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The Paladin Protocol

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Saturday should be paintball day, but somehow, Penny has decided that a trip out would be a good idea. She has a Plan. Of course, three of them are an easy sell; with the fourth, she bypasses bribery or cajoling and goes straight to threat. But she's got them all into the car – she's having to navigate from the back seat, because you have to pick your battles, and ousting six foot plus of whiny Texan from shotgun is one too far this morning – and now they are nearly there.

'Off the Grid' is a concept that terrifies the boys deeply. They have all become quieter since the buildings gave way to trees and hills. Even Sheldon has been reduced to simply squeaking faintly every time another bar disappears off his cell-phone reception. Howard has fallen asleep with his face on the window, and Raj is just being Raj.

Leonard wonders what Penny has planned, and why all of them had to come. He'd quite like to spend some time alone with her. It seems that lately all their dates have been double with Howard and Bernadette, and since the robbery, Sheldon really doesn't like to leave the apartment at all. But there had been one of their weird conversations-without -words, all scowls and glances and hidden menace, and then Sheldon was being propelled out of the door, protesting volubly, her hand between his shoulder-blades.

“Ooh, turn here.” Penny orders suddenly, and he obeys...slams on the brakes.

Sheldon shrieks (“Sweet sufferin' Jesus!”), Howard gets thrown into the front seat (“It was one lousy burger, I swear, Ma!”), and Raj gives a strangled squeak.

One of the...things in the road shakes a club at them and bares a mouthful of fangs, before loping on.

Leonard grips the wheel tightly, eyes wide.

“Did I just nearly hit an orc?”

Raj makes a small whimpering sound, pulling at Howard's sleeve and pointing. There's a large banner proclaiming what they are about to encounter.

“The StormFist War-Guild?” Howard yelps. “The 'No Magic, No Mercy' guys?”

“Penny, we don't...”

“C'mon. You play this stuff on-line all the time. What's the deal?” Penny keeps her voice bright, though her shoulders droop a little. “It sounded like fun.”

The boys look at each other. Nobody has ever explained the Geek Hierarchy to Penny, she couldn't possibly know. She has really tried to find something that she thought they would like.

“I...we didn't think you'd be into this sort of thing.” Leonard says weakly. “Dressing up and, er, roleplaying...”

Sheldon frowns in mild confusion.

“Leonard, Penny proclaims herself to be an actress. Her avocation is to dress up and pretend to be someone else. I can't see why she should object to a cosplay scenario.”

“Cosplay?” Howard gawps at him. “This is hard-core boffer LARP. We're going to be beaten to death with giant cotton-buds...” (Someone who appears to have forgotten to put on any clothes over her fake-fur underwear wanders past the car) “...and we could certainly give it a go.” he finishes, smoothly. Raj has his hands up on the window, last puppy in the shop.

Leonard sighs, defeated. He'll do this to keep Penny happy. And at least with the 'no magic' style of play, nobody will have to listen to a five minute lecture on what type of lightning bolt somebody thinks they are throwing.

00000000000

Penny has a lovely time getting kitted out, chatting with Deena and Beth. Deena had done costumes for some of the local theatre groups, which was how Penny had found out about this. She does wonder why the boys were freaking out - instead of spending the day running about shooting paint at each other, they get to dress up and hit each other with rubber swords. Given some of the outfits they have been known to wear in public, she doesn't see why this should be a big deal, either. Grins as she remembers the 'Doppler Effect' – watching that being pursued by orcs would be like 'Wild Kingdom' on crack.

She's sure the guys (most of them, anyway) are hoping for something a bit more 'Red Sonja' but she's not running about in front of Howard in a chain-mail bikini. In the absence of Bernadette, he still has a tendency to...lapse.

“Ahh, Penny, really rocking the Xena look there. Wanna show me your chakram?” (Yeah, like that.)

Predictably, Howard has gone overboard on the studs, and looks like a Middle-Earth leather-pet. Leonard is looking awkward in a padded tunic that is just a little too large on him. Raj has fared better, his burnous a bit more 'Prince of Persia'.

Sheldon - has a suit of armour. Of course he does. And it's not tin-foil over painted string either. He's got the full breast-plate, and greaves, and bracers, and he's tall enough to get away with the cloak he's wearing. (Superman red, of course.)

“Hey, Sheldor.”

He tilts his head, looks down at himself.

“Why, yes, in this context, I suppose so.” Eyes her. “And that is indeed a good facsimile of Lucy Lawless' classic outfit. Though I would suggest a chakram would not be a useful weapon today.”

“Oh, it's okay, I've got a Slayer scythe...oh, sorry, Raj, sweetie.”

Raj makes a tiny gesture that means 'No, really, it's fine, I like being beaten up by strong warrior-chicks' , and retreats to a safe distance. Leonard is torn between admiration and terror. Penny didn't get the childhood nickname 'Slugger' for nothing.

“I just don't know if we should have exposed her to the works of Whedon.” he frets. Sheldon scoffs.

“Leonard, never underestimate a cheerleader.”

“What are you packing, Sheldon?”

Sheldon picks up something that looks rather more dangerous than a length of rattan wrapped in moulded latex foam has any right to...

“Broadsword.” he says.

...particularly when he wields it in a sweeping slash and parry.

Penny picks her jaw up. Holy crap. Sheldon Cooper, PhD, dressed in armour, and handling a sword like he actually knows how to use it, rapid cut and thrust. C3PO has just turned into a freaking Terminator.

Howard listens to Raj whisper urgently, nods in wide-eyed horror.

“Well, he's smart enough to be the Intersect...has he had any weird e-mails lately?”

“In Heidelberg, I initially assumed that 'academic fencing' was a form of intellectual debate.” Sheldon switches the sword from hand to hand, swings it in a swift and casual figure of eight. “It wasn't. Wheee.”

“It's more like the Matrix.” Leonard moans. “Someone uploaded 'sword-wielding lunatic'.”

Penny grins at him.

“Leonard, never underestimate the whackadoodle.” Raises her voice. “So, Sheldor, you up for some conquering?”

Sheldon gives the blade one final spin, jerks his chin up.

“Bring it on, Queen Penelope.”

Leonard, Raj and Howard huddle even closer.

Both Sheldon and Penny are horribly competitive, and now they are armed. This can't end well.

Chapter Text

Sheldon takes less than five minutes to turn into a vengeful maniac, striding about, swinging his sword and yelling at people in Klingon.

He fits right in with the rest of the vengeful maniacs bounding around and beating seven kinds of snot out of each other with gleeful abandon. The StormFist War-Guild favour a dynamic method of conflict resolution. The only use for 'rock, paper, scissors' here would be as a club, kindling or stabbing someone. The Army is the human side of the War-Guild. Opposing them are the Horde, who tend to a slightly more undisciplined approach, and a greater incidence of fangs and clubs. But there are swords and short spears and axes and spiked maces aplenty on both sides, and the first order of the day is the melee, just to get nicely warmed up.

Leonard himself has never wielded anything more dangerous than a toy lightsabre, and Howard has arms like pipe-cleaners. They are not suited for this. Surprisingly, Raj gets quite into it. He has acquired a couple of scimitars, and flails away with a will. (Leonard and Howard both think there might be some unresolved Comic-Con issues, from the wild eyes and disjointed mutterings about green skin.)

As for Penny – well, he supposes that there are many men who fantasize about their hot blonde girlfriend in a leather outfit. He's fairly sure that the standard fantasy does not involve the war-axe and the swearing, though. Probably.

“Die, you hellspawn!” Penny screeches, pauses, panting, “Leonard, sweetie, I've wounded this one. Would you like to finish him?”

“No, I'm good, thanks...”

“Watch your back, woman!” Sheldon thunders, catches a descending blade on his, wallops the offender. “Honestly, Leonard. Do try to keep up.”

“It's his first battle, honey...”

“Don't mollycoddle him, Penny. He's going to have to learn to kill on his own.” (Slash, parry.)

Penny bites her lip, as she swings her axe.

“I know, but he looks so tiny in amongst all the big warriors...I worry about him.” (Smack.)

“You have to let him go sometime...” (A particularly vicious overhand blow to finish.)

Penny sighs, nods. Brightens suddenly.

“Oooh, Sheldon, look...Now, Leonard, will you be okay if Sheldon and I go and fight that big demon? Good.” Pats him absently on the shoulder with her free hand, and then charges someone who looks like a grey-green Hellboy-clone. “I'm gonna gut you like a deer, you stump-horned sonovabitch!”

“You engage him from the left, and...Penny, you aren't listening to my carefully judged combat tactics...” The demon takes a swing at her with a spiked mace. “Oh, good lord...Leonard, I have to go and deal with this.”

“Oh, don't mind me...” Leonard says to his retreating back.

War is hell. Particularly if you are a short bespectacled physicist. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, he dodges and weaves through the battle, trying desperately not to lose his glasses or his footing. Each side has a 'time out' redoubt, for the 'dead', and despite his nominal live status, Leonard hauls himself over the little barrier, and drops thankfully to the ground.

Howard is already slumped there.

“It's like High School all over again. The gauntlet past the lockers...”

“...Phys. Ed class...”

“...being beaten up by the jocks...”

“...being beaten up by the band kids...”

“Leonard, you played the cello...”

“I got beaten up by the chess club, Howard.”

Pause.

“Me, too. And some of those Magic Card guys were mean.”

Penny appears, escorting a twitching Raj, leans over the edge of the barrier.

“Oh, Leonard, sweetie, did you get killed? I'm sorry, I shouldn't have left you.” Turns to Raj. “Now you just sit quietly with Leonard and Howard for a bit. None of the nasty green thingies can get you in there.”

Raj nods gratefully, hunches in the corner. Penny gives them all another bright smile, and then flings herself enthusiastically back at the fight. Raj huddles, clutching his scimitars.

“Penny has brought us to a place full of crazy dangerous people.”

“Yeah, and one of them is Sheldon.” Howard shudders. “I don't know who scares me more, her or him.”

“Him.” Leonard says flatly. “I'm...reasonably sure that Penny wouldn't try and kill us.”

“She killed me.” Howard says glumly.

“Dude,” Raj points out. “Never tell a barbarian queen that she looks booty-licious.”

“Leonard! Did you manage to get yourself killed?” Sheldon looms over them, looking disapproving. “Really, I can't leave you alone for a moment.”

Leonard glares up.

“This is a bit different to paint-ball, Sheldon.”

“Yes, you are all pitifully unsuited to taking part in actual combat. It is a shame that your modest competence in the virtual realm doesn't extend to the physical world.”

“I thought you were too evolved to mix it up.” Howard snaps.

“It seems that my genetic superiority extends to enhanced dexterity and hand-eye co-ordination. And I do have the advantage of height and strength.” Since he's still holding his broadsword, Howard merely snarls weakly, and plots to kill him in his sleep.

A green-haired woman in neat leather armour jogs up to the redoubt, and looks them over. Focuses on Sheldon.

“Tall scary-ass warrior in the red cloak - you're Sheldor, right? Queen P says 'emergency override, come help her level up, she's saving you an ogre that looks like Kripke.'”

“Ooh, goody.” And Sheldon plunges off.

“It's so cute when couples have a battle-language of their own.” She grins at them. “Well, I'm gonna go kill my husband. Sword ho!”

“What the frack...”

“I don't even wanna know any more.” Leonard puts his head in his hands.

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The green-haired woman is Penny's friend Beth, and her husband Sven turns out to be huge and scary, with an impressive pair of horns. (“He likes to dress up before we drive here, and grin at folks at the stop-lights.” Beth sighs, fondly.) He's also one of the weapons-makers for the War-Guild, and he checks the weapons for damage in the coffee break. Penny is greeted by the slightly weird sight of a hulking demon with a pair of glasses on his nose, turning the blades over in his large hands and conversing in cultured tones with a tall super-genius in a suit of armour.

“Hello, Penny. Sven has loaned me a longsword.” It's an evil-looking thing, all black, with silver runes running up a slender leaf-shaped blade(*). “He has sworn to take my skull for a battle-standard, and I have retorted that I will gut his carcase and leave him for the crows.”

“Come and drink your herbal tea first.” (Nobody is giving Sheldon coffee again. Ever.) “I brought your tea-bags from home, and I used bottled water.”

“Thank you, Penny. I have never been convinced of the efficacy of physical combat before, deeming superior intellect sufficient, but there is something viscerally satisfying about this.”

Penny puts that through the filter of 'Sheldon' into English.

“You're having fun beating up the monsters, honey?”

“That is what I implied.” And then he actually smiles at her, a sweet genuine smile, which makes him look about twelve.

She's so used to the way he holds himself in, all small steps and tight shoulders, the legacy of a childhood spent knocking things over with unco-ordinated elbows, always being taller than everyone around him. Now he's striding about, and he's got a flush along his cheekbones and his hair slightly mussed, and he looks...normal.

Apart from the whole heavily-armed warrior thing, of course.

Chapter Text

Leonard gives her a hopeful smile.

“Beth says that's the melee over with.”

“Yeah.” Penny grins. “Now we've got the real game.”

“That wasn't it?” His face falls.

“No, there's a full-on campaign planned.” She gestures. “We have to get over to the home fort.”

The boys look at the landscape before them, low, wooded hills.

“That's not too bad...” Leonard forces an upbeat tone.

“Well, kinda, except we have to evade the Horde. Kill or capture.”

The Horde are moving out in small units, ready to hunt and harass, and the sides exchange cheery catcalls and insults. Something huge snarls at them in passing, points his club.

“I'm gonna be dragged off to Minas Morgul and made some Nazgul's bitch.” Howard moans.

Penny sighs, aware that there is dissension in the ranks. She had really thought it would be something they would like, the whole dressing up and fighting thing. Has to admit that it's perhaps a bit more physical than they are used to, but fresh air won't hurt them. Even if quite a lot of other things might. One of the things taps her on the shoulder.

“Is the dark cutie single?” The speaker is currently sporting a faceful of tusks, though she's actually quite pretty under the paint and fake piercings.

Raj's attempts to date have been stalled again by his inability to talk when sober. Penny had been a little sorry, she had liked Abby. (She had had no opinion at all about Martha. Really. She couldn't care less. But the girl had apparently actually invaded Sheldon's room - the nerve – and been rightly banished for it.)

“He's very shy...”

“Oh, I don't need him to talk.” The grin would be evil even without the fangs. “So if I catch him, I can keep him?”

Penny grins back; Raj has to get over his fear of green people at some point.

“Sure. Go wild.”

“Cool. Oh, I gotta say,” Parting shot over her shoulder. “Your boytoy is totally rocking that armour. Rowr.”

...?

Penny's brain unfuses.

Then admits to herself, that, yeah, Sheldon does look good. He's always looked kinda cute, in a skinny, geeky way, it's just when he opens his mouth and says something that you realize what a steaming big bag of crazy-time he can be. (Of course, she's having a ball running about dressed in fake armour and hitting things with a toy axe, so who is she to judge?)

 

0000000000

It is a harsh trek, across wild country, fraught with peril...

They lose Raj early, when in the midst of fighting off an attack, something lean and fast darts out of the throng and tackles him off into the undergrowth.

“Nooo....” Howard's wail is cut off by a hand grabbing his collar.

“You can't help him now.” Sheldon barks, propelling the other man ahead of him. “This is war. We'll mourn our fallen later. Run.”

Absolute command in his voice, bypasses Howard's brain and makes his legs move.

It's like maybe he has activated some sub-routine, or something...man, she is spending way too much time with the guys, thinking like that...but, seriously, he's the one of them she would have picked for total meltdown. Dirt and bugs and fresh air. Instead, he's been beating the crap out of people like it's no big deal, and Beth says that Sven doesn't lend his demonblades out to just anyone. She'd thought that his ability to win at arm-wrestling was simply the fact that the others were, well, them, but maybe...

0000000000

…the campaign is hard-fought, men and monsters locked in epic struggle...

Leonard is hating every minute of this. His feet hurt, they've lost Raj, Howard is whining, people keep hitting him, and his girlfriend would rather slay things than look after him. And then there's Sheldon.

There's something very disconcerting in finding out that his gangly room-mate is competent at something physical. It's like the football all over again. Sheldon is practically a different species. He's supposed to fall apart if you take him out of his comfortable cocoon of routine and technology, he's not supposed to turn into a...a Ranger. He sounds like he normally does today, droning on about Bayes' theorem and subgame perfect Nash equilibrium, but his spidery limbs and usual jerky motion work with contact weaponry. He's tall and fast, and the sight of him bellowing with rage and smiting hapless goblins will give Leonard nightmares for weeks.

While Leonard is seeing a bunch of people in costume, playing a game, he's not sure what Sheldon is seeing - there's a dangerous gleam in those eyes. If he's honest with himself, he had thought (hoped) that Sheldon would spend the morning sulking in the car, then demand that they drive home at lunch-time, his usual uncompromising rigour the perfect excuse.

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...and those that do not lose their lives, lose their liberty...

Raj opens his eyes, backs up on his elbows, sheer terror.

The orc-maiden unclips a few of the heavier rings, and lifts out her fangs.

“That's better, I can't talk properly with those things in.” She says. “You're not dead, cutie. You're just my prisoner.” Shrugs open her padded jacket, reveals generous curves of tanned skin around a tiny vest that says 'it ain't easy being green'. Smiles at him. “My name's Raquel, and I like the strong, silent type.”

Raj stops backing up, and prepares to endure his captivity bravely.

00000000000

...It is a war that will tax a warrior's strength, take them to the edge of their endurance...

Various lunch-time anxieties are allayed by Penny's assurances that yes, she had washed her hands before preparing the sandwiches, yes, she had cut the crusts off, yes, it was butter substitute, no, it didn't have peanut oil in it, no, it wasn't ham, it was corned beef, yes, a fresh tin, yes, it was the good mustard, and if they didn't eat the damn things right now, someone was going to be eating a damn axe. They eat the sandwiches.

They are at the tag end of the Army, part of the rearguard, maybe a dozen souls, those who like to take their time, and those who don't have a choice. Bitter ignominy, Penny and Sheldon could have gone ahead, but they don't. In a way, Leonard and Howard both wish they had. Leonard, who has a blister, doesn't like the fact that his girlfriend is having to help him along up the steep bits, and Howard doesn't like the fact that he has a tall, supercilious geek prodding him up the path at sword-point.

“Penny has made every effort to find an activity that would suit our interests. I think you are being very ungracious about it.” Sheldon is severe. “I will admit to being initially unsure about such a change to our usual war-game simulation, but this is entirely acceptable as an occasional alternative to paintball.” A speculative look at his sword. “Maybe we should bring Leslie Winkle along next time? I'm sure she would find a spiritual home amongst the stunted abominations of the Horde.”

“Next time?” Howard hisses to Leonard. Leonard shrugs helplessly.

000000

...So far, they have outpaced the pursuing horde, but their luck is running out. Their enemies bark and snarl in the distance...

Calum, their captain, raises a fist to call for a halt, makes his announcement...

“They are going to catch us before we make the fort at this rate, we're going to have to pick up the pace. We're the last group, and we're going to be up to our asses in orcs in a few minutes.”

“I suggest we hamstring Wolowitz, and leave him as bait.”

Howard manages a wheezing snarl from where he's slumped.

Penny doesn't know particle physics or how to speak Klingon or a thousand other things, but she does know how to play a scene, and she can see a doozy right here. There's only one path over the hill at this point, and the entire pursuit will have to come this way.

“Calum...I'll stay.”

“Penny...” Leonard is confused.

“C'mon, guys. This is like that movie with that hot Scottish guy in it, with all the freaky monsters and that battle on the beach. This. is. Sparta.”

“This is freakin' nuts.” Howard mutters.

“You think a suicide mission is a good use of our resources?” Sheldon demands, fiercely.

And then Penny looks up into his face, and says the fateful words.

“Sheldor...the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”

Leonard sees Sheldon go completely still.

“That is so.” And his chin goes up. “But Queen Penelope will not stand alone.”

“Ah, hey.” Si protests, “Sheldon's one of our best warriors. Can't we leave her one of the hobbits?”

Leonard suddenly realises who the 'hobbits' are, and winces. Opens his mouth, but Penny forestalls him.

“They're not good enough, the horde will just run right over them.” She says. “With Sheldon, I stand a chance of slowing them, so you can get away.”

There isn't anything else to say, then. Calum nods, decision made.

“We will sing of your courage. Army, to me. Don't make their sacrifice a vain one.”

Si grabs Howard, Tay and Calum grab Leonard, and Leonard finds himself caught up in the headlong rush down the path. He gets one look back.

Penny, gripping her axe, and beside her, Sheldon, rising up to his full height, sword in hands.

She looks at his earnest face. He's into this, and it's kinda exciting.

“You volunteered to stay with me.”

“You quoted the finest example of heroic sacrifice...how could I not?”

The foe are great in number, but they are checked by the sight before them...

At that moment, they are no longer a resting actress/waitress and a socially inept super genius...

...Queen Penelope and Sheldor the Conqueror are going to defend the pass with their lives, and ensure the retreat of the rest of the army.

She smiles at him, feral and beautiful, her blonde hair gleaming in the sunlight.

“To the death, Sheldor?”

“To the death, my Queen.”

When she falls, and it is a good death, the path already strewn with opposing warriors, she cries to him “Avenge me!”, and the last thing she sees, before the world grows dark, is her faithful knight hurling himself back into battle...

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...The eerie calm of the battle-field, where none are left but the fallen and the carrion crows...

The 'dead' sit up, helping each other up, checking weapons, laughing and chatting. Penny accepts a hand up from a grinning orc, who she recalls slaying with extreme prejudice.

In the distance, there is a cheer, and the long klaxon sound that indicates victory. The Army are safe.

“All right!” She pumps her fist, spins to face Sheldon, hands lightly on his shoulders for balance...

There have been uncomfortable and confusing occasions in his life, when he would find himself unaccountably assaulted. But although his stomach churns, he does not feel the attendant nausea and panic that usually accompany these situations....

She thinks suddenly that perhaps she shouldn't do this, not to him, but somehow as she leans up the smallest way, he doesn't move, or maybe he does, but he doesn't move away, and...

She doesn't force herself upon him, none of that wet, terrifying invasiveness. Her lips are soft, cool, gentle on his. Tension in his jaw relaxes, and his mouth moves of its own volition...

It lasts a moment, a sweet, chaste little gesture. It isn't like the walls fall down or anything.

Not that Penny would have noticed.

They stare at each other. Sheldon looks startled, but he doesn't look like he is about to scream or gargle half a bottle of mouthwash or have some incomprehensible meltdown.

Then she's spun away into the group of grinning warriors, all back-slaps and congratulations.

“That was intense...”

“You and your boy have gotta come and play for the Horde next time...”

Sheldon watches her mingling with the other fighters. Perhaps all this exertion has been bad for him – he can feel that his heart-rate has accelerated past normal, and his palms feel moist. He tries to catalogue his responses.

He's still standing there when one of the 'dead' warriors comes up and claps him on the shoulder.

“That was epic, dude...” Looks up at the taller man. “You okay? Did you get hit on the head?”

“Metaphorically.” Sheldon blinks.

Penny touches people constantly, her hands linger on arms, shoulders. She bestows kisses, hugs, endearments indiscriminately. He does not attach any importance to her gesture.

But. He doesn't touch people. The tip of his tongue explores his lips.

“oh.” he says, quietly.

0000000000

Penny is freaking out.

It was just (just?) a harmless little peck on the lips (and it feels like she licked a battery or something, that shock down to her toes) to celebrate the victory. No big deal.

But. She just kissed Sheldon Cooper on the mouth. She's probably broken him.

She just...he just...they just kissed.

(her own mouth tingling)

No.

Because he's Sheldon. And Sheldon doesn't.

Does he?

Chapter Text

Raj is returned by Raquel, who kisses him on the cheek, murmurs “text me', and disappears with a grin and a wave.

“What happened to you? I was worried sick.” Howard snaps.

“I was seduced by the dark powers of evil.” Raj admits, waving shyly after her.

“Well, I'm glad somebody had some fun this afternoon.”

“Bad?”

Howard looks grimly at Raj.

“I'm looking forward to going home and spending the evening with my mother.”

Raj actually goes a shade paler.

“Dude. What did you do to him? Friendly stab?”

“There wouldn't have been anything friendly in it.” The little engineer growls. “But no, we left him and Penny re-enacting Helm's Deep.”

“You didn't stay with them?”

“Oh, we'd only have been in the way...”

Leonard looks up from examining his feet.

“She didn't put it quite like that...”

“She said we weren't good enough. She preferred Sheldon.” Howard doesn't care; it isn't his ego in the blender today. “Hey, I'm a lover, not a fighter. Penny clearly recognises that fact.”

“Yeah, but that means by extension that Sheldon is a fighter.”

“Raj, which part of today's terrifying transformation into a psychotic battlebot did you miss?”

“A fair bit. I was being tortured in vile durance...but still, noble self-sacrifice? Sheldon?”

“Penny quoted Spock at him.”

Nod of complete understanding, and appreciation.

“Ah. Truly, the student has surpassed the teachers.”

00000000000

Penny eyes Sheldon warily. But he's just watching his feet as he makes his way down the path, and he's got into some kind of geek-off with another guy about computers, and he seems quite normal, well, for the given value of Sheldon.

She's not quite sure how she feels about that. She's weirded out by the whole thing, so why isn't he? The weirdest thing about it is the fact that it doesn't feel weird. Not a drop of alcohol involved, and nobody around them staring or freaking out or pointing. Nobody seems to find it at all strange that she kissed him.

And she's so caught up in her own thoughts that she doesn't register the way that Sheldon's eyes keep flicking back to her and then away again. And anyone who knew him well would know that expression. New data has been acquired, and is being processed...

00000000000

Leonard wants to complain about his blisters, which is kinda gross, and rather spoils the hug she was intending to give him. But Raj seems to have been returned in one piece, and Howard is still Howard, which is also kinda gross, but just something they have to live with.

A couple of freaky...things lope by, and one of them pauses to say,

“Yo, Queen P, you guys so need to be Dark Side next out. Slammin' axe work.”

Penny grins, returns the salute.

“Maybe I'll be a baby-slaying demon-queen. Sven said he'd make me some horns.” She bares her little teeth in a snarl and air-claws at Sheldon. “You could be, I dunno, like the Kurgan or something.”

Everyone has a brief mental image of Sheldon in black leather and armour, with his Mirror Universe beard...

“Don't encourage him.” Leonard pleads.

“Uh.” Penny uncrosses her eyes. “Um, yeah. Sorry.”

“I could have minions...” Sheldon muses, happily. Raj and Howard try to hide behind each other.

“Somewhere in his head, he's already building a throne of skulls, isn't he?” Howard mutters, eyes wide.

“Penny, I don't think I could do this again...” Leonard starts.

“Excuse me, I don't think the invitation was extended to you.” Sheldon is examining his sword-blade. “Penny, I think I've chipped this on a demon.”

“That's what it's designed for, honey...Leonard, you don't have to come again if you don't want to...take it back to Sven and he'll fix it, he's over at the fire-pit, past the VW with the skulls on it...I just thought this was something we could do together... ”

“Uh-oh, impending domestic.” Howard begins to back away, and Raj follows him. Ringside seats are always better than the interactive experience.

“You chose Sheldon to stay and fight with you...”

Penny doesn't have time for Leonard's whiny insecurity right now. She's kinda pissed with him. She's sat through bizarro Japanese cartoons and physics lectures for him, been to the comic store and to weird movies where they've actually worn outfits, and it's fine with her if he'd rather fly kites than watch the football, and disses astrology and stuff, but she'd really tried to find something they could do together and he'd just been a whiny little... homunculus all day. She's tired and hungry, and he's being a buzzkill on her victory high.

“Leonard, sweetie, you didn't want to stay and fight with me. You don't even want to be here.”

“Clearly, you are failing to grasp simple facts again, Leonard. Penny chose me as the most fitting champion in her endeavour, because you have proved yourself inadequate.”

(Raj leans over to Howard.

“Dude, are you thinking what I'm thinking?”

“That this would have been smoking hot if it was Penny and the other Cooper twin duking it out Xena-style?”

“...” Raj snaps back into focus. “No....”)

“...don't need you interfering, Sheldon.”

“Don't yell at him, Leonard. It's okay, Sheldon, we're not going to fight...”

“Clearly, given Leonard's inability to do so...”

“...Leonard is just being a jerk. Now, let's go take the weapons back to Sven.”

“Very well, Penny.” Straightens up to his full height, an intimidating glare. “And I am appreciative of your efforts to provide a enjoyable experience for us today.”

Manages an impressive exit after her, sweep of cloak and long stride. Raj sniggers.

“...If he issues kal if fee, the little man is toast.”

Leonard does not think this is quite as funny as they do.

“You're supposed to be my friends.” He whines.

“Dude, you're not the crazy tin man with the big rubber sword.”

“Yeah, we feel safer mocking you.” Howard shrugs. “Besides, it's Sheldon.”

00000000000

Penny eventually herds her nerds back into the car. The borrowed gear has been returned, with varying degrees of reluctance, and they are all back in their layered tee's and nasty jackets.

“Well, at least we won, huh?” Leonard tries to rescue the frosty atmosphere.

“Without our rearguard action, there would have been no victory.” Sheldon retorts. “All you had to do was run away.”

“You could have run away, too.”

A withering look.

“Really, Leonard. I swore to fight beside my Queen to the death. An oath given in battle is equivalent to a signed contract...”

He starts on about Arthurian Legend (“though what that travesty upon the television purports to be, I have no idea”) and Charlemagne and chivalric archetypes, and Penny kinda glazes over once Batman gets dragged into the conversation, but the other guys perk up, and the drive back is filled with comfortable and familiar bickering. And when Sheldon starts to fret about laundry and his schedule, the boys breathe a not-so-secret sigh of relief. They know where they are with this Sheldon.

Penny keeps quiet, absently watching the muscles cord in the long pale neck in front of her as he twists round to argue. She isn't sure how she would ever explain this day to her friends. Some kind of intensive exercise workout, maybe. With the fresh air and all, it was practically...open-air boxercise, or something. But she thinks she might come and do it again. Something satisfying about taking a damn great swing at things.

And yeah, she'll totally bring Sheldon again, if he wants to come. She takes care of all her boys, even Howard, to some extent, but she has a special care for Sheldon, even though he's also the one she'd most like to strangle. Something about the vulnerability under all the arrogance, his utter inability to behave like a normal person, to even grasp the idea of it. She's glad that one of them, at least, seems to have enjoyed the day, but who would've thought it would be him?

(He hadn't freaked out, and she's glad. He's just the same as he always was. And this is a good thing. It really is.)

00000000000

Sheldon settles happily back into his routine. Penny has solved the timing dilemma by watching over the laundry whilst he showered, and now he can reciprocate whilst she has her bath. Long fingers deftly sort through bright cotton, flip and fold, while their owner muses.

He has always considered himself evolved past the need for physical violence, but today had been curiously enjoyable. A death-ray might well have sufficed, but perhaps if he'd had a pole-arm as a child... Sven had said that after a week with a classroom full of eight-year-olds, he just had a deep, personal need to hit something with a big stick. Occasionally, Sheldon feels much the same way about his own working environment, but he has never transposed the desire to actual physicality before. He had voiced this thought to Leonard, who had merely stared at him with what Sheldon could only think of as panic. Or possibly indigestion.

Leonard had really been very unappreciative of the effort that Penny had made today. She had many faults, of course - her housekeeping skills certainly left much to be desired - but she was also warm, caring and thoughtful. Her ignorance could be corrected by education, if she would put a little effort into it, but she insisted on concentrating upon external validation through her appearance, instead of utilizing her considerable mnemonic talents. (Though it could not be denied that her appearance was aesthetically pleasing, fulfilling as it did much of the criteria that the Western world styled 'beauty'...) His eidetic memory flicks up the picture of her, flushed with laughter and victory as she had looked up at him, and then she had stopped smiling, and...

Sheldon pauses, his hands filled with a pretty floral top. His hands hesitate over the pink roses, snatch back suddenly.

Heat in his cheeks, and his pulse jumps. Really, he'll have to check his temperature again. Maybe he's starting to run a fever, after all the unaccustomed exercise. That must be the explanation. (Almost against his will, his fingertips touch the soft fabric again.) There can't be any other reason.

Penny lives in a state of emotional chaos akin the physical chaos of her apartment. She is a naturally warm person who bestows endearments and physical contact upon many people, quite often heedless of their wishes in the matter. To blame her for giving in to one of her rash, if occasionally oddly endearing, impulses would be ludicrous. But the experience was...

(...A minute shift at a quantum level, and the feeling of some vast machinery set into ponderous motion...)

...unsettling...

00000000000

Penny dips a toe into her bath, settles in with a happy sigh. Small act of rebellion, she does not have whimsical ducks in her tub. (She has smiley fish.) Allows the day to catch up with her, nagging thought she hasn't wanted to deal with.

She's used on the one hand to people double-taking at her and Leonard, because she totally doesn't look like the kind of girl who dates guys like him, and yet...the surprise today didn't seem to be that she's dating a nerd, it seemed to be that she's not dating the other one.

Which suggests that Sheldon looks like dating material. She would laugh, but she's been surrounded by guys with horns and face-paint all day, and really, he looks normal compared to some of them, so yeah. But why would people think she's dating him?...

It was one freakin' little kiss, that's all. Just the result of winning. Because it was Sheldon, and she was just glad she hadn't damaged him. Really.

...It absolutely wasn't like he'd kissed her back, or anything like that...

00000000000

...The fortress rears up above the war-torn plain, a jagged tooth of stone against the livid sky. From the great window of the throne-room, the warlord surveys the battle.

He toys with the hilt of his sword, eyes hooded and dangerous, the lines of his mouth cruel beneath the short beard. Settles his wolf-skin cloak over his shoulders and strides across the floor, a lean figure of menace, all black leather and iron plate.

She lounges before him on the throne, all feral grace. Men have died for the touch of those ruby lips. She has killed many of them herself. She is beautiful and terrible, a warrior-goddess. To seek to tame her is folly and madness, and no man who looks upon her can think to do anything other than try. She is fire to his ice, hot blood to his chill steel, torment and salvation.

His blue eyes glare down. She smoulders back up at him, unafraid. And as he catches her up in a fierce passionate embrace, he snarls the immortal words...

“You are sitting in my spot.”

...Leonard sits bolt upright in bed.

“What. The. Hell?”

.
.

The Beginning...

 

...Because, even though nobody is truly aware of it yet, somewhere in that gigantic brain, several cogs have meshed (and probably crunched a couple of gears, bent a few springs and lost a few screws in the process) and now Penny has an actual knight in shining armour. Because under all the neurosis and weirdness, there's a chivalrous streak a mile wide. Sir Whack-a-Doodle will fight again...

Chapter Text

The boys are camping out to observe astronomical phenomena again, and this time Leonard persuades Penny to go, and she assumes that Sheldon will come along, too, and to everyone's surprise, (including his own) he does. So they've got three tents pitched, and the telescopes set up, and the really important work done, the connections for the tv.

Penny isn't going to let anyone get away with just opening a foil packet, when they've got a grill. Been a long time since she had a cook-out. And she's from frickin' Omaha, no East Texan beefhead gets to go telling her about grilling steak. Said East Texan considers that he is from the home state of barbecue, and isn't backing down for some cornhusker, however pretty she is.

She wants to know how some guy who lives inside his own damn head so much knows anything about camp cooking. Turns out, he'd had some real fun experiences with the Great Outdoors, his father's efforts to 'make a man of him'.

“I grant that the skills acquired will be useful in predicted future emergencies, but I prefer not to hafta skin my dinner.”

(And suddenly some of those weird survival plans of his start to sound a lot less insane – at least the ones that involve natural disasters, as opposed to alien invasion or zombie apocalypse or giant mutant lizards.)

Well, his father might have gone fishing with a stick of dynamite, but she had a great-uncle used to use a wind-up radio. And he might be able to 'shoot close enough to a racoon that it craps itself', but she reckons she could still hit a jackrabbit.

(Sheldon, in his mind, starts to reformat some of the aforesaid survival plans. Someone else who knows how to hunt will be a valuable addition to the party.)

Everyone else decides to back away quietly and just let the crazy people play with the fire and knives and pointy things...

0000000000000

Dinner is a success. Sheldon grudgingly concedes that the seasoning has not made the steaks inedible, and Penny is pushed to admit that the meat is perfectly done. Nobody has ended up with a fork up their nose, and nobody leaves anything.

They can all (even Raj, after a beer) point out and name the various stars to her. Howard talks a little about some of the stuff he's helped put up into space, and she actually likes him when he's into his work like that. She knows a few of the obvious constellations herself, though she still can't see how the bright little blobs can form pictures. Someone is, however, ready to explain them to her. Leaning close, and looking along his arm, as he talks of harps and thrones and strange beasts. The night sky in Greece, again, and she rolls her eyes, grins.

“They have moved their relative positions since the original observation... ”

And of course then Leonard decides to be funny, and makes a few digs about astrology. Which rather ruins the mood. Penny doesn't really want to fight, but Leonard makes her feel stupid and small and angry, and the night ends uncomfortably.

And then he wants to make up. In a tent. And hell, no.

Penny's no prude, but she has no intention of getting busy within earshot of the guys. (Spends very few nights over at Leonard's, now, something that no longer feels quite comfortable in it.) And she's still angry. So she scrambles out of the tent, and then cusses, because it's colder than she thought, and she can't sit outside for hours. Knows Leonard is just waiting for her to crawl back into the tent, so he can be forgiving and superior, or offer one of his little apologies that always seem to wind up involving sex.

She doesn't really have any other option...

Sheldon, resembling nothing so much as a giant caterpillar in his sleeping bag, hood drawn up so only his pale face shows, eyes wide as he sits bolt upright.

“You're in my tent. People can't be...”

“Shut up, Sheldon.” Elbows and knees, and she's there beside him.

“Why are you in my tent?”

“It's too cold to sleep outside, and I am not sleeping in the same tent as Howard.”

“oh.” A bemused pause. “Why aren't you sleeping in the same tent as Leonard?”

“Because he's being an asshole.” Penny snaps. “Please, Sheldon.”

Sheldon's mother brought him up to be a gentleman. And rescuing this particular beautiful damsel in distress seems to have become be his responsibility.

“Oh, very well.” Another pause. “It would of course be warmer in a tent with both Koothrappali and Wolowitz, but I can understand your reluctance.”

“I seriously doubt it.” Penny mutters, edging one of his pillows over. “Have you got another blanket or something?”

Sheldon, about to protest, closes his mouth again, and hands over one of his spare covers.

“Well, I have had occasion to spend the night in close proximity to them, and they both snore quite badly...”

And so Penny finally gets to hear about The Night The Heat Went Out. Which gives her some interesting mental pictures, including some she really doesn't want, like, ever.

The boys don't talk about the Arctic trip much. Basically because they all acted like total dickwads, screwing with Sheldon's experiment. And she can hear the tight pain buried deep in his voice, the way his accent twangs a little, and has a sharp little jab of anger.

Sure, Sheldon is arrogant and rude, and he mocks Leonard's work, but he's never gone into his lab and goofed it up, and she still can't believe that they did that to him, because lord knows she'd have probably killed him after three days, but they were his friends, and he trusted them. She hadn't laughed at the gas trick, either, had been about to, and then thought of Sheldon's mother sitting by the radio and hearing that, and then she hadn't wanted to laugh at all. Guys haze each other all the time, but there's a line, and somehow, this feels like crossing it.

She's been telling herself that Leonard is a 'nice guy'. But 'nice guys' don't screw their friends over like that. She wonders if they had really considered what might happen when they messed with his experiments. How close they had come to that 'one lab accident'. Not turning him into a super-villain, but driving him back into his own head. Because something has to have happened to the guy when he'd rather be a robot or an alien than have feelings like a normal person.

So she diverts him, because she knows how to push his buttons, and Sheldon loves to talk.

“I read about something called the 'Particle Zoo'.” She giggles. “Do you feed buns to the quarks?”

“Penny. Your levity astounds me...” But it works, and he's off, and she understands why he likes 'Alice in Wonderland' now, as snarks and boojums and quarks and mesons blur in her mind. Quarks come in flavours, like ice-cream or something, and she thinks that the names are cute – 'strange' and 'charmed' – how perfect for Sheldon...

“...There was a school of thought that the 'top' and 'bottom' quarks should have been named 'truth' and 'beauty', but perhaps they felt that 'beauty' was insufficiently scientific. A fact which is certainly 'truth' in your case...” Hiccup of his little laugh.

Did Sheldon just call her beautiful? She thinks muzzily, and the thought follows her down into sleep...

Sheldon, still talking quietly, finally senses that he has lost his audience. Sighs, but does not immediately lie down himself. Instead, he finds himself propping up on a elbow to observe the outline of his unexpected guest.

It isn't as if he has not been in a similar situation before, though there are significant differences on this occasion, a major factor being that he finds the proximity to Penny to be far preferable to that of any of his other friends. She smells better, and she's far more aesthetically pleasing, clothed or not. She is wearing totally inadequate nightwear as it is, skimpy shorts and tee, all chill skin and bare midriff, and he feels a flash of anger at Leonard for letting her run out into the night like that. He doesn't really have the time to suspend his work schedule to take care of her if she becomes sick. Huffs crossly, tucks another blanket carefully around her sleeping form.

And it is, of course, purely the discovery that Penny snores softly when prone, (though the gentle sound of her breathing next to him is curiously not unpleasant) that causes him to turn her on her side, and since he concludes that she is unlikely to stay there unless held in place, he must perforce do so. This has the added advantage of providing shared warmth, though Penny as the smaller party will benefit more from the arrangement.

It's all perfectly rational, he thinks, sleepily. Absolutely logical...

00000

Penny blinks awake with the early sun on her face through the tent wall. The situation is entirely familiar. Weight of an arm keeping her snug against a warm male...

Holy crap.

She's woken up with Sheldon cuddling her.

He's mostly still in his sleeping bag, but his arms have worked free, and his entire long length is spooned protectively around her.

She's been held by guys before, like she's some kind of toy of theirs someone's gonna take away, but this feels...safe and warm and this isn't her boyfriend, so why does it feel so damn right? It's entirely too comfortable, and kinda sweet in a really, really weird way, and it's not something she's ever going to be able to explain to anybody. To Leonard.

She eases away from him a little, and his arms tighten instinctively, before she feels him wake up, (the pause before) he recoils, sit up abruptly.

He's unsure of the protocol upon waking up with your best friend's girlfriend in your arms. Vague memories of some of the excruciating cinema Penny has forced him to sit through indicate that there might be yelling in the near future. But she sits up, too, and regards him with a wry lift of her eyebrows, purse of her lips.

“Morning, Sheldon. Sleep well?”

“Considering that I had my sleeping quarters invaded...” Ah, yeah, this is still Sheldon.

“Hey, you were the one who started the cuddling here...”

Apparently, it wasn't cuddling. It was merely 'optimizing comfort by the method of shared body heat'. She watches him as he sits there, all eyes and elbows and slightly unshaven, nagging at her to buy some proper pyjamas, and she fights a sudden random urge to drag his arms back around her and just snuggle.

This is way too weird to be dealing with before coffee.

And when she says so, he sighs in an aggrieved manner, and instructs her firmly to keep her bare feet wrapped in the blanket, goodness knows what she traipsed in last night, and it's a good thing he's going to wash everything thoroughly when they return home, and she's been stealing his milk often enough for him to know how she takes her morning coffee, but don't think this sets a precedent, he simply doesn't want any more dirt dragged in, and talks his way into his shoes and a jacket and out of the tent, jamming his hat on as he goes.

Penny waits a startled moment, then wraps herself back in the covers, which are still warm, and waits for someone to bring her coffee in bed, which hasn't happened in forever.

0000000000

Leonard wakes up in an uncomfortable huddle. He'd fallen asleep over the book he'd started to read whilst waiting for Penny to come back after her snit fit. But he is cold and alone. The faintest stirrings of alarm, and he struggles out of his sleeping-bag, wincing, scrabbling for his glasses.

The kettle on the stove is hot, which means that Sheldon is awake. In fact, Leonard can hear voices...

“You should get yourself checked for Reynaud's Syndrome, woman, because you have very cold extremities...I'm not sure you should even be drinking caffeine.”

Penny's voice. From inside the tent.

“Just give me the coffee, Sheldon, or I'll put my cold extremities on your warm self again.”

“If you attempt to put your hands on my ribcage, we both run the risk of scalding from the resultant beverage spill. You've already violated my personal space enough.”

“Hey, you were the one using me as a hot-water-bottle, mister.”

Argh?

Leonard coughs loudly.

There is a pause, and then Sheldon's head appears.

“Good morning, Leonard.”

“You wanna catch me up?” The nonchalant tone doesn't quite come off.

“Since you obviously had some altercation with Penny last night, she elected to come and disturb me.” Sheldon huffs irritably. “She hogs the covers, and she has extremely cold feet, and she snores.”

“I do not.” Comes a protest from inside the tent.

“Excuse me, but I am the one who had to listen to you.” Sheldon ducks back inside, leaving Leonard standing there. “If I hadn't kept a good hold of you, you'd have kept me up all night with your cacophony.” His head appears again. “Leonard, Penny will need a warmer top than the thoroughly inadequate camisole she has.”

“Oh, it's okay, honey, I've got your 'Batman' hoodie...”

Sheldon squawks, disappears, reappears - “Hurry, Leonard!”, disappears again. Whereupon he can be heard demanding that Penny take his clothes off right now.

Leonard stands there for a moment longer. Bits of his brain are shorting out by now, because there is no possible way that that sentence does not sound bad. Then he goes back to his tent to find Penny's sweatshirt.

In their own tent, Raj and Howard stare at each other, eyes wide.

“Did we have some more funky cookies last night that I don't remember?”

“If we had, I hope we'd be hallucinating women in with us, not him.”

Chapter Text

Penny is terribly fond of Leonard...but she doesn't love him. Guilt in her for it, and so she overcompensates. She wants a nice guy for a change. Leonard treats her well, and he doesn't cheat on her or steal her stuff. And she knows she's not smart like the guys, like the other girls he's dated, has nothing else to bring but her looks. At least she can make him feel good about himself.

(Perhaps both of them are trying too hard, wanting this to be more than it is.)

She's not a quitter. Hell, she once finished a round of Junior Rodeo with a fractured wrist rather than get beat out by Cindy Hallstrom. It's pride and stubbornness and sheer grit. It's kept her in crappy apartments and dead-end jobs while she chases the dream. Keeps her from taking the easy route to parts, too. No 'jumping on the bed' for her, hell, no.

But. It has kept her with guys who treat her like crap, too, because she doesn't like to give up on the idea that it's all one way. Guys who wanted to date the cheerleader, the Prom Queen, Miss Junior Rodeo, the aspiring starlet.

(The hot blonde across the hall.)

Now she's facing him down – and she's taller than him, he's doing that trick of bouncing on his toes again.

“What was...that about, huh? You spent the night with Sheldon...?” Holding you, he wants to say, but the words stick in his throat.

“I spent the night in Sheldon's tent, because you were acting like a jerk.”

“But...Sheldon?” Leonard doesn't know whether to laugh or rant. Because if it was any other guy...

Fatally, he decides to grin. Penny glares. Sheldon does not deserve to be mocked.

“I could trust him to behave like a gentleman.”

Leonard blinks. Sniggers.

“Oh, come on, Sheldon doesn't even know how to behave like a person, Penny.”

“He looks out for his friends, Leonard. Because yeah, he can be total spaz at anything remotely social, and he sometimes says mean things, but he always comes through for me.”

(She knows that she woke up next to a perfectly normal guy this morning. But there are (many) things that Leonard Does Not Need To Know. And that is definitely one of them.)

Sheldon's fingers clutch in still-warm fabric as he anxiously examines his clothing.

“I am aware that I can be deficient in the areas of social interaction, and it is true that I don't care for your inane chatter about shoes. But then I am not the one hoping to engage in sexual congress with you, I do not need to feign interest.”

Oh, yeah, Sheldon doesn't pretend.

“Gee, thanks, Sheldon.” (And for some reason she doesn't understand, she feels a sense of...loss?)

Penny is done with this stupidity. She wants to get back to her apartment, her shower, away from whatever the hell all this is.

“Just...let's get out of here, Leonard. I've got a lunch shift today.”

Leonard, assuming that he is forgiven, goes blithely off to pack the tent. Penny sighs, turns to Sheldon.

He is still complaining that she's...stretched his hoodie, and she bites a laugh, because he's gesturing to demonstrate.

(Those long fingers, lingering on her skin. Yeah, she thinks about it, occasionally.)

Sheldon is a good friend. A very unlikely one, but - how many other guys could she ever trust to just...look out for her, without wanting payback? Oh, sure, he might want a ride to the store sometime, but he sure as hell doesn't ever expect anything else.

(Solid warmth the length of her back, and comfort, not constraint in that strong arm.)

He's fidgeting with his sleeves, frowning.

“As you know, human relationships baffle me. It is...not one of my areas of expertise, but...even to my eyes, there seems to be a vast gulf between the representation in classical media, and the reality, which merely seems to be an endless pursuit of coitus, and even then nobody appears to be content once they have achieved it.”

Representations in classical media?

“Are you a secret romantic, Sheldon Cooper?”

“I am a rational man of science, and I have no room in my life to consider such notions.” Which doesn't sound as much like a denial as he meant it to.

Penny bites her lip. No, Sheldon is not a horndog, he's the kind of guy who falls in love. One day, that beautiful mind is going to wake up to the fact that it lives in a rather cute body, and some lucky girl is gonna be swept off her feet. The fact that the package comes with a side order of seriously strange is just something she'll have to live with.

He squeaks as she advances on him.

“Penny...”

“Sheldon. After last night, the least you can do is return a little hug, okay?”

She feels him quiver, but he doesn't draw away. Awkward, angular arms flap helplessly, then nervously fit themselves around her.

“Sheldon...I'm sorry if I made you uncomfortable, but I trusted you not to behave like a pig.”

Sheldon has never had anybody ever assume that he even knows how to behave like a pig before.

He's never been comfortable in his body. It is merely a vehicle for conveying his brain, and a regrettably frail one. Susceptible to so many environmental factors, requiring sustenance and sleep, and inclined to break and burn and blister. His love of comics stems from the hours spent sitting reading in hospitals - he was forbidden from investigating anything after the incident with the defibrillator. But he was always a tall, skinny child, inadvertent destroyer of ornaments and household china, (whatever his father hadn't shot all hell out of, anyhow,) never quite gained the ease and control over his limbs that his siblings did. He has maintained it over the years, tended to the basic needs, seeks the parameters for optimal functionality, in matters of diet and circadian rhythms, attempts to assert his control over as many external factors as he can, but it is all mechanics.

Understands the fundamentals of biology, of course – he is a more highly evolved specimen of the breed, but he is still a human male - he has simply never quite seen how the basic act might relate to him.

(But then, he has never woken up with a girl in his arms before.)

He has never felt the desire to conduct any kind of physical act with a random female just to prove that he could, which seems to be the common modus operandi of his friends. With hindsight, there have been occasions where he has realised that he could have done so, had he wished.

But he hadn't wished. Has never wished. Has spent a lifetime ruthlessly quashing any notion that interferes with his work. Science does not mock the way he moves, his manner of speech, does not call him 'freak' or 'robot' or tell him to 'grow a goddam backbone, boy'. He can read the equations, calculate and predict the outcome, can take the world apart at the most fundamental level.

(He does not know how to cope with this.)

Penny fits very nicely under his chin, and his arms are the right length to fold right around her, and waking up this morning had been simultaneously bewildering, alarming and oddly...

(wonderful)

...confusing.

He's warm and surprisingly solid, and she could quite happily stand here and breath in the smell of him for hours and this is so wrong.

Gives him a final little squeeze, and lets him go.

“I understand that I have...inadvertently altered the paradigm of our physical interactions, but that doesn't meant that you can paw me indiscriminately.” He warns her.

“Oh, I wouldn't do that.” Smiles up at him in a way that makes him nervous. “I'll be very discriminating about when I paw you.”

She loves that expression on him. One part terror to two parts indignation.

(...it is only a tendril of quasi-thought, not even a proper cognitive process...)

…and just a hint of curiosity.

000000000000

Howard (who has never quite forgiven Leonard for Stephanie, and is still paranoid regarding Bernadette) grins horribly at him.

“Well, whaddaya know? I guess Mars does need women.”

“It's just Sheldon.” Leonard scoffs.

Raj, about to mention Sheldon's uncanny ability to actually attract women, spots the hug happening, and decides to keep quiet.

