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Between Life and Being Alive

Chapter Text

“What do you mean, you’re going to be gone for nine months?!”

Penny always knew Leonard would put his career before his relationship, but she hadn’t thought he would ever agree to go on an extended trip to the United Kingdom without even talking to her. But that, it seemed, was exactly what he did.

“Penny, come on,” Leonard said. “Please don’t be mad.”

She pulled a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc out of the fridge and briefly debated just drinking straight from the bottle before electing to grab a wine glass. She didn’t even bother getting one out for Leonard. If he wanted wine, he could get it himself.

“Leonard, did you even stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you should have discussed this with me first?”

“Well…” He trailed off, and Penny exploded.

“Oh my God. We have been dating over a year now. I know it’s your career, but it affects my life too,” she huffed, and took a seat on the couch, unwilling to look at him.

He sat down next to her and leaned forward, trying to catch her eyes. “Okay,” he said. “You’re right. I should have talked to you first. I guess I was just so excited to be asked to do research with the most brilliant physicist in the world that I said yes on impulse.”

It took her a minute, but she finally set her wine down and turned toward him. “I know,” she sighed. “Like I said, I know it’s your career. And I want you to go. I mean, I don’t want you to go, but I want you to have this experience. When are you leaving?”

“In three days,” he said sheepishly.

“Leonard!” she gasped. “What the hell?”

“I know it’s short notice,” he sputtered, “but one of the scientists scheduled to go had to drop out, and I literally only got the call today. You’re the first person I’ve told.”

“You haven’t told the guys yet?”

“Okay, well, technically Wolowitz knew before you, but that’s just because I got the call when he was in my lab. I swore him to secrecy, though.” She eyed him suspiciously, but Leonard could tell that her resolve was breaking. It was the same look she gave him when he’d asked her out for the tenth time. He took one of her hands and cupped it between his own. “I wish I could bring you with me,” he added.

“I do too,” she said. “I mean, there are tons of hot British guys I could go fall in love with while you’re working.” She pursed her lips and made her I’m-totally-kidding face, because she knew he might actually take her seriously otherwise.

Instead, he laughed. “Very funny. Listen, I know it sounds like an eternity, but I’ll be back before you know it. And I’ll bring you a souvenir. Anything you want.”

She looked up at the ceiling, pretending to contemplate his idea. “Hmm,” she said thoughtfully. “How about you just pick up a British accent while you’re there?” She leaned in and gave him one of her Big Ol’ Five kisses, the kind that sent flames right down his spine and into his groin.

“But if I do that,” he said, when she pulled away, “how do you know other girls won’t try to steal me away?”

She was about to answer him when the arrival of a subtle Texas accent cut her off.

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

Knock knock knock. “Leonard!”

She raised an eyebrow as she got to her feet. “Sweetie, I hate to tell you this,” she said over her shoulder, “but it doesn’t matter what accent you have; the second any girl meets what’s on the other side of this door, you may as well sound like Elmer Fudd.”

The second she opened the door, Leonard’s roommate barreled into her living room and stared at Leonard, a mixture of annoyance and shock on his face. For all the jokes everyone made about his being a robot, Sheldon Cooper had no problem expressing disdain, anger, petulance, and any number of other emotions—usually when he was directing them at someone else.

“Hello to you too,” she muttered.

“How could you do this to me?” Sheldon asked, and the sound of his voice reflected the look on his face.

Leonard took off his glasses and rubbed his face with both hands. “Funny, I ask myself that exact question every single day…” he muttered. “How did you even find out?”

Sheldon breezed by the sarcasm, although Penny wasn’t sure if it was because he didn’t recognize it or because he didn’t care about it. “As it turns out, Wolowitz is a better friend to me than you are!” he shot back. “How could you agree to go to the United Kingdom with Professor Stephen Hawking for nine months without even talking to me? I know it’s your career, but it affects my life more than yours!”

Penny could see that this was going to take a minute, so she picked her wine back up and went to the bedroom. She sort of knew how this would play out: Sheldon would act like Leonard did this to hurt him, Leonard would roll his eyes and try to reason with the unreasonable, Sheldon would storm out, and Penny would end up having to play peacekeeper. Ever since she’d met Leonard, Sheldon, and their friends Raj Koothrappali and Howard Wolowitz, she’d become the unofficial Sheldon Wrangler. Somehow, she was the only person capable of calming him down. Even his girlfriend Amy wasn’t able to do it quite as well as Penny, although Penny wished she would learn; as much as she cared about Sheldon, being his keeper was exhausting sometimes.

After she listened to a few more minutes of the two men bickering in her living room, she decided to take a quick shower. She had gotten home from work just a few minutes before Leonard had come to share his news with her, so she still had the smell of cheesecake and grease in her hair. She poked her head out of the room. Leonard had gotten off the couch and was now pouring himself a glass of wine.

“Guys,” she called, “I’m just gonna take a shower real quick—”

“No, I don’t know why he didn’t invite you!”

“Perhaps he’s taken on a new charity project: throwing bones to subpar experimental physicists to pump up their curriculum vitae.

“Ugh, I’m going to kill Wolowitz…”

“Ooookay,” she muttered, closing her bedroom door behind her as she started removing articles of clothing, dropping them one by one on the floor in a trail to the bathroom.

A few minutes later, she was standing under the spray of the shower, washing the day out of her long, blonde hair. She hadn’t shampooed in a couple days, so she took extra time, making sure to scrub down to her scalp. After the water ran clear of suds, she added some conditioner, and then set to work on the rest of her body. Even though she was only in her late twenties, her body felt like it belonged to a woman three times her age. For all the ribbing the guys gave her for her waitressing job, they had no idea how difficult it was physically—burns from plates hotter than they should have been, bruises from accidentally walking into tables that had been moved by patrons, cuts from slicing limes at the bar, and, of course, the general aches and pains from her back down into her legs from being on her feet. And, considering she didn’t even have the benefit of health insurance, it sometimes didn’t even seem worth it.

The scent of her lavender body wash started to relax her into a state where she didn’t feel so upset with Leonard about making this choice without her; where she wasn’t annoyed with Sheldon for bursting into her apartment to confront Leonard as if it affected him more than it did her; where she could pretend that this was all just a movie scene and when she got out of the shower, life would be back to normal. Leonard wouldn’t be leaving, she would go beat Sheldon at Halo like she did every Wednesday night, and—

“What the hell?”

She had, of course, been taught how to do self-examinations of her breasts, back before Nebraska schools stopped caring so much about sex education. She never really knew what she was looking for, though, and besides, enough men had felt her up over the years that she figured if there were anything to be concerned about, one of them would have mentioned it.

But when she took a second swipe of her hand over her left breast, she finally understood what she was supposed to have been looking for every month. There, underneath her armpit, was an oddly-shaped, firm bump, maybe the size of a silver dollar. It didn’t hurt, but it certainly didn’t feel like something that should have been there.

She didn’t know how long she stood there feeling the lump from every direction, but it must have been quite some time, because Leonard eventually poked his head in through the bathroom door.

“Penny?” he called. “You okay?”

She snapped back to attention. “Oh, yeah, sorry,” she replied. “I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Okay,” he said. “Sheldon’s gone. I finally managed to get him out of the apartment by promising him that I’d take his new paper with me to give to Hawking. Too bad I didn’t promise him I’d actually give it to Hawking.”

Penny gave him a perfunctory laugh, just to get him out of the bathroom. When she heard him close the door, she rinsed her hair and turned off the water. The mirror was too fogged for her to examine her breasts in it, but she wondered if it would even have been visible anyway; clearly she hadn’t noticed it before. Besides, there was no history of breast cancer in her family, and there were all sorts of explanations for a lump. Her mom had a scare a few years ago that turned out to just be a benign cyst. Or maybe her bras were too tight and caused damage somehow. Whatever the case, she couldn’t do anything about it for the moment anyway. She would just have to remember to call for an appointment at the women’s clinic in Los Angeles.

By the time she came out of the bedroom, pulling an oversized sweatshirt over her damp hair, Leonard was just setting the pizzas he’d ordered on the counter. “Hey,” she said. “Sorry about that.”

He shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I’d have escaped to the shower with you, but I feel like Sheldon probably would have followed me in there to keep yelling at me.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “In half an hour, he’ll be so mad when I whoop his ass at Halo that he’ll forget he’s even upset with you.”

Leonard walked over and wrapped his arms around her waist. “I really am sorry that I didn’t talk to you first,” he said. “Are you still upset with me?”

Penny stiffened with the realization that she had to keep Leonard away from her breasts for the next three days. As annoyed as she had been at him for deciding to go on this trip, now she was glad he was leaving. If he knew what was going on, he’d make a huge deal out of it and drive her crazy until she saw the doctor.

“No,” she said, giving him a quick kiss before breaking away to grab the pizza. “I’ll even help you pack, Dr. Hofstadter.”

Chapter Text

“Sheldon, what kind of tea do you want?” Amy asked, setting the kettle of boiling water on the counter.

He glanced up from his spot on the couch, still stewing over Leonard’s insensitivity. “Why are you making me tea? As the host, it falls to me to make you, the guest, a hot beverage.”

Amy got out the box of teabags, which had been sorted by flavor and the time of day for which they were appropriate. “You’re my boyfriend, and you’re upset,” she said. “Besides, it’s in the Relationship Agreement that I console you with a hot beverage when you have any argument with someone covered by the Roommate Agreement.”

He sighed. “Well, since it’s in the Agreement…”

“Good. Now, do you want chamomile or peppermint?”

“Peppermint is for gastrointestinal distress,” he said. “Leonard uses that far more than I do.”

“Okay…then chamomile it is.”

He rolled his eyes. “Now, wait. Chamomile might make me sleepy, and it’s Halo night—the only night of the week I’m allowed to stay up past my bedtime. Oh, why is my life so complicated?”

Amy didn’t even know why Sheldon was so upset with Leonard but she already knew it was going to be a long night unless he calmed down before everyone else got there. Generally, the guys and Penny would play one round together, until Penny inevitably blew Sheldon up, at which point the women would head over to Penny’s apartment for girls’ night. They would usually be halfway through their second bottle of wine by the time the guys had either exhausted themselves or one of them threatened to blow Sheldon up for real. If Leonard already wanted to do that, then no one was going to have an enjoyable evening.

She dropped the chamomile tea bag into the mug and poured water over it, hoping he would be too distracted to notice that she had made his decision for him. “Sheldon, if you don’t tell me the problem, I can’t help you find a solution,” she said, handing him his mug.

He let out a heavy sigh. “I suppose you do need all the variables,” he replied. They went back into the living room and sat down on the couch. He set his mug down and folded his hands in his lap. “Today, Leonard was asked to join Dr. Stephen Hawking on an almost yearlong research project in England.”

He stopped there and Amy hesitated, trying to discern whether he had more to add. Sometimes she would respond too quickly, and he would get annoyed with her for missing his point. But he didn’t say anything else, so she asked, “And you’re upset because he was asked, or because you weren’t?”


“That wasn’t a yes or no question.”

“It is if both proposals are true.”

She furrowed her brow. “Well, Sheldon, perhaps the reason Leonard was asked has to do with his being an experimental physicist.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” she said, “if he’s going with Professor Hawking, they probably need an experimental physicist. They already have the most brilliant theoretical physicist in the world.”

Sheldon considered this. There weren’t many minds he considered equal to or better than his own, but Hawking was certainly on that short list. “I suppose that’s true,” he said. “And besides, it probably isn’t wise to have all the most brilliant minds in one place.”

It was at that moment that the door swung open and Penny strode in carrying two bottles of wine, while Leonard trailed behind her carrying the pizzas. “All right, Sheldon, the pizza’s getting cold, so here’s what’s gonna happen,” she announced. “You’re going to forget about being mad at Leonard, stop obsessing about this trip, and enjoy the evening.”

Sheldon looked past her at Leonard. “Fine.”

Leonard didn’t react. He was waiting for some sort of snarky follow-up. But all that happened was Sheldon getting up to wash his hands before dinner.

Penny turned to Amy. “That seemed too easy.”

Amy leaned toward her and whispered conspiratorially. “I primed him for ya.”

“Been taking notes, I see.”

Amy shrugged. “I am a scientist. I would be remiss not to make notes on my observations.”

“Well thank God,” Penny replied. “I didn’t really have the energy to argue with him tonight.”

“Everything okay, Bestie?” Amy asked, her face suddenly lined with concern. “Bad day at the restaurant?”

“Hm, well, let’s see,” Penny said, and looked over her shoulder. “Leonard, was I at work today?”

“Yep,” he said.

She turned back to Amy. “Yes. Want some wine?”

“Are the guys going to play dumb video games while you, me, and Bernadette sit across the hall getting intoxicated?”


“Hit me,” Amy said, and Penny uncorked the bottle.

After Howard, Bernadette, and Raj showed up, everyone took their customary seats around the coffee table and dug into the pizza. As they ate, Howard started telling them about his new government project. “So, in a few weeks, NASA is sending me to Houston to train some of the astronauts on how to repair the Mars rover. I’m hoping what they really want is to send me to space. Hopefully someday—”

“Oh, Howard, come now,” Sheldon said. “Do you actually think NASA will ever ask you to go into space? They have had Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn…”

“And what makes you think I couldn’t be on that list?”

