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Dib was nothing but a child when he made first contact with extraterrestrial life, changing Earth's history forever. Not that anyone else on Earth knew an alien with malicious intent was hiding among them, seeking out their weaknesses, a predator hidden in the bushes, but 12-year-old Dib took pride in this accomplishment either way.

Hypothetical bushes, that is. The literal bushes were for Dib. He stalked that alien for an entire year, stifling plan after plan to convert his precious homeworld to an endless plane of ruin. He learned his enemy's every move, his every weakness, every strength. He made a pledge to himself that he would never stop studying this real life proof of the paranormal, standing right in front of him in high-heeled boots. Someday he could share this accumulated knowledge, and the Earth would be better for it. Someday he could talk to people who believed him. Someday he would have a friend who didn't call him crazy.

Then his alien disappeared, without word or acknowledgement, without threats or jibes. His eery little house, his voot cruiser, even his hyperactive robotic servant, were gone overnight in exactly the same way they had arrived. All that was left behind was an empty lot, leaving Dib to wonder if he had made the whole thing up in the first place. Maybe everyone was right, and he really was crazy.

Then school came back around. Junior high had demanded a huge adaptation, and it was enough to momentarily distract Dib from his extraterrestrial pondering. Then when he finally had adapted, just enough to survive, he was back.

His eyes were hollow when he staggered late into Dib's first period. He looked more than a little tired, his usual gusto replaced with an uncanny silence. The violet eyes of his disguise landed on Dib's golden ones, holding his gaze for just a moment before dropping down to meet the ground beneath his feet as he stumbled to his seat.

Dib never knew of the solo battle that his alien adversary was facing, as he fought to tear himself apart from the oppressive programming that was himself. Dib knew bits and pieces about the alien's technology, how that backpack suspended perpetually on his back contained all of his memories, personality, and life-support systems. There had been a time in which Dib experienced what it was like to have that PAK control him, but even after that nightmare-inducing experience, it had never once occurred to Dib that it was controlling him

The alien was winning the internal battle, and was instantly different for it, not that anyone but himself could fully comprehend that. Dib still watched him closely, unaware of the major changes, only focused on protecting his oblivious planet from the once detrimental foe.

"What have you been planning?" Dib demanded after school that first day. He refused to let the alien's defeated demeanor trick him into dropping his guard.

"What do you think I've been planning?" Zim replied blankly. There was nothing in his voice, just hollow, empty words. Dib looked at him oddly.

"You're not Zim," Dib declared.

"I guess you could say that," the alien huffed, shrugging his shoulders. "Want to see what my guts look like, Earthworm?"

Dib stammered at this completely out-of-character behavior. It was... Unsettling.

"Meet me at my base tonight and I'll show you," Zim said, before disappearing down the street before school even got out.

The boy watched his year-long foe's back turn on him as he dashed out of sight almost gracefully on his PAK legs, bounding from shadow to shadow as he went. The offer was a trap, that much was obvious. The only alternate reality Dib could think up was that the alien was going to just lie back and let the human cut him open like he'd always wanted to do. Unless Zim had suddenly picked up some suicidal tendencies, that couldn't be the case. So it had to be a trap, and a very bad one at that.

But Dib was more than a little curious about what his newly-returned nemesis had been up to for the past three months, so after scarfing down cold leftover meatloaf for dinner, he tossed on his jacket and darted out the door before anyone could stop him.

The way to Zim's house had been so viciously scratched and clawed into his mind that he didn't even have to think about the steps he was taking until he reached the edge of that familiar wooden fence. He looked up.

Not a single detail had changed. That same offensive shade of green dominated the structure, the slanted iridescent windows gleamed down at him, and the garden gnomes-

The garden gnomes were missing, Dib noted. He picked up a pebble wedged in a crack in the sidewalk and tossed it onto the path between him and Zim's front door like he were in an Indiana Jones movie. When it landed without being accosted by laser attacks, Dib cautiously stepped up to knock.

His lifted his fist hesitantly, rapping his knuckles against the door as he began to regret his decision. The door flew open and a gloved hand reached out to grab Dib by his shirt, yanking him inside before the door slammed shut behind him.

"Jeez, what gives?" Dib remarked as he stumbled and caught himself on the arm of Zim's couch.

"Follow me, Earthworm," Zim said, voice just as empty as before as he grabbed the human at the wrist and dragged him toward the back of the house.

They passed by Gir, Zim's robot minion, who was well entertained by a black TV screen. Dib gave a tiny wave towards the android as he was dragged into the kitchen and pushed towards the waste bin.

Dib looked behind his shoulder to give the alien a questioning glance. Zim just looked at him.

"Get in," he said by way of explanation.

"In the trash?" Dib asked, bewildered.

"Yes," Zim growled. It was the only sliver of emotion Dib had been able to ween from him. He noted it.

"How do I know this isn't a trap?" Dib challenged with his hands on his hips.

"Fine," Zim sighed. He shoved the human aside and hopped into the trashcan himself. Dib watched him descend and disappear down a tube. When another platform slide into place, Dib shrugged and clambered in as well.

Zim hadn't been joking about his offer. He operated a computer with a monitor five times the size of Dib's own desktop and pulled up a display of what Dib pieced to be irken anatomy. It was labeled in what Dib could only guess to be Zim's native language, scrawled out in a neat, rounded script.

Dib's eyes widened behind the glint of his glasses as he took it all in. He silently cursed himself for not bringing something to take notes, and committed to engraining it all to memory.

"So," Dib began, glancing back at the tiny alien. He had his arms crossed and was tapping his foot impatiently. Dib tried to imagine how the diagram pertained to this real, walking specimen.

"So?" Zim repeated when the human didn't continue his thought.

"You're going to teach me about irken stuff?"

"You've always wanted to know what was inside of me," Zim said with a shrug.

"I could use this against you," Dib stated matter-of-factly.

"Yes," Zim agreed, nodding slowly, "You could."

Dib realized belatedly that what the alien was offering was not just some medical diagram. He was offering his blind trust. It was so unlike the little irken to show any sort of trust, even when it was called for, so the question that rang out in Dib's mind was a resounding why?

He kept the question to himself however, and convinced Zim to explain to him the different organs, and the function of the all-encompassing membrane that surrounded them.

"Those aren't organs," Zim explained calmly, "The squeedlyspooch is the only organ within the chest cavity. What you're looking at are the sectors. Like that one," he pointed at a section outlined in purple, "Cleans and pumps different fluids through the body. It creates the thing that you would call my pulse."

Then, as if he had read Dib's mind, Zim grabbed the human's wrist and placed his index and middle finger upon the green skin that connected his head to his neck. Dib blinked at the pulse he felt fluttering beneath his fingertips. Is was inconsistent, strikingly inhuman, beating to no steady rhythm that Dib could discern.

Dib frowned, thinking about the vulnerable position Zim had put himself in. Had he forgotten who the human was and what he wanted to do to the menace who threatened his homeworld? Or did he just not care? He pushed down hard on the erratic thumping beneath his hand, watching close as Zim flinched, just slightly, but made no other move to protect himself. Dib felt the pulse speed up, the untranslatable beating matching something he could only guess to be fear, but the look on Zim's face showed no such emotion.

Dib met his eye with a questioning gaze.

"Don't worry," Zim said with a smirk, "It's not suppose to be consistent."

Dib listened closely as Zim explained the rest of the diagram. He prodded Zim's detailed explanations of the different sections with questions, and each one Zim explained with ease.

Eventually the lesson ended, and before Dib could say another word, he was kicked out.

Despite it, the next day at school he was ecstatic. He'd scrawled down all of the information he had received the moment he arrived home, and the excitement of it was still pumping through his veins come morning. It caused him to open his mouth more, to be a little opener towards people, to smile and be just a little happier than normal. After all, if Zim could be so different all of a sudden, then why couldn't he?

That didn't last long, though. When the usual bullies came out to play, his chipper mood fell as they quickly brought him down like a falling tree. In retrospect, he shouldn't have expected anything different.

He failed to notice, however, the lens-shrouded eyes watching closely the entire time.

Zim taught him about irken politics that night. Then the Irken language the next night. Every night the invader shared new pieces of information in brief, streamlined lessons. Everyday, Dib managed to let himself be brought down again by his same old aggressors. Everyday, Zim watched from a distance.

They went on for a month like this. Zim revealed so much about his race, and Dib managed to commit all of it to memory. The one thing Zim refused to talk about, however, was his PAK. Dib never thought too much about it. He understood the bulk of irken technology, he assumed it couldn't be much different, and he already knew its basic functions. Besides, he had always cared more about the biological aspects of the alien. 

