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Time & Space

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i.

Dib Membrane was cleaning a pan when the apocalypse started. Actually, it was more likely that he was eating scrambled eggs when the apocalypse started. Specifics aside, Dib was cleaning a pan when his father came thundering up the stairs from his laboratory.

“Good evening, son!” boomed Professor Membrane.

“Uh.” Dib looked up from his soapy pan to peer out the window, where the sun was just rising over the city. “It’s morning.”

“Right, of course it is,” said Membrane, wiping at his brow with the back of a gloved hand. “Anyway, where’s that old toy you had? Still in the garage?”

Dib put the pan back in the sink. He looked at his father, who was standing the doorway of the kitchen, chest heaving, fists planted on his hips. In his entire life, Dib was certain he’d never seen his dad look so frazzled.

“Are you okay?” asked Dib.

“Of course! Of course I am. I’m just wondering where that toy of yours is? The one that you kept in the garage when you were—” Membrane dropped his hand from his hip and held it, palm down, over the floor, “just a little guy!”

Dib squinted at his father. Membrane’s nervous energy was infectious, and Dib felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up.

“I need to know now, son. Very urgent. It’s for science.”

Finally, it clicked.

“Wait… do you mean my spaceship?”

“Sure, whatever! Where is it?”

“It… yeah. I think it’s still in the garage. Why do you need it?”

“Great, thanks son!” chirped Membrane, and he turned on his heel and marched out of the kitchen.

“Dad, wait!”

Dib followed his father from the kitchen to the garage, where Dib’s old Spittle Runner, dusty from years of neglect, sat tucked away in a corner.

“Yes,” Membrane muttered. “That should get the job done.”

“Wait, what job?” asked Dib.

Membrane jumped and turned around.

“Oh, hello, son,” he said, and Dib watched as his father hopped into the cockpit. “I’m just going to…”

Dib watched, still with shock, as his father tapped a few buttons on the control panel.

“Dad, wait, you don’t know—”

“Override complete,” said the ship in an unfamiliar voice. “Welcome, new pilot.”

“Wait—” Dib hastened over to the ship, peering inside as his father continued to press buttons. “How did you do that? Where’s Tak?”

“Hmm?” Membrane looked up. “Dib, I’ll be leaving now. Don’t go in the basement.”

What?”

With that, Membrane snapped the windshield shut. Dib watched as his father powered up his Spittle Runner, crashed into his Subaru Forester, and then blew through the garage door. Dib chased after him, but on two feet, there was nothing he could do but watch as his father took off into the sky.

“DAD!” he screamed. “What the hell?”

Membrane couldn’t hear him. He was already gone.

 

When Gaz got home, her brother was still in the driveway, pacing back and forth, talking to himself.

“Did you do that?” she asked, stepping out of her car and gesturing to the giant, smoking hole in the garage door. “Dad’s gonna be pissed.”

Dad did that!” shouted Dib, but his annoyance was short-lived. Maybe Gaz knew something he didn’t? “Gaz, do you know what’s going on here?”

“Uh… I dunno,” said Gaz, peering at Dib through a pair of reflective pink sunglasses. “Was it Foodio again?”

“No! I said it was Dad! He took my ship and he… he just…”

Dib couldn’t even say it, the very idea was just so unfathomable. Instead, he gestured wildly to the sky. Gaz leaned an elbow on the hood of her car and rested her cheek against her palm.

“He went into outer space? In that crappy old thing you used to chase Zim with?” she deadpanned.

“Okay, Gaz,” snapped Dib, storming toward his sister. “This isn’t funny. Dad took my ship and he just left. Where did he go? What happened? Why did he leave?”

“I don’t know,” sniffed Gaz. “I wasn’t even here.”

“He just…” Dib was staring up at the sky, his arms limp at his side. “He just left.”

Beside him, he heard the sound of Gaz slamming her door shut. She came to stand next to him, looking up. They stood together, and the hopelessness of the situation finally sunk in. Dib clenched his fists.

He figured Gaz must have gone through a similar thought process, because, next thing he knew, she was grabbing him by the collar and shoving him against the door of her sedan.

“Why didn’t you stop him?!” she screamed, her face inches away from Dib’s, so close that he could see big, angry eyes behind her sunglasses.

“I-I tried!” he stammered. “He just left! It was all very sudden!”

“Did he say anything to you?” growled Gaz.

“He, uh, he just asked about the ship, and I told him- ow, Gaz! That hurts!”

Gaz dropped her hands, and Dib took the opportunity to wiggle out from between her and her car.

“Look,” he said, brushing imaginary dirt off his t-shirt. “It’s not my fault. It all happened in, like, two seconds. He just asked me where my ship was, got in, and took off. And, in case you haven’t noticed, he pretty much totaled my car.”

Gaz crossed her arms.

“I noticed.”

“Yeah, well,” muttered Dib, looking up to glare at his sister. “I’m just saying, I’ve had a pretty bad morning, so maybe think about that before you try to beat me up again.”

“Did he say anything else?” asked Gaz. “Other than asking where your ship was?”

“He…” Dib thought back. “He told me not to go down to the basement.”

“Okay, well,” said Gaz. “Let’s go down to the basement.”

She shouldered past her brother and climbed through the hole in the garage door.

“Dare I say,” she called from the garage, “your car look less hideous now than it did before.”

“It’s practical!” he shot back, following her into the garage and pushing her out of his way.

 

In the basement, there were a lot of things that Dib would consider suspect. Membrane kept stacks upon stacks of notebooks documenting his secret projects, ones that he kept from the government, his employees, everyone. Even Dib wouldn’t know about them if he weren’t such a good snoop.

“But, why would he take off now?” asked Dib. “He’s been doing this stuff for years.”

“Will you stop talking to yourself?” hissed Gaz. “I’m trying to look.”

“I was talking to you, too.”

Minutes passed, and then hours, and Dib and Gaz had nothing to show for it. They’d scanned every bookshelf, checked behind every hidden door, and torn through every notebook. There was nothing.

Eventually, Professor Membrane’s children found themselves sitting crosslegged on the floor of his lab, tired, irritated, and out of ideas.

“What about those kitten soldiers he was making?” asked Dib.

“He got funding for that,” reminded Gaz. “Remember? President Man was all excited for it.”

“Right.”

“Wait, is it a Super Toast thing? Was there a recall?” asked Gaz.

Dib pulled his phone from his pocket. After a quick internet search, he found nothing.

“Nope. I checked Super Poop, too. Nothing scandalous there, either.”

“Okay,” said Gaz, leaning forward to rest her elbows on her knees. “We just have to—”

A rumble tore through the basement, so quick that Dib thought he might have imagined it. But, he knew he didn’t, because Gaz’s eyes went wide, and her shoulders shot up to her ears.

For a moment, there was nothing but the sound of test tubes clinking in their cabinets. Then, Dib got an idea.

“Gaz,” he said slowly, “didn’t Dad say he was making adjustments to PEG?”

“Yeah,” said Gaz, and they both looked down at the floor. “Yeah, he did mention that.”

In a moment, Dib and Gaz were rushing to the elevator, each muttering aloud to themselves.

“Of course! How could I forget—”

“If Dad seriously took off because that stupid thing—”

“PEG’s always been weird, but—”

“I’m gonna fly out to space myself and—”

The elevator dinged, and the Membrane children were on the secret lower floor of their father’s labs. The doors opened, revealing the single, glowing creation that occupied the giant room. The Perpetual Energy Generator. Or, as the Membranes called her: PEG.

Gaz ran for the control panel, Dib just a few paces behind her. Before she got to it, though, she stopped short.

“What… what is that?” she asked.

They both stared up at PEG, jaws slack. The entire machine, from its huge dome to its wide, square base, was encased in a giant, neon green bubble.

Dib felt a tug of recognition in his brain — he knew what that was, he’d seen those weird, bright lighting bolts that were zipping up the sides of the bubble. But, where could he have possibly seen it before?

“Dib, look,” whispered Gaz. “Look at PEG.”

Silently, Dib creeped closer until he saw it. Behind the bright green bolts that passed over PEG, the machine itself was moving. Very, very slowly.

And, as Dib leaned in closer, he could see the flashing red emergency lights from within the dome.

“Oh, shit,” said Dib, and then he remembered.

Without a word to Gaz, Dib raced around the bubble’s perimeter until he found a small screen with a keypad. He typed as quickly as he could, muttering to himself that this better not be what he thinks it is. To his dismay, it was.

“Dib, what the hell?” shouted Gaz as she rushed to his side. “Do you know what this is?”

“Yeah,” whispered Dib. “It’s a time dilation field.” His fingers flew across the keypad as he talked. “Set to slow PEG down for as long as possible.”

Dib stepped back. His hands were shaking, and his brow was sweating.

“Gaz, do you know what this means?” he asked, and when he turned to look at his sister, her eyes were already wide with understanding.

“Dad broke PEG,” she said, “and he put her in this… time bubble, to keep her from exploding and destroying all life on Earth.”

“This thing’s only gonna last so long,” said Dib. “Eventually, PEG will generate enough energy to destroy it. Then, we’ll all…”

“God dammit,” whispered Gaz. “So, what, Dad just left? Just took off and saved himself?”

Dib took a deep breath. He knew that this was easier for him to swallow than it was for Gaz. Their dad had always favored her; she was the more level-headed, rational one. Even from a young age, she liked making machines and doing experiments. It was by no means a stretch to say that she was the apple of her father’s eye.

Dib, on the other hand, had always been the odd one out. In the rare event that they spent time together as a family, he’d always felt like the third wheel, an unfortunate add-on to what could have been a fun father-daughter outing. He’d been the one to get lost in the woods searching for Bigfoot, stranded until a rescue copter found him. He’d been the one to get himself in more than a few tangles with Zim (ugh, he hated thinking about Zim). Gaz had saved his ass dozens, if not hundreds of times over the past two decades, so, yeah, there was no question that Dib was the screw up, the one that always needed his little sister’s help. And it was no question that Membrane had looked down on him for it.

But, with his father’s rejection came real clarity about what Membrane was. He was a selfish man, too concerned with his own company to bother caring for his own children. He would leave Dib and Gaz alone for weeks at a time, and then he would always come back with some gift or promise to take them out for pizza, and that had always been enough for Gaz. But, Dib knew that he didn’t really care that they’d been lonely. He didn’t even know why his father had made them in the first place — he seemed like the last person in the universe who should be having kids. So, yeah, it wasn’t really that shocking to Dib that Membrane had doomed the whole planet and then left.

“Look, Gaz,” said Dib, trying to be gentle with his sister’s surprisingly delicate feelings, “I know you don’t see this, but Dad’s a huge asshole.”

Gaz just looked at him, her expression carefully schooled. But, Dib knew his sister better than that.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Gaz, her voice wavering just a little. “We’ve got to fix this.”

“How?” asked Dib. “If we enter the bubble, we’ll be slowed down, too. And, if we change the settings, PEG will explode before we get the chance to fix it.”   

“We have to do something! Who knows how much time we have?” snapped Gaz.

“I don’t—”

At that moment, something on the ground caught Dib’s eye. A small piece of paper, crumpled into a ball. Dib crouched down and reached for it, smoothing it out. The first thing he noticed was the letterhead: Professor Membrane’s Personal Science Notepad. The next thing he saw were the notes, clean and neat and taken with his father’s patented, famously indestructible “Membrane blue” fountain pen.

“Looks like Dad already figured that out,” he said, holding the paper up to show Gaz.

Gaz snatched the note and read over it, her eyes squinting in the dim light of PEG’s cavernous room.

“So, PEG completes a single cycle… about once a day,” she said, reading through her father’s calculations.

“That must have been what we felt before. That earthquake thing,” added Dib.

“And enough cycles will bust the time dilation field — jeez, I guess that thing really is a time bubble, huh?” asked Gaz, her gaze flickering to Dib. “It’s like science fiction.”

“Yeah, I mean, I only recognized it because I got trapped in one that Zim made,” said Dib.

“Huh,” said Gaz, and Dib watched her look off into the distance for a second. “Weird.”

“What’s weird?”

“Nothing,” said Gaz, shaking her head. “Let’s focus on this.”

“Uh… okay.”

Gaz cleared her throat, looking back to the note.

“So, one PEG cycle generates enough energy to make the ground shake,” said Dib. “How long until she’s built up enough energy to break the time dilation bubble?”

“I’m reading,” grumbled Gaz.

“Doesn’t it just say it?”

“I wanna make sure Dad did the math right.”

“Oh my god, Gaz, it’s Dad, of course he did the math right!”

“Well, he was in a rush to get out of here, so maybe he didn’t!”

“You’ve got to be—”

“Fine!” snapped Gaz. “A month!”

Dib stopped. He felt his mouth dry up.

“A… a month?”

“Yeah,” said Gaz. “Seven hundred twenty-eight point two five hours. Thirty point three four days. A month.”

“Shit,” said Dib.

“Yeah.”

“Okay, let’s check the math on that.”

 

Half an hour later, Dib was pouring coffee into his sister’s novelty Bloaty’s mug before turning his attention back to his work. They both sat at the kitchen table, Dib at his laptop, Gaz hunched over a notebook. For a while, there was nothing but the sounds of Dib clicking at his keyboard and Gaz scribbling and erasing. Finally, Gaz slammed her pencil on the table.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well,” repeated Dib, “I rounded to the nearest ten-thousandth this time, and I was able to get slightly more—”

“We have to stop,” interrupted Gaz.

“…Yeah,” agreed Dib, turning to look at his screen. “You’re right.”

Gaz leaned back in her chair. She took a sip of her coffee.

“One month,” she muttered.

“One month.”

“What do we do?”

Dib ran a hand through his hair. “I mean… we have to find Dad, right?”

Gaz looked over at him, one eyebrow raised.

“What’s Dad gonna do? He literally ran away.”

“Look, Gaz, if anyone can stop this thing, it’s Dad. Or you, I guess.”

Dib didn’t mind admitting that his sister was better at this kind of stuff than he was. She’d been making machines since she was a little kid, putting motors and mechanical limbs into her stuffed animals and programming them to do her bidding.

Dib, of course, was the paranormal expert in the family, and he took pride in that. Even if it made him the family screw up.

“I guess so,” muttered Gaz. “So… I try to find a way to fix PEG… and, what, you go after Dad? And leave me here to get blown up?”

“Of course not!” said Dib. “Obviously, we’ll need some kind of… bunker, I guess, but we could find a way to keep you safe. Maybe even get you off-planet before it happens?”

Gaz just looked at him, her brow furrowed, clearly not convinced that this plan could work.

“How would you even find him?”

“I put a tracker on my ship forever ago,” said Dib, thinking back. “I could follow him.”

“In what?”

Dib sighed. He stared at his computer screen. His calculations stared back at him. He looked at Gaz, hoping she would just read his mind.

She must have, because she actually started to laugh.

“Oh, really? You really think so?”

“Maybe, if I just—”

“Just what, Dib?” laughed Gaz, reclining in her seat. “I wanna know exactly how you’re gonna pitch this.”

“Okay, so, you’re being really condescending, and I’m actually trying to find some solutions.”

“That’s not a solution,” said Gaz.

She took another sip of her coffee. Dib had half a mind to knock it out of her hand.

“Although,” she said, the word garbled around her mug, “maybe if I go, we’ll have a better shot.”

Excuse me?” barked Dib. “Why would you be the one to go?”

“Oh my god, Dib, you need to relax,” said Gaz. “Don’t worry, I’m not coming for your man.”

“Zim’s not my ‘man,’” huffed Dib.

“Yeah, no shit,” said Gaz. “And, for your information, you really pissed him off. So, I really don’t think going to his house and asking to use his ship is a good idea.”

“What other choice do we have, Gaz?” shouted Dib. “This is the end of the world we’re talking about, here! This is a big deal!”

“I know that!” snapped Gaz.

“Then it’s settled! I’ll go to Zim’s house right now, and I’ll tell him what’s happening, and he’ll give me his ship and I’ll go find Dad!”

“Dib, he’s not gonna—”

“Yes, he will!” snarled Dib, slamming his hands on the table.

“Why are you so worked up about this?!”

“Because you don’t even know what happened!”

“Then tell me!” shouted Gaz. “You’ve been keeping me in the dark about this for long enough. Just tell me what happened so I can not care and we can try to move the fuck on!”

Dib felt himself wither a little under Gaz’s angry stare. He did his best to glare back.

“I know you care,” grumbled Dib, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms.

“In this specific situation, I do,” hissed Gaz. “But only because your stupid ego is standing in the way of us actually saving the goddamn world.”

Dib just shook his head.

“If you think he’ll give it to you, you can go,” he whispered. “I just… I dunno.”

“What?”

“If I could go see him… forget it.”

“God, Dib, stop being so dramatic,” said Gaz. “Just tell me what happened.”

“Fine,” said Dib. Ugh, this was going to be so embarrassing. “You remember prom?”

“Uh, yeah?”

“You know how Zim and I… like, drove there together?”

Gaz rolled her eyes.

“Yeah, I know how you and Zim carpooled to prom together.”

“Please stop being sarcastic and let me finish my story.”

“Fine.”

“So, like, we were at prom, right? And it was pretty fun, as far as, you know, uh, dances go… And then it was over, and, you know, then, we, like, kissedandthenheranaway.”

Gaz blinked.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“Ugh. We, uh… kissed after prom, and Zim, you know, he… ran away.”

They sat in silence while Gaz processed this information.

“Wait,” said Gaz. “Is that why he wasn’t at graduation?”

“Yes!” exclaimed Dib, his enthusiasm making Gaz jump. “He didn’t show up to the rest of skool! He straight-up disappeared, okay? And I didn’t see him, so I just thought, you know, it would be fine, if I just, ah…”

“Left town?”

“Yeah.”

“So, let me get this straight,” said Gaz. “You and Zim were friends for… seven years. And then you took him to prom, as your date… and you guys kissed. And then he holes himself up in his house for a couple of months, and you just… went to college, without saying goodbye?”

“We weren’t friends, Gaz, we were mortal enemies, sworn to—”

“Right, whatever.”

Dib rubbed at his eyes, feeling tired all of a sudden. He plucked Gaz’s mug out of her hands and took a swig of coffee.

“But yeah, that’s basically what happened.”

“And you haven’t talked to him since?” asked Gaz.

“… No.”

“And you really think he’ll lend you a ship?”

Dib considered this.

“If I ask nicely?”

Gaz just shook her head, her eyes narrowed as she stared at Dib.

“Your eyeliner looks pretty today,” commented Dib. “Very… pointy.”

“Fine, go talk to him,” grumbled Gaz, taking her mug back. “We’re all doomed anyway.”

 

ii.

Everything looked the same: the lawn gnomes, the front door, the decorative pufferfish. The house had that familiar, eerie glow. It was still attached to the houses beside it. Gaz had been certain that Zim would still be there.

Dib walked carefully to the front door, his eyes on the lawn gnomes around him. They must have powered down, though, because they didn’t move, just stared at him with big, bulbous eyes.

“Okay, Dib,” he murmured, “here’s what’s gonna happen. Just go up to the door, and just, you know, be cool. Hey, Zim, what’s up? How ya been? Then you just tell him, uh, just FYI, the world’s gonna end in a month, and we need to go find my dad, so can I please borrow a spaceship?”

Dib was at the door. He took a deep breath.

He knocked.

A minute passed.

He knocked again.

Maybe Zim had seen him? Maybe the Computer told him that it was Dib, and he wasn’t coming up? But, then, why didn’t he just turn on the gnomes?

Dib turned back, just to be sure that the gnomes weren’t charging toward him right now. He stared at one, waiting to see if it would move.

Behind him, the door opened.

Hellooooo!

Dib jumped. He whipped around, and there was GIR, dressed in his doggie suit, staring up at him.

“Oh! Uh, hey GIR.”

“You got my pizza?” asked the robot.

“Uh, no?” said Dib. “Is Zim home?”

“Mmmaaaaybe. Pizza?”

“GIR, I don’t—” Dib peeked inside, hoping to see something behind GIR, but the robot had only cracked the door a few inches, and everything behind him was dark. “I didn’t bring pizza.”

“Why not?”

“Because… I’m not a pizza delivery guy?”

“Oh,” said GIR. “Wait. Who are you?”

Dib looked down. It was probably unreasonable for him to be offended that GIR didn’t know who he was. Still, he couldn’t help but feel annoyed, and just a little bit hurt.

“I’m Dib. You know, the guy who used to fight your master all the time?”

“Oooh,” said GIR, but Dib was certain that GIR still didn’t know who he was. Whatever.

“Can I see Zim, please? It’s actually pretty urgent. Like, end of the world urgent.”

“Oookaaay,” sang GIR. “But Master don’t like visitors!”

Dib just shook his head. GIR opened the door wider and pulled Dib inside. He shoved Dib onto the couch.

Dib heard the sound of GIR jumping into the kitchen toilet, and then he was alone.

It was dark in Zim’s living room — the curtains were closed, and none of the lights were on. Dib shifted on the couch, then pulled his phone out and turned on the flashlight.

He waved the flashlight around, scanning the walls, the ceiling, the floor. Everything looked about the same. The TV was still there, and so were the pictures up on the wall. Dib felt his stomach roll at the sight of an old picture hanging to his left of the two of them — a selfie that Dib had taken of them in the woods, just outside of a cave that he’d thought was Bigfoot’s lair. The frame was still intact, but the glass had been shattered.

Dib stared at the picture for a few moments, then swung his flashlight back in front of him to find Zim, a foot away, glaring at him.

Dib screamed.

“Jesus, Zim, what the hell?” he shrieked.

Zim said nothing, just clapped his hands twice. The living room lights flickered on.

“What are you doing here?” growled Zim.

Dib struggled to catch his breath, shrinking under Zim’s murderous stare.

“Uh, h-hey, Zim? What’s up? How ya been?”

Zim kept glaring, his arms crossed, and Dib realized he’d forgotten how scary he could look sometimes when he was out of his disguise.

“You know, Gaz said you’d be here, but I really wasn’t sure, I thought, you know, it’s been so long since we last, uh…”

“Three years,” said Zim, his voice low.

“Yeah,” said Dib. “Three years.”’

“What do you want?”

“Zim,” Dib pushed himself onto his feet, and the little irken crossed his arms, “something really bad happened.”

 

The first thing Zim did was laugh. For a solid couple of minutes.

“You must be joking,” he shouted, wiping a tear from his eye. “Your idiot father seriously doomed the whole planet, and then he just left?”

“That’s what I said!” snapped Dib, his patience worn thin. “And, it’s not really funny, either.”

“I fail to see how this situation is not hysterically funny,” said Zim, still laughing, clutching his abdomen and then literally slapping his knee.

“Come on, this is bad! This will kill everyone! Not just people, but, you know, animals, plants… everything!”

“So?” asked Zim. “What does Zim care that your wretched Earth will finally meet its demise?”

“Because you live here!” shouted Dib. “You’ve lived here for a decade! This is your home, too, Zim!”

“Nonsense,” Zim sniffed, crossing his arms again. “Earth is a dump. No irken of any worth would call this miserable ball of dirt ‘home.’”

“Zim,” said Dib, pinching the bridge of his nose. “This is really serious.” He looked down, waiting for Zim to look at him so they could lock eyes. “I’m here because I need your help.”

“No.”

“I didn’t even say—”

“Still no.”

“Zim, come on.”

“You do not deserve my help.”

“Forget me, then,” said Dib, desperate to placate. “This isn’t about me, or… or us. Um. This is about Earth. Gaz needs your help, too. The people of Earth need your help.”

“I hate all of them. I want to see them die.”

“Zim, I know that’s not true.”

“Prove that I’m lying.”

“Ugh!” Dib threw his hands up. “If everyone on Earth is wiped out, and I mean everyone, and you somehow manage to survive because you’re Zim, then what will you do, huh? What are you gonna do when everyone’s dead? Just be alone?”

“Can’t say that would be anything new for me,” said Zim with a pointed look at Dib. “I’ve had three years of practice already.”

Dib bit his lip. He knew Zim probably had a right to be mad at him for leaving. But, still, that had been years ago, and it’s not like Dib had planned to leave without saying goodbye.

“You left first,” he muttered.

Zim’s antennae twitched.

“I went to my base,” he said. “You went across the country.”

You ran off. You left me stranded, with no way to get home. You—”

“I don’t want to hear it!” shouted Zim, throwing his hands in the air. “This is your fault, not mine! You moved away!”

Dib was about to retort, but then a vibration and a chime, coming from right near his foot, startled him.

It was his cell phone, which must have dropped when Zim scared him. He looked down to see that he’d gotten a text from Gaz.

He reached down to pick it up, ignoring the feeling of Zim’s eyes boring into his head.

Gaz: Getting another look at PEG. Not good. How’s it going with you?

Dib bit his lip. This wasn’t supposed to be about fighting with Zim. This was about saving the world.

“Look, Zim,” he said, looking up from his phone. Zim was staring at him, his arms still crossed, his face still flushed and angry. “I know things are bad between us. But, I didn’t come here to fight with you, or even to make up.”

Zim squinted at him.

“You should be begging for my forgiveness.”

“Well, I’m not,” said Dib, trying to calm his anger. “I’m here to ask you to help me save my planet. And, I know that it’s your home, too. I know you like Earth. I don’t know why, but you wouldn’t have stayed here for the past three years if you didn’t. There’s something you like about it, and I don’t know what it is, but I know that’s worth protecting. My dad fucked up, big time, and I need your help fixing his mistake. Forget what happened with you and me. This isn’t about that.”

Zim kept glaring at him, but Dib could see that he was calming down a little, too.

“I will not forget what you did.”

“Fine,” said Dib. “But don’t say no just because you’re mad at me.”

They stared at each other, and Dib knew that Zim was looking for some kind of weakness, some show of emotion that he could exploit. But, Dib stood tall, looking down at Zim with determination. Careful not to betray to Zim that he was still hurting, too.

After some time, Zim sighed.

“What do you need?”

“A ship.”

“No.”

“Zim, come on.”

“No.”

“I need to find my dad. I need to figure out what’s going on. Gaz will stay here and try to fix PEG but, for now, I really need to get going, and my only ride into outer space is gone.”

Zim stared at him, and, for a second, Dib thought that he might be asking too much. He knew how much Zim treasured his Voot Cruiser.

After a pause, Zim finally spoke.

“I will go with you.”

“You… what?”

“I will go with you,” repeated Zim. “You’ll probably need my help.”

“Uh, no offense, Zim,” said Dib, “but I think it’ll be a little cramped with the two of us in your Voot.”

“We won’t take the Voot,” said Zim. “I have something else.”

“Oh, uh, okay,” said Dib. “Didn’t realize you had another ship.”

“Yes, well,” Zim looked away, and Dib saw the ghost of a blush creep along his face. “I do.”

“Uh, okay,” said Dib, and he bit his lip. “You’ll help us, then?”

“Yes,” muttered Zim. “I will help you.”

Dib looked down at Zim, feeling a little bit of his anger toward the alien crumble. He wondered what Zim had done for the past three years. Had he been lonely? Had he missed Dib as much as Dib had missed him?

“Thank you,” said Dib, his voice soft.

“You’re welcome.”

“Should we—?”

“Go to your house and get ready. I’ll be there soon.”

“Oh, okay,” said Dib. “I’ll, uh, I’ll see you later then.”

“Yes, see you later.”

Dib turned and walked out, feeling Zim’s eyes on him as he left. He took a deep breath. That had gone well. So, why was he feeling so nervous?

He paused at the sidewalk and turned back to look at Zim’s house, one more time. He bit his lip and started the walk home.

Chapter Text

i.

For the first time in almost four Earth months, Zim emerged from his base via the toilet and marched briskly out the door.

The weather was warm, not much different from how it had been when Zim went underground, but the springtime flowers had all wilted away during the hotter summer months, and the air had lost some of its humidity. Zim noticed, with some annoyance, that GIR had been lying about mowing the lawn. He’d handle that later, though.

Right now, Zim was on a mission. He took bold, confident steps out of his cul-de-sac. He was ready. His wig was freshly steamed. His lenses were scratchy, but convincing as ever. He’d pressed his uniform, right down to the underwear. He’d listened to his favorite ’90s pop diva to pump himself up, and now he was feeling fresh, cool, sexy. He reminded himself again: he was ready for this.

Zim had spent the past four Earth months researching and preparing for this very day. Today, he would approach the Dib-human with a speech that he’d spent over one hundred Earth hours tweaking and perfecting. Today, he would finally inform Dib that his feelings of luuv were reciprocated.

It had been strange, at first, coming to terms with the fact that Dib had Valentine-day feelings for him. Of course, Zim wasn’t surprised, nor would he be if any other human on this miserable planet confessed such feelings for him. But with Dib, he had to be more careful. Couldn’t be impulsive and accidentally hurt his human.

Zim had known for a while that the Dib’s feelings toward him were changing. Dib was a lot of things, but he certainly wasn’t subtle about how he felt. Most of the time, Dib channeled his feelings by screaming and, on occasion, hand-to-hand combat. Not this time, though. Dib demonstrated his changing sentiments toward Zim with actions that were different, but no less obvious. With this stuff, it was all longing looks and flushed cheeks and sitting on his hands. It was finding excuses to touch Zim and then keep touching Zim. It was dilated pupils and nervous lip biting and sticky-smelling pheromones.

Their classmates didn’t notice. But, Zim knew desire when he saw it. And he knew Dib.

So, unsurprisingly, Dib’s enjoyment of Zim’s company mixed with his desire to touch Zim. And then it had all just festered together until, after months of repression, the poor child had eventually combusted from the fumes. Hence, prom.

So, Zim went underground. Because (note, by the way, that this is confidential information) Zim didn’t actually know how to give the Dib what he wanted. He’d tried to learn the ways of human affection through Tak, but that had been a bust. By the end of hi skool, Zim had only just learned that beans weren’t actually part of human mating rituals at all. Like, not even a little bit at the beginning stages of courtship.

Now, though, Zim was a master. He’d seen it all, done all the research, and now he knew everything he needed about human courtship and dating. He and GIR had watched every romantical TV documentary that Netflix had to offer. For the sake of research and because he found Tom Hanks strangely… fascinating, Zim had even watched a few of the films multiple times. It would only be a matter of time, after all, until Dib expected Zim to meet him on the top of a very tall building with flowers, and Zim wanted to be prepared.

After watching the ROMCOMs, which Zim assumed meant Romantic Operations and Methods of Courting Optimal Mates, Zim found a variety of helpful online quizzes that would help him determine what type of human he was best suited for. After about a week of testing his aptitude with Disney princes, famous Chris-actors, and dogs from early 2000s live-action films, Zim was more confident than ever that he and Dib were compatible. Not that he needed some internet algorithm to tell him, but research was important for something as significant as this.

Finally, he bit the bullet and watched a ton of porn. Just… so much porn.

With his head full to the point of bursting with useful and accurate information about sex and luuv, Zim was ready to face the Dib and return his feelings. He wasn’t worried about their last encounter. Sure, it hadn’t been ideal, but he was certain that Dib had found his way home, and he didn’t feel too terrible about running off. Usually, Dib chased after him, so, really, Dib was the one who was being weird.

It actually was strange, Zim realized, that Dib hadn’t even come to his house in the past few months. Zim had missed about a week of classes and their hi skool graduation ceremony, but he’d been busy, dammit, and he didn’t have time to walk across some stage and get recognition for the easiest years of academic training he’d had in his life. It wasn’t like he needed the meager applause of sunburnt human parents, anyway. Plus, he hated when he had to bring the Roboparents out in public. They always made such a mess of things.

Finally, he rounded the corner and reached the Membrane household. It was huge, and quite ugly, but Zim didn’t care. He’d missed it, honestly, after all this time away. He would even go so far as to say he sometimes enjoyed spending time there.

He marched up to the front door and knocked, three times, and got no answer. Odd. Of course, Dib’s father wouldn’t be around, but today was Saturday. Where was Dib? Or, at least, his sister? It wasn’t even 9:00 AM, so they should be here.

9:00 AM? Of course, Zim realized, the Dib was probably still asleep. After a cursory glance around to make sure there were no humans watching, Zim deployed his PAK legs and scaled the side of Dib’s house, slipping in through his human’s bedroom window.

Every other time Zim did this, he landed on a soft, warm bed occupied by a softer, warmer body. This time, though, there was no Dib. And, oddly enough, there were no sheets on Dib’s bed. In fact, Zim realized, Dib’s entire room was bare. Where were his posters? His spelldrives? His books about Bigfeets?

Zim hopped off Dib’s bed, his confusion growing as he peered into Dib’s closet and found that it was missing most of his clothing. There were only a few jackets and dress shirts hung up. Though, Zim noted, all the pictures that Dib had taken of him over the years were still there — minus one. Odd.

He stepped out into the hallway. Was anyone home? Had the Membranes vacated? But, there was a car in the driveway. Gaz’s car, if he remembered correctly. So, Gaz was here, but Dib wasn’t?

“Dib?” he called, the name echoing through an empty, quiet house. “Dib? Where are you?”

To his surprise, the house wasn’t actually empty. Across the hall, Dib’s sister, still in her pajamas, opened her bedroom door and stared at him. He stared back.

“Where is Dib?” he finally asked.

“Dib left,” she said, her shoulders shrugging, like she’d thought Zim already knew.

 

ii.

“Should I bring a raincoat?”

“Why would you need a raincoat?”

“I dunno, what if it rains?”

“In space?”

“I’m trying to be prepared!”

Dib peeked out of his closet to glare at Gaz, who was spinning herself around in Dib’s desk chair. She stopped to glare back.

“If you really think you’ll need a raincoat, then bring one,” said Gaz.

“Eh, I probably won’t.”

Dib tossed his raincoat back into his closet. He turned back to his suitcase, which was open on his bed. In it, he’d packed some t-shirts, shorts, pants, socks, underwear. He wondered if Zim’s ship had a bathroom, or even a sink? How long would they be chasing his dad? Should he bring his allergy pills?

He thought about how long his father had been in space. Almost six hours, now. How would Dib ever catch up with him? And, where was he even going?

The tracking program that Dib had designed told him that he was definitely going somewhere, not just orbiting Earth like Dib had hoped.

“So, are you gonna pack any condoms?” asked Gaz, and Dib snapped his head around.

“What?” he sputtered, his voice cracking.

“Oh, do you guys not use those? Not afraid of catching any weird, alien STIs?” asked Gaz with a smirk. “You should probably at least bring lube, though, right?”

Dib felt his whole face heat up. He stared at Gaz, the gears in his head turning in slow motion as he tried to think of a response.

“You… shut up.”

Gaz laughed a derisive little chuckle.

“You’re so embarrassing,” she said. “You know, I thought going to college would make you less of a weenie about this stuff.”

Dib just shook his head, unwilling to engage. Yeah, he had some sexual hangups. Ones that mostly (okay, totally) revolved around Zim. And it was mean of Gaz to make fun of him for it.

“Don’t call me a weenie.”

“Stop being a weenie, then.”

“You stop being a weenie!”

“I’m not the one who can’t even admit—”

“Stop it, Gaz!” snapped Dib, slamming his closet door shut. “Stop. I don’t wanna talk about this anymore.”

Gaz’s eyes went wide for a second, before her face settled into that familiar look of annoyed disinterest.

“Fine. Sorry.”

“I just… you know, it’s like, it’s really complicated,” Dib managed, but his voice was high, and his face was still hot, and he turned away from Gaz to zip up his suitcase.

“Okay,” said Gaz softly. “I didn’t mean to make you mad.”

“It’s fine.”

“If you want to talk about—”

“I really don’t,” said Dib, looking back at his sister. “Zim and I aren’t even friends now. He made that perfectly clear. So, we’re just gonna get Dad back and try not to kill each other. That’s it.”

“Okay,” said Gaz. “Just, if you ever want to, you can talk to me about that stuff. I promise I won’t make fun of you. I might be able to help.”

“Okay, great, thanks,” hissed Dib.

Behind him, he heard Gaz sigh. He ignored it.

He looked down at what he was currently wearing: shorts and a t-shirt, damp from walking all the way to and from Zim’s house. In this hot July weather, Dib would have preferred driving. But, the roof of his car had been smashed earlier that day, so he’d had to walk.

“I’m just gonna get changed real quick,” he said. “I’ll meet you downstairs, ’kay?”

“Ooh, I get it, you’re gonna get all dressed up for your boy—”

“Gaz, get the fuck out of my room.”

 

He met Gaz downstairs a few minutes later, dressed in a green t-shirt that he’d gotten from the one sports game his father had taken him to. The t-shirt had been shot from a cannon, directly into Dib’s face. His father had promptly whisked him and his broken nose to the Membrane labs for a shot of cartilage-healing medicine. Which Dib was okay with, because he didn’t really want to stay for the rest of the game, anyway.

Gaz sat at the dining table, drinking a soda.

“You left your pan in the sink,” she commented.

“Yeah, I know.”

“I’m not cleaning it.”

“That’s great, Gaz.”

They sat in silence for a while. Finally, Dib took a deep breath.

“You know, if you can’t fix PEG,” he said, “you should probably start letting people know that the world’s gonna end. So they can do, I don’t know, emergency procedures, or whatever.”

Gaz side eyed him, a frown tugging at her face.

“Go around, banging pots and pans together, telling everyone the end is near? That sounds more like your kind of thing.”

“Well, I have to go into space to find Dad, so maybe you could pick up some of my slack. Besides,” Dib added, “they might actually listen to you.”

Gaz smiled at that.

“Yeah, you’re right.”

They waited for a few more minutes, unsure of what to expect, when they heard a knock on the back door.

“I’ll get it!” said Dib, already bouncing up and trotting through the living room.

He opened the door, and there was Zim, his hands on his hips, wearing those same purple contact lenses, that black wig, and—

“Hey, eyebrows,” said Dib. “That’s new.”

“They’re not new, actually,” snapped Zim, raising a hand to touch a perfectly drawn left brow. “You just haven’t been here.”

“Oh,” said Dib, stepping aside so that Zim could come in. He pushed past Dib without making eye contact. “Um, okay.”

“Are you ready to go yet?” asked Zim, his little foot tapping on the floor.

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you,” said Dib, turning back to grab his suitcase.

“Well, I had to do stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Private stuff.”

Dib just rolled his eyes. He grabbed his suitcase and made his way back to Zim.

“Fine,” said Dib. “Let’s go.”

“Wait,” said Zim, holding up a hand. “I want to see this… PEG creation. Knowing you, you’ve probably missed an obvious solution.”

“Um, well... okay. You can take a quick look.”

 

The elevator ride was quiet, and Dib’s skin prickled with discomfort. He looked over at Zim, who looked, remarkably, exactly the same as he had looked three years ago. It made Dib fidget, and he felt like he’d left Zim here, frozen in time, waiting for him to come back.

When they got to PEG’s room, Zim took one look at the time dilation field and froze.

“Impossible,” he whispered.

“What?” asked Dib, his heartbeat picking up. “What is it?”

“How did he…” Zim stepped up to PEG, still incredulous.

“What is it?” asked Dib, looking between Zim and PEG. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” said Zim, finally turning to glare at Dib. “Forget it. We need to leave, now.”

“Yeah, that’s what I said,” muttered Dib, but he turned and followed Zim back to the elevator.

The elevator ride back up was even more tense than the first one. Dib hoped that their whole trip wouldn’t be like that. He spent the whole lift trying to brainstorm small talk ideas, but to no avail. Zim, meanwhile, muttered to himself in Irken the entire time. Dib, out of practice, had a hard time understanding.

“Okay,” said Zim when the doors opened. “Let’s go.”

Dib just nodded, following behind as Zim led the way to the spaceship that he’d parked in Dib’s backyard.

Once outside, Dib paused, awestruck by what was in front of him.

It was a ship much larger than Zim’s Voot Cruiser. It still had some classic Irken features, like the big, round windshield, the oversized thruster jets, and the purple exterior. Dib also noticed that it looked significantly more streamlined that the Voot, with fewer exterior components and more windows. Although, Dib noticed that the paint job, particularly in one spot, was kind of sloppy.

“Wow,” he said, looking at the ship. “When did you make this?”

“No time to talk,” snapped Zim, turning back to look at Dib. “Oh, hey, Gaz.”

Dib turned around to see Gaz standing in the doorway.

“Hi, Zim.”

“How’s it going?”

“Good, and yourself?”

“Oh, doing fine.”

“Um,” said Dib, looking from Gaz to Zim. “Should we get going?”

“Hey, Zim?” called Gaz. “If this whole plan falls apart and I need a getaway car, can I snag the Voot?”

“Sure,” said Zim. “You know where to find it. Grab GIR, too, if you don’t mind.”

“Will do. Bye, Dib,” said Gaz, and she retreated back into the house and closed the door.

Dib looked at Zim.

“We’re not bringing GIR?”

“He needs to watch over the house while I’m gone. Can’t have some human break in and try to use my stuff.”

Dib looked back at his house, one last time.

“Fair enough,” he said.

Zim stomped to the bow of the ship. The windshield popped open and Zim hopped in, then gestured for Dib to follow. Dib climbed into the cockpit, pulling his suitcase with him.

The new ship was definitely higher tech than anything Dib had ever flown in. Dib actually felt a little thrill of excitement at being back in a spaceship. He hadn’t even been to his hometown since he left for college, and he’d missed his Spittle Runner while he was gone. He’d missed a lot of things.

Dib looked over to Zim, who was sitting in the pilot’s seat, pressing buttons.

The windshield snapped shut.

Dib took one look back at his house, at Gaz, standing in the window, and then they were taking off.

 

iii.

“…So, uh, yup. That’s the story of how my physics professor inhaled so much chalk dust that she couldn’t stop coughing and had to dismiss class early.”

Dib looked at Zim, who hadn’t spoken or even blinked since Dib starting telling one of the few funny anecdotes he had from college.

“Guess you had to be there,” he mumbled, looking down at his hands.

Dib had lost track of how many different conversations he’d tried to start with Zim. He’d asked about the ship, but Zim was being weirdly cagey about it, and he refused to answer questions about when and why he’d built it. He’d asked about how GIR was doing, what the Tallest were up to, and whether Zim had been keeping up with the Mysterious Mysteries reboot. At that, Zim had actually scoffed, and then he’d scornfully told Dib that TV shows that got cancelled should just stay cancelled. 

So, Dib moved on to telling college stories. He didn’t have many, and the few that he did tell weren’t even that great. Zim couldn’t be bothered to even feign interest, so, here they were, half an hour into their trip with nothing to talk about.

Between them, on the dashboard, the device tracking Dib’s Spittle Runner beeped every few seconds. For a long time, it was the only sound in the cockpit. Outside, the vacuum of space hung around them, big and cold and empty.

“So,” said Dib, and he could swear the sound of his voice made Zim wince, “there’s this class I’m taking this fall. It’s all about extragalactic astronomy, you know, stuff past my galaxy, the Milky Way? Which is funny, because I’ve been out there, you know, so many times, so I’ll probably know a lot more about it than my own professor, but I think it’ll still be interesting.” 

Zim said nothing. Dib just stared at him, begging him for some kind of remark, a question, literally anything.

Finally: “You’re going back.”

“Back?” asked Dib. “You mean, back to college?”

Zim nodded, slightly, still not looking at Dib.

“I mean, yeah,” said Dib. “I have one more year left. I just came back to visit for the weekend. I actually have an internship that I should be getting back to… uh, if the world doesn’t blow up, I guess.”

Dib held his breath as he watched Zim poke a few buttons on the control panel.

“How many times did you come back for visits?” asked Zim, his voice low and even.

“Just this one time,” said Dib, matching Zim’s tone.

“Why?”

The question hung in the air.

“Why… well, you know how much I hated living here,” said Dib. “Our town sucks. And I was really busy, with classes and stuff, so I didn’t…”

Finally, Zim turned to look at him. Dib met his eyes, wilting a little under the angry lavender gaze.

“You didn’t see any reason to come back and see me? Or to call? Or send an electronic letter? You didn’t see any reason to even tell me you’d left?”

Zim’s hands were clutching the yoke. Dib bit the inside of his cheek.

“Well, you disappeared,” said Dib.

“I was in my base,” said Zim. “If you had come over, you would have known that.”

“You didn’t invite me over.”

“You have come to my home thousands of times without an invitation,” snapped Zim. “Why would it have been any different?”

“Well, it was weird!” retorted Dib.

To Dib’s surprise, Zim actually looked confused.

“What was weird?”

“You… you ran away! We were at prom and you just fucking took off on me! That’s not weird to you?”

“Oh,” said Zim, leaning back, his face getting flushed. “That… that was your fault! Not mine!”

“What did I do?”

“You…” Zim growled, and his apparently not-new eyebrows made his glare look all the more convincing. “You kissed me! You said all those things! You went on and on with you confession of luuv, and you act surprised that I ran away?”

“Oh, my god, Zim,” said Dib, feeling his own blush worsen. “I didn’t say anything about love! I just… ugh, you’re making it sound weird.”

“It was weird!”

You’re weird!”

“YOU ARE!”

“Well!” Dib felt his anger rise, and Zim was leaning toward him, his face twisted in a snarl. “Clearly something got lost in translation, because I don’t freaking love you. Never have, never will.” He gritted his teeth, to angry to hold back any more. “It’s gross to even think about it, honestly. And you’re pathetic if you actually thought I felt that way.”

For a fraction of a second, Zim’s face fell. Then, he was back to looking pissed.

You’re the pathetic one! You ran away! You went and hid like a coward!”

“You left first!”

“I went to my base! You went across the country! And now you won’t even apologize for it!”

“Well, sorry if I had stuff to do! I can’t just sit around all day with you and do nothing! I’m actually trying to do something with my life!”

A pause, and Dib felt like he might have crossed a line. Whatever.

“What are you saying, Dib?” asked Zim, his voice icy.

“I’m saying you’re a lazy, bored alien who doesn’t even have the motivation to take over the planet he was supposed to invade years ago,” said Dib.

He knew he was taking it too far. He didn’t care. Old wounds, apparently still unhealed, started to gush again, and Dib knew from experience that it was much easier to get angry than to let his sadness swallow him whole.

“And I’ve moved on,” Dib added, “and I don’t have time to sit around and watch TV with you all day.”

“You!”

With that, Zim sprung from his seat and leapt into Dib’s space. Dib felt fingers tugging his hair, claws scratching his cheek, and a knee digging into his chest. He struggled, to no avail, because Zim was tiny, but he was strong. Zim stood over him, digging his claws into Dib’s cheeks and holding his hands down with his PAK legs.

You, pathetic, despicable little worm. You disgusting, malicious, pitiful… you will apologize, now.”

Dib twisted in his seat, trying to free himself.

“Fuck you.”

Zim’s eyes, crazed and wide, suddenly narrowed. Dib felt the knee digging deeper into his chest.

“Apologize.”

“I don’t have anything to apologize for,” wheezed Dib. He struggled against the PAK legs. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You left me,” growled Zim. “You left me behind, in that miserable town, with nothing. I agree to help you find your idiot father and you still can’t offer me a simple apology?”

“We’re not doing this for me,” grunted Dib. He tried to wiggle out from under Zim’s grasp, to kick out and free himself, but Zim had him pinned. “We’re doing this for Earth. For both of us. Everyone. You live there, too, Zim, so don’t act like you’re doing me a favor or something—”

“You left me!” repeated Zim. “You left me behind!”

“You left first!” shouted Dib. “You should be the one apologizing to me! You started this!”

You did!” roared Zim. “You, with your dumb, disgusting human feelings. You started all of this and you know it!”

“I DID NOT—”

Dib saw the object approaching them just before it collided with the windshield. It flew at them so fast, he didn’t have time to do anything but stare over Zim’s shoulder and gasp before it slammed into Zim’s ship and sent them flying backwards.

Dib felt the PAK legs holding his hands down retract at Zim went flying into the windshield, and then they were spinning and Dib felt himself slam into the ceiling, the wall, the floor, and they were both screaming.

Eventually, the ship righted itself, and Dib finally landed facedown on the floor, his head aching and his elbow screaming with pain.

He looked up and saw Zim scramble back to his seat, then start frantically pressing buttons and twisting knobs.

“What was that?” asked Dib, reaching up to tentatively feel a budding lump on his head. 

Zim glanced back at him and looked him over. Dib felt his face flush under Zim’s look, more tender than anything Dib had seen in a long time.

“Are you injured?” asked Zim, reaching up to straighten his wig.

“I think I’m okay,” said Dib, his voice soft. “Hurt my elbow a little. Are you alright?”

“Fine,” said Zim, turning back to look out the windshield. “It seems we hit some kind of debris. Not sure what it was, but it wasn’t a rock. I’ll just… we’ll just have to be more careful next time, with driving.”

“Right,” said Dib. “Uh, okay.”

He pressed his hand to his forehead as it started to throb. He groaned.

“You are certain that you are unharmed?” asked Zim, looking back at Dib again with squinted eyes.

“Yeah, my head just hurts,” said Dib. “Must have hit it or something, I guess.”

“Perhaps you should go lie down,” said Zim. “Rest your head.”

“I… where?” asked Dib.

“There is a room for you in the ship. Put your hand on the triangle,” said Zim.

He turned back around, and Dib got the feeling that the conversation was over. He looked around the room, not sure what to do. Then, his eyes fell on a triangle, glowing and pink against the back wall of the cockpit. Dib did as he was told and put his palm on the triangle, and the wall ahead of him opened with a swish.

Dib stepped through the new doorway and found that he was in a bedroom. He’d kind of assumed that the rest of this ship was just holding cargo or super weapons or something, but, no. It was a bedroom, with a big window and a bed bolted to the floor. Blue sheets and two pillows. A Mysterious Mysteries poster hanging on the wall across from the bed, just like in Dib's childhood bedroom.

Dib noticed a door on the other side of the room, so he walked through there, too, and found a bathroom. A human bathroom, with a toilet and shower and sink. Dib peeked his head into the shower and found that Zim had even bought shampoo and body wash. Dib took a deep breath, suddenly feeling guilty for all the nasty things he’d just said to Zim. He made his way out of the bathroom, then the bedroom, and then he found himself in the cockpit again.

“Uh, Zim?”

Zim twitched but didn’t turn around.

“What.”

“This is… I didn’t realize you put so much effort into this ship. It’s really nice.”

Zim stared straight ahead, but Dib could see his reflection in the windshield. His eyes were narrowed and his face was pinched. Dib took a deep breath.

“I just… I feel like things got kind of out of control before.”

Zim said nothing.

He knew what Zim was waiting for, but Dib couldn’t do it. He couldn’t apologize for going to college. He couldn’t tell Zim he was sorry when Zim had been the one to run away first. He’d poured his heart out to Zim, and Zim just took off. It had broken Dib’s heart. He’d never felt so shitty in his entire life. So, yeah, he felt bad for being a dick before, but he still didn’t think he needed to apologize for leaving, because Zim left first. Zim started it.

“Um, I just… I didn’t mean to be such an asshole, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. I mean, I just think we both said some stuff that was out of line. Just now, I mean.”

More silence. Dib turned to leave.

“If you think that me, the almighty Zim, felt anything close to… those feelings, for you, you’re wrong.”

“I… what?” asked Dib. He turned back around.

“Irkens don’t have romantic feelings for others,” said Zim. “We hardly have any feelings at all, actually. Everyone knows that.”

Dib swallowed. He watched Zim stare ahead, his shoulders tense, his fists clenched around the yoke.

“Okay,” said Dib. “I hear you. I guess… thanks for picking up the soap and stuff.”

“You’re welcome,” said Zim through clenched teeth.

“Okay, well,” Dib turned to leave again. His head was still throbbing. “I’m just gonna go lie down for a second.”

“Fine.”

With one last look back toward Zim, Dib turned and headed back into the bedroom. He kicked off his shoes and jeans and crawled into bed.

He rested his head on the pillow and wondered what Gaz was doing. Had she found a solution to the PEG problem? Was she okay, in that big house, all by herself? Dib gulped as he thought about that — she’d been alone in that house for an entire year, when he was away at college and she was still finishing hi skool. Dib pursed his lips, hoping that Gaz was handling their father’s departure alright. He wished he could call her.

He wished he could talk to Zim about this. He always wanted to talk to Zim, even when they were fighting, and especially for the past three years, when they weren’t talking at all.

It was weird, remembering how close they used to be. Even when they hated each other, they used to see each other every day. And then, when things cooled down and they actually became friends, they were joined at the hip. They walked to skool together, they did homework together, they played video games and took GIR for walks and tinkered around in Zim’s lab.

They talked about everything: Gaz, the Tallest, Dib’s father. They talked about their classmates and their teachers, and Dib knew that he could vent to Zim about pretty much anything. Now, though, he felt empty as he thought about Zim. Like he'd lost something that he was never going to get back.

Right now, he wanted to talk to Zim about his dad. He wanted to talk about how devastating it was that Membrane had made such a mess and just taken off. It made Dib want to puke. Worse, it made him want to cry.

It wasn’t like Dib and his dad were best friends or anything. But, his father had always insisted that his work as a scientist was for the good of the planet. Everything he did was supposedly to help the people of Earth — at least, that was what he’d been telling Dib his whole life.

Apparently, though, that had all been a lie, because Membrane had doomed everyone on Earth and then just ran off. Which begs the question: what else was his father lying about?

 

Chapter Text

i.

Gun to his head, Zim would say he liked the red leaves best. Bright and violent, warm like human blood, the red leaves seemed to be the only ones that were smart enough to recognize their own impending doom and dress for the occasion. They danced and darted while they fell, an irrefutable warning of ice, snow, cold.

Zim didn’t actually mind the cold. He was more averse to the hotter weather, plus he liked imagining icicles plummeting into the Dib-monkey’s giant, ugly head.

But, like many humans, Zim liked autumn the best, because he liked the hematic leaves and the way they crunched under his feet when they dried out.

GIR liked autumn, too, because it meant longer walks around town. Today, Zim was dragging his robot minion, dressed in his flawless doggie disguise, through their local park. Zim liked this park, because it was usually pretty empty and there wasn’t a lot of noise. Plus, the park was full of red maples, so, on days like today, there was red as far as the eye could see.

Sometimes, Zim liked to imagine the future, when he ruled the Earth. All the leaves would be red. Maybe he’d make a virus for the trees that would turn all their leaves crimson and make them exhale toxic fumes instead of oxygen. Maybe he’d just annihilate the human race the old-fashioned way, with Megadoomers and explosives, and then he’d paint every leaf in town with human blood. What a peaceful thought: painting the leaves red, whistling a happy tune to himself, the world around him finally quiet and safe from harm, and finally his.

He and GIR wove through the trees, stole coins from the fountain, and tossed raw meat into the pond where they were breeding a colony of carnivorous ducks. When they were finished, they retired to their favorite bench. GIR flopped onto Zim’s feet and started to doze off. Zim pulled out his tablet and started going through his checklists.

First, he needed to go over what was broken at the base. The Computer didn’t care enough to keep track, so Zim had to make sure he was on top of keeping everything functional. There was a clog in the kitchen toilet, which was probably GIR’s fault. Same with the trashcan: it was practically gushing with pancake syrup. It made the floor all sticky, which Zim hated. One of the gnomes’ eyes had gone lazy, and yesterday it shot the house when it was trying to shoot Dib. Also, he needed to get more refrigerator magnets to hold up all GIR’s drawings. Possibly a new fridge, too, since he was running out of space on this one. He might just give in and start letting GIR doodle all over the walls.

Next, he had to start going through his plans for world domination. The cool breeze ruffling his wig warned him that he better conquer the planet soon, before he had to suffer through another Halloween. He still got nightmares sometimes because of what happened last year. Leave it to Dib and his sick imagination to somehow make Ms. Bitters even more terrifying.

“The leaves change colors because of chloroform,” said Zim, peering over his knees to catch eyes with GIR. “Did you know that?”

“Uh… yeah!” said GIR. “Wait… maybe not.”

“Well, we just learned it in skool,” said Zim, jotting “chloroform” onto the notes document in his tablet. “I thought you might want to know, since it’s your job to retrieve information.”

“Leaves taste good,” GIR added, and Zim looked down at him with a hum.

They stared at each other. GIR rolled from his back to his belly, his suit twisting at the neck as his body moved without his head. Zim kept staring, not blinking. GIR did the same.

Finally, a rogue squirrel caught GIR’s attention, and he snapped his head around to get a look as it climbed a nearby tree.

“Ha,” said Zim, leaning back against the bench. “Once again, I win the battle of willpower.”

“Yaaaaay!” cheered GIR, and Zim just shook his head as his companion went bounding off, running on two legs after a bird.

For a while, Zim just watched GIR as he chased after everything that caught his attention. He wondered if he should do something about GIR’s inability to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. Although, now that he thought about it, GIR was able to focus, as long as it was on his rubber piggies or the TV. So, maybe he needed some other kind of improvement? Maybe they just needed to sit down and have a long talk about priorities. Sometimes, Zim considered just rebooting the buggy little bot. For some reason, though, he felt guilty whenever he thought about it.

He was spending too much time with humans, with their talk of mortality and souls and omnipotent creatures in the sky. It put him on edge. He knew that GIR had no “soul,” and neither did he, and neither did anyone. It was all human silliness, the need to believe in something greater out there, taking care of them. If those dumb humans hadn’t defunded NASAPLACE, maybe they’d finally get wise and learn that there was nothing “up there” but a big, black void and the occasional alien planet. GIR was a machine. He couldn’t exactly die.

Still, that “reboot” button sat there, un-pushed.

He went back to watching GIR chase wildlife around the park. He thought back on that time he took GIR to an actual dog park. They got banned after GIR tried to eat one of the puppies. Oh, well. That place reeked of feces, anyway. Plus, Zim’s leg kept getting humped, which he did not appreciate, and he’d wanted to get out of there anyway for fear of GIR picking up the habit.

A stray leaf fell from a nearby tree, and Zim watched it spin and glide through the air until it landed on the ground. Zim would never say it was beautiful, or that it was particularly calming. Zim was irken, he didn’t feel calm. He was bred to be a soldier, a fighter, an invader. No way could he ever be relaxed — nope, not at all. Never. He was as alert as the squirrel that GIR was chasing through the grass. But, he felt some tension release in his shoulders as he watched another crimson leaf detach from its branch and start floating downwards, just like the last one.

This never happened on Irk, where everything was metal and there was work to be done. Of course, Zim was doing work on Earth, too, planning to destroy the planet and whatnot. This outing also counted as work: taking his normal human dog to the park and enjoying the crisp fall air like any normal human boy would do. Human boys needed to unwind after a day at skool, which was exactly what Zim was doing. He was blending in, thank you very much.

He would resume looking at his tablet soon. He had other lists to go through, plans to form, refrigerator magnets to buy.

But he was a master of disguise, after all, and surely the other humans would notice if Zim weren’t out here, sitting on his favorite park bench, watching the leaves fall.

 

ii.

The human fell asleep within a few minutes of lying down. Zim could hear him snoring from the other side of the wall. It was unbearable.

He thought back to the last thing Dib had said: an apology, of sorts, for saying things he didn’t necessarily mean. For calling Zim pathetic and lazy. Well. If anything, Dib was pathetic and lazy, and also stupid, and Zim would hate him forever.

Zim took a deep breath and tried to focus. He spent his first few minutes alone trying to figure out what they had just collided with. According to his computer, it was a piece of a Vortian warp core. This was odd, and little unbelievable. Zim knew that questioning his ship’s computer was equivalent to questioning his own skills at identifying space trash, since he built the computer himself, but… still.

Vortian warp cores were occasionally still seen in Irken battle cruisers or stealth runners. But any ship that had a Vortian warp core had to have been made before the most recent uprising over on Vort, because those filthy prisoners had used warp technology to built a bomb that killed almost a hundred Irken enforcers. Like its predecessors, this uprising had been unsuccessful, as no one had actually managed to escape. Still, most of the Vortians that Irk used to keep around to build their ships had been executed, and warp drives were now being made on Irk, by irkens.

With a thoughtful hum, Zim wondered if prisoner 777 had been part of the resistance and following riot.

That had to have been at least seven Earth years ago. So, this ship must have been an Irken warship from a long time ago, detonated in enemy territory and blown all across the galaxy for innocent travelers like Zim to collide with. That was unlikely, but still more probable than the alternative: that this warp core had been powering a Vort ship. Those had all been blown up… too long ago. Plus, Zim couldn’t even remember the last time he’d heard of a Vort ship flying around Empire-controlled space. Even before Vort’s invasion, it was uncommon.

So, it must be that the piece of the core that had flown into Zim’s ship was from some battle from a long time ago. Even though there hadn’t been a battle within lightyears of this location since before Irk and Vort even started their initially peaceful relationship.

Whatever. Zim didn’t have time to play guessing games about how this particular piece of space trash ran into his ship. What he needed to focus on now was the sleeping human on the other side of the wall. No, that wasn’t right. What he needed to focus on was how that human’s father managed to get his conniving hands on Zim’s time dilation technology.

It was unmistakable. The PEG’s time dilation field was exactly like the one Zim had built, years ago, in an attempt to impress his Tallest on his very first Probing Day. There was no way that any human would be able to create such technology — time alteration and travel was strictly and exclusively for Irken use. It was one of the innovations they’d secured just for themselves, like cloaking technology and PAKs, even during Irk’s era of trading tech with other planets.

So, when had Membrane gotten his hands on it? And, more importantly, how?

The Dib-monkey said that Membrane had taken Tak’s ship when he escaped. Zim figured that Tak’s ship had probably been easy to reprogram, so he wasn’t thinking too much on how Membrane had gotten it airborne. Plus, he’d had that thing for almost a decade, sitting in his garage. If he’d spent some time studying it while Dib was at school or asleep, he probably learned how to fly it with relative ease. Like Tak, Professor Membrane was an idiot, and what was that Earth saying?

Great minds think alike, but fools rarely differ.

So, it was no surprise that Membrane was able to remove his thumb from his mouth for two seconds and get Tak’s ship flying.

The surprise was that Membrane had somehow broken into Zim’s labs, stolen his time dilation technology, and built himself a functioning, PEG-sized field. When could he have done that? While Zim was at skool? Perhaps on a night that Zim had been staying at the Membrane household? Or, maybe he’d done it on one of the weekends that Zim and Dib had gone camping?

But GIR was always guarding the house while Zim was away for more than a few hours. The only time Zim had required GIR’s assistance out of the house for an extended period of time was… prom?

Wait.

Zim felt his blood begin to boil as the pieces fell together. Of course. How could he have been so stupid? Of course the Dib-traitor would invite him to prom as a distraction so that his sticky-fingered father could break into his house and steal his technology! How blind Zim had been to the obvious treachery! How… sick Zim must have been, to let the Dib’s human perfumes and soft lips keep him from the truth!

Zim tightened his grip on the yoke as his hands started to shake.

He activated his PAK’s memory drive, seeking to go back to that night, to comb through what had happened in order to see proof of Dib’s obvious lies. Dib was such a bad liar. How had Zim not seen?

ACCESS DENIED.

Right. Zim had locked himself out of his prom memories about a year after Dib ran away to college. Zim clucked his tongue. Shit. Only GIR knew the password, and he was on strict orders not to give it to Zim unless it was an emergency.

Fine, then. Zim sent GIR a quick text asking for the password. He then tapped his nails on the dashboard, knowing that it would take a while for GIR’s outdated systems to receive the message. Whatever. For now, Zim would just promise himself never to make the same mistake again.

He’d been so certain that the Dib had meant those things he said on prom night.

Although, he’d also been certain that he felt those same feelings that Dib claimed to feel, and that was just plain untrue. Amazingly, Zim was so smart that he was sometimes able to trick even himself. But, his Computer had confirmed that, according to their databases, irkens were unable to feel such things as affection, friendship, love, lust. So, Zim had likely just imagined it. He was very imaginative, and also more creative than any other human or alien he had ever met.

So. Dib had tricked him into attending prom so that Membrane could steal his time dilation tech and then build the PEG field. He must have really gone deep into Zim’s pinkprints, since all of the physical proof of that technology had been blown to smithereens on Probing Day. What a sneaky, unbearably tall man, that Membrane.

At least Zim knew that this threat to Earth’s safety was real. He’d stolen his own fair share of Membrane technology, and he knew the PEG well enough to know that it really would be ending all life on Earth in about one of the planet’s lunar cycles.

Ending life on Earth was Zim’s job. Just the other day, he’d squashed a mosquito.

As much as he tried not to engage with his emotions, Zim couldn’t help but feel a little bit enraged at how cruel Dib had been to him. Dib, who had asked for the truce in the first place. Dib, who had been his greatest enemy and only friend on that miserable, doomed rock. Dib, who had slow danced with him to his favorite song and kissed him under the moonlight.

His spooch started to pound in his gut, and Zim suddenly couldn’t take it any more. He jolted to his feet, his hands clenched into fists, and stomped to the back of the cockpit.

When the door swished open, the first thing he felt was delight at the sight of Dib, his Dib, sleeping peacefully on his front, his arms folded under his pillow.

How thrilled he was to see that Dib’s unfortunate teenage body had filled out into something so appealing — broad shoulders and a proud chin and enough body fat that his knees weren’t so knobby anymore. 

How he wanted to rip Dib’s ridiculous boxers off, settle down between his parted legs, and take him, right then and there. Make him moan and cry and beg. Make him truly sorry for how long he’d been gone.

Would Dib think that he’d changed, too? Would Dib even notice that while he was gone, Zim had also matured, finally leaving adolescence behind and entering true, Irken adulthood?

No, of course not. Dib didn’t even understand what that meant. He had no idea how much Zim had changed in the past three Earth years.

And he never would. Zim remembered his previous revelation (betrayal, theft, lies, remember?). He took a deep breath, channeling any feelings of tenderness, any desire to touch, toward the task at hand.

Zim strode up to Dib’s bedside and grabbed a handful of his t-shirt. He gave one hard yank and threw Dib to the ground.

To Zim’s delight, Dib screamed.

“Get up, human,” said Zim, smiling at the site of a disoriented Dib. “I have a plan.”

Dib looked up at him, his expression more shocked than angry. Then, he scowled.

“Couldn’t have thought of a nicer way to wake me up?”

Zim planted his hands on his knees and bent forward, his grin spreading across his face.

“Nah.”

 

Zim had been mulling over this idea for a while. He hadn’t bothered telling Dib initially, but he thought it might be prudent to have the human next to him while he made the call to his Tallest.

“Are you sure this will work?” asked Dib.

“Of course it will,” snapped Zim.

Probably. Maybe. Zim hadn't contacted his Tallest in a very long time, and the last time had been, well, not great. But they were desperate, and Dib's Spittle-tracker was a piece of garbage, and maybe Zim would get lucky this time and his Tallest would actually listen to him. Surely his absence had overwhelmed their spooches with fondness.

Zim looked over at the human, who was wiping his glasses on his t-shirt. Since Zim woke him up, he’d put his jeans back on but forgotten to zip his fly. Idiot.

“Your fly is down, idiot,” snarked Zim.

Dib shot him a glare.

“What?” asked Zim, feigning innocence. “I’m just keeping you from embarrassing yourself in front of the Tallest.”

“Gee, thanks,” snapped Dib. “How kind of you to throw me out of bed and then call me an idiot.”

“You’re welcome,” said Zim. “Now, shut up.”

Hacking into the Massive’s video transmission line was practically muscle memory at this point, even if Zim hadn't done it in years. He had given up on calling them the old-fashioned way a long time ago. Hacking was just simpler, really. Within a few moments, Zim and Dib were intercepting a call with the Almighty Tallest, who were lying on a couch in the middle of the bridge.

“Greetings, my Tallest,” said Zim, standing as straight as possible. He slammed his fist to his chest and bowed his head.

Tallest Purple screamed, which made Zim jump a little. No matter. They were usually surprised when he called.

“Zim?” said Tallest Red, more incredulous than surprised. “Is that you?”

“Yes, my Tallest, is it I, Invader Zim, coming to you with an important message.”

“Where’d you go, Zim?” asked Tallest Purple, finally composed. “We thought you died or something.”

“No, no,” said Zim with a chuckle, ignoring the surprised look that Dib was giving him from the co-pilot’s seat. “I assure you, I am as alive as ever.”

A pause.

“Uh... That’s great,” said Tallest Red. “So, what do you want?”

“Yes,” said Zim, “it is great. My Tallest, the matter we must speak of concerns the planet Earth.”

“Oh,” said Tallest Purple. “Earth. Cool. That’s actually… not ringing any bells for me. Which one is Earth? Did we make that one into a snack bowl?”

“Um, no, my Tallest,” said Zim, feeling his skin start to prickle. He reached up to adjust his wig. “Earth is the planet that I was assigned to in the Great Assigning. Marked for conquest by the Irken Empire. My mission?”

“Oh, right,” said Tallest Purple, shrinking under Tallest Red’s glare.

It was fine. The Irken Empire was huge, and it was normal for something as crucial as Zim’s mission to slip their minds. Right? Yeah. Sure.

“Anyway,” said Zim, powering on. “I bring you grave news about the planet. Unfortunately, one of its residents has doomed the Earth and all of its inhabitants.”

“Uh huh,” said Tallest Red, his head cocked to the side, his eyes going to Dib. “So… a human, right?”

“Yes, my Tallest.”

“Okay…” Tallest Red looked to Tallest Purple, who also appeared somewhat confused. “So, what’s the problem?”

“Well, my Tallest, the problem is that I am unable to stop this impending doom on my own. The human in question has created a malfunctioning perpetual energy generator. At the moment, it is trapped in a time dilation field. However, this field will not hold out as the machine generates energy,” Zim pressed on, and he was relieved to notice his leaders’ apparent interest at the mention of the time technology.

“A human invented a time dilation field?” asked Tallest Purple. “How is that even possible? You said they were dumb?”

“I can assure you, my Tallest,” said Zim, “the humans are as dull-witted as they come.”

“Hey!” Dib chimed in, and Zim shot him a glare.

“This particular human is the premier scientist of his planet. I also have reason to believe that he stole some of his technology from me.”

“Wait, what?” asked Dib. “Why do you think my dad stole your stuff?”

“Don’t act dumb, Dib,” growled Zim, turning for a second to glare. “I know you were in cahoots with the Membrane.”

“I… what?”

“Hey!”

Zim and Dib looked back to the screen, where both Tallest were looking at them.

“Oh! Uh, excuse me, my Tallest,” said Zim. “I was distracted—”

“Is that the big headed kid you used to hang out with?” asked Tallest Purple.

Zim froze. “Uh…”

“I think it is,” said Tallest Red. “Look, it’s got the same weird antenna thing. Wow, look how tall it got.”

“I’m not an ‘it,’ actually—” Dib started.

Zim cut him off. “It’s not important.”

Why had he brought Dib into the cockpit for this conversation? Suddenly, he realized what a terrible idea it was.

“This is the scientist’s offspring,” said Zim, gesturing to Dib. “We are currently in the process of tracking down the scientist through space. But, if you can provide the aid that I seek, we will cease our search and return to Earth.”

“Oh,” said Tallest Red, his eyes darting from Dib to Zim. “Right. Okay, so, what exactly do you want from us here, Zim?”

Zim felt himself fidget under his Tallest’s reaction, and he felt Dib’s glare boring into the side of his face.

“Yeah,” added Tallest Purple. “If it’s about the credit, we don’t really care. You can say you killed all the aliens if you want.”

Next to him, Tallest Red nodded. He snagged a can off the table-headed service drone standing next to him and popped the tab.

“Is that what this is about?” asked Tallest Red between glugs of Irken soda. “You wanna make sure you get your Invader’s celebration? You really don’t have to worry about that, Zim. Really.”

He looked behind himself, at another service drone who was fanning him with a giant leaf.

“Go faster,” he hissed.

“Yes, my Tallest,” whimpered the drone.

“Well, see, my Tallest,” said Zim, shifting from foot to foot, “that’s not exactly what I am asking you for.”

The Tallest exchanged another confused look. Zim puffed out his chest.

“My Tallest,” he said, “I am requesting that you mandate the protection of Earth through the Planetary Conservation Act.”

Tallest Red choked on a donut. Tallest Purple burst out laughing.

“My Tallest,” said Zim, his eyes darting to Dib for a moment, “I can assure you, I am being completely serious in my request.”

Tallest Purple thumped Tallest Red on the back a few times and brushed a stray tear from his eye. Next to Zim, Dib shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

“Uh, Zim?” Dib whispered. “I don’t think this is going super well.”

“My Tallest, please!” shouted Zim.

The Tallest quieted.

“Zim, you have got to be kidding,” said Tallest Purple with a snort. “There isn’t a single planet in the universe that’s under the protection of that law.”

“Yes, my Tallest, I understand that the law is very old, and—”

“Ancient!” added Tallest Red. “That’s not even our law, Zim. That’s Spork’s law. And, in case you’ve forgotten, me and Purple here made all of his little conservation projects into resorts and parking structure planets.”

“Yes, my Tallest, I understand,” said Zim. “But, perhaps, we could preserve this one planet? All we need is a time stasis creator from one of Irk’s research labs, that way we can stop time completely around the energy generator. It would be a very simple task!”

Zim felt Dib’s eyes on him. He ignored them.

“Okay, Zim,” said Tallest Purple. “For what purpose should your all-powerful Tallest order the protection and conservation of that dirt ball that you’ve been complaining about all this time?”

“It is not a dirt ball!” snapped Dib, his face getting red.

“Dib, please,” muttered Zim through gritted teeth. He turned back to his leaders. “My Tallest, the Earth is… much more than I previously understood it to be. It has… resources, and wildlife, and other, uh, stuff… stuff that needs protecting!”

“Really?” asked Tallest Purple. “You haven’t gone native on us, have you, Zim?”

“Certainly not!” Zim stammered. He felt his whole face flush with embarrassment. “I would never!”

“He has been there a long time,” noted Tallest Red. “Wouldn’t be too surprising.”

“My Tallest, please—”

“Look, Zim, we’re not gonna send our scientists to your cruddy planet just because you can’t bear to part with it,” said Tallest Red. “Just let the Earth blow up and… I don’t know… go back to Foodcourtia or something. We don’t care.”

“But don’t come here!” added Tallest Purple

“Right. Don’t come here. Go somewhere… else.”

“My Tallest,” said Zim, “please, understand. There are things on this planet worth conserving!”

“Really?” asked Tallest Red. “Like what? What specifically does the Earth have that we need?”

“It’s not about what you need,” Zim said, exasperated. “It’s about the inhabitants, the humans and their… their nature and their families and their giant, terrifying bodies of water. They have leaves that change color! And animals that climb up trees and whole days dedicated to different snacks and leisure activities! Imagine! Annual celebrations of donuts and napping!”

Zim felt himself start to lose control, and he willed his impulses away. Now was not the time to lose his cool.

“Please, my Tallest, they dress up like monsters for Halloween and the water becomes snow that falls from the sky. There’s poison frogs that look like candy and candy in the shape of human feet! The planet is not without its worthwhile things!”

“Zim—” started Tallest Red, sitting up in his seat.

Zim pressed on.

“The Earth is in danger!” Zim cried, throwing his hands into the air. “Billions of life forms, all at risk for one stupid human’s mistake!”

“Enough!” snapped Tallest Purple, and he actually stood from the couch to drift closer to the screen. “We’re not doing it, Zim. We marked the Earth for conquest by you, in case you’ve forgotten. At this point, we’ve wasted enough time and resources on your exi- ugh.”

Tallest Purple put a hand to his forehead, took a deep breath, and relaxed his shoulders. Zim felt his insides start to tremble.

“We’re not doing it, Zim,” said Tallest Red. “Either figure it out yourself or don’t, but we’re too busy to be sending you any more aid.”

NO!” Zim heard himself scream, and he leaned forward to clutch the dashboard.

Next to him, he heard Dib yelp in surprise.

Yes!” Tallest Red shot back, and Zim gritted his teeth. “Maybe Spork would be more sympathetic to your plight, Zim, but he’s not here to rescue you. In fact, if I remember correctly from your trial, you had a significant role in his death, didn’t you?”

“No! I didn’t!” Zim snapped, quick and reflexive. “I did not!”

“You’ve cost us enough trouble. You’ve cost us planets, monies, countless Irken lives, including Spork and… and Tallest Miyuki!”

A harsh gasp filled the bridge, but Tallest Red didn’t waver. Zim felt his spooch plummet to his toes.

“You cost us Tallest Miyuki, Zim,” said Tallest Red. “Don’t think we’ve forgotten about that! Don’t think I have!”

Zim stepped back, knowing that the conversation had permanently gone in the wrong direction. Any mention of Miyuki would do that.

“I did not! I don’t know what you heard!” Zim tried, his efforts as shaky as his voice.

“We saw!” hissed Tallest Purple, at the same time that Tallest Red shrieked “How dare you?!”

“My Tallest, my Tallest, my—!”

“End the call,” said Tallest Purple, looking offscreen.

“Fine, then!” screamed Zim. “Fine! I don’t need your help, anyway, I can do it by myself!”

“That’s great, Zim,” growled Tallest Red, “because we’ve had enough of hearing about that dump of a planet.”

You know nothing of Earth!” Zim shouted, pointing an accusing finger at his Tallest. “And you are wrong in not trying to save it, do you hear me? You fools and your… your leaf drones and your snacks, you would never understand—”

“Did you just call us—?” began Tallest Purple.

“The Earth will never be yours! It’s mine now, and I’m going to save it, and I don’t want you coming anywhere near it!”

“We don’t want it!” laughed Tallest Purple. “We never—”

“Good!” snapped Zim. “Leave me alone to rescue my planet! Invader Zim, signing off, permanently!”

With that, Zim slammed a button on the control panel to end the call.

The cockpit was tense as Tallest Red’s last shouts of “You were never an invader!” reverberated against the metal walls.

Zim’s breathing came in hard puffs, and he tightened his fists in an attempt to calm himself. For a moment, his brain went blank, and he thought of nothing, just felt the exhilaration, the wave of emotion as it broke through his last protective dam and flooded his body. Any cognizance was drowned. All logic short-circuited.

