September 1st, 2013

For one heart wrenching second, everything stopped.

Blood pounded in Penny's ears, drowning out the sounds of the world as her brain stuttered to a halt and violently turned over again, restarting with a heavy rattling that could only be her uneven breath in her lungs.

With excruciating clarity, she could see the path she had tread leading her to this moment, this one awful moment, and every fork that had arisen before her for the last six years that she had valiantly ignored in favor of bee-lining towards her own despair.

Then Leonard's eyes, which had fallen closed when the woman from the stairs pressed her lips against his, snapped open and locked on Penny, already dark with apology and despair.

Never in Penny's life had she unlocked a door faster. As it swung shut behind her, the last image she had of the scene in front of 4A was Leonard gently pushing the dark haired girl away from him and Sheldon, his eyes wide with shock (that likely mirrored hers) hovering a few steps behind, both their gazes focused on her like a laser.

Then she snapped the door shut in their faces, locked and latched the door and slid the stiff, hardly ever used chain lock into place.

She hadn't been conscious of her movements until she leaned heavily against the closed door and gasped in a shaky breath.

"Penny!" she heard Leonard call from across the hall, his hurried footsteps pounding closer to her. "Penny, wait, I'm sorry! Let me explain," he said, already knocking on her door, her back dampening the sound.

Over Leonard's pleas, she could hear the woman from the stairs, still standing in the doorway of 4A from the sound of her voice. "I don't understand..." she said, and even though Penny was a mess, her heart broke a little at the tone of the other woman's voice.

"Well, this is the kind of fall out one should expect when you kiss another person's boyfriend," Amy's flat answer rang out over the sound of Leonard's uneven breathing.

"I didn't know..." the girl responded, her voice cracking. "Oh god," Penny barely heard her whisper before the sound of light feet dashing down the stairs dimly Penny's ears. Penny sank heavily to the floor as another facet of betrayal slid into place.

She heard Leonard quietly whisper, "Laura, wait..." as he took two half steps away from Penny's door but he turned back when the stairwell remained silent.

"Penny, please let me talk to you," Leonard said on the other side of the door. He had stopped yelling and Penny suspected he knew she was just centimeters away, separated by an inch and a half of wood and a million unspoken words. "I can explain all of this."

"Not now, Leonard," Penny answered, and it wasn't until she heard her voice, thick with tears, that she realized she was crying. She brought her hand up to her cheek to scrub them away.

"I think we should talk about this, Penny," Leonard replied and panic gripped her when she heard the doorknob rattle. "Right now." The door knob rattled again and Penny was glad that her autopilot had enough sense to lock the top chain. Even with her spare key, he couldn't get in.

"Later, Leonard," she called again, her voice gaining strength as anger set in.

"I really think it'd be better if-"

"I believe Penny said later, Leonard," Sheldon's voice interrupted him, his Texan drawl in full swing, and Penny choked back a sob of appreciation.

"...Okay," he said, and Penny could hear the reluctance in his voice. "I'll be waiting for you whenever you're ready." She heard Leonard's feet retreating and she breathed a sigh of relief until she heard him angrily whisper, "You stay out of it, you've already caused enough trouble," to Sheldon before the door to 4A closed.

Penny exhaled long and slow, letting the tension in her body melt away with her breath, a meditation trick Raj had taught her over the summer now that they could hang out and do things besides getting plastered. It didn't entirely work but by the time she pulled herself off the ground, her tears had ceased and her heart wasn't hammering so fiercely in her chest.

Her phone chimed from the depths of her purse and Penny debated ignoring the damn thing entirely but she figured if she was going to do that, she may as well turn it off. She drifted to the couch, throwing herself wearily at the teal cushions, her arm elbow deep in the clutter of her purse.

'You okay, Bestie? Want to talk?' a text from Amy read and Penny's lips quirked up into a sad smile. Even with the crippling thoughts of alone and betrayed she had felt just a few moments ago, it was reassuring to know that she still had friends willing to support her. Of course it would be Sheldon and Amy to step up to the plate, the ones the rest of the group would probably consider the least likely.

