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MARCH 2010

The month after the breakup contained many of the most awkward moments of Leonard’s life. And that was saying something. Leonard had had some pretty awkward moments in his life.

It sucked, kind of, that the end of their relationship had had to occur on Valentine’s Day. It was going to take a few awesome Valentine’s Days to erase the bad taste of that one, and judging by past experience Leonard wasn’t too optimistic for awesome Valentine’s Days.

But this was better. Yeah. It was better. It wasn’t great, but maybe after a few months or a year it would be great. Because they didn’t communicate, not really, and Valentine’s Day wouldn’t have been such a big fiasco if it didn’t make it clear that they didn’t communicate, that when he was out in public with Penny by his side he felt insecure and he ended up embarrassing the both of them by pretending to not be insecure and—yes, there was a definite bad taste in his mouth, but he cared enough about Penny to want to keep her in his life, even if it wasn’t as his girlfriend. Probably especially not as his girlfriend. Weirdly, he was happier when he was pining after her. Something about fantasy being better than reality, or something.

They had agreed to not let things get awkward but Leonard didn’t know if that had made anything actually less awkward or if the two of them were just pretending it was less awkward but it was in actuality more awkward because they were pretending it wasn’t.

They were even partnering at Halo together in an effort to prove to everyone that, yeah, they can do this friendship-after-a-few-months-of-having-sex thing.

“Leonard. Leonard! Cover me!” Penny shouted in a way that he could tell she didn’t want to be shouting because they weren’t comfortable enough to shout at each other yet.

“Oh. Yeah. Okay, um, sorry.”

He swiveled his person and—

Crap.

“Ha!” Sheldon’s smug laugh invaded the room. “That’s what you get for—”

Boom.

“Ha!” Penny’s smug laugh overpowered Sheldon’s. “That’s what you get for celebrating too quickly!”

“You—that—” Sheldon sputtered.

“Don’t even try it, Raj!”

There were a few explosions as Raj tried to take Penny’s character down and failed spectacularly.

Leonard respawned seconds before Sheldon did and made sure to get out of his line of fire. Sheldon criticized them frequently for taking down characters as soon as they respawned but, if forced to, it wasn’t as if he didn’t do the same thing.

“Penny. Um, Penny,” Leonard tried to get her attention, but it was difficult without touching her, and he didn’t want to poke her or anything.

“What what what?” she asked, her fingers mashing buttons, her eyes glued to the screen.

“You might want to—Penny!!”

“HEY!”

“Ha!” came Sheldon’s laugh again. Everyone groaned.

---

They packed up the game; Sheldon and Penny, who were even in the number of times they managed to kill each other, were ribbing on each other the whole time. Sheldon even had a tiny tiny smile on his face as he did so. That is until Penny popped her gum. Sheldon had a no-gum-popping rule that Penny frequently disobeyed.

Everyone else was on Penny’s side because they liked seeing Sheldon lose. Raj leaned over to Howard and whispered in his ear. Howard in turn went over to whisper in Penny’s ear, even after she moved a few inches away from him because in all honesty that was the smart thing to do when Howard Wolowitz leaned close. It seemed that Bernadette did well in reining in his disgustingness though because he didn’t try anything. Or even look at her suggestively.

“Aw, thanks Raj!” Penny shot Raj a beaming smile, causing Leonard to smile in turn. It was times when she let go like this that he thought things could get back to normal again.

“If you are all under the impression that I didn’t hear that, I did,” Sheldon said, his expression icy and focused on Raj. Raj shrugged but didn’t look particularly worried. “And, Koothrappali, I’m tempted to set up an inquiry as to why you betrayed your team leader in order to help the enemy. I hope you know that your wins are officially discounted,” he added to Penny. “You had outside help.”

“I didn’t have outside help. I just inspired loyalty in the other side,” Penny grinned. Sheldon’s face tightened.

“Alright, let’s not give Sheldon an excuse to rant,” Leonard said, stepping between them, even though he liked being on Penny’s side as much as the other guys, if only for the reason that it was easy to gang up against Sheldon to create a sense of camaraderie. And, honestly, losing at Halo made Sheldon easier to live with, because he tended to gloat for days.

Nowadays it was easier, though. There had been an undercurrent of hostility that Leonard hadn’t realized was there until it suddenly wasn’t anymore. Whatever Sheldon Cooper said, human contact was good for him. It made him bearable. And Penny hadn’t quite so much attached herself to Sheldon’s side as she had used him as a reason to keep hanging out at the apartment frequently. Leonard knew that she was trying very hard, as he was, to salvage their friendship. But even through all this Leonard was able to see that Sheldon was becoming more friendly with her—as friendly as Sheldon was able to be, anyway. They didn’t stop sniping at each other frequently, but, like he had said—there was a background tension that Sheldon probably had never even detected that was gone.

