Penny wakes up a week shy of her twenty-ninth birthday.
That is, of course, not to say she actually physically woke up. Not like she was in a coma for years and now it's a miracle or whatever. She wakes up everyday, stumbles into the kitchen to make coffee and breakfast, stumbles to the Cheesecake Factory to make money, stumbles to auditions to inevitably make a fool out of herself, and then finally stumbles into the boys' apartment to make herself feel better.
There are days, very, very bad days when it's between them and the tequila or the rum or the vodka. It's between them or alcohol burning a path down her throat to make her feel something akin to okay and like she means something to someone.
She means something to them.
But no, when she says she woke up she means that she got out of bed that morning, discovered that she was out of coffee, walked across the hall into the boys' apartment (which, by this point, was really singular, but more on that later) without knocking, and only went as far as the counter before Sheldon was handing her the coffee without a word. Then she walked out and back into her apartment.
The coffee was brewing, the aroma permeating the air, and she was halfway to burning her toast when it struck her. It struck her that there's no good reason for Sheldon to have coffee in his apartment. He doesn't drink it. Leonard's been gone for too long now.
It strikes her as odd. Then it strikes her as confusing, since she'd already pretty much figured out all of his little quirks and routines and idiosyncrasies over the past seven years and change.
That's when she figures out it's an adjustment made because of her. A pre-emptive strike of his, since she's always out of one thing or another, always invading his apartment at odd times looking for coffee or milk or detergent or whatever. He anticipates her needs now, the same way she anticipates his actions and reactions, giving and taking without a single word.
It's believable with her. Penny's been good at adapting to circumstances for a long time now. But with Sheldon it approaches the realm of near impossibility. Sheldon doesn't believe in change. He doesn't take to it well when it's forced upon him, and he sure as hell wouldn't initiate it on his own. He never did it for Leonard, or Howard, or Raj. There's no rhyme or reason for him to keep coffee in his apartment when the last time he drank it was one night two years ago when she had spent the night out with friends and drunk herself to a level incredibly near that of alcohol poisoning; he'd stayed awake pretty much the entire night to keep an eye on her. There's no reason at all.
Penny wakes up a week shy of her twenty-ninth birthday and realizes that Sheldon Cooper has learned the previously unmasterable skill of change, of adapting, and he learned it for her and only her.
Penny wakes up a week shy of her twenty-ninth birthday and realizes just what that could mean.
When Penny was twenty-four she broke up with Leonard.
It was late June into early July and they'd been arguing over nothing and everything non-stop for a week. Sheldon took to sleeping in his office, had been for days. Howard and Bernadette, who were still together as of that point, somehow attempted to mediate for about three days before, presumably, Howard realized that he didn't really want to be in the middle of this. Or anywhere near this.
On the second of July, Raj got drunk enough to come onto her, realize that broke some kind of guy code, and then insinuated that it was really only a matter of time with her and Leonard and always had been and made some great philosophical type claims about how, just like the alcohol and his selective muteness, people can only change so much and for so long before they revert and become who they really are.
She'd hugged him and he'd said "turn your pelvis" out loud, in time with doing it, something she was fairly sure he wasn't aware he was actually saying outside of his head. She let go with little effort.
With the fireworks breaking overhead two days later, on the fourth, she'd kissed Leonard on the cheek and told him that they there were becoming people who they didn't like and didn't like each other. They remained friends, in that awkward, stumbling sort of way – raw for the first year or so, but better with the passing of time.
When Penny was twenty-seven Leonard moved out of 4A.
There were a variety of reasons given. It was time for a change. There was a woman he was sort of seeing. He wanted to be closer to CalTech. He was weeks away from having a psychotic break if Sheldon gave one more lecture about the proper ordering of the medicine cabinet or how to correctly eat his food.
It was never about her, he made sure to say, on more than one occasion. By then, there had been so much distance between the people they were when they were dating and the people they were now that the thought hadn't even occurred to her. If it had been about her, he would've been gone years ago.
So Leonard moved out and Sheldon stayed behind. There were reasons for that one too. His income had increased in the past few years and so a roommate was no longer necessary. He quite liked living on his own. He preferred to avoid that many changes in his surroundings. The apartment was situated close enough to work but also close enough to his other frequented places like the comic book store and the various restaurants they all ordered in from (because quite often they still did dinner in that apartment, because he was still there and so was she – they still had the majority, even if it was slim).
He never bothered to say whether or not it had anything to do with her at all.
Sheldon learned to drive at a speed that was faster than ten miles per hour a month after Leonard moved out, when she decided that there was no way she was taking him to and fro for the foreseeable future, and as such had tried to gently ease him into driving every now and then.
She's pretty sure there were two near-fatal accidents that occurred between the first time she attempted this and the first time she watched him drive himself to work all by himself a few months later. There had been a sense of pride that had tugged at her heart that day.
Still, on her days off when her mornings are free and he's been especially nice to her, she drives him to work. He doesn't like to drive – it still scares him in a way that she can clearly see from the tension that works its way through his body whenever he has to – and she doesn't mind it so much these days. In the evenings, he catches a ride back with Raj.
Today's going to be one of those days, she decides, after the coffee and the early morning shell-shock. She pulls on a hoodie, puts her coffee in a travel mug, and walks back into Sheldon's apartment with her keys in hand. The presence of them dangling off her finger alerts Sheldon to this morning's routine.
