Notes: So the funny thing is, one of my best incentives to write is dissatisfaction. When I think something could've been expanded upon, or a character could've been treated differently. If you've read some of my other works, like Pantheonor Where the Sky Meets the Sea, I wrote those because I wanted more about Moana and Maui's budding friendship, and how much they mean to each other. My next work, How Far They'll Go - as the name implies - will touch on the same themes.
When I first got this idea, I was going to write it because, well, Maui messed up, and that was never addressed directly in the film, aside from that flippant "You're welcome". But as I rewatched the movie, I realized I actually did feel like Maui was redeemed. Even though he and Moana never truly discuss his abandonment. The movie just does suchan incredible job of showing his character arc, in the details - the way he looks at Moana when she's in the foreground, the way he tears up when they hug at the end, his line about Motunui already having a Master Wayfinder, the fact that her tattoo is right over his heart.
So instead, I wrote it because I love Grandma Tala. She would be the biggest memer. Like those grandmas with kickass Vine accounts. I want to adopt her.
Maui has other, way more important demigodly things to be doing. No, he definitely does. One-hundred percent, for sure. He's practically got a long line of monsters waiting for a butt-kicking, and he's, oh, a thousand years overdue.
But it'd be a shame if Moana got blown off course. Heading back from Te Fiti to Motunui does take her real close to Lalotai, and he wouldn't put it past ol' Glittershell to hire out some of his scrubby subordinates to make Curly's life a bit harder as she gets closer to home. And hey! He needs someone to spread the word of his glorious return. So it makes complete and total sense that Maui checks back in with Moana every couple nights, just to make sure she's not being attacked by a giant squid or something ridiculous. Just in case.
So that's why he's flapping over her ship, hawk-wings spread and majestically silhouetted against the full moon. He can even see his own shadow skimming over the waves, so he dives closer, gives his reflection a wink. Heh. Charming as ever.
Maui's gotta admit, he had his doubts about sending Curly back across the ocean alone. Wayfinding's no walk in the forest, especially for one woman alone. He was only kinda kidding when he said wayfinders don't sleep - and they don't because if they do, they get lost on the featureless sea. Much as Moana's excellent at wayfinding when she's awake (she had an excellent teacher, after all), she's only mortal, so she can't do too much in the way of navigating while she's snoozing. Besides, the ocean's awfully big and easy to get lost in for a first-time traveller. It makes complete sense that he'd want to make sure she's getting back all right. For completely not emotionally-driven reasons. Cool heart of logic, that's Maui.
That said, Curly must be a light sleeper, because something in her just kinda dings whenever she blows too far off-course. It rouses her from her sleep and drives her to readjust the sails, yawning, when the stars won't line up quite right. If he didn't know better, he'd think the ocean was helping her, but it's not. Just sits there, cool and placid as ever, as Moana scrubs at one eye and squints at that constellation of Tilafaiga, the goddess's starry tattoo-rings aligned with Moana's other hand. Guess Chiefs have gotta be pretty easy to wake to deal with chaos at all hours of the night.
His feathers ruffle soundlessly - it'd be a shame to deprive Moana of sleep, after all - as he settles himself on the boat. With an effortless flip of his hook, he flashes back to human.
If he's being honest with himself, she looks like she needs the naptime. There're shadows clustering under her eyelids that makes something pang uncomfortably in his chest. Rolling his eyes, he glances down, expecting to find Mini-Maui taking a mini-fishhook to that spot, but nah, the little incarnation of himself is over on the other pectoral. Huh.
Whatever, Curly's fine. She's tough.
Maui doesn't leave, though. Instead, he seats himself at the prow of the boat, careful to keep his weight along the center to not drive her ship off course, and stares out at the stars.
For a couple hours, he occupies himself counting those little specks of light. That's a pretty impressive feat. Plus, there's a spot on the back of his wrist that could use some filling. He fancies a full spread of the constellations, one that covers the back of his hand and hooks back to spiral up toward his fingers. That would look, humbly speaking, cool as heck. He can even play it off as a tribute to the gods. He'll tell them that he only counted the stars to exemplify Tagaloa's magnificence or something.
Looking back, Maui thinks he's justified not noticing the silvery sheen swirling underneath the boat, given that he was so engrossed in counting. It's not easy keeping track of which tiny specks you've already accounted for, okay? Not to mention when they're literally pivoting as you count. He'd already had to restart three times.
