Author's Note: Contains vague mentions of 5.01, but is otherwise spoiler-free for season 5.
She connects the dots without realizing it: Leonard is with Priya, who is thousands of miles, a day-long plane ride, and a quite-large body of water away. Leonard and Priya are more serious than she realized, but not serious enough for her to stay. She wonders how the whole divide was working for them; she admonishes herself, because she gave up the right to know the inner workings of Leonard's love life when she was no longer the other half of the relationship.
Besides, she'd rather see Leonard happy and yet with someone else than him be unhappily single - or worse, unhappy and be with her. And he seems reasonably happy, everything considered, so for now, it's okay. Or so she tells herself.
"He could never be unhappy with me - could he?" she says out loud late one night as she lays in bed, unable to sleep. A car horn honks loudly outside and she takes it as some sort of answer, although she's not sure what it means, exactly.
One day, late in the fall - if she was back home, the leaves would be turning colors right around now, but Pasadena has never quite picked up on the concept of seasons - she bumps into Leonard in the stairwell. "Oh! Hey Leonard, didn't see you there," she says, moving to the side to allow him to pass by her.
"Hi," he says, and his voice sounds flat and even, and Penny would swear it sounded a little sad as well, and the combination is a little familiar. "It's fine. Really."
"Is everything okay?" Penny asks, extending her hand to brush at his upper arm, in an attempt at a comforting gesture.
He recoils. "Yeah. I guess. Priya dumped me, that's all."
That's where she recognizes this tone of voice from: it's his I-just-broke-up-with-a-girl-no-a-girl-just-broke-up-with-me voice. She remembers it all too well from when she was the cause. "Oh, Leonard," she says, "if I didn't have a shift at work -"
"I said it's fine," he says, adjusting his glasses slightly from sliding down his nose, as he pushes his way past her to walk up the stairs.
Penny stares after him, and as she makes her way down the stairs to her car, she begins to wonder if perhaps, once his heart mends, if they would have a shot again, if Leonard would give her another chance to be let into his heart. She couldn't be sure of how deep his feelings for Priya had been, but he'd told her that he loved her, once - that had to speak for something.
She waits. Patience isn't usually one of her strong suits - which makes her occasionally wonder why she chose acting for a career instead of something like a businesswoman or a zookeeper or something where patience wasn't what dictated how long it took you to "make it." And lions and tigers have nothing on the paparazzi and bad critical reviews as far as sheer viciousness goes. But it's not like she's being chased by a ton of guys - the last guy she shared a bed with was Raj, and look how that turned out. And even if she was - she wants Leonard. That speaks volumes right there. Last time, he had pursued her more than she pursued him, and now it seems like the tables are turned.
She's willing to wait as long as she needs to, because she knows that Leonard, and what they had shared together, is worth it.
Sheldon rambles about the absurd qualities of mistletoe and why it is such a vital part of the Western holiday tradition. Penny looks over at Leonard; they share an amused half-smile. It's better to let Sheldon talk; eventually, one day, he'll run out of words. He almost has to.
"So," Leonard says, after Sheldon excuses himself from the room for a moment, "was there actually a reason for the Great Mistletoe Diatribe of 2011, or is it Sheldon being Sheldon?"
"Does he even need a reason?" Penny asks. "I think he would do the same thing for just about anything though, given the chance."
"Most things aren't 'symbols of the romanticism of a glorified winter solstice festival,' though."
"You doubt Sheldon's abilities?"
He laughs, and Penny smiles at seeing the long-missing sparkle return to his eyes, if only for a fraction of a second. "No. Never. Living with him for five years, I've heard it all." He stops for a moment. "I think that was the first time -"
"I thought Howard and Sheldon tried to cheer you up?"
"You heard about that?" He shrugs. "I didn't find it that amusing, but it was a nice thing to for them to do, I guess. Although it was entirely unnecessary."
"Amy and Bernadette filled me in on all the gory details later. Plus, it was kinda hard to miss Howard's arm being in a sling for two weeks."
"Oh. Yeah. I guess you're right. That was hard to miss; I suppose that's why those things say not to try them at home."
