The first night the boys were home, their flight arrived at four in the morning. Penny offered to pick them up from the airport, but was secretly relieved when Leonard told her there was no way they'd fit in the car with all of their luggage. She slept through their five am return to their apartment, but left a welcome home note in Sheldon's spot on the couch so they'd definitely see it.
It was absolutely an awful, horrible coincidence that she had a morning full of auditions followed by a double shift at the Cheesecake Factory and wouldn't see them until that night. At least, that was what she told herself.
On the second night, they'd already fallen into their previous habits, by default or Sheldon's demand she wasn't sure, and at exactly 6:30 Sheldon triple knocked on Penny's door to remind her it was Thai night.
The familiar knock caused warmth to spread through her, but it did nothing for the nervousness she felt. She opened the door and smiled.
She didn't know what she was expecting, but Sheldon hadn't changed. Maybe his hair was a little longer and his skin was a little paler than it ought to have been right at the end of summer, but he stood there just like he had so many times before.
It wasn't her fault, really, that she hugged him.
The third morning they passed awkwardly in the hall. The night before she'd jumped back after she felt him tense up when she hugged him, but not before she felt electricity run through her skin. She didn't want to think about what it could mean.
Sheldon had uttered a perfunctory and flustered invitation to Thai night, and she'd accepted. The night was strained, but she told herself that it was just the long absence.
Sheldon uttered a hello in the hallway as he returned from work and she was leaving for an audition. She forced a smile and waved, but moved past him as fast as she could. She didn't like this feeling of confusion wrapped in nervousness wrapped in...
...nope, she wouldn't even think it.
By the second Thai night after they'd returned home, everything seemed back to normal. They were joking and sparring and everyone had fallen into their old roles. She even caught Leonard mooning over her yet ignoring it again.
Sheldon sat in his place and she sat across from him and she was able to smile, really smile, at the fact that they were all back. She finished her dinner and ate her fortune cookie and watched as they played Secret Agent Chess, all the while feeling better than she had in ages.
Two hours after she left, Sheldon knocked his peculiar knock on her door.
"Did I forget something?" she asked, staring at him through the doorway.
He was fidgeting, something he almost never did. He looked nervous and excited and she couldn't quite place it- but perhaps even embarrassed? "May I come in? I have something I wish to discuss with you in private."
Penny shrugged. "Sure." She stepped aside, letting him in. "Anything wrong?"
He didn't answer, just paced back and forth as she closed the door. When he turned to her, she thought she saw tenderness in his eyes. "Penny, I slept with you every night in the arctic."
"Huh?" she asked, stunned, her heart skipping a beat in her chest.
He stepped forward, shaking his head. "Excuse my poorly worded declaration. I don't know the best way to express all I wish to say. Your video- I watched and listened to it every night from the night you sent it. I wasn't sleeping very well, and your video…"
He seemed to run out of words, so Penny stepped toward him smiling and trying to hide the pounding in her chest. "I'm glad it could help, Sheldon. I was really worried about you."
He took a step toward her, closing the gap between them further even though he focused on his clasped hands. "I did not anticipate how deeply the change in routine would affect me in combination with the stress of the experiment and the living situation. Your video, your voice seemed to have an uncanny calming effect." He looked at her with bright, piercing eyes full of sincerity. "Quite frankly, I do not know what I would have done without it." He shuffled closer, his normally hidden emotions so profound in his eyes that Penny could not look away. "Thank you."
When he hugged her, she couldn't breathe. When he left, she couldn't speak. That night, she couldn't sleep.
The next morning, Penny admitted to herself that somewhere, somehow, she'd started to have feelings that went beyond simple friendship for Sheldon. Just exactly what those were or when they started she wasn't sure.
She lay back in bed and closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and gave herself the test that she'd used from high school onward whenever she considered a guy she liked: could she see herself kissing him? In her mind she pictured Sheldon, and she tried to imagine kissing him. She imagined it so many ways: he was unschooled, he was surprisingly good at it, he was revolted, he was overly excited… and yet, in no scenario did she find that she wanted anything other than to kiss him.
