Chapter 1: Pyrrhic
017. The numbers in black ink flashed in and out of shadows as the bus passed beneath bridges. Running a finger over the tattoo, she could remember when she got it done: bright room, Martin Brenner standing with his arms crossed in the doorway before he strode over and held her down. She'd learned his name; demanded it after she woke up back in that room again. He'd said the number was a way to identify her and she couldn't help but wonder if she would be killed soon.
Brenner spent more time with her upon her return, but there was no comfort in his company – not at first. The injections, the tests, the training. It was like she was his favorite experiment.
A chill ran down Julie's spine. The coat she'd stolen wasn't enough to warm her when the chills came from within. At least she was warmer than she'd been when she wandered through the woods.
The events of the last six hours had shaken her. Where she found the strength to do what she'd done, she hadn't known. It was like she didn't know who she was anymore. That young naïve girl had been twisted into someone she couldn't even stand to look at.
Flirting with a man to buy her a bus ticket was easy enough, but she'd have to keep doing it each stop until she made it to Mississippi.
Her sister, Toni, was killed by these men; by this project. She had so many unanswered questions, but she'd rest easy in her own bed. It blew her mind that she'd escaped for the third time. What did people always say? Third time's the charm? But this time was different. This time it was mental manipulation; a long stretch of a plan that she felt guilty over now. Maybe the guilt would keep her up at night, but maybe time would heal those wounds too. She should have taken the car; dragged his body out of the driver's seat, took off. But instead she ran through the woods in the middle of the night once again, fearing the car would be traceable.
This time she had a plan: get normal looking clothes. Blend in. Avoid the police. Get a bus ticket. Get home. Let her destiny be in her own hands for once.
The bus wasn't helping her nerves; with every stranger that passed she worried they worked for Brenner – for whoever they were. But there was a gun in the pocket of her stolen jacket, she had on sexy stolen undergarments, and if she needed to seduce someone to get home – God damn it – she'd do it. Wouldn't be the first time…
The seduction idea wasn't necessary this time, as it turned out. She'd run into some very kind people and hadn't had to use the gun once. Yet.
Upon stepping foot into Mississippi, she knew to thumb for a ride. A gentle woman in her 40s picked her up, asked her story. Julie spouted some lie about how she was a college student and her car died.
Only having a 'thank you' and a warm smile to give the woman, she got out of the car and planted her feet on her family's street for the first time in a year and ten months.
Julie didn't want to knock. It just wasn't normal not having a key to her own home. She did it anyway, holding her breath until someone opened up. Lightheaded, she grabbed onto the doorframe and stared eye-to-eye with her aunt Kathy.
"Julie?" the tears that followed were not expected, but Julie held her aunt in her arms and let her cry. "I'm so sorry."
So that was it then. Her parents were dead. She just knew in her gut, knew by her aunt's reaction, felt it under her skin.
"They're gone?" she asked as she closed her eyes, tears already falling.
She focused on the way Brenner worked with her to tap into the power she had and the memories flooded to her. She felt the energy transfer from Kathy through her fingertips and into her veins. Her mother and father – bloody – in the car, front end smashed, small fire starting. Sirens were heard, but she could tell they were already gone.
Gasping, she felt tearstains rushing down her cheeks. Aunt Kathy still clung to her but soon ushered her inside and locked the door.
"The accident was fifteen months ago," Kathy had apparently been counting. "Just an unfortunate thing, same as Toni."
She knew that couldn't be the truth. There were no coincidences in her life anymore. Fifteen months was how long she'd been in the lab since her last escape. The timelines between Toni's death and her parents matched up all too closely and Julie couldn't shake the feeling that this was no accident. There was no doubt in her mind; these people had killed her parents.
The bad news kept coming and she felt like she was drowning in grief.
Aunt Kathy had bone cancer.
Grief stayed longer than she'd expected. Most days she didn't even get out of bed; just lay there, staring at the stucco ceiling, feeling how heavy everything felt. She'd break down every few hours – long sobs clawing their way out of her mouth, screaming into the pillow, gasping for breath.
Maybe she should get some help, she thought.
But there was still beauty in being free. On her best days, she sat on the front porch for every meal, enjoying whatever weather Mississippi had to offer that day. The breeze in her hair, the sunlight through the leaves of the tree in the front yard; it all felt surreal. How many weeks had she spent wishing for a sunset again? That windowless room was psychological torture. Julie never enjoyed nature as much as she did now.
And as the grief passed and returned in waves, she found ways to distract herself. Her childhood home was a mess because Aunt Kathy had inherited it and was in too much pain to clean.
For weeks she tidied up the house and went through old stuff. When she was feeling her best, she started cooking meals again, taking care of her aunt. But she was always moving – she had to keep her hands busy or she'd lose her nerve to steady the anger that the grief left over.
She could kill for her parents. It was a thought. Instead, she'd gotten a job at the nearest coffee shop because she was terrified of time with her thoughts; terrified of the things she could do.
Time seemed to go so quick when she was busy every day. The days at the facility were so slow with her in that room or being worked on and trained. The first few months Julie was home, she went straight to and from work and only changed path to grocery shop.
Call it fear, maybe. But she couldn't bring herself to meet anyone new or talk to old friends. Who knew if they were spies. Who knew who worked for Brenner. Nothing at home felt safe anymore.
It was six months and three weeks before she took a seat on that barstool again. That bartender she was interested in a lifetime ago didn't work there anymore she figured and instead a beautiful blonde woman took his place.
It didn't matter. She wasn't interested in dating anymore. Her life had become mundane but she wasn't driven to change anything. The less that changed, the less she had to worry about anyone shady coming in to harm her. In a way, she found comfort in the expected.
And then Aunt Kathy's health worsened; her cancer had spread once again - this time to her lungs. The doctor didn't give her very long, what with the chemotherapy being too expensive.
"I can find a way to pay for it," Julie had demanded. She'd lost count of how many times they'd had that conversation.
And every time, her Aunt would calmly shake her head. "I've done my time here. You're all I've got to live for. Keep your money. Get out of this place."
Six months was more than the doctors had expected Aunt Kathy to push through, but she'd insisted on sticking around as long as she could to make sure Julie was set up with money – she was stubborn, as were all women in her family. She'd set up selling the house to a family friend upon her death.
Those six months weren't the hardest part of Julie's life, but it still hurt to see her Aunt in so much pain. The day she came home from the coffee shop to find her unresponsive in her bed, she felt like the world was caving in once again. A similar feeling had washed over her sitting in the passenger seat next to that cop while her sister's car was smashed.
She had no one and the man who was willing to buy her family's home would be calling within the week.
Jude Kalhan, 45, white, divorced, residing in Chicago now. The police report mentioned out-of-state plates in the car "accident" that had killed her parents.
With the house sold, Julie was out a home so a road trip to Chicago wasn't out of the question. Sure, hopping from hotel room to hotel room wasn't her ideal situation but with the uncertainty of her safety, she knew it was something she had to do. With her Aunt gone, she had nothing.
Brenner was pronounced dead she'd found out after calling around in Indiana a few weeks previously. With nothing to occupy her time, she suddenly got curious again – wanted to dig a little – give her life a purpose again.
The secretary in Hawkins Police Department had been very helpful and she was going to call back again more than likely. If Julie remembered correctly, her name was Flo and she'd seemed happy to speak to someone; said that before recently things had been slow.
However, now she had a mission and so she was Chicago-bound.
Driving in Chicago was pretty crazy. Her goal was to get in, get information, and get out. Finding Jude's address was easy but that gun felt heavy in her pocket as she climbed stairs to his apartment. She wore a low-cut top, her goal to get him to let her in before killing him. Don't touch anything. Move quick.
When she got there, she used her shoe to kick the door and draw Jude's attention to her. It worked. She was staring at the face of her parent's killer.
"Hi," she squeaked out. "Could I use your phone?"
He paused, looking her over, but finally agreeing to let her in. The door closed behind her and he pointed to his phone on the wall. The television was on and he was drinking a beer, unaware that Julie had pulled a gun out of her jacket pocket.
"Were you paid to kill my parents?" she asked, unafraid.
Jude slowly stood, turning to her, smirking. "Thought you looked familiar. You look like your mother, Julie."
She pushed down the memories. "Did Brenner hire you?"
He laughed, nodding. "I knew this day would come. Just wait till Brenner finds out you're here."
Jude shrugged. "If you think so."
The room suddenly felt cold as that sentence sunk in.
The door opened and Julie stood still, breath caught in her throat. Was it an ambush? Was it Brenner?
The people that entered wore masks. The leader stepped forward at the sight of Julie with a gun aimed at Jude's head. She aimed her gun at Jude too and Julie stilled. She raised her mask; she was a teenager.
"And what do we have here?" she had an accent. The others went to raid Jude's apartment, digging around for his wallet, grabbing him around the neck and pulling him to his knees.
"Look, I'm only here for him," Julie stated.
"Well, so are we," the girl stepped closer and Julie moved her aim toward the girl. A flash of memories rushed through her and her eyes fell to the girl's wrist. In an instant she saw the numbers 008 tattooed there.
"Wait," she lowered her gun, revealed the tattoo on her wrist as well.
"Seventeen," the girl, Eight, said. "You're…part of all of this?"
"He killed my parents," Julie informed her. "And he says Brenner is still alive."
The girl was quiet for a minute, nodding slowly. "Then here," she motioned her group to bring the man closer. "Your turn."
Julie flinched even though she hadn't expected to. She wanted to be brave, ignore the fear in her gut, kill him without a second glance as he likely did when he crashed his car into her parents. But it took a few too many seconds and she almost lost her nerve. Then a flash of his memory – him walking away from that car wreck – filled her mind and she pulled that trigger, hearing a thud as his body hit the floor.
She glanced around the room before lowering the gun.
Eight told her that her name was Kali, explained that her powers allowed her to make people see things. Her mission had been to find everyone involved in the lab, the project, and 'give them what was coming to them.' Her team took care of the body and probably stole from him while they left the scene.
"And you were taken when you were 24?" Kali asked to which Julie nodded. "You said Brenner spent time with you often." Her fingers moved and Julie was distracted for a moment. "What did he do, I wonder?"
