Title: The One Ring Misconstruction
Author: Talitha Koum
Spoilers: 3.17
Rating: PG
Word Count: 1500+
Disclaimer: I do not own The Big Bang Theory. Insert witticism here.

ooo

Knock, knock, knock.

"Penny."

Knock, knock, knock.

"Penny."

Knock, knock, knock.

"Penny."

Penny answered the door, her toothbrush stuffed in her mouth.

Sheldon meant to say, 'Good morning, neighbor!' but his salutation took a detour and he quipped, "Some of the ingredients found in your standard tube to toothpaste are glycerin, sorbitol and alumina, which have the potential to eliminate zits. Since your complexion is flawless, I have to ask why you're--"

"Sheldon." Penny pulled her toothbrush from between her teeth, slinging flecks of spit and suds as haphazardly as possible without appearing too premeditative. "What do you want? As you can see--" She gestured to her uniform, which she was wearing. "--I'm trying to get ready for work."

Sheldon hastened a retreat at the risk of Penny's germs speckling his face. He extended his right arm full-length. "This is for you." He dropped a golden trinket into the palm of her hand.

Penny blinked. "What is this?"

Sheldon craned his neck to take a look, reassuring himself that what he had given her hadn't shape-shifted through space from his possession to hers. "That would be a ring. A ring is a circular band worn as a type of ornamental jewelry around--"

"I know it's a ring, Sheldon!" Penny cut him off. "Why are you giving it to me?"

Sheldon stood up straight, scrutinizing her facial expression with curious, heavy-lidded eyes. "Isn't it obvious?"

"Wh--" Penny pursed her lips. She looked from Sheldon, to the ring, to Sheldon again. "What are you talking about?"

"Don't you know the significance of a man presenting a woman with a ring?"

Penny gaped at him, unabashed. Her toothbrush clattered to the floor.

"Bazinga." Sheldon clasped his hands behind his back and bounced on the balls of his feet. Once. "I led you to believe I was offering you a proposal of marriage when, in actuality, I need you to keep a close eye on the One Ring."

Penny frowned. "The. One. Ring," she said slowly. Emphatically. She wiped toothpaste off of the corner of her mouth with the tip of her thumb and took a step toward Sheldon, who took a step back.

"The One Ring is..." Sheldon's eye twitched. He nearly stumbled over his feet when Penny took yet another step, invading his personal space, her thumb turned sideways. "Leonard, Howard, Raj and I purchased a box of miscellaneous movie memorabilia at a yard sale yesterday. Since none of us can agree who should own the One Ring, we need you to keep it secret." He paused. "Keep it safe." Sheldon backed into his apartment door he didn't remember shutting.

Penny smirked.

"You'll incur an automatic strike."

Penny was unfazed.

"Three strikes!" Sheldon screeched.

Penny narrowed her eyes and licked the toothpaste off her thumb. "You got lucky this time, Moonpie. It's a good thing you complimented my complexion. Otherwise?" She swiped her finger across her throat.

Sheldon gulped.

Penny spun on her heel, leaving him in the hall.

Sheldon exhaled through his nose. "Curmudgeon."

ooo

Penny slipped the One Ring in the pocket of her skirt and went to work. She forgot all about the stupid, little thing until she grazed the corner of a table on her way to fill an order. She ducked inside the kitchen so she could curse out loud in the sanctity of the busroom. "Holy crap on a cracker," she hissed, massaging her hip. "What in the--" She felt the shape of the One Ring in her pocket and blew a stray curl of hair out of her face. "Oh, for cryin' out loud."

Penny held the ring in her fingers. She wondered, mildly, What's the big deal? It's just a ring.

The more she gazed upon the One Ring, however, the more she changed her mind. It was kind of pretty. You know, for a prop.

Penny slipped it on her ring finger. (Right hand, not left. Wasn't wearing someone's else's ring on your left hand bad luck or something?) She tilted her head to one side, smiling at the clich├ęd snapshots of wedding dresses, tuxedos, bouquets, and tiered cakes trapezeing through her mind's eye. It was almost inherent, a woman picturing herself as a blushing bride, no matter how rough they were around the edges. How impossible their dreams. How terrible their mistakes in life.

She couldn't help but think:

Penny Hofstadter.

Penny Cooper.

Penny Wolowitz.

Penny Koothrappali.

Penny curled her lip. Hofstadter and Wolowitz were sunk. Cooper and Koothrappali sounded decent. Great. A man who couldn't talk and a man who talked too much.

Fail.

"Did Leonard pop the question?"