So she moved on to the next test- would she sleep with him?
The answer was a resounding 'yes.' She jumped out of bed as fast as she could, vaulting away from the jolt that the thought sent through her body. She tried to switch gears, find something else to think about- but every time she started to find a rhythm in something new she heard his voice in her head...
I slept with you every night in the arctic.
… and finally she let the fantasy take over- igloo, polar bear skin rug, and a lanky scientist.
On Tuesday she screwed up his order: his burger came out with the bacon and cheese on it and medium instead of well done. He held the plate out to her, perplexed. Howard, Raj and Leonard all stared. She reached out and took the plate sheepishly, trying to ignore the soft feel of his skin as her fingers brushed his.
"Are you ok, Penny?" he asked sincerely. "You never get my order wrong."
She nodded, embarrassed and upset with herself. "Fine. New cook. Bet he didn't realize his mistake…" She made her excuses and walked away just before her face went completely red. Maybe she would have remembered to put his order in correctly if she hadn't been day dreaming about him eating bacon off of her naked body, barbeque sauce and cheese on the side.
After another week of absent-minded behavior, Leonard showed up at her apartment, worried.
"You're just not yourself lately," he said, sitting on her couch and looking for all the world like a good, concerned friend should look. "It's got us all worried."
"All?" she asked, the teenage girl inside her doing flips at the thought of Sheldon being worried about her.
Leonard's brow knit closer together, but he continued. "Yeah, 'all.' As in me, Howard, Raj and Sheldon. I mean, you screwed up his order at The Cheesecake Factory two weeks in a row, he's worried that something's really wrong. He's even prepared a letter of recommendation for you as a character reference if you lose your job due to 'poor service,' and believe me, Sheldon wouldn't do that for just anyone."
Penny smiled tightly at Leonard, trying to hide the warmth she felt spreading through her. “I'm fine, Leonard.”
And for the first time since they came home, she really thought she was.
She found reasons to sit closer to Sheldon on Halo night and Thai night, reasons to touch him when they were talking, reasons to flirt and reasons to smile at him more. If he'd been any other guy, she'd have already had him in bed.
He was Sheldon, so they'd gone no farther than a longer than average discussion about the viability of a Wonder Woman feature film. It was slightly disappointing, even if Sheldon had stated categorically that she would make a great Amazonian.
She stared at her ceiling at night wondering what she could do, short of hitting him over the head with a frying pan, to make Sheldon understand that she was interested in him.
“Penny, what are you doing?”
Leonard's question rolled around in her head after another unsuccessful evening of flirting.
“I'm...” She hadn't come up with a great response, or even a good one. Instead, she stared at him.
“Ok, just... don't expect too much. I don't want you to get hurt.” Leonard walked away from her, shaking his head. Sheldon wouldn't hurt anyone on purpose- how could he hurt her?
He could hurt her, she found. He could hurt her more deeply than she ever thought. She was standing outside their open apartment door- they were expecting her and had left it open a crack. Leonard's voice was pleading, like they were deep in conversation, so she listened quietly outside the jamb. It was categorically not eavesdropping- just... listening.
“Sheldon- I'm just asking a question.” Leonard sighed.
She could almost hear Sheldon roll his eyes. “What I don't understand is why it concerns you.”
“I'm your friend- and it's not something we really discuss. I'd... like to know.”
“If you must know-”
“I could never love another human being like I love physics. Science is the ultimate companion, the highest form of courtesan. The human emotion of love could simply never compare. Besides, engaging in a relationship of any sort would likely derail my quest for the Nobel Prize due to another demand on my time and energy.”
“So you're telling me you'd choose science over a woman?”
“Undoubtedly. It's my life's work, Leonard, I will not abandon it.” She looked through the crack, saw Sheldon faced away from her, hovering over the sink, but caught Leonard's eye. “Does that satisfy your curiosity?”
Yes, Penny thought sadly, More than you'll ever know.