Glancing up, Julie saw him – Martin – standing a few feet away from her, walking slowly forward, hands in pockets.
"There's my little bird," he cooed, smile coming to his lips, bloodied mark on his forehead. "I have been looking for you. Why have you left me? I need you."
He was inches from her in a moment, pressing his mouth to hers without permission. Julie struggled against him, screaming as she pulled away, but his hands were on her again and it felt so real.
Just as soon as he appeared, he was gone and Kali was staring curiously. Julie bit her tongue, remembering the powers she said she had.
"So it's like that then," Kali hummed, nodding.
"It's not like I asked for it," Julie defended. "After they dragged me back, I was determined to get out for good. They killed my sister. So I complied when I could, made him think I was attracted to him; seduced him," a chill ran through her, admitting it aloud for the first time. She wanted to vomit. She bit her tongue.
"I met another one of us recently," Kali mumbled. "She and Brenner were closer than he and I. Not in the same way as you." She looked her up and down.
"Another…experiment?" Julie still didn't know what to call all this.
Kali nodded. "She chickened out of joining us. Couldn't kill. Took a bus home when things got tough," she rolled her eyes and Julie was reminded of her age.
"Any idea where she lived?'
Kali shrugged. "Didn't ask. She left in the middle of a shit storm. Said she was going home to her police officer."
Julie grabbed her keys, walking toward her car with her bags of clothes and possessions in the trunk. Kali followed behind, jogging closer.
"Well, it's been great. Thanks for distracting him I guess."
"You said you can give and get memories," Kali said. "You could be useful here. You could help us."
"Pass," Julie shook her head, getting in her car.
"Where are you going?"
"To find that lab. See that it's actually closed for good."
Kali sighed, crossing her arms. "You have no clue where it is, do you?"
"A vague idea," Julie snapped. "But it's in the paper and I'm sure I'll find someone who knows something."
Kali nodded. "Good luck." Julie closed the door, started the car, rolled down the window. "Hawkins," Kali informed her. "The lab was in Indiana."
Chapter 2: Hiraeth
All those hours of driving, Julie didn't want to get in her car ever again. Her legs were stiff and she was reminded of that stunt she'd pulled with that police officer, Jim; reminded of crappy gas station food and aching limbs from driving for days.
He was surely dead. They'd killed her sister and her parents. They had Jim. It was her fault he'd been killed. She thought about it often and the guilt ate at her most nights. If she would have just stayed in that place, not run, so many people would still be living.
She made an effort to shake off these thoughts, though, and that morning was no different. Julie forced herself to talk to people even though she wanted nothing to do with them. These people and this town meant nothing to her; nowhere did, really. But she knew she had to try to lead a normal life and a part of her was almost giddy over the thought of having somewhere to call home.
She'd been running on pure adrenaline and was currently in need of coffee. The coffee shop by the motel was near empty but she went anyway. Glancing around, she found a family of three; a little girl staring unhappily at her pancakes. Suddenly she remembered Kali's mention of another girl like them – how she'd traveled back home to a police officer.
Something felt peculiar and she always trusted her gut.
"Excuse me," she waved over the barista. "Do you have a phone I could use?"
In her purse there was a balled up piece of paper with the number to Hawkins Police scribbled on it. Flo was extremely helpful with her questions about the lab a few weeks back.
"Hi, I have a quick question: is there an officer named Jim there?"
A sigh left the woman. "What'd he do now?"
Julie's heart jolted – he wasn't dead! Or was it another Jim…?
"Nothing. Is he in now? Can I speak with him?"
"He's running late – as usual. We never know when he'll drag his lazy ass in here, but I'm sure he'll show up before noon."
It couldn't be the same man. The Jim she remembered had been so eager for her case, so ready to jump in and help when no one else was there for her.
"Okay, thank you."
She hung up the phone, tipped the barista, and left the coffee shop.
Julie sat in a chair pushed to the corner of the room, eyes fixated on the door, almost urging it to open. Taking even breaths she ignored Flo's stares of curiosity. It was interesting to put a face to the voice over the phone line.
For fifteen minutes she'd had the urge to leave. She'd known Jim for only a matter of a few days and even though he was an important part of her past, maybe he'd been unfazed. Maybe he wouldn't recognize her. Maybe this was a terrible decision.
But she had to know what he knew about the lab. He had to be chasing down leads, right? Just happening to be the chief here of all places?
What if he was a part of all of this? Hired by Brenner to capture her, convince her she was safe, and then lead her right to them? If Brenner was still alive – like that dead man had said – could Jim be working with him currently?
Her eyes snapped to the door as soon as it opened and her stomach dropped.
The one officer – Powell, was it? – made a noise in the back of his throat, commenting on the chief's lateness.
"Hop," Flo started.
"Honestly, let me get some coffee, Flo – we've been over this," his voice boomed.
"Someone's here to see you," Flo ignored him, pointing to their guest. "Name's Julie Preston."
Jim was about to raise his voice but stopped, mouth agape. Julie stood, shifting her purse from her lap to her shoulder.
"Hi, Jim," she spoke finally.
He paused, closed his mouth, exhaled through his nostrils.
"Hey," he cleared his throat and then pointed down the hall to what she assumed was his office. "Come in."
Chief, she thought as they sat in silence. He'd said he wanted another job but it was surprising to see him so high ranking, especially if he was lazy like Flo made it seem. Jim lit a cigarette and stared at his desk for a moment.
"I thought for sure you were-"
"Dead?" she nodded, a flood of memories – Jim's memories – clicked in her mind. "Same to you…" she paused awkwardly. "You looked for me."
"Uh…yeah. How'd you-" he paused, sighing then rubbing his temples. "Right." She wanted to tell him about what else she was capable of, but his questions started first. "It was here, wasn't it?"
"That lab they had you at."
She nodded. "Brenner. All of that power company crap was bullshit. I read it all in the papers after-"
Jim held up his hand, stopping her before she could continue. "It's a long story, but I know everything."
"Wait," she interrupted too, extending her hand toward his on his desk. "I…learned something…" he gave her a look. "May I?" she nodded toward his hand. A second's pause but he nodded curtly.
Closing her eyes, Julie pressed her fingertips to the back of Jim's hand. What came next was a flood of Jim's memories: a crying, desperate woman, a missing son, a monster in the walls, the lab, Brenner, a different world, a little girl with abilities, a cabin, Eggos in the fridge.
Jim pulled away then but some memories were still coming. Julie opened her eyes to stop them.
"What the Hell was that?"
"Brenner trained me, kept working on my mind," it was weird to say aloud. "Jim, I can access people's memories."
Jim said nothing, mostly freaked out about what she saw. He felt sick, almost, like she'd taken away his privacy and now knew about Jane.
"How'd you get out? I looked for you when I was there." That guilt suddenly found its way back.
Julie bit her tongue. "I did something awful," she left it at that for now, suddenly unable to own up to what she'd done. What would Jim think? "Story for another time?" she offered, still wondering if she could trust him. "I went home. Jim, they killed my parents. A car accident-" she paused, looking up at him in an attempt to stop the tears from forming.
"M'sorry," he huffed, shaking his head at the thought of the damage.
"Can I try something?" leaning forward and across the desk, she pressed her fingers to Jim's neck, feeling his pulse. It quickened. He wanted to pull away but remained silent.
It wasn't the first time she'd tried this. Brenner had forced her to share a memory – the same way – and it was way too intimate for her comfort.
The feeling of memories flooding to Jim was like a rush – little peppering of tingles in the veins on her arms. She showed him everything from the moment she got home: her aunt, the accident report, the man she chased to Chicago - how she had to kill him.
She wiped the drip of blood from her nose, grabbing a tissue from Jim's desk. This was the only power that the blood still came from.
Jim was breathless when she pulled away. His pupils were small, shock plastered across his face.
"Jesus…" he narrowed his eyes at her.
"I'm sorry, I just figured that would be easier," but before she sat back in her chair, Jim grabbed her wrist and pulled up the sleeve of her jacket.
For some reason he'd expected to find nothing – that this was some elaborate ruse – but there was the tattoo and now he knew her number: seventeen. He raised his eyes to her but said nothing, still trying to get over the feeling of her using her powers on him. She pulled away, sat back, stared unblinking at him. She felt exposed now, having Jim reveal this without her permission. But after all he'd done for her she figured she owed him that bit of exposure at least.
"And now you're back here?" Jim wasn't trying to get mean with her, but he felt like things were just getting settled around here: his life was finally flat lining again and now here she was to bring more weirdness to this town. For God's sake, she'd given him memories as if this was normal.
"I wanted to see if the lab was still standing," she shrugged.
"It is," he snapped. "Kids got that news story out about Barb," she nodded at this, having read it. "Got 'em outta here."
"Good. And Brenner?"
"Well…yeah. Pretty sure." At Jim's words, Julie stilled. Hopper connected the dots. "That was him, wasn't it? The one who took you back that day."
Julie nodded, not wanting to give him those memories. His scent and his mouth – the weight of him in that bed. How he'd call her 'little bird,' keep her company because "she was his favorite." She breathed sharply at the memory.
"That girl," Julie gaped. "With the dark hair – the powers," Jim's eyes darkened. "Was she…like me?"
Gruffly, Jim answered a short, "Yes."
He was trying to hide something from her and a part of her didn't want to push him, but she needed to know.
"Where is she?"
Jim bit his tongue. Sure, they shared a history – a few days mind you – but she was practically a stranger still. And how was he certain she wasn't working with them still? He had to protect Jane.
"I don't know."
"Bull," she slammed her hand on the desk. He didn't flinch, just leveled his gaze with hers. She sensed his anger and hesitation. Though she understood, she couldn't help but feel hurt. "I get it, okay? It's your job – to protect. And, yeah, you could have me pinned in ten seconds, but don't you dare doubt that I can't make a skin connection and read your memories. I can. But I won't." She lowered her gaze a moment, took a breath and Jim felt himself let out a breath he didn't know he held. "You know where she is," she lowered her voice. "I want to keep her away from these people – if there's a possibility of them coming back here. I would never side with them, Jim, not after everything they've taken from me."
