Flo has the message waiting for him when he gets back from the scene of a traffic accident, and suddenly the sharp tone she took with him over the radio makes sense. The school called to make sure he was aware that El was absent that day, and his caring, maternal receptionist was prepared to put him through hell for leaving ‘that poor, sweet girl’ home alone when she was sick.
Except El wasn’t sick…and should be in school. And because he didn’t want her riding her bike in the snow, he’d dropped her off at the front door of that school.
So he circles back to see where the miscommunication occurred. He’s the sheriff of this town and they pay him to be calm, so no, he’s not fucking panicking alright? The sirens come on because he’s the sheriff and that’s his prerogative and it’s necessary because the idiots out on the road today don’t seem to understand that his kid is missing and he’s in a goddamn hur-
Some knucklehead student running late for school nearly T-bones him in the parking lot. He hits the gas to speed out of the way and skids on the ice before coming to a rough stop half off the pavement in the snow-covered ball field.
He puts it in park and gets out of the car, ready to give the knucklehead a piece of his mind. But movement in his peripheral vision catches his attention.
That’s when he sees a familiar purple winter coat bobbing along on the edge of the woods.
What the hell?
The knucklehead takes advantage of his distraction and scurries into the school, but Hopper’s already sprinting across the field and far from caring.
“El!” he yells. Then, remembering that he’s still in earshot of the school, “Jane!”
She’s got some pep in her step, but he manages to catch up to her a little further into the woods, where the snow stays suspended in the trees but threatens to drop on them at any second. He yells again, and this time she turns around, eyes wide and round under the winter hat they fight over every morning.
(“Itches!” “Try frostbite on for size, kid, then come crying to me about itching.”)
“What the hell is happening here?”
Biting at her bottom lip, Eleven drops to her knees and holds her hand out to her side. From behind a fallen log, a scraggly looking basset hound lumbers over to her, long ears leaving trails in the snow.
She rests her chin on the dog’s head, wrapping her arms around its dirty little body.
“You’re-” She shakes her head. “The dog’s cold. Right, of course it is.”
El nods. “And hungry.”
The remnants of a soggy brown bag lay at her feet, ‘Ja’ in his handwriting just visible above the fold. He spies the plastic bag he put in her sandwich in that morning (empty now) and rolls his eyes.
“Obviously not anymore!” Hopper scoffs. “And what about school? What, is this your new geography teacher? Is that the plan?”
Smart ass little-
Her sharp little chin juts out so far that her face gets pushed up toward the sagging treetops and the sky above them. She squints, and with a start, he realizes that’s exactly the face she would be making if she were about to bring that snow down on him.
“Don’t,” he warns in halted, angry syllables. “You. Dare.”
“School,” he orders, jabbing a finger in the direction of the building. “Now.”
Frowning, Eleven hugs the dog tighter- in a near stranglehold, but the mangy-looking thing doesn’t seem to mind. She did the same thing with that stuffed bear he dug up for her during her first night at the cabin, and the memory pangs warmly in his chest.
No, no, no, absolutely not, no. He’s not getting roped into this. She hasn’t even asked yet but she’s doing this thing with her eyes that she always does when she wants something from him. Where the hell had she even learned that?
“Shoo!” he tries.
The dog doesn’t budge.
Hopper sighs. “We can’t take it home.”
“I know it’s cold! And hungry. We can’t take in every cold and hungry thing you find in the woods.”
El stares, waiting for him to get it.
“That was different,” Jim grumbles. “I put you to work. I needed someone who could clean the gutters without a ladder.”
She snorts at that, doing that teenage eye rolling thing that he’s had just about enough of.
The wind flings a smattering of snow at them. El and the dog shiver. Hopper sighs.
“Go to school.” He counts out a few bills (enough to replace her lunch, damn kid) and holds them out. El scowls, refusing to look at him or take the money.
“El,” he scolds, grabbing her hand and pressing the bills into her reluctant palm. “C’mon. Go.”
When he picks her up at the end of the day, the damn dog is in the back seat.
Because of course it was. Who could blame him?
