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Of all the bars in Pasadena

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It was approaching midnight and Penny couldn’t remember the last time she let so loose with her friends. All five of them were dressed to the nines, dresses short and hair styled perfectly and Penny felt as if she were on the top of the world having fun like she used to. As she stood at the bar she felt the deep bass beat vibrate through her chest and waved again to try to gain the bartenders attention, the buzz of night sang in her veins even though she hadn’t taken a sip. She spied her girls among the crowd, Lana was standing in the arms of a man who embodied tall, blonde and dumb. She had a grin on her face that said she was taking him home or at least to the nightclub bathroom. Elena and Hattie were snogging in the corner booth they had claimed when they first arrived and she could just see Rachel swaying to the beat in the crowd. It brought a smile to her face to see her friends unchanged, even after all their time apart. She couldn’t say the same of herself however, catching a glance of the gaudy diamond on her ring finger.

 She could hardly remember when going out with friends revolved around drinks and girly gossip instead of mild embarrassment and too much compromise on her part. The last time she had gone out drinking had been with Amy and Bernadette, she had sat at the table of a mild mannered bar listening to softly piped in music and listened to her friends talk about the pros and cons of renting versus getting a mortgage. She supposed that as a recently engaged woman approaching thirty she should have something to say about the topic, that she should be thinking about savings plans and getting a house in a good school catchment area but she couldn’t muster up the energy. Nothing about her future seemed to excite her anymore. It seemed as if all the glittering possibilities she had imagined as a new resident of Pasadena had slowly been scrubbed until they lost their shine. Until her dreams of making it into the films seemed more like a wisp of smoke rather than a solid goal.

 Penny loved her friends in 4A, she really did and over the years of getting to know their quirky ways and hobbies she could appreciate them even more for sticking to what made them happy and not bowing to the masses but sometimes she wanted her version of fun with no costumes or made up languages. She loved to see the enthusiasm on their faces when they talked about the next big comic buy or when their favourite hero was getting a film, it lit them up and she could see all the reasons why she loved them why she made it her duty to get to know them in the beginning. Because layered underneath years of bullying and awfully co-ordinated t-shirts were a group of such genuinely sweet people she couldn’t help but try and introduce them to the real world.

It had been during another night of wedding planning with her intended when she had the thought. She hadn’t seen her friends in months. It used to be that she would spend hours trading messages back and forth between them, detailing the latest man to walk the walk of shame from Lana’s flat or describing in great detail the most embarrassing episode of Rachel’s night. She used to have so many friends outside of her building, the football crowd she had from Nebraska, the club she used to go jogging with, the girls she met whilst waiting in line for auditions and the girls who she met on nights out.

However it seemed to her that with every passing month, as time moved closer to her becoming Mrs Hofstadter her circle of friends got smaller and smaller. Penny twisted the ring on her finger round and mused that by the time she got married she would simply have six friends left, the ones she lived next to, near or with. And that didn’t sit right with her, something inside her had disappeared with each lost connection, each time she was told that she wasn’t a fit for the part, each time she was told to grow up. Penny knew that losing some friends along the way was a part of growing up, that some friends were simply out grown or new interests lead people down new paths. She knew that. However, she knew herself and making new connections and keeping them were as much a part of her as her blonde hair or love of shoes.

She tried again to get the bartender to notice she was alive but he resolutely stayed down the other end of the bar. However out of the corner of her eye was amused to see her prediction was right, Lana had tall, blonde and dumb by the hand and was leading him off towards the ladies. She smiled and turned back to the bar, placed her clutch on the counter top, her ring glinting desperately in the light. Penny had always viewed her jewelry as a part of her outfit. The perfect earrings or the most gorgeous necklace that completed her style for the day, once she put it on she didn’t feel them again until she took them off. They just moved with her and she never gave it another thought. But her engagement ring seemed to take every opportunity to remind her it was there, glinting too much in the light or moving too much on her finger. It never seemed to fit right no matter where it sat. It seemed to scream at her of the responsibilities of her future.

Penny had never shied away from responsibility, even as a little girl. She had begged her father to keep the runt of the runt of the herd and he had finally agreed stating that if the calf was to survive she had to work hard and no one would help her with her chores. Even as a ten-year-old, Penny knew what she wanted and worked hard and then harder still. The calf, whom she named Summer, had been frail and wouldn’t feed and seemed to get sicker every time she left for school. But she stuck with it, she poured her enthusiasm and hope and love into the calf. She sat with her after dinner encouraging her to suckle and sung to her when she was visited by the vet, she spent hours in the barn with her trying all she could to get the calf to want to survive. Penny had always been a determined child but even her parents had been shocked when the calf began to gain weight, when she started to grow. Nine months after begging the calf off her father she walked out of the barn with the calf following, to her parent’s delight. Penny showed off her calf as bright and as healthy as any of their other stock. For weeks after showing her parents how her calf had survived against all odds she couldn’t stop smiling at her success. She could feel herself smiling thinking on how determined she had been as a little girl full of the hopes of the young; of the wild heart that she used to have.

But her ring seemed to weigh her down with all the expectations it came with. It spoke to her of a magnolia suburban house with a white picket fence instead of her cluttered vibrant flat. It said closed toe sensible shoes in place of floral flip-flops or sparkly heels. It whispered nine to five, worn thin aspirations of stardom. It told her of a serviced mini van replacing her cantankerous Volvo. It hummed faculty meetings dressing the part of the blonde wife, herding children around for her ever so busy husband, perfect and staged family photos and losing herself in another's dreams. 

Penny had never dreamed as a little girl of her Prince Charming, she was far more interested in chasing butterflies through the wheat, playing with her father or defeating imaginary foes with her siblings in the back garden. Even when boys took the place of sports, when summer shorts became pretty dresses she had never envisioned her perfect man. Although each man she took to her bed or entertained dating had similar qualities, even though some turned out to be less the pretty prince and more the warty toad. They were kind, they had manners and sweetness. They had a commanding presence and a genuine smile. They were never scared to get their hands dirty.  She had never introduced them to her family but knew that if she took them home they would call her father 'Sir' and wipe their feet before entering her Nana's house. 

As she pulled out the money for her drink, preparing for the day when the bartender realised that the bar actually had patrons at both ends, she couldn't help but compare her history with her ever looming present and future. Although Leonard lacked some of the qualities that she usually looked for, he was sweet and she couldn't help but feel something for the man. With a guilty look to her ring, she wasn't so sure that what she felt was her in love. Their wedding day approached faster every day and Penny felt that they were pulling further and further away from each other. 

She finally got the attention of the bartender and ordered a coke, plain and very much non-alcoholic. Walking back towards Hattie and Elena, now sitting so close as to be in each other’s pockets she contemplated that only a few weeks ago she would have chosen something just shy of lethal not the drink she had in her hand.

No one had pointed out to her that her habit of downing a glass of wine when things got just a little too much had turned into a bottle and a half. It had been a day when she had been run ragged during her shift covering for two other waitresses, she had come home to a needy Leonard wanting some bedroom fun and after the resulting argument and dramatic exit of her fiancée she had turned to her liquor cabinet and pulled out a bottle which had most definitely been stronger than a glass of red. Penny couldn’t even think of what they had shouted at each other, it all felt like the same argument she didn’t have time for him after her shifts and he didn’t have time to listen to her problems due to his work, his calculations.

 She had stood in her kitchen looking at the label of the dashing pirate and the dark liquid sloshing behind it as she poured it into her glass and suddenly stopped. She had righted the bottle and looked at what she was doing.

 Every time she had felt exhausted, worn down, sad, angry she had taken a drink. Every time she and Leonard had fought she had pulled a bottle from the cupboard and dealt with her feelings by drowning them. Every time she had something to celebrate she had pulled out another bottle. Penny had looked at her life and had done some calculations of her own. She could suddenly see herself in ten years’ time; barely able to function without a glass in her hand, the only smile she wore would be the one she painted on. She would be married to Leonard, probably tottering round in her heels living in a suburban nightmare with the bottle her only companion.

It had been a night she wouldn’t soon forget. The crushing realisation that if she didn’t stop now she wouldn’t be able to. For the longest moment she had stood with the open bottle in her hand watching the light dancing off the whiskey behind the glass unable to move with the shame. Penny had stared into the cabinet before her, still open and thought it was the saddest thing she had seen. It was full of bottles, long and short, soft wines and harsh liquors and yet she knew that if she moved a mere pace to the left and opened her fridge all she would see would be empty shelves and a box of days old Chinese food. Not even a pint of milk in the door.

 She had taken the bottle in her hand and upturned it over her sink and watched the liquid swirl down the drain. It gave her beleaguered sense of worth some semblance of achievement. She glanced into the cupboard and eyed the numerous bottles. She pulled them from the shelves, tore off the caps or yanked out the corks and dumped them all neck down into the sink. She heard the drain gurgle and felt as if someone had pulled the plug inside her. Great big gasping sobs burst from her chest and fat tears rolled off her cheeks and she crumpled to the floor tucking herself into the corner. Penny couldn’t have imagined how much it hurt to realise that she had been propping herself up with nothing more than the vestiges of her childhood determination and alcohol.

It seemed to be hours before the tears stopped coming and the gaping wound in her chest stopped hurting enough for her to take in a deep calming breath, she lifted her head from her knees and pulled herself up from the floor the feeling coming back to her legs once she was standing. The glimpse of the bottles in the sink threatened to start the sobs off again so she had closed her eyes and taken another deep breath, feeling it shove down the mass of pain she could still feel in her chest just enough for her to leave the kitchen. She had taken herself to the shower turned the temperature as high as she could stand and let the water wash away her tears. She had stood under the spray until she felt together enough to deal with the mess in her kitchen, scrubbed herself with her favourite body wash – a honeycomb scented one, a remnant of Sheldon’s ecstatic gift a few years ago and got herself ready for bed in her most comfortable pyjamas. After stashing the empty bottles in amongst their previously dunk brethren in her recycling, it was the first night in months that she had slept through until the morning without a bottle of something to help her. Her revelation was a few weeks behind her and she still felt that renewed sense of purpose. She wasn’t waking up in the morning feeling like her head was going to fall off her shoulders and she wasn’t soothing herself to sleep. It seemed to her that she had found a little spark of the determination she left behind.

Penny slid into the booth with her friends and smiled, the handful of steps had given her lovebird friends enough time to sort themselves out but the girls still sat close whispering into each other’s ears. It was sweet, they were truly in love with one another. Penny found herself thinking back to Leonard and their most recent spat; over her going out with the friends she still felt close enough to, to suggest a night out. But she pulled herself out of her dark musings when a body collapsed into her side. She whipped her head around to see who had been drunk enough to fall into her and came face to face with a beaming Lana. Penny despite her dark mood found herself grinning back.

“PEN! YOU’VE BEEN AWAY SO LONG!” Lana shouted into her ear, managing to top even the heavy beat of the club music.

Penny slid further into the boot to let Lana sit properly and shouted back.

“I KNOW! TOO LONG!”

Lana’s smile gained a wicked hint and Penny felt as if they hadn’t lost contact at all. She knew that Lana was going to regale her with her victory in the ladies with the hunk of man she had since gotten rid of. After retelling the torrid affair with her latest catch Lana tapped Penny on the arm and motioned her closer.

“You know, I kept thinking you were never going to come back. It seemed as if you’d grown up and left us behind. I know that this scene isn’t going to last forever or even much longer but please, Penny, don’t do something that will make you unhappy. There is a difference between growing up and settling.” Lana’s sweet voice seemed to echo inside her head.

She leant back and analysed Penny’s face. Penny knew that Lana had hit home, that there was a difference between growing up and settling. And she knew if she was being honest with herself, she wasn’t sure that what she had with Leonard was growing up. She glanced at her ring then back to Lana. Whatever her friend saw in her face told her enough, that her words were right on the mark.

Lana simply laid her head onto her shoulder and slung her arm around Penny’s waist. The two love birds slid round the booth and slotted into Penny’s free side and cuddled in too. She felt herself smile and tears prickle her eyes. They hadn’t spoken in weeks, months if she was being honest with herself and yet here they were as close as if their last night out had been yesterday. Penny looked at her friends and counted herself one of the luckiest women in the room.

 

+++++

 

As their taxi pulled up to her building Penny passed over the cash for the fare, disentangled herself from the mass of mostly drunk limbs in the back seat and opened the door, hearing murmured a 'loveyoupen' coming from Lana.

She took another glance into the taxi and smiled fondly. They were going to wake up wrecked. And Penny felt proud that she wasn’t going to be one of them, her resolve still going strong. Seeing just how far she had fallen down the rabbit hole had really stuck with her and she had made a promise not just to herself but the bright head strong ten-year-old she had been to never go back.

Penny tapped the glass of the taxi drivers window and got the attention of the driver.

“You have an address for these girls? If not, I can give it to you?”

The driver nodded her head and replied.

“Nah love, I’ve got it. Been driving these girls out to the town for a couple of weeks now.”

Penny smiled, nodded and stepped back. As the taxi left the curb she began digging in her purse for her keys and walked to her buildings door.  She reached the stairs and began the slog up to her flat, thinking to herself that it was lucky that the lift had been out of order the entire time she had lived there or else she would have never been able to tone her calves as much as she had. Although after a long shift full of screaming toddlers and tight parents, a lift to her floor was the only thing she dreamed of.

As she approached her door she could hear the telly going, indecipherable noise telling her that Leonard was waiting up for her to return to their argument. She eyed her keys and one leapt out at her. A key that looked ever so much like her own but with a colourful key topper with 4A written in a flowery font. She glanced at the key’s door and debated whether to crash on their sofa instead of fighting through the stale argument in her own living room. With a soft sigh 4A won the toss and she turned on her heel to face her neighbours flat. A quick twist of the lock and she was inside.

Noting the lack of light, she surmised that Sheldon had long since gone to sleep so flicked on the lamp on the corner table and kept her feet light as she made her way to the kitchen. Scooping up a glass from the draining board she twisted the cold water on and filled the glass. Spying Sheldon’s laptop still on the desk she wandered over to the desk chair and slid into place. Cracking open the lid she was nearly blinded by the light of the screen, curiously unlocked.

Although Sheldon had left the computer running, an unusual act for him, she felt a little guilty for using his computer however couldn’t help herself and brought up the web browser and opened a new tab. A quick log in to Facebook as she saw that pictures of her night out had already been loaded up. Lana had titled the album ‘THE EPICEST NIGHT EVER, WE LOVE THE PEN’.  She couldn’t help but smile as she saw the various photos; some group shots, some random glances at the crowd and a few of herself dancing with her friends. Seeing how carefree they all looked, especially herself brought up a little of the guilt she had been trying to squash. Her friends accepted her apologies and her awful excuses and had partied with her like there was no tomorrow. They had acted as if she had never forgotten about them in her mad rush to the altar. As if the weeks of no communication had been erased. Penny swiped away an errant tear and scrolled to the next photo. It depicted a topless man in the ladies sporting some vicious love bites and was entitled ‘shag of the night’ it brought a little giggle from her and she added a comment, ‘the Lana-man-magnet cannot be stopped!!’. After a few more moments she checked the time and saw it was approaching three, so rolled the mouse to the exit button when she actually read the title of the tabs already open.

How to battle germ phobia

Anxiety tips and tricks

Addressing the crowd, how to deal with your fear

Learn to play the guitar

It seemed an odd mix to her to be open on Sheldon’s lap top. He was one for rigidly sticking to what he liked, what he knew. She knew that her fiancée’s housemate was quite possibly the most intelligent man she would ever come across and all extreme intelligence seemed to come with a little bit of crazy however the tabs open seemed to suggest that Sheldon was thinking of a massive change. It worried her a little to see such massive changes even in pixels, Sheldon was an all or nothing kind of man if he wanted to do something he would but she couldn’t help but think what it was that had him thinking he needed all these changes at once. She scrolled through the tabs for a while and pondered the apparent moves her wack-a-doodle was going to make. Although she scratched her head she couldn’t figure out where learning to play a guitar came into it.

She clicked on the tab regardless and saw the detailed entry; how each chord was arranged, strumming techniques, what to look for in a guitar. The bright image at the top of the screen was of a man sitting on a stool cradling his guitar in his hands, the caption read ‘Me and Petal’. Penny smirked at the thought of Sheldon naming a guitar, or anything really, Petal. He was more likely to name it Schrodinger or Newton. Something appropriately science-y.

The word petal chimed with something in the back of her mind and she made the impulsive decision to check her ‘Penny Blossom’ site. Even after her disastrous attempt to make a business and fast went a little awry she never closed the site down completely. She never could seem to kill the site even though she was doing nothing with it. She pulled up the site and to her surprise the statistics read continued activity. She could never have imagined that anyone would have remembered the one and only shipment she had managed to successfully create and deliver but apparently people still visited her site looking for her Penny Blossoms. The fact that people visited the site created a little glow in her chest, it was as if it was telling her that something went right even though it had been discontinued. Penny scrolled down the page and noted the layout was a little too cheery and a little too much of trying too hard but it was welcoming and easy to use. She checked the items she had posted on the page as advertising and saw that even though they were not the most fabulous pictures in the world they still managed to display her old product well. But what surprised her the most and gave that warm glow a push towards a feeling a little like sitting in full sunshine was the comments on the page and one of the most recent had been left only two days previous.

She opened up the comments, a few remarking on how pretty her blossoms were and one extremely long one from her only successful order remarking that the hair clips had been a marvellous success and that if they could they would have ordered hundreds. She sat before the screen with a disbelieving smile plastered across her face. Her idea, her product had been loved. Her only customer had raved about the service and the quality. She couldn’t quite believe that it had been so long since she had even thought about her Penny Blossoms let alone logged into her site.

She opened the most recent and read the message.

‘Dear Penny,

I have no idea whether you are still in business or even tend this site any more but my close friend had brought a couple of these wonderful hair clips at a fundraiser for her daughter and as soon as mine had seen them they were desperate for some of their own. I was wondering if you were still in the business could I possibly purchase some of them? As there hasn’t been much activity on your site I think I might have been a little late to the party but if I could I would be forever in your debt and my daughters would be the belle of their end of year dances . I’ll leave my e-mail address for you if you are able to fulfil my request, their dance is on the fifteenth of this month.

Many kind regards,

Elizabeth Sparrow’

Penny read and re-read the polite message and by the fifth read through just about got her head around the fact that there was a customer for her product, her flowers if she wanted it. She calculated the dates and found that she had almost two weeks to figure out if she wanted to get one more order of Penny Blossoms out into the world. It generated an almost giddy feeling in her gut and the glow she felt only got stronger. The single message on the screen seemed to give her a little spark, a little hope. She checked the time again and found the clock ticking towards four. Two quick clicks and she had logged out of her site and minimised the window.

