A/N Yeah, I know. Probably thought I was never coming back to finish this. It's a lot of loose ends to tie up.
Eleven's first official day being out of hiding started at the breakfast table with a dangerous number of calories. It was a different table in a different kitchen in different house that Eleven was still getting used to, but the familiar ritual of sitting down to breakfast opposite Hopper was grounding. "Special day," he told her by way of explanation when she looked at the pile of whipped cream and candy laden waffles in front of her, confused because they hadn't argued recently and yet Hopper was giving her what she came to think of as the peace offering breakfast.
"First thing on our list today," he told her between bites, "is to meet with the guidance counselor."
"Kind of like a teacher, except they don't actually work in the classrooms. They help you pick your classes and give you advice about getting into college and things."
Eleven swallowed hard. She'd set her sights on simply attending high school and surviving her own childhood, the idea of planning beyond that felt daunting.
"Don't worry about it, kid," Hopper told her, picking up on the uptick in her anxiety levels. "One thing at a time, yeah?"
"Yes," she agreed.
"You and the boys filled out the forms for which classes you want, right?"
First semester schedules were mailed out to all registered students a month before school started which allowed the Party to compare notes. Eleven was sure to sign up for classes where she would be guaranteed to be with at least one friend at all times, preferably Mike if at all possible. Most importantly, Mike made sure to sign up as a peer tutor during fourth period and told Eleven to sign up for that study hall. "That gives us a whole hour after lunch to hang out," he had explained to her during his last visit.
Instead of answering Hopper's question, she pointed at the stack of papers sitting on the coffee table before turning back to the table, eyes not particularly focused on anything. He noticed how she'd gone quiet but didn't quite know what to do about it. "And then once we're done with that, how about we go see Joyce at the store? Maybe get you what you need for school?" That brought an actual smile to her face, but she still only nodded.
The trailer wasn't nearly as remote as the cabin and it wasn't necessary to walk through the woods to get to Hopper's car. It was quite a bit more convenient and a lot less secure. Truthfully, neither Hopper nor Eleven was entirely happy about the loss of the trip wire, but sacrifices had to be made. The drive to the high school required them to drive through the middle of town, something Eleven rarely saw. She noted the police station and wondered if the infamous Flo was working and when she might get to meet her. She saw the library and allowed herself to wonder why it was the librarian disliked Hopper so much before she was distracted by a severe looking man with a mustache and receding hairline walking out of a diner with a paper cup of coffee.
Neil Hargrove inexplicably tripped over a flat, empty sidewalk and managed to pour hot coffee down the front of his white shirt in the process.
"Really?" Hopper asked her sarcastically without even having to look at her to know that she was the cause.
"It wasn't a tree," she justified with the hint of a self satisfied smile in her eyes.
"Just...," Hopper thought briefly about reprimanding her, but amended himself mid sentence,"...don't get caught, ok? And especially don't get caught by Joyce, she'll blame me for encouraging you."
Hopper had explained El's story in advance when he made the appointment so she didn't have to suffer through the well meaning but unintentionally patronizing concern that was the stock and trade of the high school guidance counselor. Hopper extinguished his cigarette as they pulled into the high school parking lot trying to hide his own nervousness. Introducing Eleven to outsiders "in character" so to speak reminded him of his first time going under cover. "All we have to do," he reminded her as he unclipped his seat belt, "is walk in there, meet a couple people, hand in your paperwork and you're done, alright? You don't have to talk much if you don't feel like it, just make eye contact with people when they're talking to you and I'll try and control the conversation."
"I'm ready," she said resolutely. She wasn't, but she was prepared to pretend.
The high school reminded her a great deal of the middle school. She took in the concrete cinder block walls painted an industrial shade of white and fought to control images of a long dead Demogorgon crashing through the walls. The florescent lights flickered slightly and Hopper raised an eyebrow towards her in wordless question. "Fine," she told him and he was gracious enough not to call her out on the lie.
"Can I help you?" a middle aged woman asked as they stepped into the school administrative offices.
"Yeah, we need to get her signed up for school," Hopper responded, "I called ahead."
A look of recognition came over the woman's face as she registered what Hopper had said. "Of course, of course," she said apologetically pointing at her desk calendar, "and here you are in black and white. My morning evidently got away from me. Jane Hopper?"
