The Shipping References

By Laura Schiller

Based on: The Big Bang Theory

Copyright: CBS

What would Sheldon do? was not a question Leonard asked himself often. Only when he was very, very bored during faculty meetings and needed something to smirk internally about, or (though he would never admit this to Sheldon) when he was stuck on a difficult equation.

But he had to admit that, after watching Howard and Raj circle each other on a gym mat, wearing skintight wrestling outfits and trading exclusively verbal blows for thirty minutes, he was losing his patience. If Sheldon were here, he could cut through all the layers of bullshit those two were spouting with one of his brutally honest remarks. At the very least, he could end the argument by making both of them mad at him instead.

That was when Leonard had an idea. A terrible idea and one he knew he would regret, but honestly, it was still better than nothing.

"All right, gentlemen," he said in a condescending Sheldonesque drawl. "Why don't you tell each other what this is really all about? I mean, c'mon, fighting over who's the hero and who's the sidekick? We have those kinds of discussions all the time. Even you two aren't silly enough to resort to physical violence about it."

They turned around with identical, irritated looks, as if they had forgotten he was still there.

"You don't get it, Leonard," said Howard, rolling his eyes. "Sometimes a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. You know, like when Kirk and Spock fought that duel in the episode "Amok Time"."

"Really, dude?" Raj snapped. His accent was getting away from him, as it sometimes did under stress. "That's the analogy you're going for? Well, let me tell you, I have no intention of throwing this match like Kirk did."

"Why should you get to be Kirk?"

"Because I'm not the one losing all logic!"

They glowered at each other like a pair of caged tigers. It would have been much more impressive if Howard weren't so skinny, and if Raj didn't keep crooking his fingers like cat claws. This was certainly not going to be an epic duel on the level of Kirk versus Spock, although …

Oh my God. Leonard had another idea, this one even more bizarre than the first.

He wasn't normally a slash shipper. When the four of them watched Star Trek, Sheldon forbade any mentions of romance whatsoever, since he believed it was an insult to the show's scientific ideals. And in private, Leonard was a wholehearted supporter of Spock/Uhura, because if he couldn't kiss Zoe Saldana, at least he could watch a fellow science nerd do it.

But there was no denying that if ever an episode in the Star Trek: The Original Series was fuel for Kirk/Spock shipping, it was "Amok Time". A sweat-soaked fencing match with your best friend in order to free him from an unwanted engagement to a woman? Seriously?

And if something like that was going on between Howard and Raj, well … honestly, that would explain a lot. Like the fact that Howard having a girlfriend bothered Raj about ten times as much as Leonard or Sheldon having them. Or Raj always whispering in Howard's ear when there were women in the room, even though he could just as easily communicate through a notebook or phone. Or the way the two of them had jumped like guilty schoolboys the other day when Leonard had made a joke about Raj's big telescope.

Okay, Leonard. Here goes nothing. Let's go poke the elephant in the room, and hope that when it tramples me to death it'll be quick about it.

"Are you gonna fight or make out, you guys? I don't care which one, just get it over with so we can all go home."

At the words "make out", Howard's face and chest turned almost as bright a red as the spandex suit he was wearing. Raj froze in mid-posture. His cheeks blew out, the way they did when he was struggling to say something.

"How did you know about that?" Howard demanded. "Raj, did you tell Leonard? If you told him, I swear to God - "

"Of course I didn't tell anyone!" Raj burst out. "But if I did, so what? It was an accident. We were all drunk and I – I was aiming for Bernadette!"

"Is that supposed to make it better, that you were moving in on my girlfriend right in front of me? All I did was dive in to shield her."

"With your face?"

Somehow they had gone from circling opposite edges of the blue mat to standing right in each other's space, both shouting, neither of them breaking eye contact. Leonard had the feeling he could have dropped a bomb in the room and neither of them would notice. Huh – so they did kiss. I guess I was right, for once. And in front of Bernadette? Ouch, that's gotta suck.

He knew at this point, the polite thing to do would be to leave them in private, but he also knew that if he did, curiosity would keep him awake all night. And if he stayed awake, odds were that Sheldon would stay awake too and cross-examine him on what the matter was. Before you knew it, his insufferable roommate would be marching up to Howard and Raj to ask whether they had engaged in coitus last night – which was something no one wanted to talk about over pizza and Warlords of Ka'a.

Leonard ducked behind a tall stack of mats (ignoring the smells of rubber, cleaning fluid and sweat that kept threatening to call up traumatic memories from high school) and settled in to eavesdrop.

"You know," said Howard, taking two giant steps back, "I don't have to take this. If you're questioning your sexual orientation or whatever, go ahead and explore it as much as you want, but leave me and Bernadette out of it!"

"I wish I could!" There was a crack in Raj's voice, as if something more painful than anger was lodged in his throat. "You're the one who won't stop rubbing my nose in it all. If I have to hear the words my girlfriend Bernadette one more time, I … " He tried to rake his hand through his long hair, found the plastic wrestling mask in the way, tore it off and tossed it contemptuously to the floor. "Nothing against her, she's a sweet girl. But do you even realize that she sounds exactly like your mother when she raises her voice?"