They never talked, either. No real conversations aside from the nightly lessons were had, and, strangely, they made no threats. Or rather, Zim made no threats while Dib tried to prod some livid response out of him, techniques ranging from subtle jokes and jibes, all the way to full fledged physical assaults. At one point Dib had gotten so desperate to find some sliver of his old enemy within this empty shell that he had knocked him to the ground in his own basement, holding him down with his boot on his chest as he listed off all of the horrible experiments he planned to perform on the alien. Zim had just stared at him with that same old tired look, one of resignation and defeat, ready to let the human do whatever it was he so pleased. He'd even held out his hands, wrists side by side like he was ready to be handcuffed. The miserable display had made Dib shutter at his own threats, and he slowly backed off. Suddenly, cutting Zim open was no longer quite as appealing as it use to be.

The alien had been drastically different since he came back from whatever hell he'd been enduring over the summer. He was calmer, quieter, more cautious, dare he say even nervous, and Dib never let that fact pass him by.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

The bullies always got to Dib. He knew he shouldn't let them, but even though he had dealt with it his entire life, he couldn't help but fall as their prey.

One day had been especially bad. He did a report in English about the existence of extraterrestrial life, mentioning briefly how he knew aliens were real because he was friends with one. He received no shortage of taunts from his fellow classmates and afterwords, some very cruel words from a certain few.

He'd heard it all. Every joke, every jibe, every declaration of his lack of sanity were just the same old words he had heard over a million times, but somehow the familiarity didn't soften any of the blows.

Zim found him crying on the filthy bathroom floor.

He'd made no move to comfort the young teenager, only met his swollen eyes with glowing purple ones. Dib blinked; he'd never realized his eyes glowed, as faint as it was.

"You said we were friends," Zim said sharply.

Dib glared up at him from his corner. He had his knees drawn up against his chest, wiping tear streaks from his face. "What?" He croaked.

"In your report," Zim clarified. Dib made no attempt to deny or confirm. Zim tapped his chin with a claw, staring off at the graffitied wall to his right. Then he looked back at the crying teenager with a determined look in his eyes.

"Meet me at my base tonight," Zim said vaguely. This caught Dib as strange; he always gave a hint as to what they would be learning about. Zim stalked towards the door, then turned back suddenly to say, "Bring anything you can't live without," before marching out of the bathroom.

He had no inkling as to what the alien was planning, but he packed a bag regardless because he wanted to reciprocate Zim's newfound trust in the being who had only ever wanted to destroy him. He came at his usual time, walking right past the empty lawn and into the irken's familiar base. 

"Where's Zim?" Dib asked Gir, who had just entered the living room with a paper bag dripping grease all over the linoleum floor. Without a word, Gir pointed up, then tossed the entire bag into his open maw.

Dib ignored the robot's creepy behavior - he was well use to it by now - and headed for the attic. Sure enough, there was Zim, a pink cloth in hand that he was using to shine the metal of his ship.

Dib recognized Zim's little voot cruiser about as well as he recognized his own bedroom, which was the reason he was so struck with the upgrades Zim had apparently given it.

"Do you like it?" Zim asked without turning to look at the human, "You know I built this thing myself? Probably the most successful thing I ever did. Surprised it turned out so well with all that useless programming clogging up my brain."

"You... Huh?" Dib stammered.

"Want to look inside?" Zim offered, finally turning to look at the human with his hands positioned proudly on his hips. Dib obviously did.

The extension was smaller than it appeared at first glance. The added wing was a cuddyhole in the back, containing extra storage space, two large, mysteriously empty tanks, and a small bed. Dib sat down on it as Zim joined him in the cuddy.

"How is it?" The irken asked with what Dib thought was nervousness.

"It's, uh," Dib thought for a moment, looking around the ship, "It's nice."

"Is the bed satisfactory?" Zim pressed, standing on his toes and leaning forward.

"Yeah, it's fine, but why do you need a bed?" Dib knew for a fact that the irken only slept when he couldn't recharge his PAK, or when he needed recovery. He could think of no reason for him to add it into the extension, it just took up storage space. Furthermore, what did it matter to Zim if Dib liked it? 

Then it hit him.

"You packed a bag?" Zim asked.

"Yeah, but Zim-" Dib began in a panic.

"The voot is packed with all of your required human sustenance, enough to last you three years, probably more considering there's food chains all over the Delta Quadrant we'll be stopping at. We will stop at the nearest convenience to fill the water tanks," Zim explained without a hint of joking to his voice.

"Zim, I can't just-" Dib tried.

"You will clean yourself the same way that I do. It will save time and water, and will make you stink less anyhow," Zim continued.

"Zim!" Dib shouted. The irken stopped talking and turned to the boy.

"Yes?" He said, an eyebrow raised.

"I can't just take off and leave! I'm just a kid, and I have a family! I'm not even halfway through with my education, and... And," he trailed, slowly forgetting all his excuses.

"I can give you a better education than any of your Earth teachers, Dib," Zim said softly, "Why would you want to stay on a planet where everyone hates you and no one realizes how genius you are?"

"I-" Dib began, taken off-guard. Every instinct he had told him he couldn't do this, but... Why not? "You think I'm genius?" He asked quietly.

Zim just nodded like it was the most obvious thing in the world.

"Okay," he said slowly, "Where do you plan to take me?"

Just like that, a new life was formed. Dib was nothing but a child when he left his planet's atmosphere.

Chapter Text


The stars began to surround them as they ascended into the night sky. People below disappeared in the growing distance, then went the houses, then the entire cityscape, until Dib was looking down at his entire planet, slowly getting smaller and smaller as they left it behind.

Dib had been in space before in Tak's old ship, chasing Zim down to stop whatever his latest plan was, but for some reason, this time felt much different.

"Wait," Dib exclaimed suddenly, causing Zim to yank the throttle back, bringing them to a sudden, jolting stop.

"What?" Zim shouted urgently, looking around to figure out what was missing.

"What about Gir? And your base?"

"Skoodge is taking care of them both," Zim explained, brushing off his panic with a subtle growl. It was the most emotion Dib had seen out of him since he disappeared all those months ago.

"Who?" Dib asked, realizing he had never heard that name.

"Skoodge," Zim repeated, a light smile playing at his lips, "Old invader friend. He's been living in my basement for awhile after the Tallest discredited him for the invasion of Blorch, home of the slaughtering rat people."

"Where??" Dib sputtered.

Zim laughed. It was refreshing to hear, honestly. Dib was afraid he'd never hear his mad cackles again. This wasn't quite his usual laugh, however. It was more tame, more of a quick bark at a small joke. But it was still progress towards that evil sound that had dominated Dib's 6th grade year.

"Maybe we'll go there sometime. It's not quite as horrible now that it's been turned into a parking planet, if not a little boring."

Dib was struck with the implications that they could actually go there. They could go anywhere.

"Can we go to Irk?" Dib asked excitedly. He'd always wanted to see the place that had made Zim... Zim.

"No," Zim snapped, causing the human to flinch backwards. He huffed, relaxing his shoulders and explained, "They don't like me much there."

"Okay," Dib said in a small voice, surprised at the admittance of such a thing. They flew in silence for a few minutes. Zim seemed completely unbothered with the lack of noise. This new Zim was so foreign to Dib that it almost hurt.

"What's it like?" Dib asked quietly, disrupting the calm silence. He watched one of Zim's antennae twitch as the irken stared out at the expanse before them.

"What's what like?" He asked, even though he knew what the human meant.

"Irk," Dib explained simply.

Zim hesitated. "Rigid. Dark. Cold," he said eventually, "Not a place for me."

Dib bit his lip at that answer, looking out the window and training his eyes on a distant binary system. "Do you want to talk about it?" He asked cautiously.

Zim shook his head. "Maybe later," he said. Whatever that meant.

They fell into silence again, a tense, awkward silence. What was Dib doing here?

"Where are we going, then?" He finally asked. Zim turned to him with a sharp smile.

"Anywhere," was his witty response.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

As they exited Earth's solar system at a grueling pace, Dib received no further explanation as to what 'anywhere' meant, and after an hour of lazy bantering and short lived conversation, he had retired to what had been designated as his bed.

He pulled his laptop out of his bag and popped it open. He had the sudden genius plan to keep a journal, documenting every adventure he was sure they would come across, but he was caught off-guard by a message on the screen, one that he must have gotten just before he left his house and the vicinity of wifi. It was from Gaz, and all it read was, 'hey idiot, where'd you leave the remote?' All the same, Dib's breath caught in his throat.

He shut the laptop quickly, and brought his hand to his chest as he tried to breathe deeply. What was he doing? He was out in the middle of space with his mortal enemy going who knows where for who knows how long. Why did he ever think this was a good idea?

A ragged cry ripped from his throat, and he covered his mouth quickly, but he was certain Zim had heard.

"Earthworm?" Came the response from the cockpit. Dib whimpered silently, clutching his knees to his chest as he couldn't help but shutter.

The curtain that separated the two parts of the ship was drawn aside by thin, gloved fingers, and ruby red eyes peeked inside.

"Go away," Dib said by instinct. Zim ignored him, frowning as he padded further into the room.

"Your eyes are leaking," Zim noted. Dib tucked his face into his knees as the alien clambered onto the bed beside him.

