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Fun with Flags

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“Leonard?”

“No.”

“I haven’t asked the question yet.”

“Don’t need to. Answer’s no.”

Leonard’s words were muffled, as he was lying facedown on the couch, but Sheldon received the message loud and clear. Leonard was refusing to cooperate because he wanted Sheldon to rally him to action. It was a common occurrence in their relationship. Leonard constantly refused to do even the simplest things, such as participate in safety drills or wash his feet before showering, unless Sheldon stayed on top of him. Sheldon wondered if Leonard was self-destructive or simply a needy, greedy baby, as suggested by Leonard’s mother. Sheldon had the utmost respect for Dr. Beverly Hofstadter, but he sometimes thought she was overly critical of Leonard. He was intellectually lazy and let his desire for sexual intercourse override his senses, but he was also very neat and took up very little space in the apartment. Leonard was a pocket-sized roommate who had earned the title of Little Buddy, both with his diminutive size and his devotion.

“Leonard, are you sad because Penny panicked at the idea of marrying you and ran off to a higher-paying job in New York City, and you’re afraid you’ll never find another woman to love you?” Sheldon asked. He knew the answer was ‘yes,’ but he found it often helped a conversation along if he gave his partner an easy question to answer. Leonard needed to have his self-esteem boosted.

Leonard moaned into the couch.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Sheldon sighed. “I see what’s happening here. You are waiting for me to haul you off that couch. Figuratively, of course. We both know I can barely budge you since you started bulking up with those girly push-ups. You want me to give you a reason to sit up and face the world again, even if it is a colder world without the hope of a woman’s touch…”

Leonard’s response was rude and anatomically confusing. Penny was no longer across the hall, so he could not knock on her door and ask her to explain what Leonard was suggesting with his insult. He could text her or video chat or even call her, but it wasn’t the same. Penny was gone.

“Move over, Little Buddy. This is now a pity party for two.”

Leonard looked confused but scooted over enough for Sheldon to lie down next to him. Small as Leonard was, it was still a tight fit for two grown men. Sheldon would not have been able to tolerate such close proximity to anyone but Leonard.

“Why are you doing this, Sheldon?”

“Because Amy left and that made me sad. And now Penny’s gone, and that makes me sad. And it makes you sad. And that makes me sad.”

Sheldon was caught off guard by his own honesty. Sometimes when he was too close to Leonard, he said or did strange things. He blamed Leonard’s hair gel. It was probably giving them both brain damage.

“I’m sorry, Sheldon. I know how hard change is for you, and I know you and Penny were close…”

“Please stop talking, Leonard.”

Leonard complied, and the roommates lay in companionable, miserable, sulking silence.

Xxx

Leonard and Sheldon ignored the knocking, and then the yelling, until Raj opened the door with his key.

“What is wrong with the two of you?” Howard demanded. Even Sheldon could identify his face as “concerned.” “Didn’t you hear us knocking?”

“Yes, we did,” Sheldon answered. “But we didn’t have the energy to get off the couch and let you in. We’re sulking.”

Sheldon turned towards his roommate.

“Leonard, I apologize for the times I mocked your sulky ways. This is terrific. It is Wednesday and I am wearing Tuesday socks, yet I am totally indifferent to the madness playing out on my feet.”

“You tweeted about your Tuesday socks,” Howard corrected, his face pinched.

“And posted a picture on Facebook,” Raj added.

“That was my effort to fish for sympathy,” Sheldon explain. “I’m ‘vague posting,’ so people will ask what is wrong, but I’ll ignore their inquiries and continue to mope about how no one cares about me. It’s part of sulking.”

Howard clapped Leonard on the shoulder and congratulated him on giving Sheldon a “master class in sulking.” Leonard simply let the power of Howard’s surely weak and ineffectual hand knock him over so he was leaning on Sheldon’s shoulder. Sheldon allowed the physical contact. Sheldon did not dislike physical contact. He disliked all the confusing feelings and behaviors that belonged to the people touching him, and their strange and threatening germs. Leonard’s germs were familiar and safe. His strange feelings and behaviors were predictable and dull.

“Why are you videoing us, Wolowitz?” Leonard asked in a muffled whine.

“I’m not even sure yet,” Howard replied. “But I’m sure I’ll think of something to do with this… sad, sad little romance you’ve got going on here.”

