A/N: Originally posted to the Livejournal community Paradox. Many thanks to d_sieya for her beta and general awesomeness. One line is stolen from the fabulous webcomic, xkcd, and Penny's monologue is from Crave by Sarah Kane. Feedback is, as always, greatly appreciated!
and the reel plays on and on
It used to take more than a mug half full of bad coffee and too-sweet hazelnut creamer to get him out of bed before his required eight hours of sleep, but when she hands it to him and yanks off his comforter, he can't bring himself to protest. She disappears from his half-dark room before he can blink, leaves the door wide open. Sighing, he grimaces around a sip of the coffee, and brings himself to sit up fully.
Out of the narrow twin bed, and down a set of rickety wooden steps, yanking on a plaid jacket, forgoing sneakers, he spots her footprints and follows them out towards the water. He finds her on the edge of the beach, doesn't say anything when he sits down beside her.
The sun is barely cresting over the horizon. Hazelnut creamer coats the back of his throat. It is far too early to be up if Doctor Who is not involved.
He spares her a brief glance that was meant to be a glare, and idly wonders when she acquired such a hold on him.
Here he is, outside on a beach at perhaps a quarter to six in the morning with no explanation and a mug of coffee—honestly, coffee, of all things—and he doesn't mind in the slightest.
He looks at her then, really looks: catalogues every single detail, from the curve of her cheek to the loop of her hair to the way she wraps her arms around her knees and tugs down the sleeves of her absurdly oversized sweatshirt. She squints into the sun, watching it creep up and over the water.
"Have you ever watched a sunrise before?" she asks, and he notices the way she keeps burying her toes into the sand.
"Scientists don't watch the sunrise," he tells her. "They document it. They learn how, and why, it should rise when it does. They calculate its distance from our Earth and the degree of heat it must generate to warm us."
"Do they ever feel anything about it?" She still squints towards the sky, out across the quiet ocean. He shifts in the sand, considering.
There is something about the way the light spreads slowly over everything—a softness that lends a pleasing aesthetic to what might otherwise be a tourist's trite snapshot—but he doesn't understand why such an everyday occurrence should compel any particular emotion within him.
Just as he turns to tell her this, she untwists her hair from its messy ponytail, rakes a hand through it sleepily. It catches the light, warms with it. Shines with it, rather. It's only now that she raises a hand, turns her head away from the increasing brightness.
She's so close now that he could probably diagram the barely visible freckles on her nose, if he wanted to.
"Sheldon?" she prompts, bumping his shoulder with hers most alarmingly. "Did you hear me?"
"Did I—I apologize, Penny. Did I hear what?"
"Do scientists ever feel anything about the sunrise? Or is it just another thing to make notations about?"
He tilts his head, takes her in. He has never been one to appreciate physical beauty; more often than not, the only thing that moves him is a particularly complex formula.
When did her freckles become another formula to diagram? When did something as ridiculous as sunlight reflecting off of her un-brushed hair make his stomach twist—when—?
"Yes," he says, and when he reaches out a hand towards her, it's trembling. "Yes, I believe they do."
The first time he notices it, she's crying in the stairwell.
"Penny—oh." He stops, unsure of what to do, arms full of his laundry basket. It is Saturday night, after all.
Penny is curled sideways against the wall, her face in her hands, shoulders trembling. It's all very quiet, Sheldon thinks, a bit dazed. Much quieter than he would have expected.
"Penny?" he repeats, softer this time. She doesn't say anything, just curls in more tightly upon herself. Envelopes and magazines are scattered around her, most of them on the stairs below. Without really knowing why, Sheldon sets down the laundry basket and collects her mail, stacking it neatly, with the envelopes from smallest to largest on top of the magazines. Penny is still crying, and she seems so small, just then. She's seemed a lot of things to Sheldon in the past (loudinconsiderateinsufferableheadstrongabsurd)but small has never been one of them.
Carefully, he sits down beside her, considering how best to handle this. Weeping females have never been his strong suit. Actually, females in any sort of mood have never been his strong suit, but this is Penny, and she's different, and he knows that socially, something more is expected of him than just handing over her mail and bidding her good night. Perhaps he should pat her shoulder? Comfortingly, of course?