Leonard was hopeful. The group dynamic, the dynamic that had shifted when Penny had moved across the hall, that had shifted when he and Penny started dating, and that had shifted—not quite back to where it was, but close—when they broke up was repairing itself. Maybe stronger. There was a whole broken bone analogy here somewhere.

Then Penny took a step backwards and trod on Leonard’s toe, causing them both to jump away from each other and Leonard to knock over an empty bottle of Gatorade that nevertheless caused Sheldon to flip because a few errant drops managed to make their way onto the lid of his styrofoam food container. Not even touching his food, but that was Sheldon for you.

Both flushed and embarrassed, they tottered around the coffee table, trying to avoid each other and laugh it off at the same time.

They weren’t quite there yet.

AUGUST 2010

“Hey, so you’re picking up the food tonight, right?” There was silence on the other line. “I’ll wait,” Howard added, grudgingly.

There were a few more moments in which Raj did not reply, but finally Howard heard, “Thanks dude.”

Howard usually avoided talking to Raj on the phone while the latter was in a public place, because that seemed to be the time that every pretty girl in Pasadena would walk past him and phone conversations ended up being a lot of waiting on Howard’s end for whichever girl to walk far enough away to allow Raj to unstick his jaw.

“This one was at least hot, right?”

There was silence again.

“Raj. Buddy. ... Can you at least press a button or something when there’s a girl nearby so I know?”

“Sorry. I just didn’t want to answer your question.”

Howard let it go. “Well, are you picking up the Thai or not? I’m already walking up to Leonard and Sheldon’s and I don’t want to arrive empty-handed if Sheldon’s going to go batshit on me like he did on Thursday.”

“Check the calendar. I thought it was Leonard tonight.”

“Don’t you think I have better things on my phone than Sheldon’s calendar?”

“No.”

“Well. I do. I would have had to erase the pictures of Bernadette and me on our trip to Yosemite.”

“Isn’t that the trip where you fell, split your head on a rock, and everyone thought that she beat you up?”

“That’s the one.” Howard had a few dozen very interesting pictures from that trip. Of mountains, of course. Very very nice mountains. “Hold on, call-waiting,” he said, as he rounded the third floor landing. “Hello?”

It was Leonard. “Howard, you’re bringing the food, right?” he asked in a hushed voice that indicated Sheldon was getting impatient as he was so wont to do these days.

“What! I thought it was your turn!”

“You’re the one on the calendar!”

Well, crap.

“Hold on,” he told Leonard, then switched back to Raj. “Raj, you’re gonna have to pick up the food. Turns out it was me tonight. Raj. Raj? You there?” Howard paused. “I can’t hear you if you nod!” he reminded.

There was another second’s pause, and then a conglomeration of beeps as Raj pressed the buttons on the keypad of his cell.

---

After Howard had walked into the apartment Sheldon had gotten hissy and fixed him with one of those scathing looks that required no words after being informed that Raj would arrive with the Thai. When his back was turned Howard pointed an imaginary gun at him and shot him in the back of the head. Unfortunately Sheldon heard the sound effects Howard had generated, and so now the engineer was up to strike two.

God. Sheldon was such a pissy little bitch lately. Usually Penny would call (or shout or beat) him down when he got too crazy, but she’d been gone since late May and it was as if Sheldon’s attitude was regressing to the pre-Penny era.

No. This wasn’t even the pre-Penny era. This was like... the Howard-Met-Sheldon-By-(Sort-Of)-Accidentally-Slamming-A-Skateboard-Into-Sheldon’s-Ankles-While-Sheldon-Was-Working era.
The four of them were eating Thai, Sheldon somewhat calmed down now that he had food. He was like a baby in that aspect, Howard thought. A terrifying, controlling baby.

Between mouthfuls Leonard made a noise like he was remembering something. “Oh, hey, so I got a call from Penny.”

“Oh, really? Has she fallen under the Slavic charms of a Petrescu yet?” Howard tried out his Romanian accent.

“Romania isn’t a Slavic country, it’s a Southeastern and Central European country.”

Here we go.

The whole group sighed and fidgeted, waiting for Sheldon to go on a month-long rant about the history of Romania, but after a few moments it seemed that that was all he had to say.

Huh.

Howard glanced at Raj, who had his mouth full but wasn’t chewing, and Leonard, whose fork was suspended in midair three inches from his mouth, and finally at Sheldon, who was concentrating forcefully on his food.

Silence.

“Um, anyway,” Leonard stole one more look at Sheldon, “she says they’re almost done shooting all of her scenes, but she’s gonna stay until September because... she’s friends with the cast mates and stuff. I dunno, there was a lot of static and we only talked for five minutes.” He shrugged looking a little embarrassed and finally took the bite of his Thai.

