A/N: Well, we're come to the end of my little story. It was only ever supposed to be a few chapters, no more than three at the most, but the overwhelming response from the BBT community – specifically all you wonderful Shenny fans – has made it into what it is today. Your incredible warmth and welcome helped drive my muse into high gear and gave me the impetus to develop the plot into what it was. You are all awesome, and I thank each and every single one of you for your favorites, alerts, and reviews.
Does it even need to be said any more that I don't own the show, characters, or settings?
No beta fell on this grenade of a chapter, so all mistakes are mine.
On the drive back from the rodeo arena, Penny could tell Sarah was periodically looking out of the corner of her eye. It almost became a game to see how long she could hold out against the other woman's silent interrogation. Giving up her attempt to remain quiet, she sighed and broached the topic. "Sheldon texted me."
"You don't say," Sarah deadpanned.
Penny huffed in amused exasperation. "That's what I get for trying to hide something from you, right?"
Sarah merely grinned as she focused on the road ahead.
"Fine, fine. Yes, Sheldon texted to thank me for taking care of Leonard. He said something about big changes over there, but didn't say what they were. He just asked if I would come over."
Her friend let the pregnant silence gestate for a brief moment before asking the obvious question in between lane shifts. "And are you going to go?"
"Well, I said I would, so I guess I have to," Penny hedged her answer, hoping it would placate Sarah's interrogation but knowing it wouldn't.
"But you don't really want to?" Sarah was persistent, forcing Penny to admit everything.
Penny dropped her head as she exhaled. "I do, but the second I leave that apartment it's for good, you know? It'll be the last time there. Most of me wants to prolong that. I want to have that one last time to look forward to, I guess."
"That's understandable. Irrelevant, but understandable," Sarah said with a cheery tone that belied her words.
"There's a lot of nonsense coming out of your mouth right now, you know that, right?" Penny snarked as her head snapped around, giving the other blonde her full and complete attention – no easy feat when most of her wanted to watch what form her impending doom took. Sarah drove like a maniacal Formula-One racer.
Sarah snorted. "You and I both know that you could walk into that apartment and walk out with Sheldon and all his action figures following happily along if you really tried."
Penny shook her head in negation. "We talked about this. Sheldon's not like that. Batting my eyes and sticking my chest out aren't going to get his attention. I don't even think he has a deal." She could feel her heart and hopes sink with every word. She'd have to get over that foolish dream. He was destined to touch the stars; she was destined to walk among the dust at his feet.
"So give him one. There has to be a way for you to get him to notice you as more than the blonde across the hall. You've got almost five years of friendship built up right? That has to count for something," Sarah persisted as she honked her horn and took the shoulder around an SUV that was so large it almost looked like it could hold her entire car.
Looking down at her lap – since her hands were busy grabbing any handle they could for precious stability, Penny's voice was almost too soft for Sarah to hear. "He doesn't want me. He couldn't ever want me. I'm just the community college dropout. He's the future Nobel Prize winner."
This time Sarah actually laughed. "You're trying to tell me the girl who just rode down and hog-tied her own stalker is afraid of a skinny scientist? The Penny I just saw on that horse wouldn't be afraid of anything. The only question is what you want. Once you figure out what that is you just need to figure out how to go get it."
"But he's got a girlfriend. Sort of, I mean. No one really knows what their situation is," Penny protested, finding one giant roadblock to her pursuit of Sheldon.
"All you can do is try, right?" Sarah asked, unwilling to let her off the hook that easily.
"Do or do not, there is no try," Penny quoted automatically, remembering the line from the countless times she'd seen the Star Wars films with the boys.
"Oh, honey. You have it bad," Sarah started laughing at the mortification on Penny's face when she realized how she'd used a science fiction movie line reflexively.
Penny just buried her face in her hands. "It's got to be catching. I'm turning into a giant damned nerd after spending so much time around those guys."
