Disclaimer: I don't own The Big Bang Theory and I'm not making aaany money off of this. Just dwelling on my love of Wolowitz. Lyriclines are from Disco by Metro Station. Which, incidentally, I also don't own.

Note: This is my ship. Howard/Penny. Or as I like to call it, the S.S. Delusional Hopes. Regardless, I was feeling out of it and bored and was too full of hate for my NaNo story to make any headway on it. So instead, this. I wanted to see if I could write Howard/Penny without making it crack or terrifically out of character. I don't know if I've managed to do that. As a result, I'd appreciate any feedback.

Either way, I feel better.

Warnings: No spoilers. Sexual content. Extremely mild use of bad language.

x

The Expectations Instability

-

I know you're dying to get out
But it's in you deep inside

I can't take this
No, I don't like it.

-

Penny was beautiful.

Penny was young, Penny was talented – even if the stupid TV shows she had been auditioning for hadn't realised it yet – she was flirtatious, she was popular. She was doing okay for money, and she had great friends living across the hall.

Penny was also inescapably, undeniably depressed, and bored out of her mind.

Everything felt so static. The one thing she could say, of the days when things were strange – the days when she couldn't pay rent, when there were fights between her and the geeks across the hallway, when reality faded into fiction in front of a computer screen – was that those days were never boring. Now, everything seemed to have fallen into some kind of dull rhythm. She couldn't escape it, no matter what she tried. She'd thought about taking classes of some kind, but didn't have time or drive or, she felt sometimes, when faced with Leonard and Sheldon and all of their obscene brilliance, that she didn't even have the requisite smarts for even the most basic of courses.

She tried dating. Nothing worked there, either. She had broken up with Leonard long ago now, after their relationship had fallen into the same boring monotony that her life was stuck in now, and the crush she'd fostered for Sheldon was and had always been doomed to go nowhere. Other guys seemed brutish in comparison, too interested in the shape of her body rather than the contents of her head. She knew it was stupid, knew she was getting offers most girls would dream of –

But she was still bored.

On reflection, that was probably why she made The Decision.

She came home late. She'd been at the Cheesecake Factory for hours, on her feet, non-stop, smiling and chatting away like she hadn't a care in the world. Then she'd mistakenly allowed herself to be dragged out by a co-worker, and had shocked herself by refusing every proffered drink and every proffered ride home from a washboard-stomached stranger. As she fumbled for her key in her bag, she checked her watch, and found that it was well past two in the morning. She groaned. She was up again in less than five hours.

These days, the only thing that held any interest was sleep. At least when she was asleep, she didn't have to constantly keep finding new ways to keep her from slipping into some boredom induced coma, didn't have to keep finding excuses to avoid events she really didn't have the energy to pretend to enjoy. And now, thanks to her inability to tell Janine that she really did not want to be dragged to the sixth bar of the night, she was having her one remaining leisure activity sliced down to the bare necessity.

She must have been more tired than she thought, at the time, because as her fingers closed around the key, her other hand went suddenly slack, and the bag slipped from her grasp. She swore once, loudly, and was half way through a second shrill expletive when she realised that this was hardly the right time of day to be hollering profanities in the stairwell. She dropped to her knees, scooping tubes of makeup and scrunched up memos and her cellphone and the piece of plastic from the back of her cellphone that insisted on falling off constantly, limiting her venting to a string of curse words under her breath.

This was how she was positioned, crouched down, swearing to herself and fumbling about for the last of the personal items she'd spilt, when all of it – all of her frustration, all of her boredom, the feeling she hadn't been able to escape of being penned it, trapped, limited, pressed – closed in on her. It overwhelmed her, like a wave that's been building for hours finally crashing into the shore, tearing down the barricades, and she slumped against her door, unable, and unwilling, to move.

She didn't cry. Tears would mean there was emotion involved, tears would mean there was pain, sadness, a definable problem, that will the help of good friends and good wine she could tackle. This, this wasn't anything like that. This was quiet, absolute despair, dashed with self-recriminations and tainted with unshakeable apathy, and it kept her pinned to the floor as if moving from it would break the last threads that kept her tied to the world, kept her breathing.

She was still sitting there when he came up the stairs.

There was no reason, she thought, for Wolowitz to be in their apartment block at nearly three o'clock in the morning. It was an absurdity. That was why, for the first few seconds that he came into view, she didn't really register him. Then, dimly, she became aware that he was actually standing there, and she was still really sitting in the hallway, and time had been passing all the while and she had even less idea what to do with herself now that before.