Damned thing looked cold.
“I know you’re mad. Are you- never mind, you look mad. You’re probably mad.”
With great care to be gentler than his mood permits, Hopper nudges the curly-haired kid out of the way. The kid makes a hurried hand gesture and the whole line of them moves back, curly retaking his position at the middle next to Mike. The group fans out, obstructing the hallway from locker-covered wall to locker-covered wall. All of them with their arms crossed over their chests, looking very much like the many overeager defense attorneys he’s shooed from his lock-up over the years.
Believe it or not, five kids blocking his way to the principal’s office has not made him less angry.
“Look, I know this was bad,” Dustin insists, holding his hands out in surrender- like he’s negotiating a hostage release. “But! But, she was awesome.”
“Go back to class,” Jim grumbles. “All of you.”
They don’t scatter like they should. Loyal little shits.
“They were going to dissect them,” Mike says urgently. “She’s a hero!”
Hopper takes a step closer, eyes piercing the Wheeler kid’s resolve.
Mike winced “…sir.”
His eyes roll of their own accord. When he gets on her case about the eye rolling, El’s quick to tell him that she ‘can’t make it stop’. He gets it now.
“Move. Or I will move you.”
Reluctantly, they shift off to the sides, leaving a hole down the middle for him to walk through. Joyce’s boy smiles shyly at him, and Hopper smiles back, tipping his hat slightly.
He’s not really all that mad about the lab frogs. And he’s glad El has her friends.
But man are those kids weird.
He kind of likes them.
The bored-looking receptionist rifles through her memos and nods out the door. “Just across the hall.”
El’s laying on her side with her back to the door when he finds her.
“Hey,” Hopper says softly, sitting next to her on the ugly green cot. “Everything okay here?”
The school nurse answers for her, sending a perfectly healthy-looking kid back to class with an ice pack and a glare.
“Just a nosebleed, Chief.”
She smiles at him and rests a hand on Eleven’s forehead, nodding when she’s satisfied with her temperature. “I wouldn’t normally call, but this is the third one this week, and I’m a little concerned.”
El doesn’t look at him.
“Nosebleeds, huh?” Jim asks, staring at the back of his girl’s head. Lightly, he rubs her back, but El still refuses to turn over.
Well, that’s not suspicious at all.
“Mhm,” the nurse hums. “I’ve never heard of exercise bringing them on, but it’s always during gym class? It might be something to bring up with her regular doctor.”
He promises the nurse they’ll arrange for a check-up before her next gym class, just to be sure, and swings El’s bookbag onto his shoulder as he leads her into the parking lot with a hand on her shoulder and a warning in his voice.
The great thing about driving with your kid is that it’s a good way to corner them. You are capable of operating a motor vehicle, they are not- so they get to just sit there and listen to whatever the parent has to say.
And if what that parent wants is to sit in the car until they get an explanation for the use of telekinetic powers to fake sick and skip class, that’s what they’ll damn well do.
“Talk to me, kid. What’s going on in gym?”
They sit in silence for a few moments, until El gets the idea that they aren’t going to move without some action on her part.
“Bad,” she says finally. “I’m bad.”
Hopper blinks, heart suspended uncomfortably in his chest.
“No!” El huffs at him in that way she always does when he reads way too much into something and addresses her too sympathetically. “Softball. I’m bad…at softball.”
Oh. That is…much more easily fixed than where he thought this was going.
“And that…bothers you?”
She shrugs. “Bothers some people.”
His hands tighten around the steering wheel.
Kids are jerks, he should arrest the whole lot of them.
“Where the hell were those kids you hang around with?” he growls. As irritating as it is to have them crowding up his home, making noise and eating his food all the time, he sincerely doubts they would have watched someone giving her a hard time and not done anything about it.
El rolls her eyes. “Girls’ gym.”
“And the little pistol with the red hair?”
Hopper nods. Makes sense. Kid has a good arm on her. Only person besides El to ever break one of his windows.
The things he puts up with these days.
