Word Count: ~9k
Disclaimer: BBT isn't mine, etc.
Summary: AU that runs concurrent to the show's canon; bodyswap fic
They have this argument a hundred different times, in a hundred different ways.
Penny insists that the first time it happened, she was eight. She’s sure of it. She’s more than sure. It’s not easy to forget suddenly standing in the boy’s locker room, surrounded by gross boys. She’d clapped her hands (his hands) over her eyes (his eyes) and turned away, and that, she says, that, she knows, is the very first time.
Sheldon remembers it differently. He remembers waking up from a dream of jumbled numbers and ideas too large to cut down into words, and he remembers a hand softly pulling the tangled mess of his hair (her hair) away from his face (her face). “Shhh, Penny,” a voice had crooned, and a hand had clutched his (hers) and he’d slowly been lulled back to sleep by an accent unfamiliar and a voice unknown.
He thinks it was a dream for the next three years, and then he blinks—blinks—and the world around him is changed. He is standing in a school he has never seen, surrounded by classmates he does not recognize, and a girl loops her arm through his and tugs him down a hallway.
“Gymnastics tryouts after school,” she says. “You ready?”
He stumbles abruptly to a stop, turning to look around himself. The girl’s arm is still looped through his, but when he looks down at it he sees his own arm for the first time—fuller—and below it a pink skirt and dirty sneakers poking out from beneath the hem.
“Penny?” the girl asks, and Sheldon sucks in an unsteady gasp of air, his fingers—smaller than they should be—clenching as he realizes that this body is not his—
He turns too fast, his mind unfamiliar with how this body moves, and he trips—except this strange girl catches him before falls, their arms still tangled together.
“God, Penny, you can’t even balance on the ground,” she laughs, and Sheldon swallows, swallows, swallows—
And then he is standing back in the boy’s locker room.
(Maybe, he thinks, maybe it does start there, but the voice in that dream had been a man’s, and Sheldon is sure of this, knows this one thing to be true—his father never once comforted him. Not his entire life. Maybe he dreamed the name Penny, but he did not dream the warmth of a hand in his too long hair, the comforting cadence of bone deep love.
It is a simple if-then scenario—if it wasn’t (couldn’t have been) George, then who else could it be?)
Penny is eight, and she is standing in a boy’s locker room.
She claps her hands over her eyes, and she turns back to the locker her body is standing in front of, except she’s hit by the dawning realization that the body she’s in isn’t hers. Wrists that are too thin and legs that are too long and shirts layered on top of each other, and she stares down at the combination lock her right hand is wrapped around, except it’s not her hand, and it’s not her combination lock, and she has no idea where she is, or who she is. She takes a deep, hitching breath, and her hand tightens around the lock until the metal of it digs into her skin, and then she’s suddenly standing next to Dani again, and Dani is laughing at her, one hand wrapped around Penny’s wrist, and she—
She breathes, breathes, breathes, and doesn’t say a word.
Three weeks later, Penny is lying on top of her bed, N’Sync cranked up on her stereo. Her brother’s already yelled at her to turn down her noise twice, but she’s ignoring him, as per her sibling duty. Her pencil is clamped between her teeth, her left foot tapping along in the air to the beat, her homework spread out beneath her. The worksheets are starting to crinkle a little around the edges, but she doesn’t have time to worry about that. She’s got to race through these as fast as she can, because as soon as she’s done she gets to go outside, and there are trees to climb and cartwheels to attempt and Danny Rogers to beat in that race he challenged her to because he’s a dummy and thinks girls are slower than boys.
She crinkles her nose up at the multiplication problems, squinting until numbers start to blur around their edges before huffing out a sigh. Math would be way more fun if it involved dragons and swords she’s pretty sure, okay, and also if it wasn’t so boring. And confusing.
She drops her head down on top of the papers, hearing them crinkle further, which just means Ms. Jameson is going to frown that disapproving frown at her tomorrow. She lifts her head up slowly, and then freezes—she’s sitting at a desk. She’s sitting at a desk she’s never seen before. It’s tidy, and it looks a little like her principal’s desk—everything has its place. (She’s had a lot of chances to become well-acquainted with the principal’s desk.)
“What the heck?” she half-mutters beneath her breath, her eyes habitually darting around to make sure her parents aren’t around to hear her say heck. She jumps to her feet, and grabs the first notebook on the desk, flipping through it. It’s full of—wow. She thought her math was hard, but this is all—all numbers and letters mixed together, it’s like a whole ‘nother language. She snaps it shut, and there, on the cover, in even sharpie, are the words PROPERTY OF SHELDON COOPER.
Sheldon Cooper, huh.
She wipes a hand over her face. She’s probably dreaming. This is just like the time those octopuses (octopi?) were chasing her underwater with lightsabers and she had to team up with Ariel and Prince Eric didn’t even help because he was too busy hanging out with her brother Wyatt, but it was okay because she and Ariel totally kicked their butts.
Except. Except she’s looking down at her body, and this is the same as the Locker Room Incident, isn’t it. This body isn’t hers. This body—her best guess is that this body is Sheldon Cooper’s.
“Not even a fun name,” she says. “Sheldon. Geez.”
She turns around in a circle, getting a good look at the room—tidy, just like the desk. Just like her mom always wants hers to be (hah), and in boring, grown-up colors. Piles of books, but not even any of the good ones with princesses and dragons and swordfights; these are all boring books about science and math and words she’s heard before but doesn’t really know what they mean, like physics.
