O n e
"I have missed the warmth." Leonard said softly as he turned the wheel slightly to pass a slow rolling truck adjacent to their rental car on the highway.
One six hour flight for Raj and a four hour drive for Leonard later they were back in Pasadena, it was bigger than either of them remembered.
Raj sat next to him, his head half out the window and shades shielding the sun from his eyes with a smile across his face.
"Me too, dude. Well I missed that and the girls walking around in their skimpy clothes." They shared a soft laugh and continued down the road in a mess of traffic. The drive was slow, they rolled down the street and were almost thankful for the mess of cars surrounding them as it gave them a chance to reminisce and relive what both of them considered a wonderful part of their lives that was spent here. They pointed out some of their favorite restaurants (and laughed heartily at each "Sheldon Approved" restaurant) and marked places they needed to visit during their week vacation down here.
It was the retirement party for one of Caltech's oldest and most recognized physicists. He was a mentor to both of them, Howard as well who would be meeting them later. Their lives were busy but it was simply an invitation they couldn't ignore.
This reunion certainly wasn't an easy thing to put together. All of them had been building separate lives over the last seven years since they walked away from Pasadena and the comfort of their social group. So many different factors were a part of where they stood now. A part of why they all left was built around the relationships they'd had here, the ones that they strained, and the ones that were broken.
As the pair moved through the lobby of the hotel the discussion had turned extremely serious. Who, in fact, was the best Batman?
"Michael Keaton is the original, you can't top an original." Leonard was old school, never a fan of remakes, even if the rest of the world seemed to be.
Raj however, wasn't about to let his favorite movie of all time take a hit. "You're nuts, Leonard. Christian Bale brought the darkness to the character that even Keaton failed to represent. Plus, Adam West was the 'original' Batman and you cannot say that Ledger's Joker wasn't the best villain of all time. The revamp of Batman is the best."
Leonard scoffed slightly as they passed through the flower print carpeted hallway and stopped at the door of their hotel room. He retorted simply, satisfied. "Jack Nicholson, the argument ends right there."
Opening the door to their room, a rush of comforting and cool air hit them both and Raj bounded in first and splashed himself onto the bed. "Four hour flight from Michigan was totally worth it."
Leonard settled his things on the floor and took solace on his bed a bit more calm then Raj. "So Howard's texting me, he's in town and wants to know where to meet?"
A smirk grew across Raj's face. "We should go out for a meal."
"How about the Cheesecake Factory?" Raj spoke with a hint of intensity in his voice, as if he'd just dropped a pregnancy scare on a daytime soap.
Leonard felt his eyes roll. "You do realize that the odds of Penny still working there are extremely rare, right?"
"Well then there should be no worries, we can just enjoy the food and you know the food was always good."
Leonard sighed heavily and cast his eyes towards the window. It had been so long since he'd spoken to Penny, but far shorter since her face had passed through his mind. She was the first person he ever told he loved, even over his family who thought the simple idea of love was enough. They said it was nothing more than a theory that didn't really need broadening to speech and action.
The memory of their last day together still stuck out in his mind, it was one of those thoughts that came each day, yet he told himself after every one that he couldn't let himself think of things like that anymore.
There was a part of him that knew just going in there would bring her up in his mind again. It was like a moth to a flame though, a part of him knew it was bad… but he couldn't keep away. "Alright. They do make a good salad."
Raj's smile perked up a bit and the pair was out the door and headed for the restaurant.
You can make a lot of different things seem okay when you force yourself to smile each morning. That doesn't mean they are, doesn't even mean they're close to the way you want the condition of your life to be. Still, a proper smile and a blind attitude can cover up just about any agony.
Sometimes it's a job, other times circumstance makes the idea and the dream you expected seem unreachable. More often than not though, it's a person who changes the way your future turns out.
One day you see yourself at a movie audition and working so hard to time the line out just right that it sounds perfect and you begin your star driven dream to the top. The next day, you're sitting on the couch of your apartment on a Saturday night putting a few random pictures into a 150 page scrapbook.
There was a spot on the cover, a line draw across the top that was just waiting for some perfect title to be scribbled across it and define whatever the hell this thing was. There were so many different days put together in this one little book that it seemed to go well beyond definition.
