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Deep in the Heart of the Mushroom Kingdom

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The first time Sheldon loses to Penny, he writes it off as a freak accident. It's beginner's luck, not that luck is a concept of any scientific merit. When she wins, Penny squeals happily, bouncing on the center cushion next to him.

"You lose!" she says.

"There are still three races left in the cup," he snaps. She knows he hates when she gets high pitched like that. "You've hardly won."

It disconcerts him how Penny's ponytail bounces in just the same way as Princess Peach's does on the screen in her little pink and white tracksuit.

But then, he really does lose. She wins the first place cup and to add insult to painfully stinging injury, he comes in a mere third. It's preposterous! He shakes his wheel, holds it up to his ear.

The batteries must be dying.

Penny doesn't notice him. She's too busy dancing around the apartment, crowing in victory, her blue and white hoodie only partially obscuring the word 'PINK' on the back of her little shorts which are not, in fact, pink but lime green. The letters themselves are pink, but that hardly seems like enough to have the color emblazoned across…

"Sheldon?" Penny asks. He snaps his eyes up to meet hers and her eyebrows are furrowed. She looks concerned and slightly confused. "Sweetie, it's just a silly game."

"I know," he says petulantly. "Luckily my self worth is not tied up in cartoon characters driving in a circle." It comes out slightly more bitterly than he intended and she smirks, knowing this, too, is a victory.

Then there is the sound of Leonard's key in the lock and he comes in with the pizza and Mario Kart is abandoned for season five of Star Trek: Voyager. It's the only Star Trek television series that Penny will watch because she likes that the Captain is "a girl." Between Sheldon's long explanation of why Tuvok pales in comparison to Spock as both a Vulcan and the Captain's right hand and Penny throwing Leonard's half of the pizza disgusted looks (no cheese makes the tomato sauce wholly unappealing, Sheldon must agree), it's a long night.

In bed, Sheldon dreams of scaling a castle wall but when he finally gets inside, Raj is there and says, "Sorry dude, but Penny is in another castle."

oooo

Sheldon is in his room, reading the latest letter from Memaw when Leonard and Penny come into the apartment, fighting loudly. Sheldon freezes, Memaw's yellow rose stationary crinkling slightly in his hands.

"Fine," Penny yells and then slams the front door, presumably with her on the other side. Sheldon hears Leonard stomping around the apartment, picking things up and then setting them down hard. He then hears Howard and Raj enter.

He's just starting to compose his response when Leonard knocks and sticks his head in.

"We're going to a bar," Leonard says. "Do you want to come?"

"I don't drink," Sheldon says.

"Fine," Leonard says and walks away. Sheldon wonders why Leonard bothered with extending the invitation in the first place when they both knew that Sheldon wouldn't want to go. Later, when he's in the hall to take out the trash, he can hear Penny crying through her door. He disposes of the bag of waste and his latex gloves before knocking.

"Penny? Penny? Penny?"

She throws open the door, her face red and swollen, her eyes wet.

"What is it, Sheldon?" she asks with a sigh. There's no real venom behind the question. Lately, Penny just sounds tired.

"You're crying. Are you injured?"

"No," she says. "I'm sad."

"Because of your disagreement with Leonard?" he asks, almost certain that he's correct.

"Because of my fucked up life," she says and starts crying fresh tears. She's such a sorry sight that he doesn't even admonish her for her use of foul language. She leaves the door open when she goes back to curl up on her couch, so he interprets that to be an invitation to enter. He closes the door behind him and moves to sit in the green chair, but it's covered in soiled clothing so he perches carefully on the arm of the couch.

"I don't see how your life is any different than it was a week ago or a month ago and you seemed perfectly fine then," he says.

"That's just it," she says, dragging her sleeve across one cheek to sop up the moisture. He tries to shudder only on the inside. "Nothing ever changes! I wait tables, I don't act – I don't even get callbacks so I can hardly even book auditions. And things with Leonard are the same too. Tediously the same. We eat the same food, we play the same games, we have sex and it's exactly the same every time."

Sheldon is out of his element, clearly. She must realize this too, because she looks up at him.

"Sorry," she says. "It's just, you know, I thought Leonard was different, and he is kind of, but just not in the right ways, I guess."