But how does one convey comfort through a shoulder pat, precisely?
"Penny," he tries again, staring down at the magazine titles on his lap. Vogue. Elle. Cosmopolitan.They all look the same. "I—I have your mail." If anything, this seems to upset her further. She makes a noise Sheldon can only classify as distressed, fists her hands in her hair, and burrows further into herself.
"Penny!" Despite himself, Sheldon's voice rises. Now even further concerned, he sets her mail on top of his laundry and moves a bit closer, tentatively reaching out a hand for her shoulder. "There, there." His fingertips brush her skin, and suddenly, it's as though the wind has been knocked out of him. For half a second, he wonders if this is what dying feels like—and then, in a dizzying flash, his breath comes too fast, and his heart clenches (if that's possible, which he knows it's physiologically not), and everything seems out of focus. Her shoulder is warm beneath his palm.
Penny finally turns, but instead of telling him to get away (like Sheldon practically expects), she collapses into him, burying her face in his chest with a gasping sob. He freezes, heart still pounding wildly, at an absolute loss.
"Just hold me, okay?" Penny hiccups into the fabric of his Green Lantern t-shirt. "Please, okay? I just need a hug, Sheldon, just one hug, and I promise I'll stop messing up your shirt and ruining your schedule and oh, God—"
"Penny," Sheldon says firmly, stiffly wrapping one arm around her. "Please refrain from speaking and continue crying, if you should need to. I promise not to go anywhere until you've contained yourself." She leans into him, and he tightens his arm, wondering why he isn't even the tiniest bit perturbed that laundry night is practically ticking away.
They sit that way for perhaps fifteen minutes, until Penny's shoulders stop heaving, and her breathing evens out, and Sheldon has become accustomed to the way her hair smells at such close proximity (flowery, a bit like jasmine).
"Thank you, Sheldon," she says quietly, shifting so that she can look up at him. "Sorry about that."
"Is it Leonard?" he blurts, before he can think to not. Penny closes her eyes for a moment, face crumpling.
"Yes," she says, letting out a shaky breath. "Not the break-up or anything. It's just—we had a fight. He told me that he can't be friends with someone who uses people. That I lied to him throughout our entire relationship and that I should never have gone out with him in the first place or stayed with him or given him false hope and—well, Sheldon, I'm a heartbreaking bitch, it seems. A bitch that finally found a nice guy and then just threw him away, like a used iPod Shuffle or something."
"That is hardly what you are," Sheldon says, frowning down at her. "You and Leonard just weren't particularly compatible. From what I have observed, you want different things. He shouldn't fault you for that—it is clear, even to me, that your affection for him is genuine. Perhaps not as strong as his for you, but very much present."
Penny studies Sheldon, head tilted, an odd look on her face.
"I'm merely presenting my conclusion," he says, meeting her gaze. "I'm quite thorough in my research; my hypotheses are always sound, and my conclusions are unfailingly accurate. Leonard's, however, are often hastily obtained and skewed by personal bias."
"Is that your nerdy way of telling me Leonard's being a dick and I shouldn't take what he says to heart?"
"I suppose it is," Sheldon concedes. "You shouldn't worry too much about him. I believe he'll recover faster than he thinks, and thus discontinue any, to borrow your term, dick-like behavior shortly." Penny laughs, pressing a hand to her forehead.
"That's comforting." She pushes away from Sheldon, and he lets his arm fall from her shoulders. "I'm sorry for getting your shirt all wet."
"Providentially," he says, leaning over to retrieve her mail, "it is laundry night."
"You would sort this by size, wouldn't you?" Penny laughs again, accepts the mail. "Oh, man. I haven't cried like that in a really long time. It just sort of came over me, you know? Like a tidal wave of awful awfulness." Sheldon picks up his laundry basket, stares down at the clothes.
"I hope your discomfort is short-lived," he offers.
"You're a good friend, Sheldon," Penny says, smiling up at him in a way that might make lesser men's knees weaken (certainly not his, for that cliché is preposterous both in theory and practice)."I really do appreciate it."
