A/N: I'm sorry this has taken so long, it has been sat unfinished for ages because it was such a long chapter. I even considered splitting it into two chapters but decided it was probably better in one big lump. So this is the last chapter, and probably rightly so because I haven't been so good at updating lately and I promised I wouldn't leave this unfinished as I know how frustrating that is. I don't have a lot of free time and I really need to be spending more of it on my art (which is what I actually do) and I've also been making some comic con costumes so as much as I'd love to be doing everything there just aren't enough hours in the day! Hopefully in the future though I will be back with another story, I have loved writing this one so much :) Hope you enjoy the last chapter!

Chapter 15

Dib stepped up to his front door and hesitated. This was so surreal, he couldn't be sure if he was dreaming. The familiar red painted wood was the only thing separating him from his home. The only thing was, he wasn't sure it felt like his home any more. He'd had similar feelings when they had first approached Earth. It was only a tiny speck of light when they first spotted it, but soon the memorable swirl of green and blue had become visible and Dib's heart had begun to race.

He didn't feel as happy as he'd thought he would to be here. He was happy, in a way. He had spent quite some time believing that he would never breathe Earth air again, and countless sleepless nights longing to be here. The familiarity of it all was reassuring, and he was looking forward to human food and other creature comforts that he had missed. Just standing in the sunlight of his own star felt glorious, feeling the breeze against his skin and smelling recognisable scents. It certainly made a change from the false recycled air of the ship and the chill of empty space.

But still this homecoming felt tainted. This was the place that had brought him so much misery. The place where everyone rejected him, where he had always felt outcast and useless. He'd spent several months in space and on other planets… returning to this depressing little house where he knew no one was waiting for him just felt like an anti-climax. What's worse was that he knew Zim didn't really belong here. They still hadn't even talked about what he was going to do. What if he decided he didn't want to stay after all?

"Dib?" Zim prompted him, drawing Dib out of his thoughts. He had been faltering before his front door for too long. Dib took a deep breath and stood a little straighter, and bracing himself grasped the handle.

He found it unlocked and as the door swung open to reveal his living room Dib wondered who was home. His breath caught in his throat as he spotted a familiar mop of purple hair protruding from the back of the sofa. He genuinely didn't know what kind of reaction to expect from his sister. Would she be mad? Or would she have even noticed he'd been gone? It wasn't like he didn't care about her at all, it was more that they didn't have much of a relationship. They had always kept to themselves and they'd never had much in common. Particularly as Gaz had grown old enough not to need his supervision (like she ever had) they never had any reason to spend time together and they had grown further apart. She had relished her independence and Dib had grown tired of her constant disregard for him.

In truth he didn't know how Gaz honestly felt about him. He liked to think that she cared a little even though she never showed it, but perhaps that was just wishful thinking. If something happened to her he would care, but he wasn't sure he'd miss her.

Dib tensed as her head spun around to see who was entering her home, awaiting the abuse that would surely follow. He could have sworn he saw her eyes widen somewhat as they landed on him, but if she had been shocked she swiftly recovered, her face betraying nothing. Her real emotions would forever remain a mystery to him.

"You could have told me you were going away." She grumbled, her voice acidic. Dib saw her eyes graze over his body, taking in his appearance. Dib gulped, well aware that his skin was still littered with scars and his body thin. She seemed to decide something and turned back towards the TV screen before continuing. "Figured you were off somewhere with stupid Zim. Didn't know if you were gonna bother coming back at all."

Dib realised then that that was as much emotion as he was going to get from her, but exhaled with relief as the tension eased. She wasn't going to kill him at least. He glanced over at Zim – he was wearing his original human disguise, 'Red', once more but Gaz had seen through it without batting an eyelid. He'd had to check Zim was even still wearing it. He should have known better than to underestimate his little sister, despite the front she kept up little escaped her attention.

"Um, yeah. Sorry about that, it wasn't exactly planned." He muttered awkwardly, not really sure how much to say but quickly realising Gaz didn't care. All he really wanted to know was whether the police had been searching for him. "Hey… am I going to be in trouble?" He phrased it awkwardly, but Gaz knew instantly what he meant.

"I covered for you. Dad didn't even notice." She said bluntly, not bothering to spare his feelings.

Dib felt a bittersweet swell of relief. He was glad he wouldn't have to go through any complicated explanations, but it hurt that his father hadn't even noticed he'd been abducted. He could very well have died out there, in fact he very nearly had, but no one here would have even known. He got the feeling Gaz had worked out that he'd been off planet somehow, but even if she had cared realistically there was nothing she could have done. He couldn't imagine it had kept her up at night though.

Dib gritted his teeth as Gaz continued on with her game, her focus fully returned to the screen. Her disinterest always astounded him. He flinched out of his self-pity at the feel of Zim's cool hand slipping into his own. Zim could tell he was hurting and gazed up at him anxiously. He tugged on his hand, urging them up to Dib's bedroom.

Dib fell into the well-trodden path to his old room, climbing the stairs and turning down the corridor until he reached his door. Nothing had been touched, his clothes and bed sheets strewn about messily as though he had just woken up there this morning. It seemed so much smaller than it had before, and he found himself wondering how he'd always locked himself up here day after day.

He walked over to the bed and shuddered as he remembered that the last time he'd been in here it had been that night, when Kat had been over. The night he had fucked everything up. The night it had all begun. Suddenly his old place of comfort and security felt toxic, he could barely stand to be in here.

"What's wrong?" Zim ask softly, confused by how unhappy Dib seemed to be to be back in his home.

"I've gotta leave. I can't stay in this room." Dib said abruptly, and instantly began rummaging for his duffle bag, throwing clothes into it haphazardly.

"…what?" Zim was taken aback. He thought Dib had wanted familiarity, not change. In truth Zim had once thought of this room as his safe place too, but he'd ruined that the night he'd assaulted Dib with his spider legs. That and… the last thing he'd seen happening in here. His insides churned as he recalled it, and suddenly he felt very glad for Dib's reaction. He didn't think he could face sleeping in that bed with the knowledge that Dib had shared it with someone else, no matter how briefly.

So Zim sat patiently while Dib packed his life away, taking a surprisingly small amount of his belongings. He favoured only the essentials, leaving so many things that used to be precious to him behind, much of it now meaningless. His whole life's priorities had been rearranged by what he'd been through. He carefully packed his laptop and some of his other tech, and after considering it a moment also packed his game controllers and some discs, knowing that Zim had enjoyed playing them. Finally he rummaged through his coat pockets for his wallet, checking he still had his bank cards.

"The one thing dad has ever been useful for." He muttered to himself. The professor had given them both accounts that were regularly topped up with a sum of money so that they could care for themselves. It was barely a dent on what he earned, not that he ever stopped working long enough to spend any of it. Dib had always complained that his father had thought money could replace him in their lives, but right now he couldn't be gladder. It meant he could slip away and do whatever he wanted without a second thought. He'd never really considered moving out before, but suddenly it all seemed so simple he wondered why he hadn't done it sooner.

"Come on Zim, we'll stay at a hotel tonight courtesy of my dad. I'll search for somewhere to live tomorrow." Zim obediently crossed the room and took Dib's hand as the boy led them away, taking one last look at the room. Dib didn't glance back once.

The next few weeks they spent settling into a life on Earth passed by in a surreal manner. They still didn't talk about their long term plans, constantly skirting around the issue with unease. Dib had quickly found them a flat to live in in the city centre. He could have had pretty much any place he wanted with the bank balance his dad had left him, but he chose a comfortable yet modest place. Dib had taken the basement flat so that Zim could build a new base underneath the building, but he soon tired of the few high, tiny windows that hardly let in any sunlight. It almost defeated the point of coming back to Earth to be shut up in such a place.

So after a few days spent mooching about Dib went in search of a job, leaving Zim to continue the construction of his labs. He supposed it was the sensible thing to do in case his dad ever decided to cut off his funds. Besides, despite the fact that he was now a high school dropout Dib knew that he could walk into any laboratory in the city and get a job instantly just because of his name, so that was exactly what he did.

