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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."

Chapter Text

The hotel suite was exactly what Dib wanted it to be. He had stayed in a suite once when his dad brought him and Gaz to New York with him for work, and it was exactly what he saw in the movies: awe-striking light fixtures, room service, and a beautiful view of a nearby park, and he would rank the room on Prio well above that one.

The walls were ridged, sparsely decorated, and colored a dark mahogany, giving it a sort of lodge-like feeling. The windows were frosted nearly opaque with snow and draped with translucent black curtains that let the light in even when they were closed. The room was lit somehow besides by the natural lighting, even though there were no visible light fixtures that Dib could discern. The walls were decorated with silver cut-outs of what appeared to be reindeer lining the upper baseboards, but with subtle differences that made it clear it was no Earth ungulate.

There was a small kitchenette in the corner with something Dib thought was a microwave, but wasn't entirely sure, and the bed positioned across from the balcony door was bigger than anything he'd ever seen on Earth, and he guessed the fact that most of the inhabitants of this planet that he'd seen were much taller than human standards had something to do with it. It was clad in thick, fluffy pillows and a shiny blue duvet.

"You like it?" Zim asked. It took Dib a moment to realize he was sincerely asking. The irken had been trying to impress him with his riches all day, after all.

"Uh, yeah. This is great," Dib grinned, depositing his bags by the kitchenette. He pointed at the couch, which was really nothing more than an armchair, and said, "That looks pretty small, though. Even for you."

"So?" Zim questioned, eyebrow raised.

"You said you were going to sleep!" Dib said angrily.

"I just said that to shut you up," Zim said dismissively. A glop of pink blood shlepped out from underneath his sweater, landing on the white carpeted floor. "Uh, whoops," he laughed.

Dib glared. "Do you see?" He gestured wildly towards the irken's pink fluids.

"Oh that's nothing," Zim growled, "What do you even care?"

"I-" Dib began, but cut himself off abruptly. Why did he care? Just months ago he'd wanted to actually, honestly kill the alien, and now here he was getting upset as he watched Zim basically kill himself.

Zim looked at him expectantly, eyebrow raised and all. Despite his gloved fingers glistening with blood as he used them to plug the leaking hole above his pelvis, he managed to look smug.

"Okay, yeah, I gave you a whole new happy life away from all those smelly people who hate you, and sure, I am quite amazing, but what could possibly make you suddenly care about me after all that time you spent wanting me dead?" Zim said with an emotion Dib couldn't discern.

"I guess, just," Dib shrugged, "You're different now. You're my friend now. That's why you brought me in the first place, isn't it?"

Zim scoffed. "You know nothing."

"God, what don't I know, Zim?" Dib growl, "I know all these horrible things that you've done, and I don't care what your species' standards are, they were horrible things. But you know what? You're still the only person who gave me a chance to be anything but the crazy kid in the corner."

Zim looked up at him, raspberry eyes wide. "Earthworm," he began quietly, "I am a vicious creature who can never be salvaged."

"That was with your PAK," Dib said with a frustrated huff. 

"And how do you know that?"

"That vortian," Dib said, "He said you let his kids go, but you said that they escaped."

"What?" Zim spat.

"You said they escaped, but he said that-"

"I heard you the first time!" Zim snarled. Then he went silent, looking at the pink stain on the floor.

Dib waited for him to say something. When he didn't, he began, "You sa-"

"I let them go, okay!" Zim snapped, interrupting the boy, "I built them a flirking ship, taught them how to use it, and then I let. Them. Go."

"Zim, that's a good thing-" Dib tried.

"I was ordered by my Tallest to keep those kids. That was the first time I blatantly disobeyed them."

Dib fell silent, watching the irken look at everything in the room but the other living being.

"Was this before," Dib asked, "You overwrote your PAK?"

"That was the beginning of it," Zim explained. "I think they knew. I don't know how they would have, but I think they just know things sometimes."

"What do you mean?" Dib asked, sitting on the edge of the bed.

"A week later, I was ordered to retreat, and return to Irk." A single antenna quivered. He reached up and placed a claw on it, stilling its movement. "So I did. I collapsed the base and I left. And when I got to Irk." He paused, face wrinkling, "I was imprisoned, forced to wait weeks for a fair trial. As if any irken trial could be fair. Eventually I was transported to Judgementia and put on trial. The Control Brains found me to be defective."

"And?" Dib pushed eagerly. This was it. He was finally getting the answer to the question he hadn't wanted to ask.

"They tried to deactivate me. Started to, actually. In a panic, I overloaded the memory file it was trying to delete. I managed to... Corrupt the Control Brains. Only temporarily. The second I was able to, I fled. When I realized what I did during my deactivation, I figured out there was a way to overwrite my entire programming. It wasn't easy, you know. It fought with me the entire time. I nearly died from exhaustion, but eventually I did it."

Dib held his breath, taking a moment to comprehend Zim's story. He thought about the look of paranoia and fatigue on the irken's face when he walked into class that first day. 

"You helped, you know," Zim said in a small voice, "When I asked you if you wanted to see my guts? I did that just to spite it. Every bit of information I shared with you pushed that voice down further, until it wasn't there at all."

"I know what it was like," Dib blurted. He mentally kicked himself for that. How could he possibly know what it was like? He only had that tiny blurb, not even ten minutes with that PAK on. Zim had gone years, hundreds of years.

Zim just looked at the human with pleading eyes. When Dib said nothing, his gaze adverted itself to his sticky sweater. He clasped both arms around the wound and shuttered.

"Does it hurt?" Dib asked with a sympathetic frown.

Zim nodded with a barely audible whimper.

"I'm sure it does. You have that red stuff with you?"

Zim reached into his PAK and presented the jar of healing ointment.

"Alright, come here."

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

Zim awoke curled up on Dib's bed, not two feet away from the human child. He looked down at his bare torso. It was wrapped tightly in the shredding of a white towel, pink just barely blushing the surface. He got up.

It was dark outside and the lighting in their room had naturally dimmed. Zim eased his way over to the bags left in the kitchen and pulled one of his new sweaters over his head. It was a dark purple, and made out of the nice irken material that he couldn't live without.

He tossed on his coat and hat and stepped out onto the balcony.

He brushed the piled snow off of the railing with his sleeve and climbed up to sit on the beam. He looked out over the town, and the forest that bordered it. Snow fell in light flecks, catching streetlights in their reflections, making the air sparkle like glitter. Albas 9 filled half of the black sky, lit in swirls of blue and green that reflected onto the moon's frozen surface.

Zim propped his elbows up on his thighs, placing his chin in his hands. What was he doing? He needed to figure it out, but things just kept going so fast, and everywhere he turned it seemed like someone wanted to splay him alive. There was no break, no respite, only the calm before the storm that barely gave him the chance to catch his breath.

