The first time Professor Mystery called Dr. Doofenshmirtz, both of their lairs were on fire. This was entirely a matter of coincidence.
Picture a bisected screen. On one side there is a very purple kitchen, with an oven in the background just barely beginning to smoke. On the other side there is a lot of concrete, which is usually less well lit but currently quite cheerfully orange with firelight.
Professor Mystery, on the concrete side, picked up his cell and dialed it with one hand, while he blasted extinguishing foam into the heart of the chemical fire. A long way away, Doofenshmirtz picked up his landline.
Mystery said nothing, spraying another healthy dose of foam onto the remains of the day’s machine.
“Hello?” Doofenshmirtz said again, sharply. “If this is another telemarketer let me just tell you now, there’s only so many electric potato peelers you can sell a guy before he gets wise!”
“No—” Mystery said, giving his phone a frown, “No, this is Professor Mystery.”
“Oh,” Doofenshmirtz said. “Well why didn’t you just say so?”
“It’s supposed to—you were supposed to think it was something threatening and sinister!”
“You need to work on your ominous heavy breathing,” Doofenshmirtz said, critically. He tucked the receiver into the curve of his neck and went back to stirring the bowl resting against his hip. The whisk had a faint radioactive glow that he was ignoring. “You know I did my Evil Masters in ransoms and kidnapping?”
“Your thesis was on one of Dr. Llyod Wexler’s early notes,” Mystery finished automatically, and then made a hissing impatient noise. “Of course I know that, I stalked you for an entire summer!”
“Sheesh, I was just making conversation.”
“I’m not calling to make conversation with you!”
Doofenshmirtz examined the mix on the end of his whisk, licked a wire of it clean, and then wrinkled his nose. “What are you calling for then, Mr. Enigma?”
Doofenshmirtz shrugged to an invisible and unseeing audience, and then poured an entire salt shaker into his mix. “Well?”
Mystery dragged his hand down the length of his cheek, revealing a circle of brown skin underneath his left eye to an invisible and unseeing audience. “I’ve… got a problem. With Peter. Peter and I have a problem.”
“Ooooh,” Doofenshmirtz said, “so you called me for advice! You know I’m not really in the business of helping people, Mystery. I generally do the opposite of that thing.”
“You were very…” Mystery blew out a puff of air, “… forthcoming the last time I saw you.”
“Yeah well you did kidnap me. And you had me in one of those Lector containment tubes. I tend to talk a lot when I can’t walk around.”
“Look, Peter the Panda didn’t show up to thwart me today, and I don’t know what to do. I thought we were getting somewhere!”
Doofenshmirtz pulled the phone out from underneath his chin and pressed it to his ear with renewed interest. He whistled. “That sounds bad,” he said.
“I know! He could be—he could be out there cavorting with some other evil scientist! He could be breaking another villain’s doomsday device right now!”
“Well don’t look at me, I’m making soufflés for the Love Muffin bake sale today. I haven’t even seen my own nemesis yet.”
“I knew I shouldn’t have told him my whole backstory. He’s tired of me now, he’s leaving me for some shiny new mystery to unwrap! I work all these years to become a real figure of petty mayhem and this is the thanks I get, a nemesis who won’t even take the time to come thwart me in person!”
Doofenshmirtz winced at the rising decibel of the call. “I think you’re getting ahead of yourself—”
“What do I do?” Mystery wailed, blasting extinguisher foam indiscriminately across the room. “How do I get him interested in me again?”
Doofenshmirtz tapped his fingers down the side of the mixing bowl. "Well," he said, “have you tried a musical number? Nothing like a little jazz to put the jazz back in a relationship.”
Mystery bit his lip. “I’m not really that kind of villain,” he hedged. “I mean—of course I’ve done a couple menacing theme tunes but… shouting out my feelings in song isn’t really how I operate.”
“Eh, you’re missing out.” Doofenshmirtz gestured vaguely with the dripping whisk, splattering mix across his countertop. “Perry loves it when I get the stage lights and the chorus girls in here. At least I assume he does.”