He'd been working with Sheldon for a few weeks before he realised that the lanky physicist was more than capable of running both projects in tandem. There are still times when Raj is left floundering in his wake – Sheldon is quite as brilliant as he thinks he is, after all. So Raj knows that there is no reason why Sheldon should have created the position, except out of friendship.

And he'd done it for someone who had endangered his job. Raj knows, though he is not sure if Leonard is aware, that Sheldon had shouldered the blame for the failure of the Arctic expedition. Whether that was expediency, because he had subsequently resigned and gone back to Texas, or something more, Raj doesn't have the nerve to ask. They simply...don't mention it.

Tempers had run high, nerves had been strained. Why Leonard, who had talked them into the thing in the first place, should have been the first to snap, is still a mystery, too. After all, he actually lives with Sheldon, knew what he was letting himself in for. But Howard had followed Leonard, and Raj had followed Howard. And looking back, Raj isn't quite sure if he was following the right friend.

Chapter Text

Leonard opens a bleary eye. Saturday morning, and it's Sheldon o'clock, judging by the muffled sounds. Except...that's Penny's voice. He fumbles for his glasses.

There's a seven foot chaos demon drinking tea in his kitchen, and there's a Barbarian Queen helping the Black Knight to strap on his armour in the middle of the living room.

The demon waves his mug in amiable greeting, and Penny looks round from where she's fussing with Sheldon's cloak.

“Morning, sweetie. Sorry if we woke you. Sven brought some armour over, and we're just checking the fit.”

It fits. Bits of Leonard's brain gibber at him. Black armour, black boots, black cloak, even black pants and tunic. Sheldon draws on a leather gauntlet, flexes his fingers. He looks like he's ready to start blowing up planets. Darth Cooper.

“What about the paint-ball game?” Leonard asks idiotically.

They both look at him, identical turns of the head, slightly raised eyebrows.

“Penny and I have made alternative plans today, obviously.” Sheldon settles his other glove. “Since nobody bothered to attend my Departmental Paint-ball briefing except Koothrappali, you have only yourselves to blame if the team comes up short.”

So casual about it. Penny had not mentioned the war-game again, Leonard had hoped that it was one-off, something they could forget and never repeat. And now the pair of them are setting off together. An alternative plan. A change in routine.

He's never really considered what Penny does in her spare time. Supposed that she does things with her girlfriends. (Or watches football.) Something...unsettling in watching her do something that is so much of their world. And taking Sheldon with her.

“We're going to have to make a move if we want to get decent parking.” Sven says, checking his watch. “Are you okay with the fit of the gear?”

“Perfectly satisfied, thank you.”

Penny does a little shimmy.

“Yep, not falling out of this thing in a hurry.”

“Oh, yes, the last item, as requested.” Sven fishes up a long, narrow box. Penny takes it, hands it to a surprised Sheldon.

“It's...a late Christmas present, Sheldon. Or an early birthday present, if you like. You ought to have your own.”

Sheldon opens the box, suddenly sure about what he will find. The black demonblade.

“It was quite customary for a knight to receive arms from his sovereign.” Sven says, cheerfully.

“So he gets to kneel and pledge his loyalty to you, then?” Leonard cracks.

Sheldon's head comes up.

“I have already pledged my allegiance.” he says, crossly. Leonard stares at him. So does Penny. Sheldon huffs. “Sheldor the Conqueror is the sworn Knight-Protector of Queen Penelope. I did tell you about battle-field oaths, were you not paying attention?”

Penny is charmed. Sven is amused. Leonard is terrified.

Sheldon holds his new blade up, regards it with narrowed eyes. Smiles.

“I shall smite many enemies for you with this, my Queen.”

“Hey, I wanna get some smiting in, too, you know.”

“Of course. But I hope that you will listen to my battle tactics this time.”

“You giving your Queen backchat, Sheldor? I could take that as treason...”

“Hardly. I'm trying to keep you alive. You have a lamentable tendency to leave your rearguard down...”

And they are all gone, Penny giving Leonard a rather absent peck on the cheek, and the distant sounds of happy bickering about the correct way to slay trolls floats up the stairwell. Followed by the sound of Mrs Vartabedian opening her door to see what the noise is, and screaming at Sven.

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It seems odd to be paint-balling without Sheldon's lanky figure dodging about somewhere in the vicinity.

“You've not brought Dr Dumbass today?” Leslie drops down beside him, pushes her mask up.

“He's...” Hunting orcs with my girlfriend. “...busy.”

“He's not picked up another groupie?” She grins.

...Leonard has never had a grad student bring him dinner.

“Oh, I've been meaning to tell you, since Elliot Wong went to Berkeley, we definitely need a new cellist for the quartet.”

“Wong went to Berkeley? Research grant?”

“Test subject.”

“Oh.”

She shrugs.

“One less competitor. The Academic Review Board is coming soon. After this last year's track record, maybe they'll finally get wise and dump the whackjob out.” Leslie hefts her gun, “Survival of the fittest. Talking of which, I'm gonna go frag me some engineers.”

She's gone, small, fast, predatory. Leaves Leonard with his thoughts.

If Leslie hadn't dumped Howard, then they would never have gone to Vegas, and there would be one less worm of doubt gnawing in Leonard's mind, and just maybe...

He had gone off to the Arctic in a state of confusion – so close to getting somewhere with Penny, and then dragged off to the frozen wastes (conveniently forgetting that he had accepted immediately, drawn by the idea of the prestige.)

Watching Sheldon bending the world around himself again, the way he always does, his routine, his experiments, trying to force existence itself to obey...

...and it wasn't his grant, his expedition, his recognition...

And then Sheldon had mentioned something about that time when they were away, something about staying in Penny's bed. And the armies of paranoia had marched, brought jealousy and stupidity with them. Logic tells him that Sheldon didn't, doesn't, wouldn't have the first idea, but logic doesn't stand a chance against the onslaught.

Penny is his, he saw her first, he'd been trying to make some headway for so long, got so close. And his big, gawky (rival?) friend...

Because Sheldon is taller, (can bond with Leonard's mother) and smarter, (has a mother who loves him), and he's been in Penny's bed, and all the confusion and (self) hatred boils over.

He has to make his mark, stake his claim, strike out, strike back, prove...something. (Though what, and who to, he really couldn't say.)

And he has buried the nagging little doubts, covered them up with sarcastic barbs, bolstered himself with alcohol and sex, because it was worth it, it really was, because he has Penny, and Sheldon got his job back, so no harm done, really, they just don't have to deal with it ever again. (and if it affects the rest of Sheldon's career, well, he shouldn't have boasted about it, brought it all upon himself really.)

Kripke's prank was harmless, it really was, because Sheldon was insufferable and rude and arrogant (and such an easy target), and they all got carpeted for that and their response, Sheldon and Kripke forced to shake hands and suspend hostilities. (because dumping foam on what you thought was just one guy really equates to humiliating a scientist nationally, nearly hospitalizing him.)

(...she always chooses him...)

...because screwing over your best friend out of jealous spite and frustration is so far from being the actions of the type of person Leonard believes himself to be – he's a nice guy, he really is – that it must be Sheldon's fault.

Because if he just thinks of the neurosis and the obsessions, the panic attacks and tantrums and psychotic rants...something, anything that reduces the man back into a freaky nutcase, then he can think of him as a nuisance, a nightmare.

And not a (threat) person, with devastation in his eyes, and betrayal in the lines of his face.

Chapter Text

When Beth had called up, asked if she was up for a little light slayage at the weekend, she'd not hesitated. And then she'd run into Sheldon at the mailboxes on her way in, and asked him if he wanted to come along to. She wasn't sure that she had actually expected him to ever say 'yes', but he had considered it for a few beats, and then asked which side they would be playing this time.

She knows she should ask Leonard, but really, he'd not enjoyed it, and she doesn't want to spend her day off listening to him complain. Not that Sheldon doesn't complain about stuff, but he's somehow easier to deal with – she can always talk him down from his crazy into acting like a person again. And he doesn't sulk about it, he's more likely to come back with something sharp and sometimes funny.

They have a complicated friendship, but they are friends. They piss each other off, get up in each other's business, make each other sick, there'll be strikes and shouting, and then he'll knock on her door wanting a lift, she'll need tech support, it'll be 'Halo' night or pizza or a new movie that they need to inflict on the other one, and there they are again, him nagging her to fold her clothes properly, and she, making him crazy by balling up his socks in deliberately mismatched pairs.

And now they are sitting on a hillside somewhere in southern California. Sheldon in open combat had been an eye-opener, but Sheldon given licence to hunt was a whole new form of scary. It had been a happy morning full of tracking; LARPers are less skittish than deer, and as Sheldon says, unlike alligators, they don't try and bite your leg off when you 'kill' them.

Sheldon's acute hearing picks up the sound of quiet footsteps. He motions to Penny, (strange, he had hated being dragged out hunting as a child, but he has not forgotten the hand signals) and she signals back, grins, wide and gleeful, and he feels his own mouth twitch in response.

He is unaccustomed to female company his own age. Growing up, the girls around him had been simply 'Missy's friends', and they didn't want anything more to do with her 'weird' brother, than he wanted to be bothered by them. There had been fewer girls at college, and he had not socialized with his classmates, all of them so much older.

But Penny had asked him if he wanted to come and participate in the day with her, and he had barely hesitated. He can spend the day in the company of people who barely tolerate him, who mock him, who denigrate him, who shoot him in the back and do not listen to his careful strictures. Or he can spend the day with Penny. Who does more than tolerate him, who still mocks him, but without malice, and who will turn and rend any other who tries it within her hearing. Here, he merely has to be with Penny, and somehow, that is enough to cause people to treat him with something warmer than impatient exasperation.

Here, he isn't Sheldon Cooper, PhD, armoured in ego and eccentricity and armed with his intelligence. He's Sheldor, and he's Queen Penelope's knight. She even gave him a sword. Leonard may have jeered, but Sheldon regards it as a right and proper thing. He is Penny's hero – in the mundane world, he can provide such things as his intellectual support, financial aid if she should need it, but here, he has a more primal role. The imprudent woman will charge into things without giving proper consideration to the consequences, and therefore someone has to watch her back. And occasionally wade in to chastise some particularly persistent annoyance.

Penny peers out, and her eyes widen. Oh, crap. Success has bred the inevitable consequence, the enemy making rough alliance.

Hauls him down abruptly, only surprise letting her do so, because that skinny frame is strong, and his squawk is stilled by her hand over his face, his eyes huge and outraged over her fingers. Her arm looped about his neck, the other hand clutching his arm, and she has to use her body to keep him from bolting, a kneeling crouch.

Moist heat, a rush of syllables in his ear, “toomanyshutup”. The hunters could easily become the prey, outnumbered as they are. So they must be still and silent.

Sheldon stops struggling, goes tense under her hands. Rolls his eyes at her in a way that suggests that there will be retribution later, all narrow and mean, but she feels his mouth close against her palm, huff of breath through his nostrils across her knuckles. Jumps a little when his hand lands on her knee, but he pushes her leg sideways, lowers himself further down. His other hand comes up, unpeels her fingers from his face.

She's nose to nose with an angry Sheldon, all sharp blue eyes and furious scowl, but his competitive instincts win out over his desire to yell at her, and they glare silently at each other, while the hunting party go past. (Her one hand lost in his, her weight across his back and her chin against his shoulder, his bicep hard under her touch, and his other hand forgotten against her thigh.)

Awareness of her prickles over his skin suddenly. She's so much closer than he ever lets people get, but there is no way to keep Penny at any kind of distance. She marches into his apartment, his room, his life.

He hates the way that she is with Leonard, that he parades her like a trophy, that they need to consume alcohol to achieve physical intimacy, that the mere thought of it makes him nauseous. Even though they now mostly stay over at her apartment, where he can no longer hear them. He has woken more than once, feels the emptiness of his own room around him. Shuts his mind most desperately against the pictures that he does not want, curse of eidetic memory.

He does not understand why it should be, that she annoys him, infuriates him, her chaos and disorder and prattling, and then when she is not around, the quiet pattern of his existence seems very small and cold.

It was never this way before she came into his life. She has disturbed the fixed routines of years, become part of them, pulled his neatly ordered world off course and settled it around herself.

He has tried algorithms, and charts, and all manner of data analysis. She defies every one of them, any attempt to impose order or rationality. She is less of a learning curve, and more like some wretched rollercoaster, speed and terror and unexpected turns, leaving him breathless and damp-palmed. She is simply chaos theory personified, bright butterfly wreaking havoc with one sweep of her delicate wings, as she flits through his world. Perhaps if he should one day find out how to quantify and measure the way her smile lights up the room, he might understand, could pin it down and dissect it and put it away in a neat file, return to his work.

But Penny is just...Penny. She touches his food, touches his things, touches him, and he is helpless. Since the camping trip, he has been wondering if (when) she will hug him again, telling himself (repeatedly) that he does not wish her to invade his personal space. And now this...close enough that her breath is in his ear, on his face, and part of his mind is shrieking to him about germs (and part of his mind calculates the subtle curve of lip and chin and cheekbone), hard edge of her armour jammed against his arm (soft warmth of Penny above it). He could stand up, stalk away, end this farce because it's a game, only a game, but...he stays, all nerves and temper, catecholamines cascading through him.

Penny wants to laugh suddenly, low and dirty, because she's pressed up against him in a very compromising way, and they are both wearing a worrying amount of leather, all sweat and muscles, and....they both look down. She's wearing long boots and a short tunic, and his hand has somehow alighted neatly between them. (A large, warm hand, fingers splayed across her pale skin.) There is a careful pause, and then he lifts it away, a hectic flush on his cheekbones. Sheldon, kneeling between her thighs (and oh, does that sentence ever sound wrong) the expression on his face, mix of classic guilt and utter confusion. So she grins at him, eyebrows raised, and he scowls, and it's just the sudden chill on her skin as he moves, really it is, that makes her breath catch.

(one instant of time where it isn't funny after all, but something more)

The danger has passed, and they are safe, and they can move again, slide away from each other. His grasp releasing, her arm sliding back across his shoulders, her weight lifting from his side, and they get to their feet together, Sheldon unfolding himself, and Penny scrambling up him. He growls (there really is no other word for that noise) and steadies her.

Sheldon smells, well, like a guy whose been running about in the open air for a few hours. But she likes that, honest, male sweat. (Unlike Leonard's occasional cologne, the one that reminds her somehow too much of home, lingering aroma of failure and resentment and not quite good enough.) Figures that she might be a little ripe herself.

“Oh, I'm looking forward to my bath later.”

“Hmph. A shower is far more hygienic.” He twitches. “Sitting in your own dirty water – you might as well go bathing down the creek.”

Bless him, he is so very predictable. She doesn't imagine Sheldon ever relaxing in a tub - he doesn't do relaxation. (Though her brain promptly throws up an image of him sitting in a hip-bath, in a stetson, very 'Maverick'.) She giggles, and he looks at her quizzically, which makes her giggle even more.

“You never went bathing in a creek in your life, Sheldon Cooper.”

He sets his jaw.

“I most unfortunately did. It was not of my own free will, I hasten to add.” Glowers darkly.

Pick their careful way down the hillside back to camp, quiet and stealthy, and it is purely safety reasons that cause them to catch hands occasionally on the path.

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Relaxing back at camp with Beth, a welcome cup of coffee, and fixing her make-up, (Sheldon won't notice or care, but Queen Penelope has standards, dammit) she finishes pinning up her hair, and looks around, suddenly worried. Beth grins.

“Relax, they went off on a manly quest after cookies. Sven's probably bending Sheldon's ear about his plans to build a catapult.” She rolls her eyes. “Luckily, he doesn't have the first idea how...”

“Sheldon will.” Penny speaks with grim certainty. “Those guys build killer robots for fun.”

Sure enough, Sheldon is in the centre of a interested group of men, sketching on the floor with a stick. Some of them are making notes.

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“...still don't see why we couldn't continue our discussion on siege engines.”

“Because I'm not letting you go build a catapult in Sven's garage.”

“We were planning on a trebuchet. It has greater accuracy.”

“You're not going to build war machines.”

“It would add greater depth and realism to the simulation.” he tries, hopefully.

No, Sheldon.” The really scary part about this is that she just knows that various other women are having exactly the same conversation around her, scolding husbands and boyfriends.

“I'm a physicist, Penny, my calculations would ensure...” Subsides under her look, “Well, fine, then.”

Considerations of 'dangerous' and 'illegal' have never stopped Sheldon before, when he is pursuit of something, she knows. But outright prohibition from her, because she says so, seems to have effect.
He looks a little mutinous, but gets into the car.

They spend the journey home swapping stories of lasers and tractor engines, cat scanners and go-karts, exploding toy ovens and pumpkin chunkin' contests. Despite the crazy science, the childhood around it means things to Penny, and she finds herself thinking that she has more in common with his tales of squabbling with his sister that she does with those frankly terrifying tales of Leonard's.

It is the off-hand way he brings out the scraps of inhumanity, that make her want to look after him. The coldness, the lack of anything approaching what she can think of as love – (And she blinks away the remembrance of the woman raping Sheldon's face, twist of guilt in her) - explains how pathetically grateful Leonard is for any affection.

Well, his family may have loved Sheldon, but they didn't understand him. Looks sideways at him as he enthusiastically babbles on about something. Then again, nobody understands Sheldon. You get kinda used to him after a while, but he really is tuned to a different frequency. Any other guy (and yeah, she does include Leonard) would react to her being close to him so much. And Sheldon does, but it's like...not all the lights are on.

Of course, running about and hitting people with toy weapons isn't exactly normal (still hasn't admitted to her friends – some of her other friends - where she was going, and who with) but seeing him actually smiling, she realises that she hasn't seen him do that for a while. He's all tightly wound tension, face and body, and the few times the spring has come unwound a ways, it hasn't been comfortable, more like watching an oncoming twister than anything. He's not a middle-gears kinda guy.

She rather admires the way he's so into stuff – sure, it can be totally embarrassing at times, because he really has no idea about boundaries or sarcasm or basic rules, even – but all that passion, that focus, sweeps you along with it, and she knows that she does stuff to him, for him, sometimes, just to see, to keep, that spark in him. She'll put up with the weird little rules, the ones she can't bend or break or talk him out of, and the general crazy, because sometimes, when they are doing whatever, bickering, laundry, hunting frickin' orcs, even, she doesn't feel like she's trapped, or failing, or not good enough, she's just...Penny. And she's Sheldon's friend. Yeah, he thinks she's stupid, but then he thinks everyone is stupid, it isn't because she's blonde, or didn't finish college, or because none of her family have degrees and fellowships out the wazoo. She just is, to him, and she doesn't have to be anything else.

00000000

Kyle is working the evening shift at the gas-station, bored out of his skull, and doodling on his homework. He's kinda freaked out when a couple in matching armour come through the door, wonders if he's gonna get either robbed or punk'd. The sexy blonde swaggers around, all curves and thigh-boots, the tall guy stalking after her. It's a rapid conversation, demons and flavours of ice-cream and engine lights, and Kyle is gaping at her legs when the tall guy glares at him, and shoves his card over the counter. Kyle wonders what the hell kind of doctor he is, but by the time he's put the card through the machine, the guy has got hold of his notebook, and is correcting things and tutting. The blonde yelps at him, takes the book away again, all wide smile and apologies, and Kyle would forgive her anything. Then they are gone again, a last swish of cape, and something about 'nearest integer functions' cut off by her pushing him firmly out of the door.

Man, Kyle thinks, some people have some really freaky bedroom games going on. Wonders what they are actually gonna be doing with that ice-cream.

Chapter Text

Sheldon is looking forward to an afternoon of nothing more exacting than doodling about with some Yang-Mills instantons. But it's 'Anything Can Happen' Thursday, and Penny ambushes him, and announces that she's cooking dinner. In his kitchen. Which is unsupportable, anathema, not happening...

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The clerk in the grocery store blanches a little when Sheldon breezes through the door. This isn't his usual shopping day, after all, they were probably feeling quite relaxed, only worrying about possible armed hold-ups, not the crazy guy smelling all the tomatoes and demanding to know the exact temperature of the chill cabinet.

She reckons that Sheldon is on an alert list someplace –

...A darkened room, a lit screen, and a hush falling over the crowd.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please make a careful note of this face. If this man should enter the premises, this is a Code Red. On no account should you allow the subject to engage in debate, or allow him to approach other customers. Do not under any circumstance allow him near either the computer terminals or the sanitary facilities. Is this understood? The subject's name is Doctor Sheldon Cooper..."

Sheldon always shops with a list, written out in the order that the things appear on the shelves, (and which he never actually needs to refer to,) and it can be a quick process, if she can prevent him stopping to explain everything to her. She's getting a potted history of the pizza, the reason tomatoes are botanically speaking a fruit, and not a vegetable, and he's onto some involved and kinda revolting story about pepperoni...She's never known anyone who talks as much as Sheldon does, keeps a bright, interested smile on her face, and a firm hand between his shoulder-blades, steers him onwards. Getting quite good at this now, the way her fingers span across his back, right amount of pressure to encourage him on, not enough to make him dig his heels in.

Her 'phone goes, and she has to tuck it between her shoulder and her ear,

“Oh, hi, Mom...no, I'm getting some groceries...Sheldon, can you get the jar, I can't reach it? Thanks, honey...yeah, sorry, I was just...” Bites her lip, “Yeah, that's the one, Mom,” Rolls a slightly guilty eye, “My really smart friend.” Hopes that his freaky hearing hadn't picked up her mother's actual description – 'that nutbag neighbour of yours.'

Sheldon has heard, but hearing Penny describe him as her friend salves the sting, and he appreciates her use of flattery as diversionary tactic. Aware from his own experience of how long a maternal discourse can take, he is going to step away out of earshot, but Penny, misinterpreting the move, and very unwilling to let him roam free without supervision, tightens her hand into a grasp on his shirt.

“...yeah, well, I said she should leave the guy years ago...yeah, I know I don't know a thing about it...no, Mom, I don't think that's likely...”

Sheldon, standing there, holding the basket of groceries, and looking mildly offended that she is crumpling his clothing. She wonders if his mother ever nags him about settling down, or if she saves that for her other kids, resigned to her odd son following his own goofy little star. Smoothes out the material under her fingertips, apologetic face.

“...I gotta go, we're nearly at the checkout, love to you and Pop, huh? 'kay...”

Sheldon's eyebrows rising at the obvious untruth, but she glares, and he shuts his mouth. Penny drops the phone back into her pocket, whoosh of breath.

“You lied to your mother, Penny.”

“Do you wanna explain to her that I'm not giving her perfect grandbabies any time soon?” (Rubbing her eyes, misses a sudden look of startled revulsion that flits across Sheldon's face.) “My brother's a mess, my sister's marriage is falling apart, so they want me to be the one to get it right.”

Sheldon holds out a hand.

“I will certainly call her and give her the statistical unlikelihood of you producing physically perfect progeny within the near future. Whilst you are at a peak of fertility, and possess many of the attributes that would go towards fulfilling the physical ideal, your present...partner and presumed candidate for the task, whilst possessed of a certain intellectual capability to bring to the equation, is short, lactose-intolerant, inclined to male pattern baldness and has an Oedipal fixation. And since at this time, we do not have the technology to 'cut and paste' the genome...”

Penny pulls her jaw shut, gives him a little shove to get him moving.

“...I think I preferred it when you were going on about boiling the pig's heads, Sheldon.”

Sheldon thinks he does, too. (Under his hand, the plastic handle of the basket creaks.) Whilst not averse to the idea of offspring in the abstract, the thought of Penny and...his mind skates away from picturing the scenario. Wonders if there was something a little 'off' in the burger he had for lunch, as his stomach lurches.

And Penny, still steaming in mild embarrassment and confusion, doesn't register the phrase 'physical ideal' until she is bagging the groceries, and by that time, Sheldon is having a disagreement (in Spanish) about coupons with the cashier.

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She'd always thought he'd be one of those sci-fi nuts who were all for food pills, but he's the one that owns the few cook-books, and they have a surprisingly good range of kitchenware, makes her ask,

“Why don't you guys cook real food more often?”

She's expecting some long rant, but Sheldon simply says,

“It becomes inconvenient when there are so many dietary factors to accommodate.”

She thinks on it, nods. Yeah, because Raj doesn't like really spicy food, goes through phases of renouncing meat, Howard is intermittently kosher and totally allergic to peanuts, and Leonard – well, she'd never had to consider how much stuff had corn or lactose in it before. Sheldon doesn't appear to have actual health issues with eating anything, though, just general Sheldon-y weirdness. Still finds it interesting that a man so supposedly germ-fearing will eat so much take-out and cafeteria food, but she's not ever gonna say that.

He still makes her wash her hands about four times, actually inspects her nails, before he'll let her touch anything.

0000000

He's the better baker, she has to admit, with his precise weights and measures and method, and he doesn't cover himself in flour. She's watching him make the pizza crust, and there's something kinda hypnotic in those long, strong fingers kneading the dough, his sleeves rolled neatly back, corded muscles in his forearms. Drags her eyes away.

“I used to bake with my Nonna when I was small.” she says, suddenly. “I had to stir every cake, or it wouldn't come out right...”

Sheldon, about to point out the inherent idiocy of that assumption, finds himself saying instead,

“Meemaw useta let me cut out cookies...”

Such a normal thing, and she can imagine him, skinny, serious little boy. This is a part of his childhood that holds no pain, his face softens as he recalls it, his accent surfacing with fond memory, not stress. Penny thinks that she'd like to meet this woman, the one who calls him 'moon-pie' and who taught him to make that awesome zucchini bread. Hell, now she knows that Sheldon can bake, and seems to enjoy it, he's gonna be her go-to guy. Forget unsolicited gifts as conversational gambit, she's gonna see what he can do with cupcakes.

Sheldon, unaware that he has sold himself into culinary servitude, carefully puts a clean towel across the bowl of dough, and sets the timer.

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He wears safety goggles to chop the onion, minces it machine-blade fine with crisp strokes of the knife, while she chases freshly-skinned tomatoes around on her chopping-board. Gleefully crushes the garlic with an actual press – she usually hits it with a knife-blade, but Sheldon has a proper gadget – while he picks and shreds basil – never chop it, turns it black, oxidisation and blah blah science, and she tunes that out just to watch his precise fingers at work, deft and clever.

Sheldon follows recipes as if they are carved in stone. Penny adapts, experiments.

“If you don't taste it, how do you know it's okay?”

“If you are following the recipe, with no deviation, then the results should be consistent.”

“Just try the sauce, Sheldon.”

She holds the spoon out to him, hand held to catch the drips. And he very distrustfully takes a cautious peck at it.

He nearly has a coronary when she tastes off the spoon, too, and then goes to stir the sauce again.

They get through quite a lot of spoons.

She finds herself entranced by watching him knock back the dough, pushing it out to the edges of the pizza tin, all firm knuckles and strong strokes from the heel of his palm, and what is wrong with her?

Penny slathers sauce over the crust, with scant regard for equitable distribution, and how she doesn't manage to get it all over herself, Sheldon cannot fathom. It's like watching Jackson Pollock at work. Except he's not sure that the artist ever shook his hips to a slightly off-key rendition of 'A Little Less Conversation'. Her bright grin.

“Dance with me, Sheldon.”

“I don't dance.”

“C'mon.” She gets that look that means she's going to try and score a point. “Richard Feynman knew how to samba.”

Sheldon blinks at her. Okay, she scored that one. Penny looks smugly back. He sighs.

“You will not leave me alone until I accede to your requests, will you?”

“Do I ever?”

Turns out that he can dance, he just chooses not to. Unless forced. She shouldn't be surprised by now, the things that Sheldon does know. But watching him reluctantly shake his booty is something she's not quite prepared for, both of them singing along to the radio as they wash up.

He finds himself wondering when her voice stopped grating across his nerves.

She finds herself wondering what those hips would be like if she ever got him juiced again, and put on a little party music.

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They both chirp a bright “hello” to Leonard as he comes through the door, and stops short.

Co-ordinated rhythm in it, the two of them grooving along, something that sounds like country rather than a sea shanty this time, Sheldon chopping ingredients with neat precision, and handing them to Penny, who arranges them with cheerful abandon. Something smells really good.

Tells himself that this is a good thing, that his room-mate and his girlfriend are getting along now. That this is the first time that Penny has cooked for him, that has to be a positive thing, right?

Penny, struggling to open a jar of olives, growls with frustration, and Sheldon scoops the jar out of her hands, opens it with an effortless twist. Penny promptly steals one, and Sheldon, opening his mouth to protest, finds himself being fed.

She hadn't thought she'd get away with it, had done it before she really thought, too tempted by that open mouth to resist. His face...

He, Sheldon Cooper, accepting food from another's hand? Never. But Penny is swift and devious, and gets the olive past his defences. He is forced to ingest the offering, so as to chastise her for it.

She just fed him. Penny just put an olive in Sheldon's mouth. And he ate it.

Leonard rubs his eyes, wonders if he drove through a Trek-style spatial anomaly on the way home without noticing.

But no, that is definitely Sheldon, scolding her for her theft, and fussing over the exact placing of the pepperoni slices. Penny simply steals another olive, and smirks at him, black orb between her own teeth.

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The pizzas are really good, and there is a scary similarity to their smug expressions.

Howard (“Cheese and pepperoni? A double score again.”) has invited Bernadette, and they are feeding each other bites of pizza. Leonard would do the same with his cheese-free ham and olive, but Penny is troughing through the cheese version, strings of mozzarella everywhere. Raj, even more subdued than normal, even after a glass of wine, surreptitiously picks mushrooms off his slice, vainly hoping to evade the eagle-eyed gaze of the other cook. Luckily, Sheldon is too busy juggling a loaf of garlic bread out of the oven to do more than glare and grumble mildly.

You could kill a vampire with the smell alone. Howard, ever hopeful, declines the passion-killer, but Leonard watches another slice of the horror disappear between Penny's perfect lips, and tosses back the remains of his second glass of wine.

It is a good thing, Sheldon and Penny getting along, she's making an effort to deal with him. If he tells himself that often enough, has another glass of wine, he can forget that little twist inside, that feeling of intruding when he came through his own front door.

Chapter Text

Sometimes, the loneliest place in the world is lying in bed next to someone...

Some days, she's just tired. Tired of waiting tables, tired of slogging up four flights of stairs because the elevator is still out of order after three freakin' years, tired of nothing on her voicemail but small-town gossip and sorry, not today.

And some days, she's tired of the fact that no-one seems to notice that she's pasting her smile on, that she doesn't actually feel like sex, she just wants someone to hold her.

But they don't cuddle. Not that sort of couple. Actually, some days, it doesn't feel like they are any sort of couple at all, wrapped in their own worlds, nothing touching but their bodies. He never asks about her day, she doesn't understand his. Some days, they don't share anything but a bottle of something, and she lies there, with him pounding away, making the right noises at the right times, and thinking is this what her acting classes are worth?

It's not that the sex is bad. But it's not good, either. It doesn't set her world on fire, or make her smile at silly intervals during the day just thinking about him. Instead, dull flare of guilt in her when she feels irritated. Little things, that she can't seem to overlook, or find the time for. And she should be able to.

After all, she finds the time to take detours to avoid Euclid, or order the damn chicken to be diced.

'Comfortable' and 'convenient' are not words you want to use to describe your relationship.

Her mother is delighted that she's dating a doctor – 'you won't do better, Pen, you hold onto him', her sister has broken up three times with her husband, has three kids to show for it, band-aids over the cracks, and they pretty much gave up years ago, when even their rows had a tired, scripted feel, her brother never even sees his son, his girlfriend got clean and moved back to St Louis. Her father...she wonders at what point he gave up on her, the long slide into disappointment. He'd have been happier if she'd made the team, not cheered it on, and she'd gotten really pretty when she was about fourteen, traded in the practice time for parties, books for boys. She was popular.

She wants to say to the world 'Look, see me, Penny.' Trying to disentangle her own dreams from other people's expectations, running to the big city with Kurt. He was gonna make it as a stuntman, and she was gonna be a star.

Well, Kurt ended up working the door at a club, most nights, nearest he gets to the big players, and she ended up waiting tables. 'If it hasn't worked out by now, hon...' her mother's voice, sweet and tired, 'you can always come home, you know.'

But. When she thinks of 'home' now, there is a double-vision. The house she grew up in, her family, there, and her apartment here, posters and clutter...and somehow, a brown leather couch has made its way into the picture.

The guys think she watches 'Firefly' for Captain Mal, and they're not quite wrong, but...she gets Kaylee. She's not the perfect, beautiful one, or the Amazonian warrior-woman, or the ass-kicking waif-genius. She's pretty and fun and she enjoys the life she has, even if some of it isn't quite what she expected it to be, and she wants...a nice guy, someone better than she's had before. And every time Simon says something that puts down what Kaylee does, where she comes from, Penny winces in sympathy. Because that's her, running from a small town life to go see the stars.

Pilgrim had been Penny's first pony. He was already old when she was big enough to be put up on his back, both her brother and sister had out-grown him. Her father, not good with words, blustering, her mother trying to soften the blow for an angry, frightened eight-year-old. Pilgrim was tired, and it was kinder to let him go... And the veterinarian, cutting through the confusion, a sad task he had performed before. If she let him keep struggling on, there would be pain and indignity in it.

It had still felt like betrayal, that last handful of sugar, and crying into his mane as the half-blind and grizzled head butted at her. (Realisation when she was older, that her parents had according him the respect of the vet, and not a mere shotgun, but at the time, she had hated the man, mostly because he had made sense, and Penny never liked the truth when it was something she didn't want to hear.)

Perhaps she has spent too much of her life since, nursing on the halt and the lame. Trying to convince herself that while there was no actual pain, everything was okay.

She doesn't want to be alone. Has always thought that 'alone' equals lonely. She's not good at that. Nobody should be lonely. (Wonders if that's why she persists in bugging Sheldon, battering at the walls around him. Something in that smug self-sufficiency that annoys her, something in the glimpses of vulnerability beneath that makes her want to take the clockwork apart, find the heart.) Leonard holds her with tales of funereal chocolate cake, iceberg chill of a world ruled by formulae and a hunger for affection. She does not wonder that his father sought someone warmer. Still thinks that the hugging machine is the saddest thing she has ever heard in her life.

Wonders if this is what all relationships are like, really. Slow slide into compromise, forgiving the little things. She's not shallow, really, she isn't, complex guilt in her over the feeling that Leonard should be happier that she is going out with him, except they don't go out much, and when they do, it's all edges and tension, and she shouldn't feel so irritated – after all, she's nearly been arrested because of Sheldon, and they've been escorted out of malls and off of lots, banned from restaurants, and she still takes him shopping.

Leonard turns away in his sleep, hunched shoulder and taking the covers, breathy little snort that makes her grit her teeth. It's not even proper snoring, just a faint, irregular popping of breath, and once you hear it, you can't ignore it, waiting for the next one.

Slides out of bed, and thinks she'll make herself a drink. Taste of wine sour on her tongue still, she wants something sweet. Of course, there's no real milk in the 'fridge, just a carton of that disgusting soy stuff, so she tightens the belt on her robe, and slinks across the hall.

Freezes when she opens the door.

She doesn't have Bernadette's fancy science talk, she just knows that lack of sleep makes him crazy, but he won't leave a problem when he has his teeth into it. She doesn't know whether the stubbornness is a science thing, or just a man thing.

Sheldon, hunched in front of his laptop, praying mantis poised to strike, and the corners of her mouth lift at the image. Brushes her finger lightly on the all-too-tempting nape of his long neck in passing, because it makes him spider crossly, all startled yelp and icy glare.

“Penny, I do not understand your fascination with my lower cervical vertebrae.”

He has...temporarily retreated on the point of giving her strikes for touching his person. The process has little to no effect on her, she has blithely disregarded these things in the past.

(she may take notice this time, and cease.)

He graciously accepts her bribe of cocoa, relaxing his own rule about not ingesting liquids at night, since he does not intend to sleep until he has solved this wretched conundrum. (She has not yet realised that there is always an extra carton of milk in the 'fridge, now, his contingency reserve against the Penny predation.)

She moves in the corner of his eye, as he prowls between white-board and laptop. Subdued chink of spoon on china as she mixes the cocoa, milk in the small pan, squeak of marker on board, tap of keys.

She should go back to her own bed. But she really thinks she might try to smother Leonard if she has to listen to him...popping in his sleep. So she sits on the couch, feet curled under her, in what she has come to think of as her spot, and watches Sheldon work, instead.

Wants to ask him, How do you do it, Sheldon? How do you turn off your feelings, cut yourself off from people? (Why?) But he will look at her, with those big confused eyes, clueless and innocent. And part of her wants to lash out, to hurt him, for that sweet, dumb naivety, for being clean and untouched and out of the whole mess.

She won't understand the answers, but she asks him anyway, and absently, he talks, at home and at peace in more dimensions than most people know of, greeting sub-atomic particles like old friends, and she finds herself smiling at the enthusiasm in his voice, eyes hooded as he sips from his mug, surveys his equations, the curve of his spine as he leans forward, graceful sweep of his hand as he captures and maps the universe in ink.

The darkened world is nothing but a Taos hum, when enlightenment comes, and he makes a last, swift dart at the board, victory.

Penny has long since gone to sleep, curled on the couch, her head on his striped cushion.

Goes to wake her, and then his hand stills. Arousing Penny from sleep is a task always fraught with peril, does not know whether to cover his nose, his throat or his genitals. So he tucks the comforter round her instead, and sits in the armchair, a spot from where he can contemplate both his whiteboard, and the sleeping woman.

He is no expert on human emotion, far from it, and he will admit to that, but even he can see the difference between her bright beam, and that thin, brittle smile that leaves her eyes tired.

He has always predicted that their parody of a relationship would limp on, fuelled only by alcohol, lust and bone-headed stubbornness. The inevitable messy end will bring no peace, no sense of satisfaction. Social convention suggests that he should side with his room-mate, his friend, endure the self-pity, offer platitudes.

But – Penny is his friend, too. Will he be expected to cut her from his life? Somehow, the idea of returning to the old, comfortable routines does not hold the savour it once did. He has become accustomed to her presence within his life.

He would miss her.

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She wakes, a little cramped, and slightly puzzled for a moment. This is not her bed, but it is not unfamiliar territory either. And the long khaki-clad legs are familiar, too.

He's not folded into the chair this time, he has apparently gone to sleep sitting bolt upright, but sleep has caused his legs to sprawl a little, his head to tilt. Faint shadow on his jaw, smudges under his eyes, and there is something endearing about seeing that smooth perfection rumpled and human. The tension in his face loosens in sleep, and he looks young, peaceful.

Bends, presses a swift, soft kiss to the top of his forehead, hastens back to her own bed.

Chapter Text

“Where's Leonard?”

“Pursuing some ultimately futile endeavour within his laboratory, I would imagine.” Sheldon doesn't even glance up from his laptop.

“You're kidding, right?”

“I never joke about the futility of Leonard's work. It is ultimately derivative and a mere reproduction of existing results.”

“I mean, about him still being in his damn lab.”

“Why shouldn't he be? He is, after all, a scientist. Of a sort.”

“You think I dressed up like this for fun?”

He blinks at her, then.

Of course, she thinks. This is Sheldon. She could dress in garbage bags and paint her face green, and he probably wouldn't notice, unless she got his burger order wrong.

Sheldon takes in the short dress (the rich colour compliments her skin, though the angry flush on her face clashes with her make-up), the precise curtains of blonde hair (not as aesthetically pleasing to his eyes as when she wears it naturally) and the heels (which put her nearer his eye level, but would cause her to tower over Leonard.)

“Your posterior dimensions are quite in proportion.” he hazards.

“What?”

“No, your bottom does not look big.” Sheldon clarifies. “Is that not the correct exchange at this juncture?”

“Huh?” Penny puts her hand to her eyes. “Sheldon, Leonard and I were supposed to be going to a party tonight. I've been waiting over in my apartment for half an hour.”

“It is not my job to remind Leonard of his social obligations.” Sheldon grumbles.

In truth, he and Leonard do not speak very often at the moment. He and Raj travel to and from the campus together most of the time, now, and he usually does his grocery shopping with Penny. They still eat together in the cafeteria, but meal-times are increasingly fraught, the incessant boasting of the amatory exploits tedious enough to drive him to reciting the digits of pi in his head instead. He has been through the Room-mate Agreement, and his Friendship Algorithm, correlating data, and there are points that trouble him greatly...frowns at his screen again.

Penny seethes. Because, yeah, this is some kind of big deal. These are her friends, and sure, they aren't busy exploring the depths of the frickin' universe, but she moved a couple of big-tipping shifts to clear this evening, making an effort to take Leonard to meet them. Sure, it hadn't gone too well last time, and she's kinda worried about him dancing anyplace, but she's got to get over that, right, because he's her boyfriend, and they are supposed to do stuff together.

Glares at the oblivious dark head bent over his screen. Either she's been sniffing his damn marker pens, or crazy is catching, because the idea hits her...

“Maybe...you could come with me?” Okay, crazy is definitely catching.

“You need me to be your wingman?” Confusion in his face.

Grits her teeth, then realises she doesn't need to lie to him.

“No, Sheldon. I need you to be my...escort.” Sighs. “I don't want to turn up on my own, I'll be a target for every drunken ass there.”

Though Sheldon has always thought that this was the point of these primitive ritual gatherings, he finds that the notion makes him oddly uncomfortable.

“You really think that my presence would be a deterrent?”

Which apparently Penny takes as assent. She's already heading towards his room.

“Now, do you actually have any decent clothes...what am I saying?”

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There follows a short and heated debate, with Penny digging through his closet like a maddened terrier. She realises that she has been itching for the chance to dress him up. He's probably the least disastrously dressed of them all anyway, doesn't bulk in his layers or wear inappropriately tight pants, and it turns out that he does own some jeans, honest-to-god blue denim, still stiff and new. He puts up a spirited defence of his hideous jacket, but is outflanked by a sudden pounce and grab. (Something terminal will be happening to that plaid monstrosity – it has a date with some scissors and a bottle of bleach.) Turns out he does have a decent suit, bought for Church, and thus put to the back of the closet and never worn. The style is a little dated, but the colour is good.

Abuse heaped upon inoffensive garments, a desperate rearguard action foiled...utter defeat at the hands of an unscrupulous woman. Sheldon, made aware that she will attempt to dress him if he doesn't do it himself, shoos her out momentarily and they continue grumbling at each other through the door. He asks himself why he is doing this, and has no rational explanation other than...because Penny has asked him to. Does not understand why that should be. Angry with Leonard all over again, for his thoughtless actions.

It would not have occurred to him to take a pair of jeans and pair them with the vest from his old Sunday suit, or to wear one of his decent dress shirts without a tie. (Small act of rebellion, he puts his 'Superman' tee on under the shirt.) Pulls open his door and scowls at Penny.

Sheldon Cooper, dressed like a grown-up, dark colours, all charcoal and slate and navy. Penny had hoped for half-way human, but he looks...good. (And oddly enough, he's still recognisably Sheldon, fidgeting with unaccustomed shirt-cuffs.) She's not gonna be embarrassed by turning up with him. What he does then might need some negotiation...

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She ends up driving. Sheldon and cabs are not a match made anyplace but the far side of hell, and she needs him to be in a good mood, spends the short journey briefing him on what's expected. The upside of his literal-mindedness is that you can tell him things, and he doesn't get offended.

“...just try to be polite. Don't call anybody a menial or a bonobo or a caveman, okay?” Eyes him. “And don't go asking for anything freaky to drink. There's gonna be beer, maybe some soda.”

Sheldon nods, but looks faintly disgusted. Penny huffs.

“What is your big deal about drinking, anyhow?”

“Cirrhosis of the liver is a terrible thing to witness.” His voice is very tight, and he doesn't elaborate any further. But Penny is not stupid. Terrible guilt in her - the faint idea she had of spiking his drink and making him dance withers under the cold wash of shock.

“If you just hold a bottle, nobody will try and give you another one. It's...like a stage prop.”

“Ah.” Sheldon's frown clears. “Protective coloration, camouflage, if you will...” And he's away.

Well, whatever works for him. She comes in with the guy, makes her point, and then she can catch up with her girlfriends, dance a bit, and he can lurk in a corner, talk to the frickin' houseplants if he likes.

They hear the party before they see it, heavy bass pumping out, and a brightly-lit window showing movement and strobing light. Sheldon blinks, twitches, but follows Penny up the stairs.

“Try and look a bit more enthusiastic...no, don't smile.” She shudders. Gives him one last dubious look, wonders what she's even thinking, doing this. But she hasn't been to one of Tammi's parties for – not since last summer, if she thinks on it, and what happened to the last few months?

“Hey, girlfriend.” Tammi gives her a hug. “Where've you been?”

(Tammi is absolutely gonna be the next Beyonce. Until then, she works a day-job in a boutique, and scrapes the odd gig as a backing singer and dancer.)

Where has she been? Still schlepping to auditions, still juggling shifts, still holding up her end of a relationship. Tammi peers over her shoulder, then up.

“New boyfriend?”

It's on the tip of Penny's tongue to explain that no, he's just a friend, when she realises that that will just declare open season on him – though she's not sure who she's protecting from whom, when she gives a non-committal grin and shrug.

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It's a regular party. Mostly girls dancing, and a few guys who have either been hauled out by their girlfriends, or are hopeful. Some of them can't hit the beat with a big stick, but the vibe is good, everybody just buzzed enough.

Penny is taking a break from dancing, and some girl she barely knows slurs in her ear about how much nicer this new guy is, rather than that short annoying one. (Her name's Sondra, she came to watch the game with Denny.)

Tammi rolls her eyes.

“She's two drinks past honest and heading towards asshole. But I gotta agree – this one is cuter.”

If she tells Tammi that that is 'Crazy Hamburger Guy', about half the weirdness that makes up the rest of her life, the reason she doesn't go dancing on Wednesday evenings so much, that she spends most of her Saturdays off with him, doing the weirdest war-games, laundry or, lord help her, sci-fi marathons...how does she even begin to explain Sheldon to someone, and why she puts up with him?

But this evening, Sheldon looks like an average guy – in fact, looking at some of the drunken mess around her, he looks considerably better than the average guy, and he's making the effort, for her. She doesn't have to worry that he'll leave with someone else, or will throw up someplace, or get into a fight...pauses on that last thought and looks around hastily.

His height is a definite advantage, he's easy to find in a crowd. Sheldon is standing over by the wall, and he appears to be debating quite earnestly with a couple of the guys. He's actually listening to them, even if he looks like he's not agreeing, and nobody looks like they are gonna slug him.

He's turned his sleeves back to the elbows, arms folded, 'prop' bottle still in his hand, tall and lean and serious, eyes hooded as he considers. For the first time, she sees him as a man, then, not an overgrown man-child. It's not just the clothes.

Oh. Sheldon Cooper is kinda hot. When the hell did that happen?

She likes that Sheldon never feels the need to apologise about what he likes, that he does his own thing, all the comics and weird tv and goofy toys. But she tends to forget that he's a big player in his world because of it, sometimes. That's the face of a man who is one of the foremost scientists in his field. In this room full of wannabe's and AMW's, he's the grown-up, the guy with a career and prospects.

Which is the kind of thought that really hurts her brain.

Wonders who she's rescuing, when she fetches up by the little group. She's expecting something geeky, but the reality is even stranger. He's discussing… football. But Todd and Jez and Ben are nodding, and Todd gives her a gentle nudge.

“Your guy knows his game.” (This from Todd. Woah.)

“I'm from Texas.” Sheldon says. “It's...non-optional.”

He's pleasantly surprised to find that Penny's friends are not as stupid as he had feared. He has avoided the obviously inebriated, found a relatively non-contentious topic of discussion, and despite the lights and the noise, has managed a reasonable debate on the statistical likelihood of whose gettin' their sorry asses kicked this year.

Penny has a sudden mad picture of Sheldon and her father geeking out over baseball stats. That would be a sight.

Backs right off, and leaves them wrangling over some obscure rule (and she realises she might even back Sheldon to win.)

Wonders what she has unleashed upon the world. Wonders if she should have had that second drink, and what kind of freakin' Kool-Aid it was, that she's looking at her weird neighbour and thinking that he's actually... Okay, Sheldon is more than slightly cute.

It should be Leonard at this party with her, being with her and joking with her friends. It should be Leonard that she spends time with, who makes her laugh, who takes care of stuff for her when she needs it.

It should be Leonard she thinks about when she is in bed.

And it isn't. Even when he's there with her.

She's been hiding from that thought for a while now.

There's no spark with Leonard, not any more. And it isn't because he's a brainiac and not a jock, or because he likes comic books and kites and computer games. Because there is someone smarter and geekier and far, far weirder and oh hell, yes, there's a spark there.

Part of her wants to blot the thought out with tequila, like five minutes ago. But.

Not with that tight little voice in her head.

She can make time for all the crazy for him, because somehow, the little things fit together to just make up who he is, demanding and honest and tactless and adorable. Her whackadoodle, always the smartest guy in the room and can't be trusted to cross the damn road on his own most of the time, who can't drive, but can rewire a freaking toaster into a death-ray. He doesn't understand people, needs to navigate the world with pieces of paper. But he can be almost charming when he wants to be, and he's working those jeans like whatever, and underneath all the layers of bizarro behaviour, he's sweet and funny, and he looks after her, and he's let her dress him up and drag him out to this stupid party with loud music and drunk people. And she knows that she has never had any problems getting guys to do stuff for her if she really wants them to, but it isn't like that with Sheldon. All she ever has to do is to just ask him.

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The guys are kinda impressed by this new dude of Penny's. He's quite bluntly put a couple of persistent girls off, told them that he only dances with Penny, and just stared blankly at Trish the Welcome Wagon when she started her 'are you, like, a model?' speech. And then some drunken asshole starts hassling Penny, and the guy is off the blocks.

Sheldon is very aware that Penny is capable of looking after herself, of course, but the whole point of his attendance this evening is to prevent this kind of situation. So he deposits his bottle into Ben's hand with a brisk “excuse me, gentlemen”, and prepares for battle. Queen Penelope has another troll to be vanquished.

Penny is all set to smack Mr Grabby, when...

“I think you are bothering the lady.”

Mental discipline is all very well, but for some reason, the best course of action seems to be to place his fingers around the man's carpal bones, and - When you understand the laws of physics, anything is possible. It's all levers. Torque and pressure...

He's all too well aware of what is likely to happen next. Grits his teeth and narrows his eyes in anticipation of the blow. So when the other man actually backs off, it would be hard to say who is the most surprised.

He is unaware that he looks surprisingly intimidating. The guy isn't seeing the geeky victim of years of bullying – he's simply seeing a tall man, with an iron grip and an unfriendly expression, a classic angry boyfriend.

“S'okay, we got it.” Another guy takes the drunk, backs him off. “Sorry, man, he's not cool when he's toasted...”

Sheldon opens his mouth, but Penny grabs him by the arm, turns him to face her.

“I could've handled it, Sheldon.”

He looks confused.

“But the whole point of my attending this function with you was to act in such a capacity.”

“I didn't mean for you to get yourself beaten up.”

He rolls his eyes.

“Penny, I have been beaten up by far larger people. My brother, for one.”

She doesn't know whether to hit him herself, or hug him. The mere idea of Sheldon being prepared to get himself punched...The last time two guys nearly got into a fight over her, it was in a parking lot someplace, two drunk jocks swinging at each other. She's never had anyone think her honour was worth defending before.

“Sheldon...I think we oughta get home.” Before someone else takes a proper swing at him, and she really has to break out the whup-ass.

“It is certainly past our usual bed-time.” he agrees cheerfully. Penny flinches. That could so be taken the wrong way. (Part of her brain has already made a dive for the gutter.)

His punctilious southern politeness, he insists on finding and thanking their hostess before they take their leave. Penny tries to find some reasonable explanation for their leaving early. Tammi just grins at her, murmurs,

“Bitch, please, for those bedroom eyes, I'd bail on my own damn party.”

Bits of Penny's brain are still screaming at her. Normally, she'd cudgel them into submission with margaritas, but that isn't an option. Not only the having to drive home. She doesn't trust herself at the moment.

She doesn't cheat. It's the suckiest, shittiest thing in the world. She does not do it.

But. But. But.

Part of her wants to back him into a corner of the room, and find out if those lips were as soft as they look, if those hands were as swift and clever as they are on a keyboard, if that big, beautiful mind can wrap itself around biology and chemistry as well as physics.

But. He's Sheldon. And he's her boyfriend's best friend. And this is like some goddam teenage problem page.

What the hell has she been drinking?

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“I am not letting you behind the wheel if you have been imbibing alcohol, Penny.” Swallows hard, holds out his hand. “Keys.”

She's actually not sure if she could stop him taking the keys away from her...and she has already obeyed that unaccustomed note of authority and half-handed them over.

“I've only had two drinks, Sheldon.”

