Inner Geek is one of those stories that you just have to write, if for no other reason than to get it out of your system. This one boiled and festered under my skin for a long time.
The first time she did it, Howard chalked it up to the fact that Penny was often around and must have accidentally picked up some knowledge. Heaven knew she had absolutely no interest in any of their nerdier tendencies. The guys had been watching Star Trek: TNG and discussing the scientific possibility of food replicators. Penny had been sitting between Sheldon and Leonard on the couch, reading Shape magazine.
"Look, it is impossible to create something out of thin air," Leonard argued. "It goes against everything we know!"
"Nothing is impossible, Leonard!" Sheldon turned slightly sideways to view his roommate better. "It may be improbable, but not impossible. And they are food synthesizers, not replicators."
Leonard snorted with derision. "You're taking about magic!"
"I am not," Sheldon insisted. "It was established in Star Trek: Enterprise that there was a chef on board who produced the foods for the synthesizers to recreate."
"How is that not magic?" asked Leonard stubbornly. "Ex nihilo nihil fit! Out of nothing comes nothing."
"The synthesizers are not creating out of nothing. They are cloning," Sheldon insisted.
"So, magic," Leonard said smugly.
"Transmutation," Penny murmured, eyes still on the magazine. The sudden silence was enough to draw Penny's attention away from the latest Kardashian rumors, and she looked up to find all four men staring at her with surprise. She looked from one man to the next with a frown. "What?"
Sheldon slowly smiled with approval. "Very good, Penny."
She stared at him for a second before turning to Leonard. "What's he talking about?"
Leonard studied her for a second before shaking his head. "Um, nothing."
Penny shrugged and went back to reading. After a couple of seconds the guys turned their attention back to the TV, writing Penny's remark off as a fluke.
The second time it happened was during a meeting to discuss the year's Halloween costumes. Unable to agree on a theme, Sheldon had placed all their suggestions into a hat and had Bernadette draw one out. Raj was pumped that it was his suggestion of Bleach that won.
Soon the discussion became heated as the guys tried to decide who would portray which character. After going through the Bleach wiki character page, Amy decided she would be Nanao Ise and Bernadette chose Orihime Inoue. Raj was excited to dress up as Kaname Tosen. Leonard was quick to chose Ichigo Kurosaki. Sheldon sighed and chose Sosuke Aizen. All eyes turned to Penny who was painting her nails.
"Penny you would make a good Rukia Kuchiki," Leonard suggested, barely hiding the gleam of desire in his eyes.
Penny rolled her eyes and shook her head. "I'd rather be an Arrancar than a Shinigami."
Once again, the guys were stunned into silence as they stared at Penny. Amy and Bernadette exchanged confused looks as Sheldon cleared his throat. "Penny? How do you know what an Arrancar is?"
The Nebraskan froze for a second before giving a shrug and heading into the kitchen to grab a soda. "I was looking over Bernadette's shoulder at the laptop."
Leonard frowned and took a step toward her. "That doesn't explain how you knew the group names."
Penny took a long drink of the soda, her eyes not meeting anyone else's. "I know a voice actress who worked on the cartoon," she said finally. "She played Mila Rose. No big deal."
After a moment everyone seemed to accept her explanation and they resumed their discussion of costumes. Howard couldn't quite shake the feeling that Penny was hiding something, though. Especially when she almost sagged with relief when the attention was off her.
The third time was the most shocking of all. Raj and Leonard were browsing on ebay while Sheldon worked on his latest paper and Howard was on the couch watching Farscape. After a few minutes Sheldon saved his progress and stood up, walking into the kitchen for plates. All three of them knew that meant Penny would be returning within seconds with their pizzas. Sheldon had an uncanny way of knowing when Penny was about to arrive.
Sure enough the door opened and she walked in carrying three large pizza boxes. She sat them on the coffee table and gave Howard a smile before turning and looking over Leonard's shoulder at the laptop. "Whatcha doing?" she asked.
Leonard grinned widely and pointed to the screen. "We just bought a rare Cobra Commander action figure from 1982! It's worth about $300, but this idiot has it listed for only $25!"
Penny frowned at the screen for a moment before shaking her head. "That's not the Mickey Mous..." Penny froze and took a step back. "Um, that's nice, sweetie. Pizza's here. Let's eat."