"I see," he replies, out of his matching robe-pajamas combo by now and in clothes that, well, still resemble a colorblind four year olds wardrobe, but, clothes. His jacket is gently laid against the arm of the couch and he's doing something to the contents of his messenger bag. Sensing that whatever it was would take more than a minute, she collapses on the couch, her back up against his jacket. He notices. His lips twitch but he manages to bite back whatever it is that he wants to say in favor of, "Leonard has asked me to inquire as to your whereabouts this coming Thursday."
This coming Thursday is a week from now. It's also her birthday. She connects that fairly deftly and she'd say so if Sheldon wasn't giving her this look like he was fifteen steps ahead of her. He overestimated his ability to be sneaky. "I have the day off from work but I've got an audition at three." And then, for good measure, she asks, "Why?"
He manages to look put-off enough. "How am I supposed to know what drives Leonard to ask these things? He merely asked me to relay the question back, though I can't imagine how he couldn't find the time to do so himself. It isn't as if he's days away from making some groundbreaking findings."
The shot at Leonard is, at least, genuine, though definitely over the top. She doesn't push it further. "Well then tell him I'm free after five."
And because Sheldon remembers everything that's said, in exactly the manner it's said, he doesn't bother to write that down. "He would also like to know if you would mind the presence of – "
"I don't mind," she cuts him off, even though she knows he hates that, and crosses her arms over her chest like a petulant child. He's talking about Leonard's girlfriend. The one Leonard never brings around and talks about like he's walking on eggshells. Like she's going to flip out. Like it even bothers her. It doesn't. At all. She might even be happy for him. What bothers her is that everyone assumes that it's going to bother her. Penny doesn't want it to always be that way every time he has a girlfriend or every time she has a boyfriend.
Too much time has passed for that crap.
Sheldon's giving her a raised eyebrow. When she sits up straight, it dislodges his jacket so that it's some crumpled approximation of the neat fold that it was before she came in contact with it, and he notices that too. "What?"
"For someone who claims that they don't mind, you appear to be quite uncomfortable with this particular topic." He says, after a moment has passed and he's finished studying her. She'd ask him how he came up with that emotion but he'd mention things like the way her whole body tensed (it had) or the slight narrowing of her eyes, the setting of her jaw. He can name correctly several more basic emotions than he used to, even if he can't quite understand why they're being felt.
"Not for the reasons you're thinking, Sheldon." She speaks before thinking that reply through and he balks.
"Now how could you possibly know what I'm thinking? That assumption is rather prone to be erroneous."
He's right, she thinks. She doesn't have a clue what he thinks about anything anymore. She thought she did once but now she's not so sure. Now she feels a bit like she's trying to find her way in the dark and the battery in her flashlight is running low.
The drive to CalTech is quieter than it usually is.
Leonard calls right before she's about to go into work, to tell her that he's working late and he's fairly sure Raj and Howard are flaking in order to go hit on unsuspecting women at some club.
She calls Sheldon's cell on the way to the car, gets no answer, and then leaves a message in his office to let him know that she was free, even if they weren't, so he'd still have company for dinner. She didn't bother asking if he wanted company; he didn't bother returning her call.
There was Thai food waiting for her when she got home, and she dropped her stuff off in her apartment and settled on the couch with her dinner, seat opposite of his but with her legs drawn up and her feet on the middle cushion. As long as she left him his cushion on his side of the couch, he didn't much care what she did.
"You know you should really go out with them every now and then," she says between forkfuls. He's watching some DVR-ed documentary that he corrects every now and then but it's clearly not all that captivating since he doesn't pause it every time her comments require a reply. Later, he'll check his email and do a few work-related things while she watches Project Runway and distracts him during all the commercials. It's the way she unwinds on nights where it's just them; the shows change but the routine doesn't; it's just not only his routine now.
"I'm not entirely sure which 'them' is in question," he replies. His eyes are still more or less focused between his food and the television, and she understands that to mean she hasn't piqued his interest yet. He looks right at her when he's really listening; he looks at her like there's no one and nothing else in the room, and the intensity of his gaze makes her nervous in a way that seems completely unreasonable.
"Howard and Raj." He glances her way, blinks once, like he's going to need more elaboration than that. "You know, the whole meeting people thing? You should go and do that every now and then."
"No thank you." He says, like he's declining her offer to pass the salt. In fact, she's heard more feeling in his voice in reaction to that.
"Sheldon," she starts.
This he is prepared for. "As I do not have the constant need for companionship and socialization that you appear to, nor the need to befriend and achieve coitus with various strange women like Wolowitz and, apparently, Koothrappali do, I find myself quite content with my current level of human interaction."
"You're fine with the four of us?" He gives a quick nod. Without fully intending to, she starts feeling him out on the thing that's been bugging her since this morning. "You don't think maybe meeting, I don't know, a woman might be a good idea. Break up all the testosterone."
"I have already integrated a woman in my circle of friends." She raises an eyebrow in his direction. "You, obviously, though I thought that went without saying."
"Yeah but don't you ever think about, I don't know, finding a woman to," she doesn't want to say date, wants to be more subtle with her line of questioning, and she struggles to find wording that he might understand, "satisfy your needs in other ways that your normal everyday friend doesn't."
