The wooden lid above his head finally opened, waking Jim Hopper up from a nap he hadn’t realized he’d been taking. He blinked up into the darkness (though it was less dark than the crate he’d been stored in for the last what had to be 24 hours) and was met by the grinning fact of Murray Bauman.
“Welcome back to America, Jim.” Murray offered a hand to help him up.
Hopper let out a shuddering breath that he was sure he’d been holding since a disguised Murray had silently burst into his Russian prison cell and equally wordlessly smuggled him onto a cargo plane to America.
Hopper had had a million questions for his sometime-friend, but every time he so much as looked curiously at Murray, the other man would violently shake his head and make some sort of gesture that Hopper had about a fifty-fifty chance of understanding (“Be quiet” he got, but the weird hand gesture that almost seemed like Murray was trying to make a shadow puppet of a duck, that one Hopper was pretty lost on).
The only reason he knew that Murray still possessed the power of speech was the couple short exchanges Murray had had in Russian with a few soldiers as they snuck out of the base (with Hopper safely hidden behind some shelf or box or other) and later with a man who seemed to be some kind of scientist who had helped Murray shut Hopper in a wooden crate that was loaded onto the back of a plane (Hopper of course couldn’t speak Russian, but he had caught the name “Alexei” and had assumed some sort of connection between this scientist and the kidnapped man that Murray particularly had befriended on Hopper’s horrible last day in Hawkins).
Hawkins. Hopper hoped that’s where they’d ended up, or near enough. There had been numerous stops along the way, and he was pretty sure there had been another couple of boxes piled on top of the crate he was smuggled inside at some point. Murray and his scientist friend had mercifully provided some air holes, but if Hopper hadn’t spent the last however long stuck in a closet-like Russian prison cell, he was pretty sure he would have succumbed to some type of claustrophobia inside the crate for so long.
But as it was, Hopper was just stiff as he took Murray’s offered hand and sat up, stretching his back and taking another deep breath.
“We’re just outside Chicago,” Murray said before Hopper could ask. “I left my car parked a few miles away.”
Hopper just nodded. He had so many questions, but he wasn’t sure how to phrase any of them. How had Murray found him? How had Murray even known he was alive? The Russians had, laughing, provided him a copy of the Hawkins Herald that featured his obituary, with a promise delivered in a thick Russian accent that this wasn’t the end of the Russians’ little project.
All Hopper could think of was who he’d left behind. Joyce staring at him from behind the glass as he nodded, letting her save the world even if it meant he wouldn’t be there to pick her up on Friday, 7 o'clock. Enzos.
El. His daughter. Did she know he’d made it? He knew she’d been injured and was having trouble with her powers before he’d left her, but she had always been so good at finding people who were lost. But something in Murray’s eyes told Hopper that this had been a solo mission – no one else knew, not even El.
“Thank you,” Hopper finally spoke after he had followed Murray out of a warehouse and onto a deserted sidewalk, more emotion crowding his words than usual and certainly more than in any conversation he’d ever had with Murray Bauman. “You saved my life.”
“Well no shit, Jim,” Murray replied playfully, but the relief at Hopper talking to him was evident on his face. “That was one hell of a Russian prison. Thank God Alexei had a brother.”
That explained the scientist.
“How long’s it been?” Hopper asked warily. It was remarkably warm outside, though Hopper had been living in Russia so his ideas of what constituted warm and cold were off. It certainly wasn’t winter in America now, and he hadn’t felt to the need to grab any of the blankets that Murray had thrown in the crate with him for warmth as they hiked to Murray’s car.
“Almost a year,” was the reply. “It’s June.”
Hopper sucked in a breath. A year. He’d missed so much.
The pair walked on silently for a bit longer, sun peaking up over the buildings to their left.
“So, how did you find me?” Hopper asked finally. “Was it just Alexei’s brother?”
