A/N: The ending to this chapter can be interpreted in many ways and they could all be correct. It's up to you to decide. ;)

***

For most everyone, no matter who you happened to be, there is a moment where you feel at your most content. Where you know right deep in your own self you are exactly where you should be. Sometimes you even feel like you finally figured out exactly who you are. You have everything you want in your hands, cradling it in your presence, holding it close. Keeping it safe. Watching Gaz sleep, Zim knew this is where he wanted to be. The kind of live-forever moment to be recorded in the movie reel of the mind and taken out whenever it was in most need of.

Zim let his eyes rove over every detail of her face, the curve of her neck and the way her hair framed around her face. The sheet started at her bare shoulders and gracefully conformed to the curve of her body. Her face was still, a lock of hair covering one eye, one arm draped over the pillow with the other lying almost across her waist. Her nostrils flared delicately as she exhaled and a faint disturbance from within sent a small frown playing over her forehead. Then her expression relaxed and that particular cycle ended. Who'd know hours before she had totally and utterly abandoned herself. He'd never seen anything like it -- he'd never seen her allow herself to be lost like that. Thinking about it, Zim remembered with some shame, he'd been very raucous. Sense only popped back into him after her head had bumped the headboard (fleetingly he also recalled she'd been bracing it with both hands). Letting his gaze drift to the arm lying close to him, he saw the red marks on her pale skin where he'd gripped her. Yes, he'd hurt her. He let his head drop back on the pillow. He hadn't meant to do that.

Well, he thought, in my defense, she never told me to stop. Turning over on his side toward her, he felt a twinge and he winced. With love came pain and time again taught him there were just some things you didn't do on a daily basis. Not that he hadn't enjoyed it, far from it. Nor did he doubt that this time she had taken to it.

They both had.

Zim grew restless and sat up slowly, not wanting to disturb her. Slipping out of the bed, he stealthily dressed, all the while keeping an eye on the sleeping woman. I did this last time, he thought. Woke up in the middle of the night and went off to think. Yet this time it wasn't the sex that was on his mind, it was something else. A churning sensation of confusion twisted and turned inside his gut like the Midgard serpent trying to pull loose.

Being quiet as possible, he slipped from the room and moved into the kitchen. Going to the sink, he filled a glass of water and set it in the middle of the table. Then he sat down folded his arms over on top and rested his chin on them. He stared through the glass, the water distorting the shadowy room's image. During nights he couldn't sleep or wanted to keep awake, Zim found it better to keep his concentration if there was a mild element of danger in the room. It was a weird ritual he'd gotten into shortly after he discovered his weakness to water. If it spilled or splashed on him, he was in trouble. Yet he knew if it stayed in its glass undisturbed, it couldn't hurt him.

For a while, Zim sat there. The moonlight streaming through his window set the glass glowing with a silvery, crystalline light. Faint light rings appeared around water shadows. In its own way, the deadly substance was beautiful. Pity, I'll never know why Gene Kelly was so happy to let himself get soaking wet. Singing a song with a big dopey smile on his face while that deadly rain drenched him through and through. If an Irken tried that he'd be dead! Hehe.

Zim shook himself. No, he had to stop distracting himself. But distracting himself from what? These thoughts were okay. Amusing harmless little things.

He exhaled. I know what I'm trying not to think about. What I'm trying to pretend isn't weighing on my mind.

But why? It was so clear cut, so simple. This was his dream, for years he'd longed for this chance. This second chance not only to heal the painful blow but to actually prevent the blow from ever being struck.

Well, think about it. Do you want to do it?

Yes.

Why?

Because . . . he struggled for a personal answer. Because I love Gaz and I can't stand to see that desolation in her eyes. I can't stand to see her be so alone.

Aren't you there though?

I am. But I will never be enough for her. There's a missing piece to the puzzle of her jigsaw and I don't fit in the right hole.

What hole is that?

Family, he was surprised how easily the answer came to him. Humans need family and even though it could be anyone their heart chooses, they all have a deep place inside themselves that wants family to be blood. Gaz wants it.

How do you know?

She said it herself. She said she's lost her whole family. Her mother is dead. Her brother is dead and her father died inside. Anything else is not a fit substitute.

Then why not bring back the whole family then if that's what she wants?

It's him. He was the one thing she was certain of. That no matter what else happened, whatever she thought of herself, she always would know her brother loved her. And that he would never stop loving her. No one questions it, no one makes fun of them for it. In their weakness at least together they knew that's where their strength lay.

What about you? Don't you pretty much fill in a lot of that?

I could. I would. But there's one thing I can't be.

What's that?

"I'm not Dib." He sighed. "I'm not her brother. I'm her friend, I'm the one she gives herself to but I'm not her brother." Zim opened his eyes and the anguish scrunched his features. His eyes started to itch. "I could never be enough for her."

When someone spoke to him out of nowhere, he nearly jumped a mile.

"Hello Zim."

The alien dragged his arm across his eyes. "Huh?" Had Gir gotten up? It couldn't be Gir though, Gir only addressed him as lord or master. Besides the voice sounded too . . . human.

"Amazing. After almost ten years you're still dense."

I must be hearing things. Zim looked around curiously, not sure whether he ought to be frightened. "Who's there?"

Suddenly crouching on the table was the form of a boy. He crossed his elbows over his knees and grinned cheerfully into the astonished extraterrestrial's face. "Hi."

"Whoa!" Zim kicked back and his chair skidded across the linoleum. Jaw dropping, he pointed at the glowing figure. "Y-You're NOT in my head!"

"Nope." He kept grinning.

