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“He’s really over me this time, isn’t he?”

Sheldon considers the question because it’s preferable to considering Penny’s mascara stained face looking up at him from the crumpled pile of taffeta on the floor she’s become.

“You just now came to this conclusion?” Because he hardly cared enough to notice such things and he still managed to arrive at it months before Leonard’s wedding to another woman.

She dissolves into tears again, so he takes that as a ‘yes.’ He very much wants to be anywhere else in the universe, but Penny is his friend and she’s upset and he can’t even offer her a hot beverage.

“Would you like some punch?”

She glares at him, speaking slowly as if the ratio of their IQ’s were inversed, “No, Sheldon, I don’t want punch.”

He sinks down gingerly on the step beside her. “What do you want, Penny? And don’t tell me it’s Leonard.” In that moment she reminds him of his mother, standing on the porch screaming at the dust cloud from the pickup tires, “You can’t leave me, you rat bastard! I’m the one who leaves!”

“You know what he said? He said we weren’t ‘the right people.’ What’s that supposed to mean?”

Sheldon has a theory, but it’s simply not testable. “Surely you’re not asking me to explain this lunacy you people call love.”

Penny just stares at him for a long time and Sheldon has the uncomfortable sensation that she’s seeing through him somehow. “Yeah, I’m asking you. What would you have told me if I’d asked you why I couldn’t find a nice guy?”

He refuses to meet her gaze. “You don’t want me to answer that question.”

“Yes, I do!” She grabs his arm as he tries to get up. “Sheldon, you’re the most honest person I know, so just go for it.” There are still tears in her eyes, but there’s also a stubborn set to her jaw. “Tell me what’s wrong with me. I can handle it.”

He knows this is a terrible mistake, but she’s right, he can’t lie, not well, certainly not on the spot like this. “Your low self-esteem and crippling fear of abandonment cause you to subconsciously push suitable mates away preemptively before they can reject you, you use sex as a substitute for intimacy, and you will continue to attract men who are only interested in a transitory, superficial level of relationship until you offer more.” He tries to keep his tone crisp and dispassionate.

She doesn’t respond, picking at her nail polish.

He tries to stand again, hoping perhaps she wants to be alone now.

“Is that why you pretend not to be interested in girls? Because you’re afraid of rejection?”

Her acuity is often higher than he gives her credit for. He’s petrified, frozen in place as Penny slowly and deliberately leans up and tilts her head fitting their lips together. Hers are cool and frictionless, covered in some sort of substance, gloss, that has a vague fake fruit flavor and he doesn’t find it as unpleasant as he imagined, being kissed.

“Penny, you’re--”

“I’m not drunk!”

Of course not. It’s a cash bar.

“You’re my friend,” and he values that far more than whatever it is she thinks she’s offering.

She shakes her head, and he can’t be certain if she’s sad or angry. “No, I’m just some girl who lived across the hall and stole your food and your WiFi and you put up with it because your best friend used to be into her.”

This time he’s the one who feels compelled to grab Penny’s hand pulling her back to him, but, gazing into her eyes, he can’t summon the words to tell her how much more than that she is to him, so he just laces their fingers together, squeezing tight, and hopes she understands. In this one instance, he thinks she, of all people, might be the one most capable of understanding him.

She’s the one who looks away first, scrubbing at her face with the back of her free hand. “God, you’re right. Even you’re less scared of this than I am.”

It’s a week before they hold hands again, a month until she kisses him and he kisses back, a year before they do more than that. He doesn’t find the act itself unpleasant, not with her, but he still has the urge to boil his skin off in the shower immediately after.

It’s been two years when he finally musters up the courage to blurt out, “We’re a couple.”

“A couple of what?” Koothrappali’s brow wrinkles in confusion.

It’s five years before he moves in with Penny and that’s only because the Hofstadters drive him out by making the regrettable decision to breed. He insists she marry him, for tax purposes. She says ‘yes,’ for tax purposes.

It’s ten years before she says, “I love you,” but by then it’s hardly necessary. He doesn’t require that she state the obvious. She takes care of him when he’s sick and he keeps the thermostat set two degrees higher than he likes it for her. If that’s not love, he doesn’t know what is.