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The Things Between Us

Chapter Text

The Things Between Us

by Growly

~ * ~ * ~

*Prologue: Sine Qua Non*

-

The room was filled with blue light, casting odd shadows on the walls. By most standards it was a very empty room - blank and devoid of many real signs of humanity. Even its sole occupant, though human, appeared cold and lifeless like some kind of automaton. The light turned his pale skin to a shade of slate-blue that bore an uncanny resemblance to a corpse. The dark shadows beneath his eyes, the haunted nature of his stance only betrayed by his amber-eyed gaze, the way he sat up as straight as a board despite his obvious exhaustion - all of these only served to contribute to the impression. If he knew or even cared about his appearance, it was not particularly obvious.

Beneath his baggy lab-coat, his once lean form had become bony and his ebony hair drooped in his eyes in draggling lackluster strands. Every now and then his eyes would threaten to close, his weary body more than ready to betray him and give in to sleep. Yet every time he started to nod, he would drag himself awake.

The ravaged state of his hands was indication enough of the lengths he was going through to keep from being pulled into slumber. Slender fingers that had once flown over the keys with frightening ease now seeped with blood when they moved. The wounds were never deep; most of the time they were never even consciously made. After all, what would his employers say? What would the media say?

There was a soft click as he opened a folder on his computer, booting up one of his programs and putting in his password. This was one of the few things he felt a need to protect with a password - even his advanced research and inventions did not merit such care. But what did they matter? They were just his livelihood. This was personal.

He stared at the screen for a long while, swallowing almost convulsively. His fingers twitched - not quite pressing down on the keys yet, but just jerking in a manner that frighteningly resembled someone being electrocuted. He was a famed scientist, award-winning inventor and all-around genius, yet he had fear in him - had the jitters too strong to even think about controlling them.

"Take a deep breath... concentrate... focus..." He repeated the mantra in his head, forcing himself to a calm that was so complete it was eerie. His body stopped shaking, still responding to his increasingly erratic attempts at control. How much longer he could do this? He wasn't really sure. Not long. His efforts were expending energy he no longer had available to use. Then again, at this point, who cared, really? It was so close to being over that he could taste the end - and it was like bitter ashes in his mouth.

His fingers typed in the words with careful deliberation:

 

~Log #124~

This is it... this is the last time I'm going to write anything. I'm so tired of this all... I know I don't have anything to prove, and I know I don't have to bother explaining myself. Who would care, anyway?

Nobody. But I'm not doing this for anyone else. I'm doing it for me. For... us. And perhaps someday, someone will care enough to read this and find out just why I've done the things I've done.

Maybe they'll even find it in their hearts to forgive me for what I'm about to do...

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

*Chapter 1: Prima Facie*

~Log #42~

Sometimes I wonder what my life would be if I had done things differently. I’m sure everyone has at some point or another. Knowing what I know now - what I didn’t know then - would I have changed my mind? Most of the time I answer my own question with a firm, resounding "no", but every once in a while I wonder. Especially on dark and quiet nights when I’m alone. And I’m alone a lot.

In some ways nothing has really changed at all. I’m still the eternal outsider. People don’t flock to me the way they did to my dad. I wonder what he had that made them love him so much. Whatever it is, I don’t have it. I have the charisma of a dead fish - a week dead fish. Gaz has more crowd appeal than I do.

I miss my old life. I’m not the subject of ridicule anymore, but I still do. I have regrets. Why must I have regrets? It’s useless... a waste of time.

There’s no going back now.

* * *

"Zim." Dib’s voice didn’t have that normal intense tone - the sort of "I know what you’re up to" quality that the Invader was used to. It sounded... almost tired. And it didn’t seem to fill the lunch room the way it normally would. The fact that it was quiet drew the attention of many of the students who had quickly learned to ignore the loud spats the two were famous for. Heads started to turn in their direction, blank looks on many of the faces that usually held jeering smiles.

The Irken never really noticed them - they were stupid anyway, undeserving of his attention. He had a wary expression on his face as he turned to face his enemy. The human was interfering with him less and less of late, and he didn’t trust this behavior at all. It didn’t fit with what he knew of his enemy’s personality - and he fancied that he knew Dib better than anyone else on earth did. Therefore, all of this had to be part of some elaborate plot on his enemy’s part. He just wasn’t sure what kind of plot... "What do you want now, earth stink?" His own voice was a penetrating hiss - bubbling from his throat with unmistakable venom. This reaction eased their watchers somewhat, far more typical of the two enemies as it was.

To the alien’s surprise the human did not immediately shoot back with some pithy reply. Instead the boy just peered at him through the thick lenses of his glasses, his expression utterly unreadable. Zim wasn’t sure what to make of this, as the Dib was normally terrible at hiding his evil intentions and more often didn’t even bother to try. But this time, Dib only shook his head - this lackluster response only serving to frustrate the already confused Irken even further. "Nothing."

"Eh?" Zim froze, his mouth still hanging open in mid-shout, but only a half-choked sound of surprise emerging. That wasn’t in the script! That answer made no sense at all, reverberating around his brain without ever really settling. An annoying buzz like a bee. A bee!

The lunchroom had fallen absolutely quiet, a fact which Zim noticed only in some small area in the back of his mind. A hundred or more staring eyes were aimed in their direction, accompanied by looks that ranged the spectrum from contempt to utter disbelief. There was a clatter as someone's tray slipped from their nerveless fingers and hit the floor.

/What do you want? Nothing... What do you want?/

/Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.../

"I’m tired of this stupid game, Zim," Dib’s voice barely registered with the Invader at all, but there was a note of something desperate in his tone that Zim couldn’t place. "My dad is right. I’m going to study ‘Real Science’! No more chasing moronic aliens for me!" He had that familiar stubborn look on his face - the one that Zim knew meant he wasn't planning to change his mind, but what he was saying was impossible to comprehend.

The Dib would not be interfering with his plans any longer? He no longer had to worry about a constant threat of exposure? But that... that was a GOOD thing! The full implications sank in and he laughed wildly, leaping up onto the the table with his fists raised to the air in victory. "Mwaha! Ha! Hahaha! I knew it! Foolish stinkbeast! I knew one day you would surrender to the superior might of Zim! His laughter died into puzzled silence however, as he saw that the Dib was not listening. Instead the human had turned his back on Zim and walked away.

Suddenly the Irken did not feel quite so jovial anymore. "Hey...where’s the stink boy going...?"

*

The rest of the day passed without incident; by the time the bell rang, Zim had to admit that he was thoroughly and hopelessly confused. His mortal enemy had not so much as even looked in his direction since their run-in in the lunch room. Not that Zim trusted this behavior. No, it must simply be some kind of ruse to catch him off-guard.

His gaze flitted across the room to where the human sat next to the window. Dib was staring out the glass, a blank expression on his face. Zim doubted he even noticed the cyborg squirrel that was currently chewing a gaping hole in the tree near their classroom. Yes... a ruse. That had to be it. There was no other way to explain a sudden lack of interest in the greatness that was ZIM!

"Clever..." Zim rasped, his eyes narrowing into thin slits as he considered this new angle. He had underestimated the Dib, but it was not a mistake he would make again. He tapped his black gloved fingers speculatively against the top of his desk as he peered intently over at the human. The boy had gone back to the textbook in front of him and appeared utterly absorbed by it, even though Zim knew that his enemy had already read the entire thing. Twice. He was almost tempted to feel some slight respect for the wormbaby and was quick to quell any such notion.

‘He is the Dib! He is my enemy! I am far superior to this groveling, pathetic earth-monkey! I do not need to show him respect!’ Thus fortified, the Irken set about trying to figure out what the Dib’s REAL plan could possibly be.

Surely the human was still planning to expose him somehow - that was a given. The thought of what prestige and power such a discovery would bring was what was driving the puny human. Zim could understand that as it was not altogether unsimilar to his own motivations. Were Zim in Dib’s situation he might have done exactly the same thing.

Wait...that was it! He and the Dib shared certain similarities - only on a superficial level, of course, as he, ZIM, was clearly the superior being in every way. Perhaps Dib was using this knowledge to his advantage.

‘Of course!’ The Invader barely refrained from laughing in triumph as he realised what his new plan must be. ‘I must get into the human’s head. I must think like Dib. I must BE Dib, despite the fact that he is so clearly below me. Ha! I shall become a superior Dib and discover what things he is planning in his huge meat-filled head!’

He smirked evilly as he fixed his gaze on the still preoccupied human. ‘Just you wait, human-Dib! Soon you will be defeated by ZIM!’ Sinking back into his chair, the Invader started to scribble on the outdated textbook, humming the Doom Song’s refrain with gleeful abandon.

Doom doom doom. Doom Doom Dib. Doomed Dib, doom doom dooooom...

* * *

~Log #70~

I don’t even know where he is now. It was on the news a lot - when he was captured, I mean. There was a whole media circus; it was all over the place. "Proof of extraterrestrial life" was pasted in messageboards all over the world. Pictures of the "captured alien" ran rampant over the net.

It wasn’t me. After all the work, all the effort – the blood, sweat and tears I poured into my pursuit of Zim, it wasn’t my name on the newscasts. There wasn’t even the slightest mention of it. Some amateur photographer who wasn’t even a paranormalist got the credit. I remember being shocked - disbelieving – for a while. And jealous, even though I had no right to be jealous. I told myself that a lot - that I was the one to end the chase and that I should take it like a mature adult.

It’s just... I just couldn’t. It hurt so much to see it. So much...

The pictures of Zim, bound and caged; of GIR being dismantled... they made my insides twist painfully. I turned off the TV and did not turn it back on again for months. Gaz told me I was being dense. Dad was overjoyed that I was "tuning out distractions". Neither of them understood. They just can’t know.

He was mine. My alien! My enemy. And someone took him away. I let them do it.

If I knew where he was... I don’t know...

It’s better not to think about it. To pretend that I didn’t hear Zim screaming my name in desperation and anger when they sedated him. To try and convince myself that I had done the only sane, reasonable thing to do.

Sometimes I wish I was stupid. Then I might actually believe all my lies...

* * *

His clever plan to infiltrate the Dib’s base was proving to be a bit more difficult than expected. It wasn’t so much that the human was taking special precautions to keep him out, but rather that the boy was not in his room - his normal base of operations - at all. The first time Zim had gotten inside, he’d congratulated himself on his cleverness. The multiple alarms set up along the perimeter of the house were all too easy to avoid. Only the electric field in the window was a challenge, one that Zim readily disarmed before hopping from the sill to the floor.

The room was dimly lit, as he remembered from the previous times he had managed to make his way inside. Aside from the bed, and a few random pieces of scattered junk that Zim couldn’t even begin to identify, the room was adorned with its normal paranormal theme very obvious. Dib’s computer was sitting on the edge of the bed, and the alien made his way to it with wary interest gleaming in his magenta eyes. The Dib carried this stupid machine everywhere, and that meant that it was likely to have information on it.

He flipped the screen up, the blue light emanating from it turning his skin a shade of turquoise as his fingers tapped over the keys. He couldn’t use the human style of typing, as the wormbabies had more fingers per hand than he did, but he was able to shuffle through the files with only a few problems. For the most part, it turned up a few random pictures of Bigfoot that Zim only snorted at, some .avi files and a list of haunted areas in town.

He was flipping through one of the numbered folders when he came across one labeled IZ8169.2. It was the first one had had seen with "z" in the name - a good enough reason to expect it to be about him, by his reasoning. He clicked on the folder and it opened. Jackpot! It was exactly what he had come there looking for.

The trouble began when he realised there just wasn’t very much in the way of evidence - not in the folder, or any of the other folders that he flipped through meticulously. There were three or four odd pictures of him on the computer, and dredging through Dib’s drawers he found two more. Ripping up the offending images, the alien felt a hint of frustration - not at what he had found, but, rather, what he hadn’t.

Since the Irken knew that Dib had meticulously collected mounds of pictures and assorted other "proof" which Zim’s search did not turn up, he could only conclude that either Dib had turned it all in to some one - unlikely as Zim had not been captured for interrogation - he had found somewhere to hide it that was too clever for Zim to find - even MORE unlikely, given Zim’s superior brain - or he had disposed of it entirely - the most unlikely probability of all! It just didn’t make sense! Was the Dib doing this to confuse him and throw him off-track? Did his plan take Zim’s inability to reconcile these possibilities into account?

If so, then it was a more ingenious plan then Zim could ever have thought his enemy capable of. With a growl of annoyance, he snapped the top of the laptop down with enough force to crack the case. He didn’t care! Let the Dib know he was snooping, perhaps it would spur the human to make a move.

He strutted to the window and exited the house, leaving the torn photos scattered across the floor like confetti.

*

It did not take the Invader long to discover where Dib was spending his time now, despite GIR’s numerous attempts to "help" his master with surveillance (he had quickly forbidden the robot to assist him after GIR had chewed up his recording equipment). The answer was quite simple and obvious: Dib was in the lab with his father, Professor Membrane. No attempt was made to disguise this fact which, in itself, made the alien suspicious.

With a bit of help from the cybernetic squirrel, Zim installed secret cameras in the lab and pored over the gathered information with feverish intensity. His magenta eyes were fixed on the screen as he replayed the recordings again and again searching for hidden meanings and discovered nothing. He listened to audio recordings, filtered out background noises – played them forward and backward, fast and slow, to no avail. The constant disappointment was starting to show. His nerves and temper were both frayed, things he would normally have ignored or dismissed were starting to set him off.

After months of this uncomfortable status quo, the Invader could scarcely think straight; he was far too busy trying to find out what was going on with his mortal enemy. Eating was a trivial distraction, leaving the house was an annoyance and even his calls to the Almighty Tallest had become terse and to the point. What they must have thought of his odd behavior, Zim didn’t know, nor did he really care. They hadn’t offered to send the Armada to earth yet; the only news that might have torn him from his growing obsession.

Every once in a while he was conscious of the abnormality of his behavior, and knew just who to blame. ‘What are you doing to me, earth stink? Is this some vile, meaty plan to... to...’ His thought process stalled for a moment and he stared vacantly at the screen he’d been watching non-stop for the past few days. He didn’t really see it, his mind too caught up with other things. ‘This is all on purpose! Somehow the Dib knew this would happen! Somehow he caused my mind to be full of these... thoughts of FILTH!’ He slammed his fist down on the console, watched the image blur and reduce to static.

"I will go confront the Dib myself," The Irken growled at the blank screen, "He will pay for his attempt at defeating Zim with his ‘psycho’ warfare!" Zim laughed maniacally, ignoring the pained groans emanating from the computer, as well as Gir’s own inane little giggles.

Tonight would mean the human’s utter defeat. ‘Ha! Chew on that, filthy earth monkey!’

* * *

~Log #94~

Another entry tonight...

It occurs to me that I spend an insane amount of time recording my own thoughts. I don’t know why I even bother - it’s not like I ever read them again once they’ve been logged. Maybe it’s just because I have no one to talk to anymore. Dad promptly extricated himself from my life completely as soon as Gaz turned eighteen and became a legal adult. And Gaz... I don’t even know where she is. The day after her birthday she up and vanished, only remembering to send me a post card every now and then commenting on my relative stupidity.

So I got the house and pretty much everything in it. With more than enough money left for me to survive on, I probably could have never worked again and been completely comfortable. But after years of being obsessively active, I couldn’t have settled down very easily. I invented a bunch of stuff which turned out to be quite useful, but there’s no way I could ever compete with my "savior of mankind" father. Not that I want to anymore.

I work frequently and my sleeping hours are almost nonexistent - a fact my employers often capitalise on. I also work cheaply, another point in my favour. One other thing I do is talk to myself... frequently. This journal is just an extension of that, I think. At least if it’s written, people don’t stare at me when they think I’m not looking.

I miss being a paranormal investigator. I miss all the things I used to do. The excitement, all the risks I used to take. I miss... I miss...

I miss Zim...

God, I’m stupid...I’m so glad I’ll never read this entry again.

* * *

Sneaking into the lab where Membrane worked turned out to be quite easy, except for a little run-in with a cybernetic monkey and of course the BEES! Why were there BEES? A clever disguise enabled the Irken to get past the guarded door to the inner laboratory. Dressed as a janatorial worker, he waltzed right in and began to "clean", watching the Dib-human warily from the corner of his eye. The stinkbeast didn’t even notice he was there, fiddling with his "devices" and talking to his father. Ha! Truly his disguise was amazing! He chuckled softly to himself as he pushed his stinkbeast cleaning tool across the floor, causing a billowing cloud of dust.

Dib was smiling up at the professor, his eyes bright with excitement, although Zim was unable to understand most of what they were talking about – something involving some stupid wormbaby coffee beanie thing. He remained for quite a while, pretending to wipe tables and shine walls, although his actual attempts at these "cleaning duties" became less and less pronounced the longer he remained. The conversation was not the reason for his dismay - that could have been faked and encoded in so many different ways that trying to make sense of it would have been an exercise in futility. No. It was everything else he was watching; everything else that he saw.

Zim was good at self-delusion - he had survived circumstances that would have broken most others, through sheer force of will. But there were some truths that could not be staved off forever.

Dib was... happy. Happy! The look on the human’s face was intense as any of the ones he remembered that had always been directed at him, but it was somehow gentler in tone now. Softer. Full of some mysterious human emotion that made his gut twist in jealously.

But he wasn’t jealous! Not now, not over a foul, stinky earth child with a huge head! Never!

The broom clattered to the floor as Zim clenched his fists, his small body shaking in suppressed fury. Neither of the two humans noticed at all, too absorbed in their conversation and laughter. Oh, that laughter - it was mocking him; taunting him.

‘I am ZIM!’ He screamed out mentally before scrambling across the floor, accompanied by spray of dirty water as his mop bucket toppled over. He reached one of the windows and didn’t hesitate for a moment on his way out. The sound of shattering glass drew a brief moment of interest on the part of the father/son team of scientists, but only enough to order a robot janitor to clean up the broken glass.

The robot complied without a word.

* * *

~Log #103~

I can’t sleep.

It haunts me. My dreams...haunt me.

Everything I’ve ever done, everything that I didn’t do is echoing around in my skull ceaselessly. A constant repetition of my rights and wrong - a tape caught on repeat.

I’m crazy. I must be crazy.

They knew I think... they must’ve known this would happen. It was inevitable. The funny thing is, I’ve tried to be sane for such a long time, following the course my father laid out for me as best I could manage, but none of it really ever helped. The old me has always been inside somewhere just waiting to emerge.

It’s not the being crazy that I mind. I almost enjoy it at times...

No. It’s just that now I have finally decided that I’d like to do what I’m meant to be doing and it’s just too late. What I had is gone, and all I can do is live with it... take it like a man. If only I didn’t have to care what people thought, I might actually try something. Probably something stupid, knowing me. And to think, most people actually consider me a genius...

Actually, there is a way to... not fix, this is beyond fixing... but perhaps there’s something I can do to rid myself of this horrible knowledge. The guilt is eating me alive... I just want it to stop. I want it all to stop...

I can’t live this lie anymore.

* * *

He didn’t think about the human anymore. Good riddance! Now that he had established that his mortal enemy had indeed given up the chase, Zim threw himself into his world conquest with the desperate intensity of a drowning man. He worked unceasingly on plan after plan - drawing up schematics, putting together his devices. His ideas ranged the gamut from hypnotic substances to be introduced into the human food sources, to huge explosive devices designed to track down and detonate important human installations. One of his plans incorporated both ideas, a work of art that was enough to make any lesser individual drool at the ingeniousness of it all. But they were never completed - never used. Not even one. Invariably each idea would be almost completed, then summarily rejected, leaving Zim to start over with something new. Each plan was simply not good enough – was lacking in some aspect that made it unacceptable. Months of work, thrown away like so much garbage - schematics stuffed in the trash, half-built mechas scattered across his underground lab in various states of incompletion. His precious ideas had all dried up and blown away.

But he didn’t seem to notice the lack of progress at all. GIR had a better grasp of the situation than his master did. The little robot sat on top of the viewscreen and watched Zim pace and rant - his wide cyan eyes following every movement with an attentiveness that the SIR unit had never shown when called upon to assist the Invader. He wasn’t helping now - Zim wasn’t even asking for his help. Sipping idly on his freezy drink, the little robot dangled his legs over the screen, waving them in time to his humming.

Master wouldn’t care. Master was busy.

He wasn’t even noticed, except as the subject of a few pithy curses when Zim was particularly annoyed by his lack of progress. It didn‘t take long for even GIR’s malfunctioning little mind to realise something just wasn’t right. He blinked down at the Irken, tilting his metal head to one side as Zim made another circuit of the room.

"This one will be flawless! With this the filthy earth-monkeys will bow to the will of ZIM! Who dares stop me?" The little alien stopped in his pacing, looking around, an almost expectant expression on his face for a moment. Then slowly his perked antennae went back, lying flat against his head, the glitter in his eyes fading again as his mouth pulled into a grimace. The enthusiasm was gone just as quickly. "No one, of course..." His voice was a low mutter now, tinged with anger.

A giggle was the only response to Zim’s brief outburst, and the alien whirled on his little robot companion with a snarl. "GIR! Get down from there! Go do something useful! Like... eating some kid’s brains or something!" Stupid robot. ‘Advanced’ technology or not, the thing obviously had a few wires crossed. At this outburst, the SIR unit grinned, his tongue sticking out stupidly.

"Okie-dokie!" GIR jumped down from the viewscreen, using his master’s head like a trampoline and rebounding to land in a heap on the ground. With a giggle, he picked himself up and pulled on his dog suit, bounding over to the lift in a series of little squeaks. Zim wasn’t too worried that the robot would be back to bother him. GIR tended to be gone for hours - if not days. He could always find something to preoccupy him and keep him away. Make that a few million things...

In any case, it allowed Zim to turn his mind to other things - but he had pretty much forgotten about his plan already. His attention was drawn by the one of his satellite monitoring screens, which had picked up some foolish earth broadcast. That in itself was neither startling nor disconcerting. No... it was the subject of the newscast that caught his eye. The Dib human... The Irken hadn’t been completely ignorant of what his former enemy was up to this entire time, although he tuned out the matter well enough that it seemed so. Still, while he had known that the Dib was becoming known to the general populace, it was still jarring to see it with his own eyes.

He hadn’t actually seen the human since that... falling out was the best term the Invader could come up with, although it didn’t quite capture the nature of their obsessive rivalry. His studies of earth had brought him to the conclusion that humans were prone to doing an annoying thing called "growing up" – a time when they became taller despite their stupidity. He’d wondered before if it was an anomaly that some of the humans were so tall - like the teachers – while others were quite short. A few backward earth-biology lessons had corrected that particular impression, and left Zim with more than a bit of resentment. Despite the proven fact, he had somehow never expected Dib to go and do the same stupid thing.

Time had made a difference yes... it had only been a couple of years - an eyeblink in the lifetime of an Irken - and the boy who had once chased him around with alien sleep-cuffs and yelled promises to pursue him to the ends of the earth was now startlingly changed. But still the Dib... Zim would have recognised him no matter how much he was unfamiliar on the outside.

The small, big-headed boy had grown up into a lean young man - far taller than Zim, although not as tall as his father. Something about his manner of dress was jarring to Zim - seeing the human in a white labcoat, instead of the black garments the boy had favoured, was an image he couldn’t quite reconcile. But the long sickle spike of hair was the same, the amber eyes behind thick eyeglasses was the same. The fact that he was now properly proportioned to his (formerly) enormous head was actually sort of an nice change. The fact that Dib appeared happy and proud, displaying his new invention and explaining its inner workings to the woman interviewing him was not nearly so nice.

Heat filled the Invader’s body, and he climbed up atop the console, his face pressed so close to the screen that he could feel the tingle of energy across his skin. He was on the verge of actually attempting to reach through and grab his rival before he remembered it was just a recording. Stupid, stupid, stupid... He was not jealous. He was ZIM! He would never be jealous of the Dib, no matter how happy the other was. With a growl of disgust, the Irken drew back, his boots hitting the floor with a click.

"Let the earth filth believe he has bested me," Zim hissed to the distinctly unenthusiastic base computer, the only audience around to hear him, "But he will soon discover otherwise! Yes, he shall soon taste defeat at the mighty hands of ZIM!" The alien raised both hands to the air, clenched into shaking fists, while the computer mumbled something that might have been ‘ok, whatever.’

*

Time never held a steady pace – days stretching out for forever before clumping in large groups and flashing past in an eyeblink. Irken years were not the same as human anyway, how could they be when the earth creatures had such feeble lifespans? What was a hundred years to an Irken?

It hadn’t ever consciously occurred to Zim that he could simply outlast his mortal enemy - as far as plans went, the idea was lacking in the proper dramatic flair. On the other hand, Zim was starting to find the passage of time more and more vexing. He might have had decades without number to carry out his mission, but the Dib didn’t. He needed to conquer the planet and he needed to conquer it soon - conquer it NOW. Waiting for the Dib to die of old age was simply not an option.

Perhaps somewhere deep inside himself, he was also coming to realise a more disturbing truth. Without the Dib around to thwart him, his plans just didn’t want to function properly. Without the Dib around, all of his ambitions would be for nothing. Who would there be for him to gloat over, to humiliate, to be supreme lord and master of - who, if not Dib? No, it had to be soon - because in the off-chance that the human should die from some stupid, weak, stinkbeast...thing, Zim would see all of his hard work fall to waste.

Still, there was little he could do but wait it out. His goal to tune the human out had done a one-hundred-eighty degree reversal, and he was now just as diligent as the Dib had ever been in pursuit of him. He stared endlessly at the bank of screens that monitored every aspect of Dib’s personal life. So he knew the day Dib turned eighteen and became a legal adult by human standards. He stood silent and gleeful witness to the human’s first failed relationship as well as the ones that were to follow it.

The fact that his former mortal enemy was completely unable to maintain any sort of permanent romantic attachment to one of these pathetic dirt-worms was no great surprise to Zim. What ridiculous earth female could possibly compare with the might of the Irken elite? After years of obsessing over an Invader of Zim’s stature, after the trials and toils the human had endured in his pursuits, what could anyone else have to offer that could come close?

The answer was obvious. Nothing. And to give the Dib-human some tiny amount of credit, Zim observed that he did not pursue a relationship with the same giddy stupidity that much of the species associated with the ridiculous concept of "love". For the young man, potential partners were pegged, investigated with a thoroughness that left little room for emotional considerations, and then discarded with the same cool detachment that the human used when conducting science experiments. This calculating and cynical approach both relieved and deeply disturbed the Invader for reasons he could not even begin to comprehend.

He watched the Dib going through the convoluted courtship rituals with a new subject, a red-headed female who might have been fetching by inferior stinkbeast standards. She was showing a great deal of interest in his former enemy, while he remained fairly cool towards her. There were a few tense moments though, moments that caused Zim to narrow his eyes in a mixture of anger and disgust. Occasionally, he would even go so far as to snarl or shake his fist at the screen, but right at the moment he did neither, merely snatching hold of GIR by the ear of his doggy disguise and dragging him over.

"Look at him GIR!" Zim hissed venomously to his robot slave, spittle flying in the tiny SIR unit’s face. GIR only blinked vacantly up at his master, his little pink tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth. "Stupid Dib, with his ‘real science’, and his ‘dating’ and his horrible big head!" It didn’t even matter that Dib’s head wasn’t abnormally out of proportion anymore, he was unable to think of such trivialities in his rage. "Doing his...STUFF. He thinks he has gotten the best of me - of ZIM! But he will pay, oooh, he will pay." The alien fell silent briefly while the robot in his grasp continued to stare up at him uncomprehendingly. "Do you know was this means, GIR?" The Invader finally spoke again, his voice frighteningly quiet.

"We’re gonna put salted nuts in his biiiiiig smelly head?" GIR crooned in sickening sing-song, then grinned. A moment later his master’s grip was released and he dropped to the floor with a dull thunk. He stared up at the Invader, who was deep in thought.

A considering smile crossed Zim’s lips.

"Yes." He began to chuckle softly, then soon erupted into peals of maniacal laughter, the likes of which the base had not heard in years.

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

 

*Chapter Two: Fait Accompli*

-

~Log 122~

There’s not really much left to do - just a few arrangements to make. If everything goes as I’m planning, I won’t be logging back on to my system. Longer than 24 hours without me signing in and the computer will know to send out these logs to the people who need to see them.

It’s sort of a moot point, I guess: If I fail I might spend the rest of my life in the hospital’s psych ward in a straightjacket... If I succeed, I’m sure the word will get out fairly quickly. That’s one of the side-effects of being famous - even if it is only fame by association.

Still, I wish I knew where my dad was - if he’s still alive. He deserves to know, I suppose. Even sending a final message to Gaz would be nice - although she cares as little for me as she would for a bug to be crushed underfoot.

I’m stalling. I don’t even know if I really want to go through with this...

Just a few things left - if I can force myself to stop stalling. There’s nothing to be scared of, Dib. It’s only a matter of life and death and all the possible other consequences...

Nothing to worry about...

...Right?

* * *

Zim’s new plan was very distinctly different than many of the ones he had come up with previously. It was plainly lacking in his trademark "blowing up of anything in the vicinity", as well as weapons of mass destruction, killer hamsters or mutant cyborg monkeys. It was a much quieter operation than any he had concocted, and while his palms still itched incessantly with the desire to add a destroyer mecha or five into the equation, he managed to curb it. Dib was no good to him dead! After he had the stinkbeast captive, he would see about catching up on all the mayhem and destruction he’d been missing out on since his enemy had gone off to do his "real science". That would be delicious!

What his plan lacked in flashy dramatics, it made up for in slim simplicity. It was the sort of plan not even a moron could mess up - a fact which was sure to work to his advantage. The only potential negative was the reliance on GIR’s admittedly faulty memory and responses. Still, after his last attempt to fix his little robot, Zim had wisely elected to leave things along. Advanced Irken technology was nothing that needed fooling around with anyway.

He bustled around his lab, head and antennae both perked with anticipation. There was a smooth purpose to his every motion that had been distinctly lacking for a long time. Even the base computer was puzzled into silence - a lack of any sarcastic remarks proved that. GIR watched his master work, munching animatedly on a bag of poop-flavored cheetos. Cheezy crumbs littered the console he was perched on, but Zim did not yell at him for it. The Invader was far too preoccupied with his own cheerful humming.

Only a few hours more and he would have the Dib-monkey’s undivided attention once again! He readied his disguise - choosing for this mission, a variation on the disguise he had worn while in skool with his rival. Blue contacts and a black wig completed his adornments and, at last, all was prepared. He cajoled the SIR unit into the rarely used "toddler" disguise and paused for a last look around at his secret base. There was little chance of anyone discovering it in the brief time he would be away, but he was taking no chances. "Computer! Turn on the perimeter defense system as soon as I leave! Take it down for NO ONE!"

"Um... I’m not sure that’s such a good idea..." The computer intoned, with a mixture of fascination and horror.

By this point the Invader should have been well used to the mechanical backtalk - it wasn’t exactly an uncommon occurrence, after all. But Zim being Zim, he immediately responded with as much force as he could muster. "SILENCE! You dare question Zim’s INGENIOUS ideas?" The Irken screeched, shaking a fist at the computer. "My ideas always succeed!" Except when the Dib tried to stop him, of course. With luck, he would have his mortal enemy bowing at his feet before the day was out. Then nothing would be left to impede him. Still giddy - drunk on the thought of his ultimate victory, he was able to completely tone out the computer’s voice hemming and hawing and saying nothing of Zim’s unrivaled genius.

Satisfied that all was in order, Zim laid his antennae back in a stiff right angle to his head as he half-marched, half-strutted toward the lift. GIR followed at his heels, prancing and cavorting like a four year old on a sugar high. It was a rather tight squeeze, as Zim entered the lift and GIR immediately took this as an invitation to join him, crawling up onto his master’s head with a squeal.

"GIR!"

The Invader’s voice reverberated through the lift in a mixture of pain and embarrassed anger as they rose up to the upper base, emerging through the trash can with GIR still yanking wildly on Zim’s antennae. "I want a pony!"

"No GIR! No ponies!" Zim let out a string of curses in Irken, trying to shake the little SIR unit loose with some frantic shaking and bucking, making a wild circuit of the room. The eyes of the robo-parents followed these antics, sparks flying from their necks as their heads turned slowly to watch the cavorting alien. As usual, their mechanical faces showed no hints of anything resembling emotion, but somehow they radiated amusement nonetheless. GIR was making "cowboy" noises, oblivious to Zim’s anger. "Yoooouuu! Roboparents! HELP ME!"

It took both of the Roboparents to pry the SIR unit from the Invader’s head, as GIR seemed to find this new game a great deal of fun and clung with enthusiasm. In the aftermath, as the hyperactive robot giggled and hugged the Roboparents around the knees, Zim hissed and seethed, rubbing at his aching antennae. They were wasting valuable time!