But Penny knew better.

She sent back, 'Not right now. Need to think. I'll text later.'

Then she threw herself sideways on the couch, her knees up to her chest, and let her apartment slowly darken with the sky outside.

With a bitter taste in her mouth, Penny recounted something she had told Leonard shortly before his trip. "Oh Sweetie, if you're gonna screw things up, it's gonna be while you're here, not while you're away." How very wrong she had been, almost comically wrong, except Penny didn't feel like laughing. She felt like crawling into a hole to die.

Or maybe she felt more like shoving Leonard into said hole to die. It was hard to say.

Penny frowned to herself, her face pressed into the cushion of her couch. She should have seen this coming. She'd known Leonard for years, she knew his little quirks, she knew his habits, and it was depressing how much this didn't surprise her at all. There were so many signs pointing, no, screaming that he was prone to cheating, but somehow she had ignored them all.

But she had always kind of thought she was...well... special. At least to Leonard.

But maybe she was just the pretty girl across the hall.

When Leonard and Priya had been doing the whole long distance thing, he had cheated on her too. In fact, if she thought back to that strange conversation in her kitchen, Leonard had been trying very hard to come up with a way that he could have his cake and eat it too. At the time, it hadn't bothered her much at all. Leonard was solidly her friend and only her friend and she wasn't the biggest fan of Priya either so she had... encouraged the skeevy behavior.

She could kick herself for that now.

Distantly she heard the gang evacuate the apartment across the hall. Amy, Bernadette and Raj stopped to call out sympathies to her but Penny only turned in place, staring intently at the back of her couch.

Leonard had issues with pretty girls. He liked being noticed by them, the man was practically starved for attention, and he skipped over a lot of social niceties in favor of celebrating his own appeal.

Like Alex. That whole ordeal had shone a rather unflattering light on Leonard as well. Penny could see why Leonard would like being asked out by a beautiful woman, and she could see why he wouldn't tell her about it, but she was still a little hurt over the way he had rubbed it in, doubly so now that she knew her worries had been completely founded. He had been pleased when Penny felt insecure, and sure, it was a pretty turn around in their relationship but did he have to gloat?

She shook it off. Leonard had issues with women. Yes. But that wasn't the only problem here.

In all honesty, Penny wasn't as hurt by the fact that Leonard had kissed the girl from the stairwell as much as the fact that it sounded like they had been... well... emotionally intimate. She couldn't tell which was worse, getting drunk at a club and waking up with some random girl (eternal thanks for that, Kurt), or that he had met a woman with similar interests and felt a real connection. She was leaning towards the latter.

That was what made that kiss, those kisses, infinitesimally more painful than if he'd had an accidental one night stand. Leonard didn't really do... that. He didn't have casual sex. Sure, he would hop into bed with just about anyone who offered, but he always had feelings to go along with it. He fell in love fast and all the damn time, but it was still love. At least kind of.

And love, emotional connections, those were things Penny couldn't really... do.

As she turned over onto her back, her eyes staring vacantly at the ceiling, she sighed and allowed herself to acknowledge something she had been avoiding.

She had never really been... emotionally... invested in the relationship, at least apparently not enough for Leonard. And that was all on her.

In fact, she had spent a great deal of energy keeping her emotions out of it all together. It was something that she tended to do with the people she cared about; the people who could hurt her. She didn't want to tell him she loved him, she didn't want to talk about the future, and she didn't want to tell Leonard too much of the questionable stuff about her family. She kept herself locked up tight so he couldn't hurt her, but that had only pushed him away.

And right about now she was feeling pretty damned hurt.

The room turned dark gray with dusk but it fell on unseeing eyes. Penny was too wrapped up in her thoughts.

A lot of what had kept her from Leonard was herself, but he had a fair share of the blame of that too.

She had never been smart enough for him.

She had known, even the first time they met, that the group of men across the hall thought she was little more than a redneck hillbilly, their very own Daisy Duke to fawn over from a distance. They liked her looks and they liked having a girl around so they kept her around and poked fun at the fact that she didn't have an intimate knowledge of science or the inner workings of the universe.

