Actions

Work Header

Draw a line in the sand

Chapter Text

Summer 2016

Penny turns amongst the crowd. Pens and playbills are thrust at her from all sides. She smiles warmly at fans eager to establish contact with a woman they have only seen on TV. This is what Penny loves about theater: the instant connection with the audience, feeding on their visceral reactions to the words she speaks on stage. It is the best summer she has had in years.

Another playbill is proffered to her and she reaches for it until her eyes fall on the hand holding it. Against her will, her eyes travel upward until they are blinded by the blue she just knew would be there. For once, New York is totally silent. They stare at each other across a chasm of lost time.

"Penny." Her agent touches her shoulder; a cacophony of horns and sirens makes her jump. She tugs at the playbill and, like all their interactions, he tugs in the opposite direction.

This time she yields.

She follows him like she should have long ago

They walk in silence- she is only a step behind him and the playbill tethers them to each other. He still walks with purpose, turning down streets and bounding around corners without hesitation. He walks until he comes to a door of smoky cut glass. The restaurant behind it is dimly lit and half empty. Penny orders a glass of red wine. Predictably, he doesn't join her.

She waits patiently for him to say something. Why is he here? Where has he been? Why didn't he call? Does he recommend the veal? He is a mass of tics, twitches, throat clearing and eyes that skip nervously around. His hands reach for the water glass that is perilously close to her hand then draw back. Penny takes pity on him and pushes the glass closer to him. He grabs it and she watches him gulp down the contents. Exposed over the white collared shirt are the fluid motion of his Adam's apple and the workings of the muscles in his throat. Penny feels the low burn of desire that was always present whenever she looked at him, no matter who she was with.

"I thought I could do this." He rasps. The uncertainty in his voice is something new. He who never faltered or wavered is visibly shaken before her.

"Sweetie…" Her hands reach toward him but he leans back.

"Don't." He chokes out. "Don't act as if nothing changed. If things weren't said…"

"Nothing was ever said. I believe that was the problem." Penny flares. Unbelievable. All this time and no one can bring her from tranquil to blinding rage as quickly as he. His forearms rest on the table, the sleeves of the dress shirt rolled neatly up to the elbow. Her brow furrows when she notices the slight tan on them. That's new. The burn flames a bit and she sips her wine to hide her discomfort. He stares down at the untouched dinner roll on his bread plate and his fists clench so tightly the knuckles are white.

Penny clears her throat to try again. Just as she opens her mouth, he hisses, "You married him."

"And divorced him." She snaps. God! Can they ever have a normal conversation? Must it always be thrust and parry? He's looking at some nondescript abstract painting on the wall to his left. Penny keeps talking. "Something was missing." She regrets her marriage-the shambles it made of all her closest relationships, the havoc it nearly caused on her fledgling career.

Two plates of steaming pasta, bejeweled with vegetables and seafood are placed before them.

"Let's start over." Penny says brightly. "What have you been doing?"

He pokes and prods at the food before him until everything is separated by color. She watches, intrigued once again by the need for order he has to make out of any level of presumed chaos.

"So?" she prods.

He lays down his fork. His eyes are dark with sadness and, though she can't believe it, the same feeling in her that has grown from burn to flame in the longest forty minute dinner she has ever experienced.

"I've been trying to forget you and forgive you."*

She runs her index finger along the rim of her wine glass. Her mouth hooks into a half smile and she feels the playful glint in her eyes as she raises the glass to her lips

"Did you succeed?" Penny takes a deliberate swallow. His hands flutter up to indicate the two of them seated across from each other.

"No."*

*The last three lines are dialogue lifted straight from The Lake House when Alex reunites with his father Simon. They inspired this fic.

Chapter Text

2011

Sheldon Cooper spent most of his life avoiding sunlight. Unfortunately, growing up in East Texas made that a near impossibility. Between the blistering heat, his weekly requirement to help Meemaw tend her garden and a father who insisted Sheldon "git his nose outta them books and take in some fresh air like a normal kid" every Sunday, Sheldon spent most of his formative years with some degree of sunburn on his nose and a lifelong tendency to wear more than one shirt indoors and out. Things didn't improve much as he approached adulthood. He found himself working in California (The sunshine state- oh, the irony) but a theoretical physicist's work doesn't require him to be outside much unless it's nighttime. Also, finding friends whose interest were aligned with his (video games, comic books, board games) made avoiding the blazing sun in California much easier than it had been in Texas.

Oddly enough, once Sheldon moved to New York, he found himself missing the sun. Once daylight savings time ended, darkness fell at 4:00 then 3:30 as winter progressed; the temperatures plummeted and Sheldon, who had spent most of his life trying to stay indoors, began to feel trapped in his apartment. He ventured out to his rooftop to take in a view the exact opposite of the one he had in Pasadena. Here, the glow from Times Square was always visible; the noise from the never-ending sirens lulled him to sleep. Here, there were no experiments to bounce lasers off the moon and no threats of dirty socks. Sheldon lived on the top floor of a building with a working elevator. He still took the stairs out of habit.

Sheldon strolled to the edge of the roof- the street below was its usual boil of people, rushing home in the purple light of a fall sunset. He was fond of his new apartment along with the private roof access that was his alone. It was in an incredibly walkable location with an endless variety of stores and restaurants. Why he could eat a different cuisine every night for a year! Not that he would engage in such culinary madness but it was nice to have options. As much as he had adapted to his new city these past months, it still didn't feel like home. He had all his comic books, video games, action figures and t-shirts and yet he couldn't find reasons to stay at home like he did in Pasadena. Night after night he walked the streets until exhaustion turned him homeward. Sheldon had always found a reason to stay home and now he always found a reason to be out. It was a puzzle even he could not solve.

His fingers drummed on the cement wall. The breeze had picked up, causing his eyes to narrow against it. The sky was now turning midnight blue along the edges. Sheldon knew the stars would be out soon but the ever-present lights of the city masked their faint shine. A flash of white caught the corner of his eye.