"Penny?" he asked. He must have been pretty shocked to see her, too, she thought, because he didn't crack out one line about how she shouldn't have waited up for him, or how seeing as they were both still awake this late they shouldn't let the time go to waste, if she knew what he meant. He just stared at her, looking utterly bewildered, his spare key to 4A dangling from his fingers.

"Yup," she said, in a monotone. She dragged her eyes up to his face, even the smallest effort of the smallest muscles feeling like a strain. God, she thought, something had to be done about this.

Wolowitz opened and closed his mouth once, and then turned towards Leonard and Sheldon's door. Then, his key halfway to the lock, he turned back, and asked, "Why are you in the hallway?"

She raised her hand, in the universal gesture of 'don't know, don't care'. "Why not?" she said, and she wondered if her Nebraska drawl always came out this strongly when she was tired, or when she was drunk.

"Is...everything okay?" he asked.

Something seemed off about him. She squinted her eyes. His tone had been...genuine. Concerned. Concerned and genuine were two words she had rarely, if ever, found herself having a reliable excuse to use in conjunction with Howard Wolowitz. But there was more to it than that. She noticed for the first time what he was wearing – sweats, and a jumper cut in a shallow V, not his usual turtleneck style. It was out of place on him, hurried, put on without thinking and without care. Looking again, she took in other things about him – the definite slump of his shoulders, the mess his hair was in, the overnight bag slung across his shoulder.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. She had already forgotten he had asked her a question.

"Oh, you know," he said breezily, shrugging and spreading his palms. "The usual. Creepy, pathetic stuff."

It was a throwback to the time she'd cut him down, and wound up making him cry like a four year old. She gave him a Patented Penny Death Glare, accompanied with a 'yeah, let it go already' sneer. As she let her face return to its slackness, she realised that there had been something absent in his tone. There had been no pointedness, no sharp edge of blame or a reminder of past wrongs. His voice had been...light. He'd been attempting to make a joke out of it.

He hadn't answered her question, either. Instead, he'd turned back to the door. He stuck his key into the lock, Penny watching him all the while, not really knowing where else to direct her gaze, not really caring enough to change focus, now that it had already landed on him. Suddenly, he halted in his movements.

'What's this?' she thought. The flicker she felt was not quite interest, but it was as close as she had gotten to it that night.

Wolowitz turned towards her again. Some silent battle is going on inside him, judging from the expressions on his face, and later, she'll realise that it was more of a war, between the ferocious desire to take a chance, any chance, to push something out to sea and change something, and the fear of a rejection he was not able to cope with right then. But there, in the hallway, one side won out, and he asked, "Would you – d'you wanna, I don't know, go out with me sometime?"

She stared at him. He dropped his gaze.

"Nothing serious or anything," he added, and it had already begun to sound like backtracking. "Sort of, hey, we're friends, and we can do stuff together, as friends, and –"

Penny interrupted him. She said, "Yeah, why not?"

"Really?"

She wasn't too sure, then, and she still wasn't sure afterwards, what made her say it. Maybe it was because the things he was saying were so typically un-Wolowitz, that his usual air of smug overconfidence had evaporated, and this was just a genuine request from a short, geeky guy she hung around with to go out with him. Maybe, she thought, it was because of the apathy that was quickly taking over her life, and that she had decided, somewhere within herself, that she needed to change something, too. Maybe she didn't take it back because of the sheer sprightliness, the almost puppy-like note in his voice when he said, "Really?"

She doesn't know. Maybe she'll never know. But then, why she said it didn't really matter. She'd said it, and from that moment on, in refection, she'd sealed her fate. The Decision had already begun to be made.

Wolowitz looked pretty shocked at her agreement. "Okay, great," he said, rather quickly, and she got the feeling he was trying to conclude the conversation as quickly as possible so she didn't have time to take it back. "See you tomorrow, I guess."

Then his key turned, the door opened and shut again, and Penny was alone in the corridor again. There were the sounds of movement in the apartment across the hall, but no voices. Wolowitz hadn't woken Leonard and Sheldon up. That was weird. Maybe they'd been expecting him.

Expecting...

Wolowitz.

She'd agreed to go out with Wolowitz. On a date. With Wolowitz.

She sat there for some time longer, letting the impact of what she had just done sink in.

It didn't matter, she thought. It didn't mean anything. It wasn't binding. In the morning, when he tried to ask her about it, she could lie, say she'd never agreed. Or she could brush it off as sarcasm. None of the others would have any trouble imagining her turning down Wolowitz yet again. It would be easy.

