Disclaimer: I don't own The Big Bang Theory or anything associated with it. The lyrics lines scattered throughout this chapter are from the songs 'Disco' by Metro Station and 'Oh Godammit' by Hot Hot Heat.

Note: This is a story about the things I wouldn't want to talk about if it were me. It's going to be a story about disgraceful behaviour and people using people and being stuck half-grown up and half-held back. It's going to be a story about bad things and good things and people who are neither good or bad.

I'm gonna use a variety of methods, so bear with me. This chapter is, for example, heavy on text messages. At the time of publishing, I'm going from everything up to and including The Maternal Congruence. I haven't decided on pairings yet. Will be heavily Penny-centric. Lots of alcohol, probably swearing, and later, probably sex. Please enjoy.

x

The Confidence Cataclysm

Chapter One - Fracture

-

i wonder if you're going down
where we all know
you get lost and then get found

-

There are moments when Penny does not like who she is when she is drunk.

These moments, of course, never actually occur when she is drunk. When she is drunk, she is magnificent. Not, of course, meaning the horrifically inebriated state she usually stumbles back to her apartment in, dissolving into fits of giggles when she cannot figure out how to match the key up to the lock. No, that's the after-math, the come down, the slump on the brink of sobering up, when everything around you is quiet or asleep or respectable. That's the bit when you wake up.

What Penny means, when she thinks about the way she is drunk, is out in the middle of it all, in the thick of things, when the music is so loud it lets you stave off thinking until morning, and blurs and confuses everything until you're not sure what drink you're getting – and don't care so long as it keeps this buzz going. What she means is the three-in-the-morning clubs, with only the hardcores left out, and the only things in the entire world that matter are the way you move your body and the sound of the bass and the look in the eyes of the people you meet.

Penny loves those moments, because they're the times it doesn't matter she hasn't ever had a proper acting job. They're the times where no one cares if she's a waitress, movie star or freaking astronaut, and where she can forget and imagine and dance and be precisely and completely in one single moment, and have that be all that matters. They're the times where she does not need to understand or define or reason, she just has to be.

But on some days, some mornings, some odd moment when she looks up into the mirror washing her hands or drops her bag and sees the scrap of paper with some guy's number she doesn't remember getting fall out, she hates those times, too.

-

02/18/10 22:11
Penny
what the hell was THAT?! x

02/18/10 22:13
Leonard
He's been having a crazy day today. Sorry. X

02/18/10 22:23
Penny
it's sheldn. isnt EVERY day a crazy day?!! x

02/18/10 22:26
Leonard
...little bit yeah. He's been getting a bit better since we started talking again. You know he doesn't like it when the group is messed up. X

02/18/10 22:29
Penny
mr. control freak has t have his order : ) im glad we're talking again tho. and not just for his beneft! x

02/18/10 22:31
Leonard
Me too : ) Though I won't deny that the prospect of him calming down isn't unappealing. Come round tomorrow? I know Wolowitz has missed you ; ) X

02/18/10 22:35
Penny
sorry i get confused, is that meant to make me WANT to come over?! : ( lol x

02/18/10 22:42
Leonard
Lol, haha, ok, fair enough. Isn't the same without you though, everyone agrees. Not just for me I mean. And now we're ok and over the awkward stage (I think?) of the breakup? Sorry I know you don't like me bringing this stuff up. X

02/18/10 22:45
Penny
its ok sweetie pie : ) we're good and i will b over tomorrow if u promise i wont have to sit by howard!! xx

02/18/10 22:47
Leonard
Done! : ) I'm glad we're ok. Xx

02/18/10 22:50
Penny
me too : ) im gona get an early nite, im out tomoz late. gnight leonard! X

02/18/10 22:51
Leonard
Goodnight! X

-

she's naught - i call shotty
my body will never live up to these expectations

-

"Ugh, have you seen the family at seven?!" Penny presses her hands over her eyes, before dropping them to pick up the plates. She gives Bernadette a look of mingled exasperation and disgust. "There's more food on the table than we even gave them!"

Bernadette makes a face. "I know. That's in my section..."

"Oh, sweetie, be strong. Are you this hamburger?"

"No, I'm waiting on two cheeseburgers and a salad."

Penny shrugs and leaves the hamburger where it is. "When's your break?"

"Another hour yet."

"Ooh, mine too – talk to you then."

