At first Avery didn't realize she was an old friend. That was the kind of old friend she was, the kind you didn't realize you had. He hadn't seen her in years, and she had grown her hair out, but that wasn't why he didn't recognize her. She simply wasn't familiar because... well, in order to be familiar, you had to have something of an impact. She wasn't a very impactful person when he knew her, and even though they'd had many conversations, had kissed, and he had once even seen her with her shirt off in the back of his car, he passed by her sitting at the bar without a second glance.
It was Dean who noticed her, but not from familiarity. He had a thing for long-haired blondes, and she was that if nothing else. They sat at a table in the corner, Avery, Dean, and Lewis, ordered their drinks, and guffawed about classes, girls, money... various things that were always on the minds of college boys, until Dean saw her.
"Would you look at that," Dean said, interrupting Lewis's stream of profanities directed towards an unlucky, though perhaps deserving, Economics professor. The three boys turned to the bar where she sat on the bar stool, hair dirty blond, the color of dried corn husks, and to Avery, wholly unremarkable aside from its sheer length. If it had been tucked underneath her, she would have been able to sit on it, but instead it flowed steadily below the bottom edge of the stool. Avery had never understood Dean's obsession with hair, and was about to turn away, when she turned. The profile of her face was outlined by the mirror of the bar, and though she had a face as wholly unremarkable as the color of her hair, there was that previously passed up familiarity there.
"Her," he said, absently, surprised by the realization, but not so much that he had forgotten her. It wasn't that she hadn't mattered to him, it was just that she was forgettable on the whole. "Not that. Her. She is a person, Dean, we've talked about this."
Dean just rolled his eyes and Avery laughed and swigged his beer and added, "Anyway, I know her."
She was in his senior gym class, which is not the most flattering place to meet a potential romance. She had a pretty blatant school girl crush on the student gym teacher, who read Kafka and didn't make her play volley ball when the regular gym teacher wasn't watching. Avery teased her about it, but beyond that didn't pay her much attention until she announced that she and Luke, her boyfriend of 2 years (which translates to marriage in high school years), had broken up. Wes, her cousin, also in the gym class, asked who had done the breaking.
"He did," she whispered.
"I'm sorry," Avery said, and even though he didn't know her, he really was sorry. He knew what that was like.
Wes told him a week or so later that he thought she had a thing for him. The thought made Avery smile, because attention was nice, and he hadn't had a girl pay him any attention since Allison. That had been almost a year ago. He asked her to hang out, because it might lead to a rebound make-out session, and they walked around the park. They lay down on their stomachs on the highest hill and after a round of conversations about Harry Potter and how many memorials this park had for dead people, she asked, "Did you love Allison?"
He thought about joking, because thus far that's really all he'd done. Nah, just fucked her, he could say. I was really in love with her ass. She wouldn't take him seriously, and she would probably ask another question, and if she was attentive maybe she would take that as, Yes, I did.
But something made him pick at a dandelion on the hill and say, "I thought I did."
She just nodded, and he didn't ask about Luke, because of course she had loved him. She probably still did love him, at least judging by the way she'd hesitated when he'd asked her out. But he didn't ask, because frankly, it was better that he didn't know.
He figured he would leave her to herself.
"Got a class with her?" Dean wondered, hopefully.
"No, she doesn't go to school, last I heard," Avery said thoughtfully, trying to dig out details he hadn't ever thought he'd need again from the back files of his brain. "We went to high school together."
Lewis cocked an eyebrow at him. "Looks like more than that. Did ya fuck her?"
"Her?" Avery scoffed, remembering her pushing his busy hands away, her quivering eyes even as he leaned in to only kiss her, but not only those things. It was the way she couldn't ever decide what kind of sandwich to have for lunch, or the way she stood out of the way when they played volleyball in gym class, or the way she clutched that notebook she always carried around with her like someone would have to pry it from her when she died in order to read it. He couldn't imagine her opening up to anybody to let them get that close to her. "No, I didn't fuck her."
"You dated at least."
