There was a chill in the night air as Hopper pulled up in Harrington’s driveway; his breath formed clouds in the air when he stepped out onto the gravel. Damn, the kid had a nice house.
El rushed to stand beside him, tugging on his sleeve. It was still a novelty to her, being allowed out of the cabin - he was still cautious, still Not Stupid. But it was New Year’s Eve, her first with a family, and it had been a rough year all around. They both deserved a break.
She bounced ahead and the door opened as she reached it, the Wheeler kid launching himself at her in a tooth-rotting embrace. Hopper glimpsed a flash of brown hair and wool behind them before Joyce appeared in the doorway, moving aside as the kids linked hands and ran into the house. She leant against the doorframe, fishing in her pocket for a cigarette that he automatically moved forward to light. He stepped back again and she took a long, tired drag, and he took the opportunity to look at her - really look at her - for the first time in a long while.
Her cheeks were hollower than before, the shadows on her face more pronounced. Her hair was growing longer, wilder, her bangs dipping in front of her eyes, and her sweater seemed to swallow her up. Still, she looked beautiful standing there in the chill evening air, the glow from the house behind her illuminating her hair into wisps of gold. Hopper would have wanted to go to her and brush her hair out of her eyes, smooth those frown lines away, if it wouldn’t have made him such a fucking cliché.
He’d always been a fool for Joycie Horowitz. (He would never understand why she kept that Byers scumbag’s name.)
It was the little things that got him, most of the time. The tug of that small scar on her chin when she smiled, the crinkle of her eyes like they never had before, the way she pulled the sleeves of her jumper down against the cold December wind. She was beautiful, and fragile, and strong all at once; stronger than him, he thought sometimes. Sure, she was tiny, and sometimes her voice cracked and she couldn’t continue, and often now she’d wind up with her back to the door, breathless and skittish, unable to meet his eyes - but she kept going, despite it all. She didn’t descend into the whiskey-taste stupor that was so, so familiar to him.
(He remembered when he first returned to Hawkins, four months after Sara and still nursing a hangover every morning, and Joyce was the subject of gossip and rumour:
I heard she took a shotgun and told him what’s what.
No, she smashed the windows of his car after he cheated on her with a 10th-grader.
Apparently the older kid’s on his dad’s side, but she won’t let them see him.
Now the truth is she had some sort of mental break and Lonnie, poor guy, tries to take the kids - for their own safety, of course - but she’s having none of it, and paints him as some wife-beating monster in court, and now he’s not allowed within a hundred yards.
After this last one, Hopper went to his colleagues at the station and demanded the truth. Powell looked at him with a mixture of boredom, disdain and surprise, before recounting the story: We had calls about domestic disputes there before, but nothing major - just the two of them screaming at each other and the neighbours getting pissy. Anyway, we get a call this time and turns out it’s the older kid, Jonathan, he’s getting scared and he thinks his dad’s gonna kill his mom. Well, we head down there and there’s no car in the driveway and dead silence, we think the worst.
So we go in and there’s Joyce in pretty bad shape - here Hopper’s face must have changed because Powell hastened to continue - physically she’s fine, but a bit, you know, cuckoo. Jonathan’s distracting the smaller kid with some kind of game, I dunno, and Joyce has her hands on this goddamn shotgun and completely unresponsive. Long story short, turns out he’s been hitting her for a while, and that day he decides to hit the youngest too - so she grabs his shotgun and tells him not to come back. He took her car - his was in the shop - and got the hell out of dodge.
Hopper’s stomach sank as Powell talked. He’d never liked Lonnie - he’d never liked any of the guys Joyce had dated in high school - but this was beyond what he’d imagined when he’d left her to her marriage, to her kids, to her small town life. He looked at the statements, the report, the photo of Joyce when they brought her in. She looked tired, older, hollower than before, with finger-shaped bruises blossoming on her neck. Physically fine indeed.
But when he’d gone to see her on one of his few lucid, sober days, she’d been brisk and certain of herself, of her family. Perhaps he’d expected to find a broken woman he could save, a struggling single mother whose children he could appropriate into some measure of his own family - but Joyce was never the damsel in distress, not in high school and not now. He supposed that without someone to save, without someone to protect, he himself was the broken one, sinking into the bottom of a bottle of whiskey because there was no one to stop him. And he could never, ever blame Joyce for that - what kind of man would he be then? - because it was his own goddamn fault, his own goddamn saviour complex that kept on fucking him over.
The whole end-of-the-world crisis pulled him out of that particular hole, gave him that pseudo-family he was craving. And now - he wouldn’t say he was happy, because shit had hit the fan, and every time Joyce frowned it set his teeth on edge - but he could be. He could be. If he got to be the source of Joyce’s smiles.)
The sound of whooping emerged from the open door, and Joyce looked over her shoulder, the moment broken. “Sounds like a fun night ahead,” she said, the cheeriness in her voice sounding empty and false.