"Is this a bad time to mention-" The computer began, hesitantly, then shut up at a glare from the peeved Invader. Zim waited for a moment, then nodded at the lingering silence. Grabbing GIR by the back of the toddler costume, he stalked to the door.

"Have a good day at school, Son!" The Robodad managed to chime dutifully before the door slammed shut and knocked him into the far wall where he twitched - little sparks emerging from his mechanical limbs.

*

Dib did not work from home - a fact that Zim regarded as unfortunate - especially considering how well he knew the stinkbeast’s defense systems and the way Dib’s mind worked. Or at least he thought he knew - after all this time he couldn’t be absolutely sure, but he preferred to err on the side of his infallible brain! Of course, it hardly applied now.

Unlike his father, the Dib was employed by an outside company. Zim did not make the mistake of underestimating his opponent and thinking this was because his enemy was stupider than his meat-brained parental unit. He’d faced enough defeats at the hands of the earth monkey to know better - Dib was smart, in science at least. He’d hacked into Zim’s Irken technology on several occasions, a feat that should have been impossible for someone with such feeble brainmeats. Maybe it was because of his huge head...

In any case, it would not be the Dib’s defenses he would have to worry about - just the defenses of the company he was working for. ‘This should go smoothly...’ Zim smirked as he surveyed the installation from his vantage point behind a tree several yards away.

The perimeter was marked by a tall chain-link fence with barbed wire on top of it. There were no entrances other than the one that was manned by a security guard. Zim had studied the schematics of the building - as well as its security system - beforehand. He’d done quite a bit more research than was his norm, but he would leave nothing to chance here. It had proved quite unnecessary after the fact, of course. The security measures were not particularly complex by his standards. Why Dib would allow himself to work in such a primitive facility, Zim had no clue. It made his job easier, so he also didn’t really care.

On the other hand, while the security systems were far from being works of genius, there were lots of guards about. From just a cursory view, Zim could spy more guards than would have been used in a high security military base. Not a problem - except that they would prove a distraction, and he needed to get to Dib as quickly and easily as possible. Barging straight in through the fence was an inadvisable notion at best.

Besides, getting to Dib would be simplicity itself once he was inside. The question was: How was he going to slip past the guards and security cameras without calling attention to himself?

‘A flaw in my plan?’ Zim fumed, his antennae trying to twitch beneath his wig and unable to. If all else failed, he might go ahead with a direct assault, but after so carefully crafting his plan, he was reluctant to waste this work of pure genius. He grimaced and looked around for something to inspire him.

A wave of chatter and the sound of footsteps alerted him to the presence of a group of humans who were approaching down the path. The little Invader sank further back into the shadows, watching them pass with growing curiosity. They approached the gate and Zim smirked, knowing that they would be stopped by the stinkbeast in charge of the entryway. His eyes bulged as the guard merely glanced over the little white name badges they were wearing and waved them past. He needed a badge. BRILLIANT!

But how to get one...?

A grumbling voice approaching from the road caught his undivided attention immediately. "I told you we were going to be late for the tour. But you just HAD to watch your stupid show!" This was coming from the lips of a skinny teenage female who was dragging a lanky young man along by the wrist. She was dressed in a white shirt and black pants - with one of the name tags dangling from the edge of her shirt. "Do you know how hard I had to work to get us these tour badges? Well do you!"

The boy only shrugged, seeming distinctly unimpressed. His feet were dragging, leaving little scuffs along the path. "C’mon babe, it’s just some stupid science junk!" The teen’s voice was an irritating whine as he was herded toward the gate. From this vantage, Zim could make out a second badge clipped onto the edge of the small bag he wore dangling around his neck.

"Hey, I went along to your stupid galleries, and all I ask is that you come along and do something I like for once! Besides, I don’t care what you say about your ‘art’ - science is a much better field. You can actually make money – and not posthumously either!" The female’s peeved voice hissed right on back, silencing the complaints.

"I told you already, that’s painters. Look, I need this magazine contract, I could be famous for this. All I need is just one great shot to be my big break."

Zim’s eyes narrowed, his lips slowly curling upward in a toothy smile. Beside him, GIR was pulling leaves from the bushes and cramming them into his mouth with mindless abandon. Ignoring his robot slave, Zim eased himself forward, spider-legs emerging from his pak and lifting his body off the ground.

The two teens froze mid-step and mid-argument, sensing danger somehow. Unforgivably stupid though they might have been, obviously they still possessed at least some rudimentary survival instinct. As the shadowy figure rose from the bushes and cast darkness over them, they backed up, slowly. What they must have thought upon seeing him was anyone’s guess, but the Invader fancied that it was terror he was seeing. It was delicious. As if in response to his thoughts, the girl staggered backwards a ways more, her progress only halting when her back slammed into the solid barrier of a tree trunk. A whimpery sound escaped her throat as she cowered before him. The boy squealed, high and long and slumped to the ground in a limp heap.

Upon seeing the reactions of the two humans, Zim couldn’t help but laugh. He approached the girl first, stopping just a few feet away with his eyes narrowed into thin slits of wicked glee. There was no way he could help a smirk as she tried to flinch away from him. After all the times he’d been unable to make the Dib feel such terror, it was reassuring to know that he could still command it in others. It just confirmed his suspicions that the Dib was different from the rest of these pathetic pieces of FILTH roaming the planet... nearly his equal. Definitely his mortal enemy.

With a low chuckle, the Invader moved forward, deceptively slow at first but then in a blinding pounce that would have done a feline credit. His gloved hand closed over the badge, tearing it away in a smooth motion. The Irken backed off as soon as he had it, although a bit late for the continued presence of mind of the girl. She passed out completely, and Zim was more than willing to just leave her there. He was already on his way to the boy, snatching hold of the second badge and pulling it free. The lid of the bag pulled as well, allowing the carrier to fall open and expose a bland construct of metal and plastic. Nothing of importance, for now he had the badges! Yes, truly his ideas were genius - pure GENIUS!

Cackling, he retracted his spider legs, and reached his wig where it had been knocked to the ground by the movement of his antennae. As he marched forward, almost emerging from the bushes, he heard a soft click. Moments later, GIR bounded up beside him, chewing enthusiastically on a stick. Zim’s eyes narrowed and he fixed a glare on his robotic companion as he pulled his wig on, straightening it fastidiously. Then, satisfied that all was in order, he marched towards the gate, clipping one badge onto his uniform top and handing the other to his SIR unit as they approached. The guard at the gate peered down at them, squinting at the little white pieces of plastic for such a long moment that Zim twitched nervously. Then the man grunted and waved them through, a bored expression on his face.

The Invader couldn’t help but smirk - Victory! The brief clicks and flashes of light as he stepped over the threshold were minorly interesting - a new security measure, perhaps? But that mattered little because he was in! And that could only mean that soon his plans would all come to fruition at long last.

When he entered the building, the first thing that was readily noticeable was the rather large desk with the words "Front Desk: Information Here" imprinted upon it. Aha! An information dispensing unit! Just the thing he needed in his search for his former enemy. It would save him the trouble of having to march about this pathetic building all day. He looked at GIR, who was staring blankly back at him.

"GIR! I need you to carry out your mission now! Remember, give me fifteen minutes to find the Dib-human and THEN begin. Do you understand GIR?" If the robot could remember anything - could get anything right - Zim willed that it would be this thing. Just this one TINY thing was not too much to ask...

GIR glanced back at his master, with no hint of any understanding visible on the blank face of his doggy suit. Zim felt a moment of something akin to despair - then the robot smiled wide. "Ooookie Dokie!". There was a dull clang as the robot saluted, smacking himself in the forehead with his hand.

"Good!" The Irken enthused. "Now! Go find someone to bother while I work!" He turned his attention back to the desk, vaguely aware of GIR scrambling off towards one of the hallways. Now all he had to do was persuade this "receptacle" person to divulge the whereabouts of his enemy. No trouble at all for ZIM!

"I am here to see the Dib," He announced imperiously to the lady at the front desk, "You will tell me where he is or face the wrath of ZIM!" The human woman glanced over with a bored look on her face. Glanced over, blinked in puzzled surprise, and then noticed the waving, black-gloved hands that belonged to the disguised Invader. Raising one eyebrow, she peered over the edge of her desk.

"How may I help you?" She drawled in a tone that held a decided lack of either fear or respect. Zim growled a little, making a mental note that soon he would have all of these horrible stink-beasts begging for mercy beneath the grip of his iron fist. For now he would simply have to deal with their stupidity.

Drawing himself up to his full, diminutive height, Zim spoke once again, his voice laced with annoyance, "I am here to see the Dib. Tell me where he is." Then he bared his teeth in an approximation of a smile that looked suspiciously like the snarl he was trying to keep inside. It was very important to seem trustworthy in front of this worthless meat-sack. "I am a big fan of his and I would like his autograph." The lie tasted bad in his mouth, but it was definitely working; the woman’s eyes lit up in realization and her entire manner went from lax boredom to busy enthusiasm.

"Well, why didn’t you say so earlier?" Before Zim could shout that he had said so - twice- she plopped a stack of paper as high as the Irken was tall onto the desk. "I’m sure he’ll be glad to speak to one of his fans, as soon as we get a bit of paperwork out of the way. I need you to sign these forms, releasing the company of any liability in the event of various potentially life threatening events."

Zim waved one hand dismissively, "I have no time for PAPERWORK! I must see the Dib NOW!" He couldn’t even see the receptionist over the huge mountain of paperwork, and he stomped one foot rather like a petulant child. "This is a matter of supreme importance, foolish earth stink!"

"It’s standard procedure, kid. Boss’s orders. Nobody gets in to see ANYONE without signing the liability paperwork. Not after that incident with the fusion generators and the goldfish." The woman’s voice had gone from cheerful to slightly condescending, a fact which Zim did not miss. Ripping the woman limb from limb would have been a bit of fun diversion, but it would also attract the attention of the guards and make his mission more difficult. With a final grunt of frustration, he nodded.

"Very well, I will sign your PAPERWORK! But any further delays and you will face the superior might of ZIM!"

"Okie-dokie!" For a second her voice held a suspicious resemblance to GIR’s, but he quickly forgot about that as she dangled a pen in front of his eyes. He snatched it and looked over the paper she was holding out to him. "This is in case of floods, fires or other natural disasters," She explained as he scrawled his name onto the bottom of the sheet. Despite his growing annoyance and the pain in his wrist while he worked his way through the papers, he actually couldn’t help but marvel at the sheer scope of their liability paperwork - it covered everything from fires and earthquakes to getting limbs chewed off by genetically engineered experiments. The explanations accompanying each sheet were equally cheery for each potential disaster - Zim couldn’t help but feel a wash of disgust toward the receptionist, when the armada arrived and HE was in charge of Earth, he would make sure that such cheerful stupidity was rewarded with a slow and painful demise. "Last one now," The receptionist crooned, waving a single sheet of paper. "This one is in the event of a full scale alien invasion."

What! Zim shot to attention at those words, hope and alarm both mingling in him for a few drawn out seconds. His thoughts were jumbled - did this mean that the Dib hadn’t entirely given up on his pursuit of the paranormal? That he hadn’t entirely given up his pursuit of Zim? Forcing himself back under tight control, he gritted out a few words, "There’s no such thing as aliens."

She giggled inanely, "Oh, we all know that! But he had us include this one with all of his paperwork anyway - isn’t he such a kidder?" Glancing at the sheet with a smile, she crumpled it between her hands and threw it in the trash. "We’re done! I’ll just call right up and let him know you’re coming -"

"NO!" At the look of surprise, Zim quickly corrected himself. "I mean... eh...heh... I mean there’s no need. I... um... I’m sure he already knows I’m coming. We had an appointment! Yes, a human appointment – cuz I’m human!"

The receptionist looked at him quizzically, then shrugged. "Then go ahead. He’s on the third floor - Room 322. The elevator is over there." She pointed across the room to the row of elevators against the far wall, then flipped her magazine open again in dismissal.

For a moment, Zim didn’t move, simply staring at the receptionist with one eye twitching ever so slightly. His fists clenched, then unclenched and he whirled on his heel and marched over to the elevators. Standing on the tips of his toes, he slammed his fist on the up button and waited for the primitive machine to open for him. A ding heralded the arrival of the elevator - about three doors over from the one he’d pressed the button for. With a low curse, he scrambled over to the open door and pushed his way inside.

Behind him he could hear the receptionist talking to someone else - someone who was rather upset. What they were discussing, he didn’t care to hear, as the desk lady’s piercingly fake happy voice drilled right into his brain. As the doors shut and the noise level dropped severely, he leaned against the cold metal wall and smirked. All was going according to plan. Reaching the Dib now would be simplicity itself - and then would come GIR’s distractions... If the robot could do anything well, it was creating chaos - a fact that Zim had finally elected to take advantage of.

He tapped his foot impatiently as he waited for the elevator to arrive on the third floor, aware that he’d used up a bit too much time arguing with the lady at the front desk - he only had five more minutes to find the Dib before GIR set about with his distracting. As much faith as the Invader had in his own abilities, five minutes would be cutting it close even for him. But even with all the pacing and swearing under his breath in his native language, the earth machine did not go any faster. When it finally did open with a shrill ‘ding’, Zim practically launched himself out of it.

Three minutes! Three minutes to find the Dib. What had the lady said? 322? Zim scanned the numbers on the doors and found they were a bit lower than the one he was looking for. But which way was the number in question? After a moment of hesitation, he headed down the hallway to the right.

How the Dib could stand to work in this place, Zim would never know. In the brief amount of time he’d spent here, he already found himself repulsed by the boringness of it. After the constant excitement of being an enemy to Zim, it was still baffling that the human would have chosen this sterile, lifeless place. But it had one thing going for it - Zim noted as he dashed down the tiled hall - everything was pretty clearly labeled. And he was going in the right direction, further proof that his own brain was superior to these earth defenses.

The Invader skidded to a halt as the hallway came to an abrupt turn, the smooth tiles allowing him little purchase. Warily, he glanced around the corner, expecting something other than a continuation of the blank walkway. Seeing nothing, he continued forward. A brief tingle ran through him as he stepped past the turn.

‘What in Irk?’ He looked down at the faintly visible beam he had just stepped through. Some sort of alert system - probably to warn the earthanoids when someone entered without permission. Of course, he had the stolen badge, so it shouldn’t have been anything to worry about. Movement off to one side caught his attention and he drew his lips back in a worried snarl. "Who dares impede ZIM?"

No time... he had no time for this nonsense!

"I must see the Dib," Zim announced, without turning to look at whoever it was who was trying to hold him up. "This is a matter of great importance." Surely that was clear enough for even the most mentally challenged earth monkey.

"Of course," The other finally spoke, his condescending tone grating on Zim’s nerves. "We just need to ask you a few questions before we let you enter a secure area. It’s a standard procedure." The Invader tensed, finally looking at the guard who was addressing him. No matter what the man was saying, Zim sensed that something was not quite right. The appearance of a few more people was more than enough to confirm his suspicions. Somehow they had become alerted to his presence as something other than a normal guest.

Okay... this could still work out. It just meant relying on plan B. Namely, beating the stuffing out of a few security personnel and THEN capturing the Dib. Not a problem, at all. He backed up a step or two, spider legs beginning to emerge from his pak. At the sight of this unexpected apparition, the guard took an uncertain step backwards. Maybe this wouldn’t be so difficult - Zim barely had time to entertain the thought before he heard a high pitched squeal echoing down the corridor to his back.

There was no mistaking that voice - the Invader wished he could have been surprised to have GIR show up at the most inopportune moment possible, but some part of him had expected this to happen the entire time he’d been there. He was still slow to turn around, his expression rapidly shifting from a glare to real shock as he realised just what the robot had done. He’d come up with a suitable distraction, all right! The little SIR unit was at the head of a strange mockery of a parade. He’d found more guards than Zim had believed possible, and they were headed right toward him. Still, he was sure he could find some way out of this - up until the moment his robotic companion collided with him, the impact flinging them both to the floor.

For a second or two it was nearly silent, with even GIR gone quiet. Then one of Zim’s contacts struck the floor and rolled for a ways before coming to a stop against the boots of a human guard. Exposed! The alien struggled to get himself back to his feet with his robot weighing him down, the sudden blare of the alarms drilling into his skull and making him frantic.

It was no competition - Zim realised with a swell of disbelief. He’d made a mistake - several mistakes: Not bringing any weapons, not planning anything to compensate for GIR’s erratic behavior, not heeding any of the warnings his senses had screamed about. The only thing to think was that somehow the Dib was behind it - as insane as it might have sounded. The human wasn’t even trying and he’d managed to outmaneuver the Irken Elite once again.

The Irken was only mildly aware of someone pointing out that they’d been telling the truth, that they had the picture to prove it. He snatched hold of GIR in a sudden fit of strength, swinging the robot at the guards who were swarming over him like bees. As unconventional as his attack was, it worked. They fell back just slightly, allowing the Invader to squeeze through. His SIR unit was abandoned in his mad scramble - nor was it the only thing, as reason finally went out the window. His plan had gone wrong - twisted logic dictated that this misfortune could have only one source.

Instead of making a dash for the exit, Zim lunged at the closed door 322, his hands reaching out for the doorknob that was just beyond his reach. "I know you’re in there, Dib!" His voice rose to a demanding scream, "You did this! You planned this, you... YOU!" Hands snatched at him, pulled him back - cold metal clamped onto his limbs, weighing him down. Piercing accusations died at last into a silence that was part exhaustion and a great deal of confusion.

How had it gone wrong? His ingenious plans, his goals; everything... Burned away in the fires of obsession and leaving him with a bitter defeat and no hope of trying again.

Well...No. Not everything. He did have one thing left.

A question aimed at the Dib, if the Dib could hear or care or think to answer.

"Why...?" It was the last word on his lips when he felt the stinging pain that spread darkness across his vision. In the end, not even Zim knew just what question he was asking.

* * *

~Log 123~

It’s amazing how little has changed since I’ve been away - or however you would term my decision to give up my life’s work for the pipe dream of a normal life and a caring family. People really ARE stupid – I didn’t even need to hack the government computers to gather information. The password was the same as the one they were using when I was twelve. No wonder aliens were trying to conquer us - hell, we’ve almost been asking for it.

Finding the information took only a few minutes - doing anything with it is proving to be a good deal more difficult. It’s not that the security for Zim’s enclosure is particularly complex... well, it is, don’t get me wrong on that, but it’s not at all what concerns me. Just about everything they’re using for alien containment are my father’s creations - or at least based on his theories. I know the inner workings of the system better than anyone alive. My father being the one possible exception, of course, but since he vanished without a trace over two years ago, I don’t even know if he IS still alive. It’s not the idea of breaking into a high security facility and freeing my former mortal enemy that has me worried.

Then there’s always the fact that if I do this, I will become a wanted criminal, unable to ever show my face in public again. The name and reputation I’ve so painstakingly crafted for myself will go up in a puff of smoke. I could be caught and punished - I could be thrown in prison, or worse, in a mental hospital. I could find myself in the same situation Zim must be in right now, and wouldn’t that be a fitting irony. The thought is enough to make anyone cringe at taking such a risk. Except, that’s not what I’m worried about either.

It’s Zim.

What if he’s too horribly injured to escape effectively? Perhaps something will go wrong and we’ll both be captured. Or he could be... could be...

Dead, Dib. It wasn’t that hard to write, was it?

God, I’m pathetic. I even talk to myself when I’m typing. But it’s true - it’s my worst fear. What if I’m already too late and there’s nothing I can do to save him?

What if he hates me... dear lord, he MUST hate me. And I’ll sit and argue the matter with myself - flog the dead horse a couple dozen more times and then I’ll go anyway.

Years ago, I didn’t know I had a choice. Somehow I went ahead and made one anyway. It’s a decision I’ve had ample opportunity to regret in the last few years... I’ve got more than enough regrets to last me a lifetime. Now, I have the illusion of a choice. I can do this crazy thing I’m contemplating, or I can pretend that nothing has changed and I actually have a life to get on with. As tempting as it sounds, I know better.

I have no choice.

I already made it - the first day I saw Zim, I knew there was no going back. That was a long time ago. A lifetime ago, even.

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

*Chapter Three: Lacuna*

-

The computer screen flickered, this slight change was just enough to tear Dib away from staring at it. He blinked a few times, shaking his head slowly as if he'd just been woken from a deep sleep. Maybe in a way, he had - as he tried to force his thoughts into some semblance of order, it occurred to him that he'd been as good as asleep for the past six years or so. Certainly he'd accomplished nothing. His fists clenched as he surveyed the computer monitor, the words blurring in and out of his vision as he wavered on the edge of consciousness.

"No." He gritted the words out between clenched teeth, feeling the sensation of his fingernails digging into his palms and leaving bloody half-moon marks. The pain was nothing really, but it was enough to spur him completely awake. As clarity came into his amber eyes, it was accompanied by anger and a tinge of disbelief. What was he thinking? His fingers found the keys and he scrolled down through the words he'd so recently typed.

Pure stupidity, that's what it was. Rationally, there could be no other explanation.

But he wasn't his father, and "rational" had never been a word that was particularly emphasised in his dictionary. "I can't believe I'm actually considering this." His voice sounded so small and pathetic in the dimly lit room - he winced at the sound of it. "And I'm talking to myself again." But he made no move to delete the file, the action that his logical side was desperately screaming for him to do. His mind was on another track entirely - he had the mental image of his thoughts as an out of control train and he wasn't quite sure just what his final destination would turn out to be.

"What in the hell have I been doing...?" His voice was shaky, his gaze inexplicably drawn to his hands which were clenched so tightly now that the blood was trickling out from between his fingers, leaving bright red splatters on his keyboard. "I don't even know how I got here..."

Oh he knew, objectively he knew exactly how he'd gotten both to this physical location and this particular point in his life. But mentally, emotionally it was refusing to click. It didn't feel like his life at all. He'd been living the existence of some stranger, the person he was not and could never have been. That man was the one everyone else expected him to be - the man his father had tried to make him into.

He'd rebelled against it for a long time. "When did I give up?" He wondered aloud, not expecting any answer.

Slowly he forced himself to relax, his fingers uncurling - already cramping from being held in such a manner. His palms were sticky, his skin tacky with the blood, but they didn't hurt at all. Absentmindedly he licked at the small wounds, trying to gather his thoughts. The coppery salt taste was not unpleasant, but it made his stomach roll nonetheless. Dib couldn't help but wonder if it was just protesting being empty for so long. He hadn't eaten in nearly four days, after all. A few more swipes with his tongue and he left the cuts be - they would heal on their own – cuts tended to do that, with time.

Besides, there were more important things he needed to do. A desperate impulse was rising in him, and he fumbled for the drawers on his desk, jerking them open with little finesse and rummaging through them. Papers were shoved aside relentlessly, items that were too large and unwieldy were removed and tossed carelessly to the floor. It should have been easy to find what he was looking for given the relative size of the area he was scouring, but somehow it refused to be located.

A sharp sting raced along his nerve endings, and he drew his hand back with a startled grunt. A tiny cut traced along the inside of his index finger, and despite the fact that it was barely visible, it hurt far more than the ones on his palms that were bleeding profusely. A papercut. It was just a stupid little papercut - only enough to draw a drop or two of blood. The paper that had cut him had a slight red stain on the edge, marking the place where he'd been caught. Warily, he reached down and snagged it by one corner, drawing it into the light.

Yes, that was it...

The faded print and numerous creases stood in a clear testament to constant viewing. Someone at his work had even commented on how unhealthy it was to be so obsessed with a sheet of paper - a single look from him and that individual had rapidly found herself in the market for a new job.

He remembered the day he'd first held this in his hands, unable to believe what it was telling him - perhaps simply unwilling to believe it. Either way, it had come as a complete surprise. "I should have...done something." The words were mumbled, confused. "I messed up somewhere, didn't I? What should I have done? What?"

* * *

Proof of Alien Existence!

The headline was just a little too blaring for Dib's comfort. Yes, it drew the eye. Yes, it served the purpose of catching the attention of the unsuspecting reader. Yes, it conveyed the essence of the article that would follow. It therefore did everything that a headline was logically supposed to do.

Dib hated it.

If it were something about proof of the existence of Bigfoot, or perhaps vampires, it wouldn't have bothered him at all. At some point in his life he'd lost a great deal of interest in those things – either that or he'd just gained a great deal of focus in a particular aspect of the paranormal. He was leaning towards the latter. But the reason didn't matter - knowing it would not have changed a thing about how he felt when he saw those four words.

"Just take the paper," Gaz's voice interrupted his thoughts, laced with irritation. Over the last couple of years she'd become increasingly short with him. Things that she used to dismiss with a grunt and a shrug and then tuning him out to get back to her game, were now far more likely to elicit a snide remark or even a blow. Dib had never found this particularly surprising - he'd always had the suspicion that she cared for him far less than he did for her. And he was far from being the model of big brother-hood. What was surprising was the fact that she now was distancing himself from their father as well. It didn't make sense... she'd always wanted his attention so badly.

Still, her tone wasn't allowing any argument, and he didn't offer any. He took the newspaper she was shoving in his face, his actions finally eliciting at faint snort of approval. Her obligation dispensed with, she turned her focus back to the game she was playing. Dib's gaze followed her briefly, not wanting to see the paper in his hands. The narrow eyed glare she threw back at him disabused him of that idea rather quickly. Clutching the newspaper in both hands he made his slow way up to his room, not really seeing where he was going. His feet knew the way, and he certainly didn't waste any energy thinking about what he would do when he got there.

How had this happened? After years of trying – chasing Zim since he was twelve all the way until he'd at last decided to give it up as a bad game when he was sixteen - someone had done it. Someone else. His mind was refusing to grasp this concept, his insides were twisting in something he would have hesitated to call jealousy - after all, jealousy implied a certain amount of caring. He didn't care about stupid things like chasing aliens anymore. He had his 'real science' and the respect of his peers, all that he'd ever wanted out of life.

"Stupid alien." Slipping into his room, he eased his way over to the bed, careful not to disturb any of the half-finished projects he was working on - a more difficult task than expected, as they were all over, forming a veritable maze. Still, he managed it in the end, flopping down on his bed with little grace. His room was vastly different now - even he still found it jarring somehow. It didn't really feel like his room anymore. Drawing up his legs and crossing them neatly, he took another look at the paper Gaz had given him.

It still made no sense... Even having read the article, so many things just didn't add up. Why would Zim have done something so stupid? Wait, strike that. Zim had done a lot of stupid things before. But why hadn't he gotten away with it this time? It was a constant that Dib would usually be on the receiving end of any negative residual effects of the alien's plans - or of his own attempts to rescue humanity. Something had skewed the results this time.

'I should be happy!' He mentally berated himself. 'Zim's been stopped, the Earth is safe! Aliens have been proven to exist and everyone who used to laugh at me for saying so can't call me crazy anymore!'

"This is a good thing..." His voice echoed in the overwhelming silence of the room that was now alien to even him. With a frustrated sigh, Dib folded the newspaper and shoved it into his pocket. He would throw it away later.

* * *

The newspaper crumpled between Dib's hands, wadded very slowly and deliberately into a little ball of grayed text and red stains. It fell into the trash can without a sound. For a moment, the young man didn't move any further, just staring down at his empty hands - at the marks both old and fresh that littered his pale skin. Then he pushed himself to his feet, feeling the protest shooting through his limbs at the movement. He was seriously out of shape - although he ate too little to ever become overweight. His muscles hadn't had a proper workout since he'd taken up real science. One thing that chasing Zim had always assured was that he remained agile.

Doing something like that now would have been nearly impossible - only the increased length of his legs would have given him any chance at all. But he didn't think he'd have to be doing much in the way of running. He sifted through the mess on the floor, already with a general idea of where the object he was seeking was. A gray box. Dib pulled it out, blew the dust away and spent a moment trying not to cough himself into unconsciousness before lifting the lid and reaching in. The dark fabric was impossibly smooth against his fingertips, unfolding into an expanse of midnight black as he drew it from its resting place.

Too small for him now, but...

He glanced over at the pitifully inadequate mirror propped against the wall on his dresser, his old coat held in front of him like a shield. He laid it across the back of the chair, shrugging out of his white lab coat and letting it fall to the floor in a useless heap. With unbelievable care he slid one arm into the sleeve of his trench coat.

How long had it really been? He'd stopped wearing it at sixteen, and while he had grown since then, it wasn't as small as he'd thought it would be. Still, looking into the mirror with the blackness of it wrapped around him, it was almost laughable. He was a grown man! This was the craziest thing he'd ever done!

'I don't care.' Dib told the rational little voice, and it fell silent with a confused whimper. Yes, he was a grown man, wearing a teenager's coat, but when one got past that first impression, well... Looking in the mirror it was obvious. It looked more right than the lab coat ever had - the colour bringing out the glistening darkness of his hair and the honey-amber of his eyes, a few shades darker than they were years before.

'Is this me? Is this what I was supposed to be?' A smile ghosted across his lips.

/...Maybe I'm not doing what I was meant to do - because what I was meant to do was catch me that alien!/

His head jerked up, turning as if he'd heard a voice. There was no one there, but at least he'd been reminded of where he was and what he was doing. What he was supposed to be doing. What he needed to do.

Amber eyes darted to the digital clock. It was getting late. If his information was correct, the shift change would be happening in about two hours or so. That didn't leave him with much time.

Leaving this for another day would have given him better opportunities, it was true. But he was sick and tired of letting it pass. There were so many things that needed to be set right somehow, delaying would be giving in to that last vestige of the rank cowardice that had kept him in this place so long. No more.

Kicking his chair aside, impatiently, he pulled his laptop off the desk and sank to the floor. It was braced across his knees as his fingers flew over the keyboard, typing commands. No more wondering where life went wrong - he knew. No more trying to stave off the inevitable decline into madness that this sterile existence was driving him to. It was time to take it all back.

'Sorry, Dad. I'm not this person - I never could be what you wanted and maybe I'll always be sorry for that. But I'm not going to let it destroy me this way. For better or for worse, it's my life and I'm the one who has to live it. And I'll live it the way I want, not the way the world expects me to...'

 

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

*Chapter Four: Pari Passu*

-

Simplicity was the key - at least for the beginning of his plan. Dib had no time to think of anything overly fancy anyway. In a way he was grateful for the lack, feeling certain that if he'd been presented with the opportunity he would have over planned to the point of redundancy. Not to mention he would have worked himself into a such a state of frenzied paranoia that he likely wouldn't have been able to accomplish anything. Besides, getting in was going to be the easy part - it was getting Zim out that would prove to be tricky. He had a couple of ideas - based solely on the information he had managed to hack from the facility's computers, as well as his own knowledge of his father's designs. The positive aspect of this approach was the flexibility it allowed him; he could change his plan at almost any point without suffering too many losses. But that didn't mean that he could be lulled into a sense of security - he was relying too much on speculation and knew the dangers.

His gaze kept flitting to the clock as the minutes ticked away, caught in a state of anticipation that left him jumpy at even the slightest of sounds. With each new distraction, his nerves became ever more frayed. Still, they also lent brief surges of adrenaline... a blessing in itself. Up until now he'd never realised just how far he'd gone on nothing but adrenaline and determination all throughout his youth.

‘I can't believe I was ever that stupid and reckless. A smile quirked his lips. I also can't help but wish I still was. Then I wouldn't be so petrified at the thought of breaking into a government facility, liberating an alien menace and possibly spending the rest of my life in hiding. All in a day's work, right?’

Time - or close enough for government work. Dib carefully shut his laptop without actually turning it off, he would be taking it with him - on the way in anyway - and he didn't particularly want to have to wait through a long booting up process should he find himself in a situation where time was critical. Outdated technology the little machine might have been, but he'd discovered that few of the newer systems could even register its existence. It could cut through security programs and advanced firewalls like a hot knife cutting through butter.

He wavered about the coat. He hadn't worn his traditional black trench coat since his alien chasing days and there was always the possibility that someone might recognise the fact and start putting pieces together. On the other hand, he was loathe to even touch the white lab coat that had served as little more than a fancied up straightjacket for him over the last six years. The thought of putting it on made him feel the urge to be almost physically ill. In the end it was no choice at all.

‘I'm taking back my freedom tonight. I'm not gonna do it wearing fetters.’

Sliding the black fabric on, he quickly discovered a second, less personal, reason to wear it, as it held numerous hidden pockets, useful for the storage of just about anything he might think of to bring. His laptop fit into one of them, somehow barely visible as the slightest bulge against the black. Perfect. His eyes found the clock again. It was time.