Zim felt so hot, he wouldn’t be surprised if there was smoke coming off his skin. He kept breathing, greedy as he sucked in huge gulps of stuffy spaceship air. He stared, eyes unfocused, as the windshield went dark and then the stars appeared, blinking cautiously back at him.

The first thought he had was that he’d forgotten to salute when he hung up.

He hung on that revelation, confused, finding himself playing catch-up even as he stood rooted to the spot where he’d been standing the whole time.

Forgot to salute?

“Zim?”

Zim looked over, and there was Dib.

Dib.

Zim kept huffing, the fog of emotion and adrenaline still making his head blurry. He stared at Dib, whose odd-colored eyes were wide behind round metal frames. No... plastic frames. How had Zim not noticed Dib's new glasses? Dib was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and clutching the dashboard. He looked nervous, with his shoulders hunched up to his ears and his knuckles white.

Zim blinked at his human. In a moment, his brain returned from whatever nebula it had just been visiting, exploded through the ceiling, and rocketed back into his head so fast that he plopped back into the pilot’s seat in shock.

“Oh,” Zim breathed, looking to the windshield and then back to Dib’s face. “Oh, no.”

“Wow, Zim,” said Dib, already talking as Zim just started to get his words back. “That was crazy! You just… you just were like, no way, and they were like… man! You really went off on them! That… that was awesome!”

Zim watched Dib come back to life, making big gestures with his arms and grinning, his eyes still wide, but now with excitement instead of fear.

Like back when they used to go ghost hunting.

Like on prom night.

Zim shook himself once, and then the dust finally settled.

“Oh, no,” he murmured again, even as Dib jumped to his feet and grabbed Zim by the hands.

“I mean, if we’re being honest, I’ve kind of wanted you to go off on them for… I dunno, forever! How does it feel?”

“Oh, no, no, no.”

“Zim! Hello!” Dib was all smiles, his face just inches from Zim’s. “Earth to Zim!”

Zim locked eyes with Dib, and he watched as Dib’s face fell.

“Hey, it’s okay.”

Zim stood, still muttering to himself. He extracted his hands from Dib’s grasp and left the cockpit.

“Oh, no, no, no, no.”

With the press of a couple of fingers, Zim was in the bedroom, alone.

“Oh, no. Oh, no. No, no, no, no.”

He locked the door.

"Zim?"

“Oh, no.”

 

Chapter Text

i.

There had been a few hours of silence before Dib asked the ship’s Computer for access to the mp3 files. He tried to quell the feelings of consternation in his gut as he flipped thoughtlessly through Zim’s music library. He already knew what he was looking for. Part of him was hoping that Zim would just come out on his own, but Dib knew he wouldn’t. And this was kind of Dib’s Plan Z to get Zim to come out into the cockpit and talk to him.

Not that Dib was necessarily ready to unpack everything that had just happened. It was more that he was starting to really have to pee, and he didn’t know of any other way to the bathroom than through the bedroom. Also, he was bored.

Also, he was worried.

He got to “W” and tapped, then scrolled a bit more before getting to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and pressing play. He turned the volume up as loudly as he could take it and waited.

He hoped Zim would take the gesture as a peace offering, an attempt to bridge this divide between them. Even if Zim wasn’t ready to be friends again, they could at least talk about this, right?

“Come on, Zim,” Dib muttered to himself. “I know you love this song.”

Dib wasn’t sure how well Zim could hear the music through the metal wall of the cockpit, but he was certain that he could at least hear the beat. And Zim could recognize a Whitney song like no other.

The song ended. Dib set it to repeat.

He knew that Zim’s feelings about the Tallest were complicated, had been for a while. He knew that Zim was so good at convincing himself of things, it was actually kind of pitiful. For years, Zim had been under the impression that he was the Tallest’s favorite invader, their prized soldier, even after he’d told Dib about Operation Impending Doom I and Foodcourtia.

Dib thought Zim had told him everything, but apparently not. He hadn’t heard the names Miyuki or Spork before.

Maybe today would be one of those days when Zim got real clarity on the situation. Like the day he realized that GIR wasn’t a real SIR Unit. Or the day that he realized the Tallest were blocking his calls.

Zim’s talent for glossing over certain issues rivaled his talent for outright lying to himself, however. In the time that Dib had known him, he’d managed to build this convoluted, contradictory narrative around his life and his relationship to the Tallest, one that even Dib used to have trouble keeping track of. It wouldn’t even surprise him if Zim somehow managed the Olympic-level mental gymnastics it would take to convince himself that his outraged defection from Irk meant nothing.

And he’d done it in the name of protecting Earth, no less.

Dib forced himself to turn the volume up, wincing as he did so. He considered going back to the door and knocking a few dozen more times, but he decided not to. This way, maybe Zim would see that Dib wasn’t trying really to talk any more. If Zim would just come out and sit next to him, that would be enough. At least, it would be something.

Although, as time wore on and the bass of the song rumbled through Dib’s body, he had half a mind to find a piece of paper, scribble please let me piss on it, and slide it under the door.

Dib thought about what Zim had said about Earth, and it made his heart hurt a little. He knew Zim well enough to know that if he ever wanted to leave, he was gone. He knew that Zim had stuck around Earth for some reason or another after Dib had left, and he’d kind of just gotten his answer.

Zim loved living on Earth. He wanted to keep it safe.

Dib’s heart hurt worse, and he felt a bolt of guilt rip through his gut as he remembered all the mean things he’d said to Zim earlier that day, before they’d hit that space rock or whatever it was.

Because here Zim was, risking his ass and telling off his Tallest, all in the name of a planet that Dib's own father doomed. It wasn't often that Zim had the moral high ground in their relationship, but this was absolutely one of those times. Match that with the stale guilt Dib still felt about prom, and Zim was practically a saint in comparison.

He tried not to think about that dark, outrageously stupid envy that came with the realization that Zim had stayed on Earth these past three years because he liked it, and not because he was waiting for Dib. It would have been horrible if Zim had been wasting away, completely miserable, just crossing his fingers in the hopes that Dib might return soon, might come home from college and they’d fall all over each other again.

But the idea of Zim’s devotion for him running that deep made Dib’s hairline go prickly with sweat. And, really, when had either of them ever had mild feelings for the other? Dib shook off the thought, dismissing it as an unattainable and, frankly, ridiculous fantasy. Zim would probably never think of him like that, not after prom and certainly not now, now that Dib had come back from a three-year disappearance for which he had pretty much no excuse. No, if Zim had ever even had feelings like that for Dib, they were gone now, and probably for good. Zim could be naive sometimes, but even he knew not to touch the stove a second time if it had already burned him once. Well, most of the time he knew that.

Dib, at least, knew that his feelings for Zim hadn’t changed. He’d been crazy about Zim for years, now, and no amount of silly arguing would change that. Even after what happened at prom — Dib just wanted to move on, seriously. Just move on and pretend it had never happened and maybe make a real, lasting connection this time.

But, he had to focus. Zim wanting him back was on the bottom of his priorities list. Or, at least, it ought to be.

The song was ending for the ninth (tenth?) time. Dib held his breath through the fade out, then resumed breathing when the intro started up again. The “woo!” echoed through the cockpit, mocking him. Dib rubbed at his eyes and groaned at the tension headache that was budding in his brain.

The device on the dashboard, too quiet to be heard over the music, flashed another innocuous red blink, and Dib flexed his hands on the yoke as he steered to follow his dad. Wherever Membrane was going, he certainly wasn’t making a beeline. In fact, Dib’s old ship was zig-zagging back and forth through the stars, apparently aimless. Dib had noticed it a few I Wanna Dance’s ago, and he rolled the thought around in his brain for a moment, considering what it could mean and coming up with nothing substantial.

Well. If only Zim would come out of hiding, then they had the options of not talking about their fight, Membrane, and Zim’s new status as an expat. What a fun menu of emotionally scarring topics to avoid entirely.

Dib’s brow furrowed, not for the first time, when he thought about the service drones that were standing around the Tallest as they lounged on their couch during Zim’s call. It actually made him kind of angry, to think that these were the leaders of the great Irken Empire, and all they did was sit around and yell at their slaves. That drone, the one holding the leaf, had looked so exhausted. And not much shorter than Zim.

It made Dib’s insides lurch, imagining Zim in that position, knowing that it was probably the more likely outcome for Zim when he’d stopped growing. From what Zim had told him, every irken attended academy and got a certain level of military training. They stopped growing partway through their adolescence, finished school, and got sent off to do whatever task they’d been assigned. More often than not, they died in battle before they reached adulthood.

Zim had told Dib that he used to be a military engineer before he was accepted into invader training. What kept him from being a living table for his Tallest?

Dib bit his lip as the thought about those two Tallest that Red had mentioned. Miyuki and Spork. Two lives that Zim had apparently somehow ended.

Maybe that was what.

Dib’s eyes glazed over as he thought about what exactly that might mean just as the back door swished open and Zim stomped into the room, his antennae pinned to the back of his head and his drawn-on eyebrows knit.

He plopped into the co-pilot’s seat, turned up the volume as high as it would go, crossed his arms, and glared ahead, his gaze never meeting Dib’s. Dib bobbed his head along to the music and kept quiet as his headache raged.

 

ii.

Dib’s pitying energy radiated off of him like waves of heat coming off Earth’s blisteringly hot sun, and Zim found himself struggling to match it with his own fury.

Because, how dare he? How dare Dib feel sorry for Zim? Not that he’d outright said it; neither had said anything since Dib stepped into the cockpit, stretching his arms and yawning, scratching at his sharp, stubbly jaw.

He’d taken one look at Zim and frowned, but he’d gotten the picture. Okay, he’d seemed to say. No talking today, either.

Even more unsettling than Dib’s resignation was that lingering look of sorry for you, which Zim resented and hated more than anything in the entire cosmos.

So, Zim slapped a hand to the control panel and turned the music back on. Yup, Dib, we’re listening to it again, as many times as it takes to make you go insane. Out of the corner of his eye, Zim saw Dib’s face go pale. Zim tried to sneer, but it felt more like a grimace. He turned up the volume, his sensitive antennae trembling against his scalp.

Truly, Zim could think of no better way to reject Dib’s attempts at rekindling their friendship than to take his most recent gesture of kindness and torture him with it. It was worth the antennae pain. At least he had his wig on to block out some of the noise.

Because Zim was still angry with Dib for leaving. For helping his father steal Irken technology. For being there, sitting on his ass and just watching while Zim made the biggest mistake of his life. For acting like it was a good thing that Zim had done it, had said those things to his own Tallest. Of course, none of that had changed in the past day of tortured silence and Whitney Houston. So, if Dib wasn’t going to apologize, he could take his music and shove it.

After a few minutes of blissfully deafening rhythm and blues, Dib turned the volume down. Zim reached for the dial and hissed when Dib grabbed him by the wrist.

“Just let me talk for a second, please?” asked Dib, his eyes wide and pleading.

No part of Zim wanted to hear Dib talk. He yanked his arm away and stared back out the windshield. Both hands gripped the yoke. Dib's tracking device blinked between them.

“Touch me again and I’ll shred you,” he muttered.

Next to him, Dib relaxed, which just made the situation all the more frustrating.

“Zim.”

Zim flinched. He hated the way Dib was talking these days, the tone of voice he used. For the first time in… years, maybe, Zim found himself missing the way they used to hurl insults at each other on the playground in elementary skool.

“What do you want, you pathetic little worm?” snapped Zim.

Dib took a deep breath. Zim unconsciously rubbed at his left eye.

“You can take off your disguise, you know,” said Dib. “It’s not like there’s anyone here to see it.”

“I won’t,” growled Zim. “I’m not having Membrane show up and see me like this and blow my cover.”

“Zim… we are literally flying after him in a spaceship.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“Fine,” said Dib, crossing his arms. “I just thought you might want to be a little more comfortable.”

“Like you care.”

Dib huffed. “I do.”

“Do not.”

“Whatever, Zim,” said Dib, but there was no heat in the words. “Maybe I just don’t like looking at your weird, fake eyes.”

“You’re the one with weird eyes!” snapped Zim.

“Jeez, Zim, fine. just forget it,” said Dib, putting his hands up in surrender. “Forget I said anything.”

You forget it,” said Zim, swallowing down how totally unsatisfied he was with his own comeback.

The cockpit was silent for thirty-six seconds.

“I just wanted to say how brave—”

“Shut up!” shouted Zim, so loud, he even startled himself a bit. “I don’t wanna hear it!”

“Jesus, Zim,” Dib muttered. “I’m not—”

“I know what you’re doing,” growled Zim as he turned to look at Dib, that traitor, that bottomless pit of cruelty and treachery.

Dib’s eyebrows shot up, and then his whole face got tense and angry. Minutely, Zim exhaled. He would much prefer an angry Dib to a sympathetic one.

“Look, Zim, I’m trying not to fight with you right now—”

“Newsflash, Dib! We’ve been righting! We’re still fighting! We didn’t stop just because I… I…”

Zim shut his mouth. His face went hot with humiliation because, dammit, he couldn’t even say it out loud.

A stifling silence filled the air, and Zim thought it might incinerate them both.

“Okay,” Dib said. “We’re still fighting. I just… I wanted to tell you that I appreciate what you said. If you ever want to talk about this—”

“I don’t,” grumbled Zim.

Dib huffed. “It would be nice if I could get through one fucking sentence without you interrupting me.”

Zim shot him a look, then turned back to the windshield. He tapped at a few buttons on the control panel, saying nothing.

“I’m just saying,” said Dib, slow, like he was waiting for the interruption at any time, “it means a lot to me that you would stick your neck out like that for Earth. And, I thought it was really… admirable, that you stood up to your Tallest like that. And I think, since we’re going on this mission together to find my dad, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to… you know… talk about stuff. Like, we could sort things out, for real. Be friends again? Or, at least, try to find—”

“I think I’ll take a pass on that, but thanks anyway, Dib!” shouted Zim, snapping his head around to shoot Dib a giant, insincere grin.

“Oh, my god, fine then!” snapped Dib, and Zim felt his grin spread even wider. “Forget I said anything!”

“Good! Already forgotten!” singsonged Zim.

“Great!” shouted Dib, a crazed, angry smile on his own face. “Awesome!”

“Yeah, it is great!”

“Good! I’m so, so glad with the outcome of this conversation!”

“Couldn’t have gone better!”

“I agree!”

“Great!”

“Cool!”

“Perfect!”

“UGH!” Dib rose suddenly, and Zim felt practically giddy at the sight of him clenching his fists at his sides and glaring down at him. “You know what? I don’t care anymore. You can go  fuck yourself.”

With that, Dib turned and stormed out of the cockpit, stumbling over his feet a little as he did so. Zim laughed, just to make sure that Dib knew that he’d seen, and Dib cursed, loudly enough that Zim could hear him from the other side of the wall.

Zim said nothing, just turned the music up to full volume and tapped his foot to the beat, the joints in his hands aching as he clenched the yoke as hard as he possibly could.

 

iii.

Gaz did a quick headcount, noting that all but Simmons had arrived. Whatever. He was her least favorite, anyway.

“G- uh, Ms. Membrane?” asked Chen, a shrimpy mechanical engineer with an obnoxious goatee.

“What is it, Chen?” asked Gaz, not looking up from her notes.

“Well, it looks like… um. This really isn’t anything I’ve seen before, to be honest.”

“Yeah, I know that,” muttered Gaz. “Do you best.”

The man sighed, then turned on his heel and strode back up to PEG.

Gaz had assembled her father’s top research team about half an hour ago, and, so far, they hadn’t come up with any way to stop PEG from detonating. They’d discussed blowing her into space, but that seemed too risky. So did burying her further underground. Really, no one had any idea what could be done with the machine, since no one knew anything about the weird time bubble that she was currently sitting in.

With a ding, the elevator arrived to the bottom floor. Gaz turned around to see Simmons jogging toward her, his hair wet and his lab coat barely covering a t-shirt and sweatpants.

“Sorry!” he huffed, pausing at Gaz’s side. “I’m sorry, I was in the shower when you called.”

“Whatever,” said Gaz, eying Simmons’s wardrobe.

It didn’t matter. Not like this was professional, in-the-books Membrane Enterprises business, anyway.

Gaz thrust her notebook and pencil into Simmons’s hands — he blanched for a second, then took them — and then reached up to bunch her curls into a low bun at the base of her skull. She put her hands on her hips and glanced at Simmons, who was staring up at her with a tight expression on his face.

When Gaz started interning at Membrane Enterprises her junior year of high school, she’d been met with more condescension and attitude than she’d ever experienced in her life. Apparently, the men who worked for her father (and, she noted with irritation, her father employed almost exclusively men) still saw her as the little girl whom they’d experimented on years ago, when Dib had put a curse on her so she was only able to taste pig meat.

Gaz shivered at the memory. Dib was such a little punk when he was a kid.

So, as a general rule nowadays, Gaz preferred to be the one holding the scalpel. She made that clear on her first week of her internship when one of the senior executives oinked at her and she’d fired him on the spot. 

She figured, as a woman in STEM, she should utilize all of the resources she had available to her. Including nepotism. Her father, apparently still feeling guilty about the pig girl incident, didn’t object to the firing. Gaz would be taken seriously, braces be damned.

Over the past few years, the scientists and engineers of Membrane Enterprises had been repeatedly dazzled by Gaz’s enormous brain, and now they finally, finally, took her seriously. So, she didn’t feel the need to have a dick measuring contest with every single man that walked into the lab anymore.

Today, though, even Gaz knew that she was pushing the limits of her power. Taking charge of this project, which Simmons and the rest once believed was long-abandoned, was one thing. Calling an emergency meeting to stop it from ending all life on earth was another.

“Gaz,” said Simmons, his hands shaking as her handed her notebook back to her, “is it really as bad as you said?”

“Take a look for yourself,” said Gaz, gesturing to the time bubble. “But don’t touch it. We’re not sure how it works yet, or what could stop it from working.”

“Um… alright. Do you mind, um, if I ask…?”

Gaz noticed that Simmons, an anxious man, looked even more nervous than usual. She peered down her nose at him.

Early on in her career, she’d found that her father’s employees had a harder time talking down to her when they were physically looking up at her, so she’d taken to wearing heels in order to keep herself on higher ground than the people around her. At five foot, ten inches, the exact same height as her brother, Gaz usually only had to wear three-inch heels to be the tallest person in the room. Today, though, she’d gone with her tallest pair of boots, which were a little painful to walk in but worth it, because she needed to look authoritative even while she was terrified.

At five foot, five inches, Simmons was almost an entire foot shorter than her right now.

“What?” she ground out, because she knew what he was about to ask. They’d all asked.

“Where is Dr. Membrane?”

Gaz looked from PEG to Simmons, then back.

“He’s dead,” she said, her voice flat.

The air around them stilled as every other scientist froze, even though she’d already told all of them.

Simmons paused for only a second before grabbing Gaz by the elbow.

“Wha- DEAD?” he shrieked, his already high-pitched voice raising. “What do you mean, he’s dead? How? When?”

Gaz put a hand over Simmons’s and dug her fingernails into his skin. He yelped and pulled away.

“Yes, Simmons. He’s dead. He was screwing around with PEG, and he died. I’m trusting every last one of you to keep that to yourselves until we get this PEG situation under control, and then I will break the news of what happened to the public. Got it?”

“Yes, okay,” stammered Simmons. “But… but why?”

Why lie about her father’s death? Maybe Gaz was a fatalist. Or, maybe she knew that no good would come of her dad hijacking Dib’s spaceship and fucking off to who-knows-where. She knew that Dib and Zim had no chance of finding him. Maybe Dib had some dumb little doohickey that he programmed to follow his ship, but that didn’t change the fact that if Membrane wanted to escape, he would do it. And he wouldn’t be found.

The team, and Membrane Enterprises itself, was on their own on this one. Dad wasn’t coming back to help them, and if Gaz had to face that reality, then so did goddamn Simmons.

“I don’t know why,” Gaz snapped, realizing too late that she’d spaced out for a second. “I wasn’t here when it happened. Just go look at the fucking time bubble and see if there’s anything you can do about it.”

“Okay,” said Simmons, taking a step away. “I… I’m so sorry about your father, Gaz. If you need anything, any help in any way—”

“I’m nineteen years old,” Gaz interrupted. “My brother is twenty-one. We have access to all of our father’s assets, and we have this house. I’m fine.”

“Gaz, I didn’t mean… I wasn’t talking about money—”

“Oh really, Dr. Simmons?” hissed Gaz. “I’m talking about the end of the world. Go try to do something about it and leave me alone.”

With a sigh, Simmons hurried off. God, Gaz hated him. If he weren’t married with three kids, she would surely have killed him by now.

Gaz watched her team circle PEG, taking notes in their notebooks and muttering to each other. She watched the time dilation field buzz around PEG, its green bolts, like stretch marks, zipping up to the top of the dome. She knew it didn’t look good. She’d been walking PEG’s perimeter for the past two days, and she’d come up with nothing.

Today, it would become official. The world was ending, and there was nothing she could do about it.

She thought about Dib. What was he doing? Probably arguing with Zim.

Gaz rolled her eyes. Speaking of dick measuring contests.

When Dib and Zim fought, it was like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Even at twenty-one and… however old Zim was, Gaz had no doubts that wherever they were, they were both being stubborn and petty and nasty.

She couldn’t blame Zim for being frustrated with Dib. Although, to be fair, she hadn’t really talked to Dib about prom before the other day. Still, it was hard not to take Zim’s side when she had been the one to pick up the pieces after Dib had already scampered away to college with his tail between his legs.

When she’d helped get Dib ready for prom all those years ago, Gaz had been genuinely happy for her brother. Just the idea of Dib being romantically interested in someone was pretty cute: his face got all red and he kept sitting on his hands for fear of looking too excited. It was his first time having a crush, and she knew how that felt. It was new and exhilarating and he’d talked her ear off for hours before Zim finally came to pick him up in the Voot Cruiser and drive him to the hi skool for a night of harmless, awkward fun.

She knew that Dib wasn’t the best at making friends. So, the idea of Dib having Zim as a potential first relationship had actually seemed kind of perfect in Gaz’s mind: they were both weird and irritating, but they were compatible. In the years that Zim had been on Earth, they’d gone from enemies to friends almost seamlessly. Honestly, Gaz didn’t even know when they’d stopped fighting altogether, but they had. And, she’d sat in on movie nights with them and gone to the mall with them and it had actually been pretty fun.

In hi skool, Zim had been the most important person in Dib’s life. Before then, too, maybe, but for the wrong reasons. Once they’d buried the hatchet, though, things had seemed so good. Dib had combated his own fight-or-flight instincts enough to settle down and make a friend, and Zim had made him so happy.

Maybe some time together could be good for them. Maybe Dib just needed another lesson in the importance of letting his walls down for another person.

Gaz felt herself huff, annoyed that she was getting wrapped up in Dib’s bullshit again. Here she was, trying to save the world, and she couldn’t stop worrying about whether her brother and his boyfriend were making amends or ripping each other’s heads off. Actually, now that she thought about it… Zim might actually rip Dib’s head off. She should give Zim a call to make sure he wouldn’t.

She crossed her arms, uncomfortable in her overly-starched white blouse and black pencil skirt. If only she’d thought to dress like a slouch the way Simmons did, she’d be so much more comfortable. She reached into the pocket of her lab coat and removed the note her father had left. She’d practically memorized his calculations by now, but she still found herself staring at it and wondering if this really was the last thing she’d get from him.

Gaz was no idiot. Obviously. She knew that her dad was pragmatic and utilitarian to an almost offensive degree. He cared about the good of Earth, science in the name of science, more than he cared about anything else. It was infuriating, but what could Gaz do about it? She wasn’t about to ruffle his feathers when he barely paid her any mind to begin with. And, besides, they did spend lots of time together, now. As a summer intern at Membrane Enterprises, she got to spend every day with her dad, and it was nice. Before this whole PEG incident, she’d thought that they were close.

She didn’t think of her dad the way Dib did. Dib saw him as someone cold, untouchable, like an equation that he didn’t know how to solve, so he’d better just give up on it. Dib was like that, sometimes. He would never admit it, but he gave up too easy. At least, he did when it came to his relationships, if not actual equations. Intellectual genius, emotional moron. That was her brother.

Gaz saw their dad as potential. She knew he wanted to be a good dad, and she believed that he genuinely just didn’t know how. He’d tried throwing money at them, using surrogates like the Dadbot, giving them free rein to do what they wanted or putting them under house arrest in the name of protecting them. He honestly had no idea what he was doing, and Gaz could at least appreciate that he was trying. Dib just thought that everything he did, every strategy he tried, was some new form of punishment. He just thought that their dad was out to get him and so was everyone else.

Which was why Gaz felt sorry for Dib. It was why she’d thought that whatever he had with Zim would help.

But, being Dib, he’d fucked that up, too, and all Gaz could do was sit by at try to be comforting while Zim mourned the death of their friendship/relationship/whatever it was and Dib did whatever he was doing in college. Because, by the way, he didn’t talk to Gaz during his first few months away from home, either.

Another scientist, Goldberg, approached. Gaz straightened her back.

“Look, I don’t know what the hell this is,” said Goldberg, tossing her thick, black curls over her shoulder with a huff. “I really can’t say one way or another what we should do about it.”

Gaz felt herself sigh.

“You’re right,” she muttered. “I know you’re right. If I knew anything about this bullshit sci-fi crap, I’d do something, but I just… I don’t.”

Goldberg, with her dark brown eyes and overwhelming maternal energy, just nodded. She looked back at PEG with a rueful sigh, then turned back to Gaz.

“I’m sorry about what happened,” Goldberg muttered. “I’m sorry… I’m sorry you got stuck with this.”

Gaz felt herself laugh, which was actually a little surprising.

“Well, what can you do?” she asked, looking from Goldberg to PEG.

“You can… if you want, I mean… you can come for dinner. It’s taco night,” said Goldberg, looking at Gaz, her whole face so vulnerable in her sincerity.

“My people do love tacos,” Gaz drawled, and she almost felt bad about it.

On any other day, she probably would have.

“That’s not what I meant!” said Goldberg, quick to clarify. “I just mean… the kids love it. I didn’t… it had nothing to do with your, er, heritage. I would never, Gaz, come on.”

Gaz let her gaze drift to Goldberg, who just wanted to help, obviously. Gaz couldn’t fault the woman for wanting to treat Gaz like a surrogate daughter ever since they’d met, years ago. Still, it frustrated her. This woman who thought that Gaz needed a mother when she didn’t. She did fine with just her dad, thank you very much. And, now, she’d do fine on her own.

“I think I’ll pass,” said Gaz. Goldberg looked wounded, and Gaz forced herself to add: “But I do appreciate the offer.”

“Okay,” said Goldberg. She straightened her lab coat, which she always kept pristine.

At five foot, two inches, Goldberg was the shortest on the team and had to strain her neck to look at Gaz. Gaz nodded back at her, then strode her way toward PEG with careful, punctuated steps. These stupid boots were the only thing to make her feel good all day. If they survived next month’s apocalypse, she’d be sure to send a thank-you note to Giuseppe Zanotti.

A rumble tore through the room, starting slow and then picking up as PEG completed a cycle. The scientists around her stumbled, some fell, and Gaz took a deep breath and turned back to face her father’s employees.

“Alright, team,” said Gaz, her voice loud and even. “If no one has anything to say about this dumb time bubble that my dad put PEG in, you’re dismissed for the day. I’ll handle the rest from here.”

Everyone looked at her. Gaz felt herself fidget, for the first time in a few years, probably.

“I said ‘dismissed,’” she repeated, her voice calm.

The room cleared out, and Gaz was alone.

“Jesus Christ, Dad,” she whispered to herself, staring up at PEG and her impossible time dilation bubble. “What were you thinking?”

 

It took another day to get a meeting with President Man, during which Gaz was laughed at and sent away. She found herself begging every lawmaker, every lobbyist, everyone who would listen to just take her seriously.

But, as she soon realized, people didn’t care to listen to someone who was talking absolute nonsense. Even if that someone was a Membrane.

For a single second, Gaz felt bad for Dib, because she knew he’d been dealing with this shit for the past decade (albeit, with much less grace than Gaz). Then she remembered that he was flying through space and probably having hate sex with Zim and didn’t need her pity, not one bit. She clenched her fists and seethed.

She needed a plan, a good one, and she needed it fast.

When nothing good came to her, she found herself walking into a very familiar cul-de-sac, down a very familiar walkway, and then knocking on a very familiar door.

A very familiar robot answered. Gaz wanted to punch herself in the face.

“Hiya, Gaz!” screamed GIR, his whole body practically vibrating in excitement.

Gaz took a deep breath. This shit again.

“Hi, GIR,” she muttered, looking down at the worst part about being friends with Zim.

“Hiiiiiii!” GIR repeated, bouncing up and down.

He almost hopped out into the lawn, but Gaz stopped him, jostling him back until they were both inside Zim’s weird, green house.

“You can’t go outside without your doggie suit, GIR,” Gaz reminded.

“Ohhh, yeah. I forgot!” chirped GIR, and Gaz had to take another deep breath.

“I’m only here because I have no other choice,” she said.

“Okaaaaaay!” sang GIR.

Deep breaths weren’t helping. Gaz turned on the TV.

“Why don’t you watch the Scary Monkey Show, and I’ll go look around downstairs?”

“I come witchu!”

“No, GIR, that’s really not necessary.”

“But I waaaaanna.”

Gaz bit her lip. She looked down at GIR, who, for a robot, looked… kind of lonely. God dammit. Fucking Zim. If he didn’t love this stupid machine so much, Gaz might have just deactivated him and thrown him in the corner. But, unsurprisingly, Zim’s attachment to GIR had rubbed off on her, and she found herself crossing her arms with disgust as she rode down Zim’s elevator with the annoying, dancing robot.

 

Chapter Text

i.

The day they’d unofficially agreed to a truce, Zim had promised himself he would stop throwing punches at the Dib. Today, though, he found himself struggling not to beat the life out of him.

You’re the idiot!” he shouted, waving his arms as Dib gripped the yoke, forcing his ship this way and that, all erratic and jolting.

“Just shut it, Zim!” Dib answered. “I’m doing the best I can here, and you’re not helping!”

“Maybe if your brain-dead father hadn’t—”

“Enough!” roared Dib, loud enough for Zim to actually shut his mouth. “I’m sick of hearing you complain about my dad! I’m sick of hearing you talk, period! I’m sick of hearing this fucking song!”

In retaliation, Zim turned the volume up and started to loudly sing along. Dib just screamed.

“Your singing could use some work, Dib!” Zim chided, and he grinned as Dib nearly combusted with rage.

“Your whole… your whole deal could use some work, you stupid lizard!” Dib shot back, and Zim laughed.

“When you’re done with your petty insults, it’s my turn to drive,” Zim shouted, trying to make sure his voice was heard over the music.

“When your feelings are done being hurt,” snapped Dib, “maybe you can stop being such a pain in my ass!”

Despite himself, Zim felt his face heat with rage. He yelled and kept yelling, desperate to be louder than Dib as the human yelled right back, right until they were hit with another chunk of space debris.

After that, they went tumbling through space, much like three days before.

This time, though, Zim remembered when Dib had ricocheted off the ceiling with a painful-sounding thunk, and he snatched Dib from the air and held him by the arm.

Zim leapt into the pilot’s chair and wrapped his PAK legs around the seat to keep them from flying into the back wall. Nauseated, he held on to Dib for dear life, his other hand scrambling for the yoke. He waited, fully expecting the ship to right itself. Then, they hit another piece of debris.

The ship swung so fast it was painful, and Zim felt like he might vomit up his own spooch.

They were both screaming, their shouts and wails echoing off the walls of Zim’s ship as they hit another piece of debris, then another, and Zim realized that they might be in real trouble.

Dib’s hand was clutching Zim’s shoulder. Their cheeks were pressed together as they stared through the windshield at the oncoming minefield of space garbage.

He had no idea what they were hitting, only that every chunk of trash was coming at them, faster and faster, and he had no way of stopping them. Then, a warning sign popped up on the dashboard, and Zim’s screams got louder.

He could hear Dib practically sobbing in his arms, begging to know what the fuck that warning sign, written in Irken, meant.

Zim’s wig went flying and his hands clenched hard around Dib at the words “APPROACHING PLANET,” and then they were falling, submitting to the planet’s gravitational force and plummeting toward its surface.

“Hold on!” Zim gasped, and he braced for impact as his precious new spaceship slammed into dirt.

For a moment, there was nothing but aching silence.

Then, the ship’s airbag deployed, forcing Dib’s elbow into Zim’s chest and knocking all the wind out of him.

“Ow,” Zim gasped, dazed.

“Ugh… sorry,” muttered Dib, adjusting himself so that his arm was wrapped around Zim’s neck, his other hand relaxing but staying on Zim’s shoulder.

They didn’t move for a while, each breathing in harsh gasps against the other’s face. Zim assessed his body for damages He looked at Dib’s red face, his soft, pretty mouth, and grimaced.

Dib squirmed in Zim’s lap.

“Uh, Zim,” Dib murmured, his face red, “I’m stuck.”

He was indeed stuck, with his body squished between the deployed airbag and Zim, his hair tangled up against Zim’s face. Zim gulped from where he was sitting, trapped under Dib’s weight as the human sat sideways on his lap. Dib’s hair smelled like sweat.

“Computer,” wheezed Zim, his voice shaky, “do something. Uh, deflate the airbag, please.”

The Computer obliged, wordlessly, because Zim had learned from last time and programmed this one not to talk unless he specifically asked it to.

Dib audibly swallowed, and then Zim felt a hot breath against the side of his neck. With his antennae freed from his wig, Zim could hear the sound of Dib’s pulse as it hammered against the side of his throat.

They stayed still for another moment, even though there was nothing keeping them pressed together anymore, just swallowing gulps of air and waiting for their adrenaline levels to go down. Zim leaned his head against Dib’s, sighing at the feeling of soft, damp human hair against his cheek. Dib buried his nose in the nape of Zim’s neck and inhaled.

After a few minutes, Zim felt the tension leave his body. Dib must have felt the same way, because he slowly shifted off Zim’s lap and got to his feet.

“Thanks for grabbing me,” Dib murmured, brushing at his t-shirt.

Zim took another deep breath.

“Don’t mention it.”

Dib looked at him with a shy smile, which Zim felt himself tentatively returning. Then, he remembered — betrayal, lies, prom, et cetera. He looked away, cursing how near-death experiences always made him so sentimental.

“Are you okay?” asked Dib.

Zim considered that. Besides the whiplash from the fall, he hadn’t been injured. His neck hurt, but otherwise he felt fine. Well, not quite, because his antennae felt like they’d been put through a meat grinder, but that was from the music, not the fall.

“Fine,” said Zim. “And you?”

“Fine, I think,” said Dib, sounding a little surprised. “I’d probably be dead if you hadn’t… uh, you know.”

“Yeah.”

Dib ran a hand through his hair and looked away, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully as he stared out the windshield.

“We crash landed,” said Zim, following Dib’s gaze.

All he could see was the rock and soil that they’d crashed into. Zim wondered how deep into the dirt they were. If they were going to get out of here, they’d have to go out through the airlock at the rear end of the ship.

“Uh, yeah.” Dib chuckled. “I noticed.”

Zim grimaced.

“Computer,” Zim said, “run a diagnostic on the ship. And, see, uh… where we are?”

“Running diagnostic,” said the Computer. “We seem to be on an uncharted planet, comprised of coniferous forests and some freshwater lakes. No natural fauna detected. Outside temperature: forty-five degrees Fahrenheit.”

“No natural fauna?” asked Zim. “But there’s trees?”

“Affirmative.”

Zim chanced a look at Dib, who also seemed puzzled.

“Um, okay,” said Zim. “What are the contents of the troposphere?”

“Tropospheric composition: seventy-eight percent nitrogen, twenty percent oxygen.”

Zim and Dib looked at each other again, their brows furrowed.

“Uh, Computer?”

“What?”

“What’s the other two percent?”

“Unknown element. Proceed with caution.”

In a flash, Zim felt Dib’s hand on his shoulder. He turned around to see the human’s eyes were wide and nervous.

“Diagnostic complete,” said the Computer.

The windshield’s computer screen appeared with an image of the ship, and Zim was able to see the areas of damage. Nothing too horrible, he noted, and no new parts were necessary, but it was bad enough that it would take a day or so for the ship to self-repair.

“Okay,” said Zim. He took a deep breath. “So, we have a few options. One, would could stay here and wait for the ship to repair itself. Two, we could—”

“Hey!” shouted Dib, leaning over Zim’s shoulder and pointing to the dashboard. “My tracker’s going crazy!”

And it was, Zim noticed. The tin can that Dib was using to track his Spittle Runner was beeping in a frenzied manner, and it was blinking a bright green light. Zim watched as Dib fiddled with it, then his eyes went wide.

“What?” asked Zim.

“My dad’s here,” Dib whispered.

“What? How can you tell?”

“Look!”

Dib turned the device to show Zim. Zim inspected it, uncertain.

“Dib, this thing is ancient. And it looks like it got a little banged up—”

“It’s accurate!” Dib snapped. “Now, come on! We gotta go find him. End of the world, remember?”

“Yes, but…” Zim pursed his lips as he watched Dib attempt to crawl up the floor toward the bedroom. At this angle and with little traction, he was having a hard time. “Dib, hang on. We don’t know what’s out there!”

“Nothing’s out there. Your Computer said so! No fauna, remember?”

“Not nothing, Dib-thing. We don’t even know what’s in the air out there! Element unknown, remember?”

“It’ll be fine!”

“Dib, you are such an idiot.”

“End of the world, Zim! Help me up!”

Zim growled, then asked the Computer as quietly as possible if the atmosphere on this uncharted planet was toxic to humans.

“Uh, probably not?” said the Computer.

“Probably not!” repeated Dib, still scrambling toward the door, and Zim shook his head.

“Fine,” he grumbled, finally removing his PAK legs from the chair and standing. “Not like I care if you die, anyway.”

“That’s the spirit,” said Dib, an awkward smile on his face as Zim wrapped his arms around Dib’s waist and used his PAK legs to climb up to the back wall and slip through the door to the bedroom.

They wordlessly moved through the bedroom and then the bathroom, Zim’s arms still wrapped around Dib’s waist, Dib’s hand on one of Zim’s shoulders as he held his tracking device with the other. Finally, they opened the door to the trunk and were hit with an avalanche of snacks. Zim grumbled to Dib that he’d be cleaning that up, and Dib rolled his eyes.

“Fine.”

Zim opened the door to the airlock, and then there was nothing between them and this strange planet but the final door.

Zim put a hand to the outer door of the trunk, then hesitated. Dib squirmed in his grip.

“Well?” asked Dib. “Let’s go.”

Zim took a deep breath, his hand on the latch, his other arm wrapped snug around Dib, his PAK legs holding them suspended in the air.

“Zim, come on, what are you waiting for?”

“I have a bad feeling about this,” Zim confessed.

“Okay, well, too bad. My dad’s out there, and we have to—”

“Dib, I don’t think this is safe. I have a… a really bad feeling. Maybe we could—”

“Come on, Zim!” Dib snarled. “Open the fucking door!”

“No!” Zim snapped, and it was warm in the trunk but he felt a chill run through his body. “You could take one breath and die!”

“You don’t care about that, remember?” Dib fired back. “Open the damn trunk and let go of me, now.”

“I… you’re so… I won’t—”

“Fine, I’ll do it!” grunted Dib, reaching up and closing his hand over Zim’s, unlocking the hatch and popping open the trunk.

Zim heard himself gasp, then both of his arms were wrapped in a death grip around Dib’s torso. They waited there, still, for a few tense seconds. Zim screwed his eyes shut and held his breath for the inevitable.

“Zim…” Dib finally croaked. “I can’t… breathe.”

“I knew it!” Zim snapped. “Computer—”

“No, Zim, ah… let me go.”

Zim paused, then slightly relaxed his arms around Dib. Dib sucked in a huge breath, then exhaled. He took a few deep breaths, his chest heaving against Zim’s. Eventually, Zim felt Dib slip through his arms as he climbed through the hatch and sat himself down on the ship’s stern. With an embarrassed huff, Zim followed.

Once they were outside, Zim got a look around: they were in the middle of the woods, clearly, and the canopy was so dense that there wasn’t a single ray of light coming through, even though the trees themselves were not tightly packed together. Was it even daytime? Zim couldn’t tell. The trees around them were impossibly tall, taller than any tree he’d seen on Earth. The branches began at least a dozen feet above Zim’s head, if not more, and Zim could just barely make out the needles with his enhanced ocular implants. He imagined that Dib couldn’t see a single thing, just darkness.

His theory was confirmed when Dib made to jump off the ship and onto the ground below. It was a less than perfect landing, and Zim heard a pained “oof” as Dib landed in a pile of dirt and fell backwards onto his ass.

Zim hesitated. Who knew what was on this planet? Carnivorous plants were an immediate danger in his mind, and they could easily get lost in a forest this dense, this daunting. They could starve to death or die of dehydration. Well, Zim couldn’t. Dib could.

Below, Zim watched Dib dust himself off and start fiddling with his tracker. He crouched over the open hatch and ordered the Computer to initiate repair sequences, then asked for his wig, too. The wig flew through the hatch and into Zim’s waiting hands, and Zim rushed to follow after where Dib was already starting to walk off.

“Dib!” Zim hissed, reached to grab Dib by the elbow. “Can you even see where you’re going?”

“Of course I can,” said Dib, tapping gently on the frame of his glasses. “Night vision. I put it in, like, two years ago.”

“You did?” asked Zim, unbelieving. “But you just fell off the ship!”

“Yeah, well.” Dib pulled a face. “I’m not a freaking gymnast, okay?”

“Oh,” said Zim, wilting a bit, but then Dib was looking past Zim’s shoulder and walking back to the ship.

Zim turned and followed Dib’s gaze. Ah, shoot.

“Zim, what’s this?” Dib whispered.

Zim grit his teeth. Of course. Of course Zim would have this kind of luck. Dib crouched down next to the ship and brushed his hand over the chipped paint of his ship, scratching at it with his fingernail.

On the hull of the ship, glinting back at Zim — and Dib, apparently, with his night vision-capable eyeglasses — were the partially-concealed words The Dib.

“You named your ship after me?” Dib murmured, still scratching away at the ship’s hasty second paint job, revealing what had been there the entire time.

“I… yeah,” Zim muttered. “A while ago.”

“What color is it?” asked Dib. “I can’t tell, with the glasses, I can’t see the color—”

“It’s blue,” Zim managed.

Dib turned to look at him, and Zim felt like the frogs they’d dissected in hi skool, split open with all his organs exposed. He swallowed, crossing his arms over his body. Dib just stared at him.

“When?” Dib whispered, his voice hoarse, probably from the past three days, when all they’d done was scream at each other.

“A while ago,” Zim repeated.

Dib kept staring, and Zim shifted from foot to foot.

“You always talked about exploring more,” Zim explained, “but you said you didn’t have enough room in the Spittle Runner for a longer trip. I thought… I was working on it for after hi skool. I thought we could go during the summer. I didn’t… I wasn’t expecting what happened at prom, or I would have told you. I was planning on telling you at graduation, actually.”

The confession hung in the air. Everything around them felt saturated, overstimulated, and Zim felt himself start to sweat. This planet, he realized, was unnerving. It made him want to spill his guts to Dib, even though he’d kept all his secrets locked tight for years.

“I… you built this for me?” Dib asked.

“For us,” corrected Zim in a lame attempt at making himself seem like less of a total sucker.

But, who was he kidding? Of course it was for Dib.

Dib stood, then approached. Zim wanted to run, but he stayed rooted to the spot, staring at Dib through his glasses. Dib stared back, but his face looked so open, so filled with emotions that weren’t anger or annoyance. He kept his eyes on Zim and only stopped when they were practically toe to toe.

“I didn’t know,” Dib murmured.

“It was meant to be a surprise,” Zim said.

“Zim, I…” Dib turned away for a second, and he looked full to the point of bursting with slimy human emotion. Zim held his breath.

“I’m so sorry,” said Dib, his eyes fixed on Zim again. “I… I fucked up. I’m sorry I left without telling you. I shouldn’t have done that, I was just so… it felt like you rejected me, and I felt so bad for freaking you out, and I just… I ran off. I should have told you about college when I got accepted. I was mixed up. I… I’m sorry. I’m really sorry, Zim, for all of this.”

Dib had taken a step closer during his apology, so Zim had to crane his neck to meet his gaze. He looked… genuine. Like he was really, truly sorry. Zim felt like his spooch was going to beat itself right out of his chest, and he willed himself to stay composed.

“Well,” Zim managed, but his voice cracked and he didn’t sound composed at all. “I suppose, if you really mean it… you are forgiven.”

Dib took another deep breath, but he didn’t seem too relieved by Zim’s magnanimity. In fact, he still looked miserable.

“I really mean it,” Dib murmured, and Zim felt himself start to sweat under his wig at the low, raspy sound to Dib’s voice.

With a jolt, Zim realized that he liked Dib’s voice after he’d been screaming. He took a deep breath and tried to focus.

“I suppose… I suppose I should not have left you on prom night. That was… not what I was expecting. I should have contacted you after. I shouldn’t have, uh, disappeared, like,” Zim looked from the ground to Dib, “like you said.”

“It’s okay,” Dib murmured, and Zim was relieved to see a quick smile flash across Dib’s face. “It’s okay, really. I forgive you.”

“Well, good,” muttered Zim, only because the air around them was so deafeningly quiet already. “I’m glad we got that sorted out, then.”

“Me too,” said Dib, his smile widening. “I’m so glad.”

“Well, okay,” said Zim. “Let’s… let’s go find your father, then.” He turned to walk deeper into the woods, even though he didn’t actually know where he was going. “Fortunately, the mystery element in this air didn’t immediately kill you, so—”

With a grunt, Zim felt himself being drawn back by the elbow, and then Dib was sweeping him into a hard, tight hug.

When Zim first learned about hugging, he’d thought it was completely pointless and a little gross. He and Dib had embraced only a handful of times in their entire friendship, and, for a long time, Zim didn’t actually care either way if they embraced. He mostly just did it because Dib was occasionally so insistent on it.

Now, though, Zim felt himself eager to reciprocate the embrace, and his arms went tentatively around Dib’s waist. Dib somehow managed to squeeze Zim harder, his arms wrapping Zim up like a blanket. If he stood on his toes, Zim could just hook his chin over Dib’s shoulder, so he did, and it felt just as right as it had the last time, years ago. With his eyes squeezed closed, Zim could focus on the feeling of Dib’s heart beating against his own chest, his hard breaths, his body curled around Zim’s.

They held each other for a long time — Zim lost track of exactly how long, he was so swept up. Eventually, Dib’s arms loosened around him, and Zim lowered himself back onto his heels. They pulled apart, and Zim was surprised to see Dib thumb a lone tear off his cheek.

“Sorry,” Dib murmured with a nervous chuckle. “Just… it’s been stressful, the past couple of days, and this is, uh… that was nice, I mean. Good hug.”

“Good hug,” Zim affirmed, and he held his breath as Dib reached down to give Zim’s hand a lingering squeeze.

“Zim,” Dib murmured. “You know I didn’t… I never stole your tech. I mean, I did,” Dib corrected himself with a quick laugh. “Not after we became friends, though.”

“I know,” said Zim softly, and he did.

“Okay,” said Dib. “Now we really have to go find my dad.”

“Right!” said Zim, louder than he intended. “Uh, of course. Let’s go.”

 

“It’s getting light out,” Dib noted.

Zim looked around and realized that it was, in fact, starting to brighten. It was daybreak, then, maybe? Or, maybe it was noon, and the sunlight was finally strong enough to filter through the trees. Maybe they were at the top of the planet, and this was the end of a months-long night. Maybe this was moonlight, streaming through the trees.

Being on an unfamiliar planet was so awful. Part of Zim wished that they’d run into an alien, because being in this forest alone was so damn creepy. Another part of him knew that any alien living on this planet was probably also creepy, so maybe it was best that he and Dib were alone.

Dib stepped into an illuminated patch of dirt, shivered, then stepped out.

“It’s cold,” Dib said, looking from the stream of light to Zim. “It’s like standing in a freezer.”

Zim glanced at Dib, then stepped into the light. Dib was right; it was freezing, like standing under a shower of ice-cold water.

“Let’s keep moving,” said Zim.

Zim didn’t know how long they’d been walking. His internal clock was completely ineffective on this planet, which was off-putting in and of itself. Zim’s internal clock always ran smoothly and adjusted for the day and year cycles of each planet he was on — it was a necessary function of his PAK. Here, though, it was like time didn’t pass at all. Another reason why Zim was anxious to get out of here.

It was also quiet here. The dirt beneath their feet was soft enough that Zim couldn’t hear their footsteps. Even Dib, who was by no means light-footed, was silent as he walked next to Zim. The air was still and windless.

And, to top it all off, Dib’s tracking device was malfunctioning.

“I think this is right,” Dib muttered, fiddling with the device. “It’s just… it’s like it’s broken, but it was working fine on the ship?”

“I don’t know,” Zim said.

Dib peered at him, then went back to messing with his tracker. Zim tried with all his might to be angry with Dib, but he was too nervous to feel anything but grateful that he at least wasn’t alone.

“So,” said Dib, his eyes still glued to his tracker, “who are Miyuki and Spork?”

Zim paused, and Dib stopped next to him. Zim felt Dib’s eyes on him and stared forward.

He hadn’t told Dib about them in the ten years they’d known each other, but, for some reason, he had to grit his teeth to keep the truth from coming out. Eventually, he gave up.

“They were my Tallest before Red and Purple,” Zim said, quickly as he could.

He cursed himself for a moment, remembering that he’d forgotten his current Tallest’s titles. Then he remember that they weren’t technically his Tallest anymore.

Oh, no.

He swallowed back the threat of vomit.

He took one look at Dib, who was eyeing him curiously, and then started walking again.

“I figured that,” said Dib quietly. “And they died?”

“Yes, they died,” Zim managed, pumping his arms in an attempt to walk faster.

Dib kept pace.

“What happened?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“I just… thought we could talk about it,” said Dib. “I know you didn’t want to before, but now that we made up, I figured—”

“I didn’t kill them!” Zim snapped.

Dib looked at him, wary.

“Why did Red and Purple think you did?”

Zim took a deep breath.

“I didn’t- it wasn’t me, okay?” he managed, keeping his eyes locked on the ground ahead of him. It was getting lighter, he noticed, but not warmer. In fact, he felt colder now than he had been when they’d first left his ship. Was this moonlight, then? Was it nighttime?

“Who did it, then?” asked Dib.

“I… ugh,” Zim felt himself stop again, and Dib stopped with him.

He looked back up at Dib, who was staring at him, but not in an accusing way. More like, he was curious. Confused, even. He wanted to understand.

“What does it matter?” asked Zim. “They blame me for it. They hate me. They’ve always hated me, but when they found out—”

Zim cut himself off, looking from Dib to fix his gaze on a nearby tree.

“What?” whispered Dib, and Zim wanted to scream because Dib had put a gentle hand on Zim’s shoulder.

The feeling of Dib’s thumb rubbing small circles into Zim’s uniform felt like death. Zim leaned into it.

“It was my experiment,” Zim finally confessed. “I made an experiment, a creature, that would consume energy. It consumed an energy producing device and then ate two of my Tallest.”

Dib’s hand froze for a second, then continued. Zim looked up, and Dib was standing there, pursing his lips.

Zim felt his eyes wander from Dib’s eyes to his lips, and he drew in a breath as Dib stepped closer. Not for the first time since their crash, Zim noted that Dib was being a lot more touchy than he normally was. Maybe it was because he was grateful that they were friends again? Either way, it was odd, feeling Dib in his space so much. Dib’s hand continued its gentle massage on Zim’s shoulder. Zim exhaled.

“Tallest Spork was a joke,” said Zim, and he wanted to rip his own arm off for saying it, but it was true. Now that he was no longer a citizen of Irk…

Oh, no, no, no—

“He was?” asked Dib, and Zim felt his attention snap back.

“He was,” Zim confirmed, his voice shaking. “Yes. Tallest Spork was only Tallest for a few years, and he did nothing, and he was bad.”

“And Miyuki?” asked Dib.

“Tallest Miyuki…” Zim looked away. “She was… she…”

“Was she bad?” asked Dib, gently, and Zim knew that his anguish was painted all over his face.

Because it had been Miyuki, and Zim’s spooch flipped in circles every time he thought of that terrified expression on her face, that final scream as his creation ate her whole. No matter what Tallest Red said, Zim had been just as devastated as the rest of them.

“She was perfect,” said Zim.

A silence hung in the air, so painfully quiet that Zim wanted to scream. Dib’s hand left Zim’s shoulder.

“Perfect?” asked Dib. “How?”

“She was Tallest for longer than most irkens are alive. She made us strong. Irkens took over, dominated Irk and destroyed all other life there under her rule. We developed weapons, became smarter, got PAKs, all under Miyuki’s orders. She militarized us, started the invader’s program, sent us to war. We would have nothing, if not for Miyuki. She was power in the form of a person.”

Zim hadn’t meant for it all to come out like that. Really, he hadn’t meant to sound so reverent. But how could he not? When she was Tallest, Miyuki was treated the way earthlings treat their deities. She was everything. Zim would have done anything for her.

“Zim,” said Dib softly. “Miyuki was… a colonizer. She must have been responsible for the deaths of thousands of life forms.”

“Millions, probably,” Zim noted. “Tallest Miyuki was the most bloodthirsty person I have ever known in my life.”

Dib twitched back at that, and Zim knew he’d said something wrong. He knew it by the way that Dib stared down at him with a mix of fear and confusion, like he didn’t recognize Zim anymore.

“You say that like it’s a good thing. Like you admire her,” said Dib, his voice going hard.

“Well, it’s hard not to!” said Zim. “She… she was… she was so smart, so tactical. She was everything any good irken should aspire to be!”

“Well, you don’t have to aspire to that anymore!” Dib said, his back straight and his face still cloudy with fear. “You… you’re not like that anymore!”

“So what if I’m not?” asked Zim.

Wait, what?

Not like what?

“I-I mean, I am,” Zim corrected. “I am like that. Miyuki is the ideal, I should want—”

“Why?” asked Dib. “You think it’s okay to slaughter innocent people? I thought you were on the other side now, Zim, what happened to you?”

“I… I—”

This was so confusing. Why was this so confusing? A familiar sense of doubt was trickling through Zim’s brain, one that he hadn’t felt since hi skool, since he and Dib first realized that they were becoming friends.

Zim looked up at Dib, who was staring down at him. Dib, who was all of a sudden looking at him with pity in his face.

“What?” snapped Zim. “Why are you looking at me like that?”

“I’m sorry,” said Dib, and he was stepping closer again, putting his hands on Zim’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you. I just… I forgot, how hard this is for you.”

Immediately, Dib looked like he’d regretted saying that.

“How hard what is for me?” asked Zim, his face suddenly on fire with embarrassment.

“Just… ugh, I mean, this whole thing, and, like, how you’re basically brainwashed— shit, I’m sorry, I don’t know… I feel like I’m being weird,” Dib admitted. “I feel like I’m saying things without thinking.”

Zim paused. So Dib felt it, too, then.

Dib was still talking. “Like, I feel drunk. I mean, I don’t feel like I’m drunk. I feel like I’m saying things that I wouldn’t say sober. Like I could do things…”

Dib was staring down at him, and they were close again, and Zim had never been more confused in his life. He cleared his throat, and Dib stepped back.

“Sorry,” he muttered. “I don’t know what’s gotten into me. I must be going crazy.”

“You’re already crazy,” Zim snapped, and Dib’s cheeks went red.

“Let’s keep moving,” said Dib.

Zim nodded, and they started walking again.

It wasn’t quiet for long, though.

“I’m sorry I made you mad,” Dib said. “I didn’t mean to sound judgmental, I know that you probably looked up to your Tallest a lot. I just… I don’t know. I don’t see you as that kind of person anymore, I guess?”

Zim just grunted, his teeth clamped down on his tongue.

“I mean, it would be crazy to say you weren’t ever violent, we both know that. But, you weren’t always a shoot first, think later kind of guy, either, right? You didn’t… you were on Earth for so long, and you… you changed a lot. You were a lot less sympathetic when you first got here. There, I mean. To Earth. But then, after a while, I don’t know, it was like you relaxed—”

“I didn’t,” Zim snapped. “I… I always emulated Miyuki, that’s what we do, as irkens, it’s not… it’s not an option. And even if it were, I would do it anyway.”

Dib peered at Zim from the corner of his eye, and Zim felt his face heat up again.

“Okay, Zim,” said Dib softly. “Let’s just drop it.”

“And what about you?” asked Zim. “You can’t say you didn’t do the same thing.”

Dib turned to look at him fully, but Zim refused to stop walking. Dib’s eyes were still on him, though, wide and curious.

“What are you talking about?” asked Dib.

“Your father,” said Zim with a shrug. “You don’t see it?”

“Of course not,” Dib huffed. “I’m nothing like my dad.”

“Maybe not,” Zim allowed. “Not for lack of trying, though.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dib snapped, and he started walking again, chasing after Zim. “You think I’d doom the planet and then run away?”

“Well, you are in space right now—”

“To get him! To bring him back! He needs to be held accountable—”

“I know that,” said Zim. “But, growing up, you were always trying to be like him. You can’t deny it.”

“The hell I can’t,” snapped Dib. “How could you possibly think I’m anything like him?”

“Your father dedicates his life to the practice of science in order to provide a better world for the people of Earth,” Zim said. “Above all else, he values the approval and the praise of the masses. He feeds on it. Remember back when he first unveiled PEG? He didn’t get the reaction he wanted and he sent it right back underground.”

“Yeah, well… I’m not like that,” Dib muttered, but Zim could practically see the gears turning in Dib’s head.

“You dedicated yourself to the paranormal so that you could protect people from big feets,” said Zim. “And then, you dedicated yourself to protecting your pathetic planet from me.”

“Yeah, because Earth needed to be safe, not because I wanted recognition!”

“Didn’t you, though?” asked Zim. “How much time did you waste in Ms. Bitters’s class, trying to prove to a bunch of nonbelievers that I was an alien? And how much of that time did you spend gloating about all the times you had allegedly beaten me?”

A heavy silence hung in the air, and Zim realized that he’d been talking without thinking again. Next to him, Dib looked furious.

“That’s not what I was doing,” Dib grumbled. “You make it sound like I was just… some kind of attention-seeker.”

“Of course you were seeking attention,” said Zim. “Your own father didn’t even live at your house most of the time!”

“Oh, what are you now, Zim, a psychologist?” shouted Dib. “You don’t even have a family!”

“I’m glad I don’t!” Zim shot back. “It clearly just makes you messed up!”

“You’re messed up!” snapped Dib. “You’re messed up already, so you don’t even need one!”

Zim felt a tug of sympathy at Dib’s distress, and he reminded himself that they weren’t fighting anymore. He took a deep breath.

“I’m not trying to upset you, Dib—”

“You didn’t,” Dib hissed. “It’s fine. I don’t care what you say. Not you, not Gaz, not anyone.”

Zim took another deep breath. Before he could stop himself, he was talking again.

“Just like Membrane again, then? Go ahead, Dib, act like you don’t care about me or your family, it’s very convincing.”

“That’s not… that’s not what I’m doing. That’s not what my dad did.”

“Your dad didn’t have to pretend. He genuinely didn’t care—”

“Shut up, Zim!” Dib snapped. His voice was shaking, and Zim realized with a start that Dib was on the verge of tears again. “I don’t need to hear this from you, okay? I know he’s an asshole! And I’m not trying to be like him, at all, okay? Just the opposite, actually. So, just… please, just shut the fuck up.”

Zim took a deep breath, then another.

“Sorry,” Zim muttered.

They continued walking through the woods in silence.

 

When Zim looked up, he could see the moon, just barely, through the trees. The woods they were walking through were slightly less dense than where they’d started. The moon was enormous and white, glowing down at him with an unexpected intensity. The woods were brighter now, so visible that Dib had to turn off his night vision enhancement.

But it was still moonlight, and the air still felt cold and still, and Zim likened it to being trapped in the Voot Cruiser for six months while he and GIR were on their way to Earth from Conventia. It felt like they were running out of air.

Dib trudged next to him, his face twisted and angry. Zim felt bad for what he’d said. He truly hadn’t been trying to upset Dib, but he couldn’t take any of it back. Dib tried to hard to be like his father. It made Zim sad to think that he much preferred Dib when he was being himself, chasing his curiosities because they interested him, helping people just because he liked it.

But, Dib was a human, and humans needed recognition for the things they did. Dib’s family had always ostracized him for his interests. So much so that Zim had been a kind of surrogate, a stand-in who went exploring with Dib and listened to him yammer on about Loch Ness monsters.

Had Dib found someone else to do that with him in college? The very thought made Zim want to blow something up and then tear Dib into pieces.

“I heard something,” Dib mumbled, making Zim jump. It was the first time Dib had spoken in… an hour? Twenty minutes? Who knows?

“What?” whispered Zim.

“I think… I thought I did. Did you?” asked Dib, looking over.

Zim paused, straining to listen despite the presence of his wig. He wanted to take it off, but what if Membrane was wandering around?

Then, he heard it. Footsteps. Slow and quiet.

“Yes,” Zim whispered. “I hear it.”

Something else, Zim realized. Zim fixed his eyes on the ground in front of him and focused on listening. It became harder to focus, though, as the mist seeped from the trees and curled around his ankles. When had it gotten foggy?

Then, he heard it. Breathing.

“Dib,” Zim whispered.

Suddenly, Zim felt a death grip on his elbow. He turned to see Dib, who was looking behind them, his eyes wide and his mouth agape.

In the moonlight, Dib’s warm, olive skin was washed of all of its pigment. Now, somehow, he looked even paler, like any remaining drops of blood had drained from his face.

Zim turned slowly, following Dib’s gaze.

He was at eye-level with a set of four hooves. Zim dragged his gaze up, taking in the straight legs, the broad chest, the long neck. Black eyes. Antlers.

Irk had no such creatures. But this animal resembled something from Earth. What was it? A deer. Zim stared at the antlers. A stag.

Dib’s hand dropped from his elbow as Zim turned to fully look at the beast. In the moonlight, it looked white, hairless. But its skin didn’t look like skin, it looked like… a tree. Like the gnarled, dry wood of a tree that had been dead a very long time.

The stag stepped closer, and Zim felt his spooch pounding in his chest. He stared as it approached, its movements graceless and stilted. It hobbled toward them, its eyes fixed on them. It was so tall that its antlers reached the needles of the pine trees surrounding it. With every step it took, it looked more broken down, and Zim was convinced it would fall apart at any second, like a skeleton that had been reanimated and then put back to death.

The stag’s feet were so close to them now. It took a step back, its rickety body nearly collapsing to one side. It lowered its head, slowly.

“Stay still,” Zim muttered.

He didn’t know why he said it. He had no idea what this animal wanted it, what it responded to. He couldn’t even tear his eyes away from the stag to look at Dib. But, he heard Dib’s short, gasping breaths as if Dib’s mouth were right against his antennae.

The point of the stag’s muzzle rested on the forest floor. Its nose was so close, nostrils flared.

The head of the stag looked like the body: white as the moon, but thin and dry-looking. Its skin was so transparent, Zim could see the flat planes of its facial bones, illuminated by the moonlight. Two long tusks began partway down its narrow muzzle and curved downward into sharp, splintered points.

Its eyes— oh, its eyes weren’t eyes at all, but empty sockets, cold and dark. There was nothing in its eyes but emptiness, but Zim couldn’t stop staring, and the longer he looked, the more an image started to form.

He saw himself, stripped of his disguise and his uniform. His ocular implants were missing, too, and his own empty eye sockets stared back at him. Blood bubbled out of his sockets like water from a fountain. The same blood fell from his mouth, trickling over his bottom teeth, down his naked body, drenching him.

Suddenly, Dib’s hand was clutching his. Zim cringed.

The stag gave a sharp exhale, right into Zim’s face. Its breath was cold and clammy, and it smelled like something that had gone rotten.

Dib’s hand gripped him tighter. Zim gripped back.

The stag pawed at the ground with a front foot and grunted, shaking its head back and forth. Its antlers, Zim noticed, were like its tusks: splintered and dry, marred with cracks. The stag’s bones creaked as it moved.

It opened its mouth, exposing a tongue, thin and black and thorny.

Zim’s spooch was thundering against his ribcage, and his vision was starting to go spotty. He was going to faint, he realized, as the blood drained from his brain, much like how it drained from his eyes and mouth in the stag’s empty, blank eyes.

The stag exhaled again, through its mouth this time, blowing fog into Zim's face. Its breath was like roadkill — like the dead creatures that GIR would occasionally drag into his base. Its tongue flicked around in its mouth before extending out to lick a row of crooked, cracked teeth.

“Zim,” Dib whimpered.

Zim couldn’t speak. He could barely move. He squeezed Dib’s hand as hard as he could.

“Zi-im,” Dib said again, his soft voice wavering like it did when he was near tears.

Between them, their clasped hands shook with the fervor of Dib’s anxiety. Zim felt like he’d stopped breathing.

The stag licked again at its teeth, slow and unsteady. Then, with a jerk, it raised its head.

To Zim’s horror, the stag hissed, a sound that shook his bones and made his whole body break into a cold sweat. The stag was looking at something behind them. A tug on his arm informed Zim that Dib was moving.

Even though he felt like he was buried inside a block of ice, Zim craned his neck so he could follow Dib’s gaze and look behind them.

It was another stag, standing in the shadows of the trees. It was dark, and difficult to see, but its eyes shone like Earth’s sun.

It pawed at the ground with a front hoof and ducked its head, revealing smooth, sturdy antlers that were draped in vegetation — vines and leaves and plants that were green and lush. As it moved, its thick black hair shone in the moonlight. It pawed at the ground again and gave a snort.

Behind them, the white stag hissed again, and Zim felt frozen to the spot.

Beside him, Dib was snapping his head back and forth, caught in the middle of the two enormous beasts.

The black stag reared onto its hind legs and roared.

At that, Zim’s adrenaline finally picked up enough, and his PAK reacted before he could. He was barely able to snatch Dib around the waist before his PAK legs emerged and carried them away. Where they had just been standing, Zim couldn’t see, but he could hear the sound of hooves beating against the ground. He could hear snarls and howls, sounds that no Earth deer could ever make.

Zim’s PAK legs scaled a tree, and Zim barely noticed how far up they’d gone until Dib gasped.

“Zim, Zim!” Dib whispered, his voice still hoarse. “Stop!”

Zim obliged, still too paralyzed to do anything but what he was told.

They paused, the points of Zim’s PAK legs buried into the hard wood of the tree they’d climbed, Dib sandwiched between Zim and the bark, his arms and legs wrapped tightly around Zim’s body.

The beasts continued to battle, and Zim could hear the unmistakable sounds of tearing skin and spilling blood, even with his antennae buried under his wig. He felt thankful, actually, because it would be so much worse if he could hear it. It was bad enough that he could smell the fight, coppery and moldy, he thought.

Around them, the branches of the tree were thick and long. The needles smelled like nothing.

Dib’s face was buried in Zim’s neck, his breath hot and damp against Zim’s sensitive throat. His breaths were shaky and loud, accompanied by whines and whimpers. Zim, acting again on impulse, held his hands to Dib’s head and covered his ears. He rested his cheek upon the top of Dib’s head and closed his eyes.

Zim had no idea how long they waited there, huddled against a tree, dozens of feet above the ground. Dib’s fingernails were digging into Zim’s uniform, his legs gripping Zim and shaking with the strain of holding so tight. His face, sweaty and warm, was still pressed deep into the dip of Zim’s neck. Zim’s palms were tight on Dib’s ears, and his fingers clutched Dib’s hair. Below them, the beasts were still fighting, their shrieks and howls echoing through the clearing and through Zim’s wig.

Eventually, finally. Silence.

Zim opened his eyes and had to blink to adjust. He looked up.

Rays of light, warm and bright, shone through the trees. Zim blinked again. It was… daytime?

“Dib,” Zim murmured.

Dib didn’t answer.

With an embarrassed huff, Zim removed his hands from Dib’s ears. He felt Dib shift, his nose rubbing against Zim’s throat and making his antennae shudder under his wig.

“Dib,” Zim murmured again.

“Yeah?” Dib answered.

“I think it’s over.”

“How—how do you know?” Dib asked, but Zim could feel Dib’s fingers release their hold on his tunic. The knuckles in Dib’s fingers cracked.

“I… I don’t know,” Zim admitted. “I don’t hear anything. I think… I think we should—”

“Yeah,” said Dib. “Let’s do it.”

Zim pursed his lips at how hard Dib was trying to sound like he wasn’t afraid.

“It’ll be okay,” whispered Zim, lightly running his hands through Dib’s hair in an attempt to be soothing.

Dib tilted his head up at that, and Zim gulped.

They stared at each other, tangled together, pinned against a tree by the legs of Zim’s PAK.

Dib’s lower lip was swollen and red, and Zim deduced that he must have been gnawing on it this whole time, like he did when he was nervous. His eyes, so strange, such an inhuman color, bore into Zim’s face.

Zim wanted to kiss him.

Near death experiences always made Zim so sentimental.

A pause, longer than a lifetime, lingered between them. Zim caught his breath.

“We should get down,” said Zim. “We need to… we need to find your father. We need to get off this planet.”

Dib nodded. “Okay.”

They scaled back down the tree, their hips and legs and chests brushing and bumping as Zim’s PAK legs, tired from holding the two of them up, skittered downwards. Zim closed his eyes at the feeling of Dib’s thigh slipping against his groin.

Finally, they reached the ground. Dib’s feet landed first, and then Zim’s spider legs pulled free of the tree and retreated back into his PAK. Zim landed on the forest floor with a soft thump and was shocked to find that the ground under his feet was warm and solid, devoid of mist.

“It’s different,” said Dib.

“It is,” Zim agreed.

He even felt warmer, and less like he was suffocating. The floor of the forest was golden in the spots where the sun touched it.

They both peered around, and were shocked to find that there was nothing left of the battle that they’d escaped from. In fact, there were no more smells, either, no proof that any kind of fight had taken place. The ground was clean of blood, even though Zim had heard it being spilled just minutes ago.

“We need to get the fuck off this crazy planet,” Dib said, and Zim had to agree.

A beep startled them both, and Zim realized that Dib’s tracking device was a few yards away from them, sitting on the floor, waiting to be retrieved.

“What… how?” asked Dib, and then he shook his head. “Whatever, I don’t… I don’t even know.”

He strode over to the device with more fearlessness than Zim would have liked, and Zim hastened behind him.

Dib bent down to pick up the tracker and then turned back to Zim.

“I think it’s working again,” said Dib. “It… actually looks like it knows where it’s going.”

“Yes, well,” Zim grumbled. “I should hope so.”

Dib looked from the tracker to Zim, peering down at him through the smudged lenses of his glasses.

“I feel… normal, again. I think,” said Dib. “It’s like I don’t… I’m not… I think whatever that was, it’s gone.”

“Yes,” agreed Zim, but he didn’t feel normal at all, and he still wanted to kiss Dib, which was not good.

“I’m sorry for what we were fighting about. I don’t… actually remember what it was, to be honest, but I know we were mad.”

“Yes,” said Zim. “Apology accepted. I also apologize. For… whatever happened.”

“Cool,” said Dib. “Cool.”

“Yes.”

Dib took a deep breath, and Zim did as well.

“Let’s get going, then.”

“Okay,” said Zim, and off they went.

 

ii.

Zim wasn’t sure that the rut in the dirt was a result of Dib’s Spittle Runner crashing into the ground, but Dib was. They followed the rut until it finally came into view: Dib’s ship, with a figure in white bent over it.

Even with his contact lenses in, Zim’s vision was superior to any humans by a long shot. Zim suspected that what Dib saw was the lab coat and something long, black, and bent coming from the head of the figure.

Zim saw the same. He also saw two streaks of black where Dib was likely seeing only one, and he saw undeniable green.

“Dad!” Dib shouted, and he took off at a run before Zim could stop him.

“Dib, wait!” Zim called, chasing after.

They ran until they were a few yards away from the Spittle Runner, and then Dib stopped short. Zim halted at his elbow and scanned Dib’s face. He was staring, his eyes wide and his mouth gaping. Zim swallowed hard and looked forward.

The irken, crouched over the Spittle Runner and wearing Professor Membrane’s clothes, stared back at them.

Chapter Text

i.

“Did you like the candy?” asked Dib, a stupid grin plastered on his face.

“Don’t change the subject,” said Zim, eyeing Dib for a cursory moment before facing forward again. “What I’m saying is that there’s no way they’d be able to get a ship like that flying. It’s completely unbelievable.”

“It’s a movie,” said Dib, not for the first time.

“It’s a science movie!”

“Science fiction,” Dib corrected, half a step behind Zim as they walked toward the door. “‘Fiction’ means it’s made up.”

Zim huffed, slamming his empty soda cup into a nearby trash can. He turned back to Dib, who was grinning at him as he stuffed another handful of overly-buttered popcorn into his mouth.

“I know what ‘fiction’ means.”

“Maybe they just have good technology,” said Dib, his cheeks puffed like a chipmunk's. “Stuff that’s built to last.”

“No Irken ship would last that long,” Zim pointed out, trying to ignore how gross Dib was for talking with a mouth full of food.

“Maybe their tech was better than Irken tech,” said Dib, and his grin widened at the look of horror on Zim’s face.

“Wha— As if!” Zim shot back, his voice high, and Dib had to stop walking, he was laughing so hard.

Zim stood there, arms crossed, foot tapping, as he waiting for Dib to compose himself. He was a mess, hunched over in the middle of the aisle with a hand on his knee, spilling popcorn on the already filthy floor of the movie theater, trying to breathe and laugh and finish chewing the mouthful that he hadn’t swallowed yet.

“Not funny,” Zim growled, slapping Dib hard on the back and making him stumble forward.

Dib, finished with his choking fit but still bent over, peered up at Zim through strands of tousled black hair. He swallowed down his popcorn and grinned.

“You getting this worked up over a cheesy sci-fi movie? It’s very funny.”

Zim just scoffed, still waiting as Dib righted himself and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You’re insufferable.”

“Thank you.”

Dib started walking again, and Zim followed.

“Do you want to go see that vampire slayer one tomorrow?” Dib asked. “It’s supposed to be super gory.”

“Tomorrow?” Zim repeated. “We can’t.”

“Oh,” said Dib, turning to look at Zim. “Right.”

They watched each other as Dib pushed open the door, and Zim noticed something he’d never seen before. As they stepped from the dark theater into the bright hallway of the cinema, Zim watched Dib’s pupils behind his glasses. They were… doing something weird.

They constricted, as human pupils always did when going from a dark space to a light one. But, they way they constricted — it happened so quickly, Zim couldn’t totally be sure that his own mind wasn’t playing tricks on him. But, something about it looked off. Like Dib’s pupils had changed shape, became amorphous for a moment before returning to roundness. It was unsettling. A thought, urgent and booming as a fire alarm, roared into Zim's head.

WHAT'S WRONG WITH DIB?

Zim hadn’t even realized he’d stopped walking, blocking the path for all the other moviegoers leaving the theatre, until Dib took him by the arm and guided him away from the crowd.

“Hey,” said Dib, “you okay?”

“I… what?” said Zim. “I’m fine.”

“We don’t have to go tomorrow, if it’ll upset you. I didn’t… I didn’t think it would, I guess. But I know irkens probably don’t— ah, sorry, am I being super culturally insensitive right now?”

“What?” asked Zim. “What are you talking about?”

Dib regarded him, his own brow furrowed in confusion.

“Old Kid’s funeral. I’m saying we don’t have to go if you don’t want to.”

“Why wouldn’t I want to?” asked Zim.

Truthfully, he didn’t want to, but Dib said he was going, so Zim figured he would, too.

“You just had a weird look on your face,” said Dib. “I don’t know.”

“Oh,” said Zim. “Right. No, it wasn’t about that.”

“Okay,” said Dib, stretching out the word like it was Earth taffy. “I mean, it’s not like I’m excited about it or anything. He was just, you know, one of our nicer classmates, so I figured it’d be good if we went. It’s weird, though, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” agreed Zim, “a sixteen-year-old dying of old age is quite weird. A shame, he'll miss our junior prom.”

Dib fixed him with a tense smile, and then he was walking toward the exit. Zim followed, absentmindedly agreeing to Dib’s offer to come over and play video games, still thinking about Dib’s strange, jiggly pupils.

 

The funeral was an excruciatingly long affair, but Zim got what he needed. As he and Dib stood next to each other, staring into the hole in the dirt that would soon be Old Kid’s eternal resting place, Zim reached over and snatched a strand of hair off Dib’s blazer.

Dib looked down at him, surprised.

“You shed too much,” Zim whispered.

“You’re wearing pink at a funeral,” Dib countered, his voice as low as Zim’s.

“An invader’s uniform is suitable for all events,” Zim hissed, and Dib just rolled his eyes.

Zim pocketed the hair and took off the second the funeral was over, calling over his shoulder to Dib that he needed to wash GIR’s doggie suit. Dib, as expected, did not offer to help.

That night, Zim brought up all the research he’d done on human biology. GIR made cookies in the shape of Old Kid, then bit all the heads off, out of respect.

 

Zim was in his labs for hours, then days. He missed a day of school, and Dib came over to drop off his assignments.

“You good?” Dib asked.

Zim, still in his lab coat and goggles, accepted the homework and tossed it toward the couch to GIR, who promptly ate it.

“Yes, yes,” said Zim. “Just doing some experiments. They’re, uh… time-sensitive.”

“Okay,” said Dib with a shrug, apparently unfazed, probably because this wasn’t unusual behavior for Zim. “Well, let me know if you need help?”

