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"Where's Sheldon?"

It’s a new game they’ve all been playing. Much like Where's Waldo, except they can never actually find him and it's about a thousand times more frustrating.

Leonard gives his usual noncommittal shrug while drinking his morning coffee, and Penny leans into his kitchen counter with a sigh.

"This is getting crazy. You used to be able to set your watch by Sheldon's oh-so-structured schedule, and now we see him about five minutes a week. He takes hours to even answer a text or e-mail and when he does it's just short, vague answers."

Leonard shrugs again and says, "He's going through a lot right now."

She sighs once more, remembering the first time she had to ask "Where's Sheldon?" three months ago. Leonard had woken up to find Sheldon gone, as if he had just vanished into thin air and hadn't left a note or called anyone to say he was leaving.

After much panic from Penny and not that much panic from Leonard, she had eventually gotten Missy on the phone and heard the devastating news for herself. Sheldon's mother Mary had passed away late that night, both shockingly and suddenly (some sort of brain aneurysm was their best guess).

Sheldon had immediately left for Texas without bothering to let any of them know. It was just Sheldon's way and Penny understood that, but he had been completely different since coming home.

"I'm just so worried about him. I know Sheldon doesn't deal with grief or anything else like a normal person, but I don't know - I just didn't expect this."

"We don't even know what he's doing with his time."

“And that's what worries me."

When he first came back, after assuring everyone he was fine, it was only an hour or two every day that he seemed to go missing. But over the past three months, an hour or two had turned into eight or ten or twelve hours, and no one knew where he went or what he was doing.

Leonard takes a last sip before putting his empty cup in the sink. His eyebrows suddenly go up as he says, "You know, I just remembered Howard saying something about running into Sheldon in the virtual technologies hallway."

"And that's weird because?"

"We tend to stick to our own kind."

Penny stands up straighter and puffs out her chest a little. "We should investigate."

"Ehhhh."

"Come on, Leonard. How can you not be concerned about this? I know he's a pain, but he's our friend."

"I just - he's an adult, and he'll eventually come around and go back to normal, or Sheldon's version of normal. And I don't exactly miss the ten minute lecture he would have just given me about putting a mug in the sink without rinsing it out."

Leonard barely finishes his sentence before Penny marches toward the door in a huff.

"Fine, I'll just do it myself," she mumbles as she exits.

 

*

 

“Where is he?”

Penny doesn’t consider herself to be tall but when she stands up straight, she towers over Howard just enough to intimidate him. It’s her way of reminding him that she clocked him once and could easily do it again.

“I – I don’t know.”

“Leonard said you saw him – well I forget where he said – but somewhere you wouldn’t normally see him.”

“Where all the virtual reality geeks work.”

Penny slumps a bit and Howard sighs in relief. “Don’t relax just yet. I need you to take me over there.”

“What? Why?”

“Because I need to find out what he’s up to. This isn’t healthy, whatever it is.”

Howard speaks softly in reply, “If Sheldon wanted us to know what he was doing, he would tell us. You know how he is.“

“Of course I know how he is. But this is different. We know Sheldon, but we’ve never had to deal with him after a loss like this. I just – I have a bad feeling about this.”

He rolls his eyes but opens the door to his office for her and follows her out. They are silent on the short trip up two floors and around the corner to where he spotted Sheldon a week ago. When he stops in the middle of an empty hallway, Penny turns to him with an expectant look.

“He was coming out of that room there.”

Howard points, and Penny sees the number 322 and a small sign that says ‘PRIVATE’ below that. She decides to pretend she doesn’t see it and goes straight for the door handle.

“Locked, of course.”

“That is usually what you get from a door marked private.”

She ignores him and knocks loudly with no response. “Damnit.”

“Maybe you should just leave it alone.”

“Not going to happen.”

Penny knocks again and still nothing. She turns around to look at Howard who shrugs his shoulders at her. “Why is this so important to you?”

She frowns and it feels like something hitting her in the chest, hard and solid and full of sadness. “I’m keeping a promise.”

Howard looks completely confused so she continues, “I promised Mary once that I would always look out for Sheldon. No offense, but she didn’t exactly trust you guys to keep his best interests at heart and I know he’s a pain in the ass, but he’s our responsibility now. My responsibility. And Mary wouldn’t want – whatever this is – for him.”

He nods in understanding and then heads to the door to start banging on it with her as Penny shouts, “Whoever is in there, open up. I’m not going anywhere until you do!”

“She’s not lying! I hope you have enough rations to get you through winter!” Howard adds and Penny gives him a quick smile.

The door opens just enough for her to see a guy about her height and her age with scruffy blonde hair. He’s clearly annoyed, which is exactly what she was going for, “Whaaaaaaat?”

“Is Sheldon Cooper here?”

“Nope.”

Penny raises her eyebrows suspiciously. “You answered that way too quickly for it to be true.”

“I can’t let you in.”

She shares a glance with Howard, as if the word ‘let’ is just a formality, and pushes the door open wider to let them both in.

The room is dimly lit and crammed with enough computers and wires to fill a warehouse. There’s a glass wall past the work station with two reclining chairs, and Sheldon is in one of them with some kind of helmet on his head and sensors attached to his arms and legs.

“What the hell?” is Penny’s first response before she turns to look back at the guy that answered the door. “What is this?”

“An experiment. That your friend consented to. I can show you the contract. We’re not doing anything he didn’t agree to.”

“What kind of experiment?”

