For as long as she could remember, Nancy Wheeler’s biggest fear was repeating her mother’s mistakes.
(Maybe her biggest fear was an over-exaggeration. Maybe it wasn’t her worst fear, not after everything she’d been through the past few years, but it was the one that always stuck around, the one that always lingered in the back of her mind once things started to go back to normal for a few months, and she could convince herself, however briefly, that the monsters were gone for good.)
She couldn’t really fault her mom for any of it, knew that her mom had only done what seemed right for her own life at the time. She was only following what the world around her expected her to do with her life.
A nice house in the suburbs, three mostly happy kids, and a husband who made enough money to support the whole family. The so-called American dream, everyone’s aspiration for how to live a happy life. Nancy couldn’t think of anything worse, but the rest of her world seemed to disagree.
The fear started, really started, as she grew older and realized how truly unhappy her mother was every day.
As a child, Nancy had no reason to think her parents were any different from the picture-perfect family they portrayed themselves to be. Sure, they would always have petty disagreements at dinner and would spend most of their free time on separate sides of the house, but people couldn’t be expected to get along perfectly all the time, right?
Only, it didn’t stop there. What seemed to start as playful bickering turned into restrained arguments that only stopped once they remembered Nancy and Mike could hear them. They slowly stopped going out as a family, only all venturing out together when it was absolutely necessary to keep up appearances.
Without even realizing it, Nancy began making excuses for their behavior, trying to get their actions to align with the image of her family that she had in her head.
It wasn’t until the night before she started middle school that Nancy had no choice but to acknowledge that her parents weren’t as happily married as they pretended to be. She had been having trouble sleeping, too nervous about the changes that came with starting at a new, bigger school to turn her mind off and fall asleep.
At some point, her thoughts had drifted from general school-related anxiousness to her parents. She thought about how they no longer slept in the same room, how her dad would always fall asleep in front of the television and how her mom would go to their previously shared room by herself, not even pretending to try to wake her dad. She thought about how rarely she would see her mom smile unless there was someone else around, someone who would talk if they noticed anything out of the ordinary.
But more than that, she thought about how she never heard her parents say they loved each other, how they never did anything to even show that they cared about each other. It was that thought, the realization that there wasn’t any observable love or fondness or attachment between her parents, that made her question if their entire marriage was built on a lie.
Any other night, Nancy might not have jumped to such extremes on her parents’ relationship, might have continued trying to rationalize their behavior, but the combination of nerves and a lack of sleep meant that she wasn’t the most reasonable she could have been when analyzing the situation. It wasn’t even that she was wrong, she decided the following morning, it was just that she needed more proof.
And more proof she would get.
A plan formed in Nancy’s mind as she decided to investigate her parents' true feelings toward one another. She started noticing that her dad would leave earlier and return later from work each day. While he used to be home when she returned from school, he was now arriving just in time for dinner. Once dinner was over, he would go watch tv until he fell asleep, ignoring his wife and kids.
It wasn’t just her dad either. She had started listening in on her mom’s phone calls with the other neighborhood women. All she heard were lies that both thinly concealed the resentment her mom felt for her dad and revealed the life her mom had actually wanted.
So, Nancy came to the only logical conclusion: her parents didn’t love each other, and they probably never had loved each other. It was all an act, a show put on for the rest of the world to hide what was happening behind the scenes.
Part of her thought they were headed toward divorce, or at least, that would be the best decision for everyone. If neither one of her parents were happy in their marriage, they should just rip the band-aid off and get it over with. That’s what she thought she would do if she didn’t love the person she was in a relationship with.
But the divorce never came.
Initially, Nancy thought they were waiting until Mike was a little older, that maybe he’d understand it more in a few months, a few years. Then Holly came, a third child meant to save their dwindling marriage, at least from Nancy’s perspective.
And that was when Nancy knew that there was no end in sight.
Following the discovery of her parents’ loveless marriage, Nancy made a vow to herself, a vow that she would never end up like them. Over time, that vow turned into fear, a fear that if she wasn’t careful, she would end up sharing her mother’s fate.
So, she made a plan, a plan to get herself out of Hawkins, away from her family, and into a life that made her happy. She set her sights on Emerson, nearly a thousand miles away from her hometown, and decided she wanted to be a journalist. She would stay away from any guys that met the same description as her father had when he met her mother.
And she followed that plan precisely until sophomore year when Steve Harrington asked her out.
Steve was unexpected, to say the least.
Steve was the guy that all the girls wanted. At first, she couldn’t really explain why they were so obsessed with him. Sure, he was the star of the basketball team, which made him pretty popular, but it wasn’t like the team was very good while he was on it. And maybe he was marginally more attractive than most of the other guys in the school, but that wasn’t impressive or anything, not when so many of the girls were so pretty. At some point, though, Nancy was able to convince herself that she was attracted to him, that she was just like all the other girls.