"No," Avery snapped. "We didn't date. Made out a couple times, but they weren't dates."
"What's her name?" Dean asked, ignoring or at least not noticing the memorial conversations of his friends.
"Penny Garner," Avery answered, and realized he hadn't thought that name in two years.
"Right. Mind if I go talk to her?" Only now did Dean look at him, eagerly, the way a dog looks when you hold a treat in front of its nose. Dean was tall, dark haired, blue eyed, and charming. He had dimples, which girls went crazy for, and the attitude of a more whimsical Hugh Heffner. An ego and a sense of humor which lent itself to making friends with guys and tricked girls into thinking it was confidence, at least for as long as it took him to get them into bed. Avery liked Dean, because it was hard not to like Dean, but then again, Dean wasn't trying to fuck him.
But the strange part was, he didn't mind if Dean went to go talk to Penny. He felt no tremor of jealousy for the girl, which was odd to him. Had Dean gone after an ex-girlfriend or any other girl he'd been involved with, he would have most assuredly felt... well, not nothing, that's for sure.
He showed up at Wes's house with weed stashed in his car, and hadn't expected to see Penny attentively following Wes's footsteps. She climbed dutifully into his backseat with only a slight glance to see if that was okay. Avery pulled out of the driveway while Wes packed the bowl and lit it. Taking it, Avery eyed her in the mirror, but she was looking out the window distantly, the way subway-goers ignore homeless people.
He passed it back to her and, surprised, she shook her head.
"Penny doesn't smoke, are you fucking stupid?" Wes laughed. "Are you stupid, man?"
"Just didn't want her to feel left out, jackass," Avery said, but didn't offer again for the rest of the car ride. He also didn't ask why she was there, or why she never said anything while he and Wes rambled on. She only laughed sometimes, only when something was particularly funny. She was in the car, but sometimes he forgot.
The next time he picked up Wes, she was there again, and the time after that as well. Every time, Avery offered her a hit, and every time she looked more and more surprised but always refused.
Finally, he picked Wes up and she wasn't there. As he pulled out, he asked, "Where'd your cousin go?"
"She wanted to give you a chance to ask her out again," Wes replied and lit the bowl. Breathing deeply and then watching the smoke from between his lips trill through the air, he continued. "She figured since you hadn't yet, she might as well quit imposing."
"She wasn't imposing."
"I know that, and you know that, but she sure as fuck doesn't know that," Wes explained distastefully. "She has this idea that you're out of her league. I told her she's fucking nuts and that you're pretty much scum, but fuck if she listened to me."
"Remind me to let you speak at my wedding. Asshole."
But it was a stunning concept. Not Wes speaking at Avery's wedding, but a girl thinking Avery was out of her league. Penny certainly wasn't the hottest girl in their high school, but she was definitely attractive and her personality didn't make you want to set things on fire, which was a plus in Avery's mind, after Allison. Anyway, he liked her and was attracted to her, and could see it going well. And there was always the rebound make-out session, anyway.
He called her that night. Asked her to watch a movie with him. Because, as Wes would say, what the fuck, right?
The pantomime of the college student mating ritual began its pattern as soon as Dean sidled confidently into the bar stool beside Penny. She smiled shyly, gazed at him through her eyelashes as she pretended to be paying more attention to her beer than him, and he grinned lopsidedly at her, leaned casually against the bar, and leaned in closer to talk into her ear. Avery was both fascinated and repulsed by the ritual of it, and the way Penny seemed to be eating out of Dean's hand, like any other girl always did. He was always upset to see girls pandering to Dean's game. There had to be one of them who didn't fall for dimples and blue eyes.
Dean motioned towards the table at which Avery was ignoring Lewis and Lewis was pretending he wasn't. Penny followed the motion and caught Avery's staring. Her mouth fell open just slightly, smile faded. All flirtation was gone from her demeanor. She sat up straighter and gave him a small half-wave, and Avery felt instantly ashamed of himself for not having remembered her. The way she was looking at him... it was as if she'd know him anywhere.
