Joyce’s face stays in his mind as he turns away from the windows, and dashes towards his last hope.
The rip in the wall is glowing orange, and he doesn’t give himself time to think about anything as he dives through it, holding his breath. The picture of Joyce’s face, coated with anguish, is all he allows himself to focus on as he sinks into the oblivion of the other side. He closes his eyes as the hues of orange turn to blue and purple, shivering as the temperature rapidly shifts from hot to cold.
Joyce’s eyes are the last thing he thinks about before blackness overtakes him.
When he wakes up, it’s sunny, and he’s on something warm and soft.
Slowly, he opens his eyes, and takes stock of where he is. It’s a startlingly familiar room, and he frowns when he realizes it’s almost Joyce’s room, but different. It’s brighter; lighter, somehow, and his officer’s uniform is thrown over a chair in the corner, which shouldn’t even be possible. He shifts, looking beside him- there’s an alarm clock that reads 6:43, and beside that a framed photo of…him and Joyce?
He picks it up, and stares at the image. It’s unfamiliar- there’s a lake in the background, and they’re younger, somehow in their mid-twenties if he had to guess. Rings glint with sunlight off their fingers, and there’s a roundness to Joyce’s waistline that the Hopper in the photo can’t help but cup protectively in his palm, grinning at the camera as the Joyce in the photo looks up at him with sparkling eyes and a happy, carefree smile of her own.
Glancing down, that same wedding ring encircles his left ring finger, and he brings it up to his face, studying it. It’s clearly been there awhile, if the tan line is any indication, and Hopper has to swallow around the thickness in his throat as he places the photo back on the nightstand. On a second glance around the room, he realizes now that’s it’s a shared space- half the vanity has female products, and a glass jewelry dish, and when he ducks his head into the adjoining bathroom, it’s a mix of his and hers things.
Sitting back down on the edge of the bed, he puts his head in his hands, and tries desperately to understand what’s happening, and where he even is.
Clearly, the Upside Down had taken him somewhere else, because this wasn’t any world like the one he’d left. Not one where he hadn’t fucked things up Joyce and they’d stayed together and…built a life, apparently?
“Oh good, you’re up already. You hungry this morning or just want coffee?” he looks up at the voice, and there she is, standing in front of him.
Joyce’s face is just like he remembers, but there are a few less worry lines around the corners and her hair is longer, just past her shoulders. Her smile is soft, lips smeared with a reddish hue that sets off something low in his gut, and she’s dressed in a pair of blue scrubs, white t-shirt sleeves sticking out with an ID badge for Hawkins General clipped to the front pocket. He can see Joyce Hopper printed on it clear as day, and it’s a struggle to answer her simple question when his eyes catch the rings on her fingers- not the ones Lonnie had given her before he’d pawned them off. But ones Hopper himself remembers looking at at the only good jeweler in town, weeks before graduation.
“Just coffee,” he finally gets out, voice sticking in his throat, and she nods as she reaches up to tie her hair back into a messy ponytail.
“You better get a move on, sweetheart, or Callahan’ll win this week’s bet again,” she teases, winking at him over her shoulder before she heads further down the hall and leaves him alone once more.
Nothing makes sense, but Hopper goes through the motions of showering and dressing in the familiar uniform- it’s pathetic to admit that it’s the first time in a while he’s taken a shower without a cigarette waiting for him in an ashtray and a beer by his bed, but his body isn’t buzzing with the need for nicotine like usual.
Joyce is buzzing around the kitchen when he enters, and he takes a second to just watch her. So much about her is familiar- the scent of her shampoo is still lingering in the air, mixing with the aroma of coffee and bacon, and it isn’t until he sees the top half of the box of Eggos in the trash that he realizes he hasn’t seen any of the kids.
“Where’re El and the boys?” he asks, panic sweeping in, and Joyce frowns, lifting a hand to his forehead. The press of her ring against his skin is cool in comparison to her warm palm, and he can’t help the way he leans into it slightly, starved for the affectionate touch.
“Boys? Are you feeling alright? Cass and Steph are already on the school bus- and say it with me now, you are picking Cass up from dance tonight, not me, I’m taking Steph to get a new pair of sneakers in Elmdale after work. Okay?” Joyce says, taking her hand away and patting his cheek gently before going back to packing things into a brown bag. “If I put an apple in here will you actually eat it today or will it sit on your desk for a week before Flo throws it out again?”
Hopper’s heart sits somewhere in his throat as he takes stock of what Joyce has just placed in front of him. No El. No Jonathan. No Will. But two girls- this Cass and Steph; two foreign concepts, but clearly two beings he and Joyce had made together in whatever world he’d been spat out into. Loss and love war within his chest, and he swallows heavily as Joyce finally looks up at him when the silence becomes prolonged.
“Guess I can try to swallow it down,” he offers, and Joyce’s nose crinkles as she laughs, popping the red fruit into the bag.
“There’s a trooper,” she replies, rolling the top of the bag and handing it to him. His thermos is next, and the feeling of a practiced routine settles over him. This happened every morning, to the point where there was a muscle memory, and an off sort of ache bloomed within him.