Murray shook his head. “No, Ivan came in later. I really thought you were gone at first, we all did. But then, maybe 4 or 5 months ago, I got a call from that Henderson kid saying they found some more Russians in Hawkins and would I come investigate, and that kid’s a little shit but I came anyway, out of politeness more than anything, but damn if those kids weren’t right. I almost stumbled right into a group of the bastards in the woods; apparently, they were using your old cabin as a base, so I just followed them back and camped outside to try to figure out what they were doing. They were definitely new recruits, no sense of secrecy or trying to figure out if they were being observed, they just talked about anything.” Murray scoffed at the incompetence of the foreign invaders.
“I figured out that they were looking for another place to set up their big laser gun,” he continued, “and then they said something odd about a connection between here and the portal they’re working on in Russia, and right then I realized that if you had somehow made it through that portal before Joyce shut it down, you could have ended up in Russia. Then all I needed was an in, and so I got in touch with Alexei’s brother Ivan.” There was almost as softness in Murray’s voice as he mentioned Alexei, but it went away as he finished his story. “He told me you were alive, and we figured out your escape. It took a massive amount of planning actually, if you ever want to send me some kind of reward or something.”
Hopper rolled his eyes almost out of habit, but his mind was stuck a few sentences back in Murray’s explanation. Joyce. God he missed her.
Murray seemed to gather that Hopper had gotten lost in his thoughts, so he didn’t say anything more.
Ten minutes later, Murray led Hopper down an alley to a dimly lit parking garage where a beat-up looking sedan sat alone in a corner.
“Here we go,” Murray said with another grin, unlocking the car and hopping in the driver’s seat.
“And where exactly are we going?” Hopper asked tentatively. “Hawkins, right?”
The smile faded from Murray’s face as he started the car. He let out a sigh. “Well, I guess that’s up to you, Jim.”
Hopper furrowed his brow. “No offense, Murray; your creepy apartment’s nice and all, but I’d like to spend my first night back in America with my daughter… and the other people I care about.” He meant Joyce really, but he didn’t want to say that in front of Murray.
Murray sighed again. “See, that’s the trouble. Joyce and the kids don’t live in Hawkins anymore. They moved away last fall.”
Hopper didn’t know what to say.
He had known that Joyce had been thinking about moving, but the last conversation they had together, she had talked about joining Hawkins PD, and she’d asked him on a date. He couldn’t very well pick her up for dinner if she didn’t live in Hawkins anymore.
“The kids?” he managed finally. “She has El?”
Murray nodded. “I gather Joyce wouldn’t let her go anywhere else, and your daughter didn’t want to be with anyone but her.”
Hopper smiled slightly at that. He’d spent a lot of the last few months he’d been in Hawkins imagining a situation where El and Joyce lived together and were each other’s family… of course Hopper had always imagined himself in that scenario too.
“I’ve tried to be in touch with Joyce, but she hasn’t been returning my calls for a while now. None of them knew you were in Russia, let alone that I was coming to get you,” Murray admitted after a moment. “They live in a small town not too far from here, but in the opposite direction from Hawkins. The supplies that came in with us on that cargo plane were headed to Hawkins.”
Hopper suddenly grasped Murray’s dilemma. “So you think Hawkins is in danger?”
Murray nodded seriously. “Ivan told me that they’re almost finished building their new machine in Hawkins. Soon they’ll have their Russian-American shortcut and they can hop over here whenever they want.” Murray’s brow furrowed deeper. “And he said something about a monster they have, a little bigger than a man, with flaps instead of a face.”
Hopper sucked in a breath.
“Yeah, I figured you’d know what I’m talking about.” Murray shook his head slightly. “I don’t think we have much time before we have Russians parading through Hawkins town square with bloodthirsty monsters not far behind.”
Hopper sighed. He wanted so badly to see El and Joyce, but saving the world had to come first. “I guess we’re heading to Hawkins then. They’ll be safer away from it all anyway.”
Murray offered him a small smile and pulled the car out of the garage, turning down a road directly facing a brilliant sunrise.
A new day. And a new beginning.
