The Elegant Universe

Chapter One: The Elegant Universe[1]

"Einstein was not motivated by the things we often associate with scientific undertakings, such as trying to explain this or that piece of experimental data. Instead, he was driven by a passionate belief that the deepest understanding of the universe would reveal its truest wonder: the simplicity and power of the principles on which it is based. Einstein wanted to illuminate the workings of the universe with a clarity never before achieved, allowing us all to stand in awe of its sheer beauty and elegance.

Einstein never realized this dream."

- Brian Greene, The Elegant Universe


11 October 2009, 11.00pm

Caltech University

He had left the numbing arctic wastelands at the end of the world and returned home to Texas, yearning for the warm comfort of home. Change had always frightened him, caused him an unrelenting sense of anxiety and distress. But, for the first time since he had graduated summa cum laude from the University of Texas at age fifteen, Dr Sheldon Cooper wanted desperately to close a door to the outside world and enjoy the inexplicable comfort that came from eating a melted cheese sandwich with a smiley face engraved on it.

Then there was the more obvious comfort that came with closing the heavy wooden door to his mother's house. The door had protected him in the past: first, from little boys with sticks who hated him simply because he was too different to realize how different he was, and then later, from the men he studied next to at college – at 11, standing next to them in class, hogging the blackboard, earning the indulgent smiles that came from great men in search of a prodigy to wheel out at conferences – who hated him and didn't understand why.

It was a complex hatred, one that was borne of realising that Nature gifts some with greater tools than others – knowing, some for the first time, that no matter how hard they worked, how desperately they wanted it, this strange little kid with a small train figurine always clutched in his little fist would always have what they lacked.

It was the difference between brilliance and genius. And they hated him for his gifts, almost as much as they hated him for his strange catalogue of eccentricities – the surgical gloves he liked to wear, his utter incomprehension of social dynamics, the lack of empathy and know-it-all rants, the fact he never seemed to quite understand the joke at his expense, the fact he never had a retort other than pointing out the undeniable truth that he was smarter than them.

He would look around blankly, uncertain why he was being mocked but with enough experience to know that he was.

But when he got home – home to his spot in the attic where he could aim his telescope to the small patch of night sky visible in Texas – closing the doors on his fanatical mother, his irritating sister and his bully of a brother, he could finally be alone with his thoughts and contemplate the wonders of the universe.

Sheldon could remember the very moment that he became aware of the mysteries of the universe. He had been four years old – already too smart for his own good, as his mother would say – and sitting on the ground working his way through a pile of old puzzles that the family kept on the lowest shelf of the living room. Even then, he approached this task with a singular focus, never taking more than a few minutes to complete each puzzle, no matter how many pieces or how complex the image was.

His father, still smelling of yesterdays beer while working on today's buzz, sat in a chair (His Spot), looking at him with the same suspicion and bemusement (with just a hint of disappointment) that would characterise every look he gave Sheldon until the day of his death. In one hand he held a bottle of beer and in the other he was fiddling with an old compass that his mother used to hide the old cover of Hollywood Digest that sat on the table next to George's chair. It was an old, gold thing. Given to George by his father.

But, at that moment, Sheldon blinked down at the puzzles, once more painfully aware of his painfully pedestrian surrounds: the ratty carpet, the way the rug bunched next to the bookcase. It was almost too much to withstand.

"I've finished all the puzzles," he announced with a frown.

"Then play with some of your other toys, boy."

He hadn't really been speaking to his father. Not really. All he'd been trying to do was articulate a problem that needed to be solved. But, George Cooper Snr. didn't like being corrected and Sheldon had felt his belt enough times to be keen to avoid making his father unhappy. While he didn't want to openly antagonise his father, even as a child he had not been able to stop himself.

"I don't want toys," he said simply, not comprehending the way his father's face darkened. "I want to figure something out."

George took a swig of beer before throwing the compass on the ground next to Sheldon. "There you go. Figure that out."

"What is it?"

"It's a compass. Shows you where North is."