No mirror, though. That’s what she was looking for. If she’s going to be popping into this boy’s body in a dream every now and then, at least she should know what he looks like.
There’s a big window though, so she walks over towards that. She can just catch a glimpse of his face in the glass—thin, short hair, wide eyes that look surprised, which makes sense, she guesses. This is all rather surprising.
She puts a hand up to the face she’s wearing, runs his fingers over his cheek. Outside, through the window, she can see a huge back yard one story down, sprawling out beneath her. In her muted reflection, she watches his hand run across his face, watches his head tilt slightly to the side.
“What’s going on?” she whispers, some deep, terrible need for her mom to wake her up spreading through her. She doesn’t like this. She wants to wake up.
She wants to wake up.
Wake up, Penny.
She blinks, and she’s sitting on her bed. It takes her a moment to realize that she’s shaking, just a little. She looks down at the papers beneath her—except now they’re lined up carefully in a pile on her lap. On the very top of the stack, lined up neatly next to her scrawled name, date, and teacher, is a scrap of paper, and written on that paper, in very neat handwriting, is a string of words.
Hello Penny, I’m Sheldon.
If you’re reading this then, this it isn’t a dream. My parent’s phone # is 470-555-3145. Please do not call after 9pm. From your worksheets, I gather that you are two years my junior—although considerably lacking in mathematic skills—but hopefully your parents will allow you to use the telephone on your own. Assuming you are not a hallucination of a stress-addled mind, we should discuss what is happening to us.
Sincerely, Sheldon Cooper
She stares at the sheet for a long, unsteady moment. Her worksheets are all finished, and although the handwriting on them is very near hers, she can see how it’s only an attempt to imitate. Her eyes are prickling, as if she’s going to cry or something, and she drags her forearm across them, sucking in a deep, unsteady breath through her nose.
She has too many questions, and no way to even phrase any of them.
She sits there for a long minute, and then she jumps to her feet, half-falling down the stairs to the kitchen.
“Homework’s done!” she shouts at her mom, dropping the worksheets on the kitchen table, and then she’s out the back door and heading out to meet (and beat) Dave Rogers for that foot race, because whatever is happening, she needs to run, needs to expend her limitless energy, needs to clear her head if she’s ever going to be able to think straight again.
Sheldon looks at his watch. Approximately five minutes had passed—longer than the first time. If he doesn’t receive a telephone call within the next forty-eight hours, he’ll need to try to find Penny through other means. Unfortunately, she didn’t see fit to write her last name on her juvenile worksheets, which means that such an endeavor will be difficult.
Still, he’d rather know for sure whether or not she actually exists before going to a doctor. He—well, it makes no real sense, but he has the strangest sense of certainty that she is out there. Besides, telling anyone of the events that he’s experienced would almost definitely result in a barrage of tests and psychological evaluations, all of which would take time out of his studies. If things progress as they have been, he should be entering college within the next year. It would be a shame to derail that without being certain of all the facts first.
He taps his fingers against his thigh. He’s avoiding, of course, the ramifications of exactly what those facts might end up entailing. If he is perfectly sane, if he is perfectly healthy, then he is indeed somehow swapping bodies with a girl. Which is ridiculous, and inconceivable, and yet—
He is standing in front of the window, still. He hasn’t moved from where he snapped back into himself, and he wonders why she was standing here, looking outside. The idea of someone else inhabiting his body is…worrisome. And yet he doesn’t feel anywhere near the worry that he is sure he should.
He looks at his watch again, and then sighs. He has homework to finish for his high school classes, and George still insists that he spend time at the local YMCA with “other kids his age,” despite all his pleas to the contrary.
Forty-eight hours. That’s how long he’ll wait.
The phone rings at 8:45pm the following night.
“Hello?” a girl’s voice whispers across the line, and Sheldon’s hand clenches the phone tight. He normally stays away from the phone, but over the last two days he’s surprised everybody with his dashing leaps towards it. He’s had to answer a whole inquisition of questions from his aunt, deter three different people trying to sell his parents something, and one phone call from a harried teacher calling about Missy’s behavior. (He’d pretended to be George for that one; he has an uncanny knack for impersonation, Missy’s always said, and while he doesn’t strictly approve of her rule-breaking, he also would rather lecture her himself than leave her to deal with their father. Most things are preferable to dealing with George.)
“Penny?” Sheldon asks. He’d promised himself that he wasn’t going to say her name, not give any credence to the situation until it was proven beyond reasonable doubt, but simply hearing her voice is somehow enough to reassure him. Simply her hesitant breath across the line, the seconds ticking as he awaits her reply.
“I’m calling to speak to Sheldon Cooper,” she says. She sounds more assured now, or maybe she’s just trying on the guise of confidence.
“Speaking,” he says.
“I got your note.”
He pauses—he knew, from the moment he heard her voice, but knowing and knowing, are not quite the same. He sinks to the ground, the cord stretching as he presses his back against the wall.
“Where do you live?” he asks. He has a list of questions in his pocket, a list of questions he has painstakingly decided upon in the hours between their last—their last jump?—and now. He doesn’t reach for it though, not quite yet.
“Galveston, Texas,” he says. “Same time zone, at least. I was worried about that, after I got back.”
“What’s—what’s happening? Do you know what’s happening?”
“No,” he says. “But I’m going to figure it out.”
“Penny?” he hears in the background, and then he hears her quick intake of breath.
