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The Vulnerability Vertices

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It had been one of those days.

She stood still, smiling at the casting director as he blandly looked over her paperwork. With a knowing look to his assistants, he dismissed her casually.


"We'll get back to you," he said, but Penny knew it was a lie. Something this guy probably said many times over the years to empty-headed midwestern girls, and something that had been said to her three times just that morning.

She left the auditions feeling worse than before, her mood not giving her the best start for her Cheesecake Factory shift.

She was pouring a refill of sweet tea when her maudlin thoughts were interrupted by her patron.


"Smile sweetie," the jerk said, the smack on her ass the perfect punctuation for his negging. And smile she did, but it never helped too much. Her tips were measly that night, even less than the weekend prior. She had just enough money to put gas in the tank and buy herself a cheap bottle of wine... or three. 2 buck bottles were a godsend as far as Penny was concerned. With one bottle she felt her anger at her financial situation melt away, with two her resentment for Kurt was lost between the couch cushions along with the TV remote, and through her third she could barely think at all. After rooting around her kitchen she found a half-empty bottle of tequila, so down the hatch it went. She was floating, blissfully unaware and unburdened.

She didn't really register as Leonard let himself into her apartment with his old key.

She didn't understand him when he was begging for her body.

She couldn't feel her own fingers, so how was she supposed to feel his lips on her skin?

She hardly noticed when she was pushed onto her unmade bed. When he pushed her clothes away. When he pushed into her.

Her brain was swimming in a roiling ocean of alcohol, and since the scene was so nostalgic, so reminiscent of her previous encounters with him, she didn't even register that it wasn't right until it was too late.

 

"No... what are you doing?" she whimpered quietly, the shapes and motions and sensations all a nauseating blur. The only noise was him, his labored breathing, his moaning.

 

"Making you feel good," Leonard assured as he pleasured himself with her body, his voice clipped.

 

"But..." Penny slurred. "I don't feel..." she couldn't even finish her thought as his hands groped and body prodded, her stomach contents nearly coming up.

But I don't feel good, Penny had wanted to say. This doesn't feel good at all.

He left her in bed naked from the waist down. Penny was passed out at this point, the alcohol and stress finally taking her away from this scary place and time. It hadn't been the first time he'd done this, had left her like this after using her. But they had been dating at the time so it hadn't seemed so horrible. She had used him too, right?

Now it seemed more horrifying than she could have ever imagined. She had never used him like this.


The next morning Penny woke with a splitting headache, and as soon as the mid-morning sunlight hit her eyes she felt as if she couldn't stop herself from giving into the intense nausea. She rolled over and tried to stand quickly so she could get to the bathroom, but she couldn't, her legs were wobbly jelly and instead of making it to the toilet Penny ended up on the floor of her bedroom.

She felt the fluffy rug on her bare ass and flinched as she bit her lip, confused. Had she gone to bed naked? And why did her lip hurt so badly? She looked down at her body, eyes squinting in the harsh sunlight.

She wasn't naked, but she wasn't wearing underwear. She never went to bed without bottoms on, so where did her shorts go? Penny glanced around the room slowly, eyes blinking away the sleep. There! Thrown on the closed lid of the empty hamper were her pink Hello Kitty shorts, the ones that matched the top she wore now. Her brow scrunched in curiosity.

 

"I never use the hamp..." Penny muttered, words cut off by another wave of intense nausea. Her eyes naturally gravitated towards her exposed lower half and spotted something very unexpected, very unbelievable. Her hesitant fingers dipped down and rubbed against her inner thigh, feeling the familiar texture of drying come on her skin. Penny shook her head in shock and bewilderment, had she picked up some guy last night? Had she been that drunk? She tried to remember, but when she did it only caused Penny to panic. She had been drinking alone last night, all by herself on the couch. Who had done this to her?

 

"What happened?" Penny whispered desperately, looking around again as if the answer would be somewhere in her bedroom. Her eyes caught the painful glint of sunlight off of glass... specifically glasses, black framed, sitting innocently on her nightstand.

Her heart stopped as she remembered who had come by last night. Flashes of his needy insistence, his whining and pushing. She felt the floor wobble before she heaved a terrified breath and threw up all over her pink rug. Tears came to her eyes as she clutched the side of the bed, she couldn't stop retching. He hadn't! Leonard couldn't!

 

But he had.

 

Picking herself off the floor, Penny ran on unsteady legs to the bathroom and ripped off her tank top, throwing on instead a clean and soft bathrobe. She couldn't stop crying as she shakily brushed her teeth and washed her face. Anything to give her more time to process. There wasn't enough time in the universe for Penny to figure out why Leonard had done what he did, but five minutes certainly wasn't enough to even calm down.

A familiar string of knocks came from the front door and her sobs became more erratic.

 

"Not now!" Penny cried as she scrubbed a towel over her face. Leave it to Sheldon to pick the worst time to come over.

 

"Penny!" called Sheldon from outside, his knocking ritual seemingly coming to a close. She sighed in relief, hoping desperately he had taken the hint and left her alone, but no, the knocking started again. The repetitive gesture was so familiar it helped ease the coil of pure freak out that was about to explode inside her. That freaking wackadoodle. Part of her seriously wanted to scream and scrub her skin off, but another, smaller and more timid part wanted to smile that he was here at all. That place felt inaccessible, though, clouded and unreachable from the mental trench she was standing in. Penny wrapped herself tighter in her bathrobe and approached the door, opening it slowly.

If only she had known how she looked.

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon breathed a sigh of relief when Penny finally answered, but what greeted him was frankly... shocking.

 

"Penny... are you ill?" Sheldon inquired with concern, more than he had likely ever expressed for anyone. She looked horrible, eyes dark and puffy, lips swollen and bloody, her day-old makeup was streaked and rubbed off in places. Sheldon couldn't imagine what could have occurred to make his neighbor appear so disheveled, but his closest possible guess was that she must be under the weather. He took two steps back and cringed.

Penny looked down, covering her face with her hair. She appeared embarrassed, and she began to shake silently.

 

"No, I'm perfectly heal..healthy. What do you need Sheldon?" she asked him with, the question familiar but her tone so out of place.

 

"Well I..." Sheldon nearly stammered, unable to stop from memorizing every detail of her condition. Unlike his friends and colleagues liked to imagine, he was no robot. He did feel, and he felt the most towards his Meemaw and whomever he deemed his best friend. After the Arctic incident, and the subsequent retrieval of himself from Texas he had begun to think of his neighbor Penny as a better candidate for best friend than Leonard, and certainly she had proved herself a more than adequate replacement. So, it was more than natural that he pay extra attention to her wellbeing. She was clearly in distress, he could see her shivering slightly.


"I had come over to request that you drive me to work this morning as Leonard took a taxi and the level of cleanliness inside the hired vehicle was absolutely not to my standards. However, it seems that you are in distress, Penny. If you are not physically ill, then there must be another cause." At her silence, Sheldon took a step forward, then another. He didn't typically stand close to people, but Penny was being unusually unresponsive, and it was unnerving him.


"Penny, y'allright?" his Texan twang gave away his nervousness; she wasn't looking at him. Social awkwardness was common place amongst his ilk at the university, but Penny excelled at things of that nature. He had never seen her avoid eye contact.

 

"Penny, you should quickly treat the cuts on your lips lest they become infected," Sheldon said softly, watching her for any clue to her feelings. She sniffled and wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, something Sheldon absolutely abhorred but also understood to indicate she was crying. It must be serious, then, as Penny rarely cried when she was having a hard time.

Penny made eye contact finally, her eyes glassy and shiny from tears. She looked hungover, as well as panicked.

 

"Thanks Sheldon, I think I have peroxide or something. I... can't drive you to work right now. But give me twenty minutes and I think I can put myself to-together." She was saying the words, but she still looked so scared. Scared of him, no, but scared none the less.
Sheldon had an eidetic memory, one of the key facets of his hyper-intelligence. He remembered being up late one night at home in Texas, his sister had just come back from the Sadie Hawkins dance at school. She was tear stained and breathing erratically, lips were similarly torn and swollen, mascara streaking down her cheeks. When he had asked what was wrong his twin had shaken her head and promised she was fine, but her eyes were glassy and haunted. It was only later Missy would confide in him that she had been raped by her much older date to the dance.

He exhaled suddenly with comprehension, and his stomach twisted painfully.

 

"Peroxide will not be sufficient. I will bring my first aid kit over to your apartment. I recommend you make yourself comfortable on your sofa whilst you wait for me, though it should only be a moment." He turned toward his apartment with determination, only stopping as Penny responded, her voice was shaky but surprised.

 

"But don't you need to go to work, Sheldon?"

He shook his head, rolling his eyes at her, though she couldn't see his face.

 

"It's 'Anything can happen Thursday', Penny. Aiding my neighbor is among the incredibly varied possibilities that fall under the category of 'anything'." He walked away, right eye twitching, and disappeared into the other apartment.

 

Penny retreated back inside her own apartment, feeling numb and absolutely horrible as her head throbbed and her muscles shook. The longer she waited for Sheldon, the more horrified she became at the reality that was her life. She was such a fucking failure, a loser, an alcoholic. Her ex had... taken advantage of her drunkenness. Her weird neighbor was about to help her clean herself up and was abandoning work to do it. Not to mention she was probably going to be evicted soon as the cherry on top. How had her life ended up this low? She had once been a dreamer, an athlete and full of promise. Now she was a starving actress shuddering after being completely taken advantage of. If this was how Britney Spears felt in 2007, then Penny now understood the head shaving thing. She was seconds away from doing something horribly drastic, something that would make her feel in control again.

It was then that she realized it was Tuesday, not Thursday.

Chapter Text

In 4A, Sheldon was standing by the door with his red first aid kit in one hand, the phone in the other held up to his head. He winced away from the phone just as he was about to put it to his ear, dropping it back to the cradle with anxiety. Sheldon knew he had just recently disinfected the entire house, but he felt on edge. He opened a drawer, one of many around the house that held his favorite anti-bacterial wet wipes and removed two. After thoroughly disinfecting the communal phone he was finally able to dial work, a scowl on his face as he stared daggers at his cell phone charger.

 

"Lightning charger, utter phooey," Sheldon mocked. Gablehauser’s secretary answered the line and Sheldon quickly explained he wouldn't be into work.

 

For personal reasons, was all he would say. Sheldon hoped his boss would be willing to let his vague excuse slip by. Little did Sheldon realize, Gablehauser would be willing to let Sheldon take as many personal days off as possible, and for no reason at all. Anything to get him out of the office.

After hanging up the phone Sheldon gave one last withering look to his dead phone and incompetently made charger then left for Penny's apartment. In the doorway for his apartment he paused, considering his course of action. If Penny had indeed been assaulted, then the authorities should be contacted. Should he be the one to call them on her behalf, or should he wait for Penny to gather herself enough to call? Although the prospect of taking matters into his own hands with the authorities was tempting, Sheldon realized it was too sensitive an issue to go ahead on without consulting her. As a scientist he couldn't simply move forward without all available information.


Penny's door had been left slightly ajar, a sign that worried Sheldon. He entered her abode cautiously, taking in the absolute maddening chaos that was her home with a frown. Penny was sitting on the sofa as he had suggested, curled up under a blanket and staring blankly at entertainment 'news' on TV. Without asking, Sheldon moved into her small kitchen, placing his first aid kid down on the counter. He found his emergency rubber gloves he'd left under her sink and began washing her dishes, taking note of the many dirty wine glasses and very few other dishes. The dishes were quickly pre-washed and set in the dishwasher, so he moved on to prepare the hot beverages.

 

"Penny, would you prefer Lemon Zinger or Calming Blend?" Sheldon inquired as he busied himself with filling the hot water kettle, getting distracted with tiding up.

 

From the couch, Penny could hear the weirdo cleaning her kitchen, but she supposed it was a blessing to have his neurosis for a while. His earlier lie was weighing heavily on her mind. It was possible Sheldon simply misremembered the day... Penny nearly laughed, Sheldon would never. So, he must have lied about it being Thursday to justify himself... to justify spending time with her. It should hurt that he felt the need for a cover story, but instead it warmed her. He was spending his time with her instead of at work doing sciency… stuff, which meant he cared about her, right?

 

"So, Sheldon. Today is Thursday?" Penny questioned, turning to view his reaction. He stopped short, colored deeply, then turned away from her.

 

"Ah... Penny, do not delay your answer. The water will drop from acceptable tea brewing temperature soon." Sheldon plopped a tea bag into his own mug, wincing at himself. "Unless you don't wish to partake in a hot beverage."

 

Penny shook her head. "No, Sheldon, I would love one. The lemon one, please."


Sheldon was busying himself by wiping down any surface area with wipes he had hidden in her kitchen when Penny was finally able to get up and go over to the counter. She sat down on a stool and leaned her whole body against the bar, feeling as if a huge weight was pressing her down. As if by magic, her tea was set before her, perfectly brewed, perfect temperature. She sipped it lightly, watching as her odd neighbor scoured the fridge handle with gusto. The hot lemony tea stung the cuts on her lip, reminding her she was alive.

 

"I know it's not Thursday, Sheldon," Penny calmly spoke as she placed her teacup down. "I'm not stupid."


Sheldon stopped his cleaning to face her, and the intensity of his gaze was a little overwhelming.

 

"I resent the implication that I would use your inferior intelligence to 'pull one over' on you, Penny. " He stripped the gloves from his hands and placed them in a zip lock bag. Opening up the first aid kit, he removed a second pair of gloves. Whoa, Penny thought, extra neurotic today.

 

"And you are not stupid," he added assumingly.

 

"Well, compared to you I am," Penny groused, feeling the sting of his use of 'inferior'. She watched patiently as Sheldon removed alcohol pads, individually tearing them apart and placing them down on the sparkling countertop like a phobic little surgeon.

 

Sheldon scoffed, a satisfied smirk on his face. "Penny, statistically speaking almost everyone is of an inferior intelligence to me. That says nothing about you personally." He readied a single use alcohol wipe with a frown. She knew he had some weird hang ups about germs, so it was a surprise that he was able to steel himself and help her. He held the swab out in a gloved hand, silently asking if it was alright to use it on her.
Penny nodded in her agreement and he began to apply the alcohol pad in small sweeping strokes. Penny immediately recoiled, swearing in pain.


"Ow, crap! Sheldon!" She wanted to curse more, scream actually. Her face hadn’t hurt that much since she’d been bucked off a horse and landed face down in the dirt. What the hell?


Sheldon dropped the now bloodied alcohol pad onto the floor, then scowled at it. He quickly picked it up and disposed of it, reaching for a new one. Penny caught his eye as he looked back up to her, and she felt herself heat in embarrassment. This was too unreal. She shook her head and tightened her arms around herself, trying desperately to disassociate.

 

"Try not to... flinch," Sheldon directed her, wiping the second pad over her lip. Penny appeared to shut down as he did this, and with the crusted blood wiped away Sheldon could easily see two deep cuts on her lower lip, as if she had bitten them rather harshly. He had heard of people who had bitten themselves savagely, usually while being beaten about or thrown inside their own vehicle during a car accident. This wound, however, did not appear self-inflicted. It was at too odd an angle to be from Penny's own teeth. Sheldon grit his teeth as he disposed of the second alcohol wipe, realizing that her attacker was likely the one who had bitten her.

He returned, moving to apply neomycin to the area with a q-tip. Penny kept glancing away from him, avoiding his eyes. Oddly, the more she looked away from him the more Sheldon felt compelled to try and connect their gazes. When she finally looked at him steadily, he felt more at ease. It was a common occurrence for Penny to hold his eyes whilst conversing. She was adept at making someone feel both totally focused on and yet somehow completely comfortable.

 

"Penny, I understand something horrible has happened to you," Sheldon blurted as he applied two small clear band-aids, watching in sadness as Penny quickly averted her gaze once again. In her weak, bruised, and bloodied state Penny looked every part the victim, the damsel. It wasn't right, Sheldon thought. Queen Penelope was no damsel. The realization angered him irrationally, so he stood. She had yet to respond to his leading statement, but he understood he needed to be patient. Sheldon removed the latex gloves and disposed of them, taking their tea cups to the coffee table. Penny followed him, curling up on the sofa into a small ball as if to try and disappear.

His tea was cold by the time she spoke.

 

"I... I'm not sure what happened." Penny wrung her hands, then picked at the fuzz of her bathrobe. Sheldon went over the bits of information he knew on how to broach this subject with a recent victim in his mind and tried his best to impart worry and support into his tone.

 

"You were attacked?" Sheldon asked, feeling his skin crawl at the mere suggestion. Penny shivered in her seat, wrapping her arms tightly around herself.

 

"N-not exactly, but..." she said, discomfort rolling off of her in waves.

 

"But it was... unwanted?" Sheldon continued. She nodded slowly, tears forming in her eyes again. Sheldon looked away, it didn't feel right to gawk at her as she cried. "You should call the police, Penny." Sheldon's voice was sure in his conviction.

He heard a choked laugh and looked back at Penny in surprise.

 

"No, Sheldon, I can't do that." She was shaking her head sadly, like he didn't understand.

 

"Yes, you can, Penny. The police are one phone call away. It seems however that you do not wish to report this crime," Sheldon corrected, irritation building.

 

"Fine, grammar nazi, I won't do that. It... it wouldn't end well for me." Penny's voice caught as she imagined the potential fallout. Would Sheldon even be sitting here if he knew it had just been Leonard? Would Penny's friends believe her over Leonard? They weren't even really her friends. She looked up at Sheldon and hoped that at least he could be considered her friend. She shivered again, suddenly feeling self-conscious about her state of undress.

 

"You appear cold, I will go retrieve a pair of socks for you." Sheldon stood and turned on his heel, trying desperately to get a hold of himself. He didn't understand why she wouldn't just call the police, it was the most logical thing for her to do. Wasn't she further victimizing herself by allowing this person to escape justice?
He moved towards her half-closed bedroom door, the smell emanating from the area was unacceptable and Sheldon immediately screwed up his nose. With his foot Sheldon opened the door to her bedroom, just as Penny anxiously called after him.

 

"Wait Sheldon, there's..." her voice faltered, seemingly searching for words. Sheldon was standing in her doorway, a deep frown on his face.

 

"Sheldon?" Penny called. “Did the sight of the rug break you or something?”

 

Sheldon had yet to notice the bile on the pink shag rug because what had caught his attention were the familiar frames on the nightstand. Leonard always folded his glasses and placed them haphazardly around their shared apartment, and that is exactly what Leonard had claimed to have done "at a chicks house" the previous evening. Sheldon had no need to doubt the veracity of his roommates claim as they had breakfasted that morning. Though unlikely that Leonard had stumbled into bed with some woman he had met while drinking, it was a plausible place for him to lose his glasses as Leonard claimed. But here the glasses were, sitting on the pale cream nightstand next to Penny's unmade bed. Leonard had been wearing his glasses the previous evening before going out. Considering Leonard's proven untrustworthiness there was only one possible explanation for this new information. He turned to a worried looking Penny, his friend, and felt a sick weight drop to his stomach. Had Leonard hurt her the previous evening? It was unimaginable.

 

"Penny?" Sheldon asked weakly, trying to make sense of all the clues he now had. Penny pushed past him, closing the door with a sharp click.

 

"I'm sorry Sheldon," Penny offered, rather uselessly. "I should have warned you about the mess in there."

 

She was avoiding the subject and refused to call the authorities because it had been Leonard who had forced himself upon her. Sheldon didn't know what to say, what to do.

So he asked.

 

"Penny." He stopped her in the living room. "Please tell me what I can do to help you," he nearly pleaded. If there was one feeling Doctor Sheldon Cooper hated above all else, it was uselessness. He waited for her to answer, letting the seconds, minutes tick by.

 

Penny struggled to make up her mind at her friend’s declaration, it wasn’t even the first time his helping her had stressed her out. Sheldon was constantly trying to sneakily help her, with bills, groceries, Wi-Fi. It was always a game between them, her trying to skirt the line between charming mooch and legitimately dependent. Whenever he had gone too far in his aid, she had always pushed him away.

She was proud.

But Penny didn't have anything to be proud of anymore.

 

"Please... please stay in the living room while I shower, then will you come do laundry with me? I have a shift tonight and I need my uniform clean." She wrinkled her nose. "And I need to get rid of that rug."

Sheldon rolled his eyes at Penny's requests, his annoyance clear. Maybe it was silly that it was so hard for her to accept help, but this was what she needed right now.

 

"Hardly difficult tasks. I will wait and guard your door as you shower, and when you are finished, I shall retrieve my biohazard container and hazmat suit as to safely dispose of your soiled rug. Then we may do a midweek load of laundry to satisfy your work requirements, though I cannot imagine it would be a good idea for you to work today."

 

Penny sighed, rubbing her temples as her headache resurged." I wish I could skip work today too, but life doesn't stop just because I... just because of what happened." Penny turned and disappeared into the bathroom, shutting the door softly then after a pause locked the door.

 

Sheldon sat down on the sofa uncomfortably and thought over what Penny had said. Every time something had happened to him Sheldon always took off work, took a vacation from life. It had never occurred to him that others didn't have the same luxury.

Chapter Text

Spying Penny’s open laptop, Sheldon quickly set to typing and searching. After searching through a multitude of reviews, he believed he had found an acceptable option for an issue that had presented itself the moment he realized Leonard was involved. He heard the water from the shower in the distance as he read review after review.

It was then he realized Penny was currently dashing any hope of justice against Leonard. From what Sheldon understood, physical evidence was a key factor in rape cases, and Penny was ridding herself of it all. The alternative to cleansing herself made Sheldon's body shake with anxiety, the idea of Penny having to suspend herself in such filth as she submitted her body to a hospital technician like a lab rat made him nauseous. It couldn't be helped, as far as he was concerned. If he were in her position – a horrifyingly sobering thought – he could not allow himself one moment to spare before cleansing his body.

 

When Penny came out of the shower, hair still wet and wearing warm leggings and a baggy shirt, she found Sheldon hunched over her laptop staring blankly at the screen with a disgusted look on his face.

 

"What are you doing?" she asked impatiently. "You didn't find my crappy novel, did you? I haven't had time to edit any of the spelling mistakes," Penny unnecessarily defended herself. Sheldon shook his head and turned the laptop to face her. A Google reviews page was open.

 

"No Penny, I found no such thing. Instead, I took the liberty of researching locksmiths on the internet." At Penny's bewildered expression Sheldon continued. "I found one who is highly rated and can come to re-key your apartment sometime today. If you desire, I shall call him immediately." The implication of Sheldon's offering hung between them precariously, it was as much of an admission as Sheldon could possibly say.

Penny nervously swallowed, hugging herself tightly.

 

"Why... why would I need to re-key my apartment?" she asked tightly, an edge of anger tinting her question.

 

Penny felt trapped by the suggestion. They hadn’t said his name, hadn’t made it real yet. If Sheldon knew, then she didn’t know how she could bear it.

 

"I... noticed his glasses, Penny. He cannot drive without them, so he took a taxi this morning to work. That is why I came to you for a ride, Penny,” Sheldon explained, rushing as she tightened her grip on herself. "I thought you would feel safer if you changed the locks."

 

The explanation Sheldon offered was one that killed any hope of Penny moving past this. Instead of her attacker being a faceless monster it was her ex. It was Leonard. It was too visceral now, and if Sheldon knew, then how soon would their other friends know? Mortification rolled over her, suffocating her. She covered her face with her hands, trying but failing to force herself to breathe slowly.

 

"I'll never feel safe living so close to him!" Her teeth were gritted, trying to stave off a sob from escaping. "And I can't afford another place! I can barely afford this one... I’m probably going to get evicted soon, anyway." She felt so pathetic, and she was so tired of ending up in tears because her life was too stressful for her to manage. Her mother’s long-standing offer to move home to Nebraska floated through her head tauntingly, but it was practically a joke. Nebraska hadn’t been her home in a long time, Los Angeles was, she loved living in Pasadena. It was tinged now with a feeling of fear, though, fear that she was no longer safe. God, she hated this.

 

Sheldon tensed beside Penny, his arms feeling like lead weights at his side. Penny was crying again, and he didn't know how to handle it. Films and television would suggest physical contact to comfort a crying woman, but no amount of social pressure would remove Sheldon's discomfort at the practice. It also seemed unwise to touch Penny unless absolutely necessary considering the ordeal she had just been through.

 

"There, there, Penny," Sheldon consoled uneasily, watching in fascination as his friend began to chuckle at his attempt.

 

Penny wiped her eyes, smiling sadly up to him. "Thanks, dork."

She looked around, spotting her cell phone on the couch. "I'll just call that locksmith, then." Penny took her phone to the kitchen, speaking as calmly as possible with the man on the other end of the line. As she did, Sheldon ruminated on Penny and her situation. She was on a precarious precipice, her income was insufficient to cover her cost of living, she was dissatisfied with her career path, someone she trusted had betrayed her, and her apartment was always horrifying dirty. It occurred to Sheldon that he had the necessary skills to remedy most if not all of those issues, beginning with her monetary problems. He would speak with their landlord sometime that week about handling Penny’s rent for the next few months. He knew she didn’t like being taken care of, but it was either go behind her back and pay or watch her struggle, and he could not handle witnessing that.

Penny hung up the phone and practically fell onto the sofa, looking over at Sheldon tiredly. "The locksmith will be here in an hour, should we go do some laundry while we wait?"

 

Sheldon briefly considered then nodded. "A wise use of our time. As I have no laundry to wash, I will simply aid you in the process," he offered, hopping up from his chair. Penny raised a skeptical eyebrow.

 

"By ‘aid’ you mean try and force me to wash stuff in your super complicated way? No thanks." Before Sheldon could retort, Penny placed a hand on his upper arm causing him to freeze.

 

"Thank you for being here." Penny's honest eyes soothed his anxious energy from being touched, allowing him to tolerate the physicality with a minute amount of pleasure. It also comforted him to remind himself that she had just recently bathed, so she was likely not spreading many germs to his person. If Penny wished to comfort herself with his presence, then so be it.

 

Penny hastily went to her room and began to fill a basket with dirty laundry, her uniform and the clothing piled up around the hamper shoved in to be washed. She picked up the pair of Hello Kitty shorts with an unsteady hand and stared at them hatefully. She had loved this pair of pajamas, she bought them at the official Sanrio store in downtown.

Penny threw the pair of shorts into the wastebasket near her desk with a grimace and continued cleaning in a minor frenzy. She scowled at the ruined rug, flipping it over onto itself and rolling it partially with her foot. She would never drink again. As she grabbed clothing from everywhere around her apartment Sheldon dutifully collected a thick black trash bag and his biohazard suit, because of course Sheldon would have one of those lying around and disposed of the rug by dumping it unceremoniously down the garbage chute in the landing. The wood floor in her bedroom was now completely bare.

 

Downstairs in the laundry room, Penny tipped the entire basket worth of laundry into one machine, careless of sorting, and Sheldon's reaction was one of physical pain. Penny went to toss a few quarters in and realized to her embarrassment that she had none.

 

"Fear not, Penny, I shall go retrieve my laundry quarters from my apartment." Sheldon turned and left the laundry room, not witnessing Penny’s quiet breakdown as she struggled with the reality that she didn’t even have change to clean her clothes.

He was too focused on dialing the number he remembered from the Locksmith’s advertisement.

 

"Yes, hello. The woman who called earlier is a friend of mine. I wish to pre-pay for your services today. Yes, visa," Sheldon explained as he ascended the stairs.

 

-

 

Penny left Sheldon at her apartment once the locksmith was through and ventured back out into the world. It was her normal schedule at the Cheesecake Factory, with many regular customers, but Penny couldn't help but feel like an imposter in her own skin. Her smile was just a little more brittle, her laugh just a little hollower. She sloughed through her shift with cold determination, desperate for the clock to move faster. As she toiled, Penny thought about the locksmith. He was kind and understanding, and with sad eyes explained that this type of re-key was common. She wondered how many scared women he'd worked for, providing a measure of safety in their darkest moment. All day Penny had felt alone but knowing so many women also went through this disturbed her more. 

 

Back at Penny's apartment, Sheldon was elbow deep in rubber gloves and cleaning solution. He had meant to lock up after Penny left for her shift, but the call of cleanliness was too strong to fight. He started by simply tidying up but soon was consumed by an intense need to disinfect. He removed her sheets, replaced them, replaced her towels, scoured the bathroom and kitchen within professional cleaning standards, and was now busying himself with organizing her living room. A pit of anxiety coiled in his stomach, akin to the feeling of being in an airplane about to land when he found her scattered and unpaid bills. He dutifully collected them all and placed them into one of his spare organizing boxes. Among her papers and receipts Sheldon stumbled across some photographs of Penny, much younger and happier looking. One was of the blonde on the back of a bull, looking every bit the fierce warrior he knew her to be in Age of Conan. The other was of an even younger Penny hanging upside down from the tallest branch of a large oak. With quick thinking Sheldon ran to his apartment across the hall and located the double picture frame Leonard had kept, the frames holding photos of the man with Penny on his arm. Sheldon removed the photos and placed them in his desk drawer, unwilling to leave them in Leonard's proverbial care.

Sheldon slipped the photos of Penny into the frame and placed it on her desk, unsure why he went to such lengths to highlight them.  Perhaps it was the image this morning of Penny appearing so broken that had him shaken. These photographs were proof that she was strong, capable, and always had been.

Sheldon took a long look at the now clean apartment, hoping that Penny would forgive him for cleaning it without her permission. Before he left, he went and collected Leonard's glasses. He would need them later.

 

-

 

 

Keys in the lock signaled Sheldon that Leonard had arrived from work, and he quickly closed his laptop as the door swung open. Looking up at Leonard, Sheldon felt a multitude of emotions he had never experienced before. Hatred, though bandied about in relation to Wil Wheaton and other villainous characters, was potent and strange when focused against someone Sheldon had once trusted. It was an angry and raw hatred, one that made Sheldon briefly imagine strangling the scientist as he tossed his keys into the bowl haphazardly. The familiar feeling of betrayal followed, Sheldon had known since the Arctic that Leonard was more than capable of that much.

 

"Hey Sheldon, you didn't come to work today. Someone said you had taken a personal day, was there a full day marathon of Dr. Who or something?" Leonard laughed, slipping his shoes off and dropping his bag by the door. "Anyway, we should figure out what we're doing for dinner. I'm guessing you want to eat at the Cheesecake Factory but I dunno..." Leonard rubbed the back of his neck, looking cheerfully sheepish as he sat down. "Being around Penny is pretty awkward since we broke up."

Sheldon grit his teeth, attempting to restrain his emotions lest he do something regrettable.

"I'm sure she would wish you nowhere near her place of employment. Before you get too comfortable, could you please explain this?"

Sheldon pulled the glasses out of the small drawer on the coffee table, holding them up in the light for Leonard to see. Leonard had the audacity to blush before snagging the frames from Sheldon's grasp.

 

"Okay, you caught me. Penny and I got together last night. It was just a one-night thing though, that's why I didn't mention it. I didn't want to embarrass her," Leonard claimed. He laughed, slipping his glasses on his smug face. "We were both pretty wasted too."

 

Sheldon stood very suddenly, nearly knocking the remote off the coffee table. His expression was grave as he looked at his longtime friend, feelings of disgust welling up inside him.

 

"You need to leave," Sheldon uttered tensely. Leonard cleaned his glasses with the hem of his shirt and frowned, immediately going on the defensive.

 

"Wait, why?" He stood as well. "What did I do? Is this because I couldn't drive you to work?"

 

Sheldon crossed his arms, shielding himself from the interaction the best he could. "The roommate agreement specifically stipulates on page 17 subsection C that if my roommate, for any reason other than self-defense, physically harms a member of my family or friends circle, I have the right to evict the perpetrator from the premises. I am enacting that right and I'm telling you to leave." 

 

Sheldon began to vibrate with tension as he gave Leonard a moment for his words to sink in, and as they did his face contorted in an ugly way Sheldon had never seen before.

 

"Now listen, I don't know what Penny has told you, but it was totally consensual. She's probably just upset that I ditched afterwards like I did." Leonard’s scowl deepened, pointing an accusatory finger at his tall roommate. "Is this why you weren't at work today? You were at Penny's house playing nursemaid to her ego?" 

 

Sheldon shook his head. "That's... that's not what I did at all. She was hurt..."

 

"God Sheldon, grow up! This is what adult relationships are like. Maybe you should actually participate in one before you throw stones."

Sheldon tensed, unable to form a coherent come back. He didn't have any contrary evidence, almost all the adult relationships Sheldon had witnessed ended up like this, with one partner being victimized by the other. The only outlier was the one between his Meemaw and Pop-Pop. It had always seemed they were the exception to the rule, however.

 

"This isn't a discussion, Leonard. The roommate agreement stipulates..."

 

"And another thing!" Leonard interrupted, jabbing his finger at Sheldon for good measure. "None of this is your business in the first place, Sheldon. You have no right to take up Penny's crusade like a god damn white knight. This is between her and me."

Leonard was advancing on Sheldon, oddly menacing from his inferior height. The things he was shouting made sense in a twisted sort of way, and if Sheldon hadn't spent the day with Penny in the aftermath of her assault then he might be inclined to agree. It didn't make any of what Leonard was saying any better, though.

 

"She was intoxicated, Leonard." Sheldon looked down at his roommate with distaste. Leonard threw his hands up and sighed dramatically.

 

"Penny is always drunk, Sheldon. If that suddenly makes it rape then I guess we raped each other a whole lot when we were dating," Leonard chuckled slightly, the noise fading into a hollow silence that stretched on for minutes.

 

"Leave, Leonard." Was all Sheldon could reply. Sheldon nearly held his breath, waiting for Leonard to realize he was serious.

The tension held as Leonard packed a bag, as he fiddled with his keys, as he grabbed his laptop, as he tied his shoes, and only dissipated once he was out the door. At Leonard's exit, Sheldon could only think that his departure was an admission of guilt.

 

Chapter Text

Penny just returned from her Wednesday lunch shift and fell onto the couch. She was nestling into the bedsheet covered cushions when the knocking began. Penny grabbed a pillow and covered her face with it, willing it to suffocate her into a deep sleep. Work had been a living nightmare. Some jerk family had let their kid throw cheesecake at her face, and they had just laughed it off. They hadn’t even left a good enough tip to make her forgive them. God, she hated being a waitress.

Knock knock knock, “Penny.”

“Jesus lord,” Penny groaned.

Penny tossed the pillow onto the mostly immaculate floor and rolled off the sofa, her feet were sore and swollen from standing for five hours in her cheap work shoes. She pressed her face against the door tiredly.



“What is it, Sheldon?” she called through wearily. She could hear Sheldon on the other side, and she could almost picture him wringing his hands and preparing to launch into a rant of some kind.


“As you know Penny, today is Wednesday…” she could hear him begin.



“Oh, here we go,” Penny mumbled, and she wondered if he could sense she was rolling her eyes.


Sheldon went on. “As my schedule has become known to you, I would imagine this also means you are aware that I travel to the comic book store Wednesday evenings on a weekly basis. My usual ride is…” his voice petered off awkwardly, and she didn’t know why the awkwardness made her feel so guilty.

“My usual ride is unavailable and shall be for the foreseeable future. As I detest the notion of riding with Wolowitz on his death trap Moped, and my bus pants are too dirty to comprehend wearing them ever again, I implore you to…”

Penny swung the door open, looking at her friend incredulously.

“You need a ride?” Penny clarified concisely. Sheldon nodded in affirmation.


"Alright." Penny scrubbed a hand over her messy hair. "Let me shower, then I'll drive you."


-


The car ride to the Comic Book store was quiet, and though Sheldon detested chit-chat in most cases he found himself wishing for the chatty and bright Penny of olde. Once upon a time, his friend would regale him with inane stories about her menial job, her brainless friends, or meaningless pop culture facts. Penny ‘post Leonard’, as Sheldon was beginning to refer to it in his mind, was subdued and restrained. The car was devoid of her chatter, her laughter, and her favorite pop music – and Penny never drove without music. The silence beckoned Sheldon to clear his throat, a clear sign he would speak, but he couldn’t. He had nothing to say. Luckily for Sheldon his noise woke Penny up from whatever melancholic trance she had been in and spurred her to speak.  

“How was work today?” Penny asked casually, if not a little awkwardly. They both knew that this line of questioning never went anywhere good.



“I…” Sheldon hesitated, realizing the answer might seem odd. “I did not go to work today.” Penny glanced at him out of the corner of her vision, quickly looking back at the road lest he scold her.


“Really? How come?”

How could he explain? How could he express how deeply he hated the sight of Leonard’s black glasses, how much he desired to never to see his smug face again? How could he explain that being around that man made Sheldon feel unsafe, despite the lack of danger to his person? What Leonard had done to Penny made Sheldon feel unsafe and weak… did that make him a narcissist? Sheldon was just getting around to formulating a reply he could voice when Penny sighed, turning into the Comic Book store’s parking lot.



“I get it, you don’t want to see L-Leonard. I’m sorry what happened has disrupted your schedule.” Penny was apologizing as she rolled into a parking spot, apologizing as if she had done anything wrong. It was twisted, the way she was already blaming herself for being a victim.



“Penny, there is no need to apologize. There is only one person to blame,” Sheldon explained. Penny shook her head, unbuckling her seatbelt but making no move to leave the car.



“I guess. Look, I’m going to stay in the car and read a magazine or something. Why don’t you head in and come back when you’re done?” She was already fishing around in the side pocket of the car door for an old issue of Cosmo, avoiding his eye contact at all cost. Penny was brushing him off. It stung, but when dealing with something so sensitive it wasn’t an unwarranted response.
Sheldon unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the passenger door.



“That is… acceptable. I will return to the car shortly.” Penny waved him off, already reading her magazine looking downcast and cold. He would invite her inside, but she likely didn’t care to read comic books when fashion and actor’s social lives were her primary source of entertainment.

Sheldon passed Howard’s moped on the way into the store, which meant Raj must also be around. He prayed to the Doctor and Captain Picard that Leonard would have the good sense not to skulk around.

The bell chimed as he entered and suddenly, he was assaulted by familiar bright florescent lights, the smell of new Magic the Gathering cards and craft paint, the overture to the most recent Marvel: Avengers movie playing over the speakers. A few hobbyists milled about, Captain Sweatpants was deciding between two equally obscene anime figurines, a rando in a suede jacket was weighing out a pound of dice, and over the stacks of graphic novels he could see the familiar heads of his coworkers. Sheldon moved over to them swiftly, avoiding the strangely stained patch of carpet near the Warhammer miniature display as he always did. Bent over the bins of new comics were Rajesh and Howard, already mid-argument about who was the best on-screen Catwoman.

“Definitely Halle Berry,” Wollowitz was just saying, a particularly disturbing leer coloring his voice and stretching his small face. Raj shook his head in disgust, shelving a comic he already owned.

“Absolutely not. You only say that because you think she’s sexy.” Howard nodded emphatically to this.

“Well duh, that’s basically the appeal of Catwoman. It’s not like she’s a deep character or anything.” They chuckled, then noticed him standing nearby. Howard skipped the socially called upon greeting to continue the conversation.


“She’s no Bruce Wayne, right Sheldon?” Howard prodded, a clear sign he was desperate for a ‘Sheldon rant’. He was never one to disappoint.



“While initially Catwoman was nothing more than a franchise stand-in for the classic ‘femme-fatale’ trope, it is worth noting that in Year One Selena Kyle is characterized as a victim of the oppressive system of the sex trade, using the illegal talents she learned from her abusive pimp to liberate herself. This has become the baseline for the character ever since, and I would say her origin story has a comparable depth to Bruce Wayne’s origin, almost mirroring it in fact.” Sheldon paused for breath and to scan the upper shelves his shorter friends could never manage to reach. Among the comics, he found a particularly nice issue of The Flash, volume 3. Turning back around he saw Howard rolling his eyes, likely at him, whilst Raj was pondering silently.



“You don’t even care about Selena Kyle, what do you care,” Howard groused, clearly annoyed at being overruled in his assertion. Raj shook a comic in his hand at Howard, coming dangerously close to slipping the plastic open.



“He’s right though. We don’t have to like Year One, god knows we all have opinions on it, but it did set a precedent within DC,” Raj countered, looking to Sheldon for confirmation. Sheldon nodded, fairly condescendingly, at Raj.



“Yes, your assertion is correct. The depth and scope of seemingly innocuous and shallow characters changed dramatically during that era.”

Howard narrowed his eyes and glanced around, dropping the comic he held back into the bin. “Where is Leonard when I need him, he would back me up.” Sheldon felt a ripple of annoyance at the mention of his former roommate, fingers clenching a little too tightly on one of the shelves.

 

Oblivious to his discomfort, Howard pressed on. “And hey, what’s been up lately. First you don’t come to work, then both you and Leonard are missing. Is something up?”

Sheldon lowered his head, feeling a tick come to his eye as he tried to find a convincing lie, but he could think of nothing. Better go for the next best thing, half-truths.



“Ah…” he started awkwardly, realizing this was still horribly personal. “Leonard will no longer be my roommate. We have terminated our friendship agreement.” Sheldon cringed as he awaited the onslaught of personal questions.



“Wait wait, what?” Raj nearly shouted, garnering a glare from Captain Sweatpants, who now had an armful of scantily clad anime girls clutched to his chest. “When were you guys going to say anything?”

Howard dropped his comics altogether and approached, entering his personal space.


“Dude, what did you do? It must have been pretty bad to make Leonard move out,” he laughed.


Just as Sheldon was about to launch into an explanation of the mutual termination, the bell sounded above the door. The chatter of nerds ceased, the music came to a proverbial screeching halt as all eyes locked onto the blonde now entering, looking every bit as uncomfortable as she likely felt. If life were a sit-com that would be the cue for canned laughter, but nothing was funny about this. Penny stepped hesitantly through the aisles of miniatures and card sets to reach Sheldon, all along the way men gazed at her with a strange predatory awe. Sheldon had of course seen men ‘check out’ Penny, but he’d never noticed just how sinister it could feel. Penny had never been a victim in his eyes until now, she had been untouchable and strong. Impervious to the ill-intent of the rougher sex. Penny and Sheldon locked eyes for a moment, and he held her gaze as she made her way closer, extending it like a lifeline. She stepped up to their group, now ensconced on all sides by men. Only then did the rest of the store come alive again and continue on with their shopping, the trance broken. It sent a shiver down Sheldon’s spine.
Howard and Raj’s attentions were still locked on Penny, as it always was. Howard leaned in creepily and swept a clammy hand through his shaggy hair.


“Hey babe, what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this? Here for me?” He leaned in, almost as if he expected a hug, and nearly fell to his face when Penny side-stepped him.



“Not a chance, Dopey Smurf.” Penny crossed her arms, turning to Raj instead.


“Hey Raj,” she smiled. Raj stood transfixed, eyes glued to her awkwardly. He waved a hand in greeting, but not before it was already exceedingly weird. Sheldon watched as Penny’s smile cracked and fell from polite to brittle and fake. She turned towards Sheldon looking a little desperate.



“Ready to go?” she asked kindly, and though social cues were not his strongest point even he could hear the hint of pleading in her voice. This place was like hell to her, a sharp contrast to the safe haven it had always been for him. A bullied boy could thrive in a nerd palace like a comic book store, but a downtrodden girl? Not a chance.
Sheldon looked down at his single comic and sighed, it would have to do. He wouldn’t make her wait any longer.



“Yes Penny, let me purchase this before we leave.”

They approached the counter together, Penny by his side. She looked around at the posters and figurines, Sheldon’s eyes followed hers and saw the store as if for the first time. A poster of Harley Quin in a G-string leaning against a pole stood prominently next to posters of heroic and fully clothed male heroes, and behind the counter a large fire elemental statue inexplicably bore anatomically correct breasts and vulva. Sheldon winced as he watched Penny’s discomfort increase. Behind them Captain Sweatpants waited to buy half a dozen anime figurines of very young girls in underwear or less, and his body was far too close to Penny’s for Sheldon’s comfort. Sheldon moved them closer to the lip of the counter, but Captain Sweatpants quickly followed as if tethered to Penny’s backside.
Sheldon dumped the comic onto the counter for Stuart to ring up. The new comic high was turning into ash in Sheldon’s mouth at this point. Stuart barely acknowledged Sheldon, turning immediately to Penny.

“Hey Penny!” Stuart greeted as he bagged the comic. Penny nodded in greeting, clearly ready to leave. Stuart kept talking, Sheldon’s comic still in his hand. “How’ve you been? You never did return my call about coffee. We should go out for coffee sometime.” Both Penny and Sheldon could feel the heavy breathing from behind them, and now Stuart was imposing himself on poor Penny.

Sheldon cleared his throat unnecessarily.


“Stuart, please take my payment,” Sheldon urged, holding his phone out for digital transference. Stuart nodded happily, scanning Sheldon’s phone easily. After Sheldon grabbed his bagged comic, the couple turned to leave when Stuart kept talking.


“So, maybe this weekend? Or when?”
Penny was averting her eyes, clearly unsure of what to do.


“I uh…” she spoke, but her hesitant reply was cut off when another man, this one wearing a Bayonetta shirt, brushed up against Penny to “squeeze by”, although according to Sheldon’s quick observation, there had been adequate room for a man double his size to pass by without touching Penny’s backside. Sheldon turned suddenly to Stuart, face devoid of emotion.


“Stuart, we must be going. As they say, “take a hint”,” he air quoted and then turned to leave. “Penny, let’s go.” Penny trailed quickly behind him, only breathing comfortably when they were safely back in her beat-up car.

They sat there for a few minutes in silence, though for Sheldon it was anything but peaceful. His mind swam over the information his brain had gathered in the last twenty minutes. As if hearing his thoughts aloud, Penny started the engine and turned to him. She patted him on the knee gently, then returned her hand to the clutch.



“It’s okay, sweetie, it’s always like that.”

As they drove back to 2311 North Los Robles, Sheldon felt that it was everything but okay.


Chapter Text

They climbed the stairs together, not talking about anything in particular until reaching the landing between their two homes.


“Want to come in for some tea?” Penny asked, glancing nervously behind him at his apartment. Sheldon nodded, realizing he had been remiss in educating Penny on his new living arraignments. He hoped it would give her more of a sense of security once she was aware that Leonard was no longer residing in the building. As Penny turned to unlock her door she stopped, a small white paper taped to the center of it blocked their path. Penny stilled and began to quiver, eyes covered by the curtain of her blonde hair. Over her shoulder Sheldon could see it was a notice from the city, her water was being shut off in three days. The small notice felt like a balrog blocking their path, and for a woman so low on cash it was obviously an insurmountable issue.  



“Penny?” Sheldon inquired softly. Penny sobbed, hand whipping out to snatch the offending paper from her door violently.



“God damn it!” Penny yelled, slamming her fist clutching the notice into the closed door. The wall around it shook with her force and Sheldon stepped back, anxiously deliberating on what he could possibly do. Penny dropped the notice, inhaling with anger as she saw it fall to the floor in pieces.

 


Damn it!” Penny picked up the shreds from the floor and quickly turned her key in the brand-new lock, struggling to get the door open as fast as possible. She ran inside, leaving him in the hall to decide if he should follow or not. Sheldon did, stepping into her still relatively clean living room. He watched helplessly as Penny swore and rifled around in her kitchen drawers.



“You clean in here and now I can’t find a damn thing!” Penny said harshly, slamming a drawer closed. Sheldon shrunk in on himself, a deeply ingrained instinct to hide away from anyone raising their voice at him. “Where is the tape, Sheldon?”



“The drawer closest to the garbage can has your scotch-tape, pencils, note pads, and scissors,” Sheldon offered quietly, watching as she wrenched the drawer opened and grabbed the tape. His anxiety slowly melted into sympathy as he watched Penny tape together the notice with shaky hands, fat tears of rage sliding down her cheeks.

 


“Penny, I…” Sheldon began, startling as her watery gaze snapped up to his. “I could pay that for you. It would be inconvenient if the city were to shut off water access to your apartment.”


Penny was shaking her head no, clearly agitated. She was shakily finishing the job of reconstructing the torn notice.



“No, Sheldon. I don’t want your money!”


Sheldon averted his gaze, realizing too late that paying for the locksmith might have been a poor choice. Penny, ever perceptive, picked up on his discomfort easily.



“Sheldon, please tell me you didn’t pay the locksmith,” Penny begged, an angry undertone to her voice seemed to say or else. Sheldon had told the Locksmith to simply forgo sending Penny a bill, and if she called to say they didn’t have her charge on record.

When Sheldon wouldn’t respond, Penny dropped the notice on the counter and rounded on her tall friend. She grabbed the sides of his face and forced him to meet her eyes, instantly putting him into a state of panic.

 


“Did you pay the locksmith?” Penny demanded, only receiving a barely perceivable nod from Sheldon. She was still crying, her eyes were wide and scared looking, like a cornered animal ready to strike out. Sheldon realized he was afraid of her, afraid of what she might do.

 


“And did you pay for anything else?” Her voice had an edge to it he’d only heard during her fights with Leonard. Her hands dropped to his shoulders to beat against them. “What else did you pay for?”


Sheldon closed his eyes, preparing for an onslaught of rage.



“Your rent…” he muttered. “I may have paid it for the next… quarter.” His eyes screwed up tighter as her hands left his chest, but the anticipated blow never came. She sobbed loudly, and when Sheldon finally opened his eyes to look at her, she was crying into her hands.



“I’m sorry Sheldon, I’m sorry,” she was saying through her tears. “I don’t know how I can pay you back. I don’t know what I’m doing.” Penny dropped onto the sofa which was covered in the bedsheets he had placed on her bed just yesterday. Had she slept on the sofa last night? The thought made him nauseous, that her own bed didn’t even feel safe anymore.


Sheldon looked down at his tearful friend.



“Penny, you don’t need to pay me back,” he said. She was shaking her head no. “It’s true Penny, you don’t. You don’t owe me anything. I am your friend, I paid for those things because I don’t want to see you struggle.” He couldn’t say the things someone in this state should hear, like it would be okay, and that everything would get better. Sheldon didn’t believe in platitudes and could not predict if everything would get better for Penny. All Sheldon knew was that he could support her through this as much as she would let him. Slowly, as if approaching a wild animal, Sheldon lowered himself to the sofa and sat awkwardly next to her. Penny dropped her hands to her lap and looked at him with sad, terrified eyes.


“I don’t know what I’m doing, Sheldon. I don’t want to rely on handouts from friends, but I don’t know what to freaking do. What the hell should I do?” The question was loaded, Sheldon was sure of it. How could his insights help her? They rarely did. Typically, his opinions and assertions only further upset Penny. Sheldon thought back to every interaction they’d ever had, and it struck him how often Penny was the one consoling or helping him. His efforts to comfort Penny in the past had varied conclusions; it was still a mystery to him what would and wouldn’t make her happy, but he knew very well the tactics she employed on him in the past.



“Penny, I cannot pretend to know what you should do. However, when I am feeling low or my career is in flux, I find it helps to engage in activities that bring pleasure and enjoyment to myself.” Sheldon paused to hand a tissue to a sniffling Penny, who was eagerly listening.

 


“You reminded me of my goals in Texas last summer, but it was also your suggestion that I not isolate myself that truly helped. After our first paintball match back in Pasadena I felt invigorated, my enjoyment in life restored.” He hesitated, studying the cleanliness of his fingernails. “Is this… helpful to you at all?”


Penny hastily nodded behind the tissue, the sight of her was just a little heartbreaking.



“Yes, but I…” she sniffled again, looking away in shame. “I can’t afford to do the things I like, and I promised myself I would stop drinking.”



“If I’m not mistaken…” the statement hung between them as they both knew he rarely was. “You are thinking of shopping and clubbing as two activities you enjoy. While purchasing clothing and doing shots may be fun, have you considered alternate hobbies that are healthier for you to engage in?” The condescension and thoughtfulness in his tone clashed harshly in an almost comical way that caused Penny wince.

 


No, Penny hadn’t thought much about anything other than acting since she moved to Pasadena. Every other joy she’d had went to the wayside when Kurt packed their things into his truck and promised that she would make it big. The more she worked towards becoming an actress, however, the farther she seemed from attaining her goal. She was a wreck, a wreck spiraling down and ready to crash into the earth at any moment. It was so god damn embarrassing.

Sheldon twitched imperceptivity as she sat pensively next to him. She could tell he was about to launch into one of his rants soon, he had that jittery, anxious look about him


“Perhaps you could take up crafting again or delve into the world of yoga. It is apparently popular among women of your age demographic, so much so that a yoga studio recently opened up on campus for the Caltech faculty. The proposed health benefits have dubious at best scientific backing, however as an aerobic/anaerobic hybrid it should be a sufficient style of exercise for your tastes.” Sheldon almost breathed his words out, desperate to resolve her issues. “I likely could obtain a waiver for you to access the studio on my faculty I.D. card.”



“Sheldon…” Penny said through gritted teeth. She didn’t finish the thought, instead looking down at Sheldon’s clenched hands and jiggling knees. He was obviously anxious. His whole manner screamed that he was in “fix it” mode, which soothed the sting of his careless suggestion. Penny released the tension that had built up as he had spoken in a deep sigh. “That’s sweet, hon, but I couldn’t possibly go to Caltech.”


Sheldon’s nervous vibrating halted, eyes widening in realization.



“Oh, yes of course. That would be a horrible way to de-stress.” Sheldon winced, turning away from Penny with an unfamiliar expression of embarrassment. Sheldon made an oversight, and he never did that.


“But it was a good suggestion. I don’t think I’m ‘Zen’ enough for yoga though,” Penny chuckled softly, patting him lightly on the shoulder. Sheldon twitched away from her touch instinctually but was glad for her familiarity. It meant he hadn’t errored too horribly.

 


“As for crafting, I seriously don’t have the cash to get back into that. You have no idea how much money I sank into my Penny Blossom business that I never made back,” Penny lamented, settling back into the sofa cushions.



“Fifty percent of small businesses fail within five years and on average it takes small business owners three years to see a profit,” Sheldon stated, internally berating himself for randomly spewing information only tangentially related to the conversation topic. Over the years Sheldon has learned that what he found relevant to a discussion was often way off course.



“That… actually makes me feel better about it.” Penny smiled at him gently. “Knowing that I’m not the only one.”


Penny’s reply was a balm to Sheldon’s neurosis. Even with his stilted, inelegant speech and long-winded rants she understood the meaning he was trying to impart. Penny listened, truly listened, and Sheldon appreciated feeling listened to.


They lapsed into silence on the couch. Penny was thinking about money, the lack of it, and how she had nothing for dinner that night. She considered asking Sheldon if she could eat with him but cast the idea aside. He had already done enough, and she was beginning to feel like a bum. Her stomach was burning at this point, she’d only managed to snack a few pieces of brown bread from the restaurant earlier, so she hoped to god that there was something in the cabinets that wasn’t expired.


Sheldon was also ruminating on his finances, and the abundance of money he had saved in the last few years he had been accommodating Leonard as a roommate. Thousands of dollars accumulated with absolutely no purpose. Penny very clearly was upset by the prospect of being taken care of monetarily, but perhaps there were other ways to ease her financial burden. His stomach growled, reminding him that it was twenty minutes past when he would typically begin preparing Wednesday night’s dinner. Eyeing Penny, Sheldon hoped she wouldn’t consider sharing dinner a form of charity as well.



“As it is 6:23 I must begin preparing dinner.” Sheldon stood from the couch, disrupting Penny’s worried thoughts.

Her neutral expression dropped into a frown; she didn’t want him to leave. If this had been last week, she would have just followed him across the hall, but now she couldn’t bear to think of being over there.

Sheldon picked up a pillow from the floor and placed it squarely on the couch. “I have purchased the necessary ingredients for two persons but seeing as I have recently evicted my former roommate, I am in need of a dinner partner.”

 


Penny stared up at him, completely bewildered. “You kicked Leonard out?” Her own voice sounded so tired, and she felt like relief for her stress was just out of reach. Sheldon nodded briskly then motioned for her to stand.



“We are having baked salmon. If it is acceptable, please join me in my apartment. If that is too discomforting to you, I can always bring the finished meal over to your apartment once it is finished.” He paused by the door, waiting for her. “It is your choice.”


Penny shot off of the couch and grabbed her phone, following behind him. She could never turn down an offer for dinner.

In the hallway Penny paused to lock her door, the beginnings of a nervous habit.



“You didn’t need to kick him out, I can’t imagine how much more your rent is going to be now,” Penny said sadly as she turned her key in the lock, then the deadbolt. Sheldon did not reply, choosing instead to lead her across the hall.

Entering 4A felt wrong to Penny, this was only the second time she’d been specifically invited over and her anxiety was beginning to spike as Sheldon opened the door. Once she stepped inside, however, she felt a huge weight lift. The place was so different. Some furniture was missing, and many items were simply gone from the shelves. Near the door sat the proof that Leonard no longer lived here, a dozen or so boxes all neatly labelled as his belongings. The items that still remained were all clearly Sheldon’s; items that were either ridiculously expensive, horribly childish, or both.


Sheldon removed his coat, then meticulously placed his shoes into a canvas bag before storing them. Penny watched his personal oddities with fascination, her sitting in the center of the sofa while he cleaned the kitchen and prepared ingredients.

“I apologize about the television,” Sheldon said from the kitchen. Penny turned to the media console and realized with shock that there was none. The 52-inch monitor was missing. “The television belongs to Leonard and I haven’t had time to go and purchase another one.”


A television like that was so pricy, Penny couldn’t help feeling a little jealous that Sheldon could simply replace something of that value whenever. It also struck her as a bit funny.



“He took the TV?” she laughed. “Everything’s come full circle I guess.” Sheldon joined in with a breathy chuckle, he recalled the moment she referenced with complete clarity. He had been pantsed before, but not whilst attempting to retrieve a complete stranger’s television. Sheldon also recalled the immediate possessive attitude Leonard had displayed over Penny, a woman he had just met, and how it had set the tone of their relationships. With Leonard it was always when he would get with Penny, not if. Penny was then inducted into their social group but kept separate by an invisible social barrier, the barrier of “dibs”. The fact that Leonard felt he could “dibs” another human being spoke volumes about his character, something Sheldon wished he could have realized sooner.


Sheldon served dinner to them both on the sofa, and though they had only dined alone together a few times it always felt comfortable. The only discomfort he ever experienced from being around Penny was when she was angry, which she clearly wasn’t at the present time. She was happily consuming her meal with gusto, each small exclamation of “yum” felt like a compliment. The pleasure Sheldon experienced from feeding his friend felt alien but solidified his desire to spend his leisure time and extra funds on bettering her standard of living. Unlike other relationships Sheldon participated in, his friendship with Penny was not a precarious tight-rope walk of awkwardness and nerd references. Sheldon could safely conclude after repeatedly studying his interactions with Penny over the years that she genuinely cared about him.


Conversation dwindled as Sheldon anxiously collected their dishes and began the arduous process of pre-washing every plate, cup and fork that had been touched that evening. Penny followed him, sipping on a sparkling water with a grimace that exposed her displeasure at drinking anything other than her customary after dinner wine.



“I’ve also been thinking about what you suggested earlier, but the only hobby I really enjoyed that I can think of is rodeo and trick riding,” she sighed, leaning her head against the bar.


“If it is something you sufficiently enjoy, why not take it up again?” Sheldon asked over the sound of tap water rushing into the sink. “You seemed to have a particular skill for the activity.” Penny turned her head so her cheek was pressed against the marble countertop, watching Sheldon as he scrubbed the plates before placing them onto the dishwasher rack.


“I already tried to, years ago when Kurt and I first moved down here. It was fun and all but not worth the hour drive to Norco and back. Now I don’t even have the gas money to consider it.”


“What about participating in rodeo did you even enjoy, Penny? The entire spectacle seems incredibly brutal.” Sheldon shivered as he imagined being ‘hog-tied’ as Penny had promised on multiple occasions. His google searches after her first mention of the practice were the source of countless nightmares and daydreams. Penny laughed, circling the rim of her glass with her finger absentmindedly.