Sheldon took a bite of pizza and gave a sideways glance at Howard. “Well, for starters, they were all veterans of the military. They were men of extraordinary bravery!”

“Howard’s just as brave as any astronaut!” Bernadette exclaimed, and to Sheldon, her high-pitched voice was like nails on a chalkboard. “It’s not his fault that his transient idiopathic arrhythmia, nut allergy, and flat feet preclude him from military service.”

“Yeah,” Raj added. “Plus, his mom said he wasn’t allowed.”

Howard glowered at his best friend and his girlfriend. “Thanks for that,” he muttered.

“No problem,” Raj replied, smirking.

Meanwhile, Leonard checked his watch. “Okay, are we going to sit around making fun of Howard all night—and believe me, we could—or are we going to play?”

“Oh, please, let’s play,” Howard said with eagerness and relief. “It’s time for Sheldon to be humiliated for a while.”

He expected Penny to make some sort of remark about how Sheldon was about to get his ass—or, more appropriately, his head—handed to him, but she was staring absently at the leftover crust on her plate, picking at it just a bit.

“Penny?” Leonard reached over to her chair and poked her leg. “Penny, you okay?”

She seemed to come out of a daze. It took half a second longer than she would have liked, but she cast a smile in his direction. “Yeah. Sorry. What?”

Amy and Bernadette shot each other a look of uneasy concern.

“Are you ready to make Sheldon cry?” Raj asked, as Sheldon aimed a glare in his direction.

“Sure,” she said, as brightly as she could. Thankfully, the boys weren’t observant enough to notice the difference between real and faux excitement.

“Penny, do you mind if Amy and I head over to your place until you’re done?” Bernadette asked, hoping Amy would follow her lead.

“Sure,” Penny replied. “Door’s unlocked. I’ll be over soon.”

Bernadette signaled to Amy to come with her. Amy grabbed the bottle of wine and followed her out, while the guys argued over who got to have Penny on their team and who had to sit out the round.

“So…that was weird, huh?” Bernadette said, as soon as Amy closed the door to Penny’s apartment.

“Which part?” Amy asked. “The part where Penny didn’t taunt Sheldon at all before they started dividing into teams, or the part where she hasn’t finished her first glass of wine?”

Bernadette’s eyes widened. “Really? I didn’t even notice that second part. Now I know something is going on. Did she say anything to you about her day?”

Amy sat down at one of the chairs at the kitchen counter. “Just the usual. But now that you mention it, she did seem a little more tense than usual.”

“You think she had a fight with Leonard?”

“I don’t think so,” Amy replied, adjusting her glasses. “If she had, I doubt she would still be there.”

“That’s true.” Bernadette looked at the door, then back at Amy. “Do you think we should ask her, or will that just make her angry?”

“I’m not sure. You know Penny isn’t exactly an open book. Even if something is wrong, she isn’t going to say anything until she’s good and ready.”

Bernadette sighed in resignation. “You’re probably right. On a different note, how are things going with Sheldon?”

“Oh, well, you know,” Amy said. “I’ve managed to kiss him drunkenly once, hold his hand while at the movies, and become his emergency contact for hospital visits.” She took a sip of wine and added, “So, you know, progress.”

“Yeah, I finally got Howie to make me his emergency contact in place of his mother,” Bernadette said with a laugh.

Amy noticed the slightly forced smile on her friend’s face. “You regretting it too?”

“Oh, so much.”

“Well,” Amy said, refilling both of their wine glasses, “to hypochondriacs.”

Bernadette raised her glass and clinked it against Amy’s. “And the women who love them.”

“Penny! Are you going to cover me or not?!” Howard yelled, smashing buttons on his controller. “I’m about to launch this grenade, but I need cover or—”

Suddenly, Sheldon’s character opened fire on Howard’s, blowing him up from behind. “Ha!” he cried, clearly satisfied with himself. “Serves you right for trying to take me out without backup!”

“Sorry, Howard,” Penny replied, as Howard shot daggers between her and Sheldon. “I was on my way.”

“Well, fat lot of good that did me,” he replied. “What’s with you tonight?”

“Yeah, you haven’t blown Sheldon up once,” Leonard said.

“That’s half of what makes Halo night worth showing up for,” Raj added.

“I know,” she said, battling a frown. “I’m sorry. I think I’m just tired.”

Sheldon didn’t care why Penny was playing so poorly. All he cared about was that for the first time in three years, she hadn’t totally humiliated him at his favorite first-person shooter game.

Howard gaped in astonishment. “Tired? I’ve seen you blow Sheldon away while three glasses of wine deep. What—”

Penny tossed the controller onto the coffee table and stood up, trying to suppress the urge to punch Howard in his nose for a second time. “You know what, Howard? Some of us had to work all day, as opposed to whatever the hell it is you do!” The room got quiet and she watched his face fall. Ordinarily, she might have felt badly, but given the day she had, she regretted nothing.

Sheldon, for his part, wore a satisfied grin. “Penny is correct,” he said. “I, for one, spent my afternoon working on a proposal to the National Science Foundation to obtain funding to research slow-moving monopoles at the magnetic North Pole. It was utterly exhausting.”

Penny rounded on him. “I was talking about me, Sheldon!”

Sheldon was slightly taken aback. Penny often got irritated with him, sometimes even so far as upset, but it was a rare occasion that she shouted at him. Before he could respond, the door was already slamming behind her.

She barely made it to her apartment door before she had a text, which she assumed was from Leonard. She didn’t even bother checking it, and when she opened the door, she found Bernadette and Amy sitting on her couch. A half-empty bottle of wine sat on the table in front of them, and they both jerked their heads upward as she entered.

Even if they hadn’t both been scientists, Amy and Bernadette would have had no trouble recognizing Penny’s frustration. Her collarbone and cheeks were stained with a flush, her eyes darkened with exasperation.

“Penny?” Amy said, keeping her voice soft. “Everything okay?”

Penny ran her hands through her still-damp hair and headed immediately for her kitchen—she’d realized too late that she left her wine glass on the table in Leonard’s apartment, but wasn’t about to go back in there to get it. As she grabbed a glass, her phone buzzed a second time. Again, she ignored it.

“I’m fine,” she finally said, grabbing the bottle off of the coffee table and pouring what she referred to as a venti glass of wine. “It’s just…”

 “Just what?” Amy asked. “Did something happen? Is Sheldon being a sore loser again?”

“You’d think he’d be used to it by now,” Bernadette replied.

“Are you kidding? He’s still mad that Penny and I won Pictionary against him and Leonard, and that was last year,” Amy said, almost as if she herself couldn’t believe what she was saying.

Penny shook her head. “Actually, he and Leonard beat me and Howard.”

“Ohhh,” Amy said with a knowing nod. “He was being a sore winner.”

Bernadette rolled her eyes in disgust. “The only thing worse than having to hear Howard brag about beating Sheldon is listening to him complain when he loses to Sheldon.”

“How do you think I feel?” Amy scoffed.

From there, the conversation devolved to Bernadette and Amy arguing over whose boyfriend was more insufferable. Ordinarily, Penny might have been annoyed, but this time, it provided an easy escape from their questions. While they bickered, she made for her bathroom. After shutting the door, she set her wine glass on the top of the toilet and splashed cold water on her face.

She looked at her reflection and realized that as irritated as she had been with Howard and Sheldon, the reality was that she was mostly upset with herself. She couldn’t believe she’d lost that game. She never allowed her personal problems to interfere with her competitive nature. On the contrary, Halo night was like therapy; it was one of the things that allowed her to forget whatever was bothering her. She would channel her frustration into the game and pretend she was a badass warrior queen for a while. But that night, she just couldn’t conjure the necessary enthusiasm. What was worse, she looked as tired as she felt, despite having had dinner and a hot shower.

Then, it occurred to her that the steam that had kept her from seeing what she had only felt was no longer an issue. She considered, for a moment, taking her shirt off and investigating what lay underneath. The only problem now was that she wasn’t sure she really wanted to find out.

A rapping at the door almost made her knock her wine glass over. Amy’s husky voice was slightly muffled. “I feel like all I’ve done tonight is ask if you’re okay, but…are you okay?”

Penny gritted her teeth. “Just a second.” She heard Amy walk away and rubbed the back of her neck. She knew if she didn’t start acting like her normal, sardonic-yet-upbeat self again, Amy wouldn’t be the only one asking if she was okay. And then, the buzz of her phone reminded her that she already had that problem. Pull it together, Penny…

She removed her phone from her back pocket and checked her text messages. Unsurprisingly, two of them were from Leonard, apologizing for Sheldon, Howard, and Raj’s insensitivity and asking her whether she wanted to come back over later. She elected to ignore them. The most recent message, however, was confusing, unexpected, and slightly bizarre:

It was not my intention to offend you. Howard, yes. You, no.

It was as close to an apology as Dr. Whackadoo would ever get. And there was something almost endearing about it, even though he also took another shot at Howard at the same time. Actually, she thought, that makes it even better.

She knew if she didn’t reappear in the living room soon, Amy and Bernadette would break down the door, thinking she had hung herself from the shower rod or something. So she typed out a quick reply.

It’s okay. Life goes on. :)

She was heading back into the living room when she got a reply.

Of course it does. At least, for right now. Despite your belief in psychics, there is no way to predict the future.

She should have just rolled her eyes, but she felt a chill run through her—because Sheldon’s words were more accurate than he knew, and truer than she cared to admit.

Chapter Text

Leonard was a nervous wreck.

Ever since he’d read A Brief History of Time in fifth grade, he had dreamed of meeting Professor Stephen Hawking, but he never thought it would really happen. And now, he was less than twenty-four hours away from getting on a plane headed toward England, where he would not only meet his professional idol but would work alongside him for the better part of a year. It was literally the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him, but it was also the most stressful. He’d had so little notice that he had to cram three weeks of preparation into three days. Between buying plane tickets, packing for nine months on a different continent, handing off his administrative duties at his lab, wrapping up his open projects, and coordinating with Professor Hawking’s people to arrange housing, he’d barely had time to sleep, much less spend time with Penny. But this would be their last night together until he came home, and he wanted to make it special. So, he spent the afternoon in her apartment while she was at work, putting together an evening to remember.

It was just past nine when she entered the apartment building, and, as usual after a long shift, she cursed the elevator. As she trudged up the stairs, she started to realize how little time she and Leonard had spent together in the last few days. She supposed she should have felt more upset about it; after all, he was going to be gone for almost a year—almost as long as they’d been together, in fact. As his girlfriend, she should have been depressed about that. But truth be told, she felt relief. Since he had been so busy, she hadn’t had to try so hard to keep him from finding out her secret. The problem was, since he was leaving the next day, he would understandably be expecting sex. She had wracked her brain trying to figure out how to avoid it, but he deserved to leave for England feeling as happy as he could, and, ever the actress, she was determined to play her part. She smoothed her hair, straightened her back, and opened her door.

Nothing could have prepared her for what awaited her inside the apartment, however. Her living room was illuminated by a dozen candles and two vases full of daisies—one red and one yellow—sat on her coffee table. Based on the smell alone, she knew something delicious was in the slow cooker, and the table was set for two.

The only thing missing was Leonard.

“Sweetie?” she called, dropping her purse on the floor next to the door. “Leonard?”

He popped up from behind the counter, and when she saw the smile on his face, she was worried he was going to propose again. “Hi,” he said.

“What is all this?” she asked, a smile lighting her tired face.

He poured two glasses of Cabernet and handed her one. “Well, since tonight is my last night here, I wanted to do something special for you, and I wanted to show you how much I appreciate how supportive you’ve been,” he said. “I know this all came as kind of a shock.”

She sipped the wine, grateful for its soothing burn down her spine. “Leonard, you’re my boyfriend. Why wouldn’t I support you?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. “I mean, Sheldon wasn’t exactly happy for me, and he of all people should know how exciting this is.”

She pursed her lips. “Do you really want to bring him into this evening?”

“You’re right,” he said. “Tonight is all about you.”

She clinked her glass against his. “Thank you. For all of this, I mean.” Her eyes darted back to the flowers. “The daisies are beautiful, by the way.”

He looked delighted to have pleased her. “I had a hard time deciding on a color, so I did some research. Obviously, red represents love, but as it turns out, yellow represents friendship.”

She returned his smile. “Because we started out as friends, right?”

“No,” he replied, and when she looked confused, he said, “because you’re not just my girlfriend. You’re my best friend.”

Tears prickled behind her eyes as she set her glass down and wrapped her arms around him. “I am going to miss you so much.”

“You’re just saying that because without me, you’re going to have to live on takeout and ramen for nine months,” he said with a mischievous smirk.

She rolled her eyes. “You act like I didn’t eat before you came along.” Then she lifted the lid of the slow cooker and found a roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes inside. “Okay, I ate, but I didn’t eat this well.”

“Aren’t you happy you gave up being a vegetarian?”

A grin spread across her face. “Almost as happy as you’re going to be tomorrow morning.” As he started to plate dinner, she could have sworn she saw trepidation on his face. “Leonard? What’s wrong?”

“Oh, nothing—nothing at all,” he replied, a little too quickly. That was his tell, and he knew Penny knew that. He cursed himself for not being a better liar. Before she could call him out, he said, “I guess I’m having pre-trip jitters. And I’m not looking forward to being away from you.”

