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It seems that you live in someone else's dream
in a hand-me-down wedding dress
where the things that could have been are repressed
but you said your vows, and you closed the door
on so many men who would have loved you more...

 

The day Leonard proposes to Penny, Sheldon is thirty miles away at a symposium on nuclear proliferation. They announce the pending nuptials over Tuesday night dinner, too eager to wait for Sheldon's return; in his cab, Sheldon feels only exhaustion and a brief frustration as he mulls over a recent experiment regarding neutrino oscillation.

Leonard breaks the news to him alone the next morning. His roommate seems to expect—apathy? Exuberance? Congratulations? A tantrum? Sheldon doesn't know. Sheldon's hands stutter in midair, halfway to the egg carton, and Sheldon's mind asks if this is what the Doctor meant by a fixed point, if this is what Captain Kirk experienced as he watched Edith Keeler die.

One summer during childhood, in a rare display of parental unity, his father and mother had taken their offspring on a vacation to the Grand Canyon. Sheldon can recall the immediacy, the fear of standing on the edge of that red precipice under a starry, endless sky and wondering—wondering—

"I suppose I'll have to find a new roommate," he says, and cracks another egg.

Leonard's face twists behind his glasses. "That's seriously all you have to say?"

Sheldon turns inward and considers the still, calm surface of his thoughts; he lends fleeting attention to the darker notions that lurk beneath; in a fraction of time, he builds a web of effect that stretches to an infinite horizon.

"I hope you aren't going to involve me in the wedding planning," he concludes.

Leonard snorts. "Don't think you have to worry about that, buddy."

"No," Sheldon says, and then peers at the stove. "Would you like an egg?"

 

-

 

Leonard does not want an egg. Sheldon assumes this is because Leonard is fulfilled—if not gastronomically, then certainly professionally and personally. He has the girl, he's popularly rumored to be Gablehauser's successor as department head, and he hasn't had any severe allergic reactions in three years. If Sheldon's name is better known—and it is—then Leonard's is said with more respect. Leonard doesn't rock the boat. It is for that quality precisely that Sheldon selected Leonard as his best friend.

Penny comes over later, before Halo night. She brings him a pie. Sheldon wants to tell her that pie is for people who need to be consoled and that he doesn't need consolation, but when she hands him the pie and smiles it suddenly seems impolite. Maybe she doesn't remember that pie is a remedy for sadness. Maybe she thinks he's sad.

"It's apple," she says. "You like apple, right?"

"I don't not like apple," Sheldon says.

"So I guess Leonard told you the big news, huh?"

"He told me about the Lyrid meteor shower." Sheldon has a quiet fondness for Lyra and its brightest star, Vega; he'd calculated his first stellar parallax off Vega.

"I meant the engagement," Penny says.

"You mean your engagement," he corrects. "Yes, he told me this morning."

"So, I just—I mean—how ya doing with it?" she says, and gives a light punch in the shoulder in a show of camaraderie so forced even he can detect its artifice.

Sheldon carries the pie over to the kitchen and sets it beside the sink. The pie is charmingly homemade (by which he means lopsided), housed in the tin he remembers Penny buying from Target shortly after his disastrous return from the Arctic.

"'Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments,'" he says, with a subtle note of what he suspects might be sarcasm.

Penny stares up at him blankly. She's lost weight in the past month; Sheldon wonders if her menstrual cycle has been affected by the stress.

"That's Shakespeare, right?" she says. "You know, I always wonder how you know Shakespeare."

"I know everything."

"You so do not," Penny says, but she doesn't challenge him with a question about whatever pop débutante has most recently captured the public's philandering attention. "I guess what I'm trying to say is—are we cool?"

She means it in the idiomatic sense, not the thermodynamic one, but this distinction doesn't help him puzzle out her meaning. "Are we?"

"Oh Jesus, Sheldon, I'm trying to ask if you're okay with me and Leonard getting engaged." She doesn't say 'getting married,' his hindbrain notes.

"Why wouldn't I be?" he asks.

Penny drops her keys on the coffee table and drops herself to the couch. "You've been pretty against this whole Leonard-and-me thing since day one, although god knows why, you were all about Leonard hooking up with—whatever, I just thought I'd ask. It's a huge change for all of us, not only me."

Sheldon knows about change: he knows change is inexorable, he knows thanks to his mother that the times are a-changing', he knows that you can't fight change and he knows the Hegelian model of change and he knows how to mathematically describe change, he knows that change is a universal constant and he knows that he built himself a carefully ordered life in order to deny the instability of a universe he can understand only in glimpses.

