awesome cover art by g_girl143
"It has come to my attention," Sheldon says one Thursday night, "that my behavior does not always conform to the social norm."
Penny pauses, yogurt in hand, and clears her throat. "I'm going to refrain from being, you know, me for a second and just say, what brought that up, Sweetie?"
Sheldon swirls a dishcloth around one of Penny's dinner plates, drying it in four long strokes before placing it in the cabinet and grabbing another plate from the sink. He'd decided a week ago that her apartment was a deathtrap of disease and pestilence with germs and bacteria breeding in every corner.
"And why is that any of your concern?" she'd asked.
"Well," he'd began, folding his hands in front of himself in a gesture she's come to recognize usually precedes imminent conversational domination, "since you spend an increasing amount of time around me and Leonard, I need to protect myself by making sure you don't succumb to plague."
So he'd decided that everything in her apartment, or at the very least her kitchen, needed a good scrub down, since god only knew the last time it had been sanitized. She'd protested—of course she'd protested—but in the end Sheldon coming over twice a year to wash all of her stuff hadn't seemed that bad. Freakish, yes, but not altogether unwelcome.
She dips her spoon into her yogurt and stirs and waits for him to continue. He dries another plate and sets it in the cabinet and begins, "Several senior members of the faculty—though how they can elevate themselves into positions of authority while only creating what can at best be called negligent headway into new areas of research—have intimated to me that my social life is becoming something of a problem for them."
Penny arches an eyebrow and lifts her spoon to her lips. "How is your social life any of their business?"
Sheldon nods vigorously, drying his hands and taking hold of the counter in front of him. "That was my first question as well, but I've come to realize their concerns may have merit. I am increasingly being put face to face with other members of the scientific community, mainly with the intent of, though I loathe the idea itself, getting them to agree to support me both monetarily and publicly." Off Penny's blank stare, he adds, "I want their money."
"Oh, okay," Penny says. "Continue."
"Well, those in charge of grant allotments find me, on the whole, to be off-putting." He leans back off the counter and grabs the towel and another plate. "I only know this second hand since my powers of perception with regard to human emotion are admittedly lacking. I will say, however," and here Penny notices his hands are firmer around the plate, and the sweep of the dishtowel a bit fiercer, "their remarks on my personality are not always so kind, regardless of their praise of my work."
Penny puts her yogurt down and tilts her head, watching his hands and the methodical motion back and forth against her flatware. She wonders at being the one he's chosen to come to, to confide it, and chalks it up to happenstance and convenience. Howard is away at a conference, Raj is home in India for a few weeks, and Leonard is on a date. She shakes off the fact that Leonard is on a date while she's home alone with Sheldon, and instead pushes herself off her stool and grabs a dishtowel.
"I can give you tips," she says, drying off knives and forks and throwing them in her silverware drawer. When Sheldon purses his lips and looks emphatically back and forth between her face and the cutlery, she sighs and begins to arrange it in the holder in the proper order. "I'm really good at social stuff, putting people at ease, getting people to like me. I think it's my Midwestern charm," she says, flipping her hair coyly over her shoulder, her voice light.
Sheldon snorts derisively, countering, "I'd say it's more your flirtatious personality and generically appealing body type, but what do I know about these things?"
Penny glares at him, dropping the towel and moving away, saying, "Fine, if you don't want my help, why did you even bring it up?"
Sheldon looks abashed and clears his throat. He opens his mouth to speak, but then closes it and falls silent. Penny has never seen him second guess himself, or hesitate to tell her when she's wrong, and she straightens and stares. He clasps and loosens his hands in front of his waist, and then goes to sit on the couch. He waits, hands tight between his knees, and is silent until she follows and takes a seat beside him.
When he speaks again his voice is slower, cautious, and a bit too even. She doesn't know why, but a loose knot forms in the pit of her stomach as she turns to him and listens. "I have never been particularly adept at any of those things. Putting people at ease, or getting them to like me. I had hoped the science would speak for itself, that my work would be enough to convince others of my worthiness at the top of the field, but alas, this notion has proved foolish and, it seems, naïve. There is a social component to this career that I had not expected, and for which I find myself ill-prepared."
He turns to face her and she's caught, for just a moment, at the softness in his eyes, the rare vulnerability she sees set so starkly against the blue. She does not often ask him about his childhood, but she cannot help but think that it must have been impossibly hard, a genius boy from the trailer park and the family that never understood him. She knows how hard it is get him, to take his comments and critiques softly instead of finding offense or injured pride, and she knows there have been too few people in his life that have given him the effort she and the others do. She only admits it in moments like this, but there is a weird kind of possessiveness and protectiveness she feels toward all of them, but most of all toward Sheldon, with his honest words and clueless eyes. He blinks those eyes at her, wide and blue and innocent, and she resists the urge to grab his hand.
