“Ē na‘i wale nō ‘oukou e nā ali‘i, i ku‘u pono a‘u i na‘i ai ‘a‘ole loa e pau.”
“Endless is the good I have conquered for you.”
Kamehameha the Great, May 8, 1819
Nani is thirteen years old the first time she sees Lilo.
Her baby sister is just that, a baby, red and squalling, with a scrunched up face, a loud voice for such a small thing, and eyes that are squeezed closed. She’s wrapped in a cute little green blanket that Nani and her father picked out for the baby shower, but that doesn’t seem to make Lilo any happier.
Mom looks exhausted, her face droopy, and her eyes shadowed. She’s still smiling, though, and it gets wider and brighter when she sees Nani in the doorway. Dad’s hand is on Nani’s shoulder, and he gives her a little nudge into the room.
“Come meet your sister,” Mom whispers. Nani nods and eases into the room, her rubber slippers squeaking with each tentative step. She’s wearing cargo shorts and a loose tank top over her bikini, and her hair is pulled back into a sloppy ponytail. It’s still damp from ducking into the outdoor shower to wash sand and salt from her body before she got dressed and got a ride to the hospital from Mrs. Hasagawa.
(Mom and Dad spent the whole night at the hospital. Nani’s old enough to be left on her own, but only just, and they asked Mrs. Hasagawa to look in on her sometimes. Nani likes her well enough, but she always tells a hundred cat stories and smells like catnip. It makes Nani sneeze.)
The room is very warm, and it smells weird. A little like the bleach water Auntie Abigail, Mom’s best friend, used to use when she mopped the floors before she had to move to the mainland, but not exactly. A little like disinfectant and chemicals. Not at all like her mother.
When she reaches the side of the bed, Mom puts her arm around Nani, pulling her into a hug, then tilts the little bundle in her arms toward Nani.
“This is Lilo,” Mom says. “She’s going to love having a big sister like you.”
Nani leans against the edge of the bed, rests her head on Mom’s shoulder, and stares at her new baby sister. She’s so little. Shouty. Red.
But then Lilo opens her eyes and stares right at Nani. Stops crying, at least long enough to take a big, deep breath. And in that moment, in the silence between them, against the backdrop of machines beeping and dripping and making mechanical noises, Nani falls in love with her little sister.
“Hi Lilo,” she says and bends closer. “I’m Nani. I’m going to be the best big sister ever.”
Mom strokes her hair. “Yes, you are,” she says. “Lilo’s lucky. She’ll always have you to look after her.”
Dad brings a chair over for Nani, and she sits on the edge of it, leaning against the bed, her mom’s hand on her back. Dad sits on the other side of the bed, beams at all three of them, calls them his girls. Lilo cries, and sleeps, and cries some more.
Nani loves every second of it.
Nani is eighteen years old the first time Lilo has a birthday without their parents.
Their deaths are still a raw, open wound. Sometimes, Nani feels like all her skin has been removed and her muscles and nerves and veins are right there for the world to see and pick at until she bleeds to death, each drop one less thing she has left that ties her to her parents.
That’s bad science. That’s impossible. That’s a lie, but it feels like truth.
Lilo turns six on a bright, shining day in a long chain of bright shining days. It should rain forever, Nani thinks. It should rain like the day her parents crashed, it should rain like the tears she hides in her pillow so Lilo won’t see, it should rain like the world is dissolving.
But Lilo turns six, and she deserves to be celebrated, and Nani is the only one there to do it. Auntie Abigail stayed for nearly a month after the funeral, helping Nani with the house, holding her when she sobbed in the middle of the night when Lilo was fast asleep and wouldn’t find them crying together, but she has a home and a life on the mainland, and she had to leave again.
(She cups Nani’s face in her hands when Nani drives her to the airport, and though Auntie Abigail’s eyes are bright with tears, her cheeks are dry.
“You can do this,” she says, and her voice is so firm, her trust so complete that Nani believes her.
She kisses Nani’s forehead, a spell, a promise, and disappears into the crush of people headed for security.)
Mrs. Hasagawa slips extra fruit into the bag when Nani stops by on her way home from work the day before Lilo’s birthday to buy something sweet for breakfast. At home, Nani takes it into the kitchen and tries to figure out how to make something out of it, pouring over Mom’s old cookbooks.
There are notes in her mom’s writing around favorite family recipes. When one of her tears lands in the center of “extra” and smears the letters, she slams the book closed and backs away, scrubbing at her eyes with the heels of her hands.
She’s not going to cry. She’s not.
Nani leaves early to pick Lilo up from the halau so she can buy a cake. She’s standing in the bakery, staring at all the options, feeling like a giant failure who can’t even manage to make a single damn cupcake for her baby sister, when she runs into Mrs. Ishida, who looks at her with a gentle expression and hands her a tissue and insists on buying a ridiculous chocolate cake and candles and candy toppings.
(Lilo’s grumpy when Nani finds her sitting on the steps outside the halau and glaring at four girls from her class, one of them Mrs. Ishida’s daughter. Nani doesn’t know her name. That makes it all much worse, somehow.)
