Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.
Edna St. Vincent Millay
She watches as Sheldon climbs out of her bed, leaving her to roll into the warm space he's left behind, and unconsciously runs her hand over the small bump in her abdomen. So small, in fact, it's imperceptible to anyone but her, but she can feel it. She has already decided it's a 'he' and can't help but name him. To her, and her alone, he's Tommy. Tommy is a gentle, non-threatening name, but his very presence terrifies her. Naming him...it somehow makes it a little less scary.
She is too young for this. She's not ready.
The universe, however, doesn't seem to care.
Sheldon...Sheldon certainly isn't ready for this. They've only been dating for a couple of months. Hell, she only split up with his best friend six months ago. She doesn't expect Leonard to take the news well, and that bothers her because they are still – tenuously – friends, but it's Sheldon she's really worried about. He doesn't do change; it's taken him this long to get used to sleeping in her bed. The first two weeks were spent with him waking in the early hours and creeping back to his apartment, his sanctuary.
But he needs to know, and he needs to know soon. To give him maximum preparation time, so to speak. So she reluctantly gets out of the warm spot and follows him to the bathroom, and stands, clothed in a vest top and pair of his pyjama bottoms (rolled up to her knees; he's so tall), watching him shave.
It's cruel, the bluntness with which she tells him, and she wonders if she should have softened the blow. But he is not like her, and the news does not send him crying and wailing about the unfairness of it all as it did her. Instead he pauses, and pales, and thinks for a moment as he stares at himself in the mirror. Then he wipes the foam from his face, carefully and thoroughly, and steps over to her. He puts his arms around her and she marvels at how much has changed; that he now knows when she needs a hug, and that he can almost make it feel like it's not killing him to do it.
It's only the trickle of blood oozing down his neck that lets her know that, for a second, he lost his focus.
She doesn't tell him that in her head, she's named it; he would think it silly. They tell the others after a long week spent prevaricating. Leonard looks at her, ghostly pale, then leaves. It's several hours before he returns, and he goes straight to his room, ignoring all efforts at discussion. Raj and Howard both give her awkward hugs and make their excuses to leave as soon as possible. When they go she sags with relief, thinking briefly that the hard part is over, then she remembers the months ahead and feels exhaustion wash over her. Sheldon hears her sigh and moves to stand behind her, reaching out with elegant fingers and gently squeezing her shoulder. He's getting better at this, she thinks as she reaches up and links her fingers with his.
Strangely, it is this thought that finally frees the tears that had been building, and she lets them spill down her cheeks unhindered.
For a few weeks everything is fine, then the sickness hits. It rolls over her in waves, unceasing, and she spends much of the day moving between the bedroom and the bathroom. For the first three days she hears Sheldon hovering outside as she kneels retching, and then on the fourth, miraculously, she hears the door open. He stands behind her for a moment, then crouches awkwardly next to her. She knows better than to expect him to hold her hair back, but when he places his palm on her back and begins rubbing, soothing, she is shocked. Briefly, the sickness is forgotten, and she looks up at him. She knows she looks awful, can feel flecks of vomit on her chin, but he simply brushes the hair out of her eyes. She can almost read on his face how difficult this is for him, and she takes his hand and squeezes, whispering a hoarse "thank you". He gives her a small smile; not the creepy one, she thinks with relief, but a sweet one. Then she takes pity on him and kicks him out. He doesn't need to be here; it's enough for her to know that he would be, if she needed him. She's starting to realise what's really important in life.
He comes with her to the scan. She grips his hand tightly as she feels the cold gel on her belly, and watches the screen intently. Tommy is still there, still growing. Sheldon looks at the blob, and he is so still it scares her. Then he swallows, hard, and she thinks that's probably the most emotion she's going to get out of him. It's not enough, but she doesn't have the energy for that discussion; they've had it before, endlessly, and he just can't. So she leaves it, and stares at the monitor, and only half listens as the doctor mutters about bed rest.
She brushes her hair and realises it's getting thinner. She cries again. She is crying a lot lately, and she blames it on stress and messed up hormones. She takes it out on Sheldon, who accepts it with good grace, and then she feels awful because he is being amazing. Right now she can only eat ice cream, and the freezer is stocked with ten flavours of Ben and Jerry's, including one that he had travelled thirty miles to get. Her belly is now definitely swollen and she feels like a heifer, but when she complains he casually, unceremoniously calls her beautiful and she knows he wouldn't lie.
Raj and Howard are being awesome too. They make her laugh, even when she feels scared and overwhelmed and exhausted. Leonard is still being distant, but in her less emotional moments she understands; when she's feeling like someone chewed her up and spit her out, she curses his name and throws things. Sheldon listens to her rant silently, and she's grateful.
Her family come up to visit; at least, the ones who aren't in prison. She makes a vague promise to go and see her brother when she feels better, and knows she won't keep it. Her mother fusses around her, displacing Sheldon who vanishes back to his apartment to stare at his boards. She listens secretly as her mom cries on the phone to someone back home; the phrases so many plans and such a waste are uttered and she has to stop listening.
