She wasn't sure what exactly woke her up. Lazily drifting between consciousness and sleep, she felt comfortable, but at the same time, something was off.
A voice in the back of Penny's mind reassured her it was Monday, her day off, so she took her time adjusting to waking life. She slowly extended her arms and legs, relishing in the space her bed provided stretch out-
Wait, her bed was not this big. Oh no… A quick rewind to last night, and all she could remember was opening up a new bottle of vodka in her apartment and then… oh no. What had she done after that? Blackness. Cursing herself for letting her drinking problem landing her in a stranger's bed AGAIN, she reluctantly opened her eyes.
And was surprised to find herself in a room that seemed rather familiar. 'So much for the stranger theory,' she thought, not sure if it was any better she would have to deal with an old fling.
Looking around, she realized she was alone, and saw no sign that another person had even been in the bed. Odd. Around the room were bookcases, filled with, well, books, punctuated with various figurines and models of spaceships. Was that a Batman…cookie jar?
Penny sighed, returning to her former conclusion of a stranger. None of the guys she ever dated would have had a Batman cookie jar. Except perhaps Stuart. But it really seemed more a thing someone like Leonard or Sheldon-
Her eyes went wide and she bolted out of the bed (her fast movement rewarded by the onset of a lovely hangover headache). Shoot, Sheldon. That's why it was so familiar. This was Sheldon's room, a place she had been several times (often against his wishes) in her days of Age of Conan.
"No one's allowed to be in his room," she muttered impulsively. For a moment she stood there unsure of what to do, half-expecting Sheldon to come out of the closet and panic at her presence. Another fresh and sudden headache brought her to her senses, as she stumbled out of the physicists' apartment and across the hall into her own, reassuring herself all along the way that Sheldon was several thousand miles away and would not suddenly appear and blow her up with his mind.
Sitting on her couch, Penny stared ahead into space, not sure what had just happened. "Alright, Penny," she said out loud to herself, "you drank a bit too much last night, and woke up in someone else's- Sheldon's bed." She cringed slightly at that. She needed to stop this 'drinking every time she couldn't deal with something' routine. First with her failing acting career, then with her pathetic sex life, and now with her friends all gone to the North Pole.
Fine, she'd admit it. With the guys gone, she was lonely. She missed Leonard, Sheldon, Raj, even Howard (if only a little bit, to complete the set and all). They had only been gone a week, and she had yet to do anything but work, sleep, eat, and watch reruns on TV Land in that time. She'd even kept to their dinner routines, though she found Thai food just didn't taste as good when eaten by oneself.
Last night she finally let herself feel the loneliness she'd been pushing to the back of her mind all week. She quickly found a familiar friend in a bottle of vodka and… here she was now.
But why Sheldon's bed? Never mind, she wasn't going to think about that now. Later she would go back over and make his bed, and no one would ever have to know. 10AM plus a hangover was hardly conducive to figuring out the reasoning of her alcohol-induced behaviors.
Saturday morning, Penny found herself in an all too similar situation. She'd picked up a bottle of rum at the store on her way home from work, trying to ignore her lack of a social life on a Friday night. The next day, she awoke with little memory of the night before and snuggled under Sheldon's blue striped comforter.
And yet again, she pushed it all to the back of her mind, refusing to acknowledge it as anything more than a drunken freak occurrence…that had happened twice.
When it happened again the next Friday, Penny finally admitted to herself that something was going on. She thought about why it was always Sheldon's room she found refuge in. Why not Leonard's? He was, after all, the one she had some semblance of a relationship with, albeit a poor one.
Images flashed through her mind, vague memories of the night before. She saw herself sitting on her couch with a half-empty bottle of rum, then fumbling with the keys to the boys' apartment door. Finally a glimpse of her crying into a pillow, Sheldon's pillow, seared itself into her mind.
Tears began to form again as Penny started to relive the grief she'd felt the night before. 'No! Get a hold of yourself, girl!' She stood up from her chair. "Tonight I'm going out!" she declared to no one, and resolutely went to her room to start getting ready for a night on the town.
Upon returning from the club at 2 AM, Penny entered her apartment with a newfound melancholy. All attempts she had made at meeting men had been ruined by a cruel voice in the back of her head, rejecting every potential guy she saw with a quip on their probable IQ or pathetic knowledge of Star Trek. Since when did she care about those things!? She didn't even manage to get drunk, that same voice reminding her of the statistics of alcohol related car accidents and deaths every time she moved toward the bar. She didn't want to acknowledge where , or rather who that knowledge had probably come from.
