Perry watched the sprawling set of the ninja-shark basement lair close up for the evening, frowning at no one thing in particular. Individually, the members of his team (the word “his” rattled unfamiliarly in his head) all did well enough in their own exercises. Well enough to get to the yellow hat band stage, anyways, and he worried less about the other members of the team than he did about… Heinz.
Heinz Doofenshmirtz whistled, watching the set fold itself away into a neat little cabinet. “Man,” he said, “have I got a lot more sympathy for all the times I hung you up over a pool full of aquatic animals. It’s so difficult to get loose upside-down, and then you gotta keep from falling in the water? You just made it look so easy.”
Perry sighed. Without a regular nemesis anymore, he’d gotten saddled with this year’s crop of rookies, even though he hadn’t had any experience thwarting on a team since the academy. That was Major Monogram through and through: obviously if Perry is their best agent, he’ll naturally be their best teacher. The actual result was that Perry struggled almost as hard as his students, sweating just to keep ahead of them. Trying to make a syncretic whole out of a lot of mismatched odds and ends was… well, it was honestly more Doofenshmirtz’s thing than his.
Heinz clapped his hands together. “Well! That’s it for today?” At Perry’s nod, he went on, “Finally! I’ve got company coming over soon.”
Perry gave him a narrow look.
“What? I keep telling you guys, just because I have evil scientists in my house doesn’t mean I’m doing evil science. I just like to know what’s going on in the community.” Heinz pulled off his hat, peering up into its apparently mysterious depths. “Besides,” he added, “it’s not an evil scientist. It’s Peter.”
Perry froze. Peter, the Seattle operative. Peter the Other Nemesis. Perry knew that Heinz still met with him occasionally, and after that first awful, confusing mess, Perry had trusted him enough to believe no thwarting was happening behind closed doors. It was good for Heinz to have friends, he had decided, and Peter—for all his flippant attitude and callousness—seemed to genuinely care for the scientist.
It was just that, suddenly, everything was a little muddier than it had been before. Before the end of summer, Perry had been quietly secure in the knowledge that he was Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz’s one and only life long enemy. Whoever else might pass through their lives, that had been something solid and comforting to rely on. But with Heinz on the side of angels now, without the clear venerated ties of nemesissitude…
Perry shoved his hands into his pockets and made a vaguely affirmative sound.
“We’re gonna have dinner,” Heinz told him, still peering up into his hat. It was pretty obvious now that he was fussing with the hat in order to avoid Perry’s eye. “I’m cooking, I’m pretty sure he’ll like it—vegetarian, you know—”
Irritation twinged down the back of Perry’s neck. He jerked one hand free of his pocket and gestured towards the exit, a little too sharply to be polite.
“Oh,” Heinz said. “Yeah, I should—I mean I am going but—I thought maybe you might want to come too?”
That one successfully knocked Perry for a loop. What was Heinz suggesting, that they all have dinner together, like friends? Sure, Perry had given his support for the two of them and whatever not-quite-nemesis relationship they had built for themselves, but he wasn’t sure why Heinz thought he’d want to watch it up close, in action. To third wheel for the man who had just a month or two ago been his own? His stomach capsized and sunk at the mere thought. Besides, even if Perry did go, he doubted Peter would be excited about this development.
“I just thought,” Heinz pushed on, “with us all being good guys now… and you two looked so cute having dinner in the Space Needle that one time—it just seemed like we could have a good time?”
Oh. The Space Needle. He forgot Heinz had seen that. Cute wasn’t exactly the word he would have used to describe that. Maybe “tense”, or “strange”, or “a very reluctantly enjoyabe event that neither of them could entirely explain.” Dinner had been Peter's idea, sort of, and Perry hadn't been willing to back down when the dare was on the table. He still had no idea what it had all been about.
“Come oooon,” Heinz said, abruptly taking both of Perry’s hands in his own. “It’ll be fun! Just a couple of old friends, heroing it up in my kitchen!”
Perry looked down at their joined hands. One of these days he was going to learn how to say no to the man he was very quietly and hopelessly in love with, but today was apparently not yet that day.
Heinz’s kitchen smelled faintly of cinnamon, and his living room smelled less faintly of the dozens of burning candles strewn across every flat surface. Perry nearly felt his life flashing before his eyes at the sight of so many candles in such a disaster-prone house. The mood was nice though, he had to admit, borderline romantic, even. Perry stood in the living room, glancing around as Heinz bustled off into the kitchen to start whatever it was he was serving tonight. Had Heinz done all this just for Peter? Peter, who had been entirely satisfied with last minute thwarty calls and chain coffee shop dates?
Perry grimaced at the sudden intrusive memory of opening the closet door to find Peter on the other side. He thought he was over this—they’d talked it out on the show, hadn’t they? If this dinner had happened before August he never would have been so shaken up about it.