“I have to go,” she says, her voice dropping to a whisper. “I’m supposed to be in bed, but I got grounded and I’m not supposed to be on the phone so I waited until they were watching tv. I gotta go, Sheldon. Bye.”
“Penny!” he says, but there’s a click and then all he can hear is the dial tone. He lowers the phone from his ear, but he stays where he is, his back pressed to the wall, for a while more.
It doesn’t happen for another two months, and Penny doesn’t call back. Sheldon doesn’t have any easy way of tracking her, unless he breaks a lot of laws, which would be less of a priority if he weren’t currently applying for colleges.
It’s getting cold out, but Sheldon still walks to school most mornings. Missy’s school is only about a mile away from his, so they walk together. George insists it’s good for them, and their mom only overrides him when it’s too cold. Sheldon doesn’t mind it too much—he does his best thinking on these walks. Well, after he and Missy part ways. She tends to talk constantly when they’re together.
He’s been puzzling over the problem of Penny, letting it mull in the back of his mind.
He’s set up a miniature lab or sorts in his closet. He’s had to hide it from George, since the last time George saw him working on a Project, he threw everything in the trash while Sheldon was at school. The trashcan subsequently melted. George was unamused.
The lab in Sheldon’s closet is where he is attempting to figure out if his DNA has somehow been altered. Unfortunately, he’s working with inferior…well, pretty much everything. Inferior everything, except his mind, of course.
Sheldon kicks a rock absently, watching it roll forward down the sidewalk. Missy had a half-day, and their mom picked her up while running errands so she wouldn’t have to walk home alone. She’d pulled Sheldon aside in the kitchen last night, out of earshot of George (and George’s assured assistance that Sheldon was a grown boy who could walk home by himself) and asked if he wanted her to pick him up, too, but he’d shaken his head. After all, he does his best thinking on this walk.
At least, most of the time.
Today, not so much.
He looks up at the sky for a moment, wondering where, underneath this same sky, Penny is. He blinks, and shrugs off the thought as the useless distraction that it is, and shifts his gaze back down. Back to trees. Back to somewhere he certainly wasn’t standing mere seconds ago.
He looks down, grudgingly, and sure enough: they’ve swapped again.
He spins in a circle, but he’s clearly in some sort of wooded park or something. There’s no clear path, and he’s not inclined to rush off, at least not yet. He calculated that Penny was around eight years old, and he’d rather not get her lost when she comes back.
She’s not wearing a backpack, so there’s no access to pencil or paper. She has a stick in one hand, and her right leg is smeared with mud beneath her shorts.
“Penny!” a voice shouts out from somewhere through the trees beyond, but he keeps her mouth shut, unwilling to once more be confronted with people she knows but he does not. The feeling of being in this much nature is—well, it bothers him, to put it lightly. He wants to take a shower, to get the mud off his leg, to get the small twigs out of his hair, but it helps, somehow, to concentrate on the fact that the mud is on her leg, the twigs in her hair. His body is safe.
He knows he should be terrified of what she’ll do to his body, and yet the fear won’t quite come. It’s not even detachment, which he could at least process—this is something far more alarming. A quiet sense of certainty that a girl he’s never met will take care of the skin she’s in.
Penny groans when she takes a step from the Keller’s backyard to some street some place that’s definitely not home. She’s going to end up losing at Hide-and-Seek—there’s no way anybody named Sheldon is any good at it—and to make matters worse she’s going to end up getting lost! Or getting him lost. She frowns. This whole thing is kind of confusing.
There’s a bus stop across the street, so she crosses, looking across exaggeratedly extra like she does when she’s with any of the little kids in school. It’s weird, having that same sort of protective worry, since she’s in the body she’s worried about. She doesn’t think she likes it.
She crosses to the bus stop, and then plops down on the bench, pulling his backpack around to the ground in front of her. Besides the textbooks, there’s a wallet, and she pulls it out. There’s a little identification card in it, and she counts up from the year he was born—he’s ten. Two years older than her.
She drops the wallet back in his backpack, and pulls out a binder. She wrinkles her nose at it, a little—it doesn’t even have any stickers on it. Just who is this kid? She tugs out a piece of paper, listening to the satisfying sound of it ripping free of the metal rings, and then fishes out a pencil from his pencil case.
(He has a pencil case.)
She taps his shoes on the ground, staring for a moment at the heart—that’s how she signs all of her cards and letters and notes, but maybe it’s weird to do that when she hasn’t even met Sheldon before? She’s distracted from the thought by a car pulling up.
“Sheldon!” a woman says. She looks kinda like a mom. A girl about Sheldon’s age pokes her head out the back window, and waves.
“Come on, Shelly,” the girl says, and Penny tilts his head a little, looking at her. She looks familiar, and it takes her a second to place her—she looks a lot like Sheldon’s reflection in the window. This must be his sister. Hopefully. Unless she’s getting him kidnapped.
She stands up anyway, trusting her gut, and the odd pull deep in his chest when she looks at the girl. Something that seems to say home, the same way looking at Wyatt does for Penny herself.
She gets in the back next to the girl, and the girl grins.
“Not even going to try to get mom to let you ride in the front?” she says.
“I know you said you could walk home on your own,” Sheldon’s mom (probably) says, glancing back at them, “but we ran to the store after I picked up Missy, and you were on our way home.”
“And you didn’t want me to be by myself,” Penny says. She nods, because she gets that, and then she pauses, suddenly realizing that just because she gets it, it doesn’t mean Sheldon gets it. Sheldon’s mom’s face softens a little, though, and Penny knows she said the right thing, no matter what Sheldon thinks.
