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Draw a line in the sand

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2016

It takes Penny over an hour to find Sheldon at Columbia. The few people she asked stare at her blankly until she makes it to the Northwest Corner building and sees his name on a list near the faculty mailboxes. She trudges up the stairs to his office only to find it locked. Conveniently(this is Sheldon, after all, ) there is a list of his office hours- not held today- as well as his class schedule and room locations. Penny sighs and descends the stairs to find the elusive Dr. Cooper teaching "Defabricating Dark Matter" in Lecture Hall Three.

As she walks, she marvels at the anonymity New York provides to just about everyone. Here she is on a college campus surrounded by the target audience of her failed sitcom and she didn't even provoke a single turned head. The drama she is currently starring in is aimed at housewives but pulls strong viewership from the 25-30 set yet no one notices her. She enjoys the obscurity since it gives her time, as she strolls along under the shady trees, to picture Sheldon walking this same path.

Sweat makes her hair cling to the back of her neck. Sheldon's lecture hall is in the sub- basement. When she arrives, the double doors swing open and graduate students pour out. They are a somber bunch; most clutching blue exam books in their hands; their faces covered with worried expressions. Penny notices not one of them has Sheldon's flair for color or comic book clothing and she smiles. The doors on the far right empty out faster than the ones on the left so she walks through those. Sheldon is far down, bathed in the light of the stage. He is tucking books and papers into his messenger bag. Penny skips down the stairs.

Sheldon glances up when he hears the footsteps. He frowns at her and sets about collecting his whiteboard markers. Penny stops at the table separating them.

"Hi." She says.

Sheldon doesn't reply; he picks up an eraser and, with wide sweeping strokes, begins removing every trace of physics from the board. Penny watches the arc of his arm and shoulder cut a path through the writing on the whiteboard. She taps her toes and glances around the empty auditorium.

"Sheldon.."

"You're late." He says evenly.

His back is still to her so he doesn't see her blush, "I know. I don't even have a good excuse. The thing is," Penny slides her hands into the back pockets of her jeans, "I fully intended to come to breakfast and it was so sweet of you to pick a place called Penelope's café…"

Sheldon positions the eraser over a miniscule fleck of Expo marker and begins rubbing with a vengeance. The eraser squeaks, cutting off her words. He then places it on the ledge and sprays the entire board with a solution in a bottle on the ledge.

"Sheldon." Penny comes around to the other side of the table so he is only two feet away from her. Her hand reaches out and just brushes the letters spelling Green Lantern across his shoulders. "Please look at me."

Sheldon mutters something to the board and begins wiping it with a paper towel.

"What's that, Sweetie? Did you say you waited for hours?"

He whirls around suddenly, crumpling the paper towel in his fist, "I said I brought you flowers!"

Penny recoils. She's never heard Sheldon raise his voice much less yell.

"Flowers?"

"Yes." Sheldon snaps. "Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, rosa hybrid, citrofortunella mitis!" he rages.

Penny's jaw drops, "I…I don't understand."

Sheldon slams the bottle on the table next to her, "Of course you don't and, as I have just cleaned my board, I am loathe to explain it any further to you. Those days are over, Penny." He turns from her to walk away.

Penny runs her tongue over her teeth, "Alright Sheldon," Her voice is low but the fury behind it is unmistakable. "I came here to apologize and hoped we could try again but you were right last night. What's done is done and that includes our friendship." Penny turns in the opposite direction and stomps up the stairs.

They walk parallel to each other and enter the hallway at the same time. Penny shoots him a look she hasn't used since he strung up her underwear on a telephone wire.

"I guess we haven't changed that much, huh?" She licks her lips and faces him. "We've seen each other twice in twenty –four hours and have had two fights already. That must be some kind of record."

Sheldon clears his throat. He opens his mouth to speak, changes his mind and merely nods.

"So are you going to at least escort me out of here before we go our separate ways?" Penny tries to smile but her lip quivers a bit. How is it she feels his loss more keenly now than in the five past years?

"No." Sheldon straightens up to his full height.

"No!" Penny is indignant.

Sheldon's back is to her as he begins walking down the hallway. His voice carries back to her with just a tinge of Texas t o it.

"But you can walk with me if you like."

XXXXX

2011

Leonard and Penny were posed artfully on an outcropping of rocks when Raj approached them to whisper in Leonard's ear. Penny watched as the smile faded from Leonard's face. The outgoing tide tugged at her ankles, reminding her of the power of nature.

"Can we take a break?" Leonard asked the photographer but didn't wait for a reply. He helped Penny down then walked her up the beach a ways.

