"Don't make me choose between the two of you, Leonard," she says. "You won't like the answer."
That night is the longest in her entire life. It seems to go on forever, an endless string of minutes related only by their lineality. She cleans her living room, throws out the molding leftover cheesecake in the fridge, hangs a new collage over her bed; at half-past midnight, she finally ventures into the hallway with a bag of garbage, only to find Sheldon perched on the stairs.
She sits next to him, but carefully, so his closed laptop and two feet of space keep them apart.
"Well," she says. "He locked you out, huh?"
At this point, Sheldon's face should be contorted in exasperation or (harder) anger, but she reads in him only resignation. "Yes."
She flexes her shoulder; the doctor still has her in a sling, but she can feel the ache leeching away from the socket. Leonard has every right to lock Sheldon out of their apartment, has, in fact, every right to lock Penny out, too. The situation is of her own making and she feels raw when all she wants is to bask in her triumph.
"You want the spare key?" she asks.
"No." Sheldon's obviously thought that one through already—of course he has. "But thank you."
"Sure," she says. Ahead she sees weeks and months (and what if it lasts for years) sprawled out to the horizon, day after day when she can't bear to look at Sheldon and he speaks to her only in monosyllables. Leonard is my best friend in the whole world, she hears, and answers, Maybe mine, too. There's a trick to it, like when somebody tells you not to think about a pink elephant; she distracts herself from those weeks and months, but some day the distractions are gonna run out and all she'll have left is one damn useless animal.
"I shouldn't be out here," she says, and decides it's true.
"Likely not," Sheldon agrees. His hands are clasped together between his knees. It's a more adult posture than she's used to seeing from him. "Don't forget your garbage."
"Thanks," Penny says, and stands up, takes her trash down the hall to the recycling room, comes back, and lingers with her hand on the doorknob.
"...Sure you don't want that key?"
"Penny," Sheldon says, "go."
The tequila is already sitting out, although she doesn't remember taking it from her pantry. Shots—this is one of the few things she remembers from her brief stint in college—shots are fun with someone else and just plain sad when you're alone. She must be a fucking tragedy, then, because she takes the bottle and presses her back against the door and sinks down. Her hair crackles and sticks to the paint. The first two things that come to mind are static electricity—in Sheldon's high, dry tones—and Storm's coming, Ani.
The thing is, she's not that woman. She's the other woman, the sort of woman who gets cheated on, not who cheats. Even after that thing with David Underhill, she could still stick herself in the first category. But. It's not like she slept with Sheldon; no, they just snuggled up together and planned out their entire freaking future.
It's a worse sort of betrayal.
So Penny sits with her back to the wall, tequila dwindling, feeling Sheldon just outside; and Sheldon sits on the staircase with clasped hands; and, she imagines, Leonard sits awake too, maybe in the dark, maybe in the snuggie she gave him. They keep vigil together, that long night.
Things will be better in the morning, they think. Only one of them believes it.
(His optimism is rewarded when, finally, Leonard lets him back into the apartment.)
Penny doesn't turn up for Halo two Mondays in a row. At all times, she is meticulous; she retrieves her mail at seven-thirty instead of four, buys her own milk, avoids the laundry room entirely on Saturday. With so much free time, she digs out her old screenplay. Reading it makes her want to scream and slam doors, though, because, honestly? How could she not have realized that the thing is utter crap?
The writer of the screenplay was conceited, shallow, unrealistic, arrogant, and prone to lengthy descriptions of the characters' shoes. Also, the writer of the screenplay clearly did not know how to use spell-check, much less tell a comma from a semi-colon. Something changed, though—something always does—and now Penny finds herself less interested in the protagonist's color-coordination and more interesting in why the protagonist decided to move halfway across the continent at the tender age of nineteen. It is a dilemma.
The grammatical errors make her wince. Sheldon started proofreading her grocery lists ages ago.
She reads it again, agrees with her first impression, and prints out a copy. Ninety-seven pages of crisp type and brighter dreams; she sets to work on it with her mother's old sewing scissors and doesn't stop until her floor is littered with shreds.