On the Seattle side of the call, Mystery sighed. “Maybe this wasn’t a good idea. Taking relationship advice from a serial cheater—”
“Whoa whoa whoa,” Doofenshmirtz said, “serial? You make it sound like I’m just running through my little black book of thwarty calls every weekend. I’ll have you know that Perry is the only nemesis for me.”
Mystery snorted. “How that agent is still fighting you, after everything you’ve put him through—”
“Ah ha ha, Mr. High Horse, it sure sounds like I must know something you don’t.”
In the background of the very purple kitchen, smoke was beginning to pour out of the oven in earnest. Doofenshmirtz twirled a coil of phone cord around one finger, oblivious.
“Look,” he said, “I stand by my earlier advice about, like, communication and emotional intimacy but hey, if you’re really worried about it, try a little flash. Put on the good pearls. Uh, so to speak. What inator are you using today?”
“The unexist-inator, of course,” Mystery replied, nonplussed. He eyed the smoking wreckage of his lair, and added, “I mean, I was. I waited too long with the settings primed and blew a fuse. Actually, it was a whole chain of fuses.”
“Okay, see, there’s your problem. If it’s the same inator every week, of course Peter’s gonna get bored! Mix it up man. Who were you using it on?”
“Uh—” Mystery wiped soot from his exposed eyes, which were starting to water, “—a boy I knew in grade school. He used to call me Orphan Ortega—there was a whole little chant—”
“Sure, sure.” Doofenshmirtz flapped a hand. “So turn him into a frog, or make everyone who sees him break out into an inexplicable rash, I don’t know, get creative. And have a musical number!”
“I… guess…” Mystery gave his scrapped, sullenly smoking inator an uncertain look. “What have I got to lose?”
“Exactly. Hey, do you smell that?” Doofenshmirtz asked, sniffing at the air of the slowly blackening kitchen.
Mystery gave his cell a puzzled look. “How could I possibly smell anything you’re smelling?”
“Hm. You’re right. Here—” Doofenshmirtz reached across the line bisecting the two lairs and lifted the fire extinguisher out of Mystery’s hands. “—let me borrow that.”
“What? How did you—?”
But the line was dead and Mystery was alone again in his foam-doused home, minus one fire extinguisher.
The mysterious lair of the enigmatic Professor Mystery was normally quite utilitarian. There were the periodic orange wall lights, the concrete walls, and the blinking inexplicable outlines of whatever technology he was using this week. Today there was also something a bit like a stage—mostly just a raised platform, but different enough that when Peter arrived in a crash of powdered cement, he stopped and gave it a second look.
Mystery paused at the keyboard of his newest inator. “Oh,” he said, “ah. Yes. I see you’ve… noticed… that.”
Peter, who usually jumped right into the part where his knuckles were connecting to a cheekbone, stopped fully in his tracks. It was hard to tell with the dark goggles, but he seemed at least a little bit wary. Mystery brightened—good! He was a wily and dangerous enemy, of course, Peter should be wary.
Peter’s attention shifted from the platform, to Mystery, to the inator behind him. It was rounder than the unexist-inator, heavy at the base and paneled with orange glass around the tip. Peter lifted his eyebrows, a motion only discernible from the faint wrinkling of his forehead, a detail which Mystery—who had spent hours and hours lovingly compiling an obsessive shrine to that very face—immediately picked up on.
“It’s, um—” he coughed into his hand, “—well, I have a… song, to explain it.”
Without saying anything at all, Peter managed to convey a definite sense of doubtfulness about the entire concept. Mystery rocked back on his heels, hands in the pockets of his coat. This was the part he hated—he’d worked out a pretty good song, and he was more or less satisfied with the choreography, but—the part before the music picked up, when he was the only person in the room talking? And then that first note? He’d rather eat a live beetle, which he had actually done for remarkably similar reasons in fifth grade.
Mystery tapped out the beat on his console, trying to get the soundtrack rolling, but his rhythm hesitated too much. He hummed the first couple bars, under his breath. He could do this, surely he could do this! Heinz Doofenshmirtz did this nearly every day, and he didn’t even have an actual doctorate! Surely the reviled and revolting Professor Mystery—
“Ohhh, I can’t do it,” Mystery moaned, sliding down the side of the console. He buried his face in his hands. “I can’t do it, it’s not me, I don’t care what Doofenshmirtz says.”
