Penny hissed his name into the darkness, but there was no answer. The knot in her throat tightened with every step she took down the hallway, and as she pushed the bedroom door open her hands were shaking.
Sheldon was lying on his back in the exact middle of the bed, hands folded across his chest and a tiny smile pursing the corners of his mouth. He looked so peaceful that Penny felt sick at the thought of waking him—and yet what else could she do?
His Mona Lisa smile faded, replaced by a slightly petulant frown. But he still didn't wake. Penny touched his shoulder—and just like that he bolted upright, as though every cell in his body had snapped from OFF to ON at once. "Penny," he complained as he knuckled the sleep from his eyes, "how many times have I told you that you cannot be in my room?"
Penny wrung her hands, shifting from one bare foot to another. "I know, but I fell asleep watching TV after my shift and when I woke up it was on the news—"
And with that the last of her denial crumbled, and the tidal wave of grief finally hit. Penny collapsed onto the end of Sheldon's bed, put her hands over her face and cried.
"I assume there is some reason for this emotional outburst," said Sheldon, but he sounded doubtful. Which only made Penny cry harder because it was so Sheldon to say something like that, and he was the least comforting person she knew, but he was all she had.
"The plane," she sobbed when she could speak. "The plane Leonard and the others were on, coming back from Germany—something went wrong with the engines—and it crashed—"
"Penny, I find that exceedingly unlikely," said Sheldon. "For one thing, the conference was in Switzerland, not Germany, so I conclude that you have confused Zurich and Munich and have no reason for concern. Have you tried calling Leonard's cell phone?"
"I had the flight number, Sheldon, because I was supposed to pick them all up at the airport, and their connecting flight was out of London not Zurich or Munich or whatever, and of course I called Leonard's cell phone, do you think I'm stupid?"
Sheldon didn't answer. Penny's tears still threatened to overwhelm her, but now her fury was stronger. She wanted to grab Sheldon and shake him, rattle some emotion into that soulless computer brain of his. "He didn't answer his phone," she choked. "Neither did Raj, or Howard. The plane came apart, Sheldon—"
For a moment Sheldon sat very still. Then with an abrupt motion he flung the covers back, swung his legs around and stood up. Penny had one blurry second to realize that he was wearing Batman pajamas – or at least, they were black and had that yellow bat-signal thing all over them – before he strode out to the living room and snatched up the remote for the TV.
"…carrying one hundred and eighty-seven passengers, was attempting to make an emergency landing in St. John's, Newfoundland when the explosion occurred. Helicopters and several rescue ships have been circling the crash site some fifty miles off the coast of Labrador, but so far no survivors have been found …"
Sheldon stood in the half-darkness with the light of the television flickering over him, hollowing out his eyes and lining his mouth with shadow. He didn't speak, and there was no expression on his face. He just stood there until the news bulletin had played itself out, and then he turned off the TV and sat down very slowly on his end of the sofa.
Penny couldn't bear to look at him any more. She pressed her face against the doorframe, wishing the cold wood was someone warm and solid and real, someone who would put his arms around her and stroke her hair. Because Sheldon would never do any of those things for her, even at a time like this; he didn't like touching and he just didn't do emotion…
His voice was a husky ghost, floating through the silence of the apartment. "Penny."
She took a deep, shuddering breath and straightened up, wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her robe. "Sheldon," she said as she walked out to him.
He looked up at her, his eyes wide and earnest. "Penny, Leonard can't have died in a plane crash. It defies all the laws of probability."
"Penny, I think you fail to understand the magnitude of the unlikelihood—"
"I don't care!" Penny shouted at him. "It doesn't matter about the facts or statistics or the engine specifications or whatever, there is no argument about this, it's happened and they're all—"
No, she couldn't say it, not that word, it was too horrible. "They're gone," she finished in a whisper, and clutched her own elbows for comfort as she dropped onto the sofa beside him.
There was a long silence. Then:
"How am I going to get to work? And who's going to drive me to the comic book store?"
Ordinarily Penny would have been enraged by those words—how dare he make this all about him? But she could hear the quavering note in Sheldon's tone, the way his voice cracked the word "store" into two syllables, and when she looked at him she saw that his face had gone absolutely white.
Dr. Sheldon Cooper, PhD, with his IQ of 187 and his vast knowledge of physics and his carefully regulated existence, had just lost three of the four people he considered friends. Without Leonard—and Raj and Howard too, in their own weird enabling sort of way—he had no one of like mind to share his lonely existence, to humor his whack-a-doodle quirks, to help him find his way through the big, noisy, messy, illogical world.
She'd lost some friends, but Sheldon had lost everything.
"Oh, honey," said Penny, and wrapped her arms around him before he could protest. She pulled his head down so that his cheek rested against her chest, rocking him gently. "Sweetie, it's okay."
