Following his humiliation, ameliorated by not undone by the letter, Sheldon got busy. He went through his ideas drawer and rapidly expanded them into legitimate papers, a broader, more varied spectrum than his usual. A few were even testable, though Sheldon had no intention of ever again being deeply involved in conducting an experiment.
Returning to Cal Tech, he received the expected ridicule from Kripke, Leslie Winkle, and others, but Sheldon was long practiced at ignoring ridicule when he had no ready defense, so he put his hand down and worked on getting his paper through.
Then came the new semester, and he, unfortunately, had a class to teach.
Dr. Cooper only taught graduate level classes, and had not yet been accounted a horrible lecturer. If you couldn't think in math, you were shit out of luck, but most Cal Tech physics grad students could. His explanations were precise and logical, though if you'd shirked on the required work and reading, you'd likely be lost. He knew the material backward and forward, and his odd ways of looking at it were, occasionally, genuinely enlightening. He had a strange, twitchy charisma as a speaker, and he was funny besides, though no one could tell if or when he was funny on purpose.
Still, he went too quickly, and he gave students a strict quota for the maximum number of questions they could ask. Those few questions that were asked were sometimes answered with great cheer, and sometimes with great condescension.
It had been gradual. Creating firmer bridges between concepts. Patience with questions. A tendency to supplement mathematics and jargon with conceptual explanations.
Then he'd been gone the whole next semester, off doing a research project. After three months, word of the disaster, of eureka first confidently declared, then quickly found to be only a false positive, filtered down to the grad students.
Shortly thereafter, the video came out.
Nebraska Barbie and the Wackadoodle was no new discovery. The grad students spent a lot of time watching physics videos, and it didn't take them long to notice a new channel run by one of their very own professors. Granted, the videos were clearly targeted at undergrad English majors aiming to pass a watered down intro class and at lay people aiming to improve themselves, but that didn't stop Youtube from suggesting them.
On seeing the Channel, the first reaction from most students was to wonder whether Dr. Cooper was getting it on with the smoking hot blonde. The second reaction was morbid fascination at the very idea that Dr. Cooper was making light-hearted, low-level science education videos.
Following that came the dawning realization that Dr. Cooper was funnier in the videos than in real life. That he could be funnier at will indicated that at least some of the crazy shit he said wasn't just him being himself; it was a sense of humor.
He'd been strangely coquettish when the subject of the Channel was brought up in class, fidgeting and clasping his hands and letting out a strange, gasping laugh.
But the video after the Arctic Expedition was different. The Postmortem. It brought sympathy and understanding, and in later years, it would be used, to the lasting discomfort of all involved, of everyone who knew just how much it elided, as an example of a great physicist honestly confronting failure.
When the new semester started, those who didn't already know were clued in by the rest, and the first class, a course on String Theory, had a strange atmosphere.
Dr. Cooper moved efficiently through the course syllabus. Following that, he gave a general lecture on String Theory that left the class gaping. It didn't contain any grand breakthroughs or new science, or much that they weren't already familiar with.
It was an overwhelmingly concise and clear explanation of the state of String Theory. The key suppositions, the deep uncertainties, the odd way in which it both had great explanatory power yet lacked predictive power.
String Theory wasn't like the Theory of Relativity or Quantum Mechanics. Those were well-tested. Though manifestly incomplete, it was hard to imagine that they weren't basically correct. They would either be amended or be replaced by more precise and fundamental expressions of the same ideas.
String Theory, however, was an educated guess. It might provide the long sought Theory of Everything, or it might prove to be wrong entirely, and only ever be brought up again when discussing the history of science.
Dr. Cooper made the students want to believe it was right. How could anything so damn pretty and so damn weird not be right?
Unknown to any of them, it was the lecture he'd been turning over and over in his mind in hopes of giving it to Penny years hence, though he supposed she'd always need more of the math stripped out than the graduate students did.
When one of the students approached him after class, haltingly saying that everyone was rooting for him, Sheldon as best he could and said, "Thank you, Miss Martinez. Your moral support, while wholly unnecessary, is appreciated."
