Their story starts with an ending.
Penny has since tried to work her way around that one, make it so that their epiphany doesn't rely on misfortune, and sadness. But she can't.
So their story is the following:
Sheldon's grandmother dies on a sunny July morning - just the sort of day that people don't expect to wake up to with bad news. Penny has had her share of heartache however, and is jaded enough to know that bad things happen, no matter what the weather.
Leonard's rapid fire knocking wakes her up. It echoes through her apartment, and she's about ready to reiterate her "not before 11 o'clock" rule to him, because surely he should know this by now - it wasn't just put in place for Sheldon - but as she swings open her front door, she can tell by the look on his face that something is dreadfully, dreadfully wrong.
She doesn't even have the chance to say "What happened?", before the words are tumbling out of Leonard's mouth: "Sheldon's grandmother."
He doesn't say any more, and Penny hurries after him into the boy's apartment.
They manage to get Sheldon packed and on the next flight home, and the whole time she feels sick for him. She wants to hold him and let him cry, but that is not Sheldon, and not the way he works. Instead he's just motionless, like a robot that has lost all power. It is an unfair analogy because she knows by now, after all these years, that Sheldon is anything but a robot, and the fact that he's broken like this indicates more than any other reaction from him could.
"Will he be okay?" she asks Leonard, as they gently push Sheldon in the general direction of airport security, and watch as he distractedly places his items of the conveyor belt. Even from where they stand, there is a cloud of misery surrounding his movements, and Penny wraps her arms tighter around her body.
Leonard shrugs, and his eyebrows are furrowed, hands pushed deeply in his pockets. "I don't know."
Penny thinks it is nice that deep down, when it counts, Leonard is there for Sheldon, rather than treating him like some lanky, high-IQed annoyance. It reassures her to see that tangible proof of their friendship.
They turn and drive back home.
Sheldon is away for ten days, which for some reason is longer than she expected. She has this idea in mind of Sheldon not wanting to hang around in Texas - not being good at the emotional stuff, and sure, she's not wrong in thinking that, but this is his meemaw, and Penny also knows by now that the normal rules just don't apply.
Sheldon is eerily quiet for the next month. Penny can appreciate and understand that, but from him - even in these circumstances - it is still disconcerting. She finds herself over at the boy's apartment most nights, watching him closely out of the corner of her eye. Penny has never lost anyone that close to her - something she is always grateful for, especially now - so she can't even begin to imagine how he's feeling.
Nevertheless, she feels protective of him - and she's noticed that the others have tightened ranks around Sheldon too, finally showing the essence of friendship in their group that she always was kind of aware of, despite their frequent displays of exasperation and impatience with him. It's nice.
The two of them are rarely alone in the apartment, but Penny feels better just being around him, letting him know that she is there should he need her to be. Of course, he doesn't indicate anything of the sort - Sheldon's schedule is still set in stone, and regular lectures are still mandatory for any deviation on these, but to her ears they sound half-hearted, like he is doing it for consistency, rather than because it is of any actual concern to him anymore.
They do, however, now have a standing date (well, maybe not a date), for Laundry Night. Before this all happened, she would show up maybe two weekends out of four, but for now she is unwilling to be that casual about it. Sure, this means giving up a bit more of her life for the time being, but if she faces facts, she oddly likes this routine they share. These boys are her main social life now, and Halo night and all their other pre-ordained nights have come to be her consistency too.
His quietness disturbs her, however. She's not used to the breathy silence, punctuated only by the rumble of the washing machines, and the dull clunking of the dryers. Usually it is all words: facts about aerodynamics, and optimal weight-to-cleanliness ratio, coupled with affronted glares when she says something he considers to be ridiculous (which is a lot of things, really). Penny finds that she wants to fill the lull, but instead she just sits on the table, listens to the rhythmic clacking of Sheldon's folding board, and watches his hands shake out his t-shirts one by one.
One night, she can't take it anymore.
"Are you okay, Sheldon?"
He looks up at her, puzzled. Perhaps he is surprised that she is breaking the regimented silence.
"Can you be more specific?" He lays his Superman t-shirt face down on the board, and Penny watches the flex of his forearms as he manoeuvres the shirt into tidy folds.
