Author's Note: OMGOMGOMG. OMG. Sorry. This just suddenly occurred to me: this is the final chapter (sequel, perhaps, forthcoming). It just sort of happened and I realized the wrap-up was in there, and I did leave enough room for either assumptions to float on the horizon, or what have you. Basically that's a lot of me rambling to say, "This particular story is done. For now."

On an unrelated note, if you haven't seen the movie "Showgirls," read smut, or seen mildly dirty words before, turn back now and preserve your innocence. You've been warned.

THANKSSS REVIEWERSSSS! As always, your awesome feedback kept me purring like a kitty-cat all this time. To you who I've kept up late, or made late to class, or stolen from boyfriends/fiancés, whatever...I apologize, but only half-heartedly. Less than three to all of you.

This was the part that always escaped her. She could picture the fighting, the glares, the way his face contorted when he had no words to describe the wrath building inside him. She could dish it back twice as hard as he did and, when she wearied of making the boys uncomfortable, she could call Mary Cooper who, for some unknown reason, liked her.

But this? Unless it started as a fight, Penny didn't see Sheldon keeping the momentum he needed to crest the gentle hill they'd been climbing for weeks now and roll down the other side. She needed him to admit he cared for her, even if it was just as much as he hoped she wasn't horrible maimed or killed in a car accident tomorrow.

So, inhaling, Penny folded her arms and set her jaw firmly.

"You're going to have to explain what just happened to me, Sheldon, because I think I've been pretty clear." She could hardly believe the even, calm words had left her mouth even after she'd heard them.

Sheldon's lips pursed. "I believe we owe each other an explanation. It was you who kissed me first, Penny. I know now I would be unsatisfied with our extremely odd relationship, but the paradigm shift, the crisis you created, I can't take credit for that."

At her blank stare, he threw his hands in the air. "Honestly, sometimes I wonder if you're listening at all. Somehow you remember just enough to pleasantly surprise me, but really, Penny. Thomas Kuhn, in the '70s, published a book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he compiled a totally revolutionary way of understanding the scientific universe wherein he proposed revolutions were products of the current paradigm, or rules of understanding, failing to account for anomalies in the scientific community. These anomalies would eventually pile up and force a state of crisis, and a revolution would inevitably have to follow, shifting the paradigm.

"You kissed me. You created the first anomaly. It has snowballed into a number of anomalies, and we have arrived at a crisis point." He folded his arms delicately, indicating he was done, but helplessly unfolded them, not feeling defensive quite yet.

Penny lowered her chin, wishing she hadn't pulled at the loose thread of Sheldon Cooper, toying with the emotional response she was getting from him. He had unraveled exquisitely, but she couldn't help but wonder if she'd miss the warmth of him when he was a complete...whatever he was.

Despite her desire to answer his question (Except what was his question? How long ago did he even ask it? Oh, God, I'm losing it already...), she was swimming in a sea of words that literally held no meaning with her. Other than hearing endless repetitions of it in Sheldon and Leonard's apartment, she had never heard it. It was she who incorrectly used it at work now, just like she dropped Star Trek references and whispered about Aristotle over the phone to her aunt.

Vaguely, as she stared at his patient expression and watched as it faded helplessly to one of short-tempered annoyance.

"I'll go first." Sheldon sighed, sounding a touch irritated she was suddenly at a loss for words. "My motives tonight were respectable, understandable. I was affronted you brought a stranger to our gathering—a gathering which is being held in your honor, I might add. I was frustrated you were still angry I excused myself on Monday night when I had to retire early to meet my sister the next morning. I wanted you to see I valued your company, even if I manage to convince you otherwise on a daily basis." He straightened, clearing his throat nervously, knowing Leonard would be going insane hearing one of his many nervous tics kick in.

"Penny, against all odds, I have developed strong feelings for you. I wish it weren't true, and I know you feel the same, but I've found proper protocol is to, forgive me if I'm not using the phrase right, but I believe I'm expected to 'get the girl.'"

She actually might have fainted for a split second, but she caught herself when her balance skewed so much she could feel the earth shift beneath her. Looking up, she wasn't surprised to see his expression was flat, unimpressed.

"Your turn."

She swallowed and nodded, wanting to sit down desperately. "I brought a date because...because I was running out of options. Sheldon, short of saying something that would have scared you off forever, I'd said everything."

"You reciprocate my feelings," Sheldon clarified, and seemed to sway on his feet as well. "Against all odds."

Her heart settled in her throat comfortably, as if she were confessing a murder and not her love for the good doctor before her. "I do."

Tensing suddenly, Sheldon reached and found his cheeks, looking horrified. "I have no idea where to go from here, Penny! To be honest, I only got as far as getting that insufferable man out of my apartment and away from here." He dropped his hands. "One would think we would form some sort of contractual agreement."

