Can't Win 'Em All
Author's Note: AU from TADD on. Sheldon stays a little longer and, in her drug-induced craziness, Penny kisses him on the lips. Weirdness ensues.
Leonard couldn't quite put his finger on it, but something was different in apartment 4A when he returned from the Leonid meteor shower (a trip of which, might he add, he remembered very little). Perhaps it was the new brand of crazy Sheldon seemed to have developed: he was acting somewhat like a skittish kitten, fleeing whenever Leonard entered the room. Perhaps it was the fact that Penny suddenly found herself with the inability to speak to either of the residents of the apartment. Either way, it heavily disturbed him, and as a scientist, he was determined to figure it out.
After fifteen minutes of knocking, calling, and guilt-tripping, Penny eventually consented to let him in. She looked strangely pale, eyes wide, hair a bit bedraggled. He sat down and just looked at her, feeling a somehow familiar squeezing of his stomach as he did so. He asked if she was okay a dozen times; every time except one, she said yes.
"I'm not sure," she said, finally. "I just...things are complicated."
"What do you mean, 'things'?" He tried to smile. "Things with work? Things with us?"
"Just...things," she replied vaguely.
Then he did something, something for which he would later applaud himself. "If things are so complicated...maybe we should take a break."
The words were simple, but he felt as if the step forward was huge. The absolute last thing he ever wanted to do was break up with her: she was beautiful, she was sweet, she was actually interested in him...
...but seeing her looking so pathetic, sitting on that couch, arm in a sling, living room a complete pigsty...
"Really?" she breathed. How ironic, he thought. We finally make a real connection as I'm breaking up with her?
"Well, yeah. I mean...if that would help."
Disappointment shot through him when she nodded. "That would help. Thank you, Leonard." Her smile was bright and genuine. "You're a really good friend."
Sometimes he really hated his life.
Eventually, the routine reappeared. Sheldon talked to Leonard again, Penny started showing up at the apartment once more, and everything went back to normal. Leonard had hoped that this would return his relationship with Penny to its former glory, but the looks she wore sometimes (as well as her silence on the matter) made him suspect that the change was permanent.
Leonard slowly began to realize that the current situation was anything but a simple return to the status quo. Penny seemed to spend an awful lot of time in silent communication with Sheldon, but that wasn't even the strangest part. They were at a party—Penny had promised them that "it'll be fun!", and it was, in Leonard's estimation, at least until several drunken fights broke out. After being nearly shoved into a wall by mere proximity, Sheldon had turned to Penny and said delicately, "Perhaps we should leave."
"Oh, of course, sweetie," she'd replied breezily. Nothing was terribly strange about this exchange, except that Leonard caught Sheldon placing a few fingers on her arm, in a gesture of thanks that lasted a few seconds longer than necessary.
Naturally, Leonard was able to justify this to himself. It's Sheldon. He doesn't get social conventions. He was probably waiting for her to ask him to stop.
Still, there was a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach that he just couldn't shake.
Leonard gave in and asked her one day. He had tried to wait until they had "alone time"; unfortunately, that proved impossible, so he settled for a night when Sheldon seemed to be absorbed in his laptop.
"Hmm?" She peered over her Cosmo.
"Are we ever going to, you know...get back together?" Some childish part of him urged him to close his eyes. He didn't want to see that look come across her face, that look he didn't understand but hated nonetheless.
"Oh, sweetie," she began.
"It's fine," he said hurriedly, recognizing the tone of her voice. "I just was wondering."
"Things are still...complicated. I'm sorry," she said quietly. He knew what she meant: don't wait for me.
The sound of typing resumed.
A week or two later, Penny thundered into 4A, all grumbles and scowls.
"I rocked that audition. How can they give my part—my part—to some brunette skank?" she raged. Her eyes were red from crying, and Leonard suddenly wanted to be anywhere but there.
"What was her part, anyway—your part? The part that was rightfully yours," he corrected hastily.
She slumped on the couch next to Sheldon. "It was just this dumb laundry detergent commercial. I was supposed to be the perky, pretty salesgirl, but no, apparently I'm not pretty enough for them."
