– – –

Author's Note:

Invader Zim is -c- Jhonen Vasquez! Only the events of this story, characters specific to the story, and character tweaking (heh) are mine. :3

~Jizena~

– – –

Zim's Records

Gaz was unconscious for half an hour after we left Devastis.

The time between her passing out and reviving was both the longest and fastest half hour of my life.

One moment, I was sitting her up in a berth carved into the wall near the window, ordering water and cleaning her off, washing her wounds, her face, her hair, kissing her temples and feeling the heat emanating from her back and her hands; the next thing I knew, I was locked in a conversation with Red, Dib and Ira, hardly certain of how exactly the conversation had begun.

All that mattered was that Gaz was safe, the Devastis Brains had been effectively destroyed, my PAK and GIR both lay dormant to the side, I was three-quarters human and we were making a course back to Station Nine to destroy the third nest of Control Brains.

All but one of the SEC soldiers had been accounted for on the ship.

Everyone but Tak had made it out of the Brain control room.

One of Tenn's men brought in a folding table for the four of us to meet around, so that we did not have to leave the room, itself a smallish grey side room between two weapons halls, in case Gaz came to. Another man brought in spare (nearly overwhelmingly comfortable) jeans for both Dib and myself, since Gaz's final action before fainting had been decorating both of us in whatever she'd had for her most recent meal and then some. Lex busied herself running requirements for Tenn, checking in on this and that, and remaining our primary contact to Professor Membrane and Skutch in the Spittle Runner. The four of us sat around the table, debriefing.

"How'd you find us?" Dib was asking when my head caught up with the conversation.

"Me?"

"Yeah," he said, giving me a look.

"Oh, eh… well, after my fight, I, um… the Mirror… dropped me off, I guess I could say," I recalled. It had indeed. It had led me back to Devastis, though I'd still had to look around for the others. The Commander had known how to use it to maneuver through space. I hadn't the slightest clue. And there was no Miyuki around to help.

"So it's still back there?" Red guessed.

"Either that, or Miyuki came to collect," Dib sighed, removing his glasses and rubbing the space between his eyes. "It'd figure she'd do something like that, rather than just plain, y'know, help."

"Speaking of her helping, your dad did short out her machines," said the Tallest. "Devastis went into lockdown, which can only mean good things, for us. Nobody can get in there and tamper with time, no one can use Miyuki's inventions, and the Brains are gone." He paused. "And, apparently, so is Tak."

"Eh," I doubted, "is she, really?"

"I'd rather not make so rash an assumption," said Ira. "Until there's solid evidence otherwise, I'm going to assume she's still alive."

"And probably even more unstable," Dib added. "I'd rather not assume she's dead at this point, too."

Red rubbed his temples, annoyed. "Okay," he grumbled, "fine. So at some point we need to nail down exactly what happened to Tak, but I don't want to make that a priority right now. I feel sick."

Tensing, Dib said, warily, "Me, too. Did the Brains, um… did they do to you the same kind of thing they did on the Massive? Red? Lock a program?"

"Judging by how sore I am right now, yeah," said Red. "I made the right call shifting to temp, though. They cut out my anti-grav this time. Joke's on them, I'm already walking." Dryly, to himself, he added a rough false laugh.

"Are they trying to kill you?" Ira wondered, sounding oddly sympathetic. He looked different. His eyes were softer. His voice was smoother.

Oh—I realized: he was human.

Good. Good… I was grateful for that.

"I guess," Red mumbled. "Making an example of me while I help these kids make examples outta the Brains. Anyway, there's more important shit to discuss." He glared across the table at me. "How are you?"

"Me? I'm… fine," I answered. "Feeling a lot at once. It's good to get caught up, though. So, Brains on the Massive are down?"

"Yes," Dib confirmed, sounding tired. "What's our best plan of action to get at the ones on Station Nine? Break the Mirror? We'd have to go back to Devastis for it."

"Forget the Mirror right now," Red advised. "It's the ultimate Talisman, it's the thing protecting Irk."

I felt myself laugh a little. "Because it protects the truth," I realized.

"And the worst, the most powerful of the Brains, remained there," Red nodded. "The things we've been up against so far have been decision makers, footsoldiers. The ones on Station Nine are near defunct already. This should be easy."

"Can we just blow the Station up?" Ira suggested.

Red grinned. "You did learn something from me."

"No," Ira said sharply, "I just think it makes sense."

"Blowing shit up always makes sense."

Dib pounded the table heavily with both palms. "Okay! We blow up the Station! I am fine with that, I am totally, one hundred per cent fine with that."

"Me, too," I added.

"But we can't blow up a damn fucking thing until we have a plan and until we destroy the Talisman that's guarding this batch of apparently already pretty weak Brains, but we're not going to get anywhere unless we know what that thing is." Dib paused. "Do we know what it is?"

Ira and Red exchanged a glance. Ira sighed and leaned forward onto the table, while Red slowly shook his head. "The archives wiped the information of it," said the Tallest. "Either that, or I've forgotten."

"…Would GIR know?" I offered.