As it stands, the quiet throat-clearing that sounds behind him makes him jump. "Oh, uh, hey, Curly!" he says, hefting himself to his feet and turning to face her, tensing flip dolphin and dive mysteriously back into the ocean. "Just figured I'd drop by and make sure you haven't sailed too far off cou- what in the name of Tagaloa -"
Maui nearly stumbles off the boat in a full-body recoil of shock. He definitely, certainly, does not yelp in a squeaking, high-pitched voice. "You're not Moana," he says to the glittery old woman sitting on Moana's boat.
"Ha!" she guffaws, a full-bodied laugh that sends her wheezing, slapping the wood in mirth. Maui blinks at the very solid noise her hand makes. "Indeed I am not, Maui! You're quite keen."
Feeling a bit as though he's being mocked, Maui stomps over to her. He's careful to avoid Curly, who's still sprawled over the deck and - miraculously - still sleeping. Tamatoa doesn't typically deal with mortals, even ones that glitter brighter than his precious gold, but Maui wouldn't put it past him to lower his standards just to get back at him and Moana.
"Look, I don't know who or what you are," Maui growls, "but if you're from Lalotai then you're going to get off this boat, now. Or else you'll meet the pointy end of my fishhook."
Somehow, even in the face of his threats, the strange lady's own grin grows. "Protective of that one, aren't we?" she asks with a sparkle of mischief in her eyes, tossing her silvery head toward Moana.
He scoffs, "Of course not, I'm protective of me." Can't have Tamatoa thinking he's emotionally attached.
"Mhmm," she hums, clearly humoring him. It rankles, and Maui adjusts his grip to brandish his hook at her threateningly.
"Oh come now," the woman says, voice breaking on yet another bout of chortling, "I'm already quite dead, Maui, there's not much more you could do to me."
Maui lowers his fishhook slowly, blinking rapidly. "Oh." That would explain the pearlescence.
The woman's stomach has to be aching at this point, for all the laughing at him that she's doing. Maui really, really doesn't appreciate that. "'Oh' indeed. And do sit, demigod. I may be dead, but I can still get quite the crick in my neck."
Maui doesn't dignify her with a reply, just stares at her suspiciously. Then, raising his hook protectively in front of his face, he places one knee on the board of the boat.
"You defeat a fifty-foot crustacean with ease, yet eye a dead old woman with fear?" she points out, one eyebrow arching with the first hint of impatience.
"Tamatoa, at least, I can understand. I don't even know who you are, much less what you want."
Her head tilts. "Sit, and I'll tell you."
"Are you working for Tamatoa?" he demands.
She barks out a laugh. "Of course not. He hires those who can be bought, and what use do ghosts have for gold?"
Maui spares a backward glance over his shoulder. He's well between this strange dead spirit and Moana - the Moana who is, somehow, still sleeping. Wow, Curly sure is a selectively light sleeper. Maui doubts he'll ever understand that particular mortal.
Well, if worst comes to worst, he can just go hawk, grab Moana and hightail - heh, tail - them both over to Motunui. It's a three-day ride tops back to Motunui, and even though it's been a long while - uh, actually, never - since Maui's flown with a human, how hard can it be, really? Besides. Imagine that status boost she'd get as Chief, dropping from the sky in the wings of a demigod. Maybe he should get her to do that regardless. Maui's not sure if she'd go for the theatrics, necessarily, but it's an awesome idea.
Oh, wait, she thinks he's off fighting monsters from that long queue of neglected appointments. Which he totally would be doing, if she weren't liable to go off-course.
Satisfied that he's got a backup plan, Maui sits, keeping his fishhook close at hand. Just in case. "Okay, I'm sitting. What do you want?"
"What, dead spirits aren't allowed to drop by with demigods for a social call?"
Her grin grows. "Well then. I'm mostly here to check on my granddaughter."
"Grandma Tala?" he blurts.
The crazy lady's eyes light up, somehow, despite the fact that she seems to be a physical incarnation of light. "So you've heard of me."
Several days after Lalotai, when Maui had first realized that yes, this mortal really is going to harass and annoy and just be a general nuisance around him until he taught her to sail, Moana told him a bit about her life on Motunui. In bits and pieces, and slowly, like she would search for handholds on the face of a cliff. Like she was afraid that he'd be - he'd be disappointed or something, for her sailing past the reef. (He'd never said it in quite so many words, but he was a bit baffled how he would ever be disappointed - she'd kinda saved him from an indefinite exile on a barren rock, then saved his life a couple times to top it off.)
It was her grandmother who named Moana after the sea. Her grandmother who showed Moana how to dance with the waves, who nurtured that flame of love in her granddaughter's heart for the ocean. Her grandmother - Grandma Tala - who taught Moana the names of their ancestors, the leaders and wayfinders and voyagers, who had come before them. From Grandma Tala, Moana learned to let the names of her ancestors, the history of her people, roll off her tongue as easily as the waves slide up the shore.