He nodded his head and received a close-mouthed smile for his troubles. Dean was talking into her ear again, but she only looked at Avery, something that made his pride swell in his chest. There had never once been a girl who noticed him before Dean. He thought about walking over, striking up a conversation, maybe even pulling her aside, stopping Dean from getting anywhere, for the first time taking a girl right out from under his nose. He would have an excuse – they were old friends, he wanted to catch up. He wouldn't even have to fuck her for it to prove something.
But at something Dean said, Penny turned her cheek into his shoulder and laughed. Dean held out his hand, pulled her from the stool and towards the door. It was so quick for Dean, always had been. Avery could only hope that his actual performance matched his pick-up speed.
All Avery had was that Penny looked over her shoulder once, catching his eyes just before disappearing out the door. Perhaps he was imagining it, but it almost looked as though she was apologizing to him, or perhaps asking him permission.
The thought bothered him, made his collar itch. She didn't belong to him. She never had. No part of her had ever been his. She didn't owe him anything.
"Every time I offer you weed when we're with Wes, you look at me like I'm a nutcase." They were driving, which is what they often did together, which was ironic, as she was terrified of cars. Mostly Avery looked for a place where they could pull over and make-out. He didn't know what she thought about, but she never seemed shocked when he pulled over, and she climbed into the back seat without him having to make small talk and pretend they were there to get to know each other better. They talked while he drove. When they were parked, there were other things to do, and they both seemed to know it.
At the question, Penny just looked at him, so he elaborated. "I mean, you and Wes are pretty close."
"He's my best friend," she responded, with a hint of defensiveness in her voice.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. I mean, you've been around weed a lot. I know you don't want to smoke, but hasn't anyone offered, even just to be polite?"
She shook her head, but when he looked at her skeptically, she assured him, "No one. Wes kinda kept his friends in check because he knew I didn't want to try it."
Wes would do that. He teased her relentlessly, more than anyone else, but if anyone laid a finger on her, tried to force her to do anything, Avery had a feeling Wes wouldn't sit back and let it happen. As soon as he heard the words, "I don't want to," come out of her mouth about something like smoking weed or fucking or anything like that, he'd keep everyone respecting that.
"Why didn't you want to try it?"
That question surprised her as well. She was probably used to people asking stoners why they did want to do. Not smoking was a good thing, a beneficial thing, and like everyone else, she must have thought if you did a "good" thing, you didn't really have to have a reason for your decision. "Because. I don't know. I just don't want to."
"Because our health teacher says so? Because of Nancy Reagan? Because you're asthmatic, what?"
Penny sighed and said, "I really don't know, Avery. Maybe I'm scared of it? Or how people will see me?"
"Fuck other people."
"It's not that simple for me, Avery, I'm not like you." She whispered this into her lap. Sometimes he felt like she wasn't even talking to him. "You have so much personality to fall back on and I have..."
She didn't finish. He would never know what she had because they stopped at a stop sign and her hand was rubbing his knee and he knew she wasn't going to finish that sentence no matter how much time he gave her. He let her move her hand up and down his leg instead of answering. He figured she thought she was distracting him, as if thinking about sex and warm touches and getting closer and closer to his dick would reset his brain. In reality, he was only letting her distract him because if she didn't want to talk, fuck it, it was her decision. If he'd really wanted her to, she wouldn't have been able to distract him if she mounted him while he was going sixty and all he could see was her tits. He would have remembered exactly what she was saying.
But fuck it. If she didn't want to tell him, she didn't owe him a goddamn thing. It's not as if she was his girlfriend or anything.
But that was the way Penny was. Always looking for permission, validation, whether from him or someone else whose opinion she valued but didn't want to. He'd seen the way she acted around people with whom she was comfortable, and then he'd seen her around himself and other people she got in her head were cooler than her. She hesitated. She wasn't a different person, per se, but she was slower to getting to herself. It was the difference between someone who dives into a pool and someone who steps in slowly – either way you're getting to the same water, just one person takes longer to get wet.
