The Annual California International Robot Fighting League Competition is a huge deal. Like, the winner is showered in money and praise and is a veritable sciencey superstar.
Or, that's what Justin says. All Alex hears is, 'roadtrip to California, I'm paying'.
All Penny hears is nerd trash talk all the way there in Leonard's car.
“Why did I agree to this?” she mutters to herself.
“Because you're such a good person!” Leonard says cheerfully, making the turn onto the university campus.
“Mm-hm,” she replies. “Remember my computer still needs to de-virused, or whatever.”
His eyebrows fall a little. “Of course.”
They're late because Justin drives like someone's grandma (not theirs, speeding down the freeway, screaming obscenities out the window), and has the map-reading abilities of their dad.
Zeke practically launches himself bodily from the still moving car as they pull up. A moment later he's foraging around in the trunk, pulling out parts of Mr Arigato Roboto, or whatever.
Alex turns to Harper to deliver a scathing remark on the ridiculousness of the male population in general, but Harper's already out of the car and holding court with the boys.
California had better damn well be worth it.
“So, this is like a battle, right? Between little robots? Like MONTE, only more publicly embarrassing?” Penny asks. They're standing in a Caltech lecture hall, surrounded by robots that whir and bleep and flash. She shifts away from one that zooms past her; it's stalk-eye swivelling around to look at her. She makes to kick it, and it speeds away.
“'Little'!” Howard looks constipated at the thought of it. “This is a highly complex artificial intelligence. Nasa-!”
“Yes,” Leonard cuts in. “There are three rounds and four participants. Whoever is the overall winner goes through to the final round.”
“Who're you... battling?”
“The wunderkinder,” Howard hisses.
He points at two lanky teenagers, one goofy-looking, the other kind of hot, although yeah, she's probably too old for him.
“Maybe I'll just sit,” Penny says, pointing to the mostly empty stands. She's sure it's full by Caltech's standards.
“That might be best,” Leonard says. “This is going to get ugly.”
She seeks out the only person in the 'crowd' who doesn't appear enraptured. In fact, the girl's reading an issue of Fashion Fatale, muttering under her breath. She's the youngest person in the lecture-hall-turned-stage.
“Hey, I like your leggings,” Penny says, sitting down beside her.
Alex lowers her magazine. She had hoped that she wouldn't have to do any talking at this event – Justin had suddenly decided that he couldn't afford to pay for a motel en route, and her father point blank refused to give her money to stay in a hotel (man, she only asked for him to pay for her, not everyone else, so she doesn't know what his problem is), so they drove all night. She was hoping to take a nap while Justin excised some of his sexual frustration on shiny fighting robots.
“Thanks,” she says, and stares, not feeling the need to return the compliment. Penny feels like telling her that it's a non-optional social convention, but-- that probably won't go over well.
“So, are the... vonderkind your nerds?”
Alex sucks in a breath and lets it go. “The vonder-what?”
“I don't know, it was something my friend said. The young guys, I guess.”
“Oh.” Alex looks at the boys, currently remonstrating with Howard in the middle of the battle-arena. “In a manner of speaking. The tall one with the funny hair is my brother, the goofy-looking one is her boyfriend.” She throws her thumb over her shoulder at Harper who's eating pieces of popcorn off her dress. Penny frowns; is she dressed as a... tub of popcorn?
“Crush him, Zeke!” Harper screams between mouthfuls.
“I'm Alex,” Alex says, leaning away from her friend and rubbing her ear. “That's Harper. So, is he your nerd?” She nods towards Howard, who is now being weakly held back by Leonard.
“Penny,” Penny says in answer, “and oh my God, no. The quarter of an inch less tiny one is my nerd. Or not. I don't know, but Howard is not my fault.”
Alex nods. “Your nerd's cute. For a nerd.” She reaches back and plucks a kernel of popcorn off her friend's dress. “He's about to get punched in the face, though. Zeke is hardcore about robots.”
Zeke is flaying all over the place, and Howard isn't much better. Yeah, someone's going to get hit in a minute if they don't cut it out, and no one else wants to get involved. High warlocks her ass.
“I better go and help them,” Penny says, standing up again. “Are you gonna come?”
Alex's mouth twists thoughtfully and she shakes her head. “You know, I think I'm going to let this happen.” After all, if she must be conscious for this thing she needs to get her entertainment somehow.
