this was a weird chapter that i struggled to write - i wanted to scrap it a few times, but weird content is better than none, maybe? lol. i intended to pick it up again after the ~flashback, but it seemed a natural place to end it. and it is still only February. i am someone who, in fanfic, likes to write relatively close to canon. i am not good at writing entire plots on my own, so i just like to circle back to these things & expand on them - the things we know, but didn't see. like, the dog died - here, i killed him & insinuated Jopper fluff all in one! lol.

thank you for the kind reviews & observations y'all give to me - thank you dearly.

The dog died in the Spring of '84. It was almost exactly a year to the day, Joyce recalled, as she left the station after her rendezvous with Jim. Rendezvous. What a scandalous thought was that, compared to how achingly intimate of a moment it felt.

She removed her coat as soon as she was out the door, feeling vaguely suffocated by the leather. The skin on her neck was warm, and tingling. The walk back to the car across the street was short, and she stopped herself from looking back to the station several times, wondering if he was watching her from the window, or if she imagined the weight of his gaze.

Joyce glanced at herself in the flip down mirror once in the car, and noted her skin was pink and blotchy - As sometimes would happen through nerves or stress. She pressed her hand against the car window, cooling it, and then against her skin, taking a deep breath.

Not that being with Jim made her...nervous or stressed, but her heart raced, and blood pumped, for it was so delicate compared to the hostile ground they started on when he first moved back to Hawkins. It was so blatant, so raw - She left feeling a little exposed, a little more vulnerable. Being close to him was calming, reassuring, but it was overwhelming in the same way. The fact she could be so close to him again, that she had...she had him again - Jesus, Jesus - It made her limbs shake with all of the possibility it held.

In Jim Hopper she had a past, a present, and the notion of a future suddenly seemed very real. Joyce felt, if not wholly certain, at least nearly there in believing that this was how it was supposed to be. Bob was a wound she would carry, but...her boys were okay, Will had overcome and survived twice, El was alive, and that was - That was her purpose, her existence - That was it, that was everything - And Jim had been there. That was everything, too.

It was okay to know that, it was okay to cherish the sweet, easy days with Bob, but understand it wasn't anything like what she had with Hopper - A hundred years ago, or now. Through it all, he was at her side. He slept in his Blazer in her driveway more than once during, and after, Will's disappearance. He was gentle and understanding with her in some ways, though demanding and impatient in others - But Joyce only thought of it all with fondness.

Even if it was uncomfortable, even if it was awkward, tense in the beginning - How he tried to brush her off when he found her in his office the morning Will went missing, fed-up before she had even opened her mouth. Lobbing quips about screwing Chrissy Carpenter, of all goddamn things...

He was still there, though he faltered, and so did she - They said things, they shouted - But the trust built, the respect grew, and she found herself knowing Jim Hopper again in all the ways she had before. She found that she gravitated toward him, that as irritating as he could be - set in his ways, isolated, arrogant - so too was he utter strength, and comfort. Joyce believed she could be that for him, too - She believed that despite his strength, despite his broad shoulders on which she had laid all of her troubles, that he could use somewhere to lay his, too. Joyce wanted him to be as comfortable sharing with her as she was with him. She wanted him to know he didn't have to be alone in any of it - Raising El, worrying about Brenner, mourning Sara.

She felt unusually confident in her determination that she could be that for him - Her eyes watered when she thought of it - When she thought of Jim whispering to her about his worries, just like did she hers. Joyce wanted to give to him, wanted to give herself to him in every which way, and she wanted to...wanted to be with him.

Jim Hopper was someone in whom Joyce once believed stood her future, her life, her chance out of Hawkins. She left pulsing, living, pieces of her soul behind in him through everything, and through the final blow when he went to Vietnam. Being around him again was like getting to be whole again, being reunited with her old hopes, dreams, and fears - The more time spent with Hopper, the more Joyce found of herself left behind in him.

Such Kismet that felt, such undeniable fate. Behind the grumpy, arrogant defense mechanisms there was still the Hop who held her hair back as she retched up the cheap vodka she shot at one of Benny's parties in senior year, the one who couldn't quite look her in the eye when he, only once, saw her face-to-face whilst pregnant with Jonathan.

