The thing about being an intergalactic adventurer was that sometimes it was hard to tell what kind of adventure you were getting into before you were into it.
Lilo took another look at the dainty little net she was carrying, sized up the creature she was supposed to be catching, and tossed the net away. Useless.
“We’re supposed to be rescuing a kitten,” she said, “not subduing a mountain lion with an acute case of nasal ferns.”
The creature in question hissed at her, showing long, blunt teeth. The delicate green fronds protruding from its snout vibrated menacingly.
Lilo dropped her backpack on the ground and started rummaging through it as the alien lion turned its attention back to the sentient tree with which it was locked in fierce battle. The tree had taken advantage of the big cat’s momentary distraction to wrap a few more tendrils around its midsection. The lion roared in outrage and redoubled its attack.
“What?” Stitch said in Galactic Standard. He was wielding a pair of hedge clippers and cheerfully dealing some serious damage to the tree, like a tiny, psychotic Edward Scissorhands. Snip-snip-snip! Bark and leaves flew, and the tree roared.
The lion paused to take a swipe at Stitch.
“Hey, I’m on your side,” Stitch said, annoyed. He smacked the lion gently on the nose and paused to survey his work dismantling the evil tree.
Then he cackled gleefully and broke out a flame-thrower. The tree shrieked.
Lilo rolled her eyes and switched from English to Galactic Standard. “I said, I thought this thing was supposed to be a kitten.”
She fished around in her backpack. Screwdriver, lipstick, yoyo, plasma gun, battered paperback edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People, microwave burrito, stiletto heels, aha!
Lasso. That would have to do.
“Yah,” Stitch replied. “‘Kitten up a tree’.”
“I guess it depends on your definition of ‘kitten’,” Lilo said. She twirled the lasso experimentally.
“And ‘tree’,” Stitch said. “And ‘up,’ too. BANZAI!” He sprang into motion, a streak of blue fur and fire, and Lilo let fly her lasso.
It was all over pretty fast after that.
* * *
“Miffy!” the little old lady cried when she opened the door. The lion—Miffy? Lilo snorted—uttered a plaintive meow and leapt forward into the little old lady’s arms, nearly yanking Lilo’s arm off. She let go of the lasso once it was clear the giant vegetal cat was saying hello and not trying to eat the old lady, or lay eggs in her, or whatever it was these things did to their prey.
“How can I ever thank you? And—what do I owe you?” the old lady said. She blinked watery eyes at Lilo and Stitch, and her tentacles shivered gratefully. Her house dress was threadbare, and Lilo noticed that the roof of her hut listed precariously to one side. She was obviously not a wealthy...octopoid.
“Our usual rate—” Stitch began, and Lilo cut him off.
“It was our pleasure, Ma’am,” she said, shooting a glare at Stitch. “We’re just happy to see you and, er, Miffy reunited.”
“He’s all I’ve got,” the little old lady said. She sighed. “Ever since Hermann passed.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your loss,” Lilo said.
“Oh, he didn’t die,” the old lady said. “He farted. Phosgene gas. I threw him out. The smell, good gracious, the smell. What a man.”
Lilo glanced at Stitch. He shrugged. I’d throw him out too, the shrug seemed to say. Or maybe it said, What a man. Stitch had a sort of professional respect for that sort of thing.
“Please, come in,” the old lady said. “If you won’t take payment, maybe I can offer you something to drink. Tell me, are you carbon based?”
“She is,” Stitch said, ambling into the dusty hut the tentacled old lady lived in with Miffy. Miffy himself was already happily curled up in the corner on a giant, overstuffed cat bed, chewing on a large mushroom. “And I’m indestructible.”
“Dihydrogen oxide?” the little old lady offered, brandishing a tarnished pitcher. “It’s relatively pure.” She sloshed it enticingly.
Lilo drank her glass of water, sitting on the sagging wicker couch while Stitch roamed around the room picking things up and sniffing them, licking them, or shaking them, before putting them down in the wrong place, sometimes upside-down. Lilo was pretty used to Stitch’s inability to be in a room without tearing it apart. Luckily, the old lady didn’t seem to mind.
“Candy?” the old lady asked. She produced a cut-glass bowl full of ossified hard candy. Lilo stared at it—apparently every old lady in the entire galaxy had a cut-glass bowl full of the stuff.
Lilo declined. Stitch, on the other hand, snatched up the bowl and tipped the entire contents down his throat. Lilo winced.
“We don’t get many visitors down this end of the system,” the old lady said. “What brings you to my planet?”
“Well,” Lilo said, “we saw your ad. ‘Please help, my kitten is stuck up a tree’.”
She decided not to bring up just how misleading—intentionally or not—those terms were. The old lady seemed genuinely clueless.
“My goodness,” the old lady said. She waved a tentacle vaguely. “You came all this way just to help me?”
