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I've been making a list of the things they don't teach you at school. They don't teach you how to love somebody. They don't teach you how to be famous. They don't teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don't teach you how to walk away from someone you don't love any longer. They don't teach you how to know what's going on in someone else's mind. They don't teach you what to say to someone who's dying. They don't teach you anything worth knowing.

NEIL GAIMAN

§

If Sheldon believed in fate, he would've now known why he let Leonard introduce himself and subsequently entangle both of their lives with their deceptively simple next-door neighbor.

§

He’s in the hotel lobby only two blocks away from where he’s just finished accepting the greatest accolade that he or anyone in his field could ever hope to win when he snaps.

Penny is the only person with him, the others having used his newfound celebrity status (in the academic world, at least) to leave with a group of women who look like they could be her relatives.

She calms him and apologizes to the waiter, explaining that Sweden just must not be big on tea drinking.

“This is the fifth place we’ve been to this weekend that has given me that answer. I am sick of this, of all of this. All I want is a cup of tea – I just – that's all I want. Why can’t things just be normal. Why can’t things be normal,” --again. The stress of the week has caught up to him.

Sheldon tries to compartmentalize his unexpected burst of panic, but the emotions twist up through his chest and clamp down around his throat. His eyes are starting to water.

Penny’s look of pity just adds to the resentment he feels. This trip, this country, this entire experience; winning a Nobel Prize is not all it’s cracked up to be.

“Sheldon, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong.”

She frowns and her eyebrows crease. “You’re beet red and almost crying. That is a whole lot of nothing going on.”

He fiddles with his cloth napkin's crooked stitching to keep his hands busy. His fingers tremble as he places it next to his dish and silverware. He’s obviously fooling Penny even less than he’s fooling himself.

When her gaze softens, a shiver bolts down his back, and he snaps.

“What am I supposed to do now?”

§

He’s got just enough leftover bank notes for the cab ride to the train station. He stacks his belongings neatly in the unhinged trunk and tries not to flinch when Penny loads hers in next. Throws hers in next, would be a better way of phrasing it.

He’s due back in the US for a lecture at MIT on Monday and a meet-and-greet with prospective Harvard physics majors the following day. Penny will go straight back to California where she has food to serve and roles to audition for.

His minor breakdown the previous night seems forgotten, on the quiet car ride through the city.

It’s only once they’re standing in the crowded train station, straining their necks as they compare departures and arrivals on the overhead schedules that Sheldon’s apprehension returns.

The pocketful of kronor jingles softly in his hand as he turns it over gently, contemplative.

Penny’s half-joking when she leans over and says, “I’ve always wanted to see Italy.”

They end up on a train heading south, anyway.

§

German beer just tastes better, Penny concludes.

Sheldon disagrees. But he’s never tried American beer, so.

§

They pool their money around Northern Italy, while the train creeps past a border check-in and the couple besides them is arguing loudly in a language that Sheldon’s iPhone app can’t decipher.

20 kronor
15 öre
€450
10c
52.85$
a Canadian penny
and a giftcard to Victoria’s Secret with 4.02$ left on it


Sheldon stops in a bank and buys as many traveler's checks as can fit inside the zippered compartments of the backpacks Penny picked out in a ski shop right before they’d left Sweden. Even with the added heaviness of the luggage, his pockets feel lighter. Somehow, that matters more.

They tuck their photo IDs into their back pockets and snap their credit cards into as many pieces as they can manage before their fingers start to bleed.

§

He starts awake as the train comes to a stop at the station in Florence. Not for the first time, his body and mind scream at his decision to do this. It's not how he does things, it's not safe, and it's definitely not intelligent.

He smiles at the sunset outside the window and nudges Penny awake. They have to figure out where they’re going to sleep tonight.

§

Nonna, shh. Now, hush. They are welcome!” Penny blushes and tries to shrink into her chair. They are definitely not welcome, that much was clear.

Evidently, the sweet little old Italian woman liked them much better when she thought they were honeymooning. Her grandson had helped them order gelato at the market, earlier, and although he had insisted that them having dinner and spending the night would be no problem it just seemed to be one after the other since they had arrived.

