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How the Mighty Fall

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A week after stumbling through it the first time, the portal takes you right back to where it all began, to the penthouse of Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated, where dust has just begun to collect. It’s been a while since you last stood in your own home, and it gives you the strangest sense of déjà vu. And something like homesickness too, a homesickness that’s only just catching up with you now as you touch down in the place you left behind. Funny—not hahah funny, the other kind of funny—how you didn’t realize that the dark corridors and gothic bedrooms of the palace made you uneasy until you were out of them.

You whistle, as your double steps out after you. “Looks like I’m overdue for some spring cleaning,” you say.

He brushes portal residue from his leather sleeve, and then he looks around. You see something on his face, for the brief flash of a moment, that looks kind of like how you felt a moment ago. Then it’s gone, like every other genuine emotion you’ve caught him in, and replaced with a sneer.

“You’re still living in this dump,” he says, giving the couch and the buffet table and your blackboards a derisive once over. “Figures.”

You don’t know what to say to that. You don’t love the place yourself, but it is yours. He might as well have said the same thing about your left arm. Which he sort of did, a couple days ago—he wanted to know why it still had pain sensors if it was artificial. “If I was going to make a fake limb,” he said, “I wouldn’t include that garbage. The best part of having cyborg parts is the lack of distractions.”

You thought that was sort of a terrifying thing to hear from a guy who, A. had no cyborg parts, and B. had outfitted his entire stolen army with unnecessary cyborg parts. You had a hard time trying to explain why you included the pain function; you get the feeling he thinks it’s the same reason that you build a self destruct into everything. Honestly you don’t know why you do that. It just feels necessary? So maybe it is the same reason, but what he doesn’t get—because you guess he’s never had to live with it—is how terrifying it is to have a dead limb hanging from your body. It doesn’t matter if it moves when you want it to move, it’s still awful to bump it against things and feel absolutely nothing. Not to mention, you bang it up a lot worse that way. The weeks before you got the feedback sensors working on that first arm were some of the most disturbing of your life.

In your house, in your studio, the other you sniffs. “We are not staying here any longer than necessary,” he says.

It occurs to you for the first time that you don’t really know what’s going to happen when he gets his hands on your Perry. It’s not entirely impossible that he’ll just leave you here, alone without even your nemesis, if you tick him off at the wrong time. You don’t think he would. You think he likes having you around, in his own way. If he didn’t then why would he talk to you, or touch you, or promise you things?

“We lost them in the dimension of tiny planets,” he’s saying, “somehow. So they’ve got a head start on us, but they can keep it. When my army of killer norm-bots arrives—”

His communicator beeps. He glances down at it, and then with an expression of upmost disgust, he says, “who also, somehow, got lost in the dimension of tiny planets. Right.”

“Well,” you offer, “you know what they say! If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself.”

He gives you a scathing look, up and down the whole of you. You wither under the force of it.

“Fine,” he says, adjusting his gloves. “We’ll figure out where they’ve gone, and then when my idiot robots finally show their faces we can get right to the part with the chains and the execution.”

“Execution?” you echo.

“Huh? Oh, yeah. I mean, what else am I gonna do with a bunch of nosy interdimensional rebel-rousing kids?”

Your mouth goes dry. This whole time, you’ve been imagining… well, you haven’t been thinking that far ahead, but if you had you might have thought, oh, cyborg children. Or prison. Or an evil-inator, even. That’s what you would have gone with.

“Is that,” you start, “uh, do you think that’s totally necessary?”

Your double pauses, and he turns to you. “Yes,” he says, “I do. Because I’m the one that thinks around here.” Then he smiles a patronizing little smile, like the solution has just occurred to him. “Don’t worry,” he says, “I told you I’d give you Perry. No need to get antsy about it, you’ll get your robot minion just as soon as I’ve sorted out the mess those kids caused. Don’t get ahead of yourself.”

“Yeah, right, that’s—that’s totally what I was worried about,” you say.

The patronizing smile stays on his lips, as he sidles closer. “Oh Heinz—” He tucks his finger under your chin, and he says brightly, “If I thought you might be more competent in your own dimension, boy was I wrong.”

You go hot in the face, and because you don’t want to see him seeing it, you look down.

