained and that was about it. The rest of his brain was whirling, trying to remember where he had seen the cordless and dropped his car keys, and who was next on the call tree Sheldon had made him tape to the front of the refrigerator.
Becky followed him out of the bedroom, trying to pull on her shirt without dropping the phone. "Yes, we'll be there in a few minutes. Yes, we'll take the— No, I won't let him drive over the speed limit. Tell Penny— Okay, no, I'm not doing the checklist. Seriously, I'm hanging up on you now."
Leonard found the other phone under a pile of takeout menus. His keys were on the living room floor, under the coffee table. "Get Danny, and I'll—"
"He's at my mom's, remember? Adults-only weekend?"
Under normal circumstances, Leonard might have remembered that without needing prompting but Sheldon was right: he was demonstrably stupider after sex. Especially make-up sex.
Raj was waiting in the lobby when they arrived, watching through the glass doors as Leonard whipped his station wagon into a parking space meant for a compact. In the reflection he could see that his hair was sticking out all over but with his hands full he couldn't do anything about it.
After Becky gave him a quick hug, Leonard nodded at the laptop under his arm. "Skype?"
He nodded, then cleared his throat. "Howard said Bernadette can't get out of the rest of her sessions so they'll have to be here online. This hospital does have wifi, right?"
"Why do you think Sheldon insisted they pick this one?"
"Because they have the best natal care unit in Southern California?" After a beat, he said, "I've been waiting for a while. The brochure was very informative."
Becky gave them both a shove that turned them toward the elevator bank. "Anybody remember what floor maternity's on?"
"They're on seven. Amy's up there already."
"How'd she beat us here?"
Raj tried not to fidget but couldn't keep himself from preening. Just a bit, running his hand through his hair to try to smooth it down and straightening his shoulders. Leonard was squinting at his phone but Becky saw it. When she smirked, Raj flushed, the now unfamiliar tongue-tied feeling starting to creep back up his throat.
The doors opening saved him from trying to answer. They were hardly three feet from the elevator when Amy burst into view from a room further down the hall.
"Down here!" she yelled. Her bulky cardigan was buttoned over the thin t-shirt she'd stolen from him when she couldn't find her own turtleneck. Raj hoped no one would notice that it was inside-out and backward.
From the deepening smirk on Becky's face, he wasn't so lucky.
"Don't think I won't ask about this," she whispered when he stood back to let her in the room ahead of him.
"Hey, bestie!" Amy called as the four of them trooped into the birthing room. "Look who I've got!"
"If it's not every dealer in the Valley, I don't want to hear about it," Penny said.
She was pacing near the window, hands rubbing into the muscles of her lower back. Her feet were stuffed into fuzzy pink slippers that looked about three sizes too small for her swollen feet and ankles.
Sheldon sat in the chair next to her. One of his hands was wrapped in an Ace bandage and held to his chest in a sling. The other hovered a few inches away from the swinging hem of Penny's nightgown as she turned in front of him and started her circuit again.
"Ohhh," Leonard breathed. "Sprained."
Raj sat the laptop down on the tiny counter around the sink outside the bathroom just inside the door. Howard and Bernadette would just have to wait.
"Damn, I forgot to bring any drugs," Becky announced. "But I can call my sister if you want."
Penny's laugh turned into a low groan. She clamped one hand down on Sheldon's shoulder, hard enough to make him squeal. With the other, she grabbed at Amy's hand.
"You're at about seven minutes, twenty-three seconds," Amy announced.
"Dammit," Penny panted. She squatted a little and hunched forward. "Fucking goddamn piece of shit—"
"Uh, we're just gonna... We'll be right outside," Leonard offered, already inching toward the door. Raj and Becky were right on his heels.
A string of curses floated out the door behind them, each swear more inventive than the last. Raj hadn't heard the like since Howard dropped Bernadette's ring down a storm sewer the night of his bachelor party.
There was a small waiting room through a set of swinging doors just a few feet away from Penny's room. Raj and Leonard collapsed in the first empty chairs they found.
"Wimps," Becky snorted.
Zack was sprawled across three chairs behind Raj's seat. Like Amy, he too was wearing the first clothes he'd found when they got the call. What was a pleasantly roomy zippered warm-up jacket on Raj strained at the seams with Zack's much more impressive frame stuffed into it.
He shook his head and popped open a can of Red Bull. "She's something, huh?" he said, admiringly. "Bet the kid comes out screaming just like that."
"Nice jacket, Zack," Becky called from the bank of vending machines on the opposite side of the room. "The brown stripes really bring out your eyes."
Leonard rubbed his eyes and put his glasses back on. "Hey, Raj, doesn't that look like the one you borrowed from me?"
Raj busied himself with another of the hospital's informative brochures.
There were times when Amy was in awe of the human body. Variations in neuronal type, the ruthlessness of a healthy immune response, the breathtaking beauty of regained fine motor function in an experimental subject.
This was definitely not one of those times. Although the so-called miracle of live human birth could be somewhat awe-inspiring, it was not what Amy would call a beautiful moment. Even if she'd had a full night of sleep—if she hadn't been awoken from a perfectly sound post-coital slumber at three AM; if she'd had time to do more than swipe at her armpits with deodorant before dashing across town or splash water on her face in the tiny hospital bathroom—she would rank the birth of Penny and Sheldon's child somewhere in the high twenties of her top fifty most disgusting memories. She hadn't showered in almost a full day and she was pretty sure she smelled at least enough like Raj or Zack to make even Sheldon notice.