Missy goes off about the day, and Penny tries—really tries—to stay quiet. It’s hard, though, because Missy is super cool and interesting, and Penny wants to talk to her, wants to compare notes, wants to get advice about the two years of school Missy’s already gone through. She doesn’t know how Missy and Sheldon talk to each other, though, so she keeps biting her tongue.
Missy keeps shooting her curious looks, though, and Penny’s pretty sure she knows something is up. Luckily, as soon as they pull up in front of a house that must be theirs, Penny blinks and she’s standing back in the forest, Wyatt laughing at her.
“You didn’t even try to hide, Penny!” he’s saying, and Penny sighs. Of course. Of course Sheldon hadn’t.
Another four months pass. With every day, it’s a little easier to pretend it’s over, to pretend it couldn’t have happened in the first time. It doesn’t stick, of course, he still has the note she left folded in his back pocket, but maybe, he thinks, maybe it’s over.
Missy had cornered him once he’d come back the last time, and found himself sitting in the backseat of their car. She’d asked him what was up with him, actually paying attention to her stories, and he’d actually snapped at that, telling her he always paid attention to her, even if showing her wasn’t always at the forefront of his mind. Every single word she’d said on their walks to and from school he’d heard, and he reeled off half a dozen examples, still edged from swapping in the first place, and feeling unaccountably hurt that Missy seemed to prefer Penny’s impression of him to the real deal.
He leans against his uncomfortable classroom desk. It’s sixth period Calc II, and they have midterms coming up. He should be paying attention, or, at the very least, thinking about something productive. His college applications were due weeks ago, and now all he has left is to wait, but that doesn’t mean he can’t start sketching out some basic sort of plans.
His mom doesn’t want him to leave the state. Doesn’t want him to leave Galveston. Would prefer he lived at home, and only left home after getting married to a nice girl and buying a house together. His mom does not have any reasonable expectations for Sheldon at all. Geroge, of course, would probably rather Sheldon leave soon, or sooner, or if not, at least develop a latent interest in sports. Sheldon has never cared much about what George wants, though.
He looks down at his notes, and his hand freezes. He’s written her name out. He hadn’t meant to do that.
He erases it quickly, unwilling for any of his classmates to get a look at it—the last thing he needs is for them to add a nonexistent crush to their bullying repertoire.
It’s the uncertainty that bothers him, he tells himself. It’s been four months, but how he is to know if it’s really over?
Penny leans back in her chair. Ms. Jameson is droning on and on and on and Penny looks out the window instead. Her pencil taps distractedly on her desk, and her cheeks are still red from running around outside at recess.
It’s not that she liked jumping around into Sheldon’s body, but at least it was something exciting. Penny’s always wanted something to happen to her, wanted an adventure, wanted to be a pirate or a hero or Princess Jasmine, running away from home and meeting Aladdin.
Life is just so boring. Homework and not good enough grades and her mom frowning disapprovingly at Penny dragging mud into the house.
She sucks in a breath, holds it, and thinks about that, thinks about blinking her eyes and being somewhere else entirely, thinks about swapping bodies, swapping lives, whatever it is that they’ve been doing.
She can feel a sort of itch on her chest, kind of inside her chest. She presses her hand against it, surprised, and she can feel how fast her heart is beating inside my body. She looks down at her hand resting against her Power Rangers shirt, and jerks her head up.
She’s in a different classroom.
With grown-up kids.
She stays there only a second, two, and then she’s sitting back in her own body, in her own classroom, and she has to make up an excuse to go to the bathroom so that she can press her head against her knees and try to figure out what just happened.
Sheldon gets a full ride to MIT.
Not that he ever doubted it, of course.
Sheldon is eleven years old, though. Eleven. His mom refuses, overrides George before he even opens his mouth, shuts down Sheldon before he can hardly get a word out.
“You’ve got a whole lifetime in front of you, Sheldon,” she says. “You’ll stay with us for now. At least wait until you’re a teenager before traveling across the country.”
He fights it, fights it in a way he’s never fought anything his mom has ordered in his entire life, but she is steadfast, and she doesn’t bend.
He enrolls at the University of Texas, and he houses on campus, a full 44 minutes away from a house he’s always felt too big for. It’s the most compromise his mom is willing to give him. He feels angry about that, and even angrier that—despite himself—a small part of him wishes Penny would swap with him. He doesn’t know why he thinks she’d be able to fight this battle for him and win, but he can’t seem to make the feeling go away.
Penny celebrates her ninth birthday; Sheldon starts his first year of college.
They swap bodies a few times during the ensuing months: as Sheldon navigates the hallways of an unfamiliar university building; as Penny is winning (and then quickly loses) a game of ping-pong at the local YMCA; as Sheldon reads his comics (Penny very luckily does not crease them); as Penny doodles hearts around Kurt’s name (Sheldon’s comments are frankly rude).
Penny celebrates her tenth birthday; Sheldon starts his second year of college.
There’s a little more control there, somehow. They start writing letters back and forth, just basic information about their lives that the other might need to know, depending. Penny tells her parents that it’s a pen pal project through school, and Sheldon never mentions her to his family. Not even to Missy, although there’s a strange sort of urge there, to tell Missy everything.
Sheldon is thirteen years old, and he is sitting in a study room in the library. He rubs his hands across his face before turning back to the books that fairly litter the table. He’s first or second in all of his classes, but he’s got something to prove; he’s going to finish first in every single class, if it’s the last thing he does.