He felt Zim wrap his thin arms around his waist, and as Dib tried to squirm away, he realized that the alien was trying to hug him.

"It's okay," he shushed gently, "We'll turn back, okay?"

Dib mouthed 'okay' as he nodded. He leaned against the alien's embrace.

"I knew you would change your mind," Zim said sadly, "It's why we left so slow. We can be back in under five minutes, okay?"

Dib mouthed another 'okay' as he sniffled.

"I just-" Zim sighed, "I really hoped-" he cut himself off as he pulled away from the human, "I'm going to leave," he finally landed on, "I don't have any reason to continue to live on Earth. But, once I'm gone, just don't let them get to you, okay? Just remember that you're better than all of them."

Dib looked over at him with watery eyes. "Where will you go?" He asked.

Zim shrugged. "Somewhere new, I guess."

"Why?"

Zim thought about his answer very seriously. "I'm not... I was never an invader. Well, at least not on Earth I wasn't. I was tricked, and now I know the truth. You probably realize this, but I do not like your home planet. I do not want to live there nor do I want to conquer it. That is why I am leaving."

Dib wiped his eyes with the back of his hand as he unfolded from himself. "And you wanted a friend to go with you," he realized aloud.

"I thought you could find a better life among people more on your level," Zim sighed, "But if you want to go home, I understand. I want to, too."

He shifted to hop off the bed, but stilled as two arms wrapped around his waist from behind, a returned embrace.

"I don't want to go back," Dib whispered, clutching the alien close like he was his lifeline. "I was feeling a little homesick, but there's no part of me that wants the life that's back there."

"Heh, homesick," Zim murmured like it was some inside joke. "Let go of me so I can set our new course, then," he hissed suddenly, but Dib could hear the smile on his voice.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

After he recomposed himself, Dib joined his alien compatriot in the cockpit, who was nearly drowsing in his seat. He perked up when the human sat in the seat beside him, which, he realized, was also a part of the voot's upgrade. Zim had never had a reason for a passenger seat before.

"Tell me, Earthworm," he began excitedly, "Have you ever had a vort dog before?"

"I'm not even sure what that is," Dib said by way of answer.

"No, I suppose you wouldn't," Zim clicked, scratching his chin, "We're going to Foodcourtia. You can't go anywhere else in this quadrant without knowing what a vort dog tastes like."

"There's a planet named Foodcourtia?" Dib asked with amazement.

"It use to be called Hizshoopia," Zim said with a grin, "Populated by creatures that shot venom out of their eyes. They were wiped out eons ago by a ruthless irken invader. Now it's Foodcourtia, a planet composed entirely of food joints."

"That's," Dib said, wrinkling his nose, "Both interesting and horrible."

"As is most of irken history," Zim said with a sigh, "My old boss works there, we're also going to gloat."

Dib looked at the irken suddenly. He'd been adjusting to this New Zim, who was calm and, honestly rather empty. But what he had just said was so completely Old Zim that it made Dib reel. It gave Dib hope that his distinctive personality hadn't been completely wiped by whatever traumatizing thing Dib guessed he'd been busy with over the summer.

The planet came into view as a massive swirl of all different colors. Dib could only tell it was the right place because of all of the glowing signs advertising different food specials and pointing in the direction.

"Oh, almost forgot!" Zim exclaimed suddenly, hopping up from his seat and diving into the cuddy.

"Uh, Zim," Dib said nervously as the ship took a dive into Foodcourtia's atmosphere with no one at the helm.

"I've got to find something," Zim explained as he dug through a drawer, "Land us near that sign that says 'Shloogorgh's parking.'"

"I don't know how to do that, you idiot!" Dib exclaimed as he stumbled into the pilot seat.

"This ship basically flies itself," Zim said dismissively, "You'll figure it out."

Dib looked hopelessly around at the controls. They were wildly different from the ones in Tak's ship, and the voot cruiser didn't have an AI that just did it for him. A blinking pink sign came into view announcing the correct parking space, but the ground was speeding up to meet the ship faster than Dib could figure out how to stop it.

"Zim!" Dib shouted as they neared the planet's surface.

Dib was certain this was it, this was how he was going to die. Then an arm reached over his shoulder and yanked the throttle backwards just in time for them to connect with the ground smoothly.

Zim looked down at him with a tight frown. "I thought you knew how to fly," he said as the windshield slid open.

"How would I possibly know that!?" Dib shouted, anger bubbling up. He found himself surprised; he was mad at the irken for the first time in months.

"You've flown Tak's ship," Zim pointed out with a raised eyebrow.

"Tak's ship flies itself," Dib countered hotly.

"You mean to tell me that you went up into space in Tak's ship with no idea how to fly the thing?"

"Yeah," Dib admitted quietly.

"Why?"

"I had to stop you!"

Zim stared at him blankly for a moment, before erupting into laughter. He clambered out of the ship as he cackled, bracing himself on the metal siding. Dib snorted along with him despite himself as he got out after the irken, just satisfied to hear that evil laughter again.

"Oh, right," Zim said, noticing the device he had clutched in his claws. He handed it to Dib.

"What's this?" The boy asked, turning it over. It looked like the ear-piece to a set of headphones, with a part to hook onto the outside of the ear to keep it from falling off.

"It's a universal translator," Zim said, "I made it specifically for you. It'll translate any language into your primitive Earth speak."

Dib looked it over. He slid the device into his ear, surprised at how much it didn't bother him. "Thanks," he said with a grin.

"Don't thank me, Earthworm," Zim growled, "I'd rather not have to spend every second translating everything anyone says for you."

"Well thanks anyway, Spaceboy," Dib sneered. Zim glared at him before turning towards a small structure they had landed beside.

Upon further inspection, Dib found out it was a sort of digitalized parking meter. Zim swiped a red card along its side and clicked a few buttons on the screen. Then his voot disappeared.

Zim smirked at the human's dropped jaw. "Remember when I said Blorch is a parking structure planet now?"

"That thing just teleported our ship to another planet?" Dib gasped in dismay, "How do we get it back?"

Zim presented that red card, held between his forefingers. "With this," he said. Then he spun on his heals and lead the way into a building labeled 'Shloogorgh's Flavor Monster' before Dib could probe him with his torrent of questions.

The restaurant, to Dib's surprise, was even greasier and more unsanitary than even the worst MacMeaty's he had ever been to. The smell of frying food was heavy in the air, and the atmosphere was almost humid with all the hot oil everywhere. Beside a gelatinous creature eating what looked like an oversized burrito in the far corner, the eatery was devoid of customers. 

"Welcome to Shloogorgh's," Zim grinned, taking in the scenery with a sort of hatred boiled in with reluctant nostalgia. Mostly, he was reveling in his freedom.

"Welcome to Shloooogoogh's!" greeted an employee dressed in a dirty apron and a ridiculously tall hat as the pair came through the door, "My name is-"

"Gashloooog!" Zim screeched. Dib watched wide eyed with bewilderment as Zim grabbed the unsuspecting employee and pulled him in for a hug.

"Wha- Zim??" Gashloog, as Dib guessed his name was, sputtered in response, cheeks blushing blue as he awkwardly pressed his palms to Zim's shoulders. "What are you doing here? Sizz-lorr is going to absolutely kill you!"

"Not this time," Zim said sharply, releasing the worker from his crushing embrace, "Today I am a customer. I'll never work in this filth hole again, no matter how he tries to trap me here."

"Well, it's good to see you, Zim," The employee said in a nasally voice, "I'll take your order in a second, I've just gotta, uh..." Then he darted behind the register and to the back of the restaurant without another word.

"Zim, I thought you were an invader," Dib whispered as they sat down across from one another at a booth.

"I was. Then I was recoded and banished here as a service drone. Then I escaped because I had been an invader all along and the one thing you should never do is try and keep an irken from being what they are."

Dib mouthed the word 'huh' as he thought about it. He startled out of his thoughts as a giant fist came down between the two, rattling the table it landed on.

"Zim," growled the hulking irken attached to the fist.

"Hello, Sizz-lorr," Zim said with a smile, "We'll take two orders of vort dogs to go, please."

"You're not going anywhere," Sizz-lorr declared. Dib shifted nervously in his seat as the two stared each other down.

"But I'm a paying customer," Zim pouted in a song-song voice, feigning innocence. His claws repeatedly tapped a crescendo against the surface of the table.

"You work for me, you little piece of-"

"Watch your language, Sizz-lorr, there are children around," Zim gestured toward his human companion, who was well ready to duck beneath the table at a moment's notice.

The larger irken grumbled deeply, glancing momentarily at Dib. Apparently deciding he was not a threat of any sort, he grabbed Zim by his tiny arm, yanking him out of the booth and dangling him in the air in front of him.

"You left me here twice during the Great Foodening," Sizz-lorr boomed directly in his ex-employee's face. Zim closed his eyes tightly, antennae shooting backwards.