The thought of decisive action at some point in the future stirred her a little. She pulled herself to her feet. Her keys, she realised, had been clutched in her hand this whole time, and had left a jagged imprint on her palm. She opened the door to her apartment.

It was dark inside, but she didn't turn on the lights. She tossed her bag in the vague direction of the couch, heard it hit the cushions and slide off. She heard the contents spill over the floor for the second time that night. In the near pitch-blackness, she picked her way across to her room, navigating her way around the obstacles and mess that had sat in the same place for weeks.

She got changed half-heartedly, winding up in just a pair of old boxer shorts she found under her pillow and a zip-up hoodie covering her naked torso. She flopped onto her bed, and stared up at the darkened ceiling. Shards of moonlight were filtering through the gaps in the curtains.

She wasn't tired. Well, no, she was tired, she was achingly tired, and all she wanted to do was sleep, but she was also awake, her mind desperate to find something to plug itself into. She'd been so bored, so frustrated, for so long. Almost automatically, she started replaying her day in her head.

Wake up. Cereal. Coffee. Dress. Car. Work. Work. Break. Work more. Break. Evening shift. Awkward customers. Tips divided up. All of it crushingly, suffocating routine. Janine. Bars. Home. The stairs. The corridor. Keys. Bag. Howard.

Wolowitz was the only thing out of the ordinary. Wolowitz, who had turned up with every part of him skewed, every part of his meticulous appearance and every aspect of him that was meant to be there mixed up, wrong. It had, she realised then, been the first genuinely odd and out of place thing that had happened to her in as long as she could remember.

She felt the beginnings of a Decision rising inside her, and her heart clamped down in horror as she realised what that decision was going to be.

'No!' she told herself, alarmed, panic rising. 'That is the stupidest, most disgusting plan you've ever-'

It was stupid and it was disgusting and she would probably regret it but regret was something, it was a feeling, a decision, a result. And that had to be better than – than this, this dullness, this awful repetitive nothingness.

She was losing the argument and she knew it.

'No,' she told herself again, but it was already more of a resigned groan than a protest. She brought both hands up, covering her eyes.

There had to be a better way.

But this... this was convenient, it was easy, it was –

Crap. Too late. She'd already talked herself into it. She'd known herself long enough to know that now, it wasn't a question of if. It was a question of when.

She had made The Decision to sleep with Howard Wolowitz.

'Now is probably best,' she thought gloomily, before adding, 'There's no way I can do this sober.'

She stumbled into her living room, pulling a bottle down from the shelf. She squinted at the label, and deemed it 'alcoholic enough' for the purpose it needed to serve. Debatably, though, there was nothing in the world with quite that much ethanol in it.

Briefly, she thought about the glass. The idea was discarded as quickly as the cap of the bottle, and after the third swig, she was reaching for her phone. She pulled up her Messages screen, and tapped out two words.

'Come over.'

She selected Wolowitz's name from her address book. The text was ready to go. She could still back out and there would be no evidence of any of this.

One more swig. Send.

By the time the soft knock at her door came, she wasn't as drunk as she'd have liked to have been, but she decided to act more gone than she was. It'd probably be useful, later, when – as it inevitably would – tonight came to light. She pulled back the lock. She opened the door.

"Penny, what –"

She didn't let him finish. The more he talked, the more she thought about what she was doing, the more likely she was to chicken out, slip back into her zombie-esque mockery of the girl she'd once been. She reached forward, winding her fingers into the cotton of the thin sweater he was wearing, and pulling him inside. She shut the door and pushed his back against it in one fluid motion, bringing her body against his, pausing only long enough to hear the hitch of his breath, take in the slackness of his jaw, the astonishment in his eyes, before she pressed her mouth to his.

He tasted of mint, of toothpaste, and the thought that he'd paused long enough to brush his teeth before coming over here made some part of her stomach flop over. She crushed down that feeling, ignored it, focused only on the mechanical precision of the art she'd long ago perfected. One hand moving up his side, curling round his arm, reaching his hair to wind her fingers through it, shifting her body against him, pressing the two of them together, and he was pawing at her, clumsy, desperate, every bit of the gangly teenage awkwardness he'd never grown out of coming through. She wanted to do something to take the edge off his nauseating eagerness, but knew that the quicker this went, the easier it would be. Just commit.

A change is a change, and if this didn't stir things up, nothing ever would.

By the time they reached her bedroom, the hoodie had already been tugged away, and what was left of her lipstick had been smeared off, in a mash up of tongues and lips and, sometimes, teeth. By the time they hit the bed, something had also changed, subtly, indistinctively, in her feelings. The bedroom was lighter than the living room, if only by the little, and as she pushed him down, her eyes fluttered open just for the merest of seconds.