Penny was in Romania, having gotten a role as the blonde vampire bride in a small-budget modern remake of Dracula.

“Dude, I think Leonard still has a crush.”

“Definitely has a crush,” Howard agreed.

“I do not have a crush!”

“Crush,” repeated Raj.

“How is me relaying our phone conversation a crush?” Leonard asked, getting annoyed. Or heated, Howard thought smugly. “Seriously, guys, that ship has long sailed, I’m perfectly happy with the way things are. I just miss her, is all,” he said, playing with his Thai, voice quieter, “things haven’t been the same, you know?”

“You mean when you were—” Howard started.

“Please, Wolowitz, Leonard isn’t harboring a crush on Penny,” Sheldon snipped.

“Thank you, Sheldon!”

Howard rolled his eyes. Smug bitch Leonard was, once he got Sheldon on his side.

“Even Leonard isn’t dull enough to repeat that fiasco.”

“...Thank you, Sheldon,” repeated Leonard, this time little more grudgingly. Sheldon inclined his head at Leonard as if to say, ‘you’re welcome.’

“Well I for one can’t wait for Penny to get back,” Howard declared. “Bernadette needs someone to dish all of the dirty details to. You know, someone that I know.”

“So you can find out what Bernadette said?”

Howard tapped his nose.

“I doubt Penny would want to hear that,” Leonard said, effectively being a buzzkill. Howard rolled his eyes. “And I doubt even more that if she did hear—”

“Leonard, Leonard, Leonard,” Howard said, showcasing his torso with his hands. “Why wouldn’t Penny want to hear about—”

“We’re eating, Howard, stop talking,” Sheldon said, impassively setting his food on the coffee table and moving toward the kitchen.

Howard rolled his eyes, and contemplated many things, but all of them would earn him a strike and he really didn’t want to take Sheldon’s class again. He had just finished the five-hour online course three weeks ago and it was a serious bitch. Sheldon gave out strikes these days like he gave out tiny bottles of hand sanitizer.

There was a moment of silence that everyone was afraid to break because of Sheldon, but finally Raj spoke. “She does make a mean grasshopper,” he sighed reminiscently. Howard and Leonard nodded along with him.

“I don’t see why you three are so hung up on this. Without Penny here our weekly routine has been much more regular,” came Sheldon’s voice from the kitchen.

Yeah, Howard thought, and you’ve been a gigantic dick. I’m not even adding the ‘-tator.’

Sheldon looked up and Howard jumped guiltily, until he remembered that he was pretty sure that Sheldon couldn’t read minds.

“Come on!” Leonard said, twisting around in his seat to look at Sheldon. “You can’t tell me that you don’t miss her a little. Not even as an equal in Halo?”

“I can tell you that I don’t miss her,” came Sheldon’s calm voice. He was turned around, facing the cupboards to grab a tumbler.

“Yeah, but I bet you can’t tell us with a straight face,” muttered Raj.

Sheldon turned around. Howard jumped again, then pointed at Raj. No way was he getting the blame for this one. Raj looked up, sparing a betrayed look at Howard—“I picked up the food for you, dude!”—and then looking at Sheldon, who was employing his look normally reserved for people who wondered why he had to sit in the left spot of the couch.

“That’s a strike, Raj.”

“For what?”

“For slander. You have two more strikes until you’re out. Good evening,” he said, disappearing into his room.

When the four of them went to pick up Penny a few weeks later from the airport, she saw Howard first (he was wearing bright yellow) and hugged him (“I know you can’t resist me, but I am a taken man—”), then glared at him, and saw Sheldon next and wrapped her arms around his waist. Whatever he had said about not missing her, in any case Sheldon managed a very awkward if sincere one-arm-around-her-shoulders hug and a small smile at the top of her head.

Howard didn’t even want to think about where this could go.

DECEMBER 2010

Raj had been present for the infamous Soda Spill of 2010. And, had he been able to talk with two women sitting in the room, he perhaps could have prevented it.

Penny was in the middle of a very animated argument with Sheldon. Raj reflected that the Soda Spill of 2010 wouldn’t have merited having the capital letters that defined it as ‘An Event’ had this specific argument not been taking place—it had made Sheldon even more irritable than usual and his freak-out about a drink everywhere it wasn’t supposed to be (namely: his face, hair, shirt, lap, and couch cushion) was that much more torrential than it would have been.

Sheldon was turned toward Penny, his lips tight, and Penny toward Sheldon, her head tilted and her eyebrows high, in a way that made the two of them the center of the room, like the eye of a hurricane. Howard, Leonard, himself, and Bernadette were all frozen, eyes flickering from Penny to Sheldon as they countered and parried.

Also? The argument was the stupidest thing ever.