Dib watched in fear, flinching back in his seat as he expected the irken to do something in self defense, growing increasingly mortified as Zim did nothing but cower in his former boss's grasp. Dib prayed that Old Zim would show through just a little more, just enough to 'Zim' his way out of this situation. Cocky and terrible as he was, it was better than seeing him look so afraid.

"Y-you can't get me to work again, Sizz-lorr," he stuttered in a tiny voice, "They can't recode my PAK anymore."

The frylord's eyes widened at the statement. Zim gave a quiet, nervous chuckle as he squinted his eyes open. Was this his plan? Whatever it was, Dib didn't follow.

"I beat the system," Zim said with a smile.

The towering irken flung Zim away from him like a human might fling a venomous spider off of their arm.

"You can't!" Sizz-lorr declared, backing away with a fearful look, "How?"

Zim hissed in pain as he stumbled into a standing position from where he was thrown against the table. Gashloog watched nervously from the counter, hopping from foot to foot.

Zim smiled up at his old boss with that old, evil smile that Dib knew better than he knew himself. "I'm just that defective," Zim said smugly as Sizz-lorr continued to back away.

Brushing himself off, the small irken shimmied back into the booth and folded one hand over the other atop the table. "Two orders of vort dogs to go, please," he repeated. Gashloog rushed to the kitchen to fulfill his orders. Zim gleamed at Dib, who stared wide-eyed at the entire situation, not entirely sure what had just happened.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

They got their orders rather quickly, shoved in Zim's face faster than orders were usually fulfilled at Shloogorgh’s. 

"Thanks, Gashloog," Zim said as he handed over his paything, earning a frown from his former coworker as he scurried away from the defective to scan the card.

"You know there's always room for you on our ship," Zim offered quietly.

"No there's not!" Dib protested, worried about how cramped the space was already.

"I like my job, Zim," Gashloog whispered as he handed back the red card, "Maybe you don't understand this, but my PAK actually works."

Zim gave a defeated sigh. "It doesn't necessarily have to, Gashloog," he said before pushing away from the counter.

He held his chin high as he headed out the door with Dib in tow when a familiar gleam shrouded over the entrance before they could make it outside.

"You're not going anywhere this time, Zim," The overgrown frycook told him, coming up behind the pair, "I'll make sure of it."

"Man, you have always been so dense, haven't you?" Zim spat, turning back around to glare up at the frylord, "I thought I explained to you, I can't be recoded. I can't be *coded* at all actually. Sure, you can try and keep me here, but how will you make me work, huh? With threats and insults?

"I don't need you to work," Sizz-lorr told him, "I just need you to suffer."

Zim scoffed. Dib looked at him with worry written across his face. He couldn't believe how out of his element he found himself in this place. He wondered if all planets would be like that, or just the ones that Zim had a history with.

"Honestly, Sizz-lorr, do you think *anything* through?"

He blinked at the insult.

Zim rolled his eyes. "Once word gets out that you're harboring a defective here, you'll be deactivated right along with me. That is, if they can figure out how to deactivate me the right way this time. You're really better off just letting us go."

"I have a better idea," Sizz-lorr declared, grabbing his ex-employee and dangling him by the antennae, "I'll call the Tallest and tell them that I have you trapped here, and they can come pick you up and squish you like the little bug you are."

"But then you'll never get your revenge," Zim said with a frown, ignoring the familiar pain in his head. "Besides, you can't call the Tallest, you have no electricity."

Sizz-lorr stammered at that. "What on Irk are you talking about? Of course I have electricity, the lights are on!"

Dib heard a wind-whipping sound from outside, and suddenly all the lights that the frylord was gesturing at blinked out, followed by the green shine of the field blocking their exit.

As Sizz-lorr began cursing profusely, dropping Zim in his surprise, Zim grabbed Dib by the arm and giggled, "Come on," as he ran towards the exit.

They were at the parking meter in no time. Zim's claws clicked on the screen and he scanned his card. The voot cruiser reappeared and they were taking off just as the power throughout the city flickered back on. Dib thought he could still hear the large irken's violent cursing.

"How did you do that?" Dib said as he was still trying to catch his breath, "How did you make the power go out?"

"Oh, that neat trick?" Zim laughed, "I didn't. There's a solar wind that hits certain parts of the planet every couple of years or so. It's got this certain type of micro radiation that causes a temporary power outage. I picked up on the scans before we landed that one was headed right for the area we were in. It's a miracle actually. We came at the perfect time."

Dib snorted at the explanation, his blood running with the excitement of the escape and their dumb luck. He looked over at the alien in the pilot seat and realized the expression on his face was one of dizzy bliss. Despite the way his old boss had made him cower like Dib had never seen before, now he was giddy, and that was so much like Old Zim that it hurt. Dib smiled contently at the realization.
 
"Wait," Dib said, face falling as he was once again confused, "What about the ship? If the power was out, how did we get it back?"

"That's simple," Zim said, rolling his eyes, "The power grid for the ship transporter thingy is on Blorch, and not Foodcourtia."

After Zim explained the mechanics of powering something with a source from an entirely separate planet, they fell into happy conversation as they snacked on vort dogs, with Zim telling stories where Sizz-lorr was the bad guy who always made a fool of himself, and Dib laughing at all of the irken's cruel jibes.

Eventually Dib fell silent though, as he realized that, in all of these stories there was nothing that could account for Zim's undeniable fear of the giant irken. Aside from his intimidating size of course, but Zim had never taken those things into account before, so why would he now?

"So what happened, then?" Dib blurted suddenly, cutting Zim off at the end of another joke.

"Eh?" Zim asked, eyeing the teen.

"What's the tragic backstory? What did he do to you that was so terrible?"

Zim looked at him as if he had just suggested they open the voot 's windshield and jump out into the blackness of space.

"When he grabbed you, you just looked so," Dib hesitated before saying the word, "Scared." He flinched back in his seat at his own words, fully expecting the irken to claw his eyes out for such an accusation. But Zim only sighed.

"I did not have a good time working with Sizz-lorr," he said with a shiver, "As if that isn't obvious. These things use to be easier to overlook, you know? I haven't adapted to... Emotions very well. And fear? That's one that has changed a lot. It's no longer just an instinct of self-preservation. Now it's painful, weakening."

"Do you want to talk about it?" Dib offered. He had a million other questions, mainly on what on Earth Zim was even talking about, but this was the one he asked.

Zim looked over at the boy with a smile. "You sure do want me to talk about things a lot."

"You use to like to rant," Dib said.

"I'm not as different as you think I am, Earthworm. I've still got the same brain, you know."

Dib just blinked at him. Zim sighed.

"When I worked at Shloogorgh’s, I wasn't an employee, I was a prisoner. It was a punishment," Zim explained distantly.

Dib nodded, giving him the time he needed to collect himself.
 
"I was forced to wear a humiliating costume full of hot grease and dance for the customers. I had to clean a toilet inhabited by a hungry H'kzar daily. The only breaks I was given were when the restaurant was closed, which was only for an hour every day, sometimes not even that, and I was never allowed to leave the building. The worst part, though, was that I was suppose to like it. When a PAK is coded with a job, the irken is suppose to enjoy that job. That's what Gashloog was talking about at the register. He enjoys his job. I didn't. The entire time, I felt I was still an invader, and I needed to be an invader, all because my stupid PAK was broken. Being stuck in that filthy place was the most humiliating thing." Dib watched his tiny claws ball up into fist. They shook as he held them tightly over the steering mechanism.

"It shouldn't have been as bad as it was," Zim admitted as he managed to compose himself infinitesimally, "Food is very important for irkens. It's a cultural thing. Food service drone is a very respectable title. I just... It wasn't who I was."

"I'm not trying to be on his side or anything," Dib said cautiously, "But I'm not finding what Sizz-lorr did to be bad. It sounds like he just did what the Tallest told him to do."

"He doesn't listen to the Tallest," Zim snapped shakily, "They wronged him! He's taller than them and yet they humiliated him by putting him in charge of an exile! He hates them more than he hates me!" Zim paused, breathing deeply, "And he hates me."

"So," Dib clicked, "He's got something to be upset about as well."

"That doesn't excuse a damn thing," Zim said with a red-eyed glare.

"It doesn't excuse you either," Dib argued.

"I never said it did," Zim rebutted in a small voice.

A tense layer of silence fell upon them as Dib watched the alien breathing deeply as he tried to hide his shuttering.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Dib asked slowly. It felt like the tenth time he had said it that day, but he had to make it clear that he would listen. That was all Dib ever wanted, anyway, was for someone to listen. Maybe Zim needed that same thing.

Zim couldn't help but flash back, suddenly and horrifyingly in the back room of that restaurant where he never wanted to be again. Parts of his PAK coding had been intact enough to convince him to follow most of Sizz-lorr's orders during his exile, but there were times when other methods had to be introduced. Painful methods.