First, they thought Penny was Sheldon’s wife. Then, Sheldon had a slight conniption at the sight of people stomping on the grapes used for making other bottles of the wine they’d been offered. (He’d only sniffed it, but still.) Third, Penny didn’t speak Italian outside of mafia movie quotes and even then it was mostly accent driven.

Most of the dinner is spent in the middle of a fight, both Penny and Sheldon trying to discretely slurp up noodles smothered in alfredo sauce.

Just your typical Thursday, really.

§

Sheldon finds a compatible outlet for his iPhone charger in a McDonald’s just outside of Napoli. He books a villa in Tuscany for two weeks, only €1050 by owner.

They flip through the property photos with huge grins on their faces as their bus zooms down E35.

§

They didn’t understand that when the owner listed the pool as private, they actually meant private. As in, no one else there.

Penny almost cries. She swims laps in her underwear, instead.

§

“I didn’t know you could cook,” Penny comments as she pokes at the tomato rolling around her salad plate.

“You know that I bake, so it’s not a far stretch to assume that I cook also.”

Penny frowns. “I didn’t know that you bake, either.”

“But you were able to eat not one but two loaves of bread I gave you, of course.” He rolls his eyes, although not unkindly.

“Oh, you made those. They were pretty good, I think. I figured you bought them at a store or something.”

“The act of presenting baked goods is almost half as effective at creating conversation if people think you bought the food rather than made it yourself. I’m surprised you let me in.”

“Me, too.” Penny grins at Sheldon’s squinting eyes.

§

“You got your tattoo fixed,” Sheldon notes, absently, as he thumbs through a used guide book he found in a second-hand shop in town.

He’s been taking bike rides into the city during most mornings to get milk, fruit, and the occasional newspaper. Penny wants to go, but the sun is so warm and convincing that she almost always ends up sleeping until noon.

“So what?”

“Very courageous.” He flips a page.

She tucks a towel around her waist, pointedly covering up her lower back. “Hilarious, Sheldon. You’re absolutely hilarious.”

They both snicker as she rolls her eyes.

§

Penny gets fired for missing two weeks of work.

She’s busy tanning while she waits for Sheldon to show up with the apples he’s gone off to pick and misses her phone beep with a new voicemail.

Twenty minutes later, she turns over to get some sun on her back.

§

“Is it weird that I just want to stay here? Like, move here and never leave.”

Penny hasn’t brought up what they’re doing or what it means or when it’s going to end. She feels instantly ashamed at having said anything, worried that she’s just burst some kind of magical bubble.

Sheldon looks slightly sad, despite his offer of a small smile. He shakes his head and twists his glass of water around in its place on the wooden dinner table. “No, it’s not.”

§

Penny grabs another long blade of grass and peels it apart piece by piece.

She’s had three glasses of wine (no feet involved) and he’s had three sips. The air is warm and almost muggy, but there’s a breeze every so often and Penny feels like it’s the perfect night for some answers. She’s not asked any questions since they began this whole escapade, but sometimes talking can help.

She starts out simple. “What did you want to be when you grew up?”

Sheldon is sitting cross-legged besides where she’s laid out on her back, hands still roaming the grass and pulling at its ends. He gives her a sharp look, not expecting the question, but turns to stare out at the view and consider it.

“A scientist, I suppose.”

She doesn’t wait for him to ask the same of her. “I wanted to be a rodeo clown.”

Sheldon turns to his side for emphasis. “What?”

“Come on, rodeo clown. Dress up in clown make-up, wrangle cattle, perform at—”

“I know what it is, but why on earth would that be something you aspired to be?”

“They always looked so happy, back when I was competing. They would get the audience riled up before and after the standard competition sections took place. They seemed to have a really fun time and cared more about their relationship with the crowd than the sport. At the time, it seemed like a welcome change of pace.”

“I thought you enjoyed rodeo. You seem to mention it with a bit of gusto, every time.”

“Well, I’m glad I have those skills. The better to threaten you with, my dear. But, back then, it was more about me trying to prove myself to my father. It was a whole thing. I envied those clowns.” She pauses. “I’ve never said that out loud, before. Wow. It sounds really stupid.”