And you didn’t even fight him about the dead children—you don’t know what he’d say to you if you brought that up instead, but you’re pretty sure it would only make you feel worse.

“Now,” he says, “where would they have gone? OWCA headquarters is probably a good start, I mean, in this dimension I haven’t leveled it yet so—”

“Aren’t those kids Perry’s family?” you blurt out.

He pinches you and doesn’t let go. “What?” he says.

Wincing, you answer, “The kids. They’re his host family. They’ve got a home—I assume, I mean, most families do? So they probably went back there.”

The other you gives you a hard look, and then he lets go of the tender skin under your chin. “Not a bad thought,” he admits. He gives your cheek a pat, gloved fingers lingering there. “Of course we’d need to find out who they are…”

“You don’t know?”

No, I don’t know.”

You touch the tingling place on your cheek with absent fingers. “But you captured your Perry. Don’t you, like, have files on him and stuff?”

He shrugs. “Irrelevant. What do I need to know about his cover story after I’ve successfully enslaved him?”

“But you took out OWCA, right? Didn’t you steal any of their files?”

He shrugs again, this time more sharply. “Empty buildings don’t access files. They’re probably still mildewing in there somewhere.”

You frown. “Kinda slapdash,” you say. You catch him staring at you, fury building on his face like storm clouds piling up, and you hastily add—“But I’m sure we can figure it out! It’s somewhere in town for sure, and how many triangle headed kids can there really be in Danville?”

“True,” he says, pursing his lips. “I suppose we could interrogate the local populace.”

It’s kind of weird how he talks about this Danville like it’s a foreign country, considering that up until a decade or so ago he lived in one exactly like it. You watch him moving through your home, in his black labcoat and his eyepatch, flicking over your knickknacks absently, and you’re struck by the strangest sense of—what’s the opposite of déjà vu, the feeling that you’ve never seen anything like this before? You’re struck by that. That thing. Vuja de.

“You’ll wanna change out of that,” you tell him. “You’ll stick out like a sore thumb.”

“Oh, what, and wear a pharmacist’s coat like you?

You cross your arms. The pharmacist thing is hurtful, doubly so coming from another evil scientist, who ought to at least respect the classics. “Wear whatever you want,” you say, “but black leather is really only appropriate for dystopian regimes and really weird parties.”

“Fine,” he says, as he waves you off. “Whatever.”

He disappears off into your closet for a while, leaving you alone with your familiar furniture and clutter as if nothing of the last week had ever happened. Except for the wobbly green portal, of course. You wander around the room for a while, looking at everything like you’re seeing it for the first time. The green cup lights on top of the tv. The winch that rolls back the roof. The norm-shaped patch in the wall.

That feeling of delayed homesickness rises up in you again. You don’t know why—your life here is no great shakes. You get no respect, you can’t seem to catch a single break, and the guys at the soup store can’t remember your name no matter how many times you tell it to them. You’re sharing the chair of Love Muffin with Rodney of all people. You get kicked in the face at least once a day by a nemesis that refuses, for whatever reason, to say even a word to you. And the other you is right, this building is a dump.

He steps out from behind a partition, brushing dust from the arms of a leather jacket that you vaguely remember buying in the midst of a motorcycle phase years ago. One of your early schemes with Perry, before you really knew each other.

The other you gives you a smug look, and you realize that he’s deliberately picked something in black leather just to make a point. You can’t really argue with the choice though—it looks good on him, snappy and intimidating, just the way it was designed to. You don’t know how he pulls these things off when you can’t.

“Lead the way,” he says, with a sweeping gesture towards the door.

With his face turned just so, in that familiar old jacket, for a moment it’s like you’re looking in a floor length mirror. That’s me, your confused brain tries to tell you, that’s not a real person.

“Uh, sure.”

In the elevator, he taps his foot like he’s also thinking of the superfast elevator in the palace, with its twisty detours and terrifying drops. You find yourself suddenly sort of embarrassed for your reality, the way that you know Vanessa is embarrassed when you hang around her friends (not that it stops you from trying).

The two of you emerge street side in the sunshine, under the blue blue sky that you—as a card-carrying villain—hate on principle, but is right now filling you with a surprising sense of relief. Mrs. Gerlson pushes her shopping cart full of artisanal cheeses down the street, the way she always does at 3:00, going who knows where with them. A couple of scouts run past with cricket bats over their shoulders.