"That's crazy, you're gorgeous," he replied automatically, then he noticed. She was no longer looking at him, but at Sheldon.
Sheldon, who was fidgeting and looking at his hands. "Penny," he said after a moment, "the casting director of this project made a foolish decision when he (or she) failed to cast you, as your performance would have been, no doubt, more than adequate. However, perhaps you should consider this in a different light. My mother says that 'whenever God closes a door, he opens a window', and while I cannot concur with her overt religiosity, I find the sentiment to be accurate. Perhaps another opportunity will arise that will make better use of your talents."
After delivering this speech, Sheldon returned to rapt contemplation of his hands. Penny seemed delighted, to Leonard's surprise. She reached out and let her hand rest on Sheldon's face. "Thank you," she said, in a voice ringing with sincerity.
Leonard's stomach plummeted like a stone.
For awhile, things seemed relatively ordinary. There was the odd glance or inside joke between Sheldon and Penny, but the weird touching appeared to have ended. Leonard would have been lying if he said he wasn't relieved.
One Monday night, they were all settling down to watch Serenity. The apartment was filled with the aroma of Thai food and the sound of Penny rummaging through their refrigerator. For the first time in awhile, Leonard was actually enjoying himself. The night was nice, quiet, normal.
Sheldon was in his spot on the couch, stretching. "My upper arm and shoulder are both very sore tonight. I wonder if I have tendinitis."
Raj whispered something into Howard's ear, causing laughter to intermingle with the clanking of bottles.
"Sheldon, how many times do I have to ask you to stop with the self-diagnosis?" Leonard asked.
His roommate pouted his lips slightly. "Are you suggesting that I am not qualified to make such a diagnosis? That is, that my intelligence is not—"
Sheldon stopped short, freezing up into a position even more rigid than his norm. Penny had returned from her quest for alcohol, and had taken her seat on the middle couch cushion, across which Sheldon's outstretched arm was still draped. She smiled at him innocently. Raj and Howard stopped laughing immediately. All eyes were focused on Sheldon.
He looked at her for a moment, and then, very slowly, he relaxed his muscles. He did not withdraw his arm. Penny's eyes softened, Howard's mouth dropped open, Raj gasped, and Sheldon just smirked.
For his part, Leonard simply felt as if a feral cat had been unleashed on his digestive system.
It was Thursday morning when his self-control gave way. He was driving to work, Sheldon was rambling about some "fascinating" fact or other, and he burst out with, "What's going on with you and Penny?"
Sheldon blinked at him, very deliberately. "Excuse me, Leonard, I believe that I was talking. You have broken a social norm by interrupting me."
"I know, I'm sorry," Leonard said in a tired voice. "I just have to know. What's going on with you and Penny?"
He thought about this for a second. "Well, we are currently writing an essay on Spock's interactions with humans and with Vulcans. It's going rather well."
"We are writing it for my fan community." Sheldon seemed pleased with himself. "Technically, I am doing all of the writing—I wouldn't dream of allowing someone with such a faulty grasp of basic grammatical principles near my essay—but I have granted her co-writer status, as her insights on interpersonal relationships have supported my conclusions."
Leonard took a minute to process this as he pulled into a parking place. "You...granted her co-writer status? You never have partners or associates, Sheldon, you have assistants. Are you even hearing yourself?"
The other scientist unbuckled his seat belt after the humming of the motor ended. "Naturally, I am hearing myself. I don't believe that selective deafness is anything but hokum, and even if I did suffer from that symptom, surely you'd know by now."
He was left in dumbstruck silence, with more questions than before.
Leonard knocked on the door to 4B at quarter to six on Saturday evening. Penny was obviously watching TV; she paused it and said, "Come in!"
He did, and almost wished that he hadn't. Sheldon was there (of course, I should have realized that I haven't seen him for hours), and the two were in a most unlikely position. She was laying back on the couch, legs sprawled over Sheldon's, who was sitting up, clipboard in hand, with arms resting primly near Penny's knees. Leonard opened his mouth to speak.
"Excuse us, Leonard, we have to complete this section," Sheldon said, turning to Penny. "Penny?"