As she pushed back from the desk she quickly downed her drink and headed to the sofa. Nestling into the cushions with the afghan from the back of the sofa draped over her she settled into sleep. Not realising that she fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Chapter Text

The world came back into focus slowly. She was pulled from sleep by the familiar sounds of the coffee maker being plugged in and switched on. Penny cracked open an eye and took in the scene before her, Sheldon making his way quietly around the kitchen dressed in his customary Wednesday pyjamas. It brought a smile to her face as she saw her friend still sticking to some of his routines even with the changes she had inadvertently made herself aware of.  

He reached up a hand to pull his low fibre cereal from the top of the fridge and the other to run through his hair. He ruffled the strands, making points and swirls in all directions. Penny thought back through all the years she had known him and couldn’t once place him ruffling his hair like that. She had known him to get a wild almost feral look when an equation wasn’t playing ball and had seen his hair look windswept after returning from paintball but never sleep mussed and almost artfully tousled. She supposed it was because she had never seen him first thing in the morning with supposedly no audience. The thought of being able to see Sheldon in his own world completely unaware of being observed made her want to pull out a notebook and fastidiously write down every detail she was privy too.

Sheldon was almost a mystery to all of them, when surrounded by others he stood rod straight limbs tucked close and everything about him radiating tension and superiority. In all the years she had known him and the others she could count on both hands the personal details he had voluntarily told them. He never stopped pointing out the fact that he was the cleverest man in the room however he only revealed facts about himself when absolutely necessary. It was a strange contradiction.

Each passing second pulled her further into his early morning calm, entranced by his movements. The longer Penny watched him lost in the mundane routine of breakfast, still unaware of her consciousness, she began to realise that his neuroses played a larger part than she bet even Leonard knew. Alone in his own environment she saw a man different to such a degree she wondered if she wasn’t observing a clone. And then knew that she had watched too many sci-fi shows if her first thought was clones.

He pottered back and forth, pulling out a bowl and spoon and reaching out a long arm to pull the milk from the fridge. In all his actions he was calm. His body radiated nothing but loose limbed sleepiness. Each movement flowed into the next.  Penny considered herself a self-taught expert in Sheldon-ese and his lack of tension was an anathema. She had never seen it, not even when he had been plied with alcohol. It was almost as if he had been drugged and with that thought Penny was a hairs breath away from marching over there and checking his pupils. She had enough experience under her belt to feel confident in being able to tell intoxication from anything else, thanks to her brothers escapades. She had lost count of the times she had been pulled to one side by him asking if she could tell he was high before entering a family dinner.

She continued to observe the phenomenon of a totally relaxed Sheldon and filed each moment away for further study. He turned on his heel to come into the lounge and she quickly shuttered her eyes and relaxed the lines of her face wanting to let the moment last just a little longer. Satisfied that she was playing a convincing part as she heard his slipper shod feet amble in her direction she parted her lids just enough to focus on her subject.  She could just make out Sheldon walking towards the armchair and Penny’s interest was further piqued, knowing in the past when she had crashed on their sofa that Sheldon had no qualms what so ever about kicking her out of her place so he could sit in his spot.

 She got a good look at his face and was surprised by what she found. His face, as almost as familiar as her own, was still softened with the laxness of a good night’s sleep a faint crease lining his cheek showing her that he was a human after all, that the creepy corpse pose was worn away with a good night’s sleep just as his rigidity was. She wanted to smile, he looked in that moment just like the man she had met the day she moved into her flat, unguarded eyes and a soft mouth ready to smile. She could still picture him standing beside his whiteboard, soaking up each compliment she bestowed on him as if the words were sunshine to a flower. He had moved with such smoothness, such ease then as she saw now it saddened her to realise how much of himself he apparently felt the need to hide away from everyone.

She could remember thinking that his eyes had been the brightest shade of blue she had ever seen in a man. They had pulled her in and kept her attention rapt until Leonard had proposed something, she could remember answering Leonard with something chirpy but hadn’t been able to tear herself away from Sheldon’s easy smile and sweet gaze.

Penny often thought that if it weren’t for Sheldon’s eyes she probably wouldn’t have bothered to get to know the boys in the first place. She pondered on it and reasoned that it wasn’t completely fair of her to think that she would have over looked her little group of geeks if not for Sheldon. Leonard had seemed to exude an air of unappreciated kindness that had drawn her in and soothed her still hurting feelings after the absolute wreck that Kurt had made of her life. 

 Penny continued to watch Sheldon and could still see that man in the one before her. But looking closer she saw all the more clearly where the intervening years had stiffened his movements and rendered his soft mouth tight and unyielding. She compared his face in the early morning light to that very first day and could see where the tension he carried in his face in the presence of his friends had begun to create faint lines. It was the little details she was noticing that had her heart clenching just shy of painfully. Apparently they, herself included, hadn’t noticed that Sheldon had withdrawn so radically in the time they had known one another. That he had changed from the shy physicist into the man child clinging to his old routines, her discovery weighed her heart down to somewhere around her toes. She knew that they had laughed and joked and not always kindly but thought that it had been purely harmless that he had just not cared enough to react. Seeing him then she knew that she had been so very wrong.

He had just settled into the seat and the spoon was halfway to his mouth when everything changed. Penny mentally frowned, watching as her new morning Sheldon reverted into her old stiff Sheldon. The line of his shoulders grew rigid, his back straightened as if someone had yanked on his strings. He seemed to pull back into himself and his face took on a shuttered slant; his eyes becoming guarded and mouth tight. It was as if he had packed away the zen of his alone time and readied himself for battle. She couldn’t figure out what would cause such a transformation in him unless he had realised that she wasn’t asleep. Her heart leapt up into her throat at the thought of being caught peeping, even though she wasn’t entirely sure why until she heard the lock being manipulated and the door swinging open. Leonard.

Her fiancée had broken the tranquil of the morning simply by entering his own home. Sheldon, coiled tight again and closed off, continued eating as if he hadn’t just radically changed personas in the space of ten seconds. Leonard dumped his laptop bag onto the desk and stomped off towards his room, to where Penny assumed he would be getting ready for work. It surprised her that neither of the men had acknowledged each other, not even a passing half arsed good morning. However, the most surprising thing was that Leonard hadn’t noticed that she was sleeping on his sofa, where normally if he entered the room she was in he would automatically zone in on her. He had stalked through to his room without even a sideways glance. Penny was puzzling it over in her mind when she heard Sheldon speak.

“Good morning Penny, I trust you slept satisfactorily? Given that the sofa was not your own bed.”

Sheldon was looking straight at her and she realised with a start that she had, in her surprise at Leonard, propped herself up on the arm of the sofa. Knowing that Sheldon knew she was wide awake she hoped that he didn’t realise that she had been watching him for far longer than she had officially been ‘awake’.

“Of course Moon-pie, you know me! Could sleep anywhere.”

Sheldon frowned at her use of Moon-pie but didn’t follow up with his usual reprimand over the pet name.

“I take it from your presence on our sofa that your night of nuptial planning didn’t go as you’d hoped?” Sheldon’s voice was carefully neutral and Penny didn’t like it.

She tried to keep the cheer in her voice and replied.

“Actually I didn’t plan anything last night, I went out for a girly night of fun! I couldn’t remember when I had last been out with the girls and thought it was high time I changed it. I just didn’t want to get into another argument about the time I got in so I crashed on your sofa! I hope I didn’t upset your morning too much?”

Sheldon inclined his head in agreement.

“I do believe that it was a good idea for you. You are the ‘social butterfly’ of our little group. Although I have noticed a declining trend in your outings with others outside of our social group and your general declining mood in correlation. I was concerned about this attitude however when I consulted with Amy was told that when women get engaged prefer to surround themselves with friends and acquaintances who are experiencing similar lifestyle and personal changes. Amy also informed me that it was a normal but still tumultuous time and was nothing to be overly concerned about.”

He made a little gesture to the ring on her finger, momentarily forgotten during her observation of her mysterious friend. As soon as he mentioned the cluster of diamonds and gold she seemed to be able to feel its weight on her finger again, making the most of the opportunity to remind her it was there and making plans to stay.

“For example, when you and Leonard have your statistically predictable two children a suitable time after your wedding. Your friendship group will inevitably change to include other new mothers and exclude your ‘party friends’, Leonard would probably prefer that you have your first child within the first year as it would cement his position for a tenured professor. The appearance of stability. Then your lives would follow the traditional pattern; father-breadwinner, mother-homemaker. It’s an acceptable predictable pattern.”

Penny could hardly keep up with the rapid tumble of information pouring from Sheldon’s mouth. It was as if he was trying to say it as fast as he could in order to keep the words from touching his tongue. Her emotions couldn’t keep up with the verbal onslaught however they eventually settled on the fact that she should be offended by his presumptions about her upcoming marriage and future.

She opened her mouth to retort just as her mind caught on to the fact that Sheldon had noticed something she herself had only just realised. It was a sweet thought of him to have, she mused. He never took the time to bother understanding the majority of social interactions but made the effort for her.

It made her smile inside just a little bit that Sheldon would try to understand topics vastly outside his areas of expertise just to remain a good friend. She supposed it was one of the sweeter gestures he had made towards her although she wished that he hadn’t used Amy as a basis for understanding her situation. Amy tended towards a more clinical view than she preferred to use when thinking about her future. She suddenly remembered that her jaw was still hanging open so quickly snapped it shut, feeling a little burn of embarrassment at her actions.

She forced down her embarrassment and the rest of his little diatribe finished rattling around in her head. It didn’t paint the prettiest of pictures. She pulled the afghan closer to her chest, somehow trying to defend herself against the future she feared was going to happen. Then all of a sudden her anger returned and surged through her veins, the assumption that she would docilely be led down a path she didn’t necessarily want to tread. That in the end all she would be was the trophy hot blonde in Leonard’s rosy future. A hot wife and perfect mother.

She threw the afghan onto the floor and shot to her feet, startling Sheldon almost comically. The picture of Sheldon sitting eyes wide with milk beginning to dribble down his exposed wrist wasn’t something she could quite appreciate in her fury.

“Well Sheldon, for your information we discussed children and it was decided that they weren’t in our immediate future. Leonard wants to be able to take on projects that might want him to travel and I want to focus on my acting career. So you’re wrong, there won’t be little Leonards running around anytime soon. You can count on that! I’m not just some toy to be placed in the perfect spot in Leonards dream house, I won’t just become his hot blonde Barbie!” She finished her sentence a little shrilly. She swallowed hard and looked away from Sheldon’s shocked face. He had most definitely not been expecting her outburst. Neither had she.

 She tucked her hair behind her ear, using the movement to distract from the shock on both their faces and looked him in the eye once more.

“I’m sorry Sheldon. I’m not sure where that came from. Well I mean…” She forced out past her leaden tongue.

Sheldon merely smoothed out his face and became once again distant and unimpressed. Everything inside her seemed to shrink in the face of his impassivity. He placed his bowl on the corner table and smoothed his palms over his pyjama trousers, looking away from her.

“I was merely explaining what I feel are Leonards future plans. Lord knows I’ve heard Leonard going on about it enough times. I didn’t mean to infer that you have no say in what will be your future too.” He said quietly.

Penny wished in that moment that the floor would open up and swallow her. She knew that Sheldon didn’t deserve to be on the receiving end of her tirade, he was just being Sheldon and calling it as he saw it. Looking at him sitting there she couldn’t help but wish she could take back what she had said, not because she didn’t mean it but rather he was the wrong person to say it too. However, she couldn’t  help but feel a little better in a way, as if a weight had been lifted from her. As she stood looking at her fiancée’s flat mate she knew that a huge inescapable conversation was looming in her future.

She collapsed back on the sofa and dropped her head into her hands. She felt as if she had opened a can of worms she didn’t even know she had been avoiding opening. She heard Sheldon shuffle on his seat and assumed he was getting ready to leave her to her emotional outburst, something he was never very comfortable with. She wallowed in her misery for a few precious moments and nearly jumped out of her skin when Sheldon’s hand came to rest on her shoulder. It sat comforting and warm and slowly Penny felt something relax deep inside her at the simple touch. She had always been a sucker for touch.

Sheldon slid into the seat next to her, his hand never moving from its place. She looked up shyly from between her fingers, Sheldon’s face was conflicted with warring desires. She knew that he was trying to be the best friend to her he could but also wanted to remove his hand from her, resisting the urge only due to the fact that he knew she was comforted by touch. She felt a smile tug at the corner of her mouth and closed her eyes just pulling in deep from the moment of comfort between them.

The clump of heavy footsteps from down the hall startled both of them from their bubble. They jumped apart as if they had been tangled together in a passionate embrace instead of friendly comfort. Penny desperately smoothed her hair from what she was sure was a nightmare bed head and from the corner of her eye caught Sheldon hastily getting to his feet and smoothing down his pyjamas, beginning to fret about the milk soaked into his cuff.

Leonard stopped dead at the sight of her and Sheldon standing in the living room, his mouth stuttered open and closed a few times eventually finding the words to address them both.

“Penny, what are you doing here? I thought you’d be at home! Are you still drunk Penny?  Your flat is across the hall.” He cocked his wrist out in front of him displaying his watch. “It’s six forty-five, shouldn’t you be sleeping off a hangover by now?” He let out a little chuckle, barely hiding the meanness in his words.

The comfort she felt in the presence of her best friend had slowly shrunk in the face of each word out of Leonard’s mouth. He expected her to have drunk herself into oblivion, her usual go to after their fights. She took a steadying breath and soldiered on past the sharp pain his words.

“Did you stay at mine last night? I told you that I was probably going to crash on a friend’s sofa, so no need to wait up for me.” As she spoke she could see he was taken aback at the sobriety in her voice. He was waiting to hear the tell-tale slurring, to prove himself right. That she couldn’t go out and control herself. Well, she thought, he would just have to get used to being wrong.

“Penny, I… Well no I didn’t stay at yours all night. I went to work, got some quality time in with the laser getting some pretty good results and then I checked into yours about midnight if you must know.” He replied testily clearly not expecting to have to deal with a sober fiancée.

She noticed something off about his tone but couldn’t find the energy to care about whatever slight his mind had conjured for him in her absence. It probably revolved around her snogging the face off of one of her muscled ex-boyfriends, absolutely wasted. She resisted the urge to roll her eyes, Leonard in many ways hadn’t grown out of the teenage boy insecurities that most men tried their best to leave behind once they left high school.

She crossed her arms, waiting for the next comment mentally already on her first cup of coffee and trying to recall if she would be working with full time staff or with the part time girls. It was always a long day when she was looking after her tables and at least two of the others as well.

Leonard had slowly begun to edge his way back to his laptop bag, so carelessly hung off the desk top. She scuffed her socked foot against the floor and saw that Sheldon had recovered all of his previously lost tension and had turned his back on her, heading down the hallway.

As she watched him leave she felt sad that their moment had been cut short. It wasn’t often that Sheldon let his guard down around people enough to willingly touch them without looking like he was sitting on glass. She always felt special when she was privileged to see that side of him, the side she supposed that only his family got to see with any regularity.

Leonard scratched his head and pulled his keys from his pocket, clearly wrong footed finding her sober and perfectly understandable. She felt that he had been waiting for the chance to lord it over her and having been denied that chance wanted out to figure out his next move.

She padded over to him and pushed herself to place a kiss on his cheek. She knew it was only reinforcing the idea that she would always back down but didn’t have the energy to fight with him.

“Sorry. I’ll see you tonight, yeah?”

Looking pleased he trotted off to the door turning back to speak one last time.

“I’m glad you didn’t drink Penny” She smiled a little half-heartedly, not sure where he was going with it. “We have to go over the wedding plans tonight if we are to stay on course, last night’s little escapade didn’t help. There is still so much to plan as you well know.”

With that little dig, he turned and closed the door in her face.

She stood open mouthed until Sheldon appeared at her shoulder, making absolutely no noise. He merely stepped around her and carried on out of the door after her fiancée. She snapped her jaw shut and stormed out heading towards her flat in order to shower off the frustration.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter three

Penny knew that she loved her fiancée. Maybe it wasn’t the fairy tale-step in front of a speeding bullet-sacrifice yourself for them-grand romantic gestures kind of love. But she knew that she loved him. But when he managed to get under her skin with a gesture or a few well-placed words she debated whether she did indeed like him. He seemed to be unable to recognise when his attitude or words would land on softer spots than he realised. And she hated herself a little each time she let it slide but she rationalised it was because they came from two very different families. Her family surrounded her like a tight hug, full of the familiar scents of home and tight enough to pull a content sigh from her chest every time she saw them. His were like statues in a grand estate home hallway, imposing and distant with stony gazes meant to put you in your place.

Her family weren’t the most intelligent people in the world but they had heart and worked themselves to the bone to keep their loved ones in the best situation they could afford. She understood, especially now, the tiredness that her mother experienced working twelve hour shifts for below average wage. Because it payed the bills and kept her dignity. Because the alternative to working like that for a pretty, poor and slightly naïve young woman was working from her back, all fours, bent over the kitchen table for a camera.  And that was a kind of television appearance she swore to herself that she would never resort to.

She pulled up to her building with a long sigh, killing the engine. She’d had a long day dealing with rowdy teenagers and parents who couldn’t care less that their precious offspring had just covered the table in yet another fizzy drink. She pulled herself from the driver’s seat catching sight of herself in the wing mirror and immediately looked away. The woman staring back at her wasn’t the one she wanted to see; dark rings around tired green eyes and too cheery make-up that was looking as if it had seen its best hour a week ago. Penny clenched her keys tight in her fist and willed the tears not to fall. She had thrown herself into Pasadena’s arms willing it to bring her right to her dreams of bright lights and adoring crowds but all she had managed to find were endless audition waiting rooms, just counting the seconds until the panel of men and women she had performed for came to tell her some weak excuse as to why she wasn’t what they were looking for. She had been convinced that her dream was going to be realised as soon as she tried but the dream began to wear thing after a few close calls with bailiffs when her bills came late yet again. She had found a relationship that she should be proud of, with an upcoming wedding to a legitimate doctor, but avoided really probing into the problems of it, afraid that the fairy tale would come crashing down like Cinderella when the clock struck midnight.

She was climbing up the stairs a scant few feet from her door when she heard the slight buzzing background noise of her TV switched to some nonsense just for noise that was Leonard in her flat waiting for her. A deep, cleansing breath in through her nose and out through her mouth, just like her yoga teacher always insisted on. It worked to centre her enough to pull her signature smile out of its corner, a little crumpled and over worn, to deal with whatever Leonard had waiting.

As she flicked her house key into her palm and into its little slot she told herself that she loved him. That she loved him and they were getting married and that he always worked towards goals no matter how late into the night it took him. That the ambition he displayed was a part of him she loved. That he wanted their wedding to be perfect was something that she loved, even after a gruelling twelve-hour shift. She told herself that she’d had her fill of arguments for the day and that she loved him. With that mantra ringing in her mind she opened the door.