His gaze slid over the entirety of the room one last time, taking in the sterility of it. He would not miss it, he decided. With the barest nod of his head, Dib's subtle way of agreeing with himself - that lingering other voice within himself, at least - he opened the door. The night air hit his face as he stepped over the threshold. The sticky warmth of it caressed his skin impersonally - pushing strands of hair out of his face as he walked. The last of the heaviness was falling away from him as he moved purposefully away from the darkened house - a lifetime of hurt and frustration sloughing away from him like the shed skin of a snake. He felt it go with a dull ache throbbing inside him at the frustration of it all - a lingering temptation to clutch at a past better left where it belonged.

‘I could have done so much more...should have done so much differently’ Thin words of regret, like the ghost of that approval-seeking child he was once, were struggling into his thoughts. They were trying to tear down his resolve, warning him away from this insanity and back to the life he didn't want. Still, he kept moving, feeling the internal struggles lessening by the moment - weaker and weaker until they died at last - the last vestiges of childhood dried up and gone at last.

‘There are no 'what-ifs'. There are no 'should-haves'. Only what is and what I can do with it.’ He climbed into his car. Driving wasn't something he did often - not seeing the value in it. In his childhood he'd piloted a spaceship! Anything after that could only be a letdown as far as he was concerned. Sure, he could navigate an earth bound vehicle if necessary, but it wasn't any kind of rush. There were no visible stars now, the thin layer of clouds that had lingered overhead for the past two or three days had at last thickened enough that the sky was entirely blocked out. Only the street lamps provided a stark light over everything, making the outdoors a coldly alien place.

It wasn't far. Not much further than where he worked anyway, as he pulled up at the guarded gate, he felt both relieved and somewhat annoyed. Yes, it was important that he make a move before he lost his nerve, but he would have been grateful for a little more time to compose himself and pull his thoughts into a semblance of order.

No time for that now, he forced himself to act casual as he turned his attention to the guard. The man looked bored up until he got a good look at the car's occupant, his eyes going as wide as saucers. "Professor?"

"..." Ouch... ‘Damn it all... why did he have to bring that up?’ Dib cringed inside at the mention of his father. ‘Why would he think I...’ Never mind. It was obvious enough by the man's reaction that he bore more than a passing resemblance to his father. Briefly he was tempted to let the incident of mistaken identity work to his advantage, knowing that there was no one who would have denied the World Famous Scientist access to something as piddling as a top-secret government facility with insanely high-level security. Yeah, he was tempted, but it was only for a moment. If he was caught impersonating his father, there was no doubt that punishment would be swift and potentially devastating. Besides, the last thing he needed at this point was to stand in Membrane's shadow.

"No," He gritted his teeth forcing the words out, "I'm his son." The man looked at him blankly for a moment, not comprehending these words. Dib waited, he knew it had to register eventually. At last the guard nodded, his expression still not showing much in the way of realization or recognition.

‘I probably could have told him he had a moose growing out of his nose and he would have reacted the same. Why do they hire these people? If it was me... Well, if it was me, I wouldn't be the one trying to sneak in, would I’? Dib smiled, forcing himself to relax and trying to give off an air of assurance.

"You're here to see the alien, right?" Something in the guard's tone - perhaps the way the man gave him that secretive grin - set off alarms in Dib's head. He narrowed his eyes, mentally cursing the fact that his glasses were fogging up in this damnable weather. It was hard to read anything from the guard - the man's expression was less suspicious and more like someone who was sharing a private joke. Why? He could find ease in one thing, at least, whatever the guards might think he was here for, it wasn't a rescue. "We were expecting the Professor, but I guess he's still too busy to handle this in person."

A chill ran up Dib's spine at these words. Professor Membrane was gone - had been gone for years now - and they were still expecting him back. Back to deal with Zim? Almost hidden in the billowing sleeves of the coat, his hands clenched into tight fists. ‘Something is not right here.’ His amber eyes were thin slits now, an expression nearly mirroring the one his sister had worn throughout their childhood, and the man was giving him a look that was tinged with uncertainty and a hint of actual fear.

"That is why you're here, right?" A slight waver in these words, and Dib realised he had a convenient excuse and was about to blow it anyway. The frown on his face melted into an easy smile, even as he marveled at his own ability to act.

"Of course it is. Can you think of anyone else my dad would trust to send in his place?" Dib leaned out of the car window casually, "I mean, he is a genius, right?"

The guard relaxed, visibly relieved. "Of course he is. The man is incapable of making a mistake." He fiddled with the controls for a moment and the gate unlocked and began to open with a raspy whine of unoiled metal. "Go on in, and don't forget to display your pass. Not that anyone would be able to mistake you, I think. You sure do look a lot like the Professor..." A flat piece of metal was pressed into Dib's palm and he immediately wrapped his fingers around it securely. Things had just become easier.

Still, as he drove his car into the guarded area and clipped the metal tag to his coat front, Dib couldn't help but feel this wasn't going anything like he'd planned...

The layout of the building meant that Dib had to park some distance away from the area where Zim was being held. He left his keys in the car, dangling from the ignition, just in case he needed to make any kind of quick getaway. Of course, that particular contingency plan would first require he have the time to get back to his car before anyone thought of persuing him, but there was no need to worry about that until it happened. Closing the car door carefully, he looked around.

It was different than looking at the diagrams, but still recognizable enough. He started for the main building, consulting the map he'd done his best to memorise in the two hours leeway he'd been given. Zim was being held in the underground containment area - accessible through the elevators in the main building. As he entered the glass doors, he noticed an abrupt drop in humidity and heat - the change of temperature making him fully aware of the sweat beading his skin as his body started to shiver.

‘Stupid humidity...’ He nodded a greeting to the receptionist on duty and received a bored expression in return. He forestalled the question he knew she would ask by gesturing at his pass. She stared at it, scowled then went back to the magazine in front of her, much to Dib's relief. At least that was one person he wouldn't have to trouble himself with during this whole ordeal. Actually, it was rather surprising how few guards he'd seen in this place - how few people he'd seen here, period. True, this was a top secret facility, but he still would have expected a lot more manpower to be necessary.

The main bank of elevators were directly across from the desk, he made his way over to them and pressed at the button impatiently before leaning against the wall, gaze fixed firmly on the unlit arrows above the closed metal doors. The incessant ticking of the clock above the elevators set his teeth on edge as he waited. ‘Easy, boy...’

Despite the mental reassurances, it still felt like an eternity before he heard the ding of an arriving elevator and stepped inside. As the doors slid shut behind him, Dib examined the buttons. There was no button for the underground containment area - only for the first through fifth floors. But there had to be some way to get down there, otherwise this would have been a useless endeavor... His roving eyes slid over the panel again, noticing a slight indentation in the metal. It looked like someone had taken a hammer to the thin metal casing, leaving an area dented inward in a roughly triangular shape. He traced his fingers and found that the area was perfectly smooth, save for a few odd rippling bumps that weren't noticeable to the naked eye.

‘Strange... They probably have some sort of keycode that needs to be entered - some way of identifying the person in the elevator before allowing them in the protected area...’ That would have been the logical move. Still, it didn't help him here unless...

Unless his father was the one to program the security systems here… He knew Membrane's technology was prevalent in the area's designs, but had his father actually worked on it personally or had it been cobbled together by the government using the schematics he'd left? Again, he traced his fingers over the grooves in the panel, trying to discern if there was any pattern. It felt like a miniature wave, three shallow dips of differing sizes. As his hand traced them, his fingers eased into the most convenient position - index, middle and ring finger sliding into the grooves, finding the path of least resistance.

An electric tingle ran through his hand, making it briefly numb. Eyes flying wide with alarm and mentally envisioning being electrocuted to death, Dib tried to pull his digits free. No good, they were held quite firmly in place by something. A female voice emerged from the speaker atop the elevator. "Please remain still for scanning."

Fingerprint identification - or something like it. Simple... So simple that he hadn't thought of it. The young man felt a sudden urge to beat his head against the wall of the elevator, but resisted the temptation. He wasn't coded to this system... there was no way he could have been, considering he hadn't been privy to whatever secret project the Professor had undoubtedly been conducting here. A project that apparently involved Zim in some way. He wasn't sure how to feel about that... especially considering how often his father had insisted on regarding him as insane before the capture of the alien Invader.

His fingers fell away as the scan finished and the computerised voice spoke in a far too cheerful tone, "Scan completed. Access granted. Welcome to Membrane Labs." No sooner had these words been spoken, then the buttons all lit up a bright red and the elevator started to descend with a whirr. As it moved, the computer voice continued to speak. "Please watch your step and be sure to wear protective gear when handling unstable chemical compounds." As the elevator bumped to a stop and the doors slid open, it chimed out, "Have a nice day."

Dib stepped over the threshold and paused. The doors slid shut behind him quietly and he glanced back over his shoulder at them. It wasn't really any quieter in the underground labs - it just seemed that way from the absolute lack of the background noises he was familiar with. There were none of the usual sounds he fell asleep to in his cold little room at home - the sound of cars passing on the street below, the muffled conversations of his neighbors in their own houses and the shrill screaming of sirens in the distance. The absence of these minor distractions was worse than their presence would have been.

The stark metal of the walls was another thing he found unnerving. Every wall, every floor, gleamed with an unnaturally perfect shine. As he walked, he could see his own reflection in black and blue mirrored countless times over in the silvery sheen. The echo of his boots reverberated throughout the corridor he traversed. Ahead, he could see where the hall widened into the actual laboratories - the place where most, if not all, of the government's top secret projects were being housed.

He knew this, yet as he entered the lab, he was strangely unimpressed by the goings on. It was almost old hat to him as he strode past a bunch of scientists in protective gear and sporting heavy duty black goggles. Apparently it was some project dealing with radioactivity, if the glowing rats they were surveying were any clue. Dib didn't even blink as one of the animals abruptly doubled in size and clamped its jaws into the hand of an unsuspecting lab tech. Big deal - Zim's giant hamster had already set the bar too high for these super-rodent wannabes.

Maybe that was the problem... he couldn't help but entertain the notion as he made his way through the veritable labyrinth of rooms and corridors that comprised the protected underground base. He'd spent so long dealing with all the weirdness that Zim had always thrown at him, he had become pretty well immune to it. And these scientists - these humans - had nothing here that was even close to being in the same ballpark. It was a poor second any way he looked at it.

‘Everything on Earth has always been a poor second,’ Dib mused as he walked. He'd already forgotten the layout of the base he'd tried so hard to memorise and there were no signs or clearly marked doors to lend him aid. All the same, he had the feeling he was going in the right direction. He had the feeling so strongly he could almost taste it on the air.

For the most part, he was able to keep to his resolution to waste as little time as possible. There was only one thing that drew him up short, and it was only for a moment.

Somewhere in the tangled maze that they called a base, Dib had passed through a room. Much like the others, it was full of scientists and lab techs, with the occasional guard standing watch. In the center of the room, the only experiment resided - suspended in a thick green solution and encased behind protective glass.

The creature was human - not fully formed perhaps, with a head disproportionately large for its tiny body and limbs that were woefully small - but human nonetheless. Dib thought he recognised the technology they were using as some sort of cloning procedure. Whatever it was, the thing - person - in the glass tube did not seem to be thriving. ‘They shouldn't be doing that... Even dad didn't do those kinds of experiments...’

As he stood there with his eyes fixed on the fragile little being on display, one of the scientists eased up to him, smiling widely. The man was shorter than Dib, and his round body and rather pointed nose gave the impression of a well-fed mouse. The nearsighted blinking did nothing to dispel the image from Dib's mind as the man spoke. "I don't recall seeing you around here. Are you a transfer?"

"You could say that..." Dib waffled, reluctant to say more. The last thing he needed was to be caught in a lie before he completed his mission to free Zim. Afterwards, it wouldn't make the slightest bit of difference. "I just arrived here today, actually." He added. Nothing in his words was an actual lie, but the implications were untruth enough.

"You're a lucky one then," The scientist conceded cheerfully, drawing a quick breath that puffed his cheeks out and displayed a generous amount of freckles. The young man bit his lip and said nothing, but the scientist didn't seem to notice. "You've arrived just in time for the unveiling of the newest project! I think our work here will do the Professor proud!" He squeaked happily, giving the thumbs up to Dib.

The black-clad young man managed a wan smile, but his tone was decidedly flat. "I'm sure it will." The mousy scientist grinned back before turning to the beeping control panel.

"Oops..." The sudden wail of an alarm siren going off followed this rather foreboding exclamation. Dib barely twitched, making his way to the far door as quickly as he dared without seeming like he was running. He kept his gaze unwaveringly on his goal... this was something he absolutely didn't need to be involved in - he wasn't sure what they were trying to do here and there was no way he was going to stay and find out.

Research and development chambers gradually gave way to other things - test labs first, to be soon followed by the area he was seeking: containment. It came as only a minor surprise when he saw some of the things they had incarcerated here.

‘And Dad thought I was crazy...’ He mused wryly, peering through the small glass window into the reinforced chamber labeled simply "Bigfoot" ‘I knew these things were real! Well... except for the hobo...’ The true horror of that particular 'specimen' was the fact that he was sure he recognised the man and his paper bag filled with corn. ‘I had some really close calls as a child...’

The security here wasn't quite what he expected as he ventured deeper. The passage was definitely leading downward, winding ever further beneath the Earth's surface. There weren't many people of any kind this far down - the last guard he'd seen was some distance back and from what he could tell, the majority of the security was automated here. That could make his job easier. Sweat beaded on his brow and he gritted his teeth, tugging at the collar of his coat. No wonder no one came this way - they'd have to pay extra to get someone to endure these abysmal temperatures for longer than a few minutes. How much longer would it be before he reached the end of this infernal hallway?

Speak of the devil... He almost smacked into the doors headfirst, he was so preoccupied with his thoughts. Drawing up short, a wobbly and unimpressive move if ever he'd made one, he glared at the thick metal.

‘Nice door...’ It was a double thick, reinforced combination of several metals, and doubtless included several of the alloys Professor Membrane had concocted on a whim. Therefore, it must have been capable of withstanding enormous amounts of heat and pressure. His fingers slid along the crack of the doors slowly as his gaze flitted over it. This far into security, he thought it was a pretty slim chance that the touch screen panel for the key code was the real thing. No physical guards meant that the electronic security had to take up the burden. The panel had to be a diversion, something to draw the unwary and lure them into revealing themselves.

Unfortunately, whatever the cleverly hidden secret was, Dib couldn't find it. There were no inconsistencies in the metal of the door as there were back in the elevator - nothing to indicate a secret panel. He palmed as much of the door as he could reach anyway, to no avail. As much as he was pained to admit it, this one had him stumped. Drawing his lips back from his teeth in a unconscious snarl, he sulked over to the main keypad and jabbed at it with a finger.

"Welcome, Professor." The computer voice chimed, both female and decidedly chipper. "Please enter your password."

Password? Dib stared at the glowing array of numbers and letters that appeared in front of him as the computer spoke, feeling the uncanny sensation of his mind going completely blank.

‘Ok, let's just take the logical approach.’ He reasoned quickly, ‘If I was Dad, what password would I pick?’ His new approach brought about as much success as his old approach... namely, none. Seventeen ready passwords had popped into his head and he could not in his right mind envision the esteemed Professor Membrane using even one of them. Ever. His hand hovered over the keys.

"Please enter your password." The computer repeated - the voice sounding not quite as cheerful as before. Dib regarded this as a definite improvement; at least it didn't grate on his nerves quite so much. "Password Verification required, please enter your password." With the third reiteration of this requirement and Dib no longer felt quite so assured. Perhaps it was the guns lowered from the ceiling and trained on him that led to his unease.

Any ideas he still harbored fled from his mind with the frantic desperation of rats escaping a sinking ship. ‘Aw...damn... Why does this always happen? Just once I wish that things would just go as planned. Come on: think!’ Raising his fists to his head, he growled in frustration. Dying was not an option at this point - therefore not entering the right password was also not an option.

While his mind was going around in useless circles, his body was already reacting to the situation. His fingers flew over the panel as the guns powered up.

"Password...correct."

‘What?’

Dib stared at the keypad, mouthing each of the letters that glowed green against the black of the holoscreen. Given an excessive amount of time to think, he knew he wouldn't have been able to come up with the answer. Panic knew better than all the reason in the world sometimes. It did make sense though, when he thought about it.

"...Toast...huh."

It was forgotten completely as he heard the click of internal locks giving way and the double doors began to open. In the few seconds it took the doors to slide open, an eternity passed for Dib. Every memory of his enemy stood out in his thoughts in stark and vivid detail. Every expression, inflection and nuance frozen perfectly in the hitherto unexplored confines of Dib's mind. The haziness of the intervening years faded away in an instant, leaving only the untainted remains of his past in their wake. If he had ever wondered anything about Zim during those long years of Real Science - it was answered in the flash of recall that struck him.

It was everything important to him and it lasted only as long as it took reality to tear apart the barriers he had managed to erect through years of work and effort. A few unsteady steps forward and he stood entirely within the room, barely noticing the doors sliding shut behind him. He was too intent on what was inside to worry about anything so trivial.

Dreams died hard... this he already knew. What he was learning now was that reawakened dreams die harder - struggling and screaming and fighting for every last bloody inch as their life is crushed away. His brain didn't want to process the sigh before him and a mild glaze settled over his eyes briefly as the visual information slowly burned its way into his awareness. The dream of his childhood had come true in a way he had never anticipated.

There were so many wires and tubes, so much metal, he could scarcely tell where the alien ended and the machinery began. Experience had taught him that Zim was almost impossible to damage at all, much less severely. The alien had a recovery rate that put any creature of Earthly origin to shame, something Dib recalled envying on more than one occasion. There was no jealousy in him now, only a queasy feeling in his gut as he surveyed the sight before him.

He remembered dissecting animals in science class - but in this particular research they had not waited for their subject to be dead. Layer upon layer of green skin was pulled back from the alien equivalent of bone and muscle, held in place with a mesh of fine wires threaded through the skin and pulled taut, like leather stretched over the head of a drum. The Irken's limbs were splayed, held in place in a mockery of crucifixion - the metal rods holding hands and feet in place were driven right through the appendages, their shape suspiciously like that of meat hooks. Attached cables held the captive immobile, while further clamps snaked around his wrists and halfway to his elbows, visible as a series of grooves where they had cut right into the skin. Why? Where did they think he could go in this shape, even without the bindings?

There was no visible blood anywhere on the captive alien - a fact that Dib wasn't sure if he should be grateful about. The incisions were sterile and precise, made with cold blooded purpose. The former Invader was completely bared to the sight, and Dib found this disturbing on too many levels to even try to name. Alien or not, enemy or not, Zim was a sentient being and not a piece of raw meat. If they had done what they had done in the name of science, or in the name of Earth's continued safety; whatever the reason they had found to justify this, they should have at least allowed him the dignity of death before dissection. Suffering like this deserved to have a finite end...

‘They should have let him die.’ A tremor ran through Dib's limbs and he braced his back against the hard metal of the now-closed door, a tightly clenched fist raised to his mouth. The minor pain of his teeth sinking into the soft skin of his hand was the only focus he had left - the coppery tinted salt of the liquid in his mouth making his bile rise, but at least he was conscious.

‘I didn't... I never planned for this’. His eyes were half closed, dark lashes lending a blurriness to the scene before him. It was a mockery of everything he'd ever wanted - the culmination of countless childhood dreams into this nightmarish version of reality. Healing factor or not, would Zim stand even the slightest chance of survival outside of the sterile environment of this chamber? Could he even remain intact without being somehow sewn together first? Surveying the gaping area where both skin and muscle were stripped back to expose the abdominal cavity, Dib had the sudden mental image of lifting Zim and having those alien organs spill out over his hands.

His knees hit the floor first, followed seconds later by his hands as he crouched against the bare metal, body shaking as his stomach tried desperately to expel the nothingness that was in it. He tasted his own swallowed blood for a second time on the way up, felt it ooze slick and warm between his fingers as he raised a hand to his mouth as if it would stop the inevitable. It was more orange than red as it splattered to the floor beneath, tinted pink at the extreme edges. He didn't know how long he remained there, dry-heaving until he tasted the bitterness of the bile in his mouth and felt it burning in his throat. His chest ached like someone had taken a sledgehammer to it as he struggled to draw air, to find some measure of composure for himself. Every agonised breath sounded like a sob to his ears.

Slowly he raised his head, his limbs still trembling from the stress. It was fading away into the background, allowing a sense of apathy to settle in its place, laying a false calm over his jangled nerves. This could never work now - his plan would be a complete failure. There was no way he could hope to pull it off with the alien like that and the small part of him that had always been able to find the negative in a situation was back in full force.

‘There's nothing I can do for him. Right now there's not even anything I can do for me! They'll come eventually and take me away - probably to the crazy house. Maybe even for good this time, because I think it's happened, I think I've snapped finally and I can't take it anymore. Put me away with the jacket and the pills that take it all away... I'm just so tired - so miserable and tired...’

He sighed, a spark of hope igniting in him at the thought of having some peace at long last... They could do that. They could take it away - there were medicines and treatments and it wouldn't make him sane - because it was far too late for that - but it could do the next best thing and make it all go away. The memories would be gone. Zim would be gone and he could live out the rest of his life as a pathetic, drooling vegetable, but at least it would be a pathetic, drooling vegetable who could never feel the way he was feeling right now...

There was just one thing... ‘Only this one thing..’. The hope in him had not gone away - in fact, it burned brighter now with an end in sight. There was only one dark spot in this envisioned future, the same one he'd always had marring his hopes. ‘Zim...’ The realization was in him that he should do something about the alien, and he felt light enough, gracious enough to want to extend some pity to his soon to be forgotten enemy. He could make it better for the Irken - end it here and now. Death had to be preferable to the life Zim lived now.

‘Yes, I should.’ Resolved, he pushed himself to his feet, his muscles screaming in bitter protest at this further abuse. Wobbly legs carried him to the side of the clear containment chamber - his goal was the panel that controlled the various mechanisms. A few quick presses of some buttons and the once Invader would soon be out of his misery for good.

‘This is how it needs to be.’ He thought, turning his head for one last glimpse of the being he had obsessed over for so long; his alien. What he saw froze him mid-motion, his heart skipping in his chest with the shock.

Zim's eyes were open - more than that, the alien was looking at him. While those eyes had once been a vivid shade of magenta and the colour had darkened somehow to a muddy red, the change did not lessen the effect in any way. He was awake, he was aware, and there was a gleam of hatred present even through the haze of pain in his large orbs. But... not recognition at all. It could have been anyone standing there - if he knew who Dib was, there was no sign of it.

The young man felt a shiver of cold in the pit of his stomach, hand frozen only inches from the controls. His insides were twisting painfully now as the war in his mind was well and truly waged - no holds barred.

‘I can't do it. I can't just kill him here, like this.’ But Zim was going to die anyway, no matter what he did. More to the point, the alien deserved to die - he was a danger to the planet, he – [used to be... he USED TO BE a danger! Who could he hurt now, like this?] How could he even think about saving Zim's life? Zim was evil! Zim was everything bad in his life - everything terrible and wrong. All the people who had laughed and mocked, it was all because of him. He deserved it for making Dib's life into the living hell it was! It was all Zim's fault!

‘But...’ But Zim was also everything good: every goal, every victory. Every tenuous connection he still had with that vile beast called humanity only existed because of Zim. Every reason, [everything that hurt me] every fault, [everything that I ever achieved] every justification...

His bane. His Magnum Opus.

‘It's Zim. It's always been Zim. It always goes back to Zim...somehow.’

Like an incessant itch that he couldn't be rid of, it was under his skin, it was inside him, it was eating him alive.

‘How did he... Why would he... It makes no sense; none at all. And it hurts - it always has... and probably always will.’

Without Zim he had no purpose - his life was utterly devoid of any use or meaning. His existence was a void, seeking only to draw from others in an attempt to fill itself. Nothing had ever worked. Nothing. Long days of research, long nights of pursuit, long years trying to make the emptiness go away with recognition and acknowledgement and the answer was here. The answer was here the entire time.

Trembling fingers met the glass, leaving rusty smears. His own pose was nearly an embrace, and a mirror image of Zim's as he pressed up against the wall of the containment cell. One cheek pressed to the coolness of the glass with the dampness welling up between them, sliding down his face to his chin and leaving a wet streak.

Funny how he went into this thinking it was Zim he was going to be saving. Ironic that he was saving himself as well. All thoughts of just giving up were driven from his mind - dried up and blown away completely. They might both die, and probably both would in this foolishness, but it wouldn't be for lack of trying. It was down to this; all or nothing. That one brief moment of clarity could not be ignored.

‘We got into this mess because we were working at odds...’ His fingers trailed over the controls, hitting the releases one at a time. ‘Maybe, just maybe, we can get out of it together, though.’ The metal wires fell away, leaving loose skin hanging free. Dib winced, but continued releasing the bindings - the hooks, the pegs, the cables. There was a bit of blood evident now, or something like it, and the alien had lost consciousness once again.

The only obstacle remaining was the containment chamber itself and the young man finally threw caution to the wind, pulling out his laptop and connecting it to the panel. It took him only minutes to hack the system - without being detected, of course - and drop the field. The glass retracted with a whirr, leaving the damaged alien lying sprawled on the unforgiving floor. He moved swiftly to Zim's side.

It hadn't killed the alien right off the bat, which Dib took as a good sign. Perhaps Zim could make a recovery - if they found a safe quiet place, of course. Nudging the alien's limbs carefully, Dib slid his arms beneath the prone body and lifted, amazed at the lightness of the little being in his arms. He started to turn back to the door, the first step to escape, when he heard it slide open again.

He froze, his mind racing and pretty close to panic already. Who could it be, a guard? A scientist? Terrible thoughts ran through his head. They still didn't prepare him for the cold splash of reality, or the sound of the voice speaking his name in such a dire tone.

"Dib." Not a word more, and no surprise either. He swallowed convulsively, not quite willing to believe his ears. Surely this had to be just some trick his fatigued brain was playing on him. Surely it couldn't be... The sight when he looked over his shoulder dispelled any such doubts.

Amber eyes fixed on him unwaveringly, a near match for his own, although almost completely shaded by the way they were slitted so thin and dangerously. For a moment it was as though nothing had changed from his childhood memories - then he knew better. The owner of those eyes stood almost level with him, but with more malice inherent in her stance than he could ever have dreamed of having. The deep reddish purple of her hair framed a face that adulthood had sculpted into lines of sleek beauty, but it was still her. But what could she have been doing here? Especially now...

His voice was so quiet as to be barely audible, "...Gaz...?"

 

* ~ * ~ *

Chapter Text

*Chapter Five: Maelstrom*

-

Dib's voice hung in the air between them as he stared disbelievingly at his younger sister. Some part of him refused to believe she was even there, the same part that was willing to leave things as they had been, perhaps. Maybe not... there was too much about this that didn't make sense. The timing was too fortunate - or unfortunate as the case might be - for him to feel comfortable. Something else was at work here, with the mention of his father, then the unexpected arrival of Gaz in the middle of his attempted rescue. His danger sense was quivering like a plucked string and he had no idea why. He also had some trouble regaining any semblance of composure when fixed beneath her cold gaze. "W...why are you here?"

It was the wrong thing to say. He wanted to take his words back even as they left his mouth - condemning them in his mind as too stupid to be uttered in this situation. What was he trying for anyway, casual conversation? Standing here with a wounded alien in his arms, it was pretty much impossible that even a moron would have trouble figuring out his intentions and put the pieces of this puzzle together. If there was one thing Gaz wasn't, it was a fool. She also knew more about him than anyone on earth - anyone human that was - she had known about Zim from the get-go.

Her frown deepened into an outright scowl as he spoke, something which didn't bode well. Frantically he combed through his memories, trying to recall if there were any outstanding 'offenses' that she might still hold against him. Although he thought she'd more than paid him back for Bitey the Vampire - among numerous other things - it was hard to remember after all this time. So many of the things that Gaz found to be doom-worthy offenses were things he would have shrugged off as minor if it were him in her place. He didn't recall that she'd changed overmuch before she'd decided to leave for good.

"What am I doing here?" She echoed his words with disdain in her tone, not making any attempt to hide it. Her gaze went from Dib to the unconscious alien he carried, something glinting in the amber depths of her eyes as she surveyed the two. What he was, he couldn't be sure, but he also wouldn't have trusted her to have any good intentions towards them.

It wasn't lies he was afraid of from her - Gaz had never really had the need to resort to such methods. The truth told bluntly - often sarcastically - was her weapon of choice. It could be equally dangerous whether it was used with razorlike precision or simply wielded with the sheer power and gracelessness of a metal bludgeon. Her words might hurt him, but he resolved that they would not stop him. It was whatever unknown plan she might be harboring that he found fear in. And she hadn't answered his question...

There was nothing to do but continue on and hope that he wasn't backing himself into a trap he wouldn't be able to get out of. "Yes." He could think of nothing else to say in the face of her icy disregard. The single word got a reaction, though not the one he would have expected. She smiled at him, the corners of her lips turning upward only slightly. Somehow he found the expression more unnerving than her scowl. At least when he was faced with that he had a general idea of what to expect from her. This...this was uncharted territory.

"I was invited here," She replied at last, cocking her head slightly to one side, "Somehow I doubt you can say the same." Her deliberately casual tone turned frosty. "So, did you come here to play with your little friend some more? I thought you said you were past that - The whole 'I'm gonna be just like Dad' kick you were on." There was no opportunity to reply or refute her words - her expression cut off what he was going to say before it got from his brain to his mouth. "It seems that maybe things haven't really changed at all." She wasn't the least bit squeamish at the sight of Zim so mangled, looking him over with mild interest. "Aren't you a little old to be playing games, Dib?"

Something in the way she spoke to him set off more warning bells in his mind. As far as encounters with Gaz went, this was positively tame. His sister was not one to talk purely for the sake of conversation. The second realization had apparently been delayed before it reached his brain because it was only just dawning on him now.

She didn't have her Gameslave - or even some updated equivalent of the video game system she'd been so obsessed with throughout their childhood. He struggled to remember if this was normal now - if perhaps she'd simply grown out of it. The young Gaz - Gaz of the "Zim era" was the one he could recall most clearly. When he tried to bring her teenage years to mind, they were misty and half formed, wavery. None of it was quite real. He wasn't sure that he could trust the past that his mind was showing him.

‘When Zim went, it all went straight to hell in a hand basket. Anything after that point could be just my brain playing tricks - showing me what I want to see. How can I know for sure?’

He couldn't. He didn't know how many memories were true and how many suffered from the influence of his current situation. Maybe it didn't matter which version was true at this point. Either way, it was strange to see her - his first reaction to the taunting question was to gape, as his brain frantically tried to reconcile the two very disparate images. Gaz had left - but she was here now, and not playing games. Or perhaps it was all some new, complicated game that involved reality instead of pixels on a screen. It felt like he was being toyed with - that was the only logic that he could find in her presence, although it was admittedly somewhat self-centric. It could have just been paranoia that was insisting there was no way in hell that she could be here now and have it be a mere coincidence, but he threw his trust behind his fear.

She was still looking at him, expectancy giving way to annoyance, and Dib realised he'd just been standing there staring at her like an idiot for quite a while.

"It's not a game." Another mistake - he wasn't doing so well choosing his words now. I'm tired... But even fatigue was not much of an excuse. Both of them knew better - although Dib hesitated to believe it, even now. It was a bitter pill in its own right, but he forced himself to swallow it. The time for lies was long past - most especially any lies he'd told himself. They fed into his weaknesses, and he needed strength now. Funny how it all goes hand in hand... Gaz had always referred to his pursuit of Zim as a game - and with the benefit of a time and a changed perspective on his side, Dib was ready to believe it.

There was little chance that Zim would have taken over the world, even without Dib's constant interference. Too many of his plans self destructed. Some of them were just plain stupid and would have done more harm than good to the world conquest mission. And there was always GIR to take into consideration. It all added up into the image of Zim as little more than a laughingstock, and himself as, if anything, more of one. Not for taking Zim on - but for being unable to defeat him.

"Wasn't it?" Gaz's lips twisted as if she'd just swallowed a lemon - her expression not easily discernable as either frown or smile. She was able to tell the impact her words would have beforehand - they were thrown at him like expertly aimed darts, finding the weaknesses in his defenses. Gaz was the expert at games, and she was toying with him now for a moment of amusement - he could understand this on some level that had nothing to do with aliens or monsters and had everything to do with family. The precise 'why' of it was still eluding him though. "If it wasn't a game, then why didn't the world end when you stopped playing?"

‘But it did end. It ended for me...’

But of course, she wasn't referring to him, and she wasn't done talking. If she had any clue of his innermost thoughts, of his pitiful justifications, she gave no sign. "If it's not a game then why are you here so eager to free your little playmate." She tilted her head, smiling now with an insufferable amount of smugness.

Dib's insides were in knots as she addressed him, every hateful word pulling the twisted mess tighter. It was hard to concentrate on the task at hand when all he could think was that she was doing it again. He'd been reduced by her again and it wasn't right - wasn't fair. Who had given her the right to pass judgment on anyone - on him most of all? Speech would not come to him, cut off somewhere in the angry, tangled morass of emotions inside him.