“That’s part of the reason why I loved it. Punishing sports are more rewarding when you do well.” Her smile dwindled as she looked away. “Now it seems like everything I do is all punishment and no reward. Like, tomorrow I have an audition lined up for a TV movie and I need to memorize a monologue, but what’s the point? I know I won’t get the part.” Penny downed her sparkling water and groaned with annoyance. “God, I wish I was still drinking, a glass of wine is exactly what I need right now.”


Sheldon paused in his cleaning to ward his friend off from the siren call of alcohol when his phone rang in his pocket. He removed his rubber gloves then answered the phone and was immediately bombarded with the voices of his coworkers.



“Hey Sheldon, are we still on for Halo?” Howard asked in a bit of a rush.



“Yeah, like earlier today at the Comic Book store you were acting kind of weird and you haven’t been to work so…” Raj interjected, his concern sounding genuine enough. Sheldon considered their request as he glanced over at Penny, tensely glaring at her empty glass with such intensity as to summon alcohol from the ether. His schedule dictated he drop everything and host his friends for a game of Halo exactly at eight, however the appeal of such a pastime was muted due to his now strained connection to Leonard. On top of this, Penny was clearly in a vulnerable position. If he sent her home now, she might slip back into old habits, which was the last thing Sheldon wanted to be responsible for.



“I am far too busy to host you all for Halo. You will have to make do without the diversion. Good evening,” Sheldon explained, ending the call as soon as he could. It felt wrong to disregard his schedule, but he reasoned that he was not a slave to the timetable when it did not make sense for his life any longer. He needed to seriously rethink his schedule now that Leonard was no longer in the picture. Slipping his phone in his pocket, he went back to the task of cleaning the kitchen.

“If you need assistance, I would be more than willing to help you memorize your monologue. Although I possess a natural eidetic memory, I am also well versed in recollection techniques that may assist you.”

 

Penny looked up from her glass with a surprised smile. “Really? That’s sweet of you. Let me just go get my copy and bring it over.”

 

She left him alone in the apartment to gather her things and, as she was gone, Sheldon began constructing his newest obsession. If Penny couldn’t do rodeo, then he would find the perfect alternative.

Chapter Text

“I’m far too busy to host you all for Halo. You will have to make do without the diversion. Good evening.” The phone line cut off, leaving two baffled scientists holding the device between them. The room around them was unfamiliar but posh, an immaculate four-star hotel room marred only by the haphazardly tossed about belongings of Leonard Hofstadter.


“Let me guess…” Leonard intoned, leaning back against the white pillows of his hotel bed. “Sheldon canceled Halo night.”

Howard slipped his phone into the far too tight front pocket of his skinny jeans and nodded.


“I can’t believe it! He’s practically religious about his schedule,” Howard huffed as he dramatically threw himself down into a chair.

 

Raj scratched his cheek in confusion. “Maybe he’s… sick? He does cancel whenever any of us don’t feel well.” Raj said.

 

Howard shook his head. “No way. He specifically said, ‘too busy’. If he was sick, he wouldn’t have shut up about it. You know how he is about being ill.”



“We should all gang up on him about this at work tomorrow. He won’t be able to avoid explaining himself if we bother him in his office.” Raj suggested. Howard quickly agreed, and they both turned to Leonard for his input. He awkwardly removed and wiped at his perfectly clean glasses then shook his head.



“No… I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t talk to him about it. We should take this as the gift that it is, right?” he laughed nervously. “I mean, a vacation from his annoying schedule, don’t we always talk about wanting that?”  



“I guess? But that’s just when we’re ragging on Sheldon. He is still our friend, right?”



“He’s not mine. He made that quite clear when he kicked me out. If you guys are really my friends, then you will stick with me,” Leonard felt his voice crack from nervousness. He really didn’t want them talking to Sheldon. If Sheldon started blabbing about this Penny drama, then he could get into serious hot water with the university. Leonard felt his stomach rumble painfully and he rushed to the bathroom before he could say anything else. He really shouldn’t have eaten that extra slice of pizza.

Howard and Raj exchanged a confused look behind their exiting friend’s back. Leonard was being really touchy, and neither of them could fathom why.

 


-

 


The next morning, somewhere in Hollywood.


Penny was elated. She was standing in line with a few other extras waiting to be called in for hair and makeup. She had woken up bright and early for what she assumed was another pointless string of auditions, but in a shocking turn of events, she actually got called back in for one of the roles. It was nothing special, a very minor role in a crime drama, but it was something. The only thing worse than being in a crappy role was not having any roles to begin with. This could be a stepping stone to something better, at least, that’s what the casting director promised.

After a twenty or so tense minutes of waiting Penny was finally ferried into a chair to be done up. She had already been dressed in a long sleeve cocktail dress. Her hair was being curled and bright red lipstick applied. She looked good, albeit perhaps a little on the trashy side, but hey, that’s TV.



“I hope you do better than the last girl we had,” the makeup artist said as she filled in Penny’s eyebrows.



“I’m just glad for the role. I was surprised to go straight from the audition to the set,” Penny replied anxiously. If the last actress had been fired, then she would need to step up her game.



“Yeah, well, just don’t run off and you’ll be fine.” The makeup artist stood back and then nodded to an assistant. From there she was moved onto the sound stage with very little explanation of her role other than her single line. The stage assistant was quickly rattling off information, but Penny could hardly understand him. He spoke a mile a minute, and Penny’s only response was to nod and shake her head at appropriate times. Penny resolved to try and be as professional as possible regardless of how ill-prepared she felt.

Penny stood on her mark, bright lights beating down on her. She already felt like the heavy stage makeup was melting off of her face. Next to her stood a male actor, about her height, looking bored as he leaned on a prop car behind them. Tension built in Penny’s shoulders as they waited. Although she auditioned frequently, she rarely actually got parts, and she was starting to doubt herself.

Both of their attentions were grabbed when the director clapped his hands.



“Alright, we have absolutely no time to mess this up again. New girl, listen carefully. You are on a tinder date, JC here is your tinder date and the suspect for the episode. We only really need the shot of him ripping your sleeve and forcing you into the car. Say your line when you are halfway into the car, got it?” The sound stage was near dead silent as they waited for her confirmation.



“Uh, halfway into the car, got it,” Penny agreed, completely overwhelmed as she tried to wrap her brain around what was happening. Ripping her sleeve? The wardrobe director had mentioned something about velcro.



“Okay! Finally. JC, when you’re ready, action!” With the Director’s cue, the man next to Penny turned sharply and grabbed her forcefully. Penny began to panic but tried to maintain control of herself, she needed this job! JC ripped her sleeve off, the velcro in the shoulder seam separating easily. Penny was upset but managing to work the scene, allowing her fear to show on her face. From the corner of her eye she saw the director nodding to himself, and Penny so hoped that meant she was doing alright. It was only when JC began to push her onto her back into the car that her stress became a full-blown panic attack. She could feel the scratchy fabric of the seat press against the exposed skin of her upper back, and though JC was barely touching her, Penny felt like she was being held underwater by a steel beam. Her breathing was erratic, and instead of recalling the singular line she needed to say, Penny instead blanked and went into fight or flight mode.



“No, stop, stop, stop!” Penny screamed, grabbing JC by the lapels and throwing him away from the car. He landed a few feet away on his ass, his eyes wide with shock. Penny tried to calm her breathing and opened her eyes to see everyone on set looking at her completely baffled. As realization set in, she felt all the color leave her face. What had she just done?


“Someone get this ditz the hell out of here. Bring the next girl in, we need to get this goddamn scene done so we can move on!” the Director yelled angrily. Two assistants rushed over to Penny and helped her up, both clearly annoyed with her as they pushed her back into wardrobe. She returned the dress, apologizing profusely, and almost as soon as the dress was off her body it was handed to the next blonde actress in line. Penny made brief eye contact with the girl, a near carbon copy of her younger and more easy-going self. It stung to see how easily replaceable she really was. She trudged to her car mournfully, her mind was reeling from the experience.


“I can’t believe I did that,” Penny let her head fall forward onto the steering wheel as she let a out a frustrated cry. “Why did I do that?” She felt violated, again, and it wasn’t because of the scene. It was the reality that what happened with Leonard would always follow her like a vicious stalker, and Penny was far more broken than she wanted to admit.



Later that morning, as Penny drove Sheldon to Caltech, she recounted her experience as he listened pensively.



“All I could think about was how much I wanted to deck the guy, but I knew if I did, I would get in trouble. And, it’s not his fault I have baggage. He was just doing his job.”

Sheldon considered her words, ruminating on a pattern he’d begun to notice with her interactions with men.



“Penny, do you believe you would be more comfortable if you could have resorted to physical violence?” he inquired, gripping the grab-handle on the roof as Penny maneuvered her car.



“Oh, sure.” She turned onto the road bordering the campus, slowing and putting the car into park. “I always feel better after hitting something. But, Sheldon, talking to you also helped. I just need to get over myself if I’m ever going to get back into acting.” Penny glanced out of the windshield warily. “This is as far as I’ll take you, I hope that’s okay.”



“It is a perfectly acceptable distance for walking to campus. I will secure a ride home with one of my coworkers, as you are working this evening.” Sheldon unbuckled his seatbelt and exited, fully prepared to begin his brisk walk to his office. He turned back to Penny before he could allow the door to close, a small voice in his mind that sounded eerily similar to his Meemaw was pestering him to be more of a Southern gentleman.



“Thank you for driving me to work, Penny.” The surprised smile Penny gave him was enough reason to continue attempting politeness at regular intervals. “If you are available after your dinner shift, I would appreciate the company. If you do not mind watching Star Trek: Deep Space Nine season four with commentary, of course.”

At that Penny laughed.


“If that invitation includes another home cooked dinner, I will sit through any nerdy show you want to watch.”

The suggestion pleased Sheldon more than he would have anticipated. The one downside to his friendship had always been Penny’s lack of interest in science fiction and nerd culture, but if he could ply her with food, he would begin to do so immediately.



“I will take that as a promise, Penny. Be prepared for pot roast and an introduction to science fiction television. Though you are woefully out of the loop, I feel you can be caught up enough before the year is out to fully understand and appreciate the science fiction canon.” Penny rolled her eyes at that, but it did nothing to dampen Sheldon’s excitement. Plunging someone into the world of sci-fi was something every nerd secretly wished for. As they waved goodbye to one another he could only hope that she would be amenable to perusing his recommended comics list.

In his office, Sheldon ignored his work in favor of researching popular martial arts gyms in Pasadena. Although he was horrible at identifying sarcasm, Sheldon was fairly certain Penny had been serious in her desire to ‘deck’ the actor she had been working with that morning. Combined with Sheldon’s desire to find an appropriate outlet for Penny’s stress, this seemed to be an acceptable option. He was engrossed in Yelp reviews of local MMA gyms when his office door burst open. Without looking up from his computer, he sighed and greeted them.


“Howard, Raj. Why are you here?”



“How does he always do that?” Howard complained, helping himself to a chair. “Anyway, we’re here to beg you to apologize to Leonard for whatever you did.”



“Yeah, Leonard has been acting really petulant since you two had your falling out. I know it’s been less than a week, but could you please just reconcile already,” Rajesh begged. “He doesn’t even want us speaking with you.”


Sheldon rolled his eyes, bookmarking a particularly interesting looking gym.



“That is none of my concern. Choosing to engage with me socially is your prerogative at this juncture, and I refuse to play into whatever childish and dramatic games Leonard has embroiled you both in.” Sheldon said his name with thinly veiled displeasure.



“Whoa, whoa, harsh words coming from you of all people,” Howard pointed out. “And jeez, can’t you even pay attention? You haven’t once looked up from your computer.” Howard rounded on the desk and leaned down, blinking in surprise at what Sheldon was searching for. “You’re looking at dojos? I never imagined you being into martial arts, Sheldon.” Howard squinted at the screen of Sheldon’s computer. “You should check out Golden Tiger, that place honed me into the perfect killing machine!” he said, emphasizing his claim with an awkward and strained-looking karate chop.



“I will do no such thing,” Sheldon scoffed, making a mental note to avoid the aforementioned dojo. From what Sheldon recalled, the place was keen on handing out black belts for a fee to any moron who wandered inside.

By the door Raj sighed and checked his watch.


“Listen, I have to go. I have a meeting with my team in ten minutes. Just please, try and reconcile whatever this is.” At this Sheldon looked up for the first time, fixing both men with an unsympathetic look.



“Raj, Howard, you are both seemingly intelligent people. Instead of letting Leonard set the social narrative, consider thinking for yourselves for a change.” Sheldon motioned towards the door with one hand. “Have a good day.”

In silence, both men exited his office and shut the door behind them.



“Were we just… dismissed?” Howard asked Raj in astonishment as they walked away.

 

-



Lunch came far too quickly for Sheldon, and though he would prefer to skip the ritual altogether, his stomach was begging for his customary ham sandwich and iced tea. Approaching the cafeteria, Sheldon felt jittery and nervous. Ignoring the staff currently dining, he purchased his lunch stoically. When he turned to find a table, he found none empty. His usual seat with his friends was vacant, but nothing could persuade him to sit there.

 

There was only one place he could sit, at the single empty seat at Leslie Winkler’s table. Sheldon clenched his jaw and strode over to the table, placing his tray down and sitting in silence. The faculty sitting with Leslie, all women, turned to look at him in unison. Leslie raised an eyebrow in a challenging manner.



“You really are a dumbass aren’t you,” she remarked snottily. Looking behind Sheldon at his three usual lunch partners, she noticed the way they all instantly began whispering to each other. Leonard especially had a nasty expression. “Trouble in paradise?”

Sheldon snorted, looking behind his shoulder briefly. The look Leonard shot him was practically villainous, and it nearly made Sheldon lose his appetite.



“Hardly. I simply do not wish to partake in my meal with Dr. Hofstadter.” Sheldon said his name like it was a dirty word. “I hope we can come to some sort of amenable understanding so I may sit here during mealtimes.” He tucked into his sandwich slowly.

Leslie blinked owlishly at Sheldon, baffled by his change in demeanor.



“But you hate me,” Leslie said, almost like it was a question. Sheldon nodded, dabbing his mouth with a napkin.



“Very true, and you loathe me. The fact remains that sitting with you is preferable than partaking in my meal within their vicinity.”

 

They ate in silence, the female professors and teaching assistants all speaking quietly at the other end of the table. Sheldon realized as he was sipping his tea that he didn’t know any of their names, which was a huge oversight considering many of them worked and taught in fields adjacent to his.



“I’m curious,” Leslie interrupted his thoughts, “as to why?” She seemed less annoyed and more genuinely confused.



“Leonard Hofstadter is… a horrendous human being,” Sheldon replied quietly, his voice even and calm. To Sheldon’s surprise, this garnered some nodding and murmurs of agreement from the women at the table. Leslie’s eyebrows shot up in astonishment, a smile forming on her lips.



“Well, maybe you’re not as much of a dumbass as I thought, Cooper.”



When it was time for Sheldon to return home, his ‘friends’ were nowhere to be found. Leslie Winkler was still kicking around the labs, and as it turned out was perfectly willing to carpool with Sheldon. Her Prius was immaculate, and Sheldon appreciated the removable slipcovers for the seats. The ride-sharing came with a catch, one Sheldon wasn’t sure if he was comfortable with. As they pulled up near Los Robles, Leslie shot him a curious look.



“So, tell me, what did Leonard do to piss you off? All the girls in the lab were speculating, and I admit to being very eager to know as well. Didn’t he sabotage your work?”

Sheldon sighed heavily. He didn’t want to go into this.



“Not since last year. No, my issue with him is personal in nature.” Leslie nodded, eager for him to go on, but Sheldon didn’t feel it was right to share any details. “He hurt someone… very close to me.” Sheldon’s eye twitched ever so slightly, but he hoped it was enough information to quell Leslie of her interest. She seemed content with what he’d said, and quickly pulled into the parking lot for his building. From the parking lot, Sheldon could see Penny just inside, grabbing her mail from the lobby, and he waved in greeting. She also saw him and returned the gesture, then frowned deeply, but he wasn’t sure why she looked so put-off.



-

 

 

Inside the apartment building on Los Robles, Penny was becoming upset. Sheldon was waving at her from the passenger seat of Leslie’s car, the high and mighty scientist friend of Leonard’s who’d called Penny a bimbo on multiple occasions. The bespectacled woman winked at her from the parking lot as Sheldon exited her sedan, and Penny could practically feel the disdain radiating from her. Penny quickly shut her mailbox and ran up the stairs to her apartment, muttering to herself angrily.

How could Sheldon be with that woman? Penny flipped through her mail, angrily sending bills to the back of the stack. Oh, what was she thinking? Of course, Sheldon would hang around with an intelligent woman like Leslie at work. Penny shouldn’t have expected him to abandon all of his connections to Leonard either, why would he? His life didn’t revolve around hers. Still, it stung that Sheldon was driving home with her.

Penny spent the next hour stewing over her jealousy in her apartment, spitefully washing her own dishes so Sheldon couldn’t do them later. She washed a stained and neglected wineglass angrily, desperately wishing for a bottle of red.

 

Interrupting her intrusive thoughts was a text from Sheldon, reminding her of their dinner plans.

Penny, I have finished making pot roast and am ready for you to come over. I also have something to gift to you. - Sheldon

 

The promise of a gift wiped Penny’s anger away, replacing it with curious excitement. Why would Sheldon get her something?

Penny quickly slipped her shoes and headed over to 4A, desperately wondering what Sheldon could have gotten her.

Inside, Sheldon presented her with an incredibly delicious plate of roast and a bottle of water, directing her to sit down and enjoy.



“I hope you don’t mind, but I changed our viewing itinerary. We will be watching the first few episodes of the more recent Doctor Who series. I believe you will enjoy it.”

And she did enjoy it, though her mind kept circling back to what Sheldon had promised. Worry tinged her excitement, worry that he had gone and covered her ass again on some bill. Penny didn’t mind him buying dinner or helping with gas when she drove. It felt nice when he did those things, and though she wished she could sit back and let him pay all of her debts off, she simply couldn’t. It felt wrong, like she was using him.



“How do you like Rose?” Sheldon asked quietly from beside her. Penny snapped back to reality and glanced at the screen.



“I like her. She’s spunky,” Penny replied honestly.



“Yes, I thought you would like her.” Sheldon smiled and looked back to his new, curved HD television. “She reminds me of you.” The subtle compliment clicked for Penny slowly, and she looked back to him in surprise. Sheldon wasn’t really the complimenting sort. “It was a disappointment to me when she later leaves the show, but her reappearance in Torchwood is acceptable. We can also watch that at some point.”
Penny agreed but kept her eyes on Sheldon. For a little while, Penny watched the colored lights from the TV flick across his face, wondering if he had always been this nice. After the episode, Sheldon stood and cleared their plates, pre-washing and placing them into the dishwasher. He came back to the sofa with a curious envelope in one hand.



“So, Penny, are you ready for your gift?” Penny nodded eagerly, holding her hands out for the envelope. She opened it to find a gym membership for the whole year to a place called Fight MMA Dojo.


“It’s a late birthday present of sorts. I hope you enjoy the access this will grant you. You may take any number of classes you wish, and the location is fairly close to campus,” Sheldon explained nervously.



“Sheldon, this is great! You didn’t have to get me a birthday present though, you never really have.” Penny looked over the membership pamphlet, then back to Sheldon.



“Yes but…” he faltered, seemingly searching for what to say. “But, in the past, you have gifted me with treasures of uncountable value. I simply felt it was past due that I express how highly I regard you as my friend.”

Penny smiled widely, her eyes becoming a bit misty as she clutched the membership closely.



“You silly, tall weirdo,” Penny said fondly, a chuckle overtaking her.

Sheldon nearly blushed at her description of him. Only Penny could say something like that and get away with it.

 

“I should hug you!” Penny mockingly threatened.

 

Sheldon coughed out a laugh, stepping away with his hands raised. “Instead of that, why don’t we continue watching the show?”  

They sat back down, Sheldon in his spot and Penny beside him, and Sheldon enjoyed the third episode of Doctor Who even more than the first eight times he’d viewed it. Penny gently nudged his shoulder, and with his attention grabbed, she spoke.



“Love you, Moonpie,” Penny whispered, her eyes locked to the TV as Rose was dragged off screen.

 

Sheldon’s chest tightened oddly in a way he had never experienced before, and he filed the feeling away for further inspection and medical research at a later time.



“Only Meemaw calls me Moonpie, Penny,” Sheldon replied automatically, though he said it with a curious smile.

Chapter Text

You could practically see the strip mall that housed Fight Dojo from the Caltech bookstore, which was partially why Sheldon had selected it for Penny. It also meant Penny was frequently close enough to campus for Sheldon to see her regularly, but far enough away to be safe from running into Leonard. Penny had been regaling him with stories of her achievements over dinner the previous evening, and it seemed his choice of gift for her had been a success.

It wasn’t a difficult walk from the book store to the dojo, and yet the real hurdle came in entering. Sheldon stood outside, awkwardly allowing a few members of the gym to enter and exit in his stead. Loathe as he was to enter, he had promised Penny he would. Penny had said she wanted to show off her skills to him, and he didn’t want to let her down. He had paid for the membership, after all.

Sheldon entered the dojo hesitantly; the warm air and scent of sweating bodies prompted his brain to become painfully aware of the multitude of germs currently festering within. It caused his eye to twitch sporadically, making him look just a tad bit crazed. On a surface level the place was clean and well organized, a paltry boon to his nervousness. There were several training rooms, segmented by exercise style. Through the glass wall Sheldon could see Penny beating on a sandbag, her hands wrapped in pink tape. He found himself becoming mesmerized by the swing of her ponytail, the repetitive motions of her combination. He calculated that her strikes, elegant and violent all in one, were keeping nearly perfect time. It amused Sheldon to imagine a quantum clock with a boxer at the core of its mechanism, beating away the microseconds.

Penny was incredible, showcasing her quickly learnt skill by spinning and roundhousing the sandbag then delivering one last hard punch that pushed the bag back into her trainer. Penny thanked her trainer and turned, then saw Sheldon behind the glass. She eagerly waved him over with a beaming post-workout smile. Sheldon approached, conscious of the germ-infested gym equipment but resolved to focus on Penny.

“Hey, sweetie.” She was wiping her sweat away with a towel, and Sheldon tried not to show his displeasure on his face.

“Good evening, Penny. You seem to be progressing quickly in your skill level.” His attempt at small talk felt stilted in his brain, but it had the desired effect of brightening Penny’s expression even further.

“Aww, thanks, Sheldon. I’m really enjoying the challenge of learning all these different things.”

Penny walked them over to the row of lockers near the front door and located her temporary locker. As she removed her things, Sheldon nervously hovered near her, unsure of what he should be saying or doing. He had no time to make up his mind, because, before he could articulate anything, a large, rather meat-headed looking man approached them. Or more accurately, approached Penny.

“Hey, Penny.” The man was comparable in height to Sheldon, but that’s where the similarities ended. He was in peak physical condition and had classically good looks, his eye contact barely strayed from Penny.

Penny closed the locker and smiled at the man, a smile that seemed to turn Sheldon’s stomach sour for a reason he couldn’t define.

“Oh, hey, Damian.” Penny’s greeting, as always, was polite and warm. The man looked over to Sheldon briefly with thinly veiled contempt in his eyes and then back to Penny.

“Is, uh, is this guy bothering you?” Damian asked rather brusquely. Penny’s eyebrows shot up in surprise, while Sheldon took an instinctual step away from them both.

“What? No. Damian, thanks but this is…”

“Because I saw him hanging around the entrance and then he just went up to the first pretty girl he saw, so I was thinking he might be hassling you,” Damian disregarded Penny’s protest, speaking over her. He then took a step closer to Sheldon, who was already shrinking away from the interaction. “You weren’t hassling this nice lady, huh? We don’t like random creeps just walking into the dojo.”

Penny stepped between Damian and Sheldon with an aura of vicious confidence.

“As I was saying… This is my friend, Doctor Cooper, who came to meet me for dinner. We were discussing our plans before you so rudely interrupted. I understand what you were trying to do, but you have no business swooping into my conversations and making assumptions.” The cross of her arms indicated the conversation was over, and with a muttered apology Damian left them. Penny turned back to a red-faced Sheldon, his embarrassment clear.

“Ooh, the nerve of that asshole, I am so sorry! That guy and his bodybuilder friends are such jerks, and he’s done nothing but stand by the treadmills and hit on me all week,” Penny apologized, then peered at him with her brow scrunched in worry when he said nothing.

“Sheldon, are you alright? That guy was an idiot, don’t worry about what he said.”

Sheldon’s flush did not abate, instead it burned steadily. He wasn’t worrying. She’d enunciated, in such a brutally sweet way, that he held a doctorate to the oafish man. Rarely people addressed him as Doctor Cooper, even while at campus. People didn’t just hand deferential gestures to him, he was – as once described by his mother – a strain on the patience of those around him. His entire social persona seemed to command disrespect.

But Penny respected him.

Sheldon cleared his throat, blinking away the unusual feeling of elation at her inadvertent compliment.

“I am not worried, Penny. It is not the worst thing someone has accused me of for my inconvenient bouts of indecisiveness.”

“Oh yeah?” Penny asked, returning to gathering her things as their friendly rapport reappeared.

“I had once been mistaken for a holiday mail bomber when I spent nearly an hour debating the merits of various packing materials at the post office,” he recounted calmly. Penny lost her grip on her water bottle, catching it again before it hit the ground. Her laugh of surprise was music to his ears.

“No way! Sheldon, why didn’t you ever tell me this story?” The sun was setting into a deep swirl of colors as they exited the gym, oblivious of the curious spectators to the odd couples conversation.

“Well, it never seemed an appropriate topic of conversation until now,” Sheldon replied, letting out a small huff of laughter. It was a rather incredible tale, and he could see the comedy in it.

 

-

Sheldon spent the next weeks surreptitiously avoiding the men he’d quickly begun to think of as his ‘former’ friends. Instead of his usual schedule in the evenings, those activities had been replaced by his singular focus: Penny. They spent the time after their respective jobs eating dinner together, tentatively exposing each other to their worlds. Sheldon had managed to get Penny’s agreement to watch three episodes of any show in a sort of mini-marathon each free evening they had, and quickly it was apparent that she was open to expanding her favored genre list. While initially hesitant, Penny seemed to genuinely enjoy the selection of his favorite Star Trek: Original Series episodes.

 “Wow, Spock is actually really hot,” Penny mused between handfuls of home-popped popcorn. Sheldon had almost spit out his drink at that little revelation. It shouldn’t have made him feel proud of her, but it did.

Despite Penny’s often nearness to his person, he did feel a bit withdrawn. He had become so accustomed to seeing three individuals in such regular intervals, that now his brain was baffled to why they were no longer present. It made for trying moments as he cleaned and read comics, expecting to hear his once roommate shuffling about in the other spaces of their living quarters but instead only observing the natural white noise of living in Pasadena.

 As Penny might say, he needed to get out more.

This was the driving motivation behind his acceptance of an invitation given to him by Leslie Winkle to join her ‘and the girls’ for lunch one day. If his agreement had surprised the woman, she did her best not to show it. Regret began to settle in once Sheldon arrived at their meeting place, a often neglected break room meant for the understaff, and found seven faculty members of varying age all partaking in their lunches.

‘I don’t like meeting people, he repeated silently as Leslie led him inside, depositing herself on a dingy sofa and waiting for him to follow suit. He, much to everyone’s disbelief including his own, kept standing, and held the strap of his bag awkwardly.

Leslie introduced everyone to him, though he apparently needed no introduction. They all seemed to already know him.

It was only when he removed his lunch, a white Styrofoam container from the Cheesecake Factory, that the occupants of the room actually seemed to realize he was indeed human. He was about to test the temperature of the french fries when Leslie noticed his meal.

 “Cheesecake Factory? Isn’t that where Leonard’s cast off Barbie works?” she inquired snottily, much to everyone’s amusement. Another woman, that he now knew to be Dr. Elgen, sat forward and inserted herself into the interaction.

“Are you talking about that blonde Hofstadter would always drag around on his arm to the faculty parties?”  At Leslie’s nod of agreement, the woman continued.

“God, it was so obvious why he brought her along. It was almost as bad as when Wolowitz tried bringing an escort to the Christmas party.”

“I remember that!” another girl added, looking positively pleased at the gossip being shared. Dr. Elgen frowned deeply, setting her smoothie aside.

“I just don’t know why they’re allowed to pull stunts like that, especially around the staff with families in attendance. Koothrappali was once so drunk at a charity event last year that he asked my thirteen-year-old son if he’d ever watched ‘hentai.’ I tried to get Gablehauser to step in but he didn’t seem to understand just how ridiculous it’s getting.”

“Those garbage nerds have to parade bimbos around and prove their virility every chance they get, else they would feel too emasculated by us.” Leslie snickered, turning to him for confirmation. “Right, Cooper?”

Sheldon set his uneaten food down upon the counter, his face ashen and twitching.

“I have to… use the facilities. Excuse me.” Sheldon rushed away from them into the bathroom, shutting the door behind him. He was frozen in the center of what was beginning to feel like petri dish, still able to hear their voices through the thin walls.

“What’s his problem?” one of the TA’s asked.

“He’s weird, you should already know that by now,” Leslie replied casually.

“Damn, I needed the bathroom. I heard he’s super OCD so it’s going to take forever for him to finish,” someone else said, their words whispered but not hushed enough.

Sheldon wasn’t certain when he began hyperventilating, but the rush of hot water over his hands was the only way he could soothe himself right then. As he heard them continue to chatter, he turned the water off, then on again with a groan of frustration. He never did this at work, usually, but here he was.

Utterly trapped.


-

Penny had just finished her first kick-boxing class and felt absolutely wonderful. Sheldon was a God-tier friend, because at this point the exercise was the only thing keeping her from screaming at customers during her shifts at the Cheesecake Factory. Despite the few annoying guys who hung around doing nothing, everyone at the gym was wonderful. Another gym member, Ricki, had become a casual friend to her. They often boxed together and chatted about their lives, but Penny tended to be more reserved with her details than the older woman. All threads of personal information always seemed to lead back to things in Penny’s life that she hated, so she played it shallow and safe.

Penny and Ricki were currently chatting, cleaning themselves up after what had been an intense forty-five minutes of boxing.

 “You know the manager said that they might be getting one of those sensory deprivation tanks for the gym. I’ve heard they do wonders to center your inner self,” Ricki said excitedly, brushing a comb through her short hair.

 “Wow,” Penny whistled. “I can’t believe I even have a membership to this place.” Penny hadn’t been sure what to expect initially when Sheldon had shown her a pamphlet for a ‘dojo’, but in true Los Angeles trend the place was stupidly luxurious. Steam rooms, endless high-end equipment, and even a massage therapist on staff. It was a little overwhelming at times, but Penny loved it.

 “How did you get a membership? Didn’t you say you were waiting tables?” Ricki had meant it kindly, but it still felt like a bit of a slap. Penny didn’t act that poor, did she?

“My friend got me a membership,” Penny defended herself as she secured her hair tightly.

“Wow, honey, is this friend your boyfriend? Because if not, you should really tie that one down.”

“No, he’s definitely not my boyfriend.” Penny hesitated, Ricki’s reaction was a bit extreme. Surely a membership wasn’t that pricey, right? And Sheldon had promised it wasn’t anything substantial. “How much do the yearly memberships cost, anyway?”

Ricki grabbed her hoodie from her cubby and pulled it over her head. “Oh, maybe like thirty five hundred dollars.” The woman said it so nonchalantly Penny almost missed it.

“Thirty five… as in three thousand five hundred dollars?” Penny’s post-workout high was fizzling into a livid haze. Sheldon had promised the cost was minimal! At Ricki’s confirmation, Penny slammed her locker closed and headed for the front desk. A lady behind the counter was working on paperwork and was startled when Penny approached like a madwoman.

“I need to cancel my membership and get a refund!” Penny demanded. The lady’s smiley disposition crumbled away in the wake of Penny’s temper. Dutifully, she looked up Penny’s details but couldn’t comply.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t cancel the membership unless the Visa owner confirms. Should I call to confirm?” Penny angrily shoved her arms into her jacket, realizing this was going to turn into a big issue, fast.

“No, thanks. I’ll confirm.” Fuming silently, she stalked to her car and drove across the street to wait for Sheldon. When he got to the car, she would have some choice words to share with him. He had to stop doing this.

-

“Cooper?” Leslie called through the bathroom door. She could hear the rushing of the sink and pained muttering from the tall scientist, and it began to worry her.

“Cooper, is everything ok? It’s been two hours, everyone has gone back to work.” With no response from within, Leslie bit her lip and considered her options. She could leave him and return to her office, but then later she might feel bad about it. Instead she jiggled the handle and found it unlocked.

“Hey, Cooper, I’m opening the door,” Leslie forewarned. Hoping to god that Sheldon Cooper wasn’t doing something weird, she slowly eased the door open. Her breath left her lungs as she spotted him, crouched down and furiously scrubbing the button for the hand-dryer with an anti-bacterial wipe. He was wearing latex gloves, but through the clear material she could see just how red and raw the skin was from repeated washing. Behind him the sink was close to overflowing, and the trash can had nearly a dozen discarded wipes sitting atop the other refuse.

“Cooper?” Leslie called faintly. She had heard the gossip about him being a germaphobe, but this was clearly far beyond that. His frenzied appearance could only be described as tragic.

“Just one moment,” Sheldon replied hoarsely, his voice sounding as if he’d been crying. He tossed the wipe he’d been using on top of the rest and retrieved another one from the package in his messenger bag, turning this one on the seemingly spotless knobs of the sink. He turned them off, then on, and repeated the action so many times that Leslie felt as if she would scream.

“Are you alright, Cooper?”

“What? Oh, yes. Fine.” Sheldon removed his gloves and threw them away, then sanitized his damaged hands one more time before leaving the room altogether. “I will return to my office. Thank you for including me in this… social gathering.” His voice was stilted as he moved to leave the lounge. Leslie followed him, worried about his erratic behavior.  

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

Sheldon turned back to her tensely, his reddened eyes narrowed.

Clearly I am not, Dr. Winkle. This is…” he gestured to his own hands. “…this is why I maintained my friendship with the ‘garbage nerds’ as you called them, for so long. Socializing with seven new people was tiresome and hearing you all speak so candidly about my personal life was demeaning. Overall, the experience was hellish, and though I recognize your attempt to include me, I will, in the future, decline.” Sheldon turned on his heel and covered his hand with the waffled material of his sleeve as to open the door. With a protected finger he tapped the door knob half a dozen times, his face twisting with agitation. As he struggled to turn the knob he continued, voice clipping from frustration.

“And another thing… I have appreciated the relative ease we have enjoyed at work this past week and a half, but I will discontinue our tenuous acquaintance if I ever hear you speak poorly about Penny again. She is my friend and hearing her degraded certainly did not ingratiate yourself to me. In total honesty, your remarks about her were not far from the types of things frequently dribbling from Howard Wolowitz’s mouth.”
At this, he was finally freed from whatever compulsion he was struggling with and swung the door open. Without a backwards glance, Sheldon walked out.

Leslie didn’t follow, but instead stayed rooted to her spot in scrutiny of herself. She had never expected that from him. Leslie knew she was abrasive at the best of times, but had she truly acted that insulting?

“Shit,” Leslie muttered. It would seem that she had messed up. Badly.

-

That evening Penny sat idling by the far east side of campus waiting for Sheldon. They had decided on this spot for pickups and drop offs as it was on the opposite end of campus from Sheldon, and the other guys offices. Penny had only been waiting for a few minutes when a person approached the car from campus and began to panic when she realized it wasn’t Sheldon’s lanky form. As the person came closer Penny sighed in relief that it wasn’t Leonard, but it still wasn’t anyone she wanted to see. Leslie Winkle was strolling over to her car, motioning for her to lower her window. Penny did, cranking the hand crank. A lock of blonde hair fell from her ponytail and into her eyes, only furthering her agitation. Penny blew the hair away then straightened up in her seat, piercing Leslie with a look she hoped projected ‘angry runway model’.

“What do you want?” Penny nearly scowled, snappily tapping the button for her radio to turn off. The woman hadn’t even spoke and Penny was over this. She was already preparing to have a long and likely explosive argument with Sheldon later. She didn’t need this right now.

The sudden loss of music was jarring to both women, but Leslie pressed on. She pulled her denim jacket around herself like armor.

“Hey, retract your claws, Barbie. I’m actually here to apologize to you.” Her sarcastic barb stung, and it wasn’t the first time Leslie had insinuated Penny was basically plastic.

“Apologize? Don’t tell me, you’re sorry I didn’t go to college?” Penny scoffed coldly, fiddling with her sunglasses. “Try another one, that joke’s stale.”

Leslie rolled her eyes and leaned against Penny’s car.

“Oh, come on, I’m serious. Apparently, according to some beanstalk of a physicist, I have been undeservedly mean to you.” Leslie pulled a face, exposing her discomfort. “And, while I’m not one for apologies, I will admit I have been a bit of a bitch to you in the past, so I’m… I’m sorry.” The apology felt sincere, and Leslie’s tone sobered Penny.

“Really?” Penny asked, still a bit hesitant to accept the apology. “Just like that?”

“Yeah well, Sheldon can be oddly persuasive,” Leslie chuckled. “I would like to stay on good terms with him now that we’ve gotten over our feud, and considering you’re obviously an important person to him I thought it would be best if I, well, yeah…”

“Did he say that?” Penny interjected. “He said I was important to him?” She hated the desperate tinge to her voice but, the validation was far too enticing to pass up. Leslie scrubbed a hand over her wild hair, eyes crinkled with mirth behind her glasses.

“Yeah, I mean, he basically said he would never interact with me again if I ever spoke badly about you.” Leslie paused, readjusting her jacket as a chill passed over her. “And you know how petty he can be.”

 

Penny let out a giggle at that, she certainly did know how petty Sheldon Cooper could be. Sheldon’s pettiness could be summed up in one image, of Penny’s underthings blowing in the breeze from the balcony. It had taken her hours to collect the stragglers from the sidewalk, and though at the time it had been embarrassing she now considered it one of her happier memories. Her smile fell as she realized how little she actually wanted to argue with Sheldon later. Penny was still angry about the money but, at this point, it felt like beating a dead horse. She should have never assumed what he, a PhD-having physicist, called ‘chump change’ was anything close to what she could classify it as. Especially considering this was the man who spent six hundred dollars constructing a Ringwraith costume a few years back.

Penny looked up at Leslie, feeling more at ease knowing that she was going to let the money issue go, at least for now.

“I accept your apology. It was very… very sweet of you to do that.” A gust of chilly air blew through the window causing Penny to shiver, and she felt bad for keeping Leslie hanging out in the parking lot. “Hey, why don’t you go back inside. Maybe we could go get drinks sometime…” Penny winced, remembering she wasn’t drinking anymore. “Or go bowling.”

Leslie seemed to find the idea amusing, and they agreed to hang out sometime.

 

After Leslie left, Sheldon was quick to come striding from the bookstore and enter her car. He looked… rough. Like he’d had a shitty day, which was unacceptable considering how he was essentially responsible for Leslie’s groveling. Penny looked over her tall friend and felt a twinge of guilt that she had ever been angry at him earlier that day. He didn’t deserve to get chewed out for doing something nice.

“Sheldon, would you mind going to the store with me on the way home?” Penny asked, turning the ignition on. Sheldon sighed heavily but nodded.

“I just need to grab some hot dogs and pasta for dinner tonight.” Penny smiled to herself as she watched Sheldon perk up from the passenger seat.

“Really? Spaghetti with cut up hot dogs?” Sheldon clapped excitedly, he hadn’t eaten his favorite meal in seven months and ten days. “Penny, you are frequently reminding me of why I chose you to be my best friend. You are exceedingly thoughtful.”

Penny flushed, flicking her blinker on to turn into the Trader Joe's parking lot. In that moment Penny was sorely disappointed that Sheldon was essentially unavailable. Oh sure, he had his issues and quirks, but this wasn’t the first time she’d thought he would’ve made a good boyfriend.  Penny listened to him as he eagerly recounted a story about his Meemaw’s cooking, one she’d heard many times already, and smiled indulgently at him. Regardless of his romantic availability, she would always consider him her best friend.

Chapter Text

Sheldon hadn't wanted to go to work that morning. He'd spent the early hours of the day making chocolate chip pancakes and a pot of coffee specifically for his friend and neighbor. Penny's mood had been low after a weekend of more failed auditions, and Sheldon knew the easiest and most direct way of cheering her was to feed her. She'd had the coffee, and he a glass of milk as they conversed easily about the Firefly epsiodes they'd viewed the previous evening. Penny didn't balk when he wanted to put on an episode of Doctor Who during their meal, and he didn't laugh at her silly - albeit fresh - opinions on the comics he'd leant her just yesterday. She was actually quite insightful, Sheldon was finding.

 

He didn’t want to leave her, but her schedule dictated their relationship as much as his. Penny had a double shift that day, lunch and then the dinner rush. She was already wearing her unpleasant yellow uniform, and he couldn’t ask her to neglect her job. As Penny would put it, the bills had to be paid, and since she would not allow for Sheldon’s assistance in that regard, he assented to her need to go. She drove him to work, like she did every week day in recent memory, and blew him a cheeky kiss goodbye as he exited her car. Again, as he strode towards the Caltech offices, he wished there had been a way to keep them at home. His ideal schedule now consisted of one thing; spending time with Penny, and he hated to disrupt his schedule.

 

He didn’t see a soul until lunch. He sat with Leslie and her friends but said little. Instead he ate and wished rather desperately that the experience would end quicker. Every moment spent surrounded by strangers felt like an eternity. Every new stimulus, movement, expression made by these people caused his brain to work overtime, unnecessarily engraving the memories inside his mind. The peace of a routine was far less stressful than this… hell.

From Sheldon’s vantage at the “girl’s table”, as many of his male colleagues liked to snicker, he could see Leonard loitering by the register. He’d already eaten and was there simply to observe and insert himself into the life of the cashier, whom Sheldon recalled was named Melissa by the shiny name tag he’d seen on her lapel. Melissa looked like she was appreciating Leonard’s flattery, if a little wearily, and it made a sick pit of rage sink to Sheldon’s stomach. He paused in the consumption of his meal, watching them, watching Leonard relentlessly flirt and overstay his welcome.

 

“You look like you just saw Steven Hawking’s ghost renounce science, Cooper,” Leslie snarked. Sheldon didn’t alter his focus, choosing to ignore the woman. Though they had remained less than enemies, Sheldon still felt angry towards her. No one insulted Penny.

Leslie dropped her sandwich down to her plate with a groan, rolling her eyes theatrically.

 

“Oh, come on, you’re more interested in watching Hofstadter and his new girlfriend than responding?” At this, he did make eye contact.

 

“Is she? His girlfriend, I mean,” Sheldon inquired, feeling a bad taste bloom in his mouth.

 

“Yeah. So?” Leslie was a bit incredulous. “You sound like you care.”

 

Sheldon shook his head, looking away. Not another victim.

 

“I feel apprehension for her. Leonard… he’s not safe,” Sheldon’s voice was thick with negative sentiment, and Leslie looked disconcerted.

 

“Safe? What did he do?” Leslie’s mind worked over her own question quickly. “Did he do something to Penny?” she asked, her voice dropping lower in volume. Sheldon got up from the table, taking his tray with him. He looked down at her, who appeared desperate for answers, and frowned deeply.

 

“I cannot discuss this with you.”

 

Sheldon tossed his lunch in the garbage and left the cafeteria. He was beginning to hate the university, and he just hoped it wouldn’t reflect in his research. Other than Penny, it was all he had left here in Pasadena.

 

 

A few tables over sat Howard, a spoon of tomato soup hovering just out of reach from his mouth as he watched Sheldon leave the cafeteria. The way he’d looked at Leonard had been downright frightening, and though Howard thought he’d seen Sheldon angry, he was apparently mistaken. That was Sheldon angry; whatever had happened between him and Leonard must have been bad. Howard shrugged, then finally began eating his soup again. Maybe Leonard had finally banged Sheldon’s sister – what was her name? Misty? Minnie? Either way, Howard resolved to ask Leonard about the details some other time. It looked like he was doing pretty well working over Melissa. Or was it Melinda? Eh, who has the time to remember all these women’s names?

 

 

-

 

 

Penny was having yet another shitty day. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t her worst – she had received a lovely tip from the Red Hat Society group that frequented the restaurant once or so a month. It was just… the slough. Every free morning and weekend, a string of fruitless auditions, and every evening standing on her feet dealing with hungry and inconsiderate people who didn’t care that she barely made enough money to pay her rent – they had to have their garlic bread now.

Her current table was just the worst kind, the kind that would have her drowning in alcohol later if she was still drinking. Two guys sat at the table, both over forty years old and treating the restaurant like it was their own personal sports bar. They cracked loud, obnoxious jokes and ate messily, basically ruining every other patron’s dining experience. Penny cringed when she got in earshot of their crude banter, then slapped a 1000-watt smile over it.

She slid the faux-leather bill folder onto the table.

“The bill for you gentlemen,” she offered politely. They were still working on their desert and coffee, but it paid to be ahead with the table turnaround.

One of the guys, wearing plaid and a pair of sunglasses you might see on someone who enjoyed playing with riding-lawnmowers in their spare time, took his wallet out and dropped some cash on top of the bill. It was exactly the amount for their meal and nothing more. Penny gritted her teeth, still maintaining her smile effortlessly. No tip for her, yet again. If there was one thing Penny had learned in her years serving in Los Angeles, it was that tourists were cheap. She didn’t take it personally.

 

“Thank you, have a great night,” Penny said, turning quickly on her heel.

 

“Wait, your tip, sweet stuff,” the guy called back to her. From the corner of her vision Penny saw a hand reaching swiftly for her.

 

No, not this. Not again.

 

The grip of his greasy hand dug into her, fingers roughly groping her where the slope of her ass met her thigh, and though Penny knew she should ignore the man, her threshold for harassment had already been more than met. For a moment she felt another panic attack coming on, tears threatening, until her new instincts kicked in. Before he could release her, Penny grabbed his hand, clenched it tightly and spun around, twisting his arm behind his back so hard he let out a startled and shrill squeal of pain. Penny pinned his arm behind his back with so much force that he lifted from his chair and fell across the table top, his flannel covered chest smashing into his half eaten cherry chocolate cheesecake.

“Let me go, bitch! Ow!” he yelped out angrily as her other hand pressed into his elbow. With just one little twist she could break his arm, and it would be so god damn satisfying, but she knew she couldn’t. Penny instead pulled him towards her, stage whispering into his reddened ear.

“Groping isn’t tipping, asshole!” Then she tossed him back onto the table like the garbage he was, sending coffee cups spilling to the dizzyingly patterned carpet. Penny turned back away from the table, vaguely aware of other patrons in the restaurant applauding her like it was god damn dinner theater. Her manager rushed over to her, already screaming and blue in the face. She could barely hear either, the rushing in her ears too loud. Penny, with a dazed look in her eyes, stripped her apron off and tossed it to the ground. She walked out the front doors and to her car, equal parts giddy and horrified. She knew she was royally screwed, and was certainly fired, but the adrenaline felt amazing. Penny only wished Sheldon had been there to see it.

 

 

-

 


It was cold. A nearly unacceptable temperature for an interior, and yet Sheldon did nothing to alter it. He couldn’t alter the state of his office. Four days before, someone had come into his office and broken the thermostat, and while Sheldon had pressed the Caltech maintenance staff to speedily replace the panel, they had never showed up to complete the task.

Sheldon was staring at the thermostat instead of his laptop, the cursor on his word processor blinking in insistence that he return to the editing of his rebuttal of the recently published – and horribly erroneous – String Theory paper from one of Cambridge’s imbecilic theorists.  

Perhaps the staff hadn’t taken his claim that it had been vandalized seriously. It was a fairly common occurrence for others to ignore him simply because he was… well, himself. He had said someone had broken in, not because he wished that were the case, but because it must be. The entirety of the panel was smashed, as if someone had taken a mallet to the wall. The plaster around it was cracking.

Perhaps he should have called security instead. In all likelihood, they wouldn’t have believed him either. And Sheldon didn’t need to review footage from the hallway security cameras to know who the likely culprit was. Hofstadter was becoming increasingly bold with his attempts to instigate something between them, and it may be that Leonard was itching for an altercation so he could come out looking vaguely superior to himself in the eyes of their colleagues.

It had started with his name being removed from the laboratory time sharing roster. A possible misstep by the office manager. Then, the notes he would send to Dr. Reynolds – the professor who oversaw the classes Sheldon was initially supposed to teach – would go missing somewhere between his office and Reynolds’. Then the thermostat. And today, just after lunch, a grubby handprint had been left on the knob to his office. He’d spent an hour scrubbing the thing with professional grade cleaning fluid before he could even enter. All seemingly insignificant, petty attempts at riling him up, but they were accumulating into a mass of aggravation that would not cease in bringing him to distraction.


Belatedly, he realized the windows were darkening, casting shadows inside the interior of his chilly workspace. His internal clock suggested it was already time for him to leave the office, but he had done practically none of the work he had planned on accomplishing. Hofstadter was winning, and the urge to run down the hall and grip the stupid man by his obnoxiously curly hair was a severe temptation. Would it be but for Penny that he would ever interact with the man again. It didn’t matter that he was shivering in his office, or that he wanted to give his former friend a public set down, he could not justify the outburst with the possible ramifications. Penny didn’t want anything said, anything done, and though it still bothered him to no end, he would support her decision. She was resolute and wouldn’t back down from her stance even if she wanted to. It was enough to drive a man batty.

Sheldon closed his laptop and set about removing himself from his office. He never left his work at the school, thankfully, so there was no need to alter his behavior at that front. Even if he had, for some unimaginable reason, left his laptop behind, Leonard would never decrypt his system. The cretin simply didn’t possess the skill required.

Bag in hand, Sheldon left the office and walked out into the evening. He half expected to see Penny already waiting for him, her smile radiating from behind the driver’s side window, but she wasn’t. He would have to text her. A car was parked in the back lot, and two individuals were moving towards it. Melissa, the cashier, hastily unlocked her door and slid inside, closing it behind her. Leonard Hofstadter leaned against the side panel of the car, waiting for her to roll down the window. She did, but with an awkward pause of hesitation that was visible even from across the lot. Sheldon watched as Leonard spoke to the woman lowly, even taking the opportunity to slip his hand through the open window to brush a lock of hair from the brunette’s face. She blushed and looked away, then removed Leonard’s hand from her person and pushed it gently back to his side of the vehicle.

 

It turned Sheldon’s stomach, and he felt the plastic of his phone crackle under the pressure of his tightening fingers. Sheldon briskly moved past them, quickly sending a text to Penny. He was terrified that Penny would drive up at any moment and come face to face with her nightmare.

As Sheldon fled the scene, he felt eyes burning into the back of his skull. A quick glance back confirmed that Leonard was glaring at his retreating form, the small, twisted smile on his face spoke volumes.

Sheldon walked quicker, turning a corner to conceal himself. Sheldon wasn’t certain what Leonard’s game was, but he didn’t want to participate. All he wanted was to keep that man away from Penny.

 


-

 

In the aftermath of her explosive day at the Cheesecake factory, Penny hadn’t been sure what to do. She had time, hours of it, to sit and contemplate life’s unfair curveballs at her leisure. After returning home, the excitement of her altercation simmered down into a need to do… well, anything. She washed the few dishes that were still in her sink, and there weren’t many, since she ate almost all her meals at Sheldon’s place. Her laptop was begging her from across the room to log on and rediscover the wonders of fast fashion, and, oh, was the temptation real. Retail therapy was like a drug, but Penny was done self-medicating. It’s why she dumped the remaining alcohol she had in her apartment down the drain, and why she removed her credit information from the numerous shopping websites she frequented. Instead of buying, Penny would place items in her cart and then unceremoniously close the page. It was a good distraction, and one that didn’t overdraft her account. Despite that, Penny still felt she was wearing the same things over and over.

It wasn’t that she had nothing to wear, on the contrary, her wardrobe was an impressive collection from living in Southern California for eight years.

But she still couldn’t bear to go in her bedroom.

The half-open door taunted her whenever she passed, jogging her memory with painful flashes from that night. Penny had tried, so many times, to over come the fear, but the prospect of coming face to face with her bed still gave her nausea. Penny still slept on her couch.

She’d taken to hanging the few belongings she had retrieved from her closet in the bathroom, and those pieces were all she wore now. Gym clothes and her uniform, but now she didn’t even need to wear that.

Suddenly, Penny felt that she needed to leave the apartment altogether. She didn’t want to be alone in the apartment when Sheldon wasn’t across the hall just in case something happened. After changing out of her uniform, she left Los Robles, hoping there was a free sandbag to beat the living crap out of at the Fight Dojo.

 

In front of the gym, Penny chewed one of the last pieces of bubble gum she had in her purse and grumpily read through her email. The gym was closed, they were installing those fancy fish tanks Ricki kept going on about, which was great for everyone else but bad news for Penny. All she wanted was melt some tension away, get her body moving. After throwing that guy at the restaurant and subsequently getting fired, Penny’s overcoming need to do something was overwhelming. She wanted to release her tension and distract herself from the fact that she was now unemployed. She was also weirdly lonely. She hated the feeling of being in the apartment building and knowing Sheldon hadn’t been there as well, and it struck her that she was maybe becoming too dependent on him for everything.

 

Penny sent a quick text off to Sheldon, asking him if he was ready to be picked up from work. Some days he worked late, although Penny was never sure exactly what he did as a physicist. She hoped he wasn’t working later tonight, she wanted to see him. His response dinged, and it was… odd sounding.

 

“Penny, where are you located at this time? – Sheldon”

 

Penny shook her head disbelievingly and replied, “At the gym. I can come straight over. And again, you don’t need to sign your texts. I know who they’re from.”

 

“Stay at your current location, I will meet you there. I will end my text messages however I see fit. – Sheldon”

 

The messages were strangely curt, even for Sheldon, and Penny couldn’t help but stare at her phone. Puzzling out Sheldon’s mood was never easy, however, and by the time Sheldon arrived at the front of the strip mall, Penny still wasn’t sure what was wrong.

 

"Hey, sweetie, why couldn't I pick you up at campus?" His silence was sobering, as he stood next to her car in his wind breaker. There would be only one reason Sheldon wouldn’t want her at campus, after all. 

 

Leonard

 

"Oh... I see." Penny began to blink her eyes rapidly, an indication that she might cry, then she motioned her arms oddly as if to shake an invisible something off of them. 

 

"It's okay, I'm fine." A pause as she collected herself further. "Hey, why don't we go out to eat?"

 

"Penny, you know I detest spontaneity,” he replied with an agitated scoff.

 

"Right, sorry. I'm just..." Penny bit her lip, looking about nervously. "I just don't want to be somewhere... where he could show up." She sighed, then began reading through her email again, setting the issue to rest in silence.

 

 

It occurred in an abrupt, almost painful way to Sheldon that Penny was afraid to go home. Her anxiety, while well concealed behind her peppy attitude was clearly still present, stirring her emotions and keeping her feeling unbalanced. Sheldon actually understood that. After the Arctic, he'd suffered from paranoia due to his mistrust in his friends and coworkers.

 

Again, only Penny ever seemed to stay a constant in his life. 

 

He was edgy from anxiety, but felt it may be necessary, just this once, to acquiesce. 

 

"Alright Penny, I understand your feelings. Instead of going to the apartment we may... try doing something else. No strange eateries, however. Dinner shall be relegated to the Thai restaurant." 

 

Sheldon quickly shuffled through his mental index of "things I want to do but don't have the time" and cross referenced with "things I recall Penny enjoying" and found only one activity they could engage in this late into the afternoon.

 

"There is a firing range I have been wanting to utilize for quite some time, and I recall you saying on numerous occasions that you also enjoy marksmanship. Would you care to join me in a few rounds of shooting before we return home?" 

 

Penny's eyes were sparkling by the time he finished speaking, her expression was beautiful yet bordering on frightening - as if the prospect of violence was actually making her glow. That was Penny to a T, always balanced on the line between terrifying and aesthetic excellence with graceful ease.

 

"Yes! I would love... love to go shooting, Sheldon. Especially after the day I’ve had." 

 

"It may take us anywhere between twenty and forty minutes to drive there, Penny, for it is located in Tujunga. Is that still acceptable?"

 

"That's fine, honey, the farther away the better." 

 

-

 

Traffic had been plodding, but with each mile they traveled away from Caltech, Penny seemed less anxious. It was not so for Sheldon, whose blood was practically boiling at her casual description of the events from earlier that day. Penny had been harassed by a groping customer. She had the audacity to play the event off, it was just ‘one of those crazy things’ as she put it so inelegantly. The knowledge that Penny had not only lost her job, but she also planned to double down on her acting career gave Sheldon a migraine, one he was suffering from silently. Penny’s mood was too uplifted for him to bother her with his fears, so instead he stewed in his troubled mind, wishing he could find a solution to her joblessness that wouldn’t put Penny at the mercy of Hollywood. He could think of nothing before they came upon the range.

 

 

Penny fired off three shots before Sheldon had even begun the arduous process of assembling his firearm. Each piece was essential and deserved the same maintenance and care as the others. Sheldon relished the methodical practice of disassembly and reassembly, it was like a good crossword or mathematical equation. Simply put, giving focus to the mechanical elements was calming. 

 

From the side room Sheldon occupied, he could both keep his hands busy with his Browning Buck Mark 22 and watch Penny through the observation glass. She was sight to behold at that moment, ear protection and all. 

 

Penny held a Remington Model 700 in her arms like a trained professional, eyeing her target with imperturbable determination that sent a chill down Sheldon's spinal cord. She fired on her target, striking it with adequate precision, and handled the recoil of the bolt action rifle with the sophistication and ease of a rural Nebraskan. By the way she reacted to the rifle’s kickback you wouldn't know that she was only one-hundred and thirty four pounds, as her footing was solid as stone. 

 

Sheldon found himself neglecting his task, which astonished him greatly. He rarely was swept away by daydreams and idle fancy, but Penny was easy to get wrapped up in. Sheldon frequently found himself musing on just how impressive a woman she really was. 

 

After Penny had almost concluded her session, Sheldon was just entering the gallery for his round. He approached the stall and took his time loading the pistol. Penny waited behind him just a little, loitering inside the gallery for him to take his shots with an amused expression that indicated she was enjoying herself at his expense. 

He gave Penny a barely perceptible nod then eyed the target.

 

Breathe in, aim, and fire. 

 

The bullet punctured the paper target just northeast of the center point, what could only be two and a half centimeters away. 

 

"Not bad!" Penny shouted, their ear guards making it difficult to hear one another. Sheldon narrowed his eyes in dissatisfaction, not bad wasn't good enough.

 

He trained his eyes back to the paper mark; its unassuming silhouette eliciting no emotional response from him. His brain, unbidden, roused the expression Leonard Hofstadter had worn on his loathsome face when he nearly admitted to assaulting Penny just twenty three days ago. An echo of Penny’s voice recounted her workplace assault, settling a haze of red inside his mind.

 

Aim, fire. Fire. Fire.

 

There was only technically one other hole now marring the paper, as the three shots he had unloaded into it had shredded the bullseye into a gaping, empty space. Sheldon's muscles trembled as he unloaded the pistol, forgoing his next allotted shots in favor of quitting early. He hadn't fired a gun in six years and four months, and he hadn't realized just how emotionally provoking it was. 

 

He was dangerously angry. Much too angry to be in a place where you could purchase bullets by the box. 

 

Sheldon removed his protective gear with a minute amount of difficulty, the jitter of his hands causing them to falter. He carried the now unloaded pistol back to the side room to disassemble, much to the staff's chagrin, but they'd agreed to allow him this one luxury for a fair price. 

 

Penny followed Sheldon, but he wished she hadn't. 

 

He was spraying a cloth with cleaning solvent when she eagerly began speaking. She didn't notice the way his face was ticking, his muscles quaking ever so slightly. 

 

"Holy cow, sweetie, you're an amazing shot," Penny praised him. It felt pleasant, fleetingly, but it couldn't soothe him. He didn't respond. 