"With that in mind—my inability to form connections with others and the negative influence it's having on my professional life, as well as your self-proclaimed prowess in these areas—I would like you to accompany me to a social function I'm required to attend next month." He looks at her expectantly, and she opens and closes her mouth.
"You want me to go to a physics thing with you?" Her voice is high when she speaks, and she knows she'd doing a bad job at hiding her surprise.
Sheldon lets out a breath, and narrows his eyes at her, voice impatient when he says, "I do believe that's what I asked, yes."
"In the middle of asking for a favor is maybe not the best time to get sassy with me, pal." Sheldon lowers his head and has the good sense to look regretful as Penny stands and crosses to the island. Her cup of yogurt is empty at this point, but she picks it up anyway and runs the spoon around the edges.
She keeps her head down and doesn't speak, and finally hears Sheldon stand. He walks slowly around her apartment, hands clasped behind his back, tone again one of study and analysis. "I believe that my social standing would benefit from your company. Regardless how inaccurate the underlying assumption, it is common for acquaintances to reflect back positively or negatively on those with whom they associate."
Penny puts her hands on her hips, but there is no anger behind it, no aggression or defiance. "And you think I'm going to reflect positively?" She has never stopped to think of herself as a model of anything to the guys, but she knows that some of the areas she excels in they have trouble with, and it's with some small measure of pride that she asks, "So I'll go as what?" She stops, toeing the rug, and then looks at Sheldon. "I'll be your date?"
Sheldon stops his slow perusal of her apartment and says, "Admittedly, I will not go out of my way to disabuse anyone of that notion." There is a quick dart up of his eyes, a half-embarrassed look that makes her squeeze her fingers tighter against her hips. She thinks of Sheldon with a date for just a moment, his eyes attentive on her face, focused on her mouth, her lips, and his hand on the small of her back as he guides her away with him, to a private, hidden spot. She thinks of all that single-minded attention focused on a woman, on her, and her breath catches for just a moment, and her resistance to the idea fades, swiftly. It is always startling when she sees that he is human, on the inside, and it is just for a moment, just for one night. "I believe association with you will portray me as a typical adult male, with quote-unquote normal social inclinations," he says, voice loud against the visions in her head of a softer, gentler man beside her.
Penny narrows her eyes, and squeezes her nails against her skin. There is a put-down in there somewhere, she is sure, and, as she so often does with Sheldon, she wills herself not to find it. "Okay. A physics department social function." She purses her lips and sighs. "Will any of the other guys be there?"
"Not to my knowledge. I'm only attending as an attempt to acquire grant money, and I don't believe the offer is applicable to either Leonard or Raj's current areas of research."
Penny sighs and frowns slightly. "Oh. Well. What do I have to wear?"
Sheldon takes a step toward her and says, "It's formal, black tie, but if you need—"
"I don't have anything to wear," Penny interrupts, eyes wide.
Sheldon puts up a hand, and continues, "I'm more than willing to pay for your attire, should it be necessary. While I won't go so far as to say 'money is no object,' I can afford you something nice, though I do ask that you keep it within reason." He turns to go, but stops with his hand on the doorknob. "I understand that women can be prone to outrageous behavior regarding the purchase of new shoes." It brings a smile to her face, and her eyes are light as she watches him try to relate, to find some common ground with which to understand her. "Do try and contain yourself."
There is a smile on her face as he pulls the door shut behind him.
She sets out to find a dress the very next day. She takes his words to heart, and there is a not-small part of her that wants to do him proud, to show the physics department geeks the kind of girl Sheldon Cooper can take home with him. She peruses sale rack after sale rack and department store after department store, one weekend stretching into the next, but to no avail. She returns home each night somewhat dejected and in quite a foul mood. It is just ten days until the reception when Sheldon opens his door just as she's about to retreat inside, and he doesn't hesitate at all to question her about her progress.
"Penny," he says, voice unnaturally light, "have you found proper attire yet?"
She breathes out hard and lowers her eyes, the same as she's done every other time he's asked her. "No, Sheldon, not yet." Her fingers tighten around the doorknob and she waits, until he speaks again.
"The function is only ten days away, you need to be prepared." The timbre of his voice rises, an urgency creeping in that Penny was expecting. "Tomorrow, please bring home several samples and I will help you decide." When she looks at him, his lips are tight, neck high. "Is that acceptable?"
Penny thinks of the dresses she's seen, of crinoline and taffeta and empire waists and plunging necklines. As much as she knows her body and its attributes, and fashions and faux-pas, she has no frame of reference for physics department formals, and lately her self-doubt is showing. She breathes out a deep, long-held sigh and says, "Yes, Sheldon, I'll bring home some dresses tomorrow."
"Good," he says, once against retreating into 4A. "You'll be over later for Halo?"
She stretches her neck out and longs for her shower and the smell of bath salts all around her. "I'll be over in a minute, you should probably get yourself prepared." There is a smile on her face she's been missing, and her eyes feel a little bit fresh.