He enjoyed the work, more or less. They basically let him play around experimenting with whatever technology he wanted, so it was the best job he could hope for. The only thing that interested him truly was Irken technology, and since he had such a good understanding of that he attempted to recreate it with human equipment. His success rate was frustratingly slim of course, there was too much of an evolutionary gap. He had grown used to Irken technology so quickly that it felt like a huge step backwards, and he often reached for a tool he no longer had before realising with irritation.

Once Zim had finished setting up his own labs Dib began to feel guilty about leaving him to go to work. Zim had even less purpose than he did after all. He suggested Zim come into work with him but the Irken politely declined for fear of discovery. His knowhow could rewrite human history after all, and it would bring too many questions. Though Dib couldn't help but think that would make things more interesting he conceded for the sake of Zim's safety.

And so time became dreamlike, everything was as perfect as they could hope for and yet it grew stagnant. It felt like they were just treading water with day to day life. Flats, jobs, food shopping, house chores… was this going to be it for the rest of their lives? Dib grew anxious that Zim would think he was unhappy with their relationship, whereas Zim was the only thing that he lived for. He could feel the tension building. The longer they pressed on, living this pretend life, the worse it became. Or was it all just in his head? He longed to talk to Zim about it but the longer he remained silent the more frightened of asking he became. He cursed himself for not discussing it with Zim back when they were still on the ship, back when everything had been easy.

He became sure that Zim was growing more distant from him, spending more and more time hidden away in his lab. Was he unhappy? He never owned up to it if he was, perhaps Dib was overthinking things. And yet there were parts of his lab where Dib could not go, that Zim kept secret from him. Zim said that he could enter his base whenever Dib felt like it, but certain sections were always closed to him and it was a total mystery to him what Zim found to do in there. Often he would come seeking the Irken only to find he couldn't locate him, concluding that he was shut away in one of his clandestine chambers. Eventually he gave up trying. Was Zim tired of sitting at home waiting for Dib to come home every evening? Was he tired of waiting for Dib to finish sleeping? Though he never complained it ate away at Dib that all Zim did was wait for him. He knew he couldn't offer Zim the life he deserved… and perhaps needed.

That Friday evening as Dib came in from work he was surprised to find Zim sat on the sofa waiting for him. He'd barely seen the Irken all week he'd been so busy with… whatever it was he did in his base. Dib thought that he looked sad at first, but he looked up and smiled warmly as Dib approached and plopped himself down next to him. Dib tried to ignore the fact that the smile didn't reach Zim's antennae as they sagged low against the back of his head. Sometimes you can know someone too well.

"Hey you," He wrapped an arm nervously around Zim's slender waist and pulled him in close for a kiss. "I wasn't expecting you to be up here, have you finished working on your project?" He knew better than to ask what it was Zim was doing these days, he never got a straight answer.

"Not really, but I've done enough for now. I wanted to spend the evening with you." Zim responded and Dib beamed back at his Irken, his pulse quickening with happiness.

"I'm glad," He leaned in again for a second kiss, deepening it this time as he slipped his tongue into Zim's mouth. One thing that hadn't changed was their lust for one another, they just couldn't get enough of it. They soon fell into their usual pattern and before long they were both spread-eagled across the rumpled sofa cushions, naked and gasping for air. Dib clutched his alien desperately, holding him close against his chest.

"Come on, let's go into the bedroom." Zim quietly urged Dib, beginning to get up.

"Again?" Dib panted. Sometimes Zim's stamina outmatched his own. Zim just grinned cheekily back at him, his sharp teeth showing. "What's got into you tonight?" Dib giggled as Zim took his hand and pulled him off the sofa.

"Do I need a reason?" Zim smirked at him, and Dib felt butterflies in his stomach at Zim's wicked gaze.

It was an intense and passionate night they spent together, the best Dib had known for some time now. He slept contentedly with his Irken draped across him, feeling hopeful that their closeness had been somewhat renewed. He had only been asleep a couple of hours when Zim woke him the next morning. The Irken was up at the crack of dawn, bouncing up and down on the bed like a puppy trying to rouse Dib from sleep.

"Go away Zim, I'm sleeping. You kept me up all night remember?" Dib complained as he buried his face in the pillow. He could have sworn he had only just closed his eyes.

"Zim is fed up of your sleeping human. We shouldn't waste the day!" Zim complained, persisting.

"But it's a Saturday, what's there to get up for? Just let me sleep!" Dib grumbled but he couldn't hide the grin that spread across his face. He suddenly caught Zim off guard, grabbing him into a crushing hug and pulling him back into the bed with him.

"I thought we could do something today." Zim gasped as he wriggled against Dib's grip.

"Like what?" Dib asked, wondering what Zim was up to.

"I don't know. Whatever the Earth-stinks enjoy doing in their free time." Their eyes met then, their faces close as Dib looked deeply into Zim's ruby orbs, trying to figure him out. This seemed like unusual behaviour, but Dib took a deep breath and swallowed back his fears. Maybe Zim was just trying to make an effort, in which case he shouldn't ruin it by being suspicious.

"Fine." Dib released Zim and began to sit up, stretching his aching body and rubbing the sleep from his eyes before reaching for his glasses. "Do you want to go into town or something?" Zim seemed to ponder it for a moment.

"We've done that plenty. I'm fed up of all the noise and the stench of humans. Can't we go somewhere different? Somewhere quieter?" He asked hopefully.

"I guess we could get out of town, go to a nature reserve or something like that? Explore a bit?" Zim smiled at this and nodded. "Fine. You go find somewhere on my laptop, check bus times and print a map or something. I'll go get washed." Zim sprang off instantly to do his bidding and Dib gawped after him. What on Earth had gotten in to him? He'd have to just play along for now.

Before long they were jostling in the queue for a bus out of town. Zim huffed at the crowd, scowling impatiently as they tried to find a seat, his eyes shooting daggers at any human that dared get too close to him.

"What are you pouting for? We're doing what you wanted." Dib teased him as they squeezed down the aisle to a pair of free seats. He was much more used to public transport than Zim was.

"It's disgusting in here. It's too loud and it's hot and sticky and it smells." Zim grumbled, hunkering down in his narrow seat. Dib smirked at the sulking alien. "How long do we have to endure this for?"

"Only an hour or two. Come on, you wanted to go somewhere different. This'll be fun." Dib tried to lift Zim's mood, watching the Irken's face carefully. Most of the anger left his face then but he didn't return Dib's smile. Instead he gazed forlornly out of the window without saying another word, and Dib knew from instinct that his antennae would be drooping flat under his disguise. It made Dib's heart beat faster, it wasn't like Zim to give up on a sulk. Dib jumped in surprise as he felt the Irken's claws wrap around his fingers then, though he continued to stare out of the window despondently. Zim really hated environments like this, was he truly miserable living with him here on Earth?

Dib's mind began to race once more with the same old anxieties until the engine sputtered to life, jolting him from his thoughts. He shook himself, determined not to let his worries spoil their day. Zim wanted to spend time with him and that was a good thing. Maybe he was just frustrated with whatever experiments he'd been working on in his lab, or perhaps it really was only the crowded atmosphere of the bus. He had to stop assuming the worst.

Eventually they reached their destination – a nature reserve with lots of forest and open space. The majority of the passengers got off with them and Zim continued to scowl at that, but his frown soon eased as he took a breath of fresh air and sprung away from the crowd.

"I've never tasted your Earth's natural air before. It's always so polluted by your vehicles and factories." Zim said as he slowly drew a long breath in through his mouth, smelling and tasting the air as it passed over his tongue. "It's actually not so bad after all. Why are you so intent on ruining it? How can you stand the stink?"

"I dunno. It's great out here I'll admit, but I wouldn't be without the conveniences of living in town." Dib shrugged, drawing in a lungful of the air himself. "I guess your senses are a lot more sensitive than mine anyway." Dib watched as Zim continued to scowl at every human that walked past them.