He frowns. And he is looking at her now, albeit very oddly. "I currently have no needs that warranted further satisfying. Furthermore, I'm not sure I understand why this has become a topic of conversation." He pauses, shifts his attention back to the television for half a second before something like understanding, which usually means he in fact completely misunderstood her, crosses over his features. "I can however assure you that I am not looking for a replacement for you, if that's what you're asking. I find your companionship to be acceptable and occasionally enjoyable."
He missed the point. Then again, maybe he didn't. "Even if I don't understand half of the things that you're saying?"
"Penny, if that truly was a deterrent then you would not currently be sitting in my apartment, talking through the same documentary I attempted to watch last week – "
"I thought it looked familiar!"
"As I was saying, attempted to watch last week and was interrupted, also by you, which is a behavior that appears to be repeating."
It's her turn to frown at him. He's saying that he wouldn't do this for Jane Doe off the street, leaving her with several various ways to interpret the why behind that. Penny wishes that she just didn't care enough to bother, but she does. She tries for the fake cheer and over-enthusiasm of less serious conversations. "So you're saying I get special privileges?"
He puts the documentary on pause. Finally. "No. What I'm saying is that you observe enough of my routines that I allow very limited leeway on more trivial matters." She feels a smile play at her lips, for whatever reason. "And again might I ask why we're having this conversation?"
She's pushed enough tonight that she can say "no reason" without a tinge of regret. He looks at her for a moment more, waiting for her to retract her statement, but when nothing comes he presses play again and shifts them back into normalcy, into the safety of routine.
On Friday, she doesn't see Sheldon at all.
She wakes after she knows he's already gone and leaves for work before he's back. When she gets off that night, one of her co-workers, Carla, is talking drinks with a side of possible dancing, and Penny ignores the fact that she's tired from being on her feet for the better part of the day and goes. She changes into the clothes she's started keeping in her car for nights like these in the Cheesecake Factory bathroom, leaves out the back, and meets up with her co-workers twenty minutes later.
It's after one in the morning when she stumbles back with tall, dark and hopefully handsome (she's withholding judgment until the alcohol has worn off). Carla had all but shoved him her way before she left with his friend and he was nice enough. She liked that she didn't tower over him in her heels. He appeared to like her ass, from the way he kept staring.
He presses her into her closed front door when they get inside, kissing her in the sort of way that clearly states his intentions, and when he pulls back she tells him that she'll be right back and heads into her bedroom in an attempt to clear off the mess of clothing on her bed from this morning.
When she comes back, an incredibly short time later, he's passed out drunk on her couch, and she figures it's just as well.
She thinks she hears a noise outside her door, for a moment, as she's standing in the doorway trying to decide whether or not to just leave him there, but by the time she's turned on her heel and headed to bed she's managed to convince herself that it was nothing at all.
Saturday morning, she hands tall, dark and actually handsome coffee, and manages to learn and remember his name, which is Greg.
Penny thinks that she might have met him before, somewhere, but can't place him. She doesn't ask either.
He leaves before the awkwardness can truly begin, out the door by nine-thirty, and not long after that she pulls herself together enough to consider leaving her apartment. She replaced the coffee on Thursday but now she finds herself in need of shampoo which means a trip to the grocery store is not only inevitable but also fairly urgent.
The mistake comes in the form of the quick knock on the door to 4A, a second's warning before she opens the door open, standing there rather unceremoniously as she coils her hair in a messy bun without the aid of a mirror. Sheldon's at his computer. She leans her hip against the doorway and says, "I'm going to the store. Do you need anything while you're there?"
"No. But thank you for asking." He replies. Usually there's a hint of a smile at the corner of his lips, almost like he's proud of himself for remembering to add that last part. It's absent now and she finds herself waiting a few seconds for it to appear, watching his face, slightly tinted blue from the reflection of the computer screen.
It doesn't. She straightens. "Okay. I'll see you later."
The door is closing behind her when he asks, "I assume your visitor is gone for the day?"
It's not an unusual question. Every time she has a new boyfriend, a new fling, a new one night stand, he asks. It affects him, somehow, in a similar way to when Leonard would have a new girlfriend. It's not the same – she's not his roommate, just his neighbor – but she's the one he spends the most time with and so if her time is about to be split or cause him any sort of inconvenience he likes to know about it. Part of her plays it off as a simple inquiry into her life, his makeshift small talk, because it makes her feel better and him look better.
The unusual thing here is found in the context. She notices the difference because she noticed the noise outside of her door last night. She notices the difference because she notices the lack of that smile moments ago. She notices the difference because she's done her share of cataloguing his expressions and his mannerisms just like he's done with her.
It's all in the name of understanding. She may be the socially adept one here but that doesn't make him one tough cookie to crack; he may be the genius but that doesn't mean he's not immune to flaws and areas of insufficient data and knowledge.
When he asks, there's something that strikes her as undeniably wrong with his tone and she can't put her finger on just what.
"Yeah," she says, keeps her eyes on him. Nothing changes in his expression. She rewrites history and keeps on trying to gauge a reaction. "He was drunk and I let him crash at my place."
"Well that was very generous of you, if ill-advised." He looks away then, sharply, shifting his focus back to the screen; his level of interest gone from sixty to zero now, reversed. She stays in the doorway, feeling like the conversation is unfinished despite the fact that he seems to be done with it. He verbalizes that seconds later with, "I thought you said you were going to the store."