They eat fried spam on toast for dinner, then Nani brings out the cake, six candles shining bright. Lilo’s eyes get huge and reflect the candlelight. She makes Nani take her picture when she blows out the candles. Nani hums while she does, but when she tries to sing, all the words stick in her throat. Mom and Dad should be there, harmonizing. Mom and Dad should be there, Mom dancing with Lilo around the room, always so careful not to overwhelm Lilo with complicated hula too soon and Dad laughing, his head tilted back, his mouth wide open, showing his teeth.
Mom and Dad should be there.
Nani swallows hard.
Lilo beams at her around a mouthful of cake, teeth bared, cheeks smeared with chocolate. “Thanks, Nani,” she says. “This is the best dessert ever.”
Nani kisses the top of her head.
“Can we look at the stars?” Lilo asks later.
It’s bedtime, but Nani’s not great at making sure that happens. Instead, she scoops Lilo up and carries her out to the hammock. They wiggle around, trying to get comfortable, and end up with Lilo’s head on Nani’s shoulder, the flop of Lilo’s body across Nani’s chest practically suffocating her.
Lilo smells of chocolate and sweat and the beach. Nani breathes in deep.
Mom and Dad should be there for this.
Under the stars, the sisters swing and sleep and dream.
Nani is twenty years old the first time they celebrate Christmas without their parents.
Just barely. Her birthday is three days before. When she was little, before Lilo, her parents made it a week long celebration just for her. A tiny gift each morning for breakfast. Her favorite foods for dinner (loco moco more than once, and mac salad at every meal). A cupcake or a cookie or chocolate bar for dessert. Never any big cake. Nani didn’t like them. And then, at the end, Christmas, with all the twinkling lights on the palm trees and sparkling wrapping paper on the gifts they gave each other. Mom took her shopping for Dad. Dad took her shopping for Mom. She made macaroni and palm frond art, macramé bags and jar wraps for hanging plant holders. (They started macramé young at school. She mastered an eight strand braid before she knew her multiplication tables.)
After Lilo, as Nani got older, they still had her favorite foods, but money was tight with a new baby, and she thought herself too old for little plastic toys. Instead, she went surfing with her friends, danced around the kitchen with her mom, went with her dad down to French Fry’s to eat and talk story with the locals who gathered on the lanai.
That first birthday without her parents, there are no favorite foods or week-long celebrations or desserts every night. There is surfing, Lilo shrieking in joy, Stitch clinging to anyone who lets him get close. David smiling at her across the water, the sun sparkling off the waves. There is a Christmas tree in the house, because Jumba and Pleakley want to see Ea-arth Traditions, capital letters very clear in their voices.
There are aliens.
That’s kinda huge, still. Maybe always. She hopes always, hopes she never takes them for granted. Thinks back to the stories her mom used to tell her as the hammock slowly swayed in the breeze and the stars filled the sky.
Lilo loves Christmas. Of course she does. There are presents and candy and shiny lights and decorations and carols and bells. This year, they do a little of everything, whatever traditions they can find, Jumba and Pleakley (and David, that traitor) encouraging all of Lilo’s whims.
Lilo believes in Santa still, or maybe again, and Nani can’t blame her. Lilo drags Stitch to bed early, promising him they’ll wait up to listen for the reindeer. Pleakley and Jumba follow them upstairs shortly after. They have something planned, but Nani refuses to think about that too hard. As long as no one blows up the house (again), she doesn’t want to know.
Once the presents are under the tree, Nani takes herself out to the hammock. It’s quiet there, and dark once she turns off the outdoor Christmas lights.
Nani had been Lilo’s age the first time she laid in the hammock with her mom, rocking back and forth, the breeze cool off the ocean so they cuddled together under a light blanket. She stared up at the stars, eyes wide, while her mom taught her the constellations. (Made up, often, she learned as she got older, but she liked them better than the truth.)
They cuddled together like that frequently, and every time, Nani learned something new.
“We could circle the world,” Mom said and kissed Nani’s temple. “Follow the stars as far as we wanted to go.”
Nani stared up at the sky, safe in her mother’s arms, and dreamed of following starlight into adventure.
And now she can. There is life out there, and she can follow the stars as far as she wants to go. She stares at the stars. In them, she sees the stories her mom told her and the dreams she had as a child. Her chest is tight, her breath unsteady.
Lilo pads barefoot out the back door and up to the hammock, hair a tangled mess down her back, eyes half closed, yawning most of the way. Nani knows she should send her back to bed, maybe with a reminder about Santa not coming until she sleeps.
Instead, she scoops Lilo up and settles her in the hammock. Lilo yawns again, then presses her face against Nani’s shoulder. Neither of them talk about their parents, or how much they miss them, or how excited they would have been over aliens.
Sometimes, Nani wants to, wants to tell Lilo everything, all the big stories she remembers about them, and the little, all the details she can already feel slipping away. But Lilo is young, and Nani can’t stand the pinched expression Lilo wears when she listens, or the way Nani’s own heart aches.
She’s halfway asleep when Stitch climbs into the hammock with them, settles across Nani’s legs. She could take them back to bed. Should, probably. Instead, she stares at the stars a long moment, until her eyes blur and they’re all she can see.