Jim felt the same. He still knew Joyce, knew that so was she the same, despite the ways that the years had treated her - Had treated them. Her eyes were still bright and wide, and Jim would remember that he loved her as the wild-willed woman with whom he grew up - Chemistry, history, shared trauma...

Bob himself even knew this - Bob asked Jim to get Joyce and Will (and Mike) to safety, and that was because he knew Joyce and Jim were...intrinsically connected, and it was too blinding to witness directly. It was nearly embarrassing, so unawares were they, so devoted was Joyce to finding Jim, to holding him close when they saved him.

The writing had been on the wall long before either of them realized.

She was nervous with anticipation, keyed up and excited - None of it was bad, just - Just unbelievable, such uncharted territory as the damaged adults were they.

In all of the ways it was surprising, so was it unsurprising in just as many.

Jim was at her home before she was off work the day Chester died. It was a sad thing, an upsetting event, but it was something she could have easily handled, especially after Will's trauma, after everything they had gone through the winter before. She was anxious by nature, but wasn't fragile - Joyce knew this about herself, Jim knew this - Her darling, smart boys knew this - She could handle a pet dying. But Jim was there because Will called him, and that was - That was something even then, wasn't it?

Her boys had so few male role models in life, and didn't extend trust very easily. Will trusted Hop, and Jonathan would grow to trust him. Will called the Chief of Police about their sick dog. Joyce was already seeing Bob by that time, though far from exclusive or serious, and Jim had found El months before, unbeknownst to Joyce.

Jim had been absent already, off the radar, and yet he showed up without question when her kid called him at the station. It was before Will had the worst of his episodes, but the nightmares, the coughing, had started long before, and would only increase in the coming months. The frenetic stress of what Will had experienced was never far from mind, and Joyce was on absolute edge at any change in his health, or behaviour.

She still didn't feel like she really had him back from the Upside Down, and it made sense now, knowing what had lurked inside of her youngest those long months.

April 84

Joyce pulled into the driveway - It was Friday night, and she worked until 9 - Arriving home some time later. The day had been warm, but the night was quickly cooling, and there was a misty fog swirling through. It was an April during which the days felt balmy, but the nights were still wintry - Joyce could see her breath, a stark contrast to going without a coat that afternoon.

The earth was saturated and mucky from days of rain, so there were deep tire tracks left in the driveway, as well as an extra vehicle she was not expecting. Jon's was there, and it wasn't Bob - He wouldn't be here without her, he had only been to the house twice, and waited on the porch.

Something felt off immediately, and Joyce's heart leaped to her throat. A hot panic flowed through her, and she clenched her teeth as she breathed through her nose, steady.

Then came the sick weight in her stomach when she realized it was indeed the Chief of Police's Blazer.

Jim hadn't been around in weeks, and it made sense looking back - He was living in a cabin in the woods with El, and only visited the trailer to keep up appearances - He was struggling to raise a kid, keep it a secret, and keep them all outta danger.

And yet, Joyce was coming home to his vehicle on this night.

She barely had the Pinto in park, before she tore the keys from the ignition, and threw the door open. Her hands shook as she imagined all of the catastrophes that could have brought him here, when he seemed to be effectively distancing himself from them.

Hopper came out onto the porch before she could spiral too far, for and by which she was thankful and a little flustered - Why did she feel like something had changed in the weeks since they last spoke? She wondered if it was in this time that he heard she was seeing Bob, or maybe he was seeing someone himself, or maybe the whispers of Joyce and Jim during the weeks after they brought Will home were enough to make him pull back...

She didn't know, but something felt different. She didn't feel entirely at ease to see the bulk of him on her doorstep, didn't feel that warm comfort so much - She felt a little nervous, a little worried - Felt like there was a boundary between them again that had fallen during their search for Will.

It was silly, and maybe she was projecting her disappointment at his distance, so that things felt awkward, when they really weren't. Maybe it was just her, maybe he didn't find anything out of the ordinary. Maybe she was just too glad to see him, whatever the circumstance, and was not sure what that meant.

Joyce had the absurd thought to fix her hair before she was beside him on the step - He brought a confusing mix of worry and flirtation bubbling to her surface.

Right. Where were the kids? Why was he here? Worry, Joyce, panic, don't flirt.

