Sheldon’s second, albeit still misguided, attempt at jogging only goes better in the respect that he doesn’t fall down the stairs within the first two minutes.
They actually get out the door this time.
In high school, she used to run the track just like everyone else. P.E. class was a drag but you got an A if you bothered to show up and she didn’t actually mind when Bobby Turner stared at her ass because in tenth grade that was a compliment. She didn’t like running it though, not because it was trying but because it was boring. The same stretch of track, four times over, four beeps from the stopwatch the teacher held.
It got old, passing by the same old oak tree, green tinted orange-gold, and the same stack of unused hurdles that sat just off the track at the midpoint. It got old like her town got old, like Nebraska got old, and she drove by that track the day that she hightailed it to California. She remembers the scoreboard standing tall, dwarfing the bleachers, visible from the red light. She remembers the last time she sat in those bleachers, remembers laughing with her friends and senior class photos and the glare from the sun getting in the way.
Mostly, she remembers that when the light turned green she didn’t even pause. She just drove and never looked back.
Pasadena brought with it a change of scenery and the promise that the glamour of Hollywood was just within reach. Within someone’s reach anyway. In the end it only brought more of the same: a dead end job that she didn’t want, a life that didn’t match up to the one from her dreams, and the same length of pavement and grass underneath her sneakers.
The knocking starts at nine-thirty in the morning.
Fresh from the shower, hair piled on top of her head and clad only in a towel, Penny has absolutely no intention of answering the door, no matter how insistent he sounds when he says her name. But then, she also doesn’t really want to listen to him bang on the door for the next ten minutes before he gives up, probably to run downstairs and check to see if her car is in the parking lot. Something to prove that she’s there.
Her door is unlocked but Sheldon doesn’t know that; she doesn’t know whether to risk the lecture or her sanity. Ends up locking the door to her bedroom and yelling through it.
“It’s open, Sheldon.”
There’s a sort of strangled noise, a clear indicator that Sheldon finds this disquieting, followed by a click. “Have you learned nothing from my misfortune? There are thieves lying in wait for just this sort of opportunity.”
Yeah, she really, really doubts that. Some guy with lock-picking skills maybe and really, at that point, does it matter? “I can take ‘em.”
“I fear you will one day find that assumption to be incorrect.” She can hear the shuffle of his feet on her wood floors; he doesn’t venture down the hallway, instead choosing to pace around her living room. It’s laundry day and half of her wardrobe is strewn over her couch, so she wonders how long it’ll take him before he starts trying to consolidate it into neat little piles; whites, brights, and darks.
She doesn’t wait to find out though. “What do you want, Sheldon?”
“I need a favor.”
“You’re going to find someone else to drive you today. My shift starts in an hour.”
“I said nothing about needing a ride.”
Penny shrugs, a pointless movement considering she’s the only one in the room. “I just assumed.”
“Once again, I caution you on the dangers of assumption and – ”
“Get to the point, Sheldon.”
“Fine,” he says, rather unhappily. “Is there some reason that we must have this conversation from two separate rooms? Are you ill?”
If this is indicative of how the rest of her day will be, then she’s pretty sure there will be a headache involved somewhere. She leaves that part out, pulling her shirt over her head and letting her still wet hair fall around her shoulders as she leaves the safety of her room. It’s not exactly her best look ever. He’s seen worse. “I was getting dressed; I just got out of the shower.”
She expects him to come out with it then, only all he does is fold his hands behind his back and casts his eyes downward and it’s the strangest thing – well, no, it isn’t, not really, because this is Sheldon and every day there is a new strangest thing, but it is strange, the way that he twists his mouth like he’s suddenly uncomfortable. It’s concerning. She’s gotten very good at predicting Sheldon’s every move, and quite a few of his words, so she’s either been off of her game all morning or something’s up.
He’s still looking at his feet when he clears his throat. She decides it’s the latter.
“Sheldon – ”
“I would like to accompany you on your morning runs,” he says, quickly. And then a funny thing happens because he can meet her gaze again and his body seems just a little less rigid.
“You feel better now?” She asks, and really can’t help the small smile that tags on to the end of her question.
“You haven’t given me your answer.” She stares straight at him. “Fine. I felt marginally less anxious.”
She lets the past tense go. “Are you sure that’s such a good idea? I mean it didn’t go so well last time for you. Or me. Or any of us really. You built that robot thingy and I really don’t think Leonard’s going to be willing to humor you the next time.”
“Of course I’m sure,” he replies. “I wouldn’t be asking you if I wasn’t sure. I made a list of the pros and cons, as well as calculated the risk factors of – “
Penny holds out her hands, the universal signal for hold your horses. “That’s okay.”
“You can come with me.” For once, he looks genuinely pleased with her. His lips twitch upwards at the corners and everything. She cautions, “On a trial basis only.”
“Thank you, Penny,” he says and, without needing to be asked, turns to leave. He got what he came for, conversation over, and sometimes that’s the nice thing about Sheldon. He’s forthright and honest, and he doesn’t stick around to make awkward small talk that neither of them wants to take part in just to try and hide his reasons for being there. She likes that she doesn’t have to guess what his motives are.