Xxx

Sheldon was enjoying the sulking. Being sad all day long slowed his mind down and eased his fidgeting body. When he felt the need to adhere to his routines, he would simply think about how Amy had abandoned him for Princeton, and a wave of sadness would dampen his other impulses. If that weren’t enough, he would ruminate about the fact that it was clearly Beverly Hofstadter who had engineered Amy being poached from Caltech. He had been betrayed by two trusted friends.

And if that didn’t get him properly sulky, he thought of Penny with tears in her big green eyes, telling him to “take care of Leonard.” Sheldon couldn’t take care of Leonard. Sheldon couldn’t even drive. According to Amy, Sheldon didn’t even understand the difference between romantic love and friendship. Sheldon dutifully reported in his weekly Skype conversation with Penny all the things he had done that week to “take care of Leonard,” but it felt like a sham. Leonard was a mess, and Sheldon wasn’t even trying to console him with hot beverages. Instead, he encouraged Leonard’s morose behavior because it kept him at Sheldon’s side. Sheldon could not bear losing one more friend.

It was Leonard that coaxed Sheldon to tape an episode of “Fun With Flags,” insisting Sheldon couldn’t let down his fans. Sheldon hoped he would be able to feign the proper enthusiasm. He wouldn’t want to tarnish the joy of flags with his personal sadness. He wasn’t a monster.

Xxx

Sheldon looked to his laptop for questions about the Uzbekistan flag. He did not expect there to be many, as he’d covered the material quite thoroughly, but was pleased to see several messages on his screen.

Upon further inspection, Sheldon was less pleased.

“When are you going to have Leonard on Fun with Flags????”

“You should do a show about your apartment’s flag. The lion thing.”

“Where’s Leonard?”

Only the final message made any sense.

“I love Sheldon!!!!!!!!!”

The last statement was followed by a series of heart-eyed emojis. It was only natural that the absence of Amy would inspire female fans to get their hopes up. Sheldon was aware that the mixture of his brilliance, his baby blue eyes, and the sheer excitement of flags made for an explosive combination. He was surprised it had taken so long for the fangirls to come out of the woodwork.

“I see we have a few comments asking about this flag,” Sheldon said to the camera while gesturing towards a golden lion, rampant on a field of azure. “This is the flag of my apartment, and while I do not blame you all for being fascinated, you’ll find episode 28 covered this flag in great detail. It’s a corker of an episode, and I highly recommend you all revisit it, posthaste. Now, if we can get back to Uzbekistan… You-bet-I-can! Oh, look. More messages… And they are all about Leonard. Why this sudden and frankly inexplicable interest in Leonard?”

Sheldon frowned as three nearly identical responses appeared on his screen from three different people. Each was a variation of, “You’re so cute together!”

Xxx

Sheldon was conflicted as he scrolled through Howard’s YouTube channel. On one hand, it was annoying and upsetting that Howard had compiled years worth of footage of Sheldon and Leonard at their most undignified for a channel called “Physicists Gone Wild.” On the other hand, the channel had thousands of followers. “Fun with Flags” had twelve. If Sheldon could funnel some of the traffic from Howard’s channel to his own, “Fun with Flags” could finally get the following it deserved. Sheldon knew he certainly wasn’t the only vexillologist eager to share knowledge of flags, but there remained a lack of cohesion in the community. Someone (Sheldon) needed to create a space where people could come together to share their passion for vexillogy. If he had to do some pandering to get people to watch his show (and fall in love), maybe it was a price worth paying.

Clearly, many of the subscribers to Howard’s channel were simply looking for lowbrow tomfoolery, something Sheldon would not bring to “Fun with Flags.”

But others were drawn to the chemistry between Leonard and Sheldon: their banter, their verbal sparring, their occasional slap fights. Many of the comments were about the endearing qualities of Leonard and Sheldon’s friendship. Sheldon felt strange reading through the comments. His chest felt tight as he read comment after comment about how “cute” and “sweet” he and Leonard were as a duo. There were even comments suggesting there might be, or at least could be, a romantic aspect to the relationship.

Some of the comments made Sheldon’s cheeks flush. He was no stranger to the world of ‘shipping.’ The internet was full of people determined to add romance to every blessed relationship in the media. Why did everything have to be about romance? Why did every relationship require sexual intercourse?