She moved to go back inside, and impulsively he grabbed her arm. “We could go somewhere. Ring in the new year in peace and quiet.”
She stared at him, as if he’d grown a second head. (Not entirely implausible, in a town like Hawkins.) “Will- the kids-” she stuttered, her breath quickening. Hopper was no stranger to this feeling, could relate to it so goddamn much, but he took her other arm gently and held her there, looking into her startled eyes.
“Joyce, I promise you, nothing’s gonna happen tonight. Worst comes to worst, Jonathan, Nancy and Steve are here with them, and you know I’d kill them myself if they let anything happen to El, to Will - to any of the kids.”
Slowly, her shaking hands curled into his jacket and clung to it, anchoring her to him. She exhaled shakily. “I’m sorry, I’m just so- after everything that happened- and Bob-” She released his jacket and wiped at her eyes with a wet chuckle. “God, I’m a mess.”
He said nothing, only held her closer.
Finally she looked up at him and for the first time in a while her gaze was clear, her face unclouded. “We’re going to my house. And you’re not getting me drunk.”
He smiled. “Why, I’d never dream of it, Madame.”
She shoved him lightly, comfortably, and for a moment it felt like they were teenagers again, listening to Elvis on the hood of his car, passing smokes and and kisses and stupid jokes. But neither of them would ever be those kids again, kids who were no strangers to hardship even then but still had a long way to come. Him, who’d lost a child and wife and gained a child and a something; her, whose losses came and went like leaves fluttering in the breeze.
Joyce straightened up and smiled at him. His heart ached at the sight, because it was so foreign and so welcome.
“We should let Jonathan, Nancy and Steve know what they’re in for,” she said, and he nodded, following her into the house. He’d been right - it was a nice fucking house - and he wondered at the loneliness of this kid Harrington, that he was spending New Year’s with his ex, her new boyfriend and six loud pre-teens. At his age, with a house like this, Hopper would already be shitfaced and have his arm around a girl - but then again, by his age Hopper hadn’t looked death as squarely in the face.
“Chief!” Will exclaimed as they passed the group on the floor, gathered around copious numbers of pizza boxes. Hopper stopped and tried to contain his surprise as the kid launched himself at him, hugging back with not a little watery affection. (God, he was going soft.) Will looked better, happier, more whole. There were still shadows in his eyes - hell, there were still shadows in everybody’s eyes - but his cheeks weren’t so hollow, his smile wider. All the kids seemed more joyful tonight, he noticed as he looked over Will’s shoulder - perhaps it was the prospect of a new year, a new start. Whatever the reason, they were a ridiculously happy little bunch. (El and Max, apparently, had hit it right off, despite some mishap in the beginning involving boy troubles.)
When Hopper met Joyce’s eyes there was the hint of a knowing smile on her face, and if his cheeks went a little pink he’d deny it for the rest of his days. Then he followed her through to the kitchen, where Nancy was perched on a counter and the boys were laughing at something she’d said.
“Hey, Chief, hey, Mom,” Jonathan said, turning to them. “All good?”
“Actually, we were thinking of heading back and having a quiet night in. Is that all right? I mean, you can manage on your own?” Joyce asked, the old note of fretfulness creeping into her voice.
It was Steve who answered. “Sure, Mrs Byers. We don’t mind.”
Was he imagining it, or was that the fragment of a smirk Hopper saw on Nancy Wheeler’s face? Either way, it was settled, and he sensed only a faint amount of trepidation from Joyce as they left the house, having told the kids (who were more absorbed in the pizza than them leaving anyway) they’d see them in 1985.
Then they drove back to Joyce’s in their separate cars, Hopper thrumming with warmth. That Swedish group that broke up a few years back was crooning Happy New Year on the radio, and (once again, it was something he’d take to the grave) he couldn’t help but hum along, horribly out of tune, tapping his hands on the steering wheel. Because it had been a shitty year all right, but as the snow began to swirl before his windshield and Joyce’s headlights dipped and weaved in front, he couldn’t help the stubborn optimism that warmed his chest.
Happy new year/Happy new year/May we all have our hopes, our will to try.
It was approaching eight when they arrived at Joyce’s house, and the snow that had halted for the end of the drive began to pick up again when he stepped out of the car. Joyce made to hurry inside, fumbling on the darkened doorstep to find the right key, but Hopper savoured the darkness, the way the snowflakes glinted as they settled on her hair. Absently he reached out to touch one, feeling it melt on his fingertip.
Joyce stilled at his touch, and in the dark he couldn’t tell if she was smiling or not. Suddenly he remembered that it was December still, less than two months after Bob-
He was overstepping, definitely overstepping. He was being too pushy, too forceful, he’d scare her away before-
She owed him nothing, he had to remember that. Her beauty was entirely her own, her entire defiant personality was independent from him-
“You’re blocking the light,” she said, and she didn’t sound annoyed, or sad, or forced into a corner. He moved back and she unlocked the door, dropping the keys on the table and flooding the house in warm light. He followed.
