Disclaimer: If you recognize anything, I don't own it. A/N: I know some of you might be going "What the heck lady? Where is the rest of 'Lanky Physicist Conundrum'?" Don't worry - I haven't forgotten about it and I am still working on it. I have chapters 8 and 9 written but real life has smacked me AND my beta around lately. But, this idea came to me and I couldn't get it to leave me alone. It was basically telling me that if I didn't write it I would never sleep again. I apologize in advance because this is un-betaed and may be a little rough. There is also a fair amount of angst, but hopefully enough happy, funny, and fluffy moments to make up for it. So without further ado...
A/N: I know some of you might be going "What the heck lady? Where is the rest of 'Lanky Physicist Conundrum'?" Don't worry - I haven't forgotten about it and I am still working on it. I have chapters 8 and 9 written but real life has smacked me AND my beta around lately. But, this idea came to me and I couldn't get it to leave me alone. It was basically telling me that if I didn't write it I would never sleep again. I apologize in advance because this is un-betaed and may be a little rough. There is also a fair amount of angst, but hopefully enough happy, funny, and fluffy moments to make up for it. So without further ado...
It's exactly after 11 when she hears the tapping on her door indicating that Sheldon needs to talk to her. When she opens the door she can see his arm twitching slightly, prepared to cover his throat if necessary. Apparently he's just got a special edition Blu-Ray version of some movie and it is "simply not a movie one can enjoy alone, Penny" and he wonders if she might want to come over that evening and watch it with him. She almost says she can't, but she sees the look in his eyes, the one that she's gotten entirely too used to seeing in her own mirror; that look of loneliness and hurt and being left behind. He's missing Leonard too, although he probably doesn't even realize it and would never put it into words. She knows that he hates that the entire group is refocusing, gravitating toward Raj's and leaving him behind, so she agrees.
As she closes the door she wonders if she could trick him into watching another Sandra Bullock movie and realizes she probably wouldn't even have to trick him to get him to watch Miss Congeniality, she'd just have to tell him that William Shatner is in it. She laughs to herself while she takes a shower and gets ready for her midday shift.
She trudges home at 6 – tired, sweaty, and exhausted. She takes a quick shower before heading next door to find that Sheldon has ordered Chinese food for them. She's relieved and a little bit sad that Leonard isn't there. She knows they can't be friends right now, but that doesn't mean she doesn't miss him. She slides to the far right of the couch while Sheldon perches in his spot because it seems silly to sit next to each other when it's just them. They eat in silence because Sheldon still hates small talk. When he finishes, he quickly starts the movie, which Penny isn't even paying attention to. She's lost in her own little world of memories and all the times she's spent on this very couch with Leonard. Before she knows it she's drifted off and is slumped across the right arm of the couch. Normally Sheldon would reprimand her, but he's taken an almost identical position across the left arm of the couch and is dozing quietly. Penny's lost in a dream world where she and Dream Leonard apologize for hurting each other and embrace tearfully while he keeps saying her name. She doesn't realize that the real Leonard has just come in from a date with Priya to find his ex asleep on his couch and is trying to wake her up. He finally gives up and starts to lightly shake her shoulder, which drags her away from Dream Leonard and causes her to kick her left leg straight out and catch Sheldon square in the hip.
He bolts upright with a start and doesn't even get all the way through his usual cry of 'danger danger' before letting out a low moan and rubbing the crick in his neck from the odd angle he'd been turned. He quickly realizes that he fell asleep on the couch and judging by Penny's sleepy eyes she did, too. He's not sure if this is a normal situation but he can't help the odd sense of guilt that gnaws at his gut and tells him that he just did something he shouldn't have simply because his roommate caught him asleep on the couch with his ex. Instead of dwelling on it he propels himself to his feet and scurries toward the hall.
"Good night Leonard, Penny," he throws over his shoulder before he passes the bathroom. Penny just prays that she hasn't been talking in her sleep again. She bolts for the door and just throws a hand over her head to wave goodbye before she's safely back in her own apartment.
