When he walks in on them, he sticks his head back out and re-reads the name on the door. No, this office does indeed belong to Dr. Sheldon Cooper. He looks again at the hurriedly disengaging couple and considers the possibility he has slipped into an alternate dimension. It is exceedingly more plausible than the idea that his Sheldon had his hands up his Penny's shirt while she tried to climb him like a monkey up a banana tree.
Penny comes around the desk, her hair wildly tousled, the faintest hint of a hickey marring her skin where her neck meets her shoulder, the corner of her shirt trapped beneath the waistband of her skirt.
"Raj, sweetie, it's not what you think."
Sheldon scoffs at the statement as he rolls down his sleeves before tugging on his t-shirt.
"Raj's last line of independent scientific inquiry may have proven to be a colossal waste of time, but the man is not stupid, Penny. He comprehends what he witnessed."
He sighs. No, not an alternate dimension. Only his Sheldon can deliver an insult like that and make it sound like a compliment. Penny whirls around and stalks to Sheldon, replying through gritted teeth,
"Sheldon, you are not helping."
Raj is still standing there, hand on the doorknob, being quite ignored while the couple engaged in a very different kind of foreplay. He thinks, as he watches Sheldon untuck Penny's shirt and then retrieve a hair tie from his desk drawer, that this has clearly been going on for a while and if he'd only let himself get deported, he wouldn't have to contend with these images permanently burned onto his retinas. He retreats slowly from the room, closing the door with a quiet click before turning on his heel and heading for the nearest bathroom.
By the time he is heading back to the office, he has convinced himself that it was a hallucination brought on by the cafeteria's potato salad. He did not really see Penny on Sheldon's desk, her arms wrapped around his neck while Sheldon kissed the daylights out of her. He didn't think Sheldon had ever been kissed, let alone possess the skills to coax those little breathy moans from Penny. Not possible, not an alternate dimension, so therefore, hallucination. Still, he stands outside Sheldon's door for a cautious moment, listening carefully. No breathy noises. Just a hallucination. He is still staring at the wood paneling of the door, not quite able to reach for the doorknob. Man up, Raj! He takes a deep breath before lightly tapping on the door.
When Sheldon answers in a distracted voice, he cautiously pokes his head in. Just Sheldon. All alone. As usual. Entering the office, he said,
"I just came by to pick up your notes on the latest set of calculations."
"Hmm? Oh, yes, they're in the red folder on the corner of my desk."
Raj picks up the folder and looks down at Sheldon, wondering if he should ask about it or if he would prefer to be crazy. Deciding on crazy, he mutters, "Thanks," before practically sprinting for the door. He is a mere three footsteps from freedom when, from behind him, he hears,
"Close the door , Raj. I am supposed to address an area of concern with you."
His shoulders slump. There is no escape for the doomed. He wearily plods back to the desk and stands before it, feeling like a chastened pupil before the principal. Sheldon sets down his pencil, needlessly straightening his stack of papers before looking up. Folding his hands, Sheldon says primly,
"Penny and I are engaged in a romantic relationship. Don't tell Leonard."
With that brief statement, he picks up his pencil and goes back to work. Raj is left to stand there, mouth hanging open. That was it? If that hadn't been an alternate dimension or a hallucination, he needed a LOT more information to process this event correctly. There was really only one response he could properly make.
"You and Penny? Dude, what the frak?!?"
Sheldon sighs, looking wistfully at his work, before meeting Raj's gaze.
"Penny has this ritual where she likes to engage in 36 hours of supposedly meaningless intercourse after a break-up, a type of emotional cleansing, if you will. Contrary to what the three of you have speculated over the years, I am a perfectly healthy adult male, in this respect, and Penny has become an integral part of my social network."
He ceases speaking and the silence invites Raj to draw his own conclusions. Sheldon's words, coupled with the scene from earlier, led to only one possible inference.
"You? And Penny? Not possible."
Sheldon pinches the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes momentarily. After counting to ten in Klingon, he replies,
"Honestly, Raj, you of all people should know everything is possible. For some events, the odds of it occurring is so great, it is deemed improbable. However, since Penny and I are indeed in a relationship, this has clearly been proven possible. I suppose we could theorize about the probability of the initiating event not occurring…"
Raj tunes out at this point, as Sheldon gets up to erase a whiteboard. He keeps staring at the now empty chair, trying to get a grip on this world that is spinning wildly out of control. For the first time, he notices the small Wall-E figure on the cabinets behind the desk, half-hidden by the Rolodex. It makes him think of the first time Penny called Sheldon by the nickname. Leonard nearly had a baby cow after finding out why- Oh. For the love of Tyra Bank's shapely calves. No. Way.
