PAIRING: Sheldon/Penny, mentions of Leonard/Penny in the past
SUMMARY: There won't be a fairytale ending.
SPOILERS: General third season.
DISCLAIMER: The characters in this story do not belong to me and no copyright infringement is intended.
WORD COUNT: 5,300 for this part.
THANKS: To all of you who have made this experience so wonderful. Thank you for the generosity of your comments. And to renisanz for the beautiful art.
She stands in the wings, waiting for her cue to step onstage.
Her breath catches in her throat. She's forgotten all of her lines. She's going to make a total fool of herself in front of a full opening night house.
This is bullshit, she tells herself. You know these lines backwards and forwards. You know Mara as well as any of your girlfriends. It's going to be wonderful.
She steps out onto the stage, the lights almost blinding her eyes and it is wonderful.
It feels like there are million people in her dressing room, all kissing her and telling her how amazing she was. She’s spilled champagne on the front of her costume and there are mascara rings under her eyes from sweat and maybe a few tears.
Holy shit. She’s an actress. For real.
The dressing room door opens again and she sees Howard and Raj, grinning like maniacs.
"You guyssssssss!" she shrieks, the tears starting up again. She throws her arms around them and hugs them close, not wanting to ever let go of them again.
She can’t sleep. She may never sleep again. She sits up in bed, listening to Howard snoring from the air mattress on the floor. In the darkness, she can just make out Raj curled up on the loveseat.
There’s too much adrenaline coursing through her body from the applause, the cheering, all the champagne toasts at the party after the show at Solera. Joe Dowling, the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater, one of the best companies in the country, showed up at the party and told her she had real promise and that he hoped they could work together some time.
She gets out of bed and pads to the kitchen. She doesn’t want to wake the guys in the other room so she doesn’t turn on the overhead light. She finds some cheese and crackers, opens up a Diet Coke and sits down at the little table to eat her midnight snack.
"Penny?" she hears and she jumps at the sound of Raj’s voice.
"Did I wake you up? Sorry."
He walks into the kitchen, wearing his pajamas, his curly hair standing on end. "No big deal," he says and she’s so happy that he’s still able to talk to her. She never really got to know him over the years because of his selective mutism, although she’s just beginning to through email and the occasional IM chat.
"Want some crackers?"
He takes a handful. "Can’t sleep?"
"Nope." She puts a slice of cheddar on a Wheat Thin. "Too much excitement."
"You were wonderful. Leonard would have been so proud of you."
Something lurches in her heart. "I wish he could have been here tonight."
"Yeah, me, too."
"I miss him, Raj. I miss him a lot."
She plays with the tab on the top of her Diet Coke can. "I miss Sheldon," she says.
"I know. I used to complain about him all the time, but I really miss him, too."
"I wish he'd just come back already."
Raj looks at her, tilting his head a bit as if he's trying to figure something out. "Are you in love with him, Penny?"
"What? Where did you get that from?"
"You're not deaf. You heard what I said."
"That's the craziest thing I've ever heard," she says, her facing growing hot. "In love with Sheldon. As if."
"Don't bullshit me, dude. Every time we talk, you ask about him. Have I heard from him? Where do I think he is? Is he okay?"
"I'm not in love with him, Raj. This is Sheldon we're talking about. I don't know if he could love anyone back, anyhow."
"I don't know," Raj says, shrugging. "I think that underneath all his compulsive behavior he could have a great capacity to love."
She spills a little of her soda on the table. Her hands are shaking. Weird. She jumps up to grab a sponge from the sink. "Whoa, Raj. That's really deep."
"I'm a deep guy. You just never had the opportunity to find out before."
"Good point." She grabs a open bottle of Chardonnay from the fridge. Might as well start drinking all over again. "But I'm definitely not in love with Sheldon."
"Whatever." Raj takes the glass she pours for him.
"Really." She takes a big swallow of the cool wine. She can't look Raj in the eye. "I'm not. I think. I don't know…maybe a little."
Raj just looks at her, looking amused and concerned at the same time.
"Okay, yeah," she continues. "I'm in something but I don't know what it is and it's Sheldon and what the hell?"
"How did this happen?"