Behind her, Stitch had turned an alarming deep green color and was exuding whole pieces of hard candy through huge pores that opened up in his skin and then disappeared without a trace. The candy fell to the floor at his feet. It was revolting but also fascinating—Lilo had never seen him pull that trick before. Stitch made a terrible face, and, shuddering in disgust, carefully picked up all the candy and placed it back into the cut-glass bowl. Lilo wrenched her attention back to the old lady.
“Yeah,” Lilo said, “it’s sort of what we do.”
“How do you make a living?” the old lady said.
“Badly,” Stitch put in. He had mostly recovered his usual color.
“We manage okay,” Lilo said defensively. And they did. Stitch found them paying gigs here and there, and that cash went towards keeping the ship in repair and funding their good deed jobs. (“The sucker jobs,” Stitch called them, but Lilo knew he liked them as much as she did.) There wasn’t much left over after those expenses, but Lilo just couldn’t bring herself to lay off on the pro bono work—there were a lot of people who needed help in the galaxy, and it was so damn satisfying to be able to help them.
Lilo made their excuses soon after that. Long, painful experience had taught her that she had about ten minutes to chit-chat with clients before Stitch got bored and broke something or said something unforgivably rude just to see what would happen.
* * *
Lilo had been training for the life of a space adventurer since she met Stitch, though David once told her he’d thought she was destined for weirdness—“I mean greatness”—even before he came into their lives. “You would have found a way somehow, no matter what,” he said.
Maybe that was true. But having Stitch as part of the family certainly formalized the whole idea in Lilo’s head. When she was ten years old, she’d made a list of all the skills she would need in order to be a good adventuring partner for Stitch.
That night, Pleakley taught Lilo how to say “But I don’t want to clean up my room” in Galactic Standard, and Lilo’s glorious training officially began.
“I see you are working hard on your lofty goal of becoming the most effective pain in the butt in all of Hawaii,” Nani said. “Now go clean your room. I don’t care what language you do it in, either.”
“How do you say, ‘But Stitch made it messy, so why should I clean it up’?” Lilo asked Pleakley, not getting up from the couch.
“Lilo!” Nani yelled. “Room! Now!”
Pleakley winced sympathetically at Lilo as she stomped upstairs.
Sassing Nani in another language wasn't exactly heroic, but it was a start. And two years later, more determined than ever, Lilo sat down with Cobra Bubbles to refine and expand the list.
“I still haven’t figured out how to get Stitch off Earth, though,” Lilo said. “I’m pretty sure he’s exiled here for life.”
“Leave that to me,” Cobra Bubbles said. He squinted into the distance grimly. Or Lilo thought he did—he was wearing his sunglasses (even though it was almost bedtime) so it was hard to tell. Sometimes Lilo forgot that Cobra Bubbles wasn’t merely a terrifying social worker/adopted family member. And then he said things like, “The representative from Orlon III owes me a favor. A terrible, unnameable favor,” and Lilo was reminded again.
Lilo's new list was dauntingly comprehensive.
Small craft piloting
AREAS OF STUDY
TIMELINE - No time to lose!
Age 15: graduate high school, start college
Age 18: graduate college, find high-paying job
Age 22: buy spaceship with saved money? (how much does a spaceship cost???)
Nani had looked at Lilo narrowly when she showed the new list to her.
“This is a lot, Lilo,” she said. “Don’t you want a little time for fun, too?”
“The fun part starts with the spaceship,” Lilo said grimly. She was working her way through an introductory Calculus textbook at the kitchen table. David was cooking dinner and Stitch was “helping” him.
“Okay…” Nani said, “just as long as you know you can slow down if you need to. Nobody will hold it against you if you want to relax every now and then. Stitch, put it down.” She didn’t even turn around.
“Spaceship, then fun,” Lilo said. She wiggled her fingers and Stitch grudgingly handed over the bottle of Drano. Lilo put it down on the table and went back to the chapter on differentiation. “No fun till spaceship.”
But as it turned out, it was all kind of fun.
Everyone got on board with the “make Lilo’s dream of awesome space adventures a reality” project. Nani and David helped her with math and chemistry as much as they could, and then Jumba took over with the more advanced topics. Stitch knew a lot more about astrophysics than anyone had guessed—even Jumba—and Cobra Bubbles tutored her in intergalactic history and politics.
And maybe most importantly, Stitch turned out to have a good sense for when Lilo was flagging, and would drag her off for a nap, or a game of tag, or a snack, so she never got to the point of burnout. It was a good system.
Lilo kept going to hula classes because Devorah, her Krav Maga instructor, told her it gave her an edge in combat. But Lilo overheard her tell Nani, “I just think that kid needs to chill out and listen to some music, you know? If dancing keeps her in one place for long enough to do that, then good.” Devorah smoked a lot of weed and talked a lot about balance and harmony when she wasn’t critically injuring men three times her size, but Lilo thought probably balance and harmony were pretty important, so she kept going to hula.