“Virtual reality, but really advanced, next level sort of stuff. Nothing like this has ever existed before, and Dr. Cooper agreed to be our beta tester.”

Penny bites her lip in confusion as she tries to process it, then finally says, “Like science-fiction virtual reality? Is it all like – uhm – Tron?”

Howard grins as he interjects, “Is that the only virtual reality movie you’ve seen?”

“Maybe.”

The head geek in charge shakes his head and smiles proudly, “Nothing like Tron. But better. You know the game The Sims?”

Penny nods; she’d considered playing it before, but Sheldon had reminded her of what happened when she played Age of Conan and how easy it was to fall into that dark place again.

At her nod, he continues, “Well, it’s kind of like that. Except you’re not sitting at your computer screen controlling some avatar’s life. You’re in the world. You can feel and touch and taste and smell things like you’re actually there. And when it gets released, you’ll be able to interact with people all over the world all from the comfort of your own home.”

“So it’s basically like living real life but you don’t have to go anywhere to do it?”

“I guess that’s one way –“

“Sorry, but – wait, what’s your name?”

“Blake.”

“Sorry, Blake, but that is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Why create virtual things or travel to virtual places or meet virtual people when you can just do those things for real? Wait, you didn’t invent this for sex reasons did you? Please don’t tell me that.”

Blake blushes and Penny elbows Howard in the arm for even beginning to look intrigued as Blake answers, “No, that’s not why, although – well, never mind. It’s just a way for people to do things and create things that are unattainable to them in their every day lives. Whatever that is.”

Howard decides to take a turn and asks, “Can you tell us what Sheldon has been doing in there?”

“I – I have data but it’s confidential. You’d have to go in and find out for yourself.”

“How long has he been doing this for?”

“Uhm, almost ten weeks.”

Howard and Penny share a knowing look and she says softly, “Since right after he got back from Texas. How long is he in here every day?”

“It started off an hour each session, but now it’s up to at least eight. Sometimes as much as twelve.”

“Oh my God, that can’t be healthy.”

“It’s not.”

Penny looks at Blake with surprise, “Then why don’t you stop it?”

Blake shrugs, “It’s what he wants. And as long as he takes time out to eat and sleep, it shouldn’t cause any permanent damage.”

“Shouldn’t? I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Like I said, you create your own world in there, good or bad, and we do monitor him, so as long as he doesn’t create something that puts him in danger –“

Howard stops him and now it’s his turn to look genuinely worried, “You didn’t create a computer program that could kill someone, did you?”

“Well, no, I don’t think I did. I mean, sometimes unpredictable things happen when you’re dealing with technology and –“

“Then you get every science fiction book or movie ever written about robots, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality gone terribly wrong.”

Penny starts walking towards the room where Sheldon is and says, “You have to put me in there.”

“No! Wait! I can’t!”

“Yes, you can. You need more than one beta tester and I have to find out what he’s doing. Besides, I’m not really good at taking no for an answer.”

“I’ve noticed that. I just meant our other chair isn’t quite set up yet, but if you give me a day, I can hook you up. Dr. Cooper usually shows up around nine, so –“

Penny nods and crosses her arms over her chest, “I”ll be here at ten.”

 

*

 

“How will I find him once I’m in there?”

“Remember how I taught you the way to get to the menu? There’s an option in there to search for a user. Just search for Dr. Cooper and if he hasn’t set his location to private, you should go right to him.”

Blake explains this as he sticks the last of the sensors to her arms and Penny continues to nod in understanding. “And how do I get out of the program?”

“Click your heels together three times.”

“You’re shitting me.”

He smiles bashfully and replies, “It was Alan – my co-creator’s idea – something memorable but not a gesture you would perform in the course of a normal day. Now, once you pull down the glasses, it will be a minute or two before you’re in.”

“And if anything goes wrong –“

“We’ll call your friend Howard immediately.”

She pulls down the glasses attached to her headgear and listens for Blake to exit to the control room. Penny can’t help but chuckle at the thought of Howard being her emergency contact, but he’s the only one that knows what’s going on here and Leonard has become even more unreliable than usual when it comes to caring about Sheldon, so better Howard than him.

“You ready, Penny?” Blake’s voice crackles over the speaker in her helmet.

“Yep.”

She closes her eyes and it feels like she’s falling asleep instantly, but when she wakes up, she’s in what looks like a normal average town square, what Blake calls the home base for the program. It’s eerie how real it looks and when she looks at herself in the reflection of a store window, she’s a little freaked out. It’s not just some computer version of her, it’s her from head to toe and Blake has even programmed the outfit she was wearing yesterday into the program.

“Creepy”, she says to her reflection and is momentarily startled at the sound of her voice being simulated by a computer program. She makes a mental note not to ask Blake or the mysterious Alan how they did it, because she’s not sure she wants to know.

Once she feels situated, she immediately searches for Sheldon’s username and finds his location listed as 2311 N. Los Robles.

“Of all the places and things he could create, Sheldon creates his own damn apartment. Figures.”

Penny chooses the option to travel there and the town square setting fades around her and suddenly she is in an exact replica of her building’s lobby. She looks at the elevator with a frown and then takes the stairs grumbling, “Could have at least made a working elevator in this version.”

When she reaches his apartment door, she knocks but doesn’t bother to wait for a response and barges in to find Sheldon - “You’re making a cup of tea? You could literally do anything or make anything and you’re in your damn apartment drinking tea.”

The spoon in Sheldon’s hand clatters to the counter and he stammers out, “Penny, what are you doing here?”