She likes the direct approach to things.
Most of the time.
“You’re violating one of my rules, you know,” he turns and stops alright, but he doesn’t look nearly as surprised as she expected him to. “I could punch you in the throat right now.”
He has a response at the ready in no time. “As is your employer, and from your repeated complaints I have a feeling you would much rather punch him.”
She’ll give him that one.
Two important things to note:
1) Sheldon’s uncle dies of a heart attack. She can’t recall the exact date, or even the month, because Sheldon didn’t find out until Missy came to stay in April. She does know that he died in his bed and no one knew for three days; that he was a smoker and a drinker and had some long complicated-sounding condition that involved too much of something in his blood.
(“Hyperhomocysteinemia,” Sheldon huffs, and, “really, Penny, this is the third time I’ve said it. You can remember the names of celebrities and tabloid fodder easy enough.”
In an hour, all she can remember is that it begins with ‘hyper’. She doesn’t ask again. He snaps at everyone for the rest of the night.)
2) In late June, Leonard’s car gets sideswiped by an SUV at a stoplight. The passenger side takes the brunt of it, which is why Leonard ends up with a sore shoulder and Sheldon ends up with a concussion. By the time she gets off her shift, they’ve already been to the hospital and back, so she has her own personal freak out in the car on the way home. She ends up spending the rest of the night in their apartment, taking it upon herself to wake Sheldon up every three hours.
(“Doctor’s orders,” she murmurs, and he twists away from the hand that’s resting on his shoulder, where she was prodding him awake.
“Do you even know what you’re doing?”
“Don’t I like ask you your name and, I don’t know, who the President is?” She’s supposed to be checking for memory loss or confusion, among other things, and she’s fairly sure that’s what they do in the movies. “Oh, or what your address is.”
“Penny,” he starts, sitting up only to cower when she leans in.
“Humor me,” she all but demands.
“2311 N. Los Robles Avenue. Are you satisfied?”
“I believe the words you’re looking for are ‘thank you for making sure I don’t end up in a coma’.”
“I hardly think – “
She turns off the light. “Goodnight, Sheldon.”)
For those keeping score, the body count for Sheldon’s family is his grandfather, his father, and two uncles.
Penny doesn’t spend all that much time thinking about it – except where she does during what turns out to be a rather slow lunch shift the same day he asks to run with her again – but it’s pretty easy to see why the facts are concerning.
Cooper men don’t seem to have the best luck ever.
She can’t find the cord to charge her iPod in the morning, which is fitting considering it would probably rude to shove her headphones in her ears and peace out when she has a jogging buddy. It just means that instead of thinking about how Dog Days Are Over sounded so much better a year ago, before every commercial and television show in the world got a hold of it, she’ll be listening to Sheldon ramble on. Or possibly the sounds of ocean waves breaking in her head as she tunes him out altogether.
He knocks on her door exactly two minutes before they’re scheduled to leave, in the exact same thing he was wearing last time. It’s a serious case of déjà vu.
“You’ll be happy to know that I’ve stayed away from cruciferous vegetables,” he says, in lieu of hello or how are you or thank you for doing this a full hour earlier than usual so that I can get to work on time.
“Can’t you just say brussel sprouts?” She stretches out her quads and watches him watch her with some level of concern. She puts one hand on the wall to balance and he looks less worried that she might pitch forward and he might be expected to catch her. Not that that’s ever happened. Only in his head are little things like stretching considered potentially dangerous. “You aren’t even going to try this time are you?”
“I believe we’ve established that’s a rather futile endeavor.”
“Never stopped you before.”
It’s entirely possible that there were some things that she could’ve prepared him for. She only ever runs two different routes – the one that passes by the bakery and the longer, scenic one that she only takes if she’s either feeling really determined or really murderous – so it’s not like she doesn’t know the terrain and the surroundings of said terrain. Then again, it’s also not like she can predict the future.
They end up taking the shorter route. Penny would like to say her reasoning has everything to do with him being new at this but that’s a lie. She’s up an hour earlier than she wants to be. All she wants is a shower and maybe a nap and for Sheldon to decide that he’s not really cut out for this whole jogging thing, so that she can go back to her normal schedule of running only on alternate weekdays and the mornings after she’s devoured an entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s.
He’s actually not awful company. He runs kind of awkward, like he isn’t quite sure what to do with his legs, and his arms are held firmly at his sides, fists balled. He’s exactly like an animated stick figure, everything rigid and straight, and she thinks maybe he’ll like ease into it but then they’re a mile in and he’s still obsessively controlling every movement and she’s half-contemplating what would happen if she nudged him, whether he’d bend and allow for the slight shift in balance or if he’d just topple over and break like glass.
She wonders and then she stops short of actually doing it and that’s when things get dicey.
There’s an off the leash dog park on the shorter route that’s, as best she can tell, frequented by extremely well trained dogs that actually come when called and don’t just look at you like they’re mocking you in their little doggie heads. This has never been a problem for her. It’s never been a problem for anyone that she’s ever seen.