Zim's mouth opened and closed a few times. Temporarily the power of speech eluded him. "S-So ghosts are real?"

"Yep." Dib looked absolutely thrilled.

"But . . ." Zim rubbed his eyes and blinked hard a few times. Nope. Still there. "This is crazy. How is it you are here? You're dead."

The ghost looked irritated.

"Ohhhkay." Zim moved on, knowing he wasn't going to get anywhere with the obvious.

"Why are you here?"

Dib sat down cross-legged. "To talk."

The alien lit up. "Oh that's great! Do you know?"

"No."

"Oh." Zim scratched his neck. "Uh, do you want me to tell you?"

"No."

Confused, the Irken frowned. "Then how are we going to discuss this?"

Dib shrugged. "By talking." He winked at his former enemy. "It's a pretty straight-forward process."

Zim growled. Even dead Dib retained his oddball sense of humor.

"I know." His enemy smiled. "So let's talk."

"Okay. Um," he thought about it. "Do you think we should do it?"

"Well," Dib thought aloud, "do you want to do it?"

"Yeah. Only there's a problem."

"What's the problem?"

Zim sighed. "We don't know if we should."

"Ah."

"Yeah." Zim sagged in his chair. "It sucks." After a minute he looked up at Dib. "Are you really here? I'm not dreaming am I?"

Dib dropped his head and shook it. Looking up he stood up on the table and opened both hands. When Zim shot him an apprehensive look, Dib crooked his finger at him. Zim stood and approached the small spirit form. Rather uncertainly, he reached out with his own hands and touched the tinier ones.

A sharp, intense sensation went through him in a cold rush. "I-I feel you." He stammered, feeling his defenses go down. "Oh God . . ." he whispered feeling the spirit wrap his fingers around his own. For no real reason he fathomed consciously, he felt Dib touch him where only the dead could touch. It was like he was inside his mind reading everything in him and leaving him bare. Dib watched his enemy take short quick breaths. Faintly, Zim managed, "What are you doing to me?"

"Nothing."

"N-No, no" Zim hated how his voice quavered. "Y-You're doing something. I can feel it, you're in my head. You're in me." He stepped back and felt his knees give a little. "No," he moaned a little more quietly. "Let me go."

Dib started to lift his hands.

An intense kind of fear knifed Zim and he snatched the spirit's hands back. "No. You're not leaving me again." He felt himself go small, going away. Even his own voice sounded distant and frightened. Getting angry, he tried to growl menacingly. "You can't win all the time. You can't because it's . . . it's not . . ."

"Not what, Zim?" Damn it, how could a ghost be so gentle?

He closed his eyes and said quietly, "It's not fair."

"Zim, what do you want?"

Zim shook his head. "I just want what I could never have. What probably won't ever be real." He met the shine of Dib's glasses. "I wanted to tell you I . . . I've been a good loser and I don't want to be a good loser anymore." I want you back, he wanted to say but the words stuck in his throat.

"You're not a loser." The ghost spoke sympathetically. "You're tall, you're wiser, you know what your heart wants and you know who you really are. Not many people get to that point in their lives." Dib subtly averted his eyes to the side saying the last thing, as if he were saying it to himself.

"But . . ." Zim shook his head. "I'm not happy."

Dib figured it out. He asked anyway. "Because I'm not there making you miserable?"

"Partly. It's also because of Gaz." Zim took a deep breath, held it and let it out. He smiled faintly. "I don't want to lose her. She's better than most intelligent beings I can think of."

"Yes. Yes, she is." But the spirit looked sad.

The alien leaned toward him. "What is it?"

Dib didn't answer right away and when he did, it was very soft. "It's only after you've died you realized you wanted to live." Softening, he opened his hands and let the alien go. "Look, whatever you decide, only think about what you might lose." He smiled in that endearing linger of a smile. "Or you can think about what you'll gain. Something to think about, space boy." He backed away.

Zim became frightened and reached out to him. "No, Dib, please don't go," he begged.

"I have to go."

The alien fought back his frustration and anger. "Why?"

Dib frowned a little. "It's not by choice." He came close again and looked into Zim's eyes. He saw them widen with fear at his proximity. "It's okay," he whispered as he faded away. "If what you've decided is what your heart says to do, then maybe I won't have to go."

After he was gone, like always, Zim felt himself deflate. He stared at his empty hands in wonderment. Curling them into fists, he thought calmly. It was all certain now. Clear.

He raced down to his lab containing the temporal machine and stood before it. Cracking his knuckles he typed in a few calculations. He talked out loud to reassure himself.

"According to this, I can project several different possibilities and scenarios. Then based on the data, I can estimate the resultant future." He stopped and read them over. "But sadly, none of these are perfect. There's just too many factors involved to make any one future a total pro or con." He hit a key. "Especially that one."

He stood back and rubbed his chin. Boy. Something to think about all right.

This wasn't going to be easy. It seemed to be tonight's mantra.

***

Three Hours Later

"Hey."

Startled from his intense concentration, Zim bristled instinctively and started to spring spider legs. Laying a hand on his pak he whipped around. He relaxed instantly. "Oh hi. I didn't hear you come down."

Gaz smiled and tweaked his antenna. "And you said you got your hearing fixed." He clenched his teeth but she just kissed him on the cheek. "Touché." Adjusting the strap to her tank top, her gaze drifted to the machine. Gradually they drifted back to him. "I guess you still . . . want to do it."

He tilted his head to the side, peering at her. "Do you . . . You don't want to?"

Gaz nodded. "I still want to. It's just difficult to think about is all." Interested, she looked at the screens filled with numerous calculations. "What are you doing?"

