Title: Back Through Interruption
Author's Note/Disclaimer: I do not own TBBT. The italicized lines are from poems by Kate Northrop, as is the title. The last lines of poetry are all from different poems by her.
You in the door look back / and are no longer there.
Penny left on a Saturday, two days before Leonard and Sheldon were due back from their week-long science conference, physics game, or whatever it was that had taken them out of town. It was, she'd realized, her chance to make a change. She had considered moving before, after endless rejections and the growing realization that perhaps becoming a famous actress wasn't really in her stars. Her job at the Cheesecake Factory wasn't satisfying, and made her feel like she was still in high school working the crappy job while dreaming big. She was getting older. Her sister was married. She wanted stability, a real life, a sense of adulthood. Her neighbors had kept her in place, though, and she had started to see them as holding her back from maturity by just a little bit. It wasn't fair to them, leaving without notice, but she couldn't help herself-- she needed the change.
She arranged on Tuesday to stay with a friend in a nearby suburb until she found a place of her own and then called for a storage facility. Tuesday evening through Thursday afternoon, she packed like a mad woman. She refused to let herself think about what the objects meant or what had happened on that couch, behind that bar. Time was short; she could reminisce later. On Friday she sold everything she couldn't keep and gave away everything she couldn't sell.
Before she left on Saturday morning, she slipped a postcard into Sheldon and Leonard's mailbox. They deserved more, she knew they did, but she also knew that if she started to write anything more substantial, she'd never finish and she'd never leave. This had to be a clean break; it was once again time to start over.
She spent two weeks at her friend's house, torn between wondering if she had made a mistake and looking for a new future. She still wanted to work with drama; she loved the stage and all the magic that came with it, but she also wanted a stable job.
Leonard called her cell phone several times. Penny deleted all his messages without listening to them, and later canceled her phone plan. A clean break, she reminded herself, meant no looking back.
In the middle of the second week, her friend had family over for dinner. Penny sat between an older sister-in-law and a father, both of whom were teachers. They complained about the focus on testing, debated the rich-poor gap in schools, argued over school choice, and lamented the lack of quality teachers for the maths and sciences. Listening to them, Penny realized what she wanted to do.
She found an apartment and went back to school. She focused this time, concentrating on theater and general physics for secondary teachers. She found she understood, or had at least heard of, more of the concepts than she had expected. (When she wasn't careful, she would remember how the guys had once turned on their lamps and music using satellites or how Leonard had once tried to get her to return to college. Such thoughts were easy to squash though. The tough times came when she wondered if anyone missed her.) While studying the basic material and how to present it, she began to enjoy the subject matter more than she had thought possible. Physics was about more than strings, equations, and Schroedinger's Cat; it was about how the world worked. She would hate to have to study it for the rest of her life, but she thought she could have fun teaching it.
Two and a half years passed and she finally got her certification. She spent another half-year subbing and then, by happy coincidence, her friend's father (who turned out to be an administrator, rather than the teacher she had supposed) called her with a job opening in Alhambra at a private middle school, 7th grade science, and a co-coach for the drama club also needed. She accepted immediately and moved; this time, she thought, for good.
Are you so sure / of your position in the world?
"For the last time, Penny is not going to care that your lecture was more packed than mine or that you were crowned the Duke of Strings in the drunken after-party."
Sheldon sniffed. "She told us to bring back stories. Tell me how talking to a nearly empty room is more interesting than dukedom."
"She was just being nice," Leonard said, as they reached their landing and almost crashed into a woman with a child on her hip.
"Oh, sorry, I didn't see you. Do you live there?" She pointed to their apartment.
Leonard nodded. "Yes, is there something you need?"
"Oh, no, I just wanted to introduce myself. I'm Gin, this is my son, Nate. I'm your new neighbor."
"New neighbor?" Leonard echoed, his brow crinkled.
Gin pointed back to Penny's apartment. "Yeah, I live there. Moved in yesterday."
Sheldon frowned. "You can't live there. Penny lives there."
"Oh, is that the name of the old tenant?" Gin asked. "I heard she was pretty girl, but broke her lease. Lucky for me, though." She bounced her son on her hip. "We just moved here and away from my ex. Turning over a new leaf."
"That's... nice," Leonard said, obviously struggling . "Isn't that nice, Sheldon?"
