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i.

After two hours of maintenance, Gaz insisted that they listen to something else. Zim was hesitant to comply, but today was a special day, and he tended to acquiesce to the surviving Membranes’ requests on this painful anniversary. They’d been working on updating The Membrane for the past year or so, in part out of necessity, and in part because Gaz was making up different reasons for renovations in order to stall. Zim pretended not to notice when she struggled to come up with new ideas on how to improve their already perfect ship. It was alright, he told himself. They had time.

Today, they were killing time so that Gaz wouldn’t need to start getting ready for tonight’s event. She kept checking her watch and looking at Zim, clearly wondering when he was going to put down the wrench and force her to clean up and start getting ready. With just over an hour to go until the event started, Zim realized that, unless he said something, they’d be doing maintenance on his ship for the rest of the night.

“I think that’s a good stopping point,” he said, putting down his tools and shooting Gaz a pointed look from the pilot’s seat.

Gaz, lying on her back beneath the control panel, sighed. “I guess so.”

Zim gave her a gentle nudge in the ribs with the toe of his boot, then extended a hand. Gaz accepted and let him help pull her to her feet.

Gaz dusted herself off and then put a hand on the control panel, her mouth a thin line. She looked at Zim like she was going to speak, but then thought better of it. Zim tilted his head.

“What is it?”

“I’m just wondering…” began Gaz, but then she shook her head. “Nothing. I’m wondering nothing. It’s ready to go, isn’t it?”

Zim shrugged, then shot Gaz a look. “Only if you are.”

Gaz rolled her eyes, then tapped the dashboard twice with her knuckles. “Whatever. Let’s get out of here. I need to do my nails.”

Zim hopped out of the pilot’s seat and followed her out the windshield and into the garage. They walked side by side into the street and began the short journey back to their shared home.

Things had been calm since the apocalypse. Well, calmer than Zim would have expected.

No one really knew what happened the day the world ended. Zim still believed it was some kind of time anomaly — he looked around at the centuries-old trees that had only been in existence for three years and could only guess that the sheer explosion of energy generated by PEG and then consumed by his creation had rocketed Earth into some strange, uneven future.

The Resisty did a scan of the planet after Zim and the Membranes returned to their flagship with his creation and found very few signs of life. When they and the rest of earthlings returned to the planet, they found that the few remaining animals were… unusual. Genetically similar to Earth animals, but not entirely recognizable, as if they had spent millennia evolving without human interference. The deer were huge, which Zim and Dib both found very upsetting.

A more alarming development was that the infrastructure in all of Earth’s major cities and towns had been crumbled by a surge of plant life and a number of unanticipated natural disasters. The closest city to Zim’s old suburb was in shambles, each building more dilapidated than the last, every street and sidewalk cracked and infested with weeds, every remaining car rusted to its core. Across the globe, volcanoes had erupted, earthquakes had broken out, tsunamis had drowned entire coasts. Cities were buried in rubble, damaged beyond repair. Dib once supposed that this wasn’t their planet at all, but an alternate-universe version of Earth, one that had been switched out with their own when the explosion happened.

Zim didn’t think so. He knew his own Earth better than anything else, and he was certain that this was still it.

It was just… different. Not entirely uninhabitable, but it would require some work. So, they set to work.

Zim and Gaz got to their apartment complex with just an hour to go before they would need to get to the center of town. They wasted twenty minutes of that hour painting each other’s nails and complaining.

“I don’t know why they have to make a bigger deal about this every year,” Gaz huffed, dipping her brush into the sparkly blue polish and swiping it onto Zim’s pinky nail.

Zim shrugged his other shoulder, unwilling to argue. Sure, this year’s event would be the most well-attended of the past three years, but he could understand why.

After the world ended, Dib, Zim, and Gaz spent a year trying to restore Earth to the way it had been. The people of Earth watched them warily as they tried to right Membrane’s wrongs, trusting them only because they had to. Zim watched as the people who used to adore Membrane scrutinized his children, guilty by association. Dib and Gaz put their heads down and just tried to bring everything back to the way it was.