“It’s fine,” said Zim quickly. “A one-person job, actually, I don’t even need GIR’s assistance.”

From his spot in the doorway, Dib peered past Zim’s shoulder at GIR, who was coughing up staples.

“Right,” he said. “Well, you should come to school tomorrow. They might call in the Roboparents if you keep missing class.”

Zim cringed. “Good point.”

Dib looked around for another second, then down at Zim.

“Hey, Zim?” he asked.

“Yes?” asked Zim, already getting a little irritated, already anxious to get back to work.

“You’re not, like… doing experiments on Old Kid’s corpse or anything, are you?”

“What?” asked Zim, his antennae flattening on his head. “Of course not! Why would I?”

“Well, I’m not really sure how you process grief, so I wasn’t sure if you, you know, needed help coping, I could come in—”

“Grief? No!” snapped Zim. “I didn’t even care about Old Kid. His cells would be useless—” Zim froze then, realizing that Dib had just given him an idea. “Actually…”

Maybe that’s where he’d find his breakthrough: comparison. Zim had done countless hours of research on Dib’s DNA, but it was becoming tedious. This could be an interesting direction to take his experiments. Maybe Dib’s strange pupils were linked to aging, somehow? But Zim would need more information, and he needed more than just a silly strand of hair.

“Can I have some of your blood?” asked Zim.

Dib drew back. Then, he narrowed his eyes.

“Why?” he asked.

“Just… it’s for a project, okay?”

A lopsided, self-deprecating smile formed on Dib’s face.

“If you’re looking to clone me, you’re probably better off just stealing some blood from my dad. Get it straight from the source.”

“I would rather die than live in a world with two of you,” Zim retorted. “Er… three of you, I suppose. Can I just… I’m researching humans, okay? Just a little blood? Please?”

Dib looked down at him with sympathy in his eyes, and Zim had a feeling Dib still thought this had to do with Old Kid’s death. Of course, it didn’t, but Zim was definitely going to get down to that cemetery as soon as it got dark and start harvesting some cells.

“Fine,” said Dib slowly. “You can have some. But, maybe we can talk about Old Kid at some point, okay?”

“Yes, yes, fine, if it will shut you up.”

Dib rolled his eyes, but a few minutes later, they were in the lab, and Zim was drawing blood from the vein in Dib’s left elbow. GIR, next to them, was poking himself with a needle in an attempt to draw his own blood, ignoring as Dib kept telling him that he didn’t have any.

Zim would be lying if he said that he didn’t occasionally think of Dib’s pitifully short lifespan. Since they’d officially become friends (they had the bracelets and everything), Zim had sometimes considered what his life would be like after Dib died. Earth wouldn’t be the same, and, honestly, he would probably just leave. Maybe conquer it for real, with Dib finally not around to stop him.

But, no. That wasn’t really the priority these days.

In fact, Old Kid’s death had kind of thrown Zim off, though he would never admit it to Dib. That would just upset Dib, and make him feel all guilty for his meager life expectancy, and then Zim would feel bad, which would be annoying.

No, Zim figured that the time would come to deal with Dib’s mortality. For now, Zim was just coasting on the enjoyment of actually being friends with Dib. The anniversary of their unofficial truce was approaching, and Zim would rather put effort into finishing his experiments before then. Or, at least, he wanted to make enough progress to allow himself a day off to go to the movies with Dib on their special day.

Zim was standing over his microscope, staring into a petri dish, when he realized that he and Dib really had been friends for almost a year. That means that he hadn’t contacted his Tallest in… almost a year.

He’d call them soon. After he was done with his experiments.

And, actually, it looked like Zim was making a breakthrough. He jotted down a few notes in his tablet, took one last look into the microscope, then returned to the computer.

 

Zim had been working tirelessly on the issue of Dib’s strange pupils. After some light grave robbing, Zim realized that he actually needed more samples of human cells than he’d initially thought. So, he’d snuck into his neighbors’ homes, stolen a vial of their blood while they were sleeping (and, for good measure, their children’s blood), and gone right back to testing.

Now, Zim was standing in front of his base’s largest computer monitor, staring at the data that he’d compiled over the past two weeks.

Years ago, Zim had learned about human genetic code, DNA, chromosomes, et cetera. That was nothing new. What Zim had learned from Old Kid, the ugly neighbor lady, or Snookums the baby wasn’t that stretches of DNA called telomeres exist as caps at the ends of chromosomes to protect human genetic data and make it possible for cells to divide. He’d already learned that from his first human test subject, Nick.

He’d also learned that cell division, an inevitable trait of human biology, leads to the shortening of these telomeres, right up until the telomere is so short that the cell is no longer capable of dividing and thus becomes dormant. This was proven, once again, by Zim’s findings: Old Kid’s white and red blood cells had stopped dividing before his death, as his telomeres were notably short. The ugly neighbor lady’s telomeres weren’t as short as Old Kid’s had been, but they were shorter than the baby’s.

And yet, interestingly enough, Dib’s own blood sample showed that his telomeres were the longest — longer than Gretchen’s, longer than the ones Zim had stolen off the Girly Ranger that had come to his house to sell cookies.

Longer than Shnookums the baby’s.

In fact, as Zim stared down at Dib’s red blood cells, watching as they divided, he found the entire experience reeked of… oh, what was it called? Something French. Something about familiarity. Dib’s cells divided like cancer cells.

They divided like Zim’s.

Zim tried to keep a level head, tried to remind himself that he couldn’t get emotional while he was doing science. He continued to remind himself of this as he pricked his own finger and replaced Dib’s blood under the microscope with his own. He didn’t blink as he watched his own cells divide in real time.

He didn’t know how long he’d been in his lab at this point. Surely, he’d missed the bus this morning and was not going to make it to skool today.

Because Dib’s blood, it was red and viscous, like human blood. But that was where the similarities ended, it seemed. In fact, on the most basic level, Dib’s blood looked more like Zim’s than any human’s.

Zim couldn’t bring himself to go to skool the next day, and he sent GIR to shoo Dib away when he came knocking again. He was busy, now, testing Dib’s blood, not against the neighbors’, but against his own. With each finding, he felt himself become increasingly more nervous.

A ding.

Zim looked up from his microscope to see that Dib had sent him another electronic text message. He removed a glove and reached for his tablet, then typed out a quick response, everything’s fine, coming back to skool tomorrow, and then got back to work.

Zim didn’t go to skool the next day. He had to be absolutely sure.

And, then, when he’d exhausted every idea, every experiment he could think of, he realized that he was sure. He was tired, and he really did need to get back to skool. The Roboparents were always terrible at parent-teacher conferences, and Zim would prefer not to go back to the guidance counselor and discuss his “home life” again.

And, besides, he was sure. He was sure, completely and doubtlessly, that Dib was no clone of Professor Membrane. He was something else, not human, but not entirely not-human, either. A hybrid of some sort. One whose cells divided perfectly, whose chromosomes remained perpetually protected, like an irken’s. One who, to Zim’s surprised relief, didn’t age. At least, not the way humans aged.

Zim supposed that could explain the strangeness of Dib’s eyes. Perhaps it was a side effect of Dib’s not-quite-humanity. Perhaps it was another strange liberty that Membrane had taken with the creation of his child.

Of course, Zim couldn’t tell Dib this. It would devastate him. The day that Dib learned that he was a clone of his father, and not a product of normal human baby-making, had been the worst day of his life. Zim remembered it well, and he had no intention of putting Dib through an additional crisis because he was only partially human. Whatever Membrane had done to him, however he’d made him, Dib didn’t need to know. At least, not yet.

Zim remembered Dib’s tears on the night he’d learned about his true origins. He remembered how lost Dib had been, how depressed and confused he’d felt. No, Zim would not be the one to put him through that again.

 

The next day, Zim showed up to his first period class early and sat in his usual seat. Dib trudged into the classroom a few minutes later with a grim look on his face. His expression shifted into surprise when he saw Zim, then he smiled.

“Hey,” said Dib, sliding into his seat, right next to Zim. “You’re back.”

“Yes,” Zim confirmed. “I’ve finished with my project. I’m ready to learn all about—” Zim peered around for a second, then his eyes caught on the textbook Dib was pulling from his backpack “—chemistry.”

“Good,” said Dib with a small smile. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Zim felt himself smile back, but he couldn’t help but feel a bit sad. Poor Dib. He had no idea how abnormally high his telomerase production was, how his cells were like new every time they divided.

But, that niggling sense of relief was still present in Zim’s spooch, and it had been ever since he’d concluded his research. Some day, Dib would be faced with his own superhuman lifespan. And, Zim would be right there, ready to take him by the elbow and guide him into the wonderful, confusing, sometimes tedious immortal world.

“Hey,” said Zim suddenly. He turned in his seat to face Dib. “Did you know that today’s the first anniversary of that day in the cemetery?”

“The…? Oh,” said Dib. “Is it?”

“Yes,” Zim said, and he felt a bubble of excitement form in his spooch when Dib turned in his own seat to face Zim.

Dib’s smile was tentative, no doubt because he was remembering that night, how strange it had been. Zim couldn’t help his spreading grin.

“Uh… so?” asked Dib.

So,” repeated Zim, “it’s the first anniversary of the day we became friends.”

“Oh,” said Dib. “Oh, yeah. I guess it is, huh?”

“Yes,” huffed Zim, exasperated and a little hurt, despite himself. “Forgive me for caring.”

“Okay, okay,” said Dib with a short laugh. “Let’s do something about it. Go celebrate. After skool?”

“The zombie slayer movie,” said Zim.

“Vampire slayer.”

“Whatever.”

Dib smiled again, wider than Zim had seen all morning. The teacher stepped into class just then, already going on about something irrelevant and stupid, and Zim felt a flash of disappointment as Dib turned in his seat to face the front of the classroom. He turned, too, sighing as their instructor gave him a pointed look. Zim just crossed his arms.

He was already daydreaming, thinking about what he and Dib would do with all their years together. Would they go into space? Explore the planets? Or would they stay on Earth, chasing down every last monster until the whole planet was safe from the paranormal? What would Dib want to do?

A crumpled-up ball of paper landed on his desk. He snuck a peek at Dib, who was looking at him out of the corner of his eye.

He opened up the paper and found a note, written in Dib’s surprisingly neat hand.

I’ll buy the popcorn.

They skipped junior prom that May, opting instead to play video games and make fun of their classmates for their ridiculous and disgusting displays of affection.

 

ii.

They were so close. Dib could feel it. And, when they found the rut, carved by Dib’s own Spittle Runner, he could see it.

Zim was skeptical. But, soon, Zim would see, too.

Dib looked over at Zim as they trudged through the woods, following the rut.

Zim was uneasy, but that wasn’t necessarily new. He’d been uneasy this entire… day? Dib wasn’t sure how long they’d been on this planet. He knew that it scared Zim. And, to be honest, it scared Dib, too.

Dib found himself wishing Zim would take off his crappy disguise. He missed seeing Zim’s antennae bounce and dance with emotion. He liked the visual proof that Zim wasn’t the unfeeling machine he sometimes tried to be.

They’d been so close, just a few minutes ago. Dib had curled around Zim’s body and held on as tightly as he could, and Zim let him, held him back, covered his ears so he couldn’t hear the sound of those two giant deer ripping each other to pieces.

And, also, what were those things? Where had they come from? Why hadn’t they left behind a trace after everything had gone quiet? Why hadn’t the Computer in Zim’s ship picked up on them? Why, when Dib had looked into the white one’s dead, empty eye, had he seen his own blood draining from his eyes, nose, and mouth? Why had his normal, red blood started to turn pink, near the end, right before that other deer appeared?

He wanted to talk to Zim about it, but every time he looked over, he remembered the feeling of Zim’s fingers sliding through his hair, and his throat got dry.

What was going on with them? Even now that they’d apologized, it seemed like they couldn’t stop fighting. Zim had built Dib a spaceship, and they’d argued about the Tallest like it was freaking junior year of hi skool. And Dib was feeling nervous and sweaty just looking at Zim. Like it was freaking senior year of hi skool.

Suddenly, Dib was startled out of his thoughts, because he saw it. The trees cleared, and there it was: his Spittle Runner. Dug into the dirt and smoking, but it was still intact, Dib could see. A figure in a lab coat was on his knees, bent over the wreck. Not just any lab coat. It was his dad.

“Dad!” Dib shouted, breaking into a run.

Distantly, he heard Zim call for him to wait. Why? Dib kept running.

He ran as fast as he could, right up until the moment he saw that the person sitting in front of his ship, staring back at him, wasn’t his dad at all. It must be an alien. It looked like an irken.

Dib froze, and Zim was on him in a second, grabbing him by the arm and tugging gently. Dib couldn’t look away.

The alien stared back at him.

“Who… who are you?” said Dib, finally, as loudly as he could muster. “Who are you? Where’s my dad?”

The forest was silent as the figure stood slowly, his hands held in front of him in a gesture of surrender.

“Where did you come from?" asked Dib.

No answer.

"Say something!” he shouted. His hair was standing up on the back of his neck as the alien approached. “Who are you? Why are you wearing my dad’s clothes?”

The alien was dressed just like Membrane, from the boots to the goggles. Had they hijacked his ship? Murdered his dad and stolen his clothes? Was that why the Spittle Runner had been going in zigzags all this time?

“Dib…” Zim murmured.

Dib tore his gaze away from the alien to look at Zim. Zim stared back at him, his whole face open and striking, eyes wide with some emotion Dib couldn’t remember.

Dib looked back at the alien. They — wait, now he remembered. That face Zim was making.

It was pity.

Dib looked harder at the alien, squinting through the scratches in his glasses.

“Dib,” said the alien, its voice deep and smooth, unnervingly familiar. “Please, just… just relax.”

It hit him all at once: the voice, the clothes, the fucking antennae that looked just like his hair. It wasn’t just an alien.

Dib’s heart stopped.

It was his dad.

“Dad?” Dib asked, his voice shaking. “What… what’s going on?”

“Dib,” his father repeated, and it was him, it had to be him, no one said Dib’s name like that. “Son, I—”

“What are you doing here?” Dib whimpered, and Zim tensed next to him. “What’s going on? What is this? Are you wearing a disguise?”

“Let me explain, son,” said Membrane. “This… this is who I am. I—”

“No!” Dib shot back.

Zim’s grip on his arm tightened.

“Let me explain,” said Membrane softly, and then he was taking a few slow steps toward Dib.

“You… explain?” whispered Dib. “Explain?”

“I came to Earth a long time ago,” said Membrane. “I emigrated from Irk many years before you were born. I… I’m sorry, son, I wanted to tell you—”

“Irk?!” Dib shrieked.

Zim’s nails were digging into Dib’s skin, hard enough to draw blood. Strangely enough, it was the only thing keeping Dib grounded.

“Yes, Dib, I’m Irken,” said Membrane. “I—”

“You lied to me!” shouted Dib. “You lied to me all this time, and you stole my ship, and—”

“Dib, enough,” said Membrane, just like he always did, and then there were no lingering doubts in Dib’s mind that this was his father. “Let me finish talking.”

“You don’t get to!” snapped Dib. “You… you lied to me! You’re not human!”

“No. I’m not.”

There was a long pause, and Dib watched as his father pushed his goggles up onto his forehead, revealing two navy eyes. Those eyes, round and flat, with no pupil, no iris, those were alien eyes if Dib had ever seen them. Zim’s other hand came to land on Dib’s arm, clutching.

“What… why?” Dib stammered.

“Why am I not human?” asked Membrane, hesitation in his voice. “Or…?”

“Irken,” Dib whispered. “Were you… were you supposed to invade? Is that why you did it?”

“Did…?”

“Is that why you broke PEG?”

This time, the question came from Zim. Membrane’s focus shifted for just a second, then he turned back to Dib.

“No. No, of course not,” he said. “It was an accident. I came to space because I was trying to find a way to fix it.”

Dib’s heart was hammering in his chest. Everything was happening so fast. He felt his pulse beating in his ears. His hairline prickled with sweat, and he clenched his fists.

A silence yawned around them.

“Son,” said Membrane quietly. “I know you must be upset. I hope you’ll let me explain everything.”

Upset. Dib felt a forgotten rage boil to the surface.

“You… you fucking maniac. Why were you on Earth, then, huh? Just taking a vacation? Experimenting on humans? Making horrible death machines and then letting them blow up the Earth, because who cares, right? It’s just Earth!”

“Dib!” Membrane snapped. “That’s not what happened. Just calm down!”

“I am calm!” Dib shrieked. “I’m calm!”

“No, you’re not,” said Membrane. “Do you need to do your breathing exercises?”

Dib’s heart was thudding in his throat. He was hyperventilating, his breaths coming in short, ragged bursts. He didn’t care.

“You don’t get to tell me to do breathing exercises anymore!” he howled.

“Yes, I do!” hissed Membrane. “I’m still your father, Dib.”

“No, you’re not!” Dib cried. “You’re… you’re an alien!”

Another pause, this one heavy with the sound of Dib’s gulping breaths. Dib’s father’s antennae were flat against his head, and his eyes were narrowed. His stance was wide, hands on his hips, like how he always was when he was yelling at Dib. It looked so unnatural, so strange, seeing his father in this form, so much like Professor Membrane but not like him at all.

Eventually, Membrane’s posture relaxed. His hands fell to his sides.

“I’m your father, Dib. I raised you.”

Dib sniffed as a handful of nasty retorts crossed his mind. A stray thought stuck.

“What am I?” asked Dib, his voice soft and shaky. “You said I was your clone.”

Membrane stared at him.

“Son, I need you to just calm down and take a few deep breaths. We can talk about this, you just need to calm down first.”

“I’m calm,” Dib squeaked.

He scrubbed at his eyes and wiped his palms on his pants in an attempt to demonstrate that he was playing along. He tried to breathe, in through his nose, out through his mouth.

“What am I, Dad?” he repeated, clearer, but his voice was still shaking. “Am I someone else’s clone? Did you adopt me? Find me?”

“I didn’t adopt you,” said Membrane softly. “I made you. Dib, you’re… you’re my son.”

“What does that mean?” whispered Dib. His hands were shaking. Zim’s nails were still digging into his arm.

“Am I a human?”

“You’re… you’re many things, Dib.”

“What does that mean?” asked Dib again, his voice raising. “What the fuck does that mean?!”

“Enough cursing, Dib, it’s not polite—”

“WHAT AM I?” Dib roared.

Zim and Membrane jumped away from him in surprise. Dib felt the anxiety welling up again as he thought of his childhood, those hours in Membrane labs getting tested. He’d always thought puberty had been especially cruel to him, but was it this? Was he some kind of… trial and error?

“You’re… you’re a hybrid,” Membrane managed, and Dib could see, even in this form, that his father looked pained. “A little irken, a little human. You’re unique, Dib. There’s no one else like you in the entire universe. Well, you and Gaz.”

At the mention of his sister, Dib felt himself freeze.

“Gaz,” Dib choked out.

Membrane frowned.

“Does Gaz know?”

Another long silence.

“No,” Membrane admitted.

And, for some reason, that was what made Dib’s eyes well up.

“You didn’t even tell Gaz?” he whispered, his voice hoarse.

“No, I didn’t,” said Membrane.

And the understanding was there, unsaid. That Membrane would have told Gaz before he told Dib. Tears were starting to slide down Dib’s face. He should have. He should have at least told Gaz.

“She trusts you,” sobbed Dib.

“Dib,” Zim whispered.

“She trusts you, you fucking monster!” Dib cried. “You lied to her! How could you do this to her?”

“I was going to, Dib. I was going to tell the both of you,” Membrane said, taking a step forward, a hand outstretched.

“Don’t touch me!” Dib screamed, and he was backing away, hoping that he would somehow be able to find Zim’s ship because he needed to get the fuck out of here right now.

“Dib—”

“Don’t fucking touch me! You… you ruined me! I’m… I’m a freak! I’m—”

Dib cut himself off with a choking sob, and he took another few steps backward. Zim was standing off to the side, just staring at him. They locked eyes.

Zim.

It was all too much.

Dib turned around and sprinted as fast as he could.

He heard Membrane calling for him, but he couldn’t turn around. Right now, he rather get eaten by that fucking skeleton deer than spend another second staring at his dad’s horrible, irken face.

 

It didn’t take long for Dib to realize that he was lost.

He ran until he nearly collapsed, and then he kept running, and then he actually did collapse.

He fell to his hands and knees, chest heaving, wondering if he was going to vomit. He stared at the ground below him, watching as he painted it dark with his falling tears.

A hybrid. Part irken, part human, his father had said. He wasn’t even a person, like he’d thought. Just some kind of weird experiment, probably thought up and then executed on a whim. Some kind of project his dad had done for shits and giggles.

Dib kept crying, his eyes locked on the ground below him. He sat back on his heels, buried his face in his hands, and wept.

He didn’t know how long he’d been there, crying like a child. He jumped at the feeling of a hand on his shoulder. Slowly, he let his hands drift to his lap. He looked up and over his shoulder.

“Oh, Dib,” Zim whispered.

Dib hiccuped.

With his hand still on Dib’s shoulder, Zim stepped over so that he was facing Dib. He sat on his knees, then back on his heels, mirroring Dib’s position.

Zim stared into his eyes as he gently removed Dib's glasses and placed them on the ground next to them. He reached forward with one hand, slowly, cautiously, and swiped his thumb under Dib’s eye. Dib blinked a few times, willing himself to stop, but the tears kept coming.

Zim’s eyes were wide, and he had that pitying look on his face. Dib hiccuped again.

“You knew,” said Dib.

It wasn’t a question. They may have been apart for a few years, but Dib found that he could still read Zim like a book.

“I knew you weren’t human,” Zim murmured. “Not entirely, anyway. I knew our blood was alike. I didn’t… I didn’t even think… I hadn’t even guessed that he’d be irken, Dib, I swear, or I would have told you—”

“The time dilation field,” said Dib softly. “It was his tech. He didn’t need to steal it from you because it was irken tech to begin with.”

It was all becoming clear. Zim stared at him, then looked away.

“Er… yes,” Zim conceded. “I suppose you’re right. I’m sorry, again, for accusing—”

“It’s okay,” said Dib.

It was still warm in the woods, but the light was fading, and Dib was starting to feel like he was losing himself again. He could see Zim in front of him, but not much else. He reached forward and took Zim’s hand.

“Let’s go back to the ship,” said Zim softly.

Dib nodded and let Zim push his glasses back onto his face, then pull him to his feet and drag him away.

To Dib’s surprise, Zim was able to retrace their steps back to the ship. Dib didn’t really know how long it had taken them to get back, but he knew that his head hurt, even after he’d stopped crying. Zim’s hand was still in his, but they walked in silence, Dib just a couple of steps behind Zim.

When they got to the ship, The Dib, as Zim had named it, it had extracted itself from the dirt and now sat level on the ground. Zim opened the hatch of the trunk and led Dib inside, then closed it behind them.

They waded through packages of snacks until they got to the bedroom. Zim flipped on the light, then sat Dib down on the edge of the bed. Dib pulled Zim down next to him.

They stared at each other, hands still clasped.

“All that stuff he said,” Dib said with a sniff. “Me being insane for believing in aliens. He fucking lied to me the entire time.”

Zim just looked at him, his lips pursed, his fake eyebrows knit together in a look of concern. For the first time in days, Zim didn’t look angry. Instead, he looked sympathetic. It made Dib want to curl up into Zim’s lap and never open his eyes again.

“He sent me to an insane asylum. He told me believing in the paranormal was stupid. He told me I shouldn’t study aliens. He told me you were a human.”

Zim said nothing.

“He knew you weren’t.”

Zim sucked in a breath through his teeth.

“I suppose he did, yes. He probably recognized my PAK.”

“Or your green skin,” added Dib. “Or your lack of ears. Or a nose. The fact that you’re missing fingers. You didn’t look anything like a human.”

At that, Zim gave an indignant sniff. “Did too.”

Dib just shook his head, too tired to engage. He took a shaky breath, his eyes dropping to their clasped hands.

“What am I?” Dib whispered.

The tears started flowing again.

Zim cocked his head to the side, then reached his free hand up to his mouth and pulled his glove off with his teeth.

Zim’s naked hand touched Dib’s face, brushing through his hair, wiping away his tears.

“You’re Dib,” said Zim.

Dib choked on a laugh.

They sat like that for a while, Dib crying and Zim patiently thumbing his tears away. Eventually, Dib covered Zim’s hand with his own, humming at the feeling of soft irken skin against his palm.

“Dib,” said Zim softly.

Dib removed his hand, then placed it on Zim’s cheek. Zim stared back at him, looking like he felt so sorry for him.

“I don’t know what to say,” said Zim.

“Yeah,” breathed Dib. “Me neither.”

“Do you want… to talk about it?”

“I don’t think so,” Dib admitted. “I don’t really want to talk anymore.”

“Okay,” said Zim with a nod. “I will just… sit here. I will attempt to exude comfort.”

At that, Dib actually felt himself laugh, quick and light bubbling up in his chest which still felt like it was caving in.

Zim smiled back, all hesitation and concern.

Dib ducked forward and pressed his mouth to Zim’s.

The hand holding Dib’s squeezed for a moment, then relaxed, just as the hand on his face went stiff and then pliant. Dib tilted his head and sucked Zim’s lower lip into his mouth. He bit down gently and felt his body flood with a sudden, overwhelming want. Zim’s hand drifted from Dib’s cheek to the back of his neck, and he pulled Dib closer, the movement jerky but full of intent. Dib leaned in further and opened his mouth against Zim’s. He groaned at the feeling of Zim’s tongue brushing against his.

Zim pulled back, only an inch.

“You left me,” Zim murmured, his voice rough.

Dib reconnected their mouths.

“I’m sorry,” said Dib, the words muffled as he whispered them directly against Zim's lips.

Zim kissed him hard and pushed him onto his back. He climbed over Dib. Dib’s hands found Zim’s hips.

“Say it again.”

Dib’s fingers slid up Zim’s back, gently pushing at Zim’s clothes. His breath caught as he felt hot, soft skin. He trailed his fingers up Zim’s spine, toward his PAK.

Everything he felt: guilt, grief, confusion, anger — it all melted away. Now, he couldn’t think of anything but Zim’s body on his, shifting and pressing and making Dib feel lightheaded.

“I’m sorry.”

He’d never felt like this before, so out of control of his body. Every cell screamed with need, like the gratification couldn’t come soon enough. A hundred years ago, Dib had imagined this scenario. He imagined that they’d go slow, take their time, revel in each other’s bodies.

Not so.

Zim’s mouth was hot, his movements insistent, intentional, nothing like last time, so much better than last time—

“You won’t leave me again.”

Dib’s t-shirt was off. Sharp nails trailed down his sides. He arched his back and gasped.

“No. No, never.”

Zim’s teeth were on Dib’s neck. He exhaled, hard, against Dib’s pulse. Dib wished he would bite down.

“Say it.”

Dib bucked his hips up.

“I won’t leave you again.”

Zim’s hands were at Dib’s fly, unbuttoning and unzipping. Dib’s clammy hands gripped Zim’s arms.

“Promise.”

Dib sucked in a breath. Obediently, he lifted his hips and let Zim push his jeans down. Their breaths were quick and anxious, loud in the quiet room.

“I promise.”

Zim’s tunic and undershirt were off. Dib's mouth was on Zim's skin. Dib pushed Zim’s wig off his head.

“Again.”

Dib bucked up again. Zim rolled his hips against Dib’s groin and they both moaned.

“I promise, I promise, I promise.”

Chapter Text

i.

Dib rolled onto his side, turning his back to Zim. Zim, still naked, still lying on his own back, stared at the curve of Dib’s spine from where it began at the base of his neck and stretched all the way down to where it met his pelvis. His skin, smooth and warm-toned, still a bit flushed, shifted under Zim’s stare as the muscles underneath flexed and stiffened. As Zim watched, he considered Dib’s body, its biology. How different it was from Zim’s, yet, apparently, it was also quite similar. More so than he’d ever thought when he’d started researching humans, although, of course, Dib wasn’t exactly a human.

Dib still looked like a human. He still bruised like one; the mark on his throat was proof of that. Zim reached out with an ungloved hand to trace that bruise — there was a name for it, he’d learned it in hi skool, but right now he couldn’t be bothered to remember. The skin was warm and a little swollen, purple with the mess of Dib’s broken capillaries. It still glistened with Zim’s saliva. Dib flinched under his touch.

“I’m going to sleep,” Dib muttered, his tone cold and dark.

“Okay,” Zim murmured, drawing his hand away, suddenly feeling like he was being kicked out of bed.

His suspicions were confirmed when Dib asked him to turn the light out when he left.

“Okay,” Zim repeated, this time unable to hide the disappointment in his voice.

“Sorry,” Dib grumbled.

Zim sat up. No point in sticking around where he wasn’t wanted. He swung his legs around and scooted to the edge of the bed, still unwilling to just get up and leave, after what they’d done, what they’d only recently finished doing.

He didn’t understand Dib’s sudden coldness. He’d thought that, if anything, he would at least be amicable once it was all over. Shouldn’t there be some amount of cuddling involved? He turned back to look at Dib, not yet ready to leave and break the spell of intimacy.

Dib’s sweat still clung to Zim’s skin, melting against his own natural oils, making him smell salty, like a human.

He spoke without really thinking first. “My Tallest found out about Spork and Miyuki at my trial, when we first started hi skool. Do you remember that, when I was away for a few days?”

He had to have remembered. At least, he must have remembered what had happened afterwards.

But Dib said nothing, just shifted on the mattress. When Zim turned around, he saw that Dib had scooted himself under the covers.

“They were furious, of course. Everyone found out after that. All the other irkens, I mean.” Zim still wasn’t thinking. He kept talking. He couldn’t help himself. “My Tallest stopped answering my calls after that. Eventually, they just blocked me completely. They told me I wasn’t an invader, not really, that it was all just a lie to get me to stay on Earth so I wouldn’t bother them anymore. The trial was a… an attempt to deactivate me. To kill me.”

Dib stayed quiet, and Zim kept staring at the back of his head. He watched for a moment, noticing that Dib’s side wasn’t rising and falling as it had been a second ago. Dib was holding his breath.

“It was unforgivable, being responsible for their deaths. For hers, really. I tried really hard to take over Earth but I just… I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t even want it anymore. I could have taken over every planet in the galaxy, and I still would have been… she would still be dead.”

Perhaps it was Zim’s words that eventually roused Dib, but Zim suspected that it was his tone, frustrated and a little weepy, that coaxed his human into rolling onto his back and staring Zim down.

“You didn’t tell me it was fake,” said Dib. “The mission.”

“It wasn’t… It wasn’t to me. I thought it could have been real,” murmured Zim. “If I actually did it, I thought it would be just like if I’d gotten it for real at the Great Assigning. Eventually, I realized that they were never going to take me back, no matter if I conquered Earth or not.”

“When?” asked Dib. “When did you realize?”

“Not long after my trial,” said Zim, and he knew that Dib knew what that meant.

He watched as Dib fit the pieces together.

“What was the point?” asked Dib. “Why’d you keep trying to take over the world if you knew it didn’t even matter? You didn’t even want it?”

“What else was I going to do?”

Dib pursed his lips, his gaze dropping from Zim’s face to his bare body. Zim noticed that Dib’s mouth was still red, still a bit swollen from earlier, when Zim had been biting at it. It made Zim shiver. Dib was still staring at him, his gaze locked on Zim’s back. His cheeks got red, and Zim felt his own face flush in response.

“Did you… do you regret…?” Zim tried, a little afraid to say it, just in case it was true.

Dib rolled over, showing Zim his back, again.

Even though Dib couldn’t see it, Zim just nodded. He pushed off the bed and started to gather his clothes, wincing as Dib’s semen sluiced down his thigh and dripped onto his foot.

 

ii.

It was hot. Too hot to be walking around, certainly, but what could Dib do? It’s not like he had a car.

He’d hoped that this year would be the year his dad finally caved and got him one, but Dib was started to suspect that if he wanted to drive, he’d need to start saving and buy it himself. Although, he still had a few more hours left in the day. Maybe his dad would surprise him when he got home.

Pipe dreams aside, Dib was sweating buckets by the time he got to Zim’s house. Today, he expected, Zim would be inside, sitting on the couch with the air conditioning blasting arctic winds into his face. Zim was such a wimp about the heat.

Dib made it to Zim’s front door, the gnomes watching him warily but not activating. While they no longer saw him as a threat, he didn’t really think they saw him as much of a friend, either. Although, maybe Dib was being paranoid, given that they were just tiny robot security guards and probably didn’t see have feelings about him one way or the other. Zim had likely just updated them to let Dib on the property and not blast lasers at his ass.

Dib knocked on the door, then adjusted the bag on his shoulder. The Roboparents answered.

“Why, hello, young man!” chirped Robodad. “Are you here for our son?”

“Yes, sir. If it’s alright, may please I come in?” asked Dib.

The Roboparents responded best to politeness. It was infuriating.

“How sweet,” crooned Robomom. “Our little Zimmy has a friend!”

“He sure does,” Dib said, scooting between the Roboparents and into the living room. “I’m just gonna—”

“So!” said the Robodad.

Dib groaned. Where was Zim.

“Yeah?”

The Robodad stared at him, his face sparking in various places. Dib resisted the urge to roll his eyes, only because he’d just get another lecture on how rude it was.

“Yes, sir?” Dib tried again.

The Robodad stopped sparking, but his left shoulder started to twitch, up and down. Dib stared at it.

“What… so! So! S-s-s-what— So! What are your intentions with my son, eh?” asked the Robodad.

“I intend to hang out,” said Dib, too accustomed to this little routine to feel embarrassed anymore. “Maybe watch a movie. I brought some snacks.”

The Roboparents stared at him.

“That’s it,” said Dib.

There was a long, agonizingly boring pause. Dib wondered, again, where Zim was.

“Well, that’s just fine!” cheered the Robodad as oil started to leak from his jaw. “He’s out in the yard! You two have fun!”

“Thanks, sir,” said Dib. “I’ll be sure to.”

Dib turned on his heel and headed toward the back door, wincing a bit at the sound of the Roboparents creaking back to their caves, tucking themselves away in the walls of Zim’s living room.

To Dib’s surprise, Zim was, indeed, outside. Standing in the backyard with a garden hose, waving the nozzle around so water went everywhere. Dib thought that Zim might be watering the lawn. He noticed GIR, diving back and forth, chasing the stream of water and giggling madly.

“Hey,” Dib called.

Zim turned, his antennae bobbing at the sound of Dib’s voice. Out of his disguise, Dib noticed. Not unusual when he was just hanging around the house. Secretly, Dib preferred the antennae and pink eyes. His disguise was terrible and kind of unnerving.

“Hey,” said Zim. He turned off the hose. GIR landed facedown in a puddle of mud and whined.

“What are you doing?” Dib asked, approaching.

Zim shrugged. “Just enjoying the weather.”

He turned and went back to spraying the hose, this way and that. GIR leapt forward, cackling and screaming in his pursuit of the water.

Dib watched for a moment, a hand on his hip as he stared at the back of Zim’s bald, alien head. Years ago, Zim couldn’t handle the tiniest bit of dampness in the air. The slightest amount of heat would send him scurrying into his base to hide.

Then it hit Dib like a burst of hose water. Zim wasn’t doing lawn maintenance. He and GIR were playing.

GIR landed on his head, vomited, ate the vomit, and jumped back up. From this vantage point, Dib could just barely see the hint of a smile on Zim’s face.

A weird sort of tenderness lurched in him at that, and Dib felt himself walking forward so that he was standing right next to Zim, their arms almost brushing. That had been what started this whole thing, after all. Strangely enough, their friendship, forged from the tiniest glimpses that Dib got of Zim’s humanity, had been going strong for a little over a year, now.

And, more and more, Dib saw the depth of Zim’s compassion and the weird ways it manifested. Like with GIR, jumping and dancing through the water on the hottest day of the year. And later, when GIR’s wires are wet and he inevitably malfunctions, Zim will haul him into the basement and fix him up, good as new. Even now, Dib found it odd, how making GIR happy made Zim so happy.

Although, Zim also knew how to make Dib happy. He didn’t make the effort often, but, when he did, it was well-executed.

“And what did you bring me?”

Dib felt himself grin.

“What makes you think I brought something for you?”

“I can smell it,” said Zim.

“Smell what? The snacks I brought for myself?” asked Dib, his grin spreading.

“Stop being insufferable and give,” Zim snipped, stopping the hose so he could cross his arms.

“Bossy,” Dib said, still smiling as he dug into the reusable shopping tote he’d brought along and produced a plastic container filled with pomegranate seeds.

Really, it felt almost pointless to drag his ass all the way to Hole Foods and buy this ridiculously expensive package of seeds, just to watch Zim tilt his head back and pour the entire container’s worth into his mouth in one go. He never even offered any to Dib.

But, of course Zim was too impatient to accept a whole pomegranate and then do the grunt work of cutting it open himself. And, of course Zim would need the organic seeds, because of his alleged allergies.

Well. The allergy thing was legit. But Zim was still lazy, and it was starting to become a problem for Dib. How could he save up for a car when he kept breaking the bank with Zim’s exotic snacks?

Zim, predictably, dumped the seeds in his mouth and gulped them down without chewing. With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the package back at Dib with a short “thanks.”

“No problem,” said Dib with a roll of his eyes. “You might think about eating them one at a time though, you know? Actually savor them.”

“Hmmm… nah.”

“And for meeeee?”

Dib looked down, frowning a bit at the sight of a muddy, nearly short-circuiting GIR.

“Of course, GIR,” said Dib.

He reached into his bag and produced another snack he’d brought, a compostable to-go box full of macaroni and cheese from the hot food bar. He tossed the box to GIR, who dumped its contents onto the muddy ground and rolled around, his mouth wide open and sucking up pieces of macaroni as he went.

“See?” asked Dib, gesturing. “GIR knows how to appreciate the outrageously expensive food I get for you.”

Zim followed Dib’s gaze, his hands resting on his hips. “Well, he certainly seems to be enjoying it.”

“He’s a real connoisseur of the finer things.”

Zim chuckled at that, his gaze still on his insane little bot as it rolled in muddy mac and cheese. Dib smiled without meaning to and watched Zim laugh.

GIR, still rolling about, hugging himself and vacuuming up muddy pasta, stopped cold for a moment.

“My cookies?” he asked, fixing his wide, teal eyes on Dib for a second time.

“Of course, GIR,” Dib repeated.

He reached back into the bag and produced three birthday cake flavored macarons. He dropped one into GIR’s open mouth and handed another to Zim.

“Cheers,” said Dib, tapping his cookie against Zim’s.

Zim sniffed and took a small bite. “Humans,” he muttered with a shake of his head.

Dib felt himself smile again, and Zim shot him a skeptical look.

“What’s got you looking so happy?” he asked. “You should be miserable.”

Dib shrugged. Genuinely, he wasn’t sure why he was smiling so much. Really, he’d had a pretty crappy, lonely day before coming over to Zim’s. He should probably be sulking.

“Maybe I’m growing out of my teen angst,” he suggested.

Zim snorted. “About time.”

And, for whatever reason, Dib felt himself smile again. Zim scowled back at him, finished his cookie, and started up the hose again, pointing it at the grass in front of them. GIR leapt up and resumed his chase.

They watched GIR for a while as he leapt and spun through the air, slipping on the wet ground and falling on his face every few minutes.

“What did you do today?” Dib eventually asked.

“Hmm. Worked on some experiments. Cleaned up the lab a little. GIR made waffles, so I spent the first half of the morning puking.” Zim paused. “Oh, had to clean up the kitchen, too.”

Dib felt himself grin again. “Gross.”

“Well, I can’t say no, can I?” snapped Zim, and Dib raised his hands in surrender.

“Of course not. That would be ridiculous.”

“It would,” Zim agreed. “Besides, they don’t taste horrible. Once I started hiding the antifreeze, they got a lot better.”

“This is why I don’t come over for breakfast.”

“You shouldn’t stay for dinner, then. We’re having leftovers. It was the only thing I could say to stop him from forcing more down my throat this morning.”

“Noted.”

With a flick of his wrist, Zim pointed the nozzle of the hose straight up, then directed it back to the ground. Dib shivered a bit as cold water rained down on his flushed, still-sweaty skin.

Dib looked over at Zim, now painted with little droplets of water. He wondered how uncomfortable Zim must be, standing out in the blazing sun. Of course, Dib had noticed that Zim wasn’t wearing his uniform today. It was rare for him to wear something else, but Dib had seen it, just a handful of times. In fact…

Dib nearly did a double take when he realized that the clothes Zim was wearing were actually his, borrowed last year when they were having a sleepover at Dib’s house. He’d recognize that old ghost t-shirt anywhere. And those were his shorts, a relic from the two days he’d spent on the hi skool soccer team.

The shorts Zim fit well, Dib realized. Better than they had a year ago, when Zim had practically been swimming in them. Of course, Zim hadn’t grown much, if at all, since his arrival on Earth all those years ago. But he’d filled out some, and he wasn’t the scrawny, pointy monster Dib remembered from middle skool. Dib wondered if eating Earth food had given Zim that extra meat on his bones, or if he’d just grown into himself a little.

Dib, on the other hand, was still trying to catch up with the insane growth spurt he’d had when he was fifteen. He’d grown almost an entire foot in one weekend, and his body was all stretch marks and knobby knees and vertebrae that stuck out like he was malnourished. He wasn’t even that tall, not compared to Keef or Torque or any of the other guys in their class, but he sincerely wished he could stay this height. Growing any more would probably kill him.

He would forever envy Gaz, whose puberty experience was so graceful and painless, it was like she had been under some special hormone regulation therapy. Maybe she had been. That sounded like the type of thing their dad would do for her and not him. And, seriously, Gaz was sixteen, and she’d never had a single pimple. The nerve of that girl, complaining about her braces.

Dib considered this as he stared at the muscles of Zim’s upper arm as he directed the hose this way and that.

They weren’t biceps per se, because Zim was an alien and didn’t have human muscles, but they were something. That tiny bit of extra muscle tone suited Zim, made more sense given how unnervingly strong he was for someone with such a small frame.

Dib eyed Zim’s face, and Zim’s thick, dark antennae twitched in a way that meant Zim knew he was being watched. He didn’t say anything, though, so Dib just kept looking, staring at the smooth, pore-less stretch of skin along Zim’s high, wide cheekbone. Zim didn’t have any wrinkles when his face was neutral like this, and he stared ahead at GIR without blinking. His eyes, wide and the color of pomegranate seeds, shimmered from the reflection of the sun. Zim’s eyes, Dib noted, were really shiny. When Dib looked at Zim, he saw himself reflected back in an almost perfect mirror. Zim’s skin was dewy where the water droplets still clung to his face.

Dib let his eyes wander, only because he rarely saw Zim out of uniform, and never out in the daylight. It was reasonable, he thought, to watch Zim’s throat bob as he swallowed, to let his eyes fall on the exposed junction of Zim’s shoulder and his throat. A memory hit Dib as he stared at that spot, quick and painful and Dib pushed it away and thought about something else.

Like how Zim’s palm was small but his fingers, three of them plus a thumb, were long and graceful, wrapped around the handle of the hose. Dib’s gaze dropped again, but not before lingering on the ghost on Zim’s t-shirt. When? he wondered. When had he and Zim gotten to the point where they shared clothes? Where they had sleepovers?

Dib’s old t-shirt hung down to just below the spot where Zim had rolled down the waistband of Dib’s old shorts a couple of times. A little too long for him, then, Dib realized. But other than that, the shorts fit great. A little snug around the curve of thighs that were, like his arms, lightly muscled. Dib’s gaze dropped again, and he realized with a strange sort of giddiness that Zim wasn’t wearing shoes.

He’d seen Zim without his boots before, but he was usually wearing a stolen pair of socks or something. Dib crouched down, too curious to help himself. He counted Zim’s toes — only two on each foot, interesting — and assessed the way each foot arched and how the skin looked soft and untouched. Dib wondered if Zim’s hands were like that, too, or if they were more calloused. Did irkens get callouses? 

Dib wondered if it would be weird if he took some notes when he got home tonight. He didn’t often take notes on Zim anymore. For one thing, he’d learned a lot about irkens in the past year or so of their friendship, so his curiosity had been mostly satisfied as of late. Plus, it seemed weird, now. Treating Zim like a test subject became a lot harder when they stopped being enemies and started being friends.

Still, Dib was curious. Zim’s feet were on the bigger side, surprisingly, and a tickle of you know what they say about big feet giggled its way into Dib’s brain before he could stop it. Dib inwardly huffed, because that wasn’t what this was about, at all. He didn’t think of Zim that way. The only reason he was down here, staring at the arch of Zim’s left foot, was because he was a paranormal scientist and Zim was paranormal.

He kept that thought at the forefront of his mind as he gaze crawled up, up to the slope of Zim’s ankle, the expanse of his shin, his calf, the back of his knee. Irkens probably didn’t call them knees, Dib thought inanely, but it looked like Dib’s knee, only green and hairless and less knobby.

His gaze found the sliver of thigh that peeked out from under Zim’s shorts — Dib’s shorts, rather, and it took a few moments for Dib to realize that his staring had gotten a lot less scientific.

He liked the green of Zim’s skin, but he would never tell Zim that, because Zim would just tease him and remind him of all the times Dib had called him a frog or a lizard or a sentient pile of puke. But, secretly, he liked the green, the otherworldliness of it. He liked that Zim wasn’t from here, it made him so much more interesting than any boring old human.

Dib wanted to touch him. He realized, with a hot flush creeping from his cheeks to his ears, all the way down his neck, that he wanted to run a finger down the back of Zim’s knee and see if it made Zim shiver. He wanted to rest his hand on the curve of Zim’s hamstring, or whatever it was irkens called it. He wanted to squeeze and feel the swell of inhuman muscle under extraterrestrial skin.

Dib was sweating again. His knees ached as he remained crouched at Zim’s foot. His hands were fists on his thighs, just to keep himself from reaching out, from running his fingers up Zim’s thighs, from pressing a palm between Zim’s legs and finding out if that old adage about big feet was actually true.

He wanted to. More than anything, he realized, he wanted to. Emotions swirled around inside his gut, ones that were strange, unfamiliar. Dib felt a tug of a memory of sophomore year sex ed class, when he’d listened to a teacher drone on about urges and looked over at Zim and wondered if Zim had urges, because Dib sure didn’t, and maybe they would bond over their lack of urges together.

Oh. Oh, he had urges alright. And he prayed to whoever was listening that Zim had urges, too.

Dib sucked in a breath, just at the thought, and his eyes were glued to Zim’s groin and he was leering, he was such a pervert, and then he was falling back onto his ass as a spray of water hit him square in the face.

He landed right in the remains of GIR’s macaroni and cheese mess.

“Argh! Zim, what the hell?” he squeaked. “What was that for?”

Zim gazed down at him, looking like a nightmare the way his head blocked out the sun but his eyes glowed, round and liquid like fruit juice. Zim’s antennae were tensed, back by his skull, meaning he wasn’t angry, but he wasn’t exactly happy, either.

“You looked like you needed cooling off,” quipped Zim.

And then he sprayed Dib in the face again.

“Stop! Stop it!” Dib screamed, just as GIR bounded over to them and leapt onto Dib’s belly with a squeal. “Cut it out, GIR! You’re disgusting!”

“Awww!” GIR cooed. “You need a hug!”

“I—do—not!”

Dib tried his best to wrestle GIR off of him, eventually just giving up as the monstrous little robot clung to his arm. He looked up, and Zim was staring down at him, his expression neutral, his hands hanging limp at his sides.

“Not a very nice thing to do to someone on his birthday, you know,” Dib chided.

Zim grinned.

“Is it? Oh, then a very happy birthday to you, muddy Dib.”

“Gee, thanks.”

Dib groaned, the air leaving him as GIR clutched him tighter and started singing some made-up song about birthdays and being one year closer to his death. Dib peered back up at Zim, his face still flushed from embarrassment.

Because, really, how had they gotten here? When had they become the type of people to share clothes and have sleepovers and feel sudden, unwelcome flushes of desire? What was happening to them? To Dib? Seriously, what the hell was happening to Dib?

“How old are you now, anyway?” asked Zim. “I can never keep track.”

“I’m eighteen,” said Dib.

Zim frowned, his lower lip pushing out in a tiny pout. Dib felt his heartbeat pick up, and, come on, what the fuck was that about?

Probably just because GIR was crushing his ribcage, Dib reasoned.

“Eighteen? A little old to be just starting your last year of high school, no?”

“I got held back.” Dib gasped. “GIR, seriously, you have to stop squeezing—”

You? Held back?”

“Yeah, like, in kindergarten.”

“Why?” asked Zim, and the tension from just a second ago seemed to have faded. Dib stayed with his ass planted in the mud, only because GIR wasn’t letting him get up.

“Because… I dunno, I just got held back, okay?”

“You were probably smart enough to start eighth grade. You were probably smarter than the teacher by that point. ”

Dib felt himself blush again. He managed to get GIR off of him and held him at arm’s length. “Yeah, so what?”

“So, why?”

“Because I couldn’t… socialize. My teacher was worried I’d get bullied. So, I got held back a year so I could learn how to interact with the other kids.”

“Bullied, eh? Someone ought to tell her you got bullied anyway,” said Zim.

“Yeah, well.” Dib didn’t have much to say about that. Thankfully, with Zim by his side, things were better than they used to be. “It was worth a shot, I guess.”

“I didn’t know you were held back. What a stupid reason. Who would want to interact with those rotten little stink monsters, anyway?”

“Well, given that I was one of those rotten little stink monsters, I think the idea was that I was supposed to want to.”

Dib looked away, realizing that he wasn’t able to keep the truth from Zim about his first year of real skool if he maintained eye contact. And, honestly, it was Dib’s birthday, so why should he have to relive the torture of desperately trying to make friends and then repeatedly being snubbed? Kindergarten had not been kind to him, either year, and every subsequent year of schooling after that had also pretty much sucked. It wasn’t until Zim came around that things even got remotely interesting.

But he couldn’t tell Zim that. It would go straight to his head.

“Hey, how old are you, anyway?” asked Dib. GIR squirmed in his grasp and whined. “I don’t think you ever told me.”

Zim stared down at him, and his eyes narrowed. He paused for a moment, for dramatic effect, probably, before finally speaking.

“I came into existence long before a single human stepped foot on this miserable dirtball you call a planet. And I’ll be here after you and all of your descendants have become nothing but sand under my feet.”

GIR finally stopped wriggling, and Dib let out a breath. Looking up at Zim, he could almost believe it. Zim’s face was so smooth, devoid of any signs of his age. His whole body was strong and lean. He could be ageless, Dib thought. A god, maybe. It was believable. 

But, it was also Zim.

“Bullshit,” Dib countered. “You’re so full of it.”

At that, Zim just grinned, and he offered a hand and helped Dib up.

 

They spent the afternoon together, playing in the lawn with GIR and then going down to the labs to drain all the water out of GIR’s little robot body.

“You should make him waterproof,” Dib commented.

“He won’t let me,” said Zim with a sigh. “He says he likes the shocks.”

They spent a few hours rewiring and cleaning out GIR while humming along to one of Whitney Houston’s live albums. Zim always said that Whitney — he called her “Whitney,” like he knew her personally — was his favorite human, and the only thing wrong with her was that she was dead and therefore couldn’t make any more music for him to enjoy. He was willing to forgive this, to an extent at least, because she had been so prolific and talented. Dib tolerated this obsession, but sometimes he lost his patience after listening to “I Have Nothing” for the eight hundredth time in a row. Occasionally, if Zim was in a good enough mood, he’d cave and let Dib switch the music to Cher or Gloria Estefan.   

Eventually, Dib’s clothes became stiff and uncomfortable as the mud on his ass dried and hardened. GIR, now functioning normally (well, normally for him), was also making his way to the kitchen, which meant that Dib only had a few more minutes before he was offered some kind of poison waffle. Zim walked him to the elevator, and they ascended in comfortable silence until they reached the living room.

“Well,” said Dib. “I’ll see ya later. Gaz wants me to take her back to school shopping this weekend, if you wanna come.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Zim, which meant yes.

“Cool. Bye.” Dib turned to leave, then stopped himself. “Oh, by the way, the Roboparents are starting to really look like shit. Are you gonna put them out of their misery soon, or what?”

“Hmm.” Zim tapped his chin. “Once we’re done with skool. I need them for parent-teacher conferences.”

“Liar. You just want them so you can get out of going on field trips.”

“Well, can you blame me? I don’t know what foolish earthling invented this… this ‘skiing’ business, but I’m certain they weren’t right in the head.”

Dib grinned. Last year’s class ski trip had been when most of his peers lost their virginities to each other. Dib had spent the whole time distracting Zim with video games and hot cocoa so he didn’t make good on his promise to blow up all the gondolas.

“Whatever. See you around, space boy.”

“Um, Dib?”

Dib’s hand was on the doorknob. He turned back around.

“What?”

“You… here.”

Zim tossed Dib a small package, poorly wrapped in what looked like lots and lots of duct tape.

Zim scoffed. “I made it. GIR wrapped it.”

“Uh, thanks. Should I open it now?”

“Whatever.”

Dib couldn’t open it. Seriously. GIR had to have used, like, an entire roll on this thing. Eventually, Zim huffed and stomped his way over to help. He snatched the parcel out of Dib’s hands and shot it with a PAK laser. The tape burned away in a flurry of smoke, and Zim was left holding a small, metal box.

“What is it?” asked Dib, only a little suspicious.

“Open it,” said Zim.

Dib took the box, carefully, noting that it was still a little hot from when Zim had just burned the tape off it. He opened it, half expecting something to jump out at him. Nothing did. Inside was a very normal-looking wristwatch.

“A watch?” asked Dib.

“It’s… isn’t it what humans buy?” asked Zim, his eyes meeting Dib’s. “It’s for grownups. You’re a grownup now.”

“Oh, so you do know how old I am?”

“Do you want it or not?”

“I do! I do,” said Dib, peering at the blank black face. “It doesn’t have numbers on it.”

“This is no ordinary watch, Dib-thing,” said Zim. “Here, let me show you…”

The watch was incredible: it told the time, anywhere in the known universe, on any planet. It measured atmospheric composition, temperature, humidity, everything. It shot lasers. It fit, snug and perfect, on Dib’s wrist.

“It does a lot more,” said Zim as he adjusted the band. “Play around with it, and I can show you other stuff later.”

“Okay,” said Dib softly. “Thank you. Man, this’ll be great if I ever get around to exploring space more.”

At that, Zim smiled, and Dib realized he liked how wide Zim’s Cheshire Cat grin was. He wanted to kiss it.

“Uh, okay, I’d better get out of here before GIR tries to feed me.”

“Okay. Bye.”

“Bye, Zim. Thanks again.”

 

iii.

Dib lay in bed, his thoughts racing. Today had been… eye opening. Dib had come home to find that there was no car waiting for him, but his dad and Gaz were there and had started eating dinner without him. Dib didn’t mind. He barely noticed, because he’d spent the entire walk home thinking about Zim.

And with Zim back at his own house, no longer standing over Dib with his wide smile and captivating eyes, Dib had the opportunity to really process what he was feeling.

And, frankly, he didn’t like it. Not one bit.

Because, seriously, why? Why did he have to ruin this friendship, the only really meaningful one he’d ever had? Why did he have to go and develop this… attraction?

Why was he even attracted to Zim? Zim, who talked too much and laughed too loudly and had freaking pink eyes and green skin and antennae. Zim wasn’t a human. He wasn’t anything like Dib at all. And Dib wanted him.

He really did, so much that it scared him a little bit. Dib thought about Zim’s face, warm and damp under the hot sun. He thought about the curve of Zim’s arms, his calves, his thighs, his… okay, fine, his ass. Yes, Dib had been thinking about it. No, he wasn’t happy about it. No, that didn’t mean he was going to stop picturing it.

Dib spent the better part of his birthday night playing with his new watch. It came equipped with a flashlight and could expel poison gas. It was the best gift Dib had ever gotten, even if it had knocked him out for half an hour.

He spent the rest of his birthday night lying in bed, trying desperately not to let his mind wander to unsavory places. He couldn’t help it, though, and he hated himself for it.

He didn’t want to have these feelings. These kinds of feelings made things complicated. He’d seen his classmates lose their shit over someone they liked enough times to know that he and Zim couldn’t sustain anything close to a physical relationship. They would just end up fighting, and then they wouldn’t even be friends anymore. Losing Zim as a friend wasn’t worth that. Nothing was. Dib could handle this newfound attraction on his own, besides. He didn’t need to put his only good relationship on the line just because he wanted to get off.

And that’s all Dib would want anyway, right? It’s not like he had any weird emotional feelings for Zim, right? It wasn’t like he was romantically attracted to him, too, right?

Dib set his jaw. No, he didn’t want to date Zim. He was not getting himself in that much trouble.

But, he did want to touch Zim. And possibly see him naked, preferably for a long period of time when they were alone and Zim was cool with it and they could just try stuff that Dib had only heard of from the TV or Torque Smackey bragging in the boys’ room between classes.

Zim would hate him if he found out. Zim liked Dib because he was different from all the other humans. What would he say if he found out that Dib was just like them? Emotional and hormonal and completely, hopelessly desperate for touch? Only, Dib was marginally more of a freak, because he could keep it in his pants for everyone in his life except the wild green alien that used to want to annihilate Earth. Seriously, this wasn’t the movies. Dib couldn’t just… take up with an alien. It didn’t work that way.

Did it? Probably not. Dib knew he’d be too embarrassed to ever ask Zim.

Did irkens even fuck? Or do anything, for that matter? Did Zim even have the, er, equipment? Or… or what if he did, and he screwed around all the time? What if he was, like, married or something?

Dib felt a hot rush of jealousy at that, at the idea that Zim might already have someone in his life who did the stuff that Dib had only just realized he wanted to do. How unfair.

No, Zim was basically a giant disgrace to his people. Dib had figured that much out. So, he probably didn’t have someone back on Irk, staring out the window and waiting for Zim to come home so they could make out and do sex stuff to each other.

But, maybe he’d done stuff, with someone else? Maybe Zim wasn’t a huge, pathetic virgin, unkissed and completely untouched, like Dib was?

Dib popped a melatonin. He closed his eyes. What he really needed to do was just sleep.

What kind of sex stuff was Zim into?

No. Sleep now. No more thoughts.

Did Zim have long term relationships?

He didn’t care. He didn’t want to date Zim. He just wanted to fuck him.

What would that be like? To have sex with Zim?

Dib tried to ignore it, the tightening in his boxers as fantasies played through his head, one right after the other, too quick for him to stop. His mind just kept asking, and he couldn’t stop it. What would it be like? What would it be like? What would it be like?

Dib shoved his hand down his waistband. In just a few strokes, he came, spilling all over his fist, relieved and enraged all at once.

It wasn’t fair. He was going to lose his one good friendship over this, he just knew it, and it wasn’t fucking fair.

Chapter Text

i.

Dib was asleep. From what Zim could tell, he’d fallen asleep a few hours ago. Sometimes it looked like Dib was getting restless, about to wake up, only for him to take a deep breath and relax again.

Zim watched the entire time, unblinking, his eyes glued to the forbidden island that was Dib’s bed.

He wouldn’t approach, because he’d already been dismissed once. Maybe Dib would be angry for even seeing Zim standing there, in the doorway between the bedroom and the cockpit, watching over him. He should probably be monitoring the ship as it repaired the airbag or pushed chunks of rock out of the hull, the quiet grind of it a soft whine in the background of his screaming thoughts, but he couldn’t. It seemed he couldn’t do anything but stand in the middle of the room and watch Dib sleep.

He couldn’t come any closer. He was already too close, standing at the edge of Dib’s bed, uncertain when he’d even gotten all the way across the room. Dib was breathing softly, the little puffs of his exhales making the hair on his face dance.

Dib looked so peaceful.

Soon, Zim would return to the cockpit and oversee the ship’s self-repair. In fact, Zim realized, what he should do is go find Membrane, or whatever his given name was, and get some answers. Not that Zim didn’t want Dib to be there, but… well, honestly, he didn’t. Dib was emotional right now, and rightly so, but his feelings were overwhelming and a little too much to handle, and not at all conducive to a real conversation. Dib had always been extreme when it came to his feelings, but this was different. Zim sympathized as best as he could, but he was irken, after all, one hundred percent. And irkens didn’t take pity on anyone. It meant you were weak.

He needed to talk to Membrane, though. He needed to sort through all of the inconsistencies with his story. Zim needed details. Why had Membrane chosen Earth? Had he been exiled, too? Or, was this an experiment, organized by the Irken government? If it was, why did Zim get sent to conquer Earth — or, no, wait… why had Zim been exiled there, too? Were there other irkens on Earth? Why had Membrane made Dib and Gaz?

That last one stuck with Zim more than anything else. Why had Membrane created his children? It must have been some experiment, some endeavor in understanding the human brain and its impossible capacity for familial love. But, something about what Membrane had said to Dib — you’re my son and I raised you — it hadn’t felt scientific. It felt like something a human would say.

Maybe Membrane had just been trying to calm Dib down. That would make sense, since Dib had been near hysterics at the time.

Zim sighed. Seeing Dib so upset made his spooch twist. It was a small miracle that Zim had managed to steer them back to the ship earlier, and he’d had to focus extra hard on his PAK’s navigation system just to stop from getting distracted by the pitiful little sniffling sounds Dib had been making behind him. Poor Dib.

And then what happened next was a mistake, apparently. Zim had clearly done something wrong, and maybe he didn’t know what, but he would have to remedy it. He’d been so preoccupied with Dib’s torrential emotions that Dib’s kiss had caught him off guard and then he thought… well, no. He hadn’t thought at all, had he? He’d just done, just succumbed to the first impulse he felt and surely that was what he’d done wrong. He should have thought it through, considered the outcomes, like any self-respecting scientist would have done. He wasn’t an idiot. He just hadn’t been thinking.

Dib had looked so sad. Kissing him back felt as natural as gravity.

And it had been like gravity, pulling them together and pushing them horizontal on top of each other, and it had been some kind of perfect chaos for those few moments. It hadn’t been moments, but minutes, at least, maybe near an hour. Zim wasn’t sure. But it had felt like moments, like the moments of flailing through space because GIR had forgotten to secure him to the Voot and he was tumbling, flying and falling all at once with nothing to hold onto. And then it had been over, and he’d thudded back to reality and Dib was asking him to turn the lights off when he left.

Dib mumbled something in his sleep, and Zim felt a bud of tenderness that bloomed and spread from inside his ribcage out to the very tips of his fingers and toes.

Dib thought what they’d done was wrong, it seemed. Dib didn’t want to talk about it or look at Zim or cuddle or sleep next to each other or even stay in the same room together.

Maybe if Zim had just stopped, just thought, for one single second before he deserted Irk or tore off his and Dib’s clothes, maybe he wouldn’t be standing here like a loser and a fool with nothing to do but clench his fists and will himself to go into the other room.

He was thinking now, though. He was considering what the humans thought about hindsight and he was realizing that the whole 20/20 thing was total garbage.

Because Zim had been trying to figure what was wrong with his and Dib’s sudden but enjoyable tryst, and he just couldn’t come up with anything. They’d both gotten their own messy satisfaction from it, and they’d both gotten a chance to close their eyes and find some relief, some comfort, in the other. That was what Dib wanted, wasn’t it? He always went to Zim when he wanted comfort. It was what friends did. Usually, it was to talk or complain or launch rockets into piles of trash at the local dump, but this was good, too, right? Or had Zim just misread everything?

Had he taken advantage of Dib? Should he have rejected Dib’s advances, protected Dib from his own vulnerability?

Zim stared at Dib’s sleeping face, and a sourness quickly overwhelmed him. That must be it. Dib was angry with him for this. Dib didn’t want to talk to him, because now Zim had wronged him, too.

What a mess.

Suddenly, Zim found that he wasn’t even able to look at Dib anymore. His own guilt and self-loathing sprung on him like GIR when he got home from skool, and now all he could think about what how much Dib must hate him. Perhaps Dib would never speak to him again. Perhaps they’d clawed their way back to friendship only for Zim to ruin it all with some poorly-timed intimacy.

At that, Zim turned on his heel and marched from the room, his back straight and his chest rattling with dismay. Maybe Dib hated him now, but, maybe, Zim could fix things? He wished Gaz were here to talk him through it. She was always good at deescalating when Zim got in a tizzy. But Gaz wasn’t here. She was busy trying to save their planet. So, Zim just needed to suck it up, at least for now. Now, Zim needed to go find Professor Membrane.

 

Zim supposed this must be daytime. It was light out, and slightly warmer than before, and Zim didn’t feel like there were giant stags wandering the forest hunting each other, so maybe that’s what “day” was on this strange and unnerving planet.

Zim, of course, still had his antennae perked, listening for the sound of heavy, clumsy footsteps. Just in case the creepy white one was was still around.

He reached Dib’s Spittle Runner without losing his way too many times. As he approached, Professor Membrane, again crouched over the little ship, looked up. He was out of his disguise, like Zim was, now. No point in pretending to be human anymore, Zim had decided. Plus, he’d lost a contact lens in his and Dib’s frenzy to undress, and he hadn't gotten the chance to look for it.

“Hello,” said Membrane, standing.

“Uh, hi,” said Zim.

Hesitantly, and mainly because he didn’t know what else to do, Zim bowed his head and brought his fist to his chest.

“Oh, please,” said Membrane, “don’t do that. You don’t need to do that.”

Zim opened his eyes and stared at the ground.

“Okay,” he said.

He brought his gaze up to Membrane’s face and realized that Membrane was tall enough to be an Elite. Tall enough to be Tallest, perhaps?

“Is Dib okay?” asked Membrane.

Zim looked away. “He’s sleeping.”

“Is it… safe? For him to be—”

“I locked the ship up before I left,” said Zim, feeling a little offended, though he wasn’t sure why.

Membrane looked back at him, an unreadable expression on his face. Then, his mouth twitched, like he was trying to hold back a smile.

“I’m happy to see you’re no longer in your disguise, but I should tell you that you didn’t completely wash off your eyebrows.”

Zim felt his eyes widen at that, not because he was embarrassed about the two black smudges apparently above his eyes, but because of the sudden memory of Dib, straddling his hips and licking two fingers, then rubbing them against Zim’s eyebrows until they blurred on his skin. Until Zim had had enough waiting and dragged Dib back down for another burning kiss.

In the aftermath, Zim had forgotten that Dib had done that. Now, his whole body was hot with the memory of it.

“My eyebrow pencil isn’t waterproof,” said Zim, as if that were an excuse.

Professor Membrane just nodded, but he didn’t press the issue any further. He turned back to the Spittle Runner and crouched down to resume his work.

Did he know? Could he tell, somehow, what Zim had done with his son? Was he angry? Would he hurt Zim because Zim had accidentally hurt Dib?

No. No, Membrane was Irken, remember? Maybe he had invested a lot of time and energy into Dib, but he didn’t feel those things for Dib. Irkens didn’t have families. They didn’t feel protective or paternal or anything like that. Zim hadn’t done anything to interfere with Dib as an experiment — he hadn’t modified Dib’s DNA, or removed any of his limbs, or tried to copy Membrane’s work. There was no way Membrane would be angry at Zim for what he had done. Membrane wasn’t a father, he wasn’t a “family man” like the patriarchs of GIR’s television shows. He was an irken. Irkens didn’t have those feelings, so neither did Membrane.

“My Gaz taught you that, didn’t she?” asked Membrane, his eyes still locked on the tinkering he was doing with the Spittle Runner’s energy core. “The eyebrows?”

“G— Oh. Oh, yes,” said Zim. “She did. A while ago.”

“Gaz likes that kind of thing. The makeup and all that. She’s very good at it.”

“I agree.”

There was a long, heavy pause.

“She likes the fingernail polish, too,” commented Zim, only because the silence was so unbearable.

“Oh, yes, she has quite the collection. One of my colleagues bought her some when she turned six, and she insisted on painting her nails a different color every night. Once, I even made her a polish that changed color based on the forecast, so that…” Membrane’s voice cracked, and Zim felt his antennae raise in surprise, “… so that she’d know to bring a raincoat with her to skool.”

Another pause filled the air, somehow more uncomfortable than the last. Zim coughed.

“That’s… that’s nice.”

He probably did it because he was concerned about his experiments getting wet. The weepiness with which he was talking was probably related to something else. This planet was strange, Zim rationalized. It must be making Membrane more emotional than normal.

“Dib is angry with me.”

This time, when Zim looked up, Membrane was staring at him, like he expected Zim to answer.

“Er… yes, I would say so. He’s not happy. He was crying a lot.” Zim winced a little, hoping that Dib wouldn’t be even more upset with him for sharing that bit of information.

“He has every right to be angry,” Membrane said, his eyes locked on Zim. “I expect it will take a lot for him to trust me after this. I can only hope he’ll give me a chance to make things right.”

Zim wanted to look away, but Membrane’s strange, dark blue gaze had him pinned to the spot. Eventually, Membrane just sighed and turned back to the Spittle Runner.

“Will you help me with this?” he asked. “I need an extra set of hands.”

“Uh…”

Zim wasn’t sure if helping Membrane fix his ship was such a good idea. Would Dib be angry with him if Membrane were able to run off again because he’d had Zim’s assistance? Where was Membrane even going, anyway?

Membrane had fixed him with another steady gaze. Zim shuffled forward and dropped to his knees in front of the ship.

“You won’t take off before Dib talks to you, will you?” Zim asked.

“I won’t,” said Membrane, his tone curious. “Of course not.”

“Where were you going, anyway?” Zim asked.

“I was going back to Irk,” said Membrane. “I was hoping Tallest Miyuki would lend me some of her scientists so we could construct a time stasis field large enough to capture PEG.”

“Oh,” said Zim.

“Here, I’ve got a flashlight. Point it there, please.”

“Okay.”

“And you?” asked Membrane. “Where we you going?”

Zim looked at Membrane, eyeing him through the stream of light he was now pointing down at the Spittle Runner’s energy core, thinking that every irken made in the last four centuries had ocular implants strong enough to see into this machinery without a flashlight.

“We were following you. We ran into a debris field and crash landed here.”

“Did you?” asked Membrane. “I had a similar situation. Did you see the birds?”

“Birds? Here?”

“Yes. In the trees. They were very loud last night. Sounded like crows.”

“No,” said Zim cautiously. “We saw two stags. Bigger than any Earth animal. They were horrible.”

Membrane hummed. “Interesting.”

“Yes. My ship told me there were no natural fauna.”

“Perhaps they don’t have a life signal that your ship could pick up.”

“That’s impossible,” argued Zim. “My ship picks up everything.”

“Maybe they’re apparitions,” said Membrane, and then he laughed. “Listen to me, talking like Dib.”

Zim felt a stirring of anger in his gut, but he didn’t understand it. He didn’t respond.

“Move the flashlight to the left a bit, please.”

Zim complied, a little begrudgingly.

“Is Gaz here?” asked Membrane quietly.

“No,” said Zim. “She’s on Earth, trying to fix PEG.”

Membrane shook his head at that, then went back to work.

“I can fix everything if I can get a time stasis field.”

“You can’t.”

Membrane looked up, eyes narrowed.

“What does that mean?”

Zim sighed. “I already called the Tallest and asked. They won’t let me have it.”

The muscles in Membrane’s face tightened with confusion.

“‘They’?”

“Yes, they. Tallest Red and Tallest Purple.”

“What happened to Miyuki?”

“She died.”

“She… she died? How?”

Zim took a deep breath. His arm was starting to get sore from holding the flashlight over the damaged energy core. Membrane stared at him, his eyes wide.

“I…” he began, and Membrane’s eyes went wider. “I may have created an energy-sucking creature that ate her alive.”

Membrane dropped whatever tool he was holding. It bounced off the energy core with an alarming clank.

“You… you killed Tallest Miyuki?”

“No! My creation did! It wasn’t on purpose, okay?”

Membrane blinked a couple of times.

“Okay, okay. I understand, obviously, how experiments can get away from us sometimes. I’m just… surprised, I suppose. I suppose I thought she would live forever.”

Zim lowered the flashlight and switched it off. “Me too.”

They sat together, saying nothing for a while. The forest around them was still and silent, dark but for the light of the moon and the bright blue glow from the energy core that reminded Zim of GIR.

“You said you understand how we can lose control of our experiments,” said Zim. “Were you talking about PEG or Dib?”

Membrane looked up, surprised.

“I was talking about PEG. I don’t think of Dib as an experiment.”

Yes you do, Zim thought.

“What do you think of him as?”

“I think of him as my son.”

“Irkens don’t have sons.”

“I do.”

“No,” said Zim, his own confusion and conflict twisting up his spooch and making it ache. “No, you don’t.”

“Dib is my son, and Gaz is my daughter,” said Membrane. “I created them so that I could have a family.”

This couldn’t be true. This wasn’t what irkens did… they didn’t seek families or comfort or love. That wasn’t programmed into their PAKs.

“You didn’t,” said Zim. “That’s not… irkens don’t—”

“In my time on Earth, I’ve done many things that I was told irkens don’t do,” said Membrane. “I’m sure you have, too.”

Zim didn’t want to think about it.

“It’s not true,” Zim muttered. “Our PAKs… we’re not… we can’t.”

“I’ve found that not every part of me is coded into my PAK,” said Membrane. There was a challenge in his eyes as he looked at Zim. “And not everything I learned the day I was born was true. Haven’t you?”

Zim’s hands clenched. He looked away, toward the woods.

“Well,” said Membrane after a pause, “I came to Earth a long time ago. I had a lot of time to watch the humans make families and communities, and I wanted that. I wanted to see what it was like.”

“How long were you on Earth?” Zim asked.

“A couple of Earth millennia,” said Membrane. Then, he shrugged. “Give or take.”

Zim sputtered.

“A… a couple? A couple thousand years? You’re been here for thousands of Earth years?!”

“Yes,” said Membrane. “I was sent here to do research. Although, I realized soon enough that it was all a ploy to keep me from usurping Miyuki as Tallest. She’d faked my death and everything. And you know what? I liked Earth so much, I just went along with it.”

Zim blinked rapidly a few times, then picked the flashlight back up and shone it right in Membrane’s face.

“How old are you?”

Membrane swatted the flashlight away.

“Don’t be rude.”

“You’re ancient! You must be the oldest living irken!”

Membrane scoffed.

“Yes, well, you would know better than I would, I suppose. I haven’t been updated on Irk’s current events in quite some time. Apparently a lot’s changed.”

“How did you do it?” Zim asked. “You haven’t been this… Membrane person the whole time. You can’t have been, the humans would think you were a god.”

“Well,” said Membrane, his tone thoughtful. “I had considered that when I’d first arrived. Back then, any kind of technology was foreign to them. I had to learn how to disguise my PAK because it was so advanced. They couldn’t even make TVs yet, the poor things. So, I whipped up a disguise, blended in with my surroundings and whatnot, and I got to work.”

“Work?”

“Yes,” said Membrane. “I started teaching them. Pretending to be making discoveries, I assumed a number of disguises and taught the humans everything they know.”

“Everything?” asked Zim. “You can’t have taught them everything.”

“Well, I suppose not,” said Membrane. “I taught them all the basics, the important stuff. How to make donuts, how to have electricity and running water. Some other stuff that I missed from Irk, like puppets.”

Zim said nothing, just watched as Membrane looked past him, his expression wistful. He realized how old Membrane must be, how many lives he must have lived before Zim came to Earth. In a way, Zim almost felt bad, like he’d been betraying one of his own that whole time he’d been trying to conquer the planet. It was more complicated than that though, he realized. Membrane hadn’t been loyal to Irk in a long time. And now, neither was Zim.

Zim clenched his fists, riding out the now-familiar swoop of his spooch that came every time he remembered that last conversation he’d had with his Tallest.

“There were some things,” said Membrane, low and quiet, “some things that I hadn’t thought through. Not everything I gave them was completely safe, but I had never anticipated the weaponry they would build out of the simple things I gave them. I underestimated them, I think. I thought humans were so different from irkens, so much more peaceful. I was wrong so many times.”

When Zim looked back at Membrane, his mouth was a tight line and he was staring at the ground between them.

Zim thought back to history class, digging through his brain for all the wars they’d learned about, all the suffering that humans had put on one another. On Irk, there was unity. Irkens were practically a hive mind, although, Zim realized now, that went entirely against their nature. The computers made them cooperative, pliant, complacent when the leadership harmed one of their own. Irkens had never rebelled. They’d never even questioned a superior.

How many people had Membrane seen die? How many had he accidentally killed? What did he give the humans?

“I only hope that I gave them more good than bad,” said Membrane softly. “I gave them medicine, and travel, communication. And, PEG… I’d wanted to give them energy, something they could use that wouldn’t hurt the Earth any more than I already had.”

Membrane’s emotions were so… obvious. He looked so upset, so much like Dib, with his bowed head and sagged shoulders. He was no irken, Zim thought, though he realized such an idea would be ridiculous. Of course he was irken. He just… was also not.

“Why didn’t you tell Dib this?” asked Zim. “About who you really are?”

“I wanted to,” said Membrane softly. “Part of me thought he already knew. He was so smart, and he loved the paranormal so much, especially aliens.”

Zim flushed. He looked away, his spooch clenching again, this time for a different reason.

“But, then you came along.”

Zim’s gaze snapped back to Membrane. “Me? What did I do?”

“Well, for one thing, you tried to destroy the planet.”

“Not destroy. Conquer,” said Zim.

Membrane raised an antennae in an entirely un-irken gesture of apprehension. “Right,” he said. “Regardless. I was going to tell Dib when he got a little older, but then you arrived. And he just… he…”

“What?” asked Zim, thinking back, and he had a feeling he already knew what Membrane was going to say.

“Well, I couldn’t exactly tell my son that I was from the same alien race as the invader who had come to conquer his home, could I?” snapped Membrane.