“Drink?” she asked, her voice carefully neutral. “I have bourbon. Or beer.”
He considered her for a moment. “Beer’d be good,” he said. Was that a hint of relief in her eyes? He supposed he was known locally as a drunkard, though he’d mostly steered clear of anything stronger than beer since the events of November ‘83. He couldn’t afford to be a drunken, pill-popping mess with a hunted feral kid under his protection - and there was something in the way Joyce had looked at him, had looked at him this year too, when he actually got shit done.
She handed him a bottle, taking one for herself and leaning against the counter, looking at the floor. It was awkward, suddenly, awkward as it hadn’t been in a while.
“Strange to see your house looking normal,” he offered, a weak attempt, but she smiled anyway.
He thought of tunnels, of monsters, of gates, of christmas lights. They’d shared too much for small talk to be beyond them - and yet perhaps they’d passed that point, waved it goodbye as the inter-dimensional trainwreck left the station. (Twice.)
She seemed to know what he was thinking, because she voiced it. “This is… really fucking weird, isn’t it?” Her cheeks colored and she hurried to continue; “I mean, with everything that’s happened, and…”
She trailed off, but Hopper didn’t need her to clarify. It seemed ridiculous. “D’you remember that winter dance, what was it, December ‘58? You were wearing this tiny blue dress - Miss French told you to change and-”
“-and you gave me your jacket to tie around my waist,” she finished for him, looking into the distance and smiling. “Then she caught us smoking in the stairwell and gave us a month’s detention.”
“It was worth it. And remember, I tried to pass the cigarette off as mine but there was red lipstick all over it.”
“My hero,” she smirked, looking straight at him in a way that made his heart stutter (fuck’s sake, Jim, you sop).
He took a long sip of his beer and, almost unbidden, the words tripped from his tongue; “I miss you in red lipstick.”
Joyce looked away, and he wasn’t sure whether the flush on her cheeks was anger, pleasure, or shame on his behalf. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, when the moments stretched so taut between them as it was.
He was surprised, then, when she said quietly, “I stopped wearing it when I married Lonnie.” She scoffed darkly. “There’s that perfect ideal of marriage, y’know? When you love each other so much that you don’t have to impress them anymore, and it’s supposed to be a good thing, but I let him get away with so much shit and all he did was-”
She sniffed and Hopper went instinctively to her side, letting her bury her face in his chest. “All he did was tear me down, tear the boys down. That’s the worst part, I could have dealt with it if it was just me-”
He held her closer. Her shoulders shook under his hands, and her tears were falling on his jumper, but he didn’t let her go. “Fuck, I spend so much time crying. And now your jumper’s all wet.” She stepped back and brushed at it feebly.
“It doesn’t matter, Joyce. What matters is I never had a chance to punch the asshole’s lights out.” As he spoke he realised he meant it wholeheartedly; he didn’t mind being her shoulder to cry on, her port in the storm, the man who’d happily murder her douchebag ex if she so much as frowned. It was a startling thought, a sobering one, because Hopper had grown used to standing alone. He’d lived a long time independent of others, the only one affected by his stupid choices - and now there was Joyce, and El, and a whole group of kids who were somehow family now.
After Sara, after Diane left, when he started sleeping and drinking his way through the town of Hawkins, he’d hated the idea of family. He’d looked at these happy little units, nuclear families with picket fences, and sneered inwardly, feeling the sting of bitterness at every kid’s laugh. He’d looked at the Wheelers, this well-to-do foursome, and wanted to cry - because Ted was far from a perfect father, and theirs was far from a happy marriage, but at least he had a kid. At least they had a marriage. At least they looked good on the outside, at least people would look at them in the street with friendliness rather than pity and later disapproval. (I felt sorry for the guy at first, I mean he lost his kid, but he’s a drunken, sleazy mess. Hawkins is a respectable town - the guy should move his womanising and his alcoholism someplace else.)
And then he’d look at Joyce, and it’d feel a little easier. Her family - and it was a family, make no mistake - was far from the little nuclear model that tore at him so. She loved her boys with all the fire of a lioness, but she’d been worn down by cares too. He’d heard people whispering, saying she was a nervous wreck, a woman unfit to parent her children alone, and he’d glared at them until they shut up, told them coldly to mind their own business - but this was a thread of similarity running between them, two damaged people deemed unfit for picket-fence small-town life.
Joyce looked at him, her eyes reddened yet bright. “We did smash his mistress’ windows, though. Remember, when we drove to Chicago?”
He chuckled at the memory. “Assholes had it coming - what was he doing with a mistress in Chicago? Took us hours to get there and steal back your car.”
