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Forty-eight dollars.

That is the exact amount of money Penny has left in her bank account, and that is what is supposed to last her another nine days until payday.

It wouldn’t sound so awful if all she had to worry about was feeding herself. But she’s already two months behind on her rent, and the next month is due before she gets paid again. The only reason she hasn’t been kicked out yet is her kind-hearted landlord, but she knows if she doesn’t pay up soon, she’ll be out on the street.

It’s not like she hasn’t been trying but the Cheesecake Factory cut everyone’s hours right around the time that the water pump on her car went out. And her one hemorrhoid cream commercial hasn’t exactly catapulted her into stardom or even gotten her the handful of acting jobs she had hoped for.

She looks one more time at the last text message her dad sent her, “There’s no shame in coming home if you have to” and swallows the lump in her throat.

When you’re down to your last forty-eight dollars, and you have no hope of clawing your way out, there’s only one thing left to do: dive into a two dollar bottle of wine from the gas station.

She’s out the door and in the hallway right when Sheldon steps out of his apartment and greets her with a mournful, “Hello.”

“Hey.”

Things have been awkward on the fourth floor lately. She and Leonard broke up nearly two months ago when he proposed again, and she answered no before he could finish the question. Even when she had been given time to think about it, the answer had still been no.

Break-ups must have been going around that week, because just a few days later Amy dumped Sheldon for some professor who, as she put it, “was more than willing to fulfill all her carnal desires.” Attempting to juggle her friendships with both Sheldon and Amy while avoiding Leonard, on top of her other problems, had proved to be a huge pain in the ass.

“Where are you going?”

“Just around the corner. To the gas station.”

Sheldon seems to perk up at this and shuts the door to his apartment, “Oh good, you can take me with you.”

Normally, she’d launch into a whole tirade about how he always expects her to do things for him without asking politely, but she’s just too exhausted to care.

“Fine.”

They don’t speak for the entire trip to the gas station, not until she’s at the counter asking for a pack of the cheapest cigarettes they have, and Sheldon not-so-subtly coughs his disapproval. She knows they’re terrible for her, but it’s not like she smokes all the time, just when she’s angry or super drunk or when she feels like the entire universe is caving in on her.

She doesn’t want to listen to his bitching so she tells the clerk to put the cigarettes back and decides on something less harmful, “How about a lottery ticket?

This gets a full-throated ‘hrmph’ from Sheldon. “Penny, do you know what the odds are of you winning the lottery?”

Penny looks up at him with a grin, remembering the many Star Wars marathons she has been subjected to over the years and says, “Never tell me the odds.”

“Don’t you dare quote Han Solo to justify spending your money on a piece of paper that will become worthless in just a matter of days.”

“And don’t you dare tell a grown woman how to spend her money. If I want to do something stupid and frivolous, I’ll do it, and I don’t need your permission.”

She feels it bubbling up now, something that hits in her stomach and travels up to her throat, and soon she won’t be able to stop it. So she grabs her bottle of wine and heads out to the parking lot before the first sob erupts from her throat.

Penny sits on the curb not caring how filthy ground is. Suddenly grateful that cheap wine comes with a screw top lid instead of a cork, she unscrews it quickly to take a swig. She’s still crying a steady stream of tears when Sheldon crouches down next to her, refusing to sit on the dirty ground.

“You forgot this,” he says as he hands her a lottery ticket.

Penny half hiccups and half sobs in reply, and he then hands over the pack of cigarettes she had her eye on earlier. “I suppose this is my way of apologizing. I should not to tell you what to do, no matter how poor a decision you are making.”

Coming from Sheldon it means a lot, but all it does is make her cry harder, the kind of sobs that hurt your chest and make you dizzy all at once. She can’t look up at him, but she senses him shuffling around like he’s figuring out a way to sit on the ground without getting too grimy. But since he bought her cigarettes and the lottery ticket, she stands up to meet him.

“Penny, I didn’t mean to upset you.”

She jams the lottery ticket and cigarettes in her jeans pocket and throws her arms around his middle, burying her face in his chest as she continues to cry. Penny doesn’t even think about how much this is probably bothering him, and apparently he doesn’t either, as she suddenly feels one warm hand in the middle of her back.

“There, there.”

His unprompted attempts at comforting her are more welcome than she can explain. Maybe his relationship with Amy changed him for the better after all.