"And a normal person would think, 'Gee, I just found out she loves me back!' and kiss her," Penny grumbled, finding her sure footing. The Big Ole Five was back and she couldn't say she was sad to see it return. Gripping his shoulders, she stood on her toes, not tall enough even in her tallest red pumps, and kissed him.

A soft sound she was becoming familiar with escaped him and he opened his eyes in brief surprise before somehow knowing the evening wasn't going to end with her kissing him just the one last time and pushing him toward his apartment gently with a muttered goodnight.

She unlocked her door, pressing his back against it while he helplessly held her purse, wondering how the tables had turned so quickly, but the minute they were inside, she asked him to help her unzip the infernal contraption she was wearing and while his fingers fumbled with the dainty zipper, she expertly undid his belt and had his pants around his ankles before he could recite the fourth digit of pi.

"Puh-Penny!" he exclaimed after a moment, literally about to have a conniption fit that she was trying to help him out of his shoes without untying them. Swallowing, wishing he could just forget about this for one moment, he let out a tortured sound and Penny, finding his eyes, squeezed his cheeks in a single hand and planted her palm in the center of his chest.

"No. If you're trying, you don't need to apologize, Sheldon. When was the last time the sun asked the moon to apologize for reflecting its rays on the ocean?"

"Never. In fact, the ocean thought it was beautiful enough to hold up a mirror," he replied mindlessly, vaguely thinking it sounded like something one of Missy's favorite singers might have said. She dropped to her knees and undid the knots on his sneakers, standing and holding her hair off her shoulders. He fumbled and slid the zipper down, stepping on the heels of his shoes as he did so. She stood on the toes of his socks and shrugged the straps of her dress off, eyes positively feral as she started walking him toward her bedroom.

Her dress pooled at her feet and she stepped out of it, never pausing to let him gather his wits. He followed, nearly tripping on his khakis, and she kicked off her shoes, grinning at him helplessly as he glanced over at his discarded socks. When he paused, wanting to tidy up the living room he'd just destroyed, she leaned into his ear and let her hair fall around them like a curtain, shielding him from the nagging thoughts worming into his brain.

"I don't have to be first all the time, but right now I'm going to insist."

With a concerted effort, he managed to push it all to a Second Priority level of importance and felt himself float out of his body for one brief second, similar to the moments before he solved an important equation, only at this exact moment he was without a single scientific thought other than noting that her chest was flushed lightly.

Crashing back into his body, he nodded, admitting to himself intentionally that she really was beautiful, though it seemed so insignificant in light of all the other things she was. Penny, seeing the light of recognition spark behind his eyes, warmed all over and took a moment to kiss him again, noting with delight he was returning her affection with measured, deliberate physical responses. Snapping away, she jerked his shirts over his head and gave him a soft nudge until he toppled backwards to her bed and found himself propped on her pillows, Penny collapsing at his side.

After some squirming to rid the bed of extraneous pillows, they worked themselves under the covers and Sheldon gasped for breath as she sat back and worked at the clasp of her bra, cursing softly under her breath with the unexpected snag. Sliding out of bed, she marched over to the mirror over her dresser and turned in profile, muttering a threat against the garment until it finally parted, causing his breath to catch as the thin strip of extra flesh across her back came into full view. She shrugged off her bra and returned to him. He knew this time she expected him to take in the full sight of her and blinked silently as she threw her leg over his hips, dropped her sheets and comforter over them, and cupped his face between her hands, lavishing him with kisses both highly intrusive and wildly pleasing. He sat up against her, blindly following his biological imperatives, and only when Penny felt his hand ghost over the waistband of her panties did she decide to proceed.

His hips lifted off the bed to comply with her silent demand and he had to blush at himself. When her chest collided with his, he buried his fingers in her hair and stared at her ceiling before realizing belatedly that this was really happening and she didn't seem to care an iota that in a matter of moments they would be exchanging fluids. Saliva being one thing, and whatever was going to happen when she finally discarded her panties.


The sound in his voice alerted her and she sat back on his thighs and reached for the drawer next to the bed. "Sure, sure..."

The pangs of disappointment, which was the last thing he expected, made him cough out an odd noise and she looked sharply at him. "I am sort of...on birth control, Sheldon."

"I trust you're devoid of any and all sexually transmitted diseases or infections, or else I would have noticed the symptoms in Leonard a long time ago." Even in the dim light of her apartment, he could tell her look was less than pleased. "I'm sorry," he immediately added, worrying she would swing her lovely legs away and sashay in her distinctly Penny way to the bathroom.

"Can you catch crazy from sex with a nutcase?" her flat voice alerted him he wasn't quite in trouble yet, but nearing it.