‘Why is she like this? What have I ever done that makes her enjoy inflicting pain on me? True, he hadn't ever been much of a big brother, that much he'd concede, but he'd tried nonetheless. Tried harder than their father, at any rate. Didn't I give it a shot, at least? She was less interested in having a sibling than I was!’

"Seriously, Dib. If you were really trying to save earth - if he were really a threat - wouldn't letting him go be the last thing you'd want to do?" She was still speaking, ignoring his lack of protest - or even any real reaction - for once his smouldering emotions seeming to pass beneath her radar entirely. "But I suppose since he wasn't really a threat, he wasn't entirely wasted. What else was he good for? He was too stupid to be anything but a source of amusement - a plaything to keep you from doing anything too dumb. He was good at that."

‘Why is she speaking of Zim only in past tense?’ He could still feel the weight of the alien in his grasp, the slight movement now and again that convinced him that the former Invader was real and alive - not another figment of a traitorously overactive imagination.

That painful knot of emotion was pulling tighter with each word that fell upon his ears, encompassing all his anger and pain and fear. How dared she...? It was only a lifetime of conditioning that kept him in his place now. Conditioning and the constant reminder of the burden he still carried. It sent little quivers of frustration through him - a reaction that she would surely take for fear. That look, that condescending smile, it was entirely too much. Something inside was twisted a touch too far and it gave completely - painfully, but the pain was sweet in its own way, if only for the freedom that came with it. The suppressed words came out in a flood, bursting forth from him like water breaking down

a dam.

He barely recognised his own voice, snarling back at her as if he'd never been afraid of her wrath during the entirety of his life. "So what if it is?"

Instead of responding to his disrespect by raining unholy doom down upon his head, she froze. Her features were twisted into a mask of disbelief. "Excuse me?" Her voice was barely audible - the danger in her tone no less prominent for the reduction in volume. He was dancing on a knife's edge here - nobody addressed Gaz like that, not even their father. No one dared.

But he was daring now...

"You heard me." Where had it all come from? This wasn't anything like his normal behavior - at the same time it didn't feel entirely wrong either. This aggressiveness, the surge of confidence in the face of perhaps the most frightening creature ever to be spawned by humanity, it wasn't who he was.l But it was still there - somewhere inside it made sense. Gaz had this in her - why would it not also exist in him, if only in some small degree? I could easily have been more like my sister if the circumstances were just a little different. He suspected there was a certain alien to thank for that lack as well. "So what if it is a game? Why should you care? It's my game, and you are not now and never have been invited to play it."

She should have clobbered him for that, but she didn't move. Her gaze remained fixed on him, their eyes meeting. Neither of them looked away - Gaz was still blocking his path and holding him back.

‘I could make her move.’ The thought crossed his mind rapidly and he considered it. It wouldn't have been easy, that was true, but he knew that he could do it. For once in his life he had the upper hand and the realization was power in itself. Gaz sensed it too, her stance wavering for a second. It would have been so easy to get rid of her now and take advantage of that moment of weakness. It would have been the smart thing to do.

So easy... so... so...

‘So much like her...’

Dib dropped his gaze abruptly - the balance of power shifting yet again. The pieces were back in Gaz's hands now. His window of opportunity had vanished without even a whimper. If he knew his sister, things would not be allowed to shift in his favour again.

‘That was stupid.’ Mentally he berated himself for that moment of weakness. It could cost him everything - it probably would now. And for what? ‘She doesn't care - she never did! She probably never even could. Even thinking otherwise was the height of folly because this was Gaz, and Gaz was incapable of caring about anything but herself. It's so clear.’

‘I'm an idiot...’ That was also pretty clear.

He couldn't raise his eyes from the ground, although he sensed movement from his sister. She was coming toward him, the clack of her steel-toed boots against the metal floor echoing in his ears. The sounds made him flinch visibly, but she didn't comment for whatever reason. She stopped a short distance away. They were so close now that he could feel her presence - tingling across his nerve endings like the angry crackle of electricity. He shuddered for real at the sensation and at the wash of cold that swept over him.

The unsuccessful end of all his goals and plans was at hand, but she wasn't lowering the boom on him. A last game, perhaps? One final opportunity to toy with him before ending it. Instead of pain heaped upon his skull, all he felt was the brush of a finger beneath his chin, nudging his head up. This, in itself was dumbfounding. Gaz was never gentle, and she never touched anyone unless absolutely necessary - he knew because he was the same way. And yet, here she was, doing just that. Maybe it was just to throw him off guard - if so, then it worked. He could make no protest as he was forced to meet her gaze once again.

Her eyes were a dark shade of honeyed amber, their depths full of something well nigh unidentifiable. He thought he recognised the anger there as well, smoldering like a fire that the elements have tried - and failed - to kill. Strangely he had the feeling that her rage was not addressed toward him, although when she spoke, she left little room for question.

"I hate you."

The flat cold words echoed in his ears as her touch fell away, leaving him gaping in shock at the disparity in her words and her actions. It lasted only as long as it took for her to step backward and bring her hand around in a blow that was as unexpected now as the lack of one was before. He stumbled backwards, barely keeping his feet.

There was no contesting her statement, no ready response came to mind in the drawn out moment that followed, only the sound of his breath reverberating and magnified by the room. His silence spoke everything that needed to be said...but it couldn't make him understand any of this any better...

* * *

 

"What are you moping about?" Gaz's voice was the last thing he wanted to hear when he was already in such a lousy mood. Actually, if it were a choice between having horrible, inhumane experiments conducted on him by an alien menace, and having any sort of conversation about his feelings with his sister, he would have immediately dressed himself up in giftwrap and had himself delivered to Zim's doorstep. Maybe with a bow and a nice card - something like "Volunteering to have my organs put on the outside, thanks a lot!"

Unfortunately he didn't have any tape, and Gaz was blocking the way to the door. That narrowed his options considerably. The only question was if he was going to talk to her or if she was going to beat the hell out of him and then he would talk to her. He grimaced slightly, remembering the last time he'd decided to be stubborn - just the thought of it made his ribs ache in a way that was all too familiar.

Logic proclaimed it to be much safer to just go ahead and get it over with - only stubborn pride would have argued with that particular grain of truth. It lost out in the end, as the inevitability of pain wrung a sigh of defeat from him, but it had put up a hell of a fight. "It's just..." He growled, raising a hand to his forehead as if thinking pained him considerably, before changing his mind about what he wanted to say. "It's nothing really. Nothing big." A half-truth might get past Gaz - it probably wouldn't, but it was at least within the realm of possibility - a lie never would, though.

Luck was not running with him this day, or else Gaz was simply more perceptive - or stubborn - than usual. Probably the former, considering his track record. She scowled at him, not looking convinced in the least - hands clenched at her sides and quivering slightly as though she was doing her level best not to wrap her fingers around his neck and throttle him. From the look on her face, she was doubtless considering it. Interesting... It wasn't like his sister to not inflict bodily harm on him if that was what she felt like doing. Why would she be showing restraint this time? Maybe Dad put her up to it... Despite its many flaws, it was the only explanation he could think of.

"If you expect me to swallow that piece of crap, Dib, you're even crazier than everyone knows you are." She sneered, not bothering to hide the contempt in her voice. "Or maybe you're just stupidly optimistic. Like your little friend. He thought he was pretty smart too, I'm sure."

It was the barest movement on his part - the tensing of muscles in his body, a twitch in his fingers - but she caught it easily. More than that, she knew just what had elicited that response. Dib could tell by the way she proceeded to use her words to cut through his carefully constructed barriers with razorlike precision. She was here to inflict pain on him all right, she was just going to be doing it with words instead of spooky powers.

"That's it, isn't it?" A frown crossed her face briefly, a very slight lapse in her otherwise flawless control. He understood what she was doing - although perhaps not why she was doing it - but that was one moment he did not get. Not even a little. "Why am I not surprised?"

‘But she was...’ The thought fluttered across Dib's mind. ‘Just for a moment she was surprised. But why?’

While he was still struggling to absorb this new information, Gaz was pushing on with her words. Dib had the brief sense of deja vu, or something very like it. He already knew what she was going to say - it was like remembering the script from a movie. And he knew how he shouldn't have been reacting... but it made no difference whatsoever. Dib knew the lines by heart and he still couldn't avert what was surely coming.

"Dad thinks you should be focusing more on your work." Opening with a reference to their father, almost casual in tone now. Neither of them was fooled at this nicety though. ‘Like Dad really gives a damn about anything that isn't one of his projects anyway.’

"He always thinks that." His voice was weary, one hand rising to his face to shield his eyes. He wasn't entirely sure where Gaz planned to go with this just yet, but he didn't want to hear it. He was going to, because no one in their right mind said "no" to his sister, but he was both wary and slightly afraid of what she might say, and whether it was truly what he was expecting to hear from her. No one could exploit a weak point better, and he was still mostly weak points - still rebuilding his defenses after the capture of Zim - his armor was full of cracks and chinks that left him vulnerable. If he met her eyes, he sensed that would only make it worse. She would know the fear in him. He couldn't show it to her, not if he wanted any hope of getting through this ordeal intact.

She was willing to concede the point, but this was their father they were discussing. Besides, Gaz wasn't really into science - just video games. "Maybe." There was an awkward pause, and he could feel her dislike of the situation like a physical presence. She hated that their dad never had time for her, and surely the work was to blame. Dib used to feel the same way. "It never stopped you from doing what you wanted before." His lips curled into a wry smile at that observation but his sister obviously couldn't find the humor in it. It was the steady gaze remaining on him that finally clued him in that it was more question than statement.

What reply was she expecting? It wasn't like he needed to agree with her, because both of them knew it was true without having to say anything on the matter. He dithered for a moment, trying to figure out just what she wanted to hear - and what was most likely to leave him in one piece.

He went with the safest response he could think of - agreement. "No, it didn't."

"You don't care what Dad thinks?" From the arc of her raised eyebrow this question was a great deal more important than the earlier statement.

‘Why would she think that?’ He stared at her, wondering just where she'd gotten that particular notion. Hadn't he spent most of his life looking up to his father? He'd been more obsessed on that point than Gaz had. And she thought he didn't care what Dad thought? Why?

Had he spoken his question aloud? He preferred to think it was merely a slip on his part as opposed to the even more frightening notion that Gaz could read his mind.

"Ok, maybe you did care. But you cared about your stupid aliens and your "mankind" more." Her head tilted slightly as she regarded him, the corners of her lips turning up ever so slightly. Dib should have been used to his sister after growing up with her, but he readily admitted - to himself at least - that he understood her no better than anyone else.

If there was an expected response, he didn't know it. Shrugging his shoulders and hoping the move wouldn't push any of the wrong buttons, he let the silence answer her. As the seconds stretched into minutes of quietness, Dib was allowed a moment of relief. Gaz was glancing past him, at the walls of his room which were now devoid of paranormal adornment. Aside from the table of elements on one wall, there was little to see. So what had caught her interest so completely?

"You never answered my question." His sister was still staring intently at the blank white of the wall as she spoke to him. Her impassiveness toward him took him by surprise for the moment, until he realised that she wasn't talking to herself - or the wall. Then he wasn't sure which question she referred to... he didn't think he'd answered any of them. She didn't let him reply, just shaking her head, a small noise in her throat that could have been disgust or choked off laughter. Dib couldn't tell, and her voice when she spoke again had no hint of either emotion in it. "Never mind. You're a lousy liar, Dib." She shook her head, strands of her deep mauve hair flowing around her face before settling back into their customary position - like his scythe, her odd hairstyle was impervious to almost any abuse, save a good wetting which would plaster it down for a short while.

She brushed past him, making her way to the window and staring out for a moment. Dib eased his way up beside her, staring out and upward, his eyes scanning the night sky for...something. Lights, maybe. He'd almost forgotten what to look for outside. Overhead, the constellations were clear, as was the moon where it rode high and nearly full - they were bright and familiar, yet their light was cold. The sight of it all tightened his chest, and he let himself be mesmerised by it - remembering the familiar patterns. To his side, he was aware of Gaz watching him but she was only the most minor part of the memories the night evoked.

Then she was talking, pulling him back to the present - a trip he made only with great reluctance. "What?" Dib wasn't even sure what she'd said.

"Nothing." Gaz bumped him aside with her shoulder, this time aiming for the door with a long, smooth stride. For a moment she was poised in the doorway, utterly still but with her back toward him. "Stop moping. It's getting on my nerves." Two steps more and the door slammed shut behind her, setting the glass to rattling in its frame.

Dib blinked after her, then glanced back out at the sky. With a sigh, he closed the curtains.

* * *

Low, biting laughter drew his attention to his sister again, and he tightened his grip on his unconscious former enemy, half turning away to block her view. It was a meaningless effort but one he felt compelled to make anyway. The way she was regarding Zim with that cold, analytical stare was unnerving and he hadn't managed to shake the feeling that something else was up. He couldn't believe in coincidence - especially when she'd said something about an invitation. There wasn't much time - he needed to get Zim out of here now and she was standing in his way.

Easing forward and hoping his intentions weren't blatantly obvious, Dib tried to sidle into a good position to sprint for the door. No sooner had he moved than Gaz stopped her unpleasant laughter, trading it for a forbidding stare. "And just where do you think you're going? What are you planning to do, Dib? Walk right out the front door of this place carrying an alien in your arms? Don't you think security would stop you before you got that far?"

She wasn't bringing up anything he hadn't already thought about himself. Not having planned that far ahead, he'd been wracking his brains for any ideas about how he could manage to get both himself and Zim out without ending up arrested. He was nearly ready to admit to himself that everything that came to mind was either unlikely at best, or just plain stupid. But that didn't mean he wasn't obligated to try. You bear the burdens you take, Dib. Remember that... He met Gaz's gaze with a courage sparked by desperation. "I don't know." His truthfulness kept her quiet as he continued, "But I'm going to try."

"Why?" Her voice was so quiet that he had to strain to hear it and her gaze had lost the anger he was so used to hearing. It was as close to emotionless as a voice could come. "Answer me that at least, Dib? Why are you doing this? Why do you even care? What is it that elevates a stupid little alien so high above everyone else? What?" She was almost in his face now, demanding, the coolness of her tone having given way to something icy and bitter.

His own voice was pitiful by comparison - a broken little noise in the face of her ineffable demands. "It's all I have..." There were no tears in him - he'd used them up too long ago, dried and blown away on the wind of inevitability and adulthood. Growing up did that to you, he found. It took the things that were good and whisked them away beyond your reach. Gaz wouldn't understand and he was still too new - too untried at this - to explain it to her. He didn't trust himself to make sense and...and there was the niggling suspicion that she had no frame of reference anyway.

They were frozen in that tableau for what felt like forever, staring at each other like two strangers. ‘We're siblings, but I don't know her - she doesn't know me.’ He knew now that they never would and it troubled him vaguely, but it was a minor emptiness in the grand scheme of things. The silence bit at him, reminding him that he needed to be gone and he couldn't tear his gaze away. "Gaz...?" He dared to break it, but only quietly.

"There's another exit." The words came out of her mouth in a slow measured pace. "It's the old water release tunnel."

For a beat he couldn't believe he'd heard her right. "What?"

"The waterway, stupid." Gaz's frown deepened. "This place used to be powered by electricity gathered from the waterway underneath the base."

He shook his head. He knew what a water release tunnel was. Actually, now that she mentioned it, he thought he remembered hearing about the same thing from his dad - an idle remark about how his perpetual energy generator was far more effective than the old methods of garnering electricity. The government being what it was, the old waterway would never have been filled in - it might not even be blocked. They'd just forbid anyone to look at it or talk about it - that typical response to anything that might involve spending money. "What I meant..." Stop. Rewind. Rephrase. "Why... why would you..."

Gaz sneered a bit, dispelling any wild notion he might have had that she was doing this for him. "Don't think it's because I give a damn about what happens to you or your little 'friend', Dib. Zim's never been anything but a minor nuisance, but you -" She made a sound that might have been a laugh. "You're more than a nuisance. You don't even know it - that's the sad part." She drew a short breath before shaking her head. "Dad wanted it to be you, you know" Her narrowed eyes slid to him piercingly.

"Wanted what to be me?" Dib's eyes went wide behind his glasses, his expression blank with confusion. Her subject matter was going all over the place, making it impossible to follow whatever her train of thought might be.

"The one he got right." She snorted. "You were his precious heir, after all. Like father, like son. But it's not you, Dib. You've been standing in my way - holding me back just by being you. Dad couldn't think that maybe he was wrong. He's NEVER wrong, is he?" Her tone dared him to answer that question, and he couldn't bring himself to. "So don't even start to think this is for you."

So she hated him - no surprise there. It wasn't anything he'd done which was, though. Just like the rest of his life - he'd been looking in entirely the wrong places. But something didn't add up. "If they arrested me, he'd have to pay attention to you."

"No, Dib." She spat his name like it was an insult. Maybe to her it was. "He'll fret and gripe about his 'poor insane son' like he always does and eventually he'd find a way to make them let you go. I want you GONE, do you understand? Take your stupid alien and your idiotic obsessions and be gone from my life for good. I don't even care where you go." Her tone wasn't angry, just icy. "But I swear, if I ever see you again, it will be the last time you see anything."

He nodded, the fear peaking in him as he eased in her direction, skirting around her. She didn't move to intercept him again, not even as the door slid open with a hiss and he stepped through, carrying Zim cradled against his chest. Not even when the door hissed shut behind him.

*

 

She hated him. He had something that she was lacking. Where there was a gnawing emptiness in her, a void that would not be filled, he had something. His alien, his obsession. With Zim around he needed nothing else.

When Zim was captured, the day she had seen the deep-rooted truth of her brother's life, she had reveled in the pain that gleamed so brightly in the amber eyes that were nearly a match for her own. He was suffering and it was right and good - a rush to think that she wasn't the only one who was hollow inside. It was the justified smugness of a wrong righted and it had lasted in her for about a week.

It was too much to deal with...

The quiet young man who hid in his father's shadow was a far cry from the alien-chasing boy she'd known. Insistently she had shoved her way into his space and tried to coax a reaction from him. Kindness had never worked - but Gaz had never been particularly good at being kind. Pain, on the other hand, always worked to some degree - it wasn't until the day that she found herself standing over him one day, her hands bright red with his blood, that she realised even her blows were losing their effect. Once a narrow-eyed look of displeasure would have sufficed, but now it took nothing short of a no-holds-barred beating to get him to so much as blink.

She could have killed him. That thought was a bit sobering. Far worse was the suspicion that doing so might have been doing her brother a favour.

It was hard. Hating him. He was all she had really. She managed it somehow. She hated him all the more because he should have been someone she loved. Her big brother. They should have been close - the way family members were in all those movies and books. Dib should have been helping to fill that void in her life that needed someone to care.

Oh, he cared. He cared about his obsessions - his vampires and werewolves and an abysmally stupid alien named Zim. She hated him for not loving her. She hated him for not even hating her back. Most of all, she hated him for walking that thin line - ignoring her so often before throwing a crumb or two of something like familial affection her way. It was like he wanted the benefits of a family without the risks. It made him a coward, and she hated him for that too.

She could have loved him... sometimes she was tempted to, when she felt that little pang inside that was probably loneliness. It was what made hating him so difficult.

But hating him didn't mean she wanted him dead and her insides were telling her that if she stayed, sooner or later it would come to that. That he was already as good as dead inside wasn't what mattered.

The day of her eighteenth birthday, sometime between the hours of three and four am, Gaz went on - trying to find other things to keep her occupied. She never looked back.

*

"I'm surprised you let him go."

She had known they would be. More than that, she also knew that they would probably construe her actions as weakness. A weakness that she couldn't afford to show - especially now. She was cold - their precious ice bitch, their game goddess. How could she be weak?

"Don't get your hopes up." She smiled a little, that expression that was known to make strong men tremble. "I'm giving him an hour. One hour. Then you can call the police if you like. Chase him down - shoot him. I don't care."

"You don't care? Then why did you do it?"

"Because..." Her voice trailed off for a moment, the silence stretching into a long pause. "Just because. Don't question me." At her hard tone, the voices fell silent, as she'd known they would.

"We're even now, Dib." She muttered low. "I don't owe anything anymore. Not to you. Not even to Dad..."

And the voices didn't say anything else.

Chapter Text

*Chapter Six: Nolens Volens*

-

Dib's legs felt like they were made of lead as he struggled down the hallway - each halting step coming with more and more effort. It helped a little to focus on the actions themselves - lift a foot, put it down, repeat. The heat was wrapped around him like a physical barrier, something he had to push through that was trying to push back at him. It was like moving through water, a constant battle to fight the environment that felt like a malignant entity in its own right. Or else it was just the exhaustion and the blood loss that was having its toll on him and playing with his senses. It didn't particularly matter either way.

There were no guards throughout the entire length of the dimly lit corridor, occasional glimpses of his own shadow on the wall giving his heart a shock and setting it to pounding. ‘I'm as jumpy as a cat...’ The thought was wry, laden with a certain amount of irony. The journey was remarkably soundless - the only noises to be heard were the faint electric buzz from the lights and the harsh rasp of his own breathing. Zim was a dead weight in his arms - if it hadn't been for the occasional twitch, the human would have thought he carried a lifeless corpse.

The conversation with Gaz haunted him - the whole encounter was nothing short of surreal, bearing a strong resemblance to some off-beat nightmare. That she was cold more than anything towards him was particularly disturbing. Knowing how she really regarded him, after that one slight crumb of hope that there might actually be a person inside her that could give a damn about him (or anyone) - was a final, painful blow.

But for all she had done to him, perhaps that last act was a sort of backhanded favour. Any frayed ties of familial loyalty he might have still been harboring were severed with cruel swiftness. It meant many things, he was sure, but the first, the most important thing it meant was that he was free of her. Free of Gaz and that perennially painful obligation to be an older sibling.

‘It shouldn't have been like this...’ Dib staggered as the world around him turned in a lazy spin, his stomach threatening to send him into a fit of dry heaves. It took every ounce of self control he possessed not to drop to his knees right there. ‘No. I'll never get up if I do!’ Numbness was trying to take over his limbs and he focused on the burning sensation in his chest instead.

How long was this hall anyway? How much time had he spent here? Where was there to go after this? The questions he hadn't considered when originally planning his rescue of Zim were now foremost in his mind. ‘I really didn't think I'd get this far.’ The thought sparked a slight chuckle from him, despite the flare of pain it sent through his body. The slight motion was also enough to jar the Irken in his arms to a semblance of wakefulness.

Cloudy magenta eyes blinked hazily, seeming unable to focus on the human above. Then the mistiness cleared, leaving those eyes bright - bright with pain, from the way the small body was twitching rather convulsively in his grasp, but aware nonetheless.

Would the alien even remember that oh-so-brief moment of recognition back in the lab? As Zim stared up at him, confusion marring his expression, Dib found himself experiencing doubts at last. Then that voice was heard again, weak and strained and so blessedly familiar that the human could have wept in relief.

"Dib...?" The same disbelief was evident in that single, rasping word that the young man recalled feeling himself upon seeing his former enemy again. "You... What...?" Green fingers clenched as the alien's body tensed in pain, the force of it almost doubling the former Invader over. A low hiss issued from his lips, and then his good antenna snapped up to a position that mimicked attention. "Release me, human! You shall never capture Zim!"

"Shut up space boy." From the alien's words, Dib couldn't be entirely sure whether Zim was really aware of the current situation. He sounded like mentally he was still somewhere in the past - in the days when they'd still been chasing each other around Skool. It made the ache in his chest grow unbearably, but he rallied gamely nonetheless. Even after all this time, the words still felt natural on his lips. The knowledge came as no surprise, his mind easily clicking gears - away from the many attempts at 'normalcy' and back to that default state he'd managed to keep at bay for so long. ‘This is me. THIS is who I am.’

"Fool! You do not tell me what to do! I am ZIM!" But the alien was not struggling in his grip, and fell quickly silent after this bold proclamation. When he spoke again, his voice was as small and broken as his body. "Dib? Is it really you?" There was a despondency to his question, as if he'd asked it many times and always had the same answer.

"Yes." Dib drew up short as he reached a split in the corridor, looking from one hallway to the other with confusion plain on his face. ‘I don't remember those being on the map.’ But he didn't remember much about it now, so maybe it was just his own brain that was faulty. Besides, he had the niggling suspicion that what he was looking for wouldn't have been on a map. ‘Down... I need to be going down - but not down like Zim's cell...’ A sharp jab of pain in his hand wrung a startled yelp from his lips and he stared down at the alien in his arms who had just sunk his claw-like fingers into the fragile skin of Dib's palm.

The blood seeping onto the bare green skin was proof enough of reality for the alien. "It's really you." His voice was shrill with wonder. "You..." The surprise melted away and for the first time anger flickered into the large magenta eyes. "You!" Zim's claws sank more deeply into the torn flesh. "What are you doing here, Dib?" His name was uttered with enough venom that the human almost winced.

"Now is not the time -" He began, trying to forestall an argument until they were safely away - or at the very least, out of the compound. Where they would go after that was anyone's guess.

"What are you doing here, you filthy monkey? Have you come here to gloat? Are you enjoying the suffering of ZIM?" The alien's voice was rising several octaves as he screamed the accusations in Dib's face. "Enjoy it while you can, vile Dib-thing, because it will be the last enjoyment you shall ever know!" He was moving now, albeit sluggishly, small hands trying to wrap around the human's throat.

Dib's already skewed balance could not have withstood the added strain of compensating for a thrashing bundle of little green alien. A lurching step to the right was all he could manage before his knees turned to rubber. He struck the floor with a sickening crack as the hand he'd moved in an attempt to catch himself met the hard tile at entirely the wrong angle. He had about three seconds to focus on the agony of a bone that was almost certainly snapped before Zim's weight came down hard on his solar plexus, driving the air from his lungs.

"Was this your plan, Dib?" Zim snarled down at him, surprisingly strong for someone who could barely move. "You had this plotted out from the very beginning, with your 'psycho warfare' and your 'real science'! But you will not have the last laugh! Your attempt to sneak in and kill Zim will fail!" The grip around his throat tightened considerably and the human felt a moment of panic as his lungs cried out for air. Still, he managed to force a sound from his nearly cut off throat.

"No - urk... help...ing..."

The Irken hissed like an angry cat. "No one will help you!" As the human beneath him shook his head furiously, the Invader's expression gained a hint of confusion, obviously finding this reaction surprising. Dib thought he understood; Zim was used to more extreme reactions from him. After all, he'd never been the most subtle or quiet person in the universe.

‘I guess I have changed.’

The grip around his neck loosened abruptly and air flooded his lungs. A bout of uncontrollable coughing followed this movement - making his body ache even more than it already had. It took him a minute to fully register that he could, in fact, breathe. It took another before he realised that Zim was staring at him, confusion evident in every line of his body - in the cant of his one good antenna and the way his eyes were narrowed. He was still suspicious, that was clear, but he was listening.

He was listening.

"I didn't-" He raised his own hand to his throat, wincing as his fingers came into contact with the sore flesh. ‘That's gonna leave a bruise.’ "I wasn't coming here to gloat," His voice emerged in a harsh rasp of air, "I just wanted to...to help." ‘God, I must sound so stupid.’ Especially when one considered that the first thing he'd almost always said to Zim before had involved capture or bodily harm.

"Help?" Like it was a foreign word. The alien's voice was so small that Dib barely recognised it. All the anger had fallen away, taking what measure of intimidation factor had accompanied it, leaving nothing but this tiny wounded creature perched across his chest. ‘This? All my life I was afraid of this?’ Perhaps it was just that he was seeing it from the perspective of an adult - or it could have been that Zim was now so weak and helpless that he presented no threat - either way, it still took him aback for a moment.

"We have to get out of here..." Dib remembered where they were and forced the other thoughts out of his mind. ‘Later. I'll think more on it later.’ He wasn't certain how much time they'd wasted, but his danger sense was nagging at him. ‘A decade out of use, and probably rusty, but I'm not gonna start questioning now.’ "We don't have much time before someone is sure to show up." ‘And I still don't know where to go. I guess I should have planned that ahead of time too, but...’ Since when had he ever? Trying to save the world on guts and enthusiasm had worked all the time when he was a kid.

To his immense gratification, the alien actually let the argument drop. "Then get us out of here." Weary and hurt though his tone might have been, it was still Zim through and through. Why should he ask when he could order? The familiarity of it made the corners of the human's mouth turn up slightly, but his smile soon faded as the Irken continued speaking. "Where *are* we going, Dib-beast?"

A valid question, and one that Dib could only grimace at, wishing he had a good answer. "Back to my house, I guess." Dib wanted to take the words back as soon as he said them but knew it was a moot point really - there was nowhere else they could go, nowhere on the planet where people wouldn't know what he'd done eventually. Sooner or later they would be backed into a corner and then they'd take Zim - take him right back to that lab where he would be studied and taken apart piece by piece and possibly, eventually, die. If they would even grant him that kindness. Nowhere was safe.

But it was someplace to go - for a short while, at least - and it wasn't like he was entertaining any better notions at the moment. That fact, more than anything, convinced him. The alien would probably be another matter - he could feel Zim's penetrating gaze on him, staring as if they could bore right into his skull and see what was happening inside. "Are you crazy, Dib-worm!" The Irken finally said incredulously, the vehemence with which he uttered these words making him wince again.

"Well, I did just break into a top secret government facility and rescue an alien menace," Dib mused aloud, feeling lightheaded and rather giddy - the pain in his broken wrist slowly easing down into a semi-tolerable throbbing. "So I'm guessing the answer to that would probably be 'yes'." His skinny body quivered slightly with suppressed laughter, as if he'd said something rather witty.

There was a pregnant pause, a moment of silence, and when Zim addressed the human again, his voice sounded oddly shaken. "Dib human... are you..." He was to be struggling for a good word, but in the end he settled for the obvious. "Are you ok?"

"Never better." He still felt that insane urge to laugh, but the combination of relief and adrenaline was sending a new surge of energy through his body and he let it carry him. Zim was lighter, less of a burden now that he longer had that frightening, dead-weight quality to him and even with the definite twinges of protest from the cracked bone, it was somehow an easier load to bear.

‘I'm going to be in pain when this is all over...’ He was moving again, barely short of a actual run - his gaze scanning the corridor for...something. A sign. He didn't know just what it would be, but he was certain that it wouldn't matter. He wouldn't miss it when it appeared. Zim's awakening had given him new confidence that somehow he could make everything work out - even force it to if that was what it took. Fortune had to work in his favour for once... Didn't the universe owe them a break? Just one small kindness after the years or torment he'd been through - it was all he could have wished for now. ‘I swear I'll never ask for anything again if I can just have this, now.’

Dib almost passed it; he was so caught up in his fervent thoughts. It was the slight draft that clued him in - the inexplicable cool breeze that smelled faintly of decomposing plants. He skidded to a halt, almost overbalancing as he did so. But he barely noticed this slip, turning back to locate the source. The walls were covered with sheet metal paneling - over whatever had originally been there, presumably. Another government short cut, but perhaps one that would work in his favour this time. He shifted Zim's weight so that the alien rested in the crook of his injured arm and used his good hand to beat against the metal.

At first the only sound was a solid thump. Undeterred, he continued to work his way along the wall, hitting it every four or five inches or so.

Thump. Thump. THUNK.

His amber eyes went wide behind his glasses and he hit the area again, not quite believing that he wasn't just hearing things. The hollow sound reached his ears again and he felt a surge of triumphant hope rush through him. With a soft growl, he backed up a step, raising one foot and kicking the panel with as much force as he could muster. Zim squealed in surprise and terror at this action, and Dib felt the mildly distracting pain of the alien's claw-like fingers digging into his shoulder. He ignored it and laid into the panel again. And again. There was a creak as the metal sheet buckled slightly, the draft redoubling throughout the corridor. Sinking his teeth into his lower lip in concentration, Dib lashed out once more and was rewarded as the panel finally gave.

Zim stared at him while he was doing this - he could feel the alien's gaze like a prickling sensation on his skin. There was a mixture of awe and morbid fascination on the former Invader's face, as if he'd never seen Dib before in his life. There was a brief flutter of something that might have been fear, but the human didn't want to think about what might have brought that on - he barely even registered it, really.

The fingers of Dib's good hand slid into the newly created gap between the panels and he yanked at the dented metal. The loosened bolts slid free easily, accompanied by chunks of rotting wood that clung stubbornly to their tips. They hadn't even bothered to make sure the old wooden frame the panel was secured to was properly maintained. Behind the sheet of thin metal (Tin? Aluminum? Did it even matter?) the cracked and dry-rotted wood was visible. Some of it crumbled away as soon as the panel was removed - Dib pushed against the remainder and felt it fall to damp shards of sawdust against his palm. Behind the wood lay a gaping chasm of darkness stretching forward and downward, the only thing really visible was the top of a set of steps that descended into the abyss.