This is the Grandma Tala who supported Moana even as her father turned against her, as she grew into a Chief, even as she turned her back on the sea. The Grandma Tala who died as Moana sailed to save her village. To save Maui's life.
"Uh," he decides, "a couple of times."
"Good, good. I'm glad. So you know my granddaughter well, then?"
Um. He clears his throat. "Sure. Pretty well."
Her smile drops abruptly.
Over her shoulders arch the wings of a manta ray, impressive and huge, stout across her back. In comparison, though the woman should seem smaller, she only appears larger. The old lady's eyes, previously so light and full of mirth, are hard and stony now. That's a frightening look, even from an old lady who's dead.
"Yet you left her."
Maui's stomach plummets. "What...what are you talking about?"
The most uncanny thing is that she's not moving. At all. Her entire form is as chilly and frozen as her voice. Only her manta-wings, gleaming and sharp, flutter in the breeze, a breeze he can't feel.
"Do not play the fool with me, demigod Maui," the spirit intones chillingly. "My granddaughter trusted you, and you abandoned her. She saved your life time and time again, and you were so flighty as to run at the first sign of danger. So tell me, demigod Maui - will you leave again?"
"I never - how did you know?"
The stare that she levels toward him is the bare epitome of unimpressed. "Frightened of Te Fiti, more concerned with your hook than Moana, you abandoned my granddaughter on the open waves. Do not think I did not see."
Gods, she knows. Maui was hoping that he would never have to think about that again. It seemed that Moana didn't want to bring it up, but come to think of it - he'd never actually apologized, had he? Just brushed off her thanks with 'you're welcome'. A reminder of the time he'd tried to kill her.
"My granddaughter," the woman begins after a heavy pause, speaking to Maui's bowed head, "is not a plaything of deities. She is not a trifle, nor a doll. If your intentions toward my Moana are for ill, demigod, then you will leave, and you will not return."
Her expectant gaze is inescapable. He wants desperately to conjure some witticism, some scathing retort, but can think of nothing. Because she's right. Moana deserves better.
"I'm not leaving Moana. She - she faces no harm from me," he promises her, and the words feel inadequate. The look on her grandmother's face confirms it as such.
His words, at least, is undoubtedly true. Moana faces no harm from him, and never will. In fact, he realizes, this whole...this whole nighttime thing, making sure she doesn't blow off course - it's all pig's feet. Moana won't get lost, not when she has the sun and the sky and the wind and the stars to guide her. She's far too clever.
So what is Maui still doing here? Why hasn't he turned hawk and flown off?
Duh, she owes him a life-debt, obviously, and she can't die before she pays it off. Not only did he save her from Te Ka, but he taught her how to sail. In fact, he taught her people how to sail, thousands of years ago! Without him, she would be freezing without fire, landlocked without the breeze, starved without coconuts. Wouldn't be much of an existence at all, he reasons, relieved at the empirically logical solution.
Then again, she saved him from Tamatoa. Te Ka, too. She kinda, uh, saved the whole world from Te Ka, come to think of it.
Maui shuts his eyes, because it's kinda obvious, really.
"Moana is my friend."
Silence. There is no judgment and no absolution from the other side of the deck. It's only then that he realizes that, with a flash of the fishhook curled tightly in his hand, he could've fled the conversation at any time.
When Maui musters the courage to open his eyes again, the old woman is staring at him with a curious expression on her face. Then, she says simply, "I believe you."
Maui stares. And stares, and stares, and can't think of anything else to say.
"Even now, you watch over my granddaughter." It's disconcerting how quickly the anger vanishes from her face, replaced by a sense of humor that settles in the niche between her eyebrows as comfortably as he holds his own hook in one hand. She nods toward him, and with a start, Maui remembers how he intentionally placed himself between Tala and Moana. "You are obvious, demigod Maui, to all save yourself."
"Obvious?" he splutters.
"Indeed. Quite so."
"Then - then why did you even ask?" he demands, feeling slighted.
"It was not I who needed the answer," she replies cryptically.
The first rays of the sun begin to filter over the horizon, and she stands. With her back to him, he can see the sprawling tattoo of a manta ray christening her shoulders in shimmering ink.
The wind whispers gently over the seas, and even though she's supposed to be incorporeal, it tousles her pinned-back hair with gentle movements. Even the flower adorning her hair carries the rhythm of the sea. From a long-dead throat she hums a familiar tune, swaying to her own rhythm. In oddly familiar movements, her hands wave at her side, in tune with the small undulations of the waves around them. She twirls in her own circle, eyes closed in bliss.