Hopper had a cigarette in his mouth, and held a hand out to Joyce as if to try to halt her building panic. He instinctively knew she would be alarmed, nearly choking with anxiety, and knew how to get ahead of it - Soft voice, easy reassurance.

"Hey," He began as she came closer, old sneakers sliding through the smooth mud.

"The boys are okay." Jim said immediately, frowning with his own concern as he leaned down to grasp her arm to balance her as she struggled through the muck.

"What - What's going on, what happened? Why are you here? Will - Jonathan - Are,-" Joyce gripped his sleeve as she ascended the steps.

"Joyce, Joyce,-" He slid his hand to her elbow, trying to soothe her nerves, drawing her in close.

"-they okay, what happened?!" Joyce felt the impulse to shrug his hand off of her, but the splintered focus in her brain zeroed in on the concern for her boys, and why Jim was here, rather than what had driven him away.

"No, it's okay - They're safe, completely fine." He cocked his head toward his smoke as an offer, and she nodded, silently accepting it between tremulous fingers.

She puffed as he spoke.

"I dunno - If you're going to be upset, or how really to say it. I mean, it's,-" Jim, who normally could find words in a hard situation, was floundering.

Joyce bit her lip, frowning hard. She felt like things between them were completely thrown off, and the panic began to mount again, as his mouth moved wordlessly, brows raised high on his forehead, gesturing aimlessly with big hands.

"Hop," Joyce begged, her eyes wide, stamping her foot a little, impatient and huffy, trying to centre his attention.

"The dog. The dog is sick. Will called me a couple of hours ago." Jim's brow crumpled, unsure of what reaction to expect. A sick pet was upsetting, but comparably it would be pretty standard for Byers levels of tragedy, and stress.

He knew Joyce was strong - among the strongest - and could handle it just fine, but he didn't really wanna say it just like that to the kid when he called. Will was concerned for the dog, concerned for his Mother - Jon wasn't yet home when Will called Hop - and as much as Hopper had on his plate, he had no intention of shutting any of the Byers down.

He didn't shake his head or roll his eyes at Will's concerned voice on the phone, and just told his officers he was leaving for the night without explanation, though it had been one of them to patch the call through, intrigued (nosy, in Jim's opinion) what Joyce Byers' youngest could want with the Chief.

Despite Joyce's concerns, the whispers of Joyce and Jim in the weeks after they saved Will were far from unpleasant, and sometimes thinking about her was the simplest pleasure of his day.

Jim still worried that maybe Will's disappearance and rescue, and losing El in such a scene (his guilt about that was another situation entirely), and everything Jonathan had shouldered those months back - He worried if Joyce might be more affected, might need more support than he realized - So he drove to the Byers house, and was prepared to do what he could to help with ole Chester - He owed them, he missed them.

Joyce could read none of this on his face, found she was too cloudy with anxiousness to know what he was possibly thinking at all. His words registered dimly through her panic, and she - Yeah, he said the dog, right?

"Oh Jesus," Joyce groaned, shaking her head, taking a long pull before handing the smoke back to Jim.

She was embarrassed they dragged him out over the dog. He had not been around since they went to Chicago for Will's assessment - which was fine, he didn't have to be! - but they called him over because of the dog? He must think them helpless.

He was still in his uniform. Joyce had not seen him in anything but his uniform in quite some time, and it spoke of their interactions, now - Less casual, less personal, less intense since they saved Will from the Upside Down. She only saw him at the store, or in passing - Never after hours, never on his free time when he wore denim on long legs, strong thighs, flannel across broad shoulders. No.

"Sorry they bugged you about it." Joyce murmured, her gaze somewhere near his shoulder, teeth grazing her lower lip.

"I mean - Real sick, Joyce. I had to carry him in outta the rain, he was just laying there sort of convulsing," Jim took one last puff from the smoke, and Joyce couldn't help but wonder if maybe he did so because her mouth had just been on it, and where did that thought come from, considering she was seeing Bob, considering she was trying to respect whatever boundaries Jim needed, considering they were merely friends, considering -

"Oh," Joyce said, blanching a bit at this piece of information, as she watched him toss the butt, and he took a step away from her in the process, his hand falling from her arm.

She now noticed the smears of mud on his uniform, no doubt from hoisting the old dog into his arms. Her features pinched as she reached her hand toward him, touching it to his chest under the guise of brushing the dried mud from the material. Fondness burned low in her belly, clashing with the cold and bleak situation.


