He ignored the others as they debated what to watch. He didn't care. He was waiting for her. All day a quiet anger had been building inside him. It was because he was her friend, he told himself. He was concerned for her safety. It was sensible. Logical.

He heard her footsteps up the stairwell. The jangle of her keys. He rose and went to the door. Her name was on his lips as he opened it, but he stopped short.

Penny was exhausted. But tonight was pizza night and a movie with her guys. She unlocked her door and a blur snatched her up and spun her around. Instinct made her wrap her arms around the thick neck and she chuckled easily.

"Hey, Boo!" A swift slap on the shoulder and he set her down. From the corner of her eyes he thought she saw the door across the hall close. She frowned slightly, but Charlie caught her attention again. "How's my favorite niece?' Charlie Flay was a bear of a man with long hair and wild tattoos. Standing over 6 feet, he towered over Penny, but she shoved him away easily. She smiled when he dropped onto her couch. "Sleep good?" She imagined Sheldon's cringe if he ever heard her say that to him. Charlie nodded and ran one hand down his face over his scraggly beard.

"Yeah, okay I guess. I woke up at one point, or I think I did. I heard a door slam, b ut it might have been jetlag. Funny, I thought it was your door for a moment."

Penny ruffled his hair affectionately. As she walked past. "Hey, it's pizza and a movie next door tonight. Wanna come meet my friends?"

Charlie yawned hugely. "Nah. I'll try tomorrow evening. I need some more shut eye, 'kay?"

She scooted in for a quick hug. "Cool. Tomorrow's Anything can happen Thursday and introducing them to my uncle, who is 3 years younger than me will fit the bill nicely."

Penny bounced across the hall and let herself in. She didn't bother knocking. No one expected her to, anyway. She glanced over Howard, Raj and Leonard, her eyes immediately drawn to the lanky figure by the sink. She loved them all, even Howard when he wasn't being creepy. But Sheldon was special to her. He was her best friend, and maybe she loved him, but no one else needed to know that.

He hid his clenched hands from the others. For the first time in his life, his mind was empty. He was not a physicist. He was not a nerd. He was not a homo novus. He was rage. A dark fury. He hear the door open and close. He could actually feel her smile on his back.

"Hi, Moon Pie!" she chirped. His eyes closed painfully. Twist the knife the other way now, he whispered to himself. He forced his face into neutrality.

"Hello Penny. I see you have deigned to join us tonight. Again."

His cool gaze raked over her, making her shiver. She had never seen Sheldon like this. So distant and icy. She took a step closer to him, and he moved, placing the kitchen island between them.

"I cannot say I am surprised though. You do tend to do that on a regular basis." The guys had finally noticed something was wrong and were eyeing them uneasily. It was hard to ignore the scorn rolling through Sheldon's voice. "Just so we know, will you be staying long, or do you have more, shall we say, carnal pursuits planned for the evening? I ask only so we can decide on a movie now."

Penny's jaw dropped in disbelief. She quickly filtered his words through her Sheldon-ese translator. "Did you just call me a slut and a freeloader?"

He smirked at her. "Penny, Penny, Penny. Even a college dropout such as yourself should know the answer to that. It does not take much in the way of intelligence to follow English, I assure you."

Penny was glued to the spot. She frantically searched his face for some clue as to what was wrong. "Why are you saying these things?"

Sheldon walked over to the couch and sat down. "Do you not want the truth? I thought that was something you valued quite highly." Penny put out a hand, palm out toward him. He tsk'd his tongue. " Let's not make a scene, Penny. You're limited acting skills would only embarrass us all."

Penny dropped her eyes to the floor. Leonard and Howard could only stare in disbelief at Sheldon. Raj could not tear his eyes from Penny.

"Dumb, talent less, freeloading slut," she said softly. "Is that truly how you see me, Sheldon?"

Sheldon almost went to her. But the rage in him wanted that little bit more. That extra ounce of pain. "Have you ever known me to lie?"

She stood perfectly still for several heartbeats. Then she walked toward the couch. Sheldon twitched in his spot, but she did not approach him. Instead she walked up to where Raj was sitting. She bent and kissed his cheek. Then she turned and did the same with Howard. A small wave to Leonard and she headed toward the door. She paused when she had opened it. Her soft "goodbye" was almost lost in the click of the door closing.

Sheldon didn't understand. She …left? His stomach twisted into a knot. This wasn't right. Penny did not back down. He would push and she would push harder. Penny never retreated from a fight. Sheldon headed to his room.