“Now you know where I was coming from.” Sheldon smiles and leans his chin down to rest on the heel of his hand.

“I’m sorry, not all of us could aspire to be Nobel Prize winning physicists, let alone end up one. I would’ve worked that clown outfit, though, okay.”

There’s silence for a long moment and Penny thinks he’s been offended by something she said. Although, she’s been walking on eggshells all week, so if he tries to throw some sort of tantrum it will be unwarranted.

Sheldon’s voice is quiet when he speaks. “I wanted to play the piano.”

“You do play the piano.” It’s a statement, really, but it sounds like a question to both of them.

“I didn’t have the ability to go beyond a basic mastery of the instrument. My teacher once told me…” He gulps a little, and lets out a short annoyed breath of air. “My piano teacher once told me that I lacked the emotional depth to feel the music as well as play it properly. It would always inhibit me, in some way.”

Penny’s mouth makes small movements, but she can’t really find anything to say that properly expresses her anger and empathy.

“I told my parents and they had her fired, then the whole church group stopped talking to her. I almost felt bad, since I think she was trying to help me. I think she knew that—” His voice is suddenly so raw with emotion that Penny has to sit herself up and catch her breath. He smiles, but there’s no happiness in it. There’s only resignation and a bitter, bitter disappointment. “Robots are better served as scientists.”

You are not a robot.” Penny almost growls it at him. She immediately backtracks, remembering that she’s talking to Sheldon and not whoever or whatever is trying to imply that. He gives her a look like he wants to roll his eyes, but she throws an arm up near his shoulder and grips his arm tensely. “You’re not.”

“I’ve spent so much time focusing on not letting my emotions and my baser urges distract me from achieving my goals. Now that I have, I can’t remember why that was. I guess it was a contributing factor to winning awards, of course. It’s just that now, it seems like that doesn’t really—”

“Seem like it was worth it.” Penny finishes, nodding. Sheldon looks away. “Look, you can’t change the past. God knows, I would too, if I could. Just consider it all one big, elaborate life lesson. And hey, at the end of the day, you have a Nobel Prize. Not too shabby.”

Sheldon looks like he’s trying to fight a smile, but his eyes remain on the ground opposite Penny’s direction. “I think I’m beginning to understand more and more those who’ve said they’ve experienced a break with reality. I can’t separate what I was suppressing from my genuine personality, anymore. It’s an odd sense of duality.” He straightens his legs out so that he can pull his knees behind his outstretched arms. "It's why I wanted to run away. Why I want to stay away. Here."

“We just dropped off the face of the planet, I know. I think I’m currently unemployed, too.” Sheldon arches to the side and looks like he wants to apologize, but she shakes her head and gives a happy smile. “I never thanked you for putting up the majority of the money for this. So. Thanks, you.”

She braces herself slightly and leans backwards until her back meets the grass, once again. She’s pleasantly surprised when Sheldon follows suit.

They fall asleep under the stars and wake up covered in dew and one another’s limbs.

§

Sheldon swims for the first time in twenty years, to get the pieces of grass off of where they’re seemingly stuck to his legs and arms. He swears he saw a cricket on his foot when he first wakes, but Penny insists that since they couldn’t hear it, it obviously was just his imagination.

He’s in the pool for only the ten minutes it takes to be sure that there’s nothing left on him and he pushes out of the water while Penny’s still floating around on the other end specifically so that he’ll be able to get his shower first. But, still, Penny considers it progress.

There’s scrambled eggs and ham ready for her when she gets out. She smiles and takes her bites slowly, trying to etch the previous night and morning into her memory. The thought that it’s all temporary makes her all but lose her appetite, but Sheldon’s face looks so pleased at having everything laid out just so that she goes in for seconds.

§

“Put your jeans on!” Penny hobbles around on one foot, hair falling all over and dress unzipped.

“I thought you bought those ironically!” Sheldon yells from the other side of the door.

“You don’t know what irony is!” Penny pulls her second heel on and sways at the door to the bathroom.

There’s silence for a second before he clears his throat. “Irony: use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.”

She pulls her hair out of the bobby pins she’s set it back with, shaking out the curls. “Buying a nice new pair of jeans and not realizing you’re going to be asked to wear them at some point soon is pretty ironic, Sheldon realized, as he pulled his pants on like his pretty blonde friend had asked him to.”