He looked at her, gaze intense, as her fingertips lingered against his chest, and his own flexed as if he might touch her again. Fuck, he'd missed her. Fuck, she could help him so. He hated that El was home waiting for him - he had radioed her to inform what was going on - and he wished he could just go get her, and bring her to Joyce's welcoming doorstep.

"Yeah, I don't think - I don't think he's got too long." Jim winced himself, the whole exchange a bit awkward, a bit tense.

"Oh," Joyce bemoaned again, and then just felt terrible, felt tears sting her eyes as her panic calmed, her nerves dulled, but she still found herself shaky, and now a bit overwhelmed and sad. "Poor Chester."

"Yeah. Sorry." Hop said around a sigh, scrubbing a hand over his beard.

There was another conversation to be had, they both seemed to know - One that was not about her sick dog, one that shared details of her relationship status, of just where Hop had been - But it wasn't the time, and wouldn't be, unfortunately.

She was seeing Bob, and Jim was busy - Joyce wondered if he was drinking or taking pills again, but she was familiar with that look on Jim, and she wasn't getting that impression. He looked a little rumpled, eyes tired, circles dark, but not necessarily unhealthy. Just busy, maybe. Just living his own life, and that - That was fine.

"Why didn't Will call me? Jesus."

"Didn't wanna worry you if it was nothing, I guess." Hop shrugged, knowing it was quite true. Her boys valued her above anyone else, and Hopper got it - Because he did, too.

Joyce had to scoff a laugh at this. Her sweet, considerate boy.

"Didn't wanna worry his Mom the cashier, so called the police Chief over the sick damn dog." She smiled wryly, and Jim felt it in his teeth, felt it in the balls of his feet, how goddamn much it meant to see her smile.

"You're the most important person in the world to them - They wouldn't even think of it like that, y'know? I'm just some guy who happens to be a cop, you're their Mom. They're gonna worry about you first." Jim all but declared.

He felt that he couldn't hold her gaze for too long, sure that she knew he was hiding something, sure that it would not take much at all for him to spill it to her, with the way her brunette waves fluttered around her face in the swirling, foggy air.

"They shouldn't have to worry about me at all." Joyce murmured back, figuring they should go inside before her boys wondered why she was more preoccupied with the Chief than Chester.

"Hey. I didn't mean it like that - I just meant, they,-" Jim began, but Joyce shook her head, trying to smile again.

"I know what you meant, Hop. I just wish...I just wish they didn't have to...carry so goddamn much." She had the urge to bury her face in her hands and just cry, because having him here again felt like such a release - Such a relief - She felt overwhelmed. She had things to deal with, but she wanted to stay standing here with him - goddamnit, Hop, where have you been, if I knew I could feel like this I wouldn't have...Bob...oh, Jesus her thoughts raced around.

"I wish you didn't have to carry so goddamn much. But if anyone has to do it - You and your boys are more than capable."

"Jesus, Hop. Where...where have you,-"

"You wanna come in and see him? Make a decision from there, maybe?" Jim cut her off, knowing that it felt like they were building to that - That they were heading for that topic of where have you been and he would just have to lie to her even more, so instead he steered them back to the present concern.

"Right. Yeah." Joyce nodded in agreement, and she began to fret over veterinarian expenses instead of Jim Hopper.

They entered the home, and Joyce was struck with the sight of Will on his stomach, stretched out on the floor beside Chester, his head lay on folded arms, just quietly observing. The light in the room was warm and dim, and she saw two mugs on the coffee table - Jim had made a coffee for each of them whilst waiting for her to come home. Her affection for him was almost enough to keep the stress at bay.

Jonathan emerged from the hall, and ushered Joyce a few feet away while she removed her coat and work smock, as Hop knelt beside Will and ruffled the dog's fur, giving them a private moment.

Will relayed an update on the dog's condition to the Chief, and then Jim ruffled Will's hair, too, and Joyce felt the urge to cry again, and to ask him to smarten the fuck up, and not leave them again, and to dump Bob, and shit -

"I tried to tell him not to call Hopper." Jonathan mumbled, and Joyce gave him a side hug.