"Uh-huh," said Penny, speaking into the phone, her expression pinched. "Right. Yeah. I'll be there. Definitely. Thank you so much. For the opportunity. I hope so too. Uh-huh. Thanks so much again. Good-b-"
The call cut off and Penny stared at her cell phone before sinking into her couch.
It was nothing surprising. Nothing that she hadn't known was coming. But still.
The months since shooting Door from the Past had been decent for Penny. She'd gotten a few more roles, smaller than that one. Two of them had involved swords, and another had involved punching.
Penny hadn't ever imagined action as her specialty, but she could deal with it.
In addition to her regular acting classes, she signed up for a weekly MMA class, and she haunted the HEMA studio until she felt suitably familiar with a broad range of weapons. The roles were building her savings, and expanding her wardrobe, and her DVD and shoe collections. The Channel was paying the bills.
The series on optics ran to 43 parts. 43. She'd been thrilled to stop thinking about light and spend several breezy episodes castigating the disastrous physics of the Iron Man movie instead. Penny had at least gotten so she understood that no matter how invincible the tin can you were in was, stopping as suddenly as Iron Man did in his fight scenes ought to kill Tony Stark, and it was a little strange to have to ask Sheldon questions she'd known the answer too even before they started shooting on the first take video.
The dynamic between them had been really successful, but if she froze it in time even though it didn't make sense anymore, it would get stale. She was slowly figuring out how to let it grow without losing what made it good.
She was even enrolled in two classes, one online. Video Editing and Small Business Management. She was busy as hell, but it felt good.
And Door from the Past would be premiering on the SyFy Channel next Thursday. Hardly a big deal. Just a SyFy Channel original movie. Just Penny on national television in one of the major roles.
Penny, as usual, didn't knock before entering the guys' apartment. Entering, both guys were busy at their boards, looking up when she entered.
Penny said, "Sheldon, I need to talk to you."
"I'm right here. I hear you clearly."
"Oh," said Sheldon, intrigued. "A private business dealing, is it?"
"Just come out into the hall with me."
"A moment Penny. I need to finish this thought."
Penny watched, arms folded, as he stared his board for a solid five minutes before nodding, capping his marker, and setting it in its place.
He came out into the hall with her, and Penny shut the door, rolling her eyes when she heard footsteps behind it.
She went several steps down the hall with him, so Leonard couldn't eavesdrop, and said, "Door from the Past is premiering on the SyFy Channel next Thursday, and we're having a party to watch the premier on SyFy. Just something small. Not everyone can make it. But I'm supposed to bring a plus-one."
"I see," said Sheldon. "I assume you'll be taking Leonard. I appreciate the advance notice."
"I'm not taking Leonard."
Sheldon was nonplussed. "Are you two not in a romantic entanglement?"
Penny blinked. "That ended weeks ago."
"When I threw his symbol of love and affection hard at his face." If she invited him, he'd think he was back in the game. "I'm inviting you." God help her, but Sheldon had gotten better lately. He'd been surprisingly non-disastrous at Disneyland when she'd gone with him and her old work friends. Penny didn't think anyone had noticed when, on sighting Goofy, he'd done an about-face and retreated hastily behind a tree.
Howard was unthinkable, Raj wouldn't talk, Mark, the sound guy from a commercial she'd done, had turned out to be a total ass, and that left Sheldon and Stuart. Ted, sadly, was married.
Penny said, "But you have to promise to be polite. You don't have to be normal. It's the SyFy Channel, trust me, there's a lot of… eccentrics," weirdos, she'd almost said, "But be nice."
Smiling cunningly, Sheldon said, "Would you say this is a test of my improving social abilities? Perhaps a final?"
"Sure Sheldon. It's the Final to Socializing 101. If you manage to attend a party without making a spectacle of yourself or offending more than a fifth of the people you talk to, you get to take Socializing 201 next."
The watch-party was at Danica Gonzalez's house, in Whittier. It was an expansive, two-story building, not quite a mansion but a hell of a lot more than a humble family home. The sun was setting when they reached it, and Penny parked her freshly washed car against the curb.
Sheldon pressed his palms to his temples and said, "Ding ding ding, Polite Mode, Engaged!"