Whatever it is, it helps, especially when his other arm moves to complete the embrace. It’s still a little awkward, but it does make her feel better. She’s able to stop crying, and after a minute, she loosens herself from his hold and starts wiping the tears off her face.

“Thank you. I just – everything is so wrong lately.”

And to her surprise Sheldon does not interject or look bored while she tells him her complete tale of woe. He even looks empathetic, an expression she’s not used to seeing on him.

He doesn’t say anything, just lets her speak, and when she lights up a cigarette on the drive home, he doesn’t complain about the secondhand smoke filling his lungs or give her the statistics on how dangerous it is. It’s not until they are standing in the space between their apartments that he speaks again.

“I know that empathy is not my strong suit, but I do understand what you’re going through.”

Penny looks at him curiously and replies, “How so?”

“You are not where you want to be in your life and neither am I. I lost out on an important grant that would have funded my latest study, and by next year, I may no longer have a job. I was supposed to be a Nobel Prize winner, lauded across the world for my accomplishments by this age. But I’m just another scientist who can’t get anyone to fund his work no matter how brilliant it might be. And then Amy –”

Penny frowns at him in understanding. “She broke your heart, didn’t she?”

Sheldon visibly scoffs at her assessment. “I don’t approve of your metaphor, but… I tried to be enough and and she left me for a geologist.”

“Oh sweetie.”

“A geologist. Of all people.” He shakes his head a little and looks down to the floor in disappointment. For all his complaining about being in a relationship, it really had hurt him.

Penny knows she’s in no position to offer anyone life advice or a list of clichés about how everything is going to get better, so she just nods in sympathy. “I’m so sorry, Sheldon. I know we haven’t been around each other much lately, but I do care. And if you need to talk, you know where I’m at. For now, anyway.”

She begins to unlock her door but turns back to look at him again, “Hey, how much do I owe you for the cigarettes and the ticket?”

“My treat this time.”

Penny smiles and thanks him before heading back into her apartment. She takes one long look around at this life she has built for herself here, the life that is about to crumble beneath her. It isn’t much but it’s been fun at times. Like Sheldon with Amy, she has tried to be enough and just can’t do it.

She figures if she arranges everything quickly, she can have it all packed and ready to go back to Nebraska in time for Christmas.

*

It takes almost three weeks for her to get everything in order to move back home. Her parents dip into their savings to help with moving costs, and with Sheldon’s help, she has the most organized group of moving boxes anyone has ever seen. He isn’t in to the physical labor part, but he is all about telling her exactly how to do it.

The boxes will be on their way in two days and Penny the day after. Just like that. She tells herself daily that there is no shame in starting over, but she’s not sure she believes it just yet.

She’s slipping on her shoes to head to her last shift at The Cheesecake Factory when Sheldon does his usual knock at the door.

“Hey! I’m just about to go work my last shift, and I’m almost running late, so make it quick.”

“You might want to call in.”

She thinks he’s joking, but his expression is completely serious, and Sheldon doesn’t have a poker face, so she knows he means it.

“What’s going on?”

He steps inside her apartment and looks around for a moment before answering, “Where’s your lottery ticket?”

“Expired probably. You bought it almost three weeks ago.”

“I bought it for the next eight draws, so it’s still good.”

Penny grabs her purse and starts rifling through it, pulling out all kinds of junk she should have cleaned out weeks ago. She’s not looking at him, but she hears Sheldon huff in frustration every few seconds until she pulls out a crumpled orange slip of paper.

“Aha! Found it! I haven’t even thought to check it, but here you go.”

She hands it over to Sheldon and waits for his expression to change, but he just nods and says, “Hmm.”

“’Hmm’, what?”

“I memorized the sequence of numbers when I bought it for you, and when I heard the numbers on the news, I just knew.

“Knew what? What did I win?”

“All of it. Four hundred and forty-seven million dollars.”

She looks directly in his eyes and then examines his face for even the slightest hint of the “bazinga” that’s about to come. After so many years, she can usually recognize it, but it isn’t there.

“Sheldon Cooper, if this is a bazinga, I swear on everything me, you, and Mary Cooper find holy, I will murder you. Slowly and painfully.”

Sheldon grabs his phone out of his pocket and shows her the California Lottery website. And there it is. All of the numbers are an exact match to the ticket he holds in his other hand. Penny takes a deep breath in, and it feels like the whole world is pausing while she figures out how to react to something like this. She always imagined it like she would run around in circles screaming with joy, but that’s not what happens.