"What the hell was that?" Leonard yelled. "Have you gone insane?"

The guys stared at Sheldon in disbelief. Okay, so they were used to him being a jerk. But not with Penny. They might argue or fight, but he was never cruel toward her. They had made peace a long time ago that she was able to get away with things none of the rest could. It was just the way things were. And he might yell or chastise but not like this. This had been a vicious attack. Plain and simple, he had WANTED to hurt her.

Charlie was asleep when she stumbled back in. She started to swipe at the tears but knew it was futile a fast as they flowed. Useless to try and stem them. She gave a sharp laugh. Even she could tell it bordered on hysterical. Stupid, useless, slutty Penny. That's how he saw her. He felt only contempt for her. Penny slid down the wall and drew her knees up to her chest.

4 years she had lived here. She was used to him saying she wasn't smart. He said that about everyone. It was the look in his eyes when he spoke to her that sealed the deal. Anger, hate, disgust, like she was a piece of gum he had found on his shoe.

She loved him. Had loved him for over year. She had always been attracted to him, until a year ago when he had been her knight in shining armor. He had comforted her, gotten her medical help, and sang Soft Kitty to her. Was it all a lie? Did he only do those things not because she needed him, but because he was obligated while she dated Leonard? For a year she had kept a small hope alive in her heart. That someday he might come to love her as much as she loved him. But she had been willing to wait for it. This was Sheldon Cooper, after all. Bat-crap crazy, functioning whack doodle Sheldon. He had been worth the wait. She sobbed quietly as her heart broke into a million pieces.

She heard them leave. Off to work like any other day. It wasn't any other day for Penny. For hours her brain had shut off as her heart cried itself out. Then in the early hours, her brain had taken over again. She may be stupid. And useless and slutty. But she was also a survivor. And after all the tears had dried up, and the trembling had subsided, her determination to withstand straightened her back and set her jaw firm.

She waited for Charlie to get up and say his goodbyes. He looked at her funny and asked if she was okay, but she sent him off with a cheery smile and a promise to keep in touch better. Then she picked up the box, her spare key to 4A and her pride.

The guys watched Sheldon uneasily all day. It was impossible to figure out what he was thinking. And when approached he had actually snarled at them. At lunch he stayed in his office and the others sighed in relief. "What the frak?" Howard began. "Did he have that one lab accident and turn evil?"

They all looked at each other uneasily. Crazy Sheldon was something they were used to. Evil Sheldon was a whole new ball game. Raj leaned in close. "She said goodbye to us last night. Does that mean we will not see her anymore?

"I don't know," Leonard whispered. "It's like he was spoiling for a fight or something. I've never seen him like that before."

Raj shook his head. "I've never seen her like that before, dudes. He really hurt her badly."

Howard nodded, "Yeah I've never seen Penny walk away from a fight before."

Leonard looked at each of them sadly. "Guys, I don't think she was walking away from a fight. I think she was running for her life."

They exchanged more uneasy looks. What would this do to their group dynamic? They had started out as a band of misfits. Penny had turned them into a family. They all decided that the best thing to do was try to talk to Sheldon when they got off work. So Raj and Howard followed them home. When they got there, they looked expectantly at Penny's door. They were half hoping she would burst out and go junior rodeo on Sheldon. Raj noticed how Sheldon's body stiffened when thy got to the 4th floor. He had the impression Sheldon was hoping for a fire breathing Penny, too.

After a few seconds, Leonard unlocked the door and they all went inside. He started to toss his keys in the bowl and stopped short. The others eased around him, and looked at the stand. Penny's spare key with the Hello Kitty keychain was gone. In it's place was the spare for 4A with it's Star Wars fob.

"Not good" Howard whispered. They all jerked around to see if Sheldon had heard. He was standing by the island utterly still. Placed in the center of the counter was a large box.

He had expected some sort of retaliation. Anger. Junior rodeo. Instead Sheldon was confronted with a box. On top was the shirt. A black tee emblazoned with the batman symbol. His mind drug up the memory against his will. The guys at an aerospace conference in San Diego. Sheldon and Penny making pizza. She had spilled sauce on her purple tank top. Rather than go home and change she had darted into his room and stole his shirt. He had made only a half-hearted attempt to get it back. Secretly he liked that she wore it. He knew she kept it under her pillow, and wore it often. He had found it, cleaning once. Her scent clung to it.