By the time Lilo was fourteen she had skipped three grades and was still on track with her timeline. She had a few friends—though friends was too strong a word; “friendly acquaintances” was closer—at her high school, but nobody she liked or trusted enough to bring home to meet her family. Plus, she was too busy to do any real socializing.
“Aren’t you lonely, kiddo?” Nani asked once, while they folded laundry together on the back porch. Stitch was napping in a sunbeam in the back yard. If Lilo squinted she could see fat, lazy flies circling his head and marching around on his tongue as it lolled out of his mouth. Like most of the gross things Stitch did, it was weirdly endearing. Pleakley’s chickens pecked the ground around Stitch but gave him a wide berth. Lilo didn’t know why Pleakley was so attached to his hens, but the fresh eggs at breakfast were nice. She wasn’t complaining.
“I’ve got Stitch,” Lilo pointed out. “And you, and David, and Cobra Bubbles, and Jumba and Pleakley.”
“Yeah,” Nani said slowly, “but none of us are your age. And Stitch and Jumba and Pleakley aren’t even human. Honestly, I’m not convinced Cobra Bubbles is, either.”
“Cyborg,” Lilo said immediately. “Pretty sure he has a robot leg. Have you ever seen his ankles?”
“Yes,” Nani said, and then blushed. “You’re changing the subject,” she added in a hurry, folding up a huge white T shirt too big to belong to anyone but Cobra Bubbles. He was around enough lately that he kept some clothes at their house.
Lilo loved it: the full house, the crowded, quiet breakfasts with everyone crammed around the kitchen table and David moving on sleepy autopilot, serving up toast and eggs and fruit for everyone except Pleakley, who ate an entire jar of mustard every morning for breakfast when he came in from feeding and cuddling his chickens.
Whenever she was feeling tired or sad or stressed out, she thought about the quiet clinking of silverware on plates and Stitch’s fur all mussed and rumpled from sleep as they sat at the table together with their family. And it made her feel good, and safe, and loved, and loving.
Nani cleared her throat. Lilo blinked. Right, right, the third degree.
“The other kids my age are three years behind me in school and most of them think aliens are into probing people’s butts,” Lilo said. “I tried to have a conversation with Michiko the other day and literally the only thing we have in common is we both sort of like nail polish.”
“Doesn’t sound very satisfying,” Nani agreed.
“Yeah,” Lilo said. “I don’t think most of them like me, and I guess I don’t blame them. It’s not like we have anything to talk about.” She stared down at Stitch in the backyard. “And I don’t want to risk someone calling the cops when they find out I live with a bunch of extraterrestrials.”
“I know, baby,” she said. “I just want you to be happy.”
Lilo shrugged. The thing was, she was happy.
* * *
Lilo didn’t graduate college until age nineteen: she took an extra year at UH Manoa to weasel her way into a triple major in Astrophysics, Electrical Engineering, and Political Science, and she filled in the gaps with online classes from MIT’s Open Courseware program.
When she’d finally gotten around to reading the Harry Potter series over Christmas break during her Sophomore year, Lilo had literally cried with jealousy over Hermione’s Time-Turner. Nani sent Stitch with her when she went back to school for spring semester. “You need someone to make sure you’re eating and sleeping,” Nani said. “For such a smart girl you’re a real imbecile sometimes.”
Lilo didn’t protest. She knew she wasn’t doing a great job of taking care of herself. Nani and Cobra Bubbles did some finagling to get Lilo a private room and pass Stitch off as a service animal. Stitch balked at the required harness until Lilo added iron-on skull patches and glued pointed steel studs to it. “You’re rocking a look,” she said dubiously, and Stitch turned around to admire himself in the mirror on the back of her dorm room door.
“Hot stuff,” he said, and grinned.
He wore it the day she graduated, Summa Cum Laude, and scampered up on stage with her as she collected her diploma. If he mooned the audience, Lilo didn’t know anything about it, or that’s what she told the Provost at the graduation party that night, anyway.
It didn’t take them long to pack up her dorm room, and a day later Lilo was back in her bedroom at home, lying awake in her old bed, her heart churning in her chest, trying to tell herself she was patient enough to suffer through three or four Connecticut winters at the hedge fund job that was waiting for her there.
“Oh, a few GUs,” Pleakley had told her when Lilo asked him how much a used compact civilian-class interstellar ship would cost. She figured she didn’t need to buy new. But even the price tag for a used ship was overwhelming. “What’s that in dollars?” she asked Pleakley, and nearly passed out when the answer was: “About three hundred thousand.”