He also knows about friendship.

"You aren't worried that Leonard will grow—" Resentful nearly trips out of his mouth, but the word doesn't express nearly the degree of accuracy this conversation requires. "Are you satisfied?" he asks instead.

"You mean like...does Leonard make me happy?" As always, she divines his meaning from the barest of data sets. "Yeah. I mean, I said yes, didn't I?"

"Are you asking me or telling me?"

Penny rolls her eyes. "Come on, Sheldon."

"Then I find that occasionally even I must bow to the inevitable," he says. "Now, if I serve you pie, will you promise not to eat and play Halo at the same time? My third-best controller still smells like strawberry jelly."

Penny beams, which—illogically, unfathomably—almost makes up for being made to have a conversation about feelings.

 

-

 

Leonard does not return home on Thursday morning, and at half-past seven Sheldon decides to walk rather than risk public transportation. His—their—apartment is four miles from campus, far enough that he prefers to be driven but close enough that he doesn't mind walking when Leonard is absent and the buses seem particularly unsanitary. He's been walking more often, lately, for no discernible reason; the whimsical impulses of the human brain can still baffle the most self-actualized man.

The weather is unseasonably cold for early October, dipping into the low fifties in the morning; Sheldon lets the front door fall shut behind him and turns south (true south, not magnetic south; from sunne, 'the region of the sun'—appropriate, if inaccurate). His thoughts veer between a recent collaboration with the National Science Foundation and pie. No, not pie; this demands truth. He's thinking about Penny.

Sheldon is aware that his fondness for Penny long ago surpassed friendship. He's startled but not truly shocked that his attachment for her is stronger than his distaste for amor, a distaste rooted in his parents' farce of a marriage but sheltered, watered, and multiplied by Sheldon and his own inclinations. He is single and celibate by choice—or was, before the singularity in 4B.

However. However: knowledge does not imply action. Until yesterday, it hadn't occurred to him that his affection might (could, should) become a relationship, an idea made tangible by mutual attraction and social contract. 'A marriage of true minds,' he'd said, and if her mind wasn't the flawless diamond edge he'd made his into, she was at least as true as he. Faced with the reality of her union with Leonard, he has to fight the unlikely instinct to act.

Irrelevant, he tells himself; his affection is like a theorem so simple and evident that its proof can be omitted from a calculation all together, like the gravitational constant—an unalterable law of the universe, yes, but he's hardly throwing himself off a cliff because of the gravitational constant, is he?

Irrelevant.

He can't stop thinking about her.

Irrelevant. Relevant: the implications of Leonard's marriage, a new living arrangement, a new roommate agreement...construction. Lake Avenue is closed for repairs—the sidewalk is blocked off, clearly by cretins who can no better organize a construction project than they can sing Klingon opera—and Sheldon is forced east three blocks early. He isn't familiar with this part of the city in practice, although he is of course aware of every street within a forty mile radius of his apartment in case some global catastrophe necessitates an evacuation.

In the midst of a meditation on the Dominion War his feet stop in front of a lawn. The house attached to the lawn is a one-story home with a high, peaked roof and a broad front porch that—ah, of course. The porch reminds him of his Meemaw's house; she used to drink lemonade outside in the summer. His mind records the street address and the name of the realtor on the for-sale sign out of habit, notes that the house is a mere eleven minutes as the crow flies from Penny's store, and files the information away.

Sheldon decides that if the NSF really wants to attract a new generation of scientists, they should fund a new Star Trek series. J.J. Abrams' third film lacked a certain something—not heart, perhaps, but vision.

 

-

 

Once he decides on his goals, the problem will be reduced to a simple matter of communication. Reaching a conclusion about what he wants, though, is the difficulty; there are so many variables that he throws away his flow-chart in frustration and e-mails his mother instead.

 

FROM: "Dr. Sheldon Cooper" slcooper@caltech.edu
TO: "Mary Cooper" mothermary@hotmail.com
SUBJECT: Please DO NOT forward this to Missy or George Jr.

How did I determine that I wanted to be a physicist?

Sincerely,
Your son, Sheldon Cooper

 

She must have been checking the Home Shopping Network website between her soaps, because when he returns from lunch a reply is waiting in his inbox.

 

FROM: "Mary Cooper" mothermary@hotmail.com
TO: "Shellybean" slcooper@caltech.edu
SUBJECT: RE: Please DO NOT forward this to Missy or George Jr.