"Estimating. See," he pointed to one of the monitors. "Depending on what is changed in the very moments before Dib is supposed die, several things could happen."

Somewhere the little computer geek inside Gaz pricked up its satellite dish sized ears. "Go on."

Zim fidgeted. "Um, I can't really explain it. Not without showing you what happened." Again, he silently added.

Gaz didn't react at first and then she did. Her lips drew together and her lower jaw got stiff.

He continued apologetically. "I-I wouldn't want to do that to you. So," he put more of a lighter tone on. "I'm going to bore you to death with technobabble." He was relieved when she chuckled and pulled up a chair. "Okay, you ready? There's three possible outcomes. These I just like the best." Zim pointed to the first monitor. "If we replace the vehicle with, I dunno, a rubber piggy, the driver nosedives over Dib and hits the sidewalk. He winds up breaking a few ribs, fracturing his skull and his arm. Good news is, as before, the human lives. He just doesn't come out of it looking his best. Dib lives and you still go to the hospital." Next he pointed to the second screen. "The second is to put something in YOUR way so you don't cross the street at the exact moment the car comes. Thus Dib doesn't chase you and no one gets hurt. Except still maybe you cause maybe you tripped over whatever it was that was sent back to stop you."

"Sounds great," Gaz said sarcastically.

He smiled sheepishly. "It's all theory, sweetie."

Sweetie?! Gaz blushed. Her Irken friend noticed his unusual slip and flushed too. "Ah well, moving along." He went on automatic pilot. It was what he was best at. "The third option is to go back to the moment before you left the house and cause something to happen to make you guys late for skool. The only problem with THAT though." Zim sighed. "Is then Dib will die a month later."

"Does he in the other two?"

"No." Zim made a what-the-hell-I-don't-get-it gesture. "In the other two, he lives a long and healthy life. In any combo of the events, he lives."

"Hunh." Gaz didn't exactly believe it, not that she didn't trust what he was saying. "So in the first two, something has to be sent to replace something in such a way so the moment the accident happens, people get hurt but nobody dies. In the last one, nobody dies or gets hurt but Dib dies a month later." She blinked hard and shook her head. "That doesn't make any goddamned sense."

Zim agreed. "It's kind of like that accident is supposed to happen."

Gaz thought a minute. "But in the third one, how does he die?"

I didn't want to explore this one. Zim bit the inside of his cheek and shook his head a little, indicating he didn't want to say it. When he wasn't answering, she stood and implored. "Zim?"

He walked away, turning his back to her.

She followed a little but hung back. "What's the matter?"

He swallowed, lifted his head and blinked hard. He didn't want her to see how much telling her this upset him. How watching this scenario had sickened him worse than any real life memories. Summoning a thing closest to courage, he went for a shot in the dark.

"Zim? Please talk to me."

Shut your eyes. It makes it easier. "Dib . . . he manages t-to . . ." Wait, I can do this. "Somehow or other, he manages to break into my house. I think Gir left the window open, something stupid like that. I'm down in my lab and I don't know what's happened." Pause. "I'm in my hologram room. Dib finds and accosts me." Zim stopped and debated his next choice of words. "We get into a fight. It's heated. Dib gets me into a headlock and starts twisting. I guess since he's not strong enough or whatever, my neck doesn't snap. I duck under him and flip him over on the floor. Then I punch him in the head and it dazes him. While he's crouching on the floor trying to recover, I pull out a laser." Zim felt himself start to shake uncontrollably but he hid it well in the palms of his hands. "Dib looks up for one split second and his pupils kind of get small, they dilate or whatever you call it." Zim felt himself slowing down. "I shoot him. He. . . he starts crying. But I just stand over him and point at his head and I . . . I . . ."

Zim wailed and grabbed the sides of his head, the mental image burning in his brain. "NO! I can't possibly do it. No! I-I won't do it, Gaz! I WON'T DO IT!!" He clawed at his delicate antenna, trying to rip one of them off. He screamed but it was a wordless scream. It did it. It finally did it. Evil fate and its inherent cruelties managed to take him over, to twist him, weaken him, chewed his psyche up and spit him out. It came together and stripped him.

Seeing a nightmare come back to life, Gaz quickly went to him and grabbed him and shook him. "Stop! Zim, don't hurt yourself!"

Don't hurt yourself anymore . . . don't hurt yourself anymore . . .

She trailed off and let him go, staring at him as if she never did before. She was back at the tree, she was seeing the marks on his wrists, she was crying. Pulling from the trance, she held his chin still. His eyes were darting all over the place. Hysterical, he was hysterical. "Zim." She spoke gently. "Look at me."

He did.

She made two fingers and pointed to her eyes. "Watch me right here." He stared into her eyes. "Now calm down. It's theory, okay? Just theory. It hasn't happened. It won't happen. Okay? It won't happen."

Visibly weakened, Zim returned to the pedestal of sanity, attempting vainly to clear his mind. "I-I don't want to live like this Gaz, he'll never leave me alone . . . he'll never ever ever leave me alone."

Not knowing what to say, Gaz ran her hand up and down his arm as if he were a small child.

He went on in a small voice. "Something else. We can try something else." He looked up again. "I'm sorry." She touched his face once. "I just want to do it right." But he stood there and let her touch him until his pride returned. "I need to think." He went past her back to the temporal gate and stared at its whirlpool for a long time.

For a long while he immersed himself in his thoughts, quietly aware Gaz was standing right next to him. He glanced at her and he ached. The human woman was loyal to those she let into her heart - fiercely loyal to the point of madness. He felt fortunate in a kind of way to be the second person ever in her life to pierce that aloof shield.