Today's story being told was their last trip to Disneyland. She couldn't tell you why they went or what possessed her to even schedule it. Time off and a little extra money added to the ever growing depression of their current state and a mini-vacation was born.
As she settled the last picture into its spot (a great photo of them with Goofy), Penny took a sip from the small glass of wine she'd poured herself for the evening. It wasn't all that late; the sun was still casting itself over the sky and even peeking in through her window as perfect lighting for the task.
Today had been another simple day, quiet and calm with very little of anything going on. Penny could think back to foggy memories of nights where she would, literally, party until the sun was just coming up. She could remember, much better and with more angst, waking up alone or—worse than that—waking up next to some random man and that dark cloud of sorrow would hang over her. Now her life was so much different, she was different and anyone who knew her would say the same. Still, Penny could say with absolute certainly that she was happier now than she was then, in spite of outward appearances.
She felt like a much older woman than her twenty-eight years would attest. The last seven had been long and hard, a big part of her felt as if they were the years that would eventually define her life. Most nights were spent on the couch watching television, working on her scrapbook. Sometimes reading or even trying her hand at the occasional screenplay though she never could seem to push past the 20th page or so before she lost interest in one story and was ready to delve into something different.
Suddenly, breaking her thoughts and her work, Penny's phone began to buzz across the kitchen counter next to her. She sat down her book, took a small sip of her drink and answered. "Hello."
"Well, Penny, Penny… do I have a surprise for you." It was Chuck, the only person from the Cheesecake Factory who'd worked there as long as she. This was yet another aspect of her life that didn't fit into that old plan from years ago. Eight years as a waitress was certainly not the ideal ending in that screenplay about the girl from Nebraska.
However, the way he spoke drew a quirk in her brow, intrigue in her mind. "Guess I've been a little bored today, a surprise might help."
"You'll never guess who just sat down at table six."
"Oh God is it the Stevenson's? I swear if Mr. Stevenson stared at my breasts any harder when I took their order they would freaking explode. I don't know why his wife doesn't just punch him right…"
Chuck cleared his throat loudly to stop her rant and finish his end of the conversation. "Uh, no… not the Stevenson's. But I'll give you a hint, a boy with thick black glasses and an Indian man with a grey sweater vest."
Penny felt her stomach drop to her knees. "Are you kidding me?" She asked, almost desperately.
"Nope, and if I'm not mistaken they just ordered the exact same thing they used too… oh… wait, someone else just showed up."
Lowering her head, Penny had a million thoughts racing through her head and each one of them seemed to be going in the same direction. "Oh God, is the new person wearing a horribly tacky belt buckle?"
Chuck faltered on the other line, his hesitation giving the answer away. "I think it's a Nintendo controller… how the hell did you know that?"
She smiled slightly, but it was misleading of her feelings. With a heavy sigh, she finished the rest of her wine and knew another glass wasn't far off. "I'd say lucky guess if I really believed that." She responded, dryly.
"So… I'm noticing from their wandering eyes that they almost seem to be waiting for you to pop out or something. If they ask, what do I tell them?"
Penny took a long breath and felt the tears brimming in her eyes. It was as if someone was tearing at her from two different sides and she was losing herself in the feelings of mixture that painted the moment. She wanted to see them, know how they looked, hear how they were but…her eyes cast down the hallway of her apartment where the bedrooms were and…
…she couldn't do that to him. "Tell them I left, a long time ago."
"Really?" He asked, almost as if he had misheard her.
One of the tears escaped, it would be the only one she'd allow tonight. "Please."
"So…" As Chuck approached the table once more, he directed his attention to Howard who'd just joined his friends. "What can I get you?"
Howard thought for a moment and put his menu down with a heavy smile. "I'll go with the ham and mashed potatoes, with a large Coke."
Chuck smiled, wrote something on his notepad and turned away only to be drawn back by the call of Leonard's voice. "I'm sorry, and I'm going to be even sorrier if you don't but you've worked here for a while and… do you recognize us?"
"I did but I didn't want to say anything in case you boys didn't remember me. How have you been?"
They all shared a small laugh and Chuck knelt down next to the table for the impending conversation. "Good, good." Leonard spoke first. "I travel a lot, going from college to college giving lectures about my work and the work of other's. It's fun to see the world and explore."