Avery finished his beer, threw money on the table, and ignored Lewis's babbling protests before heading towards the door. Beer was distasteful to him now, like memories and past annoyances, and the atmosphere of the bar had become reminiscent, nostalgic. Avery wasn't one to avoid his past – he'd had a pretty damn good one as far as he could tell – but there were certain things he didn't want creeping down on him. The contempt he'd eventually fostered for Penny Garner was one of them.
He didn't know why this particular girl was so unpleasant to think about. He hadn't disliked her when he knew her. In fact, he had quite liked her, grown attached rather quickly. It was easy to be open with Penny, strangely and unnaturally easy to be open with someone who was so closed. He had felt comfortable with her discomfort for a while. It had stroked his ego, made him feel important. Even when he grew tired of the pedestal she put him on, she was still likable. She was still sweet, generous, kind. But many people were sweet, generous, and kind. She was likable, but unremarkable.
Perhaps it was her mediocrity that bothered him so, the way Nickelback or Twilight bothered him. It was not that she was terrible – terrible he could take, terrible was something – it was that she was nothing at all.
Outside in the street, he wandered down the block to his apartment building, ignoring stumbling college students and the creepy older men who hung around the college bars and concentrating instead on the lampposts that lined the street. He counted them, released his brain from all other thoughts besides counting them and breathing. He did this a lot on that particular road – sometimes counting was the only thing that calmed him down after a night of drinking, when he became red. He wasn't red right now, but it was habit anyway, to wander around in the dark.
Penny had come up with that name for his anxiety attacks. He'd forgotten that. "Being red." Sort of. It was from the time she had made him watch Breakfast at Tiffany's. Holly Golightly's mean reds. Anxiety. Fear. Mirroring his own. When she'd said that, Penny had, in a moment of clarity she didn't normally give to Avery, turned to him and said, You've had your share of being red, haven't you?
And it had stuck, if only in his mind, because he had shared with her about his anxiety attacks. Because he'd been open with her, because he'd been himself, and it was long after that that it began to anger him that she knew so much about him in so short a time, but there didn't seem to be anything about her that he could even find out. It wasn't the wall she had put up that kept him from knowing her; it was the fact that there was nothing behind the wall to find.
It was raining, but only slightly, when they found the parking lot by the reservoir. She crawled into the back and beckoned him from the seat with a shy smile. She could be seductive when she wanted to be, and as he climbed back with her, she kissed him on the corner of his mouth softly. It was an act of intimacy Avery didn't really understand – they'd been close, of course, but never what he would call intimate.
He settled in beside her and she climbed on top of his lap, all the while kissing him gently, softly, on his lips and down his jaw line, on the corner of his ear. His hands rested at the small of her back, on her ass, on her shoulder blades, kissing back when she gave him a chance, but otherwise just enjoying being catered to. This is nice, he thought, and wondered about the last time he and Allison had been this close to each other.
Without a word, Penny lifted her shirt over her head. Her bra had cupcakes on it, which was adorable and seductive all at once. Avery groaned, and pushed her back to lay her down on the seat. This time, he would kiss her neck and jaw and chest. He had learned by now never to push it further than she took it herself, so he didn't attempt to take off any more clothes or move his hands anywhere but on her bare waist. Her breathing grew heavier, and he was sure his did, too, and even though he was hard as a rock and wanted her, he didn't try anything.
"I'm a virgin, Avery," she said to the dark as he trailed kisses down to her bellybutton.
Through his hair, he peered up at her. "I know," he said. "I guessed as much."
"Oh," she said. "Good."
He sat up now, brushed his hair out of his eyes and found a space for himself between her and the back of the seat, wrapping his arms around her so she wouldn't fall. "I wasn't going to try to fuck you or anything," he assured her as she played awkwardly with the collar of his white T-shirt.
"I wanted to be sure you didn't get the wrong idea," she said. "People assume that because Luke and I were together for so long... I mean, you and Allison... didn't you?"
"Yeah, we did." He blocked the memory as he was saying it, counted his own breathing. He didn't want to think about Allison. "Why didn't you and Will?"