Howard watched as Penny quickly grabbed some sodas and flopped down between him and Sheldon's spot. She didn't even object to how close he was to her! Howard itched to question her, but one look at the panic in her eyes kept him quiet. He didn't relish the thought of being throat punched.
Howard lasted three days before he couldn't stand it anymore. He left work early and drove to Los Robles. He hesitated outside Penny's apartment for several minutes before finally dredging up the courage to knock. When Penny opened the door and glared at him, he took a deep breath and blurted out his question.
"Why do you hide the fact that you're as much of a nerd as us?"
Penny's eyes widened and she quickly looked up and down the short hallway before reaching out and jerking Howard into her apartment. "Could you be any louder?" she hissed as she slammed the door. She shoved him toward the couch and crossed her arms over her chest. "Besides, I don't know what you mean!"
Howard knew he wasn't wrong and that gave him the courage to hold his ground. "You are! You knew about transmutation! And Arrancars! And the Mickey Mouse Cobra Commander! You act like you don't get our sci-fi stuff and comics, but you do, don't you?"
Penny's glare got fiercer, but she didn't deny it. Howard huffed and shook his head. "I just don't get why. Why hide it?"
Penny stayed silent for another minute before her eyes filled with tears. Her shoulders hunched and her hands turned over to clutch at her sides. Loud sobs tore free from her throat, scaring Howard. He watched helplessly as Penny staggered to the couch, plopped down and leaned forward, hunched over her knees.
Howard slowly sat down beside her, fearful of upsetting her more. After a long moment he carefully put an arm across her shoulders. Penny leaned into him, her cries growing softer, but all the more wretched.
Almost half an hour passed before Penny regained control of her emotions and stopped crying. She sucked in a few deep breaths and stood up without a word. Howard watched her walk into her bedroom and rifle through the closet. Soon she came back with a mid-sized lacquered box. She chewed on her bottom lip as she sat back down and stared at the box.
Howard looked at the small engraved plate on the top with shock.
Levi Allen Queen
"My little brother," she whispered. She opened the box and shivered with emotion. She pulled out a handful of photos and handed them to Howard. He looked through them carefully, feeling as if he was intruding. Penny was in a few of them, but mostly they were of a small boy with big green eyes.
Penny pulled out a journal and handed it to him next. Swallowing nervously, he opened it up. Inside was a list of mangas, animes and comic books. "Levi's favorites," she said softly. "Dad donated most of them to the Children's Hospital after..."
She took another deep breath and gave him a weak smile. "Levi loved comics. I used to read them to him, sitting on the porch swing. He'd lay his head on my shoulder so he could look at the pictures while I read. Fullmetal Alchemist, Bleach, Batman, Captain Marvel. We even played Pokemon together."
Penny gave a sudden burst of laughter. "He always wanted to name the pokemon we caught after family members. We had a zubat named Penny, and he refused to let it evolve because he didn't want it to look scary."
Howard watched in silent amazement as joy and pain warred within her eyes. Penny looked down at the box, but didn't touch anything else inside. Unable to withstand the curiosity, Howard leaned closer and looked inside. A holographic Charizard card, a card declaring Levi Queen as a member of The Tick Society, a jacket patch bearing the Batman symbol and a lot of Garfield strips cut from newspapers.
"I'm not a fan of comics or gaming," Penny said quietly. "Not anymore. They... Look for the most part, I just ignore the stuff you guys love so much. I push it to the back of my mind and it doesn't bother me. But there are times when it creeps up on me. And suddenly I'm right back in that hospital room, cuddled up with Levi, reading him his favorites while he struggles to draw in a breath.
Levi was born with a weak heart. I remember my mom crying the day we found out it was getting weaker. I missed graduation because I wouldn't leave his bedside. When he passed away I put away all of it. The comics, the anime, the games. They hurt me, Howard. Even after more than a decade..."
After a moment Howard reached out, took the box from Penny's hands and set it on the coffee table. Then he wrapped his thin arms around Penny and hugged her tight. "I get it," he said softly.
Penny relaxed and hugged him back. "Thank you," she whispered.
Not much changed between Howard and Penny. He still tried to flirt on occasion and she still threatened to drown him in a bucket of water. But Howard had a new understanding of Penny now, and on occasion he would see a flash of pain or sorrow cross her eyes. At those times, he would give her a smile or a look of compassion. It made him feel good to see the gratitude that replaced the pain.
Maybe they would never be the closest of friends, but there was no doubt that they were friends.