"Leonard, it's time to go home."
Sheldon hovered at the door to his lab, swaying on his feet, impatient as Leonard continued his meticulous observation of the experiment in front of him. "Give me a few more minutes."
"But it's time," Sheldon mumbled loud enough to be heard. "You always drag me away from work when it's time to go."
"Your work doesn't require a lab."
Sheldon gave a breathy laugh. "And yours does? You could stay at home in your pajamas and tell the university that 'yes the other experiment done first by other scientists sure was correct, boy howdy, that keeps happening'. It would achieve roughly the same effect."
The rush of anger came and went. The cycle of self-loathing was so finely honed that it could complete itself in record time. He hated how resigned he sounded when he spoke – "Repeat experiments serve a purpose, Sheldon. Maybe it's not as glamorous as theoretical physics, but-"
Sheldon gave a quiet snicker. "You can say that again." His eyes snapped up to him, and Sheldon smiled smugly like he'd just won. He even slid his bag's strap higher on his shoulder, a clear indication that he intended to be moving in a matter of seconds once Leonard caved. "Our schedule-"
"Your schedule," Leonard corrected, feeling anger gnarl in his chest, "was specifically designed originally to accommodate the bus route."
Sheldon scoffed. "I didn't bring bus pants; ergo I will not be going on the bus."
"Fine, then walk home." Sheldon visibly twitched, his hands clutching at the strap of his bag as if he needed to hold himself back. Leonard almost wished he wouldn't, that the arguments they never-quite had would finally spill over after being held back for as long as humanly possible.
"Then take the bus."
"Drive me home." It was almost petulant, the vocal equivalent of a child stamping their foot on the ground and demanding purchase in a fight that they never had a chance of winning.
Leonard turned back to his work. "Bet you wish you had a license now, huh?"
It was a fitting punishment for the crime: making Leonard feel worthless needed to be met with instances of Leonard's importance to Sheldon's routine and his life.
"What about dinner?"
"Fend for yourself."
"Oh, you'd like that, wouldn't you?"
Yet, even with the opportunity in front of him to start the fight they both needed, Leonard evaded. "You'll miss the bus at this rate."
"Fine. Fine. I suppose I'll see you at home unless your all-important work keeps you here all night."
As Sheldon stamped off down the hall, the anger didn't let go.
Because part of him knew that when they finally had that argument, Sheldon was going to discover he'd much rather not have Leonard holding him back.
He worked late into the evening, avoiding going home and what he saw as the inevitable cold shoulder or scolding for whatever horrible things Sheldon had experienced on the bus. Because God forbid Leonard abstain or shirk from any of his Sheldon-related duties.
When he felt like his eyes couldn't take any more, he finally resigned himself to quitting for the night, looking at the clock in the hopes that it would be past Sheldon's bedtime.
He just wanted to go home and sleep and hopefully never talk to his roommate again. That would work, right?
Leonard began plotting his ideal scenario for if Sheldon was still awake as he drove home. He would go in, put his keys in the bowl, head for the bathroom, get ready for bed, then just go to sleep. Food didn't matter. The conversation they needed to have didn't matter.
In the mostly-empty streets, he was free to get lost in thought.
The streetlight turned green, and the car lurched forward, picking up speed through the intersection.
Lights glared through the driver's side window. Leonard hardly knew what hit him.
Sheldon fully intended to stay awake and give Leonard a piece of his mind. The bus ride had been predictably horrible, he'd somehow gotten a piece of chewed gum stuck to his pants, and, worst of all, Leonard had defied him in the face of stone-cold facts.
Leonard was technically right; repeat experiments served a purpose in the scientific community. But there was no particular reason besides a history of glorious underachievement that Leonard had decided to dedicate his life to following tamely in the footsteps of others.
He'd showered, changed, eaten, waited, but there was no indication that Leonard was coming home at any kind of decent hour. Sheldon wouldn't put it past Leonard to work specifically past his bedtime in hopes of avoiding Sheldon's ire.