Well, sweetheart, as near as I can tell you just came out knowing. When you were real little you wanted to be a sailor, but then you realized you were afraid of the water & I took you to the library & you checked out a big book on atoms or some such nonsense. I don't think you ever wanted to be anything else from the time you turned four.

I wore the scarf you sent me to the Church Potluck last night. Don't be a stranger, write your poor mom more and remember that Jesus loves you & I do too.

P.S. I forwarded this to your sister, you know she likes to hear from you and she would appreciate it if you called her every now and then.

 

Unhelpful; and while he was pleased she liked the scarf, he did wish that he could have one conversation with the woman who gave birth to him without it eventually reaching the ears of his siblings.

He asks Leonard: "Leonard, how did you determine that you wanted to be a physicist?"

"This isn't one of those things where I end up locked in a room with a bunch of white mice, is it?"

"Don't be absurd," Sheldon says. "You know that your ex-girlfriend modified the roommate agreement to include the cessation of all human experimentation. It goes against my ethical code now anyway."

"Yeah, I'm still not sure that's going to stick," Leonard says, but he settles back in his chair gamely. "How did I know I wanted to be a physicist...I don't know, I guess it was because of a science fair project I did in fifth grade. My mom pushed me into academics, you know, but I was always gifted at math and I had a teacher who encouraged me to put together a project on photons."

"Did you win?"

Leonard laughs. "No, Sheldon, but I had fun doing it. That was the point."

"Then why physics? Why not mathematics, or physical chemistry?"

"I don't know, I just liked physics. I was planning to go into optics, but I stood in the wrong line at registration and experimental stuck." He swallows a piece of cashew chicken without chewing more than thrice. "How did you decide on physics?"

"If I knew I would hardly be asking, would I?" Sheldon bites back, exasperated not with Leonard but with the machinations of desire. I decided—it felt right—I just knew—

"I guess not," Leonard says. "Well, you'll figure it out. Just don't put diodes in your brain if you get stuck, all right?"

"As though I would damage my cranial cavity," Sheldon says, but he allows Leonard to pick which vintage game they play that night. Leonard seems to take it as the apology it is, because he lets Sheldon have the first player controller.

Only after they massacre their way through all five deathmatch modes in GoldenEye 007 does it occur to Sheldon to ask, "Leonard?"

"What?"

"Have you ever wanted anything other than to be a physicist?"

Leonard finishes wrapping the orange controller's wire before he answers. "Kind of a lot of things, Sheldon, that's what normal people do. I want that promotion, I want to try out the new Souplantation menu, I want—"

"I'm not talking about petty, everyday matters," Sheldon interrupts. "Have you ever had any other ambitions?"

"Oh," Leonard says, "this is the life goals talk. I know this one."

Sheldon favors him with a look of flat unamusement.

"I wanted to get married and have kids," Leonard says.

"Yes, but how did you know you wanted that?"

"Again, Sheldon, it's what normal people do."

"Well, that's unhelpful," Sheldon says. "Are you indicative of the rest of the sample, or are you an outlier?"

"People don't work like that," Leonard says.

"It would simplify my life a great deal if they did," Sheldon counters, and turns off the television.

 

-

 

Too many variables. What if Penny doesn't reciprocate? What if she does, and she's no good for him? What if he's no good for her? What if they come together only to fall apart like a thousand others before them?

He interrogates her one afternoon when they go together to collect Amy's latest monthly care package from Saudi Arabia, and is meticulous to phrase his questions as generally as possible.

"Penny, what do you want?"

"For those stupid guys to call me back about my carpet," she says promptly. "They told me they'd honor my coupon even though it's expired, right? But I haven't heard from them for two weeks even though I'm supposed to let them in tomorrow and I won't even be home."

He frowns as she locks her door. "Have you thought about renting a carpet steamer?"

"Would that be cheaper?" Penny says. "Because the coupon deal was pretty good, but I guess if they aren't going to call me back to reschedule..."

"I can let them in," he offers.

She tilts her head back to grin at him from her lower vantage point on the stairs. "Aw, sweetie, you don't mind? I have a meeting with the caterer for the wedding."

"I have your spare key, and I'm available," Sheldon says. "Can you couch your answer in broader terms and provide supporting detail? For instance, 'I wanted to become Science Officer because of the resources and opportunity for personal advancement.'"

"Geez, I don't know. I wanted to become a shoe saleslady because...I like to talk to people about shoes? The pay at the boutique is a lot better than it was at the Cheesecake Factory, that's for sure."

Sheldon folds himself onto a step and clasps his hands between his knees—FedEx won't arrive for another seven minutes, but he and Penny have fallen into a habit of waiting together.

