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Your Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal

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That night is the beginning of the end.

*

Penny doesn't realize it, because Penny is either (a) in a great deal of pain or (b) drugged for the rest of the night--weekend--whatever. Stupid shower and stupid Sheldon and stupid lack of adhesive ducks (trust Sheldon to get hung up on all the little details, adjusting his mirrors and nonexistent ducks and her tattoo). She's loopy on painkillers, okay, and in that state it makes perfect sense for her to drape herself over Sheldon and demand he sing her "Soft Kitty" one more time.

"Penny. I'm trying to watch Firefly."

"Okay, but no," she says. "No, really, Sheldon, listen to this. Haven't you seen that show a frillion times already?"

"A 'frillion,'" Sheldon tells her, "is not a number."

"Yes, it is. It's a really, really, really, really big number." She giggle-snorts--delayed reaction, Sheldon said "frillion"--and claps her good hand against his cheek. "Hey, haven't you seen this show before?"

He catches her hand with his own and curls the fingers down, tucks it back against her side. "This is worse than the time my sister asked me to babysit her cat," he mutters, mostly to himself. Does Sheldon talk to himself when no one's around? He kinda seems like the type, you know, all brainy and not needing anyone and babbling away in some underground lair.

"Hey," she says, "do you have a lair?"

"A...pardon me, do I look like a supervillain?" Now he's just ticked because she made him pause the episode. Penny is wise in the ways of his exasperation. She is also wise enough to know that's it's probably not the best idea to antagonize him right now (not when he drove. For her!), but the ducks must have broken the filter between her brain and her mouth at the same time they broke her shoulder.

"Yes," she says. "Or no. I don't know. Maybe?" Her brow knits in concentration; she doesn't notice how Sheldon's eyes slide over her face, how they stutter at her lips. "Say 'inconceivable.'"

"Inconceivable," he repeats, dutifully.

"No no no no, Sheldon." Completely without her permission, her hand creeps up to his face again; her palms slots against the crook between his shoulder and his neck--that is a crazy appealing arrangement of muscle on men, God clearly knew what he was about--and her fingers brush the soft hair at the base of his skull. "No no no, you can't say it like that."

"How am I to say it, then?"

"Like this." No, wait, this requires the appropriate stance. She climbs to her knees, which seems to involve lots of sliding her body against Sheldon's and poking him accidentally in sensitive places, but after half a minute of squirming she pushes herself upright. "Inconceivable!" she cries, and flings her arms outward. One of her arms. She tries with the other, but there's a sharp lick of pain and a sling in the way.

"Mmhm, I see," Sheldon says, in what is clearly a humoring the crazy person voice. "Please sit down flat on your buttocks."

She giggles again. "Or what?"

"Or..." He frowns. "You might re-injure yourself. Do you really want to force me to drive again?"

"You said 'buttocks.'" Which is where her tattoo is. Sheldon's seen her tattoo, which seems terribly, almost overwhelmingly important for reasons she doesn't remember. Nevertheless, she slides down obediently and plasters herself against his side. For a guy who's always complaining about the cold, Sheldon puts off heat like a furnace. It's like he's carrying a little bit of Texas inside him, throwing out warmth and barbecue and--does Sheldon barbecue?

"Yes, I can cook any kind of meat that roams the continental United States on four legs. Will you be quiet now?"

She mimes pulling a zipper across her mouth, but her face cracks halfway through the gesture. When she was little, she and David thought "zip your lips" meant cinching a Ziploc shut over your face, which makes absolutely no sense when she thinks about it. Unless the Ziploc goes over your entire head--there'd have to be a hole for your neck--

"Do you even realize you're talking aloud?"

"Say what?" Penny works her shoulders back and forth and settles into her cushion. "Sheldon, can't you stop talking? I'm trying to watch TV."

"I...you...you are very drugged." Whatever. He hits play on the remote, and after a few minutes a thought occurs to Penny.

"Hey," she says, "haven't we seen this before?"

"Yes."

"Oh. Okay." And she watches in silence for all of point-five seconds before she says, "Hey, Sheldon? How did your father die?"

His frame locks up; she can feel the muscles in his arm stiffen, feel as he draws as far away from her as he can--which isn't far, since she's propped against his right and the arm of the couch is to his immediate left. "It's just," she rambles on, "you never really talk a whole lot about your dad. I hate mine. Sometimes, you know, I don't mean it like that, it's not a thing or anything. We talk. I tell him I love him. Should I not have asked that? I shouldn't have asked that, now I'm prying. Leonard always say I pry too much."