Then, surrounded, she lets herself sleep.
“Mele Kalikimaka!” Lilo shouts, and Nani starts awake. “Merry Christmas!” Her face is inches from Nani’s, and her teeth show in her smile, and her breath stinks. Nani laughs and pushes her back.
“Merry Christmas, Lilo.” She puts her hand over her sister’s mouth. “Now go brush your teeth. You stink.”
Lilo’s eyes go wider still, and she growls against Nani’s hand. Just in time, Nani pulls it back, and Lilo’s tongue pokes out. Of course she was going to lick her. It was that or a bite. Nani rolls her eyes and tumbles them both out of the hammock, making sure Lilo lands on her feet.
“Go!” she says and points at the house. “Brush your teeth. Wash your face. Change clothes. And then we’ll open presents.”
Lilo makes a terrifying face, but then bounds up the stairs and into the house, calling for Stitch, who has already climbed the walls to the second floor so he can scramble in through a window. Nani shakes her head and starts for the door. She’ll use the downstairs bathroom (and isn’t that a nice feeling, having two whole bathrooms for them to use, and another just for Jumba and Pleakley to do their alien things) to splash water on her face and rinse her mouth. She bought a couple cans of cinnamon rolls to heat up for breakfast; she’ll get the oven preheating before she hits the bathroom. They’ll have breakfast by the time Lilo’s back downstairs, as long as she takes her time like she normally does, or at least after they open presents.
But she finds Cobra Bubbles standing in the kitchen, wearing a frilly pink apron that he must have brought with him because she doesn’t own anything like it (she doesn’t own an apron at all, and wouldn’t wear one even if she did). There’s a box of fresh malasadas on the table, and he’s sliding a big ham into the oven.
She wants to yell at him. She wants to slap him. She wants to burst into tears, because finding him, so unexpected, inside the house snaps her right back to that terrible place where her greatest fear was coming true and he was there to take away Lilo.
He shuts the oven. Turns to her. There’s a twitch at his mouth that feels like a smile. She manages one in response, though she can feel her lips press tight and knows it’s a weak effort at best.
“You didn’t have to do that,” she tells him.
He shrugs. Straightens. It strikes her how large he is, how wide and how tall. How big his hands with their thick, blunt fingers. He’s contained in that suit he normally wears, knows how to make himself look smaller when he has to, big when he needs to intimidate.
But here, in the kitchen, so casual and comfortable, his size looks like a comfort, like someone who is keeping them safe.
Nani can’t reconcile her feelings. She’s too confused. Too tired. Too sore from spending the night in the hammock being a living pillow for Lilo and Stitch. Too shocked at finding him in her kitchen, in her home.
Lilo ran right past him. He knows she spent the night outside.
Nani stares at him. Swallows hard.
“Coffee?” he offers. “It’s Keala’s.”
“Yes,” she says, relief slumping her shoulders, relief in her voice. “I take it black. I just need to run upstairs.”
Nani leaves him in the kitchen, takes the stairs two at a time. She’s not sure why it feels so much more important to clean up now. She has to impress him, or she thinks she does. Except he’s not here to take Lilo, and if he was going to do it, it would already be done.
Nani shakes her head, pops her head into Lilo’s room just long enough to make sure she’s getting ready (she and Stitch are both inside her closet and there are clothes flying through the air. Nani’s not going to ask), then darts into the bathroom. She piles her hair on top of her head, wraps a ponytail holder around it, races through the shower. Brushes her teeth after. Throws on clean shorts and an old surf t-shirt that looks intentionally faded rather than just worn.
Lilo’s downstairs already. Nani can hear her shrieking with laughter, and then the low rumble of Cobra Bubbles’ voice after. She sits on the top stair. Listens a moment, breathing in and out measured and slow.
She has to stop calling him Cobra Bubbles, she thinks, and takes herself down to the kitchen.
Later, they’re surrounded by wrapping paper and bows (Stitch has about ten stuck to his fur, and even Cobra Bubbles cracks a wide smile). No gift will ever top the flying car they gave Lilo for her seventh birthday (because they are terrible people and Nani will never forgive them), but Lilo seems just as impressed by the giant telescope Cobra Bubbles gives her and Nani. It’s massive, and it will mount to the roof, and it will show them the stars.
Nani touches it lightly, not daring to press her fingers too heavily to the polished metal.
“Thank you,” she says, her voice low. This time, when she smiles at him, it feels a little more real.
David joins her on the roof later that night. Earlier, Jumba and Pleakley “helped” Cobra Bubbles install the telescope, and now she can hear them all downstairs shouting at a movie. The sun has set, but there’s still a hint of color along the horizon. The stars are only just coming out.
She hasn’t tried the telescope yet. Hasn’t even touched it again. Just sits next to it, staring out at the water -- the house is tall enough now she can see the ocean -- and waiting for the stars.
David sits next to her. “Howzit, Nani?”
She doesn’t say anything. Takes his hand. He makes a small noise in the back of his throat, then leans against her. Strokes his thumb along the inside of her wrist, sending chills up her arms.