"Yeah," she confirms, holding his gaze. Penny wants him to say something more on the matter, to ask her questions, to admit that something is off here and that he feels it too. She's confused and she wants to go back to the day before she had her little coffee-fueled revelation of sorts. But he doesn't say anything and he'll probably never say anything and so she shakes her head and says, "yeah" once more.
She closes the door with slightly more force than necessary. She hopes he notices that. She hopes he finds that somewhere in his catalogue of her emotions and behaviors, under frustration and irrational anger. She hopes he notices that something's wrong and she feels like her universe is half-cocked right now.
Penny just doesn't fully believe that he can see outside of himself far enough to notice, and even if he did she isn't sure he's come far enough to understand why.
It occurs to her, at some point in the day, that not showing up to do her laundry at exactly eight-fifteen might strike him as enough of a departure from the norm to get him at her door and asking.
Except she's got clothes to wash, lots of them, and it's become just as instinctual for her as it is for him. She entertains the idea yet finds herself on the stairs with a basket full of dirty laundry at eight-eleven and she figures it would be far too risky and stupid to turn around now, taking a chance that she'd just run into him outside of her apartment and have to come up with some half-ass explanation.
So she throws her stuff into two of the washers, separating better than she used to thanks to constant nagging from him, and sits on top of a third with the script for her audition on Thursday. It's a long shot but she wants to do her best, even with limited material. It's a few lines, nothing spectacular and relying on her personality and enthusiasm hasn't really gotten her very far as of yet.
He's there at eight-fifteen on the dot; two minutes late according to her watch which is two minutes fast anyway if you ask him.
"Hello, Penny," he says, the same way he always does, depositing his pre-separated piles of clothes into the same washers they always go into. She spies his dryer sheets and realizes that she forgot her own. Then she sees him looking at her and realizes she never returned the greeting.
"Hey yourself," she replies, trying for nonchalant but failing due to that too-long pause. "You're late," she adds, for lack of anything else. They've been over this before.
"I'm never late," he bristles, at the same time as he walks towards her, or technically in her general direction.
She's sitting on the washer next to the one that he does his brights in, which, let's face it, is most of his wardrobe. Up until now she's been dangling her flip-flop covered feet, kicking them back and forth ever so slightly, and she doesn't stop until she feels her foot collide with his pants-leg, the muscle and bone underneath it. He does not jolt; his hand remains perfectly steady as he pours detergent into the clear plastic cup and dumps it into the washer machine. She sighs.
"I feel the need to apologize for my behavior this morning," he starts, only after he's closed the lid on the machine, screwing the cap back on the detergent. "As my morning was not off to a good start I'm sure you found my tone unpleasant and my level of patience even less than normal."
Yeah, she'd noticed. She leans forward, imperceptibly, hoping that this meant he had sensed her frustration this morning. Maybe she hadn't given him enough credit.
"However, I promise you that it had nothing at all to do with you. Unless you somehow control laser usage at CalTech. And I highly doubt that you do."
Then again, maybe she'd given him too much. The change in tone, the lack of a smile, all of it was unrelated. She'd probably imagined that noise outside of her door. Her late night visitor hadn't fazed him at all and it wasn't a direct annoyance to him because he didn't have any feelings towards her in that way.
And she was just a fool who read too much into the presence of coffee in his apartment.
She pulls her foot back, abruptly, so that no part of her is touching him, and then looks away.
(It's important to note here that, if she was looking, she would've seen him flinch at the loss. But she wasn't and she didn't.)
The next morning she calls Leonard on impulse.
She needs something else to obsess over, something else to solve, and his number is up.
"We're doing dinner tonight right?" She starts, without a preface. It isn't too early and there's no noise on the other end; she probably isn't catching him in the middle of something.
"Yeah," Leonard drags the word out, like he knows this isn't just her calling to check and make sure. She has Sheldon for that, after all.
"So I was thinking since Howard and Raj are ditching us," she in fact has no idea what Howard and Raj are doing, just that they won't be able to make it – for all she knows they're having dinner with Howard's mother (somewhat likely), or engaging in a particularly unfortunate threesome (highly unlikely) – "maybe you should bring Michelle."
He starts to protest. She already expects this. "I don't know if that's such a good – "
"Leonard." Penny effectively silences him with just his name. "Bring her. Don't you think it'll be a little weird if she shows up at my birthday and I've only ever met her once?"
"Well, technically you've met her twice." She waits for him to catch up with the full weight of her sentence, after she realizes what she's gone and screwed up. "Remember, we were at the – hey, how do you know she's going to show up at your birthday? How do you know there's going to be anything to show up to?"
"Because you told Sheldon and he's really shitty at subtlety and secret keeping." All of it's the truth. She highly doubts Sheldon was specifically told to inquire about whether or not having Leonard's girlfriend there would bother her; instead she's fairly sure Leonard directed him to feel her out on the subject and he didn't understand how that was different from actually asking. "It's not a big deal. I think it's sweet."
"Yeah, well," her words make him stumble over his own like always, easily turning him into the same unconfident geek with his hands shoved into his pockets that he was the day she first met him. "I just thought since you were big on birthdays that maybe it would be a good idea. It just works better if it was surprised."
"I can pretend to be surprised." After all, she is an actress. Or at least she's trying to be.