He stepped into the newly exposed exit, the shadows wrapping around his black clad form and drawing him into itself. The whisper of his own breathing was echoed throughout the dark passage, coming back to him like some distant ephemeral voice beckoning him onward. His boot-clad foot stepped down onto the first step, his movements cautious. Even through the thick soles, he could tell that the stone steps were slippery, and he didn't particularly want to lose his balance and plunge who knew how far down into the abandoned waterway.

The dampness was increasing with every forward step, he could smell it... the water was so heavy in the air that it was difficult to breathe. His skin was starting to feel rather clammy and there came a soft hiss that came from all around him. It took him a moment before he realised that the nervous sound was coming from Zim. "Water!" The Irken was starting to wriggle again, trying to slide at least part of his body beneath the thick fabric of the young man's trench coat, and Dib was forced to reassure him.

"It's fine, Zim." He tried to sound soothing, but there were so many other elements taking their toll on him that his voice came across as rather flat.

"It's fine for *you* earth stink!" Zim, on the other hand, had no need to be soothing - he was more likely trying to come across as intimidating and failing miserably. "Your filthy water burns and I don't have any paste!" The alien's squirming settled down rather quickly as Dib felt something warm and tacky ooze across his hand and heard Zim's muttered curses.

"Just trust me, Zim." His own voice was soft and level. He wrapped the fingers of his good hand around his injured wrist, despite the new flares of pain this action sent along his raw nerve endings. This formed a slightly more secure method of carrying the alien then just the crook of his arm. "I got this far, didn't I?"

He could feel the former Invader shifting in his grasp, and made out the faint outline of Zim's head and antennae - strangely enough a lighter shade of black in the darkness. The Irken's narrowed eyes gleamed, but he wasn't altogether sure if it was that Zim's eyes had a natural luminescence or if they just reflected what miniscule amounts of light were available. The slight quiver running through the small body pressed against him made it clear that the alien was far from reassured, but he didn't say anything further in protest.

It was just as well, Dib couldn't help but think, since trying to hold a conversation and navigate these stairs was a strenuous task in itself. ‘How long have we been going down anyway?’ For a moment he entertained the notion that maybe there wasn't a bottom at all, it was about then that his foot hit water.

It was only an inch deep, but he could feel slight splatters of wetness against the leg of his pants when his boot came down in it. Another downward step and he felt it surge around his limb, almost halfway up to his knee. ‘If the bottom is too much further, I won't be able to use this as an escape... Zim's hurt enough without adding water into the equation...’ A worried little whimper escaped the alien, as if he'd caught the thought. Dib could do little to reassure him - all he could do was press forward and hope for the best.

Water started to lap over the top of his boot, soaking his pants up past the knee. The wet material clung to his skin, and he grimaced a little at the sensation. As the water hit about mid-thigh on him, he could feel a slight change. His foot hit something other than solid stone, coming down on loose, shifting gravel. At last, they'd hit bottom.

Even unable to see anything, he got the impression of a huge open space, stretching above him and off into the distance on either side. He moved forward a short distance, wishing he could see in the dark, then came to realise that somehow he could. What?

No. There was a light source - he could see it just slightly beneath the water. It gave the entire chamber a hint of the faintest green light. He headed for the source, somewhere along the wall. Reaching it, he found a lit globe, almost like an old fashioned lantern. It was almost completely immersed, with only the very top emerging from the greenish liquid. He could see the metal and glass tops of others like it nearby, but this was the only one that was still working.

Carefully he shifted his hold on Zim, freeing up his good hand and reaching into the gently swirling water and pressed his fingers against the glass side. It was cool. An absentminded frown crossed his face as he lifted it. Droplets of water splashed across his sleeve, causing the alien he carried to cling more tightly to him. As he raised the light from the water, he could see the softly glowing orb inside.

He slid his hand into the glass casing and closed his fingers over the orb, causing Zim to squeak in alarm, perhaps even concern. The orb was just as cool to the touch as the glass was. "It's fine. It's not hot." It was a little too advanced a lighting system to be left sitting around in an old waterway, but he wasn't one to complain when things worked in his favour. "I think it only needed the glass so it wouldn't get wet. Can you hold it for me?" He held out the orb to the alien, who stared at it with a combination of fascination and suspicion.

Small green fingers brushed against his hand as Zim laid a wary hand on top of the orb. When nothing happened, the alien closed his digits around it, drawing it off of Dib's palm and holding it securely against his chest. Even partially blocked by the alien's body, the orb emitted enough light to make it possible to see his surroundings.

Dib headed to the left, going with the flow of the water. ‘Downstream probably means we're going deeper underground, but I don't think there's a choice. I can't fight the current very long.’ He was able to move more quickly with the assistance of the frigid water behind him, but he had to take special care with his footing now. Zim didn't need to be dipped, and he wasn't even sure if he would be able to get back to his feet as he felt the ever strengthening undercurrent tugging at him.

He kept going, feeling the rather unpleasant sensation of his legs beginning to go numb with the cold. ‘Tell me I'm not gonna die of something stupid like hypothermia...’ If he was shivering, he couldn't really tell - only the occasional darting glances from Zim made him wonder about it. The damp stone that made up the sides and roof of the passageway was covered over with moss and a few segments of struggling, sunlight deprived ivy. Something brushed by his leg in the water and he flinched, feeling it bump against him. Still, if there were actually alligators or killer goldfish to be found, none of them was obliging enough to make an appearance for the sake of one over-stressed former paranormal investigator.

It felt like he'd gone miles, but he doubted it was anything even close to that distance when he saw the first hints of change in the waterway. It was widening out further, the water level was dropping below his knees - then below his ankles. A short ways ahead of him, he could see the tunnel branching out. There were now three directions he could go, but it took him only the barest second before deciding on the rightmost tunnel. To his eyes, it looked like be the one with the most upward slope, and therefore the driest.

‘Not to mention that I don't think down is the right way to go from here...’

Up it was. The passageway here was narrower, lower - the roof of the tunnel only a few feet above his head as it started to slope more sharply upward. There was an unpleasant tingling sensation in his legs as the feeling started to come back, his muscles protesting the strenuous movement. Up, and the air was starting to become a little more breathable - purely on level of humidity and not relative odor. A short distance later, the walking area leveled out.

The surface - or something like it...

Dib was entering what looked like the remains of a gutted out building - what had once been a fairly large one. There was very little left now. He stepped onto a floor made of metal tiles welded together, frowning down at them curiously. "This looks sort of like..." His voice trailed off into puzzled silence.

"Like what?" Somehow he'd almost forgotten about the alien he carried. Zim was so abnormally quiet during their journey beneath the city that he was more like a ghost than a living being. The uncharacteristic quietness of his voice only lent to the disturbing impression.

The young man swallowed, shaking his head. "Nothing. It's stupid." But as he headed across the building towards where there had to be doors, it was becoming more and more clear to him that he did know this place. Knew it well. "...it's my dad's old lab." He looked around, still faintly disbelieving.

"You mean at your house?"

"No. That came later." Dib sped up his steps, moving with a bit more confidence now that he knew for certain where they were. "But it's close by." If only Gaz was serious and hadn't called the police... He broke into an actual run as soon as he pushed the exit doors open, hissing as the movement jarred his injured arm. ‘Doesn't matter.’ He was almost there. Overhead the clouds hung low and swollen, their rain-laden bottoms were illuminated by the street lamps, but the pale white light was not what guided his steps.

The house sat quietly, without the familiar car parked in front of it. The run, even over such a short distance, had sapped Dib's energy, and all he could hear from Zim was the pained, raspy breathing that occasionally broke the silence. "Almost there." He wasn't sure if his words were really audible, or if they'd been lost between one breath and the next.

He'd left the light on. It was the first thing to come to his mind when he headed up the front walk. The second was a wash of relief at not seeing police cars surrounding the house as he headed for the door. ‘It's ok. Things are working out.’ A bit of time to plan and he was certain he'd be able to come up with some better place to hide himself and his former mortal enemy. Reaching out with his good hand, he turned the knob, faintly surprised that he hadn't locked it when he'd left.

The relief lasted until a few moments later when he'd pulled the door shut behind him and headed for the stairs. He froze in his tracks, blinking, then slowly turned around and peered into the kitchen.

"Home already? I thought they had you on the late shift, Son." Dib could only gape upon seeing the figure sitting at the kitchen table, coffee cup in hand. It wasn't the same sort of surprise he'd felt upon seeing Gaz - that was a cold fear-filled sensation. This was just shock, pure and simple. "I see you've brought your little foreign friend over. Why don't the two of you come over here and have a seat. Coffee?" Dib took the cup in his good hand without even thinking about it. "Now, why don't you tell me what's been happening while I've been away?"

An intense urge to cry struck him without warning, and without explanation. One moment he was sitting there, staring across the table at a man he hadn't seen in years, and the next he was watching the cup of coffee blur in his vision and feeling a small green hand tugging at the collar of his coat.

"Is something wrong, Son?" The slight note of concern in Membrane's voice sounded genuine enough.

"Yeah, Dad..." He put the coffee cup on the table and curled his freed-up arm around Zim in a protective, if unconscious, gesture. "Everything's wrong..."

Chapter Text

*Chapter 7: Terminus*

-

It had all started with a boast. Looking back on the matter it was all too easy to pinpoint exactly where everything had begun. Mix two unstable chemical compounds in the laboratory and you will oftentimes get a violent explosive reaction. Mix two admittedly brilliant minds (which were perhaps quite unstable in their own ways) in the laboratory and you might get an explosion... or you might not.

In this case, it was an explosion, though nobody knew it. The reason they didn't notice it then - or for a long while, really - was because it was an explosion that was in the process of exploding very, very slowly... and the blast radius extended far into the future.

How could he have known?

Now, looking across the table at the unwitting result of that long ago day, Membrane was seeing something so completely unlike what he'd intended that he could scarcely fathom it. How could any combination of variables have produced this result?

It was safe to say that he'd never seen the boy this draggled before in his life. While he was sipping at his cup of coffee, he was also looking his erstwhile son over with an intense gaze that was thankfully masked by his dark goggles. He knew that he often came across to people as rather dense in matters not involving science, but there was little that could have been further from the truth. He had a cool and calculating mind and did his best not to be swayed by personal considerations - which gave the impression of a certain amount of aloofness on his part. It was that part of his mind that was calculating the visual information he was receiving, putting the pieces together to form a logical whole.

The last time he'd seen Dib - three years ago - the boy was nineteen, a skinny youth who was almost swallowed up by the white lab coat he'd taken to wearing. Now he was draped in black, the dark shade bringing out the paleness of his complexion and making the colours around him seem more vivid somehow. It was difficult not to notice the odd way he was holding his wrist, or the livid red marks on his neck. More obvious than even that was the exhaustion that radiated off of his too-skinny frame. By contrast, Zim was a splash of bright colour against his chest - all green skin and those huge reddish eyes that were faintly illuminated by some concealed light source. The both of them regarded Membrane with varying levels of suspicion.

He couldn't say he blamed them.

Nonetheless, he picked up the conversation with ease, "Everything?" His jovial tone belied his belief in that particular statement. "Isn't that something of an exaggeration, Son? It's scientifically impossible for everything to be wrong."

The nearly imperceptible flinch at the mention of the "s" word did not escape his notice, and he chuckled good humouredly instead of sighing. Dib's grip on the alien tightened a moment as his skinny body tensed. "It feels that way though." His words were stiff, his posture equally so. The look he gave Membrane was quietly measuring, as if he could bore his way through the man's skull and see what he was thinking. There was no fear of that. Membrane's emotions were well obscured through years of practice, something that only someone who spent an impossible amount of time around him might be able to see through.

Dib obviously realised this, because he kept that stare on his father for only a moment or two longer before he dropped his gaze back to his untouched coffee cup. It was little more than the reaction the scientist was expecting from the young man, really. Whatever initiative - whatever had driven him as far as this point, appeared to have dried up and blown away.

 

That in itself was both a disappointment and a relief, each in its own way. Carefully putting down his own half-full cup, the professor steepled his fingers on the table. At the moment he was slightly more intrigued by the alien his son carried. Zim looked nearly the same as he had when Membrane had last seen him sitting across the table. Devoid of any trappings to mimic humanity, the alien features were stark and obvious. But hadn't they always been?

He wasn't quite the unobservant fool his son had probably taken him for, growing up. It wasn't quite a lie, was it? Not telling everything that was true. A little omission here and there for the sake of the greater good of all humanity - surely he deserved praise and not that expression of disbelieving exasperation that so often greeted his attempts at being fatherly.

To him, it was a simple choice. Science was a proven field, well established and with all the proper channels already staked out and worn smooth through long years of breakthroughs and discovery. A scientist would always be respected, provided for financially. A future as a scientist was a future following the safe paths he'd already hewn in the chaotic wilderness that was today's world. A scientist could be the much needed and anticipated heir to the entire Membrane Empire.

Now, paranormal science... that was a different kettle of fish entirely...

So, aliens were real; Bigfoot was real. Those were never things that he doubted after the proper evidence was displayed. He could admit it when a theory was disproved, because a real scientist needed to be able to accept the facts and re-evaluate them if he was to accomplish anything further. A true scientist should have no room for an ego.

But he hadn't done it for himself, really. Membrane rested one hand on the table, the fingers of the other hand wrapping around the coffee cup nonchalantly. He'd wondered why his son had never been able to fathom it - long days of research shut away in a lab were a far cry from sneaking around someone's house with night vision goggles and a video camera. That sort of thing would ruin a person. A lifetime of scientific progress that would be killed before it could even take its first tentative breaths.

What else could he do?

"I'm sure things can't be as bad as they seem, son." Membrane tapped his index finger against the ceramic cup. He was doing it again, he realised, but didn't know what other means he could use. His tone was placating - giving way a little. A thin salve of meager compromise laid over stinging wounds that were newly torn open was the only thing he could offer.

They weren't the right words. Dib slumped a little in his chair, still mostly curled around the alien whose arrival had succeeded at pulling him completely away from that pre-planned future - the carefully laid path that Membrane was easing him toward. It was a pity that it was so difficult to feel resentment toward anything that wretched. Zim cried out to be pitied - but the professor would not fall into that trap at least. Dib, on the other hand, had already been pulled completely into it - or maybe he'd jumped. The boy had always been rather reckless.

"Yeah, they can, Dad." It took the boy a moment to actually answer; his head was still lowered which obscured his expression from Membrane's gaze. His voice was rather devoid of any real emotion though. "But you wouldn't know what that's like, would you? Nothing ever goes wrong for you." A soft chuckle told him all he needed to know - the young man was far from nonchalant.

Nothing ever went wrong? That wasn't accurate. The fact that Dib was sitting across from him and harboring a fugitive from the government was indicator enough. This had never been in any of his plans.

"But you can't just be here for coffee," Dib continued, blissfully unaware of his father's thoughts. "They talked about you... at the lab, I mean." He paused for a moment, then slowly raised his head to meet Membrane's gaze. The look in Dib's amber eyes was barely short of accusing. "You knew Zim was there, didn't you, Dad? You knew he was an alien, and whatever it is they've got going on there... you knew that too, didn't you?"

Membrane remained silent for a moment, gauging his son's reaction. He didn't miss the fact that the alien in question was staring at him as well, eyes narrowed into thin slits. Honesty might not have been the best policy now, but perhaps it was the only acceptable one. "I did know."

Both of them stiffened as he spoke, Dib's back going as straight as if he'd had a metal rod shoved through his spine. One of the alien's antenna shot straight up, held the position for a heartbeat, then flattened back against his green head. Their expressions... they were astonishingly similar. Dib's lips were drawn back in what might have been disgust - or just distaste. Zim was actively snarling, baring those uneven, vicious looking teeth in the manner of a scared cat. Both of their gazes were fixed on Membrane, both wary and hurting.

"You..." Dib bit his words back with obvious effort, shifting slightly in his seat. Membrane could see where his fingers were clenched tightly enough that they were digging into the alien's skin. A soft hiss from the former menace was enough to make him loosen his grip again, a consideration that surprised the scientist. Dib had never been known for his awareness of others’ emotions - or for caring about them, for that matter.

‘You're different.’ Membrane picked up his coffee cup, using the motion to cover the slight trembling in his hands. ‘How is that possible? All the calculations...’ He took a sip - the coffee was lukewarm, rather unpleasant now actually, but a distraction nonetheless.

The boy wasn't giving him a pause though, as whatever he'd wanted to say was finally clawing its way out of his throat. "Why are you doing this, Dad? What do you want from me? This is just like the thing with Gaz, isn't it?"

The thing with Gaz? Membrane felt an uncomfortable prickling sensation in his stomach at the mention of his daughter. Had she returned already? Obviously so, from the expression on Dib's face. He frowned a little, the expression masked by the collar of his lab coat. "What do you mean, Son?"

The boy shifted, the alien did as well, peering from Membrane to Dib with confusion on his face. "You didn't come here for coffee and a chat... but if it was Zim you wanted-" His voice choked off for a moment, and he continued hoarsely, "If it was Zim you wanted, then you've got him. This was supposed to be safe..." He actually glared then, making no effort to hide it. "Things were supposed to work out. I tried so damn hard and...and here you are." He curled in on himself like a wounded spider, his black clad body blocking the alien from Membrane's view completely for a moment.

Emotions were hard to deal with - which was all the more reason for the scientist to avoid dealing with outbursts like this - but there was something in him that wouldn't let him be easy about just leaving the matter be. The cup came down solidly on the table and was immediately forgotten as he reached out a gloved hand to touch his son's shoulder.

A sharp hiss arrested his movement before he could actually touch the young man. He glanced down, noticing the bright magenta eyes glaring out at him from the slight gap formed between Dib's curled arms. Membrane's gaze locked with the alien's for a moment, and the inhuman orbs narrowed. A soft noise, almost a growl emerged, and Membrane lowered his hand back to the tabletop. "Yes. Here I am."

Dib raised his head slightly again, allowing the scientist a slight view of his amber eyes, magnified by the thick lenses of his glasses. Eye colour notwithstanding, the young man did bear a remarkable resemblance to him. ‘But that's not surprising, not really...’ "Are you going to call the police?" His voice was so soft, it was barely audible.

He was silent for a long moment. He didn't have to think about what he was going to answer, because he already knew. His mind was traveling a different track entirely as he took in the dichotomy of something so familiar that was at the same time, so very foreign. Nothing like he'd expected... nothing at all...

 

* * *

The laboratory was remarkably quiet - probably because most of the personnel preferred to work the day shift. It wasn't that the young scientist was a night person - nothing like that. He was simply compelled to work at whatever project he'd set for himself until it was done. Who had time for things like sleep?

His work area was small, but meticulously arranged to maximise space - he'd even forgone a large desk lamp for a smaller version of his own that generated light without heat. Perhaps he also displayed it so prominently because he hoped that it would catch the attention of the occasional patron who was allowed on the premises - so far it hadn't. Not that this was a major point of contention, he had so many other, more involved things to focus his attention on.

"Still hard at work, eh, Membrane?" The voice tore the young scientist's concentration from his calculations, and he raised his head from the sheet of paper to glance around at the speaker. Around and up - since Collins was so tall. The red-haired man grinned at him lopsidedly, good humor glinting in his eyes, but Membrane knew that his fellow scientist wasn't speaking completely in jest. They were colleagues, true, but also rivals. He was just grateful that it had proved to be a friendly competition - for some in their field it was rather cutthroat.

"As always," He replied smoothly, straightening up from his work and stretching. "These ground-breaking experiments don't make themselves, you know." His words were meant to be humorous, light, but they were still quite serious.

Collins laughed at these words, "Keep that up and soon they'll be calling you 'savior of mankind' or something. You don't want that label, believe me." Collins peered past the black haired man at the paper he'd been scribbling on, glancing over the calculations. "Those are some interesting numbers, Membrane..." A frown flitted across his face, a hint of uncertainty that the young scientist caught immediately.

"Is something wrong, Collins?" Membrane inquired, feeling a hint of puzzlement. It wasn't like the man to behave in such a manner - this was something that he hadn't anticipated. "Are my calculations off?" He didn't think they were, and he had enough faith in his work that he hadn't bothered to check them. The thought of doing something wrong - of being caught at it, more than that - was abhorrent. ‘Of course they're right. They have to be right.’

Slowly, the other man shook his head. "Not that I can see..." He paused again then turned his piercing gaze on the younger scientist, "Why do you have a map of the human genome? Just what exactly are you working on here, Membrane?" He had a look on his face like he wanted to say something more, but whatever it was, he swallowed the words back with a slight shake of his head.

Oh. That...

Membrane met his co-worker's gaze, wishing it was easier to gauge the man. Unfortunately it appeared one of the requirements for being a scientist was the ability to conceal any and all emotions and reactions from the normal humans in the area. He hadn't quite perfected the trick himself, but he wished he had right about now. When he responded, he tried to keep his words flippant, but it didn't seem to work as well as he'd hoped. "I'm just exploring the latent possibilities in the human brain. There's so much wasted potential! Surely it can be unlocked somehow!" He realised that might have been a bit too revealing, and hastily added, "Of course, it's just theoretical."

"Right." Collins reached out and picked up the paper in one gloved hand, turning it over and examining the back for a long moment. When he spoke again, his voice was low, quiet. Membrane had to strain a little to hear him. "You've still got a lot to learn in this business, don't you Membrane? You're a good scientist - maybe the best I've seen here in a long time - but you're thinking like a mundane." He tapped the paper, "It wouldn't work. The theory is promising, but this... what you've got here is not going to work."

He'd been expecting the other scientist to say something regarding ethics - the fact that research on humans was still strictly taboo - not an invalidation of his theories. He bristled a little, inwardly, but remained cool on the outside. "Why not?"

Collins wasn't buying it. "Don't get your hackles up. This is good, head and shoulders above anything I've seen coming out of here in years. But it's still flawed. It would be unstable, don't you see? It might work, but sooner or later things would start to crop up - problems." He handed the paper back to Membrane, still frowning. "It wouldn't work... even if it did, it wouldn't last. Mess with a real person like this and they probably wouldn't last more than a year or two."

"Not a grown person," Membrane interjected stiffly.

"Even a child!" Collins shot back, a bit heated. "It wouldn't work, I tell you!"

The two of them stood there for a moment, glaring at each other, then Membrane averted his gaze. "Not a child either..." He sighed, shook his head. "An embryo, Collins. It would have to be done on an early stage fetus. My calculations indicate that age would produce the greatest likelihood of success. Nearly 100 percent."

The other man's eyes widened, "Gods, Membrane... An embryo? What sort of twisted mind could come up with such a notion?"

This was it, surely. He was about to find himself facing some sort of action for even considering experimentation on that theoretical embryo. This could mean the end of his entire scientific career before it had even begun...

The other scientist's words were nothing like what he'd been expecting, "That's ingenious! Still a poor likelihood of success, but ingenious nonetheless!" Collins was grinning like a little kid in a candy shop, like he'd just been given some sort of gift. There wasn't even the slightest hint of condemnation in his tone or expression.

Still... "My calculations indicate a very good chance of success," He replied stiffly, "98.9777 percent, actually."

Collins shook his head. "You'd never have that high a chance of success, ingenious idea or not. Maybe 30 percent...MAYBE."

"I can guarantee it will work within the first three attempts."

There it was... the boast that would change the course of his life to something wholly different than the path he was on now. He had a sense of its importance, but it was so fleeting, he never could quite pinpoint it. The two of them stared at each other, their gazes locked. A silent challenge was issued and accepted within those few brief moments.

The red-head smiled a little, the expression barely short of being a smirk. "Well then, I'm looking forward to seeing you back up those words. Within the first three attempts."

Membrane paused uncertainly, "The government would never approve funding for a project involving human embryos..."

"Why tell them what you need the funding for? I'll tell you a secret, Membrane. The government isn't really in charge of what we do - they don't know, nor do they care as long as we produce some result. Politicians are stupid." Collins smirked a little.

"That's true..." The young scientist mused.

"Just get the materials on your own instead of going through the government channels and there should be no problem." The taller man shrugged. "Shouldn't be that difficult."

"You're right..." Membrane nodded, feeling a bit more enthusiastic without the specter of scientific disgrace hanging over his head. "I'm sure it will be no problem at all."

 

* * *

No problem at all... indeed...

"No." Membrane said, his tone distant, musing. "I'm not going to call the police." They would probably be on their way even without him having to do anything. It wasn't like there were many places for the boy to go. Capture was inevitable, and if he was to go by what his son had said, Gaz was involved somehow. Knowing his daughter as he did, he couldn't envy Dib's rather precarious position.

Membrane regarded his son quietly for a moment, calculating the numbers in his head. So many variables - so many things that weren't accounted for, or even anticipated. The options were few - he could play it safe if he wished, let things play out as they would have if he hadn't gotten himself involved in any of it. ‘Isn't it a bit late for that, though?’ How unfortunately true. He'd done more than enough meddling around, and there was no denying that. If not for him, there wouldn't even be these two at-odds siblings.

But did that mean he had to take sides now?

‘I knew this day would come.’ The man sighed, not bothering to try and conceal it. It wasn't like he hadn't kept his finger in the pot, stirring things up occasionally, even in all the time he'd been gone. Logic had dictated a course of action and he'd followed it, now it was being distinctly unhelpful. It was time to come down off the fence.

"I didn't come here for your friend, Son," Membrane said, letting out an amused chuckle. "I came here to meet with some very important individuals about a project I've been working on for the last few years. They'll be arriving shortly, so perhaps you and your little foreign friend should run along and visit somewhere else."

He could easily anticipate what Dib was about to say - the indignation was evident in every inch of the young man's body. "This isn't a game, Dad. Don't you get it? There's nowhere else to go!"

‘My poor insane son...’ Membrane sighed to himself, knowing better, wishing he didn't. "Why not go to your friend's house?" He prodded, a little urgently, knowing Dib would want to speak and hoping he would be wise enough not to waste time by doing so.

"My friend's house! Dad, he's an ALIEN! His house is his secret alien ba-" Dib cut himself off, mid-word, his eyes wide. "W..wait... you mean they didn't - that they haven't...?" He got to his feet rapidly, knocking over the chair he'd been sitting in. Membrane could see the boy's wince as the motion jostled his injured arm and lowered his gaze briefly to his coffee cup. When he glanced back up, the pain was gone from Dib's expression, replaced by a frighteningly intense resolve. Intense, frightening and bewilderingly familiar. If he'd looked at himself in a mirror during his younger days, he would have seen that exact same look. "I gotta go, Dad." Dib paused for a moment after saying those words, expectant, and the scientist realised he was waiting for something.

‘Permission?’ No... Membrane knew that Dib would do whatever he thought best now; there was no need for permission from him any longer. ‘Approval, perhaps...’ Something he'd never been entirely comfortable giving, but there were likely to be no other opportunities. Whether Dib succeeded or failed, there would be little chance of them having a moment like this again. "Have fun, Son."

The boy paused, looking at him. Emotions flitted across his face, and then he closed his eyes and nodded a little. A hint of a smile touched his lips. ‘He understands... good.’ "Thanks, Dad..."

"You're welcome." Some of the jovial tone he was using was actually real - or maybe it was just relief. Either way, he got to his feet, stretching and heading over to the counter to pour himself another cup of coffee. When he turned back, the boy was gone - he could hear the faint sound of the front door being closed rapidly. Membrane took a sip of the lukewarm coffee, leaning against the counter.

A little while longer and he'd be able to hear the sirens. 'My son? No, I haven't seen him. I'm sure he'll be back sooner or later though. In the meantime, would you like some toast, officer?' Yes, that was what he'd say...

 

*

Zim's base... how could he have not thought of that? Dib mentally smacked himself upside the head - it should have been the first idea in his mind. Except that he'd assumed without question that the government had found Zim's base when they'd captured Zim. But there had never been any mention of it whatsoever. ‘Zim was looking for me, he wasn't at his base when they captured him. I doubt they got the location from him, so it should be safe. There's bound to be something there that will help us.’ He was running now, almost full tilt with Zim bumping his chest with every motion. He knew the way by heart, even without the occasional growled direction from the alien he held.

"I know where I'm going," He panted breathlessly down to the perturbed Irken, "I know your base almost as well as I know my own house." Too many years of infiltrating and spying would undoubtedly come in handy now. Of course, with Zim in tow, he doubted very much that he'd need to try and sneak in. A few words from the former Invader and the security systems would be no problem whatsoever. "Do you have to be inside to turn off the gnomes?"

"Of course not, earth stink," The weary alien growled, but there was no real bite to his words. "As long as the computer can hear the order, it will obey Zim. And the sensory systems are far better than anything your puny species could come up with." Dib got the feeling this would have been shouted, if the Irken had the energy; as it was, it was nearly muffled against the fabric of his coat.

"That's one thing gone right, at least..." Dib muttered to himself, then immediately regretted it. Overconfidence, even to a very slight degree was not going to help in this situation. If nothing else, every time he'd thought things were finally working to his advantage, something cropped up that messed everything up again. It was too long since anything had gone wrong - it made him on-edge. Something would happen, and he wasn't sure yet just what it would be. ‘I'll just have to keep my eyes open and not relax my guard...’ That might prove easier said than done; his head was already swimming a little with the exertion - only the adrenaline rush caused by all the activity was keeping him on his feet.

Luckily, Zim's house was not far from his own - although it felt a lot farther now than he ever recalled it being in his youth. ‘I'm getting old...’ Then the mental urge to smack himself for thinking anything of the sort was so overwhelming that if his hands hadn't been full, he probably would have done so. Old? He was only twenty-two! Older than he used to be certainly, but wasn't that the nature of being human - Growing up? Changing. Finding out more about where you needed to be and what you were meant to be doing...

The familiar green house came into his view and there were no police cars around it, nothing at all to indicate that the base was discovered. It looked just the way he remembered it in his mind's eye, with the gnomes, the flamingos, even the "I love Earth" sign that had always looked so blatantly alien. It had never been such a welcome sight before.

Dib skidded to a halt outside the fence, glancing over his shoulder at one of the other houses where an old, legless man was sitting on the lawn and sipping at a drink. The man didn't seem to find the sight of a flustered youth who was barely maintaining consciousness to be particularly worrisome, or if he did, he didn't give any sign of it. His gaze flitted over them, his eyes briefly meeting the young man's before flitting down to the undisguised alien. He grunted a little and raised his glass, almost like a salute.

‘Um... ok...’ At least the man wouldn't be able to go into his house and call the cops very easily with his legs missing and no wheelchair - and he hadn't started to scream or point fingers or anything at the sight of an alien. Dib awkwardly shifted Zim's weight to the crook of his injured arm and waved back, feeling a bit foolish. The alien he was carrying stared at him while he performed this maneuver.

"What are you *doing*, Dib-stink?" The Irken demanded, an incredulous expression on his face - it was easy to see with the combined lighting of the street lamps and the glowing orb that Zim still clutched to his chest. The young man wasn't sure what to say, so he stopped waving and cleared his throat.

"Nothing. Um... yeah." He tilted his head towards the yard and the lawn gnomes that sat there, their placidness deceptive. "So tell them to turn off or... whatever. I don't need them blasting me when I'm trying to get to the door." He wasn't sure he could have avoided them very easily now that he was so much taller and besides, trying to carry Zim and dodge lasers wasn't exactly the wisest course of action. Not if they could avoid it with a simple command to stand down.

"You dare command ZIM?" The alien growled, but Dib wasn't particularly worried by this display of indignant anger. At this juncture, the former Invader was likely more bark than bite - although the soreness of his neck reminded him that Zim was far from being completely helpless, even now.

"Actually... yeah. I do." His voice was smooth and bland as he uttered the words, and as expected, the alien took them in stride, settling down almost immediately.

"Oh, ok." The affront was already forgotten.

Zim turned his gaze to the house and the minefield of a yard, "Computer! Deactivate the gnooomes!" There was a pause. A long pause. In fact, it seemed that there was going to be no answer at all. The Irken blinked, his magenta eyes wide. His dumbfounded expression was rather priceless, even given the severity of their current situation. "Computer! Listen to ZIM!"

Finally a voice emerged, weary and rather sullen. "Whaaaaat?"

The alien gritted his teeth, not from the pain this time either - Dib could recognise that look anywhere. It was the expression he got when he was dealing with idiots who absolutely *could not* see the most obvious things. An expression of absolute and utter frustration to the point of disgust. Yes, he knew it; he could even sympathise, a little. Except that this was a computer and not an apparently brain dead classmate of his. ‘But is it really so different?’

He felt Zim shifting in his grasp, a low growl vibrating against his chest as the alien addressed the computer. "You dare speak to your master that way? I am ZIM!"