For the second time in three weeks, she buries her head in Sheldon’s chest and begins to cry.

*

The next week is a flurry of phone calls and decisions, and trying to figure out the best way to avoid publicity, and to keep some of her less savory relatives from finding out she’s loaded so they can leech off of her. She offers to split the money with Sheldon since he paid for the ticket but he refuses and just asks her to buy him a life-size Imperial Stormtrooper costume instead.

Penny has to laugh at anyone who ever said that money doesn’t make you happy or won’t solve all your problems. This is the lightest she’s felt in years, maybe even her entire life.

She pays back everything she owes her landlord and reconciles loans she’s received over the years from Leonard, Amy, Bernadette and Sheldon. And every day for seven days, she tries to get Sheldon to accept some of her winnings, but he continues to refuse.

They’re sitting around her laptop placing the order for his Stormtrooper costume when Penny asks, “If there was one place you could visit and money was no option, where would you go?”

“Middle Earth.”

“A real place, please.”

“Switzerland. The Large Hadron Collider.”

Penny laughs softly, remembering how much he had begged for her to give up a trip to Switzerland so he could do just that. And how neither of them had made it there.

“Then let’s go.”

“Pardon?”

“Well, before all this happened, I was going to spend Christmas in Nebraska, but now I can spend Christmas in Switzerland. I’m sure with all your connections and my money, we can certainly get in to see that Long Hadron Collider thing.”

Large Hadron Collider, and are you sure? Won’t your family be expecting you?”

Penny shrugs nonchalantly and says, “They won’t even care when they find out I’m paying off their mortgage. Come on, Sheldon, I have nothing tying me down here and neither do you. You said yourself that you need to get away from CalTech for a while and –”

“Okay. Let’s do it.”

Sheldon smiles, and she smiles back, and she’s pretty sure this is the most spontaneous thing he’s ever done.

*

Two days later and they’re in Switzerland. Sheldon has plenty of unused vacation days, and all Penny has to do is leave the keys to her apartment behind and pack a suitcase of clothes while the rest of her stuff sits in storage. She’s a little sad to say goodbye to the apartment she lived in for six years, but she knows she won’t be coming back to it ever again.

It’s cold in Geneva and coming from a mild California winter, the first thing they do when they arrive is buy some actual winter clothing and then go straight to their hotel to sleep off the jet lag.

The next day they’re at CERN, and even though she doesn’t understand any of what Sheldon is discussing with the staff member giving them a personal tour, it’s worth it just for the look of unbridled joy on Sheldon’s face. He’s not just happy, he’s downright giddy, and it’s something she hasn’t seen since the thing with the Nimoy napkin.

Once they’re in the car on the way back to the hotel, he sighs and says, “It was just so beautiful.”

She doesn’t argue or tell him that it looked like a fancy hunk of metal to her, she just pats him on the arm and smiles.

When he’s invited back the next day to have lunch with some staff interested in his work, Penny is more than happy to stay behind and get some skiing in.

Her skiing trip ends up with her drinking hot toddys, singing bad karaoke in the ski lodge lounge, and doing no skiing at all. Maybe it’s not as cerebral as Sheldon’s day, but they both seem equally content when they meet up at the hotel later that night.

The next ten days is spent seeing everything Geneva and Zurich have to offer. Sheldon wants to hit all of the museums, and Penny wants to ski and shop. He’s able to get her to appreciate history in ways she never expected, but Sheldon does not reciprocate with the skiing or shopping.

They’re at Christmas dinner (or non-denominational dinner of no significance as Sheldon calls it) on the second-to-last night of their trip when Sheldon asks the question she’s been dreading, “What’s next for you?”

“I – I don’t think I’m going home,” she laughs softly and continues, “Not that I even know where home is or where it should be.”

“So you’re going to keep traveling? Alone?”

He doesn’t say it like he’s passing judgment on her decision to see the world without any companionship, it’s more like he’s curious. “Yeah, I guess. Unless…you didn’t want to come with me, did you?”

“Well –”

“I thought you’d be sick of me by now. And what about work and –”

“CalTech has offered me a six month sabbatical. To give me time to apply for new grants or choose a new field of research.”

“Oh.”

Penny takes a large drink of wine and looks at him closely, and that’s when she sees it. He’s just as lost as she is and hoping to find the answers somewhere on this trip.