“Yeah,” Leonard said stiffly before mouthing “I'm sorry,” to her. She turned and fled, cowardly.
Behind her she heard Sheldon's fading tones, “Is Penny planning on getting here before the pizza gets cold?”
Apparently, Sheldon missed all of her signs, and none of what she thought she saw in him: the slightly more frequent smiles, the concessions to her schedule on occasion, the concern for her job security, the listening to her every night in the arctic and the continued closer friendship since then, none of that changed how he saw her.
Leonard knew that, and could find no better way to tell her. She'd been set up. Then again, it was her fault that she'd be listening.
Penny made excuses for pizza night (she had a touch of the flu) and Thai Night (still not feeling great) and Halo night (she said she picked up an extra shift, but ended up seeing a movie by herself in her uniform). She didn't talk to Leonard except for the occasional grunt when they passed in the hallway, and desperately hid her state of mind from Sheldon, answering his inquiring questions about her health and her work schedule politely but quickly.
She cleaned her apartment while she was avoiding classic video game Friday, throwing out the scrap pieces of paper that she found with doodled hearts and the lyrics to Soft Kitty, cursing herself for letting this happen in the first place, for falling so hard for someone she knew was never going to feel that way about her. What was she thinking?
The next Thai Night she made her excuses again, but this time she went out with her friend Maureen from work. She put on a tight dress and make-up and did her hair and went to a bar where all the men looked at her like she was a piece of meat and had nothing more to talk about beyond poor pick-up lines and sports teams.
Penny played with the straw in her drink and wondered when scientific chatter became more appealing to her than pick-up lines, when she started to value brains over brawn.
Maureen didn't go home alone. Penny did.
“Penny?” Sheldon called her name racing down the stairs behind her. “Penny!”
She forced a smile on her face as she stalled on the stairs. “I'm gonna be late for work, Sheldon.” She hadn't seen him all week. She thought she finally had her feelings under control, but realized she didn't when she saw the worried look on his face.
His hands gripped his messenger bag tightly as he spoke. “I've barely seen you all week. I'm worried about you.”
Her heart skipped a beat. She felt like she was in middle school, waiting for the popular boy to notice her. He didn't though, he was just talking to her because she was there, or wasn't there as was the case lately. “I'm fine, Sheldon.” She ran down the stairs. “I have to go.”
“Penny!” He called after her, but didn't follow. Yup, she mused as she slipped into her car, just like when she was a teenager: some stupid crush that she blew out of proportion. Just because he was so much more real than any of her previous boyfriends, just because she could see him building a life with her instead of just a few months of great sex, didn't mean she was allowed to make-up some crazy future for them, didn't give her the right to want it more than anything.
She sighed, it just made her delusional. Near crazy. Especially since she knew, knew, he could never love her back.
She took a deep, shuddering breath and turned over the engine of her car. A double-shift at the Cheesecake Factory wouldn't make it better, but it would keep her from running into him again today, and until she sorted out her emotions that would have to do.
The next evening Penny rolled over, squirming in bed. Her hair was disheveled, her eyes puffy, her heart broken. She'd given up, called in sick, and decided to wallow in all of the emotion that had threatened to drown her for a while. Hiding it, obviously, had not helped.
A knock sounded three times. "Penny?" And another three. "Penny?" And for good measure three more. "Penny?" She hadn't moved from bed all day other than to take a call from her agent (another great audition, but they just didn't think you were right for the part...) and to go to the bathroom. She definitely wasn't going to get up to answer the door.
When she didn't answer and he didn't knock again, she thought he'd left. It made her stomach drop, the thought of him leaving, but she rolled over again, twisting in the blankets and chastising herself for being so stupid. When had she become so weak, so sad?
His voice startled her. “Penny, if you don't open the door, I'm using my emergency key to come in.” She sat up, wondering if she's really heard what she thought she did, or if it was her demented imagination. When she heard the key in the lock, she knew she hadn't imagined it.
Penny jumped up, trying to get out of bed but failing miserably, falling to the floor in a twisted heap with her blankets tangled around her legs. She cried out, and Sheldon was at her side almost immediately.