"You may not have to act." He sounds happy all of a sudden, like he just realized that he might still have tricks left up his sleeve. "You don't know what we've got planned."
She smiles, soft, even if he can't see it. "Whatever you say. Just…bring her tonight. It'll be nice and we might as well get her as used to Sheldon as possible. The shock wears off after the first five times or so; might as well get that over with."
"Okay. I'll see you tonight."
She hangs up and lets herself in across the hall.
Sheldon takes one look at her as she enters, then nods. "As I sense we're about to get into a discussion regarding social conventions and my not following them, as you so often like to, might I suggest that you are currently in the habit of regularly violating one." Penny stares at him. Quickly, he clarifies, "I believe it's called knocking."
There's a beat before she throws a half-hearted "right" his way, like she's actually about to start doing that again. Some days she knocks, some days she doesn't. It's mood, and topic, dependent. "So I talked to Leonard about tonight and he's bringing Michelle with him."
He sits there and waits for her to continue. When she doesn't, he prompts, "I'm not sure what part of that statement I'm supposed to reply to or in what form."
"A nice 'okay' would work."
She rolls her eyes. "I'm just giving you a heads up so that maybe you'll refrain from, you know, nagging her incessantly about how she chooses to eat her food or mock her when she doesn't get some comic book reference."
"Actually, Michelle is quite competent in regards to the latter."
Well, that's one thing working in the favor of her and Leonard having some sort of successful relationship. She's also an astrophysicist. So there's that. Penny straightens a little and rests one hand on the doorknob. "Great. Anyways, I'll see you later."
"Promptly at seven."
Her smile is tight. She knows. "Promptly at seven."
As it turns out, Michelle is pretty good company.
She's smart without being socially stunted, can keep up with the boys without being alienating, and still manages to ask Penny where she got the cute little flats she's wearing.
There's also the small matter of her helping Penny clean the few dishes that they actually used, to let Sheldon and Leonard continue their rapidly escalating discussion, and Penny smiles and gratefully accepts the help and says, "You two are good together."
"You think?" It's an honest question, not sarcasm.
"Yeah, I do."
Michelle's drying a dish a few moments later when she picks the conversation back up again. "He's been nervous since he picked me up tonight. So I guess you guys used to date."
Her jaw drops a little at how quickly Michelle had deduced that, and she instantly goes on the defensive, "Yeah, years ago I mean, but it's nothing."
The other woman is quick to cut her off. "Hey. No. That wasn't jealousy talking. I just…that's why he was nervous and that's why he's never brought me with him before. It makes sense now."
She almost believes her. She wants to believe her. It would make things a lot more comfortable. "That really doesn't bother you?"
Michelle shrugs. "I work with my ex. I know how it is. You shouldn't be faulted for who you dated five years ago."
From out of the corner of her eye, she watches Sheldon shake his head, making some complicated gesture that he seemed to be using to describe something. Whatever he was saying, she wasn't processing it above the sound of the running water, but Leonard was, trying and failing to speak and getting cut off at every turn. Just like old times. Abruptly, she asks, "Does Leonard know that?"
Brushing a few strands of auburn hair that had fallen in her face with the hand that wasn't damp from the dishes, Michelle gave her a sheepish smile. "No. Does Leonard know that his ex-girlfriend might have a thing for his ex-roommate?"
There's no convincing argument as to why she should refute that. It's a fact. She might. And Michelle doesn't seem like the kind of woman who's going to run off and tell Leonard the minute they get in the car to leave. So she owns up to it. "No."
"See, there's a lot of things Leonard doesn't know. And I'm guessing the same thing goes for Sheldon." She sets the glass she's been drying upside down on a towel and it occurs to her that Sheldon hasn't done much in the way of lecturing this woman. She's adaptable; a lot like Penny in a way, even if she's also super smart. "That's why they have us."
After that, Penny's fairly sure that her and Michelle are going to get along fabulously.
First there is a click. A door closing, settling into place.
There's a five second delay while she registers what's wrong with that, and then she bolts upright in place, a place that happens to be Sheldon's couch. And there is light coming in from the windows.
The note on the coffee table in front of her so helpfully fills in the rest of the blanks:
You fell asleep here last night which is why you will most likely experience some sense of disorientation upon waking up. Please remember to lock the door upon your departure.
Her shoes are lined up against the far side of the couch and a blanket's been tucked around her at some point in the night. It's smells clean, like detergent and dryer sheets, and it's warm from her body heat. She levels her gaze at the clock in the kitchen, registers that the click of the door was simply Sheldon leaving for work, and decides that she really doesn't feel like traipsing across the hall and crawling into her own bed which is most likely cold. Plus she'd probably be more awake by the time she got there.
She throws the blanket back over herself, settles back into the couch, and closes her eyes.
She's been to work and back again by the time he gets home.
In that same span of time she's also managed to pick up takeout and bring it back with enough time that it'll still be hot when he walks in the door. She uses her spare key to let herself back into his apartment (it occurs to her that this is what they call co-habitation, in a way) and settles the food on the coffee table and is just trashing the bag it came in when she hears his key in the unlocked door. There's a confused noise on the other side.
"It's me Sheldon," she says, lest he think his apartment has been invaded by someone with thievery on the mind. He does have a lot of valuable entertainment equipment in here.
