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The Joyce Byers home for Wayward Teenagers

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It starts with Max. She wouldn’t have expected that; Will’s friends are all haunted by the things they’ve seen, and she thinks of all of them as half hers, the way good parents everywhere think about the kids who aren’t theirs but still clutter up their houses. But Dustin and Lucas have good parents, and Mike at least has adequate parents, and Jane is still on lockdown for the next year. So it starts with Max.

After kind of a rocky start (one kid who responds to trauma by turning the anger inwards and one who turns it outwards are never going to get along easily), Will and Max have become firm friends. Max says Will’s drawings are awesome, is always demanding some new work of art from him, and Will is always happy to oblige. In return, Max tells him about parts of the country Will has never seen, and her run-ins with the types of people Joyce hopes he never meets. She brings worldliness and he brings introspection, and they complement one another.

Joyce’s first impression of Max’s step-brother is confused. He’s quiet, fairly polite, seems almost scared, but Max looks at him with such absolute poison that Joyce knows there’s got to be more going on. What she eventually gets out of Will, who got it from Dustin who got it from Mike who got it from Lucas, is that Billy had been an absolute terror, had made Max genuinely terrified, right up until the night they closed the portal when Max (with the help of Steve Harrington, and what a nice young man he turned out to be) had put the fear of God into the boy.

When she eventually manages to find a moment to ask Max about it all, to ask if her parents don’t step in, Max snorts and says that Billy is his father’s son and her mom is too infatuated with him to care what happens to her daughter.

That’s when Joyce starts thinking about getting a bigger place. Lord knows she can’t afford it, can barely afford the place she’s got, but it isn’t right Max not having anywhere to sleep. It means quiet evenings with the kids playing together have to be cut short by the necessity of driving Max home. (One night, when Joyce mentioned that it was time to call for Max’s lift, Max admitted that getting in the car with her brother frightened her, and so Joyce always drove her home now, no matter how tired she was). It isn’t right, kicking this poor unloved child out into the cold when she’s got more than enough love to give, and she just knows she could make the food budget stretch if only they had one more bedroom.

She even thinks of making Will and Jonathan share, but that isn’t fair on either of them, especially when Nancy Wheeler is spending so much time in Jonathan’s room these days. (Once upon a time she might have fretted about that, but after everything they’ve been through she figures they deserved a little happiness. Worst that can happen is Nancy getting struck by lightning, as her mother would have said, and she’s been very clear to Jonathan about the importance of condoms, so she isn’t too worried about that.)

There’s no solution, so she keeps driving Max home, leaving it as late as she dares and always making Max promise to call her if there’s any trouble, any at all, before the girl gets out of the car. It isn’t enough, for Max or Joyce, but it’s all she can do.

 


 

 

Just under a year after the night they closed the portal Hopper invites her out to dinner, his hair neatly combed and smelling of cheap aftershave, and of course, she says yes. She isn’t ready for anything serious, not really, but she knows Hopper will understand that, and honestly, it’s impossible not to like the man.

He takes her to the diner, nothing fancy or romantic, which is all to the good. They make small talk as best they can over burgers, but neither of them is any good at it. Eventually, Hop puts down his burger and looks at her very seriously.

“I need your help,” he admits, sounding like the words are painful to him, and to a man of Hop’s pride, they probably are. “I’m doing my best with El, Jane I mean, but I don’t know shit about raising kids, especially not girls. I know to do better than my father, but that’s about it. My little Sarah… it was so long ago, and she was so young. Jane’s nearly a teenager, and she’s got the attitude to match. Things are better now than before, but we still fight all the time, and she’s terrified about school, and I don’t know what to tell her because the truth is she is struggling with the school work I’ve been giving her, and I don’t know enough to help. You’re the best mom I know, hell I think you might just be the best person I know, and I was hoping maybe you’d have some advice for me.”

So that’s what the combed hair and the aftershave were about. Joyce feels relieved and disappointed all at the same time, because she’s not ready to love again, she knows that, but Hop is a handsome man and a good one and her kids already like and trust him, even Max.

“She needs friends,” she tells him honestly. “Isolation will make anyone grouchy, and you can’t be with her all the time. I know you needed to keep her hidden, I know that was important, but I think it’s time you started letting her out again. And not just to spend time with Mike Wheeler. He’s a good kid, but he’s so sweet on your girl he’d let her get away with just about anything, and that’s not what she needs. She needs a few corners knocked off, needs to learn how kids interact when they’re not in life or death situations. How about you drop her off at mine one of these days? My kids would be pleased to see her I’m sure.”

“What, including Jonathan?” Hop asks sceptically, and Joyce kicks herself because she’d forgotten, somehow, that Max isn’t actually hers.

“I meant Will. And Max is around so often these days that she might as well live with us.”

“Jane doesn’t like Max much.”

“Nonsense. She barely knows her. Give her time to realise that Max hasn’t replaced her as Mike’s best friend and she’ll warm up to her in no time.”

Hop looks hopeful. “You sure you don’t mind? She can be a bit of a handful…”

“Oh, nonsense. After last year I think I can manage one moody twelve-year-old even if she does have magic powers.”

“Well if you’re sure, that’d be great. I keep worrying about how she’s going to cope, starting school. It’s all so new to her, and I don’t know if she’ll learn enough to be in Mike’s class so she won’t know anyone either.”

“What about Steve?” Joyce asks.

“Harrington? What about him?”

“Get him to tutor the kid. He’s no genius, but middle school math and English should be plenty easy for him, and he’s a good teacher. He’s been helping Will with his homework sometimes when me and Jonathan are both out.”

He won’t take a penny from her for the trouble, says it’s his pleasure, and he always brings that ridiculous spiked bat of his when he comes like he knows it calms her to see him armed. He’d proved last year he was willing to die to protect Will’s friends, so she trusts him to look out for Will and Max. Plus she’s hoping regular doses of gentle exposure will make things easier between him and Jonathan. She just knows they could be real friends, the kind Jonathan badly needs, if they could get past the admittedly major obstacle of both being in love with Nancy Wheeler.

“You trust him?”

“Enough to leave him alone with the kids,” she says and knows Hop will understand how serious that is for her.

“Alright, thanks. I’ll speak to him. And I’ll bring Jane round to yours on Thursday if that’s okay?”

“Sure,” she says, feeling a little sad to know that their night together has ended now that he’s gotten the help he needed. “Thanks for the burger.”

As she’s standing to go, he catches her hand, holds it tightly but gently, and says, “When you’re ready Joyce, I’ll be here waiting. When you’re ready.”

She smiles all the way home.

 


 

 

Jane’s stopped slicking her hair back, but her wardrobe is an eclectic mix of plaid and punk, and she’s experimenting with eyeshadow. So far the experiments mostly involve black. Joyce makes a mental note to buy the girl some actual colours the next time she has a few spare dollars.

Jane smiles at Will, nods silently at Joyce, and fixes Max with an icy glare.

It’s ridiculous, and Joyce tells her so. She makes sure not to do it where the others will hear since public dressing downs never achieve anything except humiliation. She asks Jane to help her with dinner while Max and Will are listening to music in Will’s room.

She gives Jane some carrots to chop, on the basis that any child who’s survived the things she has can almost certainly be trusted with a knife. Jane accepts the job willingly enough, and Joyce is aware that she’s probably been feeling like an outsider to Max and Will’s easy camaraderie.

“It’s no good snapping and snarling at Max you know,” Joyce says, when she’s sure Jane’s calm enough that she won’t cut herself if Joyce dishes out a few home truths. “Not her fault you had a miserable year, and not her fault you missed Mike. She’s not the replacement for you. No one is ever really a replacement for anyone, because we’re all different. She’s just a nice girl who needed some friends, like you.”

