Hopper drove aimlessly following his meeting with Dr Owens not really knowing what to think and not wanting to return to the cabin until he had his thoughts together. On the one hand, with a single piece of paper, Dr Owens had secured for El (Jane? He'd have to ask her preference) the chance of a normal childhood. Well, relatively normal anyway. She wasn't genuinely capable of true normalcy. On the other hand, before she could actually start living that childhood, she'd have to wait another year. Well, shit. He punched the steering wheel in frustration.
He didn't know how he was going to get her to agree to another year of the Don't Be Stupid rules seeing as how her willingness to play along was already exhausted. When Hopper was a kid, your parents spent years making sure you knew you weren't going to get away with jack shit so that you didn't try to get away with anything once you were a teenager and your parents could no longer stop you.
Hopper hadn't been the most well behaved kid, but at least he wasn't openly defiant. Sure he skipped school and smoked and drank as a teenager, but he'd had the decency to at least hide it from his parents. It never would have occurred to Hopper at 13 years old to throw a book at his dad's head, shove a plate of food into his lap or run away. Whether his dad would have done it or not, kids of his generation had a healthy fear that that sort of thing would result in not being able to sit comfortably for a week so they didn't dare test the boundaries.
Meanwhile Hopper's one attempt to ground El a few weeks ago (had it only been a few weeks? Averting an apocalypse had a way of messing with your judgment of time) ended in complete disaster and the only thing both of them learned from the experience was that El could and would call his bluff and he would lose.
Whether it was possible to control any 13 year old who was completely unwilling to even humor a parent's claim to authority, Hopper had become convinced it was definitely impossible with a psychic 13 year old who could easily knock him on his ass with a flick of her head. His inherent disdain for the Free to Be You and Me generation of parents who needed to cajole their children into compliance was coming to bite in the ass because that's exactly who he needed to be. Karma is a real bitch sometimes.
He scrubbed out the end of his cigarette into the Blazer's well used ashtray when it dawned on him. He couldn't control Eleven, but there was at least one person he knew who'd been brought up with a healthy respect for adult authority. He smiled to himself and set off in the direction of the Wheeler residence.
Karen Wheeler was just picking up her kitchen from the onslaught of after school snacking when the doorbell rang. She found a gruff and annoyed looking Jim Hopper on her front porch. "Karen." He said flatly.
She stepped aside to invite him in, "Jim." An uncomfortable moment passed before Karen Wheeler asked "Is everything alright?"
Hawkins wasn't a particularly taxing law enforcement job, Hawkins Lab and related activities notwithstanding, but Hopper was good enough at his job to understood the fine art of exploiting awkward silences. Even after leaving Karen to break the silence, he carefully examined his hat that he'd removed as he crossed the threshold, rocked on his feet and took a slow breath before he started talking.
"Well, Karen, I've had reports of some kids matching your boy and his friends' descriptions getting into a bit of mischief. Nothing serious. Boys will be boys sorts of stuff. The worst I could hang on them at this point is a trespassing ticket, but with the vandalism out at the pumpkin patches back in October, I think people are a bit sensitive." Karen Wheeler's hand was clutching the collar of her blouse and she looked ill at the idea of one of her children being in any sort of real trouble. Perfect.
"But," Hopper continued, throwing her a bone, "I've known your family a long time and I think your boy is a good kid. So if you don't mind, I'd like to have a little chat with him. You know, just to let him know I'm keeping an eye on him and we can nip this thing in the bud without it having to be anything...official. Bright kid like that doesn't need any sort of a paper trail if you know what I mean."
Karen Wheeler most assuredly did know what he meant and as she yelled for him to come up from the basement, Hopper knew he had just secured himself access Michael Wheeler whenever he needed without relying on a web of fictitious sleepovers for an alibi.
"C'mon kid, we're taking a drive."
"Dinner is at 6:30!" Karen called after them. Hopper gave her a wave of acknowledgement without turning around as he steered Mike towards the Blazer by the shoulder. The moment they had the privacy of the Chief's vehicle, Mike let loose, "Where's El? Is she ok? She isn't answering the radio. You aren't going to keep her away from us again, are you? You can't, there's a better way to keep her safe, I know there is. We've kept the Upside Down a secret for over a year, it's not like we can't be trusted with knowing where El is. I found her first and we kept her safe from the bad men before you ever..."
"Kid, KID! Slow down before you hurt yourself. She's fine, she's in a secure location and no, I'm not going to keep her cut off from you and your friends SO LONG AS we can all agree to follow a few, simple rules. Do we have a deal?"
"You haven't said what these rules are."
Hopper took the opportunity of a stop sign to light a cigarette. "No, I haven't and you're not in a position to negotiate. This is a take it or leave it deal, so are you gonna take it or leave it?" He pointedly did not move through the intersection making it very clear that Mike could accept his terms sight unseen or Hopper would not take him to see El.
"Fine. Take it. Can we go, please?"
Hopper picked up his police radio, dialed it to channel 7 and tapped out a message while Mike stared at him impatiently. -.-. - - - - - . . -. - - .
"Ok, now we can go," and he drove on heading towards the outskirts of town. The two sat in silence for a good portion of the ride before Mike spoke.
"How long did it take her to recover...after the gate?"
"She slept almost two days straight and then she'd wear out real easy. Been back to normal for about a week."
"But you're not letting her answer the radio."
"No. Not until I was able to find out how hard anyone's looking for her."
"Are they looking?"