It’s also a fenceless off the leash dog park and when they round the corner Sheldon startles and starts making those strange, uneasy noises that are only commonly heard when she takes a speed bump too fast or goes through a yellow light that turns red while she’s halfway under it. There must be something about him, too, because she’s in the process of saying “there’s nothing to worry about” in what she’s sure would’ve been a reassuring tone had the sentence not ended in a squeak punctuating the second syllable when she sees the big brown dog that’s got Sheldon in its sights.
That’s the last clear view she gets of the dog before it becomes nothing but a blur headed Sheldon’s way, ignoring all calls of “heel” and “Bruno, leave the nice man alone”.
Turns out Sheldon can run pretty fast when there’s one hundred pounds of terror trying to launch itself at him. A lot less rigidly too.
It’s the first time that she’s run that route and not stopped for a bear claw in well over a year. She feels like she should congratulate herself.
Except she can’t stop laughing.
She fully expects to never hear about this from Sheldon again and, really, she’s okay with pretending that she didn’t just witness him shrieking like a little girl as he ran away only to then find him hiding in a bush a block away – at least until he strings up her underwear or whatever because she thinks the endless mockery from the rest of the guys might just prevent her from having to make another long distance phone call to Mrs. Cooper.
But then they’re all having dinner and he says, “Eight o’clock tomorrow, Penny” and she nearly chokes on her pad Thai.
“Are you sure about that, sweetie?”
He gives her an incredulous look, like there’s absolutely no reason for him to even hesitate on this one. “Of course I am.”
So there’s a day two.
She scuffs her shoe on the welcome mat in the lobby. He looks at her disdainfully. “You really ought to invest in running shoes.”
“These are running shoes.”
“No, those are tennis shoes. Running shoes provide greater sole support in order to absorb the pressure and impact of jogging or running.”
“So now you’re some kind of footwear expert?”
“Yeah, I think I should invest in a new hairdryer first.”
“What happened to your old one?”
“No one really knows.”
Turns out he did some ridiculously extensive reading prior to deciding to give this a go for the second time. She doesn’t know why she expected any less of Sheldon, who has to master every single thing he does in life. She doesn’t know why Sheldon expected Leonard not to sell him out about it if pressed either.
“So you two are really doing this?” Leonard asks, wholly uneasy as he hands her a water bottle from the fridge. Like he doesn’t see Sheldon return a sweaty mess at the same time every morning to take his shower before they head to work. If that’s not proof enough that he’s going jogging with her – or having really enthusiastic sex with someone, which, okay brain, let’s not go there right now – she doesn’t know what is.
“Looks like it.” She looks to Sheldon for confirmation but he’s too focused on the life-altering email he’s reading on his laptop. Penny’s pretty sure he’s oblivious to the fact that they’re even in the room with him, much less that he’s being talked about. He presses a few keys, seemingly annoyed.
“And you’re okay with this?” She nods. Leonard presses on, “Even though you have to get up an hour earlier just to listen to him talk to you about quantum mechanics?”
See, that’s the thing about good old fashioned cardio, you’re so busy focusing on just breathing and keeping up that there’s less time for chatter or anything that’s not a purely functional turn left or watch out for that ditch. Not that she’s going to share that with the class. “Yep.”
“I don’t get it,” Leonard says, like he really, really doesn’t. He sinks into the armchair for effect. Or to punctuate his utter confusion. Something.
She’d lean forward and take his hands and force him to look her in the eyes while she calmly explains like she would to a small child, since they’re apparently going the dramatic route here, but that would require reaching over Sheldon and, with the furious way he’s typing right now, she kind of thinks he might do a pretty accurate impression of that angry dog. Instead, she settles for, “Look, I go out of my way to run with him and chase away big scary animals and he tries to behave himself when I drive him places and stays away from the crucified vegetables.”
Sheldon’s fingers come to a full stop. Leonard balks. She suddenly feels nervous.
“Yeah,” this from Leonard, “no he doesn’t.”
Again, she doesn’t know why Sheldon thought Leonard wasn’t going to sell him out, but he’s sure glaring like this is ultimate betrayal time.
“Remember the Chinese food from last night? That Tangerine Chicken has broccoli in it.”
Now it’s Penny’s turn to glare.
Unwisely, Sheldon does nothing to cover his ass. All he says is, “That’s why I don’t just say brussel sprouts.”
Sheldon’s extra compliant at the Cheesecake Factory at work.
He doesn’t even make her repeat his order back to him, just to make sure she gets it right, even if he orders the same damn thing every time.
It’s the small concessions that count with him.
She makes him take the first route with her again, swearing up and down that she’ll protect him from the dogs if necessary. She’s probably lying because they’re dogs and generally adorable and all she has on her are her keys and her fists – which are dangerous, mind you, but that’s beside the point – so really it’s more like she’s promising to go find the owner to retrieve said dog before he sends himself into a panic attack.