She pours more wine in her glass. She's going to need a lot more to tell this story. "I wish I knew. I mean, I sort of know, but I don't want to tell you. You'll just tell Howard and I don't know if I want everyone talking about this."
"Penny, I won't tell him. I promise."
"You have to swear on your life."
He gives her a withering look. "I swear on my life. And in return I'll tell you a secret that Howard doesn't know."
"You're keeping a secret from Howard?"
"I know, right?" Raj laughs.
She gets up and shuts the kitchen door. If they're going to tell secrets, they might as well have some privacy.
"You have to tell your secret first," she says.
"I'm starting cognitive behavioral therapy next week. For my…woman problem."
"Oh my God, that's the best idea ever. Good for you!"
"Yeah, well, don't get too excited. I don't know if it'll work."
"But why is it a secret? And from Howard?"
Raj shakes his head. "I don't know. I just get the feeling it would be something he'd give me shit about. That he might think it was funny. And I'm really serious about this. I'm sick of not being able to talk to half the human race. I'm sick of feeling like a freak."
She pats his hand. "I'm so glad, Raj. I hope it works."
"Me, too." He sips at his glass of wine, grimacing at the taste. It's really cheap wine. "So, anyways, you were going to tell me about Sheldon?"
She tells him the story of the night of Leonard's funeral and kissing him and how she ran away like a total chickenshit. And she tells him how she'd never really seen Sheldon in that kind of light before that but now she somehow can't get him out of her damn head and it's all confusing, especially because Sheldon's gone and it's not like they can talk about it. And how she's afraid that she hurt him and scared him off and now he'll never be back. She tells him about the Tibetan prayer flag and the bag of plaster.
By the time she's done with the story, she's breathless.
Raj sits in silence for a moment and Penny's afraid he's going to either start laughing at her or tell her she's lost her damn mind and should be institutionalized.
"I've done a lot of thinking about Sheldon lately," he finally says. "And I've come up with a couple of theories about him. Want to hear them?"
"That sounds awfully scientific, Raj."
"What you just told me fits into what I've been thinking."
"You are totally deep. Who knew?"
He waves his hand as if he's annoyed, even though she knows he's not. "I was wondering why he ran off, although it's definitely not unprecedented for Sheldon to do that. But he's been gone for a long time."
Too long, she thinks.
"Sheldon's not like the rest of us. Which I know is not news to you, Penny."
She raises her eyebrows.
"But think about it. He's never had what we'd think of as a normal life. I mean, he started college when he was eleven, for God's sake. Sure, I went to university when I was sixteen, but at least I was a teenager by that point. Sheldon was just a kid and he missed out on his whole adolescence. He earned his first doctorate by the time most guys his age were learning to drive."
No wonder Sheldon never learned to drive, she thinks. And something inside her feels somehow terribly sorry for him.
Raj continues, "I think at some point, Sheldon just thought, consciously or unconsciously, fuck it, I'm not normal, I'm never going to be like everyone else, so my whole world is going to be physics and winning the Nobel Prize and that's enough for me. Almost like he took some kind of vow of renunciation, like priest or something."
"That's exactly it," Penny says, nodding her head. "Like a priest. Which makes kissing him kind of creepy."
"He's not really a priest," Raj says, rolling his eyes. "But yeah, anyhow, despite his weirdness, Sheldon grew up to have a pretty great life. He did cool research, he was developing a reputation in his field. He had a roommate who not only tolerated all the strange Sheldon stuff, but became his best friend. And he had other good friends who put up with it all because they knew that he was a great guy underneath all that. His life was totally structured. It was just the way he wanted it. And then Leonard died."
"And then Leonard died," she says with a tiny sigh.
"And it upset everything. I think it made him question everything in his life. His work—his unswerving path of physics and physics only."
"I suppose hooking up with me didn't help."
"Probably not," Raj says. "It probably made him have to deal with the fact that he's still a man, you know? That he can't renounce everything but science. That he's human. All this stuff probably scares the crap out of him."
"I wish I could take that night back," she says.
"I think it was probably a good thing, in the end, if that makes any sense. He was going to have to deal with that side of himself some time. I think he's kept a lot under wraps for a long time. It was bound to come out, eventually. I think he's out there, trying to figure who the hell he is, what he really wants from life."