Chuck turned to Raj who seemed far less excited to tell his tale. "I pretty much do the exact same thing I did here only without the support of friends and, well, it's incredibly cold in Michigan and my body temperature still hasn't adjusted even though every person I tell this story too says it will eventually. Oh and I have developed a great passion for… scotch." There was a slight pause, everyone eyeing Raj for a moment and an unsettling discomfort filled the air. Finally, it broke and Raj had no choice but to burst into a laugh and draw the attention away from everything he'd just said.
Left was Howard who wore a bright, almost arrogant, smile on his face. He began his story with gusto. "Well, finally found someone to tame the beast. Yeah Bernadette's made me a mild mannered man. I have a son, who is only a few lessons away from working some long division problems. He's only five, we live in a small town up in Washington and… couldn't be happier."
"Well that's great you guys, I'm glad to hear that ya'll are doing so well…" Chuck started before shifting his gaze back to Raj for a moment. "…well except for you, but I'm sure something good is right around the corner." Raj however simply shrugged and looked away. "Anyways, I'd better get your orders in." As his voice trailed, Chuck turned to make his leave for the kitchen when an almost desperate call of his name from Leonard stopped him.
"What about…" He cleared his throat, realizing that he'd spoken a bit louder then he wanted, and that anyone sitting within six or so tables from them on any side could hear. "Is uh…" He all but whispered this time. "Is Penny still working here?"
Chuck hesitated for only a moment as his mind wandered. "Penn? Nah she busted out of here years ago. Yeah last I heard she was in New York doing Broadway shows. Huge success, haven't heard from her in…" Another pause, he let out a little sigh and answered confidently. "Four years. Anyways… food's waiting."
As he made his actual exit, Leonard let out a heavy sigh that overtook the feeling of the table. There was disappointment through them all that she wasn't actually here. It was a quiet hope that had been passed in seeing her again but the idea of her being gone wasn't surprising, at least not to Leonard.
In truth he didn't really see her as the type to settle anywhere.
"I still miss that sweet body." Howard said in an awkwardly erotic tone meant more to break the silence than anything else.
Feeling Leonard's glare against him, Howard shrugged it off and looked to Raj who was smiling a bit.
"I actually thought about her a few weeks ago. I was at a coffee shop trying to pick up girls with this amazing new technique I've been honing called… the conversation." He couldn't tell you when, but there came a point in his life where Raj started to lay the jokes down on himself, it was easier that way. "Anyways, this girl had that pink Dell computer like the one Penny had and I swear, I couldn't really see her screen but I'm pretty sure she was shoe shopping."
The story brought a smile to Leonard's face as he looked at the small fort he'd built with the cream packets. "I think about her all the time, I miss her."
Howard's words were stopped by Leonard who smacked his sugar packet fort at the man next to him. "Yeah, we know."
"I got the job!" So much cheer filled the room that Penny couldn't have stopped her smile if she wanted too. Leonard was bursting through the door of the apartment with a handful of papers in his hand and quickly hugged her, ignoring the plate of food she struggled to keep from falling.
As he pulled away, Penny kept her smile proud. "That's awesome, sweetie! Oh I know how much you wanted it."
Nodding, Leonard moved to the kitchen and opened the fridge with a heat seek for a celebratory drink. "I wasn't sure because they had so many amazing candidates but…" He pulled out a bottle of orange soda, glanced at it with confusion and settled. "…they weren't as good as me!" With a heavy proclamation, he lifted the bottle high and took a drink, only to have the condensation water his eyes as he gasped for a breath. "Is Sheldon here?"
Guilt washed Penny's face for a moment. "Uh… no."
Leonard quirked his brow, curiously, in her direction. "Then… why are you in our apartment?"
"I… I heard a noise." She spoke too quickly, gave away her lie almost on purpose. His face remained stoic and she caved. "Alright, I knew you had some of Sheldon's mom's casserole and…its frickin' amazing, okay? Sue me."
A chuckle filled the room. "You're welcome in our apartment anytime, despite what Sheldon says…" There was a trail in his words and soon enough he fell silent. Penny could sense a discomfort in him and took an intrigued step.