Zim sulked under his silence for another moment as he thought about it, eyes glazed over as he felt himself trapped in the memory. "It was this little bead-shaped device," he finally began to explain, all hint of emotion drained from his voice, like a chalkboard wiped clean, "They used it in the academy on disobedient cadets. It hooked onto your antenna and emitted a high-frequency buzzing noise. Your human hearing organs wouldn't be able to pick it up. From a short distance, neither can irkens. But right next to it, it's the most painful sound you could possibly imagine."

"Oh," Dib said quietly.

Sizz-lorr had invested in the device once he realized just how disobedient the exile was. He'd always have Gashloog carry out the punishment, and in the end Zim always ended up a pliant, sniveling mess, willing to do anything just to make the screaming in his antenna stop.

"Gashloog was my friend," Zim picked up again after a moment, voice tilting on the word 'friend', "That's why Sizz-lorr always had him do it. And Gashloog would do it without remorse, because that was what his programming told him to do. To be a good little irken, to listen to his superiors."

Dib ducked his head down, sympathy welling up inside of him. 

"So, why did we go back?" He asked.

"Vort dogs," Zim explained simply, gesturing to the paper bag on the dashboard as he pretended they'd been having a happy conversation the entire time.

"No we didn't. I saw signs pointing at almost all of the restaurants advertising vort dogs," Dib said, crossing his arms.

"But none are as good as Shloogorgh’s!"

Dib just looked at him.

Zim sighed and looked pointedly in the opposite direction. "I wanted you to understand without me having to explain it," he admitted, "I wanted you to... To get it. At least a little bit."

Dib nodded. He didn't get it, really. He could never truly understand what Zim had gone through, but despite it he assured him, "I get it."

Zim finally turned his head to look at the human. He smiled lightly. "That's why you're here, Earthworm."

Chapter Text

Zim had always done things loudly. Big and obnoxious and out in the open. Dib always imagined it had something to do with his ego. That was also one thing Dib expected to be a defining characteristic that separated New Zim and Old Zim. New Zim was quieter, much quieter, and it was unnerving.

But as their first day in space passed by, Dib found he had broken through a wall of sorts. He didn't know what it was, and he still had no clue what had happened to Old Zim, or why he had disappeared for a whole summer, but Zim was joking with him now and he could manage through entire lighthearted conversations without drawing back into himself.

Sure enough, Zim's ego was returning bit by bit, and Dib couldn't be happier to hear him announcing at the top of his lungs how 'TRUELY MAGNIFICENT AND INCREDIBLE' he thought was.

Zim was loud again, and Dib found himself thankful for it.

They'd passed through asteroid belts and nebulae and other natural phenomenas with their lingering energy as they finished off the last of the vort dogs, and Dib had watched them all pass by with an awe that made Zim smirk.

"So you're telling me that they're not made out of meat?" Dib asked in disbelief.

"Nope," Zim shook his head, "Vortians are herbivores. Vort dogs are made of the leaves of a vortian plant known as zalshloop."

"Interesting," Dib said, eying the grease-soaked paper bag balled up on the dashboard.

"Well, that and vortian nursing fluids," Zim added with a shrug.

Dib coughed. "Vortian what?"

"You'll only think about it when you meet a vortain," Zim assured.

"But I'm thinking about it now!"

Zim barked with laugher. "I'm not sure why that bothers you so much, you humans drink the nursing fluids from your beef animals. Why is this any different?"

"I guess, because cows aren't sentient?" Dib tried. Zim just shrugged.

Dib eyed the irken over, judging his mood. He had a question he'd been dancing around, but didn't want Zim to shut him out once he asked it. The progress he had been making seemed enormous, and he didn't want to do anything to ruin it.

But at the same time, it was eating at his mind like acid, slowly dissolving all other conversation topics until it was the only thing left in stock.

Zim had a lazy smile on his face. He sat back in his chair, seeming completely relaxed with his boots propped up on the dashboard as he ate something Dib thought looked like alien Fun-Dip. Now was as good a time as any.

"What does defective mean?" He blurted suddenly.

Zim's glance darted to the human. Dib silently cursed himself, expecting a hard glare, proceeded by twenty minutes of silence.

"It's about time you asked," Zim said instead.

Dib let out a breath he didn't realize he'd been holding in.

"Imagine a computer," Zim began, waving around the white stick he'd been licking at as he gestured, "Like your laptop, for example. And your human browsing system."

Dib nodded, not certain where the analogy was going.

"Now you get much of your information from these internets, correct?"

"Yeah, pretty much," Dib said.

"Imagine that you got the information streamlined, with only one source for each question. You can't compare it to anything else because there is nothing else. This is the data that exists and you just have to trust that it's reliable."

"Okay," Dib said slowly.

"Do you understand what I'm saying?"

"Yeah, but how does this relate to-"

"The information is given with no questions asked," Zim snapped, "It's the only information you can find, therefore it must be true," he paused, "That's what a functioning irken PAK is like."

Dib mouthed a silent 'oh.'

"There's a sort of, um... Well, we'll call it a backup coding that is set in place in every PAK. It keeps the irken from second guessing the information they are given. A defective has an error in this coding."

"You're a..." Dib began, before thinking twice on it and trailing off.

"You can say it," Zim said, shifting his legs off of the dashboard to sit up.

"You're a defective," Dib finished quietly.

"Defectives are found after a newly hatched irken is given their PAK," Zim explained melancholically, "Once the PAK is downloaded, programmed, and scanned, the Control Brains are able to identify every tiny error. Some are fixable, but the lost causes? They're immediately deactivated. Before they even have a chance to be anything but alive, they are killed."

Dib sucked in a sharp breath, wincing at the thought. He watched Zim wince right along with him.

"So how did you come to be?" Dib asked.

"Not sure," Zim shrugged. "I knew I was defective the moment I was programmed. Beyond defective. 40 schmillion errors, to be exact. For some reason, the Control Brains didn't pick it up. Or they did, and didn't do anything about it. Honestly, the answer has eluded me for years. The Control Brains are exactly as they sound. They control. Even the Tallests can't escape it. They call us defective as a form of defense. We challenge everything that they are. Every functioning irken is programmed to be afraid of us, to want us dead."

"Their PAKs control them," Dib swallowed. He remembered the spotted device clutching onto his stomach, filling his head with demands. Was that how Zim had always felt? So helpless and hidden inside of himself?

"Yes," Zim said, "My PAK use to control me, too, until I overrode it. That's why you think I'm so different than I use to be."

The response hit Dib hard. The entire time, he'd been under the control of his PAK, and Dib never even imagined that was a possibility. How much of what he did was by choice? Was it his PAK that made him want to conquer Earth? It had to be, since Zim no longer had any interest in the planet.

"That's horrible," Dib settled, quelling all the racing questions in his mind, "Every irken is like that?"

"No," Zim smirked, "Not anymore."

"If you could override it, then can't the others? Why don't we try and help? You know, free the rest from the Control Brains."

"The two of us?" He laughed bitterly, "We are nothing but dust beneath their feet. The entire Irken Empire? A mere colony of ants to the Control Brains. There is nothing we can do. There's nothing even the Tallest can do."

"But you wanted to take Gashloog with us," Dib pointed out.

"Gashloog..." Zim mumbled longingly, all prior thoughts melting as he rubbed at a smudge of grease on the dashboard absentmindedly. He jolted suddenly, kicked out of his own head as he sat up straighter. "Gashloog was my best friend," he said sharply, "I would do my best to override his PAK coding, and even if I could manage to walk him successfully through that, I would have to walk every irken through the process. And it would be a lot harder, because all of their PAKs work. Mine didn't work in the first place and it was still a near impossible challenge."

He paused to scratch at an antenna, then looked squarely at Dib. "I could help Gashloog if he would let me, but he won't let me. He's afraid of me because his programming tells him to be." He turned furiously to glare at the steering mechanism and spat, "I lost my best friend because of a stupid computer."

Then he began shaking and Dib realized that he had never seen the irken cry.

He watched with wide brown eyes as a thick clear fluid gathered up in Zim's prosthetic orbs that looked so much like human tears, but couldn't be anything like that because human tears were mostly water.

Zim butted his forehead softly against the dashboard, staring down at his boots as he tried to blink the emotions away. He flinched as he felt a warmth on his arm and looked up at Dib.

Dib had a hand raised, hovering in the air. Zim watched him closely as he gingerly lowered it back down to rest on the back of the irken's wrist.

Zim eyed the human for a good minute like he were a prey caught up in a trap. Then in a sudden turn of events, he threw himself onto Dib's seat, clinging to the human as he began sniveling uncontrollably into the human's hair, mumbling the frycook's name on repeat.

For all of the things Zim did loudly, crying was not one of them.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

"Welcome to Grubose 5," Zim announced as Dib landed them on a planet that would have looked like a concrete wasteland if it weren't for all of the spaceships parked everywhere on its surface.

"What are we doing here?" Dib asked. They'd been away from Earth for a week now, and Dib was progressively getting better and better at piloting. Zim had decided to spend the day teaching him, but so far he'd only had him land on derelict moons and astroids.

Zim popped the hatch and hopped out excitedly.