“Nevertheless, that is still enough to impair your judgement, and I would be negligent in my duty if I allowed harm to come to you. Or me.” He adds. “The loss to science...”

He's making such an effort for her, that she bites her tongue and lets him shuffle and mutter his way around getting everything just so before he even puts his seat-belt on.

“I refuse to acquire any more citations on this trip.” Lifts his chin. “So I would appreciate it if you would not encourage me to break any traffic laws.”

“We can take our time getting home. Though,” caution makes her add, “before dawn would be kinda nice.”

Wide eyes and white knuckles, he's more like the Sheldon she knows. (But this is just another side of him, he's a person.)

Takes her mind off scary things, concentrating on talking him through the drive home, and she keeps him just under the speed limit, they don't run any lights or signs. The last time she drove with him – well, she'd been in pain the one time, and high as a kite on the return journey. This time, she can fully appreciate the panic, and the resolve. He jitters and complains the entire time, but manages a proud shaky grin when he finally applies the brakes.

“See, you're getting better.”

“It is still not a wholly enjoyable experience.” Eyes her sideways. “But I could say that about so many of our outings together.”

“You and me both, Sheldon.” That way of raising her eyebrows at him that makes him back up. “Didn't you have a good time this evening?”

“Penny, you turned my closet upside down in order to satisfy your requirements of what I should look like. There were too many people and far too much noise. I had to stop a man bothering you. And then I had to drive us home. I am not sure how any of that could be considered having 'a good time'.”

“That's because you're you.” And then suddenly, she laughs at him. “Thank you, Sheldon.”

He doesn't understand. But he is becoming resigned to that fact, now. Penny is a constant source of confusion to him.

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Friday night, and she's coming home early from a party, she's sober, and she's gonna be going to bed alone.

It doesn't feel like a bad end to the evening, either. Escorted to her front door by a gentleman.

“Goodnight, Penny.”

“Goodnight, Sheldon.”

Looks up at him, and he's much nearer than usual when she's wearing heels, and oh, god, he does have sexy eyes.

She shouldn't, she knows it, and she does it anyway.

This time, she hesitates the barest moment, and he knows what is about happen.

Still does nothing to stop it.

This time, her soft kiss touches somewhere between his cheek and the corner of his mouth, her lips catching gently, briefly, against the sweetness of his.

She smiles up at him, whispers 'good-night', and hastily shuts her door. Leans back against it, biting her own lip.

She didn't imagine that. Oh, crap.

Definitely a spark.

Her tall, geeky, praying-mantis, beautiful-mind, annoying robot-man neighbour, with his tics and quirks and crazy routines, and his gorgeous blue eyes and his pianist's hands and his surprisingly sweet grin. He's so weird that he's practically a different species, and he thinks she's stupid, and he can get on her very last nerve, and he's just Sheldon.

And she cares about him, in a whole load of ways that she really shouldn't.

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Sheldon unfreezes.

She's probably made him sick again, he can feel a tightness in his chest. His breathing appears to have become curiously erratic, and his heart rate has noticeably increased...

Thoughts of finding the thermometer evaporate when he enters his own apartment, finds Leonard pacing, and jabbing at his cell phone.

“...nny, it's Leonard again, could you pick up, huh?”

“Where have you been?” Sheldon demands.

“The quartet rehearsal ran on...” Leonard takes in Sheldon's attire, and he stutters to a halt. “Hey, where have you been?”

“Penny required my help.”

Leonard has a sudden sick feeling. (And you are the one she always asks, aren't you?)

“What did she do this time? Did she hurt herself again?”

Sheldon's eyes flicker slightly, but he sets his jaw.

“She required an escort.”

“A what?”

“An escort. She was obligated to attend a social gathering.”

Leonard feels truly sick, now, as he looks at this sharply-dressed stranger with his room-mate's face.

“You took my girlfriend out to a party?”

“She has a name, Leonard.” Sheldon snaps. “Penny mentioned this party to you at the beginning of the week, and you should have put it into your schedule.”

“What?”

“Tuesday evening, when she brought us our drinks. She informed you then that Tammi was expecting your attendance.”

Leonard scrambles back through his mind, but he can't recall much about the evening, besides the fact that Penny had claimed to be really tired after her shift, and had chucked him out after some rather perfunctory petting.

He's missed a party? Damn. Wonders what the hell Penny was thinking, taking Sheldon. But another part of his mind is going 'Penny, party, party, drinking, drinking, sex'... Starts edging towards the door.

“I better, you know, go and apologise and stuff, for forgetting...”

“You cannot go over there now, Leonard. Penny has gone to bed.”

“Maybe I'll go and join her.”

Sheldon stares at the rapidly closing door. Pain in his palms, and startled, he unclenches his fists.

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He's hoping for 'party Penny', giggly and fun. Instead, Penny is in her comfy pyjamas, the overlarge flannel ones.

She has a most unwelcome moment of clarity. He's come over because he thought she might be 'in the mood' after a party – which translates to 'had a few drinks'. She feels a bit sick, and really glad she hadn't hit the tequila. And she doesn't want him in her bed, not now, not with the mess in her head.

“It's late, I'm tired, and I just want to sleep. Alone, okay?”

He looks like a wounded puppy, but she's not playing that game, not tonight. And she realises that she's counting down, waiting for the reversal, the blame, when he starts in on her for taking Sheldon instead of him, and she's not playing that game, either. She's got every right to go out with a...a friend, when her boyfriend stands her up, and he better not even start.

The faces change, the language is more complicated, but 'sorry, babe, I forgot' is an old, old story. And she's been here before. Just because he smells of the lab, and not cheap scent – hell, she's coming second to a laser, rather than a stripper, still doesn't make it right.

She's just too tired and confused right now to deal. Accepts the apology, but he's still not getting make-up sex, because hell no, he doesn't deserve it. He has enough sense to back down and back off.

And she finds that she turns her head, so his goodnight kiss lands sloppy on her cheek, where she can clean it away with her make-up.

(her mouth still tingles though, even after she's cleaned her teeth.)

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Leonard does not bother being quiet, slams his way back into the apartment. Part of him hopes that Sheldon is still around, so that he can vent his frustration.

But Sheldon has decided that he will retreat to his room. He is not in a receptive frame of mind for Leonard's self-pity. (Cannot deny a certain relief at hearing him return so swiftly.)

He is beginning to become...aware of things, now. Spooling through his capacious memory, experiences aligning with his new perception. Shivering with the sensation of self-discovery.

Penny's smile up at him, her lips parted, her eyes wide...

Lurch in his stomach, his breath hitching and his pulse erratic...

He has been here before. These are the same feelings, the same sensations. And the common factor is the proximity of Penny, Penny's lips on his...

“Oh, good lord.” he whispers softly.

Chapter Text

Sheldon crouches, gun held ready, but his focus is divided. He had fallen into a heavy and abrupt slumber last night, woken in a state of embarrassed distress, does not feel refreshed.

Leonard had been sharp with him this morning, wanting to know the details of the evening, then impatient with his answers. Sheldon had been scrupulous with the truth - he had been settling down for a blameless evening of work when Penny had called upon him, insisted that he accompany her as a deterrent to other males at the gathering - which seems to both mollify and mystify Leonard. Leonard then wanted to know who she talked to, who she danced with, which Sheldon finds bewildering – Penny had circulated through the crowd, reaffirming her place within her social network. She had expressed no desire to find an alternative mate amongst them. Surely, after a couple of years of acquaintance, Leonard should be familiar with her views on fidelity.

Wolowitz had shared Leonard's amusement at the idea of him at a party. They seem to think that he spent the evening alone in a corner, and that he must have somehow embarrassed Penny, causing her to bring him home early.

Sheldon finds that he has no desire to correct their assumptions. It would involve an explanation of a situation that he still finds unclear. Penny tells him if he is acting in a way she finds inappropriate, and she hadn't expressed displeasure.

(Dilated pupils, her smile, warm lips softly touching his...)

Cold, wet impact across the back of his neck slaps him into the now.

Sheldon brings his hand around, and examines his fingers, finds that he is unsurprised by the colour of the paint.

He is tired, a deep weariness, curious pressure under his ribs, ache in his sinuses. Thoughts skate around the edge of an abyss in his mind. He could calculate the various trajectories, find which one of them fired the shot. It no longer matters.

He stands up, breaks cover, heedless of new impacts, of shouting, of anything but the need to be away, somewhere where he can think...

0000000000000000

Sheldon draws the circle to represent himself, one small circle on the vastness of the board. Subset of his family, and here, his interactions via other areas of his life – work, a handful of food establishments, the comic store. He regards the small, stunted tree that is his routine.

Stability. Logic. Order.

Adds a circle for Penny.

Penny is Leonard's girlfriend.

(Apparently, it would be considered highly inappropriate for a friend to harbour...feelings towards a friend's girlfriend.)

But. Is Leonard still his friend?

'Friendship is the cooperative and supportive relationship between people, which involves mutual esteem, affection and respect, along with a degree of rendering service in times of need or crisis. Friends will welcome each other's company and exhibit loyalty to each other, and they will often share enjoyable activities. They will also engage in mutually helping behaviour, such as the exchange of advice and the sharing of hardship. Yet for some, the practical execution of friendship is little more than the trust that someone will not harm them.'

Sheldon looks at that last sentence for a long time.

Support. Respect. Loyalty. Trust.

He does not believe himself to be supported or respected, he no longer finds that certain activities are enjoyable, he does not perceive that his advice is welcome. He has been mocked and betrayed by someone he trusted. He has been harmed, professionally and yes, emotionally. He is still unable to fathom or reconcile that, a depth of treachery that hurts too much to confront head on – it was not just a personal betrayal, it was science itself, some kind of heresy in the act. His work is tainted. How much can he rely on, how much must he recalculate, reassess? Does any fault lie solely within his own reasoning, or are there external forces conspiring? Everything must be re-examined.

So is he still bound by the dictates of friendship? If the state is co-operative and mutual, does that not mean that the withdrawal of the other party negates the bond? That he is no longer required to support an endeavour that he sees as futile, to maintain a one-sided loyalty, to proffer advice which is consistently ignored?

(He hates that they are together, and he is terrified to think of why.)

He has seen so many destroyed, brought low. Work forsaken, concentration divided.

'For the trained reasoner to admit such intrusions into his own delicate and finely adjusted temperament was to introduce a distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results.'

(Shut the doors against the memory of warm flesh, laughter, soft hair and the scent of her.)

He can feel the real world unfolding around him, vast and frightening, chaotic, bewildering. No map, no guide-lines, no rules.

He wants to run back to his apartment, place himself in his point of consistency, deny this change, deny this world, deny this truth. Bury himself in the simple logic, the bright colours, the unthinking, unchanging, safe routine.

(Not to feel, not to have to cope with, pain and love and fear, and all the things he cannot control. Not to have to be...human, and alone, and hurting.)

But the apartment is not a haven, his routine has been disrupted, it no longer comforts him.

He is not a robot, or an alien, or possessed of mutant mind powers. There is no mystical order, no Fleet handbook, no sub-routine to initiate.

There is just him. Sheldon Lee Cooper.

Scared out of his wits by his own humanity.

But a scientist cannot ignore or suppress conclusions.

Physiologically, he is a normal human male. And it seems that no matter how advanced his intellect may be, his body is still a primitive organism. He can despair, despise the weak flesh, but it will not be denied. Maslow's hierarchy of needs still applies.

Something in him has always rebelled against the crude biology, and now he begins to dimly grasp why.

Simply because he has observed certain reactions does not mean that these are the only, or even the correct outcome. He needs more data.

(Shut the doors against the memory of shouting, the noise of shots, of smashing china, the smell of stale whisky.)

It must be more than skin and sweat and boasting of prowess.

(Shut the doors against the memory of seeing Leonard's arms around her, Leonard's lips on her, Leonard against her.)

Pen skids violently beneath his hand. He unclenches his fingers.

He will not be anger and fear, ground glass in the meatloaf, violence and raised voices, poverty and disrespect, ignorance and alcohol.

But he cannot be an island, chill and aloof, a creature of logic and pure reason.

Is there...another path? A state between the solitary, and the carnal circus that he observes? Some way of reconciling the paradox?

Pursues that fleeting thought, pen racing across the board to follow his mind.

Emotions. Abstract states. Ill-defined, nebulous.

Light-headed from lack of sleep and food, still in his paint-spattered plastic armour, the flaking remnants of colour across his face giving him an oddly tribal look, he works. Desperately, feverishly searching for a directive, a protocol, some kind of system to protect himself...

Maybe it is time to move beyond binary, to embrace fuzzy logic. To consider shades of grey, move from a position of absolutes...

He's shaking now, hands unsteady, as he begins to map out a new model...

The diagram springs to sudden vibrant life. Rapid notation now, equations and chemical formulae and an arcane system of shorthand that only a handful of people in the world can read, odd little symbols that would make no sense to anyone else at all, random words – 'Arctic', 'napkin', 'sword' - a complex system of checks and balances. Not a linear progression, but a network. He must think in three dimensions. Small kindnesses, weighed against slights and jibes, experiences and shared history, reciprocal behaviours and intangible connections.

 

…The scientist serves truth. The knight serves his lady. And somewhere between these two, the man comes into being...

Chapter Text

“Penny's kinda mad because I missed the party...” Leonard wipes paint off his glasses.

“Sheldon didn't.” Howard reminds him, helpfully. Lighted gasoline on troubled waters.

“I'll go over later, apologise, take a good bottle of wine...”

“Get a little party of your own going on there, bro.” Howard nods. “Good call.”

“I still don't understand why she took him.”

“Hey, he's your buddy, she wants to get on with him for your sake.”

“Yeah.” Leonard pushes away the picture of Sheldon walking in, all GQ smart-casual. “It's nice of her.”

“Kinda wish Raj and Bernadette could get on like that.” Howard jigs slightly, smirks. “Guess we have to work around our single friends now, huh?”

Raj glares.

“I'm tired of him getting in the way.” Leonard throws up his hands. “I have a girlfriend now. I don't have to spend my Saturday evening folding sheets and listening to him arguing about whether you can reverse the polarity of a neutron flow.”

“Yeah, I have a date tonight, I'm taking Bernadette...”

Raj tunes them out, sends a text.

S. Where are you?

They assume that Sheldon is going to be sulking by the car. First small prickles of unease when they return, and find that he isn't.

“There weren't any major comic releases today.” Leonard pulls out his phone. “But I'll check with Stuart that he's not nesting.”

He's not. Raj comes back from the toilet block, shaking his head. They look at each other. Leonard sighs.

“He's six foot tall and covered in paint, how hard will he be to spot?”

Leonard's optimism is ill-founded. Sheldon has long legs, and he can move extremely swiftly when he wants to. His dislike of public transport means that he is familiar with the terrain.

They make it back to the apartment with no sign of him. This time, they don't meet each other's eyes.

“He's got his phone, he'll call from some place.”

“Or you'll get a call from the cops. Maybe he's finally snapped, and headed for the hills. We'll see him on the Six O'Clock News, sniping at tour buses.” Howard smirks. “Well, I gotta bounce. Have to get myself looking sharp for my lady.”

Raj wants to ask Howard if he thinks they should take another turn around the block, see if they can see Sheldon any place, but Howard takes a call, and from the way his face lights up, Raj knows who it is. He sits through a teeth-clenching exchange, before Howard (cut off) jauntily puts the phone away and gives him a smile.

“You were saying?”

“Oh, it's not important.” It seems like everybody has a life except him. He's gonna go buy himself a roast chicken, and tear the scrawny little legs off it and imagine they are clad in tight jeans...

Leonard dithers. What he should be doing is driving around and looking for Sheldon. But Penny is home from her shift soon. And he needs to apologise to her, after all.

Yes, that's it. It's his duty as her boyfriend to greet her when she gets in from work, check how her day has been. Pour her a glass of wine, make her feel better.

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Penny feels like the biggest bitch in the world. She can't dump Leonard for being...decent and dull and nice, all the things she thought she wanted. Just because he's not tall and athletic, and he doesn't set her world on fire.

And now she's got herself in a damn great mess, because she's looking at his best friend, and thinking things she really shouldn't. She doesn't cheat. But then, she thinks, the bitter irony is, she's looking at a man who wouldn't even understand the concept. Sheldon is a lot of things, but 'normal' sure as hell isn't one of them. If he even knew what she was thinking, he'd be horrified. Well, being him, he'd be confused, then he'd be horrified. And then she'd probably get a long, smug lecture about how he didn't need human contact and how repulsive such behaviour was.

(...but he didn't exactly run away last night, and he's hugged her before, long arms and large hands and his lean body curved around her, very warm and alive and male...)

Thoughts skate around the edge of how really messy this could get. Forces herself to concentrate.

She's with Leonard. And it's not perfect, but all relationships go through rocky patches, it's like...teething or something. And – she met these guys as a package deal, her sweet, geeky neighbours, welcoming her into their weird little world. She'd needed something to make her feel better, and the uncritical adoration had been nice. A little creepy, in Howard's case, but hey, it was Howard, (and every so often, when she gets the urgent desire to beat him to death with a shoe, she remembers the little glimpses of the real Howard.) But they come as a group, computer games and geeky tv and scribbled whiteboards. And she doesn't want to lose her little nerd herd.

She had missed them all when they were away, missed the odd corners of her life that they filled. Cold hard fact was, Leonard was the only one who came remotely close to being a normal guy, and she'd been tired of jerks, wanted to be with someone nice, and he'd asked her. Persistence and familiarity and a guilty part of her that liked the idea of being with some guy that wouldn't cheat on her because he was damn lucky to have her.

He'd turned up at her door, when she got in from the late shift, foot-rub and a glass of wine.

“I'm sorry I forgot about the party, but I had stuff to finish up...” (The last movement of the Haydn piece had been a swine, and they'd stopped for burgers on the way home.) “And I'm sorry you got stuck with minding Sheldon, but you didn't need to take him with you...”

Is this how Leonard sees their friendship? An endless round of toting Sheldon around like some idiot kid brother?

“...I mean, I think it's great that you're being kind to him, but you don't have to put up with him for my sake.” Nervous laugh. “Did he do something really weird at the party?”

“He didn't do anything weird.” Penny says, “I mean, I got him to wear a pair of jeans, and he ended up talking football with a bunch of the guys, and I know he had to drive, but I didn't let that guy punch him, and he seemed fine when I said” (kissed him) “goodnight.”

Oh, crap. Did she break him? No, she's kissed him before, and he was fine then. Thought sits in her mind like a stone, guilt and confusion. But she pushes his boundaries, pushes his buttons, she's always done it.

Penny blinks very hard into the darkness, because these are the wrong shoulders, the wrong hands, and the wrong mouth on hers. And maybe she deserves to feel this bad for thinking it.

And Leonard tries to drive away that picture of Sheldon, dressed like that, and turning up at a party with his girlfriend, and talking football, and looking tall and handsome and goddam normal...

Because Sheldon's the weird one, Sheldon's the scapegoat, the butt of the joke, the one they have to look after and drag around, the one that makes the rest of them feel better...

Both of them pretend that it doesn't matter, they're both tired, and both of them lie there, feigning sleep.

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It isn't until Sunday morning that Penny discovers exactly when Sheldon went AWOL, when she finds the coffee pot cold and empty.

“Sheldon's been out all night? Is this like that wave thingy again?”

It's Howard, toasting bagels, who lets the cat out of the bag.

“He just took off during the game yesterday, and we lost him.”

“He probably got hit with some major inspiration.” (And not an earful of paint.) Leonard rubs his eyes. “We didn't get any calls to say he'd broken in anywhere.”

Penny is furious with them all. It's one thing to pull an all-nighter at work, or stay out late with your friends. But he's walked off somewhere still dressed in that stupid plastic armour, and his friends are all sitting here like it doesn't matter that they don't know where he is. (Leonard in her bed, and not telling her he was missing.)

Raj whispers. Howard shrugs.

“Yeah, we can do that, but when do we start checking the other hospitals?” His murmur isn't quite quiet enough. Leonard's nervous smile slips a notch. Fear and anger war in Penny's face.

“Don't. Even. Joke.”

Howard spreads his hands, grins uneasily. Sheldon's one cuckoo short of the full nest anyway, in his opinion. Raj sighs, puts his bagel down, and whispers.

“Well, we could, but...” Howard's eyes dart between his breakfast, and the threatening eruption of Mount Penny. His shoulders slump. “Fine, fine. We'll go check the campus.”

“We'll stay here, y'know, in case he comes back.” Leonard says, virtuously.

“You can.” Penny is tightening the belt of her robe, snagging a bagel on her way. “I'm gonna get dressed, check that he's not bussing tables again.”

Leonard glares at them, as the door slams behind her.

“Thanks for the help there.” Runs a frustrated hand through his hair. “God, I cannot catch a break...”

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Maybe it's guilt that's making her over-react...

He may be a grown man, but he's also Sheldon.

...he has to negotiate his way through his life, and he's out there somewhere, in a world that doesn't understand him any more than he understands it. He's so damn innocent sometimes.

She wants him to come stalking in, neurotic and demanding, so that she can be angry with him for scaring her like this.

Her phone cheeps.

S in office. R.

Oh, she's gonna kill him. (She didn't break him. He's just working.)

00000000000000000

Raj pushes open Sheldon's office door.

The room is walled with whiteboards, and each one is covered with an explosion of coloured inks, boxes and arrows and diagrams, complex equations and dense notation, multi-hued memos, taped pages of text. Monitors scroll their fractal screensavers, blink and flicker of light over Sheldon's face, where he's asleep, head down on his desk.

Raj takes a cautious step, peers at the nearest board. Recognises these pages. The papers have been creased, as if by an angry grip, an couple of them taped back together, angry circles of red around the figures. These are the false results. There is a controlled violence to the subsets around these, sharp, angular expressions. Raj moves away hastily.

There are pyramids and charts and neurochemical formulae, columns of statistics and pages from psychology journals, ECG graphs and Boolean logic. Here, numbers, Greek letters and what look like runes collide in a chaotic sprawl, half model, half abstract. Sketches of some kind of medieval war-machine, and what looks like a collection of recipes share a board with a string of theorems so complicated that they are moving beyond math. Some of these expressions hurt his eyes just looking at them, brackets trying to cage something that can't be captured in written form. He's looking at either genius or madness here. Takes another quick look at the man, folded up like a badly-assembled deckchair and drooling on his mouse-mat. Jury's still out on that one. Steps to read what looks weirdly like a page of poetry, and his foot crunches on an empty water bottle.

Sheldon sits bolt upright, says “Penny.”

Raj stares at him. Sheldon stares back, small woodland creature strayed onto the highway and watching the eighteen wheeler bearing down.

“Did you find...what the frack?!” Howard jerks to a halt.

Sheldon's eyes narrow, and he unfolds up from behind his desk.

“I would like a lift home now.” His voice is scratchy. (Raj wonders suddenly if he's been crying.)

“Uh, sure thing, buddy.” Howard takes another look around the room. “Find the answers you were looking for?”

Sheldon and Raj are still staring at each other.

“Results are...inconclusive at the present time. I do not have all the relevant data.” There is no pleading in that gaze, it is direct, hard, challenging. Raj's eyes drop first.

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The car is full of a busy silence on the drive back. Sheldon sits upright in the passenger seat, eyes fixed on some inner thought, lines of his face serious. Howard has given up asking him questions, is saving them up for Raj. Raj himself slides the odd glance sideways, but Sheldon does not meet his gaze again, simply unfolds out of the car with a polite and very dismissive 'Thank you'.

Penny and Leonard pop out of their respective doors when the little party reach the landing. Raj isn't sure how he would ever explain that office, even if he could talk in front of Penny. He's not sure what Sheldon has been working on, but it feels...explosive. Backs carefully down the stairs, Howard on his heels.

The paint-stained, crumpled figure in front of them, all stubble and red-rimmed eyes, is a world away from the smart-casual party-goer. (Something in Leonard relaxes.) All the anger goes out of Penny.

“Sheldon, are you okay?”

His eyes come back from whatever higher dimension his brain is in, focus on her. Same blue eyes, and little sparks dance on her spine.

“I am perfectly well, Penny.” Blinks. “Thank you for your concern. Though I'm hungry.” he adds, as an after-thought.

“I'll make you a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Switch goes on.

“Swiss cheese, white bread, not too thin...”

“...butter the bread on both sides, and no tomato, yeah, I know. Now go get the paint off yourself.”

Sheldon looks down at himself, and seems to register his bodily state for the first time. Makes a high, panicked noise and flails for the bathroom. Penny, oddly comforted, follows him into his apartment, and starts rooting in the 'fridge for the cheese. She'll yell at him later.

Leonard stares after him uneasily. Something is going on in Sheldon's head. Either they are going to have another breakthrough paper, or another outbreak of luminous fish. Impossible to predict which.

Chapter Text

Sheldon looks like himself again, shaved and showered, layered tees and chinos. But he's very quiet, still with that inward gaze. Normally, he's anxious to explain his work, even if his audience aren't keen – the silence is deeply unnerving.

Penny wants to scold him, but she's not sure what for – all he did was take off to work on a problem. It's the others who are at fault for not checking on him. He thanks her politely for his sandwiches (three have disappeared in short order), and she's halfway through making him a fourth, when she looks over and finds that he's gone to sleep, drooped sideways on the arm of the couch.

“See? He's fine.” Leonard whispers, hopeful and little too bright. Penny glares at him.

“Yeah, this time.”

“He was just working.”

Penny takes a breath to keep her voice low. If they wake Sheldon by fighting, he might take off again.

“Yeah, he was 'just working', but he went walking off dressed like that – you can't tell me that's normal?”

“It's Sheldon, Penny. He's never 'normal'.” Leonard can feel that pain in his jaw that means he's clenching his teeth too hard. “I can't spend my life baby-sitting him...”

“It isn't baby-sitting, Leonard. It's common frickin' decency...” The forgotten sandwich begins to smoke, and she snatches the pan off the burner.

“I was worried about him, too, okay?” Leonard backtracks hastily. “But we're scientists. When we get an idea, we have to work on it right then.” Hands on her shoulders, and she fights the abrupt impulse to shrug him off. “There's a lot of pressure at the moment, all the funding being reviewed, we have to produce results...”

“Is that why you were working late on Friday? You should have said.”

“Well...” Leonard battles his conscience for a moment. But Penny has stopped worrying about Sheldon, and is worrying about him, now. “I didn't like to, y'know, burden you, what with you working a long shift and all.”

It isn't a lie. It isn't. He stayed late because he was stressed with work, he needed the break.

“Oh, sweetie.” Penny hugs him, so that he doesn't see her face. Oh, crap, she is a bitch.

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“So, what was that about?” Howard is bursting with impatience. “I didn't get a good look.”

Raj shakes his head, grimace.

“It was like...he was trying to hack his own brain, or something.”

“Sheldon doesn't have a brain, he has a processor. I think he has a little list in the corner of his vision - Wake up, eat breakfast, tell the world how frickin' smart you are...” Howard sniggers. “Maybe he got a blue screen, needed to reboot...”

Raj frowns. Those were very human eyes that had looked at him.

“He had all the stuff from the Arctic pinned up.”

There is a short, careful silence.

“If he was plotting vengeance, we'd know about it by now.” Faintest thread of worry.

“One of the things on the board looked like some kind of war-machine...” They exchange dubious glances. Howard starts to jitter.

“C'mon, that was months ago. We've all moved on, right? Water under the bridge, he ran back to his mother, we went and got him, everybody friends again? Why is he falling to pieces now?”

The dark spectre of the review board casts its shadow between them.

“Hey, if Sheldon moves back to Texas, maybe I could take over his room?” Off Raj's stare. “I'm just the 'acquaintance', remember? Mr Wolowitz? It isn't like I care...”

“Dude, if Sheldon goes, I go. His funding is my funding.”

“What do you suggest we do, go to Siebert and tell him we screwed the experiment over? That's all of our necks on the line.”

“I'm probably going back to India either way.” Raj says, gloomily. Howard looks really panicked.

“Think of the rest of us, man. The needs of the many...”

“Save that for Sheldon. What we did sucked.”

“It was Leonard's idea.”

“Yeah, and he's supposed to be Sheldon's best friend.”

“He was being a giant neurotic pain in the ass.”

“He's always been a giant neurotic pain in the ass.”

“I didn't want to go in the first place.” Howard points out.

“None of us wanted to go. But we were supposed to be helping him.”

“You were the one who suggested throwing his Kindle out of the door.”

“You suggested beating him death with a frozen dinner, and then eating the evidence.”

“Well, you suggested...” Howard throws up his hands. “Okay, so maybe we screwed up a little. But he was driving us as crazy as he is.”

They both know that they could have said 'no'. But habit is a hard thing to break. When they first made friends with Leonard, Sheldon just came as part of the deal, the pattern was already there, and it was just easier to go along with it.

(They can always comfort themselves with the thought that no matter how nerdy, geeky, pathetic they are, at least they aren't Sheldon. No matter how far down the heap they might be, there's someone further down, and they are going to keep him there.)

They start to recount their grievances from the trip, the entire litany of petty complaints, the little niggles that happen when four people are cooped up in a small space, boredom and frustration and awkward unspoken tensions.

And Raj pushes to the back of his mind something that is only a suspicion, because it's Sheldon, and Sheldon doesn't do feelings.

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“Hey, buddy, how you doing?”

Sheldon has the chessboard set up. He doesn't look up, chin propped in one long hand, face set in a frown of deep concentration.

“Good evening, Leonard.”

It's just a normal board, no levels, no lasers, nothing but the simple eight-by-eight grid, and the classic pieces. Leonard tries to remember the last time they played.

“You want a game?” He offers on impulse. Sheldon gives him a careful look, something assessing, unreadable in it. Then he nods, and starts to reset the board. Holds out his hands, Leonard points. White pawn.

They play in silence, nothing but the quiet click of the clock.

(They have played through long evenings, before. There used to be time for it.)

Leonard thinks deeply about his moves, hesitates, hovers, plays a solid game.

Sheldon responds instantly, fingers dart lightning quick across the board.

(Back when they first knew each other, before the routine became set, before...)

“You worried us, running off.”

“Doubtful.” Sheldon doesn't lift his eyes from the board. “Only Raj bothered to text to enquire my whereabouts.”

(...before it became too much trouble. Before he had other things to do...)

“You didn't text back.”

“I was occupied with a problem.”

He still does not glance at his opponent, frowns over the board.

Leonard captures a castle and three pawns in quick succession. Feels a faint stir of excitement.

(...before he had a girlfriend.)

Sheldon swoops in with an overlooked pawn, underpromotes it, and Leonard finds that he has lost his queen to a new knight on the board. Realises with horror that Sheldon has been toying with him, and in a handful of moves, he's going to be hammered off the board and checkmated.

Then Sheldon extends one long finger, and gently tips his own king over.

“I'm sleepy now. Good-night, Leonard.”

Leaves Leonard looking at the pieces, and feeling that he has missed something very important.

00000000000000000

Breathes through his nose, stills his hands with an effort.

He has discovered in himself the cold and terrible knowledge that if he had once looked up, met that smug, sated little grin, he was going to put his fist through the middle of it.

It scares him. He has been shaken by anger before, torn by betrayal. Allowed a desire for vengeance to sway him. He has been jealous of the academic success of others.

But now. His own words ring hollow. Human relationships still continue to baffle him. The thought of their relationship definitely repulses him. But he cannot be repulsed by the memory of her, only in the thought that she is being pawed over by that perfidious little troll.

Penny is his friend. He wishes her to be happy.

Leonard...may no longer be his friend. And if that is the case, then his happiness will no longer be Sheldon's concern.

It is true that Sheldon can't keep a secret, and that he is very bad at lying.

He is, however, a very, very good chess player.

The board is set. Game on.

Chapter Text

Raj knocks on Sheldon's office door with more than a hint of trepidation. But Sheldon gestures him in. There is no trace now of whatever happened here at the weekend. The white boards are neatly stacked in a corner, turned to the wall, the only one set up shows their current joint project, and Sheldon is playing with Strominger's equations on another one.

It has been a strange couple of days. Sheldon had been...subdued. Distant. They are used to Sheldon being odd. But they aren't used to him being quiet. It isn't even sulking, he's simply withdrawn into his own thoughts.

They have travelled to work together, but all that Sheldon has done is to apologise for not returning Raj's text. He has eaten with them in the cafeteria, but he hasn't spoken much, let the conversation pass him by. The only time Raj has seen him smile all week was when Penny brought him his burger. He hadn't taken part in the comic-store conversation yesterday, had instead walked over to have a conversation with Stuart about Eisner.

He was more like his old self once the 'Halo' game commenced, though, intensely competitive. And now, as they knock a few ideas back and forth, he's being snarky and argumentative again. Raj almost relaxes. Sheldon steps back, regards the board.

“I believe we may be able to submit a rough draft of the paper within two weeks, if all the calculations prove correct.”

If the calculations are correct? We've checked them three times.”

“One cannot be too careful.” Sheldon says. “If even one calculation is awry, if there is one error, then the whole premise may be flawed. You may as well throw the whole thing away, regard all your work as wasted. No big deal.”

There it is again. That hint of something in his tone as he bites off the last three words. Sharp sideways glance, and he folds his arms, turns back to his own work.

Raj has a cold crawl of horror up his spine. His eyes fly frantically back over the board. Sheldon wouldn't...Months of work, all that time and effort, and it could all be... His thoughts jerk to a sickening stop.

No, Sheldon wouldn't. Not a man who prides himself on his intellectual integrity. A man who is laboriously double and triple checking every single bit of work he has done this last year, his confidence and dignity undermined...

Raj's shoulders slump, and he daren't look round.

“Dude, I am so fucking sorry...”

“It was not your idea. You are just weak and easily led.” The calm, matter-of-fact tone stings more than anything else could. Raj still wants to crawl under the desk. He shuts his mouth, and obediently goes back to drafting his opening paragraphs.

There is a tap at the door. It opens before Sheldon can answer, and a familiar blonde head peers round, grins at him.

“Sheldon, get your jacket.”

“Penny?” She can't be here. She shouldn't be here. “Why?”

“It's a su...” No, he doesn't do surprise very well, “...social obligation.”

“It's a raid. Infiltrate enemy territory and rescue our clan-mate.” Raquel grins round the doorframe. “Just stick a bag over his head, and we'll hustle him out...oh, hello.”

Raj turtles into his jacket, then waves nervously. Raquel looks hopefully at Penny.

Penny bites her lip. The spare ticket had originally been intended for Leonard. He doesn't really know these people (which was kind of the point of taking him) but Raj does, sort of. She shrugs.

Raquel looks back at Raj.

“We got a ticket spare. You up for dinner and a movie with Queen P's Posse?”

Raj's face brightens eagerly. He'd rather spend the evening not talking to Raquel, than not talking to anybody. Sheldon frowns. Penny reassures him.

“It's a theatre on your list, Sheldon. I checked before Sven got the tickets, and Si says they're in the acoustic sweet spot.”

Several complicated thoughts go through Sheldon's mind at great speed, involving the probable composition of the group, and the initial destination of that spare ticket.

“C'mon, Sheldor.” Raquel smirks. “It's your job to carry Queen P's pop-corn, after all.”

“Penny will be carrying her own pop-corn.” Sheldon turns off his machine with a decisive flick. “I hope that you have left sufficient time for the concession line.”

Raj, hastily scribbling on a pad and about to offer a vintage Atari game as a bribe, drops his pen in shock.

00000000000000000

The whole evening just gets weirder, as far as he is concerned.

This isn't one of Sheldon's pre-approved Chinese restaurants, but Penny had headed that off by assuring him that she's seen the kitchen. Raj waits for Sheldon to kick up stink. And then he wonders how often they get what they expect. Because Sheldon only puts up a token protest, merely informs Penny that she will have to be the one to share any dishes for two with him, and that he's not eating shrimp.

It's strange, being out without Howard. And Leonard. Instead, he's sitting between Raquel and Si's friend Dan, and wondering why Sheldon has just pointed out a character on the menu to Penny, and why she is giving him such a mean look.

Raquel, who works in a pet-store (turns out to be the same one from the driving simulation) is talking puppies with, well, at Raj – 'hey, I'm used to dumb animals, and he's cute' – and he grins shyly at her. He'd like a beer, but he doesn't want to turn into a jerk.

Sven was possibly geekier than Sheldon about the accuracy of the weaponry, and all over any messing with the mythology. And Si the movie freak wasn't sure if computer graphics could really replace the magic of Harryhausen. An argument about stop-motion owls has turned into him and Dan doing some kind of 'droid double-act out of 'Star Wars'. And there's Penny, talking to Beth about heinous dress rehearsals, all hands and her bright laughter. And Sheldon, deep in brisk conversation, sketches on napkins going back and forth, looking more cheerful than Raj has seen him for a very long time.

Sheldon starts to bemoan Hollywood's tendency to 'sex up' characters, intellectual giants reduced to mere caricatures by the dictates of a world that seems to prize emotion over logic.

“...makes a passable Stark, but as to portraying one of the greatest reasoning minds in fictional creation...”

“I guess you didn't think much of the new 'Trek' then?” Dan observes.

“Oh, crap.” Penny tries to slide under the table. Beth nudges her.

“Pen, honey, I'm married to a man who is campaigning for the right to use the bat'leth at StormFist. This one might run for a while.”

“You have no idea.” Penny watches Sheldon winding up. Beth lowers her voice.

“I still don't get what he sees in Trek. Gimme the 'Verse any day. Mmm, Adam B...”

Penny 'fesses up to her own Captain-y crush, and there is some horrible feminine cackling that makes the menfolk eye them nervously.

“Some women just have a thing for cowboys.” Dan sighs.

“Some women have this thing about guys in armour.” Sven retorts. (Penny's brain lurches guiltily.)

Beth laughs.

“Well, I met Sven when he did the prop weapons for a stage production. First time he took me along to StormFist, I was all 'who the hell are these weirdos?' And then I became one of them.”

“Hey, the couple that slays together stays together...” Sven grins at his wife. An elementary school teacher who is fluent in Klingon, and likes to wear horns at the weekend, and a librarian and part-time drama coach, who can swear in Mandarin and wields a mean war-axe.

There aren't any different worlds here, or maybe this is the place where they converge, people who have normal jobs and slightly strange hobbies. Where a waitress from Nebraska can sit down with a genius from Texas, and take part in a conversation that doesn't end up with one of them wearing their dinner. She doesn't feel dumb, and maybe, just maybe, he feels...not normal, Sheldon will never do normal, but perhaps – happy.

00000000000000000

Leonard and Howard can't figure out, why, if they are the guys with girlfriends, they are the ones sitting around with tv dinners and watching re-runs. Raj's return text to Howard of 'with S. c u 2moro' was hardly informative, and Penny had her phone off.

Conversation languishes, once they get past wondering how acceptable it is to compare the models on screen to the reality of their girlfriends, and Howard has to get home to fix the neighbour's cable, leaving Leonard to pace and fret, until there's a key in the door.

“...continue this over a cup of herbal tea, except it is past my deadline for consuming liquid. Good evening, Leonard.”

He's come home with Penny. But he's still in his normal layered tee's, Penny is in street clothes, jeans and smock-top. Maybe they just met by the mail-boxes.

“Well, I could drink tea, and you can tell me why that Voldemort guy wanted to kill that hottie from Avatar...”

“Were you paying any attention to the movie at all, Penny?”

“I wasn't paying attention to what they were called...” She grins at him, and Sheldon huffs softly.

Maybe not.

“Movie?” It comes out more querulous than he'd like. “You've been to a movie? Together?”

“Look,” Penny spreads her hands, “I'm sorry, sweetie, but it was just a spur of the moment thing, Beth called me as I was going off shift. We only had one spare ticket, and when we swung by and collected Sheldon...”

“...kidnapped me from my office...”

“... it didn't seem nice to leave Raj behind. Besides, Raquel kinda regards him as a trophy.” Penny shrugs.

“So why did you take Sheldon instead of me?” Leonard blurts. They both stare at him like he's said something dumb.

“Because they're Sheldon's friends, too.” Penny says, like this is something normal and obvious.

Leonard stares. Sheldon doesn't do spontaneous. This is a man who timetables his bowel movements. Nobody spends time with him unless they have to. And suddenly he's got friends who drop by his office with movie tickets, and he's heading out for Chinese food? Something is off by more than 2mm here. Sheldon stares back.

You went out for dinner and movie?”

“Penny assured me that both the movie theatre and the restaurant met my specifications.” Sheldon says simply. “My trust was justified.”

Penny goes all pink and pleased, and Leonard wants to break something.

“Sheldon, you don't like people.”

“It seems rather more that you believe people do not like me.” His expression is almost too blank. “I thought you would be happy that I am making new friends, Leonard. It means that you no longer need feel obligated to fill that role.” Turns to Penny before that really hits. “Leonard considers that he should have been included in the group solely due to his..relationship with you. And that I should not. To his mind, carnality supersedes any other form of social connection.”

“That's not...” Well, it is. But...

Penny's smile slips a little.

“Y'know, I think I'll bail on that tea.”

“I understand. I shall go to sleep, then. Good-night, Penny.” A genuine smile. “Thank you for a very pleasant evening.”

“You're welcome, Sheldon.”

Something twists inside Leonard, as his room-mate stalks past him.

“You've never taken me to meet your friends...” Mistake.

“Leonard.” Penny swings round, arms folded. “You were bored by the football. I took you out to StormFist, and you hated it. And you forgot about the party.”

And you were embarrassing when we went roller-blading, and you were sick and whiny at the fairground, and we don't do anything else, except hang out with the guys. Or make out.

“Oh, hey, I think it's great that you're so nice to him, but...I mean,” Nervous little laugh, “Sheldon doesn't take hints, but you could just, I don't know, tell him he's not wanted...”

Penny's eyes widen in shock.

“Excuse me? Are you trying to tell me that I shouldn't hang out with Sheldon?”

“No! No, no. I just didn't think you'd actually...want to.”

“Leonard, we went out with our friends...”

Leonard realizes that he's going to come out of this looking like a villain or an idiot. So he plays the puppy-eyes card.

“It's just...I feel like you spend more time with him than you do with me...”

Penny can't even deny it.

And yeah, she would rather spend the evening with that noisy group (and Sheldon) than the evening with Leonard, her boyfriend.

Hot-cold rush of shock and shame in her. She can be embarrassed by the things Sheldon does, but she's not embarrassed by him. He's so out there most of the time, that people just accept him, because he doesn't apologise for who he is. He doesn't try to change himself or ingratiate himself or worry about how people see him. Oh, he can be a nightmare, but rarely the same way twice. Because if you just tell him why he shouldn't do something, he files it away in that gigantic brain.

Sheldon likes certain movie theatres, but so do other people. And lots of people have favourite restaurants. Since she started working at the Cheesecake Factory, she's become more wary where she eats, too – no way does she go anyplace with an open salad bar, now. And everyone, well, everyone except Raj, had had plenty to talk about. The trick with Sheldon is to let the small stuff slide, and yank him up when he's being a major pain. Seems like the other guys cave to him, then bitch about it. Leonard is still talking.

“... should do more stuff together. You want to come paintballing with me on Saturday?”

00000000000000000

It is...well, not a success. Depending on your point of view. Penny finds it kinda tame after StormFist. Kripke seems to be actually competing to be more obnoxious than Howard, Leonard keeps asking her how much fun she's having, Raj can't talk, and Leslie...yeah, well, if Penny hears another snarky mutter about the ratio of hair colour to intelligence, someone's getting a paintball enema. So when Sheldon, who has been remarkably quiet all day, folds down beside her, and she sees the colour of the paint across his armour, something's gonna give. Touches his shoulder.

“Who did it this time?” And how sad is that, to even have to ask?

“I could calculate, based on relative position and trajectory, if you really want to know.”

It's the resignation in his tone that gets her. Penny's eyes narrow. Enough of this crap. She's tired of Sheldon being fragged by his nasty, superior buddies.

“Sheldor - I smell...hobbits.” Raises her eyebrows.

“It is against the rules...” Faintest crack of doubt in his voice. She holds up her fingers, stained with treachery.

“They broke 'em first. Don't you want a little payback?”

“Shift the parameters of the conflict...” He begins to smile. “Who are the enemy?”

“Everybody else.” She shows her teeth, gun held ready. “No Mercy, Sheldor. Let's hunt.”

Nowhere is safe. There is no strategy, no defence, against a pitiless foe. Panicked physicists head for the shelter of their hut. Their genteel little war-simulation has suddenly acquired teeth. Leslie pushes her mask up, stares at Leonard with genuine shock.

“Is that Cooper out there?”

“He's lost it.” Howard rubs his neck. He's been jerked round and used as a human shield against Raj, and his ammo has been stolen. “Has he been watching 'Predator'?”

Kripke stumbles in through the door, already mortally marked.

“Youw giwfwend just shot at me. Dumb bwonde doesn't know whose side she's on...”

Oh, she does. Leonard feels a sick lurch inside.

Raj, paralysed by the presence of Leslie, can only point behind him and flap his hands feebly.

An odd whooping shout. An answering call.

Then Penny kicks in the door, and they get one horrified glimpse of the duo silhouetted in the doorway, before the world turns to paint.

(Though he's fairly sure Sheldon just shouted “Say hello to my little friend” in Klingon.)

Someone has taken his gun away, and there's a boot on his chest. A large boot.

You're...cheating?” Leonard squints up at the owner, through a haze of paint and disbelief.

“Only physical laws are constant, Leonard. Everything else is subject to alteration.”

It is probably the most frightening thing Leonard has ever heard in his life.

Penny laughs.

“Y'know...mercy is the mark of a great man, Sheldon...”

Sheldon smiles horribly. Shoots Leonard again.

“Guess I'm just a good man.”

“Oh, you have to, now...”

Another splat.

“Well, I'm alright.” They chant together.

Raj wipes the paint off his mask, looks between them. Sheldon, foot still on the prone and paint-spattered Leonard, mask pushed back and smiling down at Penny's bright laugh.

Oh, holy Shiva and all his whacky avatars...

Chapter Text

The cafeteria line, and someone taps Barry Kripke on the shoulder.

“Wew, hewwo.” He leers happily at the tall brunette.

“Hi.” She smiles back, all white teeth and blue eyes. “Are you Barry Kripke?”

“I am. And what can I do for you, wittwe wady?”

“Oh, just this...” The goddess puts her hands on his shoulders, leans in...and her knee powers up into his groin.

“My name is Missy Cooper. You don't screw around with my brother Shelly ever again, got that?”

Missy leaves the man in a world of hurt, sashays back to the door, and her shocked brother.

“I'da punched the asshole, but I didn't want to break a nail. Now let's get the hell outta here, I'm taking you out for lunch.” Missy thins her lips, and there is a sudden strong family resemblance. “I don't really want to see those friends of yours again.”

Sheldon looks back at the writhing man on the floor.

“Perhaps that would be wise.”

Missy has a friend lives out towards San Bernadino, the one who got married last time she was in town. Nature has taken it's course, and Missy has just been attending a baby shower. It had been the perfect opportunity, Momma said, to call down the road and see her brother. He doesn't visit, and he sure doesn't call or write her, it isn't like they are close that way, but Momma has been worried about him. They all have.

When Shelly came back home before, he was...kinda broken inside. Lord knows, she doesn't understand what Shelly does – knows it ain't rocket science, just likes to mess with him – but she knows that he's beyond smart, and that other folks have always torn him down 'cos of it. Oh, he's never had the sense to keep his mouth shut, but he's still her brother, and seeing him all huddled and hurt, hurt her, too. Felt her own chest get tight when Momma told her about the radio show. It's the dog-dirt on his bike, and the fire-crackers in his locker, over again. She'd thought they would know better, guesses from looking at them that they'd had the same kind of thing happen through their lives.

She'd hoped like hell he was gonna smack a few heads when he went back, but she knows he won't. Shelly doesn't do well with change, clings to what he knows. Takes some kinda dynamite to shift him.

00000000000000000

Penny knows exactly how much trouble she's in. Terry had breezed by, said,

“Crazy Hamburger Guy just came in with a girl...”

She'd felt sick to her stomach, hot-cold rush. Already heading out with her order pad. Table isn't in her section, but everyone knows that he's hers...her customer.

Can't even begin to find the words for the relief when she sees Missy. Nothing false in her delighted welcome. Tells herself she was all set to run off another grad student, (hoped to hell it wasn't that Martha) – knows she's lying to herself, and damn.

Missy doesn't have her brother's smarts, but she knows some things. Doesn't miss the way he smiles at Penny, the way she's already got his order noted, the fact that her fingers brush his shoulder and he doesn't go through the roof.

“She still live across the hall?”

Sheldon's lips purse, and his nostrils pinch.

“She does. She is also involved in an ill-advised relationship with Leonard.”

“Leonard?” Missy blinks. “Short, glasses, looks kinda like Snowball?”

Sheldon entertains a brief, happy fantasy involving a CAT scan.

“Yes.”

“Huh.”

“I attempted to point out the error from the start, but they didn't heed me.”

“If she likes your friend, then there isn't a blame thing you can do about it, and you gotta stay out of it.”

“Their 'relationship' is nothing but a succession of coital encounters punctuated by alcohol and arguments.” They share a whole childhood of memories in one mutual glance. “She does not smile as much any more.”

The first time she has known him take notice of another person. Sheldon stirs his dinner aimlessly with his fork, then looks up, bright blue shock of his gaze, face twitching.

“He is an insecure man, seeking external validation by means of sexual congress. Any attractive female would fill that hole in his psyche. He wishes to be with her simply because she is blonde and beautiful, not because she is...Penny.”

“Shelly, do you like that girl?” she blurts. Wants to pull her tongue out. Sheldon goes rigid. Hectic flush on his cheekbones, and his eyes skate away from hers.

“I initially supposed that my discomfort was due solely to the interruption of my schedule, the disruption of the equilibrium established between myself and Leonard. My supposition may have been...slightly misplaced...”

Missy watches him, shame and confusion on his face, as words like 'calculation' and 'algorithm' and 'equation' fail to hide the fact that he's fallen for his friend's girl.

Shelly takes his own time getting places. Always gotta think everything out. But it looks like her brother, for all his extra smarts, is just as dumb over a girl as any other guy. And now he's freaking out because he's discovered that he's normal after all, and he's got to join the rest of the human race.

“Shelly, honey, you can't go working out feelings on paper...” She looks at her brother. “Well, yeah, you probably can, but...if you gotta start thinking about it, then you're already there.”

“The whole situation is intolerable.” A dull flush suffuses his twitching face. “I have dedicated my mind to the pursuit of science...”

“Well, it sounds like your heart wants to pursue Penny.” His sister says practically.

“It seems that I am still afflicted with certain primitive instincts.” He looks quite offended by the idea. “I'm supposed to be evolved beyond base biological imperatives...”

“Don't you start this again. I remember last time...”

Sheldon folds up protectively, body-memory.

“I made an error. Leonard had appealed to me on scientific grounds, citing preservation of superior genes...”

Missy narrows her eyes suddenly.

“Did he go suggesting his in the mix?”

Sheldon looks revolted, and then thunderstruck. Missy is unnerved by the sudden anger in his face; makes him look like Pop used to, when he was on a tear.

“I had overlooked that incident in my calculations.”

Well, now. Missy wants to march back there and beat hell out of the little jerk. He sure knows how to push Shelly's buttons.

“Shelly, honey, you surely need some better friends.”

Panic in his eyes. But there's a set to his jaw.

“I have already come to that same conclusion.” He says, a little sadly.

“So you worry about you, and you let other folks go to the Bad Place on their own.”

Penny brings their check.

“You in town long?”

“Well, I got a flight back tomorrow. Figured I'd stay one night, and see my brother...”

“...Spy on me for Mom...”

“Guess I better look for some place to stay tonight.”

“You could stay at mine.” Penny offers.

“Penny, my sister is nearly as tall as me.”

“I'll take the couch.”

Missy has no idea what that exchange is all about, but they both seem to understand each other.

00000000000000000

Sheldon stares around Penny's apartment in exasperation.

“Good lord, woman, how do you manage to find anything in this chaos?” He's already collecting magazines together. “Actually, how can one woman create this much chaos?”

“Terrifying space monkeys did it and ran away?”

“Don't think that your clever popular culture references will save you.” He places the neat pile of magazines on the table. “I dread to think what state your bathroom is in...oh, sweet heaven.”

He dives out of the door. Penny serenely continues to make tea.

“He's only gone to fetch his rubber gloves.”

Missy watches in amused disbelief when her brother reappears, in the gloves, and stalks towards the bathroom with a look of grim purpose.

“I am not letting my sister expose herself to whatever pathogens you are harbouring in here...”

“I cleaned it on Sunday.” Penny assures Missy, “But some people are too goddam picky.” She calls towards the bathroom.