“I know,” she said, “but think of how much you’re going to get to learn on this trip. And besides, if you’re going to leave me for someone, you could do worse than Stephen Hawking.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “I guess you’re right. Although I don’t think he’ll be as nice to wake up to.”

As they ate, the conversation went from the specifics of Leonard’s research project (most of which Penny did not understand), to how often they would get to talk (not much, Leonard said, as he would be at sea without much internet or phone access most of the time), and finally—despite their agreement not to bring him up—to the care and feeding of Sheldon. It would be the first time since he and Leonard became roommates that either of them would be gone for this length of time, and Leonard knew that Sheldon wasn’t exactly known for being adaptable.

“I know it’s a big responsibility but think of it as preparation for having kids someday,” Leonard said as he finished the last carrot on his plate.

She polished off the last of her wine. “When I was a kid, my parents would kick me out of the house at nine in the morning and tell me not to come back in until the streetlights went on.”

“Well, you can always tell Sheldon to go to the comic book store and not come back until the streetlights come on,” he laughed.

She leaned back in her chair and played with the edge of her empty glass. “Oh, please, I don’t need to tell him to do that. I just need to drop him off there and he’ll do it on his own.” Then, she looked up at him, adoration in her gaze. “Leonard, thank you for tonight. I can’t think of a better way to spend our last night together.”

“C’mon,” he said. “It’s not our last night together. It’s more like…a sabbatical from sleepovers.”

She giggled. “That sounds like the nerdiest band ever.”

“I wonder if they have an opening for a cellist.”

Forgetting herself for a moment, she got up from the table and sat down in his lap. She looped her arms around his neck and pressed her lips to his. He returned the kiss, letting his hands wander to her waist. He didn’t think he would ever get tired of feeling Penny’s skin against his. It was not lost on him that she probably thought he was just trying to get sex. But he never told her the real reason he constantly wanted to touch her: that sometimes, he just wanted to make sure she wasn’t some sort of fever dream. After all, in what universe did a guy like him get a woman like her?

In fantasy ones, that was where.

At that moment, however, he was trying to get sex. Unless he managed to get both a decent internet connection and some privacy on the boat, this would be the last time for nine months that he would be able to do anything except talk to her on the phone once in a while. He wanted to capture this night with her in his mind for those moments when—as he knew he would—he desperately missed her.

Meanwhile, Penny was so lost in the feeling of his mouth on hers that she very nearly forgot her concerns about what he would expect to come next. Despite his occasional insecurities about their relationship and her feelings for him, he was the best boyfriend she’d ever had. He was thoughtful and smart and above-average in bed. She sometimes wondered why he wanted her. She wasn’t as smart as him or any of their friends. She didn’t have a real career. She was almost always broke, and the only real passions she had were for wine and making Pennyblossoms for random strangers on the internet.

What scared her the most, however, was what she wondered most often: whether Leonard would want her if she didn’t look the way she did. If she didn’t have blonde hair and big boobs, would he still be interested in her? Would he have ever been?

And that’s when she remembered that for the first time, her breasts were the enemy.

“Leonard—sweetie—” She gently pushed him away, not so quickly that he would feel rejected but enough that he would stop.

“Oh,” he said, still kissing the side of her neck, “do you want to go into the bedroom and start that sleepover?”

She started to panic. If she said yes, they would eventually end up naked, and although she didn’t think the lump was visible, she knew he would be able to feel it. She thought back to her relationship with Kurt. When he wanted to do it, they did it. He never quite forced her, but she also knew that saying she wasn’t in the mood wasn’t an option. The only time he would back off was if she had her—

Of course, she thought, mentally slapping her forehead with her palm.

“Leonard, I want to. It’s just—”

“Just what?” he asked, and she could already sense the disappointment in his voice.

“Sweetie, it’s—I wasn’t sure how to tell you, because I knew how disappointed you’d be…but…”

“Penny, please just say it.”

“I got my period, okay?” She said it in a tone that was far more annoyed than she intended. Softening her eyes, she put on her best apologetic face. “I’m sorry. I know it’s awful timing, with you going away, and this being our last, um, sleepover..."

He was silent for a few moments. He was, as she said, disappointed. But he also couldn't really be upset with her; after all, it wasn't like she controlled her body's natural cycle. And somehow, she looked even more upset about it than he was. He kissed her shoulder and said, “I’m sorry, too.”

Her eyebrows shot toward her hairline. “What do you have to be sorry about?"

“I’m sorry because I won’t be able to give you something—or a couple somethings—to remember me by,” he replied, with an expression of smug satisfaction.

She smiled back at him, feeling thankful and guilty all at once. Then she stood up and took him by the hand. “Well,” she said, giving her lips a suggestive swipe with her tongue, “maybe I can give you something we'll both be able to remember."

He hesitated. “Penny, I was only kidding. You don’t have to—”

She pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. “I know I don’t have to. That’s why I want to.”

And at least about that, she wasn’t lying.

Chapter Text

Morning came both too quickly and not quickly enough.

At the first sound of the Zelda theme song blaring from his phone, Leonard all but leaped out of bed. He felt like a kid on Christmas morning—or at least what he imagined kids feel on Christmas morning, since his childhood didn’t include many holiday celebrations. His bag was already packed and waiting for him in Penny’s living room. All that was left was to shower, eat a quick breakfast, and head to the airport.

He glanced down at Penny, still somehow fast asleep. Her hair was splayed around her like a golden wave; he half expected it to ripple. The top of her shoulder peeked out from under the comforter, tan against tangerine, and her lips were parted just enough that Leonard could hear her breathing. He resisted the urge to climb back into bed and instead ambled to the bathroom for his shower.

When he came back into the bedroom, he was surprised to see Penny’s side of the bed empty. She had agreed to drive him to the airport, but he had expected to have to wake her up ten minutes before they had to leave. He hastily put on his jeans and favorite hoodie and headed out to the living room, where he found Penny making scrambled eggs and Sheldon criticizing her.

“Penny, you allowed the skillet to become too hot! The eggs are going to cook too quickly and their texture will be—”

“Sheldon, I swear to God, if you keep talking, you aren’t getting any eggs at all!” Penny snapped as she folded the eggs over in the pan. All she had wanted to do was give Leonard a decent breakfast before his twelve-hour flight, and Sheldon, who was going with them to the airport, just had to be all Sheldon-y about it. It didn’t bode well—not for the drive to the airport, and certainly not for the nine months to come.

“Penny,” he said, “today is Sunday. Sunday is oatmeal day. I don’t eat scrambled eggs on oatmeal day.”

Leonard could sense that Sheldon was about to be wearing the eggs, so he cleared his throat. “Good morning,” he said, kissing Penny on the cheek as he entered the kitchen. “Breakfast looks amazing.”

She was grateful for what she knew to be a deliberate shot at Sheldon’s running commentary. “Thanks! Coffee’s in the pot. Do you want ketchup?”

“Ketchup? That’s an odd substitute for creamer…” Sheldon mused.

“Not for the coffee,” she said, frustration heavy in her voice. “For the eggs.”

“Well, that’s even more vile than if he put it in his coffee.”

“Oh, please,” Leonard said. It was way too early to be dealing with Sheldon’s nonsense. “You eat hot dogs in spaghetti.”

“Actually, that’s not half-bad.”

Leonard gaped at Penny, who was, by then, plating the eggs. “I’m sorry, weren’t you just arguing with him?”

She pushed a plate toward him. “I was. But I’m just saying, it’s a good dinner.”

Sheldon looked entirely too satisfied with himself, and in response, Leonard squirted a generous dollop of ketchup onto the eggs. He didn’t even really like ketchup on scrambled eggs. He just wanted to make a point, even if he didn’t really know what that point was. Meanwhile, Penny handed Sheldon a bowl of plain oatmeal, which she held in the same regard as he held scrambled eggs and ketchup, but at least it kept him quiet.

Breakfast was far more enjoyable after that.

Two hours later, the three of them were standing inside LAX, the security line just a few feet away. Sheldon stood off to the side, watching Leonard and Penny saying goodbye as if observing some sort of anthropologic experiment. Leonard was holding back tears as he kissed Penny for, by Sheldon’s count, the sixteenth time since they’d arrived. Sheldon didn’t quite understand why Leonard was so upset. He was going on the trip of a lifetime, one of which Sheldon himself was jealous, so why was he almost in tears over a temporary farewell to a woman whom he had only been dating for a year? Perhaps he was concerned that she would find a new mate before he returned, which was not an unreasonable assumption.

Penny, on the other hand, had not bothered to hold back tears. Although she was not an outwardly emotional woman—save for when she drank to excess—she was still, in fact, a woman, and thus more prone to emotional responses. She had buried her head in Leonard’s shoulder, her blonde hair falling from the loose bun on top of her head.

“I’m sorry, I know I should be holding it together,” she sniffled against him. “I don’t want this to be the last memory you have of me.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and pulled her back so he could look into her eyes. “Hey, I’m just leaving for a few months to go hang out on a boat. It’s not like I’m going off to war.”

“Even still,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “I guess I didn’t realize just how much I’m going to miss you until now.”

After he kissed her again, he glanced over her shoulder and saw Sheldon looking back at him with an odd expression on his normally impassive face. The two men approached each other but it was a full thirty seconds before either of them spoke.

“Leonard, as much as I—”   “Sheldon, I hope—”

“You go first,” Leonard said.

Sheldon looked at the ground as he always did when he wanted to say something sincere but didn’t quite know how. “As envious as I was when you were offered this opportunity, and although I am clearly the more qualified of the two of us—”

Leonard sighed. “Is this your idea of a goodbye?”

“Well, let me finish,” Sheldon said, and glanced at Penny. “He’s so rude sometimes.” Penny shot him a look that could best be described as bemused. “Anyway,” he continued, “I hope that you know I wish you nothing but the best. I hope that working with Professor Hawking is everything you hope it will be.”

Leonard waited for a “bazinga,” or at least some thoughtless post-script, but none came. Was it possible, he wondered, that Sheldon actually was happy for him? “Wow,” he said. “Well, I—thanks, Sheldon. That means a lot to me.”

“And you don’t have to worry,” Sheldon added. “While you’re gone, I won’t allow anyone to take credit for the work you’re doing in the lab at Caltech.”

“Thanks, buddy, I appr—”

“Not that I know of anyone who would want to.”

Aaaaand there it is, Leonard thought, but in the interest of leaving things on a positive note, he chose to ignore it.

“Sheldon…I’ll miss you,” he finally said, and held out his hand, hoping Sheldon would take it despite his germaphobia.

Sheldon rolled his eyes but, having been raised with southern manners drilled into his head, grasped Leonard’s hand and shook it firmly. “You are going to miss your flight,” he said, and Leonard knew that was as close to a sentimental goodbye as Sheldon would ever get. After giving Penny one last kiss, he entered the security line. And then there was nothing left for Penny and Sheldon to do except stand beside each other in silence as the most important person in both their lives disappeared into a sea of faces.

“Well,” Sheldon said as soon as Leonard was out of sight, “I guess that’s it.”

Penny sniffled and dabbed at the corners of her eyes with her fingertips. “Yeah. I guess so.”

He looked down at her. “Are you going to be all right?”

She gave him a watery smile. “I’ll be fine. I just need a minute.”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that,” he said as they began walking back to the parking lot. “Who else is going to drive me home?”

“Oh, God, is this how it’s going to be for the next nine months? Leonard isn’t here so I’m responsible for driving you everywhere?”

“Of course not,” he said. “I will be taking the bus to and from work.”

“Thank God, because I don’t want to wake up at six in the morning every—”

“I will, however, need you to take me to the store to obtain extra bus pants.”

She would buy him the bus pants if it meant she didn’t have to get up at sunrise five days a week. “Fine.”

They walked in comfortable silence alongside each other until they reached Leonard’s car, which he had insisted Penny use until he returned. Sheldon was grateful for this gesture as well, as Penny’s check engine light had been on for months. He was just beginning to feel relieved, until he saw her squeeze the bridge of her nose as she got behind the wheel. It was then, in the natural light of mid-morning, he noticed unusual bags under her eyes.

“Penny, did you get adequate REM sleep last night?” he asked.

“Yep,” she replied absently, acclimating herself to Leonard’s Prius. It was almost brand new, and everything was electronic, as opposed to her decade-and-a-half-old Volkswagen that still had crank-operated windows.

“I’m concerned about your ability to drive,” he continued. “You look extraordinarily tired. Was Leonard’s snoring particularly loud last night? Sometimes I wear earplugs when he starts to sound like a human freight train. You would think that sound would be soothing to me, but—”

“I said I’m fine, Sheldon,” she snapped, and then out of the corner of her eye, she saw him wince. This was the second time in a week she had lashed out at him. What bothered her was that she was exhausted, and that he noticed. It was draining, trying not to focus on—or worse, let slip—the secret that was hiding under her clothes, and she had in fact lost sleep over it. Furthermore, her shifts at work seemed to be getting more and more difficult, leaving her nearly comatose when she got home. But it wasn’t his fault, and she knew that, and she shouldn’t have yelled at him for being his usual observant self.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell at you again. I’ve just felt a little under the weather and—”

The second she said it, she wanted to stuff the sentence back in her mouth. Telling Sheldon she was feeling under the weather was like telling a five-year-old that they weren’t getting dessert. There was about to be a meltdown, but it would be man-sized instead of child-sized.