Lilo was going to need nearly a hundred thousand in the bank just to make a down payment, and that was assuming the Galactic-Units-to-US-Dollars exchange rate stayed relatively stable. The highest paying work she could get was in finance, in Connecticut, so that’s where she was going. She had found a dirt-cheap room to rent and figured with a starting salary of $125,000 and some consulting work on the side she could raise the money for a ship in a few years.
A few years.
The thought of business-casual sweater sets and a daily commute through the salted slush made her eyelid twitch minutely. It felt a lot like what Lilo imagined claustrophobia must be like—a sort of rising panic at being trapped, immobile, isolated.
Stitch was sleeping in his usual spot in Lilo’s bedroom—a makeshift bed next to hers that had started life as a colander. It was lined with cotton balls Stitch had stolen from Pleakley’s makeup kit over the course of several years. He didn’t seem to be tormented by the prospect of Connecticut, at least if his whistling snore was any indication. Maybe because he had all that nice warm fur.
Lilo sighed, and forced herself to think soothing thoughts about space dust until she fell asleep to the sound of Stitch’s soft breathing.
The sun was high when she woke up the next morning, groggy from a bad night’s sleep and still feeling intractably crabby about having to suffer through a brief career in financial analysis before she could start her life as the Indiana Jones of the Milky Way. College had been hard, but at least it had been interesting; Lilo had no such hopes for Connecticut.
“It even has a stupid name,” she muttered as she stumbled down the stairs in a ratty t-shirt and boxer shorts. “Connecticut. Blah.”
Stitch was already at the kitchen table, ploughing through a pile of kimchee pancakes—David would only make them for him on special occasions, which Lilo guessed this was. David looked up from the stove for long enough to give Lilo a kiss on the cheek. It was still weird to Lilo that they were almost the same height.
“Sit down,” David said absently. “You want ‘em over easy or scrambled?”
“Over easy,” Lilo said. “Why is Stitch winking at Cobra Bubbles?”
Stitch gave a guilty start and looked out the window, whistling innocently. Cobra Bubbles, who was working on a cup of coffee and somehow exuding competent menace in a set of pinstriped pajamas, didn’t bat an eye. Or at least Lilo assumed he didn’t; he was wearing sunglasses.
“Why would he be winking?” Pleakley said shrilly. “He wasn’t winking! I mean, I don’t know anything—why would you think I knew anything—“
Jumba glared at him, and Pleakley abruptly stood up, his empty mustard jar wobbling on the table. “I’ll just go, uh, visit the chickens,” Pleakley said weakly, and nearly ran out of the room. Lilo heard peals of nervous laughter coming from the backyard shortly after that, accompanied by a chorus of clucking. She shook her head.
“Okay,” Lilo said. “What’s going on?”
Nani and David looked at each other and then at Cobra Bubbles. Stitch was bouncing in his chair so violently that one of the legs came loose. He tumbled to the floor and stayed there, pounding his fist on the floorboards in frustration.
“You gotta tell her,” he moaned imploringly at Cobra Bubbles. His whole body quivered. “I can’t stand it.” His feelers found Cobra Bubbles’ bunny-slipper-clad feet and twined around his ankle pleadingly. Lilo snuck a look at it. Not obviously cybernetic. Huh.
Cobra Bubbles rolled his eyes, or Lilo assumed he did.
“Good news for you, Lilo,” he said as finished the last of his coffee and put the cup deliberately down on the table with a soft thunk.
Stitch abruptly stopped vibrating and scampered up the back of Lilo’s chair. He perched there and leaned forward, craning his neck until he was staring intently straight at her face.
“Okay,” he said to Cobra Bubbles, not looking away from her, “tell her now. I have a good view.”
Lilo grimaced, pulling her face away from his. “Ugh, kimchee breath,” she said. Stitch belched fragrantly. “Sorry,” he said, clearly not.
“I found you a ship,” Cobra Bubbles said without any preamble.
“But I don’t have enough money—“ Lilo started.
“Cheap,” Cobra Bubbles said.
* * *
Ten minutes later the whole family was crammed into Cobra Bubbles’s gray Toyota Yaris (“government issue,” he grunted sourly), bumping along a dirt road that terminated at a discreet little cove. They tumbled out (“What is ‘clown car’?” Jumba asked) onto the sand, and Lilo gasped.
Parked on a narrow strip of beach by the glittering water was a tidy little spaceship about the size of her house. Narrow windows marched in orderly rows along the cabin spaces, and the engine, which accounted for most of the ship’s bulk, was housed behind scratched and dented sheet-metal panels that someone had painted in hot pink and black leopard spots.
Lilo stood, rooted, staring. It was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen in her entire life.
“I don’t—“ she started, and then stopped. “Where—“ she tried. “How much—“
Cobra Bubbles handed her a slim manilla folder. “The title’s in there, and the receipt.”
Lilo swallowed nervously and took a look.
“…Five thousand dollars?” she said. “Is this a joke?”
“Have you ever known me to be funny?” Cobra Bubbles replied.