"I'll let you know tomorrow after I check myself," he snapped back and Penny, her mouth pumping open and shut in shock and outrage, crashed against his again and she reached between them, causing a whimper to squeak out of his throat. Trying dearly to find some sort of equilibrium, some place she could remember he was inexperienced and relying on her for all his information, she still found it impossible to take it easy.

Groaning softly, he found an overwhelming ecstasy swallowing the last of his common sense whenever he let himself think about just what her hands were doing, what her hair felt like as it gently brushed over his face, his neck, his shoulders. Even in the second before she situated herself over him, whispered a warning, and dropped like a stone onto his lap in a way that redefined close to him, he was desperate to fling his mind somewhere else. Some hidden romantic part of him knew it was wrong to think of something else; however, he knew biologically that he was going to be a spectacular disappointment if he didn't at least attempt to think about her welfare. So, unable to think of anything else, he began listing elements by their electronegativity. He didn't get very far before letting out a loud, "Oh!" and receiving a giggle in return.

Every time he thought of something new to occupy his mind and keep him from prematurely abandoning the moment for what he could only guess would be utter thoughtlessness, she would kiss him and oh. When he said it aloud, when she jolted him from his frantic mutterings under his breath, he both wanted to clutch her to him and shove her away, to find a way to embrace the whole world.

Though he knew very little of sexual relationships and what was expected of him, he could sometimes catch a glimpse of Penny leaning back, her body starting to shine with a light dusting of sweat, and she appeared, as far as her facial expressions seemed to indicate, to be enjoying herself. And, inexplicably, he could tell that if he succumbed and let her use her superior experience to do whatever it was she was doing, she would be disappointed in him. And failure, to Dr. Sheldon Cooper, was simply not an option.

He was a man not known for his brevity. He did not—oh!— want to be known for his brevity tonight. So, settling his hands heavily on her hips, he slowed her rocking down to a modest pace, and then to a stop, and closed his eyes, starting over at the beginning of his list of elements, this time aloud.

"Actinium, Lanthanum, Potassium, Strontium--" He inhaled sharply when Penny's warm hands drifted over his stomach and up to his chest, putting pressure on him as she leaned to silence him with a kiss.

Penny felt him bite down gently on her tongue, and then twist his face away, trying to push her away enough to catch his breath, but the second his hand stretched across the top of her breasts, he let out a noise of distress and screwed his face up. "Strontium!" he practically shrieked, unable to focus on both his list and the fact Penny had begun to move, albeit tentatively.

"Sheldon, what are you doing?" Unable to stop herself, she frowned at him.

"Cerium, Thorium, Sodium, Yttrium, Lithium..."

"Sheldon, sweetie, you're freaking me out." She grabbed his chin and made him look her in the eye, but he was buried under a cloudy stare that seemed like a mixture of her old Sheldon, probably freaking out about germs and the socks still in the living room, but also some purely sexual thing she'd never seen in him before.

He gasped yet again and pulled his hand away laboriously, checking his watch. His eyes wanted to widen out of his head—he had no gauge what was normal in any sense of the word, not in this experiment. "I feel as though I'm spinning out of control, Penny."

"That's the point," she whispered into his ear, kissing it. "Just let it happen for once. I promise it won't be as scary as you think."

His head pressed into the pillow heavily and he let out yet another loud oh as she resumed her cautious work. Curling his arms over her back, he tried to resume where he left off before, mouthing the remaining elements without alerting Penny, but she was making soft noises in his ear now and ohhh he couldn't help but want to forget about picking this part of his life apart, to just observe and not try to understand every cause, reason, and particle.

"Puh-potassium again," he felt her mouth crash against his and he tugged her hair gently before tearing his mouth away, finding not enough air in the world to satiate his burning lungs. Everything felt so wonderful at that moment—he wasn't sure he'd ever concerned himself with the tactile pleasure of life much before. He enjoyed soft sheets, clothes that didn't chafe, and the inexplicable comfort of laying his face against his mother's hair when he cried as a child. But since then, he concerned his bodily comfort with nutrition, lumbar support, and predictability.

"Praseodymium, Protactinium, Neodymium, Promethium, oh!"

"Sheldon, if you name another stupid element on that stupid table, I'll leave some of your brain splattered on the wall and that's a promise," Penny growled and Sheldon sat up against her chest, losing his place in his list. He desperately wanted to push her buttons just a little bit more, just to show her he always had more self-control than she did, but he couldn't. Everything was just...


He bit down on her neck as she sifted her fingers through his hair and whispered a soft encouragement to him and it was like he had momentarily shrugged off whatever it was that kept him from letting his guard down. A growl erupted from him and everything got sort of tight and then it was like nothing had ever existed before and he didn't mind it, in fact it sort of felt nice to think there was no thinking that needed to be done. He smiled, thinking maybe he was given temporary access to all the answers he sought.