"You know," Gaz began. "I have an idea."

He gave her his full attention, pulling out of his thoughts.

Gaz approached the field, not saying anything right away. "What if," she started, "we warned you? At the moment before it happens we send a message to you. I mean, you saw the whole thing happen."

"How would we warn me?"

Gaz pulled down her shirt over the top of her pants. "Hmm. Well, how did you warn yourself last time?"

"Uh, well, problem with that." Zim coughed embarrassedly. "I wrote on a rubber piggy. I was operating the machine and after I said "Now to unleash screaming temporal doom!" my brain was outside my head and you can guess where the pig wound up."

"But you didn't die?" Gaz gave him a skeptical look. "Obviously."

"No. My pak reached out, grabbed the brain and shoved it back in my skull. The rubber piggy was discarded on the floor. After I got my senses back, then I read the message." Zim shrugged at the mixture of fascination and revulsion on the human's face. No one ever said Irken science was pretty.

"Well, is there any less disgusting way?" She was making fun of him. He loved it.

Zim paced back and forth a few. "Huh, well, just before the accident happened, a kid walking by me threw a tennis ball at my head. I caught it, looked at it to see what it was and then tossed it." His eyes lit up into a mad red glow. "THAT'S IT! We send something to replace the tennis ball! I'M INGENIUS!" He made his victory pose.

"That was my idea, hon."

Hon? He gave her a look worth a thousand words.

"What if it doesn't work though?" she worried. "Say we do this but you can't react fast enough assuming you're going to? You're still evil back then. You wouldn't listen to anyone but you." Thoughtful pause. "Unless of course you wrote it on Irken stationary."

He laughed. He sobered quickly though. "Well, what do you think?"

She looked at the screens and then back at him. Her expression spoke for her.

Zim held up a finger to show her she had a point and on the ball. Quickly he tapped in the calculations and then his arms dropped limp at his sides. He stared blankly at the screen, a tiny smile sneaking up unexpectantly on him. Gaz eagerly came to his side, waiting for the result. She could already tell from the look on his face he knew. The ambiguity of the expression kept her on needles and she longed to scream at him just to get him to hurry and get over his shock and tell her.

He told her all right. If you called an abrupt loud whoop and crazy laughter any sign of make known. Gaz wasn't sure of what to say or ask. She just watched him let loose and waited for him to calm down. Typical Gaz patience, she was very good at it.

Coming back, Zim scooped her off her feet and hugged her. "It works. It works!"

"It works?" she repeated incredulously.

He laughed again and shook his head in disbelief. "It works." He put her down and gazed at her affectionately. Having someone treat her like she was the greatest thing to grace the planet made her feel uncomfortable but in a good way. It felt the same as when he'd been making love to her.

The implications of what he said started to sink in. "So . . . I guess let's do it."

"I guess."

They exchanged an uncertain look.

Zim put the heel of his hand to his head. He appeared troubled.

Gaz put one arm over the other and waited for him to speak.

"I'm thinking," Zim glanced at the temporal field. "About something someone said to me." He gathered his thoughts. "He told me to think about what I'd lose and also to think about what I might gain. He also said . . . it's only after you've died you realize you wanted to live."

For a moment neither of them spoke again.

"To think about what I'll lose and what I'll gain." Zim repeated and tapped his chin. "Hmm. We'll lose this future where Dib is dead and we have nothing but each other and that pain nothing seems to get rid of. On the other hand, in that other future what we'll gain is all three of us being alive and well." He glanced at the monitor. "It seems to indicate our lives get better after the accident. Doesn't say exactly HOW they get better. They just do." He smiled. "I think I like that." He turned to her. "Do you?"

Gaz slipped her arm around him and pulled herself close. "Do pigs fly?"

"When Gir throws them."

She laughed and gave him a squeeze. "I'll miss you . . . even though I won't."

"I'll miss you too." Then he added, "Even though I won't."

"So it's a go?" she said hopefully.

That scheming grin returned. "It's a go." Doubt clouded him for a second. "There's a problem though."

"What?"

"The Empire. If I don't go back ten years from when that happens, does it mean the Resisty win?" Zim smacked himself. He perked up suddenly. "But if it says the future gets better for all of us, it must mean the Empire DOES get saved. Just maybe not by me." Zim put his hands over the controls. "It's we're damned if we do and damned if we don't. So let's do." Before touching anything, Zim turned back to Gaz. "Last chance to back out."

Gaz simply placed herself beside him and put her hand over his where it sat poised for action. She moved his hand over the control and the screens went on standby with the words SUBJECT PAST LIFE: on screen. She typed in DIB MEMBRANE and smiled at him. Slowly he smiled back and moved his head around to get the cricks out of it.

"All right." He set to business. "Get me a tennis ball and a permanent marker."

***

Little Gaz couldn't find her shoe. She had looked for it everywhere and still she couldn't find it. Crawling on her hands and knees, she went under her desk. C'mon, stupid thing, where are you? she thought backing out. Getting back to her feet, she went to the closet and pulled it open.

Aha! There! She sat on the floor and pulled it on, tying the laces as fast as she could. Her expert fingers did it in less than two seconds. Urgently she hopped over to her chair, picked up her book bag and hurried down the stairs. Hurry up before he starts yelling again.

"Gaz, c'mon!" Dib shouted up the stairs. "We're going to be late!"

Gaz came down the stairs, her small hand sliding along the banister. Her usually narrow eyes opened up a little more when she saw the angry impatience in which her brother regarded her with. "Why do you have to have a mouth?" she asked peevishly, moving around him and heading out the door.