He looks at her expectantly. “So?”

“Let’s do it. I was thinking of booking a train ticket to Paris, now I can just book two.”

His eyes light up at the prospect of another train ride, and she can’t help but smile. They’ve gone ten days without murdering each other, hopefully they can go another six months.

*

She knows it’s a cliché, but when her mother calls and asks her how Paris is, she tells her it’s everything she expected and more. It has all the history that Sheldon adores and all the culture and fashion and food that she could ever want. Sheldon is no fan of the crowded Metro, but he makes up for it by spouting architectural facts about the Eiffel Tower like he built it himself.

On their fifth day in Paris, they’re standing side by side in the Musee d’Orsay looking at a Gaugin when Sheldon lets out a disappointed, “Hmph.”

“You have got to be kidding me. I know it’s not a giant metal science contraption in Switzerland but come on.”

“Oh. I’m not disappointed in the art. I’m vexed by it.”

Penny leans forward to give it a closer look, and Sheldon does the same. They are side by side, her shoulder just barely grazing his arm. “Vexed by what?”

“It’s so unlike science, and yet, there is still a method to it, and a meaning, but – what it means to the artist may be different than what it means to you.”

“True.”

“And while I can explain that the emotions it makes us feel are chemical reactions in the brain, I can’t explain why it’s this painting that does it but not the painting next to it.”

Penny turns her head to look at him and smiles, “See, there are some things that science just can’t explain.”

He doesn’t voice his agreement or disagreement, and she guesses that admitting that science doesn’t have all the answers is something impossible for him. But he gives the slightest of nods before taking a step back and giving the simplest assessment, “I like this one.”

She steps back with him and nods, finding it less odd that she both agrees with him and understands him more than she would have a few weeks ago.

*

It’s almost a game after that. If it were at all practical, she’d have a giant world map like they always had in school classrooms that they could just throw darts at. Instead, they settle for using an atlas and taking turns picking their next destination.

They stay in Paris until New Year’s, and then it’s off to London then Rome and Greece, then all the way to Moscow, then Beijing and Tokyo, until finally Penny begs for somewhere warmer. So she picks Sydney and does something she meant to do the entire time she lived in California, learns to surf. And when they’re done in Australia, Sheldon picks New Zealand.

She knows he picks it for geek reasons, Middle Earth and all that but even Penny must admit it’s the most beautiful place she’s ever seen.

They’ve been traversing the world together for close to three months, and aside from some minor bickering, they are getting along better than they ever have before. Maybe it’s the freedom of not having to worry about money and not having to worry about work or Leonard or Amy or anyone else but themselves that makes everything more relaxed.

Or maybe it’s six years of living across the hall from each other. She knows how to deal with him now, flaws and all. And Sheldon, as persnickety and superior as he might be, has come to appreciate Penny’s better qualities. At least that’s what she likes to think.

They’re drinking at the Green Dragon Inn, not just a movie set anymore but a real working pub. It’s beer for Penny and a non-alcoholic cider for Sheldon, and there is genuine laughter and stories about their childhoods, which actually aren’t all that different.

And she finally asks, “What is it about this stuff? Hobbits and Star Trek and whatever, what is it that it means so much to you? I’m not trying to be dismissive, I’m just curious.”

So Sheldon explains, and it’s short and simple and absolutely perfect. “Because I was an outcast. Smarter than every kid my age and adults four times my age. Awkward and different and never accepted anywhere. And all of these things are about outcasts or people who usually go unnoticed doing extraordinary things. I knew that could be me. I could be Frodo or Luke Skywalker or Spock, and someday I’d find a place where people accepted me.”

She knows she should have understood this all along, but it really hits her to hear him say it out loud. And even though she was part of a different crowd growing up, she gets it. Just because you’re popular doesn’t mean you don’t ever feel awkward or unaccepted, and she knows she’s spent her whole life trying to find acceptance. She did junior rodeo and hunted and played sports to please her dad, she did cheerleading to please her mom, she got attention from boys because of her looks, and she wanted to be an actress so she could pretend to be people who weren’t her.

“So have you found it? Acceptance?”

Sheldon stares at his mug of cider for a full minute before looking back up at her. “Sometimes I think, yes. And sometimes, I’m not so sure. ”

She nods in understanding. Even in his group of geniuses and supergeeks, he’s the outcast. The one who’s too smart and doesn’t have the social skills that the others do. While she’s always felt like the outsider in their group, she realizes that Sheldon has probably felt that way too sometimes.