"How did you know you wanted to marry Leonard?"

Penny seems surprised (he recognizes her expression from the first time he gave her a birthday gift) and something else, something that makes her curl up on her side of the stair and cradle her arms against herself. "I...he asked. And I'm not getting any younger," she says, and laughs.

"That doesn't explain why you resumed a relationship years after decided you were better off as friends," Sheldon points out.

Penny pulls her braid over her shoulder and starts to pick at the end. "I'm not sure I can really explain it, Sheldon. I wanted something good, and Leonard loves me. It isn't rocket science."

"Rocket science is easy. The totality of the human experience is something that still eludes me."

"You don't have to worry about the totality of all humans everywhere," Penny says. "Just worry about the totality of your experience, and you'll get there."

Sheldon watches her fidget for a moment, examines the way her hair falls loose around her face no matter how tightly she braids it and how her collarbones protrude more than they once did. He'll have to start feeding her high-calorie foods if he wants to ask her to play Wonder Woman at Comic-Con next year.

"How did you know you wanted to be an actress?" he startles them both by asking.

"Oh, I don't—well, I do," she says. "It started out as a thing to say because I didn't have anything else. You know how in high school people always ask you what your job plans are? Or maybe you don't, but anyway, all my friends had career plans and I had zilch, so I picked actress." She shrugs and her hands fall to her lap, but her face starts to light up from within. "We had to read a ton of plays in my English class, and I used to practice them out loud and read to the cat or whatever, and then one day I decided to audition for a community play—"

"Which play?"

"The Mouse That Roared," she says. "It was stupid, it was...actually, it was awesome. The script was from the fifties or sixties, one of those based on a movie based on a book things, but we brought down the house. My family sent a bouquet of dahlias backstage opening night"—her smile turns private—"and I pressed them in my mom's old dictionary. I still have them."

"You loved it."

"Yeah," she says, and scrubs her palms against her thighs. "Yeah. No feeling like it in the world."

Sheldon wants to ask why she gave that up to work in a shoe shop, but he recognizes that doing so would be verging on cruel.

"So," Penny says, after a long series of deep breaths. "What do you think Princess Amy sent us these week?"

"I hope it isn't anything made of camel hair," Sheldon says fervently, and Penny laughs and laughs until her breath hitches and her eyes water.

 

-

 

The days slide by and Sheldon becomes, paradoxically, less certain of a favorable outcome and yet more determined to approach Penny. She and Leonard are consumed by their nuptials to the point that Sheldon walks to work more often than he doesn't. He grows obsessed; he reads about oxytocin and dopamine and mammalian biological drives. He starts to wonder if Penny is truly framling—he has never before classified anyone as both of his species and of his culture, although Amy comes to closest to utlanning—he wonders if she isn't ramen.

He wonders if she isn't varelse.

Surely as his understanding of her deepens she should move up the hierarchy of foreignness, not down it, but if she is varelse and communication is impossible—

She isn't varelse. She knows where his spot is.

Idiotic, to fall back on fictional concepts from a fictional world. The problem is one of communication; Sheldon may not understand his wants, but he can at least communicate his doubts. Instead he asks Leonard: "Do you think Penny is utlanning?"

Leonard laughs at him.

In a huff, Sheldon retreats to his spot (not so Penny can locate him) and begins to reorder his Netflix queue. At present he has one-hundred thirty-three items saved, carefully organized by genre and then title.

After he organizes the list alphabetically and then unintentionally starts watching his favorite two-part episode of The Next Generation on his laptop, Penny does find him. She has a garment, a long-sleeved cotton shirt in blue and gray, but she waits until Data meets the 19th-century version of Guinan to give it to him.

"Look at what I found!" she says. "You're always having trouble finding shirts with long enough sleeves, and I overheard this woman and her son at the mall and got the name of the place where they shop." She measures the length against his arm. "Am I good or am I good? Perfect fit."

"Thank you," Sheldon says.

"No problem. I figured I still owe you back for helping me clean up after that pack of girls tore apart the store last month." Penny folds the shirt and then draws her knees up. "So this is the one with Mark Twain, right?"

And Sheldon knows: Penny isn't ramen. She certainly isn't varelse. Penny isn't a stranger at all.

 

-

 

Leonard doesn't ask Sheldon to be his best man. Sheldon hadn't expected that he would, but Penny seems offended on his behalf. She explains to him half a dozen times that they want a small wedding party so her sisters don't get jealous, and that Leonard already asked his brother. Sheldon is relieved. He doesn't want to be Leonard's best man; he aches to say that he doesn't want anything of Leonard's at all.