"I am glad to be counted amongst your friends," he says, eyes fixed back on his laundry. "If you should need someone to talk to—well, I am hardly anybody's first choice for a shoulder to cry on, as it were; I possess neither the patience nor facsimile empathy required for such banal interactions. However, as long as this wouldn't disrupt my work schedule (well, at least not terribly much, I suppose, since I doubt you have control over your more primitive urges; your frequent coitus—oh, pardon me—that is to say, intercourse with Leonard is certainly testament to that), I could…make an exception. This is providing, of course, that you respect the boundary of my bedroom—well, unless the need for a tête-à-tête should arise past eleven P.M.—perhaps I should draw up a contract? It seems there might be a few more provisions than I had previously anticipated." He glances back up at her, and much to his surprise, her eyes are brimming with tears again. "Oh. I hadn't meant to cause you further distress. You could just talk to Wolowitz, I suppose, if you find tasteless double-entendres in six different languages placating. Or Koothrappali. I'm told he's a very good listener."
It shouldn't catch him off guard when Penny hugs him so fiercely that his laundry basket (and its contents) go soaring in every direction, but it does. He's hugged—and been hugged—by her before, but this is different. This is not a pretty girl's polite apology or a crazed fan's overjoyed thank you or even a desperate attempt to visit a certain Large Hadron Collider.
This is something that cannot be quantified, meticulously labeled, or graphed.
It's just Penny with her arms around Sheldon, her face pressed into his chest once more, and Sheldon, finding that he doesn't mind the way his breath keeps hitching the tiniest bit.
When she finally lets go of him, Penny looks up at Sheldon very seriously and says,
"Just tell me where to sign."
They gather up his clothes and head down to the laundry room. Sheldon laments the state of the dryer lint and Penny tosses a batch of his underwear in with the socks (devil woman, mistress of entropy, absolutely no regard for hygiene, direction, or plain reason).
He doesn't find it difficult to look away from her when she laughs brightly at his outrage, no trace of tears, not even a hint of smallness. He doesn't linger in the hallway between their apartments nearly two hours later, arguing with her over LOLcats and the merits of . He certainly doesn't avoid meeting the accusing gaze of a sulking Leonard when he finally opens the apartment door, chalks up his rather irrational and overpowering irritation with his roommate to exhaustion (and Leonard's incessant blaring of My Chemical Romance).
When Sheldon finishes folding his laundry and slides into bed, he does not think about Penny or wonder if her tears have returned afresh without him present or replay the way her face crumpled or recall the smell of her hair or dream about her warm, easy laughter as she threatened to turn an entire bottle of Tide upside down on his whites.
Dr. Sheldon Cooper, PhD, does not dream that night at all.
"I will not wear this."
"Penny, if this is your idea of a bazinga, allow me to be the first to inform you: yer doin' it wrong."
"I refuse to be seen in public. I am a doctor,Penny. A scientist. An intellectual. A man of distinction. I will not—cannot be seen wearing this…this—"
"Would you please stoprepeating my name?"
"You walk around dressed up like an overgrown child 99.9 percent of the time. You attend important, science-y functions in plaid suits. You go to Trader Joe's in your Star Fleet uniform whenever the mood strikes. So, for the last time, come out of the goddamn dressing room before I kick the door in."
"Oh, for the love of—very well."
Sheldon shoots one last uncomfortable glance in the general direction of the mirror, and edges out of the Macy's dressing room warily. This is far too reminiscent of the ill-fated suit shopping from months ago; understandably, Sheldon has concluded nothing good can come of this woman's taste in fashion.
Penny is leaning against the wall across from him, arms folded across her chest, eyebrows raised.
"Um. Wow," she says, pushing forward from the cheap plaster and moving towards him. "Blue is definitely your color." She reaches up to straighten his collar, and Sheldon squirms away.
"This outfit you've unwisely chosen makes me look—"
"Hot," Penny cuts in, deadpan. "Damn, Sheldon."
"I do not appreciate your objectification, Penny," Sheldon says, cheeks warming uncomfortably as he shuffles still further away. "You're being facetious."