Sheldon stared down at the compass, lost for words as he watched the little quivering needle moving to face magnetic North. There, in the living room of his house in Galveston, Texas, Sheldon Cooper found a single point of order in chaotic reality. No matter how he twisted the contraption, the little needle unwaveringly pointed towards a single point on earth.[2] For the first time, he had found something that he didn't understand right away. For the first time, he had a puzzle that actually made him take pause for a moment.

From that moment, a new world opened up before him. But really, it was a multitude of worlds, incalculable dimensions. Day by day, in the attic of a house in Texas, a little boy appreciated for the first time the stately waltz of orbiting binary stars and the frantic dance of subatomic quarks.[3]

That thirst to learn more, that unwavering desire to understand, to make sense of, to hold the entire universe in his hand and know its terrifying beauty: that desire became the single point that Sheldon Cooper marched towards, compass in hand.

For years, that moment of thrilling discovery that there was something more than the everyday that he could see in his painfully suburban house sustained him through the torment of high school (completed at record speed) and all the way to university (still a scrawny 14 year old wearing a Flash t-shirt and babbling about science whenever someone tried to shake his hand).

No matter how bewildering the people around him became, no matter how unpleasant it was to have his lunch stolen, his stomach punched and his comments tittered at, that mystifying, thrilling moment of discovery was enough to make it worth it.

Science was who he was. His work was his entire identity. He worked the way others made music. He made realities appear through simple math. He was blessed with inspiration; he had always felt it.[4] But, the only time he felt truly humbled was when he stumbled upon another mystery, another hurdle, standing between him and the ultimate goal: the single formula that would make the universe make sense.[5] It was this goal that consumed him. He worked because it was the most natural thing in the world; it was the only thing that made sense.

Until his best friends had picked up his world, shaken it twice.

In three months, Howard, Raj and (this still brought a pang) Leonard had taken this identity and torn it neatly in half.

They had their excuses, of course. He was insufferable. He was a total dick(tator) and Dick(ensian). But even as they arrived in Texas to take him home, even as they apologised to him – and he tiredly forgave them because it was easier to do that then try to start over – he couldn't help but feel like the little kid in the front row of his high school class who was trying to figure out why they were laughing at him.

"We're glad you decided to come back, buddy," Leonard had said, his leg jiggling in his impatience to get home. He smiled at his much taller friend and pressed his hand to Sheldon's shoulder in what he assumed to be a sign of supportiveness.

Sheldon had not taken his eyes off the arrival and departure board at the airport. "Take your hand off my shoulder, please."

Then, without looking at his friends, he hurried to the departure gate.

But he had come back. He hadn't had a choice.

What else was there to do but pick up where he left off? And so, he arrived home, put his bag down, and went to work.

And there he stayed, forgetting to eat and shower, hunched over the whiteboards that littered his office.

"He's just being Sheldon," Leonard reassured the guys at their usual lunch table – his eyes glancing guiltily at the empty chair next to him.

"Yeah, creepy and obsessive is wired into the Sheldon Cooper DNA," Howard said with a grin.

"I don't know, dude," Raj said doubtfully. "I think we might have broken him."

"We didn't break him," Leonard said quickly.

"Yeah," Howard agreed quickly, staring contemplatively at his burger. "The guy was broken long before we even met him."

Even as they spoke, he worked. But it was different, now.

He wasn't marvelling before the mysteries of the universe. He wasn't working towards that single point that had been his focus for years.

He was working for his life. And his head was nearly underwater.


15 October 2009, 1.00am

2311 N. Los Robles Ave, Pasedena

Penny Marshall trotted up the three flights of stairs to the fourth floor of her building, calves aching after a seven-hour shift, thinking about how much better her life would be in an hour when she had thoroughly soaked herself in the bath.

Apart from trying to discover whether it was possible for someone's head to explode with boredom through first-hand research and having the calves of Lance Armstrong after years of long shifts and long walks upstairs, there was very little Penny could complain about.

For the first time in her life, she was dating a nice guy. A good, smart guy. Leonard Hofstadter was not the sort of guy who would leave her waiting at home on Valentine's Day while wearing nothing but edible underwear while he went to spread his seed amongst every skanky bitch he could find in Hollywood. Leonard Hofstadter treated her with respect. Leonard Hofstadter could scarcely believe his good luck in convincing her to date him.