Zim squinted an eye. “Well, pardon me for doing my job.”

“It wasn’t just that,” said Membrane. “It was Dib, too. Before you, he had been… passionate, yes. He’d enjoyed studying the monsters, and trying to find them. But then, with you… he was hunting you. For years, he followed you and obsessed over you and he was so… so violent in his pursuits.”

Membrane’s face opened up again, his emotions back to the surface as he stared at Zim in what looked like disbelief.

“I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t realize that he had that in him, that bloodlust. He drew pictures of you, and he showed them to me. Pictures of you on an autopsy table with your organs all over the place. Pictures of your head decapitated from your body. I just… maybe it was cowardly, but it wasn’t that I was afraid of Dib hurting me. I was just so worried that he would learn who I was and hate me as much as he hated you.”

Zim felt his face heat as he remembered, an Earth decade ago. He’d landed in their suburb and he and Dib had nearly killed each other countless times. He’d broken Dib’s arm. Dib had stolen his PAK. It had been brutal, and violent, but it was a side of himself, and one of Dib, that he hardly recognized anymore. But it had been real, nonetheless. As real as the feelings Zim felt for Dib now, totally opposite, yet so similar. It had always seemed like he could fuel the most powerful spacecrafts with what he felt for Dib.

“It’s not like that anymore,” said Zim softly.

And it wasn’t. Zim thought — hoped — that it might not ever be like that again. He felt a pang of fondness hit him as he remembered the sight of Dib, asleep and peaceful in the bed that Zim had made for him. He remembered the hard percussion of Dib’s heart thudding against Zim’s chest as they kissed, pounding shockwaves against Zim’s ribs, making him feel like Dib’s heartbeat was his own. Was Dib still asleep?

“I know,” said Membrane.

Did he know? Had he known, back in hi skool, when Dib had started this whole dance between them? Could he tell what they’d done, just a few hours ago? Could he smell it on Zim, the residual passion and the burned-out lust? Would he be angry with Zim, for all that he’d done to Dib?

“He always felt strongly about you,” said Membrane. “You kept his interest longer than any of those other monsters he was chasing.”

Zim felt a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. A tiny bit of pride, of affection, unfurled in his chest. Wait. Wait, no!

Irkens didn’t feel this way. They didn’t feel affection for their former enemies — they didn’t even have former enemies. Enemies for life. That’s what irkens did. And that’s what he and Membrane were… irken. They didn’t feel affection or vicarious pride, and they didn’t worry about being hated by their experiments. They didn’t worry about being hated by anyone! Where would Zim be, if he were constantly worried about what others thought about him? Who would he be?

No. Membrane was an irken. And so was Zim. They didn’t feel love for others, only for destruction and power and sugary, carbonated drinks. That message had been pounded into Zim’s head enough times while he was being educated. Zim wouldn’t know love if it was staring him in the face. Irkens don’t love. Irkens don’t love. Irkens can’t love. Zim couldn’t love any more than he could grow to be Tallest.

Membrane was staring at him. Zim felt like he was about to start screaming. He pulled his knees up to his chest and hugged himself.

“Why didn’t you tell Gaz?” asked Zim, breathless as he leapt to a new topic.

Membrane sighed. “For a moment, I thought that she had also figured it out on her own. She was so perceptive, but I don’t think she’d ever even had a hunch. With Gaz, I… I know I’m not the best father to them, but I really am trying. Dib wrote me off a long time ago. With Gaz, when she was growing up, I… she trusted me. She trusted me more than Dib ever had, especially after they found out they were clones.”

Membrane paused for a second and barked a short, self-deprecating laugh. “I don’t know if she still does, or if she ever will again. But Gaz’s trust was more precious to me than anything else in my life, and I couldn’t lose it. It would have all been for nothing if I lost that. Is that so wrong, though, really? Am I so horrible for not wanting my own kids to hate me?”

Membrane sighed. “I was being selfish, I know. Dib’s hated me ever since he found the work I’d done to clone him. I couldn’t say two words to him without him finding and excuse to get away from me. I would say that this particular turn of events hasn’t helped me in the slightest.”

Zim felt something strange, sitting on the forest floor of the scariest planet he’d ever been on in his life. He felt that there was something between him and Membrane, some kind of bond that was forming through Membrane’s open and exposed honesty. He felt the need to reciprocate, which he thought was not at all what a good irken would do.

“I defected,” said Zim.

Membrane breathed out in a surprised huff, and he looked up to stare Zim in the eye and his expression was almost… impressed?

People generally weren’t impressed with Zim, so it was hard to tell, but he was fairly certain that that was what he was seeing on Membrane’s face.

“Did you?” asked Membrane. “I think you might be the first irken who’s ever done that.”

“I think so,” said Zim, but, really, he knew so, because he had all knowledge of Irk in his PAK, downloaded the day he was born.

“Well,” said Membrane. “Congratulations. When did this happen?”

“Uh, couple of days ago,” said Zim.

“Well,” said Membrane, “I think that’s just fantastic, Zim. Good for you.”

If Zim had ever had a familial, paternal interaction with another, this was it. Nothing like the Robodad.

“Thanks,” Zim muttered. “I just… they just didn’t care. I couldn’t stand it any more.”

“The Tallest?” asked Membrane. “What didn’t they care about?”

“About Earth!” exclaimed Zim. “I told them about PEG and they didn’t even care!”

Membrane looked at Zim for a long time, and Zim felt small under his gaze. Like he was being studied.

“I think that it’s good you left,” said Membrane. “You made a wise choice.”

“Okay, fine, thanks,” said Zim, standing, only because he couldn’t handle this kind of talk any more. “We need to focus on what to do next. Tallest Red and Purple denied my request for the time stasis field. We need to do something else.”

“Well, had you thought of anything? Had you and Dib discussed an alternative?”

“Uh.” That might have been a good idea. “Not really. We were mostly chasing you.”

“You were following me for days, and you didn’t think of any alternatives to fixing PEG? Did you think I would know?”

“No!” snapped Zim. “That’s what Gaz was doing! We just… we were following you to see what you were, uh, thinking, once we caught up with you, ah—”

“You had no plan after calling the Tallest?” pressed Membrane, and Zim felt like he was sweating under his collar.

“What do you want from me?” asked Zim, throwing his hands up. He stood and started to pace, his eyes trained on Membrane. “It was a very stressful time, before we found you, okay?”

“It was?” asked Membrane. “Why?”

“Oh, why, besides me leaving my people behind and Dib finding out his father was the kind of person who doomed entire planets and then just ran away?”

“I didn’t just run away, I was going to Irk—”

“It’s been a very stressful time, okay?” repeated Zim, still pacing as he glared at the forest floor. “First, he just, he shows up at my house, and he doesn’t even apologize—”

“Apologize for what?” asked Membrane, his eyes narrowing.

“Yeah, Zim,” Zim heard, right before he slammed into something solid. “Apologize for what?”

Zim didn’t want to look up. How had he not heard Dib coming? With a shiver, Zim realized that it was “night,” again, and the air was still and the ground was quiet. But, he should have at least smelled Dib, fresh from the shower, all warmth and cinnamon.

“Um,” said Zim. He took a step back. “Nothing.”

Dib was looking down at him. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and glared at Zim for a solid few moments before turning to glare at Membrane.

“If you guys are done talking about me, I was thinking we’d start working on a plan for when we get out of here.”

“Of course, Dib,” said Membrane, springing up from his spot on the ground. “We were just talking—”

“Yeah, I know. I heard,” hissed Dib. “Glad to hear the two aliens are getting along so well at my expense.”

“Son,” said Membrane. He looked hurt. “If you would let me just explain everything—”

“No time,” said Dib. “If I’m remembering correctly, we only have a few weeks before all life on Earth is destroyed, so we should probably focus on that.”

“Dib, please.”

Membrane took a step toward his son, but Dib sidestepped. He looked down.

“Oh, how nice. You broke my spaceship.”

“I’m fixing it,” said Membrane, sounding desperate.

“Of course you are.”

“Dib—”

“You know what, Dad? I don’t wanna talk about anything that’s not related to fixing PEG right now.”

With that, Dib shot a look at Zim, as if confirming that this new rule applied to Zim, too. Zim felt his spooch thud in his chest, and he glanced away to avoid the look of betrayal on Dib’s face.

Dib will hate him forever. He’ll never want to see Zim again after this. Zim took a deep breath.

“We need options,” said Dib. “What can we do to PEG? Gaz and I talked about it a little bit, but we don’t know enough about the time dilation field to know what it can take. Can we launch PEG into space?”

“No!” said Membrane, startling Zim. “No, you can’t move her. The field I built is large, but it’s sensitive. It can’t be moved.”

“Then what?” asked Zim. “Bury the thing?”

“Burying it won’t help,” said Dib, shooting Zim a look. “It’ll still be on Earth.”

Zim shrunk under Dib’s gaze, suddenly feeling very stupid.

“Well,” said Membrane, “when I was living on Irk, we’d just started developing time technology. Zim, when you were there, what were they working on? Do you have any memory of any kind of time reversal projects?”

Zim tapped a finger to his chin. “Nothing that could withstand PEG’s size and power. The best I could do on Earth was send rubber piggies into the past. I don’t think I could reverse PEG’s progress or her malfunction while she’s in the time dilation field you built, if at all.”

“Well, you must have seen something while you were on Irk?” asked Membrane. “Did you get any idea of what they have now?”

Any idea?” repeated Zim. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Uh, yeah, I have some idea. I was a military engineer for a year before I started invader training.”

“Okay, so what… hold on,” said Membrane, at the same time that Dib’s eyes went wide and he said, “Wait.”

The Membranes turned to look at Zim, slowly, the same expression of realization plastered on both of their faces.

“Zim,” said Dib. “You said you made an energy sucking creature, didn’t you?”

“It ate a Tallest,” said Membrane, nodding and rubbing his chin.

“Two Tallest,” Dib added.

“Two? Interesting,” said Membrane.

“And an energy generating device,” said Dib. “Right, Zim?”

“Uh,” said Zim. His antennae went soft against his skull. “A small one.”

“Is that so?” asked Membrane, and then he and Dib were looking at each other with excitement, and Zim felt oddly left out.

“So, if we could get this creature…”

“… and bring it to Earth…”

“… it would consume PEG…”

“… and then we’d be saved!”

“Yes!” Membrane’s eyes were wide, and he and Dib were grinning at each other.

After a second, Dib’s face fell. He turned away.

“Hold on,” said Zim, and the Membranes’ attention was on him once again. “I don’t mean to burst your collective bubble, here, but that creature is highly dangerous. It’s not something we can just throw at the PEG and have everything work out. This is new ground we’re breaking, here, and we have no idea, scientifically, what would happen if we met a literal unstoppable energy-generating force with an immovable energy-sucking creature.”

The Membranes were looking at him, and he could see the gears turning in their heads. He put his hands on his hips, to show that he meant business.

“And, besides, how would we even get it? It’s in the most highly-guarded prison in the entire cosmos. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. We can’t just go to Vort, wander up to the front desk and ask the prison guards to give us their most unstable prisoner. They would laugh in our faces! And then kill us!”

A moment of pause, and Zim was happy to see that he’d convinced them.

“Vort, you say?” asked Membrane, at the same time that Dib said, “So, you know where we could get it?”

Chapter Text

i.

“It’s over, Zim! Whatever your evil plan is, I’ll stop it!” Dib shouted, kicking open Zim’s front door with a flourish.

He’d really come in expecting Zim to have an evil plan. It was summer, which meant that they were on vacation from skool and Zim had a lot more time on his hands. Surely, he had spent the past week thinking of another twisted plot to destroy humanity.

“Uh… Zim?”

Dib felt his bravado start to slip. Because Zim didn’t seem to be doing any evil planning right now. It looked more like he was just hanging out, watching TV.

“Close the door!” Zim shouted, kicking a foot out at Dib from where he was lying on the couch. GIR, in his doggie suit, was curled up and asleep on his chest. “You’re letting the heat in!”

“Oh, um… sorry,” Dib mumbled, shutting the door behind him and stepping into Zim’s living room.

Zim, dressed in his same old uniform and disguise, flung a half-eaten candy bar at him. It just grazed Dib’s shoulder.

“So,” said Dib.

“What do you want, Dib-thing?” asked Zim. “If this is about my next evil plan, you don’t need to worry your absurdly large head. It’s too hot for such things.”

“Oh,” said Dib, feeling dumb.

Of course Zim wouldn’t be scheming. It had been in the nineties all week.

Dib shivered. He’d sweat a lot, running from his house to Zim’s, and Zim had the air conditioning blasting in here.

“What are you watching?”

Zim glared at Dib over GIR’s sleeping form, the fake eyes of his doggie suit blank and alarmingly bulbous. “Titanic.”

Dib turned to the TV and realized that, yeah, they were watching Titanic. He vaguely recognized a young Kate Winslet as she stood alone on the deck of the ship, then climbed over the railing.

“Oh. Why?”

“GIR likes it.”

“He’s sleeping.”

Zim gave him a challenging look. “Put something else on.”

Dib narrowed his eyes. “Fine.” Zim handed him the remote and he started flipping through the channels.

I WAS WATCHING THAT!!” shrieked GIR, his head popping up from where it had been resting on Zim’s chest.

Dib cursed, dropped the remote, and hastened to return to Titanic as GIR screamed “CHANGE IT BACK!” over and over. Meanwhile, Zim just stared at him, a bored expression on his face.

Eventually, Dib found it under the list of programs that Zim had recorded, which included various children’s cartoons, competitive cooking shows, family sitcoms, and horror films. Finally, he got the movie back up. GIR fell back asleep.

“He doesn’t like it when you change the channel,” Zim drawled.

“Yeah,” said Dib, watching GIR snore. “I noticed.”

“This is our fourth time watching this,” said Zim with a grimace, turning to face the television.

“Why don’t you tell him to change it? Aren’t you supposed to be the one in charge here?” asked Dib, partially out of genuine curiosity and partially to rile Zim up.

But Zim just shrugged, as best as he could from his reclined position on the couch. “Eh. It’s the only thing that keeps him quiet.”

Even as Zim said that, though, Dib couldn’t help but note the way Zim had started to lightly scratch the top of GIR’s head, and he couldn’t help but wonder if Zim wasn’t as detached as he pretended to be.

“You can stay and watch, if you want,” said Zim. “I don’t care. Just don’t take any of my food.”

“Uh…” Dib considered this. He couldn’t really sneak around Zim’s base with Zim right there, and he definitely wasn’t going to hang out with his mortal enemy without some kind of sneaky, ulterior motive.

An idea didn’t immediately strike him, but he figured he could come up with one while he was watching the movie. Anything was better than hanging around at home and stressing out about starting hi skool in a few weeks.

“Okay,” said Dib, finally, even though Zim had already turned back to the movie.

He strode across the living room and sat himself down on the floor, leaning his back against the couch. His hair brushed against Zim’s arm, and Zim called him disgusting and smacked him on the back of the head.

Dib readjusted, found a comfortable way to lean against the couch without disturbing Zim, and brought his knees up to his chest.

He turned for a second to look at Zim, who was ignoring him. He looked over at GIR, who was still asleep, snoring against his master’s chest.

“Hey,” said Dib, leaning in, “why is GIR wearing a dog collar with my address on it?”

“Hmm?” asked Zim, his eyes still on the movie. “Don’t know what you mean.”

“Yeah, it’s…” Dib twisted, then leaned over Zim so that he could get a closer look at the blue collar and the little silver tag. If lost, it read, please return to the Membrane residence. And then, there was his address.

“Where did you get this?”

“I don’t know,” Zim snipped. “He gets them off the mutts he eats.”

Dib paused. “Huh,” he said. “So that’s what happened to our puppy.”

“My condolences,” Zim sneered.

“Shut up.”

Dib turned back around, a little upset but mostly relieved to finally know just how the Membrane puppy reached its end. They’d only had it for a few weeks before it disappeared, and that had been almost three years ago. Dib leaned against the couch again. It was nice to have closure.

Zim smacked him on the back of the head again. They bickered for a moment, then fell into silence. Dib turned back to the movie.

He watched the characters get to know each other, fall in love, whatever. Dib had only really heard of this movie, and he certainly hadn’t watched any of it. It was soppy and ridiculously dramatic and a little boring.

At one point, though, things were starting to heat up between the lovers, and Dib felt his face heat up at the realization that he and Zim, plus a sleeping GIR, were about to watch some kind of sex scene. He felt his entire body stiffen up, his pulse quicken, and he realized that this might have been Zim’s evil plan all along: to trick him into thinking they were watching an innocent love movie and then have him die of embarrassment.

To Dib’s surprise, Zim was quiet. He shifted a tiny bit and peeked over his shoulder, only to find that Zim was fast asleep.

One arm was curled around GIR’s body, the other tucked behind his own head. His face was turned toward Dib, and his eyes were closed and he was just breathing calmly and, overall, it was the most peaceful Dib had ever seen him.

Dib didn’t even realize that irkens needed to sleep. Suddenly, Dib realized that this was his chance: he could sneak downstairs and peek around Zim’s labs. He could check out Zim’s equipment, maybe steal some more tech or something. That would be cool.

Instead, Dib found himself reaching up to gently pry Zim’s wig off his head. Zim’s antennae sprung to life for a second before relaxing back against his head. Dib watched, still pretty fascinated with just how alien Zim was. He could spend hours studying Zim, watching him go about his day and recording how and why his antennae moved. Even if he knew, eventually, that Zim would be spread out on an autopsy table in good time, and then Dib would be elbow-deep in alien organs and he’d finally get some goddamn recognition.

He didn’t think about the fact that this was the closest he’d come to hanging out at a friend’s house in years. He tried not to think about the fact that Zim had invited him to stay.

So, Dib just watched Zim sleep for a few more minutes, the movie still playing in the background. Eventually, he started to feel kind of creepy, so he turned back around.

He got hungry around the time the ship hit the iceberg, and, because Zim had told him not to take any of his food, he got up and went home, carefully closing the door behind him.

All things considered, it wasn’t the worst birthday he’d ever had.

 

ii.

“Hiya, Master!” chirped GIR, his head lolling off the edge of the couch. “Whaddya wanna do tonight?”

“The same thing we do every night, GIR,” said Zim, pausing to remove his wig and contact lenses before continuing his march to the toilet, “try to take over the world.”

And tonight, they would do it. They had all the materials, the perfect location, and the best plan yet. And, if Dib tried to stop them, Zim would kill him.

Zim gathered his materials, relayed his plan to GIR, and then put a minimal effort into his homework for tomorrow. He was finding sophomore year of hi skool to be just as tedious and boring as the rest of his earth education had been, but at least it was almost over. Plus, his PAK’s language translation function helped him test out of Spanish class, so he had an extra free period. Score.

Satisfied with the sloppy essay he’d done for English and the quick, sure sketches he’d done for physics, Zim put his notebook into his PAK, gathered his doomsday stuff, and headed for the elevator.

“Tell me the plan, GIR,” said Zim as they ascended.

“You say it!” chirped GIR.

“No, I want you to tell me, so I know that you know.”

“I like hearin’ you tell it, Master!”

“GIR, this is serious. Tell me the plan.”

“How do I know you’re not asking me because you don’t know?”

“GIR!” Zim snapped. “I will not do this dance with you again!”

GIR began to cry.

Several lollipops and some actual dancing later, they were ready to go. Zim pulled his tablet from his PAK and sent a quick electronic text message to Dib, confirming the location and time of their battle to the death, and they were on their way.

 

An hour and a half later, Zim had had enough of waiting.

“Where is he?” he wondered, looking around just to see if he could spot the lanky, awkward human.

No Dib in sight.

“GIR!”

“Yes, my Master!” barked GIR with a red-eyed salute.

“Power up the machine. He should be here soon.”

“Yes, my Master!”

GIR fiddled with Zim’s machine for a while, pulling levers and twisting knobs, until Zim finally gave in and swatted his little robot hands away so he could do it himself.

Standing atop the hill of the city’s most poorly-maintained cemetery, Zim felt positively giddy with excitement. He hadn’t had a good fight with Dib in a while. As a matter of fact, he was a little put off by how chummy they’d gotten lately, and this battle would surely prove that they hated each other now with just as much gusto as they’d had when Zim first arrived on Earth.

His machine was a stroke of genius, inspired by some reading he’d had to do in English class. While he’d found Hamlet to be so boring it was practically unreadable, he liked the idea of reanimating humans and sending them off to murder government officials and other powerful members of society. That was the point of Hamlet, right? Whatever. Soon he’d have his zombie army, and no one would force Zim to read another Shakespearean atrocity again. Although, and don’t tell anyone this, he hadn’t hated As You Like It.

“Where the hell is that human?” Zim grumbled, watching as the machine started to push its tubes down into the ground.

At this rate, he and Dib would only have a few minutes to fight before his zombie army rose from the dead and started wreaking havoc.

Finally, after what felt like many eternities of waiting, Dib appeared. He was walking with his head down — unusual, given that he often ran when he was after Zim. And, he was late this time! The audacity.

Dib stepped through the gate of the cemetery, hands shoved into the front pocket of his sweatshirt. He walked up the path toward Zim with no haste whatsoever.

“It’s about time, worm,” Zim called, more annoyed than anything at this point.

Really, it was just rude of Dib to keep him waiting.

“Sorry,” Dib mumbled, not meeting Zim’s eyes as he reached the top of the hill. “Got caught up with something.”

Dib was quiet, and not at all like himself. Zim felt his annoyance slip for a moment.

“Well, what took you so long?” Zim asked, trying to sound uninterested. “Did you get lost, or something?”

“No, I just—” Dib cut himself off, and then he was looking at Zim’s machine as it chugged away, slowly but surely reanimating the corpses around them. “What’s this thing do?”

“Wake the dead,” said Zim.

“That’s impossible.”

“You… you believe in bigfeets, but not zombies?” asked Zim, flabbergasted. “Haven’t you done this before?”

“Yeah, with, like, spells and stuff. You can’t do it with a machine. It’s more magic than science, you know?”

“Oh, well, my research— hey, wait! We’re supposed to be fighting!” Zim punctuated his point by thrusting an index finger into Dib’s chest.

“I know,” Dib admitted, and he was still avoiding eye contact. “I just… I’m not really feeling it tonight, I guess.”

“What are you talking about?” Zim asked. “What do you mean, not feeling it?”

There was a brief silence, and then Dib finally met Zim’s gaze, and he looked sadder than he’d looked the day they cancelled Mysterious Mysteries.

“I just had, like, the worst conversation of my life, okay? I just… I just need a second. I’m sorry, Zim, I’m just not feeling it right now.”

“Well… okay, I guess.” With the flick of a switch, Zim powered the machine off. Its coils began to retreat underneath them, making the ground tremble. “Should we pick this back up tomorrow, then?”

Dib sighed. “Sure.”

“Okay,” said Zim. “Uh… I have to wait for this thing to finish powering down. Are you leaving?”

Dib fixed him with another sad look. “I don’t think so. I’ll probably just hang out here for a while.”

Another silence, this one heavier than the last. They watched each other, Zim with mild concern, Dib with defeated disinterest. Zim crossed his arms.

“Well,” Zim began. “If we’re not gonna fight, you might as well just tell me what’s got you all mopey. Not like I care.”

At that, Dib’s lower lip actually started to quiver, and then he turned on his heel and started walking back down the path. Zim watched him reach the bottom of the hill, then walk over to the grass. He sat down, disappearing from Zim's view behind one of the bigger headstones.

It didn’t take superior alien hearing to know that Dib was sniffling from his spot at the bottom of the hill. With a put-upon sigh, Zim instructed GIR to find his way home, then started to jog toward Dib.

“Okay, human, stop your sniveling. Tell me what happened.”

Dib looked up at Zim with surprise.

“You don’t care,” Dib mumbled, turning from Zim to stare forward. He drew his knees up to his chin and breathed another big sigh, leaning his back against the headstone.

“Obviously,” retorted Zim, but he walked over to Dib anyway and sat down next to him, stretching his legs in front of him and leaning back, just a few inches from Dib.

There was silence for a few minutes as Dib stubbornly tried not to cry and Zim dug a little hole in the soil next to him. Eventually, Zim found that he was bored enough to take a small handful of dirt and sprinkle it on Dib’s head.

“Cut it out,” Dib mumbled, shaking his head like a dog.

You cut it out.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Neither am I.”

“Yes, you are,” Dib snapped. “You’re getting dirt in my hair!”

“You’re getting dirt in your own hair, Dib. Have you ever thought about that?”

“How am I— enough, stop!” Dib snatched Zim’s hand out of midair and flung it back in Zim’s direction. He stood, shook the dirt out of his hair, and then slumped back against the headstone with an irritated thump. “You’re such a jerk.”

“Tell me what happened.”

Dib didn’t say anything for a long time. Then, finally, he took another deep breath.

“I’m a clone,” he said, drawing his knees up to his chin again. “My dad just told me.”

There was another stretch of silence as Zim processed this. Yes, he had a vague, blurry understanding of how humans made babies, and he knew that it wasn’t like the way Irk made smeets. When humans did it, it was a good deal messier, and there were parents and sometimes grandparents and humans lived like parasites in their mother’s wombs. But — right, Dib didn’t have a mother. Neither did Gaz, as far as Zim knew. 

Zim had always just assumed that Dib and Gaz had been accidents, unintentional consequences of — ick — human intercourse, and Membrane, the un-parental type that he was, had been saddled with the task of raising his children because of how much money he had. Zim had also considered that Membrane had had a wife at some point and accidentally killed her with some kind of failed, crackpot science experiment. No, as it turns out, there was a crackpot experiment, but it certainly wasn’t a failed one. It sat next to Zim, and it was crying again. Gross.

Dib kept sniffling, his face buried in his hands and his elbows resting on his bony knees.

“He just—” Dib took another breath, but this one was short and shaky. “He just was like, yeah, so what? Like, so fucking casual about it, pretending like it wasn’t a secret.”

Dib turned to face Zim, and Zim was hit with the rare realization that he was in over his head.

“It was a secret. Otherwise he would have told me. He had all the notebooks and stuff stashed away, and I was, you know, I was looking through his stuff, which I know I’m not supposed to do, but… you know, whatever. I was doing it, because it’s my house, too, and we shouldn’t keep secrets from each other anyway, because we’re, like, a family, or whatever, I guess—” Dib took another sniffly, shaky breath, and he was really starting to commit to this whole crying thing, it seemed.

“What a fucking joke. We’re not a family. We’re just… just him. A scientist and his lab rats, living under one roof and hating every second of it.”

Dib’s last shred of composure dissolved, and Zim would never stop wondering how humans were so good at making themselves upset. No irken had ever done that before. Dib cried for a long time, wheezing and smelling like salt and snot. Zim just sat there, saying nothing, blinking occasionally.

Eventually, Zim realized that this might not come to an end very soon, so he slowly lifted his hand and placed it on Dib’s shoulder, offering him a small pat.

“There, there,” said Zim. “It’s… it’s all good.”

Dib shot him a look of exhausted irritation. Zim grimaced and patted him again, a bit harder this time.

“I don’t even know why I’m talking to you about this,” Dib murmured. “You don’t even get it.”

“Hey, I get it!” said Zim. “How do you think irkens are made?”

That surprised Dib enough to make him stop crying for a second, and Zim thought it was worth the potential danger of spilling his home world’s secrets to his enemy.

“You’re a clone, too?” Dib asked.

“Well… yeah,” said Zim. “We all are. It’s normal on Irk.”

“Why?” asked Dib.

“Just so, you know, we have enough of what we need. Enough elites, enough service drones, enough soldiers. We’re made in different smeeteries depending on what the Tallest expect they’ll need for stock in the coming year.”

Dib’s brow furrowed, and he leaned back a little. He sniffed.

“That’s so… formal,” he said. “Like… you guys are bred? Like farm animals or something?”

“It’s a bit more technical than breeding farm animals,” huffed Zim.

“Right,” said Dib. “So, do you even know who you’re related to? Whose DNA you’re made with?”

“Someone great, I’m sure,” said Zim.

“Huh.”

“Dib,” said Zim, treading carefully, “I don’t think that being a clone is a bad thing.”

Dib’s expression darkened again, and Zim realized he’d misstepped.

“For you, maybe. It’s normal on your planet. It’s not normal for humans to be designed and made in a lab. It’s like… actually pretty shitty and weird.”

Dib stared ahead, and Zim was afraid he’d lost him again.

“I just… he didn’t even tell me, and… why?”

Dib was crying again. Zim gave him a few more pats on the shoulder. Then, to Zim’s complete shock and horror and disgust, Dib was leaning into his personal space, burying his face into the crook of Zim’s neck and just… just really going at it, crying-wise.

“I’m some kind of… some kind of freak of nature. I don’t even know what I am,” Dib sobbed, his words trembling into the night air, muffled against the fabric of Zim’s collar.

Dib’s arms were wrapped around Zim’s waist, and his face was wet against Zim’s neck. Zim had never been more horrified in his life.

“You’re Dib,” said Zim, feeling dumb, even as he said it. “That’s what matters, right? You’re more than just how you were made, or, even, who made you. Think of… what’s his name? That green guy. The monster. Hates fire.”

With a startled expression, Dib looked up at Zim. “Frankenstein?”

“Yeah!” said Zim, wrapping an arm around Dib’s shoulders and giving him another gentle pat. Their faces were so close, Zim could see the dark lines down Dib’s cheeks where his tears had been rolling for the past ten minutes and forty-six seconds. “Think of him.”

“He was… a monster. How is that a good example?”

“He was his own person, too, though. He did what he wanted, I’m pretty sure.”

Dib looked unimpressed. “I’m pretty sure you have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“No, I think I saw the movie. Now he sells vegetables, very noble.”

For some reason, Dib choked out a phlegmy, harsh laugh at that. Zim frowned, but he secretly felt better. At least Dib was laughing and not crying.

“You’ve been on Earth for years, now, and you still don’t understand anything.”

“I understand that you’re a little punk,” Zim snapped, but there wasn’t a lot of heat in his words.

“Not little,” Dib said with a sniffle, leaning his face against Zim’s shoulder and shifting sideways a bit to make their awkward embrace more comfortable. “I’m way taller than you now.”

“Yes, but you look like a skeleton man, and it’s very off-putting.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“You’re a smelly pig.”

Dib shot him a smile, warm and still a little watery. Zim took a deep breath.

“You’re sad, because you thought you were conceived like a normal human child, but you were actually made in a lab,” he said. “Well, I think that you’re not a normal human child in most respects, so you should probably not be that surprised or upset about it.”

Dib raised an eyebrow. “Gee, thanks. Thanks so much for reminding me that the kids at skool hate me and that I have no friends.”

“You shouldn’t want to be their friend. They’re stupid and they smell bad and all they ever talk about is what celebrity they want to put their mouths on.”

Dib huffed a laugh at that. “Good point. Still. Would be nice to have at least a couple of friends.”

“Well,” said Zim. “You can’t blame the clone thing for that. I’m a clone, and I have lots of friends.”

“You don’t have any friends.”

“You just haven’t met them. They’re from other planets.”

“Oldest excuse in the book.”

“Shut up.”

“You shut up.”

Dib straightened. He took a big breath, then gave Zim a little nudge on the shoulder, which Zim was happy to return. Before long, they were just kind of laughing, shoving each other towards the dirt with increasing force. It was kind of nice.

It escalated, of course, and soon Zim was hunched over Dib’s lanky skeleton body and shoving his face in the dirt with little effort.

“Okay, okay, Jesus,” Dib snapped. “I yield. Fuck, get the hell off of me.”

Zim complied, only because Dib’s eyes were still a little red. Dib sat up and used the sleeve of his sweatshirt to brush the dirt off his face.

“I wish he’d told me,” Dib murmured.

“Are you going to cry again?”

“No,” said Dib, rolling his eyes. “I just… I don’t know. Seems fucked up to keep secrets from your kids. I don’t even know what Gaz is, but she didn’t know anything, either and, it’s like… it’s messed up. He should have told us.”

Zim shrugged. “Maybe he had a good reason. Did you ask him?”

“No,” said Dib. “I just yelled at him and then came here.”

Zim just shrugged again, not interested in getting any more involved in Dib’s family dynamics than he already was. Professor Membrane was a genius, but he was also pretty wacky, and Zim generally didn’t have much of an understanding of what goes on in that man’s brain most of the time.

“I just don’t think I can go home right now,” Dib mumbled. “I still feel… pretty shitty about it.”

“You can stay here, I guess,” said Zim. “If you want, I can wait and unleash doom on Earth and all of its inhabitants later. We still good for tomorrow, the same time?”

“Maybe,” murmured Dib. “I don’t know, I feel like this is a lot. Could we just… I don’t know… chill, for a second? Just put this whole enemies thing on hold while I figure my shit out?”

It didn’t sound ideal. But, taking over the world when Dib wasn’t there to stop him also didn’t sound ideal. Especially because, with the Tallest not talking to him and his mission being… what it was… well, the whole point was kind of to fight Dib.

“I suppose we could take a… short break. Nothing too extensive, of course.”

“Yeah, no, of course not,” said Dib. “Just, like, a couple of days. A week, tops.”

“Okay, fine,” said Zim. “You’ll just tell me when you’re ready to start fighting again?”

“Yeah,” said Dib softly.

“Okay.”

They sat in the graveyard, saying nothing, just listening as the wind whispered through the trees.

Eventually, Zim spoke. “Hey, whose grave are we sitting on right now, anyway?”

“Huh. Good question.”

They both turned, and the headstone was difficult to read, even in the bright light of the full moon. It was ancient, Zim realized.

“It looks like it says, ‘Bitters,’” said Dib. “‘Morticia Bitters.’ Hey, that’s funny. I wonder if Ms. Bitters has some relatives that were buried here.”

“Maybe,” said Zim, shifting so that he could get a better look at the headstone. “It doesn’t have any dates on it.”

“Weird.”

The breeze, a quiet, gentle sound, suddenly picked up. Zim felt a chill, realizing that it wasn’t just the blowing of the wind through the leaves that he was hearing: it was words.

Doom, doom, doom.

The voice, rough and gravelly and terrifyingly familiar, echoed so close to Zim’s antennae that he thought someone was right behind him.

They sprinted out of the graveyard, screaming and scared-laughing and chasing each other through the streets until they ended up back at Zim’s base. 

And it was only because they’d started this temporary truce, and only because ghosts and spooky things still terrified Zim to his very core, that he invited Dib into his house to have a few snacks and watch TV with GIR.

And, Zim had to imagine, it was only because he was upset with his father that Dib said yes.

 

iii.

“So,” said Dib, not looking at Zim. “Now that you know my dad’s an irken, you’re gonna be best friends? Gonna make each other the bracelets and everything?”

From the corner of his eye, Dib saw Zim cross his arms and sink in his seat, not looking at Dib as they waited for the Computer to run the final diagnostic test on the ship. They should be ready to fly any time, now.

“I thought you only wanted to talk about PEG-related things,” he muttered.

“I changed my mind.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” huffed Zim.

“Oh, really?” said Dib. “You talking shit about me to my own dad isn’t anything wrong? Did you tell him about last night, too?” Dib’s face was hot, and he still couldn’t bring himself to look at Zim. “You really didn’t strike me as the type to kiss and tell, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“You’re being mean,” said Zim.

Zim tapped away at the weird wrist brace that he used to communicate with GIR. Now, it would be how they communicated with Dib’s father, at least until they got Zim’s ship’s transmitter working. Dib wondered if they were texting each other now, sharing more secrets.

“What are you doing?” asked Dib, leaning over toward the co-pilot’s seat.

“Nothing,” Zim hissed, pulling his arm away. “Trying to reach GIR.”

“Let me see.”

“Stop it.”

“Let me see!”

“Stop!”

Dib sprang from his seat and lunged for Zim’s wrist. He got a grip and yanked the brace toward his own face, ignoring Zim’s protests.

Looking at the litany of text messages that Zim had been sending to GIR, Dib realized that he made a mistake. He looked down to see Zim, twisted halfway out of his seat with his arm at an awkward angle, a sad expression on his face.

“Sorry,” Dib muttered, releasing Zim’s wrist. “Sorry, I just… sorry.”

Zim pulled his hand back and rolled his glove back over the device, looking wounded even though they both knew he could easily pick Dib up and fling him into next week.

“I didn’t say anything,” said Zim, looking from Dib to the windshield, where the woods were still and quiet outside. “He was getting on my case about not having a backup plan and I just started talking, but I didn’t say anything specific and definitely not anything about, um… before.”

Dib’s face was on fire again, and he turned around and sat himself back down in the pilot’s seat.

“Okay,” he said. “I get it. It’s been a stressful couple of days.”

His dad was taking Dib’s Spittle Runner, riding in a separate ship because Dib couldn’t bear to look at him right now. They had a half-baked plan that would probably get them killed. Gaz still didn’t know anything. Zim had defected from Irk and was clearly still upset about it. He and Zim had hooked up last night.

Last night. If it even was nighttime, or “last” anything. Dib still had no idea. He was pretty grateful to be getting off this planet of ghost deer and lowered inhibitions. Although, if he knew himself, he had to imagine that this kind of news would have had him falling into Zim’s arms no matter what planet they were on. That’s what happened last time. But, maybe it wouldn’t have been exactly like that. Maybe his gratefulness for having Zim back in his life wouldn’t have been so blatant. Maybe his desperation to finally have Zim wouldn’t have been so embarrassingly obvious.

He wondered what Zim thought of him. He was probably put off, annoyed that Dib would be so needy and desperate, so human. If Dib had thought he was some kind of sex god before (he didn’t), this experience was certainly humbling, if not humiliating.

They hadn’t had sex. At least, not in the human way that Dib was familiar with. He still wasn’t really sure how irkens had sex. Probably should have asked about that before getting naked.

No, they hadn’t had sex, but they’d done stuff. Zim had straddled his thighs and taken both of their pricks in his hand and jerked them off together, so intimate and overwhelming that Dib’s breath caught in his throat and he hadn’t been able to stop telling Zim not to stop. Dib had pushed Zim onto his back and sucked him off until Zim finished with a polite warning and a dignified grunt. And then Dib kissed Zim like his life depended on it and rode his thigh for about one second until he came, too, spilling all over Zim’s leg and practically sobbing.

If Dib were still a virgin, he would have felt like a total virgin. Actually, he still kind of did.

He wondered if that was what Zim thought about him. Like he was some kind of inexperienced loser who’d only had one kiss in his whole life and then, three years later, blew his load from one dry hump. It was embarrassing, and obviously not something Dib wanted to talk about, although apparently Zim did. Probably to make fun of him or give him pointers on how to suck dick better or something.

Dib shivered. He hated feeling like he didn’t understand things, like he was missing out on some landmark human experience because he was a weird, socially-inept clone. Well. At least now he knew that he wasn’t even fully human. Somehow, that made him feel a little better while still making him feel like total shit.

Dib ran a hand through his hair and sighed. He couldn’t think of a single time in his life when he’d been more disappointed in himself. This was all such a big mess, and now he’d gone and ruined things, again, and Zim had thrown him some kind of pity hookup and now the world was going to end and Dib couldn’t stop thinking that he wanted to just go back to bed and get tangled up again and stop thinking about everything else.

But, no. That wouldn’t be fair to Zim.

“Are you mad at me?”

Dib blinked, then looked over at Zim.

“What? No. Why would I be mad at you?”

“I don’t know,” said Zim with a pathetic little shrug. “You seemed mad before. Right after… you know.”

Zim’s face got dark, and Dib felt an answering blush creep up his neck. Probably not great that they couldn’t even maintain eye contact while talking about this.

“I wasn’t mad at you.”

Zim frowned. “Well, why did you make me leave, then?”

At that, Dib had to look at Zim. Zim was watching him, his arms still crossed but his expression open and a little sad.

Well, what was Dib supposed to say to that? Sorry, Zim, I had to kick you out because my self-loathing had reached an all-time high, and I could barely handle being in the same room as myself, let alone you? Because I was trying not to be some kind of messy, sloppy human and, big shocker, I’d failed miserably? Because I’m so obsessed with you that it scares me?

“I just… I don’t know,” said Dib. “A lot’s happening.”

Zim didn’t say anything, just stared at him. Dib wasn’t sure what to add, so he just stared back, watching with desperate helplessness as Zim’s expression started to close off.

“Uh huh,” said Zim, tightening his arms across his chest and looking away. “Of course.”

“Diagnostic complete,” said the Computer. “Repairs complete. All flight systems functioning. Communications still offline.”

“Great,” said Zim through gritted teeth. “Computer, initiate launch sequence.”

Dib chewed on the inside of his cheek and started prepping for takeoff.

 

They flew in silence for a few hours, Membrane in Dib’s Spittle Runner buzzing to Dib’s left. His father was far enough away that Dib couldn’t see him too well, but he knew that he was cramped inside Dib’s tiny, old spaceship. Dib was having a hard time caring.

Which was why Dib was struggling with some pretty high-level guilt. Because he was stuck on this crappy mission that was already doomed and the only good thing about it was the fact that he had Zim back with him, and he couldn’t even appreciate it. Zim wasn’t fuming, not exactly, but he looked unhappy. He was still quiet, really quiet, not doing those exaggerated sighs or tapping his foot like he used to do back when they were in hi skool, when he was upset with Dib and wanted Dib to do something about it.

Dib couldn’t believe himself. Three years of silence, a few days of fighting, a couple hours of something like friendship and now look what he had done. He’d gone and ruined everything again, just like prom. Just like he’d always known he would.

He shouldn’t have initiated it. He was upset about his dad, Zim was upset about Irk, they’d almost gotten eaten by a giant deer-thing and they hadn’t really talked things through yet. Why was Dib like this? Why couldn’t he pull himself together? He was an adult now, technically, kind of. He was supposed to be making smart decisions. He was supposed to be mature.

How was it that Dib was so bad at being a person? He couldn’t handle interacting with humans, and now he’d screwed things up with Zim, an irken, so what was the deal? If he was half of each, shouldn’t he be somewhat capable of interacting with either? Or did they cancel each other out, so he was destined to never be able to have any kind of functional relationships, ever?

He hated his dad. He hated himself.

Well. No one ever said that Dib Membrane didn’t try. He could try to be mature now. He could try to save this friendship that they’d been working so hard to revive.

“Look,” said Dib softly, staring at the cold, dead space ahead of him, “what… happened, back on that planet… it wasn’t smart. I’m sorry, okay? I shouldn’t have started it. I was just upset, and, I mean, you were, too. I made a mistake. It’s all on me.”

Next to him, he heard Zim snort.

“Takes two to tango, Dib. I don’t think it was a mistake.”

“Okay,” said Dib, his face heating up, “well, I do. We just… we just started talking again. We can’t just… we can’t just…”

“What?” asked Zim, and Dib could feel Zim’s eyes boring into his face. “We can’t what?”

“What are we gonna do, Zim?” asked Dib, bearing down on the yoke. “Date? Be boyfriends? Is that what you want?”

Zim sucked in a breath, and it felt like he’d taken all the oxygen in the room. Dib was fairly certain his entire body was blushing, from his hairline down to his toes. He probably shouldn’t have said that.

“No. Not if you don’t want to,” Zim muttered, looking away.

It was so awkward, Dib might actually start crying again, just to break the tension. Although, now that he thought about it, that might not be the best idea. Given their track record with him crying and all.

“We just became friends again,” Dib whispered. “I can’t mess that up, okay? You were my best friend, and we just started talking again, and, you know, we’ve never done this before, and we… we’re not… casual, okay? That’s not how we are with each other. I can’t…” Fuck, he might actually start crying now. Shit. Shit. “I just want to try to be friends. A lot’s happening. We need to focus on getting that energy eating thing to Earth and… you know, saving the planet and all that.”

He really needed to start focusing on that. Saving Earth was a bigger deal than his feelings. That was just the truth. He can’t keep getting tied up in his emotions and Zim.

“Earth is the priority,” said Zim.

“Exactly,” said Dib, relieved.

“Okay,” said Zim.

There was a long, painful silence.

“I’m getting a snack.”

Zim didn’t offer to grab him one. He disappeared through the doorway and was gone for a long time.

Dib’s hands were trembling on the yoke, but he kept staring ahead. There wasn’t anything he could do. He was in the middle of a crisis, for one thing, and so was Zim. And he hadn’t even told Gaz about it yet, because they were out in the middle of nowhere, and he didn’t know if he would even get a chance to. Would he ever see Gaz again? If he did, what would she say? Would she cry, too? Probably. She loved their dad so much, even if she tried not to show it. This would devastate her.

Gaz was trying to save Earth. Maybe she’d figured something out. Maybe they’d all done the calculations wrong and PEG had already killed her. No, that wasn’t likely. Gaz was probably fine, all things considered. She was probably handling things, figuring out a plan, organizing people and keeping her head above water the way Dib could never. She was good with people — they were afraid of her, but they respected her, too. No one ever feared or respected Dib.

Well. That wasn’t true, was it? Zim respected him. First as an enemy, then as a friend. And Dib had taken that respect and thrown it right in Zim’s face. He’d been feeling like shit and he’d used Zim. He’d treated Zim like a one night stand, like a vehicle for his catharsis. He’d been the universe’s biggest asshole.

He’d taken the delicate piece of glass that was their friendship, and he’d dropped it over and over again until it was just a cracked, chipped piece of garbage.

Zim was probably humoring him. Or, worse, Zim was feeling just as untethered as Dib was. With no home planet to ever go back to, Zim probably needed as much comfort as Dib did. It made Dib shiver, to think that Zim was as emotionally compromised as he was and that was why it had happened — that was why Zim wanted it to keep happening. He was just messed up from leaving Irk and needed to blow off some steam. It wasn’t real. As far as Dib knew, Zim had never reciprocated those feelings. The gooey, embarrassing, romance movie ones. He'd even said, just a week or two ago, that irkens weren't even capable of having romantic feelings for someone else. 

Dib gripped the yoke tighter, fighting the wave of regret and self-loathing that washed over him. He took a deep breath and reminded himself that it didn’t matter how he felt about Zim — didn’t matter that he wanted to be with Zim more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life. It didn’t matter that his romantic feelings for Zim hadn’t wavered in the three years they’d been apart.

If Zim would come back into the cockpit and let Dib be his friend, Dib would be lucky, and he wouldn’t do another thing to hurt their piece of glass.

He wouldn’t say another word to Zim about this. Not now, not after the mission, not ever.

Chapter Text

i.

“Dib left,” said Gaz, and Zim stood frozen for a few seconds before ducking back into Dib’s old room and throwing himself out the window.

She watched him go running at top speed down the sidewalk until he disappeared from view. With an annoyed huff, Gaz turned back toward her room and crawled back into bed. But she couldn’t go back to sleep, not with the image of Zim’s face burned into her brain. He’d looked shocked, more than anything, but a little betrayed, and more than a little upset. Gaz reached for her phone and sent Dib a quick text, letting him know that she wasn’t mad that he hadn’t told Zim he was leaving town, just disappointed. Dib didn’t text her back.

A few hours later, Gaz found herself knocking on Zim’s door. GIR, Zim’s virus-ridden robot minion, answered.

Helloooo!” he chirped.

“Hi,” said Gaz. “Where’s Zim.”

“Busy!”

“Doing what?”

“Crying!”

“Ugh.” Gaz put one hand on her hip and ran the other through her hair. “Tell him to come to my house when he’s done, okay?”

“Okaaaay!”

Zim didn’t come over. Gaz dropped by a couple more times, more because she felt sorry for him than anything else, but he never answered. Eventually, she gave up trying.

Then, on one chilly October day, Zim rang her doorbell.

He pushed his way into the living room as Gaz was opening the door and flopped himself down on the couch with the theatrics of a Jane Austen heroine. Gaz fought the urge to roll her eyes.

“Where did he go?” asked Zim, his voice flat.

“College,” said Gaz.

“What state?” snapped Zim. “What country?”

“America. Washington. You know, the northwest?” Gaz never could tell how much Earth stuff Zim had actually picked up, even after all this time.

“Washington!” Zim huffed, his arm crossed over his face, covering his eyes. “What, does he like the rain so much he had to go all the way to Washington?”

“I think it was more the school that he liked so much. Not all of them have cryptozoology classes and paranormal majors or whatever.”

Zim muttered something. Gaz kicked his feet off the couch and sat down.

“Get your dirty boots off my furniture.”

“So, what now, Gaz?” asked Zim, sitting up with newfound energy. “Now he leaves to find the Loch Ness Monster, and the moth men, and all the other disgusting creatures he likes so much, and he never comes home?”

Gaz sighed. “I don’t know, Zim. He’s not answering my texts. Things have been… really shitty, ever since he found out about all that clone stuff. You know that.”

Zim flopped himself back down with a weary sigh. “I know.”

“I’m not gonna tell you what he’s thinking,” said Gaz. “Because I don’t know. But I think he’s made it pretty clear what he wants.”

Zim mumbled something.

“What?” asked Gaz.

Mumble-mumble.

“I can’t understand you.”

“I said, what about ME?” Zim shouted, his eyes fixed on the ceiling and his arms spreading in indignation. “He doesn’t want to be with me? He wants to leave me alone to rot?”

Gaz took a deep breath. Zim locked eyes with her, and she couldn’t fight the twinge of sympathy that she felt in her chest, bubbling like lava under tectonic plates that shifted, just a tiny bit, every time Zim shot her that despairing look.

In the past couple of years, Gaz had been the occasional third wheel on Dib and Zim’s outings — usually to the movies or the mall, never into the woods to find werewolves. Plus, Zim used to come over all the time, and sometimes she’d play video games or watch TV with them or whatever. Dib hadn’t been subtle about what he wanted back then, so she really couldn’t blame Zim for feeling like he’d had the rug pulled out from under him.

“I don’t know,” said Gaz softly. “Did you try talking to him?”

Zim set his jaw and glared. “I did nothing wrong.”

“I didn’t say you did.”

“So why would I, the very busy and very amazing Zim, go out of my way to beg that stupid… worm for his attention? Hm?”

Gaz shrugged. “Because you liked him, I thought.”

“I hate him.”

“My mistake.”

“Clearly.”

“Okay, Zim,” said Gaz with a sigh. “Since you’ve obviously been doing nothing but wallowing about this for the past few months, I’m going to make you a one-time offer. I will spend one afternoon with you. We can do whatever you want. Nothing weird. No vivisections or experiments on chickens. We can take GIR for a walk and look at the leaves or something. You like that, right?”

Zim stared at her. Then, he looked away. “I suppose.”

“Okay. One afternoon. And you can complain about Dib all you want. And that’s it.”

Zim gave her another long look. She wondered if he was going to ask her why she was offering this, what was in it for her, et cetera. Really, Gaz wasn’t sure why she was offering. Maybe because she felt partially responsible for Dib, him being her brother and all. Maybe she’d just warmed up to Zim and felt bad that he felt bad. Ha, ha. Nah. That wasn’t it. It was probably just the Dib thing.

Instead of asking any follow-up questions, Zim surprised her.

“Fine.”

 

He came over at exactly 12:01 PM on the Saturday that they’d agreed on. It was a little drizzly, so Gaz pulled on her rain boots and a jacket before opening the door.

Zim was standing there, dressed in an outrageous yellow rain jacket that went down to his knees and a pair of green boots. Next to Zim, GIR was lying on the ground on his back, catching raindrops in his open mouth.

“Nice rain jacket,” said Gaz. “Looks familiar.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Gaz snorted. “Whatever.”

“Ready to go for your walk, GIR?” Zim asked, and GIR jumped to attention.

Zim brought them to a park near his house, one that was decently clean and pretty quiet. He let GIR off his leash and the robot quickly took to the fountain, where he grabbed armloads of pennies and started firing them at the ducks in a very un-doglike manner. Gaz and Zim sat down on a bench and watched, huddling under their hoods as the cold rain spat down on them.

“What’s that?” asked Zim, pointing to Gaz’s lap.

Gaz looked down at her hands and realized that Zim was probably talking about the fresh coat of burgundy nail polish that she’d put on this morning.

“My nail polish?”

“It’s not blood?”

“No, it’s not blood. It’s nail polish. Seriously, you’re just noticing that I paint my nails?”

Zim just looked at her, confused.

“You know, for an alien invader, you’re not very observant.”

Zim’s face scrunched up. “Am too.”

Inwardly, Gaz sighed. Zim was clearly still upset — he didn’t have any sort of fire in him today, and he obviously hadn’t been out of his house since the last time he’d come to hers. She could tell by the uneasy way he looked around, like it was that first year he’d been here all over again. It made Gaz’s annoyance toward him cool, just a little.

“It’s a cosmetic,” said Gaz, “like make-up. It’s just an aesthetic thing. Not much to it.”

“Oh,” said Zim. He gingerly reached for Gaz’s hand, and she couldn’t believe that she let him take it.

He inspected her fingernails, tapping them with his own and then holding them up to his face to smell. Gaz drew her hand away and gave him a light slap across the cheek.

“I said not to be weird,” she said, but there wasn’t much heat to it.

Zim just looked at her, still confused and a little hurt-looking. Man, he really felt like shit, didn’t he?

Gaz watched her breath puff into the cool air and then watched as Zim turned away and stared straight ahead. She dug through her brain, trying to find something to say that might help the situation. But, really, what could she do? Dib was the one who’d fucked up. Just like their dad, Zim was a mess that Dib had apparently left for Gaz to clean up. Great.

She was broken from her musings when a sharp, angry voice began shouting behind her.

“Hey! Is this your dog?!”

Gaz and Zim both turned. Approaching from the left was a guy, stomping toward them and holding GIR by the collar at arm’s length.

“Uh,” said Zim. “What?”

“I said,” the man grunted. “Is this your fucking dog?”

“Oh,” said Zim. “Yes, that’s my dog.”

GIR squirmed out of the man’s hold and plopped face-first into the wet grass. He gave a half-hearted bark, then leapt up and took off on two legs with a shrill scream.

“That… mutt tried to eat my foot,” the man snarled.

“Oh,” said Zim. “It must be time for his dinner. Thanks.”

Zim’s apathy only fueled the stranger’s rage, and he took a step closer. Gaz stood.

“Sorry about your foot,” said Gaz. “Looks like you’re fine, though. Maybe you should back off.”

She wasn’t wearing her heels today, so the man had a good two inches on her, maybe three. She stepped between him and Zim.

“You really gonna keep yelling at some poor kid?” she asked.

The man’s eyes flicked to Zim, taking in his small stature and general mopiness. He hesitated, then fixed his gaze back on Gaz.

“This your brother?”

“Yup.”

“Train the dog better.”

“Whatever,” Gaz sneered, planting her hands on her hips. “Go find someone else to bother.”

The man looked like he was going to argue, but apparently he thought better of it. He looked past Gaz’s shoulder for a second, and Gaz noticed that GIR, whatever he was doing, was still screaming.

“What the hell kind of dog is that, anyway?” asked the stranger, looking back down at Zim.

Zim started at the attention, then looked away. “He’s… ah, um. He’s a… a—”

“He’s a… Irish… Banshee… Hound,” said Gaz. “Rare breed. Okay, bye.”

The man gave Gaz an unconvinced look. She glared back. Muttering, he turned on his heel and stomped off.

Gaz looked back toward Zim.

“Thanks,” Zim murmured, still not looking at Gaz.

“Don’t mention it,” said Gaz.

A pause, awkward and long, stretched between them. Gaz took a deep breath, noting that, no matter how resistant she was, she felt well and truly sorry for Zim. Somehow, this dumb alien, her dumb brother’s dumb alien crush who clearly missed dumb Dib, had wormed his dumb way into her cold, shriveled, dumb heart. God dammit.

“You wanna go to the mall or something?” she asked. In the distance, another scream. “We have to take GIR home, first, though.”

Zim just shrugged, but he picked up GIR’s leash and hailed his little minion with a whistle, and then they were off.

 

The first thing that Zim did when they got into the beauty store was complain that it reeked of artificial odors. The second thing he did was insist that Gaz show him every color of nail polish that they had to offer.

They browsed for a while. Gaz picked out a few new colors, not because she’d been planning to, but because of Zim’s fascination with the product. Once, a few years ago, Gaz’s dad had complained that she spent too much money on make-up. Gaz ignored him, and she continued to ignore him to this day.

She walked Zim past various skincare products and eyeshadow palettes, then stopped to pick up a new eyebrow pencil.

“Gaz,” said Zim seriously, “why are you spending so many monies on a pencil?”

“It’s not just a regular pencil,” said Gaz. “It’s for eyebrows.”

She selected the tester from one of the pricier brands and parked herself in front of one of the small mirrors at the end of the aisle. She pushed her bangs up her forehead with one hand and started applying. She could just see Zim, a blurry image in the background behind her. He was staring at her.

What is the point of this?” asked Zim. “You already have eyebrows.”

Gaz decided she’d buy this one. She turned back to Zim.

“You don’t.”

Zim squinted an eye. “Obviously.”

“Wait here.”

She strode back down the aisle and picked up another pencil — this one in black, since purple wouldn’t work with Zim’s wig. When she returned, she found Zim waiting for her with his arms crossed and his foot tapping.

“Stay still,” said Gaz.

She uncapped the pencil and took Zim’s chin in one hand. Zim watched her, unblinking, as Gaz leaned down and drew two perfect eyebrows onto Zim’s face with precise, deliberate strokes. When she finished, Gaz gestured to the mirror.

“Look,” she said. “What do you think?”

Zim shot her a glare before turning his attention to the mirror. With a tickle of satisfaction, Gaz watched as Zim did a double take, then leaned forward to inspect his reflection further.

“Well?” she asked, finally, after Zim had been staring at his reflection for a solid minute or two, raising his new eyebrows up and down, in unison and then one at a time.

Another thirty seconds passed, and then Zim was finally turning back to look at her.

“Buy me that pencil,” he said.

Gaz smirked. “Done.”

She turned to make her way toward the register.

“Wait!”

She turned back. “What?”

“I want some of the nail stuff, too.”

 

Over the next few months, Gaz saw Zim on a semi-regular basis. They texted a bit, but with her internship at her dad’s company, college applications, homework, and spending time with the couple of friends she’d made in hi skool, Gaz was pretty busy. She found herself dropping all of her responsibilities when Zim showed up at her door, though, that kicked-puppy look still on his face.

They took GIR for walks through the park and made a game of making up breeds for him. Passersby would eye him with caution and Gaz would mention that he was a Bug-Eyed Fire Shitter. GIR would try to eat a stranger’s baby and Zim would apologize profusely, explaining that he was an Appalachian Baby-Eating Terror (“terrier,” Gaz would correct), and it was just in his nature. Once, in February, they were walking down the sidewalk when Zim flippantly informed an old woman that he was a Miniature Caucasian Ass Eater. Gaz spat out her latte.

“Do you even know what you just said?” Gaz asked.

Zim shot her a confused look. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, do you know what it means to eat ass?”

Zim raised a perfectly-drawn eyebrow. “I once watched one hundred and fifty hours of pornography in a single human week. I know what it means to eat ass.”

That gave Gaz pause, and she felt her jaw drop. She slowly turned to meet Zim’s gaze from where he stood, sipping from his hot chocolate and looking up at her with a bored expression.

It was gross, and weird, especially given that Zim had once explained that he’d done a sizable amount of research in anticipation of seeing Dib that day he’d shown up in Gaz’s hallway last summer. They rarely talked about Dib, but Gaz had a feeling in her gut that all this porn watching was more “research” that had to do with Dib, her brother. And that just made Gaz so uncomfortable that her skin crawled, and she felt like she kind of wanted to vomit.

She burst out laughing.

“Oh, man,” she snickered. “I’m gonna miss you when I go to college.”

Zim just fixed her with a self-conscious smile and turned away, dragging himself and GIR further down the sidewalk.

They’d talked about it, a little. Gaz felt like it would be kind of a dick move to not tell Zim that she was moving away for college — she wasn’t going to pull a Dib on him and just take off. Zim had taken it okay, and they’d spent a lot more time together since she’d shared the news. It was weird. It was like they were friends.

They spent the next few months together, growing increasingly joined at the hip as their made-up breed names became even more ridiculous and Zim started to really get the hang of drawing on his eyebrows himself. They’d watch TV or play video games together or just relax, painting each other’s nails and talking about skool or Irk or whatever. Gaz would never admit that she’d softened in the years that Zim had been on Earth. Really, she would rather argue that Zim had just become more tolerable.

He helped her pack the day before she was going to ship off to Chicago. Her dad wasn’t home, as usual, so she appreciated the help.

“I’ll be home for holidays,” said Gaz, because Dib hadn’t come home at all yet and she felt like it needed to be said. “We can catch up then. You can text me whenever.”

“Okay,” Zim said.

They ate pizza and played arcade games at Bloaty’s. Gaz set a new pinball record. Zim almost broke the claw machine trying to get a new rubber piggy for GIR.

They parted ways at Zim’s house, and Gaz walked herself home.

That night, though, there was a familiar tap on her window. She opened it and Zim stumbled through and onto her bed, his arms full of different bottles of nail polish and his antennae askew. Gaz flipped on the lamp on her nightstand.

“Want a new color?” asked Gaz.

“Yes,” said Zim softly. “Do you?”

“Yeah, okay.”

She’d done her nails a few hours ago. It was fine.

Methodically, Zim removed the polish on her fingernails. They barely spoke as he brushed the new base coat onto her nails with more precision than even Gaz could muster. She let him pick the color: a bright purple, one of Zim’s and not really her style. She didn’t mind.

When he was done, he plucked off his gloves and let Gaz paint his nails: a darker purple, almost the color of her hair. They mumbled promises that they’d keep in touch and that they’d miss each other.

When Gaz was finished, she shuffled a bit, preparing to lay back down in bed. It was almost three in the morning, and she needed to leave relatively early to make it to orientation tomorrow. She was about to inform Zim of this when he produced a bottle of polish, the color of raspberries, and asked if he could do her toenails.

“Sure,” she said, and he got to work.

A year ago, she wouldn’t have let Zim in her bedroom in the first place. Now, she just squirmed a little as he accidentally tickled the underside of her foot.

Finally, when Zim’s feet were done, too, and there were no more nails to paint, Zim gathered up his supplies and ducked out the window. Gaz shouted after him that she’d send him pictures of her dorm room, once she was done decorating it.

 

ii.

Gaz tapped her chin as GIR flitted around her, trotting back and forth and bringing her various alien knickknacks.

“GIR, we need something useful. Alien video game consoles are not useful.”

“Okaay!” GIR chirped. “What about board games?”

“You have…? Wait, you know what? No. We need something better than this.”

Gaz had been at Zim’s house for almost a week, now, and she barely had anything to show for it. She and GIR had combed through a lot of Zim’s technology, but there wasn’t anything she could find that would stop a perpetual energy-making death machine. Mostly it was just alien toaster ovens and different variations of rain-resistant, wearable paste. Some of Zim’s rooms were locked, and Gaz honestly didn’t even want to know what was in there.

“Whaddabout this?” GIR chimed, holding up a two-liter bottle of Poop Cola.

“This is from Earth, GIR.”

“Oh!”

Gaz shook her head again. GIR had not been helpful, as expected, but Gaz wasn’t really making much progress on her own, either. Really, Zim had so much alien crap, but nothing of any actual use to anyone. GIR, now prancing around with a rubber piggy, tripped over some wires and fell over. Gaz took a deep breath.

Okay. This shouldn’t be that hard. She just needed to stop for a second and think.

Maybe, Gaz realized, this actually was all that she needed. She was having a hard time proving to the government that there was a real threat coming. Given how much they loved her dad, they’d had a hard time believing that he’d do anything so horrible as to doom the entire planet. But, maybe… what if she told them it was an alien?

All the stuff here was no use to her if she wanted to stop PEG from detonating. But, what if she just needed to prove that it was going to? That everyone was at risk? Then, maybe, they could evacuate? It would be a tall order; nearly eight billion people wouldn’t willingly board some kind of Noah’s Ark to escape an oncoming flood of energy.

But…

If she could save some of them, most of them, maybe that was the best she could do. The thought of it made her want to cry, but, really, what other choice did she have? Zim and Dib weren’t getting anywhere, probably. She hadn’t heard from them yet, so she had to assume that they hadn’t found a solution. If Gaz could mobilize what was left of the world’s astrophysicists, maybe they could at least get some people off the planet before PEG destroyed everything.

She would have to show them Zim’s house, and expose him in the process. But it would be worth it, wouldn’t it? Maybe then, they’d succeed. But then, maybe Zim wouldn’t be able to come back to Earth if they did. He’d be willing to make that sacrifice, right? Gaz would be willing to let him, right?

She wished she could talk to Zim. And Dib, too, or whatever.

Almost as if on cue, the base’s Computer cleared its nonexistent throat.

“Um, Gaz?”

Gaz looked up. “Yeah?”

“We’re getting a call.”

“Oh. Okay. Take me to the transmission room, I guess. Please.”

“Whatever.”

Gaz liked the Computer.

She boarded the elevator, enticing GIR with another piggy that she’d found during her ransacking of Zim’s house. Eventually, they were in the transmission room. Gaz stepped into view of Zim’s giant monitor just as a blurry, pixilated image began to clear.

“Is it…? Yes! It’s working! I’m a genius!”

Well. Speak of the devil.

“Zim?” called Gaz. “Can you hear me?”

“Gaz!” Zim shouted. “What are you doing in my house? Where’s GIR?”

“He’s… right here,” said Gaz, but her voice was drowned out as GIR came barreling out of the elevator, screaming “MASTER!!” as loudly as his little robot lungs would allow.

“GIR!!” Zim shouted, with as much, if not more, enthusiasm. Gaz rolled her eyes. “Have you been getting my messages?!”

“YES!” GIR screeched. “THE PASSWORD IS ‘TACOS’!”

Zim sighed and brought his hands to his antennae. “Thank you, GIR. Lower your voice, for the love of…”

At that moment, the wall behind Zim slid open, revealing Dib. Gaz felt her eyes go wide. Dib looked exhausted. His hair was a mess, more so than usual, and he had horrible bags under his eyes. He looked like shit.

“Gaz,” said Dib, his voice soft. “I—”

“I need to talk to you guys,” said Gaz. “It’s important.”

“Me too,” said Dib. “There’s something I have to tell you—”

“Me first,” said Gaz.

“Have you found a solution?” asked Zim.

“No,” Gaz admitted. “It’s… there’s nothing we can do. I had all the lab coats look at PEG, and we couldn’t figure anything out.”

Dib sighed, and Gaz wanted to wince at his bloodshot eyes and the way his shoulders hunched.

“Have you started telling people?” Dib asked.

“Yeah, but they won’t listen to me. Are you okay? You look… not great.”

“Mary looks tired!” GIR chirped. Gaz couldn’t help but nod in agreement.

“Yeah, well, it’s a stressful situation,” Dib snapped, and Gaz found herself looking over at Zim.

He looked concerned, but in a sad, almost guilty kind of way. His antennae were almost flat against his head and he was standing a significant distance away from Dib.

“Okay,” said Gaz. “Well, I had an idea.”

At that, Dib and Zim both perked up a little.

“I’ve been here for the past few days, trying to see if I could find a way to stop PEG using Zim’s crap. But… it really is just crap, so—”

“Hey!” snapped Zim.

“Hi!” shouted GIR, waving.

Gaz shook her head.

“If we can find a way to evacuate Earth, we might be able to save the people, if not the planet. I think that’s our best option. And we might not have a giant spaceship or anything, but I think if I organized all of Earth’s scientists, we might be able to do something.”

“Okay,” said Dib, “but how are you going to do that? You said no one would listen to you? And we only have, like… three weeks?”

“About that. They wouldn’t listen when I said Dad doomed the planet,” said Gaz. “But, if I told them an alien doomed the planet…”

She gestured to the alien technology around her.

“There’s more than enough stuff here to prove that Zim’s an alien. If I bring some of it to the public, they won’t have any choice but to believe me.”

Dib shook his head. “Gaz, I spent years

“I know you did,” said Gaz. “But this is different. No one will be able to argue this when I show people Zim’s house, all his stuff, GIR—”

“Wha-what?” Zim stammered. “Hold on a second.”

“It’s the only way to get people motivated, Zim,” said Gaz softly. “Unless you know of any other aliens that have a base on Earth.”

Zim gave her a long, hard look. Then, he looked down at where he was wringing his hands.

“No,” he said.

“I know this might make coming back to Earth more… complicated,” said Gaz. “If things work out and we can save at least some people, it would just… I don’t know what else we could do, Zim. I just—”

“No,” repeated Zim. “This is, at least, a plan. Do it.”

“Are you sure?” asked Gaz, and she noticed Dib was shooting Zim a glance, his brows creasing.

“Yes,” said Zim. “If it means you can get the scientists to start working on something, show them whatever you want.”

“Zim,” said Dib, his voice almost a whisper, “if people knew—”

“I wouldn’t be able to come back to Earth,” Zim finished. “I know. We need to focus on this.”

“You could just figure out a new disguise,” tried Gaz.

Zim shook his head. “No,” he said. “If the humans get a hold of Irken technology, sooner or later the Tallest will find out. I shouldn’t be anywhere near Earth when they do.”

“Zim,” Dib whispered.

Gaz felt her heart clench a little. She’d never seen her brother looking so worn out.

“Tell them,” said Zim.

“Okay,” said Gaz quietly.

“Just…” began Zim.

“Yeah?”

“Keep an eye on GIR for me, okay? I’ll want to take him with me when I leave.”

GIR squealed, “Road trip!” and flung his piggy at Zim’s face on the monitor. He dashed off into the wires to chase where it bounced.

“Of course,” said Gaz, the weight of it all settling, heavy and uncomfortable, on her chest.

Then, she remembered something. “Wait, Dib. What did you have to tell me?”

“Oh,” said Dib softly. “Right. We uh… well, um. Dad—”

“Did you find him?”

“… Yeah.”

“Well?” asked Gaz. “What did he say?”

“Zim built a creature that sucks energy,” said Dib. “We’re gonna try to get it from a prison planet and back to Earth to swallow PEG before she detonates.”

“Oh,” said Gaz, surprised. “Okay. Cool.”

A prison planet? That sounded unsafe. Gaz pursed her lips.

“You should still, uh, tell people,” said Dib. “In case we don’t make it back in time.”

Or at all.

Gaz swallowed.

“Okay. I’ll do that. What did Dad say?”

“He… he was trying to fix everything, Gaz, he didn’t, um, he didn’t just run away.”

“Okaaay,” said Gaz, dragging the word out, only because it felt like Dib was burying the lede. “That’s good. What else?”

“He’s…”

Dib paused for a long, long time.

“He’s an alien, Gaz. An irken, just like Zim.”

Gaz didn’t realize that she was moving to sit down until her ass landed on the cold metal floor of Zim’s transmission room. She stayed like that, on the floor, for a couple of moments. GIR tried to crawl into her lap, and she didn’t stop him. He held a piggy up to her face, blurry in between her eyes as she stayed focused on her brother.

“Gaz?” asked Dib.

“How do you know?” she asked.

“I saw him. Out of his disguise. He told me how he got to Earth. He’s an alien, Gaz.”

Gaz’s eyebrows were at her hairline. She blinked again as GIR pressed his piggy to her cheek with an exaggerated kissing sound and a coo.

“There’s something else…”

Gaz brushed GIR’s piggy away from her face and took a deep breath, almost annoyed that her brother wasn’t giving her any time to process this first piece of information. “Okay?”

“We’re aliens, too. Kind of. I’m not sure on the specifics?”

At that, Gaz stood.

“What?” she barked, GIR falling out of her lap and onto the floor. “What do you mean, kind of?”

“We’re hybrids, Gaz,” said Dib, and then it really clicked why he looked so fucking exhausted. “Part human, part irken. Dad said so.”

Gaz felt her brain start to kick on, and suddenly her thoughts were coming in rapid succession. This made sense, she thought. She’d always been different. She had purple hair. She was smarter than the average human by an unfathomable margin. This made sense, she told herself, over and over again. This made sense.

“I know you must be really upset,” said Dib in that big brother way he used that always pissed her off. “Personally, I’m really mad at Dad, and I just—”

“Wait,” said Gaz. “What?”

Dib looked taken aback. “What?”

“Why are you mad at Dad?”

Dib’s jaw dropped.

“Um… because he lied to us? For, like, twenty years? About something that’s pretty fucking important?”

Was it, though? Gaz was already pushing this revelation as far away as it would go. She was part alien. That wasn’t a big deal. At least, it wasn’t an apocalypse-level deal.

“So?” asked Gaz. “He was probably going to tell us.”

Dib had never looked so dumbfounded. Gaz bit her lip, knowing what was coming.

“Are you fucking kidding me, Gaz? You’re not serious right now, are you? Dad fucking… he lied to us about the clone thing, and it was an even bigger lie, and you just… you’re not even kind of mad at him? He kept secrets about who we are! From us! For years! Who knows how long he would have lied to us if I hadn’t— if I hadn’t seen him? I saw him, Gaz, he had green skin and antennae and he’s—”

“Calm down, Dib,” Gaz muttered. “Take deep breaths.”

Dib’s face, already flushed, went dark.

“Don’t tell me to take deep breaths!” he growled. “Stop… don’t treat me like I’m some kind of… fragile… upset… baby, just because I’m— that’s not fair!”

“Well, you are upset,” Gaz pointed out, but her heart was hammering in her chest as she waited for the explosion.

“Are you serious right now?” Dib shouted, throwing his hands up. “Are you being fucking serious right now, Gaz?!”

“Dib, just calm down!” Gaz hissed. “You’re being dramatic! Yes, Dad lied to us, but it’s not a big deal, okay? We need to focus on—”

“Not a big deal? NOT A BIG DEAL?” Dib roared. “What’s it gonna take for you to be mad at him, huh, Gaz? If he murdered me, would you be mad at him then? Huh? If he… I don’t know, doomed the entire planet, would you be mad at him then?”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t mad at him!” Gaz snapped.

“Well, are you?”

“I… well…”

Dib’s eyes were wide behind his glasses. He laughed, a little maniacally, and Zim edged away from him.

“See? You think I’m fucked up, Gaz, you should take a look at yourself! If you fucking felt one thing in your entire goddamn life, you’d be upset about this right now!”

“Dib,” Zim whispered, his eyes wild and snapping from Gaz to Dib.

“Maybe you’re not an irken!” Dib shouted. “Maybe you’re just a fucking robot!”

“Shut up!” Gaz barked. “Shut the fuck up, Dib, you fucking asshole!”

“How can you not be mad at him?”

“I’m just not, okay?!”

“No!” Dib screamed. “It’s not okay! How could you not be mad at him?!”

“Dib,” Gaz huffed, trying to compose herself, “he was probably going to tell us—”

“He lied to us!” Dib was near tears now, Gaz could see it. “He made us and then left us alone! He wasn’t even a father to us! He didn’t do a single thing but lie to us! How can you be taking his side right now?”

“That’s not fair!” Gaz snapped.

How?!” Dib howled. “How is it not fair?! He did nothing for us! We took care of each other our whole lives, and you just… you side with him every fucking time, Gaz, and I… I took you to school! I took care of you when you were sick! I was the only other person living in our fucking house and you… you—”

“Well, excuse me, then!” Gaz hissed. “Excuse me for not falling at your feet for being my real dad, but that’s not how I saw it!”

Dib was crying now, messy and angry and his eyes were nearly as red as his face. Gaz took deep breaths and tried to steady herself.

“Dad’s a scientist, Dib,” said Gaz softly. “He had to work to help people. He couldn’t spend all his time helping us with our homework and watching Mysterious Mysteries.”

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Dib blinked, and a fat tear trickled down his cheek. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“I know you wanted everyone’s attention,” Gaz said, because she couldn’t help it, “but Dad had to work. And if you cared the tiniest bit, if you’d just gotten an internship with him or something—”

Then what, Gaz?!” Dib snapped. “Then I’d get his love, if I did what he wanted? I’d get to spend time with him if I was one of his employees? Is that what being a good parent sounds like to you?”

“Well, I don’t know!” Gaz huffed. “I’m just saying—”

“You don’t know what you’re saying.” Dib’s voice was still wavering, but his expression was hard. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

Gaz narrowed her eyes. “Fuck you.”

“You’re just afraid. You’re just a little girl who thinks it’s okay that she needs to earn her dad’s love—”

“Oh, my god, fuck you, Dib!”

“You can lie to yourself all you want, Gaz! That’s fucking fine! But if you weren’t too afraid of being mad at Dad, you’d be mad at him right now! If you didn’t think he’d stop caring about you if you pushed back on him the slightest bit—”

“Shut up!” Gaz screamed. “Shut up! Don’t act like you’re so fucking enlightened, Dib! You think you’re some fucking master at relationships?”

“I’m better at it than you, obviously!” Dib shouted.

“Really? Fucking tell that to Zim, then! Explain to me why you thought it was okay to just fucking ditch him for years and not talk to him until you needed something from him!”

Somehow, the red tinge to Dib’s face got darker, angrier. Gaz didn’t look over at Zim, a tiny stream of guilt flowing down her spine and making her shake a little.

“That’s not what this is about!”

“It’s not? It’s not about the fact that you just drop people when they fail to meet your ridiculously high expectations?”

“I don’t— that’s not—”

“First, you can’t get Dad on board with your bullshit Chickenfoot science and you just gave up on him — and then, you didn’t talk to him for months, Dib, you didn’t even try to forgive him for not telling you about the clone thing! You just walked around like you didn’t even care about him anymore! Like you could just drop him! And then, with Zim—” at this, Gaz pointed an accusatory finger at Zim, whose eyes were wide and whose face was pale “— he doesn’t fall all over you the way you wanted him to and you just fucking ditched him! You can’t do that, Dib! You can’t just cut people out of your life if they’re not exactly what you want!”

“Being a normal fucking father isn’t a ridiculous expectation!” Dib spat. “And telling me that I’m a fucking clone… that I’m a fucking freak of an alien isn’t either! And I never believed in Chickenfoot!”

Gaz almost wanted to stop. But she was on a roll.