And then there was Dib, who no longer wanted to dissect him physically, but had been taking Zim apart piece by piece since the first day they took off regardless of intentions. The boy asked too many questions, more questions than any smeet his age should. And now he knew Zim like the back of his hand. That thought instinctively made the irken gag, and yet, he wanted Dib to know more. Something primal was clawing inside of him, and it needed to share. It was painful and overwhelming and made Zim think maybe there was a reason irkens stifled their emotions in the first place.

The door pushed open and a tired Dib stumbled onto the balcony in his new gray coat, his gravity-defying hair a tired mess.

"Hey," he greeted, folding his arms over the railing and looking up at Zim.

"Hey," Zim said back, watching the human.

"What's up?" He asked softly, placing his chin on his sleeves.

Zim looked back out over the town. He shrugged.

"You know it's cold out here," Dib pointed out, "And the snow burns your skin."

Zim scoffed lightly. "Helps me think," he said.

Dib pursed his lips. "What are you thinking about?"

"Everything," Zim sighed.

Dib followed the irken's gaze out towards the glowing streets. "Where are we going next?" He asked, subtly changing the subject.

"I don't know," Zim admitted, "I was thinking Cyberflox, but that place is a little intense. Plus there's some weirdo there who's obsessed with me."

Dib snickered. "Obsessed with you?"

"Yeah, he's a couch now, though, so he's not much of a problem."

"Hm," Dib hummed. He knocked an elbow into Zim's side. "Come on," he said, nodding his head towards the door.

Zim huffed, breath fogging out before him. He hopped off the railing and followed Dib inside, where he was accosted with warmth. He shucked off his coat and attacked Dib with a sudden hug.

"Thank you," he mumbled, voice muffled in the soft gray fabric of Dib's new coat as the boy sputtered.

"For what?" Dib wondered as he let his hands hesitantly rest on Zim's shoulder blades.

"For not wanting to kill me," Zim said, "Or make me suffer or whatever else it is my enemies fantasize about."

Dib scoffed and flicked one of Zim's antennae out of his face.

"For not hating me," Zim finished with a sigh. 

"I think you need more sleep," Dib accused, pushing the suddenly clingy irken away, "I know I definitely do."

He climbed back into bed, bundling under the covers. He didn't have to look up to know Zim had followed. He curled up beside him and eyed the human with a sad look.

"Earthworm?" He asked.

"Hm?" Dib acknowledged drowsily.

"If I go home someday," Zim murmured as he drifted off, "You can come with me."

And with that very sentence, Dib could no longer sleep.

Chapter Text

Zim drowsed in the passenger seat as Dib flew them faster than the speed of light across the Delta Quadrant, all the way from one end to the other. He did so angrily, upset that Zim could be sleeping at a time like this.

It'd been two months since they left Prio. Zim's wound had healed at an alarmingly slow rate, causing a massive panic in the tiny irken that his PAK was slowly failing him. Upon further inspection, he had discovered a minor fluke in the regeneration systems - something about poor maintenance on his part, and Dib had gawked that he had actually admitted to doing something wrong. Eventually the gash sealed over, and Zim managed to provide his PAK the proper care it needed.

Dib was just amazed to know he healed like a human when all that technology didn't come into play.

Zim's head lulled to the side and drool dribbled at the side of his mouth. He looked just like he had at school when Ms. Bitters droned on about something even she didn't care about and Zim would just lie his head on his desk in defeat like most of the other students.

But Dib knew better this time. The irken had been struck with a PAK laser, right on the side of his face, and his PAK had knocked him out for a speedy recovery. Somehow he'd managed to survive the blow that tore right through his flesh, revealing a cracked skull the color of strawberries, and smelled very much the same. Dib wondered about the evolutionary advantages of having insides that smelled like candy, and could think of none. 

Zim had told him once that his species had been prey to a vicious predator that Dib couldn't pronounce the name of. That creature was long gone in the wild now, having been brutally destroyed by its own food source, and the only few left resided in the deepest parts of Irk's wilderness that irkens dared not touch. It made sense really, considering irkens were strict herbivores with their main source of nutrients coming from sugar. It had taken Dib awhile to realize Zim's sweets addiction was actually part of a healthy diet.

Dib maneuvered the ship away from a red blast of energy, just as Zim had taught him to do, but he was running out of tricks as the irken ship gained on them.

Zim fidgeted in his seat, turning just so to give Dib a good view of his wound as it stitched itself back together at a rapid pace. It wasn't rapid enough.

"Zim," Dib hissed, "Wake up."

He spoke in Irken. Zim had relentlessly engrained the language into his mind, emphasizing on how important it was for him to be capable of speaking the most common language in the Delta Quadrant. He hardly pronounced any of the vowels right, to Zim's undying frustration, but it wasn't his fault human lungs weren't designed to make those ungodly clicking noises. At the very least, he didn't use his translator nearly as often as he had just weeks ago.

Zim mumbled, waving a hand at Dib in a gesture that seemed to tell him to shut up.

They'd been drifting listlessly through the galaxy, just reveling in friendly conversation and the views of the irken-run planets they passed by, when a sleek red ship with a black downward-pointing triangle painted on its hull came into view. Zim's eyes had gone wide with something Dib didn't recognize, and without any sort of explanation, Zim hit a button on the weapon's console, destroying the ship in a single laser blast.

Zim had responded to Dib's aghast reaction with a grin and had then landed them on the closest planet. The terrain was gray and rocky, and made Dib think of something out of a Star Trek episode. There were no buildings in sight, no artificial structures to be found, just rocks and a strange moss that glistened in the sun.

Zim dragged a blanket out of the ship, his arms full of snacks. He laid the blanket out on the smoothest part of the surface and sat upon it. Dib watched him with a puzzled expression.

"You humans do the picnic thing, no?" Zim asked.

"Yeah," Dib said cautiously. Zim patted the blanket beside him, so Dib sat down.

They had lunch on that planet - or rather Dib had lunch and Zim had snacks - watching twin moons arise in the sky after the bright blue sun faded behind them. It was peaceful, and exactly what the two had needed. They had just left a planet swarming with angry vortians, who, in an angry protest, had attacked the pair out of nothing but the misfortune of seeing an irken. Before that they'd stumbled upon a very angry Tak who wanted revenge more than ever, a plookesian who Zim apparently owed monies, and a few other irkens Zim had wronged in the past. It was nice to be somewhere without people for once, without even the possibility of running into an enemy.
 
That feeling didn't last long, though. A burst of green energy had shot past them suddenly, searing the rock behind, and a group of irkens, all dressed in what Dib had learned to be the uniforms of elite soldiers, marched in front of them.

The tallest of the group - naturally - stepped up, aiming his PAK leg right between Zim's eyes, and said, "You are under arrest for the destruction of an irken battlecruiser."

Zim had scoffed, stood up and walked directly in front of the soldier with his chin raised high. Somehow he managed to look down on the taller irken. He asked, "Is that the only charge then?"

"That is the only one we are aware of at this time, yes," the soldier responded, taken aback at the tiny irken's confidence.