 

"Sheldon?" Penny stepped closer to the table, her eyebrows drawn together in confusion. "Sheldon, what's wrong? Did you get hurt?"

 

Sheldon laughed at that, a brief and sullen exhale.

 

"No, I am physically fine Penny. I am simply..." he paused searching for a gentle wording but finding no alternative way to express his distasteful emotions. 

A pregnant pause followed, Penny waiting for him to respond when he so fervently wished he wasn't compelled to. He could not lie to her.

 

"I pictured Leonard's face," he admitted with abrupt carelessness, casting his eyes down so he wouldn't have to see Penny react. 

 

"Sheldon..." her voice was strained, as if she was quickly becoming overwhelmed. 

 

"I sometimes find m'self wishing I could kill 'im, Penny." Sheldon’s accent was tinging his words, and he internally berated himself for letting it slip. Decades of suppressing the damn thing and it always seemed to rear itself into his interactions with Penny. “An’ earlier you tell me a man grabbed you at the restaurant.”

 

"God, Sheldon, I know..." 

 

"No," Sheldon said, placing the solvent and the barrel of the pistol down on the table with a little more force than necessary.

 

"No Penny, you didn't see him. I wouldn't’ve permitted him to be near you, but I did see him. I had to stand there and listen to that reprobate try'n justify what he did, and..." his voice was choking, and he was beginning to feel like the cinderblock walls of the range were shrinking in and about to crush him. "And I still do wanna kill’im, I think about it whenever I'm at work and I see him acting like he didn't actually r-r... "

 

"Sheldon, stop." Penny begged quietly, looking up at him from between her fingers. "I'm sorry this happened, sweetie..." she started to apologize, but he wouldn't let her continue.

 

"No, Penny! I insisted you never to apologize, because you aren’t to blame! I am just...!" Sheldon ceased speaking, eyes darting around as his breathing began to accelerate painfully. Penny was wiping away tears on the ends of her sweater sleeves, and the owner of the range was coming over towards them as if to interrogate them or intervene.

 

"I'm...!" Sheldon stuttered, unable to express himself. Without thinking, he grabbed his jacket and fled the range, heading out to the nearly empty and dark parking lot. The air was colder outside, icy and dry in his deprived lungs. He was hyperventilating, having a panic attack as he leaned against the back bumper of Penny's car.

 

He detested being angry. It was much too trying to manage. 

 

Penny followed him after a few minutes, and Sheldon felt a stab of guilt that he'd simply left her there to deal with the men inside. 

 

"P-Penny..." He was still attempting to wrangle his breathing under control. In, out, in, out, anger, uselessness, dread...

 

"Sheldon! Whatever this is, it'll pass!" Penny had raised her voice just so he could hear her over his own strenuous respirations. 

 

"Breathe with me, sweetie, okay?" Penny inhaled deeply, and Sheldon's academic mind recognized the method she was very possibly accidentally deploying was actually medically sound. Sheldon began to follow her breathing, feeling his stress dissipate.

They stood in the barely lit parking lot, mid-November wind chilling them to the bone as they breathed together steadily. Once Sheldon's breathing had evened out enough to speak coherently, Penny seemed to be more emotionally upset than he was.

 

"Penny, I apologize for my outburst," Sheldon said, hoping he could quell her sorrow. 

 

"Sheldon, are you okay?" Penny shivered, hugging herself against the wind and emotional turmoil. 

 

"Yes, I am mentally coherent again, but Penny... you appear to be in distress." 

 

"I just... I was worried about you, sweetie. You looked..." Penny shook her head, then tipped it upwards to gaze at the sky. "This is so rough, I don't know how we're going to get through this. Especially with him still poisoning our lives." 

 

"Please do not worry yourself, Penny. He can no longer affect you, and I will remain passively aware of him at work for your safety." 

 

"But don't you see, Sheldon? Being passively aware of him, having to avoid the people we know and places we love, because of him. He will always be there, hanging around like a fucking ghost, and I don’t know what to do." Her voice was bitter and weary as she leaned against the other end of the bumper, her eyes still unfocused and cast away from him.

 

"Whatever I must do in the interim to provide you with a measure of safety, I shall do it." Sheldon closed his eyes. He was exhausted.  "I will always support you Penny, I am simply unaccustomed to wrangling my temper. I hope you understand."

 

Penny covered her face with her hands, breathing deeply into the wool of her sweater sleeves. 

 

"I understand, sweetie, so well." 

 

They stood next to one another in the frigid evening for a while, each wishing they could assure one another that things would get better, but neither of them having the nerve to lie. Things weren’t getting better.

Chapter Text

Tap, tap

The noise was from a pen in the hand of a casting director as he tapped it against Penny’s pristine, if not a little out of date headshot. The end of the pen rapped harshly against her printed nose, and it made Penny cringe. This didn’t bode well for her.

She’d fudged her way through the line reading and she wouldn’t be surprised if the man told her, any second now, that she should just go home. She wanted to go home, curl up on the couch with a nice cup of cocoa and the new issue of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl. Sheldon had given her a bit of crap when she’d chosen it as her New Comic Day choice (over the internet, as they rarely ventured to the Comic Book Store these days), but she was enjoying the series. It was funny, not as boring as she had imagined just staring at images would be, and Sheldon had agreed that anything in the realm of comics was a step in a direction he appreciated.  

Penny just wanted to cancel life and grab Sheldon from campus, maybe convince him to make those delicious pierogi things he had made for dinner the previous week. She’d even willingly take laundry tips from him. Anything other than this waiting. She knew the rejection was coming, she’d heard it all before, and it wouldn’t be her first let down of the week. Since she’d been fired a few weeks ago, Penny had doubled down on auditioning. Commercials, plays, background work, anything. None of them panned out. The only thing she’d been able to snag was a brief modeling opportunity for some nightclub’s advertisements, and it hadn’t paid well enough to justify the dress she had to wear for it. But she was out here, auditioning, because it was all she knew how to do other than waiting tables. Her car payment and utilities demanded she do this, so, here she stood.

Penny gazed at the three people deciding her fate nervously, the casting director, his assistant, and another man. She didn’t even really know his function with the production. All he did the entire audition was creepily stare at her and pick at his nails. Maybe that was his job, Creepy Guy. If so, he was doing an impressive job of it.

 

“Penelope?” The casting director cut through her idle thoughts, instantly making her wince. She hated when people called her by her whole name.

 

“Yes?” she answered meekly, smiling with her radiant “please hire me” smile.

 

“Your line delivery, I’ll be honest, wasn’t great,” he intoned flatly. Her smile withered instantly, understanding completely that she was being set down. Instead of letting her go, he kept talking. Kept rubbing salt in the perpetually open wound that was her acting career.

“And it seems you haven’t had work for some time. You’re a lovely young lady, Penelope, but you just aren’t main lead material. We need a woman who can embody deep emotions, who is more expressive. I’m sorry, good luck.” He motioned to the door at the side of the room and Penny left without hesitation. In previous years she might have pleaded, attempted to swing a second audition, but at this point Penny was over it. Maybe she wasn’t meant to be an actress.

Leonard’s voice ghosted through her brain, making her ears burn and tears prick at the corners of her eyes. “Penny, every blonde in Hollywood is an ‘actress’.”

She knew, and yet she’d thought…

Penny jammed her keys into the ignition, turning the engine on roughly. She thought wrong, obviously. Penny had taken the high rent, drought, wildfires, and gang violence and actually believed it would all be worth it because, one day, she would make it. The thought had her laughing harshly to herself as she drove mindlessly to the Fight Dojo. Her knuckles were begging to be smashed against the leather of a bag, and if she was lucky her trainer would be there for a spur of the moment session.

 

Her phone buzzed on the seat next to her. The screen lit up with the name “Susan”, and Penny instantly felt her mood worsen, if that was possible. Her manager, former manager, from the Cheesecake Factory was texting her. At the next red light, Penny unlocked her phone and read the text. It was a curt message telling Penny to bring back her uniform and pick up her last paycheck. Penny threw the phone back to the passenger seat with a groan. The prospect of ignoring Susan and forgoing her last paycheck was tempting, after all it promised to be a miniscule amount of money, but Penny knew she couldn’t afford to pass it up. Penny flicked on her blinker impatiently and made a sharp and illegal U-turn, determined to waste no time at the Cheesecake Factory.

 

When she got to the restaurant, only the lunch shift people were around, setting tables and vacuuming. Penny thanked god that she had given in and gone early to pick up her check. If she’d arrived any later, the lunch crowd would have been swarming all over. No one greeted her as she walked over the squishy, old carpet towards the back. She had no friends among the staff.

 

In the kitchen, Susan was writing orders for the kitchen staff on the white board above the garbage cans. The older woman shot her a hard look at her entrance, then continued writing.

 

“Your paycheck is on the counter. Just put your uniform there, and you better have cleaned it.”

Penny rolled her eyes and softly tossed the bundle of dirty clothes onto the metal counter. She hadn’t cleaned the uniform, but why should she? She’d paid for the ugly thing years ago and yet she was supposed to give it back? They could clean it themselves.

 

“Oh, and by the way, some older man left his business card for you after your little fiasco with that guy. I had to comp that guy his meal and get him another slice of cheesecake, you know. And really, Penny…”

 

Penny couldn’t hear the woman. She shakily picked up the bundle of papers waiting for her on the counter. On top of the envelope that held the last paycheck she would ever receive from the god-awful restaurant was a gleaming white business card. Printed boldly on the front it read “ALI Stunt and Talent Agency”, and just under that in blue pen was a note.

“Great stunt you pulled, come in and meet us if you’re interested. You’ve got moves!

Penny couldn’t breathe. She was holding the card in her slack hands and staring at it, willing it to explain. Was it really…? Holy crap on a cracker. Things like this just didn’t happen to her! Opportunities didn’t just present themselves. She picked it up properly, turning it backwards and forwards, but all it did was stare back at her, a phone number just waiting to be called. Could this even be happening?

“Penny, are you listening?”

 

“No,” Penny laughed happily. “Not at all! Bye Susan!” Penny turned on her heel and left the Cheesecake Factory, her cheeks hurting from her wide and surprised smile. Not only would she never have to come back to this hell-hole, but she may actually have a job. A job she wanted, and that seemed to want her.

 

-

 

Penny was driving home, her hands pounding on the steering wheel to the beat of her radio as she turned from East Colorado onto Los Robles Avenue. She had just happily picked up a big bag of Sheldon’s favorite snickerdoodles from Whole Foods, as well as a plate of vegetarian sushi for lunch. You’d never guess that Penny was about to go home and eat it alone, because she was radiating joy through her open windows as she sung along, slightly off key, to Hollaback Girl.

 

“Few times I've been around that track - So it's not just gonna happen like that - 'Cause I ain't no hollaba…” She accidentally cut off someone leaving a gas station, and as they swore at her and flipped her the bird, she could only wave back with a smile.

 

“Oops, have a nice day!” Penny said to the SUV, although they obviously couldn’t hear her, and Penny was too excited to really care.

 

Penny had called the agency.

 

They conducted an interview over the phone while she idled in the parking lot of the Cheesecake Factory. They’d loved her rodeo and martial arts experience, her firearm skills, and not only that – the incident from a week prior had been seen by their Vice President. He had been among the crowd of diners to clap for her as she’d walked away from her groper.

They thought she could be a stuntwoman.

Penny had never considered it as a career. For some reason she’d always pictured stunt people being specially trained or something. But no, apparently, they were just like actors. The silent strength behind the action in Hollywood. They had their own association and had managers just like everyone else. Penny was to come into the office and meet with their recruitment team and sign a contract on Monday, as well as get her application to the Stuntmen’s Association sent out. It was picking up a whirlwind of joy in Penny that she genuinely never thought she could feel again and hadn’t since she packed her bags to leave Nebraska all those years ago. The ditch she’d been in mentally had lifted up into a hill of promise, and she could see it. Kicking ass and being on the silver screen. She didn’t need to be a headline actress or walk the red carpet. She could be a part of the film industry and still be herself.

 

Penny pulled into the Los Robles apartment complex still grinning, humming early 2000’s hits under her breath as she grabbed her Whole Foods bag and prepared to go inside. Her keys jingled in her fingers as she bumped the car door closed with her hip. Her hands were full of her keys, phone, groceries and her paycheck when she finally turned towards the front doors of the building. Her trainers skidded against the loose gravel on the pavement as her eyes focused.

Leonard was standing at the doors, attempting to open them with his old key fob but seemingly not succeeding. Penny felt the paper handle of the grocery bag slip from her fingers and it hit the pavement, the package of cookies ripping and spilling broken shards of snickerdoodle at her feet. Leonard turned towards the noise and caught her eyes, then immediately began making his way towards her. Penny turned sharply and quickly got back into her car, her hands shaking furiously as she handled her keys and threw her phone inside. The engine stuttered and Penny knew she was going to cry, Leonard was only a few feet away. She could hear him calling her name, muffled through the protective barrier of her vehicle. She was giving the engine gas, hoping desperately that it would coax the engine to start when she heard a harsh tapping at the window. Her name was louder now, and a shadow of her follower blocked the sun from the interior. Hot tears were running down her cheeks, trailing flakes of mascara down with them. Why was he doing this? Hadn’t he done enough?

Finally, the car came to life and she rapidly peeled out of the parking lot, careless of the person who’d been standing right at her driver’s side. She was speeding down the road towards the university, Gwen Stefani’s detached vocals filling the vehicle once again at an overwhelming volume.

 

Penny’s lungs were burning, she wasn’t breathing right. Her stomach churned suddenly, and she felt the urge to vomit. The painful memory of being pressed down under another person’s weight caused her to stutter out a pained whimper. Careless of her steering, she turned the radio off, accidentally dialing through a few other stations before the sound finally went away.

 

She almost didn’t realize she was actually driving. The red light came without warning, and Penny slammed on her breaks, front bumper half in the intersection. With her car at a stop, her brain finally caught up to her body and she heaved violently. She didn’t have time to open the door or stick her head out the window, but thankfully nothing came out but a dreadful sounding sputtering. Sheldon had pressed her to eat breakfast that morning, but she hadn’t, too nervous for her audition.

Penny wiped an unsteady hand over her face before continuing to drive. She felt like Leonard was just behind her, always, and she checked her rearview mirror too many times as she drove to the university. Why had he been there? What could he have possibly wanted from her that he hadn’t already taken?

 

Parked in the back lot of the campus bookstore, shakily allowing herself to breathe, Penny gazed down at her phone. Her thumb was hovering over the call button, mere seconds away from summoning Sheldon to her side. He hated spur-of-the-moment stuff, she knew, but he would come if she called. They could go to lunch and she could cry. He would let her. He would protect her.

With a grimace Penny dismissed his contact, and instead called the only other person she could think of. She held the phone to her ear and waited.

 

“Barbie?” Leslie sounded incredulous, and curious.

 

“I…” Penny’s voice was rough, and it was obvious even to her that she sounded bad. “W-would you like to go to lunch?”

 

“Uh, sure. Should we meet somewhere, or…?”

 

“I’m already here, by the bookstore. Please… hurry,” Penny hated the desperate tinge to her voice, but she didn’t want to stay alone in the parking lot for too long.

 

“Oh, okay. I’m heading out of my office now.” A pause, Penny could hear the shutting of a door and Leslies footsteps. “Are you alright?”

 

Penny’s instinct was to assure the woman she was, but instead she gripped the steering wheel tightly, looking over her shoulder towards the busy road. “I don’t think so.”

 

-

 

Leslie had gotten into her car, no questions asked, and directed Penny to a Filipino restaurant some ways from campus. Instead of eating inside, Leslie went in and ordered them a takeout container of lumpia and returned. They ate in the car, conversation stilted and awkward between bites of their shared lunch.

They had never gone bowling, as they had planned. This weekend had always been pushed to next, and eventually they’d stopped texting. Penny hadn’t even been sure Leslie would answer her call.

Penny glanced into her side mirror, partially to check the parking lot for Leonard’s car, and partially to check her makeup. It was badly smeared; it was obvious she’d been crying. The fact that Leslie hadn’t commented on it was a miracle.

As Penny looked at herself in the mirror, she wondered what Leslie knew about her situation. Now that she and Sheldon were more friendly, did that mean he had confided in Leslie? No, the idea didn’t sit right. Sheldon wasn’t the kind of person to gossip.

 

“What do you know about Leonard?” Penny blurted out, still not making eye contact with Leslie. Leslie took one last sip of her lemonade then shook the ice inside the cup.

 

“In relation to you? All I know is that he’s not with you anymore, and whatever he did has made Sheldon really touchy. That, and it seems Leonard and his cronies are harassing Sheldon by messing with his office.”

Penny groaned and set her head against the driver’s side door.

 

“God, really? I can’t believe they’d… no, actually I can. They always used to torment him, even when they were friends.” Dozens of incidents flashed through Penny’s memory, the guys would always make Sheldon the butt of their collective joke. It never sat right with her, and now she knew why. They had never been friends, really. Sheldon was the adult equivalent to the ‘Nintendo kid’. The other kids would flock to his side, desperate to get their hands on his toys, but they didn’t care about him at all.

And she wasn’t making it any easier. Before she’d called Leslie, Penny had been certain she would run to Sheldon. Dump her problems on him. That’s why she’d driven to campus in the first place. She couldn’t keep doing that, especially if his work life was becoming difficult. He had already done enough for her.

 

“What…” Leslie interrupted her thoughts, shaking her cup again absentmindedly. “What happened earlier?”

Penny grimaced, unsure and hesitant to reply. Leslie was - pathetic as it sounded - her closest female friend, but she didn’t know her that well. The need to tell someone was overwhelming, though, and the information seemed lodged in her throat.

 

“Leonard… a while ago, he…” Raped me. Penny’s eyes burned and she looked down in shame. She couldn’t say it, still. “He assaulted me. We weren’t even dating at the time, he just…” Penny hazarded a glance at Leslie, who’s eyes had widened significantly. The subtext would be obvious to anyone with two brain cells to rub together. Penny cleared her throat and continued.

“He doesn’t live with Sheldon anymore, but today he was at our apartment complex, trying to get in the building. I panicked and…” A tear dripped down onto the napkin she’d placed over her lap. Penny hadn’t realized she was crying again.

 

“Penny…” Leslie murmured. She removed her glasses and scrubbed at her own eyes, leaving them irritated and forlorn looking. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“Why are you sorry?” Penny huffed out a laugh. “You didn’t do anything.”

 

“I know but…” Leslie slipped her glasses back on as her face fell, and she was a far cry from the woman who cut Penny down in the past. Instead she was just a woman, a woman who could understand. “But I’m still sorry. It sucks,” she offered lamely.

 

Another stilted chuckle as Penny grabbed a piece of lumpia from the take out box. She still felt sick, but the greasy food was helping. “Yeah, it actually really sucks.”

 

-

 

 “About to go into the audition, wish me luck. <3”

The text message was hours old, and yet Sheldon kept rereading it. He never did reply, either. His automatic retort would have been a scathing criticism of her request for magically increased chances at success, but he didn’t have the heart to dampen her spirit. Penny had been tireless in her pursuit of her dream of being an actress, especially lately, and it felt to meanspirited to point out how ridiculous her desire for a blessing was.

 

Hofstadter hadn’t been at lunch, which was a small comfort, but neither had Leslie. Sheldon attempted sitting at his usual table, but without her as a buffer he was subject to the other occupants incessant chattering about the goings on of faculty lives. It grated on his nerves, and it was so irritating that he abandoned his lunch in favor of returning to his office.

 

Sheldon passed by the office manager’s desk, sparing a glance at Rajesh who slipped a silent note to the woman on the opposite side. The man laughed under his breath as Sheldon moved deeper down the hall, and the source of his amusement was soon clear. Sheldon opened his office door and stood within the doorframe, astonished.

 

His desk and chair were missing. His laptop was lying on the carpeted floor, and his paperwork was scattered.

 

Sheldon ground his teeth together but made no outburst of anger. Instead he turned sharply and walked back to the desk. Raj was chuckling louder now, covering his mouth like a tittering old woman. Sheldon looked past him and to Ms. Redfield, the office manager, and tapped the desk for her attention. By the time she looked up at him from her desktop monitor she was already exasperated.

 

“Ms. Redfield, please put in a requisition for a new office set. Desk and lumbar supporting chair. I will cover the cost if it becomes necessary.”

The woman scowled a bit, then wrote down the information on a sticky note and waved it in his face, as if to say she’d heard him and he need not to linger. Sheldon had no such desire, so he turned to leave. Raj followed behind him, laughing openly at his back. When enough distance was made between them and the office manager’s desk, Raj spoke, keeping pace.

 

“Missing something, Sheldon?” he smirked, voice still buoyed with humor. When Sheldon said nothing, Raj’s jovial attitude dissipated. “Oh, come on Sheldon, lighten up, man. Leonard’s just having some fun. He’ll stop when you two make up.” Raj put a hand in front of Sheldon’s path, knowing he would not willingly brush past it.  It wouldn’t be the first time one of the guys had used his preoccupation with bodily contaminants to force him into situations he detested.

 

“When will you two get over whatever this is, Sheldon?” Raj inquired. Sheldon turned his cold eyes on Raj, the blue of his irises dullened by the florescent lights in the hall.

 

“When Leonard is face down in a ditch,” Sheldon muttered darkly. As Raj stood there, horrified, Sheldon ducked under his still extended arm and continued to his office. He needn’t explain his ill-humor to Raj, Leslie, or anyone.

 

Raj watched Sheldon continue down the hall and then turn into his office. He blinked, willing his brain to comprehend what he’d just heard.

 

“Face down in a…?” he whispered, his brows drawn together in bafflement. All this time Raj thought Sheldon had been the one at fault, he usually was the instigator of their petty squabbles, but now he wasn’t sure. Leonard had assured them that Sheldon had just been an unreasonable dick, kicking Leonard out for no reason, but did Sheldon ever do anything for no reason?

No, Raj realized. Sheldon never did anything for no reason.

What had happened between them? If only he could speak to Penny, she would probably know. Did he even have her phone number?

 

-

 

His office was a mess, but, with a practiced hand, Sheldon cleaned his laptop and organized his belongings. It mattered little that he no longer had a desk, or chair, or organizing cabinet. He could still function.

His back begged to differ.

Sheldon had set his laptop on one of the deep shelves that framed the bottom of the windows in his office. It had been disinfected, and the window washed, but eventually he found himself standing before it, typing away on his laptop and trying not to get distracted by the movement of the bushes just outside it.

 

Sheldon’s door opened unceremoniously, and he sighed. This better be important.

 

Stepping into the office with a clearly puzzled expression was Dr. Gablehauser, hesitantly treading around neat piles of paperwork and scientific volumes.

 

“Trying a minimalist thing? I’ve heard it’s the new trend, but I never pictured you… eh.” Gablehauser paused, then abandoned the attempt at small talk. “I just meant to come down here, Dr. Cooper, to share President Siebert’s congratulations on your rebuttal paper of the Cambridge thesis. It’s a very good dressing down, and it’ll really make those Brits sweat.” His statement was only mildly condescending, yet Sheldon still had to clench his jaw tightly to avoid rebuking the man for his many transgressions. Did no one knock in this university? Was a simple statement about something Sheldon already knew worthy of breaching his privacy?

Gablehauser cleared his throat awkwardly, his joking gibe at the foreign university not landing with Sheldon.

 

“Well, that’ll be it I guess.” The older man turned back to the door, then at seeing the broken temperature gauge, laughed.

 

“Oh, I heard about this. Try not to let your ‘LARPing’ with the other faculty get in the way of work.” He said the acronym with stilted determination, as if he’d specifically researched what exactly nerds might do with their spare time, then left Sheldon alone in his office once again.

 

He left the door to the hall open.

 

Sheldon may not have Vulcan hearing as he enjoyed professing, but he had keen senses that tuned his ears to the ambient noise around him. He heard Dr. Gablehauser make a few steps towards his own office further down, then spoke to himself under his breath.

 

“I wish we didn’t have to employ that freak…”

 

The contempt in the man’s voice was obvious even to Sheldon, who had long admitted to his paltry social skills. Sheldon closed his laptop and scowled at it, realizing his desire to remain within his office was all but gone. He texted Penny, begging her to pick him up early, if it were at all possible.

 

She replied quickly that she was already waiting for him. “…behind the bookstore, near their loading area.”

 

Sheldon packed his things and vacated his office as rapidly as he could without appearing too eager. It warmed him, somewhere deep and untouched inside, that Penny was already there for him. The closeness they now shared had been a surprising evolution to their friendship, but now he savored it. Treasured it.

 

He was formatting a reply when voices broke through his reverie.

 

“You never called,” Leonard whinged.

Sheldon looked up sharply from his phone. Leonard had an arm on the wall, his short stature still imposing upon Melissa’s more petite form. 

 

“I’m sorry, Leonard, I just was so busy…” her voice was quiet, lips a thin smile that didn’t reach her eyes. She was demure and obliging, like many servers and waitstaff tended to be by default.

 

Leonard smiled dopily, dropping his arm from the wall. He adjusted his glasses in a way Sheldon knew from previous discussion was a habit picked up specifically because Leonard believed it ingratiated himself to women. It made him appear non-threatening. Appear nice.

 

“That’s fine, why don’t we go out now?” Leonard sounded like he was offering, but he was already steering the woman towards the front exit, his car likely waiting for them in faculty parking. The sight was uncomfortable, as the woman tried to beg off but could come up with no convincing excuse. Eventually she agreed, and left with Leonard, her hand being clasped tightly by his.

Should he intervene? The scene had felt like a call to action and yet Sheldon’s feet were planted firmly. He was unmoved.

 

Perhaps it was callousness, or narcissism that had him turning around and locating a different exit so he could make his way to Penny. Sheldon thought on the choice he had inadvertently just made as he walked to Penny’s car. He detested the kind of subterfuge that had Penny resorting to parking near dumpsters, of all things, but he couldn’t begrudge her.

 

She didn’t choose to be victimized.

 

There was a curious puddle of water collected under the exhaust of her vehicle, as if Penny had been idling in the parking lot for some time. Sheldon walked to the passenger seat as if in slow motion, seeing Penny’s profile through the closed window. The sight assuaged the feeling of guilt that had begin to well up within him. Penny was fine, and that was all that mattered.

 

Entering the car, he immediately felt assaulted by the lingering stench of greasy food. He screwed up his nose, set his bag in the gap between the front seats as he usually did, then slid in. His hand eventually covered his nose and mouth. Food smell made him uneasy, as if the molecules festering in the air were choking him.

 

“Oh gosh, Sheldon, I’m sorry. I had a box of takeout from lunch in here and it must have made the car smell bad.” Penny smiled apologetically, then buckled her seatbelt. With one hand on the wheel, Penny jovially handed him a slightly creased business card. The significance was lost on him. Penny began driving off, but Sheldon couldn’t focus on the road, or on what she may be saying.

Sheldon’s fingers mimicked the engine in their rattle, jittering against his thigh. Had he made a mistake? No, Melissa was not his responsibility.

 

“Well?” Penny asked expectantly. “What do you think?” It was then Sheldon realized he had missed whatever Penny had been saying. His eyes focused, then glanced back down to the business card in his hands.

 

“It’s…” He couldn’t formulate a reply to a dialogue he hadn’t heard. It was so unlike him to miss something happening around him. He looked over to Penny as she drove, and he saw her, not in the vehicle but standing before him, bent over the counter in her kitchen. Tear stained and wounded.

Then her hair was cropped and brown, her features distorted but clearly Melissa’s. Have I made a mistake?  he thought anxiously.

 

“I’m so excited!” Penny said. “I didn’t get my audition earlier, but this agency wants to sign me! How incredible is that?”

 

Incredible, the probability of it being a scam for your application money is fairly high,” Sheldon replied with a sort of unforgiving negligence that he hadn’t intended. His imagination was being overactive, unhelpfully so, and Sheldon reasoned to himself that it wasn’t beneficial to speculate on what would or wouldn’t happen to the cashier. The odds of the woman being similarly assaulted was something like one in five, but he admitted ruefully to himself those numbers weren’t promising.

 

“Jeez, Sheldon… Let me have my moment,” Penny grumbled, turning onto their street. Again, he looked at Penny, dropping the hand he’d been holding over his mouth. Instead of the heavy, oily smell, he only picked up a subtle trace of Penny’s artificial, and yet pleasing, coconut scented bodywash. He inhaled the scent, allowing it to comfort him.

 

Penny was safe. She was happy.

 

“I apologize, Penny. I am proud of you,” he offered, and he was. Not necessarily of her catching the eye of a talent agency, but of her seemingly moving past her negative emotions.

 

“Thanks, sweetie,” Penny was smiling at him, her eyes squinting tightly in a way that offered up her true joy at his compliment. That was what mattered to him. Sheldon resolved to compliment her more often.

 

They exited the car and discussed their orders for Thai food, ultimately deciding on what they always chose. He liked routine, he needed consistency.

 

Sheldon committed himself to think on what he’d seen at Caltech no more.  

Chapter Text

It was some weeks later.

 

The microwave dinged. Their popcorn was ready. Sheldon carefully handled the hot bag and poured equal portions into two bowls, lest they contaminate each other’s share. With a quick glance up at Penny, who was nearly vibrating from her excitement on the sofa, Sheldon brushed what looked to be a handful of his popcorn into her bowl from his. She ate much faster than he did, and much larger quantities. A small hazard of their friendship, one Sheldon was becoming accustomed to.

 

“Hurry, Sheldon, the preview is going to start any minute,” Penny urged him from her place on the middle cushion. She had cranked the volume of the SyFy network to an unconscionable level, but he understood her exuberance.

 

Penny was about to be on television.

 

“I am well aware of the time. The preview will not air until after the commercial break, which should cease in two minutes,” he assured, stepping around the counter to join his friend on the sofa. Sheldon settled in, then handed Penny her bowl of popcorn.

He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he had hopefully instilled the evening with enough fanfare to show Penny he cared about her success. Weeks ago, Penny met with the talent agency, and to Sheldon’s astonishment it was not a scam. They expertly ferried her through a barrage of auditions for roles more suited to her skillset and within a weekend she, and a few others from her agency, had been booked as extras for a television show. The show already had a successful pilot episode, and though Penny was only in one episode, she was greatly anticipating it’s release early the next year. If the show did well, she may even be hired back for other extra work.

 

The commercials petered out and gave way to the anticipated preview. Penny turned the volume up even louder with a squeal, the indicator for the volume blocking the center of the screen obnoxiously for a moment or two.

 

“Coming soon this Spring – a Syfy original you won’t want to miss.”  Three dimensional renderings of space flew past on the screen, and through a cloud of fog sauntered a group of soldiers, wearing black camouflage and bearing machine guns and cocky expressions. Sheldon rolled his eyes, he’d seen this exact show filter through the SyFy network before. A paltry amalgamation of early era Star Trek and Stargate SG-1, surviving on viewers nostalgia for trope riddled plots and ample gratuity for perhaps a season or two before being unceremoniously cancelled.

 

But oh, was Penny enraptured.

 

“Are you DVRing it? Tell me you put the DVR on,” Penny whispered, though her voice was not quiet in the least. She was shoveling popcorn into her mouth as her eyes hungrily ate up the preview.

 

“Yes, Penny, I have the DVR currently functioning to capture the preview.” Penny had expressed a wish to send a copy of it to her parents, and he secretly planned to send another to his Meemaw, who knew the details of Penny’s recent career milestone.

 

“Oh my god, Sheldon, look!” Penny sat forward, pointing unnecessarily to the screen. “There I am, the alien on the left!”

 

The current clip showed the main cast of the show subdued and restrained, though the token female lead was gagged and on the floor. Purple-skinned alien women, all in perspective to appear tall and menacing, surrounded them and brandished weapons. They poked and prodded the male leads, and Penny’s character kicked the side of the female soldier. The angle of the camera gave a lingering shot of Penny’s leg as she made the action, from the pointed toe of her bare foot to the indecently high slit of her leather mini skirt.

 

“We do not take female prisoners,” Penny said on screen in a low, gravelly tone. Her hair was wild and full of woodland debris that made Sheldon twitch, and her eyes were lined darkly. She appeared menacingly erotic.

 

One of the male leads squirmed loose from his bonds and began fighting with the alien amazons. The well-timed scuffle culminated in Penny’s unnamed character pushing past the other extras and rabbit punching the man in the throat. He burbled up blood, then retaliated, but his fist was oddly slow as it arched. Penny easily stepped away from the blow, and then jumped impressively over his leg as he shot it out to kick her. In a flurry of movement, she grabbed the man’s hair and pulled him backwards, his cheek being pressed against what the industry fondly called a “boob window” in her cropped leather top.

 

“It would be a pity to mess this pretty face,” Penny’s character intoned as she stroked a finger down his cheek.

 

"Yeah, you too love," the soldier replied in a snarky and exaggeratedly accented British. The man then smiled up at her and punched her in the chin, sending them both backwards.

 

The scene fade wiped into another, unrelated excerpt from a different episode, then another. Sheldon’s mind fizzled with the knowledge of what Penny had been working on the better part of the month. She hadn’t wanted to ‘ruin the surprise’ for him, but she had been so proud of landing a role in a science fiction show. Sheldon hadn’t expected much from the viewing, but he certainly had not anticipated seeing Penny’s assets so… deliberately highlighted. It was unnerving and made Sheldon uncomfortable sitting next to her.

 

“Alpha Squad , coming soon.”

 

“Holy crap, I looked amazing! Didn’t I look amazing, Sheldon?” Penny was bouncing on the cushion to his right, eyes alight with glee. His desire to please Penny warred with his inclination to be critical, and after some careful internal wordsmithing, Sheldon decided he could express both to her.

 

“Yes, you were clearly the most skillful of the alien fem-fatales. It was evident you spent more time than the others on your choreography. As for the direction, the camera angles were basic, occasionally bordering on crude, and the costume design made you appear kin to a two-bit trollop,” Sheldon offered. It was his genuine opinion, and he hoped she could give him more details on the production of the show to sate his curiosity. The creation of these lower budget, network original shows was a mystery to him.

 

“Why would you say that?” Penny’s joy deflated quickly, leaving her clutching a pillow to her chest. “Why would you insult me like that?”

Sheldon didn’t understand her mood switch. He often enjoyed frank discussions about science fiction with her. He had even complimented her.

 

“It is not intended as an insult, Penny, merely an observation about the costuming. I once saw a similar design gracing a billboard for the Long Beach Girls Bar. It was viewable from Rajesh’s office window, so of course everyone within earshot had been called in to view it.”

Penny’s nose screwed up, her face twisting and eyes watering.

 

“I busted my ass on set for that episode, and you’re reducing me to what I was wearing?” Her voice was laced with feelings of betrayal, but he didn’t understand her sensitivity.

 

“No, no Penny, not a reduction, simply…” Sheldon began to explain, but he was cut off as Penny rose from her seat.

 

“Yeah, an observation, I know. I may not have a college degree but I’m not suddenly stupid just because I threw some punches in a leather skirt and some body paint.” She collected her jacket from beside the door and Sheldon winced.

 

“Penny…” he was prepared to offer her dinner, perhaps her change in mood was due to her hunger, but she wouldn’t hear him.

 

“No. I’m going home.”

 

She was out the door before he could protest. Sheldon sat back, brow furrowed as he replayed their brief conversation. After a few moments of self-observation, as he collected their bowls and brought them to the sink, Sheldon realized his misstep. A grave one indeed, considering this was so important to her.

 

It struck Sheldon in embarrassing sort of way as he scrubbed the empty popcorn bowls that he hadn’t actually improved in his social exchanges. Not as much as he had liked to imagine. It had just been that, for the past few months, he and Penny had acquired a sense of equilibrium that carried through their relationship and eased the aspects of their personalities that tended to clash. Now that Penny was working again, and flourishing, those differences were more apparent in their interactions. His opinion, while an accurate assessment of the show, was directly translated as an insult to Penny. It wasn’t just a comment on the costume or a critique of the direction, because Penny had interpreted his derision was for her. Sheldon shook his head sadly as he finished loading the dishwasher.

She had wanted his praise, his support, and all he had given her was disappointment. His intent didn’t matter, because his words had not mirrored them. He had failed as a friend.

 

-

 

They met up in the laundry room at eight, as they always did, and began the process of laundering their clothing in silence. Penny’s chatter did not fill the void in the room as it normally did, and Sheldon’s heart ached for it. It was what his mind craved and expected, but it didn’t come.

 

They had taken to staying within the laundry room as their wash cycles completed, discussing whatever movie or show they were currently engaged in until the timer alerted them it was time to switch the loads from the washing machines to the dryers. Then they would speak more, about Penny’s desires for her career and her strained relationship with her parents, and Sheldon about his theories. She was always so patient with him when he spoke about science, allowing him the space for his thoughts to breathe even though she hardly followed him.

 

But Penny was already leaving the laundry room, foot on the first step up.

 

“I noticed you’ve limited your wardrobe as of late, Penny,” Sheldon blurted out, anxiously recalling how terrible he was as a spontaneous conversationalist a moment too late. Penny’s expression was sullen and guarded, but Sheldon continued.

 

“I, as you are aware, have a limited wardrobe. Scheduling out my clothing eases the annoying apprehensions that come with choosing what to wear on a daily basis, however I have found that upon frequent washing, most clothing tends to deteriorate quicker than if I had tasked myself with filling my closet with excess clothing.”

Sheldon cleared his throat as Penny made no effort to respond.

 

“A trade-off, I suppose…” he mumbled softly. This wasn’t going well.

 

“What are you trying to do, Sheldon?” Penny narrowed her eyes with suspicion. “If this is your way of apologizing, then it isn’t working.”

 

“If you feel my words earlier necessitate an apology, then I shall give it. I am sorry, Penny,” Sheldon replied quickly.

 

“Do you even know what you’re apologizing for?” Penny came back down the steps and heaved a weary sigh. “I mean, you totally said I looked like a slut and only that my choreography was good. Do you realize how crappy that feels? To be reduced…” her voice wavered. She seemed so exhausted.

 

“I was not attempting to diminish your accomplishments. You know how I feel about the way science fiction tends to engage in flagrant fan-service, and it upset me to see you being used in a similar vein. I…” he stuttered, recalling the costume she’d worn with an uncomfortable grimace. “I truly do not think poorly of you simply because of what the costume director dressed you in.”

 

“I get it… it’s not the classiest role, but I had lines Sheldon! Two whole wonderful lines, which means I get to be on the IMDB page and slap that in my portfolio with pride. It’s gross, but that’s just how it is.” Penny punctuated her point by shrugging her shoulders.

 

She then sat atop an unused dryer, much to Sheldon’s chagrin.

 

“I mean, I should be happy I even got a part. I could have done worse. I even got to keep the purple Spanx they gave me for wardrobe.”

Sheldon’s throat dried at that, and he hastily began busying himself with checking the timer on the washing machine. If his memory served him right, which it always did, he recalled Spanx being a kind of undergarment. His face flushed.

 

“That is an overshare, Penny,” he murmured as he fiddled with one of the machine dials.

 

“Sorry, sorry, I know, ick,” Penny grumbled as she flipped her hair over her shoulder. Not entirely the sentiment he was feeling, but at the very least Penny was speaking to him freely.

 

“So, tell me Penny, do you have any interesting anecdotes to share with me about working on the SyFy network?” Sheldon inquired, steering the conversation away and into more easy topics.

Penny bobbed her head excitedly, their rapport coming back easily.

 

“Definitely! I meant to tell you earlier, but when we were in the prop department getting our spears, there was a huge box full of equipment labeled for the Ghost Hunters show! I asked the prop guy about it and he said it was all junk that he made himself. So, it seems like you finally have the proof to say those shows are fake.”

Sheldon laughed openly at that, startling Penny with his amusement.

 

“Penny, the burden of proof had always been with the crew of that idiotic show, however, it is quite humorous to find they’re so open about the fictionality of the production behind the scenes,” he said between chuckles.

 

“Yeah, it was pretty funny! Oh, and I also saw one of those Stargate staff thingies.”

 

They spoke well into the evening about her experience on set, folding laundry in amiable peace, the rift in their bond seemingly mended.

 

 

-

 

 

Leslie was glaring at him.

 

She was working this week in tandem with Hofstadter, and she had made it her personal mission to make his life hell. His research findings had gone missing, and what a sad coincidence that his backups had all vanished as well. The cretin was currently bending over some lab equipment, tinkering with the intensity of one of their prototype Selective Laser cutters, struggling as he worked the issues out alone. He hadn’t asked for her help, and she would not give it.

 

All she did was glare, the knowledge of what he did to Penny simmering under every interaction she had with the worm.

 

“What is your problem, Leslie?” Leonard asked irritatedly, leaning away from the laser cutter and screwing up his nose. “Can’t you just stop being bitchy and do some work?”

 

“My sources say no. In the meantime, how about you, oh I don’t know, stop being a disgusting, short asswipe?” As he stared at her stupidly, Leslie shook her head. “I guess you can’t. What bad luck.”

 

“Don’t pretend like you’re some angel, Leslie. You’re an obnoxious harridan, and don’t think I haven’t seen you hanging around with Sheldon. He’s got it in for me, and you’re just playing into his mind games.”

 

“Sticks and stones, Leonard, sticks and stones,” she replied coolly, picking up her coffee cup. “Now why don’t you get back to work, I think I see one of your backup USBs over on the desk.”

With a scowl, Leonard rushed to the desk and began rummaging around through the paperwork and books stacked atop it. As he did so, Leslie picked up the heavy torch of the laser cutter he had been working on and tested its weight. Idiot had left the power supply on.

 

“I found it!” Leonard cried, holding it up triumphantly. “Thank god, this would have taken me months to duplicate and record.”

 

With a lazy flick, Leslie moved the cutter torch over and aimed it for the USB. The thin, superheated beam cut through the stick, severing the flash memory chip and melting the plastic outer casing. Leonard dropped it like a hot potato and turned towards Leslie with wide, disbelieving eyes. Fear was oozing out of his every pore.

 

“Oops,” Leslie said blandly, taking a sip of her coffee for effect. If Leonard was worried she was crazy now, well, he was in for a surprise. Leslie was just getting started, and she planned to make his time in the labs unbearable.

 

The moron’s work flow was so disturbed that he couldn’t even leave the labs for lunch. Leslie took delight in skipping out so she could take her own lunch in the cafeteria, leaving Hofstadter behind to struggle in vain.

 

Leslie slid into line, and when she reached the register with her tray of food, she easily began a conversation.

 

“Hey, Melissa…” Leslie greeted. As she raised her head to make eye contact, she was greeted with a stranger’s face. A blonde woman that she’d never seen before. “You’re not Melissa.”

 

“No, sorry,” the girl said, scanning Leslie’s badge for her meal’s payment. “I’m Lucy. Melissa quit, I replaced her.”

 

Leslie shook her head, befuddled as she waited for the girl to finish ringing her up. “Quit? What happened?”

 

Lucy peered around, then lowered her voice conspiratorially. “Well, my boss says she moved back with her parents in Montana, but I’ve heard that it’s because she had a boyfriend stalking her or something. Creepy, right?”

 

Leslie picked up her tray numbly. “Yeah, creepy,” she replied, no longer focusing on the new cashier. She was too busy looking around the cafeteria for Sheldon, but he was nowhere to be seen.

 

Must be in his office.

 

Leslie took her lunch plate, discarding the tray, and headed out of the cafeteria towards the offices. She needed to find Sheldon and fast, something had to be done.

As Leslie made her way through the halls, she passed by Howard Wolowitz. Upon seeing her, he immediately changed his trajectory like a guppy swimming towards a lure.

 

“Hey shorty, you are looking fit in those black slacks,” Howard smirked, shooting Leslie the finger guns as he turned to meet her.


“Back off, Wolowitz,” she replied, disgusted. “I don’t have time for your weird grossness today.” She kept walking, but he was soon following after her.



“Hey, chill out Leslie, I was just saying how fine you are looking today.” Howard waggled his eyebrows, garnering a groan of revulsion from Leslie.



“Typical and inappropriate. Not a shock considering you hang around with a sexist creep like Hofstadter,” Leslie replied, zipping up her hoody until the plastic zip pull was to her throat, her lunch precariously held in one hand. She hated working here sometimes.



“Leonard? No way. You’re joking right? You’re talking about me, aren’t you?” he chuckled, then blinked, confusion written all over his featured. “Are you seriously talking about Leonard Hofstadter?”


“Dead serious. You know Melissa, the cashier who worked in the cafeteria, just quit and is moving out of state. Ten guesses as to why?” Leslie scowled. “Here’s a clue, dumbass. It starts with ‘harass’ and ends with ‘ment’.”


“No, no way! You’re wrong, Leslie. Leonard is a nice guy!” Howard insisted. Imagining his friend being a jerk to women was a joke to him, clearly, so he began laughing in earnest. “You’re just being a jealous shrew, Leslie! Admit it. I bet you have a thing for him.”


Leslie rolled her eyes and turned to leave. “Get a clue, Wolowitz. You’re friends with a monster.”

 

Leslie left Howard standing in the atrium looking like a doofus, but she didn’t have time to deal with him or his idiocy. As quickly as she could, she walked through the halls of the researcher’s offices and made her way to Sheldon’s. The door was shut, and it dismayed her to find his name placard had been defaced. Instead of Dr. Cooper, it read ‘Dr. Pooper’. Horridly childish, but certainly the kind of thing that would irritate Sheldon enough to make him to go postal. Leslie was realizing as she got to know him that he was a really sensitive guy.

She knocked on his door and waited, then entered as she heard him call for her to do so. Inside, Sheldon was eating his lunch standing, his office in as much of a disarray as it could be under Sheldon’s care. He had no furniture, and it seemed as if the contents of his desk had been neatly piled around on the floor. His laptop was open and sitting on a small ledge. And Jesus Christ –

 

“It’s so cold in here!” Leslie complained. Sheldon said nothing but motioned with his half-eaten sandwich to the wall beside her. She followed the movements and blanched when she saw the busted wall and broken thermostat.

 

“Christ, Cooper, who did you piss off?” Sheldon again was silent, but his eyebrows raised as he chewed as if to say isn’t it obvious? Leslie scrubbed a hand over her face; this was getting out of hand.

 

“Leonard is a fucking asshole,” she groused, then looked up apologetically. “Sorry, I forgot you don’t swear.”

 

“I choose not to, usually, but I feel no remorse for Leonard. He is, as you plainly put it, a revolting sphincter,” Sheldon said as he wiped his mouth with a napkin.

 

“Eughh, Cooper,” Leslie mockingly gagged. “You saying that in such a clinical way is somehow worse. Please never say the word sphincter again, I beg you.”

 

“As amusing as this conversation has been…” Sheldon intoned, clearly unamused. “Why have you come to my office during my lunch? Here to share cafeteria gossip? If I had wanted to be regaled with idle speculation about the personal lives of our fellow staff members, I would have stayed at the table with you and your friends, Winkle.”

 

“Listen, dweeboid, I know you are still mad at me about the things I said about Penny, but I apologized to her! And this is about Penny, or more accurately, about Leonard!”

 

“What?” Sheldon blinked harshly, stepping away from his perch against the window. “What could Leonard possibly have to do with Penny?” he hastily added.

 

“You don’t have to protect Penny’s secret anymore, Sheldon, she told me what Leonard did.” Leslie’s revelation seemed to make Sheldon pensive. He looked down to the floor and quieted.

 

“When did she… open up about it?” he inquired softly, not looking up.

 

“When we had lunch last month. It was after Leonard came to your apartment building and harangued her.” Sheldon’s eyes shot up to meet hers, and so Leslie continued. “Did she not tell you about this?”

 

“Evidently not,” he ground out, looking a little bit dizzy. “Please, just continue with what you came here to say. What about Leonard?”

 

Leslie related the information about Melissa to a solemn Sheldon, his expression becoming more disturbed as she spoke.

 

“So, what should we do?” Leslie ended up saying once she finished relating the particulars.

 

“What ever do you mean? We can do nothing,” he replied reticently.

 

“That’s bullshit! We need to take this to Gablehauser, or… or President Siebert! He can’t continue to work here.”

 

“I do not see an alternative. Penny has expressed to me that she does not want to be further victimized by dredging this up publicly. Now please…” he said unsteadily. “Leave me to continue eating. You will no doubt wish to consume your meal as well.” He pointed to her untouched plate.

 

“Alright, but think about it. There has to be a way we can bring this to the President’s attention without worsening things for Penny,” Leslie said, then she turned to leave.

 

“And Leslie, before you go…” Sheldon’s voice was grave and wavering, as if he was greatly troubled. “I know you have become friends with Penny, but please do not tell her about this recent happening between Leonard and Melissa. I feel she would be more upset by it.”

 

Leslie hesitated, then nodded sadly.

 

“Okay, I’ll trust your judgment on this one. She’s your best friend, after all.”

 

Once Leslie departed his office, Sheldon stood in silence, his mind reeling. He felt cold settle into his bones, not from the low temperature of his office, but from knowing Penny hadn’t been comfortable enough to share what had happened with him.

 

Best friends? Did best friends hide things of this magnitude from one another?  

 

 

-

 


Sheldon was making their Chinese food that night, meticulously smashing cucumbers and measuring rice for the cooker. Penny was ensconced at the counter, drinking cranberry and soda – without the vodka – whilst describing her upcoming audition energetically. Everything was fine. Penny was fine, fine hiding from him the news that weeks prior, Leonard Hofstadter had been at their very building for lord knew what. Fine sitting there, pretending nothing had happened. Fine keeping this vital information from her best friend.

 

Sheldon smacked the bottom of the bottle he was wielding down on the cucumber a little too hard. Instead of smashing it into a delightfully whimsical chunk, it was now juice inside the ziplock bag. He’d have to get another and begin again.

 

Everything was fine.

Penny took a sip of her drink, then continued her rambling story.

 

“So, then Nick, remember he’s the…”

 

“The stunt agent, yes. I recall,” Sheldon assured blandly as he moved about the kitchen.

 

“Exactly. And he said that there’s an upcoming audition for an action movie, like an actual, real stunt action movie! There are a lot of women in the movie, so they’re sending a few of their more ‘talented’ stunt actresses over audition for the women who need stunt doubles. I am so excited! I mean, this could be huge!” Penny prattled on, unaware of his inner turmoil.

Sheldon began to prepare the tomatoes, slicing them into quarters. Huge. He wondered if Penny would also consider keeping secrets huge. How could he begin to contemplate their safety at the Los Robles apartments if she did not alert him of situations like Leonard trying to enter their apartment building? Dangerous situations! Of course, he was not planning on informing Penny of this new gossip surrounding Melissa, though that didn’t truly concern her. The incident Leslie had informed him of did concern him, however!

 

“Of course, the other girls that are going to the audition are really talented, but I’m… I dunno, I feel really good about this one,” she continued.

 

Sheldon didn’t feel good about the level of security at their apartment building. It had taken a lot of pressure to force the superintendent to change the keyed door entry so Leonard couldn’t enter, but now it seemed that might not be enough. It was a simple maneuver, to wait for someone else living in the building and convince them you’d been locked out, or worse… Slip in behind them. Sheldon shuddered at the possibility. He couldn’t imagine the lazy superintendent heeding his advice after all these years to install a security camera system.

He cracked an egg, then five more into a bowl and began whisking them. When he turned to the stove to heat a skillet for the stir-fry, he realized it didn’t have to be up to the superintendent.

Sheldon could install a security system himself.

 

“So, what are you making?” Penny asked, tilting her head curiously at his meal preparations. “I don’t think I’ve ever eaten Chinese food that wasn’t from a takeout place.”

 

Sheldon looked up at her suddenly, startling her. He had forgotten they were conversing.

 

“What?” Penny asked nervously. “Is there something on my face?”

 

“No,” Sheldon replied automatically. Holding a conversation whilst thinking was still not one of his talents. “It is scrambled egg and tomato, a common Chinese dish. I have also made some smashed cucumbers, but I’ll warn you, they are fairly spicy,” he cautioned, beginning the simple process of frying the eggs, his back to her.

 

“Oh cool, that reminds me of…”

 

But he couldn’t hear her. Sheldon was currently deciding where he should have secure feed cameras installed within the building. A few would suffice, but ideally, he would have two in the landing, one on each floor, and multiples on the fourth floor. It would take some time to locate the appropriate equipment, however, Sheldon knew Howard Wolowitz already had exactly the type of camera he particularly wanted. Secure feed, with the ability to be monitored and controlled through an app. He was loathed to call the man he had once counted as a friend, but at this point, it seemed necessary.

 

He gazed at Penny as he served their dinner, fearful but determined. He would have them installed when she was away with Leslie at the bowling alley tomorrow. Penny need not know Leonard may be an even bigger danger, considering this recent issue with Melissa. She was so happy lately, and although that was the driving factor for his secrecy, a smaller and more sensitive place within him called for subterfuge in retaliation. If she could keep secrets, then so would he.

 



-

 

 

The text message from Sheldon had been a surprise. It had been some time since Howard had received a six AM summons from the Nerd King, and though Howard considered ignoring Sheldon in favor of, well, more sleep, the request – more like demand – had made him curious.

 

“I require your assistance setting up password protected live-feed security cameras today at lunch time. Bring the equipment, I shall reimburse you. – Sheldon.”

 

Security cameras? The guy was so paranoid. Maybe Leonard had taken to pranking Sheldon at the apartment complex, but he wasn’t sure how. Leonard had mentioned the previous Saturday during their Dungeons & Dragons game that he couldn’t get into the apartment building anymore. He never explained why he needed to get inside, but it made sense if he was upping the ante of their prank war against Sheldon. Howard wasn’t certain he felt comfortable pranking Sheldon at his home, though. It felt a little meanspirited, and to be fair, he didn’t even know why Leonard was pranking Sheldon. He was still so tight-lipped about the whole fight thing.

 

Luckily, Howard happened to have some security camera equipment lying around. He bought them a year ago to spy on… well, it didn’t matter who anymore. It had been a bad idea to begin with. Least he could do was make his money back by giving them to Sheldon, and maybe he could even ask him about what the hell was going on with their group of friends. Although Sheldon was a difficult person to be around, an understatement, he was also a fun dude when he was chill. Hanging out just the three of them was beginning to feel stale, especially with Leonard acting as de facto leader of their smaller circle. As annoying as Sheldon’s schedule had been, now they just kicked around in Leonard’s small and gross apartment, doing what-the-hell-ever. It was a miracle they’d managed to get Leonard to consistently run Dungeons & Dragons for them. Howard missed Halo night, he missed their monthly paintball session, and hell, he even missed Sheldon’s mandatory yearly apocalypse drill. It was supposed to have happened last week, but Sheldon had never called them to confirm. Howard didn’t like losing friends. It happened after high school, after college, and now as an adult they practically evaporated before his eyes. The only people he could still count on to be around were his mother and his guild-members in WoW, but even some of them had logged off never to sign back in.

 

Depressing is what it was.

 

Sheldon met him at the doors. The apartment complex now had a fancy locking thing at the doors, only those with special little keys could get in. It made total sense, Howard thought, to install something like considering that without it just anybody could have walked up the stairs and broken into the apartments.

Sheldon was as tall and stoic as ever, and he led him upstairs with the bare minimum of small talk uttered. How is your mother?, Any word on the NASA appointment?, Have you recently washed your hands? – the usual. When Howard got to the landing of floor four, he looked around excitedly for Penny. He hadn’t seen her in what felt like years, and god was she hot.

 

“Where’s Penny?” he asked eagerly. Sheldon’s jaw ticked, and he rolled his eyes.

 

“Likely entrenching a bowling ball in the gutter with Leslie, if neither of them had the foresight to request the bumper lane,” he replied blandly.

 

“Whoa, Leslie ‘the Harpy’ Winkle? And Penny?” Howard tilted his head like a confused dog. “Bowling?”

 

“Yes, I believe the subtext of my comment was clear,” Sheldon retorted with a hint of scorn.

Howard shook his head, struggling to keep the box of camera equipment in his arms. He needed to work out, or maybe just to put the box down, whichever was easier.

 

“Wowzer, that’s an odd pair if I ever heard of one.” And it was, picturing the tall, blonde goddess Penny next to short and crabby Leslie was a perfectly hilarious image.

 

“Amusing coming from you, considering you are virtually tied at the hip to Rajesh.” Sheldon was looking at his fingernails then, barely participating in their discussion. “Enough chatter, I would appreciate if you began mounting the security cameras before I become senile and grey-haired.”

Howard laughed at that, not offended in the least. He kind of missed Sheldon’s nasty wit, especially while they played video-games. Maybe he could convince him to play WoW again sometime, none of his in-real-life friends played it anymore and it sucked.


“And where do you want me to set the cameras up, Sheldon?” Howard asked as he set the box down on the floor in the landing. It seemed Sheldon was not going to invite him in. Cold, but not surprising.

 

“Place the first one above my doorway, pointing towards 4b,” Sheldon directed almost robotically.

 

“Whoa dude, doing a little spying on Penny? You’re a brave boy, Sheldon, brave boy,” he leered. Sheldon’s reaction, however, was not what Howard was expecting. Instead of a sarcastic retort, or a blush if the man was actually being a perv, he got a glower that was hard as ice. It made Howard shudder.

 

Don’t, I am no mood for your repulsive attempts at levity,” the tall physicist said with a sharp edge to his voice. “The safety of this building is paramount.” The silence that followed felt deafening, and Howard began to sweat. Sheldon was seriously freaking him out. Leslie’s words from the other day were playing on repeat in his mind.

 

Monster, you’re friends with a monster

 

“Is this about Leonard? Seriously?” Sheldon whipped his head around at that, looking every bit like a mistrustful protector. It confirmed every suspicion Howard hadn’t wanted to consider. What Leslie had said about Melissa, and then, not hours later, Leonard claiming that he’d broken up with the girl even though they all knew how obsessed he was with her. Maybe too obsessed… Now Sheldon’s strange and defensive attitude towards Penny made a little more sense. Sheldon had always been closer to Penny than any of the guys, regardless of how different they were, so it wouldn’t be outside the realm of possibility for him to choose Penny’s side if she and Leonard had gotten into a fight. But why would they fight?

 

“Did something bad happen when Leonard and Penny hooked up a couple months ago?” Howard received no response, but the coldness to Sheldon’s demeanor was telling. Leonard had bragged to them at work the day after, saying he’d cracked Penny’s shell, that she’d been desperate for another night with him. Now that he thought about it, though, when did Penny ever seem desperate for the attentions of a guy, especially a guy like Leonard?

 

A monster.

 

“Did Leonard d-do something…?” Sheldon’s eyes snapped to his, his intensity killing the thought in Howard’s throat as he shrunk under the intensive scrutiny.

 

Howard didn’t finish asking, and he suddenly felt very sick. They’d always joke and play around with chicks, following at their heels and chasing their skirts, but he’d never… but apparently Leonard would? With a grim sense of guilt, Howard collected the cameras and nodded to Sheldon. He would set them up, but he prayed they wouldn’t be necessary. He couldn’t believe it, not until he talked it over with Raj or something.

 

 

-

 

 

“After killing the evil dragon queen Legosianna, you’ve brought back it’s vile green head on a wagon to the Empress of Faerun, Silola of the Forests. She greets you with a small bow and a lovely smile but is disgusted by the offering you bring.” Leonard wove the story, wrinkling his own nose in pantomime. Ambient Elven music was playing from Leonard’s phone as they sat around his small coffee table, character sheets and dice strewed about.

 

“I uh, I quickly tell the guards to remove the head of Legosianna from the throne room,” Raj said, picking up his dice unnecessarily. Leonard rolled his eyes behind his spectacles.

 

“Do you say that, or does Sir Wendel say that?” Leonard intoned pedantically. They were trying to roleplay, but nothing lived up to Leonard’s standards. Raj colored at the criticism.

 

“Oh, I mean - Guards! Remove the distasteful head of the villain Legosianna at once! I apologize for displeasing you, Empress,” Raj again said, this time laying a badly done English accent over his voice. His Paladin, Sir Wendel, was as posh as it got.

 

“We retrieved her head, as you asked. So where is our reward?” Howard inquired rudely, in a rudimentary cockney accent. Under his craft beer was his character sheet, keeping organized the details of his Rogue named Anderson Le Hide.