To Leonard sitting in her lounge surrounded by the many sheets of paper containing the details of their wedding breakfast meal, the reception venue, the church, the flowers and one long, pen-scratch covered page containing their guest list.  She stepped beyond the safety of the threshold and couldn’t help but dream of getting in her tub and filling it with honeycomb scented bubble bath and not moving until the smell of burgers faded from her nose. A dream she knew was hopeless when she saw new magazines interspersed with the ones they had already been through a hundred times, or at least that’s what it had felt like to her and new vivid red scratches across the guest list.

She hadn’t even taken two steps before Leonard thrust a sheet of paper towards her, without looking, and carried on writing with the other hand. She gritted her teeth together, inhaling through her nose. Leonard was involved with a project; he could get uncommunicative and she knew that before they started planning their wedding. Tamping down the surge of irritation, she knew, was just as hard as it was before they started planning.

She stared at the pages. It was one of those gestures that got her back up, he probably didn’t even consider it as anything other than handing over her share of their wedding preparations but to her it was another insulting gesture on top of her already irritating day. It was a silent gesture, a silent ‘come here and do as you’re bid’ gesture that she’d had her fill of. It was one her customers used to great effect. It was one her manager used if she ignored the ones she received from her customers. It was one she was mighty tired of. But, again, swallowed back the immediate irritation with the internal plea of not another argument, please.

 Her long held dream, which she had been holding onto since approximately five minutes after arriving at work, of relaxing in a deliciously scented bath and letting the world drift off truly bid her goodbye when he shook the papers at her, like she was a dog. Like she didn’t deserve words. She clenched her jaw even tighter, stilling her tongue before she verbally flayed him for his dismissive attitude. Hauling in a deep breath through her nose she pushed away the anger, piece by red-hot, spiky piece. Leonard had never worked in the service industry, he never could understand why she was so frustrated and quite why she didn’t love her job as he did his. She didn’t want to start off yet another fight. One she knew with all certainty she wouldn’t win, either by stepping down before she said something she wouldn’t take back or by saying it and walking out.

She reached out a ketchup flaked hand to smooth a stray hair from her ponytail as she walked towards her room with the single-minded purpose of, as her bath had been denied her, getting out of the grimy grease scented clothes she wore and getting into her comfiest pyjamas. When she returned she collapsed into her corner of the sofa and picked up the magazine closest to her and then reached for the slightly crumpled pages he still held. She knew that she had to take the papers from him however she reasoned that if he couldn’t extend her the curtesy of talking to her she didn’t have to do the polite thing of taking them when he shook them at her.

Flicking back and forth between the papers and her new set of magazines, Penny picked through the scrawl on her pages with little difficulty. She had found that working with a few barely literate fellow employees had vastly improved her ability to make sense of ink that should look like the alphabet and listened to Leonard sigh as he looked over the guest list. She didn’t think much of the sound until he did it again; returning to the same part of the guest list after a few shuffles of the other papers. She had the sinking feeling that she was going to end up in the very same argument she had avoided for the past couple of nights no matter what she did. The damn guest list.

As he released yet another sigh she began counting. To ten at first, one she used almost constantly with her customers. Then somehow she found herself shifting from counting to calm herself to counting the pauses between his sighs. Then she switched back to an angrier version of counting to ten to calm herself when the sighs came even more often.

She closed her eyes to try and channel the anger out but was interrupted by yet another sigh. She heard him shuffle some more papers and pick up a magazine and for almost two minutes she was able to read and work with no sighs. She even picked up her own magazine with every intention of reading it now the interruptions had ceased.

Then he looked over to the guest list again and huffed out yet another deep sigh. She flipped another pastel coloured page detailing how to get the perfect mix of romantic and modern for a winter wedding, not even seeing the words written there. All she could think about was Leonard's breathing from next to her. It was as if his breathing were the only sound in the room, the buzzing telly seemed to be on mute next to the sound.

Leonard dropped his magazine and reached for the papers she had left on the coffee table and began to flick through the pages. With her frustration sitting in the driver’s seat she was sure he was flipping them obnoxiously loud on purpose. He flipped to the next page, sighed again, and the rest of her pretty damn short fuse evaporated into thin air. 

“Will you quit that! You're not even reading the pages and the noise is doing my nut in. So stop it!” She snapped. 

He tossed the papers back on the table with a loud thwack and finally looked at her. 

“I am reading it Penny, it's just that I'm able to speed read each page so I don't have to spend forever on one page! Penny, the guest list is too long and you know why. All it needs is a little pruning and then it will be perfect, do we really need those people? Why can’t you see that I’m right about the guest list! You know I’m right!” He snapped back. 

It was if he'd lit a match and touched it to petrol. She’d had it. If it was that particular argument he wanted, he was going to get it. It was not the day to pick a fight with her.

“You're in the right? You're in the right? Are you kidding me? How on earth did you come to that conclusion Doctor?” She hissed.

She turned to face him fully. Penny couldn't quite get her head around the fact that he thought he was justified and that she should just meekly accept it. He leant back against the sofa with a smug grin crawling up his face, as if he had the one retort she couldn't come back against. 

“Because you don't even like them yet you're inviting them to our wedding! I know you’re related to them but honestly Penny, our wedding may I remind you will have important people from the university attending!” He declared. 

It was ludicrous to her that he felt he could dictate to her about family when she would be surprised if he even knew the names of his siblings. She shot to her feet and felt smug satisfaction in looming over him, watching as his eyes lit with anger.

“Excuse me? Where the hell do you get off telling me who I like or can invite for our wedding when they will be on my side!” 

She crossed her arms angrily, torn between giving in to her need to flail her arms to demonstrate her point or reaching out a fist and punching him. She knew which one would bring the sweetest feeling, already half seeing the satisfying blood spurt from his nose. Leonard shot to his feet, giving him a boost in height stopping as always a few inches short than her. It was a power move Penny recognised from many of their previous arguments, she figured the height made him feel more like a man.

“Since I don't want that sort of person at my wedding!” He spat.

She stopped dead. Frozen halfway between shock and pure anger she could do nothing but stare at her fiancée. She knew Leonard could be a snob, with a mother like his she couldn't really fault him for it but still couldn't quite acknowledge he would go that far.

“Your wedding? Are you marrying yourself Leonard?” If her voice could have gotten any colder, he would have been frozen solid. 

However, Leonard seemed to lack the necessary survival instinct to realise just how big a mistake he had made and continued as if she hadn't spoken.

“For Christ's sake Penny you know what I mean! You've not talked to them in months and I can recall the exact number of times you've complained about them!” He finished triumphantly, standing expectantly for her response. 

“They are my family Leonard.” She bit out.

She jabbed a finger in his direction, “You might not be able to understand that word because you have Hannibal Lecter for a mother but I love my brother and sister, all my family in fact, more than you will ever be able to understand. However, as we are getting married to each other there is not a damn thing you can do about me inviting my own damn family to our damn wedding!” 

She knew by the frozen shock on his face that he hadn’t been expecting her to come back at him quite so venomously. A little flare of righteousness surged through her, the kind she used to get fighting with Kurt but without the promise of mind blowing sex afterwards. It felt good to win. She took advantage of his shock and hightailed it to her room, scooped up her keys and purse, stormed out past him managing to slam the front door so hard behind her she heard the plaster creak. 

Penny really couldn't understand why Leonard didn't get it. She knew that her family had their issues, as any family did.  Although Leonard came from a family that didn't encourage or even love him and the less said about his mother the better; she really thought that Leonard had seen enough of the world to know that families, especially hers, would fight but the moment something big happened they would come together and forget it all. It had been at least five months since she'd heard from her brother, not even a text but talked at least once a month with her sister just to keep in touch. It was the one thing she allowed herself after she had made the move to Pasadena, one little link to her family but not enough of one to be bribed home. She palmed her car key, fully intending to drive somewhere away from her fiancée, not caring that she was wearing possibly the most unflattering clothes she owned into the public eye. In her mind she was already behind the wheel driving straight to the little wine shop two blocks away. She could practically taste the bitter-sweetness over her tongue.

She stopped dead. Frustrated tears prickled her eyes, it was just like before. She argued with Leonard and when she stormed off or he did and her first thought was wine. Whiskey. Any alcohol to make all the little painful cracks disappear or at least become so fuzzy she could pretend that they didn’t really exist. What she really needed was something to divert her, something to remove the vastly tempting thought of wine from her mind that wasn’t crying pathetically in the stairwell.  

And as if she had commanded it her phone buzzed in her pocket. She sank gratefully to the step beneath her and pulled it from the depths of her purse, pausing to pull a mayonnaise packet from the back of it. With that disgusting moment over she mentally wrote herself a note to clean her purse out; preferably with bleach with that thought wrote another to ask Sheldon what would work the best to remove the mysterious brown stain from her work skirt. She shuddered thinking what it could possibly be. Waking up the screen and putting in her code she was able to read the message.

Hey Penny, I know I've been MIA but I needed some time to think. Stuff’s gone down and I had to have a major talk with myself. You know I was wrecked the last time we spoke and it ended really badly so I text hoping you'd read it and so you wouldn't be able to hang up on me. I love you little sis, I really do. If you have the time do you think you could phone? Only if you're free. 

Love you, Michael

Her brother had screwed up many times and she nearly always wanted to give him a smack for his stupidity but she loved him too much to refuse to call if he needed it. 

She pressed dial and dropped her purse to the ground. On the first ring he picked up. 

“To be honest Penny I was expecting you to ignore me. I know I deserve it. And I didn't say it in the text but I am so sorry for what I said about your fiancée. I'm sure he's a top bloke when you get to know him. And I…” 

She smiled, once he got going he was hard to stop. 

“Mikey, it’s okay. I forgive you. So what's up?” She interrupted, deliberately ignoring what he'd mentioned about Leonard. She did not want to think about her fiancée or the accusations her brother had made about him the last time they spoke. Because in hindsight Penny had begun wondering if they were true. 

“Penny you're too kind to me. Debs still refuses to talk to me.”  He sighed. 

“Well Mikey, that's kind of because you threw up on her after she deliberately asked you to not drink. And it was her birthday.” She reasoned. 

Even though he said nothing she knew he was hanging his head in remembered shame. She tucked a few stray strands of hair behind her ear, wishing she’d redone her ponytail before leaving, swapped the phone to her other ear and waited for him to continue. 

“Beaut, I..” He started. 

“Michael you aren't in prison are you? Oh Christ, Michael you're not dying are you? Is Ma and Da okay? Nana and Grumpa? Deb and the kids? Michael tell me!” She demanded. 

Her brother always used that nickname when he wanted to tell her bad news. When her goldfish had died as a little girl. When their Nana ended up in hospital with a serious infection. When he saw her teenage boyfriend snogging her best friend. It had always been used to soften his sentences, even as children. He picked up the endearment when he made friends with an ex-pat Welsh family who moved into their town. 

“Oh beaut! Seriously do you think I only use that to tell you bad news? At least I don't think I do...anyway nothing's wrong. I wanted to tell you that I made a choice, I went to rehab. Got myself clean and have been doing really well. The docs here have told me that if I want I can check out and see if I do so well in the outside world!” He joked.

Penny sat shocked for the second time that day. Her brother had always sworn that he had his addiction under control, that he didn't need help. A giddy sweep of joy filled her.

“Sweetie, I’m so proud of you! How's it been? Have you made friends, do I need to kick some arse for you? Are you happy? What brought this on? Michael I'm so damn proud of you!” She babbled, each question vying to be the first heard. 

On the other end she heard him chuckle. She wanted to be there and throw herself onto him and hug him until he couldn’t breathe she was so proud of him. Sitting there in the stairway she almost couldn't care that she and Leonard had ripped into each other yet again. 

“Penny, you sounded just like Ma there! Bet you never thought anyone would say that!”

“Michael Alexander, if you ever say that again heaven help you, boy I will hunt you down and I'll bring my rifle!” She growled down the phone, feeling herself smile despite herself when she heard her brother outright laughing. She always likened it to listening to a songbird singing in midsummer.

“Penny, keep going talking like that and you really will become her! Now before you really do shoot me; yes, I've made friends so no arse kicking necessary, it's been a little rough I didn't actually think that getting sober would be so damn hard but I'm so proud of myself for getting here. I am happy here, as I mentioned I've been advised that I can go home but to take it easy and that's what I'm going to do. Ma and Da know all about it and I'm moving back in with them. And for what brought this on, well I finally saw what it was doing to the people around me and I.. I watched…” 

She listened as her brother changed dramatically over the course of one sentence. His voice died down from his normal confident drawl to hurting like she'd never heard before. It made her heart catch in her chest and wish they were together so she could hold him tight and let him know she was there for him properly, not just a disembodied voice on the other end of the phone. 

“I watched Talia OD. There was absolutely nothing I could have done, I was high as hell and could barely lift my own head but she lay there and died...but Penny…Christ Penny she was pregnant...” His voice broke completely on the last word and the urge to comfort him grew so big she wished that she could spontaneously teleport so she could be there to protect her big brother from his pain. That or drive like a crazy person to the airport and jump on the next plane home. A ghost of a thought popped into her head as she thought of teleporting, the only genius she knew that was smart enough to build her something which could. She bet that Sheldon had already figured out how to teleport, just considered his Nobel Prize for string theory more important.

She couldn't imagine what he was going through, only their sister would be able to understand the kind of pain he was being crushed by. She had changed overnight and fourteen-year-old Penny could remember thinking that her sister would never be the same. Her adventurous, sassy older sister seemed to have the light shut off inside her. For months Deborah had shut down, she didn't cry or scream. Just sat, quietly vacantly. 

Penny hadn't really understood at the time what had happened even though she knew that her sister had been pregnant and then wasn't. It just hadn't clicked in that for her not to be pregnant anymore the baby would have had to have gone too. Her sister never really talked about what happened with anyone other than their mother. 

“Sweetie, you know it wasn't your fault right? Honey I'm so sorry...no one should have to go through that. I really think that it's time to talk to Debs. I think she could really help.” She felt awkward having such a conversation over the phone. She dealt so much better with things in person. 

He sniffled on the other end of the phone and her heart clenched painfully. She wanted so badly in that moment to be able to hold him, to protect him. She wrapped her spare arm around herself and made up her mind. It was time to go home. If only for a little while. 

“Sweetie listen to me, I'm coming home.” 

She heard his intake of breath and carried on quickly to stop him speaking over her. 

“No, I don't want any excuses as to why I shouldn't come home. I want to and I need to. I have some holiday allowance I've not yet used so it's final. I'm getting on the first plane tomorrow morning and that's that.” During her little speech she deliberately didn't think of how her remaining holiday was supposed to be used to go and visit Leonard's family before the wedding. She decided he would just have to go on his own and suck it up like the adult he was supposed to be. 

With that thought she got up and headed back to her flat, already thinking of what to pack for a Nebraskan summer. Breaking up her train of thought she heard her brother speak. 

“Well I'd best let you get packing then beaut, lord knows you pack enough for a family of five! Text us the flight details and we'll be waiting for you when you land. Thanks Penny, I mean it. Thanks.” he finished quietly. 

They exchanged their goodbyes just as she reached her door. She clicked the screen off and pulled her keys out of her pocket just as the door behind her opened. 

Sheldon poked his head out of the door, looking rather like a startled Meercat when he caught sight of her standing in the hall. With little effort he smoothed out the surprise on his face, the tension in his body remained. He stepped through the door stiffly and continued on his way. 

“Good evening Penny. I trust you and Leonard have finished?” He spoke quietly, not looking her directly in the eye. 

She felt a jolt of guilt at making him feel wary of her. They had never been that way around each other. Not even when they were embroiled in their prank war. She jingled her keys on her palm. The movement catching his eye for a second. 

She stepped closer to him and clenched her fist around her keys to stop her from jingling them out of nervousness. She missed the ease with which they used to talk. She even missed his lectures. And it had only been forty-eight hours. It had seemed like forever.

“Sheldon, sweetie you know I'm not angry with you right? We might have argued but I promise it was a flash in the pan, I'm not upset. If anything I should apologise, Leonard and I have been ripping into each other so much lately. I took out my frustration with Leonard on you and it wasn't fair. And I know how you hate arguments.” she replied just as quietly. She had thought that they were fine after he had allowed her a touch but afterwards had refused to meet her gaze, spending even more time at work or in his room.

He glanced up from his own keys, clenched in his fist. When their eyes met she couldn't help but smile just a little. Such a vibrant colour, she had always wondered how he'd never realised how they could sweep a girl off her feet. Those eyes could melt the hardest of hearts. The thought gave her pause when she focused back on Sheldon, watching his little smile appear like sunshine from behind a cloud.

“Thank you Penny. I have to admit that I was less than gentlemanly when I spoke to you, I spoke before I thought of my words. I am sorry also. I am sorry if you didn’t appreciate the touch afterwards, even though I know that touch is a great source of comfort for you. I am aware that I can use the wrong action in delicate situations.”

“Oh Sheldon, it was just right. I thought you were freaked out by the touch!” She smiled a little more and watched the mirror on his face, she was sure in that moment he was unaware he was doing it.

Just watching the nervous tension fade from his shoulders relaxed hers too. The sharp, prey-being-watched-by predator feeling faded.

Seeing the slight transformation brought a sense of relaxation to her as well, she never liked fighting with him. Penny squashed the sudden urge she had to hug him as she would any other friend. Although, he gave surprisingly good hugs for a man who resembled a human stick and resented every moment spent in anyone's arms. She couldn't quite place what it was. It certainly wasn't the sense of being enveloped in loving warm arms. Her gaze wandered from his face to spy his collar, bright and double layered as usual which sparked off some deep, hidden realisation. It was something to do with the softness of his shirts, the scent of something subtlety masculine mixed with the scent of clean clothes. He reminded her of something safe, a kind of innocence she had long since left behind. Something she always felt a little closer too around him.

A little cough interrupted her reverie, bringing her sharply back into the present. She glanced away from Sheldon's collar hoping her face didn't betray her sudden flush of embarrassment. Biting her lip, she glanced up, catching Sheldon looking behind her his face characteristically stoic once more. She wondered almost thoughtlessly what it was about Sheldon that had her mind wandering so.

Another little cough, more forceful and just a little bit impertinent. Inwardly she sighed. Outwardly she spun on her heel and faced her fiancée.

“Yes Leonard, what is it?”

“I wanted to say I’m sorry Penny. I know they’re your family and if you want them there you should have them.”

His words were what she wanted him to say. His tone was one of desperate apology with the barest undertones of resentment. She closed her eyes, her resolve to head home even stronger. They need the space. She needed the space.

“Leonard I am glad that you decided to say sorry. I am. I deserve it after the frankly appalling way you just treated me and my family. And I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t expect more of you than you’re capable of, you never had the family and the love a child should have. Some of the stories you tell me are the saddest thing a person could ever go through and I think that they are the reason we’ve stuck through this thing we’re doing. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to try and give you something that you’ve never had. An honestly loving relationship. You wanted someone to make it better. You wanted a happily ever after, the kind that all your heroes yet. But I can’t make it better because you need help I’m not capable of. You can’t wait for someone to make it better, only you can go out and do something about your history.”