When she gave no response, Hopper inconspicuously nudged El with his foot. "Yes," she said startled, adding awkwardly, "that's me."
"It's a little early in the morning for summer," Hopper smoothly offered as an excuse for El's absent minded demeanor and the school receptionist smiled knowingly. Anything before noon was considered early for most high school student during the summer months. "She prefers to use her middle name."
"No problem at all, I'll just note that on our attendance records. My husband is the same way. Wouldn't think to respond to his given name if you shouted it in his ear. Have a seat, Mrs. Walters will be with you shortly."
They could see through the windowed offices that the aforementioned Mrs. Walters was on the phone, trying in vain to get out anything more than a syllable, no doubt trying to soothe the nerves of some neurotic parent. Hopper thought that the job of high school guidance counselor must be Hell on earth and given what Hopper's actual job entailed, that was saying something. When she finally emerged with a forced smile plastered on her tired face, she was conveniently ready to get El in and out of her office as quickly as possible so she could take an early lunch.
"You must be Jane?" the woman greeted El, extending her hand.
"Yes," El replied, this time without any prompting and accepted the woman's hand. Eleven still found the whole custom of handshaking to be rather odd (and when pressed to explain why people shake hands, Hopper had to admit, it was an arbitrary exercise), but she'd been convinced that regardless of how little sense it made, she had to play along for the sake of fitting in.
"She uses her middle name." the secretary corrected causing Mrs. Walters to look back at her freshly notated file.
"El," Eleven corrected gaining confidence the longer the conversation went on.
"Well then, El, lets get you all signed up, shall we?"
Hopper and Eleven walked back into the parking lot less than a half hour later, class schedule, a list of necessary supplies and locker assignment in hand.
"Your schedule matches up to the other kids'?" Hopper asked her once they were safely in the Blazer.
"Yes," she verified happily. "And study hall with Mike."
"That's for studying, not just hanging out," Hopper told her hypocritically having never once in his entire academic career used a study hall for actual studying. She rolled he eyes at him and he was glad to see her looking less like she was being walked into a firing squad.
For twelve years, Eleven was studied, watched and monitored every moment of every day to the point where the entire concept of privacy was alien and meaningless. Then for nearly two years, she was either alone and isolated or in the company of the people she'd adopted as her own family. The first time Eleven walked through Hawkins in broad daylight, glued to Hopper's side like her life depended on it, she realized just how invasive it was to be openly stared at now that she had something completely different to compare it to. Going from being on display, to invisible back to being on display again was more jarring than she'd anticipated.
"We'll walk down the street to see Joyce, just like we planned, yeah?"
"Yes," she agreed, trying to ignore the curious onlookers.
It's ok, Eleven. Don't be frightened. These are all friends. Papa had told her the last time he paraded her in front of a room filled with strange men in white lab coats. "Ignore them, kid. They're just a bunch of nosy assholes," Hopper assured her as she tightened her grip on his hand and he stared right back at people in a way he knew was uncomfortable. It didn't end the staring, but his efforts didn't go unnoticed either. Much like the disparity between being invisible and on display made her realize the unnaturalness of being on display, Hopper's protectiveness only highlighted Papa's inadequacies.
El looked down a side street street and saw the sign for the Palace Arcade.
"Mike might be there," she told him hopefully and pointed out the building.
"Not today, kid," he told her. "You have to actually meet the boys before you start hanging out with them, remember?"
Eleven acquiesced and followed Hopper towards the general store leaving curious onlookers in her wake.
The only other times El had been in a store, she hadn't really shopped so much as shop lifted. She didn't understand the difference then, although, even if she had, she probably wouldn't have cared. Will was the person who had introduced the whole concept of money to her, mostly to explain that some people had more of it than others. Much like hand shaking, Eleven thought the whole thing very strange, but was convinced that there were some rules you just needed to accept even if you didn't think them particularly logical. The looming threat that Hopper would not take her to any stores ever again was no small motivator in accepting this particular rule.