He hated that she had been with Leonard, but he rejoiced in all the times she had chosen him first. His white board first. His spot first. His advice and comfort first. His shirt first.

He looked into the box. Everything was there. Books loaned to her. Cards for her birthday. The care bear he had given her for Christmas. He shut his eyes tight. Even the Firefly dvds they watched together when no one was around. Sheldon felt his chest tighten even more. He reached out and gently picked up the shirt. He clutched it to his chest and almost ran to his room. From the corner of his eye, he saw the remaining bath baskets from the previous Christmas on the kitchen floor.

Sheldon sat on his bed and raised the tee to his face. He drew in smell of vanilla and felt his tears soak the material. He heard them coming down the hall. He knew they wanted an explanation. What could he tell them? He did not even understand himself.

Knock knock

"Sheldon, can we talk to you?" Leonard and the others stood there looking at him hunched over the batman shirt sobbing. They had no experience with this version of him. Something bad was happening and they couldn't fix it if they didn't get details. But how to do that from a Sheldon who was so lost himself? After a moment they started to wander off and give him some privacy.

"I wanted to surprise her." His voice was just above a whisper. They stopped moving. "I let myself in because she was at work. It's Pizza night and instead of one of our movies I was going to surprise her with a movie she would like. I was going to leave the disc on her coffee table with a note to bring it over when she was ready. But…." his voiced cracked, "there was a half empty bottle of bourbon on the counter. And some brain dead Neanderthal in her bed. It was like being punched in the gut by some bully. She hadn't dated anyone in almost a year. I…I thought maybe it had been long enough."

He raised his eyes to the others. They knew that look. They had all had it to some degree in their lives. "I love her, Leonard. I have loved her since I first saw her. It almost killed me when she was with you. But I stayed out of it because she chose you. I wanted her to be happy. But now she was alone and we had gotten to be close. I wanted…" he shrugged helplessly. "I want her."

Raj crept over to the bed and sat beside Sheldon. He patted Sheldon's arm. Sheldon flinched but didn't pull away. "Jealousy made you want to hurt her as much as you were hurting, dude." Sheldon nodded slowly.

Raj continued. " Sheldon, I've spent the majority of the last 4 years observing us all. It kind of became a habit when I couldn't talk whenever Penny is around, and well, she's always around. We all have been affected by her. Howard is less crass, Leonard is a bit less condescending. I'm a bit less naïve. But you, dude? She brought out the human in you. We are affected just because she is here. With you, she makes an effort. She fit herself into your schedule, she didn't try to change it. She made time for you no matter what her plans were. She turned her interests toward what you were interested in because she wanted to understand you better. I haven't seen her drink or go out for 6 months. Why? Because you didn't approve. She stood toe-to-toe with you when you were wrong, and she backed you up when you were right. She cried on my shoulder more times than I care to think of when you were in a relationship with Amy."

Everyone looked at him in surprise. Raj shrugged. "I saw her face the first time Amy had dinner with us. I knew she was sad so I texted her. It kind of became a habit. When she was upset, she would call me and I would listen to her pour out her heart. Selective mutism made me the perfect listener for her. She has loved you for a very long time. Longer than I think even she knows. I do not doubt you saw what you saw. But I do not believe Penny brought a man into her bed for sex. You should have just asked her. Now your job will be much harder. But I want you to know, I will help if I can."

Sheldon looked at each of his friends and saw their compassion. He wasn't sure when he had come to depend on them. He had never been good at friendship or emotion. But for the first time in his life, Sheldon found solace in in them.

He gave her 2 days. Secretly he hoped she would come over to settle things, because he had no idea what to do. In the end, he did what he knew.

Knock knock knock Penny?

Knock knock knock Penny?

Knock knock kno…..

He heard the lock click and stepped back. After a minute, he tried the door knob. Oh. She had not unlocked the door. She had locked it against him. He leaned his head against the cool metal and sighed. He considered knocking again, but instead bent and slid the invitation to join him, them for dinner under the door. He waited for a few minutes. Would she open the door? Would she slide the note back out? After several minutes passed with no response he went back inside and waited with the others. When they finally ate, the food was cold.

Penny had watched the door until his shadow walked away. Then she stood and walked over. She stared at the envelope on the floor for a long time. It was tempting to rip it up. To open it carefully. To throw it away. Instead she picked it up and dug out a pen. She wrote across the front in careful script. Then she dropped it in their mail slot the next morning on her way out.

