A weekend in late July, southern California.
The passes for Comic*con had been purchased back before the world changed, and can't be exchanged. Penny can't take time off, anyway, which gives her an excellent excuse to avoid the worst geeky excesses. (Though she's promised to go to Dragon*con. Sven and Sheldon both want to be part of some world record attempt. Beth and Penny have both very cautiously agreed to wear outfits, but only if they have a power of veto.)
It had been a real blast from the past, the four guys scrambling onto the train with their lists and luggage. But this time, Sheldon had kissed her goodbye, before he went marching down the carriage. Her last view of them was of Raj and Leonard waving goodbye, as Sheldon engaged in some kind of altercation with Howard about preferred seating. Some things change, some don't.
When she realises that she's actually feeling rebellious because she's considering doing her laundry on a different night, she freaks out and calls Raquel, demands that they meet up somewhere normal, and do girl things, like right now.
"...I swear, if he's training me in my sleep or something, I'll kill him."
"Ah, geeks and the girls who love them." Raquel sniggers. Penny gives her a narrow-eyed look.
"So, the rumours of you and a certain comic store owner...?"
"I can neither confirm nor deny." Raquel goes a bit pink. "Anyway, coaxing a stray cat in off a fire escape doesn't count as a date."
"Of course not." Penny soothes, grinning. After all, she'd dated Stuart the once – she'd liked his sweet, earnest conversation - then he'd gone weirdly timid, and they'd needed to drink to connect. She prefers him sober, he's quietly funny.
Other friends are arriving, Deena, Camille, Beth, Bernadette, Kim... people from work, and the theatre, and the whole strangeness that her life has become. Babble of female voices, shrieking and laughter, and spreading themselves noisily out to commandeer their end of the bar.
Penny hugs her happiness to her, and laughs as she listens to Raquel trying to teach the bartender how to make something called a 'piso mojado'. She looks at her watch, and slides her phone out of her bag. It's nearly seven o'clock, and if Sheldon says he'll call at seven, he will. Dodges through the crowd, heading for a quiet corner, a pretty blonde girl with a glowing smile, her eyes skating by the chiselled jawlines and careful tans, oblivious to their attention, because her mind is full of her tall, skinny super-genius.
She's had a callback, and she wants to tell him first. It's a supporting part, in a pilot that might or might not get picked up. She'd had a role in a commercial, 'fighting' a CGI germ, and her ability to stab things convincingly has turned out to be an asset. It isn't a role she would have considered, or even been considered for, a year ago - she always thought she'd be the princess, not one of the monsters, but now... Given the choice between a shampoo commercial, and jumping off a desk to bash a werewolf with a chair, she's all for the action.
After all, this is the 21st century, modern times – now, a girl gets to pick up her own spear, and be the one to wake the unlikeliest of heroes with a kiss.
Leonard catches up with Raj and Howard in the bar. One upside of the new regime, they have all attended the panels they want to, individually if they have to.
"I would totally date that avatar." Raj sighs, watching a costume sway past. Leonard squints, confused, opens his mouth, and then decides not to. He doesn't really want to know. Looks around again.
"Last I saw, he was talking with some furtive-looking guy in shades and an 'Alpha Flight' ballcap. They were ranting about kicking Covenant butt. And something about explosive elephants, I think." Howard shrugs. "His Mandarin hasn't improved."
They look at each other.
"There's only half a dozen people in the world who understand what he's on about at the best of times." Leonard considers. "And some of them dribble a lot, and aren't allowed anything sharp."
"He did say he'd catch up with us at dinner. He was just going to phone...someone." Raj finishes, lamely. Leonard gives a chewed little smile.
He and Penny have had a talk. He's always going to find her desirable, but he is forced to sadly acknowledge that they don't have much in common, and there isn't really anything more to say. They both tried, and it didn't work.
That conversation was positively easy, compared to the one he had to have with Sheldon.
Penny had changed things. In some ways, she had done exactly what Leonard had hoped. She had brought the normal world into their lives – he stops, considers the StormFist – well, sort of normal, anyway. And something had fractured, deep down, things had been forced to the surface after many years. Both of them are altered by it.
"You can't blame Penny for anything." Sharp blue eyes, and the beginnings of a formidable scowl.
"I don't, anymore. And I don't entirely blame you, either."
A very affronted look.
"What did I do?"
"Oh, nothing you could help. You've always been a smart, arrogant pain in the ass, after all."
"Unless I submit to a lobotomy, I am still going to be one of the smartest people in the world."
Well, Leonard wasn't ever expecting humility.