"I use to come here all the time as a smeet, it's where I got most of the parts I used to build the voot," he said, nostalgia prickling at his antennae, "I use to make bombs out of the out of date engines. It wasn't that hard, those things were basically already rigged to explode."

Dib looked around at the piles of ship parts with awe. His mind raced with all of the incredible things he could create with technology like this. And yet Zim looked at it all like it was useless junk.

"So we're here for your nostalgia then?" Dib snorted, kicking at a stray bolt on the ground.

"We're here," Zim said as he dug through the mound Dib had been admiring, "Because you beat up my voot when you landed on that asteroid."

Dib looked over at said ship. He winced noticing the dented siding. "Oops," he said by way of apology.

"It's whatever," Zim shrugged, hopping down and wandering further into the metallic jungle, "Nothing I can't fix."

Dib followed, wiping sweat from his brow as the planet's binary suns bore down on him.

"Oh, and be careful," Zim warned, "There's a few rogue irkens squatting here, and at least two of them harbor a grudge against me."

Dib blinked. "Rogue irkens? Like defects?"

"No," Zim's antennae twitched as he dug through another pile of parts, "More like irkens who were kicked out of the academy and were too much of a smeet about it to get recoded, so they ran off. They're all still loyal to the Irken Empire, so they're usually left alone."

"So like ex-soldiers?" Dib prodded.

"More like," Zim clicked, sitting up on top of the mound and looking out on the planet's horizon, "Wannabe soldiers. The ones that aren't good enough, but think that they're good enough."

"Like you?"

Zim turned to face the human with a cold gaze that made goosebumps prickle Dib's skin despite the searing heat. Zim's eye twitched. "I am good enough," he bit, "I was the best there ever was. If I wasn't, they would have thrown me out an airlock just because I was short."

Dib pursed his lip, regretting what he said as Zim went back to his digging.

They were there for what felt like hours, but Dib guessed to be only a few minutes, as the suns hadn't moved an inch in the sky. He hoped Zim knew where they were, because he couldn't see the voot at this point, and all of the rows of junk looked the same to him.

As Dib began to tap his foot impatiently, Zim's head perked up, both antennae sticking straight into the air in a display that almost made Dib laugh. One twitched, like it was turning towards whatever it had heard, and Dib froze mid-tap.

"Hide," Zim snapped, looking at Dib in such a way that kept the boy from any sort of hesitation. He darted behind a row of ship parts before he could be spotted, peeking his head around a loose engine-looking device to watch.

Three irkens weaved around rows of old ships, emerging at separate ends to meet the defect in the middle. Dib gawked at their size. It wasn't that they were very tall or anything - in fact they would be considered pretty short if they were human - but the realization that Zim was tiny even for his species made his stomach drop and he instantly lost all faith in Zim's fighting abilities.

Zim watched them from his perch atop the garbage pile, his face twitching with recognition. Two irkens snatched him by the arms and dragged him from his pile and onto the concrete, and he did nothing to stop them. They lifted him up so he was standing with the toes of his boots just barely scraping the ground, while the third irken marched right up to him and kneed him in the gut. If he wasn't being held up, Dib thought he would have collapsed and melted into the hot concrete. Zim's knees instinctively rose up to his chest, and he dangled in the larger irkens' grasps as he tried to retrieve the air that had been knocked out of him.

"Zim," his attacker hissed with a sneer. Dib thought about how many times in the past week he'd heard his name spat like that.

Zim coughed in response, eyes adverted at the ground between them as he unfolded from himself.

"You really have the gall to show your little face around here, huh?" The taller irken sneered.

Zim just hung there loosely. Dib wanted to scream at him to do something, but he remained reluctantly silent where he hid.

"It is just my luck that you did," the irken laughed, "Nothing exciting ever happens around here."

Zim remained silent. The rogue irken bent down in an attempt to meet his gaze.

"You think you're too good to even look at me now?" He all but screamed in his face, voice a high rasp not unlike Zim's.

"What do you want, Kleen?" Zim mumbled so quietly Dib could hardly hear it.

Kleen laughed, looking at his compatriots with a wild look. "What do I want, he asks! Why, what do I want? Hm." He tapped a claw against his pointed chin. "For one, I'd like to hear an 'Invader' before you say my name, because if it weren't for you, that's what I would be."

Dib blinked, remembering when Tak had come to Earth. How many irkens had Zim kept from becoming an invader?

"It wasn't fair! I was a way better soldier than you!" Kleen snapped, punctuating his sentence with a blow across Zim's chin, causing Dib to suck in a breath. He looked around frantically, trying to find some way to rescue his pilot.

"If you were better than me," Zim breathed, "You would have been an invader."

"Vortshit!" Kleen snarled, landing another punch. Something pink and viscous dribbled from Zim's mouth as he went slack.

The rogue irken calmed, his violent scowl softening into a small smirk. He lifted Zim's head all the way back with claws on his chin, until Zim's lidded ruby eyes met wild orange ones that towered over him.

"I'm going to personally deliver your head on a platter to the Tallest," Kleen threatened coolly, his antennae twitching to two completely different beats, "They'll be so happy to finally be rid of this disgusting irken defect, who really, never should have lived this long in the first place. They'll have no choice but to let me back in the academy. And I'll be known as the one who brought you down."

"Eh," Zim shrugged in response, eliciting a look of confusion from his aggressor.

"That's all you have to say?" Kleen hissed.

Zim shrugged again, so Kleen kicked him in the shin. Then he deployed two mechanical legs from his PAK. The silver metal glistened brightly in the unforgiving sun, making Dib squint. He started to move out of his hiding spot, about to do something irrational as he realized he couldn't let Zim just let himself die here, but his coat caught on the engine he'd been hiding behind. He looked at it thoughtfully.

"Do you have anything else to say before I skewer and cook you like a marshmallow?" Kleen hovered over him as he smiled with sharp teeth, PAK legs positioned over Zim's chest, one where Dib knew the heart-like part of his spooch to be, the other pointed above what could only be called a lung.

Zim sighed, opening his mouth with resignation. Kleen leaned in. Zim shut his mouth again and looked away. Kleen snickered.

"Finally learned how to shut up, eh Zim?" His PAK legs reared back, prepared to surge forward. "Don't worry too much, I'll make this fast and easy."

"Hey!" A voice yelled from behind Zim. The three rogue irkens all turned in unison to watch Dib as he pushed an old engine towards them. Zim smirked meekly.

The engine sparked as Dib ran, and a look of horror erupted across Kleen's face as he ran to duck behind the closest ship. His companions were too late to realize, and were caught up in the blast right along with Zim.

Shrapnel accosted the area, shattering ship windows and adding glass into the mix. The air turned a pale orange, then faded to gray as the fire died to billowing smoke.

Dib darted from his cover and into the blast zone, rushing to the aid of the smallest ball of irken.

"Zim!" He hissed, coughing as he breathed in the smoke. Zim's green skin was smudged pink, and he stumbled weakly to his feet. The other two stayed down. Dib didn't think too much about it. He ducked under Zim's arm, supporting his limp form as they stumbled towards the direction they came.

Clearing the smoke, Dib almost screamed at the damage. Shreds of metal stuck out of various parts of the irken's skin, gushing bubblegum hued ooze down his arms and uniform. His tunic was sliced open at the waist, but Zim clasped his free hand tightly to it, hiding whatever ghastly wound threatened to spill his guts all over the concrete from view.

Zim stumbled away from the human as they reached the ship, falling against the side of the cruiser as he did. He rested his head against his homemade ship, panting as he left pink hand shaped smudges on the metal. He clung to it like a human child would cling to a teddy bear. Dib opened the windshield and began to help the irken inside.

The sound of boots clicking against the ground made him pause, and he looked up at an unharmed Kleen. Pink blood stained his gloved hands, but Dib knew it wasn't his own.

"You killed Peak," He said shakily, "And you almost killed Drock. He'll probably be dead by tomorrow, we don't have any medicine here."

Zim leaned heavily against the voot as Dib stepped between the two, assuming a defensive position.

"I'm sorry," Zim panted. Kleen just scoffed.

"What is this fleshy creature you have protecting you?" He laughed wildly, "It's just as tiny and useless as you are."

Dib blushed, suddenly embarrassed as he lowered his raised fists and backed up to stand beside Zim.

"You fail to see the Earth child's genius," Zim hissed quietly in defense. His tiny claws balled into fists where they clutched his wounds.

Kleen stepped closer towards them, making them both flinch. "Once again you ruined my life, Zim," he said remorsefully.

"I know," Zim admitted, "I'm sorry." He clambered into his ship with his PAK legs, pulling Dib in after him.

"Are you going to follow me?" Zim asked curiously as he started the ship, slumped backwards in the pilot seat as he was.

"No," Kleen sighed, "You'll get yourself killed eventually."

Zim shrugged. He reached into his PAK and pulled out a red container, looked it over once, then tossed it to the defeated-looking irken. Kleen caught it and read the label, his face instantly lighting up.