“Mike doesn’t like her.”

“Mike’s being as silly as you about this whole thing,” Joyce says firmly. “He thought that being friends with her meant the others were forgetting you, and now he’s too proud to admit he was wrong.”

“Proud.”

“Yeah. It’s like… some people think that if they admit they were wrong about something, people will think they’re stupid, so they’ll go on saying something they know isn’t true, even though really, that’s much stupider. Do you see?”

“Lying. Friends don’t lie to friends.”

“No, they shouldn’t. But sometimes lying and not being honest aren't quite the same thing.”

Jane gives her a curious look, so she carries on as best she can. “It’s like, lying is not telling the truth on purpose. Sometimes it’s for a good reason, like telling the bad men we don’t know where you are, but the thing that makes it a lie is that you do it deliberately.

“Not telling the truth is different, because you can do it by accident. Maybe you don’t have all the facts, so you say something you think is true, but it turns out it’s not. That’s not lying, but it’s not the truth either. This is a bit like that, I think. Men, and it usually is men, make themselves believe something that isn’t true, because it’s easier than admitting they were wrong.”

“Why men?”

Joyce considers how a brief introduction to feminism would go over with this curious poorly educated waif and decides against it. Not yet. Not till she’s seen more of the world. “I guess someone told a boy once that that was right way to behave, and he told his friends, and when they grew up, they all told their sons, who told their sons, and down and down until now.”

Jane nods like that makes sense. “So Mike is telling lies, but not on purpose.”

“That’s right. But I think he’ll figure out that he’s wrong if he sees you trying to make friends with Max, and then you can both be friends with her, just like you’re both friends with Dustin, and Lucas.” She doesn’t say Will’s name - as far as she knows he and Jane have barely spent any time together before today. “What do you say?”

Jane considers it as she chops the carrot into various sized chunks. “Try,” she says at last.

“That’s all I want, sweetheart,” Joyce assures her. “You might find once you start spending time together that you don’t like Max for real, and it’s okay if you do, but I don’t think you will. You’re both nice people, and you have lots of the same friends, so I’m sure you’ll get along just fine.”

As it turns out, she’s right. Over dinner, Jane makes a few tentative attempts at including Max and Max (who Joyce had once heard confide to Will that she thinks Jane is ‘just the coolest’) blossoms under the attention like a flower. By the time Hopper comes to collect Jane, and Joyce realises it’s time to take Max back to her parents (she can’t think of that house as Max’s home, she just can’t), the two girls are thick as thieves.

 


 

 

Two months and many play-dates later, she asks Hop out for burgers. His hair is uncombed and probably unwashed, and he smells of yesterday’s cigarettes. She doesn’t mind.

They go to the diner again, because it’s cheap and nearby and extremely unromantic, which suits her just fine.

She doesn’t bother with the awkward small talk, just launches right into her problem as soon as they’ve ordered.

“I need a bigger house.”

Hop blinks at her in surprise. “Okay.”

“I’m serious Hop. I need somewhere for the girls to stay over. I hate having to send Max back to that house every night, and maybe her mom would let her stay if Jane was there as well.”

“She’s over at yours every night?”

“Nearly. Sometimes they all go to the arcade, or to see a movie or something. Steve takes them out, or Jonathan and Nancy. But Lucas’s parents won’t let him have a girl in his room, and Mike doesn’t like her, and she says it doesn’t feel right to hang out with Dustin without the others there, so she comes to mine. She and Will are good friends.”

“And you’ve adopted her.”

“Yes,” Joyce admits without embarrassment. “I suppose I have. Lord knows somebody needed to.”

“And you want Jane staying with you as well?”

“The more, the merrier, I say, only I don’t have room for them all. I can’t take on another loan, and extensions don’t just build themselves, and Jonathan already gives me all his money. Maybe there isn’t a solution, I sure as heck can’t see one, but I was hoping maybe you would.”

Their food arrives, and Hop takes a big bite of his burger, chewing it in silence while he thinks. Joyce is too nervous to eat, just picking at the side salad while she waits for his answer. She hates asking anyone else about money, it always feels like begging even when all she wants it advice, but she’d be first to admit she’s no financial genius, and the Max situation can't be allowed to continue, it just can’t.

“I’ve been thinking of selling my place,” Hop says at last. “I’m never there, spend all my time at the hunting lodge with Jane, so there doesn’t seem much point hanging on to it.”

“I won’t take your money, Jim, that’s not what I’m asking for.”

“It’s not what I’m offering. But you’re right that it’s not right for Jane to be all by herself all the time, and even knowing she can defend herself plenty well, I worry. That she’ll take it into her head to run off back to her sister, or the goddamn men in black will find her, or all this psychic stuff will catch up to her and she’ll have a stroke or something. Anything could happen to her, and I’d never know until it was too late.

“So how would you feel about moving in together?”

She stares at him, gobsmacked, and he holds up placating hands, one of them still clutching his burger. “I don’t mean sharing a bed, or anything like that. I just thought that between us maybe we could afford something bigger, and then we wouldn’t have to worry so much about the kids being on their own because they would be together. Plus easier on the Harrington kid, doing joint study sessions.”

She knows her eyes have gone very wide, knows the exact expression on her face because it’s the one Will wears any time she surprises him with a gift. “Really? You mean that, Hop?!” It’s a perfect solution, better than she could have dared hope, and she’ll get to have both girls under her roof the way she wanted.

“People will talk,” Hopper warns her, like that’ll make the damnedest bit of difference.

“Fuck them,” Joyce says, smiling at Hop’s shocked expression. “Fuck all of them; I don’t give a damn what they say. It won’t be anything worse than they say already. Hop, if you’re really willing that’d be perfect.”

“I snore like a buzzsaw and I’m like a bear with a stuffed head until I’ve had my coffee in the morning.”

“I lose the car keys and rely on Jonathan to tell me when we need groceries and panic every time Will leaves my sight,” she responds, a sort of counteroffer.

He grins at her. “I can live with that.”

“Well, I can live with snoring and caffeine addiction.”

“Think the kids will like the idea?”

“Will will be thrilled. So will Max, though don’t expect her to say so. I don’t know about Jonathan, but I can talk him around, I know I can.”

“Alright then,” Hop says, in that firm, authoritative police chief way he sometimes has. “I’ll speak to the estate agent tomorrow.”

 


 

 

As predicted Will is delighted, Jonathan suspicious. He doesn’t like the idea of them being reliant on anyone else, even Hopper, but Joyce talks to him as an adult, an equal partner in this venture, explaining her apathy toward the house where Will nearly died, and her fears for Max, alone with the men who scare her so much, and he comes around.

Max is more complicated. She waits until it’s just the two of them in the kitchen, Max doodling in her math book and calling it homework while Joyce washes up. Will and Jonathan are in Jonathan’s room, talking about philosophy and listening to music Joyce doesn’t understand.

“I’m thinking of selling this place,” Joyce says, conversationally. “Me and Jim Hopper have been talking about buying a place together.”

Max looks surprised and wary. “Didn’t know you were seeing him.”

“I’m not, not really. This isn’t romantic. But I don’t like leaving Will, and he doesn’t like leaving Jane, and this way we’d at least be leaving them together, you know?”

Max’s expression shutters, the way it does when she feels threatened, goes sulky and disinterested. “Guess Will would like having a sister.”

“Max,” Joyce says, very gently, “there’ll be a room for you too, if you want it.”

For a moment, Max stares at her like she hadn’t understood the words, and then says slowly, “you mean like, live with you?”