“I’ve been worried about you. We all have.”

So maybe she had been the worried one, and the others had barely expressed any concern, but he didn’t need to know that.

“I’m fine.”

“You’ve been spending half your days living in a fake world you created that looks startlingly similar to your actual world. You don’t go to work, you don’t go to the comic book store or do any of the other things you used to. I know you’re going through something terrible and –“

“Penny, I’m fine.”

Sheldon steps over to his desk and closes a notebook that had been sitting wide open, as if he doesn’t want her to see whatever he’s been working on.

She steps closer to him and puts her hand on his arm, and to her surprise he lets her. “Fine is a word people use when they are so very far from being fine and they don’t want anyone to know how messed up they really are.”

And it’s not a phrase she can ever remember Sheldon using before this. She expects him to tell her to go, but instead he asks, “How did you find me?”

“You’re not exactly stealthy. You’re about two floors and a hallway away from your office. Pretty easy to sniff you out.”

“Not my office anymore.”

Sheldon walks past her and sits in his usual spot, so Penny tentatively takes a seat at the other end of the couch. “What do you mean it’s not your office anymore?”

“A week after I got back from Texas, I was informed that my work hadn’t made any meaningful progress in far too long and therefore my funding was cut. I am technically no longer employed by CalTech.”

“Whoa. That is cold.”

“I don’t expect special treatment because my mother has died. The truth is they had every right to let me go. I have made no significant contributions to my field recently and –“

He suddenly clams up and though he disagrees, she still thinks it’s cruel to fire someone a week after their mother’s funeral. The bastards in the Physics department had sent flowers to the funeral, something she knew Sheldon would scoff at since flowers only wilt and die too quickly and are meaningless to him. Penny, Bernadette and the boys had pooled their cash together to have a tree planted where Mary’s ashes were spread, and that was something long-lasting which Sheldon genuinely appreciated.

“You need to talk to someone about all of this. If you don’t want to talk to me, fine, but you need to –“

“No.”

“I mean, first Amy runs off to another country with a bug guy –“

“Entomologist.”

“Yeah, that – and then all of this – you need help, Sheldon. More so than usual.”

She mutters the last sentence under her breath but it’s clear that Sheldon didn’t miss it as he gives her a sideways glance and a roll of his eyes.

“I’m not going to see a psychologist so I can have them talk to me about my feelings and the stages of grief and all of that poppycock.”

“Then talk to me. Or don’t. Just deal with this. Come back to the real world and deal with your shit.”

Sheldon’s face turns cold and he glares at her with a weird sort of intensity that she can’t recall seeing before. Before she can say anything else, the image of Sheldon blinks out in front of her and she’s back in the town square.

When she tries to find him, he’s either exited the program or set his status to invisible so she clicks her heels three times and wakes up back in the chair with a jolt. Sheldon is still under in the chair near hers and she wants to push him out of it just to spite him, but instead she starts pulling off the sensors without waiting for Blake to come in.

“What happened?” Blake is breathless as he comes in, and Penny takes her helmet off and frowns at him.

“Stubborn idiot, as usual. I’ll be back at ten tomorrow.”

Blake attempts to stammer out a response, but Penny is out the door before she can hear it.

 

*

 

The next day, she arrives and meets Alan, the darker and more confident version of his colleague Blake. They get started quickly and once again, Penny finds Sheldon back at his virtual apartment. She is mostly surprised that he is visible to her, and this time she takes a different approach and politely knocks on the door.

He answers and says, “Hello.” But the tone of his voice is neither pleasant nor disappointed.

“I’m not going to push you into doing anything you don’t want. I just – I don’t want you to be alone. At least not all day. It’s not right.”

Sheldon looks like he’s considering it and asks, “And no talk of Amy, my mother, or CalTech?”

She nods firmly. “Not unless you bring them up first.”

Sheldon steps backwards to make room for her to come in, and she sees that he has his notebook open at his desk again. She considers asking what's in there, but figures it’s too soon to poke that particular bear so she makes herself comfortable on the couch.

She’s in the midst of being proud of herself for not being immediately annoying when Sheldon stares her down and says, “Now what?”

“I don’t know. I thought I could, uhm, make us some tea? Then you could do whatever you’re doing and I could sit here and –“ She picks up one of the magazines on the coffee table and flips it open to completely blank pages. “- not read these blank magazines.”

“I only created the covers, not the content.”

There’s an awkward silence, so Penny just shifts in her seat until she’s completely comfortable. Nothing to read, nothing to watch, and Sheldon won’t talk to her about the reasons they’re really here.

If she can survive this and get Sheldon back into the real world, she’ll want her own Nobel Prize.

Penny looks at him with a hopeful smile and asks, “Can we play cards?”

 

*

 

So play cards is what they do. And the next day, it’s checkers. And on the third day, it’s chess – all games that they can create from memory and don’t require too many details. Halfway through their chess match, Sheldon surprises her by mentioning his mother.

“She taught me how to play.”

“Mary?”

“Yes. My dad could never stay sober long enough to teach me anything, except the rules of football and how to shoot a gun. Truthfully, he wasn’t all that sober for either of those lessons.”

Penny smiles at him as he makes his next move. “I thought you would be one of those self-taught chess players, genius boy.”

He shakes his head slightly. “Well, of course my skill at the game quickly surpassed hers, but occasionally, particularly near her birthday or Mother’s Day, I would let her win.”

“I’m sure she appreciated that.”