"... Are you sure?" The mechanical voice droned, with the tone of someone who is merely humoring an apparent lunatic. The 'yeah sure, now go away and leave me alone' voice that Dib had heard so many times before in his life.

"Of course I'm sure!" The alien did not find this amusing at all - Dib might have, if the situation were something less vital. Imagine Zim being thwarted by his own technology; it should have been utterly laughable. He wasn't laughing now. "Run a voice analysis to verify that I am Zim!"

The computer paused, processing this command for a long moment. Both human and alien waited with varying degrees of impatience and paranoia, but at last the computer responded positively, "Voiceprint confirmed. Subject is Zim." With a sigh of relief, Dib took a step forward, anticipating no trouble. But the gnomes didn't just sit there docile and let him pass - no, they all turned to fix their glowing laser eyes on the young human. He froze in his tracks immediately and the gnomes stopped moving, although their glittering red eyes were still fixed unwaveringly on him.

He didn't dare look down, but he could feel the alien in his arms trembling with indignation, even before Zim spoke. His voice was still quieter than it used to be, still shaky from that time in the lab - maybe even a little hoarse - but definitely Zim. Anger was obviously giving him the energy to protest this apparent lack of obedience from his mechanical underlings. "Computer, what is the meaning of this! I told you to deactivate the security system!" Dib was more than a little puzzled about this himself, considering that Zim's based usually obeyed even the stupidest of orders from the Invader. Then again, it was six years ago, maybe the base computer had developed a malfunction or something in all that time.

Whatever the case, it was unimpressed by Zim's yelling. Dib could almost hear the shrug in the computer's voice. "Previous orders are contradicting present ones. Sorry." It didn't sound particularly sorry though... it sounded almost smug, actually.

Previous orders? Just what had the alien ordered it to do, exactly? What could be making it balk now? Dib frowned, then spoke in a low tone to Zim. "What does it mean by 'previous orders', Zim?" He was becoming increasingly aware of how uncomfortable this was, his balance was way off and his body ached all over - each individual hurt was vying to make itself known, all screaming out "Here we are, Dib! Don't forget about us!" He needed to sit down... hell, he needed medical attention, not to get a worse headache by listening to an inane argument between an alien and his computer.

"Silence, foolish Earth stink! Do not question the ways of the Irken Elite!" That said, he rounded on the computer. "Previous orders! What does that mean!"

Dib couldn't help rolling his eyes a little at this bit of hypocrisy, but he said nothing. The computer was already speaking again anyway, although its words did nothing to reassure the two who were essentially at its mercy. "Your command was to take the security system down for no one." What, a misinterpreted order? That was *it*? But Zim was supposed to be in charge here right? Wouldn't that have made him exempt from any number of stupidly worded commands?

Zim caught on at the same time as Dib did, but he was more vocal in his reaction to this bit of nonsense. "What? I didn't mean *me* you stupid machine! I am your master! Obey your master!"

Was it just his imagination or did the computer seem angry at these insulting words? At the very least it was sullen, showing a remarkable amount of emotion for a machine. But having known GIR, he didn't have to stretch his imagination too far to believe that a computer could have something like feelings. "You gave the order... master."

"Do not back talk to ZIM!" The former Invader hissed, ignoring Dib's warning cough and continuing his tirade, "When I get back inside the base, I'm going to install a new control brain! One that won't talk back!"

The computer said nothing, but the lasers on the gnomes powered down. Dib looked at them, rather astonished, but he started to walk forward again, heading for the door. It appeared that Zim's threat had worked. He was halfway down the front walk when the computer piped up again, the voice holding a definite note of anger this time. "I warned you that it was a bad idea, master. This whole mission has been nothing but bad ideas. But you never listened when I suggested it, only ignored everything we said. We wonder if you were really the right person for this mission..."

‘We? What does it mean, 'we'?’ Dib froze for only as long as it took him to understand what the machine was saying, feeling his skin prickling with that danger sense again. He didn't plan to ignore it this time. His muscles tensed and he launched himself towards the closed door with the men's room sign on it, not waiting for the computer to conclude what it was saying.

"Hey!" Zim yelped in shock, his fingers clutching wildly at Dib, tearing through the fabric of the coat and digging into soft flesh. He'd drawn blood again - the human could feel it trickling along the inside of his good arm - but it was of little consequence. He shifted Zim back to the crook of his injured arm and hoped that the alien would hold on tightly enough to not be dislodged. His good hand lashed out, closing over the doorknob.

"I wasn't done yet," The computer intoned, and Dib heard the frightening sound of lasers powering up. He dared a glance over his shoulder as he jerked the door open, noticing the gnomes advancing, their eyes gleaming like melting rubies. Somehow there were more of them than there were before - advancing on the supposed 'intruders'. "Don't make me bring out the gopher."

"But it's my gopher!" The Irken protested, the severity of their situation apparently having gone completely over his head. "Mine! Not yours! MINE!"

"Forget the gopher, Zim!" Dib slipped into the house and slammed the door shut behind them. It didn't seem to be much of a deterrent, as a laser cut through the upper part of the wooden door like a hot knife cutting through butter. "We've got more important things to worry about!" He wasn't going to delude himself into thinking that they were safe just because they were inside the house - the computer was the house, after all.

‘Maybe we can turn off the computer from the main control area...’ Which would probably be down in the base itself, he thought quickly, ‘So we'll need to get to the lift.’ It was fortunate that there were so many of them. Dib headed for the fridge, not wanting to attempt the toilet entrance or the trash can. ‘I don't think I'd even fit in those anymore...’ He drew up short at the edge of the living room as one of the roboparents emerged from nowhere. It was lingering in the shadows in the corner, unmoving, and Dib hadn't seen it at all.

"Welcome home, son!"

It was the Robodad, and it was in pretty bad repair - worse than even its normal pathetic state. Sparks were fizzing from its joints, and its head was crooked, but it was still standing. There was no sign of the Robomom anywhere though. Dib wasn't sure whether to be grateful or just more suspicious. He backed up a step as it advanced shakily. "Did you have a good day at skool, son?" It stopped a short distance from them, its entire tone somehow quizzical. He would have thought it was actually waiting for a response.

"Say something, Zim," He urged quietly, hoping the robot wouldn't suddenly become violent.

The alien was at a loss for words for a moment, either that or he didn't understand what Dib was asking. He was a lot quieter now, and that in itself was rather worrisome. "Umm... I had a... a... not so good day."

"That's too bad, son," The Robodad replied, its voice raspy but not unkind. "But at least you've got a friend to help cheer you up. And us, of course." The robot wore a pitiful mockery of a smile, "We sure are proud of our little boy..."

Dib felt more than a little creeped out by this exchange - especially knowing that the robot was hooked into the computer. The computer had attacked them only moments ago, so this sudden quiet had him suspicious. "Y...yeah. We're good friends. Um..." He looked down at Zim, who was breathing unsteadily again. A surge of fear ran through him - the knowledge that only a short while ago he'd been convinced that the alien was going to die. The displays of energy he'd shown were reassuring, but the memory of Zim in that room would not let him believe so easily in the possibility that the alien would be fine. "We need to get to the base - he's... he's not feeling well."

The robot blinked, looking at Dib, then at Zim. If it was going to go psycho and attack them like the main computer had done with the gnomes outside, now would have been the ideal time. His brain refused to register it for a moment when the robot merely rolled its way over to the couch, which lifted up obligingly. One of the lifts! And more than big enough for the both of them. He headed toward it, was nearly there when the computer's voice blared again.

"Intruders in the base! Stop them!"

The young man's gaze darted immediately to the robot, expecting it to attack, but it only gestured at the lift again, looking rather lost. It appeared almost sad, somehow, and Dib wondered for a brief moment just what had happened to the other robot. ‘I'm probably just imagining that it could really be aware of anything, but I can almost feel sorry for the thing...’

To his surprise, he heard Zim's voice again, definitely weak now. Those earlier surges of anger had taken their toll, and Dib wished that he'd known enough to quiet the alien instead of letting him be his normal Zim-like self. ‘If he dies, all of this will be for nothing...’ The thought filled him with that familiar anguish, even as the alien tried once again to command his wayward technology.

"Computer! Listen to Zim!" A rasping cough interrupted these bold words momentarily, "You used to listen to me! Don't you remember!"

"Yes." The computer intoned gravely, and Dib knew immediately that Zim's appeal had no chance of working. "We have no idea why we were so stupid." The walls trembled, the floor beneath his feet bucking as he staggered towards the lift. The Robodad had an equally hard time with the movement, its hard metal body careening into Dib's side and rebounding off. The young man hissed in pain, knowing that it would leave a bruise. ‘Well, it'll leave a bruise if we manage to get out of here intact anyway.’ The lift was still their best option, and he reoriented himself and approached it.

Tentacles - or were they spiderlegs like the ones in Zim's pak? - were emerging from the flexing walls, reaching out towards the human. They didn't have to grab, as he'd originally thought they would, instead they were more intent on simply impaling him. Of course, that would have gotten rid of him just as easily, so why would it bother trying to grab him. There was no time to dodge aside, barely even time to think about moving. And something slammed into him again, knocking him to the floor this time. He landed on his back, his head bumping the wall behind the couch and sending a bright flare across his vision.

He barely saw what had hit him, as the lift started to whirr and descend. Something metallic struck the side of the lift and skidded over to his feet, bumping against his ankle. It was the Robodad. Well, the head anyway. He could only conclude that it had bumped into him again, knocking him out of the way. Its guidance and motion systems must have been shot - that could be the only conclusion. While the computer continued to rage overhead, the robot head was nearly serene, a state that Dib couldn't help but envy after all the mess and uncertainty.

"You ok, Zim?" He asked, his voice barely above a whisper. Why he bothered to try and keep it quiet, he didn't know. Surely the machine could hear them - it was everywhere now. The strange greenish lighting was reflecting off of his glasses and his skin, making him look almost the same shade as the alien he carried.

"That's a stupid question..." The former Invader spoke weakly, sounding pained, and Dib could sympathise. He wasn't feeling too hot either. And the base that was supposed to be their retreat was turning out to be something far less appealing.

‘It'll be our graves if we can't get the computer shut off...’ He tried to wipe the dismal thought from his mind and found that he couldn't. Tremors ran through his limbs, fear and pain and the aftershock of the whole ordeal. He was exhausted and still there was no opportunity for rest. ‘Will it never end?’

[It's almost over now...] His thoughts whispered back, somehow alien to him. Right now he was almost alien to himself, it seemed.

‘I'm losing it, aren't I?’

[It's ok... let it go...]

His eyes tried to slip shut as they continued their descent, his body trying to drag him into sleep. Only the sudden jerk of the lift slowing snapped him back to attention - that frightened animal state that was uncomfortably familiar. "Zim... you can turn it off from down here, right? The computer?" When silence was the only answer, his heart jumped in his chest, "Zim!"

"...yeah..." The alien was heavy now, a solid weight against him as he tried to get to his feet. Tried once, twice, managed it the third time to stagger out into the main area of the base. That dim lighting pervaded throughout, the computer itself buzzing like an angry bee. There was a control panel almost directly ahead, and he forced his body towards it - his limbs were like dead weights, or maybe more like just dead, he couldn't really feel them at all. They might have belonged to someone else because he couldn't feel them touch the floor. It was a sensation like floating - or like flight - and it made everything seem rather surreal.

It took him centuries to reach the panel, eons, or maybe it was only a few brief seconds. In either case, his hand touched it, the computer shouted out at him again, something he couldn't understand. He couldn't even understand his own voice, but he knew that he was asking Zim something, that Zim was responding in some garbled whine that pierced his skull. Yelling about something. Watch out, maybe.

He turned his head, felt the world spin around him with the motion, a slow, sickening twist. He was watching, all right... he saw exactly what was happening.

But he couldn't have avoided it if he'd tried...

Oddly enough, the only sensation he felt was heat, heat flaring across his chest, spreading along to his limbs. It was almost pleasant for half a heartbeat. Then his shoulder hit the control panel and the pain hit a second later, tearing over his nerve endings like molten lava. A sound reached his ears and it was his own voice, then Zim's voice shouting - suddenly more energetic than back in the lift. A small body clambered over him, almost climbing him as he sank to a sitting position against the controls.

That blaring voice again, then again, slower... like a music box winding down until it stopped. The burning didn't stop though, even as the lights flickered again, went out and left only a pale glow to illuminate the figure leaning over him.

‘...hurts...’

Stringing together anything more coherent than that thought was beyond his capacity, and he shut his eyes, drawing in a breath that hurt more than anything he could ever recall before. A familiar voice speaking to him again, then something slammed into his chest and drove the rest of the world away. It was all dark. And somehow it didn't hurt anymore. On the verge of everything, a single thought lingered

‘I must be dead...’

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

*Chapter Eight: Redivivus*

-

It all happened in something of a blur, really. Zim thought he should have been used to that by now. This entire situation was laughable! Imagine the Dib deciding to rescue him - HIM, a member of the Irken Elite! Why would he possibly have needed help? And from this human, of all humans! Had the situation not been so serious, Zim would have laughed. As much as Zim detested these Earth creatures as an inferior species, their methods of containing him were more than adequate. Their attempts to dissect him alive were as calculated and impersonal as anything the control brains could ever have devised. Worst of all, these humans didn’t care - Zim was no more than a piece of meat to be sliced open and examined.

He never thought he’d find himself wishing that Dib had captured him. But the time spent in the laboratory quickly convinced him otherwise. As much as he hated the human and wanted to destroy him, there was still no denying the fact that his attention was...well, almost flattering in a twisted kind of way. Obviously the Dib human had good taste for an inferior dirt-child, choosing to obsess over the pursuit of Zim had proven that much, at least. At some point in all the chasing and fighting things became entirely too personal. "Destroy the humans" somehow became "Destroy the human" and that was about the time Zim’s mission was thrown heedlessly into the back closet and pretty much forgotten. One thing was certain - had the Dib captured him it would have been an unpleasant experience, but it still would have been infinitely better. Those scientists wanted him because he was an alien, something new for them to study - Dib had wanted to capture him because he was Zim.

His life in the lab was very consistent- days of being allowed to heal which were interspersed with long "study sessions" where they put him through a barrage of tests. It was never enough to kill him, they’d been very careful of that much, but that had hardly been doing him any favours. Death would be preferable. Oh, not to the pain - that was more an inconvenience than anything. It was the humiliation that Zim couldn’t tolerate. Being put on display for the whims of those filthy scientists! It was not an end worthy of an Invader.

Time passed with no hope of any escape or reprieve from the humans and their examinations. Zim was very close to finally giving up hope of his situation improving. He hadn’t been certain his logic centers were still functioning when he caught that first fuzzy glimpse of the human outside his containment chamber. He’d been aware for so brief a time, after all. If he were capable of such a thing, he would have thought it was a dream. His second awakening in the hallway was both painful and faintly surreal and the first thought was that it was some further torment - some test of his reactions by these damned earth-beasts. It should have faded as soon as he got his claws on it and it hadn’t.

It was Dib. That was the most extraordinary thing of it all. Why the human would have come for him - even claiming to want to try and help him... He was skeptical of that part, but it hadn’t mattered. Going with the Dib-human was more tolerable than staying. The trip through the waterway was vague in his memory – he was swimming in and out of consciousness during much of that time with his pak working to repair the open wounds. For the most part, it had worked well, although the biggest of the cuts was still welling blood slowly even after extensive patching together. He was more aware for the subsequent encounter with Membrane, finding it to be particularly irritating.

He’d never seen the man as a threat before - not even as much more than a minor problem. The scientist was too wrapped up with his discoveries and his feeble earth science to even notice Zim was there. In an odd way, he supposed he owed Membrane something for that. The Dib would not have been such a dogged opponent otherwise. Now the professor was be trying to gain the Dib’s attention though, and that made Zim bristle. The Dib-human was his enemy! He wasn’t about to sit idly back and let Membrane try to steal that away or dilute it with his attempts at levity. Foolish earth creature!

And now here they were and things had not gotten particularly better. Zim couldn’t imagine his own computer treating him like the enemy. The very notion was ludicrous! Some part of him was convinced that getting the house back under his control was still a possibility. It wasn’t until he felt the Dib stagger and realised the security systems had struck down the human that the enormity of the situation sank in. He would be next, no doubt of that. Panic lent Zim strength and he clawed his way out of the human’s grasp his desperate struggles leaving even more cuts and abrasions on the Dib-thing. It didn’t matter - he climbed the human’s slumped form like a ladder, ignoring the uncomfortable feeling of the pooled blood in his abdominal cavity splattering out onto the panel as he pulled himself up onto it. The entire action had taken him only moments with the computer’s voice blaring angrily at him. It did not deter him - nor did the usual complexity of shutting down the entire system. His hands tore through the metal casing, grabbing the wires within and yanking them with brute force. They held for a few brief moments before electricity crackled wildly within the system and the lights sputtered out.

Zim remained crouched atop the panel as darkness enveloped him. He could feel new blood trickling down his arms and hands - he’d lacerated them in his haste to get through to the wiring of the computer. He blinked slowly, turning his head as he realised it wasn’t dark - not completely. Oh yes... the light that the Dib had found in the waterway. He’d dropped it in his rush to get the computer turned off. Zim slid off the control panel, landing on his feet and wobbling for a moment before catching his balance. The orb was only a short distance away, resting against the human’s leg. Catching hold of it, he turned to Dib with a ghost of his old grin on his face. "You should be thankful to me, Dib-monkey! I just saved your life!" He blinked as no reply was forthcoming. Certainly the human must have heard him.

His sense of triumph faded away rapidly as he realised that something was not right with the human. His magenta eyes narrowed and he edged in closer, holding the light up. It took him a moment to determine what was different. The Dib-human wasn’t breathing. He frowned - that was supposed to be some vital human function too, wasn’t it? Zim reached out and put his hand against the human’s chest - no, it definitely wasn’t moving up and down the way it was supposed to. His eyes narrowed as another thought occurred to him - the human’s thumpy... thing, heart... whatever… it wasn’t thumping. It had definitely been doing so when Dib was carrying him earlier - in fact it had been beating at an amazing variety of speeds. But it appeared to be not working right now. That was probably bad.

The human wasn’t functioning properly - wasn’t functioning at all. That wasn’t right. Zim stared at the broken human blankly for a moment. The Dib was... dead. Or else so close that it didn’t make a difference. All the times he’d envisioned killing the human, it had never been like this. It felt wrong somehow. The Dib should have died at his hands in a clever and deliberate scheme to secure the human’s demise, not by a random act of his malfunctioning computer while attempting to save his life. ‘No!’ Zim wouldn’t stand for that!

He bared his teeth in a snarl. The human needed to be fixed. But with the computer systems down that would be difficult at best. What could he do? His eyes narrowed into thin slits as he considered a rather unusual strategy. It might not work - in fact, it might prove risky for his own internal systems. Was helping a human important enough to chance that possibility? No, probably not. Well, was helping the Dib-human - his mortal enemy, the creature who had fouled so many of his ingenious schemes and the bane of his existence here on earth?- was that worth it?

Zim hesitated, weighing the implications in his head for a moment before throwing them all aside heedlessly. He was ZIM - he wasn't going to second guess himself! It *was* worth it. He glanced over his shoulder at the pak, watching as one of the compartments opened and a length of corded metal emerged. Normally the interface was use for linking with another pak - or sometimes with computers other than the control brain. As far as Zim knew, it had never been used to connect with the systems of a non-Irken organic. He frowned as he surveyed the Dib’s limp form - jamming it right into the human’s brain-center would have been a messy prospect, given the thickness of the skull casing. Besides, the parts that were malfunctioning were centered in the human’s chest cavity.

Zim gripped the metal tightly near the connector, reaching out with his other hand and ripping a long hole in the human’s shirt. The cable did not have a particularly sharp tip - it wasn’t made for penetrating flesh - but Zim growled softly in determination, taking aim briefly as he mustered his strength and then driving the metal viciously into the human’s chest. There was an unpleasant squelch as it was forced past skin and muscle, dark blood trickling from around the point of entry. The flow was very sluggish, however, one of the side effects of Dib’s organs not functioning. As soon as it was properly lodged, the forward tip of the cable opened and smaller wires snaked out, attaching themselves to the human’s various internal systems. The fine mesh spread upward along Dib’s spinal cord, hooking the pak into the entire nervous system. Once the pak’s connection had spread to the human’s brain the real work could begin.

/Copying Cerebral Data/, The pak announced and Zim relaxed a fraction. His plan was working! Soon the Dib would be functional again and he could... well... he’d do something. He just needed to decide what.

*

Dib drifted. He wasn’t certain as to how long - there was no sense of time in whatever this place was. There was no sound either, and when he opened his eyes it did nothing to reassure him about his surroundings. Wherever he was, there was nothing to see, just a dim, not-quite blackness that stretched out to the edges of his vision. What had happened?

Oh.

Oh yeah... The memory slowly came back to him, though it was hazy and vague. He’d been in Zim’s base - sneaking in? His recollection was still foggy, almost as if they were being pulled from his childhood rather than the present. He had been in Zim’s base, that much was clear in his mind. Something had happened and... and...

His hands flew to his chest, clenching in the fabric of his shirt before he looked down. There was no evidence of any injuries and the cloth wasn’t even torn. His eyes widened a little and he tugged at the neckline of his shirt questioningly, peering beneath it. The surface of his skin was smooth and unmarred. He was about to touch the area and make sure when he realised something else amiss and raised his hand to stare at his wrist where the bones had knitted themselves back together. The fingers of his other hand trailed over the unmarred skin, his expression thoughtful. Injuries like that didn’t just go away in such a brief amount of time. Yet at the same time he had a strange feeling - nothing he could lay a finger on properly.

"Am I dead?" There was a certain amount of uncertainty in the question. Dib hardly expected any answer, just pondering aloud as he tried to puzzle through the factors. If he wasn’t dead then what was this? If he was, then this was a pretty poor excuse for an afterlife. It wasn’t like anything he would have pictured as Heaven or Hell or Valhalla or whatever...Unless it was supposed to be Hell - his own personal hell... To be completely and utterly alone with no validation whatsoever. Was this to be the rest of his existence? His curiosity shrank suddenly, leaving cold fear in its wake.

Yet it was a familiar fear, at least. He recognised its seeds in the life - the childhood, he’d lived before - and the growth of that life. Or perhaps something opposite of growth - his long, slow progression into a mere shadow of himself. Was that it? Was he of so little consequence that he could be consigned to an eternity of this abominable emptiness instead of a solid... anything? He would have cried out in despair if the quiet nothingness of the place had left his voice any real substance. To be rendered null and void with no hope of reprieve - it was too much to be borne.

The thought was a moment that lasted for an eternity - an entire lifetime compressed into the span of a single heartbeat. Then Dib’s barely audible voice broke completely and the shock of it - or perhaps it was simply that it was unexpected - caused him to fall silent. He had sensation now. It began as a faint tingling in his toes and fingertips like blood returning to long-numbed extremities. Soon it was moving up his arms - searing among his nerve endings in a wave of agony that was almost an ecstasy as well. Not because he enjoyed the pain, but because it was something. *Something.* He could feel it spreading through this body like his insides were on fire until his entire form was suffused with it. And it didn’t hurt any longer - it was a pleasant warmth that permeated tissue and bone.

He drew a shaky breath and winced at the sudden tightness in his chest. The warmth had not found all of him, it seemed. There remained an odd knot of cold somewhere in the left side of his chest.

‘Of course...’

For some reason it came as no surprise to him. His hands moved over the area again - touched bare skin this time. Unusual... had he been dressed before? If so, why? For what? Yet he had the impression it was so.

‘What is this?’

He did not speak - or if he did then he spoke with no voice. But his words were clear.

‘This place? What is it? What is it to me? Is this the afterlife? Is it something else?’ The questions arose in his mind too rapidly for him to articulate. Inexplicably he was being answered, although again it was not a physical voice by any means.

[This is the dawning - a birth of sorts, you might say.]

‘So it’s not over?’

[This place is the finish - the completion of one’s journeys.]

‘Wait...’

Dib’s mind tried to make sense of these apparently incompatible explanations. ‘This is all so confusing. I don’t understand? What is this?’ And, belatedly, another question welled up inside him. ‘Who are you?’

[I am the beginning and the end of all things.]

‘But...’

[Accept that this cannot be your place - You who walk in the middle. That fine line suspending you is holding you still. You cannot understand.]

‘But…’ Dib felt a surge of desperate energy. I want to know.’

[Know? Know what?]

What? He didn’t know the ‘what’. ‘Everything’.

[My foolish one...] The voice sounded almost wistful.

The warmth surged beneath his skin - through his skin. It should have hurt, he thought wildly. Exploding in light like this - it should have killed him.

He should have been dead, if he wasn’t already. But he lived. He saw. He knew.

-

His first breath, a moment he could never have dredged from his memory. He didn’t have to. He lived it again. The cold air on his skin drew a gasp from his throat, but not a sound otherwise. There were voices as well, he recognised his father’s immediately. He was seized with the strangest sensation - almost like having a split personality, or at least that was the closest he could come to classifying it. After all he - the present Dib - could understand the things they were saying and generally what was going on, while the Dib of the past, the newborn, could not. Just the thought sent his mind reeling with confusion.

/Professor, all the readings are within acceptable limits/

/Very good./

/He’s so quiet.../

 

The faces were blurry above him - aside from Membrane there was no one he even vaguely recognised.

/Such funny eyes... is that supposed to happen?/

Another voice. /Of course not stupid, people don’t have eyes that colour!/

Well.

A rich chuckle, laced with good humour. /He’s not just any child. He’s the future of Membrane Enterprises!/

He wanted to speak - it was a yearning inside him. He wanted to speak to his father once again. But he had no capacity for that now - his other self had no words yet. He had the sense than even if he had, it would have made no difference. Time was immutable wasn’t it? And even if it wasn’t, this was only the representation and not the real thing, he sensed. It was his life as he had lived it, however damning it might have been to him in hindsight.

As he progressed forward into childhood the regrets came more quickly. He witnessed all the squandered opportunities and recognised them for what they were. It was almost torture, having to experience it over - to go through the fruitless searching again, to feel the emotions again with the growing urge to bewail his own ignorance. What a waste it had all been! Years of expended energy, of chasing ghosts with a flashlight and vampires with a net flashed through him just as they’d happened before. The many sacrifices he’d made - were they worth it? Potential friends were spurned, his love of the paranormal earning him nothing but the pity of his own father and the growing distance between himself and Gaz as his sister drifted ever further away from him.

Then came Zim, crashing right into his life and filling that gap. And he faced down his nemesis again, called him an alien again on that fateful morning in front of their peers. Again, as before, he suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of his enemy. Yet he almost enjoyed it this time - the good times of his life had always been these and he relished them now as he would have loathed them before. Failure upon failure - yet he noted with an adult perspective that the failures had little bearing on the larger events, certainly they were not a cause for the destruction of mankind.

And so they went from mortal enemies to unabashed rivals - even a moment here or there that bordered on affection, or perhaps even friendship in whatever odd and twisted way such a friendship might have come into being.

It was the differences, he realised somewhere between the capture and the chase. The differences between them were great, yes, but not nearly so much as those between them and the other students. And they’d all known it on whatever animalistic level instinct resided on. He and Zim were fobbed off on each other because no one else would have them. His anger at that realization was fleeting - fading almost as quickly as it had come. In a way, he was almost grateful to them, almost grateful to the whole ignorant human race.

They hadn’t just rejected him by refusing to let him be a part of them - at the same time they’d been pulling away the things that bound him to convention. A normal life was a life full of compromises and they didn’t see the out of the ordinary things because they simply couldn’t. They had no capacity for it - it was given up on the altar of the mundane as he’d tried and never quite succeeded at doing. It was an irony that their reactions had given him that which he most needed - freedom.

As he relived his younger self's pursuit, he threw himself into it whole-heartedly, even knowing that it must end as it had already ended. It came more quickly than he’d thought it would and the feelings of misery, of wanting something new, surged through him again. For the second time he wished he could take over and speak - erase those fateful words from the course of history. How would it be different now if that one moment happened some other way? But there was no taking it back - he lived that damning moment again - walked away again and condemned himself to a future caged to something he could never truly care about.

Real science... what a laugh. The time crawled now although he knew it was moving no slower than before. He worked on world-changing projects and felt nothing for them. His father was a constant presence that helped at first, but soon even Membrane could not circumvent the inevitable. Dib experienced a sensation like slipping out of himself - only succeeding at forgetting Zim by forgetting his own identity. All the while the present Dib could only watch and seethe in frustration and helplessness.

Zim’s capture was a brief splash of cold water, bringing him back to himself. It was so appalling to see how far he’d fallen and though Dib tried, he could never quite manage to submerge himself again. Years more of this sent him to a breaking point at last. It was almost a relief, anticipating the end of this journey. He’d just about caught up with the present.

The last day was upon him and he threw aside his shackles with a great sense of relief - felt the horror of seeing Zim in such a state, and the fear of Gaz... even the gratitude toward his father for the one act of kindness he’d granted unexpectedly. The pain was secondary to the sense of accomplishment and as Dib fought his way into the base he was fully aware of the clock ticking down the seconds to the end. If there were moments of his life that he’d wanted to change, this was definitely not one of them. It was more than just an end - it was the culmination of all he’d wanted and needed to do with his life. And surprisingly enough the regrets he’d been feeling were swept away as the world faded to black around him.

‘This is the end,’ he thought and he knew that he could accept such a conclusion. But things weren’t over quite yet - he was continuing forward, the blackness falling away into light. He was apart from the world now, not bound to the limitations of his own body. He’d been living the events before and now he was watching them play out before him like a movie. It was no longer his own past life, but Earth's future he saw now.

Gaz - and why couldn’t he even begin to be surprised that it was her he was seeing - was the crux of it. He saw his father there too, looking somehow older and haggard now as he helped his daughter. He didn’t know why his dad would do that if it wasn’t what he wanted, could only guess that Gaz had persuaded him somehow. The reasons didn’t matter, only the results, and there was still no surprise there, either.

His sister as the leader - no, he corrected himself, the *ruler* - of Earth. It was a frightening notion in all too many respects. Yet at the same time it worked in his mind. His father could have led Earth better than the many world leaders he’d often catered to. Dib supposed Membrane’s dislike of anything that would drag him away from his precious research was the most compelling reason that his father had not sought power. His dad needed science like he needed air - something Dib could now understand all too well. Science was his father’s Zim - the defining aspect of his life. Obsession ran in the genes, apparently.

But he never thought Earth could be Gaz’s obsession - the Gameslave had always filled that need for her. Maybe this was all just part of the same thing - a bigger and more complex game that needed defeating. He guessed that it didn’t matter, Gaz would undoubtedly rule the way she played. There would be no more petty bickering between countries, only a world united beneath Gaz’s thumb.

Time was speeding up enough that Dib took notice of events unfolding. Earth was doing well for itself, even working towards space travel on a more impressive level than he’d considered possible given the rate of technological advances. He thought he recognised his father’s handiwork in the new fleets. Gaz was working so quickly that it had to be seen to be believed, the Earth ships rapidly increasing in number and power.

Humans were the Invaders then - spreading out from Earth like a swarm of ants. Watching this process Dib wondered if he should have been proud or horrified. Either way, the playing field had expanded and Earth was just a pawn in a much larger game. And then...

It all came crashing down - the system collapsed in on itself as the aliens they’d driven out came back, and with a vengance. Earth’s resources were drained by the very act of conquest, leaving them more vulnerable then they were before. It ended as so many fancied it had all begun - with a massive explosion.

Dib came back to that nothing place with the memory of that last sight burned into his brain. The quiet nothingness was completely unpalatable now. Why? Why had he been shown all of this when there was nothing to be done about it? It all felt like an elaborate form of mental torture. He was almost convinced that it was Hell.

[It is not Hell, as you put it...] The voice sounded more familiar to him now, oddly. It reminded Dib a little of his father, although he couldn’t figure out why.

‘How can it not be?’ He demanded with all the frustration of a lifetime behind his voice.

[Because you must be condemned to go to Hell.]

‘What?’

Dib couldn’t wrap his mind around that for a moment, then he had a glimmer of understanding and a swell of something like disgust. ‘And who’s going to do that? You?’

[It has already happened, you have returned to this place.]

That made even less sense than the rest of it - Dib didn’t remember any "judging" happening. No trial, no whatever it was with the scales and the feather and his heart. There was just the memory of the past - the life that he’d lived.

‘Oh.’ He understood, he thought, and the skewed logic made him feel no better. He hated what he’d just been made to do, all unknowing. Yet he had to agree it was only fair. How did you judge a person without bias, really? There was no way any judge or jury of his peers could have condemned or released him without making that decision based upon their own viewpoints. So his judge - himself - was also to be jury and executioner. Did he deserve this - at the end he'd measured up far better than he’d expected or hoped, but did that make up for the rest?