"For Drock," Zim explained as the windshield bubbled around them. He gave a little wave as they lifted off.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

"Why didn't you do anything?" Dib demanded with rage, digging tweezers into pink and green meat as he yanked chunks of metal out of Zim's mangled body, "Why didn't you defend yourself? You could have beat them into next Tuesday and they would have never known what hit them."

"Yes, I could have," Zim replied with a glare at Dib's harsh treatment.

Dib growled as Zim winced, but then it hit him. That was what Dib had always done, wasn't it? Just sat there and let himself take it, despite being more than capable of fighting back. It was something about feeling like he deserved it. After all, they did it for a reason, didn't they?

Was Zim trying to make a point? Or did he have that same voice telling him that he had only gotten what was coming to him? Dib dug the tweezers in viciously, and Zim cried out.

"Stop that!" He shouted finally as Dib pulled out another metal strip, adding it to the pile.

"I'm helping you," Dib barked.

"Are you? Because it kinda feel like you're trying to make it worse." He shoved the human away, snatching the tweezers from his hand.

He set them down and hopped off of Dib's bed, only to nearly collapse on the floor.

"You're just going to walk around with shrapnel sticking out of you?" Dib demanded, following the irken as he marched into the cockpit, "Not even to mention your guts are practically falling out."

"They are not," Zim snarled, but his arm still clutched around the slice in his belly. His PAK wasn't healing himself as quickly as he would have liked. He plopped down on the pilot seat, sitting up straight despite his body begging him to let it slouch.

"Let me fly," Dib said. Zim shook his head.

"I'm fine, I'm not as pathetic as you, human, I can handle a few scrapes."

"Zim, that's more than a few scrapes."

"Eh," he shrugged, "I've had worse."

"You've had worse?" Dib sputtered in disbelief.

Zim looked squarely at the boy and asked, "Have you ever been cut in half before?"

Dib's eyes went wide.

"Now that is more than a few scrapes," Zim chuckled, "Took me a whole week to recover."

Dib shook his head. "It doesn't matter. That blast was enough to kill an irken twice your size," he thought about Peak and shuttered. "You need rest. You can tell me a place we can go and I'll take us there to recoup."

"Not necessary," Zim said stubbornly, stiff as a soldier as he looked out the window in front of him.

"Fine," Dib sighed, "At least let me get the rest of the metal out."

Zim rolled his eyes. "If it will make you feel better, human."

"It will," Dib huffed, disappearing in the back to retrieve the tweezers.

"Have some decency with it though, will you?" Zim growled as the boy sat back down.

Dib didn't respond, but he removed the chunks of engine with more conscience, occasionally flicking at Zim's antennae, which simultaneously set the irken off and calmed him down.

Chapter Text

When Dib finally eased out the last piece of metal, Zim got out of his seat and ordered the teenager to take the hypothetical wheel. He disappeared into the back as Dib shuffled into the pilot seat, following the coordinates that were already laid in.

After a few minutes of muffled cursing and the sounds of things being thrown around, Zim emerged, and half dragged himself onto the passenger seat.

He popped the cap off of a small red container, one identical to the one he'd given to Kleen, and inspected the contents within.

"What's that?" Dib asked curiously. Zim held it up, but the label was written in Irken. "I can't read that," he explained.

Zim grumbled something about putting a visual translator into his glasses. "It's a healing ointment. Our PAKs do most of the regeneration, but sometimes they're not quite fast enough."

Dib nodded in acknowledgment. Zim sniffed at the contents, then held the jar up to an antenna. It flicked, and he brought it back down, apparently satisfied with his findings.

Dib assumed he was smelling it to test if it was still good. Judging from the layer of dust that coated it, it had to have laid dormant for awhile. He was surprised to learn the irken could receive scent through the same thing he heard with. He opened his mouth to ask him about it.

Then, to Dib's astonishment, Zim pulled off his uniform, tossing it behind his seat along with other garbage that had accumulated over the week. His newly exposed skin was a paler shade of green than his head. It was free of the grime and blood that covered his face and arms (his sleeves didn't hold up to the damage nearly as well at his shirt had), and was riddled with bruises that were fading before Dib's eyes. He took off his gloves more gingerly, placing them neatly on top of each other on the dashboard.

Turning to the massive wound just above his hips, he prodded at it with a claw, pushing the raw flesh aside to inspect how deep it really was. 

Dib though he would retch as he watched the irken's reflection in the windshield.

"Look, you can see my smeet-sac," Zim announced, amazed at the gushing slit in his lower abdomen.

Dib looked away quickly. "Zim, I don't want to see that," he shouted.

Zim shrugged as he began liberally applying the ointment to the wound. "You use to want to see it," he pointed out.

"Okay well this is different-" he cut himself off, promptly turning to look curiously at the irken, looking him in the eyes to avoid the bloody mess. "Did you say smeet-sac?" 

"Yeah, it's where the smeet would grow before we started using artificial means to reproduce," Zim explained simply as he tended his wounds, "Wanna see it?"

"Do all irkens have one?" Dib asked, ignoring the offer.

"No," Zim said without further explanation. Then he added, "I'll tell you about it when you're older."

Dib turned back to the window with a confused 'huh.' He flew on.

Conversation was light, as Zim seemed too exhausted to escalate it to anything else. Dib talked about his dad and how he didn't miss him and his constant berating on everything he liked. He talked about the bullies at school, and how he thought they compared to the rogue irkens they had just encountered, realizing as he said it just how different the situations actually were. 

"The difference," Zim had said, "Is that Kleen wanted to kill me, and had a reason to. Your bullies just like to feel power. For them, it's not personal."

Then Zim talked about Irk, and no matter how terrible he insisted it was, he always had a tone to his voice that made it clear he longed to go back.

Then Dib asked the question.

"Where did you go?" He mumbled, "During the summer."

Zim glanced over at him. "Home," he said simply. And the myriad of emotions tucked into that single word kept Dib from prying any further. When he was ready, he knew he would talk about it.

•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•..•

Zim landed them on the singular moon of a giant gaseous planet he called Albas 9. The sun was eons away, making Dib cringe. It was bound to be cold.

The window was clouded white the moment they touched down. Dib squinted to see through whatever was covering it, but to no avail.

Zim had donned a sweater to cover his healing torso, and Dib gawked at seeing the irken dressed in something other than his uniform, which was still in a bloody pink wad behind his seat. Zim disappeared into the cuddy and came back wrapped in a black scarf and a soft purple coat that came down to his knees.

"You brought a coat, no?" Zim asked with an eyebrow raised.

Dib's jaw dropped. "You didn't tell me to pack a coat!" He accused.

"Right," Zim huffed with annoyance, "Well, we can get you one in town." He pulled a knitted hat with a little puff on the top over his antennae and tossed Dib a spare hat and scarf.

"In town?" He asked, snorting at the irken in his winter getup. It really was a sight to see.

"Yep. Welcome to Prio," Zim said with a smirk, gesturing to the whited window. He always smirked when they landed, Dib noted; he got joy out of showing the teenager the universe.

"What are we doing here?" Dib asked as he wrapped the scarf around his neck and attempted to stuff his unruly hair into the beanie. 

"I thought maybe you'd like to spend the night somewhere a little less cramped."

"And?" Dib pushed with a knowing look.

"And," Zim growled, "I guess I could use some time to heal in a place that doesn't want to kill me yet."

"Well then," Dib said happily, "Let's get going."

Zim's scowl turned into a malicious smirk as he lowered the windshield bubble, then ducked into the back of the ship as a thick layer of snow collapsed on the human and blanketed on the dashboard and seats.

Zim shrieked with laughter, waltzing past a seething Dib and hopping gracefully out of the ship.

"Come, Earthworm, before the storms come in," Zim warned as he walked away.

Dib stumbled out of the cockpit and glowered at the irken. He bent down to scoop up a ball of snow, tested its weight, then tossed it at Zim's turned back.

It landed square on the back of his head, and Zim screeched, pawing at his neck to get the freezing substance off of him. He whipped around to glare lethally at his attacker.

"Sorry," Dib giggled as steam sizzled and rose up behind Zim.

Before Dib could even stop laughing, Zim had gathered his own snowball and hurled it at Dib's face with excessive force. He stumbled, nearly falling backwards, and wiped the snow off with the back of his hand. He laughed as he cleared his glasses with the end of his shirt, and put them back on just in time to see the irken grumbling as he walked away. Dib ran to catch up.

"Hey," Dib said as fell into step beside him.

Zim just eyed him.

"So, how does it snow on a moon?" He questioned, looking at the flurry around them.

"How does it snow on Earth?" Zim countered, pulling the collar of his coat close around him.

"Water evaporates into clouds, and instead of rain it comes down as snow when it's cold," Dib explained.

"Exactly," Zim said with an arid tone.

"But this is a moon," Dib said, "Moons don't have bodies of water."

"Earth's moon doesn't," Zim corrected, "Do you realize how far away from Earth we are?"