Penny looked at him flatly. "You'd better not keep referring to 'Polite Mode' all through the night.
"I won't," said Sheldon.
The party was supposed to be casual, so Penny was in her nicest black pants, with a green blouse, and had dressed Sheldon in dark jeans and a black blazer, with his favorite Green Lantern shirt on underneath.
They looked good together. The challenge would come when Sheldon opened his mouth. Maybe this hadn't been her best idea. She was used to Sheldon, but other people…
Too late for it now.
They walked up through the immaculate front yard, and Penny knocked on the tall front door. They were let in by the Sound Editor, a balding man who nodded, smiled weakly, and moved off, and they entered the house.
The entryway was large, the ceilings high, the floor glistening hardwood, and the rugs were Persian. Soft film music drifted through the house.
Probably a good idea, that. Play famous film music for a bunch of film people, and no one would ever have to cast about too hard for a small-talk subject.
A short, dark woman saw them and made a beeline toward them. Penny hissed. "That's the producer, Danica. You have to be really, really polite."
Embracing her lightly, Danica said, "Penny. I'm so pleased you could make it." She gave Penny a dry peck on each cheek as Penny made polite noises in response.
Separating from her, Danica said, "And who's your young man? I'm Danica Gonzalez, the Producer," and she extended a hand.
Rather than taking it, Sheldon said, "My apologies. I don't shake hands. I'm immunocompromised." He bent slightly at the waist. "I'm Dr. Sheldon Cooper. Will you accept a bow instead?"
Danica laughed, said, "This one's a cracker," and patted Penny on her shoulder on her way past to greet whoever was coming up behind them.
Nudging him a little ways away from others, Penny hissed, "You do shake hands, normally."
Sheldon said, "With all these strangers? I think not."
Taking a deep breath, Penny shrugged it off. If the worst thing Sheldon did was decline to shake hands in a polite and funny way, she'd count the evening a big success.
They moved into the crowd, and into small talk, Penny watching like a hawk to derail any Sheldon disasters.
The questions about his job came, and the various conversational partners were suitably impressed when he introduced himself as a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. A few science questions were raised, and Sheldon gave the concise, plain English explanations he'd been perfecting over the past year plus, and it went well enough, with no detectable condescension. He was even listening with rigorous attention to other people's stories and opinions.
His 'polite mode' couldn't possibly be that good.
She was missing something.
She circulated them carefully through the party. Sheldon stuck close to her and didn't approach the hors d'oeuvres, but the first wasn't strange and the second attracted no attention. They'd eaten before they'd come, anyway, and Penny had decided to restrict herself to a single glass of wine over the whole evening, since she'd have to drive home and Sheldon would raise a stink if she tried to drive on two or three.
More people showed up, but it wasn't a huge group. People had brought dates, sure, but SyFy Original Movies tended toward bare bones, and it wasn't like anyone who had a gig elsewhere was gonna fly in for the watch party.
They ran into Ted and his wife. Sheldon knew Ted a little from the HEMA club, though Ted wasn't usually there on Monday evenings, and Sheldon was soon happily involved with Ted and a couple other guys in a conversation about swordsmanship and paintballing. Penny went back and forth between that conversation, and another with some of the girls about union contracts in the digital age.
Sheldon chirped in with a few legal details he knew, because of course he knew legal details, but they were all saved a lecture on it by the start of the broadcast.
The TV was huge, and the living room was too, with lots of seating, but they were still packed in a little tightly. In his efforts to get as far away from the others as possible, Sheldon carefully positioned himself mere millimeters from her, but her date sitting close to her would hardly look odd.
There was more talking than normal in watching a movie, cast and crew reacting to the final cuts, but Sheldon kept a lid on his frustration, aside from the odd twitch, and thankfully, most people saved their talk for the commercial breaks.
20 minutes in, counting commercials, thirty Amazons came out of the misty woods, riding horses, their black-haired Queen at their head.
Penny grinned and squeezed Sheldon. He squeaked, but more at the movie than at being touched, she thought.