They sit there together for a long time. Someone flips on the outdoor lights, and it’s bright enough she can’t see many of the stars, but the multicolors are pretty.
David slumps, rests his head on Nani’s shoulder. Absentmindedly, she strokes his hair; it’s soft against her fingers.
“Who put lights on the palm trees?” he asks. It’s not at all what she expects him to say.
“I don’t know,” she murmurs. He’s close enough that she doesn’t have to speak loudly anyway, and there’s a quiet around them that she doesn’t want to break. She can hear music from inside the house and the loud noise of explosions in the movie, and laughter, and in the background, the crash of waves on beach, but she feels separate from it, alone with David.
“Was it Cobra?”
How come he can say it without adding the Bubbles (and without that bitter little twist she always hears in her own tone)? “I don’t know,” she says again. Then, because it’s a weird, random question, she adds, “Why?”
“Have you looked at them?”
“Of course. All the decorations have been up since right after Halloween. Lilo begged until I gave in. I’ve been staring at them for weeks.”
“And you never noticed.”
She pushes him off her shoulder so that she can see his face. “Notice what?”
He laughs, squeezes her hand, and stands. She lets him pull her to her feet. “Come on.”
The roof is built for easy walking, and together, they make their way to the other side of the house. From there, all the palm trees along the driveway are spread out before them, wrapped in white lights that twinkle.
She tilts her head, looking at them from different angles. “Notice what?” she asks again, and this time she’s impatient.
“They look like.” He stops, blushes. Gestures at his waist. At -- oh. Oh.
She smacks him out of habit. “David! Shut it!” But despite herself, she looks at the trees again, crouches, tilts her head the other way.
Once she sees it, she can’t stop.
“You’re horrible,” she says. He grins, unrepentant, one corner of his mouth higher than the other. She wants, sudden and hard, to kiss him. That’s not fair. She’s not ready to date, and she knows he wants to be more than her friend.
But she wants to kiss him, as ridiculous and sweet and silly as he can be, and standing there under the stars, Christmas lights at their feet, almost she does.
“Come on,” she says and takes his hand again. “Let’s see if there’s any of Mrs. Hasagawa’s rum balls left.”
His mouth drops open. “How’d you get some?” he asks. “She never shares, and I thought she was still mad at you over the whole dancing and destruction thing.”
Nani tries her best to look smug, but thinks she probably only looks sheepish. “She forgave us,” Nani says.
“Just like that?” He raises his eyebrows.
“Just like that,” Nani agrees, but she can’t leave it a lie. “Well, just like that after Pleakley gave her some rare fruit.”
She chews on her lower lip. “Rare alien fruit,” she admits. “Mrs. Hasagawa loves it, thinks she can save a dying fruit by cross-pollinating it with the other plants she grows. She has no idea where it came from.”
David shakes his head. “You’re something else, Nani.” But he’s smiling as he says it, and it makes her smile too.
“Mrs. Hasagawa’s rum balls,” she reminds him, and they head back inside to join their family.
Nani is twenty-five years old when Lilo first takes up the drums.
Lilo comes home from school one day (she’s in seventh grade, and Nani doesn’t understand how they’ve gotten here this fast) with wide eyes, a big smile, two drumsticks, and a borrowed practice pad, clutching a handful of pages in one hand. It’s not like any sheet music Nani’s ever seen, the notations significantly different than ukulele music. (And she plays by ear anyway.)
She looks down at Lilo, so eager and so pleased, and forces a smile. It feels like a grimace. This is going to be loud, and she has to figure out how to help Lilo learn it, and money’s not as tight now that they have intergalactic support (and the unofficial help of the US government, which brings with it both relief and a bitter taste on the back of her tongue as she bites back cruel words about exploitation and colonization. She needs their money to take care of Lilo, Stitch, and the rest of their strange, patchwork family. She doesn’t have to like taking it), but she’s not sure it will stretch to cover drum lessons and equipment if Lilo really takes off with this.
“Look what I learned today!” Lilo cries. She sheds her backpack and her slippers by the door, drags the practice pad and drumsticks with her, and shoves the sheet music at Nani. What comes next is a series of slow rhythms that Lilo carefully pounds out on the practice pad.
“That’s great, Lilo!” Nani tells her and gives her a big hug. She doesn’t have to understand the appeal or know what she’s going to do next in order to love her sister and be proud.
Cobra plays drums. It should not surprise her, because he’s shown many unexpected skills (and also that secret history with the aliens) since they first met, but somehow it does. He’s infinitely patient with Lilo, much better at it than Nani is.
She used to feel threatened over that, but not anymore. Now it’s just nice. She’s no longer the only person Lilo has in her life, and that’s a good thing. (That took her a long time to be okay with, too. She understood it, logically, but feeling it was something else.)
Nani likes to watch Lilo play. They put her drumset outside on the lanai at the back of the house. Nani stretches out on the hammock, sways gently, enjoys the sun and the breeze off the water and the slow, awkward rhythms Lilo drums out that get smoother and smoother as the days go by.
“She’s good,” Cobra says one night over dinner, when Lilo’s gone upstairs with Stitch to do her homework. Nani suspects there won’t be much work done at all, but she doesn’t mind. Lilo’s doing fine in her classes, and she and Stitch haven’t gotten up to much trouble.
