A few days after Will Byers is discharged from the hospital, Nancy is left reeling with mixed emotions. She's relieved Will is back and safe, and tries to focus on that rather than all that’d gone wrong. But she suffers with nightmares, often ones where she hears Barb calling out for her, battles panic attacks at the most random moments, like when a song they loved and danced around to in her room plays on the radio. But life still goes on, and most things are the same. She still studies religiously, aces her tests, is still dating Steve.
Only these days, her mom hugs her (and Mike) tightly every chance she gets, everyone seems to look at her with sympathetic eyes because Barb’s chair in homeroom remains empty, and she eats lunch with her boyfriend and Jonathan Byers.
Which is something that’s oddly stranger than what they’ve went through together. Or, at least, it would've been a week ago.
The first time they share a lunch table together (which earns them more than a few stares of disbelief because in what universe did Steve Harrington and Jonathan Byers get along?) is after they catch Jonathan in the hallway, him smiling hesitantly at her when she waves him over.
Will’s been over to her house for a short visit already, but she still asks Jonathan how he’s doing. Jonathan had practically been glued to Will's hospital bed every chance he got during Will's stay.
“He’s doing better,” he says, acknowledging Steve at her side with a nod. “A few nightmares here and there, I think.”
“That’s understandable,” Steve says, running his fingers through his hair. “I’ve had a few myself.”
“Yeah,” Jonathan agrees, looking at Nancy. “Are you doing okay?”
Something about the way he words the question doesn’t annoy her as much as the countless times she’s been asked the dreaded “how are you doing?”
“I’m okay,” she answers, already wanting to change the subject. She thinks of how Jonathan used to be absent from the cafeteria most days, probably developing his photographs. “Wanna eat lunch with us?”
Steve’s in her room one night, helping her study (for real this time), when she tells him she wants to get Jonathan a Christmas present.
“Yeah? What were you thinking of getting him?” he asks, and she can tell he’s genuinely curious.
“Well,” she drawls the word out, knowing this is a sore subject and second guessing herself. “I’m thinking…a camera? To replace his other one.”
She doesn’t know how exactly she expected Steve to react to her idea, but she’d planned for at the very least a small disagreement, possibly him demanding an explanation; instead he’s seemingly fine with it. “Okay. That’d be cool.”
“I mean,” she continues, feeling this need to defend Jonathan even if Steve appears okay with this, “What he did was completely wrong. And Jonathan knows it was wrong. He wouldn’t do anything like that ag—“
“Nancy, I said it was cool,” Steve interrupts, grinning at her. “I can even chip in and help you buy it. It can be a gift from the both of us.”
“From the both of us?” she echoes incredulously, wondering if she heard correctly.
“You’re so cute when you’re flustered.”
All three of them eat lunch together for about two weeks, Steve carrying most of the conversation most days. Jonathan’s more open now, but it’s usually about music or movies. Sometimes they just sit and eat in comfortable silence.
A couple of days before Christmas break, Jonathan is nowhere to be found at lunchtime. Nancy had seen him in class earlier, so she knows he’s at school.
“I think he’s avoiding me,” Steve says suddenly.
“You mean us,” Nancy corrects, looking around once more before concluding Jonathan really isn’t in the cafeteria.
“No, I mean me,” Steve stresses, looking slightly guilty. “I think I made him, I don’t know, uncomfortable. Or something.”
“I might’ve asked him if he wanted to hang out with us this weekend, see a movie,” Steve admits, shrugging. “I figured, we already hang out a little bit, so…”
And it suddenly hits her, she gets it now. Why Steve is acting like this.
“Oh my God,” Nancy exclaims, softly enough so they won’t attract any nosy people. “You like Jonathan.”
She knows Steve understands her implications, watches as he squirms across from her in his seat. “So? You like him, too,” he shoots back, and it’s less of an accusation than a statement.
“It’s not like that,” she denies instantly, her default response that Steve waves off just as quickly.
“No, it’s totally ‘like that,’” he says, pointing his spoon at her and smirking now. “I might be stupid at times, but I’m not that stupid.”
“Okay, whatever. But you like like Jonathan,” she says, then, “too,” because yeah, she like likes Jonathan, too. And Steve obviously knows it. "This is the weirdest conversation I've ever had in my life. Including talking about a monster."
He just shrugs and goes back to eating his pudding.
Mike and his friends are spending their Christmas afternoon sharing all of their presents with each other, which means Jonathan is picking up Will again.