And she had to admit that despite a little hiccup that first night: that sense of awkward wrongness that must have been a product of having sex with a close friend (right?) – Leonard had been an exemplary boyfriend. He had even given her a snowflake from the North Pole. Even the memory made her smile. It was so typical of Leonard to take something a fragile and transient as a snowflake and insist on making it last forever.

He was a special guy. He did things for her no other man had even considered doing.

So what if he didn't challenge her? It was nice not to fight. And if sometimes she found herself struck with a queer sense that something was missing – well, if there was, she could do without it.

She was already visualising the luxurious bath salts she would be relaxing in when she climbed up the final flight of stairs, when she noticed a strange figure slumped next to the front door of apartment 4A.

It took her a moment to realize that the slumped figure dozing outside the door was Sheldon. A moment more to rush up the stairs and shake his shoulder.

"Sheldon, sweetie – wake up."

It was not until she was crouched next to him that she saw that he was not in fact asleep. At least, not physically. His arms were wrapped tightly around his bent legs and his eyes when they met hers were darkened with exhaustion. She noticed faint stubble on his chin and saw that his usually immaculate hair was rumpled as if he had been running his hands through it.

For a brief, insane moment, Penny imaged reaching out and smoothing down the hair. But she quickly disregarded the thought, imagining the hundred different ways he'd find to freak out if she so much as tried. Instead, she merely sat at eye level, forgetting for the moment her tired legs.

"Are you locked out?"

His eyes were darting around in the space before him and she wondered whether he had even heard her – Vulcan hearing or not.

Ever since the boys had gotten back from the Arctic, Sheldon had been acting strangely (stranger, she mentally corrected herself). The fact was that she had scarcely seen him since Leonard had collected him from his mother's house in Texas. She knew that he was spending most of his time at the University. Probably trying to recover from the embarrassment that they had caused him by falsifying his data.

Penny was embarrassed to admit to herself that she hadn't spared him much thought those first few weeks. It had been a time of such potential, when she and Leonard first got together. She had been glad that his annoying whack-a-doodle flatmate was nowhere to be seen as she got to know Leonard as a Boyfriend rather than a Friend.

But, as the time passed, Penny couldn't help but notice that Sheldon Cooper left a sizable hole that was not easily filled by the strained conversations of Howard and Raj. Even when it was just Leonard and her, it was strange not to have to accommodate a 29 year old boy genius who couldn't stand not to get his own way. Sometimes, when the conversation was dwindling, Penny almost missed his withering retorts, delivered with such matter-of-fact bluntness.

"I'd let you read it, Penny, but unfortunately there are no illustrations of puppies to help you grasp the concepts when you hit words you don't understand."

"Was the starfish wearing boxer shorts? Because you might have been watching Nickelodeon."

"Yes. In 1917, when Albert Einstein established the theoretic foundation for the laser in his paper 'Zuer Quantentheorie de Strahlung', his fondest hope was that the resultant device be bitchin'."

The few times she had seen him, he had been different. There were fewer patronising explanations, fewer impassioned speeches, and absolutely no 'Bazingas!'

Gone were the days when he would demand that they recreate historical events by replacing one of the key figures with a killer robot. Instead, he sat in His Spot and ate his dinner in near silence. It wasn't even the pointed silence of someone trying to punish his friends. It was the silence of someone disappearing into themselves. His monosyllabic responses were disconcerting in their own right.

In some ways, it was easier to ignore the profound change in him when he was not around. Presently, Penny felt a strange and crushing guilt at the sight of the brilliant Sheldon Cooper sitting on his own door mat and hugging his long legs against his chest, as if trying to take up a little less space in the universe.

"No," he said finally.

It took her a moment to recall that she had asked whether he had been locked out.

"So what are you doing out here on the ground?"

Sheldon rested his head against the front door, clearly too tired to even feel frustrated at her questioning. "It was the nearest thing."