Was what she wanted to say. But she held her tongue, the stubborn streak inside her making her dig deep and make the best relationship she’d had in a long while work. She knew that if she kept on side stepping the problem that it would come and bite her in the arse sooner rather than later. But somehow couldn’t really care in that moment. She was tired of fighting, of always having to walk upstream. So she bowed her head. Pushed down the last vestiges of pride she had and spoke.

“Yeah, I’m sorry too. I guess I’m just really tired at the moment. We’ll have a think about all of this when I’m back, yeah?” She hoped that he would just go with the flow of her words and not stumble over the giant speed bump she’d laid at his feet.

She knew the moment she had failed, whether it was that he was being perceptive or that she wasn’t persuasive at arse o’clock in the morning wearing shapeless-by-design clothes. His face ticked over from agreement to confusion. Her lucky stars weren’t watching over her.

“Penny what do you mean ‘when I get back’, where are you going?” His tone conveyed everything he was feeling and for once she was glad he wasn’t like her previous boyfriends. In moments like the one she was squirming through, her previous boyfriends had enough experience to hide what they were feeling, making declarations a bit of a mine field. Leonard usually spelt it out for her, capital letters and short words.

She addressed his concern that she was leaving him first.

“Leonard, we are fine but I’m using my holiday time to visit my brother. Now before you protest I’m going. I am and that’s it, he had been some really big things lately and I’m going to be there for him. I’m sure you can agree that we need a couple of days apart.”

She watched his face closely, noting the slight flush of embarrassment not caring whether it was from the fact that they had blown up at each other again or that Sheldon was there to watch.

Next the lost little boy squeak that meant he was building back up to angry.

“I know that I made the plans with you to visit your family, meet and greet before the big day but sweetie Michael needs me right now and I’m sure that you understand right?”

She figured with the added presence of Sheldon and the fact that she was hardly stopping for breath was keeping him quiet.

Then finally his innate neediness and slight control freak tendency whenever she left him with the possibility that she would meet some tall, muscular lad and be spirited away. She stepped up to him and curled a hand round his neck.

“I know it’s going to be hard without me, but I’ll make it up to you when I get back okay?” A thought chimed in that she was basically rewarding him for his behaviour by promising sex but figured she’d worry about it later. “And look, I love you Leonard. I do, so you can just adjust your plans with me gone can’t you, you’re clever enough to do all this work by yourself anyways.”

She knew she’d won when he leant in for a kiss and tried to slip his tongue into her mouth. She deftly avoided having to French kiss him in front of Sheldon by pulling back just enough that he didn’t quite make it. He hummed happily anyway and relief filled her when he pulled back smiling.

He mumbled goodnight and strolled back into her flat. As soon as the door was shut she eyed Sheldon, who stood immobile watching with closed off eyes. The relief in her chest shrivelled up and whimpered. She was going to get a talking to about conditioning his best friend with sex, the vice of the unintelligent. Half braced against a stern lecture she was surprised when he just turned on his heel and began to descend the stairs.

“What, no lecture? No words about lowering his smarts with lots of sex?” She called after him, not sure why she was wanting his attention. After the rollercoaster that was her relationship with Leonard she should have wanted to curl up on her side of the bed and hope that he didn’t want her to make good on her promise early. But watching him walk away from her sparked off a little voice, a flash of something that always followed their arguments. Their loudly voiced opinions felt more accurate, there were never any sharp edges to their fights. Not like with her fiancée.

“Penny, I’m merely avoiding becoming part of a complex argument of which I am not a participant. I do not want to get involved with your soap opera-esque drama with Leonard. So I am continuing with my pre-arranged plans.” He stopped walking away but didn’t turn to face her.

That little voice urged her further. She knew his boundaries, she knew what to say and what not to. She wanted him to face her.

“Of course you’re too smart to get involved with us mere mortals. But Leonard is your friend, I guessed you would have your ten pence to throw in about me distracting him from his higher brain functions. Or are you washing your hands of it, too primitive for you then?” She knew her words were walking the fine line between banter and the words her and Leonard hurl at each other but couldn’t stop, she wanted him to face her. Sheldon always seemed to be there when she and Leonard fought and then got her backlash.

Then he turned. And all of a sudden she wanted him to turn back and forget she had ever spoken. Instead of what should have been his normal tired tantrum face, the one he pulled on when he tired of figuring out the brains of the lesser intellects around him, was something she had never seen before. She wasn’t sure what it was.

Sheldon stood as he normally would, shoulders straight and limbs tucked close but it was all different in the light of the twilight stairwell.  It was how he held his head, no longer slightly dipped in retained teenaged restraint of being the tallest thing in the room. He held his head high with no hesitance. His eyes were dark and his face set into what she could only describe as disgust.  Not the childish display he showed when he was made to talk to ‘stupid’ people or when the lettuce touched his burger bun. It was disgust from one adult to another. It was fully realised and unhesitating.

In the face of a Sheldon who was truly alien to her she stood as if petrified when he stalked the few steps back towards her. His gaze had her captive.

“Your relationship with Leonard confuses me Penny. I tire of ever figuring out what it that holds the rickety scaffold of it together. Is it your sometimes foolish determination or is it Leonards oedipal complex? I don’t know and frankly I no longer care. You are continually debasing yourself for him and it disgusts me! What on earth are you getting from him Penny? What exactly is it that keeps you entangled? Because I have been given more trouble from this particular problem than any equation I have ever worked on. I watched you just now and I know that most of what comprises social situations passes me by but I watched you debase yourself with no hesitation. The Penny who I first met would have never let Leonard do that to her, would never have prostituted herself to her supposedly loving fiancée in order to prevent him from having a tantrum and causing another argument.”

He stopped a breath away from her and she could see the flecks of green and grey in his blue, blue eyes and she had no answer. She tried to protest but Sheldon was on a roll.

“Why do you feel like you need him? Penny you do not need to do this to yourself, you were strong and independent before him and in the face of him you have become what you despised in other women. Women who change themselves for their partners and who live in constant fear that one word out of their mouth is going to cause them the greatest harm. You should not have to live like Leonard is your lord and master. He is not. He had no more hold over you than you let him. And from what I just witnessed you have let so much of yourself go for him. What happened Penny? I have watched this before Penny, have you never wondered what it was about arguments that I so hate?”

She watched his face, unable to turn away. Here was her best friend pouring out more words than she had heard from him that didn’t contain at least one reference to Batman or physics.

“I watched my mother grind herself into a neat little stereotype for my father. He was the pinnacle of masculinity and knew it. He used his strength to bully and destroy. He made sure that me and my siblings knew what would happen if we stepped out of line. He never needed to do so to our mother because she had done it for him. Every argument they had she stepped over herself, she held her tongue and pulled in the corners of herself and acquiesced to every whim. I watched my mother pull pieces off herself in order to keep a hold of my father because in her own words ‘He was the best man in town and the best man who would have me’. Penny I will not stand by and watch that story play out again. I will not. I have made all the comments I have felt you would understand that you and Leonard should give up this farce of a relationship and have been ignored every single time. I am simply following the next logical step. If you will not listen to what I have to say I will not say a thing. I do not understand what it is that you see here that I clearly do not. But I will tell you this Penny, you deserve a man who would cherish you, someone who would place the world into your palm should you ask. Now I must bid you goodnight, I am now late.”

She felt as if he had just plunged her into icy waters and held her head under until she couldn’t fight the urge to breath only to be let up. His retreating back was the centre of her vison until he disappeared from view. Sheldon had managed to turn her entire world upside down with a few well-placed words and left as if his revelations were nothing more than comments on the weather.

Her knees buckled underneath her and she slumped to the ground. Sheldon. A man from the outside who seemed to be simple, no more complex than a child, had shown her the true colours that ran deep beneath the surface and it had shocked her. For a supposed expert on the man she was stumped.

He, with a few words, had cut to the core of everything she was avoiding. Leonard was the best man she had been in a relationship with, at least on paper. She’d been desperate to show that she was making a life for herself and marriage was a way to show that she was successful even though she hadn’t made it onto the camera yet. She was doing things she never thought herself capable of in order to dodge fights and avoid the real issues. She had lost something, something that she wasn’t sure she could lose and remain the same. Sheldon had spilt the closest truths he held at her feet just to make her see what she was doing to herself. It explained so much about him, why he avoided fights like the plague. Why he despised the men she had been with before Leonard. She chafed a hand across her heart, as though it had throbbed in pain. She wasn’t sure it hadn’t but couldn’t feel much over the overwhelming tide of information she was drowning in. Sheldon seemed to retain the ability to surprise her even when she thought she knew all his spiky-tender bits.

She needed to talk with Leonard and pull their train wreck of a relationship back onto the rails or she knew that they would destroy each other. But not right then. The wounds were too fresh and the anger too easy to fall back into the rut of. She needed something normal to allow her mind to digest and analyse what she’d been through.

With her gaze still on the empty stairwell she reached for her phone. Two quick rings.

“Pen, baby you okay?” Croaked a sleepy voice.

“I know it’s late but could I come over?. I can’t go back into my flat at the moment.” She whispered back.

“You’ve not been burgled have you? Christ Penny are you okay?” Lana’s voice came back sharp and fully awake. In the background a couple of female voices began whispering.

“No, god no, I... I’ve just had the biggest fight with Leonard and I can’t go back into it all just yet.”

“Absolutely, Elena has the front lights on so the path will be easy for you. Penny I need you to be honest with me, Leonard hasn’t hit you has he?” She spoke with the calm measured tone of one not wanting to alarm but wanting the truth. Again in the background she heard voices, one most definitely belonging to Rachel as above the rest she heard clearly if she comes in with a single bruise he is dead, as in ‘I-have-planned-all-details-they-will-not-find-the-body-dead’. A slightly teary giggle escaped at that.

“Lana no! No Leonard’s not like that. He would never hit me, it’s just a train wreck at the moment.” Over her reply she heard Lana whisper that she did not just hear that, I am a copper Rachel! Penny smiled.

“Right. Good. We will see you in twenty. I will have the booze ready and I’m sure Hattie has a supply of ice cream somewhere. Safe journey Pen. Love you.” She rattled off.

It gave her pause. Despite not drinking with her friends she hadn’t explicitly told them she was teetotal.

“Lana, I kinda need to tell you something. All of you really…”

She heard the definite noise indicating she was on speaker, all four pairs of ears listening intently.

“Shit Penny you’re up the duff aren’t you!” Came Hattie’s horrified reply.

Penny choked on air.

“Shit, no! I am very definitely not pregnant with any little Leonards. I promise. It’s just that I’m not drinking. I’ve had a few too many days where wine is the answer for everything and I’m pretty damn sure that if I don’t stop right now you’re going to find me in the gutter, off my face twenty-four seven.” She finished quietly, hoping her friends would understand.

After a few moments of contemplative silence, they answered.

“Penny we love you no matter what.” Came from Elena.

“Aww, sweetheart why didn’t you tell us before our last night dancing! We wouldn’t have gotten so shitfaced!” Came elegantly from Rachel.

“Good for you Pen” Spoken quietly by Hattie.

“Proud of you, sweetie, I promise alcohol will be absent. No drinking, we will just have to pull out the sweeties too.” Lana finished

She could feel their acceptance and complete support, it filled a little nagging hole she’d been ignoring ever since she started on her new path. It was a lonely place where she was convinced she had to do it on her own or else people would look down on her for it. She smiled suddenly glad that she had these women in her life, people in her corner no matter what. A tear slid down her cheek.

“Right ladies I am now on my way so you better have a tub of blondie-brownie waiting for me with the biggest spoon you have!” She mock-ordered.

All in unison they chimed.

“Yes, Ma’am!”

She laughed and said goodbye, picking herself up and walking with renewed purpose to the car park. But one little absent thought wondered where her neighbour had gone, where was so important that he had to leave at three in the morning.

Chapter Text

Chapter four

She woke to the sound of her phone alarm chirping and the sound of inelegant footsteps trying to be quiet. She snorted, sightlessly switched the alarm off and rolled herself tighter into her blankets. All she wanted in that moment was to stay wrapped in the furry, soft warmness of her bed and listen to the sounds of lives that hadn’t fallen right into a ditch. It was becoming a habit of hers to wake up on other people’s sofas. With her eyes still closed she soaked in the room. The gentle sunlight was warming her and she could smell freshly brewed coffee and a hint of expensive perfume. It reminded her of home how her sister used to scent every room she walked through and where the coffee pot never ran low.

A small clink rang off the glass table top next to her head and almost silent footsteps crept away. She smiled and opened her eyes. Lana’s retreating back filled her vision, beyond her she could just see the others either ready for the day or sitting barely awake at the breakfast table. She had seen so many mornings like it when she used to party with them; Hattie looking like she’d been asleep for a hundred years and didn’t appreciate the early morning start with her girlfriend curled around her like a cat. Elena managed to look like some sort of earth goddess; floaty dresses and perfect skin even after a night out that had involved Sambuca and Vodka shots. She couldn’t spot Rachel but then she was a law unto herself, she could range between Hattie and Elena in the same morning regardless of alcohol consumption. Lana roamed the background muttering to herself.

The heady smell of a perfectly brewed coffee with her preferred dash of cream reached her nose and she dived in, not caring it was still slightly too hot to drink. The small jolt of pain brought her sleep muzzy mind into awareness. A floral blur dropped into the sofa by her feet and she was swiftly enveloped into enthusiastic arms.

“Penny! You’re awake, how’d you sleep? Was the sofa okay? I know we need another one, but I still say it’s good enough to sleep on in an emergency. Is the coffee okay? Are you gonna talk to Leonard about his behaviour or are you gonna wait until you come back? Are…” Burbled a very animated Elena.

Penny desperately steadied her coffee and tried to keep up with the rapid stream of questions.  Elena yelped after a swift hand smacked the back of her head, further unsteadying her cup. Penny suddenly had visions of being drenched in the same coffee which had burnt her tongue.

“Oh get off her Elena! Penny is awake two seconds and you bombard her with questions! Didn’t you learn when I told you not everyone is a morning person?” Hattie grumbled, shuffling past the both of them to the armchair. She tucked her feet up and as soon as she had placed her own coffee cup onto the side table Elena was up and into her lap.

“Oh I remember sweetheart but I just want to make sure she’s okay, people need plans and Penny is one of our dearest friends. I just want her to know that we are here for her no matter what she wants.” She replied, pressing a kiss into Hattie’s shoulder.

Hattie smiled, small and adoring. Penny smiled too, the women in front of her were one of the reasons she believed in love that lasted forever. They were so into each other and they had been together for almost fifteen years. She wanted a love story like theirs one day. Her ring glinted purposefully at her from her hand telling her that she should be like that. That her love story should be like that, one she would relish telling her grandkids. She turned her hand enough to stop the light from touching the ring; removing the shine. Her and Leonard’s love story was going to be like that, one day. She had to believe that it would. After all the road to happily ever after had to have some speed bumps, otherwise it was a boring story.

When she looked up she saw the two of them watching her, waiting for her answers.

“The sofa’s great; much comfier than mine or the one in 4A,” She smiled to herself, remembering afghans and silent observations. “The coffee is brilliant as always Elena, I don’t know how you make it so well it’s almost as good as Sheldon’s. And yeah, me and Leonard need to have a talk…” She finished vaguely.

Lana swept through the lounge, eyes wandering around the room intently. Her shirt was still untucked and she had no shoes.

“Lana, sweetie, you need some help?” Penny called to her.

She flailed a hand at her questions and mumbled something under her breath.

“She’s like this, every morning, I swear how she actually became a police officer in the first place will always confuse me.” Rachel added by way of introduction. She walked in the front door baring two huge shopping bags, looking as if she’d just walked off the set of a fashion shoot. She kicked off the wedge heels she wore and tapped Lana on her back.

“Honey, you left your keys in the bowl and you told me last night that you left your bag in the car because you didn’t want to forget it.” She directed.

Lana smiled at her and dashed off, scooping her keys out of the bowl and disappeared into the hallway. Rachel flopped gracefully into the spare armchair and still looked as if she’d had a team pose her. Lana dashed through the doorway, now fully dressed and looking like a functional adult. She pecked kisses to each head she passed; crown, forehead, ear. She nipped between the armchairs and dropped a kiss to her own cheek with a whispered ‘Stay as long as you like, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to’. Penny tucked herself further into the sofa cushions more firmly. She wasn’t going anywhere, anytime soon.

The house quietened with the absence of morning bustling. They each relaxed in their own corners, chatting quietly. Gradually each of them got up, showered and returned to their posts; luxuriating in the morning sun and good company. Penny was the last to return, wearing a pale yellow dress from Elena’s wardrobe and ballet flats.

“So...want to watch a Disney movie? I’m thinking Up or Zootopia? I just love the bunny so much!” Elena announced, looking hopefully around her friends. Hattie grumbled but shoved her girlfriend off her lap to amble towards their stack of DVDs. Rachel looked impassive, her neatly manicured nails tapping away on her phone. Penny nodded and Elena smiled.

“I’ve not seen Zootopia yet, me and Leonard were supposed to go; date night. But he pulled out and when we rearranged it he wanted to go see some anime flick in this theatre that looked like someone’s garage.” Penny mumbled, realising another instance of her bending for Leonard’s plans. She picked up her, now slightly cold, coffee and took a sip trying to move on from her admission. It bothered her that the more she looked over her relationship recent events all pointed to her bending for Leonard’s plans. Just like Sheldon had pointed out. She couldn’t bring to mind a day they’d spent together that they had both decided on what to do together. It was always Leonard’s way, his choices. The days when they hadn’t done what he wanted often ended in an argument and then mediocre make up sex, even though she rarely felt like it.

“Oh sweetie I’m sorry. Well I bet we are going to be better company than the little midget anyways. Hattie, get the popcorn going, yeah?” Rachel asked, still looking at her phone.

Hattie grumbled again under breath and Elena smiled indulgently at her back.

“What sort of popcorn are we talking here? Because I have been slightly ruined for just about all popcorn, thanks to Sheldon. He’d come over to escape when Leonard and I were broken up and Leonard had someone over; think it was Leslie. Anyways we decided to watch a movie, he wanted to watch another round of Star Trek and I wanted to watch The Lake House. Somehow the topic change to what snacks we wanted and thankfully we both agreed on popcorn. Then he strolls into the kitchen and starts making his own popcorn! Five minutes later we were sitting eating the most amazing popcorn and he was watching me with this little cheeky smile, I don’t even think he realised he was smiling. He can bake I can tell you that!” She finished enthusiastically. It had been a bright spot in a week of awful shifts and longing eyes directed at her from her then ex-boyfriend.