When did Raj get so smart? And not just physics smart, but people smart.
She leans across the table and pecks Raj on the cheek. He looks at her with a deer in the headlights look and makes a strangled-sounding noise.
"Don't even," she says to him. "I swear to God, if you stop talking to me again, just when I'm finding out how awesome you are, I'm going to kick your ass so hard…"
"Like you could," he says, sounding normal again.
Penny crosses her arms at the chest. "Don't even try me."
Before the play has even closed, she's made up her mind. Despite the absolutely crap weather, she's going to move to Minneapolis.
All kinds of theater people want to work with her. An agent named Seth takes her out to lunch and talks about all the work he can get her. Quite a few movies are filmed in Minnesota because it's so cheap and there are a surprising number of national commercials shot there because of a couple of big and influential advertising agencies are located in Minneapolis. Did she know that the Twin Cities has the highest per capita ratio of theater companies in the country?
The lease on her apartment in Pasadena is coming up for renewal and Leonard's dead and Sheldon has disappeared into the ether and why not?
She signs on the dotted line before her seared tuna salad is even served.
She couldn't quite swim in the big pond, but maybe she can make it as a medium-sized fish in a medium pond.
When she calls Jane, Jane laughs and says, "I knew it! Michael owes me ten bucks now."
She flies to Los Angeles and Howard picks her up at the airport. He completely fails to hit on her on the way into Pasadena, or even make a double entendre, and she wonders what's up with that.
"I have a new girlfriend," he tells her, pulling up to her building. He looks shy and thrilled at the same time. "I don't know. This might be it."
She hugs him and tells him she hopes it is.
She gives away most of her stuff to the Goodwill on Altadena Drive. Raj takes her sofa and her friend Allie snags the bed. It's time to start fresh. She packs a couple of boxes and ships them to Jane's house.
On her last night, Raj and Howard take her out to Sushi Roku. She drinks too much sake and ends up sobbing over the dynamite and caterpillar rolls. "I'm going to miss you guys so much!"
"I hate change," Raj says glumly. "First Howard gets a serious girlfriend and then you go and move to Minnesota. This sucks."
She pats him on his hand. Earlier, he told her that his therapy was going pretty well and tonight he managed to order his own drink from the pretty waitress with only a minimum of stammering.
"It's only two thousand miles," Howard says, passing her a clean napkin to wipe her face.
This fact only makes her cry harder.
She finds an affordable one-bedroom apartment across the river in St. Paul. The neighborhood, Merriam Park, isn't as cool as Uptown, but it's a ton cheaper and she likes the quiet streets lined with trees and how kids ride their bikes up and down the sidewalks in their Catholic school uniforms.
She quits the Cheesecake Factory because driving all the way out to Edina is a pain in the butt and gets a job at the Longfellow Grill, just five minutes from her new apartment. The uniforms are way less demeaning, which is always a plus.
At first she has practically no furniture, just a futon Jane and Michael gave her and some orange crates for her clothes and other belongings. But she likes the emptiness of her new place. The bare white walls and shiny wood floors spell all sorts of possibilities to her. And there's a window seat in this place. When spring finally comes and the maple tree in front of her building grows leaves, it's like sitting in a treehouse.
Seth, her agent, is true to his word. She lands a really cheesy commercial for a local Hyundai dealer and a promo spot for KARE-11 news. In May she appears in a play for a one-act festival and gets a bunch of nice notices in the local papers. Jane is working on a new play and swears there's a juicy role for her in it. She even reads for a small role in the new Coen Brothers film, but she knows it's a long shot at the very best. She signs up for a beginning fiction class at The Loft, a writing education center in Minneapolis, figuring that if she wants to actually write a screenplay, she should learn to write first. She thinks about taking an improv class, too. Everyone says she has a flair for comedy.
Things are happening so fast that sometimes she has to lie to down to absorb the fact that it's all real.
Memorial Day in Jane and Michael's backyard. Darwin is splashing with an inflatable dinosaur in his kiddie pool.
"What's his name?" Penny asks him.
"Attila," says Darwin.
"Because he's a HUN!" Darwin shouts.
Penny walks back over to the lawn chairs on the patio. "Where did he get this Hun business from?" she asks Jane.
