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i. first

Sheldon moves back to Texas. He sleeps in his old room, surrounded by relics of his past and his mother's sewing supplies, and works in the garage loft, where sunlight seeps through the cracks in the rafters and illuminates the fruits of his labor. He takes the precaution of covering the whiteboards with dropcloths every night; his father built the loft twenty years ago, and while Sheldon trusts its structural integrity, he suspects there's still cigar ash lurking in the corners.

In the afternoons, his mother brings him tea and doesn't talk to him. He likes the arrangement. Work, tea, solitude; at times he looks up from his computer to find that the tea has been silently cooling on his desk for a quarter of an hour or longer.

After the sixth month, the university informs him that he either needs to return from his sabbatical or find employment elsewhere. Sheldon sends a letter confirming his resignation that day after Penny last attempts to contact him (he does not realize the coincidence at the time) (it is not a coincidence). He turns more assiduously to his routine, drives himself to rise at six, seclude himself in the lofty at six forty-five, eat and retire by eight; he secludes himself in the loft and he falls asleep in his chair and wakes up and starts working again without pausing for ablutions. There is no routine. Everything is routine.

He sets aside his envy, his ennui, his fear, and his childish, petty anger; he sets aside his opinions and preconceived resentments, his ego, and his laurels.

In the afternoon, his mother brings the tea. She then breaks their unspoken but reliable contract by saying, "Sweetheart, I don't mean to criticize, but you're gettin' a little old to be living at home."

Sheldon is thinking.

"Now, I've circled a couple of apartments in the paper—you'll have to get a job, but I don't see that as a problem, provided you remember not to insult anyone during the interview."

Sheldon is thinking about—

"I laid out your nice suit on the...Shelly? Sheldon Lee Cooper, are you listening to me?"

Sheldon says, "I have an idea."

 

 

 

ii. after that

She doesn't know who sent it. There isn't a return address, and the label on the brown paper wrapper lists her name and residence in regular monospace font. Like a typewriter. Mechanical, impersonal, the kind of thing people are nostalgic over even though it isn't worth the waste of nostalgia.

"Huh," Penny says. She drops it on her counter, buries it under an avalanche of mail, and forgets about it.

It doesn't matter; everything is going to go up in flames. Meanwhile, there is Penny, who likes to paint her nails on Wednesday nights. Not every Wednesday or anything, sometimes she's busy with extra hours at work or she has a date or she realizes she forgot to buy coffee at the store; sometimes, Penny paints her nails on Wednesday nights. Her polishes are arranged in accordance with an elementary-school color wheel. Not her choice, oh no, that was all Sheldon's doing, the jerk.

She picks out #423, Hello Yellow, and paints a coat over the cracked remains of #342, Sunshiney Day. Contrary to popular belief, Penny started painting her nails for a catalog of important reasons. She used to chew on them—gross, in retrospect, but at twelve everyone is a little gross. People, her mother, would tell her it wasn't worth the time when the polish would only chip off anyway while she did her chores. Other girls wore nail polish. She liked the colors. It hid her ragged edges.

 

 

 

iii. a little bit later

Unfortunately, Sheldon's idea sends him down a black pit of existential despair. He takes up residence on his mother's couch, stops showering, and watches a lot of reruns of Dr. Phil.

"Shelly, I swear," his mother says. "What has gotten into you? I knew I shouldn't have let you go off on that witchhunt up north."

Sheldon sniffs. "You wouldn't understand," he says.

"Well, I sure as heck understand that you smell like a pigsty."

Sheldon sits up abruptly, dislodging the TV remote, an empty bag of Doritos, and a cat. "Have you heard of Nick Bostrom's simulation hypothesis?"

"That sounds like more of your science backtalk."

"We're almost certainly mere digital representations living in a simulacrum of reality," Sheldon said. "I don't know why I didn't pay attention to Dr. Bostrom's work sooner. Of course, it does render everything I ever have done or ever will do obsolete and meaningless, so it's possible my long-held denial was simply a defense mechanism." He lies back down and pulls the blanket over his head.

