Love me tender,
Love me dear,
Tell me you are mine.
I’ll be yours through all the years,
Til the end of time.
“Love Me Tender” Elvis Presley
Nani gently tugs his silk tie loose. The knot comes easily undone beneath her practiced fingers. She smooths it between her hands before draping it over the back of the vanity chair. Cobra sits on the bed, his posture perfect, hands resting on his knees. She nudges his legs farther apart and stands between them, lingering as she slowly unbuttons his shirt. It is a clean and crisp and pressed at night as it is first thing in the morning, no matter what he’s faced – exploding aliens, spaceship battles, nosey neighbors, David accidentally setting the stage on fire again – and there is something soothing about the juxtaposition of his control and the chaos that is the rest of her life.
Once the buttons are all undone, she slips it open, easing it over his shoulders and down his arms. He moves his hands to let her slide it all the way off, and then curls them along her thighs, pressing his fingers against her bare skin.
She curls her hands under the bottom of his ribbed undershirt, knuckles brushing against his stomach. The corner of his mouth twitches, just a bit, but she knows exactly how he reacts to things, and her smile in return is wide and bright.
He runs his hands up the backs of her thighs, his blunt nails scratching in a way that is both delicious and devious in the way it tickles. She bucks her hips forward with a shriek of laughter, and that gets her a real smile.
Everyone thinks he’s intimidating, and okay, he’s a big guy who covers his eyes with opaque glasses and scowls at everyone, but anyone who writes him off as a bureaucratic thug is too quick to judge. It no longer matters that at first she hated him for trying to take Lilo, or that he was saving the world from aliens before she was even born, or that she never really saw herself in a serious relationship with one guy, much less two.
Nani cups his face and presses her lips to his, kissing him deeply and so sweetly. He tugs her closer until they’re flush, then lies back, pulling her after. Her feet leave the ground, but she’s safe in his arms, and it’s so very much like flying.
It all comes to head on their trip to Graceland.
Lilo is giddy, and her excitement infects them all, but despite their joy in the adventure, the trip from Kauai all the way across the mainland wears them down. They don’t get in to the hotel until late afternoon and it’s taken over twenty-four hours of travel, because there’s no real place to hide a spaceship where they’re going, and so they’ve flown commercial. A quick island hopper from Kauai to Oahu, then an overnight flight into San Francisco, where they were delayed for fog. The next connection out of Denver was delayed because of “mechanical issues,” and Nani doesn’t even want to think about what that really means.
By the time they reach Memphis, Nani, David, and Cobra are exhausted, but Lilo – and by extension, Stitch; Nani’s pretty sure that part of the experiment that created him also created perpetual motion, as impossible as it might be – circles them in leaps and bounds. Nani tried to keep her off the caffeine on the flights, but she fell asleep somewhere after Denver and woke up on descent with her head on Cobra’s shoulder.
They get one big suite, and Nani and Lilo – and Stitch, never far from Lilo’s side, not that Nani blames him, because watching her sister be kidnapped by an alien (watching her be shut away in the back of the car, taken away because Nani couldn’t keep her safe even before she knew about the aliens – sometimes when she looks at Cobra, her body snaps tight and she wants to lash out at him, fists against his chest) was one of the worst moments in Nani’s life, second only to that visit from Officer Perry when he came to tell her about Mom and Dad – share the bedroom, leaving the guys to split up the pull-out couch and the fold-up cot. (David gets the cot, of course.) Lilo goes and goes and goes, singing a mash-up of Elvis songs that’d be pretty cute if Nani’s body didn’t feel like she was going to shatter into pieces and sleep for a hundred years, right up until they hit the hotel, and then she bounces on the bed three times and passes out. Stitch turns in circles next to her, twisting up the blankets until he’s comfortable. She really shouldn’t let Lilo sleep, not yet, because she’ll be up all night, but she can’t really handle waking her up. Boundless energy or not, a Lilo woken early is a grumpy Lilo.
Nani sighs, eases the door shut behind her and flops down on the couch. Cobra hasn’t pulled it out into a real bed yet, but it’s still squishy and comfortable.
It’s strange, seeing him out of his suit, but the bright aloha shirt makes her smile. Lilo picked it out, along with a few others, as his Christmas gifts. Nani never expected him to wear any of them, but this one, at least, is cool and comfortable, good for the plane, and that makes sense. Even in it, even though she feels rumpled and ragged, he’s put together, competent and confident.
He places his small bag on the coffee table now pushed out of the way up against the wall, takes off his sunglasses, carefully folds them, and tucks them into a hard case. That’s strange, too, to see his eyes uncovered when he’s not frowning at her.
