Spoilers: AU fic, so none.
Rating: PG-15. Could'a been higher, but I honestly don't think it's worth an M.
Challenge:What would have happened had Sheldon and Penny grown up in the same neighborhood?
Summary: It's only time that pulls the stars apart, it's only time that brings your orbit 'round.
Author's Notes: In my defense, Penny did say she was "a big ol' five" on assertiveness.
It's Only Time
When Sheldon was six years old he climbed up a kitchen chair, wobbled, and almost fell while engaged in an act of junior espionage. After several tries he perched himself on the edge of the corian sink to watch through a glass pane as a flashing ambulance truck screamed to a stop across the street, three houses down. Two men and a woman in blue and orange uniforms tumbled like clowns from the multicolored box and scurried into the K'Natts house.
For a few minutes there was only spring sunshine on an drowsy expanse of cement and yard grass, then noise returned as the double doors to the other house were hurled open and the medical professionals spilled into frame again. Instead of a ladder for climbing cartoon buildings, they carried a stretcher with a bulky shape bundled in the center. Sheldon saw a whoosh of blond hair, and pressed his face against the window to focus. It was Mrs. Anne-Marie, he deducted. Mrs. Anne-Marie and Mr. Jim moved into that house two birthdays ago, and she was blond while he had brown hair. Sheldon watched the circus unfold at his neighbor's house, his bottom lip chewed to the point of soreness.
Mrs. Anne-Marie was going to the hospital. Something was wrong with the baby.
When Sheldon was seven years old the adults left him sitting on a picnic table, guarding a blue-eyed infant who chewed her blanket, smelled weird, and kept trying to spit on him.
When Penny was four and two thirds years old, the boy from across the street made her cry. This time it was her because of her name; what kind of name was K'Natts anyway?
"It's German, my mom said so," Penny insisted through watery sobs. "She says it's an old name."
"Course it's German," the ten-year-old sneered. His hair, the color of coffee beans according to his grandma, curled over his ears and stuck up awkwardly in the back. "I bet it started out as Knatz. It was typical for immigrant families to 'Americanize' their names when they migrated from lesser countries, often adding new syllables and getting rid of 'un-American' consonant combinations. They probably did it because they didn't want anyone to know they were Nazis."
When she heard this, Penny—who'd already had Nazis explained to her by Sheldon two weeks ago—shrieked a war cry and tried to ram him in the stomach so he'd fall over. She was still sobbing while she attacked him, but the Cooper boy was two thirds again her height even if he was as skinny as a bone. He managed to hold her back by her forehead, snickering as he described in vocabulary she couldn't understand all the ways she'd never be able to hurt him back. He was smarter, and bigger, and she was an unlearned, mucus-nosed crybaby.
Penny was too livid to absorb the insults coming from the boy who'd invaded her front yard (again) and made fun of her (again) until at last she cried (as she always did.) When he gestured with one hand to describe how fast she'd have to grow in order to ever be tall enough to actually hit him, she grabbed the pale arm, jumped with all her of weight on it, and bit.
Sheldon howled and started hitting her, desperate to get the monster girl off him. When she finally let go, scratched and dirty, the boy stumbled back three wavering steps. Fury squished his features together like a dried apple slice. Penny, panting and heaving with all the breath her diminutive lungs could contain, smiled at him. Her baby teeth were edged in blood, and she looked like a goblin with a crown of white-blond hair and a moss colored dress. Sheldon glanced at his arm, going pallid with horror when he saw eight tooth marks in a red, dribbling ring.
"You bit me!" he wailed. "You actually bit me!" Penny, her elfin form trembling, would have dived for the other arm to match it, when a black-haired girl in a purple tank top and rolled-up jeans slammed Sheldon from the left. The boy crumpled like a gingerbread house under an unforgiving bread roller, and his vanquisher pressed his face into the blacktop until he squealed.
"Stop, Missy, stop! Let me up! Boil-brained ignoramus, let me up!" Melissa Cooper pushed her brother's head harder, until tiny rocks dug into his cheek, leveraging all her weight on his spine.
"Sheldon Lawrence Cooper!"
She shouted the name directly into his ear, wanting every word to ring above his hissing, spitting protests. "You were teasing a little girl. How dare you? She's barely in kindergarten, you ass worm! Just because other bastards tease you, you think you can take it out on her?"