“Grab a seat somewhere!” Heinz called, poking his head around the corner of the room. “It’ll just be us for a while, I told Peter to come over a little bit later on—oh, no, don’t sit there, that’s spring loaded, I still haven’t dismantled all my old traps yet. You know how it is, you say you’ll do it Saturday but then when Saturday rolls around—”
Perry gingerly lowered himself into the armchair that Heinz usually occupied. The problem was, he thought, they had never talked about any of this. Communication being a little bit difficult when one party was mute and the other party was infinitely distractible, they had just never quite gotten around to it. For years they had happily allowed their professional lives to define their personal feelings; Perry knew that Heinz loved him avidly and brightly, and Heinz knew that Perry would do absolutely anything for him, no matter how dangerous or stupid. There was so much they had never needed to say.
And now, Perry was alone in the living room with more candles than could possibly be up to code, uncertain what anything meant anymore. He still didn’t mind, in theory, Peter and Heinz spending time together alone. He didn’t think he even would have minded that much about the two of them thwarting a bit on the side, if Heinz would have just been up front about it.
Well, now he was being up front, wasn’t he? The trouble was that Perry didn’t know any more how he fit into it all.
Peter arrived about ten minutes later than he was supposed to, about which Perry had some very uncharitable thoughts. Perry opened the door for the other agent, blinking a couple of times at the outfit of the evening. Aside from the usual black goggles, it was pointedly casual. The tails of his untucked shirt spilled over his hands, where they rested inside his pockets.
For a moment neither of them moved. Perry remembered, less intrusively this time, their dinner in Seattle—the richness of the table cloth, the rain against the endless window, Peter watching him with a knowing look over the rose in the crystal vase at the center of the table. It had been tense, yes, but it had also been good, full of an unspoken potential.
And then Peter ducked past him, his broad shoulder bumping the top of Perry’s with a faint thrum. Something almost electric, like the first moment of a trap springing open.
“Is that Peter?” Heinz called, as if Perry could have answered him. He came around the corner, patting puffs of flour onto his apron as he went. It was hard not to love him, Perry thought, when he had finger-shaped patches of flour unknowingly streaked across his face.
Peter tipped his hat, and then deliberately turned and hung it from the rack by the door. It felt like a message, the same message as the jeans and the untucked shirt. Unfortunately, Perry wasn’t sure what that message was.
“You’re just in time!” Heinz said. “Actually you’re a little late but hey, whatever, it gave me time to put the snickerdoodles in the oven.”
“Long meeting,” Peter said, with a little shrug.
“Yeah, you agents sure do have a lot of meetings,” Heinz said, meandering back into the kitchen. From the other side of the hall, he added, “You know when I was evil we hardly ever had meetings. Rodney mostly just skyped us all with complaints about the organization website.”
If there was one thing a person could count on from Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, it was that he had enough to say for two people and something left to spare for a third. While he filled the house with absent chatter, Perry and Peter dragged the table from the closet together and opened it up in the living room. Under the flickering dimness of candlelight, Perry watched his fellow agent’s features shift, casting peculiar expressions over his normally blank face. It was strange to be alone like this again. Darkness, candle light, Peter’s unabashed attentiveness—all of it twisted Perry’s gut in a way that that defied examination.
Dinner passed Perry by in a kind of blur. He was sure that the food was good, but not entirely sure after the fact what it had been. There was cherry soda. A magazine caught fire. Heinz seemed largely unperturbed by that development, even as he was putting the flames out. Peter and Perry glanced at each other over the table, as Heinz tried to smother the fire with his bare hands in the background. The exchange of glances was so automatic and natural that it derailed Perry entirely, knocking all thoughts of fire hazards out of his mind.
Peter popped a crouton into his mouth, watching Perry with something that bordered on amusement.
There it was, the thing that made it so difficult to dismiss Peter as just another agent among agents. There were times when they synced up so effortlessly that Perry forgot they had never even held a full conversation. Unnerving, both puzzling and not. They had very little in common, the two for them, except for Heinz. But Peter was a professional, like Perry: elite, competent, and ready for anything. Perry liked to watch him work, on the few occasions that had been possible.
He was uneasy admitting it, but Perry liked to work with him as well. When they had rescued Heinz from abduction together, they had been so in sync—they had been so sharp, so fast, communication had slipped between them like water down the path of gravity.
Over dessert, Peter showed them the photos he had brought back from Tuscany during a mission. They were mostly surveillance, with one or two faces swiped out in permanent marker, but the photographer clearly had an eye for composition and lighting. Perry scrutinized one for a long moment, taking in the dusty Italian countryside, and then pointed questioningly at Peter. The agent nodded.
Heinz peered over Perry’s shoulder. “You took these?” he said, plucking the photo out of Perry’s hands. “Wow, Peter, you should send them somewhere. I mean, not the ones with the Duchess of Pembrington ski lifting out of a brothel, but, you know, some of the other ones.”
Peter pulled a marker from his pocket and carefully blacked out the Duchess’s face.
“Ah, hold on guys,” Heinz said, lifting off of Perry’s shoulder, “I’m gonna put the plates away real fast. Bee are bee—that’s, that’s an acronym, by the way, I’m very hip these days with the lingo.”
As Heinz disappeared down the hall, Peter gathered his photos up off the table. It was impossible to read much in his expression, but something about the deliberate smoothness of his movements pinged Perry’s danger senses. Without so much as word, the atmosphere around them took on the thick claustrophobia of a mineshaft before the first match was struck. Peter reached for the last of the photos, stacked haphazardly on Perry’s lap. Perry froze, tensed and ready for anything.