(A fact that she’d realize much later was that she didn’t find any of the guys at Hawkins High School attractive, had never had a crush on any of them. If she had considered that instead of focusing on avoiding following in her mother’s footsteps, maybe she would’ve realized how her gaze would linger on the cheerleaders or the softball team at pep rallies instead of the basketball team.)
Despite not being as interested in Steve as the rest of her classmates appeared to be, Nancy enjoyed spending time with him, at least at the very beginning of their relationship. Steve was surprising. He was funny and kind in a way she had never expected someone of his reputation.
Even so, her relationship with Steve was the point in Nancy’s life when she started to lose track of the plan she put in place to protect herself from the life she feared.
She initially hadn’t thought much of their relationship, not as it pertained to her life’s plan and her fear of her parents’ loveless marriage. It wasn’t even Nancy who first made the connection, it was Jonathan in an attempt to get under her skin while they were arguing.
But the thought was there, and the thought had truthfully been there the entire time, somewhere buried deep in the back of her mind.
Nancy sometimes struggled to believe that her mother had ever once loved her father, at least not in a way that really mattered. She knew that her parents’ relationship was fundamentally built around the fact that her dad came from a wealthy family and could provide for her mom, and that her mom had only done what was expected of her by her own family, without much individual input. She knew her mom forced herself to endure a loveless marriage that she wasn’t happy in for the sake of her children and her social standing.
That was what scared Nancy the most, the idea that even after years of trying to convince herself that she was happy, that true happiness would never come.
(And that was the issue with Steve. She was never really interested in him before they started dating, probably would’ve never crossed her mind to think about him romantically if he hadn’t asked her out. She had agreed to go out with him because it was what was expected of her. It wasn’t even like she was pressured into agreeing, not by any force outside of her own mind. But that pressure was there, the pressure to fit in with the rest of the high school girls and do what they would do. What girl wouldn’t say yes to a date with the most popular guy in school, especially when he seemed so genuinely interested in her? After all, no other girl would reject him. Not if she didn’t want a reputation of her own.)
And in the end, it hadn’t mattered much. They had barely been together longer than a few days when she had made the stupid decision to bring Barb to Steve’s house, a decision that cost her best friend her life. She knew the moment she realized Barb was gone that there was no possibility of a real future with Steve, not when she couldn’t look at him without remembering that Barb might still be alive, would still be alive, if she hadn’t gone up to his room. If she had just left when Barb had asked her to.
Their relationship was doomed from almost the exact moment it started.
And yet, they still stayed together, even after everything.
It was a last chance attempt at normalcy. She stayed with him because she didn’t know what to do if she didn’t.
She could pretend to love Steve, at least, she thought she could. It was easy to do so in public, to play the part. But then she’d get home at night and wonder if that was how her mom had started out, pretending to love her dad in public only to get home and pray that one day she wouldn’t have to fake it. Except, that day would never come, and she would eventually have no choice but to pretend in private, too.
Despite Nancy’s decision to stay with Steve, there was a memory somewhere in the back of her mind, a pressing feeling that she needed to avoid replicating the same decisions that had led to her family’s current dynamic, and that by continuing to date Steve, she was headed straight toward her nuclear family nightmare.
(Part of this fear would be proven true nearly three years later, long after they had broken up, when Steve would tell Nancy that he saw her in his future, a future that involved six children and a Winnebago. When Nancy told him it sounded like a nightmare, she wasn’t exaggerating. It was her exact nightmare. He didn’t get the hint. She really wished he had. It had been so long, she really just wanted him to be her friend, but she didn’t know how they would ever get there.)
Her fear of their relationship wasn’t even because Steve was anything like her father. They had been together long enough for her to know that wasn’t true, despite her previous Jonathan-induced fears that ending up with Steve would be a one-way ticket to the life she feared.
This fear was different. While there was still a part of her that was scared that a life with Steve would put her in the same position her mother was in, she realized it wasn’t manifesting itself in the way she anticipated.
In all of Nancy’s nightmares about the future she wanted to avoid, the part that always stuck out was being stuck at home with a family she didn’t want while her husband ignored her in favor of his job, or the television, or whatever it was her dad actually did when she wasn’t around. That aspect was still there, more so in the fact that she still absolutely detested the idea of a nuclear family, but it wasn’t her primary fear, not with Steve.
She had always assumed that at some point, even if it was only a fleeting moment, her mom must have loved her dad. They never would’ve got married if love was never present, right?
Only, what if she hadn’t? What if love had been absent the entire time, and that was the true source of the fear that Nancy so desperately wanted to escape?