"Zim, do not boot that thing up again," Dib warned me.

"I know, I know," I interrupted when he started to give me that old scathing look of his. "I don't want to deal with him right now, either. He'll die when my PAK does. Or, Gerohnod will. But if we can access his files…"

"Last resort resource," Dib decided. "We'd need Skutch for that, though, he hacked GIR before, I trust him. For that kind of thing, anyway. I want to regroup with him and my dad regardless, before we just go headlong toward Vort. I'm sure Tenn would agree. Plus, Gaz…"

Dib cast a glance over at his sister. "She's exhausted," he said. "I want to let her rest. If that means having her sit out Station Nine, that's fine by me; I just want her to be okay."

"Well," said Ira, rising, "let's let her sleep while she can. Red, you go look up a good spot to re-group with the others, and start looking up whatever you can about this Talisman…"

"I don't take orders," Red started, only to receive an awful, scornful look from his ex-partner.

"You owe me," Ira said, dourly.

Red froze. Dib and I froze and attempted (unsuccessfully) to avert our eyes from the scene. Ira did not let up on his glare. After a breathless moment, Red stiffly got out of his seat and, looking at Ira with more guilt than I had ever seen one person display, he agreed, "I owe you." The Tallest walked toward the exit on uncertain feet, and added a mumbled, "I'm sorry," before leaving the room.

Dib and I did the intelligent thing by not reacting, and Ira did his part by instantly changing the subject. "Dib," he started, "we need to talk about the rest of this mission. Primarily the inevitability of how and when we return to Earth."

"I… yeah, no, I figured," Dib fumbled to answer. "I just… that's one of the reasons I need to catch up with Dad. In all honesty," he went on, shifting his focus towards me somewhat, "I want my ship back. And I want to move Dad and Lex off the battlefield before we get to Irk. Also, I… I need someone to head the counter-strike, if need be, against the Armada. I am not putting Charlotte and the Corporation in the line of fire without my best defense."

I caught his meaning clearly. "You mean me," I deduced. "You're moving me back…?"

"I—look, Zim, you have come such a long way. I'd prefer to keep you with us, for Gaz, but it'll have to depend on a few things. You're the best I have to lead my army back to Earth, the best I've got to keep them safe." He stared me down, not challenging me, but driving his point home. "I need you to be the one to defend Earth with all you've got," he said. "You'll have Dad. You'll have Lex."

"You'll have me," Ira added. Dib gave an understanding nod. "Right now," the doctor continued, "all I want to do is go home." Steeling himself, he added, "Plus, if Charles and I can get to Victor in time…"

"You will," Dib assured Ira, and himself.

I listened to everything Dib had been saying, and understood his point, but a great part of me did not want to leave. I didn't want to leave Gaz vulnerable to more spells like this. What if she passed out and Dib couldn't help her? What would happen to her on Irk?

Yet, at the same time, I trusted her. I trusted her more than I had recently been able to trust myself. I knew that she would be all right. I knew that her brother would not let any harm come to her. I trusted Red to know when enough was enough for either of the siblings.

I trusted that Gaz would be okay.

I hated the fact that I could not stay, but I knew that Dib was not making plans out of thin air.

"Okay," I said with only some trepidation. "But please let me stay with her until she wakes up."

"Oh, no, yeah, of course," said Dib. "Nobody's moving anywhere till we can all regroup."

"I'll go talk to Tenn about the pit stop," Ira offered.

"And Lex about the plan," Dib asked.

Ira smiled. "I think you should talk to her, kid. She'd rather hear it from you."

Dib flushed, but agreed. "You'll be home sooner than you know it, Ira," he added before the doctor could leave.

With a slight, put-on bow, Ira grinned and returned, "So will you."

Dib laughed, and when Ira had taken his leave, he turned to me.

"Everything's seriously fine, right?" he asked, staring me down as if to read into the most recent few hours of my life.

"Mostly," I replied honestly. "I beat my Fear, Dib, but I'm not whole yet."

Dib let out all of his breath, and studied me, his lips in a tight line so as not to give away any emotion, any hint of thought. His eyes flickered. "What's in your jacket?"

"My PAK," I said. Dib remained still as a statue, listening, understanding. "Or, his. I don't know, but it's the PAK, the one that was attached to me, and now it isn't. It isn't in me, and it isn't on my back, and I don't technically need it, except that if I destroy it, it'll still give me only ten minutes to live." I saw him chew his lower lip, and I sighed. "I'm not fully human yet, but now I'm way more human than Irken." I gestured to my jacket, and the thing wrapped inside it. "That's the only bit left of me that's Irken. If I earn I soul, I won't need it, so it'll just not exist."

Dib thought for a beat, then simply said, "Huh. Okay."

He cleared his throat.

"How's your arm?" he asked.

"It's okay," I said. "Still, y'know, bleeding and sore, but I can ignore it a little better." When he didn't reply, I asked, "How are you? And I mean honestly. Based on whatever I—he… did."

To my surprise, he gave a half-smile. "I got a little cut up, but we're all here, aren't we?"