"Oh." The door falls open. She has his special soy sauce in her hand, five inches from the coffee table. He nods and tugs his messenger bag off. "Okay."
It should've been the same as any other weeknight when they find it's just the two of them for dinner. She's lost count of the number of those; they always go approximately the same way. It's the price of being friends with someone like Sheldon, someone who adapts so slowly it's barely noticeable that he's changing at all.
Except for tonight. Too many factors are off.
Upon hitting fast forward -- if life had a button like that -- you'd eventually land on this scene:
The remnants of takeout on the kitchen counter, half cleaned up.
Random sci-fi related show on pause, the remote control either buried in a couch cushion or under something on the coffee table.
Her cell phone, blinking with a missed call.
Penny with a knee swung over Sheldon's legs, straddling him with a hand on his arm, the other resting on his shoulder, steadying herself. He's got a hand resting behind her knee, grip firm and confident even if the rest of him appears to be anything but.
There are a lot of things that Penny doesn't know the answer to right now, but there is one thing that she undoubtedly does know: he is not unprepared for this. This has crossed his mind. She can tell from the way his lips fit against hers after a second delay; she'd seen him be kissed before -- and not just with Leonard's mother – seen him stand like a wall, rigid and too stunned to break away, to know whether this was okay or not.
He may have been startled but he wasn't stunned and he seemed to classify it under 'okay' fairly quickly.
The precursor to this moment, the conversation leading up to it, is fairly irrelevant. It wasn't an epic talk about feelings, or talking about feelings in metaphors that he probably wouldn't have understood. It wasn't about them at all. It was about the aftermath of paintball three weeks ago, about a shirt she'd ruined and the argument in the car on the way back home. His lips had been moving a mile a minute and she'd found her eyes glued there. It would be so easy to just lean in and stop all the wondering and the worrying – to just get it out of the way and into the open.
So she did. She kissed him and, like in all good fairytales, he'd kissed her back after a not too-long interval of time.
Which is how she ended up here.
"Okay," she breathes out, the silence grating on her with each passing moment. All she can hear is his breathing, slow and steady, unlike her own, which has become erratic. She wants to lean forward, press her forehead to his and let that sound and the solid feel of him beneath her lull her but she feels like he might panic, like that might be too much. The last thing she needs is deer-in-headlights Sheldon rushing off into his room and leaving her on her own with these swirling thoughts.
"I'm sorry; I'm unclear as to whether you mean that in the context of measuring my performance moments ago, or if you are simply stating your current feelings and/or emotional state." He says, when she hasn't elaborated further. Like she said, the statement wasn't exactly referring to anything specific. Trust Sheldon to analyze everything, even in moments such as these.
"It's neither," she replies. He keeps right on staring at her and she thinks she should feel more awkward than she does, with his eyes scrutinizing her like this, right up close and personal, and – this is Sheldon, Sheldon, the guy she's lived next door to for more years than she can count on one hand, her ex-boyfriend's roommate, the all-around geekiest guy she knows, with a complete lack of social skills and extensive knowledge of everything in the world but the kinds of things you can find in the tabloids or around the proverbial watercooler.
She's been thinking about this and him just about non-stop since Thursday morning and yet this is the first time it's really hitting her that she doesn't have a damn idea what she's getting herself into. Not with a man who's never, to her knowledge, been in any sort of substantive relationship. Not with a man who's ever expressed any definitive feelings other than friendship to her and yet seems anything but disturbed by this turn of events. Not with a man who approaches everything he does with an absolute drive for perfection.
It terrifies her.
His brows knit together, a frown. "Then why – "
"Sheldon," she starts, just to get him off of that particular line of questioning. There's a lot of things she'd like to ask him right now and all of them are variations that begin with the word 'why' so she has trouble deciding which one to go with, if she goes with any of them at all. It's not too late to just get up and leave, a little voice in her head keeps reminding her.
"Penny," he replies, mimicking the inflection she used on his own name.
Out with it, she thinks, and brings up the part of a days old conversation that's been bugging her. "You said you 'had no needs that warranted further satisfying'."
"Yes, I believe I did. I'm not sure how that's relevant."
"You changed." She's thinking on her feet and not doing the worst job of it ever. There's still a lot of room for improvement if she ever hopes that he'll be able to follow her. "You adapted or…whatever. There was coffee except you don't drink coffee and then – you hate change and yet I kiss you and you're acting like you've had this factored into the equation already. Like this isn't entirely out of your realm of possibilities."
"Very few things can be considered impossible Penny. Improbable perhaps but – "
She kisses him, to see if she can find that rhythm again, and she thinks she feels his pulse quicken under her fingertips that have fallen against his wrist. He's not entirely unshaken by this and it's a small comfort to her. The hand on his shoulder moves, wraps around his neck and pulls herself closer. She likes the way his kisses are precise, like following a series of memorized instructions, yet it differs already from minutes ago, like maybe he's learning. He's a fast learner with everything else.
His hand hovers by the small of her back before finally settling there, and she knows he's questioning hand placement by the awkwardness of his movements. That's okay because that's expected; Penny's discovering she's become a little bit change resistant too, made nervous by the way his actions have so far differentiated from the norm.
When she pulls back, he does not let go.
When she pulls back, it is her who reacts to the ringing of her phone once more, says, "I should get that," ducking her head and, with a graze of her fingers against his cheek, disentangles herself from him and answers her damn phone.