Dib caught the door as she tried to slam it closed. He followed her. "Look, sis, nothing personal or anything but if you've had as many detentions as I've had you'd understand." Pause. "No, wait, you do."

Okay, that was going too far even for him. Gaz whipped round and locked fierce snake eyes on him. Dib shrank back. Her message gotten across, she continued on her way with her older brother tagging along. God, she wished he'd go away . . . or make some friends at least so he wouldn't have to walk with her to skool everyday.

***

"GIR!" Zim stood at the door to his house. "Hey!"

The little robot appeared. "What?"

"I'm going to skool now!" he shouted. "Guard the base viciously! Let not one stink-beast in. That means no pizza deliveries!"

"Awww." Gir kicked at the ground. "No fair."

Zim shook his head. "I'm sorry but I can't afford to have anyone come breaking in here. Bad enough we have to deal with the Dib-monster. Understand?"

"I don't."

Well, what could you expect? "Listen well, my sidekick, because if anything is out of order when I get home, NO TACOS!"

Gir screamed.

"Oh believe me, it gets worse," Zim responded dryly. "Now be good."

"Yes sir!"

The invader sighed and shut the door. "Stupid robot," he muttered. "I can't believe how much moronicness I have to put up with every day. One more stupid remark and I might have to kill something." Having said it, Zim looked around suspiciously. No one appeared. He nodded victoriously and marched on toward skool.

When he reached the intersection, he heard a whole bunch of kids coming at him from behind. Side stepping to let them pass, he managed to avoid getting knocked down.

"THINK FAST!"

BOINK!

Zim cursed and caught whatever it was that had bounced off his skull. As he held it up to inspect it, a second of a flash as if from a Polaroid came from it. He gasped and stumbled back a little, rubbing the spots from his eyes.

"What was that?" he muttered poking an eye contact that had started to come loose back into place. Blinking hard rapidly, he returned his attention to the object still clutched in his hand. It was a tennis ball. With writing on it.

ZIM it said in black blocky letters AT THE INTERSECTION A RED CAR WILL COME. IF YOU DO NOT STOP IT THEN YOU WILL REGRET IT FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

He turned it over and found it was signed.

YOURS TRULY, SPACE BOY (that's you)

Zim read it over again and looked around. "Huh?" The intersection was clear. "What red car?"

He heard a commotion coming from the other side of the street. Zim made a face. It was only the Dib-worm and his little sister. He was yelling at her. Unusual, Zim thought. He almost never yells at her.

"Gaz! Stop!" Dib called after her sternly. "You can't cross the street by yourself!"

Gaz walked into the street and stopped in the middle of it. Gaz stuck out her tongue. "I can do whatever I want." To illustrate her point, she stepped off the curb. Dib became upset and yelled at her again. "Gaz Membrane!" Dib yelled at the top of his voice. Several people in the area stopped what they were doing to stare. "Get back here!"

Ignoring him, Gaz started to cross. She paused, probably figuring since there weren't any cars coming at the moment she could afford to do so. She smirked at her fuming brother who'd run to the curb and was glaring at her. She waved. See? the wave meant. I can do it. I don't need your help. I can do it all by myself.

Suddenly Dib's expression went from one of annoyance to panic. "Gaz get out of the street! GET OUT OF THE STREET!"

Remembering the ball in his hand, it suddenly dawned on Zim.

He reached behind and opened his pak.

***

Suddenly things started to change. The world lost its color and sound. There was a red sports car coming her way only in this colorless world it was dark gray. She could see the driver's eyes from where she stood frozen. They were wide and blue - the only hue that managed to emerge from the ashen world. Mutely, she was aware of a loud blaring noise accompanied by a high-pitched, insane shriek. Something hit her from behind, knocking her over. The smell of petrol and hot asphalt filled her nostrils as she rolled over its rough, almost sandpapery surface. Her whole vision filled with charcoal darkness. For a horrible second, she'd feared she'd gone blind.

Slowly she rolled over from her side to her back. Painfully she heaved herself up, propping her upper body with her arms. Groggily, she called, "Dib?" Her head was pounding and when she looked at one of her hands, it was bloody. So were her legs. One of them was stiff and a stabbing pain shot up to her hip when she tried to move. Blinking hard and shaking her head, Gaz looked around. "Dib! Where are you?"

The red car had stopped. Part of the rear end was lifted into the air, the wheels still spinning fast. The driver within leaned on the horn although it did him no good since he wasn't going anywhere. Gaz's gaze drifted beyond the car, wondering what made it stop.

Attached to the back of the car was a suction cup like device with claws that dug in to the back trunk and rear fender. When the car's back wheels quit spinning, the claw thing detached. The car dropped back to the pavement, bounced once on its suspension and started to roll back before the driver came to his senses and put it into park. Gaz's eyes followed the device as it retracted back. Her mouth fell partly open.

Zim stood in the middle of the street behind the car. His face was totally blank and he stood crouched in a battle stance. He looked positively intense for a second until the thing went back inside his pak. Then his knees buckled and he staggered over to the curb and sat down, hanging his head. An audible sound of someone releasing his breath was heard.

Remembering her brother, Gaz snapped her head around, eyes going wide with panic.

Dib was on his hands and knees directly in front of the stopped vehicle. His nose practically touched the bumper and his glasses hung off one ear. For several seconds he appeared frozen in place. Then suddenly he started to hyperventilate and then his eyes rolled back in his head. He fainted.

"Oh God," said the driver who'd leapt from his car. He didn't see Dib but he saw the little girl with the hurt leg and scratched hands. He knelt by her and asked, "Oh God, are you all right? I'm so sorry, you were right in the middle of the street. I'll call an ambulance. Oh Jesus . . ." His eyes were wide and crazy.

