Twelve minutes till midnight, Penny is on her phone. She stands alone in the corner of their street-facing window, caught in soft light.
(It's December 31, 2011, her fifth New Year's Eve with them, and this year's celebration is quiet and private. Wolowitz and Koothrappali are losing Klingon Scrabble to Leonard and Zoe, his fiancee. [Well, Zoe loves Star Trek as much as they do, and is a linguist so they should have known better.])
Nine minutes till midnight, Penny walks wordlessly from her corner to the hallway. Sheldon follows.
(Soon it will be 2012. Sheldon can't help thinking of the Mayan calendars ending, privately wonders if perhaps it's a beginning.)
Six minutes till midnight, he finds her leaning against the wall on the elevator's left. “Penny.” She snaps away from her reverie, something striking in her gaze.
(Sheldon gives a start. Rarely does he speak without thought, but he has in this moment, and now he's caught without an idea of what he meant to say.)
Three minutes till midnight, he leans against the wall on the elevator's right. She says, “I don't know,” and he doesn't know either.
(He realizes they may have ventured from their original subject. He generally isn't in tune with subtleties, but the air crackles around them, and he just feels.)
Thirty seconds till midnight, she stands in front of him. “Don't ruin this, Sheldon.”
(She means: Don't grow cold. Don't turn away. Don't say everything in your head.)
At midnight, she gathers the bottom of his shirts in her fists and yanks him toward her.
(He thinks: Don't grow cold. Don't turn away. Don't say everything in your head.)
Twelve seconds past midnight, Penny kisses him. Pulls him flush against her. Grips his hipbone so tightly, as if to say, “I've waited and waited and waited...” Her other hand settles against his neck, fingernails scratching his scalp.
(They're perfectly stationary against this wall. Sheldon could measure how still they are, save for his mouth and hers, but he thinks that there must be some dimension by which he could measure his falling, caught in the momentum, melding with her.)
The next day, Penny comes to breakfast wearing exhaustion that says she hasn't slept yet. Zoe holds her hand—because Sheldon can't force himself away from the counter his knuckles are white from gripping—as she tells them why.
Penny's father died twelve minutes till midnight. His insurance will just cover funeral expenses, but not bills, or the debt their ranch has incurred. “The family needs me,” she tells them. Her voice cracks, has a touch of the drawl Sheldon thinks her mother must speak with, and he knows she's repeating orders.
“How long will you be visiting?” Leonard asks.
“Should we come with you?” Zoe squeezes Penny's hand. Her brother died in September, and Penny flew with her to Washington to bury him.
Penny hangs her head. “Guys, I'm moving back.”
When Sheldon's orange juice crashes on the floor, Zoe stares at him.
Sheldon hates airports. His first memory of airports is waiting to fly home from Phoenix at age four. In Phoenix, he was declared a genius, and his parents were told he would never have the life his twin would. His father's face was grave and distant as they boarded. Their flight was turbulent.
(There are other airports: The States to Germany, Germany to the States, and feeling sick both ways. Flying home to California after his mother's first birthday without his father.)
He takes twenty minutes to find a chair with ideal lighting and without a draft. Penny just watches with an odd smile. “Dare I ask what you find so entertaining?”
She shakes her head, little strands of hair escaping her ponytail. “I'll miss you.”
“Hardly. You'll have too much on your mind.”
She punches his shoulder. “Shut up, Sheldon.”
(He might bite his lip to hold back his smile. He shifts in the uncomfortable chair, and his shoulder comes to rest against hers. Penny's flight is in thirty minutes, but Sheldon thinks he might endure days in the godawful plastic seats to have her here. He pulls his corduroy jacket closed as they wait.)
When Penny's flight is delayed two hours, Zoe takes Leonard to work. Sheldon thinks he should go too, but can't leave Penny sitting in an airport alone.
She falls asleep on his shoulder. It's inconceivable really, because Sheldon can't imagine sleeping anywhere without a mattress and a pillow. The airport's crowded and noisy, but Penny sleeps on.