“It’s the hula,” Nani says. They’re both drinking Pacific Golden, though if she was asked to pick a beer for him, she would have chosen something stronger. This is what she has, though, and he doesn’t seem bothered. “And our mother.”
Saying that still brings a wash of sadness, but it isn’t bitter or painful the way it used to be.
Cobra nods. Watches her. Waits.
“Mom danced everything,” she says at last. “Went to Merrie Monarch with her halau every year. She said music was our breath, hula our blood.” Her smile feels thin. “Guess that makes rhythm our heart.”
“Lilo showed me pictures of her dancing,” Cobra says. It’s Nani’s turn to nod. She’s not sure what to say to that. Lilo is so open about everything she feels, joy, rage -- even heartache. Sometimes Nani envies her that.
“I’m glad,” she says at last and takes another drink.
“Did you see me?” Lilo cries as she rushes up to Nani. She’s too big now for Nani to pick up, but she can still wrap her arms around Lilo and spin her around.
“I did!” she promises. “You were so good.”
“I know!” Lilo pulls back, beaming. “I didn’t mess up once, not even during my solo.”
Nani has to hand her over to Jumba and Pleakley then, and David and Cobra, and everyone else who wants to congratulate Lilo after her very first band concert. Nani’s not worried, not anymore. Lilo will always come back to her.
Later that night, after everyone else has gone home or gone to bed or gone to their not-so-secret “evil” laboratory, Nani and Lilo take sodas out to the hammock, the kind in the old fashioned bottles, the glass cold against her fingers.
It’s harder to get comfortable in the hammock together now. Lilo takes up more space, and her elbows are sharp, her heels leave bruises when she kicks at Nani too hard. (Mostly she does that while laughing, so Nani can’t even complain.)
“That was fun,” Lilo says. One arm hangs over the edge of the hammock, and she holds her soda loosely in that hand. She’s going to drop it if she’s not careful. Nani opens her mouth to say something, then stops. Wants this to be a sister moment, not a fill-in-parent moment.
“I’m glad I chose the drums,” Lilo adds a moment later. Screws up her face. “Mertle’s flute sounds horrible. It makes my teeth hurt when she hits those high notes.”
Nani laughs, pokes Lilo in the side with her big toe. “Sure that’s not her personality?” Part of her feels guilty for bad-mouthing a kid, but Mertle made Lilo’s life hell when they were younger and Lilo so lonely. She’s not going to forgive that any time soon.
She expects Lilo to say something snappy and fun in response, but Lilo just shrugs. It’s too dark for Nani to be able to tell if she’s really blushing or not, but Nani thinks she is.
“How’s school?” Nani asks. “Is Ms. Sakai still dressing up for history?”
Lilo grins. “Yes. Last week, we started on Kamehameha the Great and the warrior Kekūhaupi‘o. She dressed up as a pa’u rider.”
“She did that when I had her, too,” Nani says. “Weird choice, yeah?”
“Kamehameha didn’t like horses.”
That makes Lilo laugh. “I wonder what he would have thought of aliens.”
Nan doesn’t know. They swing together a moment in silence. “Maybe you'll know, after you learn more. Unification,” she says at last. “The coming missionaries. And by the end of the year, the overthrow.”
“It’s not a very happy history, is it?”
“No.” Nani grabs Lilo’s ankle, squeezes it gently. “I think he would have liked aliens. Something navigating the space between the stars to come here. To come home. Something strong, and exploring, and free.”
More silence, broken only by the sound of the wind rustling the palm fronds and the distant crash of the ocean.
“I want to see it,” Lilo says, and her voice is low. This is a secret. This is important.
Nani presses her hand flat against Lilo’s ankle. Her skin is warm beneath Nani’s palm. She wants to cling to her, hold her down, keep her right there, stop her from flying away.
“I think you will,” she says instead, and swallows everything else.
Nani is twenty-seven years old when Lilo starts dating.
Something’s changed. Lilo, always so open with her feelings, stops talking about them. Grunts when she’s asked about school. Checks her phone all the time. Sneaks off to frantically text someone. Nani knows those signs. Nani knows those feelings.
She gives Lilo space. Her parents had hovered, even with Lilo toddling around and getting into everything. Wanted to know who she was talking to and who she liked and whether she was dating and who would be at that party or that surfing trip or or or or.
Now she wishes she could hear them ask about her day, about her feelings, about whether she and David will ever make it official, but back then, she cringed and hid and slammed doors and shouted at them to leave her alone she was grown up thank you very much.
(She had not been grown up. She wouldn’t grow up until Officer Perry came to the house looking so sad and so serious. She grew up very fast that day.)
Nani gives Lilo space, and it works. Lilo finds her on the roof one night, searching the stars. Flops down nearby. Huffs. Kicks the roof. Huffs again.
Nani carefully secures the telescope and goes to sit next to her.
“What’s going on, Lilo?” she asks.
Lilo looks at her and then quickly away. Shakes her head. Pulls her knees up to her chest, loops her arms around her calves, rests her cheek on her thigh.