Penny leans in and sniffs his cider, causing Sheldon to give her a confused look. “Sorry, just wanted to make sure this wasn’t alcoholic. I don’t think we’ve ever talked like this before.”

“You gave me a great gift.”

“A trip around the world?”

“Yes, that too.”

Penny sits back on her barstool a little and looks at him in surprise. And it’s not because she doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. He’s talking about friendship and acceptance and how she’s just let him be Sheldon this whole trip and not complained about it or wished for her travelling companion to be anyone else but him.

She’s a little overwhelmed, and she doesn’t know if it’s the beer or the conversation or the fact that she feels like she finally understands Sheldon Cooper, but it makes her a little dizzy. She doesn’t know what else to say, so she smiles brightly and grabs his hand, and to her surprise he doesn’t flinch.

“Looks like some of the locals are starting up some hobbity jig thing.”

“Penny, you should be well aware by now that I do not dance.”

Penny stands and yanks on his hand until Sheldon starts sliding off his stool a little. “Come on, Sheldon. When in Hobbiton…”

She pulls him to the middle of the crowd, and she can’t really call whatever he’s doing dancing, but he doesn’t let go of her hand until it’s over.

*

It’s all kind of perfect, actually. He opens up to her, and one day when they’re on the terrace of their hotel in Rio de Janeiro, she returns the favor. She tells him how similar they really are. How she looked for approval and acceptance in men and in acting; how she wanted nothing more to be happy with Leonard, but he had always wanted to change her, to turn her into something she wasn’t.

He empathizes. Sheldon Cooper, whose idea of empathy had always been to fake it and hand someone a hot beverage, really truly empathizes. He tried to be what Amy wanted and Penny tried to be what Leonard wanted and it hadn’t worked out for either of them.

This time, it’s Sheldon who reaches for her hand and not the other way around. It’s just a few fingers that he entwines with hers, but it’s enough to make her smile again.

*

It’s too perfect, and maybe all good things must come to an end, and if they do, at least she’s in Buenos Aires.

It’s one of those arguments where she says something stupid and hurtful, and he says something stupid and hurtful, and both of them are so angry and hurt that neither can apologize.

It’s all because Penny gets an e-mail from Amy telling her that she’s going to marry the geologist. That stupid geologist. Okay. Fine. He’s probably not stupid, but Penny has only met the guy once, and she wasn’t impressed. She wants to be happy for her friend though, because Amy has found someone who loves her, quirks and all, and can give her something that Sheldon wasn’t ready for. But when she sees Sheldon’s face at the news, her heart sinks.

“It’s fine. I don’t care.”

She knows that’s not true, so she says his name like she’s accusing him of lying. “Sheldon.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

Penny shuts the lid of her laptop and frowns at him. “After all this, I think you can trust me with whatever you’re feeling.”

Sheldon shrugs nonchalantly, “I have no feelings on the matter.”

“Your girlfriend dumps you and less than six months later, she’s engaged to someone else and you have no feelings on that?”

He says nothing, so she stands up and walks toward him so that they are face to face. “God, Sheldon, you always act like this robot who doesn’t care and doesn’t feel anything, but I know that’s bullshit. Maybe you don’t process those things the way other people do, but I know you still feel them. I feel like I’ve gotten to know you pretty well – maybe better than anyone else– so don’t stand there and lie to me. If you don’t want to talk about it right now, fine. But don’t deny that you’re feeling something.”

For weeks there had been a transformation in him. He was still the same old fussy, pain-in-the-ass he had always been but he had been a little warmer, a little easier to get along with, and a little more comfortable with her. That’s gone now; he’s back to looking like he’d rather drink a gallon of acid than talk to her.

“You may care about these things but I don’t. You took me on this trip but it doesn’t mean I owe you anything. And I may have I told you things about my childhood but it doesn’t mean you know me at all. As usual, you know nothing.”

That hurt. Maybe it was true. Maybe she was just fooling herself, but it still hurt. She hadn’t expected anything in return for this trip, she had just wanted to do something nice for him.

“No wonder no one wants to be friends with you and Amy dumped you. You make it so hard. And when you find yourself old and pathetically alone, you still won’t get it, will you?”