Penny walks down to the arena and inserts herself between Zeke, Justin and her friends. She talks seriously to Howard for a moment, then points to the side of the arena. He shuffles off, though not before some parting words that Alex doesn't catch.
She picks some more popcorn off Harper and smiles. She might just like this chick. Even if she is blonde.
There's a party, afterwards. It's a nerd party, at a local bar, but Alex is hard up right now, she'll take whatever she can get.
And these nerds also really like alcohol, so hey, that's a point in their column right there.
“We're too young!” Justin cries. “What if we get... carded?” He whispers it in horror, like she hasn't been carded a thousand times before. A quick cerebellum erasus normally clears that right up.
But she's not going to tell Justin that. “Jeez, I have cards, remember who you're talking to.” She digs through the collection in her bag and hands them out.
“Eduardo?” Justin says, pulling a face.
“Buzz.” Zeke grins. “Cool!”
“This doesn't even look like me, Alex,” Harper says, brandishing it in Alex's face.
Alex's eyes cross looking at it. “That is you, Harper. Remember when we got school photos taken and the glare from your dress almost blinded the photographer? You had to wear a track uniform, instead.”
Harper withdraws her hand and scrutinises the card. “Still doesn't look like me,” she says finally.
Justin's rapidly going red in the face, like that time that she-- well, no need for that kind of spectacle again. “Hey! Look over there!” she says, pointing at Penny. She's just snagged a drink out of Leonard's hands and knocked it back in one.
“Alex!” Justin protests, but looks that way regardless. “Who's-- who's that?”
Man, her brother is so predictable. “Her name's, uh--” Polly? Patty? Penny? Penny! “Her name's Penny. Hey, Penny, come over here!”
Penny comes over to them with three guys in tow. She introduces them as Leonard, Sheldon, and Raj. Leonard's the only one who says hi, tipping his head way too far back when he speaks. Sheldon says something incredibly long and rapid fire, in a voice very much like Justin in the middle of one of his lectures. Alex totally zones out for it. Raj doesn't say a thing, just stares at his shoes.
“Penny,” she says, “this is my brother Justin.” She turns to find his eyes bugging out of his head. “Justin!” she barks.
“Hi, hey, hello!” he says, as if activated by her yelling. “Does anyone want a drink, I'm going to get a drink.” He flees before she can tell him that he's their designated driver. Eh, there's probably a spell for sobering people up.
“Aw,” Penny says, watching him weave his way through the crowd.
“He's like Raj, but with more age-appropriate behaviour,” Leonard says, grinning. Really, tilts his head way too far back.
Raj just narrows his eyes, whispers something in Leonard's ear, and slopes off.
“He's gonna go get drunk,” Leonard relays to them.
“As am I,” Alex says, turning on the spot to pluck a drink from the hand of a passerby. He opens his mouth to protest. She frowns him down until he moves off. “And don't you forget it,” she shouts.
Penny's kinda jealous because, shit, Alex is seventeen, and she's talking about interning with a fashion magazine and being an aspiring artist, and all Penny has are stories about the Cheesecake Factory, and shenanigans with the boys – neither of which are very cool.
“I work in a diner. Well, I say work...” Alex smiles into her drink, draining the last of it. As always, 'work' is a loosely defined concept for her.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Howard slides in between them, hand outstretched. “Hi, I'm Howard Wolowitz, aerospace engineer. You look like you need a refill.” He raises his eyebrows, making it sound like some kind of lewd act.
Alex just looks at him a moment, faintly amused. “Alex Russo,” she says. “Never gonna happen.”
“She's seventeen, Howard,” Penny tells him, taking hold of his shirt collar and dragging him backwards.
“It's okay, baby, you don't need to be jealous!”
They both stare at him until he wilts under their disapproval.
“Justin!” Alex calls out into the crowd. He's been gone a while now, and while she can't really imagine that he'd go get drunk, she does think that he might get himself in trouble with some of the bigger nerds. Within minutes he appears at her side; she affords him a brief smile at the obedience. He makes a face at her, then smiles shyly at Penny before his eyes settle on Howard.
“Mr Wolowitz,” he says stiffly.
“Mr Russo,” Howard returns.
“Mr Bond,” Alex says in a deep voice. “Justin, get me another drink. Something pink, with an umbrella.” She presses her glass into his hands.
“I don't think they have those kinds of drinks here,” he says, glaring at her.
“It's a nerd party, they'll be here somewhere. Go.” They stare at each other, and Penny gets the feeling that they're having some kind of silent conversation, kinda like how Raj and Howard do. Eventually he backs down and she shoos him away.
