A/N: I know – it has been forever. I am very sorry. I had considered abandoning the story, but then felt I could at the very least present you with this transitional chapter. It's not action-packed, but it does mark a turning point, the return of Penny and Sheldon to reality!

The Elegant Universe

Chapter Thirteen: The Map of Love

"Is it that happy stretch of time when the lovers set to chronicling their passion. When no glance, no tone of voice is so fleeting but it shines with significance. When each moment, each perception is brought out with care, unfolded like a precious gem from its layers of the softest tissue paper and laid in front of the beloved - turned this way and that, examined, considered."

Ahdaf Soueif, The Map of Love

27 September 2007, 5.30AM

Los Robles, Pasadena

She is alone. She is alone.

And now, at the moment when all of her parents' greatest fears had been realized, she is oddly liberated. She is alone - the way she had always expected she would be. She is alone in a small apartment, sleeping in a bedroom she had once expected to share with Kurt.

When she had left Nebraska, her father had driven her out to the dam on their farm – their place. He had driven her silently – that unending silence of his that had been born of resentment, but had somehow grown to become oddly meditative.

He had told her - in small, stilted sentences, more in the words that he didn't say - that he was afraid for her. He was afraid that one day she would find herself far from everyone who loved her, alone in a place she didn't know.

She had laughed him off, with the easy flippancy of someone who is hearing her own worst fears spoken out loud.

She lies. In that moment, she tells him him that she'd never been alone in her life. She is always around people. She is always in the in crowd, she is always the last to leave a party.

Then, he had looked at her with those quiet, thoughtful eyes of his and she had known that he hadn't believed her for an instant.

"You're right, Slug," he said flatly. "You've never been alone."

Then, he had looked out at the vast expanse of corn – the product of hours of labour, made glorious in the setting sun. They stood for a while, watching the sunset over their shared summer project.

Then, without saying anything, her father had started walking back towards the pick-up truck. She trailed behind him, the way she once did when she was small enough to wear a tutu.

He hadn't told her that she could always come home. She was grateful for that, because if he had she might have considered it. There was something reassuring about not having a safety net - sink or swim.

She had driven away – driven herself to Kurt's place – and had only glanced once in the rear view mirror.

She sits on her bed in Pasadena, remembering the feeling of driving and driving – the feeling of watching her parents stand still, separated by the length of a ruler. And then, the way her father had reached across that gap between them and squeezed her mother's shoulder.

She sits on her bed and remembers the promises she made her parents. She measures – carefully – what it would cost her to return with her tail between her legs.

But her father never said she could come back, so it doesn't feel like an option.

She is alone. So when the strange young men across the hall offer her food, she clings to the gesture, she accepts the gesture and accepts their food and asks for more than she should.

The truth is, she feels spread thin, she feels like she is living half-a-life. She feels like she is dissolving. Her bright laugh, her bright hair – they make her feel transparent. She walks down the street and wonders why people don't stop to stare at her disappearing trick.

She is alone. So when the short little man with glasses and an eager to please smile looks at her with admiration, it is as if she remembers who she is, who she means to be. Who she has been – someone who was never meant to be alone, someone who was never meant to feel this tired.

She is alone. Even when she dances and laughs and gets naked in front of strangers. She is worried that she is turning into her mother, clinging to those small kindnesses even as she spins wildly - dancing, dancing, dancing. She wonders whether she has ever felt at home anywhere. She wonders what home means and whether everyone else feels this way.

She walks home after a night of forgetting herself – she walks home with her high heels in her hands, letting the rough pavement rub against her bare feet. She wonders why it is that she never feels more alone then when she is naked, when a man has his arms around her. She longs to escape from their clutches. But when she slips out of the door, when she hears it close firmly behind her, she wishes that she had stayed.

She comes home at sunrise and sees that tall, pale man who lives across the hall – the one who examines her with the detached air of a scientist examining a sample under a microscope.

He glances at her in her bright pink dress as he collects his mail. He tips his head to the side, examining her piece by piece. He does not judge her, he doesn't say anything about how many times he has seen her skulking home in the early hours of the morning.


He says it matter-of-factly, with a telescope or package under his arm. He says it because he sees her and he remembers her name. He says it because that's what he says when she comes home.

"Sheldon," she always blushes when she says his name, as if he'd walked in on her doing something profane. She pushes passed him in the stairwell, thinking uncharitable thoughts about why someone would walk up this early.

She doesn't know why she only feels like she has come home when he says her name.

29 November 2009, 1.00AM

Galveston, Texas

He must have dosed off because the television was still on, but Blade Runner had ended, replaced by a program that he could scarcely make sense of. It was a rather mournful sort of cartoon about a boy who was entirely alone on a planet that was only the size of the span of his legs.

Sheldon switched off the television, eyes adjusting quickly to the more perfect darkness. There was no light except the pale glow of the moon through the light, white curtains.

But, it was enough to see her by.

It had been days since he had even thought about the universe. He had been busy, performing the many tasks that came with the end of a well-spent life. It did not feel as if he had been doing any of the activities of the last few days. They had been relentless. The funeral had come upon him so suddenly. Penny had appeared. His brother had made peace with him. His schedule, his carefully polished routine – everything had been swept aside. He had been at other people's mercy for days.