On cue, Charlie knocks on the door before pushing it open. Charlie is twenty-one, and Charlie is not first in Sheldon’s classes. Not second, either, or third, or anywhere near the top. And Charlie isn’t very pleased that a kid (his words) is doing so much better than Charlie.
Sheldon keeps his back straight as he turns to face him, but his hand tightens a little on the edge of the table. He’s in an enclosed space, and the only door out is the one that Charlie’s currently standing in front of.
“Hey Shelly,” Charlie sneers, and Sheldon hates him, hates how he’s corrupted a teasing nickname he always pretended to Missy that he didn’t like, hates the way he feels—helpless. Feels helpless.
There’s a tug, there, near his hear. Sheldon can feel it, can trace it. He isn’t sure, yet, what it leads to, but even with Charlie standing there, even with finals coming up, even with everything he has to do and everything he needs to prove, all he can suddenly think to do is follow it.
So he does.
He follows it all the way back to Penny.
Penny blinks, and she’s sitting in a desk with textbooks that are way too complicated for her. Right, of course: Sheldon.
“Listen, kid—” some jerk is saying, and she looks up and rolls her (his) eyes. Big jerk, maybe, but she can read the signs well enough. “Don’t roll your eyes at me, Sheldon,” he says, and Penny pauses, taking in the situation. Taking in how tightly Sheldon’s hand is gripping the table, the enclosed space, and the way the big jerk is looming into Sheldon’s space.
“Are you serious?” she says, because is this older boy really trying to pick on her friend? Penny’s been in a lot of fights, and almost every single one of them is because someone tried to pick on one of her friends, and Penny doesn’t stand for that. Ask anyone.
The jerk blusters a little, but Penny’s already looking down, considering the books as weapons. This isn’t your body, she reminds herself. Got to take care of it.
As soon as the guy actively swings at her, though, she ducks easily. Maybe this isn’t her body, maybe these muscles don’t remember how to throw a punch as well as hers do, but her brain is enough. Physics she isn’t smart enough for, but this? This she’s got in the bag.
She grabs one of those big, heavy books, ducks under yet another slow, lumbering punch, and then jumps on the chair—jumps off the chair—and slams that nice, heavy book right down on the jerk’s head.
He wavers for a moment, but she’s quick enough to step out of his way when he falls. She smirks a little as she takes in her handiwork, and then starts gathering Sheldon’s stuff together—she’s pretty sure that, once he gets back, he’s gonna want to leave pretty quick.
It isn’t until she’s back in her own body that she remembers she was in the middle of gymnastics practice.
Figures that she took out his bully, and Sheldon managed to sprain her wrist.
Sheldon stands, staring blankly at Charlie’s prone form. His chest if rising and falling, so he knows Penny didn’t actually kill him, but still.
He rubs his wrist, and then winces as he remembers the way her wrist had twisted beneath him.
She’s going to kill him.
“Don’t be stupid, Sheldon,” she says when he calls a few hours later. She’s sprawled on the couch, the phone cord stretching across the room, ice on her wrist. “You’ve got finals, and I’ll be fine, you’re not going to come visit me. Besides, what would we tell everyone?”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you, Penny,” he says, the words tumbling out of his mouth, and she snorts.
“You think I don’t know that?” she laughs. “You’re just as clumsy as you’re smart. Next time you decide to try to swap us on purpose, just do it at a less dangerous time.”
“I didn’t—I didn’t mean to—do you think I did it on purpose?”
“That’d be a pretty lucky thing if you didn’t,” she says. They pause, considering things. He doesn’t quite want to tell her, yet, how he’d followed a tug in his heart, how he’d—
How he’d done whatever it was he’d done.
“Look,” she says after a while, “however it happened, we’ll figure it out. Or you’ll figure it out, you’re the smart one. I’m gonna take a nap, though, okay?”
“Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
Sheldon graduates college at fourteen. Penny wants to come for graduation, but she’s twelve years old and what feels like a million miles away. She makes him a card, instead, full of glitter and flowers and everything she’ll know he’ll hate. Things she feels like she’s grown out of, too, just a little. She’s got a book of monologues that she keeps in her backpack, and she’s taking a drama class as her middle school. She wants to feel that same sense of importance about her life that she knows that Sheldon does.
They’ve talked about what he’s going to do next in his letters. It’s kind of funny that he’s going to get his doctorate before she even finishes high school. At least, it would be funny, if she didn’t sometimes feel a little stupid when she talks to him. They’ve accidentally swapped a few times when they’ve both been in class, and she’d been unable to follow anything in his classes, and feel flushed and dumb when she’d come back to hers, knowing he’d been trapped in her stupid middle school classes.
It doesn’t really feel fair that if she had to have this happen with anybody, it had to be someone so much better at everything than her.
Penny is fourteen years old, and she’s finally starting high school. A junior boy on the football team, Jack, asks her out, and she says yes before she thinks better of it.
(What if she and Sheldon swap during their date?
What if she and Sheldon swap when they’re making out?
What if she and Jack make out?)
Sheldon is finishing his doctorate, and she doesn’t know how to bring it up to him. They read Romeo and Juliet in class, and they’re preparing to do West Side Story in theater, and Penny thinks, sure, rival families, rival gangs, that’s hard. But it ain’t got nothing on randomly swapping bodies with Sheldon fucking Cooper.