"I thought you said there would be less people here?" He complained.

"You're so impatient." Dib sighed, taking Zim's hand and leading him away from the bus stop. "There are less people here, this is just the entrance."

It was a beautiful day so there were lots of other visitors much to Zim's chagrin, but Dib proved himself right. Most of them stuck to the trails and the pair soon lost sight of everyone by finding their own path through the trees. It was something Dib had rarely done in the past, and he found himself regretting that decision. It was surprisingly enjoyable to just wander through the forest and explore. Sometimes they walked in companionable silence and others they chatted amicably. They even found themselves regressed to little more than children, chasing and hiding from each other between the dense trees.

Still, Dib couldn't shake the feeling that Zim was hiding something. The peaceful atmosphere had calmed Zim but there were times when he would seem to drift off, lost in his thoughts.

The sunset found them resting on a grassy bank overlooking the forest and a small lake, not another person in sight. They would have to be leaving soon or they would miss the last bus back. Dib gazed at Zim as the dappled evening sunlight speckled his fake tan skin with gold. He hadn't spoken for some time, but when Dib looked at him he saw that Zim wasn't observing the view like he'd been. Instead he was staring down at his feet glumly, and Dib's heart sank.

"So are you going to come out with it or what?" Dib finally let out. He just couldn't take it anymore, he needed to know what Zim was up to. Zim started at the sudden outburst, glancing at Dib guiltily.

"What do you mean?" He said sheepishly, his voice small. Dib sighed in exasperation.

"Don't you think I know you by now? I can tell that something's up. I just want you to tell me what it is so that I can stop imagining the worst." Zim remained silent, his face turned away and Dib felt his anger building, fuelled by his anxiety. "Zim!" He yelled, his temper snapping.

"I'm leaving." The words took Dib back, confusion dampening his anger.


"I have to go away from Earth for a bit. And… I don't know how long I'll be gone. I'm sorry." Zim's voice was sombre but calm, which didn't help Dib's comprehension.

"This is a joke right?" Was all that Dib could manage.

Zim furrowed his brow at that. He clicked his hologram disguise off, revealing that for the first time since he had rescued Dib he was dressed in his invaders uniform.

"Shit…" Dib whispered, the sight of Zim wearing those clothes once more sending a chill down his spine. He watched dumbfounded as an arm emerged from Zim's pak to pass him his black gloves. Zim slipped them on without turning to look at Dib, his expression unreadable as he got neatly to his feet. The gravity of the situation slammed into Dib then, his heart beginning to race. He'd been so wrong, this was so much worse than he could have imagined.

"But… why? WHY!" Dib's voice became loud and panicked as he clambered up after Zim, his legs shaking.

"I… I can't tell you why." Zim winced, and Dib laughed manically.

"You can't even tell me? Are you fucking kidding me?" Dib's temper rose up once more to battle for control with his fear. "After everything we've been through? Everything I went through for you, you're just going to up and leave?"

"It's not like that Dib."

"Then please for the love of God, tell me what it's like!" Dib's eyes burned desperately into Zim, who still refused to look back at him.

"There's just something I have to do. It's important."

"It's what you've been working on right? Why I've hardly seen you?" Zim nodded. "But you're still not going to tell me what it is? Don't I deserve that much?" Zim simply lowered his eyes further, the silence elongating. Dib felt tears begin to prickle at the corner of his eyes.

"What did I do Zim? If there's something wrong can't we talk about it? I know you've been distant lately. Just tell me what to do." Dib's voice grew shaky with desperation.

"It's nothing you've done Dib, I'm not leaving because of you I just told you that. What I'm doing is for us, I swear."

"Well… let me come with you then. I can help, you know I can-"

"No." Zim said firmly cutting him off, meeting his eyes at last.


"Absolutely not. Never." Zim's whole body language changed to one of conviction in that moment, but he soon softened when he saw the moisture filling the boy's eyes. "Where I'm going you can't go. It's just not possible."

"Y-you're going somewhere dangerous then?" Dib's lip quivered.

"I'll be fine." It was so blatant a lie that Dib almost laughed again. Instead a tear spilled down his cheek. "Remember when you told me to trust you, even though I couldn't understand why at the time because of the inhibitor?" Zim said softly.

"Yeah I do. You didn't listen." Dib said sulkily, and Zim gave a bitter smile. They were both silent for a time.

"This is real isn't it…" Dib said eventually, reality dawning on him. Zim nodded. "Can I get in touch with you while you're gone?" Dib began grasping hopefully, but his face fell when Zim sighed heavily.

"No, it won't be possible." He muttered quietly. He'd considered this himself but decided it wasn't worth the risk. He didn't want anyone undesirable to pick up on their calls and trace it back to Dib, it would just endanger both of them. But it wasn't just that. He didn't want Dib to waste his life waiting for him. What if he didn't make it? Dib would be sat there waiting for him forever. It was fairer on him this way. "Just live your life Dib, you fought so hard for it."

"But I don't want a life without you." Dib couldn't stop the tears now as they rolled freely down his cheeks. "I fought for us, so we could have a life together. I thought that was what you were fighting for too, I never imagined…" Dib's voice broke as sobs shook his body. "Why are you doing this to me? I don't want to be alone again."

Zim felt his heart splinter as his once strong human crumbled before him. He'd known that the Dib would be mad, but he never imagined he meant quite this much to him. This frail creature could withstand torture and slavery, but a few simple words and look at him now. Zim moved closer to face the boy and pulled him into a tight hug. Dib wanted to push him away but he couldn't find the resolve, and instead clung to Zim's lithe frame desperately.

"I was fighting for us. I still am. Please Dib, please just trust me." Zim buried his face into the boy's neck, inhaling his scent deeply and trying to memorise every last detail.

"How long are you gonna be gone?" Dib sniffled, almost too afraid to ask. Once more Zim remained infuriatingly silent. "What are we talking about here… weeks, months… years?" His voice shook on the last word.

"I told you Dib, just get on with your life. I don't want you wasting it hanging around for me." Zim responded evasively, pulling away from the quaking boy. Dib wobbled unsteadily at the sudden lack of Zim's presence, knowing that his response meant the worst. He stared at Zim, his mouth hanging open. He had nothing left to say.

"Just focus on your own people for a bit. Invent something incredible. You're intelligent, you can help them." Zim gave Dib a brave smile, but it wasn't reciprocated.

"I don't know if I can do this." Dib whispered.

"You've been through far worse than this Dib, don't discredit yourself."

"Right now I'd take the torture, experiments and slavery all in one." Zim's eyes widened at that comment, and it was the first time he'd doubted what he was doing. He quickly shook it off - he couldn't change his mind now.

"You don't mean that Dib." Zim said firmly, and Dib scowled. Zim turned his back on the boy before he could argue again, an arm springing from his pak to pass a small device to him. Zim's claw hovered over the button.

"Zim wait…" Dib reached out hesitantly and Zim paused. He knew the device in Zim's hand was the controls to a teleporter. "You're just going to go… just like that?"

"It's easier this way." Zim muttered.

"Easier for you." Dib grumbled. "Please… just stay one more night." He begged feebly.

"If I stay now it will always be just one more night. And this way I know you're not sneaking onto my ship somehow." Zim grimaced and Dib mentally cursed. Zim knew him too well.

"Zim…" Dib reached forward and took the Irken's hand, cursing his gloves that he couldn't feel the skin anymore. Zim spun around to face him once more, the slanting evening sunlight catching his ruby eyes as he turned, making them seem deeper and richer in colour than ever. Dib leaned in and touched their lips, hesitantly at first but growing in confidence. He kissed Zim passionately in a last desperate attempt to get him to stay, his final shot.

They gasped for breath as they parted and Dib stared at Zim searchingly, awaiting some kind of response.