But as time passed, they learned to look past that. Raj had sweetened up to her first; he thought she was nice and for a long time she was the only girl he talked to. It didn't matter if she didn't understand astrophysics because they could talk about Sex and the City and drink grasshoppers on her sofa and chat about the latest fashion trends. He liked her because she was willing to listen to and even join in on the stuff the other guys made fun of him for.

Howard was namely interested in her looks, at least and first, but she was fairly sure over time she won him over with her humor. After a long and troubled relationship with Creep Howard, she introduced him to Bernadette and he turned into something a lot closer to a real human being. And since they'd tied the knot, she knew Howard spent much less time calling her a ditzy blond and more time treating her with respect as his wife's friend.

And Sheldon? Well, he thought everyone was an idiot, which Penny supposed they were in comparison. But while he spent a great deal of time preaching to her about all the things she didn't know about the scientific world, he had, at least recently, ceased ridiculing her so harshly. His complaints tended to be about how dirty her apartment was, or how often she talked with food in her mouth, or how she was folding her laundry wrong. And for all he knew about the world and all it's scientific intricacies, he still had to ask her how to win his girlfriend's forgiveness or how to butter up some university donors.

But in Leonard's heart, Penny would always be his beautiful dumb girlfriend, even if that clearly wasn't what he wanted. Yes, he listened to her when she had complaints about their relationship and he was more than willing to work with her on what she wanted, but when it came to her intelligence, he had long ago made up his mind. With him it was always, 'why don't you enroll in college, Penny,' 'why don't you let me write your paper for you, Penny, so you don't fail and give up,' and 'if you read more books, we'd have more interesting things to talk about.'

From the sounds of the 'bugs' list which she still had tucked underneath her jewelry box on top of her dresser, Leonard didn't really like a whole lot about her. There were the things he tolerated, the things he didn't like, and the things she needed to change in order for the two of them to work, though honestly Penny doubted he would ever dump her himself.

And he had arranged it all in a nice, neat little list. Penny's Failures, it might as well have read. Why didn't she see this coming?

Sure, change was a big part of any relationship. People had to grow and shift to fit more comfortably together, but now Penny wasn't sure there was a whole lot more than proximity and a shared interest in sex holding the two of them together.

If she boiled it down, all she could come up with was that she was a pretty girl, and he was a nice guy, and they lived across the hall from one another...

All the doubts she had struggled with over the summer, all the questions... maybe she wasn't supposed to ignore those niggling thoughts in the back of her head. Maybe they had been right all along. It wasn't the first time her intuition had steered her straight.

She sat up stiffly, running a hand raggedly through her hair and wiping off the last remaining traces of tears. She felt exhausted and the worst part wasn't even over yet.

She still had to break up with Leonard.

Leonard was pacing a hole in the floor between the door and his desk, his cell phone gripped tightly in his hand.

This was a disaster. A complete and total disaster.

This wasn't how he had imagined things going at all and he had spent the entire flight home carefully planning what he was going to tell her, but now all that had been thrown out the window, hit by a truck, and set on fire. As was always his luck, Leonard thought with a groan.

Laura had come looking for him, and he determinedly pushed the happiness that swelled inside him at the thought down because she had kissed him in front of Penny, and now that cat was out of the bag. And he was fairly sure Penny had claws.

He knew Sheldon was staring at him from across the room from where he stood in the kitchen sipping at his tea. His gaze was surprisingly dark and Leonard wasn't quite sure what to make of it but he wasn't brave enough to ask. Since Penny had locked herself into her own apartment, Sheldon had been studying Leonard like he was an animal set to be dissected. Many times Leonard had asked him to leave but Sheldon's reply was always no.

Just no. Nothing wordy or needlessly complex. Just no.

To say it was making Leonard uncomfortable was an understatement.

It had been two hours since... well... the incident. But Penny's apartment was silent and no light filtered out from under her door. He knew she was in there, he had been guarding the door and stairwell and no one had passed, but the silence was unnerving.