They pass the dog park without incident, and she feels pretty proud of herself for pushing Sheldon out of his comfort zone without retribution. And, okay, maybe a little proud of him for letting her. It kind of seems like he’s putting up less of a fight with her than usual and she would say that it’s just the early morning hour, where he’s not at peak performance and she’s kind of spaced, except she’s driven him to work earlier than this and he was actually worse than normal. She would also say that maybe he’s just grateful but, you know, this is Sheldon, and while she knows he is capable of the full range of human emotion, he doesn’t always exhibit his feelings in the same way as everyone else. Or anyone else, for that matter.
He’s a conundrum, but if he’s going to keep bending then she’s going to keep on pushing.
She pulls him into the bakery she frequents that morning.
The burn in her legs is pleasurable bordering on painful, right where she likes it to stay, and if he can honestly look her in the eye and tell her he’s not tired – well, she’d probably still laugh at him. Not that she gives him the chance. One minute they’re running and the next she’s stopped with her hands on her hips. Sheldon does this little half jog back to her once he realizes that he’s lost his running buddy-slash-bodyguard, because once he starts moving he literally remains in motion for the duration of their run.
It just means that when she reaches out for him, ensnaring him with a hand on his forearm and giving a sharp tug in the direction of the bakery, he almost trips over his own two feet. It would be funny if she weren’t legitimately concerned that he might hurt himself. He doesn’t.
“What are you doing?” Her hand stays on his arm as she walks and she’s pretty sure that if she let go he would still follow her but somehow her brain doesn’t seem to connect that knowledge with actual letting go. “Penny, where are you going?”
“Remember how I said I run until I’m hungry and then I stop for a bear claw?”
“Yes.” The puzzlement in his voice makes that sound more like a question than a reply.
“It’s bear claw time.”
Sheldon doesn’t like bear claws. He feels the need to tell her this a lot, despite the fact that it’s a bakery, and, as such, sells any number of items that aren’t bear claws. Sheldon’s not stupid. Sheldon’s a freaking genius. And therefore being difficult just because it’s a deviation from routine and it probably makes him nervous and he most likely read some article somewhere that said her scarfing down a bear claw and an iced coffee is a bad thing to do directly after a run.
Which is why he eats a banana and drinks from the special water bottle he brought with him that only he can touch.
“Can I ask you something?”
“Is this another one of your charming,” the emphasis he places on that word negates its meaning entirely, “rhetorical questions? I believe last time you said it was a ‘friendly courtesy’, though I don’t understand what the point is since you’re going to ask me it regardless.”
“Yeah, yeah, it’s a thing.” She doesn’t bother to point out that his own question was rhetorical as hell because she doesn’t really feel like hearing why he thinks it isn’t. “Why did you decide to do this again? The running, I mean.”
“I don’t settle for failure. Certainly not on the first try.”
“So it didn’t have anything to do with Leonard’s little fender bender?” The muscles in his jaw tense and twitch but he holds her gaze. She needles, “You can tell me if it did. I won’t think it sounds stupid, I promise.”
Sheldon frowns. “I don’t base my answers on the reactions of others.”
It’s not an answer. It’s a misleading attempt at diverting the conversation away from him. Get her started on why he should maybe start doing that, at least some of the time, so he doesn’t lose out on a grant just because he made a mockery of the guy writing the check. He’s heard that lecture before, definitely has it memorized, and would apparently welcome it again instead of having to talk about this. Whatever this is.
She thinks – no, knows – it means that she’s hit a nerve. Good.
“Okay, but if it did, like, hypothetically? It was a car accident. No amount of running is going to save you from that. No amount of anything, except a seatbelt, some airbags, and really good luck is going to save you from that. It either happens or it doesn’t.”
“My uncle died of a heart attack, Penny.”
“Yeah. And he was sixty-seven.” The number just serves to make him fidget more, increasingly uncomfortable under her gaze, even if he’s meeting it halfway. “It doesn’t mean anything anyway. My aunt died of cancer when she was thirty-six. My grandpa had it in his seventies. I think about it sometimes but…” she shrugs, “no one lives forever. Who would want to?”
“I would,” he’s quick to answer. “There are things I want to see that the limits of the average lifespan won’t allow for. There is so much potential for scientific advancement fifty years from now, not to mention a hundred. You would have to be a fool not to wish for more time here.”
It sounds depressing. It is depressing. That bear claw is nothing but lead in her stomach while she listens to him speak with such a longing for the future that’s out of reach and out of his hands.
Penny doesn’t think about mortality. She thinks about her grandfather every September 13th, or remembers the perfume her aunt wore when she comes across that old silk scarf she gave her – the one that really isn’t her style but has endured three separate moves intact – and she swears if she closes her eyes and inhales she can smell traces of that perfume. So she supposes she does think about it, abstractly. She thinks about her aging parents. She thinks about all of the paperwork at doctor’s offices and hospitals asking for family history, common diseases and conditions, and she has to remember cancer, and it’s strange the way her hand always stills for the split second it takes her to digest that information all over again.