“I know it can’t be all the time, because you’ve got parents to go home too, but we’re looking for somewhere where there’s space for you to stay with us a lot, as much as you can. It’ll be easier with Jane there as well. We can tell your parents you’re having sleepovers with her.”

“But it won’t be,” Max says, still speaking like she’s picking her words with care. “It would be more than a sleepover.”

“Of course it would. Max, you must know I love you like my own daughter. If I had my way, you’d live here all the time. I only started thinking about moving because I hate having to send you back to your parents every night.”

“You shouldn’t do this for me,” Max says, going sulky again. “I’m trouble. You don’t want me around.”

“You’re no trouble at all, and I want you here always.” Joyce goes to her, drops to a crouch beside her chair, touches the back of her hand. “I don’t know who told you that you weren’t wanted, but it isn’t true. I want you. We want you. There’s a space for you in this family if you’re willing to take it.”

Max’s bottom lip quivers, like she’s trying with all her might not to cry. Joyce knows how she feels. “I’ll think about it,” she says gruffly, looking away and surreptitiously wiping her eyes on her sleeve. Joyce lets her. After raising Jonathan, she knows about giving kids privacy.

“We haven’t found anywhere yet, and Hop’s house has only just gone on the market, but this is real. This is happening. You’ll always have a home with us.”

 


 

 

In the end, it takes three months to find somewhere, and then another nail-biting month after that to sell her house. They keep thinking the place they’ve chosen will get snapped up by someone else, or Hop’s sale will fall through, or maybe no one will want a run-down little house in the middle of the woods.

It happens in the end though, and then it’s a crazy few days of packing and arguing over whose furniture to keep, and dismantling Fort Byers into carefully numbered pieces, ready to be reassembled at the new place.

They’d never get a moving van out into the woods, but Steve offers to help, and the Sinclairs, and Nancy borrows her parent's car without telling them what it’s for, and between the five of them they eventually get everything across town to the new place.

They’d got it cheap because it’s been empty for nearly a decade. Local superstition says it’s haunted, but Joyce has seen the real supernatural and ghosts don’t scare her one bit anymore. It had been a farm, once upon a time, but the land got sold off piecemeal when no one would take the house, so there’s just a yard and a few feet of woodland out back.

The house itself is two stories, made of timber with a shingle roof. There are five bedrooms, plus a box-room the estate agent had tried to sell as a sixth, with a big dining room and living room on the ground floor, and a kitchen and bathroom that were clearly after-thoughts. It’s not perfect, and the years lying empty have left their mark, but it’s theirs.

She’d broken the news a gently as she could to Max that the promised bedroom would be shared with Jane, but the girl hadn’t seemed to mind. They were assigned the master bedroom since it was the biggest room, and the best way to avoid fights was to make sure they weren’t tripping over one another.

She took the next biggest, then Hop picked the room with the best view of the woods, and Jonathan the one with the most wall sockets.

Will managed two nights in the smallest bedroom before insisting they move his bed into the box-room. His bed took up most of the room, but Hop bought an old set of bunk beds cheap in a house clearance and hacked the bottom bed out, leaving room for a small desk and a set of drawers for Will’s clothes. It was cramped, far too small for a growing boy, but Will prefered an enclosed space, where there were fewer shadows where enemies might be lurking.

After grilling Max on her mother’s movements, Joyce used one of her precious days of holiday and booked a hair appointment at the same time as the woman. She talked at length about how glad she was to have Max visit, and what a pleasure it was to see Jane making friends (poor girl, childhood illness had stopped her from going to school and she got so lonely, but Max was always so kind to her, really a lovely child, a credit to any mother) and walked away with the tacit agreement that Max could stay over as often as she liked, so long as it didn’t interfere with her schoolwork.

The next day Max arrived with a suitcase of clothes, which she unpacked into the armoire they’d got for her. She stayed with them three or four nights a week, and they all missed her when she had to go back to her parents for a night.

They settled in surprisingly smoothly. Hopper and Jane slotted into Byer’s family time as easily as Max had. (As easily as Bob hadn’t, Joyce thinks guiltily). Joyce cooks and the kids wash up, Hopper takes the bins out and Jonathan chops wood. The electricity bill is in Hopper’s name, and the TV bill in Joyce’s.

Sometimes it feels strange, having Hopper there. It’s been a long time since Joyce has shared a house with a man, and it takes some adjusting. Plus the tension between them is always there. She knows that the arrangement is purely practical, that she’s not ready for it to be anything more, but she still finds her eyes lingering on the width of his shoulders or the curve of his smile, and she knows he’s doing the same to her. Soon, Joyce tells herself. Soon I’ll be ready. But in her heart of hearts, she knows that it might be years.

Jane struggles at first to adjust to normal home life. She’s never lived in a house before except Hop’s hunting lodge, so it’s natural that things like chores and sharing come as a nasty shock. Joyce finds that the best tactic is to treat her the way she does Jonathan, not as an adolescent but as a fully grown adult who just happens to have limited life experience. She explains why chores need to be done, and Eggos shared, and algebra learned, and for the most part it works. Jane still thinks ironing is stupid and views any cooking more complex than peeling potatoes with deep suspicion, but she’s otherwise well behaved. (At least by the standards of their somewhat chaotic little family.)

It helps that Will’s friends visit often. They buy an air mattress for the living room, since Will’s room is barely big enough for one, and Joyce turns a blind eye when she finds Jane and Max curled up on it with the rest. They’re too young and too shy to be having orgies, so the worst that can happen is a bit of embarrassment, which won’t do them any harm. (Initially, they’d tried separate camp beds, but after she came down one morning to find them all asleep in a heap on the floor, curled together like exhausted puppies and the camp beds abandoned, she’d insisted on the air mattress).

Max finds adjusting to family life harder. She jumps at shadows, flinches whenever she hears a slammed door and avoids being alone with Jonathan or Hop. Joyce is fiercely proud of her menfolk when they silently adjust their behaviours to avoid scaring her, without a word ever needing to be said, and Max, in turn, begins to relax. She’s still sullen and sulky, still lashes out when she feels cornered, but they’re all damaged in their own ways, and Max’s moods are easier to handle than Will’s screaming nightmares.

(The nightmares ease with time, but Hop tells her that in his experience, they never really go away. It breaks her heart to think that her little boy might never be fully healed, but she’s a pragmatist, so she accepts the truth of it and does her best to find small ways to help him.)

 


 

 

The spring after they move, Jane starts school. With Steve’s help, she’s managed to learn enough that she can be in the same year as her friends, but even so, it doesn’t go well.

She’d been so excited at the idea of spending all day with her friends, but she quickly realises school is a lot of stupid busy work and doing as you’re told, and unlike at home, the adults never explain why she’s supposed to do anything, only demand unquestioning obedience.

She comes home from her first day in tears, and Hop seems torn between marching down to the school to beat the teachers black and blue for daring to upset his girl and quitting his job there and then so he can homeschool her.

Joyce manages to talk some sense into him and then has a heartbreaking conversation with Jane where she has to explain to a still weeping thirteen-year-old why she has to go back to somewhere she hates.

“I won’t force you,” Joyce eventually tells her. “It’s your choice. But I need you to understand it’s a choice between remaining a secret and having a normal life. School sucks, it really does, but I’ve met some people who didn’t go and I truly, honestly believe that they have it worse. But it’s up to you. This is your life, and I won’t tell you how to live it. If you’re old enough to fight monsters, you’re old enough to choose how to live.”

In the end, she does go back, the lure of her friends outweighing her hatred of teachers, but her relationship to school never really improves. She views it as a horrible chore to be endured, a toll she has to pay, and Joyce’s memories of school aren’t nearly happy enough to let her persuade Jane otherwise.