“On purpose?” Lilo said.
Behind her, Stitch guffawed and then quickly went silent when Cobra Bubbles frowned at him.
“Does it…run?” Lilo asked.
“Yes. My own mechanic checked it out and did a tune-up.”
Lilo decided not to ask how or why Cobra Bubbles had his own spaceship mechanic.
“How did you get it for five thousand?” she asked, baffled. Lilo had been reading buyer’s guides for spaceships. A used ship of this class, even with that paint job, normally wouldn’t sell for less than half a million.
“Impounded,” Cobra Bubbles said flatly. “The previous owners were paperclip smugglers who met an untimely fate.”
“They died?” Lilo asked nervously. She hoped they hadn’t died in their spaceship.
“No, they were late. To court. For sentencing.” Cobra Bubbles pinched the bridge of his nose. “They’re doing community service now. Anyway, I won the ship at auction.”
“Did you just glare at everyone else until they let you win?” Lilo said faintly.
Cobra Bubbles just glared at her.
The ship was perfect. It was perfect. Lilo’s head was spinning. And then Stitch was grabbing her hand, tugging her impatiently towards the gangway, and then she was inside it, and it had ugly fake wood paneling on the walls and the ceiling was stained and the kitchen was smaller than the toilet, and the toilet was basically a vacuum hose, and the control panels were patched and scratched, and it. Was. Perfect.
“Yours!” Stitch said in English.
“Ours!” Lilo replied in Galactic Standard. She started laughing, and Stitch scampered up into her arms. Lilo hugged him hard.
“You owe me five thousand dollars,” Cobra Bubbles said from the doorway. He started to turn back down the gangway, but Lilo ran over with Stitch still wrapped around her neck, and grabbed him into the hug. Cobra Bubbles stiffened, and then one of his giant hands came up to give her a tentative pat on the back.
“Thank you,” Lilo said, her words muffled against the scratchy wool of his double-breasted suit jacket. “You saved me from Connecticut.”
“Nobody deserves Connecticut,” Cobra Bubbles agreed, and stoically allowed the hugging to continue for a while.
* * *
Saying goodbye sucked.
David didn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t crying, and Nani got that tight, anxious look that Lilo remembered all too well from the year after Mom and Dad died.
“I’ll write you every week,” Lilo promised.
“You’d better,” Nani said, her hand like a claw on Lilo’s shoulder, “or so help me, Lilo, I will storm NASA and steal one of those top-secret experimental spacecraft we aren’t supposed to know about just so I can come drag you home.”
David turned to Nani in alarm. “Don’t joke about that sort of thing,” he hissed, jerking his head over at Cobra Bubbles.
“Oh, I’m not joking,” Nani said. “And I don’t care who knows it.”
“I’d help,” Cobra Bubbles offered, and Nani nodded grimly. David looked as though he was beginning to wonder what kind of people, exactly, he had surrounded himself with.
Lilo, despite her sadness, rolled her eyes. “I will write every week,” she repeated. “And we’ll visit home all the time!”
“You say that now,” Pleakley chimed in, “but soon you’ll be too busy surfing solar flares and fighting space baboons in ritual combat to spare a thought for your boring old family back on Earth.” He glared at her accusingly through red-rimmed eyelids, looking for all the world like an aggrieved grandmother.
Jumba smacked him upside the head. “Get in ship while you still can, Lilo,” he said. “And come back for visit soon.”
Lilo hugged Nani again and then she and Stitch ran up the gangway.
“Bye!” Lilo yelled through the control window. “I’ll see you guys soon!”
She watched her family waving, their tiny forms fading into the landscape, in the rear view video feed as Stitch piloted them away from Earth.
* * *
Although Pleakley had given Lilo a number of long, anxious talks about the difficulties of space travel, and the importance of good sleep hygiene, and how she shouldn’t give herself a hard time if it took her a few months to get used to living in a spaceship, and how she just had to promise—promise—him she’d use the humidifier he’d given her, Lilo found that she took to life in the vacuum of space just fine.
“Duh,” Stitch said, when she mentioned it to him about a week out of Earth’s solar system.
“Wait, duh what?” Lilo said. They were both in their pajamas, enjoying their new bedtime ritual: removing space lice from the hull of the ship with a number of robotic arms that existed, as far as Lilo could tell, for just that purpose. The whole thing was very satisfying and not a little hilarious because from outside—Lilo had seen it for herself from a spacesuit—it really looked like the ship was giving itself a nice scratch.
“You’re a natural,” Stitch said. “That’s what’s duh.”
Lilo found she didn’t have anything to say to that, except, “That means a lot, coming from you,” and Stitch’s ego was already big enough, so she kept quiet.
That night Lilo fell asleep with a smile on her face.