Nani leans back, bracing herself on her hands, watches the ocean in the distance, the stars overhead, darkness meeting darkness and then starlight. Waits.
“I’ve got a girlfriend,” Lilo says in a rush.
That -- is not what Nani expected. She holds herself very still while she thinks about it. Schools her expression.
Lilo looks at her again. Looks away. Looks at her. Her face is pinched and pale even in the darkness, her eyes wide, her mouth trembling.
“Does she make you happy?” Nani asks, and doesn’t even stumble over the “she.”
Lilo nods too fast, too frantic, but she starts to smile, just a little. Not enough to show her teeth, but it’s better than the sad shake of her mouth and chin from a moment before.
Nani wonders who it is. Thinks of inexplicable blushes and how sometimes you pick on your crush because you don’t know how else to express yourself and all the stories she’s read about enemies-to-lovers: is it Mertle? After all these years, all that teasing and anger?
She waits, but Lilo doesn’t say anything.
Finally, Nani asks, “Do you want to tell me about her?”
Another glance, at her and away. “You want to know?” Lilo asks, her voice small. She’s never small and quiet like that. She’s loud and full of life, and Nani hates the world for making Lilo feel like she’s done something wrong and has to be quiet about it. Hates herself for making Lilo doubt her response. She could have done better. Should have done better. Shouldn’t have assumed.
“Of course.” She opens her arms, and Lilo scrambles into them, even though she’s tall enough now it’s not quite comfortable.
“She’s funny,” Lilo says, and if her voice is still quiet, it no longer feels like she’s hiding, but instead telling Nani about something precious. “And smart, and she’s the best dancer at the halau, and she’s pretty, Nani. She’s so pretty.” Lilo’s cheeks flush.
“What’s her name?” Nani asks.
“Maile.” Lilo says it on a breath, and she’s smiling wide now. “Maile Pukui, and she moved here from Wailuku last year, and I really like her.”
Nani can’t help herself. She squeezes Lilo tight and kisses the top of her head. “I’m glad,” she says. “When you’re ready, I want to meet her.” It will have to be somewhere in town, they don’t bring people to the house. They can’t. It’s too alien now, no matter how hard they try to keep things hidden, no matter how much Stitch, Jumba, and Pleakley try to blend.
“Yeah?” Lilo says.
“Of course,” Nani agrees and hugs her tighter still.
Nani is twenty-eight years old when Lilo and Stitch start a Youtube channel.
At first, she doesn’t think anything big is happening. It’s clear that Lilo and Stitch have some sort of secret project, but they have some sort of secret project going ninety-nine percent of the time, and Nani’s gotten used to it. More or less. Sometimes, their projects are weird enough she has to step in, but she lets a lot go.
Lilo’s been taking pictures of everyone around her since she was six years old, and after a couple of years getting money from that secret government entity in charge of hiding aliens, Nani can afford to give Lilo a better camera when she’s old enough to be responsible. That camera lasts her a long time, and she’s careful, takes good care of it. When she turns fifteen, Nani gives her a fancier digital camera. It takes great pictures, but it records video, too.
Nani should have paid more attention to that part.
Her first clue that something is going on is when Lilo keeps running around the house looking for things. For props she says when Nani stops her on one circuit. Props could mean a lot of things. Nani doesn’t think anything of it.
Her second clue that something is going on is when Lilo asks if she can paint her bedroom walls green. It’s an obnoxious shade, too, nothing natural. Nani wants to say no, because it’s ugly and she thinks Lilo will hate it before it’s even fully painted. But Nani’s not the one who has to live with it and look at it every day. She agrees that Lilo can paint one wall that color, so long as Lilo does all the work and clean-up herself. Lilo’s happy enough with that compromise. (She doesn’t do all the work and clean-up herself. Nani really knows better than that, but she says it anyway.) Lilo's always liked bright, clashing colors. Nani doesn't think anything of it.
Her third clue that something is going on is when Lilo starts walking around narrating what she's doing. Stitch is always nearby, and Lilo has always talked to herself at least a little bit anyway, so Nani doesn't think anything of it.
Her fourth clue that something is going on is when Cobra shows up and flat out tells her that something's going on. That's embarrassing.
"What are you talking about?" she asks, even though her first response is to pretend she knows exactly what's happening. She doesn't have to pretend anymore, not with Cobra. He's not going to take Lilo away, and if she's not the perfect parent for Lilo, well, she's also not the only person around for Lilo, either.
Cobra raises his eyebrows, then takes her to the computer tucked into the corner of the living room. Lilo has her own laptop that she can take to school sometimes, but Nani's computer is still the same desktop she got a year after she learned aliens were real, even though she needs an upgrade. She always thinks of better ways to spend the money. (The family, including Cobra, got together to give it to her for her birthday that year. She thinks about that every time she looks at it, and warmth spreads through her.)
That warmth doesn't last long at all, because what he shows her is Lilo sitting in front of a backdrop of machines that don't actually exist anywhere in the house. Stitch isn't onscreen, but Lilo has antenna like his poking out of her dark hair, and strange marks painted down her temples, cheeks, and the sides of her throat.
