A new year, a new story, a new start for our favorite waitress.

This story picks up at the end of The Parking Spot Escalation and veers off into new territory. Depressed, hurt and angry, Penny finds a new lease on life with the help of two people she barely knows.

Penny sat on her couch and fumed. She was tired and in pain. She gingerly touched her swollen nose, tears welling up in her eyes. Everyone thought it was hilarious. Amy and Bernadette had laughed and said it brought them closer together. Howard had said he had a woman willing to fight for him. Leonard thought it was funny she hadn't ducked. Sheldon had stared at her as if she were some sort of freak.

She had lost a two episode role on a popular tv show because of it. The first real acting role she had managed to find in years was given to someone else. What director wanted an actress with two black eyes? A knock on her door drew her gaze and she waited. It wasn't repeated, so she stood up and answered it. She looked at Stuart Bloom and Wil Wheaton with surprise.

They looked back at her sympathetically. Penny was so happy to see someone not laughing that she stepped back and let them in wordlessly. Will immediately sprawled over half the small sofa and Stuart sat in the chair. Penny closed the door and sat down.

Wil reached out and turned her to face him. His eyes were sympathetic. "Is there anything we can do?"

Penny shook her head. "Not unless you can go back in time and tell me to watch out."

"Sorry," Wil said with a wry smile. "We saw Howard and Raj at the shop and they told us what happened."

Penny's eyes narrowed. "You mean they were laughing about it."

Stuart looked uncomfortable. "I'm sure they didn't mean any harm."

Penny burst into tears and buried her head in her hands. Wil put an arm around her and drew her against his shoulder. Before long Penny found herself pouring it all out.

"I can't take much more," she sobbed. "I hate my job. I hate always being broke. Sometimes I even hate them. I'm tired of feeling stupid. I'm tired of settling. I'm stuck in a boring relationship with a guy who thinks I'm too stupid to write a history paper. And worse? I believed him and got Amy and Bernadette to write one for me. I don't even have the confidence to submit my own paper and learn from it. I finally land a good role on Breaking Bad after years of failed auditions and two days before filming they break my nose."

Penny pulled away from Wil and dried her face. "I am tired of being a failure," she whispered.

Wil leaned back and studied Penny for a long moment. "Let's get out of here for a bit. Get some fresh air."

Penny looked at him suspiciously. "Aren't you married?"

A flash of pain crossed Wil's face. "Separated," he replied in a hushed voice. "Besides, I'm asking as a friend, not a date."

Penny hesitated and Stuart leaned forward. "Would it help if I told you no one there will care about your nose? In fact, they'll probably see it as a badge of honor."

Despite her pain and general unhappiness, Penny was intrigued. She looked at each man and saw nothing but compassion and an offer of friendship. She nodded. "Okay, should I change?"

They took in her jeans and crop top and shook their heads. "Casual is good," Wil said with a smile. "Come on, Penny. We're about to introduce you to a brand new world."

Leonard walked back into the apartment angrily and grabbed his phone off the desk. He looked at Sheldon and Amy on the couch, Howard and Bernadette on the floor, and Raj in the armchair.

"Where is Penny?" Bernadette asked.

Leonard hit the speaker button on his phone. They heard it go straight to voicemail. Leonard huffed and tossed the phone onto the desk. "She's not home. She's never home anymore." He flung himself into his computer chair and glared at the floor. "I think she's cheating on me."

Amy gasped. "Penny wouldn't do that! Okay, so yes, she's a veritable goddess of sensuality who could have any man she wanted with a bat of her lashes, but she wouldn't actually cheat."

Bernadette shook her head. "Penny loves you, Leonard."

Raj looked at him sympathetically. Sheldon looked around the group worriedly. Howard sighed. "Come on, buddy, do you have any actual proof?"

Leonard shook his head. "I've only seen her twice in the last week. Tuesday night after work she came over and we watched the last half of Alien together, then she went home. Alone. Friday I took Sherlock Holmes over and we watched it. She then kissed me goodnight, said she was tired and sent me packing. It's been like that for three weeks now. We haven't done more than kiss hello or goodbye in almost a month. She's definitely cheating on me. Penny has never gone three weeks without sex."

"Okay, I'm not saying she's cheating," Howard said, "but we all knew you two were going to split eventually." Everyone looked at him with surprise. "Come one, this is your third attempt, and let's face it, what do you and Penny really have in common? Look, I like Penny. You are my friend. But the fact is, you two aren't really happy together."

"Howie, that's not fair." Bernadette looked at her husband reprovingly. "No one is saying they have broken up."

Amy nodded calmly. "Besides, even if they did, Penny always comes back to Leonard. She'll realize she did wrong and then she and Leonard will be okay."

Leonard crossed his arms. "She'll have to do a lot of begging before I forgive her."

The credits were rolling for Blade Runner when the door opened up and Penny stepped inside. Leonard jumped up and smiled widely as everyone looked at her. Penny held out her phone and hit a button.

"She's not home. She's never home anymore. I think she's cheating on me."

"Penny wouldn't do that! Okay, so yes, she's a veritable goddess of sensuality who could have any man she wanted with a bat of her lashes, but she wouldn't actually cheat."

The voices on the phone were tinny and scratchy, but easily recognizable. They all sat and listened with chagrin as part of their conversation played out. When it was over, Penny put her phone in her back pocket.

Leonard gave a nervous chuckle. "Guess I forgot to hang up," he said.

Penny sighed. "I'm so tired," she said softly. "I'm tired of forcing myself to smile and be cheery around all of you." Several of them started to speak but Penny held up a hand for silence. "I'm not blaming any of you. This is my fault. I am miserable and I did it to myself. You all have this mindset that you are smart and I am stupid. I bought into it. Because it was expected. I am not as smart as any of you, but I'm not an idiot. I'm not a whore, either. And I am exhausted trying to live down to your expectations."

Amy jumped up in alarm. "Bestieā€¦"

"No," Penny said. "Let me say up front, I do like you, Amy. But we aren't best friends. We never have been. You decided we were and I let you steamroll over me like you do Sheldon because it was easy. Some days I'm not even sure we are any kind of friends. You don't treat me very nice sometimes. You make me uncomfortable with all the sexualized comments. You see my looks and that's it. You laugh at me, and not in a light-hearted way. And you use manipulation to get your way. That's not friendship. How many times have I been the butt of everyone's jokes?"

Penny looked around the room sadly. "Well, I can't do it anymore. I'm tired of pretending there's anything between me and Leonard but sex and guilt. I'm tired of drinking myself into a stupor every night to mask my desperation. I'm tired of going to bed each night hurt and heart sore."

Penny pulled the spare for 4A out of her pocket and set it in the bowl by the door. Sheldon stood slowly, torn between the need to stop her, and the desire to run to his room and hide. Penny pulled her spare from the bowl and opened the door.

"I think it would be best if I stayed away from the group for a while. I need to figure out what I want and what I need. Please respect my request for time." She turned toward the door and Leonard lost it.

"Who is he?" he demanded. "You can't expect me to believe there isn't another guy!"

Penny looked over her shoulder at him. "Normally I would try to reassure you, Leonard, but I'm beyond that now. Fuck you and your unfounded jealousy." Penny walked out the door and shut it behind her, leaving six very stunned people in the room.

A/N: Okay, just to clarify, this Wil Wheaton is separated. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the real WW is a happily married man, but this is fiction. I am using the tv version, not the real life version. For anyone who thinks I had Penny being pretty harsh there at the end, too damn bad. My story, my rules. You're welcome to write her anyway you chose.