Lilo’s bunk on the good ship Hound Dog was actually a hammock, slung across the top of the wide entrance to the cockpit of the ship. The ship did have a proper berth, above the kitchen, with a soft, human-sized foam mattress and everything. But Lilo preferred sleeping in her hammock, with the netting secured across the top of it in case the ship’s gravity field failed in the night.
It happened every now and then. The first time the gravity field went on the fritz, Lilo awoke from a dream about swimming in the bay back at home, gliding effortlessly underneath the waves, the Hawaiian sun cutting through the water like a smile, to find herself face-to-face with a floating Stitch. He was waving a screwdriver in her face and gabbling in rapid Galactic Standard. A droplet of drool had escaped Lilo’s sleeping mouth and hung in the air between them, gleaming.
“Blerghidworfenblot,” Stitch said again.
“English,” Lilo insisted blearily. They hadn’t been in space that long, and her Standard was still pretty poor. It’s one thing to wake up in zero G with your toes tangled in hammock netting. It’s another to keep track of twenty-seven declensions and a lot of very specific technical jargon under those circumstances.
“Come on,” Stitch repeated in English. “The twisty stick is stuck in the electron wizzle. Makes it float. Very stupid.”
Stitch’s English wasn’t a lot better than Lilo’s Standard. But they did okay, moving around each other with the ease of best friends. Soon the twisty stick was unstuck and the electron wizzle was zapping appropriately again, and Lilo’s bare feet were firmly planted on the ugly shag rug that Cobra Bubbles, for reasons nobody could guess and nobody was willing to ask after, had insisted on furnishing the ship with.
Lilo wiggled her toes in the rug, thoughtfully. She sort of missed floating already. Stitch made a sort of a purr with a question mark on the end that basically meant, “What are you thinking about?”
“Nothing,” Lilo said. She climbed up the ladder next to the cockpit door and wiggled back into her hammock, waving goodnight to Stitch, who scampered up into the berth above the kitchen. That bed had been intended for Lilo, who had used it only once before surrendering it to Stitch and slinging her hammock across the cockpit door, from which vantage she could see almost every corner of their small ship.
Stitch, meanwhile, colonized the berth and loaded it extravagantly with small stuffed animals and elaborately embroidered pillows. It was stupidly cute, but of course Lilo kept that opinion to herself. She did, however, sneak up once or twice in the middle of the night to take pictures of Stitch asleep, wrapped in the tropical fish-patterned fleece throw Nani had given them the morning they’d left, clutching a battered stuffed duck that was nearly his own size. These photos were then secretly sent to Nani and David, who faithfully promised not to share them with anyone else, but probably immediately showed them to Cobra Bubbles.
In the morning after that first gravity field failure, Stitch cleaned up breakfast more thoroughly than usual, tucking their washed plastic Hello Kitty cereal bowls (David’s gift) safely into the padded kitchen cabinet before tugging Lilo back to the control panel they’d torn open and rewired the night before. He walked her through a series of commands, first to practice, and then for real. Lilo carefully repeated the terms, understanding what she was commanding the ship to do only as it happened.
She felt it the moment the gravity fields turned off. The ever-present hum of the ship changed its harmonics slightly, and at the same instant Lilo’s scalp tingled as her hair went weightless.
A surprised laugh escaped her.
“It’s your ship,” Stitch said in Standard. “You can float if you want to.”
“I can leave my friends behind,” Lilo replied in English, giddy. “‘Cause my friends don’t float, and if they don’t float—” she reached out and grabbed Stitch, kicking off the floor gently to send them spinning through the room, “—then they ain’t no friends of mine!”
Soon the two of them were careening off the walls in a game of zero-G tag that, in the next two years, developed rules complicated enough to rival Calvinball.
(To nobody’s surprise, Stitch had taken to Calvin & Hobbes during his stay on Earth, and had at one point tracked down the notoriously reclusive Bill Watterson in a cabin in the woods somewhere in the continental US.
Stitch never told Lilo anything about what happened during the week he was away but when he came back he brought with him two things: a small, blurry oil portrait of himself with Watterson’s signature in the corner, and a scrap of a paper grocery bag with scratchy writing all over it. Stitch swore up and down that it was Watterson’s official rules of Calvinball.
“But the whole point of Calvinball is the rules are never official,” Lilo had said, wheezing after another sound defeat. She could never manage to walk on her hands backwards while singing “Que Sera Sera” fast enough to keep the ball (held between her feet) away from Stitch, even though at that point in the game he was always tied hand and foot and tethered to a tree by a reluctantly uncoiling slinky.
“Sore loser,” Stitch had said, wiggling out of his ropes like an extraterrestrial Houdini. The slinky made a satisfying “twang” as it snapped back into shape.)
* * *
“So,” Stitch said. They were restocking their stores at the Tractor Beam Supply Co down in the Southern quadrant.
(“Southern in relation to what?” Lilo had asked.