"Oh, sweetheart," says his mom. "This isn't because of that prank with the coffeemaker your little friends played on you, was it? You know, one of them was callin' here just the other day."

Sheldon doesn't respond; he was correct to think she wouldn't understand. And why would she? It wasn't within her programmed parameters.

On the TV, Dr. Phil says, "You gotta teach people how to treat you." Dr. Phil is optimistic enough to believe his fellow simulations have advanced machine-learning techniques. Some kind of genetic programming, maybe. His blind optimism is galling.

"Sheldon Lee," his mother says, "if you don't get off your rear and march up to that bathroom right now—"

Sheldon gets up and goes to take a shower.

 

 

 

iv. a footnote

This is the story of how two total fuck-ups save the world.

 

 

 

v. a long time ago (but still in this galaxy)

Penny didn't pay much attention when Sheldon left. She was caught up in her own little drama with Leonard, and that was enough; it was too much, even. By the time the curtain closed on relationship attempt fourteen, Sheldon had scuttled south and burrowed into familiarity. She tried calling him (nine times), emailing him (twice with lolcats, desperate for any reaction), writing him (on the back of a postcard—"Wish you were here! Seriously.") Zilch. She was on great terms with his mom by the end of the year, though, better terms than she'd ever been on with any of her boyfriends' mothers.

"Well, hi there," Mrs. Cooper would drawl. "Shelly won't come to the phone right now, Penny, but why don't you catch me up on how you're doing?" And they would talk about Penny's pipedream job, Penny's actual job, Penny's lovelife, Penny's teams, Mrs. Cooper's teams, Mrs. Cooper's church social, Mrs. Cooper's daughter, Mrs. Cooper's plans for redecorating, and Mrs. Cooper's politics. (Penny supported the Chiefs; Mrs. Cooper was for the Houston Texans at least in theory, but frankly she still seemed torn up about the Oilers moving to Tennessee.)

One day Penny even worked up the nerve to ask when Sheldon was moving back. There was a long silence on the phone.

"Oh, sweetheart," Mrs. Cooper said. "I don't think he's plannin' on moving back to California, and I can't say that I blame him."

"Okay," Penny said. "Okay. Why?"

"Those boys weren't kind to him, and they didn't do his career any favors either. Lord knows that he's as difficult as his father, that man could keep me up all night fighting and the next morning still have the strength to—never you mind. What it comes down to is that Sheldon isn't ready to forgive them for what they've done, and they don't seem too interested in seeking forgiveness." A pause. "Also, he seems to think we're all living in some kind of computer, which is obvious malarkey, but he won't let go of the idea."

Penny hadn't known what to say to that; she knew that the crap Leonard had pulled with the coffee maker had been underhanded, but Sheldon was so dramatic about everything. This was worse than she'd thought, though. At least the part about the computers sounded like typical Sheldon paranoia.

"Would you tell him something for me?" she said.

"Sure thing, honey."

She thought about asking Mrs. Cooper to tell Sheldon that Penny missed him, but instead she said, "Tell him that I'm going to drive down there and throw a computer at his head if he keeps sulking."

"Uh...huh," said Mrs. Cooper, and then they made polite noises at each other for another five minutes; but after that Penny didn't call again.

So. Yep. Penny isn't counting on Sheldon ever re-entering her life.

She tries dating Leonard for the fifteenth time. It doesn't work out.

 

 

 

vi. ten minutes in the future

Sheldon showers and returns to the couch to reflect on his many failures. Has his entire career been an accident? Likely so. And that business with getting into a fistfight during—and then there was the time he—

There's some small comfort in knowing that a higher intelligence is directing his actions, meaning he, Sheldon, is not entirely responsible. The comfort vanishes when he realizes that this—this must be how his mother feels.