"I need to do this." Zim whispered. He knew full well what Dib was trying to do. He saw the fight leave the boys eyes in that moment, defeated. "Goodbye Dib." He breathed the words so quietly that by the time Dib had comprehended them Zim was gone.

Dib stood there alone on the hillside, his arms suddenly empty. He looked towards the distant city, and sure enough he spotted the glint of something speeding off from the horizon, heading vertically upwards. In the blink of an eye it was gone, and Dib knew that it had been Zim. He sank to his knees and wept.

It took some time for it to truly sink in that Zim was gone, it had all been so sudden and Dib had not seen it coming. The journey back home from the nature reserve was the worst time moment of Dib's life, worse than any of the time he'd spent in captivity, but perhaps topped only by the moment when he had got back to their flat to find it empty. Some part of him had still clung onto the hopes that Zim had changed his mind, or that it had been some horrible prank and Zim would be sat there waiting for him with a smug grin on his face. He had imagined it so vividly the whole way back, that when he'd come back to an empty room the pain was unbearable.

Unable to do anything else, Dib had gone straight to bed and cried himself to sleep, clinging to Zim's pillow that still held his scent. The next morning was even worse. He had been exhausted but had still slept terribly so he awoke confused and disorientated. He was used to waking up alone due to Zim's need of less sleep, so it took a while for him to come to and recall everything that had happened. Whilst sleep still fogged his mind he had tried to convince himself it had been a dream, but as his mind cleared he could no longer fool himself. It had been like losing him all over again. He still wore the same clothes and had not eaten, but still he didn't get out of bed that day. He slept in short, fitful bursts, each time hoping he would awaken to a different reality. But of course he never did.

The following day he was due in at work, and he was surprised when he found himself headed there early. He had thought he wouldn't bother going back, but he soon realised the only thing worse than having to continue with his life and interact with people was staying at home with his empty flat that reminded him of Zim at every turn. He simply had to go to work, just for the distraction.

He decided that Zim was right, his only option to keep him even remotely sane was to engross himself in some project. So that was exactly what he did. He spent almost every waking moment working on some piece of technology or other, never truly caring if it succeeded or not much to the frustration of the company that had hired him. But his work was still unparalleled so they kept him on.

He had briefly toyed with going back to get Tak's ship where he knew it still lay dormant in his dad's garage, but where would he start? He couldn't just fly off into deep space with no idea where to go. Zim had planned it so that even by the time he had got back to the city from the nature reserve he would already be miles beyond Dib's reach. He would never be able to track him, and he hadn't the faintest idea where he had gone.

Dib had tried several times to break into Zim's lab, desperate to find out what lay beyond the locked doors, but of course he had never had any luck. The rest of the base had gone into standby, and nothing responded to his attempts to hack in. And so the entrance to Zim's base remained there behind a closet door in his flat, a taunting reminder that Zim would always be on his mind but never physically there.

Dib kept to himself, rarely finding himself talking to anyone else. If he had stopped to notice he might have seen heads turn at his presence as people began to notice him, not just for his brains but also for his appearance as his body matured. He grew taller still as time passed, and his body remained slim as he only ate what he required to survive, finding a disinterest for pretty much anything that involved living. His grief turned him angry and bitter, and he had no patience for anyone else. And because he never spoke to anyone no one really knew anything about him, so he became this tall dark stranger who was quiet and mysterious, but with a short temper that made him intimidating. Perhaps it was his attitude that drew people in – as soon as he stopped trying or caring people began to notice him. People were fickle, and Dib couldn't care less.

He worked as long hours as he could manage so that when he got home he would be so tired that he would fall straight to sleep and not have to face his empty flat. The flat killed him to be in, but he just couldn't bring himself to move out. He was terrified that if he went anywhere else Zim wouldn't be able to find him. That was if Zim was ever coming back.

At first he had been hopeful of Zim's return and all he had felt were grief and loss, but as more and more time passed his grief turned sour and his anger brewed. It was easier to be angry. If he wasn't angry he was mourning the abandonment and potential death of his lover. There were nights when it drove him out of his mind wondering if Zim was even still alive, and whether he'd be wondering for the rest of his life.

He felt so betrayed and abandoned by Zim. He spent many hours thinking over what he could possibly be doing that justified his absence. The only thing he could think of was if Zim was trying to clear his name somehow so that people would stop trying to hunt him down. But how on Earth would he do that? He felt sure that Zim would never be able to change the Tallest's minds, not after what he had witnessed. None of it made sense to Dib.

It was about three years later that Dib found himself walking home late after work one night. It had been a long, fruitless day and he wanted nothing more than to fall into bed and forget everything to the blackness of sleep. Another of the female scientists had asked him out today. He rolled his eyes as he thought back. Dib shook his head as he took out his wallet, screwing up the handwritten number and tossing the scrap of paper to the wind. Why was it that everyone seemed interested in him now that he all he wanted to do was avoid all of humanity? Perhaps he was starting to look too much like his father - the thought made him shudder.

He found himself fingering a worn scrap of paper tucked into one of the compartments of his wallet. It was one of his old photos of Zim that he had kept in his wallet ever since school, in case an opportunity ever arose. He didn't know why he'd never taken it out, it wasn't even a good photo. An ancient moment stolen when Zim was unaware and out of his disguise. Without looking at the photo he closed the wallet, tucking it back into his pocket.

Dib shivered against the brisk night air and tugged his long coat tighter about himself. The walk home always got him thinking of Zim, without fail. It always made him think of the day that Zim had left, when he had gone home hoping he would still be there. Even now, three years later he still felt that glimmer of hope as he stopped in front of his door.

"Don't be stupid Dib. Get over it." He muttered to himself, sighing heavily as he pushed the key into the lock and opened the door. He deliberately kept his eyes low as he stepped into the flat and dropped his bag and coat by the door, another habit he had picked up. The sooner he looked up the sooner he would be disappointed that Zim wasn't there. This way he could keep the pretence alive a few seconds longer. He walked up to the kitchen counter and set his keys down.


Dib froze as the voice reached his ears. It was so soft… had he imagined it? Now he really didn't want to look. He felt his pulse increase and cursed himself for it. Even if the voice had been real it would only turn out to be someone else. He tried to ignore how implausible it would be that anyone else would bother coming to his flat.

He remained glued to the spot, waiting for something to happen. Eventually he sensed someone walk up behind him and he felt himself begin to panic, already building himself up for the disappointment he knew he was going to feel. Unless he was just hallucinating the whole thing. Or dreaming perhaps. He did work himself to the point of exhaustion, it wouldn't be the first time. He heard whoever it was take a shaky breath.

"Dib?" They whispered. That voice… could it really be?

Dib prepared himself, and slowly turned around. When his eyes fell into red orbs the room began to swim, and he had to catch the counter behind him for support.

"Y-you… you're back…" Dib muttered, still waiting for the apparition to vanish.

"I am." Zim spoke softly, his expression and body language nervous. Dib still couldn't find any words, his brain was a total jumble. His eyes rapidly searched Zim's body. He seemed uninjured, in fact he looked just the same as the day he had left. Dib let out a breath he felt he'd been holding for three years. Zim was alive.

Seeing Dib was struggling to form a response and unable to read how he was feeling Zim carried on anxiously.

"It's so good to see that you're still safe. I was so worried… thinking of all the things that could have happened to you. I wasn't even sure if I'd still find you here." Zim looked away awkwardly as Dib remained silent, rubbing his arm self-consciously.

Dib slowly tried to regain control of his body from the shock but Zim's words only angered him, his temper boiling inside. Zim had been worried about him? He bit his lip trying to contain himself from an outburst, but what angered him more was how desperately he just wanted to fall at Zim's feet and forgive him, and cling to him forever. He was so angry at both himself and Zim that he didn't trust himself to speak just yet.

"Are you… okay?" Zim asked hesitantly, desperately seeking some kind of response. Dib's silence was beginning to unnerve him, but he could tell that the boy was angry with him now. All he really wanted to do was throw himself at the Dib, but he could tell now that he'd been right to keep his distance. What if he didn't want him anymore? Humans were such delicate creatures with no patience at all. Had he ruined everything?