"Julie…" Jim shook his head, sighed, "Look, it's not that I don't trust you, it's just…there's been a lot going on these past two years, okay? And now you're here and…"
"-And you think I just brought more shit your way," she nodded at that. "I get it." She felt like such a fool, driving all this way to see some empty lab. "I shouldn't have come here. I'm sorry." She stood to leave.
"Where are you going?" he groaned.
"Tomorrow I'll go check out that lab and then I'll leave you alone."
Jim stared at her. "You plan on going alone?"
"Yes," she snapped.
He pulled out his pack of cigarettes, lit one, inhaled deeply. "What time?" Julie turned to him, unspeaking. "How about noon tomorrow?"
"I'll pick you up. Where are you staying?"
Julie didn't know if the feeling stirring in her chest was hope or dread.
Chapter 3: Refrain
Of all the thoughts that circled around in Julie's mind that morning, the most prominent was: Jim Hopper had a habit of running late.
It wasn't a big deal, really, but every minute that passed made her extremely aware that this situation was awkward. Why she ran to him after finding out he was local, she had to do some soul searching. Was it because she was attracted to him and those two nights they spent together all that time ago hooked her in? She decided that no, that wasn't the case – she simply had no one else to go to and so she figured he was a good bet.
But her mind still raced. After this was all said and done, when she found that empty lab, what would she do next? With no one to chase down, no other investigations, no job, no family…
Jim's memories had connected things for her – cleared up some gray areas. However, she was still convinced that this wasn't over. She couldn't go back home – if there were still employees out there they'd find her fast. But staying in this crappy motel room wasn't an option either.
Someone pulled up outside of the motel and a car horn sounded twice. Glancing out the window, she saw Jim's truck. Such a gentleman. She took a deep breath before walking out the door.
Jim couldn't help but notice how she dressed. Now that she wasn't forced to borrow clothes from Jim's friend's girlfriends or wear what she had on from the lab, Jim liked how she dressed. He wondered if they were from her suitcase from home – wherever she called home – Mississippi, was it?
"Hi," she greeted as she got in his truck.
"Hey," he nodded before throwing it into gear and peeling out of the parking lot.
It felt strange having her in the passenger seat once again. It felt like a decade ago that he was crossing state lines to get her home, when it was – what – two, three years? It was a strange feeling, really, having another encounter with her. Weren't people typically expected to catch up after a few years? Had they really even known each other before? To Hopper, this felt like the strangest hookup run-in he'd ever had.
Yet it wasn't awful.
Unless she brought those fuckers back to Hawkins…
"Thank you for taking me," she finally spoke. Her voice was soft as she stared out the window in fear of making eye contact with him.
He grunted. "You really wanna do this?"
"No," she answered immediately. He glanced at her and she returned the gaze just to break it once again. "But I have to. I need…closure, almost, I think?"
Jim nodded and she was comforted by the understanding. "Makes sense."
"You don't have to do this; I can go myself. I didn't want to take you away from work."
He glanced at her again, "You really wanna go alone?" Julie remained silent. "Look, I didn't bring anything to get in, say those doors are bolted, okay? Trust me when I tell ya: a walk around outside will prove it to you." A few minutes passed in silence and Julie stared out at the trees blurring by. She wondered if these were the woods she got lost in on her escape. "This place was heavily guarded."
Her big doe eyes took him in as he pulled down the drive that led to the lab. As it came into view, he slowed the truck and watched her reaction. Her chest rose and fell quickly as her breathing hitched.
"Jim…" she spoke in a warning tone, pulling her legs up to the seat with her eyes wide. "Jim!"
He glanced back at the empty parking lot, wondering if he missed something. What did she see?
"Hey, hey!" he threw the truck in park, attempted to calm her sudden thrashing. As she tried to get away her nails dug into his wrist and he pulled away sharply. "Jesus! Stop!" With a touch he felt a shock; a vision of a full parking lot coming into his mind, then the view from a balcony. He blinked and it was gone. "Julie, calm down!" he held her shoulders now. "It's okay! No one's here."
Her breathing slowed as she slowly opened her eyes, noting the abandoned lot. She'd thought this was it: figured she'd been right yesterday: that Jim was working for them, he was taking her back. But the lot was empty and nothing looked the way it had when she'd escaped; no lights on, no guards, no cars…
Jim was telling the truth.
"I'm sorry," she choked out, hanging her head. "I thought I saw…"
Jim was still getting used to this new ability: that she could transfer memories with her touch – what the Hell?!
"I…saw it. You-" He didn't have the words. Shared it? He sighed. "Julie, you gotta believe me." She said nothing. "Let's walk." He gave her a second and then shut off the car, stepping out.
Julie was tentative as she walked alongside Jim. He took her to the entryway, stayed back a bit so she didn't feel cornered as she ran a hand along the bolts on the doors. Jim's memories were screaming in her ears: something about hideous dog creatures and a monster underground. She didn't want to know. Not now.
Her chest felt tight as she lifted her hands to peer into the darkened room. She half expected to see Martin Brenner peering back at her, but nothing inside moved. The view down the main hall brought memories flooding back to her in waves:
She remembered sitting staring at the plate before her. "This is what you requested, correct?" Brenner spoke finally. She nodded. "Good."
What was the catch, she wondered. Yet of course she ate it, practically moaning at the taste. Brenner didn't leave. The whole situation seemed foreign to her. He hadn't paid her a visit since she'd been brought back, when she'd demanded he tell her his name so she knew who to curse.
When she finished eating, Brenner called someone in to take the plate. He returned to the chair, sitting simply, looking relaxed. He was staring at her, hands pressed together in front of his mouth like a prayer. Julie looked directly at him.
"What are you thinking, I wonder."
Julie answered instantly. "Wondering if I could overpower you. How many guards are positioned outside that door?"
Brenner blinked slowly, a soft smile coming to his lips. "I've missed that spark." He rested his hands on his lap. "You're unhappy here."
He hesitated. "We're going to start doing things differently. Would you like that?"
"I'd like for you to let me go."
Brenner shook his head. "I'm afraid we can't do that yet."
He was probably giving her false hope, but she clung to that word – 'yet'. If she obliged, would they let her go? Her perspective changed.
"So, what, I bitch about wanting a burger and fries, you bring it for me? What do I owe you in return?"
Brenner pursed his lips. "We want to push your powers – see what else you're capable of."
"There's something else," she sensed it. "Tell me."
He nodded solemnly then spoke loudly. "Bring it in."
A man pushed a cart into the room. He nodded at her, "Seventeen," he'd said it in almost a greeting. He picked up a strange contraption – pressing a button to make it buzz. Julie glanced over at Brenner who slowly stood, grabbing her left wrist and pulling it behind her back as he took a seat behind her.
"This will only hurt for a moment, little bird. And then things change," he hummed into her ear.
The other man grabbed her right arm, stamping something on her skin. She saw "017" then realized what the buzzing thing was. Pulling back, she felt her heartrate increase.
"No, stop. Don't," she begged. The man started tattooing, a stinging pain coursing through her arm. "You bastard," she cussed at Brenner.
He looked genuinely pained at her retort. "I assure you this, Julie, I'm only doing this to keep it consistent."
He nodded. "The others have one too."
Others? Julie wanted to vomit.
"You alright?" Jim called from behind her and she pulled away from the window quickly, trying to shake the feeling of the memory. She nodded at him but he wasn't convinced. "This is too much. Let's go."
As they walked back to the truck, Julie saw the balcony out of the corner of her eye, but she jogged closer to Jim, pushing those memories away. She wasn't ready to go there yet; she couldn't let those thoughts consume her, not now.
They got in the truck and Jim just sat there a moment, pinching the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
"I'm sorry," Julie spoke quietly.
"Sorry?" Jim repeated. "What the Hell do you have to be sorry for?" she remained silent. Jim tried to get rid of the gruff edge to his tone. "Okay, so what now?" Julie just looked at him blankly. "You're just gonna stay in that shitty motel and…and?"
She hadn't really thought that far ahead; being so convinced that something was going to turn up when they arrived: that some creature would pop out of the lab or some Suit would take her away again. Yet there she was, back in the truck with the man who'd crossed state lines to get her home. Where was 'home' now, she wondered.
"I'm not really sure, Jim. I…I really have nowhere to go so," she shrugged. "I guess I can go anywhere." She paused. "There was another…experiment I met in Chicago…I could always…" she trailed off.
Jim focused his eyes on her. All the responsibility he had at the moment: Jane, the department, the paperwork piled on his desk…he wondered what it would be like to feel that sense of freedom. Yet, he wondered if she felt free at all. He knew that he was always looking over his shoulder; constantly convinced that someone was going to come for Jane. He imagined Julie felt similarly. What was freedom when the government had you kidnapped and tested on?
Hopper sighed heavily. "I'll see what I can do."
A look of confusion crossed her face. "What? You mean stay?"
Jim stared back at her, jaw clenching and unclenching as he contemplated if he really wanted to say what he was about to say, but she probably already read it from him.
"There's someone else," he spoke apprehensively. "Eleven."
It struck her then, what Kali was talking about: "She left in the middle of a shit storm. Said she was going home to her police officer."
Hopper didn't need her powers to know the look of recognition on her face. He cringed. Was he doing the right thing?
"You know where she is," Julie spoke.
"Is she safe?"
This stopped Jim right in his tracks. "Yes."
Julie sat back in the seat, look contemplative. Jim was blocking her, being guarded for a good reason. She didn't want to push and make that skin contact to read him. She trusted that whatever happened was the right thing. She let out a sigh.
"If she's here, she could use protection – another pair of eyes on her. I understand if you still don't trust me, but I need to know if she's got this…this feeling too." Jim looked at her. "That things aren't over…I can't shake the thought."
Hopper wanted to vomit.
Chapter 4: Impel
“I think I got somethin’ for ya…” Jim’s voice sounded deep and exhausted over the phone.
Julie was still staying in the motel, trying to keep busy but going stir crazy pretty quickly.
“Oh?” she hummed, placing down the container for the takeout she’d ordered.