Sheldon clears his throat. "Are you finished?"

She twists around to peer at him through the mop of her hair. "Finished with what?"

"With that distasteful outpouring of emotion."

"Say what?" His sleeves are rolled up past his elbows today, which is all kinds of distracting.

"Am I to assume that David is your brother?"

"Wow, jumping topics a little fast, aren't we?" Just because she can, she prods him in the nose. "Don't give me whiplash, son."

"Don't poke me," he retorts, and bats her hand away. She stays turned around, eyes glued to his face, but behind her the DVD starts again.

*

That night is the beginning of the end, and she doesn't even know it. Dawn brings a death-toll for the middle, when she wakes up with Sheldon stretched out beside her. He's on top of the blankets, edged nearly off the bed entirely, and she's pressed from head to toe against his side. Her shoulder hurts like she roped and branded a whole head of cattle the day before.

Drugs are in order.

(But Sheldon is in her bed.)

*

"You peeeeeeked!" she drags out, and then laughs again. Sheldon twitches, otherwise doesn't react, but his mouth has that pinched look that reminds her of her great-grandpa scaring kids off his lawn. He usually did it with a rifle, but Sheldon can hurt just as quick with his words. Just as quick and just as deep.

Why the hell she keeps baiting him, she does not know. Has she mentioned that she's not in her right mind?

"You peeked! You said the hero--hey," she says, "who were those guys you mentioned yesterday?"

"...'Guys?'"

"Yeah, you know." Satisfaction blooms in her chest, because she's won back his attention. "Medusa. And the other guys."

"Perseus?"

"Yeah. And the other guys."

"Orpheus and Eurydice?"

"Yeah. Tell me about them."

"Contrary to popular belief, I don't exist solely to provide you with instruction on everything you don't understand." Line 'em up and knock 'em down, gentlemen, is there a button of his she cannot push?

What she says is, "Huh?"

He turns to her and enunciates very, very slowly. "Look. It. Up."

"Oh. Okay." She waits just a beat--this time purposefully, not because of the weird lurch in her brain when she tries to look at a clock--and asks, "Can I borrow your computer?"

"No."

Here's what she likes about pissing Sheldon off--again, not normally something she does on purpose, but she can be excused. What she likes is the way the tendons on his neck stand out (she'd like to bite down right there) and the way his hands fist, the way he starts to drawl like a good southern boy and the way he forgets his distance. She likes the last best of all. So she says: "Can I borrow Leonard's computer?"

(It occurs to her that she'd never thought to call Leonard last night--)

The TV screen looks like it's having a seizure as he flips through menus. Flip, subtitle settings, flip, stereo or mono, flip, picture size, flip flip flip. "Do I look like the arbiter of Leonard's computer?"

"The what?"

"To reiterate: Look it up."

"On what?"

His face undergoes a freakish series of twitches, kind of like last night when he was trying to comfort her in the hospital's waiting room. After the sort of long and grueling internal war that most people only go through when they're trying to decide if they should pull the plug on their comatose grandmother, he finally arrives at something resembling a conclusion. "If I make you another snow cone, will you sit quietly for the duration of this episode?"

"Yes!" she chirps. Snow cones, she loves snow cones, and she's pretty sure Sheldon (a) knows that and (b) is perfectly capable of using it to manipulate her.

(It occurs to her that Leonard doesn't know how much she loves snow cones--)

Anyway. Snow cones. Back home in Nebraska, she and her friends--not all of them cheerleaders--would hit the snow cone stand before every home football game. The Snow Shack, it was called, and it really wasn't much more than a shack, but when the weather was warm kids from ages four through thirty would pack the parking lot, slouched on picnic tables or tailgates or sprawled on the ground.

(It occurs to her that maybe her childhood wasn't so different from Sheldon's. She always imagines him as a lonely little kid, but--)

*

If that night is the beginning of the end and that dawn is the middle of the end, the end of the end comes a round eighteen hours later, when Leonard walks in the door.

No. The real end comes before even that.

*

She drums her heels against the couch; Sheldon shoots her a look from where he's crouched down to calibrate the shaved ice machine, and she tucks her feet up underneath her.

"Do you think Leonard would be angry if I used his computer?"

Sheldon shuts the lid of the ice shaver way harder than is necessary. "If he is and your hideous sham of a relationship dies its inevitable death that much more quickly, then please, be my guest," he bites out. Touchy. He's been like that since the beginning, though, always with the snide remarks but oddly reluctant to put himself in the middle of things. Never mind that he is in the middle of things; she can't pretend to understand Sheldon and Leonard's friendship, which seems crafted of three parts resentment and six parts proximity and forty-seven parts shared love of Battlestar Galactica. Not what her friendships are based on, but hey.