He's already a failure professionally, personally, certainly as a son, almost definitely as a brother and roommate. If he had any interest in moving from the couch ever again in his life, he might offer to accompany his mother to church.

Instead he rolls over and watches a rerun of Sally Jessy Raphael. Anything is better than The Matrix—he'd come across that on a movie channel the other night, and where once it would have sent him running to his costume closet for his replica Neo trenchcoat, now it only makes him think fondly of Oprah.

 

 

 

vii. now and then

After the sixty-seventh open casting call of the year fails to produce any gainful employment, Penny decides to give up on being an actress. She's clearly missing that something special. Is she too self-involved? Maybe she's too self-involved. She thinks about going across the hall, knocking on the door, sitting down with the guys while they eat cheap Chinese take-out and talk about video games, asking them if they think she's selfish. But Leonard, y'know, things are awkward there, and Raj doesn't talk to her, and Howard talks to her too much—no, better just to stay at home.

She films herself painting her toes while she keeps up a running commentary on how Hollywood's bullcrap is ruining the movie industry and posts it on YouTube. It gets forty-six views and one comment asking her to take her top off.

That particular nail polish chips in less than twenty-four hours, so Penny throws it out, but she starts doing the YouTube thing on the regular. It's fun, and it's not like she has to keep her online profiles clean for future press reasons anymore; since most restaurants don't care if their waitresses are hot messes on the internet, she really lets fly. Video number two is four minutes of Penny chewing out the guy who left the comment about her taking off her top, although about halfway through it turns into Penny chewing out Sheldon for abandoning his career.

"And seriously, Sheldon? Do you know how many people would love to have a full-time job in a field they love that actually pays a good salary?" A piece of hair goes in her mouth, and Penny stops talking long enough to yank it out. "I had some lady puke on me last night at work. Puke. On me. A little bit went down my shirt. What am I doing, it's not like you're going to watch this. Anyway, screw you, ChestMonster1975."

The video gets one-hundred twenty-eight hits and three comments, one of which is a crudely-worded apology from ChestMonster1975. Penny feels vindicated.

 

 

 

viii. a footnote, redux

This is the story of how two total saviors fuck up the world.

 

 

 

ix. what happens next

All that's prologue, of course. Penny, YouTube, the nail polish, the package from Sheldon, Sheldon himself, Sheldon's sofa, Sheldon's mother, Sheldon's existential crisis—inconsequential.

People start dying.

 

 

 

x. somewhere timeless and interior

Here's how Penny handles it.

She's heard the stories on the news, right? It's a big deal, but not a BIG DEAL, because let's face it, when the news cycle runs 24/7, everything starts to seem like a big deal. Some new disease, blah blah blah, olive is in this year, blah blah, Kim and Kanye might be splitting up or having another baby, blah blah blah blah yeah okay, actually, Penny is a little invested in the whole Kim/Kanye, like, narrative, so she really does care a little about that last one.

Anyway, she comes home from work, and as soon as she's through the door, she strips out of her clothes. Yellow shirt, black slacks, black apron, bra and underwear, shoes and socks—her shoes are almost but not quite orthopedic, and boy, her puppies are killing her. She needs one of those massage things for her feet, but they're probably pretty expensive?

She's too tired to shower, so she pulls on a pair of pants and a t-shirt straight from the laundry basket where her clean clothes now permanently live now that Sheldon is no longer around to nag her about folding her clothes. ("THREE steps, Penny: wash, fold, PUT AWAY.") Within five minutes she's crashed on her couch, glass of wine in hand, flipping through channels while she digs her thumb into the arch of her foot in the futile hope it'll help.

There is no part of her that means to watch the news.

There is no part of her that means to watch the news, but she's flipping past one of the big alphabet stations, CNN or MSNBC or something, right when the words BREAKING REPORT flash across the screen.

"—Bill, this infection is sweeping across North America, and it's leaving experts baffled. Am I correct in hearing there are reports from Europe, too?"

