Warnings: Sheldon/Penny, Penny/Leonard, spoilers for mid season 3
Rating: PG for UST and spoofery, about 5,200 words
Disclaimer: Not my characters, now or in any future fic.
Category: Humor, spoof, light UST, people being dumped right and left

Summary: Sheldon will go to any length to maintain his social paradigm, including playing matchmaker, and, if necessary, much worse.

Comments: Finally, months later, my help_haiti fic submission for lisaboston. Most of this text was written three months ago, when Leonard and Penny breaking up was just a rumor, and I haven't actually seen the last three episodes that jossed it...so what would have been a future fic is now decidedly AU. I wrote this initially as a balls-out spoof fic, but it kinda turned a bit genuine in parts.

Feel free to ignore those parts and take this with as little seriousness as a bag of mini marshmallows.


Let's See How Far We've Come


Almost everything was right in the world this morning. Sheldon had a new Doctor Who episode streamed and buffered on his television, his early lunch was prepared, and he had the living room to himself. Nothing pleased Sheldon more than to see a routine proceed uninterrupted.

"Sheldon," said Penny, dragging his roommate in from the hallway and shuffling into his line of vision. She smiled in a nervous twist of her face. "We have some news."

He didn't look up from the television, determined that this interruption would end up a figment of his imagination. "Whatever it is, I doubt it's new to me since I've seen your Facebook feeds and your DVR list, none of which contain professional news programming."

"Sheldon," said Leonard, "You should listen. This is personal news." They stepped forward, side by side. Sheldon's eyes moved right-ward from the screen and traveled gradually up their symmetrical stances. Being a conservative soul, he feared the worst.

"We're breaking up," said Penny, squeezing Leonard's hand.

Sheldon heard this, thought about the short and long term consequences in less time than other people think about flicking on a light switch, then opened his mouth.

"But we're still friends, see!" That was from Leonard, holding onto Penny's hand as if yanking hard enough would prove it. "Everything will be okay. Nothing will change."

From the couch, Sheldon didn't even stop the frown. He stood up and smoothed the full bottom perimeter of his shirt. "Excuse me," he said, and walked briskly to grab Leonard by the elbow. "We will be returning momentarily. Don't sit down and don't eat my snacks."

Leonard was dragged into his own room, where Sheldon rounded with a diatribe ready: "Are you mad? Are you unaware of the delicate balance of our living environment and how its continued stability directly affects my productivity and general wellness?" This didn't have quite the dramatic effect Sheldon anticipated, so he added, "It could also affect your productivity. Under the optimistic assumption, of course, that your work might one day produce something. No one has published memorable experiments under the influence of pop ballads."

"James Blunt isn't that bad," Leonard argued before he remembered reality and how much he'd like to escape to it. "Look, Sheldon," he said, "things change. You'll survive."

"You don't understand. This is the second-worst news you could possibly give me."

Genuine curiosity sidetracked him, a common downside to having an alien for a roommate. "What's the worst thing?"

"Now why would I tell you that? It'd only give you ideas."

"The point then, Sheldon, get to the point!"

"You have to get back together with Penny."

"That's none of your business." They stared each other down; Leonard lost. "Okay, look, it's just better this way. Penny was changing to be like what she thought I wanted, and it didn't make her happy. Being with her made me so worried all the time that I changed for the worse too. We decided a week ago, but we waited to tell you because we wanted to show you that everything would still be okay."

His roomate's head tilted to one side, not unlike a bird of prey sighting down a gerbil. "Was it the day you got your car washed?"

"Uh, yeah. Actually, it was. How do you know that?"

"I knew something was off!" Sheldon snapped his fingers and pointed at the shorter man. "There had to be reason you chose Spring Blossom Rain scent instead of Fresh Pine when we all know you think Fresh Pine is what Penny likes. It's always pleasant when hindsight validates my subconscious deductions."