“I’m sure she knew I was letting her win.”

Penny makes her next move and grins because she’s pretty sure she’s got him, “Even if she did, I bet it still meant a lot to her.”

“Don’t look too happy with yourself.”

Before she can question him, he’s made his move and with an all-too-pleased smile he continues, “Checkmate.”

Penny swipes all the pieces off the board dramatically and then laughs at Sheldon’s look of horror. “Don’t worry, I’ll pick them all up. I’ve just always wanted to do that.”

 

*

 

On day five, he tells her stories about his mom’s failed attempts at craft projects, and how she was a great cook but not so great at other things. But it was always done with such enthusiasm that no one could fault her for trying.

The sixth day, they talk about how surprisingly similar their childhoods were, and commiserate about how neither of them ever felt like they belonged in the place they grew up in.

Day seven is a weird one. Sheldon seems glum when she arrives and he rushes through their usual game time without any extraneous chat, telling her he needs to get back to work. When she questions what he means by work, he asks her to leave and she complies.

At least asking her to leave is a step up from ejecting her back into the town square with no warning.

When she comes back on the eighth day, it’s as if the prior day never happened. He teaches her how to play backgammon and even though she finds it boring, she absolutely slaughters him.

Every day Penny arrives after Sheldon is already plugged in and every day she spends a few hours talking and playing whatever game they can create until she has to leave for work. But on the thirteenth day, she makes the mistake of arriving early before Sheldon has even sat down in the chair. He stares at her wide-eyed and the awkward silence between them makes her so angry that Penny feels like she’s vibrating.

“If you can talk to me in there all day, why can’t you talk to me right now?”

He shakes his head so slightly that she would have missed it had she not been staring directly at him. Sheldon doesn’t speak so Penny just goes on, “Fine. Just play chess by yourself today. I don’t have time for this crap.”

Penny doesn’t want to leave, she doesn’t want to think about what he’ll do in there if she’s not around to annoy him. But she also has a point to make so she quickly exits and is disappointed but unsurprised that Sheldon doesn’t bother to ask her to stay.

As soon as she’s in her car and can breathe again, she texts Leonard to ask him to notify her as soon as Sheldon comes home, no matter how late the hour.

There’s something she needs to know, and Penny has a plan.

 

*

 

“Thank you so much for getting out of bed at one in the morning and for the millionth time, I apologize.”

Blake is the exact amount of disheveled most people are when woken up from a sound sleep so someone can beg them to drive to their office and open up. He hasn’t bothered to comb his hair or change out of his Iron Man pajama bottoms.

“S’okay, honestly.”

He twists his key in the lock and quickly lets her in, turning on all the lights with a few flicks of the wall switches. Penny is eager to get started, but Blake stops her before she heads to the chairs, “Are you sure this is – I don’t know – ethical?”

“You’re the scientist, you tell me.” He looks like the very definition of conflicted, so Penny reassures him, “I just need thirty minutes in there alone, so I can figure out what the hell he is trying to accomplish.”

“I don’t know if –“

“Have you ever had a friend who you – well, Sheldon is almost impossible to love but somehow you just can’t help it – and – I’m just worried and I don’t even know why I’m this worried but you just have to know Sheldon to understand and I just want to make sure he’s going to be okay and –“

She doesn’t know if she got through to Blake or if he just wanted her to shut up, but he nods and motions for her to proceed to her normal chair. He quickly gets her ready to go and within minutes, she’s in and making her way directly to the virtual version of Sheldon’s apartment.

It’s beyond eerie to be here without him, but it’s exactly as he left it. The lights are off and she laughs at the thought of Sheldon trying to save electricity even in a virtual world. Penny doesn’t want to waste any more of Blake’s time so she quickly sets about her mission and goes right to Sheldon’s black notebook sitting on his desk.

It’s all just gibberish to her, numbers and letters and equations filling every corner of every page. Her heart sinks because she’s no closer to figuring him out than she was yesterday.

“At least I don’t have to feel guilty about invading Sheldon’s privacy now.”

She flips through the last few pages with a dejected sigh and is just about to put it down when she spots a sketch on the very last page. It’s a place she’s never been, but she recognizes from Sheldon’s description of it.

Penny wants to take the notebook out with her and instantly feels dumb for even thinking that because she knows it’s not even real. She gingerly places it exactly where she found it and clicks her heels together three times until she’s awake and back in the chair with Blake sitting in the adjacent chair watching her intently.

She quickly pulls the headgear off and looks over at him. “This is so much weirder with you sitting here watching me like that.”

He pales and utters, “Sorry, sorry. Did you, uh, find what you’re looking for?”

“Yes, and no. I found it but I didn’t understand most of it. Is there any way you can go through the stuff Sheldon has created on your server and see if you can figure it out?”

“I don’t know – I –“

“Come on, Blake. We’re friends, right?”

“We are?” It comes out like half-question and half-confused statement.

Penny smiles and gives him a playful tap on the arm with her fist. “Sure we are. And you’re a smart guy and I really need a smart guy to do me a favor. Please.”

She waits and hopes he doesn’t mention that putting her into his virtual world every day for two weeks has been a pretty big favor already. Penny does her best puppy dog eyes and cute pouty mouth look that always works on her usual band of scientist guys (well, mostly Leonard), and Blake finally relents.

“Okay, I’ll do it. But it may take a few days. So just keep coming in like everything is normal, and I’ll let you know if and when I find something.”

She grins widely and taps his arm again, “I totally owe you one.”