She hears Sheldon set his phone down and stand up. “What was that?” he asks.

“I was using it in a sentence, brainiac. Hustle, the cab’s going to be here in twenty minutes.”

“Cab? Twenty minutes? Where are we going? Who ordered a cab?”

Penny smears a blotch of lip gloss across her bottom lip before rubbing her lips together and smacking them at the mirror in front of her. “I did! We’re going out! Get the jeans on. I don’t care what shirt you wear, but the maroon would look nice with that shade of denim.”

“The maroon itches at the collar!” Sheldon is half-changing when she clomps across the hall and barges right into his room. He’s more shocked than angry, so he only stares in disbelief as he continues pulling his pants up and zippering the fly. Penny walks over to his closet, distracted and oblivious to his reaction, searching for the shirt in question.

She yanks out the short-sleeved maroon polo she bought somewhere in the south of Germany and rips off the label on the inside of the collar.

Sheldon yelps. “That was barbaric. You can’t just tear a label off. The washing and drying instructions are on there!” (The fact that they were written in German is somehow inconsequential, to him.)

She throws the shirt at him and he stares down morosely at where the tag used to be.

“Hey, Sheldon?”

“Yes?” he asks, harshly. His fingers brush against the frayed edge.

“How would you launder that shirt, out of curiosity?”

“Wash warm, tumble dry,” he answers, matter-of-factly. Penny walks out of the room, disinterested in the conversation suddenly.

Sheldon considers the shirt he’s currently wearing and whether he should attempt his trademark layering. It’s Italy, however, and his dislike towards sweating wins out. He pulls off his current shirt and slips the polo over his head as he takes off down the hallway to wherever Penny has gotten.

The cab honks outside and she bursts out of the bathroom, grabbing him along her way. He’s barely managed to get dressed, let alone consider what he may need to bring or where they’re heading. Penny greets the driver in Italian and before he can do more than blink and pull the door shut behind them, they’re off to the city.

§

Sheldon ends up with two scribbled-on-napkin phone numbers and two half-completed contacts on his phone. He can’t tell if the contact with just the name belongs with the number without a name, but he’ll delete them before he calls either to find out.

Penny had the attention of half the people in the club, men and women alike. She dances like she fights and people can’t help but get drawn in. Sheldon knows the sensation. If she was collecting numbers, as well (or having them tucked in her pockets, as he had), he’s sure she must have triple the amount he had.

They leave together, just after two in the morning, and make fun of the creepy old guy with the awkward, backwards toupee the whole ride home.

§

It’s been only a week and a day, but Sheldon feels like they’ve been cut off from civilization for months, living in their own world.

He’s invested in a pair of sunglasses, something that he barely bothered with while living in southern California.

He sits by the edge of the pool with his battered guide book. Penny floats around on her back, giving the occasional backstroke to keep her body above water.

Each day that they’re here, they’re missing another Roman ruin or ornate fountain or abandoned castle; the things he’d assumed Penny wanted to visit when she suggested “seeing” Italy.

Technically they haven’t seen much of anything besides a few local markets, the ocean, a nightclub, and a dozen or so train stations. But the view here, Sheldon contemplates it, dropping the book gently on the ground beside his chair and stretching his limbs out in the warm sunlight.

He’s not a gambling man, but he’d wager that they’re not missing much in comparison.

§

“What is this, again?”

“Eggplant parmesan?” Penny answers, mouth going crooked.

“Oh, lord. Why did that sound like you’re not sure either?” Sheldon shakes out his napkin and tentatively prods the pasta with his fork.

“The instructions were complicated, okay. And I got spaghetti sauce on the cook time part, so I had to eyeball it.”

“You could’ve printed it out a second time!” Sheldon cuts out a slice and visibly prepares himself for taking a bite of it.

“You weren’t there, it was a judgment call.” Penny’s proud of being the one to prepare dinner, but she can’t hide the fact that she’s waiting on Sheldon to try it before she eats any, herself.