"Not specifically. The lab was some kind government black ops sort of shit. Probably CIA but we'll never really know. They've got an ear to the ground to monitor, but they're not exactly looking for Eleven since their records say that she was killed closing the gate. They'd sure as hell notice her if we aren't careful though, so we have to lay low."
"A YEAR! But that's not fair! She can't stay hidden for another year! She deserves to actually have a life!"
"Hey! Calm down, alright? It's not gonna be like before, ok? Look, El...well, she takes risks that she doesn't see as risks because she's impatient. I figure if she doesn't have to take off to go see you, she'll be more content to not take off. So I'll be bringing you out here to visit, but like I said, there will be rules. If you can't follow the rules, then the visits stop. Are we clear?"
"Yeah, we're clear. What rules?"
"Number one, you don't come out here unless I bring you. I don't need you being followed. Number two, stop talking to her over the damn radio, anyone can scan the channels and listen to you. We can work out a code and you can get a sign of life, but no conversations. Number three, I don't care if Eleven wants to break the rules, you don't. And you'd better not go along with her doing it either. Got all that?"
"Yeah, I got it," Mike said sullenly.
"Ok, we're here but I need you to wait in the car for a bit." One gruff look from Hopper and Mike's protest died before fully escaping his lips. See? Hopper thought, this is how kids are supposed to act. "I have to explain some things to Eleven alone and then you can come in. Just sit in the car and don't draw any attention to yourself until I come for you."
The Chief walked the remaining distance through the woods towards a ramshackle cabin taking care to step over the trip wire he'd set. He knocked twice, once, three times. Depending on her mood, it could take El mere seconds or several minutes to open the locks and if she was particularly pissed off at him, she might not come out of hiding once Hopper came inside the cabin. That afternoon, however, she was eagerly awaiting his return because not only did the locks fly open the second he finished the last knock, she was standing in the doorway expectantly.
He chuckled and ruffled her curly hair before turning to close and lock the door.
"Well?" She asked again, becoming exasperated with the older man.
Hopper took a deep breath before sitting on the sofa and indicating for El to sit in the chair adjacent to him. "I met with Dr Owens, you remember him, right? Guy we found bleeding on the stairs, needed a tourniquet, white hair..."
"What. Happened." El demanded now, not at all amused by Hopper stalling.
"Ok, kid, bottom line. He fixed the paperwork so that every report from the lab shows you died closing the gate that night. The bad men aren't trying to find you, but they are still keeping tabs on Hawkins to make sure they covered their trail. So we still have to be careful but we can be a little bit stupid. Just a little bit though, nothing crazy, understand?"
"How stupid?" El eyed him suspiciously.
"Same rules. Curtains drawn, don't answer the door unless you hear my knock, don't go outside without me," here El narrowed her eyes in anger and Hopper held up his hand in self defense, "hold on, kid, hear me out. Those are your rules." The emphasis on your made El wonder who else had rules. "Wheeler's rules are that he can't come out here without me, he can only radio you in code and if you decide to break the rules, he can't go along with it or I'll have his ass."
El sat in stunned silence processing everything she'd just heard. Mike couldn't come to the cabin without Hopper...but that meant he could come to the cabin if Hopper brought him. And they could radio if they used code. She could see Mike. She could radio Mike. She wouldn't be alone.
"Mike is..." Eleven faltered looking for the words to confirm she had understood what Hopper had said "...just a little bit stupid?"
Hopper tried desperately (and failed) to disguise his laughter as coughing because he, as a general rule, at least attempted to not make Eleven feel self conscious about her lack of language. "Yeah kid, seeing Mike IF YOU FOLLOW THE RULES is only a little stupid."
"Half-way happy," Eleven announced.
"Compromise," Hopper confirmed.
"How long is soon?" Eleven asked and Hopper's temporary relief faded. This was going to go poorly.
"Another year," he confessed.
To his surprise, nothing broke or flew across the room, the lights didn't flicker, Eleven just looked a little sad and resigned. "Oh yeah," he said absently, "one other thing. Wheeler's waiting out in the car."
Eleven bolted for the door so fast she upended the chair she was sitting in but she skidded to a stop at the door remembering the rules. "Outside?" she asked.
"Yeah go on, let him know he's ok to come in."
Eleven ran to the Blazer and threw open the door "Mike!" she yelled breathlessly.
Mike had been told to stay in the vehicle until Hopper came for him and he didn't want to mess up on the first day. Hopper had followed Eleven to the Blazer and when Mike caught his eye, the Chief nodded.
Everyone was behaving and Hopper mentally congratulated himself for orchestrating the new arrangement.
Mike was updating El in rapid fire word vomit that she probably couldn't absorb. Not that it mattered because she was clearly so thrilled to be reunited, it didn't seem to matter what that boy said. And that's when a new sense of impending doom descended on Jim Hopper. He had just arranged for his love sick 13 year old daughter (God that sounded weird even in his own head) to hang out with the 13 year old boy who was the object of her affection. Shit.
El excitedly showed Mike the cabin ("Home!") and was heading in to show him her room when Hopper yelled after them "Door stays open."
El looked back, spoiling for a fight. "You said three rules. Three. Not four."
"Those were the three Don't Be Stupid Rules, not the I'm Letting You Have A Boy Over Rules. Door stays open."
They stared each other down in a game of chicken that made Mike extremely nervous. "I have to leave here to take him home in," Hopper paused to consult his wrist, "an hour. Do you really want to spend your time arguing?"
El gave him a disgruntled growl. "Fine. Door stays open." And she stomped off.
Hopper put his hand in his pocket to remind himself of the presence of the new Birth Certificate. That information would keep for another day, he decided. She had enough to process for now and he had reports to write.