That was pretty much the answer I was looking for.

"And Gaz…?" I asked, more cautiously.

"You need to talk to her," Dib said. His eyes, I noticed, were red and brown and cloudy with tears I wasn't sure he wanted to show me, or anyone. "Did, um… did you see exactly what happened? When she passed out."

I shook my head. "You?"

Dib repeated my action, and looked over at his sister. "I think I feel a little of it, though," he said.

"Feel?"

"Her hands were hot, you said."

"Yeah."

"And, uh, her back."

"Yes."

Dib nodded stiffly. "Yeah," he said, as if he'd just come out of some big long conversation in his head, "the static's getting stronger. I think she's a little more susceptible to it."

"You mean," I guessed, "like, Irken static?"

"It's everywhere. It's in us, and I think the closer we get, the more we'll feel it. Plus, I mean, Gaz has been, uh…"

"Yeah," I agreed. I was part of the reason she was so 'uh…' too. Hopefully, somehow, I could help ease whatever grief I had already caused. Looking at her, I said, "I'm so sorry."

"You weren't in control," Dib noted.

I folded my arms, closed my eyes to fold into myself, hold every fragment of humanity I'd earned inside me. My conscience was heavy, and I was tired, but I was determined. "I should have been stronger," I apologized, looking at Dib again.

Dib sighed, and leaned against the wall near the doorway. "Man, if being strong enough to face down all your demons was an easy task, we wouldn't be where we are right now," he said evenly. "You don't think I wish I could just gather myself and get over this hurdle and go home? I'm so fucking exhausted, Zim. But I have to be here for my sister, my family, my friends, my whole damn planet. That's just how things are, though. We're human. We want to do better. We fail, we keep going. Do you understand that?"

I let myself breathe. "Yeah," I realized, re-experiencing those words, "I do."

"I know you do." A pause. "As far as I'm concerned, you've earned it, Zim. Belong where you want to, you've got the choice." He glanced at Gaz, then at me again. "I'm glad that we're ending this as allies."

I felt a sting in my chest, a mix of humility and pride. "Me, too."

Gaz stirred.

"Talk to her," Dib urged me again. As he ducked out the door, he added, "See you around."

"'Kay," I managed.

Dib gave a slight backwards wave. He did look exhausted.

Static, huh? The two of them must have felt pretty sick, if it had anything to do with the heat of a PAK charge. Electricity is the blood of a machine. A PAK charge controls the nerves in both the body and the machine, it regulates the brain. Gaz and Dib were born human, had human thoughts, doubts, fears, hopes; the static would try to regulate them, unless they continued to release it, use that very static to destroy the Control Brains.

Shit.

They had to shut down the machine before it could shut them down first.

I knealt beside Gaz's berth and brushed back her hair, where it had fallen across her face. "You'll be all right," I whispered. "Stay strong." She stirred, but was still sleeping. I felt myself laugh a little. "I don't have to keep telling you that, though, do I?" I continued. "You're the strongest girl I know. You don't shut down. You don't give up. You don't take anyone's shit, right? These Brains can't push you around. They can't tell you what to feel. Because you're Gaz Membrane, and you are determined, and willing, and intelligent, and clever… you're everything the Brains can't stand, and you're not going to let them stop you."

I moved my hand to her shoulder, and said, "I know what strength is because of you. You gave me something to believe in. Something to strive for. You helped me know myself." I caught a glimpse of the glint of her ring. "And I love you."

I sat back, and situated myself with my back against the wall beside her, waiting for her to wake up. In the corner, neither GIR nor the PAK in my uniform jacket showed any signs of life.

I waited another five minutes before Gaz finally yawned.

When she came to, the whites of her eyes were stained pink with a mix of fatigue, the dust and decay from the explosions she had just run from, tears she had already cried and tears that were waiting their turn. Her irises were their usual calming brown, flecked with an improbable shade of green. Her eyes, as wholes, met mine, and her body released a sigh, though her expression bore more vague doubt than relief.

Until I said, "Hi."

Gaz's features softened, and she fell forward against me. She draped her arms around my shoulders and held me carefully, folding her fingers into the fabric of my shirt. "Hi," she whispered back, her breath cool and gentle on my neck.

"How are you?" I asked.

"Dizzy. And tired. But really, really glad you're here." Gaz drew in a breath, and lifted her head to let it out. "Zim, I am so happy you're here."

She moved her right hand so that she could feel my heartbeat, and I took her hand with both of mine, running my thumbs over the ring I had given her. It was so wonderful to see her smile.

When I leaned forward to kiss her, however, she shirked back.

"What?" I wondered. "I'm sorry if I—"

"No, it isn't you," said Gaz. "I just… I just puked on you." She drew her hand back, and, embarrassed, leaned against the side of the berth. "Ugh. I just puked all over you."

"Just below the knees," I laughed. "Nice aim."

"Oh, shut up."

I grinned; she did, as well.

"Zim," she said after a silent moment, "I really want to talk to you, I have… I have so much I want to talk to you about, but right now I really, really want to brush my teeth."