"Facetious? Oh, sweetie. No." Penny frowns, reaching out to catch Sheldon's arm. "I'm serious! This is a good look for you." Sheldon blinks.
"You know the definition of facetious?" he asks, intrigued. Penny snorts.
"Occasionally I Google one of your crazy vocab words," she tells him. "Just in case there's, you know, a test or something."
"Impressive. I was not aware you used the Internet for anything but updating your Facebook status about the intricate plot development on Grey's Anatomy and snarking at Wolowitz on Twitter, both of which you seem to do with little to no regard for the English language."
Penny emits some sort of guttural sound. Before Sheldon can advise her to see a pulmonologist to check for emphysema, she seizes his elbow and drags him towards the three-way mirror at the other end of the dressing rooms.
"Sheldon," Penny says through gritted teeth, grabbing his other elbow and holding him firmly in place, "would you please stop condescending to me for like two seconds and look at yourself?"
Frowning, Sheldon glances at himself in the mirror, attempts to conceive of a world where anyone would find the garments Penny has forced him into attractive. The deep blue button-down shirt is rolled up at the sleeves, and looks absolutely ridiculous coupled with the dark-wash jeans she's insisted he try. They sling far too low on his hips.
The boots—well, he won't even get into his feelings on boots. That might take hours of disgusted, introspective reverie, and if the way Penny's fingers are tapping impatiently on the insides of his forearms is any indication, Sheldon doesn't have that kind of time.
"This is not who I am," he says, nodding at his reflection. The man in the mirror looks nothing like Dr. Sheldon Cooper, PhD. The man in the mirror looks—he looks…
He looks something akin to what society would construe normal.
Sheldon looks away, irritated.
"That is not who I am," he repeats, and he's embarrassed at the way his voice pitches up.
Penny's grip slides from his arms. He finds himself missing the drumming of her slim fingers.
"I know, Sheldon," she says quietly. "I just wanted you to see what I see. Just for a minute." He does not look back up, too embarrassed that he's lost his footing, become the one to patronize. Penny is the only one who unravels him this frequently and effortlessly.
"If most people saw me dressed in such a manner," Sheldon says, with certainty, "they would find it amusing. There would be mocking."
When Penny doesn't respond, he risks glancing at her in the mirror. She meets his gaze steadily, and leans towards him.
"Do you see me laughing?" she asks, breath hot against the back of his neck. Her hand is warm against his forearm.
"You are hardly most people, Penny," he responds.
She moves in front of him, suddenly, blocking his reflection. Sheldon resists the urge to backpedal wildly. She is far, far too close.
"Sheldon, you could walk down the street dressed like this or like Spock, and you'd still turn heads. This isn't about changing you into something you're not. It's just a different way of looking at things." Penny takes a breath, tugs at the end of Sheldon's sleeves. "You may be a genius, Dr. Cooper, but you still got a lot to learn."
He blinks down at her, taking in her bright green eyes, the determined set of her jaw. Her blonde curls are piled on top of her head, and he resists the urge to tuck a stray one behind her ear, smooth it back to where it belongs. Penny is all about mayhem, brashness, mess—continually disturbing the natural ebb and flow of his life. Sheldon spends half his time trying to find order in her chaos.
"Still have," he says under his breath.
"What was that, sweetie?"
"I still have a lot to learn," he informs her, meeting her steady gaze. "Though I'm not the only one, it would appear."
She shoves him backwards, laughing brightly.
"Go put your stupid Superman shirt on," she orders. "Honestly, we came to the mall so I could drown my break-up sorrows in shoes, not so you could lecture me on grammar."
Sheldon ducks into his dressing room, begins to unbutton the shirt.
"I seem to remember you promising me a trip to the comic book store for my suffering," he reminds her, concerned she may have forgotten her end of the deal already. It wouldn't be the first time. "And didn't you just drown half of your paycheck in tiny t-shirts from that awful, perfume-drenched hellhole upstairs?"
"Hey," Penny says testily, and he can hear her the rustle of her boy-bedecked shopping bag, "these are adorable!"
"It seems rather frivolous to waste nearly eighty-five dollars on t-shirts," Sheldon lectures, straightening out the blue button-down on its hanger. "Especially when one is basing the purchase on a factor as subjective as adorability."