Leonard shook out of his trance. "Yeah… I suppose I just realized that my statement is false to a point." Penny tilted her head as a notion for him to elaborate. "I mean, the job starts next month and this won't be our apartment anymore."
That, his one statement was the ONLY reason that Penny was hoping Leonard may be passed over for this job. He was a rock, so solid and sweet and… she cared about him so much but a part of her knew that if he left, when he left, the distance would consume them.
Of course he would keep in contact with the others; Howard and he were the most alike when it came to personality, minus Howard's 'suave' towards women. Raj and he talked science more seriously than anyone she'd known, other than Sheldon but more often than not he was talking to himself.
She moved to him, touching his shoulder with her patented half smile that melted him. "You're gonna do great, I know it."
Accepting her praise, Leonard then found himself focusing on something that hadn't crossed his mind in the constant flow of wonder about this job and its parameters. "What's gonna happen to Sheldon?"
"What'd you mean?" Penny asked as she took a bite and moved to sit at Sheldon's computer table since he wasn't around.
"Well you know Sheldon, he may be the neediest person on the face of this or any other planet and… I don't know if he can live alone."
Penny thought for a moment and shrugged off the idea. "I know he's different but, he is an adult right? I'm sure he'll be fine."
He thought for a moment and nodded slightly. "Right, and you'll still be across the hall so…"
"Oh no… I mean, don't get me wrong I'd kill for the guy but… oh God…" Her mind traced back to what Sheldon lacked, most notably, a driver's license. "Do you think I could convince the bus station to reinstate him?"
Leonard shook his head. "Tried it." He moved closer to her and sat the bottle of orange soda down as he took a small sip herself. "Look, like you said, he's a grown man. One would think that a man with the IQ of Sheldon Cooper could find a ride to work every day."
"Yeah but…" There was a whine in her voice. "…if he knocks on my door I won't be able to say no." She could feel Leonard grinning at her. "Can I come with you?"
Looking at her for a moment, his response was simple. "I'll make you a copy of his schedule."
"I'll give him two weeks and then he's gotta handle his own crap."
Morning came as the sun trickled through the small opening of the blinds that covered her window; Penny stirred slightly as the warmth of the air settled down over her. Pasadena was always beautiful in the winter time, 20 plus years in Nebraska had worn her down when it came to chill and snow.
Rolling to her side, Penny found herself face to face with the Sith Lord himself Darth Vader. Running a hand through her hair, she sat up and lifted the pillow along with her. Her hand delicately ran along the pillowcase and she felt a twinge in her stomach.
For so long her life had been a consistent mesh of weeks piled together and all played out the same. It didn't happen overnight and certainly wasn't anything she'd bargained for but the routines she'd fallen in with Sheldon were who she was.
He was awake; she could hear him moving in the other room and knew that the oatmeal would be ready any second. Of course, he'd walk in here and tell her it was ready, even though she had told him she didn't like it, he offered anyway.
Right on schedule…a soft knock hit her door.
She could have spoken at any time, but he needed the rhythm.
She smiled and sat the pillow back down behind her. "Come in, sweetie."
The door opened slowly and he walked in, apron clad with a large bowl in hand and a stern face that was the only way she recognized him. "I've made oatmeal; I could procure you a bowl if you please."
Her eyes fell shut for a moment as she pushed aside her bangs and smiled. "I'm good, but you enjoy… I'll make some cereal or something later." Accepting her answer, Sheldon moved back to the kitchen and listened to the call of Penny's voice from the other side of the room. "You know it's a big day today." Moving through the living room where Sheldon was pouring some oatmeal into a bowl, Penny settled on a stool near the counter and watched him intently.
"Penny, it's Saturday, I have the day off from work, I have recently read all my new comic books, we cannot have Thai food because that would be the fourth time this week and that's far too many for one seven day period and… well the weather channel calls for rain."
The words she wished to speak stammered on her lips for a moment, settled and she gathered herself once more. "Right, well…anyways, it's late in October on a Saturday which means…Big Ten conference play is getting started."
Sheldon's eyes rolled on instinct. "Oh Lord, you're speaking of football aren't you?"
"Yes, Michigan is in town and if we can't win this game we've got no shot at the conference championship."