Groaning, Leonard waved his hands between them as if he could wipe the last minute out of the conversation entirely. He adjusted the back rims of his glasses and said, "Since the day Penny moved in you've been telling me our future was doomed and our future children were fictional. What makes you sure that breaking up is a mistake?"

His roommate folded his arms and came as close to tutting as his nature would allow. "You've chosen Penny and she has chosen you, seeing in each other the complement to what each lacks in a genetic line: above-average intelligence and above-average aesthetic appeal. Your relationship, while initially doubtful, benefits both yourselves and your potential progeny."

Awe and fear holds Leonard's tongue for a moment, but if there were ever to come a day when Leonard could believe a speech like that from Sheldon Cooper, it was definitely not a week after he was dumped. Or dumped her. Mutually. Anyway, his eccentric friend probably wasn't lying, not per se, just being highly creative for selfish purposes.

"You don't believe that," he said. "You're just worried because you got used to a routine at last, and now it will have to go back a year, so you're making excuses. It's selfishness, which I don't even get because you hated us together. Last Thursday you compared our relationship to Intelligent Design."

"Try to explore her interests," said Sheldon, electing to roll right over his friend's protesting noises. Just because Penny and Leonard's relationship was analogous to the cancerous spread of Creationism in the American public education system didn't mean he was ready to go through lifestyle readjustment yet again. Leonard would just have to try harder. "I have read that men in your situation--"

"What situation?" interrupted Leonard. "There's no situation."

"--often fail to express an interest in an attractive partner beyond admiring their physical or sexual attributes. Without shared efforts, progress stalls. For example, Penny likes popular music and film comedies. She once had a fleeting interest in being a playwright."

"I know that," challenged Leonard, who had been her boyfriend for more than half a year, thank you very much.

"And you need to challenge her," Sheldon asserted, leaning close into his friend's personal space. "She's an aggressive, dominant female who is attracted to aggressive males."

Leonard, who was told with specific detail by Penny seven days ago that she hated how he'd turned into an aggressive jerk once they started dating, did not take this last proclamation seriously. Unlike her previous aggressive jerk boyfriends, Leonard was capable of listening to criticism.

"And you must attempt," concluded his roommate with a dramatic smack of the palm, "to build a meager store of self-confidence."

Leonard rolled his eyes, knowing that Sheldon wouldn't notice. There were not many things that could be said in response to what was, all things considered, the worst wing-man pep talk in history.

"Whoa. Thanks, pal."

Sheldon nodded affirmatively. "I try to help those in obvious need, when it compliments my own goals."

"If you say so."

"I do. But this conversation is over, as I can hear Penny violating my lunch." He flowed past Leonard, muttering, "Why won't she give up and realize that I can anticipate her every move?"

Penny had fled with Sheldon's bowl of chips by the time he made it to the living room, and he didn't see her again for two days. They were the most annoying two days of his month thus far, in no small part because her post-break up absence meant he had to overhaul weekend meal plans completely and reorganize their platform gaming schedule. When the aggravation reached its maximum tolerable peak, Sheldon knocked three times on Penny's door with a gift in hand.

She opened it and he thrust a loaf of cranberry pumpkin bread at her chest. "Please get back together with Leonard."

"Nope," she said, and went to the cutting board. He followed her in, invitation not required.

"I've come prepared with a list of talking points for why you're making a colossal mistake."

"Go ahead," said Penny, "I was looking for a reason not to do my taxes."

Sheldon learned from the attempt with Leonard, and felt that Penny would respond better to underhanded tactics. There's no room for mercy in agenda enforcement. "As a good friend," he said, putting triple emphasis on the adjective just in case, "I must tell you that you're underestimating the value Leonard brings to your current lifestyle."

Penny looked up from the two neat slices of cranberry pumpkin bread now laid out on saucers. "My current lifestyle?"