Hopper and Murray were both silent as the car traveled under unlit streetlights and out onto country roads where occasionally they crossed path with another set of headlights, but those instances were very few and far between.
It was late morning by the time they made it to Hawkins, so Murray, with Hopper’s help, guided the car through backroads that were often little more than dirt tracks to avoid running into any Hawkins residents who might be shocked to catch a glimpse of their supposedly dead police chief.
Eventually Murray pulled the car into the woods not far from Hopper’s cabin.
“They stopped using this place as base a couple months ago,” Murray explained. “I figured we could stop in and maybe you could grab a quick shower.”
Hopper rolled his eyes at Murray’s insinuation that he smelled bad, but Hopper hadspent nearly the last year locked in a Russian prison cell with minimal shower time, so he probably didn’t smell all that great.
The pair hiked quietly through the woods, always on the lookout for stray Russians that could have come back to the cabin, when they finally reached the structure that had really become a home once El had come to live with him.
As they stepped inside, Hopper’s eyes were immediately drawn to the large hole in the roof and the smaller holes in the walls. The kids hadn’t been kidding when they’d told him his house was basically destroyed.
There were still some signs of semi-recent habitation that Hopper assumed were from the Russians. The living room was set up in a usable way and not in a monster-induced survival panic that he would have expected. In his room, he found that his clothes had been picked through, leaving just a single police shirt buried at the back of his closet and a pair or two of old pants in the bottom of his dresser.
While Murray busied himself with something or other, Hopper quickly showered, sighing at the feeling of water running down his body, washing away both the feeling of the Russian prison and the months he’d spent away from Hawkins, never mind that the water was cold since he certainly hadn’t paid any electric bill in the last eleven months – it was enough that his water hadn’t been shut off.
When he finally finished, giving himself time to shave off the facial hair he’d acquired over the last year which made him look like some sort of mountain man now that he finally saw himself in the mirror, he pulled on the clean clothes he’d found in his bedroom. He was quite a bit thinner than he had been, Russian prison food being what it was, but a belt helped enough, and putting his old hat on his head made him feel like his old self again.
Murray flashed him a smile when he emerged from his bedroom. “Looking good, Jim,” he said, part serious and part teasing. “And definitely smelling better, thank God.”
Jim rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything, his stomach growled loudly alerting himself and his companion to the fact that he hadn’t eaten in more than a day. Murray had had the foresight to slip him a bottle of water before he’d been packed away in his crate, but he hadn’t eaten since before then.
Murray sighed. “Maybe food first before we get to anything.” He pulled out some survivalist-looking crackers and granola bars from his bag, and the two men greedily ate as much as they could, Hopper suddenly realizing just how hungry he’d been.
Finally feeling better, Hopper collapsed back on his sofa with a cup of water and gestured for Murray to explain whatever his plan for stopping the Russians was.
Murray went on for a while before Hopper finally interrupted him.
“You keep saying you have ‘sources,’” Hopper said skeptically. “And that means what?”
Murray fixed his eyes on the floor of the cabin and sighed. “Those shithead kids,” he finally admitted. “They were keeping an eye on things themselves, and ever since Henderson first told me about the Russians, we’ve been in touch pretty regularly. They’re assholes, but God they’re thorough.”
Hopper raised his eyebrows in amusement.
Murray glared at him.
Hopper furrowed his brow as he realized something else. “So if we know these guys are Russians, how come the US government isn’t involved here?”
Murray’s expression darkened at Hopper’s words. “They haven’t been the most willing to take intel from me or some kids. I don’t have the same clearance that you do, ‘Antique Chariot.’” He tossed the snide comment at Hopper.
“So why can’t I just call them?”
“You’re dead, Jim!” Murray fired back. “They’d take you away for questioning for days, and by that point it might be too late.”
Hopper took a breath and nodded. He liked Dr. Owens, but the government never did much of anything in a timely manner.
“So what do we do then?”
Murray opened his mouth to reply, but static from a radio interrupted him.
“Bald Eagle, do you copy?” came the distinct voice of Dustin Henderson.