Penny snapped out of her reverie. "What?"

A busboy named Kody wiggled his eyebrows. He gripped the sprayer in one hand, reflexively pulling the trigger to hose a plate in the other. "Did your boyfriend pop the question or somethin'?"

"Oh. No." Penny waved Kody off. "I'm just a babysitter."

"Huh?"

"It's not worth explaining." Penny pulled the One Ring off her finger. Rather, she tried. And tried. With her teeth, she tried. "Uh-oh."

"Uh-oh?"

Penny showed Kody her hand. "It's stuck."

Kody laughed out loud. "Uh-oh's right!"

Penny gnawed, swabbing her tongue around the band, lubing her knuckle. She was forced to give up when she saw her manager stalk into the kitchen, chatting up the cooks. Under the cover of Kody's laughter, she cursed her misfortune and ducked back into the dining room. "There's gotta be a way to get this thing off!" She trained her eyes on an empty four-top where a bottle of ketchup called her name. (And bing-o was his name-o.) Penny's beeline was obstructed by a familiar chest clad in a familiar t-shirt, coupled with a familiar green he chose as his secondary layer. "Sheldon?"

"Penny." He folded his arms. Like he was chastising her. Like he knew.

"I swear it was an accident!"

"I should hope so," Sheldon piped, nodding at his usual table where Leonard, Howard, and Raj were playing chess with the condiments. "We've been here five minutes and you've yet to take our order. You're slipping."

Penny breathed a sigh of relief. "I'll be with you in a minute, Sheldon." She walked around him.

He followed behind her, winding through the crowd. "You'll be happy to know that the fellows and I have reached an agreement with regards to the potential ownership of the One Ring."

"Oh? Really?" Penny pretended to clean the already-clean table, inching her left hand closer and closer toward the ketchup.

"It was Howard's idea." Sheldon sounded both surprised and annoyed. "We will engage in a contest of--"

"That's nice." Penny clutched the ketchup to her chest.

Pause. "You're acting strange. Are you ill?"

Penny looked at Sheldon over her shoulder. She smiled plastically. "What makes you say that?" Her tone reminded her of the time he pointed out she was purchasing the ingredients for expensive urine at the super market.

"That."

If Sheldon was anything, he was observant. Penny grit her teeth. "Fine. Fine." She waved her hand in front of his face. "It's stuck, alright? I can't get it off."

Sheldon blanched. He managed to subdue his tics in order to say, "Oh, snap."

"Snap isn't going to get your Precious off my finger!"

"There, there," he tried.

Penny dodged Sheldon's open-armed I-really-don't-want-you-to-hug-me hug and made for the busroom again. (Maybe Kody would stop sniggering long enough to--)

She didn't expect Sheldon to grab her hand.

Penny dropped the ketchup. The bottle fumbled around her feet, which caused her to jump in case the cap burst (It didn't.), which caused her to bump into Bernadette, which caused her to loose her balance, which caused Sheldon to hold her hand tighter, which caused Sheldon to recoil, which caused Penny to trip, which caused her to catch herself on the edge of a not-so-empty table, which caused the customers to scream, which caused the Cheesecake Factory to fall completely silent.

Penny blushed. "I am so..." Sheldon dropped her hand. Her ring finger throbbed, feeling One Ring-less. "...happy!" She turned around to thank Sheldon, but he was nowhere to be seen.

"You're welcome."

Penny, unaccustomed to hearing Sheldon's voice issuing from anywhere other than over her head, looked down to find him kneeling on the floor. Simultaneously affronted and self-satisfied, he held the One Ring between his thumb and pointer finger, a profession of his uninhibited intelligence. Or something. He grinned, With physics, anything is possible.

"I believe thanks are in order," Sheldon said, smug. He looked at her like, This is ultimately Penny's decision. But different. It was as if he was attempting to teach a four-year-old how to express their gratitude in public.

Penny rolled her eyes. "Okay, okay. Th--"

The Cheesecake Factory erupted with cheers.

It was then Penny realized. "Holy God!"

"What?"

"You're on your knee!"

"So it would seem."

Penny flailed her arms. "Get up!"

"I can't."

"Why not?"

"I think I pulled my--"

A customer grabbed Penny's arm. "Congratulations!"

"Oh, no. We're not!" Penny wanted to die. "Sheldon," she hissed. "Don't just kneel there! Help!"

He glared. "Excuse me! But I believe I'm the one in need of assistance, not you."

Leonard's voice could be heard over the din of oohs and aahs, asking, "Sheldon? You wanna catch me up, again?"