Later, after the lecture on telling him about her problems and not skipping class and whatever else he manages to throw in there (“You’re trying to tell me that with all those powers you have, remembering to close the damn refrigerator door isn’t one of them?”), the softball lesson begins.
(He’d prefer it was a ‘socking little girl bullies in the nose’ lesson, but some people don’t think that’s good parenting.)
Hopper stares at the steering wheel in horrified shock, the principal’s scolding still ringing in his ears. El slides so far down in her seat that her seat belt just about catches on her neck.
“Sit up,” he orders numbly. “Look at me. Two of your eyes on two of mine.”
He demonstrates, fingers in a ‘v’ and swinging rapidly between the pair of them.
“I do not want to hear your name in the same sentence as the words ‘public display of affection’ until you are as old as I look, got it?”
Silent, Eleven nods.
“Right now, you only have about twenty years to go. But if you keep giving me these grey hairs, you’re in for a loooong wait, young lady. That clear? It’s in your best interest to keep me looking as spry and handsome as I am today.”
Poor kid. Her face is so red it almost looks painful.
It doesn’t distract him from doing his good deed for the day- he sees Mike Wheeler getting into the car with his parents and doesn’t swerve to hit him.
Man, he’s a good guy.
One of Hopper’s least favorite parenting tasks was giving a modified version of the ‘stranger danger’ talk to a teenager who’s seen way more danger from familiar people than she’s ever seen from strangers.
Hell, he was a stranger once.
Still, he hits the highlights. People aren’t allowed to touch you without your permission. There are places people definitely aren’t allowed to touch you without your permission. If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, use what you got. Don’t stop and worry about what will happen after.
“We’ll move to Timbuctoo if we have to,” Hopper promises. “Just get yourself out of there.”
El frowns at him. “Tim-buc-too?”
Hopper nods, glad to turn his attention back to where grilled cheese sandwiches are sizzling on the stove. This had not been a conversation he particularly wanted to have.
“It’s a real place, look it up. Unless Teach over there has a different lesson plan for the night.”
Teach snuffles into El’s knee, as uninterested in Jim as he always is.
He’s not sure the talk sinks in -which is a very reasonable but also very dad-ish thing to worry about- until weeks later when (surprise, surprise) he’s called into the school again.
There are already five people crammed into the office when he arrives, which is rough because it’s a small office and Jim is not a small man. The principal is in his usual place behind the desk, expression stern as ever. But there are three new people seated on the couch, clearly related because of their identical noses and hacked-off expressions.
Hopper takes a seat next to El, who looks tiny in the tall chair on the opposite side of the principal’s desk.
“Sorry,” she mutters.
Well, that’s not a good sign.
“I’m glad you could join us, Chief Hopper,” the principal starts. “I’ll cut right to the chase, there was a very serious incident in the hallway today. Bradley, your hand please?”
The kid on the opposite couch lifts a mottled purple hand to show the room. Hopper whistles lowly.
“Looks like it’s been put through the wringer, kid.”
The mother scowls. “Or slammed in a locker door.”
“Jane?” he asks lowly. “What happened here, kiddo?”
El swallows. “Timbuctoo,” she says quietly, so only he can hear. Hesitantly, she tugs up her own sleeve to reveal the faint red outline of a handprint that’s still visible on her wrist.
Hopper sees red and not much else for the next few minutes- which is a shame because he would have loved to see the look on the little shit’s face when he started throwing around words like ‘assault’ and ‘arrest’ and ‘tried as an adult’. (All of which were a bit of stretch in a case of aggressive hallway propositioning, but damned if he didn’t sell it like the little punk was an inch from death row.)
Embarrassed, the principal turns on a dime and changes his tune, seeming almost relieved not to have to suspend the Chief’s daughter.
Plus, it’s hard not to like El. Hopper hasn’t exactly tried, but it sounds exhausting.
Later, the little bastard’s parents call him up and demand he reimburse them for medical expenses. He politely informs them that they’re damned lucky they’re not paying for a funeral, and it would be in their little degenerate’s best interest to keep his hands off of Hopper’s kid.
A good rule of thumb, in general.
(Even if she is a menace.)