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The Vulnerability Vertices

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“I was able to spar with the male teacher at my gym yesterday, and I didn’t panic when he corrected me and made contact. I know it’s small, but it feels big to me.” – Blossom85

 

Penny hit the post button and waited, but she didn’t have to wait long. Responses flooded in, each uplifting and heartening.

 

“Good job, Blossom! This is a milestone for sure!”

 

“wow, awesome. not small at all.”

 

“I feel so happy for you and so motivated. Last week I hugged my dad and didn’t freak out when he hugged back. Normal is so nice to feel sometimes, right?”

 

The replies were from people, – mostly women, Penny believed – from all over the world. During a desperate and stressful evening in December, when all Penny wanted to do was break down and give up, she’d instead done the healthy adult thing and searched for a therapist online. What she’d ended up finding was a support group of sorts, for people who had been assaulted or raped, and it had ended up becoming such a blessing. Instead of her issues being present and in her face, she could write about them and look at them from another perspective, from the perspective of someone reading an anonymous post. It was kind of enlightening, to see her own experiences like that and to get feedback from people who had been through what she had.

 

She wasn’t alone, and she was healing.

 

While replies stagnated, Penny went through the forums to look for other new posts. She didn’t like to leave advice for other victims, because she really was still struggling a little, but it was so good to see other people give and receive support. A post did catch her eye though.

 

“Say five words to the person who hurt you.”

 

An interesting and creative idea, but one that had Penny stilling with her fingers over the keyboard. What could she possibly say to Leonard that would make her feel any different? ‘Don’t come near me, asshole’ sounded good, but Penny had already basically said that to his face. ‘I can’t believe you did this’, no that was too long, and she could believe it. Hindsight gave a really jarring sort of clarity and seemed to put everything into perspective. Leonard had been possessive, needy, and pretty cruel when he wanted to be. Their arguments had always broken down into him degrading her for any number of his favorite things, her clothing, her attitude, her lack of education and motivation, and her ‘silly’ acting ambitions, and Penny would just simply shut down. Then she’d drink, way too much, and he’d come crawling back oozing desperation. She’d only realize they’d ‘gotten back together’ when she woke up the next morning. Repeat dozens of times, and finally it had been enough. Penny had to break the vicious cycle, so she’d broken up with him. That’s what she thought, at least. Her telling Leonard that they were done hadn’t enough for him. Hell, a simple and flat no hadn’t enough from him. 

 

No didn’t have any meaning to someone who thought they owned you.

 

That knowledge had been so petrifying, so consuming, and had so easily cowed her when she’d already been down. Down because her career had chewed her up and spit her out a little less bubbly and a little less willing to give it her all, down because ambitions of being an actress didn’t pay the bills, down because if Sheldon hadn’t stepped in when he had and paid her rent, she would have been homeless. She hadn’t wanted handouts, handouts made you weak. Penny remembered being twelve-years-old on Christmas Eve, handing out Christmas gifts of food and clothes to the homeless, and thinking that she was so glad she would never end up like those people. Ironically, she’d bordered on destitution for years. Years of declining Sheldon’s help, but, lucky for her, he’d helped anyway. 

And it had taken her a while to stop resenting his help. Oh god, it was a selfish and self-hating resentment that she’d finally sent fluttering out the window like an unloved pet bird, but she really didn’t want it in her apartment with her anymore. It felt right to hold to it tightly, that she was just a failure and he was just pitying her, but it hadn’t felt good. If Penny was being honest, she felt miserable hating her own failures and hating that Sheldon could so easily sweep them away, but she’d felt deservedly miserable.

Not anymore though. She didn’t deserve misery any more than any of the people on the support forum did. Penny had learned that all of those secret fears and self-hating things she’d kept close to the chest weren’t unique, they weren’t only her burden. Everyone felt like she did, and those feelings weren’t right. The voice that said she was disgusting was wrong, the voice that said she was a failure was wrong, and the voice that said she didn’t deserve success or love was fucking wrong. 

And to learn that after all these years, Leonard hadn’t been correct about her, he’d simply been preying on the fact that she was self-loathing and insecure. Using it to his advantage. Bastard.