She doesn’t think about the things she would miss, though. She just thinks about how she doesn’t want to die. How she doesn’t want to go that way.
But it doesn’t matter because she either will or she won’t. There’s no guarantee that if she runs fifteen miles a day, never smokes, obsesses over nutrition facts, and gets regular checkups she’ll escape the same fate. There’s hope and there’s luck and there’s the simple matter of trying to change the odds, but they’ll all die eventually.
Penny just tries not to think like that most days.
“So you’re running,” she concludes.
“I never said that was my reasoning. I merely disagreed with your point and argued thusly.”
“Well then why did you – “
“I’m going to be late for work. I can’t be late for work, Penny.”
She lets it drop.
On Tuesday, she forgets her water bottle only to find out that he carries a spare. On Thursday, they manage to run the entirety of the second route, the longer one that they’ve been taking shortcuts on for weeks, and make decent time.
And then there’s Saturday.
She answered the door on the first knock and his hand reaches out to complete the tradition. Penny grabs a hold of his wrist mid-movement and squeezes so tight she’s surprised bones don’t crack.
“You knock again and I’ll break your hand.”
She really shouldn’t have had that last vodka and Red Bull last night. Her head throbs. “Are you sick?”
“Hungover is a type of sick,” she mumbles, then thinks better of it. “Not that that was an invitation to sing. No singing.” She travels the few feet from the door to the couch and drops down into it, one hand shielding her eyes and massaging her temples at the same time. “We’re not going this morning.”
He sounds incredulous. “But why not?”
“Because the sound of my own breathing hurts right now. The last thing I want to do is go run a few miles in the glaring sunlight while I listen to children scream at the park. We will go tomorrow.”
“But – “
“But you – “
“I have to say this isn’t very neighborly, much less – “
She shoves him out the door. Physically. It’s really not hard. She doesn’t slam the door though, which probably detracts from the effect but, eh, whatever.
Likewise, Thursday morning she’s pulling on her sneakers when she remembers he has to go into work early. Dressed, mostly awake, and halfway out the door, she goes without him.
It’s not the same.
It’s not the same without him chattering on about the proper layering of clothes for this particular climate and it’s only half as funny when the girl in the sky high heels trips over a crack in the sidewalk and goes down, only to later glare at the crack – she misses the deeply perturbed look he would’ve given her, the way his mouth would open slightly like he badly wanted to make a comment about footwear and physics but wasn’t sure whether or not she’d try to make him regret it.
The route both looks and feels longer without him beside her.
“So I looked these up,” she shoves a handful of papers into his hands and sprawls out on the couch. They’re brand new shiny routes with awesome scenery and absolutely no dog parks, and all she had to do was spend fifteen minutes with Google and a couple of running-oriented sites. Sure, some of them area little out of the way but that’s what weekend daytrips are for. Could be for.
He flips through them, the lines in his forehead becoming more pronounced with every page turn. “Why?”
“I thought the change of pace might be nice. Don’t you get tired of running the same three and a half mile stretch?”
“Yes, but that’s why there are two of them, for the sake of variation.”
“Predictable variation,” she remarks.
He straightens, corralling all the pages and shaking them against the coffee table until the edges line up. Game over. She holds out her hand. He ignores it. “I was under the impression that you had planned these routes out some time ago. They did not seem new to you when I first joined in.”
“Yeah, keeping in mind that I only remembered to get up early enough to run like once or twice a week, sure.”
“We run much more than that.”
“Kind of the point.” She shrugs. “It’s different now.”
It’s not really something she can explain without sounding ridiculously cheesy. It’s less tedious – and when has Sheldon ever made anything less tedious; it’s like a Christmas miracle except for the part where they’re in the entirely wrong season for that shit and he would probably force her to say Saturnalia miracle instead – being with him. Maybe being with anybody but she doesn’t really know because she’s never really tried.
The groups of ‘people she knows who like to run’ and ‘people she knows who she actively wants to see four times a week’ don’t tend to meet in the middle a whole hell of a lot. Sheldon’s created a third group, one she’s considering titling ‘people she has to see every day regardless of whether or not she wants to and who grow on you like fungus or something less gross and, really, less contact-oriented, so maybe she should say grow around you and infiltrate every aspect of your life from grocery shopping to your choice in footwear’. Clearly, that title needs simplifying. Really though, her point is that Sheldon’s different and this works for her in a way that it didn’t before.
And that she can’t figure out how to answer him so she just doesn’t bother. “Okay, we’re doing this. After all of the paintball games I have attended just to save your ass, you are doing this with me.”
He makes this frustrated little ‘hmm’-ing noise in the back of his throat but otherwise gives up, settling back against the couch, papers in his limp grasp. She smiles. She might also lean in to kiss him on the cheek before she runs off to plan this weekend’s excursion. But she’s not thinking about the action when she’s doing it, her head in the clouds, so she doesn’t really have a chance to think about his reaction either.
Later, though, boy does she think about.
He had tensed under her grasp, a hand on his bicep, and then.
Then, he had leaned into her touch.