Usually when Penny got mad she stomped around, she slammed doors, she broke things. This was new, and much like the barely disguised aggression boiling in Sheldon across the room, the strangeness of it terrified him.

Leonard sighed and seated himself heavily in his desk chair for the millionth time, only to jump up again after a minute when the anxiety became to much to keep still.

Stealing another surreptitious glance at Sheldon whose blue eyes were like flames across the room, Leonard cringed. The whole gang had been pretty displeased with him and there was an impressive range in the intensity of their feelings.

Howard was relatively indifferent but he wasted no time in calling Leonard an idiot. "What did you expect? You cheat on your goddess of a girlfriend who also happens to be riddled with commitment issues and you thought everything would just blow over?"

Raj and Bernadette had been silently disapproving, shaking their heads and tutting to one another.

And Amy had chewed his head off. "What were you thinking Leonard?! You are supposed to be a nice guy, but nice guys don't cheat on their girlfriends. And what Jezebel could possibly temp you away from Penny, the most radiant woman on the planet? Are you insane!"

Leonard didn't like thinking about it. He had kind of figured that Amy had a temper hidden underneath all her frumpy clothes but it was another thing entirely to hear her usually mild tones spewing fury just inches from his face.

And then again there was Sheldon. If Sheldon was any other person, Leonard would call this seething but Sheldon didn't do stuff like that. He hadn't spoken a word unless directly asked and then it was clipped, concise and all Texan twang.

Leonard had always thought Sheldon a little ridiculous; an overgrown child in a man's body. But the scowling, brooding physicist loitering in the kitchen was all man and as he leaned his hands against the counter, his shoulders hunching, Leonard was reminded of a predator. He worried whether that made him the prey.

Leonard jumped when his phone chirped in his hand. 'Let's talk.' Penny had texted him and his heart jumped to his throat. He was out the door and knocking on Penny's in a matter of seconds.

Penny's door swung open but instead of greeting him at the door, she was already stepping away, seating herself at the couch, and when Leonard turned to close the door, the intimidating figure of Sheldon glowering from the doorway of 4A was the last thing he saw.

Penny was already settled on the couch by the time Leonard approached her, the features of her face unreadable in the semi dark. She had only lit the kitchen lights leaving her living room dim, and in the half light he watched her eyes dart away from him as he settled in beside her.

When his leg brushed her thigh, she shifted away.

"Listen Penny, I'm so sorry about what happened earlier but I just want to say that nothing happened between me and the girl from earlier while I was away," Her eyes snapped up to his and he felt hope bubble up in his chest. "We talked a lot and I guess she thought I was interested but I didn't mean for that to happen."

Penny tilted her head and her brow furrowed, her face screwing up into a cringe. "We talked too, you know," she said quietly. "Me and that girl from the stairs."

The silence in the room as her words sunk in was deafening. He could hear his own heart beating, the blood in his veins rushing to his face as his cheeks flushed.

"I know you kissed her before you came home. And I'm not stupid. I know that talking is likely much more dangerous than jumping in bed together." When Leonard was brave enough to meet her gaze, her green eyes were filled with sadness."So Leonard, do you like this girl?"

"No, of course not Penny. I'm in love with you."

"Are you, though?" she asked but her voice wasn't vindictive or mean. It was a question she phrased so simply she may as well have been asking about the weather.

"Yes," Leonard answered immediately, his voice impassioned. "I have always been in love with you."

She tilted her head towards him and regarded him quietly. With her face in shadow, it was harder for him to read her expression.

"What do you love about me?" she asked, and Leonard smiled. This he could answer. This he could do.

"I love how kind you are to everyone you meet. I love how fun it is to spend time with you. I love how beautiful you are, even before you put on any makeup..." Penny's gaze on his face was unwavering and he felt himself flounder under her stare. "I love how being with you makes me feel like I've finally become the man I always wanted to be. I knew you were the one the moment I laid eyes on you."