 

Penny looked at her phone, it was just past seven in the morning and she wanted to head to Sheldon’s for breakfast before she needed to go to the studio. The big stunt was today, and she needed to keep herself sharp and focused. Jake’s words from yesterday’s class flitted through her mind. Penny the Powerhouse. She was a powerhouse, if that actually meant what she thought it meant, and she was going to prove it.

She thought about closing her laptop, but with a quirk of a self-aware smile, she typed out her reply to the thread on the support forum. Five words, that she could scarcely believe, but that rang true. Penny sent her declaration to the forum, letting the weight of it settle her unease and tension. She could do this, she wasn’t afraid.

 

 

-

 

 

“Today’s the day, Sheldon!” Penny announced as she came into 4A, freshly showered and wearing her gym clothes. Sheldon was just finishing up making two bowls of oatmeal for them both, one with mixed nuts and dried fruit for himself, and one with sugary dinosaur eggs for Penny. It felt like a waste of his culinary talents to make something so… so pedestrian.  She loved the instant dreck, though, so he made it for her without a complaint, but he reserved the right to grimace at it.

 

“Which day? I was unaware there was any particular significance to this day other than it is oatmeal day,” he replied, setting their bowls down on the counter. Penny joined him quickly, sitting down and practically shoveling her breakfast in. Good heavens.

 

“Today,” she said around a spoonful of fanciful dinosaur oatmeal. “Today is when I get to be a super badass lady and hang off of a helicopter.”

 

At that pronouncement, Sheldon felt his heart stutter, and suddenly he didn’t particularly want to partake in his healthy and fibrous breakfast.

 

“Do you know what sort of safety protocols the crew has employed? At what altitude will the helicopter be? Will you be on a wire of free-jumping? Penny…” he breathed, realizing he’d been ranting a bit.  “Penny, I…”

 

“I know, sweetie,” she said kindly, tentatively reaching her hand out for him. He stilled his body to try and negate his natural twitch and allowed her to rub his forearm soothingly. “I know, it’s pretty scary for me too, but these people are professionals.”

 

“You are a professional as well, Penny,” he reminded her softly. “That does not make it any less terrifying a prospect.”

 

“I bet I could swing something and get you a pass to be on set, but you’re working today…” Penny mused, taking a gulp of her coffee and then another massive and messy bite of her oatmeal.

 

“Actually, I’m not,” he replied, determination building in his stomach and straightening his spine. “I am not going to the office today, and I would much rather be with you where I can confirm with my own eyes that you are safe than working from home and worrying.”

 

“Are you sure?” Penny bit her lip. “And why are you off today?” she added with suspicion.

 

“I’m certain. I want to accompany you, see you work.” Sheldon refrained from answering her other question, since he didn’t have an answer that would satisfy either of them.

 

“Alright, if you’re sure you want to. You’ll probably just be sitting around watching me fall over a bunch, and it’ll be outside in the wind. That okay?” Penny asked again. “If it is, I’ll text my coordinator and ask him permission for you to go on the lot.”

 

“Yes, Penny. I would very much appreciate being allowed to watch you work,” he assured her. He wanted to watch her, watch over her. Sheldon couldn’t conscionably stay home when she would be working in a high-risk situation.

 

“Great!” Penny beamed, grabbing her cellphone to text her boss. He would be accompanying her to the studio, to watch her do stunt work, to watch helplessly from the sidelines. Sheldon only hoped he could contain his anxiety.

 

 

-

 

 

Sheldon was obviously nervous as the got into her car, drove to the studio, and walked up to the massive open lot they’d be filming the stunt in. There were tents with the director’s equipment under the covers, a sleek black helicopter a few meters away was being fitted with a camera rig, and the hum of a generator as it inflated a huge, air mattress sort of thing for her fall. Oh god, her stomach was doing flip flops. She was going to fall on that.

 

“Hey Penny, all ready for today’s big stunt?” The stunt coordinator Mike came up to her side, ushering her and Sheldon over to one of the tents.