“What film did you watch then?” Rachel asked. Penny laughed, smiling into her mug missing the glances her friends exchanged.

“I don’t think we got round to it. I asked him for the recipe and he told me he’d teach me to make it. Spent the rest of the night messing around in the kitchen making popcorn. He did freak out about the sheer amount of mess we were making but I promised I’d clean it later following his kitchen cleaning guide.” She bit down the grin that wanted to make itself home on her lips, she’d actually cleaned her kitchen using the little laminated guide he’d printed for her. When he had walked in the following day, escaping another night with Leonard and company, he’d stood in the kitchen stunned. She’d smiled up at him and although he hadn’t smiled back his eyes had shown his pride in her.

Her phone pinged, she reached over to grab it spying the sender. Michael.

Hey Penny, just checking in. When are you going to arrive? Because knowing you Beaut, we’re going to need to grab the football team to carry all your luggage! Text us when you’re at the airport so we know when to leave.

Love Michael

She dumped her coffee on the side table and leapt to her feet, all eyes suddenly on her. She brandished her phone in their direction, ignoring the glances.

“Oh god, girls I’m going to have to go! I completely forgot that I had arranged to go home to see Michael! I’m so sorry!” She leapt from her chair and started looking for her shoes and coat.

Rachel looked up from her phone and sauntered down the hall. The others looked shocked, not expecting such an outburst from her.

The other girls murmured in the background but all Penny could hear were the seconds ticking away. She panicked when she realised that she hadn’t even checked to see if there was a plane leaving for Nebraska. She began tapping on her phone, pulling up the airports web page and desperately trying to find a plane straight home. She found a listing, glanced at the clock and decided that she could make it if she didn’t stop for her luggage. A week without her own clothes or getting to see her family.

She tapped the reserve button and dashed towards her coat, shouting her goodbyes behind her. She was stopped by Rachel’s hand on her arm just as she was reaching for the door handle. A small black suitcase was presented to her, it’s weight surprising her when she reached for it instead.

“I always have a bag packed just in case I’m pulled away last minute. We’re the same size near enough so they’ll fit you. And you know me there is everything you’d need in there I promise.” She smiled and then whispered “I’ve even packed some killer heels in there so wear them with pride.”

Penny pulled her close, warmth filling her chest. It was things like that which made her friends the dearest things in her life. She had even packed shoes; with Rachel’s taste they were bound to be expensive and stunning.

As she pulled away from the house and raced down the road she could see the women she loved so dearly standing at the end of the drive madly waving goodbye. She smiled and focussed back on the road in front of her, hoping that there wasn’t traffic waiting ahead. Her phone pinged and pinged and pinged. She glanced quickly at the screen.

Bye Penny! Safe fight and text us when you land!

Penny I’ll be disappointed if I don’t see photos of those heels out and about. Enjoy.

Safe flight sweetheart and love you!

+++++++++

Penny counted her lucky stars as she pulled into the airport car park with twenty minutes to spare, souring the rows of cars for a space. She hated finding spaces when she was in a hurry; as always she found the one space squeezed between two drivers who didn’t think straight lines were important. After she’d magically parked her car without scraping the paint from either door, she hauled the heavier-than-it-should-be suitcase from the boot making the dash towards the entrance.

She entered the double doors and searched for the departures board, reading until she found her flight. Nebraska. Eleven-thirty. Delayed. She stopped in the flow of people flooding the entrance causing a few fellow travellers to murmur angrily at her back. Apparently her lucky stars were only working part time.

With that slightly depressing revelation, knowing that her flight could be anywhere from half an hour to the whole bloody day delayed, she scouted out the quietest coffee shop and stepped in line. When the cashier called her forward she actually looked at him. Tall, blue eyed and a sweet smile. She smiled at him, his eyes travelling over her approvingly.

“One large latte please and one of the lemon muffins.” She requested.

He quickly took her order and dropped his gaze to her lips; she fought the urge to lick them wanting to see whether he’d watch that too. You’re engaged, you shouldn’t be doing this half arsed flirting! He’s probably not even old enough to drive, she scolded herself. Although she countered herself, it had been a while since she’d received that sort of innocent attention. She liked it, it was a guilty pleasure of hers when she’d been single. Go out and about and see what sort of reaction she got, whether she’d get a direct gaze or whether he’d be too caught up in watching her various attributes. She and Lana used to play a game with it, the person with the most wandering gazes won. When he finally handed her the coffee and muffin she felt a naughty little tingle. As she took the cup from his hand she caught his gaze, smiled in just the right way and watched in satisfaction as the boy blushed a vivid red. One point to her.

She left the coffee shop on a high, a girlish giggle fluttering around her chest. It had been a while since a man’s attention had been that simple. Had been that sweet. She knew it wasn’t exactly the behaviour she should indulge in, especially when she had an engagement ring on her finger but figured that nothing was ever going to happen about it. She most certainly would never entertain him further than what had occurred. Cheating was an ugly act, filled with utter disrespect and she despised anyone who thought that it was acceptable as long as they didn’t get caught. She had been on the other end of ‘innocent’ flirting too often to ever do it to her partner, regardless of their current arguments. Her mind swerved to avoid thinking too deeply about Leonard’s opinion on the matter, she knew full well that his gaze often found itself glued to some young twenty something’s arse and wasn’t too sure she could rely on him being quite as firm as her given the opportunity. She took a hasty sip of her coffee letting the too hot liquid singe her tongue, not wanting to linger on the possibility of Leonard cheating. He was a good man underneath the neurosis and the childish acts; just because he liked to look didn’t mean that he would go wandering, she chastised herself.

 The departure board still listed her flight as delayed so she shot off a text to Michael telling him of the new arrangement, he sent one back almost immediately telling her to text him when she was boarding if the delay lasted much longer. Satisfied that her family weren’t hanging around the airport arrivals for nothing she took to people watching. It was a pastime she didn’t indulge in often, being surrounded by the same six people never really gave her the opportunity to.

Time began to fly by as she watched the travellers in front of her, boisterous families and serious business types filling the spaces before her. Each one following their own path through the building performing intricate dances around the slow and the stationary. Her eyes almost immediately got caught on the ones in the crowd which were standing still, their stillness alien in the fast paced life of an airport.

She took a sip of her coffee, now at the perfect temperature and clocked a couple embracing to her left. Heart eyed and faces almost close enough to count the pores. They stood so entangled she thought they themselves wouldn’t know where the other ended. The man, towering over his girlfriend, was whispering something to her making her face light up, Penny quirked a brow to herself thinking her and Leonard had been like that once. That standing that close was loving instead of confrontational. The man kissed his girlfriend’s forehead and smiled sadly whispering more words into the crown of her head. Penny saw the scene for an instant as if it had jumped straight out of the films. Two young lovers being torn apart by responsibility; desperate to hold onto their last moments together. She was surprised when the woman pulled his hand off her cheek and held it cupped between her own and said something that stunned her boyfriend. His face stilled as his mind worked through her words, lips parted slightly.

“What?” He yelled, voice wobbly.

The woman nodded. He wrapped both hands back around her and spun them both off into tight whirling circles.

“I’m gonna be a dad! I’m gonna be a dad!” He announced ecstatically between peppering the woman’s face with kisses. The pair excitedly began talking, words like cot and nursery and babies filled the air around them. Penny smiled, his joy catching. It was a beautiful sight; the woman beaming and him with tears in his eyes. They walked towards the closest gate; beaming almost glowing with excitement.

Caught up in their moment she barely heard the noise, a disgusted exhalation. She turned to see another couple, both dressed in business casual with weekend cases at their feet. It looked like they were jetting off on an important journey, she figured if they were in film they’d be spies or international millionaires or some such part. Apart from the fact that the man had his eyes on every other woman old enough to stare at and the woman looked as if she wanted to use her brightly coloured manicure to stab him in the neck. Not a happy couple made even more unhappy by the vocal excitement. The space around them seemed to be caught in the chill of civility and professional masks. A jarring opposite to the departing couple.

The businesswoman looked at her expensive watch and flicked blank eyes onto her partner; looking as if she was deciding whether it was worth it to walk off and leave him right there. She murmured something to her partner and walked off anyway; her designer heels clicking importantly. He merely waved her off and murmured something in return eyes roving over a passer-by’s backside as she bent to tie her laces. She could see they lived an expensive life, could see that they were married by the glinting, matching rings but could see that they were bordering apathetic in regards to one another. She took a sip of her coffee. She grimaced; she didn’t like cold coffee.

She was so intently watching the couple that she almost missed the announcement of her flight. She began walking towards her gate pondering if her and Leonard were going to end up like either of them. On the one hand she could see her future with Leonard being good, they would get married and live quite peaceably with one another. It wouldn’t be as explosive and whirlwind as the couple on the left but they would be fine. But she could also see them ending up like the others wrapped in suited armour barely tolerating each other but too stubborn to ever give in. The thought of that future filled her with dread, settling rock hard and uncomfortable in her stomach. She pushed the thought of the future away and firmly decided to think about it later.

Penny got through to the gate with little delay. There were few passengers heading for the same flight. A mother herding three small children with promises of sweeties if they behaved followed by an elderly couple strolling hand in hand. She stepped neatly in behind the couple and waited for her turn to turn over her ticket to the flight attendant.

“Dear, did you remember to switch off the heating? Because I don’t want to return to a heating bill the size of California!” The old man grumbled.

“Yes dear, I did. You’ve only asked me six times since we arrived. And the electric and told the neighbours to take care of the post and I even had time to tell the sweet young man in that comic shop that you’d be in at the end of the week to pick up the stuff for Shelly, I don’t know quite why our granddaughter likes them so much but I guess you can understand her better than I.” The old woman replied sweetly, rummaging in her handbag. He turned and looked at his wife. Then shuffled forwards as the queue moved. To many his look would have been bland, barely noticeable. But to Penny it spoke a thousand words. She looked back on her experience with faces that showed little but said much. Sheldon had given her plenty of practice.  The man’s face was one of quiet contentment, he and his wife understood one another and it was born of years of life together and sweetened by adoration. He loved his wife for understanding him for putting up with his ways and pulling more meaning from his words than he said but truly meant. It was what lives together were for; to accept and love completely. She smiled at their backs. It was the way her father looked at her mother. The way her Nana looked at her Pops. She swallowed. It wasn’t quite the way she looked at Leonard.

+++++++

 

Penny sat in her seat, pinged off a text to her waiting family and hoped that the flight would pass quickly. In her current mood she knew each minute would feel like an hour. Tapping her fingers against the arm rest she waited for the plane to begin moving. Her other hand was fiddling with the strap of her bag; half out of impending boredom and half in anxiety.

She wasn’t afraid of flying. She just didn’t like being in the passenger seat. It had been the part of her that had driven her to move across the country to achieve a dream she had now worn thin, the part of her that wandered and adventured and met each day with determination. As a little girl she had loved the feeling of sticking her head out of the window as her mother drove her to school or to visit relatives. The freedom to do what she wished while someone had control of the journey was a childhood memory she cherished. Personally she viewed those sun-drenched memories as some of the fondest of her life. Getting to sit in the front, singing to country alongside her mother and siblings. Michael had always been the loudest, Debs always on key. Penny had sat beside her mother watching her singing to tunes that were almost embedded in her bones. She loved the slow, sweet country songs. Penny always loved the way her mother sang; pulling the emotion out for each line. She supposed that the foundations for her dream lay in those memories.

She played with her engagement ring. She liked to be in the driver’s seat now, fully in control of where she was going and when she would arrive. She had handed over control to people, boyfriends, and had been driven off course and close to things she never wanted to experience. She could remember several times that being in the passenger seat had nearly gotten her killed when they’d had one too many and had convinced her that they were safe to drive. That or had ordered her to her car and sat in the driver’s seat. The last was Kurt, he’d pushed her to dress to his style, pushed her to quit her job and sit in to cook and clean. It was the last time, she’d sworn to herself, that she’d dance to another’s tune. But looking back she had somehow let Leonard slide into that seat. Sitting in the slightly uncomfortable airplane seat she stopped jiggling. She had let Leonard push her, ever so slowly, gently over to the passenger seat and she hadn’t even noticed. Under the guise of the ‘nice guy’ she had started off strong; he’d been the one who had travelled in her wake. Over the years he had asserted himself and she’d been fine with it; encouraged it even. It was no fun being the sole commander in a relationship and it had been good but over time she had become the mute passenger, the acquiescing girlfriend who didn’t make waves. She clenched her fist; ring biting into her flesh. Sheldon was right.

“We are now approaching the airport. Please have all trays away and the seats in the upright position. I hope you’ve had a pleasant flight with us and hope to see you again.” Came the cheerful tone of the flight attendant.

Penny gathered her things, glancing out of the little plane window and seeing the almost blinding sun. The plane hadn’t yet landed but she knew it was going to be scorching.

The short journey from the plane through to the arrivals desk seemed to take no time at all, floating as she was on giddy excitement. She couldn’t wait to throw herself into her brother’s arms and hug him for all she was worth. She couldn’t wait to start chatting with her sister and getting all the family gossip first-hand. She couldn’t wait for her mother’s gentle scolding for being too skinny and being enveloped back in the warm loving world of her family.

Her excitement grew as she passed under the arrivals sign. She scanned the crowd for her family and spotted them before they saw her. Michael was standing at the front scanning the crowds, dressed in his customary jeans and check shirt. He looked healthier than she’d seen him since high school; brown eyes lively and his tall frame carrying a decent weight. He’d been skinny as hell when she’d seen him at Debs’s birthday; the bones of his wrists prominent and hollow cheeked. He’d looked one step above dead. Seeing him there she could see the brother she’d spent most of her childhood chasing and wrestling with.

Debs stood beside him chatting to her eldest son and carrying the baby on her hip. She looked just as she’d always looked. Ponytail, trainers and a pretty nautical top and white shorts. The kids had changed so much in the year since she’d seen them last. Tony, bringing to life every adolescent stereotype to life with his glowering face and mum-is-making-me attitude. When he’d been a young boy of twelve he’d been a bundle of unrestrained energy. Penny could almost see them as two different people. The baby, Sasha, had barely been more than a white wrapped bundle sleeping or feeding. Now she sat on her mother’s hip watching avidly at the passers-by, waving tiny fists in greeting.

Lastly her mother sandwiched between them looked the same as she’d left her. Dressed for summer she wore well-worn sandals and her favourite green dress. She smiled at both her children standing beside her and occasionally made a remark or two to the sullen teenager to be promptly ignored.

Penny let out an excited shriek and dashed over. Michael turned and caught her as she launched into his arms, just like she’d been dying too. He spun them in a tight circle and laughed. She smiled and laughed too, it was music to her ears to hear in person again.

“Blimey, Beaut are you trying to kill me or what?” He chuckled into her shoulder.

“Hey! I’m just excited to see you! I’ve not seen you in forever and I’m just so damn happy!” She mumbled into his.

“Don’t we get a look in sis? Or are we just the baggage handlers?” Debs drawled.

Penny pulled herself from her brother’s embrace to throw herself, minding the baby, onto her sister. She took in one deep breath of perfume and smiled even wider. Debs hugged her the best she could with one arm and pecked her cheek. When she withdrew she was smiling too.

Penny stroked a finger down Sasha’s cheek, earning a puzzled frown. She figured if some total stranger touched her she’d be a little miffed too. She turned to her next target, Tony who looked like he’d figured out he’d be next and was trying to disappear into the tiles. Penny dragged him into a quick hug and released him just as quick getting a potent lungful, some Lynx fragrance she was sure. Debs caught her eye over the top of her son’s head with a commiserating look. It seemed that Tony bathed in the stuff.

Last but not least she turned to her mother. She stood waiting with a patient smile and anxious eyes. Penny took one step towards her and was engulfed in everything that was home. She could smell grass and deodorant. She could smell the sunshine and her father’s cigarettes even though he always smoked them outside.

“Welcome home baby. We’ve all missed you.” Her mother’s voice was calm and welcoming, just as it always was. Penny sniffed back some tears.

“Where’s dad? Or didn’t he come?” She spoke quietly, not really wanting the reason.

Michael slipped her suitcase into his large hand and started off towards the door.

“Dad’s waiting in the truck, got to keep the air conditioning on the dogs.” He called over his shoulder.

Her mother, with one arm still around her shoulders, started pulling her towards to the exit. Debs herding Tony along behind. She could hear her mother’s light admonitions over her weight, or lack there-of. She could hear Michael’s urging to walk faster, his long legs eating up the distance. She could hear Debs burbling to the baby and occasionally to her son. It all faded in the wake of her mounting anxiety of seeing her father again. He never approved of her leaving the way she did; her dreams of stardom or her boyfriends. She always said to herself that his opinions didn’t really matter but years spent as his replacement for Michael when he went off the rails had always left her anxious for his approval. That and the ability to wield a wrench in all the ways it was meant to be used and a few it wasn’t.

The wall of heat hit them as soon as they were beyond the safety of the building with it the blinding sunshine. The further they stepped from the main airport building the more her eyes adjusted to the light and there appeared her father.

He stood with his back against the truck, cap pulled low over his eyes and arms crossed. Penny swallowed nervously.

He looked up as they approached and locked eyes on his wayward daughter. Inside Penny trembled just a bit, not fear but expectation of disappointment.

“Hey Slugger.” His words a little stilted.

“Hey dad.” She replied just as stilted.

For a moment the group stood in silence, waiting to see who would make the first move. Endless moments passed and she stood under her father’s ponderous gaze awaiting her verdict. He stepped forward and pulled her into a one armed hug. She breathed in the strong smell of his cigarettes and petrol. He pulled her a little tighter just before letting go and she breathed a sigh of relief. She smiled at her father. As he pulled away his cap was down and he already had the keys in his hand.

“Are we ready to go James? I’m sweating like a sinner in church” Her mother grumbled.

“After you Pandora”

Chapter Text

Chapter five

The journey towards home stirred up long lost teenaged memories. Penny sat behind their mother on the passenger side, her brother behind their father and the dogs jostled in the bed of the truck. As she looked out the window she couldn’t help but smile. It was the soundtrack of her childhood; the well-tended grumble of the engine, Michael humming to the radio, the dogs tumbling over one another and occasionally yipping and her parents talking just quietly enough to not be heard over the sound of the radio. All that was missing from her memories was Debs sitting between them chatting away on her phone or arguing with Michael about nothing.

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June and you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too, the radio crooned to them. Penny could just about see herself as a vibrant ten-year-old bouncing in place, loudly and unashamedly singing along to the latest country track. The houses and streets dashing past outside the window were once more the most familiar skyline of her life. She was nearly home and she was surprised to not feel the old and too familiar feeling of suffocation she’d fled to Pasadena to escape. She had left in the crappy truck of her then boyfriend and the further they’d driven from her home the lighter the layers of expectation and disappointment had become until they’d been gratefully shrugged off. She’d not even looked back, barely left a note. Her eyes focussed back on her present reflection, sun bright and tired; she felt the stirrings of regret again low down and ever so slightly painful. She knew that she’d left her parents with little to comfort them in her absence and it had taken her months to pluck up the courage to phone and tell them finally where she actually had gone. Penny never liked to think too hard on how she’d treated them back then.