The truth is she probably owes him more than one.

 

*

 

The next morning she arrives at the virtual version of 4A and it’s as if that awkward moment from the day before never happened. Sheldon already has the chess board set up and is waiting for her with two cups of tea.

Penny can’t get over how much like real tea it tastes like no matter how many days in a row he makes it for her. Part of her still thinks this whole thing is creepy, but she’ll have to remember to praise Blake and Alan for how frighteningly accurate things are.

“Sheldon, about yesterday –“

He shrugs and sets the teacups on the coffee table before taking his usual spot. “You don’t have to say anything.”

She wants to scream at him, tell him that not saying anything is the problem. She wants to shake him until he tells her why he’s doing this, but she knows it’s not time for that yet. So instead Penny takes a deep breath and sits on the floor opposite of him.

They don’t speak through the first part of their chess match, until Penny casually says, “So apparently Stuart just got some authentic Star Wars prop in the store. It was – someone’s lightsaber, I can’t remember who but the guys were going crazy over it.”

“Hmm.”

“I thought you might want to see it but –“

Sheldon makes his next move and says nothing, so Penny just sighs. If he doesn’t start opening up to her or making efforts to come out of this, she might have to punch him in the face solely out of frustration.

 

*

 

The day after that is better. They’re playing jenga when Sheldon suddenly says, “I thought I’d have a Nobel Prize by the time I was 25, or at least 30. And now I don’t even have a job.”

“Well, that’s just silly. Aren’t most Nobel Prize winners like super old? No one ever wins one of those things when they’re young –“

“William Lawrence Bragg won the Nobel Prize in Physics when he was twenty-five.”

“Oh.”

Penny carefully places her next piece and continues, “But that can’t be common. The rest are all old guys, right?”

“The average age of Physics winners is 55.”

“See, you have plenty of time. My favorite aunt used to say that when things come too easy, you don’t appreciate them. So if it’s difficult and takes a long time, you’ll just appreciate it even more.”

Sheldon looks at her quizzically, and then gives a slight nod before he places his next block in the jenga tower.

Penny takes a deep breath as she pulls out a block from the bottom half of the tower. “Of course, she said it way better than I just did and – SONOFABITCH!”

The whole tower topples and falls to the table with a loud clatter. Sheldon has a smug grin as he says, “So this means in ten years when you finally beat me in jenga, you’ll appreciate more than if you had done it today?”

Penny tosses the block in her hand at him, nailing him right in the shoulder, and sticks her tongue out for good measure.

 

*

 

The next three days, he’s chattier than she can ever remember him being. He tells her stories about his family, about being in college so young and his time in Germany. And he’s actually funny. Not a cool, natural type of funny. But still, he makes her laugh.

She counters with stories about terrible auditions, of which she has about a million, and bad Cheesecake Factory customers, of which she has about a billion. And Sheldon laughs, not just that weird wheezy snicker he makes when he finds himself funny, but a genuine laugh.

It makes her realize that so much of their friendship has revolved around Leonard’s existence. Her on-again, off-again, on-again and then never-ever-on-again relationship with him, and Leonard dealing with Sheldon’s cantankerous nature and Sheldon dealing with how Leonard is never quite the friend or scientist he wants him to be, and just too much damn Leonard in their lives.

They’ve had so few opportunites to just be around each other without Leonard or without even talking about him, and it’s nice.

 

*

 

After three and a half weeks of daily visits to Sheldon’s virtual apartment, Alan corners her as she’s leaving and while Sheldon is still hooked up.

“Blake and I looked into that data you asked about.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t want to involve you in this too.”

While Blake is sort of bashful and disheveled, Alan is confident and put together. He brushes off her apology with a hand wave and continues, “It’s okay. There was a lot there and he couldn’t get through it alone.”

“So what did you find out?”

“Your friend has been hacking our software.”

She tries to stifle a laugh by clamping a hand over her mouth but it slips out anyway. “Sorry, but that sounds just about right. What is he trying to do?”

Alan throws his hands up in the air in surrender which is not exactly a reassuring gesture from a man with an IQ as high as Sheldon’s. “I’m not entirely sure. The sketch in the back of the notebook you found?”

“His mother’s house.”

“Yeah, well, he’s created that. Which isn’t strange or beyond the capabilities of our existing programming. But he’s also adding code himself and manipulating some existing code that we haven’t even put into use yet.”

She knows Sheldon is a genius, but apparently he’s better with computer programming than she has ever imagined. “Okay, what’s the code he’s using?”

“Do you know what a NPC is?”

“Uhhhhh, no.”

Alan straightens his glasses and sits in his desk chair with a sigh. “It stands for non-playable character. So it’s a character created by the system that a player can interact with, but you can’t change their coding or manipulate them in any way.”

Penny nods and replies, “So he’s trying to change your non-playable characters? For what?”

“I don’t know. And we can certainly delete his new data if we need to and overwrite his coding –“

“No, don’t. He'll just hack your system and do it all over again.” She bites her lip as she contemplates her next step. “Just give me a few more days so I can help him.”

She’s not just worried for Sheldon anymore, she’s genuinely afraid.

 

*

 

She has to concentrate to keep her hands from nervously trembling while they are playing rummy the next day. When their first round is finished, with her losing easily due to how distracted she is, she passes the cards over to Sheldon to shuffle.

“You trust me, right, Sheldon?”