“Yeah, uh…” he seemed distracted so Julie waited – what else did she have to do? Voices were muffled on the other line and then Jim’s voice was too, as if he’d pressed the receiver to his chest, yet she could still hear him when he said, “Fuck you, go to Hell.” Considering this was the first conversation they were having since he’d dropped her off after the visit to the lab, it was pretty comical. “Hey, sorry. Been crazy here. I think I dug up something for rent. Friend-of-a-friend thing. Interested?”
“I dunno, this motel is very spacious and modestly decorated. Not sure I could part with it,” she retorted.
“S’that right?” his voice was humored. “Well, if you can break away from your dream home long enough to check this place out, I can get you in to see it.”
“That would be great, Jim, thank you.”
Hop inhaled a drag of his cigarette, cracked his neck, and exhaled. “Got a pen or somethin’?” he waited for a moment for her. “I’m gonna have you call Joyce Byers – she’s the cousin of the woman renting the place out. She’ll take ya through.”
He gave her Joyce’s number, hoping Julie didn’t ask what he’d told Joyce about her. The answer would be ‘enough’ but he knew Julie would push. Joyce was always out to help him when he needed her, what with the situation with Will, but you better believe she’d ask questions. Hop didn’t have answers. Not yet, anyway.
Yet two days ago when he asked Joyce about the house for rent, Joyce asked who it was for. So he’d given Julie’s name, hoped that was enough. Of course it wasn’t. Of course Joyce asked how he knew her and of course he was obligated to give her something.
“Long story. Maybe she can tell you,” he’d said.
“That’s bull, Hop. How do you know this girl?” Joyce had been all too curious when he mentioned a new name around this small town. A girl without a home? What was he, some kind of philanthropist?
“Well, I don’t really know her, know her…” She’d given him that look and he’d rolled his eyes and sighed. “I’d just…helped her before, okay? And it kinda got fucked up and…I dunno, I guess I’m…” He’d almost said ‘responsible’ but he’d bit his tongue.
Joyce knew she could push him, but she also knew when to stop.
Julie’s voice called him out of his memory from the other day.
“Thank you again, Jim. I feel so stupid for coming to you, but I’m glad I did.”
Hop put out his cigarette, sucked on the spot on his finger he’d just burned with the ashes. “Yeah, kid, no problem. But you owe me a beer.”
She laughed. “Done.”
He hung up after that, grabbed his hat and keys, and went back to work.
Joyce Byers sounded nice over the phone, Julie thought. Maybe a little too eager and kinda scattered but nice.
She’d agreed to meet Julie at the house the next day and it was nice to have plans for once. Julie was ready to figure out her next steps after spending so much time in limbo. Through her excitement, she couldn’t help but feel anxious. All that time in the facility planning her escape, dreaming about her future life she never expected to be in small-town Hawkins. Yet she felt drawn here, almost, as if she couldn’t leave.
The house was a little blue thing on a street called Habershan and it didn’t look as run-down as her mind had made up. Julie parked behind the Ford Pinto in the drive and she saw a petite woman leaned against it, sizing her up just as much as she was.
When she got out of the car Joyce instantly introduced herself and – to Julie’s disdain – extended her hand to shake. She wanted to be polite, though she hesitated.
The skin contact sent Julie’s mind into overdrive – flashes of memories of a lost son, a monster in the walls, Jim beating the chest of a little pale almost-corpse. More connections were made. Will. This was the woman from some of Jim’s memories too. Friend-of-a-friend, he’d said.
The feeling of cold and empty didn’t leave her skin until she shoved her hands in her pockets.
“This is my cousin’s property. Her last tenant moved out a few months ago. Come on in.”
The front porch creaked as the two of them climbed to the front door. Joyce started going on about how many bedrooms and the possibilities of the home, how her cousin didn’t mind if she wanted to paint and decorate however she wanted. All of this information processed for Julie, but her eye caught chips in the paint that almost looked like fingernail marks. A blink and she was taken back to a memory: skin and sweat, a dark freckle on his shoulder, how he’d loved when she’d dig her nails into that spot, pepper kisses over the marks.
Her throat felt tight. She blinked away the memory, breathed, and it was gone just as quickly as it came.
“-And this kitchen…!” Joyce was still going on about what a quality home this place was.
Honestly, Julie didn’t need convincing. She’d agreed to see it because Jim had gone out of his way to make this happen for her and she was grateful. Any place she could call ‘home’ for a while was better than some shitty motel room.
“I love it,” she told Joyce mostly so she didn’t have to hear her go on anymore.
“Really?!” Joyce seemed too happy about this. “Linda said that if you want it, you can move in right away. I can give you her number so you can call about rent. How soon do you think you can get a moving truck?”
Julie smiled sadly. “Oh, I…uh…I don’t really have anything but a few suitcases and little stuff I could fit in my car.”
Joyce’s face fell. “Oh, honey, that just won’t do. I-I’m sure I have some stuff the boys and I can get rid of. I mean, kitchen stuff is here and a bed and couch but…”
“I’ll make it work, Joyce, no worries. You’ve done enough for me already. Thank you.”
Joyce nodded, but her eyes still looked contemplative. “So you’re moving in?”
“I paid at the motel through tonight and my stuff’s there, but – yes – I can whenever.”
Joyce hugged her and Julie felt herself tense up, closing her eyes to push out the memories. She built that wall quickly in her mind, just the way Brenner and her had practiced. Nothing got in, just the cold in her fingertips.
“This calls for a celebration! Let’s go kick through my old junk and have a glass of wine.”
Julie agreed because Joyce was just too eager and kind (and she felt guilty if she’d said no), but also because she craved human interaction.
“So how did you and Hop meet?” Joyce’s voice was muffled from a different room as she dug out yet another box for them to go through.
Julie sipped her wine, contemplating if she should tell Joyce the truth or not. Clearly she’d been through some shit with Brenner. But Julie wasn’t feeling courageous enough tonight to bring herself to talk openly.
“We met a few years ago before he was chief here. I needed help finding my sister.” Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think.
“Hop’s good at finding.”
Julie breathed evenly though it took some control. “He is.”
“Did you find her?”
“Yeah,” Julie choked out, looking anywhere but at Joyce’s reaction to her words. She took a hefty gulp of wine this time.
Joyce didn’t push.
Julie sensed movement outside the front door. She kept her expression neutral so as not to give anything away. The person entered in a hurry.
“Hey, mom, can I have friends over?” the young boy from her memories, Will, came into the kitchen. Julie sensed four more people outside the door in wait. She almost smiled to herself.
“That’s fine, honey, but…” Joyce’s words came out and the front door instantly cracked open again, the hiding children coming into full-view. “What did I tell you about asking before you have everyone bike over here?”
“I know, I know…it’s just…Nancy’s in Mike’s basement being annoying and Dustin’s mom doesn’t have enough room for us and Lucas’…-“
Joyce interrupted her son. “That’s fine. Oh! Will, meet Ms. Preston, she’s new to the neighborhood.”
“Hi,” Will said in a soft, shy voice.
“Hi, Ms. Preston,” another boy came forward. “I’m Dustin,” he took her hand and kissed the back of it. Unsuspecting, Julie was worried about the memories that she’d get, but all she got from him was something about a game.
“Dustin, stop freaking her out!” another boy shouted and they started pushing each other down the hallway to Will’s bedroom.
Julie was humored and took another sip of her wine. A feeling overcame her suddenly and she almost choked as she glanced up at the next child who was retreating to Will’s bedroom. A young girl, the same one from Jim’s memory. Shy eyes glanced away as Julie stared curiously at her.
“Jane, it’s so nice to see you, honey,” Joyce’s voice startled the girl. She paused and smiled at them softly before going back to the room with the boys. “They’re obsessed with this board game of theirs,” Joyce laughed. “They play it so much you’d think they’d get tired of it.”
“So many kids in the house, you must never be bored.”
Joyce nodded but shrugged. “I work a lot actually…” she sighed. “Being a single parent of two is difficult, but Jonathan helps me out so much.” Joyce poured another glass of wine. “Speaking of work, are you looking for a job?” Julie nodded. “I know this coffee shop is hiring. It’s right next to Melvald’s, where I work.”
Working at a coffee joint again didn’t sound super enjoyable, but whatever brought the money in until she could find something better, she’d take.
“I’ll go apply in the morning. Joyce, I appreciate all your help.”
“Your life is so interesting to me. I mean, from what you said you moved all this way without anyone or much of anything,” she sighed. “I just…I can’t imagine. I’ve been so rooted in this place, especially after marriage, kids, and divorce. You’re young still. Why here, of all places?”
Julie shrugged, sighed, concocted a lie. “My aunt passed away recently and after the death of my parents, family’s kinda been estranged for me. I guess I just needed a fresh start. Besides, Hawkins just…pulled me in. I feel some kind of connection to it, I guess.”
“It has nothing to do with Hopper, does it?” Joyce gave her a look.
Julie felt her cheeks redden. “No! No…” she came up with a quick fib. “My grandfather met his wife here when he was traveling, actually. They fell in love, he’d travel just to come see her. They eventually got married, moved away, and had children. They’d talk about how this was the place that started it all. I guess I just had to see what the hype was about.” She paused to take a breath after the lie. “Maybe I’m just a hopeless romantic.”
Joyce looked love-struck. “That’s such a beautiful story! But I have to say, not much of anything goes on here…” though her words seemed honest, her voice and eyes gave her away.
Yeah…nothing happens here. Sure, Julie thought. Even if that was true, here sure beat the Hellhole she was in before. She figured she’d take her chances.
Chapter 5: Repose
Joyce had given Julie the keys and some boxes of kitchen stuff. The next morning Julie contacted Joyce's cousin, Linda, about rent. For once, it was wonderful being busy. She'd checked out of the motel, moved her few boxes and suitcases into the new house, and took some time to pick up a few decorative pieces. She'd always imagined what her home would be like when she was on her own again. Those nights at the facility were typically spent daydreaming. She couldn't wait for this new start.
After a little shopping, Julie went to the coffee shop Joyce suggested. Meeting with the manager, she asked for a job. It didn't take much convincing, she was surprised, and she was on the schedule within a half hour of meeting the woman.
"I'll see ya on Saturday then! God, we needed the help," the manager, Cindy, sighed while passing over a free coffee.