Sheldon was still staring over Gin's shoulder at the apartment that wasn't Penny's anymore. "She isn't gone," he said, quietly. "She didn't tell us she was going."
Gin's face filled with concern. "Ah, honey, were you friends? I'm sorry about that."
"Don't worry about him," Leonard said, pulling Sheldon toward their apartment. "He's just very set in his ways and doesn't like his paradigm disturbed. It was nice to meet you."
"But we didn't get to tell her about the conference," Sheldon said numbly as he was pulled along.
"Maybe she'll come back," Leonard said. "I'm going to go get the mail." He left and then returned-- Penny's postcard in hand.
He handed it to Sheldon without a word. She had only written three words.
Sheldon stared at the back of the postcard for over a minute, then dropped it, not watching to see where or how it fell.
"Fine," he said, and went to his room.
I have to focus. / I have to listen for my life // very carefully.
Penny entered her first classroom, as nervous as she had been during her first audition in California. The children were noisy, but quieted once the bell rang. She started by reviewing the school rules and introducing the ones for her classroom. During lunch, a gaggle of girls came to visit, complimenting her clothes and asking for tips. They were all so young, but still so desperate to be pretty, cool, and liked.
She acquired another hanger-on a couple weeks into the school year in the form a perpetually grinning boy who flirted boldly and badly. He often had after school detention and would stop by her classroom between the last bell of school and the start of his punishment. He fed her lines as bad as any Wolowitz had ever thrown at her and helped tidy her classroom. She found herself charmed by the brash boy, in spite of herself.
In the mornings, students who arrived on the early bus or whose parents dropped them off, would clump together in favorite classrooms. Penny had three regulars, a girl who had an unending supply of questions about the stage and two boys who stood back, red-faced and tongue-tied. Penny tried to talk to the boys occasionally, but they were as silent as Raj. She never did figure out if it was she or the would-be starlet who held them in thrall.
Her students did not come to her with questions about homework or the textbook. The general sciences weren't catching their attention yet, but she could change that. Having hated studying in school, Penny had several ideas on how to make her subject interesting.
They made ice cream and make-up and dissected owl pellets. Penny scoured the internet for experiments and tied them into lessons from the textbook. She jumped through chapters in a manner that appealed to her way of thinking, and her students followed. They dropped eggs and discussed rockets, though the principal had forbidden her from making any. (Several students still did, and they tested them in the park one weekend.) Penny did absolutely everything in her power to make science fun.
If she wasn't going to be a famous actress, she was going to be the best damned teacher there was.
Over time, she began to recognize student types: the ring leaders, the class clowns who excelled in school but didn't want anyone to know, the divas, the bullies, the geeks who cared and the geeks who didn't. In spite of herself, she had favorites every year. Daniel, who sketched airplanes in the margins of his homework; Alicia, who swore she would be a star and reminded Penny so much of herself; Kelly, who had a gift for the stage but who was too shy to try for a starring role; Wes, the loud-mouth who never stopped teasing Addie, a straight-A student with no patience for nonsense (he obviously liked her, but would never admit it because it wasn't cool); Sarah, who had confessed after school one day that she was dreaming about other girls and didn't know what to do. They came, she loved them, and then they left, breaking her heart every time.
When Kelly, by then a sophomore in high school, returned one day to visit and share that she had been cast as Lucy in the school production of Jekyll and Hyde. Penny had been surprised and overjoyed. She suspected word of her reaction had gotten around, because, after that, many of her old students returned to say hi and talk about their lives. The oldest, Daniel, was a junior in high school and already checking out colleges. Addie was doing half-days at a local university and had won a math prize for high school students. Wes played basketball and was too cool to come visit a middle school science teacher, but he wasn't too cool to help out with the middle school basketball team and always managed to stop by her classroom whenever he was at the school. She would ask him about Addie and he would change the subject. He had a girlfriend, but she could tell he had yet to fully get over his first crush.
All the students she met during her first four years of teaching were normal; some were brilliant, some were slow, some were social, some were lonely , but none were far removed from the general expectations one might have for a twelve or thirteen year old. In her fifth year, however, she met Natalie.