 

“Sure thing, boss. When do I go to wardrobe?” she asked him chipperly, shoving her fear down into her stomach. Sheldon was anxiously standing at her side, a quiet and worrisome sentinel. 

 

“This is Doctor Cooper, by the way, I texted you about him coming with me and watching today?”

 

“Right, right. Have a seat, Doctor Cooper,” Mike said, motioning to one of the white plastic chairs. Sheldon kept standing, though. “Anyway, you should head over to wardrobe now. Get you all fitted up in your threads and then we will begin when the director gets here. And listen, I tried to convince him to make it a two-shot stunt. Have you hanging off the helicopter in one, and then do the fall separately, like from a cherry picker or something, but he’s adamant about needing a clear angle of you losing your grip from the landing gear. Is that alright, or do you want me to contest the decision?”  Mike asked anxiously, and his question sparked a nerve inside of her.

 

She was literally going to fall from the actual helicopter? Oh god, oh god. She couldn’t contest it though, could she? She was a no-name stunt actress, likely hired just as much for her horse handling and winning smile as for the fact that she could be paid a less than competitive salary.  Okay, she could do that, right? She’d been doing pull-ups, she had overcome her fears. She could overcome this. Right?

 

“No, don’t press it. I can do that,” Penny assured him, feeling her legs begin to shake a little. Her statement clearly relieved Mike, because he smiled widely and clapped her on the shoulder.

 

“Okay, great. See you after you’re all done up,” Mike said, then he was gone off to talk to one of the rigging guys by the chopper. Oh god!

 

Penny!” Sheldon hissed near her ear. “Are you absolutely certain this is safe?” Poor baby, she wished he hadn’t overheard that conversation.

 

“Yes, Sheldon, I promise I’ll be fine,” she said, but why did it feel kind of like a lie?

 

Penny left Sheldon alone in the little tent and she went into wardrobe and makeup. The makeup artist contoured the hell out of her face until she practically looked like a totally different person, only for wardrobe to cover it up with a head wrap and veil. God, she hoped the movie was good, hoped it was worth all this stress.

 

And all too soon, it was time. Mike came and grabbed her and lead her by the shoulder to the chopper. Inside there were cameramen with headsets on, all smiling and giving her the thumbs up. Oh Jesus, she wished she’d been able to say more to Sheldon before doing this.

 

“Remember, you’ll have to swing your body around while holding on to add to the drama, but make sure you fall flat on your back to the inflated mats, or you could be in some serious pain.  You good?” he asked, helping hoist her up into the helicopter.

 

“G-great, Mike. Super,” she replied with a thin smile, feeling her stomach fill up with an aviary of butterflies. Her stomach churned violently when the chopper blades began to start up, whipping around and causing a whirlwind to pick up around them. Penny held on for dear life to the handguard near the open door, her wide eyes staring down as they raised up off the ground and into position over the mats. People were waving little flags, directing the movement of the helicopter, and before Penny knew it the assistant was motioning for her to kneel down and accept his help. His help to literally suspend herself below the flying helicopter. 

 

Oh god! Every choice she’d made had been a bad, bad, very bad one, hadn’t it? She was going to fall and either die or look like a total idiot, and in front of Sheldon, too!

 

Penny crouched down and got into position, slowly lowering herself until she was holding onto the lip of the open doorway and dangling a little. She inhaled a huge breath then moved one hand to the landing gear, feeling her muscles tense as she engaged her scapula, then the other until it was actually happening. She was hanging off the bottom, and she could see her feet kicking out underneath her as she did it.

 

Penny could see Sheldon vaguely from the corner of her eye, anxiously holding his bag to his chest, but the sight of him only made her arms burn harder. She couldn’t focus on dangling when she was also focused on her man. Penny fixated on a random blip in the distance instead, kicking her legs under her in a way that Mike had specified, which was just horrible, since it made her even more unsteady. The chopper blades were whirring above her, sending huge waves of wind down onto her fancy layered clothing, pushing the veil tightly against her mouth in a way that made her feel suffocated, and, god, it felt like her arms were going to rip apart like wet paper towels. How long had she been holding on, days?