Sure enough, his eyes widened, he pulled the collar of his t-shirt over his mouth and nose, and shrank back against the passenger door. “What are you doing?” she asked.

“I can’t very well hold my breath all the way back to Pasadena!” he yelped.

It was tempting to let him think she was contagious just to keep him quiet, but then she would have to listen to him bitch through her door later. “Sheldon, I’m fine. It’s just”—she thought quickly of how to say it without saying it—“female problems.” It was difficult enough to get a man to buy tampons without grumbling; in her experience, telling a man that you were having “female problems” was enough to get him to back off of whatever conversation he was trying to have. Unfortunately, she forgot who she was dealing with. He lowered his shirt and seemed to calm down a bit.

“Have you seen a doctor?”

Penny couldn’t be sure, but she thought she heard a hint of worry in his voice, even though he knew she wasn’t going to infect him. As she drove down Sepulveda toward the freeway, she gave him a quick, reassuring glance. “No, not yet, but I will. I just thought I was tired from work. But I’m pretty sure I know what’s wrong and can get it handled.”

The truth was that in the last few days, she had spent every free moment reading about possible explanations for what she had found. Based on what she’d read, she was fairly certain that she was dealing with a cyst, or, worst case, a fibroadenoma. Either of those things would be an easy fix—generally, it seemed, they went away on their own. So she wasn’t in a particular hurry to get to the women’s clinic. She had plenty of other things to deal with, like the three extra shifts she had picked up for the week so she could pay both her rent and the electric bill.

“What are your symptoms?”

She snapped back to attention just in time to merge onto the freeway. “Sorry, what?”

“I asked what your symptoms are,” he said plainly. “Itching? Burning? Redness?”

Penny was both grateful and irritated that she was driving; otherwise, she might have slapped him. “Sheldon! I’m going to pretend you didn’t just ask me that.”

“Surely you realize that allowing such matters to go untreated will only lead to further complications,” he said, as if she didn’t know.

“I promise, I will get an appointment.”

He was quiet for some time, and Penny thought she had satisfied him.


Damnit! she thought, and unconsciously stepped harder on the gas. “I don’t know.”

“Which clinic do you visit?”

“A women’s clinic,” she said through gritted teeth. Why wouldn’t he let this go?

“Which one? The Pasadena Women’s Medical Group? Fair Oaks Women’s Health? Planned Parenthood of Pasadena?”

“Do you nag Leonard like this when he’s sick?” she asked. “I already told you I’m not contagious!”

“Fine,” he sighed, not wanting to distract her while she was navigating the freeway. “Will you at least promise me that you will call them this week?”

Despite how annoyed she was with his badgering, Penny couldn’t help but feel the slightest twinge of affection toward him. If she hadn’t known better, she’d have thought he cared more about her health than his obsessive need to control everything.

“Yes, I promise, I will call them this week. And to answer your question, it’s Planned Parenthood.”

“Thank you,” he said, relieved. “Now, seeing as it’s Sunday, and neither of us have plans, would you perhaps care to join me for an afternoon of 3D chess?”

“I don’t even know how to play regular chess,” she said, hoping that would dissuade him from begging. All she really wanted was a nap.

“I thought Leonard was supposed to teach you.”

She pulled off the freeway and toward the apartment, glad that in a few minutes, she would be in her bed, alone. “Yeah, well, he tried, but I could never really keep everything straight in my head. I kept getting confused about which pieces could move where, and I could tell it made it less fun for him when I took too long.”

He didn’t reply for a few minutes, instead gazing out the window as if he’d never seen any of the buildings before. “Would you like to learn?” he finally said, just as they pulled into the apartment parking lot.

“Learn what?” She felt like her brain was already asleep even though her body was—barely—still upright. Everything felt foggy, like she couldn’t quite process what Sheldon was saying.

He shot her a look of frustration, although she didn’t appear to notice. “Chess, of course.”

He then launched into a monologue about the history of chess, to which she only half-listened. If she kept quiet, eventually they would reach their apartments and she wouldn’t even have to engage. Sure enough, by the time they hit the fourth floor, he was still going on about some French guy with an absurdly long name beating some Irish guy in a tournament.

“Okay,” she said, interrupting his history lesson. “I need to catch a nap. You gonna call the guys to come over later?”

“Oh, doubtful,” he replied. “Rajesh is spending the evening in the telescope room.”

What about Howard?”

Sheldon furrowed his brow in confusion. “Why on Earth would I invite him over by himself? What would we even talk about?”

She shrugged. “You invited me over to play 3D chess. Why can’t you do that with him?”

“Because I don’t want to play chess with him,” Sheldon replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Usually I play chess with Leonard. As you are Leonard’s girlfriend, you are the obvious stand-in.”

“But I just told you I don’t know how to play!” she said, a hint of exasperation in her voice. She shouldn’t have even asked about evening plans.

“Well, you never answered my question.”

She stared at him blankly. “What question?”

“Do you want to learn?”

She didn’t even remember him asking her that. The idea of Sheldon teaching her chess brought back haunting memories of the time she asked him to help her learn about physics. The sentence “What is physics?” still gave her anxiety.

“Um…Sheldon, look, I’m really tired. Maybe we can talk about it later.”

“All right,” he said and turned toward his door. As he opened it, he heard a noise and turned back around to see Penny fumbling her keys a bit. She must really be exhausted, he thought. It’s a good thing she didn’t crash the car on our way home. I might have been killed! He was about to ask her if she had again tried to open her apartment using her car key, when she managed to push the door open and disappeared inside.

When he entered his own apartment, Sheldon was suddenly struck by the silence inside. He found that fact strange; it wasn’t as though he had never been alone in the apartment, even for extended periods of time when Leonard would go back to New Jersey or on vacations with Penny. In fact, he preferred the quiet. For the next nine months, he wouldn’t have to deal with Leonard taking more than his allotted bathroom time, or Penny making a mess in the kitchen while cooking breakfast on Saturday mornings, or endless, inane conversations that distracted him from his work. Other than with Amy, of course, and that was tedious enough.

As soon as he thought it, he scolded himself. He had been told such feelings were not appropriate, or at least the expression of them. He and Amy had been dating for over half a year, and in that time, he had grown to care for her in what he supposed was the way a boyfriend was supposed to care for a girlfriend. She was kind and a brilliant neurobiologist and a suitable mate for someone of his intelligence. And on the rare occasions he considered the idea of children, he knew he and Amy would, in all likelihood, create intelligent offspring.

But to get to that point, he knew that he would need to become comfortable not just with physical intimacy but also the idea of living with a woman. Living with Leonard was difficult enough, which brought him back to the fact that he had the apartment to himself for nine months, and although this should have thrilled him, he felt unnerved. Worse, he couldn’t understand why.

It was only half-past eleven in the morning, and he wasn’t entirely sure what to do with himself. Usually, he and Leonard would meet Howard and Raj at the comic book store on Sunday afternoon, but he wasn’t sure whether that would still be a regular occurrence now that Leonard was gone. At a minimum, someone else would need to drive him. He didn’t have enough bus pants to get to work and the comic book store.

Perhaps work would be a better idea anyway. He could always allow himself to deviate from his routine for work. Alone with his thoughts and equations on a whiteboard usually soothed whatever unrest was going on in his life. Maybe by the time he finished, Penny would be available for dinner. He made a mental note to pick up some hot dogs on the way home.

He changed his pants and grabbed his work bag, making sure he had his iPod and charger with him. As he left the apartment and locked the door, he glanced across the hall. It had only been about fifteen minutes since they arrived home, but he wondered if she was already asleep. He had the urge to knock on her door and tell her where he was going, since his usual schedule would have him either at home or at the comic book store, and what would happen if she couldn’t find him in an emergency? But then he remembered how tired she seemed as she was entering her apartment and thought better of it. He had incurred Penny’s wrath for waking her up too early, and it wasn’t something he wanted to experience again. So, he departed the building for the bus stop just outside, already working on the equations he’d left on his office whiteboard the previous week.

The second she closed her door, Penny dropped her purse on the floor and all but dived onto the couch. It wasn’t entirely unheard of or her to sleep on her couch; she had passed out on it many times when she’d had too much wine or when she came home from a long shift at work and fell asleep watching some crappy rom-com. But it was rare that she was so tired that she had to go for the couch because the idea of walking to the bedroom was too tiring. She managed to kick off her shoes—thank God for ballet flats—and curled up into the fetal position, holding onto the throw pillow under her head. She would just take a quick nap and then she would feel better, she was sure. Maybe she would let Sheldon teach her to play chess…or maybe that was the exhaustion talking. She also knew she had to call Planned Parenthood, but she needed to confirm her work schedule for the following week before she could make an appointment anyway…

She didn’t know how long she’d slept, but she was awakened suddenly by the sound of a door opening and closing. For a moment she thought it might be Leonard, but then, through her sleep-induced haze, she remembered he was gone. So, it had to have been Sheldon, and she expected to hear three sets of three knocks interspersed by three calls of her name…but none came. It wasn’t as if Sheldon was obligated to tell her where he was going, of course, but she was surprised that he didn’t. Maybe he realized how tired she was after all and didn’t want to bother her. She was just beginning to drift back to sleep, when she got a text.

I have gone to the university to catch up on work. Do you want to have dinner tonight at 7? I can pick up hot dogs. - S

So much for realizing how tired I am, she thought. Just that morning, he had been criticizing her cooking, and now he was asking her to make dinner for them—and she knew that’s what he was suggesting, even though he invited her. She wasn’t exactly shocked, though. For all his complaints about Leonard, she knew it would be difficult for Sheldon to be alone. Amy lived across town, so she wasn’t a convenient replacement, and Howard and Raj only had so much patience for him, despite being his friends. So she would muster her strength and make dinner for them, and then bow out early, using her early shift at the restaurant as an excuse.

Sure, she wrote back. But get wine, too.

She saw three bubbles floating up and down on the text screen, and then a second later, got another message. What kind of wine?

There’s a cool one I saw last time I was at the store, she typed back. It was in a dark bottle. The guy said that you don’t know if it’s red or white until you open it. I don’t remember the name, just go to the store down the street and ask them.

A minute later, he wrote back again. Schrödinger’s wine it is.

Despite her fatigue and the emotionally taxing morning she’d had, she laughed. Sheldon didn’t generally make jokes, but sometimes, he was unintentionally funny. At least, she thought he was. Even if she couldn’t understand most of what he said, she understood intonation, and it wasn’t usually what he said but rather how he said it that made her laugh.

After a final “LOL” to him, she turned her phone off and turned over on the couch, feeling like her body weighed twice what it usually did. If she was going to be able to cook dinner that night, she definitely needed this nap.

What she didn’t realize was that a nap wasn’t all she needed.

Raj had been in the telescope room all afternoon sorting through six months of data points, trying to find patterns and anomalies, but was coming up empty. He had already made sure the camera was white-field balanced, but he couldn’t do anything else until later that evening. There were a few images he needed to try to recreate to see if they were consistent over a period of days, but that would require him to take them at the same time as the old images, which meant he was stuck there for another three hours. He had tried to convince Howard to come hang out with him, but he and Bernadette were having dinner with her parents that night. Actually, Howard hadn’t needed convincing, but Bernadette was another story. Raj couldn’t really blame her; Howard needed to learn that sometimes, adults have to do things they find unpleasant, like having dinner with your girlfriend’s parents. Or, in Raj’s case, having to be in the telescope room all night.

Without looking away from the screen, he picked up his thermos and tried to take a sip, except it was empty. He didn’t remember drinking all of it, but then, he tended to lose track of time when he was in this room. He decided that was a sign from the universe—the irony not lost on him—that it was time for a break. Even though it was Sunday, he knew the cafeteria would still be open, so he could get some more coffee, and then perhaps he would take a walk outside to refresh himself. After locking the room, he left the astrophysics building and headed across the street toward the cafeteria. He decided to take a shortcut through the Downs-Lauritsen building, where he used to work, figuring he could walk outside on the way back.

As soon as he entered the building, Raj realized all over again how grateful he was that he didn’t have to work in it anymore, and not just because he had been forced to share an office with Sheldon.  It wasn’t particularly well-lit and, during non-work hours, could be downright creepy. Raj wondered if his old desk was still there; he didn’t see how anyone would have been able to remove it, so perhaps it would just stay there in all its Brobdingnagian glory for the rest of time. Nobody even worked in that room anymore, since Sheldon had staged a hostile takeover of a retired colleague’s office. In fact, Raj realized, he was heading down the hallway that led to that office, from which a light radiated into the otherwise dark building.

Sheldon was standing in the middle of the room, facing away from the door, staring at a whiteboard full of equations on the wall across from him. His arms were crossed, and his shoulders hunched, as if he had been in that position for some time. “Pattern is the same as fermions, travels on the pathways, hexagonal, it’s always hexagonal…” he mumbled.

Raj gently knocked on the open door. “Sheldon? What are you doing here?”

Sheldon didn’t even turn around. “Trying to figure out why electrons behave as if they have no mass when travelling through a graphene sheet,” he sighed.

Raj quirked an eyebrow. “Are you looking at them as particles or a wave?”

At that, Sheldon whirled around. “What did you just say?”

“I asked if you were looking at the electrons as particles or as a wave,” Raj replied.