“Some people have standards.” Floats back the reply.

“Fine. Knock yourself out.”

He nearly does, straightening up incautiously to retort, and there is a yelp as the top of his head collides painfully with the sink.

Penny instantly scuttles through, yanking his head forward to check for injury.

Missy stifles a laugh. He's grousing about CAT scans and concussion, and Penny pulls him up with a look, makes him go meek and pouting, standing there with his knees slightly bent, while she runs her fingers gently through his hair. Sigh of relief.

“It's just a little bump. You're not even going to have a bruise.”

Sheldon is presented with a dilemma – he now has an eye-line right down the front of her top. Manners dictate that he close his eyes, but his memory has already collated the presented visual with past tactile impressions...

“You could kiss it better?” Missy's evil suggestion causes Penny to rock back on her heels, and Sheldon to glare at his sister. She gives him a limpid blue gaze. “It's what Momma always did when you were tiny.”

“Penny is not my mother.” Sheldon says through his teeth. “And I am no longer five years old.”

“Even if you do still want 'Soft Kitty' sung to you when you're sick.” Penny mutters. Missy, who has the Cooper family hearing, widens her eyes in true shock.

Oh, Momma is gonna be praisin' Jesus from here 'til Christmas. Shelly's found a girl. Neither of 'em might be admitting to it yet, but they're fussing round each other something fierce. Guess there really is someone for everyone out there, though she's never been able to figure what kind of girl would ever put up with her brother.

000000000000000000

The take-out pizza has been consumed, and pronounced not quite as good as their own, when Leonard comes knocking at the door.

It's an awkward situation. At least one of the Coopers doesn't want to see Leonard, so she's not going to invite him in. They lower their voices, but both Coopers can hear enough. Missy looks at Sheldon, eyebrows raised. He stares back, stony-faced.

“...haven't seen you this week...”

“...ing late shifts, Kim's sick...”

“...cery shopping with Sh...”

“...eeded food, too...”

“...bruises from paint...”

“...n't have shot him...”

(“When he has been denied what he sees as his rights, he becomes plaintive.”

“Rights?” Missy boggles faintly.

“Would you prefer I used the term 'mating privileges'?”

“Shelly, you don't go discussing that sort of thing with him...”

Sheldon unwelds his back teeth.

“I would be quite happy not to do so. Leonard, however, can be quite vocal on the subject.”

“Oh, he's a real prince.” Missy scowls.)

Leonard has pulled out the puppy eyes, the head tilt, the little grin.

“Y'know, you could come over to mine for a while later, leave them to catch up...”

She could leave them to visit for a few hours - it might be a little weird, but she trusts Sheldon in her apartment. The worst that will happen is that he'll tidy something away where she can't find it, but he always leaves his snarky little charts, she can look it up later. But - she doesn't want to sit on his couch and cuddle with Leonard, because he always wants to escalate it, and she's tired, and then he sulks...

“I still don't know why you can't all come over to our apartment?”

“Because you all attempted to proposition my sister last time, and made her extremely uncomfortable.” Sheldon says pointedly, from just behind Penny.

Oh, god, yes, Leonard had dropped her like yesterday's news, hadn't he? And yeah, she'd been dating Bryan at the time, but he'd come sniffing back as soon as Missy left the building.

Penny is too tired to get as angry as she knows she should, but she stores that away in an increasing pile of Reasons To Be Pissed With Leonard.

Leonard can't order Sheldon out of Penny's apartment, and he daren't quite bluster his way in. Narrows his eyes at the taller man. Who ignores him.

“Penny, Missy has a question for you.”

Missy leans forward from the couch and waves at Penny, thumb towards the t.v.

“You mind if I put 'Top Model' on? I love that show...” She grins. “And we can bully my brother into making some cocoa.”

Penny blinks hard, sudden guilty relief in her. Cocoa and brain-candy.

“That sounds good.” Steps back into her apartment. “Look, I'll see you tomorrow, Leonard...”

“Sheldon,” Leonard says, “Can I, uh, have a word? In our apartment?”

Sheldon regards him with a slight frown. But he is aware that if he doesn't deal with this now, Leonard will lie in wait, and nag at him when he returns to sleep. So he steps across the hall, and surveys the little unwelcoming committee.

Howard and Raj both look past him hopefully. Leonard attempts to look imposing. Since he's nearly a foot shorter, he can't quite bring it off.

“What the hell is going on, Sheldon? You, and your sister, over at Penny's?”

“For a man with a supposedly high IQ, you are being very obtuse. My sister does not wish to be subjected to your company, nor to the company of Wolowitz and Koothrappali. Penny was kind enough to offer her apartment as an alternative venue. Since the object of my sister's visit is to see me, I can hardly leave.” Clenches his jaw shut over the observations he wants to make, controls the tic in his cheek.

Raj looks up at his eyes, and very wisely decides not to push it. Howard isn't quite as smart.

“Yeah, but I've got Bernadette now, and Leonard's got Penny...”

Sheldon glares.

“If you could all rise above your biological impulses for five minutes...”

Howard sniggers.

“Woah, back up there, since when did you know about biological impulses?”

Sheldon growls. There is no other way to describe that noise. The others instinctively freeze. There's normally something funny about watching Sheldon throw a hissy fit. The figure in front of them doesn't look remotely amusing. He's always been a dominant personality in the group, but they tend to overlook the fact that he is physically bigger and stronger. But now he looms over them.

“Gentlemen, I find this conversation distasteful. I would rather spend time with my sister and my friend, and endure their pointless prattle about shoes, than spend time enduring the unpleasant macho posturing I would be subjected to here. Good-night.”

Even Leonard isn't dumb enough to try and stop him leaving.

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They don't sit up late, but they do talk, and not about shoes.

Her brother is a lot of things, but 'easy to be around' isn't normally one thing on the list – she's gotta put up with him, since he's blood, but she can see why other folks don't want to be bothering. But it seems like Penny has somehow got the knack of getting in under all the whacky. They do laundry and groceries, and they go play some weird-sounding games together, and there's movies and music, and it sounds like she's giving Shelly a life like normal people have.

“I'm glad he's getting out more. He could do with some better friends.”

Penny catches herself, remembering that this is Sheldon's sister. She's got no reason to have any divided loyalty. Sheldon shifts uncomfortably. Missy grins.

“You want to be glad Gig couldn't make it out here. He always says nobody gets to beat on Shelly but him.”

Sheldon's roughneck brother is the same height, but about twice the width. Sheldon scowls.

“Gig is a prime example of the direct correlation between enhanced muscular development and atrophied cognitive function.” Translates. “He's a brainless man-ape.”

“He loves you, too.” Missy smirks. “He rescued you from the Riley's chicken, didn't he?”

“Chicken?” Penny is delighted.

“That thing was a fiend with feathers.”

Penny laughs, as Sheldon grumbles, and Missy watches them.

She doesn't know whether to shake the girl, or give her a hug. Wants to tell her to be real careful with Shelly, not to play with him, because he don't work like that. Momma always likens him to a deer, but Missy thinks he's more like one of them armadillos, hiding in his armour, and like as not to dash his brains out if he gets spooked.

But she doesn't know Penny well enough, and she knows Sheldon all too well. So she sits and bites her tongue.

If he's set himself to wait this out, it's gonna hurt him, but he's stubborn. There ain't a thing to move him, when he's made his mind up. Can't be fun for Penny, either, caught in the middle, even if she don't properly know that she is yet.

Well, it isn't like that Leonard is a prize, either as a friend or as a boyfriend.

Momma might talk about turnin' the other cheek, but Missy reckons that only lets someone hit you again. Coopers is more about an eye for an eye, and they don't lay a grudge down easy. She doesn't want to see him go getting into random tussles and tearing up bars like Gig does, but she can't always be there to go punching the world in the groin for him.

Watches him watching Penny, and thinks that maybe he's found some reason to bring out some of that iron now.

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Penny is woken up by Sheldon making breakfast.

Missy watches her brother, herding a sleepy Penny back to the couch with a mug of coffee and the stern injunction to stay out from under foot. Wishes she could take a picture, because Momma is never gonna believe this. She's not sure she does. Shelly, still in his robe and pyjamas, scrambling eggs in some girl's kitchen.

Penny, overcome with a sudden urge to go up behind him, put her arms round him and lay her head between those shoulder-blades, takes a scalding mouthful of coffee to slap her brain back to reality.

Reality sucks. Leonard has never cooked for her. He's never even brought her coffee in bed.

So she goes back to watching Sheldon, his hands, and his eyes, and his mouth, as he argues with his sister about grits, and bites her own lower lip hard, because she'd like to nibble his, and there isn't coffee strong enough to stop that thought sneaking past.

Missy thinks it makes a nice change to be the one waited on, and not just for her, judging by the look of things. She's assistant manager now, doesn't do so many floor shifts, but she remembers the aching ankles all too well. Still can't quite get over her brother looking easy round someone else's place, or someone being so easy with him.

They stand in the doorway together to see her off, both of them still in their night-things, and looking like they belong.

Momma might believe in the power of prayer; Missy reckons that sometimes the Lord needs an earthly instrument giving things a little shove.

“You look out for him, huh?” Hard meaning in her tone.

And Penny catches her gaze, and colours faintly, as she nods.

“I'll take real good care of him.”

Some complicated feminine communication that Sheldon knows he wouldn't understand even if he were any better at interpreting human expressions, and they hug with what seems a genuine friendliness.

Missy turns a look on him, arms out. Sheldon sighs, shuffles, and bestows a hug. He's getting better at it. She curbs her smile, until she's heading down the stairs.

Penny is aware of the warmth of him behind her. Wonders exactly how high he'd leap if she leant her head back into the angle of his shoulder.

Sheldon looks down at the top of her blonde head, and discovers an urge to see if she still smells of flowers.

But there is a serpent in every Eden, a flaw in every design, a little homunculus heading out of his own front door to work.

Penny looks between them. She is so not up for this crap this morning. She's full of good eggs and coffee, and she's not going to be brought down. Smiles sweetly, and pushes Sheldon gently out of her door. He goes, obedient to the small hand, though equally reluctant to deal with Leonard. Digs his heels in briefly.

“Wash that egg-pan up before you go to work, Penny.”

“Yeah, yeah.” This smile is proper Penny, warm and wry. “Thanks for breakfast, Moon-pie. Now go get ready to play with your string thingies.”

“String thingies?...” Huffs at the closed door. “Honestly.”

Leonard looks at him.

“You made breakfast?”

“Of course. You can't trust someone from Nebraska to know how to make proper grits.” Sheldon strides past him. “Oh, good lord, Raj will be here in ten minutes. My schedule is hopelessly disrupted due to my sister...”

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“Shelly's sweet on a girl.”

There's a thump on the other end of the phone as the handset hits the floor. Then Mary Cooper's wrathful voice.

“Melissa Cooper, if you say 'bazinga' to me...”

“No lie and no joke, Momma. You remember that Penny across the hall...”

“I remember. Pretty little blonde thing, don't look like she takes no nonsense...oh, now.”

“Yeah, that's the one.” Missy grins. “But she sings 'Soft Kitty' to him when he's sick...” Takes a breath. “...and, Momma, she got him to sing it back.”

“Oh, the dear Lord Jesus and all his saints. Now, you've not gone and teased him, have you?”

“I'm not Gig. And don't you be interfering, either.”

“Don't give me sass. Now tell me everything...”

Chapter Text

“Granted, she is the epitome of corn-fed, honey-skinned loveliness...” Howard holds up his hands at Raj's look. “I speak only the truth. I have a girlfriend...”

“You never stop telling me...”

“But...Sheldon?”

“Dude, you know that he gets grad students following him around every year. He can walk into a faculty mixer and pick women up. Even Leonard's mother likes him.” (Though Raj is thankfully unaware of how much.) “She's the first woman not related to him that he's taken any notice of back.” Raj points his fork. “I'm telling you, Sheldon has a deal.”

“Or a mating cycle. He'll probably challenge Leonard to a duel...” Howard's snort of laughter dies away, and they stare at each other. “He wouldn't, would he?”

“There's a precedent.” Raj points out.

“So...you're saying we'll have to somehow drug Leonard and make Sheldon think he's killed him, in the hope that he'll snap out of it?”

“No way. I say we let Sheldon go crazy, and post it up on YouTube.”

They both snigger, a little uneasy. There are far too many recent memories of Sheldon proving to be surprisingly dangerous with various sorts of weaponry.

Howard sighs, and his shoulders slump. Stabs his lunch bitterly.

“This is gonna screw everything up.”

“Oh, like it's all peachy-keen, now?” There's an edge to Raj's tone, something deeper than the normal complaint. “These last few months have sucked.”

“For you, maybe...” Raj glares at him. Howard jitters, shows his teeth in a nervous smile. “Ah, c'mon, you can't ask me to give Bernadette up...”

“That's not it, Howard. All I am saying is that you need to think about your other friends, too, you know?” Raj stirs his beefaroni moodily. “We were lonely and miserable before, but at least we were all unhappy together.”

“There is an old adage about misery loving company.” Sheldon folds into an empty chair. “I feel that 'Schadenfreude' would be a more appropriate description of the current situation. Or possibly 'Hohn', indicative of open scorn and derision.”

Raj and Howard both twitch. They aren't sure how much Sheldon has over-heard. He continues.

“It is all about external validation. Both Howard and Leonard suppose themselves superior, due to their acquisition of mates. But they feel the need to call attention to the situation repeatedly, which suggests an underlying uncertainty as to their continued position.”

Raj tries to kick Howard under the table. Misses.

“Oh, and you're helping that along, huh?”

Sheldon's head swivels to stare at him.

“Excuse me?”

“C'mon, you don't go rubbing another man's rhubarb, especially not an amigo's.” Spreads his hands in the face of that wide-eyed gaze, turns his own eyes up. “I'm talking about you and Penny. You trying to steal Leonard's girlfriend. Not that it wouldn't be poetic justice, but...”

Sheldon lays down his fork. The little click is like a bullet chambering.

“Firstly, I am not trying to 'steal' her.” His tone is sharp, precise. “Abducting a woman would be both illegal and immoral. Besides, she'd probably rope and castrate any man that tried it.” (They all wince.) “Secondly, Penny is a person in her own right, not some possession to be gloated over. The Thirteenth Amendment has been in force for some one hundred and forty five years, I would have thought it might have made some impression upon you. And thirdly,” Sheldon's eyes are hooded, his expression grim. Raj fights the urge to hide under the table. Manic and excitable is one thing, but cool and logical is when the whole 'supervillain' label stops being funny. “Should either of you repeat any of this...unfounded speculation to any other party, there will be...Dire. Consequences.”

He continues eating. Howard starts breathing again. His wide eyes meet Raj's terrified gaze.

Frack. Sheldon so has a deal.

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Leonard comes bouncing into the cafeteria, grinning all over his face.

“We got the funding for the new laser equipment.”

Raj and Sheldon exchange a look. They have not heard back on their project yet.

“Congwatulations, Hofstadtew.”

“Yeah, looks like those of us who actually do real, successful experiments are getting some recognition this year.”

If you were to ask Sheldon to list his ten least favourite people, then candidates for the top of the list are all around him. Barry Kripke and Leslie Winkle cannot stand each other in the normal run of things – she rightly considers him a sexist pig, his opinion of her is both unrepeatable and unpronounceable – so, to see them shoulder to shoulder and smirking at him is a profoundly uncomfortable thing. Leslie gives him a mock pout.

“Guess the deafening noise of crickets from your office finally got too much.”

Sheldon's face is beginning to tic.

And Kripke holds out his tray.

“Pewhaps you can get youw job as a busboy back, Coopaw.”

The snigger from Howard is more nerves than anything, but it starts a reaction.

Sheldon gets to his feet. It is a calm, unhurried movement, but Kripke wavers for a moment. The sniggering dies uneasily. They wait for the usual rant, the self-justification, Sheldon monologuing at the world. But he merely looks around, a blank and slightly lost look, and walks out of the room.

“Not so bwave without youw sisteh?”

But everyone has seen that half-step back, that moment of doubt, and Kripke's parting shot lacks conviction.

“Should we?...” Howard, mindful of the last occasion, is diffident.

“He's probably just gone to his office to sulk.” Leonard says. “You know what he's like.”

“Yeah. As long as we don't have to go back to Texas for him, again.” Howard grins. “Though maybe Raj could try talking to Missy next time.”

“Okay, this sucks.” Raj pushes himself to his feet, too. “Sheldon has been working his butt off rechecking every little thing he's done over the last year, because we screwed him over. He's been trying to pull his career back out of the hole we put it in, and you've been too busy with your 'girlfriends' to notice.”

“What's your excuse?” Howard's guilt makes him nasty. Wants to pull his own tongue out.

“I don't have one.” says Raj, quietly. “None of us do.”

Storms out. Howard dithers horribly, and dives after him.

“Raj, Raj, hey, buddy, I'm sorry...”

Leslie raises her eyebrows at Leonard.

“Did Koothrappali just speak in front of me?”

“Yeah.”

Kripke sniggers.

“Maybe he doesn't considew youw to be a woman? Euurghhhh.”

“I like the sound of Cooper's sister. Sounds like someone in that family has some balls.” Leslie dusts off her fist. “Which is more than you'll have if you make any more cracks like that, asshole.”

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Sheldon is rather disturbed by a latent capacity for violence that he has discovered within himself. He has always thought himself evolved beyond primitive instincts. The only thing that had stopped him punching Kripke was the certain knowledge that if he did, he wouldn't stop. None of the elegance of swordplay, no consideration for the noble art of pugilism. He'd have merely torn the goddam sonuvabitch's head off.

He's never considered himself a physical being. Momma always told him not to hit smaller kids, and after he started to grow about an inch a month, that was most of them. Besides, half of them were girls, and the rest of them used to gang up on him. He wasn't allowed to hit Missy back, and Gig was always bigger. Now there is a stirring, mingled anger and curiosity in him. How many beatings, humiliations, could he have avoided in his later life? The simple application of force. Folds one hand into a fist and contemplates it.

Correct diet, adequate sleep, callisthenics to maintain muscle tone. Other...needs are simple to deal with. (Quick heat and gone in his cheeks; he has never before thought about anything other than sensation, certainly not smooth, warm skin, soft lips and laughter...)

Now he draws in a breath, aware of the movement of chest and lungs, scent and taste of the air, sound around him, all his senses within this cage of flesh and bone. Bows his head, pain of his teeth on his lower lip.

He might wish to ignore his body, to be a creature of thought alone, but the machine will not be denied. And the machine has needs...desires, that have nothing to do with logic. Now he moves into a realm beyond mechanics. That nebulous hinterland of abstracts again.

This is not mere biology. That is a base need, that can be faced, acknowledged, and over-ruled.

The machine wishes to eat, to fight, to mate.

The man...wishes to love.

The word breaks in his chest, warmth and terror.

Chapter Text

The rest of the Physics department had voted. Leonard can bring Penny, or he can bring Sheldon, but the pair of them are not allowed on the paintball range at the same time ever again. Only - Penny was working a lunch shift. And Sheldon had elected to stay behind. (They try and convince themselves that it's because he fears retribution if he is on his own; none of them like to think about what he might actually do.) Leaves Leonard a little on edge, for reasons he doesn't want to examine. Penny is working, after all. Raj and Howard are still tense, too – he puts that down to that little spat in the cafeteria. Well, Raj will just have to suck it up.

(He won't feel guilty. He won't.)

Leonard is hoping that Penny is in, and that they can sneak out somewhere without their third wheel tonight. But nobody answers his knock, and his own apartment is empty. Of course. Saturday evening. With a sense of inevitability heavy in him, he wanders down to the laundry room.

“... he could have conceivably attained the position for himself.”

“So he turned down knowledge for sex? Sounds like a guy.”

“It is true that the Ancient World prized martial prowess and cunning...but Helen was supposed to be the most beautiful woman in the world. I doubt that he was influenced by any intellectual process. A not unusual phenomenon. Good evening, Leonard.”

Sheldon is sorting and folding clothes. Penny is sitting on a dryer, eating an apple in defiance of all the notices and Sheldon, and reading an actual book.

“Is he trying to teach you physics again, all 'the skies of Ancient Greece'?”

“No.” Penny holds the book up.

Leonard peers more closely at the cover. At first sight, he'd thought it was some kind of Harlequin Romance, some muscular brute baring his chest. Except the guy appears to be throttling a lion.

“Heroes, Myths and Monsters?”

“Some of the Greek guys were really freaky.”

(She'd wanted to know who the guys who peeked were. Sure, some of it still makes her brain glaze over, but she's not quitting. Once she started thinking of it like some great big soap opera, she could get a hold of it.)

Penny doesn't give any sign of getting down off the dryer. Leonard has to walk over, lean up, an awkward stretch to kiss her.

“You missed a good game today.”

“Hey, perhaps we could invite some of the StormFist for a match one week?” Penny grins. “Sven would make a lovely big target.”

“They'd provide better sport.” Sheldon's face gets that intent look that means trouble. “Mmm...I wonder what StormFist policy is on projectile weaponry?”

Leonard has a nasty Warhammer 40K flashback. Penny looks dubious for different reasons.

“...you are still not building that thing.”

“You cannot suppress knowledge, Penny.”

“Wanna bet?”

“So...” Leonard's voice comes out nasal, a little over-loud, “I wanted to know if you wanted to go out, get a bite to eat?”

“Oh, I ate earlier, thanks, sweetie...” Pitches the apple-core over his head into the bin.

“oh.” Pause. “Well, are you, uh, coming upstairs any time soon?”

Penny bites her lip. Her laundry is done, sitting in her basket.

“We were in the middle of a discussion.” Sheldon points out. Another blameless t-shirt is beaten into submission. “You could attempt to camouflage your satyric urges a little better. Even I picked up on that one.”

Leonard gives Sheldon a look of pure savage frustration. Is quite startled by the hard look he gets back. Slides his eyes away, back to Penny.

Penny is a little pissed. Yeah, they were talking. And it would be kinda embarrassing to walk out now, like she's at Leonard's convenience.

Instead, she peers at something, pokes her toes into the back of her Handy Pronunciation Guide, and holds the book out.

Leonard is rather hoping that he will end up at Penny's, but she dumps her basket through her own door, and comes heading straight back out, still clutching the book, and wanting to watch the dvd of 'Troy' on their larger tv.

He would normally rather poke his own eyes out than watch anything with Brad Pitt in it. But the alternative is leaving them alone, and sulking in his room. He has a nasty feeling that the two beside him are taking notes in the fight scenes. (He's right.)

He wakes up on the end of the couch, cramped and cold. It's late, and he is alone. And finding that the little note Penny has left him is addressed to 'Mr Tumnus' isn't quite as cute as it could be.

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Monday is weird. He marches into the lab, ready to set up some advance work for their new equipment. Leslie is already there.

“Oh, I got Fernandez to do it.”

Leonard's smile slips.

“I thought we'd agreed that I would get to do that?...”

Leslie gives him a considering look. She's got another one of her flash-frozen bananas.

“Did you know that in 2003, only 18% of all the physics PhD's in the U.S were awarded to women? We're far more visible in the field.”

“Uh?” He doesn't get where this is going. Leslie raises her hammer.

“Put it another way – ever pull one of your lame-ass sabotage gags on me, and...” Shatter of the banana makes Leonard flinch.

Leslie likes being a bitch. She's always had to be twice as ballsy as any of the guys to be taken seriously, and she makes it work for her. She's not having her career disappear into a space-time anomaly because Leonard is having adequacy issues. Props up her goggles.

“I mean, I would love to have seen Dumbass' face when you told him that he was choking, but you can't expect everyone to be down with the fact that you scrambled data. Makes people nervous.”

Even the Arctic hadn't been as cold as the fear that grips Leonard then.

“It was a joke...”

“Yeah, and he laughed all the way to Texas about it.” Leslie snaps the goggles down again. “Whine on your own time, I've got work to do.”

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He's actually giving Sheldon a lift home, which is something that rarely happens now. So they are going up the stairs together, when two girls in their early-teens pass by, and one says “Hi, Doctor Cooper.”

“Shannon, Lilah.” Sheldon nods pleasantly.

Leonard trips up a step, scurries after him.

“Okay. What the hell?”

“I'm sorry?”

“That. Them. Who were they?”

“Shannon and Lilah have been helping to fill orders for Penny's hair accessories.” Sheldon says.

“But how do they know you?”

“Somebody has to organize the labour force.” Sheldon fishes out his key. “Plus, I like to oversee my investment.”

“Investment?”

“Since Penny forced me to start getting my payslips automatically banked, I have found that I have excess funds at my disposal...”

Leonard knew vaguely that Penny still made a few 'Penny Blossoms', now and then...

...he hasn't done any tech support on the site in months...

...but he hadn't realised that she had something that was almost a regular order from the little boutique. Shannon works there on Saturdays. She and her friend Lilah like having a little pocket money, something they can fit round their schoolwork.

(It doesn't pay quite as well as baby-sitting, and the singing is kinda weird, but Dr Cooper makes awesome cookies. He's a little intense, but he totally has that hot brainiac professor thing going on.)

“...We aren't breaking any Child Labour Laws, I did research the subject.”

It's no wonder he never gets to see his girlfriend any more, Sheldon is always in the way, with his demands to be taken shopping, hanging round her friends, following her around in the laundry room...

...LARPing, movies, books, helping her with her business...

Sheldon only seems to have half his mind on his dinner, checking his watch. Leonard, at a loose end, (Penny is going out with friends) suggests a chess rematch.

“Only if you are prepared to play Blitz Chess. Raj will be here to pick me up in half an hour.”

“Oh.” Leonard blinks. “Working late?”

“Bowling. Raj is going to make an effort to speak to Raquel without the aid of alcohol.” Sheldon looks dubious.

Alarm bells go off in Leonard's mind.

“Isn't Raquel one of the...StormFist?”

“Yes.” Sheldon actually looks pleased that Leonard has remembered.

“Does that mean that Penny will be going with you?”

“Yes. Is there a point to this, Leonard?”

The point is that Sheldon is going out somewhere with Leonard's girlfriend again. Penny doesn't even look guilty when he confronts her.

“You don't like bowling, sweetie.”

“I could try it again, y'know, meet your friends. It'll be fun.”

“Leonard, you cannot just invite yourself along.” Sheldon picks up his bowling bag. Leonard turns wounded eyes to Penny.

Penny gives Sheldon a helpless look. He gives her a slight frown.

“It is your decision, Penny.”

She gives in. She should be doing things with him, after all. But she can't help feeling guilty, that it feels like her boyfriend is the tag-along.

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The evening starts off awkward. Most of the group have assumed that Penny and Sheldon are a couple; the short guy who turns up with them is a bit of a surprise.

Raj has choked again. Sad shrug, and Raquel kissing his cheek.

“I thought you didn't need to speak to get on with Raquel?” Leonard gives a grin which is almost Howard-like. Raj frowns at him.

“Dude, she's a nice girl, okay? I don't want to act like a jerk round her. Or these people.” Lines up his shot. “We're just hanging out here.”

There has been a little light teasing about Raj's inability to speak, but no more than that. They all still speak to him, whether or not he's in a place to reply. Like it's no big deal. He's just...the shy one.

Perhaps it's because this group doesn't smell of desperation. Besides Sven and Beth, Deena is also married; her husband is home, baby-sitting their four-year old. Calum is 'between girlfriends', but seems cool with it, Si has a girlfriend at Caltech, Dan is single and not really looking, Tay is coming out of a breakup. He's not sure what's going on with him and Raquel, but he doesn't feel this urgent need to score. If Sheldon can move outside of his routine, maybe it's time he did, too.

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Raj is doing some mad victory dance that involves pumping his fists and shimmying. Sheldon is rolling his eyes, and getting ready to destroy him. Raquel smiles.

“Raj is sweet in his own geeky way...We're going to try and get past this mute'n'cute thing. Preferably without him accessing his inner asshat.” She stifles a laugh. “We're managing with e-mail so far. I mean, a little light making out, that's okay, but I'd like to get to know him better. Find out if we have things to talk about, first. I'm not here to just scratch some guy's itch. Particularly not if we have to crawl down a bottle to get there.”

Every unwitting word hits Penny like a stone. Her cheese fries are sour on her tongue suddenly.

Deena is probably the most hopeless bowler ever, but she doesn't care, staggering off the side of the lane, giggling helplessly. Flops into the seat next to Penny.

“Even with Sheldon helping me, I still suck at this...” Settles her chin in her hands. “I'm just gonna sit and watch the master at work.” Rolls an eye sideways at Penny. “You given any more thought to coming along to our li'l gang-show? I know we were never gonna storm the Playhouse, but we're hoping to do something a little meaty this year.”

Beth chimes in.

“Yeah, we're talking with a couple of local schools, maybe get up a little Shakespeare...”

“You need to hear it in the original...” Sven holds up his bowling ball, dramatically. “taH pagh taHbe'...”

“Shut up.” Beth swipes at him, laughing. “You'll start Sheldon off.”

“Embarrassing, isn't it?” Leonard says, cheerful commiseration. Penny winces. Beth blinks at him.

“I'm sorry?”

“It's more that when they start spitting and gargling at each other, everyone ends up wiping their faces.” Penny says through her teeth. “Since they are both fluent, and all.”

“Oh.” Leonard gives a nervous laugh. “I just meant, y'know, shutting Sheldon up...”

“Have some fries.” Penny shoves the plate at him.

“They've got cheese on...” Leonard gets it, then.

Penny catches the look Beth and Sven exchange, and wants to crawl under the table.

She's with the guy that everyone exchanges the looks about. The one where people say 'well, we could invite her, but she'll bring him...'

She doesn't want Leonard here. Because he's embarrassing her, and Sheldon, and Raj, in front of their friends.

He doesn't fit with these people. And it isn't a geek thing – these folk own just as many weapons, comics and general geeky crap as the guys. He wants to make them like him, but he doesn't know how to go about it, except by trying to change himself. And he's getting it wrong. Trying too hard, his face earnest, anxious to be what they want, eager eyes and nervous laugh.

She fakes a headache, in the end. And she knows that everyone knows it's a fake, too. Even Sheldon.

But after Leonard thinks that she's coming home early to be with him, and then whines about her dragging him away when she makes it clear that she's not, it's quite genuine.

In her sensitive state, even the look the cabbie gives her stings.

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Raj happens to be looking in the right direction as they leave, catches sight of Sheldon's face. Looks away hastily, before Sheldon sees him. Catches Beth's eye instead. She raises her eyebrows. Raj gives a little grimace, shrug and half-nod.

“I am not sure what you are trying to telegraph.” Sheldon says calmly. “But it was Penny's decision to give in to the emotional pressure levied upon her. I certainly did not wish Leonard to attend this evening.”

“No.” Raj lets out a breath. “Was he always this much of a douche?”

“I...do not know.” Sheldon slams the bowling ball down the lane with vicious force. “But he is making Penny unhappy.”

“What are you going to do about it?”

“I am hardly responsible for the fact that they both seem to labour under the same crass delusion that the mere act of coitus equates to a 'relationship'.” The venom in his tone startles both of them. He draws a breath, and there is suddenly something lost in his face. “I...do not think there is anything I can do, Raj. Except be Penny's friend.”

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There's a soft triple knock on her door.

“I don't believe that you have any Advil currently in your apartment.” Sheldon holds out the bottle. “Beth says she will call you tomorrow, and Deena asked me to give you this.” A flyer for the theatre group. “And Raquel says,” Rolls his eyes up, “'Girlfriend, you and I need words.'” Rolls his eyes down again. “I do not think Leonard met with approval.”

“Sheldon, I'm so sorry...”

“His behaviour is only your fault insofar as he will do anything to keep having coitus with you.”

“Will you stop calling it that?” Penny's temper frays, guilt and frustration. “We have sex, Sheldon. That's what normal people call it. We hook up, we have sex, we fuck...”

She's on the verge of shouting at him, and she doesn't know (doesn't want to admit) why. Sheldon's face, very white, except for two spots of colour high on his cheeks.

“I am very aware of that. I have had to endure listening to it for months.” He lifts his chin. “I hope your headache is better tomorrow. Good-night, Penny.”

Closes his apartment door gently.

Penny bites on her fist. Doesn't know whether she wants to scream or cry.

Chapter Text

When she had found herself with what was basically yogurt in her fridge the next morning, she had really wondered whether to have her coffee black. She's the one that has difficulty meeting his eyes, but Sheldon had merely enquired after her headache. She almost wants to apologize...and yet, she isn't sure why, what for. But she gives him back the Advil, and he tells her not to take all the milk, and it's nearly normal again.

Leonard is pleased to see her, thinks he's forgiven for whatever he did wrong, though he doesn't know what it was. It isn't like Sheldon even cares that he's a geek. Leonard cares desperately. He wants to be one of the cool people, the ones who hang out in bars and clubs, laughing at cool jokes, wearing the right clothes. He wants to fit in.

A girlfriend was supposed to make his life better, the magic ingredient that would make his life work. He'd have friends and success and popularity. He'd be happy.

Instead, he's watching Sheldon get the good stuff again. Sheldon, who is tactless and clueless and gets in the way all the time.

(The guy who has supported Leonard through humiliations and relationship breakdowns, who tried in his own way to help, who lends money without thought, who stopped Raj from being deported, who genuinely wanted them to come and be part of his triumph.)

Sheldon can talk about football, and he talks about kites and Star Trek and comics instead - and people still like him. They are supposed to pick on him, laugh at him – they aren't supposed to invite him bowling, to movies.

Why isn't it him? (He saw her first.) He's been there the whole time, watched her go through a succession of tall over-muscled jerks, waited patiently for her to notice him.

Doesn't he deserve some reward?

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Penny doesn't receive many letters. At least ones that don't come in official envelopes. Though - there's something vaguely familiar about the scratchy handwriting. Actual handwriting, with an ink-pen...

Dear Penelope,

I do hope you will forgive me writing you this letter, but I understand from Missy that you are a good friend to Sheldon. Now, I love all my family dearly, but if you know him, then you will know how he can make a special place in your heart, and I will admit to you that he is my favourite grandchild.

I know it is a great imposition, but I feel that I can ask this favour of you. It's his birthday soon, and I never like to send food through the mail. So I'm sending you the recipe for his favourite cake. It's an old family recipe – I cleaned the frosting off my children as well as my grandchildren. One thing Sheldon and George ever did agree on was a love of chocolate.

I know he's not always easy, but my Moon-pie has got a heart big as Texas itself. Please be patient with him. He's very dear to me, and it makes me happy to think that there is someone else to care about him.

Yours sincerely,

Evangeline Lee (Mrs)

Penny has to read the letter through twice before she can winch her mouth shut.

Sheldon's Meemaw is sending her cake recipes for him?

She doesn't bake.

...Favourite cake. Family recipe...

She doesn't even own any cake pans.

...Patient with him. A heart big as Texas...

Good grief, if he grew up eating this sort of thing, it's a wonder he's got any frickin' teeth left.

...Someone else to care about him...

What has Missy gone back and said?

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“His grandmother sent you his favourite cake recipe?” Beth pulls a face, all wide eyes and pursed lips. “I had to marry Sven before his mother would give me her secret meatball recipe.”

“Must be good meatballs.” Raquel cracks. They all cackle.

They are all sitting round in Beth's back-yard, cold lemonade in hand. A mix of StormFist and theatre folk, in their street clothes. Sven and Sheldon are going to have a duel.

Sheldon had received the formal challenge via a text from Sven, and Beth had then called Penny, to issue a more sensible invitation, and to give directions to the house.

“Ever since Sheldon first mentioned Heidelberg, Sven's been jonesing to fight him properly. And he's got a new smallsword he wants to break in.” There had been a small, awkward moment in the conversation, before Beth added, “You can bring, um, your boyfriend if you want...”

And Penny had felt her stomach drop. She knows she should feel indignant, protective. But she doesn't.

“No.” She says, quickly. A breath. “No, it's okay, it's...not his thing.”

Weight of guilt and shame in her. Because it isn't his thing, it's her thing, it's Sheldon's thing, it's their thing, together.

Leonard is trying hard, he really is, tries to take her out for dinner once a week, and he's really excited, because they have a departmental party coming up at work, so she gets to go and meet all the people he works with (some of whom she has opened fire on with a paint-gun.)

But. She doesn't want to take him out with the StormFist crowd again, have them look sideways, polite smiles. She doesn't want to take him to meet Tammi or those friends, because she'll have to explain who he is, after they've met Sheldon. She doesn't want to take him to the roller-rink again, or dancing in a club. Or to any art show – they might run into Stuart, and he and Stuart are kind of...awkward at the moment. She can't afford good theatre tickets, doesn't want to be the one to suggest it and then have him pay. He doesn't like football, paintballing's no fun against people who can't actually shoot, he's no good at bowling. So they stay in, and play 'Halo' with the guys, or watch tv, or make out. At hers.

More and more evenings where she shows him the door – she can't, won't explain to him why she won't stay over with him. And she can't relax anyway. Not even when she's had enough tequila to make the room spin – all she can hear is an annoying inner voice (with a faint East Texas twang) telling her that she's still gonna feel like crap in the morning, and all the numbness will do is make it last longer...

Penny has had enough of wounded eyes and hurt feelings and feeling like crap about it. She wants to sit in the sun, and laugh with her friends, and not feel judged, or pitied, or have to make excuses.

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Sven and Beth have a neat little cookie-cutter house, doesn't look any different from any other one on the street. But behind the garage door – other people have tools on their peg-board walls. Not bat'leths and battle-axes and all manner of mean'n'pointy. Sven is not only one of the Weapons Masters for the StormFist, he also makes stage props, and the odd commissioned piece.

Penny supposes that if you look like he does, you can have as many geeky hobbies as you like. Sven stands six foot four in his socks, and used to play football in college. Even minus the horns, he's still huge and scary, every inch the descendent of Vikings. Since they are using stage blades, and not the usual moulded latex ones, he's wearing eye-protection. (Since he's Sven, it's a replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet.) He's wearing a gorget under his white shirt, but otherwise, he's armour-free.

Sheldon comes out of the house, shifting his shoulders, and running his hand round the edge of his own neck protection.

“Woah,” Raquel grins, “Check out Zorro.”

“According to Meemaw, one of my ancestors sailed in with Lafitte.” Sheldon fidgets with the nosepiece of the goggles. “I believe I rather more resemble the Dread Pirate Roberts. I do hope this eye-protection is sufficient.”

He's descended from pirates as well as cowboys? And now he's stalking about dressed all in black and looking lean and dangerous and swishing a sword around? The universe is really not playing fair.

Sheldon had explained 'academic fencing' to her, and she'd had a minor fit at the idea of anyone just standing there and letting someone try and cut their face open, fake blades or not. So they are using a classical French style instead. She's expecting something out of the movies, all flourishes and dancing back and forth. So the rapid savagery of it is rather shocking.

It only seems a weird thing for Sheldon to do, until she stops and really thinks about it. It requires logic, precision, swift reflexes and total control. And all his chosen game avatars tend to be warriors, after all. Under that would-be cool exterior, Sheldon Cooper thinks bloody.

And then she stops thinking about it at all, and just sits back to enjoy the sight.

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Sheldon is focussed and aware, blood and breath and muscles. He doesn't merely own this body, he is this body. Not a brain imprisoned, but a mind controlling the flesh, thinking and feeling together.

He had – not forgotten, he doesn't forget anything – pushed this to the back of his mind, irrelevant physicality. But now, the subtle geometry, the precise mechanics of it, come back to him. Beat, parry, lunge. This is not a game, but an exact, mathematical science.

It is also...fun.

If he loses here, there will be no mockery. He will lose if he is slower, less accurate than his opponent. But he will not be humiliated. Any bruises will be battle-scars, not inflicted in anger or gleeful spite. He's facing someone who does not mean him harm, who is grinning from the sheer joy of the sport.

And Penny is watching him. She is smiling and golden. Not tired and sad-eyed. Here, now, he is doing something that makes her happy, too.

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Sven does win, but not easily. And they settle into a cheerful post-mortem of the fight, re-enacting manoeuvres in three quarter time, some of the spectators drifting into the conversation.

She watches him, busily lecturing, debating, dangerous angular sweeps of his arm, and the laughter, and some of it is his. He doesn't try to change himself, doesn't even think of a need to change himself. He's just Sheldon, who can be utterly tactless and unwittingly kind in the space of a sentence.

A little cold fear worms through Penny.

He doesn't need her here. She introduced him to these people, but he's the one who made something of it, who talks and fights and makes his own place.

She could lose this, she could be left behind. Sudden scary vision of days ahead, the invitations out tailing off. Places she can't go, people she can't visit, her world shrinking to her job and evenings in with a man she doesn't talk to.

And then Sheldon looks across, aware of her gaze, and he smiles. A happy, private, friendly smile.

No. She won't lose this. She won't lose him.

Chapter Text

It's been a complicated logistical problem, getting them all to Caltech for the evening. Five people will fit in one vehicle, six people won't. So Raj has offered to drive, too – tries not to grit his teeth about playing taxi-cab for Howard and Bernadette, but there is nothing fake in the warm thanks from his friend.

Howard doesn't want to lose his best friend. He'd been a little hurt over the movies, the bowling, but he gets it, he really hopes that Raj meets someone who makes him happy, the way Bernadette makes him happy, and then maybe they can all go out sometime. Double-dating with Leonard and Penny has an edge to it, now, the urge to say something balanced by a healthy dose of fear, of what Sheldon might do.

He's not in the firing line over funding in the JPL, but he doesn't want anyone to start looking sideways at him, wondering if he's capable. The space-toilet was enough of a (literal) crapfest. Sheldon didn't rat them out before, but...that was Sheldon the known quantity. Rules, strikes and routine, the tall, arrogant pain-in-the-ass who could be relied upon to end up at the bottom of the heap.

Whatever is going on inside that head, the result is a quieter and somehow more unpredictable Sheldon. A Sheldon who has announced his intention of taking the front seat in Raj's car. So they are waiting for him to appear.

They are expecting plaid. Instead, Sheldon stalks out, looking mutinous and settling the cuffs of his old Church suit.

“...see, you don't need the vest, too.” Penny is telling him.

“I still don't see why you felt the need to wantonly destroy my other suit.”

“She's dressing him now?” Howard murmurs quietly to Raj.

Penny is of the opinion that the only fashion statement these guys have ever made is one that says 'help me'. A ruthless pre-emptive strike was her only option, pure self-defence. Howard is Bernadette's problem, and Raj will have to fend for himself, but she'd been seen in public with that disaster of an outfit once, and that was enough.

“I had your sister's blessing.”

(“Shelly gets it from Momma - Lord knows, I love her dearly, but the woman has all the colour sense of a blind monkey.” Purses her lips. “And burn the pieces. The boy can sew.”)

The migraine-bright necktie saves him from looking like an undertaker, and she suspects there may be some heinous socks going on, but really, the only problem with getting Sheldon into that dark suit is that it gives her the immediate guilty desire to rip it off him again. He simply has no right to look that good.

The unfortunate fact is that beside him, Leonard, in his horrible blazer, looks like a bell-hop. He cannot wear clothes. The only dress she has that won't make them clash is not a good colour for her, really, washes her out, so she has to make the outfit with a pair of strappy heels. This leaves Leonard and Howard literally talking to her cleavage. (Like they don't, anyway, but, still...)

Feels oddly bereft, walking past her own little car, seeing him getting into Raj's. But Leonard is full of enthusiasm, how she's going to meet all these bright and brilliant people...

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Professor Seibert surveys the room. There is another man, a stranger, beside him. He is much shorter, a stocky precise little figure. His suit is quietly smart, something in the lines of the tailoring proclaim a European origin. Thinning hair of a slightly meretricious black, and piercing dark eyes, that twinkle with a certain amusement as the other man complains gently.

“I don't understand why you have to adopt this cloak and dagger approach, you know.”

“Because, mon ami, the work alone can only tell you so much.” A sniff. “You remember that I told you of that imbécile who was foisted upon us from Stanford?”

“I do.” Seibert concedes the point with a duck of his head.

“So...one must observe, gauge the measure. Thus, I am merely here to visit my old friend.”

Doctor Gablehauser enters the room, looks around, heads over in response to the small gesture of welcome from Seibert.

“Eric, I'd like you to meet Professor Achille Poligny. Professor, this is Dr Eric Gablehauser.”

“Ah, the man who has the so unenviable task of managing the bear-garden?” A small, strong, well-kept hand. “My commiserations. Much is written of the temperament of the opera singer, the pop star, but it is as nothing to the temperament of the scientist.”

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Leonard wanted to show up with her on his arm. She gets that. A succession of faces and names, and her own face is starting to hurt from the polite little smile. He's introduced her as “my girlfriend, Penny”, but they haven't really stopped to talk to anybody particularly.

Howard is touchingly proud of Bernadette – but she can talk science, she belongs here. They have a little clique of engineers around them.

Sheldon is talking to, or at, Professor Laughlin. She wonders whether she should intervene, but he has Raj with him, and she doesn't want to shut him down when they might be talking work.

She's standing with Leonard, and Leslie Winkle, and a couple of guys who turn out to be part of a quartet. (Leonard seems oddly uncomfortable about it, but Penny is just a little sad that he's never asked her to listen to them play. He's never even asked her if she likes classical music.) She's just as left out of this conversation, as she is with the science.

And then the evening develops a new level of crapitude, with the arrival of Kripke.

“Hewwo,” He's feeling brave. They are in a public place, and she hasn't got a paint-gun. “You bwought an actual date, Hofstadteh? Or is she hewe to sewve the dwinks?”

Penny's mouth falls open. He didn't...

“Penny's off-duty this evening.” Leonard actually chuckles. Oblivious to the insult, making nice with the bigger kids.

“Yeah,” Leslie deadpans, “Barbie's got a new outfit. Must be a new career.”

Okay. What the hell? Like her job is funny to him, to these people? Yeah, most of the time she's a waitress. And yeah, it sucks, the pay's lousy and the hours can stink. But she's not ashamed of it.

Is this why she's been steered around so fast? She'd thought that maybe he'd thought she'd be bored. Now she's wondering if he thinks they will.

Screw this. She's gonna have a proper drink.

One step towards Kripke, which drops him in a knock-kneed crouch. Penny sneers at him.

“I've castrated prettier pigs than you.” Glares at Leslie. “And I'm from Nebraska. Makes me Cowgirl Barbie.” The smile she turns on Leonard has cyanide in the saccharine. “You stay and make nice with your brainiac buddies, sweetie. I'm going to powder my nose.”

She's not gonna embarrass herself by screaming at him.

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“Good evening, mademoiselle. Or, pardon, is it doctor?”

A small, precise man, gives her a funny little bow.

“Oh, I'm no scientist.” Penny gives her social laugh. “I don't understand anything about what they do here.” (Which has been made very obvious to her.)

“Ah, but I have been married for forty years, and my wife, she does not understand my work, no, but she understands me.” Spreads his hands, tilts his head, twinkles at her. “To the world I may be a great scientist, to my wife, I am merely Achille, who has forgotten again to eat his dinner, until his silly little chalks are taken from him.”

This laugh is not the polite social one, but genuine. (She has taken a marker out of Sheldon's hand, replaced it with a mug of cocoa, before now.) Poligny is pleased.

“So, we do not talk of the little quarks.” Flip of his fingers. “Instead, you must tell me how you come to be here, drinking this...interesting vintage, with a poor old visiting professor...”

Whoever the funny little man is, he is polite and charming, and she's grateful for the fact that someone has come to talk to her, and isn't treating her like an idiot. Or a decoration. He might be French, but he's visiting from England, and they talk of the West End and Stratford. (She thinks she might go along with Beth and Deena sometime, after all, see if an actual stage is any better.)

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Ten minutes cheerful conversation, and she's a little calmer now. Can find a genuine smile for the tall and awkward shape lurking by the door.

“You not having any fun, either?”

“I never have fun at these gatherings.” Sheldon looks glum. “I don't understand the point of them.”

“That's because you're you.” Penny sighs, but she's still smiling. “You're supposed to make nice with people.”

“I don't do 'nice'. Leonard has often told me so.”

“Leonard...” She bites that off. “But you can do polite, if you want to.”

“I still lack aptitude in social situations.” He admits.

She thinks how weird it is, that he had looked quite comfortable at Tammi's party, beer and football, and yet, here, amongst his 'own kind', he looks angular and tense and miserable.

“Well, I guess I'll have to help you, then.”

“Oh?”

“Hey, since when do we ever fight alone, huh?” She straightens his tie. “Queen P's got your back.”

There's a returning gleam in his eye.

“I do not think it would be productive for you to beat anybody with an axe. Though it would be satisfying.” He adds, wistfully.

He has no idea.

And then the evening turns to total ratcrap, when an unco-ordinated stranger gestures with an overfull glass of red wine. Penny's muted shriek causes heads to snap round.

The offender is backing away, and babbling apologies.

“The application of white wine might assist in reducing the chance of staining.”

Like she's gonna stand in the middle of the room and let a bunch of geeks pour drinks on her.

“Hell, no. Where's the wash-room?”

Sheldon is already escorting her out through the door, still offering helpful suggestions.

“Is the garment 100% silk, or a blend?”

“What?” Stares at him.

“Given your usual slapdash approach to laundry, I'm not surprised that you don't know...”

“Sheldon, if this was real silk, I'd have killed his ass already...”

Forget white wine or club soda or salt. This stain is never gonna come out. It'll cost more to get it cleaned than she paid for the frickin' thing. Hell if she's gonna stand around all evening like this. Time to improvise.

Snags his elbow, and hauls him in through the door. He squeaks.

“Penny! I can't be in the women's rest-room.”

“Chill out.” Penny waves at the opened doors. “We're alone. Now give me your shirt.”

“What?” Eyes bug in disbelief.

“I need something else to wear.” Fixes him with a look. “And I know that you've got a t-shirt on under there. C'mon, Clark Kent, let your secret identity out.”

Sheldon reflects that Penny is almost certainly his kryptonite. Reluctantly, he shrugs out of his jacket.

She watches him fold the jacket neatly onto the side of the sink. Long fingers loosen his tie and carefully slide it free, lay it down with the jacket. And then he starts to slowly undo his shirt-buttons. And damn, if this dress wasn't already trashed, she'd have wrecked it by drooling.

...Holy crap, she is watching Sheldon Cooper get undressed. Doesn't know whether the thumping bass is her imagination or her heartbeat.

He undoes the last cuff, and slides his shirt off his shoulders. He does have another layer on. It's a plain white a-shirt. A plain, white and rather tight-fitting a-shirt. He's no gym bunny, but he's lean and sinewy, under smooth, pale skin. He's so clean and innocent, biting that full lower lip, those big blue eyes wide, his neck and shoulders taut with nerves. (Sudden vivid memory of a previous occasion, involving a spider, and a small towel, and...) Under her scrutiny, Sheldon crosses his arms. And Penny's internal thermostat goes into the red, bells and whistles.

She snatches the shirt up, dives for a cubicle, before she gives in to the temptation to climb him like a jungle gym.

Shoves the back of her fist into her mouth, and uncrosses her eyes. Jeez, the guy only took off two layers, and she's already wanting to jump his bones.

“Sheldon, are you still there?”

Sheldon flinches back as the damaged dress flops to the ground, kicks out from under the door.

“Yes.” Clears his throat. “I do not usually converse with people in washrooms...”

(Penny is behind that door, in only her underthings, and Sheldon tries desperately to discipline his mind. Think of cool things, ice, icebergs, peaks of snow...no, that's not working...)

Several deep breaths, and her hands are shaking as she does up the buttons. She smooths down the shirt. (The material is still warm from his body, and she feels a quiver deep in her belly.) Hell, she owns dresses shorter than this. She knows that she's got good legs, and the heels are bitchin'. Undoes another button of the shirt. Does it up again. Opens the door.

Sheldon, folding his tie neatly into his pocket, looks at her, dressed in his shirt, and some primal part of his brain sits up and howls.

“I think I need a belt with this.” Her voice comes out huskier than she intends it to, but it seems to work. He's already obediently unbuckling his belt, eyes wide.

Okay, now watching Sheldon slide his belt out of his pants is just plain wrong, and she's chewed her lipstick off, and what the hell has happened to the air-conditioning in this place?

It's the scene Leslie Winkle walks in on. Sheldon Cooper, stripped to a wife-beater, a belt twisted between his long hands, and who knew that Doctor Dumbass had biceps like that. And Penny, looking like some kick-ass cover girl, draped on a door-frame and eyeing him like a steak dinner.

Sheldon picks up his jacket hastily.

“I shall wait for you outside, Penny...”

Holding it in front of him like a shield, and diving out of the door.

“Any particular reason that you're role-playing a little 'Streetcar' with tall, dark and clueless?”

