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Seven’s a party

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It was as Steve was crawling through the small tunnel shouting his children’s names, he stopped to review just how he had gotten himself into this crazy mess in the first place. The tunnels were a dark, twisting maze; the perfect size for toddlers but not so great for a fully grown man. Said grown man sighed, sitting back on his heels as best as he could with the limited head-room. “WILL!! LUCAS!! MAX!!”

Where the hell were they?

The day had begun just like any other, waking up to find all seven of his toddlers snuggled up to him as if he hadn’t spent hours trying to settle them into their own beds the previous night. Steve smiled and carefully extracted himself from the tangle of blankets, pillows and children, before padding downstairs to start on breakfast. It wouldn’t be long before his little ones were awake and there would be hell to pay if there wasn’t a plate of pancakes laid out for each and every one of them. Despite the tiring and occasionally stressful aspects of parenting, he wouldn’t have life any other way.

Around 9 am, the phone rang. Steve stopped running a comb through Max’s unruly hair to reach for the receiver, only for El to beat him to it at the last second.
“Hel...lo?” The brunette managed in her usual soft tone, wary as ever around potential strangers. “E-El speaking.”
Steve, dashing between tying Max’s hair back and stopping Dustin from choking on his breakfast, paused to put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “El, who’s that?”

A few tense moments passed before her face broke out into a smile. “Auntie Nancy!”
He sighed in relief, ruffling Eleven’s hair while she giggled into the phone.
”Uh-huh, uh-huh, I’m good... Mommy, Auntie Nancy wants to talk to you.”
Steve took the receiver and lifted El onto his hip, holding the phone between his shoulder and ear. ”Hey Nance, how’re things?”
”Steve, hi, things are great!” Nancy Byers’ voice lilted down the line. ”How’re things with the kids?”

Steve chuckled, glancing around at the bomb site he called a kitchen; Max running back into the house through the open back door (how she’d managed to get outside he didn't know) and tracking muddy footprints across the linoleum, Dustin attempting to cram multiple pancakes in his mouth like it was no mean feat and Will calmly reading amidst the commotion behind him. The commotion was at the hands of Lucas, Erica and Mike who were in a furious food fight, presumably over the one remaining baked good their brother hadn't yet devoured, which included handfuls of Lucky Charms narrowly missing poor Will’s head. El was still clinging onto her mother for dear life, much preferring to stay out of trouble.

”The kids are... Well, they're being kids.” He laughed, ”They’re all doing great, especially El, her speech is coming on so well. But what about your two, not getting up to too much trouble I hope?”

”I'm afraid the terrible twos have become the terrible threes for Barb.” Nancy sighed fondly, gaze drifting to her husband lying on the living-room floor who was lifting their squealing daughter above his head and cooing at her. ”And Bobbie is as sweet as always, I swear he's growing up to be just like his father.”

Steve couldn’t help but smile at the pure love he could hear in her voice. “Barb reminds me so much of Max, and Bob so much of Will.”

”They are family, after all, it's what you'd expect.”

This was true, despite Steve not actually being related to either Nancy or Jonathan in any way, the children had grown close enough to consider themselves cousins.

”You're right there, cousins can be very alike.” Steve playfully replied, shifting El in his arms so he could kiss the top of her head. ”Speaking of cousins, I know my lot have been missing theirs’ very much. There's no chance you're free today, is there?”

”Goodness Steve, are you sure El’s ability hasn't been rubbing off on you? I was about to ask you the same thing!” She laughed, twirling a lock of her son’s hair around her finger. “Let me get a notepad to write everything down”

That was that: times arranged, a location chosen and farewells chorused on both ends. All that was left to achieve was leaving the house on time, which couldn't be too hard, right?

 

Wrong. Surprisingly, the tardiness stemmed from the significantly smaller Byers family; Nancy had suffered a surprise bout of sickness so severe, Jonathan was fully intent on calling off the family gathering for the sake of his wife. But after ten minutes of arguing, (or more accurately - Nancy flat-out refusing to cancel the plan and Jonathan eventually buckling, he knew how stubborn she could be and hated to get on her bad side) the kids were strapped into their seats and they were on their way. The ride, for the most part, was a peaceful one; Barb and Bobbie chattered away to one another while Jonathan drove and Nancy hummed along to the radio, one of her hands in his. A smile toyed at the corners of her mouth, “Are you excited to tell Steve?”

“Of course I am,” Jonathan broke his intense gaze from the road for a split-second to plant a kiss on her knuckles. “He’s our closest friend. I’m just nervous y’ know, especially after this morning.”