She and Hopper both worry about the girl, but in the end, there’s nothing they can do except comfort one another that at least Jane talks to them about things that upset her, unlike thousands of unhappy kids across the country who suffer in silence. It’s the best they can hope for.

 


 

 

Once Jane has settled into school life, the next big shake-up in their routine comes one June evening when Joyce opens the door to find Steve Harrington standing on the step, his eyes red from crying.

She takes one look at him and shepherds him inside.

The kids are asleep, Jonathan is at Nancy’s and Hop has been called out to a domestic, so it’s just the two of them. She makes him a mug of cocoa because he looks like he could use it, (and adds a tot of whiskey because he looks like he could use that too) and gets him seated at the kitchen table.

“I told my dad I didn’t want to work for his company,” Steve says at last. “And when he finally stopped yelling and just kicked me out, I sat in my car and realised I didn’t have anywhere to go. I don’t have any friends, except the kids, and I can’t exactly cry on a thirteen-year-old’s shoulder. There’s Nancy I guess, but that’s all still too awkward. No one at school likes me, not really. I haven’t got any family except my parents.

“I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go.”

“You’re always welcome here, Steve.”

“Thanks, Mrs Byers.”

She waves away his thanks. “We’ve seen each other cry and killed interdimensional monsters together. It’s really time you started calling me Joyce.”

“Well then thanks, Joyce.”

“You’re very welcome. I’ll just go make up the spare bed for you.”

She starts to stand, but he says quickly, “You don’t need to.”

“Of course I do. You’re always welcome here.”

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”

She puts her hands on her hips and glares down at him. “After everything you’ve done for this family, tutoring Jane, watching Will, defending Max last year, and Jonathan the year before that… I can’t repay you for everything you’ve done for us, but I can damn well offer you a bed in the Joyce Byers home for wayward teenagers for as long as you want it.”

Steve sniffles. She pretends not to hear. “I can make it up though. I don’t… I don’t want to be alone.”

She sits back down and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Whatever you need, Steve. You don’t have to tell me, but you look like you could use a friendly ear, and I happen to have two.” She wiggles her ears (a trick Will has inherited but Jonathan hasn’t) and Steve makes a manful attempt at laughing through his tears.

“He asked me what I wanted to do instead,” he says, after a fortifying sip of cocoa. “I said I didn’t know, and it was like… like he’d been thinking all these terrible things about me, for years, and not saying them, and suddenly that was the thing that made him want to say them all out loud. He said he’d spent a fortune on me, did I know how much it costs to raise a kid, and now I wasn’t even going to keep the business going after he retired he didn’t know why he’d bothered. He said I was stupid and lazy. He said the only good thing about me was the fact that I wasn’t a faggot, and he wasn’t sure about that since I couldn’t even hang on to a girl.”

“Ah.” Joyce has wondered, once or twice, about the way Steve looks at Jonathan but she’d put it down to his heartbreak over Nancy. Now she’s not so sure.

“I said what if I was, and he said no son of his would be a faggot. And I just… I was so angry, I wasn’t thinking right, and I said ‘well I guess you don’t have a son then.’

“I thought he was going to hit me. I really did. He even raised his fist, but then he just told me to get the hell out, and not come back until I’d changed my attitude.”

“Your father,” Joyce says firmly, because it’s important that Steve knows this, “is an absolute asshole.”

Steve really does laugh this time. “Yes, he is.”

“There’s nothing wrong with not knowing what you want to do with your life, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting something different from your parents, and there’s nothing wrong with liking boys.”

“I know,” Steve says, not looking like he does at all.

He takes another long sip of his spiked cocoa and then bursts out, “It’s so stupid! I’m not even really queer. I look at boys sometimes, but it’s not like I don’t like girls. I thought it was okay, because as long as I like girls too, no one ever needed to know, but when dad said that… I couldn’t say nothing. I just couldn’t! Shit, why the hell did I have to go and open my big mouth?!”

“Liking someone is never wrong,” Joyce says fiercely. “Never.” She thinks of Max, whose once hero-worship of the mythical El has turned into sisterly affection now that they live together, but which she thinks could have gone another way under different circumstances. The idea that anyone could think there was something wrong with her girl for that sickens her. “If your father can’t see how lucky he is to have such a kind brave son, well then that’s his loss.”

 


 

 

Steve says he’ll stay with them for a few days. Two months later he still hasn’t left. Joyce says nothing, just keeps making enough for seven at dinner and hoping he won’t leave. He’s so good with the kids, and now he’s here all the time the awkwardness between him and Jonathan is finally starting to clear. Steve still seems to think he needs to pay her back somehow for doing the decent thing and offering him a bed, and she doesn’t protest because honestly the help with the kids is needed. Hawkins might be small, but Hop is still busy a lot of the time, and having Steve there to look out for the kids after school means she can work extra shifts when she needs to without having to worry about childcare.

Max gets a paper round, and when Joyce refuses to take her money, she gives it to Hopper instead. When she objects to taking money from a child, he shrugs and says, “We could use it. And I agreed with her that we’d only take half.”

It’s not much, but it does help.

Summer holidays mean the kids at home all day, and though she feels better knowing Jane and Steve are there to look out for Will, Joyce still spends a lot of time at work pacing and trying to stop herself from panicking. There’s no reason he should be at more risk at home than at school she tells herself, over and over, but it doesn’t help.

It's made much worse when Jane disappears.

Steve is beside himself, and Joyce feels like someone has ripped the heart out of her body, but Hopper remains pragmatic. “She’s a big girl, and there isn’t much that can hurt her,” he says calmly. “She came home before; she’ll come home this time. Just let her get it out of her system.”

It isn’t until late at night, when the teenagers are all asleep, that he admits to Joyce how scared he is.

“She hitchhikes, and she doesn’t have any idea why that might be dangerous, and she always seems to end up someplace she shouldn’t. I called her aunt, but she hasn’t seen her. I can’t think where else she’d go, and it’s killing me that I don’t know where she is!”

They get the answer three days later when Jane comes home, dragging a reluctant looking young Indian woman behind her.

“This is my sister,” she says. “She is staying here now.”

“I’ll move my stuff into Jonathan’s room,” Steve says immediately. To Joyce’s surprise, Jonathan doesn’t object, only offers Steve a shy smile that makes her wonder about their relationship. If Steve’s finally admitted his feelings, where does that leave Nancy?

Kali (the sister’s name) doesn’t protest or say that she doesn’t want to be any bother. She doesn’t say much of anything, at least not to anyone who isn’t Jane. The two of them spend hours together in Kali’s room, talking too quietly to be overheard. Hopper tries to interrogate her at meal times, but she either changes the subject or refuses to speak until Jane steps in to save her.

Max is wildly jealous and goes home to her parents for an entire week. When she eventually comes back, she’s subdued and clearly miserable, though she cheers up a little when she hears how much Will and Joyce have missed her. Even Hopper ruffles her hair and says, “Good to have you home, kid” when she joins them for dinner.

After two weeks, Kali thanks Joyce and Hopper for their hospitality, says formal goodbyes to the kids, gives Jane a bone-crushing hug and leaves their lives as suddenly as she had entered it.

“Her friends are in prison,” Jane tells Joyce that night. “I saw her, in my mind. She was scared and alone. I had to help her.”

“Of course you did, sweetheart,” Joyce says, pressing a kiss to her curls. “It’s important to look out for your family.”

“She's going to try and save her friends,” Jane says. “She might die.”

She doesn’t sound scared exactly, more fatalistic, but all the same, Joyce says, “I’m sure she won’t.”