She had realized pretty quickly that she didn’t love Steve, that there was no part of her that could ever love Steve.
For a while she thought that if they stayed together long enough, maybe she would start to feel it, to feel something. Maybe if she tried hard enough, she could force it. But the feeling never came.
So, that must have been where her fear came from. Love. Love that she would never feel for Steve, no matter how hard she tried.
And maybe that fear, the fear that she was somehow incapable of love, had led her to resent Steve, mostly through no fault of his own, outside of his incessant desire for them to act like “stupid teenagers” instead of doing something, anything about the fact that they were being forced to stay silent about the events of the previous November.
And so, their relationship crashed and burned on Halloween once the revelation was out.
Nancy didn’t regret it, never would regret it. She would’ve never told Steve that their entire relationship was bullshit if she was completely sober, but she also didn’t know how, or if, she would’ve ended it if she was. So, a drunken fight in the bathroom of a house party it was. The ending of her first real relationship and one step closer to whatever the future held.
(She knew at least part of Steve still blamed her for the entire downfall of their relationship, still thought that maybe one day she’d change her mind and they could be together. She just really didn’t care.)
(Except, maybe she did care, just not in the way she thought she should. She thought she would’ve been heartbroken after her first break-up, the ending of her first real relationship. Only, she didn’t care about their relationship, not really, but she did care that the two of them barely spoke for almost the next two years, that they were never able to actually get closure, that they probably would never be friends. She cared about Steve, just not the way he wanted her to.)
Within days of ending things with Steve, Nancy found herself in a relationship with Jonathan.
Or rather, pushed into a relationship with Jonathan following the advice of a middle-aged man.
Would they have gotten together if not for Murray’s goading? Nancy didn’t know. She didn’t think so, but there was no way to go back in time and know for sure, so she didn’t linger on it for too long.
Her relationship with Jonathan was, well, complicated. They didn’t have a ton in common outside of the shared trauma that brought them together, but that was fine. They were mostly content just sitting in each other’s company, a constant in each other’s lives after the whirlwind of changes the past few years had brought.
And at first, it was fine. She liked Jonathan enough, enjoyed spending time with him, but she didn’t think it would last.
But to her surprise, they were still together as the summer of ’85 approached. They both got internships at the Hawkins Post and were set to spend every day together. However, it became quickly apparent that just because they were working at the same place didn’t mean they were working together.
Jonathan was lucky. He was taken seriously by their bosses and was given a photography position. He was able to spend all day in the darkroom, completely separated from the office on the other side of the door.
Nancy was not so fortunate. Although she started the summer hoping that the job would help her get real journalism experience, she found herself doing absolutely nothing of real use. When she wasn’t out getting coffee, she was being berated every time she tried to suggest a story.
(The internship also provided a looming reminder of the night he took pictures of her through Steve’s bedroom window. Every time she saw him with a camera, or opened the door to the darkroom, all she could think of was that night. Sure, he had apologized, and the other pictures he had taken became a crucial piece of the puzzle to solving Will’s disappearance, but the memory was still present.)
So, maybe some resentment had started to form in this relationship, too, or maybe it had already been there long before they first started dating, from the moment Steve’s old friends showed her those photos in the school parking lot.
She knew she wasn’t exactly being fair when she would start arguments about their time there, that she was putting herself and her dreams above what Jonathan wanted, but she was so sure that she was right that it seemed impossible to think about how her decisions would affect him.
That internship, that summer at the Hawkins Post and Starcourt, was the beginning of the end.
It should’ve ended that day in the car, after they were fired, when they realized that they were incapable of understanding each other, that their problems were so misaligned that any chance of resolution would involve backing off their own principles.
It was never going to work. They were too different, had always been too different.
Nancy knew part of the reason she was so eager to start a relationship with Jonathan in the first place was that he was the total and complete opposite of Steve, knew that any life with him would be far removed from the white picket fence, suburban life she wanted to avoid. She briefly considered that Jonathan knew that, too, since he was so quickly able to point out her exact fears for her life after spending just a few hours with her.
But, as with Steve, there was a part of Nancy who had known from the beginning that it would never work out, that any relationship they began would end with the realization that everything had been a lie.
Maybe their relationship would have ended there if everything had gone back to normal. Maybe they would have realized that their inability to understand each other ran deeper than the divide between them after being fired.
But normal wasn’t possible, and they once again found themselves at the center of a world-ending catastrophe. And once it was over, Nancy once again found herself incapable of ending things. There were already too many unwanted changes, and being alone felt like too much too soon.
Summer turned into fall, fall into winter, and winter into spring.
Since the Byers moved to California, Nancy had found herself with a lot of alone time to think about her relationship.