"Got it," she replied, pressing play and letting the remote drop back onto the couch. Leonard realized that they were watching an episode of Star Trek. After a few seconds, she hit the stop button and began explaining her idea of the interactions. Sheldon scribbled furiously on his clipboard.
Finally, they stopped, both looking up expectantly at Leonard. He cleared his throat. "Uh...I was going to invite you over for dinner at our place," he said, addressing Penny.
A grin spread across her face, and she sat up, straightening her hair as she did so. "That sounds great, actually."
"But wait a second," Sheldon protested. "We still have approximately eleven minutes left in this episode."
She leaned across the couch and put her hand on his shoulder. It no longer surprised Leonard that Sheldon didn't jerk away. "Sweetie, we can come back after dinner, can't we? I'm starving."
"I highly doubt that you are actually starving; we ate lunch together, and we have burned very few calories sitting on the couch watching television. Also, tonight is Laundry Night."
"Well, then, we can come back after laundry."
He considered this. "I suppose you're right."
"See? It happens sometimes," she said, with a teasing note in her tone.
Then something incredibly strange happened, something so unusual that Leonard began to think he might need new glasses. Sheldon smiled. It looked a bit forced and awkward on his face, as it always did, but he smiled. For Penny, after admitting that she was right.
"I have got to wake up," he muttered to himself.
The two on the couch looked at him. "What?" Penny asked sweetly.
"Nothing. Everybody up for Chinese food?"
He straightened his tie and sighed. Leonard never felt quite comfortable in a suit; he never thought it looked right on him, and also, most of them were itchy. Still, he wasn't turning down the invitation to a Caltech fundraising banquet—his work budget was definitely overstretched for the kind of research he was doing.
He had actually considered asking Penny to be his date, in a purely platonic sense, until he realized two things. One, that she would think it was "awkward as hell" (I can actually hear her saying that), and two, that Sheldon would be forced to attend the banquet as well and would probably take her. The thought disturbed him, because as much as he tried to reassure himself that they would go as "just friends", he remembered their recent amounts of physical contact all too clearly.
So Leonard was taking this grad student, bright, pretty, and just a little bit infatuated with him; her name was Bea. As he suspected, Sheldon and Penny went together, all the while berating each other. ("You look very professional in that suit. Why don't you wear things like that more often?" "I wish I could say the same of you." "Are you saying that you don't like the way I dress?" "I said no such thing." "Fine, well, you implied it." "Oh, congratulations, you finally learned how to use that word." "If you don't shut up right this instant, I'm going to go junior rodeo on your—")
"Shut up," Leonard growled. Bea was smothering a laugh.
"Are they like this all the time?" she asked quietly.
"Yeah, pretty much."
"They remind me of my parents," she said wistfully.
Leonard gaped at her, but shook it off quickly.
Bea seemed to be nervous whenever they were too separate from the rest of the group (even though Howard obviously creeped her out and Raj didn't talk to her until his third drink), so Leonard had a front-row ticket to The Drama That Was Sheldon And Penny, as he was mentally calling it. So the title was a little unwieldy, oh well. He wasn't a poet.
Most of it was hard to see, just little glances and laughs that only someone who'd lived with Sheldon and slept with Penny would recognize as unusual. Then there was the real showstopper.
Sheldon had some upper-crust couple in his thrall; no doubt they didn't understand anything he was saying, and they were looking to make a quick getaway. They both had that far-away look in their eyes that Leonard knew well (a common side effect of being trapped by Sheldon). Surprisingly, Penny excused herself from drinking with Raj, and walked up to her date.
"Oh, yes, and this is Penny," he said rather carelessly, shoehorning her into whatever boring sentence she'd entered during. It was not his words that were strange, but the action that accompanied them—he put a hand on her shoulder as he brought her forward.
Leonard began counting the days until Sheldon would come into 4A with a signed Relationship Agreement in hand.
He was off by one day and the papers were torn up, but there was lip gloss on Sheldon's lips and a not-quite-as-awkward smile on his face.
Can't win 'em all, Leonard said to himself, thoughtfully. Can't win 'em all.