Sheldon was at his wit's end. She would not answer the door for any of them. Texts and emails went unanswered. Worse, every letter, ever note he left her was returned to him via the mail boxes downstairs. Each with the word UNDELIVERABLE written across it. They had all tried. She refused to speak with any of them. Bernadette would not give them her schedule. She would only say that Penny was firm in her decision to make a clean break. Her next words chilled Sheldon to the bone. She said Penny was so set on this, that she threatened to quit if Bernadette betrayed her. She did however keep them informed that she was sad, and tired, but otherwise okay. It was something.

Amy Farrah-Fowler was no help either. She refused to help at all. She was livid with Sheldon. "I will not place her back in the company of someone who could be so cruel, Sheldon. You have no idea of the damage you did. And although I can see you are hurting, and although I still consider you a friend, I have little sympathy." The others had tried to reason with her, but she would not budge. "Sheldon, your heart may be breaking, but you did more than break her heart. You broke her spirit, You tore her to pieces and let her bleed out at your feet. And you did it intentionally. "

Sheldon's shoulders slumped in defeat. He did not see any other way to get to her. Amy's heart hurt for him. She decided to do one thing for him. If only to show him what he had lost. Maybe if he knew how wrong he had been, he would find a way to make this right. She pushed past the guys and stood in front of him.

"Sheldon. The man you told me about. Did he have long hair, and tattoos covering his arms?"

Sheldon looked up and nodded painfully. It wasn't just his eidetic memory that kept that image burned into his mind.

Amy sighed. "His name is Charlie."

Sheldon flinched. So Amy knew her bestie's boy toy.

"Charlie Flay."

Sheldon gasped. Flay? As in Penny Flay? Did he hear that right? He sank into Amy's couch. "What did you say?"

Amy nodded. "You saw her uncle crashing on her bed after his visit. I went with her to pick him up at the airport."

Sheldon started to shake. He had destroyed everything. Killed his relationship with Penny. Killed all of their friendships with Penny because he was jealous … of her uncle. It was a long time before they were able to calm his tremors enough to get him home.

Amy sat on her couch for a long time trying to make a decision. Amy had never had a real friend before Penny. She wasn't sure what the protocol was here. She desperately wanted to respect her friend's wishes. But was that really the best course of action? Amy only knew one person to ask.

He was a huge man, standing 6'5". He knew the attention he drew wherever he went. Long hair and tats weren't exactly a normal sight at Cal-Tech. He leisurely scanned the lunchroom as people came and went. At one point a spit fire in glasses had approached with a challenge in her eyes. A scowl was all it took to send Winkle away. Not even she was daring enough to test him. He knew them the moment they walked in the door. That tiny little neuroscientist's description was dead on. He knew which one he wanted too, the moment they saw him. He held up one hand and beckoned.

Leonard, Howard, and Raj almost ran in terror when they saw the bear of a man who seemed to be calling them over. Before they could, Sheldon sat his tray on a nearby table and walked right over and sat down across from him. They followed more slowly. It was a bit of a relief to see the big man was only staring at Sheldon, who was looking back like this guy was god. Immediately they knew who this guy was and they sat down.

The entire cafeteria seemed to be holding it's breath waiting for an explosion. The man placed his forearms on the table and leaned in a bit. "Give me one good reason why I should help."

Sheldon looked at him for several heartbeats and his shoulders slumped forward. "I cannot." He dragged a hand over his face. "I have no good reason. I have no excuse. I have done the worst thing imaginable to the one person I profess to love more than anything. I can't take it back. I do not think I can even make it right."

He sighed heavily and looked back at Charlie. "I need her."

Charlie felt for the guy. He had hundreds of emails and letters from his niece going back months that told him more than he needed to know about this guy's character. He wasn't a genius but he knew loneliness. He knew about growing up different than everyone around him. He was a dreamer in a family of practicality. Just like Penny was. It's why she is his favorite. Their family had tried to make her like them and she had ended up running away from it. He wanted her to have the same chance he thinks he may have found in Penny's 'bestie'. But was this guy the right one to give it to her? He was all rules and order, and Penny was chaos and hurricanes. He smile internally. Like his Amy. She was calm and serene yet passionate while he was raw and unbound. Maybe this was the guy. Amy seemed to think so. And in the short time he had known her, he had come to trust her. So, okay. He only hoped they were not wrong. Charlie pushed back his chair, catching the pain in Sheldon's eyes. Guy's got it bad.