"I didn't want to."
"I don't know. I was afraid, I guess."
"Afraid of what?"
"Getting hurt," she said, the most complicated answer she would give him, although he could have gotten that far on his own. She adjusted herself so she was looking straight up and out the window. "The rain's let up."
She sat up, pulled on her shirt and, forgetting her sandals in the back seat, disappeared out the back door of the car.
Avery followed her more slowly as she crossed the parking lot and through a thin line of trees to the reservoir. It hadn't stopped raining, but it was a light rain that cooled him in the summer heat. When he caught up with her, she was sitting on the grass, rolling up the legs of her jeans.
He watched her dip her feet delicately into the water and wade until she was nearly up to her knees. Her white shirt glowed slightly in the brilliant moon's reflection on the water and the rain, and he felt far from her but close all the same. He wanted to shout something to her, to make her come back, so she would sit on the edge of the reservoir and talk to him and tell him why she was afraid.
"I'm afraid of water," he said, and she gazed at him thoughtfully over her shoulder for a bit before wading back. He helped her climb onto the bank and she wiggled her bare toes in the muddy grass.
"Say something," he commanded, looking down on her from a greater height than usual, as he was farther up the incline of the embankment than she was.
"I didn't think you were afraid of anything," she admitted.
He laughed, and wrapped his arms around her waist and picked her up so her feet dangled and he could kiss her. When he set her down, she grinned at him brilliantly.
"It's been a long time since I felt this close to someone," she said. "It's nice."
"Yeah," Avery agreed, but inside, his heart sank. If this was how close she got to people, he wasn't going to learn anything new about her. She was always going to be afraid.
He was angry at her for being empty, when he should have been angry at himself for wanting so much from an empty shell. For reading her so wrong, at first, and thinking there was something in there, when there wasn't.
He reached his apartment building and climbed the stairs. They creaked. Tonight, it didn't bother him. He liked that they did something, that they had an action ascribed to them, that they did more than just be. It also didn't strike him as silly that a girl about whom he hadn't thought in years was getting to him so much, simply for going home with his roommate.
He reached his floor and was met by the sound of sobbing. Not crying, like when someone you barely know dies and you feel like something should be done about it. Not screeching, like what his little sister did when she fell and scraped her knee and wasn't really hurt, but wanted attention anyway. Sobbing. Deep, mournful, heartfelt sobs that came from within the chest and the bones. It wasn't loud, but it was meaningful. If you had asked Avery before then if he'd ever heard someone sobbing before, he would have said yes, but he realized that really, he'd never heard sobbing like this. Perhaps it was the contrast – he'd been expecting to hear the passion of fucking coming from his apartment, not anguish – but it struck him as something incredibly personal that he was walking into.
Sitting against the door when he arrived was the lady of the evening herself. Penny's eyes were shut tight and her hair was clasped in her straining fists as she sobbed into her pulled up knees. He stood above her for a moment, marveling at her tears the way one marvels at Mona Lisa's smile. A mystery they were to him. He'd seen girls cry before, of course, he'd even seen Penny cry before, but not like this.
"Someone run over your cat?" he asked because it was a way to get her to look at him without actually seeming like he cared why she was crying. The thought didn't even cross his mind to ask what was wrong. It was the action itself that was interesting, not the reasoning behind it. Still, it seemed... awkward to stand in the hallway watching a girl he'd once seen with her shirt off sob into her knees without at least making his presence known.
She looked up and him and through her tears came a sobbing, insincere smile. She picked herself up, brushed her skirt down and pulled her hair back into a long and messy ponytail. "Hi, Avery, I... I'm sorry, I didn't think you'd be... home or anything for a while so I... and then Dean, he... I couldn't..." She gave short, curt laugh. "Who am I kidding? You don't care. I'll go now."
Avery narrowed his eyes. What the hell was that supposed to mean? To be called out by a girl he hadn't spoken to in years, and one whose existence had been bothering him for most of the night, was something that he hadn't expected to have to take.