It wasn’t until almost a year after the apocalypse that Lard Gai showed up on Zim’s doorstep, a winning smile on his face. The Resisty had done it, he told Zim. Irk had been conquered. And, what’s more, there were about a billion aliens still seeking refuge, and it was time for Zim to hold up his end of the deal.

There was little discussion between Zim and the Membranes on whether to grant the survivors refuge on Earth. The past year had been such a spectacular failure that any opportunity to do some good, to help someone, was impossible to ignore. Plus, well. Zim had agreed.

On the anniversary of the day the world ended, members of the newly-disbanded Resisty came to Earth and threw a party. They called it a unity celebration, and they argued that it would promote peace across the different life forms living on Earth. It was also, apparently, a perfect excuse for all of them to take a victory lap by drinking everything in sight and acting like idiots.

Zim remembered the party well. The humans in attendance had been terrified of all the strange new aliens that now lived alongside them. Dib, still deeply wounded by the loss of his father and their struggles to restore Earth to what it had been, drank himself sick and spent half the night with his head in the toilet. Gaz and Zim sat in the bathroom with him, Zim holding his hair back, Gaz sitting on the floor with her back against the wall and quiet tears streaming down her face.

“We need him,” Gaz had said, her eyes glazed over. “We can’t do all of this without him.”

Zim hadn’t known what to say. All he could do was rub Dib’s shaking back and will himself to stop thinking about the fact that Irk, his home, his people, had been conquered. He knew it was for the best, and that the universe was a safer, more peaceful place with the Empire gone. It didn’t change the fact that Zim’s creature had been the weapon used to violently overthrow the regime, nor that the blood of millions of Irken soldiers was on Zim’s hands. Zim had just reached for Gaz’s perfectly-manicured hand that night, thinking that there was no way to restore order. There was no way to go back. He could only hope that things would turn out alright, for humans and irkens alike.

Then, something remarkable happened. The aliens that had sought refuge on Earth grew to love it the way Zim loved it, the way the humans loved it. They brought their own knowledge to Zim, Dib, and Gaz. They took part in making the world newer, better. Within a year, cities began to sprout up. The aliens, accustomed to colonization and despair, seized the opportunity to make their new home a perfect one. They had solutions to hunger crises, housing shortages, disaster relief. In incorporating their own technologies and customs into Earth’s culture, they made Earth thrive.

As Zim watched the humans finally settle into life with extraterrestrial neighbors, friends, and colleagues, he felt something shift in his own spooch. At the second annual unity celebration, Zim removed his wig and contacts and threw them away. He never needed them again.

Now, the Earth was nothing like it had been. In Zim’s opinion, it was better. It was a modern planet, finally caught up to the rest of the galaxy thanks to advanced alien technology. Everything that Membrane wanted for it had finally happened — they had clean energy, bountiful food, peace amongst nations. Everything was as it should be, Zim thought. And, finally, the Membrane name was restored. The people of Earth trusted Gaz and Dib to help bring them to a new glory. They loved the young Membranes just as much as they’d loved their father.

Today, on the third anniversary of the end of the world, Zim painted navy blue polish onto Gaz’s nails and watched her try to avoid talking about the subject that always made her so upset this time of year.

“It’s just… it seems wasteful,” Gaz explained, not meeting Zim’s eyes.

“Maybe,” Zim conceded.

“And,” Gaz added, “we have a lot more work to do. We don’t need to be sitting around, drinking champagne and patting ourselves on the backs. We need to… to…”

Truly, there wasn’t as much need for them any more. Gaz ran Membrane Enterprises, building things using alien technology that were better, more efficient, than anything her father had ever built. Dib acted as a liaison between alien and human life, coordinating meetings and ensuring cultural competency between life forms. Zim did a little of both, and mostly went where he was needed.

But, if they took some time off, no one would die. They could happily leave Earth in the hands of its nations’ leaders without worry. And they would, soon. Once they were ready.