"Today, I'm going to tell you about the time I met aliens," the Lilo on screen says. She smiles, but it isn't the wide smile showing teeth, the one that Nani knows means she's actually happy or excited. "I was just a little kid, about thirty-five years ago." She winks at the camera. "Don't look like it's been that long, do I? Aliens. Aliens.
Lilo goes on to talk about the "aliens" she met, all of the information wildly inaccurate. While they listen, Cobra scrolls down to show Nani the comments. A lot of people treat it as a story she's telling (and sometimes their criticism is harsh, and makes a sharp, tight knot stick in the back of Nani's throat; she wants to shout at them all to leave Lilo alone), but a handful seem to believe her. They're the most prolific; dozens and dozens of comments, though she sees the same usernames over and over again.
When she asks, Cobra snorts. "Conspiracy theorists," he says. "Area 51, Roswell, lights over Russia."
Nani frowns up at him. "Roswell was real," she says.
That earns her a grin. "Yes, but they can't know that." He nods at the computer. "I worked too damn hard to cover it up. All of it."
That last part sounds like a problem. Nani pushes her chair away from the desk and stares at him. "Are you going to cover this up, too?" she asks, though it's not exactly what she means.
The look he shoots her is a strange mix of exasperated and fond. "Lilo's done a good job of that herself," he tells her. "Nothing she's said is true. She's seeding new stories, which will keep them arguing for months, maybe even get them to stop trying to break into Area 51."
"So why tell me about this?" Nani asks. "You came in here like the world was ending."
He raises one eyebrow. It's just as intimidating as ever, though it loses some of its power because she can see his eyes and his expression are soft. "Thought you would get a kick out of it."
"Oh," Nani says. Her cheeks heat from embarrassment, and she ducks her head. "Thanks."
Lilo has a lot of videos already. Sometimes, Stitch appears, in different costumes. Once, Jumba shows up and tells them about being an evil scientist genius. (It's the funniest video on Lilo's channel, Nani thinks, and from the comments, pretty much everyone else agrees with her.) Pleakley shows up every couple weeks and talks about the things he's learned about Earth. That part is actually pretty interesting.
As fun as she finds it, she knows she has to talk to Lilo. She waits until after dinner on Friday night, when they're both the most relaxed.
"Lilo," Nani says before she can run upstairs. "Something you need to tell me, yeah?"
Lilo's eyes widen, but other than that, her expression doesn't change. "School was good," she says, then before Nani can respond, adds, "We're learning a new hula next week. I swear I haven't been in the flying car without supervision." She sing-songs that, a rote admonition, but Nani has more important things to worry about. "We're still surfing with David this weekend, yeah?"
"Yes," Nani says. "But none of that is about your YouTube channel."
Lilo's eyes get real big at that. "I'm sorry?" she says. No, asks. Nani shakes her head. "Am I in trouble?"
"Should you be?"
Lilo takes a deep breath. "No," she says, her voice cheerful, her words fast. She's trying too hard, but it's funny, too. "I'm learning important life skills, and career skills if I want to work in entertainment, and I haven't told anything true and everyone loves my special effects and--" She stops, out of breath.
"Do you want to work in entertainment?" Nani asks, even though she already knows the answer. Part of her wishes it was true.
Lilo makes a face and shakes her head. "Well, no."
"Didn't think so." Nani puts her arm across Lilo's shoulders. "You should have talked to me about it. Cleared what you're going to say. Cobra came to tell me about it."
"I promise, I haven't said anything real!" Lilo says in a rush. "I don't want to hurt Stitch or Jumba or Pleakley or let anyone know the truth. I just wanted to tell people my story. A version of my story."
Nani nods. "I know you didn't say anything real," she says. "Cobra knows too. No one's going to come stop you. But Lilo, there's more to worry about than that. Privacy and bullying and things like that." She can't help but think her parents would have handled this better. Would have handled everything better, even the aliens.
"I know," Lilo says. "We have presentations about it at school sometimes. I don't give my real name or my address or show anything that might let people figure out where we live. And no one bullies me."
That's completely untrue, but if Lilo's not upset about the comments, Nani isn't going to push. If it continues, or if Lilo acts upset, maybe, but not now. Lilo certainly knows about bullying after Mertle and her group made things so miserable for her at school and the halau. Nani's glad that's over.
"Tell me next time," Nani says.
"Promise." Lilo holds out her hand, very serious, and Nani shakes it, biting back her smile. "Want to come talk about aliens?"
Nani starts to say no, but stops. She has a hundred things to do this week, but Lilo's smiling at her, excited and hopeful, and Nani thinks it's fun too.
Nani is thirty years old when Lilo graduates from high school.
Lilo is one of the youngest in her class, and looks younger still with her hair covered by the cap, red gown flowing around her, making her look the same as everyone around her. The white tassel keeps swinging into her face, and she blows it away, looking more and more exasperated each time.
Nani sits on the bleachers right on the fifty yard line, directly in front of the stage, far enough up that she has an unobstructed view of the chairs on the field where the graduates will sit. Jumba and Pleakley are on one side -- their human disguises have only gotten slightly better over the years, but none of the locals seem to mind them much -- and David and Cobra are on the other.