"No problem. Can you stand?"

"I'm sure it wouldn't hurt if you helped."

"I promise it won't hurt at all."

Gaz's eyes misted over again when I said that, but she was smiling when she offered me her hand. I lifted her to her feet gently, and let her lean against me as I walked her down the hall. About ten steps down the corridor, I realized I could not read a single damn sign, nor did I know the layout of the ship to guide Gaz to where she could wash up.

Her hands were still very warm. Her back had cooled.

We were lucky to run into one of the soldiers working as a crewman, and he pointed us in the right direction. Since there aren't exactly lavatories on Irken vessels, all of the washing happened in the kitchen. Irkens are never without a place to prepare food. There was no toothpaste, but there was mouthwash—Gaz gargled four times before I cautioned her that she'd probably done plenty to kill the bacteria, and should stop if she ever wanted to taste anything else ever again.

"Better mint than pork," she mumbled when she re-capped the mouthwash.

"What?"

"Nothing."

I offered her my hands to grip and my shoulder to lean against yet again, and walked her away from the kitchen and into a currently empty control room, where all of the seats were red and purple benches in a horseshoe formation, half of them situated under computer screens, half underneath a wall that was entirely a window.

We sat beside the stars.

"Thank you," was the first thing she said to me.

"No problem. Feel better?" I asked. I brushed wisps of hair out of her face and tucked the strands behind her ears.

She freed her hair of its elastic hold, and I continued to brush my fingers through.

"I'm fine," she said, "I mean—that's kind of a general 'thank you,' Zim."

"Yeah?" I leaned in, and touched my forehead to hers. Gaz lay her hands on my shoulders, her palms still hot to the touch.

"Yeah. Because you keep your promises. And it makes me believe that others will keep theirs, too.

"I have so much faith in you," she continued, "and it's helping me trust more. I trust Red to do the right thing, I trust that we're going to be okay, that Dib and I will be fine, that Mom's not completely crazy. I would have no idea what trust is without you, without how I've gotten to know you."

I breathed in her words, and kissed the corner of her eye. "I feel the same," I told her. "I don't know if Irkens can't trust, or if they just stubbornly won't, but I feel so far removed from that, Gaz, and it's thanks to you."

She nodded, and yawned. I shifted so that she could tuck her head into the crook of my shoulder, and for a few minutes, we sat there just like that. I kept one hand between her shoulderblades as she breathed in and out. After a long moment had passed, she adjusted again; she kissed my neck and lay down on the purple bench to rest her head in my lap. I leaned against the window, my back to the stars, my eyes on her.

"Did you guys figure it all out?" she asked to break the silence.

"Eh?"

"About the Invasion and whatever." Gaz rolled onto her back, keeping her head in my lap, and looked up at me with worry. "Tak didn't call off the Invasion. The whole thought of it made me sick. Sorry again about the puke."

"Don't worry about it. The last thing," I said. "And as for the Invasion, we think we have a plan."

"Yeah?"

I cleared my throat. "Yeah, and um… it involves me not going all the way to Irk with you guys."

Slowly, Gaz sat up. Our shoulders touched. She set her right hand on my knee and dug her fingers into the denim of my jeans. "Oh," she said.

"Yeah." I held my breath for a moment, as if that could hold the moment. "Dib wants me leading forces back on Earth. Which I get. I want to do whatever I can."

"Is Ira going with you?"

"Probably, yeah. He wants to."

"Good," Gaz sighed. "He needs to see Lisa."

"Who's Lisa?"

Gaz laughed. "Oh, yeah, you weren't there. Ira's fiancée. She's the reporter you saved from the Resisty, Zim. That's Ira's girlfriend."

I blinked. "Wow."

"Yeah."

"Small, eh… universe."

"Small and crazy," Gaz elaborated.

"Small and crazy universe," I agreed.

Another silence.

"So Ira's going with you?" Gaz asked, nearly whispering.

"Yes. And your dad, and probably Lex. Tenn and Red would stay with you."

"Oh."

"Mm." Silence again. "Red and Ira," I went on, knowing Gaz was at least a little hungry for information, "know that this horde of Brains will be easier to take out, though. We just have to figure out what the fourth Talisman is, and once the shield is down, we're going to blow Station Nine off the starcharts."

"Good," Gaz said, rashly.

"My thoughts exactly."

Her eyes narrowed. "But we don't know what the Talisman is."

I sighed. "We don't. Red's looking into it."

"Okay."

Gaz glanced over her shoulder, passing her gaze through the vastness. "You'd be going back because of Tak, right?" she guessed.

"The threat of the Armada, yeah," I said.

"Figured."

She did not get a chance to elaborate on her worries, however, as at that moment we were joined by the one person in our group who did not concern himself with the inconveniences of interruption.

"Hey," Red said from the opening of the room, "we need to talk."

"Um," I tried, casting a sideways glance at Gaz, who in turn was looking ready to tear Red a new one.

"Oh, hi," said the Tallest, "you're up. Good. You can be in on this."

I groaned, and leaned forward onto my knees, running my hands through my hair. "What, Red?" I gave in.