"Hm," Zim clicked with a thoughtful nod, "Maybe you should figure out all the other charges, and then come talk to me." He spun on his heals, tossed their picnic blanket into the cockpit, and said to Dib, "Let's go," before a beam of energy ripped across his face, knocking him to the ground with an echoing cry.

Zim snarled, PAK legs extending and lifting him up to tower over the soldier who had attacked him.

Then the soldier gasped. "You're the defect," he stated, red eyes wide as he took a step back, "The one everyone talks about."

"Damn right I am," Zim growled, one metal limb lifted as it powered with a green pulse.

Dib grabbed Zim by a mechanical leg and tossed him into the ship, jumping in after him. They took off as lasers fired around them, but eventually left the elites in their dust.

Dib began a rant about how careless Zim was, and how he was going to get them killed one of these days, or worse, only to look over and find the defective fast asleep. He grumbled and went to set in a new course. 

Then the ship rattled as it was accosted with red energy, cutting him off before he could engage. He cursed in English, just because those specific words made Zim angry despite him being unconscious, and engaged the SF drive.

Now here he was, avoiding endless deadly blasts as he tried to yell at Zim to wake up.

The irken wouldn't budge, so he shook his shoulder, but that didn't work either. Looking around helplessly, he grabbed ahold of Zim's antenna and yanked hard.

Zim jerked awake with a screech, instantly going to attack the human who drew his hand back as quickly as possible.

"What do you want, Earth-filth?" Zim snapped, his regeneration visibly slowing as he regained consciousness.

"We're under attack, idiot," Dib shouted. Zim's eyes went wide, and he shoved the human out of the pilot seat and took his place.

"Why didn't you flirking tell me that?" He hissed, jerking the voot to the side and throwing Dib off his chair just as he sat down.

"I tried," Dib argued. Zim ignored him in favor of glaring out the window.

Dib watched in a panic as Zim abruptly turned the ship around, flying directly at their attacker. At the last minute, he fired, jerking the cruiser away from the explosion as the irken battleship was blown to bits.

Zim jumped up on his chair and started shouting at the ruin.

"That's what you get!" He growled, "You had the gall to challenged me?? The renown irken defect who broke your precious Control Brains?? I am ZIM! You do NOT. Mess. With ZIM!"

"That's right!" Dib cheered right along with him, because that's what it felt like he should do.

"You," Zim said sharply, abruptly turning to the human boy. He hopped off his seat to get right up in Dib's face. "If you ever touch my antennae like that ever again I will not hesitate to rip your eyes right out of their sockets and shove them down your throat. Do you understand?"

Dib put his hands up in a surrendering gesture. "As long as you don't decide to take a nap while we're being chased by angry irkens," he said as he looked down at Zim. Then he realized he was looking down at Zim. Zim seemed to notice as well.

"You're taller," he said simply, all aggression suddenly gone from his voice.

"Yeah, I guess so," Dib shrugged, "Must've had a growth spurt recently."

"Well stop that," Zim demanded, "Or this ship's gonna be too small for you. And I am not accommodating for that."

"I can't just stop growing," Dib explained, miffed.

"Sure you can," Zim responded gleefully. He slumped in his seat and said, "Computer, assess the damage."

Dib's eyes went wide as Zim's fainéant AI system sighed and stated, "Minimal hull damage. Just a scratch."

Zim huffed at that. Just a scratch? On his precious voot cruiser?

"Since when did your ship have an AI?" Dib exclaimed.

"Since always," Zim said, "I just don't trust a computer who hates me to fly my ship."

Dib glared at him. Zim didn't seem to mind.

"I'm taking a nap," he said, scratching at the scrape on the side of his head, "Get us out of this solar system before another battlecruiser finds us."

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

"Okay, okay," The Almighty Tallest Purple laughed as he licked donut frosting from his claws, "But then he said, 'I saw a vortain who was taller that you'! Can you believe that? A vortian taller than us? He was such a bad liar. I threw him out the airlock just for being such a bad liar."

Red laughed gruffly at his anecdote, then told one of his own as he stuffed his face with a donut. They both laughed for awhile, just having a happy conversation about the suffering of others, until Red piped up suddenly.

"Remember Zim?" He asked his co-ruler.

Purple raised an eyebrow. "The defect?" He asked.

"He hasn't tried to contact us since his trial. Think maybe he finally stopped being so dumb?"

Purple thought about it seriously for a moment. Then he snorted. "Nope!" He exclaimed, sending them both into another fit of laughter, donut crumbs and spittle littering the air around them.

"My Tallest," their emerald-eyed communications officer interrupted nervously, "We just received a message from the Vortian System. A battlecruiser was destroyed."

"By who?" Red demanded, sitting up straight as Purple continued to snicker.

"By..." He hesitated before saying, "By Zim. Wait. Make that two battlecruisers."

Purple's laughter turned into a cough. The irken leaders both turned to each other with panic strewn across their faces.

Chapter Text

"You know what's always struck me as strange?" Dib asked. Zim had finally woken up after a long recovery nap, and the previously deadly wound was now nothing but a streak of slightly paler skin. He'd taken the pilot seat back and set a course for some place Dib didn't recognize.

"What's that?" Zim inquired, black boots propping up on the dashboard as he leaned back.

"You aliens don't name your ships."Why'

Zim thought long about that. "Sure we do. Not me specifically, but some name their ship. It's just a preference thing."

"Maybe you should name your voot," Dib offered.

"Nah," Zim said, shaking his head, "Not necessary."

"Why's that?"

Zim looked at him with serious eyes, a pink fiery hatred swirling within them. "They'll know the terror that's coming for them either way."

Dib snorted. "Well, if you did name it, what would it be?"

Zim pondered the questions, tapping his chin as he thought. "The Time Bomb," he said eventually.

"The," Dib stammered, panicked, "Are you trying to tell me something?"

Zim laughed. "No, no, this ship is more structurally sound than even the Massive. After all, I built it."

"That doesn't exactly make me feel better," Dib said, but he sighed with relief regardless, "Then why The Time Bomb?"

"Because that's what we are," Zim said, gesturing fondly between himself and his ship.

"A time bomb?" Dib questioned.

"Yep," Zim nodded.

"I don't think you're a time bomb," Dib said after a moment.

Zim looked at the boy. "Then what are we?"

Dib thought about it. "A beacon," he said.

Zim narrowed his eyes. "Why a beacon?"

Dib shrugged. "Beacons bring hope."

"I do not being hope," Zim said slowly, "I bring chaos and destruction."

"You bring hope to the entire irken race. You're living proof that they don't have to be controlled."

Zim pondered it, but didn't respond.

"Do you think they'll know who destroyed those battlecruisers?" Dib asked after realizing Zim wasn't going to continue their thread.

"They'll know," Zim said darkly, "Someone would have sent the message during the chase. And all the better for it, really."

Dib gulped. "Do you think more will come after us?"

"Oh definitely," Zim said without hesitation.

"You say that like its a good thing."

"It is," Zim grinned, "It just means I'll get to destroy more of them. It's been awhile since the Irken Empire had such a blow."