The door thumps, and Nani rises up on her knees, staring at it over the back of the couch. Another bump, and then David lets himself in, awkwardly juggling three sodas and a thing of ice. He pushes the door closed with his butt and leans against it, grinning when he sees Nani.
She nods, and he brings everything over to the couch. She takes one of the sodas from him and sets the ice on the end table. David puts the other sodas with it, and grabs his carry on. Nani cracks open her soda, the hiss of it loud, and he turns quickly.
He pulls out a handful of tiny bottles of alcohol. “Because I’ve got a treat.” Then he glances at Cobra. “Not that I stole them. That nice flight attendant offered them to me.” He swallows, hard enough she can see his Adam’s apple work. “You’re not going to arrest me, are you?” His voice cracks on the last word, and Nani has to bite the inside of her lip to keep from smirking.
“I am a social worker,” Cobra says, his voice even. He takes a seat next to Nani on the couch. “And I like vodka.”
“Okay!” David fumbles tossing one of the vodka bottles to him, and then sets up a drink station on the end table. He fetches the little plastic cups from where they’re individually wrapped and stacked next to the sink. While he fills them with ice and pours their drinks, Nani picks up the remote, flipping through the channels too fast to really pay attention, then clicks the tv right back off. They’ll get enough noise and bright lights and tacky clothes at Graceland, she doesn’t doubt that one bit.
David hands her a rum and Coke, and she sips it slowly, tucking her legs up beneath her. That tilts her a little toward Cobra, and he stretches his arm along the back of the couch. David sinks down on his haunches in front of them, drinking Malibu straight from the little bottle. The smell of it is strong enough her nose wrinkles, but he seems happy enough.
She stifles a yawn with the back of her hand and slumps a little more toward Cobra. He sits with his legs spread wide, easily taking up space, and her knee is pressed against his thigh. David drains another bottle and lets himself drop all the way to the floor.
“Maybe we should talk about New Year’s Eve?” he suggests, his voice quiet, and loops one arm around his knees. If she wasn’t so tired, so distracted by this trip, she totally would have seen this conversation coming.
Cobra pulls his arm off the back of the couch and leans forward, resting his forearms on his thighs, his hands between his knees. “What would you like to say?”
David licks his lower lip and looks away, but only for a second. “What’d it mean?”
Even as Cobra lifts one eyebrow, Nani takes a deep breath. “It means we’re ohana,” she says, and though her hands are shaking, her voice is steady and strong. “We’re in this together, all of this.”
“Whatever this is.” David twists the cap off another bottle, but doesn’t drink.
“This is us.”
Cobra sits back, puts his hand on Nani’s shoulder. She tilts into him, pleased. It’s not that she thinks this will always be easy, and yes, they will need to talk things out, but that time is not this time. She wants to enjoy this time with them, this time with Lilo, and they will work out the rest as it comes.
They faced down the United Galactic federation together, this family of hers.
It starts while they’re rebuilding the house.
Sometimes, Nani has to stop and take a deep breath, overwhelmed. There were moments where Nani had nothing, no sister, no parents, no family home, and she cannot always ignore the memory of her world crashing down, heart broken and arms empty. Even her tears burned, sobs stuck in the back of her throat, stealing her breath.
When this hits, she stops whatever she’s doing and breathes deeply, counting it out one two three. Then she tracks down Lilo, up in her new spaceship bedroom or helping Mr. Bubbles saw wood in the yard or chasing Stitch up a palm tree. No matter what she’s doing, Nani will catch her up and give her a squeeze, burying her face in Lilo’s hair.
She smells like sunscreen and salt water and peanut butter and pickles and a little bit like wet alien dog, and Nani has never smelled anything she loves more.
(It wasn’t always like this, Nani clinging to her sister so tightly, but even when she was a teenager and Lilo a newborn, she’d swing her sister high into the air, and Lilo’s shrieks of laughter was better even than the sound of the ocean just before she caught a perfect wave.)
Lilo submits to each hug, but eventually she wiggles free, called away by Stitch or Jumba or Pleakley. Nani watches her run, surrounded by her friends, and even the memory of her loss lightens then.
She hooks her thumbs into the pockets of her jean shorts and watches Mr. Bubbles build a frame for the new marble kitchen counters. (Marble. What life is this that she leads?) The house is a mess still, and she curls her toes inside her heavy boots.
Even though she doesn’t say anything, she’s certain he knows she’s there, noticed the exact moment she stopped in the doorway. She watches him, and she waits.
He finished nailing a piece of wood into place and turns, holding the hammer loosely in one hand. Out of his requisite suit and in a gray t-shirt and dark blue jeans, he’s as closed off as ever, bureaucratic and more alien than the creatures she can hear laughing outside.
(Jumba’s deep evil scientist laugh shakes the walls, but it makes him so happy to rock back and forth that she can’t bring herself to tell him to stop.)