"Talisman stuff. I need to talk to you. Tenn's pulling into an abandoned freight check station. Skutch and the Professor'll be around in a couple minutes and you," he said, "can help us identify this missing piece."
I doubted I could, but there was little to no use telling Red that. Moments later, Gaz and I were on our feet and following the Tallest to Tenn's command room. As we walked, Gaz squeezed my hand, and pulled me down to whisper, "Zim, I'm worried."

"What about?"

"I don't think Tak's dead."

"Neither do I," I assured my girlfriend, letting her walk closer. "We'll get her."

"I want her to face justice, though," said Gaz. "If you encounter her, and if you can help it, try not to kill her."

"Believe me," I said, "I wouldn't. I don't want to kill if I don't absolutely have to. I'm all for fair trials. Life is life, you know?"

"I know." Gaz held my hand tighter, and leaned her head on my shoulder as we continued our walk down the ship's corridor. "You're so honest, Zim."

I grinned, glad to know that honesty was a quality that could describe me. "Thanks," I told her.

And then, she said:

"I love that about you."

My heart stalled, and I felt a rush, blood flowing to my head as I processed that word she had just said.

"What?" I choked on my response.

"You're honest. And you're strong," said Gaz, "and you're motivated, and you stick to your word."

"I—"

"I love that about you."

I felt something scratch against the inside of my ribcage. The laceration on my right arm felt hot. Somehow, my mind registered:

You are being tested.

This was it.

Last push.

Last fragment.

It wasn't going to be easy.

Love never is.

"Thank you," I said graciously, bending to kiss Gaz's cheek.

It was our last moment alone for quite some time.

But it had begun.

– – –

The freight check station that served as our rendezvous point was indeed abandoned, and eerily so. It was a hovering platform, anchored in orbit to Vort, but hanging on by thin gravitational threads. Grey and decrepit, it probably wouldn't take long for the station to deteriorate into dust, but for now, at least, it could hold our two ships. Freight check stations dated back to the days when the Irken Empire merely had trade ports with other planets. Once the Invasions began, there was no reason to negotiate trade. The Brains commanded what was what, and the Tallest carried out the Brains' orders, telling the conquered planets what to do, or what they would become.

There was an angular building on the station, only two storeys high, grey as gravel, windowpanes gone, computer system undoubtedly shot.

Nobody would ever know we were here.

Skutch and the Professor parked the Spittle Runner directly next to Tenn's larger ship, and came aboard into the room we had first found ourselves in, where the table was still set up by the berth. Another table was brought in and the two were shoved together, which allowed most of us to fit around it. Dib chose to stand, which meant that he paced something awful throughout the meeting, but I almost couldn't blame him. If he didn't keep moving, he'd probably pass out just like Gaz had.

"So's it true you guys figured out what the hell this new Talisman thing is?" Skutch queried to get things rolling.

He'd grabbed a seat beside me; Gaz was on my left, and on her father's right. I felt oddly tense around her father, even though he had personally encouraged me more than once. I just didn't want to give him any reason to doubt that I had Gaz's well-being at the very top of my priorities. Ira was across from us, sitting intentionally next to Tenn, who separated him from Red. It was almost seeming more natural to see Tenn and Red as a team, rather than Red and Ira.

Ira belonged on Earth, on the human side of everything, and it was showing more and more.

Lex sat between Skutch and Ira, and as Dib paced, he would touch her shoulder, or clench the back of her chair; she would glance back, touch his arm, or mouth small phrases to him if he needed to calm down.

GIR and my PAK still lay to the side of the room. I hadn't looked at the PAK again yet. I wasn't sure if it was shutting down or not, but something was definitely starting to feel different about the way I was breathing.

Fragments of a fragment, that was all I could currently feel.

"Not entirely," said the Tallest. Dib turned and started pacing in the other direction. I saw Lex mouth slow down, and felt Gaz tense beside me. "A quick lookup in Tenn's computer system told us what it used to be, but…"

"That doesn't make sense," said Dib, who I knew to believe almost anything. "A Talisman can't change, can it? Or be anything other than it's supposed to be. If it breaks, it's broken and that's it. Right?"

"The Cabochon, the Talisman that guarded the Massive Brains, has been in different fixed places over the years," Tenn explained. "It was more vulnerable as just a gem set in Tavis, but it's been added onto staffs and archways in the past."

"So this fourth one, or third one or what have you," Professor Membrane began, "it's only a piece of something we're looking for?"

Red nodded, and looked right at me. Which got everyone else looking at me.

"What?" I wondered. My heart skipped.

Ira glanced at me, then down at the table, and then, with a forced sigh, he leaned back and tapped Red's shoulder. Red also leaned behind Tenn (who, herself, looked pretty annoyed at the fact that the two people she'd been so angry at until recently were talking around her) as Ira said, "Can we give the guy a break? If he doesn't remember, he doesn't remember."

"Oh, Goddammit," I muttered, drumming my fingers nervously on the table.

"Sorry," said Red. "I, um, I shouldn't keep assuming."