There were hundreds of strangers commenting on Leonard and Sheldon being “a couple.” It seemed a rather large number for a simple video of Leonard and Sheldon lying face down and side by side on the couch. It was now a regular part of their sulking routine.

Sheldon hesitantly began searching his name and Leonard’s.

It was worse than he ever could have imagined. There were fan videos. There were photo manips. There was fan fiction. Explicit fan fiction.

Sheldon felt profoundly uncomfortable with the attention being paid to his personal life by perfect strangers.

But he was also a bit flattered. It was time he had a fandom. It should be for his contributions to science rather than his personal life, but Sheldon and his boyish charm were an inseparable pair. Of course people were charmed by Sheldon. He was a charming man.

As he browsed the comments on each video, he saw a few familiar names among the strangers. Howard and Raj, of course. Bernadette. Kripke. A jealous Stuart. Penny had multiple comments on each video, encouraging the world to believe Sheldon and Leonard were in love and exchanging physical intimacies. Her familiar spew of emoticons after every comment weighed on Sheldon. He had never wanted to like Penny. He had known from the beginning that she would wreak havoc in his life, but he had grown to love her, and now she was gone. Like Amy. Sheldon had tried so hard to be a proper boyfriend to Amy. He had gone through the motions to the best of his ability to make Amy happy, but she had left as well.

“I miss my Bert and Ernie.”

Penny had written the comment two months ago.

Sheldon imagined his emotions were a parachute. He folded the parachute again and again until it had been transformed into a tiny brick of material that could be easily packed away.

Sheldon would focus all his energy on “Fun with Flags.” He would grow his fanbase and really put vexillology on the proverbial map. He’d think about the numbers. Numbers made sense.

xxx
“Ready for some Fun with Flags?” Leonard asked with what even Sheldon could identify as forced enthusiasm. The smile plastered across Leonard’s face bore little resemblance to his real smile. Sheldon had become more… emotional than he’d expected while asking Leonard to make an appearance on “Fun with Flags.” Now Leonard was doing a terrible job of pretending to be enthusiastic about vexillology. When it came to flags, you either got it or you didn’t. Leonard didn’t.

But Leonard had spent all night studying the flags of the Caribbean, barely kicking up a fuss about the quizzes and essays. Leonard had his faults, but when Sheldon really needed to have some control over his environment, Leonard knuckled under like a champ.

“Are you sure you want to livestream this?” Leonard asked as they set up the camera. “As much as I want this to be over in one shot, I don’t want you to start beating me on camera because I confused the flag for the British Virgin Islands with the flag for the Cayman Islands…”

“How can you possibly confuse those two, after all the time we spent reviewing…”

“I’m not going to confuse those flags… ever again!” Leonard promised desperately. “Please don’t sing the song again.”

Sheldon had his doubts about livestreaming, but he had no idea how long he’d be able to pull the wool over Leonard’s eyes. He was going to need to get some homosexual subtext on screen before Leonard figured out what was going on.

“Wouldn’t it make more sense for us to be on either side of the couch?” Leonard asked as they made their final tweaks to the set. “Like you and Amy did? We’re kind of squished together, sitting side by side.”

Sheldon was prepared for this one.

“Due to the scope of this week’s material, we’ll need a larger presentation space than usual, necessitating that we allow the material to extend past the edge of the couch, which means that you and I need to be on the other end of the couch. Together.”

Leonard’s face was tense. Possibly quizzical. Possibly angry. It was time to pull out the big guns.

“Of course, I had to be careful with how I arranged Amy and me on the couch. Too much proximity, and her baser urges would make her difficult to handle. But she’s gone now. She’s chosen her career over our relationship and left me forever.”

Sheldon smiled as Leonard’s body sagged with guilt. “Sorry, buddy. Let’s do this.”

Xxx

“…and the flag of the British Virgin Islands features Saint Ursula and the lamps of her virgin followers,” Leonard recited without error.

Sheldon patted Leonard’s thigh. “Well done, Little Buddy.”

Leonard was giving Sheldon a strange look, so Sheldon amped up the sexual tension and gave Leonard’s knee a squeeze.

Leonard gave Sheldon a stranger look.