“Magnetic fields,” Stitch said, shrugging. “Yesterday this was the Eastern quadrant.”)
“So,” Lilo echoed. She was sorting through the depressingly small pile of coins in the palm of her hand. “I think we have enough for a new converter,” she said, “but that means no gummi wormholes. Can you live without them?”
“So,” Stitch said again. He snapped his stubby little fingers together impatiently. “Lilo.”
Lilo looked up.
“Nani’s birthday,” Stitch said.
Lilo thought for a moment, running the conversion in her head between galactic central time and lunar cycles on Earth. “It’s the month after next,” she said.
“Yeah,” Stitch said. “We should visit.”
Lilo felt a sharp pang. She’d missed Nani’s birthday last year because they’d been in the middle of breaking up a paper cup counterfeiting ring. She’d promised herself—and Nani—that they’d make it home this year. They hadn’t been back to visit Earth once, and Lilo had a feeling Nani was a month or two from pulling an Ocean’s 11-style NASA rip-off job with Cobra Bubbles and coming after her in a stolen spacecraft.
“We don’t have the money,” Lilo told Stitch miserably. “That kind of a trip means real fuel. Not this half-priced garbage we’re puttering around on right now.”
“Right,” Stitch said. “So we take a pay job.”
Lilo shook her head. The only pay work they’d been offered recently had been freelance security work for Prince Maxmarillus the (self-dubbed) Moon God, a local two-bit despot who ruled his hundred-acre satellite with a grubby iron fist. Lilo had met him in a bar, and now he wouldn’t stop calling.
“I’m not working for Max,” Lilo said. “That guy’s a dick. He’d send us off to kick babies or something and then we’d just have to quit anyway, or go to war with him, or whatever.”
Stitch perked up at that thought.
“No,” Lilo said firmly. She’d learned the hard way to nip this sort of thing in the bud. “No way. I’ve had it with going to war with people. Nine times out of ten it ends with lawyers anyway.”
* * *
He kept frowning for the next six weeks. When he wasn’t yawning.
“What is with you?” Lilo asked finally, when Stitch fell asleep over the Communications Module. (The CM was actually just Jumba’s old iPad jacked into the ship’s electrical system, but Lilo got a kick out of calling it the Communications Module.)
Stitch moaned blearily.
“Go to bed, if you’re so tired,” Lilo said impatiently. “Though I don’t know why you would be, since you’ve been sleeping in past breakfast for the last month.”
She squinted suspiciously. “Is this some kind of alien biology thing?” she asked. “Are you hibernating? Are you…are you in heat?!”
Lilo grinned. “Stitch,” she said, “do we need to have The Talk?”
Stitch didn’t even rise to the bait. He poked desultorily at the iPad and yawned enormously. Lilo snuck a peek in his mouth while it was open—a habit she’d developed years ago. He always seemed to have a different number of rows of teeth. Today there were four, and the roof of his mouth was covered in green polka dots.
The iPad gave an obliging “ping!” sound—a new message had arrived. Stitch’s mouth snapped shut and he scrabbled eagerly at the device.
“Don’t look!” he said to Lilo. “It’s a secret!”
“Oh, a seeeecret,” Lilo said, rolling her eyes. “Don't worry. I don’t want to know anything about your internet girlfriends.”
(It had been Nani’s idea to sign Stitch up for an account on Satellite of Love, “the premier interstellar dating service for creatures of all biological and emotional configurations.” Lilo had helped him set up his profile, which included a picture of him from Lilo’s eleventh birthday party. In it, Stitch was eating a Spongebob Squarepants piñata whole, while children wept in horror in the background. Weirdly, the photo was a big hit on Satellite of Love, and Stitch had taken up correspondences with a number of creatures of various morphologies and chemical compositions, who all mysteriously seemed to share a love of long walks on the beach.)
“Not girlfriends,” Stitch muttered, scanning the iPad feverishly. Whatever he read there seemed to be good news. His ears went limp and he slid out of his chair looking for all the world like an overcooked and profoundly relieved blue noodle.
“What’s up?” Lilo asked. “Did Max decide not to sue you after all?”
Stitch snorted. “He should try,” he said. “My lawyer is a sentient supernova.”
“I really hope that’s a metaphor.”
“So what’s the good news?” Lilo asked. It annoyed her that she was so desperately curious about it, but Stitch was a compulsive oversharer. It was weird for him to keep secrets from her, and she was pretty sure he’d been keeping a big one.
But Stitch had fallen asleep.
Lilo sighed and gathered him up. He weighed a ton, but Lilo was strong. She carried him over to the berth and heaved him into it. Stitch didn’t wake up, though he did mumble a little until Lilo found him his tropical fish blanket. Stitch buried his face in the blanket and began to snore loudly.
That night, Lilo dreamed that she was back on Earth, in the kitchen with Nani and several of Pleakley’s chickens. She woke up in a terrible mood. Stitch was already up and humming cheerfully, which just made her crankier.