Sheldon looked from his friend to the whiteboard like he was watching a tennis match. “Well, this is just awful,” he finally said, sounding defeated.

“What is?”

Sinking into his chair, Sheldon rubbed his eyes. “I’ve been staring at that board for hours now, and you come along and just give me the answer!”

Raj furrowed his brow. “And getting the answer is upsetting to you?”

You getting the answer is upsetting to me,” Sheldon replied. “As if today couldn’t get worse.”

Raj knew he would regret asking, but apparently, he was an intellectual masochist. “What happened?”

“Leonard left today.”

“Ah, that’s right,” Raj replied, understanding. “You miss him. Well, Sheldon, you’ve been roommates for years. It seems only natural that—”

“I don’t miss him!” Sheldon said, exasperated. “His being gone, however, has caused a rather large disruption to my daily routine, despite my attempts to avoid that very problem.”

“Is this because we didn’t go to the comic book store today?” Raj asked. “We can go next weekend. It’s not like Stuart is going anywhere. He lives in the store, after all.”

Sheldon sighed. “It’s not just that. I am only here today because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. When Penny and I arrived home from the airport, I tried to convince her to play 3D chess with me, as Leonard and I did on Sundays when we couldn’t go to the comic book store. But because of her female issues, she said she needed a nap.”

“Her female issues?” Raj repeated. “Like her time of the month?”

“She didn’t specify. I asked her symptoms, but she refused to provide any. All she would tell me is that she wasn’t contagious and that she would make a doctor’s appointment because she was, and I quote, ‘pretty sure she knew what was wrong and could get it handled.’”

Raj’s eyebrows shot up. “If she’s seeing a doctor, then it isn’t a monthly occurrence.”

“Perhaps it’s just a particularly bad month.”

“Sheldon,” Raj said, trying to remain as clinical as possible, “my father is a gynecologist, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that Penny is not going to a doctor because of something that has been happening once a month since she was a teenager.”

Sheldon pondered this. Admittedly, although he had a working knowledge of many subjects, he never bothered to dig into details about the female reproductive system. He knew how it worked, of course—the physical symptoms of menstruation were common knowledge—but he didn’t have a reason to learn about how those symptoms affected women.

“Well,” he finally said, “if it’s not her monthly cycle, then what could it be?”

Raj shifted uncomfortably from side to side. “I don’t really feel comfortable discussing Penny’s medical issues.” He glanced at his watch. “I need to get going. The cafeteria is going to close soon and if I don’t get some coffee, I’m going to fall asleep before I can get any real work done.”

Sheldon nodded. “Indeed. I need to find a new equation to work out, and that may take some time, since I’ve solved so many of them already.”

With a roll of his eyes, Raj turned to leave. But just before he closed the door behind him, he turned back around. “Hey, Sheldon?”


Raj tried to make eye contact, which was difficult, since Sheldon so rarely returned the gesture. But he managed to catch his friend’s eyes and held his stare. “Try to get her to go to the doctor sooner rather than later."

Sheldon felt his pulse increase and blood rush to his face. “Excuse me?”

“I’m not saying that Penny cheated on Leonard or anything,” Raj continued, “but given the fact that her last boyfriend was less than faithful to her…” He hoped Sheldon would get the message without him having to say it, but Sheldon just stared at him blankly. “Look, it’s unlikely. It’s probably nothing. But like I said, my father is a gynecologist, and if there’s one thing he impressed upon me and my siblings when he gave us ‘the talk,’ it was that sometimes it takes years for symptoms to show up, and by that time, there's nothing you can do. If she's feeling that kind of fatigue, then she should see—”  

Now Sheldon felt like the blood was rushing into his head and then draining from his body. “Oh, no. Oh, no, no, no! How could I be so stupid?” He felt like he was going to faint, and his breaths were dangerously rapid and shallow. “She could have herpes! She’s been using our silverware! I used hers just this morning!”

Raj was regretting having said anything. “Look, Sheldon, like I said, it’s unlikely. Don’t panic!”

But Sheldon wasn’t listening. He was too busy packing up his work bag and running out the door, hoping he could make it to the campus health center before they closed for the evening.

“Sheldon? It’s Penny. Open up!”

She was met with silence from the other side of the door. The best part of Sheldon was the fact that his routine hardly ever changed, and she knew that Monday night was Battlestar Galactica night. He should be in his spot, forcing her to watch the show with him while she tried not to look at her phone, lest he whine that she wasn’t paying attention. It was bad enough that he hadn’t shown up the previous evening for dinner. Now he wasn’t answering the door when he should be home.

“Sheldon, come on! I’m starting to get worried. Did I do something wrong?”

She put her ear up to the door, hoping to hear some sign of life. Her phone suddenly buzzed.

I am alive, it read.

She breathed a sigh of relief, but wasn’t satisfied. She wanted to know exactly what had kept him from her apartment and his favorite dinner.

Can you tell me what’s wrong? she typed back.

She waited. And waited. And waited some more. But no reply came.

Sighing, she went back into her own apartment. She was too tired to play this game. After she had realized that Sheldon was going to flake on dinner the night before, she had taken a hot shower and gone to bed early, but the next morning, she felt like she hadn’t slept in weeks. The restaurant had been packed that day, but while that would usually have made the day fly by, to her, the hours had just dragged. So she really wasn’t in the mood to try and get inside Dr. Whackadoodle’s beautiful mind.

Instead, she went to the one other person who might know what was going on.

Amy picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Bestie, what’s up?”

Penny hesitated. She didn’t want to alarm Amy, but she didn’t know how else to phrase the question. “Hey, Ames. How are you?”

“Oh, I’m all right. Just getting ready to practice a new song.”

Penny knew Amy was referring to her harp. “Oh, yeah? What song?”

“You’ll laugh.”

“I promise I won’t!”

Amy took a deep, shaky breath. “It’s ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ by Garth Brooks.”

“Wow,” Penny said. “I didn’t know you could play a Garth Brooks song on the harp!”

“I don’t think it’s ever been done,” Amy said, “but that’s what makes it a challenge.”

“I didn’t even realize you were a country fan, actually. Doesn’t seem like your kind of thing.”

“Oh, it’s not,” Amy assured her. “It’s just that Sheldon—”

She stopped abruptly and Penny laughed. “It’s okay,” she said. “I already know about his love of Garth Brooks. We have the same iPod and I picked his up by mistake one day when I was over there. It’s cute that you’re learning his favorite song.”

Amy smiled. “I don’t know if he’ll appreciate it the way you do. Anyway, what’s up? You don’t usually call.”

Penny sighed. “Have you talked to Sheldon in the last day or so?”

“Ah,” Amy said, as if she had been expecting this question eventually. “I have, yes.”

Pacing through her apartment nervously, Penny said, “Well, um…he was supposed to come over for dinner last night and he didn’t show. And just now, I went over there to try to talk to him, and he wouldn’t come to the door. All I got was a text telling me he’s alive. Do you know what’s going on? Is he sick?”

Amy took a deep breath. “I’m going to tell you, but you can’t freak out. Keep in mind that we’re dealing with someone who goes worst-case-scenario in…well, all scenarios.”

“Okay, fine, I won’t freak out,” Penny replied.

“And please remember that this isn’t me saying this, it’s just being the messenger. So don’t shoot me.”

“Amy!” Penny squeezed the bridge of her nose. “Just spit it out. What’s. Going. On. With. Sheldon?”

“He thinks you have an STD and he’s afraid of catching it.”

Penny was glad she was standing in front of her couch at that exact moment, because she immediately collapsed onto it in shock and disbelief. “You—wait—he what?

Amy cleared her throat nervously. “He thinks you have—”

“No, no, I got that,” Penny replied, a sharp edge to her voice. “What I mean is, why does he think that? How could he think that? I would never cheat on Leonard!”

“He doesn’t think you cheated on Leonard,” Amy reassured her. “He thinks that your last boyfriend—Kurt, right?—cheated on you and gave you something.”

Penny was aghast. “Gave me what? I think I’d know if I had an STD!”

“I thought you said you wouldn’t freak out,” Amy said.

“I know I did, but I wasn’t expecting—I mean, can you understand how this might have upset me a little? Please tell me he hasn’t told anyone else this little theory.” She was horrified at the thought that Sheldon might have shared this idea with Raj or—worse—Howard.

“No, no, it was just me, I swear,” Amy replied quickly. “Rajesh was actually the one who brought it up, but other than that---”

Penny looked around for something to throw. “Raj thinks I have an STD?”

“Again, no one thinks it’s your fault!”

I do not have an STD!” Penny yelled. “There’s nothing to be at fault for! Except the double murder I’m about to commit.”

Amy tried to calm her friend down. “Sheldon was just worried about you because you said something was going on that you needed to get a doctor’s appointment for. And Rajesh, well…okay, I can’t think of anything to justify his part in it,” she admitted. “But you know how Sheldon is. He’s not going to see anyone, until he knows he doesn’t have something contagious.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing!” Penny exclaimed. “He can stay in there for nine months and I won’t have to deal with him!”

Amy hesitated, but then said, “Penny, I know you don’t have anything contagious. And your body is yours to deal with, however you want. But if you won’t go for him, or for you, do it for me. I’d like to see my boyfriend again before I die.”

Rubbing her eyes with her free hand, Penny took a few deep, calming breaths. “Okay. All right. I know. He was bothering me to get an appointment on the way home yesterday, even before he thought—yeah. I’ll make the appointment after I hang up the phone. But not for him!” she added. “For you. Besides, you’re the only other person who can deal with him, and I’m going to need help for the next nine months.”

“Thank you,” Amy said, and Penny could hear the smile on her face. She was about to say goodbye when Amy said, “Penny?”


“Can I ask what is going on?”

Penny didn’t know what to say. She could tell Amy, she knew. Amy would understand. Plus, she was so logical and calm that she wouldn’t panic the way, say, Leonard might have. She would probably offer to go with Penny to the appointment for support. But Penny didn’t know if she wanted that. Having someone go with her made it sound like a bigger deal than it was. All she was dealing with was a cyst or something. There was no need to involve anyone else.

“I just—I need to get some new birth control,” she lied. “I’m getting some weird side effects and since Leonard’s gone, I think now’s a good time to switch.”

“I see,” Amy said, and she sounded relieved. “Would you like me to pass that information along to Sheldon?”

“Sure,” Penny replied. “I don’t know if he’ll believe you, but they’re going to make me have the testing done anyway when I go, so I can prove to him that I’m not diseased and neither is he.”

“All right. I’m going to go do that, and then go practice. Would you like to get together sometime this week?”

“Sure,” Penny said again. “I’ll let you know what day when I find out when my appointment is.”

“Great. Talk to you soon, Bestie.”


After she hung up the phone, Penny pulled up the Planned Parenthood website and clicked on the link to schedule an appointment. They had an opening at 9am Wednesday, and all day on Friday. Unfortunately, she had to work the afternoon shift on Friday, so she was stuck with the early appointment. Between this and getting up at six in the morning to drop Leonard at the airport, she’d end up on Sheldon’s schedule by the end of the week.

Not a minute after she clicked “submit” on the form did she have a text from Sheldon.

Amy informs me that you have made an appointment with the clinic, he wrote. She also informs me that your issue is related to hormones.

Yes, she wrote back. I do not, in fact, have a disease. But if it will make you happy, I’ll show you the test results when I get them back.

She was cleaning her kitchen when he replied, two hours later. Are you angry with me?

She wanted to reply that she was. But, as Amy had said, even if he had thought she had some contagious virus, he hadn’t placed the blame on her for it. He was just doing what he always did—assuming the worst.

No, she finally replied. Raj, on the other hand…I might have to go Junior Rodeo on his ass.

Three bubbles appeared, disappeared, and reappeared as he typed out his response. When it finally came, she laughed out loud, his unintentional humor restoring order to their friendship.

If you do that, please be sure to record it. The next episode of Fun With Flags includes a segment on the significance of the white flag in battle. Raj waving one would be a wonderful visual aid.

Chapter Text

Penny sat in the waiting room of Planned Parenthood, nervously flipping through a magazine. Even though she had only scheduled it two days before, she had been dreading this appointment since that afternoon in the shower the previous week. She’d had dozens of visits to women’s clinics over the years, for reasons ranging from yearly exams to pregnancy tests to a complete STD panel after she found out Kurt had cheated on her—which is why she knew that wasn’t the problem. It was hard to be mad at Raj for his suspicions when he wasn’t wrong, although she had read him the riot act anyway.

Although she had told Sheldon that she was going to Pasadena’s clinic, she went to West Hollywood instead. For some reason, she didn’t want to risk running into any of the girls from work—many of whom used Planned Parenthood for healthcare since they had no insurance—however small that chance was. She was getting tired of having to lie about why she was seeing a doctor or what was causing her terrible mood, especially since she was convinced nothing was seriously wrong. She had just had her annual exam six months ago; surely, they would have found something then. There was no history of cancer in her family. She was young, active, and healthy.

She knew all of those things.

So then why was she sitting in her chair, leg jumping wildly, with a tightness in her chest that hadn’t been there before last week?

The door that led to the exam rooms opened and a gray-haired nurse appeared. “Harris? Penny Harris?”

She jumped out of her chair and threw her purse over her shoulder. “Here,” she said, and then felt stupid, like she was announcing her attendance in school.