Sheldon is sitting on the couch, preparing for another evening alone when the door rips open and Penny storms in, murder in her eyes.
"Where is he?" she screams. Sheldon drops the piece of pizza he's holding and his eyes widen. Penny's voice lowers to a growl as she repeats herself. "Where is he?" Sheldon can barely keep from stammering as he tells her that Leonard isn't here, he's on a date with Priya. He wants to ask what's wrong but he's terrified of getting punched in the throat. He just continues to sit and stare until she kicks Leonard's desk chair out of frustration, almost upending it. She starts to pace angrily, muttering, "I can't believe him," over and over. Finally the suspense wears on Sheldon and he decides he can't go a minute longer without knowing what's going on.
"Penny, what happened?" He's scared to move because he saw how hard she kicked the chair. She rounds on him, her eyes narrowed.
"Did you know that that rat bastard never took down the Penny Blossom's site? I just got an order in for 500. It's not one-day rush, but I don't have the time or energy to make 500 by Saturday! I have work and auditions. Tonight was the ONLY free evening I had and now I have to spend it making Penny Blossoms. I CAN'T BELIEVE HIM!" She all but bellows the last sentence and Sheldon has to fight to keep from chuckling. This is a problem that he can handle.
"Simple Penny, I will assist you. Be back here in 20 minutes with your materials," and with that he sweeps off the couch and back to the bedroom.
20 minutes later and they're sitting side-by-side on his couch, singing sea shanties while they glue and glitter. 5 hours later she's so tired that everything is hilarious and he's so wired from the one small cup of coffee he's had that he can barely see straight. She accidentally glues a Penny Blossom onto one of his fingernails and she laughs so hard her entire face turns red. He indignantly tries to shake it off, looking more like an animal that has something sticky on its paw and she laughs even harder. He narrows his eyes and glares at her and she just doubles over and gasps for breath. He starts to laugh too and suddenly they're sitting next to each other cackling. They crash 45 minutes later and fall asleep both leaning to the left with Sheldon against the couch and Penny against him. Sheldon is the one who bolts awake a few hours later and makes a mad dash to the bathroom, leaving a startled Penny lying on his spot. She sits up and starts to count the Penny Blossoms before deciding she's too tired and just wants to sleep in her own bed. She briefly considers telling Sheldon goodbye but she knows better than to try to talk to him through the bathroom door. Instead she scribbles a quick note thanking him for his help before shuffling out of the apartment.
It's 'Anything Can Happen' Thursday and like every one for some time before it, Sheldon is over and they're just getting ready to eat spaghetti and hot dogs. Penny has put the plates down and is in her seat when her phone rings from across the living room. She hops up and heads to it while Sheldon lectures her about how rude it is to take a phone call when she has a guest. She picks up her phone and sticks her tongue out at him before hitting the 'answer' button. Sheldon returns his attention to his plate and has already started twirling the noodles when he hears an odd sort of strangled cry from behind him. He turns in his chair to look at Penny who seems stuck in place. Her jaw is slack, eyes wide, and all of the color has drained from her face. He goes on pure instinct and bolts over to her, barely catching her before she sinks to the floor.
They're both on the floor, sitting at awkward angles and Sheldon is entirely uncomfortable and unsure of what just happened. Every instinct in his head is telling him to get up, get out, get away, but he knows Penny and he knows something is seriously wrong. She sits, virtually catatonic for a full minute before looking up at Sheldon with watery eyes.
"My dad died," is all she's able to get out before the force of the words she's just said hit her and she breaks. She reaches for Sheldon and starts to sob and his instincts are back; screaming how unhygienic this is and how badly he needs to shower. Instead he lifts her bridal style and sits down with her on the couch. He isn't good with people, doesn't know how to comfort so he simply sits with her quietly and rubs her back softly. He still wants to bolt but he remembers all too well the way his life was turned upside down by a similar phone call more than five years ago.