"So why fight it? Trust me, accepting the inevitable assimilation instead of resisting just makes it easier," Sarah said through her chuckles.
Penny mock-gasped. "You're one of them too! I thought you were a little too familiar with the culture."
Sarah's laughs grew louder. "Join us, Penny," she commanded in a fair imitation of a robot's monotone.
When she was done shaking her head at the helpless humor in her situation, Penny grew pensive again. "Take the chance of a lifetime, just like that?" Penny asked, hating how small and afraid her own voice made her sound.
"What do you have to lose?" Such a simple question, but one with so many ramifications.
In those six words, Penny heard the shape of her own fate. She was tired of being afraid, of letting others tell her where to go and what to do, afraid of her potential. Finally fully realizing that she had gone from a vibrant, dedicated girl who wanted to spread her wings and take on the world to a timid, browbeaten near-alcoholic woman guilted into sex by a paranoid, selfish, and jealous little man, Penny gave herself a huge mental slap across the face.
"You know what? You're absolutely right. Time to throw caution to the wind and take life by the throat again," she said with a more vibrant smile than she'd worn in a very long time.
"All right! That's what I wanted to hear. Let's go get you your physicist!" Sarah cheered with a fist pump that had a trucker honking his horn.
Penny let out a lighter laugh than she had in months, feeling the freedom that came with making a momentous decision and damning the consequences. With her new-found mental clarity, she knew what she would have to do to show Sheldon she was serious. Turning to her new friend, a mischievous grin crossed her face. "There's just one thing I need to do first."
They made a quick stop by Sarah's office. Penny needed to print a couple documents very quickly, and it just happened there was a notary nearby that was able to notarize each sheet she planned to show Sheldon. She knew her lanky genius.
Penny also had a strange request, but it was one Sarah was only too happy to fulfill – when she stopped laughing.
When they were done she took a deep breath and nodded to Sarah. It was now or never.
Standing in front of the apartment door, Penny did something she'd never done before, but she knew this encounter had to get started on the right foot, so to speak.
For a half-second she'd been tempted to imitate Sheldon's triple knock in humor, but at the last moment she decided something that could be interpreted as mocking would be a bad way to start the most important conversation of her life.
After a few beats the door opened, revealing a visibly confused Sheldon. "Penny?"
"Hi, Sheldon. May I come in?" she asked demurely. She'd thrown him a bit off-balance. That could be good. He was insanely perceptive, so if he couldn't see what she was here for, it could really help her cause.
He stood aside to allow her entrance, and cocked his head to one side as she came in, as if there was something unusual about her that he couldn't explain. The faint sound of jingling accompanied her movements, but she had no bells tied to ribbons in her hair, none attached to her shoes, nor anywhere else that he could notice.
Sheldon observed with a primal appreciation the way her white halter-top sundress clung to her curves, stopping at mid-thigh. Not for the first time did he find himself remembering how her body looked – and felt – from the times he'd accidentally seen and touched her. As his blood surged southward, he committed the image to his memory, knowing that if she did indeed move out of the building and gradually fade from his life, he would at least have this moment to cherish.
For her part, Penny smiled as she walked into the living area she knew so well. On the trip home, she'd gone over and over in her head how to go about this talk, but in the moment, in the strange silence of the apartment and Sheldon's apparent confusion to her presence, all her plans fled her, leaving her alone to talk from the heart.
Of course Sheldon had other ideas. Opening her mouth to start talking, Sheldon was already speaking.
"The way you dealt with Leonard was masterful," he said with a small upward quirk of his lips, "With no lasting harm you were able to send your message clearly and succinctly. I got a text message from him just a few minutes after I saw the video saying that he would be moving out."
Letting out a breath she didn't know she was holding, Penny felt the relief course through her. It was over. "He must have bribed or begged one of the arena workers to cut him loose. I'm just happy I finally cut him loose myself," she chuckled, "What about Amy?" Penny felt equal amounts of anticipation and dread at learning the status of Sheldon's strange relationship with the neurobiologist.
