Notes: Thanks for the fun prompt ricksilsa! Hope this is something like what you're looking for. I hope you and your family have wonderful holidays. Thanks so much to weasleytook for the beta job. I really appreciate it. Thanks as well to the mods for doing this every year and for all your assistance!
The Texas Experiment
“Yes Mom, I have them here,” said Sheldon over the phone. “They’re wrapped in one of my t-shirts. My research made it clear that that was the best way to transport them to avoid bruising.” He listened attentively. “Yes, Mom I did the research to find out the best way to transport avocados in luggage. I am confident in my sources. Yes.” (A small soundless sigh) “Yes.”
Penny stifled her own sigh and clicked on “Candy Crush” on her phone.
“Mommy? Considering that in just under three hours after considerable exposure to crowds, exposure to germs and various other hazards of holiday travel, we'll be in the same house together, perhaps you could save your commentary on my life until I arrive home......yes, Mom....yes...” His long-suffering expression changed suddenly and he stiffened. “The woman is insufferable,” he said in such a harassed tone that Penny looked up at him and raised an eyebrow. “I’ve told her I’m not interested,” insisted Sheldon. “Okay fine. Fine. Goodbye.”
Penny looked at him with a little more surprise. Instead of the usual weary expression he wore after a phone call with his mother, he actually looked a bit unnerved and hunted.
“What’s wrong? What’s your mother done?” said Penny, shutting down her game for now and hugging her travel pillow to herself. Sheldon had eyed it suspiciously when she marched it out of her apartment earlier, and she had had to assure him that she had recently washed it.
“It’s not my mother this time,” said Sheldon. “Another member of my family has seen it fit to start hounding me. It’s my Aunty Rose, my father’s sister.”
“Does she want you to bring home avocados too?”
“No Penny. Mom would never let anyone else bring guacamole for the holidays. Aunty Rose always provides the pumpkin pies, which are consistently delicious. That woman truly knows her way around a spice rack.”
“If only the woman would confine herself to honing her culinary skills, but she has to try matchmaking as well, and she is relentless, and persistent and won’t take no for an answer.”
Penny smiled faintly. “Your aunt is trying to fix you up.”
“She has been trying for most of my adult life, and nothing I say or do seems to thwart her. This time she’s bringing Martha Riley with her.”
“Who’s Martha Riley?”
“A distant cousin – not a blood relative – who she thinks would be perfect for me.”
“Well that might not be such a bad idea. It’s been awhile since Amy moved away. Maybe it’s time to---”
The look Sheldon flashed her was so venomous that she stopped, startled. “Martha Riley is an awful human being,” he said fiercely. “She used to bully me when we were little. She called me bean pole and alien boy and.....his mouth twisted with some remembered disgust. "She used to tease me about my experiments, bring up all the errors I made. She even tampered with one of them and ruined months of work. Plus, she has absolutely no respect for boundaries.”
“Hey,” said Penny. “You’re a grown man now. You don’t have to take anything from her anymore or your aunt. ”
“I wish that were true,” Sheldon muttered bitterly.
He spent the rest of the wait tapping his e-reader, but Penny could tell he wasn’t focusing on what was in front of him.
The flight was just as crowded as would be expected during the holidays. Sheldon took the window seat for a long list of reasons she had not listened to. As soon as he was settled, she stowed her stuff and made herself comfortable with her pillow and her blanket.
“I appreciate that you don’t wish to trust the questionable laundering practices of the airline, and you feel the need to bring your own linens,” said Sheldon, “but do you mean to sleep for the entire flight?”
“Yup, that’s what I would have been doing if I weren’t going to spend a Cooper family Christmas with you.”
Sheldon looked at her thoughtfully. “I know how much you value your sleeping time. Why did you agree to my mother’s invitation? Is it because she would have kept gnawing at you like a dog on a bone?”
Penny settled herself a bit more under the blanket. “Something like that.”
It hadn’t been though. Not entirely. Mrs Cooper had indeed given her a pressing invitation. She had been passing through Pasadena on a trip with her church group to a revival, one that changed location every year and which she attended at times, but Penny suspected that it was mostly so she could swing by her son’s home to check up on him.
She had found time to come by the apartment and make them a dinner which involved fried chicken, dumplings, pie and lots of other yummy, fatty things. Penny had thoroughly enjoyed it. The conversation had switched to Thanksgiving. Sheldon’s mother tried to see if he would come home, and he calmly refused, stating the reason that he could not leave his research right then. His tone of voice suggested that it wasn't the first time he had explained this to his mother. “As you recall I will be home for Christmas as you managed to make me promise some months ago. I am keeping my word as usual," he added.
“Oh yeah, I forgot you wouldn’t be here,” said Howard. “Bernie and I will be helping my Mom host another Wolowitz Hanukkah extravaganza.” His lip curled as he muttered the words, so they knew just how enthusiastic he was. Bernadette was not present, and Penny made a mental note to offer her condolences when they chatted again.