It was strange for such a cerebral man to realize that it wasn't until the astonishing physical sensations he had experienced at Penny's mercy in the shower that he had felt reacquainted with himself. It had taken an act entirely out of character to bring him back to himself.

It had taken Penny to bring him back.

She lay on her side, in the complimentary robe provided by the motel. It was rare for her to look so peaceful and still. Awake, she was always in motion, always pushing the boundaries, always leading the way down the path as he followed after her to make sure she didn't slip.

What was happening to them? How had they come to this point? What decisions had he made that had led to them sharing this bed, sharing the shower, sharing the most secret parts of themselves?

It was just like her to stroll across his boundaries. She walked into his apartment - into his life - she stole his milk and used his wifi. She had crossed every line that he had ever drawn.

He was not someone who knew how to bend. But, he had bended every rule he had for her. Perhaps that's how it began, then. Perhaps it began with the first compromise. Perhaps a part of him had known that if he compromised on one thing, everything else might follow.

But, he had never expected to enjoy it. He had never expected to want her to press his boundaries. He had never known how terrified he would feel, how helpless he would be to resist her.

Now, at the moment of his greatest professional triumph and his greatest personal loss, he found himself more concerned with figuring out the reason he felt and urge to brush her hair from her face.

He had expected to be an old man when he found the answer to the universe's great question. He had never expected it to come on the heels of such personal turmoil and betrayal. He had never expected that he would want to hide in a room with Penny until the fuss died down.

He was terrified because he could feel the changes inside of him. He was terrified because he felt his iron discipline – the wall behind which he hid the memory of his father, the smirks and derision of his peers, the way it had felt to learn that his friendship with Leonard was not unconditional and the feeling that came with losing Meemaw – begin to falter and warp.

He shifted in bed, reaching out his arms to wrap them around her.

He had needed space and time to process what had transpired between them in the shower. It had been so undignified, leaning against the tiles of the shower, groaning her name, face contorting and breath catching on the pleasure of it. It had been embarrassing, overwhelming, miraculous. He had needed space to process each of his emotions one-by-one. He had never been fast at making sense of feelings.

But, now, watching her sleep next to him, he felt the strange need to pull her close, to say mine – mine – mine in his head, even though he knew that no one could ever really belong to someone else. He needed to feel the certainty of her body, because everything else was uncertain and shifting each moment.

He looked around guiltily – aware even as he did it that it was ludicrous to worry about someone seeing him. Then, with barely the force of a butterfly landing on a leaf, he bent his head down and kissed the back of her neck.

The soft sound - an exhalation, really – that she made when his lips contacted her skin electrified his nervous system.

Guilty, he pulled away resting his head once more on the pillow, eyes wide, struggling with this feeling building inside of him. It had felt oddly profane, given what she had done for him in the shower, that he should feel so aroused by a stolen kiss on the back of a neck. But it was undeniable. She was a vast landscape that he had only begun exploring. Each new inch of her was intoxicating and terrifying and full or peril.

But that was tomorrow's problem. Now he was safe and warm, holding a woman in a way that had had never even realized he wanted.

Tomorrow – today, he realized, glancing at the luminous clock by the bed – they would return to their lives changed, somehow transformed.

And he was afraid of what it might mean.

29 November 2009, 2.38AM

Apartment 4A, Pasadena

He wasn't sure when it had started, this realization that he was a minor character in his own life.

When Penny had agreed to go out with him - had pulled him into her arms and kissed him – Leonard had thought for a moment that he might finally step into the light on his own stage.

Penny was made to be a leading lady – from her long blonde hair down to her manicured feet. He had assumed that shambling after someone like that would make him a leading man.

But, now he was alone in an empty apartment, in a room that he had bleached of all personality in his quest to become someone who wasn't embarrassing, someone who was popular and happy. He rattled around the house, wearing his pajamas and wondering when he had become the villain of this piece.

He hadn't spoken to Amy since their last coffee, two days ago, when he had confided in her, shown her his soul. He had told her about the Arctic wilderness and she had listened carefully and impassively, without judgement. But then, rather abruptly, she had announced that the time she had allocated to their outing had now elapsed. He paid for the coffees, feeling oddly bereft as he watched her stride off, wearing those thick stockings and that dowdy cardigan.

It was not until he returned to the table that he found that she had left something for him: it was a postcard that he recognized from the Caltech book co-op. It had never resonated with him before, but somehow, knowing that she had left it just for him, made him feel oddly chocked up

It was a simple thing, just a picture of a note pad with simple, typewritten words on it:

"Find what you love and let it kill you" – Charles Bukowski

It seemed oddly whimsical for someone so scientific to have purchased the post-card. It seemed undeniably sweet to then give it up to someone who had just confessed to professional sabotage and acute jealousy.

He had placed it carefully on his bed-side table. He had stared at it as he lay in bed, nodding off with his glasses still on.

Then, last night, at around 12am, he had suddenly been overcome with the desire to play his cello.

He had glanced around guiltily, as if expecting to find Sheldon tsk-ing at his thoughtlessness for playing music so late. But, the house was quiet and still.

He had placed the cello between his legs, his posture straight but loose – a physical awareness that he usually lacked. His fingers positioned the bow a few times, without actually making a sound.