"Okay?" Dib's voice croaked out, his voice thick. He scowled at Zim, his eyes burning intensely. "How do you think I am?" Dib gripped the counter tightly as his arms shook with rage. Zim sighed and looked down at his feet guiltily.


"Three years. Three. Whole. Fucking. Years. And every second of it spent wondering if you were dead." Dib felt his eyes moisten, which only fuelled the anger he felt at himself further. Zim looked at him with shock, his antennae wilted flat down the back of his head.

"I never wanted to hurt you."

"Well you did. It's been hell." Dib cursed himself as his voice shook, clamping his jaw shut. He saw Zim gulp and take a deep breath as he considered his next words.

"It might have felt like forever to you, and I'm truly sorry for that. But to an Irken that was the blink of an eye." Dib snorted contemptuously at that and Zim flinched. Bad start.

"What a way of saying you didn't miss me."

"Of course I missed you you stupid human! I didn't mean it like that!" Zim snarled back, frustrated at his own poor choice of words. He tried to calm himself before continuing. "Time is so precious to humans. You're like mayflies to us, that's just the problem. Don't you get it?" Dib's anger softened at Zim's words, confused and intrigued. Zim's voice grew stronger as he continued. "To an Irken if something takes a while to accomplish then that's fine, because we have the time. I knew what had to be done."

"And what was that?"

Zim paused, taking a moment to gaze up at Dib, really taking in his appearance. He was a little on the thin side but he seemed healthy enough. The human had already changed since he had last seen him. He had grown a little taller, and his face and body seemed more mature than the youthful boy he had left behind, especially with the stubble that sprouted from his chin where Dib hadn't bothered to shave. It was shocking to him that his human had aged already. He had left Dib an adolescent and returned to find an adult, but in Irken years Zim himself was no older. He was fairly sure he didn't look any different, perhaps only a little taller. It only drove his point home harder, making him feel even more anxious.

"You have to understand Dib, when we first got back here I was trying to come to terms with the fact that I would lose you."

"What? Why?" Dib asked confused.

"It's never even occurred to you has it, the differences in our lifespan?" Zim grimaced, watching as the penny slowly dropped. "After twenty short Earth years - only two of mine - you'd start to feel your age. Your body would start to stiffen and fail and before long you'd be gone, and I'd still be almost as young as when we first met."

Zim's words hit Dib hard. He'd been so preoccupied with thinking that the reason Zim had been acting so strangely was something petty, thinking he was just bored or fed up of Earth. It had never even occurred to him that Zim had been contemplating life after he'd died. All that time Zim had been pretty much grieving for him, and rescuing him had just been a short term fix. No wonder he had always seemed so down. Dib thought back to three and a half years ago. He had caused so much trouble, shutting Zim out because he thought he was going to be alone when Zim left. How similar they still were. He guessed he was owed that one, Zim always did have to have the last word.

"I knew that I had to work something out. I don't think I could live watching you grow old, it would kill me." Zim swallowed back his surfacing emotions. "So I began working on some ideas. That was the real reason I required a lab, why I was willing to risk the trip back on that planet."

"So that's what you were doing all that time. Why didn't you just tell me? Why did you lock me out?"

"Because I didn't want to get your hopes up. When I first started I had no idea what I was going to do or if I'd ever find a solution. That's why you couldn't see the lab. And…" Zim turned away, uncertain how Dib would take this, "I did have to have some test subjects." Dib shuddered at what Zim was clearly implying, trying to brush it off. There was already too much to think about right now without imagining human experiments occurring right beneath his feet all that time. He'd been on the receiving end of that one after all.

"But… you have found one? An answer?" Zim gave a tiny nod and Dib's pulse began to race. He watched as Zim moved over to the sofa where he'd been waiting and picked something up, hugging it close to his chest. "What is it?" Dib moved closer, and finally Zim turned around.

Dib gasped when he saw what Zim clutched possessively in his arms.

"Zim… is that… is that a pak?" It was almost the same as Zim's, except a very slightly different shape and with blue panels instead of pink. Zim nodded again, his expression vexed. Dib reached out towards it but Zim pulled away sharply.

"Don't touch it!" Zim hissed, his eyes wide with fear. "As soon as you get close enough it will latch onto you."

"But… it is for me right?" Dib asked confused, his stomach churning with nerves. What was that thing going to do to him?

"It is..."

"Then what?"

"It's not that simple." Zim rubbed his brows in stress. "Once you touch it there's no going back. You have understand first." Zim looked up at Dib sheepishly.

"Is it going to turn me Irken?"

"No Dib." Zim said scornfully and for a moment he was his old self again, frowning at Dib like he was a drooling idiot. "Nothing could alter your species human." Zim shook his head in exasperation. "But it will do for you what my pak does for me. For all Irkens. It cares for your body, making it healthier, stronger, longer lasting. You will be more than human. This is a human pak Dib, but specifically it is yours. No one else could bond to it. It's tuned to your DNA only."

"Woa…" Dib gawped at Zim in awe. For the first time he started to feel excited.

"I spent most of my time here researching your organs and body tissue to find out what differed from Irkens. We are lucky that our races aren't so biologically different, I'm sure it would be impossible to make this work for many other species. But I soon realised that the only way I was going to get the actual parts I needed was to go to Irk."

"That's where you were? Irk? Are you crazy!"

"It was the only way." Zim said resolutely. "Paks are not like any other technology. It's probably the greatest Irken secret. They are guarded so preciously, I mean just imagine if an enemy race got hold of the technology? It would be the end of us. It's why we are built in with a self-destruct, and why defectives are erased rather than fixed. Once your pak is damaged you can't get spare parts for it, you are just removed. So I knew I had to break in to where they are made." Dib stared at Zim in disbelief. "I have learned so much about my own race that I had never even considered before Dib. Except for the scientists who actually work on them and the Tallests themselves this knowledge is kept from us, much like the emotional inhibitor. It took a great deal of searching and hacking even to find the location where the paks are built."

"I can't believe you would do something so dangerous." Dib looked at him worriedly, feeling for the first time grateful that he had been in the dark the last few years.

"It wasn't so hard in the end. The real test was altering the pak once I had acquired one. I managed to masquerade as one of the few scientists that work to develop the paks. They're always trying to improve them. I had a few close calls but they never figured out what I was really doing. It wasn't easy. I spent a long time thinking it wasn't going to be possible. Even now… I'm not sure it's going to work. I couldn't test it of course." Zim hugged the pak tighter. Dib's stomach churned as it dawned on him that he was test subject number one.

"I exhausted every other option pretty quickly. I even considered playing with my own pak to speed up the rate of my aging to match yours."

"No!" Dib yelled reflexively and Zim grimaced.

"I figured you would react like that." Zim sighed. "You don't have to do this if you don't want to." Dib was quiet for a moment, thinking carefully. Minutes ago he had been so mad at Zim, and had been for three years. But now everything was suddenly different. This changed everything.

"No, I do. This is what I want." Dib moved closer but Zim flinched away once again.

"Once it senses you it will begin the process of integrating to your spine and organs. If it's successful you'll be dependent on it from then on." Zim's face scrunched with regret. "Dib… it's going to hurt."

"It doesn't matter." Dib replied quickly and Zim smiled ruefully at his boldness.

"A lot." He emphasised.

"I told you it doesn't matter."

"It's so risky… if my calculations aren't perfect it could kill you. If your organs reject it that will kill you. The shock of the process and the pain alone might kill you." Zim began to quake, his panic spiralling. "Even if you survive the combination process your body will have to adjust. Irken's have theirs from the moment they are born… this has never been done before…"

"Zim." Dib said his name gently, bringing Zim back down to Earth. Their eyes locked. "It's too late to back out now, not after everything you went through to create it. I can live with these three years of hell if this works." Dib reached out to touch Zim but hesitated as the Irken still clung to the pak. All he wanted to was to hold Zim once again.