“I should let the people at home know that Leonard and I stayed up quite late last night. Together.”

“We stayed up until 10:30,” Leonard confirmed.

“But then Leonard spent the entire night with my voice in his ear,” Sheldon added, watching his screen fill with comments from viewers. There had to be twelve people watching them live.

“Sheldon recorded two hours of him reciting flag facts and played it while I slept.”

“Leonard, you look playfully exasperated by my behavior. We do have a charming back and forth in our… relationship.”

Sheldon gave the camera a meaningful look. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw more messages pop up. 673 episodes in, and “Fun with Flags” was finally catching fire.

“Yeah, Sheldon. We’re a real Tracy and Hepburn.”

“Leonard is referencing Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, a couple known for their witty repartee and sexual chemistry on and off the big screen. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?”

“Are you having a stroke?” Leonard asked. Sheldon examined his roommate’s face. Leonard was likely being sarcastic.

“Oh, Leonard. You are amusing in the way you make your jokes about my well-being. Am I having a stroke? LOL, am I right, kids at home?”

“It looks like you have a lot of messages,” Leonard observed. “Maybe you should take some questions from the audience.”

Sheldon carefully kept the screen angled away from Leonard. He had a feeling his roommate would be unhappy about the content of the audience comments.

Sheldon scanned through the emoticons and “squee”s and “OMG”s and Howard repeatedly asking “what the photon are you two doing?”

“Well, we have a lot of encouraging comments here, but no questions about the flags of the Caribbean. My guess is you are all waiting for the big finale. That’s right, we’re going to discuss the flag of the Pirates of the Caribbean. Not the historically inaccurate films, but the actual pirates. Here’s a fun fact. Did you know that one of the many slurs used to describe homosexuals is the term bu-…”

Sheldon tolerated Leonard’s hand over his mouth, as it was technically physical contact, and that was what the audience wanted. It was all about the numbers. Precious, validating viewer numbers. A quantification of his success in at least one aspect of his life.

“What Sheldon meant to say is, pirates are fun! Now let’s have a look at some Jolly Ranchers. Rogers. Jolly Rogers.”

Sheldon did not have to fake his exasperation with Leonard, or his affection, as his friend butchered the last fifteen minutes of the webcast with his awkward efforts to sell Jolly Rogers. You don’t have to sell a flag, a flag sells itself. The presenter just does his best to stay out of the way.

Xxx

Leonard moaned and dropped facedown on the couch as soon as they were done recording.

“What was that?” he mumbled into the couch cushions.

Sheldon pretended not to hear as he looked at the comments. There were thirty-two people who had commented. A few of them were familiar (Howard, Raj, Bernadette, Penny, and Amy had all made appearances), but most of them were apparently new viewers.

“Looks like the episode was a smash hit,” Sheldon observed. “You’ll have to make another appearance. The ladies really respond to you.”

It was technically true. Ladies had “squeed” over Leonard throughout the taping.

It was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Leonard was over Sheldon’s shoulder in a moment.

“What the… Sheldon! What is going on here?” Leonard demanded as he tried to prevent Sheldon from closing the laptop. “Why are there all these comments about us being adorable? Did that person say we should kiss?”

Several comments involved Leonard and Sheldon kissing. One of them was from Penny.

Despite being sickly, small, and asthmatic, Leonard was a formidable physical opponent. He had a low center of gravity and the tenacity of a pit bull. Sheldon finally surrendered his laptop and waited for the yelling to begin, but Leonard was quiet as he read.

“What’s going on here?” Leonard finally asked. He didn’t look quite angry, but he certainly did not look happy.

“I happened to come across evidence that there are people out there, familiar with our work, who think we have… chemistry.”

Sheldon couldn’t look at Leonard, so he stared at his own feet.

“People who are familiar with our work in physics?”

“You might want to Google, ‘physicists gone wild.’”

Sheldon cast furtive glances as Leonard quietly cursed Howard.

“So these girls actually want to see you and I… touching? Why?”

“I’m a tall, dashing, brilliant, handsome man and you are a tiny little submissive man with pouty lips. What’s not to ship?”

Sheldon was certain Leonard was torn between being angry and flattered.

“So you’re using this to get ratings for “Fun with Flags”? Do you realize how strange this is? Even for you?”

