do i love you, do i hate you?
i can’t make up my mind.
so let’s free fall and see where we land.
where we land, ed sheeran
In the end, it all comes down to this: who would you save in the event of a zombie apocalypse? Yourself? Your roommate? Your other friends? The annoying blonde waitress from across the hall? After much consideration, Sheldon decides he would definitely save the waitress.
She takes great pride in her ability to utterly disarm him.
(She doesn’t even have to take her clothes off.)
As usual, what happens only happens because neither of them know when to shut up and/or back down. (And because even uptight obsessive scientists want to love and be loved.)
She has come to share her delicious sausage spaghetti with him because he loves it and she’s so excited she doesn’t mind sharing her enthusiasm with Sheldon, of all people. The boys are out: Bernadette steamrolled Howard into going on a double date with Leonard’s new lady friend (a redheaded journalist called Madeleine), and Raj is in India, at a friend’s wedding – Penny has been forced to temporarily unfollow him on Twitter because he won’t stop posting obnoxious drunken tweets about it. And so she’s found herself here, in apartment 4A, with big news to tell and no one to hear them except her tall antisocial physicist neighbor.
She has an audition for a play, an actual play a friend of a friend of hers wrote. She tells him, in short bursts of monologue, breathless with thrill and fear. He only listens, his face unreadable.
“I mean, how hard can it be? The part was basically written for me. I can feel it, Sheldon, I swear, I can do this,” she babbles on, twisting a string of spaghetti round her fork.
“Though issuing an accurate prediction of your results is impossible without having seen you perform – after all, I am yet to determine whether or not you posses any talent –“
Seeing the dangerous glare she’s giving him, he hurries on to the end of the sentence. “– I believe social convention dictates that I wish you luck on your endeavor and assure you that you are skilled enough to obtain the role.”
She rolls her eyes. “Thanks, buddy. How’d you like dinner?”
“Very enjoyable, thank you,” he says, patting his stomach.
Penny smiles. He can be remarkably easy to please, considering he’s the most complex/crazy/brilliant man she’s ever met. He is like a child lost in the woods and sometimes, she can’t help looking after him.
Later, she’s helping him wash the dishes when she notices a large square of paper taped to the fridge.
“Is that your daily schedule?”
“That is correct. I strongly recommend you adopt this organizational technique, as it’ll do wonders for your time management.”
He can sense a hint of disapproval. “What?”
“Well, it’s kinda funny.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“I mean, isn’t science all about being amazed by the world and stuff?”
She is so unexpectedly right it leaves him speechless for a moment. “Indeed,” he says, frowning. “I don’t see how that is related to my daily schedule.”
“You’re super busy. Your schedule,” Penny explains, “doesn’t seem to leave much time for anything between your work and your cleaning and your game-nights and your Star Trek marathons. It’s like you can never sit down and just contemplate the nature of Newton’s Laws or whatever.”
She’s dancing around something she’s been meaning to tell him, but one of the advantages of being brilliant is that he can see where she’s going with this. “I believe you’re attempting to imply that I have lost track of my scientific passion. I’ll have you know science is nothing without method-“
“Sheldon, you’re bored with your perfectly scheduled life! You’re going nowhere. And frankly that’s my thing,” she jokes.
“Indeed it is!” he snaps rudely. “And I shall not stand here and be lectured on life choices by an aimless waitress!”
She throws a sofa cushion at him. “Bastard! Take that back!”
“Never! Apologize to me!”
It’s one of those moments when they both know they’ve gone too far. She stares him down until he turns away, and counts to fifty, trying to remind herself that he is practically a child and she mustn’t take him seriously.
“My apologies,” he mutters at last.
“I’m sorry,” she says, her voice clipped and hard, but he won’t respond. “Why don’t you switch to something more exciting? Maybe you started with the boring part of science-”
“There is no boring part,” he lies. Her phrasing is unpleasantly vague but there are boring parts alright.
“-not that I know the difference between a molecule and a chocolate chip, but-”
“That’s hardly plausible.”
“It’s a figure of speech!”, she says tiredly, crossing her arms over her chest. “I’m just trying to help you out here.”
He turns to say her help was never requested when suddenly he takes a second to look at her and remembers a number of things that he forgot. The smell of damp grass and impending rain. The wind on his face when he and Missy ran around the back lawn because they couldn’t sit still and be good while their mother cleaned inside. His first nights in California, being so alone the only way not to feel sad was to pretend it didn’t matter. That deep, unmoving sorrow when his father died, like an underground lake. He takes a step forward and his eyes wander over the curve of her lips, the bridge of her nose, her eyes, her hair turning golden with the setting sun. The beauty of the world, yes. And the wonder. Nights when he fell on his knees under a starry Texan sky because he could not believe the universe, its greatness and magnificence compared to humanity’s hopeless insignificance. The conviction to devote his entire life to that daunting force.