"Well, Cindy, that is right, we're hearing about outbreaks in France and Russia, isolated cases as far south as Turkey. The source of a lot of the confusion is that this disease doesn't appear to be viral, as far as doctors can tell—from a lot of the autopsies, it looks like people are dropping dead out of fear. What we understand is that a massive surge of adrenaline or of, of stress, can cause what's known as takotsubo cardiomyopathy, which is what seems to be the case here, but this isn't a communicable disease."

"Thank you for the report, Bill. For those of you just tuning in, officials in the US are declaring this 'fear pandemic' a national emergency. Three hundred deaths today were believed to be linked to this pandemic. We'll have more information as it becomes—"

And see, even that doesn't bother Penny—three hundred deaths is sad, she's sad, but it's a distant sadness, and her primary concern is still with the way her feet are throbbing, until her boss calls and tells her they're shutting The Cheesecake Factory down tomorrow, at which point Penny's primary concern becomes her rent.

"What?" she says. "No, I need those hours, you promised me—no. No, Nalini. No. Yes ma'am, I understand."

She hangs up.

She keeps watching.

Three hundred is distant and incomprehensible; three thousand, three-hundred thousand, that's so fucking far away that it might as well be a child's play estimate, eleventy billion, a gazillion and nine. The Cheesecake Factory stays closed; Penny watches that number tick up, and up, and up, and up, and nobody knows what's happening, she knocks on the door across the hall, nobody answers, she calls her mom and nobody is home—

She calls Texas and gets a dial tone.

She hangs up. She keeps watching until there isn't anyone left to watch, and then she puts on her shoes and walks down the stairs and out into the street, where there are people on the ground; they look like they were all so tired that they laid down right where they were to take naps. Penny understands. She's been that exhausted before. The problem is that none of these people will be getting back up again, and all she can think is, How will they pay their rent if they sleep through their shifts?

On the upside, even if she is the only known survivor of mankind, her feet feel pretty great after so many days off.

Here's how Penny handles it:

She

goes

away

she

just

s t o p s—

-

You know. For a while. Then she starts recording her vlog again, even if nobody is around to see it. It's for science! Or something. Anyway, Leonard would be proud, if Leonard still existed in any meaningful sense.

 

 

 

xi. 21:03:45

How fortunate that this is merely a simulated reality, the experimental plaything of higher consciousnesses. Were it not, Sheldon would be obliged to feel grief; as it is, he watches General Hospital reruns, which persist beyond the sudden absence of a being to man the signal. Soap operas are fixtures even in the afterlife.

His mother had stockpiled several hundred cans of food in the basement in the unlikely event that the historically significant carpenter she chose as her savior returned from the dead like Captain America did (more than once, even). Sheldon thinks about not eating, but there is something easier and ultimately cleaner about gorging himself on tinned peaches and ravioli. He eats the latter cold, straight out of the can, with a pair of lacquered chopsticks Mom won at church bingo. Mom herself is upstairs in her craft room; her heart no longer beats, but presumably she has moved on to another simulation where she and her carpenter friend can play bingo to their heart's content.

Once upon a time, this would have been Sheldon's nirvana. He'd been the type: emergency bags packed and stored in the closet, emergency maps at the back of his roommate agreement, emergency protocols for everything from unanticipated human interaction to unintended collapse of the international infrastructure. Once upon a time, the logical fallacies about the present day would have driven him batshit crazy.

Sheldon is no longer batshit crazy; Sheldon is the sanest person left on the face of the planet. The smartest, the sharpest, certainly the tallest, without a doubt the most dedicated fan of Star Trek remaining.

What a badge of honor.

 

 

 

xii. eventually

The phone rings.

 

 

 

xiii. shortly before that

"Hi, guys, this is Penny—wow, you know what, that's kind of pointless. Hi Penny, this is Penny, and somehow the internet still works, so...yaaaaaaaay. We now own twelve pairs of Jimmy Choos, well I guess 'own' is an exaggeration, but no need to pass that along to the general public.