He breaks Section 12 of his employment contract and interrupts Sheldon.
"Sheldon, Penny and Leonard broke up four months ago."
The white board is now covered with vehement squiggles and Sheldon gestures sharply with the marker.
"You weren't listening at all, were you? I'm certainly not doing this for my own benefit. Why am I even surprised? In any case, your statement is false. It will be four months next Thursday."
Raj gropes behind him for Sheldon's guest chair, weakly plopping down. He tosses the folder back on the desk so he can grip the armrests. He needs the support to stay upright.
"You were in the hospital that weekend. Something about physical maintenance and yearly tests."
Sheldon puts the cap back on the marker with a precise click. He carries it over to the desk, slipping it back into his pencil cup before sitting down. He huffs a little at the folder and aligns it with another pile before responding,
"I did go to the hospital, but the incompetents somehow lost my appointment and simply refused to heed my protestations. I soon found myself outside the building without a ride. Since the three of you took advantage of my absence to go to Las Vegas in what proved to be a futile effort to 'console' Leonard, I called Penny. She came to get me. I merely allowed you all to believe I followed my original schedule. I am quite getting the hang of trickery and deceit, aren't I?"
Sheldon punctuates it with a bitter little chuckle, his lips twisting. Raj stares at him, unsure. His mind revisits the last three months and twenty four days. He realizes now that Sheldon has been scarce outside of work lately. Some days he'd send Raj home while he kept working or so he said. Sheldon went grocery shopping with Penny on Fridays, but the trips had been getting longer and longer. Penny started picking him up on Wednesdays, but they always arrived after everyone else got to the comic book store. And what about laundry nights? He had a flashback to the desk and shuddered, but then laundry made him think of fabric softeners sheets and that made him think of-
"Leonard's bed? You dismissed it as an accident, said something about structural weakening due to 'vigorous activity,' and wasn't he glad that wouldn't be a factor from now on?"
While Raj had been ruminating, Sheldon seized the opportunity to go back to work and is paging through a journal. Over the rustling, Sheldon replies,
"More deceit, I'm afraid. Initially, I was reluctant to contaminate my sheets with such going-ons and our apartment was closer to the stairs. Penny was quite forceful on the matter and Leonard's bed seemed the only logical solution at the time."
Raj rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands. Dragging his fingers down his face, he peeked between them. No. Sheldon was still there. He's shocked now and rather unsettled.
"You had sex with Leonard's ex-girlfriend in his bed? That is cold, dude. Seriously cold and not at all cool."
Sheldon closes the journal with a snap, raising his head to stare at Raj.
"First off, that last statement, in addition to being an incomplete sentence, is an oxymoron. How can something be both cold and 'not cool' at the same time? Secondly, I frequently rely on Penny for social cues since she is the only one who bothers to actually explain the ridiculous rules of social etiquette to me. She certainly didn't have a problem with and, in fact, said something about replacing bad memories with good ones."
Raj's voice is almost a whisper. Does Sheldon really not get why this is so wrong?
"Leonard's your best friend."
Sheldon lets out a bark of laughter.
"I think not. If anyone is filling that position in my social circle, it would be Penny, unless she can't hold multiple titles, in which case it would be you. Leonard lost his status after we returned from the Arctic. In my lifetime, I have come to expect disparaging and hurtful behavior from a number of different sources, including my so-called friends, but I did not expect complete and utter betrayal. Especially from a man I classified as my best friend. Regardless of whether or not he was the mastermind, he, in my view, has the greatest culpability."
Raj has seen Sheldon annoyed, the laser stare, the clipped tones. He's seen him angry, folded arms, attempts to blow up minds. He's even seen him furious, raspy voice with a hint of a growl, fists clenched at his sides. However, he's never seen the man sitting in front of him before. His voice is completely flat with no inflection at all, like he's given this speech at a thousand times before. His shoulders are tense, palms flat down on the desk, fingers twitching slightly, and his gaze? As cold as a glacier and Raj begins to think maybe Sheldon wasn't the one who was wrong.
"In conclusion, I no longer consider Leonard's well-being a priority. However, it matters to Penny and therefore, I must strongly reiterate that you must not tell Leonard."