“She says she doesn’t care. It’s worth the risk to save the people she loves.”

“Now I know she’s your sister,” Joyce says, and Jane wraps her up in a sudden hug.

“She said before she went that she was glad I’d found all of you, and I am too. It was good with Hopper, mostly, but it’s better with everyone. Being a family.”

“I think so too,” Joyce says, and inside she thinks, ‘I’m ready.’

 


 

 

She doesn’t bother getting dressed up, but she does brush her hair and put on some perfume, conscious that she should at least put in as much effort as he had. She thinks about booking somewhere nice, somewhere out of town where they won’t be watched, but in the end, she decides 'fuck it'. She likes the diner, and so does he, and it’s not like they aren’t already being gossipped about. She might as well give the wagging tongues something real to talk about for once.

He’s up a ladder cleaning out the gutters when she makes the decision, and she sees no reason to wait just because he’s doing something unromantic, so she goes outside and hollers for him to come down.

He does, looking grumpy and then says as soon as his feet touch the ground, “You’re wearing perfume.”

“Seemed appropriate,” she says. “I wanted to ask you so something.”

“So ask.”

“Jim Hopper, would go out to dinner with me?”

He narrows his eyes. “For real this time?”

“For real. I’m ready to try.”

“You want to go somewhere special?”

“The diner is fine.”

“Seven o’clock?”

“I’ll have to check that one of the boys can babysit, but sure. Seven o’clock.”

“Sounds good. I should have time to finish the gutters before we need to leave.” And he disappears back up the ladder.

She laughs softly to herself and goes back to painting. The girls have decided they want their room painted blue, and since Max is contributing to the household budget, she sees no reason not to indulge them. Max looks at her suspiciously when she smells the perfume, but Will just smiles and says he’s glad she’s working things out with Hop. She says she’s glad too and it feels warm to know how much her kids, all of her kids, already view Hop at part of the family.

 


 

 

At the diner they talk over burgers, and then over pie, and then over coffees, neither of them wanting the evening to end. To her surprise, they actually do find things to talk about that aren’t their various shared children. They talk about books, and music they listened to as kids, and how weird modern fashion is. They joke about adding an extension to the house so Steve can have a bathroom of his own and stop cluttering up the shared one with his hair products. They talk about what colour to paint the outside of the house, Hop advocating for green, Joyce for yellow, neither of them ever entertaining the idea of white, not with five kids.

The only time they really talk about the kids is over their pie (blueberry, padded out with some apple that adds a pleasant sweetness) when Hop awkwardly broaches the SteveandJonathan problem, and then blows Joyce’s mind a little but suggesting that it’s actually a SteveandJonathanandNancy problem.

“Someone needs to talk to them,” Joyce says, hoping he won’t say she should. She’s done her best to talk to her boys about sex, teach them what they need to know when they need to know it, but she still feels obscurely that it’s a father’s job. The idea is ludicrous, the boys’ father would never do something so paternal, but maybe Hop…

“I gave them a value box of condoms and a couple of the more educational dirty magazines,” Hop says flushing. “A gay one as well, so as to cover all bases. I didn’t mean to overstep…”

She squeezes his hand. She’s not sure when they began eating one-handed, their other hands tangled on the table-top, but she doesn’t want to let go. “You didn’t overstep. Not at all. Thank you, Jim.”

He colours a little. “Don’t think you’ve ever called me Jim before,” he mutters.

“Do you like it?”

“It’s kinda nice,” he admits. “Been a long time since I heard my name. Everyone in town just calls me Hopper or Chief.”

“Well I call you Jim now, so get used to it,” she tells him and smiles when he does.

They split the bill, since it was Joyce who asked Jim out and his masculine pride won’t let her pay for the whole meal, and drive home in silence. Hop’s car is a stick-shift, but they hold hands whenever he doesn’t need to change gear. It doesn’t feel like being a teenager again, like it had with Bob. Instead, it feels natural and comfortable and indefinably grown-up. Like maybe this is the start of the mature adult relationship she’s never really had.

They go to separate bedrooms, but Jim kisses her on the landing before he says goodnight, a gentle press of his lips against hers that makes her heart skip a beat.

Will and Jonathan are waiting for her, Will tucked into her bed and Jonathan sitting at the foot. They’re talking, too quietly to be heard from the landing, but they look up when she opens the door.

“How was it?” Jonathan asks. “You have a nice time?”

“Real nice,” she assures them, touched and amused that they’d felt the need to wait up for her. “Jim was a perfect gentleman.”

“Since when is he Jim?” Will asks, wrinkling his nose.

“Since he took me out to dinner, and kissed me goodnight,” Joyce says, smiling at him. “Plus he’s been helping raise you two for half a year now. Kind of feels like it’s time I started using his real name.”

“Do we have to call him Jim?”

“You can call him whatever you like, sweetheart, as long as it’s not rude.”

“I’ll stick with Hopper,” Will decides.

“You gonna see him again?” Jonathan asks, a little too sharply. He always was protective, even before things ended with his dad.

“At breakfast probably,” she tells him. “And when we get off work we’re going paint shopping. And then probably we’ll all have dinner together like we do every night he finishes on time.” (Their dining table is actually three small tables, all squashed together and taking up most of the room. It was the only way to make sure there was room for all seven of them, plus a place left spare for Kali, or Nancy, or Mike, or Lucas, or whichever motherless child decides to adopt them next.)

“You know what I mean,” Jonathan says, but he stops scowling at the reminder that Hop isn’t some outsider muscling in on their family. He’s one of them, has been since he raised heaven and earth to find Will.

“I do. And yeah, I think I will. I might even have sex with him one of these days.” The boys shriek laughing protests of ‘too much information mom’, and she laughs with them.

Will falls asleep where he’s lying, and neither of them bothers to wake him. He always sleeps better with people around. Joyce has lamented more than once that they don’t have any boys his own age for him to share a room with. She thinks wildly that she should put that on her list, the next time she’s shopping for foster-kids.

“You really okay?” Jonathan asks softly, once he’s sure Will won’t hear.

“No, I’m not,” she admits. “But I’m getting there, slowly, and Jim is helping. Are you? I know you and Steve have been spending a lot of time together, and I haven’t seen Nancy so much lately.”

“She’s just busy. She takes exams really really seriously, even just stupid end of year ones.”

“But the three of you are okay? It’s working out for you?”

He looks shocked. “You… you know?”

She doesn’t say that she’d needed Jim to spell it out for her. “I’m your mother, sweetheart, of course I know.”

“And you don’t mind?”

“I’m terrified for you. Honest to goodness terrified. But if it’s what you’ve chosen, I’m not going to stop you. I just want you to be happy.”

“I am,” he admits, smiling softly at her. “They make me happy. Both of them.”

“Then I’m pleased for you sweetheart. But no more sharing a room until you start college, you hear me? Next time Kali visits, Steve will have to take the couch.”

Jonathan laughs. “Thanks, mom. I’ll tell Steve he has to find somewhere else to keep all his stupid hair stuff.”

“He has some in your room as well?” she asks, aghast. “How much does the boy need, he’s only got one head!”

“If me and Steve aren’t allowed to share anymore, what are you going to do the next time you adopt someone?”

“We’ll figure something out,” she says, rather than insist that won’t happen. If she’s learnt anything about herself this past year, it’s that she’s always got more room in her heart for one more kid. “Jim was talking about building an extension.”

 


 

 

As it happens, by the time Kali shows up on their doorstep, white-faced and shaking in clothes stained with blood, Jim’s already moved his things into Joyce’s room, so there’s space for her.