There, she tells herself, and stretches her still-healing arm. Chapter closed. Now quit being a drama queen and fix this.
The next day she runs into Leonard at the mailbox. He shoves his hands in his pockets; bills go fluttering to the ground.
"Hey, Leonard," she says.
He bobs his head and glares at her, torn between reactions, which makes me look kind of like a chicken about to snatch at a bit of food. "Penny," he says, and apparently the first impulse wins out, because he adds, "You weren't at Halo night yesterday."
"Um. Yeah. I mean—no, I wasn't," she stutters.
"We're watching Tron tonight. Just Howard and Raj and—he's sleeping at the university again. Running an experiment. Anyway, if you want—"
It would be so, so much nicer to hide in her apartment (or to flee to the university and hide with Sheldon), but she takes a deep breath. Woman up.
"Yeah, that'd be good," she says. "Can I bring take-out?"
"Thai—or, no, how about Mexican?"
"Mexican I can do," she promises, "and maybe even better than Taco Bell. Someone told me that they use dogfood in their tacos, can you believe that?"
He smiles—brief, awkward, but the sentiment is there. "I can," he says, because of course he was the one to tell her that. "Seven?"
"Seven it is." She starts to back up the stairs. "And Leonard?"
He looks up from collecting the envelopes that litter the floor.
"Thank you," she tells him. She says it with sincerity.
Tron goes smoothly enough to be counted a success. Penny sweeps her floor clean and throws the empty tequila bottle out. She doesn't buy a replacement.
She and Sheldon start with the handshakes at Christmas. She hosts dinner at her house—nothing elaborate, just hot sandwiches and eggnog—and she hugs each of the boys as she opens their gifts. Howard gets her a webcam, Raj a drink-mixing kit (anytime you want to talk, reads the attached note), and Leonard gives her...a computer application.
"Final Draft," he explains. "It's screenwriting software. I thought you might, you know. Want to work on your screenplay."
"Oh, sweetie," she says, "thank you!" She wraps her arms around him and holds for a count of five, then lets go, because she knows the post-relationship rules even if he doesn't.
Sheldon clears his throat.
"Sheldon," she says.
"Penny," he returns. "Here." And he hands her the keys to her car.
"Sheldon," she says, "these are my car keys."
He casts his eyes heavenward. "I'm aware. I arranged for your car to be fully serviced while you were in Nebraska."
"Oh!" she says. Well. It's not that—it's just—she settles on, "Thanks!" and reaches for him. He cuts her off with an out-thrust hand, her palm brushes his, and their fingers tangle. At the last minute Penny turns the motion into a handshake, pumping his hand twice before slipping away.
She's distantly aware that the others are staring, but after that it becomes their thing. When Raj speaks to her sober for the first time, when Leonard announces his research grant, when Howard finally figures out a way to remotely repair his space toilet—she shakes hands with Sheldon. As the months wear on it becomes more obviously an excuse to touch, and one she is unwilling to take for granted.
Her car doesn't make that ominous clunking noise when it starts anymore, for which she's grateful. She's even more grateful when she finds Edith Hamilton's Mythology tucked in her glovebox a few days later; the section on Orpheus and Eurydice is conspicuously dog-eared.
She starts barging into their apartment unannounced again around the time the dogwoods below her window start to flower. One afternoon she flings their door open and nearly gets nailed between the eyes with a dart for her effort.
"Hi, Sheldon," she says. "Moved on to aggressive negotiations, have we?"
"I am increasingly growing to abhor the prequel trilogy. Some of the novels are more true to George Lucas's original vision than those travesties." He gives a delicate shudder, and a wave of fond exasperation washes over Penny. Seriously, who talks like that—increasingly growing to abhor? "Shut the door, please," he adds.
"Wait a minute. Are...are you playing darts?"
"No," Sheldon says. "That dartboard behind you is just a wall-hanging intended as a conversation piece."
"Bazinga! Of course I'm playing darts," he explains. "Do I look like I'd buy something for its conversational value?"