"It's nice to hear you laugh. I missed it," Penny says, reaching her hand across the couch cushion toward his. This time, instead of recoiling from the gesture, he takes her hand in his, interlocking their fingers. She gently squeezes his hand and offers a reassuring smile, as if to say, without words: "it's going to be okay. We're going to be okay." The air between them feels electric and charged and if they move in closer and tilt their bodies just so, it'd line up perfectly for their lips to meet.
But Sheldon comes charging back into the room and they break apart with chagrined looks on their faces, dropping their hands to their sides. "As I was saying," Sheldon says, launching back to where he had stopped without skipping a beat. Penny utters an inaudible groan and flops back into the couch cushion.
It's going to be a long night.
The next night, over boxes of carry-out Thai, Penny decides that enough is enough. "Leonard," she whispers, "can I show you something in my apartment? I want your opinion."
Leonard swallows the bite of food he's been chewing. "Can it wait until after I finish dinner?"
"Sure, I guess," she says, before standing up and brushing a few idle crumbs from her pants to the floor, ignoring Sheldon's aghast expression. "Just come over when you're done."
She sits cross-legged in the middle of her living room floor, the room dark except for the twinkle of her Christmas lights. Five minutes pass, then ten - is he coming, or has Sheldon detained him?
And then she hears the doorknob turn, and her heart clenches in her throat. This is big for her - guys are usually the ones to do romantic things for her, not the other way around. "Penny?" The sound of her name snaps her out of her inner dialogue. "Is everything alright? What do you want to show me?"
She stands and walks tentatively toward him; she's pretty sure the lights are framing her well, but it's hard to be sure. "Last night, Sheldon was talking about mistletoe -"
"Penny, if this is what I think it is, you don't have to buy a plant to make an excuse to kiss me, you know."
"No, I know."
"I wanted to - last night, when we were holding hands - and then Sheldon came back and ruined it."
She hears him sharply inhale, and she's thinking that he's using his scarily brilliant brain to connect the dots she laid out there for him. "Don't say things you don't mean," he says, after a prolonged silence. "If this was something casual - if we didn't have a history - it would be different. But -"
It slices through to some part of her heart that she didn't usually put out there, which is probably at least part of his intent. "I did mean it," she says in a soft voice, "I screwed up so badly, and I'm so sorry for all of it, and I want to try again. If you want to."
She wishes she could see his face more clearly, get some indication of what kind of thoughts he's thinking. "Not now," he says, and her heart snaps in two. "I still love you, Penny, but I can't do this now. I'm sorry." He walks out the door, and as the beam of hallway light narrows and disappears as the door latches behind him, she crumples to the floor, her body racked with sobs.
So this is what a broken heart feels like.
They don't speak for a while, and for Penny, it almost feels like a rehashing of the original breakup. The New Year comes and goes, she toasts herself at midnight with cheap grocery store champagne and wakes up with mascara stains on her the grapevine, she hears Leonard has immersed himself in a research project of some sort - she doesn't understand it when Sheldon tries to explain it to her, but at least he's being productive.
If romance isn't working out for him, then at least he has his job, and the never-ending rotation of customers at the Cheesecake Factory ensures she'll never run out of stories to tell.
"Leonard," she says late one January afternoon as they stand in the hallway, both having left their apartments at the same time, "we have got to stop this."
"This whole not-talking, not acknowledging each other's presence when we still see each other so frequently thing."
He gestures to his closed apartment door. "Sheldon's on the other side of that door."
"Then we can talk in my apartment. Last time I checked, they haven't invented a glass effective enough to hear through that distance." A muffled sound of protest comes from inside the apartment, and Penny laughs. "My point exactly. C'mon." Leonard follows her across the hall, and within a minute or two, they're closed in her apartment. Penny folds her arms over her chest, and pointedly chooses to forget the last time they were in this position, although that night the positions were switched - she's standing in front of the door, and Leonard's standing in front of her. "Spill."