"Sock!" he gasped but peered closer. Once his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Sheldon realized it was a potted white Gerbera daisy- no doubt left from the previous tenant. He picked up the clay pot gingerly. The daisy's leaves had curled against the cold. It petals were bruised on the edges and its head was just beginning to dip. Still, its center was bright yellow; its stem strong and resistant. It reminded him.

"Come on," Sheldon tucked the plant under his arm. "Let's get you inside.

Xxxx

2016

Sheldon stands up so quickly, the water sloshes from the glasses.

"I'm leaving." He announces, pulling several bills from his wallet. He begins to walk out when Penny grabs his hand. For the briefest moment, Sheldon's fingers tighten around hers before falling slack again. Sheldon looks down to find her clear green eyes boring into his.

"Sit down, Sheldon." She orders. When he doesn't move, she gives his hand an impatient tug back toward his seat. "Sit down and eat your dinner." Penny commands, her voice a little more threatening. Sheldon moves to resume his seat and Penny hides her surprise by popping a scallop into her mouth.

"You're far too old to be storming out of restaurants." Penny informs him once he sits again and picks up his fork. "And I am too tired to chase after you." Sheldon's mouth is slightly agape but he twirls his pasta into a neat spiral before placing it in his mouth.

Penny wipes her mouth delicately. Triumph dances in her belly. Perhaps Sheldon has changed- he certainly would have never sat back down five years ago!

"So, tell me, what brings you to New York?" Penny's voice is light; she leans forward on her elbows and rests her chin on her hands. It has been so long since she has seen Sheldon eat. She had forgotten how precise he is- never dripping, spilling or missing his mouth. It is an almost surgical act in its precision. Sheldon finishes chewing and lays his fork on the table.

"That's right," he says almost to himself. "How would you know?"

"What?" Penny is smiling but she can feel the corners of her mouth twitch downward. There is so much neither one of them knows about each other now. How did they go from knowing eating schedules and menstrual cycles to having to catch each other up? She shakes her head in dismay. "What don't I know, Sheldon?"

Sheldon gestures toward the city with his elegant hand. "I live here, Penny. I've been living here for five years now."

XXXX

2011

It took Sheldon a week to bring the daisy back to its former glory. He researched all its light and nutritional needs, documented when and where the sunlight fell in his apartment and the duration of its stay and concluded the kitchen window was the daisy's optimal habitat.

Except he didn't stop there- a Gerbera daisy is a relatively easy plant to maintain. Sheldon specialized in theoretical physics, highly advanced video games and possessed an immeasurable IQ. The plants he surrounded himself with had to exhibit the same unique qualities albeit in an herbaceous manner. He moved from daisies to camellias, conquered gardenias and had a plethora of miniature white roses in a cold frame on the roof. Currently he was doing battle with a Calamondin orange infested with spider mites and a Cymbidium orchid that just didn't seem to like him.

His laptop signaled that Amy was on for their weekly chat.

"Good evening, Amy." Sheldon didn't turn from his orange plant.

"Good evening, Sheldon. Are you outdoors?"

"Don't be ridiculous- it's November." Sheldon continued spraying the orange plant with insecticidal soap ( his own personal concoction and highly effective)

"You seem to be surrounded by an abundance of flora and fauna." Amy observed.

"Fauna refers to the animals of the region and this apartment has been rendered thoroughly inhospitable to any fauna that may choose to reside here." Sheldon put down his spray bottle and faced his computer.

"Are all those plants in your apartment? You seem to have some type of bush growing next to you."

Sheldon turned to his right and smiled affectionately at the gardenia plant there, "Yes. Gladys seems to have really taken to the fertilizer I have created just for her."

Amy lowered her glasses on her nose, "Gladys? Sheldon, have you not developed a new social circle in six months?"

"Of course I have!" Sheldon was clearly insulted. "Can't you see?" He gestured to the plants around him; Amy rolled her eyes.

"Sheldon, you assured me you were doing your level best to interact with your colleagues. That you wouldn't isolate yourself or resort to cats again."

"Do you see a cat anywhere?" Sheldon snapped.

"No." Amy admitted. "This is much worse."

"Merely a hobby now that the weather has turned completely disagreeable." Sheldon assured her. "Now, how is your research going."

"Smashing." Amy replied. "Howard has become my latest test subject. I am studying the effects of emasculation on the brain. Clearly, Bernadette runs the show."

"I'm not surprised." Sheldon said idly while plucking dead leaves off the Cineraria on the coffee table.

"I just wish I could say all marriages are as heavenly a match as theirs." Amy broke into his pruning. Sheldon paused with a leaf pinched between his thumb and forefinger.

"Amy," His voice had a warning note in it.

"I'm making a general observation, Sheldon; don't get your panties in a twist."

Sheldon cleared his throat. She must have been with Penny last night- such expressions only crept into her speech pattern after a night with the waitress and alcohol. "I see you went drinking last night."

Amy nodded, "I discovered a delightful concoction known as The Alabama Slammer. Bestie needed a friendly ear…"

"The stars at night are big and bright.." Sheldon suddenly burst into song. Amy pulled back from the screen.

"Honestly Sheldon, how long am I going to have to avoid mentioning Pen…"

"Deep in the heart of Texas." He caterwauled. Amy sighed.

"Very well." She said. "I will refrain from any further mention of a certain mutual acquaintance. I believe I will sign off now Sheldon- it's still the work day here due to the time difference."

"Very well, Amy. It's always pleasant to chat with you." Sheldon gave a small smile but his eyes were on some wilting flowers on his gardenia.

"One more thing, Sheldon."

He turned back to his laptop. Amy took a deep breath.

"Promise me by our next chat, you will have had lunch with another person and engaged in conversation."

"Very well." He sighed and began to close the laptop.

"Sheldon!"

"Yes, Amy." He lifted the lid.

"Stop growing the flowers that were in Penny's wedding bouquet. It's morbid and right out of a Tennesse Williams play. One would think you belonged with the liberal arts faculty. Good night."

She closed the window. Sheldon swatted at a spider mite on his hand.