(Though not that clueless, judging by his blush.)

“Some jerk dropped a drink on me.” Penny cinches in her waist with the belt, smooths down the cotton.

She's not gonna be psyched out by Leslie. Pulls out her lipstick, begins to fix her make-up. And there, in the bottom of her purse, there's a Penny Blossom. She straightens the crumpled petals. The colour hadn't gone with her dress, but it will go just fine with what she's wearing now. Fixes it in her hair.

Leslie, washing up, catches her eye in the mirror. Penny's face says 'bring it, bitch'. Leslie just smirks. Saunters out past Penny, and makes for the party. She wants to be there to see this entrance.

By this time tomorrow, the whole of Caltech is gonna know that Dr Cooper disappeared out of the party with a hot blonde, and that when they came back, she was wearing his shirt and her dress was trashed in a bin...

Truth won't get a look in. He'll go from 'dud' to 'stud'.

Oh, this is gonna be fun.

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Sheldon takes the wet handkerchief off the back of his neck.

Penny walks out of the rest-room. High heels and long legs and his shirt belted over curves, and her blonde hair loose round her face.

He actually feels his IQ drop.

Penny is used to guys looking at her. She's totally used to them leering.

But. Sheldon is staring at her in a way that makes the little quiver inside her start up again. He's – a man looking at a woman.

(She hates herself. What she wants to do is to back him up against the wall, and kiss him until neither of them can breathe.)

Sheldon is reciting the digits of pi frantically in his head.

(He is no better than any other man, after all. He wants her to put her arms up around his neck, wants her to kiss him again...)

But she does not cheat.

(...Wants to kiss her back.)

“We should get back to the the party.”

“We should.”

But he offers his elbow. And she takes it.

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“...We took a lot of heat from the NSF for last summer. They don't expect projects to be derailed because a bunch of grown men act like children.”

“Did anyone meet him beforehand?” Gablehauser cracks.

“At least he does not insist upon only the flat foods, or deny the existence of Tuesday.” Poligny says. The collective experience of academia makes the others wince and nod.

Seibert sighs.

“Eric, he might be a nut, but he's still a brilliant nut. The lapse in judgement here was letting him choose his own support team.”

“They room together, I had assumed that they were the best of friends.”

“So, you feel that we may have misjudged Doctor Cooper?”

“We have definitely been misjudging young Doctor Cooper.” Gablehauser's drink is paused by his lips. Seibert and Poligny follow his gaze.

“Nom d'un nom...”

This will be the entrance everyone remembers, afterwards.

Leonard nearly has a seizure. His girlfriend disappears in the middle of a prestigious party. And then reappears, looking incredibly hot, and dressed in Sheldon's shirt. There's no doubt about who it belongs to, either, because he's walking in beside her, looking long and lean and casual, and Leonard wants to kill him.

Poligny looks from the frozen face of the short man in the bad jacket, to the bright smile of the blonde girl, to the tense features of the tall man at her shoulder.

“You have assumed the jealousy, it is professional, yes? That may be a part of it, but I do not believe it to be the whole. When a man performs an act that is wild, out of character, one must look for a reason. I do not think the reason is so very hard to find in this case.”

“Cherchez la femme?”

Poligny winces a little at Gablehauser's accent, but nods.

“Oui. I shall have a conversation with this Doctor Cooper, I believe. Before his friend precipitates an unseemly brawl.”

“Surely not...”

“There is a pretty girl involved. A friendship can fracture over far less. If the Doctor Hofstadter is so foolish as to make a silly scene over this, there will be blood.”

Chapter Text

Leonard keeps trying to take her elbow again.

“You could have just asked for my jacket.”

“That wouldn't have helped with the fact that I was soaked, sweetie.”

“...but did you have to make me look ridiculous?”

“Excuse me?” Sheldon is confused.

“You disappeared with my girlfriend, and she comes back to the party dressed in your shirt...”

“I still don't see how that makes you look ridiculous. I'm the one in the undershirt. If Penny had dressed in your shirt, perhaps then she might have looked ridiculous. You are, after all, two inches shorter.”

It isn't the fact that someone spilt a drink on her, ruined her dress. No.

“So...” Penny touches the lapel of Leonard's blazer, “You wouldn't mind if I'd gone to the washroom with you?...”

And Leonard grins happily.

She feels cheap and stupid. That was why she was here. It wasn't to meet his colleagues, to be part of his life. He was just parading his blonde bimbo girlfriend round, to show what a stud he was. No, he wouldn't mind at all if people thought he'd been banging her in the washroom.

Leonard's not a 'nice guy', after all. He's a jerk.

He doesn't adore her. He just wants to bang the blonde. Same as any of the over-muscled jerks she's dated before. He doesn't listen to her, they've got nothing in common, and the sex feels weird because...she's so angry with him all the time.

And – this hurts, but it has to be said – she knows that people look at them and wonder why. And now, so do she.

Wonders what she was trying to prove. Who she was trying to prove it to.

...Admit that you like tall guys, guys who can do things, who can shoot and know football and have muscles. It isn't shallow. It's stuff you know. So, you don't understand the science, half the movies and tv and comics. You like shoes and dancing and pretty clothes. That doesn't make you a bad person, or a dumb person...

Time to deal.

She's tired of being treated like crap, like she's just tits and ass and blonde hair, and a convenient warm hole for some guy's frickin' ego.

Nobody's coming to save her from this. Her mess, her problem, her decision. Because she knows whose arms she wants, now, and it's not going to be easy or simple, and there's some major hurt about to happen.

Pressure of her finger hardens, propels him backwards, her face set.

“I got my dress wrecked in front of half the room, and all you can think about is the fact that you might have missed out on a little action? You really think I'd behave like that? That Sheldon would behave like that?”

Like this is some high school party. Seven minutes to heaven. Dumb jocks and cheap beer and the star quarterback gets the head cheerleader.

She's not even shouting. But the quiet intensity is drawing stares.

“We aren't working out, Leonard. And I'm tired of trying to make this something it's not. I want to be more than the trophy blonde, okay? And I want you to be more than the guy who struts 'cos he's got a babe. We're better than this. I...used to like you, y'know, when you were one of the guys across the hall, my friend Leonard. And I think we lost that somewhere.” Looks at him. “But maybe...we never had that.”

(Watching for the flicker of guilt, and it hurts her more than she thought it would, to be proved right and to see it.)

“Jeez, Leonard. It's always been like this, hasn't it? You were more concerned about getting into my pants than the fact your best friend had gone back to Texas. And I can't believe I let you.”

He can't defend himself, can't deny it.

Something snaps in Leonard's head.

“It's always Sheldon, isn't it?”

“This isn't about Sheldon, this is about us...”

(Sheldon, his face lost, his eyes dark, taking off his shirt in a public washroom with his long, clever hands, and she was more turned on by that than Leonard has ever managed.)

“But it's always about him! That's the point.” Defeat and despair and anger in his face. “He makes it about him. Every time. He's always in the way.”

“In the way? He's supposed to be your best friend, Leonard. Though I don't know why, the way you've treated him.” Click, click, click, the dominoes fall. “And...I'm fed up of just being treated as your little fuck-toy, too. I'm done.”

She's dumping him. In front of everybody. Walking away from him.

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“Doctor Cooper?” It's Gablehauser. “May we have a word?”

Sheldon eyes the men nervously. Wonders if they are about to terminate his employment. It would not be the first faculty gathering to end in this manner, after all.

It isn't even a conscious choice, that first step. But the next step, oh, that one's her choice. And all those after, unhurried but unstoppable, across that room and to his side, nudging his arm gently, her smile up at his startled face, that's all her.

She knows how this is going to look. And right now, she doesn't care.

They can all go to hell. She's not leaving Sheldon to stick both feet in his mouth here. Yeah, he's a grown man, blah blah. He's also got the social sense of a house-brick.

So perhaps it is always about Sheldon. So what? Perhaps he needs someone on his side, for a change. Well, now, he's got her.

She's not the damsel in distress here. She's the goddam dragon.

“Ah, ma 'tite, the outfit, that is ingenious, and très chic.” Poligny gives her a neat bow. “I hope that was not a so-favourite dress that received the little bath?”

Penny laughs. (Adults. Thank you.)

“I'm lucky I had a tall friend with a spare shirt.”

“Hardly spare.” Sheldon looks down at his undershirt, crosses his arms again. He feels practically naked under his jacket.

“He is like an onion, yes, with the layers?” Poligny smiles. “So, this is the young Doctor Cooper. I have been wishing to speak to you...you will excuse him talking the science, mademoiselle?”

Penny grins at Sheldon.

“It's stopping him talking that you might have a problem with.”

Sheldon's indignation burns away under the blow-torch brightness of her smile, her hand on his arm. He blinks at her.

Poligny laughs. Sheldon's gaze snaps back guiltily, and he stutters, flushes.

“My apologies, Professor...”

“Ah, non, it is perfectly natural, such a pretty girl...”

Penny indicates with her eyes that he should shake the proffered hand, and he tenses his jaw, but does so.

“Sheldon, this is Professor Poligny...”

There are maybe half a dozen people in the world who are capable of fully understanding Sheldon's work, and one of them is here in front of him.

Penny has never seen him go fanboy over another scientist before. The fact that he promptly does it in French nearly blows her mind. (His accent is more Pontchartrain than Paris, but he is perfectly understandable.) She finds herself exchanging a glance of amused surprise with Gablehauser.

“Professor Poligny is here on behalf of the Invisible College...”

Penny thinks this is a joke. It sounds like one. But Seibert and Gablehauser are nodding, friendly but serious. It is Professor Seibert who provides a quiet explanation.

The name is some kind of brainiac joke – the first Invisible College was centuries ago, a bunch of English guys – but it's kinda like the Justice League of scientists or something, (yeah, she's lost it, like, totally,) a small, informal network of the like-minded and brilliant. The majority of the world will never know their faces, or recognize their names, but in the scientific community, these are some of the elite. These people don't need to be invited to go to CERN, they can call ahead to arrange their own visits.

If this were a movie, these would be the folk who get roused out of bed by personal phone calls from the President, when the time comes to save the planet. Since this is life, they mostly just work quietly in small rooms, on campuses around the world, exchanging ideas, sharing knowledge, running experiments.

And they want Sheldon to go to England, to Oxford, to present a paper, discuss his research.

She wonders why Sheldon has gone so quiet and stiff. She thought he'd be running about the room in geeky joy. Then she looks at his face. Terror and elation are fighting for control.

“Honey, if you don't blink soon, your eyeballs are gonna dry out.” She gives him a gentle little shake.

“He is just a little overwhelmed.” Poligny says, kindly.

Sheldon manages a tiny, stunned “thank you”.

This...is how he felt when he got the Stevenson. When he realized that he was not the only person in the world who took his talk of the Nobel seriously.

This is real. It isn't the Nobel, but this is one step closer, a real actual step closer - these are the sort of people who might decide who's going get one, fifteen, twenty years down the line. This is his life and his hopes and his dreams.

This is the chance that was squandered before, this is redemption, and this is vindication.

“There is nothing wrong with my work.” He says, quietly.

“No.” Poligny smiles gently at him. “There is nothing wrong with your work. Even the negative results, they tell us much. The false nobility, it is for the schoolyard. Do not seek to shield them further. That polisson with the can-opener, it was not good, no, a trick of children. But we have all suffered the jealousy from others, even I, Achille Poligny. We must rise, rise above it, and not allow it to trouble us.”

They know. Somehow, they know of the treachery. He is absolved. Sheldon feels a knot of tension that he has been carrying so long, that he no longer registers it, give way. Penny watches his face light up, then, pride and relief and happiness. She understands, then, what they came so close to doing, with their dumbass stunt. Under the bright cartoon tee's, the comics and geeky movies, the weirdness, Sheldon is a genius, the core of his identity. And they made others question that. Made him question that.

The anger that flares through her then scares her. They know him, they know that he's a big bag of crazy who goes postal if you put a cup back on the wrong shelf. And they took him to the top of the world. Did they expect him to suddenly behave differently? Nobody forced them to go, and nobody forced them to stay. And for damn sure, nobody forced them to turn that thing on and off for how many weeks, and watch him unravel. Poligny nods.

“Perhaps you placed your trust where it was not wise. You will not do so again. We shall talk more of this in your office tomorrow, Doctor Cooper. But now, we may leave him in your hands, mademoiselle?”

“I'll look after him.” Penny promises.

“I have every confidence.” He twinkles at her. “And you, Doctor Cooper, elle est une fille jolie avec du charme. Vous êtes un jeune homme chanceux.”

Sheldon gapes, flushes. Then he bites his lip, and nods.

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Penny has been able to put her own problem at bay, dealing with his. But now it's coming back to meet her, nasty blazer and flushed face.

“I broke up with Leonard.” She says, abrupt. “I kinda realised that he didn't like me, he just wanted a hot blonde girlfriend.”

“I am pleased that you finally realised it.” Takes her breath away. But Sheldon doesn't lie, and he doesn't pretend, either.

“Yeah, yeah, you were right, but I don't need to hear you telling me so right now, okay?”

He nods, solemn. And she doesn't want to be here any more, she'd much rather be back on that brown couch, playing 'Halo', or watching movies, or doing something that's fun, because it's with him.

“You wanna catch me up, here?”

“It isn't really any of your business.” Sheldon says. “But I have just received an invitation to give a paper. I don't expect you to congratulate me.”

But he is, of course, intent only on Penny, all impotent weak fury.

“So this isn't about Sheldon? You dump me, and go running straight to him?”

“He's my friend, Leonard, and it's none of your damn business who I talk to.” Turns her head deliberately, “I'm going home, now.”

“That seems like an excellent idea...”

“That's it, run away from a fight.”

They both look at him with angry contempt.

“Penny is not some object to be fought over. Sheldon's eyes narrow. “In addition, I am nine inches taller than you, and I outweigh you by some twenty pounds, all of which is muscle.”

Yeah, Sheldon is surprisingly strong. If he punches Leonard, he'll probably break his jaw. The thought is both scary, and kinda hot. He turns an enquiring face to her.

“Would you like me to hit him?” Folds one hand into a fist. Long fingers, unmarked knuckles. She never wants to see those hands bruised, broken. “I...think I want to.”

(Oh, god, she shouldn't find that sexy.)

“No, you aren't gonna turn this into a pissing contest.” They are better than this. “He's just making himself look like a petty little jerk. Besides,” She adds, “I can do my own punching out.”

Sheldon nods, total agreement.

Leonard is trembling with rage and humiliation.

“And how do you think you're going to get home? He can't even drive you, and he's too neurotic to take a cab.”

But Raj is there, squaring his shoulders, and lifting his car-keys.

“...Penny?” he manages.

“Oh, Raj, thank you.”

Raj doesn't meet Leonard's betrayed gaze. He's made up his mind where he stands. Looks at Howard. The other man spreads his hands, turns to Bernadette.

“We'll get a cab. That okay with you, honey?”

“Oh, yes.” Bernadette doesn't understand everything going on here, but she understands enough. “And then you can explain to me what this Arctic thing is all about.”

Her tone brooks no argument. Howard bows his head meekly.

Sheldon gestures politely to Penny. She lifts her chin, takes his elbow. Their entrance had drama. Their exit has a quiet dignity.

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Leonard is left alone. Sideways glances, a ripple of quiet talk, bitten back smiles and open grins, frowns and raised eyebrows.

“Doctor Hofstadter?” It is the little foreign professor. “You have your petty little squabble with Doctor Cooper, because...he is demanding, he is driven, he makes the people around him a little crazy, too? Or perhaps because you too are clever, you too are one deserving of this recognition, but it is all of it his? Or perhaps...because the pretty mademoiselle, she smiles at him once too often?”

Leonard's own smile is frozen on his face. The quiet voice continues.

“It does not matter why you did it, you understand, only that you did.” Those eyes are no longer amused, but cold, dark. “Whatever provocation you may imagine, it does not excuse the act. And I do not speak only of the science. When a man places his reputation in the hands of others, and asks that they share in his work, to spit upon that, with the silly prank, that is...insupportable. If it were my decision, then you would no longer work within this establishment. Somehow, you have dodged this bullet. But the truth, it is known, and you cannot expect that it will not follow you.”

Leonard faces a moment of stark truth.

Whether it was a cruel joke, or some vicious monster from the Id – there is no way around the fact that he did something monumentally stupid.

And it was all for nothing. Because he has lost his girlfriend.

And he has lost his best friend.

And there is nobody else to blame.

Chapter Text

The drive home is quiet, but it is not uncomfortable. Penny curls up into the back seat. Sheldon takes the front seat, talks quietly to Raj about his forthcoming trip, how to manage the workload. (His eyes keep moving to the mirror, awareness of her, huddled and sad, and he half wishes that he had given in to the shameful and atavistic impulse to hit Leonard, definitely wishes that he had given in to the impulse to sit beside her. But that impulse is motivated by the selfish desire to fit his arms around her, and he does not know if she would welcome that. He is painfully aware that he is not good at being comforting.)

...Oxford. England. He's going to have to fly halfway around the world. On his own. Spend time with strange people, in a strange place...

There is nothing constant. He has attempted change, and it has not killed him. The world has not ended. Instead –

His new awareness. Professor Poligny had said that Penny was pretty, charming, that he, Sheldon, was a lucky man. Which leads to the conclusion that other people believe them to have some form of relationship...

...He is not averse to the idea.

He has always been alone, set apart, by virtue of his intelligence, the sometimes painful awareness of difference.

Nobody has ever chosen to come and stand by him before. Her hand on his arm.

(...“Hey, since when do we ever fight alone, huh?” Her hands on his tie, her eyes, her smile. “Queen P's got your back.”...)

He is her champion. And she is his.

If all she will ever be to him is the best friend he has in the world, then he will try and be content with that. But he is aware, now, of the desire in him to be something more, to be the man that she chooses to stand beside...the man she chooses.

Whether he can ever be that man – he is unsure. But he has set his feet willingly upon this path - a hero may find himself daunted, he must overcome many challenges. And his worst enemy might just be himself.

For Penny, he'll fight.

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Raj manages a strangled “good night”, and Penny bends, kisses his cheek.

“Thank you, Raj.”

They know this is going to be weird for a bit. But Raj has made up his mind. He works with Sheldon, he's discovered that he actually likes him, when he's not being a complete dictatorial maniac. He likes the friends he's made, the chance to just hang out with people, without it being a hunt. And...he likes Penny. She's still a sexy blonde in a guy's shirt, but the shirt belongs to Sheldon, and somehow the little switch in Raj's head says 'off limits' in a way it hasn't before. Something in the way they are, together. Whatever it is, it's too bizarre to be quantified, and somehow also very simple.

He watches Sheldon open the door, natural manners and something nervously protective. And Sheldon looks back for just a moment. Their eyes meet. This time, there is no hard challenge. Raj merely returns the little nod, and drives away.

He has made his peace. He suspects that he will get some kind of call from Howard at some point. Whether he will man up and confess all to Bernadette, or whether he will edit, and what she might think of him afterwards...

Raj sighs, but in a cheerfully resigned way, and drives back to an apartment that is thankfully free of hurt feelings, bruised egos, strange tensions or unspoken longings.

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They walk up the stairs together, and he stands irresolute a moment, as she fishes in her purse for her key.

“I understand that you might experience some emotional turmoil due to your break-up with Leonard, but I hope that you're not going to down some toxic amount of alcohol...”

Rolls her eyes. So perfectly him, tactless concern.

“No, Sheldon, I'm just gonna go to bed. It's been a...weird evening.”

“Yes.”

“I never congratulated you.”

“You were there with me.” he says, simply.

Devastating blue of his eyes, and he doesn't know what he does to her when he looks at her like that.

No. This is going to be a choice. Not a reaction.

She wants to press a soft kiss to his cheek, though, so she does. Because she kissed Raj, after all, and this is Sheldon, who means so much more to her.

“Congratulations, anyway.”

This is not the time, this is not the place for anything more.

But she risks one wide-eyed glance back at him, before she closes her door, and he drops his eyes hastily, looks back up, and three years roll back, and he's the tall, cute guy smiling shyly at her, quiet admiration in his candid blue gaze.

“Good-night, Penny.”

“Good-night, Sheldon.”

Biting their lips and peering back at each other, startled eyes and half-smiles, closing their apartment doors gently, carefully, as if they might break.

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It isn't going to be good when Leonard comes home. But - there is nothing that Leonard can take from him, now. He is, after all, the primary signatory on the rental agreement. He has done nothing that will require him to move, nothing that he needs to justify, to explain.

His work is sound. He has the good opinion of those who matter.

He allows the cautious beginnings of an unfamiliar happiness.

(And...Penny kissed him again. This is a thing apart, a separate happiness that is all his own. This is a bright moment that he folds away. Not a secret, but something private and fragile. A gentleman does not kiss, or be kissed, and tell.)

He will be able to work again. A weight lifted, the faint stirrings of thought uncoiling, energies waiting to be unleashed...

He's contemplating his whiteboard when Leonard comes through the door, and the sight is infuriating.

Like nothing has happened. Sheldon, back in his world of equations and calculations.

“So this is the big idea, is it? I mess with your work, and you steal my girlfriend?” The words burst out of him.

A year ago, even a few months ago, Sheldon would have caved. But - he isn't the child hiding in his bedroom any more. This man has no right to shout at him. This man has no right to dictate to him, or to judge him.

“The two are in no way comparable.” Sheldon glares at him. “Penny was never your possession.”

“She's my...” He grinds to a halt. 'Ex-girlfriend.' Finality, reality, if he says the words.

“Good lord, how many times do we hafta go through this?” Sheldon's accent twangs like a cheap guitar, a sign of building stress. “I have put up with this long enough, Leonard. I have obeyed the social dictates of the situation, but now I no longer feel myself bound by them.”

Any attractive female would fill that niche marked 'girlfriend' in Leonard's psyche. But for Sheldon, there has only ever been one woman who somehow got past his defences, rewired that gigantic brain and slammed on all the switches. The lightning has struck, and now the unwieldy monster lurches into life.

“You wished to be with Penny because it flattered your ego, not because she is...Penny. And now she has decided that she no longer wishes to be involved with you.”

Leonard hates him, then. Because.

However much he tries to change, to fit, to be 'that guy', he never will be.

Because - 'that guy' is already standing in front of him, arms folded and face cold.

Since that first day, when she had gone straight past him to Sheldon's white-board, sat in Sheldon's spot on the couch, wanted Sheldon to sit next to her...

He's been fighting a losing battle for three years.

“It isn't fair.” The wail of a hurt child. “I saw her first.”

Sheldon stares at him, honestly bewildered.

“I fail to see how a time lapse of a few seconds is in any way a factor.”

It isn't. It never was.

Beautiful, blonde girls aren't supposed to be with guys like him. He gets that. But - the horrible, hard fact. It isn't the kite-flying, the Klingon Boggle, the costumes and the comics.

It's him. He's always going to be the short guy with the screwed-up childhood. He's never going to be tall and confident and simply not care what the world thinks of him.

He doesn't like himself. Why would anybody else? Len-nerd, Four-eyes, the guy who ended up stuffed inside his own cello case. His father's voice explaining pack mentality to him, his mother calmly enquiring in what way he had provoked the response this time, a verbal or physical cue? (“Cringing is an automatic invitation to a natural aggressor.”)

Penny was supposed to make it better. Normal. Because he'd have a girlfriend, he'd be one of the regular guys. Hanging out, maybe catching a game, a few beers after work. (No jeering, nobody putting his head down a toilet.) He'd be one of Them. Part of the pack. Accepted.

Not hanging around with other natural targets.

She wasn't supposed to assimilate with them. She wasn't supposed to like computer games and costume play.

She wasn't supposed to go straight past him, to the biggest target of them all.

He realises that he was always waiting to lose Penny to someone. But he really thought it would be back to another meat-head jock.

Not to Sheldon. Not to a man who Leonard thought would probably rather laminate himself than have any physical contact.

But Penny has memorized his meticulous food orders, accommodates his routines, humours him and manages him and calls him on his bullshit. He's the one she turns to when she needs help. And he's always there for her.

And Sheldon calmly, gently, puts it into words.

“Because, Leonard, what I feel about Penny, or what Penny may ever feel about me, has absolutely nothing to do with you.”

“Feelings? My god, you're admitting to feelings?”

“Yes, Leonard. Simply because I choose not to mawkishly display them at every opportunity, doesn't mean that I don't possess them.”

Boils up, out of some primitive well of hate and hurt and self-loathing.

“Oh, come on, Sheldon. You don't even know how to behave like a human being, how the hell do you even think you'd know how to act like a boyfriend?”

Sheldon flinches, and then his eyes narrow.

“I have had ample opportunity to observe what not to do.” he says, nastily.

“You had to draw a diagram to try and work out how to make friends.” He wrenches the desk drawer open, flings the Room-mate Agreement at Sheldon. “It isn't contracts and questionnaires.”

Sheldon picks the battered dossier up, looks at it for one long moment. And then Leonard watches, ashen-faced, as strong hands carefully tear the document into ragged quarters.

“Consider this agreement null and void.” Sheldon deposits the fragments neatly into a bin, and his hands and voice barely shake. “It may be true that I do not understand friendship, but I am no longer convinced that you do, either.”

Nothing is constant. The rule-book literally thrown out, now.

“I never had a best friend before, Leonard. I thought you forgave friends anything. But...I don't feel like forgiving you at the moment.”

He comes into focus, then. A tall, tired young man, with his face drawn tight, and an angry misery in his eyes.

Leonard has a sudden chill. They have squabbled before, undignified tussles. Bickered and wrestled and argued. But - this isn't the man-child who will try and blow you up with his mind, this is a grown man prepared to take a swing. And Leonard is suddenly very glad he didn't push it further.

Sheldon isn't supposed to be like this. He's supposed to be obsessive, disconnected, childish.

Because if he's the neurotic, weird one, then...Leonard isn't. He's the good guy, the nice guy, the guy who puts up with the crazy room-mate.

Only now...Sheldon is the guy with the friends, the life, the career, the girl....

...and Leonard is the jealous, resentful guy who screwed him over out of spite.

He isn't the good guy here. He's the loser. And he doesn't know how to fix it.

No solace of prayer, or the bottle, or a loving mother to turn to. He doesn't even have his best friend, because he screwed it up.

All he has is himself. His fault. No excuses.

The anger goes, then. Swallowed up in fear and shame.

“...do you think you ever will?”

“I...don't know.” It isn't like Sheldon to sound unsure of anything. Weariness in the line of his shoulders, as he walks towards his room.

Chokes the words.

“I'm...sorry.”

Sheldon pauses, but he doesn't turn.

“So am I. Good-night, Leonard.”

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Penny eyes the bottles on top of her 'fridge. She should be weeping and halfway down a bottle by now, except... She just feels a great sense of relief.

Something slightly sad in the fact that there aren't many things to gather up and shove in a box, so few photos...

...Her passport. They had never even gotten to go away...

...a powerpoint presentation. Sad, solemn blue eyes. And surprise of his arms round her. And making him his frickin' soup. So he whines like a six-year-old when he's sick? So did Kurt. Hell, so does her father. And Beth says Sven is a nightmare, too...

…no jewellery...

...The 'business contract' for Penny Blossoms Inc. in her loopy handwriting, and the neat scrawl across the top of the page – 'Penny, note that this is in no way legally binding' – but he'd signed it anyway. Sheldon had simply handed her the wedge of notes without hesitation. She could have splurged the lot on any one of half a hundred neat bargains on-line. But – he had trusted her, where she wasn't sure whether she could trust herself. So she'd drawn this up...

...no funny toys...

...Sheldon had won the stuffed gorilla that sits darkly in the midst of her brightly-coloured bears (which are now arranged by chromatic shade along their shelf...)

...no 'borrowed' sweaters. A bottle of perfume, that she's used once – something in the smell of it, it's a scent for an older woman – that can go. And so can the half-bottle of wine turning to vinegar on the counter – had enough of red wine this evening, thank you very much...

...little box of fancy chocolates. She'd developed a taste for them...

...“He tried to train you!”

“Oh, yeah, but I figured it was just him being him, and hey, it was really good choc...” Her eyes narrow suddenly, “But - you knew? And you didn't try and stop him?”

“He squirted me with water.” That sounds as truly pathetic as it is....

How had she let that go? Why had she let that go? She'd raked Sheldon over for it, received a Sheldon-y sort-of apology - “next time, I will simply ask you to modify your annoying behaviour.” And he had. But she can always yell at Sheldon, they are up-front and in each other's faces about things.

Was she simply trying to be the good girlfriend again? Not rock the boat, smooth over the little things?

There are some tears, but they are mostly temper and a little self-pity, that she has been so stupid. She can mourn the passing of the idea of something, rather than the thing itself.

Clean sheets on her bed, and she has a bath, hot as she can stand, scrubs at her skin and hair, as if she can wash away the bad decisions, the settling, six months of indifferent sex and alcohol and trying too hard running down the drain with the soap.

And then she picks the shirt up off the floor, wraps the cool fabric back around her bath-warm body. Allows herself to think without guilt, of blue eyes and long fingers and what it might be like to feel that mouth on her skin.

It is the hardest thing that she has ever done, not throwing herself at him.

She could, wants to, wreck that sweet innocence of his, rock his world. But...

If this happens...when this happens, it's going to be right. Because this won't be a few months of trying and maybe, this will be something – stronger and scarier, and no way back if it all goes wrong.

Because she could love him, so very much, so very easily. Her sweet, crazy whackadoodle.

He's hard work. Life with him is a constant round of negotiation, compromise and more than a little frustration.

But - He doesn't make her tired. She's not hauling him round like some dead weight behind her.

She might want to get him out of those layers, and she's damn sure now that he's not immune to her. But they are friends, too. They were friends first.

He likes her. Penny.

He's not tried to change himself for her, except to bring out the things that were already there in him, the kindness and the sweetness and yeah, the love.

She's going to have to be strong, and patient.

Remembers those darkening eyes, the expression on his face when he looked at her.

...Perhaps not that patient, though.

Chapter Text

The apartment has a quiet, wounded feel the next morning. The elephant in the room has died, and now they have to deal with the remains. Though - seven years of habit is not so lightly broken – the coffee pot is on, when Leonard walks into the kitchen. Something in that little gesture hurts.

He wonders whether to call in sick.

Going in to work, facing stares and snickers...that sudden vertiginous tip of perspective again. Is this what it was like? He can no longer dismiss that trip to Texas as childish pique. Sullen defeat in him still, and that little war of shame and anger. He's glad that Sheldon does not come out of his room. Things are still too raw.

How will this work? Will he have to find somewhere else to live? Should he? The sheer thought of what his mother would say if he turned up on her doorstep with this tale...curdles the coffee in his stomach, and he can't face breakfast.

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Sheldon catches sight of his eyes in the mirror whilst shaving. Odd little double-take, as he is surprised by his own reflection.

He knows his own thoughts, wonders how you read them in a face. High, smooth forehead, strong arch of his eyebrows over large eyes. Under the lather, his jaw is taut, mouth drawn, but he no longer feels the intense pressure that has been welling behind his sinuses, welding his teeth together and cramping his jaw muscles. The very release of it has left him with a headache.

What happens now? He has discarded old patterns, old behaviours. Stills his hands. Now is not the time to face the abyss. The mental discipline of years locks down the incipient panic, and he continues to shave. This is real, this is now. He is Sheldon Cooper, he has his mind, and his body will obey him.

...he could use an electric shaver, but his Daddy had taught him with a blade. He has his father's hands. Incongruous on the man, those knuckles scarred, but the same long fingers around the battered Zippo lighter, obscuring the words that Momma told him he wasn't ever to repeat again. (Still doesn't know which one upset her most, the cussing or the politics.) Another slight shock in him – by the time his father was his age, he had fought in a war, and was married with three small children...

But he is not his father. He was chosen for, has chosen, a different arena, different battles.

Looks again at the face in the mirror. The dark blue eyes are steady, just a hint of the fear behind them.

He is a scientist, not a soldier. His world is intellectual, systemic study of the structure and behaviour of the natural and physical world through observation and experiment. It is the practical element that so often confounds him. But he is beginning to feel connected to the study, to the world, in a way he has not before.

He will face his fear, know it, and overcome it.

And so there is a very conscious decision in him to wear his favourite 'Green Lantern' tee.

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Penny moves through her day with a slightly spaced feel. She keeps waiting for the misery, the little voice that says 'on your own, alone, alone'.

It doesn't come.

She'd opened her eyes to a full memory of the night before. There is a little ball of anger and sadness in her. But she doesn't want to cry. Has no problem getting out of bed, getting ready for work. Something almost light-hearted in the feel of the sun on her skin, music on the radio.

It's like...when you've been sick, and then the day you first start feeling better. Tired, and weak, but getting stronger.

Wonders how things will be, now. How Sheldon will cope without his routines, how they will all cope with this change. The cosy little existence has shattered, the bubble burst.

She's on her break, and snorting at her phone, (Raquel, on hearing the news, has just texted her the iconic picture of Nicole Kidman waving her heels) when there is a tap at the break-room door. Bernadette, wondering whether to offer a cautious sympathy. Seemingly reassured that Penny was not going to break down, she has her own view.

“I told Howard he should go and apologise.”

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Sheldon is quite surprised to find Wolowitz at his door. The engineer has never sought him out before. His acquaintance with the man is through Leonard – his new room-mate had allowed these random people to sit at the table in the cafeteria, and somehow they had never gone away again. They have some interests in common, but...somehow, they don't have an ease together.

The slight scowl as he considers this is nearly misinterpreted. Howard is within an ace of bolting off down the corridor again. What stops him is the memory of Bernadette's tiny confused frown, her high little voice, “But why would you do that?” The disappointment in her eyes.

Why? Because – Leonard suggested it. To keep Sheldon quiet, to stop Howard lashing out at him? Looking at the man behind the desk in front of him, Howard realises that he wouldn't provoke this Sheldon. He seems more solid, more present, than he has before.

He hadn't wanted to go, really. Had known that the tall, geeky genius was going to wear his patience thin within days. But whither Raj goest, he goest. Because they are friends.

He's never been sure if he likes Sheldon. He sure as hell doesn't make it easy for anyone. Rules and strikes and everything his way. Howard has to admit that he envies that. The sheer strength of will when Sheldon bends the world around himself. Oh, Leonard can make him do things, but not in a straightforward contest of wills.

Yeah, he's an arrogant WASP who had two PhD's under his belt before Howard finished his Masters degree. It's intimidating enough, even if he wasn't nearly a foot taller. And the fact that he can just pick up women without actually noticing, let alone care about it...salt in the wounds.

...He's outside, always. He's not a physicist, not a doctor. And there is that dark underbelly of fear, that one day they'll turn round, replace him, leave him behind. (Leonard had taken Stephanie) Those few weeks, when Raj started working with Sheldon, and he was left adrift, had been terrifying. To have his friend taken away like that (for his friend to walk away like that) had left a deep-seated twitchiness.

And now, there is Bernadette. (Leonard can't have her) And this is something new and fragile and just as scary. He doesn't have to try so hard, not the same way.

This is far more difficult.

“Hey, Sheldon, how you doing?”

“I presume that the attempt at small talk will be leading up to some kind of conversational gambit designed to ascertain the true nature of yesterday evening's proceedings?”

And there is the fact that the goddam genius is always three steps ahead when he actually bothers to take notice...

“You know everyone's gonna talk...” Holds up his hands, swallows, “but that's not it...though if you want to spill, I'm all ears...”

“No. I'm sure that Leonard will provide you with his own version of events.”

He really doesn't make this easy.

“Look, I just...sorry.”

The blue eyes are cool, assessing.

“Whatever the motivation behind that...am I supposed to thank you?”

“Dammit, Sheldon, you were a giant, controlling pain in the ass, and you were driving us all nuts, stuck in that little hut with you!”

Sheldon lifts his chin.

“At least you have never made any secret of your resentment. I understand why you did it. I still don't understand why he did.”

“Really? Because I can think of one outstanding reason who went home with you last night.”

Sheldon's face actually freezes. Howard sees the muscles locking into place.

“Even then?” The words are soft, reflective. Rather more terrifying than shouting. The eyes snap up. “He betrayed me and he betrayed science, and you helped him.”

“Yeah, well, love makes guys do dumb things...”

“He didn't love her, Howard, he merely wanted to establish and maintain a sexual relationship to boost his ego.” The words and the tone might be cool and clinical, the expression isn't. “And there is no excuse for what he did.”

“....no.” Howard has to admit it. Attack as the best form of defence. “Are you saying that you wouldn't do anything for her?”

Sheldon simply looks at him.

“I have never betrayed my ideals.” He says quietly. “And she would never want me to.”

Howard drops his eyes, flinches.

“Maybe...I'll see you at lunch, huh?”

“Maybe.” Sheldon's expression cracks faintly, uncertainty, hardens again. “Please shut the door on your way out.”

On reflection, Howard thinks, he'd almost rather Sheldon had hit him.

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As it is, Sheldon does not join them for lunch. He ends up in a lunch meeting with Professor Poligny and Gablehauser, rearranging a schedule which requires him to co-opt Raj into the discussion. Poligny is inclined to be a little cool to begin with, but Sheldon is scrupulously fair in his assessment of the work they have been doing, and Raj is both confident and competent in the absence of anything female.

So Howard and Leonard end up at a table together, and find that they have no conversation which isn't like a mouthful of glass and ashes.

Howard takes a nervy kind of comfort from the fact that Bernadette had been even more shocked and disappointed by Leonard than she was by him. There is that, at least.

00000000000000000000

Her hair is pinned up anyhow, she's not wearing any make-up, she's in her comfy pj's. It's not like she's given up drinking or anything, she just doesn't feel like it right now. It's her life, dammit, and if she wants to stay in on her couch and watch old cowboy movies, that's her business.

Because she knows that she could dress up, go out, pick up a hot guy in a bar for a random night of fun and forgetting. Something in her aches for it – make the problems go away, curl up in warm arms, drinking and loud music and good sex.

But. Drinking will only leave her with a headache, sex will only leave a body in her bed.

And. It won't be him.

She doesn't need a guy. She wants a man. A tall dark-haired man with blue eyes and a soft drawl.

….God, she only broke up with her boyfriend yesterday, and she's already eyeing up another man. What sort of a slut is she?

….No, she's not a slut. She's the woman who has been falling slowly for this man for a couple of months, but not admitting it. And now she has, and she has to deal.

And suddenly, oddly, her grandfather's voice in her head - “When you've got an eight-point buck in your sights, kleine Blüte, you don't want to go spooking him...”

Sometimes, hunting is more subtle.

So she's going to be strong. And sit here and watch Jimmy Stewart and think dirty thoughts.

The knocking on the door startles her. She finds that she's waiting for the third knock, but it's Raquel's voice.

“Open the door before the ice-cream melts...”

She does.

“Intervention.” Raquel holds up a bag. “We bring the traditional accoutrements for a dish session.”

“Ice-cream and bourbon.” Beth shoulders in behind her.

It turns out to be the weirdest post-breakup dish session she's ever had, really. Because the guy she should be moaning about...he just doesn't figure. Once you get past “all he wanted was sex, and I was an idiot not to see it for so long”, then you've said pretty much all there is to say.

“...Sorry to be blunt, but...I don't know the guy. I mean, it's all very sad that his mother didn't love him, and yeah, she sounds like a scary hellbitch, but you don't have to pick up the slack there.”

“Run for the frickin' hills.” Raquel says. “Mommy issues are a no-no.”

Penny can feel her world making sense again.

“I feel like such an idiot...”

“You, and how many other women, sweetheart? We all snog a few frogs before we get the prince.”

“Yeah, best just drop the slimy little sucker back in his pond.”

“He's not...” No, she doesn't have to defend him any more. He isn't her problem. She can feel sorry for him, his messed-up childhood, his anxiety, his neediness. But she doesn't have to carry it around for him. Sets the weight down.

(Goodbye, Pilgrim...)

It isn't heartless or cruel. She can't change it, or make it better for him. It isn't her job, her responsibility.

“I just thought a smart guy might treat me better...”

“A smart guy is treating you better.” Raquel slurps her spoon. “It's just not the smart guy you thought it was.”

The little triple knock, her name, and she can feel her cheeks heating.

He's standing there, grocery bag clutched to his chest.

“I understand that it is customary in a time of crisis for friends to offer emotional support....”

“It's not a good time, Sheldon.”

“I understand.” His face shutting itself up, and that hurts her, more than anything from the last day.

Oh, yeah, she's in deep here.

“It's just...Raquel and Beth already came over. It's a girl thing.”

“Oh.” He nods, face clearing. “Missy would do the same. There was usually crying, or a lot of high-pitched giggling.”

“I don't think there's gonna be any crying.”

“Good. I...find it uncomfortable when you cry.” Holds out the bag. “But you should have the ice-cream anyway.”

She takes it, and her fingers brush his. Nearly drops the bag.

Sheldon is mesmerized by the smear of ice-cream by her lips.

“You have ice-cream...” He wipes it away gently with his thumb.

She nearly dies, right there.

Sheldon can't quite believe what he just did either. Makes a small strangled squeak, and dives for his own door.

Penny actually has to catch her breath, before she dares go back in and confront the badly-concealed grins. Beth cracks first.

“So...you and Sheldon...?”

“No...yes...sort of...I don't know...” Flops onto the end of her couch and covers her face with her hands. “He's skinny and weird and crazy, and he dresses like a child, and he still collects frickin' comics, and he can't drive worth spit, and he carries his own damn fork around with him to eat places. He's got so many rules for dealing with absolutely everything, and there are days when I could just strangle him...”

“Oh, you've got it baaaad.” Beth cackles.

“I know.” Penny groans, and they all laugh. Raquel looks up from poking in the bag.

“Girlfriend,” She grins. “He's smart, sweet, geeky-sexy and understands the importance of Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice-cream.”

“Chocolate...” Penny bounces up. “Crap, that's cheating.”

“Nah.” Beth wields her spoon cheerfully. “That's a keeper.”

00000000000000000000

Behind his own front door, his heart hammering in his chest, Sheldon takes a deep breath.

Quickly, guiltily, licks his thumb.

Chapter Text

Howard knocks on Raj's door. There's no answer, but he meets Raj on the way out.

“I was at the store.” Raj holds up the bag. “Chicken?”

“Only if we're gonna use cutlery.” Follows his friend in, gets a couple of sodas from the fridge, lays the table, while Raj warms a couple of plates, sets out the food.

The first chance to really sit down and share the gossip.

“So?”

“So?”

“You didn't ask Sheldon about it?”

“I'm not suicidal.” Raj takes a drumstick, points with it. “I thought he was going to take a swing last night.”

“Me, too.” Howard admits. “What the hell's gotten into him?”

Raj just looks at him. Howard shrugs.

“Yeah, yeah, he's got a deal. But what flipped his switch?”

“Who knows? But - Penny in that shirt?”

“Okay, yeah.” The two connoisseurs nod. “I understand him. I don't understand her.”

“Dude, we're men. Of course we don't understand her.”

“I mean...is it some kind of game? Girls like Penny don't date guys like us.” Takes another bite of chicken, gestures with his own drumstick. “Sure, if someone like Leonard can score a girl like Penny, then there's hope for all of us....”

“Leonard has been acting like a douche pretty much since he got with her.” Raj gives Howard a narrow-eyed look. Howard ignores it, warming to his theme.

“We still don't know how Leonard pulled off the whammy in the first place...”

“...Alcohol and pity sex...”

“...and it isn't stalking if nobody presses charges. But anyway,” spreads his hands, “despite all the times he ignored the sage advice of the Wolowizard, he still managed to keep hanging in there. I could see her trading up, and you know we've been waiting for it, but... c'mon...Sheldon?”

“He's a good guy, Howard.”

“He's also a batcrap crazy nutcase.”

This is unfortunately true. Raj shrugs.

“They've always had a thing going on.”

Howard thinks about that. Purses his lips, nods.

“Yeah. Weird. You want that last knish?”

“Take it, you've not been eating properly recently...”

“Neither have you, at least have some salad...” A breath, lowers his voice, “Anyway, he ripped the Room-mate Agreement up.”

“Leonard?”

“Sheldon.”

Raj pauses, fork halfway to his mouth. This is huge.

“He's completely rogue?”

“I didn't think he could break programming. Guess we were wrong.”

“Okay, now that's scary. He must have a back-up directive.”

“Maybe it's some kind of late bloomer application?”

They joke to cover their increasing unease. Their lives have all become so intertwined over the last few years. Routine and habit. The realisation of exactly how dependent they have all become on Sheldon's timetable. And suddenly, there is nothing to rebel against, and they are left reeling.

“You think Leonard will move out?” Raj smirks. “Would you still want the spare room?”

“Uh, hell to the no.” Howard shudders. “Spending time with him before was what started this whole schemozzle. He was scary before with his obsessive crap, I don't wanna know what he's like completely off-piste.”

“It'll be a wild ride.” Raj agrees.

“I told you this was gonna make a mess, didn't I?” Shakes his head. “Two guys, one girl, never works out well. Two girls and a guy, now...”

“Dude, I'm eating here...” Wipes his mouth, and tries to find the words. “I think all this... Sheldon might ...have actual feelings for her.”

A couple of weeks ago, Howard would have burst something laughing. A couple of weeks ago, Raj wouldn't have even thought to say that, straight-faced or not. Now, the room is just very quiet.

“You really think she's going to be able to make him human?” Howard asks, finally. Raj shrugs.

“I think she's going to try.”

00000000

The sound of Leonard's voice, raised in complaint. Sheldon's skin prickles at the raw pain he can hear, can see in that face – even he can comprehend this. He wants no part of this, but Leonard and his laptop are between him and the sanctuary of his room.

“You talk to her. She likes you. You're the son she wants.” Slams off into his room.

Sheldon regards the laptop screen with bemusement. Beverley Hofstadter, in crisp white, blinks back at him.

“Leonard seems to be projecting his issues again. I understand he has engaged in an act of academic sabotage, thinly disguised as a 'prank'. I hope that his ridiculous behaviour has not inconvenienced you too greatly?”

What can Sheldon say in answer to that? That a single act of spite had nearly destroyed his identity, forcing a deep reassessment of his whole life and approach to the world? Clears his throat.

“Fortunately, I have been able to retrieve the situation.”

“Ah.” Beverley merely nods. “I did doubt the wisdom of your choice of support team at the time, and I told Leonard so...”

Sheldon's mind cannot help suddenly contrasting that with his mother's detailed letter about thermal underwear, and her strict instructions about the best ammunition to use against polar bears. Beverley is still talking.

“...er a disappointment, in his inability to ever produce original work. I have to express regret that he chose to project his issues upon you. A definite weakness in his character.” A chime, off-screen. “I must go. My tennis coach is here.”

Sheldon gets a glimpse of a tall, dark-haired young man in tennis whites, a gleam of white teeth in a tanned face.

“I have come to the conclusion that some physicality is a necessary and healthy part of human existence.” Beverley smoothes her own white top. “Good-night, Sheldon.”

“Good-night, Beverley.”

Sheldon considers the dark screen, the obvious subterfuge, and the fact that even the most logical of human beings seem to be prey to certain impulses. He sighs.

His family have always baffled him, but under their mutual incomprehension – he knows that there will always be a hug and a grilled cheese sandwich waiting for him, should he need it.

00000000

Leonard is curled up in a miserable ball on his bed.

Unsure as to why he had called her, what he thought might have changed.

“I do not see why your failure to sustain a relationship is my concern, Leonard.”

Disinterest. Incomprehension. What else did he expect? And he had tried to fumble towards the why of it. He didn't want analysis, he wanted something human.

A cry for attention? If so, it failed. Because she brushes past his pain, his excuses, and pursues the only thing that matters to her, academic integrity. That shock gets through. It had been an ugly, bitter little conversation, he had flung the truths at her like rocks, seeking to dent that armour, her shell of assurance. But that hammer blow had only wrenched open wounds he never meant to, and suddenly, they are in a savage, cold place.

And - she wasn't even angry with him. Almost a bitter satisfaction in her disappointment. As if she was waiting for him to fail, he's living down to her every expectation of him.

No, he doesn't get to run back to a loving home. There is nowhere to run to. (And – who would fetch him back now?) The only arms to wrap around him are his own.

Losing Penny – hurts his pride, hurts his ego. But she hasn't broken his heart. He's angry and bitter, but almost resigned. Somehow, he had always thought that when he lost her, he'd have his world to crawl back into, his friends to console him, his old life closing back around him. Never thought that everything would come crashing down.

Crisp knock at the door, his name in a clipped, low voice. Of course. Raised voices are a no-no, there may be a strike...no, the agreement is abrogated, how does this work now?

“Come in.” Scratches out of his throat.

Sheldon, tall and stone-faced. But carrying a mug of hot tea which he puts carefully on the side table. Stands there, a flicker of sadness and confusion, and something that looks dreadfully, horribly like pity, before he twitches.

“Just because you are no longer my friend, doesn't mean that I regard you as an enemy.” Tilts his head. “Perhaps you are more like Sweden. Neutral.” Gestures. “I put honey in it. You may want to let it cool.” And he's gone again.

00000000

Shaken, troubled, Sheldon sits with his journal. What happens now? The useless litany pounding in his head, this is what you do at this time, this is the hour. He does not need to do these things, he can choose not to, but the feeling of dislocation is so strong. His world is shifting, now, his point of consistency affected, his path uncertain.

Order and personal discipline are things he grew up with. Make your own bed and shine your own shoes, salute the flag and church on Sundays. Watching his father fall apart had been desperately bewildering and painful. (Perhaps there are things that a man should not have to see, not have to do. Not all scars are visible.) He hadn't minded boarding school in many ways – that was where the comfort of routine had really been embraced. He makes his world around him, always has done, makes sense of it with rules and routine, one can predict and plan and defend, then.

He needs something constant in his life, and, uncertain, unsure, he had found himself outside her door. He had wanted the haven of Penny's chaotic apartment, if only to nag at her to tidy it, comfort in that routine, too. Really, how she has not poisoned herself, with her frankly unsanitary kitchen habits...how she has not poisoned him...

(...sugar-sweet, and the salt of his own nervous skin...)

...he wants, needs something to ground him.

There had been calculation in his visit. If Penny follows her usual coping mechanism, takes herself out to down some toxic amount of alcohol, drags some unevolved neanderthal back to her bed... He despises himself, but he knows he couldn't be strong enough at the moment to bear that with any nobility. There would be a wretched pain in it. A yawning pit of terror and black despair about to open when she had spoken.

But she had been in with girlfriends, a different pattern, one that he understood, comfort in that, and she had smiled at him, and he had performed an act of wild insanity.

Collision of instincts. Touched her without thought, his own body turned traitor. But a willing, knowing breach of everything, then.

Some things cannot be explained, only experienced.

Knows now that he has no immunity, that there is no cure. He has seen the weakness she can engender in others, will have to steel himself against that bright smile, her hand on his arm and her voice teasing him, making him want to do whatever she asks him to do. But she does smile, and she does touch him, and she had looked at him with those wide eyes, and he is all too desperately human.

Still shaken by his bodily reaction to her – something woken up in him now, caged and restless.

He can be sure in his work...He can be sure in his work, it will take time for a full confidence to return...but he is confident of his intellectual superiority and prowess. He is far less sure of himself as a man.

Could she ever look at him as anything other than a friend?

Prods at the little flame of something in him. Is it hope? He isn't sure. He doesn't know what that really feels like.

He adds a little more to the notes, the formulation of his coping mechanism. Measures his own reactions and responses against those he has observed. Frowns. These behaviours may indeed be deemed the 'norm'. But they have failed to result in a lasting, happy union. Therefore, they are flawed.

Picks up his cell. Clenches his fists, then dials. A cheerful, if slightly bemused, voice answers.

“I...need some assistance.” Sheldon clears his throat. “As you are the only happily married male of my acquaintance, I wish to enquire – how did you first set about courting?”

On the other end of the phone, Sven blinks, mutes the tv and sits there, eyebrows rising higher and grin widening.

Chapter Text

It's been another slowish day at work. She's been mechanically smiling, taking orders, flirting mildly with a few regular tippers. Penny still isn't sure how she should be feeling. Up until now, breakups have always involved a rebound of 'Party Penny'. Except, this time, it feels...different. Almost like she hasn't broken up with a guy at all. Like she'd be cheating on the, the idea of anything, something with Sheldon.

Sheldon. She still can't get her head round having feelings for him. Oh, she gets all the stuff about him as himself, the honesty and the odd kindness and the utter incomprehension of real people, and how weirdly endearing he can be. She's lived across the hall for three years, and she wouldn't spend time with the guys if she didn't actually, y'know, like them. But this awareness of Sheldon as an actual male is new – the 'cute, lanky guy' factor having been swiftly extinguished by the whole 'batcrap crazy when he opens his mouth' factor. Only now...she finds the crazy kind of cute, she knows how to shut him down when he's really winding up, and she's noticing, really noticing his hands and the way his mouth curves, and that startled arch of his eyebrows and the fact, the way, that he had been looking at her outside that bathroom, and she'd been looking right back.

