Title: Twelve

Disclaimer: I do not own BBT or its characters and I make no profit from this. It's just for fun.

Spoilers: None

Pairing: Sheldon/Penny, (mentions of Leonard/Penny)

Warnings: Underage drinking, alcoholism

Author's note: This number came into my head, and I wrote a story around it. Also, I've seen every episode, but can't remember everything about Penny's back story. Details may not match up (in fact, I'd be incredibly surprised if they did).

XXXXXX

"I don't know, Pen," her cousin said warily. "It takes a lot to be an actress."

"Like what?" Penny asked, catching sight of her cousin Ellie every time she spun in a circle, practicing ballet moves. She didn't go to lessons anymore (not since her father had been laid off, because lessons cost money, you know), but she remembered the basic moves. "You just stand there and read lines and pretend. I can pretend." It was one thing at which she excelled.

"Yeah, sure, but you have to be pretty," Ellie said off-handedly, never looking away from the TV where Molly Ringwald verbally sparred with Judd Nelson in one of their favorite movies, made the year they were born. They'd seen it a dozen times before. At 12, Penny could recite all the lines by heart (she liked to play Molly's part).

Penny stopped spinning and stared at her cousin, trying to determine if she were being purposefully mean. But Ellie said no more, didn't check for a reaction as she always did when she threw an insult Penny's way. Ellie wasn't trying to be mean, she'd simply stated a fact – the world how Ellie saw it. That made it sting more.

"Yeah, well, I'm going to do it," Penny said under her breath, returning to that place in her mind where her instructor demonstrated plies and pirouettes. Before, she'd always thought of acting as a dream, but now she might have something to prove.

XXXXXX

"I don't want to move," Penny told her mother, resisting the urge to cry. She was too old to cry.

"I know, honey," her mother sighed. Penny had never before thought of her mother as old, but in that moment, she wore every one of her 47 years. "But your dad was laid off again, you know that, and he's been offered a job, but it's –"

"200 miles away. What about my friends? What about school? What about…" her life? Her parents may still see her as a kid, but just because she was 14, it didn't mean she didn't have a life here.

Her mother sat on the end of her bed, pulling at some threads on the worn afghan her grandmother had knitted her when she was a baby. She took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, shakily. "Your father and I talked to Mabel," she said, referring to her sister, Ellie's mother. "She's willing to let you live with them to finish out high school. I don't want to take you away from what matters to you, Pen."

Penny studied her mother's face and realized with an insight beyond her years that it had nearly broken her mother to make the offer.

She'd made it anyways.

For the first time, Penny considered that loving someone might mean allowing your own heart break, in the desperate hope that another's could stay whole.

Her anger dissipated as quickly as it had come. "No," she said, voice strengthening as she went on. "I'm not staying here if you and daddy are leaving."

Her mother glanced up, and Penny saw the relief filtering across her face. "Really?"

Penny nodded. She knew it was within her mother's power to force her to go – she was still a minor, she had to do what they said, unless she ran away or something equally drastic. The fact that her parents wouldn't make her leave, that they only wanted to make her happy…that was the reason Penny wanted to stay with them in the first place.

She wasn't old enough, yet, to want to live without them.

XXXXXX

Ellie died on a Tuesday in July. She was 16 years old.

Penny stared at the casket, and it wasn't that she was in denial, it was that she chose to believe her cousin wasn't in there.

Not Ellie, who had made her life equally miserable and wonderful, and had otherwise been a best friend to her for most of her life.

Penny had been visiting her cousin for the summer, and what a crazy summer it was. Catching up with her old friends from high school, and drinking almost every night, and partying with boys who had already graduated (that fact making them cooler than any boys they'd known since childhood).

She'd never had so much fun in her life. It was the first time in her life she'd actually felt free. Free to do what she wanted, to make her own decisions.

She hadn't told anyone, but one thought had whispered in her mind every hour of every day since she'd been told of Ellie's death: I was supposed to be in that car.