XXXX

2016

"Every Monday at 2:10 there is a physics seminar at which I frequently lecture and then there are the colloquia…"

Penny places her wine glass down on the table. A slow smile crosses her face. This is the Sheldon she remembers- waxing on and on about physics mumbo-jumbo without any regard for the interest level of the person he is talking to. She tilts her head; she always listened when Sheldon spoke, maybe not with her full attention or interest but often, when she was alone, she'd go over his endless dialogue in her head and look up words or ideas he mentioned. Of course, she never told him that. She never told him a lot of things. Now look at him- so different from when they first sat down and even from when she made him return to the table. His hands wave, creating pictures clear only to him and a smile quirks about his lips. He is enjoying himself; she is enjoying herself and it makes her heart hurt.

"I think I should leave." Penny cuts him off in the middle of a description of argon rays and signals for the check.

"Leave?" Sheldon squeaks. "Leave!"

"Yes, honey. This has been lovely but I do have a show tomorrow and…"

"Penny," Sheldon's index and middle finger make the slightest reach toward her. "We haven't seen each other in years. Social convention dictates that we reminisce some more."

"Sheldon, where is that going to lead us?" Penny pulls on her sweater. "Eventually, we'll run out of conversation because the only thing left to talk about will be exactly what neither of us wants to talk about."

Sheldon takes the check from the waiter and waves off Penny's offer to pay her share. He places the bills in the leather folder in order of denomination then centers the folder in the middle of the table. He looks right at her-his eyes blazing a blue that not even the best sapphire could match. She closes her eyes against them.

"Sheldon…"

"I don't want you to leave."

XXXX

2011

Leaving California turned out to be easier than he imagined. Unlike the time when he researched Bozeman, his requirements this time were far easier to fill. Public transportation, Ivy League school for employment purposes and a city cosmopolitan enough for him to be completely self-sufficient. No matter how many times he ran the algorithms and adjusted the variables, New York City kept appearing at the top of the list. As his apartment began to fill with the detritus that inevitably come with weddings, Sheldon began making his plans. Leonard was so busy (Self-involved, Sheldon thought bitterly) that he either never noticed or forgot to ask why Sheldon mailed off packages several times a week. Sheldon managed all his other arrangements online from finding his apartment down to his interview at Columbia. By the time the wedding day dawned, his flight was booked to leave two hours after the ceremony and his resignation was sitting on Dr. Gabelhauser's desk.

Leonard and Penny's wedding day could have been used for a postcard shot or an enticement brochure for California. Even the beach cooperated with a moderate tide, golden sunset and frothy waves. Seagulls dipped and swooped and the breeze was offshore so Penny's curls danced around her shoulders. She gripped her full wedding bouquet tightly as Wolowitz(newly ordained via Internet) spoke the words that would bind her to Leonard. Sheldon considered the contrast of Penny's flowers to everything else. The ceremony and its locale were certainly informal, Penny was in a white slip dress, Leonard in a white shirt and khakis. They weren't even wearing shoes, for heaven's sake! But there was Penny holding an enormous bouquet of daisies, artfully arranged by a florist with all the spaces filled in by small white tea roses and festooned by iridescent white ribbons. Like so many things these past five years, it just didn't make sense. Still, she was beaming that same smile at Leonard that she had when they met. Predictably (Sheldon counted off the seconds in his head -always 6), Penny turned to look over her shoulder to smile at him. He gave her his usual curt nod then sighed as more sand made its way into his shoes. The six-second turn and smile was part of the reason he was leaving. If her marriage with Leonard was to have any chance, Sheldon had to remove himself from the equation. Like the Pauli exclusion principle where no two identical fermions can occupy the same quantum state, no two physicists can occupy the same state as Penny. It was a simple as that and five years' worth of relationship advice in Penny's Cosmo magazines.

Sheldon turned away as Wolowitz directed the newlyweds to kiss. The taxi was waiting patiently in the beach parking lot. He picked up his messenger bag from the pile of shoes and purses from the other guests. A daisy from Penny's bouquet lay on the sand. Sheldon picked it up and tucked it into his pocket without a single break in his stride.

XXXX

2016

Penny drops heavily into the chair across from Sheldon. The silverware from their untouched meal rattles against the plates.

"You don't want me to leave?" She looks down her nose at him before turning away to let a soft laugh escape her.

"I'm sensing some degree of disbelief from you." Sheldon folds his hands in front of him. "and I can't imagine why. Did I not come to your play? Seek you out? Invite you to dinner?"

Penny blinks rapidly and gazes at the ceiling. She should have just left- she had been standing, sweater on, purse in hand and they would have avoided all this unpleasantness because she knows just where the conversation is going.

Despite every warning bell in her head, she still gives utterance to these words.

"I could have said the same thing to you."

Sheldon's ears , at least, have the decency to redden even as he sits there with his head tilted and his eyes blinking with blue innocence.

"I don't follow." He frowns.

"Goodbye, Sheldon." Penny gets to her feet and this time she is going to walk out that door.

"Penny," Sheldon lunges, actually lunges, and snags the strap of her purse. Penny keeps her back to him; the sound of him clearing his throat reaches her ears. "I have a proposition." Penny will bet a million dollars he is biting his lower lip right now. She shrugs gently, indicating he should continue.

"We won't revisit the past. What's done is done. Your play runs for another…" He waits for her to fill in the information.

"Three weeks."

The tension on her shoulder strap disappears and Sheldon comes to stand in front of her.

"I'd like us to have breakfast together tomorrow," He says simply before his mouth twists into the closest he ever gets to a smile. "Or brunch if you still prefer not to be active until eleven. I have nothing until two"

Penny meets his eyes. She is overcome with desire mixed with the irritation pulsing in her veins. She wants to see him again, wants to see what Sheldon has become now that he is free of the trappings of Leonard, Raj and Howard. More importantly, she wants him to see what she has become as well.