It occurs to him that Sheldon has yet to mention Howard at all. He's pretty sure it's a deliberate omission on Sheldon's part. He wants Howard to find out, knows that Howard would tell Leonard. His gaze drops to the red folder, again perfectly situated on the corner of Sheldon's desk. Sheldon saved his ass from the land of bad food and face-time with his parents by offering him this job. Sure, Raj helps, does a lot of the grunt work (literature searching, triple-checking calculations, etc), but he doesn't think Sheldon really needs him. He has a feeling that if it'd been Leonard facing deportation, the other man would now be dealing with Monsoon season. So he knows what Sheldon wants him to do, what he probably owes the other man, but he can't quite bring himself to set events in motion. He doesn't want to break the first seal and set the apocalypse in motion. Thinking briefly of the lush smell of roses and icy mountain air, he promises himself he will be Switzerland, land of neutrality and secretive banking.
"Don't worry, Sheldon, I won't breathe a word to anyone." He puts a lot of emphasis on the last word and sees the flash of disappointment in Sheldon's eyes.
"Very well. Penny will be pleased to hear that. Since I've secured your promise of silence, you may leave now."
There is the scratching of graphite against paper as Sheldon begins working again, the dismissal clear. Raj picks up the folder again and exits, closing the door behind him with a quiet click. He plans on dropping off the folder in his office and then heading to the Commons for a caramel latte to soothe his frazzled soul. At least it can't get any worse.
Three days later, he and Leonard head to Sheldon's office to ask him to settle a debate on which X-Men animated series is superior. The door is closed, but there is a Penny Blossom stuck to the doorknob. Raj freezes in his tracks, fully understanding the symbiotics here. He knows Sheldon has does this on purpose, knows the door may even be unlocked. He wants to get caught, wants this confrontation with Leonard. He doesn't know what to do. Neutrality would dictate that he do nothing, aid no one, remain firmly in the middle, but if Leonard enters that room now...
Tripping in front of the door, blocking the Penny Blossom with his body, Raj says, his voice only a little squeaky,
"You know what, upon further consideration, I am willing to concede that the original animated series is definitely truer to the comic books, although I still maintain Evolution had its own unique interpretation. No need to bother Sheldon when he's working."
He turns into Leonard, forcing the other man to keep walking. Leonard replies, with a chuckle,
"True, he'll probably give some long-winded opinion before declaring nothing can compare to the original source material and going on about that until it's time to go home."
For the first time, Raj notices an edge in Leonard's voice, an underlying dimension of spite, and he realizes the seal has already been broken. A righteous man spilled metaphoric blood in his own personal Hell. Raj tucks his hands into his pockets and leaves the Penny Blossom on the door.
No one gossips like scientists and Kripke is worse than anyone when it comes to Sheldon. An hour later, the entire floor knows Sheldon was doing something with a girl in his office. It was a miracle that Penny managed to escape without being recognized because, when they were still dating, Leonard liked to show her picture to anyone who'd look. Half the physics department stops by to pump Sheldon for information and Raj tries to shrink into a corner, watching as Sheldon rebuffs all attempts with his usual brashness. He never confirms that there was a girl, but he also doesn't go into his usual rant about how a relationship detracts from academic pursuits. When all the gawkers finally depart, there is a small smile playing about the corners of Sheldon's mouth. Raj wants nothing more than to hide in the bathroom until quitting time, but he gathers up his courage and closes the door. Sheldon looks at him quizzically and Raj says quietly,
"Why did you do it, Sheldon?"
Turning his attention back to the whiteboard, arms crossed as he leans against the desk, Sheldon replies absently,
"The first time Leonard engaged in intercourse with Leslie Winkle in our apartment, he put a tie on the door. When I noticed this anomaly, Penny explained the significance to me. Given what happened the last time she and I became amorous in this office, I felt I should do something similar. I didn't wear a tie today."
Raj crosses his arms now.
"So Penny knew what you were doing?"
Sheldon gives him that sideways look that always makes him look like a bird.
"She was aware of where I placed her clip, yes."
Crafty bastard. Sheldon is level-k thinking personified. Raj wonders if there was a notebook lying around with all this scheming carefully plotted out, with listed variables and calculated probabilities. Shaking his head, Raj moves to leave, but then...
Sheldon is staring at him, all that concentrated intellect studying him. His knees buckle just a little under the weight of that stare, but he reminds himself of the stalwart Alps.
There is a small rustling as Sheldon shifts restlessly. He seems more human than he has in days, the icy coating melting to reveal the softness.
"It occurs to me that there is the potential for you to misconstrue my relationship with Penny."
Raj can't help it, he snorts.
"I think I have a pretty clear picture on where your relationship stands with Penny."
"I wasn't referring to the physical aspect of the relationship. Our relationship, the one between Penny and I, it exists entirely separately from my interactions with Leonard. I would not be moved in the slightest if Leonard suddenly departed, but it would be...displeasing if Penny did so."