"I have ended any attachment to Amy Farrah Fowler," Sheldon declared simply, not offering any reason.
Penny goggled, sitting down heavily on the couch next to Sheldon's spot in her surprise. "Wha – why?"
With a sigh of his own, Sheldon walked over to his desk, looking for anything to fiddle with while he decided exactly how to answer. The simplest reply would be to say that he was in love with Penny and that a relationship with Amy was unfair to all three of them, but he was well-versed enough in interpersonal communications by this point to know that being so direct was a bad idea. "I never had the physical attraction to her that she seemed to so desperately desire in the last few weeks and months of our friendship and relationship. For me it was always a relationship of the mind; I never desired any more from her."
"Then why did you allow it to continue? Why get pushed and pulled into something you didn't want?" She had to know. Needed to know why he did that.
"Everyone seemed so insistent. Raj and Howard found her for me, you and Leonard said it would be a good idea; I just thought it would be easier to go along with what everyone seemed to want so much. Plus with Howard and Leonard pairing off the way they tried to, it felt like that would be the easiest way to keep the group together," he explained.
"So you just dated her to make everyone else happy? Sheldon!" Penny scolded, aghast at her own part in his discomfort.
"I didn't do anything that I didn't want to; part of me thought it was time to begin that stage of my life. My own mother pushed me into it, too," he explained, sitting down next to her.
"I'm really sorry if it ever seemed like I urged you into something like that," she apologized, tentatively putting her hand on his forearm for support. She almost pulled it away out of instinct, but when he didn't recoil, Penny took encouragement and left it there.
"It's over now. Nothing to worry about. I told her there was no future for us," Sheldon said, settling further back into the couch.
"Things are well and truly over for me and Leonard too. I think he got the message when I hog-tied him," she said, barely able to contain her giggles until she was done. The relief of Sheldon being done with Amy combined with the last traces of adrenaline leaving her system after the rodeo evening, leaving her almost giddy. It was oddly like being buzzed after a little too much wine.
"That's wonderful news, Penny. I know you'll be a lot happier now. Even better, you won't have to move out of this building!" he replied, excitement rising with every word.
Penny sighed. Knowing this was a topic that required face-to-face talking, she scooted back on the couch and looked at Sheldon directly. "No, I still have to leave," she told him.
His eyes narrowed slightly as she moved, again detecting something that he couldn't explain, but he shook it off at her declaration. Disappointment flashed through his eyes. "But why? With Leonard gone, surely you'd feel safe enough to stay here. Why do you need to leave?"
Eyes shining, she forced herself to get through this explanation. He absolutely had to understand her reasoning before she could ask any more of him. "His ghost would be everywhere. Do you see this sofa?"
"How often did Leonard and I sit here together?" Seeing the understanding start to dawn she continued. "How often did we eat together around this table? How often did he make me coffee in the morning? How often did we make lo –" she stopped as Sheldon's raised hand cut her off.
"I understand," he said, eyes downcast. For his part, Sheldon saw it all happening before him. She would leave and start her new life, leaving them all behind. Howard had Bernadette, and with Leonard and Amy out of their circle, it would be down to himself and Raj most nights. Not that he minded Raj of course, but after getting used to such a large group of friends, having it shrink so dramatically was concerning. What made his stomach churn and his chest clench painfully, though, was the thought of losing Penny. She was his light, the one he turned to whenever he needed someone he knew he could count on.
Taking Penny out of the equation completely was untenable. Thus, there was only one satisfactory answer. He began cautiously, feeling out her emotions. "I understand. Would we be able to maintain our friendship once you move? By the way, where is it you'll be moving for this new job?" he asked tentatively.
"I'll be moving to Santa Monica, sweetie, and of course we'll stay friends! I couldn't ever stop being your friend, Sheldon. Your friendship means too much to me," she tried to reassure him.