But he had actually shut up and listened, as Leonard had fumbled through why he did what he did, his own painful realisations of how his life had stalled and twisted, that he needs to be his own person.
They find the tattered remnants of a friendship though, which perhaps surprises them both, but – they have spent a quarter of their lives in each other's company, and sometimes there is a comfort in the familiar. There are jokes and memories, things untainted by anger or jealousy, and they find them again, handle them with a new awareness of how brittle they are.
Giving himself permission to enjoy something, without that feeling that someone is going to mock him, is still difficult. But the 'cello case now rests openly in the corner of the apartment, and one night a week, Sheldon and Leslie edge past each other like a couple of spitting cats when the quartet come to rehearse. He gets to watch his choice of television quite often now, because although Sheldon still complains, he also disappears across the hall with suspicious swiftness.
(If a mean little part of his mind tells him that at least he got there first, a much larger and saner part points out sadly that Sheldon got there last.)
Because Sheldon has changed, too – he's happier, a little less rigid and demanding. He's cautiously, grudgingly admitted that he can be a little impatient with slower mentalities at times, and that he really must remember that other people have limitations. (Which is as near to an apology as anyone is likely to get from Sheldon, unless they are Penny, and can use methods denied to lesser mortals.)
They have been really good about not flaunting their relationship in front of him. Intellectually, he knows that something physical is going on, hard though it might be to accept, given that one of the people involved is, well, Sheldon. But he's looking seriously for another apartment. There's the possibility of one in the block down the street from Raj, and he's viewing it next week.
Because one morning, he'd been brushing his teeth, when he'd noticed that Sheldon's red toothbrush had been joined by a sparkly purple one. He'd looked at the two little pieces of plastic nestled together under the UV light, and seen the shape of things to come.
Sheldon is having an internal crisis. He has finished his call to Penny, but finding a quiet area to talk has taken him near to the All Star Auctions booth. Sets his jaw, and forces his gaze away from the tempting riches spread before him, the one cover that he knows is amongst them.
Detective Comics #33, Batman's fourth appearance, but the first telling of his origins. A key edition of the Golden Age comic book. It isn't of the quality of the copy that recently fetched over $10,000 on eBay, but it is certainly worth four figures. A true piece of history, fit to grace any collection.
It is a wrench to part with it, but he's going to need the money; there are certain times in his life when a man should not begrudge the cost. He has put together his financial projections, schedules and contingencies. There is just one piece of data to add, one small question to ask, that will alter the course of his world.
To some, it might just be a transparent crystal of tetrahedrally bonded carbon atoms with superlative thermal conductivity, but he has the distinct feeling that Miss Penny Sorenson's response to a diamond engagement ring is going to be a whole lot less scientific.
A/N - This is indeed the end of The Paladin Protocol. But it is really just the beginning, for Sheldon and Penny.
Thank you to everyone who has read and reviewed. Yes, this was a Fan-Fix. No, I'm not sorry. I realised that if the screen version of TBBT was not going to dish out the karmic ass-kicking I felt was so richly deserved, I would have to write it myself.
This was just supposed to be a short ficlet - the genesis came from seeing Sheldon wave a plastic sword about in 'The Nerdvana Annihilation'. The leap from on-line gaming and cosplay to Live Action Role-Play struck me as completely plausible. The StormFist WarGuild is not real, but the LARP Battle Game I based it on is – I hope any members of 'Dagorhir' will forgive me. Only, when I saw the scene from 'Garden State' with Jim Parsons in armour, the evil plot bunny army arrived.
Sheldon made such a great Knight in Shining Armour. He had even responded to the pleas of a 'damsel in distress' in TADD, nominated himself as Penny's 'hero'. He had a fair lady to fight for, and wrongs to be righted. So, inspired by the work of Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler, I sent my Hero on a Journey. And no, I wasn't particularly subtle about it, either.
The only skill I have given Sheldon that hasn't been seen or referred to in canon is the ability to use a sword. He did study in Heidelberg, though, and the place is forever associated in my mind with the sport. Fencing requires precision, control and an ability to strategize - basically, it's chess with pointy things. And we know that Sheldon is very good at chess. I've actually taught more awkward people than him to fight, too.
For Penny, I gave her the courtesy of taking her acting ambitions seriously, crediting her with the willingness to embrace imaginary worlds. When she became hooked on 'Age of Conan', she wasn't some passive princess in a tower, she was Queen Penelope, and she was a warrior. I could believe that that incarnation of Penny would quite happily pick up a Slayer scythe. All hail Joss.
I hope people have enjoyed reading this as much as I (mostly) enjoyed writing it. Thank you again for coming with me into the scary hinterlands of my imagination.