 

The green flag from one of the film crew signaled it was time, finally, to jump. To let go. It couldn’t have come at a better time. No, maybe it could have. Earlier would have been better. Never would be ideal.

 

Penny let her grip on the landing gear deteriorate naturally, the sweat on her palms easing the terrifying slide. As her fingers eased off, her stomach almost came up to her throat and she felt like retching, but she knew the black, inflated mats were below her. She knew it wouldn’t be like landing on a cloud, but she wouldn’t die. Probably.

 

She let go, and fell twenty-eight feet down, down, down until it felt like she’d keep falling forever. Flatten, flatten, flat! Penny reminded herself as she fell, twisting her body back so as much of her body would make contact with the mats as possible. Her breath left her lungs in a painful burst as her back hit the mats. It felt almost like landing on a thousand duvets that were packed on top of very solid concrete. Penny wheezed, then rolled onto her side and off of the massive inflated air mattress thing, hearing distantly that the director was yelling cut and some other directions to the film crew that didn’t concern her. She was getting herself together, breathing slowly as her blood pumped in her veins and practically sung. She felt so freaking alive! But, ouchy, her back hurt a little. 

 

“Hey, how you are doing?” the stunt coordinator asked, running up and handing Penny a small water bottle and towel. Penny dried her hands off, still trying to control her breathing, as she smiled up at him.

 

“Fine! How did the stunt look?” she asked, and, god, she hoped it had looked good.

 

“Amazing! Really amazing!” he replied, which seemed to settle the butterflies in her stomach finally. Thank god, it was over.

 

“So, ready to do it a couple more times?” he asked, taking her towel and helping her up. Okay, not over. “Director wants you to reach your hands up towards the camera guy more when you do it.”

 

“Again?” Penny laughed breathily. “Sure, I’m ready. Let’s do it.”

 

Penny skipped over to where Sheldon was standing like a scared little statue while the crew reset the chopper and the dolly.

 

“Penny,” he whispered, his eyes twitching. “Penny, are you alright after that fall?” Oh gosh, he looked so frightened. It must have looked a lot scarier from his perspective.

 

“Peachy with a side of keen, sweetie,” she smiled up at him. Sheldon didn’t seem to be comforted by that, so she leaned against his side gently. “I promise, Sheldon, I’m perfectly fine. I’m going to have to do it a bunch more, you okay with that? I could always have one of the assistants bring you to the green room so you can chill.”

 

“No, no,” he assured her, and she felt the very faint brush of his hand on her back. “I will stay. It is extremely alarming to watch, but also incredible. You’re incredible.”

 

Penny’s breath was stolen then, even more so than when she’d hit the mats. Incredible, Sheldon was incredible at making her feel special. Before she could think of what to reply, she was being called back over, she needed to get back into the helicopter and get set up for the next take.

 

“Love you, sweetie,” she said, blowing him a kiss before she ran back to be a badass once again.

 

 

-

 

 

Penny had been fantastic. Fantastic and terrifying, like an actual mythical titan falling from the sky to make war on the plane of man, and it had been quite illuminating to see her in action. Sheldon often said she was a professional, because by definition she was, but now that he’d seen her actually working it held even truer. She had been polite - even after just falling from a ridiculous height - and carried on cordial but professional conversations with everyone on set from the director himself to the lowliest of stagehands. She’d done a magnificent job taking corrections from her stunt coordinator and implemented them to near perfection. It was honestly stunning. It made Sheldon want to immediately go and find a documentary about stunt work so he could learn more about her career. 

They’d come home after a few short but grueling hours, and Penny was quite exhausted. She’d dashed into the shower to wash off her heavy stage makeup and had left him in her living room.

Whilst she freshened up, Sheldon took his time straightening her belongings as was his habit. Fixing the orientation of the pillows, folding her blanket, and stacking her paperwork. He found the organizing box he had placed at her desk, and slipped her bills in, attempting not to look at the numbers. She didn’t need his help any longer, Penny was doing just fine.