That important little tidbit doesn’t hit her until she’s in line at the grocery store – like she said, he’s everywhere – buying limes, redi-whip, and vitamins. Vitamins make her think of Sheldon. Sheldon makes her think of earlier on that afternoon. Specifically when she left. And he leaned in.
Sheldon, who pretty much despises physical contact not only let her touch him and let her kiss him (on the cheek, mind you, but still a valid point), but also showed signs of being completely okay with it. Welcoming it, even.
Her brain stays on what the fuck pretty much throughout the ride home.
It’s not like she’s never thought about it.
For about ten minutes the first time they met, she was definitely thinking about it. And yeah, even after things fizzled out relationship-wise with Amy pretty much within the first meeting – if they’re calling that a date than she needs to up her number of former boyfriends big time – she was still pretty certain he had a deal. He’d said something about suppressing biological urges or whatever complicated sounding lingo he uses to explain what she refers to as feelings and lust, and all she’d managed to get from that speech is that he had feelings and he experienced lust and, so, basically he was just as human as anyone else. He just lived in denial.
So maybe she’s thought about it since then. Maybe it doesn’t really matter.
She’s thinking about it now.
(She’s thinking about it when she can’t sleep that night too and, fuck, could she have picked a less attainable guy to have this happen with? No, she could not.)
The next time she sees him, he’s got a set of driving directions folded into a map and he’s practically beaming.
He’s also standing outside of her door. Not poised to knock, not even poised to yell through the door. Just standing there as she opens it, ready to head down to the lobby and grab the mail.
“What exactly was the plan here?”
She clarifies, “You were going to knock at some point, right?”
Sheldon turns his wrist over, sending a quick glance to his watch before he says, “It’s five to eleven. I determined that you would be much more likely to accept my proposal if I didn’t inconvenience you beforehand.”
It’s still too early for the word proposal. She’s on like no sleep here. “Huh?”
“May I?” He motions to the door and she steps aside just long enough for him to pass, closing the door behind her. She’s regretting the decision not to change for her little jaunt downstairs. These short shorts are a little too short when sitting is involved and she’s hyper aware of where his eyes are and which direction his body is oriented towards and dear god this was simpler when he was just a friend who was a guy and not the guy who she has a hunch might have, at the very least, the beginnings of a thing for her despite all odds and nature and maybe even science.
Then again, this would make for a very compelling television plot. That’s how unreal this is right now.
Whatever. It’s all in her head. She’s decided this.
“What’s up?” Hesitantly, she finds a seat on the couch, curling her legs up underneath her and making a grab for the map and its contents. “Did you find a treasure map?”
“I’ve given some consideration to your – “
She doesn’t let him finish. She doesn’t feel bad about it either. “Sheldon, this is in the desert. It’s like…triple digit temperatures there during the day.”
“Yes, but the temperatures drop towards the evening. I believe the average is a comfortable seventy degrees.”
“People don’t run in strange places at night, Sheldon.”
Leonard can’t stop laughing, which is only slightly better than the alternative of ‘Leonard can’t stop staring’.
“Let me get this straight,” he manages to pull it together long enough to get the words out, straightening his hoodie in much the same manner as other guys straighten their suit jackets. It must mean getting down to business or whatever but, wow, does it not work here. She raises an eyebrow and crosses her arms. “You’re going hiking. In Joshua Tree National Park. And then you’re going to stick around to watch the Perseid Meteor Shower.”
It’s an actual ordeal to force the word “yes” out of her mouth.
“Isn’t that in the desert?” He asks it in that annoyingly knowing way too.
He nods, still staring up at her with lowered eyebrows and this kind of open-mouthed fascination that’s entirely feigned and entirely designed to make her glare daggers. “But this was your idea?”
“Originally.” And she doesn’t know why she feels any need to defend Sheldon here but she sort of does. “He kind of took my idea and made it his own. But compromise is important. It might even be fun.”
“Doubtful. Extremely doubtful,” he says, with a shake of his head.
At least he isn’t laughing anymore.
“You know what’s weird?” Leonard says, apropos of nothing an hour or so later. Since then there’s been a quiet dinner, interrupted by Sheldon in brief spurts as he moves from his bedroom to the kitchen and then back again. Earlier, there was a trip to the comic book store and now he’s doing some serious reorganization that at one point involved a box clearly marked Ikea; she hasn’t asked and she doesn’t think she wants to because somehow she’ll get dragged into it.
Basically, the list of things that could qualify as weird today is just too long for her to have any idea where he’s going with this, so she just says, “What?”
“Sheldon hates being outside.”
He holds her gaze when he says it. Not just in a ‘casually looking at her’ way either. In a ‘pay attention, this is important’ kind of way.
She can’t stop herself from tearing her eyes away as quickly as possible. She has no witty comeback for this one.
On Thursday, they run like normal. No one gets injured. Dogs are not harmed. A bear claw is consumed.
On Friday, Raj wants to know – via Howard, mind you, so, really, it’s anyone’s guess what Raj wanted to know – if this is a date. Sheldon looks affronted before he spends five minutes talking about his baser urges and mind over matter again. Penny wants to throw up.
