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3 a.m.

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Knock knock knock. “Uncle Shelly!”

Knock knock knock. “Uncle Shelly!”

Knock knock knock. “Uncle Shelly!”

The door to Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s office swung open with a bang, as it typically did around 5:03 p.m. every Monday through Friday, excluding state holidays and ComicCon days. The source of the disruption was a small child whose thick wavy brown hair overshadowed his pale complexion. The boy’s bright green eyes were intensified by his Hulk T-shirt tucked haphazardly into his jeans. With light-up sneakers and a too-big backpack, the child was a sight to see, but Dr. Cooper was unruffled.

“Hello, Nicolaas,” Sheldon greeted his visitor without looking away from his board. The marker in his hand flew into action, scribbling equations across the board as Sheldon attempted to record his thoughts at the same rapid pace as his brain processed them.

Knowing better than to interrupt the older man while he was working, the child bolted towards the desk chair, climbing up and using the bookcase to give himself a push. As the chair spun around, Sheldon gave the impish boy a Look, but the child’s smile was no match for the man’s disapproval.

“Uncle Shelly, Uncle Shelly! Daddy and I were wondering if you’d like to spend the night tonight at our house!” Nicolaas beamed up at the physicist. Sheldon carefully replaced the lid on his marker and reached for his own shoulder bag.

“Tonight? What makes tonight more optimal than any other night?” Sheldon asked.

“Today’s Friday. Friday night is movie night!” Nicolaas informed him gravely. Sheldon blinked at the eerily familiar tone of voice.

“Come on, Uncle Shelly! We’ll watch movies all night and then we can get up in the morning and watch cartoons ‘n Daddy’ll make us anything we want for breakfast!” Excited by the mere prospect, the child jumped down from the chair and shifted eagerly from foot to foot.

“Anything within reason,” a voice spoke up dryly from the doorway. At thirty-eight, Leonard was dressed in the same manner he had been for the past twenty plus years: cartoon T-shirt underneath layers of jackets and hoodies and awkward colored pants. His appearance, however, betrayed the passage of time, with streaks of premature gray clouding the once dark brown hair. The lenses in the thick-rimmed glasses seemed to be a little thicker themselves, and a certain weariness hung over the shorter man. Clutching his own backpack, Leonard leaned against Sheldon’s doorframe, gazing affectionately down at his son.

“An’ after breakfast, we’ll go to the zoo, an’ I promise not to go into the aviary again, an’ then we’re having supper with Uncle Howard and Aunt Bernadette, an’ then on Sunday we’re…” Nicolaas chattered on, but Sheldon had fixed his attention on Leonard.

“Saturday’s French toast day,” was Sheldon’s only reply as he pushed some papers on his desk into a neat little pile.

Leonard’s smile didn’t waver as he glanced towards his friend. “Yeah… yeah, I remember.”

“It’s also laundry night. If I don’t wash my clothes, I’ll have to wear my back-up garments next week,” Sheldon continued.

“Sheldon…we have a washer and dryer. You can wash your clothes at our house, ok?” Leonard was patient, but Nicolaas had no such qualities.

“Oh, please, please, please, Uncle Shelly!”

“Fine. But I require a ride to the apartment to pick up my stuff before we go to your house,” Sheldon gave in. With an elated shout, the child bounded towards the door, scooping up his backpack in one fluid motion. Leonard smiled at Nicolaas’s enthusiasm, but Sheldon did not acknowledge the excitement. The two physicists fell in step with each other as they made their way to Leonard’s car; Nicolaas darted ahead only to double-back to comment on the older men’s conversation.

During the oh-so-familiar drive back to what used to be his home, Leonard grew increasingly quiet. His companions, however, did not seem to notice his silence and continued to chatter on. The very few times Leonard ever went back to Sheldon’s apartment, his behavior was always the same; Sheldon and Nicolaas knew what to expect. For Leonard, there were too many memories in that building of a certain person that he simply did not want to dwell on. Rarely did Leonard venture up to his friend’s place, but Nicolaas’s curiosity and love of his Uncle Shelly’s home outweighed his father’s sadness. Pulling into a free parking space, Leonard shut the engine off, watching with pensive eyes as Sheldon and Nicolaas tumbled out of the car. The child’s bubbling enthusiasm always made Leonard’s day brighter, but somehow the presence of his son at this place incessantly reminded him of the wife he had lost. Of… Penny.