Nancy had spent most of the day feeling overwhelmingly sad in her room. It was a daily fight to not think of Barb, because thinking about her not only made Nancy feel sickeningly guilty, but the grief almost felt too much to bear. But on a day like Christmas, when as far back as she could remember she’d spent with Barb doing the exact same things as Mike was doing with his friends now? It was hard to not think about Barb and how much she misses her.
A soft knock at the door startles her out of her thoughts, and she’s shocked when she tells them to enter and finds Jonathan standing there.
“Um, sorry,” he says, standing at the doorway awkwardly. “Your mom said to just come on up.”
“No, it’s fine,” she tells him, and it’s the truth. She thinks of the last time he was in her room, how he’d joked about her mom not knocking.
“I just wanted to thank you for the camera,” he says, smiling, and pulls something out of his jacket pocket. “I wasn’t able to buy anything but, I made this.”
“You made me a mixtape?” She walks over and takes it from his offered hand, grinning up at him. She thinks about telling him how Steve pitched in with the camera, but decides now isn’t the time and thanks him instead.
“I mean, you might not like it,” he warns, avoiding her eyes.
“Well, it’s the thought that counts, right?” She feels the urge to hug him but tampers it down.
“Yeah, I guess,” he laughs, stuffing his hands in his pockets. “Well…Merry Christmas. I should go.”
“Jonathan,” she says, and he halts at the doorway. “Could Steve and I come over sometime this week? You know, just to hang out.”
They drive over to the Byers' in Steve’s car on the night Will is staying over at her house a couple of days after Christmas.
“I can’t believe he made you one and not one for me,” Steve grumbles, fingertips tapping to the beat against the steering wheel. “It’s not half bad.”
“You should’ve given him the camera with me, then, instead of having me give it to him,” Nancy teases, turning the volume up. “But I’m sharing it with you now, so stop complaining.”
“Your mom’s not around?” is the first thing out of Steve's mouth when Jonathan opens the door, and Nancy nudges him slightly. He mouths, "What?" when Jonathan isn't looking, and she rolls her eyes.
“Nah,” Jonathan replies. “She’s at work.”
They settle on a movie, and when Jonathan goes to get it, Steve whispers, “Maybe he’ll get this is a date if we both sit at the end and let him sit in the middle?”
But Nancy ends up inbetween them, and when Jonathan starts the movie and cautiously admits it’s a little scary, she can’t resist countering with, “We’ve fought a monster. What’s scarier than that?”
She reaches blindly, involuntarily, for Jonathan’s hand during the scariest part despite being curled into Steve’s side, and Jonathan’s fingers are latching onto hers before he shoots a startled glance at her.
“It’s okay,” she tells him, intertwining their fingers, and Steve rips his gaze away from the television to tell him the same.
Later, before they leave, Steve spots some of Jonathan’s photographs scattered on the kitchen table. Jonathan scrambles to gather them up, but Steve stops him with a hand on his wrist.
“These are really good, man,” Steve says, and Nancy doesn’t miss how his hand lingers or how Jonathan smiles at the compliment.
They spend New Years Eve at Steve’s house, just the three of them. His parents are gone somewhere, and all three of them get a little tipsy. Jonathan brings his camera (Steve says it's an extension of his being), snapping pictures every now and then of everything from her and Steve to the night sky.
And while Steve counts down the seconds to midnight, she sneaks glances at Jonathan and tries to figure out if he gets it yet.
She leans up and presses her lips to Jonathan’s when the clock strikes twelve, and she hears him inhale sharply through his nose and feels him begin to jerk away in surprise until she cups his face in her hands. Then he kisses back hesitantly, and he tastes like a mixture of beer and nicotine from the cigarette he’d shared with Steve. When she pulls away she says, “Happy New Year.”
Jonathan glances at Steve like he’s waiting for him to blow up, but Steve just announces, “My turn,” and Jonathan steps back from Nancy abruptly and she thinks, oh. He still doesn’t get it.
Steve steps forward, leans down, and brushes his lips softly against the corner of Jonathan’s mouth. Jonathan's eyes go wide for a second, and Steve murmurs, “I really want a mixtape, too.”
Then they’re kissing, fingers grasping handfuls of each other's hair, and Nancy smiles to herself as she watches and thinks, he gets it now.
When they go back to school after break, Jonathan doesn’t spend his lunch periods alone developing his photographs and they don’t have to ask him to sit with them anymore. Sometimes they all hold hands by each other’s lockers or end up kissing in the darkroom and Nancy finds these days they get more curious glances and sneers aimed at them than sympathetic stares. And she’s okay with that.