She had been ready to go out, dressed in a cute purple sun dress she'd gotten for a steal at the only mall within 50 miles. Ellie's boyfriend Sam had driven up with a few of his friends to get them. They'd had no real plans, just drive around, maybe go to the local drive-in or that spot in the woods where other people their age would gather to party (a code word, basically, for "drink and make out").

Only Sam had seemed more off than usual that night, and Penny had frozen in the act of climbing into his car. His eyes, there was something strange about his eyes. It wouldn't be until many years later that she'd be able to go back into her memory and recognize, with the help of future knowledge, that he'd been strung the hell out.

She'd laughed nervously, backed away from the car, told Ellie she wasn't up to going out. She'd tried to get her cousin to stay with her, but Ellie had only insulted Penny in a mildly friendly way and left with Sam and two of his friends.

Their car had rolled 7 times, and maybe Ellie could have survived it; others had survived worse. Rarely without a seat belt, though.

"I was supposed to be in that car," she whispered, inaudibly.

"What honey?" Ellie's mother was beside her. Penny glanced over, saw that her aunt's mascara wasn't tear-proof.

She leaned into her aunt's side. "I was saying that…I love her very much." No, loved. But how could she use the past tense if she still felt it?

"Me too," Mabel whispered, staring at the pictures of her only child that surrounded the closed coffin (too much damage to have an open one, Penny's mother had told her, voice slightly above strangled).

In Penny's group of friends, drinking was practically required. It was a way to have fun, to loosen up, to fit in. Penny never shied away from it, and never had a particular thought about it, good or bad, one way or the other.

The night of her cousin's funeral, she didn't need to have fun, or loosen up, or fit in; that night was the first time she drank because, goddamn, this hurt.

XXXXXX

"Stop being such a bitch!" Davey yelled at her as she stormed out of his house, the screen door banging shut behind her as she leapt off the porch and crossed the dusty driveway to get to her car – well, her parents' Ford. She was saving up money to buy her own car, and she couldn't wait for the freedom of not having to ask permission to go somewhere.

She ignored Davey yelling her name, and he grabbed her arm right as she reached the driver's side door. Startled, she dropped the keys in the dirt. "What the hell's the matter with you?" He snarled. "It's not like we were only seeing each other, you can't blame me for going out with Carrie."

No, they had never officially said they were exclusive, so maybe it was her fault for assuming that they were. But still, for him to go out with Carrie, and for Penny to hear about it from a friend of a friend? It was humiliating. "I don't blame you for going out with her, I blame you for screwing her," Penny hissed.

"Maybe if you weren't such a prude and didn't keep your legs shut just to make me suffer, I wouldn't have had to go looking elsewhere," he said cruelly. The issue was a sore spot for her. At 17, she was one of the last, if not the last, of her friends to have sex. And so what if she didn't want to? If she hadn't been ready? She would have been, eventually, if he had waited a little bit longer. She had been considering it, in fact, before she heard about him and Carrie.

She'd been so stupid. "We're over," she said softly, the words barely carrying to him even though he was mere inches away. She glanced up at the night sky, wind whipping around them in the arid heat that spoke to her of summer, and home.

"You know I'm right," he sneered, his wounded pride causing him to rub salt in the wound. "A man can't wait around forever, Pen. Guess it worked out, though. Now you get to remain all pure, and I've got a woman, a real woman, who understands what a man needs."

She laughed at that. "A man? You think you're a man? All I see in front of me is a little boy, a pathetic boy who had to hook up with the school slut – oh I'm sorry, a woman – to get some. You proud of yourself?"

She glanced down to see where her keys had landed, and that was why she was entirely unprepared when he slapped her. She gasped sharply, hand going to her left cheek before her mind had even registered the pain.

Davey was watching her with an expression of instant horror and remorse. "I'm sorry, Pen! So sorry, I didn't mean to – I was so mad at what you said, baby…"

He kept babbling even as she knelt to pick up her keys, hand still on her face, now numb, and she wondered if it would leave a bruise. She ignored his begging, sliding into the car and starting it in a state of shock.