“Just because everyone in skool rejected you doesn’t mean you can just throw the people that care about you away! You can’t just pretend like you don’t care just because the other kids didn’t buy into your crazy conspiracies!”

In another setting, Gaz would have been more composed. She wouldn’t have been so fast and loose with Dib’s many issues and the bad behavior that resulted. But, despite herself, she was worked up, and she couldn’t keep her head straight enough to have a linear thought process.

“You’re pretending like you don’t care!” Dib screamed. “You’re pretending like it doesn’t matter that Dad let you down!”

“You’re letting me down!” Gaz shouted. “You’re letting me down, right now, by wasting my time with all your bullshit instead of trying to find a way to figure this mess out before literally everyone dies! Did you think about that, Dib?”

Dib paused, and he drew back for a moment. His fists were clenched at his sides, and he went from looking angry to looking so, so defeated. For a second, Gaz felt a welling of emotion burning in her chest. She pushed it away.

“Fine.” Dib sniffed. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. Just… just forget it.”

And, with that, Dib turned on his heel and slapped his hand against the metal wall of Zim’s spaceship. The wall slid open again, revealing a bedroom with a messily-made bed, and Dib stalked through it. In a second, the door was whoosh-ing shut, and Gaz was left, fuming, staring at where Dib had just been.

At her feet, GIR squeaked. When Gaz looked down, she saw that he was peering at her from behind his little robot hands, which really didn’t cover his eyes at all.

Gaz took a deep breath and ran a hand through her hair. GIR mimicked her, his little robot chest pushing forward as he pretended to breathe. Gaz took another deep breath. So did GIR.

“I wish you hadn’t dragged me into that.”

Gaz looked up. Zim, looking more than a little shell-shocked, had his hands on his hips and was trying to appear composed.

Gaz closed her eyes for a second, then opened them to look at Zim. “Sorry.”

She mostly meant it.

Zim’s hands dropped to his sides.

“I should go,” said Gaz. “I just… you know what I mean, right?”

Zim crossed his arms and shook his head. “Oh, no,” he said. “I’m not getting involved in any of this.”

Despite herself, Gaz laughed. “That’s probably a good call.”

“Computer, give Gaz access to all the storage rooms,” said Zim.

“Fine,” drawled the Computer.

Gaz looked around for a second. Then she remembered.

“I… thanks for doing this, Zim,” she said.

“It’s an urgent matter,” said Zim. “You can use whatever you like. If you need a recorded confession, I’ll send you one soon. GIR also functions as a recording device, so he should have plenty of footage of me out of my disguise.”

“Okay,” said Gaz softly.

“Just…” Zim looked back toward the wall that Dib had disappeared behind. Then, he looked back at Gaz. “Just help as many people as you can, okay? And make sure you and GIR get off planet when you need to. Even if we do bring this creature to Earth in time… I don’t know what’ll happen when we let it go. You should get off Earth before we get there. It may not be safe.”

“Okay,” Gaz whispered. “Thanks, Zim.”

Zim nodded.

“I’ll try to contact you with an update soon. For now… well, you know what to do.”

Gaz nodded.

They stared at each other for a while. Gaz took a deep breath.

“You’re going to a prison planet,” said Gaz.

“Yes.”

“With Dib?”

“Yes. And Membrane.”

Gaz took another deep breath, this one shakier. “Just… keep an eye on Dib, okay? Don’t let him get hurt?”

“I will keep an eye on him.”

Gaz gave him a curt nod. “Bye, Zim.”

Zim nodded, saluted, and then ended the call.

Gaz swallowed. She stared at the black monitor for a few seconds. Thoughts trickled in… she’d been so mean to Dib — how could she say all that, when he was clearly already so upset? Was Dib right? How could their dad—?

“Okay, GIR,” said Gaz, straightening her shoulders and taking one last, hard breath. “Let’s get to those storage rooms and get to work.”

GIR was studying her, his expression slightly… concerned?

No. Gaz was probably just seeing things. She set her jaw and walked back to the elevator.

Chapter Text

i.

They were trapped.

Zim paced, his boots making a satisfying clacking noise as he marched to and fro. His antennae were standing high at attention, though he didn’t know why. He could only just hear the sounds of feet stomping around outside their cell, and he hadn’t heard a voice since they’d been tossed in this insufferable metal cube thirty-six minutes and twelve seconds ago.

It had been jarring, waking from a peaceful nap to find himself being interrogated by a Vortian rebel and his crew of miscreants. When they’d had insufficient information and, according to the vortian, a “bad attitude,” he and Dib had both been tossed into the nearest cell and promptly ignored.

Zim turned on his heel and strode toward the wall of the cell. He kicked at it.

“Hello? If you’re not going to do anything with us, let us out! We have important things to do and you’re wasting our time!”

After a few more kicks and a bit more yelling, a tired voice groaned behind him.

“Just give it a rest, Zim.”

Zim turned, and there was Dib, looking exhausted and a little sweaty. It was hot in here, Zim realized. He’d been so busy making noise, he hadn’t noticed.

Dib sat against the wall, his legs splayed out in front of him, his hands bound behind his back. Zim had been able to at least get his hands over his head and was able to put them to some use, mostly pounding the walls, but Dib wasn’t, as he’d said, “double-jointed,” so he couldn’t do that.

Zim wasn’t sure what it meant, but he hadn’t pushed the issue.

“How can I give it a rest?” asked Zim. “Every moment we’re stuck in here, we’re wasting time. We should be—”

“I know what we should be doing,” Dib hissed. “But we’re stuck here. So maybe stop being such a loud baby about it and just sit down for a second. You look like you’re about to pass out.”

Truthfully, Zim wasn’t feeling great. The vortian’s servant had put some kind of inhibitor on Zim’s PAK, so he couldn’t use his spider legs, his laser beams, or even his tweezers. He couldn’t get his arm free to call Membrane, wherever he was right now, and he couldn’t access his energy stores. So, yeah, he was a little woozy, actually.

With a thunk, Zim plopped down next to Dib. Dib offered him a weak smile.

It had been hard, staying mad at Dib. What he’d said about their friendship and Earth being the priority made marginal sense — at least, Zim could kind of understand how it made sense to Dib, as long as one kept in mind the fact that Dib could barely handle having emotions. Still, Zim didn’t really see why they couldn’t just try, experiment a little and see where things went. It wasn’t like Zim was equipped with too many mushy feelings, anyway, so Dib’s worries seemed all for naught.

Still, Dib was right that they were both dealing with… well, a lot. Dib had been baffled by Gaz’s reaction to their father’s secret, and it seemed that he was still reeling from her apparent apathy. Zim had curbed his expectations for Gaz, but even he was surprised by what she’d said. And Dib had been downright devastated.

Plus, he was anxious about the most recently-discovered secret, his newly-realized hybrid status. Plus, Earth was going to be destroyed in a matter of a couple of weeks if they couldn’t execute their plan.

Plus, the plan was outrageously dangerous.

Plus, Zim had given Gaz permission to spill his secret to anyone who would listen, rendering the planet, if it survived, uninhabitable for Zim.

Plus, Zim had defected from Irk and was feeling less and less irken by the minute, which was about as terrifying as that time GIR got a hold of their chainsaw. More so, even.

Zim looked at Dib. He was facing ahead, his eyes closed. Poor Dib. He’d barely slept since their departure from Earth. Since they’d left that strange forest planet, his sleeping had only gotten worse. He had crescents under his eyes the color of bruises, and his skin was dull and a little lifeless.

Still, he looked good.

Zim had considered at length the feat of science that Membrane had accomplished by creating his son and daughter. Really, it wasn’t anything anyone had ever done before. Hybrid species were uncommon in nature — Irk had done some research during the early years of the Empire in their endless quest for super-soldiers, but they’d found that mixing species from different planets was impossible. A vortian and a Large-Nostril Person, born under the same star, just didn’t have enough genetic code in common to make a viable hybrid. Zim would think that humans and irkens would have even less in common, given how different they were, how they were from different ends of the galaxy. He had half a mind to go digging through Membrane’s labs just to find out how the bastard had done it. Of course, that was assuming that Earth would still be around, and that Zim would get a chance to go back to it.

And yet, as of the past day or so, Zim didn’t find himself marveling at how Membrane had made the impossible happen, how he’d created a creature with working organs and strong bones and ears that could hear and eyes that could see and a brain that could… well, do just about anything. No, these days Zim found himself considering how Membrane had been able to make a creature that was both functional and, um, aesthetically pleasing.

With Dib’s eyes closed, Zim felt comfortable allowing himself to drag his gaze over Dib’s face. He had a narrow jaw, but it was strong and defined and, right now, a little tense. His head was large, still, because he hadn’t quite grown into it the way Zim had expected he would, but that was fine.

He had a nose, perfectly straight but for the slight bump where he’d broken it in hi skool while he was attending a sports competition with Membrane. Zim found that he liked the bump. It was an imperfection, a sign of weakness on Irk, but Zim found it strangely charming.

His eyebrows were modest, not overgrown like some of the other humans Zim had seen. They arched carefully up his forehead, just enough that Zim could barely see them when Dib had his new glasses on.

His eyes were brown and bright, heavy lidded and sunken in a bit, but Zim liked that, too. When Dib looked at him, eyes round and big — like an irken’s, Zim thought distantly — it was with a kind of intensity that made Zim’s skin crawl. Even if they were on the same team, tracking a chupa-whatever or playing a friendly video game, Dib’s eyes had always made Zim feel like a cell under a microscope. Occasionally, Dib’s gaze would turn to Zim with a fondness, a soft warmth, that made Zim feel calm and content. Like right before they’d kissed, just under an Earth week ago. Or when Zim had come to get him for prom.

Dib’s mouth curved down a little at the corners, like his neutral expression was still a bit irritated. His lips were full, the lower a bit more so than the upper, and Zim remembered staring at Dib’s mouth enough times that he remembered exactly what they looked like when they were chapped on a dry February morning, or when they were shiny with saliva, or when they were swollen and red, which they often were, because Dib had a habit of biting his lips.

Dib’s hair, tousled and dark, curled around ears that stuck out a little. His hair was a little shorter now that how he’d kept it in hi skool, Zim remembered, but it was still thick and shiny and enticing.

As Zim watched Dib, the lump in his throat called an “Atom’s Apple” bobbing up and down, he thought that Membrane’s accomplishments certainly didn’t end with his talent for science. Looking at Dib, his chest moving slightly, his eyelashes dark against his cheeks, Zim thought that Membrane was no less than an artist as well. Certainly a talented one, one who could create a masterpiece such as Dib.

Dib took a deep breath, and Zim realized that he’d inched closer, his hands balled into fists in his lap.

“I can feel you looking at me,” Dib murmured.

“No you can’t,” replied Zim.

Dib’s mouth quirked up into a small smile. He opened his eyes and turned to face Zim.

Zim met Dib’s gaze, intense and bright and impossible to look away from. Dib closed his eyes and brushed his mouth against Zim’s.

Zim jolted back. “What are you doing?”

Dib opened one eye. “I was kissing you.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I wanted to?”

“You said we shouldn’t. You said—”

“I know,” said Dib. “But, you said you don’t feel that stuff, right? Like, the romance-y stuff? You said that right after we left Earth.”

“Uh. Right. It’s not in my nature.”

“So…” Dib leaned forward again, and they were kissing again, and this time Zim felt himself kissing back.

“You said Earth was the priority,” said Zim, pulling away.

“Yeah, well,” Dib huffed, his face morphing into a frown, “there’s not much we can do about that now, can we?”

Zim felt his spooch plummet in his chest, and he watched Dib’s face go from anger to sorrow.

“I mean,” Dib said, “we’re trapped here. I don’t think my dad even knows where we are. This might be it for us.”

Zim blanched.

“Are you serious right now? You’re just going to give up?”

“What else can I do?” Dib sighed. “Scream for help? Kick the walls?”

“You can’t just stop trying! We could think of a plan!”

“What can we do?” Dib asked. “We don’t have any resources, we’re trapped in a box, and they fucked with your PAK. Our hands are literally tied.”

Zim felt his jaw drop. He leaned away.

“You never used to give up so easily.”

“Yeah, well. Excuse me for being realistic.”

Zim cast a sidelong glance at Dib. He looked so miserable. Zim felt a well of emotion rise up in his spooch, and then he was standing up, stepping one foot over Dib’s outstretched legs, and plopping down into Dib’s lap. Dib blinked at him in surprise.

Irk, he had pretty eyes.

Zim leaned in and pressed a soft kiss to Dib’s mouth, then pressed a little harder. He pulled away.

“We will not be stuck here forever,” Zim said. “We are going to escape, and we’re going to save Earth.”

Dib just nodded, his eyes wide, so Zim reached up with his bound hands and placed them on Dib’s chest, clenching them around the fabric of Dib’s t-shirt. He kissed Dib again, and this time Dib responded, angling his head and bringing his knees up so that Zim was flush against his chest. Zim heard Dib release a muffled grunt as their bodies slid together.

Sandwiched between Dib’s chest and his thighs, Zim pulled away. Dib released a breath.

“I can’t believe you’re letting Gaz show everyone your stuff.”

Zim opened his eyes. “It’s for the mission. I have no other choice.”

“Where will you go?” Dib asked, looking sad again.

Zim leaned in for another brief kiss. “Not sure.”

“I can’t believe it,” repeated Dib. “We’re finally friends again and you’re going to leave.”

Zim narrowed his eyes. “We could still communicate, you know. Even if I’m not on Earth.”

Dib looked away. “I guess so.”

“Is that what you want?”

“To talk?”

“Yes.”

“I… yeah,” said Dib. “Of course I do.”

“What else do you want, Dib?” asked Zim, fighting to keep his voice neutral. “You never told me.”

Dib bit his lip. “I mean, I just… I don’t…”

Zim waited. When Dib didn’t answer, he stood up.

“Why won’t you tell me?” Zim asked, and he felt a touch of fire in his spooch, despite Dib’s hopeless expression. “Why are you making me guess? You didn’t want to kiss, and now you do? You didn’t want me, and now you’re upset that I might leave?”

“I don’t know!” Dib snapped. “I don’t… I don’t know how to talk to you about this stuff. Everything I say is wrong.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is! Everything I say makes me look like a dick, and it makes you upset, so sorry if I don’t want to make you mad again.”

“Dib, come on,” said Zim, impatience and frustration blooming.

“I’m serious,” said Dib, looking up at Zim with what appeared to be ingenuity. “If you could just… tell me what to say, to straighten everything out and make us both happy, that would be great.”

“I can’t do that,” Zim said with a sniff.

“Well, I don’t know how to tell you…”

“What?” asked Zim, after a pause. “Tell me what?”

“I just… I can’t—”

“Can’t what?” Zim asked. “Can’t tell me what? Just say it, and we can deal with it. Just say what you want so I can know!”

“It’s not that easy!”

“It is!”

A flash of light startled them both, and then one of the walls of their prison cube opened up. Standing in the hallway were two enormous guards, each with three heads and giant, meaty fists. Zim gulped, and paused to stand in front of Dib, who was struggling to get up without the use of his hands.

“What do you want?” asked Zim, antennae perked and chest puffed.

One of the guards had the audacity to laugh at him. Zim growled.

From behind the guards appeared another alien, smaller with brown skin and four arms. They looked at the guards, then shuffled forward.

“We ran your PAK data through our identification system,” said the alien — Zim recognized the species, but he couldn’t place the name. Irk had conquered their planet years ago.

“So?” asked Zim, but he felt himself flush. “What did you find?”

“Some memories,” said the alien calmly.

Behind Zim, Dib cleared his throat. “Uh… which memories, exactly?”

The alien was still looking at Zim. “You’re the food service drone called Zim, aren’t you?”

“Actually, I’m an invader,” said Zim.

Wait. Actually, no he wasn’t. He needed to stop forgetting that.

“You singlehandedly took down your own army in Operation Impending Doom, didn’t you? You sabotaged the entire mission.”

“Yeah? So?” asked Zim.

So?” asked the alien, incredulous. “So, you’re kind of a legend among the underground resistance groups. Is it true you killed a Tallest?”

“Uh…”

“He killed two, actually,” chirped Dib.

Two!” the alien looked back at one of the guards, who grunted. “Wow. That’s so cool. But I have to interrogate you now, so, sorry about that. Big fan, though.”

“I’m always happy to meet a fan,” said Zim with a grin.

Behind him, Dib spoke again. “Wait, did you say you’re going to interrogate him?”

“Yup. Again, so sorry. You just have a lot of useful information, so, you know… think of it as a compliment.”

With that, one of the guards punched Zim square in the face. He was unconscious before he hit the floor.

 

ii.

Zim and their captors were gone by the time Dib managed to struggle to his feet. The wall was closed before he could even take a step.

“Zim!” he cried. “Fuck!”

But Zim was gone. Dib breathed hard out his nose.

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” he muttered.

He had a few options. Well, actually, with no Zim to distract him, he really only had two options. He could mope around until he starved to death, or he could try to escape.

At first glance, there wasn’t really much to this cube he was trapped in. Looking around, Dib couldn’t see much beyond the plain, metal walls. He tried kicking at a few spaces, searching for a weakness, but he found nothing. He tried to wiggle himself out of his restraints, but to no avail.

“God dammit,” he groaned.

Well, now what? He didn’t have anything on him to save himself, and he didn’t have any idea where Zim was on this ship. Dib groaned, rolling his shoulders to alleviate some of the discomfort of having his hands bound behind his back. He peered around again, hoping to find something that he hadn’t seen, but, nope, this was just an annoyingly small, hot, metal box.

“Hello?” Dib called. “Can someone turn the heat down in here? I feel like I’m gonna get heatstroke!”

To Dib’s surprise, the door reopened. This time, there was only one alien on the other side: a floating, purple cone. With a face.

“Uh,” said Dib, leaning away. “Hey.”

“What’s heatstroke?” asked the cone.

“It… uh. It’s when you get too hot and you pass out.”

“What’s ‘pass out’?”

“Uh, when you faint.”

“Faint?”

“You, uh, fall asleep.”

“Asleep?”

Dib blinked. The cone grinned.

“I’m just messing with you,” they said. “I know what sleep is!”

Dib blinked again.

“Um… what are you doing here?” Dib asked. “Are you going to interrogate me?”

“Nah,” said the cone. “I was just bored. Thought I’d drop by, see what you’re doing… what you’re up to.”

“I’m not up to anything,” Dib growled. “I’ve been trapped in this stupid box.”

“Well, you are our prisoner.”

“Why?” Dib snapped. “What did I do?”

“Uh…” The cone looked around, as if wondering whether or not to answer. “You don’t know?”

“No,” Dib growled. “We were minding our own business, trying to save our planet, and you guys just came and captured us!”

“Sorry, guy,” said the cone. “Your friend’s an irken, and we hate Irk.”

“He isn’t doing anything for them,” said Dib. “He defected!”

The cone tipped sideways a bit. “Huh. Interesting.”

“So… you’ll let us go?”

The cone tipped upright. “Eh, probably not. He’s still got all that good Irk intel.”

Dib was so frustrated, he actually stomped his foot. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

The cone fixed Dib with a quick smile. “Sorry, buddy. Well, gotta go!”

“Wait!” shouted Dib, stumbling forward.

The floating cone turned around. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“What, uh… what’s your name?”

The cone blinked. Then grinned. “Shloonktapooxis!”

“Shloonk— okay, that’s cool.”

“Sure is. Okay, bye—”

“Wait!”

The cone paused again. “Yeah?”

“I, uh…” Dib bit his lip. “I need to use the, um, the facilities.”

“Which ones?” asked the cone, tilting to the side again.

Dib grimaced. “The, you know. The facilities. The bathroom?”

The cone looked him up and down. “You need… to bathe?”

“Um… yeah.”

The cone, Shloop-something?, looked him up and down again. Dib had to imagine that he didn’t look like much of a threat. He hunched his back a little and threw the cone a weak smile.

“Please?” he asked.

Ploonkatooxis grinned.

“Yeah, okay! I guess that should be fine. Lard Nar wouldn’t want you all stinky for your interrogation, anyway.”

“Alright… thanks,” said Dib.

And then, just like that, he was being led down the hallway by a floating cone. This was never going to work. This was so stupid. But, Dib thought, sometimes stupid times called for stupid measures.

 

When they made it to an unmarked, knobless door a few minutes later, Dib cast a nervous look back at the cone.

“Go on. I’ll be out here.”

“Oh,” said Dib. Maybe this would be easier than he’d thought. “Okay.”

He leaned into the door and gave a light push, Shlunkpatooxis watching him with apprehension and a little bit of mirth. When he pushed on the door, though, he felt… nothing. It wasn’t a door. It was a holograph.

“Yeah, that’s really just there for some of the more modest crewmembers,” said Spoonktalooxix. “Computer, lift the curtain.”

The holographic door disappeared, and Dib found himself staring into a room that was under no circumstances a bathroom — at least, not one that any earth-dweller would recognize. The room was small, almost as small as the cube he’d been trapped in. There was a mound of metal in the middle of the room with a hole in the top, and the floor itself was a mirror. The lights were nearly blinding, and the overwhelming smell of fried food was being pumped in through tiny holes on the walls, and—

Yes! An air vent! Located just above the mound, there was an air vent on the ceiling. Dib could handle that. He’d crawled through loads of air ducts as a kid.

He turned back to the cone.

“Do you mind turning around? You don’t have to put the door back, I just, uh, you know.”

Toonktoopis looked apprehensive. “I gotta keep an eye on you, bud.”

“Yeah, no, I get that, it’s just, uh… it’s a pretty big deal for me, uh, culturally.”

“It is?”

Dib grit his teeth. “Yeah. I mean, yes.” The cone looked unconvinced. “It would basically mean we’re married,” Dib added, desperate.

“Oh,” said the cone. “Oh, ew.”

Dib tried not to feel offended. “Yeah.”

“I mean, it’s not like…” Zoonktook shivered. “Ugh, ew.”

“Yeah, no, I know what you mean.”

“I’ll just turn around.”

“Cool, thanks.”

Dib looked around. There were three-headed guards at either end of the hallway, presumably in the event that he tried to book it. This really was his only option. He turned back to Sploonxis.

“Uh, actually, can you untie me? I need my hands for this.”

The cone turned back around, gaping a little.

“That’s really against protocol, man.”

“Well, unless you want to… you know… marry me…”

Pookspooko paled. “Okay, fine. But no funny business, okay?”

“Of course not.”

With his hands free, Dib stepped into the room and nearly gagged at the smell. He scaled the mound as quickly as he could, using his clammy hands to get a grip on the smooth metal. Before long, he’d made it, and he was standing on the top of the mound, which groaned under his weight.

“All good back there?” asked Ploonktashloop.

“Yup,” grunted Dib. He reached up, quiet as could be, and used his fingers to work the fat, knobby screws that kept the vent in place. “All good here.”

He got the first screw out. It fell from the ceiling, ricocheted off Dib’s glasses, and hit the mound with a ping.

“Hey, what’s going on back there?” asked the cone.

“Nothing!”

“It sounds like—”

“That’s just—” he got the other one, ignoring as it slapped against his cheek and fell to the floor with another metallic ping, “—that’s just what it sounds like!”

Delicately, he laid the vent on the mound. It slid downward and hit the floor with a crash.

“Shit,” Dib muttered, just as Oonktixis got wise.

“Hey!” the cone shouted, turning around. “What are you doing?”

Dib said nothing, just hauled himself into the air duct and started scuttling away as fast as he could.

“Security!” shrieked the cone. “Lockdown mode! Escaped prisoner!”

There were thuds, and some panicked screaming, but Dib ignored it all as he fled as fast as he could, on his hands and knees, in an air vent.

 

Sometimes, when Dib was still with the Swollen Eyeball, he’d be commended on his quick thinking and his ability to make snap decisions. It was what saved his ass more than a few times, and, once, Zim had even commented on how Dib never froze up when things got dangerous.

Now, though, Dib kind of wished he’d thought this through more. At least, he wished he’d had the foresight to somehow get a map of the ventilation system in this ship.

It had taken a few minutes for the chaos to die down. As Dib crawled from room to room, peering through vents and just generally being very sneaky, he noticed that people went from rushing around, trying to find him, to just kind of milling about. Apparently, he wasn’t much of a priority.

He found the real priority about two hours later, locked up in a room with that four-armed alien, bound like a fly in a spider’s web.

“So,” said the alien, “you killed a Tallest?”

“Two, remember,” drawled Zim from where he was hanging from the ceiling, upside-down and wrapped in rope from his shoulders to his ankles.

From this vantage point, Dib could see the Irken insignia on the soles of Zim’s boots. He squinted, trying to see as much as he could through the grates of the air vent. Zim seemed… fine.  That was a little disappointing. When the alien had said “interrogate,” Dib had expected a little more excitement.

“Right, right,” said the alien. “I knew that. It’s funny, I always forget about Spork.”

“He was very forgettable,” commented Zim.

“You’re not wrong,” chuckled the alien. “So, what have you been up to lately?”

“Oh,” said Zim. “Just hanging out. Needed a break from the rat race, you know?”

The alien snorted. “I hear that.”

Dib frowned. Was this even an interrogation? He’d been kind of excited to come bursting through the door, rescuing Zim from near-death and unimaginable tortures. This was honestly kind of a letdown.

“So, listen,” said Zim. “I’m gonna need you to let me and my friend go.”

“Can’t,” said the alien. “Sorry.”

“What’s your name?” asked Zim.

“Uh, Spleenk.”

“Look, Spleenk,” said Zim. “I’m really gonna need you to let me and my friend go.”

“I can’t!” said the alien. “I’m not allowed!”

“Well, you don’t have to tell anyone!”

“What are you talking about? They’d know if—”

Spleenk was cut off by a prolonged, metallic groaning sound. Dib froze, and then the air vent slowly started to bow under his weight.

Spleenk looked around for a second, then turned back to Zim. “They’d know if I let you go,” he whispered.

“You could just say we escaped,” said Zim. “You guys don’t seem to be running too tight of an operation, here, if I’m being honest—”

Another groan. Uh oh. Dib felt the vent start to really dip under him, and then it was breaking, and then he was falling from the ceiling and landing on some poor, four-armed alien named Spleenk.

Spleenk didn’t do much to break Dib’s fall, so he landed kind of hard on his head.

“Ow,” he muttered, pulling himself up.

Under him, Spleenk appeared to have been knocked out. Dib turned to look up at the air duct, which was hanging above his head, ripped into two pieces. He turned to look over at Zim, who was still hanging upside down, glaring at him.

“Uh,” said Dib. “Hey.”

He crawled off the unconscious Spleenk, then stood and wobbled over to Zim.

“What’s up?”

“I almost had him,” grumbled Zim.

“You didn’t.”

“I did!”

“He wasn’t going to budge—”

“Will you just let me down?” Zim snapped. “I’ve been like this for hours, no thanks to you.”

“I— you just said you didn’t need my help!”

“What I need is to be right side up! All my blood is in my head!”

“Okay, jeez,” muttered Dib. “Sorry.”

He stepped forward. Zim was hanging high enough that his head was at Dib’s bellybutton. Dib pursed his lips and leaned forward, poking at the rope. His t-shirt brushed against Zim’s face, and Zim hissed in protest.

“Will you calm down?” Dib said.

“You’re smelly.”

“Am not,” said Dib, but he felt his face warm a little.

He’d been crawling and sweating his way through the vents for a couple of hours, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he actually was kind of sweaty. He thought back, trying to remember the last time he put on deodorant.

“Are too,” snapped Zim, and then he bit Dib on the stomach, hard.

“Ow!” Dib shrieked, stepping back. “Asshole!”

Zim glared at him. Dib sneered.

“Maybe I’ll just leave you like this,” Dib growled, “since you clearly don’t need my help.”

Zim kept glaring. Dib narrowed his eyes.

“What?”

Zim said nothing.

“Oh, what, are you mad at me?”

“No,” Zim muttered, but his lower lip was jutting out, which meant that yes, he absolutely was.

“What did I do?” asked Dib. “I got here as soon as I can.”

Zim looked away, still pouting.

“What is this about?” asked Dib. “Come on, we don’t have all day!”

“Just get me down!” Zim snapped.

“Fine!”

After some quick looting, Dib found a little laser pistol on Spleenk’s belt that would probably break through the rope. He held it up to show Zim.

“I’ll have you down in a second.”

“Whatever.”

“Oh, my god, Zim!” Dib snapped. “What!”

“It doesn’t matter!” barked Zim. “You wouldn’t talk to me about it, anyway!”

“Oh, so that’s what this is about? How many times are you gonna—”

“If you would just stop acting like a little—”

“This isn’t the right time to—”

“It’s never the right—”

Dib hadn’t meant to, but he was pissed, and it was entirely accidental that he shot the laser in Zim’s direction and singed the rope holding him up, causing Zim to go crashing face-first into the floor.

“Shit!” Dib dropped to his knees, quickly untangling Zim from the rest of the rope. “Are you okay?”

No!” Zim cried, sitting up. “You dropped me!”

“I’m sorry!”

“You’ll be thorry!”

“I— what?” Dib leaned forward, then took Zim lightly by the jaw. “What did you say?”

Zim just stared at him, his expression blank for a second. Then, Zim took Dib’s hand, held it open, and spit a tooth onto his palm. Dib winced.

“Sorry,” he murmured again. “Fuck, I’m sorry. Is there like, a space dentist or someone we could take you to?”

“No need,” said Zim. “It will grow back.”

Dib looked up. “Really?”

Zim gave an exasperated sigh. “I’m Irken. Everything growth back.”

Unable to help himself, Dib giggled. Zim narrowed his eyes.

“Yeth, I’m thure thith ith hilariouth.”

“It kind of is. Say, ‘she sells sea shells—’”

“Enough,” said Zim, and he stood. “We need to find my… vehicle.”

Dib stood, too. “Okay.”

They found a communication device on Spleenk that came with a map of the ship. Zim found the loading bay, and they decided to start looking there.

Before they left the interrogation room, Dib took Zim by the arm.

“Are you still mad at me?” he asked.

Zim gave him a long look. He turned away.

“No.”

“I swear, I know I keep making you mad, but I’m not trying to. Honest.”

Zim sighed, then looked back at Dib. “I know.”

“I really… I just—”

“It’th fine, Dib. You don’t need to thay anything.”

Dib sucked his lower lip into his mouth. He nodded and followed Zim out the door.

It wasn’t that he didn’t want to tell Zim how he felt, what he wanted, it was just… really hard to come right out and say it. And it wasn’t supposed to be something that he should be focusing on right now, and… now, Zim wasn’t even coming back to Earth, so what would the point be to lay all his feelings out, just for none of it to matter? Before, the likelihood of them getting together and being happy was slim. Now, it was nonexistent.

They turned a corner to find a vortian, two giant guards, and Ploopspook.

“Thit,” said Zim, and Dib had to agree.

 

iii.

“So,” said the vortian, whose name was apparently Lard Nar, “what are we going to do with you two?”

“Let us go?” tried Dib.

Lard Nar laughed.

They were in some kind of chamber, on their knees with two guards holding them by their heads, keeping them in place. The vortian was sitting on some kind of weird metal throne, his hands gripping the armrests. Dib glanced around, trying to assess the situation as best as he could. It seemed like they were pretty much screwed.

“You escaped your prison cell and assaulted my commander. I see no reason why I should let you go.”

“We didn’t do anything to get locked up here in the firtht plathe!” snapped Zim. “We’re not affiliated with the Empire!”

Lard Nar turned to Zim. “An irken, not affiliated with the Empire? I find that hard to believe.”

“I defected,” said Zim. “I thaid that already.”

“Then why were you scrounging for vortian engineering secrets in the Gamma Sector?” asked Lard Nar. He leaned back in his seat, like he’d caught them in some big lie. “Why were you stealing parts of our detonated ships, and bringing them back to the one planet you know we won’t send a landing party to, hmm?”

“What?” asked Zim, and Dib tried to turn and look at him. The big, meaty hand holding his head in place squeezed around his skull. Dib squeaked.

“We weren’t stealing any tech,” said Dib, his eyes trained on the floor in front of him. “We ran into a bunch of trash and crash-landed on a planet, if that’s what you—”

“We’ve been watching you!” Lard Nar shouted. “We’re been watching you ever since you flew into Resisty-occupied space, and we know it’s no coincidence that you flew to the place where we had our most recent battle with Irk, just days before!”

“It was a coincidence,” said Dib. “If we’d known all that stuff was there, we wouldn’t have gone that way! That detour set us back, and our mission is very time sensitive!”

“Aha!” said Lard Nar. “Gotcha! What mission is this, hmm? Are you spying on us? Trying to find weak points in our ships? What’s your mission, then?”

“To thave our planet,” said Zim. “It hath nothing to do with you.”

“Anything that has to do with Irk has to do with the Resisty,” said Lard Nar.

“I wathn’t— I wathn’t talking about Irk,” growled Zim. “I’m talking about Earth, it’th not an Irken-affiliated colony.”

Dib tried to look at Zim again, but he couldn’t. He bit his lip.

“What is your connection to this planet, then?” asked Lard Nar, his voice curious.

There was a long pause. “It’th where I wath exiled,” said Zim.

“You said you defected.”

“Well, I wath exiled firtht.”

Another long pause. Lard Nar looked from Zim to Dib.

“Tell me more about this mission,” he said. “You do it, because I’m sick of listening to him try to talk with a missing tooth.”

Dib explained everything. Lard Nar listened and asked the occasional question, his glance bouncing between Zim and Dib. Finally, he relaxed against the back of his chair with a sigh.

“Irkens,” he said. “Your species has destruction running through your veins.”

Zim made a grunting sound. “I’m trying—”

“You should stay away from them,” said Lard Nar, looking to Dib. “It would be wise to stay as far away from irkens as you possibly can.”

“I’m part irken,” said Dib.

“Oh, ew,” said Lard Nar. “Ugh, I don’t even want to know—”

“Will you just let us go?” asked Dib, his face hot. “We’re not a threat to you. We just want to save our planet.”

“And how will you do that?” asked the vortian, shooting a pitying look to Dib.

“We’re going to Vort,” said Dib. “There’s a creature there — an experiment that Zim made — and it consumes energy. It’s very powerful. We’re going to try to use it to save everyone from PEG.”

At that, the vortian leaned forward again. “The energy-consuming creature? I’ve heard of it. I’ve heard that it consumes generators.”

“And people,” said Dib.

“On Vort?”

“Yup.”

Lard Nar leaned back again. His gaze flicked up to the guards holding Zim and Dib down.

“Let them go,” he said.

The guards obeyed.

Dib and Zim stood, shooting confused looks at each other. Lard Nar cleared his throat.

“You know, one of the first lessons they taught us, as children, was to never make a deal with an irken,” said Lard Nar.

Dib felt his brows knit with confusion.

Lard Nar went on. “But, it seems, we are both in a bind, here. The Resisty needs a win after what happened in the Gamma Sector. You need to save your planet. I will make you one offer.”

Dib shifted from foot to foot. “Okay?”

“I will release you, effective immediately. As payment, you will deliver my associate to me.”

Dib looked to Zim, then back to Lard Nar.

“What athothiate?” asked Zim.

Lard Nar shot Zim a glare.

“On Vort, he is known as prisoner 777,” said Lard Nar. Dib watched Zim’s eyes go wide. “He was the leader of the Resisty before he was captured. When you go back to Vort to find your experiment, you will break him out of prison, and you will bring him back to me.”

“We—” began Dib, but Zim cut him off.

“I know where he’th kept,” said Zim. “I will free him. But I want thomething elthe.”

“You get your freedom for his,” snapped Lard Nar. “That’s only fair.”

“Prisoner 777 ith a war criminal,” said Zim, stepping forward. “If I free him, he will do untold damage to the Empire. I want more.”

“What more could you want?” asked Lard Nar, incredulous. “I’m letting you go!”

“We could ethcape here at any time,” said Zim. “Even with my PAK damaged, you are no match for uth.”

Dib winced, thinking that this whole speech would be a lot more impactful if he hadn’t accidentally knocked Zim’s tooth out.

Lard Nar narrowed his eyes. “Unlikely.”

Zim narrowed his own eyes and clenched his still-bound fists, then puffed out his chest. To Dib’s surprise, the vortian leaned away.

“What do you want?” he asked, his voice low.

“Your fleet,” said Zim.

Lard Nar laughed. “For what?”

“As you know, vortian, our plan dependth on a theory that hath, thuth far, gone untethted. We need a backup plan for the inhabitantth of our planet. We need your fleet to collect them, in the event that our planet ith thtill dethroyed. I know you have the thips.”

Lard Nar narrowed his eyes. “You can’t have my thips, irken.”

“Not to keep,” said Zim. “To borrow. In return, you’ll have your leader back.”

Lard Nar glared at Zim. Zim glared back. No one said anything for a while.

Dib took a deep breath. “Isn’t this your mission?” he asked, his voice quiet.

Lard Nar turned to Dib. “What?”

“Isn’t this what you do?” asked Dib softly. “Don’t you protect innocents? Isn’t it your goal to resist the Irken Empire, and to save the little guys who get caught in the crossfires?”

Lard Nar scoffed. “Your planet isn’t a colony. I owe no duty to the victims of pure, Irken foolishness.”

“But—”

“How many?” Dib heard. He turned around to see the cone, Schlooptapoonkis, floating a few feet behind him.

“What?” asked Dib.

“How many inhabitants?” His eyes were a little wide.

“Almost eight billion people like me,” said Dib. “And lots of others — trillions, maybe. My planet is full of animals and plant life, it’s — parts of it are unexplored, so I don’t know, exactly.”

“Trillions?”

Dib took a breath. “Yeah.”

The cone looked past Dib, and Dib followed his gaze to Lard Nar. Lard Nar pursed his lips.

“No.”

“We gotta.”

“No, Lieutenant, we don’t—”

“Captain!” said the cone. “We gotta do something.”

“We have other matters to attend to,” said Lard Nar. “We don’t just go helping every planet in need.”

“They need our ships. That’s it. Come on, Captain, they need our help.”

Lard Nar pointed an accusatory finger toward Dib. “This half-irken creature tricked you! He ambushed Spleenk, who is now in med bay!”

“He had a good reason!” said the cone. “He needs to help his planet! If it were Vort—”

“It’s not Vort!”

“They need our help, man, come on!” The cone floated between Zim and Dib, his expression angry. “All they need is our ships. If their planet survives, we’ll just beam them back down. If it doesn’t, we drop them on the next inhabitable planet and we move on.”

Lard Nar growled. “We cannot fill our ships with alien plants and animals. It would— it would make a mess!”

“Captain,” said the cone. His expression softened. “They need our help.”

Lard Nar took a deep breath. He looked to Dib, then Zim. He clenched the armrests of his chair again, then looked down at the ground, then looked back to Zim.

“We release you and give you back your ship. You bring us the prisoner. If you need our ships, they are yours to use. When you have relocated, or resettled, we get our ships back. And we get the energy-eater.”

Zim’s eyes went wide. “It’th dangerouth.”

“I know,” said Lard Nar. “With a creature like that, we could turn this war around.”

Dib watched Zim blink a few times. “You could defeat the Empire,” said Zim.

“Is that a problem?”

Zim only paused for a second before shaking his head. “No,” he said. “No, you may have it.”

“Alright, irken,” said Lard Nar. “It appears we have a deal.”

Zim just nodded, and then they were being shuffled out of the room.

 

iv.

“Where have you been?!” asked Membrane, his face large and angry in The Dib’s display screen. “You’ve been offline for almost an entire day! Where did you go!”

“Well,” said Dib softly. “We kinda got kidnapped, for a second.”

“You what?” shouted Membrane. “Zim, how could you let this happen?!”

Zim sputtered. “How is this my fault?”

“You should have been keeping an eye out! How could you not have noticed there was an approaching ship coming to kidnap my son?”

“Jeez, Dad, calm down,” muttered Dib.

Zim felt his face go hot, and he looked away, hoping he wouldn’t have to confess that they’d been kidnapped because he’d been taking a nap.

“Look,” said Zim. “This is good news, actually. You should be thanking us!”

Membrane crossed his arms. “How is this good news?”

They explained everything. Membrane listened, his brow still furrowed. Eventually, he sighed, said he would meet them at the rendezvous point, and signed off.

Dib took a deep breath. “Glad that’s over.”

Zim shrugged. “I don’t know why I got stuck with all the blame.”

“Well,” said Dib, “you do have a little more experience with space travel than I do.”

Zim crossed his arms. “You’ve been out plenty.”

“Hey,” said Dib. “You sound normal again. Did your tooth grow back in, finally?”

“Oh, yeah,” said Zim. He paused to feel his new tooth with his tongue. “I guess so.”

“That’s good,” said Dib. “I’m sorry, again, for… you know. Knocking it out by accident.”

“It’s fine.”

“Okay, cool.”

Zim looked to where Dib was, sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, avoiding eye contact. Whatever. At least now, they had a plan. They’d meet Membrane in twelve Earth hours, and then they’d somehow free Zim’s experiment and 777, and then they’d rendezvous with the Resisty. At some point, they’d tell Gaz and make sure she had everyone ready to go. And then, they’d go save Earth. And then, Zim would leave. Zim sighed, then turned back to look out the windshield. Somehow, it seemed like the rest would be much easier than actually gathering his things, his robot, and his ship, and just… leaving.

“I like you,” said Dib, all of a sudden and loudly.

Zim jumped in his seat, then turned to stare at Dib. “What?”

“I like you, in, like, the not-friendly way. I… jeez. I have a crush on you, okay?” said Dib, turning to look at Zim. “I want us to be together. Romantically. That’s what I want.”

Zim felt his eyes go wide. “Oh.”

“I didn’t want to say, because… things didn’t get weird between us until I started having feelings for you, back in hi skool. And I didn’t want to screw up our friendship again by talking about this, after we just, like, apologized to each other and everything. So, that’s why I didn’t say, before. I felt bad after we hooked up before because I was embarrassed, and I knew you didn’t like me the same way I like you. And you basically said you can’t like me the way I like you, like… irkens can’t feel that way, so. I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable. And I don’t want to, you know, keep hooking up if you don’t feel the same way I feel.”

Dib cleared his throat.

“I don’t want to keep saying the wrong things, so I’m just saying the truth, and then we’ll… we’ll see what happens, I guess. I’m not asking you for anything, I’m just letting you know, I… I like you. I’ve liked you for… a long time. But, I understand that you don’t feel the same way, so I’d like for us to just… let’s just try to be friends.”

Zim said nothing, trying to process how he felt. Dib just looked at him.

“Why were you embarrassed?” asked Zim.

Dib laughed a little. “I just… it was embarrassing, I don’t know. I just… I don’t want you to think of me like you thought of our classmates in hi skool. I didn’t want you to think I was some gross human.”

“You’re not gross,” said Zim, but he knew what Dib meant.

Dib laughed again. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I know you can’t feel, like, romantic feelings for me. I get that,” said Dib, taking a deep breath. “But, let’s not… let’s not hook up any more, okay? I don’t think I could handle it, knowing that it’s just sex for you.”

Zim watched Dib chew on his lip. He felt a strange knotting in his spooch, but he just said, “okay,” and then Dib went into the back to go take a shower.

Zim watched him go, then told the Computer to play some calming Whitney Houston. He listened to the words, the inflections, the emphasis. Whitney seemed to have a strong grasp on her feelings. She understood luuv, the way it feels, how you know when you’re in it.

Zim didn’t know what love was. He thought he’d felt it, once, for Dib, but that was a long time ago. That was right before Dib left him, and Zim had convinced himself that the feelings he thought’d he’d felt were just… something else. Something he’d made up, for Dib’s sake.

Zim was still irken, even if he’d spent the last decade on Earth. That didn’t change who he was or where he’d come from. And even if Dib had Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You,” feelings, it didn’t mean Zim had to do anything about it. Now, it was out in the open, and Zim was fine with that, and they could just focus on being friends, and Zim was fine with that.

Zim turned up the volume and waited for Dib to come back.

Chapter Text

i.

Dib didn’t even say anything as he kicked Zim’s front door open and stormed in. He wasn’t in the mood for taunts, or banter, or even talking. Right now, he just wanted to fight.

Zim was sitting on the couch. The TV was on, some weird, animated kids show blaring. GIR was sitting on the couch next to Zim. Zim’s eyes were blank. He didn’t look at Dib.

“Where the hell have you been?” asked Dib, pointing an accusatory finger. “You haven’t been to school all week.”

Zim didn’t look at him. He didn’t say anything.

“Hello?” asked Dib, his rage building. “I asked you a question.”

Zim just sat there, not blinking.

Hello?!” asked Dib, louder, because enough was enough.

The only thing that could make him feel better right now was to see that look that Zim used to give him, every once in a while: true, genuine fear. Like when Dib threatened to expose him to the world, back when they used to think the world would listen, or even care. Dib stalked up to Zim, blocking his view of the TV. Zim looked like he was staring through him, but, Dib would admit, it was a little hard to tell. Out of his disguise, it wasn’t always easy to know where Zim was looking.

“What’s the matter?” Dib asked, his voice hard. “Got nothin’ to say?”

Zim continued to just stare forward, but his antenna twitched a little, and that was all the fuel Dib needed.

“Where’d you go, Zim? Had to get off Earth for a little vacation? Not like you earned it,” Dib sneered. “Your own stupid robot did a better job taking over the world while you were away, anyway.”

At that, Zim actually started. He turned to look at GIR, his expression confused. GIR grinned back at him, and then something popped out of the top of his robot head. He handed it to Zim.

Dib leaned forward to look, and he recognized the medal that GIR had briefly worn during his reign as king of Earth. Zim inspected it, then wordlessly handed it back to GIR. He looked down at his lap.

Dib’s rage was now boiling over, because, really, what the heck? Today, of all days, Zim doesn’t want to fight?

“Had a good time while you were gone,” Dib muttered. “Overthrew you dumb minion, and then, the next day, the guys at skool shoved my head in the toilet.”

Zim still didn’t say anything. Dib seethed.

“It’s pretty ridiculous, actually. Because I save their butts every day, from you, and they don’t even appreciate it. They just kick me around, and they shove me in lockers, and they break my glasses.”

The gentle sounds of a cartoon theme song echoed behind Dib. He felt his heart pick up.

Maybe it was because he was the smallest kid in class — he hadn’t grown at all since he was, what, ten? That was four years ago, and now everyone was bigger than him, and Zim was almost exactly his height but he was stronger than Dib, and Dib still was the one who saved all of them, all the time, and they made fun of his size and his still-squeaky voice and they shoved him in lockers and sent him home with scraped knees and bloody noses.

“I bet that’s what it’s like for you, too.”

Zim’s head snapped up at that, and Dib knew he had him.

“You’re small, aren’t you? Small for your species, and your leaders are the tallest ones, so you’re probably nothing to them, aren’t you? You’re just dirt on the bottom of their shoes, huh?”

Zim’s eyes didn’t narrow, like Dib had expected. His antennae twitched again, though, and Dib balled his fists.

“You’re nothing to them, aren’t you? I’ve intercepted your transmissions with them. I see how they talk to you,” Zim’s face was started to flush, and his muscles were twitching and Dib was on a roll. “They don’t even care about you. I bet they wish you were dead!”

Everything happened pretty fast after that. Zim was up and on his feet in less than a second, and then Dib was being thrown back against the wall, right next to the TV. He slid to the floor, but then he was up again, suspended by Zim’s computer cables and backed against the wall.

“Finally,” he grunted.

Zim stalked toward him. When they were close, he cocked his fist and punched Dib square in the face.

Dib sputtered, a little surprised, because Zim hadn’t hit him that hard in a long time. He took a deep breath and then spit right into Zim’s face.

“Did I get it right, you stupid alien? You’re just worthless to them, aren’t you?”

Zim said nothing, just reeled back and punched Dib, hard, in the gut.

“When’s the Armada coming, Zim? Huh?” Dib wheezed. “Get me down so I can fight you for real, cheater.”

Zim socked him in the chest. Dib coughed.

“You better do this while you can,” he choked. “Soon, I’ll be taller than you, and then I’ll kick your ass, and then—” Another hit. Dib gasped. “And then—”

“No!” snapped Zim.

He turned on his heel and stalked off. Dib struggled in his restraints while Zim was gone, but to no avail. Zim wasn’t gone long, though. Dib heard, before he saw, the sound of Zim revving up what seemed like an alien chainsaw.

Dib felt his heart drop.

“Zim… hang on—”

“NO!” Zim shouted again, and he marched up to Dib with a determination that Dib hadn’t seen in a while.

Zim held the chainsaw over his head, the motor screaming. It looked old — the purple exterior was rusty and worn, like it had been outside in the rain for a long time. The chain, though, was still whirring around, fast enough that Dib couldn’t see the individual teeth, and the exhaust puffed out into Dib’s face, hot and smelling like fumes.

“Zim… wait, hold on, just—”

Through gritted teeth, Zim exhaled. “You will not be taller than me.”

“Please,” Dib begged, and he felt himself start to shake. “Please, stop, I didn’t— I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I just wanted to… I didn’t…”

Zim paused, only for a second, and then he was lining the chainsaw up with Dib’s leg, just an inch or two above his trembling knee.

You don’t… you can’t… argh!”

“Please don’t!” Dib wailed, and he was crying, now. “Please, I’m sorry! Please don’t, I didn’t mean it!”

The chain was approaching Dib’s leg, and he couldn’t look, so he turned away, shaking with the anticipation of feeling his skin split under the blades. Tears were streaming down his face, and he didn’t know if he’d ever been this scared of Zim.

He squeezed his eyes shut, still trembling, waiting, and it felt like an eternity had passed when the sound of the chainsaw running was replaced by the soft trill of cartoonish voices and gentle music.

Dib looked down.

Zim was staring at the ground, the powered-down chainsaw hanging from his hand. Without looking at Dib, he turned on his heel and disappeared into the kitchen. GIR leapt from the couch and followed him.

A few hours later, after Dib’s limbs had gone numb and he’d pissed his pants, the cables wrapped around his wrists and ankles disappeared, and he fell to his hands and knees with a hard thud.

“Get out,” came the voice of the Computer.

Dib scrambled to his feet and ran home as fast as he could, cringing at the pins-and-needles sensation he felt with every step.

 

Zim didn’t come to skool the next day, either. Dib kept to himself and calculated how many days were left until Gaz graduated middle skool and would be joining him at the hi skool. He hid in the bathroom during lunch, counting and recounting and wondering what Zim was doing.

He picked up some pomegranate seeds from Hole Foods, which he knew Zim liked because he’d seen them in the fridge one time when they’d been working on a project together. He brought them to Zim’s house. Zim answered the door when he knocked.

“Brought you these,” said Dib, holding out the carton.

Zim glared at him.

“I think I crossed a line yesterday. What I said… it was messed up. I was just mad, I guess, because, you know… when you don’t come to skool, it’s… it really sucks, okay? Everyone just picks on me, and you didn’t— you didn’t come to skool for a whole week and I just…”

Zim just stared back at him.

“Whatever. You don’t care. I guess… here. Thanks for not sawing my legs off yesterday.”

Zim sneered. “You’re welcome.”

He snatched the seeds from Dib’s hand and slammed the door in Dib’s face. Dib stood there until he heard the familiar sound of a gnome charging its laser eyes.

It wasn’t their most tender interaction, but Zim was at skool the next day, so that was something.

 

ii.

It had taken Dib a while to gather up the courage to go back out into the cockpit after dashing away to the bathroom. Zim, to his credit, had taken everything in stride, and wasn’t asking any questions. Dib still felt awkward, like a single misstep could send them spiraling in the wrong direction. He sat on his hands in the co-pilot seat and stared out into space as the sweet stylings of Whitney Houston played softly through the speakers.

“We’re near Irk,” said Zim.

“Oh, yeah?” asked Dib, his eyebrows raising. “Are you… worried? Should we go in a different direction?”

“No, no,” said Zim. “They won’t come after us.”

“Oh, okay.”

“It wouldn’t be worth it,” said Zim.

Dib paused at that. “Okay,” he eventually repeated, his voice quiet.

They were quiet for a few moments, and then Dib couldn’t help himself.

“What was it like?” he asked. “Growing up there?”

Zim shrugged, but the gesture was a little stilted. “It was… standard.”

“What does that mean?”

“I was activated, I went to training, and I went to war. Just like any other irken on my track.”

“Did you like it?” asked Dib.

“I liked parts of it,” said Zim. “I liked learning how to fight and build weapons. I guess… I liked having a motive. A purpose.”

“What parts didn’t you like?”

Zim hesitated.

“You can say it, you know,” said Dib. “I won’t tattle,” he added, attempting playfulness.

Zim cracked a smile at that, and he let go of the breath he’d been holding.

“I didn’t like being underground the whole time.”

“The whole time?”

“For much of my training, yeah. I didn’t like being the smallest one. Didn’t really have a choice, though.”

Dib reached up to fiddle with his glasses. “You didn’t like being the smallest, or you didn’t like how they treated you because you were the smallest?”

Zim hesitated again. “Both, I guess.”

“It’s fucked up, just so you know,” Dib murmured.

Zim turned to look at him for a second. “I know.”

“Okay, well, good,” said Dib. “You should know.”

Zim shot him a sad smile, then turned back to look out the windshield.

“I think there were other things I didn’t like, but… I don’t know.”

“What?” asked Dib.

“I don’t think I gave myself the opportunity to dislike a lot of things,” said Zim. “Mostly I just… pushed away whatever bad feelings I had. Distracted myself.”

“What did you distract yourself with?” asked Dib.

“Oh, you know,” said Zim. “Work. Blowing things up. Other stuff, uh,” Zim’s face went flushed, “stuff like that.”

It clicked in Dib’s mind, in a split second, what “stuff” meant, and he felt an answering flush creep down his neck. “Right.”

“It wasn’t—” Zim turned to look at Dib, then snapped his mouth shut.

They both looked back out the windshield. Despite himself, Dib felt a creeping feeling of jealously start to overtake him. He didn’t want to ask any questions, because Zim obviously felt uncomfortable talking about it, whatever it was, but Dib had a feeling he knew Zim well enough to know exactly what Zim was talking about when he said “stuff.” Which was fine, Dib wanted to think. It was find that they’d both had certain experiences other than each other, because that’s what people do when they’re apart, or before they even meet each other. And Dib had done it (only a handful of times, but he'd done it), so he wasn't really justified in being jealous. Had Zim ever—?

Nope. Not thinking about it.

But, what if he’d—?

No!

“Hey,” said Dib, suddenly and a little too loudly. “Remember that time we won the science fair?”

“Which year?” asked Zim.

“Junior year.”

“Oh… oh, right,” said Zim, and then he laughed. “I can’t believe they didn’t send us to jail.”

“Right?” asked Dib with a chuckle, remembering the death ray that he and Zim had built. “That thing… that thing was brutal.”

“Did we even kill anything with it?” asked Zim. “Or did we just use it to disintegrate garbage?”

Dib laughed. “Actually, I think we just used it on the garbage. And that punching bag from the gym. Not much of a death ray, I guess.”

“It could have been,” said Zim, sounding reverent. “The possibilities…”

Dib shook his head. “What did we do senior year?”

“The satellite,” said Zim.

“Oh, yeah,” said Dib. “That thing was cool.”

“It was well-made,” said Zim. “Your knowledge of radio signals was… very adequate.”

“Thanks,” said Dib, rolling his eyes. “We couldn’t have made it without your designs.”

“That is true,” Zim conceded.

A semi-comfortable silence fell over them. Dib shifted in his seat.

“I missed that,” said Dib. “When I was in college. None of my lab partners were as fun as you.”

“Well,” said Zim, pausing for a second to scratch at his neck. “Your company was… it was better than GIR, obviously.”

“Aww,” said Dib. “You flatter me.”

“Shut it.”

Another short pause. Dib chewed on the inside of his cheek.

“I feel like… we can do this.”

“Do what?” asked Zim, peering over at Dib.

“We can, like… just do the friend thing. I know I made things weird, and, I mean, who knows, maybe I’m making things weird again, by bringing this up, um, but, you know… I just think we can do okay at this. Like, I think we can do a good job.”

Zim gave him a look. “Eloquent as usual, human.”

“I just,” Dib sighed. “I feel like we figured it out. We’re not mad at each other — wait, you’re not mad at me right now, right?”

If Zim could, he would probably be rolling his eyes right now. “No, I am not mad at you.”

“Right,” said Dib. “Cool. So, I mean. We can talk to each other without fighting again. And, we used to do that all the time and we, you know, didn’t hook up or anything either.”

Dib’s face felt hot again. Zim was pointedly not looking at him.

“I just mean, I think we can find the balance. We can just be friendly and, you know, not take it too far.”

“I think so, too,” said Zim slowly.

“Cool,” said Dib, shifting so he was cross-legged in the co-pilot’s seat. “That’s great.”

“Yup.”

“Sorry,” said Dib, choking on a laugh. “I should stop bringing it up.”

“It’s okay.”

“I’m a mess,” said Dib, as if that was news to anyone.

Zim glanced at him. “It’s okay,” he repeated, his voice gentler.

Dib just nodded.

Another pause, and Dib didn’t think it was horribly awkward. He went back and got them each a snack and a soda. They chatted about space and nearby planets.

“Have you been to all of these places?” Dib asked.

“Some of them,” said Zim. “Not all.”

“Did you like them?”

“Some of them,” repeated Zim.

“Which ones did you like?”

Zim told him stories, then, about training on desert planets and doing scientific research on planets with ecosystems unlike anything Dib had ever heard of. He told Dib about giant, dinosaur-like monsters and flying space bunnies and creatures that could shape-shift and one that did, once, so it looked just like an irken and then their entire platoon had nearly killed each other, trying to find the imposter. Dib listened with rapt attention, excited to hear the stories that Zim had already told and the ones that Dib had never heard before.

“What about Earth?” Dib asked, suddenly, when Zim had been in the middle of another story. “What do you like so much about Earth?”

Zim peered over at him, his expression curious. “Who said I liked Earth?”

Dib shrugged. “I know you do.”

Zim shook his head and turned back to the windshield.

“I just… I’ve just been wondering,” said Dib. “After what you said to your Tallests. I just wanted to know what you liked so much about it that you would want to defend it so… passionately.”

Zim was quiet. They both were, for a couple of minutes.

“I like… the leaves,” said Zim.

“Yeah?”

“How they change colors.”

“Yeah,” agreed Dib. “That’s pretty cool.”

“I like the snacks. The… the seeds, I like those. I like the candy, but not on Halloween.”

“Of course not.”

“I like when they have fireworks,” said Zim. “It surprised me, when I first saw them. I thought that Irk would have done something like that, but we never had, before. They reminded me of Irk, anyway.”

“Really?” asked Dib.

“Yeah,” said Zim. He was quiet for another moment. “I liked skool.”

Dib gaped. “You did?”

“Well, not the learning part,” Zim amended. “I liked being in skool with you.”

“Oh,” said Dib. “Yeah, I liked that, too. It was a lot more bearable with you.”

“Yes, likewise. Sometimes I wished I’d had you in training. You would have been a much better partner that boring old Skoodge.”

Dib ignored the barb because he didn’t know who Skoodge was.

“I wonder,” said Zim, a little dreamily, “what it would have been like if you’d been full irken, like me, and we’d gone to academy and training and all that together.”

“I don’t know,” said Dib, because he honestly didn’t.

Another short pause, one that Dib was desperate to fill.

“What else did you like about Earth?” he asked. “What was your favorite thing?”

Zim paused again, for longer this time.

“Come on,” said Dib, slapping a grin onto his face that he hoped didn’t look too eager. “I won’t be offended if you don’t say me.”

“It’s not you,” said Zim, suddenly, and then he looked like he’d almost surprised himself. “I mean… sorry.”

“It’s okay,” said Dib. “I said I wouldn’t be offended.” He still kind of was, though.

Zim took a deep breath. He looked over at Dib.

“Irkens are raised to do one job, our whole lives,” he said. “We are trained for it, and we do it, and that’s it. The fact that I have had a… larger number of jobs, the fact that I entered training to become an invader at my height was… it was unacceptable. It was not normal.”

Zim paused. Dib waited.

“But, on Earth…”

Zim paused again. Dib sat on his hands.

“Humans could do whatever they wanted. We took those aptitude test thingies, but they weren’t… they weren’t binding. Not like on Irk, with our PAKs, and we… Gretchen, she wanted… she changed her mind every day about what she wanted to do. And people encouraged it!”

Zim looked over at Dib.

“Yeah,” said Dib. “I mean—”

“No irken has the capacity for change that a human has. No irken is encouraged to change, and develop and… and grow, I mean, not literally, of course, but…”

Zim took a loud, deep breath through his nose. Dib nodded.

“I could sit with GIR and watch TV and I didn’t have to report to anyone. I could play video games with you. I could work on whatever experiments I wanted, things I could never do on Irk or on Vort. I… I could do anything I wanted. That was my favorite part,” said Zim. “The freedom. The freedom, and the change.”

“That’s… that’s great, Zim,” said Dib, his voice soft.

“I never thought I could go against my programming,” murmured Zim, looking away. “I thought it would kill me.”

“Really?” asked Dib.

Zim nodded. “But, being on Earth… I didn’t have to be anything I didn’t want to be. I think… I think that’s it. I haven’t… I haven’t thought much about it, but I think that’s it. I never thought I’d be able to… to do this. To be… like this.”

He didn’t ask what Zim meant; he had a feeling he already knew. He thought back to what Zim had said, weeks that felt like ages ago, about irkens not having romantic feelings — any feelings at all. He wondered if Zim could change, if he could fall in love the way that Dib knew he, a half-irken, could. He thought about his father, who had maybe fallen in love. Dib didn’t know. He’d never asked.

He knew his father loved him. Even if Membrane was a jerk, and a bad father, he still loved Dib and Gaz. Dib wasn’t so stubborn, so blind, that he didn’t know that. And, his father loved Earth. Maybe more than he loved his children, but maybe Dib was kind of understanding why, now. It didn’t make any of this okay, though. It would take a lot more than a couple of apologies to make all of what his father did okay.

Zim loved Earth. That much was for sure. It must be some kind of haven for him and Dib’s father. Like, some place where they could finally be free to do whatever they wanted and just be themselves. It made Dib’s heart stutter, a little, thinking of how Zim’s love for Earth was probably the only thing that anchored him those years that Dib had been away.

It wasn’t just Earth, though, that Zim loved. He loved GIR, as much as he would deny it. Zim spoiled GIR to no end, and he always claimed it was because GIR was so irritating. And yet, Zim never deactivated him, no matter how defective GIR proved himself to be. It was all a show, Dib thought. Even now, Zim would check up on GIR using the communicator on his arm. He pretended like he was checking on the status of the base and the plan to expose Zim to all the humans, but Dib knew that Zim knew that Gaz could handle that on her own. No, this was something else. This was love.

Zim had already changed so much. He was already so different than the person he'd been when he'd first come to Earth. He'd grown up, and so had Dib.

So, would it be so crazy, so outrageous for Zim to love Dib, too? And not like his love for his planet, or for his minion, but, like—

Dib and Zim sat together, not saying anything for a long time, each lost in thought.

 

iii.

His dad walked him out with a hand on his shoulder.

“Now, Dib,” he said, “make sure you take care of your sister. Don’t let her out of your sight!”

“I won’t, Dad,” Dib grumbled.

“And be sure to be back at a reasonable hour.”

“I will, Dad.”

“And bring some candy home for your good old dad!”

Dib peered over his shoulder at Candio, the candy-dispensing robot that the Membranes brought out every Halloween. For Candio’s costume this year, they’d stuck a bunch of magnets to it and called it a fridge.

“Dad,” began Dib, “if you want candy so much, you could just come with us?”

He knew it was a long shot.

“Oh, I’m afraid not, son,” said Membrane. “Lots of work to do. Water to purify. Starving people to save.”

With a put-upon sigh, Dib stomped over to where Gaz was waiting on the sidewalk, an empty shopping tote in her hand. At ten, almost eleven, Gaz was getting a little old for Halloween, but Dib knew she didn’t mind the free candy. Their father had insisted that they go out together, although Dib certainly wasn’t trick or treating. No, he was just chaperoning. Not like Gaz needed it, but still. Dib was twelve now, and there was no way he’d be caught dead with a bag of candy in his hand, going door-to-door like some little kid. He was practically a man now, for god’s sake. He had a chin hair and everything.

“Are we going?” Gaz asked, her narrowed on Dib.

Dib tightened his grip on his balloon string. “Yup.”

“Bye, kids!” Membrane shouted. “Try not to get any apples this time!”

“Bye, Dad,” Gaz and Dib replied in unison.

With that, Membrane got in the family car and drove off to work. Gaz turned to Dib, her white makeup looking bright and eerie in the light of the streetlamp above them.

“Well, let’s go,” she said. She turned to leave.

“Hold on, Gaz,” Dib said, grabbing his sister by the forearm and pulling her the other way. “I thought we’d go this way.”

Gaz took one look over her shoulder and rolled her eyes so hard, it looked painful.

 

They were in Zim’s cul-de-sac soon enough. As Dib had expected, Zim had boarded the house up, just like he’d done the last time. He still won’t let Dib forget about what had happened on Halloween a year ago. Dib was almost tempted to tell Zim that he was still having nightmares about that particular day, too, but he usually ended up telling Zim to stop being such a baby.

As Dib had not expected, Zim was standing on the sidewalk outside his house with GIR and an old takeout bag from Chickie Lickie’s. Worst of all, he was wearing the exact same costume as Dib.

“Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me,” Dib growled, and he took his sister by the arm and dragged her right up to that dumb alien and his dumb costume. “What, did you spy on me or something?”

Zim took one look at him, then at Gaz, and then he started laughing. Dib flushed, then tightened his grip on Gaz’s elbow.

“I’ll admit,” Zim said with a cackle, “it suits you much better.”

Dib looked down at his attire: the yellow rain slicker, the green boots, the red balloon tied to his wrist. Next to him, Gaz was a picture of pure, Gaz-like horror, with her terrifying makeup and her dingy gray clown suit. She ripped her arm from his grasp with a growl and straightened her bright red wig, then stalked off, probably to go find some candy before everyone ran out.

“Gaz made me wear it,” Dib explained through clenched teeth.

“Interesting. And do you always do what your little sister tells you to do?”

“Well, what about you? Do you even know who you’re dressed as?”

“Of course I do,” Zim snapped. “It’s the little sewer boy from one of my favorite movies. The costume was GIR’s idea.”

Dib looked down at GIR, who was wearing a grass skirt and a hat made out of fruit. “Right.”

“And just what are you doing in my neighborhood?” asked Zim. “Come to torment me with your sick, creepy fantasies? Come to leave me stranded in your giant, unsightly, enormous, humungo—”

“I know you’re talking about my head,” Dib hissed. “And, no, I’m just here to trick or treat with Gaz. And to keep an eye on you.”

“Fear not, Dib,” said Zim, talking a step forward. Dib frowned, annoyed that in the two years Zim had been on Earth, Dib still hadn’t grown tall enough to match his height. Well, at least his hair had. “I will not be making any attempts on Earth tonight.”

“Why should I believe you?” Dib replied, his voice rising.

“I don’t care if you believe me,” mocked Zim. “Just leave me alone while I get my candy.”

“You don’t even eat Earth candy.”

“Yeah, well, GIR does, and he’s been bothering me about this since last year. And you're bothering me now. So leave me alone.”

“I’m not… I came here to stop you! Not to… not to bother you.”

“Well, you are bothering me. And I’m doing nothing wrong.” Zim waved a hand at Dib in  a shooing motion. “Now, scoot. Go find a gutter to crawl into.”

“Hey, you know what?” Dib looked over his shoulder. Gaz was holding out her empty bag to the woman next door. There weren’t too many little kids on the sidewalk. “Eff you, Zim.”

“Oh, how terrifying,” said Zim, crossing his arms. “I’m shaking in my puddle stompers.”

“Oh, yeah?” asked Dib, searching through his admittedly brief catalogue of swear words. “You’re a… you’re a bitch.”

Zim just looked at him for a second, then burst out laughing.

“Truly, you horrify me with your Earthen swear words.”

“They are horrifying,” growled Dib.

And, they were. Right? Dib was kind of reeling. He’d never said the b-word before.

“Hmm. No,” said Zim.

“They show I mean business,” said Dib. “You… you… shit-brain.”

He felt himself blush. He ignored it.

“Is that even a real word?” asked Zim. “I haven’t heard that one before.”

“You wouldn’t even know, you dumb alien, uh, ass— ass-head.” Okay, that one didn’t sound right. “Wait, that’s not it.”

“You’ve got the right idea, I think,” said Zim.

“Okay, I mean, it sounded right in my head, but then it didn’t work when I said it out loud.”

Zim shrugged. “Just say ‘dookie.’”

“That’s not a cuss word, though. I’m trying to cuss.”

“What?” asked Zim. “Yes, it is! It’s the worst one!”

Dib raised his eyebrows. “It really isn’t. It isn’t even that bad. Like, you can definitely say it on TV and stuff.”

“No, you can’t!”

“Yes, you can,” said Dib calmly. He turned to where a mother and her young child — dressed as a pumpkin, so original — were walking down the sidewalk. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

The woman stopped. “Yes?”

“Would you be offended if I said the word ‘dookie’ in front of you and your baby?”

The woman looked from Dib to Zim and then back, obviously confused. “Um… no? I would prefer if you didn’t, but, I don’t—”

“Perfect, thanks,” said Dib. He turned back to Zim. “See?”

Next to him, Zim was fuming. “GIR!” he shouted.

“Ye-es?” asked GIR, from where he’d been digging a hole in the neighbor’s lawn.

“You told me dookie was a bad word! I specifically asked you to retrieve information on Earthen cursing customs, and you told me dookie is the worst one.”

“Oh, yeah,” said GIR. “It is!”

“No, GIR, it’s not,” said Zim. Dib shook his head in agreement.

“Oh, yeah,” said GIR. “It’s not!”

“You are so useless to me,” said Zim. “Go get your candy.”

“Okaaay!” chirped GIR, and he sprinted off.

“The cul-de-sac will be in flames when he’s done,” said Zim, watching as his minion mowed down small children in the name of free candy.

“I can’t believe you thought dookie was a bad word this whole time.”

Zim huffed. “You don’t know any better!”

“I do, too!” said Dib. “I know… um… well, there was the b-word— I mean, bitch! That’s one!”

“That’s not a bad one, though,” said Zim. “There’s worse ones.”

“Shit is bad,” said Dib.

“I guess so,” Zim conceded. He snickered. “Bitch-brain.”

“Shit-butt,” added Dib, giggling conspiratorially.

“Big, shit-head!”

“Fu— uh, ha ha, alien douche!”

They kept going, giggling and making up swears, getting progressively louder as they went. Eventually, Dib, hopped up on cussing and too giddy to care, screamed “fuck you!” at the top of his lungs, and the entire cul-de-sac, minus GIR and the child that he was wrestling with, went quiet.

Dib swallowed, feeling a little embarrassed. He looked over at Zim, who was barely containing his laughter, and together they cackled for a solid couple of minutes.

Eventually, Dib was broken from his giggles by a tap on the shoulder. He turned over to see that Gaz was glaring at him.

“Can we go home now, please?” she asked, holding open her bag for Dib to inspect. “All anyone had was condiment packets.”

Dib looked into her bag and found that Gaz did, in fact, have a bag full of individual servings of mustard, ketchup, and mayonnaise, plus a few tootsie rolls and other cheap candies that were just as bad as the condiments, if not worse. “Huh,” he said.

“If we get back home soon, we can get the houses around us and get some real candy,” Gaz said. “I bet Screamy’s house still has some of the king-sized bars.”

Dib looked back over at Zim, who was just watching him.

“You aren’t going to do anything tonight?” he asked.

“No,” said Zim, pointing a thumb over his shoulder. “I have to watch GIR.”

GIR was growing in size and eating everything in sight. Dib cringed. If only GIR knew that he lived in one of the poorer neighborhoods in town — if he made it down towards Dib’s house some year, there would really be chaos.

“What about when all the candy’s gone?”

“Then, I’m going to have to fix GIR.”

Dib paused for a second. Gaz tugged on his sleeve.

“Come on, Dib, let’s go get some real candy. Dad said he wanted some, too, remember?”

Who cares what Dad wants was on the tip of Dib’s tongue, but he didn’t say it. Instead, he let his sister lead him away from Zim’s house and his robot and his doomsday plans and back toward their neighborhood.

As they walked down the sidewalk and neared the main street, Dib considered what had just happened. For the second time in as many months, he and Zim had… well, they’d been laughing together. They’d been having a good time, and they hadn’t even been trying to kill each other. That was weird. It was weird that it wasn’t as weird as Dib had thought it would be.

Dib thought back to what he could only refer to as that time: that time that he’d given up on the paranormal, that time that he’d quit chasing Zim in hopes of having the normal, charmed life of a billionaire scientist’s genius son. And then it had all gone down the toilet, and Dib couldn’t stay away from Zim’s base if he wanted to, and he hadn’t really wanted to, and now here they were.

It had been obvious that Zim had missed him. He had stopped going to skool. Dib was fairly certain that he’d stayed on that couch for days on end. And then Dib had stormed in, kicking the door down, as he was known to do, and Zim had just…

No one had ever been that happy to see Dib.

And they’d laughed and played and it had been that: playing. Like what they’d just been doing, a second ago.

They were a few houses away from Zim’s when Dib realized that he and Zim weren’t enemies anymore.

How? Dib wondered. How, and when, and why had this change happened? And, seriously, HOW? How could he have gone from hating Zim, his nemesis to… not really hating him anymore? Did he like Zim? It didn’t seem like it, but it was hard to tell. He liked laughing with Zim. He liked making fun of other people with Zim. Was that friendship?

Oh, jeez. Were they friends?

No, Dib thought. They weren’t friends. Not like Dib had any real friendships that he could use for comparison, but he was fairly sure, based on what he’d seen on TV, that he and Zim weren’t friends. But, could they be? Would they be, if things kept going in this direction? Did Dib want that?

A part of him knew that he needed Zim. He wouldn’t survive at skool if it weren’t for Zim, and he would climb the walls if Zim disappeared or something. And, it seemed, Zim needed him, too. Dib had quit alien hunting for weeks before coming back to Zim. And Zim hadn’t taken over the world — had he even tried? Did he even really care about it, or did he just want to fight with Dib?

Dib wanted to fight with Zim, too. But, he wanted to do it to protect Earth, and to be celebrated by his classmates and his family and maybe, one day, the President Man himself. Or, at least, you know, his dad. If his dad could get on board, that was really all that Dib needed.

Dib let his mind wander, for just a second, to consider what it would be like to have Zim as a friend. What would they do? Mess around with Zim’s lab equipment? Play video games? Watch TV? Go monster hunting? The more Dib thought about it, the better it sounded.

He wondered, for a moment, if that was what was waiting for them. If they were teetering on the edge of something, and if they just let go, then—

Dib paused to look over his shoulder. He couldn’t see Zim, but he could see GIR, the candy-filled monstrosity that he was. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, he thought, to be friends with his worst enemy.

Dib turned back around and started walking, the stirrings of confusion, contentment, and a kind of giddiness bubbling in his belly. The more he started to wrap his mind around it, the more it—

His knees buckled at the sharp, loud sound of his balloon exploding. It was so loud, he could barely hear his own fearful yelp as he crashed to the ground on his hands and knees. He turned around just in time to see Zim stash some kind of Irken laser gun in his raincoat pocket.

Zim stared back at him, looking like a monster in his green galoshes. Dib felt his stomach turn at the terrifying, toothy grin that Zim shot him. Eerie and unsettling, just like Zim’s fake, doll-like eyes, and his green skin and his neon green house and his broken alien robot minion. Dib felt his cheeks heat, and his eyes narrowed, and he was on his feet in a second.

“Come on!” he shouted, looking around. “He just shot my balloon! Please tell me someone saw that!”

He pointed at Zim. The trick-or-treaters ignored him, and instead opted to run from GIR or just continue collecting soy sauce packets. Zim grinned.

“Saw what, Dib? I didn’t see anything,” he called from the other end of the cul-de-sac.

“Dib,” Gaz muttered, a warning that Dib ignored.

“Oh, it’s on, you crazy alien slut!” Dib shouted, and he took off running after Zim.

He didn’t know what the word meant, but it felt satisfying to say, nonetheless.

Chapter Text

i.

Gaz got to their usual table first. She plopped her tray down and took a deep breath. Mashed potatoes and mustard day was not her favorite, and she had half a mind to ask Dib to take them out for pizza. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d skipped a class for pizza, and Membrane generally didn’t care if Gaz missed calculus, since she was probably more qualified to teach it than the actual teacher.

A ruckus on the other side of the cafeteria caught her attention: Torque Smackey had burst in wearing a tuxedo t-shirt and holding some wilting carnations, and Jessica was practically pissing herself with excitement.

“Yes, yes!” Jessica shrieked. “Oh, my god, yes!!”

Gaz looked away when Torque started shoving his tongue down Jessica’s throat. It was putting her off her spuds and mustard.

“What’s that all about?” asked Dib, and Gaz looked up to see him and Zim dropping their trays across from her.

“Prom proposal, I think,” said Gaz.

Dib raised an eyebrow, then turned to look at Zim, who just looked confused.

“Didn’t we just have prom last year?” he asked.

“That was junior prom,” explained Dib. “This year, we have senior prom.”

“No,” said Zim. “In the fall, we had prom.”

“That was homecoming.”

Zim made an exaggerated face of disgust, then sat down on the bench. “How many times are they going to force us to watch this?” he asked, gesturing to where Torque and Jessica were still hugging. “It’s inhumane.”

“I think it’s nice,” said Dib, and Gaz didn’t miss the way her brother snuck a glance at Zim. “It’s, you know… it’s sweet, I guess.”

“It’s gross,” said Gaz, and Zim grunted in agreement.