Sheldon's eyes are narrow when she finds them, and his voice is a warning. "My mental faculties are currently preparing to decimate you."
She laughs under her breath and pushes inside. "In all fairness, you were warned," she says. She's Halo champion again, and it turns out to be a not-bad night.
But regardless of how many Halo records she set the night before, the sun sets the next day to the sound of expectant knocking on her front door. When she opens it, Sheldon is paused, hand raised to knock again and he starts in right away. "I'm here to peruse your dress selection." He shakes his head a little and Penny feels her breath quicken, already defensive. "I hope you're prepared."
She is, all her dresses are steamed and ready to model, but that's not the point. She still bristles at his assumptions, back straightening as he walks in to her apartment uninvited and takes his usual seat on her couch. "Please begin."
He's come prepared, with camera and notebook in tow, and it's only the bend of his neck as he moves to start his notes that makes her shrug off her anger and walk into her bedroom. She slips on the first dress, a strapless yellow number that's far too expensive anyway, and walks out, her breathing back to normal and head held high.
She's blinded for just a moment by the flash of Sheldon's camera, and when she shakes the light from her eyes, he's already bent over his notebook and motioning her back into her room. "I'd like to see the next one, please." He doesn't even look up as she leaves the living room, and her hands tighten just a little bit.
The next dress, a flowing blue number that sets off her skin and the blonde of her hair, Sheldon again dismisses out of hand, eyes down as he sends her back to her room. "Next?'
She pulls on the last dress as she hears Sheldon just outside her bedroom door, inquiring as to her readiness. She can see him from here, the tensed expanse of his shoulders, the frustrated lines of his face. She knows he is already tired of this exercise and it's with little patience left that she throws the door open and practically sends him crashing into her. She's wearing a one-shouldered gray dress, fitted in all the best places and hanging halfway down her calf, and she watches Sheldon eye her up and down, from neckline to peep toe, her bright red shoes standing out against her brown wood floor. For a second, she think she sees Sheldon's breath catch and his hands still for just a moment at his sides, but he is collected again when he speaks, turning away from her and saying, "I believe that dress is acceptable." There is a halting nature to his hands as he reaches for his camera, eyes glancing once more to Penny in her dress, that makes her swing her hips just so and throw her shoulders forward, head tilted down and eyes catching Sheldon's through the brightness of her hair, gathering softly around her shoulders. It is a part she's been playing well for as long as she can remember, and there's just a twinge of regret in her eyes as she sees Sheldon turn once more and look her up and down. It is with unusual candidness that he steps away from his notebook, camera left on the table. He raises his chin and meets her eyes and says, voice low, "You look lovely."
She holds his gaze and it's a brief warm moment before he turns away and gathers his things, hurrying quickly away to her front door. He's back a few days later with his tux in hand, and she studies the color and material and cut and pronounces it acceptable, though his insistence on a bowtie prevails through fifteen minutes of her ministrations before she finally relents.
When the night of the reception rolls around, it's with nervous hands and a flighty stomach that Penny dresses, buttoning buttons and putting on make-up. She blots lipstick from her mouth and wads the tissue between her fingers, grasping the hard sink tight in her hands. Regret sets her shoulders, and there's wariness in the strong lines of her arms.
"This was a mistake," she says as soon as she opens her apartment door to let Sheldon in. She turns away immediately, twisting her hands in front of her chest. "These guys are all going to be, like, you smart, and I'm going to seem like an idiot. I'm going to have nothing to talk about with anyone. What was I thinking, that I could make them like you? They aren't even going to like me!" She grasps the counter, her knuckles whitening, her back to Sheldon, and takes a deep, steadying breath.
She hears Sheldon shuffle nervously behind her. "Penny," he begins, voice composed in what she knows is an attempt at reassurance. "The reception is attended by more than just members of the physics department. There will be wives and husbands of attendees who I'm sure are also incapable of high-minded debate. I wouldn't have asked you to attend if I'd believed you would embarrass me."
She laughs mirthlessly and swallows hard. She knows it's as much comfort as she'll get from Sheldon, so she'll have to make due. She draws herself up and smoothes the lines from her face, and it's with lighter eyes and calmer breathing that she turns to face Sheldon. The first thing she notices is how nervous he looks, and anxious. His hands are tightly clasped in front of him, and his back is a straight, straight line. He draws himself up when she looks at him, and lifts a hesitant hand to straighten his already perfect bowtie. There is something universally attractive about a man in a tuxedo, and with his wide shoulders and slender hands, she finds not so surprisingly that Sheldon is no exception. She smiles up at him, walking closer to brush non-existent dust from his sleeves, and she squeezes his forearms slightly before letting go to grab her clutch and wrap.
As she reaches for the door handle, she turns at him quickly and asks, "You're sure there will be someone for me to talk to who won't think I'm a complete spaz?"