"Who knows? Kids are weird, mine most of all." Jane cracks open a beer and hands it to Penny. "Did I tell you that he told us the other day he wants to be a Cylon when he grows up?"
"You let him watch Battlestar Galactica? He's not even four yet."
"I don't let him watch it. Michael lets him. But he swears he fast-forwards through the really scary and gross stuff."
Michael is over by the grill, methodically threading hunks of steak and chicken on skewers.
"When are we going to eat?" Jane shouts at him.
"The meat needs to be symmetrically placed on the skewers for even cooking, Jane."
"Men," Jane mock-huffs. "What are you going to do with them?"
Penny rolls her eyes. "Not much."
"Speaking of which, remember that guy you met the other night when you were at Bryant Lake Bowl with us? Dave? The lawyer?"
Penny doesn't really remember him but she decides it's easier to pretend that she does. "Sure. What about him?"
"He asked Michael for your phone number. Can I give it to him? I don't really know him but Michael says he's a really nice guy."
"Nah," she says, and sips her beer. "Not really into it."
"What's your deal, anyhow?" Jane asks. "I've seen plenty of guys hit on you…hell, I've even seen a couple of women hit on you, and you've blown them all off."
"I don't know," she says. "I just don't want to do the whole dating thing right now."
Jane touches Penny on the shoulder. "You seem sad sometimes. Is it Leonard?" Penny has told Jane all about Leonard's death, although she didn't drag in the whole story about Sheldon.
"I'll always be sad about Leonard. But it's not like I'm still in love with him or anything. I never was, really."
"Some other heartbreak?"
"Jane, I'd love to tell you about it but it's so weird and confusing and complicated that I can't even put anything into words," Penny says.
"That's all right."
"And besides," Penny goes on, "I really don't need a guy in my life right now. I mean, I pretty much always had a boyfriend from the time I was thirteen. I realized the other day I've always defined myself by the guys in my life. That being someone's girlfriend was the most important thing to me. And that's kind of bullshit, you know? I don't need a man to make me happy. I want to concentrate on acting, writing, all that good stuff."
"You're finally learning," Jane says.
"Yeah," Penny says, feeling strong and resolute. They clink beer bottles.
"Hey, did I tell you that Darwin's getting glasses next week? Poor boy. We're going to have to enroll him in tae kwon do or something so he doesn't get beat up during recess."
Penny laughs. "There's nothing wrong with being a geek," she says. "All of my best friends are geeks."
By August, the air has developed the texture of hot soup and the grass is starting to yellow.
She wakes up one morning in the new bed she bought with some of the proceeds from doing a Target national commercial, where she's flying through the air against a backdrop of red circles, brandishing a Swiffer Duster.
At first it feels like any other morning. She stretches and thinks about how it's the first day in ages she has the whole day to herself. No waitressing, no rehearsals, no auditions. Just a long, lazy Sunday.
She walks into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, remembering all the times she walked across the hall to snag milk from Leonard and Sheldon.
Penny looks at the calendar tacked up on the wall and it all comes back to her in rush so strong she has to sit down for a minute.
Sheldon in the ER, his clothes covered with his best friend's blood.
His voice cracking as he said, "I'm so sorry, Penny."
All of them sitting in the living room, not sure what to do next until Sheldon came in and told them they needed to play Halo, that Leonard would have wanted them to play on Halo Night anyhow.
Today's the day. It was a year ago.
And suddenly her empty day seems terrible and wrong. She can't stand the idea of sitting still with her thoughts.
She changes into workout clothes and hops in her car, drives all the way to Lake Harriet in Minneapolis. When in doubt, work it out, she tells herself, stretching by the running path. It's almost too humid to breathe, but she doesn't care. It feels good to push herself, to not have to think as she runs the three-mile path as fast as she can.
After she's made a full circle around the lake, she stops to catch her breath and watch a bunch of ducks swimming around.
When she was young, she believed in happy endings. She adored fairy tales more than anything else. She wanted to be Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty when she grew up. And she always believed there would be a happy ever after.
Now, she knows better. Not that she's grown utterly cynical and bitter. She's still something of an optimist, she thinks. But since Leonard was killed, she's come to realize that nothing will ever be perfect. Nothing lasts forever.
