Penny knows that they’re back; it’s not like the thunk-thunk-thunk of suitcases being dragged up the stairs and Sheldon’s voice on the phone to his mother are exactly silent and sneaky, after all. But she’s going to be patient and wait, rather than charging out there and jumping Leonard in the hallway.
Still, she yanks the door open fast when he knocks, and only hesitates for a second when she sees how beardy he is – god, did none of them bother to pack a razor in one of those huge suitcases? – mostly because she’s surprised.
But then she’s kissing him anyway and tugging him into her apartment, slamming the door and pinning him against it, and it’s the homecoming she dreamed of, even if it’s a bit hairier than expected.
“I missed you so much!” she says when she can finally bear to back off him for a second.
“I missed you too!” There’s a weird expression on his face though. Maybe it’s just the beard.
“I couldn’t even think of anyone else while you were gone.”
No, it’s not just the beard. “Um, Penny, maybe you should sit down. I need to talk to you about. Um. The night the heat went out.”
She can feel her brow furrow at that. “Leonard, what’s going on?”
And that’s when Sheldon knocks on the door. “Leonard. Leonard. Leonard.”
Instead of shooing him away, Leonard opens the door. Sheldon takes a step forward and freezes in the doorway, eyes darting from her hand still on Leonard’s arm to the traces of lipstick around Leonard’s mouth to what she can now see is a guilty look on Leonard’s face.
“Wolowitz informed me of your grand deception,” Sheldon says, practically spitting the words out. Penny doesn’t think she’s seen him this cold and angry. “You don’t think you might have mentioned it sooner? We spent enough time together for you to do so, although evidently not enough time for it to matter.”
“Leonard, what’s he talking about?” Penny asks.
“We, um. We might have falsified some test results.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Yes, Leonard, why would you do that?” Sheldon’s anger is no longer cold; he looks ready to go all Mount Vesuvius on Leonard. “No, don’t tell me. Let me guess. You wanted to keep me happy so we could all go home and I could get on with my work so you could come over here and – and–” He gestures at Penny. If he were Howard it would have been an explicit gesture; because it’s Sheldon it’s a resigned wave of the hand.
“Sheldon, no,” Leonard says, and he shrugs Penny’s hand away and reaches out to Sheldon, who takes a step back and then flees across the hall to 4A, pushing past Howard and Raj, who’re standing in the doorway watching all this unfold, great, and Leonard gives Penny a helpless look and she just shakes her head at him and goes after Sheldon.
Not so fast that she doesn’t have time to notice that Howard and Raj are holding hands, fingers interlaced.
She files the fact away in the back of her head for future reference and/or relentless teasing, and hurries through the apartment to Sheldon’s room. The door is closed but he’s forgotten to lock it, and she goes straight in, closing it behind herself.
He’s curled up on his side on the bed. She sits down beside him and reaches out to pat his shoulder, but then thinks better of it.
“Sweetie, do you want to talk?”
“Not especially, but are you going to go away if I don’t?”
Sheldon heaves a confronted-with-lesser-intellect sigh, and explains how the other three messed with his test results and now he’s not going to get a Nobel prize and how everyone knows, and how he would’ve thought better of them all, well, maybe not Wolowitz, but Leonard at least.
“Yeah, he’s your best friend.” She does pat his shoulder this time and he almost flinches away, but then just sighs again and rolls onto his back to look up at her. She can see the tears that he’s resolutely holding back and wants to tell him it’s okay to be upset.
“He’s more than that, Penny.”
For what feels like a year but is probably only a few seconds, she just stares at him open-mouthed, like she needs to let the maximum possible oxygen get to her brain to process his words, let them all click into place. Once they do, she scrambles up off the bed and yanks the door open; Leonard falls gracelessly inside.
“Get up off the floor, you rat bastard, and apologize to your boyfriend. Right now.”
She’ll mourn her own loss later with wine and ice cream, but right now she needs to know that they are going to be all right.