Nancy gently rolled her eyes. “Oh Jonathan, I’m fine. I’ve taken ten-hour shifts feeling worse than this, it’s only a little sickness.”

Her husband’s eyebrows furrowed but he didn’t respond, simply squeezing her hand in a way that said ‘I trust you, and I love you’. Squeezing back, an instinct by now, she turned her attention to their three-year-old who had started up a jumbled chant of “I’m hungry” and “Are we there yet?” in her adorable toddler-esque lisp.

”Mama mama MAMA!! Awe we fere yet? Dada, mm hungwy!”

“Yeah, I’m hungry too! Moooom, when are we gonna stop?” Bobbie piped up, marking the page of his book with a candy wrapper.

Reaching one hand behind her seat, Nancy gently spun the mobile attached to her daughter’s car seat and ruffled her son’s hair. “Not long now darlings, Daddy’s going as fast as he can. I promise we’ll eat as soon as we get there.” She smiled, “Plus, you’re going to see Auntie Steve~”

Bob cheered and Barb’s hazel eyes immediately lit up. “AUNTIE STEVIE WEEVIE!!”

 

Barely a half-hour later, Jonathan’s battered Ford LTD rolled into the parking lot of Holliday Park. Quickly spotting a waving Steve (cue more squeals of ‘Auntie Stevie Weevie!’ from his youngest) from across the lot, he cruised over, parked beside the other man’s Buick Roadmaster and wound down his window.

“Nancy, Jonathan, mini Byers!” Steve greeted with a grin, leaning in for a handshake with his high-school friend before skirting around the front of the car to help Nancy out of her seat. Once out of the vehicle, she hugged him tightly. “It’s so good to see you again, it’s been too long...”

He smiled into her shoulder, “It’s great to see you too Nance, it’s great to see all of you.” As he pulled away, she stumbled slightly before Jonathan was behind her in a flash, one arm around her waist. Steve frowned at the panicked look in his friend’s eyes; Nancy had barely fallen and yet here her husband was, acting as if she’d almost fallen over the edge of a cliff.

Backing away to give them some privacy (and let his kids out of the car), Steve couldn’t help but listen in on the two Byers’ conversation.

“Jonathan, please, I can take care of myself. I’m alright, just a little dizzy...” Nancy, hands pressed to Jonathan’s chest, speaking in barely a murmur.

“I can’t stop myself from worrying Nance, you know what happened before and-“

Their hushed discussion was promptly cut off, as all seven of Steve’s kids piled out into the concrete lot. El immediately rushed over to hug Nancy’s leg, while Max took Lucas’ hand and tugged him over to their cousins.

“Hi Auntie Nancy, Hi Uncle Jonath-than.” The shyest of the Harrington children peeked around her aunt’s leg to grin up at both her and her uncle. “I missed you.”

Beaming, Nancy lifted her niece onto her hip and kissed her forehead. “We missed you too El, and all of your wonderful stories. Do you have any for us today?”

“Yeah! I have one about you and Uncle Jonathan!” El giggled, snuggled into Nancy with one hand clutching Jonathan’s jacket. “Mommy said I can tell you at lunch.”

At the mention of lunch, the children’s ears must’ve pricked up because soon, Barb wasn’t the only one complaining about hunger, adults (AKA Steve) included. So with Dustin on Steve’s shoulders, El on Jonathan’s and Barb in Nancy’s arms while the others ran ahead, they made their way up the sloping path towards the dense patch of trees lining the forest entrance.

Feelings El’s tiny hands tangle in his hair, Jonathan smiled and wrapped his free arm around his wife’s waist. “What about that story now, huh El?”

 

Lunch went just about as smoothly as you’d expect for a group of twelve; lots of noise which earned a few glares from the other patrons but thankfully, no food fights. It seemed that there was an unspoken rule between the young ones - they were only to be held within the confines of Steve’s kitchen, whether that was for better or worse no one could say.

While the kids were preoccupied, thanks to El who was carefully levitating sugar packets to create a tiny house, Steve turned to his two oldest friends.

Something about them was different today. Not exactly a bad different but different enough for him to notice. For one thing, Jonathan appeared to be extra-protective of Nancy, even more so than usual, and a little nervous. Nancy, on the other hand, practically radiated positive energy; the smile hadn’t left her lips once and her skin almost seemed to glow.