"I find that if I want Leonard to do something, I have to spell it out, have to explain it to him like he is a small child. Have you tried that approach?" asks Sheldon.

"I don't want to have to spell everything out," she complains. "At some point, instinct should just take over."

Sheldon spends a great deal of his time suppressing his baser instincts so he has nothing more to offer her.

"There, there," he says, but he doesn't try to smile. It always seems to make her more uncomfortable and then they are both uncomfortable and there's simply no point. "I bet Leonard will come home and apologize to you at any moment."

"I bet you he won't," she says.

This is the second time he loses to Penny.

oooo

When Sheldon gets stuck, Leonard usually disappears for a while. It's preferable for both parties – Sheldon has the time and space to work through his problem uninterrupted and Leonard doesn't run the risk of Sheldon's increased peculiarities when the majority of his brain function is devoted to his work.

But since Leonard and Penny broke up, Leonard hasn't been around to communicate this fact to Penny. She knocks for a while before she just tries the handle and finds that the door is open. Sheldon is standing in the middle of the room staring at nothing. He's spent time staring at his whiteboard, out the window, at the television both on and off, and now he's trying nothing, no distraction, only his mind, only the problem, the equations unfurling themselves for him to see and understand, it's so close, he has the answer just within his…

"Sheldon? I asked if you were okay?"

He turns on her, snarling.

"Go away," he says.

"You look kinda…" She gives him a very obvious once over. "Haggard."

"I'm busy and I do not appreciate the interruption," he says.

"When's the last time you slept? Or ate something? Or showered?" she asks. He is generally fastidious about all three, but always, the work must come first.

"Leonard isn't here," he prompts, hoping she'll leave.

"I don't want… never mind," she says. "I'm going to get you something to eat, okay? I'll be back."

It doesn't even seem like she leaves before she's back, pressing a box of food into his hands. He hasn't been hungry but when the food is in front of him, he eats everything in the box quietly pleased that Penny had gotten his order exactly right.

"How about a nap?" she says. "Or a bath?"

"I don't take baths," he says. "It's unsanitary to say the least. Why anyone would want to sit in a pool of their own filth is beyond me."

"They're relaxing," she says. "They're warm and you can just lay there…"

"Lie there. Objects lay, people lie," he corrects absently.

"Okay, whatever, you can just lie there and everything seems to just get easier for a little while," she says. "Maybe it would help you solve your problem."

Intriguing. He hasn't taken a bath since he was a small child.

"Could I shower off the filth after the bath?" he asks. She smiles a little.

"Sure, Sheldon," she says. "Here's the deal – you take a bath and if it helps you with your problem, you can owe me one. If it doesn't, I'll drive you to the comic book store or something."

"Owe you one what?"

"You know, a favor," she says.

"That's awfully vague," he says. "How do I know that I'm not agreeing to something disproportionate to the favor you're extending to me in return?"

"Okay, okay, you can figure out why my computer makes this heinous grinding sound whenever I play a DVD and fix it," she says.

He hasn't been to the comic book store in days. He's been busy and Leonard hasn't been around.

"Okay," he says. "I agree to the terms of this bet."

"Great," she says. They both sit there for a moment before she rolls her eyes and stands. "Allow me to run you your bath, won't you?"

"Obviously," he says, before moving to stand in front of his whiteboard once more. She disappears into the bathroom and he hears the pipes squeak as she turns the water on. He notices her walk past him and out the door and then, a few moments later she comes back in holding the smallest of the baskets he'd given her for Christmas the year she'd given him the napkin from Leonard Nimoy. She goes back into the bathroom.

He erases a bracket, scowls, and draws it back in.

"Your bath is ready, Moon Pie," Penny sing-songs.

"You are not my Memaw," he says pointedly. "That's what my Memaw calls me. You may call me Sheldon or Dr. Cooper."

"I know the rules, Sweetie," she says in that tone she gets when she's considering punching him the throat. "Come on. This is gonna help, I promise."

"How can you promise me something that you aren't sure you can deliver?" he asks, following her to the bathroom. "Why are the lights off?"

"Because you're supposed to be relaxing," she says. They both crowd into the little bathroom. It's warm and humid because of the water and he realizes he's never been in this bathroom with another person before. It's not totally dark – there are two little candles flickering against the tile wall on the inner tub ledge. She's got their shower curtain bunched and flipped over the shower rod a few times so it's away from both the flames and the floor. The water isn't just water, but suds as well and the room is fragrant – sandalwood, perhaps.