He takes a bite and waits a moment, chewing it thoughtfully. Penny stares, intently, searching for any kind of reaction. His fork goes back down for more, while a look of surprise breaks across his face.

“This isn’t that bad, actually.” Sheldon gives a small frown of bemused approval.

They eat the rest of the pan and lie around watching Law & Order: SVU repeats dubbed in Italian, moaning about having overeaten until the sun goes down. The husband is the murderer seventy-five percent of the time; Sheldon’s guesses are always spot-on.

§

“Why did you end things with Leonard?” Sheldon prompts, halfway through a game of Crazy Eights the following afternoon.

Penny blanches, not even knowing where to start. “Why do you care?”

“Your relationship with him has always been an enigma to me. Now that we’re in the position to share things, I thought I’d try my luck. If you’d rather not answer, I understand. That was a long time ago. Both times.”

Sheldon puts down another six, switching the suit to spades and waits for Penny to make her next move.

“I got scared, at first. That kind of commitment was a little terrifying.”

“But I thought you had previous boyfriends with which you lived? And loved despite having found him cheating on you?”

“You remembering every little thing I’ve said is sometimes the worst thing ever,” Penny replies with a huff. She searches her small handful of cards before reaching to the overturned deck in hopes of finding a spade. “Kurt was different. I was stupid with him.”

“Having met the Neanderthal in question, I’d have to agree.”

Penny picks up a four of spades and sets it atop the others. “Dating Leonard was… harder, I guess. I wasn’t used to putting that much work into relationships. Plus, when he wanted to get serious, I knew he really meant it.”

Sheldon nods and puts another spade down, Penny huffs and goes back to the pile.

“I also…” Penny rolls her eyes at saying it out loud, but she knows he’s opened up to her plenty and she’s never one not to give as good as she gets. “It’s pathetic, but I always felt inadequate compared to him. When he told me he loved me, it just hit me that the depth of his feelings would probably never be matched in me. I eventually got kind of weirdly jealous of his other girlfriends, probably because they weren’t as insecure and wussy as I am. But, I never really wanted to be with him after that first hard break, honestly. Especially after I found out that my dad had told him to keep gunning for me.”

Sheldon makes a face as she puts down an eight and switches it back to diamonds. “Your father told him what? Why was I not aware of this?”

“I wasn’t either until a few years ago, when he was dating Lena and told me one night when he came home drunk from some banquet. I was so grossed out, you can’t even imagine. I probably never told you because it was embarrassing, for both of us. Poor Lena, too, having her boyfriend come stumbling home and mumbling things about how he’s never supposed to give up on me, it was a mess. I don’t know if he didn’t remember it the next day or just didn’t want to talk about it, either. So I never brought it up.”

“That’s horrifying.”

“I know, right? Up until a few years ago I thought it was all kind of romantic, the back and forth between us, like Ross and Rachel. You know?”

“I don’t,” Sheldon supplies easily, putting down one of his last spare diamonds.

“But then I was watching a mini-marathon, when I was home sick from work, and I realized that I hate Ross and Rachel. They’re so predictable and boring, it was like a bucket of cold water.”

“Who are these people that you’re talking about? Should I know them? Are they mutual friends of mine that I’ve blocked out due to disinterest?”

“From Friends, come on, you’ve totally seen at least one episode. Everyone in the world has. I bet I could walk into town, here and find people that own the DVDs.”

Sheldon looks nonplussed and still blanking on her reference. He puts down his last two cards, both eights, and Penny takes off to the TV. She can’t find any Friends on either On Demand or airing regularly within the next day.

She moves to the computer, a nice but small flat screen pushed back aside where the DVD collection is. After a few careful Google searches, she has the full series streaming ready to go.

She makes popcorn as she decides that starting around season three would probably be best, given how long the series is. Sheldon’s taken with Monica almost from the get-go.

§

Penny’s painting her toe nails with the polish she found tucked away in one of the cabinets in the side room. Orange isn’t really her color, normally, but. When in driving distance of Rome!

“A lot of people do prefer them together; you’re not wrong in thinking that. Since they’re all completely different people who haven’t dated one another, two of them being brother and sister, there’s just no conflicting interest. Most people like them both.”