Nancy finally felt as though she could understand her mother’s perspective on her parents’ marriage. She had always struggled to figure out why her mom would stay in a marriage so bleak, waste years of her life being unhappy, but she got it now, because she was doing the same thing.
The answer was fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of loss.
It was the same reasoning that led her to preserve her own relationships. She had stayed with Steve long past the realization that nothing good would come from their continued romance, and she was on the same track with Jonathan.
Nancy had known from the beginning that her and Jonathan weren’t likely to last, but the physical distance between them made that even more apparent. There had been problems long before the Byers moved, problems that had stemmed from that night at Steve’s house and had only grown with each passing day as high school came to a close.
Sometimes Nancy would lay awake at night, staring at the ceiling as she remembered the increasingly shorter phone call her and Jonathan had shared, and she would slowly realize that she was still on track for that future she was so afraid of. The only difference was the fear had changed, ever so slightly.
What before had been a worry that she would choose the wrong path morphed into a fear that her life was a one-way street, and she was headed full speed toward the end of it with no way to hit the brakes and turn around.
No matter how hard she tried, she always ended up back in the same spot, back in a relationship with a guy she would never love, too scared to end it and be alone.
She still had one hope though. One part of her plan that had remained constant since the day she made it.
It was her ticket out of Hawkins, hundreds of miles away from the town she felt so trapped in.
She had been accepted to Emerson and no matter what else happened, she was moving to Boston, with or without Jonathan.
(A small, selfish part of her hoped that he wouldn’t be accepted. A larger part of her hoped that he’d decide not to go even if he was. And the only part of her that hoped he’d be there with her only wanted him there so she wouldn’t be alone.)
She had initially planned to spend her spring break preparing for her move to Boston, looking at apartment listings and picking out classes. But the news of a murder quickly served as a reminder that nothing would ever go to plan.
It took two days for everything to go completely wrong.
That was a lie, really. It was barely 24 hours between the first murder and the second, but Chrissy was killed on Friday night, and Fred’s body was found on Sunday morning.
Fred, the closest thing Nancy had had to an actual friend since sophomore year, and he disappeared while she was only a few feet away, too preoccupied with interviewing someone close to the scene to notice anything was wrong.
The worst part was that she couldn’t even think about just Fred, because it wasn’t just him. He wasn’t the first person that was killed while Nancy was a few feet away, too busy with something she deemed more important to notice that something was wrong.
First, it was Barb, who never would’ve been in danger if not for Nancy’s insistence that she came to Steve’s party.
Nancy spent years after Barb’s death avoiding getting too close to anyone who wasn’t already involved in their circle of monster hunters, ignoring everyone that wasn’t already aware of the horrors that lay beneath the town.
It wasn’t until Jonathan had moved, and Steve had graduated, and everything seemed like it might finally be over that she started to spend more time at school, to get more involved with the school newspaper. If she had just kept her distance, stayed far away from anyone else in Hawkins, maybe the people she was close to would stop being hurt.
But that didn’t happen, and now Fred was the next victim. And maybe this time there wasn’t anything she could’ve done to stop it, but it still felt like her fault. Maybe if she hadn’t left him behind, hadn’t been so focused on the story, maybe she could’ve helped.
Those were the thoughts replaying in her mind as she drove to the library with Robin.
Those were the thoughts replaying in her mind as they scrolled through the newspaper stories about the Creel murders.
And those were the thoughts that continued replaying over and over as she spent more time with Robin, the thought that every single person she got close to, that she befriended, ended up dead.
Despite Nancy’s newfound fears, her and Robin got closer, a lot closer.
It was like a magnet was drawing them together, and the closer she got, the less she wanted to part.
Despite what would’ve been the obvious choice of Steve, at least obvious a few days prior, Nancy found herself constantly choosing Robin. She chose Robin to go to Pennhurst with her, to partner with her at the Creel House, to walk through the woods to Skull Rock with her.
It was during that walk that Nancy started to question, ever so slightly, the real nature of her feelings for Robin.
At first, as much as she hated to admit it, Nancy hadn’t liked the other girl. It wasn’t Robin’s fault, not at all. Robin had been nothing but kind and helpful and there in a way that she never expected. It was the walls that Nancy had built around herself that led her to initially distrust her and resent her company.
But deep down, Nancy knew at least part of the reason she hadn’t wanted Robin around was jealousy.
Originally, she thought she was jealous of Robin’s relationship with Steve, but she realized pretty fast that it wasn’t like that. She was jealous of their friendship, not because it involved Steve, but because of how close they were, how they always seemed to spend time together and not get sick of each other. Nancy wanted that so badly. It had been so long since felt that anyone got her, that they truly understood her, and seeing Robin and Steve have that so quickly after Starcourt made the empty feeling in Nancy’s chest grow.