Hopper smirked at Murray who glared at him before turning away.
He sighed dramatically. “Yes, I copy. Though I still object to that title. Have you seen anything?”
Dustin ignored Murray’s complaint but answered his question. “We got there in time to see them finish unloading the supplies, thanks to your tip. We just need to get in there.”
Murray nodded to himself even though Dustin couldn’t see him. “Yeah we do.”
“We’re all meeting at the Wheelers,” Dustin continued. “Do you know where that is?”
Murray started to reply that of course he didn’t know where the Wheelers lived, he wasn’t a stalker, but Hopper interrupted him quickly.
“I know where to go.”
“Is there someone else with you, Bald Eagle?” Dustin asked, his voice heavy with skepticism even through the radio.
“No,” Murray said quickly. “Just me. I’ll meet you at the Wheelers. Over and out.”
He shut off the radio and wheeled around to Hopper.
“This isn’t the time for anyone to find out you’re still alive!” Murray complained. “I’m not explaining this whole thing to Henderson over a radio, especially when someone could potentially be listening in.” He looked around the cabin as though expecting a Russian soldier to come bursting through a hole in the wall.
Hopper rolled his eyes yet again and stood up. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
After they hiked back to the car, Hopper asked Murray to drive through town to get to the Wheelers instead of circling around. It was faster, for one thing, but, more than that, Hopper wanted to see how Hawkins was fairing in the year he’d been gone.
Businesses seemed to be doing better now that the mall was no longer open, which Hopper was grateful for. But his eyes ended up locked on Melvald’s.
God he missed Joyce. His truck should be parked right out in front, and he and Joyce should be laughing together inside, maybe their fingers would be intertwined between them, not just resting tentatively on top of one another until the one of them decided to chicken out.
“That little shit!”
Murray’s voice penetrated Hopper’s thoughts.
Hopper looked over at his companion and found him glaring at the front of the video rental store where a curly haired teenager was running inside. Hopper would have recognized Dustin Henderson anywhere.
And clearly so did Murray.
Grumbling to himself about meeting places and lack of decency, Murray pulled into the alley behind the rental store and started to get out of his car, when the employee entrance opened, revealing the teenager they were looking for and another older, relatively confused looking teenager.
“Dustin, I told you, I can’t leave right now,” Steve Harrington said exasperatedly. “Robin’s shift ends at 4, but I’m here until 6, and I really can’t lose this job. I think Keith is finally starting to not hate me. If I can make manager this summer, then my dad might actually take pity on me.”
“But we’re talking the end of the world! Again!” Dustin replied, much louder than he probably should have. “Murray has contacts, and he says it’s happening soon. Like really really soon.”
“It’s gonna have to wait until the end of my shift,” Steve replied with a sigh. “I’m sorry.”
“We need you there to plan, Steve,” Dustin whined. “Even Will, Jonathan, and El are coming back.”
The mention of his daughter’s name brought Hopper out of the car heading toward the kids before Murray could so much as say a word to stop him.
“El’s coming here?” Hopper asked the boys across the alley.
They both looked up and stepped back immediately in shock.
“Holy shit!” Steve yelled as Dustin let out almost a shriek. “What the fuck? You’re dead. You’re gone. You were dead.”
Hopper rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well you can see I’m not dead. You, Henderson, did you say my daughter was coming back to Hawkins?”
Dustin nodded slowly as though not believing his eyes. His gaze shifted to the figure behind Hopper and his eyes narrowed. “You. You’ve been keeping the chief hidden somewhere?”
As he quickly crossed the alley, Murray’s eyes darted around to check for anyone who was going to see that the previously-dead chief of police had been miraculously resurrected. “Don’t be absurd,” he said patronizingly when his eyes finally traveled back to Dustin. “I just picked him up from a Russian prison yesterday, we only got back a couple hours ago.”
“Okay, seriously, what the fuck?” Steve implored helplessly.
“I thought we were meeting at the Wheelers,” Murray complained to Dustin impatiently, completely ignoring Steve. “What are you doing here?”