Jon looked uncomfortable, maybe, a little out of sorts with the police chief in their home during what Joyce herself considered a private, personal struggle with which to deal. They dealt with these things on their own, and as they came. It was hard to let someone else in, to expect someone else to understand their lives. Except - except when Will went missing, Joyce, Jonathan, and Jim dealt with that together, and that was it, wasn't it?

Jonathan felt like he had to be the man of the house, Joyce knew, and hated that he felt like that. Hated that Lonnie had been no such thing, and that her boys had to grow up so quick, Jonathan in particular. She knew he felt like he had to protect them, and her heart soared for her eldest, brooding and caring, and skeptical.

"It's okay. Are you okay with it?" She fixed the tag on his shirt, furrowed her brow in maternal concern.

"It's whatever, I just didn't see how he'd help." Jonathan shrugged, rubbed his neck, frowning.

"I know. We deal with this stuff us three, yeah? We could handle it. But it's not a bad thing if your brother feels like he can,-"

"What? Rely on him?"

"Maybe, yeah. I've known Hop my whole life, Jon, he's...this is his character, okay? It's okay if Will is comfortable enough to ask him for help. You don't have to - I don't even have to - But he came because Will called. Not a bad thing, honey - We don't have to do everything alone, you or me." It was the kind of conversation she expected to have with him about Bob, eventually - Let him in, don't be so stubbornly strong, and Joyce bit her lip at the reminder she was saying this about Hop.

"Okay, Mom."

Hop told them in quiet tones, as the three Byers huddled around the pet on the floor, stroking his fur, that he didn't think the animal was suffering, he didn't seem to be in any pain, and "shit, Joyce, if we can save you a vet's bill...if it's not too much to deal with, we could just let him slip away."

Joyce looked at Hopper, crouched behind the family, observing them with quiet support, and consideration, and she wasn't sure. She thought, maybe, it was too much. She felt her chin quake with emotion she had held back since she arrived home, and Jim reached a hand out to her shoulder.

Joyce turned back to the dog and her boys, Jim squeezing her reassuringly, and she placed her own hand over top his, clinging to his touch.

"I'll stay, Joyce, we'll make sure it's real peaceful."

Hop had only excused himself once, about an hour after Joyce got home, to go to the Blazer to use the radio.

In the end, Chester went naturally, comfortable in his own dog bed, just after Joyce had convinced the boys to go to sleep, with a promise that she and Hop would keep an eye on him, and not leave him alone.

Joyce decided, as Hopper wrapped Chester up snug and secure in his favourite blanket, stroking his nose as he did so, that she was gonna give Hop whatever leeway he needed. She was going to live her life, and she was gonna miss him while he was living his, but she wouldn't resent him.

She didn't believe it was for shallow reasons that he was absent - Didn't believe he would ever leave them high and dry when it really mattered, as this night was evidence of that. She figured whatever it was - it was because he knew they were okay. She knew that he would be back when he could - And he would tell her when he could, if he could.

It all settled over her real easy, real gentle, a few tears trailing down her face at the loss of Chester, and she didn't bug Hopper anymore that night about where he had disappeared to, or what he was mixed up in. The tension eased, a delicate acceptance settling in Joyce's chest, as Hopper sat next to her on the couch, a weary groan escaping his throat.

They finished their coffees, and Jim asked her more about Chester - When did they get him (eleven years ago), which boy loved him most (Will), and Joyce told him that Chester had always hated Lonnie, even bit him once, which earned a laugh from Jim.

Jim told her he loved dogs, wanted to get another one himself, soon, when he could - He didn't have a dog with Diane and Sara in the city, but now he was back to small town living, it was one thing he wanted again.

Joyce thought it was good to hear him making plans, to hear him wanting anything at all, when for so long he was...he was so far down. It made her sad to reflect on, so instead she just leaned against his side, broad and warm, and he settled an arm around her shoulder, a gesture of quiet comfort, Joyce reminded herself, and Jim did, too.

They fell asleep like that, sitting up, Jim's arm heavy and grounding around her, in the warmly lit living room. There was little time to question it when the rising sun woke them, as the boys were up and about to say their last goodbyes to the pet.

Bob Newby turned his car around that morning, before he could be detected by the Byers, or the Chief, as he pulled up to witness Jim digging what would be Chester's final resting place, and that was something about which Joyce never knew.