Leonard can’t find Sheldon. He’s tried everywhere, from Sheldon’s office at Caltech, to the comic book store, to (in desperation) the Denny’s ball pit. Sheldon is in none of these places.
Damn it. He doesn’t need this right now. Priya’s travelled in time and space, out of his heart and back to India, and he already feels enough like his universe is spinning off-centre without Sheldon vanishing as well. It’s understandable considering the budding whatever-it-is between Amy and Raj, but Sheldon’s not at the Humane Society mooning over cats either, so Leonard’s at a bit of a loss.
He calls Amy, Penny, Raj, Howard, Bernadette. They all have the same answer for him and it is no answer at all: no, I haven’t seen him, I’ll let you know if I do.
When he gets home again Sheldon isn’t there either. Leonard finally gives in and goes to Sheldon’s bedroom door. It’s ajar, but knocking nets him no response. He gingerly pushes it right open. No Sheldon. Trepidation squeezing his heart, he checks: Sheldon’s emergency evacuation bag is still in its usual place. Good; he’d hate to think the world had started to end without him being aware of it.
Sheldon still isn’t answering his phone. Leonard wanders aimlessly back into the living room. The bow is lying on the coffee table; Leonard remembers Sheldon drawing his imaginary arrows and manages a smile. He just finds it impossible to imagine Sheldon deviating from his routine and so the fact that he’s nowhere to be found makes no sense.
There’s one other thing he can do, one other space he can check that’s even more sacred than Sheldon’s bedroom. He flips open Sheldon’s laptop, which is humming away on standby – a strange sign in and of itself – and stares blankly at the screen, trying to parse the information it’s presenting to him. Not a game waiting to be played, not an article or paper or thesis, but a simple wallpaper of a blue, blue sky with a single gull, wings spread, soaring over a sparkling sea.
“I didn’t even know you could get from Pasadena to Santa Monica on public transport.”
Sheldon doesn’t look up or respond. He’s sitting down, leaning forwards against the pier railing, feet swinging over the water below, and his gaze is fixed on the horizon. Not that there’s anything much out there; the sea is grey today, the clouds in the sky reflected in its slowly rippling surface. He lowers himself to sit beside his housemate, wishing that he too had an extra layer of cloth between his good pants and the dubious surface of the pier. The splash of waves against the pilings and the cries of the gulls are all he can hear.
“Now that I’ve come all the way out here, are you gonna tell me what’s wrong?”
“Nobody made you come out here. I don’t even know how you found me. I thus don’t feel any particular need to justify my actions to you.”
“You should have cleared your browser history.”
“You went into my browser history?” Sheldon looks at him for the first time, eyebrows drawn together in an expression half angry, half quizzical.
“And your bedroom. I’m sorry. I was worried about you.”
Sheldon returns his gaze to the sea. “There’s nothing to be worried about.”
“Oh, so nothing got you to spend two hours on the bus to get here? Nothing got you to sit with your feet dangling over an eight foot drop to the water when you’re acrophobic? Nothing got you to disappear without telling anyone where you were going?”
“I didn’t say it was nothing. I said it was nothing to worry about.” Sheldon is infuriatingly calm, ruffled only the slightest bit thanks to the invasion of his privacy, ruffled like the wind ruffling the sea into tiny waves, or the feathers on the gull that lands nearby and fixes them with a beady-eyed stare, probably hoping for food.
“If you’re not worrying, why are you out here?”
“I needed to be alone. I needed space to think.”
“Do you… want me to leave?” Leonard asks tentatively.
“No.” Sheldon snaps the word, giving Leonard a startled sideways glance. “I mean… no. I don’t mind if you stay.”
Leonard turns sideways so he’s facing Sheldon and leans against the railing. He needs the support. The wind off the bay pats at his hair like a kitten with a ball of string, bringing him the strong salt smell of the sea. He’s glad of it; had the wind been blowing off-shore it would bring the smell of corn dogs and cotton candy, caramel corn and chili cheese fries, but also the smell of the people who aren’t fortunate enough to afford those things, of cheap wine and misery and desperation.
“Is this about Amy and Raj?”
Sheldon keeps his eyes fixed on the horizon. “There isn’t any one thing I can pin this on, Leonard.”
“So you’re admitting this isn’t nothing. There is a this to be worried about.”
“If there is, it’s nothing you need to worry about,” Sheldon says, as though Leonard weren’t his best friend and didn’t have any need to be concerned that Sheldon had suddenly taken off without warning and thus might also crash-land without warning. “I’m the one who needs to sort these… feelings out.” He says the word feelings as though he’s saying the word fuck; lips twisted, practically looking over his shoulder to see if his mother heard.