She laughed too, before going quiet for a moment. “I preferred it when he was away,” she said. “Just me, and the kids, and we could pretend like it’d always been that way, just the three of us. That was a lot harder to do when Lonnie was drunkenly snoring on the couch in the middle of the day, or calling Will a-”
She stopped and visibly composed herself. Hopper met her eyes. “You’re a good mom, Joyce.”
“I know,” she said, but her voice wavered. He knew she blamed herself for a lot of shit, hated herself for more, was terrified of letting the boys down - but there was that undercurrent of steel, always there, that absolute conviction in her love for her sons - so when she seemed to doubt herself, he could scarcely believe it.
“Joyce, you would go to the ends of the earth for your kids. Hell, beyond this earth, literally.”
She sighed. “And yet Will wakes up screaming every night, and pushes me away because I’m too protective-”
“That’s not your fault, and you know it. And being protective - that’s what being a parent is.” He should know, after the showdown with Eleven. “Maybe he thinks you’re hovering, and maybe you are, but you’d be a worse parent if you weren’t.”
She looked up at him with her large, earnest eyes, and smiled shyly. “You know, El thinks the world of you.”
Hopper frowned. “When did she tell you that, because she hasn’t exactly liked me recently.”
Joyce looked amused at his apparent obliviousness. “You give such good advice, then you don’t follow it at all, do you? She understands that you were keeping her away from the rest of us out of love. She’s a very smart girl, you know. Smarter than we give her credit for.”
He let out a breathy chuckle, amazed at Joyce’s sheer emotional intuition. Sure, she needed comfort a lot of the time - but she was excellent at knowing when and how to give it.
She stepped back, the moment having reached some natural conclusion. “I don’t have much in the way of food, but there’s some boxed Mac N Cheese in the cupboard?”
He nodded. “Sounds great,” he said, and meant it.
She went off in search of it, and he spotted an old radio on the counter - it was battered, but when he pulled out the antenna and tuned the knobs, tinny music followed. When he recognised the song, he turned it up.
“Who is this?” Joyce asked, from her position kneeling in front of a cluttered cupboard.
“It’s Bowie, Joyce, you disgrace. Do you never use this thing?”
She turned to look at him, her hair flying around her face. “No, Jonathan has his own stereo and he only ever listens to The Clash.”
“Huh, you’ve gotta teach your boy some real music-” he stopped as she climbed up onto the counter. “What are you doing?”
“It’s up here somewhere-” she wobbled and he moved forward, steadying her. Really, he should have been looking instead of her, seeing as he stood over a head taller - but he knew better than to interrupt. She’d always been fiercely independent.
Finally she found it, holding it up triumphantly. “You’re lucky I found this, otherwise you’d be subjected to my frankly awful cooking.”
“Yeah, it’s not that bad,” Hopper said, acutely aware that his cooking skills ranked worse than hers. At least she tried.
She smiled and clambered down. It took him a moment to realise that his hands were still on her waist and she gently shrugged them off, not commenting on his transparent lack of boundaries. Still, they’d always been more tactile than most ‘friends’; the line between platonic and romantic was ridiculously blurred.
She turned to the stove and poured out the box’s contents into a pan while Hopper finished his beer. It wasn’t expensive stuff, but it hit the spot; on an empty stomach he was feeling that tipsy warm haze, the same haze that had been his home for so many years. It was a different feeling, though. Here, where Joyce smiled at him with those doe eyes and El thought ‘the world of him’, the alcohol didn’t feel so dangerous, so potent - it was warmth that coursed through him, not oblivion.
The song on the radio changed, and at the first few notes he strode over to it and turned it up even further. Uptown got its hustlers, the bowery got its bums. It would forever be associated with El, with that tentative joy when they were cleaning up the cabin, with the look on her face when he started dancing - she had been shocked, and embarrassed, and happy with that wide-eyed surety of hers.
“Now this is real music. Jonathan could learn a thing or two.”
Joyce stopped stirring the Mac N Cheese as the chorus started, staring at him with raised eyebrows. “Really? This is your favourite song? That’s narcissistic.”
He chuckled, and supposed it was, really. You don’t mess around with Jim, crooned Jim Croce over the crackling radio.
“I never said it was my favourite,” he said, smiling in a way that he thought was mysterious but probably looked foolish.
She came over to stand closer, looking up at him with a challenge in her eyes. “Oh yeah? And what is your favourite song, Chief?”
Hopper’s smile faded, and she seemed to understand that the tone was now serious. “Do you remember that night at Chrissy Carpenter’s party? March ‘58?” She nodded slowly, her eyes widening as it undoubtedly dawned on her. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but continue. “You looked so beautiful that night, d’you remember? You were wearing this- this white skirt, and Chrissy threw her pop’s red wine all over you, I can’t remember why now, only that you didn’t deserve it - and you went outside to sulk, and I came and found you on the hood of your dad’s car, and the radio was playing. I offered you a smoke, and we stared at the stars and you told me you hated this place.” His voice grew softer. “Then you kissed me. While Sinatra sang I’m a fool to want you.”