Melvald's was dominated by back to school displays. Bins of unbroken crayons with the paper wrappers still on, boxes of pencils with no teeth marks in them and unblemished erasers, blank composition books, full bottles of glue, packets of lined paper, an array of brightly colored folders devoid of doodles or bent edges to them and a whole host of other things Eleven couldn't identify. Even though she wasn't certain what all of the items were for, she enjoyed the fact that they smelled so...new. For the rest of her life, Eleven would associate the smell of office supplies with fresh starts and new opportunities.
"Hey, Hop," Mrs. Byers greeted him from behind the register, her familiar voice broke Eleven's revere. "Good to see you, Sweetie" she whispered conspiratorially to El and she smiled back.
"Going ok?" Joyce asked vaguely.
"As expected," he responded, equally vague. "We just came from the school."
A door chime announced the presence of another customer, preventing further conversion. Hopper laid a hand on El's shoulder and steered her in the direction of the school supplies. Eleven was acutely aware of the fact that she was still being watched, even in the store. She tried to focus on not getting angry at the intrusion and accidentally upending any displays. "I know kid," Hopper told her sympathetically, "hopefully the novelty will wear off soon. Let's look at your list, ok?"
She nodded silently and concentrated on the task at hand, dutifully collecting the requisite number of each supply and adding it to the plastic basket Hopper held out for her. And even though it was not technically on the list, she selected a Trapper Keeper with a pleasant yet cartoonish landscape on the cover and added it to the basket banking on Hopper being too distracted to tell her no. She'd seen commercials for them and felt that they were clearly such an essential item, it must have been an oversight for the school to not include one on her list.
The other customer left the store making it possible for Hopper and Mrs Byers to resume their conversation. Eleven seized on the opportunity and wandered away to explore the rest of the store. In the nearly two years she'd lived with him, Hopper had only ever bought plain white soap. Had anyone asked her opinion prior to that moment, she wouldn't have cared one way or the other. But when confronted with a selection of soaps so varied that they took up multiple shelves, there was no going back. Eleven popped the lids off each bottle for a test sniff until she found one she liked the best and brought it to Hopper.
"What is it, kid?" he asked her after she appeared at his side tapping his arm impatiently with the plastic bottle to get his attention.
"This kind smells better than yours," she told him bluntly.
"Soap should smell like soap, not like a brothel," he told her, clearly having put no advance thought whatsoever into the statement.
"Hop!" Joyce reprimanded seconds before El asked him, "What's a brothel?"
"Don't look at me," Joyce told him unsympathetically when the oh shit look took over his face, "you walked right into that one."
"Forget I ever said that," he told her, "and I'll get you your damn soap."
Eleven nodded her agreement if only to get the pretty smelling soap, but she made a mental note to look up the word later because any word that made Mrs. Byers fuss at Hopper that way had to be interesting. Hopper said a lot of words that he wanted her to forget, some of which weren't even in the dictionary and she had to ask Mike about them.
Mrs Byers started ringing up Hopper's purchases as two new customers entered the store. Joyce thought Donald ought to pay Eleven a commission because his store hadn't been this busy all week.
"Why don't you come by for dinner?" Joyce offered in a loud enough to be overheard voice as she pushed the shopping bags across the counter. "Will and his friends will be there and it will give El a chance to meet some of her classmates before school starts."
Eleven was reminded of why she loved Mrs Byers.
"Yeah, of course. Thanks," Hopper replied before walking out of the store.
The late summer sun was slightly blinding as she stepped outside and her eyes adjusted to the change in light. "That seems like enough for one day. Ready to head home?"
"Very ready," Eleven said emphatically, "but tomorrow, I could try again. With the boys. Since I can meet them tonight."
When Hopper didn't immediately agree, Eleven reminded him, "You said-"
"Yeah, yeah, I know what I said. Fine, you can do something with the boys tomorrow."
"Just so you know," Keith told Lucas in a nasally tone laced with unjustified superiority, "someone beat your high score on Dragon Slayer." The boys were, unsurprisingly, spending the final days of summer basking in the artificial neon light of the arcade. Dustin had spent the last of his birthday money regaining control of Dig Dug so hearing that Lucas had been unseated was doubly satisfying.
"Well at least we know it couldn't have been you," Lucas teased Dustin as they crowded around the Dragon Slayer screen waiting for the display of high scorers to come up.