“You would never see that—” he pointed with his fork at Jessica and Torque “— kind of display on Irk. No way.”

Gaz watched Dib bite his lip, his eyes moving back to the lovebirds.

“Maybe Irk should lighten up a little,” said Dib.

“Maybe you should lighten up,” snapped Zim.

Dib turned back to him. “That doesn’t make sense.”

“You don’t make sense.”

“Oh, my god, please shut up,” groaned Gaz. “Dib, can you order us a pizza? From Bloaty’s? I can’t eat this crap.”

Dib tilted his head. “I thought Dad fixed you.”

“For the potatoes, not the mustard,” said Gaz, gesturing to the chunks of potato that were floating in what was clearly watered-down dijon.

In her sixteen years of life, Gaz had been off and on various kinds of medications for her rampant food allergies. Growing up, she’d been able to eat hardly anything, and her dad had taken care of her the best he could. Now that the big clone cat was out of the bag, she was actually helping him develop some new treatments using the research he’d done to make her, and things had gotten a little better. Something about mustard, though, still made her break out in hives, and it frustrated her that she still couldn’t figure it out.

“Fine,” said Dib. “But we’re getting it delivered this time, and you’re going to class next period.”

“Ugh. Fine.”

“Typical Dad, you know, not even doing a good job—”

“I want a pizza,” said Zim. Gaz was grateful for the interruption. “Order me one. Thin crust. With marshmallows. And chocolate chips.”

“Zim,” said Dib.

“You heard me.”

They ordered a couple of pizzas and some soda, then dumped their cafeteria food in the trash and went out to the parking lot to wait for the delivery. When they got outside, the first thing Gaz noticed was that Zita’s little sedan had been basically destroyed with balloons, flowers, and post-it notes.

ZITA, the notes read, WILL YOU GO TO PROM WITH ME? LOVE, LETTY!

“Jesus,” said Dib, leaning forward to inspect Zita’s car. “She must have spent hours on this.”

“The prom,” Zim muttered, “it haunts me.”

“Stop being dramatic,” Dib said. “It’s cute.”

“Oh, so it’s vandalism when I do it, but when Letty does it, it’s sweet?” asked Zim.

“Letty used post-its and balloons,” said Dib, glaring at Zim from the corner of his eye. “You scratched your stupid Irk logo into my car using your stupid PAK legs.”

“It was a nice gesture!” Zim argued. “In honor of you getting a new car!”

Dib just rolled his eyes, then turned to Gaz. Gaz grinned.

“Come on, Dib, it was a nice gesture.”

“See!” Zim exclaimed. “Gaz gets it.”

Dib looked between his sister and his friend. “I hate you guys.”

Gaz just kept grinning. She sat on the hood of Dib’s car and watched Zim and Dib playfight while they waited for their pizza. Dib, the poor kid, got flustered every time Zim managed to get him in a headlock. Zim didn’t seem to notice and flung him onto the asphalt repeatedly.

Really, it was kind of sad how bad Dib was at hiding his crush. Gaz had noticed it a little after skool started back up, although Zim still seemed oblivious. At least, Zim was pretending to be oblivious. It was hard not to notice the way Dib’s face went beet red every time he and Zim brushed hands, or the way Dib stared at Zim like a lovesick puppy. Gaz had sat in on many a movie night with the two of them and just watched Dib and Zim on the couch, Dib sitting on his hands and looking over at Zim every few minutes. Part of her wanted Dib to make a move, but she got why her didn’t: Dib, believer in Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, sometimes had a hard time believing in himself.

Ugh, Gaz thought. That sounded so cheesy.

Their pizza arrived, and they parked themselves under a tree and dug in. They ate in silence for the most part, since it was almost the end of the lunch period and they were running out of time until class started. It was pretty out of the blue, then, when Dib made an announcement.

“I’m gonna go to prom this year.”

Zim choked on his pizza. “You are?”

“Yeah.” Dib nodded. “I wanna go. I’m gonna go.”

Gaz raised and eyebrow and looked at Zim, who looked helplessly between her and Dib.

“Why?” he asked. “Last year, you said—”

“I changed my mind,” said Dib. “I want to, now. Do you?”

“I don’t know,” said Zim. “I don’t think so.”

“Well,” said Dib, now avoiding eye contact. “If you decide you want to, we can go together.”

“Oh,” said Zim. “Okay.”

Dib looked up. “Yeah?”

Zim shrugged. “Sure. If you’re gonna go, I guess.”

“Okay. Cool.”

Gaz looked between her two most beloved idiots. She felt herself smile. She watched Dib and Zim make tentative arrangements, and a little bit of pride fluttered in her chest. Maybe Dib was going to finally be brave.

Gaz remembered that she didn’t really care about any of this. She frowned and went back to picking bits of cheese and crust out of her braces until the bell rang and Dib dragged her to her feet and started pushing her toward calculus class.

 

They had beans for dinner. It was one of the few meals Gaz could eat without her throat closing up. She chewed in silence, her dad next to her and just as quiet. The weight of Dib’s absence was heavy on them both.

“I did tell him we were having dinner together tonight, didn’t I?”

Gaz nodded.

And then, speak of the devil, Dib walked through the front door.

“Son!” their dad called, his head whipping around so fast, Gaz thought it might hurt. “We saved a plate for you!”

Dib glared into the kitchen. “I ate already.”

“Why don’t you come sit, anyway?” asked Membrane. “Come catch up.”

“Why don’t you fix Gaz so she doesn’t have an allergic reaction every time she eats a meal?” snapped Dib.

“Dib,” Gaz muttered, “it’s fine.”

“It isn’t fine,” said Dib. “He’s got the nerve to make us his weird, stupid science projects, and he can’t even do it right?”

“Dib,” said Membrane softly, his expression pleading, “just come sit. Come tell me about school, and…” Gaz watched her dad turn to look at the clock on the oven. It was after 8 PM. “… and, where you've been?”

“I was at Zim’s,” said Dib.

“Son,” said Membrane, his voice uncharacteristically weak, “I told you, we were having family dinner tonight.”

“I had stuff to do,” said Dib. “Maybe I’d be able to make it if we didn’t see each other literally once a year.”

“That isn’t— I’ve been home, more, Dib, I just haven’t seen you—”

Dib kicked off his boots. He shot their dad a glare. “To be perfectly honest, I’m not really interested in family dinners. Maybe you should make yourself another kid who wants to put up with all your bullshit.”

With that, Dib stalked up the stairs. Gaz watched him go, her stomach queasy with irritation. Or, maybe there’d been something weird in the pizza they’d had for lunch.

Gaz turned back to her dad, a swelling of pity reaching all the way to her eye sockets. Membrane buried his face in his hands.

“He’s gotten better,” said Gaz softly. “Remember, he used to never say anything? This is progress.”

“I appreciate that you’re trying to make me feel better, Gazleen,” said Membrane. “But I am aware that ‘better’ is still a far reach from good.”

“I guess so,” said Gaz. “But I think this is all we can really hope for.”

Membrane looked at her then, his brows knit. “That’s not true. That’s never true. I taught you better than that. We can always do better. We can always improve upon what we have.”

“Maybe with science experiments,” said Gaz, pushing her bowl of beans away. “Not so much with people, I don’t think.”

“Would he still have hated me if I’d told him myself? If he hadn’t found out, by accident?”

“I don’t know.”

“I was going to. I had a plan, I just— I couldn’t—”

“It’s fine, Dad,” said Gaz quickly. She hated seeing her dad get emotional. It didn’t suit him. “Just… keep trying, I guess.”

“Gaz,” said Membrane, his voice quiet. “I feel so conflicted.”

“I know,” said Gaz, but she wasn’t sure if she did.

“I shouldn’t be saying this to you. You shouldn’t be the one supporting me. I’m your father… it should be the other way around.”

“I know.”

“It’s just… Dib. I don’t know what to do with him. I don’t think I ever have.”

Gaz pursed her lips. “He just… he needs some time, I think.”

“If I…” Membrane paused again, then looked at Gaz. “If I told you that there was more, would you be angry?”

Gaz raised an eyebrow. “More secrets?”

“Yes.”

“No.”

Membrane relaxed.

“You won’t tell me?” asked Gaz. Something bubbled in her stomach again, but she pushed it away.

“I can’t tell you and not Dib. I just… it wouldn’t be fair.”

Gaz grit her teeth. “Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay,” said Gaz. “I trust you. But if you’re waiting for Dib to become your best friend, it isn’t going to happen.”

“I know,” said Membrane. “I just… I worry. I worry he had no one to talk to.”

“He has Zim, now,” said Gaz. “He’s doing okay, Dad, really.”

Membrane took a deep breath. “I suppose they have gotten friendly lately, haven’t they?”

Gaz nodded. “A little more than friendly, at least on Dib’s end.”

Membrane’s expression and fork dropped in surprise, and Gaz pursed her lips. Maybe she shouldn’t have said that.

“I don’t know if I like that,” said Membrane. “I don’t… Dib isn’t—”

“Let him have it,” said Gaz quickly. “Just let him have his little crush. He won’t even admit that he likes Zim, anyway. I don’t think Zim minds. They haven’t done anything, if that’s what you’re worried about. Dib would have told me.”

“Zim wouldn’t,” muttered Membrane. “He’s… he wouldn’t do anything.”

“Probably not,” Gaz agreed, though she wasn’t sure how her dad knew that. “They’re going to prom together, though.”

“Are they?” asked Membrane. He drummed his fingers on the table. “Will you be going as well?”

Gaz shrugged. “If you want me to keep an eye on him, I can. I wasn’t planning on it, though.”

“No, no,” said Membrane. “It’ll… it’ll be fine. Unless you want to go, of course.”

Gaz grinned. “Well, The Letter M did a big song and dance number for me in the cafeteria the other day, asking me to go with him.”

“Did he?” asked Membrane, looking to Gaz with interest. “And you didn’t accept?”

“Nope,” said Gaz, her grin widening. “I told him to take his stupid proposal and shove it, and that just because you ask a girl in front of the entire school doesn’t mean she’ll feel bad enough for you to say yes.”

Membrane’s hand landed on Gaz’s, and he squeezed lightly. “That’s my girl.”

 

ii.

“Okay,” said Zim. “Would you rather… be haunted by Ms. Bitters’s ghost for the rest of eternity, or have a snarl beast for a pet?”

“I don’t know what a snarl beast is,” said Dib.

“Oh, they’re horrible.”

Dib cracked a smile. “I guess, haunted by Bitters, then.”

“A wise choice.”

Zim glanced over at Dib, who was sitting in the pilot’s seat, looking relatively relaxed. He’d slept well after their adventure with the Resisty, and he seemed… calmer, now that everything was out in the open. It made Zim feel better, too, knowing that some of Dib’s strange behavior was based on the fact that Dib apparently still had feelings for him.

They’d agreed to just focus on the mission and being friends, and that they wouldn’t take things too far. The mission part was going fine: they’d be entering Vort’s solar system soon, and then they’d have to break in and steal two highly-guarded prisoners. That would be a challenge, and even Zim was willing to admit that their odds of success were low. All they really needed, though, was for one of them to survive and get prisoner 777 to Lard Nar. That was the least dangerous part of the job, and Zim knew that Dib would have to be the one to do it.

The friendship part was going better, surprisingly. Zim found that Dib was significantly more tolerable when he wasn’t keeping secrets, and Dib appeared to be finally recovering from the shock of learning he was an irken hybrid. He and Zim tentatively discussed his genetics and irken biology. Zim was considering telling Dib that he wouldn’t die unless he did something really stupid and got himself killed, but, seeing as they were about to do something really stupid and might actually get killed, he decided to table that reveal for after Vort, provided that they both survive.

“We’re here,” said Dib, breaking Zim out of his thoughts.

“Good,” said Zim, but his spooch was clenching and he felt his antennae twitch as they approached an abandoned planet on the outskirts of Vort’s solar system.

They landed. Membrane, a few minutes behind them, would board The Dib once he arrived, and they’d go over the plan for the mission together.

For now, Dib retreated to the bedroom to retrieve the watch that Zim had built him years ago. It tickled Zim, a little, learning that Dib had kept the gift and even brought it on the mission with him. More than anything, though, it was a relief, knowing that Dib had weapons, in the event that he was threatened.

“I want to show you something,” said Zim as Dib reentered the cockpit. “Come here.”

Dib walked over to where Zim was still sitting and stood still as Zim fastened the watch to Dib’s wrist.

“This isn’t— I added this feature a long time ago, for… just in case.”

Dib gave him a confused look. “Okay? What’s it do?”

“It… here.” Zim pressed a button on the band of the watch, and a blurry image began projecting itself over Dib. Zim watched as the disguise adjusted to Dib’s body, eventually sharpening into a very realistic picture. “I’m sorry if you think it’s weird, but I didn’t know before.”

Dib looked down at himself, taking in the green skin of his arms and the missing finger on each hand. He left the cockpit. Zim followed him.

He found Dib standing in the middle of the bathroom, staring at himself in the mirror over the sink.

“Wow,” said Dib.

“With your height, you’ll have access to every prisoner on the planet. If you can maintain appearances and follow the plan, you should be safe for the duration of the mission.”

Dib’s fake antennae rose and fell. He narrowed and widened his eyes.

“Does it look… good?” he asked, hesitant.

“Oh, yes,” said Zim. “Of course. No one will be able to tell that it’s a disguise. It’s very accurate.”

“Right,” said Dib. “But, I mean, does it… do I… look good?”

Zim stared at Dib’s reflection in the mirror. Of course he looked good — he looked like Dib, only if Dib were an irken. He was tall, and his eyes were still bright and wide, and his chin was sharp and his throat looked soft and sensitive and Zim wanted to give him another hick-ee, right here in the bathroom. Zim paused then, taking in the sight of Dib’s throat, vulnerable and practically begging for Zim’s teeth, like Dib had been begging, not so long ago.

“Yes,” said Zim softly.

Dib turned to look at him his eyes now a bright, sparkling red.

“It’s weird,” murmured Dib.

“I know,” agreed Zim.

Dib looked down at his hands, then back at his reflection. The pull toward Dib was strong, a hook in Zim’s guts. Zim took a deep breath.

“Kind of feels like I’m gonna puke,” muttered Dib, his eyes still on his reflection.

Dib turned back to Zim, a weary look on his face.

“I guess one quick kiss for luck would be a bad idea.”

Zim gave him a tight smile. “Probably. Especially if you’re going to puke.”

Still, Zim couldn’t imagine wanting anything more than to push Dib back toward the bedroom and get lost for the last few moments they had left before the mission. If they had more time...

Dib nodded. He held up his hand, like he was going to reach for Zim, and the let it drop to his side. He clenched his fists.

“Okay,” said Dib. “Let’s do this.”

Membrane arrived a few minutes later. They gathered in the cockpit. Zim produced his tablet from his PAK and opened a holographic map of Vort’s prison system.

“As far as I know, they haven’t made any changes to the layout since I was last there,” said Zim. He tapped a few times on his tablet, zooming the image into a building. “This was where we did military research, before we converted Vort into a prison planet. Based on the data I was able to gather from Lard Nar, this is still the building where the prisoners conduct their experiments. The containment chamber for my experiment has likely not been moved, because of how volatile it is and how difficult it was to contain in the first place.”

“Okay,” said Dib. “How do we get to it?”

We,” said Membrane, gesturing to himself and Zim, “will be retrieving the experiment. You will be retrieving the vortian.”

Dib looked from his father to Zim, who nodded. Dib’s holographic antennae flattened on his head.

“What, so I’m not good enough to get the experiment?”

“Of course not,” said Zim hastily. “You’re just, er, tall. Yes, that’s it. We need one tall irken — or, not irken-irken, I-I mean—”

“I got what you mean,” said Dib with a sigh.

“We need one of you at each location. Since the experiment is mine, and I know it best, it makes more sense for Membrane to go with me to get it.”

“Why can’t I go with you?” asked Dib.

When Zim hesitated, Membrane cleared his throat. “It’s more dangerous, son. You’ll get the vortian, and that’s final.”

“Dad, come on,” said Dib. “This is already ridiculously dangerous—”

“Exactly, so there’s no need to put you even more at risk.”

“I’ve been at risk plenty of times, thanks,” growled Dib. “I don’t need you—”

“Dib,” said Zim softly. “Listen. You don’t have a PAK, and you’re unfamiliar with the facility. Please, this is how we should do it.”

Dib’s face shifted into a few different expressions as he stared at Zim. Zim watched his face work through the holograph, and he hoped Dib didn’t feel too betrayed. Really, the experiment would be so highly guarded and… Dib, he just—

Well. It wouldn’t be any good for him to get hurt. That was all there was to it.

Eventually, Dib just looked away and shrugged.

“Whatever.”

“We can communicate via your watch as we get the experiment and you find the prisoner,” said Zim, tapping on his tablet again. “Vortians and rebels are generally in the higher-security facilities.” The holograph shifted again, this time to a building a few miles away from the research lab. “So, you should start here. Keep us updated and reach out if you need any help.”

“Okay,” said Dib. “So, how are we getting there?”

“We’ll leave the Spittle Runner here, and we’ll take my ship and park it below ground — there’s a parking structure somewhere near the monorail, so we’ll leave the ship there and take the train to our destinations,” said Zim. “Then, we’ll reconvene on the monorail and take it back to my ship, with 777 and the experiment in our possession.”

“Okay,” said Dib.

Zim looked to Membrane.

“Alright,” he said, looking from Zim to Dib. “Dib, you’ll update us at every opportunity. Did Zim give you anything? Do you need weapons?”

“His disguise is an Enforcer’s uniform,” said Zim. “He has a watch that shoots lasers and emits a poison gas.”

“Does he know how to use the watch?”

“Um,” said Dib, his antennae still pinned to his head, “I’m right here. And, yes, I do know how to use it. I was the one who thought to bring it along, so.”

“Right, right,” said Membrane. “Of course. I only meant—”

“It’s fine,” snapped Dib. “You only meant that you think I’m incompetent when I’m the one who got us the Resisty’s ships, and I’m the one who got this whole plan going in the first place.”

“Dib,” said Membrane, “I am completely confident in your abilities. You did an excellent job planning this mission and negotiating with the rebels.”

“Yeah, thanks,” Dib grumbled.

“I’m just worried that, maybe—”

“You know what, Dad? Why don’t you—”

“Okay!” shouted Zim. “So, we’re all good with the plan, then?”

Two guilty-looking Membranes turned to Zim, and Zim wished Gaz were here to mediate this whole situation. She was, apparently, much better at it than Zim.

“Yes,” said Membrane.

“All good,” said Dib.

“Good,” said Zim. “Let’s go to Vort, then.”

Zim sat himself down in the pilot’s seat and prepared for takeoff. He flew in silence as Membrane pestered Dib about his adequacy at using the watch and Dib snapped back with increasing childishness.

As annoying as Membrane was, Zim couldn’t blame him. He slanted a glance at Dib, only part irken and with no military training or familiarity with the Empire’s prison operations. Zim wasn’t sure what he’d do if something happened to Dib.

It was too much to think about, so he focused, instead, on the soft sound of Dib’s heart beating under the holograph. It was hard work, pushing and searching through the bickering and hum of the ship’s energy core for that soft thump-THUMP, but, once Zim found it, he locked on, his antennae trained to it as they approached Vort.

 

iii.

Gaz took GIR for a walk. She knew that they were on a time crunch and she’d do it, today, just… not yet. She was going to take GIR for a walk first, because he was antsy and he needed it, and then she would expose Zim to the planet that he’d called home for the past ten years.

She knew that there were lives at stake. She knew that they didn’t have time to think up the best option, and this plan, the one where her brother, friend, and dad were risking their lives and she was using Zim’s secret as a way to mobilize everyone on Earth, was far from the best. She wondered if this was even a good plan, really. It seemed too risky, reliant on too many unknown variables. But, it was all they had. They were relying entirely on Zim’s energy-consuming experiment and Zim’s status as an alien invader to try to keep the world and humanity from ending.

The irony wasn’t lost on Gaz that Zim was the one putting everything on the line for humankind, a species that he’d once been hell-bent on destroying. Gaz wondered what had happened. What had the turning point been for Zim? When had he realized that his loyalty lay with Earth instead of Irk?

She knew that it had to do almost entirely with Dib. But, maybe it didn’t totally. As Gaz walked GIR through Zim’s favorite park, she thought about how Zim had once told her that fall was his favorite season and how, another time, he said that he liked the smell of the pine trees coupled with the taste of hot chocolate. She knew that Zim loved Earth, and that it was the only real home he’d ever had. The idea of making him leave, even if he was supportive of the idea in a utilitarian sort of way, sat heavy in her stomach. She knew that Zim didn’t have anywhere else to go. And, honestly, she would miss him, a lot, if he left.

Gaz sat down on her and Zim’s favorite bench and let GIR off his leash. GIR took off running, hissing and meowing like a cat.

Gaz wondered about odds. What were the odds that Zim, Dib, and her dad would make it out of this prison break alive? What were the odds of the energy-sucking creature successfully absorbing PEG? What were the odds of Gaz being able to get most, if not all, people off the planet? What were the odds of there being a habitable planet out there that was big enough for eight billion people?

Gaz knew that there were infinite planets out there, and there was most likely a suitable Earth substitute. But how would she physically get everyone off Earth? How many people would Earth’s scientists be able to save? How many would she be able to save?

There must be something better. Gaz just needed to think.

“GIR!” she called. “Get over here!”

Okaaaay!”

GIR came bounding over, bird feathers flying out of his mouth as he ran toward Gaz on two legs. He skidded to a halt just in front of Gaz and saluted, then flopped onto the ground at Gaz’s feet.

“GIR,” said Gaz.

“Yes?”

“Think for a second.”

GIR’s bulbous eyes stared blankly at her.

“We need a better plan. We can’t just let Zim sacrifice himself like this. We need to do something.”

“Whatchu mean?” asked GIR.

Gaz narrowed her eyes. “GIR, if everything goes to plan, you and Zim are going to leave Earth and never come back. Remember?”

“Wha?”

“You were there.”

Wha?”

Gaz took a deep breath. “That’s right. If we can’t think of something, you’re going to have to leave Earth, forever. That means no more tacos, no more Poop Cola, no more squirrels, no more—”

NOOOO!!!

Gaz took a deep breath. Maybe that hadn’t been her best motivation tactic. Now, GIR was crying, and people were starting to stare.

“GIR, it’s okay—”

“—OOOOOOOOOO—”

“You need to—”

“—OOOOOOOOOOOOOO—”

“Calm down, GIR!”

“—OOOOOOOOOOOOOO!”

“Ugh!” Gaz clipped the leash back onto Zim’s stupid, screaming robot's collar. “Okay. We’re leaving.”

“I don’t wanna leave!! Don’t make me leave! My TV shows! They need me!”

“GIR, please, just—”

It was a long trek back to Zim’s base from the park, because GIR insisted on stopping every other second to say a long, tearful goodbye to whatever he could find: unfortunate woodland creatures, strangers walking down the street, the street itself. Eventually, though, they made it back to the base.

Gaz collapsed on the couch, her ears sufficiently mangled by GIR’s screaming. GIR crawled onto her stomach and flipped on the TV.

“GIR,” Gaz groaned, “we’re supposed to be saving the world right now.”

“This is my favorite show!”

“I thought you were sad.”

“Sad about what?”

Gaz took a deep breath. “You and Zim have to leave Earth forever.”

“Oh, yeah,” chirped GIR. “Why?”

“Because we need to expose Zim so that people will listen to me and let me save their lives.”

“Why?”

Gaz took another deep breath.

“Can’t we use the mind controlly thingies?” asked GIR.

Gaz sat up. GIR tumbled forward into her lap.

“The what?”

“The mind controllies!”

“What mind control things? Where are they?”

“Come on!” hollered GIR, right in Gaz’s face. “I show you!”

Gaz was fairly certain that this was a lie. She knew they were wasting time. But, she couldn’t help but humor GIR and let him lead her into one of the previously locked rooms in Zim’s base.

“Here ya go!” screamed GIR, bounding toward her with a strange-looking helmet in his hands.

“What is this?” asked Gaz, now genuinely curious.

“Mind control!”

“Are you… are you serious?” asked Gaz. “This is a mind control device?”

“Uh huh!”

Despite everything she learned about science and experimentation, Gaz put the device on her head.

What she saw was nothing short of a horror show about buying candy bars and and the end of the world. Gaz found that the helmet was uncomfortable, and difficult to get off, so much so that she couldn’t actually remove it until she’d been screaming for a solid couple of minutes for someone to help her. Finally, the helmet came off, and she looked up to see it raised above her head, suspended in the air by the Computer’s wires.

“Why did you put that on?” asked the Computer.

Gaz ran her fingers through her hair and tried to collect herself. “Had to see for myself. GIR? Where’d you go?”

“GIR went upstairs to watch TV.”

“Alright,” said Gaz. “Whatever. I need you to take me to the transmission room and call Zim for me. Please.”

“Fine.”

Gaz brought the helmet with her and, eventually, found herself standing in front of Zim’s giant monitor. The screen flickered, and then, there was Zim.

“Gaz?” he asked. “What do you want?”

“I need to talk to you,” said Gaz. “It’s about exposing you.”

“Did you do it?” asked Zim. His voice went quiet. “Are there… are people there? Right now?”

“No,” said Gaz. “I… I think I figured something else out.”

“You did?” asked Zim. “What is it?”

“It’s… wait, where’s Dib? Is he there?”

Zim groaned. “Don’t make me get them. They’ve been fighting for the past two hours.”

“Who?”

“Membrane is here, too. We’re on our way to Vort.”

Gaz frowned. “They’re fighting?”

Zim puffed his cheeks out, then sighed. “Yes.”

That was… refreshing. Usually, when Dib was mad, he just gave their dad the silent treatment. Maybe he was finally done being such a little brat.

“Well… okay, whatever. I came up with another idea.”

“Tell me.”

Gaz held up the helmet. “Do you remember this thing?”

Zim leapt out of the pilot’s seat. “Of course! Gaz, you’re a genius!”

“Actually, it was GIR’s idea.”

“Where is he? GIR!”

From somewhere far away, Gaz just heard a high-pitched “coming!”

“I can use these to get to President Man,” said Gaz, ignoring the sound of banging as it became increasingly louder and closer. “Then, I can put the helmet on him and we can go from there. We don’t have to expose your secret, Zim. We can keep you safe.”

There was a long, anguished pause, the silence broken only by the sound of banging as GIR got closer and closer. Finally, just as GIR came tumbling through an air vent, Zim spoke.

“Thank you, Gaz.”

Gaz set her jaw. “You’re welcome. I’m… glad. I’m glad you can stay, if… if there’s an Earth to come back to.”

“There may not be,” said Zim quietly.

“Hi, Master!”

“Hi, GIR. The good news is, we have brokered a deal with some rebels to let us use their ships. They have an astoundingly large fleet, and they have given us the opportunity to, well, abduct the humans. For a period of time. To keep them safe.”

“How’d you manage to pull that off?” asked Gaz.

“I may have… sold out the entire Irken Empire,” said Zim, looking away for a second.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“Huh.”

“It’s fine.”

Gaz shrugged. “If you say so.”

“Hi, Master!”

“Hi, GIR. We’ll be landing on Vort shortly,” said Zim. “After that, we’ll rendezvous with the rebels and get to Earth as fast as we can. If you can have everyone ready, we’ll beam them into the Resisty’s ships. Then, we’ll do our best with PEG. If there’s still an Earth left, we’ll beam the humans back down. If not, we’ll… we’ll find something else. I’m sure there will be something else.”

“Okay,” said Gaz quietly. “Good luck on Vort.”

“Thanks, Gaz.”

Gaz paused. She didn’t feel ready to be potentially saying goodbye to Zim, her dad, and Dib. She was still dealing with an uncomfortable pit in her stomach that was likely due to what she’d recently learned about herself. Everything was happening so fast, and it was all so overwhelming.

“Gaz?”

“I wish we had more time,” said Gaz softly.

“I know,” said Zim, tilting his head a bit. “It’ll be okay. We’ll be fine. We’re going to be done soon, and then, we’ll call you right away, and then we’ll have all the time in the world.”

Gaz looked away, unable to maintain eye contact when Zim had that earnest, gentle look on his face.

“Can I talk to them, please? Just for a second?”

She heard Zim say, “of course,” and then she heard her name.

“Gaz!”

She looked up, and, standing in the cockpit of Zim’s ship were three irkens. GIR screamed.

“What the fuck?” she asked. “Dad? Dib? What happened to you?”

“Shit,” muttered one of the irkens, and then he reached for some kind of device on his wrist. His image flickered for a moment, and then he was Dib. “Sorry. It’s my disguise. For the mission.”

Gaz took a deep breath.

“So, that’s you?” she asked, looking to the other irken.

“Yes,” said the irken, speaking with her dad’s voice. “This is me. Gaz, I’m… I’m so sorry—”

Gaz put up a hand. “Save it. I don’t wanna hear it. I asked Zim to get you because I have something to say, and then I’m going to hang up and go brainwash the president.”

“You’re gonna do what?” asked Dib.

Gaz held up the mind control helmet. “Remember this?”

“Oh… oh yeah. The mind control things. Uh, good idea.”

“You have mind control technology?” asked Membrane, turning to look at Zim.

“Sure do,” said Zim, puffing out his chest.

“Why didn’t you… use it?” asked Membrane.

“I did use it,” said Zim, leaning forward and shooting a taunting grin at Dib. “I used it to sell a buncha candy bars. Outsold everyone in my class.”

Dib rolled his eyes.

Even in his irken form, Gaz could tell that her dad was confused. “You were on Earth to invade it… and you used your mind control technology… to fundraise?”

Zim straightened. “Uh. Yeah?”

Gaz shook her head. “We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about this plan. I need you two,” she pointed at her dad and Dib, “to get it together. Stop fighting for two seconds and try to work together, okay? You can’t… you have to do this. You can’t mess up. Got it?”

Dib gave her a hard look. “Gaz…”

“We figure everything else out later. The odds of you succeeding in this mission are low. You need to focus, and stop bickering, and just deal, for a couple more hours, and then you can go back to fighting. Okay?”

“You know, Gaz—” started Membrane.

“Okay?”

“… Okay,” said Membrane.

Dib sighed. “Okay.”

“Good. Don’t die. I’ll see you later.”

“Okay,” said Membrane. “Goodbye, Gaz.”

“Bye, Gaz,” said Dib.

Zim just gave her a nod. The screen went black.

 

 

Chapter Text

i.

“Dad?”

“Yes?”

“Do you ever think… when you’re lookin’ through the tell- telly—”

“Telescope.”

“Yeah, the tellyspoke. When you’re lookin’ through it, do you ever think there’s someone… I dunno… lookin’ back?”

“…Of course not, son. That would be ridiculous.”

“I dunno…”

“There’s nothing out there, son. Nothing but stars.”

“Maybe one day I’ll be a space esplorer. Then I’ll find all the, uh, the space people. I’ll discover ’em.”

“There are no space people. Trust me.”

“Yeah! And then, and then, then I’ll get a big spaceship, and then I’ll esplore all the universes!”

“You’ll do no such thing.”

 

ii.

Dib fiddled with his watch. They were almost there.

Next to him, his father was fiddling with his goggles. Zim was whistling a Whitney song, trying to calm himself down like a nervous, purring cat.

“Put your disguise back on, Dib,” said Zim. “We’re close.”

Dib tapped his watch, and then he felt the strange chill of the holograph settling over him. The second time around did nothing to prevent the rolling in his stomach as he looked down at his eight irken fingers and his ivy-colored skin. He swallowed.

In the couple of hours since they’d said goodbye to Gaz, he and his father had installed Zim’s tablet’s mapping application into his glasses. He tapped at them a couple of times, and then he could see the layout of the entire prison as Zim knew it.

It was huge. Vort was like no other planet Dib had ever been to — and he’d been to kind of a lot, at least for a human. Well, a human-irken hybrid.

He still hadn’t gotten used to the rolling in his stomach that he felt every time he remembered that he was a hybrid.

He tapped his glasses again at the sound of Zim clearing his throat. Membrane tapped his foot a little. They entered Vort’s atmosphere.

As Zim had anticipated, there was a platform in the dirt large enough to hold their ship. As Zim landed on the large, metal disc, an image appeared in the sky in front of them. Zim tapped a few buttons on the control panel just as the image sharpened into a picture of a very small irken.

“State your name,” said the irken, in a sharp, nasally voice.

From the pilot and co-pilot’s seats, Zim and Membrane were looking at him. So was the irken on the screen.

“Enforcer Dib,” said Dib, fighting to keep his voice steady.

“State your business.”

“I— It’s a secret.”

The irken narrowed her eyes. “A secret?”

“Yuh— yes. I’m here on secret orders from the Tallest.”

The irken’s antennae raised. “What kind of orders?”

“That’s on a need-to-know basis,” said Dib.

From the pilot’s seat, Zim muttered something that sounded like “stand up straight, you idiot.”

Dib straightened up. The irken’s antennae flopped back down to her skull.

“And you don’t need to know,” Dib added.

As if Dib even needed his help, Professor Membrane stood from his seat to walk over to him. Dib glared at him out of the corner of his eye.

“We will be here and gone in no time,” said Membrane, his hands behind his back and his chest puffed.

Dib tried to mimic his stance.

“Of course, my Taller. Of course, Enforcer Dib,” said the irken. “We will provide you with parking right away. Will you be needing an escort?”

“That won’t be necessary,” said Membrane. “Just show us to our space.”

“Of course, my Taller. Of course, Enforcer Dib.”

 

They parked the ship and climbed out. Zim locked up, and they started heading toward the monorail.

Zim had been right: with two Tallers in their group, they were practically untouchable. Dib wondered if he should be rolling his eyes at how lax the security was, but then, he figured that there weren’t many people out there who could make such a perfect disguise. He looked down at his feet as they ascended in a small, glass elevator to the ground floor, then up, up, up to the monorail platform.

The monorail was a big, pink tube-shaped train that flung itself around corners and careened through the sky over prison campuses and research facilities. When it reached the platform, there weren’t many irkens aboard. The sliding door was flanked by two guards with big, two-pronged spears. Dib, Zim, and Membrane stepped off the platform and onto the train. One of the guards, tall but still a few inches shorter than Dib, nodded at him. Dib nodded back, ignoring the sweat that dripped down his spine.

Dib and Membrane held onto the railing that was suspended from the ceiling. Zim held onto Membrane’s coat, looking as dignified as he could.

They reached stop after stop. Irkens got on and off. Eventually, it was just Zim, Dib, Membrane, and the guards left.

“Look,” muttered Zim, pointing to a digital map on the ceiling. “We’re approaching the southern campus. That’s your stop.”

Dib nodded, swallowing against the dryness in his throat.

“Our stop is just a few after yours,” Zim muttered. “Er…”

Dib looked over and saw that one of the guards was eying Zim.

“…my Taller.”

Dib pursed his lips, then gave Zim another curt nod.

“Just play the part,” Membrane muttered, “and nobody gets hurt.”

Dib bit back a retort about playing the part, remembering what Gaz had said earlier. He could keep that to himself, at least until after this mission was over. Even if he was fighting with his sister, he wasn’t going to get himself killed and leave this whole disaster to her to clean up. More importantly, he wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of dying because he’d ignored her advice.

“…stop?” Dib heard, jolting him out of his thoughts. He looked down at the guard, who was staring up at him.

“Uh,” said Dib. “What?”

“What’s your stop?”

“Um,” said Dib again. He looked back at his father.

“Southern campus,” said Membrane.

The guard looked unimpressed. “Which one?”

“It’s the—” began Zim.

“You were not spoken to, drone,” hissed the guard.

Dib grit his teeth.

“Southern campus oh-one-four-eight,” said Dib, thankful that he’d memorized at least part of the map.

The guard’s head snapped up.

“Business?”

“That’s classified.”

The guard pointed to a badge on his breast. “Not for me, it’s not.”

Dib gulped. “I’m on special order from the Tallest—”

“And those orders would be…?”

Dib hesitated.

“My Taller,” said Zim softly, peeking from behind Membrane. “We are on a simple information retrieval mission, it is no—”

“Quiet!” snapped the guard. He pointed his spear down at Zim, and it lit up with a pulse of white electricity. “I didn’t ask you, drone!”

“Don’t call him that!” shouted Dib.

The guard’s eyes went wide for a moment, and Dib knew he’d fucked up. The guard powered down his spear, then looked calmly at Dib.

“I’m going to need to scan your PAK,” he said, and he turned to wave over the other guard, who was standing just a few feet away.

“My—?”

What happened next was a blur. Dib felt himself being pulled from the guard by his trench coat, and then his father was catching him as he stumbled backwards. Simultaneously, a green and pink blur shot between him and the guard, whose back was still turned. In a moment, Zim was on the guard, digging his nails into the guard’s eyes and wrapping his legs around the guard’s neck.

The guard screamed and then sputtered, and Zim leapt off him as his partner came storming toward them. In an instant, the first guard’s spear was being rammed into his own back, and he was screaming again, and then Zim was tossing him aside. The air reeked of burnt skin, and Dib was trying to move, but his father had flipped him so that his face was pressed into the window. Membrane's shoulder was pinning him between his shoulder blades, but he could still see out of the corner of his eye as his father powered up some kind of blue, translucent shield around them.

He could do nothing but watch as the second guard drove his spear right at Zim. But Zim was fast, and he dodged it like a pro. The guard tried again, this time with a swing instead of a jab, and Zim was struck across the face, hard. Zim coughed, and Dib winced at the sound of his skin sizzling. Zim stumbled backward for a second, and then he was standing straight again and swinging his own stolen spear.

The guard was large and strong, and he was actually tall enough to properly wield the spear, but Zim used his small size to his advantage, ducking and dodging and landing hit after hit. Dib squirmed against his father’s shoulder, trying to talk but only able to grunt as Zim and the guard moved from his vision. Outside, the mountains and the smog blocked the view of the sky, and then the monorail went dark and they dove downward into a tunnel. Panels of neon pink light lit up beneath and around them. Dib heard Zim shout, and he pressed his palms as hard as he could into the glass and pushed against Membrane’s hold.

“Let me go!” Dib grunted. “Let me help him!”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Dib,” Membrane snapped back. “You’re staying here. He’ll be fine.”

Zim screamed, and Dib grunted again, trying and failing to match his father’s alien strength.

Then, the two dueling irkens were back in Dib’s view, and Zim looked bad but not horrible. The guard, on the other hand, looked like one more hit would knock him down. The guard knocked the spear of out Zim’s hands and Zim paused, just for a millisecond, before diving between the guard’s legs and swiping his feet out from under him. The guard only stumbled, and righted himself quickly, but it was enough to enable Zim to leap onto his back. Dib watched as Zim tapped a quick pattern into exterior of the guard’s PAK. The PAK lit green for a moment, and then a compartment opened up. Zim stuffed his hand into the PAK just as the guard flung his spear over his shoulder. Zim caught it with his other hand easily. Electricity sent sparks through the air. Zim howled.

Just then, though, the guard started screaming, too, and he wobbled for just a second before falling backward.

“Zim!” Dib shouted, pushing again against Membrane’s hold. “Let — me — go!”

Membrane released his son, and the shield dimmed and then fizzled out. Dib scrambled over to where Zim climbing out from under the unconscious guard.

“Shit,” Dib whispered. “Are you okay?”

Zim looked up at him, his face ashen and his skin ruddy. “All good,” he croaked.

“How did you—?”

“Opened diagnostics on his PAK,” grunted Zim. “Took down its defenses. When he hit me, he was hitting himself, too, but much harder.”

“How… how did you know to do that?” asked Membrane.

Dib glanced over his shoulder, just long enough to shoot a scowl at his father.

“Invader training,” said Zim, moving to stand and then staggering forward a little. Dib caught him, and Zim shot him a grateful look and leaned into Dib’s arms. “We were at war with the Meekrob and they… they… had a way of getting into our heads. Our PAKs, I mean. It was a strategy for if… if they got one of us. If the Meekrob made them turn on us.”

Dib just nodded, his face getting flushed as Zim rested his head just under Dib’s chin.

Zim looked at the two guards, unconscious on the floor. “I think we missed Dib’s stop.”

Dib nodded. His father strode forward. “I’ll get us turned around,” he said. He turned back to where Zim was still leaning heavily on Dib, his face marred with scorch marks. “Well done, Zim.”

Zim just nodded, and Membrane disappeared into the cockpit.

Dib felt his breath catch at the smell of Zim’s singed antennae as they flickered up toward his face. He scowled.

“I was trying to help you,” he muttered. “My dad—”

“It’s alright,” said Zim with a sigh. “You don’t have regenerative abilities, and you have no PAK to heal you. He did the right thing.”

“Why are you siding with him?” Dib hissed. “You could have died!”

“Those morons have half the combat training I have,” Zim sneered, kicking at one of the bodies. “They underestimated me because of my size, and I took advantage of them. I didn’t need your help.”

“You could have gotten less hurt…”

Zim gulped, but he shook his head. “It will all heal by the time I reach the laboratory.”

Zim pushed himself out of Dib’s hold and stood taller. He looked at Dib.

“Fine,” said Dib. “I still wish I could have done something.”

Zim brushed at his tunic, frowning at some of the singe marks as the monorail slowed to a stop, then began moving backwards. “You were a very effective audience,” he said. He looked up at Dib with a cheesy grin. “Like the squad at the football games. With the pom-poms.”

Dib raised a brow. “Cheerleaders?”

“Yes!” said Zim, pointing at Dib. “Like that.”

Dib frowned. “I’m not a cheerleader, Zim. I don’t care if you think I’m… weak, or whatever. I’m in this just as much as you are.”

“I don’t think you’re weak,” said Zim, his face serious. He reached down and picked up one of the spears. “You should take this. For when we get to the campus.”

Dib nodded, unsatisfied but unwilling to push the issue. He just huffed and followed Zim into the cockpit. They watched Membrane as he put them on a course back toward Dib’s stop.

As Dib watched his father work, he felt an uncomfortable knot in his stomach. He thought about Zim, fighting off those guards, all by himself. He could have helped. Just because he was part human, it didn’t mean he was useless. He considered saying as much, but he knew that it was two versus one in this argument, and his father and Zim would just gang up on him and then he’d be breaking his promise to Gaz. He just swallowed, silently resolving to prove to them just how much of an asset he could be.

He looked down at Zim, whose skin was healing and who was standing straighter. He tried to ignore the rush of excitement he felt as he remembered watching Zim take down that guard. At the time, it had been terrifying, and annoying, because Membrane had pinned him to the wall with what felt like little effort.

But, now that he thought about it… his face flushed as he remembered watching Zim’s calculated movements, his displays of strength and agility. Dib bit his lip and crossed his hands behind his back, hoping he could hide the fact that they were balled into fists. As the memory replayed in his head, over and over, he remembered less and less of his father being there, holding him back, and thought more and more about the fluidity of Zim movements, how he could incapacitate someone so much bigger than him, so much stronger—

“We’re here,” said Membrane. “Dib, this is your stop. Get to Prisoner 777 as soon as you can, and notify us with updates every half a minute.”

“Every half a minute?” Dib gaped. “That’s a little excessive.”

Membrane nodded without looking up from the monorail’s control panel. “Every minute, then,” he conceded.

The monorail slowed to a stop, and Dib looked out onto the empty platform.

“You know where you’re going, son?”

“Yes,” said Dib, through gritted teeth. “I can do this, Dad, just—”

“Okay,” said Zim. He put a hand on Dib’s forearm, then started to lead Dib out of the cockpit.

As they walked toward the doors, Zim quietly instructed Dib on how to use the spear.

“Be safe,” murmured Zim.

“I will,” hissed Dib. “Stop worrying about me.”

Zim just shook his head and patted Dib on the arm one more time. Dib walked off the monorail and onto the platform. There was a whoosh. By the time Dib turned around, the monorail, Zim, and his father were gone.

 

iii.

For lack of anything else to do, Zim walked back into the cockpit. Membrane glanced over his shoulder as Zim entered, then got back to work rerouting them to their own stop.

“He shouldn’t be doing this by himself,” Membrane muttered.

“He can handle it,” said Zim softly. “He knows what he’s doing.”

“He’s a terrible liar.”

“That campus is run by expendable smallers. There have been enough riots and attempted breakouts that they stopped sending the more elite guards there,” said Zim. “He will be the tallest one there by a good measure, and they will all defer to him without a second thought. He will be fine.”

“Did you say riots?” asked Membrane.

Zim walked back into the main compartment of the train to inspect the guards. One of them was twitching, his PAK probably still recuperating from the shock it had received. The other was starting to groan and shift.

Zim picked the guards up by their collar, anchored himself to the railing using his PAK legs, and shouted to Membrane to open the sliding door. Membrane did as he was told, and Zim threw the two bodies out the door as they rushed over a ravine.

Membrane shut the door, and Zim watched as the guards plummeted to the rocky depths of the ravine. They’d be fine, he told himself. The real concern was when they’d get their bearings enough to call for help.

Zim walked back into the cockpit. Dib must be on his way. Maybe he’d already reached the facility. Maybe he’d already been stopped by someone. Maybe his disguise was malfunctioning. Maybe he’d already been caught, and he was being tortured, or, worse, he was already dead and being disposed of—

“I received an update from Dib,” said Membrane. “He’s a twenty minute walk from the prison, and has so far not seen any other irkens.”

“Oh,” said Zim. “Okay, that’s good.”

“Yes.”

They sat in silence for some time, Zim thinking of Dib, Membrane thinking of… who knows? Science? Zim didn’t really care. Mostly, he cared about his human, and whether he’d come back, and whether or not they’d see each other and maybe do more human mating things.

It was hard not to think about it. Zim kept telling himself not to think about it, which only made him think about it more, which only made it harder not to think about. Sometimes, it came to him in a burst of memories: Dib’s tense muscles under his hand, the sounds Dib made, the way he looked, squirming and gasping underneath Zim, pushing his hips up to meet Zim’s touch.

Dib’s collarbones, his tan lines, his pink face, his hair, his biceps, his mouth—

“We’re almost there,” said Membrane.

Zim just nodded, feeling just a little out of breath.

They arrived at their stop just a few minutes later. The research facility was as Zim remembered it: dingy and dark and surrounded by armed guards. This time, though, it was also crawling with shackled prisoners, each of whom looked like they hadn’t been fed in months.

Zim ignored the turning in his spooch that he felt at the sight of those prisoners — mostly vortians. He didn’t have time to free the entire prison, nor did he particularly want to. He had another mission at hand, and groups like the Resisty would have a much better time conducting a prison break. And besides, what would Zim do with a bunch of freed prisoners? Really, it wasn’t reasonable for him to also have to do that.

They made it past the guards alright. One of them seemed to recognize Zim, but thought better of making any mention of it. The benefits, Zim thought bitterly, of having a Taller for a companion.

As they walked through the corridor, Membrane just a step or two ahead of Zim, as was irken custom, Zim just grit his teeth. How he longed to be back on Earth, where he could just hang out with GIR and not be looked down upon like an old piece of sidewalk gum.

From behind Membrane, Zim murmured to him to turn right, which he did. They came upon a door, which was flanked by two guards.

“We’ll be going in here,” said Membrane.

The guards just nodded, their fists thumping hard against their chests in salute. Zim chewed on the inside of his cheek and followed.

Inside the room, across from where Zim and Membrane had entered, two security officers were sitting at a large table with their feet up, watching dozens of monitors and snacking on nachos.

The door slammed shut behind Zim. The officers turned around, looked at Zim and Membrane, then looked at each other.

“Uh,” one of them droned, her voice high-pitched and squeaky. “Can we help you?”

“We’re here on a mission for the Tallest,” said Membrane swiftly. “She wants an update on the status of one of the experiments.”

“‘She’?” repeated the other officer, antennae rising in confusion.

“Uh. They,” said Membrane.

The officers looked from Membrane, back to each other, and then back to Membrane. Zim cleared his throat.

“My Tallers,” he said with a salute, “please forgive my associate. He is… very old.”

Membrane frowned, but the officers just shrugged. “Whatever,” said one.

“Just don’t touch anything,” said the other.

“Of course, my Tallers,” said Zim.

They approached the monitors, and Zim found his creation: a small, yellow-green blob with a big, toothy mouth and a thin strap of a collar. It rolled and sloshed around in its enclosure, amorphous and agitated.

“We need to see that one,” said Zim, pointing at the monitor.

“Uh,” said an officer. “You sure?”

“Yes, we’re sure,” snapped Membrane. “It’s for the Tallest.”

“That experiment hasn’t been touched in years,” said the other officer. “It’s extremely aggressive. It killed two Tallest. We can’t— we don’t let anyone touch it.”

“The Tallest have requested it,” said Membrane. “We must return with it. It’s for… the war.”

The officers turned to look at Membrane, and a short but charged moment passed between them. Zim knew what they must be thinking: going against the orders of a Taller and, indirectly, the Tallest, would surely get them killed. They certainly weren't tall enough to have any real standing if their insubordination got back to the Tallest. Yet, releasing a known monster could (probably would) mean death for all of them. The officers looked to each other, then back to Membrane. One of them tapped her fingernails on the table. The other, without looking at his associate, nodded.

“Okay,” said one officer. She tilted her head toward the wall behind her. “The door’s over there. Containment chamber six.”

“Thank you,” said Membrane, and then they were leaving the monitoring room and making their way toward Zim’s experiment.

To Zim’s surprise, his creation recognized him. Or, at least, it appeared to, by launching itself at the walls of its chamber as hard as it could. Zim shivered.

“How do we get it out of here?” asked Membrane.

“I don’t know,” admitted Zim. “Wherever we put it, it needs to be a sealed container. If it gets out and starts to eat, we won’t be able to stop it.”

“Perhaps,” said Membrane softly. “Although…”

Membrane touched his hand to the glass. The experiment slapped against it, creating a five-fingered shape right where Membrane’s hand was. “I wonder if a dilation field would hold it still.”

“Not for long,” said Zim. “I’ve seen people try to contain it. It’s strong, and it’s fast.”

Membrane tapped his finger against the glass. Zim watched him, wondering what he was thinking. The creation stretched and shrunk, pressing itself into the window. Its collar rattled.

“A vacuum of sorts, maybe?” asked Membrane.

“Do you have one of those?” responded Zim.

“No,” admitted Membrane. “I do have something, though.”

Membrane took a step back, then reached into his lab coat. He produced a bottle of translucent pink glass.

“What’s in there?” asked Zim.

“Soda,” answered Membrane, and then he uncorked the bottle and spilled its contents onto the floor.

“If we can get the experiment in here, I can seal it back up, and we can safely bring it to Earth. I can use my PAK to produce a shield, but I’ll leave a hole in it for the bottle. The experiment will try to escape its enclosure by pouring itself into another one. Once it’s in here, we secure the bottle, and we’re good to go.”

“That bottle won’t be strong enough,” said Zim. “The experiment may be small, and starving, but it’s still strong enough to break out of that.”

“This,” said Membrane, holding up the bottle, “is very strong. I can coat the cork with an unbreakable adhesive, and we’ll be perfectly safe.”

“It’s not strong enough,” argued Zim. “It won’t work.”

“It will,” challenged Membrane, taking a step toward Zim.

Zim flinched as Membrane stood and towered over him. He hated himself for it.

“Fine,” he said, looking away.

Membrane smiled. “Good. Get the door for me, Zim.”

Zim frowned, but he did as he was told. He removed his glove and placed his hand on the fingerprint censor. He was only a little surprised when the door began to open. Membrane projected the shield he’d used on the monorail, leaving an opening large enough to fit the neck of the bottle. The experiment shrieked with deafening joy, bouncing around its containment chamber until it ricocheted off the far wall and launched itself into the bottle. Membrane held on with only a little unsteadiness, and then quickly corked the bottle.

From inside the bottle, Zim could see his creation twisting and writhing. He said nothing as Membrane coated the lip of the bottle with glue, just stepped into the cell to grab the creature’s old collar.

“There,” he said. “Doesn’t that look strong enough to you?”

Zim just kept staring at his creation, his antennae twitching at its muffled screams.

Zim shook his head. “Let’s just go,” he said. “We need to find Dib.”

According to the message on his communicator, Dib had made it to the prison and was currently locating prisoner 777.

Membrane stowed the experiment into a compartment inside his lab coat, and then they made their way toward the monorail.

 

iv.

Dib tried not to act too awkward as a group of tiny irkens swarmed around him. He kept his head high, tried to be as belittling as possible, and asked for the whereabouts of prisoner 777.

“My Taller,” one of the more shrimpy irkens whimpered. “What use do you have for him?”

Another irken tugged at the coat of Dib’s jacket. “Will it be execution, my Taller? Will he be given the shock? Launched into space? Drowned?”

“Will he fight the Digestor, my Taller?”

“Will his family be forced to watch, my Taller?”

“Will it be broadcast, my Taller?”

“Uh,” said Dib, pulling his hands away from the grabby smallers and holding his spear tight. “I just gotta see the prisoner.”

“Of course, my Taller.”

“Right this way, my Taller!”

Dib tapped a quick message to Zim and his father on his watch, then followed the hoard of smallers as they led him to the high security dormitories.

His walk from the monorail platform to the southern campus had been all that Dib needed to see of Vort. The planet was dingy, rocky, and gray. There were armed officers everywhere Dib looked, and the air was so thick with fog and rancid, acidic smells that Dib kept unintentionally holding his breath. The sooner they got out of here, the better.

The smallers led him to the entrance to the high security dormitory. The entrance itself was actually just a giant, metal wall at the end of a dark, poorly-lit hallway. Dib watched one of the irkens place his hand on a glowing square on the wall. The wall rose slowly, accompanied by the sound of creaking metal.

“We do not come here often, my Taller,” said an irken. “The dormitory is usually sealed.”

“How do you feed the prisoners?” asked Dib.

The irkens paused, then all began talking at once.

“It is automated, my Taller.”

“We installed this program years ago, my Taller.”

“It is protocol, my Taller.”

“It has been protocol for a long time, my Taller—”

“Right, right,” interjected Dib. “Of course. That was… that was just a trick question.”

The irkens froze for a moment, then burst into a fit of giggles.

“You’re so funny, my Taller!”

“You tricked us, my Taller!”

Dib took a deep breath. He bit his lips.

Finally, the entrance was open, and Dib and the irkens stepped through. They continued down a hallway, then reached a foyer that branched out into a number of different hallways. Dib paused.

“The prisoner is that way, my Taller,” said one of the irkens, pointing down a dark, quiet hallway.

Dib turned around and saw that his group of followers had dwindled to just a few, and now they were all huddled together, looking nervously at Dib.

“Uh… okay,” said Dib. “Thank you for your help.”

“Be safe, my Taller!” said one of the irkens. His peers shushed him, but he took a step forward. “The prisoners are dangerous!”

“They tell lies, my Taller!”

“They still fight, my Taller!”

“Okay,” said Dib. “I’ll be on guard.”

The irkens nodded, then scurried back the way they came. Dib took a deep breath and started down the hallway where prisoner 777 was waiting.

He’d had to pass seventy-six other cells, but, eventually, Dib made it to prisoner 777. He sent a quick message to Zim and his father, and they responded, saying that they were back on the monorail and headed to get the ship. They had the experiment and were coming to pick Dib up, so he had to make this quick.

Dib sent them his location, so they knew which dorm he was in. He took a deep breath, cracked his knuckles, and pressed a finger to the intercom next to the cell.

“Prisoner 777?” he asked.

“What?” a deep voice grunted.

Dib paused, then looked around. He didn’t ask if the place had security cameras, but he was almost certain it did. And maybe ones with sound. So Dib would need to do this carefully.

“I’ll need to come in there. Start any funny business, and I’ll kill you where you stand.”

A pause. “Fine,” said the prisoner.

Dib tapped the code that he’d seen one of the irkens use on the gate into the keypad. His stomach flipped when the keypad blinked red.

“It’s zero-two,” said the prisoner.

Dib froze. “What?”

“You put six-four-one-zero-nine,” said the prisoner, his voice practically dripping with contempt. “It’s six-four-one-zero-two.”

“Oh,” said Dib quietly. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” sneered the prisoner.

Dib entered the code. The door swooshed open.

Prisoner 777 was standing in his cell, his back against the wall and his hands up.

“Prisoner,” said Dib. He took a deep breath, then spoke, quickly and quietly. “My name is Dib. I’m here on a mission from the Resisty to rescue you.”

The vortian, who had purple skin and a haggard appearance, clenched his fists.

“I won’t tell you anything, irken,” he snarled. “I won’t fall for your tricks.”

“I’m serious,” said Dib. “Look…”

He bent over and placed his spear on the floor. When he straightened, the prisoner was glaring at him.

“What game is this, guard?” asked the vortian. “Trying to get me to trust you, so you can get the whereabouts of my rebels? It won’t work.”

“I know where your rebels are,” said Dib softly. “I was on Lard Nar’s ship, just a few days ago.”

The vortian paled.

“I saw Spleenk, and Shloo— uh, shlonk-pook, um—”

“Shloonktapooxis,” snapped the vortian, and then he immediately cursed himself.

“Yes!” said Dib. “I saw him. And Lard Nar. We made a deal. I need the Resisty’s ships, so I have to get you and break you out of prison.”

The vortian’s eyes narrowed. “And what do you need my ships for?” he asked.

“I need them to save my people. My planet is on the verge of destruction, and I need a way to get everyone off it before that happens.”

The vortian glared.

“That’s a very good lie,” he admitted. “One of your more interesting ones. But I know never to make a deal with an irken, and so does Lard Nar. So, I apologize, but I’m afraid I just don’t believe you.”

“Well,” said Dib softly. “I’m not really an irken.”

The vortian’s eyes narrowed. “What?”

“I mean… I’m part… well, look. I’m from a planet called Earth, and this is just a disguise to make me look irken for this mission.”

The vortian’s face straightened. “Really? Prove it.”

“I will,” said Dib.

Dib pressed his finger to the button on his watch that controlled his disguise, and it flickered twice before disappearing. The vortian’s eyes went wide at the sight of Dib, a human, standing in front of him.

Just then, a message came blaring through a speaker in the hallway, announcing the discovery of trespassers on the premises and advising anyone who encounters someone new to report them to the main office in the northern campus immediately.

“Shit,” Dib hissed. “We need to go, like, now.”

The vortian nodded, grabbed Dib’s spear, and sprinted away.

“Wait!” Dib hissed. “You don’t know where you’re going!”

When he got outside the cell, though, he found that the vortian was just outside, driving his spear into the keypad of the cell next to him.

The cell door opened, revealing a floating cone.

“Get out of here,” the prisoner grunted. “And save everyone you can!”

“Yes, sir!” The cone nodded, then flew away.

“We don’t have time for this!” Dib hissed. “We don’t even know if we can get you out!”

The vortian ignored him, just bashed keypad after keypad until prisoners were flooding the hallway. He urged them all away, to save themselves and as many others as they could. Dib groaned, but eventually found himself helping — he knew it was dangerous, and he was just wasting time, but… he couldn’t just leave them all there.

As Dib was shooting a laser blast into the keypad for prisoner 754, the dark hallway began to flash with red, blinking lights. Dib heard the pitter-patter of feet as dozens of irken smallers came running toward them.

“Okay, that’s enough,” Dib whispered. “Come on. You need to help me get us out of here.”

They started running for the gate, Dib’s whole body pulsing with adrenaline. Dib’s watch began to vibrate on his wrist, and he tapped it once to let the call come through.

“Dib!” he heard. "What's going on?"

“Zim!” Dib answered. “We need help!”

“We’ll be right there!”

At the entrance to the hallway stood a handful of smallers, each armed with their own glowing, electric spear. Dib ended the call with Zim, planted himself next to the vortian, and got ready, his heart thumping hard in his chest. When they saw Dib, they gasped.

Fuck. He’d forgotten to reactivate the hologram.

“You’re awfully stupid for taking that disguise off,” said the vortian.

“Yeah,” Dib growled. “No shit.”

He managed to mow down a few smallers with the laser gun on his watch, and the vortian was throwing irkens left and right with Dib’s stolen spear. Dib shot beam after beam of lasers at the swarm, but the group just seemed to grow, and he realized too late that they were backing up. Just as he began to really worry that his back was going to hit a wall or that one of the irkens was going to get through his defenses and stab him, a familiar voice rang out through the crowd.

“HEY!” shouted Zim. “OVER HERE!”

The irkens turned, just in time to watch as Membrane began shooting at them with some kind of arm cannon that was coming out of the sleeve of his lab coat.

Dib froze, unsure of what to do. He watched as the irkens began to scatter, and then Zim was there, climbing across the ceiling on his PAK legs and then landing on his feet right in front of Dib.

“Where’s your disguise?” he asked.

“I, uh—”

“No time!” said Zim, and he wrapped an arm around Dib’s hips, then another around prisoner 777’s waist, and then they were leaping through the air again, like a big spider clamoring over a bunch of screaming ants.

Something made Zim trip, and they stumbled forward and landed, hard, on the floor next to Membrane. They picked themselves up just in time for an army of taller guards to come bursting into the room.

Membrane turned and started shooting at the new guards. Dib followed suit, standing back-to-back with his father and pointing his laser watch at the smallers that still came running for them. Prisoner 777 went running at the smallers with Dib’s spear, and Zim went running at the tallers with nothing, and everything was a blur for what felt like hours but was probably only about ninety seconds.

They managed to take down the smallers and back the tallers toward the gate, but more were coming through. They sprung onto their PAK legs and dive-bombed Membrane. Dib turned just in time to see his father thrown onto his back, a strange clanking, crunching sound accompanying the fall. Dib was distracted by the sound just long enough for another irken to grab his arm and yank him forward, then punch him square in the face.

Dib reeled, and he didn’t hear Zim call his name, but then Zim was there, beating the guard off and stealing his spear. Dib took a breath, then went back to shooting lasers at the oncoming guards.

“Thanks,” he muttered, quietly enough that he didn’t think Zim could hear as he ran back into the fray.

“You’re welcome!” Zim shouted back.

They kept fighting, pushing as close to the gate as they could, but more and more guards were arriving and and Dib was starting to worry if they were going to make it out of this alive. He clenched his jaw as he watched Zim get flung into a wall. Prisoner 777 was holding his own, but he had to be getting tired. To Dib’s right, Membrane was still blasting, but he was also holding his abdomen, a nervous look on his face.

“You okay, Dad?” Dib called.

Membrane turned to look at him, and then his face went ashen.

“Dad?”

Somehow, in the middle of all the fighting, Dib was able to watch as Membrane pulled his hand away from his stomach. A bottle dropped from Membrane’s lab coat with a plunk. Dib watched in surprise as some kind of green goo started to seep from a small crack in the bottle. Membrane stepped backward quickly as Zim, still fighting a guard twice his size, stepped toward the bottle, his foot nearly landing on it. Then, the goo started to form, take shape into a blob about the size of GIR. It opened its mouth and screeched.

“Dib! Get back!” shouted Membrane.

Dib did as he was told, stepping away just as a guard charged into it and was eaten whole.

The other guards roared in shock at the sight, panicked and confused until one of them shouted, “It’s the energy-eater!”

Retreat!”

Dib looked around, and found that the rest of the guards were already evacuating through the gate. He heard his father scream his name as the creature advanced, taking bites out of guards and howling as it grew bigger and bigger. Dib, lost in the stampede of frenzied irkens, could only see Zim, frozen with fear and staring as his creation turned toward him.

He remembered a scream, and then a spear of pain through his side, and then he blacked out.

 

v.

“DIB!” Zim screamed.

He scrambled from where he’d been thrown to where his creation was attacking his human. He whistled. The creature looked up.

“Here!” Zim shouted, pulling the collar from his PAK. “Take it!”

The creature, distracted only for a second, lunged for Zim. Zim dove to the side and grabbed for Dib. He was out cold.

That idiot! Pushing Zim aside like that, throwing himself right in the creature’s line of sight! His blood was pooling on the floor, and his jaw was slack and he was so, so stupid that Zim was going to kill him. And if he died from this wound, Zim would resurrect him just to kill him again.

“Just hold on, Dib,” Zim whispered, his voice shaky, hoisting Dib up in his arms and propping him up. He wrapped an arm around Dib’s shoulders and then reached for Dib’s wrist — the watch was still intact, thank the stars. Zim stretched Dib’s arm out in front of him, careful to avoid the gaping wound on Dib’s side. He whistled again. The creature turned.

With the tap of a button, Dib’s watch was emitting a toxic gas. Zim held his breath and rearranged himself so that he was covering Dib’s nose and mouth. The creature came roiling toward them, its tongue lolling and its teeth stained with Dib’s crimson blood. It ran itself into the puff of gas, then collapsed forward, right at Zim’s feet.

Zim turned to where Membrane was running toward them. “Get it contained!” Zim shouted.

Membrane nodded, then shot a force field at the creature, gathering it up into a ball. With some effort, he managed to scoop Zim’s creation back into the bottle, careful to hold his palm over the crack. From somewhere down the hall, 777 began to shout.

“They’re closing the gate! We need to go!”

“Come on, Dib,” Zim grunted, throwing Dib over his shoulder and springing up on his PAK legs. Membrane followed, dabbing his glue onto the crack in the bottle as he ran. Zim’s blood was rushing in his ears. Dib’s blood was staining his uniform.

Somehow, they made it to the gate before it fell. There were no irkens around — they must have all retreated at the sight of Zim’s creation. 777 and Membrane dashed through, Zim just a few steps behind them. Dib’s weight was throwing him off a little, and he found himself stumbling and then crashing through the gate, just under its falling door. Dib’s unconscious body went tumbling into the hallway, and Membrane reached for him.

At the sound of plastic clinking against metal, Zim turned just in time to see Dib’s glasses, still intact, lying on the other side of the gate. Zim reached his hand through, just in time, he thought, to save them and then get the hell out of here.

He miscalculated, and the gate slammed shut. Zim’s hand was severed at the wrist, still clutching Dib’s glasses on the other side. Zim screamed, his entire body howling with panic as his own blood began to gush.

He remembered little of their escape — just 777 grabbing him by the arm and hauling him up, the searing, throbbing pain that tore up his right arm, and a wild, blurry need to get somewhere safe.

He remembered watching through the windshield as the entire southern campus flooding with escaped prisoners.

He remembered the sounds of Dib’s pained moans, his side raw and ripped apart.

 

Chapter Text

i.

“You can leave now,” said Zim, leaning against the doorframe and crossing his arms. “We’re here.”

Membrane paused from what he was doing to glare at Zim for only a second before resuming his work. “I’m not going anywhere until I’m finished.”

Zim pushed off the doorframe, unable to hide his annoyance. “You’ve got nothing but a busted-up old bottle keeping us from that monster, remember.”

“I’m not leaving, Zim,” said Membrane lightly. “You may pull up a chair and observe, if you like, but I would appreciate it if you kept quiet.”

Zim recrossed his arms and clenched his jaw. “I can fix him.”

“That’s very nice of you to offer,” said Membrane. “But I’m afraid you can’t, seeing as you only have one hand.”

Zim scowled.

His missing hand was somewhere on Vort, possibly still clutching Dib’s lost glasses, along with his right glove. Ugh. His wound had stopped bleeding in a short enough period of time, although it would take a few days before the hand itself grew back fully. His PAK was flushing his system with painkillers right now, so he couldn’t really feel it anymore. Mostly he felt sore, and his spooch was in knots.

Although, that probably had more to do with Dib.

Dib was lying in his bed, stripped of his coat and t-shirt, the flesh of his left side shredded and ugly. It made Zim want to puke, seeing Dib’s pale, sweating face, his twitching fingers, his sunken eyes. Membrane had been operating on Dib since they’d taken off from Vort a few hours ago, cleaning the wound and repairing his ribs and internal organs. Now that they were at the rendezvous point, it was time for Membrane to get into the Spittle Runner and go back to Earth, where he could unleash Zim’s creation and put a stop to all this doomsday nonsense.

He wasn’t getting in the Spittle Runner, though. In fact, he was still hunched over Dib, his lab coat off and his modified PAK like an additional layer of clothing over a blue striped undershirt.

It was disarming, seeing what Membrane had done with his PAK in order to hide it from the humans. Instead of all of his weapons, tools, and devices tucked safely away, he had it all out in the open, tangled together over his chest and across his arms. Zim had never done any kind of PAK engineering work, but he had tinkered with his own enough to recognize Membrane’s energy stores, his various storage compartments, and his different blasters and cannons. Some packed more of a punch than Zim would have expected — it had to be because Membrane’s PAK was an old one, and irkens nowadays were never given such high-impact weapons as part of their PAKs. It was too much weight, too rarely used to be beneficial.

Right now, Membrane was reaching into a storage compartment and taking some kind of thin material, then stretching it along Dib’s wound. It stuck there, like papier-mâché, on Dib’s side. Zim stepped forward, watching with curiosity as the white material changed color to that of Dib’s darker, olive complexion, seemingly attaching itself to the ragged ends of Dib’s skin and creating new, fresh skin to replace what Zim’s monster had eaten.

“What is that stuff?” asked Zim, unable to hide his interest.

“It’s a skin replacement I designed,” answered Membrane. “Fuses with his flesh and duplicates it. Like skin grafting, but I don’t need to take it from somewhere else on his body.”

Zim vaguely knew what skin grafting was — it was something for burn victims, humans whose skin had been destroyed to a point beyond repair. There were some modifications to it, some improvements, but Zim had never seen anything like this before.

“Will he having feeling?” Zim asked. “Nerve endings?”

“Yes,” said Membrane. He paused to slant a look at Zim. “After all his years fighting you, I had plenty of opportunities to perfect this.”

Zim crossed his arms tighter across his chest. He shifted his weight from foot to foot.

“I was only doing what the Empire needed,” he said, even though, now, he knew it was no defense.

Membrane looked back down to where he was treating Dib, and Zim suddenly felt like there was something between himself and them: a lack of understanding, maybe. A veil of some sort, one that he could see through but not cross, between them. He thought back to how scandalized Dib was to find that Zim and Membrane had more in common than he’d thought. He’d been outraged, even, to know that his father was an alien, just like Zim, that they’d shared the same upbringing, culture, Tallest. It made him feel left out, Dib had said.

Zim could understand the feeling. With no words, Membrane seemed to be communicating to Zim that there was nothing to be done about the pain he’d inflicted on Dib, the harm he’d tried to cause on Earth.

“If he forgives you, I do, too,” said Membrane softly. “I don’t like what you did to each other, but I understand why you did it. The Tallest, Irk, they... they make you believe horrible things. They ruin your brain.”

Oh. Zim hugged himself tighter.

“I expect that it will never happen again, of course.”

“It won’t, my— it won’t,” said Zim. He cursed himself, digging his nails into his elbow. Old habits, he mused.

“Come here,” said Membrane.

Zim approached, until he was standing next to where Membrane was sitting, leaning over his son, surely and gently fixing him up. He watched Membrane stick piece after piece of synthetic skin to Dib’s side. Dib had lost a lot of blood, but Membrane had something for that, too. It seemed that Membrane had an answer for all of Dib’s ailments. Dib was still unconscious, but Zim could see now that he’d grown less pale, and that his face looked calmer.

Zim was staring at Dib’s face when his eyes opened. He looked up at the ceiling, then groaned. He turned his head toward his father, his eyes bleary and unfocused.

“Dad?” Dib croaked.

“It’s alright, son,” said Membrane softly. “I’m here. You’re going to be alright.”

“What happened?”

“You—” To Zim’s shock, Membrane’s voice caught. He cleared his throat. “You always liked playing the hero, didn’t you?”

Dib swallowed, then coughed. He groaned again. “Hurts,” he muttered.

“I know, son. Here,” Membrane pulled a syringe and a bottle from one of the exposed compartments of his PAK. He filled the syringe, then injected the liquid into Dib’s side, just above where the wound started.

“Is that better?”

Dib took a shaky breath through his nose, then nodded. “Yeah.”

“Just hold on, son. I’m almost done.”

“’Kay.”

Membrane went back to work, laying strips of synthetic skin down over Dib’s wound and watching, then testing, it to make sure his body wasn’t rejecting it.

Dib stared at the ceiling, his face sweaty. After a few moments, he spoke again, his voice hoarse.

“Did we do it?”

Without looking up, Membrane nodded. “Yes,” he said. “We did it. The prisoner is in the cockpit, making plans with the Resisty leadership. He is more than willing to support your original deal, and he commends your for your bravery.”

“Oh,” said Dib. “Okay. Good. And the… the monster…?”

Zim’s eyes started to sting. He blinked the feeling away.

“Bottled away, for now,” said Membrane. “It will not be a threat to us again.”

“Okay,” Dib repeated.

Membrane paused in his work, then reached over with one hand to brush the damp hair off Dib’s sweaty forehead. Dib hummed and closed his eyes at the touch.

Membrane went back to working on Dib’s side, his eyes flitting between the wound and Dib’s face. Dib blinked again a few times, then sighed.

“My glasses,” he murmured. Zim’s spooch, already twisted up, plummeted. He dug his nails harder into his elbow and grimaced. His eyes started to sting again.

“Not to worry,” whispered Membrane. Another PAK compartment opened up, and Membrane produced a pair of glasses — wire-rimmed and round, like Dib’s old ones. He placed them on the nightstand next to Dib. “I always keep a few spares, just in case. You used to break them so often.”

“Oh, yeah,” slurred Dib. “Sorry ’bout that.”

“Don’t be sorry, son,” murmured Membrane. “You were very brave today, you know. You did an excellent job.”

“Thanks,” Dib croaked.

“I’m very proud of you,” added Membrane.

Dib turned his head again to look at his father, a soft expression on his face. “Thanks, Dad.”

“You know, I was always proud of you. You were so smart, and you cared so much. You reminded me of myself, when I first came to Earth. So excited to help the people, to protect them.”

Dib said nothing, just watching his father.

“I should tell you that more, shouldn’t I?” asked Membrane.

Dib blinked, his eyes still a little bleary. “It’d be nice.”

“I will,” said Membrane, his expression hardening with his resolve. “I will be a better father for you, Dib.”

Dib bit his lip, but he nodded, then went back to looking at the ceiling.

Zim watched as Membrane finished fixing up Dib’s wound. It still felt… odd, just standing here, watching as Dib’s father tended to him. Maybe this is what used to happen, back when they were young and still enemies. When they’d become friends, if Dib got hurt during their outings fighting monsters (or, occasionally just because Dib was clumsy), Zim was the one to patch him up. He’d never really considered that Membrane had once done it for his own son, like a human father might do.

If Zim didn’t know better, he might think that Membrane was like a human father. If he still had that ridiculous old disguise on, Zim might think that this was just a scientist healing his son. He watched as Dib drifted off to sleep, his eyes slowly closing, as Membrane resumed stroking his hair. He was tempted to say something, but he held back, not wanting to stop this strange moment of… what looked like love.

Zim wouldn’t know love if he were looking right at it. But, was he looking at it? Was this love: Membrane, tending to his son, soothing him to sleep? Trying to be better, to do better, for the sake of his child?

A month ago, Zim had been fairly certain that his beliefs about irkens — the ideas he’d developed as just a young smeet — were accurate. But, he couldn’t keep lying to himself. He couldn’t stand here and act like it wasn’t real, like Membrane’s feelings for his son didn’t exist. He remembered the conversation they’d had on that horrible, scary planet, the resolute way that Membrane insisted that Dib and Gaz weren’t just his experiments, they were his children.

What was love, then? Was it having an extra pair of glasses for one’s offspring, just in case? Was it being prepared to heal them if they got hurt? Was it the gentle admission of guilt, the promise to improve, the soothing hand running through sweaty, dirty hair?

Was it all of it?

The uncertainty tore Zim to pieces where he stood. If not that, what would love be? He thought back to Dib, who had never admitted to loving Zim and had in fact asserted that he’d never loved Zim. Was it love when Dib dove in front of Zim’s own creation to protect him from its attack? Was it love when Dib came to find him on that Resisty ship, cradled his face when he’d accidentally dropped him on his head, apologized, sought to right the wrong? Was it love when Dib invited him to prom, danced with him, wanted him?

It was all too hard to tell, too confusing. If only he could go back to the days when he’d been sure that irkens didn’t love, he’d never have to deal with all of this uncertainty. It was easier that way, sometimes.

So, what, then? Could he love someone, too? If so, how? To what extent? In what way? Could he love a child like how Membrane loved his children? Could he feel platonic love? Romantic love? Any kind, to any degree, at all?

He wanted to, he realized. He wanted to feel it, more than anything. He’d never wanted anything more in his life. Was he doomed, then, to a life on the other side of the veil? Would he suffer the rest of his days, desperate to love but biologically, chemically, unable to?

Could he only want to love Dib? And, if that was all he could do, was there really that much of a difference between wanting to feel it and actually feeling it? Enough that he would even be able to know that it was different? Zim took a deep breath. His eyes were stinging.

Near-death experiences always made Zim sentimental.

“…Zim?”

Zim blinked, then shook himself. Membrane was still sat at Dib’s bedside, and he was looking at Zim, a tired expression on his face. Dib was asleep, his eyes moving beneath his eyelids, his forehead twitching.

“Uh, what?”

Membrane just shook his head. “I was asking you if you needed any pain medicine for your hand.”

“Oh.” Zim uncrossed his arms and held his wrist up to his eyes, looking at the healed-over stump that used to be his hand. “No. It doesn’t hurt.”

Membrane kept looking at him, his gaze steady. “It’s a shame you didn’t get his glasses in time.”

Zim dropped his arm, then nodded. “It’s a good thing you had extras, I guess.”

“Well, yes,” said Membrane with an uncomfortable cough. “I meant that it’s a shame you lost your hand.”

Zim shrugged. “It’ll grow back.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I just wanted to get his glasses.”

“…I know.”

Zim looked back at Dib, whose chest was slowly rising and falling as he slept. “His eyes are weird,” he said, without thinking.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I just… I noticed it a while ago. They adjust to light changes weird. Not like normal humans.”