“I don’t suppose you celebrate the holy Christmas season,” said Mrs. Cooper turning to look coolly at Raj.
“I’m not going to be here anyway,” said Raj pleasantly. “I will be leaving to spend some weeks with my family in Delhi. It’s actually a very festive time there cutting across religions, nationalities and age groups, there are parties, decorations, Santa Claus, lots to see and do.”
“Oh,” said Mrs Cooper in a manner which showed what she thought of that.
“Wait. Only Leonard and I will be home for the holidays?” said Penny. That would be rather awkward. Since she and Leonard had broken up (for good this time, she’d sworn to herself), they had managed to be in each other’s presence in groups rather normally. Penny wasn’t sure if or how they would manage together if they were both around on Christmas day.
Leonard cleared his throat a little too loudly. “Uh, I won’t be here either,” he muttered.
“Speak up honey,” said Mrs. Cooper.
“I said I wouldn’t be here,” said Leonard louder. “I thought I’d go to New York. I haven’t been home for awhile.”
“Oh yeah,” said Howard in his lecherous tones, the ones Penny heard less from him lately. “It’s been awhile since you’ve had a little action.”
Leonard looked quickly and significantly at his friend and jerked his head in Mrs. Cooper’s direction. She was at that moment helping herself to some whipped cream for her pie, so thankfully she didn’t catch what he had said.
Penny bit her lip. She had heard tail ends of conversations and noticed other little bits of evidence which had made her suspect that Leonard had met someone when he last went home some weeks after they had broken up.
That was good. It was much better than thinking of Leonard moping around the apartment, but it also meant that he had moved on and found someone else, and it also meant that she would pretty much be left to her own devices while everyone celebrated with friends and family elsewhere. There was no way that that couldn’t be a bit of a downer.
“So are you going to be on your own, hon?” said Mrs Cooper sympathetically. “What about that Amy Bird girl?”
“That’s Amy Farrah Fowler Mom,” said Sheldon in a tone that suggested he had had to correct her many times. “Amy moved away as I mentioned to you. She got that excellent research opportunity in Iowa remember?”
“I remember,” sniffed Mrs. Cooper. “I remember how she prioritized that offer over my son’s heart.” Her mouth drooped.
“I don’t think you need to worry Mrs. Cooper,” said Howard. “I don’t think Sheldon has a heart to lose.” He did a poor job of keeping in his splutter of laughter. Leonard grinned, but quickly straightened his face when Mrs. Cooper looked at him.
She frowned, and said, “Well whatever she did, I never cared for her much anyway. I’ll focus on your real friends who stick by you, thank you very much. Now Penny, I don’t think it’s right for you to be alone at Christmas, that’s a time for family and friends. I want you to come to Texas and spend it with us.
“Oh, oh no, Mrs. Cooper. That’s alright.”
“That was not a request,” said Mrs. Cooper. “I insist. When I’ve made up my mind, it’s done. You can ask Shelly there.”
Sheldon looked as if he agreed with her. He said nothing, and though Penny said a lot, Mrs. Cooper would not relent. She stopped trying after awhile.
“She’ll forget about it anyway, right?” she asked Sheldon later after his mother had left.
Sheldon sighed. “Penny, I am not going to bother to quote the odds to you, but I will say the chance of Mary Cooper forgetting anything is incredibly slim.”
"Which was why Penny now found herself snuggled up under her blanket and pillow on a plane headed to Houston, drowsily watching Sheldon who had taken out his laptop.
He looked up and met her eyes at one point, looked away, then back at her and said, “It doesn’t have to be bad you know. Mom nags at me about science and church and things, but there’ll be the food. I know you like that. I have to admit everything’s rather cheerful with the decorations and the smells, and my brother will play his guitar on Christmas Eve. That’s nice. Meemaw will be there on Christmas Eve too. She always reads us a Christmas story.”
“It does sound nice. I don’t mind coming really. I didn’t want to intrude, but your Mom said it would be fine.”
“You’ll have your own room, so you don’t have to be around everyone all the time, and outside is a good place to go when you can’t think indoors anymore. It won’t be hard for you anyway. You’re comfortable around people, and they understand you. It’s helpful to me too.”
He kept his eyes turned away from her. “Home used to be familiar to me, but then I moved to Pasadena and my center has shifted. With you there, it would help. It would be like taking one of the familiar things with me.”
“Thank you,” said Penny. She felt it was a compliment.
Sheldon fussed at nothing on his laptop. “I can assure you that my aunt won’t bother you with her matchmaking. She’s only interested in ruining the lives of relatives.”
Penny had to smother a laugh at that.
