What Penny never understood before this moment was that when she wanted to find a strong man, she was looking at the wrong things.
She'd been looking for muscles, physical strength and a dominating presence.
She hadn't realized until this moment, until this very second, how much mental strength and fortitude mattered to her. How those were the things she'd wanted, but never knew to look for.
She'd begun seeing Kurt again. She knew now it was a horrible mistake, as she looked up longingly into the blue eyes of a man she'd only ever thought of as a friend.
It had only taken two weeks. Two weeks and she'd seen Kurt relapse right away into his old ways. He stood her up, he treated her poorly, and he expected her to serve him. In bed with him last Friday, she'd started to think the feeling of safety in his large arms wasn't worth the feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy he caused the rest of the time.
The next morning, she'd gotten the phone call. Sinking into a pile of tears on the floor by her couch, she listened to her cousin over the phone. Kurt walked past her, listened for a moment, and then walked out of her apartment saying he had to get to work when she couldn't get anything past her lips but sobs. She wanted to tell him, she did, but she couldn't get the words out. He'd grunted in frustration, and left.
She wasn't quite sure how long it was until Sheldon knocked on her door. Three times in succession he knocked and called her name. She found she could not get up, could only make a slightly louder sob to signal to him that she was inside.
Her knob rattled alarmingly, he called her name, and after an alarming silence when she thought yet another person had left her, he turned the emergency key in her lock and burst into the room, breathless.
"What's wrong?" He'd asked, down on his knees, wide eyed and concerned. Of course, he'd know something was wrong. Unlike Kurt, he cared. She flailed a few second, her mouth working but unable to get any words past her tears when he started asking questions. "Are you hurt physically?" She shook her head. "Does this have something to do with Kurt?" She shook her head: his leaving hurt, but wasn't the reason for her tears. "Does it have to do with the phone still being in your hand?" She nodded. "Was it bad news?" She nodded again, tears freshly falling. "Ok."
He took the cell phone gently from her hands and flipped it shut, placing it on the table next to them. He grasped her hands and stood, lifting gently and guiding her to the couch. He searched the room and eventually found a box of tissues. Penny sat quietly as he gently dried her tears and made an effort to get her to talk to him. She couldn't. She was numb. She wanted to, desperately, if only to wipe the panic from behind Sheldon's eyes, but she couldn't.
He quietly fumbled around her kitchen, making her a steaming mug of tea. She was lying unseeing on the couch when he wrapped her hands around the mug and whispered that she should try to drink. She watched him swipe her phone off the table and disappear behind her. She could remember his words so clearly now, thought she didn't even know if she could hear them then.
Hello, my name is Doctor Sheldon Cooper, I'm a friend of Penny's. To whom am I speaking?
I found her in near hysterics a short while ago and all she could tell me was that her state related to a recent phone call. If you could give me any information that might be relevant I may be able to... Oh. I am very sorry to hear that.
Yes, that does explain her state.
No, I will make sure she is well taken care of. Have arrangements been made yet?
If you could forward the information to me, I can make sure that Penny gets there. I doubt she will be in any shape to make the arrangements herself.
Somehow, in the next twelve hours, without really remembering exactly how, Penny was sitting on an airplane next to a white knuckled Sheldon heading to Nebraska to her mother's funeral.
"If you need me I'll be right through that door," Sheldon whispered gently as he pointed to the open connecting door between their hotel rooms. "We have an early day tomorrow." Sheldon tucked the comforter around her tightly.
In a blind panic, she'd made him promise that he wouldn't leave her side as they got off the plane at the Lincoln Airport. In the backseat of the cab somewhere on some highway that went on forever and ever through cornfields, she reached over and grabbed his hand to stifle a sob; he'd jumped a bit, but didn’t let go until after he'd helped her out of the cab at their hotel and had to pay the driver.
And somehow, amazingly, unbelievably, he'd sat next to her all afternoon at her Mother's wake, holding her hand, passing her tissues, and politely deterring the family and friends gathered there when the tears threatened to turn into full blown sobs.
She couldn't help but stare at him now, as he tucked her into bed, caring for her like the fragile, broken thing she was. Something about his behavior didn't surprise her; it was as if she knew that part of him was int here all along, hidden by the person he believed he needed to be rather than the person he was. There were no backhanded compliments, no demands to be less emotional, just support and compassion. He reached up and loosened his tie, turning away from her when he didn't get a response, his face drawn and tired in the moonlight.
"Sheldon!" she whispered frantically, forcing her hand out of the blankets. He turned sharply, leaning over her.
"Yes?" he asked, the concern just barely masking the exhaustion in his voice.
"Thank you," she whispered, tears welling up again. "Thank you for being strong. Thank you for being there. Thank you for standing by me." She reached out and grasped his hand like the life line it had been for the last day. She'd sort out the memories later and sort out the emotions then, too. For now, this was good enough.
“You're welcome,” he said softly, squeezing her hand. “Goodnight, Penny.”
When she got up at three in the morning, her eyes sore and puffy and her throat dry, she found that Sheldon has left the connecting door open a crack. She leaned against the jamb of the door, drinking greedily from the complementary cheap plastic cup as she stared at his sleeping form.
Her head was full of the fuzzy kind of clarity that only comes in the middle of the night, and she sighed into the empty cup. She tried to wonder why he was here with her, tried to figure out why he'd disrupt his precious routine to fly out here with her.
When she really thought about it, she wasn't all that surprised: over and over again he'd shown that he was always willing to do what needed to be done to help a friend. He was just like that- it was hidden away under peculiar tastes and personality quirks, but it had always been there. Try as she might, though, she didn't really care why. She just cared that he was here.