"I'm worried about you," she says, hopping down from the table, and moving in to stand beside him. He resolutely keeps his eyes on the laundry pile in front of him. The arch of his long back and shoulders is somewhat elegant under the fluorescent lights.
"What do you mean?"
She's not so stupid to not realise he is being deliberately obtuse. This is his 'I don't want to talk about it' mechanism, and fine, Penny gets that, and she gets that he is sad and rightfully so. But she is being selfish, and acknowledges that too; she wants Sheldon back - the Sheldon who would have no qualms in telling her off and meaning it when she forgets his low-sodium soy sauce, or lecturing her on the proper use of coasters. Sure, that Sheldon is annoying as hell sometimes, but she's so used to him that way, that this other-Sheldon feels like a pale imposter in comparison.
"I don't like to see you unhappy, Sheldon. And I know you have every right to be sad, and that is normal. But I just want you to know that I am here for you. As a friend."
He pauses for a moment, his hands hovering over the next t-shirt in his folding pile. The air in the room is warm and stuffy, but she can feel goosebumps rising on her bare upper arms. Penny can see his brain processing this information she has newly presented to him. Sure, it takes him a fraction of a second to decipher algebraic equations, but she can literally see the tick of his thought process when it comes to anything outside of the scientific realm.
"Thank you, Penny," he answers finally, turning to her with an expression that is almost gratitude if Sheldon Cooper did gratitude. "I appreciate the sentiment."
She smiles softly, and without second thought puts her hand on his shoulder and squeezes it gently, as if to say 'you're welcome'. He doesn't start, like he normally would with any gesture that expresses emotion, he just holds very still for a moment and exhales with a quiet huff, not quite sure of the social protocol.
Penny's washing machine whirrs to a stop, and so she lets go.
Two months afterwards and things are mostly back to normal. Out of habit she still watches him like a hawk, and she has a feeling that he has noticed. He is nothing else but observant, of course, and at times she catches his hooded gaze on her and it makes her squirm a little, but she can't pinpoint why. Leonard and the others have stopped tip-toeing around Sheldon now, and things feel like they did for the most part. Penny is relieved, but deep down she can still tell that Sheldon isn't quite functioning at his one-hundred-percent-optimum-neurotic-self level. It does however make her feel a little better when Sheldon snaps at Leonard for adjusting something on the TiVo, and proceeds to launch into a lecture that involves him citing several sub clauses in their roommate agreement (she's really got to take a look at that thing sometime, there is a clause for everything).
The one odd thing though is that Sheldon is being nicer to her. Not in a completely uncharacteristic or overt way, because even then Sheldon's conscious attempts at niceness are usually awkward and obvious, but the difference is enough that she has picked up on it. The other week she accidently included his name on a LOLcats forward, and then spent the next half hour trying to figure out how to recall the email before he read it and issued her with a strike, but instead she just got a 'Very amusing. Haha.' email reply back, and if she's honest, it weirded her out a little. Okay, no, it weirded her out a lot.
He also didn't yell at her for using the last of his washing powder (although he did make her drive him down to the market to get some more), and he also said nothing when he came home one day to find her curled up in his spot watching The Amazing Race reruns (her cable had been cut off again). Sure, he had made her move, but didn't insist on her changing the channel, and even told her a little about his time in Heidelberg (at her insistence, of course). All in all, he was still Sheldon, but a slightly new-and-improved-and-nicer Sheldon, and it was taking her a little time to adjust as to whether this was temporary or the new normal.
Three months afterwards and there is a knock on her door. It is midday, and it is some guy from a delivery company (the one with the really annoying television advertisements) saying that he had something to deliver to 4A, but there didn't appear to be an answer - would she sign for it?
She nods and hears the collective clunking and groaning of something of vast weight being moved up the stairs, and then ultimately pushed onto the landing. She's beginning to wonder if Leonard has bought another time machine, because it is about the same size, although narrower, and she must have a shocked look on her face, because the guy asks her where she wants them to put it.
It sure as hell won't fit in her apartment, at least not comfortably, so she grabs her emergency key and lets the men into the guy's apartment. After some considerable effort, they roll the offending item behind the couch, and offer up the delivery note on a clipboard for her to sign.
