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The REM Renormalization

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Leonard would never have thought he’d miss the damn Friendship Rider.

Tonight’s battle was a new one, and therefore there were no precedents in the Roommate Agreement for Leonard to fall back on. While quarrels between them that could be traced back to some or other codicil in the Agreement were easily solved, a quarrel that couldn’t soon became an acrimonious war of wills. And without the support of the Friendship Rider to the Roommate Agreement, there was no Geneva Convention.

The spark of this battle was a lightbulb. To be precise, it was a dozen lightbulbs, 100W, non-frosted A-19 shape; the same humble little glass bubble that would have caused Edison to rub his hands together and savour a smug feeling of accomplishment. Leonard had gone out and bought a dozen replacement bulbs for the bathroom nightlight. He’d come home, replaced the blown bulb with a new one, and hours later had gone to bed. C’est simple, right?

Sheldon had gone to bed in his turn, and immediately thrown himself out of it again. Apparently the light thrown from the 100W bulbs bounced off the floor and shone under his bedroom door.

“Why did you have to buy 100W bulbs?” Sheldon demanded. He was standing in the doorway of Leonard’s room, arms folded across his flannel chest.

“Because they were all out of the smaller ones, okay? None left! No 40s, no 60s, nothing, nada, zip, zilch!” Leonard had got up and was standing alongside his bed, the better to yell. Shouting from a prone position just didn’t have the same oomph. He had to enlist the help of his diaphragm as well. “And anyway, everyone these days use those fluorescent power-savers anyway! I’ll just buy some of those next time.”

“You can’t do that!” Sheldon’s voice went up a note.

“Oh yeah? Why not?” Hands went on hips, an escalation of hostilities Sheldon was unlikely to recognise.

“Because when you turn them on they take a full second-and-a-quarter to come to full power, and I will have you know I am not prepared to stand around waitin’ in inadequate light before I urinate!” Texas was beginning to leak into his voice.

“Oh come on! You leave the light on all night these days, anyway!”

“Ah, but when the light is off I have been having nightmares! And if that light is on, it lights up my bedroom floor and I can’t sleep!” Sheldon jabbed his finger in the direction of the bathroom as if gesturing at a vicious animal that had just bitten him.

“So sleep facing the other way!”

“I can’t sleep facing the other way! I don’t fall asleep facing the other way! I never fall asleep facing the other way! YOU wouldn’t fall asleep facing the other way, would you?” Sheldon ticked each repetition off with a wag of his finger, his whole face twitching with the force of his conviction: an escalation of hostilities Leonard recognised all too well, but didn’t care to acknowledge.

“So just ignore the light, Sheldon! You’ll get used to it! God, it must be terrible to live in a head so full of shit!”

Sheldon glared at him, opening and closing his mouth, lost for a retort that wouldn’t break his mother’s no-swearing rule. Then he clamped his lips shut, turned on his heel and swept out, to the extent that any grown man wearing head-to-heel flannel plaid and slippers can be said to sweep.

Leonard sat down on his bed and pulled his glasses off. “Gaaah,” he said to his floor. “I’m sorry, Penny, and at this hour, too.”

He looked sadly at his bed. He didn’t think this battle was over just yet, so pulled closed the bedclothes to preserve the body heat in them. Damn Sheldon and his quibbles, damn him and his 71 degrees, damn him, damn him. He put his head in his hands. How many physicists does it take to change a light bulb? Two. One to change it, and the other to have a total tantrum about it.

Just ten minutes ago, Leonard had been fast asleep and dreaming of Michelle Rodrigues in the world’s biggest candy store. He’d just been about to choose between the gorgeous Latina and the escaping Chocolate Frogs, when she’d banged her fist on his bedroom door three times and blared in Sheldon’s voice, “Leonaaaaaard!”

He turned his head at a sound from outside, and turned, cramming his glasses back on again. That was the sound of breaking glass. “Oh hell no,” he snarled. “Now what?” and propelled himself out of the room.