Zim sensed this, and his eyes moist he placed the pak slowly back down on the sofa, treating it as carefully as he would a new-born smeet. The moment Zim turned back to Dib he found himself swept up tightly in the human's arms. His squeedily-spooch flipped at the sensation that he had missed so much. He buried his face into Dib's shoulder and breathed in his familiar scent deeply, his arms wrapping around the boy's body to cling to him tightly.

"It was hell for me too." Zim whispered, and Dib squeezed him tighter. "I'm so scared."

"It's okay Zim. I trust you, I know it will work." Zim scowled unseen against Dib's chest, knowing how hollow those words truly were. The human had no concept of whether this would work or not, but somehow his blind faith was reassuring none the less. Zim reluctantly pulled back a little, but Dib's arms remained firmly around the Irken's waist.

"Dib… if this kills you I will terminate myself." Zim said seriously, but Dib's eyes turned wide.

"Is that supposed to make me feel better?"

"I just meant… I do not risk your life lightly."

"I know that." Dib said softly, grazing his fingers against Zim's cheek. He couldn't believe this was happening, he was sure he was about to wake up at any moment. He stared longingly into Zim's huge, deep eyes, and they both leaned in at the same moment.

Of all the countless times that they had kissed it had never felt as passionate as this one. They clung to each other desperately, fuelled by the time they had spent apart but by also the fear that this might be the end, and from the hope that it may be a new beginning. Their tongues slid expertly against one others as though no time had passed at all, but eager to rediscover everything that had been missed for so long. Neither of them had known whether they'd ever feel these intoxicating sensations again. Zim's clawed hand delved deeply into Dib's messy hair, the texture incomparable to the Irken as Dib's fingers grazed the smooth, alien skin of his neck. Zim gasped for air as Dib's lips finally released him.

"No fair… you have… that thing… for breathing." Zim pointed at Dib's nose as he panted.

"Out of practise space boy?" Dib grinned teasingly as he pressed their foreheads together. "Come on. Let's do this." Zim looked up at him worriedly.

"Now? Are you sure?"

"No offense Zim, but I think I'd rather get it over with. There's no way I'm gonna be able to relax now that I know." Zim knew Dib was right, there was no point in delaying. Reluctantly he pulled away and picked the pak back up.

"Let's go down into the lab, at least that way I might be able to do something if it goes wrong." Dib opened his mouth to say something reassuring as Zim led him down to his base, but the words stuck in his throat. Dib watched avidly as Zim unlocked all the controls with his handprint and a scan of his eye, the computers all stirring to life with a hum. Zim sat Dib down on a curved platform which he had positioned in the centre of the small room.

"Remove your top." Zim instructed as he quickly checked everything was still functional after so long out of use. When he turned back his eyes fell on Dib's exposed torso, his skin still littered with the scars from his abuse. He'd almost forgotten what Dib had already been through, how could he be putting him through this as well? Zim looked away sheepishly.

"Come on Zim, it's time to do this." Dib knew exactly what Zim was thinking. He stared at Zim hard until he nodded his acceptance.

"Lie on your front, I need to position this as carefully over your spine as possible." Zim's voice croaked with worry. Dib did what he was told as Zim approached him and began tilting the table so that Dib could lie on his front comfortably, his head supported. And then he began to strap down his body to the table.

"What are you doing?" Dib's nerves began to pick up at Zim's actions.

"I need you to be as still as possible. You're going to be in a lot of pain but you could do yourself more damage by moving about. The process will run smoother if you're immobile."

"Oh… okay." Dib tested the restraints and found them tight. He tried desperately not to let his fear show but sweat began to bead on his forehead and his body trembled. The sensation of being strapped to a table in an Irken lab like this was sickeningly familiar, and it had adrenaline pouring into his veins. He tried to keep telling himself that he'd rather be in this position and go through any amount of pain if it meant having Zim back, but his panic was making rational thoughts difficult.

Dib flinched as Zim attached a cable to his arm, explaining quickly that it hooked up to the computer to monitor his vitals, but Dib barely heard the words over the sound of blood rushing in his ears. Lastly Zim fetched the pak and hovered before him, staring at him forlornly.

"You're all set." He said sombrely. They held each other's gaze for a long moment but Dib couldn't think of anything to say, his mind racing with panic. This was madness, less than an hour ago he'd been making his way home from work the same as any other day. He was going to wake up any moment, he was sure of it. Zim moved out of sight and around to his back. Dib braced himself but nothing happened, and after a minute he tried to crane his neck fruitlessly against the restraints to try and see.

"I…" Zim struggled. Dib said it all the time, why was it such a hard thing for him to say? Surely it had to be true after everything he had done for the Dib. He swallowed his doubt. "I love you Dib."

Dib's eyes went wide at hearing those words, his heart pounding now for a different reason. Zim had never said it to him before. He had to say back, he had to-


Terrible, blinding pain. It felt as though every cell of every nerve in his body had been set alight, radiating out from two points on his back. He'd sworn he wouldn't let the agony show for Zim's sake but this was more than he could have ever imagined, and before long a guttural scream ripped from lungs. His body convulsed against the restraints, his arms instinctively desperate to reach around and rip the source of the suffering from his back. It was completely maddening. His stomach turned and he vomited. This wasn't like the Tallest's torture, or being an Irken slave. It wasn't even like any of the experiments they had run on him. This pain was beyond words, beyond comprehension. Soon his voice broke and his scream cut off, as he gasped for breath instead. His lungs suddenly felt horribly constricted, there wasn't enough air to scream anymore.

"Z-Zim…" Dib panted as tears began to stream down his cheeks, beginning to hyperventilate as his lungs pleaded for air. He looked around wildly for his Irken's reassurance but found he couldn't see anything anymore except for a blur of bright lights. His pulse quickened further and his heart felt like it was going to explode in his chest. His ears began to ring as one by one his senses abandoned him. But then he felt cool, soft hands cupping his face. He couldn't see him but he knew Zim was there. He thought he could catch a whiff of his scent, something soft against his lips? That was when everything went black.

Zim stepped back from Dib's convulsing body as his eyes went vacant. He had hoped to calm him down a little, the human was going to have a heart attack if he continued on like this. He moved back around to check on the pak. It whirred angrily, fixed seamlessly against the boys skin as a trickle of red ran down his back from underneath it. Zim felt dizzy at the sight of the Dib's blood, but forced himself to reason. He had to make sure the Dib survived, he had to keep his head. But as the human's condition continued to deteriorate it became harder and harder to stay rational. A sheen of sweat glistened on the boy's skin and his breathing became laboured and rasping.

Zim felt insides turn to ice as his computer suddenly failed to pick up the Dib's pulse. His heart had stopped… was this it? Dib's head rested limply against the support, his eyes half-lidded and unseeing. Zim flew over to the computer, configuring it to send a jolt of energy into the boy's body in an attempt to restart his heart. On the fourth attempt it worked and Zim nearly collapsed as the computer picked up a weak pulse once more.

"Come on Dib, you can do this." Zim whispered as he moved back over to human's now limp form. He dabbed at the boy's sweat-soaked forehead with his discarded t-shirt, pushing the wet hair back off his face. Zim couldn't help but notice that he really was an attractive creature, even in this state. Age had only improved him, his face remaining slim and delicate but his jaw was more defined. Zim grimaced and reached for the human's hand, slotting his three claws perfectly between the bony fingers. They didn't grip him back, but he held on to them fervently.

It was a few nerve-wracking hours later when the pak finally clicked and stopped whirring, changing instead to a low and steady hum. The process was complete. The monitor showed that the Dib was still alive though his pulse was weak and irregular, and his breathing shallow. Zim sat with him for some time but he didn't regain consciousness. Zim began to fear that perhaps the boy's delicate brain organ had been damaged in the process, but after running a scan the computer assured him that short of being physically exhausted and in shock his body was in full functioning order. But still he didn't wake.