She loved him, loved him, as much as she could love anyone at 17. And in her most indulgent fantasies, she pictured herself as Mrs. David Williams, and the two of them lived in that cute little house down the road from their high school, and had a couple of kids, and they were happy.

Was he right? Had it been her own fault that drove him into Carrie's arms? Maybe sex was the only way to get someone to stay.

Before he hit her, she knew she'd forgive him for Carrie. She'd just needed time to cool down. She'd forgiven him a dozen times before for a dozen stupid things, and stayed with him because she loved him. Now, she saw the darker shades that could color that life; Davey always had a temper, but he'd never struck her before, and she wasn't foolish enough to think he never would again.

She took a moment to imagine her life going that way, because if you're that desperate for something good, it's easy to take the bad along with it.

She loved him almost enough to do it.

Almost enough.

XXXXXX

She'd been putting it off for months, but after celebrating her 18th birthday in a local fast food restaurant with a couple of friends, she realized there was nothing here for her.

At least, nothing she wanted.

What better time to try and pursue her dreams? She was young, with her whole future laid out before her. All she had to do was gather enough courage to seize it.

There were two places for an aspiring actress to go – New York or California. She debated each one with lengthy lists of pros and cons. New York was better if she wanted to try her hand at a career in stage. California was better if she wanted to shoot for TV or movies.

New York had an attractive mystery about it; it was where many people went to remake themselves, and she couldn't deny that it had always held an allure for her. But she typed California into the computer first, because it was still the promised land for actors.

She clicked on the first link that came up for her search for "apartments in California".

It happened to be a website that listed bargain apartments, people desperate to sublet or landlords who had buildings in undesirable areas. As such, the prices were 1/3 of what she'd pay in rent in New York.

It was a no-brainer, especially because she knew she'd have to work a minimum wage job while trying to achieve her dream.

She picked a random apartment located in the suburbs of L.A. and programmed the GPS she'd bought second-hand. It would be her first real adventure, and she'd never been more scared of anything in her entire life.

XXXXXX

Her GPS failed almost immediately after she crossed the California state line, and she cursed the pawn shop owner who'd told her the device would work as good as new.

She stayed on the highway until she saw a sign for Pasadena – it sounded nice, in a safe way. She got off the highway and stopped at the first coffee shop she saw, asking the barista if he knew of any apartments nearby. It turned out that he had a friend who had a friend who needed to sublet an apartment.

She agreed to see it without a second thought. She didn't even have a job yet, but she wasn't one to look a gift horse in the mouth. And when the landlord mentioned that a local chain restaurant, The Cheesecake Factory, was hiring, Penny jumped on that, too. She had years of experience waitressing, and plenty of time to find another job.

Everything was going according to plan, even if that plan wasn't exactly the one she'd imagined.

XXXXXX

She didn't know when she'd become friends with the boys across the hall – it was at some point when she hadn't been looking. They were kind to her, always asking her over and offering to do things for her. As if she were helpless because she was a female on her own, and well, maybe in some ways she was, but that didn't mean she needed them. She accepted their help when it was offered because she didn't believe in making things harder on herself out of a misguided sense of pride.

She started dating Leonard for a reason she couldn't name. Maybe because he was sweet, and she had been lonely for awhile, and it had been a long time since any man treated her as if she were fragile, and precious. He was a good friend, and what better way to start a relationship than with a friend?

They got along well for a time, and if she had a growing sense of unease with their romantic relationship, she successfully ignored it. And continued to ignore it, long past the point that she should have.

Until one night, when Leonard was looking at her intently across a candlelit table, with unabashed love and a reverence that always made her feel as if she would never be as good as the ideal version of her that lived only in his mind. His obvious worship of her made her distinctly uncomfortable.

There was a question she had wanted to ask for weeks, and if she didn't ask it then, she never would. "When did you fall in love with me?"