The nurse smiled warmly. “Come with me.” She led Penny past the desk and a set of bathrooms, and showed her into the last exam room in the hallway. Penny sat in one of the two chairs along the wall, while the nurse sat at a tiny desk and started typing at the computer. “Can you confirm your date of birth for me?”

“December 2, 1985,” Penny replied.

“Well, happy belated birthday, dearie!” the nurse said, with the same warm smile. She reminded Penny of her grandmother, only slightly younger and without the chain-smoking.

“Thanks, um…”

“Oh, I’m sorry! I’m Val.”

Penny smiled at her. “Thanks, Val.”

Val asked Penny some questions about her general health, whether she felt safe at home, and whether she was sexually active and with how many people. Once that was through, she asked Penny if she wanted STD testing. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to,” Val said, “but it helps us—”

“Test me,” Penny quickly replied, and then felt her cheeks burn. “It’s not that I think my boyfriend’s cheating on me or something, but—”

“You don’t have to explain anything, dearie,” Val replied, touching Penny’s arm briefly. “Now, before I go get the supplies for that, can you tell me more about why you’re here?”

Penny sighed. “It’s just…um…I was in the shower the other day—last week, actually—and I felt something weird.”

“Can you be a little more specific?”

“On my left breast, kind of near my armpit. There’s a weird bump there. I think it’s probably nothing, because it doesn’t hurt, but I thought I should come get it looked at anyway.”

Val’s expression didn’t change, but her eyebrows drew together slightly. “I see,” she said, typing more and clicking the mouse a few times. Then she stood up and gave Penny that same warm, reassuring smile. “Okay, I’ll let the doctor know, and in the meantime, we’ll get some blood drawn. I’ll test you for pregnancy while we’re at it, although since you’re on birth control, that’s an unlikely prospect.”

Penny was left alone with the sound of silence ringing loudly in her ears. She found herself staring at one of the framed posters, a diagram of the female reproductive system. She’d seen it before, of course, in her high school science books and during her past visits to the gynecologist. But this was the first time she’d really looked at it. Even though Sheldon made fun of biology frequently, if there was an area of science Penny might have ever been interested in, it would have been that. The human body was capable of so many things, and the female body was special in that it could literally hold another life inside it. But for as complex as the female body was, there were dozens of ways it could fail. She thought of all the pregnancy scares she’d had and wondered if there was a life event that caused women to go from being afraid of being pregnant to being afraid that they wouldn’t be able to.

What happened, she wondered, to make someone’s body betray them?

Suddenly, the door opened and she jumped for the second time that day. Val came in first, followed by a woman in a white coat. Tight, black curls were piled on top of her head and she had the cutest pink-and-black kitten heels Penny had ever seen. She would have to remember to ask where they came from.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Cooper,” the black-haired woman said. “But you can call me Anna.”

“You gotta be shitting me…” Penny mumbled, as Val began prepping her for a blood draw.

“I’m sorry?”

“Oh, God, sorry, it’s just—nevermind. Cute shoes!”

Anna smiled. “Thank you! Nordstrom’s semi-annual.” She took a seat where Val had been, reviewing the notes in Penny’s chart. “I see you’re here about a mystery lump.”

“Yeah,” Penny replied. “I found it by total chance. I wasn’t even doing a self-exam, I was just in the shower and…” She trailed off, as if scolding herself for not having done a self-exam in years.

“And how long ago was your last exam at an office?”

“Six months,” Penny said. “Which is why I’m guessing it’s nothing. It would have been there then.”

There was a question implied in her words, but Anna didn’t answer it. After Val took blood and left the room, Anna pulled a hospital gown from a cupboard and handed it to Penny. “Put this on and hop up on the table,” Anna said. “I’ll be back in just a minute.”

When Anna left, Penny stared down at the blue and white cloth in her hands. Despite still being fully clothed, the idea of putting on that gown made her feel more exposed than if she had been completely naked. But she slowly stripped off her sweater, tank top, and bra, and shrugged on the gown, holding it closed. She waited on the table, finding it slightly weird to be totally naked from the waist up and still wearing jeans and sneakers.

There was a soft knock at the door. “All good?” Anna called from outside.

“Yeah,” Penny replied, but she held the gown tighter.

Anna came back and washed her hands, then motioned for Penny to lay down, although she didn’t put up the stirrups. Penny drew open the gown and closed her eyes, wondering why, after having breast exams performed every time she had an annual, this time felt more invasive.

Anna began the exam, starting on the outer edges of Penny’s right breast and working her way in slowly. “So,” she said as she went, “I need you to tell me if anything hurts while I do this. Anything at all.”

“Okay,” Penny said, concentrating on her breath like she did during yoga. “The lump didn’t hurt when I found it, though. That’s a good sign, right?”

“Painful breasts are definitely symptomatic of certain things, so the absence of pain can help us rule some things out,” Anna replied. Penny noted that she hadn’t exactly answered the question. “Okay, nothing abnormal in that one. Now, can you show me where the lump is?”

Penny raised her left arm and, with her right hand, touched the tissue on the side of her breast, near her armpit. “Right here,” she said.

Anna replaced Penny’s fingers with her own. She moved them gently over and around the lump, feeling it from every direction. She pressed on it gently and asked Penny if it hurt to do that, to which Penny replied no. After a few more passes over the remainder of Penny’s left breast, Anna said, “Okay, go ahead and sit up. I’ll be back in just a minute. You can put your clothes back on.”

Penny looked at Anna’s expression carefully, searching for any hint of concern, but couldn’t get a read before the young doctor left the room. She realized just then how cold she was, and threw her clothes back on. But then, there was nothing to do but wait for Anna to come back in, tell her there was nothing to worry about, and that the thing would just disappear on its own. Then she could just go home, take a shower, and do the laundry she’d been neglecting for a week, constricting bras and all. After a few impossibly long minutes, Anna returned to the room carrying a glossy Planned Parenthood branded folder under her arm.

“Okay, Penny,” she said, sitting at the desk. “So, a couple things. First, and I know this is a terrible way to start, but it needs to be said: don’t panic.”

“You’re right,” Penny replied, biting her nails. “That’s a terrible way to start.”

“I’m sorry,” Anna said, an apologetic look on her face. “It’s just that sometimes when I talk about this kind of thing, women freak out before I can finish.”

Penny’s heart started to race. What the hell kind of news was she about to get that would make her panic? Everything around her seemed blurry and she had to focus to hear what Anna was saying.

“…and I can give you a referral for a couple different clinics that do those tests. They have sliding scales for fees, too. Would you like to go somewhere closer to Pasadena or—”

Penny held up a shaking hand. “Wait, I’m sorry…can you—can you start over?”

Anna looked as though she had seen this reaction before. Her eyes met Penny’s. “Basically, it comes down to this: I’d like for you to have a mammogram and possibly an ultrasound. Given that there’s no known history of breast cancer in your family, I’m inclined to think it’s a cyst, but to be sure, I’d like to give you a referral. And, as I said, there are several clinics that do sliding scales for fees.”

The feeling Penny had in her chest could only be described as a boa constrictor tightening around her lungs, like she couldn’t get enough air. She felt like she might cry, and it wasn’t until Anna handed her a tissue that she realized she already was.

“I’m—I’m sorry,” she said, her voice quaking.

Anna put a hand on Penny’s forearm. “It’s totally normal to be scared. I’d be scared, too. But I promise, even though it sounds terrible, it’s just a precaution.”

“But isn’t it—aren’t those tests for, you know…older women?”

Anna shook her head. “You’d be surprised how many younger women have them,” she said. “It’s routine for older women, but in younger women, it’s diagnostic. It’s no different than when you have a pap test for a problem rather than just your yearly exam.”

Penny nodded, although this information didn’t really make her feel any better. Two weeks ago, she had been perfectly fine, and now she was watching a doctor who looked barely older than her write a referral for a mammogram. What was happening? Where had her life gone?

Anna put the paperwork she’d filled out into the folder and handed it to Penny. “All the information you need is in there. Do you have any questions? Anything at all?”

Yeah, Penny thought. How do I get out of this nightmare?

“No,” she said. “I think I’m good, at least for now. You said, um…you said there were places closer to Pasadena?”

“Yes,” Anna replied. “I wrote them down for you. When you call to make the appointment, tell them you were referred, and bring that paperwork with you when you go.”

Penny turned the folder over in her hands, staring at it as if it were about to burst into flames. She suddenly felt the need to run from the room, as if the walls were closing in. “Okay. Okay, I—um—I have to—” She motioned toward the door, unable to finish her thought. Anna stood up and opened the door for Penny, letting her out first. When they reached the front desk, Anna turned toward Penny and put a hand on her shoulder.

“It was good to meet you. And I meant what I said—if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call. We’ll get your test results to you in a couple days.”

Penny mumbled a thank you, feeling slightly guilty for her sudden change in demeanor. But it was all she could do to make it out the door and back to the car before she fell into the pieces she had barely been holding together.

“I simply don’t understand,” Sheldon said as he, Raj, and Howard sat down at their table in the Caltech cafeteria. “Why in the world would they cast Paul Rudd to play Ant-Man?”

“You’re right,” Raj replied, to Sheldon’s surprise. “They should have cast him as Captain America, since he never ages.”

Howard sighed. “I don’t know whether to be more concerned about the idea of Paul Rudd being Captain America or by your obvious man-crush on him.”

“Whatever, dude,” Raj said. “When you’re fifty years old, you’ll have a receding hairline and a beer gut. When Paul Rudd is fifty years old, he’ll look thirty.”

Before Howard could shoot back a reply that he would have a brisket gut rather than a beer gut, Sheldon said, “If we could get back to the issue at hand, the reason Paul Rudd is wrong for the role of Ant-Man is the same reason Ryan Reynolds was wrong for Green Lantern. Their looks are an attempt to compensate for their atrocious acting skills. Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth get passes because their characters are supposed to have traditionally appealing masculine features.”

“I have news for you,” Raj said, clearly offended on behalf of Paul Rudd and Ryan Reynolds. “Green Lantern didn’t suck because of Ryan Reynolds.”

Howard laughed. “I agree. The only reason that movie made any money at all was because women and Raj paid to see Ryan Reynolds in skintight leather.”

Raj ignored Howard’s dig at his sexuality. “Anyway,” he said, “have you heard from Leonard? Did he make it to England?”

Sheldon swallowed the bite of his turkey sandwich—his designated Wednesday substitute lunch, if the cafeteria ran out of chicken salad—and nodded. “I can say with certainty that his plane arrived safely in London. I followed his flight with an app on my phone.”

“But have you talked to him?” Howard asked.

“No, although I’m not surprised. I’m sure he’s already at sea,” Sheldon mused. “I wouldn’t talk to him if I were overseas.”

“Lucky bastard…” Howard muttered.

“He’s probably on the boat already,” Raj said. “Did he say how often he would check in?”

“He said that he would try,” Sheldon replied, “but that he wasn’t sure how much time he would have or what quality of wireless connectivity would be available.”

“And if he does have time on his hands, I’m guessing he won’t be talking to Sheldon,” Howard added. “How’d Penny take it?”

“Take what?”

Howard rolled his eyes. “The Sword of Gryffindor.”

There was a beat, and then Sheldon asked, “Was that sarcasm?”

“Oh my God,” Howard said, “He’s finally picking up on it.”

“Must be Penny’s influence,” Raj said, and then turned back to Sheldon. “So answer the question. How is she doing with Leonard leaving?”

“I haven’t seen her since we left him at the airport,” Sheldon replied, the question unnerving him for some unexplainable reason. “But Amy has spoken to her, and we have exchanged text messages.”

“How is it possible that you live across the hall from her and haven’t seen her since Sunday?” Howard asked. But just after that, his phone dinged with an incoming text. He looked at it and stood up at once. “Sorry, guys, I have to go. Apparently, there’s been an issue with the rover.”

He assumed Sheldon would have made a snarky comment about his competency as an engineer or about engineering as a whole, but Sheldon didn’t seem altogether interested—which, Howard realized, was probably ideal, anyway. So he picked up his tray, mumbled a quick goodbye, and took off for his lab.

Raj looked at Sheldon. “You okay?”

Sheldon seemed to snap out of his trance. “I’m sorry, what?” He looked at Howard’s empty seat. “Where did Howard go?”

“Okay, so that answers my question…” Raj said under his breath. “Sheldon, I asked if you were okay.”

“I’m fine,” Sheldon said, which didn’t surprise Raj. Sheldon would talk about his feelings all day—when something irritated him, for example, or personal slights he felt others had made against him—but when it came to emotions, he may as well have been a Body Snatcher.

“Okay, well, then how is Penny? Did she go to the doctor?”

“I thought you didn’t want to talk about Penny’s health issues,” Sheldon said flatly.

“I don’t need specifics,” Raj said. “I just want to know if she’s feeling better.”

Sheldon sighed and set down his fork. He hated conversations like this. It felt entirely too much like gossip. “It seems that Penny has been experiencing side effects from her chosen method of contraception. She was waiting until Leonard departed for England to go to the doctor, presumably because she wanted to engage in—”

Raj held up a hand. “Okay, that’s more than enough information,” he said. “Hey, by the way, are we still doing Halo nights now that Leonard is gone?”