Natalie slept through her classes and aced every quiz Penny gave. If Penny called her to the board, she would answer the problem quickly and without hesitation. After two months, Penny realized that her student was extremely bored and started to give her different exercises. She got Alicia, now a sophomore in high school and discovering that she preferred directing to acting, to pass her a test from her physics class and gave that to Natalie to do one day. Natalie finished it before the period was over and got all but one correct. (Natalie argued that her wrong answer was, in fact, an error of the teacher's, but Penny could not follow the argument and so was unable to verify her claim.)
"She doesn't belong in my class," Penny tried to tell Natalie's parents. "Your daughter is extremely intelligent; she should be taking science classes at a high school, maybe at college, even."
Her parents were adamant, however. Natalie would not receive any special treatment, would not be differentiated from her peers in any way. They had adopted her when she was a baby and did not want to mark her as any more different than that. "She will have a normal childhood," Natalie's mother said. Personally, Penny suspected that Natalie's parents had issues with adoption that they really needed to work out, but she didn't dare mention that to them.
Despite, or perhaps, because of the lack of parental support, Penny could not leave Natalie alone. The girl had the sort of brain that reminded her of the neighbors she'd had once upon a time in what now felt like a completely different life. Thinking of Leonard and Sheldon for the first time in a long time, she started to get an idea.
Seems like all rooms return to the kitchen, / to the four places // arranged around the table. It's winter // and where the rest are, I don't know.
Despite their protests and best efforts, Leonard and Sheldon found themselves the babysitters of Gin's Nate more than once. Leonard tried to be a good babysitter and keep the five year old out of trouble and harm. Though he did arrange a few times to be caught returning Nate to his mother when a girl was coming over, after he'd heard from Wolowitz that women liked men they could see as good fathers.
Sheldon tried to ignore the boy as much as possible, but when that didn't work, he talked about science and did experiments.
Their first experiment had been to blow up an egg.
"Give him to me," Sheldon said.
Leonard raised an eyebrow and handed over the squirming six year old. Sheldon stood the boy in front of the microwave and then got an egg from the refrigerator.
"What are you doing?" Leonard asked. Sheldon held up the egg. "Sheldon, no."
"It is a test," Sheldon said.
"I'm not cleaning up."
"Fine." Sheldon placed the egg in the microwave and then input five minutes. "Now watch," he said.
The turn table spun around, the egg rocked back and forth, and then, with a sudden crack, shell and yolk covered the window.
Nate looked up at Sheldon, his eyes wide and adoring. "Cool," he said. "Why did that happen?"
"He's a theoretical scientist," Sheldon announced. "He asked 'why.' Experimental scientists want to know what else will explode. Engineers ask 'how' and everyone else just says 'do it again.'"
"And you created this test, how?"
"I have family," Sheldon said. "Aunts and uncles have children. I've had years to design and refine this test. It is almost always correct."
Nate tugged on Sheldon's shirt. "What else blows up?" he asked.
Sheldon frowned. "Probably theoretical, possibly experimental. We'll know after further testing. Come Nate, I will explain for you the science of the exploding egg."
Sheldon decided that Nate might end up a minor scientist one day and so set up a whole curriculum for the young boy. Gin was torn between joy that her little boy was becoming so smart and annoyance at the strange smells and odd objects that began to accumulate in their apartment. For a while everything was all right again, but then, when Nate was nine years old and beginning to develop an unfortunate preference for chemistry, everything changed once again.
Sheldon knocked twice on Gin's door before she opened. "Sheldon," she said, "what's wrong?"
"Leonard's leaving," Sheldon said. "Leslie asked him to marry her."
"He's not leaving yet, though, is he?"
"No, but he will. Soon."
Shortly after that, his other friends found new jobs and lives: Raj met a girl through an online dating site his parents had signed him up for. They instant messaged and emailed daily. Raj was constantly smug and unbearable to be around. When he had first taken the new job on the East Coast, Sheldon had been pleased, at least until he realized that their group was once again down to three and unbalanced. Later, Wolowitz took a job in Florida and it no longer mattered. He sent photos every week of the hot women from the beach. Sheldon had a whole folder on his computer filled with lithe brown bodies and tiny bathing suits. He didn't know why he kept them; none of the girls ever appealed to him. If he was honest, he was examining the photographs the same way he scoured newspapers and watched the news, always searching for one person he had little hope of ever seeing again. All of this, while Sheldon remained in his apartment, tutoring Nate and dealing with an endless stream of new roommates.
the arrival of silence / the ending, the slow opening.