A wave of drowsiness followed and he relaxed against the pillows of Penny's bed, finally returning to a normal equilibrium. "Mm, Penny..."

"Mm, what?" she teased, sliding to his side and cautiously snuggling into his side. She was still buzzing, but from Sheldon's flushed face to his feet poking from the bottom of the sheets, there was little he could do at that exact moment to help her out.

"What now?"

"You mean in the next ten minutes, or in the next two hours? Or years?"

He licked his lips and let out a hoarse sigh. "I suppose the next ten minutes are of immediate concern. After that, I'm not particularly interested at the moment."

"Well, she looked at the clock hanging by her vanity and sighed. "It's just after midnight, so we'll get dressed and go back over to your place to finish up the party and clean up before bed. Then we'll figure out where we're sleeping and," she tilted her face, kissing his warm, damp cheek, "I'll kiss you goodnight and we'll go from there."

Before he could consider her answer, Sheldon swallowed, squirming in her bed uncomfortably. "Penny, everything is wet."

"It happens."

"I'm not staying here, not even if you change the sheets. And this can never happen in my bed." He almost swung himself out of the bed that instant, but Penny had curled around his shoulders and hoisted a leg over his thighs, squeezing him tightly all around.

"Never say never, Sheldon."

He dearly wanted to object, to tell her all the 'nevers' in his life that were constant, reliable, and real. Finding himself unable, he considered the sentiment, decided just this once to let it go and let her think she'd finally confounded him, and he settled for a contented sigh because he would never find a woman he loved, he would never voluntarily kiss another person, would never marry, have children, share his life, his mind, his body with anyone. Because he didn't accept strong human emotions and put himself in embarrassing situations when he was overcome with them. Because if Penny called him her boyfriend and his mother found out, the change would simply continue and he'd only just found this small space to rest.

"You kissed me underneath the mistletoe, Sheldon." She nudged him before he could fall asleep. "What did Meemaw say in her card?"

Licking his lips yet again, Sheldon sighed. "She extends an invitation to the annual Cooper family gathering for New Year's Eve. I myself haven't gone in several years, but apparently my cousin Jeanetta just got engaged and it's some sort of ordeal. I absolutely have to be there, Missy tells me."

Penny pouted her lips. "I took some days off, but I was hoping to have my parents wire me some money so I could go home..."

"I expected as much," he muttered. "With my," he shuddered, "sabbatical, I have no excuse."

Sitting up on her elbow, Penny stared down at him. "You're taking the train?"

"Of course." A lazy smile spread over his face and Penny marveled at how relaxed he seemed. "I love trains."

"I know you do," she giggled despite herself, and tried to look serious. "Are tickets more reasonably priced than plane tickets?"

"Price isn't the point. I loathe the altitude and the cramped, airtight quarters. I suppose it's a bit more expensive than a flight from Pasadena to Houston, but that seems inconsequential considering my comfort and peace of mind."

Able to suppress her desire to call him a name and slap her palm to her face in resignation, Penny lowered herself back to his shoulder and squirmed closer, throwing her leg over his knee and pulling him closer. "I meant for me. Maybe I could borrow money from home to go with you so I could meet your grandmother."

She heard his heart speed up and played her fingers over his chest, wondering if he'd notice she was diligently tracing clockwise circles. He did, but said nothing.

"Don't be silly. I can lend you the money. I've told you before I have no use for my emergency money outside of an emergency situation." He squirmed in the bed again. "As wonderfully novel this whole situation is, I really must insist on getting out of this bed, Penny. Do you feel the moisture or am I imagining it?"

"You're not imagining it—sex is generally a wet activity." Penny's tone said her patience was wearing thin.

Looking at her with a slight frown, he lifted the sheets a little and peeked under, giving pause when he saw the light from her living room casting shadows over them and illuminating the image of their bodies pressed together. He blinked several times, committing the picture to memory, wondering if he'd ever believe this moment had happened.

"An experience not to be repeated, I take it."

He shook his head, dropping the sheet. "On the contrary, I found the entire thing very enjoyable. I just need time to master the logistics of it. I'm given to understand there are many ways of achieving orgasm." He paused and frowned gently yet again. "Did you?"

"You exceeded my expectations," she answered politely and kissed him before throwing the sheets off them and sitting up, smoothing her ruined hair. "Get dressed and we'll head back over. You won't sleep at all if you don't get to tidy up over there."

"I need fresh clothes!"

"Sheldon, sweetie..." She rubbed her face, finding the humor at last. "You can't go back to the part with different clothes on. Everyone will know where we were and what we were doing."