“One of the advantages of having Amy as a girlfriend would have been a means of protection for me from this sort of thing.”
“Too bad I’m not your girlfriend,” said Penny, yawning and adjusting her pillow.
Sheldon looked thoughtful right away. “You know it’s a pity, you aren’t my girlfriend.”
“Well my aunt would have to leave me alone wouldn’t she if she thought you and I were a couple?” He looked thoughtful. “Perhaps we could formulate some plan where we could deceive her? I’m much better at dissembling than I used to be. It’s a point that we might want to consider.”
Penny blinked at him, her mind racing madly and stumbling over thoughts, then she said with some relief as an idea occurred to her, “I don’t think you’d be able to convince them. I see an obstacle which would be difficult to overcome. We’d have to act like a couple.”
“By that you mean--
“You know,” said Penny, smiling slyly at him, “Act like a couple. Be touchy feely. Eat off each other’s plates...." It’s the only thing that would convince them. Lots of bacteria!
Sheldon’s eyes widened a little, and he ducked back to his laptop. Penny smiled to herself and settled down again.
She woke up from one of her naps when she felt Sheldon nudge her. They were coming in for a landing in Houston.
Missy hugged her brother while he stood patiently, graciously accepting the gesture. He stood by while Penny and Missy hugged more enthusiastically.
“Long time no see Shelly,” said Missy as they headed to her car. “I would have liked to have gotten a glimpse of that girlfriend of yours. I could hardly believe she was real as it is, and now she’s gone.”
“She couldn’t pass up the research opportunities at this university,” said Sheldon shortly. He gave Missy’s car a sharp look, and Penny wondered if he had some criticism to impart, but he walked around and sat in the passenger seat. Missy gave Penny a look as if to say that she was not satisfied, but she said nothing more about Amy.
“Aunty Rose has been asking for you,” she said at some point in the talk during the drive to his mother’s house.
Sheldon’s voice went high with exasperation. “Martha better not be anywhere near the house when I get there. I call a protest if she does.”
“She’s staying nearby with friends. You know she’ll be over to our house in a second if she gets the word.”
“Insufferable,” muttered Sheldon.
They arrived at the big house where Sheldon’s mom lived and for a few minutes Penny found herself a bit overwhelmed with introductions. It seemed several relatives were over helping Sheldon’s mother with some Christmas baking. They were staying for dinner, but fortunately everyone wasn’t staying in the house.
What stood out was Sheldon’s brother. Sheldon didn’t talk much about him, but he didn’t talk much about any of his family, so Penny didn’t think it was meant as any slight.
She first saw the young man, considerably shorter than both twins, come up and hug Sheldon enthusiastically, Sheldon actually nodded at him and turned to introduce him to Penny.
“So you’re George,” said Penny and the young man’s eyes crinkled at the corners. He looked quite unlike his brother and sister with dirty blonde hair, grey eyes and a slightly weathered, outdoorsy look which was so different from Sheldon’s pale, ageless complexion. There was definitely something more about their mother in him.
“George Cooper Jr,” he said. “But everyone calls me by my middle name Peyton. I’ve heard so much about you Penny. It’s great to finally see you. You’re right Shelly. Your friend is gorgeous.”
Sheldon’s eyes widened a bit. “I never said that,” he protested “I said that her figure was of the sort which was universally pleasing, and she had blonde hair which she washes at regular intervals and which smells of vanilla.”
Peyton winked at Penny. “My mistake,” he said interrupting Sheldon while Penny found herself looking at her friend in surprise and felt oddly flustered for several seconds, so she could hardly pay attention to Peyton at first as he introduced his wife, but it was impossible not to notice Danielle. She was little, sunny and buxom and dressed in lovely brightly colored clothes which were well cut and beautiful and made Penny jealous.
She smiled at Penny. “I love your hat,” she said, indicating the cute purple beret, Penny was wearing.
“I love your everything,” said Penny sincerely and Danielle beamed.
She greeted Sheldon enthusiastically, and he responded to her calmly. He had met his sister-in-law before when he went to their wedding, and something about his demeanor convinced Penny that this was one other person who might be on his list of acceptable people.
As they entered the house, yet another woman approached them, clad in dreary looking clothes, and smiling. Penny saw Sheldon’s face grow colder when he saw her, and she did not have to be introduced to Aunty Rose to know who she was.
”How pretty your friend is,” she said. “How are you honey?” The small talk part of the conversation ended quickly though. “Guess who’s going to be around for the next week or two Shelly? Martha Riley! She’s still living in the same place. She works at a place that rents electronics and stuff. I think you can buy computers there too. You like computers don’t you? What do you think of that? You have something in common Shelly.”
“Selling computers and using them to change the world of science forever are two very different things,” said Sheldon calmly and with scorn.
Aunty Rose gave a sharp high peal of laughter as if she had not been rebuffed and proceeded to continue to chatter about Martha Riley whenever she could.