They’ve had less accidental swaps the last couple of years, though. After the time when Sheldon sprained Penny’s wrist, they’ve—well, they don’t know exactly how they’re doing it, but they’ve sort of managed to control it. It’s easier to tell when it’s going to happen, and they’ve managed to delay it up to an hour a few times, waiting until Sheldon was in a big lecture hall rather than a small discussion-based class, waiting until Penny was out of PE, waiting, waiting, waiting.
They’ve done it a few times on purpose, too—well, panic-induced purpose. That math test that Penny was going to fail that Sheldon carefully got her to a B- on; that drunk girl in the dorms that assumed Sheldon was over eighteen that Penny rescued him from; that time Madison started trying to make Penny cry by talking about Wyatt getting arrested, and Sheldon just stared blankly past her, reciting the Fibonacci sequence in his head to quell an unfamiliar anger building inside at the way this girl was trying to hurt his friend.
Penny goes on the date.
Sheldon pages her afterwards, asking if anything is wrong. She stares bleakly at the window and wonders if he can somehow feel what she’s feeling, if the way Jack had dropped her back at her house, refusing to go on a second date because she refused to put out—if the way that made her feel was somehow bleeding through whatever it was they had. She felt angry (at Jack, at herself, at being fooled, at everything); she felt hurt; she felt fucking furious, she felt felt felt—
She paged him back that she was fine. Because she was fine. Penny was always fine.
It takes her a few minutes to decipher his next page—it’s a mixture of their shorthands, thrown together in a way they’ve never used before.
If you need time we can swap.
She says yes before she can even think about what that might mean.
She curls up on his bed, wraps his comforter tight around his body.
There’s something liberating in being somewhere else, in being someone else.
She breathes, breathes, breathes, his fingers holding tight to his pillow, his eyes closed to the world. She wants—suddenly, fleetingly—for him to be holding her, for her to be holding him, but there’s a sort of embrace in this, she thinks.
He’s giving her his body freely, after all. Letting her bury herself tightly in him.
They fall asleep like that, and she wakes up in the morning in her own bed, still dressed in the clothes she’d been wearing to her ill-fated date. Her lips twist up, just a little, in a smile as she wonders if he peeked.
(She thinks, maybe, just maybe, just maybe, that she wouldn’t mind if he did.)
He takes a position as a visiting professor in Germany.
They’d talked about that, too, and she’d told him he had to go. That if he didn’t go on his own, she’d swap and accept for him.
It’s an empty threat, and they both know that—besides the running tally of pranks they’ve pulled on each other (Penny likes to call up Sheldon’s mom and apologize profusely for any assortment of things she knows that Sheldon’s done; Sheldon likes to just hide her stuff from her, because he’s a big old jerk, okay), both of them have always taken this whole situation pretty seriously. They’d never do anything to upset the careful balance of trust.
Sheldon accepts, finally, despite his dislike of traveling, Europe, airports, teaching, and a whole slew of other things. Penny ends up being the one to actually brave the airplane flight. Sheldon makes it up to her by knocking out a whole list of cleaning chores her parents had been after her to do.
They’d hoped, at first, that he could somehow arrange the flight to stop through Omaha, but in the end it simply wasn’t going to work. They’ve known it each other for six years (more, Sheldon swears), but still never met as he leaves foreign soil.
It’s the first airplane Penny’s ever been on, but it’s no surprise that Penny loves, loves, loves to fly.
Penny starts studying some basic German in her spare time, since chances are sooner or later she’s going to need it.
Sheldon buys her a computer with part of his grant money. She protests, but he is adamant—paging and phone calls aren’t going to work when he’s on another continent, and letters will take too long. Penny works on her parents until they agree to get dial-up. Most of her friends have it, so that’s easy enough to explain. The computer’s a little harder—Penny’s mom is convinced that Penny’s old pen pal is now Penny’s new boyfriend, and she doesn’t want to add flame to that particular fire.
Sheldon takes care of it, in a surprising amount of deceit for someone usually so bad at lying. He sends a letter first, announcing that Penny was a randomly selected high school student selected to test a new computer system, and he includes a stack of forms she has to fill out. In triplicate.
(Trust Sheldon’s lies to be more effort than they’re worth.)
Her parents believe it, though, and soon enough Penny has a computer.
Sheldon swaps with her long enough to write out detailed instructions about various things—most specifically emails. Their correspondence becomes daily, their emails brimming with details about their lives. It’s an easy enough thing to explain away—who knows what they’ll need to know if they swap accidentally?—but Penny is beginning to wonder, just a little, if that’s really what this is all about.
Penny’s German comes in handy. She’s a little more focused on Sheldon’s reflection in the storefront window, though—taller, leaner, but that slow slide of boy to man being played out right before her eyes. His blue eyes look amused as they look back at her, and despite the fact that she knows it’s her own amusement, part of her wonders what it’d be like to stand in front of him. Even for just a moment.
He gets appendicitis.
He’s in a strange hospital, in a strange country, surrounded by strangers. She can feel his pain, a little, feel his confusion and his worry, and she is standing in her bedroom, her back too straight. She wonders, for a moment, if this is what he felt when she was torn up about her date with Jack—echoes of feelings fading into the back of her mind. She doesn’t take long to wonder, though, she’s already tugging him towards her, gathering him up and keeping him safe the only way she knows how.
The pain is bad, but better her than him, right? Besides, he already answered the doctor’s questions, and all she has to do now is wait, wait, wait.