“Your help is appreciated,” he says at last. “And I must say your hypothesis is most probably correct.”
“What?” She arches an eyebrow and laughs. “Who are you and what did you do with Sheldon Cooper?”
He almost smiles. The joy of the world. He forgot that, too. “Have you any other piece of advice in stock for me?”
“Maybe it’s like me and men. After a while you realize they’re all the same.”
“How are your erratic relationships related to my career?”
“I’m saying maybe you know too much. Maybe there’s nothing that can puzzle you anymore.” She shrugs.
His eyes dart to her of their own accord. Speaking of mysteries. What do you taste like could I lift you in my arms would we fit. Would we fit.
“Oh no,” he says, trying to regain some composure and waving a hand so as to dismiss her idea. “There’s a number of things I still fail to comprehend...”
(Namely what she means to him and what to do about it.)
“… social protocols and expected behavior, for instance.”
“There you go. You could work on sociology for some time.”
He scoffs. “And sink down to the hippie abyss of social studies? I refuse.”
She pinches her nose, exasperated, and pats his shoulder. “You know what, I’m sure you’ll figure things out, sweetie. I gotta do my laundry.” She’s heading for the door when he calls after her.
“Penny, may I ask you a personal question?”
“Would you say you are as passionate about acting as I am about science?”
“Yes,” she says after a moment, meeting his gaze with curiosity. “Why?”
“Because in that case, I believe I must offer you my apologies for previously deeming your career aspirations inferior or silly,” he says solemnly, hands clasped behind his back.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” she asks, one eyebrow arched and her mouth in a lopsided grin, and he laughs before he can remind himself scientists are not supposed to. She makes a second attempt to leave when his voice stops her in her tracks once more.
“Would you say you’re my friend?”
She rolls her eyes but her voice is so thick with fondness even he can detect it. “Yes. Why?”
“My mother has been arranging a small family gathering in honor of Missy’s twenty-seventh birthday. Mother insisted that I invite friends,“ he explains, avoiding her gaze. “Koothrappali, Wolowitz and Leonard have so far refused.”
“You want me to go to Texas with you?”
“As friends, and while honoring conventional social protocol, I understand it is customary to extend you an invitation. Attendance, however, is not compulsory, as it was not specified in any contract-“
“Sheldon!” she says, raising both her hands in order to stop him talking. She is about to say no, and then she suddenly imagines what it must be like to be told no all your life. Hell, she doesn’t have to imagine it: she knows exactly how it feels when doors slam shut in your face. When you wait and wait but the phone never rings. Yet it is undeniable that going on a trip with Sheldon Cooper is more than a little crazy.
Then again, she likes a little crazy. Otherwise she wouldn’t be standing here – she would have never ventured into apartment 4A in the first place.
“When is that party?”
“Next Saturday,” he informs her.
“Listen, here’s what we’re gonna do. If I get the part, I’ll go with you and we’ll celebrate, how’s that sound?”
“I am satisfied with the terms of this agreement.” He nods.
“Alright.” She turns the knob. “I’ll let you know. Gotta go. Those clothes ain’t gonna wash themselves.”
“Actually, the purpose of washing machines,“ he begins to say, but she’s already shutting the door in his face.
“Bye!” she yells.
Sheldon hesitates before pressing his palms against the door, like he was going to hug her but reacted too late.
He actually really smiles.
She gets the part. They throw her a party in apartment 4D on Friday night, and everybody is dismayed to find out she’s going to Missy’s party.
“Man, you do not know what you just got yourself into,” Leonard says.
She is a bit too drunk to think about the implications of this little trip, but she knows better than going back on her word now. It’s just a weekend after all, how wrong can it all go?
(Then again, that’s exactly the thing about Sheldon: every time she expects him to be terrible, he is even worse, but when she’s really given up all hope, he does something rather beautiful, like move out of his apartment so he can still keep her secret.)
“If I didn’t know Sheldon I’d bet my ass he has an agenda.” Howard raises both his eyebrows eloquently.
Penny makes a disgusted face. “Gross, Wolowitz.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fun,” Bernadette says kindly, and then, in a whisper, “call if you need us to rescue you, though.”
She is tempted to call on the way there already. The flight with Sheldon is not exactly a walk in the park –nothing ever is with him-, but she feels so happy and accomplished she doesn’t even complain. (Okay, she does complain a little. A lot. The point is that she doesn’t strangle him.)
The minute they get to Galveston, his accent resurfaces, automatically and irreversibly. Penny sits at the dinner table and listens to the Coopers talk about their lives and the town, the present and the past, and when Sheldon makes the word ham sound like hey-um, she laughs because the vowel changes, the slurred consonants and the lazy pace of his words are all so very different from his usual clipped pompous run-on sentences. He is so very different here, she can already tell.