His fingers brushed over Perry’s thigh, following the curve just a little too closely to be accident. They splayed over fabric, skating as lightly as a whisper. He wasn’t even looking at the photos.
Perry might not have a whole lot of informal relationships in his life, but he was savvy enough to know when an interpersonal gauntlet was being thrown down.
Scooping glossy sheaves of paper back into his hand, Peter’s thumb pressed the inseam. Perry sucked in a breath before he could stop himself.
“Alright, I’m back! I told you it—” Heinz paused with one hand on the arch of the entryway, his eyes wide as saucers. “Oh. Um. I’m sure that’s not what it looks like…?”
Peter glanced lazily from Perry to Heinz, shuffling the pictures back into his bag like nothing had happened. Perry gave Heinz a helpless shrug. He knew there was a gauntlet, but unfortunately he had no idea what exactly the gauntlet was.
Peter tucked away his bag again and got to his feet, padding across the carpet to where Heinz was hanging back, rocking uncertainly on his heels. With the light of the hall at his back, Heinz gave off the strange impression of being half in and half out of the moment, teetering on the brink of the candlelight. Peter reached up and pulled off the yellow-banded hat that Heinz had never bothered to remove, tossing it over his shoulder with a careless flick.
“Why,” he said.
“What, the hat? Sorry, I’m still getting used to having it on—”
Peter shook his head. He gestured at the room in general, nothing in specific— the motion encompassed both Perry and the candles, both the table and Heinz himself.
“Oh,” Heinz said. He folded his hands in front of himself, thumbs tapping against each other. “I just thought—well it seemed like the right time to do this and—we were such a good team back with Mitch, weren’t we? Granted I mostly just got captured, but we had a good time, right?”
Peter said nothing.
Heinz looked away, eyes briefly skating over Perry and coming to rest finally on a stack of charred magazines. “I know what you’re thinking. It’s the candles, isn’t it, it looks like a romantic restaurant or something in here, but it doesn’t need to be anything like that! I mean if you wanted it to be something like that I wouldn’t mind, but—”
Peter pressed a hand to his mouth, cutting off the rest of it.
Of course it was a romantic thing, Perry thought, with equal fondness and exasperation. It just had to be a scheme, didn’t it? Heinz couldn’t go after anything he wanted without making it overly complicated and confusing for everyone involved.
Peter lifted his hand, and then tapped his own lips, leaning a little closer.
“Oh.” Heinz swallowed and glanced over at Perry, guilt and interest darkening his cheeks. “Perry, how do you… um…”
And all of it ended on Perry. The mystery, the gauntlet, all of it clicked into place with the clarity that comes from a cracked case. He pursed his lips for a moment. He’d never really allowed himself to think about this before—but judging by the ease with which Peter was taking over the show, he’d put at least a little thought into it at some point. After the Space Needle, maybe? During the Space Needle? Had Peter been thinking about it even then, watching Perry over the top of the rose in the crystal vase? His heart skipped at the idea.
He got up and pushed in his chair. Peter eyed him as he crossed the floor, tugging loose his tie. Perry was an OWCA elite, certified fearless, and if this was the challenge of the night? Well, Peter wouldn’t find him wanting.
He leaned up and kissed the agent, catching lips in his teeth, more warning than actual kiss. Peter grinned underneath the assault, the corners of his mouth turning up smugly, and Perry bore down harder against him, breath coming fast as he licked the insufferable expression open.
There was a small, helpless noise from behind them. Perry pulled away with a wet smack, turning his head towards Heinz, still panting slightly. It took a moment for reality to catch up with his lagging brain, which was going to have to be something he worked on in the future. Not an acceptable feature in a top agent.
“I—” Heinz said, and Perry noticed the way his hands were turning over each other, the way his whole body seemed to be coiled up in itself. “I can… go?”
Perry reached out and caught Heinz’s sharp chin with two fingers, and felt the thrill that shivered through him at the touch. He was definitely interested, leaning into Perry like he couldn’t get close enough, so that just left one conclusion. Perry frowned. For him to think he wasn’t wanted here—when Peter and Perry had only ever agreed on one thing, and that thing was him—
Perry guided him gently down and pressed a kiss to his lips as well. Heinz seemed to almost shake under the pressure, like a leaf in the wind, and Perry’s heart shook along with him. He cupped Heinz’s jaw in both hands and reeled him in closer, trying to convey everything with the soundless pull of his lips that his throat wouldn’t allow him to say.
As he drew back, Peter lifted a brow at him. Heinz was red, flushed and dazed between Perry’s hands.
This was it then, do or die time. It was amazing how much easier all of this was, standing here between them. Knowing at last, quite literally, what his place in it all was.
Perry raised an identical brow back at Peter, tapped Heinz’s lips once, and then he very deliberately, very slowly, tapped Peter’s bitten lips as well.
“O-oh,” Heinz said, again.
And then, predictably, another magazine underneath the array of candles burst into flame.