Sheldon declined the bread, instead parking himself on his seat and beginning, "Paramours of the past have left you lonely, weeping, and doubting yourself. Leonard admires you, and wouldn't be able to conceptualize cheating. To him, you are beautiful and vivacious. Your intellect, while considerably below ours, is standard for societal norms and doesn't hinder your other assets."

He paused, eyes jumping across her features to gauge the success of the conversation so far, but Penny did not appear to be in a demonstrative mood. Sheldon attributed her patient expression to agreement and continued, "Your talents lie in the area of adaptability, resourcefulness, and charm--all things Leonard could benefit from."

A spark of loyalty in Penny must have driven her to argue, because she stop nibbling on a piece of sweet crust to interrupt: "Leonard is resourceful. He finds practical solutions to things, I always liked that about him."

"As do you," Sheldon agreed, achieving a conversational about-face he thought worthy of commendation. "Another excellent reason for you to get back together."

"I can't believe I'm about to say this, but maybe you could try putting it to me in movie terms? Because I still don't understand your point."

"Oh, an excellent idea." He swiveled in place, one hand on his chin, then began: "In the climax of the first Superman film, years of principle photography nineteen seventy-seven to nineteen seventy eight, Superman is faced with a terrible decision. The San Andreas Fault has been ruptured on a continental level by nuclear attack from Lex Luthor, and the great hero must ignore his family's teachings and forcibly interfere in a situation that has spiraled out of control, or risk losing--"

"I take it back! Please, I take it back."

"But there is a relevant point to be made with the circumstances of Lois--"

"Just stop, please. I don't care." She put her hand over her head, rubbing her hair back. "What do you get out of this, Sheldon? Why does it bother you either way? Is your routine so precious that you don't care about why we broke up, just as long as things are fixed and everything is convenient again?"

"Penny." He took a deep breath, then two.


"The answer, of course, is..." but there Sheldon stalled. His plans to drive home her weaknesses to induce a bout of insecurity that would make her cling to Leonard like a radioactive mollusk had turned into a speech expounding her positive qualities. He wasn't prepared for this tack; it was time to retreat before it became a chicken and tree situation. "...irrelevant, because it's seven PM and I have to defragment my laptop hard drive."

"What?" said Penny, staring at him as if she had difficulty understanding English, which Sheldon privately thought she must.

"Defragment my laptop, Penny. It's basic computer maintenance." He backed toward the exit, stumbling over a laundry basket on the way. "Think about it: you and Leonard might live happily ever after, if such a thing is possible, which it isn't, but either way he'll probably call you and want to make up."

Feeling nauseous at having provoked too much social interaction in too short a research period, Sheldon ran through his apartment door, across the living room and into his sanctuary, where he sat on the bed and leaned forward, locking his hands in his lap.

Three days later, he was running it over and over in his mental movie theater. Everything he'd felt from the hour and the minute that his friends had announced their impending division: the shortness of breath, the frustration, the irrational stomach-dropping fear that Penny would leave because of Leonard breaking up with her and Thursday nights would be ruined forever. As well as Monday nights, and probably Sundays. Laundry would go undone, burgers would be improperly served. His social circle would be reduced to two friends and an acquaintance.

"This is intolerable," he said to his white board. "She has to stay. If Leonard can't keep her here, then it's up to me." Renewed confidence lifted Sheldon's spirit, and he dug out his phone to make Raj drive him to the mall. Six hours later, he was back on his own doorstep with a small brown paper bag and a contemplative mood. His plan was sound, but it would require some changes to his own behavior in the future. Shared television rights, no doubt, and dietary negotiations. Sexual activity would be a challenge, but he could suffer through. The rest was manageable, even appealing with the right contract. Sheldon turned the key in his lock and entered, prepared to declare his change of plan to the nearest victim.

"Oh!" mumbled Penny, peeling her face off Leonard's and looking at the entrance. "Hi Sheldon."

"Mmmrrph," said Leonard. "Hey buddy!"

"You're back together," observed Sheldon. "You've...reconciled."