"If you're done with your sermon," Gaz said in a super deadly calm voice, "bring my brother over to me. He's lying in front of your car."

"What?!" The guy looked and went even more crazy. He ran over and tried to rouse the boy to no avail. Since he wasn't in his right mind, he picked the kid up and brought him over to Gaz and then ran over to a nearby payphone. Whilst all this went on, a rather large crowd of onlookers had gathered. A few kindly individuals went into the street and started to direct traffic around the accident.

None of the people hovering nearby mattered to her. She dragged herself over close as she could to her brother lying on his back. Fearing the worst, she whispered. "Dib?"

Nothing. She touched his shoulder and gave it a little shake. "Please wake up." The pain in her leg was getting worse but she pulled herself a little closer and put her head on her brother's chest. She exhaled and closed her eyes in relief.

Dib's eyes fluttered. He rolled his head back and forth, blinking, trying to shake off the disorientation. Propping himself up, he looked down at the small girl with her face buried in his shirt. "Don't blow your nose on it this time, huh?"

Gaz lifted her face and he was surprised to see it tear-stained. She managed to put her arms around him. "It hurts."

"It hurts?" Dib gently pushed her off him and inspected her wrists. "Ooo." Then he saw her leg. "Man, you need help. Wait here . . . No!" He looked around and then at her. "Let's move to the curb. I know you're not supposed to move but we can't be in the middle of the street." He started to get up. "Do you think you can move?" Worry flickered over his face.

In reply, she put her arm around his neck and leaned against him. Dib gave her an encouraging smile and together they limped to the curb. Gaz bravely held in her tears until she was sitting down again. "Stay here," she told him when he started to get up, pulling on his sleeve.

Hearing the no nonsense tone, Dib obediently stayed and didn't question it when she pulled close to him and put her head on his shoulder. When her brother gazed over at her, he saw her tears running down the leather of his trench coat. Putting an arm around her, he gave her a half-hug. She didn't object when he started to stroke her hair. "It's okay, Gaz," he spoke for her ears only. "Look at me, okay?" She did and he attempted to smile. "See? You're okay."

"But my leg hurts. That doesn't feel okay." In mild retaliation she gave him a cuff but didn't move away. "You'll ride with me when they come, right?" She meant the ambulance.

Dib chuckled. "Of course."

"I'm sorry I didn't listen."

"We all make mistakes." Dib patted her back. "I'm just happy you're okay."

Just happy I'm okay. "I'm happy you're okay too. . . " She drifted and fell asleep. Even though she missed the ride to the hospital, Gaz didn't need to be awake to doubt her brother. He would be there when she woke up.

***

A Couple Of Days Later

Dib was sitting on his living room couch reading a magazine. Next to him his sister sat playing her GameSlave. Her leg was on a pillow all bound up. It was quiet except for the sounds of the video game. Eventually Dib closed the magazine and looked at his sister. He opened his mouth to say something when the doorbell rang.

Gaz started to move. Dib held up his hand. "No. Stay put." He moved to his feet and answered the door. Seeing who it was, he stuck his body behind the door he case he needed it for a makeshift shield. "What do you want, Zim?" he asked guardedly.

Zim folded his arms. "You weren't in skool today."

Naturally, the question was ignored. "Go away, Zim." Dib sounded edgy. "I can't deal with you right now."

"Oh?" Zim leaned in imploringly. "Aren't you the least bit curious?"

"About what?" Dib demanded suspiciously.

Zim simply handed him a tennis ball. Dib held it and raised an eyebrow at Zim. Impatiently the Irken pointed to it. The human discovered the message and read it aloud. " 'Zim, at the intersection a red car will come. If you do not stop it then you will regret it for the rest of your life. Yours truly, Space Boy (that means you).' " Confused, Dib glanced up at him. "And this means what to me?"

Zim shrugged and folded his arms over his chest. "Whatever it means, you have it to thank for your being here."

"Huh?"

The Irken rolled his eyes and made a sound of impatience at having to deal with lower life forms. "Ask your sister." Then he spun on one heel and left, his tiny shoulders squaring.

Still holding the ball, Dib looked at it, after Zim and then shut the door. As he walked back to the couch, he said, "Gaz, did you hear that?"

Gaz's head poked out over the top of the couch. "Huh?"

Dib came around and sat beside her. "Zim gave me this and then told me to ask you about it."

Gaz took the ball and examined it. She shook her head. "I don't know where this came from but I guess he wasn't talking about that." She paused, trying to think about how to tell him this. Just be blunt. "He saved us."

Blank look.

"The car accident. Zim stopped the car from running us over. In effect, running YOU over."

Dib's mouth finally worked. "That would mean . . . he saved my life."

Gaz nodded and went back to her GameSlave. "You better hope he doesn't ask you for anything in return."

Dib slouched down. "Oh he'll find some way to use it against me." His face darkened. "Like he doesn't already do that anyway." He jumped off the couch and headed upstairs. For some reason his feet felt incredibly heavy. Everything in him felt incredibly heavy. He managed to get to his room, walking past the fishbowl where Tak the First swam in circles around her little castle. He dropped facedown on his bed, breathing in the sheets. After a minute, he turned over and reached under his bed. He pulled out a cardboard box and pulled out a notebook with the word POEMS on the cover. Then he sat against his pillow with his knees up, grabbing a pen from the nightstand. For a long time he sat there, occasionally writing, sometimes sticking the pen behind his ear to think.

Tap, tap.