Most of her 'army,' was just extras who were kept conveniently off camera almost the whole movie. Her warriors who showed up regularly and had principal parts numbered only three.
Drama ensued, explanations were made, and the fact that everyone from every time period spoke modern American English was simply not brought up.
Penny would've liked to watch Sheldon to see his reactions, but was too transfixed with the thought that hundreds of thousands of people across America and Canada were seeing her, and before long there would be bootleg Indian DVDs with hastily written subs.
Hardly any of her minutes had been cut. Instead, it looked instead as if the edit had made hers a proportionally bigger character.
After sufficient exposition to make the stakes super clear, the climax came. Sheriff Tucker beat down and handcuffed Colonel Wilks, who, for unclear reasons, thought a constant influx of historical beasts and armies would make America gritty again, but it was the Amazon Queen who, on her last legs, ran Tamerlane through with her sword.
Dr. Town got the portals closed, the two leads shared their passionate kiss, and the credits rolled. Penny kept it together until she saw her own name listed fourth among the actors. Penny Queen, as Aghara, The Amazon Queen.
Tears came unbidden and wouldn't stop.
First Sheldon didn't notice. Then he said, "There there," and patted her shoulder.
When that didn't work, he said, "I'll get you a hot beverage," and looked wildly around. Unfortunately, the refreshments table didn't include tea.
Before he could flag Danica down and attract even more attention, Penny whispered, "I need to get out of here."
He blinked, and they hustled out the back door, into the large yard with its clear pool and drought-tolerant garden, and Penny walked toward the back, stopping under a big old tree with purple trumpet flowers, near gray in the distant porchlight.
Penny wiped her eyes, found her breath, and said, "It's silly. How can it be so much less than what I dreamed of, and still mean more to me than I could've ever imagined?"
Sheldon started on some explanation about how the human brain coded fantasies
Penny cut him off by saying, "I must've been quite a sight for the others." She shouldn't be so humiliated by it. "I imagine you think I'm silly."
Sheldon was very still, and then he said, "I cried the first time I got a paper published in a journal."
"I- You did? Really?"
"And the second time too. Alone in my room. I cried when I won the Stevenson. And when I graduated college. I fainted on stage when I was giving my speech, and later, I cried. And when I got my first Doctorate. At first because I was so happy, but when I saw everyone else had family or friends with them, I cried again. I wished I hadn't walked. I wished I'd arranged for the diploma to come in the mail. I have cried many times. Usually, where no one could see. And you weren't the only person in that room crying."
She wasn't the only no one in that movie. Not the only one who looked at a part in a SyFy Original Movie and called it the biggest moment of her career.
"You were, however, producing the highest volume of tears, and the most sound."
"Thanks for clarifying that," said Penny.
His, "Your welcome," made clear that he hadn't caught the sarcasm, but Penny's mind was wandering to what he'd just admitted.
He had been vulnerable with her, again, and a lot of what he'd said, she needed to unpack. But later. When she could think.
The tears had stopped, Sheldon, in his Sheldony way, completely killing the mood, and Penny dried her eyes, and fixed her make-up as best she could with the contents of her purse.
They passed through the house quickly, mentioning 'work in the morning,' an excuse that was accepted easily. It was a Thursday, and Sheldon was hardly the only person in attendance with a day job. Even Penny had an audition the next morning. They weren't the first to leave, or the second or fifth either. But Penny wondered if any of the rest had had quite so many eyes looking after their backs.
It was a relief to get in the car, letting out a breath of tension, relaxing, starting the engine and thinking of what soulful music to play.
Sheldon said, "Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding, Polite Mode, Disengaged!"
Penny turned to him. "You're going to pitch a fit if I play music, aren't you?"
"Obviously. Music impairs the ability to drive."
She sighed and started the car. And she smiled.
Two minutes into driving, the euphoria hit.
"I had a major part in a movie!"
"Yes you did."
"I stole the spotlight. No one's going to remember Sheriff Tucker or Doctor Town, but they'll sure as hell remember Aghara, the Amazon Queen!"
"That seems likely."
"I totally kicked Tamerlane's ass. His name's Charles actually, and he's really nice, but I TOTALLY KICKED HIS ASS."