Maui looks around uncomfortably, stuck to the deck. It's probably disrespectful to ask her to leave. He's debating just kinda taking off when she turns back to him, eyes glinting with merriment. "Welp. Good talk, demigod, but it's time for me to go."
"I, too, have better things to be doing than sitting on this deck and watching my granddaughter," she says with a wink, letting her hands ripple one last time before resting them once more by her side, "yet here we are."
He blinks after her. His head is spinning alarmingly, like this woman has grabbed his mind and dunked it into a whirlpool. He's still reeling, and not entirely sure he knows how to walk at this moment. "Don't you want to see Moana?"
She eyes him consideringly. Then she steps forward and holds out a hand.
He stares at her hand for several seconds before realizing she's offering him help. His first thought is she's a ghost she's incorporeal before that little part of his brain that seems to be stuck permanently on go says take her hand. And without Moana awake, that go part of him tends to supersede everything else, so he reaches out.
To his surprise, her hand is warm and very much tangible. He's not exactly a lightweight, but it's with startling ease that she hefts him to his feet.
"I have already played my part in my granddaughter's story," she says, when Maui stumbles on both feet. "Like our ancestors before me, I am a thing of the past - to propel Moana forward, to be remembered fondly, but no longer to be touched."
His lips form a quiet ah, and Grandma Tala snickers at the sight. "Don't look quite so much as though you are a fish I have just hooked. It is not a becoming look on you."
If this is Moana's grandmother, Maui thinks weakly, he can completely understand where Moana herself gets it from. But he shuts his mouth obligingly. "But you, demigod," she continues serenely. "Your story - yours and my granddaughter's, intertwined - has only just begun."
A noise sounds from behind Maui. The crazy lady's eyes flicker over his shoulder. Then, with a roguish wink to rival his own, she vanishes.
"Maui?" Moana calls.
Once again, Maui freezes at the unexpected voice. He glances over his shoulder to find Moana rubbing her eyes and squinting at him. When he looks back toward the horizon, that crazy lady is gone.
"Maui, were you talking to yourself?" she asks, baffled, staring at him as though he's grown another two arms.
"Of course not, heh, I would never!" He has, actually, on multiple occasions. "It's just that, uh, Mini-Maui makes a great confidant, you know?"
"No," she replies dryly, hefting herself to her feet and sweeping her hair behind her shoulders. "You know what else I don't know? What you're doing on my boat."
Maui briefly considers going oh look over there and then flip-flopping his way off this craft and back into the ocean. It'd be so much less to explain, when he can just kinda shapeshift his way out of every awkward situation.
But he thinks of Tala's words, thinks of his own. His promise - I'm not leaving her. Their stories, intertwined. He heaves a deep sigh, and tells himself that would be unfair to Moana.
So he stays.
The bit about Grandma Tala teaching Moana the history of Motunui and the names of their elders is semi-canon! One of the songs on the Moana soundtrack, the outtakes entitled Moreand its reprise, go into more detail about Moana and Grandma Tala's interactions. One of the lines in particular says "She named me after the sea / … / Staring at the barrier together on the shore we / practiced all the names of everyone who came before me / voyagers, warriors, ancestors in our line / their blood runs in mine". It's made me cry, uh, several times.
If I've misconstrued Polynesian culture in any way, please let me know. Thanks so much for reading!
Lalotai - the realm of monsters as seen in the film.
Tagaloa - the Samoan creator god, to which souls go upon death. His antithesis is Saveasi'uleo, who rules Pulotu, the underworld (analogous to Hades in Greek mythology).
Tilafaiga - twin sister to Taema in Samoan mythology. Another of the two goddesses of tattoo, or tatau. While learning the art of tattoo from Tui Fiti - which I headcanon as being Te Fiti - she was kidnapped by Saveasi'uleo. Saveasi'uleo and Tilafaiga later conceived Nafanua, the Samoan goddess of war.
On a semi-unrelated note, I also believe that Tilafaiga is the holder of history for the Samoan peoples. Because tattoos hold such cultural and personal significance, it makes sense to me that Tilafaiga would, as the goddess of tattoos, know so much about the culture of each people and their history. Going off of this, with Tilafaiga as a knower of history and culture, I like the idea of Tilafaiga being a constellation typically used for navigation. Going along with the line from the Moana album's outtake Morethat goes "You know what lies ahead if you remember what's behind you", it'd be a neat link between Tilafaiga's role in history and going forward, voyaging.