“Honestly, I’m surprised Leonard didn’t give up on you well before his second failed proposal. You want too much out of your friends and relationships and you aren’t willing to give the same in return. Sometimes I’m not sure who is more hopeless, you or him.”

Both of them go completely silent. And that’s that. She regrets her words instantly, knowing that she’s crossed a line. But he hit her sore spot in return. She hasn’t expected him to keep those walls down after all the long talks they had, but apparently he was ready to put them back up at a moment’s notice.

She doesn’t want to cry in front of him – not right now – so she takes a deep breath in and pushes back the tears that are threatening to come up.

“Just don’t – don’t talk to me. Don’t. If you want to go home, I’ll get you a ticket. But that’s it, I am done with this.”

He doesn’t say anything, and he doesn’t follow her when she grabs her purse and jacket and heads out into the streets of Buenos Aires to find the nearest bar. He is wrong, she thinks, at least mostly wrong. It’s Penny who should have given up trying to be happy with Leonard a long time before that second proposal. She doesn’t even want to grudgingly admit that he might be right on that second part.

*

He doesn’t ask for a flight home. But he also doesn’t speak to her for nearly two days. Penny goes about her plans, seeing the sights of Argentina, while Sheldon disappears for hours and hours, only to lock himself up in his bedroom in their suite for the rest of the evening. She doesn’t know what he does in there all day, and she tries not to care, but being alone for three days when he is just across the hallway is killing her.

But she is stubborn, and he is stubborn. And if things continue on like this, she is afraid neither of them will apologize, and they will just live to ripe old ages without ever speaking again.

On the third day, she is coming back from dinner when she sees her first real glimpse of him sitting on the sofa in the main room of their suite.

She doesn’t say anything, just starts the process of taking off her shoes and hanging up her jacket. But when she goes to head into her own bedroom, his voice stops her, “Penny, wait. Please sit down so I can talk to you.”

Penny frowns at him and sighs but does as he asks, taking a seat on the other end of the sofa. Even in Argentina, Sheldon still has his “spot.”

“I’m not very good at doing this so please bear with me. I – I just want to -” and then comes the very long pause in which Penny has time to make at least four different faces of confusion, worry, and expectation, “I want to apologize.”

She breathes a loud sigh of relief, “Oh good.”

“What I said was wrong and hurtful. And I know that I make it hard to be my friend, but I do hope that we are still friends.”

She wonders how many talks with his meemaw it took to get him to this point, but she doesn’t ask because all that matters is that he apologized. “Oh, Sheldon. I need to apologize too. I didn’t mean to hurt you, and I shouldn’t have pushed you to talk about things when you weren’t ready to, and I’m so sorry. It is hard to be your friend sometimes, but you should know that it’s also worth it. It’s completely worth it.”

Sheldon nods, and there is just the hint of a smile curving up the corners of his mouth. “So we’re going to be okay again?”

“Oh God yes. I didn’t realize how much I actually missed you knowing the history of everything in every place we go until I had to go to them alone.”

“Good. Because all I’ve done is go to the library or stay here and watch television. But everything is in Spanish. I suppose the upside is I think I’m learning how to speak Spanish.”

Penny laughs softly and throws her arms around him pulling him into a tight hug. She doesn’t care if he hates the contact, she needs it right now. He must not hate it too much, because he wraps his arm around her, and she takes a moment to be grateful that this argument hasn’t pushed him back to the guy he was six years ago.

*

They’re a little over four months into what was planned to be a six month journey when Sheldon gets a call that changes everything.

Penny is in her swimsuit, ready to hit the Tahitian beach that lies just twenty feet outside their rented beach house when Sheldon comes in from his room with a strange look on his face.

“Sheldon? You okay?”

“You know how I’ve been keeping in touch with some of the people I met at CERN.”

She doesn’t, or maybe she did but forgot, so she just nods and answers in the affirmative anyway.

“They want to fund my research, the research that could win me the Nobel, could change the world. They want to work with me. They want to make sure I’m provided with everything I need to make this project happen.”

“Oh. Oh my God, Sheldon, that’s amazing news.”

In six years, she has so rarely seen Sheldon at a loss for words, but this time makes up for all the times she has wished he’d just shut up. He stands there, slightly pale, and just repeatedly stammers, “I – I – I .”