All the little memories that she has been repressing, ignoring, denying, hugs and touches, and the sight of skin, and the way he had felt that morning she woke up in his arms on that camping trip.

She keeps trying to put it together in her head, that she has actual, physical feelings for this irritating, adorkable, oddly innocent genius. And what these feeling are, because this isn't one of those 'oh, he's cute' club pick-ups, or a haze of alcohol that make it seem like a good idea, or even just the sorta sweet guy who hung around until she thought she might try 'nice' for a change. (And didn't that work out just swell?) She knows him, knows how utterly annoying and insane he can be, and it doesn't stop a wholly unexpected little flutter in her, when he comes through the door.

Of course, it's Tuesday evening, he's just here for his burger, she was expecting him, and still, she's torn between a smile and rolling her eyes, because Kori, a very new server, who hasn't had the Crazy Hamburger Guy talk yet, has just tried to sit him somewhere else. He's on his own, which is sad, but hardly surprising, and so she's trying to sit him at a smaller table.

Yeah, she thinks, deftly avoiding the eye of a signalling jerk as she heads towards the escalating situation, whether he's a customer, a problem or something else entirely, Sheldon is, at any rate, hers.

00000000

Kori, slightly wild-eyed after her first experience of trial-by-Sheldon, has gone off to the relatively soothing task of serving beer to a table of college guys. Penny smiles at Sheldon, who is looking huffy.

“Really, Penny, doesn't everyone know that this is my usual table on Tuesday evenings?”

(A slight hitch before 'my', awareness of empty seats around him.)

“She knows now.” She already has his order, and if her hand lingers on his shoulder for a moment, it isn't anything at all, really. “I'll get your lemonade.”

Sven ambles in some five minutes later, and Penny is almost surprised when he heads straight for Sheldon. Two of the busboys nearly collide in shock, but Sven is already hanging his jacket on the back of a chair, sitting down, and Sheldon seems calm enough about it. Three years of Sheldon have inured the place to most of his strange behaviours. Penny thinks it's sad that him having different friends seems to be the strangest.

It seems prudent to phone Beth, though. She's not convinced that any of the guys have given up on their little idea of building something stupid.

“Oh, I'm on my way over, now.” Beth is cheerful, unconcerned. “I told Sven they get ten minutes guy talk, and then they have to behave like adults.”

Penny looks across at the table. The conversation doesn't seem to be disturbing anyone around them, which is good.

“I'm just not convinced that they aren't plotting world domination.”

On the other end of the call, Beth dithers, chews her lip, confesses,

“Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but that man phoned Sven up the other night asking for dating tips.”

Oh, god, Sheldon at his weird and wonderful best... Penny feels her eyes prick unexpectedly.

“Don't laugh at him,” she blurts, fierce pleading, “He really doesn't know any better, he never had all the, the stuff that people go through, all that random crap from High School...”

“Oh, hon, no, I think it's adorable.” Beth soothes. “We know him, remember. He's weird as hell, but he's lovely. He's just worried that he's going to make a mess of it, bless him.”

He's worried?” Penny blows out her breath. “I'm scared that I'm gonna mess him up, Beth. I have this history of turning guys into jerks.”

“Sheldon's not some 'guy'... He's sweet and smart, and I think he really cares about you. Only way you'll mess him up is if you don't care about him back.”

“Half the time I want to kill him.”

“Yes.” Beth says, patiently. “Men are like that. The fact that you don't is the whole point.”

Penny laughs, then. She's just not used to this, this feeling that she could break him if she gets this wrong. Which is crazy, because for all his geeky flailing, Sheldon is one of the strongest characters she knows.

She doesn't want to get this wrong. Whatever 'this ' turns out to be.

And then she thinks how strange it is that everyone assumes that she and Sheldon will simply get together now, even them.

00000000

Across the hall, there is a polite and fragile equilibrium. They have lived together in this apartment for seven years, nearly a quarter of a lifetime, after all. This much does not change – the coffee pot, the bathroom schedule. They have even been to the comic store, but not together, merely four individuals in the same space, patch of normality over the void.

...Sheldon had been in deep conference with Stuart – his upcoming absence will require pre-ordering and arrangements to bag his purchases. Leonard was still mad with Raj, in addition to whatever the hell is going on with Sheldon. So Howard had been left hovering between, unsure of what to do. The usual pattern is to go out to a bar. But that was when he was a single man himself, and the three of them were a unit, a pack. Now – the fault-lines had run in unexpected ways, Raj choosing to side with Sheldon. (Howard can't blame him, the guy is nominally his boss, after all, and he's proving increasingly unpredictable.)

“It's Wednesday.” He'd muttered to Raj. “You don't think we're supposed to turn up for 'Halo', do you?”

An exchange of looks.

“You really want to go over there?”

“Hell, no.”

“Me, neither.”

It isn't brave or noble, but they had waited until Sheldon was paying for his comics, and then edged out of the door. Leonard hadn't been too sorry to see them go, had been within a hair of edging out after them. It had been a very silent drive back...

Penny is getting her mail. There is a horrible, stark moment, where the three of them stare.

Leonard, all stiff and angry, decides to give her the cold shoulder, belatedly realising that she doesn't quite care. He is forced to go up the stairs alone, torn between hovering on the landing, and really not wanting to hear what they might say to each other.

Sheldon stands there, in his layered tee's and his awful checked pants, twisting the strap of his messenger bag.

“It's Wednesday.” he says. “It should be 'Halo' night.”

Sheldon doesn't deal well with change, and everything has come to pieces around him. No more games nights, or take-out together...

“Perhaps...you could bring the Xbox over?” Suggests it before she really thinks. Sheldon blinks.

“That...could be acceptable.”

This is Sheldon. And he's awkward enough for the both of them. She's not going to treat him any differently. It's just a video game.

00000000

When Sheldon starts neatly uncoupling the Xbox, stacking the controllers, Leonard just stares.

“What are you doing?”

“I'm going to play 'Halo'.”

The Xbox belongs to Sheldon, he hadn't waited for the insurance payout to come through, had raided one of his little hoards.

“You can't just go over there and...” He doesn't even know how to put it.

“And what?” Sheldon's tone is mild, his face open. Almost honest confusion. Except Leonard is wary of that innocence now.

“She's my ex-girlfriend.” There. The words fall between them, sharp edges and leaden finality.

“Penny is still my friend. She was my friend before your liaison. I consider the states mutually exclusive.”

Leonard knows how to push Sheldon's buttons. Knows how to divert him, to manage him. In other circumstances, he would play the 'best friend' card. In other circumstances ...would it work? With Sheldon, possibly. He is an honourable man. But he is also inflexible upon that subject.

And...he may no longer have the right to play that card any more.

He thought he knew Sheldon. But he's not sure he does know this man. Face and voice and mannerisms the same, but something behind the eyes now, an awareness, and a wall.

Leonard realises that he does not want to breach that wall. He's seen a glimpse, a hard, hot rage, all the more scary for the control exerted. Now, there is something too watchful to be true indifference, an observation shaded with faint disapproval. As if he has failed some kind of test.

He is numb and bruised and angry. Bewildered by the speed with which things fell apart, but a weird admixture of...the word isn't acceptance or resignation – a sense of the inevitable? He still doesn't know what he did wrong with Penny.

He knows what he did wrong with Sheldon, though. Everything has become so twisted together – was it instinct that led him to the one sure way to really hurt his friend, striking back at the unwitting representative of all he isn't and will never be?

There was no other way to hurt him. Divorced from the world, in that stark landscape, there had been no escape, from him or from themselves. That Sheldon had been fracturing under the disruption of his routine, reverting to the twitchy robot he had been when Leonard first met him, that mixture of inflexibility and utter disregard.

Well, he has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, a loop of action and reaction, and somehow, his baseless jealousy has become a distinct possibility.

He has no right to dictate who his ex-girlfriend sees, and no right at all to pass any judgements on his former(?) best friend.

00000000

Penny watches Sheldon grumbling softly to himself over cables and controllers. She has a sudden flashback – Rob, an old boyfriend, and his stereo system. Though, instead of a denim-clad butt stuck up in the air, this one is khaki-clad, and if she pets it, he's likely to bury his head in the tv screen in shock. She grins – the thought of actually wanting to pet Sheldon's butt is still new and weird. (Well, allowing the thought headspace is.)

“We don't normally play one-on-one...” She can't help it, her mouth twitches, and she bites her lips. And Sheldon actually flushes.

“In the absence of the usual team configurations, we will have to...improvise.” Even saying the word looks like it hurts him. “Unless you wish to see if Wolowitz and Koothrappali...”

“No.” Her mouth says, before her brain catches up.

He's absurdly pleased.

They play a good campaign, strange to be opposing each other, but without the distraction of team members, it is a hard-fought scrap, no quarter given or asked.

He can be childish, but he isn't a child. There's something in that nervous sideways glance of his, flings her back through the years. God, she thinks, this is like High School over again, all nervous smiles and quick eyes and wondering whether...

But Sheldon never went to High School. He went straight from Fifth Grade to college. The body might be all grown up, but he's so...innocent, otherwise. He's like one of his precious collectibles, all mint condition and still in the wrapping. The thought makes her grin.

She wants to put her arms round him, and protect him, and kiss him, and shake him, all at once. Sitting there with those big eyes, sweet and almost clueless. She could make such a mess of him.

Sheldon is badly distracted by the way she bites her lip, that scowl of concentration, the fierce grin when she's stalking her prey. It reminds him of the way she is in battle, the way she smiles at him, the way she kissed him before. He dies horribly, and permits her to make victorious noises.

His little frown, blue eyes settling, and she is suddenly aware of the mind behind that gaze, as he concentrates on her. It's actually a little scary, the intense focus.

“Penny, could this be considered...a date?”

She has never heard him sound unsure before. Never heard herself sound unsure.

“Do you...want it to be?”

“...yes?” he says, in the smallest voice.

They stare at each other. It's here, and it's happening, and holy crap.

She wants to grab him and kiss him, but he might panic and run, or think it's all too soon, and he doesn't...

Sheldon kisses her.

It's a short, panicked peck, his lips just dabbing hers, and he scoots backwards immediately.

He kisses her.

He looks completely freaked out, but he's still sitting there, long body jolting with nerves, and his jaw set.

“Sheldon...” Her smile, burning brighter than his bridges. “Come back here.”

A gentle bumping of noses, his large hands rest on her hips, her small hands cradling his face, and her mouth brushing his, his lips nervous but determined on hers, a little clumsy but so, so sweet.

She's kissing Sheldon, or he's kissing her, or they are both kissing each other. He doesn't quite know what he's doing, but he's learning, adjusting, she can feel his mind working. He's restrained, tidy economical movements.

She's warm, generous, welcomes him, encourages him. She feels the faint scratch of stubble beneath her fingertips, the tension in his jaw melting away beneath her touch. She's gonna have to take this slow. If she sticks her tongue down his throat, he'll probably have a heart-attack. So she kisses him gently, carefully, sweet little sips at his mouth.

There's a civil war going on inside his head. The cool, logical part of his mind, that frets and calculates, exchange of bodily fluids, possible cross-contamination, invasion of his personal space...losing rapidly to the animal hindbrain, which revels in the sensation of her soft, warm lips. This is blood and breath and bone, pinwheels of thought, his mind primary colours and his heartbeat loud in his ears.

They end up collapsing onto the couch, Sheldon all angles and elbows, unsure of what to do with himself, but resigned to following her lead, awkward assemblage of his long limbs around her.

He doesn't lunge at her, his hands don't wander, but she can feel him trembling.

“Sshhh.” Soothes him, her fingers hard against his heartbeat. “Just keep kissing me, we'll figure this out.”

Three years ago, she wasn't in the right place for this. She was hurting and ready to be a party girl again, smarting from four years thrown away on a jerk. Now, she's ready to appreciate him. He's ready to appreciate her.

It's ridiculous. He's skinny and awkward, and he's got no dress sense, he's tactless and weird and geeky. And she's crazy about him. He doesn't have the same hang-ups and the general whiny crap that other guys carry around. But then, Sheldon never had normal. He's never even dated before. So she's going to have to teach him. Right back to basics.

A chance to start over, to get it right. She's as scared as he is.

“We're gonna take this slowly, okay? And...we're not going to get up in Leonard's face about it.”

“Agreed.” His chin settles on the top of her head. “I find that I have no desire to share anything personal with him any more.”

“Uh..you don't share anything personal with any of them.” Moves her cheek against his chest. “What happens between us stays between us, okay? And if Howard persists in asking questions, you tell me and I'll sort him out.”

“He is far more scared of you than he is of me.” Sheldon is thoughtful. “But then, I haven't punched him in the face. Yet.” He adds.

“When did you get so violent?”

“You bring out some latent primitive instinct in me.” He says, seriously. “A hardwired biological desire to fight for my mate. It's highly embarrassing, Penny, I don't see what's so funny about it...”

She knows that this whole thing will look weird and sudden to other people, but this is six months, and three years in the making. Breaking up with Leonard was just... bad timing. Getting together with Leonard had been bad judgement. She's not sure what getting together with Sheldon is.

This isn't an easy or a quick decision, after all. But it is very simple. She would rather try and fail with him, than never know.

He's still grumbling on about 'imperatives' and 'primates' and 'evolutionary development'...

“If you start comparing me to a gorilla again, I'm gonna hit you.” Penny growls at him.

“I simply meant that choosing intelligence in a mate is a far more evolved decision in the modern world.” Sheldon says rapidly, aware of her proximity to sensitive areas of his anatomy.

“So picking you is the most evolved choice, huh?”

“Yes.” He says, mostly matter of fact, and just the tiniest bit smug. But she can still feel the jolt of nerves through him, the way his arms tighten slightly, so she runs her thumbs up over the arch of his eyebrows and kisses the end of his nose, laughing gently at the mix of indignation and satisfaction. His eyes follow her mouth, hopeful.

He's still himself, still Sheldon. But this - is like opening an easter egg, going up a level...Oh, crap. Geek is definitely catching.

So she kisses him again.

00000000

Sheldon, looking a bit dazed and dopey, wandering back in just late enough to be worrisome. Leonard, doing a very bad job of working nonchalantly at his computer, finds that he can't even force himself to try and be casual about it.

They stare at each other, all the complex storm of hate and hurt and jealousy and bewilderment.

“We only broke up a few days ago, you're just a rebound.” He doesn't even convince himself.

Sheldon's face tightens.

“I care about Penny.” He says, in a very calm voice. “You. Will. Not. Wreck. This. Leonard.”

It is a threat, and a warning, and a statement of how the world is going to be.

00000000

 

She's getting ready for work the next day, when there is a triple knock, her name. Sheldon, with a clipboard. This never ends well.

“May I come in?”

“Yeah.” Eyes the clipboard. “Do I want to know?”

“I can't answer that. Do you want to know?”

“Sheldon...”

“Penny.”

“What do you want, Sheldon?”

“I have some questions.”

No, this is probably not going to end well.

“If the words 'menstrual cycle' come out of your mouth at any point, I am kicking you out...”

He stares at her.

“I already have that information noted. After three years, I am familiar with your cycle, and the concomitant irritability levels.” He actually looks proud. “I estimated that you would not become irrational or overly violent until Friday.”

Penny stops, thinks about it, blinks. Damn. That's a few things to add to the grocery list.

“So?”

“What are your favourite flowers?”

She leans over, and yanks the clipboard out of his hands, looks at the list. Her eyebrows go up. Sheldon's heart sinks. He starts to back away.

“If you wish to fill it out in private...”

Penny's hand shoots out, grabs a handful of t-shirt. She's not taking her eyes off the paperwork in front of her.

Of course. This is Sheldon. How else would he approach the subject? If this was any other guy, the fact that he had a file like this on her would be way creepy. But this is Sheldon, so of course he has notes on her underwear size, which CareBears she is missing from her collection and the fact that she hates mushrooms on her pizza. The 11 o'clock rule, behaviours she finds unacceptable.

A note beside 'preferred physical attributes' – 'enquire whether gym membership is a prerequisite.' Even her vivid imagination has difficulty with that one – Sheldon in a gym, just...no.

She looks up at him. He's wide-eyed, worried. Trying so hard not to make a mess of things, compiling a dossier, so very anxious to get it right.

Nobody has ever asked her anything like this before. She's had jewellery and underwear and scent, toys both innocent and not. But nobody ever bothered to ask her in advance what she actually liked. She tightens her grip and tugs him closer, to where she can reach up and kiss him softly.

“Daisies.” She says, gently. “I like daisies.”

Chapter Text

She thinks it should feel weirder. Maybe this whole situation is so crazy, that it can't feel weirder. Blood thrumming through her, she feels giddy and strange, she would normally think she needed a drink to calm her nerves, take the edge off.

But she had been cold sober when she had kissed Sheldon last night. It had been a bit like cuddling a bag of coat-hangers to begin with, he didn't know what to do with his arms, but he was willing to be nudged and shoved until they were both comfortable. She's not a tiny woman, not a fragile little blossom, but she had found herself completely encompassed by him, a lap big enough for her to sit in. She had found out, remembered, rediscovered, how good it felt just to kiss softly.

Sheldon moves past the traps that other guys fall into, because he doesn't even know they are there. He'll ask if he doesn't understand, he reads no sub-text. So she was able to tell him when she was tired, and he hadn't sulked, hadn't taken that as a cue to leer or do anything other than say 'goodnight'. Unwinding his long arms from around her, and suffering her to attempt to straighten him up, where the usual smooth order of his hair had been disrupted by her fingers.

And then he'd turned up with his crazy questionnaire and his anxious eyes, and she'd had the urge to kiss him all over again.

So she does, because she can, and he responds, because he wants to.

Sheldon is trying to come to terms with the massive change in his life. To the fact that a game of 'Halo' had suddenly turned into an evening full of the new and delightful experience of a lapful of Penny. It had taken all his courage to blurt out those nervous words, to risk everything, but he can never not know something. She inspires these fits of insanity in him, the need to overcome every resistance in himself, and initiate contact.

It had been wonderful. He doesn't care if he does get sick, now, because it had been worth it. He had gone to bed with his mind and body in turmoil, and still slept well and deeply.

His data incomplete, he had sought to rectify the situation. And now he has his world full of Penny again, she's crumpled his shirt and invaded his personal space in the worst possible way, and he'd still eagerly bent his head and worked out the logistics of where his hands should go, the optimal angle for their mouths to meet.

That's what Raj sees, walking up the stairs. Penny, up on tiptoe, and Sheldon, his neck bent, and his hands tentatively resting on her hips. Raj supposes that he'd never thought he'd ever see Sheldon kissing anybody. But he looks comfortable kissing Penny. She seems very comfortable kissing him. It's extremely weird, but it doesn't look wrong, somehow.

Penny colours a little when she sees him, but she doesn't step back from Sheldon, smoothing out his rumpled shirt with her hands and beaming up at him. Sheldon doesn't seem at all embarrassed, merely nods a greeting, has a small, happy smile that doesn't look at all forced or creepy.

“Hi, Raj.” Penny looks suddenly panicked. “Oh, crap, I'm gonna be late.” One last swift dart at Sheldon's mouth, and she's dashing back into her apartment.

Leonard had always looked smug. Sheldon looks... some odd mixture of shocked and delighted. His eyes follow Penny, but not in a worried, insecure way, more as if she is some complicated theorem that he is determined to solve.

“Raj, I will need your assistance later. I need to find a decent florist.”

00000000

Sheldon takes a deep breath, presses the button. His status on Facebook updates to 'in a relationship'.

00000000

“...so apparently, half the computer system is down for some sort of maintenance. There's some concern that we've been hacked.”

Sheldon snorts derisively. He has no worries that anyone could actually open any of his encrypted files.

“Reliance on machinery, rather than the mind.” He says. “One day they'll turn.”

Howard sets his tray down, takes a seat.

“Hey, buddy. Sorry about missing 'Halo' last night...”

“Oh, I went and played at Penny's.” Suddenly conscious of his double meaning for once, a wave of quick colour rises in his face, and he keeps his eyes on his plate. Howard's more than vague suspicions are confirmed by Leonard entering the cafeteria, taking one poisonous look, and stalking over to another table.

“You are really dating his ex-girlfriend? Already?” Howard is almost admiring. “That is harsh.”

Sheldon rolls his eyes, exasperated.

“This manner of relating the situation entirely to Leonard is growing extremely tiresome. Penny has chosen to be with me rather than with Leonard. You seem to be suggesting that the only logical course of action for me to follow would be for me to give up my relationship with Penny, in order to avoid wounding his feelings. As if he has some greater claim upon happiness.” His eyes hood suddenly, face grim. “Not. Happening.”

“I'm not suggesting it.” Howard says hastily, holding up his hands. Sheldon obviously has a new Berserk Button.

“Good.” Sheldon placidly continues eating his lunch. “I would not regard your opinion on the matter, anyway.”

Pure Sheldon. Two parts unassailable logic to one part monstrous ego. And he's right. Howard wouldn't give up Bernadette. Actually, thinks the engineer, this is probably the most normal thing he's ever known Sheldon to do.

00000000

Penny is humming to herself as she walks up the stairs. It's been a good day at work, some decent tips, and she's got an evening off. She has no plans, but she's wondering whether to indulge in a little 'Verse viewing, and whether she'll have company.

Leonard is waiting on the landing. This is awkward. Still neighbours, not quite friends, and the general weirdness of it all.

He looks lost, stiff, angry.

“Why? Why him?” He can't help it. “I could bear it if you went back to one of those neanderthals from the gym, or some pretty-boy actor. But not Sheldon.”

So this is the other half of the row they never finished.

“I know it's weird, him being your room-mate...”

“What's 'weird' is you stringing me along, and running around with him for months.”

She's trying to be reasonable about this, but he's grating on her nerves, now, and she realises that she can feel irritated about it without guilt.

“I never cheated, Leonard. Sheldon and I have things we do together, friends and hobbies and a whole goddam life outside of the bedroom.”

“Well, you'll never get him into the bedroom.” He wants to kill himself as soon as the words are out. Penny is looking at him like she's never seen him before, sharp disgust.

She didn't want to hurt him, but she won't put up with this sort of crap.

Because Sheldon is overcoming every fear that he has, because he wants to be with her. She won't 'get' him anywhere – one day, they will both be ready to take the step together, and it will be something special again. Not issues and alcohol and something to fill the silence.

“I am not discussing my sex life with you.” Deliberately cold, watches him flinch away. “You were right. I chose him. Is that what you want to hear?”

“Couldn't you have waited?”

Penny knows what he means. But – wait for what? Leonard's bruised ego to mend, for him to go chasing after the next hot girl passing through?

“I'm sorry if this hurts you, but I don't want to be with you, I want to be with him, and he wants to be with me, and we're not trying to get up in your face about it, but you're just gonna have to deal with it, Leonard, because it's not going away. You don't get to judge and you don't get to interfere, because it has nothing to do with you.”

She turns her back on him to open her door.

“What did I do wrong?” Too plaintive to be a demand.

What can she tell him? She barely knows how to describe it herself.

“You didn't do...anything.” And that's it, really.

If they hadn't lived across the hall from each other, it would never even have been a thing. They would never have met. He's sort of sweet, but everything he's ever done, well, she looks back on it through a haze of suspicion now, that second-guessing about his motives, and that sucks.

“You never told me what you wanted from me.”

“You never asked.”

“I didn't know that I was supposed to.” He can't keep the anger burning, misery is damping it out. “Is that what you want, a guy who would follow some kind of plan? I could do that.”

“Leonard...” There isn't going to be an easy way. “I don't want you. I'm sorry.”

He knows it. It doesn't make it easy to hear. He's been dumped for being himself, for getting it wrong, for not even knowing how he was getting it wrong.

“I spent three years watching you go through all those dumb jocks, waiting for you to notice me.”

“It doesn't work like that. You don't get me as some kind of reward.” That is really messed-up. And more than a little bit creepy. “You never wanted me, Leonard. You just wanted the sex. And I'm worth more than that.”

He's even more clueless than Sheldon, in some ways, she realises. He wants sex, craves affection, the two things twisted together in his mind. (Perhaps in hers, a little, too.)

Sheldon, in his own weird way, understands that you've got to give to get. He's kinda overly literal about it, but he's making an effort. That batcrap crazy list of his, it's all about her, not how he gets to be with her, but just how to make her happy.

And Leonard, poor clueless Leonard, so desperate, twisting himself into knots to be what will get him what he wants, selfish and still miserable.

He's so uncomfortable with himself, tries to play down the geeky enthusiasm, and Penny finds that sad. Sure, half the stuff the guys like is way too lame for her, but they like it, and she actually likes that about them. This isn't High School any more. Penny-then would have died rather than date a guy who used dice for anything other than shooting craps. Now she actually gets the D20 jokes, even if she wishes she didn't. But Leonard doesn't seem to take any joy in anything any more, ashamed of what he is, what he likes, always prepared to give it all up, wanting to be something else, something other, for someone else to make it all better for him.

She can't fix him, can't be the band-aid across a loveless childhood, provide all the confidence he lacks by her simple presence. She could try, was willing to try, when she thought that he liked her, Penny. Tried to be the good girlfriend, stopped going out with her old friends to stay in with him. Tried to make him feel good about himself so he made her feel good about herself, both of them spiralling round this damn great nothing at the heart of it all. But the realisation that she was just a trophy, that one of her greatest attributes to him was simply her willingness to sleep with him...well, the wash of shame and anger pretty much shut down any affection she felt. And there wasn't anything else left. They couldn't even try and make it work, there isn't anything to make it work with.

All she can do is to close the door, gently but firmly.

00000000

Sheldon picks up the phone, expecting Missy, but the voice is deep, gravel and molasses.

“Hey, Shel.”

“Gig.” Sheldon stares at the phone receiver, nervous foreboding. Gig doesn't call. Ever. “Why are you calling?”

“Can't I go talking to my baby brother, 'thout a reason?”

“You never did before.” Eyes narrow, at the rough laughter.

“C'mon. I heard tell you got a girl, I hadta call. Now are you gonna tell me about this little honey, or am I gonna hafta come up there?”

“Hell, no.” Sheldon yelps. A childhood of losing toys to his siblings, instinctive panic. “Y'all want to keep your noses out of my bees-wax.”

Gig was fit to laugh his ass off when Missy first let slip that the li'l robogeek was turnin' human after all. Didn't reckon Shel would ever get a girl less'n he built one, but Missy had told him that Penny was very real, and very pretty, and not noticeably gone in the head. She'd also threatened him with harm if he put his oar in, but Gig's burning with too much curiosity to pay mind to that.

“Well, I reckon Momma's gonna be up there with a shotgun soon enough.”

“I haven't done anythin'.”

“Oh, won't be for you. She's not lettin' that girl get away from you.” Pure sibling wickedness. “She's been looking at hats.”

“Oh, good lord...” His little brother wails. “We only just started courting...”

(Gig blows his coffee over the counter. Courting? Maybe Momma might want to go looking at hats after all.)

“Ah, stop getting your panties in a bunch. C'mon, spill. I wanna know how a skinny freak like you ever managed to pick yourself a sweet peach like this one sounds to be...”

The conversation is brisk and brotherly. Ends with an exasperated Sheldon reverting to the accent and language of his childhood, and slamming the phone down. Gig is still laughing when his mother cuffs him round the head.

“George Jubal Cooper. You've not been tormentin' Shelly?”

“Just askin' after Penny.” Gig grins, unrepentant.

“Don't you go scarin' him off.”

“Momma, Shel just threatened to 'kick my goddam ass if I went hornin' in' , I don't think there's a thing in the world gonna scare him off.”

Mary slaps him again, for taking the Lord's name in vain, even if it was a quote. Gig puts up with it, for the sheer fact that his geeky brother has just given him an earful Pop would have been proud of.

It was never easy, growing up with Shel. Kid had a brain the size of a planet, and less common sense than you could fit in a juice carton. Forever mouthing off at someone about something, and getting himself beat up. The Cooper siblings were a rowdy bunch themselves, and they had a whole mess of cousins to fight with, too. Gig sometimes wonders how Shel ever stayed living, before he got shipped off to college, and got turned into some weird little sideshow. Kinda fun to hear him forget about swallowing a dictionary and sounding as near to normal as he ever got.

Gig knows what Shel sounds like with a full mad on, and even if he could smack his little brother down without bother, don't mean the kid wouldn't be riled enough to take swing anyhow. This Penny must be quite something.

00000000

Sheldon is of the opinion that the only thing that travels faster than light is family gossip. He's sure there is a paper in it. He'd not been surprised by his mother's call, and not been fooled by her overly casual enquiry after everyone's health, sighed and told her, with just a hint of nervous pride, that yes, he's going steady with Penny.

Which means that ten minutes later, Penny finds herself answering the phone to Mary Cooper, and has her own moment of wide-eyed panic, that she's about to be exorcised or something.

“...Now, Penny, honey, I love my snickerdoodle to death, but we both know he's got no horse sense.”

“I'm looking after him, Mrs Cooper.”

“I think you'd best call me Mary, seeing as...” A cough, “Well, I don't doubt you're looking out for him. I'm just kinda worried about him heading out for England all on his own. He's gonna be away for his birthday.”

“Oh, I'm gonna bake that cake before he goes.”

“Cake?” Maternal antennae go on the alert.

“His Meemaw sent me a recipe.”

(On the other end of the phone, Mary Cooper does a most unladylike fist-pump.)

“He'll like that.” Manages to sound calm. “But I was thinking...it's near six months since I last chased him to go buying himself new clothes, and he's bad as any other man for it.”

“I know.” Penny agrees before she thinks. “My mother always says no man can ever be trusted to buy his own pants.”

“Well, I'm glad he'll be in capable hands.” Mary says happily. “The list is in the mail.”

Penny has always wondered where Sheldon got his sneaky from – now she knows. She does make a mental note though – the war on plaid starts here.

00000000

Her own mother surprises the hell out of her, with a sigh, and the comment.

“Well, I've been waiting a while for this.”

“Huh?”

“I've spent three years listening to his name come up nearly every conversation we ever have.” Small laugh. “Could have knocked me right over when you said you were dating the other one.”

“Really?”

“Oh, Pen, honey. You were always on fire about something with him, some new form of crazy. That time he hung your panties out the window? And you spent a whole evening complaining to me about that red-headed girl who was chasing him. And you were watching something sad on tv that time he moved to Montana, just so you could have a good cry.” Mothers do not play fair. “Last month or so, you've talked about how you've been here, there and every place with him, and you barely mentioned Leonard the once.”

“I never cheated, Mom.”

“Of course you didn't, baby. I'm just saying, you sound like you have more of a life with this Sheldon.”

“Yeah.” Penny worries at a loose thread on her denim shorts. “I...thought I, I dunno, I cared about Leonard, but it wasn't enough.”

“Well, then,” her mother sighs, “Perhaps you did good to get out of it before you got yourself tied down with anything.”

That was what had driven her finally to leave Kurt. Sitting on the edge of the tub with a plastic stick, and realising that she wasn't sure where he was, and whatever the stick said, she'd still be there on her own. Somehow, she's not surprised to have her sister call later.

“Pen, darling, Mom made it sound like you're thinking of dating 'Rain Man'.”

Penny thinks guiltily of the times she made such jokes herself. Five minutes with Sheldon, and yeah, you do have the urge to either mock him or run away. But stay past five minutes, get to know him, and you find out how lovable, how loving, he can be. She can hear the rumble of her teenage nephew in the background, and realises with a strange little lurch of her heart, Sheldon was graduating college at his age.

“He's just...different.”

“Different bad or different good?”

“Different good.” And Penny knows it's true as she says it. “I could...really love him, y'know.”

“Well, shit.” She hears her sister pulling up her chair. “Now, you tell me all the stuff you didn't tell Mom.”

Penny does.

“He likes to clean?” Her sister hoots. “Now you're just making him up.”

“You really couldn't make Sheldon up.” Penny assures her.

00000000

On Saturday, they go out on campaign. She's a little tired and crampy, and beating hell out of people helps. This time, when the battle ends, and she grins up at him, Sheldon knows what to expect. There are a few quite specific cheers and catcalls. The StormFist approve. (Si describes it to Tay as 'getting the upgrade'.)

Penny has one of those odd little moments of clarity. Pretty much everyone who actually knows her, and knows Sheldon, well, they are happy for them. (With a few obvious exceptions.) People who don't know them, don't matter.

Then Beth invites them over for dinner in the week. This is a bit different from cartons of take-out over at 4A, or eating out with the crowd. This is a proper grown-up couple sort of thing, dinner with married friends. Penny thinks she might be more freaked out than Sheldon seems to be. She widens her eyes quietly at Beth, who merely grins back.

“Think of this as a role-playing exercise, Sheldon. A scenario to get you used to the idea of improvised interaction in a social environment.”

Sheldon stops fidgeting, looks thoughtful. Sven delivers the killer blow.

“You'll want to take Penny out to places. This is a good way of easing into it.”

They both watch that information being processed. Then Sheldon's face clears.

“Thank you.”

“All part of the StormFist service.” Beth murmurs quietly to Penny. “We can build you a better boyfriend.”

Penny remembers a box of chocolates, and grins suddenly.

00000000

Saturday night is always Laundry night, and sitting on a dryer is the perfect height to turn her face up to Sheldon's, and interrupt his latest rant about detergent. He's sweetly awkward, and he looks cross with himself even as he chases her lips with his.

“That's very distracting.” He complains.

“It's meant to be.” She laughs up at him. “Better than chocolate?”

“Need more data...” He mumbles against her mouth. Pulls his head back suddenly. “Are you trying to train me?” Then, a look of alarming calculation. “Do you have a specific scale of rewards in mind?”

“Sheldon, no.” Finds his lips again.

“...not a very scientific approach.” How he can talk while still kissing her, she hasn't figured out, “How will I know if I'm improving?...”

“Sheldon...” Pulls back so she can look into his face. “Everything I do with you, I do because I want to, there's no other reason.”

“Oh. Good.” Blinks at her, hopefully. “But you could still kiss me when I'm good, couldn't you?”

Actually, he has noted that Penny has different ways of kissing him. There's the victory kiss, exultation. The distraction. The salutation. The small, sudden kisses up under his ear which appear to have no other purpose than because, gratification. Sheldon himself is very much in favour of the gentle, slow kisses when they are alone, delectation. But he's quite happy to add reward to the list...

He'll think of a classification later.

Chapter Text

a/n – slight canon tweak in this chapter. In the AV, the tag to TPA never happened.
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She would never have let Leonard meet her here. He would have puffed himself up to try and compete with other guys, got sulky when he couldn't. (Or he would have been watching some of the other women, and then pretended he wasn't.) Sheldon isn't taking any notice of the people, he's intent on one of the Nautilus machines. He should look horribly out of place amongst the tanned and toned, but he doesn't seem particularly self-conscious.

Pete, one of the gym instructors, comes over to her.

“He says he's waiting for you.” He frowns. “Is he one of those crazy stalker types?”

“Oh, he's crazy, alright.” Penny sighs fondly. “But it's okay, Pete - he's my boyfriend.”

Pete's eyebrows snap up, then down. Penny has been coming to this gym since she moved to Pasadena, and Pete has seen most of her usual boyfriends. And yeah, Sheldon doesn't look like them, at all. But she doesn't need a muscle-bound hardbody with matching designer sportswear. She's tried that. Under that 'Flash' t-shirt, there's a perfectly good chest, anyway.

She's a sweaty mess after her work-out, no make-up. Normally, she'd be terrified to let a new guy see her this way. But... he's seen her look worse. She's training him out of that creepy serial killer smile, his natural smile is shy and a little goofy, and it doesn't dim or falter when he sees her.

“Hello, Penny.”

She stretches up to peck his lips.

“I gotta shower quickly. Give me ten minutes?”

Sheldon, acquainted with Penny's time-keeping, raises his eyebrows, but remembers a useful tip in time.

“Yes, dear.” He says. Penny narrows her eyes, but scampers off to the changing rooms. Sheldon files that away – Sven was correct about the efficacy of that phrase. He turns back to the machine that caught his attention.

It's an interesting application of mechanical principles. Sheldon sits on the bench, does a quick calculation in his head...if net resistance is equal to the cosine of the angle at which it is moving relative to vertical...leverage advantage, incline, net mechanical advantage... body weight, allowing for ratio of muscle to body fat...

“You need a spotter on this?”

Sheldon doesn't pick up on the mockery. Looks calmly up at the speaker.

“I'm not intending to 'work out'.” He says. “I just want to prove a calculation.”

Grips the bar. It takes force, but not undue strain, and the weight rises slowly but surely.

There is the sort of respectful and extremely shocked pause occasioned by watching a skinny nerd wander in and lift what looks to be over his own body weight.

Sheldon lets the weight back down again, smiles. He was correct.

“These machines really are fascinating pieces of technology.”

“Uh, yeah.” The guy backs up a little as Sheldon swings his legs back over the bench.

Sheldon finds a seat near the door, and fishes a comic out of his messenger bag. He hopes nobody thinks that they can try pantsing him here – it would embarrass Penny.

She looks at him for a moment. Sitting neatly upright in his chair, feet together, elbows drawn in, smooth dark head bent over some bright comic with the same serious face that he brings to his work, slight frown, lips pursed. Dreadful shoes, nothing matching. But he looks up and sees her, then. Sweet smile and candid, happy eyes. It doesn't matter what he's dressed like. He's her Sheldon.

She's been nearer twenty minutes than ten, and they both know that he is going to scold her and that she is going to divert him in her usual manner. And neither of them care about the sidelong glances of bemusement as she does.

Sheldon opens the door for Penny, and then looks down with slight startlement, but accepts the fact that her fingers fit perfectly with his, as she pulls him out into the sunshine. They are going shopping. Apparently, this is not optional.

00000000

He's having a meltdown about some volcano. Despite the fact that his trip is still a few weeks away, he's fretting about flight plans, and somehow, changing weather patterns.

“You better brush up on your shooting skills, Penny, in case you have to shoot any wolves.”

What really worries Penny is that she can actually follow the Sheldon-logic. (And that being stuck in library with him would hardly be the worst post-apocalyptic situation.) It isn't that he doesn't know what is real. It is just that his mind is open to the possibility of anything. Everything happens somewhere.

“I don't think the world is going into another Ice Age within the next couple of weeks, honey. Just go try the jeans on.”

She stares him down, and, resigned, he accepts the handful of material she thrusts at him and goes into the cubicle.

This isn't his usual clothing store. Left absolutely to himself, he'd set up an account and simply order out of catalogues when things fell to pieces. But that is no longer an option. He's not quite sure why he needs new clothes now, but there seems to be some horrible feminine conspiracy in his life. Which apparently gives Penny the right to impound certain pairs of his pants, and to pitch a fit about his sports coat.

Blue denim is more acceptable. He's not sure why.

Penny sighs. Prying Sheldon loose from the concept of 'brighter is better' is taking time. She's winning, gradually. (Except his pyjamas – she's actually in love with a guy who wears plaid pyjamas to bed...)

He stalks out of the cubicle, wriggles a bit.

“These jeans, Penny...” Looks at her with mournful eyes. “They are quite tight.”

“Once they've been washed and worn a few times, they'll get looser.”

Mould themselves to fit, says a voice in her head, and her eyes flick downwards quickly, involuntarily. No, Sheldon is definitely buying the jeans. If she has to put up with the lurid tees, then she gets to see his butt in denim. She quite likes his layered tops, really, he wouldn't be Sheldon without them, but the pants situation needs work. Consults her list, Mary Cooper's neat chickenscratch, and her own loopy amendments.

“You can get those, and you can wear them and that nice deep purple shirt when we go to Beth and Sven's tonight...and you can have the two cartoon tee's if you get the charcoal slacks...”

Sheldon quails faintly, understands that he is, in technical parlance, 'whipped'. But he accepts a small kiss up under his ear, and thinks that, really, different coloured pants are a small price to pay to make her happy.

(He never has gotten his one dress shirt back. Apparently, it is also a convention that a man loses items of clothing to his girlfriend.)

00000000

Her kitchen is suspiciously tidy. Sheldon cleans when he's feeling tense, and he's expanded his territory to include her apartment. She opens a cupboard. Everything is neatly ranked, labels turned outwards. This is a bad sign.

She doesn't think it's her. She's being careful with him, he's getting better with being hugged. Things move at their own pace, and she is determined to enjoy this. He's curiously old-fashioned in some ways, treats her with a courtesy and respect that she suspects his mother and grandmother instilled in him when he was small. He can still be arrogant and condescending and just himself, of course, but she never feels that he disrespects her as a woman. As a person of inferior intelligence, sure, but that's Sheldon, and everyone is of inferior intelligence to him pretty much, at least according to him. He's getting a little better at not pointing it out quite so loudly now, she has a Look that means 'shut up', and he knows that one.

This is new territory for her, as well. Sheldon knows her, has seen her angry and unreasonable and sick. She doesn't have to pretend to be sunny and happy around him all the time – although most of the time she is. They've always been honest with each other. So she'll get this out of him.

00000000

When he folds at the knees, he goes down hard. Penny dives and catches his shoulders before he hits his head, but she still ends up sprawled.

Sheldon opens his eyes, mildly confused. He appears to be lying supine, with his head in Penny's lap.

“...don?”

Now he remembers. He had been going over the information for his upcoming visit, and there had been an estimate of the numbers attending. If twenty-five physicists is Woodstock, this is Summerfest and the Superbowl combined.

“How did you ever manage to teach?”

“I was only ever required to take small classes.” He looks up at her, miserable. “I can't talk in front of that many people, Penny. I can't go.”

“You can, and you will.” There's a scary light in her eye. She may know squat about physics, but she knows stage-fright when she sees it.

Dutch courage is not the answer. He's a happy drunk, but that is absolutely not the impression he needs to be giving the I.C.

That had been a horrible evening. Leonard had aired a whole raft of his scary Mommy issues, and she had been so busy freaking out about that, she hadn't gotten the wine bottle off Sheldon in time. It had taken both her and Raj to coax Sheldon off the stage after his little Tom Lehrer medley. Leonard had wanted to cling, rather, and she'd been torn between his neediness, and making sure Sheldon didn't throw up. Luckily, he had merely passed out on his bed, grinning goofily into his pillow. Later, she'd waited until Leonard was sleeping, then snuck in with a glass of water and some painkillers. And when he'd staggered out next morning, rumpled and red-eyed, she'd had to fight the urge to hug him and smooth his hair down.

Now, she's able to run her fingers through his hair, and kiss the top of that big forehead.

Luckily, they are going to dinner with a drama coach.

00000000

She brings up the issue over the chicken parmigiana.

Beth frowns.

“How can you be scared to talk to a crowd, when you'll happily lead a battle charge?”

“It seems to be about the size of the audience.” Penny shrugs. “You know he doesn't make sense, Beth.”

“You have a weird boyfriend.”

Sheldon hears the words. He's heard them before. 'Weird', 'strange', 'crazy'. But the tone is different this time. It sounds more like the way his family talk to him. The way Penny talks to him. She calls him crazy, but she calls him sweet, and she kisses him and laughs when she says it.

Sven grins at him.

“Don't sweat it, man. I threw up every morning for weeks when I first started teaching.”

“Really?”

“Oh, it was horrible.” Beth says. “But,” she adds firmly, “We will not be pursuing the subject while we are eating. You guys can be gross all you like afterwards.”

“Yes, dear.” Sven says meekly.

Sheldon continues to eat his chicken, his mind busy. Intellectually, he understands that his fears are groundless. He's not quite sure how a theatre workshop will help, but Penny will be with him.

00000000

Something refreshing in not having to play games. She looks up at him. Sheldon doesn't understand 'coffee'.

“Sheldon, come in for a few minutes.”

“Why?”

“I want to kiss you good-night properly, and I get a crick in my neck if you're standing up.”

“Oh. Very well.” He follows her happily through her front door. “I was going to ask if kissing you good-night would be acceptable.”

“Very acceptable.” She gives him a gentle shove to get him sat down, and then cuddles into him, pulls his arms around her. He complies, already a little easier. Human relationships still baffle him. But when his world is full of blonde hair and warm skin and soft lips, and just...Penny, he finds his capacity for rational thought in abeyance. Resigned to a lack of understanding, he finds himself willing to follow her lead.

00000000

And it is in this spirit that he find himself being towed into a small, shabby theatre. He hangs back in the wings a little.

“I'm really not sure about this, Penny.”

“It's better than you getting wasted and insulting a room full of brainiacs. Now come on.” She pulls him onto the stage.

This is terrifying. A new and sudden appreciation comes over him. To step out, night after night, and face this feeling, vulnerable and alone.

But he isn't alone. She's holding his hand. And there are faces he knows, waves and thumbs up and cheerful grins. It's scary, but it isn't threatening. Beth turns and waves.

“Okay, guys, this is Sheldon. He's going to be giving an important lecture in a couple of weeks, and he's got a little issue with stage fright. Since he's not the only one, we're going to work on a few exercises...”

Nobody jeers, nobody laughs. A couple of people edge up, and Penny pulls him down to sit beside her on the boards. She keeps hold of his hand.

This is what friendship is supposed to be like.

The world still bewilders him, the chaotic nature, but now he begins to see a way of being in it. Adapting his coping mechanism. People think that he isn't capable of flexibility, that he is too mired in routine. They don't understand the comfort that it brings, when you can see every possibility of an action. (Why he is a superb chess-player, and such a nervous driver.) He likes to able to predict and control. If you know what will happen, why it happens, how it happens, you can defend against it. You can keep people safe.

There are more people in his world, now. Things have shifted. He is a boyfriend, a state he has never considered before, never thought he would attain, and now, he strives to understand it, integrate it into his life. Understanding of how important Penny is to him had been slow to coalesce, but now, he is fully aware. And he will not lose this new existence, as it opens out in front of him, however blankly terrifying it might be.

Chapter Text

Penny has run a long way, from the bright, comfortable kitchen of her childhood, tried to be many things. How many of her schoolfriends are married (or divorced), like her sister, getting older and harder and more tired with every year, every kid? Turning into their mothers, and bringing up another generation just the same. She'd fled from that. She's pretty and fun and she doesn't get tied down.

So finding herself tying on a pinny and frowning over a cake recipe scares her, in more ways than it should.

She doesn't bake. The pans are borrowed from Beth. The last time she stirred up a cake had been back when her Nonna was still alive. But she is seriously contemplating this. Tackling a family recipe for the ultimate control freak.

Three generations of Sheldon's family have asked her to take care of him, in their own ways. Much as she hates to face the fact, she seems to have been co-opted as one of Sheldon's 'womenfolk'. Grins at the mere idea of Sheldon ever banging his fist on the table and demanding his dinner. Then wonders why her brain defaults to some scary 'fifties style sit-com.

Penny has a really good memory, never has any problem learning lines. It's a thing that serves her well as a waitress, too, when she isn't feeling too tired and pissed off to care. So she is very aware of how many times she has ever cooked for a guy, not just thrown together supper – and how long it has been since she did this.

She doesn't do domestic. The whole wild freedom of not having chores, nobody to make her make her bed, wash her dishes, pick up after herself. (Until now - the little voice in her head that still nags at her to do so no longer sounds like her mother, it has a distinct twang.) She can't deny that she finds it more comfortable to be able to find things without turning whole closets out. (Finding that she has three identical pairs of shoes, one of them still in the box – maybe Sheldon has a point about organisation.) But there's something dreary and oppressive about the whole idea. Even living with Kurt, it was take-out and quick fix meals, the apartment that they never quite got round to fixing up because it was only until they got a break, moved on up. There's a constant war in her head, the part of her that likes her cosy little apartment, had enjoyed decorating it, bright fabric and pictures. Against the part of her that shrieks that that is nesting and settling down and just like everybody else.

...This is just one freaking cake. His grandmother asked her to do it. It isn't like she's suddenly gone all Stepford, or like she's suddenly gonna don a polyester pant suit and get a job in a bank or anything here. She's an actress (and hadn't you better call your agent, before she thinks you up and died? the voice says, and that accent is pure down-home ornery, and very much her own.)

Until now, all her friends have been much the same. Young and, if not precisely single, not burdened by kids or mortgages (or actual careers, the voice in her head says snidely.) She has a little flashback to Tammi's party, that odd little moment when she had looked at Sheldon, and seen... something different, the grown-up in the room, despite the general weird. She knows that some of the things the Sheldon likes are kinda bizarre. But then she also knows people who make a living dressing up as vegetables, or cartoon characters, or singing their hearts out about sanitary products. The glamorous world of tv.

The theatre workshop had been a bit of an eye-opener. Been a while since she stepped out on stage. In some ways, she had been the expert there, leading Sheldon into her world, having something to offer him. But there are no retakes on the stage, no chance to step in and out of a scene, a character. You have to think and feel and be, and there is an energy in it, a raw excitement, she had almost forgotten. Something more than smiling, and tossing her hair back, it needs substance.

The Barbie comments hurt. They always have. Everyone sees the Pretty Blonde. But there are oceans of pretty blondes queueing up for parts, eyes and teeth and perkiness. She's always wanted to stand out, to be noticed – but perhaps she can be better than any of the perky, pretty blondes who have nothing about them but perky and pretty, because one day, pretty won't be. She can rope and ride and shoot, and she's never put those on a CV, because they weren't glamorous. Things she has always put behind her, part of her childhood, part of what she left in Nebraska – maybe she needs to reclaim those things, have some fun again. Be herself.

Stop seeking approval for the wrong things.

She spent her childhood climbing trees, playing ball, gaptoothed tomboy. But she was never going to be the son her father wanted, replacement for the goofy wastoid her brother was becoming. (Because what else was there to do where they lived, but go out, get wasted?) So she'd been the pretty, popular party queen, what her mother had been, what her sister had been, before life got in the way. (She'd dodged that bullet, makes her cold to think of the few times she'd been a little less than careful, a little less than smart, bottle of something doing the thinking – she could still be waiting in some deadend rental, and no chance of any big break with a thick waist and a kid to mind.)

The three months of summer last year were the longest time she had been alone. She'd left her family home, lived with Kurt for the three years they were in L.A. There had been a few miserable weeks of other people's couches, before she found the apartment. And then her grand gesture of independence had lasted all of a couple of hours before she found herself absorbed into the weird little world of her guys. Her little safety net, whenever she felt low, she could go bask in the wistful admiration, shading into outright lechery. She'd wanted safe and comfortable, and she'd grabbed at it, three months of loneliness writing a script in her head.

That hadn't ended well.

Leonard had wanted her to make it all better for him, and she couldn't, because she couldn't fill in the gaps, all the pieces he was missing. She's missing pieces herself.

But Sheldon – she can see Sheldon adapting, learning, and still with that strange, honest, uncompromising sense of self about him. He doesn't drag her down, expect her to shore him up. And he doesn't prop her up, either. He supports her, but she can't be lazy with him. Tears confuse him, she doesn't get to play that card.

Everyone has always wanted something from her, for her to be something to them. Daughter, substitute son, princess, starlet, trophy girlfriend or mother-figure. Sheldon just wants Penny. Figuring out who Penny is, well, that's gonna be something.

This is the first relationship that she's been in that has felt like it has some kind of plan. How could it be anything else, with him and his charts? - But she didn't just jump into this, because it felt like a good idea, or because he had nice eyes, or because she'd had enough (too much?) to drink. She knows how far gone she is, that she finds his worrying about her in the event of catastrophe crazy-endearing rather than just crazy. She grew up in Tornado Alley herself, has no problem with the concept of an emergency bag, she can accept the possibility of natural disasters. She'll let him worry about the giant killer robots from outer space.

...There's a row going on. She can hear the shouting – Leonard can be fairly loud, but Sheldon could call hogs when he's mad.

Barely has time to scrabble things out of sight, when the knocks at the door come.

Sheldon is trying to carry a whiteboard, his laptop, and an armful of books.

“Penny, may I work over here? Leonard is playing his mournful music at an offensive volume, and refuses to turn it down.”

She winces a little, mostly at the strains of Augustana, lets him shuffle in.

“What was this row about?” She hopes it was just another squabble over the tv. But she doesn't hold out hope for that, with the Soundtrack of Despair.

“It seems that he blames me for the disintegration of your liaison.”

She winces. It's kinda true. This was never going to be good. Guilt twists in her. She hadn't meant to wreck their friendship; men are weird and tribal, have strange codes and rituals.

“I wonder what it would have been like if I hadn't moved in, y'know? Whether you two guys would still be okay.”