She stays a month this time. After a week of silence with anyone but Jane, she does start to warm up to them all a little. It helps that Max, who’s recovered from her jealousy and hasn’t yet grown out of her tendency towards hero worship, declares her “the coolest person ever” and follows her around like a devoted puppy whenever Kali leaves her room.

She doesn’t talk to Joyce much, or Jim, but she spends at least a little time with all the kids, and by the time she announces her intention to leave she seems calmer, more at peace with herself.

The evening after she leaves, Jane comes to sit on the sofa beside Joyce while she's half-watching jeopardy and mending a tear in Max’s favourite sweatshirt.

“Hopper is my dad, my real dad, not like Papa,” Jane says at last, and Joyce nods encouragement. Jane’s been calling Jim ‘dad’ for about three months now, and the big softie still tears up every time. “And Terry Ives was my real mama.” Joyce nods again, because everything she’s heard suggests that woman fought tooth and nail for a child she never even got to hold, and if that’s not a real mother she doesn’t know what is. “But I talked to Kali, and she said she didn’t see why someone shouldn’t have a mama and a mom. She says her friend Mike has a mama and a mom. And I thought maybe, if you wanted, you could be my mom. If you like.”

She pulls the girl to her in an awkward one-armed hug, Max’s mending still in her other hand, and presses a kiss to soft curls. “I’d be honoured, sweetheart.”

 


 

 

After that, it doesn’t take long for her other adopted children to follow suit. When she waves Jonathan and Steve off on a date with Nancy one night, they press a matching set of kisses to her cheek and say “don’t want up mom,” in perfect unison. She laughs, and swats them with a dish towel, and smiles until her cheeks ache.

After that Steve calls her mom semi-regularly, usually in ways that can be written off as a joke, but sometimes not. He doesn't call Jim dad, but he does grin like an idiot when Jim gruffly calls him 'son' for the first time.

Max crawls into her bed one night, to her surprise. Of all the kids, she’s the least physically affectionate and Joyce has always respected that.

“I don’t want to go back home tomorrow,” Max admits, her face pressed against Joyce’s shoulder. Joyce almost tells her that she is home, but the knowledge of Max’s mother is there to trip her up, the way it always does.

“I don’t want you to go either,” she says instead. “I’d like it if you lived here always.”

“It’s not so bad there now,” Max offers. “Billy doesn’t grab me anymore, not even when he sees me hanging out with Lucas. And Neil doesn’t hit me or anything, not like he does Billy.”

Joyce wraps an arm around her girl, her first adopted child, and holds her tight as though to protect her from the spectre of her step-father. “If you’re ever scared, you can always come here,” she tells her. “And if Billy or your step-dad try to follow you, Jim will be waiting with his shotgun."

Max laughs. “He would as well. It’s okay though. I don’t hate Billy anymore. Mostly I feel sorry for him. He hasn’t got any friends or any family who isn’t mean to him, and I’ve got all of you guys.”

Max has a big heart under her gruff exterior. She’s like Jim in that regard. “If you ever want to bring him over for family dinner, you know there’s always a spare seat at the table.”

“I might,” Max says softly. “One day.”

They lie in silence for a long time, and then Max says quietly. “Sometimes I wish my mom was dead, so that you could be my mom instead. And then I feel really shitty for thinking that.”

“No rule that says someone can’t have two moms,” Joyce says firmly. “Just ask your sister.”

“That’s the thing,” Max cries, sounding anguished. “She’s not really my sister, and Will and Steve and Jonathan aren’t really my brothers, and you and Hopper aren’t really my parents. It’s all just pretend. My dad is out in California, and my mom is at home with Neil the asshole, and the only brother I’ve got is Billy fucking Hargrove.”

Joyce doesn’t reprimand her for her language. She’s become a great believer, in the last two years, in the therapeutic properties of profanity.

“Do you think,” she says instead, “that someone you marry is less part of your family than the people you’re related to by blood? Or adopted kids are less family than biological ones?” She’s been doing a lot of reading on adopted families since Max started spending more time with them than with her parents, and Jim teases her for it, but he generally borrows the books when she’s done with them.

Max thinks about this. “I guess not?” she eventually says, unsure of her answer.

“That’s because the family you choose is just as important as the family you’re born into,” Joyce tells her. “Maybe more important. It would be nice if sharing blood meant you had things in common, but there are no guarantees. So you gotta choose yourself a new family. Or you do what I’ve been doing, and you take your small family and you add to it until it’s not so small anymore.”

“I can’t call you mom,” Max says. “I’ve already got a mom. But I thought maybe, if Jane gets to have a mama and a mom…”

“I’d like that,” Joyce tells her. “But only if you want to.”

“I do,” Max says firmly. She pulls out of Joyce’s embrace and clambers out of bed. “Night mama Joyce.”

“Night sweetheart. Sleep well.”

 


 

 

Billy Hargrove joins them for Thanksgiving, and so, to everyone’s surprise, does Kali.

Billy watches them all with suspicion, and there’s nearly a bust-up when he eyes catch Steve and Jonathan’s joined hands and he starts to sneer, but Kali puts a stop to that before Joyce has finished working out what she should say.

Kali fixes Billy with a gimlet stare, dark eyes furious, and says softly, “If you say anything to insult Auntie Joyce or her family, I will personally carry you to the front door, throw you out of it, and then kick you so hard in the balls your ancestors will feel it. Do you understand me?”

The threat should be ridiculous coming from a woman half Billy’s size, but Kali is so obviously dangerous that he drops his eyes and barely says half a word for the rest of the meal.

He brightens up a little when Jim and Steve start talking cars, and even adds a few words to the conversation, but he remains subdued. Joyce feels a little mean for thinking that it's probably for the best, but only a little. She remembers how scared Max used to be of him, how scared Lucas still is, and privately decides that however much he clearly needs mothering, he’s not going to become a permanent fixture in their house.

After the turkey is finished, Joyce makes them all join hands around the table and say what they’re thankful for before she brings out dessert. It’s cheesy, and a little bit hallmark, but it’s one of the few holiday traditions she honestly likes, and this year she feels like she has a lot to be thankful for.

She says that she’s thankful to have all her kids around one table, safe and well. Hop says he’s thankful for a year without monsters, which obviously confuses Billy. Will is thankful for his family, Jonathan for falling in love. Kali is thankful to have found her sister. Jane is thankful for Eggos. Max glances at her brother and then says with an air of defiance that she’s thankful for chosen family. Steve says he’s thankful for condoms, which makes the younger kids groan in protest and Jonathan blush like a beet.

Billy is silent for a really long time and eventually says he’s thankful for his car, and Joyce can’t help feeling really sad for him. Even if Jane and Steve had picked stupid things, she knows they really mean that Jane’s thankful to have people providing for her and being kind to her, and Steve is thankful to have Jonathan and Nancy. Maybe Billy’s thankfulness had some deeper meaning that she doesn’t know him well enough to understand, but she thinks probably not. Probably he just doesn’t have anything better than ‘owning a fast car’ to be thankful for.

She makes sure to serve him an extra large slice of pumpkin pie.

When they’ve all finished eating, Kali helps her clear up, and Joyce quietly thanks her for intervening earlier.

“It is nothing,” Kali says, in that frank way she has. “You have taken in my sister and cared for her. My own foster parents were afraid of me when they found out what I could do, but you treat Jane as your own. I am proud to call you my Auntie, and I will not let anyone hurt Jane's family.”

Afterwards, they play charades, the only game they can think of that works with so many people, and Billy proves that he can be screamingly funny when he puts his mind to it. By the time he and Max leave, even Steve has stopped glaring at him.