"This was the most… masculine scent I had," she says when she sees him sniffing. "Now you have to stay in here at least 30 minutes not counting the shower after, okay?"

"Fine," he says, eying the tub warily.

"And I'll be just outside so don't try any funny business."

"Outside? But I'll be nude in here!" he exclaimed.

"I've been here while you were in the shower before," she says.

"But that's designated shower time, and I really…"

"Goodbye Sheldon," she cuts him off and closes the door behind her. Alone in the dim, steamy bathroom he has little recourse than to try her method of relaxation. His own methods for getting himself unstuck have failed, so the only alternative is to try something new or remain stuck in perpetuity. He removes his t-shirt and long sleeved shirt and folds them both. He sets them on the closed toilet and then does the same with his pants, his socks, and his underwear.

The water is hot and he has to ease himself in slowly. As soon as he's sitting in the tub surrounded by bubbles he feels ridiculous. He is too tall for the confined space and the adhesive ducks chafe his delicate skin when he moves. If he were Penny's height, the tub might better accommodate his frame, but he has almost a foot on her. Still, it's only 30 minutes and he does want to go get the new Iron Man comic so he stays in the tub.

He sort of shimmies back until he is horizontal. His knees have to stick out of the water to fit, but it is very warm and he allows his eyes to droop and then close. The candles smell nice too, sort of spicy and exotic, but not in a way that makes him want to sneeze.

Penny knocks after 25 minutes to ask after him, and he tells her he's doing fine and he is. The painful tension between his shoulder blades has eased slightly. But the water has begun to cool too much and most of the bubbles have disappeared leaving only slightly filmy water and he knows that this is an indication of the end of bath time. He feels better, but has no solution to his problem. He pulls out the stopper and stands, dripping. He carefully moves the candles from the ledge of the tub to the sink, careful to keep the flames away from his body. He pulls down the shower curtain, taking care to make sure the heavier plastic curtain is on the inside and the decorative curtain on the outside of the tub so water doesn't get onto the floor. He thinks about flipping on the lights before he turns the taps back on, but decides not too.

The solution comes to him as he is lathering up. It comes sharply, like a bolt of lightning instead of gradually, like a picture loading over a slow connection. He drops the soap, throws back the curtain, and wraps his towel hastily around his waist. Outside the bathroom is bright and cold, but he needs his white board to be certain, needs to get his idea down in case it slips away again.

His hands are soapy and he has trouble getting the cap of his dry erase marker off. He makes a frustrated growl and then Penny is there by his side, taking the marker from him gently, removing the cap, and handing it back. He scribbles it all out and then spends several moments looking at it, searching for flaws in his logic but he doesn't find any. He sighs in relief and feels a heavy weight lift from him.

"You're dripping all over the floor," Penny says finally. He realizes not only is he soapy and dripping everywhere, but he's mostly naked in front of Penny. She doesn't seem embarrassed or flustered and when she looks at him, she keeps her eyes on his face. Still, he rushes back into the bathroom and slams the door. The shower is still running.

Later, he explains to her that since he had his revelation while in the shower, not the bath, she still has to drive him to the comic book store.

She doesn't.

oooo

It's normal for Sheldon to have dinner with Penny a couple times every month. Her cooking is still not up to his standards, so they get take out just like most nights, but instead of eating with Leonard and the guys, Sheldon goes over to her apartment. On the nights he comes over, she even picks up a little. He wouldn't, by any stretch of the phrase, call it cleaning, but he notices she does put forth an effort and it is appreciated.

Lately, he has reordered the ranking of his social circle. Penny has moved up in front of Raj and only Leonard stands between Penny and the number one slot. Leonard has lived with Sheldon for years and Sheldon doesn't forget that, but on most days he finds he actually prefers Penny's company. Leonard can be morose and sometimes mean – for all he puts up with from Sheldon he often does so at Sheldon's expense. Just because Sheldon doesn't participate in the sort of humor Leonard, Raj, and Howard seem to care for doesn't mean Sheldon doesn't understand when he's the butt of their jokes.

