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Tell the Kids

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“What will we tell the kids?” Hopper asks as he lies beside Joyce in a hotel bed, freshly showered and exhausted. She’s nuzzled against his side, and they both smell of cheap hotel soap. It’s heaven. Tomorrow, they’ll fly to Indiana, return to their kids, but tonight, it’s just the two of them, and, despite his aching, bruised body, it’s the most comfortable he’s been in years. 

“About what?” she asks, her finger tracing one of his scars, careful not to touch his fresh wounds. Every time she touches him, he sees himself through her eyes. A changed man, a broken man. He wants to shrink away, to offer to put on a shirt so she doesn’t have to see him like this, so he doesn’t seem weak in front of her, but she’s so soft with him, so gentle. When she looks at him with such tenderness, his body relaxes, and he surrenders to her.

“About this,” Hopper says. “About us, you know, sharing a bed .”

“Oh, that.” Joyce smiles. “We don’t have to tell them anything.” 

Hopper furrows his brow. “Are you suggesting we hide this?” He knows that’s what good parents do with new relationships - they keep their kids out of it until they know it’s real, until they know it’s going to last, but no matter how logical and mature he knows that would be, the idea of acting like this is an ordinary new relationship still hurts. He’s known her for 30 years. More. He’s lost count of the years. She’s it for him, the only person he ever wants to love from now until the end. Maybe he’s skipping over 12 phases of their relationship, but he’s certain of their future together, with their kids. “Don’t you want them to know?”

“Of course I do.” She turns her face towards his. “But, Hop, we don’t have to tell them because they already know.”

“What? How? El hasn’t been mind stalking us again has she?” 

Hopper grows rapidly nervous about what his daughter might have seen, but then Joyce’s smile falls, and she snuggles her face against his chest, his questions lingering unanswered in the air. 

“Hey, what is it?” he asks softly, confused by her reaction. “What’s wrong?”

“Last year,” she begins, “after you died, people came to me. They talked to me about you, told me stories about the Hero of Hawkins as they gave me their condolences. They treated me like… like your widow. And I let them.”

She pauses, her eyes glossy, and Hopper patiently waits for her to continue, his hand stroking her arm, his heart sinking. Whatever story she’s about to tell, he knows it’s going to hurt.

“Looking back now,” she finally says, “it makes sense. We were together so often that we developed a reputation around town. So, when you left me everything in your will, and I took in your daughter, the town thought they had their proof. They made assumptions that were easier for me to go along with than to correct. I couldn’t bear to tell them that I didn’t know what we were to each other, that you died before we ever had the chance to find out, not when I felt like I had lost my…” she trails off and shrugs. “I just couldn’t tell them the truth.” 

His stomach twists in a knot, and he hugs her tighter, wishing he could take that pain from her. He spent months in prison feeling sorry for himself, an idiot who wasted his final week with the woman he loves in an endless string of pointless fights, so he found a way to come to terms with the way things ended. He convinced himself that she was better off without him, that she would move on to someone who could love her the way she deserved to be loved. 

Some days, he missed her so badly that the loneliness hurt as much as the physical abuse he suffered, but in his mind, she was happy. She was thriving without him. To even think that she was grieving him for months, that she loved him as deeply as he loved her, would have felt like a self-centered delusion. A fantasy. Those thoughts seem laughable now that he had her back, now that they had been clinging to each other since the moment they were reunited, but three months ago he couldn’t have imagined this reality.

“I’m so sorry,” he says. He swallows and adds, “God, I wish things were different.” 

“So do I,” she says quietly before pushing forward with her story. “You know, after your funeral, we moved to California where people didn’t know us, where our neighbors asked innocent questions about our background and wondered why two of my children were practically the same age and had different last names. I didn’t really know what to say. I should have been prepared, but I wasn’t. Will and El though, they handled it perfectly. They told everyone they were step-siblings, that her father had died, and she stayed with me because I was the only mother she had ever known. It was sweet, but I thought it was a cover story, just close enough to the truth to be believable. The thing is, Hop, that actually is their truth. They made the same assumptions everyone in Hawkins did.” Her smile returns, genuine and soft, yet haunted by memories of a difficult eight months. “And now that you’re back, now that El’s part of my family, I think if we weren’t sleeping in the same bed, that’s when we’d need to have a talk with her.”

Hopper lets out a chuckle at the idea of explaining to El that he’s not with Joyce. “The divorce talk without ever having been married, or even together.” 

“That conversation honestly would cause more emotional turmoil than when I told my kids I was actually getting a divorce.” Joyce turns her gaze to meet his, her smile widening. “Jonathan congratulated me.”

“I always did like Jonathan,” Hopper says, biting back all the derogatory comments he wants to make about Lonnie Byers. That man is out of their lives. No point in wasting energy on him. “He’s a smart kid.” 

“All our kids are.” Joyce yawns and repositions herself. “We really lucked out with them.” 

“Yeah.” Hopper stares at the ceiling as Joyce drifts to sleep. “We really did.” He continues stroking her arm, feeling her breath steady against his chest. “I can’t believe I’ve been this lucky.”