THE POTTED ORCHID PROPOSITION
Part One of Two
Sheldon Cooper was frustrated.
Yes, it had taken him twenty-eight days of careful self-analysis and consideration of his present circumstances and future plans to decide how he felt and what he should do about it. Possibly that delay had been an error. But no, his deliberations had been only prudent, indeed only logical given the magnitude of the choice involved.
Yet by the time he had finally made up his mind and was ready for action, the object of his intentions had made herself unavailable. Which was exceedingly poor timing on Penny's part, and made Sheldon feel quite put out.
November 21, 6:18 p.m. Operation Phalaenopsis aborted upon observation of subject greeting "Ed," a.k.a. Elevator Repair-Moron, with a passionate embrace in her doorway. Experienced sharp abdominal pangs, accompanied by minor heart palpitations and throbbing in the temples. Nevertheless, maintained calm exterior while concealing potted orchid behind back and retreating to home base.
Collision with doorframe en route caused only minor damage to orchid, but painful contusion on lower back required bandaging.
He'd had a whole speech prepared to give her. It had five main points with three sub-points each, a pattern that Sheldon found pleasing, and it proved with irrefutable logic that he, Dr. Sheldon Cooper, would make a faithful companion, an attentive lover, and a reliable source of emotional and material support if Penny were willing to accept him as such. It also outlined his reasons for believing that he and Penny would be compatible in a long-term relationship despite their intellectual disparity and different—indeed opposite—personality types. If Penny stayed awake long enough to hear the full speech, he felt confident she would be impressed by it.
Except that she wasn't around to listen, because she'd gone out to dinner with another man. One of those beefy, grinning Neanderthals that she inevitably gravitated toward when her loneliness overwhelmed her better judgment—in this case, the repairman who'd been sent to fix the elevator.
(He hadn't fixed it, of course. He'd taken one look at Penny and dropped his toolbox down the shaft. Really, how could she possibly be attracted to anyone so manifestly stupid? Yet she'd given him her phone number without hesitation, and now she and "Ed" were on their first date.)
Unfortunately, Penny had not kept Sheldon apprised of her plans, so he had allowed Leonard, Raj and Howard to go out to the movies without him. And now that Penny was also gone, he had nothing to do but sit alone in the apartment with his laptop and update his journal (which was not only encrypted using a cipher of Sheldon's own devising, but required three different alphanumeric passwords to access, so let that be a lesson to you, Howard).
He had begun the journal nearly six weeks ago, the night that he, Leonard, Howard, Raj and Penny had all sat down together to watch the new digitally re-mastered director's cut of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the 8th Dimension. When the movie began Penny was sitting upright on the sofa with the bowl of popcorn on her lap, but as the film progressed she began to lean farther and farther into Sheldon's personal space, until finally she fell asleep on his shoulder.
This would have been irritating, but nothing more—except that at that same moment, Sheldon abruptly lost his ability to concentrate. The involuntary transfer of his focus from the crazed antics of Dr. Emilio Lizardo to the faint apricot fragrance of Penny's hair and the warmth of her slow breathing against his neck was unprecedented; but worse, Sheldon found that he could not ignore her proximity and return to enjoying the film, no matter how hard he tried. An unfamiliar fluttering sensation developed in his stomach, a prickling heat spread up his thighs, and he spent the rest of the movie in acute discomfort, convinced that he was experiencing a physiological crisis yet unwilling to move for fear of waking Penny.
Fortunately, no one else in the room seemed to have noticed his rigid posture or rapid, shallow breathing, and when the movie ended and Penny stumbled blearily off to her own apartment, Sheldon's discomfort soon began to alleviate. Nevertheless, he resolved to make a note of his symptoms, so that he could discuss them with a doctor at the earliest possible opportunity.
Later that night, as Sheldon lay fretful and sleepless in his bed, it occurred to him that he must have experienced a mild attack of claustrophobia, or perhaps agoraphobia. Which was, in its own way, reassuring: all it meant was that in future, he would have to insist that no more than three people could occupy the sofa at one time (one per cushion, a perfectly sensible arrangement), and all would be well.