Joyce stared at him silently, while Sinatra crooned his hopeless love song in Hopper’s ears. It felt like he’d released some deep, dark part of him; some part of him that had always, always held the image of Joyce, tear-stained and lips parted, at his heart. But she wasn’t exorcised from his very soul; indeed he only wanted her more, now, as if giving voice to this unspoken desire had brought it front and center in his imagination.
“Jim,” she said, and kissed him.
It was just as he remembered, and not. Her mouth was soft, pliant, yet there was desire in the way she moved her lips, hinted with her tongue. He brought up a hand to her cheek, tangled it in her hair, and she sighed against him, drawing him closer by clutching at his neck.
He moved his kisses downward, progressing to her neck as her head fell back in an approximation of ecstasy. She shivered under his touch, as his lips moved in a way that was sure to leave a mark. She drew him back up and her lips met his again, and he thought that he could never get tired of this. She tasted and smelled of smoke, both a reminder of what they shared and the burnt singe of destruction; she and her family were a burning house, and he wanted to live in it.
Suddenly she broke away. “Hop- Hop, I can’t. I can’t do this.”
His heart fell, swooping the way your stomach does when standing at a great height. He breathed out slowly, trying to keep it steady, as she leant her forehead against his, looking up at him with eyes older than her years.
“This isn’t never,” she said. “I’m not saying never. But right now-”
He understood. He did. Not even two months after Bob? He got it, he got it so completely it hurt. But that wasn’t to say he hadn’t had this stupid, stupid hope that she wouldn’t be such a good person, she wouldn’t cling to the memory of that good and kind man.
“What about Bob?” she rounded on him, anger in her eyes where before there was desire.
He stopped. What could he say, what could anyone say? Bob was good, Bob was kind, and Bob was dead. And Hopper knew that she blamed herself, that she swung between wishing she’d gone to Maine (cold, bleak Maine) with him and wishing she’d broken it off as an act of martyrdom. This was a personal grief, and nothing anyone said or did could help her weather it.
“Well, what do you want to say?” Joyce pressed. There was a light in her eyes, but it was wrong - all wrong - and she was spoiling for a fight. Looking for someone else to blame, someone other than herself for once.
“Wanna say that you’re sorry, that it gets easier? Wanna come in here with your- with your music and your hugs and suddenly that makes it okay? That makes it fucking fine? That means you can fucking- fucking do that-”
A tear slid down her cheek and she wiped it away with her sleeve, a hasty and furious movement. Hopper stared at her, and hurt, because this was all going wrong. He hadn’t wanted this to happen, hadn’t wanted some sort of catharsis- hell, he hadn’t wanted to ruin everything by kissing her, but he had. Joyce and he were an open wound.
“And of course it’s fine, it has to be fucking fine, because Will needs me and Jonathan’s a kid, he shouldn’t have to look after his pathetic mom, and Bob was gonna- Bob was gonna save us from this, Bob was fucking nice and normal and-”
“And what?” Hopper said, almost unconsciously, but as he started he couldn’t stop. “Bob was nice, Bob was fucking nice. Don’t you think you need someone who’s not just nice?”
Joyce stared at him, looking as if he’d slapped her. “I needed nice! I needed someone who- who was nice to the boys, nice to me! Who’d always be there, always pick up the phone! Wouldn’t go on four day benders while my husband was beating the shit out of me!”
There. There it was.
They looked at each other, her wild-eyed and breathing hard. He was silent for a while, the revelation having dropped like a stone in his chest. And yeah, there was truth in what she’d said. Lonnie had come creeping back into her life like a stubborn weed at least twice after she kicked him out the first time, and while Hopper had been alarmed each time, he’d been neck deep in the drugged stupor that had dominated those years in Hawkins, and therefore unable to care. Unwilling, maybe. (He’d been a selfish bastard sometimes.)
“Oh, that’s not fair. Who’s the one who took him back again and again? Thinking he’s changed, he’s different now. Newsflash: assholes like that don’t change!”
She clenched her jaw. “No, apparently they don’t.”
“Oh, don’t you compare me to him. I am nothing like-”
“Oh no? Same bars, same stash of bottles under the bed. You might have even fucked the same women!”
“I would never hurt you!” he snarled, cringing inside as the words tripped off his tongue. “I’d never-”
“You let Bob die!” she shrieked, eyes wild. “It shouldn’t’ve been him! Why- why was it him?” Her voice cracked. “It should’ve been-”
“It should’ve been me?” Hopper supplied quietly, looking at her hard.
She was silent for a moment, and he felt cold. Suddenly she turned, and he noticed the smell of burning, smoke beginning to drift up from the stove. Joyce cursed, rushing to fumble with a cloth and the pan. He would have gone to help her, but the revelation had left him numb - so he slipped quietly out the front door.