 

“Not so hasty, Le Hide, we should first prostrate ourselves before the lovely Empress, and show her the error of our ways for offending her delicate sensibilities,” Leonard said now, in a deeper voice, an attempt to sound suave. This was the voice of his own character, which was an unusual circumstance considering he was also the Dungeon Master. Leonard had decided to insert his own character into the party, especially since a party of two was easy pickings for most of the enemies in the Monster Manual. That was his claim, at least.

 

“Oh, it is alright, Mister Rodus. I am always charmed by you. Mayhaps you have written a Bardic song about your vanquishing the vile Legosianna?” Leonard replied to himself, now in a squeaky sounding feminine pitch.

 

“Of course I have, my beautiful Elven Empress. I shall play it for you and the court now if it pleases you,” he intoned in his deeper, more masculine voice. He picked up his dice and began shaking them, behind the screen. “Okay, I’m going to roll a Performance/Charisma check,” he said in his own natural voice, shaking his dice in one hand as the other pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose.

 

“You can’t roll your character’s rolls behind the screen! We agreed you would roll out in the open, like the rest of us,” Raj whined. It took a few dozen ‘natural’ 20 rolls for Raj and Howard to realize Leonard might be fudging the dice for his own character behind the screen.

 

“Yeah, and honestly maybe we should take a pause. I could use a snack, and a break from you flirting with yourself, Leonard,” Howard mocked, standing up and making his way to the kitchen.

 

“Shut up, Howard, it’s called role-playing,” Leonard replied with annoyance.

Inside the fridge there was only gluten-free beer and dairy free cheese slices, so Howard closed it without grabbing anything. Instead, he stood in the dirty kitchen, wishing they could be playing anywhere else. Without Sheldon around, Leonard was a disgusting slob and a really crappy host. Howard watched Leonard make last minute adjustments to the soundscape playing on his phone, and he wondered when he should talk to Raj about his suspicions. Now obviously wasn’t the time, but was it even worth bringing up? Howard wasn’t certain.

 

“Hey Leonard, how are you taking the breakup with Melissa, dude?” Raj asked kindly. Leonard shook his head, curly hair bouncing around him in an unruly mass.

 

“Perfectly fine. I dumped her, remember? She was a prude anyway,” Leonard claimed. “Hey Howard, stop standing around and bring me one of the beers from the fridge.”

Howard did so, with a frown, and set the glass bottle down on the table behind Leonard’s Dungeon Master screen. Leonard covered his notes with his body, as if the plot of this dumb adventure wasn’t already telegraphed enough as it was.

 

“So, what’s this I hear about Melissa leaving California? Was this already her plan or…?” Howard wasn’t sure if he should even ask, but the question was begging to be posed. He needed to sort out all the conflicting accounts of his longtime friend he’d been hearing, especially if he was going to mention it later to Raj.

 

Leonard took his glasses off and cleaned them sullenly. “How should I know?” he replied frostily.

 

“But you were dating for almost a month and a half. Didn’t she ever mention it?” Howard pressed. He was getting tired of Leonard’s attitude.

 

“We didn’t do much talking,” Leonard smirked. “Now let’s get back to the game already.”

 

Didn’t do much talking? Leonard just said the girl was a prude; you can’t have it both ways. Howard glanced over at Raj, who had a thoughtful look about him as he stared down at his character sheet. Raj then met his eyes and they shared an almost telepathic moment. A thought was plaguing them both – did they even know Leonard at all?

 

Because it really seemed like they didn’t.

Chapter Text

It was absolutely freezing in the mailroom. Penny unlocked her mailbox, the 6:45 AM sun peeking through the windows and doing a crappy job of warming her up. December in California was clearly why birds flew south for the winter, because Penny was wishing she could hop on a plane and go south too, sink into the warm, sandy beaches of Puerto Vallarta or something. Instead, she was in her winter coat, fishing her mail out of the box and shivering. Her younger self might have laughed at her sensitivity to the California cold. For god’s sake, she grew up in Nebraska. Nebraska in the winter time was hell when it inevitably froze over, trees with icicles dangling from the branches and snow drifts so massive you could lose your children in them for days. You were barely able to leave the radiator’s side like it was a sick relative. Penny was a California girl now, though, and her body had acclimated to the warm and breezy climate like a fish to water. Now she chattered her teeth in the freezer section of the grocery store like a lightweight, years of shoveling snow in below-freezing temperatures forgotten.

Penny sorted through her mail excitedly, forgetting her chilliness in favor of searching for her find. There it was! A beautiful, crisp envelope holding her first paycheck as a stunt actress! It wouldn’t be much, but it would most likely be more than she’d ever made doing anything else. She tore open the envelope and eased out the check, a whimper of joy escaping her as the numbers were revealed. Three hundred and forty dollars! Less than a week of stunt rehearsal and two days on set filming, and this was more than she earned for 30 hours waiting tables at the Cheesecake Factory! Penny beamed, belatedly realizing she was probably making quite a show for the security camera in the mail room…

 

Security camera?

 

“Have you always been there?” she whispered thoughtfully up to it. It obviously could not respond. Shaking her head, Penny took her hard earned money upstairs with her. Sheldon had agreed to cook breakfast for her early, as she was going in to audition for an action movie today. It was going to be a long process, with twenty or more applicants duking it out and showing their talents in front of the stunt coordinators and casting people. Penny would be lucky to score any part in the film, but she had to try. Her agent Nick was sending quite a few people from their agency to the audition, and he said he believed in her abilities. That had to count for something, right?

 

Penny looked up as she reached the fourth-floor landing, catching a glare of red light from the corner of her eye. There was another camera! Pointing directly at her door. So strange, she didn’t remember hearing anything about the building installing security cameras. Now it seemed like they were everywhere.

 

She pushed into Sheldon’s apartment and found him awake and plating up eggs and toast, a cup of coffee already waiting for her. He was so thoughtful, making her a simple meal since he knew she likely had butterflies for the audition.

 

“Morning, sweetie,” she greeted him, sitting down at the counter and immediately nursing the deliciously warm cup of coffee.

 

“Good morning, Penny. Are you confident this morning, or experiencing nervousness?” Sheldon asked conversationally. It was so nice feeling that Sheldon was taking such an interest in her career. Disregarding his occasional bluntness, he was really the only supportive person in her life. Leslie was a reassuring friend as well, and she asked often about her auditions when they hung out, but it seemed like she didn’t quite… get it. Not like Sheldon did. Maybe it was because he’d seen her struggle to find work over the years that he truly understood why she was so thrilled. Sheldon seemed to understand why this was such a big deal.

 

“A little of both, honestly. The agency told me to bring in some recordings from my rodeo days, so I wonder if that means there will be horse riding stunts in the movie,” she told him, grabbing a fork and eating her eggs slowly.

 

“You have your rodeo trick riding escapades recorded?” Sheldon stood from the barstool he had just settled into, eyes coming to life with enthusiasm. “Why have you yet to share this?”

Penny giggled at his eagerness, it was so obvious that Sheldon grew up in the south sometimes.

 

“Well, I didn’t have them until last night. I had my mom email me the video files, and I put them on a disk to bring with me,” she said with a smile, then hesitated bashfully. “If you want to see it…”

 

Sheldon nodded excitedly, going over to his laptop and opening the tray for the disk reader without prelude. “Ever since you first mentioned your history with the sport, I have had a burning curiosity to see you in action.”

 

“Okay…” Penny jokingly winced. “I haven’t actually watched it, so hopefully it’s not horribly embarrassing.”

 

Penny took the DVD out of her purse and slid it into the tray. The video popped open instantly and played without input. The slightly shaky movements of her dad’s camcorder showed a group of three Mexican style show riders exiting the Nebraskan State Equestrian Arena. A faint squeal of a speaker kicked through the music, and the announcer began to speak loudly.

 

“And here we welcome seventeen-year old, two-time state champion, Penny Queen and her mustang Legend. Give them a good round of applause, folks!”

 

The crowd went wild as a young Penny, wearing a fringed pink jumpsuit and brimmed hat, came barreling into the arena. She stood atop the pommel of the saddle, one hand clutching the single rein as her other waved exuberantly towards her fans. She made a few, quick circuits like this as the applause calmed, then she stepped both feet off the saddle in a horrifyingly elegant jump, quickly sliding her leg into a leather sling on the side of the apparatus and suspending herself there. She had twisted effortlessly, and her posture made her look like she was casually reclining next to her galloping steed. The crowd cheered then, delighted by her feat.

 

“That’s m’girl!” could be heard from somewhere behind the camera. Penny flushed deeply, squirming as she went back to her breakfast to distract her. She hadn’t remembered her dad saying that. Hopefully, it wouldn’t distract the people at the audition from her stunts. 

 

Young Penny maneuvered herself so she was dangling precariously off the side of the horse, then jumped back on the saddle, balancing on her steady legs as Legend continued to gallop. She threw the single rein over her shoulder then, much to the delight of the audience, raised both her arms in a show. She was no longer reining Legend. Instead, she took her brimmed hat off and spun it on a finger, giving a saucy wink to the camera as she rode past. Young Penny then flicked the hat into the audience and slowly began raising her right foot behind her. The audience hushed as she grabbed her booted foot in one, then both hands, holding it behind her head in a sort of dancers pose. She balanced like that on the back of Legend for a full circuit before breaking it by jumping both feet off the saddle, then settling easily into it with a flourish. She then pulled Legend into the center of the equestrian arena and began doing show tricks, trotting him around and pulling her lasso from her belt. The lasso flourishes were easy in comparison to the trick riding, but boy did they look impressive.

Penny had forgotten how much she had loved trick riding and rodeo. Those had been some of her happiest memories. She spent practically all of her time in the stables, working with that loaner horse. Legend had been a bear to overcome, but eventually, they had made peace with each other. Penny made it clear she was going to ride him. Legend, likewise, showed he was up for the challenge of bucking her off when the time was right, and he had landed her on her face in the sand too many times to count. She missed that horse.

 

And then Kurt happened, and the rest was history, Penny thought morosely as she tucked into her breakfast.

 

“Penny…” Sheldon breathed. “This is incredible. I had no idea your skill level in riding was this advanced.” He said it with such reverence that Penny felt the deep chill she’d been having all morning burn away, watching him watch her younger self amaze the crowd of half tipsy Nebraskans. The way he was looking at her, well, you could tell he was Texas boy for sure. He looked like a little kid at the circus, jumping a little every time she did a stunt or maneuver.

 

“You’re just… saying that,” she replied shyly, hiding her burning cheeks behind her coffee mug. Sheldon’s comments were doing her ego good, but Penny wasn’t used to him giving them so unreservedly.

 

“Nonsense. You are absolutely…” he petered off, watching as Legend began to buck wildly at her command. Young Penny nearly fell from his back, but quickly snatched up the single rein and kept herself atop him with a wide grin. “Astounding.”

 

The clip ended, and as Sheldon ejected the disk, he shook his head with a smile. “I simply cannot believe you never displayed your talents before.”

 

“Well, I’m not like you, I don’t have skills I can whip out all the time. What was I supposed to do, pick you up from work on the back of a horse?” she laughed.

 

“That would certainly be an upgrade to the monstrosity you call a motor vehicle. I’m sure the ride would be smoother in the saddle than sitting in the passenger seat, having to not only see the check engine light but feel the validity of it’s warning with every jerky turn and hazardous stop.” Sheldon was in one of those enjoyably sarcastic moods of his. He could be so funny when he wanted to.

 

“Sheldon, you should be thankful I drive you!” she chided him cheerfully, setting her empty coffee cup down.

 

“I… I am very thankful,” Sheldon replied softly. “For the multitude of benefits you bring to my life.” He was holding her eyes, and Penny had to look away before she said or did something embarrassing. Why was he like this sometimes? So sweet and… ugh. She had to remember that the signals he sometimes sent out weren’t intentional, and not everyone was as gung-ho as her. Hell, she would consider a guy holding the door for her to be flirting, but Sheldon? She didn’t even know if he could flirt on purpose.

 

“You don’t really need to thank me,” she assured him. “We’re friends, it’s what friends do.” It was left unsaid that, for both of them, this was not the case. Friends didn’t do these things for each other in their experience. It was only their relationship with each other that seemed so close and unwavering. Did that mean something? Penny wasn’t sure, but she didn’t want to look too closely at it and get burned. Loving someone who couldn’t love her back was exactly the opposite of what she needed these days.

 

 

-

 

 

She was sweaty, tired, and having the time of her life. Penny stood in a group of maybe 12 stunt women, all around her height and build, as they cooled down and waited for the next interval of the audition. They had done stage combat for hours, breaking into pairs and doing choreography in front of a cameraman, then they had held onto a pull-up bar for as long as they could. It had been a close one, but Penny had dropped off before a few of the other candidates. The women here were all incredible! One of them had just finished mentioning her motorcycle tricking skills, and god, if that wasn’t just cool and scary as hell.

 

The stunt coordinator and his assistants came into the green room with a clipboard and a professional smile.

 

“Alright, ladies, you’ve all done really well so far. The next thing we’re going to be looking at is how you handle a horse. We’re going to head out of the studio and into one of the pens and have you show us a couple things, mainly to gauge your familiarity with riding. Now let’s move!” He motioned for them all to follow him, and they did, but some more hesitantly.

 

“Oh, god, seriously? I was hoping the ‘must be familiar with horses thing was just because they would be on set,” one of the applicants said anxiously. A few of the other women chatted about their lackluster horse skills, but Penny could only smile to herself. Maybe her confidence was misplaced, after all, she hadn’t been on a horse in a few years, but she had seen the look on the audition director’s face earlier when she handed in the clip of her rodeo days. They hadn’t been expecting that, and she’d have to thank Nick later for pressing her to bring some evidence of her skills.

 

They exited the studio and walked a ways, passing by some interesting looking things on the lot, like golf carts full of costume bags and full-size sets being dragged down the road. Penny was fully focused though, mentally running over everything she knew in preparation. She couldn’t afford to be nervous or cautious when they got out there, because she certainly wasn’t the best or the most productive of the stunt women in their group. At this point, she only had a few good jobs under her belt, and it wouldn’t be surprising if she didn’t get a role in the film. But she wanted one, so, so badly.

 

When they reached the bullpen, her sneakers sinking a little into the sand, Penny’s heartbeat picked up. She had to make this one count.

 

“I hope they just have us riding,” one of the stuntwomen said offhandedly, within earshot of the coordinator. “If they ask us to do something like jump on or off a moving horse, I’m out for sure.”

 

“Then you’re out. Sorry Miss…” he checked his clipboard, crossing off a name. “Miss Brune.”

 

The girl sighed heavily, then turned and left their group. Well, that was a shock.

 

“So, as you may have guessed, there may be stunts similar to that in the movie. Can any of you ladies mount a horse while it’s moving?” he asked, seemingly prepared for no one to reply.

 

“I can do one better, while it’s galloping,” Penny said with a hint of bravado. What was she doing? She hadn’t done a running mount in so long!

 

Really?” he intoned, looking at her shrewdly. “Full gallop?” At her confident nod, he motioned for her to go towards the center of the bullpen. There were handlers out with a beautiful dappled mare, holding her loosely by the reins as she stood serenely in the sand. Penny immediately went over to the horse, setting a cautious pace and entering its field of vision from a good angle. It seemed to be a very well-behaved horse as she neared it, but it payed to be gentle with them regardless. You never knew when they would get spooked and by what.

 

“Hey there,” Penny said to both the mare and the handler.

 

“Morning, there. You going to be taking Betsy out first? She’s a great horse, real easy,” the handler replied casually, motioning to the mare to let Penny pet her. Penny stroked a hand over the horse’s neck and gave it a few firm pats, and it responded happily by shaking its mane.

 

“Hey Betsy, we’re going to become fast friends I think,” Penny cooed. From the corner of her eye she could see the coordinator watching on from a distance, standing near the group of auditionees with his clipboard looking bored.

 

“So, I’m told I am to do a running mount with Betsy, can she do that?” Penny asked, continuing to stoke and pat the horse as her nerves fluttered inside hectically.

 

“Sure, sure, she’s good with that, but I’ll be trusting you can handle doing a stunt like that,” the handler said with a little misgiving.

 

“Yes sir, I sure can,” Penny assured with a gulp. It didn’t matter how nervous she felt, she had to do this. She nestled her body at the left side of Betsy and took the reins, patting the horse reassuringly at the base of its neck just where it met the saddle pommel.

 

“Alright, Betsy, we’re gonna go now,” Penny whispered to the horse, steeling herself. They picked up a little speed together, Betsy easily taking her lead as she began walking fairly quickly, then breaking into a run. They cut the turn in the pen, then as the horse picked up more speed than Penny could keep up with, she prepared to mount. Her legs were burning as she gripped the pommel with both hands. Penny hopped once, then vaulted into the saddle, settling in and letting out a huge whoosh of breath as she led Betsy into a gallop around the bullpen for a turn. Then she brought them over to where the coordinator was now standing with Betsy’s handler.

 

I did it! Penny wanted to shout. It felt like coming home, being in the saddle again, and the movements had come back easily and naturally.

 

“You handle a horse pretty well, Miss Queen!” the stunt coordinator called up to her as she eased the beautiful horse to a halt.

 

“You can call me Penny, sir,” she replied in a friendly manner. That seemed to surprise the audition coordinator, maybe because kind words were hard to come by in Los Angeles. Everyone was too stressed and overworked. Penny dismounted then gave Betsy a soft pat before her handler lead her away.

 

“There will be a few horse stunts in the film, as well as a pretty big one involving the stunt double dangling from the underside of a helicopter. Do you think you could handle something like that?” The coordinator sounded a bit skeptical, but his tone was reassuring, as if he was hoping she would say yes.

 

Holy mother of god, a helicopter? The very image sent a cold shiver down Penny’s spine, but it only seemed to toughen her resolve to be in this movie. Any stunt she didn’t know how to do, she would learn, she would try. This could be a massive milestone for her career, and she wanted this so badly she could taste it.

 

“I could certainly try my hand at it. If there’s one thing about me you should know, it’s that I’m not afraid of a little danger.” Her confidence seemed to come from that magical dimension that could only be accessed accidentally and while under pressure, and luckily it had the intended effect. The coordinator nodded happily and added a wondrous little checkmark next to her name on the clipboard, and it sent her mood soaring.

 

“Great! Can’t wait to see what else you can do, Penny,” he said, and Penny couldn’t wait either. This day was teaching her more about herself than she could have ever imagined. She was… she was a badass, and it felt amazing to be able to say that to herself. After years of self-doubt, this was what it actually felt like to feel in control and proud of yourself. It hadn’t come from making loads of money or being famous, it had sprung forth from just trying her best and putting herself out there. Sure, it would be a disappointment if she didn’t get a role in the movie, but she wouldn’t feel like a disappointment. How could she when she had successfully mounted a running horse on her first try after being so out of practice? She was practically John Wayne out here! The other stunt women were looking at her incredulously, and it felt so good. She had an edge that they didn’t.

 

Penny smirked to herself. Growing up a hick had finally paid off.

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon exited his apartment as he pocketing his cellphone. Penny had texted him moments before, excited and desperate to relay some news to him. She had returned from her ridiculously long audition only an hour ago, so he did not imagine it was for the results of that, but perhaps it had simply gone well for her. Sheldon hoped so. Her recent career track was working well for her, and it was his greatest desire, second only to receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics, that Penny would experience success.

 

He knocked on the door in triplicate and was ushered in immediately following, nearly blinded by Penny’s happy face.

 

“How did your audition go, Penny? I can infer from your smile and glowing expression that it went acceptably,” he offered in greeting, stepping into her apartment. It was still as tidy as it could be. Sheldon still came in when she was busy and cleaned, and Penny still let him.

 

“It went so well!” she answered him as she applied dark lipstick to her lips in the mirror next to the door. She appeared freshly showered and coiffed. Why was she applying makeup to her person? Weren’t they simply going to enjoy vintage science fiction television over dinner?

 

“It started off a bit bumpy, but apparently I really impressed them! I haven’t gotten word back officially, but Nick called, and he said I definitely have a stunt part in the movie!”

 

“Well done, Penny. What sort of stunts will you be performing?” Sheldon asked as he began to pick up and refold one of the blankets on her sofa. Penny ceased applying her lipstick, then turned around to face him. She was all done up, and Sheldon still wasn’t certain why.

 

“Lots of amazing stuff. Mostly fight choreography and a few horseback stunts, but also some big ones like hanging from a helicopter! Isn’t that neat? I’m so happy! All these years of waiting, and I finally made it,” she said with a watery smile. “I finally did it! This is such a big part for me.”

 

“Congratulations,” Sheldon offered, his smile not quite meeting her eyes. She was going to be putting herself at an extreme risk with those sorts of stunts, and it instantly set Sheldon on edge. Fight choreography was one thing, but this sounded absolutely perilous.

 

“And it’s all thanks to you, Sheldon. I can’t thank you enough.” Penny raised her arms as if to hug him, then instead grabbed a throw pillow off of the sofa and held it to her chest.

 

“This pillow is you, okay?” Penny then firmly hugged the pillow to herself, nuzzling her cheek onto the velvety surface with a silly expression on her face. It made his heart clench, knowing that she was so happy with him and he was unable to reciprocate. A true friend would feel wonderful that their advice had advanced her career, but instead it filled him with dread. He had endangered her.

 

“I…” he started, then petered off. What was he to say? If he exposed his fears to her, would she not be angry with him?

 

“Nick also invited me to go clubbing with the stunt crew. I’m probably going to leave soon and have dinner with them first,” Penny rattled off chipperly, placing the pillow back down at a lopsided angle. “Sorry, sweetie, about dinner tonight and stuff.”

 

That revelation was a serious blow. Was that why she was dressed up? Why hadn’t she informed him sooner of her change in plans?

 

“You are going out tonight? To a nightclub?” he asked incredulously. Penny narrowed her eyes at that, obviously becoming a bit defensive at his tone.

 

“Yes, I am. I have to. I have to network. I’m sorry Sheldon, I really am.” She had her back turned to him again as she rifled through her collection of shoes by the door. It was so… so ridiculous. She was to abandon their evening to… network?

 

“Will you be drinking?” he blurted out inelegantly. That startled Penny, and she dropped the black heels she’d been considering into a heap on the floor. Sheldon twitched at that, then began anxiously straightening the pillows on her couch. “I would advise against it,” he added, and immediately regretted it.

 

“Sheldon, I’m a big girl, I can choose to drink if I want to,” she defended herself with a tight expression, her motions becoming jerky as she selected another pair of shoes. At the angle she was bent over, her short dress was riding up the backs of her thighs, and it irritated Sheldon the way the seam was not in line with her spine. Why was she even dressed in such a getup to begin with? Hadn’t she seen the weather report?

 

“You look as if you will develop hypothermia, Penny. It’s December and you’re wearing…” Sheldon stumbled over his words as he looked her over, trying but failing to recall any fashion terminology. All he knew was that while the dress did cover her, it did more to highlight than to conceal.

 

“Again with what I’m wearing? God, Sheldon, sometimes I forget you grew up in the church, but here’s the evidence. For an atheist, you’re still really a prude,” Penny scoffed, grabbing a coat that appeared to be the remains of a skinned teddy-bear and throwing it over herself. “There, happy?”

 

Happy?” Sheldon scowled. “I take great offense to being compared with prudish religious types simply because I am concerned for your health. It is currently forty-seven degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of forty-one degrees, and that coat looks as if it couldn’t even keep a hydrothermal vent warm.”

 

Penny threw a pair of strappy looking heels on with a moan of frustration, the pitch of her voice rising as she struggled with the buckles. “You are so full of it! Why can’t you be supportive? It just seems like you’re angry that I’m not following your schedule!”

 

“Perhaps I am. My life benefits greatly from routine, and as my friend, you should be aware of how disruptive breaking it can be,” Sheldon replied petulantly.

 

“Don’t try and manipulate me, Sheldon Cooper, this is important! I just got the best role I’ve ever landed, and I’m going to celebrate. I don’t know what your problem is all of a sudden, but I can’t deal with this right now. I have to go.”

Penny motioned him out of her apartment agitatedly and locked the door behind her, then, without a parting glance, she descended the stairs.

 

Sheldon stood in the landing, face red and chest heaving, for quite a while as he attempted to control his breathing. He didn’t know what prompted him to point out her inadequate clothing, but it didn’t feel good and he didn’t particularly want to examine the precise reason. He stomped into his apartment and threw the door closed. With an irritated glance at the clock, Sheldon realized it was time for him to begin preparing his meal. With no desire to cook, or even eat, he began his nighttime routine sullenly. He grimaced as he brushed his teeth, growled as he struggled with his layered shirts, and frowned when he slipped into bed. The lights went off, he always slept in full darkness to promote a healthy circadian rhythm, but his eyes would not stay closed.



Penny made him so livid sometimes.

 

Sheldon stewed in bed, feeling put out and agitated for hours. The time ticked by, and eventually his irritation grew into fear. Sheldon held his phone in his hands, checking between his texts and the live feed of the hallway security camera. She wasn’t in the hall, and she hadn’t texted him. Was that a good sign or a bad sign? Had she imbibed alcohol or stayed sober? Why was that woman always bringing him to worry?

 

Sheldon watched the live security feed until his eyes drooped shut, heavy from exhaustion and stress. As he slipped away into sleep, Sheldon’s last coherent thought was that he wished he had simply asked her to stay home.

 

 

-

 

 

Penny hated this.

 

She sat alone at a small table, sipping a straight cranberry through a cocktail straw with a pout. The thump thump of the music in the club was exhilarating, but Penny didn’t feel like dancing. Her castmates were already wasted, dancing and hanging around the club in small groups. They all knew one another and Penny was the odd one out. She liked them all, and she believed they liked her, but groups like that were insular and hard to infiltrate, and Penny had yet to be fully accepted. She was the newbie, an outlier.

From across the club, a guy was making eyes at her. The kind of look where his eyes spoke volumes. He wanted to dance with her but was attempting to use his appeal to get her to come to him. It was almost working. If Penny hadn’t been sober, she would have already shaken her way over to his side and gotten with the grind, but she was feeling pensive, hesitant. It wasn’t that the guy wasn’t attractive because, oh boy was he. All bodybuilder and Malibu blonde, windswept hair and tightly fitted shirt. He was exactly Penny’s preferred type of man-candy, and yet she simply watched him. Wondering if it would feel the same as her previous flings, pleasant and fun, without the buzz of tequila or vodka to guide her.

It was a temptation, the bar was right there, flashing lights backlighting an impressively twirling bartender as he served out delicious looking mixers. If she had a few, she could easily get swept away by the Malibu Ken over there and not feel alone for a change. She hadn’t been with a man since…

But just the scent of alcohol was making her sick, and the feeling lingered all night. Instead of dancing and making out with that dreamy guy, she was rehashing the argument she’d had with Sheldon in her head, trying to figure out what his problem was. His mother-hen attitude and subtle insinuations had her blood boiling. She’d wanted to hog-tie him and give him what for. How dare he criticize her outfit?

She’d wanted Sheldon to beg her to stay, and wasn’t that messed up? As much as Penny enjoyed clubbing, she hadn’t even really wanted to come tonight. It was a networking opportunity, sure, but she would have so preferred to stay at Los Robles, tucked under a blanket on Sheldon’s couch as he blathered on about Doctor Who and Doctor Strange and all of that nerdy crap she was slowly learning to love. Then she would point out some inconsistency in the plot or a weird character trait of the main cast, and Sheldon would say in that endearing and self-important way – “Hm, very astute Penny.” And she would feel crackles of pleasure all over for no good reason other than she was actually beginning to live for his praise.

But it felt so wrong. She’d stare at his lips when he spoke about his work, or his hands as he cooked them dinner, and it felt bad, especially since she knew he wasn’t capable of reciprocating her weird, lusty feelings. He was neurotic, he was high maintenance; dating him – in the fictional world where he would even want to date – would be a nightmare.

Maybe her feelings were misplaced, maybe they were simply there because he was the only man in her life right now. Leonard had left this gaping hole in her world that was only meant to filled by himself, and yet Sheldon had stepped up and proved to her and the world that he was a good man. He couldn’t be her man, though, and it was making her desperate.

Penny glanced to the table next to her. Her castmates had abandoned their shots to join the crowd of dancers. Penny stood from her seat and made eye contact with ‘Ken’, then with a confident and thoughtless flick, she tossed back two shots of tequila that was certainly not hers but, too late, it was already swallowed. The alcohol felt like fire in her veins, and it felt liberating. Penny didn’t have time to regret her relapse as she sauntered across the dance floor, moving her hips in just the right way that had her Malibu boy going from suave to utterly seduced. His eyes followed her with enthusiasm.

 

As Penny reached him, standing close enough to smell his aftershave and see the stubble on his chin, she smiled slowly. She gently took his hands, then placed them on her hips.

 

“Dance with me?” Penny whispered into his ear, and he was all eagerness. They swayed together, the rhythm a promise of what was to come. She would take him home and have some fun with him. She didn’t need to be afraid, and she didn’t need to have idle fantasies about her friend any longer. I’m in control, Penny told herself later as she led him outside to hail a cab. 

Oh, what a lie that was.

 

 

-

 



A particular notification sound alerted Sheldon from his fitful slumber that something was wrong. Sheldon sat up stock still, the sheets pooling around his waist as he felt around for his cellphone in the dark. It had slipped under his pillow as he’d slept, and after locating it he tried to make sense of the images he was seeing.

On the screen it confirmed his nightmare, someone had triggered the sensor alarm of the security cameras, someone was outside Penny’s apartment. Sheldon slid on his slippers and quickly donned his robe, hurrying to the front door and peering out the peephole. His blood boiled as he took in the distorted images; Penny was standing with her back against her apartment door, and a man about Leonard’s size was holding her. She looked to be in distress. Sheldon quickly unlocked and flung the door open, the sounds of Penny’s sobbing filling his ears.



“Penny!” Sheldon called anxiously. The man with Penny turned towards the noise, and though he was clearly not Leonard, Sheldon was still mistrustful.



“What have you done to my friend?” Sheldon demanded, cutting a surprisingly intimidating figure in his plaid robe and slippers. The man held his hands up, his eyes dilated in the harsh light of the landing indicating he was intoxicated. Beside him, Penny was now slumped against her door, holding herself tightly around the middle, tears streaking down her face as she hiccupped and cried.



“I didn’t do anything to her, I swear! She just started freaking out!” The man said frantically, stepping away from them both. Penny was apologizing between her stuttered whimpers, and Sheldon’s weary mind couldn’t understand what had happened. All he knew was that Penny wasn’t safe.

 

“You need to vacate the premises, now,” Sheldon instructed him coldly, pointing to the stairs. The man glanced at Penny one last time, then took off, leaving her and Sheldon alone on the landing together.

Sheldon looked over his friend, checking her for injuries, but found none. Her clothing was rumpled but in place, hair a bit mussed. She smelled of alcohol, but he wasn’t certain it had come from her own imbibing or the man she’d been with.

 

“Penny, what happened?” Sheldon was full of concern, their argument from earlier that evening set firmly aside in the face of her distress. “Did that man hurt you?”

 

She shook her head, slowly easing herself away from the door. “N-no, he didn’t. I’m just… a mess…” Penny’s voice was warbling and a bit hysterical. Sheldon hadn’t seen her like this in a while, and he’d hoped she’d moved past this.

 

“Perhaps we should go into my apartment. I will make you a cup of tea, Penny,” Sheldon offered. She nodded silently, her only vocalizations pathetic sniffles and she followed him inside. Sheldon wished he could guide her inside with a steadying hand, comfort her as a good friend should, but instead he simply let his trembling friend trail after him.

 

Sheldon groggily set about preparing a pot of tea, all the while he watched Penny as she tossed her jacket to the sofa, then bent down to undo her shoes. “Please tell me what happened, Penny,” he pressed cautiously. Penny paused, sniffled harshly, then looked up at him. She was red in the face, perhaps from intoxication or from shame.



“I just wanted to… to get laid! Okay?” Penny sobbed, flinging her strappy heels off as she almost fell to the leather sofa. Sheldon abandoned the tea as to move her shoes from the rug, then approached the distressed woman.

 


“I was worried you were being pressured by that man.” Sheldon sat down next to her. Penny sniffled again, brushing the hair out of her eyes.



“No, that’s why I’m so upset! Everything was fine, but as soon as he went to kiss me, I panicked.” Penny rested her head against Sheldon’s shoulder, and though she likely felt him tense she didn’t back off as Sheldon had come to expect her to. “My back hit the door and suddenly I couldn’t handle it. Am I never going to be able to make out with a guy without being afraid?”

 
With a grimace, Sheldon patted Penny’s shoulder. “There, there,” he placated, hoping she would calm before too long. He was sleep deprived, but relieved she was home. Regardless of what happened, at least she was safe, and he could rest easy.

 

Penny grabbed Sheldon’s hand and pressed it tightly against her skin. Like being submerged in ice, Sheldon’s drowsiness dissipated instantly. A mixture of terror and uncomfortable arousal flared through the nerve-endings in his body. At that moment he could feel every point of contact between them - her delicate fingers gripping his, her nylon stockings catching on the fleece of his pajama pants, the weight of her body as she shifted onto his side of the sofa.

 

“Penny?” Sheldon’s voice was timid and confused.

 
“I don’t… I don’t feel safe around men anymore, and I don’t like when they touch me. You could touch me though, Sheldon.” Penny’s free hand brushed through his hair, her touch a gentle caress. Then she smiled sadly. “But you can’t think of me like that, can you?”

 
His mind, without preamble, recalled the time Penny had slipped in the shower and had required his assistance. Sheldon closed his eyes tightly, willing the viscerally accurate memory of Penny’s body to vanish. Oh, Sheldon didn’t want to think about Penny like that, but he couldn’t help himself sometimes. Despite accusations of asexuality and celibacy, Sheldon was no monk. He was attracted to women, and Penny was an ideal woman in his eyes. She was practically a comic book heroine come to life, powerful, beautiful, and witty. He had assumed Penny had no romantic feelings for him and had respected the boundaries of their friendship. The lines between friendship and romance were a difficult thing to navigate, so he had always attempted to steer clear. Wasn’t that what he was supposed to do?

 
“I…” Sheldon didn’t know how to react, and as he let Penny’s question hang between them, his mental state quickly deteriorated. He felt puffs of Penny’s breath against his cheek, saw the perspiration on her chest from a night of dancing, imagined the horrors of germs on her hands from the club she’d been in. Sheldon began to breathe rapidly, his chest tightening painfully.

 

I don’t know what to do!

 

Penny released Sheldon slowly, worry creasing her brow. “Oh no, Sheldon, I’m sorry.”

 
Sheldon shot up from the sofa, pushing Penny away as if she’d burned him. He launched for a side table and quickly searched through the drawer for his hand sanitizer. Penny began to cry again as she saw him violently disinfect the hand that had just been touching her skin. “I’m sorry!” she cried.


Sheldon understood why Penny was upset, knew how it looked, but hoped she would understand.


“No, no, it’s alright Penny. I simply…” He returned the hand sanitizer to the drawer, closed it, then with a grimace, opened it a second time compulsively. On his second sanitizing, Sheldon realized Penny was already putting her shoes back on, and she had inferred the wrong idea about his actions.

 

“I just need to do this, Penny, please don’t misunderstand.”

 

Penny was furiously wiping her eyes and she struggled to get her heels back on.

 

“Please don’t leave!” he called frantically. “Please!”



“No, I understand. Completely.” She sounded so insulted, a bitter edge to her quickly sobering voice, and Sheldon desperately wanted to stop himself.

He didn’t know how to stop. He didn’t know why stress did this to him.

 

Sheldon finally put the hand sanitizer away after a third wave of cleansing, only to feel his scalp tingle with unnatural oiliness. Penny’s hand had touched his scalp and now he needed to wash his hair for the second time that day. She had her hand on the doorknob, poised to leave


“Penny, I…!” Sheldon didn’t want Penny to go home, especially not while she was crying and possibly intoxicated. He took a few steps towards her, fully prepared to try and ignore his body’s call for cleanliness and to beg her to stay when he began obsessively ruminating on Penny’s hands, on how she’d been holding that man’s hand in the landing.


Where had his hands been? He probably touched numerous people and objects at the club, and like most disgusting males, had been to the bathroom but had not washed his hands. That meant that germs from any number of STD riddled nightclub goers might be on Sheldon’s scalp right at that moment. Sheldon’s face fell, and with a horrified moan he turned from Penny and rushed away.

“I need to shower!” he stated in a panicked voice, sprinting towards the bathroom. As the door shut Penny lost it, and her sobs came freely. From the bathroom Sheldon could hear the retreating cries of his friend, and the front door being slammed over the rush of scalding hot bathwater. He tore his clothes off and threw them into the hamper, then with a brand-new sponge he scoured his skin, hoping desperately that Penny didn’t hate him.


It was 3 AM by the time Sheldon managed to get himself out of the shower. He hissed in pain as he pulled clean pajamas over his inflamed, raw skin. If it turned out in the morning that Penny loathed him, he would understand

 

Sometimes Sheldon loathed himself, too.  

Chapter Text

Sheldon was standing over the trashcan, clutching a cold plate of chocolate chip pancakes in his hand as he willed himself not to throw them away. Penny was just… just busy. Or more likely, still asleep. What he should do is saran wrap the plate and save it for her. She would eventually turn up begging for the coffee he’d already brewed and this exact plate of delicious pancakes.

 

What a pitiful falsehood. Penny wasn’t coming over. 

 

He dumped the pancakes into the garbage, heedless of the plate slipping from his grasp. It startled him to see he’d let the plate go as well, but there was no possible way he could retrieve it now. It must be considered a casualty of his bad mood then, for no amount of cleaning would ever convince him that the plate was not festering with contaminants. He let the garbage can lid shut, then turned from it in indignity. He felt like he also belonged at the bottom of a refuse pile.  He’d ruined his friendship with Penny, upset the delicate balance of their relationship with his inadequacies and neurosis at a critical time, and now he didn’t know when he would see her again.

It was unsettling to realize that, if Penny was to distance herself from his life, he didn’t have much else in the way of things to focus on. Every morning they ate breakfast together, every lunch he happily read her text messages, and every evening they had dinner and shared their time with one another. Penny went grocery shopping with him. Penny did her laundry with him. Penny drove him to and from work. Penny was integral to his schedule, the proverbial cornerstone of his life. How could he mitigate the damage? By running to her side and begging her forgiveness, no doubt, but he just couldn’t. Sheldon wished it was because he had nothing to apologize for, but he knew that was not at all truthful. It wasn’t because he was too prideful, either, in fact it was the opposite.

He was ashamed.  He had never wanted to be seen like that. His compulsions were his poorly kept secret that simmered under every moment of his life, but he had tried his best to conceal them so that his friends never bore witness. ‘Debasing’ is how Sheldon would describe it, to be within the spotlight of one’s own illness. Add to that the insulting and degrading way he reacted to Penny’s drunken attentions, and it was a recipe for her resentment. She had come to him in a dark and frightening moment and he had ruined it, poisoned her trust in him.

The why and how of his anxiety attack still needed to be understood, so he could attempt to mitigate them in the future. Running over the previous evening in his mind with an embarrassed cringe, Sheldon could see many little things that had occurred and compounded his stress into the eventual attack. Their fight before she left the apartment had him dangling from an emotional string, but it was more than that. Penny had come home with a man, her intention obvious, regardless of how it had ended up. Then she had brazenly, if not a little drunkenly, claimed that she wanted his affection, not her date’s. The prospect of Penny desiring him in such a fashion, but instead choosing to go seek out a sexual partner amongst the throng of mindless club-loving drones was extremely painful. She had said ‘but you can’t think about me like that’. Can’t, not don’t. Penny’s assumption was that he was incapable of reciprocating emotional and physical affection. That had been enough to make him want to run away and fall into his own grave, and his compulsions had provided him the shovel to dig it. 

 

He poured a cup of lukewarm coffee, holding it between his hands as he pondered what to do. Sheldon’s day, his life, was ambiguous without the constant of his friendship with Penny. Sheldon took a sip, then almost immediately gagged. How Penny could stomach the stuff was beyond him. As he dumped the remaining black beverage down the drain, the phone rang. He let it ring to its conclusion, waiting for the caller to leave a message and be done with it. Suffering a phone call was not something he would permit today.

 

The machine beeped.

 

“Hey Shelly, it’s yer Meemaw. Well, you probably know that, with the caller I.D. and what not… anywho…”

 

Sheldon quickly stepped out of the kitchen and picked up the phone from the cradle.

 

“Meemaw,” he said in way of greeting. It had been some time since they last spoke on the phone. They had recently been playing ‘phone tag’ as she liked to call it.

 

“Moonpie! Oh, it’s so good I caught you,” she sighed happily, the relief in her voice palpable and soothing.

 

If nothing else, he still had his Meemaw.

 

“I called to talk to you about Christmas, Moonpie. Missy’s comin’ down this year. It’s been a long, long time since you’ve been out here for all that and well… we all miss you darling,” his Meemaw explained. Sheldon tensed; he didn’t want to speak about this. Holidays were the worst invention of modern civilization, if only because they required so much from the participants. 

 

His silence stretched on.

 

“Well, that sounds like a no. I can’t say I’m not disappointed, but I imagine you want to spend that time with your girlfriend Penny, am I wrong?” she tittered fondly.

 

“Penny is not my girlfriend, Meemaw, I’ve explained that,” he replied tersely. Sheldon had previously discussed with his Meemaw his wish to spend the holiday with Penny, but now it seemed unbearable.

 

There was no possibility Penny could want to be around him for that much time.

 

“Perhaps I will come to Texas for Christmas and New Year’s, Meemaw,” Sheldon found himself saying. He was realizing that the more emotional distance he and Penny had between them, the more physical distance he was craving. Penny didn’t want him around; he didn’t even want himself around. Maybe he was running away with his tail between his legs, but he was allowed to do it. He was allowed to be a coward.

 

Excitedly, his Meemaw hammered out the details, and it seemed settled once she hung up the phone. Well, he was going to Texas for Christmas, and what a joke that was. If only he could laugh at it.

 

Sheldon looked around his empty apartment, and with a heavy heart decided he didn’t want to be there any longer. He needed to get out, now.

 

 

-

 

 

“I am so jealous of you right now,” Penny grumbled. She was slumped over on the plastic table she and Leslie shared, looking absolutely haggard and hungover. She wasn’t hungover, exactly, but who knew having an evening of crying and screaming would do for free what a bottle of tequila could.  Of course, the two ill-advised shots she’d downed also played a part, but Penny didn’t want to think about that. It was too mortifying.

 

Leslie was enjoying a mixed drink with their lunch, smirking down at her in that haughty way that used to drive her crazy. Now it just earned an eye roll.

 

This was the third time they’d gone bowling. Weirdly, they both found they enjoyed the activity and they’d taken to meeting up on the weekends. Weirder still was that, despite the fact that they had almost nothing in common, they were actually getting along really well. Leslie was the girlfriend Penny had always wanted, even if they tended to exchange barbs over the lane freely. Maybe that’s why they worked so well together; they weren’t afraid of one another.

 

“What’s wrong, Barbie, break a nail?” Leslie laughed, but with none of the malice that might have been there before. Penny actually laughed too, but it sounded stilted and sad.

 

“I wish,” she sighed deeply. “I had a fight with Sheldon last night. Well, two actually.”

 

Leslie swirled her straw around the perimeter of her glass, mixing the alcohol and thick juice that just didn’t want to stay together. Leslie was a bold woman to drink bowling alley cocktails at noon.

 

“Hardly surprising. It is Sheldon we’re talking about,” Leslie said. “What did you argue about?”

 

“I was upset, he was comforting. Like the big ol’five I am I came onto him, hard.  Of course, he pushed me away. I should have known better anyway…” Penny laughed humorlessly. “He’s basically nonsexual and hates germs.”

 

Leslie stopped mixing her drink and had the appearance of someone who’d just been badly startled. “Penny, he’s not a germaphobe, he has OCD.”

 

Penny rolled her eyes again. “Yeah, I know, but he didn’t have to act so disgusted by me, right?” Penny’s voice was a mix of miserable and blasé, but it couldn’t be helped. She wanted a pity party. If only Leslie would get the memo.

 

Leslie threw her straw behind her into the trash bin with a little irritated flick and a furrow in her brow. “No, I don’t think you understand. It’s not like funny TV show detective OCD, it’s a seriously debilitating anxiety disorder.” 

 

She was being condescending, Penny thought. Everyone was always talking down to her.

 

“Yeah? What do you know about it?” Penny knew she was being unkind, but everything still hurt. Burned into her eyes was the way Sheldon had looked when he recoiled from her touch, like he had just accidentally brushed up against cow crap. She didn’t want to feel that way. Not anymore.

 

Leslie looked away sheepishly, adjusting her glasses to hide her discomfort.

 

“I researched it, after an incident with him a while back. You know, before I apologized to you. I may have triggered one of his anxiety attacks and it was…” she gulped, looking down at her lap. “It was bad, Barbie. He was bleeding from washing his hands so much, just because of the stress. I’m not saying you’re stupid, Penny, but it’s a lot worse than people make it out to be.”

 

Penny had a sharp intake of breath, her body stilling unnaturally.

 

He was bleeding from washing his hands so much.

 

He was bleeding.

 

Had he done that to himself in the shower when she’d run home? Penny’s mind concocted a horrifying picture of her tall, wonderful friend scrubbing himself savagely. All because she couldn’t control herself. All because she’d decided to be selfish.

 

“Oh… oh my god,” Penny whimpered quietly, her eyes quickly filling with tears. “It’s my fault. I am stupid!”

 

Leslie’s eyes widened, and she opened her lips a few times to say something, but nothing came out. She awkwardly patted Penny on the back, cringing at her own lack of tact.

 

“No, wait, Barbie it’s not your fault. People with OCD have anxiety attacks, sometimes lots of them, and they obsess over thoughts and ‘what if’s. What if that could kill me, what if I didn’t clean every germ, and it spirals viciously out of control sometimes just from mildly stressful situations. I imagine that for Sheldon it’s like torture. He’s a logical guy, but anxiety is the opposite of that.  You know what I’m talking about?”

 

Penny did, and it killed her. She had her own set of ‘what if’s that overwhelmed her. She couldn’t go to the ATM without panicking that the man behind her, who was just trying to grab an envelope for his cash, was going to reach out and hurt her. Assault her in the dark. Kissing that guy from the club had been worse, the feeling of lips and the press of his body bringing back every fear she had developed from Leonard’s touch and then some.

 

She had done that to Sheldon. Caused him to feel like she did.

 

Penny got up from her seat, grabbing her purse off the floor.

 

“I have to go,” she said, heading to the exit. Leslie grabbed her jacket and followed after her, struggling to get her arms in the sleeves.

 

“Penny, I drove you here!” Leslie reminded her.

 

“Then drop me off at my car, please Leslie,” Penny begged desperately. “I need to get home, now.”

 

 

-

 

 

He wasn’t home.

 

Penny barged into 4A, an apology on her lips, but found no one. She even checked his bedroom, hesitantly pushing the door open, but the room was empty. Where could Sheldon have gone without her? She was his ride, for god’s sake! Penny went to the fridge and looked over it for notes but found no explanation for his absence. Had he gone out? By himself? What if he was in some kind of trouble? As she dazedly looked around the apartment, she spotted his cell phone lying on his desk, charging steadily. He left his phone? With a shriek of frustration, Penny ran back downstairs and got in her car. Where the hell was her wackadoodle? 

 

Penny drove to the comic book store, nervously checking every aisle for him, but no dice. On her way back to the apartment building, she drove meanderingly slow, annoying other drivers on the road as she peered out the window and looked for his tall silhouette. It was an hour before she began to seriously worry. What the hell could Sheldon be thinking?

 

Just over the crest of the hilly road, Penny could see a kite catching the wind above the treetops in Grant Park. The triangle shape, black and neon in color with a long tail flying behind it, had to be Sheldon’s kite.  Penny hastily turned into a street parking space and, careless of the parking meter, sprinted into the park.  Cutting through the jogging path, the dead grass and between the trees, she finally came upon a clearing in the park. Her tall friend was standing with his back to her, shoulders slumped over as he flew his kite alone.

 

“Oh my god, Sheldon! What are you doing out here? I thought you didn’t fly kites in the winter because of ‘unsolicitous winds’ or something,” Penny panted, putting her hands on her knees. God, if running through the park was getting her winded then she really needed to hit the treadmill more.

 

Sheldon was blinking at her as she caught her breath, holding onto his kite spool with white hands. At first, Penny thought they were pale from the death grip he usually had on the thing, but now she realized it was from the cold. He was coatless, standing in the fairly deserted park by himself. His eyes were red and swollen as if he’d been crying. Oh god.

 

“I’ve been looking everywhere for you!” Penny added when he didn’t reply. Sheldon looked up towards his kite as he maneuvered it just slightly.

 

“Yes, obviously, and now you’ve found me. Excellent sleuthing,” he commended sarcastically, his voice quiet and rough.

 

“Sheldon…” Penny sighed, rubbing her temples. “I was just worried about you, sweetie.”

 

“Why? Because I am some child that cannot choose to spend my Saturday afternoon flying kites in the park? Do I need your approval to select my daily activities?”

 

“No! Of course not.” Penny didn’t know why he was being so hostile, she just cared about him, for god’s sake. She wanted to apologize to him for last night, for grossing him out and imposing on him, but no matter what way she turned it in her head or phrased it, it just didn’t sound right. Sheldon wasn’t making this any easier, standing stoically as he flew the damn kite, acting as if she wasn’t even there.

 

“I’m going to Galveston for the holiday season,” he finally said, his admittance stinging her. “I thought you should be aware.” He didn’t even look at her as he said it. She couldn’t believe him, he was going to leave for Christmas? Penny closed her eyes, willing herself to not start arguing. He was pushing her away, and she’d made him do it. She shouldn’t be surprised that he’d want to escape her company, after all, last night had been a mess. She’d been a mess, and she still felt like one.

 

“To Texas?” she asked stupidly. “I mean, when are you leaving?”

 

“The twenty-second, on the 7:40 AM American Airlines flight AA7B1…”

 

“Oh. Well, that’s…” She cut him off, her throat hoarse and eyes beginning to burn. He was actually leaving, and he was going to fly there? He must really want to get away from her, she knew how much he hated flying.

 

“That’s great, sweetie. I’ll be working anyway so… great!” Penny tried to sound enthusiastic, but it felt fake even to her ears. This was not at all what she’d been expecting after last night. Sure, she anticipated some coldness or annoyance from him, but not him leaving for the freaking holidays. Maybe she had gotten too complacent, too comfortable pushing his boundaries and not having to own up to it or apologize. She needed to apologize.

 

“I’m just… Sheldon, I’m sorry I was such an idiot last night. I didn’t mean to act like that or push myself on you. It was a mistake; please say you’ll forgive me.”

 

His face was twisted a little as he considered her plea, and Penny worried he might actually not forgive her after all. She didn’t think she could handle it if he stayed angry with her. Penny could hear the roll of skateboarders somewhere behind them, and the bizarre combination of the birds overhead and the cars speeding by them just out of sight.  When was the last time she’d even gone to a park? And why wasn’t he answering her?

 

Sheldon cleared his throat, quieting her worries.

 

“I… I am not in the habit of recording my friends’ misdeeds, and as I do not believe in the concept of sin, I will ask you to refrain from repenting,” he uttered stiffly, but his eyes finally met hers and it soothed her troubled heart. He was still with her. “There is nothing to forgive, Penny.”

 

“Oh…” was all she could think to reply, and she let the silence stretch on between them for a while. It felt like she didn’t deserve his goodness in that moment, especially with how careless she’d been. If it had been the other way around, with Sheldon coming in at night sloppy and needy, she wouldn’t be so forgiving. Then again, Sheldon would never act like that, and they didn’t have the kind of history that would lead to endless resentment.

 

“You’re pretty good at flying the kite.” Penny knew her compliment was a shallow one, but she needed to express her gratitude somehow. If he was still willing to be her friend, then she would work twice as hard to prove to him that his trust had not been misplaced.

 

“There is little skill involved in manipulating a kite. All the complexity of the kite’s trajectory and movements are taken care of by the wind’s speed and constancy. That is why I find the practice relaxing. I can simply stand back and allow the physics of the natural world to carry it forth into the sky, and it allows me time to… ponder.” He was trembling a little as he said that, whether from the cold or his distress, Penny wasn’t sure. She wanted to know if he was okay, but you couldn’t just ask Sheldon Cooper about his feelings.

 

“And what’s the stringy thing called?” Penny asked, stepping closer to his side. She knew, but she just wanted him to keep talking. She didn’t want their relationship to fizzle here, in the brown grass of Grant Park in early December. She loved him, so for the love of god, the least she could do to show that was by indulging him. 

 

He looked surprised at her question, surprised maybe that she wanted him to educate her. She usually couldn’t stand his lecturing.

 

“It is called a line set. Cheaper kites are usually equipped with twine or brittle plastic lines, but this particular set is made from high-grade, high elasticity nylon.” Sheldon rattled on, about branded products and the differences between them, and Penny listened. He was slowly smiling, just a little smile, indicating that just maybe he no longer hated her for her annoying display last night. The kept talking, and he kept the kite in the air until the wind shifted, but Penny couldn’t help feeling there was something off about their banter. It was like a glass wall was between them, and maybe it was her fault it was there. She should have never muddled their friendship up with her desperation; Sheldon didn’t need that kind of stress, he likely had enough as it was simply being her friend to begin with. Penny’s hope was that they could maintain their close relationship, even though he would be leaving California for two weeks. 

 

A lot could happen in two weeks, and she feared he would return even less interested in putting up with her baggage. Penny wouldn’t be surprised if did lose his patience for her, but she was starting to think she couldn’t handle life without him around. His friendship meant everything to her. 

 

 

-

 

 

A few weeks later.

 

They were standing at the baggage drop-off kiosk, the red American Airlines sign above their heads flashing with broken insistence. There were large no-smoking signs everywhere, and yet no less than two dozen people were milling about the exterior of the airport with cigarettes burning in their hands and between their lips. Early morning sunlight was casting weird pinkish shadows over the tired and stressed travelers as they parted with their loved ones and paid for their overweight suitcases.

With expert planning and packing, Sheldon only held two carry-on luggage pieces. His small suitcase was clutched to his side, and his messenger bag was comfortably slung over his chest, attempting to soothe him with its familiar weight and pull, but doing a poor job at it. Jingle Bells was playing over the old and poorly optimized speakers in the entrance area, and Sheldon swore it was the third time it had looped while they stood here waiting for the people in front of him to finish weighing their bags. Why the airline was making them check in outside was beyond him; this was truly hellish.

 

The deafening noise of a 767’s jet engines cut through the sky above them, and Sheldon felt nausea well up inside him. He hated flying. He hated this. Why had he decided to go away for Christmas and New Year’s?

 

Then he caught Penny’s eye in his peripheral and recalled his reasoning; he needed to give her space. Sheldon had begun to realize that his feelings for Penny were less than platonic, and her admittance that her attentions earlier in the month had been a mistake weighed him down profoundly. He needed to leave Pasadena. Their relationship could not continue onwards in a healthy manner if he was too busy agonizing over what Penny thought and felt towards him. Sheldon needed to forget his growing desire and remember how to separate her from the part of his mind that wanted so desperately to investigate and understand the feelings she had inadvertently stirred within him.  She called it a mistake, so he needed to accept that.

 

“Here…” Penny passed him a small parcel, wrapped in gaudy green and gold paper. “It’s your Christmas present.” He accepted the present hesitantly and held it out as if it would explain itself to him.

 

“It’s just… don’t open it until Christmas morning, alright?” she implored him, smiling up at him sadly, the lower half of her face nearly covered by her ridiculously oversized scarf. Sheldon wanted to remind her that he did not actually celebrate Christmas, or any Christian chimera holiday, yet he held his tongue. Perhaps it was the ever-mounting anxiety of leaving Los Angeles, of leaving her that had him quietly accepting it and clutching the garishly papered package closely.

 

Penny didn’t follow him into the airport, and though it was bittersweet to lose her line of sight once the tinted glass doors shut, he was thankful she would not be standing somewhere behind him as he went through the security line. His mother had done that once, when he had first left Texas for London. Embarrassingly loitering around as he was submitted to the debasing security procedures, as she called over the small crowd of people to him. It made him shudder just to recall.

 

Sheldon was ensconced in a business class seat, alone in his row, but these were small comforts for him. He could hear someone in coach sneezing, likely forgoing covering their mouth, and it had Sheldon racing to pull a medical mask from his messenger bag to cover his mouth with. Eyes throughout the cabin latched onto the sight, and that was the type of reaction that had him typically attempting to avoid the practice. He hated germs, they were the ultimate nemesis of his neurosis, but he absolutely loathed being gawked at. It was why he was generally averse to maintaining eye contact. It was discomforting, the feeling of being pinned by someone’s gaze, like you were a specimen being studied.

 

The plane was taking off, rocketing down the runway at an ungodly speed and Sheldon could feel himself lagging behind the pull.  It was all happening so fast, when had they gone through the safety instructional? Shouldn’t they go through the procedure again? Sheldon gripped his knees anxiously, eyes darting from the back of the seat in front of him to the open window at his side. He closed the sunshade sharply; he could not handle seeing the earth disappearing below them. Sheldon felt the urge to stand up, to run. Flying was not natural, he wanted to get off the plane!

He could stop everything with a few well-crafted words or shouts, land the plane and run back to Los Robles and beg Penny to make him a cup of tea and sing Soft Kitty because, Lord, he felt sick. He hadn’t decided to make this pilgrimage out of the goodness of his heart, nor for his mother’s benefit, and he certainly hadn’t done it for Penny. She hadn’t at all indicated she wanted him to leave, but he was still suffering under the weight of his own shame. Shame that he’d allowed Penny to see him so degraded and unwell, and he loathed to imagine what she thought of him now. What kind of a freak can’t simply enjoy the embrace of a woman he even finds particularly attractive? Instead, he’d flung her away like she was radioactive. 

Sheldon wished he had heeded Meemaw’s advice and invited Penny to come with him to Galveston, or better yet, not decided to go in the first place. If she had come along for the journey, she could be sitting next to him in the empty seat, soothing him with her banal chatter and soft smiles. She was so wonderful at manipulating his moods, at allowing him to breathe. What he wouldn’t give to be laid up in bed ill, then he could beg her not to leave his side. He could recall with the utmost clarity the feel of Penny’s hand slowly rubbing over his chest, the nostalgic scent of menthol easing his sinuses as the Vick’s Vapor rub did absolutely nothing medically necessary for the alleviation of a cold. The image, however old and intangible, was a perfect balm to soothe his welling hysteria. Sheldon pulled forth every memory he could muster of Penny caring for him as they zipped from Los Angeles to Houston, 37 thousand feet above the ground. He felt his eyelids dip, then close with a heavy and uncomfortable weariness that shouldn’t be possible since he’d only been awake for three hours. 

 

The weary stewardess woke him from his unintentional nap when they landed in Houston. As his groggy mind separated his coping strategy from reality, he flinched away from the woman’s hand.

 

“We’ve landed, you need to depart now.” Her tone was curt and tired, she’d likely been trying to wake him for some time. As he struggled to get out of his seat and retrieve his belongings, he found that her claim was accurate; there were no people on the airplane other than himself and the cabin crew moving about, picking up refuse left behind by the other passengers. Sheldon clutched Penny’s present to his chest like a security blanket, exiting the plane and moving out of the maze-like airport in a daze. He hadn’t seen this airport in years, but it all looked the same.

 

Outside the airport, the air was balmy and warmer than Southern California, and the air had a stagnant feel to it. Another noted difference was the folks walking about with open carry holsters, waiting for their family members to come striding out of the baggage claim. Texas, Sheldon thought ruefully, unzipping his insulated coat. 

 

His brother’s truck waiting by the curb in a no parking zone was the same, too. Same rusted orange-looking thing, tattered Rebel flag waving in the breeze from the antenna. George Jr. was sitting in the front chewing on something – likely tobacco if he had ended up anything like their father – and listening to top ten radio brainlessly. 