Sheldon rolls his eyes and reaches above her to pull the door the rest of the way open. "I'm certain," he says, fixing her with a pointed look. "Can we go now?"
The ride to the University is one Penny's come to know by heart, and the car is filled with Sheldon's chatter as he explains to her the different department heads she'll be introduced to, their areas of specialty and different talking points. "And Gablehauser, of course, with his new child bride—"
"Oh, sweetie, let's not call her that while we're there," Penny says. She knows this is going to be a battle, to make Sheldon seem likeable, and relatable, and normal. "How about this. If I notice you're getting a little, shall we say, aggressive or argumentative, I'll touch your arm and you can just, you know, stop talking, and maybe let me take over for a minute?"
Sheldon gives her a look, shaking his head as he says, "I do not get 'aggressive,' I merely point out certain facts that others may be uncomfortable with, though why anyone should dislike hearing the truth is beyond me."
Penny takes a deep breath and tightens her hands around the steering wheel. This is the same conversation they've been having with him for as long as she can remember, and she knows when she first arrived it was already well-tread ground. "It's just not nice sometimes, to be so honest. Just … filter. And I'll try to help, since that is the reason you brought me?"
Sheldon leans back into his seat and clenches his hands around his knees. "I suppose I'll have to submit to your social strengths."
He spends the rest of the drive filling her in on the donors he's supposed to schmooze, the real reason he asked her to come with him. They're thinking about donating big money, and are interested in his research and excited to meet him, he says. For a second he seems nervous at the prospect of their decision resting on his ability to charm, but then Penny watches him brighten at the idea of new research money, and he's listing experiments he hopes to do until they pull into the parking lot.
It's a warm night and Penny's wrap hangs loose around her elbows as she steps from the car. Sheldon falls into step beside her, finally quiet as they walk across the campus toward the physics building, an impressive glass building on the far end of the quad.
Penny breaks the silence between them, her voice playful and light as they approach the physics building. "Now, as your date"—Sheldon shoots her a quick look out of the corner of his eye, and she swears she sees his jaw tense—"you'll have to be nice to me, and get me something to drink, and hold my purse when I ask you to."
"That seems hardly necessary," Sheldon says, reaching around her to open the door. When she's passed through, he falls into step behind her. "You're more than capable of holding your own purse and I don't see why—"
"Non-optional social convention, Sheldon." Penny pauses just inside the foyer doors, small tables set up around the edges and a large bar across the room. She can see others filing in past them, and a large number of guests already with champagne glasses in hand and the welcome ripple of chatter filling the room. They don't look so intimidating from here, even if they are geniuses, she decides. She feels a little lighter, more confident: she has a trick or two up her sleeve.
As she moves to step inside, Sheldon raises a finger for her to wait, and says, "I apologize in advance for your natural exclusion from certain topics of conversation pertaining to my research or the research of others. If at any point you feel overwhelmed by the scientific nature of the conversation, I'm sure there will be refreshments, and the company of the other guests' significant others."
Penny quirks her eyebrow. "Significant others?" There's a smile on her lips that deepens as Sheldon narrows his eyes.
"I hope I don't regret this," he says. His drawl thickens when he's angry, she notices, and as she moves forward into the room, Sheldon raises his arm beside her, his elbow thrust out awkwardly.
It's a long moment before she realizes he means for her to take it, and her fingers are hesitant as they slide around his arm and she leans just so against him. She feels him straighten beside her, and she realizes he's steeling himself, preparing for the oncoming inundation of conversation. She tightens her arm around his, reassuring him with her touch, and she speaks under her breath as she urges him on. "Hop to it, soldier." He swallows hard as he looks at her, and she whispers, "You'll be fine."
And he is, for the most part. He uses big words she doesn't understand and the conversation is dry and deadly boring most of the time, but she follows along well enough to know he's not overtly insulting anyone. Surprisingly enough, he actually attempts to include her from time to time, standing on the edges of the room and pointing out his colleagues and their dates.
"And that's Dr. Reed," Sheldon's saying, "from the astrophysics department. Not much of a brain, but he's affable enough, I suppose." He's standing mostly behind her as she nurses her glass of champagne, and he points over her shoulder as he puts faces to the names he's told her about. With every few breaths, he sways forward and brushes her shoulder blades with the breadth of his chest, and between his body warm against her and the fizz of her drink, a pleasant buzz sets into her fingers and she finds she's actually enjoying herself.
"I think I've got it," Penny says. "Dr. Pratt and his wife Louise, Dr. Meyers and her husband Carl, Dr. Schwartz and his partner Dominic, and Dr. Reed, who keeps looking at that redhead at the bar." She smiles into her glass as Sheldon cranes his neck to find the woman, trim but a little matronly and holding a glass of red wine.
"Oh, that's Dean Simpson," Sheldon says, a note of conspiracy in his voice. "I'm not usually interested in office politics and entanglements, but I will admit my interest is slightly piqued."