It's Greg. The guy she came home with on Friday, though it takes her too long to remember that. He wants to know if she wants to go out sometime.
Sheldon's frozen on the couch, not yet settled back into reality as they usually know it, and he isn't looking at her at all.
She tells him she's busy. And then she walks out of the apartment and nearly collapses against her door as it closes behind her, an awful fight between relief and fresh panic overtaking her.
Work consumes her Tuesday and she's almost glad for the reprieve, until she remembers that Sheldon and the boys frequent the Cheesecake Factory on Tuesdays, and there isn't a chance in hell that Sheldon will call that off, even if he felt that there was a reason for him to.
Penny wouldn't be surprised if he didn't.
That, compounded by the fact that it's going to be her table -- just like it always is because Sheldon doesn't trust anyone else, not to mention that he's far too finicky for anyone else to deal with without spitting in his food or something – makes her dread seven-thirty, the usual time that they appear.
It only makes it come faster.
"Hey," Carla jerks her head in the direction of their usual table and Penny's eyes have no trouble finding them. "Your friends are here."
Once upon a time, before Howard and Bernadette broke up, not to mention way before Howard moved out of his mother's house and into an apartment with Raj, Sheldon let himself become acclimated to the idea that Bernadette might not actually be trying to kill him and could figure out his order just as well as Penny could. It made the days Penny was busy with other tables or just wasn't there a lot easier when there was another person who could handle that table.
The last time she saw Bernadette it was almost a year ago, decisively letting the manager know that she was quitting, with a ring on her finger and a hand on her pregnant belly.
Penny is out of options.
She plasters a smile on her face and approaches their table. Leonard smiles, his immediate and possibly unconscious reaction to seeing her, and Howard and Raj squabble straight until she's standing right in front of them. Howard will make a lewd comment or say something about how great she looks, the latter well intentioned; Raj will offer a wave and a smile but words still don't come easy to him when women are involved and alcohol isn't.
Sheldon's eyes will remain affixed to the menu, mulling over the options even if they both know his order doesn't change, until she speaks; he will have noticed her long before any of the other three.
For a moment, sometime around midnight when she can't sleep and she thinks she hears the sound of the television on low across the hall, she forgets who she is and who she's dealing with, and almost raps her fist against the door.
Instead, she drags herself back into her bed and flips her pillow over, the cold side now against her cheek (these aren't nightmares, but she would very much like for this feeling to go away).
Wednesday, after work and one nearly sleepless night, she lets herself into his apartment again. She does not bring food. She does not time it so that she arrives and is ready at exactly the same time as he usually gets home.
She waits. First on the couch, except she can't figure out where to sit and starts to think that maybe she wants to be standing for this conversation, to take charge. The chair feels too confrontational, like it separates her from him. Going into any of the other rooms is useless. Going into his bedroom would probably terrify him and is also pointless. She ends up pacing, leaning against the kitchen counter while she tries to convince herself that she should stay here and not cop out and run across the hall and just forget all about it, when she hears his key in the door.
It's not locked. He notices this fairly quickly, an audible sigh before the door is even open. She pushes up with her arms and ends up sitting on his kitchen counter, all at once deciding that's where she'll be staying for the duration of this. Her feet dangle.
"Penny," he says as the door's opening, before he can conceivably see her. He doesn't need to see her. Of course, when he actually does, he regards her with concern and slight annoyance. "You are aware you are currently sitting where I prepare my food."
"You prepare your food by calling for takeout," she replies, aware that it's only mostly true for dinner, because there are pans and various other cooking instruments and she's seen them used before. It's really only a matter of time before he jumps in to correct her so she shrugs and says, with no amount of seriousness, "So move me."
He won't. Although every now and then, when she's taken his spot and he's grown tired of telling her not to, he gets this look like he's contemplating whether physically relocating her would be worth the trouble. Today won't be the day he attempts this though, as he says, "Though I am often wrong in regards to the motivations behind people's actions, I do feel as if I might be on to something. Are you perhaps here to continue the conversation you chose to abort in favor of taking what sounded like a rather unimportant phone call, if your tone and the multitude of one-to-two word replies is any indication?"
Holy crap on a cracker, he got this one right. What were the odds of that? She attempts to cover up her surprise with, "Since when have I ever needed a reason to randomly be in this apartment?"
"According to your interpretations or mine?" He asks. Somewhere in here, he's divested himself of his messenger bag and his jacket. The clothes he's wearing today, though still double-layered and not color-coordinated, contain no discernable comic book related characters or references, which is a nice change of pace.
"Come here," she tells him, and her tone sounds nothing like the drugged up or drunk Penny that's said that to him in the past. In fact, to a normal guy her tone would be unmistakable. She likes that he's not a normal guy here though; she likes that he walks over to her, albeit cautiously, with fairly little idea of what she's going to do next.
When he stops about a foot in front of her, she grabs him by the wrists and pulls him closer, so that she can tilt her head up and kiss him. She finds that her position on the counter is fortunate, since it makes it so she doesn't have to stand on tiptoe in order to reach him. Her hands slip from his wrists to his back and she feels his lips start to move against hers. She sighs against his mouth, relief once more.