"Sheldon, let me be clear: everyone will think I look cute." More rustling.
"Doubtful," Sheldon calls, buttoning his khakis. "This, of course, has less to do with your physical attractiveness (which even I must concede is above average) and more to do with my physiological reaction to said physical attractiveness. As I believe we've discussed, I have control over my more primitive—"
The door to the dressing room bangs open, even though Sheldon is at least ninety-seven percent sure he latched it.
Penny stands before him in one of her new shirts, a dark green one that clings to her curves.
It's not the first time he's seen her wearing something of this nature, but in this small space, with Penny so close, and that shirt so—Sheldon cannot help it: he swallows.
"That's what I thought," Penny says smugly, offering him a coy grin. "Dr. Sheldon Cooper, PhD, is speechless."
"It would take a great deal more than a t-shirt, however low-cut, to render me speechless," he assures her. "You are an attractive woman, Penny. That is neither revolutionary nor worthy of much attention. It does not impress me."
Rather than being offended, Penny laughs some more.
"See, that's what I like about you, Sheldon," she says. "Anybody else would be full of shit."
Penny pats his shoulder kindly and turns to saunter away. Sheldon chooses not to mention that she really does look quite nice in green.
When sleep becomes evasive, Sheldon writes.
More accurately, he catalogues and records and postulates, the clacking of computer keys apparently directly wired to the pulsing behind his temples. Occasionally, he turns to his white board, but merely stands, uncapped blue marker in hand, staring at the unforgiving blankness. In time, he always returns to the laptop, unable to produce an exact formula for the matter at hand.
This nighttime research is not, he assures himself, inane. Hardly. It may be unrelated to string theory, physics, and completely un-publishable, but if nothing else, he can trace it back to science.
Cold, hard science, full of numbers and facts and irrefutable evidence, balanced with the comforting certainty of equations and research and hypotheses. It is familiar to him: the calculating, the systematic logging of data.
Penny. The shine of Penny's hair. The parabola that is Penny's smile. The weight of Penny's hand on the crook of his elbow. The way Penny laughs, loud and Midwestern and bold. The hitch of Penny's breath when she sobbed into his chest. The easy way Penny monopolizes his time, his energy, his very thoughts. The disarming lack of Penny as he sits here alone in the middle of the night, trying to understand why it is that the slightest memory of Penny leaves him restless, awake, exhausted. The mess that Penny has made of what was once Sheldon's neatly labeled, organized life. Penny, Penny, Penny, Penny.
The more he writes her name, the harder it is for him to sleep.
Four nights of this in a row, and not a single solid formula, conclusion, or diagram to show for his efforts.
Frustrated, he settles for pacing the apartment, hands fisted in the pockets of his robe, jaw clenched.
Sheldon Cooper's normal approach is useless here.
Penny bursts into the apartment exactly the way she used to—no tentative triple knock on the door to make sure Leonard is gone, no apologetic wince as she sidles into the kitchen, head ducked low. No, instead, she stumbles in front of the TV, seconds before Howard and Leonard finish what would have been their winning battle. For a moment, it feels like old times.
Sheldon drops the Xbox controller when he sees the look on Penny's face. This is a Penny he hasn't seen before—a Penny he cannot label. She's beaming. Few people can actually beam with such sincerity, but Penny, apparently, is one of them. Sheldon has seen her grin and laugh and smile outright, but this overwhelming sense of delirious joy seems so foreign on her. Perhaps even more perplexingly, there are tears brimming in her eyes. Her hands are visibly trembling. The oversized Nike t-shirt hangs almost to her knees, and this is the first time in months Sheldon has seen her without a single speck of make-up on; she's been so careful since she and Leonard stopped having intercourse—never a hair out of place, never anything less than composed (unless she's alone in a stairwell).