He nods and she’s surprised that he does it without any hesitation. She continues, “Good, because I trust you too. And I’ve never talked to anyone, not Leonard or Amy or Bernadette or anyone else, about what I’m going to tell you.”

He stops and puts the cards down so he can look at her while he listens. She takes a breath and goes on, “My favorite aunt, her name was Paula and she was my favorite person in the world. She never told me what she thought I should be, like my parents did. And she never lost faith in me even if I was being an idiot. She always knew the right thing to say to make me feel better. She genuinely believed that I had something great to offer the world, that I was special. She loved me, not because she had to, but because I was worthy, you know?”

Sheldon nods again and she knows he understands, so she keeps talking, “She was awesome. Smart, and funny, and she was the only one in our family who ever got out of Nebraska. And then when I was eighteen and she was forty-one, she died in a stupid car accident. I mean, I knew I wouldn’t have her forever, but I thought that she’d be with me for a lot longer than that. I thought she would get to see me accomplish all the things she said I was capable of and then she was just – gone.”

He’s looking down at the floor now, and even though she didn’t even realize she was crying Penny feels a tear slide down her cheek. “And when she died, I thought – what’s the point? Who is going to be there for me and who will love me if she’s not around to tell me I’m worthy? I’ll be honest, I contemplated some really dark things for a while and I never thought I would come out of that.”

“What did you do?” His voice is tremulous and she can’t tell if he’s about to cry too.

“I moved here with Kurt. I never really loved Kurt, not really. He was my ticket out of Nebraska and maybe it’s stupid and pathetic that I needed a man to rescue me, but it was the best shot I had to follow my dreams. No matter how or why I got here, I just wanted to make my Aunt Paula proud. I miss her every single day and that never goes away, but I’m here. I’m still here, still breathing and that’s something.”

He looks back up and he looks paler and sadder than she ever even imagined he could look. “Is it enough?”

His words hit her like a bullet in the chest. She’s still waiting tables after nearly ten years trying to make it as an actress. She’s not even sure that she can act if she’s being honest with herself. Her history of relationships is fairly pathetic, and she’s not at all where she’d hoped she be at this point in her life.

“I – I honestly don’t know. But I hope someday it will be.”

He’s absolutely quiet but at least he’s looking her in the eyes, and she hopes he’s thinking about what she’s said. Sheldon holds his stare for at least two minutes before he starts shuffling cards again, and Penny is disappointed that he seems to be shutting her out once more.

“When you come tomorrow, show up early. Around nine.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“I have something to show you.”

Penny smiles just a little and hopes that maybe her words actually worked.

 

*

 

The next day he’s already in his chair and in the game when she arrives, so she quickly has Blake get her in there to meet him, and much to her surprise he’s in the town square waiting for her. She doesn’t know what to say so she just blurts out, “Hey.”

“Hey.”

He holds out his hand for her to grab and she is shocked. This is definitely new for Sheldon, both the virtual and the real versions of him. Penny puts her hand in his and he wraps his fingers around hers snugly. Before she even has a chance to ask where they’re going, he’s already brought them to what is a mostly empty street. Mostly empty, because in front of them is a house she’s been thinking about a lot lately.

“Your mother’s house.”

“Yes.”

His hand around hers is so warm and feels so real even if it isn’t. But virtual or not, the pain in her heart is completely real.

“Oh, Sheldon. This isn’t right.”

“Sure it is. I’ve been building it for months. I haven’t left a single detail out. I know selling her house was the best decision financially but -”

She looks up at him with a frown, “It’s not real. It might look that way or feel that way, but it will never be real.”

“I thought – I thought you would understand.”

“I do understand. I know how much you miss her, and this. But you can’t get it back. It doesn’t work that way. I know it's not fair but it’s life, and as smart as you are, you should know that better than anyone.”

He looks utterly lost. He had been expecting her approval but had gotten this instead. “It’s real enough.”

“For now. But you aren’t going to feel that way forever. Look at how you made the apartment. It’s so close to the real thing, but there are no words in the books and no movies in the DVDs and that dent in the ceiling where Howard tossed his replica of the Sword of Gryffindor isn’t there and it’s just not the same. And the longer you stay here, the more you’ll notice all the things that are missing.”

“But Penny –“

“No, no, no. Listen, I have always wanted to go to Paris, and maybe I could make Paris here. I could stick an Eiffel Tower right here next to this house, but it’s not the real thing. It’s just what I think it should be. I don’t want that. I want what’s real.”

His hand is still holding on to hers, so she leans in to him and puts her head against his shoulder. “Sheldon, please, just come back with me and live something real. We can’t bring her back. We can’t. And she wouldn’t want you doing this. She’d want you to live your life in the real world, no matter how painful that might be.”

Before either of them speak again, a sound comes from the open door of the house that sends chills down her spine.

“Shelly!”

Penny pulls her hand away from his and takes three steps back. “No way, you didn’t –“

He looks at her in confusion, like he thought he was doing the right thing but her reaction has him thrown. “I had to.”

“You hacked the code and changed a non-playable character into your mother, didn’t you? Sheldon, that’s not right.”

“It’s – she’s not entirely finished yet, but – I had to.”

Her head is spinning and she feels like she’s going to vomit. The air is thick between them with all the things she wants to say, and when she finally opens her mouth to speak again, her voice comes out crackling and worn, “Sheldon, please, just come home with me and we’ll figure this out. This isn’t the way to do it. Just leave here and don’t come back, and we’ll start all over again. We’ll both start living our lives the way my aunt and your mother would want. Okay? Just stop this. Please, please, please stop this.”