"She bit me!" Sheldon screeched, then yelped as his sister's knee dug deeper.
"I don't care if she cut off your balls!" yelled Missy. "I hope she gives you a blood disease! You don't pick on kids, Buggy Shelly, or Jesus will send you to Hell and Mom will pay the bus ticket to get you there! If you pick on Penny again, or call her names, or hit her, I'm going to make sure you never get your stupid scholarship, because I'll tell everyone what a filthy bully you are. Do you hear me?"
Sheldon, tears sloughing off his cheeks to sink into cracks in the asphalt, moaned his assent.
Above him, Missy huffed in satisfaction. She winked at their soppy-looking, red-mouthed little neighbor, and jumped off her brother. "Apologize!" she demanded.
The boy lurched to standing, as unsteady as a wind vane. He wiped his face with both palms, looked at the two girls, and seemed to shrink inward. His arms he tucked around his elbows, his chin he dropped, and with a conquered voice he said, "I'm sorry Penny. Your grandparents weren't Nazis. I shouldn't have hit you."
Penny folded her arms and blew a strand of pale hair out of her eyes. When Sheldon glanced tentatively upward, she showed her teeth again, and he looked away just as fast.
"Good," said Missy. "We're going home. Pennelope K'natts, you better wash up before your Pop sees you; you look like a hobgoblin. Brush your mouth really good so you don't catch my brother's jerk germs. I'll come by later and we can do some coloring with my brand new markers." She shoved her twin hard between the shoulder blades. "Move your noodle butt, Shelly!"
When Sheldon was fifteen years and eleven months old he prepared to go overseas for the first time. As the family sedan pulled out of the driveway in a three-point turn, he saw his neighbor sitting with her legs through the garden fence across the street. She was in fifth grade and looked like a boy in her junior league baseball uniform. As his dad accelerated Sheldon turned in his seat to watch her watching him, until the car took a corner and her silhouette was long out of sight.
When Penny was twelve, she completed her second season of gymnastics and won three regional medals for her tricks on the horse. After the winning meet her coach pulled her into his office, asked her to sit down, and told her that she didn't have the arm strength or the natural talent to train for the Olympics. She swallowed her reaction, rode her bike home, and cried into her brightly sparkled backpack. The sun set behind the overhang of her porch as Penny let the whole neighborhood see her grieving. Her neighbor, returning triumphant again from some fancy school, crossed the street between their houses and solemnly handed her an unopened packet of tissues.
"Personally," he said, "I find that tears lack any useful outcome to my mood. They seem like a natural reaction, but they don't actually make you feel better when you fail at something."
Penny blew her nose and eyed him. Even standing a few steps down, Sheldon Cooper was really, really tall—taller than when she'd seen him visit last summer. His face wasn't as scary and bug-eyed as it used to be. "It makes me feel better," she said, and sniveled into the tissue.
"Oh," said her neighbor. "It's just me then."
"What do you have to cry about?" she asked. He looked westward, at the lowering sun, and shrugged.
"Meemaw is sick. That's why I'm not in Massachusetts."
Penny blew her nose again, and felt guilty at the uncomfortable silence. Old Mrs. Cooper was a nice lady, even if she had tried to tell Penny that babies came from pelicans. "Sorry," she returned. "Your nanna's good people."
She held the small white and yellow packet up to Sheldon, but he waved her off. "It's already been opened, you keep it."
"Don't thank me; I don't touch things that other people've already opened. What are you upset about?"
Penny pulled her knees up, squishing the canvas backpack against her stomach, and looked at the eighteen-year-old boy who leaned against the handrail of her porch. He nearly counted as an adult now, but it was hard to imagine him as one. If she pulled up his three-quartered sleeves, Penny would see a ring of tiny scars beneath his arm hairs. He'd gotten them from her eight years ago, the very last day he ever bullied someone intentionally.
"My coach told me I'm not cut out for Olympic-level gymnastics. I don't have what it takes."
"Aaaah. Honesty you'll thank him for later in life."
Penny frowned. "No I won't. I won't ever thank someone for doubting me. And plus, now I'll have to play baseball. Again. I'm so tired of baseball."
"I recall you're not completely untalented at it," offered Sheldon. She thought he was, perhaps, trying to be comforting.
"Whatever. I hate it."
"What will you do then? Sit in front of your house and cry forever?"