Gaz shook her head as Zim finished painting her nails. “I don’t know,” she admitted.

Zim patted her hand and gave her a careful look. “We’ve done a lot,” he said.

Gaz pursed her lips. “I know.”

“More than we ever thought possible.”

“I know.”

Zim patted her hand again and left to get ready. He could feel Gaz watching him go, a heavy weight on his chest.

 

Dib was in their bedroom when Zim returned, standing in front of the mirror, already dressed in a navy tuxedo and struggling with his pomegranate-pink bow tie.

“Of all the things from old Earth to survive the apocalypse,” he said, his eyebrow raising as Zim walked in, “bow ties have to be the most infuriating.”

Zim hummed in agreement and approached Dib. Dib looked down at him, his other eyebrow raising as he took in Zim’s outfit.

“You look cute.”

Zim would never tell anyone, but the jumpsuit that the Resisty had lent him on Earth’s last day had been the most comfortable thing he’d worn in years. He certainly wouldn’t keep it, but he’d made a similar one for himself, just for days when he was getting his hands dirty. His was purple, of course.

All of Zim's old invader's uniforms were destroyed during the apocalypse. He never missed them, and he never wore anything like them again.  

“I always look cute,” said Zim.

Dib flashed him a smile, then grabbed the zipper of Zim’s suit and yanked it down.

Zim barely had time to react before he was being lifted into the air and pressed against the wall next to the mirror. Dib planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek and then pulled back, grinning.

It had been a long time since Dib had done something to fluster Zim, but he suddenly felt his face flush, and Dib was sending him that dopey, lopsided grin, and he suddenly felt like it was years ago, when they were taking shaky, tentative steps into the early stages of their relationship, looking to the other for support the whole while.

Zim squirmed, just enough so that his hands were on Dib’s shoulders and his legs were wrapped around Dib’s hips. He reached for the loose ends of Dib’s terribly-done bowtie.

“Allow me.”

Dib wrapped his arms around Zim’s back, just under his PAK, and let Zim work, that stupid smile still spread across his face.

“You should consider Irken formalwear,” said Zim. “Much more comfortable and better looking.”

Dib chuckled. “Maybe next year.”

Zim screwed up the knot and started over again, musing that he hadn’t done a human bow tie in a while and was out of practice. Dib chuckled again and planted a soft kiss on the side of Zim’s head.

Zim felt his face heat up again at the unexpected gesture, and then Dib did it again, on his brow, and again, on his chin, and then he was hugging Zim closer and leaning toward his mouth.

“You are making this even more difficult,” Zim snipped.

“Am not,” responded Dib before planting a short kiss on Zim’s lips.

“Are too,” said Zim. “I can’t see or concentrate.”

“Concentrate on something else, then.”

“Then how am I supposed to—?”

Zim got the picture just as Dib turned and dropped them onto their bed, laying Zim down and kissing him messily, Zim’s surprised hands still grasping Dib’s tie.

“Dib?” asked Zim, because he wasn’t expecting this.

Dib said nothing, just kissed Zim along his cheek, across his jawline, down his neck. Zim felt himself shiver at the contact and instinctively hugged his legs tighter around Dib’s hips.

Dib turned his head when he reached the nape of Zim’s neck and took a deep breath. Zim combed his fingers through Dib’s hair.

“Are you okay?” asked Zim.

“I am, actually,” said Dib softly, his breath tickling Zim’s throat. “Are you?”

“Yes,” said Zim, and he felt himself relax a little as Dib looked at him.

Dib’s gaze drifted from Zim’s eyes to his mouth, and they kissed again.

Zim could do this forever. He suspected that he and Dib would.

The past three years had been as much a struggle as they had been a success, and Dib and Zim’s relationship was no different. Learning how to love one another had taken longer than just a single night aboard a Resisty ship, but every moment of hardship had been worth what they had now. Zim held his relationship with Dib like a treasure in his hands, made all the more valuable from all the time they had spent piecing it back together.