His eyes bugged and he sat up a little. "How could they possibly know? The evidence isn't sufficient to suggest anything of a sexual nature happened." He made a soft noise in his throat, thinking of something as a look of relief spread over him. "For all they know, you spilled grape juice on my slacks and my replacement pair didn't match my shirt, so I changed entirely."

Shaking her head, she leaned and kissed him quickly on the lips. "No, we've been gone for a while now, and you did lay the kiss of the century on me right before we left. I think they know anyway. I'm just trying not to draw attention to us."

A look of careful apprehension crossed his face and his eyes trickled over her bare chest as she leaned to find her discarded bra. "I'm given to understand that this entire interlude is to be treated as a secret?"

"What?" She sat back up and pulled the bra on, fiddling with the straps. "No, it's not like I'm embarrassed of you or it's gotta be some big secret. It's just not...proper social convention to go back to a party and announce, whether verbally or by wearing a completely new outfit, that you just dipped on your own party to have sex in your neighbor's apartment."

Sheldon's chin fell and he looked at the sheets as she tossed them in a heap and stood up, yanking open her drawer to find fresh panties. "Interesting."

"Please get dressed so we can go back?" she asked, trying to keep the whining tone from her voice, but until she repeated the question in a higher, grating voice, Sheldon didn't seem to hear her. Gradually, as he dragged himself from the bed, he shook the cotton from between his ears and had the sense to wipe smudges of lip gloss from his cheeks, lips, neck, and chin. He smoothed clothes that hadn't been on the floor long enough to rumple and made short work of washing his face, hands, and anything that had gotten wet with a borrowed washcloth before putting anything on.

She brushed past him to go into the bathroom and fix her makeup, pausing just before she entered, and threw a shit-eating grin his way. "I just thought of something, Dr. Cooper."

He knew this tone and couldn't help but level her with a flat, condescending stare, waiting for her to use some folksy phrase in an attempt to get his goat.

"I did get to see you naked." She waited just long enough to see him press his lips together, hating that he'd been wrong somehow, that she'd won in some odd way. She waited just a touch longer, smiling at the blush that crept across his cheeks, and snapped the door shut behind her needlessly.

Penny fixed her hair in record time, found her clutch purse, and took a deep breath, smiling encouragingly at Sheldon as they approached her door. Scowling suspiciously, he put his arm out, blocking Penny from opening it, and jerked it open loudly, quickly. Howard and Leonard, looking guilty but attentive still, stumbled and caught themselves, looking up in horror at Sheldon's relaxed, peeved stare, his lips pressed in a tight line.

"Uh, hey buddy!"

Penny surged forward, her eyes wild, electric green in the light of the hall as she stormed out, towering over the two short scientists quivering in their shoes. "What the hell? How long were you two out here? Do you have any idea how weird this is, Leonard? I expect it from Howard, but really?"

"To be fair," Howard held his hands out, miming a patting motion, as if telling Penny to simmer down telepathically, "you were being pretty loud."

"Oh, bullshit!" Penny's face turned pink. "I'll cop to the sex, Howard, but I'm not loud. I learned how to be courteous in college."

"Again, fair enough. When I said you, I meant more, you." Howard pointed to the two of them. "Specifically Sheldon, who was making a list of some kind?"

Leonard smiled his geeky smile, the one he reserved for when he found something physics-related particularly amusing in some way. "Yeah, were you arranging the elements by electronegativity?"

Penny glared over at Sheldon but felt her resolve weaken when his steely gaze turned sort of panicked and his cheeks slowly reddened yet again; Penny was sure it was a record of some kind. Heaving a sigh, she shoved Howard and Leonard out of the way and entered their apartment, looking around at the remaining party-goers. Most had filtered out, and Penny found it strange she had spent most of the night listening to Ian wooing them with his roguish good looks and indubitable charm. She couldn't remember many real conversations she'd had with her friends—the shadow of her attempt to get herself through Sheldon's thick skull had clouded everything else.

Raj spun away from the CD changer with a look of relief. "Penny, thank God! Where's Howard? The music stopped and I have no idea what the hell happened to his mixing board layout...why can't we just use an iPod like the rest of the children of the Information Age?"

She moved closer, jabbed the power button on the stereo, and giggled when "Santa Baby" started to play loudly over the speakers. Raj released a relieved sigh and moved closer, putting his hands on his hips.

"Thanks. It was starting to get real quiet in here." He pulled his head back in surprise. "Hey, did Sheldon do that?"

She lifted her hand to cover the side of her neck and Raj shook his head, pointing farther back and she found a little sore spot, figuring there were teeth marks of some kind and he'd folded himself around her in such a way she hadn't been able to see the mark when facing a mirror. Sheldon, gone from the living room, winced in the mirror as he smoothed his hair and tugged on the collar of his inner shirt and examined her very modest work.