He thinks it is the most awkward he'd ever heard Sheldon and Raj's heard Sheldon sputter for hours after Kripke or Winkle landed a doozy. He also thinks Howard would never let him hear the end of it if he admitted it out loud, but that was one of the most romantic things he'd ever heard.
The reenactment of Pompeii happens that night and Raj kinda wishes he'd fled for the mainland when the ash first hit the air. Still, he is committed now and, he's a little curious to see what will happens. Sure, the lava will lay waste to all in its path, and they were probably all going to die, but maybe Superman would swoop down and use his super-breath to freeze the lava in its tracks or the Enterprise will beam them up. After all, nothing is impossible, only improbable.
He laughs softly to himself as he stabs at his Thai food. He's not really in the mood to eat. Looking up through his lashes, he sees Leonard and Howard still heckling Sheldon about earlier. Penny is turning redder and redder, and really, does Leonard really not see the warning signs? He dated her for nine months and he can't tell she's about to unleash a holy fury on them? Sheldon's just sitting there, methodically eating his mee krob, deftly parrying their attempts to elicit information from him. Raj is surprised Sheldon hasn't started twitching yet, but then again, he's not really lying, just omitting certain facts. He has gotten good at deceit.
Plopping his dish on the coffee table, he leans back on the couch and keeps watching. He is certainly Switzerland now because even if he wanted to impede the impending disaster, he couldn't, thanks to Penny's fuming presence. Any minute now, cue the lava.
Eruption happens when Howard makes a crack involving a replacement for Meemaw that would provide cookies and sex. Raj sees Sheldon stiffen, his fingers tightening on his fork. Sheldon drops his gaze to his food, remaining silent, and his left knee twitches towards Penny's right leg. The tan plaid of Sheldon's shorts clashes horribly with Penny's fuchsia ones, but Raj still watches as their skin touches and swears he can almost see the spark.
Penny slams down her soda on the coffee table, a little sloshing over the lip of the cup, causing Sheldon to make a little eep-ing sound. Sheldon fusses with cleaning up the liquid while Penny starts to rip them a new one. Raj presses back into the sofa and tries to avoid the spittle. After the first five minutes, it starts to get entertaining. She is mostly ignoring him, a regular dervish of blond hair and curses, focusing her might on Howard and Leonard. His appetite is back and he stealthily goes for his plate. The food is cold now, but he doesn't much care, eating as he listens to Leonard stammer and Howard sniffle.
Sheldon has returned to the living room after disposing of the soggy napkins, standing just on the periphery of the slaughter. Raj can see a small glimmer of satisfaction before Sheldon's demeanor returns to its normal stoic expression. Penny is starting to wind down her exposition on why Leonard and Howard have no social lives if this is the way they treat their friends and yadda yadda. Howard is suitably cowed and Raj knows that he's just looking for a way to escape with the tattered remnants of his manhood. Another minute and it will all be over. He starts to think the crisis might be averted when Leonard makes the tactical error of saying, "Now, Penny" with a slight whine in his tone.
Penny stiffens and shifts to face Leonard completely. Her eyes are the color of burning barium nitrate, her hands are in fists on her hips, and her breath is coming quickly. This isn't entertaining any more, but Raj hangs onto his plate. He might need a shield.
"Don't you 'Now, Penny' me, you smug, arrogant, sona-"
"Penny, I think you've done a suitable job of being my champion. You may stop now."
Sheldon walks forwards and pauses just between Leonard and Penny. It seems like a casual moment as he bends to gather the remains of their dinner. Yet when he straightens, he is violating Penny's personal space and she's not moving. She reaches to take the empty containers from him, Leonard seemingly forgotten, as she replies,
"Says the man who got his ass handed to him by a chicken."
Sheldon shakes his head as he moves toward the garbage with the remainder of the trash, Penny in step besides him.
"You've been talking to my sister again. Do I want to know what else my twin shared about our communal childhood?"
She playfully bumps her hip against his as she gleefully smushes down the garbage before piling the dinner trash on top.
"Your sister loves me."
Glancing down at the overflowing can, he looks back at her and says, dryly,
"I can't imagine why."
They're smirking at each other and Raj is pretty sure they've forgotten they have an audience. Well, Penny probably has, but Sheldon, crafty bastard indeed, must be well aware of how they look. Then again, maybe not, as Sheldon deftly tucks a strand of Penny's hair behind her ear before starting to change the garbage bag. Raj slides his gaze to the right where Howard has been edging towards the door slowly. He's too preoccupied with the idea of escape to realize what he's looking at. On his left, however, an aurora borealis is shining for Leonard.
"Raj. Howard. Get out."