They still fought. They wouldn’t be themselves if they didn’t. But even fighting with Dib took a different tone — it was more like they were working together to fix a problem than working against each other, trying to pull the other down. Never at any moment did they worry that they other would run away. Never did it feel like whatever obstacle was in front of them would be too great to overcome.

Dib rolled them over and sat up, so Zim was perched in his lap. He planted a kiss on Zim’s brow, his forehead, both of his cheeks, his jawline. He pulled Zim closer and sighed as Zim’s hand ran gently through the hair on the back of his head.

“We should get going,” Dib murmured.

“Mhm.”

“How’s Gaz?”

Zim shrugged.

Dib sighed again. He pulled back, looking at Zim properly and chewing his lip. He planted one more kiss on Zim’s face and then gently took Zim’s hand out of his hair and brought them to his still-loose bowtie. Zim obliged and made the bow even and perfect. When he finished, he placed his hands on Dib’s shoulders.

Perhaps this year would be different. Maybe enough time had passed, and they could have some fun. Zim was suspicious of how long Dib’s good mood would last, and he was certain that, by the end of the night, Gaz would shed at least a tear or two. Since they’d learned from repressing and ignoring their emotions, the Membranes had agreed to start facing their feelings head-on. Zim thought that it was for the best, although Gaz cried a lot more these days, and, on some occasions, Dib’s anxious energy felt incalculable. But, they also learned to lean on each other, and, more often than not, they were able to support each other through the difficult months and then years of mourning their father while simultaneously stepping into his shoes.

Dib leaned in for one more kiss before finally letting Zim get up and take a shower. And then Dib joined him in the shower, because he “might as well,” and Zim had no doubt that they were going to be late.

 

ii.

They arrived almost on time, Zim dressed in his favorite Irken dress robe, flowing and purple and decadent, his neck and antennae adorned with jewels. On his feet, he wore a pair of boots that Gaz had gotten for him which gave him an extra two inches of height. Dib’s hand grasped his.

The Membrane Memorial Hall occupied the entire hole in the ground where PEG had destroyed Dib and Gaz’s childhood home, as well as the rest of their block. Gaz had overseen the building’s construction after the refugees had arrived, ensuring that the building would be dedicated to science, collaboration, and making the world a better place. The building was filled with conference rooms, laboratories, and lecture halls, each used almost daily for the purpose of sharing knowledge and fostering innovative ideas.

On the top floor of the building was the banquet hall, dedicated to Zim, of all people, for making good on his promise to welcome the aliens into his home. It tickled Dib and Gaz to no end that they were celebrating unity and peace in a room dedicated to a former Invader whose sole purpose had once been to destroy the Earth. It made Zim feel… many things. Mostly, he just felt gratitude to be in this part of space, right at this time, with two insufferable Membrane children that liked to make fun of him.

Gaz was already there when they arrived, dressed in long, deep blue gown that shined in pinks and greens as the light touched it. Her hair was pulled up and away from her face and fell in long curls down her back. Zim estimated that her shoes lifted her at least six inches off the ground. She didn’t seem to notice as Dib and Zim walked in, focused instead on grabbing two champagne glasses from a passing catering bot and handing one over to Ixane, a former member of the Resisty who had brought many of her people to Earth after the war ended. Zim watched her smile as Ixane took the glass. GIR sat at her feet, playing with the hem of her dress.

Zim would never say that he was jealous of how much time GIR spent with Gaz nowadays. Really, it wouldn’t be fair to Dib to have GIR around all the time, ruining the mood and causing havoc in their apartment. So it was totally fine and not at all annoying that his little bot had taken to Gaz, especially because, as they entered, GIR’s head spun one hundred and eighty degrees around to lock eyes with Zim. He leapt to his feet and sprinted forward, screaming for Zim the entire time and eventually leaping into Zim’s chest.

So, fine. Gaz could be his second-favorite.

Dib had no problem being third.

Gaz looked toward him and gave him a nod before turning back to Ixane and shooting her another wide smile.