"You. Playing darts. Oh, this I have to see." She ducks around him and—since it doesn't look like Leonard's around—curls up in his spot. He shoots her a look, but doesn't make any comment.
"Is this a new thing?" she asks, or starts to, because then Sheldon finishes squinting at the plastic fletching and tosses three in a row, thunk thunk thunk, all straight at the little red dot in the center.
"Holy crap," Penny says. "That's..." kinda hot. "Can you do that every time?"
"With an acceptable deviation." Sheldon retrieves the dart. Sure enough, he does it again, sinking all three in the center. Bullseye.
"Where's Leonard?" she asks.
"On a date. With a woman."
"Oh, gee, thanks. It's nice to know I didn't turn him off girls entirely." Penny rolls her eyes. "How would you feel about the opportunity to win a lot of money off of idiot jocks?"
Sheldon's eyes narrow. "In what capacity?"
"Betting." She mimes throwing a dart. "We'll let 'em think that you don't know what you're doing."
"...Isn't that deceptive?"
"Nooo," she hedges. "And anyway, we really only have two options. We can either stay here, and Leonard can come home to find us together in an empty apartment, or you can come with me and do something. It feels like I haven't talked to you in months."
"A lot of money," Sheldon speculates.
"Maybe enough to buy that Flash issue you lost to Howard. I won't even get you drunk."
"Let me get my jacket," he says.
They tumble home at one in the morning, pockets stuffed with cash and both a little tipsy despite Penny's promise. "Did you see his face," Penny cackles, and grabs Sheldon's elbow. "His face, he looked like—oh. Hi, Leonard."
"Hi," Leonard returns. He's working at the knot of his tie, hand frozen at his throat. "So."
"Leonard we won six hundred dollars tonight from cretins who refused to believe I could aim a projectile at a circular board of sisal fiber," Sheldon says in one breath. "Also, my shoes smell like vomit. Don't be angry."
"Um, okay," Leonard says, and redirects the conversation to Penny. "You guys hustled darts?"
"Yes," Penny says. "Is that—how was your date?"
Leonard's face clears. "Great. Really great."
"Good." One of Sheldon's hands idly pats her on the head. "So I'm just going to put him to bed now..."
"Probably not a bad idea," Leonard allows. Penny starts steering Sheldon in the direction of his bedroom, not an easy thing when the guy has at least half a foot on her and desperately wants to stop and examine her hair.
"Penny?" Leonard calls.
"Yeah?" She twists around Sheldon so she can look over her shoulder.
"Take me with you the next time you guys go? Watching Sheldon hustle a bunch of musclebound idiots at darts..."
"Sure thing. It's a—you know it." Leonard's smile doesn't seem forced in the least.
Sheldon chooses that moment to croon, "Rose tints my world, keeps me safe from my trouble and pain," in her ear, and Penny throws back her head and laughs in sheer pleasure.
Later, she boots up her laptop and opens her old screenplay. The hardcopy is long gone, but she could never bring herself to delete the file, and reading over it, she can't summon last year's self-disgust. The writing is clumsy, true, the story rough and only half-begun—but she can see the potential, painted in broad strokes across her life.
The next day she sashays home from an audition, and instead of rushing to the closet to fling her heels to the back corner, she lets herself into 4A. Sheldon's working, eyes glued to his computer screen and a bottle of aspirin at his elbow.
Penny rucks her skirt up her thighs, hops up on his desk, and crosses her legs. "So, moonpie," she says. "Where'd a nice boy like you learn how to time warp?"
"You can't sit on my—" he starts to say, but he looks over and his eyes catch on her ankles. She props a foot on the arm of his chair for effect; the weight of his gaze as it travels over the line of her calf and up to the hem of her skirt is tangible.
"...Are you goading me?"
"But it's so easy," Penny teases.
His lips quirk. "I should hope not." Lightly, he sets a hand on the top of her foot; his thumb barely brushes her anklebone.
"It's warm outside," she hears herself say. "How would you feel about snowcones?"