Author's Note: I clearly have a problem because I'm posting my second Stranger Things fic a day after my first, but I just love the Hopper/Eleven relationship too much to leave it alone. So, this was born. I hope you get as many feels from reading it as I got from writing it. I'm also open to taking prompt suggestions because Stranger Things has renewed my love for writing and I just wanna write for it.
Late at night. The cabin was still, the woods were quiet, El was asleep, and Hopper was lighting a cigarette out on the front porch. His hands were shaking, his nerves were shot, and he was simply exhausted from everything that had occurred in the past forty eight hours, but he knew that even if he did retire to bed, he wouldn't be able to sleep just quite yet.
He and Eleven had arrived back home about six hours ago - it would've been sooner if he'd had his way; every ounce of the girl's strength had been drained by closing the gate, to the point where she could barely stand on her own two feet. but she'd still insisted on seeing the Wheeler kid before she had to go back into hiding (her words, not his, and the way she'd said them made him feel immensely guilty for all the safety measures they had to take, though he knew that they were necessary) - and while she'd collapsed directly onto the couch and fell fast asleep, he had too many things on his mind to even entertain the idea of going to bed. Instead, he'd begun clearing away the heaters used by Joyce, Jonathan, and Nancy, and swept away some of the glass that still remained from when El had shattered the windows during their argument a few days ago. Thinking back on it now, he felt terrible knowing that that was the way he'd left her, feeling angry and stuck and as if she was once again nothing more than just some lab experiment who'd never have a normal life.
Truth be told, she was the best thing to have happened to him since Sarah and his divorce from his wife. In many ways, he saw her as a second chance to be the father he'd never been able to be to his own little girl. That was part of why he was so crazy strict on keeping her safe and making sure she followed their "don't be stupid rules" – he couldn't bear the thought of losing someone else he cared so deeply about. Even that month where he'd left Eggos for her in that box in the woods, not knowing if it was actually her taking them or someone else had been pure agony. When she approached him that day, scared, shivering, and alone, it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and he made a silent vow to himself to protect her in any way he possibly could. At only thirteen (this was just a guesstimate; El had no idea when her birthday was or the year she was born, and Hopper had failed to find a birth certificate when he went to see Terry Ives last year, which was something he was hoping to rectify once everything had died down a bit and he could speak to Owens about bringing her out of hiding), she'd been through and seen more than most people ever would in their entire lives, and as a result, had definitely suffered from a good bit of trauma.
Those first few days after he'd brought her to the cabin, she spoke very little, both because she had a limited vocabulary as it was, and also because she trusted very few people, and their interactions had been awkward at best. The only thing she consistently asked for, day after day, was for Mike, a request he knew he couldn't fulfill for her. It was too risky. They'd all been told not to utter a single word about her or her disappearance or any of the truth behind Will going missing last November, or their families would all be in danger. So he'd kept her hidden, setting up security measures everywhere he could, teaching her what to do if someone found the cabin by accident, and keeping a very low profile. He tried to make her life as normal as he could, teaching her words so she could express herself better rather than just slamming doors with her mind when she was upset (they'd had many arguments over the past year, which was to be expected when you threw together an aging police chief with a desperate need to keep things on the down low and a teenager who'd never known what freedom was like, but their fights were remarkably worse due to the fact that the teenager was moody and had telekinetic powers she wasn't quite in control of yet), feeding her the right foods so she could become a healthy weight, and staying home from work as much as he could.
But of course, he'd made many mistakes, and there'd been just as many learning curves. He had to learn how to explain things to her in a way she'd understand, but also not be too patronizing, because although she'd had almost no education up until now, she was wicked clever and caught on very quickly. He had to learn her different moods. and which of her tones meant what, and when he should and shouldn't push her further for an explanation. He'd had to learn that, sometimes, she just needed to be left alone so she could come around on her own. The biggest challenge to date was having to figure out the right way to support her when she was having a bad day – they came around often enough – and making sure she knew she could express her feelings without fear of being locked away in a dark room with no human contact. He'd sat through enough appointments with Joyce, Will, and Owens over the past few months to know what the signs of PTSD were, and El displayed most, if not all, of them, but the frustrating part was that he couldn't just take her to a therapist like Joyce could, because she wasn't supposed to be in Hawkins at all. So he had to figure it out on her own, and he'd made more missteps than he cared to acknowledge.