Jim takes him aside before they leave, talks to him low and earnest, and Joyce doesn’t know if he’s putting the fear of god into the boy, or offering him help the next time his dad gets violent. Knowing Jim, probably a little of both.

Either way, he’s subdued but polite when they make their goodbyes, and doesn’t do more than raise an eyebrow when Max slips and calls Joyce mama as they say goodnight.

Maybe, she thinks hopefully, he’ll find a nice girl and settle down a bit, but she doesn’t really believe it. The only girl his age she ever met who’d have the patience and resilience to make a good man out of him is Nancy, and she’s perfectly happy with the men she’s got.

 


 

 

While Thanksgiving had been a relatively quiet affair, Christmas is barely controlled chaos. Kali rolls up on Christmas Eve, bringing her friends with her (Mick who has two mothers, Funshine who is polite and helpful, and Axel who insists on pissing outside instead of in the bathroom and declares every song they play ‘bourgeois crap’). Max had asked shyly if she could invite Billy, and Joyce hadn’t had any choice but to say yes in the face of her puppy-dog eyes. Nancy and Mike have begged out of a family Christmas in front of the telly to spend part of the afternoon with their respective paramours, and the Sinclairs and Dustin and his mother have all promised to drop in.

Dinner, Joyce decides, is going to have to be a buffet, with as much of it ready-made as possible. She nearly cries in relief when Steve shyly hands over a hundred dollars he’d saved out of his wages. He pays a little rent each month, since he’s working while he waits for Nancy and Jonathan to finish school so they can all go to college together, but she doesn’t feel right asking for much. Faced with the prospect of feeding 21 people, however, on top of buying presents for all the kids, practicality wins out over pride and she gratefully accepts the money.

Nancy, Steve and Jonathan take over decorating the house, marshalling the younger kids into an efficient army of decorators who goose-step around armed with tinsels and baubles, giggling all the while.

Hop takes Jonathan out into the forest to cut a tree, and when she asks Steve why he hadn’t gone too, he shrugs and says that he thinks Jonathan needs the father-son bonding time more than him. She hugs him tight and ropes him into helping her cut out Christmas trees from ready-made gingerbread dough.

Christmas day itself dawns bright and clear, to the loud disappointment of Max who wants to know what the point of moving somewhere so cold is if it doesn’t even snow on Christmas. (To Joyce’s delight, Max’s mother and step-father have gone on holiday for Christmas, meaning she’s staying with them for a whole glorious week.)

They eat Eggos with whipped cream and Haribo for breakfast, which Jim tells them all seriously is ‘traditional Christmas food’, Jane nodding her agreement.

After the kids are sufficiently sugared up, they all troop into the living room to open presents.

Will, Mike, Dustin and Lucas have clubbed together to get Steve and Max walkie-talkies so that they can be part of the group conversations, and she can tell they’re both deeply touched by the gesture.

Steve has bought the younger kids all dog tags, with their names and dates of birth embossed on them, because “one of these days I’m going to having to identify the body of one of you little shits, sorry Joyce”, which they of course love.

For Jonathan, he’s bought a new lens for his camera, and for Joyce and Jim a voucher for a meal in a fancy restaurant the next town over.

Jonathan had bought beer for Jim, always a reliable gift, and for her a framed photograph of all the kids standing together and smiling. It must have been taken on a timer, Jonathan looks flustered and out of breath from running to get in shot, and the camera has caught the exact moment Steve turned to smile at him. It’s a beautiful picture, one she will treasure always, and she tells him so.

The kids weren’t supposed to buy presents for anyone but each other, but Joyce bursts into tears when they present her and Jim with matching ‘world’s best mom’ and ‘world’s best dad’ mugs, bought with pooled pocket money (mostly Max’s paper-round earnings).

She cries again, this time with laughter, when a blushing Jim presents her with a box of fancy underwear, right there in front of all the kids. It’s nice, the kind of thing she might have picked out for herself rather than the tarty stuff her ex-husband occasionally bought her, but the sight of his blush, and the horrified looks on the faces of the kids, is hilarious.

She’d had to scrimp and save to be able to afford presents for the kids, but they’re all delighted with their gifts just the same. Eyeshadows for Jane, new wheels for Max’s skateboard, coloured chalks for Will, a photography book for Jonathan, an album by a band she’d never heard of but which Jonathan had assured her was perfect for Steve.

The festive atmosphere is ruined slightly when the Christmas cards, any addressed to the kids left unopened until today in case they contain gifts of money, turn out to include one from Steve’s parents. It’s in feminine handwriting, but when he silently hands it to Joyce to read, she knows the words are his father's. They want him to stop being so stupid and come home; he’s embarrassing them by living that ‘that Byers woman’ and even though he clearly hadn’t got into any colleges his father can find something for him to do at work. There are no apologies for the fight, no mention of Steve’s coming out, and nowhere do they say that they love him. By the time she's finished reading it, Joyce is ready to march up to their house and start screaming at them, to tell them that creating Steve is the only worthwhile thing they ever did and he got offered three college placements but chose to defer them all and they don’t deserve to have him in their lives.

Instead, she pulls Steve into a tight hug and just holds him until he stops trembling. Jim takes his hand and looks deep into his eyes and tells him that he’s a fine young man and anyone who doesn’t see what a privilege it is to be his father didn’t deserve him in the first place.

Then the kids all pile in, Will, Max and Jane hugging Steve so tightly he looks like he might suffocate and telling him fiercely that they’re glad he came to live with them, and they didn’t want him to go back to his crummy parents anyway because then who would help them with their homework?

Jonathan goes last, resting his forehead against Steve’s and whispering something to quiet to be overheard. Whatever it is calms Steve right down, and he abruptly throws the card into the fire and starts asking the kids rapid-fire questions about the candy they’d bought one another and the D&D campaign they're planning for the new year.

Kali and her friends spent the morning in their van, not wanting to intrude on family time, but Jane drags them all out so she can give Kali the lovingly crafted if slightly lumpy friendship bracelet she’s made for her. The bright colours look ludicrously out of place against Kali’s all-black ensemble, but she smiles wider than Joyce has ever seen, and tells Jane it’s the best present she’s ever received.

When they’ve finished with presents, Axel makes a batch of punch which Kali warns the children seriously is “only for grown-ups. Any children caught drinking it will be taken out back and shot”. Of course, Dustin still manages to sneak a snip when he arrives but the strong alcohol taste puts him off and he’s happy to go back to soda. Joyce has three glasses (it tastes surprisingly nice for something made by a man who smells like he hasn’t washed in a week) and nearly forgets that she’d put canapes in the oven.

She and Jim dance together to ‘you don’t mess around with Jim’ while Steve, somehow maintaining a straight face, teaches the kids to do the mashed potato. How Steve knows a dance craze that came and went before he was born she has no idea, but she’s learnt that Steve has hidden depths.

When Nancy and Mike arrive, Nancy puts on the record Joyce got Steve, which turns out to be slow, soulful rock, and she and Steve and Jonathan slow dance to it, Nancy sandwiched between the two boys and looking entirely happy about it. Lucas arrives halfway through and immediately pulls Max up to dance. Billy looks like he wants to say something but doesn’t, and Marsha Sinclair’s concerned expression turns to one of motherly pride when she sees Lucas is being a perfect gentleman.

Mike and Jane don’t dance, choosing to stay huddled together on the floor eating candy, but she catches them swaying in time to the music.

The menage-a-trois had separated when the Sinclairs and the Hendersons arrived, and for the rest of the album Nancy takes turns dancing with her boys, and the various Byers, Hoppers and Mayfields all politely pretend not to notice that Jonathan and Steve are desperate to dance together too.