“Mom lived there, didn’t she?” Nicolaas questioned as they reached the landing to Sheldon’s apartment. Fishing his keys out of a coat pocket, the older man nodded silently. No matter how many times Nicolaas came up to Sheldon’s place, he always asked the same question. He had long ago run out of patience with the child’s seemingly forgetful nature until Leonard had found about his son’s questions. Oh, Sheldon had gotten a lecture then. Be nice, Leonard had told him. He remembers your answer; he just wants to talk about it. Sheldon reluctantly filed it under the ‘adapt to it’ category, along with the third Spiderman movie, the cancelation of Toonami, and the Cheesecake Factory’s new tomato vendor.

The child’s wistful eyes stared at the door across the hall. To him, that apartment was as mysterious and unfamiliar as his own mother. Nicolaas knew that she had died in an accident when he was two, but everything he knew about her he had gotten from the photographs his father had kept and the occasional bit of information he had pried out of Leonard.

“What was my mom like?” Nicolaas suddenly piped up, following Sheldon inside the door and then to his bedroom.

“Messy,” Sheldon answered promptly. Reaching for his dirty laundry, he carefully placed the folded garments into one duffel bag before packing his clean clothes and other survival items for his overnight stay.

“Uncle Shelly,” Nicolaas groaned. “What else?”

“Horrible at managing her finances, a lousy singer, never took basic safety precautions, controlled by her emotions rather than logic, of average intellect, insulting, and prone to levitating revenge,” Sheldon rattled off, as if he had a list of everyone’s faults stored in his brain. Which he probably did.

“Oh,” came Nicolaas’s reply, chewing on that answer for a minute. “But…Mommy and Daddy loved each other right?”

“Ah, yes. Penny made Leonard very happy and quite foolish too. In fact, Leonard pined over her from the day she moved in. I still don’t know why he was attracted to a female of far less intellect, but I suppose you have to make allowances for other people’s shortcomings,” Sheldon answered.

Nicolaas laughed. “Daddy says the same thing about you!”

Sheldon’s head jerked up in surprise, eyes narrowing in irritation. “Excuse me?”

“Come ooon, let’s go!” Nicolaas whined, his limited patience running out. ‘Helping’ Sheldon carry his bags, Nicolaas made his way outside and spared one last glance at the closed door of 4B.

Five hours, two large cheeseless pizzas, the entire X-men trilogy and a few Batman cartoons later, Leonard was ready to call it a night. So was Sheldon, judging from the slightly glazed over look in his eyes that Leonard was used to seeing years ago when his friend was half-asleep in the mornings. Too bad the third member of their party wasn’t sleepy.

“Nicolaas… bedtime. The sooner you go to sleep, the faster you’ll get your pancakes in the morning,” Leonard pleaded.

“But there’s another episode coming on,” Nicolaas motioned towards the T.V., but gave a sigh of submission as his father shook his head.

Ohhhkaay. G’night, Dad. G’night, Uncle Shelly,” the child replied, giving each adult a quick hug. As his son scampered off to change for bed, Leonard made his way to the hall closet, pulling out a few blankets.

“Here’s some blankets for you, Sheldon,” Leonard offered the fabric out to the indignant scientist.

“Excuse me? You’re expecting me to sleep on your couch?”

Steeling himself for a round of bickering, Leonard shook the blankets at Sheldon and nodded. “Well… yeah. What’s wrong with my couch?”

Giving his friend a look that clearly communicated what’s not wrong with it, Sheldon huffed and stood up as to look down at Leonard. “Nothing if your height is less than five feet. I clearly am not; I could obtain no rest on that diminutive-sized furniture.”

Leonard sighed in exasperation. “Then where are you going to sleep?”

“In your room,” Sheldon stated matter-of-factly. “I’m your guest!” he added sulkily as Leonard opened his mouth to protest. Without another word, the taller scientist hastily ventured off in the direction of the bedroom.

Groaning, Leonard gave in to what had already happened and resolved himself to spending the night on his own couch.