She wondered, as she toyed with the plastic cup in her hand, where he had gotten the sedate black suit that was hanging in the corner and the dark gray trench coat that he'd worn that day. Where in his closet of plaid and stripes and superheroes did those clothes fit? Why hadn't she seen them before? But she didn't really care about that, either.
She stepped away from the crack in the door, filled her cup with over-chlorinated hotel tap water, and curled up in bed. She knew this clarity would fade in the morning with the coming of her mother's funeral. She also knew Sheldon would be right next to her, and that made the tears that had once again started to fall feel a little less hopeless.
She reached out for his hand during the cab ride to the funeral home. He gave it freely this time without flinching, grasping her hand gently without saying a word. She held his hand through the short service the funeral home provided.
She wouldn't let go when he turned to leave the room for the closing of the casket, so he held her hand tighter and stood quietly behind her studying the carpet pattern as she said her goodbyes.
She wouldn't let go as they walked out in procession and pulled him into the family's limo behind her. She held his hand in her lap as she tried to stifle her tears sitting across from her sister and brother-in-law as they made their way to the cemetery.
When it started to rain during the grave side service, Sheldon let go to pull a collapsible umbrella from the pocket of his dark trench coat, quietly hitting the button that opened it and holding it stiffly between them, making sure Penny was completely protected from the precipitation. Without a hand to hold, hers twisted together until they were white as her sister read a Bible passage. Sheldon reached across with his free hand and grasped hers, gently guiding them to his elbow. She clasped her hands around his bicep like a vice, and he pursed his lips together tightly, but patted her hands gently.
Her brother-in-law had arranged a luncheon for the family afterward at a small restaurant Penny and her family used to go when they were kids for special occasions. She stopped short on the sidewalk after stepping from the limo when she saw where they were, the sprinkling of rain falling gently on her has she tugged Sheldon back and away from the rest of the mourners.
“Penny?” he asked gently, watching the limo pull away from the curb. He continued when no response was forthcoming, “We're getting wet.”
She stared at the door, shaking her head back and forth. “I...”
“What?” he asked, trying to contain his own emotions as the rain began to grow stronger. Sheldon began to pat the pockets of his trench coat, looking for his umbrella that he'd put away earlier.
Her voice was no more than a horse whisper as her right hand twisted in the fabric of her black skirt. “I don't think I can go in there.”
“Why ever not?” he asked, pulling the umbrella from his pocket and opening it with his free hand, holding it high above them.
“My mom- we used to-” she sighed, and the wetness on her cheeks was once again more than just the rain as the words tumbled out of her. “This place, it was for thirteenth birthdays and big celebrations and Sunday brunch when Pop Pop would come to visit. She'd have me put on my best dress and I'd sit with her while she did her make-up and pretend to do mine, and sometimes she'd let me wear her favorite necklace and some of the expensive perfume that my Dad got her for their anniversary- and we- we-”
She let go of his hand to bury her face in her fists, crying harder than she had since she first got the call about her mother. “I can't go in, Sheldon, I just can't.” The words rasped out of her throat painfully, “I never went here without Mom.”
Sheldon's hand hovered in the air, unsure of what to do. His body stopped and started, moving forward, stuttering until with a deep breath he stepped forward, letting his hand rest on her back and pulling her jerkily into his chest. “There, there.”
Penny grabbed the lapels of his black suit coat and cried into his chest. Gulping, Sheldon carefully wound his other arm around her, keeping the umbrella over them as best he could. He shivered at the cold rain dripping down the back of his neck, but didn't move.
The rain pounded harder, but her tears grew softer. “I'm sorry, Sheldon, I-”
“You need not apologize.” He leaned back, looking into her red-rimmed eyes. “Do you still desire to not enter?”
“I- I just can't.” She sighed, unwilling to move away from the comfort of him or the safety of the umbrella.
“Alright. Here.” He stepped back and brought the umbrella over her shoulder, handing it to her before he dashed over to the restaurant.
“Sheldon!” she yelled, panicking. Was he going to leave her in the rain? Now? After all of this?
He turned as he reached the relative shelter of the doorway. “Yes?” he asked calmly.
“Where are you going?” It came out much more desperate than she intended as she clutched the umbrella with both hands.
He smiled softly, even sadly at her. “To make your excuses to your sister. I didn't think it prudent to leave without doing so.”
Her panic subsided just a little bit, but her grip on the umbrella still bordered on desperate. “So, you're coming back?”
His face changed, just slightly, and in his disbelief was the arrogant and shrewd neighbor she knew so well. “Of course.”
What Penny never understood, before this moment, was when she wanted to find a strong man, she was looking for the wrong things.
Alone, in the rain, after her mother's funeral, she felt less alone than she ever had. Tears flooded her eyes, but for a different ache in her soul now.
Sheldon re-appeared in the doorway, pocketing his cell before he dashed through the rain to the shelter of the umbrella. “Your sister understands. She's sorry this upset you more.” Penny nodded, another tear dripping out. “The cab should be here any minute.” She nodded again, another tear leaking away. Sheldon's hand fell to her shoulder, patting gently. “There, there.”
Penny couldn't contain it: she dropped the umbrella, hugging Sheldon tightly in the pouring rain despite his sputters of protest in the downpour. Before she could back away, his arms held her back, just as tightly.
“Thank you, Sheldon,” she muttered into his neck, squeezing her eyes closed.
“You're welcome, Penny.” he whispered, making no move to pull them in from the rain as the cab pulled over to the curb.