Penny writhed like a beached dolphin in her hospital bed as another contraction swept through her body—there was probably a better way to describe it but none of Amy's many strengths lay in wordsmithing. She would poll her friends list for the right phrasing when she wrote up the day's events later.
Covered in sweat, blonde hair plastered to her head, face bright red with strain, Penny was the least beautiful Amy had ever seen her. She made sure to keep the observation to herself, though. If nothing else, as Penny's due date loomed ever nearer, she'd learned the importance of catering to her ego. Even at the expense of their BFFs Don't Lie pinky swear pact.
Once the latest contraction passed, Amy pried her hand loose and tried to shake out the pain. The woman had a grip like a juvenile chimp on the verge of a temper tantrum.
"You're doing just great," she assured her bestie. "You'll be saying hello to baby in no time at all. Though it will of course be some time before baby can understand or respond."
Penny smiled wearily, then patted Sheldon's hip before wrapping a fist in the hem of his shirt, still panting from the strength of the contraction. "Get me drugs," she demanded.
Sheldon's mouth opened and closed but no words emerged.
Amy, in her capacity as birthing coach and amateur doula, made sure to remind her, "You said you wanted a natural birth."
"Well, why did you listen to me?!" Penny bellowed.
Sheldon pulled his shirt free and ran from the room, nearly colliding with the obstetrics nurse who was about to enter. In his panic, he didn't seem to notice her. It took Amy a good few minutes to calm him down enough to recognize that he needed to come back into the birthing suite, that the people who could get Penny her drugs were already aware of the situation and yelling at the man at the nursing station wasn't doing anyone any favors.
As she followed Sheldon back into the room, Amy decided that the BFF pact would also survive the deliberate omission of his offer to trade places with any of the other members of their group, just until the worst of the experience had passed.
"You're almost totally dilated, Mom," Amy heard the nurse announce as they took up their positions again. "Shouldn't be long now."
Turning to Amy and Sheldon like she wasn't sure which of them she should be addressing, the nurse asked, "Did one of you want to film the birth? I can show you where to stand during—"
"No!" Sheldon and Penny cried in unison. Penny even reached out to grab Amy's wrist, to keep her from drifting to the end of the bed where the nurse was extending the stirrups.
Amy tried not to let her disappointment show and kicked her purse further under the visitor's chair. If they didn't want a lasting memory of their own child's entry into the world, it was no skin off her nose.
Howard paced up and down in the narrow space between the minibar and the ironing board Bernadette had set up in their hotel room.
"I don't know what you're so nervous about," Bernadette yelled from the bathroom, where she was washing off her makeup. "It's not like you had anything to do with it."
"I know!" he shouted back. Someone in the next room thumped a fist against their shared wall and he tried to lower his voice. "I know. It's just— Why hasn't anyone called back yet? The last time I talked to Raj was like four hours."
"First babies take a while. Your mother was in labor with you for twenty-two hours!"
"And Becky only took six, like some kind of a witch. I know, I know," he grumbled.
It had been almost twelve hours since Raj's first call using the Penny In Labor call tree. In the original plan, Howard and Bernadette were supposed to call the respective mothers once delivery started in earnest. Penny had insisted, saying Sheldon would be too close to panic to do anything but scare everyone.
Howard wasn't sure how he was an improvement on Sheldon in that case, but Bernadette had leveled his objections with one look.
But then she had been invited to give the keynote speech at the annual American Society for Microbiology conference, with a generous travel stipend for her engineer husband. Raj had taken over the communications duties and somehow Howard was relegated to the role of a distant relative.
Bernadette shut off the water and climbed up on the bed. "What's wrong, pookie?"
Howard shrugged and fiddled with the frame of his laptop. "It's just that, you know, this is a big deal! I wanted to be there."
She narrowed her eyes. "To do what?"
"Nothing like that," he reassured her, remembering Amy's lecture on the benefits of giving birth naked. Even after five years of marriage, it was adorable how Bernadette thought he had eyes for anyone but her.
"You can't tell anyone I said this," he warned her. "But I kind of made a bet with Raj."
"Sweetie, they got pregnant the old-fashioned way. There's no budding or sporogenesis involved."
"Well," he said, letting the word hang in the air while Bernadette giggled.
The incoming tone of a Skype call took them by surprise. Bernadette scrambled off the bed and hovered behind the desk chair as he sat and clicked accept.
Sheldon's pale face filled the screen. There were dark bruises under his eyes and his hair was limp and greasy.
It was the happiest Howard had ever seen him look. Happier even than the time Penny gave him a lifetime pass to the Roaring Camp Railroad for Christmas.
"Greetings," he said softly, sounding both exhausted and exhilarated. The screen tilted crazily as he swung the laptop on his end toward the bed where Penny was propped against a mound of pillows. She looked ten times worse than Sheldon, but her face practically shone.
In her arms was a bundle of white cloth and reddened skin, mouth drawn up in a bow and eyes closed tight.
"I present to you, Sarek George Cooper," Sheldon said from somewhere behind the camera. His voice was pitched low enough not to disturb the sleeping baby but Howard was leaning so close to the laptop he didn't have to strain to hear it.
"We're not calling him that!" Penny whispered fiercely.
The baby stirred in her arms and she shushed him, her fingers brushing against his round cheeks.
"It's still up for discussion," Sheldon told them as he swung the laptop back to face him. "I have to go out and tell everyone in the waiting room. Penny wanted you to be the first to see him, since you couldn't be here."
"He's beautiful," Bernadette cooed.
Howard smiled. "Congratulations, buddy."
"Thanks. Penny did most of the work, though."
"You bet your ass I did," Howard heard her say before Sheldon cut the connection, an uncharacteristic grin on his lips.