The Romantic Retreat
"What are you doing here?"
Penny had stopped dead in her tracks so suddenly the plates in her hands almost slid from her grasp.
The man who had almost cost her the price of twenty plates from her pay cheque that week looked up from his menu. "Good evening, Penny," said Sheldon, oblivious to her astonishment. "Why, should I not sit here? Is this table reserved?"
"But it's Monday. We don't do reservations. And you definitely don't come here on a Monday." Penny looked around over the sea of other Cheesecake Factory customers, searching for a sign of Leonard at the Salad Station or of Howard trying his newest internet-searched chat-up lines on some unfortunate woman. "Where are the others?"
"What others?" Sheldon asked, also looking around to find what Penny was looking for, but finding nothing out of the ordinary looked back to his laminated menu. "I always dine here on Tuesdays. Now then," he said in a more commanding tone that drew Penny's attention back to him and holding out the menu he hadn't needed to study. "I'll have my usual double bacon cheese burger with low fat cheese, diced onions not rings, mild salsa not ketchup and lightly toasted buns, not the measly warmed bread the other waitresses serve me. Don't think I don't know that Mindy the Other Waitress only puts them through the toaster once."
Penny rearranged the plates into one hand and took the menu from him. "But you don't come here on Mondays," she repeated dumbly. To see Sheldon suddenly alter his rigorously followed dining habits was... well there was no other word for it... It was terrifying.
"That's correct, I don't dine here on Mondays. But I do on Tuesdays," Sheldon explained to her slowly. He paused for a moment, then drew a breath to repeated his order. "I'll have my usual double bacon cheese burger with low fat…"
"I know what you want, Sheldon, you've ordered the same meal every week for like three years," she snapped, waving the laminated card at him. "But I've never served you on a Monday, so what in the hell are you doing here?"
"For the final time this evening, today is a Tuesday," Sheldon insisted, his cheeks and the top of his ears turning a pale shade of red.
"Nu-uh," she insisted back.
With a roll of his eyes Sheldon slid his iPhone from his pocket, pressed a few buttons and turned the display to her. There was the calendar, with today's date picked out with bold black lines, indicating clearly that today was indeed Tuesday, February 13th.
Transfixed to the screen, Penny stood in perfect motionless horror for a second. Then her eyes widened. "Holy crap!" she shrieked, so loudly the whole restaurant quietened for a few seconds, and she dropped the plates onto Sheldon's table and dashed into the kitchen with most of the restaurant watching her in some alarm.
She was gone for quite a few minutes, during which time Penny's forgotten plates were removed by a silent and angular-looking teenage busboy, when finally she returned to Sheldon's table with his order and a look of failure about her.
"Here," she said rather aggressively, setting the plate in front of Sheldon so it banged against the table. "I can't believe I did that," she added under her breath to herself.
"Well, you chose to be a waitress here Penny, and part of the criteria is to serve paying customers food, so I don't know why you are so surprised."
"No, not that," she said exasperated, gesturing to the steaming plate. "I mean I can't believe I got the days mixed up! I thought today was Monday, and I agreed to cover a shift tomorrow, thinking it was Tuesday, but actually agreeing to work Wednesday which is Valentine's Day."
"Oh dear," Sheldon sympathized, unfolding his napkin and tucking a corner into his the neck of his T-Shirt. "Did you have plans to commemorate the Roman holiday of the martyrdom of Saint Valentine?"
"If you mean 'Did I have a date for Valentine's Day?', then yes I did." Penny pulled out the chair opposite Sheldon and folded into it defeated. "But now I can't because I'm working 'til like 11 and I doubt Jarred would want to go out after then."
Between inspecting his meal sceptically and drawing a handkerchief to polish his cutlery with, Sheldon flashed Penny an unseen look. "It should not matter to Jarred if you are working late or not," he said distantly as he held the fork up the light to check for any marks. "Can't you ask your gentleman friend if he could take you out after work?"
Little enthusiasm was stirred by this suggestion, but Penny looked more thoughtful. "I suppose…."
"Good, good," said Sheldon cheerily. "Now that's all agreed, I'm going to have to ask that you to take this meal back."