When he had finally moved the bow on the string he had been transported. His notes were wavering and uncertain at first, until suddenly he had let go, given into the feelings that stirred inside of him. He had played only sad songs, but he had played late into the night.

He had woken up in the morning feeling young. Perhaps it was because young people are always exhausted. Or perhaps it was the feeling of walking towards himself for once, instead of struggling to escape his own company.

He hadn't intended on another all-nighter. But, at exactly midnight, he had woken up with that same urge to play.

Then, again, tonight, he had woken up from a deep slumber, overcome with the desire to make music, too feel good at something. He remembered the way his mother had looked at him whenever he had practiced his scales. She had an abstract sort of appreciation for music, viewing it as a pleasant type of diversion, something acceptable, but ultimately pointless. Whenever he had achieved less than perfect grades, she would threaten to stop paying for his cello lessons.

Playing the cello had become a symbol of defiance. But, by making it a symbol, he forgot the true, undeniable joy that it gave him.

He would have liked Amy to see him play. To know that there was more to him than those unsightly sides he had shown her that day in the coffee shop.

That night, as he played the music that came back to him still after all these years, like a loyal but long-suffering lover, he felt more seen then he had in years. It wasn't the feeling of being seen by a person, it wasn't the feeling of seeing himself reflected in another person's eyes – that strange third person experience that had always accompanied him in treacherous and uncertain social situations. It was the feeling of starring in his own show.

A show without a leading lady, perhaps. But a show with a damn good score.

29 November 2009, 7.00am

Galveston, Texas

Penny dreamed that she was on a great metal ship that moved silently between stars. She made subtle, small adjustments to the instruments. She moved them left and right by a hair but made them miss collisions by thousands of kilometers.

In the dream, she had known that she was going somewhere. The man next to her navigated and pondered without speaking. They didn't need to speak, it seemed. He would move one long, elegant finger and she would know which way to go.

We should write a song for when we get there, she thought, knowing that he could hear her. Something that will be remembered forever. A frail melody of ice and dust, of distance and Arctic cold.[1] It will belong to us and everyone else.

He turned his blue eyes to her, expressionless. But, there was something mournful about his pale face, the way an empty room or discarded book can seem melancholy.

He closed his eyes and she felt oddly bereft. The universe was at its most beautiful when she watched it reflected in his eyes.

She knew, though, the cause of his silence. He didn't know what ice was, he had never seen dust, had never had to imagine real-world distances or experienced cold.[2]

She knew his name, but couldn't remember it. It didn't matter. She had left her own name behind with gravity. Finally, he spoke.

How can something frail and beautiful last forever? How can something belong to us and belong to everyone else at once?

She didn't have an answer, even in her dream. So, she contented herself with spending the rest of the journey dreaming and knowing that he could see her dreams.

Penny woke up to find Sheldon's arms wrapped around her, as was becoming their habit. For a moment she was disorientated, groggy, still partly dreaming. The room came to her in sudden bursts, in frames, piece by piece. Each piece that appeared to her made a piece of her dream disappear.

Several moments passed before she noticed that Sheldon was wide awake. He was wide awake and he was looking at her.

"You are beautiful."

It was a cliché, really. And usually Penny would have shrugged off the sentiment. But, Sheldon didn't say anything without meaning it – and he was too naïve to recognize that it was a cliché. If Sheldon said that she was beautiful it was because he thought it was true.

For the first time, lying in his arms in the dim dawn light, Penny was afraid of what it could mean.

She was afraid because when people said she was beautiful, it was usually just before they left her and she couldn't bear for him to leave her.

It wasn't fair to blame Sheldon for those past transgressions; it was not his fault that the men who had come before him had made use of her and then let her drop carelessly away like soiled clothing or a gum wrapper. They called her beautiful and then they leaved her in the morning.

But Sheldon didn't leave people. He was all sharp angles and profound, piercing blue eyes, and whacky interests and strange facts and all the knowledge of the universe.

He was remarkable. And she was someone who was often left behind in the morning.

"Beautiful doesn't last forever," she said finally.

He thought for a moment, considering his words. "Some beauty lasts forever."

She made an disapproving clicking noise with her tongue and shifted in his arms. He was never the sort of person who would trap someone, so he let his arms loosen to release her from his grasp. She was suddenly eager to flee, if only to get away before he could. She sat up, adjusting her robe and turning her back to where he lay, still staring at the ceiling.

A few moments passed as she tried to think of something to say, tried not to think about the way it had felt to have take him in her mouth and –

"Some beauty lasts forever," he said again. "Not the fleeting, physical beauty that society constructs. But, the beauty of the first note of a song by Beethoven or the brilliant light of a universe dying or a star being born – or just the terrible beauty of ice and snow that goes on and on – that beauty lasts forever." He finally tore his eyes away from the water-damaged ceiling. "When I say you're beautiful, I mean you're beautiful the way those things are beautiful."

"A terrible beauty?" she whispered, peering over her shoulder at him, with his hands neatly folded over his chest.

"A beauty that men must bow before."

He said it so matter-of-factly that she fancied she might start weeping. She would never, in her life, want to see Sheldon bow before anyone or anything.