Sheldon frowns. “Ross is just such a buffoon. Not in the good way, like Joey is. He’s egotistical and hides behind academia to feel superior to those around him, when he is clearly just as dull as they are.”

“They’re not dumb, okay. Pheebs could’ve been on the stock exchange.”

“Yes, because that takes a modicum of intelligence. It’s not like that was an alternate dream reality or anything, either.” He folds his arms and gives Penny a very pointed look.

“Yeah, hanging out with some egotistical academic, why would anyone ever do that?” She rolls her eyes as he seems to agree and widens his eyes for emphasis. “Ross and Rachel were just on again and off again, it kept people coming back to see if they’d end up together.”

“I could’ve told you that from the moment the series began. It’s basic sitcom tautology, in just about every case besides those that try to specifically defy it.”

“That’s what I always thought they were trying to do with Monica and Chandler. Coming out of left field like they did and becoming the longest running relationship on the show.”

“Please, the moment they started having past Chandler tease her or otherwise not notice her, while she fawned over him, it was obvious. I’m sure they only discovered it was a viable plot once they’d seen the actors’ chemistry onscreen, but it was clearly inherent in the construction of the plot from as early as the first few seasons.”

“For someone who didn’t even know what the show was, a day ago, you know an awful lot about the motivations and character backgrounds.” Penny grins and caps the bottle, setting it aside as she lays her feet out to dry.

“Your implications that your relationship with Leonard in any way reflects that of Ross and Rachel is mind-boggling. I’m merely trying to explain why.”

“I told you I stopped thinking of it that way, or even liking them all that much. I always liked Phoebe and Joey more, to be totally honest.”

“Character identifying. Part of why I enjoy Monica’s neuroses so much, I believe. Although you’re more like Rachel than you are Phoebe ...or perhaps more like Joey than both.”

Something occurs to her, out of the blue and Penny pales. Sheldon is too busy scrolling through Wikipedia’s character pages to notice. “I’m going to go get some air.”

“Okay,” he replies, softly and watches her waddle out to the front lawn with her toes in the air so that the polish didn’t smudge.

Penny sits quietly under the dimming sky and tries to count the ways she’s not like Chandler. She gets to five, twenty minutes later. Four of them are job and family related. Shit.

§

They leave in three days and Penny can’t decide if she’s happy or depressed about it.

§

She could swear she hears Sheldon whistling the next morning. She’s out on the porch chair, trying to draw the sunrise with a haphazard collection of pencils, markers, and kids’ watercolor paint she found throughout the house.

It starts for a little under a minute and ends almost as quickly as it started. She shrugs to herself and goes back to trying to smear the right amount of highlighter over the oozing purple covering most of the computer paper she’s painted on.

It was probably a bird chirping oddly, she decides. The highlighter works perfectly.

§

Sheldon’s never been one for compliments, but he tells her that she captured the sunrise far better than he could have. It’s a simple comment that shouldn’t do much more than make her blush and offer thanks.

She doesn’t swoon, that’s for sure. Not even kind of.

§

They make dinner together on their last night in Italy. Sheldon stirs the pots and Penny sneaks extra spices into the sauce pan when he’s not looking.

They argue over who’ll set the table and Penny’s hit with a pain of just how dearly she’s going to miss this.

Earlier, in a fit of crazed awkwardness over her increasing fear that she may or may not have feelings-esque thoughts about her and Sheldon together, she did something stupid.

She forwarded an online test that told you Which Friends Character You’re Most Like to his email. On the scale of one to mortified, she was somewhere near texting Raj for some tips on how to develop and live your life using mutism.

She hopes that his delayed reaction to any emails means that at some point in the past, he’d followed through on his threats to forward all her messages to his spam folder. But, sure enough, just as they’re settling down to eat the lasagna his gaze flicks over to his cell phone as he pulls it out of his pocket and sets it on the table beside his utensils.

Her stomach drops and she tries to act normal by cutting out a slice for both of them, plopping them gently on their respective plates.

It takes him a moment to tap open his mail and click on the attached link, but he looks over at her with a slight frown of confusion as he does. She’s trying to come up a reasonable excuse that this could have been anything other than the cheesiest pseudo pick-up line in the history of human existence, but instead she just gives what must be the most pathetic attempt at a smile around a mouth of ricotta cheese and ground beef.

