Spoilers: Is set more or less now, just after Valentine's Day.
Notes: This fic comes with a soundtrack.
1. "Shoulders of Giants" by The Chromatics
2. "Terminal Star" by Karine Polwart
3. "Distant Sun" by Crowded House
4. "Neutral Ground" by Sea Wolf
5. "The Dance of Planets" by The Chromatics
(Tracks 1 and 5 are free and legal. See sidebar on linked pages.)
And every step follows the one before
and opens up a new frontier to explore
our 'scopes are dancing in space to see the beauty and grace
Oh, Galileo would approve, that's for sure
And still for me and you we can join in on this too
Just climb up here with me where we'll see more
~"Shoulders of Giants" by The Chromatics
Sheldon adjusted the strap of his messenger bag and looked around the apartment. It was eight am and he was ready to go, but Leonard was not present.
"Leonard?" he called out, just to make sure. "Leonard, I'm ready to go." No reply. Frowning, Sheldon found his phone and called Leonard. "Leonard, where are you?"
"Good morning to you, too, Sheldon. I'm--ah--a little busy."
"Leonard—" Sheldon wrinkled his nose at the sound of Leslie's voice. "That phone is seriously hindering my libido."
"Bye, Sheldon!" Leonard hung up. Sheldon tried to call him back, but the phone went directly to voice mail.
Just then he heard a door open across the hall. With a proverbial light bulb flashing over his head, Sheldon hurried out of his apartment. Penny was awake and engaged in a what seemed to be an unnecessarily long good-bye. Experience had taught him that interrupting such moments had an inverse relationship with Penny's willingness to grant him favors. Since he really needed the ride, he kept quiet. After a moment, though, he had to check his watch. Surely they had to breathe at some point. Just when he was about to break his earlier resolution to keep quiet, the guy finally stepped back.
"Good-bye, Pen." Pen. A ridiculous and pointless nickname, as if Penny were some office supply. The man looked familiar. Sheldon realized he had seen him entering the apartment with Penny last Saturday.
"Good-bye," Penny said back to the man. Her voice was breathy and, for some reason, it repulsed Sheldon nearly as much as Leslie's voice had on the phone earlier that morning.
"Oh, Penny, you're awake," Sheldon said, trying for lightness. Penny's foolish smile dropped to the knowing and tired expression she always adopted when he requested her aid.
"I need a ride," he said. "Leonard left early this morning and is currently, well, engaged with Leslie."
Penny's brows rose. "They're back together?"
"Apparently, and judging by my very brief conversation with Leonard on the phone earlier, Leslie does not wish to move slowly this time." Sheldon twisted the message bag strap in his hands. "So, could you please provide me with a ride?"
She sighed. "Sure. I'm up. Let me get some shoes and my keys."
The ride to the school was silent. Penny had made him sign a piece of paper promising that he would not lecture her or try to engage her in a game. The paper was far from being a binding contract, but, in what Sheldon felt was increased social maturity, he recognized the gesture for what it was and kept quiet.
Penny let him out in front of his building. "Have a good day at work, Sheldon," she said.
"Oh," Sheldon said, surprised by her sudden communication. "You too. Thank you."
He shut his door and Penny drove away.
"Who's the cute blonde?"
Sheldon turned quickly. It was one of the new graduate students, an irreverant boy, just outstanding enough to have made the program, but too pedestrian in his research for Sheldon’s taste. "My neighbor," he answered.
The boy whistled. "Hot. How're you paying her back?"
Sheldon frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Well, she gave you a ride all the way to school in the early morning."
"Your point?" Sheldon permitted the grad student to hold the door to the building open for him.
"Dude, basic manners. A does something nice for B. B reciprocates."
"But she said it wasn't a problem."
The grad student laughed. "Yeah, she's supposed to. Trust me, I got sisters. They say it's nice and fine, but really they'd like something back. A return favor or something."
"I cannot provide Penny with any transportation."
"So try a fun evening or a present or something. Just a thank you thing, you know?"
"Actually, I don't. Walk with me. Your name is...?"
"Bruin. Duncan Bruin."
"Explain to me, Duncan, the exact process of exchange in your experience."
The boy shrugged. "Sure. Now, based on what I've seen, it goes like this--"
By the end of the conversation, Sheldon had discovered that girls were worse than he had previously supposed and that he apparently owed Penny something nice as thanks. Since he did not relish the idea of trying to shop for her again, he decided to invite her over for a movie and food. In the future, he would be sure to clarify the exact exchange before requesting a favor.