Penny, on the other hand, seems to want to understand Sheldon even when she clearly can't comprehend things on the same level. And Sheldon has noticed that if they discuss something that she doesn't understand, she'll look it up later and ask him about it again with more information. He likes that about Penny. Penny helps him understand things too – things about people and social situations. She isn't always willing but she is more patient than anyone else.

Tonight she has cooked and he stands in her living room, eying the casserole dish she has just pulled from the oven warily.

"Don't panic," she says. "I called my grandmother for the recipe."

"What is it?"

"Macaroni and Cheese from scratch," she grins. "Sure, breaking up with Leonard was crappy, but I do love eating cheese!"

They sit at the table and she spoons some onto the plate for him and when he eats it, it is good, warm and creamy.

"Tell your Memaw that I like her Macaroni and Cheese," Sheldon says. Penny gives him one of those looks he has trouble interpreting. Surprise? Fondness? Confusion? He honestly can't tell.

"I will," she says softly. "I'll tell her."

When they are washing up – Penny dries after Sheldon voiced his concern about her technique at washing – Sheldon tells her about pulling ahead of Raj on his friendship ranking. He also explains about how she's neck and neck with Leonard. She listens carefully and doesn't interrupt. She speaks only when there is a natural lull in the conversation indicating that a response from her is welcome.

"It's okay to have more than one best friend," she says.

"What value is there in the designation of 'best' if the title can be handed out willy nilly?" he demands.

"Friendship is like love," Penny explains. "There isn't a cap. You can have as much as you want."

He stares at her blankly.

"Okay," she tries again. "What if Leonard was your best friend who was a guy and I was your best friend who was a girl?"

"Honestly, Penny, that's already the case, but that doesn't solve the problem of using a term like best," he says, attacking the inside of the casserole dish with the coarse side of the sponge.

"In the real world, someone in your situation would have Leonard as your best friend and… the female as a girlfriend. That's how guys have best friends who are girls. They date them," she says haltingly. She looks at him like she expects him to yell at her – she's actually cowering a little bit, tensing her muscles and scrunching her shoulders down.

"I've never had a girlfriend," he says instead. It's the truth. He's always focused on his work and even if he had wanted a girlfriend, which he hadn't, who would he choose? He'd gone to college at eleven. By the time he'd been old enough to date, he'd dedicated his life to physics and that had been that. There was time for the fairer sex after the Nobel Prize was his. That was the plan; that had always been the plan.

"I know, Sweetie," she says. "That's why I'm number two."

He considers this while he rinses the glass dish off.

"For Leonard and Raj and Wolowitz, women are a disturbing distraction from their work, or what they consider to be work anyhow. But you help me, Penny. You get me unstuck and you cook me dinner and you drive me to get comic books," Sheldon says.

"I thought I drove you nuts," she says.

"Sometimes," he concedes. "But I suspect that's a condition of your being human, not a woman." She smiles at him and takes the casserole dish out of his hands.

"So what's your conclusion, then?" she says, putting the dish into one of the lower cupboards and tossing the damp dishtowel onto the counter.

"A paradigm shift," he says picking up the towel to fold it. "It's the only logical conclusion one could draw."

She shakes her head – she doesn't understand but then he steps forward and puts a tentative hand on her waist and then she gets very still, her brow wrinkled as she watches him step closer and then lean down, slowly, to kiss her cheek. When that's done, he puts both arms around her in a hug.

"Oh, Sheldon," she says softly, and hugs him back.

oooo

Leonard is sitting in front of his computer when Sheldon comes in. Sheldon can see that he isn't working, that he's on Facebook. Sheldon sneers but then smooths the expression into something more presentable.

"May I speak with you?" he asks.

"Sure," Leonard says, but he doesn't look away from the screen.

"It's been three months since you and Penny ended your romantic relationship, correct?" Sheldon asks.

"You know exactly how long it's been," Leonard says. Three months and twelve days, he thinks, but it seems to upset Leonard when he is that specific so he doesn't say it out loud.

"Do you consider this amount of time to be appropriate for you to start dating other people?" Sheldon asks.

"I guess."

"Penny too?"

Now Leonard looks at him.

"Penny can do whatever she wants, she's a grown up," he says. Sheldon nods, satisfied.