Zim tried to calm himself but the waiting was torture. He knew it had been a huge strain on the human's body so he would need a lot of rest, and the physical wound where the pak had fused with his spine would need time to heal. He shouldn't be so impatient. So he unstrapped the boy and having decided that he was out of immediate danger he detached him from the lab and carried him upstairs to his bed. All he could do now was make the Dib comfortable and monitor his recovery. He lay the human down gently on his belly, knowing his back would be sore for some time.

Zim perched on the bed next to him, gazing down at what he'd done. It was a strange thing to see a human with a pak fixed to his back, especially his human. It sent shivers down his spine. Had he done the right thing? He continued to stare, not moving a muscle and his eyes never leaving the Dib. Every so often the human's body would twitch or tremble and Zim would nearly hit the ceiling every time in fright.

Yet still, he didn't wake.

Zim vowed to himself that he wouldn't leave the boy's side until he awoke, but he was beginning to feel like he ought to do something. He'd been out cold for hours now and his body had been under extreme stress, surely the human needed some kind of sustenance. He hurried to fetch a glass of cold water, and after carefully propping the boy up on his side tentatively dribbled some of the fluid against the Dib's lips. He felt silly as most of it spilled over the boys chin and onto the pillows, but then his lips twitched and when Zim raised the glass once more Dib took a tiny sip. Zim's antennae sprang up in delight, but the Dib simply groaned and fell limp once more without even opening his eyes. Well, it was a start.

It was then that he became aware of how hot the Dib's skin was. It was still sticky with sweat so Zim found a towel to soak in the water instead, and after making sure he had his gloves on began to dab the cool cloth on the boy's face. Were humans usually this hot? He was pretty sure Dib wasn't, but he had always felt warm to him compared to his own cool skin. He moved the towel down to the human's back, and seeing the blood there began to clean that up. Dib flinched and whimpered as Zim dabbed against the joining of his pak and Zim dropped the towel in a panic.

"I'm sorry!" He said reflexively, though he didn't know if the Dib could hear him or not. His face was all scrunched up in pain but his eyes were still closed. He toyed with removing the pak for a moment to inspect the wound underneath, but thought better of disturbing it so soon. It would heal, and quicker for the paks help. Zim sighed and lay himself down next to the human. "What do you need Dib? What can I do?" He whispered pleadingly. He so wanted to see those golden eyes looking back at him, the waiting was killing him.

Zim began to feel his eyelids growing heavy as he lay alongside his human. He'd sworn he would stay awake and watch over the boy's every move, but the worry had drained the life from his own body. As Dib's breathing grew more even and deep it began to lull him off to sleep, and before long he couldn't stop himself. He reached over and took the humans fingers between his own as he drifted off, not noticing as they gently squeezed his back.

Dib had the strangest of dreams whilst he was out. Much of it didn't make any sense, but always there was something on his back, pushing him down or trying to claw him back. Sometimes it was Irken scientists, sticking things ruthlessly into his back as he cried out in pain, or twisting tools inside his body and poking at his organs. Other times it was a client that was climbing on top of him, much too heavy, crushing the air from his lungs. Sometimes it was even Zim, ripping into him with his spider legs and piercing his flesh as he crept up on him from behind.

As horrible as the dreams were as they began to fade and be replaced by the reality of pain Dib longed for them back. His whole body felt ragged, like he had been electrocuted and trampled on. His insides throbbed, but none so much as his back. It felt like he was impaled on something, but every time he moved even a little the agony sent shooting pains down every nerve and sent his head spinning. He clung to unconsciousness every time something disturbed him, desperate not to wake and have to face the pain.

Eventually though there did come a day when the veil of pain and nightmares parted just enough for Dib to form a lucid thought. Hot… he was too hot. He groaned and moved his arms sluggishly, searching for something to push off himself. His limbs felt like jelly, like they didn't belong to him. He grappled with whatever was covering him, finally managing to make his fingers grasp the material and pull it away from his body. He shivered as the cool air hit his skin, and the movement sent a jolt of pain through his back. He grunted at the shock of it, but instead of getting dizzy and losing consciousness this time it sharpened his senses, waking him fully.

Dib cracked his eyes open, and once he'd worked out how to control his arm again reached a hand up to his face to rub the stickiness from them. Everything was too bright and blurry for a time and he began to weigh up whether it was worth the pain of moving to try and find his glasses. However he quickly realised that things were coming into focus on their own, and before long he found his vision was crystal clear. He was so confused he had to reach a hand back up to his face to double check his glasses weren't on his face after all. But he knew this was different. His eyesight had never been this good, not even when wearing his glasses.

His pulse quickened with shock and confusion as logic slowly began to return to him. What the heck had happened to him? His mind groped desperately for the last thing he remembered. The Irken scientists… no, that hadn't been real. That had been years ago now. He'd been at work. That annoying girl had given him her number and he had made his excuses and left quickly. Walking home…


The memories flooded back into him with a tremendous rush of adrenaline, and suddenly everything made sense. Cautiously he extended his hand around his back, reaching until his fingertips grazed cool metal. He could feel it now, the pak. He could feel the mechanics of it humming gently against his skin, something which should have felt foreign and uncomfortable but somehow felt strangely normal, like it had been there all his life. He could also feel where it pierced his flesh and fused to his spine. It was strange that his brain seemed to consider it just an extension of his body, he hadn't even been aware of it at first. It was a part of him now.

He felt a thrill of trepidation and excitement run through his veins. Had it all worked? He felt… sort of okay. It still hurt a lot, but he presumed that would ease with time. But where was Zim? Last thing he could remember was being down in the lab with him, but this was definitely his bed. Had Zim carried him up? His memories were so foggy and his dreams had been so vivid, he didn't know what to believe right now.

Dib craned his neck to look around the room but his restricted view didn't reveal the Irken. He discovered his arm was a connected to a drip, and that alone was enough to set his stomach gurgling. Man was he thirsty. And hungry. He could see a glass of water on the bedside table near to him and wondered if he'd be able to get up and reach it. He'd been propped up with pillows a bit so that he wasn't completely lying face down, which he was sure his neck appreciated hugely. He tried now to gently roll off his side and onto his front, wincing at the pain it caused in his back but finding it wasn't unbearable like it had been. He tried to push himself up with his shaking arms but it was too much too soon, and he fell back onto his stomach with a yelp.

It was enough to bring Zim crashing into the room, his eyes wide and frantic.

"Dib? DIB?" He flew to the human's side, his antennae practically bouncing with stress.

"I'm okay." Dib cringed out, his faced buried in the pillow. He eased himself back onto his side so that he could face Zim, a grin breaking out across his face as their eyes met. "Hey, I'm not dead!" He chuckled, hardly able to believe it himself. Zim let out a deep breath, his antennae relaxing.

"I don't think there's anything you couldn't survive any more Dib." Zim grinned back at him broadly, his eyes shining. Dib cringed as he tried to prop himself up once again, but Zim pressed him back down firmly. "Don't push yourself."

"Please just tell me it won't always hurt this bad." Dib gasped, relaxing back into the pillows.

"You're still healing, but at an exponential rate now. You just need to rest a bit longer."

"How long has it been?" He wouldn't have been surprised if Zim had told him he'd been in a coma for five years at this point.

"About a week. That's why I had to connect you to some fluids, I didn't know what else to do. I stole this from the hospital, it seemed to work." Zim glanced at the contraption apprehensively.

"Thank you Zim. For taking care of me." Dib reached for the Irken's claws, giving them a squeeze.

"Thank you for waking up." Zim almost laughed, the days of pent up tension finally released. "I was starting to think that… that you might not."

Dib looked away ruefully. He knew that feeling of waiting far too well and could sympathise, but at least Zim hadn't had to wait three years for him to come back.

"I'll get you something to eat and drink." Zim announced and got up shakily, dazedly walking from the room. He needed a moment just to breathe and regain control of his pulse.