"It's perfect timing," she agreed.
"I can't believe you came here of all places," the owner chuckled. "Honestly, Julie, you should'a gone to a big city."
Julie smiled sweetly, ignoring her comment. "Nothing interesting happens here, huh?"
"Eh, not really. Though, are you single? We have a barista, Adam, who is just…" Cindy sighed. "I'm married or I'd chase him, I swear."
"I just got the job and you're already trying to hook me up?" Julie couldn't help but laugh at the situation. It felt like she was meeting with an old friend. She remembered that some people you just vibe with. It'd been a while since she'd felt this.
"You're young, new here…I'm just looking out for ya!"
"Always appreciated," Julie shook her head. She felt awkward, part of her wanting to leave but another part of her not knowing where to go exactly. "I'll see you Saturday."
She finished her coffee and left the shop, making her way over to Melvald's to tell Joyce the good news. In front of the store Julie noted the chief's cruiser and her shoulders tensed a little. Entering the building the bell sounded and she felt awkward for interrupting the conversation Joyce and Jim were in.
"Julie!" Joyce exclaimed, smile on her face. "How'd it go?"
Jim's eyes were on her and she could feel the confusion coming off of him in waves.
"I got the job so," she smiled. "I just wanted to come over and thank you for the recommendation."
Joyce gave her a sweet look. "Oh, sweetie, no problem! I'm glad to help get you started here. I was just telling Jim that you're renting Linda's house."
Jim nodded stiffly. "Welcome to Hawkins."
"Once I get settled, I'd love to have you guys over for dinner. You've both done so much for me and I can't express how much I appreciate it." Her eyes trailed over Jim's reaction to this. She felt warm speaking such things to them, but she felt like she needed to say it.
Joyce glanced at Jim and then back. "You mean a meal I don't have to cook? Count me in."
Julie smiled. "Well, you know where to find me. I'll leave you guys to it."
She turned on her heels and left quickly, feeling the tension between the two of them. She didn't know for sure what she was feeling and a part of her wanted to dig, but she let it be.
"Hey, Julie!" Jim called as she opened her car door. He took long strides toward her, looking calm and collected. "I uh…you…" he huffed for a second. "I know you have questions for me and…I guess I just wanna…"
"Jim," Julie interrupted him. "In time, I get it. Don't worry."
Jim's head was spinning thinking about everything. When he picked Jane up last night Joyce mentioned that Julie was there and he realized that Jane might have spoken with her. Yet when Jim pressed Joyce for information she didn't have much to give. Apparently Julie hadn't spoken much to her, hadn't made a skin contact, hadn't tried getting in her head. He called it progress, considered it promising. Maybe she was trustworthy. It wasn't his plan to be this guarded with her, but he felt like it was necessary.
She got in her car, started it, rolled down the window. He bent down, leaned closer.
"I'm not blowin' ya off," he assured her. She sensed that he was telling the truth and, to be honest, she just wanted to avoid him at all cost at the moment.
"Liar," she accused in a teasing tone. "If you wanted me to know, I'd know."
Jim looked slightly offended, slightly humored. "Keep that attitude and you'll never know."
She shifted into gear. "I'm only sticking around because I want to help, Jim, you can convince yourself otherwise as much as you want." And then she offered, "I got used to waiting at the facility. Trust me, I can wait for you to share your secrets."
That sentence alone left a hollow feeling in Jim's chest and he stepped back, lighting a cigarette and watching her go.
Food stocked in the house, some pictures hung on the wall, Julie felt content going to work on Saturday wearing jeans and a black t-shirt. She tied the smock around her waist and greeted the guests that walked in.
Some of the items on the menu had different names than the ones at the café in her hometown, but the job was straightforward. She was grateful for her previous experience making this an easier transition. Her boss still had her look through recipe books to study which was nice when the 'rush' wasn't active. She'd been studying and wiping up for a few hours when her boss came in mid-shift.
"I'll just take a coffee, some caramel, and two sugars please," came a soft, sweet voice.
The young woman before her was maybe a high school student – dainty, pretty – but when she handed over the cash and their fingers met briefly Julie got a good look into her memories: a young redhead disappearing from a pool, hunting down a monster in a house that looked all too similar to Joyce's.
"Here's your change," she forced her mouth to work, forced her way out of the memories.
"Keep the change," the young woman voiced, her eyes narrowing after a second as Julie went to go mix together her coffee. "You're not from around here, are you?" she asked. "I've never seen you before."
"I just moved in actually," Julie said, mixing the caramel in. "It's weird being the newbie."
"I can't imagine," the girl said. "I'm Nancy."
"It's nice to meet you, Nancy." She handed over the coffee.
She couldn't shake all the connections she was making with the memories of the people in this town.
Shortly after Nancy sat down, Julie could sense her fear. A quick glance up convinced her that her feelings were right. Nancy sat staring out of the café's side window, mouth a hard line, pulse quickening.
"Are you okay?" she knew she shouldn't have vocalized the sensation, but she couldn't help it.
Nancy hesitated, glancing away. "Y-yeah…"
Julie didn't believe her but she went back to cleaning up.
"Hey," Linda came over, "have you taken your break yet?" Julie shook her head. "Go on."
It was a nice day outside, really. The breeze was a little chilly but the sun was glorious. Julie grabbed a mug of coffee and sat out front on the bench. Any opportunity she had to be outside in the elements she appreciated, even if the breeze was blowing her sweater open and she felt the cool air on the tops of her feet from her high heels.
Jim's cruiser was parked over in front of Melvald's again and Julie couldn't help but have that feeling once more – like something was going on between the two of them, though it was none of her business.
She sipped her coffee, closing her eyes as the breeze blew. The bell rang beside her, alerting her of movement from the shop. Nancy left in a hurry. In the parking lot a young man stood smoking a cigarette while leaned against his Camaro. Julie watched him as he watched Nancy. The minute he started toward her, Julie put down her half-empty coffee mug.
"Hey, Nance. Nice to see ya," the boy called.
"Billy, leave me alone."
He put out his cigarette on the pavement. "You seen Steve lately?"
"I said 'leave me alone,' Billy."
Julie was standing now, making her way toward the scene as this Billy dude tried to put his hands on Nancy.
"Nancy, hey," she called. "I think you left a book in the shop." She didn't take her eyes off of this Billy guy who was clearly giving her a once-over. "Come back inside for a minute." Nancy took no time allowing Julie to swoop in and hide her under her wing – she jogged back over to the coffee shop and stood in the doorway. Billy approached, eyes narrowed, lips pursed, checking out her chest in that tight black t-shirt. "You getting some coffee or?" Julie asked him, ignoring the annoyance she was feeling toward him from Nancy. "Because if not you really shouldn't be parked there – it's for customers only."
Billy appeared humored as he got uncomfortably close. Julie didn't back down, knowing that that was what he wanted.
"Yeah?" he smirked. "Well aren't you just a spitfire." Julie said nothing. He smiled and it was distractingly beautiful. "Ma'am, I apologize for the inconvenience. I'm not really in the mood for coffee at the moment. You work here?"
"Yes, I do."
He looked her up and down once more. "Then I'll have to take a raincheck. I'd love to know if what you're selling is any good." His words dripped innuendo but Julie gave no reaction but a fake smile before he turned away and got in the car. The engine roared.
Squealing wheels were heard as Julie turned back to see Nancy, but Jim was on his way toward them.
"Few days in town and you're already picking fights with the local cretin, huh?" Jim shook his head. "I advise being cautious around that one."
Julie just smirked at him. "I can handle myself, Jim."
"That's what they all say."
"Are you coming over for dinner or what?" she crossed her arms and Jim couldn't help but glance at her breasts.
Jim exhaled a puff of smoke, bringing his cigarette back up to his lips to inhale once more. Give him time to think. "Depends. What're you making?"
"Depends. What do you want?"
Shit, she was fiery today. Raising a brow at her, he smirked. "Something with red sauce."
"Hm…stuffed shells and garlic bread?" her hands shifted to her hips. Those heels didn't make her much closer to his height, which he found funny. "Joyce told me to let you pick so here we are."
Oh. Joyce was coming too.
"Well, I picked. Let's see if you can produce, Mississippi." Hop was egging her on purposefully, enjoying the way she looked at him when she was flustered.
"I get off at 5 so after that works?"
Hopper nodded, "Be there around 6."
"Alright, see you then."
He watched her walk away then stomped out the cigarette, smirking to himself.
It wasn't that Hopper really thought this through. Sometimes he just got lucky. Sometimes he forgot that he had someone else at home relying on him, but Jane was extremely independent so half the time he wasn't even needed. Thankfully for him, tonight Jane was staying with the Wheeler's.
"I'll be there to pick you up later tonight, okay?" Hopper said over the phone.
"Will you be by yourself?" Jane asked innocently over the phone, knowing that he sometimes fell asleep on the couch and picked her up from their little game night too late.
"No. I…uh…I'm having dinner."
Another sigh. "No, kid, with a friend."
"Yep, I'll be there by nine."
They hung up and Hopper pulled out another cigarette, reading over some paperwork. His mind drifted to the questions he knew Jane would have for him once she found out about Julie. And it was only a matter of time. For fuck's sake she'd already gotten that Wheeler kid away from the punk, Billy. Kids talk, especially about new people and especially in a small town.
She'd have to meet Eleven sooner or later.
He should have brought something, that was his first thought upon pulling in the driveway of Julie's place. Joyce was already there and he was sure she brought a bottle of wine or something. In all honesty, she was lucky he showed. It'd been a long day and he was tired.
Rapping his knuckles against the front door, he was surprised when she opened so quickly.
"Hey, I'm glad you made it!" Julie ushered him in, wine glass in hand. "You want something to drink?"
"Please," he groaned.
"Hey, Hop!" Joyce greeted with a small wave. "Long day?"
He slid into a chair at the dining room table, eyeing around the room at the few decorations she'd already put. "God, yeah."
"Beer or whiskey?" Julie called from the kitchen.
"Whiskey will do."
Julie was absolutely glowing when she came back in the room. He wondered if she was just this happy to be in this small town or if it was something else entirely.