He looks like he’s considering it and she gives him a pleading look, but instead of saying anything, he sends her back to the town square, and when she tries to get back to him, she can’t find him on the network.

Penny clicks her heels as quickly as she can and wakes up in the chair with a jolt. Alan is by her side almost instantly with a worried look.

“Are you okay? Your vitals were –“

“I’m – I’m not okay, but I’m more worried about him.”

“We’re monitoring him and everything seems normal.”

Leave it to Sheldon to be able to regulate his heartbeat even in the midst of such insanity.

Penny starts yanking everything off of her and looks at Alan apologetically, “I need some fresh air. I have to go. Call me if something happens.”

She doesn’t stop moving until she’s back in her car, and that’s when she puts her head against the steering wheel and screams.

 

*

 

She drives around Pasadena for an hour with the windows down, reminding herself what the real world sounds and smells and feels like.

When she finally makes it back home, she runs into Leonard in the space between their apartments.

“Hey, how is your thing with Sheldon going?”

“I appreciate that you actually asked, but – I just need to not talk or think about Sheldon right now.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Penny lets herself in to her apartment and mutters an apology to him before shutting the door behind her. She spends the rest of the evening doing everything she can to distract herself. She runs around the neighborhood until her feet are too sore to go on, she eats the greasiest cheeseburger she can find and washes it down with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and a few shots of vodka and she tries to do everything but think about Sheldon.

When she lies down to sleep around eleven, Mary Cooper’s house is the first thing she sees when she closes her eyes.

“Goddamnit, Sheldon.”

She goes in and out of sleep for hours, and every time she wakes up, she tries to figure out what she can do next until she finally comes to the conclusion that she’s done everything she can. She can’t fix him if he doesn’t want to be fixed.

When she is just at the edge of sleep again, her phone rings and it’s a very frantic Blake.

“Penny, I am so sorry to wake you up at four in the morning but –“

“It’s okay, I’m not sleeping much anyway.”

“You just – you need to get down here.”

She immediately jumps out of bed and tells him she’s on his way. Once she hangs up, she’s dressed in record time and probably breaks more than a few laws on the way back to CalTech.
When she arrives at the lab, everything looks normal and Blake is sitting at the monitor looking fairly calm.

“Oooookay, so what was the big emergency?”

Blake jerks his head in the direction of the chairs where Sheldon looks like he hasn’t moved since she left here last. “He’s still here? I left around eleven in the morning and he’s still here?”

“Yeah. And he’s been here for over twenty hours straight. That’s longer than anyone has ever spent in there.”

“But his vitals are okay?”

“His heart is beating a little slower than I’d like to see it, but he seems fine. I just – I don’t think it’s a good idea to leave him in there any longer.”

Penny sighs and leans against the wall. “I don’t think I can help him anymore.”

Blake shakes his head and replies, “I think you’re the only one who can.”

“Can’t you just shut it down? Kick him out of the system?”

“Normally, yes. But when he hacked into the code, his avatar became deeply rooted in our system and long story, short: if we take him out too soon, it could cause permanent damage to his brain.”

She covers her face with her hands and says, “Fuuuuuck. How could you guys invent something like this?”

“We never intended for this to happen.”

Penny removes her hands from her face and glares at him, “But this always happens. In all the books that I’ve never read and all the movies I’ve barely seen, this always happens. If I know better, you should have too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t. Just put me in there one last time. If I can’t get him out, then I’m done. I don’t know what else to do.”

Blake nods and they quickly get her ready to go in. Before he leaves the room he tries to apologize again and Penny stops him, “Don’t apologize again. Just pray to whatever you pray to and hope that I get him out of here.”

A minute later and she’s back in the virtual town square and wondering how the hell she’s going to find that empty street in Sheldon’s fake Texas again. She looks around and finds a note taped to a light pole written in Sheldon’s perfect even handwriting.

“Penny, put in the address 6701 Starburst Lane in location search and that’s where I will be. Regards, Dr. Sheldon Cooper.”

She wastes no time in finding his location and he’s right where she left him, except that he is sitting on the ground with his knees pulled towards his chest.

“You came back.”

She takes a seat on the ground next to him and is impressed he’s actually sitting on the ground. Maybe he understands how fake this world is after all, since the real Sheldon would never sit on a dirty street like this.

“You didn’t give me much of a choice.”

He seems peaceful, something she hasn’t seen on him in a very long time. “I think I’m ready.”

“For what?”

“To go home. My real home.”

Penny puts her hand on his back and he doesn’t flinch, just lets it rest there comfortably. “What happened?”

“You were right.”

She laughs and then shouts loudly even though she knows he can’t hear her, “Blake, I hope you’re saving this piece of data somewhere so I can look at it every day for the rest of my life. Sheldon Cooper said I was right!”

He gives her a slight smile and says, “I tried – I tried to talk to her.”

Her own smile fades as they both look back towards the house. “Oh.”

“You were right. It wasn’t her. I can do a lot of things, but I couldn’t bring her back. Not even in here.”

“So what do we do now?”

“I need to destroy it.”

He doesn’t really need to, it can all be deleted in the system, but Penny understands that it’s a symbol and this is how he has to get over it. The hand she has on his back moves so that her arm is now wrapped around him as he says, “Don’t leave me, okay?”

“Never.”