"I still don't like it," Dib said, "I dont know about you, but I'm not much of a fan of the idea of being hunted down by a hyper-violent advanced society."

Zim looked over at him. "You know we'll always be one step ahead of them," he assured.

And they always were. They found themselves in quite a few run-ins with other irken ships who were determined to finally take down the defect who plagued their part of the galaxy, but Zim had been an invader, and had all of their training and more. He and Zim always managed to escape mostly unscathed, and Dib always managed to get a horrible little thrill from it. Then again, he always had enjoyed the chase.

He always fought with Zim afterwords, certain that the irken had been reckless and was going to get them both caught someday, but petty fights and arguments like that had always been the result of their mixing, so it wasn't anything new. Their friendship was some strange concoction of comfortable friendship combined starkly with how they had been before.

Then one day, something just seemed to click. After nearly a year of fighting and hatred and threats and hopelessly trying to one-up each other, followed by a month of neutral ground, and another two of exciting space exploration, they finally found that they understood each other.

Dib called them friends. Best friends, to be exact. He'd never been so close to anybody in his life, and the feeling was warm and inviting and overwhelming. He reveled in the times Zim would settle down next to him, when Dib could get him to relax just enough for him to reach up and pet his antennae without getting accosted by sharp claws.

Zim called it mekleen. Technically, the Irken word translated to 'one who protects.' Elite irken soldiers would declare to be another irken's mekleen, meaning they were partners in battle, and they would protect each other no matter what. Seeing as this bond somehow made the elites stronger, the Control Brains allowed it. This was the closest thing the irken race had to friends.

Zim called Dib his mekleen, and even before the boy knew what it meant, he knew he was honored.

It was obvious Zim was in the same boat as Dib. Other than possibly Gashloog - who Zim couldn't talk about without either drifting deep into melancholic thought or breaking down in an out-of-character fit of tears - or the vaguely mentioned Skoodge, Dib didn't know of anyone Zim could call a friend. Maybe it had been his own fault, his ego telling him he didn't need anyone, or maybe it was the irken race, looking down so lowly on any sort of intimacy.

But Zim delighted in his and Dib's friendship, his happy little chirps when the boy played with his antennae was proof of that. He acted like he had never had any sort of positive attention in his life, and Dib thought maybe he hadn't. He was reminded distantly of the time his dad brought him home a stray kitten, soaked from the rain pouring outside, and the way it had snuggled up to him for warmth and comfort, instantly cheering up when Dib was near. Only Dib wasn't certain what had been the rain in the metaphor. Was is Shlooghorgh's? Or just Irk in general? Or maybe even it was Zim himself.

"Where to next?" Dib asked one day after a paranoia-inducingly peaceful outing on a tropical planet on the outskirts of irken-controlled territory.

Zim just shrugged. "Arcadikon?"

"Is that the place you sent my sister that one time?"

"Yep," Zim said with a grin, "Good times."

Dib sighed. "Yeah, sure, why not?"

 

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"Food Service Drone Gashloog," boomed the computerized voice of a Control Brain.

Aforementioned frycook looked around nervously. A crowd of irkens watched him with big round eyes from where he stood on a raised platform. He looked down at his hands, shackled together with cold metal, and awkwardly scratched at his knuckles.

"You've been charged with the unauthorized aiding of the rogue defective, the former Invader Zim," the Control Brain explained, causing the irken to hunch his shoulders as he shrank back. "How do you plea?"

"Not guilty," Gashloog said in a small voice, emerald eyes wide with fear, "But, I don't understand."

He yelped as a wire attached to the back of his PAK, lifting him above his platform. Another wire dropped from the ceiling, presenting the shaded goggles from his work uniform. He looked at them, puzzled.

"The camera installed within these goggles shows evidence to your crimes," the disembodied voice announced. The crowd below gasped as if they were watching a soap opera and none of it was real.

Another wire extended, attaching itself to the goggles as a screen lowered from the ceiling and flickered on. Gashloog watched in horror as the screen flashed forward through his entire time working at Shlooghorgh's in first person view.

"There's a camera in those?" He squeaked. A sudden feeling bubbled up in him at the realization that his every move had been monitored and he had no idea. Sure his PAK recorded and stored everything he did as well, but this was different. It was something like mistrust, or betrayal. He wasn't sure, he just knew it hurt.

The recordings slowed at every instance involving Zim. Gashloog looked away with a tight frown, shame prickling at the base of his antennae as they flattened against his skull. He heard the crowd murmuring as he tried to count how many times he had ever hugged or snuggled or kissed the tiny defect. It wasn't something that irkens did, it was a pathetic display of intimacy that had no place in any of their lives. He was at the very least relieved they were only seeing what he did with the goggled on, instead of searching through his PAK database. That would have been a true nightmare.

It played through Zim's latest battle with Sizz-lorr, shown from where Gashloog had hidden behind the counter, and replayed the part where Zim had clearly labeled himself a defective. It continued, speeding only through the part where Gashloog ran off to make Zim and his strange companion their vort dogs.

"Thanks, Gashloog," Zim said on-screen as he payed for the meal. Zim disappeared from view as the frycook turned to scan his paything.

"You know there's always room for you on our ship," Zim said as he returned on screen. The crowd gasped. Zim's companion exclaimed something in a language no one understood.

"I like my job, Zim," Gashloog said 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. The screen cut to black.

All were silent, until Gashloog cried out, "See? I didn't help him! I refused to go with him! That's good... Right?"

"That is incorrect," The Control Brain stated in its emotionless voice, "You aided him by not immediately alerting the Tallest to his whereabouts."

"You cooked him a meal, for Irk's sake," Tallest Red finally spoke up, making the food drone flinch.

"And you..." Purple shivered, "Held him. Why would you even do that?"

"We were... friends," Gashloog said reluctantly, antennae drooping in front of him. The word he used was mekleen.

Conversation filled the large room, and Gashloog hung his head in shame.

"Silence," The Control Brain said, earning immediately just that,"Due to overwhelming evidence, you have been found guilty of aiding a war criminal, murderer, and defective. The punishment for such a crime is deactivation."

Gashloog's antennae shot back in panic.

"Irken Gashloog's data is not allowed into the collective," the Control Brain announced, "His PAK will be removed, and erased."

"Wait!" Gashloog shouted as more wires grabbed ahold of him, preparing for his deletion. "I can bring him here! I can help!" He cried desperately.

The wires froze midair as the Control Brain began to calculate.

"He'll listen to me if I tell him to come," he said. And he knew he would. He was his mekleen, after all.

Slowly, Gashloog was deposited back on the floating platform.

"Man, I was really hoping to see someone get deactivated for once," Purple said with a sigh.

Something ripped at Gashloog within his spooch, a feeling that he couldn't understand. He pushed it down deep, where it continued to scream at him, but was well ignored. He stood up straight like he knew Zim would do, quelling his shaking limbs. He wouldn't die today.

 

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"You're like a cat," Dib blurted suddenly, amused. Zim had his head laid in the teenager's lap, and had responded to Dib's absentminded petting with a distinct whirring noise that took Dib awhile to realize exactly what it was.