“Getting Steve and Robin,” Dustin replied equally exasperated. “We need the whole team. Duh.”
“Dingus, what are you and Dustin…. Oh shit.” Robin let the door slam behind her as she saw the chief standing in front of her friends. “You’re dead.”
Hopper nodded impatiently. “Yeah, I’ve been told. Now where is my daughter going?”
Dustin finally looked back at him, a shocked expression still across his face. “She’s coming to the Wheelers too. I got in touch with Will and El this morning after Murray called me, and I think Nancy called Jonathan. They all should be on their way down now.”
“What about Joyce?” Hopper continued his line of questioning, the words coming to his lips automatically.
Dustin shrugged. “I don’t know. I haven’t heard from them in a couple hours.”
“How is he here?” Robin asked Steve in a voice just above a whisper that Hopper could still clearly hear.
Steve shrugged helplessly. “No fucking clue.”
“We’ll explain everything at the Wheelers,” Murray cut in before Hopper could say anything.
Dustin smirked up at Steve and Robin. “Guess you guys will definitely have to come now.”
Steve looked visibly torn between his job and needing to know how the supposedly-dead Hawkins police chief had survived the laser gun that was supposed to have vaporized him before he finally groaned. “Ugh, fine. Robin-”
“I’ll tell Keith you’re back here throwing up, and I need to give you a ride home,” Robin interrupted smoothly. “Go get your car, and I’ll be back in a minute.”
Steve flashed her a smile and group scattered, Dustin going with Steve to retrieve his bike and stow it in the back of Steve’s car.
Murray whirled to face Hopper. “Jim, you can’t be seen in public yet!” he whispered as menacingly as he could. “The Russians might not know you escaped, and they definitely don’t know for sure that you’re here, so we reallyhave to keep it that way.”
“I haven’t seen my daughter in almost a year, Murray,” Hopper replied at the same volume, his voice resolute.
Murray sighed and nodded almost sympathetically before turning to go back to the car, looking all around the alley as he did so.
They both stayed silent as they followed Steve’s car to the Wheeler’s. Dustin radioed instructions for Murray to drop Hopper off with him, Steve, and Robin in front of the Wheeler’s before parking a few blocks away, just to avoid unnecessary suspicion.
Murray returned to Steve’s parked car quickly, and the unusual quintet made their way to the Wheeler’s front door.
Mike threw the door open after one knock, but his shriek of surprise was cut off almost completely by Steve who had covered Mike’s mouth as quickly as he could.
“Yeah we know,” Steve almost hissed, keeping his voice as quiet as possible. “It’s insane, and we haven’t heard the story yet, but let’s keep your parents out of this.”
Mike took a deep breath and nodded as Steve removed his hand.
“Everyone’s downstairs,” Mike said slowly, unable to tear his gaze away from the chief.
Dustin nodded and clapped Mike on the back before leading the group down to the basement.
Hopper stopped to put his hand on Mike’s shoulder as he passed by. “I’m sorry, kid,” Hopper said, unsure of exactly what he was apologizing for, but somehow knowing he needed to say it.
Mike looked up at him, his eyes still wide, but a small smile began to creep across his face. “She’s going to be so happy to see you when she gets here.”
Hopper was struck by how decent a kid Mike was (even if he had the hardest time keeping the door open three inches). He smiled back and ruffled his hair a little before following Murray down the basement stairs.
“Just be cool,” Hopper heard Dustin say to the other occupants of the Wheeler’s basement. “It’s insane, and you’re going to want to scream, but just be cool.”
“Come on Dustin, it can’t be that crazy after all the stuff we’ve seen,” Max’s voice came with just the smallest waver, an almost undetectable prayer that whatever Dustin had to show them wasn’t anything as horrible as what they had seen before.
“Yeah, seriously,” interjected Lucas. “You all look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Hopper finally emerged from the basement steps.
“Oh SHIT!” The Sinclair girl, Erica, that Hopper hadn’t actually been formally introduced to effectively summed up the mood of the basement as their 11-months-dead police chief appeared among them.