“Penny, have you injured yourself?” he asked, his hands hovering over her, unsure of what to do.
“Only my pride,” she mumbled as she pushed herself up, untangling her legs carefully without making eye contact with Sheldon. Her hair was a mess, she was still in her sleep shorts and tank top... she probably even still had morning breath.
“Penny, you weren't at the Cheesecake Factory tonight, the waitress who took our order said you called in sick.” She hadn't even remembered it was cheeseburger night, she thought idly as she finally extracted herself from the blankets. “Are you ill?”
She moved to stand and Sheldon held out his hands, helping her up. Penny sighed, rubbing her hands over her face. “I- uh- just...” she sighed. “I just fell out of bed, I'm fine.” She turned away, stepping over the blankets and away from Sheldon to her bathroom, closing the door on him. She ran the cold water and splashed it over her face, then tried in vain to tame her hair.
“Penny, a fall from even the minimal height of your bed can have catastrophic consequences. Have you been on the floor all day?” His tone of concern tugged at her heart. He was not making this easy on her, and yet he had no idea. “Penny- I'm very concerned about you.”
She swished mouthwash and spit it out, sadly taking in her appearance with a tired groan. Nothing to be done for it now. She opened the door and stepped out. “I appreciate it,” she told him, watching as he replaced her blanket and sheets, making her bed for her, “but I fell when you came in- you startled me.”
“And are you ill?” he asked, cringing but standing his ground. She was amazed that he was over here at all knowing how he felt about germs. Just another little thing that a week or so ago might have made her believe he had feelings for her. Now? It was just another little tug at her heart.
Penny stalked into the living room, pulling her ruffled robe from over the back of the chair and pulling it on forcefully. “Not really. I just needed a day off.” She wouldn't meet his eyes.
“You're lying.” he said categorically. “I've seen a change in you, Penny. I've been unable to find the reason, or understand what has happened, but I wish to help you, like you helped me.”
She huffed, plucking at the trim of her robe. “Sheldon, I don't need-”
“Please.” He stepped forward, his hands fisting at his sides like he was holding back from touching her. “Something's wrong. I know that I'm a poor judge of emotion and facial cues, but I do know that something is wrong. You helped me, Penny. Let me help you. What's wrong? Are you sick?”
Penny sighed, sitting on the arm of her couch. She might as well tell him. "I'm heart sick, Sheldon. Love sick. For a man that can never love me back," she explained tiredly. She looked up at him sadly, mimicking words he said to her not that long ago. "It's a kind of sick, right?"
He nodded reluctantly, thinking before he spoke again. "How do you know?" he asked softly.
"How do I know what?" Penny flopped her hands to her sides, wondering how long she could pretend to let him help without making herself more upset.
"That he can never love you back,” Sheldon replied evenly, his mouth pursing tightly as he shoved his hands into the pockets of his plaid pants.
The words fell out of her lips in a rush before she could catch them. "I heard you say it." She covered her mouth with her hands as quickly as she could, wishing she could pull the words back in, her eyes wide as the blood drained from her face.
"Me?" He stood defensively. "I have not discussed the love lives of anyone recently, least of all you. You know I abhor that kind of gossip! Why, I don't even think-" He began to pace back and forth, confusion and frustration written all over his face as he tried to figure out when he'd said something of that nature, knowing that he hadn't.
Penny stood, unable to listen to him defend himself when he didn't even realize what she'd just said. Maybe she'd feel better if she just got it out. All of it. He could tell her to her face that it was all just in her imagination, they could avoid one another for a while, and then maybe, eventually, move past it. She put her hand on his arm to stop his pacing and caught his gaze. "Sheldon, I heard you tell Leonard that you could never love anyone like you love physics, and that you'd always pick science over a girl. I overheard you talking about you, Sheldon."
The realization dawned slowly for him, despite his genius. The human condition was something he didn't understand, hadn't mastered and the thought processes took longer with words and emotions rather than letters and numbers. "Me? You love me?" he asked in a dumbfounded whisper, his hands falling helplessly at his sides.