She wipes a napkin across her mouth in an attempt to cover up her laughter, and catches Sheldon staring, the corner of his lips twitching upwards like he can’t stop himself. She couldn’t tell you why, but from this day onwards, Sheldon’s pale blue eyes won’t remind her of distant icebergs. She’ll look at them and think of stunning mountains, and sunny days, and clear skies over Nebraska.
He will probably never ever say it aloud – or admit to having said it, anyway – but he loves her, really, in that quiet faithful fond way of his. There must come a day when he stops looking for excuses, and he tells her this.
“Oh just speak plain to me, man,” she says later, when they’re sharing dessert on the porch swing and he’s trying to thank her for coming here without giving himself away.
“I – I don’t think I know how,” he says slowly, and it’s perhaps the most honest he’s ever been with her. “I’m not good with words.”
“Neither am I.”
“I’m attempting to express – I would like to say thank you.”
Penny looks at him leaning against the porch railing and smiles knowingly. “You’re welcome,” she says. For some reason it feels like they’ve said much more. It always does with him.
(She didn’t even need to ask him what he was thanking her for.)
They’re walking round town doing errands for Mrs. Cooper under the pretense of “seeing the sights.” In a rare courteous gesture, he does not let her carry any of the grocery bags. He shows her the church his mother used to drag him to, his old high school, the comic book stores he remembers. “So this is where you were young, wild and free, huh?” She smirks
“Those terms do not apply to my experience regardless of their high occurrence in pop culture.”
“Well how would you describe it, then?”
He falls silent. “Tedious,” he says finally, infusing every syllable with utter sadness. “Endless.”
Like he couldn’t wait to run away.
She knows the feeling.
“It has repeatedly been brought to my attention that I may be out of my senses,” he says, later, out of the blue, when she’s driving them back to his house. “Would you concur?”
She is tempted to say something mean and snarky and biting, as she usually would. This is how she functions in this relationship: he’s rude, she snaps, he apologizes, she forgives him - over and over the same circle of bickering and truce. But he’s so quiet here, so unlike himself and she can’t bring herself to be another thorn in his side.
She compromises. "Sometimes, Sheldon, sometimes. Happens to all of us.”
He is a child lost in the woods and she is always looking after him, even if he won’t let her.
She follows him out and watches him sit in the backyard by himself, after dinner. A few moments ago it took most of her charm to prevent a major family disaster after Mrs. Cooper insisted on giving his son a pocket Bible, which he of course immediately refused to accept. The disagreement soon escalated into their usual science versus religion argument and Penny is sure had she not intervened they’d still be having a screaming contest.
“So whatcha doing here alone anyway?”
“I guess you could say I’m following your advice,” he says, looking away. He doesn’t elaborate, but he’s basically sitting out here in the world and trying to remember what it felt like to love it.
She doesn’t ask what he means by that. Instead, she says, “It’s beautiful,” nodding in the general direction of the sky. “I’d never seen so many stars together except at the Oscars.”
She pauses. “That was a joke, Sheldon. You were supposed to laugh.”
“Was I? It didn’t amuse me.”
She smacks him in the arm.
“Ouch! If it was a joke you could have signaled it by saying Bazinga-”
“Sheldon!”She flops onto the grass beside him. “Listen, I’m sorry about what happened earlier, with your Mom.”
He frowns. “There’s no need to apologize for something you did not cause.”
“It’s called empathy, Sheldon.” She shakes her head at his helpless social skills (or lack thereof). “It sucks, fighting with your own family.”
He shifts on the spot, uncomfortable. “As you know I do not enjoy sentimentality. However, yes, it is my wish that eventually my mother understands and accepts the choices I have made in this life.”
She looks up, biting her lip, deep in thought. The wind blows past her ruffling her hair, like in the movies. He has never seen anything or anyone more beautiful.
“Well I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I get you, Sheldon, and if I can – and God knows you are impossible most times – I’m sure your mother can, too. She’s your Mom, after all. I’m sure she loves you more than anyone on the planet –“
“What?” He turns to face her, eyebrows raised.
He closes his mouth and shakes his head briefly and says, “Initially, I did not believe it possible for us to get along. I did not believe it was possible for you to understand or appreciate me.”
(She can’t believe it either, how she suddenly understands his brain is always somewhere else, in subatomic spaces of violence and power and unthinkable forces. How the world calls to him and he can’t tear himself away. How his natural gravity keeps drawing her in and maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t have to fight back.)
She laughs. “Um, yeah, I didn’t see it coming either, buddy, but, I get you and I like you. When you’re not being a rude jackass, that is.”
