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The Feedback Loop Negativity

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It had been a crappy night at the Cheesecake Factory. First of all, Penny’s car had broken down on the way to work, forcing her to call a cab and resulting in a late arrival to her shift. She had accidentally knocked over an expensive fruity alcoholic beverage on the paying diner in a party of seven, costing her the biggest tip of the night. And on top of that, the first thing she noticed when she clocked out was that Leonard had left twelve voicemails on her phone begging her to take him back, each of which she had deleted with an unrestrained glee. No, this was definitely not her finest hour, so she was looking forward to spending the night curled up in front of the boob tube watching Sex and the City while downing as many glasses of cheap grocery store wine as she could before she passed out.

Which is why she was dismayed to find that her supply of potent potables had been depleted (there were four empty bottles in the recycle bin that had definitely not been there this morning) and the desired DVD’s (seasons 1-6 PLUS the two god-awful movies) were not in their usual spot on the shelf. But being as she was too tired to deal with these inconveniences at present, she merely made a pitiful whimpering noise and crawled off to bed. After all, there was nothing sinister about a few mysteriously appearing and disappearing items around her apartment. Her memory must just be a little fuzzy, right?

She was startled awake at an ungodly hour when her cell phone buzzed under her pillow. “Go away, Leonard,” she barked into the receiver.

“Um, this is Pasadena Auto Repair,” came a confused male voice.

She sat bolt upright in bed. “Oh, god, I’m so sorry. I just got up and I’m a little disoriented.” She frantically dug around the nearest pile of clothes for her robe as though the man on the phone could see her.

“Don’t worry about it. I just called to tell you that your car is ready to be picked up.”

Penny blinked in surprise. “Already? That’s fabulous.”

“Yeah, apparently a loose battery terminal was causing it to stall, so it was an easy fix. Of course, we also took the liberty of running a full diagnostic on her while she was here. Did you realize that your ‘Check Engine’ light was on?”

Penny rolled her eyes, remembering how many times Sheldon had scolded her about that. What was it with men and that “Check Engine” light? “Yes,” she grudgingly admitted.

“Turns out, you also had a faulty distributor cap, so it’s a good thing you brought her in.”

Suddenly, Penny was afraid this was about to become a very expensive phone call. “Gimme the damages,” she said quickly, bracing herself.

Penny nearly dropped her phone when he told her. It wasn’t an exorbitant amount of money, but enough to set her budget off kilter for a couple months. “I, uh, will be right over,” she muttered unenthusiastically.

After throwing some sweats on, she headed across the hall to ask if Leonard could give her a lift. She hated to do it, but if she could save on bus fare, she would feel a little better about all the money she was about to spend.

It was just her luck that Sheldon was the one to answer the door. “Your former coital partner had an early meeting at work today,” he explained tersely as she tried to nose her way into the apartment. “Can I offer you a warm beverage?” he asked with an unwelcome edge to his voice.

“That’s ok,” she mumbled in annoyance. “I guess I’ll just have to cough up the fare.”

“Whither are you bound?” he demanded, and she blinked at him. “Or I should I say, ‘headed my way, sweetheart?’” The gangster voice he used was pathetic to say the least.

Penny gave him a Look. “Never do that again,” she said with a shudder. “It’s so not you. And I’m off to pick up my car from the repair shop.”

Sheldon’s eyebrows shot up. “Oh? Finally decided to do something about that glowing harbinger of doom on your dash, have you?” His expression was oddly amused, almost triumphant. She was not a fan.

“No, my car stalled yesterday on the way to work. Apparently something was loose in the battery socket or something.”

Sheldon’s lips twitched momentarily, as if he knew something she didn’t. “Interesting,” he replied mysteriously. Then, he quickly cleared his throat and reached into his wallet. “You may use my bus pass, if you so desire. I have no need of it at present. I have been instructed that I need to start using my vacation time, so I’m playing hooky today.” From the look on his face, she could tell that was about the last thing he wanted to be doing.

“You could come with?” she offered, secretly hoping he wouldn’t take her up on it.

“That would be splendid, I believe I shall.” He pushed past her and headed for the stairway. At this point, all she could do was roll her eyes and follow him.

As they descended the stairs, she made a sudden realization. “We can’t both use your bus pass.”

“Nonsense,” Sheldon insisted. “I have a spare.”

Penny looked at him incredulously as they continued their journey toward the lobby. “Isn’t that a waste of money? I mean, if you never lose the first one, there’s no point to having the second.”

“That’s true,” he agreed, taking the turn on the next landing. “But if I do, at least I won’t have to use the public ticket dispenser again and risk picking up some horrible infection.”

Penny was about to point out that in order to obtain a new backup pass, he would have to do just that, but they had reached the bottom floor. At that point, she decided that questioning his germaphobic behavior was not worth the hassle.

“Seen any good tv shows lately?” he asked casually as they approached the bus stop.

Penny started at this abrupt change in topic. “Funny you should ask,” she began, eyeing him warily. “I wanted to watch Sex and the City last night, but I couldn’t find my DVD’s.”

Sheldon tutted sympathetically. “Well, if you want to borrow any of my Doctor Who or Battlestar Galactica, do let me know.”

“Um, sure,” she replied, a seed of suspicion beginning to grow in her mind.

“They’re really excellent programs,” he continued, looking her in the eye with uncharacteristic directness. “And if you watched them, we would have something more interesting to discuss than the weather or Leonard’s dietary restrictions.”

Penny’s heart thawed at his sincerity. This sweet, strange man wanted to share his nerdy special interests with her. Unfortunately, she had little interest in actually doing as he suggested, and she felt inexplicably saddened by this fact. “I’ll keep that in mind,” she offered by way of a compromise.