This argument is the last Penny and Leonard have over the wedding. Sheldon absents himself as much as he can during the day, but the walls are thin and he can hardly force himself to switch off at night like an android. The NSF project helps. Neil deGrasse Tyson will be hosting, of course; the man's been making noises about retiring for years, but nobody believes a word of it, not that they would after the Pluto debacle.

He feels skinless and vulnerable when Penny walks into a room, when she speaks, when she so much as looks at him. Does she really not know? He feels obvious; he feels like his skull has broken open and spilled his thoughts out on the floor.

In the midst of all this, the building supervisor finally begins repairs on the elevator.

"I don't believe it," Raj says when he hears the news. "It's some kind of sign. Ooh, maybe it's a karmic blessing on Leonard and Penny's wedding."

"I prefer to think it has something to do with my cumulative one-hundred eighty-eight written and verbal complaints," Sheldon says. They're standing in the corner between their offices; Rajesh has his own now, out the door and immediately right from where Sheldon works. They still collaborate, sometimes.

"It's been eleven years, man, I don't think you had anything to do with it," Raj says, and then tells Sheldon that Howard and Bernadette will be flying in from Pennsylvania over the holidays. Sheldon ignores him, too concerned that he flinches outwardly at the mention of the wedding to listen.

When he gets home, he writes Amy to ask for recommendations on studies of human mating rituals. He tries re-reading some of Beverly Hofstadter's papers, but finds no further respite in her dry analysis.

"God, I'm bored," Penny says, and he starts. "I have about a thousand things I should be doing and zero motivation to actually do any of them."

He turns around. She's slumped in his seat on the couch, an agreement he finds acceptable only so long as she cedes the space to him when he wants it.

"It is Anything-Can-Happen Thursday," Sheldon says.

"What, does that mean I can blow the rest of the night off?"

"That depends on what you intend to do instead."

She glances out the window. "There's still a few hours of daylight left. We could go somewhere."

Red light red light red light. "I have a new kite," his mouth says without his permission.

"Kites, huh? It is kind of windy out."

This is a bad idea—no, this is an idea on parallel with building the Death Star with a fatally exposed thermal exhaust port.

So of course Sheldon says: "Let me get my jacket."

"I'll drive!" Penny says, and then they have to have the standard squabble about which park to visit. Sheldon likes Defenders Park on principle, Penny likes Central Park for its size; they manage to keep the argument going until she pulls into La Pintoresca at the corner of Fair Oaks and Washington.

"Good compromise?"

"Acceptable," Sheldon allows, and begins unpacking the kites from the trunk.

"That isn't a fighting kite," Penny says.

"No, this is a box kite." He's pleased that she notices.

"Does that thing even fly?"

"Does it fly—does a quasar show a redshift? Does three represent a prime number?"

"Did Stephen Colbert run for president?" At his quizzical frown, she says, "That means yes, Sheldon."

"Ah," he says. "Then yes. Actually, most altitude records were set by box kites. I ordered this one from Kitty Hawk Kites in North Carolina. And for you," he adds, "I have..."

"A dragon kite!" Penny says, and claps her hands together like a small child. "You remembered!"

"You haven't stopped talking about it since we drove up to the Berkeley Kite Festival last year, and I do have an eidetic memory," Sheldon says.

"Really? I had no idea," she says, with the sort of fake innocence she wields every time the milk goes missing from his refrigerator.

At that, Sheldon snorts and begins unwinding his string. He estimates the wind at about seventeen knots—good for his box kite, better for her lighter-weight dragon kite.

Penny insists on kicking her shoes off despite Sheldon's better advice; and as he watches her charge across the field to rescue her kite from an inconveniently positioned streetlight, she seems strangely dear to him. Wonderful and exasperating and unfathomable and dear.

 

-

 

Which is why this distraction cannot continue, clearly.

Sheldon understands the need for outlets—even Planck has his mountaineering—but deeper entanglements are an impediment to the rational mind, grit in the fine cogs and gears that make up the scientist's greatest instrument. Suppose he and she became they; that could entail thousands of hours of lost work, children instead of grants, anniversaries instead of breakthroughs. He has been more concerned with posterity of late, but that's no reason to diminish already unfavorable odds.

He throws out the journals of psychology and neurobiology that have been accumulating on his bookshelf and replaces them with copies of his best published papers. There: tangible, tactile success. Satisfaction is something he should be able to quantify in page numbers and plaques.