Penny bit her lip as he rubbed one of his eyes. "Sweetie, how long has it been since you slept?"

"Approximately seventy-seven hours."

With a decisive nod, Penny stood up. "Come on. I'm putting you to bed."

"If that was an attempt at innuendo, I am afraid that I am too tired to be a very good audience."

"No, Sheldon," she drawled, rolling her eyes. "That was not an attempt at innuendo. Come on." As she pulled him to his feet, she noticed that he was too exhausted to even complain about her touch at the crook of his elbow. Naturally tactile, she held on a little longer than she usually would have. It was not until they reached the couch that she realized she was all but carrying him.

He spared a glance at His Spot, but she knew that if let him rest there, he would sleep where he sat. She intuited that he wouldn't want to sleep so publicly. So, she guided him to his bedroom, mumbling at him to lift his foot when he hit the step leading to the hallway. She paused for a moment at his bedroom door, glancing at his haggard profile, wondering when he would tell her to let him go on alone.

He finally seemed to remember himself when he crossed the threshold. "You're in my room. People can't be…"

"Finish that thought and I'll drag you downstairs and let you sleep on a street corner," she said sweetly.

The fight seemed to go out of him. His eyes were all but closed, his shoulders slumped. So she opened the door and sat him on the foot of his bed.

"There you go," she said brightly. "Now you just have to get into your pyjamas and go to sleep." He was staring at his hands. "Sheldon, come on. You need to sleep."

It must have been something about the light in the room, but when he looked up into her eyes, he seemed remote and mysterious. It was moments like this that Sheldon ceased to be a lost little boy in her eyes and she could see a flash of what he could become: the Nobel laureate, damaged, wise and always seeking for something just out of reach.

In moments like this, the sheer scale of that brain of his terrified her. It made her feel small. How could she ever plumb the depths of him?

But, that was not the nature of their friendship; she was not there to meet him on an academic level. She was there to make sure that he didn't die of exhaustion before he had a chance to figure out what the deal was with those string-thingies. So, she pulled out his Wednesday pyjamas and put them on the bed next to him.

"Get changed," she said gently, before turning to move away from him. "Go to sleep."

But, before she could move away, he did possibly the last thing she would ever have expected him to do: he reached out and loosely grasped her wrist. The shock of it sent a strange reverberation down her arm.

"Help me," he said simply, in a ragged whisper.

For a moment, she considered telling him no – always keen not to let him get away with any more than she had to. But, one glance at his face and she didn't have the heart to tell him 'no.' Not to mention the fact that she couldn't remember a time when he had asked for help; he never liked to think of the things they did for him as favours. Obligations? Yes. Common sense? Yes. But favours? Certainly not.

So, swallowing and clearing her throat, she stood in the v created by his long legs and pulled his t-shirt over his head. She watched as his pale skin turned to gooseflesh in the cool night air. It was so strange to see his lean chest that she had to consciously remind herself to look away. But she had to – the sight was too captivating, too oddly beautiful in the dark – so she passed him his pyjama top and turned around, staring at the wall and counting her heartbeats.

"You may turn around now, Penny."

She turned around and saw that he had finished dressing for himself. She was oddly relieved; she didn't think she could have withstood the indignity of helping him get into his pants. A part of her had been waiting for him to shout 'Bazinga!' during this entire interlude.

But, now he was climbing into bed and her aching calves were crying out for attention. Not knowing what to say as she stood over him, regarding the purplish tinge to his eyelids as he settled into his vampiric pose.

"You missed Halo night," she said, eventually, mentally groaning at the lameness of her contribution to the silence of his bedroom.

"Change is the essential process of all existence," he said simply, eyes closing and grip on reality giving way.

Penny frowned. "What's that? Like…Einstein?"

Even as his grip on the waking world gave way, he offered her the ghost of a smile. "Better: Spock," he said simply. "Goodnight, Penny."

She stood there looking down at him for a moment, before exiting the strange little scene she had stumbled upon. It wasn't until she closed his bedroom door behind her that she thought to say, "Goodnight, Sheldon."