He caught Sheldon in the kitchen, standing by the sink, a last lightbulb raised in his fingers like a talisman. Or a sacrifice. Its fellows lay at his feet in a glittering mound of broken glass. “What the frack do you think you’re doing?” Leonard screamed.

“Is that a rhetorical question?” Sheldon asked. The bulb slipped from his hand and dropped to the floor, in a neat little burst of super-fine glass shards. He stood with his head bowed, regarding the splashes of broken glass at his feet thoughtfully.

“Yes it – No it – Why the hell –!” He ran out of words before he ran out of either breath or anger, and simply stood and stared at his room mate.

“I’m breaking them,” Sheldon explained, having decided, after analysis, that Leonard’s question had most likely been a genuine request for information.

“That was twenty buck’s worth of light bulbs!” Leonard choked out at last. “That I paid for!”

“I’ll pay for them,” Sheldon said smoothly. “And I’ll sweep up the glass myself. The trick of getting all the fragments is to use damp paper-towel to pick up the tiny pieces.” The act of ceremonially destroying the evil light-bulbs seemed to have exorcised his outrage. “You can go back to bed now, Leonard,” he suggested reasonably, looking up from the floor. “Problem solved.”

“Problem solved?” Leonard howled. “This is what you consider ‘problem solved?’ Breaking the whole box? For frack’s sake, Sheldon! Why the frack can’t you knock off the stupid Sheldon-act? Even for a little while? Why the frack must you be so fracking Sheldony, all day, every day?”

“I beg your pardon?” Sheldon’s puzzled incomprehension made him even angrier.

“Why the fuck can’t I wake up just one day living with a normal person?”

“I am a normal person,” Sheldon shot back. “You’re the one who is getting all hysterical over twenty dollars.”

There was no getting through that oblivious skull. It was as hard as titanium and as impermeable as a starship’s deflector shield.

In fact, Sheldon when he was worked up was like the Enterprise suddenly arriving in the midst of the Battle of Trafalgar: he might not understand what was going on, but there were absolutely no weapons Leonard could fire that could get through to him, regardless. In the morning it might be possible for Nelson to reach an agreement with Kirk, but tonight, tired and fed-up, Leonard looked at him and simply gave up. He was just too tired to go on fighting.

“To hell with it,” he groaned, putting his hands over his eyes. “I can’t deal with this any more.” He turned back to his bedroom. Maybe Michelle Rodrigues was still waiting for him.

His bedclothes were still warm, sure enough. He fell rapidly asleep again, despite the clunking and banging as his roommate wielded dustpan and broom to dispose of the glass.

He dreamed again.

He woke up the next morning, his head already full of the day’s work. As he did every morning, he shuffled through to the kitchen in his socks, eyes half closed with sleepiness, and switched on the kettle for the morning’s first cup of coffee.

As he reached for a clean coffee mug, his ears were assaulted by the angry hissing and spitting of a dry kettle. He flicked it off, startled. Sheldon always filled up this kettle to exactly the halfway point every morning, when he got up for his morning cup of ghastly herbal tea.

Leonard pulled the lid of the kettle open with his thumb, and peered owlishly into it. Yup, it was bone dry inside.

He filled it with water and set it going, spooned himself instant coffee and sugar, and stood for a moment, stretching his arms over his head and yawning. He swivelled his body from his waist from side to side, loosening his back muscles, and there, arms up, body twisted like that Greek statue of the lightning-thrower, he stuck, staring around him.

He was instantly wide awake.

What the hell had happened in here?

The place was .... it wasn’t just disorganised, it was wrong. His bookcases were gone. Sheldon’s filing cabinet was gone. Sheldon’s whiteboards were gone!

They had been burgled in the middle of the night! Somebody had broken in during the night – and left oily car parts on the kitchen table! Where Sheldon’s desk had been was a great big cowboy saddle, on a rack, hung with mystery straps and blankets. He could smell it from here, stinking of horse sweat and manure, competing for dominance with the reeking car parts.