"Yeah, he did." Penny answered at long last, sighing as she tried to let part of her hair down to cover up the conspicuous mark. "Why didn't you come over with them when they were listening in?"

"Because knowing you thought he was romantically viable made me able to talk to you. I think hearing that I'd upgrade to committing bodily functions in front of you." Raj and Penny shuddered together and she patted him on the shoulder, feeling an odd warmth for him.

"Just for that, when I make them watch me make out with him, you don't have to be there."

"Penny, that's cruel." Raj barely hid the sly smile he wanted to give her.

She smiled, tilted her head back a little, and blinked a few extra times before responding, "They listened to me pop the poor man's cherry. There's not a thing in this world cruel enough."

Sheldon returned from the bathroom with a smug air about him as he double-checked his watch. "As per our roommate agreement, this party is officially over. Please vacate the premises and call a cab for yourselves, thank you!"

Penny raced to the door while confused guests suited up for the chilly weather outside. "I'm so sorry, he had fun tonight, I promise. It's not you, he's just fussy." She repeated sentiments of the same ilk until the last person had vacated, and then let the rest of her hair down from the clip she'd been wrestling with all night, tossed her purse onto Sheldon's desk chair, and rested her back against the part of the door not obscured by the dartboard. Feeling a tremor in her legs, Penny reminded herself to mention the shaky feeling if she caught Leonard or Howard making any smart comments.

Staring incredulously at his wilted friends, Sheldon looked at his watch again, hoping to elicit some sort of reaction, but got nothing. So, making his little unhappy noise, he stood and fetched gifts from under the tree.

"I suppose I'll be the elf this one time. As most of you know, it's now past midnight, and therefore Christmas Day. I propose gifts now so I may have the rest of the day to put together a train itinerary for myself and Penny. After I sleep and call my mother, of course." He returned from the tree and dropped boxes onto Howard and Leonard's laps, hoarding the other one he'd fetched to himself.

Penny suddenly felt very nervous. There simply was no topping last year's gift, but she'd made a valiant effort. A collaborative effort she hoped dearly would pay off. Her gift to him was still tucked under the tree in a thin package that to her was clearly a comic book plus a few odds and ends.

Howard opened first, muttering that he was under the impression Sheldon didn't buy gifts for them, but upon finding a book inside with bookmarked chapters on 'latent homosexual urges,' he laughed snidely and dropped the book onto Raj's lap. They subtly moved a few more inches apart and Penny saw them encroaching on the space she would normally occupy on the couch.

Leonard opened the top of his box next and rolled his eyes, tipping out a card Penny thought she recognized. "Where the hell am I driving you?"

"Well, the only thing I can think of at the moment is the train station, but that is a contingency card, if you will." Sheldon seemed tickled by the whole thing. It was like he'd realized Christmas was the perfect opportunity to tease his friends while participating in a social convention he loathed.

Penny suddenly dreaded her gift from Sheldon; he'd clearly learned since last year. And since she was still working through a closet full of bubble bath, scrubs, salts, washes, sprays, and shampoos, she figured he wouldn't have gone with a sincere gift this time.

The gas card for Leonard was like an investment for himself. Suddenly she wondered if he'd give her something pertaining to the way she perpetually annoyed him, made him forget about his work, forced him to play nice. But he held onto the last box tightly, not looking at her as she pulled up Leonard's desk chair and sat carefully.

She vaguely heard them opening the gifts from her Sheldon had stood to distribute. Chewing faintly on a fingernail, she smiled and winked when appropriate, muttering, "You're welcome, Sweetie," whenever it seemed to fit. They each took turns muttering about this or that, mostly apologizing for assuming Sheldon would refuse another Saturnalia gift-giving debacle. Penny nodded blankly, her body still buzzing weakly. Fatigue started to drug her with sweet fantasies of collapsing in her bed, sticky sheets of not. Smiling to herself, she bit the inside of her cheek to wipe the grin off her face before the others noticed, but Sheldon pressed a gift into her hands with a smug smile and she didn't bother hiding her look of unease.

"Am I safe in assuming I'll open this and feel like a complete idiot?"

"Penny." Sheldon's tone said he knew so much more than her he shouldn't even bother speaking to her, but the tenderness in his eyes urged her to cast aside her fear and tear the paper away. Taking a deep breath, she slid her finger along the taped edge of the paper and tore it away, hefting the box experimentally before cautiously lifting the lid.

From the styrofoam, she could tell it's glass, and when she pulls away the first half of the foam barrier, she hears the splash of water just faintly and knows Sheldon has outdone himself not in price, rarity, or craftsmanship, but in all around friendliness. She hoists out a rather impressive snowglobe and waits for the fake snow to settle. In her head, Sheldon is rattling off the compounds the snow is made of. The boys are currently staring at her eager smile of anticipation, wondering why they hadn't pegged her for a snowglobe collecting nutcase.