One thing was certain: Leonard was crazy if he thought everything was fine with Sheldon. Even as she settled down into the tub, she couldn't help but remember the look of abject exhaustion on his face.


17 October 2009, 2.30am

Apartment 4A

He is home, but he is not really there. His mind is somewhere else: travelling on the coat tails of those neutrinos and quarks that he would follow to the end of the galaxy.

He stands at the whiteboard, writing and rewriting, muttering and moving about.

She pulls herself out of Leonards arms – feeling oddly suffocated in his tight embrace. She pads down the hallway. She makes him tea that is ignored and goes cold on the coffee table. She reads her magazines at the counter, not talking to him, not making a noise. Trying to tell him – through osmosis, through her impish smiles and raised eyebrows – that he has a friend who cares about him.

Through the exasperated sighs, she could tell he is grateful for some company.

He is ripping something out of himself. He is bending the universe to his will.

And she is there for him. Whether he likes it or not.

While Leonard sleeps in the next room. The deep, restful slumber of the nice guy who got the girl.


1 November 2009, 9.30am

Caltech

Rajesh Koothrappali knew that today was going to suck.

He knew this the moment that he woke up in front of his television with a stiff neck and a mouth that felt like sandpaper.

He had known that it would be a mistake to stay up late the evening before, but the Sex and the City marathon had been too tempting to resist. And of course, he had fallen asleep where he sat – dreams full to the brim of love found and lost, shoes and friendship. Which, in due course, meant that he had missed his alarm and was now monumentally screwed.

Sheldon Cooper did not suffer tardiness willingly. Especially after a week away at a conference. The guy had a Vulcan work ethic.

He'd be the recipient of a strike at the very least. And now that Sheldon was his de facto employer the threat of strikes held more weight than ever before.

He hurried to the office he now shared with Sheldon, already regretting the stale Danish he had purchased en route and couldn't help but remember the look of horror on Howard's face when he had heard that Raj would be working with their eccentric friend.

"What else am I meant to do, dude? Either I work for Sheldon or I go back to India."

"I don't think we've fully explored the possibility of a sham marriage yet," Howard had reasoned. He had even gone so far was to post a personal ad on Raj's behalf: Wanted: Wife for a selectively mute Indian man with an unhealthy obsession with chick flicks. American citizenship required. Fatties need not apply. Suffice to say that it had not helped matters.

It was easier to tell Howard – to tell everyone, really – that it was a matter of necessity. But the fact of the matter was that as much as a douche as Sheldon could be, working with him was the most intellectually stimulating experience of Raj's life. Their work on the string theory implications of gamma rays from dark matter annihilations was quite simply the most thrilling project Raj had ever been involved in. And as Sheldon seemed only vaguely interested in it, focused as he was on his own increasingly bizarre formulae, Raj had been given utter freedom to investigate the matter himself.

He remembered how it had been when Leonard and Sheldon had worked together they had come to physical blows. Poor Leonard, never feeling good enough for praise, for love. How had it must have been for him to work with someone like Sheldon. But Raj suffered from no such burden.

"I've had enough of your condescension. Maybe I didn't go to college at eleven, like you. Maybe I got my doctorate at 24 rather than 16. But you are not the only person who is smarter than everyone else in this room."

When Raj did sit down with Sheldon, humbly presenting the fruits of his labours, his friend would sit quietly, allowing Raj to reason his way through – guiding him gently through the layers of analysis he had never even considered. Sheldon may have been a royal pain in the ass socially, but when it came to work, he was possibly the most useful resource that Raj had ever come across.

It was kind of like being in a scene of The Beautiful Mind. Except slightly less crazy. Slightly.

Even if he had been able to concede that working with a mind such as Sheldon's was invigorating, he certainly could never have told Howard how touched he had been when Sheldon had offered up space in his office – offered up part of his funding simply because Raj had needed help.

He was relieved that their Arctic stunt hadn't ruined their friendship with Sheldon forever. But, a part of him couldn't shake the feeling that Sheldon should have been angrier with them. There was a line, and they had crossed it by tampering with his work.