"Let's go." he said gruffly. "All of you, up and at'em."

Sheldon sprang up, a flicker of hope in his eyes. Charlie pointed a huge finger in the guy's chest. "If you screw this up, if you screw her up EVER AGAIN, I will tear you limb from limb with my bare hands."

He lead them out to the parking lot and hopped on his Harley. He didn't bother to see what they were doing. No way was that guy going to let this chance go, he smiled. Although, the rodeo part of him did make them follow at a snail's pace just to torment.

They pulled into the parking garage and went inside. Amy and Bernadette were in the lobby waiting. They confirmed she had not left for any errands and everyone headed up. On the 3rd floor landing, Charlie stopped them. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the spare key Penny had given him for his visit. He looked at it for a minute and turned to Sheldon.

"She won't be happy to see you. You're likely to take an ass whipping long before you get a chance to speak to her. But I love her. And so do all of your friends, it appears. We want her happy and I really do think you are the key to that. Our family is…difficult. We know they love us, but they are not supportive people. She and I are too different from them for their comfort. She sees in you strength and solace. You are everything she has ever dreamed of. Even your 'quirks' as she calls them appeal to her because they make you who you are. I'm going to tell you something that I know she has never told anyone but me. For all her cheerfulness, and spirit, she knows deep down that she is not loved. Not in the way she desires to be. She does not think she is deserving of true happiness. So, I'm doing something I never do. I'm begging, Cooper." Charlie dropped the key into Sheldon's hand and stepped aside. "Prove her wrong."

She stood under the water and let it relax the muscles in her shoulders. They never entirely relaxed anymore, but she just wanted them to stop hunching over. Penny sighed and leaned her forehead against the cool tile. She had forgotten what it felt like to smile these last few weeks. Pain beat through her constantly. She should feel some relief, she thought. She had spent a week debating with herself and had finally come to a decision. She had to talk to Sheldon. She had to look in his eyes once more to see if there was any hope left. So, she was taking a shower. She would put on her best jeans and top and she would knock on his door.

Slowly she dragged herself out of the shower and toweled off. She was so lethargic. Securing the towel around herself, she stepped into her bedroom. She almost fainted. Sheldon. Sitting on her bed and holding her, no his, shirt in his hands. He looked at her solemnly. She wanted to cover up. She wanted to fling herself into his arms. She wanted to run away. Sheldon must have seen it in her eyes. In a flash he was across the room. Her back hit the wall and his arms were on either side on her head. Penny shied away from him. He slowly lowered his head until he was pressing his cheek to hers.

Her breath caught in her throat. She opened her mouth and he swiftly turned his head. His lips pressed against hers roughly. He was inexperienced but he had instincts. Penny felt her arms slide up his back and he growled. Actually growled. He pulled his mouth from hers slowly. She looked up at him in wonder. His eyes were tightly shut and he was clenching his fists. She wanted to say something, anything, but all she could think of was that he was so near.

He had words. He had it all planned out. He would talk and talk until he convinced her to forgive him. But when he saw her step out in the towel, body still damp and glowing, he lost them. He saw the panic in her eyes and he could not stop. He pounced to keep her from running. And then with her pressed between him and the wall, all control was gone. He had missed her so much. Her smile, her laugh, her warmth, her scent. He tried to get the words out. All he could manage was a whispered "I'm sorry."

Her eyes widened. He felt her relax, and he was not expecting that. His eyes sought out hers. Smiling? A soft gentle smile. "Penny," his voice was ragged with emotion.

He felt her lean into him and sigh. She placed her head on his shoulder. Sheldon almost collapsed onto the floor. He was confused. He had expected a fight. Punches, tears, shouting. Instead she was curling up against his chest. He pulled back just far enough to see her face again.

"I love you," she whispered.

All the anxiety drained out of him. He was forgiven. He didn't know how she could possibly have forgiven him, but he saw it in her eyes. She did. "I love you." he whispered back. Her face lit up the room and she leaned up for another kiss. Sheldon dragged her up into his arms.

When no screaming or fighting was heard, the group slowly and quietly filtered into the apartment. They could not keep their curiosity at check any more. When they got to the bedroom door, they heard a soft moan. Startled glances and then smiles crossed everyone's face. They tip toed out and went across the hall to celebrate. They didn't see Sheldon or Penny for two days. But when they did Penny was wearing a batman shirt.