It's time to let Leonard go, she decides. Not that she'll ever forget him. How could she? But she has to stop feeling guilty about not loving him like she should have. She has to put her mourning aside and go on with her life. Leonard would want her to do that.
And what about Sheldon? She doesn't know. She doesn't know.
There won't be a fairytale ending. It's just too messy and complicated. Besides, he'll probably never be back. He's off in the jungles of Laos, she imagines, cultivating a crop of bug-resistant opium poppies or he's finally creating his secret lair, maybe somewhere in Greenland.
She'll have to be all right with that, in the end. But she can't help but hope that even if there will be no fairytale ending, that at least there might be some redemption in the end.
When she gets home, she has an envelope in her mailbox, stuffed in with the J. Crew catalogue and a million pieces of junk mail. She opens it up without looking at the return address. Inside is a small bag filled with what looks like dried herbs. She picks it up and sniffs it. The scent reminds her of the leg of lamb her half-Italian aunt by marriage used to make on Easter.
A tiny piece of paper flutters out of the envelope.
Rosemary for remembrance.
The postmark is from Trieste, Italy.
It's funny but Raj has become her best friend. They email and text all the time, especially now that Penny has a BlackBerry, which she got for free when she did a Best Buy commercial.
I asked a girl out yesterday, can you even believe it?
Of course I can. Raj your totally a STUD.
Howard's girlfriend breaks up with him because he won't move out of his mother's house. Penny sends him a bouquet of balloons.
In early fall she gets the news, a voice mail left on her phone while she's working the lunch shift. She listens to it in the break room.
She's been cast in the Guthrie Theater's annual production of A Christmas Carol, playing Marigold Fezziwig and Sophia. They're both small parts, but who cares? It's the Guthrie. She does a little dance around the room and a bunch of other waitstaff come in and everyone hugs her.
A day later she finds out the best part, the truly ass-kicking, awesome part that actually makes her scream out loud. Holy, holy shit.
She immediately punches Raj's number into her phone, praying he's home because if she doesn't get to tell him right this minute, she'll seriously explode and die.
He answers on the third ring. She can hear what sounds like gunfire in the background.
"Where are you?" she asks, breathlessly.
"I'm at home. Playing old school Castle Wolfenstein with Howard."
"Oh my God, I have to tell you guys something. Can you put the phone on speaker?"
"Yeah, hang on," Raj says. "Okay, you're on speaker."
"Get this. I'm going to be in the Guthrie Theater's Christmas Carol!"
The guys cheer.
"No, no, that's not even the good part. Are you two sitting down? Because, oh my God, guess who's making his triumphant Guthrie return and playing Scrooge?"
"Just tell us!" Raj shouts.
"Only a certain gentleman named...PATRICK STEWART."
There's silence and for a second, Penny is sure that Raj and Howard have actually dropped dead.
pennyblossom: i am NOT flying to cali for the new star trek movie
rabbitking12: but we'll make you a uhura costume. or galia. take yer pick.
pennyblossom: its tempting but i dont have the time. rehearsals. plus itll get howards hopes up.
pennyblossom: and your coming out here soon for PATRICK STEWART!!!!!!
rabbitking12: i start crying every time i think about it.
rabbitking12: so got a new boyfriend yet?
pennyblossom: im taking a man break
pennyblossom: maybe forever
rabbitking12: still pining for sheldon?
pennyblossom: i don't pine. pining is for trees
rabbitking12: yes u do.
pennyblossom: do not. shut up raj
rabbitking12: do too
pennyblossom: ok, maybe a little bit
rabbitking12: i knew it!!!!!
rabbitking12: what would u do if he came back?
pennyblossom: do you know something?
rabbitking12: no no no.
rabbitking12: i know nothing. just asking. what would u do?
pennyblossom: smack him upside the head
pennyblossom: hug him kiss him
pennyblossom: maybe cry. yep, id cry
rabbitking12: see! u totally pine!!!
pennyblossom: shut up raj i only pine for chris pine
pennyblossom: and for spock. new spock, not teh old one. hes much sexier than the old one. zachary quinto, rrrowwwwwr!
rabbitking12: don't let sheldon catch you saying that
rabbitking12: you old piner.
pennyblossom: SHUT UP FOREVER RAJ!!!!!!!!