His voice is cold and mean. Howard is already out the door when Raj looks at Sheldon and Penny. Penny's hand curls around Sheldon's arm as she stares at her ex-boyfriend. Sheldon is looking back at Raj and gives a little nod. Taking it as his cue, Raj stands, heading for the door, looking around at the apartment one more time, as he tries to memorize everything before he leaves and it changes forever. As the door clicks behind him, he can already hear the sounds of a world crumbling to pieces.
He's still holding his plate.
Leonard doesn't come to work the next day. Sheldon says little as Raj passes off the results from his latest literature search, but there's now a small pink picture frame on the cabinets, next to the Wall-E figure. If Raj squints, he can see Penny's face, a blinding smile shining out from behind the glass.
Raj eats lunch alone with Howard. Howard has now been fully briefed on the situation, thanks to multiple texts from Leonard and his continually changing Facebook status, and shares all the details with Raj. He already knows most of it, of course, but feigns ignorance. Raj expects Howard to side with Leonard, but the other man spends most of the hour speculating about Penny. He thinks that Howard has his own way of maintaining neutrality.
The weekend goes by slowly. All the opposing parties have retreated to their own corners and Raj is left standing alone in the middle. Being alone is not a situation he normally enjoys, but it's a nice break from all the tension. He goes to Walgreens, buys a Toblerone bar, and eats it while walking in the park's rose garden. He thinks about Switzerland and about the North Pole.
On Monday, he walks into Sheldon's office, humming Bidee, and studying the equation he is carrying. There is something wrong with it, he can sense it, but he can't figure out what exactly is wrong. He knows Sheldon will take one look and immediately spot the problem.
"Hey, Sheldon, can you-"
Raj stops speaking abruptly when he finally looks up and sees Leonard & Sheldon staring at him. Crap. Crap on a cracker, to paraphrase Penny. Time for a strategic retreat to the nearest men's room.
"Ah, I'm just gonna-"
"No need to sprint for the closest urinal, Raj, Leonard and I have reached an accord."
Still not an alternate dimension. Leonard's shoulders are hunched, hands buried in his pocket. He doesn't look very happy, but few people ever do after going up against Sheldon. Raj begins to hope that his neutrality is a necessity of the past. Sighing, Leonard says,
"I still don't know about all this, Sheldon."
Sheldon's gaze flicks to the picture frame before going back to Leonard.
"Leonard, you are aware where the proverbial line in the sand has been drawn. You already agreed to our stipulated conditions. To use a colloquialism, fish or cut bait."
Raj is not entirely sure what that last saying means, but he gets the gist. So does Leonard, it seems. Leonard looks out the window for a moment, emotions flickering across his face, before he answers.
"Okay, Sheldon, we have an accord."
The two men shake hands, grips firm. Leonard nods to Raj, saying, "See you at lunch," before leaving.
Sheldon moves to his desk and sits down. He flips open a folder and starts working. Raj stands there, waiting, knowing a grin creases his face. Sheldon breaks the silence, without looking up,
"I presume you came in here with a query. Would you care to ask it before you depart?"
Raj rolls his eyes, but shows Sheldon the equation. As expected, he immediately sees the problem and works out a solution within five minutes. Raj turns to leave, but he is three steps from the door when Sheldon calls him back.
This time, Raj pushes the door closed and eagerly spins to face Sheldon. He waits expectantly. Sheldon is uncharacteristically playing with his pencil.
"I...Well, upon discussion with Penny, certain things were made clear to me, and she feels, I mean I feel you were an adequate friend and excellent at maintaining confidences during this imbroglio. You quite exceeded my expectations."
Raj knows it's Sheldon-speak for thank you.
"I'm glad I was adequate. Did, um, did you and Leonard, you know?"
Raj gestures vaguely.
"While I am not sure what your ineffectual hand waving is meant to represent, I gather you are alluding to the state of my friendship with Leonard. Upon Penny's insistence, we also discussed the North Pole expedition. Leonard came to understand the ramifications of his actions and responded accordingly. Also, he is moving out."
Raj breaks Section 12 again and Sheldon shoots him an admonishing look before continuing,
"He is moving into Penny's apartment and Penny, ahem, Penny will be moving in with me."
The righteous man who began it is the one ending it, Raj thinks.
"Well, if Penny needs any help moving, I'd be happy to help."
Sheldon meets his gaze and Raj knows the other man understands the subtext. He did a little research and it turns out the majority of the Swiss hated Hitler. Neutrality was really just politics. Sheldon goes back to his work.
"Penny will be happy to hear that. If there's nothing else, you may leave now."
Raj taps the papers against his arm before leaving. He'll drop them off at his office before going to the Commons for a caramel latte. The day calls for a little celebratory treat. Raj thinks he is going to like this dimension after all.