She watches as he goes into the coding and starts deleting the files that created this fake version of Mary Cooper. When that’s done, he takes a long, deep breath and starts to bring down the house. It starts to break down piece by piece until it’s just a pile of rubble. He looks at her and she nods in understanding, and when he looks back at the rubble, it disappears as if it was never there to begin with.

The full weight of Sheldon Cooper is suddenly in her arms and his body is shaking with sobs, so she holds on to him as tightly as she can. When the loud guttural sobbing subsides into a soft crying after what she figures is about ten minutes, she rubs circles on his back to help calm him.

“Whenever you’re ready, Sheldon, you know what to do.”

After a few more minutes, he looks up at her, and she is surprised to see how clear his blue eyes are and how absolutely content he looks. “There’s no place like home.”

Penny laughs and wakes up back in the lab seconds later, quickly tossing the head gear off so she can launch herself at Sheldon and give him a real hug. He doesn’t seem to know what to do at first, even with what they just shared; he’s still that same old Sheldon in there.

“Please tell me this was the last time.”

Sheldon puts his arms around her in reciprocation and answers, “I’m done.”

Penny smiles in relief and when Blake comes running into the room, she looks straight at him with a warning, “I know I can’t stop you, but if it were me, I’d take all of this equipment out to the parking lot and blow it up. You’re a smart guy, and you need to find a new hobby.”

Blake nods but doesn’t speak, and Penny is so tired, she doesn’t even care at this point. He helps her and a slightly unsteady Sheldon back to her car. Sheldon is silent the whole way home. He just stares out the open window of her car like he’s taking in all the life he’s missed while he’d been drowning in his grief.

When they finally make it to the fourth floor, he goes to his door but stops to look back at her. “Penny, thank you.”

“I’m just glad you’re going to be okay. You will, won’t you?”

“Eventually, I think, yes.”

Penny smiles back at him and says good night before she goes back into her apartment. She doesn’t even make it to her bedroom, collapsing on her couch with a loud yawn.

She know she’s going to regret not sleeping in her bed at some point, but right now all she can do is smile.

 

*

 

She doesn’t see Sheldon again for three days. When she sees Leonard at the mailbox on the second day, she asks how he is and is told that he’s spending his time catching up on sleep and food and neglected e-mails, but mostly sleep.

Penny nods in understanding, “I think I slept fourteen hours after I got home the other night. Glad I had the day off.”

“So will I ever find out what you two have been up to?”

“Sorry, but, it’s not really my story to tell.”

“Right. If Sheldon wanted me to know, I would. I get it. Are you okay?”

Penny smiles at him. She’s more than okay, she feels a hundred pounds lighter. “Yeah, I’m great.”

And more than anything, she hopes Sheldon is feeling just as good as she is.

 

*

 

When he finally comes to see her after three days, his usual knock is like music to her ears. She practically skips towards the door before opening it.

“Hey, come on in.”

“I’m sure you were expecting me to call or come over sooner but –“

Penny waves her hand like it’s no big deal. “It’s fine. You had a lot of actual living to catch up on.”

“That’s why I’m here. I have a proposition.”

“Ooooooookay.”

Sheldon puts his hands together in front of him, fingers interlocking as he takes a breath in. “I have a considerable amount of money in my savings account already, but then with my third of the life insurance money, I have quite a bit to live off of without needing to work for a while and… I’m proposing we go to Paris.”

She figures he’s definitely joking, so she raises her eyebrows and says, “For what? You always said you would hate Paris.”

“To thank you. You said you wanted to go, so we should go. We can leave on the next flight out of LAX if you are amenable.”

“But I have a job and –“

“You despise your job.”

Penny keeps looking around like she’s about to be told it’s all a prank. “Of course I hate my job, but I need it to pay rent and –“

“Quit it. You hate your job. I don’t have a job but I have offers from places all over the world to think over. Just come with me to Paris for a week, or maybe two or three weeks. And then I’ll pick a place that actually appreciates someone with my talent and believes in my work, and you can come with me.”

“And do what?”

“Whatever you want. You dropped everything and moved here. Why not again?”

“But – I told you, I don’t want to be that girl who needs some guy to save her like I did with Kurt.”

“I’m not saving you. I’m just giving you a hand. What you do with it after that is entirely up to you. I’m not a charity and I will not support you financially in the long term, but I will be a friend. Besides, you saved me so I owe you, and you should know that I always pay back my debts.”

Her mouth has dropped so low she swears she can feel the floor touching her chin. “You’re crazy. This is crazy. When did you become so spontaneous?”

“You’re the one that said I needed to start living my life.”

“Sheldon –“

“Are you happy here?”

“What?”

“Because I’m not. I’m not saying it will be easy or that I’m suddenly some world adventurer who will always be this willy nilly, but I’m not happy in Pasadena and neither are you. I don’t do things like this very often –“

“Ever.”

Sheldon nods and looks at her with hope in his eyes. This is absolutely insane, she thinks. It’s so not Sheldon, but maybe that’s a good thing. And she’s not happy here, she hasn’t been for years, and when she tries to calculate the risk, she realizes she has absolutely nothing to lose.

She smiles and throws her arms around his neck, pushing up on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. His face turns pink as she says into his ear, “Let’s do it.”

When she lets go of him, he’s smiling too. “I’ll go look up flights.”

“And I’ll start packing. Right after I call The Cheesecake Factory and tell them to shove it.”

Sheldon hurries out and Penny grabs her phone off the table to dial the restaurant. She can’t wipe the stupid grin off her face as she waits for someone to answer, and she thinks to herself, that is exactly how you turn an ending into a beginning.