"Julie, this place looks amazing. I'm glad you found something," Joyce smiled at her.
"It was all because of you guys. So thank you."
The timer beeped in the other room and Julie quickly went to go grab the food out of the oven. Joyce followed behind her and helped pull out plates and silverware for them.
"So, how are you liking the new house?"
Julie scooped the stuffed shells and placed them on the plates, dripping more sauce on them, then placing garlic bread on the plates as well.
"I really like it. I've always thought about having a place of my own," she almost gave away more information about herself but stopped. "I guess it just gets lonely when I'm not at work."
"That's why you're so thrilled to have us here," Joyce grabbed a plate while Julie grabbed both hers and Jim's.
"Guilty. Not to mention I owed you guys." When they came back to the dining room, Jim was up wandering around her living room, taking a look at a few of the things she'd had around the house. He found his way back to the table when the food was served.
"Hop, haven't you had enough!?" Joyce laughed, three glasses of wine deep.
Julie served him another plate, grateful for their company still. Jim was on his third helping, fourth piece of garlic bread, third glass of whiskey. Not that Julie was counting.
"Let him eat, Joyce," Julie laughed.
"Didn't think it'd be this good," Hopper chided.
Julie glared across the table. "You're an ass."
All three of them laughed together.
"Ugh! I gotta get goin', Julie. Will has a project he's working on tonight for school and he's leaving the Wheeler's early." Joyce stood from the table, taking her dishes into the kitchen and placing them in the sink. "Thank you for everything."
Julie walked her to the door as Jim finished eating. She half expected Jim to walk her out, but she still couldn't read the two of them exactly.
"Take care. Thanks for coming by."
"You cook like that all the time, I'll be sure to be back."
Julie blushed at this, watching her walk to her car. She closed the door then turned back to Jim who was leaned back in his seat, looking tired.
"You haven't told her about you yet, have you?" Jim eyed her as she sat back down with him. Julie slowly poured another glass of wine. She shook her head. "Do you plan to?"
Did she? Eventually, maybe. Or…not. She didn't know.
"I just met her, Jim. I don't want her to think I'm a freak." She swirled her wine then took a sip.
"Trust me, I don't think she will…"
Julie sighed, shaking her head. "I'll get there."
Hopper glanced at his watch. "Well, Jules, color me impressed." He took a sip of his drink. "Pretty good eats."
She smirked at him. "Appreciated, Chief."
The moment felt incredibly domestic to Julie. She hadn't been alone with anyone but Joyce in the house before. Being three glasses of wine in, she couldn't help but think of the last time they were in a house alone together. She blushed at the thought. Surely Jim hadn't had any intention of her moving into the same town.
"I wasn't shitting you earlier, kid," Jim's voice was serious, all joking aside. She was reminded of their earlier conversation outside of the coffee shop. "As you said: I'll get there."
"Patience it is then, Jim."
When she got up to do dishes, he followed her into the kitchen, leaned against the stove.
"So how weird is it having a place of your own?"
Julie pondered this as she did the dishes and then answered, "Pretty weird. I always thought about it you know? I've had apartments before everything that happened, but it's been so long since I've been able to do what I want and…I don't even know what that is. I just remember dreaming of what I'd do when I got out of that facility."
"And what's that?"
"This…kinda…I guess. Back to normal living. But I think…" she sighed, looking at him and then away again. "I think I just assumed I'd have my parents."
Hopper felt instantly sad for her. Julie had no one.
"What do you mean, Hawkins isn't everything you imagined?" he was trying to use humor to cheer up the mood.
"Oh! That reminds me, I lied to Joyce about why I stayed. I couldn't tell her."
Hopper laughed. "And? What'd you say?"
"Some awful story about my grandpa meeting my grandma here or some shit. Something super romantic. I just froze, didn't want to tell her about my past."
"Yeah? Why did she think you stayed?"
Julie froze again. "You, actually."
She nodded, drying her hands off after finishing the last of the dishes.
"Joyce was digging, wanted to see how we knew each other. I think she was just curious."
"And you told her…?" he wanted to see what she'd said – if she'd mentioned anything about their more physical experiences together all those months ago.
There were times Hopper reflected on those nights. They had been unexpected, really, but enjoyable. He'd admit it to himself, once he'd seen her back in town he let his mind trail back a bit to play catch up and found himself enjoying those memories.
"-Not about that," she was blushing at his thoughts. Fuck, he kept forgetting that she could read them. "It's up to you if you wanna tell her…I mean…I have a lot to share, I guess, and that's probably not first on my list."
"And why not?" he was being playful and it was probably the drinks talking a bit.
Julie's face reddened again. "Jim…" she still didn't know if there was something going on between him and Joyce and she'd be damned if she'd ask or search through his thoughts. A part of her wondered if she just felt comfortable with him because he was familiar, unlike everyone else in this town.
"Oh, I'll be sure to tell all the juicy details down to the last touch," he stepped toward her to put his empty glass in the sink and their hips touched. Just that contact made Julie gasp lightly. "Food was good, Mississippi, but I gotta head out."
"Oh, right, yeah, no problem."
Following, she went to see him out and it felt super awkward because she was in her head about what they'd just discussed, images of those nights flashing in her mind.
She stood on the porch step and watched him go, already dreading returning to the now empty house.
Chapter 6: Quandary
Weeks went by without much happening. Julie was getting accustomed to working at the coffee shop, having not been too big of a transition from her last job. It was boring most days and she got pretty accustomed to her customers.
Nancy Wheeler was a regular – kind of. Julie noticed that she would come in brooding and leave in a calmer mind frame. She'd brought in Joyce's son Jonathan a few times which always made Julie hesitate. Jonathan was a nice kid but the memories he had, the things he'd think of during the day were so loud and hard for Julie to tone out even from across the room. She'd often take her break after a while if he were there, it made it easier to cope with.
Joyce came in sometimes when she knew the two of them were going to be there. She told the kids that it was because of the coffee, but later had admitted to Julie that she wanted to keep an eye on them. 'They always find their ways into some kinda trouble," she'd said.
Trouble it was. Billy had been back a few times when Nancy was there, almost like he was trailing her. She'd heard her mention to Jonathan that Billy was after someone named Steve. He still made her uncomfortable, even if he wasn't planning anything.
A few regulars were your typical expectation from a small-town. Some were always on the run, grabbing a coffee to go and then taking off again without a conversation. Then there were others who were slow-going, calming, and always asked questions Julie wasn't ready to respond to. She found herself fibbing about some aspects of her life if they asked, concocting some lie that she knew she'd never be able to keep up with.
And then there was Jim. He started coming a few Mondays, but would periodically stop for a brew. More often than not he'd get called off somewhere or say he was headed out. She wondered if he were fibbing half the time too. There were times she'd glance out the window and watch him walk to Melvad's instead of his truck.
Yet there were times he'd take a seat, run his hand down his facial hair, and sip his coffee while Julie cleaned up or served the next customer. He'd always find a way to slip in a conversation, though they were never long, and she always found him looking at her out of the corner of his eye. She felt like he was inspecting her, trying to figure her out.
Hopper found himself exhausted one morning. It'd been a long night. He'd sort of mentioned to Jane about Julie, said that there was someone else that was like her. It started a slew of questions that he wasn't ready to answer and he realized he wasn't ready for them to meet. It had been way too soon for him to say anything.
Once again, Jim lay awake at night concocting all of these possibilities in his head. Maybe Julie was sent by Brenner – some type of manipulation – befriending him, getting close to Jane so she can take her back to Brenner.
It sounded ridiculous, he knew, but he couldn't shake these kinds of thoughts. His mind wouldn't let up, drifting into different possibilities all night. Yet underneath it all he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that he knew these weren't the truth. Eventually he tired and drifted off to sleep but the dreams this rest gave him woke him right up once again. It went on like that for hours.
Jane was still angry when she woke up, he could feel the tension in the cabin. He'd refused to answer some questions, admitted that he didn't know the answers to others, and denied her meeting Julie.
"She was at Will's," Jane announced over breakfast. Hop stilled. "Weeks ago."
"I want to meet her."
"Soon, kid. Okay?"
It felt like a repeat of a year ago when he denied her from seeing Mike, when she'd thrown a royal temper tantrum and used her powers on the furniture in the house. This time, though, she hadn't done all that. Instead she just stormed to her room and locked herself in.
"Jim? Jim…" Julie's voice brought him back to the moment and not the memory from that morning. "Do you want more coffee?" she raised the pot beside him.
Julie eyed him. "You're distracted today."
"Yeah…" he thought about telling her. Glancing over his shoulder he noted no one in the shop at the moment. "Jane's…uh…kinda pissed at me."
Julie stilled. This was the first time he'd talked about her in weeks and he never gave her any personal moments from his home.
"Oh?" was all she said.
Hopper swallowed hard. "She wants to meet you and she's mad that I've hidden you from her this long."
Julie tried to calm her rapid heartbeat, wanting to take it gently so he didn't drop the subject. She brought the coffeepot back behind the counter, wiped things up, didn't make eye contact.
"You have your reasons I'm sure. She probably just doesn't want to hear them."
Hopper grew silent then, focusing on his coffee mug. "Yeah. Reasons…" he grunted.
He was questioning these reasons and it pissed him off that he couldn't figure out what was the right thing to do. He'd pussyfooted around mentioning it to Joyce – she'd know what to do – but that meant that he'd have to out Julie as one of Brenner's fucked up experiments.
Julie narrowed her eyes at that. "What?"
Eyes quickly darted her way when she raised her voice. "Uhhhh…"
Julie could feel her anger rising. She rounded the counter, unable to reign her annoyance back in. This had been going on far too long. She'd been waiting patiently for him to come around, let his little secret out. Jane went to school, for God's sake – right? All Julie had to do was hang around Joyce's house and soon enough Jane would be there.
"Is this still about you not trusting me, Jim?" she came toward his table, could read that his answer was 'yes'. "What else do I have to fucking do to prove it to you that I'm not the enemy here?"
Hopper sat silent, irritated by her outburst but mostly amused. He was starting to trust her if he were honest – he was just getting in his own way.
"How'd you get out this last time?" Hopper spoke it in a slow, gruff voice, never losing her gaze.