Your double wrinkles his nose. “Sports,” he says. “Forgot about those.”

You get some looks, walking together, but the truth is that with the eyepatch and the inexplicably different way he carries himself, you don’t seem to be immediately pinging people as, like, the same person.

You stop a couple of pedestrians and describe Perry’s kids to them—they’re distinctive kids, it’s not hard—and as it turns out, almost everyone remembers a couple of kids by that description, but almost no one remembers who they are. The other you hangs back, while you get increasingly impatient with people’s vague responses, and contributes nothing at all. When you finally throw your hands up and let the semi-driver carry on with his route, you turn back to your double and find him staring down the street with a barely contained look of revulsion.

“It’s so busy,” he says.

You try to see what he’s seeing. “It is a week day,” you say. “I think.”

His lip curls. “I forgot how annoying it is. All the children scuttling around—” his bare fingers make vaguely insectoid scuttling motions, “—all the noise and the mess. They all look so smug. When I conquer this dimension, we’re not gonna have any of that.”

You blink at him. Of course he wants to conquer your world too, why would he stop at one?

“Can’t you just keep your own dimension?” you ask him. “I kinda called dibs on this one a while back.”

“You, me—” he flicks his fingers, dismissing you entirely, “what’s the difference? You can keep your dumpy building.”

You raise a finger, like you’re going to argue with him, but he just bustles past you. That’s it. That’s all he’s got to say about it. You look around yourself, at the people on the street and the familiar storefronts. It’s true that you hate all of it, and you’ve tried to change most of it at some point in your career as an evil scientist, but the way he just dismisses it—it’s like he doesn’t hate it for what it is. It’s like he hates it for what he’s already decided it is. He didn’t even take the time to learn which eateries forget to include the mustard packets with to-go meals.

“This is taking too long,” he tells you. “I’m taking over.”

He reaches out and catches a straggling fireside girl as she comes around the corner, lifting her up by her orange shirt. She lets out a yelp.

“Kid,” your double says, tilting his head, “you know anybody about your size with a triangle shaped head?”

The fireside girl pauses in the middle of uncapping her standard issue fireside girl pepper spray. “What do you want with Phineas?” she says, frowning in puzzlement.

Your double smiles. It’s the smile you’ve seen on the face of sharks, a distinctly uncomforting thing. “So you know him.” He plucks the child-sized pepper spray out of her hand and tosses it over his shoulder.

“Why—” she starts, scrabbling at his hand, “—should I tell you?”

“Huh,” he says, in this fake-thoughtful voice, “well it might be because I’m bigger than you and older than you, and that means you better do what I say. Or it might be because I could blast your whole troop off the face of the earth with the click of one little button. Or it might be,” he adds, “because right now, if you don’t tell me, I’ll squeeze you until your eyeballs pop out.”

She looks… awfully scared now. You shift uneasily on your feet, not quite involved and not quite uninvolved with any of this. You… guess… this is why he’s more successful than you… He’s ruthless, and he doesn’t mess around. And you guess that threatening children isn’t the worst thing ever, it’s just… you’re pretty sure he would do it.

She’s so small compared to him. You remember what it feels like to be small and scared and confused, you remember what it was like to be picked up and thrown around by someone bigger than you, to be manhandled like that. It didn’t feel good.

She looks awfully scared. It occurs to you that someday this might be one of her backstories, one of her worst moments. You don’t know where her life is taking her, but who’s to say she couldn’t end up like you? Who’s to say she couldn’t grow up and go the way you went? After all, every villain starts out small. Someday, a couple decades from now, she could be telling her nemesis about the time that some jerk on the street picked her up and shook her around and made her feel the worst kind of useless.

“H—hey,” you say, or you try to say, “could you lay off the kid?”

He turns his head, and the look he gives you is so cold, it could freeze your blood. But it’s a kind of cold that you think you recognize. It’s furious and scabbed over, something old and ugly and petty.

“Stay out of this, Heinz,” he says. “Go wait by the parking meter.”

There’s the kid, like a moment of you—the real you—frozen in time. There’s him, looking like every bully you’ve ever remembered in your nightmares.

