Three hundred and seventy two days. It had been just over a full year that Hopper was detained in that hellhole in Russia, but now, he was home.
Well, not home per se. He was only a little bit surprised to hear that Joyce had gone through with her plans of moving to Maine, but it warmed his heart to know that she’d taken El with her.
It took months for Hopper to get back on his feet. Severely malnourished and exhausted beyond belief was the state that he was brought home in, and Joyce had done everything in her power to make it better. He wanted to be strong, he wanted to get better quickly, but it was a hard journey. Eventually, he did; as the months passed, the Hopper-Byers household witnessed him transform back into the reliable, loving, although sometimes misguided, man he’d been before he left.
He’d finally gotten that date with Joyce (although, not at Enzo’s), and though it had been a long time coming, the two made it official over Christmas. Not long after that (with some hesitation from Joyce), the family had agreed on moving back to Hawkins.
Nearly two years had passed since the initial move, and everyone was excited to have the party back together again, especially El. All she’d talked about the whole time they packed was how Lucas was going to teach her his favourite arcade games, Max was going to take her shopping, Dustin was going to take her to some movie called Spaceballs, but Mike… Mike was always the main topic of conversation.
Hopper wasn’t surprised to hear that his daughter was still with the scrawny kid who’d found her in the woods all those years ago. She’d always been entranced with him, so he thought it was puppy love, but now, they’d just turned sixteen, and despite his best efforts, he couldn’t help but think that maybe it had turned into something more serious.
El had practically begged Hopper to let him come stay for the night last month for her sixteenth birthday. He didn’t want to give in to her, but he did, and boy had that boy ever changed.
Mike was tall. Like, really tall. Hopper hadn’t expected to almost be eye-level with the kid. He was still awkward and lanky as ever, but he’d grown into his features, and still looked at El like she’d hung the moon. The two were not kids anymore, but that didn’t mean that Hop had to like it.
“Remember the three inch rule!” He’d yelled as El dragged Mike up to her bedroom and rolled her eyes.
“Jim, lay off them a bit, it’s her birthday, she’s sixteen now.” Joyce spoke softly, dragging him away from the stairs.
“I will not lay off them, I remember exactly what my girlfriend and I were doing on my sixteenth birthday, and I do not wish to know my daughter and her boyfriend are following in my footsteps.”
“They’re good kids, Jim, and they’re not like that. El talks to me about this kind of stuff; her and Mike… they aren’t there yet.”
Hopper sighs, collapsing on the couch. Realization washes over him as he replays Joyce’s words in his head. She was right, they’re both good kids, a little mouthy, but he knew Mike respected him, and El. They’d been apart for so many months, maybe a few hours together alone wasn’t the worst.
“Fuck, I’m such an asshole.” He whispered, feeling ashamed with himself for being so hard on them.
“You’re a dad, you don’t want to see your little girl get hurt.” Joyce sat beside him and rubbed his arm lightly. “Sure, you can kinda be an asshole when it comes to Mike, but… we were friends in high school, I can see why you’re so protective of her around him.”
He frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well… you had quite the reputation of a heartbreaker.”
Hop had no rebuttal; he knew Joyce was right. Mike wasn’t him, and he would never intentionally hurt El.
He started to get up, but Joyce stopped him. “Where are you going?”
“I did a bad thing, I scared the shit outta him, and it made them break up after that little boundaries talk. I need to go talk to him about it, tell the kid I don’t hate him.”
“Wait, right now? Hop, that was two years ago. If you go up there, they’re gonna think you’re trying to stop them from whatever’s going on.”
He stopped in his tracks. “Why, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, that’s my point. Give them their space, Hop. This is their time together.”
He reluctantly sat back down beside her, but he knew this conversation had to happen.
The move back to Hawkins went as smooth as a move possibly could have gone. Within a few weeks, the patchwork family was in their new home, and it only took a few days of being back for all the kids to settle back into their old routines.
It was the summer of 1987, and much like two years prior, Mike Wheeler made a daily appearance at the Hopper household.
“Come on Hop, what happened to the big apology speech you were going to give them a few months ago?” Joyce teased.
“That was before I had to see his smug little face every day, knowing he’s up there defiling my daughter.”