Penny deposits Table Nine's order and returns to the hatch. The hamburger is sill unclaimed. "Dave!" she calls into the kitchen, and the chef leans backwards, sticking his head around a large pan hanging from a rack.

"Yeah Pen?"

"We got a hamburger here with no ticket, who's it for?"

Dave shrugs, but stops halfway through the motion. "Uh, might be eleven. Wanna check with them?"

Penny has already picked up the plate and started off. She stops a few feet away from the table. Huh. She could have sworn she'd have noticed him before now if he's been there all this time.

Raj looks up and offers her a closed-lipped, muted smile. He raises a hand, and his eyes dart to the hamburger. She approached the table.

"Hey Raj. This yours?"

He nods.

"Back off the Hindu thing for a while then, huh?" she quips, setting it down. He nods again, and she sighs, and adds, "Sweetie, maybe it's not the best idea to come out alone to a restaurant staffed mainly by women."

He offers her another, embarrassed, little smile.

"Why are you here alone, anyway?" She realises the futility of her question, but she's curious. Raj wandering about on his own doesn't make much sense. She loves him, but she'll be the first to admit he's a follower, not a leader.

At that moment, Bernadette passes them, looking frazzled. She spots Raj and gives him a smile of friendly recognition, and swaps with Penny a look of desperation at the heights the lunch rush is reaching today. Penny grimaces back, and returns her attention to Raj just in time to catch the lingering, reproachful stare he is giving Bernadette's departing form.

Penny is no genius, and in front of anyone but Sheldon Cooper she's willing to admit she's not even all that bright. But when it comes to people, she knows she's keyed in. She can decode a look, read body language like a book and spin a story out of the lines between people's eyebrows when they frown. When it comes to the human condition, Penny thinks she deserves a PhD.

"Oh my God, Raj, what's going on?"

He pulls an apologetic face, and keeps his lips firmly closed. But he glances back at Bernadette.

"Okay, well, text me, alright? I gotta go. Don't forget!"

She bustles about a bit, depositing and collecting orders and plates. In a lull, she darts to the bathroom and flips open her phone.

1 New Message
Raj

She opens it.

02/19/10 13:05
Raj
Howard made me promise not to tell.

She regards the text fondly. Bless him. That has already told her as much as she needs to know to make her own assumptions. She replies anyway.

02/19/10 13:19
Penny
so it involves howard and bernadette...hmm...i wonder how i could possibly find out?? im just gona ask her and then you'll tell me what howard has to say about it later anyway. x

02/19/10 13:21
Raj
OK They are having some problems but DON'T SAY I SAID. Noone else knows. Find out from B what she thinks?

Penny quickly keys her response, before shoving her phone back into her pocket and re-emerging into the glare and noise of the restaurant proper.

02/19/10 13:22
Penny
k but you have to tel me everything l8r xx

A couple of minutes later Raj is ready for his bill. He gives her a meaningful look and glances towards Bernadette, and somewhere beneath it all, he looks genuinely concerned, and genuinely sad.

What keeps Raj and Howard bound together as friends, she'll never know. But it works, and whatever it is, it's strong.

-

They've been on their break for ten minutes already, and are standing outside the sandwich shop down the road from the Cheesecake Factory, lunch in hand. Penny takes a bite of her ham and cheese and watches Bernadette unwrap her egg salad roll, ready to breach the subject.

"So how are things with you and Howard?" she asks, keeping her tone light, the typical question between friends.

Bernadette's expression flickers, but does not change. "Oh, they're fine," she says dismissively. But she isn't fooling anyone, least of all Penny.

"Yeah? Really? I thought for sure you guys would have had some kind of a problem by now."

Bernadette looks at her with wide, uncomprehending eyes. "Why?"

"Well, it's Howard," Penny shrugs, and even though she knows she's talking to his girlfriend, she can't keep the harshness out of her voice. It's automatic, when she's talking about him. It always has been.

But Bernadette doesn't object. She doesn't defend him. She doesn't cheerfully redirect the topic to what she considers to be one of Wolowitz's good points. Instead, she stares at her sandwich, and says, "Yeah."

"Yeah?" Penny pries.

"Well...actually they're not that fine. I mean, I like him and all, but he's not really someone I like that much. I don't mind spending time with him. It's more that I just don't particularly want to."