"Why? Look, I promise no one's touched it since it left the chefs hands."
"It's not that," he said, pushing his plate across the plastic table cloth toward her. "I had ordered was my usual double bacon cheese burger with low fat cheese. What you have brought me, in your devil-may-care haste, is a black forest gateaux."
The following morning, clad in pink and grey sweats, Penny returned to the building from her morning jog with the dangerous combination of resentment and adrenaline coursing through her veins. She stamped loudly and deliberately up the stairs, imaging Jarred's face on each step. Reaching her floor she blazed across the hallway and was pulling her key out from under the door mat when the apartment door opposite opened.
"Good morning, Penny," Sheldon said all too brightly, like a beam of sunlight shining all over Penny's raincloud.
He hovered in front of his door a moment, looking at Penny – sweaty, hot-faced, messily pushed back hair – and then the staircase. "Well, goodbye," he said, turning and heading for the staircase.
"Don't you want to know what happened with Jarred?"
Sheldon stopped on the top step and slowly turned on the spot. "No, but I suppose that won't prevent you from telling me anyway."
"He's going out tonight," she said with a furious smile. With her hair wild and her face still red and clammy from the jog she looked savage, dangerous. "But he's not going out with me, is he?" She kicked her own door frustrated, the sound of the shuddering wood reverberated around the hall amplifying Penny's anger. "I called Jarred during work, and in the time between me calling him to say I had to work that night and the thirty minutes when I called back to ask if we could do something after work instead, he had found someone else to share this stupid commercialized holiday instead - Mindy."
"I'm sorry to hear that," said Sheldon, so sincerely sorry for her (and a little scared of her appearance) that he didn't even correct her misconception that Valentine's Day was a holiday. Penny gave a faint but grateful smile, but then shook her head.
"Thirty minutes," she muttered to herself, and gave the door a smaller, pitiful kick.
"I'm going to collect my mail," announced Sheldon. "I assume since you've returned from the first floor you've already checked your mailbox and so you don't require me to fetch yours as well?"
"Thank, but I've checked and I got nothing," sighed Penny, slipping the key into the lock and turning it. "No cards, no roses, no anything. God, all I wanted was to have a nice evening out, get wined and dined by a nice guy. Instead I get to spend this evening at work, glaring at other couples as I get to serve them their nice Valentine's meals." Penny grimaced at the thought of it, then looked back over at Sheldon. "See you later, sweetie," she smiled weakly, and let herself into her apartment to have a shower before going to work.
The door clicked closed, leaving Sheldon in the corridor, revisiting everything Penny had just said. "Yes," he said out loud to himself, the tiniest trickle of an idea creeping into his clever mind and growing larger and larger. "Yes, I believe you shall."
With a 'ching!' the cash register draw flew open. The sound of the tray whooshing out and the coins rattling in the till covered Penny's drawn out sigh. She cashed in her last table, on which she had served a gooey eyed couple who only had eyes for each other, which was just as well; if they'd seen Penny's jealous and scathing looks then perhaps their tip would have been even smaller.
Just as Penny was considering how she best to spend her Valentine's Day alone in her apartment, knowing only at this point it would somehow involve a Gossip Girl marathon and that tub of full-fat ice cream she'd stashed in the bottom of her freezer, a familiar voice suddenly sprang from out of nowhere. "Pssst!"
Penny looked about in surprise and after a few moments spotted the source of the disturbance. Hiding behind a tall potted plant, Sheldon, wearing a blue shirt and a white apron, neither of which helping him to blend in with the foliage, was beckoning enthusiastically to her.
Penny sidled up to the plant. "What the hell are you doing?" she whispered back, looking round to see if anyone else had seen him wrestling with the tree.
"Snuck in the side entrance," he said, and then with disbelief, "Can you believe they haven't bothered to change the entry code since I worked here last year? Come with me."
"Where? And why?"
"Just follow me," he whispered. "It's a surprise."
"I'm supposed to be working, it's the whole reason I'm not going out tonight in the first place," she hissed, though duly following Sheldon as he slinked into the back corridors anyway.