“I understand despite my brilliance I do not possess appropriate social skills and that makes me quote unquote ‘difficult’,” he admits.
She pats his back. “Alright alright, enough with the weird reasonable Sheldon, you’re creeping me out!” She uncrosses her legs and stands, ready to go back into the house.
“Penny,” he says then. The way he says it, like those two syllables mean love or help or I’m trying here, like her name is a mantra or like she’s a puzzle he simply can’t figure out and it’s driving him crazy – the way he stands towering over her, stammering in an attempt to say something he doesn’t even have the words for – it all tells her exactly what it is he’s struggling with. So instead of waiting for his brain and tongue to connect, she stands on tiptoe and presses her lips to his, and waits until he’s kissing her back against his better judgment.
For every action, an equal reaction, he thinks, eager and shy and clumsy, long awkward arms wrapping tentatively round her waist.
He pulls away, breathless. “Well, well, well,” he says, pacing. “Fascinating.”
Penny rolls her eyes. Suddenly they hear voices – Mrs. Cooper and Missy are calling them inside. She kisses him again, harder this time, anchoring her hands on the hair at the back of his head and tugging at his bottom lip.
“Sweet Lord in Heaven,” he breathes out, eyes wide in amazement, and Penny smirks.
“Come on, Shelly,” she says. “They’re waiting for us.”
“The thing about the world,” he says on the flight back, trying to keep the truth from sounding like an artificial thing, a prepared speech or a robot talking, “is that I worked so hard to understand it all – every atom, every force- I forgot how beautiful and thrilling and mysterious the world is. And I still want to understand it. But I also want to live in it. Does that make sense?”
She can’t believe Sheldon Cooper, of all people, is asking her this question. “Yeah, yeah it does,” she says kindly.
She holds out her hand and he allows himself to take it.
(Penny’s teaching him to trust his instincts, though of course part of him thinks “trusting one’s instincts” is a means of psychological justification for indulging in reprehensible decisions. Still, he tries, because she’s Penny and she wants the best for him and friends trust each other. Not that he has a choice. He’s ninety-nine percent certain there is no world in which he is not totally under her command.)
The morning after opening night – which goes so well they get hired for the entire season in two more locations-, Penny surprises Sheldon with a French kiss by the mailboxes.
“What the Hell?”Leonard says, seeing them as he comes downstairs. “Penny?”
“Hello, Leonard,” she says, poker-faced, still holding onto Sheldon’s jacket, and Sheldon blinks and says, “Really, woman, if you insist on making a fool of me-“and Penny laughs and laughs because there’s nothing she enjoys as much as disconcerting scientists.
She keeps reminding him that life can be simple and beautiful and Sheldon decides she’s really the smart one, after all.
“Has anyone ever told you you’ve got giant hands?” Penny asks, staring at their entwined palms. Her normal-sized fingers look tiny against his, long and slender like a pianist’s. “You giant weirdo,” she says, leaning into him fondly.
Sheldon stares too and remembers something. He says, “Penny, would you care to explain to me the significance and origin of the slang term ‘put a ring on it’?”
“Are you serious?” Penny’s lips curl in a mischievous smile. “Oh my God, I’m gonna make you see all the YouTube videos!” she says excitedly.
“Oh no,” Sheldon says, frowning.
(“You’re right, I don’t understand you,” he said during the fight she thought would be their last. “I’m sorry but you are an enigma and I usually don’t know how I am to behave around you.”
“Oh please.” She rolled her eyes, indignant. “It’s not complicated, Sheldon! You either want to be with me or not, so what’s it gonna be?”
He stared at her and said, slowly, like he was explaining something of the utmost importance, “It is complicated to me -”
She headed for the door. “I’m leaving –“
“However –“he said, blocking the door with his body, “However, you are indispensable to me and I do not intend to let you go.”
She stared at him, hands on her hips, tears prickling at the corners of her eyes. “Sheldon Lee Cooper, if this is a Bazinga, I swear to God –“
“Please, Penny,” he said, and for the first time she heard his voice crack with something like desperation and she wondered, Why are we fighting when I care about him so much?
“Okay.” She placed one hand on his chest, the other on his jawbone. “Okay, sweetie. I’ll stay.”
“Will you really?”
“Yes.” She smiled despite herself, burying her face on his Superman T-shirt. “Yes, and now kiss me before I change my mind.”)
Sometimes, Sheldon Cooper does not believe his luck. Sometimes, he thinks there may be a God out there after all. Sometimes, he marvels that he lives in a world where the woman he loves stands in front of him and says yes, to him of all people, where the woman he loves stays with him, where the woman he loves is warm and electrifying and small against his skin, where he gets to say “Penny, dear,” and she looks up at him and Pasadena starts to feel like home.