The elevator repairs conclude just after the turn of the new year, and Sheldon is gratified the first morning he steps into the lobby without having to traipse down four flights of stairs. He briefly considers a return to the bus system—but no, he's grown accustomed to the walks. Some mornings he even indulges himself by passing in front of the house that reminds him of Meemaw's, the one that still hasn't sold.

This semester he's teaching an introductory undergraduate section—less grudgingly than in previous years, even—and he's started waking up early to grade his papers before breakfast. It's difficult to despair for the future of science on an empty stomach. Mornings are now: grading over a cup of tea, breakfast, ablutions, and a ride from the fourth to the ground floor. Once in a while he hums selections from his favorite musicals while he waits for the elevator.

Penny tries to corner him daily. He can't imagine why.

"Sheldon! Morning!" she calls.

"Good morning," he says, and is unsurprised when she uses her foot to block the telescopic doors from closing.

"Penny, you're going to make me late."

"No I'm not," she says as though she has any idea of what his schedule is or how to keep it. He holds this up to himself as proof; she's a delay, perhaps even an obstacle.

Nevertheless, when she steps back and the doors start to close, he presses the OPEN DOOR button.

"Leonard's been trying to get hold of you, so I though I'd—"

"I'm aware," he says.

"Oh. Okay, well, maybe we could talk now." She tries to fit herself through just as the doors start to close again; Sheldon drags her forward, her elbow cradled in his hand.

"Whoo! Thanks."

"It was nothing," he says, letting go of her. She's wearing her Hello Kitty shorts and an old Cornhuskers shirt, threadbare at the collar. Her legs and feet are...disturbingly exposed.

"Do you never wear shoes?" Sheldon demands.

"Only to sleep in."

This situation is rapidly slipping out of his control.

"Listen, what Leonard wanted to ask you is—do you want to, um. Be an usher."

"An usher."

"At the...you know."

"Wedding."

She looks down at her feet—her toes are painted cornflower blue, a color his mother would've found inappropriate. "Yeah. At that."

"You've booked a venue?"

"Leonard has us scheduled at the Vibiana. It's a nice location."

"I'm sure," Sheldon says. They study her toes together as the elevator thumps from the second floor to the first. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not."

"Say what?"

"I would prefer to have no part in your wedding ceremony." He hesitates, weighs the sentence on his tongue, and clears his throat. "That is—social situations are hardly my preferred milieau."

"Tell me about it," she says. The elevator shudders to a halt; the door slides open. He'll have to have a word with the building manager, since whoever made the repairs did a substandard job.

"I'm on my way to pick up some coffee," Penny says. "Can I give you a ride to work?"

"I'd rather walk," says Sheldon.

 

-

 

This fascination is chemistry, hard-wired evolution. She puts out pheromones through her lacrimal glands and he can't help but react. It's a simple causal chain, a fail-proof that ensures the survival of the species, nothing more. Similar reactions are responsible for every physiological response—for instance, his breath is short because the anxiety of speaking in front of a camera triggers his body to ready itself for a threat.

"Dr. Cooper?" The woman who shepherded him to his seat and pinned a microphone to his lapel snaps her fingers. "Dr. Cooper, are you okay?"

"Okay? Am I okay?" He wants to tell her that he isn't merely okay, that he's brilliant and renowned and the most important person she'll ever meet, but the words get caught behind his teeth. Peculiar.

"Water?" he manages.

"Sure thing." She pours him a glass from the pitcher on the sideboard. "You know, I saw you give that presentation on magnetic monopoles a few years ago. It was impressive."

He sips at the water.

"You seem different now. Never thought you'd get involved in all the"—she waves a hand—"PBS side of things."

"I reconsidered my priorities."

"Yeah?" she says. "I hear you're on the short list for the Wolf Prize." She takes the empty glass from him and looks about to bustle away when Sheldon blurts: "I dislike public speaking."

"Oh, hon," she says, and sits down in the chair across from him. "I can tell. You'll do fine, though. You gave the monopole speech in front of four hundred bodies, and look, not a person in this room right now except for you and me."

"And the camera."

"And the camera, but between the two of us, the camera isn't smart enough to operate a can opener. Why don't you tell me a little about yourself? You're at Caltech, right?"

"Yes," Sheldon says.

"How'd you get roped into this?"

"I was a research consultant," he says. "I...will you pour me another glass of water?"

"Nope," she says, "because then you're gonna need to go to the bathroom. You just decided to let them interview you?"

"Carl Sagan."

"Ahh, you're one of those. What did he say that got to you?"