“He is so whipped,” Howard says, leaning back to whisper into Penny's ear.
“Ew, don't be gross. He's her brother.”
“Ain't like no brother I've ever seen,” he says, winking at her. She pushes his face away from hers.
Justin is back within five minutes, holding a glass that's sweating with condensation already. “There you go, a drink on the RGB colour spectrum. I'm telling Mom when we get home, though.”
“No, you're not,” Alex says dismissively. She knows he knows she knows many incriminating things about him. She takes a sip of the drink, and smiles. “Hey, this is nice. Good job.”
He opens his mouth to respond, but Howard gets in there first, with a laugh so odd it's almost up to Sheldon's standards. “Oh ho ho, your mom?” he says, “how cute.”
“Really?” Leonard says. “That's what you're going to go with?”
Howard waves him off, refocusing his attention on Justin. “I guess she can console you on your hideous defeat, too.”
“Hey.” Alex wobbles slightly on her heels, and Justin lays a hand on her shoulder to steady her. “He still beat you.”
“Yeah,” Justin adds, pulling himself up to his full height, which is considerably taller than Howard. It's such a shame he's still in high school, Penny laments silently.
“That is indisputable fact,” Sheldon says. “Your name has already been removed from the list of contenders on the league's website. I checked.”
Howard clenches his jaw. “You aren't helping.”
Sheldon looks shocked by the comment. “I wasn't aware I was giving the impression that I was trying to. Did it seem that way? Goodness, this is hard.”
“Look,” Penny says. She doesn't need to hear any more trash talk tonight – it's so... embarrassing to listen to. “You both got beat, so what does it matter?”
Justin and Howard both flush with annoyance. “What's a damn fourteen year old from New Orleans even doing in the competition?” Howard mutters, “isn't it a school night?”
“Maybe it's like an inverse learning curve,” Leonard says. He seems to think he's helping, but Howard doesn't look any less near an aneurysm. “The younger the participants get, the better they are.”
“No, that can't be. If that were the case, then all of you would have achieved something important as prepubescent children and young adults. And you didn't.” Sheldon blinks several times after the statement, unfazed by Leonard's irritable stare.
“Ha,” Howard pronounces carefully.
As always, Sheldon manages to dampen the conversation to near death, leaving them to stand awkwardly and listen to Alex and Justin bicker quietly. Every so often, Howard raises his eyebrows at Penny, motioning to the pair, and each time she hits him on the back of the head with her purse.
Eventually, Justin breaks the silence with a squeaked 'oh!'.
“What?” Alex asks, then looks where he's looking. “Oh my God, Zeke, cover your shame!” she shouts, shielding her eyes from Zeke, shirtless, dancing on the bar. Penny laughs until she catches sight of Raj up there too. Then it's just sad.
Zeke doesn't listen to Alex's plea, though – clearly she doesn't exert the same control over him that she does her brother. Howard has already begun filming the incident on his phone, muttering evilly about 'ruining the wunderkinder reputations' all over the internet.
“Zachary Ezekiel Rosenblatt Beakerman, get down from there this very instant!” Harper appears in a flurry of red hair and popcorn, ordering her boyfriend down with a terrifying amount of intensity. It makes Leonard twitch nervously. “And I don't know who are you, but your mother would be ashamed!” she shouts at Raj.
“Wow, your friend sure is something,” Penny says. She's not sure if she means that positively or not. Raj is scrambling off the bar, while Harper drags Zeke outside, the popcorn on her dress quivering as if in rage.
“I've trained her well,” Alex replies wisely. She's lost interest in the night's events, now absently fiddling with her umbrella. The best part of this trip – aside from the sunbathing, the clubbing, and the being-away-from-parents-ing – was the chance to mock Justin, either for being defeated by one even nerdier than himself, or for winning, and proving himself the king of nerds. Now that she's been moved to actually defend him, the night's been ruined.
“You've got to have a stranglehold on your nerd, you know.” she says. “They never learn otherwise.”
“Hey!” Justin says.
Penny nods. She looks appraisingly at the boys, Raj having rejoined the group, metaphorical tail between his legs.
Leonard's biting his nails; she bats his hand away, and he clasps them together in front of him, fidgeting more quietly.
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“-I think you shall find that Captain Jim Bob Sherwood is merely a cheap ploy for toy companies to cash in on the currently in vogue superhero genre.”