“You’re hiding something from me.” Declared Steve finally, tapping his chin in an exaggerated thinking motion. “I can tell~” He pointed a finger and flicked it between the pair, who glanced at each other with barely-contained smiles. “Well come on, spit it out”

With a chuckle, Jonathan squeezed Nancy’s hand. “Well, we have been meaning to tell you something for a few weeks. We were gonna wait to tell our parents first but Nancy felt like today was the right time-”

“Don’t tell me, you guys are moving to LA or somewhere... WAIT! Do tell me, I can’t stand not knowing things! Hold on hold on hold on, Jonathan, don’t tell me you quit your job to pursue your music. Nonono... Are you getting a dog?! Dogs can be grea-“

“Steve, it’s nothing like that. I’m pregnant.” Nancy smiled softly, lifted up her sweater and held one hand to the small bump of her stomach. “Thirteen and a half weeks now.”

Steve’s jaw dropped before he grinned and clapped Jonathan’s on the shoulder. “Man, you crazy kids have been getting busy!” He looked on in glee as Jonathan’s choked on his coffee, accompanied by Nancy’s gasp of “Steve Harrington!” Laughing now, he wiped a fake tear from his eye, “No, seriously, I’m happy for you guys. You’re great parents. That also explains why Johnny boy here’s being so paranoid around you.”

“Thank you, but please try to refrain from killing my husband before she’s born.” Nancy’s eyes rolled gently, clearly trying to bite back a giggle. “And yes, he’s freaking out over nothing, I’ve tried to tell him many times that I’m pregnant, not made of glass.”

Steve nodded, not catching the pointed look Jonathan shot Nancy. Unbeknownst to him (and everyone else apart from the adult Byers) Nancy had suffered a placental abruption during her last few weeks of pregnancy with their firstborn. Though Bobbie was born healthy, if a little underweight, it shook both of his parents to their cores. Unfortunately, her pregnancy with Barb wasn’t without complications either; hyperemesis gravidarum had caused a scary amount of weight loss, to the point where Jonathan was reluctant to even let Nancy out of bed for fear of fractures or broken bones. Getting pregnant a third time was close to a miracle after everything her body went through and it had been smooth sailing so far, Jonathan had prayed to whatever God was willing to listen that everything would be okay. They knew the risks but they wanted this baby more than anything in the world, that was certain.

“Sooo... You already know the gender? Another girl, that’s great!”

“Not exactly.” Interjected Jonathan, shaking himself out of his thoughts, fully recovered apart from the faint blush tinging the tops of his ears. “But Nancy said she has a feeling that it’s a girl and I trust her intuition.”

“Then, a girl until told otherwise.” Steve smiled. Despite their rocky history, he truly admired their dynamic as a couple; mutual respect and openness were rare in that day and age. Even though he’d had his heart broken, seeing Nancy happy was more important to him. He stared on in a daze till a small tug on his shirt brought him back to reality, his youngest son Will.

“Mom, can we go play now? Max really wants to show Bobbie her favourite climbing spot. Plus, Mike’s getting really noisy.”

“Why don’t we all go? Then everyone can see where Max likes to climb, it’ll be like a family secret.” He suggested, swinging his legs over the bench and getting to his feet. The others followed suit, gathering their things and making their way to the door. Steve held Jonathan’s shoulder, waiting until Nancy had herded the children gently out of earshot before he spoke again.

“So, no pull-out this time, huh?”

“Shut up.”

 

The tree that had been dubbed “Max’s spot” stood a few meters away from the main play-castle, with benches within running distance if someone were to fall. Two of the girls (Nancy and El) had set up a makeshift camp on a picnic blanket, the younger of the two had convinced her uncle to let her braid his hair - much to her delight/aunt’s amusement. Barb was crawling around the grass at Jonathan’s feet, occasionally stopping to check if dirt was, in fact, edible. The boys had started up a game of tag, mainly running in circles around trees until Erica and Max joined in and chased them into the giant wooden fortress.

Everything was peaceful. The next few hours passed without so much as a hitch and by late afternoon, Nancy was fast asleep on the blanket. For once, Will and El had decided to take part in the roughhousing, their laughter carried away by the wind.

‘We should probably pack up and head back.’ Jonathan thought, looking up at the sky that cast a purplish, sun-set like glow on the path. Happily sat in the baby carrier strapped to his chest, Barb babbled away, unaware of the soft smile her father was giving her while they paced the forest path. Around this time in the afternoon, his daughter would always get fussy and that was his cue to take her out for a walk. This time around it effectively doubled as a way to tire Barb out, and a way for Nancy to catch up on some much-needed sleep.

They were in no rush and the walk back was a slow one. It wasn’t until he rounded a bend to see not only Steve frantically pacing, but tears streaming down his wife’s face, that he picked up his pace. The smile slipped from his face. Something was wrong. Very, very wrong.

Shit.

 

“Jesus Steve, I was gone for less than fifteen minutes!”

Jonathan Byers was furious.