 Her father turned the truck into the final left turn and started down the winding driveway of their farm, dust licking up the windows. The house seemed to grow up from the ground as they neared. The wide sweeping windows and the circular veranda. The solid brick whitewashed and the neat little flower beds at every opportunity. The pretty lattice fence on the veranda and the well-worn dog beds. Everything she had desperately ran from years before believing that if she didn’t she would be forever tarred as another hometown waster worth nothing and end up popping out kids for an alcoholic former athlete. She held up her engagement ring to the Nebraskan sunshine. The diamonds glinted and the gold shone. At least Leonard wasn’t an alcoholic or an athlete. And Pasadena was far from home.

“Penny, you haven’t told us when the wedding is going to be?” Her mother’s gentle voice swept in and momentarily calmed the rising fear that perhaps she was going to end up where she desperately didn’t want to. Penny cleared her throat and intently watched the scenery passing; the fields full of wheat and the almost blinding blue sky.

“We’re still deciding on the date; Leonard wants it to be perfect.” She replied. What she didn’t add was he wanted the perfect date so that the most important and most respected members of the scientific community would be available to attend. He wanted the perfect date so he could flash his perfect life in the faces of the ones who mocked him. He wanted to prove he was a proper man, not a weedy nerd. She swallowed back the irritation; their wedding had become a show to prove that Leonard did indeed have a cock and could use it. Not about them pledging their lives to one another for the next eighty years. Not their shared loved and willingness to compromise to keep each other happy.

Her mother couldn’t read her irritation from her face and so she cooed. She smiled and turned back in her seat, taking her father’s hand where it sat on the gear stick. They laced fingers and he squeezed before untangling to deal with parking the car. Almost before he had pulled on the hand brake Penny had opened the door and breathed in the fresh air. The sun began beating down on her exposed shoulders and the lazy breeze flickered around her ankles. A smile, one of the like she hadn’t felt in months stretched the muscles of her cheeks. She was home.

“Now Penny I have to ask you a very serious question.” Her mother’s voice was suspiciously even. Penny could feel everyone stop and all eyes turned. Her heart stuttered and she hoped that her mother hadn’t figured out what she was trying to avoid.

“What do you want for your first dinner home?” Pandora let out a quiet chuckle at their collective faces. Penny watched as Debs smirked and hefted the car seat higher on her arm; heading towards the house. Tony followed in her wake like a little lost duckling. Michael grinned and mouthed macaroni and cheese as he lifted the boot to let the dogs out. The big mutt, Barney, immediately threw himself onto his long lost master and tumbled them both to the ground with a yelp and puff of dust. Her father walked silently towards his barn ignoring the commotion.

“I think the only thing I could ask for is Nana’s celebration soup; if that’s not too much trouble.” Penny heard herself speak and couldn’t believe the hesitance in her voice. As if she were a guest asking for directions to the bathroom. Her mother quirked an eyebrow.

“Penny, of course. It’s no trouble at all. You’ve been away far too long if you’re asking that politely! I’ll bet that within the week you’ll be stealing the truck like you used too!” She teased.

Penny cracked a grin and felt something wound bow-string tight begin to relax. She slipped an arm round her mother’s waist and began to amble towards the front door. Stepping up the veranda steps she could have sworn that for a split second she was fifteen again and coming in from school. There was something eternally welcoming about those steps, whenever they’d travelled away from home; family or holiday, Penny knew she’d returned when she stepped up those ancient wooden steps and felt them creak and dip beneath her feet.

Her mother disentangled from her and swung the front door open with a little hum. The living room opened up before her. The dog fur covered sofas arranged in their customary semi-circle. The mantle heavy with frames and trinkets. The old oak dinner table with its brightly coloured cushioned chairs.  Pandora had already made straight for the archway leading to the kitchen; her half sung hum filtering through. Something rushed past her ankles startling her back to herself. The two youngest dogs, Lilly and Charlie darted through the door towards her mother and she heard the quiet cussing and scolding from where she stood. Pandora couldn’t stand to have dogs in the kitchen; the two Jack Russel’s hadn’t quite figured that out yet. Michael dropped her suitcase by her feet having escaped Barney and flashed her a cheeky grin as he passed.

“You gonna take root, sis?”

She aimed a slap at his arm, laughing as he dodged away. He collapsed onto the closest armchair and swung his feet cheekily onto the coffee table.

“Yeah, thought the living room was lacking a certain something!” She replied.

Debs popped her head over the bannisters near the top of the stairs.

“If you two idiots want to deal with a screaming toddler because her nap was interrupted be my guest!” She hissed.

They both held their hands up and Debs, satisfied, returned upstairs. She slid onto the sofa next to Michael and laid her head onto his shoulder. A happy hum began in his chest and she tried to figure out how to approach the elephant.

“Michael...” She began.

“I don’t want to talk right now okay? Maybe later.” He interrupted quietly.

She licked her lips and nodded. Michael would pick the moment he needed. She would wait. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Debs come quietly down the stairs; muslin thrown over her shoulder and a dummy hooked on a finger. Their sister squeezed into the space on Michael’s free side and copied her position. She caught her eyes and they shared a sentimental smile. It had been years since they’d sat as they did. Penny settled fully against her brother and slipped her flats off to tuck her toes into the sofa cushion. And for a few endless moments they sat together, exchanging nothing but their presence.

“Dinner in half an hour okay? So someone better lay the table if you want to get fed!”

They startled when Pandora appeared before them wiping her hands on her apron; smiling indulgently.

“Look at my babies all together. I’ve missed this.” She fiddled with her pocket; her phone emerging. Don’t you dare move!”

As soon as the picture was taken she disappeared back into the kitchen. They all looked at each other bemused.

“I wasn’t kidding. If there aren’t plates on that dinner table no one is getting fed!” She reminded them.

+++++++++++++

Penny stretched happily when her alarm went off. The cockerel made his early morning song the most discordant thing she had ever heard but he still sung to welcome the new day. She’d begged as a teenager to swap rooms with her brother. His room on the other side of the house faced towards the woods. A succession of cockerels had done their work every morning and she’d hated it; wishing for the hen house to blow away and leave her some peace. She’d felt that she had more pressing things to do, like sleep, rather than listen to a demented bird at arse o clock in the morning. Needless to say he’d merrily refused to swap and she’d learnt to live with the sound.

 Penny couldn’t remember waking up and feeling as good as she did in that moment. She’d only spent a week at home and yet she felt like months of stress had been erased. As if the bone deep tiredness she had learnt to live with had disappeared. She snuggled into the duvet a little more and looked out of her window. The early morning sun stretched weak pink fingers across the horizon and she reached for her phone, the digital clock informing her that it was coming up to half past five. She scoffed, back in her flat she never saw five AM unless she hadn’t been to sleep yet. Sheldon would look at her in amazement, fearing all the while she was a clone or a pod person. Penny and her elven o clock rule.

A little buzz and a Facebook notification appeared on her screen. She knew it couldn’t be one of her friendship circle, as most of them would still be asleep and even the early bird would be in the middle of his morning ritual of getting his shower and teeth done before breakfast. She smiled at the thought of her neighbour and then stopped. She wondered about his rituals and whether his web searches had been implemented. She couldn’t imagine Sheldon sleeping in or not brushing his teeth less than twice before he left for work. She supposed that it was the point. Perhaps he was tired of being the way he was, perhaps he wanted to be able to relax his hold on the rules of his little world. She could imagine that being Sheldon must be exhausting; with his compulsions and his intelligence. He knew that his behaviours were compulsive and mostly unnecessary; his intelligence made him excruciatingly aware of it.

Penny had rarely seen him let on how much it bothered him; both his OCD behaviours and his friend’s reactions to it. Leonard never had the time for it. If anything he delighted in making Sheldon aware of his differences, he twisted the knife when Sheldon didn’t catch on to something or pulled the teasing humour into cruelty. Penny swallowed uncomfortably. Her self-appointed role of Sheldon-expert and she had done little to stop her fiancée. Howard and Raj were much the same. She knew that they cared for Sheldon almost as much as she did, with the added benefit of actually coming close to understanding his work. But they’d also stood by and let Leonard spill forth the crap he spouted like it was gospel.

Penny flicked open the notification to avoid delving into the jagged anger that coalesced in her belly when she thought of their friends being stupid. Howard and Raj were lovely when they didn’t focus on the fact that she was a woman and not related to them. They were genuinely sweet and passionate about their work; she could see why Sheldon had accepted them into his friendship group. Even with his constant reminders of Howard only having a Masters. She personally couldn’t see why he couldn’t drop it. Howard was just as smart as the rest of them when he wasn’t being a complete tit. She could understand the urge to strike back when Sheldon got properly obnoxious and self-righteous, Howard did take a lot of flak for his educational title. However, she couldn’t understand how Howard and Raj didn’t see how, when led by their vaunted leader, their banter and slightly barbed comments in response quickly turned to childish name calling and cruelty. She took a deep breath and forced her tense muscles to relax. They followed her fiancée so closely that they refused to see what they were doing was wrong. Leonard often walked the knife edge between banter and mean.

Turning her mind from her best friend before she worked herself into a foul mood and ruined the day she focussed on her phone, the notification turned out to be for a crafting page she’d signed up to in the height of her Penny Blossom enthusiasm. It advertised the glittery gems she loved to liberally use in the centre of her flowers as half price. She paused and calculated the distance. Sitting up, she clocked the time again; nearly six. She slid out of bed on silent feet walking the quietest path on the boards barely pausing to scoop up the clothes she’d laid out the night before. She walked it in her own flat if she didn’t pay attention to what she was doing, she was so used to avoiding the squeaks and groans. She opened her door quietly and slipped down the stairs. Her mother’s decorating influence was strong in the house, her father never bothered unless she got bored and offered to redecorate the barn. They hadn’t spoken for three days when she’d cleaned and organised it during a fishing trip. The walls of the stairway were barely lit in the early dawn light, making the cream paint look washed out and taking the shine from the glass photographs lining it.

As she descended the stairs she saw her life in reverse. At the top of the stairs stood the latest snap shots. Her, Michael and Debs the day she’d come home; arms around each other and smiling fit to burst. Her mother and father dancing at a friend’s kid’s wedding, their faces so close she could tell that they were talking sweet nothings. Deb’s birthday, surrounded by her friends, all of them raising their cocktails. Michael, gaunt but smiling, with his motorcycle before he’d crashed it. Tony at his first rugby game with his father, when he had actually come through on his promise. Sasha lying next to one of the dogs wearing nothing but a gummy smile.

The next one a picture of her that she’d sent to her parents of her and the gang at a convention. It had taken weeks of convincing by the gang to get her there and dress up too. Sheldon had been to the one to convince her to go; stating that it would be a good acting opportunity for her and a chance to immerse herself fully into her character for the day. Sheldon and her stood centre as Spock and Uhura, she was smiling brightly at the camera and he was looking at her. Raj and Howard had gone as Chekov and Scotty and Leonard had been bold and gone as Kirk. She stopped and looked a little closer. When she’d sent the picture she was proud of the fact that all of them were looking in the same general direction. Although Raj had moved slightly to whisper into Howards ear and Leonard had his eyes closed completely. Sheldon was looking down at her with one long arm slung over her shoulder in a rare moment of spontaneous contact and he was smiling his sweet little smile. She looked at herself, seeing in that photo a different woman. Her eyes ringed with purple and her skin looked haggard however she could see genuine warmth in her eyes and her smile was bright. If she didn’t know better looking at that photo she would have thought that Leonard was the third wheel to Raj and Howard and her and Sheldon. She smothered a little giggle. Her and Sheldon. The thought was ridiculous but it couldn’t stop the tiny fluttery warmth in her chest. She shook her head and moved on.

There were plenty of photos of the three of them as teenagers in various stages of petulance and a few rare photos of all of them standing for holiday snaps. A few lone images of her father standing beside the fields or bent over the work table in the barn, face shielded by his ever present cap. She stepped down a few more steps and found the adorable pictures of them as little kids and playing in the garden, the baby bath time photos and the very first photo of each of them, Debs lying serene in their mother’s arms, Michael smiling gummily in his Moses basket and her lying in their father’s arms screaming her little lungs out. She touched a finger to the glass. Little Penny couldn’t have realised what was coming but knew that she would go down screaming.

She stepped off the final step and was greeted by the only wedding picture her parents displayed. It stood pride of place on the wall opposite in a polished silver frame. Her mother and father were standing outside the church in the middle of a confetti storm and cheering friends and family; looking at nothing but each other. They were frozen sharing a secret little smile and it always brought a soft smile to her lips. Her parents had been married for nearly their entire lives and she could still see the love in that photo displayed often and sincere in the present. She wondered how they could do it. How they could still love each other so much even with a lifetime of memories, good and bad, between then and now. She certainly struggled to like Leonard some days.

With that uneasy thought she crept down the corridor to the shower room. She washed quickly and slipped out into the kitchen feeling excited for the day ahead. Not feeling particularly hungry she opted for a cup of coffee and stood in the light of the kitchen window to drink it. The kitchen looked out over the fields and in the distance she could already see movement, the cows being herded towards the milking sheds. Her father would have woken at least two hours ago and would have already given his boys the order for the day. She brought the cup to her nose and inhaled the strong scent. Her father never stopped, he simply kept moving forwards. She admired that.

She absentmindedly slipped her feet into her trainers and stepped into the not quite warm morning. She breathed in the fresh scents of farm and cool morning and smiled. It was something she hadn’t realised she missed in the city. To be able to drag a deep breath in and not feel like half of it was fumes. She sat herself on the back door step and simply let the soft morning sounds greet her. After her coffee was done she slipped the mug inside and plucked the truck keys from the hook. She was going to enjoy today.

+++++++

Three hours later she pulled the truck into the car park. The Hobby Shop, written in bright floral letters let her know she was definitely in the right place. She stepped out into the bright sunshine and was immediately glad she’d rifled through the glove box for sunglasses.  With one final check of her outfit in the wing mirror, tugging the hem of her shorts straight and smoothing a hand over her t-shirt she headed into the shop.

Aisles and aisles of every craft item under the sun greeted her and she couldn’t help the excited little giggle that escaped her. She always loved making things and getting to do so again felt right. Her order for a few Penny Blossoms deadline was fast approaching and having decided to go for one last batch she already knew what she wanted. Her feet led her through the shop, admiring the various sections. She swept past other shoppers, already heading back to the till with their baskets full. She finally paused in front of the glue guns selecting her preferred model. She headed to the next aisle to pick up the beads and glittery gems. Just as she was headed to find a suitable flower template she stopped by a display showing a how to on basic jewellery making. The instructor deftly wound the wire into elegant swirls and threaded on gems and beads. She explained each step and Penny couldn’t stop herself from getting right to the front. The woman held up her finished product; laying aside her pliers to gesture.

“And here you have a simple flower crown, I know it’s a little hipster. But honestly I can say that most of us just like to wear pretty things, right?” She got a titter from the crowd. “If you want any of the kit here, or even our starter packs just head over to aisle seven or there are a few here for you to pick up on your way past.”

She placed the crown on the table and Penny admired how she’d turned the wire into vines and the beads and gems into sparkling petals. It was a little piece of art, a touch messy but then it was made in a few moments. She ran a finger over one of the closest flowers, seeing the resemblance to her own creations. An idea sparked off in her mind and she looked over her shoulder to the aforementioned aisle. The instructor fiddled with a few pieces of spare wire.

“It’s half off on most of the things in here today. And if you sign up for the newsletter you get an extra twenty off.” She whispered, faux secretively.

Penny smiled at her. And turned on her heel to aisle seven. By the time she made it to the counter she had been wandering around the shop for close to two hours, had picked up a trolley and was dreading the total at the till. She looked down at her collection and grinned. She knew it was going to be an experiment but she figured that if she didn’t like it she never had to have another go at it.

She queued behind a couple of young girls, their shared basket full of wool and a few little trinkets.

“Mum is gonna be so happy with this! I just know it.” The little brunette said, practically vibrating with excitement.

“I know! I mean she loves scarves right? And this will be the prettiest scarf she’s ever gotten. Did you take the pretty pink beads?” The little blonde replied.

“Yeah and the green ones. It doesn’t really go but I’m sure it will be fine.”

They giggled amongst themselves and Penny sighed almost fondly. She would love to have children like them, if she and Leonard ever got around to it. She knew that her biological clock wasn’t ticking any faster than it was when she was twenty but she did want them some day. They’d obviously carefully planned their gift and wanted their mother’s favourite colours in it. She knew whatever it turned out like their mother was going to love it. The two girls chatted happily whilst waiting for their turn and Penny happily listened. She watched them get called forward and carefully pack their items away in their matching backpacks. The little brunette grabbed her sisters hand as they left the shop and dragged her off.

Penny moved to the till when she was called and began to load her shopping on the belt. She felt a little apprehensive about the cost but mentally waved it off. The tickets to Nebraska had been dirt cheap; she’d been pleasantly surprised at the remaining bank balance she’d saved in anticipation of the trips to Leonard’s family. She knew that she’d find some use for it all if she didn’t like jewellery making as much as she’d hoped. She had just placed the bumper pack of beads onto the belt when she felt her phone vibrate in her pocket. Without looking she accepted the call and raised the phone to her ear.

“Penny, you need to come back. Sheldon is being so damn unreasonable! He is refusing to eat his damn Chinese and I’m not going back to the shop to order it again. I won’t be banned from another place just because he’s so damn childish!” Came Leonard’s whinging voice.

Penny sighed and mentally braced herself. She knew before asking that Leonard had forgotten to ask for the chicken the right way and had forgotten to get a new bottle of soy sauce.

“Put Sheldon on, please.” She replied.

“NO! I’m not going to pander to that child any longer it’s ridiculous! There is no difference in the taste of chicken dependant on how it’s cut up and there is soy sauce in the cupboard. Penny you need to come back and deal with him because if you don’t you’ll see me on the six o’clock news for murder!” He sniped.

“Leonard! Jesus. Calm down. You’re being ridiculous. Sheldon likes a new bottle of soy sauce and his chicken diced, just like you like the right side of the bed and dairy free cheese! Christ!”

The cashier was pointedly watching at the items on her till and looking like she wanted to disappear. She couldn’t believe that even hundreds of miles away Leonard expected her to drop everything for his pleasure. She felt the embarrassment stain her cheeks. Sheldon’s disappointed face popped into her mind and she took one long slow breath.