Was this it? The beginning of their new life? He couldn't believe it… the Dib had finally woken up, and he was starting to dare to believe that he would be okay. Perhaps more than okay.

Over the next couple of weeks Dib's back continued to heal well, and soon he was up and about and demonstrating how improved he was. His pulse was slower and his body temperature a little cooler than it used to be, though he was still warmer than an Irken was to the touch which Zim was grateful for – he enjoyed the sensation of the boy's warm skin against his own. Though the human would always need more rest than Zim did, once he was fully healed Zim found the boy was starting to sleep less and less. His muscles grew stronger and his senses were more acute than before. Dib was a little frustrated to discover that despite his size Zim still seemed to be stronger than him though, which Zim claimed was down to the fact that his body had been genetically engineered to perfectly suit a pak, whereas Dib's had had to adapt. Dib could have sworn he even looked a touch younger than before, but perhaps that was simply the happiness he felt showing through, the three years of misery easing from his features.

One morning when things were almost back to normal – if they ever had been – the two were sat at the kitchen table nursing hot drinks, when Zim finally came out with it.

"So what are gonna do next?"

"Huh?" Dib nearly snorted his coffee in surprise.

"You know what I mean Dib." Zim rolled his eyes as he cupped his hands around his Irken brew. "You're healed now, it worked. Everything turned out perfectly. So what do we do next?"

"I dunno… what do you want to do?" Dib felt a little overwhelmed by the question. It had always been the question, but now for the first time the circumstances were in their favour. They had the whole universe at their fingertips and an extended lifetime with which to explore it. It was a little daunting, and Zim felt the same way. The truth was he'd never had the freedom to do whatever he wanted before, or in fact the desire. No Irken ever had.

"Well… we can stay on Earth if you want. I'm not saying we should leave." Zim said carefully, trying not to let his reluctance show. If that was what Dib wanted then he would oblige. As far as he was concerned Dib had earned the right to whatever life he wanted now. "But you'd have to keep moving around or people will notice that you're not aging at a normal rate." Dib seemed to ponder this for some time, but Zim couldn't figure out what was going through his mind.

"You wouldn't want that though would you?" Dib asked cautiously.

"It doesn't matter. This is your home planet, you have every right to stay."

"Then do you miss Irk? Don't you want to go back there?" Zim scrunched his face up at that.

"No, I don't miss it." Zim didn't offer an explanation, but merely scowled at his drink.

"But Earth has nothing to offer you either. You'd be miserable here." Zim tried to stop his heart from sinking. Did the Dib really want to stay?

"If this is where you want to be then this is where I must be." Zim said calmly, trying his best to sound logical and unbiased but failing to mask his true feelings. Dib sighed.

"Zim… why can't you just say it?" Dib rubbed his forehead wearily.

"What?" Zim looked at him with genuine confusion.

"We both know how you really feel."

"Zim doesn't know what you want him to say." The Irken looked away guiltily.

"I want you to say the truth. That you don't want to stay on Earth. That you would be miserable here. We both know it's true."

"I wouldn't be miserable, I'd be with you." Zim dodged, though he meant every word.

"You might believe that but I know it's not true." Dib sighed heavily again and leaned back in his chair, staring up at the ceiling as he contemplated his words. "Why would you go along with it? Why would you stay on Earth just to please me? Don't you understand that your happiness is just as important to me as mine is to you? Don't you think it would affect our relationship?" Zim looked at him in surprise once more, his mouth opening and closing as he struggled to find a response.

"I just thought… after everything you went through… to get back here…" Zim floundered but Dib waited patiently, wanting to hear Zim admit it. "After what you endured… you have the right to whatever you please. You've more than earned it."

"The right?" Dib said with some distaste. "Just because I went through some shit doesn't mean I can do whatever I want now. Besides you went through just as much as I did!"

"No I didn't. It was all my fault anyway, I owe you that much." Dib rolled his eyes.

"We have to stop having this same argument Zim. When are you going to get it through your stupid head?" Dib had to take a moment to calm his temper. "The whole point of getting me a pak was so that we could be equals. I don't want you constantly pandering to my needs, accepting things you don't like for my sake. That's not the Zim I fell in love with!"

"Huh?" This last remark caught Zim off guard.

"You're not the same anymore. You're always conceding and letting me have my way, but that isn't love Zim. A real relationship is equal on both sides. I miss the old Zim, the one that would fight to win every argument, to always be right and always get his way!"

"You miss me being mean and fighting with you?" Zim was genuinely struggling to comprehend him. Just when he thought he finally had an understanding of what love was, Dib was telling him he was wrong? "I was just looking after you… you needed the help." Dib saw how crestfallen and confused Zim was and began to feel guilty, softening his tone.

"I don't miss how we used to be before we got to know each other, that's not what I meant." Dib got to his feet and walked around to Zim, taking the Irken's face in his hands. "I miss how you were before we got separated. I know it was hard on you, but I know you still have that spirit inside you. You've proven you have by having the dedication to go away for so long just to make my pak. I just want you to be yourself with me again, to speak your mind and admit what you really want." Zim sullenly refused to meet Dib's eyes, his antennae wilting. "You should be proud. You made me stronger Zim, so you don't have to worry about me anymore. And you should be excited, you've given us the whole of time and space to start a new life in." At this Zim finally met Dib's gaze, and Dib couldn't stop a grin spreading across his lips. "Did you really think I would want to stay on Earth after having a taste of the stars?" Zim's mouth fell open again in shock, his pulse quickening. "You're so easy to fool." He chuckled, planting a kiss on Zim's forehead.

"You mean… you really want to go back into space? You're not scared?"

"Give me some credit Zim! Going into space has been what I've wanted all my life! Besides, I'll have my ferocious Irken to protect me." He winked teasingly.

"Not been much good at that though have I." Zim sulked.

"Right, that's the last one you get for free. The next time I hear you sulking or taking the blame you're gonna regret it okay?" Dib said well-naturedly, and Zim's lips quirked in a small smile at last.

"I'd like to see you try anything." Zim gave him a dangerous, toothy smirk and Dib's heart skipped a beat at this glimmer of the old Zim.

"Anyway, shouldn't you be the one that's worried? You're the one they were hunting down."

"I think the chances of there still being any bounty hunters is very slim. They couldn't afford to still be hanging around this long after it was advertised, they will have fresher targets with better odds. I would still use a disguise around dense Irken populations, but I doubt that many other than the Tallest's themselves would even recognise me. Most likely they've all forgotten completely about me by now." Zim's eyes darted to Dib's before a cheeky look crossed his face. "Besides, I have my big, strong human to protect me."

Dib beamed, scooping Zim's lithe frame up in his arms and spinning him around into a tight hug.

"I love you Zim." Dib spoke as the Irken clung to him, nuzzling his face into his shoulder and neck.

"Zim loves Dib too." Zim muttered back shyly, his voice muffled by Dib's shoulder. Dib grinned, his cheeks flushing lightly as he set the Irken back down on his feet, deep ruby eyes gazing back up at him and antennae held high.

"So, shall we go and plot our course?"

A/N: One last bit of mean 8D don't hate me *begs forgiveness* I'm sorry Dib.

I always take issue with ZADR endings, maybe that's why so many of them remain unfinished. Can they ever really be happy? Cause I don't think either of them would be happy with a human life. So I did my utmost to give them the happiest ending I could, (not without making them work for it first of course) I hope it wasn't too cheesy. I'm gonna be a total hypocrite and say that sad/brutal endings probably work better for ZADR but I couldn't bring myself to do it to them after everything they went through. I know maybe the Dib getting a pak thing is a bit overdone but I hope I put enough of my own spin on it. I really couldn't think of any other way around their lifespan differences.

I hope you all enjoyed this story, thanks so much to everyone who followed it, it means a lot to know that you enjoyed it! Reading your lovely reviews gave me such joy. I loved writing it and hopefully at some point I'll be back with a new one. Thank you! xxx