He opened his mouth to scream, but instead of breathing out he accidentally breathed in, so that the only sound that came out was not “Sheldon!” but a piping “Eeeuuk.” He clapped both hands to his cheeks in horror.

Somebody had broken into their apartment in the middle of the night and changed all their stuff!

He heard Sheldon’s door open, and footsteps come around the corner. He turned in that direction, ready to start shouting “what the hell did you do last night?” but all that came out was another bleat of “Eeeuuk!”

Sheldon wore jeans – blue – and a blue plaid shirt that hung loosely, and a baseball cap. The cap said Cooper Transport on the front. His belt buckle was the size of a sideplate and decorated with silver stars, silver horses and an enamel Texas flag. His cellphone rode in a little leather holster on his belt. He hadn’t shaved.

He stopped short when he saw Leonard staring at him.

Leonard said, “Yuh. You. Uh. Uh?”

“What’s wrong, li’l buddy-bud-bud?” His voice was deeper than usual, and his accent rolled straight from the Gulf. “Y’all look like you found a flying saucer in your breakfast cereal.”

Leonard found words in his mouth at last. “You didn’t fill up the kettle, and... and...uh.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.” Sheldon raised his hands, as if soothing a frightened animal. He reached past Leonard, pulled the fridge door open and took out a bottle of milk. “Y’all never seen me this early. Number three blew a gasket just outside Tucson, and Paulie has all the brains the good Lord gave a hamster, so I’m off early to go arrange repairs by remote control. It’s a JIT delivery so I stand to lose if he doesn’t get on the road ASAP.” He took a long draught of milk, straight from the bottle.

“Uh,” Leonard’s brain tried to figure out what Sheldon had just said, but coming from that mouth they made no sense.

“And later I’m going out with Earl to try out the 357 for accuracy at 200. So I might be out till real late.” The milk went back into the fridge.

“What? Where? I can’t drive you... wait, aren’t you coming to the university today?” Leonard realized he was wringing his hands in the front of his pyjamas. This was wrong, so badly wrong.

“Why’d I go to the university?” Sheldon frowned.

“Uh. To work?”

“To work?” Sheldon’s eyes went wide, and he rocked back on his heels in astonishment. Leonard was struck that he seemed even taller than he usually did. His eyes were drawn down to Sheldon’s feet. Yes, those were definitely cowboy boots down there. “Y’all are an odd li’l ole duck sometimes, Shortstop. It’s all that science stuff y’all do all day, it messes with your brains.” And then, oh horror of horrors, to add outrage to Leonard’s sense of bafflement, he reached out with one long arm and ruffled Leonard’s hair.

Leonard’s brain unfroze. Sheldon ruffling his hair – Sheldon the untouchable, who rarely voluntarily touched even his own siblings? “Don’t,” he said, stepping back reflexively.

He would be annoyed with Sheldon, and he would have said so, ordinarily, but this Sheldon was an unknown, and he seemed a lot bigger and stronger and scarier. Leonard stared at him.

The same face, the same lanky body, but not a man Leonard would have seen as a friend, or want as a roommate. Nor was this Sheldon a man who would ever look on a man like Leonard as an equal. Sheldon had been bodysnatched! He’d been abducted by aliens in the middle of the night and had all his Sheldonyness sucked out. He’d been hypnotised by some hitherto-unsuspected truck-driving gun-loving Lucky Luke supervillain – !

There was a knock at the door and both men swivelled as Penny let herself in with her key.

“Hey baby,” she sang, and skipped happily across the room to them.

“Morning,” alien-Sheldon said, and wrapped his arms around her as she came up to him. His head dipped, her face lifted to meet him and they stood for a moment locked in a deep kiss.

Leonard’s mouth hung open again. Penny? And Sheldon?

Her right hand was cupping Sheldon’s buttock, he saw, as they broke apart. “Hello there, Leonard,” she greeted him.