It's addressed to Sheldon.
Okay, so maybe it is some weird sciency-thing he's ordered from somewhere-or-other, but she doesn't understand why it wouldn't have been sent to Caltech in that case. But then she sees the sender address is from Texas, and her curiosity is piqued even further.
She spends the next five minutes after the deliverymen leave staring at the box, trying to figure out what would be inside the crate, but she comes up with nothing that makes any sense. If she could figure out how to open it and then put it back together to make it look untouched, then she would have done that, but instead she heads out of the apartment, and watches the clock until Sheldon and Leonard get home.
Typically it is Wednesday, so she knows they are at least going to be heading to the comic book store before they pick up dinner and arrive back, but every car she hears pulling into the parking lot makes her jump towards the window. She's beginning to get aggravated with herself, so in the end Penny pulls out her hidden copy of iThe Sound of Music/i and belts out some show tunes for an hour, swooning over the gaze of Captain Von Trapp. Finally she hears their footsteps on the landing and the jingling of keys.
"Hey guys!" She's practically on them before they reach their door. "Sheldon, there was a delivery for you today. I signed for it for you."
He frowns, gripping the strap of his messenger bag in consternation. "But I'm not expecting anything." His frown deepens before he remembers his manners. "But thank you, Penny. Is it in your apartment?" Sheldon makes a movement towards her doorway, as Leonard continues to fumble with his keys.
"No, they put it in your apartment."
"You let strangers go into our apartment?" His voice rises at the edges and his eyebrows arch towards his hairline, eyes wide.
"Well, it wouldn't fit in my apartment, so I just got them to put it in yours." Penny raises her palms in a 'don't blame me' gesture. She is rewarded with an even more concerned look, and now that Leonard has got the door unlocked, both she and Sheldon trail in after him.
All of their gazes fix on the large crate sitting behind their couch.
"Oh." Sheldon says curtly. "I see what you mean."
It turns out it is a piano.
Sheldon's grandmother's piano to be precise.
The lawyers for her estate have been sorting out her will, and along with a portion of her finances, she had left Sheldon her piano.
Penny wants to cry.
It sits obtrusively in the living room and she spends a suspiciously large amount of time wondering why, of all things, Sheldon had received his grandmother's piano. In fact, none of them can quite figure out how to broach the subject, and Sheldon has reverted back to two-months-ago-Sheldon - impossibly quiet, and perceptively sad.
The most they have done, with some considerable effort, is remove it from the crate, and rolled it into the corner of the room. It looks huge and out of place and Leonard has had to move one of his bookshelves in order to get it to fit. It seems an odd addition to the apartment, a piano in amidst of telescopes, and double helix models, a strange mixture of science and music; two things Penny never really equated with one another before now.
On that first night after they have unpacked it, Sheldon sits and stares at it for seems like an age, before declaring that he felt unwell and needed to go and lie down. Penny subs in for him at Halo that night, but Wolowitz manages to beat her in a sneak attack using a plasma rifle when she was distractedly gazing towards Sheldon's room.
Penny feels the protective instinct creeping up again.
She manages to corner him several Laundry Night's later. She feels the rawness of the arrival of the piano may have worn off a bit, and he's been acting more like himself for the past while, so Penny decides to take the chance and dive in.
He looks at her flabbergasted for a moment, mostly because he can't believe she has just come straight out and asked, but she figures that none of the boys will do it, and clearly there is some story there that she just can't seem to forget about. Yes, she is being impossibly nosy, but there is something about the romance of it all that means she can't let it lie. It is like some big giant piano-shaped elephant in the room.
At first Sheldon looks like he is about to tell her to mind her own business which if she's honest, was more or less the reaction she was expecting, but after a moment she sees a shudder in his frame, like a release of tension, and he grips the edge of the folding table so tightly that she sees his knuckles turn white. He half turns to her, but doesn't quite meet her eyes.