She didn't know what to say to him. She didn't know what she could tell him about what they would return to in Pasadena. He thought she was more knowledgeable than he was when it came to relationships. But, the fact of the matter was that she was as confused and terrified as he was.

She felt suddenly, deeply afraid that he would leave her, scared that he might suddenly realize that they were two people who never should have met in this life time. It was moments like this, moments when she felt most lost that she would reach out most desperately.

She leaned forward and kissed him hard on the mouth.

For a moment he was still – shocked. But, as she nibbled at him and draped her leg over his side, he seemed to gather his senses and began kissing her back. She ignored his hesitancy and pressed her body flat against his chest, both lying on their sides.

In a moment of pure reflex, his hand slipped under the fold of her dressing gown. When he realized that underneath she was naked, he froze. She smiled at him wickedly, watching the quick play of emotions across his face – from surprise, to lust, to doubt, to confusion.

His hand, though, couldn't stop tracing tiny circles on her hip as he tried to pick one emotion and run with it.

"I want you to touch me," she whispered, running her hand up the arm that rested on her bare skin. "I want you - "

She had meant to say again that she wanted him to touch her, but it was more honest to stop speaking there. In this moment, she wasn't thinking about how momentous last night had been. She wasn't thinking about how miraculous it was that he'd even let her press this far against his limits. All she could think was that she wanted him, entirely – wanted to brand him with her name.

She kissed his Adam's apple, relishing the feeling of his pulse racing under her lips.

But, a moment later he pulled away.

"Penny - " he said, as if he planned to begin lecturing her on how much bacteria accumulated on human skin over the course of a night's sleep.

"It's non-optional," she murmured.

"Alright." His face registered only a tiny moment of surprise before he resignedly leaned forward to kiss her. Her stomach tightened as his lips met hers, gently, precisely, but then with less reserve and more of the strange passion that grew stronger and stronger between them.

But then - as his baser instincts kicked in and he pulled her closer towards him, fingers pressing into her thigh in a way that made her toes curl – she realized suddenly that her twisting stomach wasn't merely arousal. She realized, with a start, that she felt guilty. There was something about the way that he so unquestioningly accepted her statement that it was non-optional for him to kiss her that made her feel oddly ashamed of herself.

"Sheldon, wait - "

He stopped moving, his body suddenly stiff. He looked at her nervously, as if she had caught doing something he wasn't supposed to.

"Did I do something, wrong?" he asked shyly, reddening slightly.

She allowed her head to come to rest on his pillow. His hair was adorably mussed. His blue eyes were still so innocent, so clear, so anxious that he had done something typically insensitive.

She let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.

"No, sweetie. I did something wrong. You don't have to do anything you don't want to do. I wanted you to kiss me. But, I want you to want to kiss me more. Not just 'cos I told you so."

Sheldon considered her words carefully. "Do that mean I don't have to go shopping with you if I don't want to?"

She shook her head, amused. "It absolutely does not. It's a non-optional social convention for boyfriends to carry girlfriends' bags and - "

It was her turn to freeze. She wished for a moment that his memory would fail – just once – and he would forget what she had just said. But, his eyes were as sharp and calculating as ever. She knew that look of his: processing new data.

Suddenly embarrassed, she sat up, breaking the spell. She turned her back to him. Gone was the fear that he might disappear on her, replaced by a mortification that made her wish he would leave her alone to curse herself for failing to play it cool for once in her life.

It wasn't as if they hadn't stood in his childhood bedroom just yesterday, talking about romance. She had so haughtily told him that she would teach him how to navigate romance. And now, here she was, embarrassed at the feeling of having all her cards on the table. While he just lay there, staring intently at her back.

There was silence as she adjusted her robe around herself, calculating how long it would take her to dash to bathroom, but knowing that she couldn't leave without knowing how he felt about the idea of him being her boyfriend. Those traitorous butterflies would see to that.

When suddenly he spoke in an oddly quiet, vulnerable voice.

"Are you my girlfriend, Penny?"

"I don't know," she said softly, staring at the peeling wall. "Do you want me to be your girlfriend?"

He sounded genuinely confused. "How do I know if I do?"

She peered over her shoulder, forgetting about her embarrassment. She had told him that anything he couldn't do she would do. If he couldn't figure something out, she would have to help him.

"Well," she said, thinking hard – wanting to answer him honestly. "There are lots of types of relationships, so it's hard to say. I've had bad boyfriends…"


She ignored his snort. "I've had a lot of bad boyfriends, so I guess I know everything you shouldn't want but I've never really thought about what it means to say someone is my 'boyfriend'. I suppose it's who you want to spend time with - "

"But, I would want to spend time with you even if our relationship hadn't altered," Sheldon said simply, unaware of how his words made her melt.

She twisted around to face him. She leaned on the bed, one arm straight as she considered how to explain it to him. "I suppose it is kind like a contract you make – one of your agreements, I guess. But the contract is about caring for someone as much as you care about yourself, or at least as hard you can.

"It's a choice, I suppose," she said dreamily, on a roll. 'That's what's gives it meaning. You say that this other person is your person. You want to share your secrets with them, share your body with them, share you day with them. You want your story to be their story as well."

Sheldon considered her words. "And that feeling has to have a name?"