“You all are just in time for dinner,” said Mary Cooper and Penny realized she was ravenous. Her enjoyment of the chicken fried steak, green beans and mashed potatoes topped with cheese was affected by Aunty Rose’s chatter though. Sheldon bore with her with such surprising patience Penny was astonished.
“Martha cooks amazingly well,” said his aunt. “She can make all your favourite foods if you ask her.”
“That will not be necessary.”
“Oh, it won’t be a problem at all,” his aunt said happily. She winked at Sheldon who muffled a sigh. Penny realized that that happened a lot. She chattered on, and Penny discovered that she was an unstoppable force. The rest of the family talked on, mostly around Aunty Rose, probably rather pleased that Rose wasn’t all over them.
“Have you bought all your Christmas presents, Penny?” asked Danielle, smiling.
“I bought the ones for my family and mailed them already, but there may be a few more things I might need to get,” Penny replied, casting a significant glance in Sheldon’s direction.
“Then you can come shopping with Missy and me,” said Danielle.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Sheldon suddenly snapped in response to a remark from his aunt that Penny had not heard.
“Shelly,” said his mother in a warning voice, and Sheldon pressed his lips together with a slightly sulky look.
That’s not fair, thought Penny. She glanced at Missy who rolled her eyes.
She was feeling more settled and welcome than she might have expected. Danielle and Missy were just her types. Peyton was funny and easy to get on with. It seemed rather unfair though that Sheldon was not as at ease in his own home. It seemed that Aunty Rose was not staying in the house, but Penny got the impression that she’d be around a lot. Sheldon’s mother produced delicious, gooey brownies, and Penny munched them and meditated
She offered to help clean up like a good house guest and was a bit dismayed to find herself with Rose alone in the kitchen. “So you’ve known Sheldon for quite awhile, yes?” said Aunty Rose pre-washing as Penny scraped the dishes.
“Yes. I moved into the apartment across from them some years ago.” She remembered the two strangers looking shyly at her from the hallway. “I didn’t know what to make of him and his roommate at first, but we’ve become such good friends. You could say I’ve learned a lot from them.”
“How nice,” the other woman replied before barreling along with her favorite subject. “So why did Sheldon and that Amy girl really break up?”
“He told us all when it happened,” said Penny coolly. “She moved away.”
“Oh, that can’t be the real reason. Can’t you fill me in?”
“No,” said Penny even as she hesitated a little. Amy and Sheldon had never felt completely right to her. While Amy was clearly smitten, and Sheldon had been learning some social niceties from her, he never took them on naturally. She hardly ever brought out the best in him, but she wasn’t going to share that with this woman.
“Ah Martha will help him heal his broken heart.” Rose lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You’ll help me won’t you? We
need to get those two crazy kids together.”
She could not be serious! Who did she think she was anyway, picking on Sheldon like this? It was harassment that’s what it was.
“I’m afraid I can’t promise anything, Ms. Cooper,” she heard herself saying.
“Oh, why not?”
“Well, you see,” said Penny, lowering her voice and leaning in with what she knew was a wonderful impression of Rose
Cooper. She was only sad no one was around to see it. “I have a bit of a crush on Sheldon myself. I think he likes me back, so I’m not all that eager for Martha to get into the picture.”
That shut her up for a moment! Aunty Rose stared at her, blinked and said, “You and Shelly?”
“Oh my yes,” said Penny. “He just makes my heart go pitter pat you know. He turned to me for comfort when his girlfriend left. I think we’d look so good together, don’t you?
It was so nice leaving Aunty Rose with nothing to say.
Sheldon’s mother had roped her children into helping her wrap presents in the living room. Apparently, there were many cousins, removed in various ways, who she’d purchased gifts for, not to mention the mail man, the boy who mowed her lawn and the butcher.
People still have butchers? Penny wondered when she and Aunty Rose went to join the group. “Pass some of my cookies on to Penny, would you Shelly,” said his mother.
Penny opened her mouth to protest after her huge dinner, but one look at the cookies perfectly iced made her change
her mind. She grabbed two off the plate Sheldon offered then remembered the role she had taken on.
“Thank you Sheldon,” she said dropping her voice a little and looking coyly up at him. He didn’t notice. He only said, “You’re welcome Penny” with his small smile and turned away.
She was most interested in drawing the attention of Rose Cooper though, and she saw out of the corner of her eye that she was watching keenly. Penny smothered a laugh.
“Now what are you up to?” Missy had followed her to her attic room after she had said good night. Penny was tired after her day of travel despite her naps. Maybe it was all the food.
“What do you mean?” said Penny. The attic room was very small, but well aired out and perfectly clean, of course. There was actually a washing bowl and a pitcher in the corner, just a decoration. She felt almost as if she were in a bed and breakfast. It was cute.