"Or keep getting angry over things you can't just reach into the past and fix," Ira added, quietly.

Red shook his head and repeated the apology.

"So what was it?" Lex asked.

"What happened?" Skutch added.

Gaz set her hand on my knee, the action obscured by the table. It was a comfort I wasn't aware I'd needed until her presence was there; I lay my hand over hers, and our fingers folded together.

"You—the Commander, I mean, stole it," Red reported. I clenched my girlfriend's hand involuntarily. "It was a knot, like an ornamentation, in the rim of a shield."

"He didn't use shields," Skutch recalled. "That's bullshit."

"That's what I thought, too, but it's on record," said Tenn. "He probably stole it to prove some kind of point."

"That shields are a sign of weakness, or something?" I guessed.

"Probably."

Great. I let out a groan. I wanted so badly to just move on, but as long as I remained anywhere in the Empire, the ghost of the actions I had taken in the past would follow and surround me like a fog. "So he stole a shield, and probably made some big show of destroying it," I realized. "But he most likely kept that piece around, just to say he had it." Gaz leaned closer to me.

Of course shields are useful. I was hers, and she was mine. Sometimes vulnerability is inevitable, but having support, having a shield… that's strength. The Commander was so afraid of his own undoing that he made himself believe he was beyond the need of someone or something to protect him.

"Meaning GIR probably could identify it," Dib resigned.

"Unless we play a guessing game," said Lex. "And I don't think we have time for that."

"Shit," I fumed. "Sorry I can't be more—"

All of a sudden, Gaz sat straight up.

"Something you stole," she said, sounding haunted.

I felt a sting in my chest. "Yeah?"

"Something you stole," she repeated. Gaz squeezed my hand and angled herself to face me. "Zim," she said slowly, "I have something you stole."

"Eh?!" shot out of me before I could come up with any intelligent way to try to deny her claim.

Red was profoundly intrigued. "This could be useful," he said, almost cracking a smile.

"What is it?" Tenn wanted to know.

"You don't…" I finally managed. I let go of Gaz's hand and ran my fingers through my hair. "I… no, sorry you can't. Or… I mean, how can you?"

Flushed and flustered, Gaz lay her hands down on the table. Dib abruptly stopped pacing. Lex got it first, and responded with an apologetic look across the table to her friend. Gaz nodded, and looked down.

"I don't get it," said Skutch.

Neither did I.

Until I followed Gaz's gaze downward. Until she said, "This. It's made of Tavis. You stole it, or, you said GIR told you that you did. It's in your letter."

No.

Fuck, no, anything but that.

It was indeed a shield. One Gaz had worn on her hand since her thirteenth birthday.

"Talk about hiding in plain sight," I heard Dib say under his breath.

Tepidly, Gaz spun her ring around on her finger. It caught the light. Yes, I remembered… during the Incident, I had found a bit of Tavis in my eerily modified basement, smoothed it into a band, and had it forged into a ring, because GIR had informed me of the material's protective qualities. I had intended for it to protect Gaz in the coming conflict.

Now we had to destroy it. And we were going to separate ends of the war.

"I'm sorry," I said quietly. "Gaz, I didn't know, I swear I didn't know."

I felt like I was falling apart.

"It's okay," she replied, meeting my eyes. In hers, I saw all the reassurance and trust and honesty of the universe. I hurt from the knowledge that I had given her a stolen weapon of war in an act of love, but began to feel confident with knowing that it may not have been the object itself that she'd held onto, but what I had wanted it to represent.

To the others, she announced, "I have the fourth Talisman." She held up her hand. "Zim gave me this ring a few years ago. It's…" Gaz trailed off, cradling her hand in her other so she could admire the ring. I wanted to reach for her but stopped myself. "I love it," she sighed. "I've held onto this, and it's protected me, and now I think I'll love it even more, if breaking it will help save millions of people."

"We should still cross-reference it," Tenn advised, rising gracefully. "Zim, I'm sorry, but we'll have to hook GIR into my system."

This was too much at once for me. Past encroached upon present with every word we were speaking, and this was not the time to chance reviving GIR. We were all exhausted; I didn't want to put us at the risk of another unnecessary fight. Thinking fast for an alternative, I dug into my pocket to withdraw the chips I had removed from GIR's cranial chassis. "These are the rudiments of GIR's memory bank." They were warm in the palm of my hand. "Can we just use these?" I asked.

"Skutch?" Tenn checked.

My brother shrugged. "Should be fine."

"Then come on," said Red. "I want to nail down a plan. And then eat. I'm starving."

"You're always hungry," Ira chastised.

"I'm always working," Red fought back. After a pause, he added, "But I honestly can't remember when work felt this fulfilling."

Dib managed a laugh. "I think that's the most complimentary thing I've ever heard you say, Red."

"To whom?" his father wondered.

Dib shrugged. "In general. But I agree, let's get this going."