Membrane sighed. “I know. I don’t know why, I just… I had difficulty with the eyes. His and Gaz’s.”

Zim thought back to Gaz, who was particularly sensitive to bright light.

“It must have been hard. Making them.”

“It was,” admitted Membrane. “The hardest part, I think, was how impatient I was.”

Zim said nothing, just watched as Membrane resumed petting his sleeping son’s hair, his expression tender as he watched Dib’s face.

“Once I got the idea, I was just too excited to wait. I only waited two years for Gaz because of how much of a handful Dib was as a baby.”

Zim considered this, not really sure what to think about it. He certainly didn’t know how that felt: wanting anything like a child. GIR was more than enough work, to be perfectly honest.

“I feel so grateful for my exile to Earth,” Membrane muttered. “There’s so much I wouldn’t have, if not for that.”

“That’s weird,” said Zim, automatically.

“Is it?”

Well. “No.”

It wasn’t weird. It was exactly how Zim felt. Membrane just nodded.

Zim shifted his weight again, watching Dib as he slept, peaceful and perfect. Membrane stood, then carefully stepped past Zim.

“I’m going to go clean my tools,” said Membrane. “You ought to go check and make sure that prisoner is still in the cockpit.”

“Okay,” said Zim, his eyes still on Dib.

Membrane disappeared into the bathroom, still stripped of his lab coat; his equipment, stained with Dib’s rusty-smelling blood, was exposed for all to see. Zim watched him go.

He really needed to go and check on 777. For all he knew, he was making some kind of secret plan with Lard Nar, and they were going to betray all of them.

Although, Zim had a strong feeling they wouldn’t. Groups like the Resisty were all annoyingly morally upright.

Zim chose to go off his strong feeling. At the sound of the sink running in the bathroom, he pulled off his boots — awkwardly, with his one remaining hand — and crawled into bed next to Dib.

Dib hummed softly at the intrusion. Zim kept quiet, just laid himself on his side, next to Dib, and watched the human sleep. Even in his sedated state, though, Dib was a light sleeper, and his eyes fluttered open as Zim was still shuffling the covers up around the two of them. Dib blinked a few times, then turned and looked right at Zim.

“Hey,” Dib breathed.

“Hi.”

With some effort, Dib rolled onto his good side so they were facing each other. Zim shifted, keeping his right arm behind him, so that Dib couldn’t see where his hand was missing.

“Are you okay?” Dib asked.

Zim wasn’t sure what it was — the gentle, tired expression on Dib’s face? His chapped lips? The tender way he’d asked, like it was so important that Zim be okay, after Dib had taken such a hard hit for him? His big, round eyes, tired but still bright and prodding?

Whatever it was — one or a few or all — Zim didn’t know. He just knew that Dib looked at him, asked him if he was okay, and then Zim started to cry.

He hadn’t cried in years. Zim never cried. He’d been blown up, electrocuted, exiled, and tormented, and he never cried about it. More recently, he’d had his hand cut off, and he’d barely raised a fuss about that. He didn’t cry when he officially defected. He didn’t cry when Dib left him. At least, no one but GIR had seen him cry when Dib left him, and it had only been a tear or two, barely enough to count. And yet, he was certainly, absolutely, undeniably crying now. He felt it in his shaking breaths and the hot, persistent tears that ran down his face.

“Hey,” said Dib, his voice still soft. “What’s wrong?”

Zim shook his head, unable to put it into words. Dib hummed, then reached over to hold Zim by the back, just under his PAK, and pull him closer. Zim let himself be held, his face going into the crook of Dib’s neck and his hand resting on Dib’s shoulder. Dib gave him a few gentle strokes on the back as Zim quietly sobbed.

“Did you get hurt?” Dib asked, his words still slurring a little.

Zim wanted to scream. “No, you got hurt, you idiot,” he growled.

Dib hummed again. “Mmyeah, but I’m okay now.”

Zim shook his head, rubbing his tears into the soft, tender skin of Dib’s throat. He didn’t even consider being embarrassed. It seemed natural, after those times comforting Dib. Dib squeezed him tighter, and Zim could hear the soft beat of his heart.

“Thought you were dead,” Zim whispered.

“Not dead,” Dib whispered back.

“You should have let it attack me,” Zim muttered. “I would have healed faster. I wouldn’t have been at risk.”

“Saw what it did to the others,” Dib responded. “Didn’t want you getting hurt.”

For some reason, that made Zim cry harder, and he just let it happen, Dib’s soft words and gentle touches soothing him.

“I wouldn’t have made it,” Zim muttered, “if I’d known that it would do that to you.”

To Zim’s surprise, Dib huffed out a laugh. “Don’t say that. It’s going to save Earth, remember.”

“I still wouldn’t have,” Zim murmured, even though he knew it made no sense. Somehow, his priorities were off, but he didn’t care to dwell on it. “If I’d known, I wouldn’t have.”

Dib’s mouth was soft on the top of Zim’s head, and Zim choked a little at the feeling. He gripped Dib’s shoulder tighter, desperate to just grab him and hug him but afraid that the wound on his side was still painful, or too delicate to touch. Instead, he opted to tilt his head a little and press his nose right into the spot where Dib’s neck met his shoulder and inhale, desperate for the scent of Dib. Dib hummed and hugged him tight, and Zim didn’t even care that his other arm, tucked behind his back, was going numb.

They lay there for a few minutes, until Zim realized that Dib had fallen back asleep. Gently, he rolled Dib back onto his back. He sat up, wiping at his face and eyes with the heel of his hand and watching as Dib slept. With one more deep, shaky breath, Zim stood and walked out of the bedroom and into the cockpit.

777 was still there, as Zim expected. He was sitting in the pilot’s seat, fiddling with the sleeve of his pink jumpsuit.

“Will we be leaving soon?” asked 777.

Zim nodded. “Once Membrane leaves with the experiment.”

777 nodded, not looking at Zim. “I suppose I should thank you for rescuing me.”

Zim was about to speak, but 777 went on: “It feels strange, though, given the torture you and your people put me through. How much of my labor you exploited for your own gain, while you were on Earth. How much I gave to you with no payment in return, for no reason other than the fact that my people once had something that your people wanted. And now, you only save me because my freedom was used as a bargaining chip.”

Zim cleared his throat. “Apology not necessary, then. We’ll call it even.”

777 snorted. “Fine.”

Zim took another deep breath, hoping that the vortian wouldn’t see that he had been crying. His spooch was still doing flips, even now that he knew that Dib was safe, and that he’d be fine. He settled on taking meditative breaths, like how Gaz had taught him, and tried to stop his brain from replaying the memory of Dib getting attacked by his own monster. It was difficult, and he found himself revisiting that memory on a loop until Membrane walked into the cockpit.

 

ii.

When Dib woke up, his father was there, again, standing over him. He took a deep breath, testing the new skin he’d been given, as well as his newly-healed ribs.

“You are cleared to bathe whenever you feel well enough to stand,” said Membrane.

“Okay,” Dib croaked. “Thanks.”

“I’ve put some water here, too. You should make sure to drink as much as you can for the next few days.”

Dib nodded. “Thanks, Dad. Thanks for fixing me up.”

Membrane dropped to his knees, so his face was right next to Dib’s. Even out of his human disguise, Dib found that he could recognize the concern on his dad’s face.

“Take care of yourself while I’m gone, Dib.”

“I will,” said Dib. “I’ll drink the water.”

“Be careful around the other aliens. Keep Zim with you if you can.”

Dib cracked a smile. “Zim’s not that good around other aliens either, couldn’t you tell?”

Membrane shook his head, his expression sour. “I don’t want—”

“I’ll be fine, Dad,” said Dib. “I’ve hung out with aliens plenty of times. Been on plenty of space adventures before.”

Membrane stared at him. “You have, haven’t you?”

“Sure,” said Dib. “Might be a little rusty, but, yeah.”

Membrane nodded.

“I’ll be fine, Dad. Really.”

“Okay,” said Membrane. “Just… keep me updated. And don’t eat anything you don’t recognize. And don’t—”

“Dad.”

“Okay,” said Membrane. “I won’t pester you any more. I just… I suppose I’m worried.”

“Yeah?” asked Dib. “Worried, protective Dad is a new thing for you.”

“It shouldn’t be, should it?” asked Membrane, his brow furrowed.

“No,” said Dib. “But, it’s okay, I guess?”

“It’s not okay,” said Membrane. “Dib, I… I hope you know, that I never meant to hurt you. So much of what I did… it was out of selfishness, and I didn’t… I didn’t want to harm you or Gaz. I just… parenting was more difficult than I’d expected, and I thought I knew what I was doing, but I clearly, just… I clearly didn’t, and you and your sister were so smart, and your interests in aliens… I just, I couldn’t— I couldn’t… I wanted to tell you all of it, Dib. I swear. I should have.”

Dib chewed on the inside of his cheek. He ran a hand along his side, feeling the familiar prickle of synthetic nerve endings attaching themselves to his nervous system, coming together to create feeling in the new skin under his touch.

“I believe you,” said Dib.

“I spent so much time working because… I was unintentionally responsible for a lot of bad things that happened on Earth, and I know we don’t have time to talk about it all now, but I just… there was a lot that I hoped to remedy, and I couldn’t put my own personal life ahead of all the lives I’d already ruined. I needed… I felt like there was so much I needed to make up to the humans. I have so much that I never would have dreamt of having, because of Earth. I only wanted to repay that debt, and to right the wrongs I’d done in some of my… discoveries.”

Dib listened, not really following. His brain was still a little foggy, although he remembered Zim being in here a few minutes ago — there was a lot to think about there, and he remembered drifting in and out of sleep as his dad tended to his wound. Still, there were a lot of blanks that needed to be filled in, he thought. There was still so much that he didn’t know.

“Maybe you can tell me all about it, one day,” said Dib. “All the stuff you did before I was born.”

“Of course,” said Membrane. “Anything you want to know.”

A question stuck in Dib’s throat, and he fought the urge to ask it. Eventually, though, he couldn’t help himself.

“Dad?”

“Yes, son?”

Dib looked up at the ceiling. “If so much bad stuff happened on Earth because of you, and you wanted to make it right, then… why did you have us? Why didn’t you just, you know… focus on fixing the world?”

Dib felt a hand clutching his own, and he turned his head to meet his dad’s desperate, sad gaze.

“Because I wanted you,” said Membrane.

Dib couldn’t say anything, so he just nodded.

He felt his father’s hand clutch him tighter, and he bit his lip.

“I really did want you both. I wanted to be a good father to you.”

Dib held his breath.

“Will you let me try to do better for you, Dib?” asked Membrane, and Dib realized for the first time how tired his dad looked. “If you let me, if you don’t shut me out again, I will make it up to you.”

Dib nodded again. “Okay,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “You can try.”

Membrane leaned forward and pressed a quick kiss to the top of Dib’s head, and Dib let out his breath.

And then his father was putting his lab coat back on, and he was taking Zim’s experiment and leaving for Earth, and they’d see him in a little under two weeks, when the world was meant to end, and, somehow, they’d try to stop it.

Dib looked back up at the ceiling, his mind racing with everything his father had just said to him. Somehow, it didn’t feel right to give his dad the cold shoulder this time around. Membrane had always been a pretty bad parent, and Dib and Gaz had had to raise each other for most of their childhood. That wasn’t going to change. But, maybe Dib could at least give his father a chance? There wasn’t any excuse for what he’d done for the past two decades, but Dib wasn’t sure if he was ready to completely push his father out of his life. He was certain that Gaz wouldn’t turn her back on Membrane, and he’d be damned if he ended up isolating himself from her just to get back at his father.

In fact, he still needed to make things right from the last time he did that.

He wasn’t forgiving his dad. Far from it. But, maybe, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if he gave Membrane the opportunity to try to make it up to him. He’d never really given him that chance before, and morbid curiosity sort of wanted to see what he’d do.

Dib felt weary, despite all the rest he must have gotten since they’d left Vort. He found himself drifting off, and he let sleep take him again. He slept restlessly, dreaming of skeletal deer and energy-eating monsters.

 

iii.

They were flying again, this time to the meeting point that Lard Nar had chosen. It was something of a halfway point between Vort and wherever the Resisty’s secret base was, and it would only take them a couple of days to get there. From there, they would get organized, prepare the fleet, and then travel to Earth. According to Zim’s calculations, they should get to Earth just in time to abduct its life forms and, hopefully, save the planet.

They would try to save Earth’s creatures — prisoner 777, whose real name was apparently Lard Gai, was adamant about trying to save as many of the mammals and fish and bugs as they could. Zim appreciated it — what would be the point of going back to Earth if there were no squirrels for GIR to chase? More importantly, how would any of the humans survive, if the planet they returned to was completely devoid of life?

So, they were going to do the best they could. The Resisty was preparing, both for the Earth mission and for a subsequent full-scale takedown of Vort. Zim warned Lard Gai about the dangers of his creature, but the vortian didn’t seem to care much. They’d figure it all out, apparently. Zim just shook his head, unwilling to believe it.

“If you manage to train that thing, I will happily take all the refugees you have and resettle them on Earth,” laughed Zim.

“It’s a deal,” said Lard Gai, his face stony and serious.

Zim scoffed. Vortians were so good at couches, yet so bad at humor.

Zim shifted in his seat, annoyed and uncomfortable. He’d been sitting in the copilot’s seat for the past few hours, and he wasn’t allowed to drive because all he’d grown back on his right hand so far was the beginnings of a thumb, and you couldn’t really pilot a spaceship with one good hand and one little thumb-nub.

Lard Gai didn’t like Earth music, the uncultured fool, so they sat in silence for most of the trip. Zim called Gaz briefly and updated her, and she pretended like she hadn’t been worried. GIR clung to her calf the entire time they spoke, and Zim felt a pang of homesickness at the sight.

Behind Zim, on the other side of the wall, Dib was getting some much-needed rest. Although, what if he was awake? What if he needed some water, or a snack, or just some company?

Zim stood up. “I’m going to—”

“Go check on him?”

Zim looked over at Lard Gai, his face warming.

“Uh. Yes.”

“You might as well just stay in there, instead of going back and forth a hundred times.”

Zim’s face felt like it was on fire. “It has not been a hundred times.”

“It’s been pretty close to a hundred, actually.”

“Well,” Zim huffed. “He was gravely injured yesterday, so excuse me for not feeling comfortable leaving him alone for too long.”

“Completely understandable,” said Lard Gai, a mean smile on his face. “So, you really did go full native on Earth, then?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zim growled.

“I’m talking about your little human that you seem so fond of. Is that what you were crying about before?”

Zim clenched his fist. “I was not crying. He is my friend.”

“Right,” needled Lard Gai. “Just your friend?”

“Correct!” barked Zim. He turned on his heel and marched toward the back of the cockpit. “Just my friend!”

He slammed his hand, too hard, on the wall, and the door swished open to reveal Dib, sitting up and looking surprised.

“Sorry!” Zim hastened into the room and stopped himself at the end of Dib’s bed. “Did I wake you up?”

“What were you guys yelling about?” Dib asked. “Is something wrong?”

Zim clenched his fist again, waiting for the sound of the door whooshing shut before he took a deep breath. “No, nothing is wrong. That insufferable vortian has just gone crazy from being locked up so long, and he’s taking it out on me. Are you feeling alright?”

“Aww,” said Dib, a crooked smile on his face. “You’re making a friend.”

“Shut up,” said Zim, crossing his arms. “I do not befriend vortians.”

Dib rubbed at his eyes, then reached for his glasses, plucking them off the nightstand and pushing them onto his face. He looked at Zim, really looked at him, now, and smiled.

“You look stressed.”

Zim scoffed, then marched forward. “One of us should be, don’t you think?”

Dib shrugged, then leaned forward, pulling his legs underneath him so that he was on his hands and knees. He crawled toward where Zim stood frozen at the end of the bed, then paused and sat back. Like this, with Zim standing and Dib up on his knees on the bed, Zim was just a few inches taller than Dib. Zim swung his right arm behind his back, but Dib, still sharp, noticed.

He reached for Zim’s missing hand, then grabbed his wrist when he couldn’t make contact. He pulled Zim’s arm forward and held his little, growing thumb up to his face.

“What happened to your hand?” Dib asked, looking from the tender green flesh of Zim’s wrist and finger to the nervous expression on Zim’s face.

“It’ll grow back,” said Zim. “How are you feeling?”

“What happened to it?”

Zim huffed. “I was trying to get your glasses,” he admitted, “but I was too slow.”

To Zim’s surprise, Dib actually laughed at that — a small, breathy chuckle.

“What’s so funny?” asked Zim, his tone not as sharp as he wanted.

“Just… us,” said Dib, looking back at Zim’s hand. “We’re ridiculous.”

Zim shrugged. “It’s not the worst thing that’s happened to me, just so you know.”

“You sure know how to make a guy feel special,” said Dib.

Zim said nothing, just watched as Dib pushed his sleeve up to his elbow and inspected the damage. He ran his hand down the underside of Zim’s arm, so gently that it made Zim shiver. When Dib’s fingers reached Zim’s wrist, the ugly stump that was trying to reform itself into a hand, he paused.

“Does it hurt?” he asked.

“Not really,” said Zim.

Dib looked up at him, doubtful.

“It’s a little sore,” Zim conceded.

Dib nodded, then went back to inspecting Zim’s wound.

“What was the vortian bothering you about?” Dib asked, at the same time that Zim asked, “How do you feel?”

“I feel fine,” said Dib. “Still kind of tired. Could use some more water. What were you and the vortian fighting about?”

“Let me get you some—”

“I have some,” said Dib.

Zim sighed. “Nothing,” he said, his antennae twitching at the feeling of Dib running his fingers back up his arm. He paused, watching as Dib gently massaged the muscles there, his eyes half-closed. “He was… just bothering me.”

“What did he say?” asked Dib, his hands moving, now resting on Zim’s hips, his arms moving, now wrapping around Zim’s waist and pulling him closer.

“He—” Zim swallowed, because now they were very close, and Zim could see his reflection in Dib’s dark, dilated pupils. “He said I had gone native. And that we… um, he said that it was… he didn’t believe when I said we were only friends.”

“Oh,” said Dib softly.

Dib tilted his head and leaned in, just a tiny bit. Zim found himself closing the space between them, and then his eyes were closing and they were kissing again.

If any one kiss could move entire mountains, this would be the one to do it. Zim brought a hand to Dib’s cheek, cupping his face and curling his fingers around the back of Dib’s neck. Dib sighed, leaning deeper into the kiss, and for a long while they just stayed there.

It was nothing like the last kiss they’d shared in this room, hurried and anxious, with open mouths, tangling together, pulling apart only to talk and take in gulps of air. This kiss was still, and it was sure, like two magnets finding each other, sealing to one another with no chance of breaking apart again.

It was just as desperate as the last kiss, Zim found. Or, at least, he was feeling just as desperate, his fingers gripping the soft hairs at the back of Dib’s neck and his other arm useless and hanging at his side. Dib hugged him tight, his body pressed hard enough against Zim’s so that Zim could feel Dib’s heart beating against his own chest. Dib’s breath was warm against the side of Zim’s face and his glasses were digging into Zim’s cheek, but he didn’t care. He held Dib’s face in place, not caring about vortians or missing hands or squirrels or even GIR.

Instead, all he could think about was the press of Dib’s chapped lips against his, the way that they were still, frozen in time, sharing a kiss that was filling the air with energy, lifting Zim’s feet off the ground, powering the entire Irken Armada, shaking planets off their orbit. It was electricity in Zim’s veins, eternal life in an instant, making something out of nothing. It lasted forever, and then it was over, and Dib was pulling away, his hand traveling from Zim’s back to his neck, then cupping his cheek, mirroring how Zim was holding his face.

“We’re not only friends,” Dib murmured, his eyes still shut, and Zim could only nod, dumbstruck but certain that Dib was right, and he’d always been right, and Zim had been so, so wrong.

Chapter Text

i.

Dib sat at his desk in his boxers, t-shirt, and trench coat, a ouija board in his lap, a doll sitting in front of him. She had on overalls, cowboy boots, and an irritatingly vacant smile.

“Dammit, Maggie!” Dib groaned. “I’m trying to help you!”

The doll, which Dib had recently received from a fairly credible internet source via eBay, was apparently haunted with the spirit of a farm girl that wanted to be free from her doll-prison and sent to the great big manure pile in the sky. She’d been uncooperative so far, no matter how many methods Dib tried to get her to talk. She just sat there, staring at him. Taunting him.

“Okay,” he breathed, running a hand through his hair, “let’s try this again. How… did… you… die?”

Dib bit his lip and put his hands on the planchette, ready for action.

Caaaar,” Dib heard, the voice pitched high and fairly young-sounding. And a little familiar. Dib jumped.

“What’d you say?!” asked Dib, grabbing the doll by her little shoulders and shaking her, so her braids flopped around and the straw hat on her head fell off. “Did you say ‘car’?”

Cooow,” groaned the doll, her voice rising in pitch.

“Oh,” said Dib, stilling. “Cow? Okay, that makes sense…”

Moooooo,” groaned the doll.

“Um… okay,” said Dib. “Right. Cows say moo. Um, when did you die?”

Howdy,” the doll added.

“Uh,” said Dib. “Howdy? Okay, so we’re all acquainted here—”

HOWDY!”

“Right, no, I heard you, I just—”

HOOOW-DEEEEE!!”

“I heard you!” Dib shouted. “I heard you, you said howdy, now what— oh, hey Gaz.”

Dib sent a quick smile at his sister, who’d just caught his eye. Gaz shot him a little wave from where she was leaning against the doorframe.

“Hey, Dib,” said Gaz, striding into Dib’s room. “How’s it going?”

“Just, I mean, just trying to help this ghost move on to the afterlife, but she keeps just saying howdy, and I just—” The shoe dropped. “— Oh. It was you, wasn’t it?”

Gaz didn’t need to say anything. She just put a hand on the back of Dib’s chair and said, with mock-kindness. “That’s not a ghost, Dib. It’s a child’s doll you got tricked into spending too much money on.”

Dib sighed at that, then hunched over. He put the doll back on his desk, laying her down so her eyes shut.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready for your date?” asked Gaz.

“It’s not a date,” said Dib. “And… I don’t know if I’m going.”

“Why not?”

“Because, what if it’s a date!”

Dib could feel Gaz’s frown boring into the back of his head. “Isn’t that what you want?”

“Yes… but, no… I mean… It’s different! What if it goes bad? I don’t know how to go on dates.”

“It’s like a normal hang out,” said Gaz, who, as far as Dib knew, had zero experience in the department. “Except you kiss at the end.”

“I don’t even know how to kiss,” Dib mumbled, but Gaz ignored him.

It was true. Tonight was prom, and most of his classmates were gonna go all the way, and Dib hadn’t even kissed anyone yet.

“Come on,” said Gaz. “You can’t just not go.”

Dib shifted forward, elbows on the desk, face in his hands. “Why not,” he mumbled.

“Because you want to,” said Gaz.

“What if—”

“Where’s your tux?” asked Gaz, pulling away from her imploding brother and heading for the closet. Dib peered over to watch as she poked around until she found it, still zipped up in its garment bag. She tugged the zipper down, revealing his navy blue jacket and pants. “What shirt?”

“I don’t wanna wear that,” said Dib.

“Why not?”

“It make me look like Jack Skellington.”

Gaz peered over her shoulder at him. “You’re five ten and a hundred pounds. Everything you wear makes you look like Jack Skellington.”

Dib muttered, mostly to himself, that he was a hundred and twenty-eight pounds, and she shot back with a swift, “Yeah, but most of that weight comes from your head.”

“Are you helping me?” asked Dib, spinning in his desk chair to fully look at his sister.

“I’m trying to,” said Gaz breezily. “Put the pants on, at least.”

She tossed the tux at Dib. He watched it land on the floor.

“I can’t do this.”

“Yes, you can.”

“No, I can’t.”

“Stop bitching and just put the fucking pants on.”

It took a while, but, somehow, Gaz was able to get Dib dressed in his tuxedo. He stood in front of the mirror while she grumbled that the color of the jacket made his eyes look nice, or something. He scratched at the back of his neck and balled his other hand into a fist.

“What do I do about this?” he asked, pointing to a pimple on his chin, just below the corner of his mouth.

“Hang on,” said Gaz.

She left, then returned with some concealer and powder. As she covered up her brother’s zit, she chided him about how rubbing at his face would make him break out more, and Dib countered that he didn’t rub at his face, and Gaz responded that she watched him do it all the time, and, well, if you always see me do it, Gaz, why didn’t you ever say anything, and then, oh, I didn’t realize it was my job—

“Gaz,” Dib interrupted. “Am I being totally crazy here?”

Gaz winced a little at the word — she knew how much weight it held for Dib. “No,” she said, grabbing for his bowtie and winding it around Dib’s neck. “I don’t think you’re being crazy.”

“I think this might be the stupidest thing I’ll ever do.”

Gaz shrugged, her tongue sticking out as she tried to get the knot right. “Maybe.”

“Zim’s an alien.”

“I know.”

“He tried to take over Earth.”

“I know.”

“We used to be enemies.”

“You aren’t any more, though, right?”

No, they weren’t. They’d talked about it at length over milkshakes, just before senior year started. Dib had basically forced himself and Zim to go through their entire laundry list of bad shit they’d done to each other. They’d apologized, promised not to do it again, and then gone back to Zim’s house to play video games together. Dib had told himself it was just because they needed it in order to be real friends, but, even then, he knew that he was in the early stages of developing the biggest, most embarrassing crush in the entire world, possibly the universe.

“Well… no,” said Dib. “We haven’t been in… a long time. We sat down and apologized to each other for… all of it. We’re over it, I just… I don’t know. It just… doesn’t it still feel stupid?”

Gaz furrowed her brow, not looking away as she undid and began re-tying Dib’s bowtie. “These things are so hard,” she muttered, jerking the tie a little too hard and making Dib’s neck hurt. “I don’t know, does it?”

“I feel like…” said Dib. “I mean, we… you know, he’s like, from outer space, you know? And for, I guess, a long time we just… we were enemies, and we hated each other, and then we kind of stopped fighting, but we… I just… I don’t get it.”

“You can change your mind about people,” said Gaz. “You and Zim are different now. Are you gonna hold back because you used to hate each other?”

“I don’t get why I feel like this,” said Dib, his stomach queasy as he imagined all the ways tonight could go wrong. “I don’t… I don’t like feeling like this.”

“That’s not an excuse,” said Gaz, her voice firm. She finished the knot of her brother’s bowtie and looked him square in the eye. “You like him. Don’t overthink your way out of even trying.”

“We’re not enemies any more,” said Dib, looking back at Gaz.

“Nope.”

“We’re friends.”

“Yes.”

“Maybe… more than friends?”

“Maybe,” allowed Gaz. She patted her brother on the shoulder. “Go find out.”

Maybe things would work out. Maybe they’d get together, and then he could finally get the guts to tell Zim that he was going away to college — he hadn’t breached the topic yet, mainly because, well. He was kind of hoping that Zim would come with him. And he was more than kind of freaking out at the idea of inviting his best friend and potentially more to move cross-country for him.

 

ii.

They were out of peanut butter. GIR was taking it really hard.

“I neeeeeed moooore!” the robot screeched, bouncing around the hallway, half his body covered in a substance that would kill Zim if he ever ate it.

“Go to the store and get more, then,” said Zim.

“They won’t LET ME!”

Right. The nearest convenience store had stopped letting GIR shop there. Zim didn’t know what his minion had done to get himself banned from an establishment of such low caliber. He daren’t ask.

“I don’t have time to get you peanut butter tonight, GIR,” said Zim as he stalked through the underbelly of his base, GIR at his heels. “Besides, you need to wash off. We’re going out tonight.”

GIR froze at that, then started jogging over to where Zim was making his way to the storage closet that housed his disguises.

“Where we goin’?”

Zim opened the door, letting GIR step through before following.

“We’re going to prom, remember?”

He stepped over various shoes, hats, and coats before getting to the rack where he’d hung his suit. He’d ironed it last night, but it looked like there might be some more wrinkles, so he should steam it, real quick, just in case. He pulled it off the rack and waded through his disguises, GIR clinging to his calf.

“Oh yeeeaah,” said GIR. “We takin’ a limo?”

Zim shot him a look. “No, GIR. We’re taking the voot.”

“I wanna take a limo!”

“Well, if you want to rent a limo and be tacky, be my guest. I will be taking the voot with Dib.”

At that, Zim paused. Maybe he should have gotten a car of some sort. He and Dib barely fit into the voot when they were young, and with Dib an entire half-inch taller than the average American male, plus himself and GIR, who liked having lots of room to spread out…

Zim looked down at GIR. “Should we get a limo?”

GIR’s eyes went reverent. “Yes,” he whispered.

“Okay. Computer, add it to the to-do list.” Zim looked back down at GIR. “We have much work to do,” he added gravely.

GIR jumped to his feet and gave him a red-eyed salute, then started sucking peanut butter off his own leg.

They spent the night ironing and re-ironing Zim’s burgundy suit, watching internet tutorials on how to tie the perfect human bowtie, and trying to find a limo service that had any available cars. None of them did, the morons, and Zim resigned himself to the voot, feeling much less confident about it than he had previously.

He stood in the kitchen, running a lint roller over his pant legs and waiting for the clock to strike six-fifty, so that he could take off precisely at six-fifty-two, and then he would be at Dib’s house, fashionably late at exactly a minute after seven. He stared at himself in an old full-length mirror that he’d had the Computer deliver up from his disguise closet, checking and re-checking for any signs of lint. He straightened his wig, then his bowtie, then grabbed the lint roller and started all over again.

GIR was in his doggie suit, which Zim had spent the better part of yesterday cleaning. He smelled mostly like roses and a little like dirt, which Zim was counting as a victory.

“Tell me the plan, GIR,” said Zim.

“Uh,” said GIR, “we… go to skool.”

“Yes,” said Zim. “And then?”

“I wait.”

“And what are you waiting for?”

“The emergency signal.”

“And what’s that sound like?”

GIR opened his mouth and then played a recording of Zim saying, “GIR! There is an emergency! This is the emergency signal!”

“Very good, GIR.”

“Can I dance witchu?”

“No, GIR.”

“Aww, why not? I wanna dance!”

“We dance plenty at home. You will not get in the way while I am at prom with the Dib.”

He fixed his collar, then sighed. Human formalwear was painfully uninspired. On Irk, he would be decorated in the finest, most glamorous Irken jewelry, and he’d have on his formal uniform, with the extra-pointy sleeves and the long, flowing train. It would be dazzling, and nothing like this — stuffy, restricting jackets with too-big shoulder pads and ties that strangled you.

Zim used to dream of the formal uniform that he’d wear the day he returned to Irk after his successful Earth mission. Of course, he now knew that would never happen. He’d known for a few years, actually. The sting of his Tallest’s lies was still there, but he’d buried it, somewhat. It was easier, most of the time, to pretend that he’d never found out. Like, one day, he’d find himself motivated again to take over Earth, and then all of his dreams would come true. It was just a matter of whenever Zim decided to initiate it.

Dib asked about his mission sometimes, but Zim always brushed him off. Dib, for his part, was a remarkable distraction from all the anxiety Zim felt about his home world, even if he probably didn’t mean to be. Working on science fair projects, camping out in the woods to observe the local gnomes and their mating rituals, testing DNA samples of suspected werewolves, playing video games… it made Zim’s day much easier. Having Dib around, as a matter of fact, made everything much easier.

So, Zim had been surprised when Dib had announced that he’d be going to prom this year, but there was never really any doubt that if one went, the other would as well. They did almost everything together, now. Dib had dragged Zim into more terrifying, nightmarish adventures that a simple human prom could ever be, so who was Zim to draw the line at flower bracelets and awkward slow dances?

Zim was, of course, no fool. He knew what prom was all about. He’d seen movies. Plus, their entire class had gotten a talk about human mating last year, right before junior prom, so Zim was able to surmise that this whole event was really just the preamble to a night of teen sex fun. Torque Smackey wouldn’t stop talking about all the stuff he was going to do with Jessica, literally every time they were getting changed for gym class since she’d accepted his proposal.

The feeling that Zim got when he thought about it all was… unease. He knew it was normal for humans, but it wasn’t normal for irkens. Irkens did nothing of the sort. Well, that wasn’t necessarily true. Zim had had his own brushes with intimacy at invader training. He hadn’t felt particularly ready for it, but the stress of training paired with a budding desire to mate had landed him in a couple of his peers’ bunks, only two or three times.

Still, though. It was nothing like how the humans did it. It was never talked about, never mentioned outside of the activity itself. There was an unspoken understanding between the irkens and the Control Brains that the Brains, while unable to breed out those pesky Irken hormones, strongly preferred when irkens spent their energy on more productive activities. On Irk, that generally meant quick, quiet touches in utility closets or in the dead of night, when the rest of the platoon was recharging. That was what Zim had done, just a couple of times: rocking his still-clothed body against another’s, pumping his and whoever’s erection and clenching his jaw to keep from making a sound, just for long enough that they both finished, and then they would part, not a word said before, during, or after.

Zim hadn’t even heard of kissing before he got to Earth. He hadn’t heard of a lot of the things that Torque Smackey liked to talk about. He was still reeling, even now, from the revelation of all the places humans put their mouths, how much they equated the act with the strange, unidentifiable feelings that came with it.

As much as he tried to hide it, Zim had a feeling that Dib wanted to do those things. Dib pretended like he was so aloof — an outsider, on the edges of society and its norms, and he liked it that way — but even Zim could tell how badly Dib wanted to be a part of a culture that had shunned him for most of his life. Since finding out that he was a clone, Dib sometimes commented that he “probably just wasn’t built that way,” or that Membrane “just didn’t bother with that stuff.” That stuff, of course, was the desire for human romance, for intimacy like how the humans do it (with prolonged touches, and emotional connection, and… talking).

Dib wouldn’t be going tonight if he didn’t want that great big human prom experience. And he wouldn’t have invited Zim if he didn’t want Zim to be a part of it, too.

They hadn’t gone to junior prom, and they’d made fun of all their classmates that had gone. Zim had to imagine that if human infatuation had a flavor, it would be sickly-sweet, like GIR’s chocolate-bubblegum milkshakes. It had all seemed like too much for Zim, too unlike what he was used to, as an irken. A year ago, Zim would rather die than be the object of any human affection.

Now, though… well, maybe he wasn’t so opposed to it. Maybe he found human infatuation… oddly charming. Now, he felt less like he was going to vomit when he watched Letty kiss Zita on the cheek before the morning bell, or when the characters on GIR’s favorite shows declared their undying love for one another. He didn’t necessarily feel the urge to partake, but maybe that was because he just didn’t understand it very well yet. Maybe he and GIR needed to watch Titanic a few more times, and then it would really click. Either way, he didn’t find earthen courtship techniques quite as vile as he once had. If anything, he could appreciate the humans, in all their sloppiness, their earnestness. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if he tried it, just once, just for tonight?

Of course, it likely wouldn’t work out. He could be okay with human emotions, but that didn’t mean he had the capacity to actually feel them. The Brains had begrudgingly allowed his kind to succumb to their more primal urges, but they had been very clear that these urges were only physical. Irkens did not feel romantic feelings. They were bred to be loyal to the Empire, and that was all they could ever be or want to be. Their emotions toward one another never exceeded a sense of camaraderie, of loyalty, a shared understanding that this was all they were, and that this was all they could be.

But, maybe he could play along, just for tonight? Maybe he could try blending in with the humans, smelling their pheromones and seeing if he could experience some kind of secondhand emotion. Like what Tina sang about. Maybe he and Dib could have a fine night, and he could watch Dib and try to imitate.

It was once unfathomable that he and Dib, enemies until the end, could become friends. But, who knew Dib better that Zim? Who loved science and causing trouble and picking fights as much as Dib and Zim? They made good enemies and stronger friends. They’d sat down at the beginning of senior year, at Dib’s request, and talked through everything that they’d ever said and done to each other as enemies, and they’d apologized. So, maybe this made sense. Maybe all of this — everything that Dib wanted, that Zim couldn’t provide — maybe it would make enough sense, and it could all just work itself out.

Zim hated humans, but they had one admirable trait. They changed, all the time, and they handled it so beautifully. Their own lives, amorphous and uncharted from start to finish, were so plainly under and out of their control all at once, and they didn’t care. They liked it like that.

Irkens would never — could never adapt the way humans could. Zim could never be anything more than what he’d always been, who he was right now. That was just his nature. So he’d been told.

He didn’t like disagreeing with himself, but a nagging part of him wanted to. He pushed it aside.

Zim took a deep breath, fidgeting in his suit. He watched himself squirm in the mirror, his hands clenching at his pant legs. He pulled his contact lenses from his PAK and popped them in his eyes. He blinked at himself, his pulse unsteady and wired under his skin.

“I look good, GIR,” he said.

“Yeah, ya do!” cheered GIR.

“I’m going to go to prom now, and it’s going to go very well.”

“Yeah, it is!”

Zim took a deep breath. One more round with the lint roller?

“Master,” said the Computer. “It is seven o’ clock.”

Nooo!” Zim screamed. “GIR, we gotta go!”

 

iii.

Dib spent the rest of their journey to the Resisty base in bed, sleeping and thinking about Gaz. He got up and took a shower after a day, Zim nervous and huddled against the bathroom door, listening for the sound of him dropping to the floor. He’d been fine, though, albeit exhausted afterwards, and he’d let Zim come into the bathroom and half-carry, half-drag him back to his bed once he’d gotten into a pair of sweatpants. He’d fallen asleep as Zim placed a speedy kiss on his temple, mumbled “sorry,” and then sprinted from the room.

He drifted in and out of sleep, anxious and heavy in his bed.

Then, before he knew it, they were there.

The Resisty base was huge — Dib imagined it would be, given how many ships they had, but he realized that he had underestimated it. The base, a space station almost double the size of Earth, was a large, metal orb, dotted with windows and flashing blue and white lights.

Dib sat in the co-pilot’s seat as Lard Gai drove them toward their destination. The vortian had spoken to Dib on a few occasions during their trip, when Dib was well enough. They’d talked about the Resisty, the Irken Empire, everything. Dib tried not to be too overt with how impressed he was while Zim stood next to him, pouting.

Behind him, Zim had a protective hand on the back of Dib’s seat. Dib only found it marginally annoying, and mostly endearing. Having Zim dote on him was also pretty helpful, since Dib was still sore most of the time and in excruciating pain some of the time, and having Zim there to hold him steady, to catch him when he fell was— well. It was something. Just leave it at that.

Since they’d established that this — whatever it was — was more than just friendship, nothing had gone wrong, per se. Dib was holding out, curious to see where this strange state of limbo would lead them, and still, somehow, terrified that it could all blow up in his face. But, he hadn’t been able to help himself. When Zim had crawled into bed with him, cried over him, something just clicked in his brain. Call it a hunch, but Dib woke up later that day, certain that Zim could — and did — have feelings for him. Romantic ones. And, if Zim wasn’t going to do anything about it, Dib had to at least try. Now, all he could do was see what Zim did next.

They pulled up to an empty dock and Zim pulled him to his feet. Dib draped an arm around Zim’s shoulders, gripping him in anticipation of being zapped into the transporter room. He only stumbled a little when they landed, and Zim caught him immediately, one hand wrapped around his good side, the other (hardly a hand, really, just a thumb and a pinkie finger), holding his wrist.

“Okay?” Zim whispered.

Dib nodded, unable to stop himself from grunting as a sharp burst of pain shot up his side.

Moments after they landed in the transporter room, a familiar vortian burst into the room.

“Nar!” shouted Lard Gai, jumping off the transporter pad and leaping into Lard Nar’s arms.

The vortians embraced, and Dib felt a pang of regret at seeing the former prisoner reunited with his brother. He thought about Gaz, at home, brainwashing all of humanity and probably still mad at him.

The vortians continued to hug and spin and laugh, bumping foreheads and clasping hands. Dib felt his knees start to give out. Zim, a rock by his side, held him up. Zim cleared his throat.

The vortians turned at the sound. Dib had to imagine that he and Zim were a pretty sorry sight: Dib, barely able to hold himself up and wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, the only outfit he could wear as his side still healed, and Zim, dressed in his burned and tattered uniform, missing a glove and most of a hand. Dib could only watch as Zim spat orders at them to get him something to lean on.

“Yes, of course,” said Lard Nar. “Of course, of course, of course.”

His hand still clutching his brother’s elbow, Lard Nar pulled a communicator out of his pocket and ordered someone to bring in a mobility aid. Dib just nodded, clutching onto Zim and breathing heavily, his face burning as another wave of pain flooded his body.

“Soon, if you don’t mind,” said Zim through gritted teeth.

“Of course,” said Lard Nar. “Anything, anything you need, and we will assist you!”

Dib cracked a smile. “I gotta say,” he wheezed. “This is a much warmer welcome than we got last time.”

“I didn’t think you’d do it!” said Lard Nar, bounding up to Dib, reaching for him. “I didn’t think you’d be able to do it!”

Zim pulled Dib back, baring his teeth and trying to get himself between him and Lard Nar.

“It’s okay,” murmured Dib into the long line of Zim’s antennae. He looked to Lard Nar. “For a second, I didn’t think we’d do it, either.”

“My brother tells me you fight well, for a non-combative species,” said Lard Nar.

“Uh? Thanks,” said Dib. “I had a lot of practice back home.”

“He said you helped him free a number of our colleagues, and many others.”

Dib shot a look at Lard Gai, who stood off the transporter pad, his hands on his hips.

“The halfling would be useful on our team,” Lard Gai commented. “He believes in our cause. He could help.”

“He’s not doing anything with you!” Zim hissed. “He’s coming home with me!”

Dib felt his heart pick up. Further evidence to support his theory, which he filed away to think about later. He wanted to celebrate, but then his knees started to give out. Next to him, Zim huffed.

“Of course,” said Lard Nar, putting his hands in the air. “I only meant to express my gratitude.”

“You’re welcome,” said Dib softly, grunting painfully as he tried to readjust his position on Zim’s shoulder. Zim huffed next to him and pulled him closer, barely affected despite the fact that he was practically holding all of Dib’s weight.

A guard walked in then, carrying with him some kind of alien cane — it was too short, more like just a handle, but maybe it would expand? Dib grimaced as Lard Nar handed it to him, his side prickling and stinging. He watched as Lard Nar tapped it twice, and then it was like a solid rock under his hand. Dib leaned some weight onto it and sighed as the pressure lifted off his weak, weary legs.

“I feel like an old man,” Dib noted, his face still burning.

Zim waved the comment off, one hand on Dib’s hip as they stepped slowly off the transporter pad. Dib gripped the handle of his cane and followed the vortians as they led him into the hallway, Zim at his side.

They made their way through the halls of the space station, passing every species of alien that Dib had ever seen, plus some that he had never seen before. Zim walked with a protective hand on Dib’s back the entire time, scowling at any life form that paused to stare at Dib.

“You’d think they’d never seen a half-human, half-irken before,” Dib joked.

Zim just dug his claws into the fabric of Dib’s sweatshirt and growled.

As they walked, Dib listened in as Lard Nar updated Lard Gai on the status of their missions. Dib noted with interest that, according to Lard Nar, their efforts to overthrow the Irken Empire were… not going terribly. They’d had more losses than victories, but Lard Gai elbowed his brother, encouraging him that they were still making progress.

“We would be finished with this war if we’d had you,” said Lard Nar sadly. “So many lives… we could have done so much more.”

“I’m here now,” said Lard Gai. “With this experiment—” he peered over his shoulder to look at Zim “—I’ll finish what I started.”

Zim narrowed his eyes. “And when will we be departing for Earth?”

“Soon,” said Lard Nar. “The ships are ready to go. We only need to wait for more crew to arrive before we can depart.”

“How long?” asked Dib. “We only have four days before PEG explodes.”

“Not long,” said Lard Nar. “Only a few hours. You can have a meal, or get some rest, and we’ll be ready to leave before you know it.”

“Oh,” said Dib. Rest sounded good. “Okay. As long as we get there in time—”

“We will,” said Lard Nar, turning around to put a hand on Dib’s shoulder. “We owe you so much, Dib. We will help you.”

Dib bit his lip and nodded. Now that he was standing still, he realized that he was out of breath. He swayed a little, wincing. Zim was on him in an instant, holding him around the waist.

“Dib needs a room,” said Zim. “He needs to lie down, right now, immediately.”

Dib wanted to protest, but he could barely stand. He let himself be ushered into an elevator, and then, before he knew it, Zim was lying him down on a bed and handing him a cup of water.

“Thanks,” Dib breathed, downing the cup in one gulp.

Zim nodded, straightening. “Do you need anything else?”

“I’m alright,” Dib said with a weak smile. “Thanks.”

Zim nodded again. “Alright,” he said. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. I just… I need to sleep, but… can you wake me up? If anything happens?”

“Of course,” said Zim.“Do you… I’ll stay here, while you sleep?”

“If you want,” said Dib, wincing as he rolled onto his side.

“Do you want me to?”

“Yeah.”

Zim nodded. “Okay.”

“You can lie in bed, if you want.”

Zim watched him for a few moments, then nodded. “Okay,” he repeated.

Dib closed his eyes and took a breath as Zim pulled off his boots. He felt the bed dip under Zim’s weight. Zim put a tentative hand on Dib’s hip, and Dib remembered that he was still wearing his sweatshirt and sweatpants, making him warm in the heated room. The thought of taking them off made his heartbeat pick up. He kicked out gently, knocking his socked foot against Zim’s bare one.

“Yes?” asked Zim.

“We forgot to call Gaz. After the mission.”

Zim hummed. “I already called her. I have been sending her updates since we left Vort.”

“Oh.”

A pause. Dib took a breath and wondered what his sister was doing.

“Do you think Gaz hates me?”

He felt Zim’s breath on the back of his neck. Zim’s hand migrated from Dib’s hip to his hair, and he combed through the tangled mess with gentle strokes. Dib closed his eyes.

“No,” said Zim.

“I’ve been thinking.”

“Have you?” asked Zim, a touch of playfulness in his voice.

Dib smiled a little, too tired to open his eyes. “I just… I always thought that I did everything for her. Like, I made sure we had food in the house, and I walked her to skool, and all that stuff. But, she did stuff, too. I guess… I hadn’t really thought about how much she did for me.”

Zim hummed, his fingers scraping lightly, pleasantly, against Dib’s scalp.

“Like… she listened, a lot. I don’t think I realized how much she cared about me, just, like… getting through the day. I don’t think I… I think I took her for granted, a little.”

“You do?”

“I just… she tried to get me and my dad to get along. She… she gave him the benefit of the doubt, too much, but she… I think she just wanted to keep our family together. I put her in the middle of it too much and she just…” Dib paused to breathe.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized just how much Gaz carried their entire family on her shoulders. And, not just that, but Gaz had been the one to support Dib through half of his crises, including all of his issues around being uncomfortably, anxiously in love with Zim for the better part of his senior year of hi skool. Why hadn’t he even thought about that? Why had he never thanked her?

Zim hummed. With herculean effort, Dib opened his eyes and rolled onto his back.

Zim was looking at him, an expression of soft concentration on his face. He studied Dib back, his antennae flicking up a little as their eyes met.

“You should talk with her.”

“She hates me.”

Zim huffed. “She doesn’t. Call her. You can use my tablet.”

Dib nodded, closing his eyes again at the feeling of Zim’s hand brushing through his hair.

“You should take a shower,” said Zim softly. “You stink.”

“Shut up, space boy,” murmured Dib, the last thing he said before drifting off to sleep.

In his sleep, he was half-aware of Zim’s fingers in still his hair, stroking lightly as he napped.

 

iv.

Gaz was sitting on the couch, playing a video game when Dib walked through the door.

“You’re back late,” she commented, not looking up.

“Yeah, well,” said Dib. “I walked home.”

Gaz turned around to see Dib, a little sweaty and looking tired, kicking off his shoes.

“Why did you walk?”

Dib looked at her, a pitiful expression on his face. Gaz felt her stomach clench.

“It went bad?”

“Yeah,” said Dib. “It went bad.”

“You wanna talk about it?”

“Not now,” said Dib. “Not ever.”

Gaz bit her lip. She watched Dib walk past her and start to trudge up the stairs, muttering to himself that he couldn’t wait to start college.

Chapter Text

i.

The password, if Zim remembered correctly, was “TACOS.” Zim should have known.

They’d boarded the Resisty’s flagship two days ago and were now only a few hours away from the Earth. PEG was expected to detonate not long after they were set to arrive. It was all happening.

Dib was doing alright. He insisted that he was feeling better, although Zim noticed he still walked around with the ridiculous hover-cane. It infuriated and embarrassed Zim, still, to think that Dib had come so close to dying over saving Zim’s stupid life, protecting him from his own stupid monster. Dib seemed fine, otherwise. Not that Zim was keeping that close of an eye on him, but — well. There was no point in lying about it anymore, eh?

Zim had promised himself that he was going to try to be most honest with his feelings. So, maybe he did care about Dib’s safety, and maybe that was resulting in frequent check-ins. It wasn’t anything worth getting worked up about. It was just… these past few days had been a lot. And ever since Dib got hurt and Zim blubbered about it like some kind of simple-minded human, things felt… unsteady. Something was happening, was coming, and Zim knew he couldn’t stop it and he knew he didn’t want to. He also wasn’t going to rush it. He was just… going it see what happened. He was going to let it happen, finally. But, really, it was nothing to get worked up about. Although, Lard Gai and his spastic brother seemed to feel differently.

Since their arrival, both brothers had grown excited, for no reason at all, over Zim and Dib’s friendship. They would giggle, Zim would frown, and Dib would pretend like he didn’t understand what they were talking about. Two days ago, Lard Nar pulled Zim aside to ask Zim if it were really true, and had he really done it, and were irkens really capable of it, of falling in love? And Zim had told him to stop being an idiot, but he couldn’t hide his grimace of embarrassment. Yesterday, Lard Gai handed Zim a small, opaque bag of “the good stuff,” which Zim discovered was a  jar of personal lubricant and — urrgghh — Vortian contraceptives. Zim threw them down the hall. They were on Zim’s nightstand when he got back to his room.

Today, it would appear that the entire crew were in on the vortians’ little joke. A navigator asked Zim if he’d had to alter his PAK to “let the love in.” A janitor aww’d when Zim carried Dib’s tray through the mess hall, as if that meant anything, only that Dib was an idiot who’d gone and gotten himself hurt and now couldn’t be trusted to carry his own meals without toppling over. As if Zim weren’t on edge enough, what with his entire home at risk of complete destruction in less than a week.

Dib took it all in stride. He liked being with the Resisty — he’d mentioned off hand that being surrounded by aliens, somehow, was more comfortable for him than being among humans. It made Zim’s skin crawl, thinking about Dib being some kind of rebel, fighting alongside the vortians to free alien races from Zim’s old leaders. He’d barely survived one day of it; he couldn’t go back. Zim couldn’t let him do it again.

Although, Zim knew Dib would do whatever he wanted. He could only hope that, after all of this preposterous back-and-forth, Dib would want to stay on Earth after all this was over. If Zim were being honest with himself, which he was really trying to do, he probably wouldn’t survive if he lost Dib. Dib had already left him once, and that had been devastating enough. Zim wasn’t sure if he could handle it again.

He should stop thinking about this. He should just appreciate what he had now: Dib, shooting him quick smiles as they stood in the observation deck and talked about super massive black holes. Dib, nudging his foot once, twice, three times under the table as they sat in the cafeteria and ate their meals, goading Zim into nudging back. Dib, on the other side of the wall, presumably asleep, with his eyes closed and his body limp, hopefully more restful than Zim was right now.

Zim was thinking of red maple leaves. He was thinking of hot chocolate, and green grass, and mud and water and skool and humans. He was thinking about Christmas and Halloween and the Fourth of July fireworks. He’d once hated it all, indiscriminately. With Dib gone those three years, those things had been all Zim could rely on to keep him sane.

He was thinking about humans. Zim used to hate humans. He used to hate how weird they were, how they were so strange and they didn’t respect authority and they made such unnecessary troubles for themselves. They died for things Zim had never even known of before: freedom, love, acceptance. He used to pity them for that. Now, he found that he could relate. He never wanted to admit it, but he’d always been able to relate.

Zim went to prom with Dib when they were both young, and, to be fair, they were still young. If he were still an invader, Zim would only be on his second or third mission by now. Or, well. That’s what he’d be doing if he’d ever actually been an invader. He suspected that many of his peers had likely already died in the name of Irk, as they were bred to do. Instead, he was here. Trying to save a colony that had never been marked for takedown in the first place.

If all this hadn’t happened, Dib might still be in college, finishing his degree so that he could go somewhere else, meet someone else, and never look back. It made Zim’s skin itch, thinking of how close they may have come to never seeing each other again. If Membrane had fixed PEG, if Dib had never needed a ship, if the world weren’t in danger… Zim felt his gut tense. If none of this had happened, Zim might still be at home. Alone.

But then, Zim could chase the chain of causation right up until the moment he ruined OID One. He could chase it back to whatever glitch in the system had caused him to turn out the way he did. He could chase it back to whenever Miyuki first looked at Membrane and deemed him a threat.

To be certain, Zim did not really care about what caused what, or how many encounters, mistakes, betrayals, had led to his reunion with Dib. He cared more about the fact that now, Dib was here, with him, sleeping next door. And Zim would not let him go so easily this time.

With Dib asleep next door and his brain bombarding him with images of Earth’s potential destruction, interrupted intermittently with images of Dib being mauled by Zim’s own creation, Zim chose instead to just drift away for a short time. He closed his eyes, accessed his PAK’s memory drive, and entered the password. He laid his head on his pillow and remembered prom.

 

ii.

GIR!” Zim screeched. “We are already FIVE MINUTES LATE!”

“One minute!”

“Get your ass in the voot!”

“I’m not ready yet!”

They took the elevator to the landing pad. Zim hustled GIR into the voot and they were off before the windshield was closed. Zim gripped the yoke and grit his teeth while GIR sat next to him, whistling.

They made it to Dib’s house in exactly as much time as Zim had anticipated, but five minutes later than he’d wanted. Dib was probably furious.

They landed on the curb outside Dib’s house and Zim tapped a few buttons, frantically searching for the cloaking tech that he’d installed. Finally, he found the right combination, and the voot’s exterior went from looking like an alien spaceship to looking like a purple Kia Soul. With a sigh, Zim popped open the windshield, threw himself out of his ship, and started sprinting toward Dib’s door.

He rang the doorbell five times before the Dib-sister answered, a scowl on her face and a pair of bunny slippers on her feet. Zim stared up at her, his hands on his knees, panting.

“Is Dib ready?” he asked.

Gaz peered down at him. Curse that wretched, scary sister for her unbelievable height.

“Maybe you should relax,” she commented.

“I’m late,” said Zim.

“I noticed,” said Gaz. “Dib thought you weren’t coming.”

“I— GIR! It was his fault, he—” Zim turned to gesture to his robot, only to find that GIR was still in the voot. He’d fallen asleep, dressed in his doggie suit and the bow tie that he’d insisted on wearing. It was almost cute.

Gaz cleared her throat, and Zim turned back around. “GIR made me late,” he amended.

Gaz rolled her eyes.

“Whatever. Dib’s coming down in a second.”

“Can I—?”

“Ugh, fine. You can come in.”

Zim followed behind as Dib’s sister led him into their living room. He stood a foot away from the doorway with his fists clenched at his sides.

“Wow,” said Gaz, looking him up and down. “You really are nervous about this, huh?”

“I’m an invader,” Zim muttered. “I have nerves of the strongest caliber. I do not get nervous over silly, stupid, silly little—”

“Hey, Zim!”

The Dib was walking down the stairs. He had on a tuxedo, and shiny black shoes, and his hair was combed and he smelled like cinnamon. Zim felt his spooch kick into overdrive.

“GIR made me late,” he blurted.

Dib finished his descent and was now walking toward him, five feet away, now three feet, now just one—

“That’s okay,” said Dib. “We don’t have to get there right on time, anyway.”

“Oh,” said Zim.

“Um.” Dib was wringing his hands, something he didn’t do often. “You look really nice. I’m surprised you went with the suit.”

“I—?” Zim looked down at his suit. “This is Earth formalwear. Is it not—?”

“No, no! It looks good,” said Dib. “I just… you always say, you know, and invader uniform is suitable for, like, any occasion, so… I just…”

“Oh.”

“Yeah, I just—”

“Right.”

“I thought you were gonna wear that.”

“Should I change?” asked Zim, feeling dumb. What had he been thinking?

“No!” squeaked Dib. “I like it a lot. It looks really good, it’s um… nicely, uh. Tailored.”

Zim felt like he was going to die. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“You look good, um, as well.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“You are welcome.”

“Oh, my god,” Zim heard, and, wow, he’d actually forgotten that Gaz was there. She was standing off to the side, her hands on her hips. “You two dorks really are made for each other.”

“Okay!” said Dib, grabbing Zim by the wrist. “We’re leaving now. Bye, Gaz!”

“Bye, dorks.”

Dib dragged Zim through the doorway, and they climbed into the voot together and drove in cramped silence all the way to the hi skool, GIR fast asleep on the floor.

 

They were the first ones to arrive at prom. Zim pulled into a parking space while Dib looked out the window and sighed.

“I thought people would be here by now,” he muttered. “Why do people want to come late to things they’re excited for?”

Zim hummed in agreement. “The human need have an ambiguous time for arriving at events that is somehow more appropriate than the actual time the events are meant to begin is one of the more confusing elements of Earth life.”

Dib cracked a smile, his head resting against his fist as he stared through the windshield at the doors to the gym. “Oh, yeah?”

“Yes,” said Zim.

“Funny,” said Dib coldly, “how I have more in common with an alien than my own actual species.”

Zim never knew what to say to comments like that. He wished he knew the answer to why Dib had such a hard time relating to his peers, but, well… Zim had thought they were late. So what did he know?

“Do you want to go inside?” Zim asked.

Dib paused, as if he were considering whether he actually wanted to go in.

“We don’t have to, if you don’t want to,” said Zim. “We could go back to the base. Order pizza. Um, just… hang out.”

That actually sounded pretty good right now. Going back to Zim’s base, playing video games, just hanging out… going back to normal. It sounded better than jumping into whatever this was.

At first, Zim had felt a little uncomfortable about indulging Dib with this whole prom rigmarole. Now, though, he felt downright terrified. What had he been thinking? Was this a date? Were they dating, now? Like Torque and Jessica? Were they expected to… kiss? And mate? Zim wasn’t even sure if he could— how humans— if he even wanted—

“Zim?”

Zim blinked. He looked at Dib. “What?”

“You looked like you were short-circuiting.”

Zim took a breath. “I’m fine.”

“Did you hear what I said?”

“No,” Zim admitted, turning to look at Dib. “What did you say?”

“I said I want to go in.”

“Oh. Okay. Alright. Let’s… let’s… okay. Let’s go in.”

Dib gave him a curious look. Zim looked away.

“We don’t have to,” said Dib, “if you don’t want to.”

Did he want to? He couldn’t tell. How did he usually gauge whether or not he wanted things? He couldn’t think of wanting anything right now. He wished GIR would wake up.

“Zim?”

Zim looked back at Dib.

What did he want? What did he want? What did he want?

“I don’t know,” Zim admitted.

Dib sighed. He looked down for a second, then met eyes with Zim again. There was a little smile on his face.

“Okay,” said Dib. “Why don’t we just… go for a little walk. And then, if we want to, we’ll go inside?”

A walk sounded good. Zim felt like he couldn’t really breathe right now, trapped in the voot with Dib and his nice, spicy smell.

“Okay.”

They went for a walk. Dib guided him to an old shed where he claimed he’d once seen Bigfoot, but it might have been the gym teacher. They walked the length of the football field and talked about physics class, which they’d both been forced to take despite being able to talk circles around the actual physics teacher. They walked the length of the football field, again, and then a third time. Dib’s hands were stuffed in his pockets.

“Did you even want to come?” he asked suddenly.

“Come… to the prom?”

“Yeah.”

Zim hesitated. He didn’t really know why he’d agreed to go. Mostly, he just didn’t want Dib to go alone.

“Yes.”

Dib shot him a scrutinizing look. “Really?”

“Yes. I wanted to go,” said Zim. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have come.”

Dib shrugged. “I guess that’s a good point.”

They walked in silence for a few more moments. Dib took a deep breath.

“I don’t really know why I wanted to come,” he said. “It… it feels stupid, now.”

“What feels stupid?”

“Just… being all dressed up,” said Dib. “Going to the skool dance. I feel like a faker.”

“You’re not faking,” Zim said. “You go here, too.”

Dib shrugged. “I guess so.”

Zim paused, then reached forward to grab Dib by the forearm. “You do go here. You’re just as much of a dirt child as they are. You aren’t— you’re not…”

Zim took a deep breath. Dib looked down at him, searching Zim’s face. Zim sighed, unsure of how to say what he wanted to say. He just looked at Dib, imploringly, hoping that he could get the message across that there wasn’t as much wrong with Dib as he thought.

“I was the shortest one at invader training,” he said.

Dib frowned, a cleft forming between his eyebrows.

“I was the shortest,” Zim repeated, “and I… I wasn’t… I didn’t always feel like the other trainees wanted me there. Or even the teachers. But I wanted to be there, and I did my best.”

Dib raised an eyebrow.

“I just… if you want it, you should do it. You can’t make people like you, but you…” Zim huffed. “You save them all from monsters, and you tried to tell them I was invading their planet, and you… you should just go. It doesn’t matter if you can’t understand them, just… do what you want.”

Dib raised his other eyebrow, and he was just staring at Zim, now, an unreadable look on his face. Zim didn’t know what he was thinking, or if he was even understanding what Zim was trying to say.

It was just that… Dib couldn’t ever really catch a break, and if anyone deserved to go to this stupid teenage hormone party, it was Dib.

“Let’s just go,” said Zim.

He grabbed Dib by the hand and half-led, half-dragged him to the gymnasium.

 

The theme for prom was “Sponsored By Bloaty’s Pizza Hog.” GIR was going to love it.

True to form, the skool had gone whatever the opposite was of "all-out" for the event. There were a few old tables with folding chairs in one corner, a single table with punch and snacks, courtesy of Bloaty’s, and a dance floor, situated in the center of the basketball court. Flanking the court on either side were bleachers packed with students — groups of giggling girls and silent boys, a few couples that appeared to already be in the preliminary stages of mating, and a few loners, sitting by themselves and staring at nothing in particular.

No one noticed them walking into the gym, which Zim was grateful for. Nowadays, no one noticed them doing much of anything. Since they’d become friends, there had been fewer screaming matches or robot battles in the middle of the cafeteria, and they’d started keeping to themselves a little more. Their classmates appeared grateful to have been finally given the opportunity to ignore the two of them.

They found an empty spot on the bleachers and sat down. Dib muttered a few comments about how much he hated capitalism. Zim stole a few Bloaty’s-themed decorations and stowed them in his PAK, for GIR.

As Zim filled his PAK with merchandise that would surely be strung all over their kitchen tomorrow, he noticed something else that he’d stashed in there, right before leaving.

“Oh,” he said, catching Dib’s attention. “I forgot. Here.”

He pulled the little brown package out of his PAK and handed it over to Dib, who took it with a confused expression on his face. Dib unwrapped the paper slowly, revealing a red tulip boutonniere. Dib held the thing in his open palms, staring, not moving.

“It’s prom tradition,” Zim explained hastily, snatching it from Dib’s hands and pinning it to his lapel, nearly jabbing himself in the palm in the process. “It’s for prom,” he added, unnecessarily.

Dib watched in silence as Zim pinned the imbecilic decoration to his jacket. Once Zim was finished, he looked up, meeting Zim’s anxious eyes.

“I didn’t get you one,” said Dib.

A little stung, Zim recovered as quickly as he could. “That’s fine,” he said. “I hate flowers and they give me hives, so don’t worry about it.”

Dib’s gaze dropped to his hands. “Sorry.”

“I said it’s fine,” said Zim. “I only got it for you because it’s tradition.”

Dib said nothing, just stared at his hands with his face drawn until Zim got so uncomfortable that he hauled Dib to his feet and dragged him to the punch table in the hopes that it might fix the mood.

They drank punch and picked at the snacks at the table, looking at anything but each other. Zim watched the slightly misshapen disco ball as it performed creaky, stilted rotations, casting squares of light across the room.

“Irk has something like that,” he said, pointing.

Dib followed Zim’s gaze up to the disco ball and gave a “huh,” of interest. “I didn’t realize Irk had parties.”

“The elites have lots of parties,” commented Zim. “That’s mostly what they do.”

“Did you go to them?”

“Not really,” said Zim.

“But I thought you were an elite?”

Zim shifted on his feet. “I was training a lot.”

“So you didn’t go to any?” pressed Dib, his casual prying only marginally making Zim sweat.

Dib still asked about Irk a lot. He was still curious, after all these months of being friends and grilling Zim for every detail of his life — of his old life.

“Coming to Earth was only my second assignment after graduating from training,” explained Zim. “And we weren’t allowed to attend parties during invader training.”

“Did you go to the party after your first assignment?”

Zim gripped his plastic punch cup. “I was busy.”

“Huh,” said Dib. “I guess I always thought irkens just, like, worked all the time. I didn’t think you had time for the leisure stuff.”

“Depended on who you were.” How tall you were.

Dib just gave a thoughtful hum, and then went back into asking Zim about the ins and outs of invader training — a safer topic that Zim was comfortable discussing. Ahead of him, some of the students were finally starting to leave the bleachers and swarm the dance floor in pairs and groups, the girls tottering awkwardly in their heels and the boys walking stiffly beside them. As Zim and Dib leaned against the wall of the gymnasium and chatted, picking at the chipped paint on the wall and watching their classmates sway, Zim found himself finally relaxing. Was this all prom was? Just talking, like normal, about normal things, but in oppressive formalwear? He could do this. He lifted his cup to his mouth.

“Do you wanna dance?” asked Dib.

Zim choked on his punch.

He heard Dib mutter “shit” as he sputtered a little, and a few heads turned his way, but he ignored them.

“Uh,” he gurgled, clearing his throat. “What?”

“Forget it.”

“Dib—”

“Forget it.”

“I was just—”

“Forget it!” Dib hissed, clutching his drink. “Forget it, forget it, forget it!”

Zim blinked, his spooch racing as Dib turned away, his face red.

“I just thought — ugh. Just… never mind.”

“Dib, I…”

Dib turned to look at him, but he realized then that he didn’t actually know what he wanted to say. After a heavy pause, Dib turned away. A stiff, joyless smile formed on his face.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, his tone almost light. “I’m not even that good at dancing, anyway.”

“Okay,” said Zim quietly.

They stood in silence, the redness of Dib’s ears apparent every time the disco lights landed on his face. Zim watched Dib for a moment, then stared at his cup of punch, then retreated to the snack table for more sustenance and a chance to breathe.

He paused at the snack table to watch as the song changed from fast to slow. The groups of dancers returned to the bleachers, but the pairs remained, pulling each other closer and looking nervously but purposefully into each other’s eyes.

Zim clenched his fist around his punch cup. His eyes darted around the dance floor, taking in the way Torque nearly dropped Jessica as he flung her down into an exaggerated dip (she didn’t appear to care, just squealed and laughed and gripped him all the more tightly), the way Zita slid her arms around Letty’s waist as Letty grasped Zita’s shoulders, their faces inches apart and sporting the same dreamy expression, they way each couple barely moved, just shifted from foot to foot in little circles, more wrapped up in each other than actually dancing.

The dancing part, Zim thought he could handle. He and Dib had hugged maybe once or twice before, and Zim didn’t really see the point of it. He’d never been particularly eager for it, although… that was basically what Dib was offering, now, wasn’t it? A prolonged embrace with cheesy music playing in the background?

It was the emotional intimacy, so blatant Zim could practically taste it, that made him nervous. Suddenly, Zim worried that he didn’t actually have the guts for it. He hadn’t really considered it before, but all of this… the dancing, the kissing, all of it came with a certain vulnerability, and emotional bareness that Zim had never really been exposed to before. Whatever this was… it was more than a peck on the cheek in the hallway. It was more than whatever Zim thought he was seeing when he watched Titanic with GIR.

He turned abruptly on his heel and marched back to Dib, his chest pounding and his already fragile confidence shaken.

Dib, who had pulled his phone out and was scrolling through something, paused when he realized Zim was approaching. He shot Zim a wary look.

“I thought you were getting more punch.”

“I was.”

“Your cup’s empty.”

Zim looked into his cup, still crunched in his fist. “Oh.”

Dib took a deep breath. “Look, Zim… I know I made this weird. Let’s just… go home and pretend this never happened, okay? We did it, we did prom, it’s basically over now, so let’s just go.”

If he stayed a little longer, maybe he could try the dancing. But… all of it, the lights, and the crowded dance floor, and the terrible music… it felt like a lot. Zim wondered if Torque Smackey felt as exposed out there as he looked. Based on the way he ran his meaty fingers through Jessica’s hair, the way his eyes never left her face, Zim would guess not.

“We could stay a little longer?” Zim looked back to Dib, who still looked miserable.

“Seriously, we don’t have to,” said Dib, his face breaking into one of his classic self-deprecating smiles. “I appreciate you coming with me, and you’ve been a real trooper all night, but you really don’t have to do this anymore.”

Zim paused. He looked out at the dance floor, at the couples holding each other and swaying slowly. The disco lights passed lazily by.

What was he doing? What was wrong with him? He could do this! He was an invader! He was the bravest person he knew! He didn’t shy away from the things that scared him! He was here, at prom. What had he expected? To stand around? To do nothing? He looked back at Dib, who was watching him.

He flung his cup onto the floor.

“Let’s go dance,” he said, and he grabbed Dib by the arm and hauled him toward the dance floor.

Dib followed behind him, stuttered something, Zim wasn’t sure what.

Finally. They were on the dance floor. Zim chose an empty spot near the speaker, away from the more groping couples, because he wasn’t sure he was ready for that yet. He pulled Dib forward so that they were facing each other. Dib stood in front of him, still holding his cup.

“Here,” said Zim, snatching Dib’s cup and dropping it on the floor.

“Thanks,” said Dib with a nervous chuckle.

“Okay. Ready?” asked Zim.

Dib stared at him for a second. “Yup.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Zim took a step forward, reaching for Dib’s hips at the same time that Dib reached for his.

“Oh—”

“Wait—”

The both shifted to the other’s shoulders.

“Uh, okay—”

“Hang on—”

After some confusion and a couple more nervous laughs, Dib sighed and let his hand fall on one of Zim’s shoulders. Zim took another small step forward and put a stiff hand on Dib’s waist. They experimented with lacing their fingers together or clasping their hands, avoiding eye contact, and eventually they settled on a position. Finally, blissfully, they were ready.

Zim took a deep breath and gently scooted just a tiny bit closer. Even with his wig on, he could hear the sound of Dib’s heart hammering against his chest. They were so close, he could practically feel it. Zim grit his teeth, breathed out hard through his nostrils, and forced himself to look up at Dib. Dib looked back down at him, his lips pursed and his eyes nervous.

“Okay?” asked Dib, his voice quiet.

Zim nodded.

And, just like that, the song ended. The lights went on.

Prom was over.

 

Dib was quiet on the walk back to the voot. They climbed in to find that GIR had run off. Whatever. He’d probably gotten bored and gone home. Zim had just installed a new GPS tracker on him last week, so he wasn’t too worried. Picking him up from the animal shelter was usually an ordeal, but, at this point, they knew him well enough not to ask any more stupid questions.

They watched as other students piled into their limos and drove off together. Zim felt his spooch drop. He looked over at Dib.

“I should have gotten a limo.”

Dib’s brow furrowed. “What? No, it’s fine. You didn’t need to.”

“I was going to, but they were all out.”

“It’s alright, Zim,” said Dib. “We don’t need a whole limo. It’s just the two of us.”

For some reason, Zim felt like he needed to be sorry about that, too. He bit his lip and started up the voot.

As they drove back towards Dib’s home, Zim couldn’t help but feel like he’d failed. They’d come to prom to have a good time, and they were all dressed up, and all they’d done was stand around and drink punch. They hadn’t even danced. What was even the point? They hadn’t even gotten a limo. Dib was probably furious. He’d probably expected so much more, and Zim had failed him—

“Hey,” said Dib softly.

Zim peered over at Dib. “Yes?”

“I just, um. I just wanted to say thanks. For coming with me.”

Zim paused. He looked over at Dib more fully.

“You… are thanking me?”

Dib cracked a smile — a real one. “Yeah,” he said. “I just… I’m glad we went. I had fun.”

“We didn’t get to dance.”

Dib shrugged. “Yeah, but… you know, whatever. We didn’t have to.”

“We’re all dressed up, though. We’re in dancing clothes.”

Dib laughed a little. “I guess so. I just… I don’t know. I could tell you didn’t really want to, and, I mean… I guess I didn’t really want to, either. I don’t know.” Dib laughed again, self conscious. “I guess I don’t really get dancing like that around a bunch of people. It’s like… get a room, you know?”

Zim just nodded. Then, he frowned. He mulled a few things over, weighed some options, and considered some ideas. When he reached a conclusion, he took a sharp u-turn.

“What are you doing?” asked Dib.

“Just… hold on.”

He pulled into the grocery store parking lot they’d just passed — it was empty, lit only by a few flickering street lamps. He pulled the voot to a stop and popped open the windshield.

“What are we doing here?” asked Dib, and Zim could hear his heart picking up again.

Zim said nothing, just hopped out of his ship and walked around to where Dib was still sitting. He held a hand out, stretching his other arm behind him and lunging into his most grandiose pose. Dib looked at him, then at his hand, before tentatively taking it. He let Zim lead him out of the voot, swallowing audibly as he did so. When he was on the ground he looked down at Zim, a curious, nervous look on his face.

“When you said ‘get a room,’” Zim said slowly, “you meant a parking lot, right?”

Dib breathed out a laugh. “Yeah,” he said shakily, “that’s what I meant.”

Zim just nodded, emitting his own anxious giggle as he gently took Dib’s waist again. Dib put a shaky hand on Zim’s shoulder.

“My ship doesn’t play music,” he said, by way of apology for the silence that enveloped them.

“Oh, wait, hang on,” said Dib, reaching into his pocket to grab his phone. “Here we go.”

The first couple of notes of “I Have Nothing” started playing out Dib’s phone’s weak speaker. Zim’s antennae perked under his wig.

“I love this song,” he said.

Dib laughed a little, pulling Zim closer and assuming the dancing position again.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know you do.”

Zim said nothing, just stepped a little closer so that they were almost touching. He felt the steady rise and fall of Dib’s breathing as they danced, short and a little uneven.

Zim thought about the plans he had for the two of them. The ship that he was going to surprise Dib with in just a few weeks. The trip that he’d organized. How excited Dib was going to be. He had built speakers into this new ship so that they could listen to Whitney together while they explored the galaxy. He had so much that he wanted to show Dib, so many ideas of things that he knew Dib would love.

Dib’s hand squeezed his, and Zim felt himself leaning forward a little, resting his head against Dib’s chest. They were so close now, barely moving, just swaying back and forth. Zim felt his eyes close. He wrapped his arm tighter around Dib’s waist.

Because he hated silences, Dib spoke. “Hey,” he said softly.

Zim hummed.

“I just… I wanted to say something,” said Dib quietly.

Zim opened his eyes. “Yes?”

“I just… I, uh. I really… I’m really happy that we became friends.”

“I am, too.”

“And… I just… I feel like… um.”

Zim said nothing, waiting for Dib to keep talking. Zim had a feeling he knew what Dib was going to say, and part of him wished he wouldn’t. Dancing with Dib was nice, and Zim felt pretty okay. He was still nervous, and his hands were sweating under his gloves. He wasn’t sure how much more of this human, feelings stuff he could deal with.

“I just… I really… I really like being friends.”

“I do, too.”

“And, I mean… things are really different, now. From before. You know what I mean? Like, we’re not enemies. We apologized, and we got past everything, so it’s not… it’s not weird, that we’re doing this, that we’re like… like, I feel like this is more than… more, um…”

Zim felt his face flush. He stared at the pavement off to his side, his entire body stiffening.

“Dib—”

“I just… I feel like, comfortable, saying, you know. Um, I… I really like you. Like… I like you, not just as friends. And, at first, I didn’t really wanna tell you, but now, it feels like… I mean, we went to prom together, and you bought me the flower thing, and we… we’re dancing, so I just… I feel like it might be… reciprocal?”

Zim felt himself still. He looked up at Dib.

Dib looked so raw, his entire face splintered open, his emotions bursting out. He looked down at Zim, scanning Zim’s face, and Zim realized that he was waiting for Zim to respond. Zim took a breath.

He wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure how he felt. He just… he wasn’t sure—

Before he realized what was happening, Dib was diving forward. His mouth met Zim’s, clumsily, almost painfully. Zim felt his entire body freeze as Dib wrapped him up in a tight embrace, his arms sliding around Zim’s back.

Zim felt a flood of confusion and surprise. He felt his eyes practically bulging out of his head as Dib clutched him, too tightly. Zim placed his hands on Dib’s chest and, lightly, pushed Dib backward.

Dib broke the kiss, pulling back just enough to look Zim in the eye. He breathed into Zim’s face, his eyes a little wild, his face flushed.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “I just… I feel like… fuck, this feels really right— I just—”

Zim felt like he was going to puke — he pushed away, harder this time.

“Zim?” asked Dib, his voice too hoarse — it was overwhelming — he couldn’t… he couldn’t—

“Zim, hang on, you look— I’m sorry, shit, that was… I wasn’t trying to— Zim, wait!”

It was too late. Zim had scrambled back into the voot, slammed the windshield shut, and flown off, leaving Dib stranded in the parking lot.

Zim didn’t think — he couldn’t. His brain felt frozen, like all functions in his PAK had come to a screeching halt. He telephoned GIR the emergency signal and drove home as fast as he possibly could.