As if on cue, Leonard says,
Sheldon would like to make some sort of scathing observation about Penny's utter lack of regard for the wellbeing and order of his schedule, but when he opens his mouth, nothing comes out. From the other end of the couch, Howard and Raj just stare, blatantly. It's the first time they've all been in the same room since before what Howard has taken to calling "Leonard's Ginormous Fuck-Up 2.0." Sheldon can only assume this colorful, albeit entirely accurate, title refers to the screaming match Leonard and Penny had shortly after they had agreed they could be friends—it occurred a week after the Disneyland trip, and consequently resulted in Penny crying in the stairwell, a lack of Penny in all group activities, and a sudden increase in the morning milk supply.
Understandably, things are just the tiniest bit awkward.
"I got it," Penny whispers, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "You guys, I got it!"
Resounding silence. Leonard cocks his head, squinting as though he's never seen anything like her before in his life. Sheldon briefly considers saying something (anything) again.
"Um," Howard says, seconds before Raj swoops down to whisper in his ear. "Yeah, okay, I was just about to—ANYWAY. Is it safe to ask what, exactly, you got? Hopefully nothing contagious?"
"The part!" Penny bellows, smile never wavering. "I GOT THE MOTHERFUCKING PART!" She hops from one foot to the other, hands fisted, tears on the verge of spilling over.
"Um," Howard repeats. "That's...good?" Raj nods enthusiastically, eyes wide. Leonard is still squinting. Sheldon just watches her face.
"No, Howard," Penny breathes, eyes closed, shaking her head. "No. It is not good. It is what I've been waiting for. It makes years of audition after audition without a single callback and waiting tables for ungrateful assholes who don't know how to leave a tip and never making rent on time worth it. It makes stuffing everything I own into a piece of shit car and believing I could actually make something of myself, even when everyone laughed in my face, worth it. It makes this—all of it, you guys—worth it." Sheldon hardly dares breathe for a moment. This woman is full of brightness, full of confidence and optimism and passion. The look on her face mirrors the look on Sheldon's own when he untangles a formula.
This is who she is, he realizes, surprised it's taken him three years to fully comprehend. Acting—it's her theoretical physics.
Sheldon has spent so much time pitying Penny for having no purpose, no driving force or education, no surety of anything but her physical attributes. He'd briefly wondered how someone could perform menial labor daily for unbearably long stretches of time, barely be able to afford basic living expenses, and maintain any sense of self-respect. Sheldon understood, now; he saw it. Penny had been stuck. Perhaps she had been stuck a great deal longer than Sheldon ever had, but she had been stuck, and what he and the others were now witnessing: this was her eureka moment. That quiet, unassuming little moment where everything clicked, and suddenly, one simply knew.
Surely, no one has ever worn their eureka moment quite so radiantly. Not even Sheldon himself.
Unexpectedly, she giggles, still hopping from foot to foot, and then she's just Penny again, babbling happily as the moment begins to break. "Oh God, they called me five minutes ago or whatever and told me and I just—I studied the stupid monologue I had to memorize forever, and it's intense, you know? Serious theatre intense! It's not a TV show or anything; it's like, hardcore art, and I almost don't care that it's not all Hollywood or anything because I'm the lead—the frickin' lead in this serious, beautiful show. They wanted me! Blonde, bubbly, too-young-too-trashy-too-cornbread-too-busty-too-commercial me." She pauses, inhales. "And I just…I realized it was Halo Night. So I figured that I'd—I'd, um. I'd stop by." Uncertainly, Penny clears her throat as she glances around the ever-silent room. "If that's okay. I mean, I know it's not a Nobel Prize or whatever, but I just wanted to share it with you guys, and—"
Penny breaks off as Leonard gets to his feet, takes two long steps, and hugs her tightly. It seems genuine, this hug. Sheldon can't detect even a hint of passive aggressive desperation in the way Leonard wraps his arms around her, buries his face in her shoulder.
"I'm happy for you, Penny," Leonard says, voice a bit muffled. "Really happy. I've missed you, too, you know."
They break apart, and Howard asks if he can get in on the action. Penny rolls her eyes, but she doesn't stop grinning when she grudgingly complies. Even Raj edges over to offer his own tentative embrace before hastily whispering in Howard's ear.
"Front row tickets," Howard translates, smarmy smile a bit more genuine now. "We need them."