"You don't know how many times I've hoped you would say to me what you said at Christmas," he says, and Penny feels her spirits lift, just a little. "But -"
"There's a 'but?'" Penny asks, and she deflates.
"I keep getting myself into relationships where I only end up getting hurt. Priya - you -"
"I apologized," she offers, and even as she says it, she knows that it's not enough. An apology after the fact is only a bandaid to cover the metaphorical bullet hole that she inflicted.
"I know." He takes his glasses off and absent-mindedly wipes the lenses with the edge of his shirt. "And I can forgive you -"
"I sense another but coming."
"But you can't guarantee that it won't end the same way the next time."
"I don't get into relationships thinking about how they're going to end," she says, an acidic edge to her voice, and she feels herself fighting off tears - if she's going to cry over Leonard again, she really needs to excuse herself.
She hears her conscience's voice - which sounds very distinctly like her mother's voice, come to think of it - scolding her for crying over a guy, and she retorts back, "Leonard isn't Brad Dorchester from geometry. He's different. He's not taking Heather to homecoming instead of me - he's the guy I - I - I'm possibly in - love - with?"
Leonard is still standing there, and she brings him back into focus as she hears him speak. "If - if we ever got back together," he says, "and it ended again, that would - this would be the last time -" This is a different Leonard than the one she met over five years ago; this one has been hurt and scarred and apparently has a unhealthy dose of cynicism - not that she can blame him, really.
"Even if it was over something like you wanted to go to Fresno for vacation and I wanted to go to London?"
"I'd never want to go to Fresno, so that's a moot point." He exhales. "I've been in love with you - longer than you realize. And I was falling in love with Priya, before -" He looks down and doesn't meet her inquisitive look. "So you see why I'm a little - hesitant -"
"I don't want to make promises I'm not sure I can keep."
"So make the ones you can."
She thinks for a moment. "I promise that I'll do everything I can to not hurt you again."
"That's a start."
"I promise I won't move to a foreign country."
"Or back to Nebraska?"
"That is a foreign country compared to southern California," she says with a laugh, and he laughs too, and it breaks the tension of the moment. The last time she'd seen him laugh like this, they'd almost ended up kissing, and she knows that Sheldon can't break this moment like he did then, and she wonders if Leonard is picking up on the vibe of the moment. "Can't we just - see where this goes? Live in the moment?"
The words remain suspended in the air between them, and Penny's not sure if it's been two minutes or two seconds or even two hours. He steps closer to her, and she feels her arms encircling his waist and pulling him even closer, to where their bodies are nearly flat against each other. It's the most physical contact they have had in the longest time, and it sends a thrill through her. He brushes a loose lock of hair back from her face, the backs of his fingertips grazing her skin. "Penny," he says, "are you sure? Because if we do, there's no going -"
She cuts him off with a quick, brash kiss before he can finish his sentence of doubts and fears. "Did that answer your question?"
"Oh, Penny." It's a reverence and a plea all wrapped up in the nuances of one word. He kisses her in reply, at first tentative, and then the old motions come flooding back in a rush of memory - the way Penny's teeth nip at his lower lip, the feel of his tongue running over the tops of her teeth. It's not as smooth and practiced as it once was, but it's a learning - or a re-learning - process. She feels his hands moving against her back, and she nearly arches into him at the feeling. He hasn't forgotten.
"Couch?" she asks, catching her breath, and he nods; they stumble over to it, never letting go of each other, falling back into the cushions as they allow each other to see what else hasn't been forgotten.
She finds herself waking up in an unfamiliar place the next morning - it takes her a moment to realize that she's in her own apartment, just on the couch, and that is a guy that she woke up next to - and the night comes flashing back as she stirs further. The hours spent re-memorizing old tactile lessons and learning a few new ones, the languid in-between moments where they talked and figured out where it is they stand - it's Leonard here with her - her Leonard.
"G'morning," she says as she sees his eyes flutter open. He rubs them, and she laughs. "It's not a dream."
"I didn't think it would be reality again."
"Get used to it."
"I already am."
"So am I," she whispers against his chest as he pulls her into a sleepy embrace. "So. Am. I."