All this time, you’ve been kind of thinking of him as the spoiled the version of you, the version of you that never hurt or cried. You’ve been thinking that maybe his evil is stronger because it’s pettier, because he lived the kind of life where the loss of a single toy was the worst possible pain he could imagine. You’ve been thinking of him as the version who had everything you never had, and was ungrateful for it.

But the look he’s giving you doesn’t look spoiled or petty, it looks like pain that’s gone sour and poisonous inside whatever tight little container he hid it in. You don’t think you’ve ever looked like that. But you think you could understand it.

“What is wrong with you?” you say, and you’re aware that it comes out soft, worried, terrified.

The girl drops out of his hand. She hits the ground and scrambles away, her mary janes turning pebbles on the concrete.

“What’s wrong with me?” he echoes. “What’s wrong with you?”

It’s the vuja de. It’s him standing like a mirror in the familiar dusty clutter of your home. It’s him standing over a shark pit, over a terrified child, over his Frankenstein version of Perry with a boot on its throat.

“You’re not me,” you say.

He smacks the heel of his hand into his forehead. “Of course I am,” he says, “we had a whole song about it. Remember?”

“No,” you say slowly, “I mean, I know that. But you’re not really me. I’d never do that.”

“We don’t have time for this,” he says. He stalks over to you, and he catches you by the collar of your turtleneck. His knuckles brush the smattering of dark bruises that you’ve hidden away from the world, bruises you didn’t mind much at the time you were getting them. “You,” he says, “do what I say, when I say it, and I take care of you. If I’m doing something you don’t like, you be quiet and let me get it done! Jeeze, you’d think I’m the only evil one here.”

You’re not really listening. You’re a conglomeration of thrumming bruises, a collection of whirring memories.

“You think that you’re the better Heinz Doofenshmirtz,” you say. “But you’re lonely, and you couldn’t even let yourself love the one guy who would have given his life to you. I might be a mess, but at least I’m a mess who has—who has people who care about him! Maybe! And all you do is push people around so they’ll think you’re better than them.”

“Oh, that’s real cute. We’re villains, Heinz, pushing people around is like the job description.”

“And you wanna push me around,” you carry on, “because you’re afraid if you don’t keep me on the ground all the time, I’ll realize you’re not the better version of me after all. You’re just the version of me that stopped letting himself get hurt a long time ago. You, you’re cold, man. You’re cold, and you’re not happy either.”

Something flashes in his one eye. You think it might be fear. You reach for him, you take his hands in your hands, although he’s holding them in fists stiffer than a corpse’s.

“You’re not me,” you tell him, “but I think I could have been you, and I don’t—you know, honestly I don’t think I’d want that at all.”

There’s a moment of perfect stillness, where you think you can feel his pulse in his bare hands, where his eye is wide with something that might be fear, and you think—okay, so I’m the screw up, but maybe I can do something right just this once, just for him—

And then he tears his hands out of your grip, backing away sharply. He cuts a hole in the air with the bristling, furious shape of his body. He looks like somebody dangerous, which is what he is, but somehow you’d never really thought about it until now.

“Fine,” he says, showing you his teeth, “you wanna act like some kinda hero, after all I’ve done for you? All the stuff I promised you? Fine. You’re dead weight anyway. And I,” he presses his hands against his chest, as he backs further away, “was gonna double cross you anyways. So good riddance!”

You don’t think that’s true. Or, you think maybe it was true, but somewhere along the way he had changed his mind, and that’s why he’s so shaking mad. You’ve hurt him.

You watch him go, at a loss for what to do next. You’re not one of the good guys, you can’t go help them. But you’re not like him, you can’t help him either. You’re just Heinz Doofenshmirtz, no kingdom, no army, no plan. As usual, at the end of the day, you’re on your own.

It’s hard for you to watch a version of you hurting like that. That’s like, like the worst kind of empathy. And you think that so much of this is pointless. Winning isn’t going to help him. Losing sure isn’t going to help him. And you want to help him, not in the way that he wants you to help him, but still—all of a sudden you really don’t want anything in the world so much as you want to help him.

You look up, towards the penthouse of your own building. He doesn’t understand it any more than he understands you. It’s not special, it’s not fancy, but it’s yours just as much as your arms are. It’s got your life inside it, the mostly bad and the little bit of good too.

And, you think suddenly, it might also have something that Emperor Heinz Doofenshmirtz wants more than anything else in the world.