"I don't really understand what happened here. It's above my pay grade, not that that's saying much, since my pay grade is pretty darn low. Anyway, today I thought we'd talk about—oops. Corpses in the shot, sorry.

"Today's the first day I’ve left my apartment this week. Last week was looting week, that was kind of fun. The week before that was—ugh, I don't remember the week before that. Anyway, this is going to be, I don't know. Outside week. Whacky fun week. All the inside kids have left the planet, which means I am free to spread my wings and FLYYYYYYY—

"Was that off-key? You know, Leonard kind of implied that I couldn't sing once, but I think he was sorta tone-deaf.

"Oh, hey. Look. Twinkies. I wonder if these go bad?"

 

 

 

xiv. twelve minutes later

The phone rings.

This is, curiously, the point at which Sheldon decides there is enough evidence to support his hypothesis.

The phone rings and rings and rings, a veritable assault on his ears, which are now accustomed only to the dulcet tones of the cast of One Life to Live. At first, actually, he mistakes the sound for part of the ambient noise of the show; when it continues into the commercial break, however, he plugs his ears. He has to unplug them when the show starts again, and the phone is still ringing, and it's a nuisance. Sheldon, bedecked in pajamas and a bathrobe and three layers of knit blankets, ventures forth to investigate.

The phone looks tangible, although perhaps it's better not to trust his sense on these things. He places a hand on it, his fingers long enough to span the handset all the way to the edge of the answering machine; yes. Yes, it certainly feels physically extant. He picks the phone up and holds it in front of his face.

"...Hello?"

Sheldon starts. "Excuse me?" he says.

"...Holy shit. Sheldon, is that you?"

"Unusual," Sheldon says. "Maybe not unprecedented, but certainly unusual. Somebody out there was paying attention when I asked if she wanted to see my whiteboard."

"Are you coming on to me? No, wait, don't answer that. Sheldon? Sheldon, helllOOOOOooOOO?"

"With whom am I speaking?" asks Sheldon, who had telephone etiquette drilled into him by at least three manifestations of feminine authority.

"...You know this is Penny, right?"

"And is there a reason for your call?"

"I can't deal with this right now. Oh my god. Oh my god. Holy shit fuck fuck fucking shit—" A click; the line goes dead.

"I suppose you thought that was amusing," Sheldon remarks to whatever observers may or may not be currently recording data. "You're psychologically astute, I'll give you that—nobody else figured out the peculiar dopamine reaction she elicits. In fact, under any other circumstances, I wouldn't have figured it out myself."

 

 

 

xv. recently

She props the camera on the dashboard of her Hummer as she drives. It's a cute little camera; her dad had sent it to her as a birthday present right after she moved out to California.

"Ugh," she groans. "This is so stupid. I could have been imagining that, right? Sheldon? I mean, not to be all down on myself, but I'm clearly going crazy here. Not that anyone could blame me, have you looked outside, but you know what—also, 'fear pandemic,' what the hell does that even mean?"

A red light on the camera blinks.

"Yeah, yeah, I hear it, low on battery. I need to find one of those car chargers. Do they make car chargers for cameras?"

The red light doesn't answers, but at least it doesn't judge Penny, either.

"Hey, how about some music? Pop? R&B? Country? I like country," she adds, petulant by reflex.

"Country it is," she says, and she cranks up the radio; it's all in the wrist, baby.

California to Texas isn't such a long haul, but driving is—there are cars all over the road, you know, and people; Penny crashes into both pretty indiscriminately at lower speeds, but sometimes she really wants to cruise, and that requires a little more care. She has a reason to live now. Not much of one, maybe, but it's something, yep, it's something, all right.

This story, it's pretty fucking weird.

 

 

 

xvi. the future

They fuck like nobody is watching; they fuck mechanically, with precision, with abandon. Someone is watching, of course, and obviously this is going to be used against them at some later point, but a certain amount of indiscretion must be forgiven.