Penny combed the university website until she found the physics homepage. Before looking up individual email addresses, she browsed through the news. The sixth item on the list made her pause and gave her the excuse she needed.
In order to promote scientific inquiry, interest, and study, the school had decided to offer free public lectures until May of the next year. Anyone who wished to host a lecture was invited to contact the Dean. Penny clicked the email link.
A few days later, the Dean called her on her cell. "Good evening-- Ms West, is it?"
"This is she," Penny said, capping her red ink pen. The voice sounded important.
"This is Dr. Eric Gablehauser. I am a Dean at the California Institute of Technology. I received your email about the public lecture you wish to host."
"Yes, at the middle school where I work."
"I see. I am calling because I see that you listed the lecturer you would like to come."
"I did," said Penny. She had thought long about who to request and whether she should request at all. Natalie's disdain for the regular classes, though, had made her zero in on one person.
"Let me make sure I am reading this correctly," said Dr. Gablehauser. "You want Dr. Sheldon Cooper?" He read the name slowly, over-enunciating each syllable.
"Do you know Dr. Cooper?" the Dean asked, his voice still full of disbelief.
"I do, actually," said Penny. "We were friends once. Oh, don't tell him I'm the one asking, please."
"You are certain about this." Dr. Gablehauser's voice was flat and disbelieving.
"Yes," said Penny, tired of being questioned. "So can I have the lecture, or not?"
"He's all yours, Ms. West. Have a good evening."
"You too. Good bye."
Penny held her closed phone to her lips and looked, unseeing, at the black television screen.
Sheldon was coming.
Was there ever an option?
"You know," Sheldon said, watching a now-13-year-old Nate carefully measure out two grams of sugar, "there was a time that I thought you would become a promising theoretical physicist. Now, you're a chemist."
Nate did not look up from his beakers and chemicals. "The explosions are better," he said. "Besides, chemistry is more useful than physics. For example, medicine. Plenty of chemical components in those."
"Right. Physics only explains how the entire universe works," Sheldon said. His cell phone rang. "One moment. Yes?"
"Dr. Gablehauser, is there something you need?"
"To my immense surprise, Dr. Cooper, you have been requested to conduct a public lecture."
"Really?" Sheldon asked, taken aback. His line of work was normally too intangible for the lay person.
"A middle school teacher in Alhambra emailed me and asked you to lecture at her school for her students."
"No," Sheldon said immediately. "Absolutely not." He disliked children as a rule. Nate was an exception, and only because Sheldon felt ethically obligated to coach the young mind rather than let it rot. Besides, every Batman eventually needed his Robin.
"I am afraid I have already committed your time," Dr. Gablehauser replied. "Unless you wish to forfeit certain privileges for the foreseeable future, I suggest you prepare for your lecture."
"Fine. Good-bye." Sheldon hung up, apologized to Nate, and said 'bye' to Gin as he left her apartment. In his own apartment, which he currently shared with an English graduate student whose sole redeeming qualities were his quietness and love of Star Trek, Sheldon called Leonard. First, he complained; then, once prompted, he inquired after Leslie's pregnancy. Leslie had miscarried during her first attempt at motherhood, but she, Leonard, and their doctor were cautiously optimistic this time. Sheldon hoped the delivery would go well; he remembered far too sharply Leonard crying helplessly on of the couch of their-- Sheldon's apartment. He remembered also sitting there, frozen, and filled with a pain he had not known he was capable of feeling. Besides, Sheldon honestly wished Leonard well, even if he did think that a child would further hamper Leonard's research. The fact that Leslie was having to stay close to home-- and, ergo, far from the labs-- was merely a fortunate coincidence and had no impact on his happiness for the couple at all.
Speaking of children, Sheldon realized that he had to do the lecture and pass on his knowledge. After all, he was one of the top physicists in the world, and with great power came great responsibility.
You were there, sudden figure / at the window, your face a pale / white bloom
Penny enlisted a few, select children in preparing for Sheldon's lecture. She had borrowed a computer-connected white board from the high school. Whatever Sheldon wrote upon it would also appear on the large projection screen beside the stage. On the other side of the stage was another projection screen, this one in case Sheldon brought a power point presentation. The students looked at her in disbelief when she asked them to measure the distances between the sides of the stages, the podium, and the board.
"It must be even," she told them.
