Candace Flynn was the last person on earth that Vanessa would have expected to make friends with. She knew her casually from last summer, of course, since her brothers' projects would have been hard to avoid, but once the school year started Vanessa had every intention of ignoring her entirely. Candace wore pink. She was full of energy. She liked fairy-tale movies and bubblegum pop and gushing about her squeaky-clean boyfriend.
But then Vanessa and Candace got put in the same class for Fine Arts, and since there wasn't anybody whose last name started with E, they sat together and started to exchange a few words here and there. Candace wasn't as preppy as she liked to appear--or, anyway, she wasn't so concerned with being cool that it would occur to her to be mean to somebody who wasn't. And even though she seemed flighty, she was talented, and she could be really driven. More than once Vanessa asked her for help with a tricky aspect of music theory.
Then they were assigned to be partners on this project, and as they got to talking Vanessa found that they did have some things in common. Even though Vanessa wasn't into Tiny Cowboy and Candace didn't really get The Neurotoxins, they both liked Love Händel: sure, everybody liked Love Händel, but it was a start. Pretty soon they were swapping fashion secrets and exchanging funny stories about the weird little annoyances in their lives.
So even though it would have seemed impossible only a month ago, it was perfectly natural that Vanessa would find herself over at Candace's house to work on the project. The really weird part was who else she found there. The two of them came downstairs for dinner and there he was, just napping on the third step from the bottom as if he owned the place.
"Hey," said Vanessa automatically. Then she stopped and turned. "Hey!"
Candace followed her gaze to the blue, duck-billed, beaver-tailed mammal. "That's just my brothers' pet platypus."
"Perry the Platypus?!"
Perry the Platypus jolted awake at this and took an instant to register Vanessa before adopting the harmlessly unfocused expression of an ordinary platypus.
"Yeah, that's right, how did you know? Oh, I guess it is a pretty obvious name," Candace admitted. "That's my brothers for you--so clever, and yet soooo dull."
"But what's he doing here?" Vanessa demanded.
Candace gave her a look. "Just chilling on the stairs, I guess. He's a platypus. They don't do much."
That was completely untrue. "Hang on, he lives here?"
"Uh, yeah. Where else would he live? Listen, if he's bugging you, I can make Phineas put him upstairs. Phin--"
But she was interrupted by Ms. Flynn calling from the kitchen. "Candace, would you come help me set the table?"
"Okay, Mom," Candace called back. "See you in a minute," she added, and left Vanessa alone with Perry the Platypus.
She sat down on the steps beside him. "You are so busted, mister."
Perry chattered innocuously, giving no sign of understanding.
Vanessa rolled her eyes. "Oh, please. That 'mindless pet' act might have worked on my mom, but I see you like every week! I know it's you, Perry the Platypus."
Perry relented. The sharp brown eyes snapped into focus, and he sheepishly stood up on his back feet.
"Perry the Platypus," Vanessa repeated chidingly, relishing the moment. "Who would have thought you lived right here in the suburbs? And as a household pet! That doesn't seem like you at all. The Flynn-Fletchers don't even know you're an agent, do they?"
Perry's eyes went wide, and he raised a finger to his bill in a shhh gesture.
This was too good to be true. Vanessa grinned. "Wow, wait until Dad hears about this!"
Eyes even wider, Perry waved both hands in front of his torso in a frantic gesture of negation.
In fact, Vanessa had never taken sides in Dad's battle with Perry the Platypus before. She had no beef with him personally; he always seemed like a pretty decent guy. Platypus. Whatever. Busting him to Dad now did seem a little out of line, almost... evil? But then, she didn't have as much of a problem with evil as she'd used to.
"Oh, but Perry the Platypus," she cooed, "think of how happy it'll make him! And more importantly, think of the major points it'll score me. He wants responsible? Well, I just tracked down his nemesis." (So what if, technically, it had been by accident?) "Nothing personal, dude, but this is way too good to pass up."
Perry shook his head with a pleading look and brought both hands together, actually begging her not to tell.
"Really? Come on. You're the secret agent here. Since when is it my job to keep up with your cover identity? Give me one good reason why I shouldn't bust you."
He seemed to begin to think about it, but a door opened somewhere with a faint creak, and Perry the Platypus was suddenly a mindless pet again. Man, he was good. Vanessa looked up to see Ferb and Phineas at the top of the stairs.
"Hi Vanessa," said Phineas. Ferb waved, then glanced away. "What'cha doin'?"
"Nothing." She stood up, a little too quickly, and moved aside to let them pass. "Just... saying hi to Perry the Platypus."
Phineas laughed. "It's cute that you call him that. I think he knows he's a platypus." (Ferb peered inquiringly into the blank eyes.) "Well, maybe."
He knows more than you think, Vanessa was about to say, but stopped. Phineas had picked up the limp secret agent and was hugging him. "You're a platypus, aren't you, boy?"
Perry chattered as if to agree. He repeated the pleading look over Phineas' shoulder for half a second, and then reverted to his pet mode.
Then Candace came back from the dining room with the announcement that it was time for dinner. Vanessa followed her in.
All six of them sat down together, a little cramped with the extra chair but far from uncomfortable, and began to chat as they ate. Ms. Flynn asked Candace and Vanessa how their project was going. Phineas told them about some alterations he and Ferb had proposed to Danville Elementary's science curriculum. And it was while Mr. Fletcher was trying to explain bobbin lacemaking with his asparagus as a visual aid that Vanessa realized she couldn't bust Perry the Platypus. Dad couldn't come after him here. Whatever complaints Candace might have about them--and Vanessa could tell she never really meant it--this was a happy family; and even if it was just a cover identity, Perry was part of that family. She didn't want to mess this up.
And it wasn't just that, either. Candace was her friend now. Ferb was pretty cool, for a little guy. He and Phineas always had something interesting going on... What if these people became part of Vanessa's life too? The last thing she wanted was to get her dad's crazy life mixed up with this one. She'd leave Perry alone, if for no other reason than to leave the Flynn-Fletchers alone.
Vanessa felt something nudge her boots, and looked down to find Perry under the table, somehow managing to look worried without losing that wall-eyed innocence. "Hi, Perry," she said gently.
"He isn't bothering you, is he?" asked Ferb.
Vanessa smiled, and reached down to scratch the pet's head. "He's okay by me," she said, with a wink at Perry. Under cover of the table, he gave her a smile in return. "I mean, he's just a platypus. They don't do much."