The bus arrived and they embarked, heading for the auto shop. Sheldon shifted uncomfortably in his seat for a few minutes before finally blurting out, “There’s a quaint little coffee shop near where we get off. I could buy you a cup?” he offered awkwardly.

Adrenaline dumped in Penny’s chest. Was Sheldon actually asking her on a date? “That’s really nice, sweetie,” she started, “but I’m actually more into wine.” She giggled nervously at her joking deflection.

Sheldon frowned. “I am aware,” he muttered darkly. “The empty bottles in your recycling bin will attest to that fact.”

Penny did a double take. “Wait, how did you…” Suddenly, she knew what was happening. “Sheldon, have you been poking around my apartment while I’m at work?”

“No,” he countered immediately, but the darting of his eyes suggested otherwise. “Whatever makes you say that?”

“Your sudden interest in my tv watching and my drinking habits is a tip-off,” she accused, crossing her arms defensively.

Sheldon flinched, and she felt a sudden stab of pity. “That’s not fair, Penny,” he said quietly. “I’ve always been interested.”

Penny’s jaw dropped. He really did seem to have a crush on her. “What?”

“What?” he echoed loudly. “What I meant to say is that I’ve always been concerned about your quality of life, and I have empirical evidence that it would be improved if you drank less and watched better programs.”

“Empirical evidence?” she shot back, although she only had the vaguest impression what he was talking about. “Like what?”

He fidgeted a few moments before regaining his customary self-confidence. “Well, take me for example.” She rolled her eyes as he continued, “Exhibit A: I don’t drink, and I indulge only in the finest science fiction shows. Exhibit B: you will note that my current position at CalTech is infinitely superior to your gig as a waitress. Ergo, it follows that if you did the same, you would find yourself in a similarly enviable situation.”

Penny narrowed her eyes. “What makes you think that one thing has anything to do with the other?”

“Are you implying there is a flaw in my beautiful syllogism?” he asked, dumbfounded.

“Yeah,” she spat, although she had no idea what he’d just said. “I’m calling bull-”

Just then, they arrived at their destination with an ungodly shriek of breaks. Sheldon rose stiffly and gallantly allowed Penny to exit the vehicle before him. A cool breeze had begun to blow as they entered the auto shop, and it was doing nothing to warm the chill in the air between them.

While she approached the counter, Sheldon shuffled awkwardly over to a display of hubcaps. Ignoring him, she turned to the man standing there. “Hello,” she began, “I’m here to pick up my car.” She pulled her driver’s license out and placed it on the flat surface between them.

“Oh, you’re the lady with the clean battery terminals,” he said with a chuckle.

Penny started. “What do you mean?”

“Apparently, when we found the loose battery terminal, it looked like it had been recently cleaned and polished. The whole engine was fairly spotless, if I recall correctly.”

A vein began to throb in her temple. “Sheldon,” she growled.

He bolted over like a puppy that was afraid it would be whipped. “Yes?” he asked meekly.

“Did you loosen the battery terminal that caused my car to stall?”

“Why on earth would I do such a silly thi-”

“Answer the question!” she barked, causing even the customer service attendant to jump.

“It was for your own good,” he insisted firmly, though his eyes betrayed a trace of fear. “You were never going to get that engine light checked otherwise.”

“I could’ve gotten in a serious accident!” she yelled. “Not to mention the fact that I missed out on work because of your meddling.”

Sheldon looked down at his shoes. “I didn’t think about that.”

“Yeah, well, maybe you should’ve.”

Sheldon seemed like he was going to argue the point further, but her icy glare shut him down more quickly than an overloaded Tesla coil. Noticing the stares of several onlookers, she lowered her voice. “We’ll talk about this later.”

He nodded miserably. “I’ll just go catch a ride home then.” He trudged slowly back to the bus stop, and she returned to the business of getting her car back.

On the drive home, Penny had plenty of time to think about what had happened. As angry as she was at Sheldon for his clumsy attempts to modify her behavior, she was also strangely flattered that he cared enough to even try. When she had first met him, he had been completely unconcerned about how she chose to spend her time when she wasn’t in his company. Sure, there had been the odd flicker of rebellion against her lifestyle like the time when he had tried to clean her apartment when she wasn’t there, but overall, he was content to let her be herself as long as she wasn’t in his domain stealing his WiFi or his food. But apparently, something in his attitude toward her had shifted, and now he was displaying an almost human interest in the little foibles that made her who she was. She wasn’t sure why, but this was unsettling to her. Perhaps because of the way he had seemed suddenly shy when he spoke to her. Perhaps because he had actually asked her out--only for coffee, of course, but still…

The first thing she noticed when she entered her apartment was the small white envelope on the floor. When she opened it, she discovered an Amazon gift card with a hastily scrawled note that read: So you can buy your inane tv show back. I lent your DVD’s to Wolowitz’s new inamorata and I have no idea when or if you’ll ever see them again. I’m at the store across the street replacing your wine. I shall return momentarily. This of course proves once and for all that the human animal always prefers the negative over the positive feedback loop in order to preserve homeostasis. That being said, all further experimentation in this vein will be indefinitely suspended.

Despite everything, even herself, she smiled. Sheldon Cooper was a weirdo, that much was obvious. But sometimes, he could be a thoughtful and kind one. She was still pondering this twenty minutes later when he knocked on her door three times and called her name. She answered the door promptly on the third and final iteration.

“Hey,” she called lamely.

Sheldon held out a paper bag full of wine bottles. “Here are your intoxicating beverages,” he proclaimed, dropping it unceremoniously into her arms.

He was turning to leave when she called out. “My DVD’s won’t be arriving for a couple days. Wanna watch some Galactic Battle Star?”

His mouth twitched as if he were about to correct the misnomer, but then, he smiled. “I thought you’d never ask.”