Sheldon didn’t think it was strange. When the world was too much, he hid in obsessions. This was his current obsession.

“Besides, it’s dishonest. You can’t pretend to be attracted to me just to get a few girls watching your show.”

Sheldon stared at his shoes.

“Is this about Amy?”

“When Amy was offered the position at Caltech, she asked me if I thought we had a future. She asked if I could imagine us getting married and having children. If I could imagine us… being intimate.”

Sheldon had never told anyone the full story. Leonard hadn’t asked for details; he had just made Sheldon some tea and put on some “Dr. Who,” like the friend he was.

“And what did you say?” Leonard asked. His voice was quiet and gentle. Sheldon was nearly tempted to ask his roommate for a hug, but it felt too dangerous somehow.

“I told her I wasn’t sure, but that it was possible. I’ve changed a lot in the past couple of years…”

Leonard covered Sheldon’s hand with his own. “You sure have, buddy.”

“I told her I could imagine being sexually intimate with her… at some point. In the future. I said I could try closing my eyes and picturing your face, the way I do when Amy and I are kissing…”

“You said what?”

Sheldon could tell he’d entered into dangerous territory.

“I feel comfortable with you, Leonard. You’re my lodestone. My rock. My security blanket.”

“Sheldon, I…”

“Don’t interrupt me, Leonard. I’m in the middle of something here. Needy baby, indeed. As I was saying, I rely on you as a constant, familiar presence in my life.”

Leonard fidgeted a while before asking, “Do you mean you need me as a friend, or are you saying something else?”

It felt like a loaded question.

“Define ‘something else.’”

“Are you suggesting we should engage in a romantic relationship?”

“Of course not!” Sheldon cried, horrified. “That is the last thing I would suggest. That may be what Amy thinks I want and what your mother thinks would be best…”

“My mother thinks we should be having sex? How? Why? Never mind. I’m certain I don’t want to know.”

“She said it was best that Amy leave and focus on her career. That she was wasting her potential lusting after me, and that it was time for you to settle down with someone who could challenge you intellectually and wake you out of your academic stupor.”

“Academic stupor? My mother wants me to be gay so I’ll get more papers published?”

“Of course not. Your mother believes your preference for women who are out of your league reflects your efforts to be ‘normal,’ rather than your actual sexual preferences.”

Leonard removed his glasses and rubbed his face like he was tired.

“Let’s stop talking about my mother. And Amy. And everyone on the internet. Do you want a relationship with me that is romantic? Sexual? Both?”

Sheldon sat at his desk and stared at his laptop. His chest felt painfully tight.

“Sheldon?”

He could barely breathe. It was like he was wearing a straightjacket.

Sheldon focused on trying to breathe while Leonard came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Sheldon’s chest, resting his head on Sheldon’s.

“It’s okay, Sheldon. Whatever you want to say. It’s going to be okay. I… I’m not sure what I feel, but I know that this will be okay.”

Sheldon closed his eyes and evaluated his response to Leonard’s embrace. He felt warm. He felt safe.

“I’ve never considered being with a man,” Leonard admitted. “I mean, I’ve thought about it. Everyone thinks about those things. And there was one time at band camp when Jimmy Wellers and I…”

“Please shut up.” Sheldon was aware his response was a touch curt, but he was not prepared to watch Leonard neurotically agonize over his sexuality. As always, Leonard was sure to end up conceding his mother was right. She was a brilliant woman.

“I don’t know if I want to have sex with anyone,” Sheldon explained. “But if I were to achieve that level of physical intimacy with anyone, I would prefer it was with you.”

“Oh, Shelly,” Leonard sighed as he rubbed his cheek against Sheldon’s hair. “We’ll make this work. Did you just take a picture of us?”

Sheldon did not turn around, not wanting to see his roommate’s angry face. He preferred to look at the picture filling the screen on his laptop. An image of Leonard tenderly holding Sheldon. It was going to drive the fangirls crazy.

“Don’t yell at me, Leonard. It’s been a long day.”

Sheldon wasn’t sure how to respond when he felt Leonard’s lips press against his cheek, but he felt no desire to pull away. Not even when Leonard tilted Sheldon’s chin upwards and kissed him on the lips.

He snapped another picture with the camera on his laptop. “Fun with Flags” was about to go viral.