"It just does." When one side was off by 6 centimeters, she had them readjust everything again.
On top of the podium, her helpers set up a cooler with several bottles of water, all different brands since Penny could not remember Sheldon's preference. "Isn't water just, you know, water?" one student muttered to another. The other student glanced Penny's way and hushed his friend.
"I don't think Ms. West cares right now."
When everything was as perfect as she could make it, Penny clapped her hands and got her students' attention. "We're all set," she said. She handed each child a white slip with an excuse written on it and sent them back to class. She did not want them present if Sheldon decided to dislike something. She heard the door to the auditorium open behind her.
"And here is Ms. West, our 7th grade science teacher. She is the one who organized all this."
"Penny?" Sheldon's voice was scarcely louder than a whisper.
Penny forced herself to turn around. Other than the suit and the forehead that reached slightly higher than before, he looked exactly the same. "Hello, Sheldon," she said, somehow managing a nervous smile. "Long time no see."
The principal glanced between them. "Well, I guess I will let you two... catch up. Ms. West will explain how the assembly will work." He left, the door clicking shut quietly behind him.
"So, you teach science?" Sheldon ventured.
The absurdity of him trying to sound nonchalant and make small talk broke Penny. "Sheldon, I--"
"Where should I set up?" he asked, abruptly. He wouldn't meet her gaze.
She sighed. "This way." She led him to the stage and pointed out the water. After a careful perusal, he selected one and put it in the center of the cooler. He was surprised and seemingly pleased by the white board. "Do you need anything else?"
"The students will arrive just after lunch at 1:30. The assembly will begin at 1:45. They are yours for an hour. No talk of guns, bombs, or drugs, but anything else should be fine. Also, if you have time afterward, there is a student I would like you to meet. She is actually the reason I set this up."
Sheldon frowned. "I see. That won't be a problem. Who is your student?"
"Her name is Natalie," Penny said. "She's a genius."
Sheldon finally looked up, but his gaze was indecipherable. She wondered when and how he had become so difficult to read.
to draw her back through interruption, / make her stay.
After Penny left, Sheldon found a stool backstage, cleaned it off with a disinfectant wipe from his laptop case, and set up his computer at the podium. Hacking into the school's wireless was child's play. He quickly located Penny's records. The reports were glowing. She had been teaching for five years and was recognized for her ability to engage students in the sciences. Many of her students took extra courses in high school or joined the middle school science club, which was one of the largest in the area. She also ran the drama club alongside the choir teacher. Every year the school did a one-act play, which she directed.
He found her email address and phone number and saved them to his computer. While she may have only brought him back into her life in order to help a student, he was not going to let her walk out again so easily. Over the past eight years his circle of friends had gradually drifted apart. Leonard was married and trying to be a good husband. Wolowitz had gotten a job in Florida and Raj was teaching at a school on the East Coast and, amazingly enough, was dating. The fact that the girlfriend never stopped talking easily masked the fact that Raj never spoke at all. He missed them, missed Halo night and the Cheesecake Factory and Wii sports tournaments. He missed all his old habits, but most of all and against all reason, he missed Penny.
At 1:30 students began to enter the auditorium. Most attended the private middle school, but he knew some students from nearby public middle schools and from the high schools had also come. "It's not often," the principal had said, earlier, "that we have a world-renowned physicist visit our humble school." After they were all seated, the principal stood, welcomed everyone to the school, and introduced Penny.
Penny smiled at the students. "Good afternoon, everyone," she said.
"Good afternoon, Ms. West," her students chimed back.
"Does everyone have a notebook?" she asked. Students held up their notebooks.
"What about pens?" The notebooks lowered and pens rose.
"Good. If you do not have materials and wish to take notes, as I suggest you do, raise your hand now and a teacher will give you a pen and paper. All right?"
"Yes, Ms. West."
"Good. Now, we have a very special guest today. Dr. Sheldon Cooper is a physicist at CalTech, but he knows about a lot more than just physics. He is a science genius and today he is here to talk with us. If there is anything you do not understand, write it down and put it in one of the boxes by the doors on your way out. Don't forget to write down your name and class number or, if you are not a student at our school, your contact information. I will ensure that all your questions are answered. Now, everyone please give a big round of applause for Dr. Cooper."
Penny started clapping her hands, followed quickly by all the students, and stepped away from the podium toward Sheldon.