"Penny." Sheldon knocked again. "Penny."
"Yes, Sheldon?" Penny answered. She was wearing a very short blue dress that enhanced her eyes and created the illusion that her legs were far longer than they actually were.
"I would like to invite you over as a thank you for the ride this morning," he said. He needed a glass of water.
Penny smiled at him. "That's really sweet, Sheldon, but I've got a date tonight." Hence the dress, he thought. Of course.
"With the gentleman from this morning?" Sheldon asked.
"Yes, actually," Penny said. Her cheeks were slightly pink.
"I see. Then, how about this weekend. Leonard had informed me that he will be occupied with Leslie at her place this Saturday."
"Sheldon, you don't have to invite me over for anything. I was up and you promised to keep quiet." She shrugged.
"I was informed that such a response is both socially correct and insincere, so forgive me if I disbelieve you. Saturday at five? I will provide dinner."
"You're not going to let this go, are you?" Penny asked. Her face was in the favor position again. Sheldon frowned; he couldn't be sure, but he did not think that such an expression was either appropriate or desirable for the situation.
"I insist," he said, but he was already feeling less certain.
"Hmm, I'll see you Saturday, then," Penny said. "Now, if you don't mind, I have a very hot man to meet."
Sheldon stepped back. "No, of course," he said. Penny pulled the door closed and began to lock it. "Have a pleasant time."
She looked back over her shoulder at him. "Oh, I will." She patted his cheek. "Night, Sheldon."
"Night," he said. Penny skipped down the steps in her short heels. Her dress pulled in interesting ways across her backside and Sheldon surprised himself by hoping she wore it again Saturday.
Sheldon dithered long over what film or television series to show Penny that weekend. While a movie might be easier to decide upon, a series had the benefit of repeated use. Eventually he settled upon the new Doctor Who series. The series was not one of his favorites--the previous Doctors were far more entertaining and less concerned with angst and romance--but he felt Penny would appreciate it. She would probably actually like the inane Doctor/Rose subplot. For dinner he would order pizza. He knew her preferences and, with Leonard absent, he would not have to worry about the cheese.
That settled, all that was left was to wait.
"You won't believe what I heard," Raj said as he sat down at their table that Thursday afternoon. "The Smathers library in Florida has put together a traveling exhibition and it opens this weekend. Who wants to go?"
"Ooh, count me in," Howard said. "Which comics are they bringing?"
"All of their Green Lantern and Atom collections with selections from Superman and the Justice League. I have a student who is helping with the space preparation. He can get us in for the talk that evening."
"I can't," Sheldon said. He cut another bite of his biscuit. The pre-applied butter dripped everywhere. Honestly, how were pre-buttered biscuits more time and cost efficient than plain ones? He had written countless emails, all of which were mysteriously unanswered. He ate his bite of biscuit, only then noticing that Howard and Raj were staring at him. He swallowed. "What?"
"Original Silver Age Green Lantern," Raj said.
"I did hear you," Sheldon said. "Unfortunately, I already have plans."
"Doing what?" Howard demanded.
"Entertaining Penny," Sheldon replied. He began to slice off more of his biscuit. "I have been informed that after being granted several favors by a person, it is polite and socially required to reciprocate. Since I cannot provide transportation for Penny and she rejects any sort of organizing method I design for her, I have invited her over for a couple episodes of Doctor Who and pizza."
"Oh, this I've got to see," Howard said. "Sorry, Raj, you're on your own."
Sheldon looked up sharply, his expression cold. "I'm sorry, but if you wish to thank Penny, you will have to find your own method. I will not allow you to dilute my gesture by sharing it."
"What are we diluting?" Leonard asked. His shirt was loose and he had, Sheldon noted with some distaste, discolorations on his neck and throat.
"Sheldon's date with Penny," Raj said.
"What?" Leonard asked, looking between them, his brow furrowed with confusion.
"It is not a date," Sheldon said. "I am merely thanking Penny for the many rides she has given me, the most recent of which took place earlier this week."
"Dinner and Who. That's a date."
Sheldon sniffed. "Hardly. A 'date' would imply that I had any other motive than expressing my gratitude to Penny in a socially respected manner."
"So just dinner, Doctor Who, and 'thank you.'"
"What do you care?" Howard asked. "I can see those hickeys."
Leonard looked away, apparently discomforted by this observation. Sheldon moved onto his mashed potatoes. Hickey, he thought. That was the term.