She smiled wanly. She had asked many boyfriends – Leonard, included - why they had to label things, why everything had to have a name. But now, with Sheldon she longed to hear him call her his girlfriend. At heart, she was always a dreamer.

"You know that feeling when you're in a crowded place, feeling lonely – and then you hear someone shout out your name because they want to catch up with you?"

"Friendship," he said simply, glad there was a concept in her whimsical speech that he could grasp.

He had learned about friendship over the last months. It hurt him the way that his friendship with Leonard currently lay. It hurt him because he had lost something. There must have been something to lose, then. Something more than lifts to the comic book store. Friendship he knew to real.

"Yeah, sweetie. That's friendship. So I guess with boyfriends and girlfriends it's about wanting to know each other even better than a friend does. To learn their real name. The name you'd have to call to bring someone home on a wild, stormy night."[3]

Something odd was happening in Sheldon's chest.

The truth was that he didn't really understand what she was talking about. But, while the words she used were too figurative for him to really understand, he could feel the truth inside of himself. When he had lived to find the answer to his formula – when his mind was dark and stormy and he was lost in it – her voice had led him back into himself.

"Is that what love feels like? Hearing someone shout your name in the middle of a storm to lead you home?"

He stumbled over the word 'love' the way others would stumble over the periodic table of elements.

"I think so," Penny said, doubtfully. The truth was that while had longed for men and dreamed of men in secret, she wasn't sure that she had ever been in love – at least not the way she thought she was able to love someone. "Or maybe love is what it feels like to forget your own name, just for a moment, because all you can think about is someone else's."

They slipped into a deep, contemplative silence. She was no longer embarrassed. Sheldon enjoyed talking about things in the abstract and she was surprised to find that she did too.

"Penny," he said shyly. "I think I would like to enter into a contractual arrangement where I agree to care about you as much as I care about myself, or at least as hard as I can."

Her face split into a wide grin. "You want to be my boyfriend?"

"Yes," he said after a brief moment's thought. "Provided that you will be my girlfriend. I presume reciprocity is a necessary precondition?"

She laughed lightly, leaning forward to seal their contract with a kiss. "It is reciprocated."

"Good," he said simply. "Now then, shall we discuss what we should tell my mother about our sleeping arrangements last night or shall we just resign ourselves to the inevitable three hours of prayer?"

Penny couldn't help but laugh as he sat up and began readying himself for the day. She proposed a shared shower, which made him blush beet red. She laughed, letting him off the hook, while lamenting the fact that his mother would know that they had stayed in a motel together overnight.

"You worry that my mother's perception of your promiscuity will make her approve of you less?"

And just like that, they were at it – bickering quickly, behaving more like an old married couple than a man and a woman taking their first, tentative steps towards each other.

Penny felt warm all over, glad to know that despite the newest heights of their physical relationship, they could still do this, be them – fuss around each other like they always had. But, usually when they bickered she didn't feel like doing high kicks in the air, with her skin tingling and smile so big that she couldn't remember what it felt like to frown.

He's my BOY-friend!

She almost laughed at her own immaturity. But, instead she playfully pinched his behind as she walked passed, throwing her clothes into her suitcase as he blanched visibly at the disorganized sight.

For a moment, in this ratty motel in a tiny town in Texas, she was content.

But, then, she glanced over her shoulder to tease him. It was one of those moments when his mind was elsewhere – somewhere in this wide galaxy amongst the stars. He looked so remote and thoughtful that he could have been that mysterious man from her dream.

How can something frail and beautiful last forever? How can something belong to us and belong to everyone else at once?

She didn't know. And she didn't know how to ask him.

27 September 2003, 5.30AM

Los Robles, Pasadena

He is alone. He is alone at last.

He is alone and making lists. Alone at last, he sits and considers the optimum way to spend each day. He calculates the time that the post office will be most empty. He calculates the time that the supermarket will be least full. He is alone in his apartment.

He watches television. He sits in a fold out chair.

He goes to bed at a reasonable hour. He passes the room his old roommate left bare – bare save for the words painted in red: DIE SHELDON DIE.

He takes pause. The red reminds him of the red of his blood when his father slammed him into the wall.

He sees red and he remembers the taste of his blood and the fear he felt, thinking that maybe this blow would finally, irrevocably wound his brain. He remembers the feeling of it – the fear that without his big brain, he would be nothing. His hope that without that brain of his he might finally see the world the way others did.

He loathes himself for thinking that.

The safety instructions he has inscribed in glow-in-the-dark paint look ghostly. He hears sounds all through the night.

He compiles complicated lists of questions for the replacements he interviews. No one passes, no one comes close.

He is alone – the way he had always wanted to be.

But, he finds himself lingering in the grocery store. He finds himself listening to the inane chit-chat he has always shied away from.

He hears a squeak in the floorboards.

He sweeps the house, finds some of his old roommates things. He puts them in a bag. He catalogues them, makes a spreadsheet. He waits on his chair in his spot until Glenn comes to pick up his things.

Glenn scarcely looks at him, can't stand to be there for a minute longer than necessary.

He looks at Glenn and sees the sight of blood. He is brisk and unfriendly. His mother would be ashamed.