He felt a little kick against his knee, and looked up to see Peter looming over him. The agent tilted his head, a clearly questioning expression on his face. “Heinz?” he said.
Mystery blew out an irritated breath. He didn’t at all like the sound of that nemesis-stealing scoundrel’s name on Peter’s lips, not for any reason. He could practically feel his neck bristling with jealousy. It seemed like events were constantly conspiring to remind him that his Peter had been rolling around throwing punches at another scientist, and even if it was usually his own fault for bringing the whole episode up, he sure wasn’t planning on taking any responsibility.
“Have you been seeing him again?” Mystery asked, because there was no way he was going to take Doofenshmirtz’s word for it.
Peter shrugged. “Coffee,” he said.
Oh, typical, Peter not taking any of this seriously—why should he now, when he never had before? For a moment Mystery entertained the vivid and vengeful fantasy of shooting Peter with a free-will-eliminator. Let’s see him drink coffee with Heinz Doofenshmirtz after that. No more pinning other scientists to the ground, no more wandering off when there was a perfectly good scheme to thwart, no more judging or boredom or smugness—
Mystery scowled. But he didn’t want a minion, which is what Peter would be, even if he could somehow succeed in shooting him. He wanted a nemesis.
“I knew this was a bad idea,” he sighed. “All of it. I should have just killed the competition when I had him in my clutches.”
Peter gave him a look that was part surprise, part interest. This close, Mystery could just make out the shift in his features, the movement under the tinted glass and the slight pull of his lips—for the first time since the coffee shop, his whole attention seemed to be on Mystery.
“You, um,” Mystery licked his lips, “you… liked that?”
Peter said nothing. It was a silence that definitely implied something.
“I could—” Mystery said, “—I still could kill him. I’d like to.” He looked up at Peter, his heart beating faster and faster, approaching dizzying speeds as his gaze locked with the agent’s. “I’d like to wipe his existence off the face of this wretched planet—”
Peter reached down and dragged him up by the collar, holding him there, the toes of his boots barely meeting the floor. Without even being hit yet, Mystery was dazed like a man in a dream.
“Stop me,” he said, “or I’ll do it.”
Peter slammed him against the wall, held him there for a moment that felt like a hundred years—his broad heaviness, his thick forearms against Mystery’s chest, the looming weight of his presence as it filled the room, as Mystery strained up against him—until Mystery completely forgot how to breathe. He felt so small in the best way, in a way that only Peter could make him feel.
And then they hit the floor, in a whirl of elbows and knees, and Mystery’s petty little heart sang after all.
“So,” Mystery said, holding a steak to his eye with the hand that wasn’t holding his cell phone, “the musical number was a really stupid idea.”
On the console of the trashed inator, there was the folded up print-out that Peter had left behind, after all the crushing and sparking was done with. It was a missive from OWCA, dated the same morning as the shorted-out unexist-inator, directing Peter to assist with some nefarious business near the Canadian border. Mystery couldn’t stop glancing at it, each time with a fresh new wave of something that was both embarrassment and relief. He hadn’t realized that Peter got other assignments from the agency.
The communication thing, he guessed, was more of a two way street than he had thought.
“Huh,” Doofenshmirtz said. “Yeah, I guess Peter did have a habit of interrupting me mid-song, back when I was fighting him. I guess he’s not really into it.”
The familiar twinge of bitter jealousy chewed at Mystery, and this time he embraced it, smiling a little bit too sharply into the receiver. “I know what he is into,” he replied, voice dropping into an undertone.
“O—oh? What’s that?”
He could practically hear the other scientist leaning in, tucking the phone a little closer to his ear. He imagined the expression of nervous interest, the lip chewing, the side eyeing.
“It’s a mystery,” Professor Mystery said, smiling his nastiest smile, and then he reached across the line bisecting the two lairs, and pressed the end call button on Doofenshmirtz’s phone just as the infuriated retort started to come blasting through.
Revenge, Mystery thought. Sweet at any temperature.