 

iii.

Zim opened his eyes.

He hadn’t visited those memories in years. He hadn’t thought of all that — the dancing, the kissing, the running away — not for a long time.

Looking back, he felt a strange sense of pity for both his past self and Dib’s. How confused they’d been, how lost and bumbling and uncertain.

Dib, he knew, was still the same Dib. He still rambled too much, misread signals, second guessed himself. He still leaped before he looked and let his feelings cloud his judgment.

And yet, Zim could not help but feel like he and Dib were in different places, now. Learning of his identity had hurt Dib, at first, but Zim had seen Dib lean into it over the past couple of weeks. He’d seen Dib find comfort in it, his otherness. Instead of feeling like he should belong but didn’t, Dib seemed to feel, now, that he could make his own path. In hi skool, Dib had been so worried about doing exactly what his classmates did, exactly the right way. Maybe it was the time away from skool that had changed him, but Zim thought that it was this trip, too, that made Dib realize that he could choose his own fate, be his own person. With that realization, that confidence, Zim saw less of the bumbling, confused, irrational teenager that he’d seen three years ago. Now, Zim saw someone who could be a leader. And, potentially, a mate.

Zim knew he’d grown, too. He was done toeing the line between what he thought he was and what he knew himself to be. Now, all he wanted was the life that he’d been denying himself for so long. A life of love, and freedom, and change. A life with Dib.

He wondered what it would be like to be with Dib — to finally have him. Would it be like Titanic? Would they feel like the only two people in a crowded room? Would they be all the other needed? Would their love be strong, unbreakable, everything that Whitney had ever sung about?

Zim took a deep breath. He stared at his ceiling, his mind racing, his spooch thudding in his chest. He hadn't been ready for Dib three years ago. Now, though... whatever was coming, whatever was going to happen between the two of them, he was finally ready.

A knock on his door made Zim jump.

Chapter Text

i.

Zim opened the door a few moments after Dib knocked. Dib paused for a second, a little taken aback at the sight of Zim in such casual clothes: soft grey sweatpants and a vortian-blue t-shirt that read something in a language Dib didn’t understand.

“You look cozy,” he commented.

Zim scoffed, folding his arms and leaning against the doorframe. “If you tell anyone I wore these… rags… I will—”

Dib chuckled. “You’ll what?”

“I will vehemently deny it.”

Dib grinned. “What’s it say?” he asked, gesturing to Zim’s t-shirt.

Zim picked at the shirt. “It says ‘Resisty rocks,’ in Vortian.” Zim groaned. “This is so embarrassing.”

Dib just smiled, his heart warming just at the sight of Zim looking annoyed.

Zim paused then, looking at Dib. “You should be asleep.”

Dib shrugged. “I couldn’t.”

“Dib,” said Zim, his tone serious. “We are going to be arriving in just a few hours. You need to sleep.”

“I can’t,” said Dib, his voice cracking a little. “I just… I couldn’t stop thinking about…” He bit his lip. “What if it doesn’t work? What if we can’t evacuate in time? What if… what if this whole plan fails?”

Zim appeared to hesitate. Eventually, he stepped backward, allowing Dib sight of his room.

“Come in,” said Zim quietly.

Dib did as he was told, walking into Zim’s room and then, because he didn’t know what else to do, sitting down on Zim’s bed.

“You weren’t sleeping either,” Dib noted.

“I don’t need to sleep,” Zim noted, closing his door and turning to look at Dib, his arms crossing again.

“You do sometimes.”

“Do not.”

“Do, too. I’ve seen you.”

“You’re lying.”

You are.”

Zim just waved the comment away. He sat down next to Dib on the bed, the mattress dipping under his weight. Dib sat on his hands.

“So,” said Dib. “What were you up to?”

“Hm?”

“What were you doing in here? If you weren’t sleeping, I mean.”

Zim just shrugged. “I was just thinking.”

“About what?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

Dib shot Zim a look, which Zim disregarded.

“What?” asked Dib.

Zim just shrugged, then picked at some invisible lint on his pants.

It was strange, seeing Zim in casual clothes. He didn’t even have any gloves or shoes on. Dib almost always saw him in his invader’s uniform. Like this, Zim seemed… more vulnerable. It made the whole thing — being in Zim’s room, late at night, sitting on his bed — feel even more intimate. Dib’s heart hammered in his chest. What's worse, he was almost certain that Zim could hear it.

“Do you want to talk about it?” asked Zim, still looking downward.

Dib sighed. “I’m just… thinking. Wondering what we were gonna do if… if we lost Earth. Where we’d go.”

Zim looked at him briefly, then shook his head. “We’d find a place. There are infinite places.”

“Yeah,” said Dib. “But, I just… I mean, the Resisty is fighting a war right now. They need their ships, so we can’t… we can’t do a lot of like, window shopping for a new planet. And then, when we get there, what if everything’s poisonous, or there are more… like, monster deer things, or something, you know? Or, even, before that — what if we can’t save Earth? What if, right now, PEG’s detonating? What if something happened, or we did the math wrong, or, just… what if we can’t get everyone on these ships — what if—”

“Okay,” said Zim suddenly.

Dib inhaled, remembered that he needed to breathe. Zim grabbed him by the wrist and wrenched his hand out from under his ass. Dib grunted, but he held his tongue as he watched Zim gently take his hand.

“Hey,” said Dib softly. “Your hand grew back.”

“Just about,” said Zim, swiveling his wrist and flexing his fingers. When he was done, he took Dib’s hand again.

They sat together for a minute, not saying anything, just watching as Zim held Dib’s hand.

“I was thinking about prom,” said Zim, breaking the silence.

“You were?” Dib whispered.

“I was… remembering it. I password-protected the memories from myself — I had GIR keep the code — just… just because I kept replaying them. It drove me crazy. But I got the password from GIR, so I figured I’d just… watch again.”

Zim looked over at Dib, his face tense. Dib felt his stomach do a flip.

“I’m really sorry about that,” said Dib.

“You already apologized,” said Zim.

Dib looked over at him. He didn’t seem mad, or even that upset. He looked calm, his face placid as he held Dib’s hand in both of his.

“Still,” said Dib. “I just… I don’t know. I guess I got excited, and you’d just — this is no excuse, but — you’d been so nice to me the whole night, so I thought you’d wanted it, too… I don’t know. I don’t know what I was thinking, I just… god, I was so miserable in hi skool. I was being an idiot.”

“Are you less miserable, now?” asked Zim, his voice quiet. “In college?”

“Yeah,” Dib murmured, honestly. “College is… it’s different. It feels like there’s less expectations, and I’m with other people who like the same stuff I like, so it’s… you know, it’s easier. I’m not, like, the most popular guy there, but… it’s nicer.”

“Will you go back?” Zim whispered.

“I don’t know,” said Dib. “I guess… I was planning on it.”

Zim pulled a face, and Dib watched a hundred different thoughts pass through his brain at once. He remembered the last time they'd talked about this, how angry Zim had been.

“I understand if you do.”

“I don’t want things to be like how they were before,” said Dib.

Zim’s lips thinned, and Dib felt himself take a deep, shaky breath.

“I mean, maybe we could, you know, work something out. We could talk. See each other more. That is, if anything is even still standing. After tomorrow.”

Zim looked away. “You would want that?”

Dib almost laughed. “Of course I would,” he said. “I don’t… I don’t want to lose you again. I don’t want us to just… fall apart, like that. Not again.”

Zim, still looking away, just nodded. “Me neither.”

“You’re my best friend.”

“You’re mine, too.”

Dib sighed. “Even with… friends, and whatever, in college, I still… I still missed you. I just… obviously, I fucked up big time, and I didn’t know what to do about it, but, I mean… god, I missed you so fucking much. Even in hi skool, and with my dad, and all that shit, I just… no one’s ever made me as happy as you have.”

Zim turned to face him, his eyes bright. “No one?”

Dib shook his head. “No one. Not at home, or in college, or anything.”

Zim’s brow rose, and his eyes, somehow, got wider.

“No one’s been a bigger pain in my ass, though, either.”

Zim’s eyes immediately narrowed, and he released Dib’s hand in order to give him a light shove sideways.

“Shut up.”

Dib chuckled and shoved back. “You shut up.”

Zim just shook his head, giving Dib another gentle push and letting his hand linger on Dib’s shoulder.

Then, slowly, Zim’s newly-regrown hand drifted from Dib’s shoulder to touch him gently on the side. Dib felt himself flinch a little at the tickling, too-light touch. Zim drew his hand back.

“Sorry,” said Zim. “Does it hurt?”

“No, it’s okay,” said Dib. “Just… that tickled, a little.”

“Oh.”

“It doesn’t… it doesn’t still hurt. It feels normal, now, pretty much.” A little achy, and feeling came and went, but at least he didn’t have to walk around with that dumb cane as much.

Zim said nothing, just dropped his hand in his lap and looked away. Dib could practically feel Zim’s guilt crawling over his skin.

“I have an idea,” Dib said.

Zim looked back at him, his antennae raising, just a little, in question.

“How about, instead of punishing ourselves over and over for stuff that already happened, we just accept that it happened and actually move on?”

Zim looked away again. Dib frowned.

“Seriously, Zim. We forgave each other for doing way worse stuff. And that was stuff we did on purpose! And, you know, we forgave ourselves. I mean… come on. We both did some stupid stuff. I want… I want to forgive myself for being stupid at prom and for leaving without telling you. I want you to forgive yourself for me getting hurt, and, by the way, that wasn’t even really your fault.”

“It was—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Dib insisted. “It’s over. I don’t care anymore. I’m fine.”

“You could have—”

“Zim,” said Dib, as firmly as he could muster. “I’m serious. I don’t want to harp on this anymore. I want to move on.”

Zim looked at him once more. Then, with a great big sigh and overdramatic aplomb, he flopped backward on the bed.

Dib fought the urge to make fun of him for it. Zim crossed his arm over his eyes and sighed again.

Dib waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Finally, after he thought Zim might have actually fallen asleep: “Are you done?”

“Almost,” came Zim’s reply.

Dib waited again. He watched Zim, his eyes still covered, his chest rising and falling in even breaths, his antennae laid against the bed, pointing in different directions, twitching occasionally.

“Okay,” said Dib eventually. “You’re done.”

With that, he delivered a sharp poke to Zim’s side, right under his short, Irken ribcage.

Zim spasmed once with a yell before sitting up, grabbing for his side.

“That hurt!” he howled.

“Sorry,” said Dib.

“No, you’re not.”

“It had to be done. You were just sulking.”

“Would you prefer I not feel bad for almost getting you killed?”

“I would prefer you get over it.”

“I can’t— it’s not—”

“Look!” Dib snapped, grabbing the hem of his t-shirt and pulling it up, revealing the expanse of new skin. “It’s fine! Everything is fine! I’m healed! I don’t even have a scar, okay? So can we please just calm down and fucking move past this and be normal?”

Zim paused, his eyes glued to Dib’s side. Dib tried not to fidget under Zim’s staring, but his skin broke out in goosebumps, regardless. Eventually, after something unreadable flickered across his face, Zim looked away.

“Fine, I get it. Put your shirt back on, jeez.”

Dib rolled his eyes but complied, releasing his shirt so that the fabric fell back over his side. He leaned back on his hands and regarded Zim, who still wasn’t looking at him.

“Are you over it?”

“Yes.”

“Liar.”

“I’m trying—”

“You know what I just realized?” asked Dib.

Zim peered over at him. “What?”

“You never told me where we were going to go on our space adventure.”

Zim made a face.

“It didn’t seem relevant.”

“I want to go to Plookesia.”

“Ew, why?”

“You said they had good food.”

Zim frowned again, probably trying to remember back to that time, in junior year, when they’d talked about Plookesia. “I believe I said they had digestible food.”

“Well, who has better food?”

Zim sniffed. “Irk, for one. I suppose there are other places…”

It was easier, Dib realized, to talk about the future than to talk about that past. Easier, too, to pretend like the future was bright, and like everything that had gone wrong in the past month would be inconsequential. They talked about places to go on their road trip, and places they would avoid, and atmospheres that would require Dib wear a special mask and climates that would be too hot or too cold for him.

Eventually, they were both lying on their backs on Zim’s bed, their legs dangling over the side, discussing planets and politics and who had the best vistas and whether there were anything like pomegranates on any place besides Earth. Dib said nothing when Zim took his hand again, just gave a light, experimental squeeze. Zim squeezed back.

They fell into a quiet sort of lull at one point, comfortable and nerve-wracking all at once.

“Are you tired?” asked Zim.

“No,” said Dib. “Are you?”

“No.”

Zim sat up. Dib followed.

“The vortians want you to join their cause,” Zim commented.

“Really?”

Zim huffed. “Obviously.”

Dib cracked a smile. “I don’t know if I’d be down for any more space adventures for a while. This one’s been fun, but… I don’t know. I think I’d like to focus on Earth. Assuming there is an Earth after tomorrow.”

Zim nodded.

“Would you join?” asked Dib.

“No,” said Zim.

“No?”

“No.”

“I thought you liked fighting in wars and stuff. Plus, you already told your Tallest off—”

“I don’t think so,” said Zim. “They’re getting my creation. Once they figure out how to use it, they’ll make short work of destroying the Armada. After that, they won’t have much left to do.”

“And you’re… cool with that?”

Zim shrugged. “I suppose I shouldn’t be. I don’t really care either way.”

Dib considered that. They talked so rarely about Zim's own, personal feelings about his home planet. They’d hardly discussed what training had been like, or what Zim’s leaders had put him through.

“The rebellion’s efforts are… justified,” Zim said eventually, and Dib was fairly certain that was the most treason he was going get out of Zim. At least, for now.

“I know it must be hard,” Dib said, “saying bad things about Irk.”

Zim shrugged, the gesture stiff. “I guess so.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I’m really glad you got exiled to Earth.”

Zim’s mouth twitched upward for a second. Dib felt himself smile in return.

“I mean, if you’d never come to Earth, you’d never have gotten to try pomegranate seeds.”

“No,” Zim allowed.

“Or those tacos that GIR likes.”

Zim stuck his tongue out. “I hate those things.”

Dib grinned. “You’d never have gotten to go to gym class.”

Zim caught on, turning a fraction to look Dib in the eye. “I’d never have been chased by a goose.”

“You’d never have played dodgeball.”

“I’d never have gone on those ludicrous ski trips.”

“You’d never have been introduced to the musical stylings of Whitney Houston.”

Zim paused, then turned to look at Dib more fully. “I would never have met you.”

Dib felt his breath leave his body. He tried to be cool about it. “Guess you got lucky.”

Zim’s face remained serious. He leaned in toward Dib. “I guess so.”

Dib closed his eyes, felt Zim’s hand his clasp tighter, and leaned forward. Their lips brushed, just for a moment. A bolt of anxiety ripped through Dib, and he pulled away.

“What were you doing?” he asked suddenly.

Zim froze, his eyes wide. “Um?”

“I mean,” said Dib quickly. “What… when I was gone. When I was in college. What… what were you doing?”

Zim frowned. “You’re asking me this now?”

“Yeah.”

“…Why?”

Dib sat up, his hand still holding Zim’s. “I just… I’ve been curious, I guess.”

Zim sat up, too. “I thought we were moving on from that.”

“Yeah, no, I mean… we are. I guess I just wanted to know what you did.”

Zim leaned away, still looking confused. He looked down, his mouth twisted in an almost-frown. “I… took GIR for walks. I watched movies. I did experiments. Made improvements to the base. I don’t know, regular stuff.”

“What movies did you watch?”

Zim regarded him with another confused look.

Dib couldn’t blame him. It didn’t make a lot of sense, but, suddenly, the reality of the situation was setting in. They sat together, on Zim’s bed, on this precipice, holding hands and about to jump in. Dib’s memories of hi skool, of prom, of every failed attempt at making a connection he’d ever had saturated his brain. Maybe he wasn’t ready for this. Maybe he was going to screw it up again. How many times would Zim let him fuck up before dumping him for good? He wasn’t designed for relationships, clearly, his dad had done something wrong—

“Uh, I don’t know, Splash?”

Dib paused. “What?”

Zim regarded him, his expression still confused. “I watched Splash a lot.”

“I don’t know what that is.”

Zim made a face. “It’s a movie. It’s about a mermaid.”

“Oh. Sounds interesting.”

Zim shrugged. “It’s pretty good. GIR likes it, so.”

What was he doing? Why was he being such a baby about this? Zim clearly wanted to be with him. He’d already almost died during this mission — a couple of times, to be honest — so why was he being such a wimp about this now? If Gaz were here, she would tell him to get over himself and just go for it. He should do that. He should just go for it.

Dib took a breath, leaned forward, and kissed Zim square on the mouth.

Zim jerked a little in surprise, his hand tightening again over Dib’s. Dib squeezed his eyes shut, hoping that he was at least sort of doing this right, before realizing that he’d just cut Zim off in the middle of a sentence. He pulled away.

“Sorry,” he gasped. “Sorry, shit, I’m sorry. You were talking. What were you saying?”

Zim stared at him, dumbfounded. “I— was just talking about the movie.”

“Right. The mermaid movie.”

“It’s called Splash.”

“Right.”

“Are you… okay?” asked Zim, his eyes narrowed as he scanned Dib’s face. “You look weird.”

“No, yeah. I’m okay,” said Dib. “I’m fine. Sorry, again. For interrupting you.”

“It’s okay. You were the one who was curious. About the movie.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Dib took a deep breath. Zim kept eyeing him, his antennae twitching.

“What else did you do?” asked Dib. “Did you… I mean… did you go into space?”

Zim gave a one-shoulder shrug. “A couple of times. To run some errands.”

“Did you go to Irk?”

Zim shot him an annoyed look. “If I’d gone to Irk, I probably would have been deactivated. So, no.”

“Really?” asked Dib.

“Yes.”

“I just thought… I don’t know. I didn’t think they’d kill you.”

Zim sighed. “I reached a certain age while I was on Earth when I became due for an Existence Evaluation. I didn’t go, obviously, in part because I’d had mine earlier and in part because I knew I’d fail. But Irkens who miss their Evaluations get deactivated.”

Dib took a second to process this, remembering what Zim had said about Existence Evaluations and that time that Zim had nearly chopped his legs off.

“Right,” he said. After a pause, he realized something. “Wait, so did you, like, have a birthday?”

“I guess so,” said Zim.

“Huh,” said Dib. “I never thought about that.”

“Irk orbits a sun, just like Earth,” said Zim. “We have years. Why wouldn’t we have birthdays?”

“I dunno,” said Dib. “I guess I just didn’t think about it because you don’t celebrate it.”

“Yes, I suppose it is a more human thing to do.”

“You should have a birthday party.”

Zim regarded him, still looking confused by the absolutely lunatic conversation they were having. “Okay.”

“Sorry,” said Dib with a nervous laugh. “Sorry, I’m being dumb.”

“You’re not being dumb.”

“I just…” This was so hard. Kissing Zim felt like fucking up, but not kissing Zim also felt like fucking up. How was he supposed to do anything right?

“Dib,” said Zim, his voice soft. “Why did you come to my room?”

Dib took another deep breath. Why had he? Being alone had felt like being suffocated, and Zim was right next door, and it felt… wrong, after so many days on Zim’s ship together, for them to be apart. And he thought he knew what he wanted — that he wanted Zim — but, right now, Zim felt like an impossible objective, separated from Dib by Dib’s own anxiety — an ominous, terrifying hurdle. No matter what happened, it seemed Dib was going to screw up.

“I never really dated anyone,” he confessed.

Zim blinked in surprise.

“I mean, I’ve hooked up,” Dib amended, as if it mattered. “I just… I’ve never even really liked anyone like that, except for you, and when I think about being with you, it just… it stresses me out. I feel like I’m failing before I’ve even done anything.”

“You aren’t failing,” said Zim cautiously.

There was a pause as Dib ran his free hand through his hair, the other hand gripping Zim’s like a lifeline.

“If it makes you feel any better, human dating is foreign to me, too.”

Dib supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. “It is?”

“Well, I’ve seen a lot of movies about it, but, practically, yes.”

Dib choked on a laugh. “You studied up?” he asked.

“I did,” said Zim, more seriously than Dib expected.

Dib stared at Zim. He was floored, a little, by how calm Zim was.

“Aren’t you nervous at all?” Dib asked.

“Kind of,” said Zim. “I know how I feel. I want this… with you.”

Dib felt his hand start to sweat. He took a shaky breath. Zim just stared at him, his brow furrowed.

Zim asked, “How do you feel?”

Dib gave an unsteady little laugh. “How do I feel,” he repeated. It seemed impossible to put into words. He looked down at his and Zim’s joined hands. “I feel like… I feel like I’ve been obsessed with you forever. For, like, good or bad, I guess. I feel like you’re the only person who really gets me, and you… you don’t make me feel like such an outsider, and you… you were an outsider, too, and you don’t even… you don’t let it get to you, you know? I guess, I mean, in a way, we’re both fucked up, and we both have our issues, but I just… I feel like we go together. We’re better when we’re with each other. You’re the only person I could spend all day with. I really, um, admire you, and I… I like, um, hanging out with you, and I… I… I—”

“I love you.”

Dib froze. He stared at Zim’s hand, the skin new and soft against his palm. He blinked, trying to register the fact that Zim had just said the words that he had been trying to say.

“Sorry,” said Zim.

Dib looked up at him.

“I shouldn’t have interrupted. It’s just… it seemed like you were going to say it, and I just, uh, wanted to say it first.”

Dib just stared at Zim, still a little dumbfounded. Then, he started to laugh.

“You got me,” he conceded.

Zim offered a tentative smile.

“I love you, too.”

Zim’s smile grew. He dipped forward and took Dib’s face in his hand. He pressed a quick, gentle kiss to Dib’s mouth.

Dib wished that that would be it — that all of his nerves would melt away, and he and Zim would finally be free to be together without his own stupid nervousness butting in. But, he found that being in love might, potentially, be even more stressful when you knew you were loved back. Who would have thought?

Zim pulled away, opening his eyes to study Dib.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

Dib swallowed. “Yeah, I… yeah. I’m alright.”

“Do you want to stop?”

Dib groaned in frustration, and then he was the one flopping dramatically onto his back. He scrubbed his free hand over his face and groaned again.

No, I don’t want to stop.” He sighed. “I just… I’m freaking out a little, still.”

“Why?”

Dib looked at Zim, who appeared calm, if not a little worried.

“How are you not freaking out right now?” he asked.

Zim’s gaze didn’t waver. “I thought things were going well.”

Dib barked out a laugh at that. Zim was right. Things were going well. Except, just as expected, Dib was making a mess of everything. He felt Zim squeeze his hand again.

“Good point,” he said.

Zim leaned forward and placed an alarmingly gentle kiss on Dib’s nose.

“You weren’t so nervous when we kissed the last time,” he noted. “Or the times before that.”

Dib considered this. “I guess I wasn’t really planning for those times,” he said.

“You planned for this?” asked Zim, looking annoying casual as he leaned on an elbow, too close but not nearly close enough.

Dib, sick of babbling, decided to just keep his mouth shut before he revealed any more incriminating information. Zim just shot him a wry grin and leaned down. Dib thought that he was going in for another kiss, but, nope. Instead, he stuck his tongue out and licked Dib up the side of his face, from his jaw to his hairline.

“Ugh, gross!” Dib hissed, sitting up and rubbing the side of his face with his shoulder. “Why’d you do that?”

Zim grinned. “Would you like to know more about the movie Splash?”

Dib frowned. “You’re so annoying.”

“And yet, you’ve chosen to love me.”

He had, hadn’t he? Another spike of confidence zipped through him, and Dib grabbed Zim by the back of his head, pulled their faces together, and planted a kiss on his stupid, shit-eating grin.

Zim grunted in surprise, again, but soon his hands were in Dib’s hair. After a moment, Zim pulled back, removed Dib’s glasses, and placed them on the table next to his bed. He turned back to Dib.

“Zim, I—”

Zim put his hand over Dib’s mouth. Dib’s eyes widened for a second.

“Do you want to keep kissing?” Zim asked.

Dib’s face started to heat up, but he nodded.

“Then stop interrupting.”

Despite himself, Dib smiled. He also stuck his tongue out and licked Zim’s palm. Zim cursed, yanking his hand away.

“Now you know how it feels,” Dib taunted.

“You little worm,” Zim growled, wiping his hand on the mattress.

“And yet, you’ve chosen to love me,” Dib parroted.

“I have,” said Zim, looking at Dib, his face serious.

Dib felt something inside him crumble.

“I keep thinking you’re going to run away from me again,” he confessed.

Zim’s antennae fell.

“I won’t,” he said. “If you won’t.”

“I just… I don’t want to freak you out again.”

“I know,” said Zim softly.

They watched each other for a moment. Dib wondered if he should just call it quits and go back to his room.

“We can… set some guidelines,” said Zim.

Dib cocked his head to the side. “Guidelines?”

“We will… reach an agreement on what to do before we do it?” asked Zim. “And then… if we change our minds, we stop.”

“Okay,” said Dib.

“And… no one runs away,” said Zim softly. “We stay and talk about it.”

“Okay,” Dib repeated. “That should work.”

Zim leaned forward and put his free hand on Dib’s face. His other hand, which was still holding Dib’s, squeezed lightly. Dib squeezed back.

“Can I kiss you again?” asked Zim softly.

“Yes.”

Dib’s fears weren’t exactly quelled, nor was his suspicion that at some point in the near future, he was probably going to majorly fuck this up. But he tried to focus on the nice way Zim cradled the back of his head as they kissed, the gentle hold Zim still had on his hand, the whispered requests and agreements that passed between them, soft and unhurried and right.

How Zim wasn’t shaking out of his skin, Dib couldn’t understand. Their pasts were so similar: growing up, they’d both been cut down more often than they’d been built up. For a long time, Dib had felt like everything he could even imagine doing would, somehow, be wrong. And yet, Zim didn’t seem to feel that way. How, Dib wondered, could Zim live in this world of confidence? How could he be so certain that what he was doing was right?

Either way, Dib appreciated Zim for it. If not for Zim’s confidence, they wouldn’t end up here: horizontal, laid properly on Zim’s bed, their faces warm and their bodies pressed together.

Somehow, asking for permission for every little thing didn’t come out as awkward as Dib thought it might. It was almost soothing, the back and forth, and it certainly helped ease his worry. He ground out a short yes and sat up to let Zim pull his shirt off.

Eventually, when he’d divested Zim of his Resisty t-shirt and Dib rolled them over so that Zim’s head was against the pillow, Dib pulled back, just for a second.

“This is what I thought it would be like,” he whispered.

“What?” asked Zim, his bright, pomegranate eyes cloudy and unfocused.

“When we first hooked up. I don’t… I’m not upset about how it happened, on your ship, I just… I always imagined we’d take our time, the first time.”

Zim gave a thoughtful hum. “At least this time, you can’t kick me out. We’re in my room, after all.”

“I know,” said Dib quietly. “Sorry about that.”

Zim waved the apology away. “Oh, yes, it’s all in the past, and we’re moving on, and all that.”

Dib grinned. He leaned in for another kiss, his heart picking up as Zim’s hand sank into his hair while the other ran down his back.

Dib pulled back again.

“I thought you would be the first person I had sex with,” he confessed, and Zim’s eyes widened a little.

“I’m— you already—?”

“I mean,” said Dib, shifting slightly so that he was resting on one elbow, “I’ve only, like — it’s not like I’ve hooked up a ton.”

Zim stared up at him, his face coloring. “Who…?”

“Just, like, people I met on dating apps while I was away. One-off things. It was less stressful that way and, I mean… I was still really hung up on you.”

Zim kept staring, his expression sharp.

“I’m sorry. Was that weird to say?”

Zim looked away for a second. “Kind of.”

Dib froze, his heart pumping wildly and his hands starting to shake. Fuck, and he’d been doing so well, why did he always have to open his mouth and—

“Stop freaking out.” Zim was looking up at him, clearly annoyed but not outright angry. “Everything isn’t ruined, just calm down.”

But his face was still flushed, and he wasn’t waving it off like he had just done. Dib sat back on his heels, his hands in his lap. He wasn’t sure what to say.

Zim, his face still dark, sat up on his elbows. “I just… I assumed you hadn’t… done that. With anyone else.”

“Is that a problem?” asked Dib.

They hadn’t really made plans for where the night would go, and Dib certainly knew where he wanted it to go, but that didn’t mean—

“No,” said Zim. “No, of course not. I just…”

“You did stuff, I thought,” said Dib. “Not that… that doesn’t matter to me, either, I mean, it’s not a big deal, I just… it’s not like—”

“Irkens don’t— we aren’t— we don’t do things the way humans do.”

“Oh. How do you do things?”

“Well, for one, we keep our mouths to ourselves.”

Dib blinked in surprise. “Oh.”

“And we don’t… there usually isn’t much time for anything… prolonged, or particularly…” Zim waved a hand between the two of them “… dialogue-heavy.”

“Oh,” Dib repeated. “So what… what did you do?”

Zim looked away, and Dib might have thought he looked embarrassed, if he’d ever seen Zim look embarrassed before.

“Just… like last time, but not— just hands, I guess, and what we did first, with our clothes on.”

“Wait,” said Dib, and Zim shot him an annoyed look. “You’re telling me that all irkens do is… hand jobs and dry-humping?”

If possible, Zim’s face got even darker. “It’s all we could hope for, with the Brains controlling us. It’s not like Irk is known for its soldiers having a strong foundation in intimacy and personal relationships.”

“No, I understand,” said Dib thoughtfully. “It just sucks, is all.”

Zim scoffed, then looked away. Dib felt a smile play on his lips.

“I mean,” he said, “I don’t know everything, but there’s, you know… a lot of stuff we could do that you haven’t done before. Stuff you don’t even know about.”

“I know about everything!” Zim snapped, still not looking at Dib. “I’ve seen the porn! I just haven’t done it!”

Dib fell forward on his hands so that he was hovering over Zim again. “Do you want to do it?” he asked.

Zim’s mouth twisted into an even deeper pout, and he hesitated before looking back at Dib. Dib leaned forward and planted a chaste peck on the spot where Zim’s nose would be.

“I just thought… if we both were new to it, it would be… less intimidating. And now, knowing that you’ve already… done stuff with — with other people, it just…”

Dib pursed his lips. Zim was nervous, too. Somehow, that made him feel a little better.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Dib murmured. “But, honestly, I don’t think it really matters. I’m, uh, I’m excited to do stuff with you, no matter what. Since I, you know, love you. And I’m really into you. And all that.”

Zim huffed a little at Dib’s words, but he relaxed a little against the bed and ground out an almost imperceptible “I love you, too.”

“We’ll just keep talking through it, okay?” asked Dib.

Zim nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay.”

Somehow, knowing that Zim was also nervous about making this good made Dib calm down. So, maybe this wouldn’t go perfectly. They would have more chances to get everything right.

And, even if everything didn’t go absolutely perfectly, he was fairly certain it would still be pretty great.

Dib ducked forward to plant another kiss on Zim’s mouth. It began soft, more of a gesture that they were on the same page than a real attempt to reinitiate things, but Dib felt the urgency, hot on his skin, the second that Zim sucked and bit lightly on his bottom lip. He sighed into it, opening his mouth and letting Zim deepen the kiss.

He pressed his body against Zim’s, grunting at the feeling of Zim’s bare chest against his own. Zim rocked his pelvis up in response, sending a shiver down Dib’s spine.

At some point, Dib forget that he was nervous, that he had ever been nervous, or even where he was. He rolled off of Zim so they could both shove their pants down and kick them off. Zim climbed back on top of him, kissing him, sliding a thigh between his legs and pressing it against Dib’s growing erection. Dib gasped at the feeling, gripping Zim’s hips and rocking upward, his eyes closing at the friction.

Zim brought their mouths together again, one hand gripping the base of Dib’s skull, the other taking gentle hold of Dib’s thigh. Dib felt the blood roar in his veins. Zim trailed kisses from his mouth down to the base of his throat, where he sucked and bit into existence what Dib was sure would be another hickey. Dib didn’t care, he barely thought about it, his mind preoccupied by the satisfying sting and the way his skin felt like it was on fire. He arched his back into Zim’s touch and Zim shifted, tracing his hand toward the inside of Dib’s thigh and gently pushing at it, spreading Dib’s legs open.

“I want to— can I—”

Dib paused, his brain still at least half-focused on the gentle way Zim’s nails scraped along the inside of his thigh.

“Yeah?” he croaked, his arousal skyrocketing at the feeling of Zim’s hot breath landing on the wet, sore bruise on his neck. 

“I want to, um, do what you did. Last time. With your mouth.”

Zim’s face was buried in the nape of Dib’s neck, but Dib felt his erection twitch nonetheless. He was fairly certain Zim could feel it, too, pressed against his hip. 

“Only if you want to,” Dib choked out.

Zim looked up at him, his face flushed and hungry. “Do you want me to?”

“Very much, yeah.”

Zim surged up, kissing Dib hard on the mouth. Dib held him tight, his heart pounding at the sharp, biting feeling of Zim’s nails digging into his thigh.

After kissing Dib so thoroughly he felt lightheaded, Zim moved downward, pausing as he went to nip at Dib’s collarbone, suck on one of his nipples, and kiss his stomach. By the time Zim was situated, hovering over Dib’s groin, Dib was painfully hard, his balls drawn up and his legs practically shaking.

“No teeth, please,” he managed.

Zim hummed in acknowledgment, then planted a tentative kiss just below Dib’s belly button. Dib watched with bated breath as Zim kissed him again, lower, and then again, until his head was positioned above Dib’s cock. He ducked down quickly to bite the sensitive skin on the inside of Dib’s thigh. Before Dib had a chance to react with anything more than a gasp, Zim moved forward again, swallowing Dib down in one fell swoop.

Dib wasn’t sure exactly what he blurted, something along the lines of holy fucking shit, he thought, but then his eyes were closing and all he could focus on was the warm, tight clutch of Zim’s mouth, the soft press of his tongue and the gentle grip of his lips as his mouth moved up and down Dib’s shaft. Zim’s fingernails were digging into Dib’s hips, his thighs, sliding around to grab him by the ass. Dib knew he was rambling whatever nonsense was coming to his mind. If he concentrated, it was a lot of fuck and just like that and loveyouloveyouloveyou. Zim moaned in response, making the muscles of Dib’s stomach tense.

Sooner than he’d like, Dib felt the heat and pressure build, a telltale warning that this was about to be over. Dib sat up with a choked “wait,” and Zim pulled away, a long string of saliva still connecting him to Dib’s aching hard on.

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” Dib whispered, his toes curling at the hoarse edge to Zim’s voice. “Just… was about to come.”

Zim shot him a curious look. “You don’t want to?”

Dib huffed a laugh. “Well, yeah, just… I thought that we could… oh.”

His brain, which had been taking a backseat for the past few minutes, quickly caught up to him, reminding him that he and Zim, if they wanted to take this any further, were missing a few necessities.

“What?” asked Zim.

“Just… I mean. I was thinking we could, you know—”

“Have intercourse?”

Dib winced. “Yeah. But, we don’t have… the stuff for it. Like, I didn’t bring, uh, condomsoranything.”

One of Zim’s antennae quirked a little. He crawled up toward the head of the bed, and Dib watched as he pulled open a draw in his bedside table and retrieved a little plastic bag.

“Will this do?”

Dib felt his entire face flood with heat as he peered into the bag. He didn’t recognize the brand of condoms or the lube that Zim was presenting him, likely because this stuff looked particularly… not from Earth.

“Where did you…?”

Zim cleared his throat. When Dib looked up at him, he was looking away. “Lard Nar and his brother are very… invested in our coupling.”

The pieces fell together. Dib looked back in the bag, his heart hammering in his chest. He considered whether it would be worth it to fall down the embarrassing rabbit hole of imagining exactly why the two vortians thought it would be appropriate to give Zim these gifts. A more persistent thought reminded him that he was with Zim, they were both in bed, and their previous issue had just been conveniently resolved.

He looked up at Zim, who was now staring at him. “Well,” he said, “I guess we can thank them for this later.”

Zim barked out a surprised laugh, and Dib felt something — something completely unrelated to sex — warming his chest. He leaned in to place a soft kiss on Zim’s mouth.

Zim took Dib’s face gently in his hands and tilted his head, scraping his teeth lightly against Dib’s lip. Dib groaned softly and let Zim deepen the kiss. He let Zim push him gently back onto the mattress, let Zim climb back on top of him, let Zim run his hands all over his body.

With what limited brain function he had, Dib tried to memorize everything that was happening — the perfect way their bodies felt pressed together, Zim’s hot breath on his face, the feeling of small, four-fingered hands wandering all over his body, like he wanted to touch every part of Dib at once. Dib sucked in a breath at the feeling of Zim grinding gently against him, rubbing their cocks together. He skated his hands down to Zim’s hips, pulling him closer. Zim sank his teeth into Dib’s earlobe and moaned.

His heart racing, Dib sat up a little and reached for the little plastic bag. He pulled out the bottle of lube, uncapped it, and drizzled some onto his fingers. He reached for Zim and stroked him, slowly, a few times. Zim watched, his breath shaky, bunching the fabric of the blanket in his hands.

Their eyes met, and Zim leaned forward to press a tentative kiss to Dib’s mouth. Dib pumped him a little faster, inhaling every small, desperate sound that Zim made into his mouth. He squeezed more lube onto his fingers and reached between his own legs, pressing lightly with one finger.

It had been a while, and he still felt fairly nervous. He remembered the sight of Zim throwing down those guards, twice his size, on Vort, and felt his nerve endings crackle.

Zim pulled back, and with a breathy “can I?” and a quick nod from Dib, he was replacing Dib’s finger with his own.

Dib let himself relax at the gentle, slow way Zim opened him up. He wrapped his hands around the backs of his knees and pulled them to his chest, holding himself open, grinning a little at the deep flush the crept up Zim’s neck and across his face. He watched Zim’s antennae twitch at his every moan and gasp, at every quiet instruction to add a finger, go deeper, a little faster. He let his head fall back onto the pillow and just feel it, appreciating that he was finally doing this with Zim, the person he'd wanted since he'd first realized he was even interested in sex. Zim touched him with gentle determination, and Dib goaded him on, melting as Zim's movements became rougher, quicker. Eventually, he let one of his legs go to reach for the box of condoms in the small plastic bag. He felt eyes on him as he ripped the packet open with his teeth.

He sat up and pressed a sloppy kiss to Zim’s neck as he gently rolled the condom on. Zim gripped his ankles and inhaled sharply. He pushed Dib lightly on the chest and Dib followed, leaning back until his head hit the pillow again. Zim laid down on top of him and kissed him, running a finger lightly up the crease of Dib’s ass as he did. Dib felt himself shudder, his stomach muscles clenching again.

“Ready when you are,” he croaked.

Zim pulled back to study him. Dib met his gaze.

He wasn’t sure what Zim was going to say, if anything. But Zim stared down at him for what felt like minutes, his hand moving until his palm rested on Dib’s beating heart. Dib just watched him, blinking a little, feeling suddenly, stupidly, vulnerable as a wave of emotion hit him. He placed his hand over Zim’s and breathed out.

Zim did the same, and they breathed together in Zim’s still room, floating through space, outside of time, for just a little while.

Then, Dib leaned forward, nudging Zim’s cheek with his nose and snapping Zim out of whatever moment he was having. Zim blinked, his eyes still cloudy with desire, and pressed a kiss to Dib’s forehead. Dib felt it again, that rush of emotion, and he reached for Zim’s hips and pulled him closer.

Zim got the picture and reached between their bodies to line himself up, and then he was slowly, carefully pushing into Dib.

A wave of arousal pulsed through Dib at the bitten-off groan that Zim made as he nudged slowly inside him. For a moment, Dib felt a strange, out-of-body experience, like he was looking at himself and Zim from some other place — two former enemies turned best friends turned lovers, one irken and one part-human, part irken. Two people who shouldn’t make sense together but somehow did, like two broken, imperfect puzzle pieces that didn’t fit anywhere else but, by some miracle, fit together. It took Dib’s breath away.

Zim exhaled, his chest shuddering against Dib's.

"Okay?" asked Dib softly.

 Zim nodded, making an mhm sound and, finally, fully pushing himself into Dib. "It feels good."

"Really good," Dib agreed, his heart beating double-time and his face — his whole body — burning with arousal.

He murmured more encouragement to Zim, who was watching him, his expression careful and searching. Zim nodded, pulling out and pushing in, his breath shaking and his face flushed. Dib pressed his mouth to Zim’s kiss-swollen lips and let it all go, the nerves and the fear and the self-doubt, his worries quelled with every thrust of Zim’s hips until they were both losing control.

Zim pressed his face into the curve of Dib’s neck as his movements got more frenzied, his thrusts coming harder and faster, and Dib goaded him on with breathless reassurances and pleas. Zim’s hands were tangled in his hair, skating along his sides — one more tender than the other, but Zim was so gentle there, it didn’t matter. Dib wrapped his legs around Zim, his heels digging into Zim’s back and thigh, his arms clinging to Zim’s shoulders. He rocked his hips up so that Zim’s thrusts came at the perfect angle to have him seeing stars, and his heart was beating out Zim’s name, faster and harder as sweat beaded along his hairline and made his grip slippery.

Zim’s hand traveled from Dib’s side to the cleft of his ass, feeling, Dib could tell, where their bodies met. Dib released a loud moan at the feeling of Zim’s searching fingers, pressing gently against sensitive skin and pushing him closer to the edge. Now, Zim’s other hand was moving away from Dib’s side, drifting between them and grasping Dib’s erection, already leaking and throbbing and red. Zim swooped in for another kiss as he started to jerk Dib off. Dib might later be embarrassed by how quickly he came from that, but, at the time, he could only think about Zim’s bruising kiss, Zim’s brutal, mind-numbing pace, and Zim’s quick, perfect hand. Dib peaked hard and came down slow, barely registering Zim’s final, stuttering thrusts and his hoarse, low groan.

He came to just as Zim was flopping on top of him, and they just lay together for a while, listening.

The room was quiet, not like before, when the sounds they’d been making had all but deafened him. Now, though, it was still — silent. Time had stopped. Dib remembered to breathe.

He felt Zim pull out, slowly and carefully, and then flop over so that he was pressed against Dib’s side. Dib wrapped an arm around Zim’s shoulders and pulled him closer, not ready for the spell of intimacy to break, for this perfect moment to give way to whatever was coming next.

Zim gave him a tender kiss on the cheek, and Dib felt himself smile.

Some things felt so inevitable, like losing Zim forever, dying during a prison raid, never knowing his own identity. But then, Dib thought, his brain still cloudy and his body sated, he’d also seen some impossible things happen. He’d seen a monster made of slime that consumed energy. He’d seen his father worry for him. He’d seen Zim come back to him, after all the shit they’d put each other through. So, maybe the inevitable wasn’t so certain. Maybe the impossible wasn’t so unreachable.

“I love you,” Dib murmured.

Zim groaned, rolling partway off Dib and yawning right in his face. “I love you, too, Dib-creature.”

Dib chuckled, then rolled himself over so that he was pressing Zim into the mattress. Zim just looked up at him, a dreamy expression on his face.

“So,” said Dib softly. “What’d you think?”

Zim yawned again, right in Dib’s face. “It was good.”

“Just ‘good’?” Dib pressed.

Zim blinked at him, likely trying to gauge whether Dib was being serious or playful. He correctly guessed the latter, and, with a self-satisfied expression, added: “I was better at it than I thought I’d be.”

Dib rolled his eyes and grinned, then leaned forward to lick up the side of Zim’s face.

Zim whined, batting Dib’s face away with minimal effort.

“You’re so gross.” He looked down, and his eyes trailed to where their torsos were pressed together, where Dib was, unintentionally, smearing his still-drying come all over Zim’s belly. “You’re getting me all gross,” he added.

“We’re both gross,” Dib agreed. “We should shower.”

Zim gave another groan before wrapping an arm around Dib’s shoulders. “Sleep first,” he murmured.

Dib tried to move but was trapped by Zim’s arm, so he just relaxed, tacitly agreeing. He pressed his face into Zim’s neck and inhaled the scent of irken sweat, then planted one last kiss to Zim’s shoulder. Zim hummed and pulled Dib closer.

And that was the end of it. Their first time was over, done, perfect. Dib listened as Zim’s breathing went deep, as he drifted into sleep. He wondered how tired Zim had been the past few days, how worried he must be — for Earth, for Dib, for all of them.

Dib let himself drift off, his mind going to strange places, making a senseless compilation: the stars at night, seen through his father’s telescope. The red leaves that fell in October, covering the ground of that park that Zim and GIR used to like so much. The lunch tables in the hi skool cafeteria. The woods, dark and damp, where he and Zim used to search for monsters.

He thought about the odds of finding Zim. Of Zim, somehow making his way to Earth, to Dib’s town, to their middle skool, just at the right time. Of their enmity, and then their friendship, and then — this. Love. Dib had been in love with Zim since before they’d gone on this mission, before their separation, before prom. And now, by some strange and perfect happenstance, they were in love with each other. Zim was just as much his as he had always been Zim’s. Dib felt that warm feeling again, that sweet rush of affection and gratefulness and joy, his whole body thrumming with it, burning like stars. He held Zim tighter and Zim snored in response, and Dib loved it, all of it.

Chapter Text

i.

Gaz paced the length of the room, her hands behind her back, her voice hoarse as she muttered aloud to herself.

GIR was rolling around on the floor, singing a Beyoncé song at an octave that even Beyoncé probably couldn’t reach. Gaz had half a mind to kick him, but the resulting tantrum would probably be worse than the Beyoncé.

Time was almost up. They’d done everything they could. The humans were en route to designated transport zones, where the rebels’ fleet would beam them all up into space. After gaining access to the President Man via mind control helmets, and then slapping a helmet on the leader of the free world himself, Gaz had only had a couple of weeks to reach the entire rest of the world. She and GIR tracked down every person they could find and seized their minds. She’d managed to have a small army from each continent gather samples of edible plants that she was sure she and Zim would be able to replicate, if they needed to. They had millions upon millions of tranquilizer darts stocked up, manufactured in record time by zoologists in helmets. When the time came, every animal that Gaz could conceive of would be tranq’ed to shit and then beamed aboard. She had contingency plans, DNA samples, and the entire world at her command. Now, finally, she was home, just waiting for the signal from her family telling her that it was time. 

She was going to have a panic attack.

“GIR,” she barked. “I need a status update.”

GIR leapt to his feet and saluted, his eyes going red. “We are ahead of schedule!” he chirped.

“Are you sure?”

GIR’s eyes went back to their regular teal. He shrugged.

Gaz groaned. “You’re useless, GIR.”

GIR stared at her for a moment, then shrugged again.

“Computer!” Gaz barked. “I need a status update. Now.”

“We’re ahead of schedule,” said the Computer with a sigh.

“Are you sure?”

“I was sure when you asked me forty-six seconds ago, and I’m sure now.”

Gaz huffed. She turned on her heel and started pacing again.

It wasn’t that she hadn’t prepared. It was just that she’d never been faced with such high stakes in her life, and the smallest oversight could have unimaginable consequences.

She’d scoured the planet for every person she could find — she didn’t trust government databases, never had. She’d found life signals in the densest forests, the darkest caves, and she’d taken all of their minds, and they were going to get on her fucking space ships and she was going to save their lives.

And if she’d missed anyone…

Well. Now wasn’t the time to worry about that. She’d done her best with what limited time she’d had, and… well. If anyone were to get blown up because she’d miscalculated, forgotten, lost track of something vital—

Now wasn’t the time to worry about that. If she was lucky, she’d have an entire lifetime to worry about that.

And, if she wasn’t lucky… well, at least she’d be put out of her misery.

GIR started singing again. Gaz stomped out of Zim’s laboratory and rode the elevator up to the kitchen.

She always forgot that the kitchen elevator led to the toilet. With a curse, she squeezed herself through the Zim-sized hole and landed, wet and a little out of breath, on the dirty kitchen floor.

To say that she’d kept Zim’s based relatively clean would be a lie. But, she’d been tasked with saving the entire planet, not with housesitting. Zim would have to suck it up if he — by some miracle — got home to find that she’d let his plants die and his counter get dusty.

She marched herself through the door, unwilling to care that she was leaving GIR alone in the base. He was fine, he could watch TV.

She was about a hundred feet away from the base when she felt a little, robotic hand grasping her ankle.

Gaz turned to find GIR, not even in his doggie suit, staring up at her.

“You forgot me!” he chirped. 

“I didn’t forget you,” hissed Gaz. “I left you.”

“By accident!”

“No, on— you know what, whatever. I need to go for a walk.”

GIR perked up at the word “walk.” Gaz rolled her eyes and shook the little robot off her foot. “Fine, you can come.”

GIR trotted along beside her as they waded through the mayhem. At this point, her town was unrecognizable: the streets were lined with people packing up their cars with whatever belongings they could carry, some in helmets, a few without, so that Gaz could see the fear on their faces. She looked away as one young girl tried to catch her eye, her heart racing. There was a transport location not far outside the city. The people she’d grown up around were all heading there to wait for — they didn’t even know what. Salvation? Would anyone even believe that Gaz was trying to save their lives? Would they even care since, now, they all knew that her father had caused this whole mess in the first place?

She thought back to when she’d told her dad’s team that he’d died while he was fucking with PEG. Miraculously, he would have to make a recovery, since Dib and Zim had actually managed to track him down. Gaz wondered how many people on this planet even still believed in miracles, now that Professor Membrane, their hero, their god, had finally let them down.

Gaz felt her stomach clench. A few people stopped and stared at GIR, naked and whistling a jolly Christmas tune, as they walked by. She didn’t care. What was the point anymore, anyway?

A helmeted man struggled to fit his two large dogs into a tiny, two-door car. The dogs whimpered. The man, shaking, begged them to comply.

Despite everything, Gaz found herself crossing the street to help. The man looked at her, his face grim.

She wasn’t sure what he saw when he looked at her through Zim’s helmet. She'd programmed it to show fire, destruction, chaos, anything that would convince them to do as she told them. She wondered if he recognized her.

“Gaz Membrane,” he said.

Her stomach clenched again. She nodded.

“Let me help you out.”

“They’re worried,” said the man, motioning to the two dogs. “I think they know something’s wrong.”

Gaz would have guessed that they did. Every person in town was radiating worry, fear, anxiety. The tremors from PEG’s rotations were getting worse. Even at Zim’s base — even here — Gaz could feel the ground shaking beneath her. Every now and then, a bigger quake would rattle the whole town, and Gaz would freeze, her blood running cold, thinking that they’d miscalculated and this was the end. But, no. The end wasn’t here yet.

It was coming. The rotations were finishing quicker as the time dilation field began to weaken, and the trembles were so strong, they were throwing people to the ground. 

Gaz made her was to the open door of the man’s car. It was barley big enough to fit the man’s suitcase, let alone his two big dogs.

“This won’t all fit,” said the man, his voice shaking. “The car… I should have rented a car, but the rental place jacked up the prices…”

Gaz felt her blood boil at that. Yes, she was aware of the few assholes who were, for some ridiculous reason, trying to squeeze out a few extra bucks before the apocalypse. She was well aware that the wealthier few were doing nothing to help the people who could barely afford to get themselves to the transport locations. It infuriated her. And then—

“Wait here,” said Gaz suddenly. She turned on her heel. “Come on, GIR.”

She started running. She probably didn’t need to, but. She needed to.

She got back to Zim’s base in just a few minutes, GIR at her side, and climbed into her car. She drove it back to the man with the dogs, hopped out, and tossed him the keys.

“I— thanks,” he stuttered.

“Don’t mention it,” said Gaz, unable to look at the man’s face, only his mouth and chin visible from beneath the helmet.

“I dunno when I’m gonna be able to get this back to you,” said the man, his tone regretful.

“I won’t be needing it,” said Gaz. “Just leave it wherever.”

“Okay,” said the man quietly, before ushering his two big dogs in to Gaz’s car. The dogs complied, for the most part, and, eventually, the man was able to load his suitcase into the trunk. He sat himself in the driver’s seat, an uncomfortable look on his face as he turned to look back at Gaz.

Gaz took a deep breath.

“My dad gave me that car,” she said, unnecessarily.

“It’s a, uh, nice car.”

“He got it for me when I…” was sixteen, and I made upgrades to PEG so that she would be even more powerful.

The man looked at her, waiting for her to finish. Gaz just shook her head.

“Get out of here, okay?” she asked. “Get to the transport site as fast as you can.”

The man nodded, then shut the door of Gaz’s car. He started the car and was just pressing on the gas pedal when Gaz lurched forward, shouting “wait!” and knocking on the window. He rolled it down.

“I just—” Gaz looked back at the two whimpering dogs standing in her backseat. She took a shaky breath. “I was just wondering what breed your dogs were.”

The man shot her a questioning look, but he turned around in his seat to point to one of the dogs, dark grey with a huge, square head. “I got ’em both at the pound, but I think that one’s some kinda pit mix, and she—” he pointed to the other dog, black and tan with curly, soft-looking fur “— I don’t really know. She looks like a doberman but has hair kinda like a poodle.” He looked back at Gaz, a small smile forming below the sharp cut of his helmet. “Sometimes people ask and I say she’s a dober-doodle.”

Gaz smiled at that, forcing herself to grin and cough out a laugh. “That’s funny,” she said. “Okay, bye.”

She scooped up GIR and turned on her heel, almost running as she tore herself away. She heard the man thank her, and it made her want to puke, and then she really did start running again, as fast as she could. As if should could outrun the pounding in her heart, radiating through her whole body, swallowing her whole.

 

The Membrane household was in ruins. With every completed PEG rotation, the ground split open more and more, and the house fell deeper into the crevice caused by PEG. Gaz could barely access PEG at this point. As she stared down at the deep wound that PEG’s rotations were forming in the surface of the Earth, she wondered, one last time, if she should get down there and see if there wasn’t one more thing she could try to stop the detonation.

She’d been down there, though. She knew there was nothing else she could do.

With GIR still in her grip, Gaz turned away from PEG and walked back up her driveway. She sat herself on the curb next to her mailbox, held GIR tightly in her grip, and started to cry.

She’d been holding it in since— well, who knows? Since she’d found out that her dad was an alien? Since she and Dib discovered that PEG, a machine intended to save mankind, was actually going to destroy them all? Since her dad told her, point-blank, that he was still keeping secrets from her? Since Dib first discovered that they were clones? Since way before that, since forever, since as long as she’d been alive?

Gaz hated theatrics, and she generally avoided making a big show of her emotions through unnecessary things like crying. But, she was doing it now, because they were ahead of schedule and her chest felt like it was ripping itself apart.

GIR, the universe’s most empathetic hunk of metal to ever exist, started tearing up and blubbering right along with her. Gaz squeezed him harder and let herself go.

She thought about Dib, and her dad, and how hard she’d tried to keep their family from falling apart. She thought about that conversation with Dib, weeks ago, now, when he told her that they were hybrids, that their dad was an irken. How she’d brushed him off, even as the weight of Membrane’s betrayal was finally settling over her.

He’d lied to them. He’d kept their identity from them. And for what? To what end? If Dib hadn’t followed Membrane into space, would she never have known? Would she have died, having never known?

Dib had been right to be angry with Membrane, and he had a right to be angry with her. She’d barely talked to him since that fight, since Dib had tearfully accused her of having no feelings.

If only he could see her now, sitting on the ground, hugging GIR for comfort and crying like a baby.

She had been so cruel to Dib, brushing away his feelings like they didn’t matter. Like his feelings had never mattered. And Dib, rightfully, had gotten so furious with her, because Dib felt things more powerfully and more terribly than any other person Gaz knew, and she knew that, and she’d dismissed him, not out of cruelty toward him but out of her own sense of self-preservation. She’d told him to calm down, to take deep breaths, because, somehow, framing this as Dib’s problem and not their problem had given Gaz the distance she’d needed to separate herself from the issue. It had been enough for her to put herself outside all of the stress, the anger, the sadness.

She’d hid from it all, up until now. She’d been contextualizing their family’s problems as something that was wrong with Dib and their father, an issue that she would resolve as the disinterested third party. Now, as the world neared its final day and Gaz was alone, she couldn’t hide any more.

She screamed while she cried, the rage from her father’s lies consuming her. She remembered looking at her father’s Irken face, right before he and Dib and Zim almost died tracking down some kind of experiment that would, apparently, save them all.

Gaz wasn’t so sure. All she could think about was that face — a stranger, she realized. Someone who had raised her that she knew nothing about.

Gaz let herself keep crying, even though she had a schedule to get back to, even though she should probably go back to the base and check in on Zim and Dib. She shivered, thinking of what Zim had told her when he’d checked in after the mission — that Dib was injured, recovering, but he couldn’t talk. It had made her sick, and Zim looked so distressed and was missing a fucking hand, and there was nothing she could do about it.

In her arms, GIR suddenly stopped crying.

“Look!” he shouted, pointing to the sky.

Gaz looked up through strands of her messy, sweaty hair and watched as a flickering star came closer, closer, and then she recognized it — Dib’s ship — and then it was landing on her front lawn and her father was stepping out.

“Gaz!” he shouted, scrambling toward her and dropping next to her. Gaz said nothing, too shocked to see that her dad was here, sitting in front of her, looking like an irken—

“Sweetheart, why are you crying?”

Gaz froze, all brain functions ceasing for a fraction of a second before it all came back, welling inside her and bursting free.

“Why am I crying?” she repeated, breathless. “Why am I crying?”

Her father reached for her. She batted his hand away and stood.

“I’m crying because you doomed the entire planet! I’m crying because you’re an alien, and you— you didn’t tell me! You lied to me! You— I was—”

She didn’t want to say it, but it was there, right on the tip of her tongue.

“I did everything for our family, and you couldn’t even tell me you were an alien?”

“Gaz,” said Membrane, standing and gripping her shoulders. “I wanted to tell you, honey. I couldn’t tell you and not Dib. It wouldn’t be fair—”

Fair?” Gaz snapped, her voice hoarse. “What’s not fair is that I was the only thing holding our family together for years and I— I tried to make you and Dib get along, and I— I worked for you, and we built things together, and I looked out for Dib for you and—”

“Gaz—”

“That’s what’s not fair!” she barked, backing away out of her father’s grasp. “It’s not fair that I did whatever you wanted, without even knowing who you really are! You should have told me!”

“Please—”

“You should have told me!” Gaz repeated, her heart aching and GIR crushed against her chest.

“I know,” said Membrane, approaching her slowly. Gaz took a step back, and Membrane froze. “I know, Gaz, I know. I just… I couldn’t let anyone know. I couldn’t risk…”

“What?” asked Gaz, when it was clear Membrane wasn’t going to finish his thought. “What couldn’t you risk?”

Membrane looked at her, his stupid alien antennae hanging down and his posture, for once, slouched. Membrane never slouched.

“This,” he said weakly, gesturing to Gaz’s red, puffy face, her tortured sobs, her furious expression. “I couldn’t risk this.”

“That’s not fair,” Gaz whispered.

“I know,” said Membrane. “It was selfish, and— I should never have lied to you in the first place, either of you, I just— I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have any idea.”

Gaz drew a shaky breath, but she said nothing.

“Gazleen, I need you to know…” Membrane sighed. “I need you to know how… I appreciate this, everything you have done to help the people of Earth. I appreciate everything you’ve done.”

“I didn’t do it to make you happy,” Gaz snapped, feeling childish but not caring. “I did it to help them.”

“I know.”

“I did it, because they—” Gaz gestured behind her, although she knew that her neighborhood was empty, evacuated early to save everyone from PEG’s increasingly violent rotations “—they don’t deserve to die, all because you did something stupid.”

“I know,” repeated Membrane.

“I did it because Zim and Dib asked me to,” said Gaz. “After you left us with nothing, and you forced us to figure it out ourselves.”

“Gaz, please,” said Membrane. “I left because I thought that I could get help from the Tallest. I was going to come back, I promise, I was never…”

Membrane paused for a long moment, and Gaz felt her eyes well up again.

“I was never going to just leave you and not come back.”

Gaz’s eyes were swimming, but she willed herself not to let any tears break free.

“You could have told us. You left us here, with nothing—”

“I was trying to do what was right, Gaz. I didn’t know how long it would take me to get to Irk, and I—”

“You could have told us! You could have told us everything, and we could have figured this out, together—”

“Gaz.”

“—as a family,” Gaz finished through grit teeth.

Membrane took a deep breath.

“I’m so sorry, Gaz,” said Membrane softly. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Tears streaked down Gaz’s cheeks again, and her father took a step toward her. She allowed it, her whole body starting to shake.

“I’m sorry for lying to you, Gaz. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you who I was, or who you are. I’m sorry for placing the responsibility on you to handle Dib. I’m sorry for creating this mess, and for leaving you behind to clean it up. I’m so sorry, Gaz. For all of it.”

Gaz stared up at her father as he stood, five inches taller than her. His brow was creased and his voice was quiet and shaking and he pushed his goggles up his forehead to reveal two irken eyes, blue and bright and shining with tears.

“I’m sorry,” Membrane repeated, his voice wobbling and quiet, a tear streaming down his cheek. “If I could redo it all, I would. I would make everything right again.”

Gaz felt her own tears fall faster down her cheeks, and she squeezed a sniffling GIR tighter and just stared at her father.

"I thought you were gone forever," she whispered, her voice cracking as her emotions betrayed her.

"I wouldn't," said Membrane, his own voice weak and wavering. "I would never leave you. I was just trying to do what's right."

Gaz watched her dad, thinking of all the late nights in the labs, all the conferences and inventions and experiments, all in the name of doing what's right. All done at the terrible, lonely cost of leaving his children alone. 

“How will you stop PEG?” she croaked eventually.

“I have the experiment,” said Membrane softly, reaching into his lab coat and producing a big bottle filled with a screaming glob of green goo. “When everyone is evacuated, I will release it, and it will be drawn to PEG and consume her before she can destroy the planet.”

“What will happen when it consumes PEG?” asked Gaz.

“I don’t know,” said Membrane. “No one really knows. I suppose we’ll just see.”

“What will happen to you?”

Membrane froze, then sighed. He looked at Gaz, another tear falling as he murmured, “I don’t know.”

Gaz’s stomach clenched. She wasn’t surprised. Really, her father was as reckless and self-sacrificing as Dib could be, sometimes. Of course he would put himself in the line of destruction. 

“Is there any other way?” Gaz asked.

Membrane didn’t say anything, just looked at Gaz, his mouth a thin line.

“We don’t know what will happen, Gaz,” said Membrane. “I could release it, and then have time to get away before it consumes PEG.”

“Dad—”

“We just have to see,” said Membrane.

“You can’t do something else?” asked Gaz. “You can’t… build something, or, or—”

“We don't have time,” said Membrane, reading Gaz’s mind. “Besides, I can’t leave anything up to chance. I have to be here to make sure the creature consumes PEG.”

Gaz felt her own heart start to beat double time in her chest.

“Dad—” she whispered.

“I’m sorry,” Membrane repeated, his voice shaking. "But this is all my fault. I have to do what's right."

She was still so angry with him, for so many things. But she knew, no matter what, there was no way to change him. He was an irken, through and through: bound to his duty, his mission. If only he had seen raising her and Dib the way he saw helping humanity. She knew he never would.

Yet, in that moment of cosmic and scientific uncertainty, she let her anger slip away, just for a second. She dropped GIR onto the ground and lurched forward, pulling her father into a hug.

Membrane held her tightly, and, for a second, she felt like a little girl again, swept up into her father’s arms the second he walked through the door after a long day of work. She wished it could be that simple, that she could go back in time and start from the beginning. She wished that her dad had been honest with her, that she’d treated Dib more kindly, that they could just have another chance at being a normal, happy family.

“I love you, Gaz,” he father murmured. "I should have been a better father to you. To both of you."

“I love you, too, Dad,” Gaz whispered, not because he particularly deserved to hear it, but because it was true, and Gaz didn’t know if she was going to get the chance to say it again.

Membrane squeezed her tighter, and Gaz closed her eyes and imagined that they could just stay here, frozen in time until she was ready to open her eyes and face reality.

Gaz’s watch pinged, and she pulled away from her father to check the notification.

“The teleportation sites have accounted for almost everybody,” she said. She looked up at her father. “It’s almost time.”

Membrane nodded. He looked back toward the broken ruins of their house, where PEG was grinding out another rotation. As the ground shook beneath them, Gaz held steady onto her father’s outstretched arm and watched as PEG’s chasm opened even wider beneath what was left of their house. Then, the shaking passed, and Gaz stared at the giant hole in the ground that had swallowed their childhood home.

She felt tears prick at her eyes again, and her dad wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured, and Gaz felt the tears drip down her chin as he kept going, his voice shaking, begging for her forgiveness.

Gaz felt her shoulders sag under the weight of her father’s grief, his misery, his regret. She just shook her head, unable to form any words, unable to forgive him, this time, because— she didn’t have it left in her. After years of making excuses for him, taking care of Dib for him, letting him get away with anything without raising so much as a complaint... she didn’t have it left in her.

“I wish we had more time,” he whispered.

Membrane hugged her tighter, and she hugged him back, her hope for forgiveness, repentance, so distant and unreachable.

If they had more time, they could work through it all. Membrane could show them how sorry he was, how badly he wanted to try to pull their family back together. Finally, Gaz wouldn’t be the one responsible for keeping together those last, tenuous threads. She and Dib could just be the children, and Membrane would be their parent, and he would finally act like their parent, even if they were adults now. They could still repair things, she thought. It would be damn near impossible, but they could rebuild their house out of the shambles that Membrane had left it in, and, maybe, they could be happy.

If they could all just survive for one more day, then maybe, they could have that.

Chapter Text

i.

Dib teetered in place for a moment before setting his sights on his goal: tall and shining, pointing right into the night sky—

“Dib!”

Before he knew it, strong arms were scooping Dib up. He wriggled in his dad’s grasp.

“Lemme go!” he squealed.

Above him, he heard his dad sigh.

“Dib, what did I tell you about wandering off?”

“I wanna look!”

Somewhere above his head, one of his dad’s employees gave a gentle laugh. “He’s curious. You should be proud.”

“I know that, Goldberg, but he’s a distraction.”

“He’s a kid. Let him look.”

Membrane sighed, then turned in the direction of Dib’s goal. Dib squealed with delight, reaching forward.

“Lemme look! Lemme look!”

With another sigh, Membrane held his son up to the telescope. Dib grabbed for it, practically drooling as he leaned in toward the eyepiece.

He stared at the stars, his little body shaking with excitement. Behind him, he heard another scientist enter the room, accompanied by painfully loud screaming.

Over the sound of his baby sister’s wails, Dib heard his dad and the second scientist arguing.

“She won’t sleep in the office!”

“Well, can’t you do something else with her?”

“She wants you!”

“Fine, fine, hand her over.”

Membrane shifted. Dib held fast to the telescope. Once in Membrane’s other arm, Gaz abruptly stopped screaming.

“It’s a miracle,” mused Goldberg.

“It’s a nuisance,” snapped Membrane. “How am I supposed to get any work done, here?”

“It’s alright, sir,” said Goldberg softly. “This is all part of having young children. Trust me, it’ll get easier.”

Dib felt a jostling near him, and he pulled away from the telescope to see his sister squirming. He leaned forward to plant a kiss on his baby sister’s chubby face. She slapped him on the top of the head with a grunt.

“It’s not nice to hit, Gazzy,” he chastised.

Gaz grunted again in response, then poked Dib in the forehead.

“Children, please,” sighed Membrane.

Dib leaned into the telescope again and began rattling off the different types of stars. Gaz, who had turned and started climbing up Membrane’s shoulder, responded by listing all the noble gases.

“…and there’s white dwarfs, and supergiants, and did you know there’s blue supergiants? And…”

“Hewium, awgon, kwypton…”

“Children,” Membrane groaned. “That’s very impressive, but I need to—”

“Way-don—”

“Dadda, did you know that the sun is almost a hundred millions miles from Earth?”

“Hewium! Awgon!”

“Okay!” said Membrane. “Yes, I hear you. That’s very nice, children. Very good science.”

“You have to admit,” said Goldberg. “That’s pretty impressive for two toddlers.”

“It is?” asked Membrane.

“Uh, yes. They’re definitely your kids.”

“Hmm, yes,” said Membrane thoughtfully. “They certainly are.”

“Dad?” asked Dib suddenly, his attention focused back on the telescope.

“Yes?” asked Membrane.

Dib took a breath. “Do you ever think… when you’re lookin’ through the tell... telly—”

“Telescope,” said Membrane softly.

“Yeah, the tellyspoke. When you’re lookin’ through it, do you ever think there’s someone… I dunno… lookin’ back?” Dib thought that there had to be. It couldn’t just be them. 

Membrane paused, shifting Dib around in his grasp for a moment. “Of course not, son. That would be ridiculous.”

“I dunno…” said Dib.

“There’s nothing out there, son,” said Membrane quietly. “Nothing but stars.”

“Maybe one day I’ll be a space esplorer. Then I’ll find all the, uh, the space people. I’ll discover ’em.”

“There are no space people. Trust me.”

Dib was already on a roll. “Yeah! And then, and then, then I’ll get a big spaceship, and then I’ll esplore all the universes!”

“You’ll do no such thing,” said Membrane, his voice hardening.

“Aww, why not?” whined Dib. “Hey, Dadda, have you ever been to space?”

“No,” said Membrane sharply. “And I have no interest in it. Everything we need is on Earth.”

“I dunno,” repeated Dib. “There’s gotta be somethin’ out there.”

Membrane said nothing, just dropped a kiss to the top of his son’s head. Dib looked through the lens of the telescope, trying desperately to see if there was anything out there, lingering among the stars.

 

ii.

Dib’s face was soft and slack as he slept. Zim watched, as he’d been watching for the past few hours.

When Zim woke up, he’d been astounded to remember what had happened in this very bed the night before.

Now, there was nothing between them.

Dib was his. He had never had anything so precious in his life.

Zim watched Dib sleep and thought about every second from the night before. He thought about how Dib held his hand as they talked about adventuring together among the stars. He thought about the soft, surprised, delighted expression on Dib’s face when Zim had so artlessly blurted out his affections. He thought about the dark, rosy tone of Dib’s cheeks when he told Zim that he loved him, too.

Love. Just like that. Zim had never even considered that he might find someone who would love him.

And then, after. They’d finally consummated their union, and every moment of it had been more brilliant than the last. If everything went to hell today, at least they’d had last night. Zim wanted to reach for Dib, but he was too afraid of waking him up. Still, having Dib across from him, peaceful and naked under Zim’s sheets, was thrilling, in its own way.

Zim felt his spooch dip as he remembered waking up sticky and disgusting almost a half hour after falling asleep with Dib on top of him. He’d dragged Dib to the shower and they’d washed each other, like something out of a movie GIR would like, and then they’d kissed and stumbled, still dripping, back into Zim’s bed. They’d devoured each other again, and Zim thought that he would never grow tired of the sight of Dib on his back, looking up at him, his expression dreamy and his eyes hungry while he let Zim take him.

Truly, Zim had never felt so honored in his life.

They’d taken another shower after and then, finally, fell exhausted into each other’s arms. Zim was lulled to sleep by the sound of Dib’s steady breathing, the soft beat of his heart, the noisy yet endearing way he snored.

And now here they were. Together, at last, and Zim would never look back.

There was nothing between them anymore. Everything Dib had, all of his wants, his fears, his anger, Zim knew it all. Zim was privy to everything in Dib’s life now, from how he slept to what he looked like when he orgasmed. And, what was more thrilling and somehow more terrifying, Dib knew everything about Zim. There was nothing between them any more. They were one, together, united, inseparable. They belonged to each other, from now until the end of time.

Dib shifted, and Zim thought that he might be starting to wake up. Zim clenched his fist, refraining from reaching for Dib, hoping to let him sleep for just a few more minutes before they had to get up and go save the world. Another part of him, one of equal strength, was dying to wake Dib up, to pull him from sleep and into their new life together. They may be left with nothing today, but Zim would make sure that they at least had each other. He would keep Dib by his side forever, their hands fitting together so perfectly, it was like they were made for each other.

Dib’s eyes opened and Zim felt his spooch jump. Dib closed his eyes again and groaned.

“Hi,” said Zim, too loudly in the still room.

Dib’s face clenched. He opened his eyes and looked at Zim. “Hi.”

“How are you?” asked Zim.

Dib groaned again. “Sore.”

Zim felt a twitch of embarrassment from within his gut. Dib closed his eyes again and rolled onto his back. Zim watched, suddenly feeling like some force of gravity was dragging him downward.

“Dib…” said Zim softly, not sure what to add as Dib turned his head to face him.

Dib sighed, then turned onto his side to fully face Zim again. “Were you watching me sleep, space boy?”

Dib’s voice was raspy when he woke up in the mornings. Zim filed that fact away, adding it to the long list of things that were his now.

Zim, finally, allowed himself to reach between them and cup Dib’s cheek in his palm.

“You snore.”

He scooted himself toward Dib, unable to stop himself from moving closer. Dib placed a hand over Zim’s and grinned, and Zim felt like he was floating again.

“I do not.”

“You do, too,” Zim corrected. “You snore like GIR.”

Dib pushed forward, rolling Zim onto his back and straddling his hips, kissing him fiercely as he went. Zim could only make a muffled sound of surprise.

Dib drew back, looking desperate, his hands grasping Zim’s face. “I wish we could stay in here forever,” he murmured.

Zim let himself reach for Dib’s hips. Somehow, a part of him had been expecting Dib to wake up and retreat again. He pushed away the fear that Dib would shatter what they’d built, that he would run away, push Zim away, pretend like they didn’t care about each other. That was over, now. 

“Nothing has to change when we leave here,” he said, trying to look brave in the face of Dib’s searching expression.

“Nothing but the end of the world,” said Dib.

Zim shrugged a shoulder. “We can handle it.”

Dib cracked a smile at that.

“And after?” Dib asked, his expression serious. “What happens after?”

Zim sat up, readjusting their position so that they were both upright, Dib sitting on Zim's thighs. He felt something inside himself break then, some old, ancient barrier that his leaders had forced him to build, one that blocked the most vulnerable and important parts of him. He stared into Dib’s face as Dib watched him right back, and he realized that he really would do anything for Dib. If Dib would let him, he would live the rest of his life to make Dib happy. Nothing was more important — not the Empire, not Earth, not anything.

“Whatever you want, my Dib,” Zim said.

Dib smiled again and leaned in to plant a soft kiss on Zim’s mouth. He pulled back, his expression pleased, his smile faltering only a little.

“Adventures through outer space?” he asked.

“Of course,” said Zim.

“Wherever we want to go?”

Zim tightened his grip on Dib’s hips and pulled him closer. “Wherever you want to go.”

Dib’s mouth was pressed against his again, the gesture coming with a flaming urgency that Zim hoped, one day, would temper to a warm, unhurried burn. But, today was the end of the world, and no amount of hoping would stop that.

 

The vortians were waiting for them in the hangar when they arrived. Lard Gai, of course, had to comment on the absurd blue Resisty jumpsuit that he’d lent Zim. Lard Nar just shot Zim a knowing look and an infuriating half-smile.

“I sent Gaz a message to let her know that we’ll be flying down to the transport site near her,” said Dib, who pretended not to notice Lard Nar’s extremely unprofessional behavior. “She’s waiting for us.”

Lard Gai nodded. “We will begin the… uh, abductions, I suppose… in just a few minutes,” he said. “We will start with your town and move outward from the location of the energy generator.”

Zim nodded back. “We will take my ship to Earth to ensure that everything is going according to plan. If there are any complications, we will inform you immediately.”

“After the…” Dib paused, trailing off. The vortians looked to him, waiting. He cleared his throat. “We’ll get back to Earth to find Zim’s energy-consumer as soon as we can, and we’ll deliver it to you.”

“That’s perfect,” said Lard Nar.

Lard Gai stepped forward and, with some straining, was able to reach up to clap a hand on Dib’s shoulder. “It will all be okay, Dib.”

Dib just nodded, his gaze shifting to Zim. Zim took a breath and wished he could agree.

“No time to waste, now,” said Lard Nar.

He was right. Zim and Dib climbed into The Dib and took off for Earth.

They sat in the cockpit in charged silence. Dib drew a shaky breath.

“Computer,” said Dib, “play Whitney Houston.”

Zim looked over at him in surprise, and Dib returned with a grim smile.

“For good luck,” Dib explained.

Zim chuckled a little, his hands sweating as he gripped the yoke and steered them toward Earth.

 

iii.

Gaz checked her watch. They barely had twenty minutes until PEG was set to explode through the time dilation field and kill them all. She stood next to a massive crowd of people, all believing — who knows what? That this was the rapture? That they were all already dead? Gaz had no idea. She just checked her watch again and waited.

A shout from somewhere in the middle of the crowd that sounded like “master!” alerted her to the incoming space ship. Finally, Dib and Zim were here.

They landed, and Dib leapt from the cockpit just as the window was sliding open.

“Gaz!” he called, but she was already racing toward them.

Gaz collided with her brother, and, to her surprise, Dib pulled her into a tight hug. Gaz only let herself hold Dib for a second before pulling away — time was running out, she knew, and she had to make this quick.

“Dib, I— you were right,” she choked out. “Everything you said about Dad was right. I… I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Dib looked down at her, and she imagined that she looked at least as exhausted as he did. Her hair was damp with sweat from the summer heat, and she hadn’t even bothered to check if it looked like she had just been crying. Dib had horrible bags under his eyes, and his complexion was pale. It didn’t matter.

“I’m sorry, too,” Dib said, his voice thick with emotion. “I… I should have been a better brother to you. You worked so hard to take care of me and Dad, and I didn’t… I didn’t even try to help, and I just—”

MASTER!!”

They were cut off by the most shrill, booming scream Gaz had ever heard. She turned at the