 

Without preamble, Sheldon opened the passenger door and slid in, awkwardly holding his messenger bag as he struggled to place his suitcase between his legs and the dashboard.

 

“Ey, brother! Want me to put that in the back?” George Jr. chuckled around the tobacco he’d been masticating, pointing a thumb to the bed of the truck that was visible through the sticker riddled back window. Sheldon sneered at his older brother as he wrestled the luggage in, then slammed the door closed. The truck bed looked muddy, and there was garbage littered all over.

 

No. When was the last time you cleaned this death trap you call a pick-up?”

 

“Easy now, Einstein,” George Jr. snickered as he started the truck moving forward, forgoing his seatbelt.

 

“Really, Junior? You’re forty years old and yet you still feel it appropriate to call me Einstein as if that is the only scientist that ever lived; therefore I shouldn’t escape the comparison.” Sheldon detested that nickname; his father had come up with it and George Jr. loved to copy his every move. It was always said in such a way to mock his intelligence, as if having an above average I.Q. meant he was somehow less of a man.

 

George Jr. didn’t reply, as he swerved onto the highway and pointed them in the direction of Galveston. The closer they drove, the less Sheldon understood why he had agreed with his Meemaw to come to this god-forsaken hellhole. He hated Texas.

 

“Hey, look at this,” his brother said, spitting his chewing tobacco in his hand. Sheldon recoiled at the brackish, soggy thing, nearly being overcome by the need to vomit. “Look, they started putting it in a little tea bag thing, all nice and neat like. Less messy.” 

 

“Put that disgusting thing back in your mouth and keep your eyes on the highway, Junior!” Sheldon urged angrily. His brother sat back with a frown, then had to maneuver the truck around someone he hadn’t seen changing lanes, as he’d been tossing his tobacco out the window instead of back inside his likely cancer-riddled mouth. Sheldon was pushed to one side of his seat, and then against the passenger door, all the while thinking that he was for certain going to die. That thought was apparently evident on his face, for his brother took notice.

 

“Je-sus Christ, you’re still such a pussy, Shelly. Lighten up,” George Jr. griped. He turned the radio up, removing any chance Sheldon could have to respond.

 

The forty-minute drive from the Houston airport to their mother’s home in Galveston was tense and awkward. Sheldon sat quietly as George Jr. prattled about his kids, griped about his ex-wife, and nosily chewed another thing of tobacco.

 

It was a relief when they finally reached the familiar gravel road leading down to his mother’s property, the edge of which was marked by a wooden fence and bushes of Texas sage, wisteria covering the open gate. They pulled up through the gate and into the dusty drive, and as soon as the truck was stopped, Sheldon got out of the passenger seat. Pushed by the weight of his suitcase, he stumbled out onto the clay soil and nearly collided with a fanciful metal statue of Elvis holding a microphone. As he looked around the familiar property, he was greeted with many similar statues, and it occurred to Sheldon a bit surreally that his mother was clearly getting older. Were not lawn ornaments a sign of old age? 

 

Inside the old house, he was bombarded by the smell of tomato soup – from a can, no doubt – and cheese sandwiches grilling in Crisco. Sheldon left his bags in the living room and entered the kitchen, seeing his twin sister and mother for the first time in a very long time.

 

“Sheldon!” Missy called to him, excitedly getting out of her seat. “You’re finally here!” She came over to him and patted him on the shoulder, carefully keeping her hand on his jacket.

 

Finally!” his mother Mary intoned with annoyance from over the stove. She had no less than ten grilled cheeses stacked on a plate next to the cooktop and yet she was still making more. Ah yes, the excesses of southern hospitality.  “It about took you three hours to get here! I thought Meemaw said you’d be here before lunch but here it is, already lunch and I’m sweatin’ like a pig making it.”

 

The mental picture his mother concocted was the exact opposite of appetizing. Sheldon sanitized his hands at the kitchen sink then took a mug of soup from the counter and settled himself down, resolved against the grilled cheese.

 

“Good to see you too, mother,” he greeted her properly then, taking a sip from the very cup he once used daily. The little sheriff bears decorating the porcelain made him feel vaguely wistful.  “And where is Meemaw?” he inquired.

 

“Oh, you know her, busy with her knitting group and all that, but she said she’ll come by tomorrow! I have you set up in your old room, by the way.” Sheldon began to protest this, but his brother entered and grabbed a grilled cheese, heedless of his dirty hands.

 

“Think it’s cushy enough for him?” George Jr. chuckled, taking a massive bite of his sandwich. Mary Cooper heaved a great sigh at that and turned to speak with her eldest son.

 

“It better be good enough for him. When Meemaw said he was wanting to stay at a Holiday-Inn tweny miles away, well, I about peed myself laughing. Who’d drive over there to get him?” She then turned her ire on Sheldon. “Shelly, you’d’ve been eatin’ a continental breakfast on Christmas mornin’, watching the whores all slink home, the devils. Those places are rife with drugs and sin.”

 

“Mama!” Missy exclaimed, setting her cup of soup down harshly.

 

“Yes, mother, why must you always be so bleak? You consistently seem to focus on the fire and brimstone aspect of your religion. Why do you not proselytize to these wayward women and show them, ehem, ‘God’s Grace’?” Sheldon asked, pointing with amusement to a cross-stitch saying exactly that above the doorway to the kitchen.

 

“Prosel-what? Oh, don’t you start with me, Shelly! It’s probably that post-partum depression, you gave it to me you know! Had it since the day you were born,” she claimed boldly as she went back to flipping grilled cheese in the skillet. 

 

“Mother, Missy was also born that day,” he reminded her, narrowing his eyes.

 

“Yes, but no one could say she did it if they knew you. Missy is and has always been my little angel,” Mary cooed, scooping up two grilled sandwiches and depositing them on Missy’s empty plate.

 

“Regardless, I feel I should be placed in the guest room,” he alerted her, standing and abandoning his soup. “I’ll go take my things upstairs and unpack. The bed linens I brought from home should only fit the guest bed, nonetheless.” Sheldon then turned to leave the kitchen, gathering his things from the living room.

 

"Retard," his brother called almost fondly from the kitchen, chuckling like mad when Missy reprimanded him quietly. The word had Sheldon stilling in the living room, settling heavily into the armchair by the door.

 

He had crowed on many occasions that he had been tested, but he'd never admitted to anyone the results of said tests. 

 

As a child, he had suffered from issues a plenty. He was non-verbal for quite a few years as he darted from kindergarten to second grade in a heartbeat. His mother feared the boogeyman that was autism and blamed the poisonous vaccines the doctors had seen fit to pump into his veins. 

 

Unscientific drivel, and if anyone had bothered to take a peek within the Cooper household, they could have easily found the source of young Sheldon's speechlessness.

 

His father was an angry drunk, and on the occasion of him being so intoxicated as to be unable to make it to his truck to escape his wife and children, he would take his grief out on said children with gusto. George Jr. escaped punishment by threatening to fight back, and he proved himself capable of it. Missy received a scratch from their father's school ring across her cheek so bad that their mother had made it clear to George if she laid another finger on their angel, he would be wifeless.

But Sheldon had not been spared. The only reprieve had been the long stretches he stayed in Houston when he was attending university there. The moment he stepped back within the walls of his mother's home, his father beat the Devil out of him. And Sheldon sobbed and sobbed, silently begging Mama to make it stop, but it always seemed like she quietly approved. If they couldn't pray away autism, then maybe a couple good beatings would set him straight.

His compulsions only seemed to increase, and he flinched from physical contact like a scared prey animal. He was 'particular' about his food, his clothing, the rituals that tucked him in at night and brought him forth from bed, and he irritated and confounded his relations with them daily. He once had screamed so loudly that the sheriff had been called by their neighbor, only for it to be found that his mother had been trying to force him into an unwashed set of pajamas. Their community was collectively mortified for the Cooper household when word had spread.

 

Once the diagnoses of Obsessive Compulsive came back, his mother ceased searching for answers. It would have been far too traumatizing for their rural family to have a son with autism. Lucky for his mother that now she could claim her son was an eccentric genius, not a tortured boy on the spectrum. Their community would have delighted in infantilizing him for it, so at least he was spared that. It was a revelation that their son was merely OCD, merely constantly fearful and obsessively ruminating on the jeopardy his mortal existence was. He didn't go places any longer. Sheldon could only stomach slinking into his college courses late, for they were necessary to his degree and the promise of leaving Texas, yet his mother forced him into the pew every Sunday. 

 

He tried to beg off, but she wouldn't hear him.

 

"Nonsense, Shelly! A little dirt never hurt nobody and no son of mine is missing church just because he's a little upset!"

 

An amusing statement, considering that his brother had ceased attending at age fifteen when he realized he could simply not return home on Saturday evenings, and their father never once set foot within the small Baptist parish. How could he possibly, when he was perpetually hungover on Sundays?

 

And yes, his mother delighted in telling people about her 'special' son.

 

"He's goin'to be an astronaut," she once falsely proclaimed to her Mary Kay group, the lot of them sitting around the kitchen table with makeup samples in their lax, manicured hands as they all gawped at the twelve-year-old college student. He was inaudibly crying as his mother continued blabbing about his manufactured future career path; they wouldn't stop watching him as he struggled to just shut the god damn cabinet door like a normal person. Instead, he was tapping the handle repetitively and wishing he were dead. 

 

He had to throw away his favorite pair of Tuesday socks simply because he'd stepped on a particular patch of carpet in the living room. The patch wasn't discolored from dirt or stained, simply sun faded from being in a particular relation to the west facing window. He knew that was the cause of the coloration issues, but the variance still upset him to no end. He avoided the patch of greyish carpet and begged his mother to replace the whole room's flooring, with other carpet or better yet, wood flooring. Tile was an acceptable alternative, but the grout - he'd found while researching flooring in preparation for his conversation - was terribly porous. Yes, they had to have wood flooring.

 

Then she'd been angry. So, so angry.

 

"How dare you, Shelly! This is my house, and how dare you come in here from the fancy college education we gave you and make remarks about my house like you're an Arabian sultan! This isn't your sand castle, Shelly, this is my house!  I'll change the carpet when I see fit, and there's nothing wrong with the one we got!" 

 

By gave him, she meant she'd helped him fill out the paperwork for his scholarship. Her racism had been a nice touch. Very sobering.

 

And she hadn't changed the carpet in all those years. He was staring, exactly at that moment, at the bleached spot on the carpet, wondering if it was truly God's grace - the boon his mother loved to boast of - that had her so resentful of him that she'd never repaired or re-carpeted. Every other room, save his childhood bedroom, had been updated. Even the living room was sporting new paint, new pillows on the cheap, uncomfortable sofa, new curtains to peer from behind as to gaze at the neighbors - but the rug stayed.

 

The idea that perhaps Sheldon received his petulance from his mother didn't sit right with the soup he’d just consumed. 

 

The arrival of his twin settled the painful bout of nostalgia he was suffering from, he could hear the soft pad of her socked feet as she made her way over to him. She too avoided the grey spot of carpet, but he knew it was merely for his benefit. Missy had been the only family member to ever even attempt conforming to his eccentricities, other than Meemaw. Sheldon was silently glad his Pop-Pop had never had to witness his little genius grandson having a breakdown over the purchasing of a wrong brand of toothpaste, or his clothing being cleaned in an incorrect order.  He respected the old man too much to make him witness it.

 

"Hey, you okay?" Missy asked, settling herself on the sofa. "Junior is an empty-headed idiot, don't listen to him." Her southern twang was softened by years of living in New Jersey. She lived there these days with her artist boyfriend, though Sheldon and Missy both took delight in knowing that she truly cohabited with her girlfriend. One messed up kid was enough for their mother. Her heart couldn't take another one.

 

"I rarely consider anything coming from Junior’s lips to be worth considering," he assured his twin blandly. Yes, retard rarely injured him like it used to, but the nostalgia of hearing it uttered within this house had made him cold.

 

The cold lingered as he bought his belongings up to the guestroom, passing by the weird shrine that was his boyhood bedroom. Everything was exactly as he left it twenty or so years ago, untouched and preserved like a museum of childish antiquity.

 

Sheldon pinched the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache coming on. He shouldn’t have come here.

Chapter Text

It was Christmas day, and what a day it was shaping up to be.

 

“Yes… yes, mom… well, I’m sorry, but I’ve been working.” Penny winced as she snuggled her aching body into the sofa, wearing her fuzzy holiday socks and holding a cup of hot chocolate. She had hoped her parents would be too busy to notice her call, and her intention had been to leave a cowardly voice mail, but here she was.

 

“Working on Christmas Eve? That’s insane, Penny, no one does that,” her mom ranted at her, the sound of her niece’s very poor piano playing coming from the background.

 

“Lots of people work during the holidays, mom. We had to shoot up until—” Again, her mother interrupted her.

 

“For that ‘action movie’…” Her mother’s thoughts on that were clear, but she, apparently, decided they needed to be stated again. “That just sounds like a big step down for you, Penny, weren’t you going to be on some romance show? And now all you’re doing is making some other actress look good.”

 

Penny’s grimace deepened at that; she had almost forgotten about that failure. “No, mom, you’re thinking of Romancing a Killer, and I didn’t end up doing that one. Plus, that was paying a lot less than this is.”

 

“Well, I thought you wanted to be on screen, famous and all that, not in the background.”

 

“I won’t be in the background, mom. I just won’t be a Reece Witherspoon or a Keira Knightly. It’s more like my rodeo days, and by the way, thanks for sending me that video. It helped a lot.”

 

“Pleased to hear it. When you asked, I hadn’t even been sure we still had all that junk, but it turned out your dad has some of it saved.” Her mom calling it ‘junk’ was a wound to Penny’s pride, but one she wasn’t really surprised by. Her mother had never really liked her daughter doing rodeo, it had been her dad Wyatt who had coached her and paid for the lessons and costumes.

 

“Really?” Penny tried not to sound like she was in disbelief, but she was. “Really?” She had become such a disappointment to her dad when she’d cast off her riding boots in favor of drama class. In favor of leaving them for greener pastures. It was a surprise to think he may not resent her anymore.

 

“Sure, Wyatt keeps some of your awards in his shop, too. Still talks about it all, yammering to his clients about you,” her mother said, not seeming to realize what an assurance she was gifting her daughter.

 

“Oh…” Penny felt herself choke, the knowledge that he still cared was a little overwhelming. “That’s…”

 

“Anyway hon, thanks for calling on Christmas, but, listen, I gotta go check on the turkey. Hope you’re having a good time with your friends. Love you!”

 

“Yeah, Merry Christma—” The phone call ended, leaving Penny alone with her emotions on her sofa. 

 

Penny sat the phone down, sniffled away her sentimentality, then went back to idly watching the Christmas movie marathon on TV. Her muscles ached dully as she sipped her hot cocoa. The past few weeks had been intense, to say the least. She’d been put through the wringer, that was for sure, and learned the hard way that stunt work wasn’t easy.

 

She’d gotten to set the first day only to be pushed into a bus and driven out into the middle of the Mojave Desert. Little tents with drinks were set up, and horse trailers were in a small semi-circle. Penny was then told that she would be doing some very high-risk stunts on the back of a 14-hand sleek mustang, one that gave her a prissy attitude immediately upon meeting her. The staging for the stunts was amazing, though. Everyone to their place, and then they would just… go. Like lightning.  And if something was off, or someone was too slow or fast, they’d do it all over again. They didn’t ask if Penny could hang off the back of the saddle by her ankles or jump from the horse to the passenger seat of a moving truck, they just expected she could. It was being thrust into the deep end of the pool without having tried swimming in years, but Penny was loving it. The amazing thing about working so hard was that she was learning she could do those things. Tricks she’d thought she’d forgotten, with bravery she’d thought she’d lost somewhere along the way.  For years she thought the slough had beaten it out of her, but it had merely been suppressed. She’d been hiding within herself, but she wasn’t hiding anymore. 

 

Shooting time was sparse and valuable. There was only so much good daylight out in the desert. They shot for days until they got everything the director needed, and Penny watched from behind the director’s monitor the incredible footage of herself and the other stunt crew. She was lithe, she was spry, and she looked really nothing like herself dressed in beige linen layers and a head wrap. The angles were perfectly highlighting her skill without exposing that she wasn’t an A-lister, and it didn’t bother her like it might other people. Acting hadn’t felt good, it hadn’t been rewarding. Maybe it was because Penny didn’t have the kind of skills that got rewarded, but maybe… maybe that was okay. She had these skills, and they were getting her places. This was rewarding. 

 

The muscle pain was annoying though, her body unaccustomed to the brutal pace of filming stunts. Penny had begged off going to her agency’s Christmas party and instead had chosen to be alone until they got back together for the big helicopter scene in February. It was a bit pathetic considering just last week she was literally jumping from one moving horse to another in basically a dress, but hey, she felt a bit pathetic now. Sheldon was gone, suffering his relatives in Texas rather than suffer her. It was saddening to realize that he would choose like that. She had quietly hoped they would spend Christmas together, even though she knew he hated holidays. Now it didn’t even feel worth fantasizing about. It was Christmas, she felt like garbage, what else could be said on it.

 

The buzzer surprised her, alerting her that someone was downstairs. Penny lifted herself off the sofa and hobbled over, her heels still a bit raw from the rub of the sandals she had been made to wear during filming. With hesitance, Penny pressed the intercom button.

 

“Who is it?” she asked into the microphone, hoping dreadfully that it wasn’t him.

 

“Hi, I’m from FedEx with a package for a Miss Queen,” the person said, their voice light and feminine. A breath Penny hadn’t realized was stuck in her lungs eased out finally; it wasn’t Leonard. She didn’t need to be nervous.

 

“Come up,” she offered, pressing the button so the delivery girl could be let in.

 

It took a while, considering most people weren’t used to having to walk up four flights of stairs, and Penny realized it might have been nicer of her to go down. She looked down at herself, wearing fluffy reindeer pajamas, and realized that it wouldn’t have been any better to go outside like this. Someone knocked on the door, so she answered it.

 

The delivery girl was dressed in her uniform, though she wore a festive Santa hat instead of the usual FedEx visor. Poor girl.

 

“Here’s your package, just need you to sign here,” she said, handing over the parcel and a clipboard. Penny signed it quickly, wondering silently about the contents. She hadn’t ordered anything.

 

“Merry Christmas, sorry you have to work on a holiday,” Penny offered to the girl. She felt for her, really. In past years she might have been pulling a shift at the Cheesecake Factory. Bills got paid when you neglected your social life, it was just a sad fact of being lower-income class.

 

The delivery girl nodded with a bit of rueful misery as she took the clipboard back. “Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too.”

 

After the door shut, Penny looked over the package for a name or return address, but only found a professional one. It was from some printing company. She took scissors to the box and opened it, letting a few smaller boxes and a letter slip out onto the floor. With a little difficulty, Penny reached down and got one of the boxes and slipped it open, revealing a stack of probably a hundred business cards in a matte black color. Embossed in the center in Penny’s favorite shade of lilac were her details.

 

Penny Queen, Stuntwoman. pennyqueenstunts.com. It made her gasp, who had done this? Did the agency do this, or…?

 

Penny then grabbed the envelope that had slipped out with the boxes of business cards and tore into it, fishing out a typed-up letter. Her eyes ate up the contents of the letter as they slowly filled with tears.

 

“Penny,

 

Pleasant tidings and Happy Holidays. As you are aware, I detest these events, but I do know how much you relish the merriment and gift giving. This year I have decided to forgo my typical Scroogery and send you an offering. A peace offering, if you will.

My hope is that you will hand these out to anyone you meet with pride, for you should feel proud of yourself. I am proud of you, Penny.

The website is in fact real. I currently own the domain, but it is yours in spirit. I will update it as your portfolio of work increases, and I hope you do not mind that I discreetly saved a copy of the video you showed me at the beginning of December. Websites are the hallmark of a true professional, as you are proving yourself to be.

 

I shall see you in January.

 

- Sheldon.”

 

“Oh god, Sheldon,” Penny was crying, wiping tears out of her eyes as she opened her laptop. The website was real, and it was really perfect. It made her look so qualified, so official. Scrolling through the photographs and video clips of herself from the stunt gigs she had already done, and the video Sheldon had apparently copied of hers, Penny was realizing a few surprising things.

 

Sheldon apparently respected her. 

 

“Penny Queen is a trick riding expert…” her bio read, and it made her gasp between ugly sobs and a watery smile. What had he once called her… a blonde monkey? And now she was an expert. It did things to her heart, things that couldn’t be ignored any longer. She really loved him, and it was becoming a struggle to pretend she could simply be his friend without being honest with him. She wondered as she scrolled through the long and glowing biography of her own life if Sheldon had liked his gift, or if he was even enjoying himself at all in Texas. Maybe it was good that he was gone, though. If he had given her a gift like this in person, she probably would have grabbed hold of him and kissed him. She would have blurted out all the dumb things she wanted to say but didn’t think he could handle.

 

Penny checked her phone, the desire to call Sheldon was there but it was weak and wavering.

 

Penny had plenty of texts and missed calls from people today, including Raj of all people, but Sheldon hadn’t called her, and she hadn’t called him. The evidence that their relationship was struggling like this made her want to break something. She placed her phone back onto the desk, screen down.

 

Penny counted the boxes of business cards as she finally picked them all up and found Sheldon had ordered her 500 of them. It was a little thrilling to think he believed she would need that many. Invested, Penny thought dazedly. He was invested in her career, in her. It made her feel guilty that she barely knew anything about his work. Science fiction and comic books were easy to slip into once you had the right guide, but science… it was so intimidating to someone who barely graduated high school.

Penny grabbed the remote and flipped the channel onto the PBS, just as a Nova documentary came back from commercial break.  She hadn’t been enjoying Elf anyway. She tried to settle in and listen, but the only thing she was learning was that she missed Sheldon. She wanted to see him, wanted to just be near him. What could she do but wait and hope things made sense by then? It seemed too long a time to wait, though. He wouldn’t return to California until the fourth of January, in a week and a half, and she wanted to see him now.

 

‘You have points…’ a little, mischievous voice reminded her.  Airline points from the credit card that she no longer used, racked up after years of spending. She had barely thought about the card now that all she was doing was paying it off, but… No, that was crazy.

 

Crazy.

 

But Penny was feeling a little crazy, and maybe it was sobriety that was making her a little manic whenever she was alone, but… She wanted to do this, and she had never been good at telling herself no. Penny picked up her cell phone and called the airport.

 

“Hello, I know this is last minute but are there any cancellations for any flights to Houston from Los Angeles anytime between tomorrow and the third?” she asked the operator. They asked her to hold, and it was then Penny decided that if there weren’t any, that it was the universe telling her she needed to get over herself. She was sure there wouldn’t be any seats, it was the holidays after all, but she had to try. If she couldn’t go get Sheldon from Texas now, then she never would. She would have to settle her feelings and try her hardest to let him go. Let them get back to normal.

 

“We have a few open seats on a direct flight from LAX to IAH on the first of January, it’s a 5:20 AM flight. Is that acceptable?”  the operator said, making the decision for her. She had to take that as a sign – Sheldon would laugh – that this was how it was supposed to be. She was supposed to be in Texas right now.

 

“Perfectly acceptable! I want to pay with my points,” Penny replied, much to the operator’s annoyance. Penny couldn’t care, her heart was beating too fast as she rattled off her information. She was leaving, in just a few days.

 

And she would accept the consequences.

 

 

-

 

 

It was morning. Early morning, when the light from the sun had yet to filter through the window in the guest bedroom. Sheldon was in that place between sleep and wakefulness that encouraged the mind to ramble, and he allowed it to, just this once as he clutched the sheets he’d brought home to his chin. He didn’t want to get up from his bed, to greet the damnable holiday, his family, and George Jr.’s spoiled progenies.

 

All he wanted was Penny.

 

His sleepy mind was provoking him with the memory of when Penny had returned home intoxicated. With the feelings and images of her hands running through his hair and the way she had backed him into the corner of the sofa haunting his sleepy mind. The anxiety he had fallen to that night had been intense, one of the worst episodes he’d experienced in quite a few years, but time had softened the memory. It was now pliable and almost… pleasant. He could replay the moment she had offered her body to him and not be utterly terrified, so he could luxuriate in her caress without worrying.

 

Were he not an unhinged man, and Penny not intoxicated, he could imagine that night having gone in a more agreeable direction.

 

At first, Sheldon attempted to bend the memory. Penny came into the apartment not in a dress meant for strangers, but in her pajamas as she very frequently did. Sheldon was not worried and angry with her, for they had never argued. They settled onto the sofa, and when she offered him the opportunity to touch her, he did so. Sheldon watched with a detached sort of uneasiness as the mental image shifted, pressing Penny to his body as he kissed her. It did nothing to please him, and if anything, it did the opposite. Holding her tightly, pushing her down, demanding her lips - it was wrong. It wasn’t the way Penny was meant to be handled, and neither could Sheldon ever truly imagine himself being that sort of man.

He had the kind of disposition as a child that had encouraged his father and brother to call him faggot, and as he grew up, he slowly packed that part of himself away. He wasn’t gay, but he was… Sheldon hesitated to even think on the word, but he truly was sensitive, rather passive if he were being frank. Before he had known better, Sheldon had been keen on affection from his grandparents and his mother, but with every disciplining and harsh word, he learned to hate emotional openness. To cringe away from it. Even on a good day, when his obsessions were not ruling him like a dictator, he still trembled at the prospect of having to shake hands with his colleagues or accidentally brush against someone’s shoulder on the street.

Penny hadn’t allowed him to be that way. Not around her. Her sitting in his spot on the sofa the first day the met was an excellent summation of their relationship. She was brash, pushing herself into his life and staying there happily. She never forced affection on him, though. She offered him hugs, she expressed her wish to touch him or be close to him. It was rare when she was overcome and did those things without asking him first, but usually… usually he enjoyed it then, too. The mere fact that she was so open and ready to give was the reason he was so drawn to her. It was common knowledge that he was robotic and standoffish, a persona that had been built up over time to protect himself, but Penny refused to act like that in turn. She was emotionally vulnerable for the both of them. 

 

Sheldon restarted his half-sleepy fantasies, this time deciding to allow them the honesty they deserved. Penny told him her feelings, but instead of play-acting what Sheldon imagined he should do in a romantic moment, he let what he wished to happen play out. He did not grasp her, or kiss her forcefully, no, Penny did those things to him. He was cowed back into the corner of the sofa, but this time he was indescribably pleased by the way Penny manhandled him and claimed him. She would embrace him, lead him, and he would bask in his own authentic passivity. 

 

If only that could be, Sheldon thought contritely as he groaned and turned over. The ghost of Penny’s voice reminded him that it had all simply been a mistake, and he didn’t want to torture himself with that thought any longer.

 

The sun was presently shining through the windows, and it was now time to rise lest someone else monopolize the hot water. His mother, and Missy if he were unlucky, would complain about him using it all, but he required a decent shower.

 

 

Later that morning, when George Jr.’s obnoxious spawns had been put down for a nap after the gifts had been exchanged, Sheldon was thinking about that fantasy again. Could he be the kind of person who could accept affection? No, he didn’t imagine so. It was too problematic to work out in his head, how he could overcome himself enough to allow it.

 

His Meemaw, wearing a ridiculously kitschy Christmas vest, was waving her hand for his attention. He put the fantasy to rest; it need not monopolize his mind.

 

“Moonpie, you have another gift, sweetheart,” she pointed to the green and gold package that Penny had sent with him. He had almost forgotten it, but there it sat, under the tree.

 

“Thank you, Meemaw.” Sheldon stood from his seat and gingerly picked the package up. The paper was tasteless, but the bow was… well, it was a gold Penny Blossom. Of course, Penny would repurpose them. He plucked the Penny Blossom from the packaging and affixed it to the cuff of his thermal shirt, determined to preserve it. The wrapping paper was opened without tearing it, and it revealed a small note and a white, innocuous box. 

 

“Merry Christmas, sweetie. I spent a while researching these, so I hope you like them. They had something like over 500 reviews on Amazon, and they’re antimicrobial and machine washable too. Maybe with these you won’t hurt your hands so much. With love - Penny.”

 

He opened the box with a curious scrunch of his brows to find a pair of thin looking, black all-weather gloves. Reverently, he pulled them from the box and slid them on his hands, the soft microfiber lining cushioning his perpetually dry skin. 

 

She had…  Penny researched his… Sheldon didn’t know what to think.

 

“Are those from that dear girl of yours?” Meemaw asked kindly, peering around his still frame to see the empty box and the gloves he now wore. “What a thoughtful gift.”

 

“Y-yes… What a thoughtful gift,” he replied in a wonderous stupor, a tad embarrassed as he tested the stretch of the fabric. The gloves were both comfortable and sturdy. Perfect for wearing out doors and cleaning regularly. Penny had seemed more worried for him than… than upset or repulsed.

 

Perhaps… 

 

George Jr.’s broods came back into the living room in a small whirlwind, looking for more presents from under the tree. Sheldon could no longer consider what the implication of Penny’s gift might be, other than that she was wonderfully thoughtful.

 

But he had already known that about her.

 

 

-

 

 

The door was mocking her. It was hanging open, showing her the contents of her unused bedroom, willing her to walk away. Penny didn’t have time to walk away though. It was New Year’s Eve, and she needed to pack. Leslie was expecting her at lunch so they could hang out. They were going to enjoy themselves all night with a bottle of sparkling cider and a viewing of Legally Blonde. Tomorrow, bright and early, Leslie was going to drive her to the airport so she could take her very spur of the moment trip to Texas. If Leslie had judged her for her frantic choice to go and see Sheldon, well, she wasn’t saying anything.

 

But Penny needed to pack.

 

“Come on, you’re going to get scared by this?” she asked herself aloud, letting the sound of her own stern voice steel herself. No, she wasn’t. There wasn’t room for fear in her home any longer.

 

Penny pushed the door open and stepped into her bedroom.

 

It was actually fairly anticlimactic, being in here. The rug had never been replaced, but the sheets had. Sheldon had actually replaced them with new ones during one of his frantic cleaning sessions, so now… Now she could almost pretend it wasn’t the same bed. It was also incredibly orderly in here. Nothing was on the floors, and her clothing was neatly folded and hanging up in the closet, a far cry from how it used to spill out into piles. Penny went over to the closet and grabbed her duffle bag from the higher shelf, happy that when she pulled it down it did not bring anything with it. Sheldon was really a genius organizer. Six months ago or more, Penny might have been weirded out by his shameless organization of her belongings, but the relief at having it all nice and neat and clean was far too calming. Sheldon could go through anything he wanted of hers if he left it looking like her closet did now.

 

Penny sat her duffle bag down and began shoving clothing into it, clothing that she hadn’t worn or even seen in a while. Her fears had been seriously screwing with her wardrobe, but she was hopeful that the part of her life where she ran away from her own bed was over.

 

It hadn’t been the bed that had violated her. The room hadn’t taken advantage of her. It was Leonard, and the sooner she could come to terms with that, the sooner she could forget about it and move on with her life. Sleep in her own bed. Wear her own clothing. 

 

Penny debated bringing along her worn cowboy boots. Was it tacky to wear them in Texas? She had once worn them with pride, a symbol that shouted ‘horse girl’ to the world, but she’d wanted to bury that part of her. Ashamed of how people had assumed that made her simple or basic. She was fine being basic, though, and so she slipped off her trainers and slid the dark leather boots on. They were so old and comfortable… the perfect fashion accessory for a badass stuntwoman. Penny was so glad she’d kept them instead of donating them to a thrift store.

 

She was eyeing the bed as she zipped her duffle bag up. Part of her was urging her to lie down and cry, cry about the things she’d lost there, but she was done with that.

 

Leonard didn’t deserve more of her tears. 

 

Her apartment was locked securely when she left, deadbolt too, which was such a new thing for Penny, but it was now her habit. A way to assure herself she was safe.

 

Penny pulled her phone out and called Leslie.

 

“Hey, I’m on my way over,” she said once Leslie picked up.

 

“Great. How about I order lunch while you’re on the way? Does Mexican sound good, or would you prefer a salad?” Leslie asked sarcastically, and Penny could almost see her friend’s snarky smile from over the phone.

 

Penny laughed. “When does it never not sound good? Get me, oh I dunno, like five burritos. I have burned so many calories this month and I wanna enjoy eating them all back.”

 

Leslie was laughing too, but what she said after was lost to Penny as she reached the glass doors that exited her apartment building. Leonard was standing outside, looking around like a god damn creep as he tried his key fob again with no luck.

 

“I have to go, Leslie,” Penny said tensely. She wasn’t going to run away this time, even though she wanted to. She wasn’t going to let her fear rule her.

 

“Everything ok?” Leslie asked, clearly concerned.

 

“Just fine,” Penny assured tightly, holding her duffle bag closer to her side. “See you soon.” With a sharp click, she ended the call and pocketed her phone.

 

Penny pushed through the doors, clipping Leonard in the shoulder with one of them, and stopped just before him. She could feel herself begin to shiver and panic as she looked at him for the first time since that night, but just seeing his face turned her stress into pure anger. He was rubbing his shoulder, about to look up at whoever had the gall to hit him and wouldn’t he be surprised when he did.

 

When Leonard did look up, he had to look up a little more. Her boots were giving her an inch or so over him. It felt good

 

“Penny?” Leonard said nervously, his face going white. “Hey…” he tried to greet her casually, with that pointlessly non-threatening smile that they both knew was completely phony.

 

“What the hell do you think you’re doing here?” she asked him through her tight jaw. “News flash, you don’t live here anymore.”

 

Leonard’s face dropped into a scowl, and his true feelings displayed openly.

 

“Says who? I’m still on the lease! I should be able to come here if I want to,” he claimed shamelessly, holding himself a little higher and taller. It didn’t make him taller than Penny, though. Penny knew he wasn’t on Sheldon’s lease; Leonard had never legally been on the lease to begin with. “I left important documents in the apartment that I need.”

 

“Bullshit!” Penny growled. “Sheldon sent you everything of yours! You need to stop coming here!” Her fury was building rapidly, burning from the base of her spine to her throat, and was almost choking her. Her fists were clenched tightly. “You’re lucky I haven’t called the cops on you!”

 

“With what evidence?” he asked smugly. “And what are you going to do, Penny? Make me leave?” Leonard was goading her, smiling in a sick little way.

 

Penny felt it happening before she realized it, her fist was flying for his hateful face. She felt the crunch of those stupid fucking black glasses under her knuckles, and the lenses gave way to let her strike him in the eye soundly. Leonard recoiled from the blow, stumbling backward against the metal railing of the shallow stairway as he dropped his keys. Penny pulled her fist away and brushed blood, some of hers and some of his, on her jeans, then looked up coldly. It hadn’t felt right, but it had felt real damn satisfying.

 

“You bitch!” Leonard yelled through his hands, the broken pieces of his glasses falling out of them and to the ground.

 

Penny snatched his keys and held them out before him.

 

“You can’t come back here! This is my home!” she shouted back at him, then threw the keys into a rain overflow drain near the bottom of the stairs. The keys clanked as they hit the grating and disappeared with a satisfying plunk into the water below. He was gaping at her, his swelling eye doing nothing to hide his absolute disbelief and ire. 

 

Penny turned and began to walk to her car.

 

“No! Those had my car keys!” Leonard grabbed her on the shoulder, but it was his mistake. Penny turned back and punched him again in the eye, sending him to his ass on the pavement. Her knuckles hurt so bad, but the throb was an assurance that Leonard hurt even worse. His eye was going to be so messed up, and it was the least he deserved.

 

“This is my home,” she told him again, a waver coloring her voice as the adrenaline gave way to emotion. “You don’t fucking belong here!”

 

It was only in the car to Leslie’s apartment that Penny allowed herself to cry. She wasn’t crying for the pain in her hand, or the fear at seeing him again, but for everything. It was all just… there, right next to her, sitting with her in the car like an unwanted hitchhiker. It was a burden, the drama, and she didn’t want to hold it any longer.  It was a therapeutic cry that carried her through the drive, one that felt like a conclusion. She had never felt so simultaneously weak and strong at the same time, so determined but so wrung out.

 

She was going to Texas. She was going to fess up to Sheldon, and she was going to deal with whatever came with that. She had to; she couldn’t keep holding back. Her sanity couldn’t take it.

Chapter Text

New Year’s Morning, Pasadena

 

Howard had a headache, a splitting headache from too much champagne and worrying. Instead of watching the ball drop on TV with his mom like he usually did, he and Raj had hesitantly joined Leonard in some holiday bar hopping. Both of them were gradually becoming wary of Leonard’s behavior, but it was so hard to cut someone out of your life completely. Burning bridges may be easy for some people, but for nerdy losers like them it was a constant struggle to maintain the friendships they did have.  They hadn’t decided if Leonard was worth it or not, though his current behavior was casting him clearly as someone they didn’t want to be around. He also was sporting a rather suspicious looking purple bruise on his face under his new glasses, one that looked like he’d been socked in eye pretty good.

 

Now how could he have gotten that? Howard wondered. 

 

Leonard had been weird and obnoxious all throughout their bar hop, and he’d even gotten them kicked out of one place just seconds from midnight for his wayward hand’s transgressions.  Now they were all drinking cups of joe and sitting idly in a café the morning after, awkwardly watching Leonard attempt to flirt with the staff.

 

“That’s a lovely necklace,” Leonard offered up to the barista, eyes flicking between her face and her cleavage. It was a line Howard might have pulled in the past, and in theory it was a real knock-out. It usually gave you a full thirty seconds of the girl chattering about her jewelry to be allowed open staring access, but now it just made him physically ill. Had he ever actually been that obviously desperate? Openly gawping over waitresses and baristas like the world was a freaking woman-zoo?  Leonard was, and for Howard it felt like staring in a very uncomfortable mirror. If that’s what he looked like when he flirted, then he had to stop, because Leonard looked like a real schlep.

 

“Look!” Leonard whispered to him and Raj as the barista was finally able to walk away. Leonard pointed to his coffee cup with a triumphant grin. A string of familiar numbers was written out on the paper in marker. “She gave me her number.”

 

Howard shook his head, tossing his hair from his face.

 

“Eh, that’s not her real number. It’s a call-line, one of those “You’ve reached the shithead hotline” type things.” And wasn’t it just pathetic that he knew from experience? Hell, he’d practically memorized that number. Howard had always cursed the women who slipped him fake numbers, how dare they lead him on, but now he was starting to understand. Politeness seemed to be an effective defensive strategy. If he were a woman – and god if that wasn’t a frightening thought to have over coffee with your bros – he would have given Leonard a fake number too. 

 

Howard was starting to believe he didn’t deserve his mother’s brisket any longer.

 

The barista came back to their table and placed a warm plate of cookies down in front of Leonard. Leonard couldn’t even eat them, they were loaded with dairy, but he’d ordered them just to make conversation with the girl.

 

“Hey, is this a fake number?”  Leonard motioned to his cup. The barista’s right eye twitched. As she hesitantly assured Leonard that it was indeed her real number, Raj leant over to Howard and began whispering in his ear.

 

“Howard, I think Leonard is actually not such a great guy,” his friend said quietly as they both watched the shitshow unfold before them. Leonard was attempting to convince the girl to let him call her, right there in the café, to prove the validity of the number.

 

“Yeah, what gave it away?” Howard responded cynically, tapping his coffee stirrer against the lid of his cup. Now the poor barista was trying to explain that her phone was off because she was at work, and that if he called it wouldn’t go through. Poor, poor girl.

 

“No, I mean, I meant to tell you last night – when I had Christmas dinner with Priya, she told me she saw Leonard in court a while back.” Raj paused, letting the information sink in. Leonard was now trying to cajole the woman into giving him her email instead.

 

“What? Why?” Howard asked quietly. What the hell would Leonard be doing in court?

 

“Priya said she looked into it and found he was in a protective order hearing, and he was the one being served,” Raj admitted. Howard paled, then turned to his friend fully.

 

“Protective order? Isn’t that… isn’t that a restraining order?” Howard whispered frantically. “And what happened?”

 

“It was approved, man, meaning the judge believed he was actually a possible danger to the claimant.”

 

“Do you think…” Howard gulped, slowly reaching for his hoodie. “Do you think it was Melissa, that girl he was dating from before? Leslie Winkle seemed convinced that she left the state because of Leonard.”

 

“I’m not sure, my sister wasn’t privy to that information. I was worried it was Penny for a second because, Howard, I’ve texted her dozens of times and she only sent one reply,” Raj admitted, pulling his phone out of his pocket and turning it on. “Look.”

 

Raj pointed to the text chat, and Howard could see that Raj had indeed peppered Penny’s phone with many texts. A single reply sat at the bottom of the screen, the curtness speaking volumes.

 

“Don’t message me if you’re still hanging with L. I can’t trust being around him,” the message read.

 

“Shit…” Howard ran his fingers through his hair once, then twice, nervously looking between his Raj and a distracted Leonard.

 

“Yeah, dude, I dunno. I don’t think we should…” Raj motioned to Leonard. Howard nodded in understanding, getting up from his seat and zipping up his hoodie.

 

“Actually yeah, I agree. Let’s go. Thank god I came with you in your car,” Howard whispered to Raj as they snuck away from the table. 

 

In the car they discussed what they should do, how they should go about distancing themselves from their once close friend. They bandied about the idea of telling him off, but neither of them were the kind of people who particularly enjoyed or excelled at confrontation. Instead, they decided upon slowly disconnecting. Cancelling plans, eating lunch elsewhere. Eventually, they hoped, Leonard would get the point.

 

 

Back at the café, Leonard was looking around in confusion. His friends were gone, their jackets missing.

 

“Guys?” he called awkwardly, looking around the café. Why had they left? Idiots.

 

Leonard shoved a cookie into his mouth petulantly then felt nausea well up inside him. Too late, he realized the cookie had the distinct smell of shit. As he gagged, the barista behind the counter frowned to herself while she fixed someone’s latte.

 

It seemed no one had the patience to put up with Leonard any longer.

 

 

-

 

 

New Year’s Morning brought Sheldon downstairs and into his mother’s kitchen. The call of toaster waffles was strong, especially after having to suffer through the loudness of the previous evening. Galveston locals loved their fireworks, usually illegally obtained and devastatingly dangerous, especially with how they typically handled them whilst intoxicated.

Missy was likely to sleep until Meemaw and George Jr. arrived later for the insufferable ‘brunch’ his mother had concocted. Brunch, Sheldon scoffed to himself, as if people needed more ways to convolute mealtimes. His mother knew he would not deign to wait until 10:30 for a decent meal, so she had been convinced to prepare something a little earlier for him.

The waffles were sitting on a paper plate, waiting for him with a glass of orange juice when he descended the rickety stairs. His mother did not do much in the way of greeting, just a comment about him being fully dressed as she was bent over the sink and washing dishes by hand. He hated that she still did that. She didn’t even use a dishwasher at all. It just felt… so unsanitary to simply wash them in the basin with warm water and soap.

 

The paper plates were Sheldon’s, something that irked his mother to no end, but they were his way of attempting a middle ground with her. Mary Cooper would not change her habits, and neither would Sheldon. 

 

The small TV his father had placed on top of the refrigerator was still there to this day, rabbit ear antenna and all, and his mother loved to keep it on at all hours for no particular reason. The news was blaring at an obnoxious volume, exploiting the doom and gloom of the world at large for their captive audiences all over America. It was an unsettling soundtrack for his meal, but he could not allow it to deter him. He was hungry, after all. He tucked in, cutting equal pieces from his stack of waffles and pouring just enough imitation maple syrup for each bite.

 

“We come to you live from Los Angeles, California with breaking news. A stunt and effects crew for the greatly anticipated blockbuster film Memento have been in an accident. Fuel from a helicopter used during filming was ignited due to improper handling that resulted in a small explosion and fire. Firefighters are being moved from the wildfires to help with the blaze as it moves through the studio lots. The members of the stunt and effects team have been gravely injured and were airlifted to the hospital just moments ago… “

 

Sheldon froze, his fork falling from his slack fingers as he watched the screen. Overhead footage of a Hollywood lot burning steadily, silently stoking his already very present fears. Sheldon shot up from the stool and rooted around in his pocket for his phone. When he located it, he hastily hit 1 on his speed-dial and waited for Penny to answer.  It rang once, but instead of her cheerful voice he was sent to her voicemail directly.

 

“Hey, this is Penny’s phone! I’m not here right now…”

 

Sheldon whimpered, hung up then dialed again. Again, it went straight to voicemail. Dread was welling up inside of him, and he couldn’t stop it. He’d known something like this would happen, he knew Penny wasn’t safe! Dangling from helicopters, who even did that anymore? Why had she taken that job?

 

Lord please, he prayed ineffectually. He called her again, but similarly he could not reach her. He turned and ran upstairs to the guest bedroom, heedless of his mother’s worried inquiries, and began throwing his belongings haphazardly into his suitcase. He heard his mother follow him up, but he couldn’t care. He had to pack and get on a plane to Los Angeles as fast as possible!

 

“Shelly, what in the Devil’s gotten into you?” Mary Cooper asked, brows creased as she wiped her hands on her apron. “Your waffles are gonna to get soggy, and I thought you hated that.”

 

Sheldon spared not a second to answer her, instead pulling on his thin, insulated jacket and treasured gloves. It pained Sheldon to slide them on his hands, thinking that Penny may never know how much he appreciated the gesture of her gift, or how much he cared for her.

 

He slipped his shoes on and grabbed his suitcase, pulling it past his mother and down the stairs.

 

“Shelly, where are you going?” she called after him. “Meemaw is coming for brunch and you’re heading out the door, God help me!”

 

“I cannot spare a moment to explain!” he replied, voice breathy and panicked as he dragged his suitcase out the front door and down the stone pathway that lead from his mother’s farmhouse to the property line. His phone was already in his hand, and he’d already sent for an Uber. The screen door squealed as it closed slowly, then again as his mother raced after him.

 

“Shelly, stop! It’s New Year’s Day and you’re just gonna leave?”

 

He couldn’t heed his mother; he had no time to waste. Penny could be injured and alone in the hospital, and he needed to be there. He could almost picture her, lying in a white bed surrounded by beeping medical equipment and nurses, body bruised or burned.  Was he not listed as Penny’s emergency contact as she was for him? Why hadn’t the hospital called him? He couldn’t stop thinking about the multitude of things that could have gone wrong. Good god, he should have never left Pasadena. Why had he left?

 

Sheldon reached the gate separating his mother’s property from the dirt road that lead into town, but it pushed open without his assistance. Meemaw came through, ducking under the long tendrils of wisteria and smiling kindly, her arms laden with her homemade breakfast quiche that she’d likely brought for the insufferable brunch.

 

“Why, Moonpie, out to meet me? What a gentleman,” she tittered fondly. Sheldon made to move past her, and it saddened him to realize he wouldn’t get to spend time with her as he wished.

 

“I apologize, Meemaw, but I have to leave,” he said grimly, stopping only to hold the gate open for her. Meemaw turned back to the road and gestured towards the property to someone who followed behind her.

 

“Nonsense, Moonpie. Look who I found wandering around, won’t you be so glad,” her old eyes glittered as she stepped aside.

 

Penny, a small duffle bag slung over her shoulder, trailed behind his Meemaw, her expression nervous but wonderfully uninjured looking. She looked up to him then smiled slowly. Sheldon gawked at her, his stricken face twitching as he tried to comprehend what was happening. Penny was here, in Galveston, not in Los Angeles. Not in a hospital.

 

“Hey, sweetie!” Penny greeted, then at taking in his frenzied appearance, her smile dropped. “What’s wrong? What’s with the suitcase?”

 

“Penny?” Sheldon asked with incredulity, eyes blinking rapidly. It felt as if she may disappear with the closure of his eyelids, but she didn’t. She was still standing before him, wearing a faded plaid button up and looking perfectly at home standing amongst the red soil and whimsical metal lawn ornaments.  Without thought, he gripped her shoulders, then her stunned and bemused face, holding her cheeks between his gloved hands. “Penny?” he asked again, voice an erratic near-whisper.

 

“Sheldon, you’re freaking me out a little bit,” Penny chuckled awkwardly. Sheldon let out a pained wheeze then folded her into his arms, crushing her face into the quilted material of his jacket.

 

“Are you okay? Penny, are you physically alright?” he questioned, careless of the fact that she could hardly answer him as she was, all smushed within his embrace. Sheldon released her but kept his gloved hands on her as he checked her for injury. Logically, Sheldon knew Penny must be fine, she was here wasn’t she? But the desperation to assure himself was overwhelming. “Penny, please, how are you physically? Have you sustained any injuries? Have you been to the hospital recently?”

 

“Sheldon, I’m fine!” Penny assured, grinning up at him. “Not that I’m not enjoying this unexpected closeness, sweetie, but what’s the matter?”

 

“It was on the news; there was an error made on the set of a film called Memento. A helicopter’s fuel was compromised and led to an explosion, people on set were injured. I thought…” his voice wavered, and belatedly Sheldon realized he had been caressing Penny’s face with his thumbs.  He dropped his hands to his sides like dead weight, and his skin tingled under the microfiber material of his gloves. He’d never touched anyone like that before, that urgently and carelessly.

 

Then again, he’d never known anyone like Penny.

 

“Oh god, sweetie, that’s horrible! Because of what I told you about the stunt I was doing, you thought I…? No, Memento is way above my paygrade, Sheldon, the movie I’m working on is fairly B class.” Penny paused, furrowing her brows as she looked back to his derelict suitcase. “What about the suitcase, though?”

 

“Penny, you cannot be serious,” he muttered fervently. Surely, she must know he would not simply let her suffer alone if something had indeed occurred.

 

“You were just going to fly back to California?” She sounded astonished, as if she didn’t believe Sheldon would drop everything to find her.

 

She was mistaken.

 

“Of course I would,” he scoffed, looking away from the intensity of her scrutinizing gaze. His Meemaw was still standing with them, holding her quiche and looking at the two of them with a satisfied sort of smile.

 

“I’m just going to take this up to the house and tell your mama that you lovebirds need some privacy,” Meemaw said fondly. “I’ll leave you two alone.” As his Meemaw walked up the path, a blush suffused Sheldon’s cheeks. He glanced back to Penny out of the corner of his eye and saw that she was still looking at him, her face similarly reddened.  Sometimes his Meemaw’s lack of subtlety astounded him.

 

They stood there together in the dusty driveway, quiet enough to make the sounds of the wind feel a bit loud and intrusive. The wisteria growing off the gate was trailing down, swaying in the breeze and brushing against the top of Penny’s head.

 

Safe, she was safe.

 

“Show me around the farm?” she requested, breaking the silence. He nodded, then began a trek slowly around the perimeter. He had so many things he wished to say to her, to ask her, but all he could do was guide her along the pathways of his youth, silently thankful for her good health.

Sheldon ended up taking her towards the back of the property, to a little meandering stream that cut through. A tree sat by the water’s edge, with a large knot in the center.

 

“I frequented this spot as a child,” Sheldon admitted. Penny dropped her bag to the clay soil, much to his chagrin, and took in the scenery. She looked every ounce a southern belle, in her cowboy boots and flannel shirt, and it was mildly disconcerting to realize that he found the look appealing. He’d never once cared for the cowgirl aesthetic that the girl’s in town favored and yet, he could see Penny in his mind’s eye looking radiant in a brimmed hat, hair braided and a pistol on her hip. Perhaps you could never stop being a Texan, not completely.

 

Penny wandered over to the tree, her hands tracing the knot in the wood.  He’d done much the same, when he was younger and much less neurotic. This had been his childhood sanctuary, a place to run to after the beating’s his father dealt. Sheldon wondered how his teenage self would feel if he knew, years later, he would come back to this place with a woman such as Penny in tow. Would young Sheldon be pleased, proud of himself? Or would he feel betrayed that he hadn’t stayed true to his promise to never come back to Galveston? Perhaps it was the inane whimsy of those thoughts that caused him to keep speaking.

 

“I came here to escape my father,” he confessed regretfully, watching as Penny’s fingers stopped their path on the bark of the old tree.

 

“God, Sheldon…” Penny sighed heavily, leaning against the tree. “I’m so sorry. I’m sorry for not being honest with you, and I’m so sorry I put a strain on our relationship by being disgusting and needy… I just.” She seemed to gulp, perhaps intimidated by whatever it was she wished to discuss. It didn’t bother Sheldon that she was taking her time. He would allow her all the time she needed, as long as she continued to be well, and within his presence.

 

Penny pressed on.

 

“You’re always coming to my rescue, saving me, but I’ve been such a drag on you. Don’t deny it, I know it’s true. I haven’t been a good enough friend to you, sweetie. And I’m way too dependent on you.”

 

“No, no Penny,” he found himself interrupting her. She had come all this way to him, and the relief from that gesture was unleashing a torrent from him. “You have been an excellent friend to me, and it seems you underestimate just how much I care for and admire you. I depend on you, Penny. You possess a sort of talent to weave social interactions expertly, and you do it with such strength and poise as to utterly baffle me. You have saved me, Penny. From taking over in my stead when I am too socially distant, to simply letting me have the space I need to breathe…”  His admittance was hurried and hushed, as if he couldn’t believe that he was actually vocalizing. He was, though, and Penny was hearing every word. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he knew she could hear him. “My dependence on you is absolute, Penny. Every day I was here in Texas was a day my entire being was rejecting the change of environment. Not only because I enjoy my schedule, and the creature comforts I have cultivated over the years, but because I very seriously dreaded not being able to see you and speak frankly with you.”

 

“You’re good to say that, sweetie but dependence…” Penny shivered, holding herself tightly. “Dependence isn’t healthy, Sheldon.”

 

“You may be right… however, I feel that this is different from say, an addiction. I am able to compensate for the loss of you in my life, I just… I just wish that I did not have to do so,” Sheldon explained gravely. “As to what you said in regard to the incident on the Second of December, I do not find you disgusting, far from it. You are the most physically appealing woman I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, I just…” he hesitated, ashamed. He felt every degrading word said about him deeply at that moment, retard, faggot, freak, robot. “I am just psychologically deficient…”  

 

“No!” Penny interrupted him with a shout, looking up at him and stepping closer. “Don’t you dare say that Sheldon, don’t you dare! You are the most intelligent, most wonderful man I know. God damn it, I’m in love you sweetie! You know that, right?” She was smiling dejectedly, and it felt like her eyes saw right through him to his nonexistent soul. “How could I not love you after all these years?”

 

Sheldon needed to swallow but couldn’t, he was faltering because somehow his body didn’t remember how to swallow. He remembered everything down to the last detail but right now, he couldn’t recall a time in which he had ever felt so submerged in joy and fear. Penny loved him… romantically?

 

“Penny…” he uttered softly, unsure of how to articulate himself. He was certain now, looking down at her, as her hair whipped about her face and her eyes seemed to gleam in the warm Texas sunlight, that he reciprocated her feelings. He loved Penny, but what was one to do with love? What was it useful for, other than feeling?  Sheldon was startled to realize he may have always loved Penny, because the feeling he was overcome with wasn’t just ardor. It was the culmination of years of emotional turmoil. Fear when she left the apartment in her unreliable car, anxiety when she went out with a strange man, dread when she’d spent time with Leonard, shame when she pointed out his personal failings, and pure, unadulterated bliss when she gave her time to him. When she made him spaghetti, when she called him Doctor Cooper, when she said he was her best friend. “I…” 

 

Penny shook her head, sighing in a resigned sort of way that had his heart aching.

 

“It’s alright, sweetie. You don’t need to say anything. I just wanted you to know how I feel.” Her voice was sweet, tinged with regret. Penny was giving him an out, but why? He didn’t want an out, he didn’t want her to think of him as an unreachable, unemotional person. He was emotional – an emotional catastrophe, but he had to show her he was available to her in some capacity.

 

“Penny… you are the most important person in my life. I would – and I say this without any ounce of irony – literally do anything within my power for you. If you had asked, I would have let you be financially dependent on me, I would have killed Leonard at your behest, I would have even willingly spent the rest of my life making Penny Blossoms in your apartment like an unpaid sweatshop worker. Not because I pity you, not because I feel you need my help, but because I also love you. It’s quite unnerving to realize this now, and I have had no time to ponder what I should exactly do about it, but it’s clear to me that something should be done. Perhaps we could write up some sort of document, work out the particulars over lunch…”  he was rambling, desperately wishing he could crawl out of his own skin and run away now that he’d admitted himself so fumblingly. Penny was staring at him, and he felt his face flush with mortification.

 

“Y-you do?” she asked breathlessly.

 

“Yes, obviously. I just said I did, did I not? I am not accustomed to repeating myself for your benefit, Penny.” Sheldon rolled his eyes, then coughed awkwardly, realizing belatedly how rude he sounded. “I ehm, I am also unaccustomed to exposing my feelings. I’m not entirely sure what we should do about our mutual… ardor.”

 

“Well, my first instinct is to kiss you and wrangle you to the ground,” Penny said, biting her bottom lip as she stared at his. Sheldon gulped, then stepped back. Just a few days ago on Christmas morning, he’d fantasized about Penny doing exactly that, but now that she was actually here, it was much too overwhelming.

 

“I am not particularly comfortable with that…” Sheldon admitted quietly. He thought perhaps, with time or patience on Penny’s part, he may be able to imagine physical intimacy with her. “Yet,” he amended. 

 

“Yet is good with me,” Penny assured him. “I haven’t jumped your bones in six years, I think I can keep waiting.” She was so good, too good for a freak like him, but he wanted her in any capacity he could handle.

 

Sheldon grasped her hands softly, feeling the barest hint of her fingers through the material of his gloves. The disconnect gave him courage. 

 

“I greatly appreciate your holiday gift to me, Penny,” he said, sliding his thumbs over her palms in an anxious sort of way. “I will likely remove them as soon as I can and thoroughly wash them. I am giving you this advanced warning as to assure you that is not due to you, but that you’ve just come from the airport.” He chuckled in his wheezy, awkward way as he traced the contours of her calloused yet elegant knuckles, mystified by their structure.  “You’re likely covered in microorganisms.”

 

Penny joined his laugh with a musical giggle of her own. “I would expect nothing less from you. I’m glad you like them, and I loved your gift.” She, in turn, grasped his hands and pulled him away from the tree.

 

Sheldon’s shoes were sinking a little into the clay soil as they walked, and it was fairly amusing for him to realize Penny’s choice of footwear was actually more practical than his, for a change.

 

“This is going to be hard, isn’t it?” Penny asked him as they walked up to the house. His brother’s truck was already pulled up, the doors left open like he was some sort of animal. 

 

“Yes… lunch with my family will be tiresome,” Sheldon agreed, dread rising into his throat.

 

“No,” Penny snorted. “I meant our relationship.”

 

“Ah… I predict it will be trying at times, but nowhere near as difficult to manage as this lunch shall be,” Sheldon replied with a regretful half smile.

 

Sheldon almost felt his shame renew as he allowed Penny to pull him inside his childhood home. Shame at the shabbiness and the clutter, but he recalled she too came from a background such as his. If his memory served him, she had grown up in a double wide, so he need not feel embarrassed by his mother’s own simple tastes.

 

His mother and the rest of his relations were a different matter. He could not help feeling ashamed of them.

 

“What’s this?” Was his mother’s way of greeting Penny. Her rudeness paired with the leer George Jr. was favoring Penny with was already setting the meal up for a calamity.

 

“Sorry to impose on you, Mrs. Cooper, I hope you don’t mind,” Penny replied, seating herself down at the table. She then patted the seat next to her and looked up at him with her big, forgiving green eyes. He did as she beckoned, and settled next to her, but the anxiety did not pass.

 

Brunch was going tolerably… if you considered stiff conversation and awkward glances tolerable. George Jr. kept finding lulls to bring up his ex-wife and how much of a witch she was, emphasis on the former nature of the relationship, and he had apparently brought a six back of Miller Lite with him to enjoy. His mother would not cease in rambling about her weekly bible study with a hard sort of look in her eye directed at Penny, even speaking over Missy to extol the virtues of her church. Penny seemed impervious, however, and volleyed the conversation back at them with a level-headedness that Sheldon didn’t even think possible.