----------------

It was after three in the morning when Leonard was roused from his sleep by the sound of shuffling feet. The footsteps were hesitant, as if the visitor was in unfamiliar territory.

Shuffle. Pause. Shuffle. Pause. Shuffle shuffle thwack! Soft mutterings, then… shuffle.

The cycle continued for several minutes. When he could take no more, Leonard sat up from the couch, pushing the blankets away.

“What are you doing, Sheldon?” Leonard called out, fumbling to turn on the lamp. There was a surprised hiss from his houseguest, and the taller physicist blinked at the sudden flood of light. His hair was rumpled, and he stood awkwardly at being caught, glancing sleepily from Leonard to the kitchen.

“I was just going to get a glass of milk… but it occurs to me that you would have no reason to have any in your house since both occupants are lactose-intolerant…”

Leonard raised a brow at Sheldon’s admittance that he hadn’t thought his plan through. “Are you not sleeping well? Is there something wrong with the bed?”

“Bed’s adequate,” Sheldon mumbled, finding a sudden fascination with the living room carpet. “Sheets are too… stimulating.”

“Stimulating,” Leonard repeated tiredly. “For God’s sakes, Sheldon…the sheets are solid blue! Just shut your eyes and go to sleep…”

“I never said it was the appearance of the sheets,” Sheldon protested.

“Then what is wrong with them?” Leonard didn’t try very hard to keep the exasperation out of his voice.

“Your scent is everywhere.”

It took Leonard’s brain a minute to process the connection between his smelly sheets and Sheldon’s… stimulation. When it finally did click, it was difficult not to glance at Sheldon’s lower region. The desire to look was instinctive, right? Had to be. Leonard didn’t want to be looking at that. Nope.

“Umm… actually, I bought some milk,” Leonard blurted out. He made his way past the other man to the refrigerator and pulled out the carton. Leonard heard Sheldon shuffling behind him, but didn’t turn around until the other was seated at the table. A glass of milk was poured for his friend, but Leonard filled his own with water.

“Are there any available female that you believe are potential sexual partners?” Sheldon asked as Leonard joined him at the table. Leonard choked on his sip on water and shook his head as he coughed.

“N-no! Sheldon, geez. If I tried to hit on anyone, they’d be freaked out by this,” Leonard held up his left hand, the gold band glittering brightly. “Besides, I’m not exactly looking.”

“Don’t see why you shouldn’t be. It’s been over five years. Apparently that’s a long time to go without coitus,” Sheldon remarked.

“What, have you been talking to Howard? And why the sudden interest in my love life?” Leonard’s brow furrowed as he stared across the table.

“We were roommates for five years, and friends now for almost fourteen… It occurred to me a few months ago that if I had to pick one person to tolerate for the rest of my life, it would be you. Your bad habits are the most tolerable, and you’re already used to my routine. It’s only logical that if you can not find a suitable replacement for Penny, that you might consider me,” Sheldon explained. Leonard said nothing, continuing to stare in shock.

“Aren’t you going to say something?” Sheldon’s tolerance for the halted status of the conversation plummeted.

“I’m waiting for a bazinga, to be honest,” Leonard finally replied slowly, taking another sip of his drink to buy more time.

“This isn’t a joke!” The twitching of Sheldon’s face drove that point home. He was clearly out of his element and Leonard felt a twinge of regret.

“I’m sorry… it’s just… this isn’t like you, Shelly. I mean, I’m very glad that you’re feeling actual human emotions! It’s just a surprise…No one ever thought you’d fall in love in the romantic sense. I know you experienced the friendship type of love even if you never realized or showed that you felt it,” Leonard said softly. “I guess being by yourself made you realize the advantages of having someone that loves you around, huh? I’m… sorry that I haven’t been around…”

“On the contrary; I’ve enjoyed the solitude,” Sheldon replied. His voice was oddly subdued, but he calmly received Leonard’s gaze and little speech.

“Almost ten years’ worth of solitude? Seems a little lonely,” Leonard returned, eyeing his former roommate with a critical eye.

“It’s not like I was holed up in my apartment twenty-four seven. I saw you, Koothrappali and Wolowitz at work during the weekday. I also came over for dinner every Monday for two years, remember?”