“No, Penny, the game has no merit because it relies on cheap summer-blockbuster antics to provide conflict and not even special effects would have made the otherwise physically unremarkable Nathan Drake able to believably perform the acrobatics depicted during gameplay—”

“Oh PLEASE, tell me that if I go into your room right now—” she pointed toward Sheldon’s room and Sheldon actually turned around to look as if there was something to see. Then again, so did everyone else in the room. “—I won’t find like millions of comic books that—”

“Comic books are different, Penny, it is established that one needs to suspend reality in order to—”

During his tirade, Penny had unscrewed the top of her Diet Coke and took a sip, rolling her eyes. Raj could tell she was irking Sheldon purposefully by not looking at him as he lectured.

“—whereas the Uncharted series makes a large deal about the believability of—”

Raj watched as she went to screw the top back on, but at this moment she snapped her head back to look at Sheldon so the cap fell to the floor without either of them noticing.

Raj had a bad feeling about this.

He half-raised his hand, trying to push a noise out of his throat that would catch her attention, but he was too unassuming for her to notice.

“YOU’RE just angry—”

Penny didn’t get to finish her sentence because she had punctuated her “you’re” with an emphatic jab of her finger—the finger that was attached to the hand that was holding the bottle that was open. Most of the contents of that bottle went flying into what would have been a perfect parabola, except the path of trajectory was interrupted by Sheldon’s face.

Utter silence. For fear of it Raj couldn’t even chew his food.

Then Penny let escape the tiniest giggle.

At once Howard high-tailed it out of there, dragging a confused Bernadette by the wrist. Raj tried to catch his attention, with an arm wave that hopefully conveyed a message like ‘TAKE ME WITH YOU’, but Howard had already slammed the door. Leonard all but pirouetted out of his seat and shouted something about needing light bulbs. At this point Raj was able to force a squeak out of his throat, a squeak loosely translated as ‘DON’T LEAVE ME HERE TO DIE’, but once again he went unnoticed and Leonard slammed the door behind him.

And he was left alone.

There would be no escape for the Princess this time.

At least Penny wasn’t giggling anymore. No. Now she was outright laughing.

It seemed that she had done the impossible and turned Sheldon speechless with rage. He was speechless only until of course he exploded. But still, it was a start.

Afterwards, Leonard and Howard had told Raj that they had been able to hear Sheldon from outside of the building. Raj didn’t know how much of that was actually true, but the window had been open, so it wasn’t impossible. Point was, Sheldon had a pair of lungs on him and Raj, literally, had almost wet himself.

He had missed the next part of the argument because he had made a trip to the bathroom and even after his business was finished he stayed in there a while; by the time he ventured back out Penny had a wad of napkins and was red in the face from busting a gut. Sheldon was red in the face too, but far from amused, he was still throwing a shit fit—thankfully a little more quietly.

And every time he started to wind down Penny would point out another place where the soda was spilled, or she’d clean him up in areas a little too personal for Sheldon’s taste (and this wasn’t even sexual, as Sheldon’s “too personal” space extended about an inch away from his skin), and he’d freak out again and mix in things about superpowers and germs and Naughty Dog and Halo and Penny would try to calm him down, except she wasn’t very effective about it because whenever he freaked out again she’d start laughing.

It seemed that if Penny was ever pissed all that needed to happen was to spill something on Sheldon, because no matter what Sheldon yelled at her she didn’t stop giggling at him.

From his hiding place behind the island Raj watched as things finally started to calm down. Penny, hands on her stomach, let out a few last wheezes of laughter, and Sheldon was standing next to his spot, his ‘ruined’ outer shirt off and balled in one hand, leaving on only the dark blue thermal he had been wearing under it. He was giving Penny a look that by all fairness should have frozen her bones, but she accepted it gracefully and stood up, gripping his stiff elbow for support. Sheldon didn’t even react to this. It was that bizarre.

Penny sighed contentedly, and patted his face. “Thanks, Sheldon, I needed that.” It was testament to his anger that Sheldon wasn’t even able to reply, or move. Then she leaned up and kissed him on the cheek.

It was as if someone had pointed a remote at Sheldon and hit the unpause button. He jumped, and leaned back, studying Penny with shocked eyes. She laughed at him once more and walked out of the apartment, whistling. Sheldon stared after her and didn’t give her a strike.

He half-turned back around. Raj ducked underneath the island, then peeked when there was no other sound.

Sheldon was still standing, silently, and he was moving the right side of his face as if it was feeling funny and he wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. He frowned, then looked at the front door, and took an abrupt step toward it as if it was his impulse to go after her. He visibly made himself stop, awkwardly turned around and headed toward his room, muttering about physical impossibilities even in gameplay.

After a few moments Raj deemed it safe to emerge from his makeshift bunker.