Perhaps it is better to be alone. Perhaps the people in the grocery store and the conversations he overhears at a distance are enough. Perhaps he can be a man of pure thought. Perhaps the noises his apartment makes in the night are nothing more than the sound of floorboards settling.

And then Leonard comes in, in a blue hoodie, all hair and smiles.

He remembers what his mother said on 5 March 1992, when she told him that we are no more than the sum of the people we love.

If that is true, then he is the smell of last night's whiskey and the taste of blood. If that is true then he is musty old bibles and tea with the Galveston preacher. If that is true then he is Einstein, Galileo and the sound that the stars make on a wide, bright night.

Leonard reminds him of his mother – all positive noises and polite chit-chat. But he knows Star Trek.

He follows the rules he painstakingly laid out the night before. When he shows Leonard the room, marked with his own name in red paint on the wall, Leonard doesn't run. He doesn't cringe. He faces everything with that same agreeable kindness that Sheldon will come to know as his response to everything.

It is a contractual arrangement – a financial agreement.

But, the first night that Leonard spends in the apartment, Sheldon finds himself sleeping soundly. In the morning, Leonard obeys the rules that Sheldon has put in place around the bathroom routine.

Leonard drives him to work. Leonard introduces him to Wolowitz and Rajesh. Leonard gives and gives and gives.

Sheldon compromises only as much as he can bear. He compromises more than he ever thought was possible. He angles his chair towards the conversation. He eats his meals with others in the room.

A month into their living arrangement, he is in the kitchen with Leonard, who holds a metal skillet in his hands.

Leonard turns suddenly and Sheldon cringes in preparation for the blow.

Leonard sees. He doesn't ask.

But that night, when they go to bed, Leonard reaches out and squeezes his shoulder.

I understand, Leonard says with his eyes.

"That's a strike," he says, scurrying to his room.

His thank you is as silent as the sound that stars make on a wide, dark night.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz (email: wolowizard )

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.00PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SUBJECT: On the prowl

Hey buddy

I found this flyer for gay speed-dating tonight. I was thinking we could get a few cocktails and then hit it up, wolf pack style.

I met the guy who is organizing it at the gym at work. He's kind of a chubby Ryan Gosling. But, he was unleashing on the weights room, so might be worth investing in him now before he slims down.

Howard Wolowitz

Wingman Extraordinaire

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.02PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

SUBJECT: RE: On the prowl

Dude. How many times do I have to tell you not to send this stuff to my work email?

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.03PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

How chubby are we talking?

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.10PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

Wouldn't qualify for a spot on a Weight Watchers ad. Just looks like he's over-indulged in the brisket for a few months.

So can fat Ryan Gosling and I expect your presence this evening?


FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.15PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

Wouldn't it be kind of weird for you to go to gay speed dating?

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.16PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

No weirder than the time we modeled at that life drawing class. Besides, my wingman skills are equal opportunity.

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.18PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

So your advice is going to help me strike out with guys the way I used to strike out with girls.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.25PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

Hey, I give you the tools. It's up to you how you go about building the shed.

Anyway, I have a game plan so my raw sexuality and boyish good looks don't make it harder for you to pick up a boy toy.

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.35PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

Do I even want to know?

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.38PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

Speed dating is all about the cohort. If I'm in there, giving guys just the right balance of crazy eyes and self-loathing, by the time you get to them you'll look like a catch in comparison.

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 4.45PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

That's actually genius.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.01PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

So we're on. Pregame cosmos at the Raj Mahal at 8?

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.02PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

We are just like the Sex and the City girls! I dibs Carrie. You can be Samantha.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.10PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

Why do you have to make everything weird?

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.15PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

Dude, you're going to be hitting on guys tonight. The weird ship has sailed.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.17PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

I take my wing-man duties seriously.

Howard Wolowitz

First mate

HMAS Weird

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.22PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

You're a good friend.

FROM: Howard Wolowitz

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.25PM

TO: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

And you're going to get laid tonight.

FROM: Koothrappalli, Rajesh

SENT: 28 November 2009, 5.30PM

TO: Howard Wolowitz

DUDE – work email. See you later.

29 November 2009, 3.00PM

Galveston, Texas

When they arrived at MeeMaw's house, Sheldon found his mind suddenly overwhelmed with memories of his childhood.

He had come to this house so often when he was young – sometimes with his homework defaced and his lip bleeding from the most recent act of brutality on behalf of his peers.

He would walk into her house, aching with a feeling that he couldn't quite name. And there would always be two biscuits and a cup of tea waiting for him. MeeMaw would sit across the table from him and ask him about his day. She would ask him about what he was reading, what idea was consuming every inch of him. She would save up for weeks to buy him the heavy scientific tomes he would mention in passing. She savoured every word that he said – and when he didn't feel like talking she would let him be.

It was strange to know that the house was empty now. It was strange to think of all those photos and awards he had won that she had so carefully collected and displayed proudly in her living room would be packed away.

As they walked towards the house, he let his hand brush against Penny's, not quite sure what he was asking for.

When her hand wrapped around his, he felt an odd relief.

His mother opened the door before they had a chance to knock. She always knew when her children were coming. He knew that she was about to interrogate them about their whereabouts last night, but when her eyes fell on their entwined hands, Mary was absolutely still for a moment before allowing her face to split open with a wide grin.