Joyce smacked him across the arm. “He’s not defiling her Jim, what they’re doing is perfectly innocent. And what exactly were you were doing in high school?”
“I wasn’t! I was… I was… oh shut up.”
“That’s what I thought. This is important, Jim, it’s only going to get worse from here if he thinks you don’t like him. Don’t give them a reason to have to sneak around behind your back, just be open and honest with them.”
“Open and honest, got it.”
The two teens in question chose that exact moment to come bolting down the stairs.
“I’m just walking Mike out, I’ll be right back!” El shouted from the front door.
Hop looked towards Joyce, her eyebrows rising, and he knew now was a better time than ever. He sighed, and followed the two teens to the front porch.
Of course they were kissing when he opened the door. “Oh god, um El, can—can you give us a few minutes?”
El looked at him questioningly, but it was Mike that spoke. “S-sure, I was just leaving. I’ll call you when I get home El, okay?”
The girl nodded and kissed her boyfriend chastely once more before disappearing inside.
“Wh—is something the matter Chief?”
“It’s… it’s um…” He tried to remember any bit of the speech he and Joyce had written, but that was a whole two years ago, he would have to go off books for this. “Have a seat kid.”
“Mike sat beside him on the small porch. “Am I in some kind of trouble?”
“No, no you’re not in any trouble Mike. It’s just… um… I want to apologize.”
He frowned. “I’m sorry, I’m not sure I follow.” Mike replied after a moment.
“I… I know it was like two years ago at this point, and I don’t even know if you remember, but you were right, I was a lying piece of shit.”
Mike paled, remembering the conversation well. “Oh… well I was being a complete asshole to you too, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Hopper chuckled and put his hand on Mike’s shoulder. “Yeah kid, you kind of were. But that’s beside the point; I’m sorry, I was uncomfortable with how close you and El had gotten, I felt you were too young to be together like that all the time, and I was being a little too protective of El. I shouldn’t have freaked out like that on you, and I shouldn’t have made you feel like you had to lie to El because of it.” That wasn’t so hard, was it.
“Th-thanks Chief, but why are you saying all this now?”
“Because I don’t want you to think I’m crazy, and I don’t want you or El to feel like you have to sneak around behind my back; that’s the last thing I want, trust me, I used to do a lot of sneaking around at your age.” He sighed and wiped his face. “Look Mike, you’re a good kid, and I know you and El love each other. I don’t want you to hate me, and I don’t want to hate you. In fact… I actually kinda like you; you’ve been real good for her. I—I was locked up for a little over a year, and I had a whole lot of time to think about whether or not my daughter hated me for splitting you two up. You two are going to be a permanent fixture around here by the looks of things, so I want you to feel comfortable coming into my home.”
Mike smiled. “Thanks Chief.”
“But that being said, there does need to be some boundaries. I don’t know if you’ve got a curfew, but she does. Eleven thirty on the dot, you’re outta here, and don’t even think about sneaking in through her window. Tried that once when I was your age, her parents didn’t appreciate having to bring me to the ER for a broken ankle at two in the morning.”
Mike spit out a laugh, but swallowed it as soon as Hopper hit him with a glare.
“Three inch rule still applies until further notice. I know you guys think you’re all old and mature now that you’re sixteen, but you’re still kids, and still under my roof, and still following my rules. And I swear to god Wheeler, if I find out you’ve pressured her, or forced her into doing something she’s not comfortable with—”
“Wow, wow, hold on,” Mike interjected, “I love her and I would never… I always make sure we’re on the same page whenever—”
Mike flushed. “It’s—it’s not like that yet. We’re not like that. But, when the time comes in… in a couple of years, I promise you I’ll ask her if it’s okay.”
He nodded, and the two fell into a comfortable silence. “Thank you Hopper, you’re a good dad, and we’re all happy you’re home.”
Jim knew how strained a relationship Mike and Ted had, so it meant a lot for him to say that. “Welcome, kid. I’m glad I’m back too. Missed you guys, all of you.” He bumped Mike with his shoulder, shooting him a friendly smile. “Alright, I better get in there before my daughter thinks I’m burying your body.”
Mike smiled and walked towards his bike. “See you tomorrow, Hop.”
“Yep, I sure will.” And for once, just once, he really didn’t mind it.