Leonard half smiled. He was in a mess of a situation but he figured he'd done pretty well. He was an expert at his feelings about Penny, he had to be after pining for her for years.

But his heart sank when she squinted her eyes and observed him with a cold speculative gaze more suited to Sheldon's face than hers.

"I don't think that's enough," she said and her tone betrayed her own unhappiness at her conclusion.

"No, Penny, there's so much more I just-"

"You're just content to settle with me," she interrupted. He was shaking his head but before he could argue, she spoke again. "And I was content to settle with you."

Between the past tense 'was' and the bleak declaration of her feelings, Leonard's heart sank.

"I think us being together was... I don't know... easy in a way. We were both willing to give up too much of what we wanted for the convenience and the simplicity and the relative safety. But..." Penny sighed heavily and Leonard raised his eyes to her face. Even in the dim light he could see she looked pale and drawn, her eyes puffy and her nose red.

"But what?" he asked, his voice thick with despair.

"But I think neither of us are happy. If you were happy with me, you would have told the other scientists on your expedition about your girlfriend. You would have told that girl on the stairs about me. If you were really in love with me, you would never have been interested in kissing her in the first place."

"I don't know what came over me, Penny," Leonard tried to explain, his hope sinking with the growing realization of how much sense that made. But he loved Penny. He did. Because she was the golden reward at the end of his struggles with love. She just had to be, even if she wasn't exactly everything he wanted in a spouse, she was close enough.

He pulled at his hair struggling to find the magic combination of words that would make Penny forgive him. "I was just swept up in the excitement of the project."

Penny turned her sad eyes back up to him again. "And if I really loved you, this would hurt more." Leonard balked and Penny sighed. "If I really loved you, I wouldn't question it all the time, I wouldn't struggle so hard to understand my own feelings, and I would want to work this through." Penny picked at her nail polish distractedly. "But I don't."

Her words hit Leonard like a tidal wave of anguish. "We're breaking up again, aren't we?" he asked, his tone flat.

Penny snorted mirthlessly at his word choice. "Yes, we are breaking up again. I guess that in and of itself is a sort of proof." She tilted her head again and Leonard could only stare longingly at the beautiful woman that he just couldn't seem to keep. "But this time is the last time," she said with finality, her face turned hard while his crumpled in despair.

"I'm so sorry Penny," he begged once more, "I'll do anything if you'd just forgive me."

Penny sighed wearily and wrapped her arms around her legs. After a moment, she looked up at him and the smile on her face was faded but sincere. "There's nothing to forgive really," she said with a little shrug. "We just... we just don't work, Leonard. I wish we did, I really do. But we don't, and I don't think either of us have to feel bad about that. It's just, the way it is."

Leonard felt sick.

"The way that girl talked about you..." Penny said longingly, her body turned a fraction away from Leonard, her face down turned. She trailed off looking wistful. "I've never felt that way about you. Somewhere there's some super smart scientist lady who would be perfect for you. Someone who can talk about books with you, and science. Someone who could really love you and treat you the way you deserve to be treated." Stiffly Leonard stood from the couch and crossed to the door, his hand unconsciously hovering over his heart.

"I hope we can still be friends," Penny said, and for the first time all night, she sounded like the perky blond neighbor he knew and loved. He, on the other hand, felt like the air inside of him was slowly turning to poison. "And this time I don't want to be banished from 4A just because we broke up. I think you owe me that, at least. I'm don't want to be cast out of the group just cause we all hang out where you live."

Leonard nodded absently, finding that a fit punishment for his crimes. He was the one responsible for ruining the best relationship of his life, it only made sense he had to suffer for it.

His head was hung low as he let himself out of Penny's apartment, her fresh mournful face turned towards him from the couch. He was so focused on staring at his feet that he almost walked directly into Sheldon who was still standing ramrod straight in the door to 4A.

"She dumped you," he said, his voice deep and foreign, laced with his Texan dialect.