“Without a functioning time machine, we cannot possibly say.” Sheldon considers. “There is the strong possibility that Leonard would have continued to date Dr Stephanie. And without you as a factor, he would probably not have sabotaged my experiment.”

Penny pulls her jaw shut.

“How was that my fault?”

“Wolowitz informed me that jealousy was a prime motivation. Though at that time, I was unaware that there was any cause for jealousy on his part.”

She doesn't quite know how to deal with that. Part of her wants to storm across the hall, and kick Leonard's ass. Part of her wants to cry for him. He doesn't need a girlfriend, he needs a freakin' therapist. Blows out her breath, with the definite thought that she'd rather field calls about buying Sheldon socks, than spend any more time with the Ice Queen noseying about in her head, and just the sheer sense of relief that she'll never have to deal with the woman again.

Sheldon, fussing about with his whiteboard, tidies up a pile of papers on her table. His sharp eyes see very familiar handwriting, and his hand goes out before she can react.

“Penny, why do you have one of my letters from Meemaw...” His eyes take in the first line, 'Dear Penelope...' “Oh.”

“Now you've ruined the surprise.” Penny's lower lip trembles as she snatches the letter back.

“I'm sorry, but I saw...” Sheldon bites his own lip, and looks up from under his brows at her. “Meemaw sent you my Birthday Cake recipe?”

Penny starts to get that weird feeling again, that sense she's just been handed something ticking.

“She wanted me to bake this cake for your birthday, but you're gonna be in England, so I was making it early, as a sort of Going Away thing, but now you know about it, and I know you don't like surprises, but I thought you might like this one...”

It's been five years since he had birthday cake, The Birthday Cake, with the frosting and the candied pecans. Nobody has ever made it for him but Meemaw and his mother, it's a family thing, even moreso than 'Soft Kitty', or the right way to season chicken-fried steak. And Meemaw has written straight to Penny with the recipe, asked her to make it for him.

… Oh. The unsolicited gifts of food from the grad students suddenly make sense. He blinks. How extraordinary. Sheldon takes a deep breath, straightens up and fixes her with a stern eye.

“I hope you understand that this recipe is not negotiable in any way?”

“I never thought it would be.” But her sigh is a fond one. Whatever string thingies Sheldon had been working on have been forgotten in the quest for chocolate. She starts getting the ingredients out again.

Yeah, she's gonna make her boyfriend a birthday cake, because she wants to, and it makes him grin like a twelve-year-old, which is unbearably cute.

00000000

The cake is a little lopsided, and the frosting slightly uneven. But Penny is dreadfully proud of herself – only one little burn on her wrist from a pan, and they'd only dropped one egg.

It is a complete reversion to childhood, when they both look at the remnants of the bowl of frosting. Sheldon has the pallet knife, Penny is far less refined, and just swoops right in.

She is just intending to tease him a little, but Sheldon grabs her wrist before she can dab his nose. Cross-eyed, he looks at the digit being waved before his face.

There is a surface level of logic to all of this. He knows her hands are clean. But there is nothing truly logical in the desire to taste Penny and chocolate together. Sheldon curls his tongue around, and retrieves the last of the frosting.

She's not quite prepared for her brain to go so completely blank. And she would probably have managed to behave herself if he hadn't licked his lips.

A few months ago, he would have put this down to some kind of medical disorder. Now, he recognises it as simple physiology. He is a healthy young human male, and there is nothing sinful or strange about his feelings. Terribly unexpected, and occasionally debilitating, but depressingly normal. For a man who has always prided himself on being so very different from the common herd, it is an unsettling experience. However, with his arms full of Penny, and her sweet-tasting mouth on his, he doesn't care.

00000000

The cake tastes even better than it looks. It tastes of home and childhood. And possibly a heart-attack. Penny promises herself an extra session in the gym.

It isn't a formal party, but the usual suspects have turned up to wish Sheldon well on his trip, and are draped around the place, perched or propped, snagging cake and chatting. Even Sheldon can't eat the whole thing, much as he would like to, and he's been persuaded to share.

Raquel lowers her voice.

“Um, you do know that you've got a big chocolatey handprint on your ass, don't you?”

“Crap.” Penny twists round, wide-eyed and scarlet. Finds her shorts unmarked, but all her friends cackling like fiends. “Oh, you bitches.”

“I wasn't the one with frosting on my hands.” Sheldon doesn't understand why that makes them cackle even more.

Chapter Text

She's clubbing with some of her friends, a girl's night out. A couple of drinks, just to take the edge off, but she's dancing, free and happy, enjoying the beat. His name is Mark, he's broad-shouldered, fills out his designer shirt and jeans really nicely, toothpaste ad grin and warm chocolate-brown eyes. He's charming, and he's interested.

A couple of weeks, and a lifetime, ago, she would have been interested back. Heck, she's still interested, she's got a pulse. But she smiles, shakes her head, reluctant but sincere.

"He was hot, Penny." Tammi reproves her.

"Yeah." Penny agrees. "But...I've got a boyfriend."

She's just turned down smokin' hot sex on a stick for some skinny geek in a comic-book t-shirt, who still hasn't made it past first base. Crazy is obviously contagious, 'cos she doesn't care.

"Tall cute party-guy?" Camille asks.

"You thought he was cute?" Penny is curious.

"Hell, yeah. That boyish thing going on, but that hint that he could turn tough if he needed to. Mmm."

"Is this Penny's cowboy?" Tammi chimes in. "Skinny, but sweet. And gorgeous eyes."

"Nice big hands." Rena sighs. "He wouldn't dance with me."

"You shouldn't have been trying to dance with him." Dionne points out.

"Well, I didn't know he was Penny's. He was just standing there, looking lonesome."

She'd known that Sheldon had his own little fan-club of grad students, but hearing her friends rate him is weird. (But kinda nice.) The girls don't know about the crazy. So they just see the eyes and the height, the forearms and the jawline.

"So, what's he do?"

"He's a scientist at Caltech."

"Wow, he's really smart, then?"

"He's gonna win a Nobel Prize one day."

They laugh, stop when Penny doesn't.

"...you're serious? He's that smart?"

"He's that smart." Penny slams her drink. "He could lose half his brain and still be a frickin' genius."

Hears her own pride in him in her voice. Yeah, he's a geek, but he's her geek, brilliant and bizarre. She realises that she wouldn't give him up anyway. Because the world is full of hot guys, but there's only one Sheldon Cooper.

"I'm gonna get a cab. I'm all danced out."

"Yeah." Tammi gives her a suspicious look, then a grin. "She's running back to her sexy Texan."

"New shoes. My feet hurt..." Penny's weak protests are over-ridden by laughing jeers.

"Yeah, right, bitch."

"You gonna play doctor with the doctor..."

Catcalls and wolf-whistles pursue her out of the club, and she flaps her hands at them, laughing.

She doesn't know if it is the conversation, or the couple of margaritas that makes her pause at her own front door, look speculatively across. Because she's Penny, she grabs her spare key and marches across the hall. Because it's Sheldon, she brushes her teeth first.

00000000

It's a little after midnight, when his bedroom door opens very quietly, and she tiptoes in, puts a finger over his lips. He wakes up, but he doesn't shout. His eyes show wide in the meagre light, and he props onto his elbows, and squints at her.

"Penny?"

She's holding her shoes, and glowing. Not completely sober, perhaps, but very much in command of herself, settling onto the edge of his bed and smiling at him.

"I wasn't going to sleep properly until I kissed you good-night." she whispers.

She's in his room, on his bed, and people aren't supposed to be in his room, but that has never stopped Penny, there has never been any way of stopping Penny. Slippery material of her dress beneath his hands, curve of her hips and her fingers threading through his hair, tang of fruity alcohol under the mint.

Sheldon still places every kiss with a deliberate precision. He's not naturally affectionate, still a little awkward, but he doesn't flinch away when she snuggles up to him. He's always been reluctant about human contact. But it is very different with Penny. He has attained a degree of comfort now, classifies things in his mind, 'because it's Penny'. The exception to the rule.

One kiss turns into several. He tastes clean, hint of soap, hint of salt, and she knows that nobody has done this before, kissed all those cute little freckles on his neck. She nips gently at the strong muscle, juncture of his neck and shoulder, and it's unhygienic and insanitary, but the complaint he means to voice comes out as a small groan instead.

"You like that?" She murmurs into his skin.

"I...think I do." Eyes wide. "Penny..."

But she just nips him again, because the way he says her name, all breathless and twangy, is just ridiculously hot. Then she gives a little cat-stretch, one strap sliding down over a creamy shoulder, making him suddenly very conscious of certain elements of the female anatomy.

Penny, well aware of where his eyes have gone, grins, gives a little shimmy.

"You like?"

Sheldon clears his throat, eyes flicking up guiltily. He does like. Finds that he'd quite like to feel that heavy warmth in his hand again, flushes at the thought.

"You're allowed to look." She breathes into his ear. He can feel her smile. "You're allowed to touch, too."

"...oh."

"Yeah, 'cos I'm gonna touch you." Her hands, working their way up under the layers, cool against his skin.

"...counter-clockwise..." he manages to murmur against her mouth, and she laughs, tweaks at him softly with her fingers, makes him yelp.

His curiosity overcoming his nerves, his own hands flutter, land on her skin. She forgets how big his hands are sometimes - he can cover the entire small of her back with one. She reaches round behind herself, guides his hand up, feels the moment when he understands. The man can pick pockets, after all - bra clasps are nothing, even one-handed in the dark. And for sure, not all of her previous boyfriends had mastered that little trick.

There is no miscalculation in the placement of his hand this time, and she laughs softly at his happy little 'oh' of discovery. He touches her like he can't quite believe that he's allowed to, and his delighted surprise makes her almost shy, then, like she's brand-new just for him.

His cheeks are hot, and he pauses, marvels. She's letting him do this. Penny makes a soft little whimper, then grabs at his hand when he starts to draw away, worried that he's hurt her.

"...no..."

00000000

Leonard wakes up, blinks into the darkness. Unsure what has woken him, he fumbles for his glasses.

And then the damning, heart-stopping sound, her small wicked giggle.

He can't, won't, doesn't want to believe it. But then, there is another little giggle, and a familiar breathless laugh.

He turns over violently in bed, wrapping his pillow around his head.

The noise makes them both freeze, drains the excitement out of them. Penny sighs softly, rests her forehead against Sheldon's.

"I should go."

There is the very faintest hint of a pout, but Sheldon slides his hand away, aware that his breathing is ragged. He settles her straps back on her shoulders with the same gentle care with which he'd slid them down. His sweet southern courtesy, and only Sheldon could still make her feel like a lady when she was half out of her dress.

"I don't think I can walk you to your door." He bites his lip, looks up at her with guilty eyes. Penny bites back a filthy laugh. She shouldn't have snuck in, 'cos now both of them are frustrated. But there is another creak from next door, a sense of listening that gives her an uncomfortable feeling.

"I'll be fine." Waves her spiky heels menacingly. "I got my goodnight kiss, anyhow."

"Make sure you drink plenty of water before you go to bed." he admonishes.

"Yeah, yeah." She can't resist one more kiss, before she scurries away.

The situation is really messed up, she knows, but she can't really feel guilty about sneaking in to kiss her boyfriend good-night. But she's sure as hell not gonna make out with him with her ex listening through the wall.

Making out with Sheldon. Not something she ever thought she'd be doing. But he learns fast. The lights are definitely on, now. He'll probably call it 'tactile experimentation' or something – she calls it a very respectable 'second base'. Sighs to herself. She's gonna have some wicked fantasies about those long fingers.

00000000

Leonard would like to think that it had all been a horrible nightmare, the next morning. Sheldon looks as neat and otherwordly as always. But there is definitely a hickey on his neck.

Sheldon is not merely his room-mate. He's Penny's boyfriend. However twisted and insane and hurtful the idea might be, it's a reality. The mere thought of ever hearing those sounds Penny used to make for him coming through the wall makes him feel sick. It had taken him a long time to fall back to sleep, even after he had heard the front door close, memory and imagination torturing him in turn.

"I could hear you, you know."

"That is why Penny left." Sheldon doesn't even look guilty, merely continues to measure his cereal.

Leonard is going to say something nasty about Penny always being more affectionate when she's drunk, but some instinct of self-preservation kicks in. At one time, he would have expected Sheldon to agree with him. Now, he's suddenly aware that he might get punched. It isn't a comfortable thought.

"I can't be okay with this, you know. Not yet."

"It doesn't have anything to do with you. But Penny assures me it would be kinder if we endeavour to be discreet."

That stings.

"For god's sake, Sheldon, she's my ex-girlfriend! How do you think I feel listening to you through the damn wall?"

There is a sudden sharp crunch. They both look down at the mangled carton crushed in Sheldon's hand. Carefully, Sheldon releases his grip, doesn't look at Leonard.

"I have some headphones you may borrow, if you clean the ear-pieces before you return them."

"You really don't get it, do you?"

"No, Leonard, I don't. You cannot expect me to forgo my relationship for the sake of your bruised ego."

"So you'd turn your back on seven years of friendship for a girl?"

"You did." Flat statement of fact.

He wants to blame them for betraying him, but he can't. Not really. He has to admit the harsh truth, if only to himself. Penny left him. She chose Sheldon instead.

And Sheldon doesn't consider them to be friends any more. He forgets that sometimes, misses it. On some level, Leonard knows how unhealthy it is – but he'd been comfortable with Sheldon being cold and controlling. He knew how to deal with that.

Except... every time he thinks he has got Sheldon figured out, a new piece of the puzzle emerges. Things tilt a little for Leonard, then. He had always thought that Sheldon needed him, them, bolstered himself with that thought. That without them, he'd just be a lost, odd soul, an alien observer on the planet. Sheldon would never have spoken to his neighbour, never bothered to invite her into his world. (Would he? Or would Penny have made her way over, into his life, anyway?) But Sheldon is actually quite tough and self-reliant, had made his own way in the world for a long time before Leonard met him. Heck, by the time he graduated High School, Sheldon had already won the Stevenson, spent a year in Germany and received his first PhD.

It doesn't mean that Sheldon doesn't need people – he is human, he does need social contact – but he doesn't need their approval. He knows who and what he is. However strange that might be. Sheldon isn't crippled the same way the rest of them are, free of certain behaviours, blank slate. He wonders what it is like, to be so different, and not to care.

"You think we could try being friends again?"

"Why?" It is a genuine query. Sheldon looks down, up, and suddenly the mask cracks a little. His eyes are wounded. "You ceased to treat me as a friend a long time ago."

Leonard looks away.

"I'm...sorry. I took a lot of stuff out on you that wasn't your fault." He ventures a weak smile. "You could draw up another contract."

Sheldon's face twitches, and he stills it with an effort.

"Penny says that people don't need contracts, that we have to work things out as they happen." Swallows nervously, fists clenched. "I am trying to learn to behave like other people."

"I think Penny will make a good teacher." Leonard feels tired and sad. He's not anywhere near okay with this, but he can't fight it any more. "Y'know, I think I might take a vacation."

"I have always found that visiting my family provides a modicum of comfort."

Leonard gives a bitter laugh.

"C'mon, Sheldon, you talk to my mother more than I do."

"You could visit your father." Sheldon offers it as a logical alternative, but it startles Leonard.

He hadn't thought of his father. It's an idea. Anything has to be better than staying here, and enduring this. If he can't be someone else, he can be somewhere else.

00000000

For Sheldon, the world has become a more comfortable place, because he can work again. He's not sure whether the renewed energy and enthusiasm comes from the release of tension, the lifting of that deep fear, or whether there is an extra fillip from simply being...happy. He had been afraid that adding an emotional component to his life might distract from his work. Instead, it seems to provide new and positive levels of awareness.

It isn't even something he's been consciously aware of before. He's always taken pleasure in small things, new comics, movies, winning at games, but this basic level of contentment is new. Being with Penny makes him feel both safe and scared in equal measure, and for the first time in his life, he has no way of planning, controlling this progress, and yet, he can contemplate that, with something that isn't quite equanimity, but isn't panic, either. It's very peculiar.

On a professional level, the invitation to Oxford has cancelled out prior mishaps. He had supposed that the Chancellor's medal had been a sop, but it seems it was a more subtle nod that Sheldon still had support in the establishment. Whatever minor idiocies he might be subjected to by the petty or the jealous, those who matter have faith in him.

He has noticed vaguely that he seems to be treated differently at work, generally. He would be extremely indignant to think that fifteen years of scholarship have had less impact than one pretty blonde, but the sad fact is that his acquisition of a girlfriend has made him socially acceptable. Leslie Winkle's assessment of the aftermath of the party had been correct – being 'that weird guy with the hot girlfriend' has a very different ring to just being 'that weird guy'. Somehow, perception has shifted.

For whatever reason, though, it is a quieter and slightly more amiable Sheldon who is browsing through the racks at the comic store, an impromptu afternoon visit in the company of Raj and Howard. He misses Leonard's company, on one level, but that is the Leonard he supposed to be his friend. It will take time for him to reassess and reintegrate the new Leonard he now perceives back into his life.

Craning to see a cover, and the collar of his shirt slips. Scary, visible evidence that he is human, after all.

"Dude." Raj stares. Sheldon half-raises one hand.

"Penny merely stopped by on her way home to kiss me goodnight." He continues to read.

"Well, I mean, you've gotta seal the deal sometime..." The obscene movement of Howard's eyebrows freezes in mid-grimace when Sheldon looks at him, flint-eyed.

"I don't understand this business of achieving intercourse as some kind of competition." He finds the attitude as incomprehensible as he finds so much of human behaviour. He understands that this sharing is supposed to create a bond, some kind of primitive masculine ritual, but he finds that he has a deep visceral distaste for the idea. "Besides, from what Penny has told me, a woman who finds that her boyfriend has been discussing such matters with other people may find himself 'cut off'. How literally that term is meant to be taken, I don't wish to find out." He turns back to his reading. "Our sex life is not open to discussion."

The crisp flick of the page is shockingly loud in the frozen silence.

The concept of Sheldon even having a sex life, and with an actual other person involved, is freaky enough for most people.

Sheldon smiles. Good. That seems to have halted that frankly ridiculous conversation. Perhaps now he can read in peace. He has another stage workshop later, and he needs to be in a calm frame of mind.

00000000

Penny peers carefully through the window. Deena, less inhibited, raps on the glass, then steps back when every head swings round.

"Don't make eye contact." Penny mutters. "It only encourages them."

"You mean, if I feed one, it might follow me home?..." Deena is slightly unnerved, as well as amused.

"Don't even joke."

Sheldon makes his way through a store of silent and amazed stares, cheerfully oblivious.

Through the window, the collected audience watch Penny stand on tiptoe, and the unlikely sight of Sheldon Cooper kissing a real woman in public.

"Did she lose a bet with somebody?" Albino Bob asks of no-one in particular.

Stuart sighs, watching after them. And then he straightens his shoulders, lets the last embers of hope flicker and die. He might be able to compete with someone like Leonard. But Sheldon Cooper is a whole different story. Possibly one written in a language not of this Earth.

Chapter Text

He hates public transport, and flying, and the loss of his routine, and public restrooms, all the things he can't control. The utter dislocation of time and place, nothing constant or sure but the thin skin of the craft around him. Trapped within it with a press of people, none of whom he would choose to share space with.

He does not like to feel helpless.

He doesn't exactly relax once the seatbelt sign goes off, but he is able to pry his fingers out of their grip on the arm-rest, and unlock his jaw. Too many variables with a plane. A train runs on tracks, does not deviate. Penny loves to fly, talks enthusiastically of that sense of anticipation, freedom. He finds the uncertainty terrifying.

Half a lifetime ago, he had boarded a plane for Europe. Then he had had his mother with him, both of them venturing out of the country for the first time in their lives. The leave-taking then had been fraught – (a girl of fifteen might fight with her mother, but seeing her depart for best part of a year is hard, a man who was once used to being the one to be deployed might find it awkward to see his wife leaving, a big brother could resent a younger sib getting a cool trip away to see places, when the future holds only local college and a manual job.)

He doesn't like long good-byes, maudlin displays of affection. But his body didn't seem to have got the message earlier, his arms had developed an independence, rather in the manner of Doctor Octopus' tentacles, unwilling to relinquish their hold on her. It isn't that he won't be able to work or function, nothing so melodramatic, but he does feel quite miserable at the thought that she will be so far away, and that he is suddenly facing days without her.

It isn't that he isn't anticipating the conference with a certain degree of excitement. He has the whole program of events, annotated and cross-referenced, his notes, in three different formats. And he has some correspondence from Imperial College about the new nano-lattice development, which looks intriguing. There have been quite a few new contacts, the flurry of e-mails to prepare for this trip. It will be an unprecedented opportunity to meet and mingle with those he actually regards as his peers. (They are still working on 'tact' – Sheldon is trying to be a little less blunt, though he still doesn't quite understand why. None of his limited social circle to date had ever bothered to modify their responses to each other.) His theories help to provide the structure, the building blocks, from which others construct experiments to prove (or disprove) what his equations predict and promise. He is not being summoned to perform, he is being invited to consult, to share his work with like minds.

This time, he is not an awkward untravelled teen. He doesn't have an equally nervous companion praying quietly through take-off. He is utterly alone. (But then, he has always been alone, isolated by youth, intelligence, difference.) But he has grown used to certain faces around him, certain behaviours, over the last few years. What he had thought to be a supportive group. So many things that need to be readjusted in his thinking.

It had been a time of sheer terror, to feel the ground beneath him so unstable, having ventured into the material world, to have accepted the challenge, to have felt himself more than an equal to any, and to have the proof turn to ashes in his hands. Small comfort to see more successful experiments achieved by others, the publication of Morris and Tennant's work slapping him in the face, a last little jab to show him just how worthless those last three months had been.

He had fled back to Texas, still numb, unaware of his own deep-seated anger, buried beneath the pain and shock. Then, his world had been very small, he had had no other avenue of escape. His childhood home was no longer home, though, not really. A brief refuge, but he could no longer live in that place, any more than a butterfly could re-enter the cocoon. (He has his own private war against his mother's God, savage awareness that his free will was shackled to an idea of obedience to structure before he could challenge it. When your first words are 'why' and 'how', blind faith will never be an option.)

There had been no other option but to return, to find himself living with a stranger. His friend had disappeared somewhere in that white wasteland in the north, left behind this strange composite, no longer his friend Leonard and his friend Penny, but some weird amalgam of the two, and Sheldon tried to adjust to that, all the while fighting with the knowledge that the one person he would normally turn to for some reassurance in this time of disaster was the one who had inflicted it upon him.

He looks with unseeing eyes at the page before him. He had returned with a triumph, only to have it destroyed before him, as if he had walked through some portal into an alternate world. Watched people he thought he, if not understood, had found a way to accommodate into his life, transformed, diminished somehow. Realised how little his existence mattered to them, if they could treat him in such a fashion. As if his scientific achievement, all the skill and scholarship of years, mattered no more than that, the utter ruination dismissed as a prank, and his despair brushed aside in a rush for carnal access.

Penny hadn't understood. He didn't expect her to. She is not a scientist. He has the sudden, small thought that if anyone were to try such a thing on him now, though, her response would be far less moderate. If he has grown to appreciate her warmth, he likes to think that she has come to appreciate how important his work is to him, even if she will never understand it. Others did not have that excuse.

He could wish that she had not been so keen to rush into coitus with Leonard (still makes him shudder), but Penny is impulsive, she had missed them, and it wasn't like Leonard was ever known to refuse such a thing. The man had after all nearly betrayed his country for the chance to bed Joyce Kim.

Was it any wonder that he had chosen to deny the reality of his emotions for so long? The template he had been presented with was flawed.

But somehow, he has been given a second chance. Not merely at his work. Penny had not dismissed him, cut him away from the pattern of her life, but had taken him with her into a new sphere. He has discovered new paradigms, friendships, relationships, how his own internal and external worlds integrate. Even something that he is cautiously labelling 'romance'. He hopes that he will be able to be an exemplary boyfriend. He can learn from the example, and the mistakes, of others, formulate his own method of approach. She seems to appreciate his efforts to date (laughs quickly at his own unintentional pun.)

He wishes she were here with him, holding his hand. Not out of any deep-seated fear, but simply because he has grown used to the feel of her fingers slotted between his.

00000000

A weary, crumpled figure finally makes it out through the hustle of Heathrow. He has precise instructions about the coach he needs to catch – Professor Poligny had been quite firm about not taking the train. Short acquaintance with Sheldon had led him to concur that the young American attempting to navigate the London Underground, and British Rail, could only end in disaster. It confounded and enraged those who lived with it daily, it was not fair to inflict such a thing upon the weary traveller. Or perhaps, to inflict this weary traveller upon British Rail.

Cultural dislocation, the vehicles move on the wrong side of the road. A smaller sky, fresher weather, everywhere somehow darker and smaller than home. His body is telling him that it is the small hours, local time insists that it is evening, and he nods in his seat, the world of a blur of confused impressions, the countryside becoming so much greener than he is used to, until he finds himself waking with a jolt as the coach draws to a halt.

His first impression of Oxford is of rather ordinary red brick, the coach station having no particular architectural merit. But the building he finds himself entering, a short walk later (he needs to stretch his legs, his luggage is not heavy) is everything that could be desired. Though he is in no condition to really appreciate mellow stone and Gothic architecture, be it Revival or Survival. A kindly Porter directs him across a quadrangle of smooth lawn, through an archway into an older, less ordered world. Despite the name, not a quadrangle, but an oblong, and buildings of a less symmetrical design grouped about it.

“It's all post-grads and professors on the staircase.” The Porter tells him. “Which isn't to say that some of the...gentlemen don't cause a ruckus.” He adds, mysteriously. “But you've got Professor Foyle's rooms for the duration, she's off digging in Greece for the season. We lock the gates at 11, but someone will be on duty at the Lodge.”

So he finds himself, stranger in a strange land, looking around a small and thankfully very tidy set of rooms. The little study-cum-sitting room is pretty much walled with books, interspersed with the odd bone or stone or piece of pottery. Sheldon resolves to try the armchairs to ascertain an optimum spot, but first he needs to shower. Thankfully, the little bathroom also meets his standards of cleanliness, and the relief at being able to get clean almost makes up for the disorientation.

When he goes to unpack his clothes, he finds that Penny has managed, goodness only knows how, to sneak Higgs into his luggage. He stares at the ridiculous toy for a long moment, then sits it upon his bedside table.

There will be nobody to disturb his routine, his sense of order. He is not going to be forced to watch inane television, to suffer prattling about shoes or vapid celebrities. He has been treated with polite respect, even a little deference, by those he has met.

He lies in the bed, stares at the ceiling.

He misses her quite desperately.

Around him, the college begins to settle for the night, distant sounds of student life. Sometime in the middle of worrying about how he will ever get to sleep in this place, he falls down into comforting darkness.

00000000

He is at a bit of a loss the next morning. He is not due to meet Professor Poligny until the afternoon, and his mind and body still seem to be in different time zones. He has missed breakfast, according to his watch, and he is unsure of how to proceed. He is in the middle of attempting to find a 'spot', when there is a knock at the door. Barely has time to make a response, when a dishevelled dark head peers round it at him, a wide grin with rather a lot of teeth in it, and a pair of very bright, dark eyes.

“Hello.” It says, cheerfully. “Mullins said we had a visitor in Lizzie's room.” Sheldon isn't absolutely sure, but he thinks the accent is Scottish. The head disappears briefly, calls, “Lol, I found a live one.” Reappears, and the rest of the body follows, a tall skinny figure in jeans, battered sneakers and what was probably once quite a smart jacket.

“Dave McDonald.” The man puts out a hand. “Well, Doctor McDonald, really, can't quite get used to that yet...”

“Doctor Sheldon Cooper.” Remembers Penny's instructions, puts out his own hand, tries not to flinch.

McDonald's grin can get wider. It's frightening. Sheldon pushes down the nervous desire to bolt back into the bedroom.

The Sheldon Cooper?” It's a slightly crushing two-handed grip. “Brilliant. I read your paper on 'The Decays of Highly Excited Massive String States'...”

“I'm sorry, is he bothering you?” This speaker is a calm contrast to the first, close-cropped fair hair, long face, hooded eyes and a British drawl. Offers a hand of his own. “Dr Laurence Ashby. You're here for the Wadham Lectures?”

“He's giving one of them.” McDonald waves a hand, proud magician presenting his rabbit. “This is Dr Sheldon Cooper.”

Pale eyebrows rise, and the corner of the thin mouth turns up.

“Ah, that explains the manic fanboy babbling. We were just on our way down to the S.C.R to get a head start on the buffet before the visiting academics found it. Care to join us?”

Sheldon hesitates. But in a world where everything is new, and he is utterly adrift and alone, two amiable faces are curiously welcome.

“Thank you.” he says.

Chapter Text

If he had been asked to describe a day out with his father, Leonard's first thought would not have been trout fishing. But here they are, a couple of small, quiet men, on a riverbank. It's oddly peaceful. They don't talk much. But Leonard feels that he's talked enough to therapists over the years. None of that made him feel better. So maybe sitting here and watching a small plastic float bobbing on the water is enough.

He'd been serious about the idea of taking some time away from everything, but undecided as to how. It isn't something he does, really – no family tradition of days out, going somewhere just to be. Leonard has never taken a beach vacation in his life. The idea of setting out without purpose is alien, even things like Comic-con have that familiar air of organization about them.

The novelty of an empty apartment wore off within two days – it just felt weird. The last straw had been hearing the door across the hall, footsteps, voices,

“...gonna invite the boyfriend over?”

And Penny's voice, off-hand and cheerful,

“Oh, he's off doing science-y stuff in England.”

Because Leonard isn't 'the boyfriend' any more. And there have been no more invitations over to football games for him. He'd felt excluded, cast out. He'd sulked and stormed and gloomed.

If Penny had never moved in across the hall, how would things have been? He would never have had this glimpse of a proper life, and then had it snatched away from him. How could she do that to him? Build up his hopes, and then cast him aside?

Howard was acting a little strange, almost avoiding him. (He doesn't know that this is a paranoid and panicked response to an enquiry by Bernadette, as to how he was doing.) And he had thought to hang out with Raj again, forgive him his wavering loyalty, only to be greeted with a slight coolness. Raj already has plans – he's going along to an exhibition of graphic novel art with Stuart.

Leonard's friendship with Stuart has also fractured; that whole debacle was another festering niggle centred upon Sheldon. Penny had agreed to go to a wedding with Stuart, just as a friend, and after the whole incident with Justin, Leonard had forced himself to be reasonable. And then he'd found out why Penny had agreed to go. It wasn't enough that she'd been dragged along to court, or left hanging around the jail cells, she'd nearly ended up back there; only a liberal application of her ditzy charm had got them out of being arrested for trespass. Sheldon had even got his damn autograph, hung up next to that napkin.

Sheldon always gets away with it, gets everything. Raj has a backbone. Howard has a girlfriend. And what does he have? A whole lot of nothing.

He's a nice guy, after all. He doesn't lie, or cheat. He'd thought he'd satisfied her. He knows that he isn't the most socially adept person, but compared to Sheldon, he was positively suave. So what had he done wrong? Penny had said that he hadn't done anything.

Is this really all because he wasn't any good at running about with a toy sword? It seems so monstrously unfair. Sheldon wasn't supposed to be good at things like that, either. It feels like a...betrayal. He's supposed to be the misfit, the socially awkward one that they can use as the excuse. He's not supposed to be the one who gets to be the hero, the one who gets the girl, the one who wins...

And then he'd caught sight of his reflection in the monitor screen.

A mean, angry little man. A spiteful, screwed up face, lines of misery and temper, and something else there. The line between his eyes, the set of the mouth – that self-righteous disappointment. He looked like his mother.

This is not who he wants to be.

He'd taken a breath, a little shocked at how much effort it took to relax his facial muscles. Tried to remember the last time he laughed, the last time things felt fun.

The last few weeks have not been fun. In fact, quite a lot of the last few months have not been fun. Too on edge, too aware of trying too hard, perhaps subconsciously waiting for failure, perhaps for the retribution that somewhere deep down he knew he deserved.

So, he'd taken some of his vacation days, packed a bag and flown back to New Jersey.

00000000

The house he grew up in is on the market. And he finds that he isn't as upset about that as he thought he might be. It was always a chill, bleak place. And the bandbox perfection of sale condition means that he couldn't stay in a guest room. (Not 'his' room; it had been transformed into an anonymous guest room within two days of his leaving for college.) Home to see his parents, and he's in a hotel. At least for the first night, until he calls his father, and a voice in the background calls that she'll make up the spare bed right away.

His father has moved in with 'the waitress'. Leonard's not sure what he was expecting. But Grace is a brisk, middle-aged woman, with a sweet face and a ready laugh. She's got a daughter in college, and a new and badly-behaved puppy.

“...which accounts for the state of my shoes.” Professor Hofstadter says ruefully, examining one.

His father looks...older. Less put together. But not unhappy. He's retired from his post at the University. And he's taken up fishing.

Both his brother and sister are tall, take after their mother. Leonard looks more like his father. That fact strikes him with a sudden odd force, when his father opens the door and smiles at him. Leonard doesn't really remember his father smiling much growing up. Or wearing anything other than rather formal clothing. A quiet, rather passive presence, always disappearing off somewhere, digs, conferences, to his study, walking the dog. It was the loss of Mitzi that had really sealed things – there was no reason to stay.

Such a bleak, sad little statement.

He's also the only child who has bothered to come and see his father. And Leonard puts away his own hurt feelings, sudden perspective as he understands how small they are, six months of dating, against thirty-seven years of marriage.

00000000

He could have moved out, found an apartment of his own, of course he could. But to begin with, there had been a strange fascination in finding out just how weird Sheldon was. It has always been so much easier to go along with that driving force, to see the quirks and the crazy, and not to question the why. To blame the nutcase, to accept the comfort of the routine, the excuse that it's Sheldon.

Still remembers the first time he walked in on Sheldon checking his emergency survival kit, and discovered that Sheldon owned a crossbow. An Excalibur, to be precise. Though Leonard had been in no condition to register the make, just the fact that his room-mate had it pointed at him.

There is a warped logic behind it all - take one imaginative scientist who prepares for every eventuality his mind can conceive of, and that explains the handbooks, the drills, the stores. Leonard grew up in the quiet, affluent suburbs of Princeton. Despite having lived in California for some time, up until this year, he hadn't really experienced an earthquake at all. Emergency drills, evacuation plans, these aren't things in his experience, except as something he thinks of as basic Sheldon-crazy. He hadn't grown up in a family that hunted, or played sports. (He still cannot work out how such a warm, caring woman as Mary Cooper could have produced Sheldon. But then, he'd never met George Cooper Snr. )

Sheldon had been truly out on the edge in the Arctic. Driven, neurotic and twitchy, trying to impose his will on the world. Controlling whatever he could in an environment that was hostile beyond anything any of them had dealt with. He'd known, he's always known, that screwing with the experiment was a stupid, cruel thing. But he was so sick of the desolate landscape, the cold, the incessant grumbling from all of them, stuck in the little way-station, away from the sun and the warmth, and Penny. Watching Sheldon revert under pressure, tense and troubled as the world refused to do what he wanted it to do, and a burning anger in him, that he had come all this way, left Penny behind, for failure.

Sheldon had come to stand for everything that was wrong, and so Leonard used him, as he always did, as a scapegoat. That sharp little foreign professor had been absolutely correct, Leonard had been jealous and frustrated, and now he is bitterly ashamed of himself for losing control and lashing out at the one person he could hurt.

Raj and Howard might have sniggered nervously over what Sheldon might do in revenge, given his ability to bear a grudge, his pranking upon Kripke. But Leonard had never been quite able to join in, part of him flinching away from the awareness that screwing with Sheldon's work teetered on the edge of something very dark. Sheldon and his work are inextricably bound together, the man defines himself by his mind.

He's jealous of Sheldon. For the warm acceptance of his family. For that hard, sharp brilliance, whatever the damaged, deranged packaging it comes in. Of course the man has an iron-clad ego about his work – he is a bona fide genius. That was what people see, know about him. Youngest winner of the Stevenson, two PhD's by the time he was twenty. It's how Sheldon defines himself.

Most of all, he's jealous of the way that Sheldon seems so above it all. For being unflinchingly, uncompromisingly true to himself, regardless of what others think of him. Impervious to criticism.

Except...that he isn't. Holing himself up in his office, checking over everything, driven to the edge of obsession again by doubt in the one area of his life that he had always excelled in. The devastation in his eyes as he faced the fact that Leonard had hurt him, lied to him, tricked him.

He'd done a stupid thing, for stupid reasons. He faces it this time, doesn't flinch or turn away. He'd treated Sheldon like crap, because he could, because he was jealous, because he had thought that Sheldon would take it, because he doesn't know anything different.

He uses Sheldon's naivety, his obliviousness to human behaviour, against him, excuse and scapegoat. Mean awareness that Sheldon's social isolation puts him in Leonard's power, and whatever the world dishes out to him, he can turn around and put on Sheldon.

In hindsight, Leonard knows there are many times that he should have stood up and reined Sheldon in. But he never does. Something in him always turns away from that confrontation.

Cold, controlling, intellectually arrogant, emotionally distant...it's behaviour that Leonard is all too familiar with. And he knows that it isn't Sheldon he should be mad at.

This time, the first time, he can feel the anger separately from the guilt. It's a strange feeling. He is angry with his mother. And he won't feel guilty for it. He had a lousy, loveless childhood.

But he can feel guilty for hurting Sheldon.

Yes, he's angry with Sheldon for dating Penny. Of course he's angry, it's only natural. He's angry with Penny, too. Mainly because she has started dating his... room-mate. His friend. Otherwise, she could just as easily have passed out of his life again, another neighbour on the staircase.

Though - they have grown used to her being part of their little group, take-out and movies and video games. She has always been the only one who could, who would, deal with Sheldon. Some strange alchemy, that of all the women who have moved through Sheldon's life, Penny was the one to flip whatever switch there was, to force him out of his shell, to bully him into some semblance of humanity. Leonard and the others began the process, but...well, Leonard has to admit, they are a broken little band themselves. A group brought together by the fact that they didn't fit anywhere else.

Of course, if Sheldon had set out to hurt Leonard back, he couldn't have picked a better way. Except... Sheldon wouldn't. He's a decent, honourable human being, and he wouldn't know how to manipulate anybody emotionally. If Leonard hadn't damaged their friendship, Sheldon would probably have agonised on whether he should even be with Penny.

And that wouldn't have made a bit of difference to the fact that Penny didn't want to be with Leonard.

He had never wanted to really question why Penny was with him. He'd got lucky, didn't want to look at it too hard. But he has had plenty of time to brood over the things that have been said, and now he must acknowledge, however painfully, the truth of much of it. He had wanted 'a' girlfriend, the ego boost, the sex. Part of some mental checklist for how the world could be a better place.

Penny was pretty, sexy, and he wanted to sleep with her. He liked the fact that people knew that he did, looked at him and thought he was lucky. Who wouldn't?

But there is the side of Penny that Leonard doesn't understand. The bat-swinging cow-girl. He finds it jarring. She looks like a blonde beach babe, and then she'll start talking cheerfully about hunting deer, Midwestern grit coming through. She can be sharp-tongued, stubborn, impatient. She enjoys the outdoors, sports, has a whole raft of batty beliefs that Leonard finds ridiculous. He put up with all these things, because...well, because they had sex. He'd thought that was enough.

Now, he has some dim conception that perhaps he should have tried talking to her more. Made more of an effort to find things for them to do together. Been a better friend.

He's never tried being friends with a girl before. But then...he's not done such a good job of being friends with Sheldon.

Yes, the guy is crazy and neurotic, and lacks middle gears. But Sheldon will always do the right thing. Flashes of genuine heroism, but also a basic honest decency to him. He doesn't cheat, he doesn't lie, and he had been a good friend to Leonard. He'd saved Leonard's life and career before, and Leonard is bitterly aware that his repayment of that had fallen woefully short.

Perhaps Leonard didn't deserve to be with Penny, and perhaps he didn't deserve to have friends. Because he doesn't treat them very well.

“I screwed up, Dad.” He blurts it, suddenly.

And there are no recriminations, no expectations here. Just a pair of warm brown eyes, tired, but kind.

“So tell me.”

He lets it go, then, like a weight falling from him, bitterness swept away in the river. A searing, honest flow of words, stop and start, and his father lets him judge himself.

There is still a pair of arms in the world for him.

He will never be enough for his mother. He is not the oldest son, not the longed-for daughter. He is unnecessary, a complication to the by-the-numbers family dynamic, screwing up a calculated and pre-determined life-plan by his very existence.

But he still has his father. He still has his career, however he has battered it, and maybe, he still has a chance to rescue something from his own stupidity.

If even Sheldon can change, then so can he. Time to put the self-pity aside -

Leonard accepts it, then. A first painful, shaky step on the path.

It's going to take time, he's not going to get through all of this so simply. But he can try. Perhaps he'll be able to talk to Penny again. Perhaps he can mend fences with Sheldon.

Chapter Text

He isn't good with meeting new people. Too many variables, no way of gaining the data needed to make an informed judgement that does not apparently offend. There is an appropriate time and place for questionnaires, Penny has informed him, and that does not include immediate interrogation to see whether somebody falls within the parameters of acceptability. It is supposed to be a more gradual process. Hampered by his limitations in reading expression and body language, and a lack of patience, Sheldon still struggles. He wants very badly to ask all sorts of questions, to be able to rank and classify these new people, satisfy himself as to how they relate to him.

(How much easier must it have been, to issue a challenge, 'friend or foe?', no ambiguity, response dictated, the origins of the password.)

Luckily, McDonald is not hampered by any limitations, and talks enthusiastically all the way down the stairs. He really has read Sheldon's paper, and he's quite eager to discuss it, too. It turns out that he and McDonald know a couple of the same people now working at Dresden. (McDonald as a contemporary; Sheldon had taught them at Heidelberg.) Ashby is a mathematician, rather than a physicist,

“...which means I understand about half of what McDonald doodles on his boards, and the rest is merely pretty scribbles.”

Since they appear to be working together on the Millennium Prize Problem concerning the Yang-Mills existence and mass gap, Sheldon looks at him in bewilderment.

“Och, ignore him, he's a snide wee sod.” McDonald says, comfortably. “He'll behave when he's had some cake.”

00000000

There is another familiar face in the S.C.R. Professor Poligny, polishing a fork on a napkin, frowning at it as he places it in a precise rank, takes up another to subject it to scrutiny. He turns a bright and welcoming smile upon them.

“Ah, Dr Cooper, so you have already met Dr McDonald? I had intended to introduce you more formally, but this is most excellent. And of course, the good Dr Ashby. One does not usually find the one without the other.”

The Scotsman is possessed of the nine lives of a cat, and the charmed existence le Bon Dieu grants to children and fools, but he hides a brilliant mind behind the manic facade, and the young Dr Ashby has a cool, steady intelligence of a very high order. They will not bore Dr Cooper, and it will be well for him to have companions his own age. A precocious brilliance means that he is much younger than others here, and Poligny is determined that this trip should not be all work, and thus dull.

It takes a while for Sheldon to realise what feels different about this academic gathering. He is not being introduced with that faint mix of apology and showmanship he has grown accustomed to. There is merely acceptance - to these people, he is a name on paper, known for his work alone. Professional, and personal, respect. He wasn't aware of the absence until now.

He is probably the youngest scientist ever invited to give one of the Wadham Lectures. He's certainly the youngest speaker this year. But - he is not so much obviously younger than others, now. He has a respectable history of publications, years in academe.

This is no desperate clamouring to be allowed within the gates, the exhibition of his intellectual gifts as some form of show. Here, he is a part of something, an authority.

00000000

Next morning...

There is a tiny kitchen area off the staircase – college parlance calls it a 'pantry', apparently, but it is a neat little room, furnished with a table and a couple of chairs, and the bare essentials for manufacturing hot beverages and such refreshment for those who reel in with the desperate need for sustenance at ungodly hours, or who cannot make it up in time for breakfast in Hall.

McDonald is going to take him up, show him around the Clarendon Laboratory this morning. Sheldon is being introduced to the British way of drinking tea, a mug full of milky-brown liquid, and McDonald is making oatmeal – porridge - “because you canna trust the English to get it right.”

They are deep in a discussion about wormholes and the nature of time (and whether Cushing counts in canon) when Ashby, still in his dressing-gown, stumbles into the kitchen, gives McDonald a blearily murderous look.

“Early.” He growls round his cigarette.

“Not a mornings person.” McDonald explains cheerily.

“Penny has a rule about punching people in the throat if disturbed before 11.”

“Excellent rule. May have to implement it.” Ashby makes an ineffectual pawing motion at the kettle. “God, I hate early tutorials. Bloody students.”

“They don't trust me with students.” McDonald looks ingenuous. “Can't think why.”

“Half the time, they shouldn't trust you with cutlery.” Ashby says. “Oh, hell, have you destroyed another saucepan with that godawful cement you call breakfast?”

“If you're in this morning, can Sheldon here borrow your wheels, then?”

“S'pose.”

“I don't drive...” Sheldon begins. They both grin at him.

“Oxford is about the least car-friendly city in Britain.” Ashby says, “We tend to use a more traditional method of transportation...”

It's years since he has been on a bicycle, and the old adage that you never forget proves to be, if not fallacious, then not entirely accurate either. Sheldon's mind has not forgotten, but his body needs reminding.

“Trust me, I'm a doctor!” McDonald grins, spreads his arms expansively, and veers dangerously towards a wall.

00000000

His days might be filled with professional meetings, but instead of spending the evenings sitting quietly alone in his room, catching up with his reading, he finds himself with unexpected company. McDonald and Ashby seem to have appointed themselves as some kind of native guides for the duration of his stay. So, Sheldon is introduced to Real Ale. He subsequently wakes up with a Real Hangover, and finds that he has somehow become a minor celebrity for his prowess at darts. It's Ashby's idea that Sheldon's experience of Oxford should involve a trip in a punt, though it takes a while before he can be persuaded to let go of his death-grip on the side of it, and enjoy the scenery.

Ashby seems to live on tea and cigarettes, and the occasional bacon sandwich. He certainly teaches Sheldon how to spot sarcasm, along with irony and understatement, the cheerfully laconic counter-point to McDonald's exuberance. And he beats Sheldon at chess, at least the first time they play.

“I want to hear more about this Obstacle Laser Chess thing.” McDonald is intrigued.

“No.” Ashby is firm. “No lasers. Not after that incident with the Tesla coil.”

“I got an arc clear across the Old Quad.” McDonald says proudly to Sheldon.

“And if the Warden had caught us on that roof, you'd have been shipped back north of the Border, and I'd be rusticating back in the Cotswolds.” Ashby shudders.

Ashby outs himself as a Tolkien nerd, and a member of Taruithorn. (Sheldon tells him about the Ring – Leonard thinks it is still safely hidden in his hollowed-out Aragorn figurine. It isn't.) They are amused by the descriptions of StormFist.

He has travelled across half the world to talk about his work, but his thoughts and conversation turn rather readily to Penny.

They don't seem to think it at all peculiar that he has a girlfriend. No comments about mitosis, or robots. There are some nosy questions about how they met. So he finds himself telling a pair of relative strangers about the last couple of years, and how his life has never quite been the same since the day she moved in. It involves some mention of Leonard – he doesn't think 'tosser' is a complimentary term.

“You should call her.”

Sheldon has called his mother, as he promised to do, to announce his safe arrival. But he hadn't thought if he was supposed to call Penny.

00000000

Penny has been very busy. Fills her hours with work, and rehearsals (the little theatre group are hoping to make it up to Ojai in August.) She's called her agent again, updated her cv with a new confidence. A night or two out dancing with the girls, a day out with the StormFist. She and Raj give up halfway through a dreadful dinner Raquel has cooked, and they all go giggling out for pizza instead. A rush order comes through on Penny Blossoms, so she ends up pulling an all-nighter with Bernadette, and Howard turns up in the morning with bagels and coffee. His scrambled eggs aren't as good as Sheldon's, but he gets marks for effort. She juggles a couple of extra shifts at work, airily says,

“I'm too busy to miss him.”

“Well, that's why you're so busy, isn't it?” Bernadette says, practically. Penny deflates.

“Yeah.” She admits, in a small voice, screws up her face.

Penny has never found herself fretting over a man before. Oh, she's done her fair share of worrying her nails waiting for the phone to ring. And some bad nights pacing the floor and wondering where the hell... But not worrying about the man in question, whether he was eating properly, if his work was going well. Just caring about him, and wanting him around.

So when her cell rings just after 11 in the morning, and despite the number, the voice on the other end is a stranger, her heart hammers.

“Penny?” Male voice, cheerful, Scottish accent. “Brilliant. Don't hang up...”

“Who is this?”

“Name's McDonald. I'm calling about Sheldon...”

“Oh, god, what's he done now? Is he okay?”

“Och, don't worry, he's just been pining a wee bit...Can you turn your skype on, there's a good lass?”

The screen of her laptop blinks to life, under her fumbling fingers.

“Hah. I am brilliant.” A wide smile with a lot of teeth in it, intense dark eyes. “We have contact....Lol, come and meet Penny.”

“Ah, the mysterious beauty that he's been hiding from us.” The strange face is joined by another, this one looks like a friendly horse. “Hello, Laurence Ashby, delighted to make your acquaintance.”

“Um. Hi?”

“This was supposed to be a private conversation.” A familiar voice protests.

McDonald scrambles sideways, and Sheldon deposits himself in the chair, elbows at Ashby, who elbows back. McDonald claps Sheldon on the shoulder.

“Now, this puir wee creature here has been pining something fierce, so we thought he should call you...”

“...so we stole his phone...”

“...and strongarmed him into firing up the laptop...”

“Less romantic than serenading beneath your balcony, but rather effective.”

They both grin at her, horribly pleased with themselves. Penny laughs. There doesn't seem to be malice involved. Sheldon looks indignant, but not hysterical.

“We're taking good care of him.” Ashby assures Penny. “McDonald here makes his nasty porridge just the way he likes it, and I braved the wilds of Waitrose to find his blasted low sodium soy sauce.”

“He has a tendency to get a wee bit worked up over things, but we've learnt to distract him. Take him to Comic Showcase and buy him something shiny.”

“That works for McDonald, too.” Ashby's quick smile. “I'm not letting either of them drink coffee.”

“Yeah, that's never good.” She waves at the discomfited Sheldon. “Hey, you, see, I told you you'd make friends.”

“Come on, let's give the man a little privacy...” Ashby gets McDonald in a companionable headlock and drags him out of shot. “Now, just tell the girl that you miss her...”

Penny bites her lip.

Are you missing me, Sheldon?”

“Yes.” He says quietly.

“I miss you, too.” Her smile, small and shy.

(His fingers itch to touch the screen, however irrational it might be.)

She settles her chin in her hand, and lets him talk at her, about m-theory and bicycles, sub-atomic particles and beer, how they play chess and darts, the horrible weather, punting on the river, and the British perversion that is marmite.

And she tells him that Stuart has been bagging his comic books up for him, that Todd and the guys had been over to watch a game and say 'hi', that she'd been into the Siam Palace for take-out and they'd asked if he was sick, that she'd been out with the StormFist but it wasn't the same without her faithful knight at her back, and that Sven now has a claymore.

It doesn't sound like a romantic conversation. But they watch each other's eyes, mouths. A small insistent alarm pulls them from their private little world, her phone.

“Oh, crap, I am sooo late for work.” She pulls her fingers into the Vulcan salute, her smile half-disbelief. “Live Long and Prosper, Sheldon.”

He gives a startled little laugh, and the picture blinks out on her bright grin.

Sheldon sits back from the darkened screen, stunned. Then he turns a look of dire foreboding upon the doorway behind him. There is the sense of two people retreating in rapid and silent haste.

Ashby and McDonald are both lounging in armchairs with elaborate indifference. Sheldon is not fooled, crosses his arms. McDonald cracks first, a wide, appreciative smile.

“So that's your Penny, then? You lucky wee bugger.”

“He has a weakness for blondes.” Ashby rolls his eyes. “But...yes, I second that.”

His Penny? He is still uncomfortable with the possessive implications of that, not least because he feels a guilty pride. Though if he were to conclude that he is her Sheldon...he will have to ask her if that is acceptable, the next time he calls her.

Chapter Text

a/n – Ashby? I had to forcibly prevent my husband from attempting this.
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“Achille, I wanted a word about your young protégé...”

“To which of them do you refer?” Poligny sighs, rolls his eyes in mock-despair. “I have a veritable collection.”

The Warden of the College is a tall woman, long hair more salt than pepper now, and shrewd grey eyes. Too much bone in her face for beauty, but it has strength and character, and the smile warms to true amusement.