"My meemaw began to teach me to play the piano when I was four years old." His voice is oddly hushed and reverential, like he is visiting a memory that he had long since buried, or at least had never been spoken out loud before. "I used to visit her after school, and she would give me lessons. She said that it would be good for me to think about something other than quantum mechanics and lasers once in a while." He lets out one of his breathy laughs at the thought, and Penny finds herself uncomfortable, like she is witnessing something from him that she shouldn't be party to, even though she is the one that started this conversation and she is the one that wanted to know. Sure, she could handle silent Sheldon, or angry Sheldon, and pretty much every Sheldon in between, but this time she feels like she is intruding into something immensely private. Another part of her can hardly believe that he is so willingly giving up this information to her - he who offers up very little about himself. Hell, she had known him for almost three years before she even knew he had a brother, for god's sake.
"Oh." Penny says eventually, quietly, guiltily even. "I didn't know you played the piano."
As she says it she realises she has seen him play once before, the night of the slutty Cuba Libres and enthusiastic show tunes on the Cheesecake Factory's keyboard. She just hadn't really thought about it much at the time. Maybe she put it down to yet another intellectual genetic gift that Sheldon appeared to possess. Stupid of her perhaps, but he had been drunk, and they hadn't ever really talked about it since then anyway.
Sheldon is quiet for a while. There is a hum of static in the air.
"Do you still play?" Penny asks, her hands idly matching up a pair of his clean socks in the way she knows he hates. She can tell he is watching her out the corner of his eye, but for once he doesn't comment on it.
"I haven't played since I left Texas," Sheldon answers finally, clicking a bright red Flash t-shirt into a neat formation with his folding board, and placing it carefully on the top of the pile.
Clearly he isn't counting the incident at the Cheesecake Factory either, but sometimes she questions whether he even remembers that part of that night. "But you still remember how to, right?"
"Penny," he says in that exasperated way of his, like she is a small child who he has to explain everything to (and in a way she is, but not in the way he thinks), "as I've told you before, this mind does not forget. I am as accomplished now as I was then."
"So you were really good?" It is a redundant question really, because it is a rare occasion that he is not good at something he sets his mind to.
"I was better than 'good'" he asserts. His tone clearly indicates that he is offended that she would associate the mediocre term of 'good' with him in any way.
She feels almost shy asking the next question, but something within her cannot resist. "Will you play for me sometime?"
If she's brutally honest, Penny is completely ready for him to shoot her down with any number of reasons. And she also believes that any rejection of her request would be because it clearly pains him too much to think about, whether he admits it or not. Nevertheless, the question is out before she can stop it, and she even feels a little bad for it. In her mind's eye, she has this image of a grey-haired kind looking lady, seated side by side on a piano stool next to a dark haired little boy, and them playing some sort of elaborate classical music in unison.
Instead of answering her, he simply says "Penny, I think your washing machine has completed its cycle."
The first time she sees him touch the piano is a Sunday afternoon when she comes over to swipe some milk thinking that Leonard and Sheldon are out. She walks in and is half way across the apartment before she sees Sheldon in the corner of the room, peering into the open lid at the top of the piano with something akin to, but not quite, an odd-shaped wrench in one hand.
"Good afternoon, Penny", he says, ever the gentleman. "I assume you are here to kidnap some of our milk despite the fact that I warned you yesterday that you were about to run out."
She makes a face at him, and opens the refrigerator door with a huff.
He continues. "There is a carton on the second shelf down that has been put aside for you for just such these occasions."
Sure enough, there on the second shelf sits a cartoon of two-percent milk with 'PENNY' scrawled down the side in black marker pen in Sheldon's handwriting.
"Uhh, thanks?" she stammers, feeling kind of simultaneously put out that he predicted this and was right yet again, but gratitude at his unexpected thoughtfulness. It is that weird parallel-world Sheldon again, the one that sprinkles infrequent acts of kindness in with his usual weariness towards the world in general.
"What are you doing anyway?" Penny asks, strolling towards him cautiously.
He turns to her, one arm deep inside the open lid of the upright piano. "What does it look like I'm doing?"
"I don't know! Is it broken? Are you fixing it?"
She can tell he is barely resisting rolling his eyes. "I'm tuning it."
"Yes, tuning it."
"Really? Seriously? You're tuning a piano?"