The big day finally arrives. She is laid on a hospital bed, feeling the gentle breeze from an open window. Sheldon is holding her hand and telling her he'll be here when she wakes up. She smiles at him as she feels the anaesthetic start to work, and thinks about what kind of father he would have been, if things had been different. She has an image of him with a little girl on his knee; she is looking up at her daddy in awe while he explains the wonders of the universe to her. That's not going to happen, now; not with her, anyway. The surgery is risky, but the cancer is spreading from her ovaries and the chemotherapy hasn't worked. It's her last option, and it has to be now, before she gets any sicker. So, no babies, not ever; instead, she had Tommy. Tommy the tumour. Naming it had made her feel better, made it seem silly, inconsequential. Now it just makes her feel sick.
She feels him squeeze her hand as she drifts under, and is suddenly panicky.
She wants to tell him she loves him, but the cool darkness steals the words from her mouth.
It's night. Sheldon listens to her breathe; shallow but rhythmic. The room is dark, silent; visiting had finished hours ago but he had been allowed to stay.
He knows what that means, and the knowledge hangs heavy on his heart, but he doesn't cry. He is strong, for her.
He hears the nurses whispering outside; they had phoned her family but they couldn't get back here before dawn. She hasn't told them she was having surgery today, didn't want to worry them, but the operation has gone badly. The cancer has metastasised, and she was weaker than they had thought. Her body - her heart - didn't handle the surgeons intrusion well, and now everything is just...shutting down.
He holds her hand in the near silence, thinking that this isn't how it should be. The morphine means she sleeps soundly; only the wires and tubes disturb the image of peace. This, at least, is something to be grateful for. He thinks back over the last few months; the chemotherapy had made her sicker than the cancer. The nausea – and the tiny blisters in her mouth – meant she had been unable to eat anything other than ice cream, which he had duly provided with an almost desperate zeal, feeling as he did so completely useless. He couldn't stop her hurting. He had forced himself out of his comfort zone on so many occasions; to comfort her when the drugs made her vomit for hours, to overcome his desire to run away whilst cleaning her up in the night when she didn't make it to the bathroom. He remembers watching her when she was unaware, her hand playing across the swollen belly where the tumour grew, fingers running through her hair and leaving patches that she struggled not to mourn, and feeling intense anger that he was one of the smartest people alive and he still couldn't fix this.
She had been scared that he would leave her when she had the drugs and then the surgery; then had shouted and screamed that he should leave her, find a woman who was well, who was whole. He had argued back, rationally, logically, but he could never convince her that it was her he wanted, not what she was capable of producing. That was his fault. He had never told her what she needed to hear.
He had never told her he loved her.
He had tried, but the words had stuck in his throat. To be so vulnerable, with someone he risked losing...he couldn't. The feeling was still new to him, and it terrified him.
He thinks back, to their long friendship and to the first time she had kissed him, how shocked and amazed he had been that she finally wanted him as he did her. The first time they had made love, and afterwards, when he had watched her sleep for hours, wondering at the feelings she provoked in him. Their first argument - about Leonard, of all things – and every one since then, and making up afterwards.
Then, all too soon, watching her in the mirror as she told him about the tumour and feeling the bottom drop out of his world.
He is brought out of the reverie by a change in her breathing; it is more laboured. He doesn't know what to do; is struck by feeling helpless yet again, so he does the only thing he can think of. He leans close to her ear and starts to sing softly.
"Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur..."
Somewhere behind him, an alarm starts to buzz, low but insistant. He knows what it is without looking. He hears the noise of the nurses with the crash cart, and stands slowly. Time feels like it is passing almost leisurely - it is relativity in action, his brain thinks, because part of his brain is always thinking - and as he bends to kiss her forehead it feels like it takes an eternity. But then he feels the warm flesh under his lips, and he rests there for a fraction of a second that lasts forever, and as the nurses come through the door he whispers in her ear.
"Goodnight, Penny. I love you."
He doesn't cry.
He finds the note under his pillow a day later. It has been the most painful day of his life, and at first he just stares at the pink piece of paper and thinks, how much more pain? His name is scrawled on it in her handwriting and he feels for a minute like he might be sick. He almost leaves it, but it is the last new memory he will ever make of her and instead, dazed, he unfolds it and begins to read.
I guess the surgery didn't work then. That sucks. I'm sorry I couldn't be stronger for you, sweetie. I never wanted to leave you. But you have to promise me you'll find someone else. Maybe not just yet – cause then I'd have to haunt you, haha! – but sometime. When you're ready. Cause I know you don't believe this, but you will make some woman a fantastic husband, and some kid an awesome dad. Just...remember me when you give the Nobel acceptance speech, ok?
I know I never said this to you, but I should have.
I love you, moonpie.
I always did.
He realises he doesn't have to be strong for her anymore, and as dark blotches appear on the note, smudging and blurring the ink, only then does he finally cry for the woman he loved.