Dib's hand stopped writing and he looked up. His sister leaned against the doorframe, using her elbow to push the door in. "I just wanted to tell you have to do my laundry night tonight. I can't carry the basket up and down the stairs."

"Okay." He held the notebook over his chest so his words were hidden.

Gaz hovered, trying to think of anything else he needed to know. "Um, oh yeah, there was a phone call for you the other day. A lady. She wants you to watch her kids Friday night." The violet haired girl looked perplexed when she reported this. "Dib, you baby-sit?"

He grinned. "Sometimes."

Gaz came into his room and sat on the end of his bed. "I never knew that. How come?"

Dib shrugged and went back to his notebook. "Never asked."

"Oh. Well, that makes sense."

A few minutes went by. Dib started writing again. His sister pointed to the notebook. "What's that?"

Protectively he held it tight, blocking her view. "Nothing." He sounded resentful.

Gaz crawled over best she could and plucked it out of his startled grasp.

"Hey!"

His sister chuckled evilly and held it away from his snatching hands. Dib's eyes filled with animosity and he kept grabbing for it even though she easily kept him at bay with one arm. "You can't read it! YOU CAN'T!"

"Why not?" she asked innocently. She scooted back when he started to overwhelm her. "It doesn't look like your journal."

"It's not!" Dib was really pissed now. In a deadly serious voice he said, "You better give that back right this second or I'll break your other leg!" He choked when he realized what he just said.

Gaz lowered the spiral notebook and stared at him with narrow eyes. The hurt came and quickly got replaced by dark, unmuddled rage. "I hate you." Throwing the book at him, Gaz got off the bed and limped to the door.

"Gaz, wait, stop." Dib got off the bed and touched her arm. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

She stopped and sat down again heavily. He sat next to her. Several seconds of uncomfortable silence passed. When he looked at her, he was surprised to see tears standing in her eyes.

"I'm sorry," she whispered absently touching her cast. Looking up at him, voice thick and shaky. "I-I don't hate you."

Dib only folded his hands together and nodded. He still looked upset.

"I know you saved me."

Blinking, he looked at her. Gaz stared off into space apathetically, seeming not to feel it when her brother touched her on the arm.

"Gaz?"

Coming out of it, she waited.

Dib silently handed her the notebook. Startled, she could only stare at it and then at him. He smiled sheepishly and gestured. "Go ahead."

His sister flipped through it and reacted with astonishment. "These are . . . poems."

"Uh-huh." Pause. "Just hurry up." He tried to hide how pleased he felt behind his guardedness.

Dib waited anxiously as she read one here and there, sometimes reading a stanza out loud. Most of the time she remained quiet. It did no good for him, he squirmed around a bit. The whole time he felt tempted to snatch it back and the longer she took with it the redder his face got. These poems were the essence of who he was. If Gaz laughed at them or rejected them, it would mean she'd eternally damned him and he didn't want to feel that desire for death come upon him again. This was his whole mind, right there in those pages, his whole soul. There were things in some of those poems he'd never trust to a journal. Or to another human being.

Finally she closed it. For a moment she sat there with it on her lap, smoothing over the cover with her hands. Several beats passed. Then she looked up at him and smiled. A real smile. Unexpectantly she gave him a hug. When she pulled away, she saw that he was puzzled.

"What was that for?" he asked.

Gaz shook her head, still keeping that rare smile on her face. "For being you."

"Being . . . me?"

She nodded and got up again. Getting to the door, she turned back after thinking for a second. "Dib?" she asked tentatively.

"Yeah?"

"I'll let the light in when I can."

Then she winked and closed the door behind her.

***

A Month Later

How come the playground always seemed to be empty? Dib wondered from his seat on the swing. Here was all the equipment, almost like brand new and ready to use and no kid in the whole damn suburbs ever came to wear down the slide, break the tire swing, conquer the jungle gym and throw mulch in each other's eyes when occasion and cruelty moved them.

Whatever. Solitude was his companion and more often than not, human company simply bored him to death. Most people were stupid and blind to the things going on around them. People = stupid, he thought toeing the ground and going back and forth gently. If I don't watch out, I'll get so sick to death of it I'll grab me a fold out lawn chair, a pair of shades, a tropical drink and declare, "Heh, let 'em eat doom!"

"Hehe," he chuckled aloud. "That would be neat."

Well, he amended. Not all people are stupid. Gaz is okay. I mean for the first time, I realize she's really okay. It was nice to know she had his back. Maybe not when it came to the paranormal or his crusade against that miserable Zim but he could count on her to be there. That's all he wanted. For someone to be there.

I'm glad it's her. I'm glad it's my little sister.

When someone else showed up at the playground, Dib stiffened. His eyes followed the newcomer like a hawk. It was the alien. The ritual mockery started in the back of his throat but for some reason it died before it came out. Something about the way he was walking dissuaded him.

He didn't even seem to notice Dib was even there. Just came over and sat on the swing beside him. Kind of slouched down and stared at the ground lifelessly. Dib watched him carefully, keeping his guard up. No way was he going to let an assumed air of being-out-of-itness fool him. I think I've gotten to be too smart for old smoke and mirror tricks!

For several minutes, Zim just sat there. Then slowly he stood up and started to walk away. Dib's gaze followed him.

Suddenly Zim stopped and turned around after a minute. Then he did something incredible.

He removed his wig and eye contacts. Throwing them to the ground at Dib's feet piece by piece, each toss angrier than the last one. The human's mouth fell open. Clearly he did not know how to react.

Zim opened his arms to his enemy and presented himself. Then he lowered them. He lost his temper. "WELL?! What are you waiting for?!"