They may have collectively rolled their eyes when he went on and on about his work and its significance, but when you got right down to it all it had taken was an email from Sheldon to members of the faculty at Caltech, claiming that he had proven string theory, and they had believed him 100%. Some of the smartest guys in the country had assumed that Sheldon had proven string theory, just because he'd said it.

And now, those very same men snickered at him when he walked passed. The arrogant genius had been reduced to the kid in class that everyone loves to pick on – to the extent that he now expected it.

But when Raj had needed him, he had stepped up. Because he had his own strange sense of morality: a determined commitment to doing the Right Thing, however he perceived it.

With a half-smile, Raj knocked three times on the door of their office before letting himself in – no longer minding that arriving at 9.30am would probably result in a lecture from Dr Sheldon Cooper about the importance of discipline and dependability in the world of physics.

When there was no answer, Raj frowned and pushed open the door to find Sheldon standing hunched before a white board, scribbling furiously. There had to be at least fifteen of them in this tiny office. The room was a total mess. Papers and whiteboards covered every available surface.

"I like what you've done with the place, dude," Raj joked, not really expecting to get a response.

Sheldon kept writing.

"Didn't you hear me knock?"

There was no answer. The manic scribbling on the white board reached an even more fevered pitch.

"Have you been here all night?"

Raj peered over his shoulder at the almost incomprehensible formulae on the board. He glanced at Sheldon's face. In short, he looked terrible. He even had stubble. Raj hadn't been certain that Sheldon could even grow facial hair until those fateful months in the Arctic.

"Sheldon," he said firmly. "I think you need to take a break."

At that, Sheldon whirled around to face him. "No Raj," he spat. "I do not need a break. I need answers. I need to make sense of all of this."

Raj reeled back, until the corner of the desk jabbed him in the back. "You don't have to find all the answers today," he reasoned weakly.

Sheldon shook his head, before turning back to his board. "It's the only way."

"Only way…what?"

Still facing the board, Sheldon spoke in a tired but focused voice. "It's the only way I will ever be taken seriously again."

Raj's stomach clenched. His body felt cold and his face felt hot. Sheldon must have been beyond exhausted to admit something that came that close to being human emotion. Raj had always suspected that there were real live feelings underneath that Vulcan exterior. Hell – even Spock had lost it at Kirk when he'd been pushed to breaking point. God, that was a good movie.

Raj shook his head, trying to focus. He had never been that good at dealing with Sheldon when he was like this. Leonard tended to coddle him to make life easier. But, Penny had always been the one to crack the whip. What would Penny do in this situation?

"Sheldon," Raj said with surprising authority. "If you don't sit down and take a break, I'm going to call your mother."

Sheldon froze at that. He turned his head slightly. "You wouldn't."

"My phone's in my hand, dude."

Slowly, as if standing before a large predator, Sheldon turned around to face Raj. "Very well. I will take a break." He says the word 'break' as if it is the most distasteful thing in the world.

Raj grins to himself in triumph as Sheldon's shaking hands put the cap back on his whiteboard marker. Sheldon reached out for his desk chair, but to his surprise, he found that his hand missed the back of the chair. Frowning and swallowing twice, he reached out again, this time stumbling slightly when he misses.

"I seem to be suffering from a slight vertigo and decreased muscle coordination," he mused absently, his eyes vague and his Adam's apple bobbing as he tried to swallow.

"Are you okay?"

Sheldon's usually piercing eyes settled dully on Raj's own. "Actually I believe I'm about to pass out."

And, with that, Sheldon collapsed on the ground.


1 November 2009, 9.20am

Apartment 4A

Leonard Hofstadter knew that he should probably get up and go to work. But these days (on the right side of the 'Before Penny' and 'After Penny' timeline) it was easy to justify lying right here in his bed, next to the gorgeous blonde he had never truly believed he could get.

He could lie here for hours, just staring at her. What did he care about lasers and comic books? None of it made him feel this good: feel as if he were a man, feel like after all these years of being a nice guy was paying dividends.