 

Then Meemaw had brought up something that sent the meal in a downward spiral.

 

“So where will you be staying, dear?” Meemaw inquired nicely, as she passed a serving of quiche to Penny.

 

“Well she’s not stayin’ in my home, this is no house of sin,” Mary Cooper fixed Penny with an intense glare. Sheldon wanted to scream, why was his family like this? Penny’s only reaction was to blandly smile as she took a piece of quiche on her fork and sampled it.

 

“Delicious, thank you, uh… what should I call you?” she asked pleasantly to his Meemaw. Meemaw chuckled lightly and patted her on the shoulder.

 

“Oh please, call me Meemaw, dear. I heard all about you from my Moonpie, I feel as if I know you!” Meemaw then clucked her tongue at her daughter. “Penny can come stay with me if that’s alright with you.” Before his mother could reply, which was evidently going to be a negative response, Penny did so in her stead.

 

“Oh really? You’re such a sweetie, Meemaw. And I’ve heard a lot about you too.”

 

George Jr. leaned over the table towards Penny with an unctuous leer, holding his beer between two fingers carelessly.

 

“I haven’t heard nearly enough ‘bout you, Penny. How’s about you and I sneak off later and you tell me all about you. There’s a good little bar down the road that has a floor fit for those boots you wear to dance on.” His voice was a faintly slurred whisper, but Sheldon could hear him just fine. He didn’t know what to do, if anything, all he knew was that he hated his brother even more at that moment then he ever had.

 

“You better not be, Junior!” Missy exclaimed, having overheard his whispered invitation as well. “Penny is Sheldon’s girlfriend.” The admittance stunned everyone at the table, including Penny and Sheldon. They had, of course, acknowledged their feelings, but anything past that had yet to be discussed. Was Penny his girlfriend? Sheldon looked over at her, red-faced and hiding her embarrassment behind her glass of iced tea. No, likely not, especially after this dismal meal.

 

Excuse me? Sheldon Lee Cooper, we do not date in this household! Men of Godly intentions court their future brides, they do not date willy-nilly,” his mother scowled, brandishing her fork at him like a weapon. The irony was thick in that statement, considering her eldest had impregnated his girlfriend, gotten a shotgun wedding, then unceremoniously divorced her a few months after their twins had been born. No man in the Cooper family could claim Godliness as a virtue.

 

His mother then dropped her fork, as if she suddenly lost her appetite.

 

“I should’ve never let you go to California,” Mary added with derision. “Land of fruits and nuts, and now look at you, Shelly. A heathen.”

 

“Yeah I have a hard time believing that such a lovely gal like yourself is shacking up with my pussy brother,” George Jr. laughed, taking a swig from his bottle. Penny’s eyes seemed to bulge at that, and her shoulders tensed. With a flip of her hair, she turned away from his older brother, her entire body now facing Sheldon’s side.

 

“Well believe it, buster, because I am his girlfriend. I don’t know how y’all do it down south, but in Nebraska, we date who we want.” Then she stared down his mother like David against Goliath. “And I happen be dating your son, so deal with it, hell go ahead and pray about it if you want. At this point, I don’t care.”  A long sip from her glass punctuated her bold statement, and the table went dead silent. Sheldon was shaking in his chair, considering running upstairs and hiding; he really hated fights, especially at the table.

 

He was halfway to his childhood bedroom before he realized he had actually fled. Apparently old habits did die hard. Penny’s light footfalls followed him up the rickety staircase, and she found him awkwardly sitting on his childhood bed, breathing erratically and looking pained.

 

“Hey…” she moved over to him but allowed him space to breathe. “It’s okay, who cares what they say.”

 

“I don’t,” Sheldon claimed, gritting his teeth as he realized that he did indeed care. What a disastrous thing, emotional entanglements were. Just being inside this house was making him wish he were dead.

 

But Penny’s presence was like a grounding rod. All he needed was to gaze at her and he could pretend they were back in California. Slowly he calmed down, and once he did, Penny felt comfortable enough to walk around the small bedroom. She looked over his old science fair trophies and ribbons with a curious smile, then joined him on the bed, settling herself at the other end.

 

“So, did you ever… you know, free Willy in here?” Penny asked with a smirk.

 

“Pardon me?” he replied a little mystified. Free Willy? Was this slang he wasn’t aware of?

 

“Masturbate, Sheldon…” she elucidated, even motioning her hand for effect. Her impertinent grin was nothing like a parabola, an imperfect arching of her lips, but lord was she was charming. He felt his stress melt away, replaced by the pleasant buzz of exasperation that came from bantering with her. 

Sheldon pushed the door closed with his socked foot, wincing a little as he did so. He hadn’t been allowed to close the door of his bedroom when he lived here as a child, the effect of that rule leading to many unpleasant experiences. A drop in the bucket of complexes that his upbringing left him with, regretfully.

 

“Penny, lower your voice. My extremely evangelical mother is downstairs, as you know, and sound tends to travel in unexplainable ways within this house,” he uttered tensely, eye twitching slightly.

 

“So that’s a yes…” Penny sank back against the pillows, trailing a finger over the Batman bedspread. She sure was a sight, reclining on his childhood bed like one of his fantasies had deposited her here.

 

“Actually, I never did. I only lived here until I was fourteen,” he told her primly, picking at a loose string in the duvet cover.

 

“Fourteen? Why?” she replied curiously.

 

“That is the age I finished the undergraduate program at University of Houston. I was… eager to leave Texas, so I took a scholarship and studied for my master’s degree and first Ph.D. at Cambridge,” Sheldon recounted, his voice strained. “Then I studied in Germany, and I received my most recent degrees from Caltech. I never moved back to Texas in all those years.”

 

Penny was staring at him as if he’d grown a superfluous head for every degree he’d mentioned, and Sheldon looked away in shame. He’d done it again, accidentally boasted about his accomplishments. Was there any way to recount one’s academic history without sounding like an egotistical ignoramus? Perhaps it was simply his curse, to perpetually spit out facts with the air of absurdity. He knew how obnoxious he sounded.

 

From the corner of his vision, Sheldon watched as Penny settled herself on his pillows.

 

“It’s so cool you traveled around the world like that… perks of being a super-genius, I guess,” she mused, inadvertently sending a pang through his chest. She breathed deeply, then sat up slowly. “Hey, do you use the same laundry detergent as your mom? These sheets smell exactly like you.”

 

“Ehm, yes. I’ve found after three decades that her preferred brand is the only one that does not irritate my eyes,” Sheldon replied, eyebrow-raising as she picked up one of the pillows and smelled it with a dopey looking smile. “What does the scent smell like to you, Penny? Individual’s olfactory receptors can be quite unique.”

 

“Mmm, a bit spicy,” Penny giggled. “But it’s missing that aggressive clean smell from your antibacterial body wash.”

 

Sheldon smirked at this.

 

“I had no idea you found me particularly… pungent,” he huffed jovially. Penny tossed the pillow she was holding at him with a laugh. Her lightheartedness was infectious, so Sheldon raised the pillow and threw it back at her, hitting her softly in the face. “And at least I can confidently boast I don’t smell like a bottle of Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil. Good god, Penny.”

 

“Sheldon!” Penny was laughing with abandon as she threw the pillow back, then another. Sheldon caught each one she pitched his way as he continued.

 

“I always know when you’ve entered a room because I am suddenly assaulted by the odor of two dozen overly ripe coconuts!” Sheldon hadn’t realized he was smiling until it faded from his face, didn’t realize his voice had been louder than he intended; the bedroom door was pushed open.

 

Missy had her hand on the knob, looking irritated and tired.

 

“Listen, Mama wants you to know that she and us don’t need to hear about your smelling each other and all that, and…” Missy winced as Mary Cooper’s voice floated up from the kitchen shrilly.

 

“And tell them they better not have the door closed! I don’t care what that hussy does in Nebraska, but we don’t let the Devil in this house!”

 

“Yeah… an’ that.” Missy looked almost exactly like him at that moment, short of temper, eyes narrowed. “Sorry, Shelly,” she mouthed silently, then she turned and left them, shutting the door fully with a click. His twin was a blessing, albeit an abrasive one at times.

 

After a silent pause, Penny pulled one of the pillows to her chest and hugged it tightly.

 

“Your sister looks a lot like you, Sheldon,” Penny pointed out.

Sheldon glanced to a shelf above his bed, laden with even more awards for his scientific achievements. Amongst them was a photograph of himself and Missy, ten years old and both eager to have the Sears photoshoot be over with.

 

“Yes, I was just thinking that,” he agreed, feeling oddly sentimental.

 

“Lucky for you I’m not into women…” she grinned, laughing as his eyes widened cartoonishly.

 

Penny! You can’t say things like that in this house or my mother may rebuke you!” Sheldon replied, cheeks flushing and smile slowly reemerging. Sheldon didn’t believe he’d ever laughed this much in his childhood home until now but leave it to Penny to spread joy into the darkest corners of his life.

 

 

-

 

 

Evenings in Texas were fairly inimitable and rather uncomfortable for Sheldon. The heat gave way to a tense sort of chill, one that made you wish you were anywhere else, but the dratted humidity remained. It made you feel disgusting, like you needed to escape your own skin. 

 

What Penny had told him just an hour earlier also made him feel disgusted. Before Penny had walked down the lane with his Meemaw, she had told him quietly about Leonard. About Leonard coming to their home, inserting himself into their lives again despite the fact that he was obviously not welcome.

 

It was a small comfort to know that Penny had dealt him up some pain. He had assured her that he was fine with the information and that he was glad for her honesty, which he was. Truly. She was not hiding things from him any longer, and it did gladden him, but the low rumble of rage that had sprung within him would not abate simply because Penny was nearby.

 

Leonard.

 

Sheldon had grabbed his old, rarely used rifle and taken it into the yard in the night and settled Junior’s revolting Miller Lite bottles all along the property’s fence stiles. Sheldon was irritated with him too, so he’d chosen the bottles as a fitting stand-in.

 

He heard the creak of the screen door as it opened and closed, but he didn’t care to see who it was. Sheldon needed to blow off some steam before he did something absolutely abhorrent, something Penny – and the penal system - would likely not be able to forgive him for.

 

“Doin’ some southern recycling?”  Missy asked jovially as she came up to him, wincing as the rifle went off. The ping of the .30 slug sent glass shards flying, though thankfully they were far enough away that it wasn’t too much of a hazard to their persons.

 

“In a manner of speaking,” Sheldon replied as he loaded another shell into the chamber.

 

“Junior was a complete ass earlier,” Missy said, attempting to read his thoughts. “But I wouldn’t worry too much. Penny seems to be real smitten with you, Shelly. Her sniping back at him and Mama was real great. She’s a spitfire, that Penny.”

 

“I’m not particularly upset about Junior’s pitiful attempts at making himself a prospective partner for Penny…” He hesitated, then fired another satisfying shot at the next bottle in line along the top of the fence. Sheldon knew he probably shouldn’t confess both Penny and his secrets to his sister, but the information was itching to be let loose. He hadn’t spoken to anyone freely about what was happening in their lives, not even with Leslie when she pressed him to take the issue up the chain of command at Caltech.

 

“Penny was harassed at our apartment building by her ex-boyfriend, while I was languishing away here in Texas doing nothing but consuming oxygen and acting like an imbecile.” Again, he sent another bottle flying, punctuating his admission with the firing of the rifle. “I should have been there,” he gritted out.

 

“We could nab him and tie him to the railroad tracks if you want to, Shelly,” Missy offered conversationally, and it eased his tension a little to have her support so readily.

 

It was also an amusing image, Leonard tied down to the tracks like in an old-timey western. He found himself chuckling, albeit darkly.

 

“See, there you are. No need to get all intense and upset. Penny handled it okay, right?” Missy asked, and at his nod, she continued. “So, there’s nothing that could have been done better. I’m sorry to hear she’s having a hard time with an ex. I know how bad that can be.” And his sister did, which was a mollifying realization. Missy would know better than him in this regard.

 

“I just wish…” he faltered, setting the rifle aside. His anger had cooled, and now all Sheldon felt was uselessness. “I just wish I knew how to help Penny. How to make this easier on her. It seems that whichever tactic I try to employ, it simply elevates her anxiety. She does not want to be cared for monetarily, she does not want to be hovered over and worried about incessantly, and I’m sure she doesn’t want me to murder the man despite how much I wish I could. What am I to do?” he asked rather helplessly, looking up at the stars. The sky was so clear in the deep south, with such little light pollution. He could virtually make out the entirety of the Milky Way, something he hadn’t witnessed since his childhood.  The beauty of the universe, it was a bit breathtaking.

 

“Listen Shelly, speaking from experience, hovering and ‘fixing’ stuff doesn’t make situations like this better,” Missy explained, sitting on a nearby stump. “Your relationship is new right? So just be… real with her. Honest and supportive. Show her your weaknesses and let her show you hers, without immediately jumping on them an’ fixing them. You don’t think Penny’s broken, right?”

 

“No,” he assured his twin quickly. “No, of course I don’t.”

 

“So, don’t fix what’s not broken,” she replied optimistically, very aware of how sage her almost childish words of wisdom sounded. Sheldon found himself nodding silently. His sister’s words, although very cliché, struck a chord within him. Penny was not broken, and neither was he. Damaged, perhaps, by the uncaring barrage of troubles their lives had hailed on them throughout their existences, but nowhere near broken. He did not need to focus so singularly on her problems when she laid them at his feet, because that was never what she had been asking for. Penny only wanted him to be present, to acknowledge her struggles, and for the first time, Sheldon believed he could try to offer that kind of support.  It was also an enticing idea that, in turn, Penny would do the same for him. He hadn’t been supported by another person in a very long time.

 

“Should I leave you to your thoughts, Shelly?” Missy questioned him lightly, tilting her head to the side as she watched him think.

 

“No, we should return to the house,” Sheldon replied simply, taking the rifle in his hands. “I just need to return this to the shed.”

 

“Alright.” Missy fell into step with him. “I’ll go with you.”

Chapter Text

“What are those?” Penny asked suspiciously. They were sitting in the back of a very clean Uber, driving to the airport – or so Sheldon thought. Penny had a surprise for them when they got to Houston, one that would hopefully show Sheldon how much she cared for him.

 

Sheldon was shuffling through what looked like a hundred printed pages of something that looked weirdly official.

 

“It is the document I typed up last night as an overview for our relationship, I felt that…” 

 

“No,” Penny stopped him, holding a hand out. “Absolutely not. I seriously thought you were joking about that, Sheldon.”

 

“But Penny…” Sheldon protested with alarm. “How else shall we conduct our relationship in a sensible manner if we do not lay out the particulars?”

 

“Sensible? We don’t need documents or contracts for that, Sheldon. We can just tell each other our boundaries. You have like a perfect memory, honey. I’m not worried about either of us forgetting.”

 

Sheldon tucked the stack of papers into his messenger bag with a deep sigh. “If you feel it is unnecessary,” he mumbled as he cast his eyes down. Aw damn, she’d upset him. He had probably spent a lot of time on that.

 

“Well, what did you put in it? Let’s talk about it now,” Penny offered, then glanced up to the driver. The guy looked like he was trying to be polite, but she could see him glancing in the rear-view mirror. He was probably entertaining himself with the details of their private life.

 

“Actually, let’s talk about it on the tr… plane, okay?” she said, stumbling over her words a bit.

 

Again, Sheldon sighed. “Alright, if you wish. I will be preoccupied, in all likelihood, by the perilousness of the journey. I detest flying, you know.”

 

“Yes, I know,” Penny gave him a sympathetic smile. “But I think it will be different this time, sweetie.”

 

“Why? My experience with flying has been an observable phenomenon that does not alter. I loathe flying. It is the worst form of travel, second only to the public bus system.”

 

“And what is your favorite form of transportation?” she asked him, prodding him to continue. Penny felt her excitement building; they were almost there.

 

Sheldon rolled his eyes theatrically and scoffed. “Penny, you know this. I prefer traveling by train.”

 

The car came to a rolling stop, the tinted windows of the SUV giving nothing away. “We’re here,” the driver said, and Sheldon took out his cellphone to pay the man. Penny jumped out of the car and collected their bags from the trunk, bouncing on her heels as she waited for Sheldon to catch up.

 

Sheldon joined her, then started as he took in their surroundings with astonishment.

 

“Penny,” he murmured, eyes wide with confused wonder. “This is not the airport.”

 

“Yeah…” she grinned up at him, crinkling her nose with contentment. He looked so jumbled up; it was actually kind of adorable.

 

“This is the Amtrak Station…” he breathed, then he opened and closed his mouth a few times like a befuddled little fish. “Penny, we do not have train tickets.” He looked down at her finally, blinking. “Do we?”

 

Penny reached into her jacket pocket and pulled forth her phone, brandishing it for him to see. On screen was the proof that they did indeed have train tickets, from Houston to Los Angeles.

 

“B-but Penny, travel by train between Houston and Los Angeles will take more than a day's time, is that not too exhausting a trip for you?”  He was clutching his bag like he was on the edge of his seat, waiting for the punchline.

 

“No, look again, honey.” Penny pushed her phone closer to him. His eyes widened further as he read the details of the tickets, then a slow but blinding smile spread across his face.

 

“Bullet train? I had no idea they… this is…” His face right then was so worth the hassle Penny had to go through to covertly cancel his plane ticket home, and book them the tickets for the bullet train.

 

She was waiting for his mind to catch up, smirking as he glanced between her, the station behind them, and the proof of their tickets.

 

“Penny! You are so… so…” Sheldon uttered breathily. He lurched forward suddenly, and quickly kissed her on the forehead, spending no time to linger. It felt like a whisper of wind almost, but it was everything to Penny. In an instant Sheldon backed away from her, looking like he’d just seen her naked or something with how embarrassed he appeared. He was mumbling to himself too, red-faced as he searched his bag for his chapstick. 

 

Penny bit her lip as she watched him struggle and act all funny. It hadn’t felt like anything really, but she loved him for it.

 

“Sheldon…” she called to him slowly, startling him from his small panic. “We should go get our tickets printed and get through security.”

 

“Right,” he agreed stiffly, still appearing a bit perplexed and bashful. So cute, he couldn’t possibly be thirty-two, could he? He was acting like a shy schoolboy, and it was doing things to Penny.

 

She’d always imagined her ideal type of man as strong and abrasive, and sure Leonard had been a step away from that, but he didn’t count. Sheldon, though an intimidating force of natural genius, was such a lost little kitten at times, and honest to god she loved it. If she were being truthful with herself, she really enjoyed whenever he let her take care of him. It was like this unfightable instinct within her to baby him a little, and maybe she had it because that’s what she really wanted deep down. 

 

As they went through security, Sheldon babbling on about trains with impressive and overwhelming detail, Penny recalled her past boyfriends with a bit of frank hindsight. She had been with a slew of men who wanted to be the man with a capital M in the relationship, the provider and the leader, but that hadn’t ever ended well. Instead of feeling protected, she felt stifled, and the more they promised to take care of things, the less they followed through. So, while Sheldon was perfectly capable of being those things too, she loved the moments when he wasn’t. When he was just a bit needy – like when he was sick or asking for help with something outside of his broad scope - she always wanted to be the one to jump in and help him. Maybe it was a bit of an ego thing, being able to take care of someone as successful and intelligent as Doctor Sheldon Cooper, but it was also more than that. It was that Penny loved having something to give and having someone who so happily accepted it. 

 

Penny was practically giggling with happiness as Sheldon lagged behind her on the platform. He kept stopping to look at the trains entering and exiting the station, completely unaware of how he looked. Penny hadn’t seen him like this since they’d gone to Disneyland.

 

“Sheldon, come over here! Do you want to miss the bullet train when it comes?” she called to him. Her voice seemed to snap him out of his daze, and he hurried to her side, standing closer than she had thought he would be comfortable with.

 

“Penny…” he said to her, looking a bit self-conscious. “This was such a terribly thoughtful thing to do. Although I generally dislike surprises, I could not be displeased by the turn of events.” He anxiously grasped the strap of his messenger bag, pulling it over his shoulder a few times unnecessarily. “I love you.”

 

Penny felt like the platform had shifted out from under her feet, and maybe that she’d misheard him. She hadn’t, though, and he was waiting for her to respond.

 

“I… I love you too, sweetie,” she replied softly, befuddled. “For some reason, I didn’t think you would be so romantically… forthcoming.” Sheldon had never been comfortable with his emotional openness. When asked after by his friends, Sheldon had this tendency to describe his emotional status like an objective third party. The past few days, Penny had been wondering what would change now that they were in a relationship of sorts. Would they basically stay friends, with their romantic feelings hanging around in the corner with them all the time, or would he become more closed off as some men tended to? That was still something Penny feared. She’d lost too many boyfriends to the silence of emotional repression, and she couldn’t do it again.

 

“You know I do not shy away from sharing factual statements, especially when I feel they are relevant,” he explained, almost condescendingly if not for the way he was smirking down at her.  “And I find myself extremely pleased to be able to utter such words to you. Did you know that in a study done at the University of Arizona, the researchers found that expressions of affection and love lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and improve immune function? I consider this a great benefit to my health, Penny.”

 

Penny felt herself gaping. So, it was a fact that he loved her? Well, that was worth more than one hundred confessions from any other man. If Sheldon believed something was factual, then you bet your ass he would fight someone to the death over it. It was enough to give a girl a serious ego trip.

 

“Sheldon, you are so weird,” she commented, her voice full of admiration. 

 

Sheldon huffed at that, but his humor was still there, lurking behind his eyes. “I shall not comment on whether I am or am not weird, but if I am, it says a great deal more about you than it does myself.”

 

“What do you mean?” Penny chuckled, moving her duffle bag from one shoulder to the other. She would put it down, but Sheldon might lose his good mood.

 

“Well, you decided to fall in love with me of all things. Yet, you find me weird, a wackadoodle,” Sheldon intoned, glancing about the station as a passenger train on the other side was beginning to pull in.

 

“Sheldon,” Penny mock gasped. “Are you saying I’m crazy for wanting to date you?”

 

“Very astute Penny, that is exactly what I am implying,” he said seriously, a small quirk of his lips betraying his wit.

 

Sheldon!” she giggled riotously, garnering a few looks from other people waiting on the platform.

 

“Penny, please. Get a hold of yourself,” he chided her, his face twitching as he staved off laughing with her.

 

“Train inbound. Please stand away from the yellow line and wait to enter until the doors have fully opened,” a tinny voice cut through their repartee,  filling the open area of the platform. Sheldon’s face brightened as he looked over to the tracks, seeing a long and sleek train pull in slowly. It looked like something from a science fiction movie, honestly. 

 

“Penny, look!” Sheldon motioned to the train excitedly. “An Acela Class bullet train. I was not certain I would ever have reason to board one.”

 

“Are you ready, sweetie?” Penny asked indulgently, holding both their bags. The doors slid open before them, and people began to enter.

 

“Yes, quickly! We must go get good seats!” he hurried past her into the train. Penny followed after, chuckling to herself as she watched Sheldon inspect the seats, tables, everything. He seemed pleased, the train was almost brand new after all, so everything was in tip-top shape. Having flown with Sheldon before, she now was certain this had been a great idea regardless of how much the tickets had cost. Sheldon was calmly sitting down at a table, motioning her to join him, and it was exactly how Penny wanted to see him. Happy.

 

 

-

 

 

Penny was sitting across from him, asleep with her head resting against the window. It had been only six hours since they departed Houston, and they were nearly to Tucson. The trip was fairly long, even considering how they were hurtling along the rails at a brisk 170 miles-per-hour, but Sheldon could not particularly bother himself to fuss over the movement of the train or the proximity of other passengers. They would reach Los Angeles before nightfall, and nothing could compare to the intense and somehow soothing lull that came from the train rapidly speeding down the tracks.  There was no turbulence, no pressure within his ears, and no screaming children. Conversations amongst the other passengers were hushed, which was a boon, and Penny had drifted off after a very illuminating lunch.

 

They had sat together at the table, seats facing one another as they ate. The food was no culinary delight, but it was serviceable, and Penny’s presence was more the reason why it had been so enjoyable. After a few bites of her meal, Penny had surprisingly demanded to see his relationship documents, the ones she had been seemingly displeased by that morning. He had fished them out of his messenger bag with some hesitance, as he didn’t really relish the idea of being derided for his overzealous planning.

 

But Penny had surprised him. Sheldon should have already come to expect that from her, but years of experience with others still made it a shock when she was kind. Sheldon had even passed her a highlighter so she could mark the parts she disproved of. Instead of editing the documents, Penny poured through them and commented on every small detail he had included, beginning an open-minded discourse. One of trust and understanding.

 

“Physical intimacy shall be introduced in an incremental manner, in which both parties shall be gratified by the timing and intensity of the interactions,” she read. “Oh sweetie, that’s thoughtful, but I don’t want to pressure you to stick to a timetable for stuff like that. It happens in its own time; you’ll know when you want more. Trust me to see your boundaries and trust yourself to push them sometimes. Alright?”

 

“Gifts are to be given at appropriate times and occasions, such as birthdays, Yuletide, special events, etc. The total cost of present(s) shall be no more or less than 5% of the purchaser’s gross...’ Sheldon,” she grumbled. “This is too much micromanaging. Let’s just agree that we both earn different amounts of money and we should buy gifts that we can afford and that we think each other will like. Okay?”

 

“Timetable for relationship goalposts is as follows – the consideration of marriage within fifteen to twenty-six months. Marriage should follow an engagement by no more than twelve months but no less than three. Offspring: DNA sampling will be performed…” Penny rubbed her temples, looking up at him through the hair that had escaped her ponytail. “You can’t be serious, sweetie. Not only is this a little… soon to be talking about, but I would really like to be a part of the decision on if and when to have offspring.”

 

“If the occasion of Party A receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics, or Party B receiving a nomination for the Taurus Award for Stunt Acting shall occur, the other party should within reason attempt to shift focus on recipient party and…” She smiled. “Sheldon, if? You’re definitely going to get the Nobel Prize someday, and when you do, I will literally drop everything to be there. Seriously, sweetie, count on it.”

 

Their dialogue continued for hours as they drank complimentary tea and watched the southern countryside blur past them. Penny employed her thoughtfulness and was able to peer into the subtext of his business jargon that he hadn’t even realized he had imbued the documents with.

 

He was worried about displeasing her, but she had made it abundantly clear that he could not.

 

“Sheldon, I know you really like hammering out details for stuff, but you don’t need to worry about being caught off guard or anything. I will always try and communicate with you, and I want you to try as well. What I really want you to know, though, is that you don’t have to worry about sex or marriage or anything like that. I have no expectations of this relationship other than that I love you and I want to be with you, whatever that means. I want to… well, I want to introduce you as my boyfriend, and I want to go on real dates with you, but that doesn’t mean you need to start preparing for our relationship like it’s the apocalypse,” she explained, laughing. “Speaking of which, why didn’t we do our apocalypse drills this year? Are we doing them next year? I want to be prepared for when the zombie horde comes, Sheldon.” She’d said it with such mock determination that had him wheezing in laughter until the train car attendant had come over to ask them to quiet down. Penny’s investment in his schemes was uplifting, to say the least. 

 

So, Sheldon attempted to allow himself not to worry about one day having a sexual relationship, or what their relationship might evolve into in ten years or more, or if he would ever need to deal with ridiculously hyper-intelligent offspring with a penchant for clutter and intentionally poor grammar. Instead, he watched Penny rest for a while, enjoying the tiny ticks her facial muscles made in reaction to her dreams, and the way the orange sun outside was refracting off her hair. He couldn’t imagine being able to intentionally sleep in a public setting, but if anyone could it would be Penny.

He didn’t worry about what might happen with Leonard, or what path his career might take him on, if Penny’s career was too dangerous to her safety, or if one day they simply… didn’t work anymore.

 

No, he didn’t worry about any of that at all. Not one bit. 

 

 

-

 

 

When they returned to Pasadena, things didn’t change much at all. His anxieties about their relationship were taking a back seat to reestablishing his routine, and Penny seemed perfectly content with it. They still ate oatmeal on Monday mornings, still played Halo and looked through Comixology on Wednesdays, and they still had Chinese food for dinner on Fridays, though Penny was insistent that he continue to cook at home. It pleased him to no end that she greatly preferred his Beef and Broccoli to the one from Golden Dragon.

 

But something infinitesimal was absent. Sheldon could tell, although he greatly enjoyed their rapport and the occasional flirtation, that Penny was seemingly edgy at times. While he washed the dishes, she would flirt with him to his back, but afterward, she didn’t have much else to say. Sheldon found her looking at him desperately, and when asked after, she would just apologize and go back to whatever it was she was doing. It was when they were viewing an episode of Alpha Squad, the SyFy network show Penny had been cast in a few times, that Sheldon realized what it was. They were ensconced on the sofa, in their usual seats, but Penny was snuggling one of the throw pillows closely as she nodded off. 

 

“This pillow is you, okay?” she’d once said. A great wave of inadequacy welled within him at that recollection. Penny assured him that they would move at his pace, and she would respect his limitations, but what was that to mean? If they did such a thing, they might never become physically intimate. If Sheldon were able, he would wear the same seven outfits, eat the same twenty-one meals, and watch the same seven seasons of The Next Generation for the rest of his life. Although Sheldon had attempted to make that as true as possible, by creating a schedule and purchasing in bulk, he knew it could not be so for everything. Szechuan Palace had closed, his favorite toothpaste had been discontinued, and Penny appeared to desire affection.

 

It had been a few weeks before he’d suggested it.

 

“You wanna what?”  Penny asked him disbelievingly, knowing full well how much she was embarrassing him by making him repeat his request.

 

“I would… that is to say… I would not be averse to perhaps…” Sheldon breathed in, looking away to gather his strength. “Snuggling,” he intoned, as if the word was a struggle to enunciate. That made her laugh, a tuneful giggle that relayed her good humor. He was not offended, Penny rarely laughed at him. He had said the word rather dramatically.

 

She shifted from the other side of the sofa onto the middle cushion, looking curiously at him as she sank down into the leather.

 

“Are you serious?” she asked. At his grave nod, she continued. “Okay, sweetie. You lead. How do you want to go about it?”

 

The question was wonderfully thoughtful, she wanted to allow him the control, but it had the opposite of the intended effect. Sheldon scooted away from her, pressing himself into the corner as his heart beat rapidly. He could not do this.

 

“I don’t actually…” he murmured shakily as he looked over Penny’s form. She was in her pajamas, which he knew were clean since he had folded them and placed them in her dresser himself not two days ago. Her hair was slightly damp as she’d just come from the shower. He was not worried about contamination, no, he was just anxious. He’d never done this before.

 

Penny sat back and scooted to the other side of the couch. “It’s okay, we don’t have to until you’re ready.” She was looking at him kindly, she was being understanding, but to him, it felt like pity. He disliked that. Sheldon felt ready; he just didn’t know what to do. Penny was the expert on all this, so shouldn’t she be taking the reins?

 

But that was just it, she was unaware she could. She didn’t want to step over what she assumed was his boundary line. What should he say to her then, that could explain adequately how he felt? What he desired from her? Penny did seem to enjoy his honesty, regardless of how he tended to fumble with it gracelessly. 

 

“I love you,” he said, beginning his request strongly. Penny smiled, returning his gesture with an ‘I love you’ of her own.  “I want you to… to do it, Penny.”

 

“Oh,” she blinked, studying him a little to gauge his motive. “Are you sure?” Her question was heavily layered. She was asking if he was sure he could handle being touched, if he could handle relinquishing control, if he could handle being led.

 

All he could do was nod silently.

 

“Alright,” she agreed, if a little reticently, perhaps anticipating a negative reaction to her touch. He still recoiled away from contact, but it was rarely because of her. It was simply a deeply ingrained instinct, one that would have to be conditioned away with the help of a mental health professional if he truly did not wish to be burdened by it any longer.

 

Sheldon did flinch a little when Penny eased herself against his side, but the lingering scent of her shampoo was comforting. He subtly inhaled – two dozen ripe coconuts – and smiled softly to himself. It was alright, he could handle this.

 

“Put your arm around my shoulders, sweetie… okay?” Penny ordered softly, asking his permission almost as an unnecessary kindness. He acquiesced, lifting his suddenly heavy feeling arm and gently wrapping it around her. Penny exhaled, then very slowly pressed herself against him, enfolding him into a sort of half hug. Sheldon tensed, he disliked hugs; years of grabby family members pinching and subduing him despite his protests had made him detest the practice. As the snuggle – Sheldon still hesitated to use the word – continued, he surprisingly felt his tension begin to melt slowly, like candle wax being warmed by its proximity to a burning wick. Penny was the flame, her warmth suffusing throughout his entire body.  Her heartbeat was steadily thumping against his side, proof of their shared existence. He felt soothed, almost protected. Startlingly, his eyes began to burn.

 

His Meemaw used to allow him when he was very young to cuddle up against her whilst she knitted Christmas gifts for those in the neighborhood. He recalled the scent of her subtle rose perfume, and the jingling sound her glasses chain made as she looked between her book of patterns and her needles. The entirety of her couch was covered in knitted blankets, and he used to think them a bit scratchy but strangely comforting. In the background, her old radio was tuned to entertain them with radio dramas, but she’d always kept the volume low so she could focus.

 

When he was eight and soon graduating high school, his father had told him with unmistakable censure that Sheldon was too old to spend time with his Meemaw. Was he a baby? Did he need to be swaddled like a pansy boy and patted on the back for doing jack-all? George Sr. stated plainly that Sheldon was a burden on Meemaw, and that he should start doing something other than reading and running away to her house like a coward.

 

That’s when his father had decided to teach him to shoot a rifle, to make him a man, regardless of how little Sheldon desired to learn. He was going to be a scientist; he didn’t need to shoot a gun. He explained as much to his father, but it had been a grave error. George Sr. had been drunk and had smacked Sheldon upside the head in retribution, the buckshot for the rifle still in his closed hand. It had left a horrifying bruise, mottled with dark blue and purple splotches, and it had been frightening enough looking that his mother had let him stay home from Sunday service just the once. Once sober, his father had proclaimed that he hadn’t meant to do it, but he’d never once apologized. His own son wasn’t worth the effort.

 

Sheldon had eventually learned to shoot, and he had taken his father’s angry words about Meemaw to heart. His Pop-Pop had just passed away; he didn’t want to be a burden on her.

 

He hadn’t hugged his Meemaw since he was a child.

 

“Sheldon?” Penny asked him anxiously, peering up at him. Sheldon swallowed reflexively as he came back to the present moment and realized with horror that he was quietly crying. Penny began to push herself away from him, no doubt afraid she was inciting an anxiety attack, but he would not allow her. Sheldon held onto her, fingers gripping at the hem of her baggy pajama shirt like a desperate child. He was ashamed of himself in that moment, acting so needy and pathetic, but he couldn’t help himself. Penny was still trying to pry herself away from him, but it only strengthened his resolve to hold onto her. It was an instinct, a deep need within himself; he would panic if she released him. 

 

“Please, Penny…” His voice was rough and colored by his desperation. “D-don’t let me go.” He closed his eyes then; he didn’t want to see her pity him any more than she already likely was. He was wretched, a thirty-two-year-old man grasping onto his girlfriend like a toddler, crying. He was a doctor, for the love of god, he wasn’t a child!

 

Nevertheless, he felt like one. Aimless and frightened. Would he never hug his Meemaw before she inevitably passed away? She was turning eighty-seven in April. He didn’t know if he could even handle the prospect of her eventual death, he just simply couldn’t settle the thought. She was one of his constants, one of the things in his life that kept him grounded and stable. Star Trek the Motion Picture would always be a poorly done film, Snickerdoodles would always be his favorite cookie, Penny would always live across the hall, and his Meemaw would always call him on Saturday afternoons. 

 

But she wouldn’t always - always was an impossibility when it came to biologic life. Life was chaos, chaos that cared not for his anxieties. 

 

Sheldon began to cry in earnest, and he lost himself to the dread.

 

“Sweetie, I’ve got you,” Penny reminded him softly, gently directing his head to lay on her shoulder. “I’ve got you, it’s okay.” Her motherly comforting was so foreign, so loving, and yet so damning. 

 

“I r-rarely do this, Penny, I ap-apologize,” Sheldon pronounced slowly between hitches of unsteady breath, attempting to grind his teeth down to stifle his emotions.

 

“It’s alright, everyone breaks down once in a while,” she assured him, slowly rubbing her hand in circles on the center of his chest. It was like she was easing the fear out of him, setting him to rights with her attentions. She was coddling him, Sheldon realized, and the idea should distress him. Men didn’t like being coddled, right? But he wanted to be, more than anything else.

 

They sat like that, compressed in his spot on the sofa as the TV droned on in the background, as he slowly allowed himself to weep and Penny rubbed her hand over his chest in the same little comforting circle until it felt like the area was radiating with warmth and care.

 

Eventually, Sheldon stood up, releasing Penny from his hold and gently pushing her away. Her eyes were full of concern, maybe she worried she hadn’t done enough, but she had. Penny had given him what no one had in over two decades.

 

“I need to wash my f-face, Penny,” he informed her hoarsely, willing her to understand that he simply needed to do it now, lest he lose himself to another barrage of emotional distress.

 

Penny nodded kindly, holding his gaze steady as she stood from the sofa as well.

 

“Alright, sweetie. Want me to make some tea?” she asked, and it made him release a humored breath. Tea, his go-to soothing method, and here Penny was offering it to him.

 

“Yes, thank you,” he replied as he moved towards the bathroom, and they both knew his gratitude was for more than just the hot beverage. 

Chapter Text

Leslie’s office was… small. Quaint, if Sheldon were being charitable. It had less square footage than most bathrooms, with just enough space for her desk, her mountains of paperwork, and a brownish, pathetic looking philodendron on the windowsill. Sheldon had begun taking his lunch here with her on occasion if simply to escape his horridly empty office. His furniture had still not been replaced. At the very least, Leslie had two chairs.

 

“I water it all the time, but it just has a death wish I guess,” Leslie tried to explain about the plant. Sheldon examined it, then sighed heavily.

 

“Therein lies your problem, Leslie. The plant is receiving far too much water. That, or the drainage in this pot is very poor.”

 

Leslie rolled her eyes, continuing to eat her lunch. “Yeah, sure. You’re such a botanist, Cooper.”

 

“I take great offense to that,” he frowned, wiping his mouth with a napkin. 

 

Leslie smirked. “You would, wouldn’t you?”

 

They conversed at length about the goings on at LIGO – Leslie’s department – while dancing around the subject of Hofstadter and occasionally deviated to speak about their hobbies. Leslie apparently enjoyed crocheting when she wasn’t playing video games, so Sheldon had much in the way of anecdotes to share with her about his own experience knitting. She seemed to find it funny that he knew how to knit at all, but how could he not after observing his Meemaw make so many scarves, hats, gloves, and etc.?

 

She also spoke of her personal life, which was not Sheldon’s preferred topic, and he directed her to bring her concerns to Penny, for Penny was a much better listener when it came to dating and socializing.

 

That had given Leslie a wicked sort of expression.

 

“Speaking of Penny…” She capped her thermos, slowly screwing the lid shut as she pinned him with her shrewd eyes.  “She tells me you two are seeing each other?” Leslie had her brows drawn together in bewilderment, almost daring him to contradict her. He could not.

 

“We… we are. Dating. I suppose,” he confessed uneasily, tossing the container from his lunch into the wastebasket below her desk.

 

“Suppose? What do you mean? You either are or you aren’t, right?” Leslie sat forward. “You have taken Penny on a date, haven’t you?”

 

“We have done no such thing,” he replied, but with a sinking feeling in his stomach. Had he made an error? A misstep?

 

“Jesus, Cooper. I know you and Penny are friends too, but you can’t just rely on that to hold an entire relationship. Despite how terrifyingly badass Penny is, she’d still probably enjoy being treated to a date once and a while,” Leslie explained, placing her thermos on the desk. “Give it some thought, alright?” she said, and perhaps she had registered that the cogs in his mind were already whirring to life, because she followed up - “But not too much thought.” with a laugh.

 

After lunch, Sheldon was exceedingly motivated to research dating customs. What restaurant should they go to? Or perhaps they could see a film or a play… Did Penny like plays? He could hardly ask her before he had found a suitable one, he did not wish to ruin the moment by badgering her with inane questions. Should he check the relationships subreddit for advice?  Or maybe he should call his sister, she may have adequate ideas. Missy was a woman, obviously, and was dating a woman, so she should be doubly suitable for prying information out of. Sheldon thought on all of this as he traversed the halls and made his way back to his office, pulling forth his keys absentmindedly as to unlock the door when he arrived.

 

He had begun to leave his office locked, a precaution so that no more things went missing. At the very least, Hofstadter’s juvenile and insufferable pranks could be contained to his door and the hallway around it.

 

Today it seemed, it would not be so.

 

Sheldon approached his office door and set a cautious pace. The door was open, the name placard absent because he would not suffer to leave the defaced one visible. Sheldon tested the knob and found it undamaged but unlocked. It made him fume to realize that he had not replaced the standard lock with something more robust. Anyone with access to the internet and three dollars could gain the know-how and proper equipment to open the one he currently had.

 

Sheldon pushed the door open slowly, prepared to find a mound of dirt or a pile of garbage or something else utterly disgusting and horrible, but there was nothing of the sort. His office was just as he left it before lunch, empty save for his stacks of paperwork and his whiteboard. Sheldon did a double take; something was not right.

 

The whiteboard! It was blank. His calculations had been erased. The only thing that remained was a yellow post-it note in the center.

 

Sheldon slowly stepped over to the board and pulled the note off.

 

“Your math was wrong anyway,” it read, unsigned save a smiley face, but the handwriting was obviously Hofstadter’s. It made his blood boil; his math had not been incorrect! Sheldon mentally pictured the board with precision, recalled every line of mathematic calculation he had put upon it, it had not been wrong. It couldn’t have been!  The post-it crumpled in his hand and was sent into the wastebasket, but the foul taste in his mouth remained. Sheldon didn’t want to stay here, didn’t want to be here. It wasn’t worth it. Not today.

 

He left his office quietly, only saying anything to Ms. Redfield on his way out.

 

“I won’t be in tomorrow,” he explained curtly to her, and he did not stop to hear her reply.

 

Sheldon didn’t stop walking until he had made it to the Fight Dojo, and he stood under the dark red awning with a sick feeling in his stomach. Penny wasn’t here, wouldn’t be here for a few more hours. Unless she had to work, she came to the dojo at four every afternoon, and stayed for two hours until it was time to pick him up. But it was only a quarter after one. What was he to do?

 

The exterior windows were tinted black, but Sheldon didn’t attempt to peer past the film. He didn’t care, he simply needed to regather himself and get home. Penny was on set until three, so he should abstain from calling her if at all possible. Penny would be the kind of brash girlfriend to abandon her work for him, but he could not allow it. Not while she was doing so well for herself. Not when she would invariably ask why he had to leave work early. Sheldon could not conscionably tell her that Leonard was now directly interfering with his work, she would undoubtedly feel unnecessarily guilty. 

 

Leslie was back at campus, and Sheldon was sure that with a little cajoling, she would agree to bring him home. He could not go back there, though. Slowly, the campus had begun to feel like a heat trap, until eventually standing within made Sheldon feel like the air was burning him and the walls were collapsing. A sharp contrast to the real world freeze his office was in, but it wasn’t a physical swelter. It was more the heat that came from fear and nausea. The kind that crept up your neck and very slowly strangled you until you just had to die.  No, he couldn’t go back there, not even to beg for Leslie’s help.

 

“Hey,” a brusque voice called from beside him. The glass door to the Fight Dojo swung closed behind the muscle-bound man that exited it. Damian had come up to his side, closer than Sheldon appreciated, covered in a sheen of sweat that invariably came from being a gym-rat. Sheldon instinctually took two steps back. That move seemed to exasperate the man a little.

 

“Don’t act like I’m gonna do anything. I remember you,” he offered a bit tartly, as his body began to shiver in the cold. What an imbecile, Sheldon thought, standing in the winter air wearing a t-shirt and shorts. The perspiration would make the wind bite viciously. 

 

“Incredible recall,” Sheldon intoned derisively. Damian frowned at that, and Sheldon decided he would need to play it nice, if only to save Penny the trouble of dealing with the man later. “I apologize. I won’t stay longer, I simply forgot when Penny would be present.”

 

“Don’t sweat it, alright, Doc? Penny already explained to about half the gym that you’re her boyfriend and that you’d be around. I guess I was just wondering why you were here now, is all,” Damian said.

 

The idea that Penny was spreading the news of their romantic entanglement gave Sheldon a small boost of confidence he didn’t realize he needed. Was Penny perhaps… proud of being connected with him in that way?

 

“Oh, and hey,” Damian interrupted his internal preening, pulling back the sleeve of his shirt and exposing his shoulder. “I think I may have irritated a muscle tendon or something. Could you check it? We have massage therapists on staff, but I’d rather have a doctor look at it.”

 

“I am not a medical doctor; I have a Ph.D. Four of them, to be exact,” Sheldon replied, and for the first time in a while, he meant to sound pretentious. He did not have 16-inch biceps, but he did have prodigious academic achievements under his belt. If Damian could flex, so could Sheldon.

 

“Right, I understand,” Damian said as he rolled his sleeve back down, although he appeared as if he didn’t truly understand anything. The man looked down, squared his shoulders, and seemed to come to an internal conclusion. Damian then leveled him with an intense sort of expression.

 

“Listen, Doc, Penny is a very nice gal, great thigh strength.  Does a mean kettlebell deadlift. I was definitely going to ask her out before she mentioned you were her boyfriend. I just wanted you to know I won’t edge in on you, and I respect that she’s yours.”

 

The sentiment left Sheldon bristling strongly, was that supposed to be some comfort to him? That this jockish Neanderthal was willing to ‘back off’ of the perceived ‘territory’? Damian, it seemed, was trying to offer a brotherly olive branch, the kind that extended past silent nods of greeting and grunts of commiseration when men congregated on the chairs made specifically for them in women’s clothing stores.  Perhaps he should take the compliment, that the man was acknowledging he’d been bested or something to that effect, but the sheer notion that Penny was something to be had did not sit right with Sheldon. It conjured the sickening image of Leonard, practically salivating at the door stop when they’d introduced themselves to Penny all those years ago, as the cretin fetishized and plotted.

 

“I appreciate your candor,” Sheldon began, attempting to sound genuine in his thanks. Penny did come here regularly to work out, and he would not unsettle the place for her. “But Penny is not mine. I am hers, if anything.” Yes, hers. That seemed more appropriate. He was her friend, her neighbor, her boyfriend, especially in the context of speaking with her acquaintance. Penny was the active one and he the passive, and Sheldon felt much more comfortable considering himself within her territory.

 

Oh,” Damian replied a little stupidly. Perhaps he had not been expecting that. Was the sentiment that alien to the man? Damian shivered violently but remained where he was, much to Sheldon’s disbelief. Was the man attempting to… chat? Making friendly small talk whilst all Sheldon did was suffer the interaction? Incredible.

 

“You should return inside, you will need to spend, at the very least, ten minutes warming up else you may sprain or tear a muscle,” Sheldon advised, hoping the man would see it as a way out of the interaction and take it. He did not.

 

“Yeah, you’re right, Doc. I was actually about to get a protein shake in the café before I went back to do cardio when I saw you out here. Wanna join me? You could wait for Penny,” Damian offered, and the suggestion sounded quite sincere. It was a tempting proposition to enter, although he hated gyms and how unclean they tended to be, but it was horribly cold outside, and the wind was beginning to pick up. If he declined the offer, he would need to either walk back on foot to Los Robles or take the bus, and he wasn’t currently wearing his bus pants. He hadn’t worn them in months, to be fair. Sheldon hadn’t needed to.

 

“My protein levels are sufficient,” Sheldon replied stiffly, still considering his options.

 

“Ah, everyone could use a little more. And anyway, they have fruit smoothies and herbal tea,” Damian pressed, then shivered again. “Come on, Doc, make up your mind,” he chuckled.

 

“A cup of tea does sound particularly good at this moment,” Sheldon found himself saying, surprised by his sociability. Did he actually want to have drinks with this man? He supposed he had no choice, Damian was already opening the doors to the Fight Dojo, and a blast of blessedly warm air came from within. Sheldon did not want to walk home, he did not want to take the bus, so he followed the man inside.

 

Past the training rooms, the smallish boxing ring, and large double doors labeled “Spa”, they came to a tiny café. Sheldon was waved towards one of the tables as Damian went to the counter, chatting up the cashier with familiarity, so Sheldon did as he was bid after a few moments of hesitation. The place seemed well cleaned, and Sheldon had to believe it was, else he may do something obnoxious like wipe down the tabletops with his hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes. It wouldn’t be the first time. Sheldon eased the burden of his messenger bag off and settled it into his lap. His laptop had been a strain to carry.

 

Damian set a cup of what smelled like ginger tea before him on the table, and it dawned on him that the man had not asked his preference. How… assuming

 

“What do doctors do for fun?” the man asked. So, there was to be no reprieve from the inane small talk, it seemed. Lovely. Perhaps it was preferable to the cold and lonely walk back to Los Robles, but Sheldon could not be certain. He could attempt speaking honestly, say that he enjoyed reading scientific journals, collecting comic books, playing video games, flags, trains, and the rest of the proverbial menagerie of hobbies he had collected over the years, but something made Sheldon believe the man simply couldn’t appreciate any of them. He doesn’t look like a man-child, Sheldon thought with a rueful sort of clarity.  Sheldon could not lie convincingly, though, and so he struck a happy medium.

 

“Paintball, though I have not met with my group in some time,” he replied, and the realization of that fact dismayed him. Although he enjoyed his new schedule, free of the fetters of bro culture to spend time with Penny, he did miss the group. A dynamic that had movement, that could accomplish things in a way a couple simply couldn’t.

 

“Rad, me too!” Damian excitedly said, and of course, he played paintball. How could be not? He was wearing dog tags and had a strange sort of hairstyle that looked something like a grown-out crew cut. Either he was former military, on leave, or just a fan of war.  Sheldon had known many the latter type, having grown up in Texas.

 

He took a sip of the tea, and it was good. Annoyingly so, almost. 

 

“Penny also plays,” Sheldon continued. “She is quite the deadeye.” The tea was loosening him up, and soon the gym café became less foreign and more comfortable. Sheldon relaxed slightly in his chair.

 

“Really? Well, of course, that makes sense,” Damian agreed easily. Sheldon immediately took a liking to how cooperative Damian was. A good follower, perhaps. The type of person who readily agreed to other people's plans and deferred to their opinions. “We should all go play sometime, maybe when the weather is warmer,” he added between gulps of his protein shake. 

 

“Maybe,” Sheldon agreed tepidly, but he found he did not loathe the idea so horribly. He could invite Leslie, maybe, and then their team would be large enough to stand on its own. He could also utilize Leslie’s overwhelming personality as part of his battle strategy, instead of having to be at the other end of her rifle. “Yes, maybe.”

 

They made light conversation until Damian begged off to do HIIT, whatever in the world that might be, so Sheldon brought forth his laptop and did work from the café. The cashier and only worker at the counter filled his teacup multiple times, assuring him that it was of no charge. Part of the membership perks he purchased for Penny. It was money well spent, Sheldon felt, as the tea was quite soothing to nurse as he typed and worked out equations in a notepad he kept for when he was outside the reach of a whiteboard. Sheldon confirmed and re-confirmed that his math from the board had been correct, so he wasn’t sure why that damnable little note still upset him.

 

“Sheldon?” he heard and looked up into the bright eyes of Penny. “What are you doing here?” She was standing next to his table in her yoga pants and the Black Widow shirt he’d purchased for her a few years ago as a birthday gift, her gym bag over one shoulder.

 

“Is it four already? I must have let the time escape me,” he replied, gently smiling up at her. Seeing her was like a great weight lifting from his shoulders that he hadn’t even known was there. Having a girlfriend was actually quite a boon, it seemed.

 

“How long have you been here, sweetie? Why aren’t you at work?” she asked as she pulled her hair into a ponytail. Her expression darkened then. “Did something happen?”

 

“Nothing as dramatic as you are imagining, I assure you, Penny,” he replied, hoping she didn’t press him. He didn’t want to get into the particulars. Penny mercifully backed down and favored him by blowing him a kiss, though he did not deign to catch it.  She’d started doing that recently, blowing him kisses and making kissy faces at him at random intervals. Was that her not so subtle way of suggesting they actually kiss? If it was, she would be left wanting, because he would never broach the subject.

 

“Okay, okay. Well, I’m going to go do my thing,” she said, pointing back to the gym area. “Hit the pull up bar and stuff. My arms need a serious workout. Then I have a self-defense class. You’re okay staying here?” Penny then peered at his work, the paper he was in the midst of writing on superstring theory and bosonic particle variances, and grimaced. “Working?”

 

“I am perfectly content to continue working whilst you exercise,” he replied. It was a comfort to know she would be within the building. If he could work in the same space as Penny, it would likely be less of a struggle against his own discomfort. Caltech hadn’t been a good place to work comfortably in a while.

 

“Good, so I’ll come back when my class is done,” Penny replied, then turned towards the gyms. “Love you!” she called as she disappeared down the hallway.

 

“I love you as well,” Sheldon responded a bit too slowly. It didn’t matter if she heard him or not, though, because the sentiment still carried the same weight whether or not she could hear.

 

 

-

 

 

Penny was in one of the private classrooms, she’d come in halfway through their warmup all ready to learn. She waited in the back a bit, then moved forward once they began the lesson. After the warmup, the instructor – whose name was Jake, it seemed - turned off the music, and an uneasy silence followed in its wake. No one in the room looked like they had taken a self-defense class before, but it was clearly not going to be a fun cardio work out. Jake walked around the mats, looking over every person in the class. It was mostly women, but some men hung around in the back, wary looks on their faces like they might startle and run away if anyone pointed their attendance out.

 

“Who here has been in a situation where they needed to defend themselves, but didn’t know how to?” Jake asked the room.

 

A few hands began to slowly raise, and Penny felt her fingers twitch uneasily.

 

“Don’t raise your hands, it’s alright. Just answer me in your heads,” he paused, and the silence felt heavy as everyone thought over his question.

 

“Alright, you’ve all thought about it. Those who have, do you think that if you knew a specific technique you could have gotten out of whatever the situation was? Again, answer in your heads.” A pause, as feet nervously snuffled on the mat and people looked down.

 

Yes, Penny thought. Maybe if she hadn’t been drunk, and maybe if she knew some jujitsu or something, maybe if she’d been stronger, she could have gotten away from Leonard. Maybe, maybe, maybe, but agonizing over it had never really made anything clearer.

 

“If you answered yes, then I’m sorry to say, you’re wrong,” Jake said, much to the surprise of everyone in the class. “Specific martial arts, specific moves, those are great and all, but none of them are truly self-defense. Self-defense is a mindset, it’s the understanding of how to move your body with confidence so you get out of situations quickly and efficiently. Self-defense isn’t learning how to be a hero; it’s just learning how to be safe. So, our first lesson is to always get away from dangerous situations as soon as you can safely do so.”

 

God, that made sense, didn’t it? It seemed to lighten Penny’s step as she bounced on her heels on the mat. A black belt or whatever may have not made a difference, which actually made her feel so much better about everything. She’d had the skills to hog-tie a wild and rampaging steer with only her hands and a bit of rope, so in theory, she could do the same to a person, but the reality of her situation hadn’t allowed for that kind of confidence. She’d been tired, she’d been drunk, and she’d been afraid, and none of that said anything about her as a person.

 

“So, what are we going to be learning?” one lady asked, raising her hand a bit timidly.

 

“Well, we’re going to partner up in pairs, and one of you is going to be the attacker. We will work on how to get out of various attacks and situations, then partners will switch off,” he explained, walking around the room and weaving through their group, almost like he was sizing them up. “This is more about feeling comfortable defending yourself, then learning techniques. Sound good?”

 

With a murmur of agreement from the group, people split off into pairs. Penny ended up pairing with a woman standing to her right, who after a few minutes of quiet conversation ended up being named Ashley. Ashley seemed horribly shy, so Penny, being the sort of person she was, offered to be the attacker first. They worked on escaping grabs, bear hugs, and interestingly enough, muggings.

 

“What matters more, everyone? Your wallet, or your life?” Jake had said, and everyone agreed pretty easily that their lives mattered a whole hell of a lot more. 

 

Penny and Ashley switched off as they learned, and they built up a friendly rapport while working. Penny’s only complaint was that Ashley was a bit too nice. She was easy to throw off, easy to break holds from, because the girl was just too much of a pushover.  Case in point, when they got to the floor exercises.

 

Ashley was straddling Penny, gripping her wrists and grimacing with a sad little frown.

 

“I don’t like this,” Ashley said meekly, which made Penny laugh.

 

“Me neither, but I think that’s the point. Don’t worry about it,” Penny assured the smaller woman. With a tiny twist of her torso and push against the mats, Penny was out from under Ashley in a few seconds.

 

“Wow, Penny, that was fast!” Ashley commented with a smile. Jake was watching them, but he wasn’t smiling.

 

“Ashley, I think you’re being way too easy on Penny. You’re not giving her much of a challenge,” he commented with a frown. “Try it again, please?”

 

This time Penny bucked Ashley off, and Ashley almost seemed to let go of Penny’s wrists before it happened. That had Jake shaking his head.

 

“I don’t think you’re being assertive enough, Ashley. Maybe if…” he was instructing, but Penny interrupted.

 

“Ashley is fine, I’m just a lot stronger than her,” Penny said, coming to her new friend’s defense without really needing to.

 

Jake’s brows furrowed, maybe he was going to argue with her, but Penny again spoke up.

 

“Maybe you should help me for this one?” she asked. Jake nodded slowly, as if considering her, then whistled for the entire class to stop.

 

“Alright, Penny is going to work with me and do a little demo of something I wanted to work on with you all. That cool?” he asked the class, and they all agreed. Penny felt a bit jittery, she hadn’t meant to agree to a class demo, but whatever, as long as Ashley didn’t get scolded for just being a tiny chick.

 

Jake leaned down and without warning straddled Penny’s hips in Ashley’s place, immediately sending a torrent of cold fear down Penny’s spine. The press on her body against the mats felt wrong and horrible, and her instinct was to lash out. Her fear must have been showing on her face, because Jake stopped just as he was about to pin her arms, like as Ashley had moments ago.

 

“You alright, Penny?” he asked kindly. “You look a bit spooked. If you don’t want to do the demo…”

 

It’s fine, she was telling herself. It’s fine, because he’d never hurt me. We’re in a self-defense class, Jake is teaching me. Helping me learn to defend myself. Calm down. She couldn’t let herself not learn it; she couldn’t let herself be overcome. She couldn’t live down the shame if she acted like a spaz again.

 

“No, no.” Penny’s voice was wavering and breathy. What was wrong with her? “I want to learn. It’s fine.” But it didn’t feel fine. Jake nodded to her hesitantly, apparently not really buying her assurance, but he continued to set them up for the maneuver anyway. His grip tightened on her wrists a lot more than Ashley’s had, and he pinned her arms down to the mat.

 

“Alright, Penny, either get me off of you or get away,” he instructed, but no matter what she did, she couldn’t comply. Penny was hissing as she struggled, her arms weren’t budging from under his grip and her bucking was doing nothing. Her anxiety was becoming anger pretty quickly, her face felt red as her humiliation built and built. She was a freaking stunt woman, why wasn’t this working?

 

“Does everyone see what’s happening? Ashley, do you see why you need to give this your all?” Jake asked calmly. “Most attackers will have the advantage of strength, or height, or something that will make just throwing them off almost impossible.” He looked down at her then, and Penny released a heaving breath as she stopped struggling.

 

“You can’t just throw me off, Penny. I’m triple your weight and I can bench you, easy. Think strategically, use my body against me.”

 

Penny stared up at Jake, a little scowl showing just how angry she was as she thought over his instruction. Use his body against him? What the hell was that supposed to mean?

 

“No attacker would just sit on top of someone forever doing nothing,” she said up to him petulantly. Jake raised his eyebrows, then smiled.