Penny blinked a few times. "Woah. Yeah. I can see why that, er, might throw up a few...complications...in a relationship."

Bernadette starts on her sandwich, looking thoughtful. "He's a nice guy." Penny is inclined to disagree, but lets her carry on. "He's funny and he's sweet. But I think he's kinda boring. And he always talks about stuff I really don't get. Or, y'know, want to get. All that sci fi stuff."

Penny smiles a little. "Yeah. Yeah, I know what sort of stuff you mean."

"Well, I know you're sort of getting into it because you hang out with those four a lot. But I don't like it because I don't want to. It's boring." She sighs. "And he's not very good in bed. Sort of –"

"Woah woah woah!" Penny interrupts, brandishing her sandwich at her. "Okay, stop right there, getting into things I really don't wanna think about." Wait, too late, there's his holiday snaps flashing up in her mind's eye. Tan line...urgh.

"Well, anyway," Bernadette says, pulling back on the conversation. "And he's been getting really intense. I don't think he's had many proper relationships before. Which is fine...but I just don't want that. I don't want someone like him."

"Oh." Penny is speechless. What can she say? She's always thought liking Wolowitz was the first sign of Bernadette's incumbent insanity. But she can't help but feel she oughta be advocating for the guy. He's creepy, and he gets on her nerves, but...after all of it, he's still her friend. Even if it is only by association. She's still gotta defend him. "He's...not all bad," she manages weakly.

Bernadette shakes his head. "No, he's not bad at all. But I think I'm just not interested." She sounds resolute, and talks like she's stating clear, decisive fact – as if she's already made up her mind.

"So...what, you're just gonna -?"

Bernadette shows her the screen of her phone. It's the drafts folder.

Howie
I think we should break up. Sorry x

"Wow. So it's just a matter of sending it." Penny stares at the text. This is...sudden, to say the least. "Are you not gonna see him? Or call him? Or...anything?"

Bernadette gives her the same uncomprehending look as before. "Why?"

Penny returns her stare with one of the same. "Why? Well, to – to let him down more gently? To show a bit of – well, it's courtesy..."

"I don't get it. I don't wanna see him or talk to him. That's why I'm breaking up with him."

Penny bites her lip. "Yeah, I know, but – it's sort of, like, it's good manners to – do you really think it's okay to dump him by text?!"

Bernadette's face says that she thinks it is.

"No," Penny tells her. "C'mon, you said it yourself, he's a nice guy, you've gotta be nicer than that."

"What's not nice about it?"

Penn shakes her head. "Doesn't matter. Just trust me. You're coming out tonight, right? You can come round to mine to get ready and tell him then."

"Okay." Bernadette accepts the proposition happily. Penny, on the other hand, finds that her disquiet remains with her all the way back to work, and for the rest of the afternoon.

Whatever she tries to turn her mind to, it refuses to shift.

-

02/19/10 18:03
Penny
hey i wont b able to come round for long tonite. sth has come up. x

02/19/10 18:16
Leonard
Aw : ( What's up? Is everything okay? When will you be by? X

02/19/10 18:17
Penny
when i get in, bout half6? x

02/19/10 18:19
Leonard
Cool. Is everything okay? X

-

oh, oh God dammit
i think i've lost it
oh God God dammit
i think i've lost you

-

She can hear them, in the hallway. She hovers by the doorway. Penn has never really had any ethical problems with eavesdropping on her friends.

"But – but I don't –"

"We're breaking up." A pause. "It means we're not gonna see each other anymore."

"Yeah, I know, but why? Bernadette –"

She doesn't have any ethical dilemma to resolve, but Penny realises she still doesn't much want to hear this. She goes back to her makeup.

Minutes later, Bernadette comes back through the door. Penny greets her, and asks if she's okay. Bernadette says she is, and they don't talk about it anymore. The conversation turns to their plans for the evening, and how late they want to stay out.

Minutes after that, Penny's phone buzzes. She pauses, mascara brush raised. Nothing good can be contained in that text message. It's either recriminations, a demand for an explanation, or pleas to see Bernadette. Any way she looks at it – nothing good.

She finishes with the mascara before answering it.

02/19/10 20:12
Raj
When did you hear about this

She can't justify not answering it, not really, not after he took her into confidence earlier. And no answer could only possibly leave things open to the worst interpretation. Especially by someone like Howard.