Saturday arrived swiftly. When he was five years old, Sheldon had written a paper, in colored pencil and large letters, trying to explain the effect that anticipation, dread, and other emotions in regards to the present or future had on the perceived passage of time. His mother had read a paragraph and then just put it up on the fridge next to Missy's picture of a cow. Since then, however, he had learned to identify his emotions based upon his time perception. Saturday came far too quickly, but now that it had arrived, the seconds were crawling past. From those observations, Sheldon knew he was both eager and nervous for his evening with Penny. The emotions were unexpected, but not without interest. He made a note to examine them at a later date and returned to his work, determined to accomplish something with his day.
At five o'clock sharp--impressive for Penny--Penny knocked on his door. She was not wearing the blue dress, but Sheldon recognized that her doing so had been unlikely in the first place. "The pizza will be here in approximately 40 minutes," he said. "We should start the first episode."
"Episode?" Penny repeated as she took her regular seat on the couch. "What are we watching?"
"Doctor Who," Sheldon said. Penny's smile froze a little.
"Is this going to be something I enjoy?" she asked.
"I think so. This chapter of the series features a romantic subplot between the Doctor and his companion, Rose. A first for the series, well, a second, really, but few people count that movie."
"I see. Well, start it up, I guess."
Sheldon turned on the dvd player and dimmed the lights. Penny jumped a little when the plastic figures first began to move, but then she began to laugh at inappropriate moments. "If you are not enjoying this," Sheldon said, "we can watch something else."
Penny shook her head. "No, this is good."
When the pizza arrived, Sheldon paused the episode. Penny accompanied him down the steps to pick up the boxes. "So, you said she's his companion, right? She sticks with him?"
"I refuse to reveal any portion of the future for the series. If you wish to know, you shall simply have to watch."
"No spoilers, got it."
As per Russell Davies's wishes, Sheldon started the second episode without any pause between the two. When Rose went to the observation deck and looked at the Earth and stars, Penny also let out a small gasp of appreciation.
"You like stars," Sheldon said, surprised.
Penny tilted her head and then shrugged. "I guess I do. My dad used to take us stargazing. It was the one time he didn't pretend I was a boy. I remember a few of the stories he told, like the woman who got kicked out of the sky for falling for the wrong guy."
"Melpomene," Sheldon said.
"Yeah, that's her name. You'd have to talk to my sister for more in-depth stuff. She always paid more attention than me. Daddy's little girl and all. I just liked looking. To be honest, I kinda miss it."
Sheldon checked the clock. "Would you like to see planets?" he asked.
Penny looked sideways at him. "It'd be cool, but where? Everywhere around here is so bright."
Sheldon looked again at the clock, calculating average drive speeds, probable traffic, and travel times. "If we leave now," he said, "I know an adequate location."
"But what about Doctor Who?" Penny asked.
Sheldon paused the episode. "It is a DVD, Penny. We can watch it another time. If you have blankets, go get them, please. And a jacket. I will pack up the telescope."
"All right," she said. Sheldon got up and immediately began to work at the telescope. He had not taken it outside in a very long time. Whenever he wished to stargaze, he always arranged for time with one of the more powerful telescopes around the area. Given Penny's story about her father, however, he thought she might appreciate the lower-tech experience more. That and he knew arranging time at Mt. Diablo or Mt. Wilson would be exceptionally difficult with this short of notice. As he closed the case, Sheldon wondered if this was what being spontaneous felt like.
Penny bounded back into the apartment. She had changed into a pair of jeans and a light blue hooded jacket over the white shirt she had been wearing earlier. "I found an old camping ground cloth," she said, "and some other old blankets." She had them draped over one arm and balanced on her hip below.
"Excellent. We will need to drive."
She spun her keys around one finger. "Yeah, I figured that part out already. Ready to go?"
"Ready," he said. Penny caught her keys against her palm and led the way down to her car. Sheldon followed her and began mentally categorizing what he should show her. She liked the stories, which he, of course, knew, but had always found superfluous. Yet, for her, he was now recalling every detail and trying to determine which she might like the best.
In the car, Sheldon spoke only when giving directions. He was not sure if the mockery of a contract Penny had drawn up was still applicable, but in case it was, he didn't wish to upset her.
"You okay, there?" Penny asked. "Not freaking out over not finishing the episode, are you?"
Sheldon sniffed, offended. "I believe that not finishing was my idea in the first place. I am fine. I merely thought that you preferred silence while driving."
Penny's eyes widened. "Oh. That's -- Thanks, Sheldon."
"Was silence not your intent with that paper you forced me to sign Monday?"