"I feel I should inform you that Penny has replaced you as my best friend," Sheldon says now. "I still consider our friendship important, but in the spirit of honesty, you're now my number two friend."

"Whatever, Sheldon," Leonard says and turns back to the screen.

For being a physicist, even an experimental one, it's befuddling how Leonard can never seem to put two and two together. When Penny comes over the next night with her jacket, her purse, and her keys, Leonard is playing Lego Indiana Jones on the Wii.

"Hey," Penny greets him.

"Hey," Leonard replies, trying for the same tone of uninterested nonchalance. Sheldon thinks he just sounds slightly congested.

"You ready, Sweetie?" Penny asks and Sheldon nods, taking his keys from the bowl by the door.

"Where are you going?" asks Leonard.

"We're going to see Inception," Sheldon says. "Then afterward, we're going to get ice cream and I'm going to explain Inception to Penny."

Penny isn't even offended. This was their initial agreement – she wouldn't talk through the film and he would do a second social activity to answer any questions she might have. Penny also had explained that both a movie and a second setting was an acceptable second date.

"Just the two of you?" Leonard asks, peering up at them through his glasses, his nose scrunched into the air. Sheldon glances at Penny who looks back at him questioningly.

"That is the social convention on a-" and here he makes air quotes, "movie date."

Leonard laughs for a moment, a high-pitched giggle more appropriate for a 13-year-old girl than a grown man. Somehow this giggle causes Penny to smack Sheldon with her purse.

"You said you told him!" Penny accuses. Leonard ceases his insipid laughter.

"Wait, seriously? You're going on a date?"

"I did tell him," Sheldon defends. "I explained quite clearly that you have moved in front of him in ranking and we agreed an appropriate amount of time has passed since the demise of your ill-conceived relationship to pursue a new one."

"Well," Penny says, tilting her head. "Come on, Leonard, that is Sheldonese for dating."

"There is no word in Sheldon's language for dating!" Leonard says, getting to his feet. "Sheldon doesn't date!"

"Are you saying I shouldn't attempt this new experience simply because I haven't before?" Sheldon asks. It seems like faulty logic.

"Not with Penny," Leonard says.

"Hey!" Penny says. "We broke up. You don't get a say. If Sheldon and I want to see a movie and eat ice cream, then we will."

"I don't want to be late," Sheldon says now. It is time to leave and he can see this exchange deteriorating rapidly into a fight. He hates loud arguments and he certainly hates to be the cause.

"Can we at least talk about this?" Leonard says helplessly.

"Later," Penny says. Sheldon follows her out the door leaving a stunned Leonard in their wake. Sheldon waits until they're in the car before he speaks.

"I don't understand what action of mine upset him," he says.

"It isn't you," she sighs. "It's me."

"Oh," he says. That does make him feel a little better, but he doesn't want Penny to be upset either. "Would it be easier for our social circle if we didn't go on dates?"

"Do you know what my grandma – my Memaw – always taught me?" she says. "Easier isn't always better."

"What are the requirements for a third date?" he asks and she smiles as she turns into the parking lot of the busy theater. He'd already purchased their tickets online so he doesn't panic about the line starting to snake around the side of the massive multiplex.

"Dinner," she says. "With dessert and a goodnight kiss."

The initial thought of kissing another person is off-putting. The human mouth is simply teaming with bacteria but he also knows any sort of romantic relationship will require that sort of… maintenance.

"It's okay, there are no hard and fast rules. We're going Sheldon speed," she says quickly, noting his discomfort. "I'm happy to go slow. Rushing into things has never, not once, helped me."

They exit the car and Sheldon makes sure to lock his door and checks hers, too.

"What if you require a level of physical intimacy I am incapable of giving?" he asks.

"I can't force you to do anything you don't want to do," she assures him. "And anyway physical intimacy, or whatever, is only fun if we both want it."

Inside the theater, the conversation is abandoned for previews, but Sheldon thinks about it hard long after the second date is complete.

At home, Leonard is in bed when Sheldon gets in and gone when Sheldon wakes up. Sundays are for correspondence and he spends almost an hour trying to decide how to explain Penny to Memaw.

oooo

At the end of the summer, Sheldon invites Penny to Texas.

"We won't be seeing my mother," he assures her. Penny doesn't seem concerned at either the notion of Texas or Sheldon's mother, but when he explains that Memaw expressly invited both her Moon Pie and his best gal for a visit, Penny seems both flattered and terrified.