From his reaction, she knew that he wasn't surprised at her question, even though he'd never outright told her he loved her. "It was the day I first saw you," he said quickly, eagerly. "You were – are – so beautiful, I knew there'd never be another woman that could compare."

"Leonard –" She began uneasily.

"No, Penny, don't," he reached over to take her hand. She allowed it. "I don't know if you feel the same as I do – I hope that you do, but even if you don't, I hope you know – pray you know – that I love you enough for the both of us."

She inhaled deeply, wondering why his words seemed abruptly wrong to her. She thought of hot summer nights wrapped around Davey, a boy she'd loved in the only way she knew how, and crazy adventures with Ellie and Sam, and the long line of men since then, men who looked different but who were all essentially the same (and none of them someone she could love). Mostly, she remembered the girl she'd been her whole life, the girl who dreamed of finding love, real love, and…this wasn't it.

It wasn't fair, because Leonard was perfect, he would have been perfect. She couldn't have asked for someone nicer, for someone who cared more for her, for someone more intelligent, more devoted, more…anything. He was everything, except that she didn't love him. She had no idea why; if she did, she'd have fixed it, because he deserved to be loved.

At one time in her life, she would have been content (more than content) in staying with Leonard because he loved her. She would have tied him, without a second thought, to a life where he wasn't loved the way he should have been, because part of her was just that selfish.

There was a time when simply being loved (worshiped, idolized) would have been enough for her.

It wasn't anymore.

XXXXXX

"You do realize," Sheldon told her, "that you broke his heart?" His words were clipped, impersonal, merely imparting a fact that she already knew.

"I know," she whispered, unsure if he heard her. She was curled up on their couch. The only two people in the apartment were her and Sheldon. Leonard was out with Raj and Howard.

Sheldon was doing something in the kitchen (cooking, she thought), and she was miserable, and Leonard was miserable, and life all around sucked.

And if it was made slightly more bearable by Sheldon's judgmental presence, she would never admit it.

She knew she'd done the right thing by breaking up with Leonard, but…why didn't it feel that way?

She stared across the room at Sheldon, as he leaned over slightly, focused intently on something on the counter. He straightened, and she realized he was reading a recipe. He muttered something to himself, and she saw that he was measuring out precise ingredients.

It was something she'd never considered doing before, ever, but her unhappiness propelled her out of her spot and into the kitchen.

"Can I help you?" She asked.

Sheldon turned to her, his eyes betraying his surprise. "I'm sure you are physically capable of helping me."

She sighed, though her lips quirked in an affection she couldn't quite hide. "May I help you?"

He regarded her with suspicion. "You wish to help me with dinner?"

"If I didn't, would I have asked?" She stepped around him to grab the wine from the counter and poured herself another glass, her third of the evening.

She ignored the look Sheldon sent her way, and sighed with relief when he didn't comment upon it.

"You've never offered before," Sheldon said, which wasn't really an answer, but he did sound a bit lost. And she realized she was acting completely unlike herself. On any other night, she'd have been content to sit in the living room, watching him, waiting for a dinner he'd make without her prompting, and then he'd serve her, and she'd nod a polite thanks, and…

Tonight it wasn't enough to remain impassive.

She shoved aside her wandering thoughts about why that was.

"You, Penny, are offering to help me, Sheldon, prepare dinner?"

She rolled her eyes. "It's not exactly a crossroads, Sheldon."

He shrugged, and gestured to the recipe on the counter. She got to work peeling potatoes.

They settled into companionable silence for a time.

"Did I do the wrong thing?" She asked, out of nowhere, and though she wasn't looking directly at him, she saw the way he stilled for just a moment.

"You broke his heart," he said quietly, repeating his words from earlier.

"Right," she swallowed heavily, dropping her head even further. He was clearly disappointed in her; she'd hurt his best friend. Maybe she'd made a mistake. What if she hadn't examined every angle? Maybe she missed the fact that she could have loved Leonard if she gave it enough time.

When he spoke again, her knife slipped, and she caught herself right before it sliced her finger. "Is your heart broken?"