Leonard did remember. Sheldon had been quite vocal about his feelings of Leonard and Penny’s move. Change did not come easily to the theoretical physicist, and both he and Penny had felt guilty over their so-called “abandonment” of Sheldon. So they had tried to work a compromise out; Leonard would bring Sheldon home after work every Monday and drive him home after supper. Wednesdays were dedicated to Boys’ Night, or rather, Comic Book Afternoon, and Thursday was Girls’ Night for Penny and her friends. The rest of the time was Leonard and Penny time, and the newlyweds tried to make the most of their time together.

After the accident that had claimed Penny’s life, that had all fallen apart. Howard, Bernadette, and Raj pitched in as much as they could, cooking, feeding, and taking care of two-year old Nicolaas. They stayed at his house for days at a time, but Leonard was hardly aware of it. He spent his days curled up in bed, tears having been spent a long time ago, but paralyzed with the same bottomless grief and aching loss. His friends would try to cheer him up, their murmurings of “It’s going to be alright” a constant, meaningless chant.

But not Sheldon. Sheldon had had little to do with the snot-nosed, dirty-fingered child. Instead, acting on his title of Best Friend, Sheldon had stuck by his side, bringing him hot tea, which he never drank, and offered none of the worthless condolences that his other friends did, which he was grateful for. Sheldon declared himself in charge of keeping Leonard’s room clean and the laundry washed, and in his spare time, nagged Leonard about his hygiene to the point where he had gotten out of bed simply to escape Sheldon’s harassment. At last, when he could take Leonard’s moping no more, Sheldon had bodily forced Leonard back into his old routine, enlisting Howard and Raj’s help in dragging him to work and propping him up in front of a laser. Not the smartest idea in the world, but it worked. Slowly and surely, Leonard’s life fell back into place, but the actions were mechanical and his heart not into it. It was as if Penny had never been part of his life.

Then one day, Leonard realized how much he had been emotionally neglecting his son. Penny’s son. Nicolaas was living proof of their love and time together. Suddenly it didn’t matter that he was still driving his best friend to the comic store just as he had been doing for the past thirteen years. A little part of Penny was still with him.

“You have not made it clear if you are receptive to my offer or repulsed.” Sheldon’s voice brought Leonard back to the present.

“Look, Sheldon… We need to talk about this a little more. It’s not just about the physical aspect, right? You do want a relationship, hm?”

“We already have a relationship, what are you referring to?” Sheldon questioned, looking genuinely puzzled.

Leonard sighed. “If… if we were to… go out, would you be able to handle me holding your hand or kissing you or... flirting with you?” The thought of flirting with Sheldon was almost enough to drive Leonard into tears of laughter. He held it back out of respect; it had taken Sheldon this long to talk to him about his feelings so openly and Leonard did not want to do anything to crush this new development in trust.

“Oh. I’ve studied your interactions with Penny extensively; I’m fully aware what a relationship with you consists. I know what I’m getting into.” Sheldon looked smug.

“Really now?” Leonard raised a brow. That little theory needed testing. As Sheldon took a sip of his milk, the shorter man slid out of his seat and closed the distance between them. He couldn’t quite bring himself to go for the lips, so he pressed a kiss to Sheldon’s temple instead.

“Is that your answer?” Sheldon asked, looking rather pleased. Damn, Leonard hadn’t shook him after all. There was a weird squishy feeling in the pit of his stomach that Leonard wasn’t quite at ease with, but he couldn’t help the small flutter of… something in his heart. Maybe it was worth a shot. Penny had given him a chance after all. Lord knows, he had done a lot for Sheldon in his life already, was this really such a big deal after Soft Kitty?

Leonard rested his forehead against Sheldon’s and sighed. “You’re not just dating me, you know. Can you handle being a larger part in Nicolaas’s life as well?”

“Yes. People refer to it as the ‘package deal,’ though in you and your son’s case, it’s a very small package,” Sheldon replied.

“…You’re talking about my height, right?” Leonard asked with narrowed eyes, even if Sheldon couldn’t see them.

“What else would I be referring to?” Sheldon inquired.

“Nothing… just… never say that in public,” Leonard replied, leaning back and shaking his head. “Ok, Sheldon. I’ll… go out with you.”