Sheldon flashes back to a trailer in 1986—the series was on rerun, obviously, as it had first aired the same year he'd been born—and a television with foil-wrapped rabbit ears. Missy had been trying to change the channel to She-Ra.

"'The sky calls to us,'" he quotes. "'If we do not destroy ourselves, we will one day venture to the stars.'"

"You're one of those, all right. So who do you have waiting to watch on the other end?"

"My mother," Sheldon says immediately.

"Anyone else?"

"My colleagues. My...neighbor."

"Neighbor? Is she pretty?"

"She's"—what was Penny? Frustrating, stubborn, constant, provocative—"luminous."

"Wow. You've got it bad."

"It's a basic mammalian drive," he says. "Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine. Anything more is a meaningless social construction. I believe my mind was attempting to safeguard itself by selecting an unattainable object of desire."

"Uh-huh," the woman says. "Maybe you ought to stick to deep breathing, hon. You've got the technobabble down just fine."

"If I pass out, please call an ambulance," Sheldon advises.

 

-

 

He survives the interview but feels as though he's rapidly losing the war. The suspicion that he isn't suited for Penny burrows into his dreams; it's contrary to all intuition, certainly contrary to the esteem in which he holds himself, and yet he starts to accept that suspicion as true. After all, Penny is marrying Leonard because he is able to give her what she doesn't have: declarations, stability, security. A family. Sheldon is incapable of showering less than twice a day. He functions on elaborate cycles of repression.

He brews himself a cup of herbal tea. (Is the hot beverage to be his sole consolation in a collapsing world? If he'd known, he would have laid in supplies for cocoa.)

"Sheldon?"

"Leonard. Would you like a cup of tea?"

"No, but thanks. I actually wanted to talk with you about a few things. Living arrangement things," he adds.

"Will this require a notary?"

"I honestly have no idea," Leonard says.

"Very well. I see you've brought your copy of the roommate agreement, well done." He throws out his teabag and carries his mug over to the coffee table.

"You probably know that I'm going to be living with Penny, and—this is my four weeks' notice," Leonard says. "I submitted an email earlier, but I thought you might appreciate a discussion about it."

"I received your notice," Sheldon says, calm as can be. This is business. "The lease is up for renewal soon."

"I figured I'd be the one to move out. There's no way you need me to help with rent any more, and you seem to have a plan for getting yourself to work now. We've had a good run, haven't we?"

They have, Sheldon agrees; he doesn't wish to tear this friendship apart for the sake of a hypothetical. Their run has been long and true, and if—

"Actually," he says, "I'll be moving out next month.

"You...what?"

"I'm making a down payment on a house closer to campus," Sheldon says. "If you and Penny would like to move into our larger apartment, you're welcome."

"Whoa. You're serious about this, aren't you?"

"It's far more convenient, and real estate is a wise investment." Sheldon shifts uncomfortably and reaches for his mug; his tea isn't cool enough to drink. "May I ask a question in return?"

"Like I could stop you," Leonard says, and Sheldon's lips quirk.

"Perhaps not. The question is this: Why are you marrying Penny?"

"Because I love her," Leonard says. "And because I want someone to love me."

"...Interesting," Sheldon says.

"Please don't put that in a flowchart."

"No. I don't think I will."

Leonard traces the cover of the roommate agreement; when he reaches the lion, rampant on its azure field, he smiles.

"Thank you," he says. "We haven't been able to decide where we want to live, and her apartment's cramped. It'll be nice to not have to worry about it."

"This serves my purposes," Sheldon says. He feels like he's sitting on a cushion of nettles; maybe he's having an allergic reaction to the tea.

 

-

 

Carl Sagan also said: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and Sheldon has no such evidence. He knows that Leonard loves Penny (a distressingly relatable sentiment) but not how; he knows Penny accepted Leonard, but not why. Sheldon Cooper has ten thousand words dammed up inside and not a single sentence articulate enough to express the most elementary of ideas.

He starts sleeping less as his moving day approaches—anxiety over leaving familiar surroundings, he convinces himself. At least his work isn't suffering.

Penny slips into the apartment late one night and finds him watching Tron. They're both in their pajamas, or what passes for appropriate pajamas in Penny's world. She curls up next to him, her face lit only by the diffuse glow of the television.

"You've seemed a little lost lately," she finally says.

Sheldon lowers the volume but doesn't mute the sound completely. "I don't understand what you mean."

She blinks, bites her lip; her jaw tenses. "If you don't want to talk—"

"Have you ever heard of an ansible?"

"A what?"