And so in a hundred tiny ways, he compromised on those tiny things that he knew she'd find unpalatable. When Warren Ellis had come to the comic book store, he had politely declined – even though a part of him was itching to have his copy of Doktor Sleepless signed. He had made his bedroom more "Penny-friendly" – hiding the action figures, the miniaturized city of Kandor, and the posters. And yet, not knowing the first thing about interior design, he hadn't had a clue what to replace it with. So, he'd left it blank. His room could have been in a catalogue or standing on display in Ikea.

Truth be told, he preferred staying in her room, when he could be surrounded by Penny, drown in Penny – let all of those colours wash over him and make him feel like he was a part of that glittering world that he had only ever admired from afar. Penny, though, always seemed to prefer sleeping at his place – slipping away into her own mysterious world and closing her door behind her.

He was a part of it now, he reassured himself. So what if she hadn't yet introduced him to her friends? It would happen. Now that he had taken care of some of the more objectionable of his habits, he knew that it would happen even sooner.

Pathetic. All of you.

Even now, the question she had levelled at him – you're grown men! How can you play with toys? –still pained him. The thought of Sheldon standing at the top of the stairs, brandishing a sword, used to make him smile. His best friend hadn't wanted him to give away everything that meant something to him. Sheldon, in his own, bat-crap crazy way, stood up for him.

But for some reason, the memory made him feel a swoop of guilt. It was easier not to think of Sheldon at all then to remember the look on his face when he found out that his best friend in the world had tricked him to make life easier for himself. Sheldon didn't lie. Sheldon didn't trick people – apart from the occasional good-natured 'Bazinga'. What most people would understand as a necessary evil, Sheldon would never understand. Because he would, quite simply, never have done it himself.

Then again, Sheldon had never had a friend like Sheldon.

And Sheldon had never known what it was like to have a girl like Penny.

Every now and then, though, he would feel a pang at the thought of the boxes in the hallway cupboard that contained his most prized possessions. It slumped next to his cello.

But, then he would touch her smooth skin and everything would make sense again.

He propped himself up on his elbow, smiling down at her. She was more magnificent every time he saw her – even now with her eyes distracted, absently patting the hand that clutched her so tightly.

"What are you thinking about?" Leonard tried to keep his voice from wavering – sometimes it betrayed him and showed all of his insecurity and uncertainty.

He allowed himself imagine her possible responses: You. Us. How happy I am. Kurt's body. How I wish you could wear contact lenses to bed.

She turned over to face him, wrapping the sheet around herself. She scooted up the bed so that her back was against the headboard. Chewing her lip and regarding him with a worried look on her face.

"I'm thinking about Sheldon."

Well. He hadn't expected that.

"Sheldon?"

Wow. He'd sounded kind of hysterical when he'd said that.

"I'm worried about him, Leonard. Something's wrong."

"Really?" he said absently, heart beating a little faster. Of course, he had noticed something was wrong with Sheldon. But the thought of acknowledging his role in it was too much to stand.

All you did was lie to me, destroy my dream and humiliate me in front of the whole university.

"Ever since you guys got back - " she paused. They never mentioned the Arctic these days. It was easier that way. "Ever since the thing, all he does is work. He doesn't even talk to anyone anymore."

"Lucky us," Leonard joked weakly.

But Penny was not in the mood for levity. She looked him hard in the eye.

"Leonard, I'm serious. I'm worried that if he keeps working like this - "

The phone call from Raj was a welcome distraction. Until, those familiar words came out of his mouth.

"Dude – it's Sheldon."


A/N: Thank you for reading. This is my first time attempting the Big Bang universe. I'd like to apologise for any scientific inaccuracies in this. I have absolutely no background in it, so this is total guesswork. This is the beginning of what I hope to be an on-going story. Let me know what you think.

Thanks!

[1] Title of this story is taken from the Brian Greene novel, The Elegant Universe.

[2] Based on a passage in Dennis Overbye's Einstein in Love.

[3] As above, [1].

[4] I have the feeling that this is a West Wing quote.

[5] Allow me to apologise for any inaccuracies in the science described here. I have taken liberties for the sake of storytelling.