Somehow, though, he and El had become a family. He loved and cared for her just as fiercely as he had for Sarah and every time he caught the girl sitting in front of the TV with tears in her eyes (she was too shy to admit it when she was struggling – the only time when she was truly open with her feelings was when she spoke about Mike, which had become a daily occurrence, and a major point of contention for the pair), he just wanted to hug her and not let her go until he knew she knew that she was safe and she was home and he'd never let the "bad men" hurt her again. But even him being allowed to hug her had been a milestone that he hadn't reached until the third or fourth month – and even then, it was only after she'd had a bad dream or if she specifically asked for it herself.
Now, of course, they were completely comfortable with the other, if not a bit too bold with the words they spoke when angry. He couldn't help but laugh a little when he thought about how they'd reached another rite of passage during their explosive argument the other day – her first "I hate you" to him. It made him happy to know that she Well was on her way to becoming a normal teenager, but he wasn't naïve and he knew a long process still lay ahead of her until she achieved full "normality" (what did anyone in this town knew about being normal, anyways?), especially after she'd had to go back to Hawkins' Lab tonight to close the gate. The expression on her face when they'd entered the building was an image he was sure would never leave the forefront of his mind for a very long time, and for the first time ever, it really sunk in for him just how much she'd been through. That expression was not regular fear; it was sheer terror, her legs had nearly become jelly, and he knew that if it weren't for the fact that the fate of Will Byers rest in her very hands, she'd have let herself have the breakdown she so clearly needed.
He just hoped that she'd be a little more open with him now. After their little heart-to-heart in the truck on the way to the lab, it seemed as though their relationship was on an upswing, and since she'd definitely be seeing more of Mike now, he also hoped that her moodiness would begin to dissipate. He didn't know how many silent dinners he could handle, and God only knew that he'd have a heart attack if he had to make another one of those triple decker Eggo meals.
Suddenly, a scream pierced the air, one so loud that it startled Hopper and made him drop his still lit cigarette to the ground. Muttering a swear beneath his breath, he quickly stamped it out and then rushed back into the cabin, where El was now awake, tears pouring down her face, forehead sticky, and screams still escaping her mouth as if whatever terror she was imagining was in the same room as them.
"Hey. Hey, kid. It's okay. You're alright." He said as he sat beside her on the sofa and grabbed one of her hands, squeezing it tight. He was no stranger to episodes like these; nightmares were normal occurrences, for the both of them.
El, breathing heavily, opened an eye slowly, almost as if she was afraid to see who was touching her, and then all but threw herself into his arms, sobbing even harder.
"Hey. El. Don't worry. It was only a bad dream." He wrapped both arms around her and placed a firm kiss atop her head. "Whatever it was? It can't hurt you."
"It did before." She said softly.
"Yeah, and before you didn't have me around to protect you. But I'm here now. And I won't let anything bad happen to you again."
She squeezed him tighter as she explained, "It was Papa."
His jaw clenched. He didn't know what was worse; the fact that the sick bastard had been allowed to hurt her at all or the fact that she still called him that.
"He's dead, Eleven. Dead. He can't hurt you. Not anymore."
"… What if he's not?"
He tightened his hold on her, vaguely wondering where this particular fear had come from, but also deciding this was not the time to comment on it. "El. Listen to me. I haven't been hiding you here in this cabin for months and months, dealing with you breaking my windows, eating more Eggos than is really healthy for a guy my age, and listening to all your lovesick rants about that Wheeler kid just for nothing. I'm keeping you safe. For good. And that's a promise."
She sniffled, her tears ceasing a bit now. "… Home. This. Home."
He kissed her head again. "Yeah, kid. This is home. Your home. Our home. Got that?"
"… Yes." She leaned heavily against him, her forehead still sweaty, and tears falling down her cheeks ever so slowly, though it seemed as if the worst of it was over for now.
He held her tight for a couple minutes more and then gently pulled away, slipping a blue hair ribbon off his left wrist and holding it out to her. "This… this was Sarah's." He began quietly. "She used to wear it in her hair. Before… well, before she left. Her hair was much longer than yours, so it kept it out of her face when she was playing. I wear it to remind me to be brave. But I think you might get a little more use out of it, at least for now. Take care of it, alright? It'll keep you brave. Remind you that you're home. So… so that whenever I'm working late, or that boyfriend of yours can't spend every waking moment with you, you'll remember that there are a bunch of people that care about you. And will keep you safe. No matter what it means." He safely deposited the ribbon into her hand and then closed it up.
A little cautiously, she opened her hand and stared at it for a second before slipping it onto her wrist. "It's pretty." She whispered.
"Just like you, then." He kissed her head once more.
She smiled a little and then looked up at him, her eyebrows creasing in confusion. "You… you called Mike my… my boyfriend? What's that mean?"
He only laughed and hugged her tighter. "That can be our word of the day for tomorrow."