“I mean, that I saw you making eyes at my brother, and I know for sure that something is wrong because you ran your hand over his arm to tell him how strong he is. What are you doing?”
Penny chuckled, “I got fed up with your Aunt going on all the time at Sheldon. This way she might stay out of his hair. Do you think she’ll fall for it?”
Missy’s eyes were sparkling. “This is Rose Cooper, we’re dealing with here, Penny. She’s not too bright. This is going to be priceless. I’ll make sure to let Peyton and Danielle in on the secret so they don’t spoil it. And you, you better tell Sheldon because he’ll definitely spoil it.”
This made it seem a bit more serious to Penny than the little joke she was trying to play, but she realized that if she wanted to truly protect Sheldon from his aunt’s matchmaking, she’d have to keep this going until they left the Friday after Christmas.
It was late and the house was quiet as she slipped downstairs in her socks and robe later on.
“Sheldon,” she whispered at the door. She saw light beneath it, so he was still up. She resisted the urge to knock in three sets. His Vulcan ears would hear her anyway.
“Penny?” said Sheldon when he stood towering over her in the doorway. “Were you having a nightmare? My mom used to keep an old sewing machine in the attic that looked like the devil hunching down in the corner, but she moved that out.”
“No, it’s not that,” whispered Penny. “Can I come in?”
Sheldon hesitated, looking around uncomfortably.
“What!” said Penny impatiently.
“Mom has a no girls in her boys’ room policy,” he said hesitantly.
“I’ve been in your room at home hundreds of times,” she said, sliding past him so he had to move aside. She stopped when she saw the room. She knew Mary Cooper kept the room ready for whenever her son might come home, but it was still strange to see all of the Star Trek posters, the models on top of his dresser and his many awards set up on shelves. She realized that it was not that different from Sheldon’s room at home, but the sense that she was catching a glimpse of a younger Sheldon still awed her a little.
She sat down on the edge of Sheldon’s bed. He watched her from the doorway, then sat cautiously on a chair next to the desk, watching her.
“It’s true that you have often visited my room in Pasadena,” he said carefully, “but under the circumstances, I feel that it might be a time to remember boundaries.”
“You’ve been acting strangely this evening. You rubbed my arm.”
“Oh you noticed. That’s what I’m here to talk to you about. I did those things on purpose. Remember you said that we might be able to keep your aunt from messing with you if we were a couple? I decided to tone down your idea a bit. You aunt thinks I have a crush on you.”
“Oh, so now your behaviour can be explained as female courting rituals?”
“If you’re in a National Geographic special,” said Penny dryly. “This way she’ll know that you already have someone, and even though she prefers Martha, she can’t keep it up on her end. She’s getting what she wants - a girlfriend for you. You actually don’t have to do a lot, so we don’t have to worry about your bad lying skills.”
Sheldon was nodding slowly. He looked up at her sharply. “That was a very good idea Penny.” Surprised, Penny smiled.
“I want to give credit where credit is due. I should have known that you would prove to be a master of deception.”
Penny felt her smile drop. “I’m just a good actress,” she said.
“If you say so.”
“Shhh, Penny. If my mother finds you in here, we’ll be in trouble. You were not present for the time when she caught Isabel Thompson in Peyton’s room. I don’t want a repeat of that.”
“I bet she never found any girls in your room.”
“Of course not. So could you further define my role in your plot?”
“The beauty of it is you don’t have to do much since I’m the crusher and you’re the crushee. You can probably start responding a little when I’m flirting with you, but mostly you can still be your oblivious self and deflect any questions from your aunt or anyone who asks.”
He nodded. “I can do this,” he said firmly.
“I know you can.” Penny grinned at his can-do attitude.
“But what about the bacteria Penny?”
“I’ll be extra careful with the hand washing and the teeth brushing,” said Penny solemnly, “and you brought about a gallon of hand sanitizer. We won’t have a lot of touching and feeling. Don’t worry.”
She jumped up and hesitated as she glanced up at a poster on the wall. “Is that really Wil Wheaton? It seems so weird when we know him. What was his character like?”
“He was a highly intelligent young genius who was not given enough credit,” said Sheldon promptly. “I have numerous DVDs to prove it.”
“Maybe someday. Is that a model of a real spaceship?”
It was rather later than she thought when she slipped out of Sheldon’s room after he gave her a tour of its contents. It was rather sweet seeing him in his element among his childhood things.
She walked even softer as she passed Mrs. Cooper’s room. There was no knowing how Mrs. Cooper would react if she saw what Penny was doing. She would have to tread lightly and keep it as secret as possible. It was significant that neither Sheldon nor Missy had suggested letting her in on the plan.
She smiled to herself as she reached the stairs to her room. She definitely would be getting a lot of acting practice this weekend.