Claudia Henderson and the Sinclairs all have a few too many glasses of Axel’s punch, probably partly to deal with the shock of being confronted with the man himself, and Billy snorts some out of his nose when Nancy takes a sip and pronounces it ‘pure fuel’.

Joyce and Jim do their best to make civilised small-talk with the adults, and not sound like the barely-socialised child-collecting lunatics they actually are. Jim manages a whole twenty minutes talking house prices with Claudia Henderson before he shoves Axel at her instead and escapes, leaving Claudia nodding as politely as she can while Axel explains that property ownership is part of the capitalist system which will be destroyed 'come the revolution'.

Kali does magic tricks for the kids, and then for the adults as well when they demand a repeat performance, smirking mysteriously when they ask her how it’s done.

Erica Sinclair asks how Kali can be Jane’s sister when they don’t look anything like one another, and Kali tells her that they were both kidnapped by evil government scientists when they were children and kept in the same lab. Mr Sinclair (and Joyce ought to know his name, she knows they’ve been formally introduced at least once, but she can’t remember it for the life of her) tells her she should write spy movies.

Plenty of punch, Kali’s magic tricks and Funshine being effortlessly charming all help make it easy to persuade them that Dustin and Lucas should stay over.

Billy grumbles a bit about leaving Max, but Max ignores him. “I live here, dumbass; this is my family. Where else am I gonna spend Christmas?” Joyce feels the warmth of it, even as she feels sorry for Billy going home to an empty house.

Joyce has an extra glass of punch as Dutch courage and phones Karen Wheeler to persuade her that Nancy and Mike should stay over as well. Mike is easy enough once Karen hears that the other boys are all there, but Nancy is harder.

“I know it seems strange that she should want to sleep over, but she’s such friends with Jonathan and Steve, and I can make up a bed for her in Jane’s room no problem. Jane will be thrilled, she really does look up to her you know, and Nancy’s always been so good with her.”

“I don’t know,” Karen says, obviously teetering on the edge of relenting. “I know she’s dating one of those boys, and just because I can’t get out of her which one doesn’t mean I like her staying the night with them.”

“Well, of course, I wouldn’t leave her alone with them,” Joyce lies. “But they’re all having such a nice time it seems a shame to break it up. She’s got all the kids playing games together, no fighting or arguing. She’ll make a wonderful mother someday.”

“Well if you’re sure there won’t be any funny business,” Karen says distrustfully. “I suppose one night won’t hurt. Jane’s room, you say?”

“She has a spare bed in there, for sleepovers,” Joyce says, feeling nauseatingly like she’s disowning Max but reassuring herself that Max would understand that this is for a good cause. Max approves of lying to people she doesn’t like.

“Well alright. I assume you can lend her something to sleep in?”

“Of course. She’s not much smaller than me, and we’ve always got plenty of spare toothbrushes since the boys will insist on chewing the bristles.”

“Okay then. But I’ll be there to pick them up at ten o’clock sharp.”

She says it like a threat, and Joyce sighs but makes herself say goodbye politely. She doesn’t like Karen and always feels guilty for it. There’s nothing wrong with the woman, she loves her kids and she’d bought Joyce a casserole and listened to her cry when Will went missing, but Joyce always feels like she’s being sneered at when she’s talking to her.

She hangs up and goes to tell the kids the good news.

They are actually playing a game but it was Mick's idea rather than Nancy’s. It seems to be a sort of truth or dare, with the truths carefully censored for the younger players but the dares frequently ludicrously dangerous. When she comes in Jane is carefully levitating Dustin, but puts him down when she sees Joyce. Jim is sitting in the corner, drinking one of the beers Jonathan got him and intervening when things get out of hand.

“Wheelers, you’re staying here tonight,” Joyce announces and is greeted with delighted cheers. “I’ll put up an air bed for you boys when you’re ready to turn in, and Nancy if your mother asks you slept in Max’s bed and spent the night braiding Jane’s hair and not talking about boys, okay?”

“I don’t have enough hair to braid,” Jane protests, tugging on her short curls. After a brief experiment with growing them out, they’re back to being about the same length as Will’s hair.

“Do you really mean...” Steve begins, and she nods.

“I do. And Karen Wheeler can never find out, so that means no hickeys, no copying the Karma Sutra and ending up in the ER, and if any of you gets pregnant, and that includes you, Steve Harrington, I will come down like the wrath of God on the three of you. Do I make myself clear?”

She gets two dutiful “yes mom”s and a “like crystal, Mrs Byers” and nods her satisfaction and goes to sit on the arm of Jim’s chair and watch the game.

After a while, the younger kids slope off to Jane and Max’s room to play with their new toys and with only the older teens and Kali and her friends left in the game, things get increasingly out of hand. She learns Jonathan has participated in sex acts she’s never even heard of before (he refuses to join in on the sex-related questions with his mom in the room, but Steve has no such hang-ups and Jonathan’s blushes tell their own story). She learns that all of Kali’s crew have killed people, but to her relief, none of her kids have (except Jane, but she reconciled herself to that a long time ago). She learns that Funshine likes old fashioned stockings with seams up the back and that Nancy blushes significantly when Steve easily admits that he’d cross-dressed for a dare once. She learns that Kali thinks sex is a ‘mostly pointless waste of mental energy’ while Mick will try sleeping with anyone once because sex is fun and she doesn’t believe in limiting fun. She learns that Nancy and Barbara had kissed once, practising for when they got boyfriends, and Nancy wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to kissing other girls in the future if she wasn’t sure Steve and Jonathan were it for her.

She learns that her oldest sons are truly honestly ‘walk to the nearest church and say vows’ in love with Nancy and each other.

She and Jim leave them playing and head to bed about half eleven. They poke their heads around the door of the girls’ room and find the kids asleep, all except Lucas who meets their eyes and puts his finger to his lips, indicating Max who is snoring with her head pillowed on his leg and her arms wrapped around Jane like a teddy bear.

Joyce fetches the blankets from Will’s bed to add to the ones from Jane and Max’s that they’re already using and then leaves them to it. If she’s trusting Steve, Jonathan and Nancy after the things she’s heard tonight, she’s definitely trusting the kids.

Jim kisses her on the landing, long and sweet, and then ruins it by whispering in her ear “want to try felching?”

She claps her hands over her mouth to keep in her horrified laughter. “I never ever want to know what that is, if it made Jonathan blush like that,” she hisses, “and if you know you can damn well keep it to yourself!”

“I have no idea, and if an old soldier turned policeman doesn’t know it must be bad,” Jim says cheerfully and then shocks a real laugh out of her by sweeping her up into his arms, bridal style.

“You ever think maybe you’d like to get married again?” he asks, as he carries her to their room.

“No,” she says. “One try was more than enough for me. But I think I’d like to be not married to you for the rest of my life.”

Jim chuckles and kisses her as he lays her tenderly on the bed. “I like the sound of that. We can have matching rocking chairs on the porch.”

“The house will be horribly empty, but when our kids come back to visit and tell us all the amazing things they’ve been doing we’ll be proud it hurts.”

“You’re assuming you won’t have found a dozen more kids in need of a good home by then,” he says with a laugh. He leans in and kisses her, and then rests his forehead against hers and says, “I love you, Joyce Byers. And if I could have matching world’s best parents mugs with any woman on the planet, I’d still pick you every time.”

Joyce smiles so wide her face aches with it and keeps right on smiling all through their love-making, and through Jonathan, Steve and Nancy clattering upstairs, giggling and happy and completely failing to be quiet.

Then she kisses Jim one last time and makes herself fall asleep, so she doesn’t have to hear what the teenagers get up to.