"1:45 on the dot," she said, pressing a small timer into his hand as she left the stage. Sheldon watched her find a seat and then looked at all the students waiting for him, their notebooks ready and pens poised.
"Today," he said, "we are going to discuss the physics of superheros." The lecture was an adaptation from one he had given to a 'Physics for Non-Majors' class he had been forced to teach a couple years back. It was designed to create several entry points into physics and demonstrate many of its different uses. He had chosen two of the issues he'd mentioned in the lecture-- Superman's speed and the problem of friction ("Supposing Superman was subject to friction while flying, though, of course, such a supposition would mean that he was not actually super at all, we can determine at which speeds his clothing would begin to burn away.") and Spiderman's webs and strength-to-weight ratios ("Now, while spiderwebs are already recognized for their incredible strength in relation to their size, Spiderman's webs go far beyond them. Using strength-to-weight ratios, we can determine approximately how large his webs were and how much they should be able to hold before breaking.")-- and then expanded and simplified the explanations. He had tested the lecture with Nate earlier in the week and he had understood, so Sheldon was not too worried.
After he finished, Penny returned to the stage and dismissed the students by rows. When they were gone, she turned to him. "I'm impressed. You made sense."
"I have always made sense," Sheldon said, even though he knew it wasn't true.. "You just didn't always pay attention."
"Right. Well, when you are done packing up your computer, I'll take you to see Natalie."
Sheldon finished packing quickly and followed Penny out of the auditorium and down a small hallway to a room with a table and a couple white boards. At the table, a slight Asian girl with her hair pulled back in a pony tail waited. Her notebook rested in front of her.
"Natalie, this is Dr. Cooper." She nodded at him, solemn and silent.
"Sheldon, this is my student, Natalie." Sheldon sat down.
"Explain the Theory of Relativity," he said. Natalie did not even pause to think.
"The laws of thermodynamics." She recited them swiftly.
Sheldon borrowed her notebook and sketched down a basic problem. "Solve that." She pulled the notebook back and did so with barely a glance at the problem. He gave her another, using more difficult math. Again, she had no trouble. For the next he slid her his calculator. She did not use the calculator until it was necessary. That problem was likewise correct. The girl was quick and smart.
"Do you know the Fantastic Four?" he asked.
She shook her head. "Are they physicists?"
He winced. "No, comic book characters. One of the four has the ability to burst into flame. When he is on fire, he has the ability of flight. Using physics, explain his abilities."
She asked questions, took notes, and then gave him a possible explanation. She spoke hesitantly, though, uncertain and not fully convinced by her own conclusions. Her work was not the most sophisticated nor was it close to his favored hypothesis, but her reasoning ability was sound, her math was good, and her understanding of scientific concepts was flexible and strong. That she could even hazard a guess at such an odd question spoke volumes in of itself. Sheldon turned to Penny.
"What is she doing in middle school?" he demanded.
"My parents want me to be normal," Natalie answered before Penny could phrase it more gently.
"Ridiculous," he said.
"It is true," Penny said. "They will not let her skip a grade or take classes away from her peers."
"I don't know what kind of students you teach, but I highly doubt that they are her peers," Sheldon said. "What are you doing now?" He directed this question toward Natalie. The girl had a better head on her shoulders than many undergraduates he had met. She may not be at his level when he had been her age, but he still felt a kinship with her.
"Ms. West gets me work from the high school, but it is still pretty easy."
"I should think so." Sheldon began to realize how he could kill two birds with one stone. "What if, instead of from the high school, your work came from me?"
"Really?" The girl finally looked animated. "Ms. West, could I, please?"
"You sure you want to do this, Sheldon?" Penny asked.
"Someone must save her from the fools she calls her parents. Natalie, I will meet with your teacher each week and give her new material for you. Will that suffice?"
"Yes. Oh, thank you. Thank you."
Sheldon stole her notebook again and wrote down his contact information. "This is my email. Send me a list of things you want to know."
"Anything?" Natalie asked, her eyes lighting up once more. "String theory?"
Sheldon smiled. She was going to be a perfect minion. "Especially string theory. Think it over. Send me as many topics as you like, whatever interests you."
"All right. Ms. West, may I go back to class now?"
Penny handed her an excuse slip and let Natalie leave. "You don't have to do this," she told Sheldon.