“The American lad...” Pauses with a snort. “Good lord, that's hardly the way to refer to a world-class physicist, is it?”

Poligny gestures her to take a chair.

“That is your concern?”

“Well, I'm used to your eminent guests being...”

“Older?”

She laughs ruefully.

“More approachable. I can deal with an Opera fan from Japan, or that elderly German chap who grows roses. But I have no idea what to say to a young man in a comic book t-shirt.”

“Ah, yes. It is why I am so pleased that he is making friends his own age.”

Her expression changes to an alarm that is almost comical.

“Oh, dear, you don't mean that you've let him go marauding off with that Scottish lunatic?”

“Now that is also not the way to refer to a world-class physicist.” Achille chuckles. “He is not quite of the class of Dr Cooper, but there is a fine brain there.”

“If he doesn't fry it with another of those insane stunts of his... yes, I am well aware of who it was upon that roof, I just couldn't get up the stairs quickly enough to prove it. You may laugh, Achille, but I do feel his passion for experimentation outstrips his common sense.”

“Which is why we must be grateful for the influence of Dr Ashby.”

“A young man who got himself banned from a pub for performing an extempore exorcism.”

“I do believe the child in question to have been exceptionally badly behaved.” Poligny spreads his hands. “They are mostly harmless, and usually entertaining. You do not expect Dr Cooper to spend his entire visit in the company of those old enough to be his parents, or even his grandparents?”

“I just don't fancy explaining to CalTech that we lost one of their brightest and best in the Isis.”

“I believe they are doing nothing more harmful than attending an experiment today. Observing, not participating.” He smiles. “Perhaps we should be grateful that Lizzy Foyle is in Greece. I am not sure that one of her whisky-drinking sessions would do much for his constitution.”

(Professor Foyle has been known to outdrink students twice her size and half her age.)

“No, poor man...Achille, I've completely lost the thread of what I came here to say. Now, this Dr Cooper - he's that chap that got his results messed up, isn't he?”

“The errors were not in the methodology, but in the execution of the experiment.”

“Equipment failure?”

“Of a kind. Rest assured, we would not invite a fool to speak before us. He perhaps anticipated himself more than a little, but his reasoning was absolutely sound. This young man is truly a mind, and even if he should not have the ultimate breakthrough himself, perhaps, his work is valuable.”

“Quite. So - Are you going to try and poach him, Achille?”

Poligny sighs, spreads his hands with a rueful twinkle of his dark eyes.

Hélas, I doubt I would be successful...” He shrugs. “Perhaps in a year or so, we may find that we can invite a visiting lecturer for some short while.” The smile grows sly. “Though I suspect by then, he will wish to bring his lovely young wife with him.”

“He's engaged?”

“Not yet. But there is a quite charming mademoiselle I had the good fortune to meet - I think that she will persuade him to chase her, and eventually allow herself to be caught.”

“I can't decide if you are a closet romantic, or deeply cynical.”

“I am practical. It is a balance in all things. Every brilliant mind has still a body attached to it.”

“That sounds like a quote from Margaret.” (The Warden knows Mrs Poligny well.)

“Indeed.” Still a smile, but his eyes serious. “Dr Cooper is young, he is brilliant, his work will not be lost to the world from wheresoever he may be within it. Whatever country or college, we are all of the community of science.” The smile widens. “And besides, if he were to come here, it is entirely possible that he and McDonald would combine forces to build themselves a jet-pack.”

00000000

Penny refuses to make cocoa in the microwave. Hates the nasty skin that forms. So she lifts down the small pan that has been designated for milk. She won't let Sheldon label things, but he is gradually instilling a sense of order. Stops with a small shudder of mild horror when she realises that she can find things in all of her cupboards without even looking, now.

Some new photographs on the 'fridge door, and she stops to look. He looks slightly surprised in most of the pictures, but there is one where they are posing in their armour, and another that they didn't even know someone had taken at the time, one of the theatre workshops, where Penny is laughing up at him, and he's smiling at her.

She's been trying not to look at the future too hard. Her thoughts skitter away from it, not quite fear. But Sheldon is truly different, in more ways than just his occasionally nutty behaviour. At least he doesn't come with a lot of bad habits. Weird habits, certainly, but he makes more sense, once you get to know him. Loves the fact that she can get under his skin, wrench him out of his routines, make him splutter crossly at her, even as his gentle, capable hands fix whatever chaos she has created.

He's not romantic, in the traditional sense. But she prizes every hesitant kiss. He'll never make big, dramatic gestures or be one for great public displays of affection. (But he will never forget a birthday or an anniversary, or be late for anything.) It's in the way he introduces her. 'This is Penny.' No other qualifiers. (The way he holds her hand says everything else.)

This could be serious. Change-everything serious. She could...no, she does love this man. Not a casual crush, not the dizzy infatuation, but something new and scary, both fragile and rock-solid.

How weird is this? Her first adult relationship will be with a guy who still collects comics. But he is more of a man than so many others.

They ground each other – he makes her take responsibility for herself, even as she knows that she could always turn to him for help, and that he will be there. Forces her to think through to the consequences of her actions, because he trusts her. She will always have to be honest with him, because she could lie to him, and he would believe her. She feels the weight of it, but it isn't a burden, it's a...commitment. Strength in it.

A sense of self-worth does not have to be selfish. Compromise is not the same as sacrifice. And growing up does not mean that she has to be dull and boring.

Looks at herself in the mirror. A new expression in her eyes now. Lines of discontent fading, the tired impatience lifting.

She has a part in an art-house production. Not the lead, but it is a role that has some complexity to it, a chance to be more than a perky smile. She has two auditions lined up, one for a commercial, one a single scene bit-part. It makes working at the Cheesecake Factory bearable, and her improved spirits are reflected in the tips.

It may be a small life, but it is an honest one.

Oh, she still wants the star on the Walk of Fame, fame and glamour and the big-name part. There is no reason to let go of the dream. But she has learnt to consider the steps to getting there, now. (Sheldon, telling her with perfect calm that it could be another ten years before he got the Nobel, once his work was proven.)

And what she has now is...a start. The role is tiny, but it is solid, real. Every audition is experience. She feels like she fits into her skin better, now, she is an actress who works as a waitress while she...no, not waits for her break, while she works towards her dream. She has her hobbies (the 'Penny Blossoms' are still selling, and she's toying with the idea of accessorising bags and sandals too) and odd new things in her life – (she owns her own Slayer scythe, now.)

She has her friends, a whole range of people, from the 'Huskers and the StormFist to the girls from work. Actors and teachers and IT specialists and fry-cooks.

And she has her geeky super-genius boyfriend.

Looks towards the clock, and bites her lip. In a couple of hours, Sheldon will be giving his lecture. Imagines that Mary and her prayer group will have met. Well, it isn't anything as formal as a prayer, but she sends a concentrated little thought of love and encouragement out. He might not believe in such things, but she does.

00000000

The 'Invisible College' deliberately lack the profile and formality of the Royal Society (though some of them are members) – but they maintain the label of the 'Wadham Lectures' for the half dozen invitation-only presentations. Most of the meetings and demonstrations are small – the flow of information is constant, these events are more a placeholder, an opportunity for personal contact and networking, but the lectures are happily anticipated.

It is the day, the hour, of his lecture. There are probably only a hundred people in the room, but it seems like a far greater number to Sheldon's terrified gaze. Closes his eyes briefly against the sea of faces.

Fumbles his cell out of his pocket, clutching his talisman against the tide of panic.

“Hi, Sheldon, it's me, Penny, I just wanted to say 'good luck' or 'break a leg' or whatever it is you genius guys use in this case, y'know...so I guess I don't know when you'll get this, what with the freaky timezones and having your cell off, but I'm thinking of you, Moon-pie. Go get those monopoles.”

The garbled, sweet inconsequence of it. He can hear her smile. Slips the cell back into his breast pocket, pulls his shoulders a little straighter.

She has opened his eyes to a whole new side of himself that he has ignored, suppressed, denied. Bonds of affection and friendship. The balance between intellect and instinct, work and play. He does not quite subscribe to the notion of a 'soul' as his mother reckons the state, but he begins to perceive a sense of self that transcends biology, a distillation of experience and emotion.

He is not ashamed of his physical desire for Penny. But it comes freighted with so much more - the feeling is new, delicate, fragile, but he has a name for it, now. Love.

She's messy and disorganized, chaotic and infuriating and ignorant. And he loves her. Fierce in battle, sweet in sleep, weeping at one of her 'chick flicks', scolding him at the store or laughing at him as she mismatches his socks. His Penny.

He has her words, her smile in his memory. As she taught him, he takes a steadying breath. He wants Penny to be proud of him. And that means standing up straight, facing his fear, facing a crowd. He can do this. He will do this.

He is not fourteen any more. He is not that awkward, frightened child in the hot Texas sun. He is no longer the child prodigy, apart from these people, a freak. This cool, dark room is full of his peers, people who wish to hear what he has to say, who will understand him.

Of all things, it is a scrap of Bible verse that flits through his mind, then. Corinthians. Except...he has never spoken as a child, never thought as one. Perhaps he has held onto the outward manifestations of childhood to compensate.

What makes a man? Biologically, physiologically, he is an adult, human, male.

His father had been a hard man, product of a tough life, barely out of high school and a soldier. Perhaps he had tried to fit his son for the only life he knew, the only way he knew how. So he can throw a football, or a punch. He can shoot. He is even oddly proficient with archaic weapons. But he had never been able to 'be a man', not the way his father and brother deemed the state, punching arms and wrestling about, had held himself aloof from that mode of expression. He does not desire to conform to that brand of masculinity, has no need for the muscular development of his brother. He is the first of a new breed, maybe not of humanity, but in the evolution of the Coopers. Whatever strange genetic twist that had given him his greater intelligence had removed him permanently from that round of manual labour and low income, a world that measured a man by his physical strength.

His own code of ethics and behaviour, worked out from first principles, observation, cautious experimentation. He possesses these things. Perceives them to be of more value to him than how fast he can drive a car, the imbibing of alcohol or the random achievement of coitus. He measures himself by all the things he is not, as much as by what he is. He doesn't regard sex as some kind of sport or competition. Gets no thrill from the idea of risking his body in any extreme physical situation – has broken enough bones in childhood. Finds no humour in humiliation, no honour in denigrating others.

Aware of his breath, his thoughts, the ground beneath his feet. The final pieces of the pattern fall into place. This is the only true struggle, and his, the only judgement that matters.

It is a strange moment to have such a revelation, perhaps. But it is the culmination of the changes, incremental, monumental, that have been effected. Perhaps a little grief in him, that another layer has been shed, a carapace set aside, outgrown.

But. He is still himself, all that he has ever been. That is the knowledge won here. He can be proud of who he is, what he is.

This is his battle ground. He is defined by his work, by his interests, how he sees himself, and how others see him. And now these people need to see him as the scientist, the man, that he is.

Sheldon takes a breath, lifts his chin and opens his eyes.

“Good afternoon...”

00000000

Courage. Wisdom. Integrity. The measure of a man. Body, mind and spirit aligned.

00000000

Sheldon peers out of the window of the plane, relaxes his grip on the arm-rest, watches the small green-grey patchwork of England drop away.


He had slumped back into his seat after the lecture, heedless for once of the papers crumpled in his grasp, exhausted, hands shaking, mouth dry. He'd been pushed to his utter limits, interrogated and cross-examined, every argument taken and dissected ruthlessly, his work picked over, torn to shreds. It had been gruelling, merciless, unrelenting.

He couldn't be happier. 

Somewhere, there had been a ripple of applause, a voice thanking him. Hand nudging his arm, and he had focussed blearily on the long, calm features of Ashby, who had held out a plastic cup.
"Here. I think it's tea."
"Thank you." His voice, scratchy with fatigue, and he had taken the proffered beverage, downed it with barely a qualm, blissful heat and liquid on his parched throat.  No champagne could have been sweeter.  He, and his work, have been treated with respect, taken seriously.

His last night had been an amiable celebration – his packing had been accompanied by a chorus of helpful hints and suggestions, Ashby lounging in a chair, and McDonald roaming about.

- ...McDonald hauls a couple of volumes off the shelf, and sticks his hand into the cavity. Swears, and draws out a piece of paper. Shows it to Ashby, who laughs, and passes it to Sheldon.

The note says – 'Buy your own booze, sweetie.'

“Lizzy knows you too well.” Hauls himself up out of the chair. “We'll go and grab a few pints at the Bird and Baby. And Sheldon can watch you fail to chat up that barmaid again, in the smug consciousness that he's heading home to his lovely Penny.”

Sheldon actually feels the smile on his own face, and groans internally.

“Lol, he's doing it again.” McDonald whines.

“Doing what?”

“That goofy smirk.”

“Mac,” Ashby claps him on the shoulder. “If you had a girl like Penny, you'd look like someone had stuck a coathanger in your gob, too. You're just jealous.”

“Well, of course.” McDonald grins. “But one day I'll meet my perfect match, too. A girl with goggles, and her own welding torch...”

“And one of those white coats so she can give herself a nice big hug, yes. Now come on...” -

He has their e-mail addresses (“In the absence of the Wardenclyffe tower being operational...”), both professional and personal. He has made several other new contacts, now, faces and experiences to go with the names, the work.

Acronyms abound. M.I.T, U.C.L, CERN. Offers and opportunities.

He doesn't have to stay at Caltech. He could apply for a post almost anywhere.

Once, it would have been a fear of change that kept him immobile. But now, he has found his centre, internalized his point of consistency, embraced his own evolution.

Sheldon sighs, and even manages a small breathy laugh at himself.

It isn't anything as dramatic as having to choose between them. In this age of global communication, there is no barrier to intellectual endeavour. He can be anywhere, and still share his work with the world. But physically, emotionally, he has a life outside of his head, now. And she is his guide, and his anchor.

His work is perfectly portable. But...Penny is in Pasadena. And he's going home.

Chapter Text

Penny actually has a schedule. One she wrote herself, too. Work hours, and rehearsals blocked in, social events and even a reminder note about groceries. (No point searching for milk over the hallway at the moment.) And on today's date, an excited little scribble, 'S home!' and the time of the flight.

Practically bolts out of the door after her lunch-shift, oblivious to the amused stares. Half the workforce are inclined to doubt the rumour that she's seeing 'Crazy Hamburger Guy', even though Bernadette confirms it. Phyllis, the mother of teenage sons, merely grins wryly.

“What Penny's said, the guy cooks, cleans and does his own laundry. I reckon a guy like that can be picky as he likes about his onion rings.”

00000000

A quick shower and change, and Penny is whirling out of her apartment again.

Eyes the door of 4A. She doesn't even know if Leonard is back yet, had only found out about his absence via Bernadette. She still isn't quite sure how this will all work out – she doesn't hate him, but she is slightly embarrassed with herself, for the fact that she had so badly wanted to feel something more for him, her thought that perhaps he deserved better than fondness for his loyal persistence, that she had deliberately blinded herself to the fact that she was just the one that filled the girl-shaped hole in his life – ( and a nagging shame that for all her high principles with her career, despising those girls like Alicia, she had done something far worse to herself, overlooking the little things just to not be alone.)

Well, she can beat herself up for being stupid, or she can pick herself up and start over. Really, if it wasn't for Sheldon, she would never have to see Leonard again – he's the only thing they have ever had in common, after all. Actually, when she thinks about the way he's treated Sheldon, she gets steamed, too. And deeply ashamed that she ever turned her back on that pain, just because some guy was ready to worship at her feet. (Crawl into her bed. Don't fool yourself, Penny.)

If Sheldon tried running away now, she'd hunt him down and hog-tie him, and haul his sorry ass back home. And then she'd do what she should have done last year, and kick collective butt. Actually, Sheldon-now probably wouldn't run, and they could kick collective butt together.

She grins happily, and skips down the stairs.

She had miscast her leading man. Fed up with All-action Meatheads, she'd tried the Nice Guy Next Door. But what she really wants is the Mad Scientist.

00000000

The waiting is becoming intolerable. He fights a stern battle with himself not to snap irritably; perhaps it is as well that he is travelling alone. There is nobody for him to vent at. (Nobody to take it out on him.) Resolutely not thinking about recycled air.

This is some form of limbo, this holding pattern. Very much like his life – setting out from one place and time, and then held between, not yet ready to complete the journey.

Even his capacious memory has difficulty reaching back to that time before the world opened out into things to be learned. His early years, a formless happy blur, until the advent, that thunderclap when those dark angular marks coalesced and became knowledge. And not understanding then why others were so slow, irritated that they didn't even seem to make an effort, that they saw no reason to strive or learn, content in their placid ignorance of mud-pies and coloured blocks. (His first fight at kindergarten, a book scribbled on by a classmate.)

There was the educational psychologist. (His Daddy didn't hold with head doctors, but Momma put her foot down.) Interesting things to do, aptitude tests and the first realisation of difference, even from his twin. Incomprehension and dislocation had followed him ever after. The irritation with lesser mentalities had not diminished. Smarter was better, a way up, a way out, an escape.

(Raised in a trailer in an atmosphere of conflict generated by fundamentalist religion and PTSD-induced alcoholism. There is very little that anyone could tell him about childhood trauma impacting upon adult behaviour.)

He forces stillness into his hands and knees. No refuge from the present in the past – he has always moved sideways, into the realm of abstraction and imagination. Prefers the term 'speculative fiction' – though to see speculation move out of the realm of fiction and into fact is a definite wish.

(Robots did not possess emotions, had no feelings to be hurt. The stranded alien was of necessity, singular and aloof.)

The first dim fumblings after a greater truth, a more complete perception, through the bright panels of early comics. Alternate realities, time and space bent to will alone. Secret, atavistic thrill as he saw vengeance taken on those who transgressed. (Covertly reading beneath the overhang of the pew, his ears had taken in the sermon, while his eyes perceived a different morality, just as rigid.)

He has always been aware of what is real. But the world is vast, and every moment is filled with decisions that create pathways and corridors, threads that cross and collide. It is a constant navigation through these shifting possibilities, to find the way that is safe.

He is smarter than the majority of humanity. This is a fact, and he only states it as such. It is not a value judgement, save in the way that intelligence is measured. And it is a lonely thing at times – he wants to share what he sees, and few can follow, or even care to try. He's been 'the genius' all his life, defined by it. Child prodigy, except - people saw the only the prodigy, and the child was lost somewhere along the way. He was the brain that produced the work, his body a disregarded thing.

His academic qualifications, the awards and grants, the Stevenson, the NSF – these were the results of others recognising his work. But he had never felt that anyone respected him until now. For so long, his intelligence was his first, last, only line of defence. Out of step, out of place, out of time. Trying to find the place where he fitted, where he was welcome. Finally, he has been treated as a part of something, internal and external perceptions aligning. He turns the idea in his mind. An individuality that is no longer isolation. Wave and particle, one distinct entity, and still part of a group.

But he is not so different, after all. He is not a robot, or an alien. Of a greater intellectual capacity, but human. There are things that he cannot control, but he can face them as new things to be learnt, and mastered. He has met his enemy now, known him, and won. Not the last battle he will ever fight with himself, but a first and most triumphant one. Routine will always comfort him, he will always need order and structure in his life, but he will dictate it, it will not rule him.

It is time for this flight to end, now. A time to come back to Earth, in more ways than one.

00000000

There is a small child screaming in temper somewhere on the concourse. The mother merely continues to chew gum vacantly at her magazine, either numbed to the noise or simply anti-social. Penny sighs, shifts on the seat, eyes the Arrivals board. Debates on another coffee, decides against it, already tense.

She had talked on the phone to her sister, venting her frustration that her mother has started fretting about Penny 'settling down' again. Penny still can't imagine herself with kids. (Deena has cheerfully offered to lend her Poppy anytime the maternal urge starts to kick – Poppy is actually adorable and reasonably well-behaved, but she is also four. It's liberating to be around people who don't consider marriage and babies as life goals, even when they have them.) Her parents measure the world in solid, physical achievement, a house, a husband, a job with a definite name. She knows that she and her siblings are only half-joking when they all say that Penny is the 'Last Chance' or the 'Big Hope'. The casual bohemian patchwork of Penny's existence troubles them.

“I swear, they won't be happy unless I come home and marry a...a farmer.”

Teeny had laughed, and told her that Mom has started telling folks back home that Penny's gonna be a faculty wife, now she's dating a professor.

Penny had idolised her big sister, growing up. Teeny was definitely popular, actually the Corn Queen and not one of the Court. (And Mitch had been her Corn King. No doubt Sheldon would have something to say on the subject of fertility rituals...) She'd been a little dress-up doll for her sister and her friends, centre of attention, until they had gotten interested in boys. And then she'd been the stand-in for her brother, the one who played ball with her father. Until she got interested in boys, too. Sheer, dumb luck that she'd broken the family tradition of (having to get) married out of High School – remembers the jaw-dropping shock when she realised that she was now older than her mother had been when she had had Teeny and her brother.

It was Teeny who had driven her to the bus station, when she and Kurt dropped out, ran away. Another person living their dreams through Penny. Maybe that's part of the draw of the big screen – she can be the vessel for everyone's dreams, larger than life and forever. Wear whatever mask they want, and hide behind it.

She'd asked, once, frustrated, caught between her mother's lamentations and her sister's complaints, why the hell her sister had ever gone back somewhere she hated so damn much. Her sister's response had startled her,

“Maybe, I dunno, maybe I wasn't ready to give up on the idea of being married, or being in love, or whatever, and then it just got too easy not to do anything, and then it got too hard...” Drawing on her cigarette, eyes looking back over the years. “Hell, I love my kids to death, wouldn't be without 'em, but I gotta say, there's been too many nights wondering what I would have done, if...” A heavy sigh. “But, hey, we have a home and Mitch has a good job, and the kids are all healthy. We don't even fight so much around them any more.”

There was that sense again, the cold wind passing by Penny and making her shiver, the might-have-beens that never were, and just how close she had come. Teeny had given a twisted smile, and stubbed out her cigarette, final punctuation.

“Guess I'm not as brave as you, baby sis.”

Penny likes to think of herself as brave, running to, not running from. That shift of perspective makes all the difference.

Like now. She's waiting at the airport for her boyfriend. But this is no passive thing, her life has not been on hold. Tilt-point, she feels that she is beginning to run her life now, instead of running to catch up. The script here had not been one of waiting on the shore, but walking her own path. Enough of her own jigsaw pieces put together now, to find the strength to be with Sheldon. It's not such an easy, comfortable thing, but she finds that she likes the challenge.

(Never been one for the passive little children's ponies at the Junior Rodeo, no, Penny had always wanted to ride the big horses.)

Her sister had wanted to know when they were going to ever meet this guy who could make her little sister bake a damn cake.

She's never taken a man home to meet her parents. (Teenage boyfriends hardly counted, she'd spent more time smuggling a few of them out.) Kurt had never been welcome, after they dropped out of college and headed for Hollywood. And she has to be honest with herself, of the handful since, none of them had been in it for the long haul. She'd realised that she should have thought of taking Leonard home for the weekend – her mother had hinted very strongly at it – but somehow, it had never seemed the right time. She could never see him, allergic to so much, sitting in that kitchen, talking baseball stats with her Pop and eating corn fritters. Strikes her suddenly that she was almost ashamed of her folks around him, because they aren't rich or smart. Sheldon might make cracks about 'hillbillies', but he has never hidden his own upbringing –

Knows suddenly that he'll call her father 'sir' when he meets him.

And then she looks at that thought again, and smiles to herself. Yeah, she's a dreamer. If she's gonna dream, she's gonna dream big and wide as the skies of home. And she can sure as hell dream of taking Sheldon to Nebraska, and being proud of him, wanting all that is important in her life to meet together.

00000000

They usually travel as a group, a pack. But there is nobody to organise here, just himself and his one carry-on bag, his small suitcase. He doesn't have to modify his stride, or cater to the erratic travel patterns of companions who are more fixated on the anatomy of fellow travellers than where their feet are going. Sheldon himself is aware of a couple of women who certainly qualify as attractive on an accepted scale, but it is a purely aesthetic consideration; none of them are Penny. They pass by his eyes, and do not touch his mind.

Dislocation. His body tells him that it is late, but the light and warmth of a California afternoon surround him, sharp blue of a bigger sky, accent shift, the colour contrast turned back up. The concourse is full of people mingling, greeting. But only one of them is waving at him, bright hair and pretty floral top, moving towards him.

Hates that the ordeal of travel has robbed him of articulation, coherency. All he can do is to stand there and say her name.

She flings her arms around him before she considers it. She laughs to herself at the cheesy Hollywood cliché, but she doesn't let him go. He'll probably scold her about inappropriate public displays of affection, but at this precise moment, there is nobody else that matters.

“Welcome home, Sheldon.”

He wants to say that he isn't home yet, they still have at least an hour's drive, but somehow the most appropriate response seems to be simply to respond to the enthusiastic kiss.

She fits perfectly into the way his arms fold about her, just the right height and size and warm softness, and this angle of his head meets that angle of hers and her mouth smiles under his.

Sheldon Lee Cooper is many things. Genius scientist, true son of Texas, potential Nobel laureate, beloved grandson, son and brother, but right now, he is just a young man locked in an embrace with his girlfriend.

“...need to breathe...” he manages eventually, curious reluctance to pull himself away, and she laughs softly against him, little pecking kisses that allow him to draw in air between, and he doesn't know what he needs, wants, more, oxygen, or her.

Well, that takes care of any worries she had about him having second thoughts while he was away.

She drops back onto her heels to examine him, moving her hands lightly across him to reassure herself that he's real, he's here.

He's wearing a tweed jacket. It even has leather elbow patches. Penny looks at it. Sheldon twitches.

“It was a birthday present.”

“You are not having a bow-tie.” Penny says sternly, even as she smooths the lapels. Knows she's given herself away with that comment, doesn't care, because Sheldon's face lights up.

They hold hands on the walk back to the car. (His emergency bottle of hand sanitizer long gone, but the touch of Penny's skin is just another part of his world settling back into place.)

He tells her about Oxford, his voice slipping and slowing, his eyelids heavy. And it's good as she navigates the evening traffic, familiar comfort of him in the passenger seat, small sideways looks and smiles, the car is their place. (Random thought, she'll have to take him out driving again, someplace quiet and residential.) It sounds like he had fun, those other scientists she had seen so briefly had done stuff to make him feel welcome.

That proud, happy confidence in him again. Well, as far as Penny is concerned, her boyfriend is always the smartest man in the room, so yeah. His lecture had gone well, but the quiet sincere “thank you” for her coaching makes her flush and blink.

There are things she can do to help him. Finding her centre, by being his. There are things that she knows that he doesn't, and he's smart enough, confident enough to know this and to ask her, and to thank her for it.

But right now, her big plan is to get him home. He's tired and travel-stained, she doesn't think she'll be able to do anything too wicked to him this evening. But there may be cuddling. And kissing. Definitely some more kissing.

Chapter Text

Eric Gablehauser is not a stupid man. He may not be the purely intellectual equal of some of his charges, but he understands academic politics. The Chancellor's medal had been a vote of confidence – Cooper might have been prepared to fall on his sword out of mortification, but it hadn't been that simple. Bluntly, he is not expendable. Whatever the social oddities, he is brilliant, he attracts funding and accolades. The invitation to Oxford had provoked a hurried, though very quiet and unofficial, departmental meeting – there's a very real concern that they might lose him. Unfortunately, it falls to Gablehauser to deal with the situation...

To those who know the young man in question, the idea that someone might have snapped after being cooped up with him is hardly an impossible one. Three years ago, new to the post, Gablehauser himself had mistaken that naïve arrogance for true impertinence. Knows him rather better by now, but that still doesn't always help when faced with him. Of course, punching him in the mouth would have been one thing, the actual nature of the retaliation raises uncomfortable questions. An odd situation – everybody knows the story, now, but nobody can prove malfeasance.

“Would you ever work on a joint project with Dr Hofstadter again?”

“No.” The answer comes swift and sure. Cooper takes a breath, and though his eyes are sad, his jaw is set. “I am sorry, but I would not have full confidence in the results.” Straightens his shoulders. “The original fault was mine, in believing that others prized scientific integrity above personal differences. I am not prepared to hazard my career again.”

That's one way to put it, and quite characteristic of the man.

“Not everybody is quite as...dedicated as you.”

“Not everybody is in the running for a Nobel.” Oddly enough, the arrogant snap is reassuring. Far preferable to broken bewilderment, or a tantrum.

It's a shame that it took this sort of situation to bring about the result, but he's not quite the same young man he was, even a year ago. He might dress like a teenager, but there's a very adult anger banked behind those eyes. The fact that he is controlling it as well as he is, is a heartening thing.

Gablehauser himself isn't sure if he would have withstood the temptation to beat on someone who had screwed him over, particularly not a friend; he's quite impressed by Cooper's restraint. But then, he supposes that Cooper is the one with the stellar career and the lovely girlfriend, he can afford to be magnanimous.

00000000

Leonard still has his job, which is something of a relief, but he's also been advised very gently not to bother about the application for tenure-track this year. An oblique but clear rap across the knuckles. It's going to be a case of keeping his head down, and working hard to regain others' confidence in him.

His father had been quietly supportive, anecdotes from long experience of field work and the strange pressures of academia. And Leonard had seen his own habit of non-confrontation, suddenly and startlingly laid out. Unsettling, to realise the particular dynamic that he had recreated, behaviours that he had enabled. 20-20 hindsight. But negotiating the world in terms of contracts, papers and achievement – it's the world he knows, too. He'd always thought his childhood rather peculiar, once he was able to compare it to most other people's. Then he'd met Sheldon.

Despite Sheldon's disparaging comments, Leonard is possessed of a high IQ himself. But he wasn't a prodigy. However advanced his schooling, he had still been within a year or so of his peers. He also comes from a solid white collar professional background, had never needed a job to pay his way through college. Neither had Sheldon, but then he'd graduated from college while Leonard was finishing up High School.

That odd, robotic figure, all jerky movements and blank face, living with lawn furniture and a roomful of comic books. Trying to make sense of a world that he has no frame of reference for. Leonard realises how much they take for granted– they explain some cultural slips to Raj, but they have never bothered with Sheldon. Never stopped to think that perhaps he truly doesn't know, either. Research is no substitute for experience.

When he'd left, Grace had enveloped him in a warm hug, and told him that he was always welcome. And for just a small moment, everything had been all right.

His parents are adjusting to entirely new lives after thirty seven years. Grace had lost her husband to a heart attack. He's simply been dumped by one girl. It's not the end of the world. He simply needs space and time to come to terms with it all. When he gets back to Pasadena, perhaps it's time he started looking for a new apartment. He doesn't want to be the ex-boyfriend, the ex-best friend, watching from the sidelines. He wants to be himself again, and maybe try and be the friend he should have been. He still can't quite dismiss the years of feeling that the geeky things he likes are somehow 'worthless' - ('Frivolous' was another word. And how many toys had been taken away before he formed 'an unhealthy attachment' to them?) - But he does miss things - laser chess, and cult movie showings, and even arguing over Klingon Boggle and how to divide up the egg rolls. And in that shabby, warm little house that is somehow more of a home than he's known before, wrestling one of his shoes away from Smudge the puppy, Leonard had realised how much he misses having a pet. The simple, uncomplicated affection of an animal. He could have that.

Somewhere out there, there has to be a girl who would like a short, quiet guy who plays the 'cello and can't eat cheese. He just has to go out and find her.

00000000

Raj surveys the article with a certain amount of pride – 'Dr S Cooper and Dr R Koothrappali.' He had pushed for a co-authorship, and Sheldon had eventually agreed. Sure, the guy can sometimes (mostly) be unreasonable, but he isn't impervious to logical argument. The dark spectre of a return home has been banished for at least another year, and Professor Laughlin has even approached him about mentoring a couple of undergraduates for the SURF scheme. Since they are both male, Raj has been able to agree. (He has apologised to Dr Millstone by e-mail, even if he still runs away in embarrassment when he sees her in the break room.)

He sniggers at the quick text that has just popped up on his phone. A Lolpup from Raquel. Whatever the thing is with Raquel, it seems to have settled to a friendship, one without what other people might think of as benefits, but he finds that he doesn't care so much – Raquel is smart and funny, but she likes Szechuan food, and she doesn't get why Star Wars is considered so great. He's taken to hanging out with Stuart more lately, though, and he'd had a surprise invite out to the movies with Si and Dan. (Si's girlfriend had made them dinner beforehand, and then thrown them all out to watch their 'dumb guy movie'. It was kinda fun, and he'd managed three whole words to her.)

He's not sure why he can't really talk to women - (attractive women, and he's not sure if he should feel ashamed of the fact that his mind seems to have an inner Howard) – he'd grown up in a house with his mother and grandmother, and sisters and female cousins around him all the time. For all his father's over-bearing manner, there is absolutely no doubt as to who the power in the Koothrappali household belongs to. And somewhere, in the back of his mind, where he really doesn't look at it, is the knowledge that if he does go back to India, he's going to find himself engaged to a carbon copy, as soon as his mother finds a suitable candidate.

He looks across the table at Howard, who is having one of his weird, strained phone rows with his own mother.

00000000

Howard winds up the call, and continues to eye his cell hopefully. Bernadette had said that she might call, but she hasn't, and he doesn't know whether to play it cool, or perhaps leave her another message. He still can't quite shake the nervous narrowing of his eyes whenever Leonard talks to her, tries not to be too obviously needy. But a man likes to know where he stands, that his woman has him on her mind.

Bernadette - he wants this to be something, he thinks, but he still can't quite make that last leap, not yet.

He threatens to move out, sometimes, but he never will. Oh, sure, his mother talks about how she'd like one of those fancy retirement condos, or thinks he should move out, but she also slips sometimes, calls him 'Mandel', or treats him like a child.

A week goes by without a shrieking row, they'd both worry.

Been 'the man of the house' since he was eleven, and somehow also never grown past being the little boy left behind, the tears and the blame and the extracted promises, because they only have each other, the sticky family tangle, love and hate and frustration.

That chilly iceberg Leonard calls a mother scares him. Even in the worst times, when he could cheerfully strangle his own mother, he never feels that she's disappointed in him. More likely to boast to her friends about her son, such a nice, clever boy, and doing so well at the University, too.

Raj is the one who probably had it easiest – wealthy upbringing, his parents still alive and together. But they are halfway round the world; Raj had confided once that he daren't go back, his mother would take away his passport and marry him off. He'd been serious, too.

There are some things you can't outrun, though. Conscious defiance every time he eats bacon, and he doesn't think he'll ever stop that cell-deep flinch. He knows what it's like to fight yourself, and yet have half your identity rooted, tethered. (They snigger at Sheldon being fussy with his food, but the guy is an amateur, frankly.) One day, he'll lose Raj, back to the comfortable groove designed for him.

Except for a few brief years of college, he's lived in the same house, the same bedroom – understands Sheldon's drive for routine and habit, when you wear a comfortable groove into your life. This pace of change scares him, times when he's called Raj, and Raj has been out with his new friends, and that little cold pit opens up again.

Because changing means growing up, and growing up means growing older, and one day, he's going to be alone because his mother will be gone, and Raj will be gone, and he could just be the short guy with the nervous smile and the tired jokes, still hanging round the faculty parties.

Eyes flick to his cell again, as it rings. And Raj gives him a tolerant grin, rolls his eyes.

“Dude, you are one whipped puppy.”

Howard knows it, but there is gratitude in him, for his friend, who has put up with a lot of crap, and is still sitting across the table.

00000000

“Oh, hey, Doctor Dumbass.”

“Professor Dumbass, if you must.” Sheldon smiles at the stunned Leslie. “I've been awarded tenure. Associate professor at present, and it is a bit of a nuisance, because it means that I have to take on some supervision of doctoral candidates, but really, it's long overdue...”

Leaves her spluttering her outrage, and continues cheerfully on his way.

It might well be a gambit to keep him at this particular institution, but by implication, that does mean that other institutions were interested. An increased salary could only be a positive thing, too – if necessary, he can afford the rent on the apartment by himself. He assumes that was what Gablehauser was implying when he alluded to possible changes in his future living arrangements, anyway.

00000000

Professor Seibert knocks on the doorframe, raises his eyebrows.

“How did it go?”

“Surprisingly well. He didn't call me a neanderthal this time.” Gablehauser's grin is wry.

“I thought he'd probably head down to the cafeteria to broadcast the news, but I didn't see him. He's not doing one of his on-line interviews, is he?”

“No. Believe it or not, he's going to the florists before they close.”

“I still can't decide whether the fact that he actually has a girlfriend scares me or not.”

Gablehauser smiles.

“Well, she seemed like a nice, sane girl. I'm sure they have a very normal life together...”

00000000

From the security of their fortress, the Army cast their defiance at the besieging Horde. Impossible to get a large enough force up to attack the gates, when the defenders on the wall can drop missiles. Penny dodges back from her sortie to drop back down behind the front line, snarls.

“Too many of them on the walls. We're gonna need some better spears to knock 'em off with...”

“I think we can manage that.” Sven grins, wide and wicked, and puts his hands to his mouth. “Time to unleash hell, guys!”

Various Horde members spring to life. Tarps are thrown back, odd-shaped pieces of wood hauled out of concealment. Penny realises what she's looking at as the frame rises. She rounds on Sheldon, hands on hips, every inch the angry warrior queen.

“Sheldon...”

“I didn't participate in the build. I merely consulted.” How a grown man can look so much like a naughty child, she isn't sure. Big blue eyes, and his face all guilty defiance. “It's a scale version of the 'Warwolf', the largest trebuchet ever constructed. Edward I of England used it in his campaigns against the Scots...”

“We've been debating on a name. Since we had to keep it secret, we did think 'Fight Cub'...”

“Oh, god.” Penny puts her face in her hands. “That's horrible.”

“...but Sheldon wants to call it 'Slugger'.”

Her crazy boyfriend wants to name his nasty, scary war machine after her? She tries to glare at him, but it is very difficult to stay angry. It's kinda impressive, actually, watching the thing slot together. Sheldon shuffles and twitches, obviously yearning to participate, and then snaps.

“Penny, they are putting the counter-weight on all wrong...”

She relents, gives him a little kiss and a shove.

“Go on, then, Dr Fix-it....”

Up on the walls, there is consternation and pointing. Some frantic consultation of the rules of combat. Definite panic when there is obviously nothing to preclude 'use of a mad scientist'.

“I think you should do the honours.” Sven puts his hands on the lever. “On your mark.”

Sheldon raises his arm. Penny squeezes his other hand, and grins up at him. He grins back.

“Fire...everything!”

A sweep of a black-clad arm, a plangent note, and the first (foam) rock launches out of the cradle. The flight is breathless and beautiful, smacks sharply into the wood and canvas wall, causes an abrupt scattering. The Horde howl their delight, a full-throated roar.

Sheldon actually jumps in the air, arms spread and yelling. Penny whoops her own victory cry.

Someone (it was probably Howard) had once said of Sheldon that the only spontaneous thing he was ever likely to do in his life was to combust at the very thought. Only... he looks at Penny, laughing up at him free and fierce and happy, and he has one cheerful, glorious moment of pure instinct.

Penny squeaks, and then responds enthusiastically.

He kisses with his eyes half-shut, and intensity in his gaze, watching her eyelashes against her cheek, the flush of her skin, the kindling darkness in her own eyes as they blink open, dazed.

“Penny...I have my work, I thought I didn't want anything else...but you were always there, with your mess and your prattle and your dreadful singing, and you got into the middle of everything...and, oh, Penny, I really do think that...I might love you.”

“Sheldon...” It's not a romantic speech, really. She shouldn't be smiling at him so hard her face hurts. “I think I might love you, too.”

“Good.” he says, soft exhale of relief. “An equal reciprocity of affection makes the situation manageable.”

She guesses that's Sheldon-speak for 'kiss me again', so she does.

“Jeez, you two, at least wait until after we've won, huh?” Raquel grins.

Penny smirks up at Sheldon.

“So let's finish this thing, then.”

“As you wish, my Queen.”

She looks towards the fortress.

“We really need a battering-ram...”

“Oh, I've already drawn up the plans for that.” Sheldon assures her cheerfully.

00000000

Who'd have ever thought? Sheldon Cooper. In her bed, and very definitely without his pyjamas. She should probably get up, find herself a t-shirt to wear or something, but she feels pleasantly boneless, lying here against him.

She didn't plan it. But after the laundry was put away, and they were cuddling on the couch, somehow the kisses got warmer and deeper, and she'd murmured 'stay with me?' and he'd murmured 'are you seducing me, Penny?', and she'd said 'uh-huh' and then he'd smiled.

This is how it should be. It's so perfectly him – a little awkward, a little clumsy, but with such a sweetness. He's fun, she discovers, and there's laughter and startled pleasure for both of them. And in some ways, he's a very normal guy, after all, because he goes to sleep afterwards. Trails her lips over the faint salt of his skin, and lets the happy aftershocks thrill through her as she drifts...

00000000

Sheldon blinks up, briefly confused by the direction of the morning sunlight. Not his room, not his bed, but not unfamiliar territory, and the weight on one arm and the side of his chest is not an incipient heart-attack, but Penny. She's snorting in her sleep, just a little, and he feels himself smiling, tucks her more comfortably under his chin. She makes a soft grumble, burrows closer. He thinks that perhaps forgoing his pyjamas this once isn't so bad, for the feel of her skin against his.

He can't be concerned about her invasion of his personal space any more, after the undignified, but incredibly satisfying, activities of last night. He understands the mechanics, biology, physiology. But nothing had prepared him for what it actually felt like, to be with Penny.

It hadn't exactly been a shock to discover that he likes sex. Well, he likes sex with Penny – he has no intention of finding out if he'd like it with anyone else. It isn't even that he's never wanted to before – his hormones are depressingly normal – but he has always had the idea that it should be more than a mutual masturbatory experience to satisfy his ego. Not quite the tenets of his mother's faith, or his grandmother's old-fashioned southern courtesy, or even the common-sense advice of his father - “Just because you can, don't always mean you should, boy.” - something in between them all, distilled notions of respect and principle. There should be...love...involved. He'd had cause to question that idea, watching the world around him, had come to the sad conclusion that it was yet another difference in him. He had never had that emotional connection, never thought he would. Easier to deny the half of his life, than to face that loneliness.

(If they had taken his intellect from him, he had thought that there would be nothing. Everything he was, bound up in that one aspect, and without it, he was just something wrong and ridiculous, cast adrift in the world.)

But Penny had taken his hands, and he'd followed without hesitation, because they both wanted this. No abstract curiosity, but a very definite desire, for gentle hands on warm skin, and soft kisses.

She isn't filling a girl-shaped hole in his life. He's made a Penny-shaped hole, just for her. She's his 'deal'.

0000000

Penny wakes up alone in her bed. But there is still a neatly folded pile of clothing on the chair, the very faint sound of the television, and when she peers round her door, Sheldon, looking less ridiculous in one of her robes than she might have expected, is sitting on her couch with a bowl of cereal.

Laughs to herself. Last night, that man was making her toes curl, and now he's sitting, eyes glued to a cartoon. Loops her arm round his neck, and drops a kiss onto the side of his head. Sheldon makes a small happy grumble through his cereal, and says,

“The coffee pot is on. I wasn't sure whether the 11 o'clock rule still applied.”

Penny saunters past him to get her coffee, counting under her breath...

“Penny, that's my t-shirt.” Outrage and intrigue, and she just grins at him.

They're going to fight, and drive each other crazy, and he's going to be weird and obsessive, and she's going to be ditzy and disorganized, and maybe she'll never have the big screen career, and maybe he'll never quite work out how to act like a proper person, but they will laugh and cook and battle monsters and kick ass at 'Halo' and he'll teach her the difference between Klingons and hadrons, and she'll teach him how to drive and who Radiohead are, and somewhere in the middle of it all, they'll just be stupid in love with each other, and it's going to be...

This.

Chapter Text

Epilogue:

A weekend in late July, southern California.

The passes for Comic*con had been purchased back before the world changed, and can't be exchanged. Penny can't take time off, anyway, which gives her an excellent excuse to avoid the worst geeky excesses. (Though she's promised to go to Dragon*con. Sven and Sheldon both want to be part of some world record attempt. Beth and Penny have both very cautiously agreed to wear outfits, but only if they have a power of veto.)

It had been a real blast from the past, the four guys scrambling onto the train with their lists and luggage. But this time, Sheldon had kissed her goodbye, before he went marching down the carriage. Her last view of them was of Raj and Leonard waving goodbye, as Sheldon engaged in some kind of altercation with Howard about preferred seating. Some things change, some don't.

When she realises that she's actually feeling rebellious because she's considering doing her laundry on a different night, she freaks out and calls Raquel, demands that they meet up somewhere normal, and do girl things, like right now.

“...I swear, if he's training me in my sleep or something, I'll kill him.”

“Ah, geeks and the girls who love them.” Raquel sniggers. Penny gives her a narrow-eyed look.

“So, the rumours of you and a certain comic store owner...?”

“I can neither confirm nor deny.” Raquel goes a bit pink. “Anyway, coaxing a stray cat in off a fire escape doesn't count as a date.”

“Of course not.” Penny soothes, grinning. After all, she'd dated Stuart the once – she'd liked his sweet, earnest conversation - then he'd gone weirdly timid, and they'd needed to drink to connect. She prefers him sober, he's quietly funny.

Other friends are arriving, Deena, Camille, Beth, Bernadette, Kim... people from work, and the theatre, and the whole strangeness that her life has become. Babble of female voices, shrieking and laughter, and spreading themselves noisily out to commandeer their end of the bar.

Penny hugs her happiness to her, and laughs as she listens to Raquel trying to teach the bartender how to make something called a 'piso mojado'. She looks at her watch, and slides her phone out of her bag. It's nearly seven o'clock, and if Sheldon says he'll call at seven, he will. Dodges through the crowd, heading for a quiet corner, a pretty blonde girl with a glowing smile, her eyes skating by the chiselled jawlines and careful tans, oblivious to their attention, because her mind is full of her tall, skinny super-genius.

She's had a callback, and she wants to tell him first. It's a supporting part, in a pilot that might or might not get picked up. She'd had a role in a commercial, 'fighting' a CGI germ, and her ability to stab things convincingly has turned out to be an asset. It isn't a role she would have considered, or even been considered for, a year ago - she always thought she'd be the princess, not one of the monsters, but now... Given the choice between a shampoo commercial, and jumping off a desk to bash a werewolf with a chair, she's all for the action.

After all, this is the 21st century, modern times – now, a girl gets to pick up her own spear, and be the one to wake the unlikeliest of heroes with a kiss.

00000000

Leonard catches up with Raj and Howard in the bar. One upside of the new regime, they have all attended the panels they want to, individually if they have to.

“I would totally date that avatar.” Raj sighs, watching a costume sway past. Leonard squints, confused, opens his mouth, and then decides not to. He doesn't really want to know. Looks around again.

“Where's Sheldon?”

“Last I saw, he was talking with some furtive-looking guy in shades and an 'Alpha Flight' ballcap. They were ranting about kicking Covenant butt. And something about explosive elephants, I think.” Howard shrugs. “His Mandarin hasn't improved.”

They look at each other.

“There's only half a dozen people in the world who understand what he's on about at the best of times.” Leonard considers. “And some of them dribble a lot, and aren't allowed anything sharp.”

“He did say he'd catch up with us at dinner. He was just going to phone...someone.” Raj finishes, lamely. Leonard gives a chewed little smile.

He and Penny have had a talk. He's always going to find her desirable, but he is forced to sadly acknowledge that they don't have much in common, and there isn't really anything more to say. They both tried, and it didn't work.

That conversation was positively easy, compared to the one he had to have with Sheldon.

Penny had changed things. In some ways, she had done exactly what Leonard had hoped. She had brought the normal world into their lives – he stops, considers the StormFist – well, sort of normal,
anyway. And something had fractured, deep down, things had been forced to the surface after many years. Both of them are altered by it.

“You can't blame Penny for anything.” Sharp blue eyes, and the beginnings of a formidable scowl.

“I don't, anymore. And I don't entirely blame you, either.”

A very affronted look.

“What did I do?”

“Oh, nothing you could help. You've always been a smart, arrogant pain in the ass, after all.”

“Unless I submit to a lobotomy, I am still going to be one of the smartest people in the world.”

Well, Leonard wasn't ever expecting humility.

But he had actually shut up and listened, as Leonard had fumbled through why he did what he did, his own painful realisations of how his life had stalled and twisted, that he needs to be his own person.

They find the tattered remnants of a friendship though, which perhaps surprises them both, but – they have spent a quarter of their lives in each other's company, and sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar. There are jokes and memories, things untainted by anger or jealousy, and they find them again, handle them with a new awareness of how brittle they are.

Giving himself permission to enjoy something, without that feeling that someone is going to mock him, is still difficult. But the 'cello case now rests openly in the corner of the apartment, and one night a week, Sheldon and Leslie edge past each other like a couple of spitting cats when the quartet come to rehearse. He gets to watch his choice of television quite often now, because although Sheldon still complains, he also disappears across the hall with suspicious swiftness.

(If a mean little part of his mind tells him that at least he got there first, a much larger and saner part points out sadly that Sheldon got there last.)

Because Sheldon has changed, too – he's happier, a little less rigid and demanding. He's cautiously, grudgingly admitted that he can be a little impatient with slower mentalities at times, and that he really must remember that other people have limitations. (Which is as near to an apology as anyone is likely to get from Sheldon, unless they are Penny, and can use methods denied to lesser mortals.)

They have been really good about not flaunting their relationship in front of him. Intellectually, he knows that something physical is going on, hard though it might be to accept, given that one of the people involved is, well, Sheldon. But he's looking seriously for another apartment. There's the possibility of one in the block down the street from Raj, and he's viewing it next week.

Because one morning, he'd been brushing his teeth, when he'd noticed that Sheldon's red toothbrush had been joined by a sparkly purple one. He'd looked at the two little pieces of plastic nestled together under the UV light, and seen the shape of things to come.

00000000

Sheldon is having an internal crisis. He has finished his call to Penny, but finding a quiet area to talk has taken him near to the All Star Auctions booth. Sets his jaw, and forces his gaze away from the tempting riches spread before him, the one cover that he knows is amongst them.

Detective Comics #33, Batman's fourth appearance, but the first telling of his origins. A key edition of the Golden Age comic book. It isn't of the quality of the copy that recently fetched over $10,000 on eBay, but it is certainly worth four figures. A true collectable, fit to grace any collection.

It is a wrench to part with it, but he's going to need the money; there are certain times in his life when a man should not begrudge the cost. He has put together his financial projections, schedules and contingencies. There is just one piece of data to add, one small question to ask, that will alter the course of his world.

To some, it might just be a transparent crystal of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms with superlative thermal conductivity, but he has the distinct feeling that Miss Penny Sorenson's response to a diamond engagement ring is going to be a whole lot less scientific.

 

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A/N - This is indeed the end of The Paladin Protocol. But it is really just the beginning, for Sheldon and Penny.

Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed. Yes, this was a Fan-Fix. No, I'm not sorry. I realised that if the screen version of TBBT was not going to dish out the karmic ass-kicking I felt was so richly deserved, I would have to write it myself.

This was just supposed to be a short ficlet - the genesis came from seeing Sheldon wave a plastic sword about in 'The Nerdvana Annihilation'. The leap from on-line gaming and cosplay to Live Action Role-Play struck me as completely plausible. The StormFist WarGuild is not real, but the LARP Battle Game I based it on is – I hope any members of 'Dagorhir' will forgive me. Only, when I saw the scene from 'Garden State' with Jim Parsons in armour, the evil plot bunny army arrived.

Sheldon made such a great Knight in Shining Armour. He had even responded to the pleas of a 'damsel in distress' in TADD, nominated himself as Penny's 'hero'. He had a fair lady to fight for, and wrongs to be righted. So, inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, I sent my Hero on a Journey. And no, I wasn't particularly subtle about it, either.

The only skill I have given Sheldon that hasn't been seen or referred to in canon is the ability to use a sword. He did study in Heidelberg, though, and the place is forever associated in my mind with the sport. Fencing requires precision, control and an ability to strategize - basically, it's chess with pointy things. And we know that Sheldon is very good at chess. I've actually taught more awkward people than him to fight, too.

For Penny, I gave her the courtesy of taking her acting ambitions seriously, crediting her with the willingness to embrace imaginary worlds. When she became hooked on 'Age of Conan', she wasn't some passive princess in a tower, she was Queen Penelope, and she was a warrior. I could believe that that incarnation of Penny would quite happily pick up a Slayer scythe. All hail Joss.

I hope people have enjoyed reading this as much as I (mostly) enjoyed writing it. Thank you again for coming with me into the scary hinterlands of my imagination.