02/19/10 20:16
Penny
like about 2. aftr you told me. shed already made up her mind. how is he x

02/19/10 20:18
Raj
How do you think he is

She winces at Raj's bluntness. Despite his muteness around her, and his obnoxious friendliness when alcohol loosens his tongue, in these non-verbal ways she's always found him the frankest of those boys – and, yes, sometimes the harshest. Raj never sugarcoats. And Raj never holds back when he thinks blame is necessary.

She doesn't want him to think it's necessary to blame her for this.

Penny drops her mascara into her bad along with the rest of her stuff, and turns to Bernadette. "I'm just gonna go over and see the guys for a few minutes, okay?"

"Okay," Bernadette says, oblivious. As far as she is concerned, Howard is over and done with now. To her, there are no consequences. Penny marvels at her, and she is not sure if the way she is makes her better or worse.

Crossing the hall and knocking on 4A, Penny waits awkwardly in the corridor. Sheldon opens the door for her.

"Good evening, Penny," he says. "Again." He steps back to allow her to enter.

"Hey, Sheldon," she replies, and her eyes fall on Leonard and Raj. Howard isn't there. "Where is he?" she asks, making sure she only lets the right amount of sympathy into her voice. Too much, and it's gonna sound like guilt.

"Bathroom," Leonard says, looking in that direction. "He's – er – yeah, he's not taking it too well." He drops his voice and addresses Penny. "They broke up?"

"Yeah," she answers, just as quietly. "She's in my apartment now."

"I have a question," Sheldon says, "why are you whispering?"

Leonard shushes him. "In case Wolowitz hears," he tells him, pointedly.

Raj, who has moved to hover next to Leonard, leans down and says something into his ear.

"Yeah, you're probably right, Raj, nothing much more could upset him now," Leonard says, in a resigned kind of voice, at normal volume.

Still, Penny doesn't feel comfortable just talking about him like that, with him in the next room. She's been in that bathroom before. Voices carry.

"So...what happened?"

"Well, I don't know Wolowitz's side, but..." She recounts what Bernadette told her earlier that day. When she finishes, Raj and Leonard exchange looks. Silence falls.

"I gotta go, guys," she says after a few moments, feeling a little uncomfortable.

Leonard seems to jolt, as if his mind were miles away. "Yeah. Yeah, you're going out, right?" He smiles, but it's half-hearted. "Have fun."

"Yeah," she says. "I'll see you guys."

She is halfway across the corridor when the door to 4A opens and shuts very quickly behind her, and a voice says, "Penny?"

She turns around to see a very red-eyed Howard Wolowitz standing there, hand still on the door knob. "C'm here," she says, and holds out her arms. He doesn't have to be told twice.

Hugging Wolowitz is perhaps not as uncomfortable as she has envisaged it, on the rare occasions her mind has strayed that way. Perhaps, it occurs to her, it's because she's done this before. Howard when he's upset seems to be a very different creature to the guy he normally is. On any normal day, a hug from her would be, undoubtedly, met by some attempt at groping from him. Now, he has his face against her shoulder and the only thing he wants out of her is some kind of comfort and compassion.

"There there," she says, and pats him on the head. She is suddenly, and forcibly, reminded of this same corridor, and those same words, and tears, and spilt groceries, and Sheldon.

"Penny – why did she –"

"She just did, sweetie." She can't bring herself to say anything more. And she never calls him sweetie, so damn, he had better appreciate this.

"Is it – is there someone else?"

"No," she answers, with some relief that it's a question she can respond to. "No, there's no one else."

"Is it 'cause I'm – is it because –" He doesn't finish. Penny is glad. Whatever he'd have asked, she isn't sure how she'd answer it.

-

shot down it's just such a shame

i'm losing at this game

no fair, why don't you seem to care?

shot down, it's just such a shame
i'm losing at this game
no fair, why don't you seem to care?

-

They're late heading out. It takes Penny a while to calm Wolowitz down and send him back to Leonard and the others, and then a while longer to get a taxi. Finally, though, they reach the club.

Bernadette checks her phone. "The others are already inside," she reports, showing the next to Penny. Penny nods. She can't wait for this night to begin properly. She wants to get drunk – fast – and rid herself of this weird feeling of unease that's been growing since lunchtime.