He takes both with a smile, receiving one in return, and turns to head for the door, keys sliding off the hook and onto his finger.
“I think you forgot something, Chief,” Joyce says from behind him, and he turns around, lifting an eyebrow. She’s got her hands on her hips, a smirk playing around her mouth as she looks at him, so much fondness plain in her face it’s like a punch in his gut.
“And what’s that?” he asks, watching her walk towards him until she can smooth her palms up his chest, toying with the collar of his uniform.
“My goodbye kiss,” she answers before she tugs him down to her level, their mouths meeting in a firm, warm kiss. The hand not holding his coffee falls to her waist on instinct, hugging her against him briefly, and he can’t help the way his eyes shut for a moment at the perfect feeling of her against him; of knowing, somehow, he had this every single morning. They pull apart, and he can’t help but steal one more kiss before he straightens up, Joyce taking the time to straighten his now-tilted collar.
“Have I forgotten anything else?” he asks, voice slightly breathless, and she’s quick to shake her head, lips quirking slightly.
“No, I think you’re all set now,” she replies, taking a step back. “Have a good day, sweetheart. Love you.”
He tips his head towards her, unable to summon the words back before he’s out the door, slamming the Blazer door shut behind him. He takes a deep breath, trying to focus the myriad of thoughts spiraling through his brain as he starts the truck up, backing out of the driveway and turning towards town.
His world feels upside down and inside out, even though everything looks so similar. Main Street looks the same- same shops, same people- and when he pulls into his spot at the station, nothing looks different.
“Morning Chief,” Flo greets him, and he tips his hat, thermos in one hand and lunch from Joyce in the other. “That nurse wife of yours shove another apple on ya?”
He snorts in answer, and something twists in his chest. Joyce, a nurse. It suits her, and somehow she’d had the opportunity to do more than sit behind the counter at Melvald’s General Store for 18 years in whatever world he was in.
He unlocks his office, and even that feels different- there’s no burst of tobacco-scented air when he pushes the door open, and it’s cleaner than he’s ever seen it. He sits heavily in the chair, and his eyes gravitate instantly to the framed photo in the corner. Hopper’s heart constricts at the family photo, and he can’t help the way his hands shake as he picks it up to examine it further.
The two girls are so blatantly his and Joyce’s something inside his chest audibly cracks. The older one has dark hair and is all Joyce’s features except for his bright blue eyes, while the younger one is all his coloring with Joyce’s nose. It’s a cheesy Christmas photo, but he’s never seen himself look so god damn thrilled to have on an ugly, itchy sweater in his entire life.
Hopper needs to understand- needs to know what happened here to make this life turn out so different that this is where they’d ended up. He grabs his keys and heads back out, tossing a “Goin’ for a cruise” over his shoulder at Flo, and heads back to the house, hoping that Joyce had left for her shift already.
The driveway is thankfully empty when he pulls up to the house, and he takes the time to fully look at the building as he parks. It’s nicely kept, with flowers in the front and a garden along the side, a hand painted sign that proclaims it as “Stephanie’s Garden” stuck proudly in the soil. There are two bikes tucked just inside the garage, pink and orange, and he can see two pairs of roller skates not far away.
Inside, he takes the time to look at the pictures on the walls- there’s a litany of baby pictures that follow two girls as they grow from infants to toddlers to little girls with gap teeth and wild hair. In each other, Joyce or himself are there, holding them or laughing or simply smiling, and there’s so much love and life in each frame it’s like a physical weight on his shoulders as he follows the progression of their lives. Lives he had no memory of, despite being thrown into this world and body and existence thanks to the Upside Down.
He stops when he finds the wedding photo.
Joyce is singlehandedly the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen, and the sight of her in a white dress she’d chosen to marry him in sends his heart into overdrive. There’s a formal one, with their bridal party and long faces, but then beside it is a candid one of them on the dance floor, Joyce’s hands on his face and his around her waist, and the sight of it takes his breath away.
A glutton for punishment, it takes him almost no time to find the stash of home videos, and in turn the wedding video. It’s shoddy camera work, and from the voice in the background, he has Ted Wheeler to thank for that, but every moment the camera is on Joyce, she’s beaming. It’s god damn breathtaking, and he fast-forwards until he finds the toasts, abruptly pressing play.
“-‘ve never been so grateful as am I for the day I realized I couldn’t watch you go off to war and not come home to me,” he listens to her tinny voice say over the recording, and Hopper’s stomach bottoms out. So that was it- the difference in this universe. He’d gone to war, sure, but in the end he’d come home to Joyce. It hadn’t been the fight that had pushed her into Byers’ arms, like it had back home.
He watches silently as the video continues, more toasts falling on deaf ears- all he can see is the Joyce and Hopper in the video, happy and in love and married. It’s his face, and her face, but it isn’t him and it isn’t her.
Why had the Upside Down taken him here? And more importantly- how was he ever going to get back home?