The next day she spent with Danielle and Missy and had a marvelous time. With some effort, she found a present for Sheldon and Mrs. Cooper, and she spent the rest of the time looking at clothes and helping the others pick presents. They laughed together about her plan over lunch.
“It’s really amazing how much Shelly’s changed,” said Missy while she munched her salad.
“Yeah, having a girlfriend really brought out something else in Sheldon.”
“A bit,” Missy admitted, “but we saw your influence, long before he knew that Amy girl. I tend to think of this as all you. He’s less like a big old robot. He’s more open to other people and come on, Penny, he lets you touch him. That is like a huge deal, and that’s all you.”
She felt abnormally pleased.
The days left until Christmas seemed to fly by. Penny kept up her “crush”, smiling at Sheldon, bumping him gently when she went close to him. Laughing a bit more than usual at things he said and making an effort to be near him whenever she could.
“I’m doing pretty well huh?” she asked on the Monday before Christmas Eve as she and Sheldon walked to the store to pick up some things Mrs. Cooper had forgotten.
“You’ve certainly fulfilled your objective of keeping my aunt from harassing me,” said Sheldon. The neighborhood had changed little over the years since Sheldon had lived there, and she found herself seeing landmarks which had featured in stories she had heard him tell.
At the supermarket, with a smirk she tossed some moonpies into the cart Sheldon was pushing and turned away.
“Hey Cooper,” she heard someone say in a derisive tone, and when she strolled back, she saw Sheldon pointedly ignoring a guy putting creamed corn up in a pyramid.
“What’s up?” she said as she dropped in some candy bars.
“That’s Carlton Ames,” said Sheldon in a low voice, looking visibly perturbed. “He used to knock over my lunch tray in school. He had various inane nicknames for me, and he once pushed me into the girls’ bathroom.”
“And now he’s packing shelves at a supermarket” replied Penny as she glanced toward the offender. “You’re an award winning physicist, Sheldon. Why are you letting him upset you? His name is Carlton! We should be feeling sorry for him.”
“I never thought of it that way. I can hardly show him my last paper though.”
“Just go along with me.” She tugged at him a little, so he bent closer to her. She still had to stand on her tiptoes, but she was able to plant a kiss on his cheek, pausing just long enough to make it look interesting. Close to him, she could smell just how clean he was. It was subtle, but there was something about whatever products he used that she always liked.You couldn’t always pick up on it unless you were really close.
She glanced over at Carlton to see that he had forgotten what he was supposed to be doing and was standing next to his inadequate looking pyramid open mouthed. Penny threw him a wicked smile then turned to find Sheldon looking intently at her, and she felt her breath catch then cleared her throat. “Let’s go. Your Mom’s going to want these.” She pushed him gently at the small of his back, steering him toward the cash register.
“I don’t suppose you go to church,” said Mary Cooper rather abruptly the next day. She and Penny were in the living room while Peyton tuned his guitar in the corner. Sheldon had gone over to see his grandmother who was due back any minute. Apparently she had been on a trip with the “girls” in Florida. “We’re going this evening. Peyton’s going to play for the choir,” she added with obvious pride.
“Is Sheldon going?”
“Christmas is the only time of year Shelly has ever agreed to going to church with me,” said Mary Cooper. “He wrote a contract up and everything. We’ll see my mother at church too. ”
“I go to church sometimes when I’m home in Nebraska,” said Penny. ” I don’t mind going. It’ll be great to hear the Christmas songs.”
Mrs. Cooper nodded in approval. “At least there’s some Christian in her soul,” she murmured as she walked out.
In the corner, Peyton stifled a laugh.
“If you could see your face,” he said when Penny looked at him. “Don’t worry. Mom’s got a good heart underneath all the prejudice.”
“I’ve known her for awhile,” said Penny. “She sometimes hits you with some unexpected stuff, but I’m not really surprised anymore.”
“Yeah, you get used to it. I think she’s beginning to notice how you’re behaving around Shelly though. I’m surprised she hasn’t before.”
“She’s seen us together lots of times and there’s been no signs,” said Penny thoughtfully. “She just didn’t notice because she didn’t expect anything like that.”
“She’ll catch on eventually though. Careful she doesn’t ask you what your intentions are. She’s very protective of him.”
“I guess I’m pretty protective of him too,” said Penny. “In fact, I’m trying to protect him right now from being harassed. It must have been hard for him here. Being Sheldon, you know. Some people don’t get that.”
“He’d be the first one to agree with you. I admit we give him a hard time sometimes.”
“I do too--”
“But we stuck behind him when other people picked on him. That’s what Coopers do.”
“Sounds like my family.” She wondered if Peyton was trying to tell her something. “I’d never do anything willingly to hurt him,” she said after a pause.