"She wants to meet me?" Penny says first, pleased, and then, "No! No way, what if she doesn't like me? I can't risk that."

"Why wouldn't she like you if I like you? Her standards are much lower than mine," she says. She scrunches up her face.

"Because! You love your Memaw more than anyone else in the world. If she doesn't approve, what hope do I have?"

"Hmm, I hadn't considered that," he says. Penny is right. If Memaw sees something about Penny that is unacceptable, Sheldon will have to completely reevaluate Penny's place in his life. But looking over Penny – her honey blond hair, symmetrical features as well as the traits that weren't visible to the eye such as her patience, kindness, the affection she had for Sheldon, the gentle way she handled Leonard and his bruised feelings – Sheldon is certain Penny has nothing to fear. "Memaw will like you," he says. "It's the only acceptable conclusion."

Even Leonard has never met Sheldon's Memaw. Telling him about the trip causes a sort of quiet resignation to settle over Leonard.

"This isn't some freaky experiment to you, is it?" Leonard asks.

"I don't understand," Sheldon says, because he doesn't.

"I thought you and Penny were just… punking me or something."

"I don't think you can use punk as a verb," Sheldon says. "But if you were trying to imply that my agonizing attempt to get over the hurdle of the anxiety induced when at a social function or in an intimate physical situation has anything to do with your ego, then perhaps you deserve to be punked."

"Why didn't you ever say you wanted a girlfriend, Sheldon?" Leonard asks.

"I never did," Sheldon says. "Until Penny."

This, at least, is common ground between them and after this conversation, Leonard stops being such a jerk all the time.

oooo

Memaw likes Penny. Sheldon knew she would.

oooo

At Comic Con, Penny dresses up as Princess Peach from the 100cc setting of Mario Kart (bikes only). She wears a white track suit with pink checkers along the sides and threads her bouncing ponytail through a gold, cardboard crown. Sheldon, last minute, decides to swap his reboot Spock costume and wear his old Luigi costume instead. He doesn't even mind the smelly adhesive of his fake mustache with Penny by his side.

"But Mario is supposed to save the Princess," Wolowitz unhelpfully points out while in line for Subway sandwiches. The teenager behind the counter doesn't even blink at the group of hobbits that comes in behind them.

"Maybe the Princess tried it with Mario, realized it wasn't going to work, and decided to hook up with his best friend instead," Raj says. Penny looks horrified even though the analogy is surprisingly apt but then Sheldon realizes Raj might have made Leonard feel bad.

"Dude," Leonard says, and Raj cowers for a moment. "Raj, it's like 11:30, have you been drinking?"

Penny seems to relax so Sheldon does too. He uses Penny like a weather barometer for social interactions.

"I had mimosas with Batgirl at breakfast," he grins and then he and Wolowitz high-five.

"I don't think Luigi is inferior," Sheldon offers. "He's taller."

Penny rests her head on his shoulder and pats his lower back affectionately. They've been practicing their physical contact. It seems a silly thing, but Penny has been patient – holding his hand first in private and then in public, standing close, brushing against him until he stopped jumping.

They've started kissing – Sheldon has discovered that at a certain point during what Penny refers to as "making out," his brain quiets down and his body takes over.

That's why now, in the Subway line, not only can Penny touch him, but he can put his arm around her shoulders without breaking a sweat. Penny had commented once that even when he had no outward signs of panic, she could still feel his heart beating fast.

"But Penny," he'd explained. "My heart always beats faster when you're around."

It is almost their turn for sandwiches.

"Hey Peach," says one of the hobbits behind them. "Wanna ditch those guys and party with us?"

"Oh please," Penny says, rolling her eyes. "Like I would want anything to do with your nasty hairy feet or your precious. I'm way out of your league."

The hobbit's friends holler and hoot, teasing their rejected comrade.

"Penny," Sheldon says. "You're out of my league too."

"No, Sweetie," she says. "You and I are playing a totally different game." She says this loudly enough for the slighted hobbit to hear. Sheldon turns around and curls up the corners of his mouth in victory.

"I believe the appropriate phrase for me to say to you now is suck it," Sheldon tells them.

Wolowitz and Raj high-five again.