"I am nothing like that," Zim argued, inspecting his gloved claws, "I am more like, what's that thing called? A moth."

"You think you're like a moth?" Dib asked, bemused.

"Marvelous creatures, very intelligent," Zim sighed as he let his eyes close, "You humans are afraid of them for reasons unknown."

"Moths don't purr when I pet their antennae," Dib countered.

"Sure they do," Zim said, "You just can't hear them with your primitive human ears."

Dib was about to question that, when the windshield lit up as a screen, displaying the words 'One (1) Incoming Call' as it played out a little ring.

Zim lifted his head off the human's lap and clicked the green 'accept' button. His ruby eyes widened as he saw the face that appeared on the screen.

"Gashloog!" Zim screeched, making Dib cover his ears and wince at the incredible frequency.

"Hey Zim," Gashloog said, almost sadly. Dib raised an eyebrow at his somber tone. "So I've been thinking about it, and-"

"Hey!" Zim greeted belatedly, cutting him off.

Gashloog sighed. "I've been thinking about it," he said again, "And I think I do want to come with you."

Zim's antennae perked up, pointing squarely at the rounded roof of the cockpit. "You WHAT??"

"I said I want to-" The frycook began.

"Yes!" Zim shouted, hopping up on his seat, "Yes, yes, yes! Dib, lay in a course for Foodcourtia now."

"But, Zim," Dib tried, only to be shushed by the overexcited irken.

"Zim, I'm not on Foodcourtia," Gashloog said with a frown. His antennae were twitching, and he looked more than a little nervous. "I'm on Irk."

"Even better!" Zim exclaimed, "Dib, set a course for Irk." He turned back to the screen. "We're on our way," he announced to his old coworker. Gashloog gave him a weak smile and cut the transmission.

Zim stared as the screen went blank and turned back into a window. He breathed heavily and dropped back down to a sitting position. Then he turned to Dib.

"Did you set a course?" He asked.

Dib frowned. "Maybe we shouldn't just rush to Irk, you know? Maybe we should meet him on some other planet. Like you said yourself, they don't like you much on Irk."

Zim grimaced. "I know that," he spat, "But, Gashloog."

Dib sighed. "I get it," he said, and he actually did now. He laid in their course. Then they were headed for Irk, and Zim felt like he couldn't breathe.

Chapter Text

It took them three days to get to Irk. Three days of planning, three days of brief Irken history lessons, three days of a very restless, very small green alien rambling on about all the incredible things he was going to show Gashloog.

"It might be a trap," Dib had pointed out several times, remembering the nervous look on the previously cheerful frycook's face during their communication. Of course, he didn't know the food drone as well as Zim did.

"I know that," Zim told him, "But... Gashloog would never betray me."

If positions were swapped, and it was Zim sending Dib that message at the point in their friendship that they were at now, Dib wasn't sure he would notice if it were a setup either.

"You were mekleen," Dib had stated more than asked.

Zim just looked at him with distant eyes and said, "We were more than mekleen."

That simple sentence had cleared up so many questions rattling around in Dib's head that he thought he might never have another inquiry about the defect ever again. It also gave him a lot to think about over the three day journey.

Zim drove most of the way, stating that there would be many battle cruisers they would meet along the way and it would be easier if he were already there to take them down. That assumption proved to be false however, and they slipped through the galaxy untouched. Dib pointed out the fact as even more evidence towards the false legitimacy of the situation they were diving face first into and Zim ignored his human companion's concerns on the matter.

It was eery how easily they landed on Irk. Somehow, they managed to enter Irk's thick atmosphere without a single patrolling ship to stop them. Gashloog had sent them coordinates of where to meet up, and they had landed in the most hidden spot within the surrounding area.

Dib hopped out of the voot cruiser to find they were in a sort of city, with towering structures of dark reds and purples that could only be called buildings looming around him. On top of that, everything was high tech and hyper-digitalized. Dib found the cityscape to be rather disconcerting, while Zim practically skipped through the streets, more than happy to be home.

The coordinates took them to a space between two looming buildings, braced with metal and wires like Zim's ceiling was back on Earth. The alley was dark and gloomy and smelled distinctly of rotting fruit. Zim hardly took any notice as Dib hesitated, staying at the edge of the enclosure.

"Zim, I don't think this-" he began, only to be cut off by a new voice.

"Zim," Gashloog greeted the gleaming defect as he stepped into the alley from the opposite side.

"Gashloog!" Zim exclaimed.

"Zim!" Dib squeaked in a small voice.

Zim ran up to embrace the frycook, but was stopped by a grip on his arm. He turned around, expecting his human companion to be there, spewing more nonsense about how this was a setup, but instead he saw an irken twice his size, backed by two others who loomed on both sides of the alley. They were dressed like elites. Zim would have smiled at that fact, his Tallest sending only the best to contain the best, but when he turned back, Gashloog was watching him with a crestfallen face.

"I thought maybe you wouldn't actually come," he sighed, "All the better for me that you did, I guess." Then he turned around and walked out of the alley without another word.

"Wait!" Zim cried out as he struggled in the iron grip of the elite, attempting to catch up with his former coworker. Another soldier took hold of his other arm while the third one stalked towards a wide eyed Dib.

"Dib, run," Zim demanded sharply, eyes dilated as he tried to claw his way out of the hold. With barely a hesitation, the boy complied. He ducked under the grasps of four different soldiers emerging from behind buildings to chase after him as he raced back to the ship.

"See ya, Earthworm," Zim said sadly, stilling as he caught his breath. He watched the space where his best friend had been just moments ago as a needle was plunged into his back.

 

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Dib could hardly breathe. He wasn't sure if that had something to do with Irk's pink-hued atmosphere or if he had really already tired himself out. Regardless, he pumped through winding streets, back the way he thought they'd came, but as he was forced to slow and catch his breath, he panicked at the idea that he had taken a wrong turn.

A soldier gained on him, grabbing him by his jacket collar and yanking him to the ground. Dib rolled around as the irken landed on him, kicking them in the face. He stumbled to his feet as the soldier reeled and recovered, reaching out and grabbing the teenager by the cuff of his jeans. Before he could be pulled down again, all of Zim's weaknesses he had ever learned showed up in a neat, organized list in his mind, and he turned sharply to spit at the irken, right between their narrowed cherry eyes.

The soldier screamed in agony, clawing at their own face as Dib's saliva burned through their skin. Dib ran without remorse.

Eventually the voot came in sight, parked in the alley between two abandoned-looking buildings, and Dib's fear that he was hopelessly lost was instantly relieved. He threw himself in the cockpit just as two more elites rounded the corner. He was up in the air long before they could do anything about it, shooting off into the magenta sky.

It wasn't until he'd successfully eluded all potential danger and was a good hour away from Irk that he had the mental space to consider what just happened. And once he did, the tears streamed hotly down his face like they hadn't in weeks.