"Must you repeat everything I say?"
"Sorry, but it is not something that I ever pictured you doing."
"I can't imagine you've ever had the need to picture me tuning a piano," he quips back with a hint of snark to his tone. Sure, he can't do sarcasm, but Sheldon definitely has the hang of barbed retorts.
"So why are you tuning the piano?"
He pulls his arm out of the open lid, and starts playing a series of chords with one hand, and shakes his head.
"Really, Penny. The answer is quite obvious, even to someone of a lower intellectual capacity such as yourself. I'm tuning it because it is out of tune. Clearly." He clangs out another chord, and they both simultaneously wince. "This appears to be quite obviously incorrect in pitch, which is a standard problem in pianos once they have been moved. I daresay the humidity of Texas versus the heat of California has also been a considerable factor. Besides, it is common knowledge that a piano will need to be re-tuned approximately four to six weeks after it is relocated."
She wants to bite back and say that is isn't common knowledge, thank you very much, and it has been well over six weeks since the arrival of the piano. Instead she bites her tongue.
"So how do you know how to do it?"
"I used to do it for meemaw."
Penny perches herself on the arm of the couch, next to his spot, and watches him. It is an odd yet fascinating sight. She is used to seeing Sheldon in more traditional settings - eating dinner, working at his desk, preparing food in the kitchen. There is something about the way his body stretches to position itself that is somehow awkward yet manages to touch on gracefulness at the same time.
"Can I help?" She asks after a few minutes. He turns and seems surprised that she is still there. He nods begrudgingly, motioning for her to sit down on the stool as he reaches his arm into the open lid again.
"Can you please play middle C?"
"Which one is middle C?"
"Penny, are you telling me that -"
"- look, not all of us grew up knowing how to play an instrument, okay?"
He sighs impatiently and points of an ivory key in the middle of the keyboard. "That one."
She hits it.
She plays the note again.
Penny watches as he cranes over the top of the piano, and the way his other wrist grips the edge of keep his balance, elbow pointed. The muscles twist in his forearms (surprisingly tanned, she notices, and not for the first time), and she hears the note change and mutate to a sound that is something infinitely more pleasant.
By the time they are done that afternoon Penny has learnt that C is the starting place for most beginners, and that the progression goes C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and then C again (which makes no sense to her - why wouldn't they start at A? - but she didn't make the rules). Sheldon takes a great deal of time explaining something about intervals and frequencies that mostly ends up going over her head, so at that part she just nods and humours him. He then proceeds to explain the differences between majors and minors and then later, once the tuning is finally complete he shows her how to play a rudimentary version of 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star'.
Their shoulders press together as they sit side by side on the wide piano stool, and she mimics his movements. His fingers are long and elegant - born for this sort of thing, piano-playing hands, and she finds herself getting more than a little mesmerised in the way they move over the keys. In this sort of lesson she finds him patient, even unpatronising, and she has the feeling he is just teaching her the way his grandmother taught him.
It becomes a habit, unintentionally.
Sometimes Leonard is home, and he watches them suspiciously from his desk (she can't pretend she hasn't noticed), and sometimes he isn't, but it is just another routine that she falls into - Sunday's piano lesson with Sheldon, and if someone had told her this a year ago, she would have laughed and called them crazy. Any previous experience she has had with Sheldon teaching her anything had almost exclusively involved patronising tones on his side, and frustration on hers. However in this enterprise he continues to be calm and as-kind-as-Sheldon-is-able-to-be, and she's surprised to find she is learning a lot, actually.
Sure, so learning a lot means mostly simple little tunes, but she knows she is getting better at least. It is nice to know she is able to do well at something. Slowly, Penny progresses to playing with two hands, the melody with her right, and basic chords with her left. Sheldon never plays anything different apart from what he is showing her, but she can tell he knows what he is doing, knows that he can play symphonies and concertos if he wanted to, but something stops him. Memories, probably.
It shows her a new side to him anyway. Sure, it's odd at first - like she is once again witness to a part of him that he doesn't show anyone, but she wouldn't trade the knowledge for the world.