“Sheldon, it’s okay to have feelings—”
“Leonard. You say that like you don’t know me at all.”
Leonard sighs and slaps his hand against the railing with a hollow bong. “Sheldon. You say that like you don’t know I give a damn about you.”
Sheldon’s head jerks around and their eyes meet; there’s only a foot of space between them and it seems like nothing and it seems like miles. Leonard’s not sure if he’s looking at Sheldon or a stranger.
“Do you, Leonard?” Sheldon asks, not sarcastic or snappish but like he genuinely doesn’t know the answer.
“Of course I do. Now tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s not Amy and Raj,” Sheldon states firmly, his eyes flitting back to the gentle grey swells, the tiny white foam caps on each wavelet that rolls into the darkness beneath the pier. “As I’ve told you on numerous occasions, she is not my girlfriend. Her decision to take her friendship with Raj to a new level was hers to make.” He swallows, Adam’s apple bobbing in his thin delicate neck. “It may not have been easy for me to see her make that choice of carnal pleasure over pure intellect, but she hasn’t allowed her baser desires to overcome her work ethic entirely, and so I suppose she hasn’t made a completely moronic decision.”
“I’m sure she’d be glad to hear that.”
“Oh, good.” Leonard can practically see the mental checklist Sheldon makes a mark on: his proportion of success in identifying sarcasm for the month.
“But if it wasn’t Amy and Raj, um, ‘experimenting’, what made you come all the way out here?” Leonard is pretty sure that Amy and Raj’s relationship constitutes at least part of what’s bugging Sheldon; he’s still cursing himself for not being around for the start of it all to try and dissuade one or both of them or at least take the alcohol away. Of course, he’d still been with Priya then, so by the time he found out (a series of texts and voicemails from Penny discovered after the fact) it was too late.
Sheldon is silent for a long while and Leonard’s about to repeat his question when Sheldon finally says, “I don’t like change,” in a tiny voice that sounds quite unlike his usual assertive tone.
“I kinda figured that.”
“It was Wolowitz and Bernadette’s engagement that made me realize just how much I don’t like it.”
“Yeah, Howard getting engaged a pretty big deal. Howard being in a relationship’s a pretty big deal.”
Sheldon shakes his head and wets his lips. “No. Penny wasn’t there. That was what concerned me the most. Howard proposing in front of all of his friends—”
“—except for the one who set him up with his fiancée in the first place,” Leonard finishes, and Sheldon doesn’t berate him for butting in, but just nods. “You’re right. It sucked.”
Sheldon nods again and lapses back into silence. Leonard wonders what to ask next. He’s not his mother, after all. (Thank goodness. If his mother were the one out here, Sheldon would have jumped off the pier by now, no matter how well they get on.)
After a couple of minutes Sheldon saves him from the need to ask anything. “I’m sorry if you still harbor any romantic feelings towards Priya, Leonard, but that woman was no good for us.”
Leonard just blinks for a moment, partly surprised at Sheldon’s vehemence, partly unsure what to say. He’s not sure whether Priya didn’t in fact rip his heart out of his chest and stuff it into her carryon luggage before she boarded the plane. Certainly it had taken a beating when she called him an immature child who needed to start acting his age rather than his shoe size and then followed that up by informing him that even if her company hadn’t called her back to India she’d been considering leaving him anyway.
The thing about being childish is that one tends to cling onto things well after they should have been put away and, although he’s hesitant to compare his feelings for Priya to a toy robot, they’re like the Transformers he still occasionally takes down from the shelf and fiddles with, making sure that they still change shape as easily as ever.
He’s hesitant to poke at his feelings for Priya too much, though. He’s scared to find out what shape they might really be.
“She drove Penny away,” Sheldon adds, the words dropping into the silence between them. “She tried to change you. She made fun of Raj. She didn’t like me. And I suspect that her joy at Howard and Bernadette’s engagement was only because she was afraid that Howard and Raj were never going to end their, as your mother called it, ‘ersatz homosexual relationship’.”
“She must’ve been thrilled to hear about Raj and Amy,” Leonard says without thinking, and sees Sheldon flinch a little; so maybe it is partly about Amy and Raj after all.
“I wouldn’t know. I haven’t communicated with her since the day she announced her intention to return to India.” Sheldon looks up from the sea, his eyes reflecting its grayness, turning the blue dull. “She scared me that day.”
“She scared you?”