Sheldon's own eyes feel heavy now, as he watches passengers coming and going from the airport. He's never understood the need for emotional relationships, never found reason to seek them out, but as he watches people, some are separated with tearful farewells and some are reunited with grins and laughter. He imagines saying good bye to Penny, watching her disappear from sight.
And he remembers New Year's Eve, how Penny clung to him and he was thankful because he might have floated away otherwise, how her hands felt against him and his hands relished the opportunity to learn her. Wolowitz and Koothrappali's cries of defeat had startled them, and she'd bitten his lip and he'd stepped on her toes. Penny's eyes had been more alive than he could remember as she closed them and rested her forehead against his chest. They'd stood there—his mind pounding, shouting “more, more, more”—in silence until their pulses had calmed.
Sheldon doesn't know what to make of it.
It hasn't been entirely out of nowhere, he supposes, because Penny's been pushing him toward something for months now. He just hasn't realized until now that this was what she wanted—for him to see her like a man sees a woman, for him to notice her desire, for him just to stop being so unmovable.
And thinking of it—of her at midnight, of them some unspecified time in the future—makes his mind stop mid-thought, redirects him, pokes and pulls at things he's rarely used. Sheldon thinks he has a list somewhere of reasons this is wrong, reasons he doesn't want this, but he can't recall them now.
And he thinks that maybe—
Zoe appears, pushing through the crowd. She sees them, Penny still dreaming, and smiles. Sheldon hopes his glare communicates how little he wishes to discuss what she's thinking. “Don't worry,” she says as she takes the seat on Penny's other side. “You two have told me more with your inflection and verbal sparring the last year and a half than her asleep on your shoulder now.” He sighs.
Forty minutes later, Penny slings her carry-on over her shoulder. She and Zoe hug; Sheldon looks away as Zoe chokes back her sadness. “Come back,” she tells Penny. “Help your family. Then come back.” Zoe glances at Sheldon. “We need you to come back.”
Then it's Sheldon's turn. Zoe wanders off, claiming that she wants to confirm the approximate time of Penny's arrival in Nebraska, leaving him to stare at Penny. It reminds Sheldon of the first time he saw her, unpacking her apartment while he and Leonard stood awkwardly in the hallway. He remembers liking her smile, as well as the easy way she accepted people, and how he was only able to speak articulately when his routine was compromised.
Penny's left hand finds his right. Her fingers slip between his, and he instinctively closes his hand over hers. “Penny,” he says, like six minutes till midnight, but this time his voice catches in his throat.
“Sheldon.” She sounds hopeful; a twinge of panic hits him, because he doesn't know how to fulfill her hopes, just doesn't know.
There's a final boarding call. “If you don't go now, you won't have time to unpack your paperback and iPod from your carry-on before you have to buckle up.” He frowns. That isn't what he meant to say.
But Penny smiles. “Okay, Sheldon.”
Then she's gone.
And Sheldon thinks he should have done more, but now it's just Zoe at his side, and Zoe driving him to CalTech. He realizes that Penny hasn't agreed to return to California, and that realization haunts him for two months.
But she does return to California.
One day, he passes her empty apartment on his way to work, but comes home to the sound of Zoe laughing and a Wolowitz using that disgusting tone he reserves for his come-ons, and Sheldon's a floor away from his apartment, but he knows that Penny has come home.
At the top of the stairs, he finds Leonard, Wolowitz, and Koothrappali shoving a couch through Penny's door as she and Zoe watch.
Zoe notices him first, just milliseconds before Penny; he has time to observe the strange dance she does when she sees him looking at Penny, but then he's thrown off-balance by her crashing into him, arms flung around his shoulders as she presses her mouth against his neck. He stands frozen as she slurs a string of unintelligible sentences against his throat.
His brain compiles a careful list of all that he doesn't know about these things, but by the end, he's retitled it "A Few More Expertise I Can Acquire". By the end, one hand disappears into her hair and the other rests at the base of her skull. He dips her head back just slightly and does the first truly bold thing of his life. He kisses her, smiling against her mouth as Koothrappali laughs and Wolowitz protests and Leonard loses a bet with Zoe.