Whatever the hell happened just then, Raj was sure of one thing: he had just watched Penny fight a perfect battle. Leonard should have stayed to take notes. And it helped that Sheldon had even been losing the original argument. It was perfectly true: the only reason he was pissed in the first place was because it had taken Penny only nine hours to beat Uncharted II and it had taken him nine and a half.

FEBRUARY 2011

Things were getting weird. Like, really weird.

Penny was pretty sure she was going insane.

And by pretty sure, she meant damn sure.

This was seriously ridiculous. And if she didn’t know better, she would say it was just an errant crush because, honestly, she hadn’t gotten any action since... well, since she and Leonard broke up. She had had plenty of offers while she was in Romania, but she had wanted to remain professional and not just another blonde floozy actress in another bad horror movie. And she’d been on dates since then but they just... didn’t end up going anywhere. Talk about frustrating.

And if she didn’t know better, she would say it wasn’t a crush at all, it was just her acknowledging that her frustrating neighbor was by all accounts attractive and she liked spending time with him and he didn’t irk her as much as he did when they met and even though he was most of the time a jerk even if unintentionally he had these sweet genuine moments that kinda made her heart swell.

And if she didn’t know better, she would put it down to food poisoning.

But she kinda knew better.

And that kinda freaked her out.

Sheldon was an asshole. Point blank. And he knew everything about like everything in the universe except for of course the world around him, about interactions that defined people’s lives—including his.

So she shouldn’t. You know. Like him. And stuff. And be attracted to him. And stuff.

Oh, fuck.

So Penny figured she had a few options. She even put them in a handy-dandy list to help herself out.

Choice A) She could ignore it. Pretend it wasn’t there and maybe it would go away and all that.

Decision: Idiotic and it hadn’t worked up to this point.

Choice B) Get drunk and act on impulse.

Decision: Um, no.

Choice C) Dish to someone who didn’t care.

Decision: Maybe.

Choice D) Dish to someone who might care.

Decision: Somewhat likely.

Choice E) Accept that it was there, but don’t act on it and maybe one day they will move away from each other and it’ll kind of hide itself back in her subconscious.

Decision: Need to lay off the Dr. Phil.

---

Sometime between the lunch and dinner shift on a slow Monday Penny cornered Bernadette while they were both pretending to clean tables and be somewhat productive.

“Bernadette, I have a question,” she said, dusting imaginary crumbs off of a pleather seat.

“Sure,” Bernadette said brightly as she rearranged the already-straight salt and pepper shakers.

“So.” She wasn’t quite sure at this point how to start this conversation. “So. Okay. Um. I kind of have a problem.”

Bernadette looked at her. “You need advice?” Her pleasant if high-pitched voice was confused.

“I guess? I don’t know, it’s a little stupid and weird.” Penny scrubbed vigorously at a corner of the table, trying to figure out what she wanted to say.

Bernadette turned out to be the only one she could dish to. All of the boys were loudmouths and just as incapable of keeping a secret of this caliber as Sheldon was.

And Bernadette had a very simplistic way of viewing the world. Not that she was simple, obviously, crap, the girl was going to grad school for microbiology and understood the sort of things the guys did, stuff that went way over Penny’s head. She just... she just was sort of like Sheldon in the way that she took things at face value. She saw things as they were and took what people said as seriously, and was more incapable of understanding sarcasm than Sheldon for this. She was also a girl, which was a definite plus, and she was dating one of the boys, which was also a plus, and she knew Sheldon, so she had the best chance of understanding what Penny was going through.

But. Onto the point.“So you know how Sheldon and I are kind of friends?”

“I thought you were friends.”

“Well. Yeah. I mean, yeah, we’re friends, but it’s weird, isn’t it?”

“How is it weird?” Bernadette asked, frowning, brushing some pretend food scraps into a napkin. “You guys are acting like you’ve always acted.”

“But. Okay.” God this was so awkward to voice aloud. Fuck it. She was just going to go for the kill. “I like him. Like you like Howard. Except for it’s Sheldon. And it’s more than ‘like’.”

Bernadette was silent, and Penny stared very hard at the colors in the table, fiddling with the corner. After two seconds, she looked up and saw that Bernadette had straightened up, frowning, her hands hovering under her chest as she considered Penny.

Penny bit her lip. Bernadette was going to start laughing. Even she would think this was a joke. That was how ridiculous this was.

“Well, I know.”

Um, huh?

“Whatsit?”

“I know.” Bernadette’s voice was innocent, and confused, as if she were wondering why Penny was questioning this knowledge. “You’re always staring at him.”

“I’m—no! Okay, maybe, but that’s just because I’m scared for the world if something disturbs him enough so that he finally goes—goes all lab-accident-evil on us and—you know what. Okay. Fine. I don’t know why I’m trying to defend myself.”