"Sheldon's not at the reception hall." Leonard said. His voice seemed empty but Penny could hear the annoyance and frustration on the edges of his words. "I told Howard to go see if he was there- he just called Raj and there is no sign of him."

"Did anyone try calling him?" Penny drew her brows together.

Leonard nodded stiffly, "He's not answering. Not even for Amy." Penny looked down the beach; Raj and Amy were standing by the water. Amy saw Penny looking at her and waved. Penny frowned and gave a half-hearted wave in return.

"Call him." She ordered, turning back to Leonard.

"Did you not hear me, Penny?" Leonard's irritation and annoyance was now coming through. "He's not picking up for anyone."

"He'll pick up for you." Penny nodded with certainty. Leonard pulled out his cell-phone and muttered under his breath as he dialed Sheldon. He held up a finger each time the phone rang. Three fingers were up when Penny heard him say, "Where the hell are you?"

Told you so, she mouthed to Leonard who turned his back to her but continued to rant into the phone.

"What are you doing at the airport?" Leonard's foot tapped in the sand. "I am well aware this is my wedding day, Sheldon and, you're right, I should be focusing on that except that's hard to do when your best friend goes missing!"

Penny watched Leonard's chest heave up and down. Her new husband chewed on his lower lip as he listened to Sheldon.

"Sheldon, I don't understand what this is about. What do you mean everything is in order? What kind of stunt are you trying to pull?" Leonard made a throttling motion with his hands; Penny laughed.

"Well, where are you going? When are you coming back?" The foot resumed tapping. "Sheldon, you can't take the Fifth during a phone conversation!" Leonard thundered. Penny motioned for the phone. "Sheldon. Sheldon. I'm putting Penny on before I burst a blood vessel."

The slim silver phone fit perfectly in her palm. Penny raised it to her ear in time to hear Sheldon say, "Leonard, I do not wish to speak to her."

"Isn't that nice." Penny replied. "Not only do you cause an impromptu search party on my wedding day but now you don't want to talk to me either." She heard him clear his throat. "Sheldon, where the hell are you? Why did you leave?"

He sighed audibly, "As I told Leonard, I am at the airport."

"Yeah, I got that." Penny snapped. "Why are you at the airport?"

"This is just like him!" Leonard yelled. "He has to find some way to make the focus about him. Just once, Sheldon, once I'd like to not have you interfere with something that has to do with me."

Sheldon's soft laugh sounded in her ear. It wasn't his asthmatic wheeze but a low rumbling chuckle. The sound filled her with sadness.

"Did you hear that?" Penny said softly.

"Yes."

"Do you want to tell me what's going on?" Penny saw that Leonard was about to stalk over to her but she waved him away.

"Not especially."

Penny rolled her eyes. She wrapped her left arm around her waist and walked toward the water. "Sheldon, you can't do this. Not now. Not today."

"Penny," His voice was ice. "I am fully aware of what I can and cannot do. It is knowledge that has been made quite clear to me, painstakingly at times, over these last five years."

Penny gazed out over the water. The reflecting sun made her eyes sting. She could feel, as if it were yesterday, the way his eyes burned whenever he looked at her.

"Penny," Sheldon's voice twanged, breaking her out of her reverie. "My flight is being called."

"Sheldon, tell me where you're going." Penny couldn't seem to get the words past the lump in her throat. She glanced at Leonard watching her. He seemed oddly skewed without Sheldon looming behind him and she wondered how long it would take her to stop instinctively looking for the other man. The thought brought her up short- looking for the other man. She smiled at Leonard who gave her a slow wave and gestured at the phone. Penny held up a finger signaling for one more minute.

"I have to go now, Penny. I've made all the necessary changes to the relevant documents."

Penny had no idea what he it talking about but she does know that she doesn't want to end the call. She is way past the length of time a new bride should be on the phone with her husband's roommate. "Sheldon, I don't care about that. Just tell me when you will be back." Her voice was pleading

Another soft sigh brushed her ear, "You already know the answer to that," There was a pause. "Mrs. Hofstader." She closed her eyes and felt the tears swim under her lids. God, she hated when he was right.

"Sheldon, don't do this. You are an important part of our lives. Our social circle. Who's going to run safety drills and check the expiration dates on food? Who's going to write labels for everything and…"

It wasn't until Leonard took the phone from her hand that Penny realized she had been talking for a full minute to dead air.

XXXX

2015

It took some time but Raj's schedule finally aligned with Sheldon's in the sense that he could take a break from Caltech and fly to New York to teach alongside Sheldon.

"I'll fly out Tuesday night," Raj told Sheldon. "that way we can teach Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and I'll have a weekend in the Big Apple."