The idea that Sheldon's had this on the mind for some time now cements in her mind. The problem is, of course, why the change was never discernable to her at all. It's all a blur of Leonard this and Leonard that and Leonard's gone and Sheldon's door wide open if she can take the failed sarcasm and successful criticism and routine. She must have missed it amid all the chaos of the former and it worries her that this has been something going on for so long, un-acted upon. It colors things, snippets of moments and empty words on the surface, in a brand new perspective.
Upon separating she finds her hands have slipped to ball in the fabric of his t-shirt and his hands are on either side of her thighs, just barely grazing her. She craves the heat of his skin on hers, shifts so that the few millimeters of distance on one side disappears and his hand comes in full contact with the side of her jean-clad leg, and says, "You have feelings for me. And don't give me some speech about how you're a homo novus and have evolved past that or whatever."
"That's not what the term refers to," he cuts in. Trust Sheldon to pay more attention to the science and not the overall content of the conversation.
She yanks him closer, and not in a nice way like before, just close enough to know that she's really serious about this right now. "I don't care what it refers to."
"I wasn't the one who brought it up."
He turns his head away, and she thinks it's defiance first before he shifts his gaze back to her and removes his hands from both her and the counter, holding them several inches above their original spot, flat as boards. It could look like a defensive surrender signal but it isn't. It's just that he doesn't seem to know what to do with them. "Fine."
She watches him, waits for him to do something or say something, tries to see if those are wheels turning in his head or if he's just stuck, too thrown off by this huge deviation from the norm. She loosens her grip on his shirt, flattens her palms against his stomach and feels him tense underneath her touch.
"Penny," he starts, and his hands finally find a place to rest, specifically right on her thighs. His forwardness is only surprising until she feels his hands shake against her; then it's almost heartbreaking. "There is a significant difference between a person's needs and wants. For instance, though I believe many elements of the social sciences to be hokum, needs as defined by Maslow's Hierarchy have several levels, the base of which being physiological ones such as sustenance and shelter, and the height being self-actualization, a level that I believe myself to have achieved. Now, where you are concerned, you fulfill the needs level that includes friendship and a sense of belonging."
"Sheldon, I don't – "
"Let me finish. You asked me about needs two days ago and attempted to amend my previous statement which was in fact correct in the first place. I have everything I need." She's waiting for the punchline here, a little too desperately. His jaw tenses. "I do not however have everything I want. I want the Nobel Prize. I want to one day create a time machine. I've never wanted any type of relationship outside of the realm of friendship – except with you, entertaining that particular notion didn't come across as entirely uninteresting. In fact, it was just the opposite. At first the concept felt strange to me, perhaps misplaced, but my attitude of this too shall pass clearly hasn't worked."
She wets her lips, tries to take it all in. "How long have you been waiting for it to pass?"
"Three years, four months," he replies, confident of the number if not the feeling.
"What do you say next time you say what you're thinking like you do with everything else?"
"I'm not sure how exactly that would help matters."
When she kisses him this time, her fingers spread along his neck and his back and she's finally sure of what she's doing. She's finally sure he isn't going to pull away.
Penny's finally awake.
"You're not wearing that."
Sheldon's about a foot into the living room when she says it and for her trouble she gets a look like she's grown a third head. She smoothes the skirt of her dress and squares her shoulders. "Excuse me, since when do you take an interest in my wardrobe."
"Since always," she retorts, which is true. She has regularly demanded he change and he has regularly and rather resolutely ignored her entirely. The option to insist that since they're making out now he should actually listen to her now exists but she chooses not to use it; it's too early. "It's my birthday. You could at least where something that isn't blinding fluorescent green."
"And yet you have no objection to Howard's rather restrictive pants."
"I have many objections to Howard, which is not the point by the way. The point is that it's my birthday and you aren't wearing that."
He frowns. "I have participated in several of your birthday celebrations and never have you dictated my wardrobe. Furthermore, you have attempted to commemorate my birthday in one way or another over the years and I have never dictated yours."
"Sheldon," she says, her lips a tight line.
He breaks their epic staring contest before it can actually become an epic staring contest, simply by choosing not to participate and thus move on. "I take it you had your car serviced recently, as I recommended after enduring that horrible noise that is caused whenever you hit your brakes."
This is the 'check engine light' all over again. She crosses her arms. "No, I haven't."
There's a very heavy, somehow condescending sigh. "Right. So I guess I'll be forced to drive in order to ensure both my safety and your own."
"Not if I want to get there before Christmas." His mouth opens to correct her statement and probably tell her exactly how slow he'd have to drive in order to get there at Christmas, which as it stands is quite awhile away, but she speaks before he can. "If you're not changing than I'm risking our lives. Deal with it."
With that, she grabs him by the arm with one hand, grabs her keys with the other, and drags them both out of there so that they can make it to her sort-of-surprise party at Leonard's within the next fifteen minutes.
On the first flight of stairs he asks, "By the way, since I understand I should inquire about these things, how did your audition go?"
"Don't talk about the audition if you want to live."
"I don't understand how those two things are correlated. Did you have to sign some sort of confidentiality agreement that extended to – "
"I said don't talk about it."
"But I was under the impression you enjoyed talking about your acting career."
"It didn't go well Sheldon."
"Oh. That's rather unfortunate." Pause. "Are you entirely sure you wouldn't be open to at least taking my car instead of yours?"
Nothing changes. Nothing changes because everything had already changed. She just hadn't realized it.