"An ansible," he explains. "In fiction, it's a device that allows superluminal communication—communication that exceeds the speed of light. Even in a universe where FTL travel is impossible, authors invent harmonic crystals or elementary particles or wormholes that let their characters speak across galaxies."

"Sheldon?"

"Yes?"

"I don't understand what you mean."

He's tried and failed to explain so many things to her; the nameless seed flourishing in his chest and choking off his throat is only one more.

"It isn't important," he says.

 

-

 

He wants to ask her: Why did you say yes? Do you think so little of yourself, or of me? Why would you sacrifice your autonomy, do you have any idea how much I—

He wants to ask her why Sue Storm loves Reed Richards. Mr. Fantastic is a miserable, blind, arrogant recluse with the interpersonal skills of a water buffalo, and yet the Invisible Woman—who can outfight Wolverine—seems wholly devoted to him despite these flaws. He wants to ask her if she moved here to get married, he wants to ask why she permits herself to be less instead of more, he wants to ask if she understands how angry that makes him. He wants to know if she is really so spineless—

He wants to tell her that he could love her, that he could challenge her, that he believes he could make her happy. He wants to tell her that she makes him want to be better than he is. He wants to tell her that she has another choice—no, that she has an infinite suite of choices. He wants to tell her about the birth of the universe and the death of stars, and he wants to know how she learned to ride a horse and why she owns three Hillary Clinton shirts and the reason she ran away to California. He wants to know her passions; he wants to ask if she'd rather have two children or three, and if she considers 'Hypatia' a suitable name for a girl.

He wants her—illogically, unimaginably, without either hope or reason. He wants her, but he can no more speak to her than he can will his feet off the ground and fly away.

He arranges to send her a bouquet of dahlias the day of her rehearsal dinner. Perhaps she'll appreciate the gesture.

 

-

 

Penny's mother insists she try on her gown before the rehearsal; Sheldon does his best to avoid her, but she manages to catch him before she changes anyway. The dress is a creampuff concoction of lace and pearls. He wonders if she actually likes it, or if she's wearing it to humor her family. He has no opinion on it himself, but it doesn't seem like something Penny would choose.

Also against his better wishes, he finds himself packed into a rental car with Howard, Bernadette, and Raj on the way to the Hofstadter rehearsal dinner. Bernadette and Raj keep up a constant stream of chatter about persons unknown to Sheldon—a Lynette Scavo and a Susan Mayer. Sheldon concentrates on not flinching every time Howard accelerates over a speed bump. Bernadette forced him to wear his ugly suit, another cause for unhappiness.

The dining room is loud and Sheldon is unfamiliar with the menu; he picks at what the waiters bring him, hoping it won't play havoc with his gastrointestinal system, and lets thirty distinct conversations wash over him.

"Oh no, I could never live here, there's only—"

"—Just the salt, Richard, I've told you a thousand times I hate pepper—"

"—Excited to see her in the dress. They make such a handsome—"

"—Seems really stressed—"

"The armor is their soul, that's why polar bears don't have—"

"—Fascinating comparative paper on kinship in—"

A high, glassy chime cuts through the din; Penny's father is rapping on his wine glass with a fork. Time for the traditional toast, Sheldon assumes. He's rather disappointed that there are no pieces of spiced bread to float in his beverage.

Penny's father opens his mouth, and Sheldon—

He always assumed that the net magnetic charge of his and Penny's strange, closed little friendship was zero, but the slow realization that perhaps there is a sum charge has crept up and lambasted him upside the head. If Sheldon is a magnetic monopole (+) and Penny is a magnetic monopole (+), then it's astonishing they can stand next to one another without being forced to opposite ends of the room.

Deliberately, Sheldon refolds his linen napkin and places it to the left of his fork; when he stands and walks from the room, no one follows.

The sky is almost suffocatingly near in the thick summer air. In Texas, his mother will be carving a roast for distribution to a room of women with as many grandchildren as knitting needles; his sister will be almost certainly be orchestrating the solution to some minor customer service catastrophe. Sheldon could fit himself into that life. He could move back to Texas and teach high school science and help his mother tend his father's grave, as she does every Sunday, as she will do until her death—an odd sign of devotion in a woman who hid her smoking habit from her husband for twenty-seven years.

Despite the light pollution, he can pick out Sagittarius low on the horizon.

The sensible thing at this time of night, in this part of the city, would be to hail a cab. The sensible thing would be to return to his house, brush his teeth, void his bowels, go to sleep and wake up and behave logically and go to sleep and wake up again.

Sheldon starts walking south, for want of a better direction.