The snow settled enough she can pick out familiar buildings and a little sign of sorts laying at the city's feet. It's Omaha, and it's covered in a blanket of snow befitting of Christmas Day. She gives the globe a shake and watches the swirling vortex of blizzard descend on her city with a nostalgic smile.

"Thank you," she finally whispered into the long silence stretched before her and Sheldon slips around Leonard's legs by the coffee table and knees next to Penny, taking the item from her and twisting a knob on the bottom before grandly handing it back, along with the Christmas card from his grandmother. She recognized the tune coming from her new decoration, all tinkly and sort of cheesy, just like she figured it should be. "Omaha," by Waylon Jennings.

"Oh, wow, I miss home so much but I don't want to be anywhere else." She laughed to herself and chanced a look up, seeing the same proud, meek smile on each face except Sheldon, who looked a touch concerned.

"My intention was not to make you want to go home against your will. You're still coming with me to Galveston, aren't you?"

Howard's holiday-esque smile fell off his face. "Seriously? Seriously, Sheldon?"

Giving them all a flat look, Sheldon stood back up and folded his arms. "I'd like to see you hold your own at a Cooper family gathering, Wolowitz. My cousin just got engaged and they're fit to put just about anyone in their place right about now. I'm not with a wicked streak simply because I was bullied as a child—it's how the Coopers communicate."

Penny took a peek at Meemaw's card, using it as evidence, or at the least a validation of Sheldon's claim.

Dear Moonpie,

Y'all have no excuse for not being home with family for the holidays, but I'll wager a romantic guess and say you've found a suitable home away from home. Your mother and I expect a call on Christmas morning, before all your cousins show up from Corpus Christi. Remember to send thank you cards for the gifts shipped to your apartment this year, please. I don't want to have to call your Aunt Lil and explain you accidentally threw out her package thinking it was a letter bomb again.

I'm sure with the time your momma asked off for you, you'll have time to visit over New Year's. You will be attending Jeanetta's engagement party and then the party the following night—even your brother will be there so I don't want to hear no excuses. Your momma and I have been talking, and I think it'd be in your best interests to bring that neighbor-girl of yours so I can meet her. I know how you hate to invite people to these 'embarrassing' family functions, so I've addressed the card to both you and her. I'll hazard a guess and say you should probably get used to jointly addressed mail.

Anyway, you tell that young lady to accompany you home this winter after she kisses you under the mistletoe this season. If she don't kiss you, she ain't worth it. Give my regards to Penny.


Penny folded the card shut with a soft giggle, the image of the older woman's perfect, tiny handwriting burned into her retinas. "Sheldon, she..."

"Meemaw loves me very, very much. That I tolerate you at all means she's practically in love with you," Sheldon interrupted very softly and then looked over at the last gift under the tree, suspicious at the size of the box.

"Go ahead. It's the last one, anyway." She listened as the song stopped on her new bauble and spun it around once more, watching the snow swirl up around the Omaha skyline once again. When he wants to be, she thought to herself as secretly as she could, he can be cluelessly adorable. When she chanced a glance upward, Leonard had the same proud if not pained grin on his face he had the past few weeks. So he was big enough to be happy for her, but not quite removed enough to stomach the complete idea of it. Still, the man had had his ear pressed up against her door while she and Sheldon had been...he didn't deserve her usual consideration.

Penny stood before Sheldon returned to his spot to open and forced an arm-pinning hug on him, even going so far as to kiss his cheek before spinning to go to her own seat. She turned to find Howard was in her chair, one eyebrow raised, and Raj had scooted over to the far side of the couch. Sighing, she sat at the same time as Sheldon, wondering just how much they were going to force her to test the poor man's limits.

Perhaps she was still the only one who understood he wouldn't like to be manhandled, particularly not in front of his friends, wouldn't like things whispered in his ears unless he was already naked and in a bed, and would give her a blank, meaningless stare if she snuggled up to him to watch him unwrap his gift.

But he had it in him to take snippets of his understanding and run with it. Before he tore the paper totally from the box, he gave her one of his tender smiles, the ones she usually saw out of the corner of her eye when she managed to master some new move on 'Age of Conan' or referenced a page number in the book they were heatedly discussing over laundry soap and fabric softener. A soft roll of his eyes, telling himself he didn't think it was cute, but pathetic, and then this soft smile. This one said, Don't worry, Penny. I'm sure I'll appreciate it.

She held her breath as he pulled out the box from the wrapping paper, discarded it, and Leonard quickly flattened it into a pile with all the rest.