"Excellent suggestion." Sheldon hung up the phone and looked around his apartment. The scent of the gardenia's creamy white blooms filled the air. It occurred to him how anxious he was to see Raj; he was lonely. He had tried making friends as Amy suggested and he definitely had a group of colleagues with whom he had lunch daily but they remained just that- colleagues. It seemed the only people around him who shared his non-academic interests were his students. Ironically, Sheldon was the same age as some of them yet miles apart in other areas.

He rose from the couch to get some water for himself. The Gerbera daisy still bloomed cheerily in the pot by the sink. It almost resembled a small bush- it was so lush with flowers and leaves. Sheldon eyed it warily. He had attended a department mixer a while back and ended up speaking with a striking blond economics professor. He was enjoying the conversation so much that he asked her to dinner. Even that went well until they were walking along and she pressed him against the wall and assaulted him with her mouth. Sheldon disentangled himself and thanked her to never do that again.

Her beautiful mouth twisted into an ugly smirk, "My mistake, Dr. Cooper." She sneered. "I didn't think you went that way."

He looked at her then. The blond hair that was now so obviously the result of bleach; the smile that was more brittle and icy than sunny and welcoming and the eyes that weren't full of warmth and mischief just intelligence and calculation. How could he have been so mistaken?

"I am certain I do not know what you mean." Sheldon cleared his throat. "But I am certain this evening has reached its conclusion."

She nodded in agreement and hailed her own cab once she saw Sheldon move to do that for her. They never spoke again.

Sheldon filled a drinking glass a quarter full and poured it over the daisy. Yes, he was definitely lonely. Raj's visit would alleviate his solitude but, like the flowers he tended with such care, it would be only temporary.

Sheldon and Raj walked toward Serendipity3 ("Honestly, your sweet tooth is out of control , Raj") to celebrate a successful series of experiments that were as informative as they were entertaining. Sheldon had never seen his classes so engaged. He had to admit Raj was part of that. He and Raj had slipped back into working together as if Sheldon had never left; they even ended up doing some of the bantering during the set up for class that had occurred when Raj worked for Sheldon ("For the last time, I worked with you, Sheldon!")

Sheldon was enjoying the visit with Raj immensely. They went to the movies. Sheldon took him to three of his new favorite comic stores and watched in delight as his friend left each one with a shopping bag. They went back to Sheldon's apartment and began swapping comics just like they had done in Pasadena. What Sheldon enjoyed the most was that there was no mention of Pasadena from Raj. Even when they emailed or spoke via Skype, Raj didn't bring up the past, unlike Amy. Sheldon sniffed in annoyance at that. Sure, Raj told him about Howard and Bernadette trying for a baby, about changes at Caltech, the weather but he steered clear of those topics that had caused Sheldon's exile in the first place.

Now, as they walked down Second Avenue toward a decadent dessert that Sheldon had no appetite for (it was Friday, desserts were for Saturdays), Sheldon caught Raj looking at him out of the corner of his eye and smirking.

"Alright, Raj. What is it?" Sheldon crossed his arms over his windbreaker.

"What are you talking about?" Raj shook his head.

Sheldon frowned, "As Meemaw would say, Why are you smilin' like a goat in a briarpatch?"

Raj stared at him, his jaw agape, "Sheldon, I can't even begin to translate that."

"Why not? It's English?" The twang still sounded in the other man's voice.

Raj rolled his eyes, "Not any English I've ever heard but I do have something to tell you."

"See," Sheldon gestured with his hand. "Goat in a briar patch."

Raj took a deep breath. He had kept his promise to Sheldon all these years but this was different.

"Leonard and Penny are getting divorced."

Sheldon pulled up to his full height. If Raj didn't know him as well as he did, he would have sworn that the news he just delivered had no impact on the man standing in front of him. As it was, Raj caught the tiniest twitch at the corner of Sheldon's mouth. Just the shadow of a smile.

"I am sorry to hear that." Sheldon said finally and resumed walking.

"It is pretty sad." Raj fell in step beside him. "It's also been a long time coming. Things haven't been the same since she came to New York two years ago to shoot the pilot for that legal drama."

Sheldon stopped walking, "Penny is in New York?"

"No." Raj said hurriedly. "She came here, shot the pilot and the first three episodes but all the filming is done in LA now."

They turned the corner; Serendipity 3 was a block away.

"Raj" Sheldon's voice was quiet, barley audible over the blaring horns and rush of feet of the city. "Why are you telling me this?"

Raj gave him a gentle smile, "You're a smart guy, Sheldon. You'll figure it out."