"Whatever, dude," Dustin retorted weakly.
It took a moment for the boys to register the first place name but as soon as the meaning sank in, all four of them started looking around them like a family of merecats until Lucas spotted the redhead in question. "Seriously? This is how you tell us you're back?"
"You know me," Max shrugged, "I'm all about being subtle."
Lucas held our his arms in silent invitation and Max hungrily accepted the hug.
"So?" She said breaking the post-PDA awkward silence, "What did I miss?"
"Let's get out of here," Mike told her as he started walking towards the door, "we'll explain on the way."
"On the way where?" Max called after him.
"We'll explain that too," Will told her.
"Well, holy shit!" Max exclaimed walking her bike up to the Byers' gravel driveway to find Eleven sitting on the front porch lazily rocking the aging porch swing, "Look at you outside in broad daylight and everything!
"Missed you," Eleven told Max, pulling her into a hug.
"Missed you, too," Max hugged her back, genuinely appreciating her one and only girl friend. "It sucked not even being able to ask for updates. Do you actually think someone would have read our mail?"
"Yes, I do," Hopper told her as he walked out onto the porch announcing the fact that he'd been listening to their conversation. "And watch what you say on the phone," he added gruffly, "they were tapping the whole town at one point."
"Can we go for a walk?" Eleven asked, changing the conversation. Hopper considered the normalcy of the request and realized that for once, he could actually say yes.
"Yeah, sure. Be back in an hour."
"I swear one day, you guys are going to actually miss all this cloak and dagger stuff," Max teased as they walked away into the woods in the general direction of Castle Byers.
"Not me," Will declared, "I like things being back normal. Well," he amended looking at Eleven, "relatively normal anyway."
"Not to rain on your parade or anything," Max started, "but from what you guys told me on the way over here, do you really think things are going to stay normal?"
"I'll settle for not having to worry about the end of the world until we're at least out of high school," Dustin said.
"This is where I found you," El told Will quietly as Castle Byers came into view.
"Yeah," Will shuddered slightly. The clubhouse held such a mixture of good and bad memories for him. "It's actually kind of a peaceful place to hide out. In the the Right Side Up, anyway."
"At least El doesn't have to hide anymore," Mike was as happy about reaching this milestone as Eleven herself. "How was your first day out in public?"
"People stared," she responded resentfully and the added more brightly, "Hopper said I have to meet you first, but then we can do things."
"Well ok then," Mike said practically, "Hi, I'm Mike, short for Michael. Nice to meet you, wanna check out the arcade tomorrow since you're new to Hawkins?"
"Hi, I'm El, short for...oh crap, I forgot."
"Elizabeth," he prompted.
"Oh my God," Max interrupted, "Don't introduce yourself to people that way. Normal people don't tell everyone what their name is short for."
"Mike did," El countered.
"Like she said," Dustin chimed in, unable to resist the opportunity for a dig, "normal people don't tell everyone what their name is short for."
"Hey!" Mike feigned offense.
"Just tell people your name is El," Max instructed, "If Jane happens to come up, then you tell them you go by your middle name. Most people won't ask."
Max was El's best source of information for what constituted normal teenage girl behavior, so she took the advice as Gospel.
"Did you get your class schedule?" Lucas asked Max hopeful that they would have as many classes as possible together.
"No," she responded with unrestrained annoyance. "Mysteriously, my schedule is no where to be found. I have a pretty good guess for what happened to it."
"Neil or Billy?" Lucas asked, Max's usual suspects list was short.
"Same difference, really, but it would have to have been Neil. No one else is allowed to get the mail. No big deal," she brushed it off refusing to put herself back in the middle of an unwinable power struggle, "I'll just go into the school tomorrow, tell them mine got lost in the mail and get another copy."
All of the kids had to live with bullying from one source or another, only Eleven and Max had to accept it from a parent figure.
"Now I'm glad I pushed him today," Eleven told her friend in solidarity.
"Did you really?" Max brightened and Eleven nodded.
"Last time she almost knocked him out with a tree branch," Will said with vicarious pride.
Dustin laughed. "I'm so glad you're on our side!"
Hopper and Eleven were the last to leave the Byers' after dinner that night. It was late enough that Eleven almost dozed off on the ride home and stumbled clumsily up the steps to the front door.