Penny smiled, and leaned into Leonard's neck. Her hair spilled in bright waves over his collar, and her lip gloss was long since rubbed away. "We thought about what you said. We were right in being too hasty, giving up on a good thing without trying to make it work."

Leonard, who could not stop grinning, nodded about twenty-two times in three seconds. His hands galloped over Penny's curvier extremities. "For once your advice was really nice. Thanks for trying so hard."

"Inconceivable," said Sheldon, and voluntarily banished himself to the bedroom.

Four days later, a nondenominational Hell had descended on the Hofstadter-Cooper kitchen, and Penny, aspiring actress, was finally getting to experience a real life Mexican Stand-off. It was not as fun as the classic movies made it appear. They stood arrayed in a triangle, with awkwardness threatening to slay the unwary if the tension tipped too far. It was half-past eight and forty seconds. Birds chirped on the wires that had once held undergarments, and a band was playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts were light. Inside, a pin could shatter the scene if the wrong person moved.

Always the one to hold off a social apocalypse, Penny wet her lips and cast her eyes from physicist to physicist. "Um." She looked down at the ivory felt box in her hand, spilled open like a clam and thrusting up its contents. "Hi guys."

"Why do you have an engagement ring?" Leonard asked. His voice went a little high with the question, and he pushed his glasses against his nose.

"It's his," Penny said, and pointed at the other occupant of the #4A living room.

"No," Sheldon corrected with exasperated gentleness, "It's yours."

"What?" said Penny. "It's mine?" She closed and re-opened the box, as if it might not be there the second time. It remained, a generous gold circle and a black opal flanked by two small diamonds. The ring didn't rest in the felt; it swam atop it like a resplendent shark.

"How is this happening?" demanded Leonard.

Sheldon walked further into the kitchen and set his satchel on the counter, digging out his laptop. "I think the question you are searching for is 'When?', and the answer, of course, is now."

"Mine?" repeated Penny.

Leonard adjusted his glasses again and breathed through his nose. "You're giving my girlfriend an engagement ring? Right now, as in, today? Did Howard put you up to this?"

"Of course not," his roommate replied. "Howard's proclivities in the realm of formal gift-giving are not up to the standard a woman like Penny would expect. At least, not according to my mother."

"Your mother put you up to this? But I've met her!"

"Leonard, you must be acting intentionally thick. I purchased the ring of my own sovereign determination and left it taped to the back of our coffee tin knowing that Penny would discover it."

"But it's a ring," said Leonard, enunciating every word as if reading a primer to a school child and barely restraining himself from adding that it was also his coffee tin.

"Yes," replied Sheldon, just as forcefully.

"So, this is mine?" Penny's conscience had lingered several retorts back, circling the magic word like a thief in a p√Ętisserie circles an unguarded eclair. Her mind had blocked out both men and fixated on the idea that an astoundingly tasteful and expensive piece of jewelry had been waiting, in the cupboard, for her.

"Yes," Sheldon said.

"But..." She drew the word out, stretching it across her breath, then doing so again just to make sure. "But... I'm dating Leonard. You told us to get back together."

Leonard, her boyfriend, rounded on this. "That's all you can say when Sheldon gives you an engagement ring? That's it?"

"Well," Penny hedged. The ring oozed temptation from its soft ivory nest. "Come on, even you have to admit this conversation is kinda confusing."

"Don't you want to know why he's proposing to you?" exclaimed Leonard. "Don't you want to ask why he wants to marry you? And how long he planned this? And why he thinks you're amenable to his proposal? If he loves you?"

His mouth whipped shut at the last sentence, and his face turned a pasty pink. As if it crossed their minds at the same time, both of them looked to Sheldon. They stared until Penny asked the ludicrous question, and then they waited.

The taller participant in this little drama popped open a diet soda and set it on the counter. For all intents and purposes, he appeared untroubled. Causal, for Sheldon, even pleased with himself. "I believe that I might," he allowed. "Love is, of course, unquantifiable and unprovable, but I find Penny's physical features to be attractive, her attitude to be refreshing in its reliable contrariness, and her willingness to accommodate my needs satisfying."