He was in his office, hard at work on his latest equation. His cell phone rang and he answered it on autopilot. From the other end came his mother's voice, sounding smaller than he had ever heard.
"He's gone, Shelly."
The conversation ended there as he hung up his phone, left his office, and walked the almost 4 miles home. He hadn't even realized he'd left campus until his key hit the lock on 4A. It returned him back to his senses and he quickly called the department head, explaining that he would be out for a few weeks, sent a text to Leonard telling him he wouldn't need a ride but would like him to please arrive home promptly, and booked a plane ticket for an evening flight into Galveston. Those tasks out of the way he curled up on his bed and cried until his pillowcase was soaked. Even though his father had been sick for quite some time and his death wasn't entirely unexpected, he was surprised to find how hard it had hit him. He had always had a difficult relationship with his father, something he believed he would have time to repair, even after the diagnosis. The finality of the situation wasn't lost on him. However he was completely composed and packed by the time Leonard returned that evening.
"Leonard, could you take me to the airport. I need to fly home as my father has just passed away," he explained the situation as perfunctorily as possible, determined to show no emotion. Leonard's eyes widened and he started to reach out to give Sheldon a hug before stopping himself short.
"Yeah man, no problem. Um, give me a call before you head back and I'll pick you up," Leonard replied, quickly grabbing the just deposited keys from the bowl by the door.
"Thank you." Those were the last words Sheldon voluntarily spoke until he arrived in Texas. The next few weeks were a flurry of family and friends and people wanting to hug him and telling him that it would get better. He didn't see how it could 'get better'. His father was dead; there is no 'getting better' from that.
In the course of his drifting back, he's drifted off with Penny nearly in his lap. She has cried herself to sleep, fist curled into his shirt. She starts to shift and it wakes him and he looks down to see the questions in her eyes as she looks up at him; the 'Is this really happening?' and the 'Is he really gone?' swimming in her red-rimmed eyes. He adds a soft noise that he hopes is soothing to the rhythmic strokes on her back and she nods off again. Once he's certain she's out soundly enough he slides from underneath her and begins to prepare.
His own packing is simple; he grabs his pre-packed disaster evacuation bag, but then he stalls, unsure if Penny will want him to stay with her the entire time. Just in case he grabs the garment bag that holds the suit she made him buy and throws a button down shirt and his black dress shoes into his bag. He stops to pack up his laptop and leave Leonard a note.
"Penny's father has passed away. I will be accompanying her to Nebraska. I will contact you when I know more. Sheldon Cooper."
He heads back to Penny's and she's curled up on the couch, face scrunched as if she's in pain. He feels bad when he starts rooting in her closet, but he finds a modest black dress, which he hangs up in the garment bag with his suit. He finds a bag to pack everything else in and starts pulling clothes at random out of her drawers, trying to find under garments with his eyes closed. With their bags packed and set by the door, he pulls his laptop out and e-mails Gablehauser to let him know he'll be out tomorrow and all of next week. The guilt returns when he's digging in Penny's purse for her wallet. He enters the necessary information for both of them and books plane tickets to Omaha. He checks the train schedule and figures that, if nothing else, he'll get Penny to Nebraska and then take a leisurely train ride back to Pasadena. Now that he knows when they'll be leaving, he pulls his phone out of his pocket to arrange for a cab when he sees a text from Leonard that he'd missed, saying that he was staying the night at Priya's. Sheldon's relieved because that means he won't have to explain anything to Leonard in person.
He paces and puts off waking her up as long as he can, but he finally shakes her awake slowly, always three shakes then her name, and tells her that they have to go, the cab will be here soon and she just stares at him blankly.