She clenches his hands in the sheets beneath her, and concentrates on breathing, concentrates on the memory of curling up in this body, concentrates on the way she can still feel echoes of him back there, tugging at her.
Penny, you don’t have to—
But she wants to, she thinks, and doesn’t answer the tugging at her heart.
Sheldon arrives back in the States no worse for wear, although less one nonessential organ. Penny only flies for a few hours in the middle, this time, when Sheldon had starts to feel claustrophobic. She’s memorizing her lines for the spring play, though, so she couldn’t stay long.
Sheldon’s talked about coming out to see it, but she doubts he’ll have time. He’s eighteen, now, and his mom wants to see him. Besides, he’s nearly finished with his second doctorate, and he’s looking at applying to a few different positions across the country. None in Omaha—both of them had looked, although neither had told the other, but nothing that would work for him was currently available.
Penny is sixteen. She got her license on her birthday, and although she’s still a little worried that they’ll swap when she’s driving, she’s confident enough in their ability to control it. When they’ve really needed to, they’ve always managed to swap back—it’s left them with a bit of a headache, but better a headache than a five car pile-up.
Sheldon ends up at Caltech a few months later.
He doesn’t make it out to see her play, but they swap for a few minutes several hours before opening night. When she comes back, she sees he’s made a sign out of computer paper and lipstick (she constantly loses her pens) and taped it to her closet door.
Break a Leg!
She grins at it, happy and ridiculously touched by the gesture—a few states away, Sheldon smiles slightly down at his book, feeling the bleed of her smile in the back of his head.
She brings down the house.
Of course she does.
Penny is sixteen; Penny is seventeen; Penny is eighteen.
Penny is eighteen years old, and she walks down the graduation line.
Penny is eighteen years old, and she is packing her bags.
Penny is eighteen years old, and she is running, running, running away.
Sheldon swaps with her once she hits Pasadena and parks. He looks at the map on her passenger seat, and carefully circles his apartment.
Forty-five minutes of him pacing later, he can feel the tug of her, only a few flights of stairs away. He’s not sure, yet, how he knows how close she is; he’s not sure, yet, if he cares whether or not he’ll ever figure out what it is that binds them together.
He meets her on a landing halfway down, and they stare at each other—faces so familiar, and yet never seen out of their own eyes.
“Sheldon—” she says, and in the same breath he says
The tug is stronger than it’s ever been, but they both resist it—for once, they’re close enough to touch.
Penny moves first—her fingers tracing his face in the same movement she traced his face with his own fingers some ten years ago. Sheldon lets her, and when her hand finally drops he catches her wrist in his hand, holds it for a moment, as if to prove to himself that she really is there.
“How was the drive?” he asks as he finally lets her go, and she smiles.
“Better now that it’s over,” she says. “I heard you were looking for a roommate?”
“I’ve heard I can be difficult to live with,” he says, a subtle undercurrent of amusement running between them.
“Funny thing, that,” she says, tilting her head to look at him. “I think I might get used to your quirks quicker than you think.”
They fight; they apologize; they bicker; they accidentally swap—they’re still learning to control a tug that’s so much stronger now that they’re finally near.
Penny dates, and Sheldon ruins it—purposefully, accidentally, and accidentally on purpose.
Sheldon makes friends and Penny puts up with it, but does not put up with them hitting on her.
Penny swaps with Sheldon while Sheldon is bickering with Leslie Winkle, and that somehow turns into Leslie kissing Penny-as-Sheldon up against the wall. Sheldon catches the tail end of it and is furious, Sheldon is furious, Sheldon has every right to be furious but come on Sheldon, Penny wasn’t trying to make out with Leslie, it’s not Penny’s fault that even in Sheldon’s body everybody wants to make out with her!
Penny can’t look at Leslie without smirking the smirk of the well-kissed for the next two months, and surprisingly Leslie and Sheldon get on a whole lot better after both the kissing and the swearing to never do the kissing again. Penny isn’t surprised, though, every TV show ever has to have some UST.
Speaking of TV, Penny is going to auditions. Lots of auditions. Lots and lots and lots of auditions.
In the meantime, she gets a job as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory. Sheldon isn’t too keen on that—he even threatens to throw the interview, although that’s still an empty threat. (Sometimes it feels like their entire lives have been an empty threat, Penny thinks, but then she’s had half a bottle of wine, and what does she know? Sheldon’s the smart one, after all.)
Penny gets a job at the Cheesecake Factory, though, and she makes friends, too.
Sheldon says he doesn’t like Penny’s friends, but Penny doesn’t like the way Howard can’t keep his eyes at sea level, so they fight about that, too. Eventually, after enough liquor and Halo parties and embarrassing stories all around, they all warm up to each other, even if Bernadette does show the horrifyingly bad taste of starting to date Howard. Penny shakes her head, and resolves to find a nice girl for Raj, since he’s really the only decent one of the lot.
Leonard and Leslie get together, and break up, and get back together.
Penny turns nineteen; Penny turns twenty. She gets a few local commercials, she gets a play over a bowling alley. The elevator stays broken, she and Sheldon learn to once again control the tug at their hearts, and Penny wants, wants, wants.
Penny is more than a little tipsy, and she is leaning against Sheldon’s shoulder, Thinking. She is Thinking about what would happen if they swapped while she is tipsy. She thinks she’d like to find out.
“Sheldon,” she says, “Sheldon, Sheldon, Sheldon, what would happen to the drunk if we swapped?”