Maybe he’ll be so caught off-guard and distracted that she’ll be able to slip out the side door and just start running until her legs give out. She can change her name to Liza and live anonymously in a small town on the outskirts of Genoa, waiting tables and slowly picking up the language.

Instead of increasing her self-loathing, he clears his throat and proceeds to go through the test on his own. He answers each question with mock deliberation and acts surprised when he gets Monica Gellar in the end.

He covers the leftover lasagna with a bit of foil and they both pretend that they’ll be able to reheat it another day. As if they won’t be halfway to England and a quarter of the way back to California by then.

Sheldon leaves his hand on the refrigerator door for a few seconds longer than necessary and she wants to cry.

§

She convinces him to go for a swim with her, no emergency grass removal necessary. It’s his last chance and since he did pay for the majority of the stay, it really boils down to getting his money’s worth.

He stays in the shallow end and within an arm’s length of the ladder the entire time. Penny tickles his ribs beneath the shirt he insisted on wearing despite the sun having already gone down. He threatens to fill her bed with snakes while she’s sleeping. (She hates snakes.)

Their fingertips start to look like raisins, but neither one wants to be the first to leave the pool. It feels like it'll be the end of the trip, once they’re done floating and splashing and paddling around.

It’s the worst game of chicken Penny’s ever played and she feels like a total failure as she can't stifle what must be her fifteenth yawn, pushing out of the pool and up the ladder. She wrings her hair out as she shivers in the cool night air, Sheldon follows her but he doesn’t look happy about it.

Penny wants to poke his big knobbly knee-caps as he makes a lazy attempt at drying his legs off so they don’t drip on their way in the house. Yeah, she’s definitely fallen in love with him at some point. She hurts all over.

§

She can’t help from welling up a little during the car ride to the train station. Sheldon looks torn between wanting to break down and cry, too, or give her a comforting hug. Instead of doing either, he fiddles with the corners of his pockets and looks out the window.

“Thank you,” he says, so quietly Penny almost misses it.

She covers her mouth with the back of her hand and takes a loud breath of air, trying to calm her ongoing internal meltdown and bite back the fast approaching tears. “You’re welcome,” she manages, even quieter in return.

At some point, they began holding hands. Sheldon can’t decide if it’s the lack of memory of how it starts or the comfortable familiarity of the sensation that unnerves him more.

Everything about their trip seems poorly timed. This is why he normally follows a strict itinerary.

§

They get a taxi from LAX back to Pasadena. Since their plane arrived at just after eight on a Sunday morning, there’s very little traffic on the road and it only takes about forty-five minutes or so.

All of the customs agents and their taxi driver greet them in English. It all feels surreal, like they’ve returned from the future or some alternate dimension.

Penny starts as they pull to a stop in front of their apartment building. One that Sheldon should probably have outgrown by now, given his recent academic and critical success. The thought of him leaving her alone in her musty, unclean apartment makes her stomach knot.

She really doesn’t remember getting this attached to him, but her nerves light up at nearly every thought or action involved with the idea of losing him, all the same.

 

§

They walk up the stairs in unison, the final stretch that will put a definitive end to their mutual break from reality. Sheldon’s backpack makes him lean forward just a bit, while Penny can’t be bothered to do more than drag hers up behind her holding only one of the straps.

Out of nowhere she thinks of that last Italian sunrise and curses. “Damn it, I forgot that stupid sunrise picture I made. I think it’s on the side of the refrigerator. I wonder if I can have them mail it to us before they throw it away.”

Sheldon turns to her with a brilliant smile. “It’s in my bag.”

Penny squeaks. “Oh, THANK GOD. I was kind of upset, for a second. Thank you.”

“Hopefully the trip back didn’t damage it much. I’m sure I’ve got a spare frame around my apartment somewhere to keep it safe.”

She makes a weird face and her throat gets a lump right in the middle. “Oh, you don’t—it’s not—you don’t have to do that. It’s not any good, it looks like a kid drew it. I just want to keep it as a silly keepsake.”

Sheldon frowns, not understanding her words. “It’s beautiful.”