“Why weren’t you watching them for God’s sake?! They’re five years old!”

Absolutely. Furious.

Steve was still pacing back and forth like a caged tiger, fingertips drumming a worried rhythm on his thighs. “I turned my back for a second, man, you really think I’d leave them on their own?!”

“Yeah, right, a second. Where the hell are the kids then huh?! Why aren’t you looking for them?!” Jonathan seethed, knuckles clenched.

“I could ask you the same thing! Why are you being a dick about it when you’re not helping either?!”

“Shut up! Shut up, the two of you!” Yelled Nancy suddenly, startling both men out of their heated stare. Wiping black-stained tears from her cheeks, she cleared her throat. “Shouting isn’t doing anything besides scaring Barb,” she continued, a quiet wobble in her tone, “We all need to calm down and start searching. If we don’t find them in twenty minutes, we go to the park ranger, alright?”

“Y-yeah, yeah, alright.” Steve glanced between Nancy and Jonathan, who gave a curt nod and laced his fingers with his partner’s. “Should we split up or?”

“I’m not leaving Nancy, I don’t want her getting hurt.” The shorter man stated over said woman’s protests. “We’ll check the woods, you start in the fortress.”

On a typical day, Steve Harrington hated being told what to do and would give anyone a piece of his mind that tried to do so, but when it came to the safety of the most important things in his life, he didn’t care. “Right, meet back here in fifteen. No earlier, no later.”

The two teams promptly split, Barb strapped to Steve’s chest because ‘he needs his little side-kick’. As they approached the tree-line, Jonathan pulled a flashlight from his back pocket and tightened his grip on Nancy’s hand. “Nancy... Baby, I promise Bobbie’s gonna be okay. Scratch that, all the kids are gonna be just fine. We’re gonna find them and take them home, and they’ll wake us up tomorrow at some god forsaken time like they always do. Barb’ll get hyper and flick her cereal at Bobbie, and Bobbie’ll get annoyed and drive you insane before you’ve even had your morning coffee. A-and,” Nancy laid a gentle hand on his cheek, brushing away a tear he hadn’t noticed rolling down his face.

“And we’ll take them out on day trips, and babysit for Steve, and have movie nights, and soon they’ll have a wonderful sister or brother...” She murmured, finishing his sentence for him. Letting out a watery chuckle, Jonathan pressed his forehead to Nancy’s. “C’mon, let’s go find our kids.”

 

Darkness; something that Steve Harrington didn’t find particularly pleasant. Sitting at the entrance of the fortress tunnels, he wondered who the hell he’d pissed off in a past life to deserve this.

“Do it for the kids, do it for the kids. C’mon Steve, it’s not like it’s the entrance to Hell of something...” Continuing to mumble senselessly to himself, he slid forward into the toddler sized tube.

“Hell!” Barb squealed in apparent delight.

“Thanks kid, just the conformation I needed...”

At least six twists and turns (and two thoroughly bruised knees) later, Steve stopped for a breather. “Right Barb, we need to be as loud as possible, ‘kay?”

“Kay, Weevie!!”

“DUSTIN, ERICA, WILL!!” He began yelling, his young ‘side-kick’ following with her own renditions of her cousins’ names. “DUSTY, EWICA, WILLIE!!”

“EL, MAX, LUCAS!! WHERE ARE YOU GUYS?! MIKE, BUDDY!!”

“ELLIE, MACK, WUCA, IKE!!” Barb chanted back dutifully.

This carried on for the best part of ten minutes till the unlikely duo tumbled out of the end of the tunnels, throats scratchy and sore. Steve panted, lying flat on his back. “We still have five minutes kiddo, let’s go.” He stumbled to his feet and started walking when something caught his eye.

“Ellie.” Barb stated, reaching a tiny hand up towards the branches of a nearby tree. A few steps closer revealed that it was actually El’s scarf, tangled in a low hanging branch.

“Good eye, Barb! Maybe you should help your mommy with some of her cases.” Steve scanned the surrounding area with narrowed eyes. If I were a child, where would I hide?..

Just beyond the swings, behind a couple of bushes, stood an old barn. Through the slats of the windows, shone the faint glow of a flickering lightbulb.

Steve’s eyebrow quirked.

Bingo.

 

“Bobbie, buddy?!” Stepping over a rotting log, Jonathan swept the beam of his flashlight along the ground. The darker the sky overhead got, the deeper set his panic became. “C’mon bud, you have to be out here somewhere.”

“Jonathan, Nancy! Over here!”

Nancy’s head shot up, eyes wide like a rabbit caught in the headlights. “Steve.” She took off running, her husband hot on her trail. Eventually, both Byers’ skidded (quite literally) to a halt beside their friend, panting for breath and doubled over.