“I said be cool!” Dustin complained nudging Erica in the ribs.
“I didn’t think you’d bring a dead guy with you!” Erica loudly whispered back.
“I’m not dead,” Hopper spoke finally.
“But Joyce said-”
“She would have thought I was dead,” Hopper interrupted Nancy Wheeler. “She had every reason to think I was dead. But I made it through the portal at the last minute. There’s some weird connection to Russia through the Upside Down, so the Russians caught me, and I’ve been in prison there ever since.”
Murray cleared his throat loudly.
Hopper rolled his eyes. “Until Murray figured out where I was and came to break me out.”
The kids turned to Murray, clearly impressed by his actions. Dustin particularly seemed to have a new respect for “Bald Eagle.”
“And it’s a good thing I did too,” Murray cut in. “My sources say they’re almost ready to reopen a better version of that portal that got Jim to Russia, and they have some kind of human-sized monster already waiting over there.”
“It’s a – what did you kids call them – demo-something?”
“A demogorgon,” Dustin supplied, his eyes growing wide as he exchanged glances with Steve, Mike, and Lucas.
“Yeah, that,” Hopper acknowledged with a nod. “So we have to stop them.”
The teenagers in every corner of the basement nodded resolutely at him.
“Let’s kick some Russian ass!” Erica exclaimed almost gleefully.
“Erica!” Lucas chastised her for her language, earning a rude gesture in reply.
“Children, focus,” Murray called the group back to attention. “We’re only going to have one shot at this.”
Murray started explaining the plan he’d been working through with Hopper earlier that afternoon, with interjections from Dustin and a couple from Lucas, Steve, and Nancy.
The group had been debating the finer points of a Russian base invasion for a while when Mike’s radio crackled to life on the table.
“We are incoming,” said the unmistakable voice of Will Byers. “Do you copy?”
“We copy.” Mike picked up immediately. “You must be almost here if you’re within range.”
“Affirmative,” came Will’s reply. “Ten minutes tops. How dire are things looking?”
Mike hesitated before responding, his eyes glancing around the room from his sister to Steve, Robin, and Erica to his friends to Murray and finally to Hopper where his eyes lingered for a few seconds.
“We have a plan,” Mike said finally. “We don’t know if it will work, and things might be worse than we think they are, but we have a plan.” He paused for a moment. “And we have a secret weapon.” He looked up at Hopper quickly before glancing away.
“Glad to hear it,” Will replied. “We’ll be there soon. Over and out.”
No one spoke for a moment.
“Getting the whole gang back together,” Steve finally broke the silence. “Just like old times.”
Dustin and Robin rolled their eyes, but Steve’s comment was enough to break the tension and allow the group to return to their planning, albeit more quietly since everyone was listening for the sounds of car doors and a door bell that would mean the last members of their group had arrived.
Hopper just wanted to see El.
Finally, Max quieted the group to tell them that she’d heard a car door outside, and Mike and Nancy almost immediately bounded up the steps to try to get to the door before someone could ring the bell and alert their parents that they were having a super-secret meeting in the basement.
The group in the basement heard a door open and hushed voices at the top of the steps before footsteps finally approached them.
Will’s smile at seeing his friends froze immediately when he recognized Hopper in the corner.
His gaze shifted quickly back up the stairs and around to his friends a few times but always back at Hopper, an almost helpless expression on his face.
“Yeah we know, buddy,” Lucas said quietly, coming up to lead Will down the steps. “It’s good to see you.”
Will finally turned back to his friends, though his eyes still kept flicking over to Hopper. “Yeah,” he finally managed. “Wow.”
Hopper heard Jonathan and Nancy next, Nancy’s whispers of “don’t freak out, don’t freak out, don’t freak out” carrying across the basement.
“Don’t freak out about wh-” Jonathan’s words died in his throat at the sight of Hopper.
“That,” Nancy supplied. “Don’t freak out about that.”