Here is Sheldon: at one point in his life he abhorred this act, with its germs, with its sounds, with its deliberate unspooling of propriety. This, what he does, what he is doing, is unclean, both by his standards and his mother's. His fingers clench at Penny's hips. There is sweat on his brow. Although he knows this is an illusion, he takes comfort in the narrow vision of Penny's lip catching between her teeth.

Here is Penny: she once thought herself an expert at this. Her comprehension of their larger circumstances may be lesser, but this, yeah, she gets. They're tired. They're desperate. Maybe, once, a long time ago, they were falling in love, not that either one of them would have admitted it. She was all wrong for him, he didn't want her—tale as old as time, time being no more than a measure of duration and interval. Causality, now that's the joke.

Man and woman, the last two people on earth—now that's the joke. Not if you were the last person on Earth. Earth, now that's the joke; the two of them, Penny and Sheldon, they are, in many senses, the entirety of the world.

 

 

 

xvii. the uncertain period

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock, knock. "Sheldon?"

Knock, knock—

"What?"

"Hey," says Penny. "Were you ever planning on apologizing for running away to Texas without even saying goodbye?"

"Was your boyfriend ever planning on apologizing for tampering with my experiment?" Sheldon says, prim and petulant himself, like all the weirdness of the past indiscriminate interval of events is just a passing fad.

"One," Penny says. "Leonard isn't my boyfriend. Two. We have slightly larger problems. Three—is that ravioli?"

Sheldon twists to look over his shoulder. There are four-hundred and six empty ravioli cans stacked in the entryway.

"Isn't that self-evident?" he says.

"Just checking," says Penny. "You can never be sure these days. So. Texas. It's a lot less…"

"Tangible?" Sheldon suggests.

Penny's brow furrows. "Actually," she says, "I sort of expected everyone to be wearing cowboy hats."

"I am everyone," says Sheldon. "And I only wear cowboy hats when I'm in costume for a convention, Penny, you should really know this by now."

"Yeah. Yeah, you're definitely you. So what's up with this?" Penny says. She feels like she should have hugged him or something, but it's all a little overwhelming. Underwhelming. She is extremely whelmed, that's for sure.

"Would you like to come inside?" Sheldon asks. "Our bodies may be simulations, but we perceive discomfort nonetheless."

"Huh?" says Penny.

Sheldon sighs and repeats himself: "Would you," he says, pointing to Penny, "like a cup of tea?" He mimes drinking from a teacup; Penny grins when he sticks his pinky out.

"Oh," she says. "Sure. Tea sounds good."

 

 

 

xviii. the slightly more uncertain period

"What?"

"We are living in a digital reality. Keep up, please, this is rudimentary—"

"Go back to the part where we aren't real."

Sheldon sighs for the thirteenth time and fixes her with a look of exasperation. "Penny. Statistically speaking—"

"Nope."

"Given sufficient technology—"

"Try again."

"How else do you propose to explain this?" he says. "Seven billion people drop dead of fear, but nobody can find the cause; the planet is decimated, but electricity, the internet, communications technology, still function."

"So," Penny says, "sort of like The Matrix."

"No," Sheldon says. "Yes."

"Okay then." Penny looks around, pokes at the piled of knitted blankets, examines the cat; the cat examines her back. "Can I have a can of ravioli?"

"Help yourself," Sheldon says. "There are three thousand cans remaining."

Penny cranks open a can and borrows his chopsticks. "This isn't even the fun kind of apocalypse," she complains. "Something with guns—you may not know this about me, but I am great with guns."

"Yes. Zombies. I once anticipated the rise of zombie hordes with eagerness."

"Zombies would've been great," Penny agrees. "Can you imagine? You, me, a tank, couple of shotguns—"

"A first-aid kit," Sheldon said. "Emergency rations. Matches and iodine." He slumps in his seat next to her; apparently even he doesn't have the energy for that rigidly precise posture anymore. It feels out-of-character.