She sighed, stepping back, picking at a stray thread on her robe instead of meeting his eyes. "I know, I'm sorry. I don't mean to."
He tilted his head, looking at her curiously. "And you think I don't love you back, so you've been upset. Sick over it, really." The realization was still dawning, she could hear it in his voice.
Tears threatened to fall. She couldn't believe how difficult this was. Penny tugged her robe tighter around her. "Yes, I'm sorry, I-"
"I can fix this," he interrupted assuredly, stepping closer to her.
Her hands tangled themselves in her hair, trying desperately to tame the mess as she avoided his eyes. "I don't think you can fix this with Soft Kitty, Sheldo-"
He kissed her, his name dying on lips that were suddenly pressed against his and then bereft and alone a second later. She blinked at him, waiting as he moved back, his hands still tucked at his sides.
"I could never love anyone like I love physics,” he began quietly, “And though I do not believe that I am ready to label my feelings just yet, I did not believe that I would ever come to feel or care for someone, anyone, quite like I feel for you, Penny. I'm sorry that I caused you pain.”
Penny blinked at him, her hands wringing in the cotton of her robe. “Wait- what?”
He stepped forward again, only a few inches separating them now as he closed the gap he'd created. “Over the course of time that I was in the arctic I began to realize that I valued your friendship much more than I ever believed. Absence, as they say, made my heart grow fonder. And though I despise cliches, it is true. I did not understand how I felt for you until you were no longer right across the hall. After I returned, I failed horribly at expressing my new emotions, but had hoped that maybe, based on your reactions those following weeks, maybe you shared in my desire to cultivate something more than a simple friendship.” His face inched closer. “Your recent behavior had me perplexed, but I believe I understand it now, and I'm sorry that my words caused you emotional pain that manifested physically.”
She looked up at him, her heart pounding in her chest. “Are you saying, Sheldon, that you like me as more than just a friend?” She didn't want to hope too much for his answer, couldn't quite process exactly what he was saying.
“Juvenile as it sounds, yes.” He nodded sharply. “Do you reciprocate those feelings?”
Yeah,” she whispered, smiling a bit. “Yeah, I do.”
He smiled slowly at her, and they stood there, smiling at each other in her living room for silly, uncountable seconds. “May I kiss you again?” he asked politely.
“Yeah, I'd like that.”
This time she moved first, closing her eyes and letting flesh meet flesh softly, only their lips touching as he leaned almost awkwardly over her. He pulled away after a moment, stepping back. “I'll go now. Perhaps I can return tomorrow and we can discuss the implications of what we've learned tonight when you're feeling a bit better.”
“Yeah,” she said quickly, clearing her throat as a new sensation settled in her stomach. “I actually haven't been sleeping much anyway, I'll probably just go to bed.” And dream, she thought, of that kiss, and how it felt, and of how it made her think if other things...
“I'm sorry that this has interrupted you sleep patterns, Penny.” Sheldon looked regretful and suddenly unsure as he interrupted her train of thought.
“It's ok, I'm pretty sure I'll get a good night's sleep tonight.” She smiled up to him, stepping forward and laying a hand on his arm. He looked at it cautiously, but smiled back at her. “Can you do me a favor?”
His hand came up, covering hers as it still rested on his arm. “What can I do for you, Penny?”
“Sing Soft Kitty?” she asked hopefully.
His eyebrows furrowed and his hand reached out, but didn't actually touch her. “But that's for when you're sick. I had hoped that my declaration...”
She interrupted him, looking up nervously. “I'm not sick. But there's the part about the happy kitty? I like that part right now.”
He nodded, stepping back and cautiously wrapping her hand in his. “Would you like me to tuck you into bed, as well?”
“That would be nice,” she replied as she followed him to her room and slid under the covers when he pulled them back for her before he sat on the edge of the bed. When he got to the part about the Happy Kitty she smiled up at him, and when he left the smile didn't fade.