"Hey, kid," Hopper called to her after she'd gotten herself ready for bed. His voice sounded more weary than he likely intended, "I need to talk to you about something and stop making that panicked face every time I tell you that. If I ever need to break bad news to you, I'll lead with it, ok? Just, sit down for a minute."
"What?" she huffed at him. He waited for her to sit first. The trailer by the lake was hardly a large home, but it was quite a bit larger than the cabin. Though further apart, the living room still contained a sofa and an adjacent chair. Hopper and Eleven assumed their Serious Conversation places, he in the arm chair, her on the recently replaced sofa.
"Alright," Hopper told her, stalling and looking for the words he wanted. "We have a lot of changes coming up so throwing one more at you probably isn't the best timing on my part, but it is what it is."
"What is what what is?" Eleven perched on the edge of the sofa impatient with his vagueness.
"Joyce and I are maybe dating," he finally blurted out.
"Finally," Eleven flopped backwards, throwing out her arms in a mixture of relief and exasperation.
"We know," she told him, annoyed by his obliviousness, "We all know. We've been waiting on you and Mrs Byers to figure it out."
"Wait a minute," Hopper stopped her, now also annoyed, "who's 'we'?"
"This is not a topic of conversation for you and your friends," Hopper was using the stern voice to which Eleven was now totally immune in a doomed attempt to regain control over the situation.
"Wait, what do you mean 'maybe'?" Eleven was just registering the qualifier to Hopper's announcement.
Hopper rubbed his face and made the noise that was halfway between a groan and a growl. "Look," he said finally, "Joyce and me, we've known each other a long time."
"I know. Since high school."
"Since before high school, actually. Some of that time we've been friends and some not."
"And sometimes more," Eleven reminded him because that was the part she really cared about.
"Yeah, ok, that too," he conceded, "But we have a tendency to irritate each other and get into arguments—"
"— So? We irritate each other and get into arguments."
"You and me are a different deal altogether, kid. Neither of us wants to risk losing the friendship so we don't want to push it. Sometimes you've just gotta take time to see how things go."
"Max hates her step brother, but I already like Will and Jonathan," Eleven mused utterly dismissing Hopper's desire to proceed with caution. Eleven knew better than anyone how Hopper was resistant to change on principle and looked for any excuse to justify it.
"Alright, just hold on there, kid. Stop. No one's getting married."
"Ever?" She challenged him, humor in her eyes.
"Alright, you know what?," Hopper's patience for her teasing was officially exhausted, "It's late. You're tired. Go to bed."
"I'm not tired anymore."
"I don't care."
"Can we get one house for everyone?" She continued as though he hadn't said anything.
"Go. To. Bed."
"Because that would be nice."
"I'm going to start throwing away the Eggos in about ten seconds," he warned.
"No you won't." El brazenly called his bluff.
"Yeah? Try me."
"Fine. Going to bed," she figured she'd pushed him far enough for one night, "Goodnight."
Eleven walked away from the living room towards her bedroom, stopped and taunted Hopper one last time for good measure. "We could live closer to Mike."
"So help me El, I'm walking into the kitchen!"
"Ok! ok!" she surrendered, "I'm going!"
Eleven wasn't exactly lying when she'd told Hopper that she was no longer tired. Her body was tired, her eyes were heavy, but her mind was replaying pieces of her day over and over, piecing it together, making sense of it all. And then suddenly she realized what it was that felt simultaneously strange and comfortable: This must be what normal felt like. This was everything she never would have known she was missing had Brenner been successful in keeping her brainwashed. This was it was to have friends. To have family. To finally, finally be home.
Motivated by a need stronger than sleep and more comfortable than her warm bed, she opened her bedroom door and heard the evening news. It was now quite late, but Hopper was still awake. Eleven walked down the short hallway to the living room, burrowed herself into Hopper's side and wordlessly wrapped his arm around her like a blanket.
"Can't sleep?" He asked her reconsidering the wisdom of dropping a bombshell right before he expected her to go to bed.
Rather than answer, she pushed herself into his lap, wrapped his second arm around her and pressed her head into his chest. "You did good," she told him as she let sleep take her, "you did so good."