With a sigh, Sheldon finished the bite of his breakfast and swallowed before delving into another rant. "There in lies my deepest confusion with the concept of sports. You speak of this… Nebraska as though you are a part of the team and yet, you didn't even manage community college in this state or…your home state. It seems to me that the term 'we' is tossed around rather loosely in the world of athletics."
Chewing on her lip gently, Penny shook her head and battled the smile growing across her face. "Last week, you and I watched Star Wars for like…then 11 billionth time, I started talking about how annoying Princess Leia's hair must be to keep up and you shushed me and said that "we" were about to battle the empire in an epic fight and yet… I have a hard time believing you could hold up a light saber, let alone use one in a fight."
Suddenly, matching glares were squaring off on opposite sides of the kitchen counter. "First of all, I have always envisioned myself in the action of movies because it is a transparent way to enthrall oneself into a film to enjoy it at the peak of its intensity and… were you, by chance, steering this conversation towards a point?"
"Yes, I am…we're cheering for Nebraska today, because a Cornhusker victory will be the perfect start to the week and you… are wearing that NU jersey I bought you because they won the last time that you wore it."
Almost like a child, Sheldon threw his head back with a heavy groan and inhaled to begin protest. "Penny…"
Suddenly, her pleading eyes were gazing into him, bangs covering them slightly as she tilted her neck just slightly, almost like a puppy in a window. "Come on, Sheldon… for me?"
Pursing his lips, Sheldon dropped his spoon heavily into the bowl and sighed dramatically with defeat. "Very well, but that face will be stowed away for the remainder of the year, are we understood?"
Penny squealed with delight and clapped her hands while moving to the door. "Understood, now enjoy your breakfast."
"Now…" Of course he wasn't done, that's why she hadn't left the room yet. "…I do hope that your game is in accordance with our roommate agreement and that its time limit will not carry beyond the seven o'clock hour as you know, seven is when we do our laundry."
After everyone left, Sheldon and Penny found themselves all but sharing two apartments and one day the hallway separating them seemed pointless and far too expensive. So they simply adjoined into his and Leonard's old place.
She still remembered the day she moved in, and the three hours she spent signing their "roommate agreement".
"Don't worry, it's an afternoon game and won't intrude on laundry time. Speaking of, have you seen my laundry basket?"
Sheldon let out another sigh, there was another lecture on the way and another smile from Penny. "I'm sure it's bombarded by a random mass of your clothing, if you simply took the time to seek it out, you'd most likely find it suffocating and screaming for help under a barrage of halter tops and mini-skirts."
Penny slipped in a small scoff. "I have more clothes than just halter tops and mini-skirts."
"You may have them, but you certainly do not choose to wear them as often." Sheldon countered as he washed his bowl in the sink.
"What about this one…" She pulled on the red top that hung down to her mid-thigh and made sure to display the Flash symbol proudly. "…this is my favorite shirt."
Sheldon shook his head. "I don't believe a night shirt, that you stole from your roommate, counts."
"Oh I think it does." She loved to argue with him and couldn't begin to tell you why, that was just their way and it worked.
However, all the banter halted when his bowl slipped quickly from the grip and crashed into the sink. The noise started Penny and she watched his hands grip the sides of the sink and balance him unsteadily. As she moved to his side, her toe smacked against the leg of a stool and the pain shot through like a bullet but was pushed back for his concern.
"Hey…" She offered gently, touching his back with her palm. "Dizzy?" Sheldon nodded with uncertainty in his eyes and fear battling for supremacy in his expression. "Let's sit…use me." His hand settled on her shoulder and they moved together to his spot. Gently she settled him onto the couch and touched the top of his head, hot…clammy.
"Should I call?"
His eyes fell shut as he answered. "No, I'm convinced it shall pass in time.
When the dizziness came it always shook her more than him and he was the one losing balance. It was weakness, a feeling they shared as they did with most things. Penny couldn't tell you the day or moment when it occurred, but at some point anything felt by one, bled to the other.
Slowly, she sat down next to him and slid in close to his warm body. Penny curled her legs up tight and rested her head in the crook of his neck as he continued to try and compose himself.
"Are you still going to make me wear that dreadful football jersey?" He asked between elongated breaths. Penny smiled sadly and nodded against his chest. "You are the true reincarnation of evil."
Penny closed her eyes. "You still love me."