“I’m pretty sure the kids are up there.” Steve nudged the barn door open with his foot, then gestured for the others to follow him.

Inside, the building was dimly lit and worn down. Straw covered the floor, only disturbed by the occasional draft through the holes in the wall. Steve took the flashlight and aimed it at the back wall, turning it until a gently moving mass was in the spotlight.

El and Max were curled up together, red and brown hair splayed out in a swirling pattern as they slept. Half on top of their sisters and half in a heap of their own, Will, Erica, Mike and Lucas were also sound asleep, face peaceful. Highest up on the straw pile were Dustin and Bob, upside down in what was surely a very uncomfortable position.

Upon seeing her son, nieces and nephews, Nancy let out a relieved sob and bit her lip. Beside her, Jonathan looked ready to cry himself while Steve shook his head and chuckled in disbelief. “Jesus tap-dancing Christ...”

Though they were all emotional, they were reluctant to wake the kids. Between the three of them, Nancy, Steve and Jonathan managed to carry all nine of them back down to the car park with little difficulty.

As the adults were whispering their quiet goodbyes, Barb stirred in the backseat and rubbed her eyes. With one look at her aunt, she grinned widely. “Hell.”

Jonathan rolled his eyes from where he sat behind the wheel, feeling the tiredness sink deep into his bones. “This is the last time I let you babysit my kid, Harrington.”

“It could be worse honey, besides, she’ll forget it eventually.” Came Nancy’s sleepy murmur, forehead resting on the cool glass of the window.

“Exactly, it’s only one little word.” Steve leaned in to kiss his niece on the forehead.

The young girl giggled in response. “Dick!”

“Harrington!”

Chapter Text

“Jonathan, where the hell are we going?” Nancy laughed, stumbling to keep up with her boyfriend.

“You’ll love it, I promise. Just five more minutes.” Jonathan called over his shoulder. “Trust me on this.”

This was their first date night in months, both teens were reluctant to leave their newborn son even with Karen and Joyce fawning over him every chance they got.

Starcourt Mall was almost completely empty, save for a few late-night shoppers. Having been stuck at work later than usual, the young couple were on a tight schedule to get home to relieve Joyce of babysitting duties.

“I know it’s not for dinner, we already ate. If you’re taking me to get ice cream, I’ll explode.” Taking three quick steps to one of Jonathan’s long strides, Nancy wrapped her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek into the back of his shoulder.

“Nope. You can guess all you want but I’m not telling, you do know what a surprise means don’t you?” He smirked playfully.

She shoved his shoulder with a snort, “Shut up, smartass. Said with love, of course.”

“Oh Miss Wheeler, you do wound me so~.” They came to a halt beside a small photo booth, Nancy’s eyes widening in realisation.

“No, nononono. Jonathan, I look like a wreck. I’m all sweaty, I need a shower.” She protested, blue eyes shining in the defiant way they always did.

Jonathan bent a little to peck her lips. “Shhh, you look beautiful. Hold on.” He took the hairband out of his back pocket and gently pulled her hair into a messy up-do, inching them backwards into the booth as he did so. “There, beautiful.”

“You’re so lucky I love you.” She grumbled but struggled to hide the smile quirking the edge of her mouth, half-falling into her boyfriend’s lap while the curtain closed behind them. “Only one strip, okay?”

“That’s all I ask for.” Jonathan smiled softly. Once all of his quarters slid into the machine, he settled back and with on hand in his pocket.

The first flash lit up the tiny box, his chin resting on Nancy’s shoulder. “Nance, I actually need to ask you something...”

Her head twisted slightly and looked at him with concern. “What’s wrong?...”

Rather than answer outright, Jonathan paused for a few seconds then held his hand up, palm outstretched in time for the next photo to be taken. Though he was sweating bullets, his eyes were sparkling; after all, there was backing out now. “Nancy Wheeler, love of my life, will you marry me?”

Nancy’s eyes welled up in surprise and fondness, all of the late nights and extra shifts that had Jonathan so weary suddenly made perfect sense, it was just like him to go above and beyond for her in every way. Only Jonathan Byers could plan a proposal so thoughtful and sweet.

“Y-yes... Of course I’ll marry you, you dork!” She choked, cupping his cheeks for a searing kiss which he returned tenfold. In the background, the third -and final- flash emitted; capturing the moment forever.

And as the years went by, despite their mother incessantly teasing their father for his sentimentality, Bobbie, Barb and Jamie all knew that she had that very same photo-strip, of that perfect night in 1987, tucked away in her bedside cabinet.