She tries not to let Christmas get her down, the way it did last year when she was all alone in a cold new city. This is a whole new year. So what if she can't go home for Christmas this year? Hello, she's in a play at the Guthrie. With Patrick Stewart. Who is the nicest guy, with the most beautiful voice and accent. She could sit at his feet and listen to him all day. He doesn't even mind when she fangirls him at coffee break on the first day of rehearsals, asking him all kinds of questions that Howard and Raj have put her up to asking.
On a Sunday, she drives to the tree lot at the Farmer's Market in downtown St. Paul and picks out a five-foot tree. She somehow manages to wrestle it up to the third floor and get it set in the tree stand. She's Wonder Woman—she can do anything.
She buys presents for her family and the boys and even manages to mail them well ahead of time. At Creative Kidstuff she goes absolutely nuts on dinosaur stuff for Darwin.
She even gets a gift for Sheldon, even though she's sure she won't be able to give it to him.
Penny isn't sure if she trusts her memories of Sheldon anymore. More than a year later, she tends to only remember all the good times. She glosses over the fact that he often was rude and insulting to her. He really seemed to believe she was stupid and uninteresting. His rigidity drove her nuts. Who turns down perfectly good French toast just because it's Oatmeal Monday? That's a level of OCD that she's pretty sure she wouldn't be able to deal with on a daily basis. She'd probably bludgeon him to death with a frying pan within seventy-two hours.
Still, how come she can't stop thinking about him? Why does she lie alone in bed at night and imagine him touching her and the sound of his beating heart?
She wonders if she should start looking into exorcisms.
Opening night of A Christmas Carol and she's strangely not afraid. The director is wonderful, the cast is fantastic, Patrick (she calls him by his first name now!) is a dear. It'll be just fine, she's sure.
She walks into the dressing room and there's a package propped up against the mirror.
Oh, Sheldon, she thinks. Stop sending me stuff and just come home.
The postmark is from Texas. Her heart is pounding as she tears open the paper.
She finds a cloth napkin. It looks like it's from the Cheesecake Factory. Her eyes begin to sting with tears.
The note reads: Please collect an adequate DNA sample on my behalf.
"Just come home," she whispers, carefully folding the napkin.
Nicollet Mall is strangely deserted for just after midnight on a Friday night. The first real snow of the winter is falling in thick clumps from the sky.
Penny shivers as she walks the two blocks from The Local to the parking ramp. She shoves her hands into her coat pockets for warmth, wondering why she moved from Pasadena to Minneapolis, of all places. She forgot her gloves in the car. She's always forgetting her gloves. Her boots make a squeaky noise as she crunches through the newly fallen snow.
She's just crossed the street when she feels a hand grab the arm of her coat. A drunk from one of the bars or maybe a panhandler. She pulls away her arm and walks faster, glancing around to see if there's anyone else walking down Nicollet Mall. She digs in her left coat pocket for her cell phone, just in case.
"Penny," she hears a voice call out from behind her. "Penny, stop…"
She freezes in her tracks. She knows that voice as well as her own.
No. It can't be. It's not possible.
Penny doesn't believe in ghosts. Never has.
Not until tonight.
She whirls around.
Sheldon. My God.
She's paralyzed, unable to say anything or do anything, even to think. He must be a mirage, a figment of her longing over the last fifteen months. Because can Sheldon even be real anymore?
"Penny," he repeats. He's wearing a navy blue parka that looks about three sizes too big for him and his cheeks and the tip of his nose are red from the frigid air.
"Sheldon?" she says, blinking at him.
"It's me, Penny." He smiles a crooked smile that tells her that it really is Sheldon, standing right here on Nicollet Mall.
She flings herself into his arms, pressing her cold face against his. He doesn't shrink from the contact, but wraps his arms around her, pulling her close.
"I'm so sorry," she hears herself say. "I'm so, so sorry, Sheldon."
"You needn't apologize for anything. Ever," he says and he kisses the top of her head. She can feel snowflakes melting on her cheeks.
There won't be a fairytale ending, she thinks as she kisses him, even though for this one moment it almost feels like one. But maybe, just maybe there will be redemption, after all.