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.