(But no, what Nancy was really, actually jealous of was that Robin was so herself. She wasn’t trying to fit in with the popular crowd, didn’t try to change herself to be something she wasn’t.
Nancy couldn’t do that. She’d always been playing a part – the perfect daughter, the perfect student, the perfect girlfriend.)
Once Nancy had started to get to know Robin, actually get to know her, outside of just being Steve’s friend, Nancy immediately realized how much she loved having Robin around. She couldn’t imagine her life without the other girl in it.
So, while Robin was trying unsuccessfully to push her back to Steve, all Nancy could think about was that Robin had called them friends. She didn’t care about Steve or Jonathan in that moment, all she cared about was that Robin had given her hope, hope that even when all this was over, she would still be around.
In that moment, she thought she had finally found a best friend, but something about that thought made her pause.
(She didn’t want Robin to be her friend, not even her best friend. She wanted her to be something more than that, something that she hadn’t even known was an option.)
The realization came once it was all over.
They had succeeded, just barely.
Eddie was in the hospital after nearly bleeding out in the Upside Down. It had taken some convincing for the doctors to believe that he had been attacked by an animal in the woods outside the town, but the refusal to offer any other explanation had forced them to accept the story.
Max was also in the hospital. They hadn’t been fast enough to stop her from getting hurt, but they had stopped her from being killed, and that was enough for now. She was thankfully awake, and she had been able to clear Eddie’s name. As the only person with the same injuries as the victims to make it out alive, and a lack of evidence actually implicating Eddie in the crimes, the police had no choice but to believe her statement that he wasn’t involved.
No one had wanted to go their separate ways, not after escaping the Upside Down and reuniting at the Creel House.
At first, they had all immediately gone to the hospital, following the ambulances that carried Max and Eddie. But ultimately, they were told to go home, that they wouldn’t be allowed to visit until the two were stable and their families had been contacted, at the earliest.
So they did, they went home, knowing that their parents were probably still nervously wondering what had happened to their children. They all went to the Wheeler house, first, knowing that if their parents were together, it was likely to be there.
They had all wanted to stick together, not wanted to be alone, but they had little choice.
The police were still waiting with their parents, knowing that the kids would have no choice but to return eventually. They all had to give statements, but the cops quickly realized that they all had the exact same story, and they wouldn’t get more information out of any of them, so they had no choice but to leave and consider other leads.
After that, everyone slowly started leaving. First the Sinclairs, with Lucas begging his parents to take him back to the hospital. Dustin left shortly after with his mom.
That left Nancy, Steve, and Robin.
Part of Nancy wanted to beg them to stay, beg them to not leave her alone in her house with her parents, without anyone else around who understood.
They stayed longer than the kids did, without parents who had been waiting for days to find out what was going on with their children, without parents who knew they had been involved in something like this before.
They found themselves back in the basement, sitting next to each other in silence, unsure of how to move on.
Eventually, Robin and Steve left, promising they’d return first thing in the morning.
The two days after Vecna’s defeat were weirdly normal.
Spring break had been extended for a week, so they didn’t have to worry about school. The official reason given was that they were giving the students additional time to grieve after the vicious murder of three of their classmates. The real reason was that the investigation into the deaths was still ongoing, with the FBI taking over the bulk of the work.
(An agent, some friend of Owens, had already shown up to Eddie and Max’s hospital rooms with NDAs, forcing them yet again into silence. Nancy had long given up caring about the formal paperwork the government made her sign. She was already trying to figure out how she could clear Victor Creel’s name.)
In the absence of a return to school, the group spent all day, every day at the hospital. They split up, half with Max and half with Eddie, and would swap every few hours. They had tried to sneak their walkie-talkies in so that everyone could talk together, but the staff had quickly told them to stop bothering the other patients with the sound of static.
On the morning of the second full day, as Nancy, Robin, Steve, and Dustin were preparing to leave for the hospital, the California group returned.
Reuniting with Jonathan felt, simply put, off. It had been so long since they had seen each other, and so much had happened in between. What had before been easy comradery between the two following each annual battle had morphed into an uneasiness, as Nancy couldn’t even explain what had happened to someone who wasn’t there, who had missed everything.
And it wasn’t just that, it was a feeling that now that they had lost that sense of shared trauma that brought them together, there was nothing to keep them together.
Nancy didn’t have time to dwell on that thought, as before she could finish talking to Jonathan, to find out what he knew, El and Will were running over to him and demanding to go to the hospital to see Max.
Jonathan looked back at Nancy before he answered, wanting to finish the conversation and address what was going on between them, but Nancy cut off anything he could say. “That’s actually where we were headed now. We could meet you there?”