"I'm sorry to interrupt, uh, what you're doing," Zim's old snarky computer chimed in, "But where is Zim?"

Dib sniffled, wiping at his eyes. "He's," he began, cutting himself off with a hiccup. Dead? Probably not yet, but he certainly would be within the next few days. "On death's row," he finally settled, voice squeaky and uneven.

"You mean he got captured," the computer corrected. Dib just huffed angrily.

"His friend tricked him," Dib explained, anger bubbling up, "And there's nothing I can do."

"There is something you can do," the computer said vaguely.

"Besides go back to Earth with my tail between my legs and try and explain to everyone what I've been doing for the past few months? Yeah, no thanks."

The computer whirred. "That's not what I was going to say," it eventually responded.

"Then what?" Dib whined.

"You can go back and save him."

It said it like it was so obvious, so easy. Did the computer not know what Irk was? Did it not know that Dib was a child? He was only 13, he wasn't equipped for any of this, emotionally or physically.

"No I can't," Dib said with finality.

"Well, not with that attitude," the computer said jovially.

"I can't, okay?" Dib shouted at the AI, "I don't know what I'm doing half of the time, I don't even know half of this ship's functions! I can't just waltz back down there and fight through a hoard of irken elite soldiers and just take him back!"

There was a moment of silence, and Dib thought he had just drove away the only company he had left.

But then that whirring returned and the computer said, "Well, not alone, no."

Chapter Text

 

"Let go of me you filthy piece of disgusting-" Zim shouted, squirming as he was half dragged out of his holding cell and down a narrow corridor. He was cut off by one of the guards stuffing a piece of cloth into his mouth. Zim growled a muffled, "hrmph!" as he continued to make his escorts' jobs as miserable as possible.

"Do yourself some good and shut up for once," one growled at the ex-invader's repressed screams.

He was dumped gracelessly before two very tall irkens, one dressed in red, the other in purple. They sneered down at him as he attempted to shoulder himself off the ground with his hands chained behind his back and ankles locked together.

He spat the cloth out of him mouth and snarled viciously. "Where's Gashloog?" He demanded.

The leaders of Irk exchanged amused glances with each other.

"Zim, you're in no state to be using such a tone," Red tisked, eyebrow raised.

"Why?" He laughed, "You're just going to kill me anyway. Might as well go out with a bang."

The Tallest exchanged another glance, this one of puzzlement.

"Sorry," Zim shrugged, clearly not sorry as he finally managed to squirm himself into a kneeling position, "You wouldn't understand Earth expressions, would you. You could have, but instead you decided to make a joke out of it. They have pretty great movies there you know."

"Good to know," Purple trailed.

"Oh, no, you misunderstand. You can't conquer it. Your best invaders wouldn't be able to conquer it even if they worked together," Zim clicked, "Trust me, I'd know."

Purple looked at Red with a frown.

"Now, again, I ask," Zim said coolly, "Where is Gashloog?"

"Gashloog is back on Foodcourtia. He transported there the day you came. He's at Shlooghorgh's right now," Red finally answered, "Which is where he should be. Gashloog is a good little food drone, staying where he's told."

"Oh that's right, you wanted me to waste away in that greasy little shack, too, huh?" Zim huffed, "I was the best invader you ever had, the fact that I'm still here alive and well is proof of that. Too bad my head was filled with all those fast food recipes keeping me from thinking straight."

"He's really broken now, huh?" Purple asked with a look of... Well, Zim wouldn't call it concern, but it was something like that.

Red approached the ex-invader, kneeling to meet his eye. "What happened to you, Zim?" He asked.

Zim gave a knowing smirk. "About 150 years of vortshit, I think."

 

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

 

"Welcome to Shlooo-" began the familiar looking employee standing behind the counter in a cheerful, nasally voice.

Dib pointed at him sharply and said, "You're coming with me."

"Oh," Gashloog sighed, "You. Look, I'm sorry about your partner, but-"

Shlooghorgh's was much busier than it had been when Zim had brought Dib there. Regardless, no one paid the boy any attention as he climbed up onto the counter and grabbed the frycook by the strings of his apron.

"Shut up," Dib hissed, voice too low for anyone else to hear as he stumbled his way through the Irken language, "Shut. Up. You are coming with me to get him back, and then you are going to apologize to him and he's going to do to your PAK whatever it is he did to his own and you're going to make him unbelievably happy."

Gashloog watched the earthling with an expression Dib couldn't read from behind his dark goggles.

"Do. You. Understand?" Dib finished.

Gashloog nodded slowly and helped Dib off of the counter.

"Look," he whispered to the human, "You coming here has put me in a very bad place, okay?"

Dib just glared at the irken.

"What I'm suppose to do is turn you in. If I don't, and you leave here, they'll know that I didn't, and this whole awful cycle will just repeat again."

Dib sighed. "Come with me and you won't have to live this life of constantly filtering every word you say."

Gashloog sighed. "I guess the fact that I'm even debating this means I have to go with you, huh? Otherwise they'll know I at least considered it."

"Plus," Dib added, "I know you want to save Zim just as much as I do. You just can't admit it right now."

 

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

 

"The problem is we have no idea how to kill you," Red admitted on Zim's third day of imprisonment. So far they hadn't moved him from his spot on the floor, and honestly he was starting to get restless.

"We can just shoot him out an airlock," Purple suggested like it was obvious.

"Knowing him, he'd probably survive that, too," Red said with a grimace, "Besides, then we'd have to bring him into space and it would have to be a whole thing."

"You're right," Purple groaned.

"He survived deactivation," Red pointed out, "I mean what does that even mean? People don't just survive that!"

"Humans," Zim butted in, saying the word almost fondly for once, "Have a puny little bug creature known as a cockroach. It's been known to survive through incredible strain. My human partner calls me a cockroach." He said it with pride, chin turned upwards like it was the highest honor to be called such a thing.

"All bugs can be squished," Red growled, "It's just a matter of finding the right shoe."

Zim rolled his eyes and grumbled. Honestly, it all was taking too long. He was a trained irken soldier, he could handle anything they threw at him. The problem was, they weren't throwing anything at him. They weren't even trying. It was almost like they were-

"You're scared," Zim almost laughed.

The leaders of Irk turned simultaneously toward the tiny defect, staring at him dumbfounded.

"Scared?" Red scoffed, but his eye twitched at the word, "You're the one who should be scared. Maybe you're just too broken to feel that anymore."

"Oh trust me," Zim shook his head, "I am terrified right now. I actually feel that much more than you are even capable of," he practically bragged.

"You don't seem very scared," Purple challenged with his arms crossed.

Zim shrugged. "When everyone's constantly out to get you, you learn how to deal with it," he sighed. "On the other note, here is the reason that I think you are scared: There's something else that I feel more than either of you ever possibly could."

"Oh yeah?" Red raised an eyebrow, "And what's that?"

Zim's smirk only widened. "Hatred."