 

“You’re absolutely right, they wouldn’t,” he said, then he reared back one hand almost as if to strike her across the face.

 

Use his body against him, think strategic.

 

Penny’s hand went with the momentum of his, then she hit his nose soundly with the heel of her hand. The sound was a sick smack, thank god she’d pulled her strike, or she might have actually broken something of his. While Jake was reeling a bit from the blow, Penny did the opposite of what she’d done with Ashley. Instead of throwing Jake off her, she thrust herself forward, gripping him around the middle and getting herself to her feet, using his body as leverage. As soon as she was standing, she dropped him like a hot potato and sprinted away, turning after a few strides to see Jake stand shakily to his feet. He was holding his face a little, and it made her nervous.

 

“Oh no,” Penny muttered, coming back to where he was standing with Ashley. “Did I really break it? I was trying to pull my punch…”

 

“Don’t sweat it!” Jake smiled, revealing his face to show it was just a little bit bruised. “That was what I’m talking about! You used my movement against me, and you escaped as fast as possible. Great stuff Penny, or should I say, Penny the Powerhouse, huh?”

 

Penny felt a smile overcome her as she realized what that meant. Oh, she so loved getting pats on the back from teachers.

 

The rest of the class went well. Ashley had taken the lesson to heart and tried her best to be more assertive as they worked. When the class was over, Sheldon was waiting for her patiently by the doors, his laptop all packed up and ready to go.

 

Jake passed them as he left the building, rubbing his bruised nose a little and waving goodbye.

 

“Did you do that, Penny?” Sheldon inquired solemnly, watching as the instructor walked to his car in the parking lot.

 

“Yeah…” Penny replied sheepishly. God, she maybe liked violence a little too much, because she’d really enjoyed that.

 

“Excellent work,” he commended her with a small smirk and a wheeze of a laugh. Sheldon seemed to find the thing hilarious, apparently, and that had her laughing too.

 

Penny’s good mood came with her in the car home, up into 4A, and sat with her on the sofa while Sheldon cooked dinner.  Penny the Powerhouse, she liked the sound of that. Penny could be a powerhouse, she just had to take it one day at a time.

 

 

-

 

 

“Your butt actually looks cute in those pants, Sheldon.”

 

That absolutely nonsensical utterance had Sheldon dropping the Season Two case for Stargate SG-1, luckily to the carpeted floor.

 

“Penny!” Sheldon replied exasperatedly, bending over to pick the case up. His floors were immaculate, but just to be safe he would wipe down the outside of the case with an anti-bacterial wipe.

 

“Yeah, see, all bent over like that,” Penny said rather ridiculously. “Very cute.” The pronouncement had him standing back up fairly quickly, leaving him a little woozy for a moment.

 

“You cannot be serious,” Sheldon replied a little breathily, as he reached for a wipe and cleaned the case. She couldn’t possibly be serious, she spent nearly every day amongst body-builders or Hollywood stock, and he knew he was no Adonis.

 

“I know a nice butt when I see it, sweetie,” she claimed, reaching over to the table to pick up her bowl of chocolate ice cream. The woman was absolutely mad for it, especially now that she was working out so frequently. She had the appetite of a professional athlete, and grocery shopping with her was becoming an exercise in patience on his part. She had to have everything.

 

Sheldon turned from her and inserted the first disk into the Blu-ray player, willing his temperature to drop. Penny’s flirting was a bit overwhelming at times, and yet, he did love the attention. He was simply not used to being praised for non-academic things, so the experience was still extraordinarily disarming. Nice butt, hah, the idea was absurd. 

 

When he joined her on the sofa, the episode playing on its own, it only became more difficult to deal with her. Penny was looking at him, he could almost feel it.

 

Out of his peripheral, Sheldon could see Penny leisurely eating her ice cream, one slow spoonful at a time, but her eyes never wavered from him.

 

“Penny, you will miss the episode if you continue to gawk at me,” he told her grumpily. “I thought you would wish to know what happened in the conclusion to last season’s cliffhanger.”

 

“Oh, I do,” Penny assured him, dipping her spoon back in her bowl. “I’m just remembering what you said when we were in Texas.”

 

Sheldon turned fully to her, forgetting the episode on TV. “What did I say that you feel is particularly memorable?” What had he said? Was it something good? Something bad? Lord help him, had he said something embarrassing?

 

“Just that I was the ‘most physically appealing woman’ you’d ever met,” she reminded him lowly. “Was that true?”

 

He gulped then. “You know I cannot lie convincingly. What I said was an accurate assessment of my own observations.”

 

Penny smirked widely at that, like a cat who’d just spotted her next meal.  “So, does that mean you want to kiss me?”

 

Sheldon didn’t know what she was doing, and why she was doing it, but he was incredibly and invariably snared.  He couldn’t look away from her, even as the fear began to rise within him. Sheldon could not reply; his eyes were too busied with tracking the movements of her spoon as she brought it to her lips and practically sucked the frozen dessert off. Her eyes never strayed from his, she was such a masterful seductress, and it made him want to gasp a little.

 

“Penny, we…” He paused to swallow; his throat suddenly dry. “We just ate dinner,” he said as if that prohibited anything. It was not as if flirtation was detrimental until thirty minutes after eating, that anecdote wasn’t even true for swimming.

 

“Have you ever kissed anyone before?” Penny questioned, her eyes glittering.

 

No,” Sheldon breathed in reply, startled by his honestly. Immediately, his face flushed with shame. It was not a point of pride that he was horribly inexperienced.

 

Penny did not mock him, of course. She was too decent.

 

“Good,” was all she said, her eyes lingering on his lips long enough to make them tingle. It felt as if his entire body was begging for something indescribable, something only she knew of. He could not look away from her, from the contour of her lips to the low, asymmetrical collar of her baggy sweater.

 

“Sheldon, we’re going to have to rewind the episode. I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, setting her bowl down with a little clink.

 

“Whu…” He was so inelegant. What was happening? They were watching something?

 

“Shel-don,” she intoned breezily, smirking at his confusion. “You have the remote, sweetie.”

 

“Oh.” And he did, sitting next to him on the arm of the sofa. He sluggishly grasped the remote and sent the episode back to the first scene, mind hurrying to catch up. It was utterly baffling to have your mind and your body not on the same page.

 

Penny, what a vixen, he thought. Her flirtations were reaching an all-time high. Sheldon sincerely hoped that if and when something did escalate between them, that he did not leave Penny dissatisfied.  The last thing he wanted was to be a disappointment to her.

Chapter Text

“I was able to spar with the male teacher at my gym yesterday, and I didn’t panic when he corrected me and made contact. I know it’s small, but it feels big to me.” – Blossom85

 

Penny hit the post button and waited, but she didn’t have to wait long. Responses flooded in, each uplifting and heartening.

 

“Good job, Blossom! This is a milestone for sure!”

 

“wow, awesome. not small at all.”

 

“I feel so happy for you and so motivated. Last week I hugged my dad and didn’t freak out when he hugged back. Normal is so nice to feel sometimes, right?”

 

The replies were from people, – mostly women, Penny believed – from all over the world. During a desperate and stressful evening in December, when all Penny wanted to do was break down and give up, she’d instead done the healthy adult thing and searched for a therapist online. What she’d ended up finding was a support group of sorts, for people who had been assaulted or raped, and it had ended up becoming such a blessing. Instead of her issues being present and in her face, she could write about them and look at them from another perspective, from the perspective of someone reading an anonymous post. It was kind of enlightening, to see her own experiences like that and to get feedback from people who had been through what she had.

 

She wasn’t alone, and she was healing.

 

While replies stagnated, Penny went through the forums to look for other new posts. She didn’t like to leave advice for other victims, because she really was still struggling a little, but it was so good to see other people give and receive support. A post did catch her eye though.

 

“Say five words to the person who hurt you.”

 

An interesting and creative idea, but one that had Penny stilling with her fingers over the keyboard. What could she possibly say to Leonard that would make her feel any different? ‘Don’t come near me, asshole’ sounded good, but Penny had already basically said that to his face. ‘I can’t believe you did this’, no that was too long, and she could believe it. Hindsight gave a really jarring sort of clarity and seemed to put everything into perspective. Leonard had been possessive, needy, and pretty cruel when he wanted to be. Their arguments had always broken down into him degrading her for any number of his favorite things, her clothing, her attitude, her lack of education and motivation, and her ‘silly’ acting ambitions, and Penny would just simply shut down. Then she’d drink, way too much, and he’d come crawling back oozing desperation. She’d only realize they’d ‘gotten back together’ when she woke up the next morning. Repeat dozens of times, and finally it had been enough. Penny had to break the vicious cycle, so she’d broken up with him. That’s what she thought, at least. Her telling Leonard that they were done hadn’t enough for him. Hell, a simple and flat no hadn’t enough from him. 

 

No didn’t have any meaning to someone who thought they owned you.

 

That knowledge had been so petrifying, so consuming, and had so easily cowed her when she’d already been down. Down because her career had chewed her up and spit her out a little less bubbly and a little less willing to give it her all, down because ambitions of being an actress didn’t pay the bills, down because if Sheldon hadn’t stepped in when he had and paid her rent, she would have been homeless. She hadn’t wanted handouts, handouts made you weak. Penny remembered being twelve-years-old on Christmas Eve, handing out Christmas gifts of food and clothes to the homeless, and thinking that she was so glad she would never end up like those people. Ironically, she’d bordered on destitution for years. Years of declining Sheldon’s help, but, lucky for her, he’d helped anyway. 

And it had taken her a while to stop resenting his help. Oh god, it was a selfish and self-hating resentment that she’d finally sent fluttering out the window like an unloved pet bird, but she really didn’t want it in her apartment with her anymore. It felt right to hold to it tightly, that she was just a failure and he was just pitying her, but it hadn’t felt good. If Penny was being honest, she felt miserable hating her own failures and hating that Sheldon could so easily sweep them away, but she’d felt deservedly miserable.

Not anymore though. She didn’t deserve misery any more than any of the people on the support forum did. Penny had learned that all of those secret fears and self-hating things she’d kept close to the chest weren’t unique, they weren’t only her burden. Everyone felt like she did, and those feelings weren’t right. The voice that said she was disgusting was wrong, the voice that said she was a failure was wrong, and the voice that said she didn’t deserve success or love was fucking wrong. 

And to learn that after all these years, Leonard hadn’t been correct about her, he’d simply been preying on the fact that she was self-loathing and insecure. Using it to his advantage. Bastard.

 

Penny looked at her phone, it was just past seven in the morning and she wanted to head to Sheldon’s for breakfast before she needed to go to the studio. The big stunt was today, and she needed to keep herself sharp and focused. Jake’s words from yesterday’s class flitted through her mind. Penny the Powerhouse. She was a powerhouse, if that actually meant what she thought it meant, and she was going to prove it.

She thought about closing her laptop, but with a quirk of a self-aware smile, she typed out her reply to the thread on the support forum. Five words, that she could scarcely believe, but that rang true. Penny sent her declaration to the forum, letting the weight of it settle her unease and tension. She could do this, she wasn’t afraid.

 

 

-

 

 

“Today’s the day, Sheldon!” Penny announced as she came into 4A, freshly showered and wearing her gym clothes. Sheldon was just finishing up making two bowls of oatmeal for them both, one with mixed nuts and dried fruit for himself, and one with sugary dinosaur eggs for Penny. It felt like a waste of his culinary talents to make something so… so pedestrian.  She loved the instant dreck, though, so he made it for her without a complaint, but he reserved the right to grimace at it.

 

“Which day? I was unaware there was any particular significance to this day other than it is oatmeal day,” he replied, setting their bowls down on the counter. Penny joined him quickly, sitting down and practically shoveling her breakfast in. Good heavens.

 

“Today,” she said around a spoonful of fanciful dinosaur oatmeal. “Today is when I get to be a super badass lady and hang off of a helicopter.”

 

At that pronouncement, Sheldon felt his heart stutter, and suddenly he didn’t particularly want to partake in his healthy and fibrous breakfast.

 

“Do you know what sort of safety protocols the crew has employed? At what altitude will the helicopter be? Will you be on a wire of free-jumping? Penny…” he breathed, realizing he’d been ranting a bit.  “Penny, I…”

 

“I know, sweetie,” she said kindly, tentatively reaching her hand out for him. He stilled his body to try and negate his natural twitch and allowed her to rub his forearm soothingly. “I know, it’s pretty scary for me too, but these people are professionals.”

 

“You are a professional as well, Penny,” he reminded her softly. “That does not make it any less terrifying a prospect.”

 

“I bet I could swing something and get you a pass to be on set, but you’re working today…” Penny mused, taking a gulp of her coffee and then another massive and messy bite of her oatmeal.

 

“Actually, I’m not,” he replied, determination building in his stomach and straightening his spine. “I am not going to the office today, and I would much rather be with you where I can confirm with my own eyes that you are safe than working from home and worrying.”

 

“Are you sure?” Penny bit her lip. “And why are you off today?” she added with suspicion.

 

“I’m certain. I want to accompany you, see you work.” Sheldon refrained from answering her other question, since he didn’t have an answer that would satisfy either of them.

 

“Alright, if you’re sure you want to. You’ll probably just be sitting around watching me fall over a bunch, and it’ll be outside in the wind. That okay?” Penny asked again. “If it is, I’ll text my coordinator and ask him permission for you to go on the lot.”

 

“Yes, Penny. I would very much appreciate being allowed to watch you work,” he assured her. He wanted to watch her, watch over her. Sheldon couldn’t conscionably stay home when she would be working in a high-risk situation.

 

“Great!” Penny beamed, grabbing her cellphone to text her boss. He would be accompanying her to the studio, to watch her do stunt work, to watch helplessly from the sidelines. Sheldon only hoped he could contain his anxiety.

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon was obviously nervous as the got into her car, drove to the studio, and walked up to the massive open lot they’d be filming the stunt in. There were tents with the director’s equipment under the covers, a sleek black helicopter a few meters away was being fitted with a camera rig, and the hum of a generator as it inflated a huge, air mattress sort of thing for her fall. Oh god, her stomach was doing flip flops. She was going to fall on that.

 

“Hey Penny, all ready for today’s big stunt?” The stunt coordinator Mike came up to her side, ushering her and Sheldon over to one of the tents.

 

“Sure thing, boss. When do I go to wardrobe?” she asked him chipperly, shoving her fear down into her stomach. Sheldon was anxiously standing at her side, a quiet and worrisome sentinel. 

 

“This is Doctor Cooper, by the way, I texted you about him coming with me and watching today?”

 

“Right, right. Have a seat, Doctor Cooper,” Mike said, motioning to one of the white plastic chairs. Sheldon kept standing, though. “Anyway, you should head over to wardrobe now. Get you all fitted up in your threads and then we will begin when the director gets here. And listen, I tried to convince him to make it a two-shot stunt. Have you hanging off the helicopter in one, and then do the fall separately, like from a cherry picker or something, but he’s adamant about needing a clear angle of you losing your grip from the landing gear. Is that alright, or do you want me to contest the decision?”  Mike asked anxiously, and his question sparked a nerve inside of her.

 

She was literally going to fall from the actual helicopter? Oh god, oh god. She couldn’t contest it though, could she? She was a no-name stunt actress, likely hired just as much for her horse handling and winning smile as for the fact that she could be paid a less than competitive salary.  Okay, she could do that, right? She’d been doing pull-ups, she had overcome her fears. She could overcome this. Right?

 

“No, don’t press it. I can do that,” Penny assured him, feeling her legs begin to shake a little. Her statement clearly relieved Mike, because he smiled widely and clapped her on the shoulder.

 

“Okay, great. See you after you’re all done up,” Mike said, then he was gone off to talk to one of the rigging guys by the chopper. Oh god!

 

Penny!” Sheldon hissed near her ear. “Are you absolutely certain this is safe?” Poor baby, she wished he hadn’t overheard that conversation.

 

“Yes, Sheldon, I promise I’ll be fine,” she said, but why did it feel kind of like a lie?

 

Penny left Sheldon alone in the little tent and she went into wardrobe and makeup. The makeup artist contoured the hell out of her face until she practically looked like a totally different person, only for wardrobe to cover it up with a head wrap and veil. God, she hoped the movie was good, hoped it was worth all this stress.

 

And all too soon, it was time. Mike came and grabbed her and lead her by the shoulder to the chopper. Inside there were cameramen with headsets on, all smiling and giving her the thumbs up. Oh Jesus, she wished she’d been able to say more to Sheldon before doing this.

 

“Remember, you’ll have to swing your body around while holding on to add to the drama, but make sure you fall flat on your back to the inflated mats, or you could be in some serious pain.  You good?” he asked, helping hoist her up into the helicopter.

 

“G-great, Mike. Super,” she replied with a thin smile, feeling her stomach fill up with an aviary of butterflies. Her stomach churned violently when the chopper blades began to start up, whipping around and causing a whirlwind to pick up around them. Penny held on for dear life to the handguard near the open door, her wide eyes staring down as they raised up off the ground and into position over the mats. People were waving little flags, directing the movement of the helicopter, and before Penny knew it the assistant was motioning for her to kneel down and accept his help. His help to literally suspend herself below the flying helicopter. 

 

Oh god! Every choice she’d made had been a bad, bad, very bad one, hadn’t it? She was going to fall and either die or look like a total idiot, and in front of Sheldon, too!

 

Penny crouched down and got into position, slowly lowering herself until she was holding onto the lip of the open doorway and dangling a little. She inhaled a huge breath then moved one hand to the landing gear, feeling her muscles tense as she engaged her scapula, then the other until it was actually happening. She was hanging off the bottom, and she could see her feet kicking out underneath her as she did it.

 

Penny could see Sheldon vaguely from the corner of her eye, anxiously holding his bag to his chest, but the sight of him only made her arms burn harder. She couldn’t focus on dangling when she was also focused on her man. Penny fixated on a random blip in the distance instead, kicking her legs under her in a way that Mike had specified, which was just horrible, since it made her even more unsteady. The chopper blades were whirring above her, sending huge waves of wind down onto her fancy layered clothing, pushing the veil tightly against her mouth in a way that made her feel suffocated, and, god, it felt like her arms were going to rip apart like wet paper towels. How long had she been holding on, days?

 

The green flag from one of the film crew signaled it was time, finally, to jump. To let go. It couldn’t have come at a better time. No, maybe it could have. Earlier would have been better. Never would be ideal.

 

Penny let her grip on the landing gear deteriorate naturally, the sweat on her palms easing the terrifying slide. As her fingers eased off, her stomach almost came up to her throat and she felt like retching, but she knew the black, inflated mats were below her. She knew it wouldn’t be like landing on a cloud, but she wouldn’t die. Probably.

 

She let go, and fell twenty-eight feet down, down, down until it felt like she’d keep falling forever. Flatten, flatten, flat! Penny reminded herself as she fell, twisting her body back so as much of her body would make contact with the mats as possible. Her breath left her lungs in a painful burst as her back hit the mats. It felt almost like landing on a thousand duvets that were packed on top of very solid concrete. Penny wheezed, then rolled onto her side and off of the massive inflated air mattress thing, hearing distantly that the director was yelling cut and some other directions to the film crew that didn’t concern her. She was getting herself together, breathing slowly as her blood pumped in her veins and practically sung. She felt so freaking alive! But, ouchy, her back hurt a little. 

 

“Hey, how you are doing?” the stunt coordinator asked, running up and handing Penny a small water bottle and towel. Penny dried her hands off, still trying to control her breathing, as she smiled up at him.

 

“Fine! How did the stunt look?” she asked, and, god, she hoped it had looked good.

 

“Amazing! Really amazing!” he replied, which seemed to settle the butterflies in her stomach finally. Thank god, it was over.

 

“So, ready to do it a couple more times?” he asked, taking her towel and helping her up. Okay, not over. “Director wants you to reach your hands up towards the camera guy more when you do it.”

 

“Again?” Penny laughed breathily. “Sure, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”

 

Penny skipped over to where Sheldon was standing like a scared little statue while the crew reset the chopper and the dolly.

 

“Penny,” he whispered, his eyes twitching. “Penny, are you alright after that fall?” Oh gosh, he looked so frightened. It must have looked a lot scarier from his perspective.

 

“Peachy with a side of keen, sweetie,” she smiled up at him. Sheldon didn’t seem to be comforted by that, so she leaned against his side gently. “I promise, Sheldon, I’m perfectly fine. I’m going to have to do it a bunch more, you okay with that? I could always have one of the assistants bring you to the green room so you can chill.”

 

“No, no,” he assured her, and she felt the very faint brush of his hand on her back. “I will stay. It is extremely alarming to watch, but also incredible. You’re incredible.”

 

Penny’s breath was stolen then, even more so than when she’d hit the mats. Incredible, Sheldon was incredible at making her feel special. Before she could think of what to reply, she was being called back over, she needed to get back into the helicopter and get set up for the next take.

 

“Love you, sweetie,” she said, blowing him a kiss before she ran back to be a badass once again.

 

 

-

 

 

Penny had been fantastic. Fantastic and terrifying, like an actual mythical titan falling from the sky to make war on the plane of man, and it had been quite illuminating to see her in action. Sheldon often said she was a professional, because by definition she was, but now that he’d seen her actually working it held even truer. She had been polite - even after just falling from a ridiculous height - and carried on cordial but professional conversations with everyone on set from the director himself to the lowliest of stagehands. She’d done a magnificent job taking corrections from her stunt coordinator and implemented them to near perfection. It was honestly stunning. It made Sheldon want to immediately go and find a documentary about stunt work so he could learn more about her career. 

They’d come home after a few short but grueling hours, and Penny was quite exhausted. She’d dashed into the shower to wash off her heavy stage makeup and had left him in her living room.

Whilst she freshened up, Sheldon took his time straightening her belongings as was his habit. Fixing the orientation of the pillows, folding her blanket, and stacking her paperwork. He found the organizing box he had placed at her desk, and slipped her bills in, attempting not to look at the numbers. She didn’t need his help any longer, Penny was doing just fine.

Her laptop was sitting open on the coffee table, powered on. It could have been on since before they went to location for her stunt, good lord. She had absolutely no computer manners.  Sheldon went to close it and glanced casually at the screen, expecting Facebook or some such social media platform to be open. Instead, it was a website he’d never seen or heard of before. Survivors.net.

 

His heart sank to the floor in a dead mass as he confirmed what it was.

 

Rape survivor support forum.

 

He shouldn’t read further, it was a massive breach of privacy, but he couldn’t help but scroll down. A thread was open, and the original poster had a sort of maudlin exercise for the users of the website to participate in.

 

“Say five words to the person who hurt you.”

 

Sheldon read quickly, a sob welling up inside his throat as he viewed the responses. ‘I am dead inside now’, ‘You broke so many things’, ‘you destroyed my trust, bastard’. The thread went on and on, hundreds of replies, hundreds of confessions not meant for him to see.

 

Then he saw one, the commenter’s handle was Blossom85, and he knew with a sick clarity that it was Penny. Her birth year was confirmation enough. Sheldon could hear Penny moving about the bathroom, and she started the hairdryer. He couldn’t not look at what she’d said. All Sheldon needed was one more reason to hurt Leonard and he would, heedless of Penny’s requests.

 

“I no longer fear you,” her comment said, and the sob he’d been holding released very suddenly. Sheldon eased off one of his gloves, the wonderful gloves she’d given to him, to stifle the sound of his stuttering exhalations with a hand. He wasn’t crying but purging the anguish that had settled inside him and grown like a vicious weed since the moment Penny opened her door to him in early October. 

Sheldon had wondered with fear if she was doing alright, because she hardly ever spoke about it any longer. She seemed to be happy as of late, but what could that truly say? He seemed to be fine for years, and no one had picked up on the severity of his disorder. The proof of her wellbeing was bedumbing, and it was all around him. Her admission of bravery was not the only one, no, he sat on another. She no longer kept sheets on the sofa, which was telling enough, and lately she had comforted him with her touch. She hadn’t been fearful in a while; she was the epitome of confidence.

Just hours ago, he’d seen Penny hold onto the bottom of a helicopter with just her upper body strength until she was red in the face and quaking from the pain, but this… this was true strength. She was so much stronger than he could ever be. Sheldon didn’t think he could ever have moved beyond a fear as palpable and personal as this. 

 

The hairdryer ceased, and Sheldon quickly closed the laptop like a guilty child as he calmed himself. He couldn’t allow himself to make a scene.

 

“Hey babe,” Penny called as she came from the hallway. “Are we still having burgers tonight? Because I remembered what that last ingredient was for the special sauce they use on the Barbeque Burger…” her voice petered off as she saw him, and it was clear he hadn’t done a good enough job concealing his distress. “Sweetie?”

 

“I was just,” Sheldon paused, then cleared his throat. If she knew he had been near crying, she was concealing it well. “I was just thinking about how admirable you are. Your strength…” he breathed, stabilizing himself. “You are so strong, Penny. Brilliantly so.” He knew she would think it was a simple compliment to her physical prowess, but no. Sheldon wanted her to know at least in some sense how much he admired her, but he supposed it could not be expressed. Not all at once, not all right now. “I love you,” he added a bit anxiously.

 

Penny flushed as a small smile played on her lips. “Is that right? Brilliant?” she preened jokingly, tilting her head up to catch a sun-beam only she could see.  “Come here.” She then beckoned him to her side, and he could only comply.

 

Sheldon went to her side and waited patiently, but he didn’t have to wait for long. Penny wrapped her arms around his middle, very slowly as if to give him the time to escape the embrace if he wished to, then rested her head against his chest.

 

“You’re so good at this, Sheldon,” Penny murmured into his shirt, her hands smoothing down his spine repeatedly as if to comfort him.

 

“At hugging?” he laughed anxiously. “Hardly.” It was no secret to anyone that he was a novice at physical intimacy.

 

“No, at loving me. You just… make me feel loved, and you’re so good at it,” she admitted, looking up at him from under her lashes. “How did you get so good at it, mister romance guy?”

 

“Penny,” Sheldon whispered seriously. “Because it is so very easy to love you.”

Chapter Text

“I believe we should go on a date,” Sheldon announced one day, much to Penny’s surprise.

 

“Really?” she’d asked in bewilderment, looking up from her issue of Stuntman Magazine. “Where to?”

 

“A French restaurant on Sunset Boulevard,” he said, wringing his hands. “I may have already gotten us a dinner reservation.”

 

“Seriously?” Penny sat up with a smile. “When? I want to go shopping first!”

 

“Oh,” he uttered, deflating a little more.  “Well, it’s for tonight, actually.”

 

Penny got up from her seat and went over to him, patting him on the chest slowly and lovingly.

 

“Tonight is wonderful,” she assured him, raising onto her toes to give him a chaste peck on the shoulder. “But I’ll have to go back to my apartment to get ready, do my hair, my makeup.”

 

“But Penny, the reservation isn’t for two hours,” he said.

 

“Exactly, I barely have enough time to pick out what shoes I’ll wear,” she replied with a giggle. Sheldon could only roll his eyes at that, though she could see he was holding off a smile.

 

“I shall pick you up at your door then, and I hope you’ll be ready on time.”

 

“I will be,” Penny guaranteed, then she skipped back to her place to begin preparing.

 

Her hair took the longest, she hadn’t actually styled it intentionally in a while. Working out constantly had meant her hair had been relegated to ponytails for months, and her bag of makeup was practically dusty. It felt good to get done up again, the last time she’d actually gone out was to that stupid freaking club in December. Now, though, she was going on a date. A freakin’ date. A Sheldon date!

 

Penny pulled her favorite little black dress from her closet and slipped it on with a sigh. She’d only worn it twice, and it looked so good on her, but even better was that she’d never worn it with Leonard. No, most of her Leonard date dresses had taken the fast train to Goodwill, along with all the crap he’d given her over the years with not so much as a sayonara. No, this little spaghetti strap dress was all for Sheldon, though it wasn’t horribly likely that he would appreciate it the same way most guys would.

 

When Penny answered the door later that evening, smiling a little to herself as he finished knocking, she had to pull her jaw off the floor. Penny thought she’d looked good that evening, but Sheldon… Sheldon was wearing a suit. The suit, the one she’d helped him pick out a few years ago, and… all her brain could manage to muster was yum. She got to take him out looking like that? She’d much rather take him somewhere else, preferably somewhere with a bed.

 

“Are you sufficiently prepared to go on our date, Penny?” Sheldon asked stiffly, then sighed as he shook his head. “Drat, I forgot something.” He cleared his throat at that, then gave her a very lingering up-down sort of glance over that had her skin tingling. “My, you look ravishing tonight, Penny. Please, take my arm.” He then offered his arm, a little awkwardly, but god if it wasn’t the cutest and most thoughtful thing any man had ever done for her.

 

“My pleasure,” she giggled, slipping her arm through his. They walked down the four flights of stairs like that together, laughing when their height difference made the trek a struggle.

 

The material of his gloves rubbed soothingly against her lower back when they finally got to the restaurant, a sweet and silent reminder that he liked the gift he’d gotten for her. They sat down at a nice, private table and were served water in wine glasses for some reason, then waited for the fancy waiter, or garcon as Sheldon kept saying, to bring their menus. Penny nibbled on a bread roll, but their banter slowly seemed to die away, fading into the din of the restaurant.

 

The restaurant, which was up to Sheldon's rigorous standards for health and cleanliness, but also managed to merit being called reasonably priced by herself, was... nice. Penny felt lovely in her black dress and enjoyed being able to look at Sheldon in his smart looking suit but... it did feel a little odd, actually.

 

Sheldon, despite how delicious he appeared, didn't belong in a suit. She knew he hated wearing it. And Penny didn't really enjoy fine dining. She always felt like the well-paid garcons were judging her for her poor table manners and cheap tendencies, regardless that she was no longer a lowly waitress. The valet had actually sneered at her when she'd passed the keys over for her stupid, paperweight of a car, and could she blame him? It was a wreck waiting to happen. 

 

And they weren't talking.

 

Sure, they were talking a little. He'd ask about work and she'd reply that it was good, and then they would do it again but for his job. It wasn't like when they were at home, hunkered down on the sofa watching TV or playing video games. There, in the safe environment Sheldon had created, they could be totally free. Sheldon could endlessly ramble about the insane and brilliant things in his brain and Penny could snort-laugh with inelegance and brazenly flirt with him. He rarely responded to the flirting, but that was leagues better than this! If Penny had wanted an awkward first date, she would have used a dating site or taken Stewart out for drinks. No, she wanted Sheldon. Her Sheldon. They had known each other for so long that going on a date felt like a downgrade. They were too close for this.

 

"This was a mistake," she blurted out. Sheldon's eyes widened and it seemed he was panicking. Great going, Penny.

 

"Mistake? Penny, I... I realize I'm not..." he began to babble, looking around the restaurant anxiously.

 

"Don't finish that thought, Sheldon. That's not what I meant, okay?" Penny assured him as she clutched the napkin in her lap.

 

"What do you mean then? Other than to startle me, that is,” Sheldon groused, looking down to the empty place setting in front of him.

 

"It's just... this isn't us, right?" she asked him, but he didn’t seem like he understood.

 

"I fail to see your meaning. This is indeed us. Have you been watching those fanciful Netflix farces they claim are documentaries on philosophy? I swear, Penny, they were written and produced by absolute imbeciles. Anyone who's ever accidentally fallen asleep in a philosophy lecture feels they are an authority on the subject." 

 

"No," she chuckled, his wit easing her worries. Sheldon was still there; he was just nervous too. "No, I mean this place isn't us. That suit makes you look like James Bond, but it isn't you. I would much rather you wear your Green Lantern shirt, and I would much rather be eating your cooking. It just... doesn't this feel kind of unnecessary?"

 

"I thought a date was what we had wanted, Penny. A first date to set the tone of our relationship." Sheldon nervously tugged on his tie, a clear sign that he was uncomfortable. "I was led to believe by the many romance forums on the internet that a first date was an extremely important milestone of a romantic entanglement."

 

"Yeah, it can be, but I feel like we're way, way beyond that. We've known each other for like six years, lived across the hall from one another, we know so much about one another. It feels like... like a step back, honestly." She yawned then. "And to be honest I would rather be at home watching Doctor Who reruns than sitting here, barely talking or doing anything. I can't even try the fancy wine."

 

"Penny," Sheldon replied reverently. "Do you mean it? Earnestly?"

 

"Uh... which part?" she looked up then. What was he talking about?

 

"Would you rather be watching Doctor Who with me?" he inquired breathlessly.

 

Oh my god.

 

"Sheldon..." Penny smiled indulgently. He was such a wackadoodle. "Yes, I would."

 

Sheldon stood up from his seat unceremoniously and grabbed his coat. "Well, let's not waste any more time here then. We should go home." He turned to the stunned garcon, who was standing a few feet away. “We do not require menus, after all,” Sheldon offered rather boldly, then took her arm and lead her outside.

 

“Thai food night, right?” She asked when the valet finally brought her stupid car back to them.

 

“Indeed, it is. We should call now and drive there straight away to pick up our order,” Sheldon replied happily.

 

“Sounds like a plan, Stan!” Penny smiled, starting her car with a shaky rev of the engine.

 

“Penny,” Sheldon intoned exasperatedly. “I would prefer you do not call me Stan. That is the name of my mother’s pastor.” 

 

And Penny couldn’t help but laugh.

 

 

-

 

 

The Thai restaurant was a hole in the wall. Penny hadn’t ever been inside before, the guys had always picked their orders up, so she’d never known what kind of a joint it was. Inside, it was almost like a small apartment. Wood floors, a small counter with idols and incense on top. The menu on the wall wasn’t even fluorescent, it was just a large poster stuck against the plaster with Doraemon stickers. There was only one small table for a group of four to sit at, shoved in the corner.

 

And two familiar people stood inside, ordering their meals from the wall menu.

 

“And I’ll have the Tom Ka Gai with a side of… eep!” Raj squealed, slapping a hand over his mouth as he saw them enter. By his side, Howard turned around and blinked at them, like he didn’t really think he was seeing them at all.

 

“We should go,” Sheldon said quietly to her, turning around back towards the door.

 

“Ah, tall guy, your order is almost ready,” the owner called to Sheldon, waving them towards the counter. “Hey, Indian boy, finish your order. Tom Ka Gai and what?”

 

Raj shook his head, then whispered into Howard’s ear. Howard sighed and leaned an arm on the counter. “And a side of carrot salad,” he said, and he didn’t keep looking at them.

 

“No, no, it’s fine. Let’s just get our order. We already paid for it over the phone,” Penny reminded Sheldon, tugging on his arm a little. Sheldon heaved a deep sigh, then allowed her to pull him over near the counter.

 

The owner turned and went back seemingly into the kitchens, leaving the four of them alone in the front of the restaurant standing in silence, save the Bulls game playing quietly up on a TV in the corner.

 

Penny was busying herself by picking up loose packages of chopsticks, placing them back into the cup that usually held them and trying not to look at the two nerds she once considered friends. She didn’t know where she stood with them, though Raj still texted her often, usually about sales on fruit and pictures of dogs he thought she might like. She just never responded to any of them. Did that make her a bad person?

 

“So,” she found herself saying, much to the surprise of them all. A sick little pit of pettiness was egging her on to speak with them, get them to spill their guts. “How’s Leonard?”

 

Sheldon looked down at her sharply, his eyes saying very plainly what he thought. “This isn’t a good idea.” and her sane mind tended to agree. God, she didn’t want to be petty, she just wanted her dinner.

 

“We’re uh…” Howard hesitated, doing his best to look anywhere but at Penny. “We’re not friends with him anymore.”

 

“Howard,” Penny said tightly, snapping her fingers in front of his downcast eyes. “You can look at me, just don’t be creepy.”

 

Howard blinked harshly, then looked up at her and held her eyes steadily. It occurred to Penny then that she had actually never made eye contact with Howard before, ever. And he was holding her eyes, not even flicking down to look at her cleavage at all. It was a little weird.

 

“Right, sorry Penny,” he nodded. “Not creepy.”

 

“So, if you’re not friends with Leonard any longer, why haven’t I seen you both at Los Robles?” Penny asked, looking between the two guys and Sheldon. Sheldon looked a bit sick, but said nothing, and actually turned his head away like he was containing his irritation. It wasn’t like him to, well, bottle up his snappishness.

 

Raj held out his phone, the notes app open. “Probably the prank war we helped Leonard with,” it read.

 

“Prank war? You were really helping with that?” Penny ground out, stepping forward a little. The two nerds stepped back, clearly identifying a threat to their lives when they saw it. “You were helping that bastard make Sheldon’s life miserable! I’ve heard all about the little stunts from Leslie, broken thermostats and missing furniture. You’re going to help Sheldon get it all fixed, capiche?”

 

Raj nodded nervously, stepping behind Howard a little.

 

“Okay, we will!” Howard whispered quickly, his eyes wide. “God, Penny, you’re terrifying.”

 

“It’s true,” Sheldon agreed in a bored tone. “She is quite menacing. Last week I watched her drop twenty-eight feet from a helicopter, then walk away from it like Claire Bennet, giggling and smiling to herself ridiculously.”

 

“You’re kidding me, that’s not true!” Howard insisted, looking half horrified and half impressed.

 

“Who’s Claire Bennet again, Sheldon?” Penny asked. She hated keeping track of all the names and things Sheldon was always referencing.

 

“The blonde from Heroes, Penny, don’t you remember?” he replied, his tone insinuating she should have known. 

 

“Oh.” Penny did remember. “She was really cool. Hey, thanks babe. Your compliments are so weird and layered sometimes.” Penny blew him a kiss, and Sheldon flushed a little at that, looking away and to the large menu on the wall.

 

Raj whispered something frantically to Howard, who paled and turned back to Penny.

 

“Are you two…?” he trailed off, and when neither she nor Sheldon replied, he continued. “Are you, you know, together?”

 

Penny looked to Sheldon for his confirmation, but he gave none. He was silently gazing at her, willing that she take over the interaction. She understood; he sometimes got so socially drained that he couldn’t handle talking to people. It was just one of Sheldon’s many personality quirks, and she was fine taking over.

 

“Yeah, we are. Since the holidays,” Penny explained, watching their features carefully. Howard’s mouth dropped open as he looked between them both, the implication of his disbelief pretty obvious and annoying, if not expected. Raj was clapping a little, holding his hands in front of his face. He looked like an excited grandmother waiting to ask, ‘So when’s the wedding?’.

 

“Whoa, well, we won’t tell Leonard. If he found out, he might go crazy like he did with Melissa,” Howard said.

 

What? Worry was building in her stomach, dark and heavy and streaked with guilt.

 

“What did he do?” She looked to Sheldon when no one said anything, expecting him to be just as surprised, but he wasn’t. He was stoic, but his eyes were so expressive, and he looked almost apologetic. He knew something too. “What did Leonard do?”

 

Raj was speedily typing something, then he turned his phone to her. “We’re not sure, but he got served a protective order from her and she went to live with her parents out of state. A case of stalking, we’re pretty sure.”

 

Protective order? Stalking? “Oh my god, it’s my fault,” she uttered, then sucked in a horrified breath. “I should have… I should have done what you said, Sheldon, I s-should have told someone…” She could feel her body shaking, but almost distantly in a surreal way. All she had to do was go to the cops, to be brave and speak up, but she hadn’t, and now some girl had been hurt by Leonard. It was her fault. She wasn’t brave, no, that was a lie she’d cooked up to stroke her own ego. No, she was a coward. A fucking c—

 

“Penny, please look at me,” Sheldon ordered quietly, stepping into her personal space. He placed his hands very slowly on hers, with almost no pressure, and the feeling of his gloves drew her attention back to that moment.

 

But what could he possibly say to make this better?

 

“You are in no way at fault.” His face twisted into a grimace then, and Penny didn’t think she’d ever seen him look so self-deprecating.  “It was far more my responsibility than yours. I have had many instances where I could have personally warned Melissa of Leonard’s predatory nature, but I…”

 

“No, sweetie.” Penny squeezed his hands a little. “I shouldn’t have hid away and pretended like nothing had happened, because if I had stepped up, this might have never happened.”

 

“That’s a load of bullshit,” Howard cut in from beside them. Both she and Sheldon turned to look at him, and Raj was nodding silently in agreement.

 

“What?” Penny asked, going to wipe her eyes but realizing Sheldon might be put off by that. She looked to Sheldon. “Do you have tissues in your messenger bag?”

 

“Penny,” Sheldon scoffed gently, easing himself away from her and reaching into his bag. “You should know better by now that I carry all essentials on my person.”

 

As she wiped her eyes, taking care not to smear her eye makeup any more than it already had, Howard continued.

 

“You couldn’t have known about any of this, Penny. If it’s your fault, then it’s Sheldon’s too. And if it’s his, then it’s mine and Raj’s. We had plenty of opportunities to say something, but we didn’t,” Howard said emphatically. Raj leaned over and whispered into Howard's ear, and Howard nodded. “Right, and well, you said you weren’t safe around Leonard. So, what were you supposed to do?”

 

Penny threw the tissue into the trash and accepted the hand sanitizer from Sheldon without thought. “I should have gone to the police,” she whispered quietly, scrubbing her hands clean. She didn’t even want to look up at any of them. They were all standing in the small Thai restaurant, dancing around the situation of her abuse and it felt like the room was filling up with a cloud of crushing mortification. 

 

“Was what he did to you that bad, Penny?” Howard asked lowly, and she could see him shuffling his feet nervously. She felt sick, and the impulse to cry was strong, but she’d promised herself she wouldn’t let herself cry more over what happened.

 

Sheldon shifted closer to her side, a pillar of support. “Wolowitz, I hardly think that is an appropriate query for—”

 

“Yes,” Penny said, her voice strong as she cut Sheldon off. She looked up to the guys, keeping her gaze steady even though she felt the tension in her neck willing her to pull her eyes down. Her face was hot with shame, but at this point, why should she be ashamed at all? What was Sheldon always saying, that she didn’t ask to be victimized? She’d heard him, but maybe she’d never really believed it until now. Maybe she had internalized it so much that she still felt like it was practically her fault. “Yes, what he did was that bad.”

 

Raj had fat tears in his eyes and looked like he would be a sobbing wretch if she weren’t in the room with him. Penny didn’t want his pity, but maybe what he was feeling wasn’t pity. If one of her friends, even one she didn’t talk with a lot, said something like she’d just said, she would probably cry too. It’s not something you ever want to have happen to anyone, even your enemies. A fate worse than death, some people claim. And though Penny much preferred being alive, she could see why some people might feel like that. It had felt like that at the time, so painful she thought about dying, but now it just felt sore. Like an old wound that refused to heal no matter what you did. 

 

“We should go to President Siebert, right?” Howard asked the group shakily, looking between Sheldon and Raj.

 

“No, it cannot be accomplished without dredging up painful memories for Penny, and I refuse to allow her to be victimized further,” Sheldon insisted.

 

“Do it,” Penny interjected, her voice calm. “Go talk to your boss, use my name if you really have to, because at this point something has to give. If he is stalking women at your work, then he needs to be held accountable.” 

 

“Penny, are you certain?” Sheldon asked thoughtfully, pulling her gaze up to his face. He was grimacing a little, worried and maybe afraid for her. “There could be unintentional fallout.”

 

“And what about the fallout from my silence, huh? I think…” She breathed deeply, drawing strength from his presence. “I think it’s important to do this, sweetie.”

 

“If you’re certain,” he replied, and she was. Enough was enough.

 

Both theirs and the boys’ orders were placed on the counter.

 

“Do you…” Howard paused, looking to Raj. “Do you guys want to eat with us, here I mean?”

 

Penny looked up at Sheldon, gauging his mood. All his did was nod stiffly, essentially handing her the choice.

 

“Sure,” Penny found herself saying. The four of them sat at the table and ate their Thai orders like old times, and the dynamic shifted back into a comfortable and nostalgic flow. Howard still made crude jokes, but they seemed mellowed and more tasteful. Raj still whispered funny things for Howard to say, Sheldon still derided them sarcastically for any number of fabricated faults, and Penny still laughed with them.

 

They spent the evening catching back up, and none of them felt the loss of their once fifth member. Or maybe they did, but in a good way. Dinner wasn’t bogged down by that obnoxious, perpetual pissing match between Howard and Leonard, and Raj wasn’t extra cowed by Leonard’s condescending attitude. None of them seemed as scared or weird when they spoke to her either, even Raj – though he still did so through Howard or text – no, they all seemed like… like friends. It felt good, and for the first time Penny felt like she was actually part of their group for real, not just a piece of meat or eye candy in the corner. She still didn’t get all of their jokes, still felt kind of like the only adult sitting at the kid’s table, but that was fine. Everything was fine, maybe because Leonard was gone or she was ten times stronger than she had been the last time she’d seen the nerds, but it didn’t matter. All that mattered was that they all seemed happy.

 

 

-

 

 

Well, their date had not gone as Sheldon planned.

 

"Ugh," Penny grunted inelegantly, flopping onto the sofa in a boneless heap. Their evening had been a tiresome one, even though it had ended up that Howard and Rajesh weren’t mistakenly antagonistic towards them. It was still draining to socialize with people you’ve previously been at odds with, especially when you weren’t expecting to meet with them.

 

Sheldon came to join Penny on the sofa, smirking down at the way she was starfished at the other end. He removed his blazer as he moved towards her, folding it perfectly and draping it over the back of his desk chair. It would need to be dry cleaned.

 

"What do you require to relax? Are you still interested in watching Doctor Who this evening?”

 

"Sure, sure," she yawned, turning her head tiredly to look at him, her eyes focusing on his lips. "Though what I really want is to make out with you right now." Her stringent honesty made him recoil a bit, embarrassed. "But instead I think I'll take a shower. Do you mind if I use yours?"

 

His embarrassment turned into faint blush at her request, which seemed to please her.

 

"What? You want to watch me?" Penny teased, seemingly delighted by the reaction she was receiving from him.

 

"I... Penny..." he murmured. "L-let me just go fetch you a guest towel." Sheldon stood and went to the bathroom, willing his nervousness to leave him as he shuffled around the apartment. Penny desired a shower, that was all, and she just enjoyed teasing him. Sheldon genuinely was not certain he could entertain any other ideas without spontaneously combusting.

 

Penny followed him, and they stood together in the bathroom awkwardly for a moment. Sheldon set the folded towel down on the vanity.

 

"I... here is the..."

 

"I want to kiss you so much Sheldon," Penny interrupted him, batting her eyelashes in a kittenish manner that revealed her self-awareness and amusement. She knew was she was doing. Knew how enticing she was in that moment.

 

They had still yet to kiss properly.

 

"We could brush our teeth first if that would make it easier for you," she amended. Her lips were warm and rosy looking, naturally plump and smiling coquettishly. Sheldon had always wanted to be kissed, but the process of doing the act had frightened him. It had been too scary a task amongst his mangy peers in middle school, and unthinkable as he navigated the halls of university, surrounded by people double, sometimes triple his age.

 

"I cannot currently think of any reason why that shouldn't be sufficient..." And it was true. Sheldon was quickly trying to identify a failure in her idea but couldn't. If he were totally honest with himself, he didn't really want to find flaw with it, because he did want to kiss her. His anxiety came only from that he had never actually properly kissed anyone, and it was terrifying to try and attempt it now. What is he was a failure? A bad kisser?

 

"Good! Try not to overthink it,” Penny said, adjusting the strap of her dress as she turned towards the vanity.

 

Sheldon huffed a laugh at that. "Impossible," he muttered as he pulled one of the guest toothbrushes from the medicine cabinet. He handed it to Penny, and they began a sort of hygiene routine that could only be described as domestic. Side by side, brushing their teeth and making small, toothpasty smiles at each other. Sheldon couldn't help himself from glancing at her in the mirror.

 

He also couldn't help himself from correcting her like a pedantic freak.

 

"No, Penny, flossing first. Then you gargle with mouth wash, and only after that may you brush. If you do it in the reverse, you are needlessly stripping away the fluoride from the toothpaste with the weaker strength mouthwash," he urged, and she did her best to do as he commanded.

 

He truly couldn’t help himself.

 

"Thirty seconds, Penny! Thirty seconds on each quadrant of your teeth." His voice was unnecessarily frantic, but he took dental hygiene seriously.  

 

"Quradra...?" she tried to ask, the toothbrush in her mouth making it a difficult task.

 

Sheldon rolled his eyes. "Left upper, right upper, left lower, right lower. Then tongue, and inner cheeks."

 

"Howrein..." Penny sputtered, then spit out the toothpaste in her mouth, thankfully shielding him from seeing the trajectory with her hand. "How in the world are you supposed to brush your tongue and cheeks?”

 

Sheldon impatiently gestured to her toothbrush. "The back, Penny, obviously. These rubber micro bristles are used for that exact purpose."

 

"Jesus, Sheldon, you sound like a toothbrush commercial. And these are really fancy for guest toothbrushes."

 

"Yes, well, it would have been ridiculous if I supplied every guest with an electric toothbrush of the caliber I possess, however I will not allow anyone to neglect their oral hygiene in my home."

 

"Stho thoughtful..." Penny murmured as she viciously scrubbed her tongue, eyes crossed in fascination as she watched her reflection. She was horribly endearing to Sheldon in that moment; she was doing everything she could to make him feel easy about their prospective kiss.

 

Despite this, he still felt anxious. It was a terrifying thing to broach something so untouched on in one’s life, especially after thirty-four years. Ruminating on his age made him cringe to himself, that he was so old and yet so inexperienced. He'd never cared about people's taunting of his virginity, for sex had never been exactly at the forefront of his mind, but the lack of intimacy did upset him. He had gone the majority of his life without tenderness, without physical care and ardor. Sheldon had always tried to pretend he was above all forms of intimacy; however, the truth was that he craved it. He could easily apply Vick's Vapor rub to his own chest whilst he was suffering from illness but begging Penny to aid him had soothed a part of him far more injured than his sinuses. He desired what was to come, but it was petrifying.

 

"Penny, it is likely your mouth is likely sufficiently clean,” he offered her once he had finished his own routine.

 

"Oh..." she mumbled, then began looking around for a glass to fill.

 

"No, no rinsing,” he tsked.

 

"The fluoride?" Penny laughingly asked. At his solemn nod, she ceased her search and turned to face him squarely, her eyes full of determination that had his skin prickling with anticipation.

 

Penny slowly reached for the hem of her black dress, then pulled it over her head and tossed it into the hamper behind him, no doubt enjoying the way she was making him squirm by showcasing her body. She was wearing a brassiere and very sensible underwear, but still, it was overstimulating his brain. She looked… she looked… Why had she done that?

 

Suddenly her lips were too near. Was he ready? Could he manage to actually allow Penny to kiss him? Would he ruin the experience for both of them? Oh, god, what if his teeth hit hers or he accidentally bit her or something?

 

"I really appreciated you taking my oral hygiene suggestions," he said anxiously, looking away from her.

 

"Sheldon." Penny was looking up at him searchingly. "May I kiss you now?"

 

"And your hair is looking quite… clean today. Very bouncy. Is that a desirable quality for hair?"

 

"Sheldon!" Penny said exasperatedly, crossing her arms in a way that did nothing but highlight how lovely her curves were.

 

"Yes, yes, I'm... getting to that," Sheldon trembled nervously, wringing his hands. "I am anticipating our kiss, but please refrain from manhandling my person, Penny. I know how handsy you tend to be, so try and restrain... mmmph!"

 

His voice was muddled by the press of Penny's soft but insistent lips, and his own very quickly became pliant and obliging. Her lips were working over his expertly, softly caressing then lovingly demanding. It felt so strange, but with every movement of her lips, frissons of pleasure shot down his spine and into his toes. She released him then, and without thought, his lips chased hers a small distance to continue the embrace.

 

"Tip your head down," she ordered softly, smirking at his neediness. He acquiesced easily, lowering his head to her and receiving another, longer and more intensive embrace than the last. Embarrassingly, he found himself moaning lightly into her mouth, and when she slid her tongue between his lips and began caressing the cavity of his mouth, he whimpered harshly, body slackening as he submitted. Her tongue was... the only way he could think to describe it would be making love to his, carnally pleasurable and utterly terrifying. Visceral. It made him shudder with desperation; he suddenly felt every second of his touch-starved life all at once, and he needed more. It was too much.

 

"P... Pen..." he uttered, trying in vain to call her off. He didn't really want her to stop, and he thanked her foresight at thoroughly cleansing her tongue. The harsh spearmint of the toothpaste they'd both used was causing the contact of her tongue to tingle along his taste buds and remind him that he was in no danger.

 

A flare of desire overtook him as she gently nibbled on his bottom lip, the flow of his thrumming blood redirecting almost painfully. It surprised him, arousal had never felt like this before, so he pulled away from her.

 

"Aww, no more?" Penny pouted. "I was enjoying myself. And yourself," she laughed breathily, winking at him. How was she this confident? Sheldon could barely articulate his own fingers, and she was standing there laughing like this wasn't the most monumental and earth-moving moment of his life.

 

"P-Penny..." he shuddered, having to remind himself to blink. "I should... I should leave you to shower."

 

Penny had this look about her, like a succubus waiting to snare him as she swiftly and shockingly divested herself of her brassiere. It too went into the hamper, the force of her arms as she tossed it only intensified the residual movement of her breasts as they were freed and left bare.

 

"Penny?" Sheldon drew his eyebrows together, lips parting. Breathing was a struggle. He couldn’t quite remember his own name.

 

"You could stay if you wanted to..." Penny offered, appearing simultaneously bashful and brazen. She did nothing to cover herself, and in fact, her hands had begun to inch her underwear down her hips. "I wasn't really joking earlier. You could stay while I shower?"

 

"Oh, yes," he whispered almost inaudibly, much to both their surprise. He had never done something so depraved, but he could not simply leave the bathroom now. Not while Penny was turning around, facing away from him as she slipped her underwear off and cast them away. And good God, Penny was naked and intensely gorgeous.

 

While an average man might describe Penny's body as perfection, Sheldon would do no such disservice. Every unique curve was enticingly beautiful, the swell of her hips and the shadows cast under her breasts. Even her ill-begotten Chinese tattoo was pleasing, it reminded him of how close they’d gotten and how far they’d come.

 

He memorized her, every detail for later inspection and filed the images reverently with his most cherished recollections. He was so focused on her form as she moved, it seemed time itself had stopped to let him gaze at her.

 

Penny stepped slowly into the clean tub, and he saw her smile down at the slip resistant stickers shaped like the Millennium Falcon. He’d had to replace the ducks, sadly.

 

"For your safety," he murmured, much to her amusement. Lord almighty, he felt woozy. More erotically unsettling was the fact that she had yet to close the shower curtain and didn't show any sign of doing so.

 

She'd done exactly as he had hoped, though, and used one of the new - just out of the packaging - loofahs that he always kept just in case she would need to use his facilities. She held it in one hand as the other started the water. The spray was no doubt cold at first, causing her to jump a little and alighting her flesh with goosebumps. Quickly the water warmed to her preferred temperature, and Penny began to bathe herself. Slow strokes of the sponge over her skin, leaving streaks of cleansing soap and disturbing the rivulets of water cascading over her.

 

It was painfully arresting. It was like the first time he'd peered through the lens of a telescope up to the stars. He had never felt so overcome by wonderment. Never so overcome by sexual desire, either, and it was all parts terrifying and exciting.

 

He wanted to keep watching her forever.

 

~

 

In the tub, Penny felt unnervingly aroused as she slowly showered. She had showered with guys before, but never showered for someone. It felt so scandalously exhibitionist, but she loved the way her usually reserved man was looking at her now. She felt something within her that spurred her arousal to a deep, aching flame in her lower belly. It was power, Penny realized. Power over him, even from this distance.

 

His eyes were half-lidded and dark, following her movements eagerly. Penny had never imagined Sheldon could look so masculine, so hungry, but now she wouldn't be able to look at him and not see him this way.

 

As Penny moved the loofah over her breasts, eliciting a quiet moan from her partner, she realized how unfair everything was. Everyone had always said he was a eunuch, asexual, a robot, and she’d placidly agreed; Sheldon had never contested any of it. He was such a private man though, she wished she had realized. She wished they could have started out earlier, fresher and freer from the anxieties of their experiences.

 

Her hand began to slow.

 

"Penny..." Sheldon's breathless voice cut through her musings. "Please do not neglect your... cleanliness..." His inelegance was charming, and it set her skin ablaze. Penny moved her hands downward, washing herself languidly and covering herself with a thin layer of suds. She wanted to touch herself so badly, but she didn't know what he was hoping to get from this. Maybe cleanliness was his idea of a good time, she couldn't be sure. They had never discussed the nitty-gritty of their hopefully eventual sex life. Honest to god, she’d never done anything like this before.

 

"Sheldon..." Penny called, her voice sounding oddly erotic and desperate in the echo of the tiled room. "Do you want to watch me touch myself too, or should I just keep showering?"

 

The hand that Sheldon had been scrubbing over his chest absentmindedly stopped, fingers gripping the material of his button-up shirt tightly.

 

"Uhh, touch yourself? Do you mean… " His eyes darted down to look between her legs, blinking slowly at the junction of her thighs that cast a shadow over her center. "Stimulate yourself... if you wish... do not need to feel as if you need to… to please me."

 

She turned towards him at that revelation, abandoning the pretense of bathing, and raised a foot to the lip of the tub. Sheldon gasped as she exposed herself to his gaze further. His hand had inched lower to his belt, gripping it anxiously as if he wished he could join her in self-satisfaction but wouldn't or didn’t know if he could.

 

"Sheldon..." Penny moaned, tracing a finger over her clitoris in gentle, slow sweeps. Penny's other hand teasingly groped her own breast, more for his viewing pleasure than anything.

 

Sheldon fell back, sitting himself on the vanity as he panted. Oh, he was enjoying the show. She knew she was good at this, and it felt so, so perfect to be doing it for him. For a man who demanded nothing in return.

 

"Sheldon, you can do it too," she offered sweetly, head beginning to dip from the heady bliss that was building inside of her. This was so good, so good. Sheldon's face was burning, and he shook his head quickly.

 

"No, I don't usually, I don't..." he was stuttering, eyes darting between her eyes, breasts, and where her fingers were dancing between her thighs.

 

"It's okay, just watch," Penny soothed. Her pace quickened, fingers playing over herself expertly. Her orgasm was coming faster than it had ever before; she had never been this turned on. Sheldon's rapid exhalations were becoming labored and uneven, his slacks obviously tented by his strained erection. God, seeing how much he was enjoying this was making her feel so damn good, so incredible. It was amazing to think that once she’d thought he found her repulsive, but now he looked like he might go crazy.

 

Penny moaned loudly, reclining further against the cold tiled wall as she brought herself over the edge. She was fully exposed to him, vulnerable in the only way she knew how to be when not a total mess.

 

"Sheldon, oh god...!" Her toes were curling, head falling back against wall as water sprayed the side of her body and god, she felt alive and on fire. "Yes!" Penny came apart at the seams, white sparks flashing behind her eyes as the rolling pleasure became consuming.

 

Sheldon was stifling a moan as he began to tremble with wide eyes.

 

"Penny I-! I have to go!" Sheldon slid off of the vanity, rushing to the door and disappearing into his bedroom across from it. Penny sighed, her bliss mingling with disappointment. Well, it couldn’t be helped that he was so inexperienced.

 

That had been the single best orgasm she'd ever had, and he hadn't even touched her. She hadn't even gotten to watch him do anything.

 

Penny shut the shower off, toweling herself dry and quickly went to wait for Sheldon in the living room, wrapped in the guest bathrobe. As she passed his bedroom door, she could hear Sheldon softly gasping her name and it made her desperately wish she could just push open the door and join him. Maybe even have normal sex. But she knew their relationship was anything but normal. She would respect his boundaries, even if they didn't make a lot of sense to her right then. The pace of their intimacy was very weird, but it seemed to be working out alright. In the end, all that mattered was that they were together in whatever way they could manage.

 

A few minutes later, as she had finally gotten comfortable in her borrowed robe, Sheldon reappeared, looking anxiously sated and disheveled.

 

"I'm..." he began, voice deflating into silence. He went to say something else, but his jaw clicked shut.  His face was aflame with what looked like shame. Oh no, she didn’t want him to feel ashamed of what they did.