"Eugh," said Leonard, taking two steps back. Penny threw the engagement box square at Sheldon's forehead.

"Go to hell!" she shouted, and banged the apartment door shut behind her. A hushed silence fell over the physicists, and then their limited edition Heinlein wall clock fell off its hook with a smash.

"That clock is out of production," Sheldon said, examining the glass and metal carcass from a safe distance. "It's irreplaceable."

"So is my girlfriend," snapped Leonard. "Who you just proposed to!"

Sheldon held up the ring box and waved it a little. "She rejected me. Try to keep up with events."

"That's not the point."

"I must leave to reassess my strategy," Sheldon decided. He ignored Leonard's gurgling noises and slammed the door to his sanctuary.

In the common area, Leonard's head moved back and forth as he tried to look at both doors at once. Sheldon. Penny. Sheldon. Penny. Penny. Penny, then Sheldon.

Penny was his girlfriend. Penny first, Leonard concluded. When he knocked, she threw open the door and, right in front of him, blew a sob into a blue paper tissue.

"Penny, are you okay?"

"No, I'm not okay!" She blew her nose again. "Sheldon proposed to me, Leonard. I think he's missed the bus at last."

Leonard wanted to move closer, but it was like trying to hug a cat. She jerked to one side or the other, not fighting him but not cooperating either. He wasn't sure she even noticed.

"Is that why you're crying?" he asked, going for Understanding Boyfriend Casual.

"No!" Penny wailed. She wasn't normally the type of girlfriend who sounded like a shrieking brat in conversations like this, so Leonard assumed this was a special occasion and she was getting a lot satisfaction from the volume.

He almost reached for her hand, but didn't. "Then why?"

"Because it was awful!" Penny grabbed another three tissues and whirled in short paces across the apartment. "I mean, who says that in a proposal? What the hell kind of offer is that? What's wrong with him?"

He dropped his chin and rubbed at the carpet with his shoe. Here it was, a question Leonard hadn't wanted to ask all week. "He's been weird about our relationship for a long time. First he hates it, then he wants us together."

It was The Question, the one none of them had the courage to ask, so once again the hard job went to Dr. Hofstadter, roommate, gamekeeper, and re-boyfriend. "Have you guys ever...well?"

Penny shook her head and barely answered him before rattling on. "Of course not, Leonard, you know I wouldn't cheat. But he's the first man to ever propose to me, and who says that? Where did he get the idea that was an acceptable way to propose, even with a gorgeous ring? I don't get him. He's an alien or something."

"Penny," said Leonard. He tried to keep his voice from sounding disappointed.

She tossed her used tissues in the waste basket and looked up. "What is it?"

"I want to break up."

Penny opened her mouth, then grabbed more tissues, then said, "You're breaking up with me again?"

Leonard gulped. "Yes."

"Right now?" she clarified with deliberate enunciation. "Because of Sheldon?"

He wrung his hands against his jacket pockets. "It's not just Sheldon proposing to you for no earthly reason. It's, it's, it's a combination of things that all became suddenly clear to me. Just that there's many different motivations to someone's behavior, and..."

Penny threw the plastic tissue box at his head.

"Achk," Leonard cried, not quite dodging it. He really should have seen that coming. He'd have thrown something at himself, too, if their places were switched.

"I can't believe you, either of you! You can go right to hell too, Leonard Hofstadter." She pointed at the exit. "Start by getting out of my apartment."

"Going, going, sorry!" Leonard apologized, backing out of his re-ex-girlfriend's living room and not surprised to have another door slammed on him. Despite everyone's effort, there would be no joy in Mudville today.

He returned to find Sheldon organizing the cups and bowls in the dishwasher so as to fit the maximum possible items in a single wash cycle. He cut immediately to the question at hand. "I've got to know why you proposed to Penny."