Penny flipped him the bird. "Shut up, Sheldon. You're just being mean."
The young man crossed his arms, and puffed out his chest. "I was not insulting you. It was a real question."
She stuck a piece of hair into her mouth and chewed on it, a habit her mother detested. "I dunno. Maybe I'll join the Four-H club. Learn to hog-tie a pig."
"I detest pets, but pigs are unusually intelligent for four-legged animals." He nodded, satisfied with this conclusion. "You could do worse."
"Gee, thanks," said Penny. "Maybe you'll get a ham steak next year."
When Penny was fifteen years old she broke up with her boyfriend of three months, because he couldn't talk her into giving him what he wanted, and she couldn't remember why she ever thought he was a cool person. It happened in the flag room, behind the auditorium where young Dr. Cooper explained into a microphone that arms of steel could cut a woman in thirds.
When Sheldon was twenty-two years old he visited Texas for two weeks over the holiday season. He came home every winter, but this year would be the last, because two days after Christmas celebrations his neighbor convinced him to be her twenty-one-plus passenger while she practiced driving at night. He protested that he didn't have a license himself, so he didn't qualify under the laws of a driving permit. Penny brushed Sheldon's complaints aside and bribed him with a jar of honey from her uncle's bee farm one county over. She drove him to the comic store eighteen miles away; he gave her ten dollars for gas.
On the drive back Penny crested a hill, pulled over to a lookout point, and put the truck into park. Her father's pickup was the widest model you could buy in its price range, with a flatbed for industry work and no dividing gap between the driver and passenger seats. She unbuckled her seatbelt and leaned her forehead against the steering wheel.
"Penny, are you ill?" Sheldon unbuckled his own seatbelt and leaned over to touch her forehead. The overhead light blinked off while he spoke, swamping them in relative darkness. When his eyes adjusted, the only visibility came from the green glow the dash controls. "You're not fevered. Did you eat something today that would normally make you unhealthy? Penny, if you get sick I can't drive us back."
Beneath the shadow of her folded arms, Penny giggled. "I don't see how this is funny," he continued. "Penny, I cannot drive us back." But then she raised her head and smiled radiantly at him, cutting through the dark. In the dim atmosphere he could see the curve of her lips over white teeth, and her eyes were just slightly lighter than anything else in the car.
"I'm not sick. I'm great, in fact," she said, and then she climbed onto his lap.
Sheldon was late to the metaphorical party, but his invitation had just arrived and he could read it written across her face. Except this was a party he was not allowed to have, and Penny wasn't allowed to have it either, and he didn't know why she was acting this way.
"Penny, you can't be sitting on me. You can't be sitting on me! You're sixteen, Penny. We have to go home right now. This is wrong. What you think you're doing. It's illegal."
"Shhh," she murmured, settling her legs around his hips. "You've never done this before, have you?"
"No, but that has nothing to do it. Penny. Penny!"
"Well, neither have I," said Penny, curiosity and cheerfulness weakly masking the determination in her voice. "We can find out together."
She kissed him, wet and messy in the dark, and although Sheldon thought he wanted nothing more than to throw her to other side of the seat and scuttle from the vehicle, his mouth was open and his body was reacting. She fumbled at his belt with one hand and used the other to guide his palms to her hips. Her skirt was already riding high, and Sheldon's hands shook when his fingers slid up her skin without meeting cotton or silk resistance.
It was so carefully orchestrated, so direct and ruthless and forward. He couldn't fathom the numbers—the mathematical measure of her immaturity—when she distracted him with kisses across his cheeks and a hand into his trousers. How could she know so much about this when he barely understood what was happening?
"Come on, Sheldon," Penny crooned in his ear. "It's only me. You're safe. Everything will be okay. I want to do this with you." Sheldon shuddered and his large hands spanned her hips while she pulled his erection from its confines.
"I picked you," she murmured, and when they met it was Sheldon who thrust upward into the waiting universe of Penny.
On the fourth day after Christmas Sheldon flew back to England, where he studied for three semesters in preparation for his second doctorate. On the fifth day of January Penny went back to school for the winter quarter of her junior year.
Ten months later, when Mrs. Cooper mentioned that Shelly had decided to spend Christmas with his friends at school, Penny nodded, twisted her lips, and agreed it was really too bad, yes, and he'll surely come to his senses next year when he realizes what he's missed.