She glanced over, trying to gather from his face exactly what he was getting at. He remained as blank as ever. She shook her head slightly. "No, it isn't."

He nodded, as if that was what he'd expected her to say. "Then no, Penny, you did not do the wrong thing."

She felt a weight lift, and it was one she had no idea she'd been carrying.

XXXXXX

Leonard asked her first.

She had said yes.

Then, Sheldon had screwed everything up by asking her second. She'd told him she needed to think about it, because she couldn't bring herself to outright refuse him.

Penny sat in her bedroom, head in hands, unsure of what to do. She felt obligated to accompany Leonard to Caltech's fundraiser, because they'd dated, and he had asked her, not out of a romantic proposition, but because he simply desired to spend time with her. As friends.

She'd already said yes to him, after all.

And still, she didn't want to go with him. She wanted to go with Sheldon, instead.

How was she supposed to tell Leonard that, especially after she'd already accepted his invitation?

A distant knocking on her front door interrupted her thoughts. She recognized Sheldon's characteristic knock and called out for him to enter, saying it was open.

He was at her bedroom door in seconds. "Penny, I've told you numerous times; it is egregiously unsafe for you to keep your apartment door unlocked."

She smiled at him crookedly, holding up her drink as if it were an apology. She saw the way his eyes narrowed, and chose to ignore it, as usual. "Sheldon, who else is going to come in here?"

"This city is filled with any number of unsavory characters, Penny." He stood stiffly in her doorway, as if unsure of his welcome. "I'm merely looking out for your well-being."

"As always, Sheldon," she downed the rest of her drink and moved past him, headed to the kitchen to get a refill.

"Penny, I have been informed by Leonard that you are attending the Caltech fundraiser with him. I came to confirm that fact, so that I may find another date."

She felt her heart sink at his words. "Actually, Sheldon, I wish I were going with you instead."

His eyes widened, and Penny inwardly swore, staring at the drink in her hand accusingly. It was causing her to say things she hadn't meant to reveal.

"If you do not wish to accompany Leonard, why don't you tell him that?"

She sighed morosely. "He asked me first."

"And you said yes," Sheldon said, and it wasn't a question. He nodded, accepting her unspoken answer. "Then you should go with him. It's the right thing to do."

She didn't know if it was her own desire, or the alcohol, that pushed her to step forward, invading his personal space in a way she was always careful not to do. "Is it?" She whispered. "The right thing to do?"

It was only because of their nearness that she saw him swallow heavily. "It is," he replied, equally as soft.

It wouldn't have taken much, only a few inches to lean forward and rest her forehead against his, press her mouth against his. In her deepest thoughts, she imagined that the touch would have made him, or her, openly acknowledge something they'd been avoiding for weeks. Months.

She wasn't aware she was leaning forward until he abruptly took a step back.

She blinked, meeting his eyes for a second, and - there.

He felt it, too.

No, that was foolish, wasn't it? Sheldon Cooper was not romantically interested in her – never had been, wasn't presently, and never would be in the future.

"To answer your question, Sheldon, yes, I'm attending the fundraiser with Leonard."

He nodded stoically, as if that answer meant nothing to him either way. "Then I will find myself another date, Penny."

He left without another word, refusing to meet her eyes again.

She tried to tell herself that everything in her world was fine. Nothing had changed from the way it was before.

Except there had been that moment, that split second, when she met his eyes and saw, in his, the same confusion, and fear, and emotion that she felt.

Her world spun, and for once, she refused to drink her uncertainty away.

XXXXXX

Penny was pleasantly buzzed. From nowhere, she remembered a night 7 years earlier, when Ellie's boyfriend Sam had been far more than buzzed. Bet he felt 'pleasant', too.

She shook her head, placing her empty glass on the tray of a passing waiter.

"Dance with me?" Leonard asked, or rather, implored. She smiled brilliantly at him and took his hand, allowing him to lead her to the dance floor.