Julie's face reddened as the embarrassment crept up her spine. She wasn't prepared to tell him that story, not entirely. Hop watched her, bringing his coffee mug to his lips. She wasn't going to tell him and he knew that.
"Jim…" she felt deflated.
He shrugged, standing at full height which made Julie feel even smaller. One slow movement he removed his wallet and grabbed a few bucks. Two fingers held the bills and he stepped forward to slide the tip into her work apron.
Julie felt him close off once again as he shifted the wallet back in his pocket, removed a cigarette from the pack, slipped it between his lips. He took a few steps toward the door and it felt like each footfall made Julie tenser.
"Jim," Julie called out. He stopped, barely turned his gaze to his left. "I, uh…I tricked him. Got him alone and knocked him out." Jim stayed silent she realized and she felt like her utterance wasn't enough for him, but she couldn't disclose everything yet. "We were outside and I just took off on foot." Still silence. "I'll tell you more, I promise. Just…not yet."
Hop processed this, surprised she even admitted anything. He found himself saying, "As I said, Jules, I have my reasons," even though he didn't believe it in full.
Julie sighed loudly, staring up at the ceiling for a moment before forcing herself to go back to work.
The bell rang about a half hour before her shift ended and if this wasn't a bad day she didn't know what was. The situation with Jim just completely threw her off. She wanted to be understanding, she really did, but it was so damn hard. It wasn't that she was trying to start shit with him that morning, but she just couldn't help the frustration that came about with him not trusting her. Couldn't he feel that she wanted to keep Jane safe?
When she glanced over at the patrons she was surprised to see a group of kids.
"Do you have a bike rack?" one of them asked.
"No," she was still processing the fact that kids were coming in. "You can just leave it by the coat rack over there, actually, so they don't get stolen. Don't worry about it."
"Thank you," a few of them chimed in and Julie realized who they were.
"Wait, you guys are friends with Joyce's son, uh…" she hummed, trying to remember his name. And then a few of the friends parted in the doorway and the boy met eyes with her. Her grip tightened on the counter in front of her, a flash of his memories invading her senses. "Will," she recalled.
"Right. Hey, Ms. Preston. How are you?" the one with the curly hair came forward.
It took Julie a second to build that wall up, block out those memories of a monster inside of him, keep her cool in front of all of these kids.
"I'm doing alright. Remind me of your names again?" she asked in hopes to get her mind focused on something else. They went around the room and Julie noticed that Jane wasn't with them this time around. Curious. "I don't peg you as coffee drinkers, so what'll it be?"
"Well, uh…" Lucas stepped forward. "Cappuccino?"
Julie nodded, smiling. "Can do."
She made four of them and watched them settle in at a booth. They were whispering and glancing toward her then awkwardly smiling when she caught their glances.
Hadn't Jim said he'd told Jane about her?
As she approached the table with the drinks she overheard a whisper of, "Jane said it's her" and "how will we know?"
So they were here to snoop on her? Interesting.
"Here you guys are," she placed a drink before each of them. "It's on the house."
"Whoa, thank you ma'am!" Will exclaimed which made Julie wave him off with a smile.
Back behind the counter and cleaning up she overheard a few more comments of, "she doesn't look…weird…yanno? Like El did." Another piped in with, "I wonder what her powers are then."
"Ms. Preston?" Dustin called to her. "When did you move in?"
"Almost two months ago now."
Dustin nodded, eyes squinty as he seemed to consider this. "And where did you move from?"
He was playing detective and it made Julie laugh at their antics. In all honesty she got a more open vibe from them and she wondered how much easier it would be to talk about her powers with them than anyone else. Maybe meeting Jane wouldn't be as intimidating as she'd expected.
He couldn't think of any other questions she could tell so he went back to talking to his group. What did she appear like to them, she wondered. Did they see her as a freak or an interesting new addition to the town?
As much as her mood was sour most of the day, she was glad she got to end it on a better note.
The boys stayed until close and she let them chatter with her and each other as she closed up.
"Yeah, well my parents say I'm making my house a mess and no one's gonna want to spend time there pretty soon," Dustin laughed at the conversation he and the boys were having. "Where is your place, Ms. Preston?" he asked as she was locking the door.
"A little blue house on Habershan."
"I know where that is! Cool!"
"Well, be careful on your way home, guys," Julie said as she made her way to her car.
"Will do, Ms. Preston," Mike called back to her.
As Julie drove, she realized that if the boys were snooping on her it could only mean one thing: Jane would be seeking her out too. It was only a matter of time.
Hop entered the bar with a sigh, knowing full-well how he expected tonight to go. Gwen would probably be here and he'd play that game again where he pretended he didn't see her, wasn't interested. And then he'd get three beers deep and maybe consider sending her a glance across the bar and she'd strut her way over to him and lean down just enough for him to see her cleavage peeking out from underneath the cut of her dress.
It wasn't his favorite thing, but it held him long enough until the lonely left.
With Jane at a slumber party he figured he had time to do something for himself for once.
And then he met eyes with Julie nursing a mixed drink and looking completely downtrodden. And the night took a turn.
"Hey, Jules," he slid on the barstool beside her. She seemed startled at his presence at first which surprised him, given her abilities. Were things different when she was drinking?
"Hey, Jim," she put on a fake smile but he saw right through it. Was she still pissed about their last conversation a few days ago at the coffee shop? He sighed at the thought.
Tapping his fingers on the bar to get the barkeep's attention, he nodded toward the man who brought him his usual. He'd almost asked Julie if the two empty drinks beside her were hers but judging by the glassy expression he figured he knew that answer.
"You…uh…you alright?" Jim ran a hand down his beard as his drink came. He took a gulp of the Old Fashioned, waiting out her reply.
Julie debated unloading on him, letting him crack down the walls she'd started building up since her last escape from the facility. It might be helpful, she mused to herself, to let someone in. Maye it would help him to trust her so she could meet Jane after all this time in this crummy town…Yet she was so used to being in her head with her thoughts, learning poor coping skills when she was imprisoned in that room all those months. The little she did speak at the time was all bullshit, to Brenner, lies or half-truths just to get him to trust her enough to start letting her outside. Where could she begin to tell Jim or anyone these things? He still didn't trust her enough to meet Eleven. And if she let her biggest secret out? She couldn't even imagine the extent of that reaction.
Instead, she raised her glass, clinked it against his. "Let's drink."
Hopper didn't know how to take that. In his experience with women, the long pause typically meant something. He'd half expected her to word vomit at that moment, let him in. There were so many questions surrounding her and as a cop it pissed him off that she was so closed off sometimes.
Back when they'd first met she was hostile at first too, guarded, until she got to drinking or they were staring down the face of another danger and she let him in on her history – shined a light in the dark corners that he was curious about. He wondered if it would be similar now. What were those last months like in the facility? Did she know how badly it killed him to find out that she was here – right under his nose – all those months? Did he want her to know?
So he clinked his glass against hers and downed his drink quickly. Well, at least the company wasn't bad.
She ordered shots and holy shit did that girl know how to throw them back. Hop was impressed, really. He was never one to turn down alcohol.
Nursing her second drink since he showed up, Julie finally turned to him to see him counting the glasses around her. Working on her fourth of what looked like a mojito, two shots downed…
"Counting up, Jim?" she placed her elbow on the bar, rest her head on her closed fist, and looked at him. Jim opened his mouth to respond when she said, "catch up, Hop."
She never called him that, he came to realize, and it sounded foreign from her lips.
"Tell me," he started to say before drinking another gulp of his Old Fashioned. "are we celebrating or trying to forget?"
She pondered this a moment, scrunching up her nose before saying, "both."
Julie was jealous of Jim's tolerance. He must be practiced, she imagined. Not to mention his height and weight. She never did stuff like this, though she loved the mojitos and never figured out how to make them just right. She figured she should stop while she was right on the edge of drunk.
"Anything exciting happen today?" she asked before she realized.
Jim pursed his lips, almost smiling before shaking his head then glancing at her. "No," he chuckled. "You picked a pretty boring place to live, kid. Before, well, everything happened…this place was kinda dull." He took another sip. "People in this town don't have too much going on."
"People suck," she said before realizing that thought slipped from her mouth.
Jim watched her reaction; eyes scrunched closed, lips pursed. She opened one eye and then the other to look at him.
"Drunk thoughts there, huh Mississippi?" his tone was light and humored but he instantly felt like an asshole as he watched her expression change from humor to something hollow. So there it was, the reason she was drinking tonight: home.
She took another sip of her drink, body turning to face the bar again, away from him. He felt like she physically shut him out again. Great.
Glancing over his shoulder, he made eye contact with Gwen. Her blonde hair dusted over her exposed shoulder in that dress and she made her way to the bar. Jim turned away, glancing at Julie, then back at the bar top. He felt heat beside him in a moment and knew Gwen was there.
"I'll take another Long Island," she told the bartender. Jim didn't look up at her. "Oh! Hopper. Fancy seeing you here," her hand was on his bicep and he honestly just wanted her to go away. "You alone again tonight?"
The lilt to her voice would have made him crave the attention any other night. But tonight he was invading Julie's space and he felt like scum from bringing up her hometown, probably looked even lower with a blonde woman hanging on his arm now.
"Nah, I'm with a friend."
Julie was surprised by this and maybe it was the alcohol but him calling her a friend made her feel choked up. She'd lost all her friends, lost contact after the facility, distanced herself from everyone when she came home. Jim calling her Mississippi brought it all back in waves, all of the feelings and thoughts she was trying to swallow down with alcohol tonight.
She meant to look up at the woman, smile kindly at meeting her, but her eyes were brimming with tears and she felt like a fucking fool getting so emotional over him calling her his friend. She tried to pass it off as just the alcohol but she knew better. She'd needed this. They were friends.
The woman must have wandered off because Jim was looking at her again, trying to read her, she was sure. She tried to use her ability to read his thoughts but alcohol always numbed her senses.
Suddenly overwhelmed with conflicting emotions, she asked him. "What are you thinking right now?"