He avoided her for two Christmases and a Fourth of July, so it wasn't until they both stood in the anteroom of his father's funeral parlor that Sheldon looked Penny in the eye again. The two posed in a gaping contrast of changes. He barely displayed his twenty-five years, still as nervous and gangly as a teenager. Penny, however, shed her juvenile awkwardness with the ease of an unwanted coat: threadbare and caste aside for finer things. The lobby lights were dimmed in respect of the occasion, and they shone on her hair. She'd traded her honey curls for white-blond waves. As Penny smiled, delicate and warm, he remembered a mossy green dress and the imprint of sun-baked black asphalt scraped into his cheek.
After signing the guest book she hugged him, and he let her get it out of her system. He even allowed her to sink against his body and wrap her arms around his neck in a way that was not quite appropriate for their family and friends to witness, but not quite inappropriate either. Sheldon wanted to tell her that it was over, that he was done punishing her, but all he could do was bend his head and chokingly recite square roots into her hair.
When Penny was twenty-two years old she flounced out of community college with her nose in the air, walking all the way from campus to her house. It took four miles to plan her future, and two more miles to talk herself into the amount of courage required to sustain that decision. By the time she pushed past the screen door and breathed in the smell of her grandmother's tea leaves, she knew exactly what to do. She opened the family address book, picked up the cordless phone, and called her neighbor.
Her friend. Her first. Her Sheldon. She didn't know exactly what he was to her, or what exactly she was to him, but Penny was prepared to cross the street and call from his mother's phone if he didn't pick up.
After six rings, he did. "Hello Penny."
"Hey Sheldon, how are you?"
"I'm adequate. I work with imbeciles so I wouldn't call myself happy, but I'm in decent health and Comic Con is next month so if you call me then, there's a probability my mood will be elevated and I'll have a 'happy' story for you to give my mom."
"I'll tell her you're doing okay, but that's enough. You don't have to make small talk for me. I know you don't like it."
"Good. What's your purpose for calling?"
"I'm moving to Los Angeles next week."
"I see." There was an uncomfortable pause, but Penny could win a staring contest with Sheldon even when they were two thousand miles apart. Eventually he cleared his throat. "You're pursuing your goal of becoming an actress, I assume."
"Got it in one! And since you're at that fancy schmancy technical university in Pasadena, I was thinking I'd move near you, since I don't know anyone over there yet."
There came another pause, this one longer still, but at last Sheldon replied, "Your logic is acceptable; it would be hard for you to live in a new place with complete strangers. But you won't find my social circle to up to the standard you're accustomed to."
She smiled into the receiver. "That's alright, I'll make my own friends soon enough, and I don't want to trample your environment. Do you know any good places to rent?"
"How much capital do you have?"
"I've saved four thousand, six hundred dollars since high school."
"My apartment building has a room across the hall that was vacated yesterday. It's small, and costs eight-fifty month, with a full month's security upfront. If you get a job quickly, you should be able to support yourself."
Penny felt her throat tighten, because this wasn't just Sheldon helping her find an apartment that charged a fair price and came with acceptable amenities. This was huge. This was creaky garden gate opening, an iron safe unlocking. This was a free pass into his world.
Maybe they could be okay again, after all.
"I accept," Penny said. "Give the building manager my information. Thanks, Shelly."
"Sheldon," he corrected.
"Thank you, Sheldon. See ya soon."
Eleven days later Penny unloaded her stuff into the apartment lobby and began the process of hauling it upstairs. She met Sheldon at the top of the landing, and when he smiled weakly she let out the breath in her chest, and smiled back. She met his roommate, and they showed her their apartment with their scribbled-over white boards. They bought her Thai food for dinner, and part of Penny's heart broke when Sheldon explained the rules of visitor conduct. His demands were more stringent, and his punishments harsher, than they'd ever been in Texas. He'd lost something when he left home at fifteen, and once removed from the influence of his family circle all these little habits had run crazy over his life. His roommate, the poor sweetheart, seemed to think this was normal. Maybe, Penny wondered as she chewed her rice, it was.
She'd have to help him find a middle ground again while she was here. She would do that, as his friend.
When Sheldon Cooper was twenty-eight years old, Penny—beautiful Penny, horrible Penny, soft and merciless and trusting and stupid infuriating Penny—became his neighbor all over again.
Ten minutes after meeting her, Leonard fell in love.
Without even asking.