He thought maybe it did.

In either case he was so tired he thought he might welcome a respite from life. He was ready to lay it all down - the troubles, fear and needs that had spurred him on throughout his life. And... he could have done worse in the scheme of things. ‘I suppose I have...’ He’d take whatever came, he decided, be it heaven or hell or just a vast empty nothingness. His eyes closed and he gave himself over to relief.

"What do you think you’re doing?" A new voice - unexpected, familiar and eminently unwelcome. Zim. That was puzzling enough to make him open his eyes and verify the identity of the speaker. It was Zim, but not his last memory of Zim as he’d been after years in the laboratory. The alien was standing there glaring at him with that expression of impatience and not quite disgust on his green face.

Dib was suddenly, painfully aware that he was naked. And not just in the physical sense - although that was merely an embarrassing bit of symbolism now. Throughout this entire debacle he’d been stripped bare of his defenses and excuses and now he had no way to re-erect those barriers. All of his faults and insecurities were on display now, easy targets should Zim decide to lash out at him. After all their years of attacking each other at any opportunity, he couldn’t help expecting it now. "Leave me alone, Zim."

"And let you die? I would not give you the satisfaction, stink-worm! I know what you’re after, Dib-human, and I won’t allow it!"

Dib bristled - who was Zim to disallow him anything? "Why should I care what you think, space boy?" Dib was startled when Zim backed down. No, more than that, Zim almost deflated right there in front of him. The alien glanced sullenly down at his own feet, his antennae laid back.

"Because..." Zim muttered something incomprehensible then lifted his gaze to meet Dib’s eyes. "Are you afraid of living, Dib-monkey?" He hissed, magenta orbs narrowing dangerously, "Is that it?"

Nettled, Dib glared right back, "Of course not!" What a ridiculous question, even for a stupid little alien. Why should living scare him? "You don’t know what you’re talking about!"

"Don’t I?" The alien blinked at him, considering. "No... I’m right. You’re afraid of it - you think you’ll screw it up, human. Not that you haven’t before." Zim smirked, "I guess you’d have good reason to be afraid of that, right Dib?" That remark hit home - Zim had managed to sum up all his insecurities remarkably well at one go. But that didn’t mean anything in the long run because it was his choice and not Zim’s.

"I don’t care. I’m not changing my mind." He turned away, dismissing the former Invader with those words.

What he heard then was nothing he’d been expecting. Anger would have been no surprise, nor insults. Really anything but the clipped, agonised voice that reached his ears.

"Please."

Please? Dib turned despite himself. All of his anger melted away and gone. Zim asking was surprising enough, but he was pleading now. Yet he was still demanding in his own way - and Dib could think of no other who could have managed that seemingly incompatible combination. For a long moment their gazes locked and they just stared at each other - but the look on Zim’s face did not change. Dib’s doubts of the alien’s sincerity died without a squeak. He believed Zim... heaven help him.

"What do you want from me, Zim?" Dib’s voice was a little disappointed, a little resigned. He already knew the answer to his own question, but that didn’t mean it still didn’t merit asking. Zim raised his head, drawing himself up and looking at Dib with that old dignity.

"Live, Dib-human. You got me into this. You owe me." So he had, and so he did, although he hadn’t considered it from that angle before. He’d taken responsibility for Zim - it meant he had to finish what he’d begun. The alien was reaching out a hand to him, palm upward, open. The significance of this gesture was not lost on Dib - even now he still had a choice. He could still decide to remain here and forget about the obligations he bore to a former alien menace named Zim. Except that he couldn’t - when it came down to it, he had no choice at all. He’d made it already. His own hand was stretching out, crossing the gap between them. A faint shock ran through him as he realised the alien was wearing no gloves and he was touching bare skin.

Sensation came again, first in a trickle and then in a flood that threatened to sweep him off his feet. Emotion was there too, raw and inexplicable. It took him a moment to realise it wasn’t his own. It was Zim’s. It was too much! His own thoughts and fears and needs were already too much for him to handle and now he was being swamped with these others. He tried to pull away and he couldn’t free his hand from Zim’s grasp. The input kept coming.

/...fear... hope... uncertainty... sorrow... anger... need... /

Each one rushing through him like he was some kind of conduit. Amber eyes met magenta, and Dib saw the same emotions etched onto the alien’s features. Then Zim grimaced, his hand trying to dislodge itself from their grip and failing as utterly as Dib had.

"Enough!" The alien hissed sharply, drawing his free hand back to tap one of the compartments on his pak. Instead of spider legs, what emerged was long and sinuous, a coil of metal that rippled and swayed like a snake. Apprehension flowed through Dib at the sight of this monstrosity. "Come on, earth stink, let’s get out of here." The words did nothing to clarify the purpose of the metal coil, but Dib had yet to see something of that nature from his former enemy that hadn’t proven to be a source of trouble for him.

The real shock was that he knew what Zim was going to do - it came to him as though he was Zim. He had a dizzying sense of displacement, feeling the muscles in his arm twitching and a brief sensation of viewing *himself* that reminded him entirely too much of the flashback of his life earlier. The metal limb reared back, rising in a gleaming silver arch before plunging downward. There was no chance for him to move away, even if he could have - the length of metal slammed into his chest with a sickening thud. The look on Zim’s face as the human was impaled was strange - the last thing he would have expected to accompany a physical attack. The alien was almost pensive.

As the pain blossomed anew over his chest, Dib felt the nothingness beneath his feet give way to something somehow less than nothing - he was hanging, held in place by that single painful connection to his one-time bitter enemy. His hands, freed of Zim’s grasp, gripped frantically at the metal above where it entered his body - a breach that was somehow bloodless. Zim peered down at him, his eyes dark.

"Let it go, Dib-human." And when Dib shook his head again, he repeated himself. "Just let it go." Then some words he had never thought to hear from Zim, almost as surprising as the plea earlier. "Trust me."

Dib swallowed, uncertainty evident in every line of his body. Trust Zim? An alien? His enemy? And after he’d just been attacked, just been stabbed, just... just...

He let go.

 

~ * ~ * ~

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine: Hejira

-

It was quiet on the outside - Dib noticed it before he was even aware of the physical sensations. His eyes opened into slits and he suspected for a moment that he hadn’t opened them at all. Either that or he was blind. Then he knew better, faint illumination rising from some unknown location and making it possible to see his surroundings. Zim’s underground base. The memories were not long coming afterwards, though telling reality from the confusing images that had barraged him when he was unconscious was not a simple matter. Movement caught his attention and he had to squint in that direction, wondering why everything was so fuzzy.

A blur of green came into his line of vision, obscuring the rest of his admittedly limited view. Even before the alien spoke, he knew it was Zim and remembered flashes of something that was like a particularly vivid dream. The clearest thing in the memory was Gaz - his little sister - standing supreme above all. It made his insides hurt to think of it. He didn’t want to believe that it was anything more than a nightmare brought about by his overactive imagination, yet he dared not disbelieve it. Still, things were as he remembered, except for the pain that had not lessened with the banishing of all the mental images. He looked down even as the alien addressed him.

"You’re finally awake, earth stink." The former Invader sounded oddly shaken and Dib wondered at the reason behind it. How long had he been unconscious? His hand crept up as his gaze lowered and he felt the cold metal against his skin. Bare skin. He blinked, tried to focus, realizing that his shirt was torn rather badly.

"What...?" His fingers slid over the smooth metal, trying to shove it aside and feeling an immediate and uncanny pull at his insides. Green fingers clamped over his own, Zim’s hissing voice interrupting his growing sense of panic.

"Leave it alone, foolish human! Unless you want to see how you look with your insides on the outside!" Dib didn’t protest as he loosened his grip, allowing Zim to pull his hands away. There was a moment of watchful silence between them, neither of them quite sure what to say. Slowly Zim loosened his hold on the human, and Dib wondered why he hadn’t noticed that the alien was oddly warm to the touch and not cold as he’d imagined a space monster should be. His fingers trailed over the metal again, making no move to dislodge it this time.

It took him a few seconds to find his voice again, "What did you...?" A piece of metal jabbed into his chest should have been a matter of greater concern. But he wasn’t bleeding to death and despite any prior words to the contrary, Zim didn’t seem to be trying to kill him. He could almost imagine that the alien was worried about his health, but there was no reason this should be the case.

"Stupid." Zim spat out the word like it was the foulest of curses, "You humans are far inferior to me - I am ZIM!" The alien was glaring at him, he could tell because there was a faint gleam of reflected light on the narrowed magenta eyes. He met the former Invader’s eyes with a quiet solemnity. The time when Zim could have intimidated him in such a manner was long past. After only a few seconds of Dib’s steady gaze the Irken relented, averting his reddish orbs. "Whoever designed you stink worms did a lousy job! You break too easily!"

Dib’s lips twitched in the semblance of a smile, "Nature designed us, Zim."

"Then this ‘Nature’ is obviously in need of some better blueprints!" The alien raised a silencing hand before the human could interrupt him. "Irkens don’t stop functioning if something happens to their organs." Yes. Dib thought he remembered a few examples of that trait before - he’d envied it for quite a while. The further implication of those words struck him but he waited for the alien to finish speaking. For some reason, Zim was oddly reticent to add more.

"Zim?" He finally interjected, his voice barely audible, even in the stark silence. He was only just now noticing that his throat hurt - yet another ache to add to the rapidly growing list. Broken wrist? Check. Cuts and bruises? Yup, all there. Borderline hypothermia and numbness below the knees? Amazingly enough, these symptoms had actually improved. And then there was the metal protruding from his chest. The alien wasn’t trying to kill him, or else he was doing a lousy job of it - so what was going on?

The former Invader was reluctant to answer, or even to meet his gaze, although if Dib was reading his former nemesis right then what he was seeing was more embarrassment than an effort to be evasive. Apparently he wouldn’t be getting many helpful answers there.

No sooner had he come to that conclusion than Zim finally spoke again, the anger gone from his tone as if it had never existed. He just sounded tired. Dib could definitely sympathise with that sentiment. He felt like he was going to collapse, waves of dizziness washing over him at random intervals and increasingly he was feeling the urge to just lay his head down and sleep. Only the awareness of Zim’s presence was serving to keep him mostly alert. "I thought you were dead, Dib-monkey," Zim began dully, "I thought I’d finally succeeded and you’d never bother me again."

Dib felt the urge to bristle and barely stifled it - if Zim wanted him dead, he highly doubted he would still be drawing breath now. Instead he squinted in Zim’s direction, wishing his vision would improve so he could read the alien’s expression. "I thought I was dead too. For a while there I think I... maybe I was. I don’t know." It was entirely too confusing - images and dreams. ‘Was it a dream?’ He might never know the answer and that bothered him more than everything else. He didn’t think he could ever rest easy... not knowing.

His words didn’t reassure Zim at all, if reassurance was what he was seeking. The alien’s antennae went back, laid flat against his head. "You’re not helping, earth stink! Stop interrupting Zim!" Dib took the somewhat less than subtle hint and remained silent until the Irken felt compelled to continue. "You hadn’t finished yet. That would have been so stupid. I couldn’t let you die."

"Finished what?" The human wasn’t sure he understood whatever Zim’s train of thought might be. If anything, he was more confused now and beginning to feel a dull throbbing in his temples that heralded an impending headache.

The former Invader was silent for a moment or two. "Finished rescuing me." Zim raised his head, meeting Dib’s amber gaze. There was embarrassment evident on his face, in the way that he held himself perfectly straight. "That is what you were doing?" He sounded desperate for Dib to agree and the human knew that he had only to say ‘no’ - to lie - and that hopeful expression would vanish. And he couldn’t have done that, not after every thing he’d gone through to get this far.

"Yeah. I guess I was." Dib’s lips twisted in a smile and even in the dark he thought that Zim saw it. One antenna flicked, just the barest rise and fall of the alien appendage that he liked to believe was acknowledgement. "I wouldn’t say I was doing to well at it though," He admitted softly.

"I’m alive." Zim didn’t say more, but the human had the inkling that he was more surprised than anything. Maybe it was just too much for him to absorb all at once - after so long a captive waiting for only the possibility of death to offer him some release. Yet here he was now, not only alive but free. What that must be like, Dib couldn’t help but wonder for a moment, then he thought that he might indeed know.

It was gratifying and wonderful - not to mention a little bit scary. He wasn’t sure he was quite ready to deal with all the implications that came with his newfound freedom, so he did his best to shove it aside for the moment. There were still other things that were more important, or at least more immediate. Here in the dark, Zim’s base didn’t seem like the haven he’d expected it to be. Dib was starting to feel the prickling of unease that meant danger was approaching, although he wasn’t certain what - not yet. "Is your computer going to try and kill us again if we turn it on?" His voice was low, even though he knew there was little chance of them being heard down here and even less chance that anyone would care enough to listen anyway.

"Probably," The alien was quiet as well, but to Dib his lack of volume was more due to the fact that he was tired and nearing the end of his strength than because he feared someone would discover them. "The computer is hooked up to all of the base systems. I can’t even replace the computer’s control brain without turning it back on."

"We can’t stay here forever, Zim." Dib was feeling it again, the unease, and as more than a prickle now. It was a distinct pang and it sent a shudder through him. "I’m not even certain we can stay here for too much longer." Gaz knew where this place was, the niggling feeling reminded him. Gaz did, and Membrane did as well. It wouldn’t be a safe place for them. He tried to get to his feet and felt the pull of the metal still embedded in his chest. "Damn it." It was proving to be a nuisance and he wasn’t sure just to go about removing it. ‘Maybe you can’t? Wouldn’t that be a laugh?’

Yeah... just hilarious.

Dib was still cursing softly when he saw Zim approaching him cautiously. Small green fingers rose to touch the cold metal and Dib could finally trace the corded metal back to its source. It hung in a smooth, unbroken line, traveling from Dib’s chest to the uppermost compartment of Zim’s pak. It made him want to laugh suddenly at the sheer absurdity of the thought to cross him mind. ‘Plugged into an alien computer - how about that for a close encounter?’ "Be still earthstink." Zim was saying, his hands grasping the metal more tightly, "Your inferior human organs are connected into my pak’s support systems. Disconnecting them wrong would surely kill you." But Dib didn’t notice the alien doing anything particularly special as he began to pull on the length of metal lodged in the human’s chest. For a moment it didn’t move, then with an odd sensation like a pop, the metallic coil began to shift. Zim drew it out with a painstaking slowness and although the retracting metal gave Dib an inexplicable surge of nausea, it wasn’t accompanied by anything as unpleasant as a gush of blood. There were faint traces of it on the metal - he saw them as splotches of dull darkness against the lighter more reflective surface - but considering the thing was inside his chest cavity he would have expected it to bleed a great deal more.

It wasn’t a comfortable sensation as the thing slid out of his body - it was just an unpleasant watery sort of feeling, only punctuated by the occasional brush of a rare protrusion or bulge against his ribcage. Those resulted in a grinding that went straight through all the bones in his body. It felt like it took forever, but given the actual length of the metal tubing it had likely only been a few minutes. Dib raised one hand to his chest, almost afraid of what his exploring fingers might discover. What they found was a small circular wound, about the size of a bottle cap. Funny, it had felt a lot larger before. He didn’t dare go so far as to try sliding his fingertip inside of the open hole, deciding to leave it be. As much as he didn’t particularly want to, he found himself addressing Zim in a far more reasonable tone. "Um... thanks."

Zim didn’t hear him. The alien’s attention was diverted by something else. For a moment, Dib felt a spike of annoyance at being so casually dismissed, but it passed quickly. Even in the greenish light emitted by the orb, it was possible to make out the worry in the alien’s expression. Zim’s lips were pulled back, baring his teeth in a grimace and his hunched stance - head ducked and back arched - screamed feral animal. Dib felt himself tensing, it was difficult not to. The alien’s reactions only mirrored the apprehension he’d been feeling in the dark and the quiet. "What is it?" His own voice rang hollowly and both of them flinched at the sound of it.

"Something is going on above." Zim hissed back softly. "Can’t you hear it, Dib-monkey?" Dib almost shot back that he didn’t have supernaturally enhanced alien hearing before he realised that he *could* hear something. It was a raspy scraping that reverberated among the metal piping like a nail file being rubbed against a steel girder. His hackles raised - now that he’d heard the noise, he couldn’t un-hear it.

"What is that?" His gaze was locked on the darkness above them, up where the base’s ceiling ought to be.

"The sound is vibrating down through the metal," Zim glowered as he spoke. Dib didn’t need any further explanation, it was fairly easy to figure out what Zim was getting at and what the implications were. Besides, he could aptly remember having suggested something alone those lines back when he’d been chasing Zim. Digging the base out - it was an easy way of avoiding the base’s security net. Of course, with the computer off, there was no real threat of setting off the defenses, but how would an outsider know that? As so the two of them were trapped down here waiting to be dug out of the ground... apparently he’d only delayed the inevitable after all.

Instead of the despair that should have come with such a realization, Dib felt cold determination welling up instead. The last barrier had broken and he felt briefly giddy - full of defiance against the world and the government and yes, even his own family. He would be free of them - he would finish what he’d come to do - or he would die trying. But he most certainly would not simply lie down and give up without a fight. He’d made his last compromise.

"Zim." The sound of his own voice was foreign to him, as was the unfamiliar pull of a smile that was lingering perilously close to being a grin. "There’s another way out right?" He was making assumptions and Zim was staring at him as though he was completely insane - neither of those things mattered. All that mattered was that there was another way and Zim was going to tell it to him. No other outcome would be tolerated.

"What nonsense are you considering, earth-stink?" Zim was trying to sound angry but Dib could read him entirely too well. The alien was afraid, but he was also a bit hopeful. Having come this far, it was too much a letdown for this to be the end. "All the entrances to the base are in my house." A pause. "Except for the teleporter, but my space station was destroyed. And it wouldn’t work anyway - the base has no power."

Something still niggled, a gnawing sense of having missed something obvious as he’d done when he’d refused to consider Zim’s base in his earlier calculations. Currently he and Zim were roughly at the center of Zim’s underground base - the computer core. There were still many passages leading to other areas of the base. They could presumably retreat further underground and stave off their pursuers for a little longer still.

"No..." He gasped, finding that piece he’d been missing, "We need to go up."

The alien peered at him in disbelief. "Up?" He blinked several times, the motion so swift it was almost a blur. "Have you lost your wits, earth filth? Or have you just forgotten that there are a lot of other stinky humans up there trying to capture us?" Zim’s tone was a little accusatory and laden with disgust. "Why not surrender if you’re planning to make it so easy for them?"

Dib ignored the jibes, raising his good hand to grip at the control panel and steady himself. Whatever Zim had done to heal him, it hadn’t fixed his broken wrist or any of the numerous aches and pains running through him. Still, he didn’t suppose he was in the best position to complain, especially not to the alien who’d spent several years being cut open and experimented on.

Getting to his feet was a struggle, his legs were like rubber and they felt oddly disconnected from the rest of his body. His bracing arm trembled as he pushed himself upright through stubborn determination. He could feel the alien’s incredulous gaze on him and ignored it. There was no time left to be uncertain - no time for asking questions or to try explaining it all. Surely Zim could understand that much?

"Trust me." And he knew he was asking a lot, it was going against nature and convention to assume that trust could be as easy as those two little words. But who else was there to trust now, to ask trust from, if not this unpredictable, unfathomable creature? Dib had made his peace with his father and knew he never would with his sister. He wasn’t planning to let the government or anyone else bring him down without a fight - they would not so easily take what he’d struggled and worked to build. No, he would not fold and let them have it - not now, not ever again.

"You’re crazy." Zim’s words were shaky but he wasn’t trying to protest. His instinct for self preservation had to be at least as strong as a human’s, perhaps even stronger. The alien was standing before Dib could ask it of him, although his motions were stiff, a little hesitant.

Dib had been called worse by more people than he could count, and from Zim the words were more laughable than anything. "Yeah. I probably am. Come on." He was moving again, limping towards the lift they’d used to get down into the base. With the power off it wouldn’t be working but that but that was not much of a deterrent to him. He stepped into the lift and looked up, surveying the metal above his head with a critical eye. He knew how normal elevators worked, but for some reason he’d never considered the lifts in the same way. He wanted to kick himself for the lack of attentiveness now. Still, as he saw the hatch on the ceiling of the lift, he couldn’t help a sigh of relief. It would have been painfully ironic for them to become trapped when they’d come here seeking escape.

He reached up his good hand and pushed against the panel, straining for a moment before he felt it give, swinging up and away with a piercing metallic squeal. The space above was now devoid of even what meager light remained in the control room. "Zim, can you pass me the orb?" He didn’t say please, but he didn’t have to. There was a sound of scuffling, then the lift was illuminated by the greenish light of the blowing orb. Dib reached out his hand for it and felt something else pressed into his fingers instead - smooth and cold and very oddly shaped. It took him a few puzzled seconds to realise that Zim had just handed him his glasses.

In the dark he hadn’t noticed the inability to see his surroundings properly, it was perfectly reasonable to not see. Now that he knew what he’d been missing it was almost a blow. He needed his glasses. As soon as he put them back on and things wavered into focus, he felt a great deal better. They were a security blanket that he hadn’t even realised existed. "Thanks." He held out his hand again and this time the slight cool weight of the orb settled onto his palm. He raised it into the open hatch, some part of him half-expecting something to pounce out of the dark at them. Too many years of scientific work had dulled his childhood fearlessness but nothing came snarling down when he peered up through the opening.

The lift shaft was wide and stretched upward at a very slight angle, the walls consisting of smooth metal and sections of wire tangle. It would be hard to climb if it came to that and Dib knew already that it would - no base power meant no lift, and that meant no way to the upper portions of the base save this method. Surveying the opposite side of the shaft turned up more promising results - the metal there had protrusions at regular intervals, not tremendously large, but undoubtedly handholds. Perhaps they were actually holds for Zim’s spiderlegs, given the distance between each section. Either way he could use them. "The lift is down so we’ll just have to climb." His sore body protested the thought but he wouldn’t allow that to deter him.

"You expect me to try and climb, Dib-monkey?" The alien’s protest wasn’t entirely unexpected either, but it was disappointing. Dib eased down to one knee, putting himself about at Zim’s eye level. His gaze was frank and unwavering and the alien shut up immediately, staring back at him.

"All you have to do is hold on." He said, handing the orb back to the surprised alien. If Zim planned to counter the comment somehow, Dib wasn’t giving him the opportunity. He slid his good arm beneath the Irken and lifted him. Zim hissed in undignified protest as he was picked up and unceremoniously shoved through the hatch. As soon as Zim was deposited on the roof of the lift, Dib steeled himself with a deep breath and leaped.

His jump wasn’t as high as he would have liked. His entire upper body was propelled into the opening and he had to grab wildly to keep from falling back into the inactive lift. A new surge of pain tore through his broken wrist and he could feel a deep throbbing just below his ribs where the lip of the hatch was digging into his diaphragm. He tried to kick his legs and brace them against the lift wall to push himself up into the shaft but the angle was entirely wrong for the maneuver and only served to drive the metal more sharply against his midsection. His fingers scrabbled against the metal as he felt himself slipping, his tenuous grip threatening to give way entirely and send him tumbling back down to the floor of the lift.

Small green hands caught at his arm - clawed fingers sliding along his injured wrist for a moment and sending dizzying flares of pain up his arm. Still, the alien’s grasp was surprisingly strong and left his good arm free. Dib grasped gingerly at a tangle of metal cables nearby and winced as he felt them shift. When they didn’t give, even after a sharp tug at them, he painstakingly began to pull himself up, gritting his teeth at the effort the move required. Once he got his belly onto the roof of the lift the balance of weight was shifted and climbing the rest of the way was simplicity itself. He stretched out for a moment, struggling for breath and doing his level best to contain the sudden bout of nausea that had surged up due to all the pressure on his gut. As Zim finally relinquished the grip on his arm, he sat up and managed a sickly smile. "Piece of cake."

From the expression on the alien’s face, Zim was obviously missing the fact that he’d been attempting to make a joke. "I don’t see what your disgusting earth food has to do with -" There must have been something in his expression because the alien paused, ran his tongue over his lips in what appeared to be a nervous gesture, and just finished with a soft, "oh."

Dib surveyed the shaft quickly before easing from his sitting position into a wobbly crouch. "I hope you’re as good at hanging on as you are at coming up with stupid plans." There was no heat in his voice at all and Zim only tensed for a moment before letting the remark pass. The alien eased up behind the kneeling human, hands clawing briefly at the smooth fabric of the trench coat before getting a firm grasp. Despite the fact that this was entirely his own plan, he couldn’t help a stab of wariness as he felt arms encircle his neck and the extraterrestrial’s slight weight drape across his back. Dib noticed that for some reason Zim was kicking at his sides oddly for a moment before he understood what the alien was up to. The fabric of his coat pulled taut - apparently Zim had found footholds, the pockets of the black trench coat. The human couldn’t help but find that reassuring in two different ways. It lessened both the likelihood of Zim falling and relieved the tightness of the alien’s grasp around his neck at the same time.

As soon as Zim was settled, Dib carefully picked up the glowing orb and held it within the alien’s reach. "Can you hold it?" If he couldn’t then they were in for a long, dark climb... not something that Dib was particularly looking forward to. Zim took it wordlessly, grasping it in one hand. This meant the illumination was coming from a spot right about level with Dib’s ear, but this was hardly the time and place to be complaining about such minor details.

Steeling himself mentally, Dib grasped hold of the nearest metal outcropping and began to climb. It was tricky work - not as difficult as trying to maneuver himself onto the ledge had been, but still a challenge. His broken wrist had to be favoured a great deal as he ascended the lift shaft, but after a few painful slips, he soon realised that he could simply hook his injured arm on the metal protrusions and use it to brace himself as he made his way upward. It would have been so easy to set his mind to automatic during this process - it was quite tempting really because the work required no thought, just the same motions over and over.

There lay the danger, of course. One faulty grip or misstep and there might not be any need for the government to capture them. Dib had only to spare the barest glance downward to know that they were dangerously far from the bottom of the lift already. The exact distance wasn’t something he could even begin to gauge - the light that Zim was still holding only penetrated the blackness of the lift for a very limited distance around the two of them. The base below was swallowed up in shadows already - there was nowhere to go but up.

It was easier said than done. Somehow the enormity of the task had never crossed his mind. The lift had made the descent from the house to the base in a very short time, but there was no doubt that the distance was rather substantial by human standards and going down was always an easier process than going up. His arms were starting to ache a little - this time from sheer weariness and he was tempted to pause and try to catch his breath. Something inside told him that it wasn’t a good idea. The tension in the air had grown thicker and he wasn’t certain quite why until he felt Zim shifting nervously on his back. The sound of digging was louder now, but Dib wasn’t sure if that was because he was closer to the surface or because the diggers were nearer to reaching the base below. He noted with faint interest that the sounds were coming from below him now.

The tunnel was beginning to slope even further gradually - it was no longer really vertical. He could only be silently grateful that the angle was to his advantage - tilting forward instead of backward. He wouldn’t have been able to continue if it meant having to hang from the top of a shaft that was becoming almost horizontal. Instead he was rapidly approaching the point where he might actually be able to stand and walk across the slight incline. Still, there was always the chance that it might head back in the other direction eventually and that if that was the case, it would prove to be more than a little problematic.

He was more than half expecting things to be difficult - it was how his luck tended to run after all. So when the tunnel abruptly hit up against a sharp vertical wall, he could only stare at it in a mixture of incomprehension and disbelief. One of Zim’s claws yanking at his hair tore him out of his stunned silence. "Ow! What-" He whipped his head around to glare over his shoulder at the alien and saw the frustrated upward gesture that Zim was making in his direction. He blinked and glanced up noticing the ceiling of the shaft only a few feet above his head.

They’d made it. Dib slumped in relief for a moment, pressing his cheek to the cool metal of the sloping tunnel and allowing himself a brief moment of relief. Zim wouldn’t give him any longer than that - claws began tugging at the collar of Dib’s coat with near-frantic impatience. "This is no time to sleep Dib-human!" The alien hissed in his ear. "Or was that actually your plan?"

"Of course not." Dib tried to lever himself into a better position for pushing at the hatch above them. His limbs felt as wobbly as overcooked noodles, but he managed to get himself turned around so his back was almost pressed to the metal wall at the end of the tunnel. Carefully he stood, fully aware that the floor was still slanted precariously - the dark well of the shaft behind them was oddly fitting. His good hand pushed upward against the hatch and he strained, trying to budge it. Somehow he hadn’t expected it to be so heavy. Logic corrected this assumption quickly - there *was* a couch on top of this entrance. The slight shift of the panel on his next upward push was a real surprise but the screech of the couch sliding was really what made his heart leap into his throat. That might have been audible even outside of the alien’s house! He froze in fearful anticipation.

"What are you doing?" The alien on his back snarled faintly, striking him on the temple with one flailing hand. Dib felt stars exploding behind his eyes and clawed at the ceiling for a moment as his balance wobbled. As soon as he’d regained his equilibrium he turned his head and glowered as best he could in Zim’s direction.

"What the hell was that for?" He growled back, still feeling a throbbing ache where the alien had struck him.

Zim didn’t seem particularly nonplussed by the look aimed toward him. His tone was remarkably cold and matter of fact as he addressed the sore human. "You should be grateful stink-beast!" The audacity of this was not lost on Dib but he wasn’t allowed to interject - Zim was continuing and once he was talking it was horrendously difficult to get a word in edgewise. "Foolish earth monkey - you can’t expect Zim to leave these matters in your hands. After all, you would just mess things up the way you always do." The alien’s voice lowered to a conspiratorial tone, "Isn’t that why the other humans don’t want you, Dib?" And the emphasis on his name was almost an insult in itself, "You’re a failure at everything and they all know it."

The alien couldn’t have picked a better weak point to lash out at if he’d tried - he’d managed to strike a deep blow with those words. The colour bled right out of Dib’s face, his amber eyes widening in shock and disbelief. He hadn’t expected to hear that coming from Zim, especially after all they’d gone through. Still, it was little more than an echo of his own thoughts and suspicions given voice by the one person he could not afford to ignore.

For a moment the temptation to toss the alien back down the shaft swelled in him - threatening to overwhelm his good reason. It was only the fact that such an action would have proven those naysayers right that kept him from ending his mission right there and then. Being weak and tired was not automatically a reason for failure. Being injured and afraid wasn’t either. It was giving in to those things that would prove his undoing if he let it. He had no intention of doing so: not now, not ever. Anger surged through him and it swept away the tiredness and the fear of falling. Zim squealed in alarm as Dib braced both hands against the hatch and pushed upward with abrupt force. His balance hung on a knife’s edge for a few seconds and then he felt it give. The hatch raised, caught for a moment and then there was an odd skittering-bumping noise - the sound of a heavy piece of furniture sliding down a now sloping floor. The weight on the hatch eased up considerably when the couch could go no further.

Clambering out from beneath the hatch was not even close to a dignified process. He struggled and kicked as he tried to lever himself into the house. Sheer determination won out over the minor problems of angle and added weight and Dib pulled himself out onto the tiled floor. Thankfully, the adrenaline coursing through his body was blocking out most of the pain, otherwise it might have been too much to ignore. Getting up onto his knees, he glanced over his shoulder at the alien. Zim looked somewhat shaken, but also relieved. All that mattered was that he could answer Dib’s questions though. "How do we get above, Zim?" His voice had a bit of a sharp edge to it, he knew, the remnants of anger - both at Zim and numerous others - were not so swiftly forgotten.

"Eh?" Magenta eyes peered back at the human quizzically - the uncomprehending expression on Zim’s face was oddly comical.

"The ship, Zim! How do you get to the ship?" Dib knew the alien kept it on a landing pad between the ceiling and the sloping roof - what would have been the attic in a real house. He also knew that the ship could function independent of the base computer, although not whether it was actually connected in any way. What he’d never been able to figure out though was precisely how the alien managed to access the ship. There were no obvious ways to get into the launch area - at least none that he’d ever been able to figure out. Zim would know though. He had to.

"Oh." Zim blinked several times and Dib realised that the alien really hadn’t understood his goal until this point. But he’d gone along and hadn’t put up much of a fuss, really. Not even when he must have been thinking the human was out of his mind... trust was apparently not so difficult a thing to grant after all. That was something, wasn’t it? "There’s a lift that comes down and sucks you up into the room." Dib had a pretty good idea of what he meant by that, although he would hardly have referred to such a contraption as a lift. It was more like one of those suction tubes that they used at the dentist’s office and it sounded almost as unappealing.

Besides, with the power off, there would be no access to a lift or suction tube or whatever anyway. "Is there any other way?"