 

"It's okay, sweetie. I'm glad you enjoyed yourself too. I love you," Penny reassured. Sheldon nodded, then turned to the bathroom for his own shower. Penny slipped down into the sofa cushions, mind fizzling from afterglow and dismay.

 

This was going to be a lot of work, but he was worth it.

 

Chapter Text

A few weeks later, in the beginning of March.

 

 

“I read a Star Trek book,” Penny told him over breakfast. Sheldon looked up at her, joy evident on his face. Their relationship had been building a solid foundation, but now, now his love was complete.  She was reading Star Trek books, good heavens. It was perfection!

 

“Truly? Which book? Did you enjoy it? Was it A Burning House?” His barrage of questions made Penny smile, but she shook her head in the negative, her loose and shiny hair settling around her face.

 

“I can’t remember the name, but it was about Spock and Uhura having seriously kinky tantric sex.”

 

“Penny!” he replied, scandalized. “That’s fanfiction, it’s not part of the Trek canon! I own an immense quantity of volumes that you ought to read instead.”

 

“Yeah but, it was super hot. There was this part where they did the mind-meldy thing while they were having sex… woo-boy! All I can say is I enjoyed my Thursday night.” 

 

Sheldon’s face burned red as she recounted her leisure reading; he wasn’t prepared to have discussions like this over breakfast.

 

“At least assure me that it was Original Series Spock and Uhura and not those Abrams movie… knock-offs,” he said with distaste as he dropped his fork to his empty plate, picking up his glass or orange juice.

 

“Oh definitely! They were doing it against the wall in Spock’s sonic shower, and speaking of immense…” Penny continued, eyes twinkling darkly at his embarrassment.

 

Sheldon gulped hard, attempting to force his orange juice down his throat. He had never been aroused whilst consuming pancakes and juice, it was… disconcerting.

 

“My-my, look at the time Penny. I should begin cleaning up now so I may leave for work in a timely manner.” He spun around, collecting dishes and shoving them into the sink.

 

“Sheldon, you don’t have to be in your office for another few hours,” she giggled, moving past him to get a second cup of coffee. “Relax, sweetie.”

 

“Easy for you to say, Penny.” His voice cracked, and he set the cup he was scouring down with a frown. Most disconcerting. “Relax…” he muttered. He poured his focus into scrubbing the dishes, attempting to quell his burgeoning arousal silently.

 

~

 

Penny watched him squirm with a smile hidden behind her coffee mug. She took a sip then frowned when she realized that it needed more sugar. Sheldon had made the coffee too strong that morning, or maybe she’d just not scooped enough sugary-goodness into her cup. Penny squeezed by Sheldon closely, their bodies nearly brushing. Sheldon's movements stuttered in his task, and Penny's inconvenient desire decided it would make itself known right then.

 

"Ugh, I want to jump you so bad Sheldon, but I won't do that to you." Reluctantly, she was going to go back to fixing her coffee, but Sheldon stopped her. He turned around to face her and removed his dishwashing gloves, laying them at the base of the empty sink for later disinfection.

 

"You... you can jump me," he offered quietly. "Just please, don't touch my hands or any exposed skin, I haven’t showered yet today." He looked so vulnerable, leaned up against the counter and trapped by her. It occurred to Penny then that, regardless of his problems with germs, he did want to be loved on. Because of the difficulties he faced, no one took the time to try, and so he didn't know how to receive it. She smiled up to him, hopefully imparting a sense of calm in her expression.

 

"Okay, Sheldon." She eased herself closer, pressing her body against the firm plane of his torso. His body was tensed, shivering. “Why don’t you hold onto the counter, that way your hands aren’t in the way, hmm?”

 

Sheldon complied easily to her request, gripping the marble at either side of him. It made Penny beam, seeing him so trusting of her judgement. She reached a hand out to touch him, then hesitated as he flinched softly. Penny wanted to feel offended, and the little bit of shame she still carried deep within her was threatening to bloom, but Penny didn’t want to let it taint this moment she had with Sheldon. His vulnerability was rare, his submission to others almost unbelievable. She instead reached for a cabinet drawer and plucked a small bottle of hand sanitizer out. Even though they both knew she was clean - she’d just come from her apartment showered after all, Penny was giving him this act as an assurance. She cared about him and wanted him to know she took him and his concerns seriously.

 

When her hands were disinfected and the alcohol had dried the cleanser away, she returned the bottle to the drawer, then rested her hands on his chest. Again, he flinched, but this time with an intake of startled breath that sounded just adorable. Penny looked up at him as she tentatively stroked his chest, lovingly petting him and letting him acclimate to her attention. His expression was so befuddled, eyes wide and mouth parted.

 

Such a virgin. Had she ever looked this innocent? Penny scraped one of her manicured nails over where she imagined his nipple might be, and he inhaled with a sharp stutter. No, she had never been that innocent.

 

"Do you like me telling you what to do, Sheldon?" Penny asked softly as she ran her hands over his deep blue pajama shirt in slow circles, letting her fingers trace the contours of his pectorals and the slight dip of his sternum.

 

"Y-es, I do. It's quite reassuring," Sheldon replied with minor difficulty, and she could feel the puffs of air from his labored breathing overhead.

 

"I like it too." Penny raised herself to her tiptoes, then leant her legs against his for support. Now, with the added height, she could gently align their pelvises and...

 

"Oh, g-god!" Sheldon whimpered, startled by the connection of their hips, his already present erection trapped between them. Penny rubbed herself gently against his stiffness, feeling dizzy as the button placket of his pajama pants stimulated her just right. Sheldon wasn’t kidding, oh god.

 

"Yes..." Penny hissed, her questing fingers sliding over an invisible line down his abdomen. She could feel his muscles vibrating with need. With a giddy determination, Penny rubbed her clothed mound against his erection. She didn’t understand it, but the mere fact that Sheldon wasn’t touching her made her feel all the more turned on. What was happening to her?

 

"Penny! Penny, please...!" His hips began to gently buck, meeting hers for friction. Penny looked up to catch his eyes, but they were tightly shut.

 

"What do you need, Sheldon?" she asked him much more calmly than she felt, giving his sides a gentle but reassuring squeeze.

 

"I'm..." a pause, his voice almost cracking. "I'm not s-sure...!"

 

Penny wrapped her fingers around his hips, pulling them tightly against her and using them as leverage. With confidence, Penny began to slowly grind herself against him, stimulating them both.

 

"I know what you need, sweetie, I got you. Let me make you feel good." Penny’s toes were beginning to curl, pushing her higher and tighter against the line of his body. Through the thin material of his pajama pants, she could feel the outline of his dick and could almost picture it in her mind, and oh god it felt amazing. It was pushing her exactly where she wanted to take them.

 

“P-Penny, I am afraid I will eja… uh god! Release in my pajama pants. Please, don’t, I…”

 

She’d been afraid of this. He was so prim and careful, but sex was always messy in one way or another. Fear that this would crash and burn was beginning to well up inside her, but she kicked it away harshly as she dragged her leg up his, hooking it around his knee to lock them closer together.

 

“Why can’t you release in your pants, Sheldon? Can’t you just… get rid of the pants, and then shower?” A pause as Penny slowly changed the angle of her grind, her body jittering with desire as she could feel even more of him. “And then maybe later we could go pick up a peach cobbler from that bakery you like…” she plied, hoping Sheldon would relax. She didn’t want this to end badly for him, she wanted his first time doing something like this to be wonderful.

 

“I…” he was having a hard time thinking over her words, obviously, because his sentence hung as his head bobbed from her movements against him and his lips slackened. “I c-could do that.”

 

“Yeah? And you wanna release for me?” Penny requested sweetly, if not vaguely pornographically. She pressed her breasts against his torso, leaving little kisses along the buttons on his shirt. “I want to come like this, both of us.” He was on the precipice; it was clear as day. His face was screwing up beautifully as he anticipated his orgasm.

 

“I love you, sweetie, it’s okay,” Penny murmured softly against his chest as she rocked against him. Sheldon moaned then, and she felt his erection, trapped as it was beneath his pants and his briefs, throb insistently against her. God she was going to lose it, right here in the kitchen. This was so bizarre, so good, and he was going to lose it too.

 

“Penny!” Sheldon voice was a choked sob as he unthinkingly reached for her, fingers tangling in her blonde hair. “Penny, love you!” he cried into the top of her head, his voice cracking as the intensity of his orgasm overcame him. Penny followed him immediately, seeing stars as they clung to one another. This may have been his first time doing something like this, but for Penny it felt new in a whole unexpected way. It had never been like this before. Why had it never felt like this before? She felt tears coming on but maintained herself, instead letting herself settle into the wave of ecstasy.

 

“I love you, love you…” he kept whimpering into her hair, and as Penny came down from her orgasm, she realized Sheldon was actually crying. She shushed him, rocking him in her arms he joined her back on earth. Penny had to be gentle with him, he was more of a virgin than Penny had ever really thought possible.

 

“Hey, shh, it’s alright sweetie. You okay?” she asked gently, releasing him slowly as not to frighten him. Sheldon let go of her more quickly, his eyes unfocused but bright.

 

“Yes, I… it was incredibly… incredibly overwhelming…” He looked down at himself and it was clear what he was thinking. He looked like he might start panicking.

 

“Don’t worry, Sheldon, just go shower. Take a garbage bag with you and dump your clothes in it and relax. It’s all okay.” She even grabbed the garbage bag for him and handed it over.

 

Before he ran for the bathroom, he smiled deeply at her in a way Penny had never seen. He looked serene, and almost a bit stupid. It was a revelation.

 

When he emerged later, looking fresh and clean, holding a black bag full of his soiled clothes, Penny wondered how far their physical relationship could ever go. If this was all they could manage then she would deal, because she loved him, but she did so wish that they could eventually make love for real.

 

“I’ll need to purchase more pajamas today,” he alerted her with a small frown. It made her laugh, because god she loved her wackadoodle.

 

 

-

 

 

“Today’s the day, Cooper,” Leslie said as she came into his hollowed-out office on one Monday morning. “Leonard Hofstadter won’t be able to escape this,” Leslie assured. Behind her short but assured form, Howard and Raj appeared, hesitating on the other side of his office door. Leslie seemed to notice his gaze and turned to look at them.

 

And she did not look pleased.

 

“What the hell do you two stooges want?” she growled.

 

“We’re here for support,” Howard said quietly, his admission almost sounding like it pained him.

 

“I can’t believe it,” Leslie laughed humorlessly. “I don’t believe either of you would turn on your friend like that, and what do you even know about what’s been going on?”

 

“They know a great deal, Leslie,” Sheldon offered, glancing between the three of them.

 

“Yeah,” Howard agreed. “We know enough, and we want to support you. We don’t… he’s… he’s done some really bad stuff.”

 

Raj silently rifled through his briefcase then produced some photocopied documents and handed them to Leslie. Leslie looked over them with a frown, her brows drawing together.

 

“Oh – my – god, is this for real? Holy shit,” she uttered, turning the pages over.

 

“Yeah, I’m afraid it is. Restraining order against one Leonard Hofstadter, curtesy of him being one big gross douche. Raj’s sister is an attorney and she managed to pull the right files for us. We can take this to the president,” Howard said, almost repentantly.

 

“You two are seriously going to back us up?” she asked with bewilderment. They both nodded, and it seemed to resolve their entire party. “Okay, good. We should ambush Siebert in his office later today, after he’s done with all his meetings. We can present what we know to him and get this finished once and for all.”

 

They agreed to the plan and split off to work, the atmosphere of their offices and workspaces cold and jittery in anticipation.

 

At the end of the day they reconvened and had gone to his office fully prepared to be heard. They waltzed past President Siebert’s secretary, and barged through the large double doors of his office, prepared to argue their case. Leslie did most of the talking, laying down the facts heatedly and tossing the papers regarding the restraining order down on the president’s ridiculously ornate desk.

 

So far, it hadn’t gone well.

 

“Leslie,” President Siebert intoned condescendingly, cutting her off once her tirade began to cool. “Please calm down, we don’t need theatrics.”

 

“It’s not theatrics! He is genuinely a danger to the female staff and student-body,” she cried. She was getting riled up again, and all because the man was not listening to them. Sheldon was already suffering a headache from all of this.

 

“I understand that’s your opinion, but let’s be reasonable—”

 

“This is reasonable, Siebert! Why can’t you acknowledge what he’s done? Why won’t you do something?”

 

“I can’t comment on your accusations other than that, without proof, they just make you all look petty. As for doing something, I have already spoken with Doctor Hofstadter about it,” Sibert finally said.

 

“You have?” Sheldon inquired. That should have been a good thing, but the president’s tone did not sound at all promising.

 

“Yes, just this morning actually. I was aware of your little inquisition before you came to my office, my secretary informed me. I called Hofstadter in and we talked, about the accusations and the issue with the cashier. He’s on probation currently, while we look into the legal issues, but otherwise there is nothing else to do. He is an asset to LIGO, and unless some proof is given, I can’t conscionably dismiss him.”

 

“You’re saying four people who’ve all worked close with him, who were friends with him until recently isn’t proof enough for you?” Howard scowled. “Are you serious?”

 

“Wolowtiz, I would suggest lowering your valiant spear of justice. I don’t appreciate your tone of voice, and as a matter of fact, I was just looking at the budget cut reports for your division,” Siebert said icily.

 

“Oh…” Howard frowned. “I see how it is.”

 

“Good, I’m glad that you all do.” Siebert smiled. “Now please, I have a lot of business to take care of.” He waved them towards the double doors.

 

Their group began to shuffle about, looking nervously to one another as they decided what, if anything, they could do. In that moment, Sheldon felt determination swell up and consume him, and he moved forward, placing himself directly in President Siebert’s vision.

 

“Doctor Cooper? Is there something more you have to say?” Siebert asked calmly.

 

“Yes, there is,” Sheldon replied, taking a fortifying breath before continuing. What he was about to do felt bittersweet, and almost pained his heart, but it had to be done. “I am giving you my informal resignation as of today. You say you cannot conscionably dismiss Leonard Hofstadter without proof, but I cannot conscionably stay employed at the very university that harbors him. I am very sorry I cannot provide you with the necessary evidence to support our claims, but regardless, they are there. He has disturbed the very foundation of my life and the life of someone very close to me, so I must move on to work with another university.”

 

From behind him, he heard Raj gasp audibly, and in his peripheral he could see Leslie nodding her head in support.

 

“Resignation?” Siebert sat forward in his chair; hands splayed on his large desk. “Who’s poaching you? We can raise your salary if it’s necessary. Is it MIT? They can’t afford you like we can.”

 

“Did you not just hear a word I said to you, Bob?” Sheldon sneered. “This has nothing to do with me being poached by another university. If you must know, I’ve had standing offers from six other universities for years, some of them offering much more than what you do, but I’ve stayed because this was my home. This is no longer true, so I no longer feel compelled to stay here.” Sheldon then turned to leave.

 

“Wait, Doctor Cooper, you’re much more important to us then Hofstadter. We could… we could consider letting him go if you stay on, your work on string theory is extremely vital to the university,” Sibert said quickly, making as if to stand from his desk and follow.

 

“Vital? Ha! I can’t agree. Perhaps you meant to say that my work was vital to bolstering the ego of this school, vital to its publicity. You’ll have to attract new donors without me, Bob, because I won’t write another equation under your banner. Not when you fully admit that the reputation of this school is more valuable to you than the actual integrity of its staff.”

 

“Doctor—” Siebert tried, but it wasn’t enough. Nothing the man said ever could be. Sheldon turned his back on the man and walked out.

 

Leslie and the boys followed him into the hallway, their faces all pale and stunned.

 

“Holy shit,” Howard said. “That was…”

 

“That was really honorable of you, Cooper. Seriously,” Leslie smiled. “You have my respect.” Raj was nodding eagerly at that.

 

“Thank you, but it wasn’t meant to be such. I simply…” he paused, not quite sure of how to express what he felt.

 

“I know,” Leslie assured him. “I know, I feel the same way.”

 

“If you’ll all excuse me, I have to meet Penny in ten minutes,” Sheldon explained, righting his sleeves and bag strap unnecessarily. His nerves at resigning from his job were giving way to a sort of serenity, as if his physical body was aware that it had been the right decision.

 

“Got a hot date, huh?” Howard smirked. “Say hi to Penny for me.” Raj leant over and whispered into Howards ear, who looked a little exasperated. “And hi from Raj, too.”

 

“I shall do so,” Sheldon replied. He gave his farewells to them all, then left Caltech once and for all, feeling as if he was a proverbial Benjamin Button, the years falling like broken shackles to the floor as he passed through the atrium and into the parking lot. He never had to work in that place again, he never had to see Leonard’s hateful face around another corner again.

 

With a spring in his step, Sheldon made his way across campus and to Penny. Sheldon didn’t notice that as he walked towards the Fight Dojo, someone was following him with interest and malintent.

 

 

-

 

 

“Oh good, you’re here!” Penny smiled as she started up the treadmill she was using. Sheldon had come into the gym to meet her, moving towards the machine she was on. He looked so sexy, even just in his normal shirt combo and plaid pants, but everything about his aura seemed different since that morning.

 

Penny was coming around to the idea of having a wackadoodle sex life.

 

"Here," she offered as she jogged, holding out a five-dollar bill. "Go to the vending machine and get me one of the fancy waters with electrolytes, would you?"

 

Sheldon took the bill with a quirk of his eyebrow, holding it in his gloved hand.

 

"Penny, I can purchase you a drink with my phone, the machines have e-pay, and you know how much I detest inconveniences like cash."

 

"Yeah but," Penny paused to breathe as the treadmill ramped up in speed. "But it feels so good to spend my own money on myself, you know?"

 

He nodded in understanding and stepped away towards the vending machine, leaving her to her solitude and the pounding of her feet against the rubbery tread. Again, she ramped up the speed and let her heart beat wildly, enjoying the feeling of sprinting and letting her body work. She wished she had some music to accompany her sprint, but the ambient noise of her thrumming pulse was enough to motivate her. She was so ready to run after a speeding bus, ready to feel like a superhero. Her new stunt gig was going to be an incredible boost for her career. After her stunts had finished shooting for the movie, Mike had recommended her to another production for a small but intense bit. Speeding bus, god damn it, and even her mom was impressed now.

 

Behind her, Penny heard footfalls as someone approached and stopped beside the treadmill.

 

"Were they out, sweetie?" she called back, preparing to lower the speed so she could take a much-needed breather.

 

"Penny." The voice was steel edged and definitely not Sheldon's. She hadn't heard that voice in months. As Penny turned her disbelieving eyes over her shoulder to Leonard, who stood just inches away from her, her foot landed wrong on the treadmill and sent a shooting pain up from her ankle to her twisted knee. She stumbled back, nearly launched by the speeding machine off of it and onto said throbbing knee with a cry of pain.

 

Her brain was whiting out, she was in agony. Penny almost didn't register that the hand helping her up was his.

 

"Get away from me!" Penny screamed, pushing him away forcefully. It landed her once again on her leg, but she didn't care. Leonard wouldn't fucking touch her!

 

"You've made my life hell!" he shouted back at her without warning, garnering the attention of every gym rat in the building. Dozens of energized faces were turning to look at them, all wary and ready to step in. Even Damian was poised to jump to her rescue, though this time it would be warranted.

 

"I've made your life hell? Holy shit, do you even hear yourself? You're delusional!" Penny shot back loudly, easing herself off her knee. It was throbbing, and already looked red and angry. Fear began to build inside her that she had actually injured it for real. No, no, she couldn’t be injured. Not now!

 

Leonard again stepped over to her, reaching a hand out as if to grab her.

 

"I said get away from me!" she screamed at him. Now people were moving into action. Damian and one of his friends were stepping off their own machines, brows lowered in an intense and concerned way.

 

"Is this guy a creep?" Damian called over the machines to Penny, looking like a nightclub bouncer as he began to make his way through the many treadmills and ellipticals towards them.

 

"Yes, yes he is," Penny replied shortly as she gently massaged her tender and quickly swelling knee. This was so not good, the opposite of good. How was she supposed to sprint alongside a moving bus or jump out of a window with a busted knee?

 

"You bitch! One lousy night and you decide to systematically turn everyone in my life against me! Now I'm under investigation, do you know what that fucking means Penny? It means my career is at stake!" Leonard ranted harshly, glaring at her and baring his teeth. "I've worked my whole life to get to where I am and now, I have to walk on eggshells and go on sabbatical! And now I hear you’re fucking Sheldon? Sheldon? Are you kidding me?" His voice was so loud, deafening in her ears as she shook from the horror and rage that was coursing through her. This couldn't be happening; this place was her sanctuary. She couldn't take this anymore!

 

"You are a rapist!" Penny shouted back vehemently; her voice strong but shaky as she articulated every word. It garnered the gasps of nearby exercisers, some stopping their machines fully and looking on in horror. It was mortifying to have her most intimate and shameful moment aired so publicly, but enough was enough.

 

She was frightened and livid and in so much pain.

 

"You're a rapist, being investigated is the least that you deserve!" Her emphatic follow-up seemed to utterly enrage Leonard, and he lunged forwards. Time slowed as he neared her, his face twisted and ugly as he reached for her, and from the corner of her eye she saw Damian trying to make his way over for a daring rescue, but he was too far to intervene fast enough. Was Leonard going to hurt her more directly this time? Openly display his total disregard for her? Penny couldn't believe that at one point in her life she had thought she'd loved this man; his true self was so hateful and unrecognizable. She wanted to close her eyes as his fingers made contact with her face, but she wasn't a coward just because she was in agony and horribly frightened.

 

A gloved hand materialized from behind both of them, grappling onto Leonard's hair and yanking him back with a sharp tug. Leonard shouted in pain as Sheldon held the shorter man by his shaggy hair, the grip firm enough to raise Leonard up onto his toes.

 

And oh god, Sheldon looked terrifying, and Penny felt her heart stutter. The world spinning around her. She wanted to throw up.

 

"You followed me from the university? Shall I bring you up on stalking charges too, Hofstadter?" Sheldon asked darkly, keeping Leonard held up by his hair. Leonard struggled, beating his hands against Sheldon's chest to no avail.

 

"Let - me - go!" Leonard growled in staccato.

 

"If you make more trouble, I'll let Penny give you another black eye," Sheldon responded coldly through his clenched jaw. When Damian finally made his way over to them, Sheldon instantly shoved Leonard into the muscled man's open arms like he was poisonous, releasing him with a deeply hateful sneer.

 

"You can't just come in here and harass people, you creep. You can't come in here ever again. Ever," Damian explained angrily as he dragged Leonard out of the equipment room. People were whispering quietly now that the confrontation seemed over, but for Penny it was far from finished.

 

"Sheldon?" she called up to him, and her voice sounded weak and pathetic. He was shaking violently as he stood before her, but as soon as he turned to look at her, his gaze softened, moving down to her level as he instantly saw the damage to her joint.

 

And Penny finally let herself cry.

 

"Sheldon, it hurts," she whimpered tearfully, scooting closer to him. This was her life now; her physical ability was her career. Why did Leonard need to ruin everything in her life? Her knee felt like it had been crushed under a semi; she was in physical and mental agony.

 

"Penny, don't upset yourself unnecessarily," Sheldon whispered to her gently, which was a sharp contrast to his red rimmed eyes and steely expression. "It is likely just a sprain. We need to bring you to the hospital to be certain, but do not fret."

 

He looked up to her then, making eye contact as he gently laid his gloved hand just below her swollen knee.

 

"Please don't cry," he was begging her. Afraid for her.

 

Penny nodded tearfully, then dazedly let Sheldon bring her to her feet. He was supporting most of her weight on him, with his arm around her waist.

 

"Sheldon, you don't have to do this if it will make you anxious..." she offered in a timid voice as he helped her out of the dojo.

 

"I will have plenty of time to break down and have a panic attack when I'm alone in my apartment later," he replied in a calm and sort of surreal way. 

 

"If you think I'm leaving your side any time soon, then you're crazy, Moonpie. I'll sleep on your couch if I have to, but I'm not going to be alone."

 

"Only Meemaw calls me Moonpie, Penny," he reminded her softly as he settled her in the passenger seat of her own car. "And I would not be horribly put out by your company. You may utilize my bed. I would take great comfort in knowing your whereabouts tonight."

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon had taken her to the hospital, in her car, anxiously driving ten miles under the speed limit as he quietly – and shockingly – road raged and swore under his breath. With every curse, Penny giggled, not only from the humor and surprise of hearing her wackadoodle mutter “Imbecilic asshole, employ your blinker!”  but also from the amazing way Sheldon was stepping up. Never in a million years did Penny ever think he would drive her car again, but here he was.

 

Then they’d gone to the hospital.

 

“You’re lucky,” the Doctor said, writing in her chart. “It’s an ACL sprain, and it doesn’t appear to be torn. You just need to keep off of it and rest.”

 

“I’m… I’m a stuntwoman, I need to be on my leg to work,” Penny admitted anxiously. What did this mean? What even was an ACL?

 

The Doctor’s face fell. “Oh, well, you’ll really need to rest then. At the very least you need to be off of it for four weeks and stay away from strenuous exercise for two to three months.”

 

“Oh my god…” Penny’s face fell to her hands. This was a nightmare.

 

“It’s…” Sheldon stuttered from his place by the door. He hadn’t wanted to come inside with her, but she’d convinced him to. She hadn’t wanted to be alone. “It will be alright, Penny.”

 

“But… but the bus, Sheldon,” she whimpered, looking at him between her fingers.

 

“I know,” he replied sadly. “I know.”

 

Sheldon then drove her home, stopping by the pharmacy to pick her up painkillers, a knee brace, and an assortment of candy and chocolates to help her feel somewhat better. When they got to Los Robles, they both separated to get showered and into their pajamas, but they didn’t separate for long. Sheldon had been at her door, waiting to help her over to his apartment for their impromptu sleepover. Penny wrapped herself in her duvet and hugged his arm as he helped her to not the sofa, but his bed, tucking her in and settling her knee on a pillow.

 

When he’d wanted to leave her there and prepare the sofa for his own bed, she wouldn’t let him.

 

“Stay, please?” she asked him, and he agreed, though his face was a bit pinched and pink.

 

They laid side by side on Sheldon's narrow but surprisingly comfortable bed, listening to the sounds of Pasadena as the world moved on without them.

 

"You know I love you, right sweetie?" Penny asked him quietly, her voice a gentle whisper. She didn't want to disturb the peace they'd found together.

 

"Of course I do," Sheldon scoffed softly. "Though I never tire of hearing it." He turned on his side then, looking at her searchingly with blue eyes that seemed to see right through her.

 

Penny wanted to get lost in them, she didn’t want to be right in the middle of her problems any more.

 

"You know, Penny, you are the only person to ever profess their love for me who ever did so with actual affection, other than perhaps my Meemaw, though she rarely says so any longer." He grimaced then. "I believe she also has fallen prey to the illusion that I am averse to affection."

 

Penny turned on her side to match him, reaching out a hand for his.

 

"Well, you're the only man I've ever believed. I've had probably a dozen or more guys claim they loved me, but it never seemed sincere, they never had follow-through. When you say you love me, I believe you, because I know you won't lie to me."

 

"You will never have need to doubt me," he replied. "I trust you implicitly, I would never need to employ falsehood with you."

 

A glint of gold caught Penny’s eye, and she turned her head to look over Sheldon and to the nightstand. What she saw made her heart stutter.

 

"What is that?" she asked him, though she already knew what it was. It was the Penny blossom she'd clipped onto his Christmas present, and now it was fixed onto the shade of his reading lamp, glittering gold in the little light that was filtering through the window.

 

"I... I kept it," Sheldon admitted quietly, and it made her chest swell and her eyes sting. Penny felt overcome then, as her knee throbbed and as her heart filled with endless devotion.

 

"Sheldon..." she murmured softly, and she dipped down to meet his lips without thought or warning. Sheldon tensed something fierce, his body shaking underneath her, but before she could release him, apologize for her forcefulness, he wrapped his arms around her, pulling her closer to him.

 

"Baby," she whispered against his parted lips. "I need you." Her admittance was a frighteningly powerful one. She was feeling so desperate for his love, but she wasn’t sure he could give it that way yet.

 

"Uhh..." he whimpered, seeking out her lips again for another searing and impassioned kiss.

 

"I need you, Sheldon," she said again, throwing a leg over his hips and moving to straddle him. "Please, please say yes."

 

"Yes, yes..." Sheldon answered in a breath, his fingers gripping into the hem of her nightgown. Any other man would have had her on her back then, but Sheldon was prostrate beneath her, looking disheveled and ready to be debauched.

 

Penny kissed him again, then sat back on his lap, easing herself against his burgeoning erection and off her sore knee.

 

"Take my nightgown off, sweetie," she directed him firmly, watching with a smile as his eyes fluttered open, and he complied with shaking hands. Slowly he revealed her to the cold air of his bedroom, his eyes focused to her body as his hands pulled the cotton up and up. Penny took it from him once the material was over her breasts and threw it with an expert arm to the hamper. Looking back down at him was so surreal, he was staring up at her opened mouthed. She ground down against his erection, eliciting a startled moan from his lips.

 

This was too good, her skin felt electrified.

 

“Take your shirt off…” she said, tugging up his pajama shirt until she could see his stomach and the thin line of fuzz that trailed down below his pants. Sheldon slowly moved his hands to the buttons, easing each one out with quaking fingers and labored breath.

 

Once his shirt was off, the rest was coming all so fast.

 

Penny leaned herself down against him, their naked skin meeting for the first time, and kissed him passionately. Her hands moved down his body, teasing the sensitive skin of his sides, until she could reach the buttons of his pants.

 

She was going to ride him. It felt like a great need was pressing her down into his body, like she had to be with him or she might stop breathing. She didn’t see as Sheldon’s expression deteriorate from aroused to afraid.

 

"Please s-stop," Sheldon whimpered, his eyes wide and fearful. Her hands stilled on the buttons, feeling her arousal solidify into a hardened mass of shame and disappointment.

 

What?

 

"I'm sorry, Penny, I'm..." he apologized, covering his eyes with his forearm, body shivering violently. “I… I don’t think I can h-handle this.”

 

She didn't want to stop though, she wanted him, damnit!

 

That thought had her pulling her fingers away from his pants as fast as she could. For a quick, sickening moment, what he'd wanted really hadn't mattered to her, and, god, if that wasn't the scariest thing she'd ever felt. That wasn’t the person she wanted to be.

 

"Okay, it's okay, I'll stop," she assured him, her voice thick with emotion, fearful of what she hadn't done. She lifted herself off of him, settling herself next to his body as he breathed in and out and shook.

 

"Penny, I'm..." he heaved a shuddering breath that felt like a stab to her heart, shaking his head and closing his eyes. "I'm so sorry. You shouldn't be stuck with a man who is so..."

 

"Sheldon," she stopped him, placing her hand softy on the side of his face, batting his arm away then turning him to look towards her. "Sheldon, it's okay. I promise, you have nothing to be sorry over. I don't mind."

 

"How can you not mind? You clearly want this, but I cannot give it to you. I'm deficient..."

 

"Stop saying that! You’re not deficient, and I want you, even if that means we have some puzzling out to do before we get hot and heavy,” she said emphatically.

 

"Hot and heavy?" Sheldon grimaced.

 

"Sex, babe," she explained with a smile.

 

"Oh. But how can you be so certain we will find a way? I'm so... I'm much too stressed," he admitted softly. "I want to be with you intimately, I promise you Penny, I just don't see how it's possible."

 

"It is possible, and you know why? Because we have all the time in the world to figure it out."

 

"All the time... Penny," he repeated reverently, turning himself into her arms. "Penny, I love you, more than I could ever quantify with words." He trembled in her grasp, breathing fortifying, calming breaths, then looked away sheepishly. "Perhaps this isn't the best time to admit this, but I resigned from Caltech today."

 

Penny sat up, Sheldon slumping down her body, his head ended up cradled in her lap.

 

"You... resigned? I thought you said that today you were going to go to the president?"

 

"We did, and I resigned," he admitted. "They didn't care about what he'd done, they only cared about the bottom line. You're my bottom line, though, so I couldn't stay."

 

Panic was working its way up her throat, joblessness, it was something akin to a monster for her. The kind that haunted her nightmares and lived under her bed.

 

"What are we going to do? Do you need some place to move? You could move in with me, I could take extra jobs while you apply to other colleges, maybe wait tables in between..."

 

"Penny," he smiled up at her. "You sound almost like me. There is no need to worry, I've practically been begged by half a dozen universities to work with them. The question isn't if I'll have a job, but where you might be comfortable relocating to." He grimaced then, as if he'd just thought of something horrible. "Though I imagine you would not want to leave Los Angeles, considering your career is here."

 

"Sheldon..." she murmured, pressing a kiss to the top of his head. "Sheldon, I know you hate flying, but I don't. I can come out here whenever I have a job, hopefully when I heal, I..." Excitement was pushing all the fear away, all the stress of the day, her injury, her life up until that moment. "Where do you have job opportunities?"

 

"Where don't I?" He laughed lightly. "Massachusetts, Cambridge, Heidelberg, Stanford, even the Chinese government has offered me a hefty salary if I go to work for their theoretical physics program. My Mandarin is a touch rusty, though."

 

"God, Sheldon, you're a freaking' hot commodity!" she exclaimed.

 

"So it would seem," Sheldon smiled bashfully. "But I will not move myself any place where you will not follow me... that is." He paused, seemingly gathering his strength. "If you wished to follow me at all."

 

"Of course I will! Anywhere you go. Anywhere. California has been my home, but really, my home is with you," Penny whispered fervently. "And I've always wanted to go to England..." she added with a grin.

 

"Cambridge it is then, Penny. I'll need to make a call sometime this evening then to confirm with the Dean. He's been badgering me for years to come and work with their physics team, so he should be delighted to speak with me. They’ll need someone to replace that researcher I professionally lambasted, either way,” he chuckled.

 

“Oh god,” she breathed, rolling onto her back and taking some of her duvet with her. She was shivering in the chilly room, thoughts spiraling, rushing at a mile a minute. Sheldon was going to be moving, she was going to move with him, England, Cambridge, what did this all mean. She shivered again, this time feeling extremely naked.

 

“I will go procure you another nightgown from your apartment, Penny,” Sheldon offered, standing from the bed shakily and going to his closet. He pulled another set of pajamas, in a different color, then hesitated.

 

He looked so vulnerable wearing nothing but his pants and a frown.

 

“Did I… did I disappoint you?” he asked quietly, sounding terrified and so small.

 

“No! You could never disappoint me, sweetie, ever!” Penny insisted, sitting up and wincing as she jostled her knee, then fixed the pillow back underneath it. Attempting to straddle Sheldon probably hadn’t been the wisest idea.

 

“G-good, I…” He looked down, at his bare chest, and his fingers clenched in the clean and folded material of his new pajamas. “I am apprehensive about not being… being enough for you,” he added sadly.

 

“Enough? Sheldon, is that why…?” she began to ask, and his silent nod confirmed it. Oh no. She wanted to jump out of bed and hold him, but she couldn’t, and he probably needed a little space. God, he had been so stressed about being enough for her that he’d panicked before having sex. That was the last thing she wanted for them, she should have been more thoughtful and not pushed so hard. Again.

 

Damn it, Penny.

 

“You’re more than enough, sweetie, because you are what I want. I don’t want anyone else, just…” Penny’s voice trailed off as Sheldon set his clean pajamas down on his dresser, then slowly removed his pants, looking away from her and towards the closed bedroom door. Her throat dried as he stripped himself of them, placing them into the hamper gently.

 

Guh.

 

What was the line from that dumb robot movie? More than meets the eye? That was a good way of describing what she was seeing, as Sheldon nervously dressed himself in clean and matching pajamas. She’d never actually seen a guy wear briefs before until, well, maybe she’d seen them on him years ago when he’d brought her TV back from Kurt, but Sheldon hadn’t been… hadn’t filled them out so much at the time. Penny had always thought they looked childish, but not right now. Sheldon was in the process of dressing himself, pulling his red flannels over his hips and buttoning them, and it was startling to realize how erotic watching a person dress was, almost as much as watching him undress. It was intimate, trusting, she realized. He felt bad about how their moment had fizzled and now he was trusting her.

 

Penny wolf whistled.

 

“Penny…!” Sheldon gasped, turning his body more away from her, and he was acting as if she hadn’t been there the whole time, watching his body move as he dressed.

 

“What?” she smirked over to him, as he pulled his arms through the sleeve of his pajama shirt. “I can’t help it, there’s a sexy guy who’s changing right in front of me, making me all hot and bothered.” She worried teasing him would be too much, make him less bold, but it didn’t seem to. Sheldon only flushed, his face reddening as he buttoned the shirt slowly, but she could see he was smiling just a little.

 

When the last button was fastened, Penny frowned. “Aww, now he’s all covered up,” she pouted, watching with joy as his smile ticked at the corner of his lips again, though his face was still down cast.

 

Sheldon slipped on his robe, then his slippers.

 

“I’ll just… go get your clothes from 4B,” he explained, opening the door with a few taps. She said nothing about his habit, instead smiling at his back and snuggling deeper into her duvet.

 

“Okay, sweetie, love you. Get the black one with the little cactuses on it,” she called to him, smirking when that made him turn back.

 

“It’s cacti,” he said automatically, then he winced. “I apologize, that was an unnecessary correction.”

 

“I was messing with you, Sheldon,” she admitted.

 

“Oh, you… woman,” he glowered. “I love you. I will be right back.”

 

“Okay!” Penny beamed. She settled herself back against the pillows once he left, mind inevitably going back to their earlier conversation. It was a leap, a leap of faith maybe, but definitely a huge change in her entire world. Moving to another state had been scary enough, but another country?

 

When Sheldon returned, she slipped into her nightgown and they settled back into bed, side by side as they talked about the future. Sheldon was a wellspring of information about Cambridge, about England and about what life there would be like. As he spoke, she felt her nervousness at the idea become more and more just simple excitement. They could do this; they could handle this.

 

They’d handled so much more than a simple relocation together. They’d handled fear and come out victorious. A little move to England wouldn’t stop them.

 

Chapter Text

At the behest of well, everyone, including her manager of all people, Penny had pressed charges against Leonard for assault. Nothing came of the charges, it seemed startling someone into falling wasn’t quite battery, but that wasn’t where she ended the crusade. With the help of Raj’s sister, Penny sued him for damages and won a small sum, enough to cover her medical bills and a month of lost wages. He hadn’t even shown up to court, coward.

 

They’d gone to the premiere of Penny’s movie only a week before the big move. Sheldon had worn that suit again, and Penny wore a slinky dress that she’d purchased just for the occasion. There was no red carpet walk or interviews, just an escort into the theater, up and aways from the A-listers and their cushy, middle row seats.

 

And it had been amazing. The movie, a spy thriller set in the Middle East, had action and romance. The plot was a bit tired, and she didn’t much care for the politics of the movie, but holy hell she’d looked so cool during her scenes. The shots of her action were interspliced with the establishing shots of the actress she was stunting for, but they both knew when it was her on screen. Sheldon kept whispering lowly into her ear that she looked incredible, how courageous and effortless she appeared.

 

At the after-party, she’d handed out so many business cards. Strangely, she was getting a lot more offers for work now that she was moving overseas. Thank god for frequent flier miles, seriously, because she’d be back in Los Angeles a lot.

 

Cambridge had actually been amazing. A little city all of its own, everyone connected with the university in some way. Penny had spent a few months there as they got acclimated, and she squeed over proper English tea and the cute little black cabs like a tourist. She’d had to fly back to L.A. for three weeks for her next job, but when she returned to England, they had to prepare for yet another move. Sheldon’s team was going to CERN.

 

So, Penny moved to Geneva with a smile and a full to bursting heart, ready for the next chapter of their life.

 

 

-

 

 

Howard was an idiot.

 

He was sitting in his bedroom, blanket wrapped over him like a cloak as he did it again. He was cybering on World of Warcraft, again. After Bernadette had broken up with him, he’d sworn he wouldn’t do it again, but here he was. He shouldn’t feel guilty, Bernadette hadn’t come back, but he still felt dirty. What was the likelihood that the Blood Elf he was currently chatting with was another gross dude?

 

Like him.

 

It had been during the months after being fired from NASA that he’d taken up his old hobby of WoW, doing raids with his old guild buddies and ignoring the concerned texts from Raj. Raj was doing great, and wasn’t that just great. Well, Howard wasn’t doing great, but he just needed time.

 

‘What are you wearing right now?’ – he whisper-chatted the Blood Elf Mage. She claimed she was a she, although her toon was male. It was mildly discomforting to cyber with a male toon, but then again, his was female. He enjoyed watching the little busty goblin slice up enemies with her twin daggers, so sue him.

 

‘nothing but my glasses’ – Soragarin replied, then her toon did a little sexy dance. Howard scrubbed his hands over his scruffy face and through his unwashed hair. If this wasn’t rock bottom, then he didn’t know what was. It was three in the morning and he was a little drunk off wine coolers; he was desperate.

 

‘We should meet up… what do you think Soragarin?’  – Why did he send that? It was so, so dumb! Chatting on the internet and meeting up were two different things!

 

‘I live in California, hbu?’ – He sent immediately after. Again, he scrubbed his face; now this was rock bottom! Confessing your location to a total stranger. It didn’t matter that they’d been chatting with each other for months, this person could be anyone!

 

‘really? so do I. LA. you would actually want to meet up? I would be down…’ - she replied, and it soothed a needy part of his soul he didn’t want to exist. He needed this validation, even if it never happened or Soragarin turned out to be an old, sweaty guy.

 

‘And you’re sure you’re a girl and not a dude?’ – Howard winced as he hit send. It was likely the fifteenth time he’d asked her.

 

‘G o d, yes I said that already -_- Im a 32 y/o woman drinking red wine as I play a videogame in the middle of the night, and isnt that just a turn on lol’ – she replied.

 

‘That is so a turn on for me’ – Howard assured quickly. 32 was a bit old, he was only 27, but hey – he wasn’t picky. This Soragarin woman seemed really cool, and if she was even one-tenth as sexy in person as she was in text then he would be happy.

 

They made plans to meet up at a pretty popular Starbucks in downtown. She would wear a red carnation – some literary reference he didn’t understand – and he a red tie. His palms were sweaty as he typed his messages. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. Soragarin could be a serial killer! At least if she was, he would be too dead to feel embarrassed.

 

The next day, Howard asked his mother to cut his hair. She’d been ecstatic, finally they could get rid of that nightmare he called a style. He wanted to balk; his hair was awesome, but was it actually? It wasn’t the trend these days to wear your hair like an emo twelve-year-old on Myspace, hell, when had it ever been a trend for old losers like him? His mother brandished an electric cutter expertly, but god if it wasn’t scary to see the locks come down and settle around him.

He almost hadn’t recognized himself. It was so short, in the back and on the sides. The only length he still had was on top, but it made him look kind of… pompous. Maybe that was a good thing? Kill them with confidence, wasn’t that the saying?

 

But Howard wasn’t confident. He wore bright red pants to match his tie but realized too late that it was likely a mistake to do so. By too late, he was already standing in the Starbucks, loitering like a weirdo in his overwhelmingly red ensemble, looking around for a red carnation but seeing nothing. He was perspiring and jittering his leg anxiously. At that point, even an old, creepy guy would have been a better alternative to being stood up.

 

A flash of red caught his eye and he followed it to the front doors.

 

No… His eyes must be playing weird, strange tricks.

 

Leslie?

 

What was Leslie Winkle doing here, with a red carnation in her stupid, springy hair? Howard tried to turn away, but she caught his eye before he could. She frowned, then glanced down to his tie. Stupid, stupid tie. Her jaw dropped and she blanched.

 

“Wolowitz?” she asked unnecessarily over the din of the cafe, blinking rapidly as if she wanted to wipe him away from her vision. She stalked over to him, and although she was short, she was utterly terrifying. The carnation slipped out of her hair and fell to the ground, getting trampled under her sensible high-heels. Ugh, this was too much. And why was he so turned on by this? Get it together.

 

“You’re Shaniya the Goblin Rogue from the guild?” Leslie smacked a hand to her face. “Wolowizard, of course. Of-fucking-course you are.” She began pacing in front of him, the entirety of the Starbucks seemingly stilling to watch their public meltdown in morbid fascination.

 

Then she began ranting.

 

“I should have known karma would bitch slap me like this! I should have never erroneously contended my parking ticket in court, everyone knows the cops never show up to those hearings, and I definitely parked in front of a fire hydrant. God damn it, I’m so stupid!”

 

“Um…” the barista behind the counter was staring at them like they had giant Cerberus with them on a leash. “Will you be ordering?”

 

Leslie stomped over to the counter, disregarding the menu the woman tried to hand to her.

 

“Venti black, one pump of hazelnut,” she ordered brusquely. She pointed a thumb over her shoulder to him but didn’t deign to turn her head. “He’s paying.”

Howard didn’t even have the nerve to argue with her, he was so blindsided. He stepped up beside her and slid his credit card from his wallet. Soragarin was Leslie Winkle? This little harpy was the firecracker he’d been cybering with all this time? Holy Moses.

 

“A-and for you?” the barista asked him meekly, glancing between the two of them like a frightened animal.

 

Howard shook his head, dazedly coming to terms with yet another failed blind date with a woman from World of Warcraft. Maybe his mom was right, he should stop playing it.

 

“No, not unless you started serving alcohol when I wasn’t looking,” he chuckled uneasily, scratching the back of his short hair. Stupid fucking hair, he’d cut off his gorgeous locks so he would look more modern for this dumb date. Leslie was scowling at him, saying something that he wasn’t registering. Her cute little nose was scrunched up in displeasure. Cute little annoying stupid nose.

 

“Are you going to swipe your card, you fucking dumbass?” He finally heard her say through her gritted teeth. He flushed, then swiped the card.

 

“You are so high strung,” he murmured as he pocketed the plastic. Leslie glowered at him as she took her massive coffee cup, without a paper sleeve because she was an insane person.

 

“Save it, I’m leaving anyway. Thanks for the coffee,” she said sarcastically as she turned. Howard's eyes widened and he quickly shot out to meet her step, and though he couldn’t fathom why, he opened his big mouth.

 

“You’re leaving? But we didn’t even have our date.” His statement was so idiotic that even the guy sitting by the window watching a movie on his laptop was staring at him as if he were a moron, because wasn’t he just?

 

“Are you serious? Are you seriously asking me why I don’t want to stay and make chit-chat with you?”

 

“Uh….” Howard was conscious of the gawking strangers, of Leslie’s incredulity, but he didn’t want to let her leave. They’d been talking for so long, and he really had felt a connection with the Blood Elf Mage that had apparently been her. “Um, yes? We haven’t seen each other in years and I… well…” Howard lowered his voice, feeling his cheeks burn. “I really liked Soragarin, and I don’t really mind that he’s you.”

 

Leslie blinked owlishly behind her glasses, holding her coffee tightly. Without warning she grabbed his hand and dragged him to the back of the Starbucks, shoving him into a squashy red armchair without preamble. She sat down across from him, her short stature nearly disappearing behind the lip of the table. It was so cute, he hated it.

 

“So…” Leslie asked tensely, taking a few sips from her coffee. Again, Howard imagined that the liquid must be scalding, and she must be a demon woman or something. “So, do you cyber with people on WoW a lot?”

 

“Eh, only twice. You, and this other time when I ended up finding out the Troll chick was actually a guy…” Howard admitted, hoping the self-deprecation would ease the intense awkwardness at their table. She laughed, a short sort of exhale, then took another fortifying gulp of her drink.

 

“That’s better than me. The last person I met in real life from WoW ended up being married with kids. I felt like such a moron.”

 

“What a dick,” Howard replied, because seriously, what a dick move.

 

“Yeah,” Leslie said slowly, staring down at the steam slowly rising from her cup. “So this…” She motioned to herself. “This doesn’t bother you?”

 

“Bother me? Are you kidding, you’re super…” Sexy, spunky, would look wonderful in a chainmail thong and nothing else. “Super great,” he finished lamely. “And what about me? You can’t possibly be pleased to find out you’ve been chatting with me all this time.”

 

Leslie looked over the rim of her glasses and scrutinized him with a tiny, but growing smirk.

 

“You’re not the least attractive individual I’ve considered taking home with me,” she said boldly.

 

Howard's ears burned, and again he found himself rubbing the back of his short hair anxiously. Was this his new tick now that he couldn’t flip his hair?

 

“That’s probably the best compliment I’ve ever received from a woman that wasn’t on a dare.”

 

“Oof, pathetic Wolowitz. If you’re hoping for pity sex, then you’re fresh out of luck.” They were slowly coming back into their online rapport, and maybe, just maybe it could wash away the sins of their past. Howard really wanted to make this work.

 

They chatted over her coffee and his nothing, about their work and their lives. Leslie was doing really well for herself, researching for UC Berkley and leading her department. She still kept in touch with Sheldon and Penny, which he shouldn’t have been surprised by, but it saddened him to realize he hadn’t kept up with them.

 

It was a surprise to Howard, as they were about to part in the parking lot of the Starbucks that Leslie got on her tip-toes to kiss him. It wasn’t a full-on kiss, just a peck half on his lips and half on his cheek but it was so wonderful. He’d never been on an actual date until now.

 

It had been an even bigger surprise when she handed him her number.

 

“Is this fake?” he asked in disbelief. She shook her head with a chuckle.

 

“No, dumbass, it’s real. Call me tomorrow and maybe we can hang out?” Her offer was more like a summons, and he eagerly agreed. Anything to see her again, he would do.

 

So he’d called her, and she answered. She invited him over to his apartment and told him to bring his laptop. Netflix and Chill? He wasn’t sure! What did this mean?

 

Howard almost didn’t realize, as he stood on her doorstep, that Leslie had already opened the door and was staring at him. The fear had been paralyzing enough that he’d stood in front of her closed door for what felt like hours.

 

“Get over yourself and get inside, Howard,” she grumbled. He began to step over the threshold of her door, feeling his equilibrium vanish. He’d never actually been invited into a girl’s place before. He used to brag about his conquests, but the sad reality of his life was that he was always the sloppy rebound fuck when he went clubbing and bar hopping. Women would laugh when he wanted to call them again after sex, because why wouldn’t they? He was a joke. He’d called them easy, but really, he was the easy one. He was – God help him – a man whore.

 

“We’re not having sex,” she clarified with a smirk. “You have your laptop, right? I thought we could play some WoW.” Howard thought he could hear angels singing, church bells in the distance.

 

She was perfect.

 

Leslie frowned flatly as he stumbled inside. “You still look like you think we’re going to have sex, Howard.”

 

He could think of half a dozen disgustingly perverse comebacks, but each one died on his tongue. He didn’t want to be that Howard anymore.

 

“Yeah uh, you’re just… cool and stuff,” he complimented her inelegantly. To his great surprise she smiled at that, a sympathetic smile, but one that reached her eyes behind the frames of her glasses. “I thought for sure I’d be meeting a dude yesterday, honestly, but now I’m here and you’re here and it’s… yeah.”

 

“I also thought I’d be meeting a man yesterday, but the jury’s still out on that one,” Leslie jibed wickedly. Howard paled, then let out a guffaw as he nearly tripped getting his shoes off. She was so funny!

 

They settled onto her sofa, sitting closely with their laptops on as they raided together. It occurred to him as his ability cooldown, well, cooled down, that this was nice. It wasn’t like a date-date, all holding hands and pretending to be richer and smarter than he really was, but it also wasn’t like hanging out with his friends. Leslie was definitely leaning more towards the friend side of the relationship meter, but only insofar as he actually enjoyed hanging out with her. They had so much in common. She didn’t seem to mind that he only had an MA, and he didn’t care that she made way, way more than him. It was actually a major turn on.

He spied a menorah sitting atop a low bookcase in her living room, and though it was possible she’d just bought it at a Pottery Barn, it looked like an antique.

 

“Leslie, are you Jewish?” Howard asked instantly. Leslie looked over at him with a disbelieving raise of her eyebrows.

 

“Yeah, half Jewish. Why?”

 

God have mercy, Leslie was the perfect woman! Wife material! He couldn’t wait to introduce her to his mom.

 

“You have this creepy look on your face, Howard,” she said, narrowing her eyes with suspicion.

 

“Yeah,” Howard replied jovially. “That’s just my face.”

 

 

-

 

 

“Welcome to Good Morning America, I’m Robin Roberts. In today’s #metoo world, it’s no surprise that more allegations of sexual misconduct were dug up this week. A professor at California Institute of Technology was recently embroiled in his own scandal when dozens of RateMyProfessor reviews of him were found and published on Twitter, all with a startlingly common theme.

“He was so creepy, always looking over my shoulder and down my shirt. I told him to stop once, but he only said if I didn’t want him looking then I could change my major.”


“I was offered a position as a teaching assistant in my junior year, but he was always so inappropriate. He asked me about my sex life and would make not so subtle inquiries about my availability. It was so awkward that I eventually left the department.”

 

“One time, the professor asked how I was doing after my breakup with my ex, and it was super creepy since there was no way he knew about my breakup, it wasn’t that common knowledge. It turned out he had been stalking my Facebook…”

These shocking quotes are just a sampling of the claims made by Professor Hofstadter’s former students. Hofstadter himself took to Twitter just yesterday and defended himself in an angry tirade, saying the accusations were simply slander. Come to the defense of these faceless women is a former researcher from Caltech, a Dr. Leslie Winkle. We had her in the studio a few days ago to ask her a couple questions about the ordeal and if she could shed some light on the issue. Here’s what she had to say –

 

“Hello, my name is Leslie Winkle. I was a researcher at California Institute of Tech, and I worked for nearly a decade alongside Dr. Hofstadter at LIGO. It was a pretty well-known secret that he was a lech, and I was one of many staff members who made it their duty to warn newcomers before he could impose himself on them.”



“And did the management at the university know about this?”

 

“Oh yeah, most certainly. I remember a few years ago myself and a few of my colleagues went to the President and presented him with evidence of Hofstadter’s misconduct. Instead of kicking him out on his ass like any decent person would, we were instead asked to hush the whole thing up. It would have been ‘bad for the university’ if we exposed him for the creep he was. Now look how that turned out.” –

 

“That was just a snippet of the full interview, which will be shown on ABC Tonight. We asked the president of California Institute of Technology for an interview as well, but he declined. Dr. Siebert did give a comment. He said – “We are looking into any rumors of misconduct and will, of course, act accordingly to any evidence giving credence to them.” He would not give a statement specifically on the issue, which seems telling enough.”

The camera cuts to a different part of the set.

 

“Wow, what a shocking story,” Josh Elliot says.

“I know, I certainly won’t be sending my daughter to Caltech any time soon,” Robin Roberts chuckles sadly.

 

“Well, hopefully this will cheer you up, Robin. Some good news in science is rocking the globe. A researcher from Cambridge is recently in the running for the Nobel Prize after his team made a startling discovery while working at the CERN facility in Geneva. The researcher and his team were able to accurately predict the patterns of a string of boson particles before observation. This discovery could lead to more accurate studies into the particles, and more improvements to the Large Hadron Collider.”

“Wow, Josh, that sounds impressive!”

 

“Sure does, though I’m not exactly sure what a boson does,” Josh Elliot laughs.

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon scarcely looked at a whiteboard anymore. His markers had dried out, and he hadn’t the need to replace them. Instead, he gazed at Penny, at her movements and her expressions, and his mind acted upon the image of her face like it was spacetime itself, working out the concepts and theories he harbored there. Penny had initially balked at his new work technique, trying in vain to make eye contact with him and chatter on about why it was odd and unnerving, but Sheldon couldn’t be bothered to hear her. During those moments, Sheldon’s mindscape transcended itself and became fluid, manipulatable, and he pondered the realities of the universe with ease.

 

He relished the way Penny blushed when he claimed he could see the cosmos in her eyes.

 

Penny was a particularly humorous muse one evening, her face still riddled with small white dots left over from the motion-capture equipment she wore recently for her job. With her injury, live stunts became harder and harder to pull off, and Penny had said she didn’t enjoy the constant travel to and from location. Instead, she moved on to stunt work for video-games, safely and elegantly traversing green screened stages on wires, covered head-to-toe in optical trackers. She could easily wear her knee-brace and confidently enjoy her career, and she delighted in playing the games she was a part of once they were released to the public.

Penny was to do the motion capture for the newest installment of Injustice; she would be the body and face of Wonder Woman. In Sheldon’s opinion, there was no one better. Penny was certainly a wonder.

It had been during an evening after one of these motion capture sessions that he’d had the idea spring forth, as he watched her scrub at the glue on her face in vain. The dots were ingenious little things, meant to help AI track and predict the movements of her facial anatomy. As she grimaced and groaned, Sheldon watched them dance and twist, move closer then farther apart. He wondered about the boson particles he was working on, and if his team could perhaps track their movements predictively in a similar manner.

 

He’d soon found they could.

 

By studying the movements of one or two particles, they could accurately calculate the path of several dozen as they moved together, bound by an infinitesimal sort of lattice that ebbed and flowed like the froth of a wave. If one particle moved in a certain manner, he could calculate the path of the others almost exactly. It became a game for Sheldon, making the calculations and predictions faster than the computers at the Collider could even begin to function. One of his researchers fondly dubbed him the ‘boson-buster’.

 

He – and his team – were going to receive the Nobel. It felt… bittersweet. Years of assuring everyone within hearing distance that he would, of course, get the Nobel Prize for Physics had grown a sort of complex within him. The louder he cawed, the less certain he felt. Did he really even deserve it?

 

Penny believed so.

 

“You deserve it, sweetie. You’re the smartest man I know,” Penny had said as she filled their large bathtub with extremely hot water. She was unclothed except for her knee brace, a reminder of her personal trials.

 

“Not everyone gets what they deserve, Penny,” he replied, struggling to get out of his many-layered shirts. Not much had changed about their wardrobe over the years. He still wore his childish t-shirts, and she still dressed as if it were perpetually summer. Her tiny purple shorts and matching tank-top were thankfully discarded in the hamper. She’d picked up the habit just for his peace of mind. He loved her for it.

 

“Get in the tub and you’ll get what you deserve, Doctor Cooper,” Penny directed with a sassy wink. Sheldon obliged, settling into the tub as anticipation built.

 

After years of trial and error, they had finally found a way to engage in coitus… intercourse…

 

Penny slid her knee-brace off and placed it on the vanity, then straddled him in the tub. Water sloshed around her as she settled on his lap, and he let out a groan as she easily seated herself. Her breasts were suspended alluringly above his face, and Sheldon enjoyed watching the gentle sway as she pressed him down into the water and enjoyed herself with his body.

 

Sex, he could say it. They had finally found, after years, that he could handle having sex with her in the tub. It was an embarrassing mixture of arousal and comfort that allowed him to open up to her. The first time they’d done it, Penny had giggled because of course Sheldon Cooper would enjoy sex in the bath. She still cornered him around their home in Geneva to play with him, still stole his folded pile of clothing when he came from the shower so he would be forced to chase after her, then she would make him dress in front of her for her viewing pleasure. But this, this movement and joy, this was when they were truly together.

 

“Shel-don….” Penny was whimpering, gazing down at him with an intensity only revealed within the taupe tiled walls of their master bathroom.

 

Sheldon had never anticipated being connected with someone would be this arresting and wonderful. Being intimate with her was like an out of body experience. He was no longer Sheldon Cooper, he was just with her.

 

“Penny… Lord have mercy…” he murmured with difficulty as his head gently thudded back on the rim of the tub, fingers gripping the soft flesh of her undulating hips. His fingers slid across her skin with the aid of the sudsy water, and Sheldon felt himself unfettered by the knowledge that whatever was passed between them would be washed away in the shower later on. He was free. He could touch her and be touched, let himself be taken and swept away by a torrent of bliss.

 

“I’m going to o-orgasm, sweetie…” Penny warned him, her voice warm and dark and beautiful. Sheldon knew he was going to join her and knew it would be alright to allow himself the pleasure. His reward for staving off his anxiety and trusting her.

 

They would be alright.

 

 

The end.