Leonard scowled up at him through his glasses. "What's it to you," he asked the taller man, feeling torn between collapsing in sadness and starting a fight. After a brief stare down in the doorway, collapsing won out and Leonard shuffled past Sheldon into the apartment and straight to his bedroom where he threw himself onto his unmade bed.

He had really screwed things up this time.

As he gazed vacantly at the ceiling, he wondered if Penny was right. Why had Laura appealed to him if he was so in love with Penny? Why hadn't he told her he had a girlfriend? Why had he spent the late hours of every night talking with her in the crowded hull? Why had he liked her?

Because she was brilliant and pretty and she stood just an inch or two shorter than him.

If he hadn't been with Penny, he would have pursued her. Hell, he was with Penny and he still led her on. He'd even kissed her. In that moment of goodbye, standing at the airport knowing they would be taking two separate flights and may never see each other again, he just had to know. He had to. So he pulled her to him and kissed her.

And for all that he loved Penny, never had their kisses been so electric.

Leonard hated to admit it, but Penny was right. He supposed she usually was when it came to feelings. The two of them just weren't meant to be. But acknowledging that didn't quell the sting of anguish.

Leonard turned stiffly over on his side, tears dripping down his nose to plop gently onto his pillowcase. It still smelled like Penny's green apple shampoo.

He had hurt Penny, he had hurt Laura, and he had hurt himself all with one selfish action. Now the most he could do was wait and hope that everything could get better even if it could never be the same.

If Sheldon's physiological well being hadn't been so markedly disturbed over the last few months, he would have been sure he suffered a heart attack the moment Leonard opened the door and was swept into a kiss.

It wasn't Leonard's prowess with women that shocked him (though Sheldon never quite understood his appeal). It was Penny, standing no farther from the dark haired woman pressing herself to Leonard than Sheldon was to his roommate. Something about her expression as surprise melted into something wounded and utterly closed made Sheldon's heart ache in his chest.

And that ache had yet to entirely dissipate.

Leonard had returned from the short (yet somehow still painfully long) visit to Penny's apartment and had retired to his room. As he had passed Sheldon in the doorway, indeed anytime he came within arm's reach, Sheldon was struck by the absurd and wildly out of character desire to take a swing at the smaller man.

Of course he had controlled the urge, but it was distressing none the less. Especially since Sheldon had no reason to feel hurt over Leonard's admittedly despicable actions. It wasn't as if Leonard was his boyfriend. But the logic that normally tamed his animal brain was useless in this endeavor.

As Sheldon laid stiffly in the center of his bed, his linens tucked comfortably around him, his mind was spinning circles. He could hear very muffled music through the wall to Leonard's bedroom so he knew Leonard was likely listening to his sappy break-up songs with headphones at a decibel loud enough to damage his ear drums but Sheldon found himself less willing to warn him about permanent hearing loss than he usually was.

His phone chimed from the nightstand and one long arm darted out to snatch it up. 'Penny just texted me. Her and Leonard broke up. She says she's okay,' Amy had texted him and he studied the words thoughtfully long after he'd read the limited writing through.

Sheldon hated change. The very fact that there were things outside of himself that he could not control made him want to tear his skin off with frustration and Leonard and Penny seemed to be the two most prominent examples as his closest (and most frivolous) companions.

Their relationship had been baffling to Sheldon from the start. It had always seemed painfully apparent that it was doomed to failure but his words had fallen on deaf ears. He supposed his mother must be right when she told him 'sometimes people gotta make their own mistakes.'

For as long as Sheldon had known Leonard, he had always been desperate for love. Once he met Beverly Hofstadter, the brilliant woman, Sheldon vaguely understood the correlation between neglected motherly affection and Leonard's constant search for a woman, any woman, to love him. It was for that reason that Sheldon believed Leonard's relationships would likely prove unsuccessful until he found a woman as needy as he was.

And Penny was definitely not that woman. She was independent and indecisive and far to wild for Leonard to tame. Besides, there was something about Penny that seemed too... special for Leonard. He didn't deserve her, and his involvement with the dark haired woman over the summer only proved that point.