"Bullets," Penny says.

"Pipe bombs," says Sheldon.

"Yeah." She eats a ravioli. "Why us, anyway?"

"Perhaps we are unafraid."

Penny snorts. "Try again."

"Are you saying you were happy to be a waitress for the rest of your life?"

"Lots of people have it worse."

"Lots of people have it better, Penny, I don't think I need to remind you—"

"I'm not going to define myself by other people."

"You just did."

"You," Penny says, mouth full of ravioli bits, "are a big fat pessimist. I'm being optimistic, which is impressive, considering."

"I'm not a pessimist," Sheldon counters. "I'm a scientist."

"Some religion that is."

Sheldon turns bright red and starts to sputter. So much for being above the immediacy of reality.

"Oh hey," she says. "That reminds me." She reaches over him—he smells, inexplicably, like baby powder—and pulls the package out of her backpack. There, right on the front, is her name, in even monospace font.

"What's this?" she says. "I found it. It's kind of weird. I did a vlog about it—did you know I have a vlog?"

Sheldon looks at it, turns it over in his hands. Carefully, he edges a finger beneath the corner of the brown paper and begins to work the tape loose.

Penny gets impatient and grabs the package from him. They grapple briefly. She wins and tears the paper, shreds it, over his garbled cries of protest.

"What is it?" he says. "Let me see, Penny—"

"It's…" She frowns. "A...tablet?"

Sheldon snatches it away from her. "There aren't any buttons."

"Did you look on the back?"

"Yes."

"Did you check the side?"

"Yes."

"Are you sure you didn't—" she starts to say, and then she reaches out and wraps a hand around the screen. It lights up, black and glossy to bright and white.

In the middle is a red button. The picture of a red button? The representation of a red button, definitely.

Beneath, in large, friendly letters, there is a word: RESET?

Penny's hand darts out to press the button, but Sheldon intercepts her.

"You don't know what that does—"

"Sheldon," Penny says. "Sweetie. I don't know what anything does. That's not in the script, hello, have you seen my vlog?"

Sheldon's eyes go wide. "Is it about flags?"

"No," Penny says.

 

 

 

xix. going in circles

They spend way too long arguing about it.

"We don't know what it does—"

"It probably doesn't do anything. It's a button. On a weird...tablet…thing. Okay, not the best argument, but what could it hurt?"

"Everything," Sheldon says.

"Yeah, but do you really care? I mean, aren't you Mister-None-of-This-Is-Real-and-Nothing-Matters?"

"Yes, but," Sheldon says.

"Yes, but…?"

"But." He glares at her. "There—you—I don't know why you—that was before you," he finally manages to spit out.

"We have to do something," Penny rationalizes, and then it all catches up to her. "Wait. Waitwaitwait. You mean you….?"

Sheldon continues to glare.

"Well," says Penny, and a smile spreads across her face, cat that got the cream. "Okay, compromise: we press the button, but there's something we should do first."

"What's that?" Sheldon says.

 

 

 

xx.
through the looking-glass
down the wormhole
at the top of the tower

She still has a lot of unpacking to finish. There are boxes E-VER-Y-WHERE, although at least she found her radio—a shiny new start on life definitely needs the soundtrack to go along with it.

When the two guys come up the stairs and stop just outside, she smiles at them; that's why she left the door open, after all, to meet her new neighbors, say hi, make sure she knows their faces.

But there's something about the one with the ugly pants…

"Hi. Hi, I'm Leonard, this is Sheldon," the cute one says. "We live in the apartment across the hall—"

And then the friend elbows past him; Ugly Pants has limpid blue eyes, and something about the supercilious way he considers her makes her want to punch in the nose. Not, you know, hard, just a friendly tap. Something about him makes her want to reach out and touch; something about him makes her curious.

"Sheldon," Penny says, "haven't we met before?"