Peyton crinkled his eyes at her as he smiled. “I know that. I don’t worry about him as long as I know that you’re around. Do you want to hear the song I wrote for an ad on TV? Try to guess what it is.”
The church was beautifully decorated, and it seemed to glow in the evening light. Penny found herself linking her arms with Sheldon without thinking. After a little while she felt him move uncertainly, remembered herself and let go but he didn’t move away from her He didn’t even flinch when their knees accidentally touched.
He sat next to her again back at the house as they sat around the Christmas tree and Sheldon’s grandmother read “The Night Before Christmas” to everyone. Apparently she did it every year while the children of the family were present. Even Aunty Rose was quiet as they all sat in the living room lit only by candles.
Afterward the children were sent to bed or went home with their families with Christmas cookies clutched in their hands. Penny snagged one and found herself face to face with Meemaw. In all the bustle and the crowd of Cooper family, they had only exchanged a few words.
“I’ve heard quite a bit about you, young lady,” said the round cheeked old woman and Penny realized that she felt just a tad nervous. After all, this was the woman who Sheldon seemed to look up to above all else.
“Hello,” said Penny thinking a little nervously of some things Sheldon might have said about her.
“I’ve heard so much about you Ms. Penny. I’ve always wanted to thank you for befriending Sheldon.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you too. He’s one of my dearest friends, and he clearly thinks you’re the greatest. It’s a side of Sheldon I’ve never seen.”
“You wouldn’t be the only one there,” said Meemaw looking up at her over her glasses. “Some folks don’t take the time to get to know him and accept him the way he is. I always appreciate the ones who do.” She clapped Penny gently on the shoulder, and Penny surprised herself with how pleased she felt. “He appreciates you very much. He loves select people very deeply in his own way though it’s not the same for everyone.”
Penny thought of this a little while later when she saw Sheldon walking his grandmother out to her car. Like most of the family, she’d be back the next day for the festivities. Penny saw her grasp Sheldon’s arm affectionately and he actually bent down awkwardly to be hugged.
The next morning Penny looked anxiously at the gifts she’d selected, but she didn’t have to worry. Missy had helped her pick out a smart simple dress of the sort that Mrs. Cooper wore and received many grateful thanks for it.
Sheldon looked solemnly at the ugly looking model Leonard had told her he wanted then said, “Penny, you have once more made an excellent choice for Christmas. This is an excellent replica of Gipsy Danger from Pacific Rim. It’s not the extremely detailed and expensive one which will be out soon, but this is a perceptive preliminary purchase for the collection. Well done.”
Mrs. Cooper gave her and approving look. While they were waiting for Meemaw to take her turn opening a gift, Aunty Rose leaned close and squeezed Penny’s hand, “You are so perfect for him,” she whispered. “I admit that I was a bit surprised at first, and I was concerned for Martha Riley, but she’s actually going out with the manager of her store! You so clearly understand our Shelly and appreciate him. This is so wonderful dear.”
Penny glanced at the other woman a bit surprised and looked at Sheldon. He caught her eye and raised one questioning eyebrow. Penny looked away.
As is the usual case in families across the globe, the plan to open one gift at a time devolved into a free for all. Sheldon appeared at Penny’s side and handed her a small box. The smell of mint wafted out of the package. “It’s for your feet,” he said as she pulled out the bottles. “I noticed recently that you’ve been rubbing your feet a lot when you get home from working all day at The Cheesecake Factory. This might be relieved by better footwear on your part, but you can soak your feet in peppermint solution and rub them with the lotion in the meantime.”
She recalled sitting down wearily with a glass of wine after work and just sitting and rubbing at her sore instep while Sheldon talked. She didn’t recall ever mentioning the soreness, but he had noticed and remembered.
“Thank you, honey.”
She noticed the light on in his room as she padded back from the bathroom in her bare feet late that night, so she knew he was up. He looked like he was about to lecture her when he answered the door then he seemed to think the better of it and stepped back so she could enter.
Penny smiled with triumph.
There was a delicious smell in his room.
“Cocoa with marshmallows and a candy cane. My mom always makes it for me at the end of Christmas Day”
“MMMmmm,” said Penny sniffing. “Can I have some?”
“You need your own cup.”
“Oh come on! You’re always praising my excellent oral hygiene.”
“It is exemplary, but sharing cooties over cocoa is not my cup of tea.”
Eventually Penny got him to go and get another cup, and she sat down in the middle of his bed sipping on her share.
He sat against the headboard. With the only light the one on his bedside table, the shadows played on his face and made it look rather elfin and sharp, an interesting contrast with his Batman pajamas.
“You know, you had a girl friend,” she told him. “You need to learn to be more comfortable swapping spit. I know for a fact that you and Amy kissed at least once.”