Her laptop was sitting open on the coffee table, powered on. It could have been on since before they went to location for her stunt, good lord. She had absolutely no computer manners.  Sheldon went to close it and glanced casually at the screen, expecting Facebook or some such social media platform to be open. Instead, it was a website he’d never seen or heard of before. Survivors.net.

 

His heart sank to the floor in a dead mass as he confirmed what it was.

 

Rape survivor support forum.

 

He shouldn’t read further, it was a massive breach of privacy, but he couldn’t help but scroll down. A thread was open, and the original poster had a sort of maudlin exercise for the users of the website to participate in.

 

“Say five words to the person who hurt you.”

 

Sheldon read quickly, a sob welling up inside his throat as he viewed the responses. ‘I am dead inside now’, ‘You broke so many things’, ‘you destroyed my trust, bastard’. The thread went on and on, hundreds of replies, hundreds of confessions not meant for him to see.

 

Then he saw one, the commenter’s handle was Blossom85, and he knew with a sick clarity that it was Penny. Her birth year was confirmation enough. Sheldon could hear Penny moving about the bathroom, and she started the hairdryer. He couldn’t not look at what she’d said. All Sheldon needed was one more reason to hurt Leonard and he would, heedless of Penny’s requests.

 

“I no longer fear you,” her comment said, and the sob he’d been holding released very suddenly. Sheldon eased off one of his gloves, the wonderful gloves she’d given to him, to stifle the sound of his stuttering exhalations with a hand. He wasn’t crying but purging the anguish that had settled inside him and grown like a vicious weed since the moment Penny opened her door to him in early October. 

Sheldon had wondered with fear if she was doing alright, because she hardly ever spoke about it any longer. She seemed to be happy as of late, but what could that truly say? He seemed to be fine for years, and no one had picked up on the severity of his disorder. The proof of her wellbeing was bedumbing, and it was all around him. Her admission of bravery was not the only one, no, he sat on another. She no longer kept sheets on the sofa, which was telling enough, and lately she had comforted him with her touch. She hadn’t been fearful in a while; she was the epitome of confidence.

Just hours ago, he’d seen Penny hold onto the bottom of a helicopter with just her upper body strength until she was red in the face and quaking from the pain, but this… this was true strength. She was so much stronger than he could ever be. Sheldon didn’t think he could ever have moved beyond a fear as palpable and personal as this. 

 

The hairdryer ceased, and Sheldon quickly closed the laptop like a guilty child as he calmed himself. He couldn’t allow himself to make a scene.

 

“Hey babe,” Penny called as she came from the hallway. “Are we still having burgers tonight? Because I remembered what that last ingredient was for the special sauce they use on the Barbeque Burger…” her voice petered off as she saw him, and it was clear he hadn’t done a good enough job concealing his distress. “Sweetie?”

 

“I was just,” Sheldon paused, then cleared his throat. If she knew he had been near crying, she was concealing it well. “I was just thinking about how admirable you are. Your strength…” he breathed, stabilizing himself. “You are so strong, Penny. Brilliantly so.” He knew she would think it was a simple compliment to her physical prowess, but no. Sheldon wanted her to know at least in some sense how much he admired her, but he supposed it could not be expressed. Not all at once, not all right now. “I love you,” he added a bit anxiously.

 

Penny flushed as a small smile played on her lips. “Is that right? Brilliant?” she preened jokingly, tilting her head up to catch a sun-beam only she could see.  “Come here.” She then beckoned him to her side, and he could only comply.

 

Sheldon went to her side and waited patiently, but he didn’t have to wait for long. Penny wrapped her arms around his middle, very slowly as if to give him the time to escape the embrace if he wished to, then rested her head against his chest.

 

“You’re so good at this, Sheldon,” Penny murmured into his shirt, her hands smoothing down his spine repeatedly as if to comfort him.

 

“At hugging?” he laughed anxiously. “Hardly.” It was no secret to anyone that he was a novice at physical intimacy.

 

“No, at loving me. You just… make me feel loved, and you’re so good at it,” she admitted, looking up at him from under her lashes. “How did you get so good at it, mister romance guy?”

 

“Penny,” Sheldon whispered seriously. “Because it is so very easy to love you.”