Unfortunately, that theory was disproven the very next day, when the same symptoms recurred under very different circumstances. Penny had come bounding up the stairs with a load of freshly washed laundry just as Sheldon was coming down with a basket of his own, and the two of them collided in a spectacular eruption of clean and dirty garments. She'd babbled an apology and dropped to her knees to help him pick up the mess, and Sheldon had found himself staring straight down the neck of her low-cut blouse.
He'd averted his eyes almost at once, but a feverish warmth had swept up his body and made him feel queasy and light-headed. Then Penny's fingers brushed his own as she handed him back his basket, and Sheldon's mind had gone utterly and terrifyingly blank.
"What's the matter, Sheldon honey?" she'd teased him, when he didn't speak. "Soft Kitty got your tongue?"
Sheldon spent the rest of that evening looking up various illnesses, diseases and allergic reactions on the internet, but the results were inconclusive.
By the third Penny-related incident, however, the connection between his bodily distress and the proximity of a certain effusive blonde neighbor had become apparent even to Sheldon. Apparently some internal switch had been triggered, although he could not imagine how, that had rendered the physical side of him no longer willing to unquestionably obey his brain. Quite on its own, his body had decided that it was ready to select a mate—and for some reason, it had settled on Penny.
At first the idea infuriated him, and he resisted it with all his might. For the next few days he avoided Penny as much as possible, making excuses not to be in the same room with her, so that he could punish the physical side of himself for this unforgivable betrayal. And yet the more time he spent alone in his room, the more Penny invaded his thoughts. He missed her boldness, her impish humor, the way she spurred him to reconsider his preconceptions and challenge himself in new ways. Without her, he felt as though he were lacking some necessary stimulus, some essential spark.
Then a new idea struck him: Could could it be that his physical reaction to Penny was not so much a failure of self-command as it was a sort of… intuition? His body's way of alerting him to an important detail that his intellectual pride had stubbornly refused to take into account?
Was it possible that a romantic relationship between himself and Penny might be a rational choice?
October 9, 11:01 a.m.: Knocked on subject's door to deliver package, and also compliment her on her charming appearance. Subject, dressed in a sleeveless top and Hello Kitty pajama bottoms, interpreted this remark as a slur and responded sarcastically before slamming door in my face.
By treating Penny with elaborate courtesy and observing her response, Sheldon had hoped to measure her willingness to view him in a romantic light. However, upon finding his tentative advances repeatedly misinterpreted and rebuffed, he had realized that Penny was simply unable to attribute to him the same motives she would take for granted from other men. She had known him too long as a person who disdained all forms of sentiment and took no interest in sexual activity, and now all his attempts to test the romantic waters with her were greeted with suspicion, if not outright disbelief.
October 18, 7:05 p.m.: Greeted visibly weary subject on her return from work by inquiring about her day and offering a friendly smile. Unfortunately, her immediate response consisted of "Oh, hell to the no. What have you done now?" followed by a hurried retreat to her apartment to search for signs of tampering or damage.
Note: Reputation as a light-hearted prankster appears to have become a liability.
On the surface it might appear that all these failures were an excellent reason for Sheldon to give up and pursue an easier course—such as selecting a different young woman who might be more receptive to his affections. But by this point, Sheldon didn't want to give up. No matter how fraught with difficulty and even humiliation the enterprise of wooing Penny might prove, he was resolved—in mind as well as body—to see it through.
If she understood his intentions, heard what he had to say and then chose to refuse him, so be it. But he would not back down until he was certain that she had really understood.
And so it was that after recording his latest journal entry and playing two and a half hours of Age of Conan (during which the experience of slashing trolls in two with a battle-axe proved even more satisfying than usual, particularly once he had mentally named them all "Ed"), Sheldon was still alert and ready for action when Penny returned from her dinner date.
Nevertheless, he knew it was unlikely that he would have a chance to talk to her tonight. He could already anticipate what he was about to hear: breathless laughter and a scurry of feminine feet followed by a pounding of masculine ones, a too-short conversation full of unfinished sentences, heavy breathing and smacking noises and finally the death-knell of Penny's apartment door crashing shut. Sheldon had always noticed these things; he'd simply never bothered to care about what they meant, until now.