--------------------------
The next few weeks passed in a blur as Leonard and Sheldon fell into the dating routine. Leonard wouldn’t really classify what they were doing as ‘dating’ as much as it was hanging out with absolutely no touching, but allowances had to be made for the kid’s presence. Occasionally Nicolaas would be invited to a friend’s house or Howard and Raj took him out, and the two adults were free to be as intimate as they desired. Sheldon adapted to Leonard’s affections without too much protest, but that was partly because Leonard was actually the one who was trying to take things slowly. Sheldon had other ideas, and as the weeks passed, the physicist spent more and more time over at the Hofstadter household.

“Dad? Why is Uncle Shelly staying over every night?” Nicolaas suddenly asked one morning. He stirred his water and cereal absentmindedly, staring thoughtfully at the two older men.

“I’m glad you asked that,” Leonard replied, looking anything but. He knew he couldn’t, and shouldn’t, keep their relationship from his son for too much longer, but he still felt some unexplainable reservations. “You see… Sheldon and I… are um… well, uh. Dating.”

“Really?! Like Jean Grey and Scott kind of dating? Is my name going to change?” Nicolaas looked rather thrilled at the prospect. Leonard raised a brow at the child’s suggestion.

“No, it won’t. Why? Do you want your name to be David Nicolaas Hofstadter-Cooper?”

Sheldon looked up from his breakfast, fixing Leonard with an indignant stare. “Why is your surname first?”

“Gee, I dunno. Maybe because he’s my child?” Leonard rolled his eyes and took his dishes over to the sink for rinsing.

“I believe it is customary for the dominant name to go first,” Sheldon stated firmly. Nicolaas’s gaze shifted back and forth between the two physicists, highly amused at the bickering. He had heard the two argue throughout his life, and it never alarmed him.

“What’s your point?” Leonard finished rinsing his dishes and carefully loaded them in the dishwasher. The shorter man made his way back to the table, picking up Nicolaas’s dirty utensils.

“My point is, based on past occurrences of our physical relationship, that my name should go first!” Sheldon wasn’t about to let his argument go. The child’s brow furrowed in thought at Sheldon’s response, but Leonard picked up on his partner’s meaning right away.

“No one’s name is changing! We’re only dating, anyway. Nicolaas, you’re going to be late for school if you don’t hurry up,” Leonard spoke up hastily. As the child scrambled towards the bathroom, Leonard stalked over to Sheldon’s chair.

“We do not discuss our sexual activities in front of the kid,” Leonard hissed in his partner’s ear. Sheldon looked surprised and glanced up at Leonard in disbelief. “Why? Has he not learned about the reproductive system by now?”

“Don’t go there,” Leonard warned him, and Sheldon sighed.

“Are you going to leave the topic of sexual intercourse up to the public school system’s discretion? We need to talk about your parenting responsibilities later, Leonard,” Sheldon announced, taking his own dishes to the sink.

With as much time as Sheldon was spending at the house, Sheldon’s stuff naturally migrated as well. At first, it was the small things: an extra pair of shoes by the door, three pairs of keys in the bowl again, the familiar germ-defying toothbrush contraption in the bathroom. Some of Penny’s possessions on the dresser were pushed back to make room for a Star Trek alarm clock and heavy scientific books, but Leonard pretended not to notice. Little by little, Sheldon was taking over half of the bedroom he was now daily occupying. Still, Leonard was unprepared the day he walked into his bedroom to find the floor space taken up by large cardboard boxes.

Empty cardboard boxes.

“Reenacting Schroeder’s experiment, Sheldon?” Leonard called out nervously, carefully picking his way through the room. He didn’t see a lot of Sheldon’s stuff lying around, and Leonard didn’t quite know what the think about that. His roommate sat on the bed, staring at him with such a serious expression that Leonard immediately dreaded the response.

“Leonard, it’s been five years and seventeen weeks since Penny died. It’s time to pack up some of her stuff. There’s not room for both of us here,” Sheldon added, motioning towards Penny’s stuff and then at himself. Leonard swallowed hard.

“We’ll put it all up in the attic,” Sheldon continued after a moment of silence. “You can still look at it if you wish, and this room will be far less crowded.” Satisfied with his own plan, Sheldon reached for a box and turned to empty the contents of Penny’s nightstand.