He stood on the porch and lit a cigarette, watching the smoke drift in the wintry breeze. Her words were ringing in his ears - or rather the words he had supplied, that had been at the forefront of both their minds. It wasn’t that he wished it had been him - he had always believed himself far more adept at protecting Joyce than Bob the Brain - but he’d felt so helpless, unable to save them all. Watching and waiting as those snarling, snapping creatures stalked the hallways, slaughtered that kind man. Extinguished the light in Joyce’s eyes.
Hopper stared out into the darkness. The snow was swirling with vigor now, stacking up on the ground. The kids would have a great time in the morning - maybe he could take El sledging for the first time. And then the night would draw in, the first of 1985, and they could sit cozily in the cabin and watch whatever shitty movie they were showing on TV, over plates of Eggos and maple syrup.
(He’d hoped that they’d spend New Year’s Day together, him and Joyce and El and Will - that they would be this makeshift, threadbare family that Hawkins Lab had knotted together inextricably. But those words - it should’ve been you - echoed in his head, and he could feel himself pulling back. Withdrawing.)
His eyes began to sting.
-- interlude: in all of these years (the only one to stop my tears) --
Hopper was gone.
Joyce knew that much without turning around; she felt the sudden slap of cold air as the door opened, heard the soft click as it fell shut. Most of all she noticed the sudden emptiness - the absence of his angered breathing, his very presence that was commanding yet so gentle (most of the time).
It was only when she’d processed this information that she realised she was crying, tears racing down her cheeks - and then there was a flood of them, and she couldn’t stop. Her chest felt tight, her stomach churning - blindly, through a blur of tears, she moved the burnt food off the heat and slumped to the floor, her back to a cupboard.
Hopper was gone for good, she was sure of it, and what would she do now? He was gone in his car in the snow, and he’d probably find some forgotten bottle of pills and what if he went on a bender and what about El, would he forget about El? Would he leave them all with nothing and what if the gate wasn’t shut? What if the thing came back and the dogs and they had to burn it out of Will again, and were the lights flickering? Lights, flashing, flickering, dark-light-dark-light-
“Will,” she whispered between panicked breaths. She was spiralling, tumbling into a panic attack, and she tried to measure her breathing - in, out, in, out - but the dark around her vision was closing in and the dread she felt- the dread felt real, tangible, something black and wet in her chest.
You’re not going to die, she chided herself, even her inner voice sounding shaky. Will’s fine and happy, Hop’s not gonna leave. The gate is closed.
“Breathe,” she found herself hissing between choked gasps for air. “Breathe, you’re fine.”
And Bob- sweet, good Bob. He was gone, and it was her fault, her fault he’d been torn to bloody pieces by those- those things and she’d watched, stood there and done nothing, let Hopper drag her away screaming, let him go down there in the first place, let him save them all when he should have been at his late shift at Radioshack, blissfully unaware, dreaming of the life in Maine that she’d only hypothetically wanted-
“Breathe,” she told herself, and her next breath came a little easier. Breathe, and it will pass. She squeezed her eyes shut and thought, thought of Will laughing with his friends as they’d left earlier, thought of Jonathan smirking from the countertop, thought of Hopper’s hands around her waist-
Breathe, she told herself, and she did.
Gradually the weight on her chest eased, and the shaking in her hands stilled; automatically she reached for a cigarette and lit it with the practice of routine. When she’d taken a long, weary drag, she let her head fall back against the cupboard and stared up at the ceiling.
It wasn’t as if she was a stranger to panic attacks - hell, she was an expert - but each time they left her trembling and unsure. They’d labelled her Crazy Joyce in Hawkins, thanks to Lonnie - he made sure to spread the word when she first had a breakdown, first went to a shrink, so he’d always be the long-suffering husband with the delusional bitch of a wife and could thus gaslight and control her as he pleased - but she’d never felt crazy, only fucking nervous. The shrink hadn’t given her a name for what she had, only a bottle of Librium pills that she’d stopped taking when Lonnie stopped going to work (they made her head clouded and dull, in a way that scared her, and too drowsy to pull the double shifts she needed to).
Eventually, in ‘81, she’d gone back to the shrink, a different one this time, after Will witnessed her gasping for breath and began to cry because his mom wouldn’t answer him. It’d been a woman, kinder-looking than the middle-aged man she’d seen before, and she’d told Joyce that she had what they called a panic disorder. She’d offered her the pills or the talking cure, and Joyce could afford neither - so she’d settled for a lesson on dealing with it, managing it, and that was all. She’d been taught to slow her breathing, to count and think happy thoughts - and it worked, most of the time. It had to, because her puny salary from Melvald’s would only stretch so far.