But what he actually heard was something quite different. Slow, dragging steps accompanied by shaky breathing and—was that a sob?
"Sheldor is AFK," he informed the rest of his troll-raiding party, then carefully took off his headset, set his laptop aside, and opened the apartment door.
Penny stood alone on the landing, her back to him as she fumbled with her apartment key. Her formerly upswept blonde hair was in disarray, and her shoulders shook with suppressed emotion.
Odd: Sheldon should have been gratified that she had returned without her date, but for some reason he was only aware of a curious hollow sensation as he observed his neighbor's distress. It was impossible to retreat and leave her in such a condition, so he approached quietly and said, "Penny, are you in need of assistance?"
She gave a violent start and whirled on him, one arm upraised to strike. Sheldon instinctively scuttled back—and then Penny's expression crumpled into helplessness and she sank onto the bottom stair, burying her face in her hands.
"Penny?" asked Sheldon dubiously, unsure if she wanted him to leave or stay. She didn't answer, so after a moment he crept over and perched on the stair beside her, still tensed to flee should she prove hostile.
Several seconds passed in silence, broken only by Penny's muffled weeping, and then she slowly teetered over and leaned against him as she cried. It was a cue that not even Sheldon could mistake, and after a fractional hesitation he extended his arm and curved it very gingerly around her shoulders.
This gesture appeared to be adequate, for Penny's sobs soon subsided, and she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand. "It's just," she choked out, as though continuing a conversation they had started some time before, "I'm sick of the whole stupid dating thing, you know? Meeting a cute guy, going out with him, getting drunk, taking him back to my place, and next thing I know he's seeing somebody else—I can't believe I almost did it again."
"Oh, I can," said Sheldon, then caught her glare and amended, "I mean, that has been your characteristic relationship pattern." Penny's gaze remained hostile, however, so he tried a third time: "So what was the cause of this unprecedented acquisition of self-control and sound judgment?"
"Well, I'd like to say I had some big 'Eureka!' moment," said Penny sarcastically, "but actually I was on my third gin and tonic and feeling pretty friendly when Ed's ex-girlfriend showed up and tried to scratch my eyes out. I was all set to deck her before I realized she was about six months pregnant, and the whole Ed thing kind of went downhill fast after that."
"Oh," said Sheldon.
"All I want is a nice guy," moaned Penny, slumping against him again. "But all the nice guys I know are too shy for me, and the ones who aren't shy are all—crap-lizards."
Sheldon considered this. He wasn't shy, at least not by any useful definition of the word. However, he found it difficult to believe that Penny considered him a "crap-lizard," whatever that was. "What about me?" he asked.
"What?" asked Penny, wrinkling her nose as though he had uttered a non sequitur.
"Am I nice, by your definition?"
Her face cleared. "Oh, honey, you don't have to worry about that. I was talking about guys. Like, as in guys who want to date me, not—"
"Penny, I would appreciate if you would answer the question." He spoke firmly, though his heart was pounding and his throat felt tight.
She sighed and pulled the last few pins out of her hair, letting it tumble free over her shoulders. "Nice is not exactly the word for what I think of you, Sheldon. I mean, you have to admit you've been pretty pissy to me these last couple of weeks, and I know Leonard's your roommate and all, but he's actually been great about the whole thing and I really don't think I deserve that."
Sheldon frowned at her, utterly at a loss as to what she was talking about. What did Leonard have to do with all of this?
"I felt bad, Sheldon," Penny went on earnestly. "He tried so hard to make it work for us, and I thought I really wanted it to work too, but when he asked me out again I just—I thought about all the other times it's fallen apart for us, and something inside me knew it wasn't meant to be. So I asked if we could just stay friends, and he was okay with that. Why aren't you?"
"What makes you think I'm not?" asked Sheldon, still well and truly perplexed. Admittedly, he'd known nothing about Leonard approaching Penny again—it seemed that on this occasion, his roommate had decided to lick his wounds in private. But even learning that such an incident had happened did nothing to help Sheldon understand why Penny would have a grievance against him.