She knew that by offering to meet them there, as opposed to driving with them, she was putting up a wall between the two of them, but it was a barrier she wanted there. A barrier she needed.
Jonathan nodded, turning back to the van. “Yeah, I’ll see you there.”
Nancy looked on Mike, El, and Will reunited with Lucas and Max. She could feel Jonathan’s presence next to her, standing just far enough away that they weren’t touching.
She watched as El sat next to Max on her hospital bed, feeling like she was intruding on a moment meant for only the younger two girls to share. She still wasn’t sure what exactly had happened to Max during their plan, but she knew enough to know that El was one of the only reasons Max had made it out alive, that they had all made it out alive.
Glancing back toward where the boys were standing, now joined by Erica, Nancy thought it would be a good time to step outside. More importantly, it was time to do what she had decided to do a few days earlier, what she should’ve done months ago.
“I think we should talk,” Nancy whispered, loud enough for only Jonathan to hear.
Nancy nodded, eyes still trained on the kids in front of her. “Yeah, let’s give them some space to catch up.”
“If that’s what you want.”
Opening the door, Nancy stepped into the hallway as Jonathan told the remaining members of the group that they’d be right outside if they needed anything. She walked a few steps to an emptier part of the hallway, one without any open doors around, before sitting on the floor and pulling her knees up to her chest. Jonathan sat next to her and did the same.
It was oddly familiar. Maybe not the hospital setting, but the way they were sitting, the same as they had back when this all started, in front of the tiger mural at the school.
That was the start, and this was the end. Nancy knew it, and she thought Jonathan probably knew it, too.
“I think we should break up.”
“That’s it? We’re not even gonna try to fix this, it’s just over?” Jonathan asked.
And that was the thing. She didn’t want to fix it, didn’t even know what had gone wrong that needed fixing. She thought Jonathan might have felt the same, because there was little emotion in his words, not the way there was when they had had problems before.
It was over, and they both knew it.
“I think, I think it’s for the best. I’m sorry, really, to do this so soon after you got back, but after everything that’s happened the past few days, I think this is how it has to be.”
Jonathan nodded, accepting what she said. They both sat in silence for another moment, unsure how to proceed.
Their break-up was quick and painless. They had both known it was coming, and they had both known it was mutual.
Jonathan stood up, ready to walk away from her and the final moment of their relationship, but before he took a step, he said, “I didn’t apply to Emerson.”
That caught Nancy off guard. “What?”
“I didn’t know how to tell you before, when we were together and planning for the future or whatever. I applied to a school in Lenora. I just, I can’t leave Will, or my mom, or El. Not before and especially not now.”
He cut her off. “Have fun in Boston, Nancy.”
That was the last thing he said to her before walking away. She assumed he went back to Max’s room, based on the faint click of the door opening and closing, but she didn’t watch. Instead, she stayed on the ground, staring at the pattern on the floor for a few more minutes.
Despite just ending the longest relationship she ever had, she really wasn’t thinking about Jonathan. Instead, her thoughts were consumed with someone else, someone that was only a few steps away from the spot where she sat.
When she finally stood, she brushed the dirt off her pants and headed in the opposite direction, straight toward Eddie’s room, where she knew Robin and Steve were.
They all stayed at the hospital until visiting hours were over.
Nancy had kept her distance from Jonathan all afternoon. It was actually pretty easy, since none of the Byers knew Eddie very well, he spent the day in Max’s room, watching over El and Will. The other kids spent the rest of day going back and forth, much to the annoyance of the hospital’s staff.
As they were getting ready to load back into Steve’s car and return home, Nancy got an idea. Nancy asked, “Hey, Robin? Would you maybe want to spend the night at my place, like a sleepover?”
Robin spared a glance at Steve, confused, but he only shrugged and got in the car. “Yeah, that could be fun. Are you sure?”
Nancy smiled, a real smile, “I’m sure.”
And that brought them to where they were now, side by side in Nancy’s bed, arms just barely touching as they both lay on their backs, staring up at the ceiling. Robin had offered to sleep on the floor or the couch or in the basement, but Nancy had insisted that she share the bed, claiming she didn’t want to be alone.
Nancy wasn’t sure if Robin was asleep, really asleep, or just pretending, but Nancy couldn’t even think about sleep, too overwhelmed with thoughts of all that had happened over the past few days.
She remembered those first two days with Robin, in the library and at Pennhurst, how Robin had been the one to suggest looking through the Weekly Watcher archives and had figured out that music was the key to escaping Vecna.
She remembered the feeling of Robin’s hand in hers earlier that day, she remembered curling her fingers around her hand in reassurance, before everything had almost gone wrong.
She remembered how scared she felt when Robin had first been pulled in by the vines, how powerless she felt when she was unable to save her.