Other couples swayed to the slow music, and she shut her eyes against the soft words of Peter Gabriel. Leonard pulled her closer, and she held onto him. She remembered how they'd been together, and willed herself to ignore the comfort of it. She wouldn't succumb to the safety of roads already traveled, especially when they led to dead ends.

"I'm glad you came with me tonight, Penny," Leonard whispered into her ear, after a few slow songs.

She wanted to agree with him, but the words stuck in her throat.

"May I cut in?" Asked a voice somewhere off to her right. It wasn't unwelcome. She snapped her eyes open to find Sheldon filling the space Leonard had previously occupied, but in a different way, and one which she couldn't quite identify. If her mind told her that Sheldon was simply right, where Leonard had been wrong, well…her mind had led her astray plenty of times before, and in much more sober states.

She smiled at him slightly, trying to convey how happy she was to see him.

They danced slowly for a few minutes.

"I didn't know you knew how to dance," she offered.

"My mother forced me to take lessons," Sheldon said, "another part of my upbringing that I resented at the time, but which would ultimately serve me well."

"Hmm," she murmured, leaning her head into his shoulder; she had no real answer to give, and being near to him was enough.

"Penny," she heard him say, low, and with a dominant thread of worry. "I'm not quite sure how to broach this subject."

"What subject?" She mumbled into his shoulder, pressing more tightly against him. He sounded serious, so serious, and if she hadn't been well on her way to intoxication, she would have tensed at his words.

She felt him sigh, the breath ghosting along the side of her head. "I'm worried about you."

"What about me?" She asked lazily, feeling languid, as if every part of her limbs were fluid and moving without her consent or control.

"About your drinking."

She leaned back, barely registering the song change to Chris de Burgh. "Lady in Red" had been a longtime favorite of hers.

"What about my drinking?" She asked sharply. Defensively. Too defensively. Would she have felt that way if his words hadn't resonated with her in such a deeply intimate way? If he hadn't been repeating a secret fear she sometimes contemplated, when she was alone, and it was too late at night?

"Penny –" he broke off, as if the words were difficult for him. "I can't help but notice that you are drinking much more than you used to. Every time I see you, you have a drink in your hand. I'm merely concerned that –"

"That what?" She asked harshly. "That I'm a drunk? Is that what you're trying to say?"

He shook his head, pulling her back towards him, easily subduing her struggles. She'd give him points because she was drinking, and therefore not as effective in defensive maneuvers, but she was still furious. Plus, she'd always been slightly crazed while half-drunk, and she still couldn't get away. Who knew he was that strong?

"No, that's not what I'm trying to say," Sheldon was arguing. "I'm merely concerned about your health."

She stiffened, the automatic reaction of someone confronted with a truth they didn't want to acknowledge. "My health is fine."

"All I'm asking," Sheldon said, his words comfortingly calm, "is that the next time you want to drink, come see me first. Is that something you're willing to do?"

She could have refused, was a second away, in fact, when she met his eyes. She saw the worry and concern and fear...and echoes of something she'd seen the week before. All of it stunned her. She knew she couldn't deny him such a simple request. Maybe she couldn't deny him anything. "Alright," she whispered, and it surprised her to find that she meant it.

XXXXXX

It hadn't been a break-up, per se, so much as it had been a violent parting of ways. She and Daniel simply didn't see eye to eye on a number of things. They had only been dating a few weeks, and she hadn't even slept with him, in fact. But still, the painful accusations he'd flung her way (of frigidness and lack of emotion, in particular) had reminded her so much of Davey that she'd found herself staring at a drink before she knew what was happening, the vodka in her glass calling to her like a siren song.

Then, Sheldon's words from four weeks earlier rang in her ears. He hadn't asked her to stop drinking, had he? No, he'd only asked her to go and see him first.

Stopping, no way. But going to see him, that she could do.

She knocked tentatively on the door, something she hadn't done in months. If she wanted entry to their apartment, she simply walked in. The door was usually unlocked, and if it wasn't, she had her own key.

This time, Leonard answered her knocking with an expression of confusion. "Penny? Is everything okay?"