“Eeeeuk,” Leonard said, in lieu of wailing “Why are you kissing Whack-a-doodle instead of me?” He felt very geeky and very short and suddenly very, very alone.

“Y’all ready to roll, baby?”

“I’m all set to go,” she agreed. She shifted her grasp from his buttock to his hand, and tugged him toward the door.

Leonard watched them go, frozen in place. Behind him the kettle began to boil. He watched Sheldon, his pet crazy-man, follow his ex-girlfriend out of the door, with that indescribable swagger of a man who knows that he looks every inch as manly as he intends to. He watched as the door swung closed behind them, and the trance broke.

He wanted his own Sheldon back! He wanted his own Sheldon back RIGHT NOW! He started to run to the door. “Sheldon!” he shouted, desperate that they should hear him. He had to get Sheldon back – his own cherished, spoiled, aggravating, beloved Sheldon, not this horrible, swaggering, patronising normal Sheldon. He screamed as he ran, “Sheldon!”

The doorhandle seemed so far away, but he reached it and wrenched at it and raced out of the door. They weren’t on the stairs, and he flew down the first flight, steps after steps, and then suddenly he was going much too fast, too fast for his own feet, and he fell face-first, down the dark stairwell.

And then he woke up, gasping.

Leonard lay in the dark, his heart pounding, fingers digging into the sheets.

Then, for the very first time in all their years living together, he reciprocated Sheldon’s tactic for dealing with horrible nightmares. He sat bolt upright in bed and roared.

“ShelDOOOOOOON!”

Over the pounding of his own heart, he heard noises next door: a thud, some bangs, a bowdlerized curse in Sheldon’s voice. It dawned on him, along with his growing wakefulness, that screaming Sheldon’s name in the middle of the night would only precipitate a lovely nightmare of Sheldon’s own, which he, Leonard, would then have to deal with.

He flung himself out of bed, took two giant steps to his bedroom door, flung it open and propelled himself face first into Sheldon’s oncoming chest. They collided with such force that Leonard bounced off.

“Jiminy Christmas!” he heard Sheldon say. He felt hands clamp onto his shoulders, steadying him. “What is it? Is it an earthquake? Is it a hurricane? Is it a burglar?”

“We don’t get hurricanes in Pasadena. It’s nothing. I’m fine,” he babbled. “Sorry to wake you. It’s nothing. Go back to bed.” He pulled backwards to go back into his own room, but Sheldon followed him in, batting the door aside and turning on the overhead light.

“Leonard, you screamed my name repeatedly in the middle of the night. Either you are exploring a distressing new masturbatory fantasy or something is very wrong.” His tone was loud, clear, reasonable, and devoid of any squeamishness, and his brows arched in an enquiring expression. He folded his arms across his chest, the better to interrogate Leonard. He was, heartwarmingly, the real Sheldon. Leonard’s galloping heart began to slow down.

Leonard walked back around the foot of his bed and sat down on it. He began to pull the scattered covers back up to the pillows again. “It’s nothing to concern yourself with, Sheldon.”

Sheldon’s brows arched even higher, and he tipped himself forward from the waist as if awaiting a coherent answer from an dull undergraduate. “Nothing to concern myself with? Leonard, I beg to differ.”

Leonard sighed. “All right. Since you’re not going away. I had a bad dream.”

“A bad dream?” Sheldon’s eyebrows rose again. “Leonard, I’m sorry. Freud had bad dreams. Salvador Dali had bad dreams, and then grew a humorous mustache. What you had was a nightmare.”

“Yes. All right, I had a nightmare. I had the worst nightmare I’ve had since I was little.”

“Littler,” Sheldon corrected absently. He took up his appointed ‘comfort-Leonard’ position, one arm crooked over the corner of the chest of drawers alongside Leonard’s bed. He loomed over Leonard. “Was it worse than the one when you’re stuck in a very high glass elevator and you’re naked?”

“Yes. Worse than that.” He put his head in his hands.