Surely, he knew that it was deserved. The only reason he would avoid slinking home with his tail between his legs had to be that he knew he was the guilty party.
Just as he'd started to doze in his spot with a deep yawn, his phone rang.
It wasn't Leonard's number.
He reluctantly swiped to answer it, pulling his phone up to his ear. "Hello, Dr. Sheldon Cooper speaking."
"Dr. Cooper, this is the Huntington Hospital. You are listed as the emergency contact for Leonard Hofstadter, who was just brought into our emergency room due to severe injuries sustained in a motor vehicle accident."
He couldn't breathe. Couldn't think or move. His heart slowed with the ticking of the clock, dragging out the time between the question he needed to have answered and couldn't bear to ask. The world around him seemed to spin on a new axis, desperation pitching him forward in his seat.
Schrödinger's Leonard, a quantum superposition that meant that for a brief period of time, Leonard was both alive and dead, lingering at a crux between universes before reality would eventually flatten, and Sheldon would be left with either one or the other.
"Mr. Hofstadter is in critical condition."
Alive. For now. Leonard was alive.
Sheldon hated waiting rooms. He hated the noise, all the people talking, the televisions turned on to some news channel. Hated the people coughing, spreading germs, the filthy way their hands, unwashed and unsanitized, touched everything in a slow but inevitable cycle.
"Sheldon," Penny murmured, trying to reach him, but he only shook his head, paced away, making his hasty circle, trying to push himself through this period of waiting.
Surgery. Surgery in the dead of night, neurosurgeons who were tired and fallible and human. Craniotomy. They'd drill a hole in Leonard's head. They were drilling, they had drilled. Had to repair the damage to his brain before any of it became clots. Clots could be fatal, the surgery could go awry, Leonard could react to the anesthesia, Leonard's other injuries could act up. The permutations were endless and disastrous, almost every single one.
"Sweetie," Penny grabbed his arm, held him still, and he felt every muscle go tense. He held his breath as if she might somehow already know. "You're scaring people."
He blinked several times, looking at the faces of people staring, worrying, someone was recording with their phone, had to be, the camera was aimed straight at him. He dug his teeth into his lower lip, trembling with anger, with fear, the feeling of futility burrowing deep into the core of his being.
"Miss?" Penny turned to look at the nurse. "We have a private room for families who are waiting...?"
"Can we go there?"
May we go there, Penny. We are certainly able to; our legs will carry us quite easily down the labyrinth of hallways and fluorescent lighting to another layer of purgatory, but we are asking for permission, not questioning our ability.
The nurse must have given her an affirmative answer, and Sheldon allowed himself to be led silently down the hall to a much calmer, quieter room, empty for now though Sheldon didn't doubt that the others would come. Raj, Howard, Bernadette, Leonard...
What if he never saw Leonard as a living, breathing person again? What if his last memory, etched forever into his immaculate mind, was Leonard turning his back to him and he, in turn, leaving Leonard? If he had been more persistent, if he had been 'nicer', would he be at home in bed, and Leonard would be snoring away?
Sheldon wanted to be mad at Leonard. He needed to be mad at Leonard.
He couldn't muster so much as irritation.
"Sheldon," Penny ventured, breaking the silence, drawing his eyes up from where he'd been staring at the pattern of the carpet, lost in another meaningless waste of time while waiting for the inevitable. "Want me to call your mom?"
He could think of nothing in this world that he wanted more than to hear his mother's voice, so he nodded weakly, his own hands shaking too much to operate his phone.
"Should I explain to her?"
"No," he murmured, his voice tight, rasping in his throat. "I'll do it."
She handed the pink phone that was already dialing out to him, and he clumsily pulled it up to his ear.
"There better be a good reason for me to be gettin' calls this late at night."