What had he expected then? Fawning? Shyness? His usual ego boost that accompanied talking to Penny? Was he that arrogant to think that after all these years she would still find him as... whatever it was she'd found in him in high school? The reminder of his arrogance he blamed on her as well as the reminder of his detachment and anger he hadn't felt in a long time at himself, the type of anger that needed redirection and a scapegoat, the type of anger he'd never been very good at dealing with.
He grabbed her elbow when she brushed passed him to leave. He was going to yell at her, to scream at her, to lash out at her for... well, he didn't really know why. For being unremarkable, for proving to him that all those times people in the world said, "Everyone in the world is special," was lying. For reminding him that it was even possible to be completely and utterly commonplace and unexceptional, and that if he didn't watch his step, he could wind up wholly and irrevocably average, too.
"Am I allowed to ask why?"
Avery was trying to remain calm. He was trying not to be mad at her, because really, she hadn't done anything wrong. But it was hard enough breaking up with someone you weren't even really dating, and she was making it harder by persisting in doing exactly what it was that was making him end things in the first place.
He snapped. "That's why," he said, but he took a deep breath before continuing. "You don't have to ask me permission for everything, Penny."
"I don't know what you mean." Her bewildered face melted into the background of the world for him. She wasn't anything that stood out, and somehow that made him angrier.
"You don't have to be afraid to do something because of the way I might react," he persisted. "You should do what you feel like doing, instead of overanalyzing everything."
"Is this because I can't decide if I want to smoke pot with you?"
"No," he cried, throwing his hands up in the air. He hadn't even known people actually did that, but he'd never been so frustrated. "I don't give a fuck about that. I really just mean anything you feel like doing. If you feel like making yourself a sandwich, or dancing, or running out into a lightning storm, I don't care, just do it."
She just shook her head, eyes closed. She wouldn't look at him. "So you're breaking up with me."
"We're not breaking up, we didn't even date, that's what I'm trying to say," Avery countered desperately trying to impart whatever it was he could to her. "You don't owe me anything."
She just stood there and stared at him and he couldn't look at her anymore without a grand mal seizure of pity overwhelming him. On the whole, Avery was contemptuous of that particular feeling, whether it was towards him or exuded by him. He didn't want to feel this for someone he could very easily have grown to respect.
"You have to do more than just be, Penny," he said. "The English language has verbs for a reason."
"'To be' is a verb, it's just intransitive," she whispered.
He balked at her. "What the fuck does that have to with anything?"
"Maybe I'm just an intransitive verb, Avery," she said, but she was talking to her toes, not to him, and that excuse was so much bullshit he couldn't even take it.
He just shook his head, walked out of her living room, and forgot about her for the next three years. She was so easy to forget, which would have bothered him about her if he'd remembered it.
But when she looked at him, hiccupping, teary eyed, lip quivering and breathing heavily, he couldn't say anything angry. His anger disappeared and all he felt was pity. He dropped his arm and searched the floor for something to say. "I... I care."
Penny shook her head and hiccupped out a chuckle that sounded more like she was choking back a sob. Then she stopped and looked at him and breathed in and out. Avery counted them. One, two, three, four...
"Your roommate's an asshole," she said. Avery laughed in spite of himself.
"Yeah. Yeah, I know he is." With her hair pulled back, looking a mess, Avery could see himself in Penny Garner for the first real time. Was this what he looked like when he was red? "What, uh... what exactly did he do?"
"Ha! I think it's what he didn't do that's the problem, and least for him," Penny said, pulling at her sweater sleeves awkwardly. "He kissed me, as soon as we got into the apartment. No segue or anything. Just pushed me against the door and kissed me."
"And here I thought girls liked that kind of sweeping gesture," Avery said.
"It's better when you're not called another girl's name when you push him away," Penny said. "And when you tell him that you didn't come up there to fuck him, and he tells you he's going to bed and that you should catch a cab... takes away from the romance of it all."