The sun is bright, the air is warm, the breeze is cool.
Her baby sister is all grown up.
Nani takes a slow, deep breath. Their parents should be here, watching Lilo graduate. Proud of her, the way Nani feels, so full of warmth and joy (and bittersweet sadness, because she knows, she knows what’s coming) it’s going to spill out of her forever.
She tries not to cry when the graduates parade toward their seats, but her eyes fill with tears anyway when Lilo shouts Nani’s name and waves at them, all enthusiasm and energy and that wide smile that shows all her teeth.
She’s as vibrant and loud and wonderful now as she was at birth and her birthdays and every time she dances with her halau and -- Stitch climbs onto Nani’s lap so he can wave both hands at Lilo.
(He’s showing real restraint not waving at her with all four hands. Nani doesn’t much mind having him in her lap. He even lets her pet him, just a little, down his spine.)
The speeches take more than an hour, but calling all the students up to walk the stage goes too fast. They laugh together, dance together as they come off stage in pairs, spin and sway. Once that’s done, they stand from their chairs on the field, boys on one side, girls on the other, seas of white and red, and, sporadically, not coordinated enough at all, move their tassels from one side to the other.
The audience cheers. The graduates too. Nani refuses to cry. Instead, she leaps to her feet, clapping and shouting. Cobra gives a long, loud whistle. Pleakley sobs and claps. Jumba rocks back and forth on his feet and doesn’t even mind when Stitch jumps off Nani the second she starts to move and climbs him for a better view.
After, the graduates line up to sing and dance. To honor their families and their heritage. Lilo’s in front with some of the other girls from her halau, their movements smooth, their faces bright.
Nani watches her dance, and thinks of their mother, and lets herself cry. Smiles the entire time.
Lilo’s nearly drowning in leis by the time she gets done making the rounds of her friends and their families and, of course, her own. Nani remembers what that felt like, the leis heavy and damp around her neck and over her shoulders, their sweet, cloying scent filling her nose.
Remembers her mom holding her close and pressing kisses to her cheeks. Remembers her dad openly crying, proud and pleased.
She hugs Lilo as hard as she can without squashing the leis.
Nani is thirty years old when Lilo leaves Earth to live in outer space.
Lilo waits less than forty-eight hours after graduation. At least it’s more than a day, Nani tries to tell herself. More than an hour. More than thirty seconds after she switched her tassel from one side to the other.
None of that makes her feel any better. Not that, and not the fact that she’s known this day would come since Lilo was six years old.
The spaceship is ready, but Stitch still bounds all over it, checking this and poking at that. Nani wants to trust him as a pilot, but she’s also seen him eat his own ear wax and roll around in a ball with his paws in his mouth, so it’s difficult.
Lilo is fresh faced and grinning, nearly dancing with each step. There’s no sign of the tears she shed the night after graduation, when she said good-bye to her friends. She’s draped her graduation leis around the cockpit, she's dressed in light green cargo pants and a black tank top that shows off the tattoo around her left bicep, and she's fiercely, dangerously ready.
She flings her arms around Jumba and Pleakley, who are not quite ready to go back to space travel (Pleakley likes Earth far too much, and Jumba booms that great big laugh of his and says he will stay to keep Pleakley out of trouble -- which means, of course, getting Pleakley and everyone else around them into trouble). Bounds up to Cobra, and he hugs her so hard he picks her up off her feet.
Lilo is beaming when she goes to each of them, but then she turns to Nani, and her face shifts into something complicated.
Nani goes to her, hugs her, hides her tears in Lilo’s hair. “I love you,” she whispers. Lilo nods, makes a choking sound, squeezes her so tight that, for a second, Nani can’t breathe.
Lilo starts to say something, stops. Hugs Nani a second time, then turns to the spaceship, where Stitch is waiting for her at the top of a loading ramp, all of his arms on display. Nani could be nineteen again and staring at the “dog” that has just spoken to her. At the aliens circling her broken house. At her baby sister, stolen away to the stars.
Lilo turns back, sudden and sharp. “Come with us,” she says. Her voice is loud, and maybe she means all of them, but she’s staring straight at Nani.
Nani thinks very quickly about a lot of things: her job, and the house where her parents lived and loved her, the room where she first watched Lilo play in her crib and felt the weight of big sister responsibility settle over her, all the spaces she’s seen burned and destroyed and rebuilt, of watching Lilo grow up, grow fierce and tall and strong and smart.
She thinks of David, standing behind her, waiting, always having her back.
She thinks of Cobra and Jumba and Pleakley and a once empty house filled with laughter and noise and chaos and love.
Lilo bounces a little. Waits, impatient but quiet.
David puts his hands on Nani’s shoulders. “It’s a big adventure, yeah?”
It is. A big adventure among the stars. She could sail away, guided by them, guided into them.
Nani grabs David’s hand. Doesn’t even have to say anything before he gives her a nod.
She lets go of him to walk to Lilo, though. She needs to do this on her own.
“Show me the stars,” she says.
Nani is thirty years old when she follows Lilo into the stars and leaves the world behind.