Dib and Zim continued through the banquet hall, greeting friends from various planets and pausing to discuss new projects, recent developments in intergalactic politics, and the state of the catered food this year (the consensus was that it was better than last year, although Dib lamented the lack of Vort Dogs).

They paused to talk to leaders of the world, people who were so furious with Dib and Gaz after they were beamed back to a broken, desolate Earth. Dib shook their hands and they smiled at him and told him how much he looked like his father, how proud Membrane would be to see what he’d accomplished. To Zim’s surprise, Dib beamed at the compliments.

Lard Gai and his brother were also in attendance, each followed by a small army of their offspring. Dib greeted each of the little vortians by name, his smile only getting wider as they climbed him like the jungle gym from their old elementary skool, eventually knocking him over in their excitement to play with him. Lard Nar elbowed Zim in the side at that.

“What?” asked Zim, his face warming as he realized the two vortians were shooting him creepy, overly-familiar smiles.

“They sure do love their Uncle Dib,” said Lard Nar, his eyebrows waggling.

“He’s a natural with children, isn’t he?” asked Lard Gai, crossing his arms and looking unbelievably self-satisfied.

Zim’s eyes widened and his face flushed even hotter at the sound of Dib’s laughter, ringing loudly against the walls of the banquet hall.

The vortians smiled wider. Zim narrowed his eyes.

“You two are more invasive than the Large Nostril People’s mauritianum tree,” he muttered through gritted teeth, and the vortians laughed.

“Perhaps,” said Lard Gai, “but unlike alien plant life, we welcome biodiversity, if you know what I mean.”

Lard Nar guffawed at that. Zim’s eyes widened again, and he was only saved by Dib, rising to his feet with a Vortian child in each arm and kissing Zim on the cheek, his own face pink and his breath short from laughter, blissfully ignorant of the embarrassing conversation Zim was forced to endure on his behalf. As always.

Zim waved a champagne bot over and squeezed GIR tighter while Dib reminded the vortians that he was available, any time, really, to babysit if they needed.

They made it through the rest of the party relatively unscathed. Gaz remained by Ixane’s side for the entirety of the night, but Zim figured that he could always talk to her later. Since the two had been introduced last month, Gaz had become very interested in Ixane’s ideas for ensuring that her people were well-fed. Zim and Dib liked to give her a hard time for it. Gaz always just rolled her eyes and told them that her relationship with Ixane was strictly professional.

At one point, Zim found himself separated from Dib as they were both caught up in different conversations. Eventually, Zim looked around and realized that he couldn’t see Dib anywhere. He had a feeling that he knew where he was, though. He left GIR at the buffet table and went to find his human.

Sure enough, his suspicions were confirmed when he opened the door to the enormous wraparound balcony and found Dib sitting sideways on the balustrade with his back against a concrete pillar and one leg stretched along the railing. He turned when he saw Zim approaching and sent him a small smile.

“Hey, space boy,” he said, his voice soft.

Zim approached quickly and took hold of the sleeve of Dib’s tuxedo jacket. “You’re going to fall if you sit like that,” he warned, his stomach queasy with worry.

Dib leaned toward Zim and let his head rest against Zim’s shoulder. “Hang on to me, then.”

Zim huffed but complied, his hand traveling from Dib’s jacket to grasp around his wrist. He pulled Dib’s hand toward him and gave it a gentle kiss, a gesture that he’d learned from the movies and liked immensely — a gesture that, once, he thought he would only ever be able to do to Dib in his fantasies. He did it again, just because he could.

“Are you alright?” Dib asked.

“Of course I am,” said Zim. “Why?”

“Dunno,” said Dib. “Just thought I saw the Lards getting you worked up.”

Zim huffed. “I was not getting worked up,” he muttered. “They just like to be weird.”

Dib hummed in agreement.

Zim shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “They were talking about… how much you enjoy their children.”

Dib laughed. “Oh, really?”

Zim shifted again. “Yes, they appear to be scheming again.”

At the first unity ceremony, it had been over when Zim and Dib were going to move in together. Last year, it had been over whether they were ever going to go on their trip. They’d been annoyingly smug to find that Zim and Dib were doing both, each time insisting that they gave flawless relationship advice.

