Sheldon hated many things about Christmas. The practice of gift-giving was enough to drive any sane man mad with frustration, but the horror only began there. Then there were the lights, garish and bright, strung across any surface that would hold them—as if the stress alone couldn't have given him a magnificent headache. Thankfully Leonard had not suggested getting a tree since their first Christmas together, when he, Sheldon, had cut himself on the shards of a broken ornament and subsequently had a panic attack. But still each year there lurked the promise of inane and repetitious Christmas songs, of scented candles, and—worst of all—a movie about a suspiciously animate, possibly pedophiliac snowman.
"'And they're hanging their stockings!' he snarled with a sneer," muttered Sheldon to himself as he lugged his suitcase up the stairs. He had always found the Grinch to be an extremely comforting character around this time of year, especially during his annual visit to Houston, Texas, which was inevitably spent having cookies shoved into his mouth and being retold the story of the Nativity. "Tomorrow is Christmas! It's practically here!"
Not true, thankfully, he thought as he turned his key in the lock. There were still eight days until the twenty-fifth. Leonard, for reasons still bewildering to Sheldon, had agreed to spend Christmas in India with Raj; and now that his Houston pilgrimage was complete, he had no more obligations to fulfill, other than to sit in his spot and watch the new Doctor Who special there was a bird in his apartment, there was a BIRD IN HIS APARTMENT!
Sheldon screeched; suitcase and travel bag went flying. He only had time to catch a glimpse of something winged and moving before he ducked, head buried in his hands. Frantic thoughts of incurable diseases, of SARS, of infected cuts from merciless talons flashed into his mind. He could still hear it flapping about the room, and found himself burrowing against the wall, eyes screwed shut.
So terrified was he that Sheldon didn't even realize there was someone else in the room until he heard the door slam shut, and the sound of heels on the wooden floor. Penny's voice shouted, "Sheldon, are you okay?"
He spluttered, unable to convey the horror of seeing a wild animal in his space. Fortunately, Penny seemed to have comprehended the problem. Sheldon chanced a glance around the room and saw her doing battle with the monster—or, if you prefer it in more prosaic terms, using a magazine to shoo it toward an open window. He looked back at the wall, just to be safe, until he heard the window slam shut.
"Sweetie? It's okay, you can…um, come out now."
Sheldon dared to look around. Penny, Applied Physics Letters clutched tightly in her hand, was looking at him with an expression of bemused concern. She was wearing the traditional Christmas hat of St. Nicholas of Myra, which was now cocked at an awkward angle, and her face was flushed.
"Is it gone?" Sheldon demanded, attempting to pull together some shreds of the dignity befitting a theoretical physicist.
"Yes, sweetie, the big nasty bird is gone." Sheldon glared, not appreciating the mockery, but stood tentatively.
"There was a bird in here," he told her, hoping to impress upon her the gravity of the situation. She shrugged, confused, but still cheerful.
"Yeah, I know. But I chased it out, so there's nothing to worry about!"
Clearly she wasn't getting it. Sheldon shook his head. "No, no, no, Penny—there was a bird in here!"
Sheldon's voice shot ungracefully up an octave as his fervor grew. He ran to the kitchen, rummaging under the sink as he shouted back to her, "A bird! A wild animal! A germ-ridden, disease-bearing, very probably rabid beast running rampant in my apartment for two wee—oh, God…"
He had turned back, arms loaded with Lysol and Magic Wipes and some bottles that looked as though they had prescription labels on them, only to be confronted with a small white-brown dot on the kitchen counter. Only Penny's swift intervention saved every cleaning product known to man from clattering to the floor as Sheldon swayed on the spot.
"K, sweetie, sweetie—" Penny hastily deposited her newly-acquired burden onto the counter, avoiding the bird feces, and took hold of Sheldon's shoulders. This was not a gesture of endearment, but rather a precaution against what looked to be Sheldon's imminent faint. "Why don't you come over to my place for a little while and calm down, okay?" she asked in comforting tone.
Still shell-shocked, Sheldon mumbled, "How is moving from one toxic wasteland to another supposed to help me calm down?", but without his usual acerbic tone. Gently, with skill that would have rivaled a Boy Scout's, Penny helped Sheldon across the hall and onto her couch.
"Here you go," she said, retrieving the phone and holding it out to him. "You can call a cleaning service."
Sheldon stared at it, then at her. "They won't do it right."
Penny blinked down at him. This was a look she had given him a few times before, and while Sheldon still had yet to decipher its exact meaning, the gist of "Stop what it is you're doing" was clear.
"Sheldon," said Penny, head tilting, "I am not cleaning up bird poop in your apartment. You are not cleaning up bird poop in your apartment. So either call someone who will, or be prepared to sleep in the hall for the next two weeks until Leonard gets back."
He looked up at her—no, he glared. Then the left corner of his mouth started twitching. Then his nose. His eyes began to water. His whole face was declaring surrender without his consent.
He grabbed the phone and dialed.
When he had finished, Penny was sitting on the couch next to him, and they were watching some TV drama that Sheldon didn't recognize but thought could have been aptly renamed to Shortlived Drivel without confusing anyone. He turned to Penny.
"They'll be here in an hour," he told her. She nodded absently, attention diverted as the female protagonist of Shortlived Drivel began monologuing.
She turned toward him half-heartedly. "S'up?" she asked. Sheldon shifted his weight to a more comfortable seating position.
"What you did today," he said, "was kind, and very selfless."
He knew she hadn't been expecting to hear this, because her eyebrows shot up. Slowly, a smile broke over her face.
"Oh, don't worry about it, sweetie," she said, waving a hand dismissively in the air.
"I just wanted to be clear that this in no way makes a difference in the value of the obligatory gift you'll be receiving from me."
There was a long pause.
"Merry Christmas, Sheldon."