Quite often Penny finds herself practising when she has a day off and the boys are at work. She wants to get better, she wants to learn. Sure, she's not a community college graduate, but something about the process of learning to play the piano is enchanting to her. That somehow hitting particular notes in a particular way in a particular order can make something beautiful and humbling and she wants to know how to do that too. On their own the notes sound hollow and not all that interesting, but coupled together with others, she can actually make music.
In the end, she gets him drunk and convinces him to play for her.
Sure, it is underhanded and sneaky, but it is Saturday night, they have just done their laundry, and she's had a rough week, so her logic and good sense are a little skewed. Besides, it has become one of her things, like her goal to collect all pink Beanie babies, or to find the perfect shade of lipstick. This one is 'get Sheldon to play the piano'.
So Penny relies on the slutty Cuba Libre tactic again, because she knows it works, and she just isn't feeling all that imaginative right now. Leonard, Howard and Raj have gone to a bar that some graduate students have invited them to (heaven forbid), and so it is just her and Sheldon and Firefly. All it takes is a few drinks (for both of them, and if he notices the presence of the addition to his beverage, he certainly doesn't mention it), and some none-too-subtle hints (from her), and they are sitting together on the piano stool like they do every Sunday (except it isn't Sunday). She's more than a little tipsy, and her body feels tired, so she props herself more fully against his shoulder, and instead of seizing up, he just starts to play.
It is so beautiful, and haunting, and peaceful, that she thinks she might cry. Penny is mesmerised, no, hypnotised by his hands, and the way they move gracefully across the keys, a grace that he doesn't usually seem to possess in everyday situations. The same hands that scrawl what are to her meaningless equations on whiteboards are the same hands that can create this music. It seems to be a contradiction in itself, in him, but Sheldon Cooper can, despite all his routines, somehow still manage to surprise her after all these years.
He plays for five minutes, ten minutes, she loses track of time in the whirl of the notes and the melodies that surround them. But she stays, her head resting on his shoulder that dips and ducks with the motion of the music. After a while, he stops.
"Yes, Sheldon?" She feels herself bolt upright, because hello, this is still Sheldon, slightly drunk or not, and she and him just don't do things like emotion and her head on his shoulder. That wasn't them.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine. Why do you ask?" Her fingers twitch in her lap, so Penny rests them on the edge of the piano ledge, and traces her fingers over the smooth varnished surface.
"You appear to be crying?"
Oh shit. Her hands rush to her face, to her eyes, and sure enough, she is crying, god damn it. Stupid, stupid, stupid. She takes a shuddering breath, and tells herself this is why people don't drink and ask their neighbours to play sonatas for them in their dimly lit apartments. It makes you feel things.
"I'm sorry, Sheldon. I know this sort of thing makes you uncomfortable." Penny knows she must look a mess, all red-eyed and puffy; she isn't a pretty crier.
He doesn't reply, just runs his fingers over top of the keys, without pressing down on them. She sniffs and the sound fills every corner of the quiet room.
"Shall I play some more?" he asks quietly after a moment. She turns to him, her chin coming to rest once again on his shoulder, like some automatic motion that she cannot stop. She feels the solid warm weight of his body next to her, and nods her head. "Yes, please."
He plays and plays and plays. Sometimes crashing chords, sometimes sharp staccato, sometimes gentle lullabies. In the end, she's almost asleep when Sheldon seems to come to a natural finishing point, and instinctively she turns her face to look at him again. He is breathless - cheeks glowing pink with exertion, with emotion, she's not sure, and she's not sure she wants to know either. Yes, she can deal with anger, and impatience, and veiled insults from him, but she doesn't know what to do with this version of Sheldon.
They stay like that for a while, her pressed up against his side, and he staring down at the rows of black and white keys. The low wail of a siren goes past outside the window, and the rise and fall of her breathing ends up matching his.
"I miss my meemaw," he says eventually, so quietly he is practically inaudible. Penny is on the verge of tears again, because she has known this all along. Never consciously as a tangible thought perhaps, but just by the way it has been intermingled with everything about him these past few months, from the prolonged silences, to the resigned demeanour. Even to the way they have sat every Sunday afternoon and he has taught her with strange yet definitely uncharacteristic patience.