Part of Leonard wanted to scream and he struggled to keep calm, taking several deep breaths as he watched Sheldon carefully place random fashion magazines, jewelry, and other odds and ends that somehow ended up where it wasn’t supposed to. At least Sheldon was handling her possessions gently; if they had been haphazardly thrown into the boxes, Leonard might not have been able to hold back his pain.

“Stop,” he whispered so softly that the other man didn’t hear him, even with his damn Vulcan hearing. “No, Sheldon, wait…” he spoke up louder. This time, his words had immediate effect, and Sheldon froze, eyeing Leonard warily.

It took another deep breath before Leonard could speak again. “You… you’re right… It’s not… fair to you, I’m sorry.” Sheldon waited patiently, accepting his friend’s words with a nod.

“Actually, um… There’s only a few things I need to keep…I mean, there’s no use in keeping… all of this,” Leonard continued. He knew it was the truth, but it still hurt to say. “Excellent!” Sheldon replied quickly, fishing out the tabloid magazines and tossing them in the trash. With a sigh, Leonard pointed at the closet on the right side of the room.

“Ok, now listen! I don’t want you throwing away everything. Why don’t you fold up Pen… the clothes and box up the shoes? We can give those to charity… I’ll go through the other stuff and get what I want.” Happy that Leonard wasn’t going to fight with him over his brilliant suggestion, Sheldon obediently grabbed a box and made his way to the closet. Even if Leonard hadn’t pointed it out, it was obvious which closet was Penny’s, judging from the nauseating pastel flower decals on the panel. That, too, would have to go, Sheldon decided.

“Oh, good Lord!” Sheldon’s sharp intake of breath caused Leonard to turn around. His partner was staring in disbelief at the jumbled mess of unfolded clothes and strewn shoes that was Penny’s closet. Leonard gave him a crooked smile. Ah, Sheldon’s worse nightmare: Penny’s organizational skills.

Leaving Sheldon to battle the closet, Leonard turned his focus back to Penny’s possessions. Handling her things brought back floods of memories and an ache in his chest, but it didn’t hurt as much as it used to. Somehow that made the pain worse. Was it cheating, being able to move on without so much as a tear? He truly loved Sheldon, but was it right to replace Penny so easily…

Leonard was lost in his memories for hours, diligently working at emptying drawer after drawer and inspecting each little object with critical eyes. He frequently went to dig out items from the giveaway boxes, only to change his mind and return the treasured possession for charity. The shifting left him emotionally drained, and he became increasingly chatty, telling Sheldon stories of particular objects even if Sheldon had already heard them.

“Is there anything you want to keep in this swirling chaos?” Sheldon finally interrupted Leonard’s latest story about a duck figurine Penny had bought at a mall craft show. Grateful for the excuse to approach his friend, Leonard made his way over to the closet, crouching down beside Sheldon. While Leonard had managed to clear all of the stuff in dressers and from underneath the bed, Sheldon’s headway in closet cleaning was only perceivable from the amount of boxes already filled up; just as much crap seemed to fill the closet as when he had begun!

“There is one thing I’d like to keep,” Leonard murmured. He leaned over and pressed his lips against Sheldon’s cheek, ignoring the other man’s tenseness.

“What’s that?” Sheldon replied, keeping his gaze away from Leonard. It was harder to ignore the trail of kisses Leonard was bestowing on his neck, though as the other scientist sank his teeth into the sensitive spot between neck and shoulder blade, Sheldon visibly relaxed.

“You,” Leonard stated simply. Sheldon met his eyes at that, and couldn’t hold back a small smile. Pleased that he had made his friend happy, Leonard wrapped an arm around Sheldon’s shoulders.

“I’m glad I’ve got you,” he admitted. Sheldon snorted and turned his attention back to the closet.

“The more accurate statement would be that I have you,” Sheldon replied. Leonard tilted his head questioningly.

“What’s all this?” a small voice piped up. Leonard’s head jerked up to see Nicolaas standing in the doorway. By habit, he dropped his arm away from Sheldon.

“Oh, hey, you’re home! We were just… packing up some stuff so Uncle Shelly can move all his crap in. All the comic stuff you admire at his apartment is going to be here. Exciting, huh?”