"Oh, come on," said Penny irritably. "All those cheap digs about my looks, and pretending to be extra nice to me just so you could mess with my head? Seriously, Sheldon, you've said a lot of insulting things to me, but this is the first time you've made me think you really meant to hurt my feelings instead of, I dunno, just being from some other planet where people don't have them."
Sheldon was flabbergasted. He knew that Penny had been taking a cynical view of his overtures, but he had no idea that she'd actually been offended by them. Really, it was maddening: if she could misinterpret his intentions to that extent, then she probably wouldn't even be willing to listen to his explanation of why the two of them belonged together…
And just like that, Sheldon realized what he had to do. He seized Penny firmly by both shoulders, turned her toward him, and kissed her.
Penny's mouth froze under his, her whole body rigid with incredulity. A bullet of frantic thought shot through Sheldon's brain: Error—system failure—abort—
And yet she hadn't actually pulled back, so he forced himself to try harder. To overcome his own natural reserve, ignore the part of him that insisted on recalling just how many bacteria and viruses could be passed by mouth-to-mouth contact, and move his lips just a little, inquiringly, against hers. Are you with me, Penny? Do you understand now?
For a moment he dared to believe she was softening. But then her hands clenched in the fabric of his t-shirt, balling into fists, and she pushed him away.
Sheldon's stomach twisted into a sickening knot. He had tried to speak her language, but it seemed that this, like all his previous efforts, had been a failure.
Then it registered on him that even though Penny had broken off the kiss, she wasn't letting him go. She just held him there, their faces mere inches apart, staring into his eyes.
"Tell me this isn't some kind of weird experiment," she whispered harshly. "Tell me you really mean it."
"Penny—" began Sheldon, but he barely had a nanosecond to collect his thoughts before she yanked him forward and clamped her lips back onto his.
Now it was Sheldon's turn to stiffen in shock. He lost his balance, flailed and toppled against the wall, Penny's slight weight pinning him like a beetle on a card. He couldn't think what to do with his hands—oh dear heavens she was all over him and he couldn't breathe—
"Sweetie?" Penny's voice was a throaty murmur against his lips. "That's what your nose is for."
Oh. Yes. Of course, he could respire nasally and still kiss Penny at the same time. How sensible of her to think of such a solution. He inhaled, feeling his dizziness subside, and slowly brought up both his hands to cup her face, his fingers winding into the soft tangle of her hair. She tasted of alcohol, but even more strongly of breath mints, which made him wonder—had she anticipated this? It seemed unlikely, but right now Sheldon would have believed just about anything.
And all the while their mouths moved against each other, finding new angles to touch and uncharted territory to explore, tracing a delicate geometry of shared passion. He felt like every particle in his body was vibrating with desire, and to his silent wonder, he could feel Penny trembling too. Yet his wits hadn't deserted him: instead, he was able to analyze her responses and learn from them, in a way that actually enhanced the experience. It was amazingly pleasurable to be thinking about kissing Penny and really kissing her at the same time, feeling and reason intimately entwined in the quiet darkness inside his head, body and mind no longer at cross-purposes but acting as one.
But when her hands slid up inside his shirt, the jolt of raw arousal that went through him reminded Sheldon just how precarious that mind-body balance could be. He gripped Penny's wrists and gently pushed her away.
"What?" she asked, looking stricken. "What did I do?"
He folded her hands back into her lap and patted them, to reassure her. Then he hurriedly got up from the stair, went back into his apartment and returned with the potted orchid in hand. He had chosen it for its hardiness as well as its beauty: an elegant specimen of the genus Phalaenopsis, its long stems discreetly supported by bamboo stakes, its nodding blossoms deep fuchsia.
"This is for you," he said, holding it out to her.
"Sheldon!" she exclaimed, jumping up to take it from his hands. "You really—you bought that for me? Did you really buy that for me? That it's the sweetest thing! Nobody's ever given me an orchid before—"
Then abruptly she went silent, her eyes fixed on something small and sparkling among the petals. She didn't move, and she seemed incapable of speech.
"That too is yours, Penny, if you wish it."
Slowly she reached out, lifting the diamond free of the stake on which it had hung. In a faint voice she said, "Sheldon, honey, this is an engagement ring."
"I know," said Sheldon.
End of Part One