Jonathan sucked in a breath. “El,” was all he said as he took his place next to Nancy off to the side, glancing over at Will who nodded, a small smile growing on his face.
“There’s a surprise for you down here,” Mike’s voice came from the top of the steps. “But you can’t yell because my parents can’t know about it, okay? Shut your eyes, I’ll make sure you don’t fall.”
Hopper’s heart swelled at the sound of his daughter’s voice for the first time in almost a year. He had missed her so much.
Mike finally led her to the bottom of the steps, the group making sure there was a clear path from El to Hopper.
Her hair was different. Longer. She looked so much older than when he had last seen her. Sadder maybe. And she was wearing his shirt, he realized with a start. It was tied up at the waist, but it was definitely his shirt. He felt an overwhelming urge to hold her in his arms and never let her go.
“Okay,” Mike said softly. “You can open your eyes.”
Hopper tried not to stare at his daughter as she looked at him for the first time in almost a year, but he couldn’t help it.
He registered shock and surprise and confusion across her face before it was replaced by a wide smile and watering eyes.
Hopper’s face broke into a grin. “Yeah, sweetheart. I’m here.”
They met in the middle, tears now cascading down El’s face, Hopper’s eyes not particularly dry themselves.
“I missed you so much,” El murmured into his chest as she clutched him tightly.
“I missed you too,” Hopper replied. “Everyday. All the time.”
El finally pulled back slightly so she could see his face. “I tried to look for you. But I can’t anymore.” Her eyes fell to her feet.
Hopper stroked her cheek lightly. “It’s okay. I’m here. It’s okay.” He wiped away tears from her cheeks. “I’ll never leave you again. I promise.”
El smiled and nodded through the tears that were still coming from her eyes before curling back into him again.
It had been so long since he’d been able to hold his daughter, to comfort her, to make sure she was okay. It felt so right to have El in his arms again. He was meant to be her dad, and they were meant to be together.
Through the quiet of the basement Hopper could hear voices above them.
“It’s so nice of you to bring the kids down for a visit, Joyce,” came the voice of Mrs. Wheeler.
“Joyce.” The word came from Hopper’s lips immediately.
El pulled back from him finally, though her hand ran down his arm to interlace her fingers with his.
“She’s missed you too,” El spoke softly as she squeezed his hand. “She tries not to talk about it, but I know she does.”
Hopper sucked in a breath.
“I’ll just go down and say hello to the kids,” Joyce’s voice came from the top of the steps. “We’ll have to catch up more later, Karen.”
As Joyce Byers descended the stairs into the Wheeler’s basement, Hopper felt El release his hand and go stand with Mike, but Hopper’s eyes were locked on the woman who had been the last thing he’d seen of Hawkins. The woman he could argue with for hours and not get bored. The woman who gave him the best advice and the most helpful pep talks. The woman who never stopped amazing him with her quick thinking, resourcefulness, and wit. The woman he was certainly, entirely, in love with.
And suddenly she was there in front of him.
She didn’t scream. She didn’t look around at the other occupants of the basement to ask for an answer. She merely stood at the base of the steps, her lips slightly parted, her chest rising and falling in long, deep breaths.
Hopper noticed that she seemed different too. Sadder, like El had been, and the same longer hair. But it was Joyce. His Joyce.
“Hop.” The word came out in a breath. Not a question, not an exclamation, just a statement of fact, a sigh of relief. “Hop,” she breathed again.
“Hi Joyce,” Hopper replied, unsure of what else to say.
A smile spread across Joyce’s face, and in an instant she had crossed the basement and thrown her arms around his neck.
Hopper responded immediately, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her up off the ground. Hopper felt sobs beginning to wrack Joyce’s body, but he only held her tighter as tears of his own slipped down his cheeks and into her hair.
“I’m so sorry, Hopper,” Joyce spoke broken words into his neck so softly that only he could hear her. “I killed you. I’m so sorry.”