“Yeah. Exciting,” Nicolaas echoed. Strangely, the child did not look all that thrilled at the prospect.

“You have a good time with Raj?” Leonard asked, brow furrowing in confusion as his son merely nodded then fled from the doorway.

“Huh. Weird,” Leonard muttered, turning his gaze back to Sheldon. His partner appeared unfazed, and was already digging into the piles of mess again.

Nicolaas was unusually quiet at dinner that night, but Leonard gave up trying to find out what was wrong after several failed attempts. He chalked it up to hormonal changes and hoped things would be smoother in the morning.

The next day did not bring such comforts. As he headed down the hallway to the kitchen for breakfast, Leonard could hear snatches of conversation. Leonard hesitated, something in the voices signaling that all was not right.

“But I don’t want oatmeal, I want cereal!” Nicolaas’s temper did not have a short fuse, but the child definitely sounded peeved.

“You had cereal yesterday; you can’t have it two days in a row. Today is oatmeal day!” Sheldon’s voice left no room for argument. Leonard could hear the scraping sound of tableware against the counter.

“Yes I can! You can’t tell me what to do; you aren’t my father!” Nicolaas’s voice increased in volume. Taking his cue to intervene, Leonard rounded the corner hastily in time to see the child forcibly push the offending bowl of oatmeal towards his partner. Nicolaas scrapped his chair back and darted down the hall past his father, leaving Leonard standing there in surprise. Biting his lip, he turned towards Sheldon, then down the hall to Nicolaas’s bedroom. Leonard felt trapped, and no amount of warnings from Admiral Ackbar could have prevented the panic he felt.

“Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him,” Leonard called over his shoulder as he followed the child’s steps down the hall. Nicolaas had to be his first concern in this situation; he would deal with Sheldon later.

“Hey buddy, can I come in?” Leonard pushed the door ajar, peering in at the curled form on the bed. “What’s wrong? I know you love your Uncle Shelly… why are his rules bothering you all of a sudden? This isn’t like you.”

Nicolaas sniffed into his pillow and didn’t look up, even when he felt the bed dip as Leonard sat down on the edge.

“You’re getting rid of all Mom’s things… I do… love Uncle Shelly, but sometimes he’s so… he’s so… frustrating!” Nicolaas declared. “And now he’s going to be living here? Forever? What’s going to happen to me?”

“Nothing’s going to happen to you! Did you think I would forget about you because Sheldon’s here now? Nicolaas… no. You’re my son, and frankly, sometimes you’re the only one that keeps me sane in this household. I’m sorry we shocked you about getting rid of some of Pen… your mom’s possessions, but it was kind of a… spur of the moment thing. Not to say,” Leonard added hastily, “that I took it lightly. It hurt a lot… I have so many good memories about her. But you need to know that…neither of us should hold onto the past like that. I miss your mother terribly, every day, and I know you miss her too, Nicolaas. I think we always will. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with Sheldon… because he’s here and he needs our love, too. Accepting him as part of our family doesn’t require forgetting your mom.”

“Does he make you happy?” Nicolaas inquired, peering up at his father.

Leonard nodded slowly. “Yes... very much so. He also drives me batshit crazy. You’re going to have to help me deal with him, Nicolaas. See, Sheldon doesn’t know what it’s like to be a parent. We’re both going to have to be patient with him and teach him how to function in our family. This is the Hofstadter household, and we outnumber him, right?!”

“Right!” Nicolaas agreed with a giggle. Leonard smiled and ruffled his son’s curly hair. “Whaddya say we go eat breakfast. You can have whatever you want to eat, but I want you to apologize to Sheldon for yelling at him. And he will eventually apologize to you after I give him a lecture on encroaching on other people’s routines.”

Nicolaas nodded and rolled off the bed, wiping at dried tears as he went. Together, Leonard and Nicolaas made their way back to the kitchen, where Sheldon was waiting. A clean bowl was sitting out, and the child’s favorite cereal box was next to it, a silent peace offering. Nicolaas beamed, sliding into his seat. Smiling at the effort, Leonard gave Sheldon a quick peck on the cheek before taking his own seat and reaching for the rejected bowl of oatmeal.