The sound of her voice broke a dam, the flood of anxiety and despair finding its path to freedom, tears stinging in his eyes. "L- Leonard was in an accident. He might not- he might-"
"Shelly," her voice warmed, softened, allowed him to break.
Penny excused herself shortly thereafter.
They were admitted to Leonard's private room in the early hours as the hospital began to stir with the morning shift of nurses preparing to start the day. Though he'd been warned, nothing could have prepared Sheldon for the sight of Leonard as he lay in the pristine bed, hooked up to machines that whirred, beeped, keeping him alive as his own body struggled to keep up.
The left side of his body seemed to be almost encased in gauze and casts, hiding the damage, holding things in place so that time might eventually heal them. Sheldon looked for Leonard's missing glasses, feeling unreasonably anxious that they might have been lost, like they were a vital part of him that he couldn't hope to recover without.
"Sleep, Sheldon," Penny urged him, taking one of the seats.
He shook his head.
He hadn't spoken more than a word or two since his call with his mother had ended. Sheldon knew the cause like he knew the source of most of his particular quirks, but that didn't exactly help. The truth was that he hadn't gone nonverbal in response to trauma or stress for a long, long time; he wasn't sure what to do about it except hope that it eventually went away.
Sheldon padded over to the locker containing Leonard's belongings and found his glasses, the frame bent out of shape, the left lens practically shattered.
"We'll try and get him some new ones before he gets up and around."
Sheldon nodded and closed the locker, skittering to the free recliner and settling uncomfortably into it, clutching Leonard's glasses as he watched his best friend survive.
By the end of the first day, Sheldon could talk again.
By the end of the second, the continued disruption to his routine was as much a source of stress as Leonard's catatonia, though the nurses said he was improving and had even taken him off the ventilator as he was capable of breathing on his own.
By the end of the third, Leonard's eyes blinked open, the heart monitor beeping faster as he took a look at the blurry world around him. Sheldon was at his bedside in an instant. "Leonard?"
"Hey," his said weakly, his voice barely a whisper. "Where am I?"
Leonard's brow furrowed. "Where are my glasses?"
"They broke," Sheldon said, chiding and feeling relief that he could fall into a familiar groove. "I called and had them order a replacement pair, but it'll take a few days before they'll get here."
"And you are?"
Sheldon froze, feeling the panic rise as quickly as it had before. "You don't remember."
"Do we? Go to college together or something?"
"As if I would go to Princeton," Sheldon said, hoping the familiar vein of taunting would awaken some form of memory, but the look on Leonard's face only etched deeper, his heart rate spiking even more. He made a move as if to sit up only to fall back immediately with a pained groan, gritting his teeth.
The beeping got faster.
Sheldon reached out calmly and pushed the Call Nurse button on Leonard's bed, standing to the side as one of them bustled in and began to take care of him. By the time she left, the drugs had hit Leonard's system hard, and he was out like a light.
Leonard drifted in and out of consciousness for days, never staying awake for longer than a few minutes. He complained when he finally managed: "I feel like I got hit by a bus."
"Close, but not quite."
"Why're you still here?" Leonard squinted up at him, trying to see through his blurry vision. "You're not the one who hit me, are you?"
"I am terrified of vehicles for this precise reason; you couldn't pay me to drive one, and you have attempted that route more than once."
He blinked a few times, struggling to sit up and crying out when it agitated one of his many injuries. "So, so you know me?"
"We're roommates. You're my best friend."
"Has anyone else come to visit?"
Though Sheldon hadn't anticipated emotional reciprocation, it hurt to be so barely acknowledged. "Yes. Penny, who lives across the hall, drops in when she comes to take me home to shower and change for the day. Our friends, Howard and Raj, and Howard's wife Bernadette have dropped in once, but you were asleep. I suspect they'll come around more as you experience more periods of lucidity."
Leonard nodded. "You don't have to stay here. I mean, I'm... It has to be a huge inconvenience."