"No, it was, but I didn't think you'd keep at it forever."
Sheldon nodded. "Well, it wasn't binding, but I was not sure if that was by design or mistake."
"Neither," Penny said. "I just didn't want to deal with chatter Monday morning. Are we nearly there?"
"Turn here," Sheldon said, indicating a small gravel road. "This will dead-end at a park."
"I didn’t know there was a park around here.”
"Most people seem unaware of it. It lacks the usual park ammenities, rendering it less popular with recreation-seekers. Regardless, it is a cleared area and far enough from city lights that one can actually glimpse the stars overhead."
"Sounds good enough to me." Penny turned. The lot of land was much as Sheldon remembered it when he had been shown the location by an older professor who had helped him navigate the complex politics at the university before retiring. Penny parked at the end of the gravel street. She laid down the ground cloth and began to arrange blankets while Sheldon set up the telescope.
Penny laid out on the blanket, her hands beneath her head and her eyes focused on the sky. A portion of her skin was visible where her shirt was no longer meeting the band of her jeans. Sheldon advised her to cover up as he began to focus the lenses and orient the scope.
"Is it true that they're all dead?" Penny asked.
"What?" Sheldon asked, pulling back. Penny waved a hand up at the sky.
"The stars. I had a boyfriend who once told me they were all dead."
Sheldon looked upward. "Some of them may very well be. Certainly, any events we notice among the stars, such as supernovas, actually happened long before we are able to see them, but stars live for a very long time. The young and middle-aged ones are often younger than they are distant, which implies that they still exist." He did hope that she understood; he was making an effort to be clear for her.
"Huh," she said. "That's good. I always thought it was kinda depressing if the sky really was empty and we just didn't know it yet. This is better. The universe is changing, but we don't find out until long afterward."
"Essentially. Here, look now." Sheldon stepped back from the telescope and allowed Penny to look through the lens. "Careful. Don't bump it."
"I remember that much," Penny said. She bent down to look through the telescope. When her hair got in the way, she pushed it back, revealing the curve of her neck. It was a very aesthetically pleasing curve, a gentle slope. Sheldon pondered asking Penny to let him graph it. He had some spare time to spend on a paper concerning the beauty of shapes. "So what am I looking at?"
Sheldon blinked. "Venus. In Greco-Roman mythology she was the Goddess of Love. She and Mars, the god of War, were involved, despite her marriage."
"Love and war," Penny said, pulling back. She was smiling. "What a cliché."
"Is there anything else you would like to see?" Sheldon asked.
"Could I just look around?"
He wanted to say no; he disliked others using his equipment. Instead he stepped back toward the blankets. "Do you know how to use it?" he asked.
Penny looked at the few dials and nodded. "Yeah. I remember."
"Very well." He sat down. "It is actually quite appropriate that we are stargazing today," he said.
"Why is that?" Penny asked, slowly turning a dial.
"Engaging in activities that the person being remembered enjoys or once enjoyed is apparently a well-tried way of commemorating a birthday."
Penny looked at him. "It's your birthday?"
"No. Monday, however, was Galileo's birthday and Thursday was Copernicus'." He began re-arranging the blankets so that he could lie down.
"Ah. Who're they?"
"Who're they?" Sheldon sat perfectly upright, dropping the blanket he'd been folding into a pillow. "Are you serious?"
"Fine. Among many other accomplishments, Galileo confirmed Copernicus' observation that the Earth is not stationary, but rather revolves around the sun."
"Oh, yeah, he was the 'It still moves' guy, right? I remember now."
"That anecdote is entirely apocryphal, but, yes, that is Galileo." He re-folded the pillow and lay down.
"Hm...." Penny fell silent, stargazing and adjusting the telescope. Occasionally she would ask him what a particular constellation was and comment upon the stories. She protested at his explanation of Auriga, claiming that finding children and a chariot within the configuration of stars required too much hand-waving and pretending. After about an hour, she sat down beside him on the blanket.
"Are you finished?" Sheldon asked.
"You said you'd show me planets."
"I will, but the next ones we can see here will not be visible until approximately thirty minutes before dawn."
"Dawn? What are we supposed to do until then?"
"I propose you sleep. I will wake you when it is time."
"Next time, warn me," she said.
"I did tell you to bring blankets."
"Not good enough." She laid down on the other half of the blanket. Some of her hair tickled his cheek. Sheldon reached up and brushed it aside.
"If you wish," he said, "we can leave now."