“Now listen here Leonard. You can be a bloody adult and do the right thing or you can stew in whatever mess you’re making right now. I’m not in the mood to deal with your whining or your petulant attitude. I’m on holiday and frankly I don’t want to deal with you. You know that Sheldon has his quirks. You live with him. And have done so for quite a few years now. Leonard, you are fully aware of his dietary requirements just like he is fully aware of yours. He never forgets to ask for no lactose, no raspberries, no eggs and no member of the pea family just because you don’t like the texture. Grow up. I’ll talk to you later when you’ve actually calmed down. Good bye Leonard.” Penny finished evenly.

He hadn’t been able to reply and she finished the call feeling victorious. As she was putting her phone back into her purse she felt panic storm up in her gut; drowning the victory almost as soon as it had surged forth. She had torn him a new one and she just knew that he was going to take it out on the closest person who wouldn’t fight back. Sheldon. Her neighbour knew how to cut his intellectual opponents off at the knees in a debate about quarks but never stood up against Leonard on a tirade. Leonard’s foul mood had practically drowned her through the phone and for a few moments she battled herself. 

She speed-dialled a number she could type blind.  He picked up on the first ring.

“Sheldon, hey sweetie. I want you to know that you have the key to my flat and if you ever want to escape Leonard being a whiny little madam you can stay there. There are clean sheets on the bed and you already know where everything is. I have a new bottle of soy sauce, unopened, in the cupboard closest to the fridge and if you phone the Chinese and say it’s an order for Penny in 4A they’ll deliver and it will be made correctly.” She paused for breath and heard nothing on the other end.

“Sweetie, are you there?”

“Thank you Penny. I will consider your generous offer and utilise it if needed. I will also phone the Chinese takeaway as per your orders as I trust in your ability to convince others to your method of thinking. I…I didn’t want to interrupt your holiday; I apologise for Leonards behaviour. He has been especially petulant since your departure.” He stated. His frustrated tone told her everything and she frowned.

“Sheldon, I know that line. But you really don’t need to apologise for him. You shouldn’t. He’s a grown man and should make his own apologies.” As she spoke she could feel her words settling somewhere deep inside her smoothing over jagged edges and carved out holes. Leonard was an adult. He should know better. He shouldn’t be able to walk around and act like a child with no repercussions. Sheldon really had talked some sense into her head on that landing.

“I understand. I know that Leonard is an adult although he rarely acts like it. I am glad you’ve realised it.” Sheldon replied, quietly pleased. “I wish you a wonderful holiday. Please return when you are ready to, don’t let Leonard’s petulance hurry your return. I hope your family are well, send them my regards.” He finished, his tone asking her whether he was saying the words the right way.

She smiled. Sheldon didn’t get people but he did try.

“I’ll make sure of it honey. Good-bye Sheldon.”

“Good-bye Penny.”

 

+++++++

“Michael, be a dear and reach that pot there. I know your father is all about putting things away but he never listens when I tell him that I lack the two feet needed to reach such places! Oh and that bowl there, the one your Grandma gave me. I don’t want to have keep pulling you back in here to get me things; I want you to enjoy being home.” Pandora stroked her son’s cheek with a fond smile when he dutifully handed over the items. Penny simply sat on the island stool closest to the fan, and with drink in hand, watched in amusement as their mother successfully wound her son around her finger in one softly spoken move.

She rolled a bead absently beneath her fingertip watching the light dance on the table. Her mother had always been a soft person; she could count on one hand the number of times she’d raised her voice at them growing up. During their childhood they’d gotten up to all the mischief three children on a farm could and then some. Their father had a temper like a wildfire; it would start as a little warning heat and quickly bloom into a terrifying scene. When they’d shirked their chores, gotten a phone call home from school or had just thrown their weight around too much during harvest their father was first to let them know when they’d crossed the line. It wasn’t until their father told them their mother was going to be told that they started to worry.

The woman pottering around the country kitchen in an old fashioned pinafore with frilly pockets looked no more troubling than a kitten. Penny heard their Grams’ heavy ceramic bowl touch the oak countertop and the light tap of her mother’s feet dancing across the kitchen in a rhythm they’d danced for decades. Pandora was the only daughter of a chef and a soldier meaning she could turn the most meagre rations into a filling supper, without sacrificing the taste or texture. Grams had passed when she was only a little girl but she could still remember when her mother and grandmother had filled the house with olfactory delights every evening even when the harvest had left them with little.  

 “Penny, sweetheart, you okay?” Came her mother’s sweet voice.

Penny looked up from her lap, suddenly conscious of the room again. Michael had already left and her mother was staring straight at her; stirring the mixture slowly. Penny swallowed apprehensively. Her mother may have looked unassuming but she could see the steel behind her eyes.  She returned her gaze to the beads and the work in progress sitting in front of her. She was finally getting the hang of twisting the wire into the right shapes for leaves and petals.

“Yeah, I’m fine Ma. I’ve just not been home in so long it’s a little weird being here again. I know I’ve been back a while but sometimes it knocks me sideways. I’ve not been living here for years but it seems like time hasn’t passed.” She took a little sip, relishing the taste of homemade lemonade. The shop brought variety always lacked something she couldn’t quite place. “I half expect to see Debs wander in talking a mile a minute to Laurie or Katy. Or Michael to chuck his backpack at the dinner chairs and stomp up the stairs. I can’t quite believe that I haven’t been home in years.” Penny finished, smiling wistfully.

Her mother had stopped stirring the mixture and stared at her with an expression she couldn’t quite figure out. Pandora wiped her hands free of non-existent mess on her apron and seated herself next to her daughter.

“Oh Penny, my dear girl, I sometimes can’t believe it myself. I thought the teenage years would last forever keeping you all under my roof. Safe from the world and close to me in case you needed me. Every mothers wish, you have to understand. Your children are babies for such a short time and then, blink, they’re getting married and having babies of their own and making mistakes that only life can teach them. Mistakes that no parent can shield them from.” Pandora smiled, chucking a finger beneath her daughter’s chin. “I always knew you’d leave us first, you know. Even as a little girl I could see that you’d need to fly free of us, you were ever so independent. Toddling on your own before I could catch you. Running through the fields until dark having your adventures. Sweeping off into new places with barely a blink. Barely a word.” Penny felt her stomach drop when her mother laid a hand atop her own, covering the glittering gem of her engagement ring. Her mother had forgiven her for her mistakes but she would never forget them. But then Pandora smiled.

“Now you’re getting married and soon it will be babies and I’ll be a Nana all over again!” She huffed out a little chuckle. Penny felt the smile drop from her lips almost as soon as the words tasted air.

“Now, there. That’s the look I’ve been seeing all day. Dear-heart you are happy aren’t you? You do want to get married don’t you? That phone call this morning has set you off something awful.” Her mother queried gently.

She could all too clearly remember her exchange with her fiancée. He’d phoned up and done the verbal equivalent of his pitiful puppy dog eyes; his classic move to make her feel bad. He’d tried to make it up to her for calling in the craft shop in such a temper but it had devolved into petty insults when she clutched onto her resolve. Sheldon could always make her feel like she was the captain of her own life His reassuring words built her up a safe harbour and she had clung to them when the storm of Leonards anger began to rise. Her fiancée needed to learn that adults couldn’t act like children and get away with it.

“Ma…” Penny bit down the first words trying to escape. She figured her mother didn’t need to worry about her wayward daughter failing to reach yet another goal. So she flexed her tongue and continued.

 “I do want to get married! I do, I want my knight in shining armour to come and whisk me off into the sunset where we can adventure into forever. I want it all. To be sitting on the porch of our house in fifty years and being wrinkled and happy with the man of my dreams. I’d love to look back on my life and say that marrying my best friend was the most important decision I made in my life. But…it’s just there’s so much stress involved. I half wish we could just elope to Vegas and do it that way. But Leonard needs this to be perfect. So it’s going to be perfect.” She forced down the other thoughts wanting to be aired. Every couple had issues; marriage was about making it work. Not airing the dirty laundry where everyone could see it. She and Leonard were weeding out their problems even though each one that cropped up felt like getting hit with a truck.

Her mother was quiet and Penny could feel the tension in the room rise with every passing second. Her mother was good at that; they often folded as children when left to stew in their own words. But she knew she was no longer a child. Adults took care of their own problems.

“Ma, honest. It’s just stress, a few more days and I’m sure I’ll be begging for a lift back to the stress of wedding planning.” Penny lied through her teeth. She knew there was stress waiting for her but it was no longer about wedding planning. Pandora watched her face for a few long moments and seemingly satisfied she rose and set about finishing her tasks. Penny closed her eyes in relief.

“Ma! Is there anything to drink in there? A man could die of thirst!” Her brother hollered from the back garden. At the mention of her name their mother set her spoon down carefully and pulled a pitcher from the fridge. She fetched a cup from the draining board and set that next to its larger cousin.

“Sweetness could you take this out to your brother and remind him that in this house we do not holler like a goat through the window to get what we want and that if he and his father are going to be messing around in the barn to leave their boots at the back door.” She smiled sweetly. “Because heaven help them if they track muck through my kitchen and expect to get fed like men when they’ve acted like animals.”

Penny smothered a smile and dutifully took the glassware. She used her back to push open the back door and stepped out into the afternoon sunshine. The garden, bordered by the same brown fences it had had since she was old enough to walk, seemed even greener than before. Even though she’d not explained the truth of the problem with her mother she always felt lighter after a talk with her. Her father had tended to the fence well, the years had barely touched it.

She descended the steps into the unusually long grass, clenching her toes with each step into the lush earth. She looked around and could feel the overwhelming rightness of her childhood echo back at her; the places she’d played with her siblings, had her first kiss, had more than her fair share of fights. The bones of herself had been built by the woods and the grass and the flowers. She had been so happy until the siren call of fame convinced her to abandon it all. Mentally she scoffed at how well had that turned out.

“Penny? You okay? Or are you planning to become a garden statue? You know, one of the ugly ones.” Her brother called.

She turned to face her smirking brother. He’d turned up his sleeves and had already gotten grease smeared across his forearms. He looked right again, like the brother she’d left last year had never existed. She smiled at him and his face softened into his customary smile, genuine with just a little hint of cheeky.

“You’re in trouble!” She called to him as she approached, holding out the glass cup. He furrowed his brow in confusion.

“Ma wants me to tell you that members of this family do not shout like a goat for attention and that if you want to be fed do not under any circumstances walk into the house in your boots.” She smugly told him.

“Penny!” He scolded lightly as he took the offered glass. “I do not sound like a goat.”

“Maa!” She teased.

He lightly bumped her shoulder in return. They stood side by side looking out over the garden and fields beyond. They’d used the land before them as a stage for all their adventures; dashing prince and warrior princess, mighty dragon and the damsel in distress, Skywalker and Organa. He caught her gaze and she knew he was thinking the same.

“You reckon we could just go back?” He asked quietly.

“Back to when the biggest problem was getting our homework done and avoiding our chores? Would be nice.”

“I sometimes look at this scene for hours, you know? I wasted so much of my life, throwing away my chance at school just to hang out with my stupid friends. If I could go back, I’d shake that little idiot until his teeth rattled in his head. Make him see that the crap he was doing wasn’t big and it sure wasn’t clever. Christ, I messed up so much.”

Penny slipped a hand into his and squeezed tight.

 “Life is full of crappy mistakes, Mikey. I mean, not one of us is perfect. You went off the rails, Debs was a kid having a kid and I had my head up my arse about how my life was going to turn out.” Penny admitted feeling a sharp spike of embarrassment in her gut.

“We grew up and got on with life. I mean it’s all turned out for the best right? You’re clean and back on the ‘right’ path” They shared an amused look. “Debs had Tony and grew up. She’s now a nurse for Christ’s sake! And little Sasha is darling, and I…” She wasn’t sure what was going to fall from her mouth, “didn’t get anywhere but hundreds of miles from home with bills I can barely pay on an awful waitress’s salary. If anyone here is the screw up here Mikey it’s me. I still hold on to the dream that one day I’ll be on the big screen and be rolling in it. But all I’ve managed to accomplish is a fiancée that I’m fighting with and more bills with this stupid wedding.” She could feel the tears coating every word.

Her brother had always been her confidant, even though he was four years older than her. She’d told him everything and he returned the favour. Until she’d thought herself too good for the country life and he’d fallen so far down the rabbit hole that he was unrecognisable. He squeezed her hand.

“Beaut, you’ve not messed up. You’re happy and getting married soon and I’m sure that it’s all going to end up right. Every couple fights right? And living with you can’t be easy, I mean just think of how long you spend in front of the mirror and still look that ugly!” He teased.

“Oi! You git!”

She launched a punch into the flesh of his arm and he howled dramatically. She smiled and made the gesture of throwing the pitcher over him. He flinched and she laughed triumphantly.

“Still got it.” She whispered to him and finally poured him a drink. She waved an arm to the barn.

“Does dad want one?”

“Think he’s got a glass in there somewhere. You should see what he’s working on. It’s bloody beautiful.”

She shrugged her shoulders noncommittally. However, every step towards the ajar barn door added to the tangles of anxiety balled up in her belly. Beyond the doors was her father’s domain, the place where he retreated when the world disappointed him too much. He had taught them all to change a tyre and to respect their vehicles inside that barn. He’d taught her so much more after Michael began to leave the house and not return for days at a time, after the first time he was arrested for possession. He’d latched onto the only child he had left in his house that hadn’t grown away from him, pouring a lifetime of tips and tricks into her mind to keep any manner of mechanical object working. She’d made him proud when she’d fixed her first engine on her own. She’d made him proud when she’d taken over the care of the cranky old lawnmower. Then she’d abandoned him, all of them. She swallowed uncomfortably.

Michael called out to him and a few shuffles later he appeared from the shadows in the back of the barn. Penny felt her jaw drop. Her father greeted her with a small nod and took the pitcher from her hands.

Lying on a tarpauling was a shining rocking horse. Carefully, sturdily built for a beloved little granddaughter, waiting for his rider to walk in on her wobbly little legs and mount him for their future adventures.  The wood he was carved from was seamless, he’d been always been one piece of wood and with the skill of her father’s hands had been brought to life. His coat and mane shone darkly where the ebony wood had been polished and his saddle looked as comfortable as an armchair. Sasha was one lucky little girl.

Penny reached out a hand a lightly traced down the proud nose. It was beautiful.

“Dad’s giving it to her for her birthday. Reckon she’ll go nuts for it, already horse mad and barely one!” Michael teased.

Penny locked gazes with her father and smiled gently. He’d given lovingly made gifts for all of his children and was continuing it for the latest addition. A little niggly thought wound its way into her mind.

“Michael, you’ve been out here for hours and unless you’ve become a master wood carver in the last year, what are you working on? And why so much grease?” She raised an eyebrow.

Michael rubbed the back of his neck, spreading grease behind his ears.

“I, uh, was working on the lawnmower. Blood thing isn’t working.” He admitted.

She grinned.

“The lawnmower has you beat? Why, Michael, I never thought I’d see the day you got stumped by a simple thing like this! You’re a mechanic!” She laughed. Michael rolled his eyes affectionately.

“I know that dear sister. It’s just a crotchety piece of junk. I don’t know why we don’t get a new one, one much easier to use too.”

“Just because it’s difficult to work with and needs some special attention to run well doesn’t mean it needs to be thrown away, I taught you better than that Mikey.” Their father retorted.

James returned from the back of the barn and passed the jug back to Penny. She hadn’t spent much time with him in the week since she returned home and seeing him so close she hadn’t realised just quite how much he’d aged. For a man approaching sixty he was in great form with nothing on him to spare, unlike the majority of her friends fathers who looked like they enjoyed their beer just a little too much. It was something in his face that had changed. A little more frown between the eyes. Skin a touch frailer. Something akin to weakness where there had only ever been strength and determination. Penny didn’t like it. Her father had always been a great imposing figure, the strong protector of her childhood defending against beestings and monsters under the bed and too see that life was catching up with him seemed so wrong.

“Dad, he’s beautiful. Sasha is gonna love him. You’ll be the best Papa in the world.” She told him.

He nodded and took a sip from his glass. For a long moment they all continued to admire the rocking horse.

“I started building him shortly after she was born. Figured she’d best be getting on a pony seeing as her mother and aunt are reigning Junior Rodeo Champions.”

Penny wasn’t used to deciphering her father’s tone; he had always been reserved and as such a puzzle their mother was expert in. But she watched as he spoke and saw the quiet pride in his words. He had been at every one of their trials and tests, the unofficial coach and the official taxi home. Her wrist ached in remembered pain when she thought of the final championship she’d entered; breaking it two rounds from the final when she’d been thrown but she’d clambered back onto that pony’s back and ridden her way into gold. Her father had scolded her something awful but had framed her certificate himself.

“Get yourselves indoors if you want your dinner!” Pandora’s voice called from the house.

Both men turned for the door but Penny paused. The lawnmower glinted dully in the sunlight. An idea came to mind and years of suppressed skills began to filter their way into the front of her mind. As she passed she ran a hand over the handle of the lawnmower, a promise to herself and to the machine. She would be coming back.

Chapter Text

Penny sat on top of her bedcovers, scrolling slowly through Facebook. It was Halo night and Raj had tagged the group in a post.

The mighty Sheldor has fallen!

She smiled, knowing that Sheldon wouldn’t have taken defeat easily. He’d have sat in his spot with a glare so deadly the screen should have burst into flames. He’d have to have been paired with Leonard. They always lost when they were paired together, Sheldon making bold choices and Leonard trying to, ending up frustrated and playing against him.

She and Sheldon were the undefeated champions when they played together. Her character would storm in, guns blazing and he’d protect her back, sniping any who thought they could take her down from behind. They played to each other’s strengths and covered for each other’s weaknesses. A post scrolled past under her finger; a photo of her and Sheldon sitting absorbed on her sofa surrounded by glitter, flowers and hot glue guns. It looked like the two of them were sharing a secret with their heads bent close. Sheldon looked relaxed; the strain she’d come to find familiar on his features of late hadn’t made an appearance, his shoulders angled towards her and his body one long line of contentment. Penny was surprised at how alike they sat; mirrored enjoyment and quiet satisfaction. She could see the beginnings of the dark circles and tiredness in her eyes but in the moment that picture was taken she was happy. She swiped a finger down the pixels of her face, wondering how she ignored all the signs, and the moment was broken by the scrape of gem on plastic. Her hand clenched reflexively to avoid damaging her screen. She scrolled on.

The sounds of the house settling after the scorching summer day seeped back in. She’d heard the familiar tread of her family settling into their beds hours ago. Her father steady, her mother light and her brother slightly shuffling. It had been her ideal time to sneak out to see the boy of the week when she was a teenager. Thinking back, she couldn’t see how she’d found it so attractive. After the last pair of footsteps had gone she used to climb out of be double checked the coast was clear and then shimmy out of her window onto the roof of the hen house and off to whatever party she’d been invited to. All in the name of boys she couldn’t now remember the faces of let alone their names.