They pass a few minutes this way, observing the party, and Penny is surprised to find Sheldon is not bad company. He grins out half a smile at most of her jokes, and seems to relax until he suddenly straightens up and sucks in a breath. "There are the donors," he says, voice tensed. Penny follows his gaze to see an austere-looking older couple in the center of the room, being set upon by Dr. Gablehauser and his—well, Sheldon wasn't far off when he said 'child bride,' since the blonde on his arm looks young enough to be his daughter.
"Oo," Penny says, straightening up and smoothing the lines of her dress, "do you want to go over and say hello?"
Sheldon tightens his fingers against his glass of champagne, setting it down on the table near them as he says, "I do not in any way desire to grovel before them for a hand-out, no, but it seems to be required of me."
He moves to step away toward the donors, but she grabs him by the arm and lifts her hand to straighten his bowtie, her fingers light against the fabric. He raises his chin and she feels his Adam's apple bob up and down, and her voice is hushed when she speaks. "You go over and introduce yourself, strike up a conversation, talk about your research. Be nice." She smoothes the front of his jacket and continues, "I'll be over in a second after you get a chance to, you know, settle in. Or before that, if I hear raised voices." She turns Sheldon toward the center of the room, her hands firm at his elbows. "If you need me before that, just give me a nod. Now go get 'em, Tiger."
She gives him a light push toward the donors, and he glances back briefly before straightening up and heading across the room. She drains her glass as she watches him introduce himself, his handshake firm and smile mostly not-creepy, and she grabs another glass from a passing waiter as she turns her attention to the rest of the room.
Most everyone is older than she is, and older than Sheldon. They stand in tight circles, talking with their hands about n-waves and dwarf stars and other things she doesn't understand. She can tell, just by looking at them, that they're crazy smart, just like the boys. And she can recognize their husbands and wives, too, just by sight: they have the same glazed-over expression she knows she's worn for at least half the night.
Over near the bar she sees a group of women who are definitely not talking about n-waves or dwarf stars but are, she's almost positive, talking about her. Penny instinctively sucks in her stomach and pulls back her shoulders, and watches out of the corner of her eye as they gesture toward her with their champagne glasses, their eyes narrowed and lips whispering quickly into each others' ears. Never one to leave well enough alone or back down from an insult, Penny lifts her chin and crosses to the bar, settling onto a stool far enough away from the group to eavesdrop surreptitiously. Penny leans her elbows against the wood and looks back over her shoulder toward Sheldon, who seems to be holding his own with the donors. No one's yelling or looking offended, at any rate, so Penny focuses back on the bar in front of her and strains to hear the words of the women near the end.
"—not her type, no way," one is saying, a tall brunette tapping her toes impatiently against the floor.
"We don't know that," another shorter brunette replies. "Though I still can't see it." She crosses her arms in front of her chest and lowers her voice enough that Penny has to strain to hear, "There's no way a woman like that is dating Dr. Freeze. No one with options would willingly put up with that egotistical, superior, dull as hell jackass."
Penny does her best to control her features, only her hands betraying her as they tighten around her glass of champagne. She was wrong: they're not insulting her—they're insulting Sheldon.
A third woman, dark blonde this time, chimes in, saying, "Maybe he paid her. She has that trashy, bought-and-paid-for look about her. And I wouldn't put it past Dr. Cooper to satisfy his needs that way. No muss, no fuss, just leave the money on the nightstand when you slip into the shower."
Penny looks down at the bar and fights unsuccessfully to school her features. She feels her breathing come quicker and knows an angry red has settled into her cheeks. She turns quickly and shoots the three women as angry a look as she can muster, and their chuckles are instantly silenced. A fierce sense of indignation settles itself into her chest, on her own behalf, and Sheldon's. It's only respect for Sheldon and his attempts at grant money that keep her from marching over and giving them a piece of her mind.
She stands and spins on her heel, heading straight for Sheldon. She slows her steps as she approaches and presses a hand to her stomach, willing her breathing to slow and the tightness to leave her arms and hands. She settles into herself just as she comes up behind Sheldon, who's talking about quantum something or other, and she notices the donors' eyes have that familiar, dead expression she knows so well. This is why he brought her, she knows.
"Sweetie?" she says, laying a hand gently on his arm. Sheldon starts at her touch, but doesn't pull away, and she gives him a small smile as she turns back to the donors, their eyes more focused and interested already. Penny clears her throat sweetly and looks back and forth between Sheldon and the donors, who smile fondly at her.
It takes just a moment for Sheldon to catch on, and when he does he takes a small step toward Penny and says, "Oh! Yes. Dr. and Mrs. Steinbrenner, this is Penny. Penny, Francis and Howard Steinbrenner."