"No matter, while I was passing through the kitchen I altered the rota so you're on break now. Ah, here we are." They had come to a halt outside a store cupboard around the back of the kitchen.
"What? What is it you expect me to see?"
Sheldon held out a finger, then pulled out a key from his apron which fitted the lock (how he got the key she didn't know). It opened with a creek and Sheldon ushered her in.
Penny could not believe what lay awaiting her.
The tiny store cupboard had been transformed into a corny, but adorable, Valentine hideaway. Brackets of shelving had been pushed back to make room for a small round table with a clean white table cloth sprinkled with pink petals, which just had room for the dinner plate, vase of six deep crimson roses and a picnic basket of food all squeezed on to it, all of which was cast in the mystical glow of Sheldon's Green Lantern in the centre. Tied to the stool tucked under the tablecloth were two heart-shaped helium balloons, far too large for the store cupboard, waving lazily in the air, and above that hung strings of pink and white fairy lights in tiny paper lanterns, lending the little cove a charming and somehow romantic quality.
Penny was so taken by the whole effect she could barely gasp in shock. It looked so beautiful, which was weird considering this was where they kept all the eating utensils that gleamed in the soft hazy light. "Sheldon, what…. what is all this?" she whispered.
"Open flame restriction," he said, catching Penny's curious look at the Lantern. "Lit candles aren't allowed in this restaurant so I had to employ my Green Lantern as a stand in."
"Why have you done this? It's so pretty."
Sheldon shrugged. "You have seemed most agitated about Valentine's Day all week. While I don't feel the need to celebrate romantic love or any other intimate emotion on this day – or on any other day, as it so happens, but – you do, and there was no one to make you feel special…" his voice tailed away at this point, then he shrugged again. "I thought you might be in need of some cheering."
"But, how did you…?"
"Get in? Very simple; as I said the codes to the doors haven't changed since I took work here last year in a bid to figure out why electrons behave as if with mass when travelling through a graphine sheet, work which brought me much success and a mention in the University webzine, by the way. I bought the table and stool from eBay and just brought everything through; presumably the other waiters still think I work here."
Penny turned back and gazed around at the scene again, trying to take it all in. "Oh honey thank y- Wait a moment. There's only one seat."
Sheldon nodded and pulled out the single stool for her to sit down, which she did. "Correct. You sit here and enjoy your meal while I shall cover your break."
"No, I can't eat a Valentine's Day meal on my own," said Penny, looking about for something. She reached up, leaned toward a shelf and pulled down a second plate and wine glass, and then went about dividing the contents of the picnic basket between the two plates, which included cheese and grapes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, without the crusts, and small, wrapped candies.
"Here," said Penny, pouring the clear sparkling liquid from a bottle from the picnic basket into both wine glasses and offering one to Sheldon. He however looked very uncertain. "Sheldon, I would like you to share a Valentine's Day meal with me."
"Oh, no, no…" spluttered Sheldon, suddenly flustered.
"If the whole point of this was so I didn't have to be alone on Valentine's then I can't eat all by myself, can I?" Penny persisted.
"But this is only for you…"
"I wasn't asking," she said mischievously, but firmly, and ignored his protests as she pulled Sheldon down to sit on an upturned bucket opposite her. Before he could object any more, Penny pulled the door closed behind him, and the babble from the kitchen instantly faded away so their cupboard was overcome with a hush. The cosy light of the paper lanterns reflected in the foil of the heart balloons high above, and between them the Green Lantern swathed the table in a magical green hue. All of a sudden, alone in the quiet and the still of the electric jade air, Penny felt like they were the only two people in the entire cosmos.
With a pleasant turning sensation in her stomach, Penny looked at the anxious Sheldon with much warmth. "Sweetie, I don't know what else to say except, thank you," she smiled, her soft tones encouraging Sheldon to look up at her at last. He seemed unsure of what to say either, having not expected to be sharing the dinner with her.
"You're very welcome, Penny," he mumbled finally, and mustered a small smile.
Penny raised her wine glass of what would prove to be sparkling lemonade. "Cheers," she smiled sweetly.
"And happy Valentine's Day," added Sheldon, and chinked his glass with hers.