Their time together in the weeks since the events of the lab, and Joyce's descent into grief was...quiet. Even when her house was full of kids, or when they shared dinners, chattering and eating, and carrying on - Things between them were quiet.

Not that they weren't involved, not that they didn't join in the bubbling conversations around them, or that Joyce was entirely silent - Of course she wasn't. She had her two boys, she had El to watch over now, and she would always be hyper aware of every twitch, sound, and glance. She was too attentive for things to fall by the wayside. To the kids she may seem almost normal - Sad, but not withdrawn.

With Hop, though - They moved around each other. They spent time together, they came together at the end of the day, they cooked meals, shared smokes, normal things. They were aware of the bond the kids had now, and wouldn't take that away (especially Hopper - the more time El spent with harmless, but traumatized, Will, the less time with Mike the soulmate Wheeler).
They interacted as a group. There was a frenzied, energized rapport between the two families, excitedly building something so...substantial together.

But, when the kids weren't in the room...there wasn't much said.

They circled around each other. They were in one another's orbit, constantly drawn in, and almost magnetically attracted. They were not willing to give up these shared moments, or the routine, but there were also words. They shared brief eye contact across the table, or as they handed a smoke back and forth between them (sure not to let their fingertips brush, though neither of them would consider why).

It wasn't that it was awkward - Why would it be? Neither had laid anything out for which to make it awkward. The kids didn't even notice, likely wouldn't recall accurately if someone asked - Do Joyce and Jim talk to each other much? "Of course!", the kids might say, because how could two people spend that much time together, but hardly exchange a word?

They wanted to spend time together - Otherwise, they wouldn't. But it was so consumingly quiet, that sometimes Joyce wondered how they would ever open up again. Maybe they wouldn't? The thought didn't startle her as much as it once might have.

It odd, though, so unlike how their time in the last year had been. Even in the weeks leading up to Will's hospitalization at the lab, they had been close (too close, one Bob Newby had observed in passing, but would never vocalize).

Joyce saved Jim's goddamn life - Jumped down a hole to save him, and it was - The most, the most that it could be. It was a present, breathing thing between them. He was always looking at her like she was some angelic warrior.

She told Hop everything, whether he wanted to hear it, in the beginning, and he told her to tell him everything by the second time it all went to hell. Hop was the one with her at the appointments at the lab, the one offering advice on Will's condition. They were entwined in the battle, and how could they not be?

But, this time - When it was all over this time...something changed. Of course Joyce was grief-stricken, was in turmoil with her emotions - Will was free - hopefully, blessedly, free - but Bob was gone, and oh, was he ever. That - that was a big part of it.

She could not get away from that image, so ingrained in her mind, vivid and bright behind her eyelids when she closed her eyes. Bob...sweet, smart, gentle Bob...she couldn't allow herself to describe it, couldn't reconcile him with his fate.

That did not fade quickly - She could not escape the replay. It became a horrific, obsessive thought, so that even when she was almost calm for a moment, almost less stressed for even thirty seconds, it would flash violently in her mind. It knocked the breath out of her, left her wide-eyed, and blinded. She would be in tears before she even realised, gasping, and clutching at anything nearby. She would be far away, and trapped in that moment, until something drew her out. More than once, it was the cigarette scorching her fingers as it burned up in her hand.

She had taken to wearing a rubber band on her wrist to snap herself out of these moments, not even particularly out of desperation. It was almost a natural defense mechanism against the torturous thoughts. It was just something she did one day, without much consideration. She would pluck it against her skin to try to pull out of it, to get some distance and perspective, when the heaviness of Bob's death threatened to topple her. Joyce was no stranger to anxiety, or panic attacks, at the best of times. She was fearful it would all pull her under.

The rubber band did not help after a couple of days - She became numb to the sting of it quite quickly, and sunk into memories, paralysed with fear, once again.

It only left the inside of her forearm tender, and lightly bruised.

Hopper, of course, noticed this, and it was one of the first times since the tragedy that he implored her for more information. What are you not telling me, Joyce? His words hung as vapour in the blue evening air.