“I don’t know either.”

Penny pursed her lips, and kicked at the chair. Stupid chair. Stupid... restaurant. Stupid-ass Sheldon.

To make sure that Bernadette actually knew what Penny was going through, she added, “Okay, this guy has, like, raptor attack survival plans. I’ve seen them. They’re printed out. And laminated.”

“Well maybe he thinks they’re necessary,” Bernadette replied in her no-nonsense girlish voice as she scrubbed the next table.

“That’s exactly my point! How is this happening?”

“I’m confused. Do you want me to talk you out of it? Because I’ve never done that before.”

This made Penny think. What did she want from Bernadette? To talk her out of it? That’s certainly how she was acting. Fuck. She instantly felt like a bitch. No matter what she said it honestly wasn’t that ridiculous that she—she had... certain feelings for this—person. Or, maybe it was, but when she actually thought really hard about it, it really wasn’t. Except for, you know, the part where Sheldon Cooper was derisive of romantic relationships and romantic feelings and all things related. She was pretty sure he wasn’t asexual like he liked to pretend he was, if his reaction to the whole slipping-in-the-shower incident over year ago was any indication—an incident that for some reason stood out clearly in her memory, even if a lot of that memory was drug-induced—but still. He was the last person to want to get in a relationship. Penny genuinely believed that her subconscious—and her hormones—were raving idiots. But she couldn’t blame them, in all honesty. Things went idiotic and crazy when it came to lo—

Yeah. Okay. Not going there.

“I don’t know. No. Don’t talk me out of it. Just... I’m trying to decide what to do.” She leaned her hip against the table, wringing the towel between her fingers, contemplating the glow of the lamps reflecting off the polished wood surfaces. “This... I don’t know if it’s the real thing, but it’s real and. It’s surprising. I can’t even figure out what to do about it. I’m, like, ninety-nine point nine nine nine nine percent sure he doesn’t ever want anything like this.”

“Maybe you should talk to him about it?”

“God no! Either he brushes it off or he turns into a smug ass thinking, honestly, who wouldn’t fall in love with me, I’m fucking Sheldon Cooper!”

Bernadette looked at her.

“I’m sorry, Penny, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I could kill him,” Penny offered, staring into space, quirking her eyebrows at the thought.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s illegal.”

Christ.

Penny looked at her. “I was joking.”

There was a pause.

“You know what. I’m just going to not do anything,” Penny decided. “Obviously if I’ve been so obvious—wait. No one else knows, do they?”

Bernadette seemed a little lost. “...I can ask?”

Penny held out her hands, waving them around a little stupidly to stop her. “No! No, that’s okay. I don’t think they do.”

“He watches you too.”

“He—what?” Penny’s heart jumped and lurched in her chest as if she was back in seventh grade again and she just heard that Sam Collins was asking about her.

Bernadette shrugged helplessly. “I can’t give you much more than that. His face is pretty—”

“—Unreadable, yeah. Sometimes.” It was as if there were two modes to understanding Sheldon: either you didn’t, or he was so obvious about what he was feeling it actually rubbed you raw. There was very little middle ground, and when there was middle ground, it was rare. It was those moments when he gave a tiny smile and didn’t realize it, or oriented himself around someone—around her—or let his voice calmly fall back into long twangy vowels. Penny remembered the day they met, that small smile he sent her way when they were standing by his whiteboard. She wondered if she had surprised it out of him, or if that was wishful thinking.

I’m Penny, she reminded herself, slapping the napkin against the table then turning to scrub at it again. It’s wishful thinking.

MAY 2011

Penny had dedicated herself to “spring cleaning,” regardless of the fact that it was now closer to summer. Sheldon found no reason to complain, especially as she had called on his expertise. And even though she had interrupted his ‘game plan’ complete with time schedules and organizational schematics in order to talk on the phone with her sister, and even though she used a dirty sponge instead of bleach to clean her countertops, he couldn’t find a reason to throw in the towel with her, if you will.

(Besides, he followed her sponge-antics with bleach anyway, there was really no harm done.)

There was something ruthless about her as she turned her apartment upside down that he admired. He subconsciously tracked her position around the apartment as she cleaned. He nodded proudly when he held up an item or a stack of magazines in front of her, only for her to toss the word, “Trash,” over her almost-bare shoulder as if the word itself was garbage.

When Sheldon inquired what had spurred this sudden change in her living arrangements, she had simply shook her head at him and then threw a dirty paper towel at his face. He wondered if this had any message he was missing, but when she laughed and rubbed some dirt off of his nose, he promptly stopped thinking about it, and his skin tickled.

Penny was playing atrocious music, singing along and dancing a little, and all signs pointed to her being cheerful. And, as he cleaned some cans dating back to 2007 from her cupboards, Sheldon found that he didn’t mind it.