"And what would I do if I went home only for your condition to worsen through neglect or lack of care? You need constant supervision, and I can't trust a busy hospital to watch you like you need to be watched over."
"You don't seem like you want to be here," Leonard murmured, "is all."
"I don't. I-"
"Then go home."
Sheldon bit the inside of his cheek before demanding. "Do you want me to leave?"
"No. But you're... you're important, right? I think I remember that. You're so important, and instead of doing whatever it is you need to be doing, you're babysitting me when it doesn't even matter."
"What doesn't matter?"
"If my condition worsens. If I die. I mean, I might anyway-"
"Don't say that," Sheldon hissed. "You're not allowed to."
"Not allowed to die?" Leonard gave a humorless chuckle.
"Exactly." Before Leonard could continue down the obvious path to his darker thoughts, Sheldon continued. "You owe me that much."
"You were performing an experiment in our apartment, but you miscalculated a measurement and created an unstable reaction that seemed likely to explode. You were going to take it all the way down four stories and outside, but I stopped you. I dragged you out and pushed the 'Close Door' button on the elevator seconds before the chemical reaction took place."
"I blew up the elevator," Leonard said, almost as if remembering.
"We blew up the elevator," Sheldon corrected. "So you're not allowed to die until I say you can."
"Why did you save me?" Leonard glanced at him, squinting through the blurs again, and Sheldon's breathing caught in his chest. "It seems like it would've saved us all a lot of trouble."
"Do you wish I hadn't?"
Leonard rolled his shoulders in a shrug, looking down at his hands. "I don't know. I mean, look around. No one else is here, not my family or my friends. So even though I can't remember it, I guess I can kinda tell my life wasn't worth saving."
"But you don't want to be."
"I hate hospitals; I hate germs. I hate the sight of blood and the knowledge that it's still a possibility that you will never return to normal. You might never regain your memories. You might have neurological damage from the accident or the surgery. I don't like new possibilities that factor complications into the order of my life." Sheldon said these things so matter-of-factly that Leonard seemed to shrink after each one, as if he were taking them all as personal failings on his part. "I don't want to be here, but I am."
"I can't be that important to you."
"You are the only one this important to me," Sheldon insisted, vehement.
Leonard nodded absently and didn't argue further, eventually sinking into his pillows and falling back asleep.
Sheldon's chest ached.
Penny took him to pick up Leonard's new glasses, and the next time he woke up, he was able to blink the world into focus. Leonard gave a bright smile to Penny, but when he turned to Sheldon, his expression shifted to contemplative.
"What?" He looked at Penny. "Do I have something on my face?"
Leonard answered, "I'm trying to remember you."
Sheldon rolled his eyes. "Ah, yes, why haven't other amnesiacs tried that route?"
"Sheldon," Penny chided.
He hunched over, crossing his arms. Huffed impatiently and irately, largely ignoring the conversation except to make note of what Leonard did seem to remember verses the swathes still missing from his memory.
When Penny left, Leonard glanced at him cautiously. "You're jealous?"
"I've only been sitting by your side since they moved you to this room, why would I expect you to be happy to see me when she's Penny?"
Leonard bit his lip. "I had a thing for her?"
"You've mooned over her since she moved next door. You used to date."
"We broke up?"
"And there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth. You listened to your loud, sad music for months." When Leonard only looked thoughtful, Sheldon eyed him. "What, no comments about how you never thought someone like you could be with someone like her? No talking about her apparent attractiveness, no lamentations that she got away?"
Leonard gave him a small smile. "Is it?"
"I don't lie, Leonard."
"I'm sure you have." He said it with such confidence that Sheldon felt put on the spot. The Lenny sweater came to mind, the mango caterpillars, or the number of times Sheldon hadn't mentioned Leonard's rolling eyes and under-the-breath sarcastic comments. After a few moments, Leonard ventured quietly, "Sheldon? Why am I important to you?"
"I don't understand the question."