"EYES ON THE ROAD, PENNY!"
The euphoria faded to cheerfulness, their drive was extended by road construction, and Penny chirped on.
"You passed Socializing 101, Sheldon. Danica liked you. You let other people talk. You did good, Sheldon."
"I did well, you mean."
"No. You did good. Good as a noun. As in, 'Sheldor did good all across the land.'"
Sheldon gaped. "Penny! You're demonstrating a basic understanding of English grammar!"
"You can't run a Youtube Channel without going down a few Youtube rabbit holes. And Sheldon, don't you ever tell me about the subjunctive again, because I don't care what it is. I am a descriptivist." She laughed.
"No!" said Sheldon. "You can't be! Not one of those anything-goes heathens!"
"And don't think being a descriptivist means not caring about how things work. It doesn't!"
"That's what it means to me."
"Yes, Sheldon, yes."
As they rattled down the freeway, Chipperness faded to trepidation, and Penny asked, "What did you think of it really? I know it's not exactly big-time. Not exactly Academy Award or..." A SyFy Original Movie was such a small thing, and Sheldon was a man who spoke with justified seriousness about winning a Nobel Prize. "Probably seems pretty silly to you, huh?"
Sheldon looked at her in wide-eyed confusion. "Why would it seem silly? While physics is the most important pursuit known to humankind, I would be the last deny that there's tremendous value in the creation of fiction. Though those works that have actual value to the human race are seldom those that win 'Academy Awards.' They are science fiction, which cause us to imagine what might be possible in the future, and fantasy, which causes us to imagine what might be possible in a different universe than the one we presently inhabit."
"You like the Godfather," said Penny.
"As light entertainment, it's pleasant. But it's not serious work."
"I see." And she did. What the hell had she been worried about? This was Sheldon. What had she expected? Film snobbery? She was talking to a man who thought Star Trek: The Original Series was the summit of storytelling.
No wonder he'd been respectful at the party. He'd been surrounded by people who made cheesy Sci-Fi stories for a living.
"And my performance?"
He practically glowed. "Though there is still some gap between your performance and that of the great Leonard Nimoy, for instance, I would assign you an A minus." And he practically babbled with excitement.
Sheldon said, "You did not, perhaps, communicate the confusion and bereavement of a Warrior Queen separated from her Queendom with as much depth as you might have hoped. However, your implacability in forcing yourself upon the situation was entirely suited to a Warrior Queen. Your apparent emotions were appropriate, and at other times bizarre and foreign to modern-American expectations, as suits an Amazonian Queen, and your resolve to save not only your own people, but the people of Smokey Bend, was commendable. You excelled in 'physical acting,' as it's called. Unrealistic decapitations aside, your fight scenes were of exceptionally high quality."
"Thanks," said Penny.
He gushed on about it for the whole damn ride. For the first ten minutes, she was pleased, but by the time they got home, Penny was getting irritated with the fanboying.
She forced a hug on him, which he reacted to like a piece of plywood, shoved him in his apartment, said goodnight to the door, and bounded off to her own apartment.
She went to bed wondering where the day ranked among the best of her life.
Sheldon had known he couldn't let her down. Not after he'd found out she'd broken up with Leonard over him.
For all the arrogance, it'd never occurred to Sheldon that anyone other than his own close family might choose him over Leonard. And that wasn't precisely what had happened — Leonard had erred, putting justice on Sheldon's side, but still, he would've guessed Leonard would weigh more than Sheldon plus justice.
There was, of course, the pecuniary aspect. He was Penny's business partner. But Sheldon didn't believe that figured. Couldn't believe it had had any part in Penny's instant, incandescent outrage. Refused to fear that there'd been any thoughts of money when Penny had laid a clean sheet across his bed, lay down on it, and gently put an arm across his shoulders.
For Sheldon, that was not hard to do. He seldom thought of money.
Alright. Things are going. With Penny and Sheldon at least.
What few ideas I have about the film business are mostly borne of what little I read about major movies. But I suppose that like any business, it's full of lonely people of average intelligence and average character, trying to feel a little bit better about themselves, and that's the more important part to write right.