On Saturday morning, he spends way too much time packing for a day trip. It’s a two and a half hour drive to Joshua Tree, and they make it there in three. It’s a comfortable drive, one where he tries to play that periodic table game again and she does marginally better than she did the first time – it’s on their shower curtain, okay, and it’s not like she doesn’t spend half of her time in that apartment anyway – and she plays the license plate game in her head, until she spits out ‘Idaho’ somewhere on I-10 and he sounds entirely too puzzled as to why someone would play a game that “requires no effort at all and is based entirely on chance”.
She turns the radio up. And then back down again when Kesha blares through the speakers. She spends a few moments blindly browsing through radio stations before he removes her hand and places it back on the wheel. He doesn’t say anything about the check engine light that’s still on, so she counts that as a win.
By the time they get to Black Rock Canyon, chosen because it’s one of two campgrounds with actual plumbing available, it’s just after four. The sun won’t be down for another few hours but the temperature’s registering a bearable eighty-seven degrees.
“The Nature Trail thingy would’ve been shorter is all I’m saying,” she points out on mile three. It may be cooler than she thought it would be, and the view might be amazing on top of that, but the terrain is challenging in places.
“Yes, and it would’ve involved a guide who would proceed to regale us with watered down and most likely moderately inaccurate trivia about this area’s flora and fauna, as well as its history. I can get all of that from Wikipedia.”
“This is one of those instances where you’re too smart for your own good.” She can practically hear the protest in her own head, so it’s good that he doesn’t bother to actually say anything in return. Or maybe she doesn’t give him enough time. Too bad, so sad. “Normal people enjoy listening to that stuff. Makes them feel smart. Makes me feel smart. You see, sometimes, ignorance is bliss.”
“I disagree wholeheartedly but that’s beside the point.” He suddenly goes still. “My only regret is that a guide would’ve known what to do if we by chance happened upon a mountain lion.”
She frowns. If he’s afraid of dogs, she doesn’t want to know what he’s going to do in the even that they run into something bigger. Probably somehow manage to get them both killed. “I’m sure there are no mountain lions, Sheldon.”
“I wouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment.”
“Why?” She asks, and as soon as she does, she’s fairly sure she doesn’t want to. Because, really, it’s fairly obvious what he’s insinuating here, considering that he still has yet to move from his spot, and she always thought that in dangerous situations she’d be the coolheaded and calm one while he panics and starts hyperventilating or whatever it is Sheldon does when he panics but no. There he is, standing there, stiffly but calmly, while her heart practically beats out of her chest.
He nods to something behind her. She inhales. Nods back. Reminds herself that she’s a strong, determined woman who has pepper spray on hand, not that it will matter, and, hell, the thing might not have noticed them. It might be far enough back that they can just walk on by.
Sees nothing but miles of desert laid out in front of her. An honest to god roadrunner chases after something nearby and she notes that with a certain amount of irony.
“Bazinga,” he says. And smiles.
She threatens to kill him at least a dozen times on the way back. She could just leave the body. It’s a desert. There are no security cameras around and no witnesses. They’d just find his bleached bones some day in the not too near future because everyone else was off on the damn nature trails and she would live a happy, heart attack free, life.
He doesn’t take her seriously even once. Instead, he points out the flaws in her threatened methods of doing the deed like this is an episode of CSI or something.
The coyotes start singing around sunset but after that little incident she’s pretty sure she’s immune to anything nature, or Sheldon, can throw at her.
He’s got this whole set up, complete with those crappy folding chairs you find frequently at yard sales and fourth of July fireworks displays, even though there’s a picnic table a hop, skip, and a jump away from them. This is, apparently, the optimal viewing spot.
The meteor shower is slated to begin sometime after midnight.
Penny falls asleep just after ten thirty.
He wakes her up.
That action, in and of itself, is all fine and dandy considering they did drive all of the way out here specifically for this – and okay, she has to admit, the hiking here kicked the ass of their usual bullshit running routes in Pasadena, so that was a nice treat – but he also wakes her up from a really good dream in which she is accepting an Oscar and is wearing that five thousand dollar dress she saw in Vogue on Tuesday.
Also, there’s the simple matter of her having shifted so that her head is against his shoulder, her body sort of sprawled at an angle in that folding chair from hell.
That’s just great.
And also not simple.
She’d move but the hand he’s reached out with to jostle her is on the shoulder furthest from him and any sort of movement, you know, away, would probably just pull him closer. So. She’ll wait. Like this.
His eyes are fixated on the sky, bright streaks of silver-white flying above them. She doesn’t think he even notices where her body is in relation to him. Looking up at the stars and the show overhead, she can’t quite blame him. Maybe she can chalk some of it up to her sleep addled brain but the display is kind of breathtaking.
“There’s an average of sixty meteors per hour,” he tells her, quietly.
“For how long?”
His hand drops off of her shoulder. She forgets to move.