And Bob- she’d hidden it from Bob, as much as she could. They were already this fucked up family, this family with a secret at its heart like a gaping, rotting wound, and Bob was so normal. He was so kind and understanding, even when she offered him half-truths and silence, that she didn’t want to scare him away, or burden him with things he couldn’t fix. (Later, at the lab that night, she’d learnt that he was more than up to the task, more than capable of understanding, too late.) He’d heard about Crazy Joyce, of course, but he never asked, and she made sure to shut him out when she felt the panic tight in her chest, to brush him off when she woke with a scream in the night.
Hopper, by contrast, had witnessed her at her very lowest. It made this ugly, tangled link between them, fused them together intrinsically, something stronger than blood; they would always understand each other, through thick or thin.
It was with a sigh that she pulled herself up off the floor, leaning heavily on the counter as she collected her strength. She was getting older, and each time the attacks seemed to suck more energy from her. If she had more money-
But she was fine. They were fine, all three of them.
(It was getting harder and harder to convince herself of that.)
She inspected the burnt pan of Mac N Cheese ruefully. Biscuits for dinner it was, then - she had a box of Magic Middles stashed away in the cupboard. She looked over her shoulder at the door that remained stubbornly, ominously closed; Hopper did not appear in a stir of cold air, bringing with him the smell of winter and smoke, and she did not meet his eyes in a moment of mutual forgiveness. Instead she stood alone in the dimly lit kitchen, and ached.
She thought of his lips on hers, his hand on her waist. Then she remembered Bob’s blood in the air, his hands reaching uselessly, accusingly- she flinched. There was Hopper, and there was Bob, and there was this messy bit in the middle full of guilt and regret. Joyce was tired, tired of this - tired of pretending like everything was okay with Bob, tired of everything not being okay with Hopper. Tired of crying. Tired of feeling guilty.
She took out the biscuits, steeled herself, and went to the door.
Hopper turned as the door opened. Joyce stepped out, and even in the dim light of the porch he could tell she’d been crying - but there was this determination in her eyes, this clarity that had been absent before. She looked at him with tear-stained cheeks and still-shaky breaths, and said, “I’m sorry, Hop. What I said before-”
He looked at her hard, even though the way she was looking at him made him want to melt at her feet. She fell silent, clearly calculating her next words.
“I- you-” she stuttered, then it all came out in one breath. “Maybe it should have been you, but I never wanted it to be. When Bob went- when Bob went down there I was-” She looked down, exhaled slowly. “I was almost relieved.”
He stared at her then, and she rushed to continue.
“Not- not because it was him who was risking his life. But because it wasn’t you.”
This was new territory, something alien and uncharted, and Hopper felt unsteady at the revelation. He’d looked at Joyce and Bob - this loving, if oddball, couple - and felt that they could have a future together, if they tried. They could be this doting family - maybe not affluent like the Wheelers, or as normal as you’d expect - but they could have a picket fence in rainy Maine, a neat terraced lawn where Will could kick around a football. (Nevermind that Will hated sports, and that Joyce was tied to Hawkins like a tree to its roots.) Hopper could never offer that fantasy - and it was a fantasy, make no mistake - and deep down he had accepted that that was what Joyce needed. She was fragile in 1984, and needed a port in the storm. Instead Hopper was another ship, adrift in the same sea.
“No, don’t tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about. I needed Bob, but…”
He raised a hand, and she stilled. Slowly he moved his fingers to her lips, and unbidden a smile crept across them. “I never said you didn’t know what you were talking about. I understand that you needed Bob, and why.” He looked away for a moment, and was ashamed to feel a blush rising on his cheeks. “That doesn’t mean I had to like it.”
“Jim Hopper, were you jealous?” Joyce said, the note of laughter in her voice a welcome sound. It had been a while since they’d been this honest with each other - perhaps never - and he felt shaken, because this was not the direction he’d expected the evening to take.
“Maybe a little,” he admitted, and instead of recoiling she moved closer, taking his still-raised hand in hers and entwining their fingers.
“Come back inside,” she said, in lieu of an answer. “You’ll catch cold.”
He almost scoffed at the idea, this waif of a woman scolding him and fretting over his health - but there was something warm in it, something comfortable in the idea of someone taking care of him for once. He thought of their earlier angry words, the pain in Joyce’s eyes reflected back in his, the way they always knew where to cut-
Then he thought of her smile, her hand still linked with his.
He followed her inside.
“Okay, worst ever kiss?”
“Eleanor Gillespie. No question.”
Joyce burst out laughing and stared at him incredulously. “You got with Eleanor Gillespie? When?!”
Hopper took another sip of his third beer and said, “High school reunion ‘70.” The high school reunion that Joyce had been absent from, because rumour had it Lonnie had walked out on her for the first time and she had a fussing three-year-old at home, and that Hopper had returned to just for the novelty after his stint in ‘Nam. All this remained unsaid, however, as they looked at each other, side by side on the couch, with Simple Minds playing softly in the background.