Justin goes pale, then pink, purple, and finally red. He splutters for a moment, and Alex wonders if he might pass out, but no such luck.
“Does he ever stop?” Leonard whines. It's late, and the bar has almost completely cleared out. The only reason the bartender hasn't tossed them out is because they keep ordering drinks while they wait for a break in the Great Captain Jim Bob Sherwood Throwdown of the Century.
Alex rests her cheek on her folded arms. “Does Sheldon?”
“No,” Leonard says, and sighs.
“Hey, I know, why don't we go back to our building and... not be here any more?” Penny asks. She'd rather sit in Leonard and Sheldon's apartment and watch them sew costumes for the Renaissance Fair while Howard hits on her and Raj sings karaoke than stay in the bar one moment longer.
“No, we will never get him to move,” Leonard says, only slurring very slightly. He rubs his eyes and rests his forehead on the bar. “He'll fight this until he's annihilated us all.”
“Oh, for fuck's sake,” Alex mumbles. She slides out of her seat, and walks up to Justin and Sheldon, watching her steps carefully; she regrets the heels now. After glancing over her shoulder to check no one's watching, she slips her wand out of her pocket. “Zippitus-yer-Trapatus,” she whispers, pointing it at Justin.
“And furthermore-!” Justin stops dead in his sentence. He touches his chest, opens and closes his mouth experimentally, then turns to Alex.
What did you do?! he mouths, his eyebrows providing the punctuation.
“Oh, look everyone, Justin's lost his voice from all the blah blah blah! Why don't we all get out of here before I kill someone?” She looks at Justin sharply. “Don't think I won't.”
“What's wrong with him?” Penny frowns at them – Justin seems to be creating an entirely new form of sign language, which Alex is pointedly ignoring.
“Oh, Justin's just a little tuckered out from all the excitement.” Alex wraps an arm around his shoulders. He tries to pull free, but she's a lot stronger than she looks. “We should really get back to our motel.”
“So you admit defeat!” Sheldon cries.
Justin waves his hands, a blush creeping back into his cheeks. Alex catches hold of his arms and holds them down. “Yes,” she says. “You are right, and he is wrong. Let's go.”
Penny jumps off her barstool. “Wait up.” She grabs a napkin, and a pen out of Leonard's pocket, already knowing she's going to regret it. The guy's obviously a whackadoodle, but no more than anyone else she knows. “When you've graduated high school, give me a call.” She hands Justin the napkin with her number scrawled on it.
He almost drops it. Twice.
“That's great, let's go.” Alex manoeuvres Justin towards the door . “Hopefully I will never see any of you again. Especially you.” She points at Sheldon. “ No offense.”
“A word of warning.” Howard stands at Penny's side as Alex and Justin walk out the door, and it's only because she's drunk that she doesn't jump a foot at his sudden appearance. “If you're going to hit that, be prepared for the whole family to be part of the deal. I know a momma's boy when I see one.”
“If I have to hear about Rihanna's umbrella one more time...” Alex says, muffled underneath her coat. “I am going to rip that radio out of this car, and throw it on to the freeway.”
Justin laughs, and flips over to James Blunt's You're Beautiful. Alex growls.
“Okay, okay,” he says, switching it off. The next few minutes pass in silence, as Alex tries to find a comfortable position to sleep with her face against the passenger side window and a coat over her head. Those unnaturally colourful drinks were a mistake.
“Hey, so.” Justin begins, and Alex shifts under her coat, kicking the well of the car with her feet. That'll be your head if you don't shut up, she tries to convey. “You totally stood up for me last night.”
“Pfft, right,” she mumbles.
“You did,” he insists. “You were like, 'my brother could beat you any day of the week'.” His voice goes up a pitch as he tries to imitate her. It's just sad.
“Don't flatter yourself. I only said it because the little dude was annoying me.”
“Whatever you say,” Justin replies. She can almost see the smug look on his face.
“Guys,” Harper pipes up from the back. “Zeke's feeling kind of sick. Maybe we should pull over.”
Alex rolls her eyes under her eyelids. He had, at most, two drinks. What a lightweight.
“There's nowhere to pull over, Harper,” Justin replies. “He'll just have to wait.”
Alex sniggers. “If he pukes in the car, Dad'll shit a brick.” She tucks her coat under her chin and wedges her head against the corner of the window frame. It's cold, but it'll do.
At length, she hears Justin mutter, “Shit.”