"Hey Chief. Sorry to keep you waiting." Chief Hopper looked up from the morning paper. The younger man sat down in the chair across from him at the sticky diner table.
"Nah, it's OK. I just got here. Need some coffee?"
"Um, no. Thanks." Mike reached out and grabbed the chipped white coffee mug on the saucer and held it in his hands, frowning slightly as he examined the flaws.
"So." Mike looked up, as though he'd almost forgotten Hopper was there. The Chief sipped his coffee deliberately. "What's on your mind, kid?"
Mike took a deep breath and met Hopper's eyes squarely. "You can't guess?"
"Don't play games, kid. You called me. What's this about?"
"It's about El." Mike didn't look much like the gawky youngster he'd been in his tweens. He'd remained tall, but his shoulders had filled out. His hair was shorter now, and he was wearing a goatee like every other guy his age. Mike's expression, however, reminded the Chief strongly of all those moments of fear and confusion they'd spent together so many years ago. He was pale, but his features remained resolute and determined.
Hopper set his cup down on the table. "And what about El, exactly?" He was older now, not quite as fit, but Jim Hopper still knew how to intimidate a suspect with his voice and his manner.
Mike didn't flinch. In fact, he grinned wryly. "I kept my word, Chief. I did what you asked. I went away to school. I gave her time and space."
"Hmph. You still called every day."
"Yeah, almost every day. Well over 2,000 long-distance calls."
"Jesus, kid. Your phone bills must be insane."
"Don't change the subject. I kept my word, and now I'm back. And I am going to marry your daughter."
Hopper cringed. He gulped down another swallow of coffee to warm the sudden icy chill in his gut. "Look, kid—"
"I'm not a kid anymore. And neither is she. We've both waited and nothing has changed." Mike slumped down in his chair. "I know everybody meant well. Yes, we had a weirdly…intense…relationship for a couple of kids, but it was real. It's always been real." He turned the mug over in his hands.
"I even went on dates. Did you know that? We agreed to try dating other people. So I got to hear her tell me about guys who took her out. I swear, it's a good thing I'm not the one with powers…" Mike grimaced, pretending that he was joking.
"And I even asked out some really nice girls. But, I mean, it was never going to work. Because none of them were as smart, or pretty, or interesting as El. None of them were as strong or brave, because they'd never had to be. But the main thing? Not one of them ever looked at me the way she does."
Hopper clenched his teeth and let out a short breath. "I know it's been hard. For both of you. But I really think you needed time to be sure. I didn't want either of you to get hurt."
Mike nodded. "I know. But now that I'm done with school and have a job lined up, I don't see any reason to wait any more. And…" he paused. "And I'm not really sure I care what you have to say about it anymore, either."
Much to his own surprise, the Chief started to laugh. "Kid, I'm surprised you listened to me in the first place. She sure as hell wasn't listening—she'd have been on the first bus if you had ever told her to come." Hopper laughed even harder at the expression on Mike's face. "So what's this job, anyway?" he finally managed to choke out.
It was Mike's turn to smile. "The job I've been working toward for the last seven years, Hopper. I got Doctor Owens to refer me in. I'm starting Monday at Hawkins Lab."
Every trace of amusement drained from Jim Hopper's face. "What the hell did you just say to me?"
"I said, we are re-opening Hawkins Lab. Owens came out of retirement to hand-pick the team. I've been studying psychology and crypto biology for the last seven years just so I could get in there. I am going to find out what happened up there. I am going to find out what, exactly, they did to her."
"And El knows?"
"Of course she knows. What do you think we've been talking about on the phone for the last 2,300 nights?"
Hopper rubbed his eyes. "Dammit, Mike. Are you sure this is a good idea? For either of you? That place is best left alone."
"I'm sure. So is she. Trust us."
The Chief drained his cup. "I just—I don't want her to get hurt. That's all. I've been trying to protect her all these years and—"
Mike leaned forward and looked square in Jim Hopper's eyes again. "I told you, I'm going to marry her. Do you think I'm going to let anybody hurt her? Nothing is going to touch her."
The two men locked eyes. Hopper's were troubled, but Mike's were blazing. "I've loved her longer than you have, Chief."