"Ah," Avery said, knowingly. Penny bit at her sleeve, nibbling at it like an emotionally distraught rabbit, though what rabbits would be emotionally distraught about, Avery couldn't fathom. He'd never really noticed her innocence before. She'd been pretty aware of the world when they'd... whatever it was they'd done. He'd always considered her jaded, closed, cynical. She had been repellant of the world's evils – sex, weed, beer – but certainly not innocent of them. "Why did you come up here? Ordinarily when a guy takes a girl from a bar back to his apartment, she understands where it's going."
Penny smiled and sniffled and tugged on her sleeve a bit with her teeth. "I figured... why not, you know? You didn't... seem to care and he was... I mean, he's handsome and he was paying attention to me, and I wanted to... see..."
"See if your life had turned out like you wanted it. Even if the only way to do that was by flirting a little bit with your asshole roommate."
Avery took a step back from her, cleared his throat and looked around him. He began to count the tiles in the ceiling, the doors in the hallway, the lights on the walls. He'd never done that before – by the time he'd gotten back to his apartment in the past, he'd calmed down, he'd just been home by then – but now it was a whole new place, an unfamiliar one, and he had to adjust.
"I'm sorry. I know. That probably sounded... creepy. And stalkerish. I'll just go."
"No, it didn't!" Avery said quickly, reaching for her. He grabbed her hand this time. She was soft. He'd forgotten. "I mean... well, yeah, it did actually."
She laughed, and even though her face was wet and her eyes were red and her hair was a mess, she was... something, she was real. She'd never been real before. She wasn't beautiful, that wasn't the word he was thinking of, but she existed to him.
"You've just," he began, "you've never said anything like that to me before. Nothing like what you were actually feeling."
She smiled, a sweeping, sad smile, a rushing river in the middle of a rain storm. "That's because I was afraid."
Avery felt his face fall like a suicide off the belltower. "You always were."
"The night Luke and I broke up, he hit me because I told him he was bitter and selfish," she announced to him, and even though her lip trembled and her eyes clouded over with tears again, it was the strongest he'd ever seen her. "He'd never hit me before, but that was the last time I told anybody anything I was feeling for a while... and then there was you telling me... What was it you told me? That if I felt like making a sandwich, or dancing, or running into a lightning storm, I should do it? Whatever it was?"
"Unless it was crack," he said because he didn't know what else to say. "You probably shouldn't do crack, even if you feel like it."
She laughed again, rolled her eyes. Avery had seen her perform such gestures at Wes when she didn't think he was nearby, but never to him, never ever to him.
"I'm really sorry that Luke hit you," he said sincerely.
"He wasn't himself that night," she said. "He wasn't a bad guy, just not the right guy. He's happier now, and so am I. And at any rate, I've certainly been hit much harder."
Avery barked out surprise in the form of a laugh. "That was actually funny," he found himself saying, and when she raised her eyebrow at him, he realized what and odd thing it was for him to have said to anyone who hadn't been inside his head all evening.
"It wasn't fair, you know, all those things you said to me," she told him then. "Telling me I didn't owe you anything and that I was afraid, but you were just as afraid. You didn't want me to owe you anything because that meant we meant something to each other. You were just as afraid of me, only I was more honest about it."
"Been holding that back for a few years?" He smiled crookedly, so she wouldn't think she had stung him as badly as she had. She was right of course, which was astounding, not because he hadn't known she was smart, but because he hadn't known she thought about anything this much at all.
Penny reached her hand up to brush his face, and in that gentle gesture the stinger was carefully removed. It didn't matter, she was saying, and for the first time he read her eyes and knew exactly what she was thinking.
"That, among other things," she said. At first he thought she was talking about what he was thinking, but realized it was a response to his words only in time to come back to earth while she kissed him. Fingers entwined in his hair and tongue entwined in his lips. She kissed with her eyes open, which she'd never done before, and he kissed her back staring directly into her. And, because he was a fan of irony, he wrapped his arms completely around the small of her back and pushed her ungracefully against the door of his apartment. At least he could beat Dean at sweeping gestures.