She met his gaze, and thought, not for the first time, that she honestly didn't know. "Is Sheldon here?"

He nodded, motioning for her to enter. She did, hesitantly, as if unsure of her own welcome. Which was odd, considering she had never before questioned if she were welcome in their apartment.

"He's in his room." Leonard said, and he must have seen her inner struggle. "Do you want me to get him?" Worry tinged his voice, a worry she had never heard from him before. Did she look that bad?

"Please," she whispered.

Before Leonard could fetch his roommate, Sheldon emerged from his room, pausing in the hallway, surprise playing across his features as he caught sight of her. "Penny? Are you alright?"

She tilted her head to the side, appraising him. "I don't know."

Neither of them noticed Leonard retreating to his room, as if he knew this was a conversation they needed to have alone.

Sheldon crossed the room to her, reaching out a hand, pausing before he reached her. She held out her own hand in response, meeting his and grasping it for a moment before letting go. Because she had to let go, right?

Too much of her life had been about letting go. For once, she wanted something she could hold onto.

Sheldon was watching her with growing concern. "What happened?"

"Daniel broke up with me, he said…well, it doesn't matter what he said." In truth, she was too ashamed to repeat his words, afraid that she'd see some measure of agreement in Sheldon's eyes. A needless worry, to be sure, but one which she couldn't shake.

"And?" He asked, as if he had no idea why a break-up (a common occurrence in her world, to be fair) would compel her to cross the hall and seek him out.

"You asked this of me," she said sharply, the words accusing. "You told me to come to you if…"

"I meant it," he finished on a whisper, and she was relieved he didn't make her say the words.

She fidgeted, staring at her feet. "I was…about to, and then I thought about what you said, and I figured, why the hell not? What have I got to lose?"

She thought, for sure, that he'd start in on a lengthy lecture, probably about her poor life choices, and the negative effects alcohol had on physical and emotional well-being, and how she'd made the right choice to forego it, if only for a time, to come and see him.

He did none of those things.

He pulled her into his arms, instead.

As he hugged her, she felt tears prickling in her eyes.

She would soon learn that it took a lot, a lot, to stop drinking. It took everything she had, (and far more than she thought she possessed, until she was forced to look inside herself), to break the cycle she'd established many years earlier.

It wasn't easy, by any stretch of the imagination, and she couldn't rely on anyone else to force her to stop.

Support was one thing she could accept, and with Sheldon, she never had to ask.

XXXXXX

She celebrated six months of sobriety by bursting into their apartment, and jumping onto Sheldon, heedless of the fact that he was walking to the couch with a glass in his hand. How he didn't spill it, she had no idea (wait, yes she did, he was Sheldon). His arms automatically came up to hold her in place, as she kissed him briefly, but enthusiastically, on the mouth.

"Six months!" She exclaimed, as he loosened his hold and she slid down until she was standing in front of him (but still holding on). "Six months."

"I'm proud of you," he whispered, resting his forehead against hers, and she responded by pressing closer to him, silently thanking him.

"Six months?" Howard asked from the couch, clearly confused.

She reluctantly broke away from Sheldon to face their friend. "Yes, six months. I haven't had a drink in six months."

"Oh," Howard said, surprised. "I didn't realize it'd been that long already. Congratulations."

She smiled at him in thanks, and accepted Leonard's congratulations, and Raj's nod, as well.

She hadn't been as open with them, but they were aware of her attempt to stop drinking because as soon as she'd made the decision, she had been honest with everyone she knew. Keeping secrets was counter-productive.

"You all know it hasn't been easy," she told them, sitting next to Leonard on the couch.

"No, it hasn't, yet Penny has performed admirably," Sheldon said, sitting on the other side of her, in his customary spot. It wasn't his words that surprised their friends, but the pride they expressed.

Howard voiced what they were all thinking. "When was the last time you were proud of anything aside from your own accomplishments?"