Penny puts on her brightest smile and feels the last pangs of anger calm down as she reaches for their hands. "It's so nice to meet you," she says, voice full of sugar and warmth. No matter what anyone else thinks of him, she knows who Sheldon Cooper really is, and she will not fail him in this. "I'm sorry if Sheldon talked your ear off about his research, he's just so passionate about his work." She takes a step back and grabs his arm again, curling herself against him as she looks up and gives him a wide, winning smile. He narrows his eyes for just a second, but smiles back almost naturally as she turns back to the Steinbrenner's. "So are you two from Pasadena? I'm from Nebraska myself," she says, pressing a hand to her chest, "but now that I've been here a few years, I don't think I can ever leave."
The Steinbrenner's laugh good-naturedly, and she feels Sheldon turn toward her and start, "Penny, we were talking about my research and—"
"I know, Sheldon," she says, "but shop talk can get out of control at these things." She catches Mrs. Steinbrenner's eye and receives a knowing look from the older woman, who she's sure has had to drag her own genius out of science and back to the real world on more than one occasion.
"We're actually from Pennsylvania," Mrs. Steinbrenner says, and from there it's easy conversation between Penny and the donors. Sheldon finally joins the conversation at Penny's urging, and manages to hold his own amidst the small talk while the Steinbrenner's question him about Texas and his family, the different places he's studied and the non-science things he's seen while abroad. Sheldon and Mr. Steinbrenner set off on a remembered tour of Munich, and Mrs. Steinbrenner leans toward Penny.
"And the two of you are…?" She has that look in her eye Penny knows so well, the glint of an old woman with married children and an itch to interfere in others' love lives. She sees it on the faces of aunts and family friends every time she goes back to Nebraska, and a warmth and instant affection for Mrs. Steinbrenner settles into her chest.
"We're—friends," Penny says, with a furtive look at Sheldon. She looks down and away for just a moment, before meeting the older woman's eyes again. It's an act Penny knows how to play, and for just a moment she feels guilty for misleading the other woman, but she feels Sheldon pull her ever so slightly closer and her feelings of guilt fade away. She knows he's been trying so hard tonight to fit in, appear normal, and a genuine surge of affection fills her chest as she looks up at him, rough German spilling out of his mouth.
"We've been monopolizing your time all night, I feel guilty," Penny says when their conversation reaches a lull. "We should let you get back to the other guests." She feels Sheldon resist beside her, pull slightly back toward the donors, and she releases her grasp on his elbow and slides her hand down his arm, coming to rest with her hand clasped tight around his. "Sheldon, let's get a drink," she says, tugging slightly toward the bar. He gives her a questioning look and she nods just slightly at him before turning back to the Steinbrenner's. "Thank you so much for your time, and we hope you enjoy the rest of the reception."
"Yes," Sheldon says, "enjoy your night." He turns back to Penny and lets her drag him over to the bar, settling onto a stool beside her before he speaks again. "Why did you end the conversation? They liked us! I was making excellent headway into securing my grant money."
Penny sits down beside him and motions for the bartender. "Two champagnes, please," she orders, and then says to Sheldon, "They did like us, and it's always better to quit while you're ahead than to keep pushing until you go too far." She takes a flute for herself and hands one to Sheldon, clinking her glass against his. "Very well played tonight, Dr. Cooper," she says, and she sees a smile creep onto his features, a genuine smile. "I think you have that grant allotment in the bag."
Sheldon pauses mid-sip and lowers his glass, voice excited when he asks, "Really? Because there are some experiments I've been dying to do on self-dual lattices and M-theory's necessarily contrasting values as pertain to S-duality and—"
"Sheldon." She grabs his hand from mid-air and leans in, voice gentle as she says, "Sheldon, that's enough physics for tonight, okay? Can we just … sit, for a second?"
Sheldon's mouth clamps shut and he leans back, then turns to look around the room. Penny smiles, and then joins him in observing the party-goers, the crowd thinned just a little as the night wears on. They sit in companionable silence until Penny sees the same group of women from before watching her and Sheldon. When they see her looking, they immediately turn away, glancing over their shoulders and obviously still talking about whether she and Sheldon really are a couple. She knows it's foolish to take such offense, to react so strongly to obnoxious women who clearly don't know what they're talking about, but Penny can't help it.
She clears her throat and nonchalantly leans toward Sheldon and asks, "Do you know those women in the corner?" She gestures slightly to the group and sees Sheldon narrow his eyes and lean closer.
"Yes, I do. The one on the left is Marcia DeWitt, a former teaching assistant of mine. And the one in the middle is Stephanie Taylor, another teaching assistant of mine. Actually they're all former teaching assistants of mine. The last one on the right is Katie Harper." Sheldon sits back and takes another sip of champagne. "They were all moderately acceptable assistants but only studied with me for one semester each. It's a relatively short tenure, actually, but I wasn't too sorry to see any of them go." He leans closer to her and lowers his voice. "They continually insisted on bringing food into the lab."