"Penny, we're going to the airport. I-I'm flying with you to Nebraska." She nods mutely and stands up. Her legs are wobbly and she nearly falls before she reaches for Sheldon's elbow. He tenses slightly, but decides that since his shirt is already covered in her tears it would be pointless to protest her hand on his arm. He exhales slowly, willing his muscles to relax as he walks to the door. She's still holding onto him and follows him quietly as he stoops to pick up their bags. He leads her out of the apartment, locking the door behind him. She stops and lightly tugs his arm and he turns to look at her. Her hair is a mess and her face is streaked with tears as she looks up at him.
"Thank you," she chokes out hoarsely. They are the last words she speaks until they land in Nebraska.
As soon as they're off the plane, Penny can see Sheldon's grip on his bag tighten and his eyes start to dart around like he's planning his escape while she calls her Mom to let her know she'll be there soon. They get a cab and she gives the driver her address when Sheldon interjects that after that he'd like to be taken to the train station. She turns towards him with her eyes wide.
"No, Sheldon. Stay. Please?" she pleads with him and he can't help but notice how much she looked like his Mom after his own Dad died. It unnerves him to see a woman who is usually so strong and larger than life look so small and broken.
"Okay." They ride in silence the rest of the way to her house and she's almost out of the cab before it fully stops. A slightly older woman who looks so much like Penny that it's unsettling steps on to the front porch. They run toward each other and hug fiercely, both crying freely. Sheldon simply takes the bags out of the trunk and pays the cab driver. He stands back and watches the family scene in front of him, quiet and unmoving. It's Penny's mom who finally notices him and lets go of her daughter. Penny looks around confused and spots Sheldon; she walks back over to him, taking hold of his elbow again and guiding him toward her mom.
"Mom, this is my friend, Sheldon. Sheldon, this is my mom, Suzanne." Penny makes quick introductions while Suzanne sticks her hand out towards Sheldon. "Um, Mom, he doesn't shake ha-" but she's interrupted by Sheldon gripping her Mom's hand awkwardly and shaking it.
"It's wonderful to finally meet you, but I hate the circumstances around it," Suzanne says, tearfully, as she shakes hands with the man that she knows has become her daughter's closest friend. She's heard a lot about Sheldon over the years, from the way he's helped her out financially to how he stood by her when her relationship ended with his roommate. "Please, call me Suzi," she finishes. Sheldon just nods mutely.
The next few days pass in a flurry of visitors, phone calls, and casseroles. Sheldon handles the relentless shuffle the best he can, being certain to give Penny and her family plenty of space. Penny tries to keep him close by, because she isn't sure how or why but in the 16 hours between getting the news and landing in Omaha, Sheldon has become her rock and she feels a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach if she can't immediately spot him.
She's gripping his elbow like a lifeline as they stand in the funeral home and she's sure that if she lets go she'll collapse. She senses movement out of the corner of her eye and turns to see Leonard, Raj, and Howard walking toward her. Leonard reaches her first and pulls her into a tight hug and she has to fight her old impulses to bury her face in his neck. Raj hugs her next, squeezing lightly and hoping that the hug tells her what he can't say. They pull back and look entirely awkward and out of place. However, it's Howard that surprises her. Somehow, even in light of what's happened, she still expects Howard to be himself. Instead, he wraps his arms around her and tells her how sorry he is and when he pulls back she's looking into his eyes, shiny with unshed tears, and suddenly it's like the light bulb has gone off. Her eyes swivel between the short man in front of her and the tall man beside her, both of them without their own fathers and she almost launches herself back at Sheldon, who hesitantly wraps his arms around her as she starts to cry.
"Thank you guys, really, just, thank you so much," she chokes out when her sobs finally slow enough for her to breathe. They flank her during the service and her hand returning to Sheldon's elbow as she shudders with the force of her crying. Soon they're all heading back to her house, Penny's hand digging into Sheldon's arm. The rest of the guys tell her that they can't stay long, they have a late flight back to Pasadena, but they're only a phone call away if she needs anything. The house is filling up with more and more family and her mom pulls her aside into the kitchen.