"It's not okay," Sheldon retorted, muffled against the collar of her robe. He felt like a bundle of cold sticks in her arms, but he didn't pull away. "It's bad, Penny. I have no plan for this contingency."
And now he was shaking. Realization dawned on Penny, a thought that had been growing inside her for the past few months but never really come into focus until now: Sheldon had feelings. Not just shallow feelings either, but deep-down feelings that he bottled up because he didn't know how to deal with them himself, let alone share them with anybody else.
But now that she was holding him, his trembling body spoke so much louder than words, and she felt as though she'd just been handed a Sheldon-to-Penny dictionary. A magic book in which phrases like I have no plan for this contingency translated easily into I never thought I'd lose Leonard, I couldn't even bear to think about it long enough to figure out what I'd do if it happened, and now he's gone and I didn't even get to say goodbye.
He still hadn't pushed her away, either. In fact he'd turned his face into her shoulder, and as she stroked his hair she could feel the tension leaking out of him until he was actually—almost—nestled in her arms. Not resisting any more, not pretending he didn't want to be touched, just letting her give him the only comfort she could.
"I'm so sorry, Sheldon," she murmured. "I loved him too."
His head jerked up, the vulnerability in his expression replaced by something harder and more irritable, reminding her abruptly that he wasn't a little boy at all. "I find that difficult to believe," he said. "For one thing, you're overstating the warmth of my feelings for Leonard by a considerable degree, and for another, if you loved him as you put it, you surely would have responded to his somewhat pathetic but nonetheless persistent overtures of romance with a good deal more enthusiasm."
It took Penny a few bewildered seconds to parse that sentence, but there was no hesitation about her answer. "Just because I didn't date him doesn't mean I didn't love him as a friend, Sheldon. Leonard was very sweet, very kind—" No, she couldn't go on like this, she was tearing up again. She sniffed, and finished in a hoarse voice, "But just a friend."
For a moment Sheldon's eyes still burned into hers, accusing, disbelieving. Then his gaze dropped, and with disarming meekness he laid his head against her shoulder again. Penny was about to ask him why it mattered when a shudder ran through his body, and the collar of her robe started to feel warm and slightly damp.
Oh. Oh no. She couldn't bear this, it felt like someone was hammering a tent-peg straight into her heart. "Honey," she said wildly, gripping his face and lifting it up to hers, "sweetie, Sheldon, don't, I know, I know it's awful but I'm here, you've got me, I'm not going anywhere. Please don't."
His eyes were swollen, fringed with long dark lashes and even in the semi-darkness, startlingly blue. His mouth worked without sound, framing syllables she couldn't decipher, and Penny was just about to ask him to repeat it when she felt his big hands wrap around the small of her back, gripping her waist with the urgency of a drowning man.
"Penny," he gasped, and for the rest of her life, no matter how many times she replayed that moment in her mind she couldn't remember exactly how it happened. All she knew was
that Sheldon's forearms on either side of her felt like bars of sun-warmed steel –
how the stubble along his jaw rasped the heels of her hands (somehow she'd never thought of him as needing to shave) –
when she lunged or he twitched or both of them leaned forward, closing that last tiny distance—
and that somewhere in the middle of the darkness and the grief that still tore at them both, Penny and Sheldon found each other.
Their mouths locked together like high-powered magnets, as though something in each of them had been pulling toward the other all this time and all they'd ever needed was to stop fighting it. Her fingers wrapped around the back of his head, tangling in the soft thickness of his hair, while he clenched her hipbones in a way that was both possessive and weirdly chaste, as though he wasn't even thinking about anything below her waist or even his own, only that he needed to hold onto some part of her so she couldn't run away.
Except he didn't need to, because Penny wasn't going anywhere. She was ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine percent sure that Sheldon hadn't kissed anybody before in his whole life, at least not voluntarily, but he was learning fast. His mouth was soft and hard in all the right places, mobile without being sloppy, and now he'd let go of her hips and those big warm hands were travelling up her back—
Drowning in Sheldon, deaf to anything but her own grief-dazed need for comfort, Penny didn't hear the key rattle into the lock, or the door swing open. Only when the lights snapped on and Sheldon suddenly leaped away from her like a frightened tarantula did she look around to see…
"Leonard!" she shrieked, scrambled over the sofa and flung herself into his arms.
Leonard dropped his suitcase and staggered back against the doorframe with a breathless "oof". Clearly an armful of hysterical Penny was not what he'd been expecting to find in his apartment at 2 a.m., and from the bewildered look on his face, he had no idea what she was doing there.
"You're not dead!" Penny sobbed, squeezing him tight to reassure herself he was really there. "You weren't on the plane—and we thought you were—it was horrible, oh, Leonard—"
Leonard gave her an awkward pat on the back. Then he let go of her and said plaintively, "You thought I was dead, so you made out with Sheldon?"
Penny's breath stopped in her throat.
End of Part One