She drifts in and out for who knows how long before he decides to pack it in for the night. There’s a tent that could probably hold six people and he’s padded all of the floor space, not just where they’ll be sleeping, so it’s okay living arrangements as far as tents are concerned. They’re up to his standards, anyways, and she’s never been the one complaining.
The thing is he’s wired. She can tell only because she’s seen him exhausted before. He blinks slower when he’s tired, moves more gracefully yet somehow seems more relaxed at the same time. When he’s wired he’s ramrod straight and his hands twitch more than they hold steady.
She understands. The second she rights herself and gets some feeling back in her lower half, she’s suddenly wide awake.
Which is why it’s after three in the morning and they’re both in their respective sleeping bags wide awake, pretending to be sleeping. He seems to be going to a lot of trouble to make his breathing sound slower, like it would when he’s asleep, except he’s not making any other sounds and she knows for a fact that Sheldon moans and groans and talks in his sleep more than he doesn’t.
“Hey, Sheldon,” she says, whisper-quiet at first, her voice gaining strength when she hears him shift in the darkness, probably turning his head towards the sound of her voice. “Remember that first day at the bakery?”
“Penny, I have an eidetic memory.” The rest of the lecture that would’ve been gets lost in a half-hidden yawn.
“You said the car crash wasn’t why you did this but you never told me why.”
There’s a pause. She wonders if he’s trying to reconstruct the conversation in his mind or if she’s simply lost him to sleep. “Yes.”
She expects him to go from there. When he doesn’t, she prods. “Care to share with the class?”
“You assumed that I had taken up running primarily as a means to potentially extend my lifespan and regarded the idea as foolish due to the nature of the car crash, despite the fact that my family history leaves something to be desired. I merely pointed out that, while that is a benefit of this endeavor, it’s not the reason I chose to undertake it.”
He’s beating around the bush using five dollar words. It’s three in the morning; why the hell is he beating around the bush. “And that is?”
“I don’t often enjoy human companionship. I find it tedious the majority of the time, but I value the relationships I have that I do enjoy.” He goes quiet for a moment and she swears she can hear the wheels turning in there. It might be the owls. Or the coyotes. “My uncle died alone. My father died a lonely, angry man who grew to openly despise everyone around him. I do not wish to end up like that.”
Right there, Penny understands the rest of what he means without him having to say it. This isn’t about trying to beat the odds; this is about her. This is about him making an attempt to get closer to her without being obvious about it, even if it was initially at his expense.
This is about Sheldon growing up to a world that’s bigger than just him.
“You won’t,” she exhales. She reaches out for him, for a hand or an arm, just to see if he’ll flinch or if he’ll respond. Because she thinks that might not have been a one-time event. With this new information, she thinks it’s not all in her head.
She reaches out and he’s not there. It’s too dark and he’s too quiet, no voice for her to track.
“You won’t,” she repeats, reassurance in the absence of touch. “You’re not like them.”
“You have no way of knowing how either of them were,” Sheldon challenges. She can hear the furrow in his brow, the way his lips turn down at the corners. “You never met them.”
”Yeah, but I know you. And if you were going to scare the rest of us off, you would’ve done it already. I hate to break it to you, Sheldon, but you’re stuck with us.”
Penny wishes she knew whether or not it made him smile.
They get about five hours of sleep, if that. She doesn’t manage to fall back asleep until somewhere around four and he taps her awake just before nine. Unfortunately, he’s a lot like her alarm clock. She actually has to get up in order to get him to stop squawking at her about check out times – they have to be out by noon unless they want to pay for another day, like a freaking hotel – except there’s no snooze button. No off button either.
“Did you drink coffee?”
She wipes the sleep out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “Then how the hell are you so chipper?”
“I don’t need stimulants in order to be fully awake.”
He still fits a thermos into her hand, filled to the brim with coffee, sweetened just the way she likes it.
Penny only realizes that they’re almost out of gas after they’ve been on the road for ten minutes, so she doubles back to the convenience store gas station hybrid they passed on the way out of the park. She only goes in for a refill on her coffee and for a replacement pack of gum, since the other one’s eluding her.
When she comes back out, Sheldon’s leaning against the side of her car, watching the numbers on the gas pump. Dressed in one of the two pairs of jeans he owns – the other ones stashed in his suitcase, along with the rest of the laundry – and that gray Justice League t-shirt of his (he’s abandoned layering, wisely, considering her phone’s telling her it’s somewhere in the high nineties), he actually looks pretty good.
She’s been thinking that a lot this trip. The slim line of his body, the muscles in his jaw, the flex of his long fingers against her wrist and her shoulder. She’s been thinking about whether or not he would recoil if she just went ahead and kissed him, or if his hands would come up to tangle in her hair and fall along the small of her back.
And right there, in that gas station parking lot, she decides to stop thinking.
He does neither.
“Penny,” he exhales, a half a second before she leans up on tiptoe and presses her mouth to his. His hands come up to cradle her face and hers fall to his sides, and right then the fumes burning her nostrils and the sun burning down on her back don’t seem to matter so much.
She never looks back.