The human raised one eyebrow. "What are you talking about?"

Zim pointed to him. "Aren't you going to take pictures?"

"Uh. . . " Dib turned his head. "Why?"

Pissed off, Zim grabbed the human by his collar. "Don't question me! Just take the goddamned pictures! I'm NOT going anywhere!"

Dib shrank back, still totally bewildered. "Wh-What . . . Zim, I don't understand."

The alien smacked himself. "You are incredible." He reached into his uniform and pulled out a white piece of cloth. Then he picked up a stick from the ground and tied it to it. After making the thing, he waved it a few times and threw it at his enemy's feet. "Okay?! Does THAT help?!"

Dib shook his head. "I wanna take a wild guess but . . . I'm not falling for it."

The Irken made two fists. "Don't make me have to say it."

"Say what?" The human got up and gestured frantically. "I kind of know what you're getting at but . . . but . . . WHY?! For what possible reason?!"

A kind of dazed look came into the alien's face. Like a light inside went out. "I-I just got the call I never wanted to get."

"What?"

The alien yelled angrily and sank to his knees. "They LIED to me!"

"Lied? Who?"

He crawled up to Dib on his hands and knees and yanked on his coat. "Kill me."

Of anything he expected him to say, this was the last thing he ever expected to hear out of his mortal enemy's mouth. Scared now, Dib took a step back. "What?!" Kneeling down he took Zim by the shoulders.

Zim only bent his head until it touched the mulch. "M-My mission was a lie. They told me this morning." He shut his eyes tightly and the next came out in a high-pitched way. "I've been exiled."

"Exiled? They kicked you out?" Man, this sounded unbelievable. "I don't understand."

"It doesn't matter." Zim shook his head before he looked up into his enemy's face again. When he saw his reflection in the boy's glasses he pulled back and got to his feet. He started to move away.

Dib noticed the wig and contacts on the ground. "Zim! Wait! Your disguise!"

Zim waved them off.

Angry, the boy picked it up and blocked his enemy's path. "Look, I don't really know what's going on or what but nobody's doing anything until I hear the whole story." He offered Zim his disguise which the E.T. eventually took back. "Now put that back on. This whole defeatist attitude just isn't you."

Doing just this, Zim smiled faintly. Amazing. He couldn't believe how right he'd been. He'd been so scared to come to him. It'd taken hours to gather even the courage to admit to HIMSELF the truth.

"Now," Dib sat back on the swing and gestured to the empty one beside him. Zim obliged the offer and sank down into it. "Go ahead."

Zim hesitated and then began.

***

Lying stretched on the living room floor, Gaz drew several pictures. A whole box of Crayolas was dumped on the floor in a wide fan like fashion around her. Randomly she'd drop a crayon and grab another, often stretching across the floor with some grunts of effort. There was one she couldn't seem to get. With her leg like a dead log behind her, Gaz knew the stupid coloring utensil was out of reach. Groaning, she propped her head up on her elbows and made a face. It just wasn't fair.

The front door opened.

"Dib? That you?" she called.

"Yeah," he walked into the living room. "Hey, I told you to keep that leg elevated."

Bossy. She made a face at the statement and then pointed. "I need the blue."

Dib gave it to her. She smiled her thanks and tackled her drawing with renewed gusto.

Zim appeared beside Dib and spoke. "You still haven't told me why we had to come back to your house."

"It's bigger and gives us a lot more privacy away from that weird green dog thing. Plus it's supposed to rain this afternoon."

"His name is Gir." Zim didn't need to be so empathic about it but he felt he had to come to the robot's defense in his absence.

The phone rang. "I'll get it." Dib went into the kitchen.

Left alone, Zim quietly watched Gaz color. It seemed like such an imaginative activity. It was fascinating. He tilted his head to the side and watched as she stuck her tongue out and squinted hard at the paper as she made one particular line. Feeling his eyes on her, Gaz looked up. For a long minute, they just stared at each other.

Gaz pointed to a crayon out of reach. "I need that one."

Zim gave it to her and sat down. "What are you drawing?"

"A monster." Gaz held up the picture. "His name's Ickspat. He lives under my bed."

"Under your BED?!" Zim looked mightily taken aback.

"Yep."

"Okay." Frankly he was at a loss.

She went back to coloring. After a minute, she looked up at him again. A kind of studying look spread across her face and she peered at him closely. "Do you like video games?"

"Yeah." Zim squinted one eye at her. "Why?"

Gaz shrugged. Damned if she knew. "No reason." She picked a clean piece of paper out and handed it to him.

He accepted it and assumed the position she was in straight across from her. "Is there a higher purpose to this 'coloring' or is this simply an activity used to exercise the brain synapses?"

Gaz shrugged again.

Frustrated, Zim poked her in the shoulder. Gaz looked annoyed at first but then she put down the crayon and did it back. For a second they regarded each other challengingly and then they started laughing.

Dib came out of the kitchen and saw them. He leaned against the threshold and folded his arms. A very slow smile started across his face and then he said. "Hey Gaz, I'm ordering a pizza." He took out the mobile phone. "Or would you rather do it?"

"No, you go ahead." She went back to her picture. "You know what I like."

Dib winked at her and went into the next room to make the call.

***

Gaz gazed at the monitor. "It worked."

"Of course it did." Zim put an arm around her.

She was puzzled. "But why aren't we gone?"

"We aren't gone." He grinned. "We're just not here yet." Zim leaned in toward her. They embraced and as they did, he reached over to the computer and hit a switch. One by one, the monitors winked off.

***

"Who controls the past controls the future.

Who controls the present controls the past."

- George Orwell

***

THE END

***