“I was certain that when she left for India you’d be accompanying her. I didn’t want that to happen. I was angry at the thought that you’d commit to such a thing and then announce it without informing me privately.” Sheldon’s eyes drop, lashes arcing down, charcoal circles against his pale skin. It’s an overcast day, but Leonard has to wonder if Sheldon wouldn’t still be just as pale under a bright summer sun. He never seems to tan or burn, just stay the same, the skin almost translucent over the fine tracery of blue veins at his wrists, which Leonard particularly notices because of the way Sheldon’s holding onto the railing, his fingers locked around it as though he’s dangling precariously from it instead of sitting safely behind it.
“I’d never do anything that big without telling you first,” Leonard says, and he means it.
“That’s what I thought. But then when she said it I wondered if she had managed to change you that much after all.”
Leonard laughs and shakes his head. “Nope. I’m still the same comic-loving, game-playing physicist geek as ever. Besides, even if I had moved, you can take the hobbit out of the Shire, but you can’t take the Shire out of the hobbit.”
Sheldon sort of smiles at that, a there-and-gone flicker of his lips. “You really are very much like a hobbit, considering your love of good food and the nature of most of your friendships. A tall one, but a hobbit.”
“Look who’s talking, elf boy,” Leonard counters, and this time he’s sure he sees the smile. “You even came out to the sea to pine.”
“I am not pining.”
“What do you elves call it, then?”
“It’s all right, anyway. I didn’t go with her, we’d already broken up.” His feelings twist and clench inside him, rearranging into a different pattern. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about that straight away, but I was still dealing with it myself.”
“I didn’t recognize the signs. You failed to spend any time face down on the couch.”
“There are other – never mind.” Leonard pauses, watching a single boat crossing the bay, sail flapping in the growing wind. “Are you feeling any better now?”
“I suppose.” Sheldon’s gaze flits to the boat and then up to the sky, to a pair of gulls dancing acrobatically on the air. “I don’t like change, Leonard.”
“So you said.”
“We’ve lived together for a long time.”
“Yeah, I’d noticed that too.”
“The thought of you moving to India, even though Priya made a point of quickly dissuading any notions the rest of us had about it happening, was what really scared me.”
Leonard isn’t sure what to make of this. “We would have stayed in touch, Sheldon, it’s not like I would’ve stopped speaking to you.”
“But it wouldn’t have been the same, Leonard. Frankly, it would be like Frodo going off to the Undying Lands and Legolas staying behind in Mirkwood, resorting to shooting giant spiders for amusement.”
“You’re starting to lose me.”
“It’s not what’s supposed to happen,” Sheldon says fretfully.
“Well, yeah. All of the elves left Middle-earth, and Frodo got to go along because he’d been Ring-bearer.” Leonard has the feeling there’s more to it than that, but that’s all he can remember.
Sheldon shakes his head in frustration, not at Leonard, but at himself. “I’m not explaining this the right way. Forget about Frodo.”
“Consider him forgotten.”
“You’re Gimli instead.”
“Oh, right, that makes sense. Are you still Legolas?” Leonard has a weird feeling about this, considering what he knows Rule ‘34 and the internet have done to the elf and the dwarf, especially since the movies came out.
“I don’t think I have enough facial hair to be Gimli.”
“You’re missing the point.”
“Sorry, I didn’t realize there was going to be one.”
Sheldon drums his fingertips impatiently against the railing. “My point would be that after the war, Legolas and Gimli remained friends, bound by their experiences and time together, overcoming the ancient enmity between their respective races, to the point where when it was time for Legolas to leave Middle-earth, Gimli went with him.”
“…and not to India with his girlfriend.”
“Had India even existed in Tolkien’s reality. Yes.”
“So what you’re saying is that you don’t want me to go anywhere.”
Sheldon is silent for a moment, and then just nods and slides his hand, palm-up, along the railing towards Leonard. Leonard doesn’t know what to do for a moment, but then lays his hand over Sheldon’s and feels Sheldon’s fingers curl tightly around his.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Leonard says, not sure what he’s maybe secretly saying under all the layers of analogy, but knowing that his feelings are turning and transforming into a different shape yet again. “Not without telling you – not without you.”
“You promise?” Sheldon’s eyes are locked onto his again and they’re as deep as the ocean the pair of them sit beside, as fathomless and indecipherable.
“I promise, mellon-nin.”
Sheldon’s smile reaches all the way to his eyes this time. “Good.” Then the smile’s gone and he’s all business again. “It’s getting cold and I’m hungry. We should go home and eat.”
“Good plan,” Leonard agrees.
They hold hands all the way back to Leonard’s car.