“Hey, hey, hey, shhhh,” Hopper whispered soothingly, his hand on the back of her head almost a caress. He set her back down on the floor, still keeping her close with a hand in her hair and one on her waist. “You didn’t kill me; you saved the world. None of us would be here without you, Joyce.”
Joyce nodded shakily to herself and looked up into his eyes. “But I made you miss dinner. You were gonna pick me up.”
A smile grew across Hoppers face in a reflection of the one growing across Joyce’s.
“You remembered,” he said almost reverently.
Joyce shrugged helplessly. “How could I forget?”
It wasn’t clear to Hopper who moved first, but before he could really register what was happening, he was kissing Joyce Byers. And she was kissing him back.
Her arms had found their way back around her neck, even tighter than before, pulling him down to her height and ensuring he would stay right with her and not leave her again.
Which Hopper certainly had every intention of doing.
His arms wrapped around Joyce’s back into her hair, bringing her as closer to him as he could manage while bending down over the woman he loved so much.
It was an amazing feeling kissing Joyce Byers. It was new and exciting and filled with as much tension and passion as had defined their relationship for the past few years, not even considering the time they had spent together in high school. But at the same time, the kiss was comfortable, calming… more than anything (El excepted) since he’d returned from Russia, kissing Joyce felt like home.
Someone coughed on the other side of the room, which Hopper vaguely registered as Joyce pulled back from him, her eyes still locked on his, a brilliant but almost shy smile spreading across her face.
Hopper smiled softly back.
Another cough, a bit less subtle this time, tore their eyes away from each other and over to where Jonathan was standing beside Nancy very pointedly not looking at his mom.
Conversation hastily broke out among the kids in the basement who all seemed similarly vary of looking at Hopper and Joyce, though Hopper recognized a wide smile on Will’s face whenever he glanced over at his mom.
As the other occupants of the basement occupied themselves, El made her way back to Hopper, and he tucked her into his side, squeezing her arm lightly and pressing a small kiss to the top of her head.
“I told you Mom missed you,” El said matter-of-factly, looking over at Joyce and then up at him with a smile.
Hopper’s eyes widened at that. “Mom?” he said softly, glancing from El to Joyce and back to El.
El smiled sheepishly. “I didn’t like being the only one calling her Mrs. Byers.”
Hopper couldn’t help the smile that spread across his face and the tears that had pricked in the corners of his eyes as he turned from his daughter to the woman she had just called “Mom.”
Joyce was staring down at El with open affection on her face. She glanced up at Hopper and shrugged slightly. “It felt right, you know?” Joyce said with a small smile.
Hopper reached his free arm out to pull Joyce into his other side. “It sounds perfect,” he said softly to both of his girls.
“Almost perfect,” Joyce amended almost shyly. “It’d be a shame if El didn’t get to live with both her mom and her dad.”
Hopper’s eyes widened as he looked down at Joyce. “Joyce Byers, are you asking me to move in with you?”
Joyce shrugged noncommittally, though there was a smile around the corners of her lips and her eyes were sparkling. “Maybe.”
Hopper pressed a kiss to her temple. “Okay,” he replied, his heart leaping. “More than okay.”
At his words, El turned and pulled both of them into a hug, which Hopper and Joyce returned, both laughing and stealing small looks at one another, the happiness Hopper felt radiating through his body reflected perfectly in Joyce’s eyes.
“How unbelievably touching,” the bored voice of Murray Bauman broke through the happiness and delight of the newly formed Byers-Hopper household, “but might I remind everyone that there are Russians and monsters trying to invade the town so can we pleaseget on with it?”
Joyce stifled a laugh into Hopper’s shirt.
“Sorry about that Murray,” Hopper managed, the corner of his mouth twitching as he waved an apology. “We’re ready to go.”
Murray rolled his eyes, the faintest affectionate creases around them, before beginning a quick recap of the plan.
Hopper looked down at his daughter in one arm and the love of his life in the other. No Russian or otherworldly creature was getting in the way of his new forever. He wasn’t spending another day away from his girls ever again.
They were finally a family and that was certainly worth fighting for.