Jim finished another drink. "You tell me." He liked this game sometimes, liked to see what she could do when he was prepared to focus on one thing. He hated it when she could just weasel herself into his brain without him prepared. What had she learned from those moments if he wasn't on guard in front of her?
"I can't," she sighed, finally looking up at him from under her lashes. The vulnerable look she had almost knocked Hopper off his barstool.
So he'd been right earlier based on her reaction. "You can't?"
She looked frustrated suddenly, laughed without humor, shook her head. "Funny how I hate the fucking power but the moment it's foggy I can't rely on it and I want to."
"What do you want to know?" he asked tentatively.
She paused, glanced at the empty glasses. "What you think of me."
Julie said it so quietly he almost thought he'd imagined her words. What did he think of her? God, he didn't want to say the wrong thing and fuck this up. These vulnerable moments with her were few and far between from what he remembered. She was always so guarded, so fiery. Clearly she was feeling her drinks or she wouldn't have asked that question. Glancing at his empty wrist where Sara's hair tie used to be, he found his answer.
"I think you have baggage like the rest of us."
That response overwhelmed her. Julie felt the world shift beneath her, felt like those walls were caving in on her.
She ordered another drink.
Hopper didn't know if that reaction was a good thing or not and he spent the next five minutes in silence, running it over in his head.
He felt pressure on his shoulder which brought him out of his thoughts. Julie was getting down from the barstool, hand on his shoulder to steady herself as her feet met the ground. She was so short and it was kinda humorous watching her slide out of the seat.
She made her way to the bathroom with calculated steps that Hopper recognized quickly. Julie was pretty drunk.
Jim motioned to the bartender, closing his tab and paying for Julie's drinks too. He'd been right about the number of drinks she had. For someone of her body weight, he was surprised she held her own as long as she did.
"Don't tell me you paid my tab too, Chief," came her voice beside him. Her cheeks were heated but otherwise she looked fine. "No more favors." She narrowed her eyes at him.
"I never promised that," he chuckled. "C'mon, let's go."
Julie's chest felt hollow at the thought of going back to that empty house again. She was still getting used to it. She was torn once again: happy to have a place of her own now, but lonely in a way that she hadn't felt in the facility. Back with Brenner she had a mission, didn't have time to focus on the sadness and the ache of the empty room. Now, she just had work.
Jim was leading her out the door, hand on her lower back and she appreciated the closeness for once, leaned into it. Hopper felt it, felt her arm wrap around his middle as they walked to his Blazer, felt her lean her head against his side as they continued on.
"I can't drive, Jim," she hummed, hiding her face in his shirt with a slight giggle.
"Oh, I know," he easily stepped into this caretaker role. The bartender had given him a look on the way out that was annoying to him. What with his past, he was sure the barkeep had him pegged as some scumbag who fed Julie drinks to get her to sleep with him. Maybe he should care more about his appearance around town, but he didn't.
"I don't wanna go back there," she leaned against his Blazer, crossed her arms.
"That house," she said it like a curse word.
"Your house?" Jim questioned to which she shrugged it off, rolling her eyes. Jim sighed. "Why's that?"
Julie reached out for his thick wrist, tried pulling him toward her which just resulted in her stepping closer to him instead.
"It's lonely," she whispered, pressing her head to his chest. Hopper tensed, feeling her hands slip from his wrist to his middle, tracing her fingers up his chest to his biceps. Being touched like that threw him off for a minute and he forgot what his endgame was here.
Lonely. He got that one.
"Let's get you sobered up and then we'll talk about taking you back." He'd almost said home but thought better of it.
She jumped into the passenger seat all too eagerly and when they were on their way to the cabin things felt too familiar. He thought back to that time crossing state lines with her, running from the guys they would later find out were part of MKUltra. That felt like a lifetime ago. Before he knew who Brenner was, right after the loss of Sara. Things were bad at that point but Julie's situation had managed to distract him temporarily. That is, until she was taken and he was left to pick up the pieces. Those months were dark. Burying himself so deep in sex and booze and pills. He had nothing.
"You're thinkin' some dark thoughts, Chief," Julie hummed beside him, slight smirk on her face.
Jim's mouth fell open as he glanced from the street to her then back. The moonlight made her look even paler and he could see the way her chest rose and fell steadily with every breath in the darkness.
"I thought you said you-"
"Alcohol seems to weaken it, especially in a crowded room. Now it's just you and me, Jimmy."
Hopper felt his cheeks redden at the thought. "Did you plan this?"
"What? To get shitfaced in your presence?" she laughed. "No, Jim. Was not my plan."
They got to the cabin and to Julie's irritation Jim helped her out of the Blazer and up the steps.
"You're so damn stubborn," Jim griped as she forced her arm out of his grip.
Julie was aware that he was housing Eleven but she didn't want to make it obvious that she was curious. She was feeling the alcohol still and it was awful how the room was spinning. The cabin seemed homey, lived-in, and it made her ache even more.
"I'm sorry, Jim…" her emotions finally came to her full-force as she huffed down on the couch, head in her hands. She could feel the tears prickling and it pissed her off. The mix of emotions and the booze really hit her hard all at once and how damn embarrassing was this?
Jim ignored her apology, he hadn't needed it. Stepping toward the fridge he got her a bottle of water. When he came back to sit beside her, she was looking at him, pink cheeks, eyes glassy, tearstains. Aw fuckhe was uncomfortable with crying women. He handed her the water and she hesitated but took it.
"What are you thinking about?" he asked quietly, not leaning back and getting comfortable yet. She looked at him like a wounded animal. "Figured I'd ask. It's only fair."
She smiled at that but hid it when she slumped her shoulders and shook her head.
A shaky breath left her. "When I started drinking or now?"
"Both," Jim answered instantly and she realized it mirrored the statement she'd made at the bar about celebrating and trying to forget.
She huffed, glaring at him for a second before shoving his shoulder which, again, did nothing to move him. The moment held sadness but he couldn't help but be humored by her antics.
"Earlier…" she exhaled loudly then glanced over at him again. "You're staring."
Jim raised his hands in innocence, leaning back a bit. "I'm not!"
Julie shot him another look, pursing her lips before laughing awkwardly. "I can't do this."
"Too late, you already started. Don't be a tease," he meant it as just a comment but soon realized the entendre and his mind went elsewhere. Just in case she was paying attention to his headspace, he tried shifting his thoughts again.
Julie leaned back against the couch. "This is so hard," she was still laughing from the buzz or the tension Hop didn't know.
"Oh, right, I don't feel bad at all!" Jim retorted. "You realize that nothing is private for those around you."
Her mouth fell open and Hopper worried he said the wrong thing again.
"Harsh, Jim, real harsh," she still had a smile on her face though. "Okay, fine, I'll go." She was stalling but he could wait all night. "Don't look at me," she groaned.
"Nu-uh. Too bad, I'm looking at you," he bit back.
"Then I'm turning away," she gripped the water bottle tighter and turned her back to him. Jim waited, sighing.
After a few minutes he was amazed at her ability to stall. "If you don't talk I'm taking you back."
She said nothing at first and he started to get up, grab his keys.
"Okay…" she breathed, reaching behind her to pull him back down, hand landing on his hip. When she felt the weight of him back on the couch, she pulled her hands back in her lap. "So…earlier…I was just…stuck in my head, I guess." He gave her a second. "I was thinking about the facility. About Brenner. My home…" her voice broke at this and Hopper had an image in his head of Sara crying, reaching out to him when she scraped her knee. He held back the urge to comfort her. "I was thinking about all the people who've been killed because of this thing. Because of me. Because I escaped."
"Julie…" Jim wanted to stop her there, correct her, interrupt this negative talk.
"I shouldn't have run. I should have torn that place apart from the inside out and never gotten anyone else involved. My sister would still be alive. My parents…" she wiped a hand against her face.
Jesus, what a heavy burden to carry. He couldn't blame her; his head would probably be in the same place if the situation were flipped. Yet she couldn't have handled that all her own. It was too big. Hopper wondered what she'd been thinking when she first came in the cabin, when the tears started.
Julie read this from him, wanting to know his reaction to what she'd said, yet still afraid to turn to see him.
"Jules, I...you can't blame yourself. Believe me that dark thought will get you nowhere."
And he knew, God, he knew. Knew what it felt like to bottle shit up, bury it so deep down so he had a few days of reprieve from that feeling, that guilt. Survivor's guilt. God, he knew it well.
Julie sat quietly, reading him again, sobering up with the more water she drank, yet the room still spun.
"I'm sorry, Jim," she buried her head in her hands. "This is not how I wanted tonight to go. I'm so sorry."
"Just stop, okay? Shit happens. I'm just glad you didn't drive."
"I walked to the bar." At this, Jim fumed. The bar was pretty far from her place. What was she thinking? What kind of reckless move was that, given all that had happened to her? Julie was suddenly thinking about her comment about her house and that guilt settled in her chest. "I didn't mean that I don't like my place, by the way." Jim sat silent. "I guess I just didn't expect my life to be like this."
Jim nodded, completely getting that feeling as well. She finally turned back to him and he stilled, feeling vulnerable himself now that she could see his expression.
"Expectations will kill ya."
Julie pulled her legs up onto the couch, rest her head against the back cushion, stared up at Jim. She looked tired; like that emotional outburst was enough to push her into exhaustion.
"Did you have any?"
"Expectations?" he inquired. She nodded sleepily. "Yeah?"
"Hmmm…" she closed her eyes for a second and he flinched, worried she was trying to read him again. "Things never work out like we plan, huh?"
A few moments of silence and he left to go take a leak. When he came back into the room, Julie was curled up on the couch, breathing even. Snaking the water bottle from her hand, he leaned down to pick her up. He worried that Jane might see her in the morning on the couch if she came home early – God forbid – and ask questions, so he figured letting her take his bed for the night was a good choice.
Careful through the doorway, he set her down in his unmade bed and pulled the covers up over her. She'd probably be uncomfortable sleeping in jeans but he didn't want to risk any injuries to himself; if she woke up in his bed with no pants on he could imagine the fiery woman coming after him with a sharp object.
Getting super excited for Stranger Things 3! I hope you enjoyed these two getting a little chummier this chapter. Thank you for the comments, kudos, and subscriptions!