"Yes, I do. Is Saturday an all right time to meet?" he asked.
Penny blinked. "What?"
Sheldon sighed. "I will not simply email you a list of problems to give the girl. I will give the work to you in person and explain how it should be presented." He could just email her, he knew, but he wanted an excuse to see her again, regularly, to make their meetings... habitual. "Besides," he added, "Alhambra is not that far from Pasadena."
Penny hesitated and then nodded. "Saturdays are fine."
"Dinner?" he asked. She bit her lip. "It is a necessary aspect of life," he reminded her.
"Everyone has to eat," she agreed . "All right. Dinner. Six?"
"Sure. My apartment? Saturday has become a take-out night for me."
"Leonard won't be there," he said. "He's married and more worried about his pregnant wife."
"Married?" Penny asked, surprised. He wondered if she thought of them as unchanging, stuck in time.
"Four years ago. He tried to invite you, but your family wouldn't pass on your address."
"Wolowitz is in Florida and Raj is in Connecticut."
"Oh." Penny sank down into the chair Natalie had been using. Her professionalism slipped from her shoulders and for a moment she was almost exactly as Sheldon remembered her, despite her hair being longer and the small, faint lines were forming around her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said.
"As you lack a time machine, I doubt you can do anything to change what is, so don't worry about it. So, my place?"
She smiled. "Sure." A moment passed and then her face cleared. "Oh, did you ever clone Leonard Nimoy?" The teasing tone he had always associated with her was back in her voice. He shook his head.
"No. I had to put the napkin away."
"Why?" Penny asked.
He shrugged. "Too many bad memories." He paused, struggling for the words to make Penny understand. "You see, someone left without saying good-bye once and it hurt more than I expected." As he spoke, he realized that his words were forming an unintended, unexpected confession. He could not meet her eyes, could not even look at his face. He had not even known, he thought, but he could not deny the truth in his statement. Had he liked her as far back as then? How had he not seen it?
"I'll see you at six on Saturday," she said, breaking through his confusion. He looked up and nodded.
"Six," he echoed.
There's a warm / rain beginning. You can stay here. // You can forgive yourself.
Penny paced nervously in front of the Sheldon's apartment building, uncertain if she really wanted to climb up the stairs or not. When Sheldon had come to her school, she had felt as tightly wound as a guitar string the entire day. She kept remembering how he had been eight years ago and he kept surprising her with how much and how little he had changed. Seeing him, listening to him speak, she had realized just how much she had missed.
Yet, when he had invited her back to the apartment and back into his life, she had hesitated. She was still hesitating. She had feared once that any contact with this part of her life would drag her back to bad jobs and failed auditions. She had run, and now, even though she had a stable life she loved, she was afraid that rekindling their friendship would change everything. She had no reason to fear a return to failure, she was beyond that now, but-- the building loomed and she felt like she was standing at a fork in a road.
Penny glanced back at her car. Steeling herself, she turned towards the building, and stepped inside.
The elevator was fixed. She wondered when that had been done. She rode it up to his floor. She could hear music coming from the rooms that had once been hers. She walked to Sheldon's door and knocked.
That first meeting bred a second, then a third and then four as the weeks passed. She invited him to the school play and, to her surprise, he actually came and, what was more, brought flowers. ("Sheldon, these are beautiful." "I was told that roses were customary for dramatic performances.") He asked her to a movie and she had a good time. ("Is that even possible?" she asked. "Of course not. They are flaunting at least three basic laws of physics at any given moment. Shh, this is a good part.") Their dinners together during the week increased in number, and Sheldon even gave her a day during which she could choose to go to any restaurant she desired. He called it 'Penny's Surprise Night.' ("Where are we going Tuesday?" "What makes you think I'm going to tell you this week? I'll see you then")
Four months after meeting Sheldon again, Penny realized that they were dating. It was an odd sort of dating, she had to admit. They were close, intimate even, but they had not once kissed or even held hands while walking or sitting together on his couch. She wondered what exactly they were working toward, or if they were working toward anything at all.
So, she made a decision, and, one Saturday after discussing Natalie's new set of problems, she kissed him. He froze at first, but then responded before she could pull away and apologize. When she did break away, he was looking at her in wonder, as if he had just discovered the answer to the cosmos, the Unified Field Theory, a new star. He closed his eyes and kissed her again, quickly, softly.