Sheldon narrowed his eyes. "Penny's achievement is one that should be celebrated by everyone who cares about her. Despite that it is not a personal accomplishment of my own, I feel the same amount of pride as if it were."

"Really?" Howard challenged. "Why?"

Sheldon looked taken aback, but before he could attempt an answer, Leonard interrupted. "Are you two dating?" He asked, half jokingly.

Penny automatically laughed at the words, looking over at Sheldon, sure she'd see equal amusement in his eyes. Instead, she found unexpected gravity.

She immediately sobered and looked back at Leonard. "I don't think…that is…" she turned back to Sheldon, completely unsure of what he thought about Leonard's question. Wouldn't she know if he liked her? Then again, he was Sheldon; maybe she'd completely missed his signs of interest.

Honestly, she never thought he'd be romantically interested in her. Or in anybody, for that matter. That was mainly why she'd allowed herself to ignore her feelings for him for such a long time.

She'd been with a long line of men, starting with Davey Williams, and ending with Daniel Cross, six months before. There were plenty of men in between those two, none of them the type she'd consider spending her life with. None of them the type she'd want to spend her life with.

Part of her worried that life-long companionship was something she'd never find. No one was good enough. At least, no one she'd dated.

A lifetime was quite long, after all. It didn't end until death, and being with someone until death? The thought was terrifying.

"I would not be averse to the idea," Sheldon whispered in her ear, and she jerked her head around to face him, confident she had heard him wrong, confused as to what he was referring to.

She fought to remember the threads of the conversation "Sheldon," she whispered, pitching her voice low enough that the others couldn't hear. "You're joking, right? You can't mean that you would willingly date me!"

"Affirmative, Penny," Sheldon said, louder than she wanted, because it meant Howard, Raj, and Leonard could hear every word he spoke. That made his words real. "I am open to the idea of dating you."

She'd never allowed herself to think of him wanting her as remotely in the realm of reality. Now that it was, she had no idea how to react.

Maybe sensing her unease, Sheldon leaned into her, his words a mere whisper. "Penny, I care for you in a way that I have never cared for any other."

She momentarily forgot their friends. "Are you saying that…you love me?"

He paused a moment. "If you mean that I desire to spend time with you above all others, and care for you above all others, and never wish to be parted from you…then yes, I love you, Penny."

She felt her breath hitch, free to reveal a truth she'd known for quite some time. "I love you, too."

He didn't reply, pulling her forward into a demanding kiss, and she hadn't known he was capable of that amount of passion. Maybe she still had a lot to learn, at least regarding him.

It was then that she made her decision (and, to steal his phrase), she chose him above all others.

She'd been faced with a multitude of choices in her life. She'd made the vast majority of them without even remotely considering the consequences of either direction her life could take.

There was a difference now, because this time she knew what she was doing. It came down to two facts: either live with Sheldon, or live without him.

As she settled into his embrace, she recognized that living with him was the only acceptable choice, and it didn't matter what came after, because she'd deal with it.

"Penny?" He whispered, against her forehead.

"Yeah, Sheldon?" She asked.

"This…you and I?" He sounded unsure, and she knew he needed explicit confirmation.

"Yes, you and I," she reassured him. She was vaguely aware of Howard, Leonard, and Raj talking around them (now she knew the extreme measures it took to get Raj to speak in her presence). She tuned them out; she had more important things to focus on.

"I'm glad," he whispered into her hair.

She shut her eyes, memories flicking by at random.

Davey's too-firm embrace (the love which had taught her that love shouldn't hurt).

Ellie's mischievous smile (gone from the world too soon, victim of her own youth and recklessness).

The whisper of southern wind in her hair (no matter how much she loved California, it would never be the home she felt in her soul).

The drink she always longed for after a particularly hard day (a longing she now knew would never fully go away).

No more – she forced her mind to stop. It didn't matter how she got here, the only thing that mattered was she did. How could she express gratitude towards the world, towards him, for something that was completely random, something that might never have happened at all?

The best she could do was meet his eyes and whisper, "I'm glad, too."

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