Penny sees their chatter pick up as Sheldon leans toward her and her temper flares uncontrollably. If they only knew him by reputation, she can see how it would be possible to misunderstand him so severely, to think him only "egotistical, superior, and dull as hell." But they were his assistants, they should've taken the time to know him and try to understand him. Anger builds inside her as she watches the blonde gesture toward them again, and the tinkle of laughter that reaches Penny's ears from all the way across the room sets a buzz in her fingers.
Before she has a chance to second guess herself or fully think through the ramifications of what she's doing, Penny leans over toward Sheldon and presses her lips to his. She feels him tense against her, but she leans in further, tilts her head slightly, and raises a hand against Sheldon's cheek. He lets out a breath in a quick puff against her skin, and then she feels his mouth move softly against hers, feels him press just so against her and part his lips slightly. She deepens the kiss, instinct taking over, and a heady hum fills her ears as she tilts her head back and runs her thumb against his cheekbone. She feels Sheldon's fingers close around her wrist as he pulls away, and she sucks in a breath and opens her eyes to see him inches away from her. His eyes are still closed.
"Penny?" His voice is low, throaty, and his fingers are warm around her wrist.
She pulls back abruptly and turns her eyes to the corner, and her throat is tight as she takes in the three women's eyes on the both of them, mouths open and eyebrows raised. She pulls her wrist from Sheldon's grasp, her fingers sliding for just a moment against his, and her voice is low as she says, "We should say goodnight to Dr. and Mrs. Steinbrenner, and then I'd like to go home, please." She drops her eyes to the floor, her hair falling into her eyes. She feels angry and foolish, embarrassed and—something else she can't put her finger on, solid and weighted in her chest. She glances up briefly at Sheldon and meets his eyes, quizzical and dazed as they study her.
"Penny, I don't understand what just happened." He looks around at everyone else, his voice a rush, and she turns toward the bar, picking up and draining her champagne glass in one swift move. Then she's on her feet, clutch held tight in front of her, defensive.
"I'd like to go home, please." Her voice is tight, barely controlled, and it's either with unusual understanding or just plain confusion that he stands up beside her and follows her across the room to say a quick goodbye to the Steinbrenner's.
They pass the three women on their way out the door and Penny shoots them a withering glare that even Sheldon wouldn't misunderstand.
The walk to the car is silent, and Penny pulls out of the parking lot too quickly. She sees Sheldon's fingers wrapped more fiercely around his knees, but still he doesn't speak. He looks from her to the road and back again, and once or twice he opens his mouth as if to say something but he says nothing. She makes it three quarters of the way home, foot heavy against the gas pedal, before she's stopped by a light, and as they stop at the end of a line of cars waiting at the intersection, she lets out a long-held breath and says, "They were making fun of you."
Her voice is low and rough with emotion. She tightens her hands around the steering wheel and clenches her jaw, but still there is an ache inside that she cannot understand or put a name to. The cause of her unease escapes her—she doesn't know entirely why she's so upset—but she knows it has something to do with the lines of the women's throats as they laughed and the shocked look in Sheldon's eyes as he pulled away from her.
Sheldon sounds wary when he speaks, asking, "Who was making fun of me?"
"Those women," Penny answers as the light changes to green and she pulls forward slowly, "the ones who used to be your teaching assistants." She presses more heavily on the gas pedal and they are off again, zooming toward home. The air conditioning makes Penny's skin feel clammy, and she shuts it off and rolls down her window, letting the warm air throw her hair around her face. "I heard them talking about you. They were talking about me too."
Sheldon sits further back in his seat as she swerves in and out of lanes, but doesn't comment on her driving. "What did they say? Was it offensive? Is that why you're upset?" He rolls down his own window a few inches, and runs his fingers against the glass. "At least I think you're upset, but that doesn't explain why you kissed me, because I don't believe that's an appropriate emotional response." He glances at her again, his eyes cautious, and she sees him tense and then loosen the hand that held her wrist so tightly.
"Yes, I'm upset." She chances a quick look at him before turning back to the road. She wants to reach over and undo his bowtie, rumple his shirt and his hair. She wants him to look as disheveled as she feels, instead of as pristine and put-together as he was at the beginning of the night. Her fingers itch to reach for him, but she tightens them around the wheel instead. She doesn't say anything else until they pull into the apartment parking lot, until they're out of the car and walking toward their building. She reaches for the door handle and freezes, head down.
"They were saying that it was clear that we weren't a couple—"
"We're not a couple."
"I know that, Sheldon." Her voice is clipped, exasperated. She's mad at him, irrational as it may be, for not understanding. "But they were saying it was impossible for us to be together because you're—" She pauses. She doesn't know if he'll be hurt by their words, doesn't know if she'll be more hurt if he's not. She leans back against the building door and a breeze dances the ends of her hair against her shoulders. "They called you Dr. Freeze. They said that you were egotistical and superior." She looks up at him, and his head is tilted quizzically, brow furrowed.