Sheldon rolled his eyes. "I understand it's a difficult prohibition for common people to remember, but as my roommate I've asked you repeatedly not to approach me with stupid questions."

"As my roommate, I am asking you to explain yourself."

"Are you going to assault me in a fit of jealous rage now that I've challenged your perception of your own machismo?" Sheldon asked. His hand hovered over the upper rack with a particularly uncooperative ladle.

"No," said Leonard. Then, a little insulted, he added, "Maybe."

His roommate triumphantly jammed the ladle between pasta bowls and a mug. He nodded at Leonard. "Then I won't push my luck."

"Just answer the question!"

Sheldon gave a minute sigh, and walked over to the table where his laptop waited. "Oh all right. I've reviewed my social environment and I've decided that I don't want Penny to leave. Ever. You were supposed to take care of that, but obviously you failed. Only nine months in a relationship before you ruined everything. If Penny's feelings are hurt by the separation, and she has economic temptations elsewhere, then it's 'goodbye neighbor!' and that is unacceptable."

Sometimes talking with Sheldon was easy, and sometimes it made Leonard's head hurt. "Is this because she got a recurring job as an extra on that sitcom in Burbank? She's been fine commuting. Sheldon, not wanting someone to move out doesn't mean you should marry them to keep them around."

But apparently his friend didn't want to hear this. "Oh now you're being sarcastic, aren't you? If I believed that was the solution to keeping roommates, you and I would be married and you'd be attempting to convince me to march in opposition to Prop 8, but of course if we were married you'd already know such attempts would be futile as I have no interest in state politics or antiquated religious dogma."

Leonard, who hadn't been sarcastic, suddenly couldn't must a reason to be otherwise. "You would let politics destroy our love," he asked in a deadpan voice.

"And religion, Leonard, I just explained that." Sheldon rolled his eyes. "Of course there's also my potential fiance Penny, whom I did not propose to only because she might move to Burbank."

He didn't care how the conversation arrived, he was just glad it had circled back again. "Then elaborate, Sheldon, on your previous 'explanation' before I assault you over my irritated machismo."

Lifting his eyes to the ceiling in what had to be a carefully practiced social gesture, Sheldon hand-waved for his friend to sit on the couch while he drew out the white board easel. He held up a blue pen in one hand and a green pen in another, and proceeded to draw Leonard the most convoluted relationship graph the experimental physicist had ever seen. There were dangling tangents, unresolved floating variables, contradictions so blatant Leonard was actually surprised, and underneath it all, a disturbing lack of a unified thesis.

"Now," encouraged Sheldon, "If I account for her class background and social history as V^4 in comparison to mine as V^3, where mine is diminished by a religious neo-conservatism that Penny's middle class parents appear to have dodged in favor of farm crop economic liberalism with a patina of social conservative ethics, it's fair to say that our decision to live in the Golden State shows a shared desire to reject Mid-West American culture in favor of more elastic social---"

"Stop! Please for the love of Gallifrey just stop talking."

"What is it now? Aren't you following this?" He gestured at the multicolored spaghetti graph. "I've written it so simply that a earthworm could follow it." He added, "They're blind."

"A tapeworm would get lost in that mess," protested Leonard.

"Mess?" Sheldon yelped. "Mess? You asked me to lay out my reasoning and I have done so in a clear and logical visual display. I didn't realize I had to dumb it down even further for you to grasp the essence of my conclusion, but if that's what it takes, we'll start at the beginning." He took the green marker again, "Penny, defined from here as p, is a waitress. She resides in Pasadena, California."

Knowing with complete authority what the next fifteen minutes would be like if his buddy went unchecked, Leonard stood up, flung his arms out, and said, "Enough, Sheldon, I get it."

"But I'm not done."

"I get it, Sheldon. I get it even better than you do. You want to keep Penny a part of your life and you've decided that romantic partner is the role she's best suited for. You want to marry her. I get it."