When we moved down the hall to Tenn's control room again, both Dib and Lex hung back near me and Gaz for the first several paces. GIR's memory chips remained clenched in my right hand. Dib leaned in to whisper something to his sister before moving ahead, and Lex did the same seconds later. Gaz nodded vaguely each time. Ira brushed past us and patted his goddaughter's shoulder; Professor Membrane patted the top of her head. The two stayed close as we walked.

"Not used to that much attention," she mumbled, though she sounded congratulatory.

"What'd Lex and Dib have to say?" I asked, feeling the sting in my chest again when Gaz started fiddling with her ring out of nerves.

"They both asked me if I was okay."

My mind suddenly wandered to Miyuki's machines. The Time Warp Machine in particular. Tak had stolen it to accelerate time, to try to work things in her favor. I had wondered why for so long, but now, faced with an action I felt myself wishing I could go back in time to erase, I began to understand her reasoning.

Why would anyone want to manipulate time?

It's always to be at an advantage. Back or forward, it's all in the hopes to better a situation for an individual.

It's done out of fear.

Tak, I understood in that moment, lived her life in fear, whether or not she wanted to admit it.

Gaz, on the other hand, knew how to scowl at fear, how not to let it get the best of her, how to recognize it and how to keep it at bay.

That was why she was all right, giving up the ring. Why she wasn't fighting it, as much as she claimed to love the object.

But love, I started to understand, sometimes means letting go. Love sometimes means moving forward. Love embraces change. Fear does not.

"Are you?" I asked anyway.

Gaz looked up at me with a half-smile that showed her mixed but resilient feelings on the matter. "What do you think?" she returned.

I smiled back, and hugged her to my side as we walked.

Once in the command room, flanked by computer screens, Gaz hesitantly removed her ring and handed it over to Tenn. When she was no longer wearing it, Gaz felt around the bare space on her finger and leaned back against me.

"You sure you're fine?" I asked her.

Lowering her hands, Gaz answered, "You came back, didn't you? Your letter said to wear that till you could come back. Honestly, Zim, it's okay. I really loved it. I loved the thought that went into it, and knowing it symbolized something, and now I love that it can help us save the Empire. Plus," she added, "I still have the letter."

…Oh, yeah, that thing. I did feel a twinge of embarrassment over the desperation and doubt with which I'd written it, but that soon faded to a subtle sense of pride for how far not only I but we together had come since then.

We're human. We want to do better. We fail, we keep going.

I had promised to protect her; I had promised to come back. She had lived, and fought, and waited.

I hugged her, and she gripped my hands. And we moved on to the next step.

In the control room, Tenn took her command seat, and I handed her GIR's chip to be installed to the data core. After fitting the chip to a tiny scanner, Tenn gave the ring over to Skutch, who looped it into a loose wire hanging from a small computer screen. "Computer," he ordered, "run a scan. Cross-reference with the SIR chip. Verify the identity of that, uh… thing."

"You tried," Tenn grumbled. "Computer," she added, "trace SIR archives to find a match for this Tavic relic."

"My name's Tenn, I use big words," Skutch mocked innocently, rolling his eyes.

"Yeah, and I'm also a better pilot," Tenn said without skipping a beat.

Skutch pretended to ignore her; Tenn smirked, knowing she had won. All eyes, then, were on the computer screen. Colors and numbers and unreadable Irken words flew by as the machine processed, drawing us seconds closer to verification.

Tapping his foot hurriedly, Dib said an almost too sharp, "Well, as long as we're standing around, I'd like to be productive. Can we talk next moves?"

"Agreed," Red said, also sounding in a rush.

"Impatience isn't exactly the best companion to decision-making," Ira warned. He was keeping his calm surprisingly well. "Besides, we've already made the biggest choices: who's staying, who's going back to Earth."

Lex shifted uncomfortably at Dib's side. She seemed to be struggling to keep focus on the computer screen. Her mind must have been torn in the two directions the continuation of the war was taking; it was impossible to tell which way she was leaning. I understood completely. So much rested on both sides.

All I did know was that, whatever move I'd make next, it would be out of love. The sheer love of feeling human at all.

"Match detected," said Tenn's computer after four minutes of silence.

On the small but detailed screen were two images: one, the ring, in a scanned image read from its hook-up point, and the other—a massive, octagonal shield of grey and black metal, ornamented round the rim with pyramid-shaped black studs. On the face was a twisted metal symbol, a calligraphic interpretation of the Irken Military insignia. Between the stylized antennae, embedded in the rim, there was a knot of Tavis.

The computer zeroed in on the knot, and a green border flashed around both it and the image of the ring.

"Item," said the computer in its characterless monotone, "is identified as the Vortalitia Scildknot."

"Vortalitia?" Professor Membrane repeated, tasting the word, intrigued. His eyes lit up. Ira turned when his friend had spoken, and the two exchanged a glance.

I saw Ira mouth a few words. It took me a second, but I realized what he had meant: If Victor were here…

The Professor shook his head. Ira moved across the room to stand next to him, and the computer continued.

"Forged in Irken Tavis during the First Blorchean Expansion War, designated to protect the Control Brains housed on then-Irken Empirical ally, Vort."

"What were you muttering?" Lex asked of Ira and the Professor. She must have caught the mention of her father's name.