"Are you asking me out?" She leans toward him. With the look on Sheldon's face as he stares at her, all they need is a whiteboard covered in quantum mechanics and a spoof of the Bourne-Oppenheimer approximation between them and it's their first meeting all over again.

His voice even has the same tone in it and he edges closer into her orbit, "Yeah."

Chapter Text

November 2011

Penny's breath didn't even catch as she ran up the three flights of stairs.

"Leonard!" She called, still outside their apartment door. "Leonard,Leonard,Leonard!" Penny jammed the key in the lock and flung open the door. Her husband sat quietly at his desk, gazing at the computer screen. He swiveled his chair around when she entered.

"Hey Penny. Where've you been?" Leonard greeted.

"I just had the most amazing audition." Penny gushed, closing the door behind her.

'Did you get the part?" Leonard began to smile..

"No." Penny dropped her keys in the bowl by the door. Sheldon's set was still there and she paused just for a moment like she always did until she remembered their presence meant he wasn't coming back not that he had returned.

"And we're happy about this?" Leonard's eyebrows climbed up his forehead.

"Yes!" Penny enthused, turning toward him. She walked over and straddled him in the chair. Leonard grinned and clasped her waist.

"The part I auditioned for today was a small walk-on with a handful of lines." Penny explained. "The director said I was all wrong for it but…" She let the word hang in the air. This next part would be tricky; Leonard would have to totally be on her side. Penny paused to kiss him deeply, to roll her hips against his and snag her fingers in his curls.

"There is a lead role in a new sitcom he could totally see me in." Penny broke the kiss.

"Great!" Leonard pressed his lips along her throat. Penny's eyes fell on the Batman cookie jar; she quickly closed them.

"Penny, did you hear me?" Leonard had moved down to the top of her cleavage.

"Sorry Sweetie, what did you say?" Penny threw her head back as Leonard's hands cupped her ass except the image of the cookie jar still danced behind her eyes. She really needed to put the jar and the keys in the closet.

"Where and when is the audition?" Leonard was trying to pull up her shirt.

"Um…it's next Thursday," Penny let out a slight moan as Leonard's hand stroked her breast. She rocked against the hardness beneath her as his groping continued. "In New York."

Leonard lifted his head, "As in 'City'?"

Penny nodded; Leonard sat back in the chair. The rush of cool air didn't just come from the sudden lack of body contact. For the last six months, she and Leonard had been experiencing these moments of disconnect. They would be chatting amiably and suddenly run out of things to say. Arguments would spring up over the minor infractions or they just couldn't agree on what to do and so would end up staying home with Penny curled up in Sheldon's old spot reading and Leonard playing video games or watching TV.

"Obviously, you told him you couldn't go." Leonard said.

"Not exactly." Penny climbed off. "We never took a honeymoon and you could take a long weekend…." Her voice trailed off as Leonard continued to frown.

"And what happens if you get the part? My work is here. Our apartment is here. This is a marriage, Penny. You can't just make unilateral decisions like that."

Penny bit her lip to keep from screaming. She glanced over at the vacant left hand side of the couch. She could almost hear Sheldon tsk –tsking, pointing out that if he were here he could settle all ties. Her action was not lost on Leonard.

"You know, he's not going to materialize no matter how many times you look over there." Leonard snapped. "And we are in the middle of a discussion."

'We are?" Penny retorted, completely ignoring his jibe about Sheldon. Just like they ignored the fact that Sheldon had left right after their wedding ceremony, leaving only the briefest of notes and a revised roommate agreement with Penny's name replacing his on the lease "I thought a discussion implied we each listened to each other but, according to you, I am making 'unilateral decisions' here."

"Penny, be reasonable." Leonard tried again. "We're still newlyweds. This is not the time for you to be flying back and forth across the country…"

"Hold on a sec," Penny interuppted. "What exactly is the problem here? Is it that you actually don't want me to be successful? Is it you think our marriage can't handle a little separation?" She crossed her arms and tilted her head; Leonard gave a small shudder at the familiarity of her actions. "Because I'm a little unclear."

Leonard stood up, "Don't be ridiculous. When we met, you said you wanted to be a movie star. As far as I know, California is still the movie –making capitol of the country and I don't exactly have the type of job where I can pick up and leave."

"You do research, Leonard!" Penny shouted. "Research in a field you yourself said hasn't changed in thirty years. I think they can spare you for a weekend!"

"You just don't get it, do you?" Leonard rolled his eyes.

"Oh, we're trotting out the 'Penny is too stupid to understand' argument again!" She threw her hands up in the air. "That never gets old, does it?"

Leonard picked up his sweatshirt, "I'm going to get dinner. We can talk about this more when I come back."

Penny dropped into Sheldon's spot once the door closed behind her husband. What was happening to them? Marriage seemed to be driving them apart rather than pulling them closer. She had no idea they wanted such different lifestyles. She sat back against the couch cushion then turned her face into it. The faintest scent of talc remained there and Penny inhaled.

"You'd understand." She said quietly. "At least the part about pursuing something relentlessly if nothing else." Penny sat there for another minute before getting up to change her clothes. While she washed her face, she realized with dull surprise that Leonard didn't ask her what she wanted for dinner.

XXXX

2016

Penny is sitting on the couch from scene three, hugging one of the circular pillows to her chest when Paul, her director, walks in

"Penny!" He cries, walking forward from the wings. She jumps at his voice and runs her hand across her cheeks.

"What are you doing here?" He continues. "You don't do the matinee shows. Is Elizabeth ill?' Elizabeth is Penny's understudy and performs on Wednesday matinees and Sundays; Penny shakes her head. Paul walks over to her and sits on the right side of the couch. Penny remains curled up on the left side.

"Why are you crying?"

Penny gives him a watery smile. Paul is a big bear of a man, so different from the many effeminate types or matinee –idol men who exist in the world of theater. His beard is rust colored and wiry. He has a bit of a paunch but it makes him seem cuddly not slovenly. Most people assume Paul builds sets or is part of the back stage crew but, once an actor worked with him, he came to see he was one of the finest directors on the circuit with a clear vision for story portrayal and a deep love for his actors.