"I know, sweetie, I know." She snakes her hand down his bare forearm, until it reaches his own, and clasps her fingers overtop of his, still gently resting on the keys. The combined weight of their joined hands causes them to sink down onto the keys in a soft release of notes that to most sound like nothing, or jarring at best, but to her have a sweet unusual sort of melody to them.
So that's when she kisses him.
On the list of 'Top Five Stupid things She Has Ever Done', this definitely makes at least the top four. But at the same time it manages to start a new list that she names 'Risks She Is Glad She Has Taken'. Sure, there are umpteen different ways to count that this is a bad idea, and that is not even touching on the subject that this is Sheldon she's kissing, not just some random guy.
His lips are surprisingly soft and warm and a little dry, and he doesn't react for a good five seconds or so. By that time her brain is already pounding, clearly beginning to try and kick her back towards a place of sanity. Penny is just about to pull back with an array of apologies ready on the tip of her tongue when she suddenly feels him start to kiss her back.
It isn't really like she expected. Not that she knew exactly what to expect, if she's honest. It isn't like she has sat around before wondering what it would be like to kiss Sheldon, or how he would kiss, or specifically how he would react to her kissing him. Like, really kiss him. Sure, he's cute - handsome even, in an odd kind of way, and she can't pretend she didn't notice that from at least the very first day when she moved in across the hall. But usually he's always been her genius neighbour, until some day about six months ago, when he became lost and hurt and she wanted nothing more to protect him from that.
This is clearly all new to him, because his reactions feel clumsy. She's not sure whether to put it down to the alcohol, or the inexperience. It is probably the latter rather than the former but she finds it endearing more than anything else. Their noses bump slightly, and her heartbeat increases to a rapid quickfire rhythm in her chest, and dear lord, she is kissing Sheldon. And she's not going to lie, it is pretty damn good. Like, she has butterflies and everything kind of good, and her skin feels like it has a zillion nerve endings sparking all at once. It is pretty much blowing her mind that this is even happening, including the fact that he's actually kissing her back rather than backing away into the far corner of the room. Sure, that is the most obvious of the surprising things, but so is the way one of his hands has moved to place itself curled around her knee and how the other is inching its way up her bare arm. Forgetting herself, she gently tugs at his bottom lip and is rewarded with something that possibly equates to a quiet strangled moan from him and his mouth pressing forcefully closer. Penny can feel herself humming in the back of her throat, and she is moving to place her hand at the back of his neck, and that is when she hears the key turning in the lock.
They spring apart, and Sheldon is halfway across the room by the time Leonard, Raj and Howard stumble through the door, buoyant from alcohol, and the fact that Howard managed to get a girl's phone number ("was she blind?" Sheldon snarks from his new location in the kitchen). Even Raj is taking advantage of his rare freedom of speech, and slides into the seat next to her to start playing a rather boisterous version of 'Chopsticks' (it is like, the second song Sheldon taught her). Usually she would be kind of annoyed that someone else is infringing on her and Sheldon's thing - the piano - but at this stage, Penny is still quivering a little in shock, so she places her fingers on the keys and pounds out the rhythm in unison with Raj, trying to take the edge off some of the tension she is feeling. Nevertheless, she is still acutely aware of Sheldon's movements behind her, from the kitchen, to his spot, and five minutes later he excuses himself to bed. She makes her own excuses soon after, and escapes like a burglar fleeing the scene of the crime.
If she's honest, Penny expected to hear his triple knock soon after she left. So she waits up, almost until 2am, but all she gets is silence. She tells herself that she should have known better - Sheldon is not like a normal guy, or not even like Leonard, who would want to discuss what happened. Sure, Sheldon is never necessarily going to react the same as she would expect other men to, but she thought the situation would at least appeal to the curious analytical side of him that did not like things he didn't understand, or unanswered questions.
After she gives up waiting and crawls into bed, Penny is surprised to find that she feels almost hurt when she contemplates the idea that it perhaps meant so little to him. She considers sneaking back into the apartment and waking him up, because the doubt is gnawing at her, but even then, at this stage, she's not really even sure what she wants to say to him.