"I mean. You clearly get annoyed with me on a regular basis, I'm disrupting your life by being in this stupid hospital because of some stupid accident. I can't even remember you. You said before that I was important to you, but I don't understand how I could be. I was an important research subject for my mother, and that's... that's pretty much it. Unless I was someone else before this, if I'd turned into someone... worthwhile." There were tears in his eyes, glistening as he averted his gaze. "But even then, shouldn't you hate me more, for taking that person away?"
"You are still exactly who you were from before, minus some memories."
"Then I can't be worth your time."
"You are," he insisted.
Sheldon grimaced, looking away himself, focusing his attention on the pattern of the flooring rather than the emotions he avoided talking about at all costs. "Before you came into my life, I didn't have any friends. I never had. I didn't think I wanted them or, or needed them. You were supposed to be a roommate, one in a line of many. You haven't had time to see it due to the amount of rest you need, but I'm very, very picky. No one got along with me. No one even tolerated me until you came along."
"I find that hard to believe."
"I can assure you that it's true. We didn't get along all the time. In fact, a lot of our interactions were punctuated with frustration and snark, but you never left."
"Of course I didn't."
"I think you wanted to." Confessed softly, "We fought the night of the accident. I provoked you into staying at work late because you weren't doing things to my exact specifications. It was more important to me that I 'win' our argument than it was to think about you. If you had died, it would have been my fault. This is my..." He couldn't bear to finish the sentence.
Leonard's fingers tapped on his tray. "Isn't that discounting a lot of variables? What if I'd worked late and you stayed, so we were both in the accident? Or if I'd looked to make sure the road was clear before going through the light? What if the guy driving the other car had actually stopped the way he was supposed to? You can't take sole responsibility for this."
Sheldon gave a dry laugh. "If you were in your right mind, you'd be happy that I took the blame."
"I am in my right mind," Leonard insisted sharply. Sheldon glanced over at him, eyes wide. "I might not remember everything, but I know that I wouldn't want you to blame yourself for my mistakes."
"But it was my-"
"Fine," Leonard sighed loudly. "Our mistakes, then. Because we were probably both at fault in some way, right?" Sheldon gave a slight nod. Without an impassioned outburst, Leonard seemed less certain of how to continue leading the conversation. "Sheldon," he said finally. Smiled at the sound of it, repeated fondly. "Sheldon. It sounds like we've both been there for each other for a long time."
"You more than I," he insisted.
"But if you made me feel like this, like I do now... I- I mean, without all the injuries and stuff; like, if you made me feel wanted and special and important to you, then you were there for me, too."
"I don't understand," Sheldon said, shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot, looking cautiously towards the door. "I haven't done anything worth praising."
"You've been here for me. You took care of me. You care about me."
"That's the bare minimum I owe you."
"Then give me more. Whether I ever regain my memories or not, whether I go back to being that Leonard or moving on from here – help me feel like you... like you might, y'know..."
He dared to look again. "I don't. Please elaborate."
Leonard was sitting up, forward, hand reaching out as far as he could, shaking weakly in the air. "Like you want me to stay. Like you like me. Like you could love me."
Sheldon felt as if he should run, as afraid of these unknown waters as he was any change, any deviation from what he considered the norm. But Leonard had struck a chord in him, a truth he hadn't dared to do more than hint at for years now: "I want you to stay with me more than anything in the world."
When Leonard smiled, Sheldon felt like the world brightened around him. "Would you hold my hand?"
"Would you like that?" Sheldon asked, stepping closer. "Would that make you want to stay?"
"I already want to stay, Sheldon. I want to feel wanted."
"Well," he considered, reaching for Leonard's grasping hand, fingers hesitantly wrapping around Leonard's own. "I can try to do better about that."
"I think that's all any version of me wants." Leonard's hand squeezed his and he lay back on his pillows.
Even when Leonard finally succumbed to sleep again, Sheldon found himself unwilling to let go.