Most importantly, she remembered how she felt when Robin confirmed that they were friends, how she had immediately realized that that wasn’t exactly what she wanted, that she wanted something she thought she could never have.
And in that moment, Nancy knew what that something was, knew why it felt so unattainable.
At some point, Nancy had realized that she never really considered what she wanted in a romantic partner, only what she didn’t want. Maybe if she hadn’t been so consumed by a need to avoid her parents’ past mistakes, she would’ve realized that she was more than capable of making her own. By forcing herself into a box of what not to do, she had ended up almost equally as unhappy.
Maybe if she had thought about it, she would have realized even before she met Robin. Maybe she could’ve been prepared for the wave of emotion brought on by the realization that she has feelings for another girl.
It just made sense. Too much sense.
Nancy had always been terrified that she’d never find the person for her, that she was doomed romantically. But maybe that was because she never considered any alternative outside of forcing herself to be with a man that she didn’t care about, at least not the way she wanted to. In the background of all of her relationships, with Steve, with Jonathan, there was always a feeling that it wasn’t what she wanted, even as she tried to convince herself that it was.
She knew, even before they got together, that she wouldn’t ever love Steve, at least not in the way that he loved her. She hadn’t ever really considered why she had that gnawing feeling inside her chest, the one that appeared whenever she re-evaluated her love life. And then there was Jonathan, the one constant figure who had been there through it all, at least until now. But like her relationship with Steve, she had always known that she didn’t love Jonathan, and that they never would’ve ended up together if not for Murray’s insistence.
But there was another part of Murray’s evaluation of Nancy that she had long since pushed to the back of her mind, a part whose deeper meaning she had always ignored, afraid of what would happen if she ever took the chance to think it through.
“Afraid of what would happen if you accepted yourself for who you really are.” That’s what he said.
And maybe he hadn’t meant like that. Rather, he definitely didn’t, considering he was pushing her closer to Jonathan, but a part of Nancy had always known. Known that the real reason she was so terrified of repeating her mom’s mistakes, so eager to escape the American dream, and so ready to leave this town behind wasn’t because she thought she would choose the wrong guy, but because choosing any guy was the wrong choice.
There was no reality in which Nancy’s future was dependent on a man, because her future happiness involved accepting the part of herself that had always been hidden, the part that loved another girl and wanted to be loved by one in return.
Truthfully, she had never considered anything outside of settling down with a husband to be an option, at least for herself. Sure, she knew that technically there were other options, knew that there were other ways of living a fulfilled life, but they had always seemed so far out of reach. She knew what was expected of her, knew that despite how much she resented it, she would likely fall victim to the American dream.
But maybe she didn’t have to.
But maybe with Robin, things could be different.
In just a few days, she felt herself growing as a person in a way she had never experienced with her ex-boyfriends. It was like Robin had opened a door to a part of Nancy she had spent her entire life accidentally locking.
Maybe the answer had always been right in front of her. Always there, waiting for her to finally pick up on her own feelings, her real feelings, not the feelings she tried to force herself to have or the feelings she was hiding from the world.
It had taken years of denying it, of trying to figure out where her life was headed, but she had finally figured it out, finally put the pieces of her life together in a way that made her understand everything about herself.
It had taken spending less than a week with Robin for the other girl to turn Nancy’s life around.
And maybe, maybe Robin wouldn’t judge her, would understand everything that Nancy was going through.
Maybe Robin was like her, too.
Nancy wasn’t stupid. She knew there was something behind Steve and Robin’s strict insistence that they were just “platonic with a capital P” that went beyond simple assertions of their friendship. They were hiding something, and Nancy could guess well enough what that something must have been.
It was that last thought, the thought that maybe the answer had been right in front of her the entire time while she hadn’t even known the question she was asking, that lead to Nancy breaking the silence that was between them.
“Robin? Are you awake?” She whispered, barely audible over the sound of her own heart racing.
She could hear the sound of shuffling, as Robin turned onto her side to face her, “Yeah, I’m awake.”
“Can we talk?”
“Yeah, sure. Is everything okay?”
After the confirmation that Robin was both awake and willing to talk, Nancy sat up, pulling her legs up to her chest. Robin did the same, turning slightly to better face Nancy.
Nancy was quiet for a second, momentarily regretting starting the conversation, before she answered quietly, “No.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
“No, it’s not, it’s not anything important. It’s just, I think it’s just me.”
“If it’s bothering you, I’m sure it’s important.” Robin reached her hand out, brushing over Nancy’s own with the tips of her fingers, just barely holding on.
Nancy was silent for a moment, still unsure if she wanted the conversation to go where it was headed, or if she should end it there and go back to bed, pretending it had never happened when they woke up in the morning.