Sheldon sits in his spot, watching this, and he knows that really, he should at least shake her hand. Congratulate her. They're all looking at him, now; his contribution is not only expected, but required. All of this seems to be leaving him rather embarrassingly speechless, so he tries to focus only on what will keep Penny happy, keep her smiling as though she's about to burst.
When Sheldon has a eureka moment, he likes to show off. He likes to show people the formula or the brand new theory, and perhaps bask a bit in the glory of his own success. After all, he's the one that's done all the hard work. Why shouldn't he enjoy his moment—every last second of it?
So instead of trying to hug Penny or something equally uncomfortable, Sheldon merely asks,
"Would you care to perform your monologue for us?" When she merely blinks at him, he adds, "The one that got you this part? It occurs to me that I have never seen you in your element."
"Oh." Penny's cheeks flush a little. It is rare, seeing her embarrassed. "Well, I'm—you know, I'm not really dressed, or like, prepared or anythi—"
"That is inconsequential," Sheldon cuts in, folding his arms. "I wish to see your monologue."
"Yeah!" Leonard agrees, returning to his chair. "I mean, you just landed a starring role in some artsy, big-time show. You have to get used to performing on command for when your legions of adoring fans show up."
"Out of purely scientific curiosity," Howard pipes up, "will there be nudity?" Raj shoves him into the arm of the sofa, sighing wearily.
"I can't believe you guys are serious," Penny says, cheeks still a bit rosy. "But okay. If you really want."
"I believe it's common for actors to do a slate before their monologue?" Sheldon prompts expectantly.
"Are you for real, Sheldon?" Penny appears more amused than annoyed. "How do you know about that?"
"I know about everything," Sheldon says mildly. "Really, Penny, I expected better from you."
"All right, fine." Penny takes a breath, closing her eyes. "I'm Penny. This is an abridged monologue from Sarah Kane's one-act play, Crave."
"A bit too personable and unprofessional," Sheldon offers, though in hushed tones, so as not to disturb Penny as she gets into character. Raj kicks him, and Leonard makes his You're-Not-Helping-Things face. Sheldon bites his lip, swinging his focus back to the approaching performance.
When Penny opens her eyes, Sheldon can see a stage. It's something that catches him off guard, almost unnerves him. He can see Penny in a spotlight on a darkened stage in an empty auditorium, and there is such loneliness in her, suddenly. He doesn't understand how she can do that.
"And I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes and sit on the steps while you take a bath and massage your neck and kiss your feet and hold your hand and go for a meal," she says, quietly. Tenderly. "And not mind when you eat my food and meet you at Rudy's and talk about the day and type your letters and carry your boxes and laugh at your—your paranoia." She laughs, then, and in this moment, Penny meets Sheldon's eyes—or perhaps, it's not Penny who looks at him, perhaps it is just the character. All Sheldon knows is that something in his throat catches.
"And I want to give you tapes you don't listen to and watch great films—watch terrible films—and complain about the radio and take pictures of you when you're sleeping and get up to fetch you coffee and bagels and Danish and go to Florent and drink coffee at midnight and have you steal my cigarettes and never be able to find a match and tell you about the program I saw the night before and take you to the eye hospital and not laugh at your jokes and want you in the morning but let you sleep for a while and kiss your back and stroke your skin and tell you how much I love your hair your eyes your lips your neck your ass your and sit on the steps smoking till your neighbor comes home and sit on the steps smoking till you come home and worry when you're late and be amazed when you're early and give you sunflowers and go to your party and be sorry when I'm wrong and happy when you forgive me and look at your photos and wish I'd known you forever and hear your voice in my ear and feel your skin on my skin and get scared when you're angry and your eye has gone red and the other eye blue and your hair to the left and tell you you're gorgeous and hug you when you're anxious and hold you when you hurt and want you when I smell you and offend you when I touch you and whimper when I'm next to you and whimper when I'm not."
Penny's voice cracks. She breathes in, face twisting.