 

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Dib had basically thrown the frycook into the cockpit of Zim's beloved purple Time Bomb. He'd parked right outside of Shlooghorgh's, not wanting to waste any time trying to figure out how that parking meter worked, and took off at the dismay of the surrounding pedestrians.

He raced as fast as he could back to Irk, but even as he passed by entire light years in just mere seconds, that wasn't fast enough.

On the third day, Gashloog had asked about a plan.

Really, he hadn't gotten to know the food service drone as well as he should have. He was hyper focused as he plotted out every meticulous step. He couldn't mess this up, or all three of them would pay.

"Okay, so I made this hologram to disguise me as an irken," Dib explained, presenting the device he'd been perfecting over the last few days. "So I'm thinking you'll go in there and make a distraction, while I'll find out where they're holding Zim and-"

"Hold on," Gashloog said, cutting him off with a lopsided smile. "Maybe you aren't familiar with irkens wherever you're from, but do you see this thing on my back?" He pointed at his PAK.

Dib just watched him tiredly.

"I can kill you with this thing in three seconds flat, and I'm just a food drone."

"Okay," Dib said with a shrug.

"Okay?"

"Not applicable," Dib explained.

"What I'm saying is you're going up against trained elite soldiers. I mean just imagine fighting Zim."

"I have fought Zim," Dib said blankly.

"You-" Gashloog stumbled, "And won?"

"Yeah," Dib said dismissively, "I won most of the time. That's why he was never able to take over my planet. That and I think he kind of never really wanted to in the first place? I'm not really sure on that part, I'll have to ask him."

"Well," Gashloog said, trying to pick up where he left off, "Imagine fighting multiple Zims. Bigger Zims, even."

"But not better Zims," Dib said dryly.

Gashloog eyed the boy. "Maybe you do know what you're doing."

 

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

 

A quick kick to the stomach collapsed Zim back to the ground with a groan. It was the sixth day, and they had finally decided to do something about the decaying heap in their observatory.

"Wake up," Red demanded.

"I was awake," Zim argued, miffed as he squirmed back into a kneeling position.

"Stand up," Red ordered.

Zim shrugged. "Can't," he said limply.

Red grumbled, grabbing him by his bicep and pulling him to his feet. Zim staggered, legs weak from days without use, but he stayed upright.

Red looked towards his co-ruler. "So?" He asked.

Purple just shrugged. "What should we do with him?"

"You know he's always been pretty amusing," Red pointed out.

"Yeah, but now he's all snarky and serious. He use to be gullible," Purple pouted.

"Still," Red said, eyeing the little irken over.

"May I make a suggestion?" Zim asked.

"No," Red and Purple said in unison.

"Just stab me in the spooch and be done with it!" he said anyway.

"Kneel," Red demanded.

"But you just told me to stand up-" Zim pointed out blandly.

"I said kneel!"

Grumbling, Zim dropped back to his knees.

"What now?" Red asked Purple.

"I don't know!" Purple exclaimed, "Torture him?"

"Proclaim your love for your Tallest!" Red ordered.

"So is that going to make you kill me less or what's the deal?" Zim asked.

"Do it and maybe you'll find out."

Zim honestly couldn't believe how unimaginative the rulers of Irk were.

"Oh my amazing, incredible Tallest," Zim said with mock enthusiasm, "I love you so much! Let me kiss your boots! You're so amazing!"

"There's an idea!" Purple perked up.

"Right," Red said with a grin, crossing his arms, "Kiss my boots."

"Actually, I won't be doing that," Zim declared.

Red growled. "You'll do as I say," he barked, grabbing Zim by the antennae and yanking him downwards.

"This is unacceptable behavior," the booming, disembodied voice of a Control Brain butted in.

"How so?" Purple demanded.

"The defect must be destroyed," it explained, "You are only prolonging its offensive existence."

"Irk, I forgot how annoying those things are," Zim said, flicking his antennae backwards in a hopeless attempt to straighten them out.

"Defect Zim," the Control Brain whirred.

"Yep," Zim sighed.

"Because you cannot be safely deactivated," it continued, "You will therefore have your PAK removed, and it will be disassembled."

Zim frowned. That seemed much too anti-climactic for everything that had happened.

"A little boring," he announced, "But whatever."

"Boring?" the Control Brain questioned. It sounded almost offended, making Zim's antennae perk up. It was impossible, but...

"You heard me!" Zim shouted upwards, "All this time, all those things I did, all your mindless irken hosts I destroyed, and that's it? You're going to let me off that easy?"

"You misunderstand. You will die," it explained.

"No I understand just fine," Zim spat, "Irkens have done some pretty fucked up shit, yeah? For one, they created you. Maybe you should keep our legacy and give me a real punishment."

The Tallest gawked at him.

"What do you suggest?" the Control Brain inquired.

Zim thought about it. "I don't know," he shrugged, "You could drown me in a tub of di-hydrogen monoxide, lock me in a cage with a million hungry snarl beasts, tie each of my limbs to a different korga and have them all run in a different direction... Heh, I learned that one from Earth. Honestly you could probably leave me in this observatory for a few more days and I'll die of boredom. Wouldn't that one be interesting? There's also this weird thing they do on Earth called water torture. It would probably have a different meaning here, though. You could also put me in a room with literally anyone who's ever been kicked out of the academy before, they'll find some pretty interesting ways to-"

"That's enough," the Control Brain interrupted abruptly.

Zim snorted at its squeamishness. "So which one are you going to do?"

"You want all of those," it said, "It wouldn't be a punishment if you want it to happen."

Zim quirked his brow. "Why would I want any of those?"

"Need time to calculate," it whirred, "Will return when a decision is made."

 

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The plan went smoothly, too smoothly almost, making Dib nervous that he was falling into yet another trap. Gashloog had made a racket, declaring that he needed to speak with the Tallest at that very moment. It had taken three guards to hold him down as he flailed.

"The Tallest are busy," a guard told him.

"This is of the utmost importance!" He yelled.

Dib smirked; the food drone played the part well.

Too well, as it turned out, as the guards soon relented and decided just to take him to the Tallest. Dib bit his lip, rushing off to fulfill his part of the plan before he ran out of time.

He found the holding cells with ease. Most were empty, and the ones that weren't contained empty shells of what had to at some point been irkens. Quiet snickers from some mingled in with the other's whines and sobs. Dib frowned. These were the few who rebelled, but they were so broken, and there were so few of them. It really hit hard that what Zim had said was true.

"The two of us? We are nothing but dust beneath their feet."

He walked up and down the narrow hallway, peeking into every cell, adverting gaze after gaze but he found no Zim.

"The entire Irken Empire? A mere colony of ants to the Control Brains."

Dib clenched his hair, reeling to find he had none and remembered his disguise. He clutched his fake antennae instead and stifled a frustrated scream.

"There is nothing we can do."

He paced the corridor again, but there was still no sign of Zim. He did it again. No Zim. No Zim in that one either, or in there. Where was Zim?

"There's nothing even the Tallest can do."

"No, no, no," he breathed, "Zim where are you?"