It’s everything he’s ever wanted, and Penny can’t contain her happiness even if he totally is. She sort of launches herself towards him and plants a kiss directly on his lips. It’s only for a moment, until she realizes what she’s done and jumps back. She looks down in embarrassment, and she’s sure she hasn’t blushed this much since she was a teenager.

It’s Sheldon. Any other guy, and she might not have felt so weird about what she did, but this is Sheldon. This is the guy who had to write a legal contract about what was appropriate physical contact with the one and only girlfriend he has ever had.

“Penny – well –”

“I’m just so happy for you and I shouldn’t have done that but –” She notices the tiniest hint of pink in his usually pale face, so she decides that instead of discussing it, she'll just change the subject. “So, does this mean you’re moving to Switzerland?”

“No. I’ll have to take trips there eight or nine times a year, but they said they’ll work with CalTech, and I can stay in California. And anything else can be done over Skype.”

“Wow. Does this mean you have to go home soon then?”

“Three weeks.”

And just like that this little adventure has been given an expiration date. Sheldon has the one thing she never has: purpose. She once had goals but none of them were very attainable or made her feel like she was doing something important with her life. They were just dreams and wishes that never came true.

She is so happy for him, but at the same time, she realizes that all this newfound fortune hasn’t given her any sort of definition or great insights. She is still just the same old Penny who hasn’t achieved a damn thing except getting some lucky numbers on a piece of paper and a lot of money to go with it. And technically, they weren’t her numbers nor did she even pay for the ticket.

Penny tries to push away her own sadness with a bright smile, “I’m just – I’m so happy for you.”

She doesn’t want to ruin his moment, so she grabs her towel and heads straight to the beach, hoping that he will not follow. Penny needs to think, to figure it all out, and as much as she likes having him around, she needs him to not be for a few hours.

*

There is one last place she wants to take him before he has to go back to the real world, and Sheldon is thoroughly surprised when she points at the map and tells him they’re going to Nebraska. He makes a face to show he is displeased, but he does not complain out loud. Well, not much.

She has never really felt that California was home, not completely, so she decides to go back to the place that she had once called home.

Sheldon adjusts surprisingly well. Her mother’s cooking reminds him of his meemaw’s, and he gets along shockingly well with her dad, who talks his ear off about everything from agriculture to football. Sheldon tells her later that it is like hanging out with a sober version of his own dad, or what he has always imagined that would be like.

She finally teaches him how to drive, out on the dusty back roads by her grandparents’ farm where the worst thing he can hit is a fence post or a scarecrow (he does both). And her young nieces and nephews like him because he is tall and talks funny and knows a lot about Spider-man.

t is nice. It is warm, and she is surrounded by people who love her and who end up loving Sheldon no matter how odd they think he is. It isn’t home, or where she wants to stay forever, but it is exactly what she needs.

On the last night before Sheldon is due to fly back to California, she takes him out as far as she can into the fields on her parents’ property and lays out a large blanket for them. She directs him to lie flat on his back and look straight up.

“I have been all over the world in the past six months and not a single place has shown me the stars like this field in Nebraska can.”

“It’s because of air pollution. That’s why –”

“Shh. Don’t ruin it.”

He stays quiet, and they lie there side by side for a long while without speaking. Eventually, Penny sighs deeply and says, “I kept thinking this whole time that we were running away, both of us. You from Amy and work and whatever, me from Leonard and my complete lack of direction in life but now…”

“You don’t think that anymore?”

“I think we were a little, me especially. But you – you know exactly what you want out of life, and I really admire that.”

“I don’t know everything.”

Penny laughs and turns to lie on her side, propping her head up on her elbow. “I wish I’d brought a tape recorder, because it’s probably the last time I’ll ever hear that.”

Sheldon ignores her comment and continues, “Like with Amy.”

“Sheldon, maybe it was Amy. Maybe when the right person comes along, what you can give will be exactly enough. Just because you weren’t enough for her, doesn’t mean you won’t be for someone else.”

He shifts on the blanket so that he’s facing her now and shrugs one shoulder. “Enough of that. Back to what you were saying.”

“This is going to sound so stupid, like I stole it from a movie, but I don’t know it’s just… I don’t think I’ve been running away, I think I’ve been running towards myself.”

Sheldon nods in understanding, so she keeps talking, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life, I’ve never really known, but I’m figuring it out. And this money – as great as it is – it doesn’t change who I am, it just gives me the freedom and the time to figure it all out.”