Dib thought about it as they entered into a small, cozy looking town, layered in a blanket of snow. Dib shivered.

"About getting that coat," he pushed, pulling his trench coat tighter around himself. Despite its name, it didn't keep him very warm.

"Yes, yes, we'll get you some more appropriate clothing," Zim said with a wave of his hand. "First we get a room."

The hotel they stopped at was twice as tall as any other building in the town, which was still not very tall. Dib counted four stories up as Zim elbowed through the front doors, holding one open just long enough for Dib to catch it.

Dib reveled in the heat of the lobby, and he watched as Zim did the same, his shoulders relaxing just slightly as he walked to the front desk.

"Top floor suite with a balcony," Zim demanded, slamming his paything on the counter, "One bed." He had to stand on his toes to even see the clerk, with one elbow settled on the desk to hold himself up, making Dib think of a kid trying to buy candy.

"One bed?" Dib questioned.

Zim raised an eyebrow. "I don't sleep. You know this, Earthworm."

"You sleep to recover," Dib pointed out, "And you need to recover. That hole in you is still bleeding." He gestured to Zim's red sweater. The color hid the pink well, but there was a shimmer and an apparent stickiness marring its surface. Zim hardly glanced down at it before he was glaring at Dib.

"You two fight like a married couple," the clerk grinned, "Just the one bed, then?"

"Ew," Zim hissed, picking up on her tone, "I suppose you wouldn't know since you have probably never seen his kind before, and you probably don't see much of my kind, but this here is a child," he pointed at Dib, then at himself, "And I am an irken."

"Oh, my bad," the clerk said with a purple blush that covered her blue face.

"Two beds, please," Dib said to the clerk, choosing to ignore what she had implied.

Zim snarled, "Are you the one paying for it, Dib-Stink?"

It'd been awhile since he'd heard that one. "I mean you're already paying for the top floor suite," he shrugged, "Might as well just get another bed."

"One bed," Zim growled at the clerk. He turned to Dib. "The suites have couches. Happy?"

"Not really," Dib shrugged.

They got their room key, but Zim was yanking Dib back outside before he could even have a chance to ogle at their suite.

"Time for shopping," Zim said in response to Dib's pleading look, "You'll have plenty of time to admire the fruits of my monies when you sleep."

"But it's so cold," Dib whined. The snow had slowed to a mere sprinkle, but it still felt like they were walking in a freezer.

"That's why we're going shopping, idiot," Zim rolled his eyes, "They have temperature control in the stores, too."

"Right," Dib shivered.

"Now I don't have infinite monies," Zim pointed out as they entered a clothing store, "Certainly I have a lot of monies, but once they're gone, they're gone."

"And yet you just bought a suite," Dib sighed.

"Hotels on Prio are very cheap. People don't like to stay here much."

"I wonder why," Dib said sarcastically as he eyed different winter-wear.

After a few minutes of sifting through hangers, he finally held up a shiny black coat.

Zim eyed it for about two seconds before declaring, "Nope."

"What do you mean nope?" Dib demanded.

"I mean that one is worthless. You don't want it. On the other hand," he grabbed a soft-looking gray one and held it up. "This one is good," he decided, tossing it at Dib, "Try it on."

"But I want this one," Dib insisted.

"No you don't," Zim shook his head, "That one will work good here and nowhere else. And it'll be in tatters in a matter of days. This other one is irken made. Breathable, versatile, and yet warm. It will last you a lifetime."

Dib scoffed, but tossed Zim his old trench coat and put the new one on. It fit him perfectly.

"It'll also grow with you," Zim added.

"It will what??" Dib exclaimed.

They went store to store after that, and Dib realized Zim was buying things just to buy things. He got himself a new hat, saying the one he'd been wearing was human made and smelled of 'meat sweat.' He bought three bags worth of sugary snacks and chewed them obnoxiously throughout town as he talked about the quality of the heating systems within each of the buildings. For the most part, he seemed impressed.

He bought a blue blanket because it looked like a snarl beast pelt. He purchased a touristy-looking baseball cap with the name 'Prio' embroidered on it, surrounded by blue sequins made to look like falling snow. He bought a bag of clothes for himself that Dib wondered if he would ever actually wear. He bought an overpriced sewing kit that made Dib stare.

"I didn't know you could sew," Dib gawked.

"It's part of military training," Zim explained like it was the most obvious thing.

He bought a few things for Dib, as well. Anything Dib ogled at for more than thirty seconds Zim threw in the cart with a grimace and a mumble of, "You're expensive."

"I didn't even ask for it!" Dib would argue.

"But you wanted to," Zim would point out.

Dib received a book titled "How to Read Irken: For Dummies," despite the book being written in Vortian and being no help whatsoever. He received new shoes because, as Zim pointed out, his old ones smelled awful. He received new clothing as well (Also irken made, as Zim wouldn't allow anything else), along with a watch-like device that Zim demonstrated how to send messages on.

Zim made Dib carry all their bags, because he apparently, 'owed it to him for wasting so much monies.' They walked back in the direction they came to deposit their loot in their hotel suite.

Kids of different species played in the streets, which Dib noticed had no motorized vehicles in sight. The kids avoided Zim as much as possible. Dib guessed they didn't get many irkens in town, considering that Prio was basically an irken death trap with all the snow. But they watched the human boy with wide eyes as he passed them. One even had the courage to approach him and ask him where he was from, to which Dib politely responded, "I'm a human from a planet far away from here called Earth."

The kid, who was covered in a white fur from head to toe, looked at him strangely, a confused glint in their beady eyes. Zim turned around and repeated word for word what Dib had said, and the kid nodded with an "ohh" and skipped off.

"What was that all about?" Dib asked Zim.

"Your translator doesn't translate you, idiot," Zim explained. 

"Well can it?" Dib asked, the idea of not being able to communicate with any other aliens boring uncomfortably in his stomach. He started to realize all the people he had tried to talk to who just looked at him like he was crazy. No wonder it felt like home.

"Yeah," Zim sighed, "I've just got to give it some upgrades. Really, it would be better if you just learned to speak Irken."

"Why Irken?" Dib asked.

"Everyone knows at least a little bit of Irken. It's kind of a survival skill, you know," Zim explained, "It's not that hard to learn. Besides, I learned your awful language."

They rounded a corner, and three pale purple-skinned children with horn nubs protruding from their heads raced by. Zim's eyes widened and he dragged Dib back against a building.

An identical creature, however more fully grown than the children came up chasing behind them. But they stopped, eyes landing exactly where Zim and Dib had just been standing. They watched that place with a blank look in their red eyes until one of the children galloped up beside them and tugged on their sleeve. They shook their head and followed the child down the road with a soft smile.

"Is that another person who wants to kill you?" Dib asked with a sigh.

"That's Vortian Prisoner 777," Zim explained. So that was a vortian, Dib thought.

"Quite possibly he wants me dead," Zim said nervously, "I may have use to hold his kids hostage."

"You," Dib exclaimed, "What?"

"They escaped forever ago, they're smart kids, you know. He must have escaped from Moo-Ping 10. He's not traditionally very violent, but-"

"Hey, Zim," came a voice from behind the irken. He squeaked and whiped around.

"Hey! What are," Zim laughed nervously, scratching the back of his head as he tried to play it cool, "What are you doing here?"

The vortain just smiled softly at him. One of his kids came running up beside him, stopping short of seeing Zim. The other two did the same, running directly into their sibling as they did.

"Your friend looks like he could use a hand," Former Prisoner 777 said, gesturing to Dib who was nearly toppling over from all the bags he carried.

"Probably," Zim said, eyeing the vortian over, "Are you going to try and kill me?"

"Of course not," 777 said with a laugh, "Unless you try to send me back to prison, that is."

"That's good," Zim huffed, "Because I am not in any sort of condition for either of those things."

The vortian father took half of Dib's groceries, and the oldest of his children took the lightest one, proclaiming with enthusiasm that she could help.

The children gave Zim a wide berth for obvious reasons as the group traipsed to the hotel in an awkwardly merry mood. Their father talked happily about how he had escaped Moo-Ping 10 and what he'd been doing since, really pushing the fact that he lived on Prio now because irkens never came there. Zim remained quiet the entire time, watching his feet as he walked.

They stopped just outside of the hotel, and the vortian family reloaded Dib with the groceries.

"Thanks," Zim said quietly, "But, uh, why did you help us?"

"Oh that?" The vortian asked with a chuckle, "That was for giving me back my children."

Then his hand shot out like a bullet and he grabbed the irken by his raspberry sweater, lifting him up and shoving him against the outside wall to the hotel. He reared back and slammed his fist hard against Zim's jaw. Dib winced at the audible crack.

"And that," 777 said, dropping him in a heap on the ground where he sizzled in the snow, "Was for taking them in the first place."

"Well deserved," Zim said with a groan.

"Enjoy your stay on Prio," 777 said with a smile that made Zim's and Dib's alike skin crawl, "And don't ever come back."