That moment was enough to take him in – the thinness of his face, contorted in a look resembling rapture, rather than his usual leer; the rim of red around his eyes that wasn't there the last time she'd seen him; the exposed tenderness of his neck, normally invisible under a roll of nylon. Everything about this situation was surreal, and odd, and out of place, and somehow, all of that wrongness slotted into place and made this – this – thing – seem right.

He pulled her on top of him, then, and though she would deny it to herself afterwards, over and over again, in that moment things changed from deciding she had to sleep with Wolowitz, to wanting to sleep with Wolowitz.

She dropped onto him, mouths meeting once again in a gasp of heat, and this time, she meant it.

Then, everything was a tangle of limbs, and sheets, and sweat, and somewhere in the middle of it she went from being on top of him to underneath him, and she knew she should have railed against that, knew that she should be keeping the dominance here, but reason and logic and any sense of planning had been torn up in a storm of twisted lust and uncertain passion. She gasped into him, and she hadn't expected to actually enjoy this, and –

And it didn't last long. Not that she'd expected it to, really. It was Howard, after all. The thing that really shocked her, though, more than the fact that she'd wound up wanting it, more than the fact that he didn't gloat or even comment afterwards, was the fact that after they'd parted, and were next to each other instead of bound up as one, he slipped an arm across her, and his head fell against hers. He was holding her.

It was obscene in its tenderness. She had to remind herself that this was Wolowitz who had just curled up against her, Wolowitz who had brought her into his arms as if she was something precious. She lay there, torn between feeling slightly sick and slightly touched, and as she heard his breathing slow into sleep, thought that it would be a long time before she would manage to drop off.

She was wrong. Minutes later, her eyelids were drooping, and didn't even try to remember the last time she had fallen asleep in someone's embrace.

By the time she woke up, he was gone. The memories of the previous night hit her just as the hangover came into force, and she found herself groping for her phone and apologising to her manager profusely over the line, telling him she would work as many shifts as he wanted next week, but there was no way she would be able to make it in today. After hanging up, she rolled back, and stared at the ceiling.

Her mind was blank. Completely, entirely blank. The only things filling her consciousness was the feel of the bedspread over her skin, the heaviness of her head, a growing feeling of nausea and the way the ceiling looked in the early dawn's light.

She let herself go back to sleep.

When she woke up again, the sun was much brighter. Turning over, she fumbled for her clock, ascertaining that it was just after one. As she dropped it back onto her bedside cabinet, she noticed a small, folded piece of paper lying there that she was sure hadn't been there before. She picked it up.

'I won't tell. – HW x'

She stared at it for several minutes. What?

Howard would...keep the fact that they'd had sex a secret?

Wait – it had been Wolowitz she'd dragged in to – ?

No, there it was, HW. Almost, she thought, as if he'd thought he'd have to remind her who it was she'd just slept with, almost as if he'd expected he'd been called there by mistake. Penny felt a pang in her stomach at that thought, and told her that her eyes lingered over the 'x' in incredulity, more than anything else.

She folded the note, and kept it. And it turned out that The Decision had been the right one, because when she made her way back out into the world outside her apartment, she found herself lively again, breathing easier, engaging - living.

She saw Wolotwitz later that day, and her heart stopped just for a second. But he greeted her normally, with a quip about how ravishing she looked hungover. But he didn't quite meet her eyes, and when he wound up next to her on the couch later that evening, he didn't lean close to her the way he normally did.

Some time later, she would hear about the argument between Wolowitz and his mom, hear about the fact that she'd chucked him out until he 'learnt better manners towards his mother'. Some time after that, in more hushed tones, she would hear about the cervical cancer diagnosis that had sparked it off, and how Leonard was letting Howard stay with him and Sheldon for a bit, so sorry if he caused a bother to Penny.

Penny told him it was fine, and when Wolowitz came back into the room, patted his shoulder and uttered the same promise as the others, that she'd be there if he needed her, that she'd help look after his mom if he needed it. He thanked her, the same way he'd thanked them, and still didn't meet her eyes properly.

The only difference between her promise and theirs, though, was she intended to act on it.

At midnight, she sent him a text. This time, it was a little longer.

'Please come over. X'

This time, she didn't drink. Instead, she hovered anxiously, almost jumping out of her skin when the knock eventually did come. This time, everything was slower, designed around him, not her, and this time, instead of silence afterwards, when he had pulled her against him again, wrapped her in his spindly arms, Penny spoke just one word.

"Stay."

This time, he did.