Now or never, Sheldon Lee Cooper. Time to put it all on the line. Time to stand up and be a man for your Queen. "What if I were to move to Santa Monica myself? Would we be able to maintain a closer friendship like we have now?"
Penny couldn't help it – her eyes got wide and she drew a deep breath. "I couldn't ask you to do that. I know how comfortable you are with the familiar, with your routines. I could never ask you to give up everything you've spend so long arranging just to follow me."
For the first time, he smiled. "But you're not asking, I'm offering. Yes, I like my routines and this apartment, but you're right – Leonard will always be here. If I leave, I could escape that too. What it comes down to, Penny, is that I could give it all up. All my habits, my routine, this little bubble; they mean nothing to me if you're not here as well."
He just kept bringing the shockers. Penny was dimly aware that her jaw was hanging somewhere down around her waist, but she couldn't bring herself to close it. He was saying everything she wanted to hear from him. "Are – are you sure? Do you really know what you're saying?" she asked.
"Need I remind you of my IQ?" He asked with his cockiest smirk.
That made her answer with a grin of her own. "No, no, you certainly don't. Ok, ok, ok," Penny got up from the sofa and started pacing around the living area, repeating 'ok' over and over. Sheldon looked at her with concern, but she held up a hand to stop him when he moved to get up. Mentally repeating everything he said, she worked up her courage to broach the real reason she was there. A serene calm came over her when Penny understood everything behind what Sheldon was saying. She stopped her pacing. Looking over at him with her warmest smile, she moved to her messenger bag, discarded by the door when she came in. "I have something for you, Sheldon."
She removed the papers, bound with a plastic spiral and covered by a clear sheet of plastic and handed the packet over to him.
Watching his own hands take the papers from her, Sheldon was surprised to see them shaking. The words on the cover sheet made them shake even more.
"You…you wrote this?" he stammered in disbelief.
She nodded, unsure how to take his reaction. "I wanted something that would show you how serious I was."
"A relationship agreement between Sheldon Lee Cooper and Penelope Marie Collins," he breathed, "It's very thin, Penny. Are you sure you covered every possible eventuality?"
The grin that broke across her face at his question got his heart racing for a myriad of reasons. The only problem was that he couldn't figure out which was the strongest when she was looking at him that way.
"Absolutely, Sheldon. I think you'll find it's exhaustive enough even for you," she promised.
He sat down, intending to read it through as carefully as he read all contracts, but when he opened the cover, he looked up at her in surprise. "There's just one page here!"
"Read it," she urged, indulgent exasperation coloring her voice.
With narrowed, somewhat suspicious eyes, Sheldon looked back at the document and read aloud, "Desiring him just the way he is, Penny Collins promises to respect, love, and cherish Sheldon Cooper. All disagreements will be resolved by respectful conversation, leaving no ambiguity. Desiring Penny Collins just the way she is, Sheldon Cooper promises to respect Penny Collins in every way, from other demands on her time to her intellect. Advances in physical intimacy will be wholly mutual." He took a moment to stare at the words on the paper. "Penny?" he asked quietly.
"Yes, sweetie?" She tried hard to contain her smile. Sheldon had the same expression as someone who woke up and realized it was actually Christmas morning.
"This…this is amazing. No one has ever gone out of their way to set up an agreement for me before. It was always me doing this kind of thing. Do you love me?" he asked, barely daring to add any hope to his voice. His heart was racing after seeing how she signed her name before they'd even had the talk. She was dedicated enough to sign and notarize a relationship agreement that she drafted, knowing how to play to his comfort zone.
The toughest question he could have asked after seeing the document she made, and he lead with it. Penny shook her head, smiling at his predictably frustrating move. She took a minute to think of the best answer she could give him. Something her grandmother told her when she was a little girl sprang into her mind and crystalized everything. "I don't know, Sheldon."