“Sheldon,” Penny said. Sheldon stiffened at the sound of her voice, close to his knee as she dug pots and pans from one of the bottom cupboards. He had never seen some of these pots and pans before, and they were coated in dust and some contained—to his horror—what looked suspiciously like mouse droppings. He vowed then and there to scour his apartment as soon as they were done with hers.

Sheldon swallowed, and then tore his gaze away from the sight of the back of her neck, a little sweaty with random hairs plastered to it. “Yes,” he said.

“You know that movie I did last summer?”

“Are you implying that it’s possible for me to forget?”

Especially since that summer had been miserable. Not, however, because he had desired her presence, no matter what Koothrappali insisted. It was just miserable.

“Christ. No. Don’t get started.”

She straightened, resting on her toes and knees, and rubbed the side of her face, streaking dust across it.

“Well, they finally got enough money to finish production. They wanna release it for this summer.”

Penny looked up at him.

Sheldon stared down at her for a small moment before he shook his head, instantly putting two and two together, as the colloquialism goes.

“No,” he said, with a shake of his head, shutting a cupboard. “You are not moving.”

“I didn’t say I was definitely—”

“And I say you are definitely not.”

Penny’s expression soured, and she rose to her feet. “What?”

But Sheldon held his ground, even though she was around two inches too close to him. He raised his eyebrows at her, an expression he knew usually conveyed that he was ready to take what she would throw at him. Because he was as sure about the fact that she wouldn’t move as he was of the various hexidecimal codes in the color of her eyes.

“Sheldon.” Her voice was dangerous, but he had heard it more dangerous before. “This movie could and probably will be shitty, but it could be my break. And if I get enough money and a chance—”

“For you to even consider moving is at best illogical and at worst stupid.”

This merited a long silence from her in which she stared at him, her face increasingly chilly, a fitting adjective since it gave him goose bumps.

“You’re crossing a line here, Doctor Cooper.”

“Oh, am I?”

Sheldon recognized the slow burning in his stomach, the emotion he recognized as anger and, and—

Oh yeah.”

“Enlighten me.”

“You know what? I don’t feel I have to. Maybe you’re just pissing me off so much I want to move away.” Those words made his stomach feel as if something sharp had just been driven into it. “Maybe there’s something to be said for new beginnings. Or maybe, just maybe, I’ll do it just because you told me not to!”

“I’m sorry, but not a single one of those reasons are—”

“Hey, do you guys need—oh.”

Leonard, Howard, and Raj appeared at Penny’s half-open door, each donning a pair of rubber gloves. They stopped and stared at the scene in front of them for a moment before Leonard sighed. “What’d he do this time?”

“What did I do? She’s the one who said she might move!” Sheldon pointed an accusing finger at Penny.

“You’re moving?” Leonard asked.

Penny snapped the towel from Sheldon’s hands and moved away from him. “Well, if Sheldon keeps giving me reason to, I just may!” These words were shot directly at him.

“Penny.” Wolowitz swaggered forward, as if all of this were a joke. His face had that ridiculous expression that the engineer liked to call a ‘rugged smirk’. Sheldon liked to call it an expression likely to be found on a dead coyote, but who’s quibbling over terminology?

Sheldon frowned at him.

“We can work this out,” Howard continued in a reasonable tone. “Bernadette told me all about your secret love—”

“She told you?” Penny growled.

Sheldon experienced that same swooping sensation that he had been experiencing at random intervals over the past year, but instead of being tingly this one was downright unpleasant.

“Wait, what the hell?” This actually came from Raj, but Sheldon was focused on Penny and didn’t care, that swooping sensation turning to a hollowness even though he had breakfasted two and a half hours before.

“Your secret love for Wolowitz?” Leonard exclaimed, his high eyebrows and dropped jaw giving his face a longer appearance than usual.

“What?! No! Wait, who are we—” Penny waved her arms frantically.

“Hey, I was just going for the joke, but—sweet, two women in love with me at once! Gimme five,” Wolowitz grinned, and held out his hand to Raj, apparently for a high five. Raj didn’t respond. “Oh, reminds me, I have to find Joey Saunders from eighth grade, collect on that five bucks from him...”

“Wait wait wait, no no no, no offense, Wolowitz, but not you. Definitely not you. There are no feelings or secret love or—or anything. Trust me, I’ve always made it perfectly clear how I feel about you.”

Everyone looked relieved. Sheldon gripped the countertop and thought about leaving.

“Damn! Guess I’ll have to wait on that five bucks then.”

“Okay, so it’s not Wolowitz... so who is it?” asked Leonard. Sheldon, silent over by the counters, scrutinized his roommate’s face but was unable to detect any sort of yearning. Of course he would need a second opinion. He would ask Leonard at a later time to replicate that facial expression and have Raj translate.