“They always think they’re right,” murmured Zim, lacing his fingers between Dib’s.

Dib rubbed his temple against Zim’s shoulder. “Well, their predictions have all been accurate so far.”

Zim felt his spooch swing in his guts at Dib’s nonchalant tone. “So, you mean to say you—”

“Oh, no way,” said Dib, laughing. “Not now, at least. I don’t know. Do you?”

“No,” said Zim. “Not now.”

There was still too much to do. There were still so many aspects to parenting that Zim didn’t understand.

“Yeah,” said Dib. “I don’t know. Maybe one day.”

Zim looked down to see that Dib was looking up at him, his expression soft. “You’d be good at it, I think,” said Dib.

Zim frowned. “I disagree.”

“You would,” Dib pressed. “You’re good at taking care of people.”

Zim pursed his lips and wrapped his arm around Dib’s shoulders. “Maybe one day,” he said, and he meant it.

“We’ve got time,” said Dib.

And they did. When Membrane died, Zim realized that he was the only one left who knew about Dib’s eternal life. Dib had been struck by the revelation that he could live practically forever. Zim patted his hand and told him that he would be there with Dib, forever, and, as they soon learned, so would Gaz.

Dib’s lip quivered, and there was no doubt in Zim’s mind that he was thinking of the only other person that he wanted more time with.

Now, Dib looked at the evergreen life that lay ahead of him with shaky confidence, still adjusting, Gaz by his side, his hand steadfast in Zim’s.

The sun was setting, and Zim and Dib watched in silence as the sky turned shades of orange and pink. From this balcony, they could see past their city to the ocean, its waves shining in the sun’s dying light. Dib leaned against Zim, his head a soft weight against Zim’s chest, his big cowlick tickling against Zim’s chin.

He tilted his head up and pressed a gentle kiss to the corner of Zim’s mouth. Zim looked down at him — his big, round eyes bright, the corner of his mouth turned upward in a soft smile.

“You are happy,” said Zim.

Dib wrapped his arm around Zim’s back and pulled him closer.

“Yeah, I guess so,” he said. “I guess I just… I thought that today would be worse. But it’s been kinda nice.”

“Earth is prospering,” said Zim. “The people are happy and peaceful. You should be, too.”

“Yeah,” repeated Dib. “I guess I just… the past few years, I’ve been thinking so much about how… shitty it was, to lose my dad right when we were finally getting along again. I guess… it felt unlucky, that we only got to really talk once. There’s still so much I wish I could have said to him, and so much that I wanted to know about him.”

Zim nodded and tightened his grip on Dib’s shoulder.

“But then,” said Dib, “I guess I just… you came home before, and you were, you know… you’d been working on our ship, getting it ready so that we could go explore space together, and you just…” Dib drifted off for a second, and a cheesy grin spread across his face. “You looked so cute in your little coveralls, and it just kinda clicked for me.”

“What did?”

“Just that… I’ve been thinking so much about how unlucky it was to lose my dad when I did. But then, how lucky did I get that I got to see you after work, and have you tie my tie for me?”

Zim felt the breath leave his body as Dib looked up at him, his face bright with bittersweet emotion.

“I guess I’ll never know what would have happened with my dad. Like, maybe we’d be best friends right now. Maybe we wouldn’t be talking again. And it really sucks that I’ll never know.”

Zim reached for Dib’s other hand with his own and held it.

“But, you know, that could have happened with me and you, too, right? We could have died that day on Vort. We could have never been reconnected after I left for college. You could have never come to Earth in the first place.”

Dib took a deep breath, then looked back toward the sunset. “I just feel like there’s a lot that I have now that could I could have passed by, you know? What if I’d never seen Gaz again after we left to find my dad? What if we’d never gotten the chance to see Earth like this, like how he’d always wanted?”