A long silence stretched out and Dib braced himself for the inevitable ‘no’ that would mean he’d have to come up with a plan himself. "Maybe there is, Dib-human... Maybe there is." The alien flashed him a toothy grin before snapping out an order. "Into the kitchen feeble Dib-thing! The incredible brain meats of Zim will get us off of this ball of dirt!" He sounded so much like the Zim of Dib’s childhood memories that the human wanted to laugh with delight. Dib almost ran into the adjoining room - a speed that had nothing to do with fear. Perhaps it was eagerness or even relief.

Or maybe he was just as happy as Zim was at the prospect of being away from this place. The promise of freedom spurred him on. Zim was almost as enthusiastic, as if it had taken all of this to really drive the point home. They could actually make it.

"We need to get to a high point." Zim told him and immediately the fridge was the answer. Dib almost stepped into the bowl of the toilet as he climbed up, luckily there was no water in it. He wouldn’t fit atop the refrigerator himself, but with some careful maneuvering on his part and some scrambling on Zim’s they managed to get Zim seated atop the large appliance. There was nothing for him to do but watch and wait. The little green alien had a determined expression on his face as he surveyed the ceiling that was within arm’s reach of him. He closed his eyes and bared his teeth in a slight grimace. Dib didn’t understand until he heard the uneven whirring from the pak on Zim’s back. the sound was rather alarming - reminding Dib uncomfortably of jammed gears grinding against each other before the top compartment of the pak opened and a length of metal emerged from within. If Dib were asked to identify it, he would have said it was a truncated version of one of Zim’s spider legs. Whatever its usual purpose, Zim was using it like an old fashioned can opener - tearing into the ceiling with it.

Bits of debris were raining down on them - they stood out starkly against the inky black of Dib’s coat like a scattering of stars in a moonless night sky. Larger fragments hit the floor with solid thuds. Neither human nor alien paid the mess any mind, all of their attention was focused on Zim’s task. At first the hole was merely a long ragged gash, like a wound in the plaster that gradually widened into a ragged hole. The ceiling now looked as though giant rats had chewed through it.

Dib could hear rumbling noises now, vibrating up through the floor. Outside the faint sound of sirens was slowly becoming audible. Time was short - either Gaz had called the authorities on him or else his father had. He suspected it wasn’t the latter, giving his father that much credit, at least. Who had done it wasn’t the important thing though, the sounds sent his heart racing frantically. He tried to gauge the size of the hole from where he stood and he calculated that it would be large enough. If it wasn’t, then they were in trouble. "Zim-" But he didn’t need to say more, the alien was listening now as well, his antennae flicking before flattening tightly against his head. "It’ll have to be now," Dib said urgently, and the alien nodded in reply.

Zim stood, holding the small orb in one hand - the greenish light reflected off his skin and illuminating his magenta eyes with a startlingly red gleam. He looked more alien in that moment than Dib had ever seen him before.

‘Yes...’ Dib could understand now how he could have seen Zim as frightening when he’d been young. Still, in the light he could also see the wounds that the scientists had inflicted upon the alien during his captivity - some of the injuries were still open and bleeding slowly. The human couldn’t help but feel a sympathetic tingle of pain - like the memory of scars long since healed over and mostly forgotten. With the sensation came a lump of unease that settled itself somewhere in the pit of his belly and refused to be dislodged. The sudden familiarity - the odd sense of connection – it was too strong to be merely coincidence, or even the product of their years of the chase and the struggle. All he could think was that Zim had done something to him when he’d died or almost died. Humans were not meant to be connected into freaky alien technology.

He took the orb from Zim wordlessly, his voice had somehow taken the opportunity to flee and could not be found by any conventional means. The alien got to his feet, now standing with his upper body disappearing into the hole. It was an easy fit for the small being, with ample room for him to move. A moment of hesitation and then Zim was disappearing into the dark and could not be seen.

It was Dib’s turn next. He put one knee on the toilet tank then the other, resting his elbows on the top of the fridge. There was barely any room for his upper body as he shifted, but the hole was almost directly above the area his head and torso now occupied. As he carefully got to his feet, he eased his head into the hole. Darkness enveloped his sight, his chest serving to block off the light from the orb he held. His hand entered the hole, then his other hand, illuminating the room. As he pulled his right knee onto the top of the fridge, he felt a tremor shake the floor beneath him, this one longer and stronger than the brief trembling he’d felt earlier. The shaking came only moments before the horrendous squeal of protesting metal shuddered upward from deep below. There could be no doubt what that noise signified - the government had breached the underground base! The house would be next.

Dib didn’t freeze this time - he shifted his weight and pulled his other leg up onto the fridge. As soon as he had the leverage, he stood. It was a tighter fit for the human than it was for the alien - but his shoulders slipped through the hole and the rest of his skinny frame wasn’t likely to have any problem following suit. Even better, since the hole was only two feet or so above the top of the fridge, no further climbing was necessary. He stepped up into the chamber and felt vaguely uneasy when he couldn’t immediately see Zim. What he did see was the rounded front end of the alien’s ship, almost within touching distance.

It was just as he remembered it and that was something of a relief. Hell, just seeing the ship was a relief, subconsciously he’d been expecting it to not even be there. "Zim?" He stepped forward, raising the orb in an attempt to illuminate the rest of the room. Motion caught his eye and he turned his head quickly - feeling a brief moment of superstitious fear. He whipped his head back around when he heard an odd hiss, his heartbeat racing. What he saw was the top of the Voot opening, dismissing the last of his fears about the plausibility of this escape plan. He was, however, a bit surprised by how small the cockpit was - it had certainly appeared larger in his last memories of it. There was still no sign of Zim either. "Where are y-" He didn’t finish his question, his words cutting off as he heard a scuttling sound from behind him and then something shiny and metallic lashed out and knocked the orb from his hand.

The light level dropped as soon as the orb rolled beneath the body of the Voot. It didn’t mean that Dib couldn’t see Zim once he’d stumbled and turned around. The little green alien was staring up at him through narrowed eyes and somehow he’d found himself a firearm. It was probably stored inside the ship, Dib thought, taking a step back and bumping into the Voot behind him. It was the fact that Zim was aiming it at his chest that both alarmed and confused him.

Zim had saved his life back in the underground base - something he’d most definitely been under no obligation to do. It was hard to reconcile that act with this new threat he was facing. It was completely out of the blue, but his analytical mind insisted on trying to find a way to reconcile it. When Zim had saved his life earlier, their chances for escape had looked to be very slim indeed. Dib had managed to come up with a plan despite the odds against it, but now that they had succeeded and freedom was within their grasp, Zim didn’t need Dib any longer. They were enemies, weren’t they? You didn’t rescue your enemies.

But the alien’s words had nothing to do with any of that. "How did you do it, earth stink?" There was frustration in Zim’s voice - frustration and distress, even a hint of something that could have been fear. Dib knew it wasn’t the fear of being captured again - the likelihood of the government taking the alien alive was slim to none. If it came down to that, Zim would fight them until they were forced to kill him. There would be no more of the experiments and the painful tests. No... that was only the least of his fears. Everything about his stance and expression told the truth of the matter. He was afraid of Dib.

"How did I do wh-" His amber eyes widened and there was no need to ask the question because he already knew the answer. And Zim had obviously expected him to.

It all went back to the same point - he’d died, or else had come so close that the distinction was extremely muddled. He would have been dead. And Zim - Zim had...

/Copying Cerebral data - 46 complete/

His head was spinning as he tried to remember what exactly had happened - he remembered a confusing sequence of images, misty and disjointed. The end of the world. He remembered being dead. But he also remembered the struggle to save his life, the moment of panic that had swept over him as he looked down at himself and knew that he was dead. It couldn’t have happened both ways, his mind screamed at him, and he stared down at the menacing alien with blank confusion etched on his face. It couldn’t, it hadn’t...

Those weren’t *his* memories, he realised in a flash of clarity, he was remembering what Zim had done. It was as if the memories were his own.

/Repairs completed - data transfer in progress/

Some part of him was painfully aware of the ever louder noises from below and their eminent danger. He just couldn’t bring himself to give a damn about it. How, indeed? Zim had done this and had to know where the blame lay but that was no comfort now. Even the weapon aimed at his chest was almost an afterthought - Zim couldn’t kill him, not so easily. "You did this." The words escaped from him without any conscious thought on his part and they held the same frustrated desperation and the same fear that he’d seen in Zim.

Zim had saved his life, yes, had hooked him into the pak to repair him just as he would have for another Irken. It was a dangerous, desperate maneuver and the odds of success were virtually impossible to calculate. No one had ever done such a thing before. The pak had summarily treated him like one of Zim’s own species - making a copy of his data for backup purposes. A copy of his brain, in essence, with all the memories, thoughts and feelings that added together into his unique personality. It stirred a vague memory of another time when he’d been through a similar experience - when his personality was downloaded into Tak’s ship. When the repairs were completed, the pak would supposedly have transferred the saved information back and deleted it from the pak’s data storage. That was where things had messed up, he speculated. That had to be the point where it had all gone to hell. Somehow the save was corrupted, or it hadn’t deleted or one of any number of things that could have gone wrong with this process. No wonder he could understand the alien’s oddities better! It was a disturbing thought on too many levels to list.

If things were bad for him though, how much worse must they have been for the alien? He stared down at Zim, saw the uncertainty of Zim’s stance and how the gun wavered in his grasp. The sounds from below had become easily discernable, banging and yelling voices. He would have to risk it.

Even so, the levelness and the calm in his own voice surprised him. "We don’t have time for this, Zim," He said, putting aside the other feelings for the time being. Sorting them out could come later - if there was a later. "Either shoot me or let me get in the ship. They’ll be here for us any moment." Zim’s antennae flattened back sharply and his finger jerked on the trigger. For a moment Dib thought that Zim really would shoot him, but he didn’t flinch and the gun slowly lowered until it was pointed at the floor.

"Come on, then," Dib’s voice was a little shaky as he turned back to the Voot, climbing inside with far less trouble than he’d anticipated. It was a tight fit but that was such a minor matter that it didn’t merit complaining about. He expected Zim to follow suit immediately but the alien crept around the front of the Voot instead. When he climbed in from the other side, he was grasping their light tightly in one hand.

"We almost forgot it." It was all Zim would say on the matter and Dib didn’t feel the need to question him.

The controls were confusing to Dib - the last ship he’d piloted was Tak’s, a different type of ship altogether, and that was nearly a decade ago. Zim was having no such problems. He could not shove Dib aside, and had to make due with perching on the edge of the human’s lap as he ran his claw-like fingers over the controls. The panels lit up as he touched them and the dome came down, clicking into place as Zim frantically messed with the controls. "This is it, Dib-monkey. You’d better cross your feeble human limbs and hope that my piloting is as superior as it used to be."

Dib hastily clutched at the edges of the pilot’s seat, ignoring the pain the sudden action caused him. "I hope it’s better than I remember it being!" He hadn’t really planned to say that, the words had just popped out before he could think about them. Sure enough, the alien cast him a nasty glance, teeth bared slightly. The loud crash from below was enough deterrent to prevent him from responding, instead he slammed one hand down on the panel and the ship lurched sickeningly, its boosters thrusting once, sputtering and then flaring to life. There was only a brief moment for Dib to remember that the roof wouldn’t open without power either and then the Voot surged upward.

The ceiling of the house exploded around them into thousands of fragments, briefly obscuring their vision in a cloud of sawdust and wood fragments. It did nothing to their hearing however - numerous shouts and the sharp crack of handguns being fired greeted their emergence. As soon as the debris cleared, Dib could see the scene below. A ring of cop cars formed a half circle in front of Zim’s house and some distance down the street the pavement was torn up in chunks and the ground beneath it sported a gaping, dark hole. These things were expected, to Dib at least. Zim stared down at this scene with an agitated expression on his face. He did exactly what Dib would have tried to avoid, swooping down and causing the police officers to scatter and duck behind their vehicles. "Get away from my base!"

"Zim!" Dib yelped in alarm, "Forget about the base! We need to get out of here!" He reached out himself and slammed his hand down on a random button on the controls. The Voot reversed course and jerked backwards, slamming them into the front of Zim’s house. Human and alien were both slammed up against the front of the dome and remained there for a few seconds, stunned by the force of the impact.

The Irken recovered first, planting his foot against Dib’s chest and shoving him back into the seat with more force than was strictly necessary. "What do you think you’re doing stinkbeast?" The alien snarled, rounding on him furiously, "I thought you wanted to get off of this filthy planet alive! Keep your grubby human meat off of the controls!" The alien turned back to the front of the Voot and examined the panel quickly. While he was doing this, Dib was rubbing gingerly at the sore spot where Zim had kicked him and thinking, rather irritably, that the alien had no right to talk. After all, which of them was the genius who’d insisted on driving the planet Mars through an asteroid belt? He glared out of the clear sloping side of the dome and nearly choked as he saw a familiar face among the crowd of uniformed police officers.

Unfortunately for him, the amber eyes that were rarely seen due to a perpetual irritated squint were quite visible now and locked firmly onto him. He felt his stomach doing the down elevator routine and dropping rapidly into the vicinity of his boots. Forget waiting for Zim to figure the controls out again - he knew that expression all too well and he sensed that his immunity to the full effects of it had long since faded. He shoved Zim aside in his haste, slamming the little alien into the dome as he reached for the controls again. This time his intuition was working - either that or panic was extremely good for making him divine the meaning of the alien script. His hand came down on the forward thrusters.

The Voot plunged straight ahead without gaining altitude, bowling over the barely recovered policemen and rushing down the street like an unbridled horse. It was all Dib could do to keep the ship from crashing into any buildings or other large and immovable objects - getting it higher into the air was impossible. The shriek of sirens behind them was indication enough that at least some of the police had recovered their wits enough to give chase. Dib could see the flashing lights out of the corner of his eye and turned his head to look behind him and see if he could tell how many there were. When Zim’s shrieking filled his ears, he turned back, just in time to see them whiz right through a red light. The sound of skidding tires and honking horns raised loudly in their wake.

At least the collisions at the intersection had effectively rid them of their unwanted pursuers... Dib was about to try making sense of the controls when something struck him on the side of the head and sent him reeling. By the time his vision cleared, Zim had retaken the controls and they were angling upward sharply. Dib groaned, feeling an insistent throbbing in his temples and an answering ache from his ribs and arm. Still, they were gaining altitude and that was hardly a matter for complaint. He slumped back into the chair, his eyes squeezing tightly shut as he tried to gain some measure of control over his flip-flopping stomach.

The sudden swerve that followed on the heels of this action did nothing to help his wavering grasp on his nausea. He was on the verge of protesting when he heard a loud explosion and felt the Voot shiver as something clipped it. His eyes flew wide and he sat up straight immediately. "What the-" Another explosion, and this time he saw as the object flew past them. "They’re shooting at us!" As soon as he said it, he wanted to smack himself for his stunning ability to state the obvious. Apparently the police hadn’t been the only ones called in when news of Zim’s escape had gotten out - the tanks below were clearly military issue and so were the jets that were swarmed after them in hot pursuit. Gaz had arranged this somehow, he thought, but doubted he would ever know the details of it. "We need to get out of their range." His mind was racing. "The military doesn’t have space capable vehicles yet." It was true the last time he’d checked and he could only cross his fingers that the constraints of government funding that had long been his bane in childhood would now be working in his favour. He only hoped that his assurances hadn’t been rendered lies by some odd chance that the politicians had gained some common sense in the last few years. "What are you doing, Zim? Go up!"

"Shut up!" Zim snapped back, "Your bleating is disrupting the incredible brain processes of ZIM! I knew what I’m doing, human, I’ve been flying spacecraft since before you were spawned!" Despite this, the alien was just as flustered as Dib felt - somehow he doubted that Zim had spent too much of that aforementioned time dodging enemy projectiles. But Zim was angling the Voot upwards again, gaining altitude rapidly. The jets behind them followed, speeding up as they pursued the alien ship doggedly. Zim’s Voot wasn’t as useful as a jet was in a planet’s atmosphere, if Dib remembered the information he’d managed to hack from Zim’s computer nine or ten years ago. The ship was much better for space travel than for planetary dogfights.

There was nothing Dib could do to improve their odds of getting through this in one piece, his only option was to cling and hope as Zim took the ship through its paces. It was a minor relief that the alien was at least minimally capable of driving the Voot in combat conditions. A couple of missiles arced past them at uncomfortably close quarters, but none of the attempts to shoot them down had managed to do more than strike glancing blows off of the hull. Dib also guessed that the general quality - or lack thereof - of military training might have been somewhat to blame.

The Voot arrowed through a wispy layer of clouds, the ground falling away beneath them until there was no way of making out the details of the city below. The ground had become an uneven patchwork of greens and browns spread out below but the jets - two of them, Dib could tell by looking out the dome - were still following in their wake tenaciously. It was rather amazing that the pilots were daring to follow still, they had to be very close to the maximum altitude the vehicles were capable of handling. Dib’s eyes widened as he saw the two jets move into a formation, ready to try for what would undoubtedly be a final volley.

It would be all or nothing.

Dib tore his gaze away from the jets, away from the earth below, and fixed his sights on the vastness of space that was spreading out in front of him. Mumbled words passed his lips and he couldn’t recall thinking about them. "I have fought the good fight..." He wasn’t even religious, none of his family were - unless one counted science as a religion as his father was wont to do. He knew the words nonetheless, they echoed through his head.

‘I have finished the race...’

In front of him, Zim was cursing in Irken and glaring down at the controls as though he could command the ship with just the force of his will. Tension was clear in every line of his small green form but while he was obviously being quickly pushed towards the limit of his tolerance, Dib was becoming almost relaxed. The stars were brighter than he could remember them being before, the thinning atmosphere no longer serving to distort them so much. He couldn’t say he understood the feeling he was experiencing at the moment, though. It wasn’t quite acceptance nor was it really confidence either.

Perhaps there was just a certain relief in knowing things would happen as they needed to. Sometimes struggling and determination were good - they could wrest victory from the most unlikely of circumstances. Sometimes. And sometimes you could only sit back and let it all unfold around you. There was nothing to do but... trust.

‘...I have kept the faith’

Sometimes trust was a matter for great consideration and sometimes it wasn’t. But in the end it all boiled down to one thing - it was about putting aside your uncertainties, closing your eyes and just letting go.

He was almost smiling as his dark amber eyes slipped shut - it was just a short time as he heard the sound of the missiles being launched and counted down the seconds in the strained silence of the cockpit. Even Zim had frozen, either from fear or the realization that things were out of his control. It felt like they waited for an eternity, trapped in the moment of anticipation. Salvation or damnation - which would it be?

The missiles skimmed past, a bare miss, and immediately time kicked back into gear. Zim slumped over the control panel, suffering from extreme relief or maybe it was just that exhaustion had finally caught up to him. Dib’s eyes opened slowly as he heard the sounds of the jets beginning to fade away in the distance. He’d calculated right after all, a fact that could not help but make him feel a certain distant contentment. Unless the government was dabbling in military spacecraft, they had nothing left to fear from pursuit. Dib thought there had to be something amiss with him that he wasn’t jubilated by this realization. It took a few moments for the enormity of it to sink in and when it did, he began to tremble alarmingly. The alien was addressing him but the words refused to penetrate his haze, even when Zim began to shout at him in a painfully hoarse tone. His surroundings dipped and surged crazily around him.

"Stay awake, human!" Zim was saying - he understood the words now, as he let himself sink back into the pilot’s chair. Stay awake? Dib thought the request ridiculous, if not downright ludicrous. He needed to sleep - surely they were out of danger at long last and he could finally rest? He leaned his head back against the meager headrest and fixed his gaze on the perfect view unfolding before him. There were thousands of stars and countless worlds and creatures out there, just waiting for him to come across them. They could wait a little longer still, he thought fleetingly as his eyes slipped closed. The last waking thing he saw was the familiar constellations of his home planet burning their way into his retinas.

Dib slept. And for the first time in a long time, his dreams were untainted by fears and family and little green aliens...

*

Gaz stared upward, her expression one of something like disinterest as she surveyed the skies above. The other jets had already returned empty handed, leaving only the stubborn final two still after her brother. They were high above now, barely visible to the naked eye. Gaz raised her shoulders in a slight shrug - turning her attention to the white clad man who had just arrived at the scene. He came up alongside her, his gaze fixed on the sky where the first hints of daylight were starting to make themselves known. The horizon was touched with brilliant pink, but Gaz knew that the scientist was not merely admiring the pre-dawn colours.

"Hello, Dad." It wasn’t quite a flinch that she saw him make at her words - he was too well schooled for that - but his lips did tighten into a long, narrow line. Gaz’s own mouth quirked for a moment, almost a smile. The expression vanished as the two remaining jets swooped back down towards them, not heralded by the falling of fiery debris or anything similarly impressive. Membrane relaxed a little as they passed overhead, lowering his gaze to the alien’s base, which was now looking a great deal worse for the wear. He said nothing, patiently waiting for his daughter to speak first.

She held her silence for a moment longer, knowing that he had to be wanting to get this over with. Well, that was just a dreadful shame, wasn’t it? Her day had come and there was no way that she would allow him to regain the upper hand. No more vying for his attention with her pathetic brother or waiting for openings in his schedule. Gaz would be calling the shots now and it was well past time for her father to give her the affection she so rightly deserved. Maybe too far past time - hugs and kisses and bedtime stories really just weren’t going to cut it anymore. But she could find something that would, she had no doubt of that. "I think you owe me." She said levelly.

"I think perhaps I do." Something about his tone aroused her ire a little and it took her a few seconds to realise what it was. He wasn’t referring to the years of neglect that had led to this end. His gaze was still on the sky and his thoughts had to be on that tiny alien ship arrowing out into the universe. As always. As always... Her hands clenched into tight fists for a moment, nails digging half-moon shaped grooves into her palms. Her composure was pulled back into place almost immediately though and she kept her level gaze fixed on him until he felt compelled to continue. "It seems I have made a grievous error, but perhaps it can still be rectified." He finished, his words soft and thoughtful.

Gaz smiled, that was a start, at least. "I’m glad we agree." She turned her back on the alien’s house where the military was still trying to secure the underground base. "You can begin right now." She called back to her father. "We have a great deal of work to do... Father." Not ‘Dad’ - he would never be just ‘Dad’ again. You made your choices and you lived with them, for better or for worse. "Come on."

She tried to pretend she didn’t see him hesitate out of the corner of her eye. His gaze was on the pink and orange sky as though he could peer through the colours and see what was happening beyond. He turned to trail after her a moment later and she let it pass. It was only a very brief lapse, after all.

At long last, it was the beginning of a new chapter in earth’s history - one that she would write. Gaz was looking forward to that.

*

Chapter Text

Epilogue: Sui Generis

-

Dib once heard it said that time healed all wounds. In the days following their escape from earth, he came to appreciate an odd dichotomy in those words. Somehow they were pure truth and the most appalling of lies, all at the same time. His physical injuries were healing - given more recovery time his injured wrist would be as good as it had ever been. The chest wound he'd suffered, the one that should have killed him - and perhaps it had, he found it difficult to refute Zim's claim that he'd died for however short a time - was another matter entirely. Sometimes he would wake from his sleep grasping for a nonexistent protrusion of metal, his unconscious mind knowing it to be present beyond even the slightest shadow of a doubt. He always felt the ache of it to some degree - like a man losing a limb to a war injury, it left a ghost of itself, a memory that went bone deep.

Zim had saved his life... there in the dark deserted confines of the alien base... but what he felt about said rescue was an often nebulous and confusing mishmash of conflicting emotions that he couldn't even begin to sort out. He wished it could be cut and dried - that he could be grateful to Zim for what he'd done. The alien's actions had given him the chance to make something out of his life. He now had the opportunity to pull away from the tattered remains of his existence on earth and do what he could only have dreamed of before - venturing out into the galaxy and going where no other human had ever been before. 'I should be ecstatic,' Dib sighed quietly, trying not to wake Zim with the motion.

The alien had been spending most of the time in some freakish, Irken equivalent of sleep - or at least that was what it seemed like to Dib. Zim's eyes never closed - they just went dark and blank, staring out into the blackness of space. At first it had sent the human into a frenzy of panic, thinking that the alien had just up and died on him - leaving him alone and stranded in a tiny spaceship floating aimlessly through the vast emptiness of the galaxy. He'd learned better quickly enough, upon the alien regaining consciousness. Now the silences were not punctuated with fear, only with a gnawing boredom and a rapidly burgeoning realization that the tentative peace that they'd achieved upon their escape from earth could not possibly last forever.

Initially Dib had taken an odd sort of comfort in the presence of his former enemy. If ever he'd needed reassurance that his efforts had not been in vain, Zim was only the merest distance away - often the small space in which they were confined meant that he was usually in tactile contact with the Irken at all times. It all seemed so surreal, especially in the moments where he lingered on the verge of sleep himself, so certain that this was all some dream he was experiencing. Lately though, he could feel the restlessness making him jumpy. The Voot was meant for a single Irken passenger, not an Irken and an adult human, and his current version of 'exercise' was trying to find a way to unfold his legs in the cramped cockpit. Zim was taking up space that his ill-used limbs were beginning to insist that they badly needed.

It was hard for him to be angry with Zim yet though - every time he felt an inclination towards the emotion, he saw the healing wounds on the alien's body and counseled patience to himself. Patience... and a bit of pride-inspired clemency. After all, Zim had endured nearly six years of being experimented upon in just about every unpleasant way that human science had to offer. If Zim could get through that, then Dib could swallow his complaints about their cramped conditions. He would rather eat his own head than admit that a few days of suffering the irritating pins and needles sensation every time he moved was nearly enough to make him whine like a four year old. Besides, he doubted that griping about it would accomplish much of anything - the Irken was probably just as miserable with the situation as he was.

Until they'd actually escaped Earth, Dib hadn't really considered the logistics of what he was doing. Going off into space with Zim was a pretty crazy notion, even though there hadn't been many other options available at the time. Now here they were, in space, and Dib had no idea what they were going to do next. Presumably Zim could return to his home planet, although after all these years of no alien death fleet coming to earth to discover the whereabouts of their missing Invader, Dib suspected that his former enemy was not well liked by his own species. Even if he was, what was the likelihood that they would be pleased that not only had Zim not conquered the planet, he'd led one of the Earthlings right back to his own kind? Not too good, he thought.

He hadn't had the opportunity to really discuss this with Zim yet – he anticipated that it would quickly descend into a screaming match, with Zim insisting that ‘of course his leaders would be thrilled to see him back, he was ZIM’. Dib could almost have the entire conversation in his own head and there was no doubt that it would be pretty accurate, if not word for word. All thanks to Zim’s weird alien technology. Sometimes he could hear a faint noise, a whispering voice in the back of his mind that refused to be silenced. It freaked him out, especially in the moments where it came to the forefront a little more and he could almost make out what it was saying.

His gaze flitted down to the alien slumped against the side of the Voot and half sitting in his lap. Zim’s expression was still vacant but every so often he would twitch a finger or one of his antennae, his mouth moving a little and silently forming words. If they were in English, Dib couldn’t tell, but at times like this the whisper in the back of his mind felt the strongest.

Dib tore his gaze away from the alien’s face, turning his head slightly to stare out the Voot’s window. Beyond the thin barrier, the stars stretched out in an endless diorama. The elaborate swirls of far off nebulae were beautiful and alien, with colours that had probably never been seen before by human eyes. All his life he had been so focused on aliens and monsters from beyond the stars that he never stopped to think about what else the universe might hold. The few times he’d previously been in space, he had never bothered to really look at it all. He’d only had eyes for Zim. Yet looking at them now, even now with all of his ties to earth and family cut and cast adrift, all he could see was still Zim.

He felt his throat grow tight - anger or sorrow, he wasn’t sure – and a prickling sensation at the back of his eyes. This time he didn’t try to fight it. The tears were free at last, slipping silently down his cheeks, clinging to his lashes and hanging briefly from his chin before tearing free. Wet warmth hit the back of his wrist and he raised his hand to stare at the damp spot on his skin, eyes wide with disbelief. All this time, he’d been devoid of real tears – reduced only to dry sobs or nothing at all… Dib never thought he would cry again.

Why he was crying when everything was going right for him, he didn’t know. He probably never would.

Oddly, the tears were a better salve to his wounded soul than all the time and space in the world. Time covered over the hurts, dulled the painful memories until they were hidden away by layers of mental scar tissue. But it didn’t make anything go away. This too was just another unpleasant fact of life. The tears were bitter and sweet, and although they hurt like hell coming out, they relieved some of the built up pressure – the guilt and stress that could find no other outlet. The sound in his throat was not quite a sob, instead bearing a surprising resemblance to hysterical laughter. The human barely stifled the noise in time, shaking a little even so.

Dib’s efforts to remain silence proved futile as he felt the stirring of a small body and looked down into a pair of weary magenta eyes. For a moment he tried to choke back the tears, leery of what the Irken would say. To be called weak and pathetic was the last thing he needed now, but what he saw on Zim’s face was anything but what he expected. The little green alien had an expression of longing that bordered on actual hunger. One bare, three fingered hand rose to Dib’s face, fingers brushing against his cheek as he struggled not to flinch away from the touch.

"Does it hurt?" Zim asked in a soft hiss, pulling his hand away with the faint gleam of teardrops marring the green skin.

And Dib, not knowing how to respond to such a query, went with the truth. He had no energy for anything else. "Yes."

Zim’s eyes narrowed as he peered into the human’s face, but Dib only met the piercing stare with a look of tired resignation. Surprisingly, it was the Irken who tore his gaze away first, his features twisting with some hard to identify emotion. "Oh."

For a moment, Dib felt a surge of anger at the reaction. Oh? Was that really all Zim had to say in all of his superior alien glory? He opened his mouth to snap something he would surely regret later, then saw the subtle slump of the Irken’s shoulders, heard that faint ghost of a whisper in the back of his mind and felt understanding blossom inside him with a sharp pang.

‘Oh…’ What he was seeing was a far cry from the attitude Zim had shown back on earth. He had no idea if Irkens could cry – or if they were even really capable of most of the same emotions as humans – but he thought he understood nonetheless. Zim had no capacity for this kind of release of his stored up pain and frustration. So he destroyed things – like a little child throwing a temper tantrum. ‘I understand.’ And, as always, there remained the grandest irony – that his realisation did not help the matter in the slightest.

"I’m sorry…" He knew he didn’t need to apologise… but he *had* to all the same.

"So am I, earth-stink…" Zim raised his wet fingers to his mouth, lapping away the salty tears with slow deliberation. Dib thought he saw the alien’s skin smoking faintly where the liquid had touched and wondered what it was that made the pain such a necessity – why it was always the last, best resort.

‘Catharsis’, his mind prompted, and his mouth twisted in a smile, one that Zim echoed wanly – a moment of shared pain, if that was all they could really share. For all their numerous differences and their utter alienness to each other, they were still closer than any two such individuals had any right to be. No matter how much they railed against the fact – however much they fought or argued – they had an inviolable bond. It was the noose around their necks that only pulled tighter the more they struggled to pull away.

Dib never thought he would lose to Zim. It was some consolation that Zim had also lost to him. And that they’d both won somehow - if only by dragging each other across the finish line, stumbling and swearing the entire way.

He felt himself shaking again, this time with laughter and after a moment of staring at him, dumbfounded, Zim couldn’t help but join in. A little mean, a little confused and overall hysterical, but it felt good. And for the first time he could remember, Dib felt a little ember of warmth settling into his chest – small and uncertain, but tenacious - and he could tell it was there to stay.

With life, freedom and a crazy little alien beside him, the universe was full of countless possibilities and, at long last, strong undercurrent of hope.

When their laughter finally died down, Dib looked down at the little alien still perched in his lap, a crooked grin on his face. "So… what now, Zim?"

"Eh?" The Irken’s antennae pricked forward, his expression twisted into a look of confusion so profound it was comical. "What do you mean, Dib-monkey?"

Dib shook his head slowly, the grin never leaving his face. "I mean, where are we going to go now? I mean, we can’t go back to earth, and I doubt your leaders would be too thrilled to see you-"

"What nonsense are you vomiting, earth filth!?" The Irken hissed back, "Not thrilled to see ZIM? Why would they NOT be amazed to see me!?"

‘And… here we go…' Dib’s eyes glittered behind his thick glasses, his grin turning feral. As much as the peace between them was welcome in its own way, this was something he needed – something he lived for. The thrill, the fight, the hot rush of competition against the one creature in the universe who was his opposite and equal all at once.

"Possibly because you got your ass kicked by a human and didn’t succeed at taking over the planet?" He suggested with no attempt at innocence to hide his cutting words.

"LIES!" Zim’s voice hit a decibel previously only attainable by supersonic aircraft.

‘Oh yeah…’ Dib grinned wickedly, the next barb already on his lips. The future was looking promising.

-

 

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning." - Winston Churchill

 

 

*Fin*