The lump in her throat hasn’t gone away and only makes it more difficult to talk. “Sheldon, I—”

“I was thinking, on the plane. Given the similarities you drew between our respective sitcom identities; it would’ve been an excellent time for their penultimate episode fling, in season four. Although we were in Italy far longer than London, the concept applied.”

He’s probably joking, Penny’s brain concludes weakly as it begins quickly shutting down. “Sheldon, this is not a sitcom.” She hears herself saying, trying to sound something approaching normal.

He looks over half-smiling, half-rolling his eyes. “I know that. You and Leonard are not Ross and Rachel, just as you and I are not Monica and Chandler. You cannot be two different people and although he’s ordinary compared to some, Leonard is far more intelligent than Ross.”

Penny’s mouth opens and closes wordlessly.

“The concept applied,” he repeats. He shrugs as they approach their floor and he digs into his pocket for his apartment key. “That’s all I was trying to say.”

Penny’s eyes catch on the wristwatch around his right forearm. If he’s implying what she thinks he’s implying, he better let her run with this.

She pulls his arm away from where it was reached out to open his door, turning his wrist towards his face. She cranes her neck up so that her mouth is only inches from his ear. “We’re still on Italian Time, does that count?”

He drops his backpack as she leans forward and smashes her mouth on his, almost immediately crawling up his body so that he has no choice but to brace himself against the wall behind him and let her wrap her legs around his waist. They turn back and forth to get better access to one another's mouths and Penny accidentally slips downward a few inches before she shimmies back up to her original position. Sheldon lets out an involuntary groan against the side of her face and her warm laughter is like sci-fi theme music to his ears.

“I don’t know any robots that do that,” Penny says seriously.

“Me neither." He's breathing heavily.

They stare at one another, panting and pinned in their awkward position against the wall a foot or two to the right of Sheldon’s door. “You know if we started up saving money, you could probably book the villa again sometime next—”

“I already did,” Sheldon interrupts.

Penny’s mouth widens and her eyes look close to rolling back. “Is Leonard home?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t think to look for his car.”

“LEONARD, ARE YOU IN THERE?” Penny knocks with heel of her fist, from her place between Sheldon’s body and the wall.

“Penny? Is that you?” They both hear Leonard ask to the otherwise empty room inside.

“Shit! My door! Get to my door!” Sheldon swings them around sharply, Penny’s legs still tightly encircling his lower half. “My keys are in my back pocket, can you get them?”

She tries to resist making any noisy reactions to the feeling of Sheldon’s hand groping around for purchase in her tight jean pocket. He fumbles around with the door’s lock for a few seconds and Leonard’s opening their door just as Sheldon’s turned the deadbolt to unlock Penny’s.

Sheldon cranes his neck back as they all meet eyes and look awkwardly back and forth between one other.

“Welcome back?” Leonard’s bright red when he rubs at the skin on the back of his neck. “How was your vacation?”

“Break from reality,” Sheldon corrects. “We considered it more of a break from reality.”

“I know the feeling,” Leonard replies weakly.

Penny bites her bottom lip and blushes. “We’re actually not finished yet.”

She’d meant to say that in reference to their trip, jokingly. It sounds innocent enough, in her head, but she realizes once the words are out of her mouth how horribly it could be taken. Everyone’s eyes noticeably widen.

“We’ve got sitcom stereotypes to defy,” Sheldon adds. Penny mumbles something in Italian and they both laugh. Leonard looks a little green.

“I’m going to go back inside now because I don’t understand anything you’ve just said, in English or Italian. Safe… travels.” He ducks back into the apartment without another word. Both Penny and Sheldon let out short chuckles of horrified disbelief.

“If this really were a sitcom, this is where the credits would roll,” Sheldon points out between their laughs.

Penny curls her hands up behind his head, kissing him slowly and deeply. She pulls back for a second so that just their noses and foreheads touch. “Good thing it’s not.”

They stumble backwards through Penny’s cracked open door and Sheldon nearly trips on a three week old pile of laundry.

“Welcome home,” Penny purrs as they land roughly against her couch.

§

When they return to Italy, the following year, they call it their second honeymoon even though it’s technically only their first.