His face started to fall and she could see the hope in his shining blue eyes fade. Before he could give up, she quickly continued, "But I think I could be. You're the most important person in my life, and I have very strong feelings for you. Whether those are love or not, I'm not sure. I've always been scared of using that word to label feelings, which is one of the things Leonard couldn't accept," she took a deep breath before telling him something she'd never told another person, "When I was a little girl, my grandmother told me that love isn't some magical force that you just understand when you see someone. It's not destiny or predetermination. She said that love was when you chose to give everything you had, everything that made you who you were, to another person. It's what makes you stick through the tough times for them. You want their happiness before your own. I think that could be you and I – God knows we've been friends through some crazy crap already. I think we just need to put in the time together to see if we're really at the point of knowing that it's more."
A timid smile crept slowly back to his face, "Are you saying…?" he trailed off, reaching out to take her hand in his without finishing his question.
Her smile grew into a full-blown toothy grin at how he signified his interest – Sheldon Cooper never willingly touched anyone. Anyone, it seemed, except her. That alone was enough to tell her what she needed to know. Looking over at his whiteboards, she was heartened to see the equation he'd been working on when he fed her the line of bull crap about his sister's friend Peggy.
"(Pe-L) + (S-A) = X. Solve for X," she recited, "I have the answer to your equation. May I?" she asked permission.
He nodded wordlessly, confused at her seeming avoidance of his question. Sheldon watched her get up – just as tantalizing as her approach – and head over to his board. He distinctly heard the jingling sound again but was at a loss to explain its source. Maybe I'll see if Dr. Stephanie would see me next week to check my hearing, he mused.
When Penny started looking around for supplies, he scrambled to hand her his spare eraser and dry erase markers.
Penny took the eraser with a smile and wiped away the X. Solve for X he'd scrawled. With a red marker, she drew in a heart symbol. It looked oddly appropriate next to the various mathematical symbols and Greek letters.
"There. Penny, taking away Leonard, plus Sheldon, taking away Amy, equals love. X equals love. That's my theory, anyway. Should we design and conduct an experiment to prove it?" She almost laughed out loud at the sheer disbelief written across his face.
He was dumbfounded. Not only did she write up and sign a relationship agreement for them that covered everything yet wasn't as dry and legalistic as his contracts had been in the past, she suggested the two of them start dating as an experiment to test the theory? She said she wanted to see if she actually loved him in science-speak. "You're amazing," he breathed in awe.
With a happiness unlike anything she'd felt recently, she planted a soft, chase kiss on his lips. In a move that surprised them both, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her in close, deepening both the kiss and the embrace. Her tongue was the first to break the barrier of their lips – she was the big ol' 5 after all – but he just as eagerly accepted the intrusion.
"I do have a bone to pick with you," he said after the need for oxygen forced them to break the kiss.
"What are you talking about?" She asked, not liking the negative connotations intruding on their happy bubble.
When he answered, Sheldon's voice was low and rumbling, with his Texan twang coming out in a way she'd never heard before. "Your text message distinctly said that you said you'd be here with bells on, but you're not wearing any bells."
With a saucy grin, she wet her lips. "Who says I'm not wearing any bells?"
Never one to back down from that kind of a challenge, he set his jaw, eyes twinkling. "Prove it," he growled.
Penny raised an eyebrow, loving this new side of him. What the hell? It's not like he hasn't seen it already. She stepped back, cocking one eyebrow up in a perfect Spock move that had his blood racing and reached behind her neck to undo the ties to the halter top. Loosened, the dress fell to the floor in a puddle at her feet.
For the first time in his life, Sheldon Cooper's brain went totally, completely, and blissfully blank because of a woman.
A/N: There it is. We're done. It's been a hell of a ride, and I hope you had as much fun as I did.
The lovely, wonderful, and talented FairDrea told me in no uncertain terms that I had to write the M-Rated epilogue that was kicking around in my head, so look for that at some point. I don't know when, but it will be posted. When it is, it'll be a separate story so that this one can maintain its rating.
As always, thank you!