"Nah, I can wait. Besides, this is comfortable. I don't know what you did with the blankets, but good job." Her shirt had risen up again revealing approximately three centimeters of skin. Sheldon reached for the small blanket he had saved and draped it over her. Penny said nothing, but she was watching him.
"You will get cold otherwise," Sheldon said.
"What about you?" she asked.
"I dressed adequately," he said. "I'll be fine." Penny rubbed her fingers over the top edge of the blanket, but said nothing. Suddenly the silence bothered Sheldon, which was entirely illogical, but rather than try and understand why exactly the sensation of comfort had fled, he tried to start a conversation. "Do you know how many planets there are?"
"Nine," Penny replied. She already sounded sleepy. "My very elegant mother just served us nine pizzas."
Sheldon smiled at the childish mnemonic. "Not quite. I fear that your mother shall have to serve nachos from now on."
"Oh, that's right. Pluto was fired. Eight, then."
"Still not completely correct, unless, of course, you wished to limit the question to only our solar system. No. We now know that planets exist beyond our solar system."
"Now know?" Penny asked. "What, did they just suddenly become visible?"
"No, actually. Planets are still very difficult to locate unless we know where they are. We discovered that they exert a small influence over their central star. This causes the star to move slightly. The term is 'wobble'."
"So you watch the stars and if they wobble, you know there's a planet around them."
"Exactly, once we have determined that a star possesses a planet, we can investigate further, find the planet, determine its type, and so forth."
"And if it has aliens?" Penny asked.
"An unlikely possibility, by the way, but, yes, astronomers also look for the conditions necessary to support life." Penny didn't respond, but the silence no longer felt constricting. When Sheldon looked toward her again, she was asleep. He straightened the blanket over her; his knuckles brushed over her sleeve. She twisted slightly at the contact. Sheldon pulled back and stood up.
He checked over his telescope and looked through the lens. Penny had apparently focused it upon the moon earlier, for he could see a portion of the crescent still poking into view. He re-adjusted the scope so that it would be ready come dawn and returned to the blankets. Penny had already begun moving in her sleep and was now taking up more space than was her proper half. Sheldon lay down the edge, careful not to touch her. He set his watch alarm and closed his eyes. He did not plan upon sleeping, but this was easier.
The alarm awoke him. Penny had rolled in her sleep. Her back was now pressed against his side. He could feel her back expand with long, deep breaths. His own breathing quickened. He did not know the protocol for this situation. As he shrunk back from her, he noticed her shiver. Obviously she had become acclimated to his body heat and now was reacting to its absence. The change could possibly awaken her. He found a neglected blanket and pulled it over her. Sheldon removed the cap from his telescope and glanced through it. He made the adjustments to bring the planets into focus.
Only then did he wake Penny. Her hair was in disarray. "You can see them now," he said.
Penny yawned. "Already?" she asked. She came over to him and the scope. "Which planets are these again."
"Mercury will be the highest. The other two are Jupiter and Mars."
“Mars is on the wrong side of the night if he wants to get with Venus,” Penny joked before looking through the lens. Sheldon heard her breath catch in her throat. "They're beautiful."
"Yes." Then he frowned. "You're shivering."
"I'm fine, Sheldon." Even so, Sheldon got the same blanket he had laid over her earlier and wrapped it over her shoulders. The action felt like an inadvertent hug. Quite oddly, Sheldon felt the passing inclination to actually hold her, rather than remove his arms.
"Thanks," Penny said; her voice was low.
"You're welcome," Sheldon said. He began to fold up the remaining blankets. He needed something else to focus upon. Once he had them folded and stacked, he informed Penny that they should leave in order to avoid traffic.
"Oh, of course." Penny put the blankets back into her car and Sheldon returned his telescope to its case. On the trip home, Penny thanked Sheldon for the evening. "It actually turned out a lot better than I expected," she admitted.
"If you are interested," Sheldon said, "the Comet Lulin is passing over the Earth currently and will be especially visible later this week. It will not pass near the Earth again in our lifetime."
"A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?" Penny asked. She gave him a sidelong glance. "Count me in." Her lips were curving upward again and Sheldon realized that she was formed of many pleasing slopes. The paper in his mind was slowly being taken over by her. He wondered how she would feel about being the center of his research.
"Would you like to get breakfast before returning?" Sheldon asked. The evening had been more enjoyable than he had expected and he was now reluctant to let it end.
"Sure," Penny said. The relief her acquiescence granted him was surprising and incomprehensible. His world was wobbling.
This was something new. He needed a stronger telescope.