"I'm a terrible person, Paul." Penny sighs.

"We're all terrible people, Penny. It's human nature. Did you forget to tip your dresser?"

Penny laughs at the most important rule in the theater world. Having once relied heavily on tips, she makes sure her dresser is well compensated.

"I was supposed to meet someone for breakfast today and I blew him off." She finally admits. Paul raises his eyebrows; Penny is one of the most conscientious actors he has ever worked with. "The worst part about it is," She pauses to massage the ball of her foot. "I don't even know why. I wanted to go last night. I wanted to see more of the person he had become and I wanted to know if I'd be different because he was different. Then, this morning, I just couldn't face him." She purses her lips, "Not him but what he represents. I've known him for ten years and I didn't even have the decency to tell him I wasn't coming."

Paul is quiet beside her, letting her unburden herself. He knows quite a bit about Penny. Hers is the story that all girls from Nowhere, USA imagine- plucked from obscurity after years of struggle to a slow building success that is usually the harbinger of a long, well respected career. He also knows there was a failed marriage so he takes a stab.

"Was it your ex-husband?"

"Leonard?" Penny shakes her head. "God, no. Leonard very appropriately contacts me on my birthday, Christmas and whenever he sees my name attributed to some accolade. Besides, he is remarried with a couple of little Leonards." Penny stares out at darkened audience. "It was Sheldon- Leonard's former roommate. I used to live across the hall from them."

"Was this the guy you wandered off with last night? Alexis was practically hysterical." Paul asks. Alexis is Penny's agent who called her cell about a thousand times while Penny and Sheldon were having dinner or whatever it was they did last night. Neither one of them really ate but there was food. When Penny returned to her hotel, Alexis accosted her in the lobby, shrieking that she was "this close" to calling the police to report Penny kidnapped by a deranged fan. Penny nods in reply.

"Did you enjoy seeing him last night?" Paul inquires.

"No. Yes. I mean, no one ever really enjoys seeing Sheldon. It's just something you endure, like getting your teeth cleaned."

Paul roars with laughter, "I am going to write that down. If I ever write a play, it's going in." His smile fades a bit. "Alexis said you were gone for hours. Most people don't spend hours with someone they just have to 'endure'."

Penny chews on her lower lip. She knows Paul has to get ready for the matinee performance. This fireside chat of theirs is eating up his valuable time but she needs help sorting out the tangle of her feelings. He is a director; she needs direction.

"Sheldon was…" Penny runs her hands though her hair. "He and Leonard had these two other friends- Raj and Howard- and they were all super brilliant, like IQ's way past genius level but they were all really sweet in their own ways. I was their friend, part of their "social circle", Sheldon used to say. Once upon a time, Sheldon was the most important person in my life."

"But you married Leonard." Paul clarifies.

Penny nods slowly and clicks her tongue. "I did." She sighs.

XXXX

2013

Penny kept walking, increasing her pace but he was right behind her. She dodged between people and signs but still he kept up with her.

"Penny!"

She glanced over her shoulder. Her heels clicked in rapid succession but she couldn't put any distance between them.

"Penny! Just listen…"

Fingers brushed her sleeve and she whirled around.

"What, Leonard! What do you want?"

The two of them glared at each other as they caught their breath.

"I had no idea you could walk so fast." He finally said. Penny rolled her eyes.

"Leonard, I have to catch my flight."

Leonard stepped toward her. He picked up her left hand and ran his thumb over the diamonds perched there.

"I'm asking you not to do this." He said quietly. Penny pressed their foreheads together. Leonard's right hand cradled the side of her face.

"You asked me once before and I gave in." Penny whispered; her nose was beginning to run. "I can't pass it up this time, Leonard. The director remembered me from two years ago. How often does that happen especially when it's someone who has got any experience like me?"

Leonard kissed her. His tongue slipped between her lips so easily, "Penny, our life is here. We had plans. What about a family?"

People passing them observed a young couple in an emotional embrace, reluctant to part from each other. Penny tugged on Leonard's forearms to encourage him to let her go but he only held on tighter. Finally she stepped back. Leonard's brown eyes were filled with bewilderment. He had been so good to her- not a perfect husband (was there such a thing?) –but good enough to not deserve this.

"I'm sorry, Leonard." The tears began to spill along with the truth. "I just want this more."

XXXX

2016

Sheldon is outside Penelope's Café at 9:45Am. He walks inside at 9:55 and requests a table for two and the brunch menu. Penny is due to meet him here at 10 which really means 10:15. The waitress smiles at him and Sheldon gives her a slight twitch of his lips.

"Cool shirt." She winks. Sheldon looks down. He had dressed carefully this morning: purple and grey striped long sleeved t- shirt topped with his Shazaam shirt and grey pants. Penny often said his outfits made her retinas bleed and he wants this meal to be a pleasant experience, unlike last night.

He takes the menu from the waitress, concentrating on its contents instead of the slow-moving hands of his wristwatch.

"Coffee, sir?' The waitress returns. She has black hair and dark brown eyes. She beams another smile at Sheldon. He blinks at the whiteness of her teeth. She is attractive ( the complete opposite of Penny actually) yet Sheldon does not find her unappealing. When the door opens, he jumps to his feet and her smile vanishes. A father and his toddler stand at the hostess station.

"No. Thank you." Sheldon murmurs. "Just a glass of water." His first sip is at 10:05.

At 10:10, the door opens once more only to allow the entry of a young couple. Sheldon has narrowed down his brunch choice to the Farmer's Market Omelette or the Nutella French Toast and requests a second glass of water.

He places the small bouquet on the table at 10:15. Penny should be here at any minute. He snipped the blossoms last night from the plants in his apartment. The white daisies, white tea roses, the orange blossoms from his Calamondin orange which immediately fill the restaurant with their scent. He hopes she appreciates that he remembered the flowers exactly.

BY 10:25, He has no choice but to order something so he chooses a chocolate chip scone.

"Will someone be joining you?' His waitress asks. He notices her smile more the longer he sits alone.