The next post showed her an artistic shot of a miniature terrarium for sale. Terribly professional and just the right amount of pretentious. A thought sparked off in her mind and she debated whether to follow it. The original Penny Blossoms were a well-made product, Sheldon as her co-captain had made sure that they never produced a subpar flower, but she’d photographed them herself and compared with the professional shots before her made them look childish.  Her little circle was never very active on social media considering they worked tirelessly during the day and were almost all in bed by nine on any given night. Her phone’s clock read 9.49 and she decided to take the gamble. Two rings and a sleepy voice answered her call.

“Penny, you realise that some of us aren’t on holiday right?” Howard whispered.

“I know, I’m sorry, I just needed you.” She admitted.

She rolled her eyes at the sound of Howard sitting up in bed and before the first word passed his lips she could tell he was wearing his ‘suave’ smile. It made him look like a mug shot from crime watch.

“Well,” He crooned, “I never thought I’d hear those words from you but I’m glad to be of service. W..”

She held in a sigh. And cut him off before he embarrassed himself.

“I needed to speak to you about flowers, photography and the website.”

“Penny, this sounds awfully like a proposition and I’m not ..” He replied hesitantly.

“Howard! Sorry, it’s late here and later there and I’m not thinking in straight lines. I meant Penny Blossoms. I’ve had another order and I’m filling it but my site looks…outdated. I need a new look and as you set it up the first time I was wondering if you could help me and possibly know someone who could take some pretty photos to go with the new look?” She queried hopefully.

Silence answered her for a few long moments.

“I can do it.”

She smiled.

“So you can find someone to take some brilliant photos? You’re the best Howard. I owe you.”

Howard paused as if he were going to say something more but decided on goodbye. She whispered her reply just as a board outside of her room creaked with the weight of a passing footstep. She sat still, panic gripping her, before she remembered she was a grown woman. Her parents hadn’t had a say in her sleeping patterns in a long time.

The footsteps tread lightly down the stairs and with a little shuffle walked across to the living room. She slid out of bed and followed. Her feet automatically found the quietest route, far stealthier than her prey. She glanced at her parents’ door as she crept to the top of the stairs feeling like her rebellious teenaged self again before mentally shaking herself for the silliness. At least she didn’t need to worry about disturbing them, her parents had long since gone to sleep and she highly doubted her mother was anxiously waiting to hear her wayward daughters return. She knew her father was a light sleeper but as long as it was the middle of the night he slept deeply enough for her not to worry overly about waking him.

When the bannisters came within reach she used the solid wood to carry some of her weight as she descended knowing that the stairs were a fickle beast who could creak even when they weren’t being used. She’d learnt to respect her stairs; as a teenager the stairs had been her undoing more than once, the traitorous creak of wood alerting her mother who’d step from the shadows wrath and anxiety warring on her face.

She leant over the bannister and spotted her brother curled up on the sofa; his long legs tucked seemingly unnaturally close to his body. He was staring out of the bay windows into the front garden where the last dregs of sunset were fading into the horizon. She traced his face with her eyes and her heart clenched painfully at the desolation she found there. With feet swifter than a deer she stepped over sprawled dogs and made her way onto the sofa before Michael could even register her presence.

He dragged his gaze from the sky to look at her and she buried herself into his side; mostly to stop herself from drowning in the pain he made no effort to hide. They settled together and were quickly joined by Barney who settled at his master’s feet.

“Penny I never thought I’d lose something so important that I couldn’t get back you know? Ma and Dad were so damn disappointed in me and for sure if I hadn’t gotten clean they wouldn’t have welcomed me back into this house but I knew that I could make it up to them. Jeremy fired my arse for being high and being a shocking employee but he’s taken me back now that I’ve proven I’m sober and have no intention of turning back. Hell, I sold my car to Dean Colt, you know Tony’s dad, but I could buy it back if he wanted to sell.” Michael whispered. He raked a hand through his hair and swallowed.

“But…Talia isn’t coming back no matter how many days I’ve been sober, no matter how many meetings I go to. Sure we were awful for one another, we both ruined each other. But Beaut when she told me she was pregnant I was walking on air for days. I was gonna be a dad! I was gonna be responsible for this little person and be the best damn dad I could be. I started looking for rehab and recovery so did she. But two addicts can’t be trusted, not when neither of them could go without a hit for more than a few hours; I could never resist when she tempted me and she was always on board for another. Jesus, that kid would have been screwed. I can see from standing on the painful side of reality that if she’d lived, gone to term that baby would have been so damaged. We would have been awful parents.” His voice grew hoarse with tears he was desperately holding onto.

She gripped his hand and waited for him to continue.

“But I desperately wanted to be a dad. I still do. I feel like there is this empty space where a bonny little girl or dashing little boy should be. I should be in the barn working with dad on a project like the one for Sasha. I should be walking round with baby spit up on my shoulder and tired out of my mind. I should be delighted every time I wake up knowing that this little person loves me unconditionally. I should have had a whole lifetime to make memories with them but all I have is waking up next to Talia, her stone cold and the bed soaked in blood.”

He turned desperate eyes on her, there swimming amongst the tears were the questions; why me, why her, why our baby. Penny could feel the tears welling up in her own eyes. She didn’t have the answers he was desperately seeking. She couldn’t begin to understand what he felt. She couldn’t make it better and it cut her to the core.

She pulled him to her and with his head resting on her shoulder rocked him like a child. She felt his body begin to heave with sobs and soothed a hand through his hair. He clutched onto her pyjamas and his tears began to soak through.

“Michael I can’t imagine what this feels like. I’m so sorry. So, so sorry.” She whispered into the crown of his head. “I’m so sorry, honey.”

She rocked him and whispered gentle nothings into his hair. She soothed and cried with him and desperately hoped that she was helping. She sat with him for hours until his sobs petered down to hiccups and eventually to unsteady breathing. He slipped into sleep just as the dawn began to break but Penny found herself unable. Her brother put on such a cheerful smile and she knew he was hurting but hadn’t guessed it ran so jagged, so deep. She hoped with everything in her and on all her lucky stars that she’d helped. Even just a little bit.

Twice in as many days she’d seen the sun rise. Sheldon would have had a heart attack knowing that not once but twice in a row she’d been awake early enough. Her brother shifted in his sleep, enough to slip onto the sofa fully, releasing her from her post. She gratefully slipped away and stretched out her stiff muscles. A creak from behind her startled her and she spun around coming face to face with her father.

He was already fully dressed, customary cap in hand. Pandora hated men wearing hats in doors, she thought it rude. He looked from her exhausted face to her peacefully sleeping brother. He tipped his head towards the kitchen in an unspoken question. She nodded and followed, smiling when she saw his footsteps move across the boards in a very familiar pattern to avoid waking the remaining dreamers.

He switched on the coffee pot and leant with his back against the counter. Penny slid into one of the island stools and for a moment they waited in total silence for the beep of the machine. She had a sudden vision of her childhood. Her father had roped them all into working with him in the summer holidays in the disguise of keeping them busy and earing their keep. Penny had always known he wanted to teach them the skills their grandfather had taught him. She’d loved the early morning where it was just the two of them. Debs and Michael would drag their feet in teenaged rebellion but she had still been young enough to be a bundle of childish energy. He’d start the machine for his coffee and she’d sit noisily slurping her cereals down. They hadn’t needed words. The silence had been easy.

Now she sat looking at her hands waiting for a coffee cup to occupy them. Her ring had slipped so the diamond was resting against her little finger. She mentally scoffed. Her bloody ring, couldn’t just ever sit on her finger. Feeling like she was doing something wrong she slid the loose band off her finger and without ceremony dropped it onto the counter. She sighed and flexed her fingers. Her father slid a cup into her waiting hands and she watched as he pointedly looked at her ring resting innocuously against the oak.

“You love him, Slugger?” Her father questioned.

“Of course.” Her came her immediate reply. It was like an answerphone message, spoken with false enthusiasm.

“Really?”

“I’m marrying him, dad, so yeah. I love him.” She replied shortly, not liking the harshness of her tone. She stretched her fingers again; relishing the freedom she hadn’t realised she’d been missing.

“Your mother can’t see it because she’d rather have a dream to cling to than scare you off again. But I can see it. Slugger you have avoided all wedding talk, all your mother’s enthusiasm ever since you got here. What’s wrong?” He insisted.

Penny could see he was having difficulty talking so plainly about feelings he’d rather not acknowledge but was doing so for his wife’s sake. He usually left the emotional words to their mother.

“Dad, I came here for Michael and a holiday. I don’t want to talk about wedding planning on holiday I get enough of that at home from Leonard. And what do you mean a dream?” She snipped and knew exactly that her father was waiting for her to get angry. She always spoke the truth when she was angry, even when it got her in trouble.

“Your mother is terrified that you’ll leave and not come home again for another decade that’s what!” He barked, “She’s seen you lie through your teeth about the wedding time and again and is hoping blindly that if she doesn’t pull you up for it you’ll actually tell her what’s going on. You think your mother is stupid? Any sniff of wedding, babies or setting a date and you bolt, shut down or just plain avoid it. Enough is enough.”

She knew he was speaking the truth and each word riled her. She was getting boxed in and there was no way out if she didn’t want to prove her father right. She clenched her cup with both hands and forced a breath out through her nose.

“I don’t think my mother is stupid. I just don’t want to talk about the wedding all the damn time. Hell if I’d known that getting married was an Olympic sport I’d have said no!” She snapped. She could feel her blood boiling.

“Then tell me what’s going on so I can at least reassure her she’s not crazy!” Her father’s voice raised just loud enough for her to fear he’d wake the man sleeping uneasily on the sofa.

“Dad! Michael is sleeping not six feet away, keep your damn voice down!” She hissed.

His shoulders were still tight with anger but his gaze flicked guiltily towards the doorway. Her father must have heard them talking, the lightest sleeper she’d ever known with the exception of her Moon-pie. Sheldon’s disappointed face ghosted through her mind, his piercing gaze bringing a rush of something she couldn’t quite name to her chest. She locked eyes with her father, his face impassive but his eyes demanding to know why.

“Fine.” She whispered.  A tiny flicker of anxiety mixed with relief bubbled into life amidst her anger and fear. She scooped up her ring, watching the early morning light play off the gem. The last time she confessed to her father she told him she was quitting Junior Rodeo to compete in the cheerleading team. It was a raging argument and an awkward confession of feelings neither of them were quite ready to hear. He wanted his little girl to remain the tough tomboy he knew how to handle and she wanted to be recognised for the adult she felt she was.

“Dad, we’re having a few issues okay? Me and Leonard aren’t quite having the perfect white wedding that Ma wants to believe is happening. I mean it’s happening. Don’t get me wrong. But we’re working on it. Like you always told me; adults deal with things without needing to tell the whole world about it. They just get on with it. No messy drama.”

At her words he closed his eyes and Penny just caught the flicker of regret pass across his features. Her next words stuck in her throat and he looked at his coffee mug and spoke.

“Slug…Kid…Penelope, when I said that…Christ.” Even if she’d been able to move the words in her throat the mention of her given name would have stopped her dead.  He rubbed a firm hand across his brow. “I never meant for you to take that to heart. You kids were little and, Christ, there was so much going on here. Your Grandpa passing. The farm in trouble. Your mother getting laid off. It was a bad year. I, I know that it’s too many years too late but I’m sorry for what I said. I was a pretty piss poor father then. God Penny, you were always too like me.” He huffed out a breath. He scrubbed a hand over his head, his well-worn cap clenched in the other.

“You know I used to take you with me when you were proper little? Just to give your mother a breather. You’d sit in the carrier sleeping against my chest or when you were a little bigger sit in the tractor seat with me. You’d wear my cap and when you could talk even picked up a few cusses. Your mother had me for that.” He said with a wry smile.

The sudden change in tracks had her struggling to keep up. She couldn’t remember any of it. She knew that there were a couple of pictures in dusty photo albums of the two of them in the tractor, a younger, unlined James with a gummy blonde girl in a cap and dungarees. She just never knew that they’d spent that much time together.

“Really?”

She waited for him to speak again. Her swirling emotions calmed by the gentle smile on her father’s face. Her fear and panic set gladly set aside to try imagine her strapped to her father’s chest.

“Yeah. When it got too busy or I was too hands on to hold you the boys stepped in. I pretty sure your mother kept those pictures. There’s one I remember, you couldn’t have been more than one, you sitting on Jerry’s shoulders pointing the way and him looking suitably terrified of this terror hanging on to one of his ears. Me and you, kid, we’re just too stubborn. Our way or the highway and nothing less.” They shared a gentle smile. “Even if it hurts we keep going. I haven’t got many regrets in this life Penny but treating you kids like I did is one of them. I never meant for you to carry that with you.”

She could vaguely remember the months after Grandpa died. Her mother in tears, Debs and Michael old enough to fully understand what had happened but she was just too young. Their father had simply shut away everything that wasn’t harvesting or livestock. He’d loved his father fiercely but back then hadn’t the words to express what he was feeling. She knew that many men tried to be the strongest of the family and live up to their masculinity to their own peril. Her father was no different.

But apparently old dogs could still learn new tricks. His words left an echo-y emptiness in her she just knew she was going to fill with honesty. She was a big believer in tit for tat. Sheldon could attest to that, a vision of her knickers on the telephone wire flitting through her mind. She rolled the ring between her fingers and sighed.

“It’s become so stressful at home. Me and Leonard are at each other’s throats ninety percent of the time and…” She felt the honest truth begin to brush her lips, vulnerable and so unsure but she forged on. “And sometimes I’m not sure if it’s what we should be doing. I mean I love him. Don’t get me wrong but there are things he does, that I do, that makes me wonder if they aren’t warning signs.”

She placed the ring back onto the table top with a decisive click.

“I mean, isn’t marriage supposed to be this wonderful thing? Two people agreeing that it’s just them for the rest of their lives? A life worth living is worth fighting over, fighting for but we don’t fight for each other. All it ever seems to be is fighting one another and I’m getting pretty sick of taking it. Over and over and over and over. You always taught us to fight our corner but I just can’t face the constant battle.” She swiped a tear budding in the corner of her eye. Penny wasn’t quite sure she could look up to see what her father was making of her quiet confession. Her father had never loved hearing of her relationship troubles in the past but this new man before her, the air between them filled with two softly spoken confessions, she wasn’t quite sure how he’d react.

A familiar calloused hand covered her own. She smiled so gently to herself and mustered the courage to look up. James wet his lips and spoke.

“Sweetheart, I’m not quite sure what to say. But I know this. I’ve had some savage fights with your mother over the years and have lived in total silence for a few more days than I’d care to admit to. That family stubbornness comes from both sides I’ll have you know.”

He gave her hand a gentle squeeze.

“But I can say that I’ve never thought that it was an uphill battle. I’ve never once thought that we were taking score. Marriage is something to be worked on over the years of your lives together and something that definitely improves with age. I’ve never doubted that, even with our fights, we haven’t been made a better pair for it.”

He dropped a kiss to her forehead and started towards the door.

“Dad…”

“I told you, I don’t have any grand advice or prophetic wisdom. All I can tell you sweetheart are the truths that I’ve learnt because of the blessing of being married to your mother. I hope it makes sense to you.”

He closed the door silently behind him and she watched from the kitchen window as he joined ranks with the farm hands and set off for the barns. She wasn’t quite sure what she was feeling but the uncomfortable tension in her belly she had long since become accustomed to when speaking about her upcoming marriage was…lighter. She finished her coffee in contemplative silence watching as the day began, the sound of her mother’s footsteps across the stairs completing the familiar setting. The light footsteps paused at the sight of her brother on the sofa, no doubt covered in adoring furry bodies, continued to the kitchen and paused for the second time at the sight of her at the window.

Pandora pressed a gentle kiss to her head as she passed and opened the fridge. She leaned back around the door and quirked her head in a very familiar question. Penny smiled and nodded. She was about to watch the master work her magic seemingly effortlessly whipping together fluffy, perfectly cooked pancakes in moments. When she’d served the plate to her daughter Pandora stood back and slipped her hands into her dressing gown pockets smiling gently.

“Never could resist your pancakes Ma, you could conquer the world with these I swear.” Penny praised. Her mother ducked her head and reached a hand to smooth a wisp of hair behind her ear.

“You’ve probably said that every time I’ve served them.”

“Only saying the truth.”

Her mother smiled again and set about cooking another batch when the groans and happy barks heralded her son waking. Penny turned to look at Michael, not quite sure what she was expecting to see. He shuffled in, holding a dog blanket tight around his shoulders, and locked eyes with her. His eyes were still puffy and a bright red crease ran the length of his cheek were he’d slipped onto the sofa arm but he looked lighter. She couldn’t quite place why but there was something in his eyes that reassured her that she had helped, that he had needed that release to start looking forwards. She smiled when the corners of his lips quirked up in his signature crinkled smile and she returned to her breakfast.

“You got any plans today Penny? I was going to head to the market this morning if you wanted to tag along. Or you could see if your Nana wanted to come over for Sunday lunch? How about you Michael? Plans?” Pandora queried.

“Ma I think I’m gonna head out. The doc’s been nagging me for a follow up appointment since I left. I think I’m gonna take her up on the offer.” Michael admitted.

Pandora plated up more of the pancakes and slid the plate in front of her son.

“I think that’s a lovely idea sweetie. Are you going to be out the whole day or do you want me to make you some dinner?” She asked.

“I’ll text. Not sure at this point.”

Penny knew that her brother was going to be okay. He sat easier, breathed smoother, seemed like a different man. She couldn’t help but want to cuddle into his side and let him know how proud she was of him.

“I’ll go to the market with you Ma, if you don’t mind? We could grab a coffee afterwards and maybe hash out a few details that have been getting away from me with the wedding planning if you like?”

As soon as the offer was out she knew it was the right thing to do. Her mother turned a radiant smile on her daughter and Penny made a mental note to thank her father. He might not have been the most emotionally savvy man when she was a child but he’d managed well enough to make her see just what her mother was desperate for. Michael was already finishing the last few bites, swirling the chunk around to get the most of the syrup left on the plate. Pandora pressed a loving kiss to his forehead as she passed back towards the living room to feed the dogs and her brother looked, just for a second, like the little boy he’d been flushing under his mother’s pride in him.

“Mikey, you sure about this?” Penny questioned, she knew it was a good choice for him but just wanted to double check.

“Yeah. I mean, besides you I’ve not really, you know. Talked about it; about her. And I think ‘as part of my ongoing recovery’ I need to talk to a proper professional.” He smiled sardonically. He’d never liked using the favoured recovery phrases, thinking saying them made him sound like a tit.

“Well I think it’ll be a good idea. You’ll text when you get there and when you leave right?” She asked.

Michael lifted an eyebrow, shifted just beyond the reach of her arms and replied.

“Yes Ma!”

She whipped the tea towel at his head and heard his laughter bounce off the lounge walls as he darted away.

“That’s it Michael! You’re officially the worst brother ever!”