“What?” he asks, blinking. He turns away from Firefly to look full at her, and Penny takes that as the compliment it is.
“The drunk,” she says. “Would it stay with me, or with my body?”
He blinks again, and then tilts his head to the side, considering.
Neither really intend to actually swap, but they’re both thinking about it, both hovering a little bit too close to the notion of it. The drunk, as it turns out, stays with the body that ingested the liquor. Penny catches Sheldon as he stumbles in her body, Sheldon’s hands landing on Penny’s waist. There’s something about Sheldon’s height, about how small Penny’s own waist feels to her when held between Sheldon’s hands, and she feels his cheeks flush.
She pushes back, but Sheldon stares up at her for a moment first, resisting the pull and meeting his blue eyes squarely. She can feel a rising warmth, and she can’t even tell where it’s coming from—her mind, Sheldon’s body, or a bleed from Sheldon’s mind. Hell, maybe even her own body, it’s not like this thing came with an instruction book. She wavers, staring down at her face and the man that’s wearing it, and then Leonard knocks on the door, and they slide—as one—back where they belong.
Penny goes to an open audition, and this time she gets asked to come back for call backs.
Penny goes to the call backs, and she gets asked to come back and read for two producers and a network exec.
Penny reads for them, and she finally, finally, finally gets a part.
Penny is twenty-two years old, and she feels ready to fly.
They celebrate it every year.
Penny insists on cupcakes with birthday candles; Sheldon insists she sit through a movie she’ll complain about but secretly enjoy. (They both know he can feel her enjoyment bleeding through.) (They both know that whatever wish it is that Sheldon makes, she can always feel his want.)
They celebrate it every year—the first time it happened. At least, the first time Penny thinks it happened. They have this fight a hundred different times, in a hundred different ways. Penny insists the first time it happened she was eight years old; Sheldon thinks otherwise.
He celebrates it anyway, because he doesn’t have a date for that half-awake night, a hand in her tangled hair and unspoken love he’s never forgotten. He doesn’t have a date for it, but maybe if he did he’d still agree to celebrate it. It’s not just marking time, after all—they’ve been bound together almost fifteen years. It’s hard to think of his life without her. He doesn’t want to.
Penny is a regular on The Theory of Sexitivy—it’s kind of a silly show about scientists falling in love, but it’s got a cult following, and the fans love it. Love her. It doesn’t look like it’s going to get renewed, but she’s been asked to audition for Starshine, a SyFy drama about a colony on New Earth dealing with family, budding relationships, and the slow discovery of deadly creatures that live in the sun’s rays.
Penny wants it, Sheldon wants her to get it, but there’s one hitch—the show films in Vancouver. She’s been here for almost five years, and suddenly it feels like she’s running out of time.
“You’re perfect for the part,” Sheldon says, and she nods, nods, nods.
Of course she is.
“Will you come visit me if I get it?” she asks, the words stumbling through her teeth before she can bite them back.
And she knows they can write, knows they can call each other, knows they can Skype, but it seems the cruelest irony, now, that they can live hours in each other’s bodies, but never touch.
She gets the part.
She knows what she wants, now. Knows, too, that the first time she kisses him isn’t going to be on the cusp of a goodbye.
She’s in Vancouver for six months, but they’ve spent longer apart, haven’t they? They’ve spent a decade without meeting.
They leave each other notes when they swap. For the first time in their lives they coordinate it—too much is at stake, now, between Penny’s job and Sheldon’s work. He’s partnering with Raj to ensure his green card, and they’re both a little worried that Raj will figure it out. His knack for knowing who he can and can’t talk to it—well. It’s uncanny.
So they coordinate it, setting up times, making sure they’ll be alone. They couch it in easy terms—if they do it on their own, they’ll be less likely to do it accidentally. They’re getting it out of their system.
(There’s something comforting about it, something warm and all encompassing, but they don’t talk about that. They don’t talk about the way Penny will just sit and play Halo in his skin, how Sheldon will read through her lines, how they settle into each other as if—for a moment—it’s enough to fill a not quite ache.)
They meet at the airport, and that’s a cliché best avoided as well. Penny knows about that, knows all about that. It’s been done to death.
Sheldon hasn’t watched all those movies, though, and Sheldon cups the back of her neck in his hand and leans in, her nearness heady and spilling into him. He leans in, leans down, a tug at his heart that he’s resisting because he wants to see her, wants to feel her, wants—
They kiss in the middle of the airport, and a few weary travelers manage a spatter of applause, and they shift—swap back and forth without control—a kiss from rotating directions, his hand in her hair and then her hand in her own hair, her hand on his shoulder and then his hand on his own shoulder. They break apart for breath, and finally they settle back into their own skin, and she leans her forehead against his shoulder, sucking in an unsteady breath.
“We’ll have to practice that,” he says thoughtfully, and she bursts into unexpected, joyous laughter.
They sit together on the couch, hands tangled together as they watch the television.
“Why—” she asks, an old, oft-repeated questions, and he slants a glance down at her.
“Does it matter?” he asks, and she stares at him for a long moment. Her scientist, asking if it matters. And maybe, she thinks, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe it doesn’t matter how, or why, or what. Maybe all that matters is that it did. Maybe all that matters is that it is.
“No,” she says. She smiles, feeling the echo of his own feelings, and it catches at her, a little, how in tune they are. It won’t last, of course. It never lasts, completely—they’ll fight, they’ll make up, they’ll fight again. But right now she has this.
Right now, they have this.