So maybe Sheldon wasn't entirely pleased that once again his two friends had violently upended his peaceful homeostasis, but some part of him was glad they had split up, hopefully this time for good.

He heard a heavy sigh through the wall and pursed his lips.

He wasn't happy that Penny was likely sitting devastated in the apartment across the hall, imbibing a dangerous amount of alcohol and weeping in the way that clenched a fist around Sheldon's heart and squeezed. When she had called out to Leonard to leave her alone through her closed door, her voice had been heavy with tears.

Sheldon swallowed thickly. How he hated those tears.

He wasn't an expert on break-ups but he sensed there was some issue of loyalties in these things. Lord knows Howard had griped long enough last time about how Penny had to be separated from the group because apparently male companions trumped female, but it hadn't sat well with Sheldon then and it sounded ludicrous to him now.

Penny was his friend and she was the wronged party this time around. Surely that meant something in the intricate world of social connections just beyond Sheldon's grasp. Besides, if Sheldon had to choose, he would pick Penny, though that thought was likely heavily influenced by the inexplicable anger he felt surging against Leonard with every breath he took.

He didn't like when his emotions made his decisions for him.

When Leonard's quiet music lulled to a stop and restarted with a new song, Sheldon stood abruptly and swept his robe over his shoulders, keeping his steps quiet on the wooden floor. He wasn't entirely sure why he was sneaking but he had a feeling Leonard wouldn't appreciate him visiting Penny's so late at night.

Sheldon crept through the living room, dodging the creaky floorboard by the couch and quietly let himself out into the hall, inching the door closed behind himself and easing the bolt into place. His knocks were quiet on her door, his voice soft in case she had already retired for the night.

Knock, knock, knock, "Penny?"

Knock, knock, knock, "Penny?"

Knock, knock, knock, "Penny?"

Her voice was muffled and far away sounding when she called out, "Come in, Sheldon. It's open." Tentatively Sheldon twisted her knob and crossed the threshold into Penny's apartment, closing the door softly. The living room was dark and unoccupied but her voice sounded from his right, "I'm in the bedroom," and he followed the light from her open door.

Penny was sitting at the foot of her bed wiping her face with a washcloth and dressed in her pajamas. Sheldon gaze snapped to her red eyes and nose and he quickly averted his eyes, feeling rather voyeuristic as he watched her prepare for bed.

"It isn't safe to leave your door unlocked while you're in such a state," he spoke to the floor, his toe prodding at her carpet, but Penny chuckled. He was surprised to hear her laugh and dragged his eyes back up to her face. She had been crying, but her face was clear now, no longer drawn or empty. There was a hint of sadness around the corners of her eyes but her lips were quirked upwards.

"What state am I in exactly?" she asked, raising a quizzical eyebrow and something in Sheldon's chest flipped back into place. He hadn't even been aware of the crushing pressure until it vanished with her smile.

"You're sitting around in your night things, Penny," he said stubbornly, crossing his arms behind his back but Penny chuckled again.

"Well you're walking around in your night things, Sheldon," she answered, gesturing to his green plaid pajamas and robe. "Besides, I only left it unlocked cause I had a feeling you'd come knocking."

He looked at her surprised but she patted the bed next to her and he crossed into the the brightly colored room and seated himself beside her.

She continued wiping down her face and studying him, her green irises even more vibrant against the red of her eyes. He had a hard time keeping his gaze on her face and he let his eyes dart about the room. Now that he was here, he wasn't entirely sure what he wanted to say. He had only wanted to check in on her, but finding her so alert and undamaged meant he had to make conversation.

He supposed she wanted to talk about what transpired earlier but he wasn't accustomed to asking after people's thoughts and he struggled to find the words. "What happened?" he settled with, figuring he only needed to get her started talking and then she would do all the work for him.

"Oh," she said with a heaving sigh. "I guess Leonard found himself a pretty scientist on the expedition. They didn't do anything..." at Sheldon's utterly blank look she rolled her eyes and restated, "they didn't sleep together (Sheldon 'oh'ed) but they got on well enough to raise the question of whether we, me and Leonard, should even really be together. I figured no."