"So this is why everyone makes a big fuss," he said.
Penny nodded, her heart was in her throat making it impossible for her to speak. Sheldon's cell phone rang. He reached for it, never once taking his gaze from her. He answered, still distracted.
"Yes?" His face paled and he abruptly hung up.
"What's wrong?" she asked, the spell broken.
"I have to go," he said. "Leslie's in premature labor and Leonard is falling to pieces."
"Wait," Penny said, standing and grabbing her purse. "I'll drive you."
The index cards have gone blank in their hands. / What's my line? When do I enter? And where should I stand?
Sheldon hurried into the hospital, barely sparing thought as to whether Penny would be able to keep up. Normally he would have waited for her, but Leonard was panicking and needed a friend. He found Leonard in the maternity waiting area, pacing and talking rapidly at whoever would listen. Sheldon stepped into his path.
"Leonard," Sheldon said. Leonard stopped as if breaking from a trance.
"She's in labor," he blubbered. "It's still-- it's too early. What if—" he stopped, unable to finish the sentence. "They don't know if, whether, if she'll--"
"Leonard, sit down," Sheldon instructed. "Breathe."
Leonard sat. "Oh, god, why is this happening again?" he asked, in despair.
"You don't know that it is," Sheldon said. "Besides, Leslie is in her eighth month. There is a very good chance your child will be fine."
"Oh, god, I-- Penny?"
Penny looked their way and jogged over. "Leonard, I heard from Sheldon. Are you all right? Have they told you what's happening?"
Leonard just blinked at her. "Penny, you're... here."
Penny glanced to Sheldon. "We were worried," he said.
"We?!" Leonard asked, flabbergasted. Sheldon had not expected that Penny would be such an effective distraction, but he was glad she was.
"We're..." he trailed off. He did not know what to say or how to define-- whatever they were.
"Dating," Penny said, reaching over for his hand and squeezing it. Sheldon stared down at her hand and then turned his own over so that they were touching palm to palm. He realized that he had no desire to ever let go and wondered if Penny felt the same.
Between them Leonard blinked bewilderedly. "Can someone please explain to me what is going on?" he asked.
Sheldon nodded to Penny and she started. She explained her sudden absence eight years ago and what she had been doing since. Sheldon picked up from the lecture he had done.
"The one you were complaining about?" Leonard asked.
"You complained?" Penny asked, arching an eyebrow.
"Irrelevant now," Sheldon said, "but yes." He returned to the story, mentioning Natalie and his excuse for seeing Penny again.
Her lips curved upward. "You did that on purpose," she said.
"Of course I did," Sheldon replied, and continued onward. He was reaching toward the end, when a nurse entered the waiting room.
"Dr. Leonard Hofstadter?" she called out.
"Here," Leonard said, scrambling to his feet and breaking Sheldon and Penny's hands apart as he rushed past them. Sheldon stood and followed after. Penny caught his hand once more and walked with him. The nurse led them to Leslie's room, where a doctor was waiting outside.
"Your wife is fine," the doctor said.
"Good, and the baby?" Leonard asked.
"Your son is also fine. He's a little early, but healthy. We're keeping him safe in the NICU.
Leonard turned. "Did you hear that?" he said, beaming. "I have a son."
"Congratulations," Penny said.
Leonard turned back to the doctor. "Can I see Leslie now?" he asked.
The doctor nodded. "Yes, in fact, we have much to discuss about what this early birth means for you and your son." He looked over to Penny and Sheldon.
"We'll wait out here," Penny said, anticipating his request.
"Thank you," the doctor said and he took Leonard inside the room.
Penny pulled Sheldon back to the opposite wall.
"So we're dating now?" Sheldon asked. He wanted one more confirmation, one more good thing to make the day perfect in his memory-- the day he kissed Penny and Leonard became a father.
"Yeah," said Penny, turning inward toward him. "I think we are."
"Good." He raised his free hand to her cheek and kissed her again, still in awe that he could. She wrapped her arm around his back and Sheldon realized that this was one new habit that he never wanted to lose or break.
I knew it / the moment before, // then it was happening
something you assume happens, meaning / it begins
a brighter world—the sun // bleaching the sand, distant trumpets / & fanfare
(And then-- / then, // I don't know what.
The world anyhow is too / straightforward)