Mr. Bubbles isn’t wearing his sunglasses, either, even though the roof is still gone and sunlight streams over them. It makes Nani, standing in the shadows as she is, squint.
“You’re an asshole,” she tells him. He doesn’t even blink, just watches her, steady and calm. “You found my vulnerable spot and stomped all over it.”
She expects him to snap back, but when he speaks, his voice is even. “Everything I do is to protect Lilo’s best interests.”
“I am what’s best for Lilo.”
Nani’s eyes burn and she looks down fast, biting her lower lip so she won’t say anything else in the heat of the moment. Her fingers twitch, and she presses them against the tops of her thighs.
“She’s all I have left.” Nani’s voice breaks. “I lost everyone else. I need her.”
Despite the debris strewn across the floor, his steps are so quiet she doesn’t realize he’s crossed the room until she can see the bright, shiny toes of his boots just inches from her feet and one big hand curls over her shoulder.
“No one will take her away now. I won’t let them.”
What she starts to say is that he was the one trying to take her in the first place, but that’s not really true. There were social workers before him, and they all talked about it, but none of them could follow through. A sob breaks in the back of her throat, and she slumps forward, relief pounding through her like a wave.
He braces her, sturdy as a wall, but better, because she sinks between his arms and it’s almost a hug. No, it is a hug, and though she started out so mad at him, she knows much of that anger was really at herself. He’s on her side now, and for the first time since her parents died, she feels like she finally has help.
They’re drinking Coronas in the backyard and watching Lilo teach Stitch basic hula when Nani finally gives in and asks, “What’s your real name?” She can’t see his eyes for his sunglasses, but something to the set of his jaw makes her think that if she could, and if he was the eye rolling type, she’d finally catch him rolling his eyes.
“Bubbles.” He’s not laughing, and his seriousness makes her grin. “Cobra Bubbles.”
“And what was your name before it was Bubbles, Cobra Bubbles?” She giggles into her beer.
The corner of his mouth turns up. She flexes her bare toes, inordinately pleased at making him smile like that.
“You can call me Cobra,” he says, and though it’s not an answer, she doesn’t really care. Whatever he was before – spook, man in black, smooth talking ambassador thinking fast on his feet – he’s Cobra Bubbles now, and, though she’s not sure when it happened, he’s her friend.
David takes Lilo and Stitch out for one last ride, but Nani curls up on the beach, wiggling her bare feet into the sand. Cobra’s stretched out on the beach blanket next to her, and this is far cry from the first time he joined them, lurking in the background, catching her every mistake, seeking out her every flaw.
Lilo shrieks from the water, begging Nani and Cobra to watch her new trick. He sits up, and actually takes off his sunglasses, and she leans against him, head on his shoulder, waving every time Lilo looks her way.
“I can fly,” Lilo yells and leaps off the roof. For half a heartbeat, her cape flings out behind her and almost it looks like she can, but she’s already falling and no matter how fast Nani scrambles across the yard, she will never get there in time.
She’s not alone anymore. She doesn’t have to be the one saves her all the time.
Cobra catches Lilo and swings her around like she’s a big basketball. She laughs and laughs, voice gone high. When he tosses her up into the air, her cape lifts, and Nani can breathe again, superhero sister on the move, safe with her family.
Nani can hear the tv when she gets in late from work, but nothing else, even though all of them but Cobra talk through every movie they watch and not even his glare shuts them up. Things make sense when she walks into the living room, pulling her hair out of the ponytail as she goes.
They’re asleep on the couch, zombie movie credits rolling. Lilo’s sprawled across Stitch and both of them have their heads on Cobra’s thigh. David is slumped down, feet on the coffee table, head tipped back. Only Cobra sits upright, and he could almost be awake, but his eyes are closed.
She turns off the television and goes to pick up Lilo so she can take her to bed. Cobra’s eyes open when she gets close, ever vigilant. She mouths a silent hello, brushes a kiss across the top of his head, and collects Lilo. Stitch wakes up then, grumbling and yawning, but Lilo is limp in her arms as only a sleeping child can be.
Nani leaves her boys on the couch, and the fondness she feels warms her through.
Jumba must have made upgrades to the Christmas lights again, because they burn brighter than any Nani’s ever seen yet throw off no heat. Beneath them, Cobra’s earrings gleam. She slips her nails along one, teasing it with her thumb, and hooks her hand along the back of his neck, urging him down until she can kiss him.
She’s not sure when it changes, but eventually Nani stops thinking in before and after -- before Mom and Dad died and after, before she knew aliens existed and after, before she fell in love twice and after – because what she has is this, past to future in a twisting, complicated line, all the permutations of her family and all the ways she’s learned to love.