She all but pulled Penny across the threshold of the doorway, into the house. When Penny's hand slipped from his he felt oddly bereft.

He followed reluctantly after the women as they chattered in that strange way that women did – as if most of the conversation was carried through looks and gestures. He shoved his hands in his pockets miserably, the absence of MeeMaw striking him suddenly.

Penny glanced over her shoulder and winked at him.

He didn't know quite what to make of the gesture, but he found himself speeding up to follow his mother and…his girlfriend (the unfamiliar thought made him wince, even as his heart clenched).

George Jr and Missy were already there, bickering and chattering, making lemonade. The pastor was outside, talking intently to the man Sheldon recognized as Missy's on-again off-again boyfriend. Two women were in the kitchen making sandwiches. They kissed his cheeks while he stood stock still, burning with mortification. They told him that they were friends of his mother's.

As he stood in the corner of the room, he watched Penny effortlessly flit between groups of people. He saw the pastor blush pink when she smiled at him. He felt a strange swoop in his stomach at the sight. Penny and Missy gossiped under the lemon tree in the backyard.

He found himself wandering out onto the verandah, watching Penny intently – oddly captivated by the way she smoothed her hair behind her ears. He felt a strange, jealous desire to hurry over to her side, to show Missy that Penny belonged with him. He resented the pastor who gesticulated wildly, trying to attract attention from the beautiful blonde woman who commanded attention so effortlessly.

"So y'all are heading back to California."

He jumped slightly at the sound of his brother's voice. He wondered how long George had been watching him, whether he'd seen the unseemly jealousy that had come upon him so suddenly and completely.

"That's right."

George looked down at his feet, thumbs resting on his belt. After a short, contemplative silence, he glanced back up at Sheldon. "It was good seeing you, Shell- Sheldon."

Sheldon looked at his brother's wide, honest face. It occurred to him suddenly that George had become a good man. A moment later, he wondered what had made him think such an uncharacteristic thought.

"It has been more pleasant than I expected," Sheldon conceded.

"I don't think we can take all the credit for that," George said pointedly, glancing at Penny.

Sheldon shrugged noncommittally.

"You don't give a lot away, do you brother mine?" George chuckled.

"I prefer to keep private matters private."

"Yeah, I know you do." George was silent for another long moment, as if considering whether he should say what had occurred to him. "So you and Penny – you're going to try to make it work with her, right?"

"We have agreed to shift the paradigm of our relationship, yes," Sheldon said carefully.

"That's good. That's really good."

"Is there a particular reason that you are so inordinately fascinated with your shoes today?"

George rolled his eyes. "You really are a straight shooter, huh?" When Sheldon didn't say anything, George shook his head. "Ah hell."

"Cursing hardly seems - "

Without warning, George grabbed Sheldon's arm tightly. "Now you listen to me, Shelly. I know I ain't much in the way of a brother, but to be honest with you, you're not really what I expected from a brother."

"I know," Sheldon said quietly, staring pointedly at his brother's hand as it clutched his arm.

George seemed suddenly aware of the pressure he was exerting on Sheldon's arm. He loosened his grip.

"But I am, you know? I am your brother. And it's my job to tell you that you gotta…you gotta get her flowers."

"Penny?" Sheldon asked, utterly nonplussed.

"You're a lot smarter than me in all the ways that count, but you're new at this…you're new at women. And women, they like you to tell them what you're thinking. They like you to tell 'em that you care about them, even if they know it already. And you gotta get 'em flowers and dance with them and take them and kiss them. You've gotta do all the junk that Momma taught us, like opening doors and walking on the outside of the road, and all that. You understand?"

"I should get Penny flowers," Sheldon repeated uncertainly.

"And candy and whatever else it takes. You're not good at talkin' about your feelings – and hell, most of us aren't. So you gotta show her that you care about her. You gotta show her that every day." George drew in a deep breath. "And if she does something crazy – and she will do something crazy – and you don't know what it means, you call me and I'll explain it to you best I can. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"

"I think I do," he said quietly.

"You'll show her?" George repeated, eyes boring into Sheldon's own. "You'll show her how you feel about her?"

Sheldon considered his words. "I'll try."

"That's all you can do," George said, dropping his hand from Sheldon's arm. Sheldon rotated his arm, trying to restore blood-flow.

They stood for a moment in awkward silence, before Sheldon cleared his throat.

"Thank you, George Jr."

George nodded, his lips pressed in a thin line. For a moment, Sheldon fancied that George might hug him, but at the last moment, he seemed to think better of it. George reached out his hand. Sheldon shook it, recognizing this as one of those non-optional social conventions that his mother had taught him about so carefully.

At that moment, Penny let out a particularly bright laugh. With George nodding encouragingly at him, he made his way across the garden. Missy glanced at him slyly as he crossed the moist grass.

"Sheldon – we were just talking about the diner where Missy - "

She trailed off when she saw his determined face. She cocked her head to the side, about to ask him what was going on, when he placed one of his large hands on her cheeks. She found suddenly that she could scarcely breathe, let alone speak, let alone ask what was going on.

She noticed out of the corner of her eye that even Missy was quiet, no trace of humour on her face. They all knew that for Sheldon, such a display was unheard of.