Joyce finally, quietly, exasperated, told him about her botched attempt at coping. Hop took her hand, slid the elastic from around her wrist, and pocketed it. He stroked long, warm, calloused fingertips down her delicate skin, and the purple little bruises there. They were painless, and superficial, but were an ugly reminder of the internal pain she was struggling with, the memories she was trying to shed.

And it was not awkward - It was comfort, it was support, and it was quiet.

His touch was soft, reverent in a way, and she found tears in her eyes unrelated to Bob's death. Hopper was here, thank God, and he let her sniffle and cry - quietly - his thick brow pinched in - quiet - concern.

Hopper kissed the thin skin on the inside of her wrist, then the back of her hand, and finally clasped her palm between both of his large hands. He rested them together on his knee, and his gaze stretched out across her dark yard. He wasn't going to let her self-destruct, this gesture seemed to tell her. He, King of self-destruction, she mused.

Joyce felt undisturbed by demodogs snarling in her head for the entire time they sat there on the porch on the cold, bleak, December afternoon.

This moment with Jim triggered not an entirely new stage in her mourning.


Because - and Joyce knew it, and wondered if Hopper knew it (he didn't) - her relationship with Bob...even if he had survived, even if he had come home at the end of it all, and his warm body was next to her in bed, and he whispered about Maine again, joking that this series of events must please have convinced her to come...

She wouldn't have - Her relationship with Bob was not going to last.

How fucking utterly terrible that was to think about a dead man. But that was the thing - Even though he was gone, it didn't change her certainty on the fact.

She knew before, she knew when he asked about Maine the first time - How dear and unyielding was his kindness, but...she couldn't go, they wouldn't go. They wouldn't last.

(Joyce didn't love him.) Not exactly, not honestly, not like he deserved, though this was a thought buried at the back of her mind. It seemed too cruel to think. It was a low whisper in the buzz of her anxious thoughts.

Joyce felt like she was trying to catch up with his wholeness. It didn't matter how good she felt, or how often, because it wasn't always. There were days that she hid from him - This...darkness, the occurrence in the Upside Down, and how it affected her, how it affected all of them.

Bob only knew that, on these darker days, Joyce did not talk to him much. A couple of times, he had swung by the store when she told him she couldn't have lunch, to find her smoking and drinking coffee with Jim.

When they saved Jim, cut him from the evil roots that the Upside Down had birthed, Bob couldn't look directly at the two of them. He couldn't look at the way Jim grasped at her arms, or the way Joyce held Jim's face between both of her hands, as if they were the only two people in the world.

Jim said her name like a benediction, and good-natured Bob wasn't about to call bullshit on the whole damn thing.

He didn't...question it, but these were times in which Joyce inadvertently made her choice.

Even though she did eventually share with Bob, even though he learned about it all, that night at the lab...she would never feel like she could give him her all when she was so splintered, so jagged.

She didn't want to bear the burden of hurting Bob when he realised he couldn't fix everything, and she couldn't fumble through, pretending that it was fixed. There was an ever-present wall between them during the few months of their relationship.

A lot of walls came down, this was true. For how refreshing was it to date a sober, warm, genial man, with kind, hopeful eyes, who held her hand, drove her son to school, and wore costumes at Halloween, dancing with her in the living room of a house that had seen so much toxicity (from her ex-husband, and other dimensions).

How entirely harmless was he, how good - Especially after years of Lonnie fucking Byers, who she would resent forevermore for stealing her away from herself, from the world.

But, was there not some (half-way) happy medium between Lonnie, and Bob? Was there not someone, somewhere, who she could be entirely genuine with? Someone who she could be broken in front of, and know they would understand, and not run, spooked, from it, either?

I mean, Joyce thought, of course there is someone. You know there is, and that's why you feel so guilty.

That's why she could barely look at Jim, let alone share all this...share all these thoughts. It painfully, glaringly, fucking obvious, that Joyce thought they should both be embarrassed.

How predictable, how typical, and yet, at the same time, she had no idea how she ended up here ("here" the last year of her life was, well, beside Hopper...even when she was also beside Bob).

Bob was gone...her concerns about disappointing him, about being unable to be truly open with him were unnecessary, because he was gone. Joyce was broken, lost, and so very guilty.

So, her time together with Jim had, indeed, been quiet.