Penny’s eyes were wide and her mouth was hanging open, and Sheldon was well-acquainted enough with her facial expressions to tell that she was thinking very quickly. Or, at least as quickly as she was able to think. It was the same expression she had when Sheldon inquired as to where two tablespoons of his sugar had gone.

Then her mouth shut and her face became determined again.

“You know what, I don’t have to say anything. Sorry, but no, not your guys’ business,” she said, flicking her hand in their direction, the towel in her fingers swaying. Then she finally turned to Sheldon, and he saw the slight constriction of her throat as she swallowed. “And you—you’re not in control of my life. At all. Not a single bit.” Her tone was venomous as she advanced, jabbing a finger at him. “I wasn’t even thinking seriously about moving, but, you know what, you pushed me in that direction.”

She stopped around five feet away from him, throwing the towel forcefully into the trashcan.

Her eyes still on Sheldon, she moved toward the tiny table in her kitchenette, and started to pile items together. “I need to get rid of all this crap in my life, and I’d like to do it alone,” she said in a loud voice.Sheldon was still watching her, but out of the corner of his eye he saw Raj nudge Leonard and Leonard tug Howard out of the door.

Sheldon remained where he was.

There were a few seconds of silence.

Then Penny’s head rose until she was staring at her window, her ponytail bobbing against the back of her head and the top of her neck.

“I told you to leave, Sheldon,” she said, not looking at him.

“I’m not going to. And—spoiler alert—neither are you.”

“Uh huh.” She turned around. Her face gave nothing away. “And give me one good reason.”

“Because I don’t want you to,” he shot back.

Sheldon watched her face soften, just a little. Granted, it didn’t soften much, it was like the transition from diamond to granite, but her jaw unclenched. He took that as a good sign, tiny as it was.

Then she made a very unpleasant noise, like a buzzer, causing him to impatiently expel air from his nose.

“Try again.”

“That’s my only reason.” The only one he was able to conjure. He was sure he would be able to come back in an hour with a whole list, but—

“Well sorry Sheldon.” She spread her hands wide and shrugged, swinging her hips as she—for lack of a better word—sashayed toward him. “But I think just to get on your nerves and to prove I can, I’m gonna pick up right now and—”

Penny was closing the distance between them, and when she got near enough, Sheldon helped her.

The smudge of dirt on her cheek and temple was bothering him, and maybe—maybe he wanted—

—but he reached out with his hand and brushed at it lightly with his palm. Some of it came off. Some of it, of course, didn’t, and Sheldon looked around for a disinfectant wipe.“Oh, fuck.”

“Wh—?”

He jumped when he felt fingers wrap around his wrist, her staring at the dirt on his hand.

“My hand is dirty—” Sheldon said, panicking, trying to draw it back.

“Yeah, my hands are dirty too, what’re you afr—”

“Excuse me, Penny, I don’t understand this change in your mood, do you care to provide some sort of an expl—”

His stomach did a Crazy Ivan when Penny put her own fingers on his cheekbones, hooking her thumbs under his jaw.

Sheldon swallowed and watched the light dance a reflection in her eyes.

“I’m too far in.”

As she said this, his mind flickered from thought to thought so fast that he was working just as quickly to try to comprehend them all, so he said, “Alright,” as a way of response as he tried to catch up, but as he was catching up she was moving farther forward and away from his understanding.

And as she was moving farther forward, she was moving closer to him, and it really wasn’t until his face and lips felt as if on fire that his brain made a screeching stop at—

Oh.

Oh.

Oh.

Penny—

Penny was kissing him.

Oh.

Her teeth tugged at his lower lip.

Her mouth opened.

Her mouth was suddenly gone.

And Sheldon was staring down at her, having not moved an inch.

“Oh,” he said.

Then, feeling clumsy, he put both his palms on both of her cheekbones, his fingers tickling in her hair, wondering if that would initiate the sequence again.

It did.

His mind spun, making him feel a little dizzy, and all of the nerve endings in his lips, and, and, and his—were buzzing, and he was highly aware somehow of his elbows and wondered absently if they looked as strange as they felt, and Penny ended up seated on the counter, a pressure around his waist indicating that her knees were clenched there, and a pressure against his upper chest and his torso where her own was molded to his, and he didn’t quite know what he was doing but he did what felt right, pushing his mouth tightly to hers, the buzzing becoming a tingling—

Penny was gone again, and he fell forward a little.

“Spoiler alert, Sheldon?”

She breathed the words, and he inhaled them in along with the scent of her, trying to concentrate on that, his eyes closed, his nose just barely touching hers—

“Yeah,” he breathed back.

“This is happening again.”

“Yeah,” he agreed, and pressed his mouth to hers once more.