Sheldon must realize how snitty that sounded--or he's just being extra-nice to her because of her shoulder--because in a tone that is nearly contrite he asks, "Orange or root beer?" No offer is made of cherry, because Penny hates artificial cherry flavoring. It tastes like rubber and cough syrup.

"Both?" she asks, and for once Sheldon doesn't do much more than shudder at the suggestion of mixing flavors. He is, of course, one of those people who hates to have foods touch on his plate; he also (surprisingly) eats his hamburgers just like her daddy did, smeared with enough barbecue sauce and bacon to give a heart attack to a pig.

He scoops the ice onto a little paper cone and adds the syrup, brown on one side and fluorescent orange on the other. Then--napkin--and the snow cone is hers. "Thanks, Sheldon," she says, as he perches himself back on His Spot. "You're a really good friend, you know that?"

He turns to her and lifts an eyebrow. She does the Ziploc mime, which must satisfy him, because he restarts the disc from the beginning.

Five minutes in and she's eating her snow cone as slowly as she can, taking long licks and doing her best to preserve what Sheldon calls the "spherical integrity" of the top. The fuzzy edge is starting to fade from her vision and her shoulder's starting to throb, but--her head twinges as she stares at the clock, and anyway why do they even have an analog clock?--there's at least another hour until she gets her next magic pill.

Camping. Hah. For all she knows, Leonard's off cozying it up with the sorority sisters of Phi Beta Kappa (twenty-three hot blonds who just adore camping and nice guys with nasal voices), but she knows that relationships have to be based on this little thing called trust. Whoa there, girl, she tells herself, better to box that thought up and shove it away with all those other secrets and lies. Leonard is sweet, Leonard doesn't steal her stuff, and most importantly, Leonard wants her. (Wants her. She hopes.)

Onscreen, Inara says: "Why are you so fascinated by him?"

The preacher says: "Because he's something of a mystery. Why are you?"

Inara, woman, companion, and intergalactic space-whore (that's what Leonard calls her, laughing, and Howard always chimes in), throws her cards on the table with a panache Penny can only envy. "Because so few men are."

Penny bursts into tears.

*

Here comes the final blow--

*

Penny bursts into tears.

Sheldon, right on cue, panics.

"Penny, what--we had a verbal contract, you can't just--"

"You looked!" she wails, which is not exactly the correct accusation but her medication's wearing off and her stupid shoulder hurts and bite me, she thinks, she thinks you weren't supposed to look. "You weren't supposed to look, Sheldon!"

He swallows. "The hero always peeks, I told you that. It's practically traditional."

"Since when were you the hero?" she sobs, but she already knows the answer to that: He's been the hero since he imbibed caffeine to help her finish a shipment of mail-order hair accessories, he's been the hero since she spent three hours on the phone locating his flash drive, he's been the hero since he loaned her rent money and since he hugged her at Christmas (debate: good gift, or best gift ever) and since he strung her underwear up from a telephone wire (for a man who supposedly reproduces asexually, he sure is familiar with her panties). He's been the hero since he broke into her apartment in the middle of the night to clean, since he propped one hand against his white board and studied her with heavy eyes. He's been the hero since always, and now he's made it impossible to pretend otherwise.

She cries harder. "You weren't supposed to look! It was different when you didn't--when I didn't think--when you weren't--" Snot is now dripping down her face and the sloshy remains of her snow cone are all over her lap; Sheldon scrambles for the box of tissues, but he makes no motion to wipe up the mess, just presses a Kleenex into her sticky hands.

"And you paid for my hospital bill, and you aren't a robot, you're not, and I can't even"--she hiccups--"because Leonard's the closest thing to a freakin' eugenics program and you, you, you love what you do even though you shouldn't--"loved it against all odds, despite his parents and his siblings and his middle-class bible-belt upbringing--"and I love that about you"--she's nearing hysteria now, the cat's clawed its way out--"but Leonard wanted me and you didn't and you keep picking on us and we made out in your spot--"

Penny isn't an attractive crier. Her face turns fire-engine red and her eyes get puffy and she usually manages to produce three times as much snot as a normal person. Some corner of her mind is aware of this even as she's sobbing, even as Sheldon says, "Pay attention, because I am only going to do this once."

And then he takes her face in his hands and kisses her, tears and all.