“I don’t even wanna ask how that happened.” She offered him the packet of Magic Middles.
“I gotta say, Joyce, beer and Magic Middles isn’t the worst meal I’ve had this year. Don’t tell the kids, though - I’ve been trying to convince El to eat actual food.”
She chuckled. “Will would eat these every meal if he could - it’ll be our secret.”
Her eyes were alive, her face hunched towards him conspiratorially. She was so beautiful tonight, almost unburdened by the catharsis earlier that evening - whatever had made his attraction to her so loaded, so complicated, before seemed to have vanished, so now there was only the warm glow of companionship as they laughed over the past.
“You gonna tell me yours?”
“My worst kiss? Hm, probably Jack Hyde, back in high school. You remember him?”
“All the girls had a crush on him - I think even you, at one point. Didn’t he have a long-time girlfriend?”
Joyce smirked. “Not for long after that.”
He gaped at her. “Joycie Horowitz, I never knew you were a homewrecker.”
She looked down in sudden embarrassment, cheeks coloring. “I mean, they were on the rocks already, and we were playing spin the bottle. But he was so- so bad at it. It was like he was- trying to eat something, y’know?” She shuddered. “You stop crushing on someone after that.” Hopper snorted and she turned her gaze on him. “What? What?” she asked, half smiling.
“Nothing, I just can’t believe you got with the most popular guy in the year and hated it.”
She turned away, looking offended, and reached for her beer.
“No, it’s not like that,” he said, making a grab for her hand. “It’s just- while I was chasing girls like Chrissy Carpenter, you-”
She squeezed his hand. “Hop, don’t make me out to have been some perfect seventeen-year-old - I was just as shallow as the rest of them. I thought-” she looked down, drawing circles on his palm with her thumb as a distraction. “I thought going out with Lonnie made me cool, made me someone.”
He chuckled quietly and leant their foreheads together, revelling in this previously forbidden closeness. “You never needed Lonnie to be someone.”
She kissed him. It was chaste and soft, tasting of beer and fudge, and when she pulled back he saw that she was crying. Gently he drew her up to her feet.
The music had changed, and Nick Cave was crooning mournfully in the background. He led her into a swaying dance and she complied, a smile breaking out on her face in spite of herself, like the sun through the clouds.
We’re older now, the light is dim/and you are only just beginning.
He led her in exaggerated movements, a mockery of the dances they went to in the fifties, twirling her under his arm until she laughed out loud.
Hey little train, wait for me/I once was blind, but now I see.
She clung onto his hands as they moved, standing so close to him he could smell the perfume he didn’t know she wore. There was this warmth in the air, this heady joy that left him lightheaded. He held her closer and swore he’d never let her go.
The song grew slower, fainter. Joyce stilled in his arms, and they swayed slowly, tipsily, to the closing beats. “You’ll wait for me, won’t you?” she asked softly, hesitantly.
He looked into her eyes and smiled a watery smile. “Always.”
She buried her head in his shoulder, her voice coming out muffled. “I missed you this year. When I was with Bob. And you were-”
“-with Eleven,” he finished for her, looking down at her dark head fondly. “I missed you too.”
She looked up at him, some indiscernible emotion in her brown eyes. “You could’ve told me- y’know, about her. I could’ve helped.”
But he knew he couldn’t have, that she would have helped but it would have been futile in the end. Eleven was his burden to bear alone - though he wouldn’t consider that bright girl a burden - and every time he’d thought of telling Joyce that image of Benny with a bullet in his brain had come into his head, and he’d known he couldn’t. (It would have been easy enough to stage a suicide for Crazy Joyce, he thought bitterly.)
Hopper planted a kiss in her hair. “I’m sorry. I wanted to keep you - all of you - safe.”
He could feel her smiling against his neck. “That little girl- she’s something special. You-” She exhaled and her eyes met his. “You did the right thing, Hop. I just wish I could have been there for her. For you.”
There was exhaustion writ large on her face, and he marvelled at this woman - this beautiful woman who had suffered so much, and kept on going, kept on looking outward instead of collapsing in on herself like a black hole.
The clock by the mantel rang out once, twice, twelve times - midnight. 1985.
Joyce’s head fell against his chest as they swayed slowly, the music fading to a dull blur in the background. He thought of the kids - no doubt yelling and dancing in excitement - and of El, her first happy New Year. He thought of the finality in Bob’s eyes, Joyce’s scream as he fell - Joyce’s laugh as Hopper span her around, Joyce’s smile when Will hugged him. The family he’d lost and the family he’d gained.
“Happy new year, Joyce,” he whispered into her hair. He held her close and breathed her in, and it didn’t matter that her face was often wet with tears, that his hands shook when he smelled whiskey, that they both woke with nightmares about monsters and gates. This, here and now, was enough.
“Happy new year,” she said.