She was so weary with life, she didn't even put up a fight when her feet led her across the hall and into an increasingly familiar bed, where she fell asleep the moment her head hit the pillow.
Three weeks, and twelve "sleepovers" later, Penny had allowed herself to fall into a routine. She worked as many hours as she could take at the restaurant, and occasionally spent an entire afternoon in front of the TV (where she had taken an interest in Star Trek: Next Generation reruns). She had even gone out a few times with friends to the bars or clubs. She still drank, but tried her hardest to avoid any more blackouts.
And when the night came and the loneliness proved too much, she'd slip into the vacant apartment across the way, and drift off to sleep in Sheldon Cooper's bed. The next morning, she'd wake up, make the bed like she was never there, and head back across the hall to start her day. She resisted thinking too hard about the reason she found much-needed comfort there of all places, but she accepted that it was something she truly needed time to time.
Three months had past, when she heard the fateful scuffling coming up the stairs. She'd just returned from an extra shift at work, one she'd taken to distract herself from the waiting for the return of her friends.
A rush of emotions flowed over Penny as she opened her apartment door wide, revealing four men and a whole lot of luggage crowded at the top of the stairs. She smiled harder than she had in months as four sets of intelligent eyes looked back at her. She could barely contain herself. Rushing over, she gave them each a tight hug. First Leonard (who was closest), then Raj (who squeaked at the embrace), then Howard (yes, even Howard), and finally Sheldon.
Still embracing the tall genius, she spoke. "I missed you." Sheldon was tensed in her arms, reminding her who she was hugging. Slowly she loosed her grip and turned to the group. "I missed you all. Welcome home!"
Penny couldn't stop smiling. Even as the boys looked back at her sheepishly, but grinning all the same. Even when Sheldon, still in team-leader mode, ushered them all inside to begin the unpacking. Even after Raj and Howard had left and Leonard had gone to take a long shower ("in his own bathroom, and with no time limit!"), leaving Sheldon to get back to work at his desk, and Penny sitting alone on the couch, still grinning like a child on Christmas.
Finally she stood up and walked over to the lone physicist. Without hesitation, she moved up behind his chair and wrapped her arms around him in another hug. He immediately tensed up.
But she merely sighed in happiness, seemingly oblivious to his discomfort.
"Penny…" He tried again.
Sigh. "Yes, Sheldon?"
"Is there a reason you are restraining me in my desk chair?"
"I'm not restraining you. I'm hugging you."
"Oh, I see." Pause. "Well, then is there a reason you are hugging me in my desk chair, noted, from a rather odd angle?"
Sigh. Some things don't ever change. "I missed you, sweetie. It's a social convention to hug someone who's been gone for a long time if you've missed them."
"Oh" was all he said in reply. He didn't relax necessarily, but she could tell he was suppressing his urge to flee from her arms.
After another moment, Penny finally released him. "Welcome back, Sheldon," she said softly, still smiling, before she moved away from his chair. She picked up the takeout containers from the coffee table, dumping them in the trash and put the leftovers in the fridge. All the while, Sheldon typed away at his laptop. Finally she decided it was probably time to leave. Leonard would be out of the shower soon, and the boys probably needed some readjustment time to themselves.
She was three feet from the door when: "Penny?"
Turning around, she saw Sheldon had gotten up from his desk and was standing across the living room, staring straight at her.
Suddenly the physicist looked away from her, almost as if embarrassed, or dare she say, shy? A moment passed in silence until Sheldon crossed the distance between them.
"Here." After another pause, he raised his arms slightly and wrapped them around her. Sheldon was hugging her! Memories of the infamous Christmas hug came to Penny's mind. This one was a bit less awkward, but awkward none the less.
As she reactively put her own arms around Sheldon's waist, Penny had a small moment of clarity. She felt safe.
Here, in Sheldon's arms, the arms of a condescending, neurotic, beautifully intelligent man, she felt safe. Here she had no fear of being used, thrown away, or rejected. Here, she was not expected to be anyone but Penny. Her finding comfort in his bed suddenly made a bit more sense, though she knew there was more to it than she was ready to realize. But for now…
Several seconds had passed, and she finally noticed that Sheldon had not moved from the embrace, his head now resting on top of hers.
"Um, what are you doing?"
"I believe I am hugging you."
"Yes, but why?"
Pause. Sheldon's voice dropped, almost imperceptibly, but Penny could hear the softness in his tone.
"I missed you, Penny."
Yes, there was more to this feeling. Maybe someday she'd realize what her heart apparently already knew. But right now, she was safe. Her boys were finally home. Sheldon was home. And here in his arms, she was safe.