Sheldon bent double, trying doglike to see what was going on behind Leonard’s fingers. “Worse than the one where you’re on stage receiving the Nobel Prize and then you look around and realize it’s actually the Templeton Prize?”

“Yes, Sheldon. It was even worse than that.” He closed his fingers, blocking out the blue gaze.

Sheldon stood up straight, suddenly statuesque. His voice deepened authoritatively. “Was it worse than the water-moccasin scene from Lonesome Dove?”

“What?” Leonard opened a gap in his fingers, and looked up at him through it, bemused. “What water moccasin scene from Lonesome Dove? I’ve never even seen Lonesome Dove.”

Sheldon stopped, tucked his chin in to think. “No, you’re right. That’s one of mine. Wait, you say you’ve never seen Lonesome Dove?”

“Well, it was worse than the water moccasin scene from Lonesome Dove, all right?” He raised his head out of his hands.

“Leonard, I cannot believe you haven’t seen Lonesome Dove. My sister owns the DVDs, we can borrow it and watch…”

“Look, will you forget Lonesome Dove?”

Forget Lonesome Dove? How can I forget Lonesome Dove? It’s the quintessential series of the Old West! Call and Gus are some of the best characterizations of…”

“Look, just try to forget Lonesome Dove for one minute? Please? I had a nightmare! A really bad one! And you were in it!”

“Oh, I was? Really? A dream with me in it?” Sheldon looked pleased. And then he looked worried, concerned for his own safety, whether the context was real or not. “I hope nothing bad happened to me?” Sheldon moved then, and sat on the end of Leonard’s bed. Leonard recognised the pose. It was a near-copy of his own pose when he tried to comfort Sheldon. What was that line, about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery? Leonard shifted too, and drew his legs up onto the bed so that he could wrap his arms around his knees.

“Nothing bad happened to you. I swear. I dreamed I woke up one day and you were…” Leonard’s mind spellchecked his choice of words and deleted the word ‘normal’ before it could be sent for publication by his mouth, “… ordinary.”

“Ordinary?” Sheldon frowned, clearly trying to correlate his definition of the word ‘ordinary’ with its potential for producing nightmares. “Ordinary,” he tried again in a lower register, as if that would help, thought some more, then shook his head. “No, I’m sorry, I don’t get it.”

Leonard grinned at him. “No, I’m quite sure you wouldn’t.” He had learned, fairly soon in this complex relationship, that Sheldon was as good as deaf to his vocal intonations, and so as long as his actual syntax was clear he was free to play with as much sarcasm as he liked. “I woke up and you’d metamorphosed into Penny’s ex-boyfriend Kurt.”

“Kurt?” Sheldon raised his hand over his head, although in fact he and Kurt were probably close to the same height. “This tall Kurt?”

“Yup, that tall Kurt. You had a trucking company, I think. And you talked like Lucky Luke. And you were sleeping with Penny. And you ruffled my hair and called me Shortstop.” He stopped and glared. “I don’t even like being called Shortstop in my sleep! Anyway, I yelled for the real you to come back, and woke myself up.”

“A trucking company,” Sheldon asked, aghast, “Like my dad? Oh good Lord, what a nightmare that would be. I am nothing like my dad.”

“Well, buddy, I am glad for both of us it was only a dream. I wouldn’t swop you for a hundred certified-non-whack-a-doodle roommates.”

“You wouldn’t fit a hundred non-whack-a-doodle roommates in here.”

“Hey, I mean it. I’d miss you. You know that, right? You get on my nerves sometimes but you’re still my best buddy.”

“I am?”

The doubt in Sheldon’s voice made something contract a little in Leonard’s chest. “Yes, you are.”

“Still?”

“Yes. Still,” and then in all honestly he felt forced to add, “lightbulbs notwithstanding.”

“Hmm.” Sheldon looked up at Leonard. “Maybe we could re-sign the Friendship Rider of the Roommate Agreement?”

“I’d like that.”