The two looked back and forth a second time. The Professor cleared his throat. "Your father," he said to Lex, "is the historian among us, but he used to bore us with all sorts of Medieval nonsense. Etymologies were a strong suit."

"Believe me, he used to read me Medieval Latin poems as bedtime stories," Lex said, smiling somewhat.

"He toured us through the Tower of London once," the Professor went on, fondly, "and kept babbling about the roots of the word fortress."

"Fortalitia being one," added Ira.

Lex's green eyes went wide. I knew that her father was an admired scholar; she must have had the same thirst for knowledge. Everyone in our group did.

The SEC was comprised of such inquisitive people. To be human is to inquire, and then to seek, and then to know… and then to ask again. No matter the topic, be it linguistics or love.

My heart skipped.

Fragments.

"We're so connected," Lex marvelled, stepping closer to the computer screen. "Irkens and humans, we are so connected. Even our languages evolved together. This is fascinating."

"Fascinating won't blow up Brains," Red argued. "Is that ring gonna help or not?"

"Excuse me," Dib argued, "but I think any evidence of our similarities could be beneficial in our confrontation with the Brains on Irk. They've got to pose the biggest threat and challenge… I bet they know all of our similarities, and expect that we're oblivious, so I'll take fascinating as a weapon, thanks."

Red groaned. "Fine," he gave in. "So what's the plan?"

"Well," said Gaz, "this is the Talisman. We can go ahead with the plot to blow up the Station, can't we?"

"Well," said Tenn, "one thing's certain: you're gonna need a way more powerful laser than this thing's got."

"Too bad we can't get back to the Massive," Red griped.

"I'm sure you of all people would have memorized all the best places to procure powerful lasers in this Empire, though," Ira noted, blinking at Red.

Red's face flushed. He removed his glassed and cleared his throat, covering his mouth with one fist. He turned away from Ira, thus angling himself in a way that Gaz and I could see his expression more clearly. Red cleaned off his glasses with the edge of his shirt; the lenses had been foggy. More than the irises of his eyes looked red.

That was new. His eyes had watered, and still seemed misty. He must have been hiding that fact for a while.

He set his glasses back in place and walked over to Tenn. Setting his hands on the back of her pilot's seat, he glanced at the navigation system.

"We could," he said, "use one on Vort."

"Would it tamper with the orbit if we destroy a satellite from a base on its anchor planet?" Membrane asked warily.

Red shook his head, cast a glance back at Ira, who nodded, then proclaimed, "Not if we destroy all of the Stations at once. And free Vort."

We all held our breath.

"Look, we wanna be sending good messages, I want to be a better leader. We free Vort," Red repeated.

I had to admit, that was probably the best decision I had ever heard Red make. It was one that I could stand behind, especially still feeling some guilt for having lost control enough to allow the Commander to kill Lard Nar after the Resisty attack. Vort had been a research prison since Invader Larb conquered it, but the Empire and Vort were once on equal grounds. Yes, the enslavement of the race was recent, but such actions are not easily forgiven, if they are ever forgiven at all.

But we needed allies. And we needed resources, and we needed strength in numbers, especially if the Armada was soon to attack.

"That's the best idea I've heard today," I spoke up.

"Honestly, me, too," Dib agreed, giving Red an odd look. "You sure about that, Red?"

Red sighed. "It's what needs to be done," he proclaimed. "I want to do this. We need to destroy these Brains, and I, at least, need to get a better reputation. Nobody likes the Empire."

"No kidding," Tenn said under her breath.

"Look, I've made mistakes," said the Tallest. "I've made a ton of fucking mistakes. But now I want to make up for them. I'm going to be leading a changed Empire, and I want that change to be met with as little retaliation as possible, if the Empire's going to accept it at all.

"We need what those prisoners have, and what they can do," he continued, "and I owe them their freedom."

Ira did not hide his proud grin.

The Tallest really was learning, along with the rest of us.

Dib clapped his hands together and said, "Well, there we go."

"That's the plan?" Gaz asked.

"Yep. Let's do it," Dib said. "Red, it'll be just you and me going to Vort. Gaz, you and Zim break that thing when I give the word. I don't want any chance of a counter-attack. Tenn, Skutch, you guys stand by, and get everyone out of here if things look bad. Got it?"

I did not want to think of anything that could go wrong, but Gaz and I nodded with the others.

"New regime starts today," Dib said strongly. "Let's go free Planet Vort."

And then, his expression read, save the Earth.

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Author's Note:

Hi again! I'm not sure why, but I kept on getting error screens again when trying to respond to the comments from the previous chapter... terribly sorry about the lack of responses if they didn't go through! But I do want to say a huge thank you to everyone who read and reviewed; I was nervous posting again after such a long time, and it's so great to see that you've all kept with this story... thankyouthankyou! I may be down to posting once a month, but it's going to be a steady flow till the end~ :3

Thanks again for reading! Hopefully my comment responses can go through this time, ahhhh ^^;;; See you with chapter 13 soon.

~Jizena~

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