"I care about you," he said softly, before kissing her once, lightly, chastely on the lips as his family and their friends stared at him shocked.

Penny couldn't control the smile that broke out over her face. "I care about you, too."

"Good," he said before dropping his hand and stepping away from her. She stood there, beaming like a fool as he blushed pink under his grandmother's lemon tree.

The silence continued, unabated as Sheldon shifted uncomfortably. Then, with perfect disdain he looked around at all of them and snapped, "What's the matter – haven't you ever seen a man kiss his girlfriend before?"

Surprised at his sudden commanding tone, everyone leaped back into what they were doing with renewed vigour. Penny and Missy turned around to resume their conversation about Hollywood starlets and unkind bosses.

In these chaotic social moments, Sheldon often found himself withdrawn and pensive. Usually it was because he was never more aware of his difference as when he was surrounded by people.

But, now Penny's hand had snaked into his own and his heart was pounding. Sheldon stood silently, watching his family as they milled in the garden, hearing Penny's bright laugh and wondering why the sound of it make him feel better about being the occasional butt of his siblings' jokes.

For a moment, it was as if MeeMaw was still there, watching them fondly from the shade of the verandah.

He shuddered slightly, his skin prickling.

"Are you okay?" Penny whispered in that confidential, intimate voice that he was beginning to view as vital a part of his routine as Pizza Night.

He considered for a moment because he was not the sort of man who would answer that question lightly.

He had lost his grandmother. He had lost that one link to his childhood that had never caused him pain. He feared that he might have lost his best friend – or worse still that he had never truly known him. He had broken a promise to himself never to let another human being cross his borders or blur his edges the way his father had. He had broken a hundred little promises he had with himself about the way he would live his life and the schedule he would keep.

Sheldon had always been the sort of man who believed that if you break little promises, you'll break big ones.[4]

He had always thought that discipline against the force of almost overwhelming temptation was the nature of bravery.

But, perhaps he had been wrong. Because the way she was looking at him, requiring that he show a little more of himself to her, was more terrifying and required more courage from him than he had ever known.

"Yes," he said finally. "I think that I am."

29 November 2009, 9.00pm

Los Robles, California

Penny and Sheldon climbed the stairs, their limbs heavy with travel. They had sat next to each other on the plane – her reading Hollywood Reporter and he reading the Journal of theoretical physics. He handed her his hand sanitizer and she accepted it without question – eager for the chance to hold his hand when they landed and he grew nervous.

In her bag, she had the recipe book that Mary Cooper had given her en route to the airport.

"A secret weapon," Mary had whispered, pointing Penny in the direction of MeeMaw's cookies. "Use it wisely."

She hadn't trusted herself to speak.

Sheldon had stood for a moment in the front yard of his grandmother's house. When Penny had joined him she had stood slightly back, giving him a moment.

"Are you ready to go?"

"I'm ready for what comes next," he had said.

These Coopers – they kept her on the verge of tears.

They hadn't spoken since they arrived at the apartment, but they'd seemed to pass an entire conversation exchanged in glancing touches, in looks and raised eyebrows.

Through her exhaustion, Penny had to admit that she was happy. Arriving back in California brought with it so many challenges, so many barriers to a happy ending. And yet, when she was totally honest with herself, she needed the return to routine. She needed to see that they could work in the everyday, the way they worked in crisis.

As they climbed the final flight of stairs, Penny reached out and squeezed his hand.

"Dr Cooper," she said, her voice oddly husky. "Where do you want to sleep tonight?"

She would never grow tired of watching his wide-eyed surprise at her suggestiveness. She would never grow tired of hearing the sounds that he made when he was naked and she was on her knees and neither of them remembered how to speak. No matter how old she grew, how gnarled her memory became, she would never forget the night that they had passed in that sad motel in his home town.

But, it was not enough for her. She needed more-more-more of him. So, when she squeezed his hand and peered at him through her eyelashes, her heart was beating faster than she cared to admit.

They rounded the corner, arriving on the landing that separated World Sheldon from World Penny.


"Penny," he said.

She leaned in, as if to steal a kiss. "Well? Is that is a yes or a no?"

"Penny," he said again, pointing over her shoulder to the door to her apartment.

She turned, put out that he hadn't immediately taken her up on her implicit offer.

But, when she turned around, she found herself suddenly unable to speak.

"Hey Slug," said a man sitting on the floor, leaning against her front door. "Goddamn, have you grown up."

"Hi Jimmy," she said, mechanically.

It had been five long years. Five years of her mother's heartbreak, her father's quiet sadness. Five years since she had seen him, and yet here he was, smiling that cocky smile of his and giving Sheldon the same up-and-down look that he had once given Kurt in the backyard of their neighbor's house.

He spread his arms wide. "Is that anyway to greet your brother?"

[1] A line and concept borrowed from a short story by Julie Novakova, "The Symphony of Ice and Dust", which was in the October edition of Clarkesworld.

[2] As above.

[3] Last line is a quote from Jeanette Winterson.

[4] The Road, Cormac McCarthy.

A/N: I know this is a rather abrupt drop-in, but I couldn't resist giving you a teaser of the next chapter. I know it's been a while between drinks, so let me know if you want me to continue!