“Just spit it out,” Lilo said sourly as she poured herself a bowl of Major Tom’s Protein Pills, a mediocre breakfast cereal sold in bulk at Tractor Beam Supply. The branding had ensured Lilo’s fanatical loyalty forever and ever.
“No,” Stitch said, his feelers twitching. “I’m going to drag this out for a while.” The twitching intensified. “I’m going to keep you in suspenseOH I CAN’T STAND IT I GOT US THE MONEY FOR FUEL AND WE’RE GOING TO EARTH FOR NANI’S BIRTHDAY!”
He whipped out a small polaroid camera and snapped it in her face.
And that’s how Lilo came to know exactly what she looked like when she was feeling equal parts joy, surprise, incredulity, and dark suspicion.
“How did you get the money?” Lilo asked. “Did you steal it?”
Stitch shook his head.
“Did you kick babies for Max?”
Stitch shook his head, looking shifty.
“Did you kick Max?”
Lilo sighed. “Again?”
“Yes,” Stitch admitted. “But not for money. Just for fun.”
“I really hope your supernova lawyer is as good as you say.”
“She’s very, very, very bright."
“Oh, ha ha,” Lilo said. “So come on. How’d you do it?”
Stitch pointed at the Communications Module. The message he’d received yesterday was displayed.
“Dear Applicant,” it read,
“We have (finally) received all the paperwork necessary to process your request for monies available under the auspices of the general governing subcommittee of the steering committee for the Galactic Cultural Exchange Commission Committee. After review of the paperwork and associated evidentiary documents and specimens, the committee is happy to inform you that the entire requested amount will be made available to you immediately, with the understanding that documentation of its use is a prerequisite commitment, and violation of these terms is punishable under the strictest appropriate codes. Do not fuck with us.”
Chairkitten of the General Governing Subcommittee of the Steering Committee for the Galactic Cultural Exchange Commission Committee
Lilo stared at Stitch. Then she read the message again. Then she stared at Stitch some more.
“You got me a grant to go home for Nani’s birthday?” she said.
“Yep. Because I am amazing.”
“How much paperwork did you have to fill out to do this?”
Stitch looked sick.
“A lot,” he said. “So much paperwork.” He banged his forehead against Lilo’s shin. “Paperwork,” he moaned.
“Ow,” Lilo said.
“Sorry,” Stitch said. He banged his head against Lilo’s shin again.
“Dammit!” Lilo said. She kicked Stitch off, then immediately felt bad about it and scooped him up into a hug.
“I can’t believe you,” Lilo said, burying her nose in his soft, warm fur. “You can’t even sit still long enough to write a grocery list.”
“It was soooooo boring,” Stitch moaned, lolling limply in her arms. “I’m sooooo tiiiiired.”
“Wait, is that why you’ve been such a wreck lately? You worked on this at night, didn’t you?”
“They rejected it seven times,” Stich said. He started ticking off points on his fingers. “I didn't have Jumba’s grandfather’s vaccination records. They didn’t like my handwriting. I used the wrong dialect of Galactic Standard. I set fire to their offices. Any excuse to say no.”
“Wow,” Lilo said. “This is the nicest thing you’ve ever done for me, Stitch.”
Stitch shrugged. “I want to see them too,” he mumbled.
* * *
Their family was sitting down to dinner when Lilo and Stitch snuck up to the back door. They’d parked the Hound Dog down by the beach for maximum surprise potential. Lilo quietly oiled the hinges and then they crept in. When they got to the kitchen, Stitch threw a pebble into the far corner. Everyone turned, and Lilo and Stitch rushed in, yelling “Surprise!”
With a strangled bleat, Pleakley fainted dead out of his chair and hit the floor with a splat.
“Oops,” Stitch said.
“Happy birthday!” Lilo said into the shocked silence that followed. And then everything erupted. Nani stood up so fast her chair fell over, and then she had her arms around Lilo, and Stitch launched himself at both of them. David hurried over to join the hug, and it was sort of like a really happy, really weepy freeway pileup.
“You’re so short!” Lilo said, pulling back a bit. Stitch took the opportunity to worm his way in between them, and set up a racket with his purring.
“I am not,” Nani protested, laughing through her tears. When Lilo left Earth she and Nani had been the same height, but now Lilo had at least a few inches on her. “You got tall!”
She reached up to touch the crown of Lilo’s head. “You had a growth spurt in space!”
“Gravity was keeping her down,” David said.
“Well, technically—“ Pleakley started.
“Welcome back, Lilo,” Cobra Bubbles said. “I trust you have found space to your liking?”
“Yeah,” Lilo said, grinning at his wonderful, terrifying, impassive face. “It’s great. It’s the best.”
But it’s good to come down to Earth once in a while.