He takes a moment to order his thoughts and then begins, in a strangely low voice, "I can only assume that by Dr. Freeze they mean Mr. Freeze—he dropped the doctoral title from his supervillain moniker, and was actually originally dubbed 'Mr. Zero'—and I only understand that parallel to be offensive inasmuch as I've always found him to be a most unsatisfactory villain. As for egotistical and superior, I am no doubt superior to them in both professional standing and natural intellect, and have an ego that is sized accordingly. I do not personally believe that I am egotistical, but as I said to you when I asked you to accompany me tonight, some people do find me off-putting. It is only logical that they would, therefore, be put off by my presence."
Throughout his speech, Penny hugs her arms closer against her chest, crossing them into a tighter and tighter hold. When he finishes, she pushes off the glass and comes to stand in front of him, more offended than ever.
"They meant that you were cold," she says, voice thready. "They meant that you were cold and unfeeling and incapable of a relationship with someone like me. Who they at one point, by the way, guessed might be a prostitute, since that's the only way you'd deign to quote-unquote satisfy your needs, instead of actually getting close to someone."
Sheldon raises his eyebrows, saying, "I understand why you'd be upset that they hypothesized you were a prostitute." He stops, looks for a moment at the building behind her, then continues in a sharp voice she's not heard from him before, "But that doesn't explain why you kissed me in the middle of the reception, in front of all my colleagues."
Penny takes a deep breath and looks away, out over the parking lot to the street beyond. She watches the traffic rush by and doesn't say anything because she doesn't know what to say. She's offended for him, and by him, by his inability to see himself the way she seems him, as someone decent and capable of feeling and emotion. She knows he hides those parts away, keeps them tamped down and smoothed over, and that they are sometimes few and far between, but she also knows the deep timbre of his voice as he sings sea shanties and the bend of his neck as he really apologizes and the awkward fumble of his arms around her. She can't pinpoint exactly when their relationship changed, when they actually became friends, but she knows that his presence in her life has become something she depends on and trusts. He and Leonard are the two best friends she's made since she moved here, even if she rarely admits it to herself, and it's a feeling she's only recently come to understand.
When she looks at him again, she's caught off-guard by how angry he looks, not on her behalf, or at the situation, but at her. She thinks of his chest pressing warmly against her back, and his hand soft in hers as she pulled him away from the Steinbrenner's, and her chest tightens just so. She wills it away, wills herself not to understand the feelings of hurt and disappointment that constrict her throat, but despite her best efforts, she finds her eyes filling with tears.
"At worst," she starts, voice thick in her throat, "they were saying that the only way you'd get a date is by buying one. At best they were saying that someone like me would never deign to go out with you. And I kissed you because I, I—" Her voice catches and a tear tracks down her cheek. She swipes at it, embarrassed, and raises her eyes to his. "I kissed you because I wanted to prove them wrong, that you could be with someone like—someone like me," she finishes, voice a whisper.
Sheldon looks at her, his gaze harsh. "But you wouldn't ever go out with someone like me." He pauses as she draws her head back, visibly hurt. He tightens his hands at his sides, but does not slow his speech. "You are, as they say, way out of my league. A woman of your social standing and attractiveness does not date a theoretical physicist with a complete lack of social skills and a crippling inability to express himself emotionally." He draws himself up, face unusually blank. "It's why you've spurned Leonard's advances, isn't it? Why you've refrained from becoming romantically involved with any number of our colleagues you've been exposed to, save the ones that match the rugged and attractive physical types you were dating before you knew us?"
Penny narrows her eyes at him, lowering her hands to her sides and clenching her fists. Her voice is high and tight when she speaks, and she fights to keep herself from yelling. "So you're saying I'm superficial and vapid? That I have no actual interest in being friends with any of you guys?" There is something dangerous in her tone that makes Sheldon take a small step back and then still, drawing himself up to his full height. "Why would I be friends with you if that was true?"
"I wasn't aware that you and I were really friends." His words hit her in the chest, in a vulnerable spot she didn't even know she had. Tears come fresh to her eyes and she looks at him, emotion raw on her face, but he makes no move to explain himself or comfort her. She feels like a fool for expecting him to.
"Fine," she says, turning away from him and moving to walk inside. "You're welcome for tonight, by the way." She pauses with her hand on the door handle, and she waits for just a moment, hoping for an apology, a concession, anything that tells her he understands that he has hurt her. Her fingers feel cold where they were pressed against his cheek.
When he speaks, his voice is casual but biting, and twangier than she's ever heard it. "I hope your inappropriate public display of affection at the reception does not adversely affect my chances at receiving the grant allotment from Dr. and Mrs. Steinbrenner."
Penny takes a deep breath and pulls the door open and stalks inside, not looking back once as she climbs three flights of stairs and lets her apartment door slam shut behind her.