She'd done well this year with everyone, but Sheldon was so simple in this regard, she worried she'd been too predictable this time. He clearly hadn't seen it coming last year. Then again, she was pretty sure he viewed her as a permanent, unpredictable whirling dervish in his life. She was okay with that.

He tipped the box and out spilled two very different paper objects. He hefted a copy of his own dissertation, the one he'd tried to pass off to George Smoot with her help, and noted there were scribbled red pen marks in all the margins. Some were favorable, some were more critical. Peeved and interested, he flipped through the 80 or so pages of his work and came to a rest at the final page before his list of sources popped up.

A very interesting endeavor to consider, Dr. Cooper. Thank you for passing this along; I'll contact your superior after the New Year about both the grant money and the research fellowship. Wonderful work.

He glanced all over the page before finding it, hidden away in the lower corner, the signature of George Smoot.

"Okay, so I saved a copy of that paper when I had to get your flash drive, and when Leonard told what happened in San Francisco, I thought it was probably a problem of approach more than anything. I've had it beaten into my head every day how friggin' brilliant you are, so I drafted a letter," she guided his hands back to the start of the paper where she'd inserted, before even his introduction, a page-long letter addressed to Mr. Smoot. "I drafted a letter asking him to take a look. His secretary called to make sure it wasn't you from San Francisco, and I assured her it was not, and then I got this back in the mail."

Leonard peered over Sheldon's shoulder and grinned. "Oh, so you did mention the grant?"

"Well, he didn't get to see Smoot's face light up when he read it," Penny shrugged. "I figured I might as well milk it for all I could. There's some research thingie coming to the university soon, and if Sheldon here agrees to do joint research with someone in your department, Leonard...they can almost double the money for the physics department in ten years. At least I think that's what he said—I sort of zoned out at the mention of 'super-collider.'"

Leonard stifled the laugh that wanted to bubble over. They had laughed at Sheldon's arrogance enough times to know it was bad when he actually earned the accolades he claimed he deserved. His work had now earned he and his compatriots in science more funds for research, a continuing grant, and the approval of a Nobel prize-winner.

"Oh, and there's this." She picked up the forgotten brown paper sleeve on his lap, slipping out a perfectly packaged comic book, still in a plastic sleeve, looking like it'd been stored in a vault of some kind, away from sunlight and moisture, but not so dry to make the pages brittle. He gaped between the two items she'd given him.

"My neighbor back in Omaha was having an estate sale because her son passed away and she said he'd been collecting these since he was a little boy. He had a trunk full of them. I asked my mom to go for me and she found it. Crazy, huh?"

Howard leaned closer to Leonard. "He hugged her for Nimoy's DNA, you said? Okay, assuming he remembers last year and hasn't regressed to a state of infantile desire, how much are you willing to bet he has a freak-out over Smoot's sign of approval and Superman's first appearance ever?"

"That comic book is worth almost half a million dollars," Raj whispered and Penny spun, looking wildly at the three of them, who were staring at the comic book while Sheldon stared, twitching and watery, at her.

"What? No! It wasn't! I mean, my neighbor charged an arm and a leg for it—I won't say how much—but I've never had that much money to spend on any of you!" She felt cornered somehow.

"Clearly your neighbor has no clue what kind of money she's sitting on. Did you get any others?"

"Others? Wolowitz, this single piece of memorabilia cost me enough, okay? Though apparently it could have been worse..." She felt dizzy thinking about it, to be honest. She'd just given Sheldon something rare enough he could, ostensibly, sell it and retire on the funds, if he were smart about things. What she couldn't bring herself to say was she also had Batman's first appearance in her apartment, locked in an old pistol-case underneath her bed. They'd each cost her a pretty penny, but she'd hardly thought about it at the time. Wired her parents the money she should have spent getting a plane ticket home to see them. Instead, she had Christmas and his birthday ready to go, and still he was catatonic, staring at her.

Her face fell even flatter. "Oh, I've broken him! Great!"

"Oh, he'll come to," Howard promised. "He's probably figuring out if he can rent an armored car to get that to his safety deposit box before someone realizes he's got it."

"The little jerk didn't even have anything related to the Flash, or I would have--"

"No, it's perfect." Sheldon finally snapped out his daze and looked down into his hands, wanting nothing more than to hug her without all the uncertainty and awkwardness of last year. Then, remembering all her little rewards the past few weeks, he carefully placed his new treasures on the coffee table, sat back up, and seized the back of her neck, yanking her halfway into his lap to kiss her.

She squeaked, windmilling before falling against his chest, and then took a moment to glare at Howard and Leonard before sidling up a little closer and deepening the kiss. Leonard stood, swiping his hand over his hair, searching for that feeling of jealousy he'd always felt before when Penny was with some other guy, and he felt an odd peace mixed in with the strong desire to vomit.

Maybe I just knew it was always wrong she wasn't with him?