Dib turned to look back at Zim. “I just hadn’t really thought about it like that in a while. And I don’t know if it’s really… you know, luck, or fate, or whatever. I guess it’s just how life works. I miss my dad. And, I mean… I miss what me and my dad could have had. But I also have you, and Gaz, and GIR, and everyone that came here tonight to celebrate how hard we’ve worked.”

Zim just nodded, his only thought that he loved Dib, wanted to be everything that Dib ever needed.

“I’m glad I came to Earth,” he said quietly.

Dib hugged Zim tighter around his back and reached up with his other hand to wrap it around the back of Zim’s neck and guide him downward. They kissed as the sunlight faded, Dib’s hand traveling to rest at the small of Zim’s back, Zim’s holding and then gripping Dib’s thigh. 

Dib moaned softly as he deepened the kiss, pulling Zim closer. Zim let himself get lost for a moment at the feeling of Dib’s mouth against his, Dib’s hand dropping lower to squeeze gently, Dib’s fingers dipping into the collar of Zim’s robe, brushing against Zim’s neck—

“You know people can just come out here and see you guys, right?”

Zim felt his antennae snap upward. He pulled away from Dib’s flushed face and turned around to see Gaz standing in the doorway, holding three champagne glasses, an unimpressed expression on her face.

From behind him, Zim heard Dib grunt. He shot Gaz an apologetic grin.

“Uh, sorry—”

“Honestly,” said Gaz with a roll of her eyes, crossing the balcony toward them and offering them each a glass, “it’s like you two want to get caught sometimes.”

Dib scoffed. “Once you finally get the guts to ask Ixane out, you’ll understand.”

“Shut up, Dib.”

“You shut up.”

Zim took a gulp of his drink and almost choked in surprise — it wasn’t from Earth, he realized, but Irk. He took another tentative sip.

“I didn’t realize they were serving Irken beverages this year,” he said softly.

Gaz gave him a soft look, and he felt Dib’s hand grasp his.

“Well, it’s where you came from,” said Gaz softly. “Didn’t seem fair to have everyone else’s old favorites and not yours.”

Zim looked at his drink. He swirled the glass, watching as the drink swished around.

“I only ever got to drink this once,” he said, still not looking up. “Skoodge and I snuck into an Elite party and stole a bottle.”

Since the Resisty’s successful coup, the Irken Empire had crumbled. Invaders were strewn all over the galaxy, some still unaccounted for, some that Zim had grown up with. The Tallest were imprisoned for their crimes, and the planet itself had been left to the remaining irkens to figure out what to do with. While Zim knew that the Empire needed to fall and that the remaining irkens were probably better off now than they’d been under the Tallest, he still felt a strange kind of grief for the place where he’d been born. Dib had told him that they’d go and visit Irk if Zim wanted, but Zim was truly not sure if he did.

He could only hope that his people would achieve what he had. He squeezed Dib’s hand and took another sip.

“Well,” said Gaz. “Now you can have as much of it as you want.”

Zim just nodded, letting himself be pulled backward and halfway onto Dib’s lap, one foot still firmly on the balcony, just in case. Dib took a sniff of his drink and wrapped an arm around Zim’s waist. Gaz clinked each of their glasses and took a sip.

“Oh, my god,” she sputtered. “This stuff is so sweet.” She caught Zim’s eye and forced a smile. “I like it, though.”

“No, you don’t,” said Dib.

“Dib, shut up.”

Dib planted a gentle kiss on Zim’s temple. Zim felt himself smile.

“So,” Zim said, “did you socialize with anyone other than Ixane tonight?”

Gaz groaned and put a hand on her hip. “We were just talking about — you know, her planet was almost completely water, and she had some good perspectives on how to keep the oceans from getting overfished.”

“Uh huh,” said Zim. “You talked about that for the past two hours? Really?”

Gaz rolled her eyes. Then she shot Zim a small smile. “We might have talked about some other stuff.”

“Is that so?”

“Well, she had some recommendations for our trip, and then we exchanged phone numbers, since she wants to keep in touch while I’m gone.”