“I’d like that too. I’ve missed having something fixed in written form. Codified and countersigned, with precisely defined terminology, with no room for misunderstandings. Without it I feel like we have been floating adrift.”

“We might drift into any sort of uncharted waters,” Leonard agreed.

“Yes.”

“And we might be marooned on an uninhabited rock far out to sea, and I’d be forced to eat you.”

“Oh, now, there you are taking the metaphor too far, Leonard.”

Leonard grinned at him.

Sheldon continued. “We can re-negotiate it from scratch, allowing for recent changes in the internal and external environment. Like for example, if you get another girlfriend.”

“Hey, you know what we can do? We can ask Penny if she’d like to sign it too!”

“Oh, no. You know that’s impossible. The basis of the Friendship Rider is as a subsection of the Roommate Agreement and since Penny is not a signatory to the Roommate Agreement she cannot sign the Rider.”

Leonard thought about it. “That makes sense. Sort of.”

“But we can do something better,” Sheldon said, and sat up straighter. “We can abandon the Rider altogether, and draw up a Friendship Protocol instead. Penny can join a Friendship Protocol without signing the Roommate Agreement.” He brightened up at this demonstration of his own cleverness. “And it wouldn’t be reliant on the continued existence of the Roommate Agreement, which would automatically be dissolved in the case of one of us moving out.”

It occurred to Leonard what Penny’s first reaction to being asked to sign a binding agreement with Sheldon Lee Cooper would be. He would have to talk to her first, and explain what an important resource a written agreement was when dealing with someone as intent on getting his own way as Sheldon. It helped to have said ‘hell no’ to some things years in advance. “Okay,” he agreed, lying down. “But I’m not signing anything tonight.”

“Agreed.”

The two men regarded each other silently across the length of the bed for a while. The silence went on. It was one of Sheldon’s habits that Leonard had always found oddly soothing – that he tended to forget that people sitting together are supposed to find something to talk about, regardless of relevance. In silences that others might find uncomfortable, Sheldon was content just to sit, until one of them had something relevant to say. So they sat.

“Why did you break all the light bulbs?” Leonard asked eventually.

“Well, it was the only solution I could come to.”

“Explain for me, please.”

Sheldon steepled his long fingers. “Had I simply removed the one bulb, you would have put another in its place. I do not have access to the receipt for the purchase, so I couldn’t simply return them, and anyway I don’t drive. Had I purchased another box of the correct wattage, you would have retained them and I would have been dealing with them turning up in assorted light fittings throughout the apartment for months. I could have thrown them away, but you would have retrieved them and hidden them – I’m sorry, attempted to hide them – leading to the same outcome. They would have continued to cause disruption and strife for as long as they were present in this apartment, and I wanted to bring the unpleasantness between us to a swift conclusion. The only logical solution was to destroy them. Problem solved, and we can return to a state of equilibrium.” He interlaced his fingers, and let his hands fall to his lap.

Leonard gazed at the ceiling. “I have an alternative solution for you,” he suggested. “How about ... just getting used to them?”

Sheldon laughed, his usual little kitten-chuckle. “Oh, Leonard, Leonard, Leonard. You know I can’t do that.”

“Yeah, silly me,” Leonard agreed. It’s not like you haven’t got used to things in the past, he thought silently. You’ve gotten used to a lot of things, like hugs, and jokes, and Penny, and letting people in your room, and not having to figure out from experiment where the best place to sit is – although I’m not convinced always sitting on the left of everything is an improvement. It just takes you a really long time to accept things. “You know, Penny is right. You are one serious whack-a-doodle.”

“And yet, here you still are, after all these years.” Sheldon preened himself. “I believe I have a relevant quote for you, Leonard. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.” Sheldon got up and turned off the overhead light.

“What’s that?”

“Lonesome Dove. You’ll find out the context soon enough. Good morning, Leonard.” Sheldon gave a little half-bow, and backed out of Leonard’s room.

Leonard pulled his blankets around himself and rolled onto his side to sleep, feeling curiously cheerful.