Why does she care? is the first-drink question. She's been asking herself this all day. She's done her duty as Wolowitz's friend. Bernadette had obviously made up her mind. And it's not like Penny can blame her. It is, after all, Howard Wolowitz. He's disgusting, really. And she never understood what Bernadette saw in him anyway.

By the fourth shot, the question is, how can she be so mean to him? Bernadette is dancing with a tall, tanned blond man and Howard is probably still crying. She was going to break up with him by text, for God's sake! But she's always seen things in black and white, has Bernadette, always seen things very...simply. Everything's basic with her. Kind of like Sheldon, she realises. Social protocol escapes both of them sometimes. The difference is Bernadette makes an effort to catch up with what she doesn't know.

She is drunk by the time the question becomes would I have done that?

And by then the music feels too loud and the air feels too close and all she wants to do is dance.

-

An hour later and she's forgotten all about Howard, and nearly about Bernadette. She finds herself by the bar, offering the bartender what she hopes is a dazzling smile, and ordering two tequila shots. She pays, and turns away, as if looking for a friend to hand one off to, and then downs both.

-

Boom boom boom bam boom bam bam –

And the lights spin on her, pyrotechnics in a glass bauble, blue and purple and red and bright, and she raises a hand over her eyes. They spin on, pass her by, but she's staggered away. A guy catches her, restores her balance. She gives him her flirtiest grin and swivels her body to face him. She distinguishes the song and sings along to the lyrics, loud, pouty, keeping his gaze attached to hers.

And somewhere along the way –

She places one hand, then the other, on his shoulders, in time with the beat, brings her hips in a circle and one of his hands comes down to catch her at the end of the circuit. Then Bernadette appears, shouting something like found you! and catches her arm. Maybe then she says we're at the bar!

Penny can feel herself being tugged away, and she is far too drunk to resist. She delays, kissing the guy once, chaste and sweet but with a little impurity thrown in alongside, dashed up against the rocks in the coldness and pureness of the water. Before he knows what's going on, she as gone.

Bernadette and the other girls have ordered a round of shots. They arrive, and Penny hears herself shriek with delight.

Who was that guy? Bernadette might be asking.

Penny shrugs. Guys are guys, in clubs. Defined planes, all rough edges, sharp or rounded, muscular or lithe. Cheeks and chins, soft or stubbled, and alcohol-hooded eyes, loose hair and cropped, strong arms, stylish shirts and casual t-shirts, jeans and slacks and Converse and the odd pair of dress shoes –

When Penny is drunk, she feels vibrant and beautiful and confident. And when Penny is drunk, she knows men are looking at her, and she looks back, sometimes. Sometimes she plays, and lets them look at her, and lets them see her not caring. But when she is drunk, everything is a blur of reduced inhibitions and vague arousal and this strong, overwhelming sense to do something, to be bold, to shake things up.

When Penny is drunk, she does not restrain herself. If a guy looks at her with a look that tells her she's pretty, she'll more than dance with him until she gets distracted or bored. And there are no boundaries for her, not in times and places like this, and she's more than once been chucked out of a club for indecent exposure.

When Penny is drunk, she lands somewhere between a slut and a flirt – she becomes a tease, all kisses and gyrations and heat and lips and skin. She'll pick a guy up, once in a while, but usually she'll lose interest, because picking someone up requires single-mindedness, and a kind of plan, and the ability to remember who it is you got in the cab with. Penny, when she's like this, doesn't care. She wants men to feel amazed by her. Wants them to remember her as the one they couldn't get. She wants to be the flirt, the tease, the loose, fun girl that slipped through their fingers. She wants to be magnificent.

And somewhere along the way, the music goes boom bam bam boom bam bam boom boom.

-

you know she's dancing at the disco
woah, oh, she's dying on the dancefloor

-

She wakes up, once, at about eleven, and checks her phone. She has four messages but no missed calls. That's okay, then.

She thanks God that she doesn't have to work today, and goes back to sleep.

-

02/20/10 04:42
Bernadette
did u get in ok? xxx

02/20/10 08:51
Leonard
Your door was open so I closed and locked it. Good night I'm assuming...Sheldon went crazy when he saw your apartment though. See you later maybe, Chinese tonight : ) X

02/20/10 09:34
Kelsey
i will never 4give u that i have to work 2day nd u dont! bitch! i hope this wakes u up at least! xx

02/20/10 10:58
Raj
This is killing him

-

i can't take this
no i don't like it
i don't know where you are