"Don't you dare - !" Howard bounded back across the mat, blue eyes electric with rage, and for a moment, Leonard wondered if they were going to have that wrestling match after all. But Howard stopped just short of grabbing Raj by the front of his neon-green suit and shook a finger at him instead.

"That is a low blow, Rajesh Koothrappali! Bernadette is nothing like – oh God, she is, isn't she? But even if she is, you have no right to say it."

It was Raj who backed away this time, throwing up his hands in disgust. "Okay, dude. If you want to be a mama's boy your whole life, who am I to stop you?"

"I refuse to have my masculinity questioned by a man who watched all six seasons of Sex and the City – and liked them!"

Howard flung the last three words at Raj's back like a missile, with a jerk of his bowl-cut head for emphasis. As if that would make up for the fact that he was clearly running out of ammunition, if all he could come up with was a crack about TV preferences.

"I can relate to Carrie, all right? Her Mr. Big also runs away whenever they get too close. But at least he has the courage to come back to her in the end. And she can accept him with all his flaws because she loves him – ridiculous, inconvenient, all-consuming, can't-live-without-each-other love. Something you wouldn't understand, because your girlfriend once dumped you for cheating on her with a World of Warcraft troll."

If Raj meant that as a return insult, it definitely would have sounded more offensive if he weren't fighting back tears. Or if he hadn't just compared himself and Howard to one of the most iconic love stories in the history of television (at least according to Penny). When Raj turned back to face Howard, with the half-defiant, half-helpless shrug of a prisoner facing the firing squad, Leonard wondered if this was the most pathetic thing he'd ever seen, or the bravest. Possibly both.

"I love you, Howard Wolowitz," said Raj. "Gods know I tried way too hard to get over you, unconvincing fantasies about Bernadette included, but it didn't work. So – shall we settle this once and for all? Because if we can't be together, I'm not sure this town is big enough for the two of us."

Howard had been listening in silence, standing completely still for once in his life without pacing around, fidgeting with something in his hands, or hunching over to look at the floor. He didn't take his eyes off Raj. Leonard had seen the little engineer leering at girls or smiling at Bernadette countless times, but never giving any human being the kind of laser-focused attention he showed his machines. Until now.

"You're still thinking about leaving?" Howard exclaimed. "But why would you - You can't just - "

"Why not?"

They were nose to nose, still not touching, but the air between them seemed to vibrate like a heat wave. The last time Leonard had been that close to Penny, she had all but dragged him into bed with her, breakup be damned.

"Because – because … oy, now you've got me speechless!" Howard growled, ripping off his own mask and tossing it away to join Raj's. "Must be contagious."

"Can't be that speechless if you're still making terrible – mmph!"

Leonard covered his spectacle frames with his hands and ducked behind the mats, but not soon enough to miss the sight of Howard tackling Raj to the ground and planting a kiss on him that really ought to register as some kind of weather event. A tornado, maybe. Or an earthquake. Who knew that two such modestly sized people could actually shake the floor?

Definitely time to leave. Quickly. Quietly. Try very hard not to listen to the gasps, the moans, and the sliding sounds of spandex. And maybe call Priya later and ask if she was free to stay over.

However, Leonard's luck being what it was, that would have been too easy. While trying to army-crawl toward the door, he knocked over a bundle of floor-hockey sticks and sent them clattering.

"Sorry, guys," he said, smiling sheepishly as he crawled out from under the pile of equipment. "I'll just, uh … declare the Hero Challenge a tie then, shall I?"

Howard and Raj picked themselves up and glared at him with identical looks of outrage.

"What the hell, Leonard?" Howard squeaked. (God only knew how anyone could be attracted to a guy with such a nasal voice.) "How can you still be here? We thought you left ages ago!"

"Yeah, dude, that's creepy. Go away!" Raj flung a protective arm around his boyfriend's waist.

"Fair enough." Leonard held up his hands in surrender and backed away toward the door. "Um … congratulations, I guess. Oh, and about Sheldon – are you gonna break the news, or should I?"

"Oh, we will." The two of them exchanged a look that was downright devilish in its glee. "Can we save it?" Howard asked. "To deploy later, for maximum shock value?"

Leonard sighed. "Please don't! You'll give him a nervous breakdown, and I'll have to fish him out of the IKEA ball pit again. Okay, I'll tell him."

"Ah. In that case, we will graciously forgive you for spying on us. Now, you may go."

Raj waved his free hand in imperious dismissal, as he had no doubt done to his parents' butler in their New Delhi mansion growing up.

"I just can't catch a break, can I?" Leonard muttered to himself as he shuffled down the hall.

Still, even as he began preparing strategies in his mind over how to break the news of a major change in their social circle to the bundle of undiagnosed disorders that was his roommate, he was smiling to himself.

From Kirk and Spock to Carrie and Mr. Big, eh? They were just so darn cute.