Sheldon raised his eyebrows at her. “That’s different,” he said, his voice going rather high. He sipped some more cocoa, then went on more confidently. “From my limited observations, I assume the dangers of the transfer of bacteria while kissing should be outweighed by the euphoria of a kiss.”
“So did Amy rock your world?” Penny asked after a silence.
He looked thoughtfully at the marshmallows in his cup. “I confess that the earth didn’t move.....I mean any more than the 383 miles it was going to move anyway.”
“Maybe it was technique. Neither of you are really very experienced.”
“I was given the impression that the kiss experience is also enhanced by the mutual feelings of the couple--”
“Well there’s that...”
They both sipped their cocoa.
“Do you want to try an experiment?” Penny heard herself asking.
Sheldon shot her a questioning look.
“Purely based on the feedback I’ve received, I am a great kisser,” said Penny giving him a half smile. “Perhaps we could give it a shot and see how you feel.”
“As an experiment, I’d question your methods. What is your control group? Technically, I’d probably have to kiss other things. An inanimate object perhaps? A man?”
Penny made an exasperated noise. “I guess we can make all those arrangements if you wanted, but let’s try a Penny style experiment for once. I admit ahead of time that the results are not going to be perfect by your standards.”
“I should say so....”
“But I’m going to ask you again,” she said raising her voice a bit. “Do you want to try it?”
Sheldon stared hard at her with an expression she couldn’t place then said, “Okay.”
She placed both cups on his night table. Her hands shook slightly, the cups ringing lightly against each other but she put them down quickly.
Sheldon glanced away from her and licked his lips.
“The lights being low are good,” said Penny, dropping her voice. “It creates a soothing atmosphere. “
“Well, studies show…”
“Shhh,” said Penny gently. “Could you let me talk for a bit? Just listen to my voice for a minute.”
He looked for a moment as if he would protest, but then he nodded.
“Close your eyes a second,” said Penny. He obliged. “Just listen. Just take in the sounds. Just take in the smells. Relax. Just for a second. Lean toward me.” He did, resting his hands on his knees. Closer Penny found herself fascinated by his eyelashes dusting his cheeks. Her heart pounded loud in her ears, and she stopped a few inches away from him. She could feel his breath against her lips. She found herself following her own directions, listening to his slightly uneven breathing, the scent of him and of the cocoa close around her.
She didn’t know who leaned the last few inches closer. It may have been her. At first it was a touch, a mere pressing together and a pause to consider, but something sparked in her and she deepened it. For a moment everything was his full lower lip moving against hers, the taste of cocoa and marshmallows on him, the soft sounds of their movements. Then she had to pull away though she didn’t want to. She didn’t want it to be too much for him.
He kept his eyes closed a few seconds longer, and she watched him bite his lip before he opened his eyes.
He started to speak, cleared his throat then said, “That was not the same as the kiss I had with Amy.”
“Yeah….your technique is actually pretty good, so that might not have been a factor. I suppose the feeling behind it is what you need to concentrate on here. So what do you think Dr. Cooper? Do you think the experience was worth the exposure to all the germs?”
Maybe I shouldn’t talk about germs to Sheldon when I’m trying to get him to get into kissing!
He was thinking though. His eyelashes lowered again. “I think that there is a definite indication that my theory is correct.” He looked directly at her. “I feel more strongly that emotion has a strong impact on the kissing experience.”
“I think you might be right.” She leaned toward him again. “Doesn’t this sort of experiment mean that we should try it a few times to make sure of the accuracy.”
“You really are learning so much Penny. A few years ago you’d never have had that knowledge.”
“I’m always happy to have a mutual exchange of information,” said Penny and congratulated herself on her clever retort until she lost herself again in Sheldon’s kiss.
“My little boy is all grown up,” said Peyton. It had been his turn to drop them off at the airport.
Sheldon gave him a puzzled look as he pulled away from his brother’s hug.
“I don’t have to ask you if you had any fun,” Peyton said in Penny’s ear as he hugged her goodbye. “Thank you.”
“For what?” said Penny.
“I’m thanking you for what you’ve done for him,” he replied tilting his head at his brother. “He’d do it himself, but I don’t think even the great Sheldon Cooper could find the words for it.”
“I think you’re right.”
Sheldon’s expression stayed puzzled and slightly indignant, but then his brother took his leave, and they headed to the check-in desk.
“Sleep well?” asked Penny looking up at him as they waited in line.
“Yes. I regret that we had to cut the session a bit short because my Mom was prowling around in the hallway, but I did get sufficient rest which is advisable before a flight.”
“I’m sure she didn’t see me. We would have heard about it by now. So, does what happen in Texas, stay in Texas? Or will we be continuing the experiment in another environment? It might be useful you know. We should be thorough.”
Sheldon looked thoughtful for a moment. “I think you have an excellent point Penny. I am known for my thoroughness after all.”
“I look forward to continuing our study,” Penny told him, smiling.