Sheldon capped the dry-erase marker. "Well, I'm a better teacher than I expected."

Leonard sneered and walked toward his bathroom, where he intended to take a long and wasteful shower. "Not really," he said, and shot over his shoulder, "That's the most unscientific, illogical, irrational, and baseless proof you've ever tried to write. It's total nonsense. Congratulations, Sheldon. I'll loan you some good albums if you need them later. Just ask."

The shut door failed to reopen no matter how long Sheldon glared at it. "Sarcasm is the refuge of the ill-witted and weak-minded!"

There was a faint, distant answer that might have been "Not sarcasm," but also might've been an old Vertical Horizon CD.

It was was almost dinner hour when Penny confronted her would-be fiance, knowing ahead of time from Bernadette's text message that the group had gone for Korean barbecue at a Sheldon-blacklisted restaurant.

"Sheldon. Sheldon. Sheldon." He opened the door, and Penny slid under his arm. She stalked over to her spot and sat down. Mouth open at her audacity, Sheldon sat in his.

"I've reconsidered your proposal." Her voice was quite delicate, almost unrecognizable as the woman he knew. She kept smiling too widely, and she wouldn't look him in the eye. "The answer is still no."

"Have you considered all the advantages?"

"Ooh yeah. Believe me, I got those right away. But there are problems, too. For a big start, you don't love me."

Sheldon felt insulted, though his id was having trouble explaining the reaction to his superego. All he knew was that it mattered to him that Penny believed his sincerity, and clearly she didn't.

"You don't," she continued. "Whether or not I'd even think about marrying you, or whether marrying anyone is what I need..." Penny's voice trailed. She took a deep breath, and widened her mouth again in a kind attempt. "Irregardless, we have start with the fact that you don't love me like a man loves a woman. You don't love me the way I'd want my husband to love me. You wouldn't know how."

He knew it was childish, but he glared at her anyway. "Regardless. And for someone who doesn't give credit to scientific method, you make a great deal of assumptions," he said.

Penny put her hands together and leaned her forehead against her joined fists. "I'm not saying that you don't feel something. I think...maybe you do? And that's amazing." She turned a full smile to him then, genuine this time, bright as a ray. "I'm so proud of you, and I'm flattered."

"Then accept my proposal," Sheldon pressed. The thought of her doing otherwise made his throat inexplicably tight and dry, as if he were having an actual physiological reaction to this conversation.

It didn't matter if Leonard's theory was right or not. The situation had been spiraling out of conceivable bounds, and he'd made his decision. This was supposed to be the part where the Earth spun the other way, just once, for Sheldon Lee Cooper.

"Sheldon," sighed Penny. "I'm going to be honest, because I'm not sure anyone's ever actually explained this part to you. In order for me to marry someone, I gotta believe that I want that person to be my best friend and best lover for the rest of my life. You can't promise me that. Right now, you're going through something big, and you're going through it really unbelievably fast. Enough to make you change your policy on relationships entirely and make you propose to be my husband, when you can't even agree with my choice of kitchen utensils. I get that this is important to you, but it's not enough."

She stopped, and met his eyes in a pleading request. He felt he could offer a commendable list of rebuttals to that speech, but her voice had gone straight through his ears and stopped somewhere in his chest. It lingered uncomfortably there, and Sheldon didn't feel like arguing it down.

"Ask me again in a year," Penny blurted, gnawing her bottom lip.

His whole frame perked up. "Are you implying that you will answer positively if I wait a year?"

"No. In fact, I'll probably still say no." She let slip a smile, and stroked a finger along his cheek to rest lightly under his chin. "But I'm saying it's okay for you to ask. The future is an undiscovered country, right?"

"For how long?" Sheldon persisted. His fingers tugged at each other in his lap, and his knuckles popped. "Is this an indefinite invitation?"

Penny gifted him with a soft petal kiss where her hand had touched, and said, "That's really up to you, Superman."