"Yes. Any minute now." Sheldon replies.

The waitress brings the scone and a fresh glass of water. He silently chants that he is the master of his own bladder; instinct tells him that Penny will appear the second he leaves to relieve himself. He crosses his legs and fusses with the iridescent ribbon on the flowers.

At 10:35, Sheldon is halfway through the scone and enduring dirty looks from people waiting for a table. He sprints to the restroom and back but the chair across from him is still empty.

Sheldon pulls out the money to pay for his scone at 10:45. His waitress appears.

"Do you need change, sir?"

Sheldon shakes his head.

"You seemed to enjoy the scone." She tosses her ponytail. Sheldon looks at his plate. He hadn't actually eaten the scone, more like pulverized it. "I work every day but Thursday. Perhaps you'll come back for brunch next time?" She winks at him.

Sheldon looks her over once more. She is taller than Penny. Her sensuality a bit more pronounced. She is standing far too close to him but her eyes sparkle when she smiles. He sees her name tag.

"I commend you on excellent service, Laura." He says, handing her the bouquet and a five dollar tip. "but I shall not be coming here again."

Sheldon picks up his messenger bag and leaves the restaurant. He walks toward Columbia University. The June sunlight begins warming the concrete; by noon the city will be sweltering. Nevertheless, Sheldon feels the cold right in his bones.

XXXX

May 2011

Penny leaned forward eagerly to kiss Leonard once Howard had pronounced them husband and wife. She closed her eyes, hearing the soft hiss of the waves on the sand, the cries of the gulls. Leonard's lips pressed gently against hers; Penny parted hers slightly and felt Leonard's arms slide around her waist. They broke the kiss and Penny wrapped her arms around Leonard's neck to embrace him. Her eyes were still closed as she inhaled the mildly spicy scent of Leonard's cologne. It was a sold, secure scent, easily remembered. The cologne of a man who wanted to make his presence known in a subtle way.

Leonard rubbed the small of her back. Sheldon didn't wear cologne- he didn't need extraneous trappings to be remembered or noticed. Her eyes flew open at that thought and scanned the group before her. He should be easy to spot; the rest of them were all so small. Her brows drew together when she realized there was no Sheldon looming in the background. She placed her hands on Leonard's shoulders and stepped back from their embrace.

"Where's Sheldon?'" She whispered out of the corner of her mouth. Leonard looked around and then he and Penny both beamed at the photographer in front of them.

"No idea." Leonard replied quickly; his hand still gripped the curve of Penny's waist.

Penny caught Amy's eye and gestured with her chin. Amy (Thank God!) immediately looked around. She turned back to Penny then shrugged.

Leonard led Penny down the makeshift aisle. They were due at the reception hall in an hour and the photographer was eager to capture the light at the beach. The reception! Of course! Penny had seen a taxi in the parking lot- Sheldon must have gone ahead- the ceremony probably exceeded his quota of outdoor time for a month.

This is the most important day of my life, she thought as she followed Leonard and the photographer to the waves. Where else would he be?

Chapter Text

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."

Chapter Text

2014

"You didn't!"

"I did"

"You didn't!"

"I did. I left Leonard" Penny nodded emphatically at Amy and gestured at the suitcase and carryon at her feet.

"Well, blow me down." Amy stated, clicking her laptop closed. "It's International Talk-Like-a–Pirate Day." Amy explained to Penny's baffled expression. "I have an app which informs of the various festivals, actual and fabricated, associated with each day of the calendar year. Am I to assume, based on your baggage that you 'need a place to crash', as they say."

Penny nodded.

"Well, we are best friends and I believe providing shelter is definitely in the job description." Amy patted the seat next to her on the couch

"I have more news." Penny said, once she had joined Amy.

"Anchors away, my friend."

"Please stop that." Penny's tone was blunt. "I went to New York," Amy began to cough violently and rose from the sofa to get a glass of water;

"You went to New York?" Amy choked out as she poured water into a tumbler. "Is that what caused the rift with Leonard?"

"Among other things," Penny raised an eyebrow. "He always seemed nervous that I'd actually be successful. Like, he could be the only one with any achievements in our marriage. We just always seemed to want different things. We weren't a team anymore. We were always going in opposite directions" Penny stared at her sneaker for a moment before she continued her story. "I saw that director and…' She paused dramatically. "I got the part! They're shooting the pilot and the first two episodes in New York but then it will come back here if it gets picked up."

Amy began coughing once again, "You didn't!"

"I did"

"You didn't!"

"Amy!" Penny snapped. "Please!"

"Well, shiver me timbers! Who would have thought." Amy finished her water and placed the glass down emphatically. She stared at the empty glass for a moment, "You know, Bestie, Columbia University is in New York."

Penny looked at her blankly, "And?

Amy shrugged. "Just thought I'd share some facts about the Big Apple. Points of interest." She waggled her eyebrows at Penny who frowned in confusion

"Amy, the only thing I want to see in New York is Saks.

"You say that now." Amy retorted. "Anyway, congratulations, Bestie! As they say, when one door closes, another one opens despite the fact that that statement is fallacious upon further examination."

Amy looked over at the blond sitting on her couch. Penny's face had crumpled at Amy's words and her shoulders shook gently as she cried. Amy began to make tea. She added a generous amount of honey to Penny's cup then carried the two mugs over to the coffee table.

"God, I miss him." Penny wiped her nose on her sleeve as Amy offered the box of Kleenex too late.

"That much is clear." Amy sipped from her mug.

Penny took the mug of tea from her friend, "Amy, I meant…"

Amy nudged Penny's knee with her own, "Bestie, I know exactly who you meant."

XXXX

2015

For the first time in his life, Sheldon Cooper became aware of "entertainment news". It didn't take him long to find news about Penny's series; finding out information about her was a different story. She was one of those rare celebrities who managed to avoid the spotlight and this intrigued him. He always assumed that if Penny ever did "make it", she would be plastered on every magazine much like those horrid Kardashian women she used to make him watch. Yet, here he was, Googling away and most of what he found was print interviews that were regurgitations of her life in Nebraska and years as a waitress. There was a lack of information on her personal life - some sites still listed her as married

Sheldon leaned back in his chair. His fingers tapped lightly on the keys but no characters appeared on the screen.