She glanced up to him and her eyes were uncertain.

"But I guess you knew that all along," she added a little sadly, folding up the washcloth and laying it neatly on her crossed legs, her fingers toying with some loose threads on the corner of the cloth.

"Well, signs had certainly pointed in this direction," Sheldon said but he knew he shouldn't have a moment later when Penny cringed.

"I guess I'm pretty stupid like that," she shrugged vacantly, the smile gone from her face and an alarming shimmer building in her eyes.

"Well," Sheldon said, his brain working overtime to stop her tears before they fell, "While you certainly are prone to making bad decisions, I never imagined that Leonard would be one of them. That man is dumber than a bag of hammers to muss things up with you," he finished, one his mother's old expressions slipping out in his Texan accent. She had told him once not long ago that she liked the sound of it and he had absurdly thought it might cheer her up. Sheldon scowled at himself for slipping into a habit that he hated just to please his pretty neighbor.

But Penny was beaming at him with her million watt smile and warmth pooled in Sheldon's stomach, his previous embarrassment erased by the light of her happiness. She nudged his leg with her knee as she continued to grin at him and Sheldon's gaze dropped to her long legs folded underneath her, the skin smooth and tan.

A flash of insanity hit Sheldon and he was overcome with the desire to place his hand on top of her skin, to see the difference in skin color and to feel her body heat against his palm. He firmly gripped his own thigh to keep his hands from doing so.

"I set Leonard straight about us," she said and something in Sheldon jerked at the statement.

"Us?" he repeated, warmth inexplicably spreading to his extremities as his mouth formed the word.

"Yeah. I told him I wasn't going to stop hanging out with you or anyone else just cause he was stupid enough to kiss some other girl," she said cheerily as Sheldon's eyes raked over her from top to bottom. Why on earth had her use of the word 'us' sent spasms of joy through every cell in his body?

"Very good," was all he could bring himself to answer as he felt his cheeks tinge with pink. He cleared his throat and tried again. "Yes, I don't want to be chased by dogs again just to spend an evening with you."

This time Penny nudged him with her shoulder and the point of contact tingled. "Well, maybe you shouldn't put hotdogs down your pants before you go for a walk," she replied with a laugh that shook the mattress. Sheldon scowled at her but he couldn't bring himself to be too upset when he was still weak with relief that she wasn't crying.

"Are you going to be okay?" he found himself asking before he'd fully thought out the ramifications of the question.

Penny's face turned thoughtful, her brow furrowing and her lips tightening into a frown. "Yeah, Sheldon. I'll be okay." She toyed with the frayed washcloth absently and Sheldon found himself mesmerized by her hands. "How could I not be with a friend like you?" she added after a pause, her trusting eyes darting up to him and a coy smile stretching her face.

"Yes, well," Sheldon said thickly, not at all sure how to respond. His eyes flashed up briefly to hers and he fought the desire to push a stray lock of blond hair out of her face. "I'm very glad to hear it," he settled on, and he was surprised by the softness in his own voice.

The look Penny turned on him was blindingly brilliant and Sheldon realized it was likely well past the acceptable time to be alone in Penny's bedroom, brushing knees with her on her bed but he found himself very unwilling to go. He shoved that thought away as absurd and was about to stand when Penny turned to root around under her covers.

When she pulled out Fables volume 8 and brandished it over to him, his mind stalled at the touch of her fingers on his before he understood she was asking him a question. She turned halfway through the book and pointed at a page, her face turning up to his, open and thoughtful.

As he leaned over the page and perused the images, finding an answer to her query immediately, the back of his brain wondered if maybe, just maybe, Penny wanted him to stay there too.

Author's Note: Sorry it took a little longer for this update, I struggled a bit with this chapter since it's somewhat of a turning point. Also, just a heads up, the next chapter might take another week since I'm out of town this weekend for my sister's wedding. Sorry for the delays but hopefully I'll be pounding these out again soon.

And as always, thank you so much for the reviews! I love 'em!