"Penny, I'm afraid your great-aunt is going to need the guest room," Suzi tells her, referring to the room that Sheldon had claimed when they arrived. Penny just nods and heads out to break the news. She taps on the doorframe to get his attention and lets him know he'll need to give up his room.
"Alright. I'll just sleep on the couch."
"I'm afraid you won't fit, big Cornish head," she teases. He purses his lips while he thinks and she quickly adds that he could stay in her room. Suzi is walking by and her eyes go wide. She pulls Penny into her room without a word to Sheldon.
"Absolutely not, Penelope. I will not tolerate a man spending the night in your bedroom." Suzi isn't sure why she's suddenly so vehemently opposing this. Her daughter has lived with one of her boyfriends, so it isn't as though Suzi thinks Penny is still a virgin, but for some reason the idea of her daughter doing that under her roof somehow sends her into a rage. Penny stares at her mother, wide-eyed and completely confused at why she just flew off the handle. Then she puts the pieces together and almost laughs.
"Mom, it's not like that. Sheldon is my best friend." Suzi just cocks an eyebrow at her daughter because she can remember saying the exact same thing to her mother about Wyatt. Suzi huffs and heads back down the stairs, leaving Penny staring at an equally confused Sheldon. He just quickly gathers up his things and crosses the hall to deposit them in her room.
That night she can tell that Sheldon is hesitant to go to bed, even though he's barely hiding yawns behind his hand. She's finally had enough and announces that she's going to bed, grabbing his arm and practically dragging him up the stairs with her. She crosses into her room and looks back at him standing just at the edge, eyes everywhere but on her. Where she felt like laughing at her mom earlier, now she's just irritated.
"Sheldon, relax. I'm not going to jump you or anything if that's what you're worried about." She can see him visibly relax and part of her wants to smack him for even thinking that of her. "Look, my bed is big enough for both of us, unless you want to sleep on the floor." She eyes him suspiciously, knowing that Sheldon would never sleep on the floor if it could be avoided. It was, in his words, unhygienic and uncomfortable. "Do you have a side?" she asks. He cocks his head at her in confusion until she explains that she's wondering if he has a preference of which side of the bed he sleeps on. He realizes he won't be able to sleep in the exact center of the bed and tells her he has no preference. She asks if he would mind sleeping against the wall; she likes to dangle her arm off the bed while she sleeps. They fall asleep with him on his back staring at the ceiling, one side pressed against the wall and her on her stomach facing away from him with her fingertips grazing the floor.
Suzi knocks on the door the next morning to wake them for breakfast and they realize that they've shifted in the night. Penny's now in a fetal position facing Sheldon and he's lying on his side facing her. They aren't exactly cuddling, but he's got one hand on her knee, she's holding onto his elbow and their foreheads are pressed together. Penny scrambles away from him so suddenly that she almost falls off the bed.
"Sheldon, I'm so sorry!" Sheldon just looks at her, confused, his eyes heavy with sleep. She sees his confusion and continues. "I didn't mean to invade your personal space in the middle of the night. I know this has been difficult enough for you as it is." Sheldon just nods and pulls himself into a sitting position. Penny's relieved that he's not furious with her and heads out of the room. Sheldon pulls himself from the bed, grabs his clothes, and heads to the bathroom for his morning shower.
They head back to Pasadena a few days later, and when Leonard picks them up at the airport he notices that Penny still has her hand on Sheldon's elbow.
Sheldon wakes up to blonde hair tickling his nose. Penny is spooned against him and she shifts slightly in his arms.
"I see you're awake," he says, his voice rough from lack of use as he drops a kiss on her shoulder.
"Mmmhmm," she hums in response, sleepily turning over in his arms until she's facing him. He runs a hand up her back and plays with her hair before stopping to let out a low, breathy laugh. "And just what is so funny, Dr. Cooper?" she asks, smirking playfully. He bends his head slightly so he's talking directly into her ear.
"Just the birdseed in your hair, Mrs. Cooper."