"I could do it, you know." He tipped his head toward the gardenia. "Just a few simple key strokes and I could find out when Penny had her last cavity filled." He chewed on his lip. That would be wrong. Crossing boundaries.

"Penny never cared about my boundaries." Sheldon huffed to himself as he studied a picture of her at some award show. "Coming into my room at all hours and stealing milk from the refrigerator."

He tried to imagine if he did find her contact information (Who was he kidding? When he found it.), what that first conversation would be like. His stomach immediately clenched, not so much at Penny's imagined reaction but at his. No matter how he tried, the first thing Sheldon visualized saying to her was some version of, "How could you?"

He took one last look at the photo of Penny in a gown made of shimmering gold fabric before closing it. He powered down his computer and drummed his fingers on the lid.

Not time yet.

XXXX

2011

Penny adjusted her headset.

"Ready." She called over her shoulder.

Sheldon's sigh of annoyance sounded in her earpiece. "Penny, what is the point of wearing a headset if you do not use it?"

"Sheldon, you're like two feet away from me. I could spit and hit you."

"An action from which I do hope you refrain."

Penny made a hawking noise in her throat; Sheldon leapt from his spot, clutching his laptop to his chest.

"Gotcha!" Penny laughed then made a big show of swallowing what was in her mouth. Sheldon turned green. "C'mon, let's play." She patted his empty sofa cushion.

Sheldon settled himself down once more, casting a few wary glances her way. Penny ignored him, adjusted her headset and brought Queen Penelope to life on her screen. They had decided on this activity to fill the void Leonard left by playing cello with Leslie Winkle and other physics staff at a department head cocktail party. Penny refused to watch Star Wars one more time and Sheldon produced a document (which Penny did not remember signing but obviously had) barring the viewing of any program on MTV, Lifetime or the Oxygen Network. Finally, after much negotiation resulting in multiple rides to the comic book store and a weekly refrigerator cleaning, they agreed on Age of Conan and prepared to play. They quested in companionable silence, murmuring suggestions to each other, pairing up in battles to defeat other online gamers who wandered into view.

"Oh crap!" Penny sighed. Sheldon tapped furiously on his keyboard and escaped to safety in the Black Castle.

"I thought you were behind me." Sheldon said.

"Clearly, I'm not." Penny gestured to her screen as Queen Penelope drew out her bronze dagger. Sheldon leaned in and pointed to the background.

"There's a dragon coming."

Penny's fingers flew as she beheaded one mythical creature after another. Eventually, they began ganging up on her and, despite Sheldon's directives, she was losing ground.

"Sonofabitch!' She exclaimed after suffering a particularly nasty burn from the lurking dragon.

"Behind you! Behind you!" Sheldon cried; she turned just in time to stab a hydra to death.

"Sheldon," Penny's voice was filled with panic. "You gotta help me. Come out of the castle."

"Penny, that would be foolhardy- risking both of us."

"Well, you can't just leave me here!" Penny turned toward him. Their noses bumped.

Penny's tongue darted out to moisten her lower lip. Sheldon stayed frozen; his eyes barely blinking.

"Queen Penelope is AFK" She whispered into her headset and touched a key to pause the game. Her eyes remained locked with Sheldon's.

"Penny." His voice was low, uncertain and full of …desire?

"You have little flecks of green in your eyes." Penny angled her head slightly; Sheldon moved in closer.

They sat there for a moment. Penny dropped her eyes to Sheldon's hand which was draped across her jean-clad thigh. She looked up again and her breath caught in her throat. Sheldon's eyes had darkened; his lower lip was a deep pink from his teeth chewing on it. Her heart was pounding in her ears. This was Sheldon, after all but, if she was honest, she's always felt that pull toward him.

Tonight, however, was the first time he pulled back.

Her hand reached up and Penny watched her index finger trace the line of his jaw. Felt the muscle twitch under it. Sheldon reached up and grabbed her hand, pressing her palm to his face. He hadn't moved any closer and they hadn't changed their positions.

Penny's eyes widened as she realized she wanted this. Wanted him and not in a passing fancy kind of way. After all, why was she here playing video games instead of at a cocktail party with her boyfriend? Why was Sheldon the one she confided in, argued with, willingly spent her free time with? She got from Leonard what she couldn't get from Sheldon.

Until now.

Sheldon's breath brushed against her lips and Penny caught the scent of cinnamon. She nodded slightly and his other hand wove through her hair with startling speed.

The lock turned and Leonard entered 4A. Penny was pushed back into her seat. Sheldon hit his keyboard with exaggerated movements but she noticed his screen was still dark.

"Hey guys, what's going on?" Leonard wrestled his cello through the doorway.

"Sheldon's in the Black Castle," Penny leapt up. "Did you have a good time? I'm really tired. Is anyone else tired? No? Then, I'll say good night." Penny brushed Leonard's lips with hers and ran across the hall. Before she closed her door, Penny heard Leonard's scolding tone as he asked Sheldon what had happened. She shot the deadbolt and slid down to the floor, resting her head on her knees.

This was crazy. Leonard was her boyfriend. Sheldon was her friend. There was no way he could possibly be more to her than that. For God's sakes, she couldn't even touch his onion rings without inciting a full blown temper tantrum. Still, she had not mistaken the vibe from Sheldon nor her reaction to it. Penny rose to her feet, shaking off the haze of hormones mixed with almost being caught. Caught doing what? Nothing., she nodded firmly. She and Leonard were in a good place. They were happy. Tonight was just one of those blips on the radar. Both she and Sheldon had just succumbed to some type of online game enthrallment. Penny climbed into her bed. She turned toward the second pillow, trying to imagine Sheldon there and failing miserably.

Blip on the radar, she thought again even though she could still feel the press of Sheldon's fingers on the inside of her wrist as she fell asleep.