"And wonder why you don't believe me and have a feeling so deep I can't find words for it and wander the city thinking it's empty without you and want what you want and want to buy you a kitten I'd get jealous of because it would get more attention than me and keep you in bed when you have to go and cry like a baby when you finally do and try to be honest because I know you prefer it and think it's all over but hang on in for just ten more minutes before you throw me out of your life and forget who I am and try to get closer to you because it's beautiful, learning to know you, and well worth the effort and speak German to you badly and Hebrew to you worse and make love with you at three in the morning and somehow somehow somehow communicate some of the overwhelming undying overpowering unconditional all-encompassing heart-enriching mind-expanding on-going never-ending love...I have for you."
Penny does not waver, does not break this final, hushed bit of her eureka moment. Her face is so vibrant; it seems to illuminate everything around her. Everyone, even Howard, struggles to find breath.
It's not so much the words. It's the delivery. It's the little enunciations, the cadence of her voice, the emotion that struggles behind each repetition. It's everything. It's Penny, but it's not Penny. It's rote memory, but it's truth, of a kind. Sheldon has never been particularly adept at understanding human emotions, but this, even he grasps on some level.
And Penny has never been more beautiful than she is at this very second.
Raj starts clapping first. Leonard gets to his feet as Howard wolf-whistles, and Sheldon—
Sheldon cannot speak.
When they came to Charleston, it was about vacation. It was about salty, healing air, and the anticipation of goodbye before Penny went on national tour. It was Raj's desperate longing to meet a fabled southern belle and Howard's chance to take Bernadette somewhere a little worldlier than the Cheesecake Factory and Leonard's opportunity to unwind a bit. It was about Penny missing humidity, and Sheldon caving in to her pleas for him to come along, with the agreement that she had to take him to the comic book store at any given hour of the day without any complaints for the foreseeable future. It was about friendship, but more than that, it was about all of them, and the chance to rent a cheap house right on the beach without shelling out thousands of dollars per night.
Somewhere along the way for Sheldon, it becomes about more.
When he and Penny walk on the beach with Raj, or when they play cards with Leonard, or when Penny talks to Sheldon about how afraid she is to mess up her tour or whenever he remembers Penny's eureka moment or any of the performances he's attended—that's when he wishes they could remain forever in South Carolina, even though there's no schedule and he complains that Penny refuses to adhere to breakfast days or Halo Night. He just can't bear the thought of her gone for four months. Can't imagine a life that does not include Penny, or some shred of her.
There was a time when Sheldon preferred solitude, even strove to find it wherever he went.
It is troubling to realize that those times are over. Penny has seen to that.
At each late night bonfire, he sits beside her and listens to her stories about growing-up poor in Nebraska. When she talks, she plays with her hair, digs her toes in the sand. Howard complains about his mother. Bernadette complains about Howard. Leonard tells surprisingly funny stories about learning how to play the cello. Raj is coaxed, after a few sips of warm beer, to talk about India.
Sheldon doesn't talk about much except physics. Penny doesn't follow, but she listens, anyway.
When the hours stretch long, nobody says much of anything. The others stare up at the sky, study the constellations, swat at mosquitoes.
Sheldon surreptitiously studies Penny, and wonders.
Sheldon kisses Penny with one hand in her hair, and the other on her waist. It was never planned.
She was never planned.
Their foreheads brush, the sand grits beneath them, and it's terrifying to consider the amount of germs Sheldon is coming into contact with, even as his heart races and his stomach twists and Penny kisses him back.
He pulls away, struggling to catch his breath, and Penny whispers,
"Okay, that was so not the reason I made you come out here with me."
Sheldon can't meet her gaze, can't believe that he has just done something so biologically rooted, something so…impulsive. He's afraid to even speak.
"Honey," Penny prompts, her hand soft on his cheek. "Just look at me, okay?"
When he does, it all seems to rush over him at once. The wanting, the confusion, the understanding, the everything. He leans forward into the sunlight, into her, struggling for the right words, the right way.
For the first time since this all began, Sheldon understands: there's no question of why or when, because he's untangled everything, everything from the beginning, and the answer is you cannot measure or account for love, and especially not for Penny.
"It's beautiful, learning to know you," he says.
Penny beams, green eyes bright. Sheldon presses closer, catalogues every last detail, just in case he wants to replay this later.
Just in case he needs to.