“Okay. What next then?”

She can’t explain why she does what she does next, but sometimes the best things in the world are impossible to explain. Penny leans in and kisses him on the lips. This isn’t like the brief congratulatory kiss she laid on him a couple weeks ago, this one is soft and warm and slow. She waits to see if he backs off, but he surprises her by leaning in to it. She brings her hand up to touch his face, and his jaw goes from tense to relaxed when she does.

It doesn’t last as long as she’d like it to, but it’s nice, and she finds it surprisingly comfortable. If she had known it would feel this right, she might have done it a long time ago.

When she moves away and lies on her back again, all she can hear is Sheldon’s breathing.

“I’m not going to apologize for that one, but if you never want me to do it again, you just have to say so.”

He doesn’t say anything. For a long time. Long enough to make her worry. So she says, “It would be nice if you said something though.”

That’s when his fingers touch her arm and move down until they find her hand, and he takes hold of it. Penny smiles and says, “That works too.”

*

Penny decides to go back to California on the same flight as Sheldon, and during the flight, she starts scribbling notes into the magazine she bought in the airport gift shop with an eyeliner from her purse.

“What exactly are you doing?”

“I just – I had an idea.”

Sheldon sighs and grabs his messenger bag from underneath the seat in front of him, grabbing a blank notepad and pen that he immediately hands over to her. “If you’re going to be hit by a sudden stroke of genius, you need to always have paper and pen at the ready.”

Penny smiles and replies, “Well, you are the expert.”

She continues writing on Sheldon’s notepad, brainstorming really. She doesn’t know if this is it, if this is the epiphany she’s been waiting for, but at least it’s a start.

Penny thinks back to when she moved to California as a naïve eighteen year old and how if it wasn’t for Kurt, she would have run out of money within two weeks and been on the streets doing God knows what just to get by. She thinks about how many times she was so close to being homeless and giving up and how her friends were always there to help her.

She’s got a lot of money and all the time in the world and maybe – just maybe – this is her purpose, and this is the reason she ended up with all that money. Penny doesn’t think she’ll end up being Mother Theresa or anything like that, but outreach for homeless teens isn’t just something she wants to do, it’s something she has to do.

And maybe this whole idea for a foundation and a shelter and educational outreach and so on will ultimately fail, she doesn’t know, but another freedom the money has allowed her is to live in the now and not worry about every little detail of the future.

*

Bernadette throws them a party to welcome them home, but Amy and her geologist are there, and Leonard looks like he’s attached at the hip with Sheldon’s former assistant, Alex, so everything is all weird and awkward. Both of them fake being exhausted and excuse themselves early. It’s weird coming back and wondering how you’re going to fit in to a group of friends you were never sure you fit in with already.

Sheldon is excited to start working again with renewed purpose, and Penny has already found a large, but modest, house in the hills to start her new life in.

She drags Sheldon over there the night she gets the keys, when it’s empty and dark, and she has to use the flashlight app on her phone to guide them to the backyard to see the view of the city.

“How’s your new project?” he asks.

“I have my first real meeting with my lawyers tomorrow, to start setting up the non-profit. Then I have to find the right people to work with, and we’re off. It’s going to be a lot of work.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks. Uhm. Listen, Sheldon, I know you’re not happy living with Leonard anymore, so I was going to ask if you wanted to maybe move in here.”

Even though it’s dark out, she can still see how pale he gets, so she places a hand on his arm to calm him. “I don’t mean like that. This house is huge, and there’s a great office space, so you could work at home. And you can live all the way on the other end of the house from me if that will make you comfortable. Separate rooms, I promise.”

“That could be… acceptable.”

“Good, good. I’ve kinda gotten used to having you around all the time now.”

“I know we haven’t talked much about whatever is going on here, but I think you need to know that I don’t know if I can ever be what you want or enough for you –”

Penny frowns at him and interjects, “Sheldon, wait –“

“Let me finish. I – I don’t know if this will work out or how long it will take me to get there, but I want to try.”

Her frown turns into a smile, and she moves up on her toes to give him a brief kiss on the lips. “I have no idea if this will work either, but I want to find out. Just promise me that no matter what happens, we will always be friends.”

Sheldon nods, and this time he initiates the kiss. When he ends it, he says, “I promise.”

It’s not at all what she expected to find when they ran away six months ago, and she can’t predict what will happen next, but for now, it’s enough.