A week later, when Leonard presented her with a diamond ring centered on her waffle, Sheldon flung his dishes in the sink.

XXXX

2016

Sheldon holds open the door and Penny steps ahead of him into the bright summer sunshine. The streets of the city are full of people and Penny and Sheldon soon blend in with them. Penny scurries alongside Sheldon, taking two steps to each one of his, until he shortens his stride to match hers.

"I can't believe you are walking." Penny finally says.

"Why?" Sheldon glances down at her.

"Umm..because you never walked in Pasadena. Anywhere."

Sheldon smiles briefly, "Well, I am a New Yorker now." His blue eyes are wide for emphasis.

Penny hesitates for a moment, "Sheldon Cooper, did you just make a joke?"

"Once again, I will remind you that playfulness is my most endearing attribute, Penny."

She laughs this time and Sheldon seems pleased but her laughter doesn't last long. Describing himself as a "New Yorker" only reminds her that this city is home to her for only three more weeks.

"Do you remember the last time we walked together?" Sheldon barely grazes her shoulder with his finger to bring her back to the present.

Penny looks up at him. She sees the changes time has brought to him. His hair has a few silver threads; when he does smile, his eyes have crinkles at the corners. They are slight, barely noticeable changes yet it gives her a sense of comfort, like slipping into her Cornhusker sweatshirt on chilly nights.

"I'm sorry, but I don't remember, sweetie." Penny's hand bumps against Sheldon's but he only slips his own hands into his pockets.

"I suppose it doesn't matter," Sheldon concedes. "I do tend to remember many things others find insignificant."

They could easily slip into another argument here but Penny tries a different approach.

"Sheldon, where are we going?"

He stops in front of a gray cobblestone building, "I live here. I'd like to show you inside."

Penny looks at the door to their left then back up at the man gesturing toward it. Sheldon is waiting patiently for her answer and she realizes that all of them- Raj, Howard, Leonard, herself- have been wrong by categorizing Sheldon as an impatient man. He is a man of infinite patience- unraveling the mysteries of the universe and the ones of his own heart.

"Why are you looking at me like that?' Sheldon's brows have drawn together.

Penny doesn't answer him. She realizes, standing outside his door, that this is a seminal moment. Once she enters this building with him, the relationship they had will be gone. She bites her lower lip. What they have now isn't much of anything but is she ready for that to change?.

"Penny? Are you coming?" Sheldon unlocks the door.

She can feel herself beginning to shake her head "no" even as her feet inch forward. She kept him in the background of her life because she knew what a force he would be if she ever did allow him to take his rightful place.

"Sheldon," She blurts. "I live in California."

He lets the door close. Wry amusement is in his deep blue eyes. Blue like the sky reflected in the pool in her backyard. Blue like her favorite blanket that she wraps herself in after a long day shooting. Blue like the satchel where she keeps all her scripts. Blue fills her vision as Sheldon invades her personal space in a way he has only done once before.

"You live in New York." Her voice is weak; she places a palm in the center of the Green Lantern logo on his chest. His heartbeat thuds beneath it.

"I once lived in California." Sheldon's voice rumbles beneath her palm. "You once lived in New York." His chin is resting on top of her head. She realizes they must make a strange picture- he's not embracing her; she still has her hand on his chest while he rests his chin on her head.

"Sheldon, people are looking at us."

"Penny, this is New York City. I can assure you we are not nor will we ever be the oddest sight on these streets."

She laughs in spite of herself, "So now what, Dr. Cooper?"

Sheldon gestures to the door again; Penny takes a step back.

"Sheldon, I'm only here for three weeks. That's just twenty–one days. We haven't seen each other in five years and, well, it hasn't really been that great seeing each other again, has it?"

Sheldon tugs at the strap of his messenger bag. He suddenly becomes very engrossed in his shoes.

"Sheldon." Penny waves her hand in front of him.

"Did you know," He looks up suddenly. "That most flowers have reached full maturity by the twenty-first day. Their life cycle is almost over yet people keep buying them, growing them, caring for them. "

Penny just stares at him. This is why it would never work- apples and oranges to the very end.

"What is that supposed to mean?" Penny throws her hands up helplessly.

"They don't give up, Penny. That's what it means." Sheldon turns from her. He opens the door to his building and goes inside. Penny catches the door before it fully closes.

Chapter Text

2016- Epilogue

Sheldon's rooftop garden is unlike anything Penny had ever seen. She follows him up the stairs with a bemused expression on her face especially when she notices he bypasses the fully functional elevator.

Sheldon opens the door but Penny is blinded by the sun so she doesn't immediately notice her surroundings as she steps out from the dark stairwell. To her left, a contained vegetable garden holds emerald leaves of lettuce, herbs,scarlet tomatoes and squash. A white rectangular beehive rests against the far wall next to a miniature orange tree trimmed like a ball. The bees make a soothing hum as they visit each blossom there. Along her right, there is another raised bed filled with white flowers. Penny walks over to it; the flowers are so robust that it seems like a blanket of snow is piled there. She stares at the plants and slowly, it occurs to her exactly what she is looking at.

"Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, rosa hybrid, citrofortunella mitis." She whispers then looks over her shoulder for Sheldon. He is in the vegetable patch, poking around. She waits until he feels her gaze then smiles when he looks over to her. He gives her a very small wave in return.

Penny's eyes trace the New York skyline. As, Sheldon had said, she did live here once. Paul was going to start casting for another play a month after this one finished. She fishes her phone out of her pocket and checks the time. Alexis never sleeps- there will be plenty of time to call her later. Penny places her phone back in her pocket and crosses over to Sheldon.

XXXX

Penny's limbs twine around Sheldon like vines. Her kisses, warmer than the sun he has come to know, trail the length of his body. He savors the honey-sweet taste of her on his tongue and discovers that a perfume even more enticing than the gardenia radiates from her skin.

"I'm going to stay here." She whispers once he is deep inside her.

Sheldon kisses her deeply, "You always were."

The end.