Sheldon furrowed his brow. “Why wouldn’t we? It’s not as if Leonard is necessary to successfully play Halo. In fact, now that he’s gone, teams will be much easier to form.”

“You’re probably right,” Raj said, smirking. “Besides, Leonard isn’t the one who blows you up.”

Sheldon glared at Raj, but then a thought occurred to him. “And Penny won’t be either,” he said, in a self-satisfied tone. “Because I call dibs on her.”

Chapter Text

If there was one thing Amy Farrah Fowler loved most about Sheldon Cooper, it was that he was a creature of habit. She never had to guess where he was, what he was doing, or what he would likely want to do on any given day—sometimes at any given time of day. It made at least one part of dating him easier. So, it came as no surprise that he wanted to continue Halo night as usual. That said, Leonard’s absence would require a bit of an adjustment to the normal course of the evening. Since a fourth person was required to play teams, Penny wouldn’t be able to do her usual destroy-and-dash. Therefore, Amy and Bernadette proposed switching girls’ night from post-Halo wine to happy hour cocktails.

Penny was completely fine with the switch. Her present health concerns notwithstanding, sometimes, she resented what seemed like an obligation to socialize with the girls after playing video games with the guys. She loved her girlfriends, of course, but sometimes she just wanted to spend more time with the guys chasing virtual versions of each other around a screen, yelling and cursing and laughing all at once. It was such a wonderful release of pent-up aggression, whereas having drinks with the girls involved some level of emotional effort which, while cathartic, sometimes felt intrusive and exhausting. Happy hour at least provided a definitive time limit during which she would need to put on her “actress hat” and pretend everything was fine.

Except for the fact that she had forgotten that Amy, who had arrived at the bar before Bernadette, knew about the doctor’s appointment—at least, the fact that Penny had gone to one. They ordered margaritas, chips, and salsa, and after a few minutes of each of them asking the other about work, Amy said, “So, did they fix the problem?”

“Sorry, what?” Penny asked.

“With your birth control. Did they change anything?”

Penny’s eye twitched a little. “Oh, yeah. Right. Yeah, they changed it to a different—a different pill.”

“What were you on before?” Amy asked. “Not that I have ever had occasion to use hormonal contraceptives, as my menstrual cycles have never been problematic—”

“Amy! Seriously?”

Oblivious to Penny’s attempt to shut down the conversation about periods, Amy said, “Seriously. In any case, my mother would never have allowed me to have it, even for such issues.”

This got Penny’s attention. “Your mom wouldn’t even let you have the pill for other reasons? Like, cramps or migraines or something?”

Amy took a sip of her margarita, her long, ashy hair forming a curtain around her face. “No, she always said that she didn’t want to, quote, invite the foxes into the henhouse.”

Penny winced, taking way more than a sip of her own drink. “So you still aren’t on birth control?”

“No,” Amy said, “but I suppose I ought to look into it soon.”

“Look into what soon?” Bernadette asked, appearing out of nowhere. She very nearly threw herself onto the third bar stool. “What are we looking into?”

“Birth control for Amy!” Penny said, flagging down the server to put in another round. She was happy to pay for as many drinks as necessary to keep the conversation off of her, or, failing that, get her friends so tipsy that they would want to duck out early.

Bernadette’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you and Sheldon finally going to take the plunge?”

“Actually, I think it’d be Sheldon taking the plunge,” Penny said, smirking.

Amy turned bright pink. “We haven’t discussed it as such. But we’ve been dating for quite some time now, and I think it’s probably a good idea to plan for the future.”

“Yeah, that way you don’t end up having to plan for Plan B,” Bernadette replied. “Are you thinking the pill?”

“I don’t know,” Amy said. “I recently read a study that suggested hormonal contraceptives increase the risk of breast cancer by fifty percent.”

Penny nearly choked on the tortilla chip she had just put in her mouth. She finished the rest of her drink in an effort to wash it down, while Amy and Bernadette looked at her strangely.

“Penny? You okay?” Bernadette asked.

“Yeah, I—I’m sorry,” Penny replied, grabbing the untouched glass of water in front of her. Once she was able to breathe normally again, she said, “I just swallowed wrong, that’s all. Go on, what were you saying?”

Hesitantly, Amy continued, “Yes. As I was saying, the study seemed to suggest that certain forms of birth control—those containing progestin or estrogen—may increase the risk of breast cancer, even in younger women.”

“Wow,” Penny said thoughtfully, trying to maintain her composure. “So, should we just…not be using birth control?”

“Oh, no, I wouldn’t say that. They have many benefits, including reducing the risk of uterine and ovarian cancer.”

“Yeah, and besides,” Bernadette added, “it’s not like breast cancer is common in women our age. It’s once you hit the big 4-0 that you need to be concerned. Unless there’s a history in your family, I guess.”

Penny wondered if either of them had any history of breast cancer in their families but knew that asking would just invite questions that she wasn’t prepared to answer. “Well, I can tell you from experience that the IUD is the way to go,” she said. “Best decision I ever made.”

Amy’s eyebrow quirked. Hadn’t Penny just been to the doctor to switch her birth control because her then-existing method had been causing unwanted side effects? She was sure Penny had said they switched her to a different pill. And even if she had just switched to an IUD, she wouldn’t know whether it was a good decision or not after just a few hours. She would have asked for clarification, but she didn’t know whether Penny had mentioned anything to Bernadette about her issue.

“Howie and I just stick to condoms,” Bernadette said. “When you work in pharmaceuticals, you want to take as few of them as possible.”

“Okay, that’s about as much as I ever needed to hear about Howard’s junk,” Penny said. Somehow, the idea of Sheldon having sex wasn’t as creepy or weird as Howard—probably because Sheldon had never made any kind of sexual advance on her. On the other hand, within ten seconds of their meeting, Howard had made a not-so-subtle move on her, while she was wearing nothing but a towel. Penny always thought she would regret introducing him to Bernadette, but as it turned out, they were a perfect fit.

“New topic,” Amy said. “Did Leonard make it to England?”

“He did,” Penny said, as the server returned with three more margaritas for the table. “He called me the minute he landed. Of course, it was five in the morning here when he called, so I didn’t answer. But he left a voicemail.” She pulled out her phone and hit the play button on the message, setting it to speaker.

Hi, Penny. It’s Leonard. As you probably know, since, you know…caller ID. And my voice. Anyway, I’m off the plane and walking to baggage claim now, but I wanted to let you know that I landed okay. The flight was fine, although my ears popped more than usual. I miss you already. I hope we can talk at least once before I get on the boat. I’ll try to call you later when you’re awake. I love you.

“That’s so—” Bernadette began, but Penny held up a finger.

Oh, one other thing. If you could just go over to the apartment once in a while and water the cactus I have in my room, I’d appreciate it. I asked Sheldon to do it before I left, but apparently there’s some stupid clause in the Roommate Agreement that says I need to provide written plant care instructions two days in advance of any vacation I take. I tried to reason with him, but I don’t need to tell you how that worked out.

Penny put her phone back in her bag and shook her head. “I Googled how to take care of a cactus, and it needs watered, like, once a week. That’s literally it.”

“It’s probably best for Sheldon not to take care of it anyway,” Amy said, her words slurring just a touch.

“Why?” said Penny and Bernadette in unison.

Amy leaned in and motioned for the two of them to come closer too. They followed suit, and Amy whispered conspiratorially, “He can’t keep plants alive. He has no feeling for botany.”

The other girls gasped. “Wait,” Penny said, holding a hand up. “You’re telling us that Sheldon ‘Beautiful Mind Genius Guy’ Cooper…isn’t good at everything?”

“I will deny ever having said that,” Amy replied. “But look around the apartment when you’re there next. The only plant in there is that dumb avocado tree that Sheldon has been trying to grow, but Leonard’s the one who takes care of it. Sheldon will never admit that, though.” She looked around as though she expected him to walk up behind her. “This might be the alcohol talking, but…”

Bernadette drank what looked like a quarter of her margarita at once, enraptured at this confessional from a slightly tipsy Amy. “But what?”

“Sometimes, I’m tempted to point out to him that he’s not good at everything,” Amy said, a little hesitantly. “Don’t get me wrong. In many ways, he is a perfectly fine partner. Obviously, we are intellectually compatible, and he’s thoughtful in his own way. But he can be so—”

“Obnoxious?” Bernadette suggested.

“You said it, not me,” Amy said, and looked at Penny. “I am glad to have learned how to handle him better, though. You’ve been instrumental in that.”

At first, Penny didn’t quite know how to respond to that. Amy was obviously a bit inebriated—not unexpected, since her tolerance was about that of a sixteen-year-old—but Penny had never heard her express displeasure in her relationship with Sheldon. At most, Amy would gently scold him for inappropriate comments or behavior toward others. She never seemed to get upset with him for how he acted toward her, though.

But Penny understood, probably more than anyone outside of Leonard, the kind of frustration Sheldon could inspire. He had, after all, become convinced she had a sexually transmitted disease because he talked to Raj about her private health issues. She’d had to lie—to him and to Amy—just to get him to stop acting like a nutcase. Even now, despite originally hoping she could bail early on girls’ night, she felt a bit of resentful of having to be back home at a certain time to avoid getting a “strike,” as Sheldon put it.

She knew he didn’t intend to be the way he was, but he still was that way. And maybe it was the result of hearing that Amy felt similarly, or maybe it was the second margarita doing the thinking, but suddenly Penny felt like maybe he deserved a little payback.

“So, I have an idea,” she said to Amy. “But I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

“Oh, this I gotta hear,” Bernadette replied.

“Well, Leonard is the one who takes care of that plant, right?” Penny asked.

Amy nodded slowly. “Yeah?”

With a wicked smirk and a gleam in her eye, Penny explained her plan. And for just a moment, it didn’t take any effort to be herself.

“When’s Penny supposed to be here?” Raj asked as Sheldon set four plates down on the dining room table.

“She is to arrive no later than eight o’clock,” Sheldon replied. “I was informed that ‘happy hour’ is between five and seven o’clock. Allotting for travel time and the possibility of traffic, she should have plenty of time to arrive home and change her clothes before coming here.”

While Sheldon headed back into the kitchen, Howard sat down on the floor and grabbed a slice of pizza, folding it in half. “Do I want to know why she has to change clothes before she comes over?” he asked, between bites.

“Germs,” Sheldon said simply, opening the refrigerator to procure bottles of water for each of them.

Raj raised an eyebrow. “Sheldon, she works at the Cheesecake Factory. You do realize how—” Suddenly, Howard smacked him in the arm. “Ow! What was that for?”

“Dude,” Howard muttered, “do you really want to point out to him how many germs are in the one restaurant we can get him to agree to go to?”

“Fair point,” Raj replied.

Sheldon returned to the room and handed each of them a bottle. He took his customary seat on the left side of the couch and put a slice of pizza on a plate, blotting it with a napkin. Howard rolled his eyes and said, “Okay, first, who blots pizza? And second, what could Penny be doing that would give her so many germs that she has to change clothes?”

“In answer to your first question, there is nothing wrong with blotting the grease from pizza. It reduces the frequency of accidental grease stains on one’s clothing. I know how to pre-treat stains, of course, but I’d prefer not to have to—”

“That was a rhetorical question, Sheldon,” Howard said, his annoyance growing by the minute. “Now, for the last time: what has Penny been doing that requires her to change clothes?”

Sheldon sighed, momentarily disappointed in himself. He’d been doing well with picking up on sarcasm for the last few weeks. It annoyed him that he couldn’t seem to grasp the concept entirely. And it annoyed him that he cared about grasping it at all. “I was informed by Amy,” he said, “that Penny had a doctor’s appointment today.”

With anyone else, Howard and Raj would have needed further explanation, but with Sheldon, they understood immediately. In Sheldon’s eyes, Penny may as well have been radioactive until she changed the clothes she’d been wearing at her appointment. Howard quickly polished off his slice of pizza and stood up, excusing himself to the bathroom to, as he put it, handle his business before Penny’s arrival.

As soon as Howard was out of earshot, Raj asked, “Did she go to the doctor I think she went to?”

“If you mean to ask if she went to a gynecologist, I assume so,” Sheldon said  

“I hope she was able to get some answers," Raj replied. "I’m also glad I’m not a woman.”

It was not lost on Sheldon that just a few years ago, there had been no women of any significance in any of their lives, outside of familial relations. Sometimes this fact overwhelmed him in a way none of the others could really comprehend. It had taken a long time for him to consider Leonard his friend, and the addition of Raj and Howard had taken even longer. It would stand to reason, then, that it should have been even more difficult to accept Penny when she came along; not only was she new, she was female. Bernadette and Amy had been easier to accept as well, but they were scientists first, females second.

Penny was unlike anyone else with whom he had ever socialized. She was, of course, the standard by which society judged beauty—blonde, athletic, ideal hip-to-waist-to-bust proportions—but that was immaterial to him. She was uninterested in comics, science fiction, science, or trains. Neither highly educated nor academically inclined, her only career goal was a generalized desire to be an actress, although Sheldon had rarely seen her be proactive in achieving that goal. Her apartment generally looked like it had been hit by one of the tornadoes that swept through East Texas every summer, and she had atrocious table manners. She was someone he should have—and in most cases would have—considered ordinary, certainly not someone he would want to put in the effort to get to know.

The odd thing was that he hadn’t put in effort. It had just happened.