Their actual lesson is the next day, but Leonard is there, floating around in the background, pulling books off shelves, and sighing heavily as he flips through pages and taps away on his laptop.
Sheldon teaches her the melody for 'The Entertainer', which she finds jaunty and upbeat, but Penny feels distracted and tense and completely self-conscious in his presence, which is something she finds she doesn't like and is not used to at all. Eventually, once she gets the melody down, he plays the left hand part, and patiently corrects her when she makes a mistake. At one point his hand accidently grazes her wrist and she starts guiltily and she knows that even he isn't oblivious enough not to notice her reaction.
The whole situation is odd. Sheldon's face is like a mask - impervious and blank, and she hates not being able to read him.
"I'm going to get takeout. You staying for dinner, Penny?" Leonard asks after half an hour, grabbing his car keys out of the bowl by the door.
"Sure," she answers, hardly trusting her own voice at this stage. She's mad at herself for being reduced to this stupid quivering mess. It isn't her, and she doesn't like it. So Penny waits until she hears the slam of the apartment door before she turns to Sheldon.
"I'm so sorry about last night, Sheldon."
He continues to play, his eyes focused on his hands, almost like he can't hear her or doesn't want to. It's frustrating, because she needs him to look at her and actually absorb this conversation she needs to have. By the same token, Penny knows this is awkward for him - hell, it is awkward enough for her, and she's had more than one awkward encounter with guys she's kissed-but-probably-shouldn't-have. However, none of them are Sheldon, and none of them have ingrained themselves into her life the way that he has managed to.
"Listen, we had both been drinking, and I got a little carried away. You... I just hate to see you so sad, and then you played that beautiful music and it just... I just..."
Oh crap, when did she get so bad at this? She's not even sure what she is trying to say.
He sighs, and it isn't the kind of sigh that he usually gives her which normally indicates he is exhausted with her questions or lack of understanding. This is one of resignation and almost frustration. He stops playing and twists around in his seat to finally face to her.
"So you kissed me because you didn't want me to be sad, and because I play the piano well?"
He says it in such a way that makes her feel shallow and pathetic, like she goes around kissing all men that have crestfallen faces and a hint of musical talent.
"No, no, that's not what I meant... I just meant that, I... I wanted to make you feel better... I wanted to -"
"- it's fine, Penny. I understand."
"In spite of all my shortfalls in regards to human social interaction, I do understand the concept of pity."
"Pity? No, no, that's not what I -"
"- now, if it is amenable to you, I'd rather we not mention it again. I'm teaching you because you want me to, and if you no longer wish to learn then I will not continue to waste my time."
She's shocked, because sure, Sheldon can be tactless, and but he is never intentionally mean, and she can tell by the way his tone curls around the words that he is purposefully aiming to humiliate her. Her face feels red hot; hot in a way that she can tell her anger is pushing its way to the surface, until she finally can't hold onto it anymore.
"No, Sheldon Cooper, I am not amenable to that! Not at all. I didn't kiss you out of pity, you idiot! I kissed you because... because..."
... she hisses in frustration, fists clenched in front of her, because she has no words to describe what she is feeling and what she is trying to say. He has robbed her of coherency, because he makes her so mad, and so impulsive, and makes her feel too damn much all the time, even if it is all the extremes on every end of every scale.
"I kissed you because you are you, even if you don't think that is a proper reason! Not because of pity, or because you play the freakin' piano, or anything else, and don't look at me like that!"
"With the eyes, and the pretence that you don't understand what I'm saying!"
"But I don't understand what you are saying! And what else am I going to look at you with if not my eyes?" He's looking at her, somehow simultaneously bewildered and slightly smug. If she didn't know any better, she thinks he may actually be enjoying this.
"Are you ready to continue?" His hands position themselves over the keys, and he plays a major chord, and it feels like it echoes and reverberates throughout her entire body.
"No, I'm not ready to continue," she says, grabbing his wrists, and pulling them towards her so his body lurches into her personal space. "I think it is time that you got taught something." She glowers at him, watching his reaction expectantly.
He licks his lips, looking slightly nervous, as if... god, how can he not know what is coming?
"Penny, what do you mean?"
And so she kisses him.