As if to answer his question, he heard a distant scream, and he knew the voice. He ran in the direction without a single plan besides an all-encompassing demand of save Zim.

 

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"Gashloog I trusted you!" Zim shouted, thrashing in his chains.

Gashloog just shrugged. "Your mistake," he said.

"What are you doing back here? You should be on Foodcourtia," Tallest Purple stated.

"You..." Zim panted, "You came back for me, right?"

"I came because I have Zim's earthling companion," Gashloog snapped, scowling at his former coworker.

Zim's raspberry eyes dilated, and his face paled. "You have Dib?" He asked slowly, voice pitched.

Gashloog nodded, his green eyes locking onto the defective's. Zim felt all the life in him drain and he slumped forward.

Red watched the display, a vicious grin splitting across his face. "You care for this earthling much?" He asked.

"No," Zim said blankly, "I have no care for him."

"Well then," Red drawled, "I guess you don't care what we do with him, then, right?"

"No," Zim said, staring at the shiny red flooring. He watched his reflection bathed in the color, and tried to shape his miserable face into something less telling, but the thought of these monsters having his mekleen was gut-wrenching, and his helplessness was finally beginning to set in.

"So I suppose you wouldn't care if we, oh I don't know, did horrible experiments on him?"

Zim's head snapped up.

"Maybe find out a little about these creatures you've apparently grown so fond of," Red clicked, "Maybe open him up and see what's inside?"

"No," Zim snapped, earning a cruel snicker.

"We can finally test out all those acids we got from Blorch!" Purple said excitedly.

"Stop!" Zim all but screamed.

"We'll take the earthling," Red said with a smile.

"No!" Zim cried raggedly as he felt tears threaten to spill, "Gashloog, how could you do this? Don't let them touch my mekleen! Don't let them-!"

An awkward cough resounded through the room, and all eyes snapped up to see a young irken, just a smeet really, with wide golden eyes and thick antennae that curled like no other. He stood there nervously for a moment as the room's occupants scrutinized him closely, but eventually he padded into the observatory.

"What do you want?" Red snapped at the smeet.

"Uh," he stammered "The Control Brain ordered me to take Zim outside for his punishment."

"Great, finally," said Purple, "This should be exciting."

"Actually," the smeet added nervously, stumbling over the words like an actor who had forgotten his role, "They, uh, have to get it ready first! And they don't want you to see it before it's done. It's suppose to be a surprise."

Red glared lethally at the young irken. The smeet gulped, certain he was seconds away from disaster.

"Why didn't the Control Brain tell us this?" Red asked slowly, squinting one eye and widening the other suspiciously.

"Uh," the smeet said, "They're... Busy?"

Red glared at him for a few more seconds, but eventually his scowl turned into a happy smile and he exclaimed, "Okay!"

Zim hissed at the young irken pulling him to his feet, but with his PAK disabled and his arms and legs shackled, he had no choice but to follow.

"Come on," the smeet commanded, trying to sound all scary and gravely as he shoved Zim forward, but as the defective stumbled to the ground, he reached out and caught him and squeaked a little, "Sorry," that he hoped no one else heard. Zim just scowled at him like he would any other guard.

"What about you?" Purple raised an eyebrow to a razzed Gashloog after the pair was gone from the room.

"Um," Gashloog blinked. "You remain here, and, uh, I will bring you Zim's companion!" he exclaimed, then he darted out the doors after the other two.

 

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The smeet took him outside, just as he had said, but continued to walk him down the street, all the way into a darkened alleyway, where they stopped and the hand on the small of his back disappeared.

Zim looked up, confused as he took in his surroundings. His gaze landed right in front of him, and where he expected some horrible death machine crafted off of the amalgamations of his own big mouth, his voot was instead parked neatly, the lavender metal sparkling like a gift from the heavens. He gawked and whipped around to the smeet.

"What are you doing with my voot?" he demanded, antennae pointed backwards viciously.

The smeet raised his hands in a surrender - a distinctly human action as Zim knew it. He clicked a button on a watch he was wearing and suddenly it wasn't some pathetic excuse for an irken guard, but it was Dib standing before him, shabbily dressed like an irken guard.

"Dib!" Zim screeched, "Did anyone hurt you? Did Gahloog? I'm going to kill him, I'm-"

"Shush," Dib ordered, "Get in the voot so we can cloak ourselves."

"Cloak ourselves?" Zim asked as he climbed in, "Why not just take off?"

As he fell haphazardly into the passenger seat, he brought his chained arms underneath him, stepping awkwardly through the loop so his hands were in front of him.

Dib followed him in, closing the bubble and enabling the cloaking device. Zim nuzzled his shoulder affectionately from the passenger seat, his cheek rubbing against the soft gray fabric of the coat they'd bought on Prio.

"You weren't suppose to come back for me," he said quietly.

"We need to wait for Gashloog," Dib explained, and Zim's eyes snapped open as he returned upright.

"Gashloog?" he exclaimed, "That traitor was trying to hand you over! He tricked us! Why on Irk would we wait for him?"

Aforementioned frycook darted into the alley before Dib could explain, pausing with a hand against a building as he caught his breath and looked around. Dib uncloaked the voot, opening the windshield to usher him inside. Then they were all in and Dib took off without hesitation.

"Computer," Zim shouted, raising his shackled arms, "Get rid of these."

"What's the magic word?" it asked with an evil tone.

"Do it now or I'll reprogram your vocal modulator to sound like the evil baby in that horrible Earth cartoon," Zim threatened.

"Neither of us would enjoy that," the computer argued, but the chains were blasted away with a burst of green energy regardless. He awkwardly lifted his legs, and those ones were disintegrated as well.

With that, Zim's expression turned dark, twisted into something Dib had never seen before as he stood, positioning himself between his old coworker and where Dib sat in the pilot seat.

"You," he said, voice low, "Will stay away from my mekleen."

Gashloog reeled. "But I thought we-" he tried.

"That was before you threw it away!" Zim snapped, "Before you turned on me like a... a..." He searched for the right simile, his whole body shaking as he stuttered frantically, "Like an irken!"

"Zim," Gashloog said hopelessly, "Just let me explain."

"He helped me," Dib provided, "He helped me save you."

"He tried to sell you out!"

"He was just acting, Zim," Dib explained calmly, "I'm okay."

"You don't know that!" Zim breathed deeply, turning back toward the food drone. His face was flush blue with anger, his antennae indecisively switching from one expression to the next.

"Tell me you were just acting," Zim pleaded, "That you didn't have any plan to hand him over."

Gashloog looked shamefully at the garbage-strewn floor of Zim's voot and wrung his hands together. "Well," he trailed.

"I knew it," Zim said quietly. He glared lethally at his old friend. Dib's head snapped to attention as he realized the danger he'd been in.

"You can reprogram me," Gashloog said suddenly.

"What?" Zim snapped.

"My PAK," he explained, "Make it stop telling me to do things?"

Zim's eyes lit up from behind his scowl. Slowly, he relaxed.

"Yes," he said with a sharp nod.