“I agree,” he finally said to Raj. “I, too, am glad you’re not a woman. Three of them in this group is more than enough.”

Meanwhile, Penny arrived back at her apartment, having all but forgotten about how she’d spent her morning. The girls’ night had been more enjoyable than she’d thought it would be, and she was looking forward to spending the rest of her evening with the guys, eating pizza and participating in the one nerdy vice she allowed herself. Well, aside from that whole Age of Conan debacle, which she’d forbidden anyone to discuss.

But as she was about to head across the hall, she suddenly remembered that she had agreed to change clothes before entering Sheldon’s apartment. For a moment, she thought that since he hadn’t seen her that morning, he would have no way of knowing if she actually did it. But then she remembered who she was dealing with; it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Sheldon had installed a hidden camera somewhere in the hallway—or worse, in her apartment, given his lack of boundaries.

So, with a dramatic sigh that no one else could hear, she marched back into her room and grabbed the first pair of jeans and t-shirt that she could find. Both items were no cleaner than the ones she’d worn to the clinic—they were probably less clean, really, since they’d been on her floor for a week—but Sheldon hadn’t said that she had to wear freshly laundered clothes. He had only demanded she change out of the clothes she had worn to the doctor’s office. For a guy who’s so hung up on rules, he missed the fine print on this one, she thought.

She stopped to grab her watermelon lip gloss from her purse, but the minute she opened it, she was confronted with the folder from Planned Parenthood. She hadn’t bothered to open it in the car, and even if she had tried, she had been too emotional to comprehend anything that might have been inside it. It wasn’t as if she had time to read it now, either; the clock reminded her that she was already running late. But without even thinking about it, she removed the folder from her bag and held it for a moment, fingers grazing over its glossy, purple surface. Hesitantly, as though it might bite, she opened it.

Immediately, she saw the words “What You Should Know About Breast Cancer” printed on a bright pink brochure.

She slammed the folder shut. She couldn’t deal with this now.

She couldn’t deal with this ever.

Throwing the folder onto the kitchen counter, she took a deep breath and drew her shoulders back. There would be plenty of time for her to read through the contents of that folder and make the appointment for the tests. Right now, she needed to go to an imaginary world where the only body parts she had to worry about were the ones she was aiming for with a virtual gun.

“You want me to what?”

“I want you,” Sheldon repeated, “to be on my team.”

Penny wasn’t sure she had heard Sheldon correctly when he’d asked her to be his teammate for the first round of Halo. In all the years they’d been playing, he had never asked to play alongside him. She looked at him blankly, and then turned to Howard and Raj.

“He called dibs,” Raj said.

“Excuse me?”

“Dibs,” Sheldon said. “It refers to one having the first choice of—”

“I know what dibs means, Sheldon,” Penny said, still trying to wrap her head around this turn of events. “I just didn’t expect you to…call them. On me.”

“Well,” Howard said, “to be fair, Leonard called dibs on you years ago, but I’m betting he didn’t have Halo in mind when he did it.”

Penny glared at him. “Okay, first off, just because Leonard isn’t here doesn’t mean you get to start being gross again. Do you want me to tell Bernadette about the little incident that happened two years ago?”

“She refers, of course, to the day you claim to have slipped in the bathtub when Penny broke your nose,” Sheldon clarified, as if Howard didn’t know. Howard didn’t reply, but he looked sufficiently chastened in Penny’s opinion, so she let it go.

“And second,” she continued, “what makes anyone think they get to call dibs on me? What if I wanted to pick my own partner this time?”

Raj stood up. “I agree with Penny! You two don’t own her.”

She crossed her arms and stared him down, too. “Oh, please. You’re just trying to make up for suggesting I had—” She stopped short, remembering that Howard didn’t know a thing about her appointment, and the last thing she needed was for him to start making gynecology-related comments.

“Had what?” Howard asked, much to Penny’s chagrin.

“To lose weight,” Raj said quickly. “We were shopping and I—I gave her a bigger size pants than she wears. It wasn’t good. She almost broke my nose, too.” He glanced at Penny, and her face relaxed.

Howard winced. “Yeah, I’m surprised she didn’t. Bernadette would have.”

“Bernadette is also scarier than me,” Penny said.

“All right,” Sheldon said. “Now that we’ve established that both Penny and Bernadette are both more masculine than the rest of us, can we begin the game?”

“Wait!” Howard exclaimed. “We never decided on teams.”

They all looked expectantly at Penny. She caught sight of the avocado plant in the kitchen, and realized she should probably stay on Sheldon’s good side.

“Okay, Sheldon,” she said. “Just this once…I’ll help you kick someone’s ass rather than kick yours.”

Howard groaned. “Penny, you’ve seen how he is when he plays! He doesn’t listen to anyone, he’ll let you die if it means getting revenge on someone—”

“Funny, you don’t have a problem with getting revenge on him when I’m playing on your team,” she shot back, and Howard didn’t have a reply that was quick enough to be effective.

Sheldon smiled smugly and sat down in his spot, victorious before having even touched a controller. “All right, now, which map shall we play? Ivory Tower? Ascension?”

“How about Lockout?” Raj suggested.

“Oh, we haven’t played that one in a while!” Penny said. “That should be interesting, especially since Sheldon and I are playing together. I’m pretty sure last time we played that one, I was with Raj, and—”

“And even though Sheldon had the sniper rifle, you beat him to death with a flag!”

“That wasn’t fair,” Sheldon said. “Raj was practically begging me to shoot him down below the tower!”

“And yet you still died a bloody, basic death.”

Before Sheldon could argue, Penny grabbed her own controller and plopped down next to him. “Okay, boys, let’s go. Mama’s got some stress to take out on someone.”

“Come on, Raj, get back here!”

Raj smashed his controller buttons. “Damnit, damnit, damnit, I’m trying, but Penny keeps—” Suddenly, his character’s head exploded. “Doing that,” he finished.

Sheldon laughed. “That’s right, stay down!” He glanced at Penny. “It’s refreshing, not having to worry about that happening to me.”

“It’s refreshing not wanting it to happen to you,” Penny replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Raj muttered, waiting to respawn. At least they had infinite lives; otherwise, Penny and Sheldon would have won within the first five minutes of playing. First, she’d hidden in Sniper Alley, and when both Raj and Howard had realized where she was, she used a Superbounce to get on top of the gravity lift tower, picking them both off yet again. As soon as his character respawned, Raj took off out of his and Howard’s home base, heading back toward the spot where Howard and Penny were dancing around one another. Howard had made it into the Sniper Tower, and was attempting to find Penny beneath him, determined to take her out.

Unfortunately, Howard was so concerned with finding Penny, and Raj was so focused on coming to his aid, that neither of them were paying attention to Sheldon. The moment Raj ran out, Sheldon popped out from a hiding place on the corner of the map and retrieved the flag from the base.

“Got it!” he exclaimed, and Howard took his eyes off his part of the screen just long enough for Penny to blow up the explosive barrels behind the platform.

“Damnit!” Howard yelled, rubbing his forehead while waiting for his character to respawn. “Raj, where the hell are you? Go find Sheldon!”

“Don’t worry, Sheldon, I’ve got him,” Penny said, leaning forward and gritting her teeth, ready to hunt down Raj for a second time.

A shot flew by Sheldon’s character, just barely missing him, and he realized Raj hadn’t gotten far enough away from the base to give him a clear path toward his own. “Sooner rather than later, Penny. I’ve only got a flag to defend myself, and I’m not nearly so skilled with melee weapons as are you.”

“She’s on your ass, she’s on your ass!” Howard shouted, as he saw Penny coming up behind Raj. His character still hadn’t respawned, and he was powerless to do anything but yell warnings.

“Not helpful, Howard!” Raj replied, frantically searching the screen for a sign of Sheldon. He knew he’d have to come across him at some point and got onto the gravity lift. “What would be helpful is if you respawned already!”

“I’m not making the mistake you did,” he said. “Once you kill Sheldon, the flag will be back here, and then—”


Penny had thrown a frag grenade at Raj just as he got off the lift, and he saw Sheldon run right past him, falling through a drop-down hole nearby. From there, it was just a few more feet toward Sheldon and Penny’s home base, and the flag had been officially captured. Penny let out a shriek of victory and, forgetting herself, threw her arms around Sheldon in a congratulatory hug.

There were four women in the world with whom Sheldon was comfortable having physical contact. Three of them were in his family (his Meemaw, mother, and sister), and the fourth was Penny. Ironically, the first hug he’d shared with Penny was one he had initiated. She’d given him the priceless gift of Leonard Nimoy’s used napkin, and it was the most precious thing he had to offer her in return. Although it wasn’t entirely comfortable for him, she had earned it. The hugs they’d shared since then had been at her insistence, and, while he still stiffened when she did it, at least he didn’t feel the need to shower immediately thereafter.

As for Amy, he didn’t mind hugging her, but he certainly didn’t feel comfortable with it. He sometimes thought that it should have been easier to hug his girlfriend than his neighbor, but reasoned that he had known Penny much longer, so of course he was less anxious with her.

She released Sheldon from the hug and stood up, stretching her arms over her head. “Well, boys, it’s been fun, but I’ve got an early shift tomorrow, so I should get to bed.”

“Aw, come on, you’re not even going to let us rematch?” Howard whined.

“As much as I wish I could earn a living playing Halo,” she said, heading for the door, “I don’t think the landlord will care about my kill count if I can’t pay the rent.”

“Actually,” Sheldon said, “there are in fact Halo tournaments in which you can win prize money.”

“Yeah, and you’d have a competitive edge,” Raj added.

“Oh yeah?” she replied. “What’s that?”

Howard smirked. “Imagine an entire convention center full of nerds, and you in a miniskirt. How well do you think any of those guys are gonna play?”

Penny rolled her eyes. “Goodnight, Howard.” Then, she gave Sheldon and Raj a nod. “Goodnight, you two.”

Upon entering her apartment, she went straight to the kitchen for a bottle of water. She stood idly against the fridge as she drank, thinking about her day.  For the past few hours, she’d been able to feel normal again, even though nothing about the evening had been normal at all. Leonard wasn’t there, she’d been on Sheldon’s team, and, even better, had played well with him. In fact, she realized, he hadn’t even gloated after they won—completely unlike him!

She tossed the empty water bottle into the recycling bin and started toward the bedroom, when she suddenly noticed the shine of a glossy purple folder under the kitchen lights. It was like a siren call, haunting and mesmerizing at once, its contents beckoning her. She glanced at the clock above her apartment door. It really was getting late, and she still needed to shower. But there was something else she needed to do first.

In the span of ten minutes, she’d read the word “breast” more times than she had in her entire life. There were a half-dozen pamphlets and information sheets on her bed, and she had no better idea what might be going on with her body. All she did know was that after reading about mammograms, she had no interest in having one. It sounded entirely unnecessary and painful, especially for a lump that, itself, was causing her no pain whatsoever. She would much prefer the ultrasound, but then, she would much prefer not to have to have any testing.

She refused to even acknowledge the pamphlets that featured the word “cancer.”

The only thing remaining in the folder was the referral Anna had written, attached to the list of clinics in Pasadena that could perform the procedures. That was, ironically, the most confusing thing in the entire packet of information. How was she supposed to pick a clinic? Did they have Yelp reviews?

She had felt normal that evening. Relaxed. Her mind had been quiet.

And now she was back where she’d started her day: consumed by fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the known.

Fear of her own body.

To hell with that, she thought. She yanked her shirt over her head and unhooked her bra, almost violently. Then, she marched into her bathroom and stared at herself in the mirror.

Never in her life had she been ashamed of her body, never felt uncomfortable in her skin. It was how she got drinks paid for when she was broke, how she made the best tips at work. Hell, she’d been trying to build a career on it for years now.

But now, she felt like she was staring into a funhouse mirror.

The lump was small. She couldn't see it. But it was there.

And all she could do was stare into the abyss that her life was about to become, mascara streaking her cheeks as she cried for the second time that day.

Her phone buzzing startled her back to reality. She reached into her back pocket and pulled it out. May I call dibs on you permanently? Sheldon had typed.

Penny blinked a few times, not quite processing. What?

While she was getting her pajamas on, a reply came in. She brushed her teeth, washed her face, and climbed into bed before reading it.

I would like for us to be permanent Halo teammates until Leonard is home. But you made clear this evening that dibs should not be called without first requesting the permission of the person on whom one would like to call them.

Sheldon was the only person she knew who cared enough to make even text messages grammatically correct. How do Howard and Raj feel about that?

Their permission is not required here, he replied, so I felt no need to ask them for their thoughts.

It suddenly struck her that in all the nights they’d played video games together, none of the guys ever asked whose team she wanted to be on. They all just argued over her, and she had always been too busy being flattered to think about whether she wanted to pick her own teammate. The only one who always lost was Sheldon, mostly because Howard, Leonard, and Raj liked to irritate him.

Who would have thought, then, that Sheldon would be the first one to ask her opinion on the matter? She almost felt guilty about being so resentful of him during happy hour.

The month of January had just moved from bizarre to downright batshit.

She glanced at the folder, now laying on her nightstand. She knew she had some difficult decisions ahead of her. But this, thankfully, wasn’t one of them.

Sure, she replied. But we’re gonna have to figure out a better strategy than ‘hide outside their base.’ I’m pretty sure that’s only gonna work once.