Dib gave a low whistle. Gaz rolled her eyes again, but she didn’t stop smiling.

“Whatever, you guys.”

The sun was almost set, its remaining light shining against the Gaz’s dress and making it glow. She took another sip of her drink, winced, and then sighed.

“The ship is ready to go,” she said to Dib.

“It is?”

“Yeah,” said Gaz, her gaze shifting to Zim. “We’re done with it. We finished the extra bedroom, updated the power thrusters… everything. It’s all ready to go.”

A heavy silence weighed in the air for a few moments. “Well,” said Dib, “we’d better start letting people know.”

“We should give them some time to plan for us being gone,” said Gaz. “But, yeah. We should start telling people tomorrow.”

“They’ll be happy for us,” said Dib.

“I know.”

“It’ll be good,” said Dib. “It’s been forever since you’ve been to space. And we can go to the places Ixane recommends.”

Gaz pursed her lips, and she nodded. “I know,” she said, her voice weaker.

“Gaz,” said Dib softly, “Earth will still be here when we get back.”

Gaz shook her head, then looked past them at where the sun had almost completely gone down. “I know, I just… it’s hard. Hard to leave.”

“I know,” said Dib.

Gaz sighed, and they were quiet for another moment. She looked down at Dib and Zim.

“We’ve come a long way in the past three years,” she said.

“We have,” said Zim. “We’ve done a lot.”

Gaz took a deep breath. “I just wonder… if this is right. If he would have wanted it like this.”

Dib said softly, “You know he did.”

Gaz took another deep breath. “I know. I guess I just… I wish he could have seen it.”

“Me, too,” said Dib.

“At least we got to see it,” she said. “At least… we were here, to help make it happen.”

“I think that’s what matters,” said Dib. “Even if this wasn’t exactly what Dad was planning… this is still good. It’s not the same, but… it’s still really good. And it’s ours.”

“Yeah,” said Gaz, breathlessly. “Kinda sucks, sometimes, but… I guess it could be worse.”

Dib laughed at that, and Gaz was unable to hold back a small smile.

The balcony doors opened again as people began trickling out in anticipation of the fireworks. Humans and aliens alike were chatting and laughing with each other, some greeting Zim and the Membranes. The sun finally fell. Someone called into the banquet hall that the fireworks were about to start, and more and more people poured onto the balcony, the energy rising with anticipation. GIR came teetering out onto the balcony, his little arms full of snacks. He hopped up onto the balcony next to Gaz and munched loudly.

The fireworks were Zim and Gaz’s creation: like old Earth fireworks, but more spectacular, able to last longer and change their shape and colors as they exploded, making intricate images and patterns. This year’s show documented the life cycle of a forest, from the first days of a sapling’s life to the growth of an entire ecosystem, first green as the spring and then multicolored, but mostly red, as the summer turned to fall. Animals joined the scene, and then humans, then aliens — Ixane’s species making a noticeable cameo. Explosions of light showed trees struck by lightning and falling, baby animals hopping about in the flowers, people picking berries from the bushes. Finally, the scene went white and then darkened, eventually revealing just a single sapling. Then, nothing.

The people lining the balustrade cheered as the sky went dark, then lit up again as the moon and stars reappeared from behind the dissipating fog left by the fireworks. Dib, Zim, GIR, and Gaz stayed until the balcony cleared out again and people went back inside for speeches, more drinks, and dessert. They would join the rest of the party, soon.

Gaz took another deep breath, her eyes shining with unshed tears. She put a hand on her brother’s shoulder and looked between him and Zim.

“I’m excited,” she said. “For the trip, and, also… just, whatever happens after.”

“We’ve only had three years, so far,” said Zim. “And look what we’ve done. Who knows what will come next for Earth?”

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “You’re right. It’s the beginning of a whole new Earth.”

From where he was still sitting on the balustrade, his sister’s hand on his shoulder and his partner halfway sat on his lap, Dib raised his glass. “To the beginning of the world.”

Gaz and Zim raised their glasses to meet Dib’s.

“To the beginning of the world.”