“I don’t love Jonathan.”
“Oh, that’s okay. I mean, you two have been long-distance for a while, but maybe now that he’s back and you two are gonna start college together, everything will go back to normal.”
“That’s the problem, that is normal. I don’t think I’ve ever loved Jonathan.”
Robin paused, trying to think carefully before responding, “I think, I think that’s understandable. It’s only a high school relationship, it doesn’t have to last forever, I guess. I mean, I’ve never been in a relationship before, so I’m not really an expert or anything, but can I ask you something? And I’m sorry if I’m out of line here, but why did you stay with him if you didn’t love him? I mean, you’re popular on your own and you’re, like, really pretty, I’m sure there’s another guy out there for you.”
Nancy was silent for a minute, thinking through what Robin said. As she responded, she turned to look straight ahead, not wanting to see the other girl’s response as she answered, “I don’t think there’s any guy out there that I’ll love. That’s why, that’s why I broke up with Jonathan today, while we were at the hospital, because I don’t love him, and I never will.”
“When you say ‘any guy out there’ do you mean-?” Robin stopped before she could finish the question.
“I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever be happy with a guy. I think I spent so much time trying to force myself to pretend I was happy with Jonathan, or even with Steve, but I think I always knew with both of them that I was just wasting both of our time, because it was never gonna happen, not like that. Not the way they wanted it to,” Nancy paused, for only a second, before deciding that she was going to do it. She was going to say to the words that could change everything. “I think, I think the reason I’ve never been happy in either relationship was because I like girls, the way that other girls like boys.”
“Nancy-“ Robin stopped, not even knowing what she was going to say, not knowing how to even respond to the confession.
Picking up on the lack of response, Nancy whispered, “Do you hate me?”
Without taking a second to think, Robin replied, “Of course not. I could never hate you, especially not for that. I’m really glad you told me.” The two girls lay there in silence, hearts beating loudly in their chests, too concerned with hiding their own feelings that they didn’t notice the other’s.
There was still something Nancy wanted to ask, wanted desperately to know. Despite her last question, about whether or not Robin hated her now, Nancy had known the answer. She had known Robin wouldn’t judge her.
But more than that, she wanted confirmation. Confirmation that Robin was like her.
(And maybe what she really wanted confirmation for wasn’t that Robin was like her, but that Robin liked her, that maybe one day she could love Robin and Robin could love her the way that she had always longed for.)
“Can I ask you something personal? You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to?”
Robin didn’t answer with words, but Nancy could faintly see her nod her head through the faint light shining into the room.
“Do you remember, um, back at the library and at the Creel House, when you told me that you and Steve were just ‘platonic with a capital P?’”
“Do you remember?”
“Yeah, yeah, of course, I do,” Robin answered nervously.
“It sounded, it sounded rehearsed. Like the two of you knew that people would ask, and you needed an answer ready to go.”
“I mean, yeah, everyone always assumes that a girl and a guy can’t be friends without it being romantic, so we, we came up with a response so people would leave us alone.”
“But that wasn’t the only reason, was it?” It wasn’t really a question. They both knew the answer, knew that the line had a deeper meaning to it than most would suspect.
Robin wasn’t quite ready to admit that though, not without being completely sure that this was really happening. “You’re really into this whole investigating thing, aren’t you?”
“Robin, please,” Nancy pleaded.
Robin paused for a second, unsure how the night had taken this turn, “No, it wasn’t the only reason.”
“You and Steve aren’t not dating because you’re just friends, you’re not dating because you’re like me, too.” Nancy half asked, half assumed.
“Has anyone ever told you that maybe you’re a little too good at this whole investigative journalist thing?”
Without thinking, Nancy closed the space between them, pressing her lips against Robin’s. Robin didn’t move at first, still unsure exactly of how her week had progressed from fighting a monster in a different dimension to kissing Nancy Wheeler in the other girl’s bed.
Eventually, Nancy pulled away, looking somehow more confident and more nervous than Robin had ever seen her.
They sat there in silence for a while, just looking at each other through the dim room, their bodies only illuminated by the moonlight streaming in from Nancy’s window.
Robin was the one to finally break the silence, “Just so I’m clear, what exactly does this make us? Like, I’m not gonna wake up tomorrow to you pretending this never happened, right?”
Nancy smiled nervously, “No, I can promise you that won’t happen. But, I don’t wanna think about tomorrow, not right now. I just, I just wanna spend tonight here, in this moment.”
Nancy reached over and grabbed Robin’s hand before laying back down. Robin followed, leaving no space between them, their fingers interlocked.
And that night, laying in her bed with Robin right beside her, hands clasped together under her blanket, was the first night in a very long time that Nancy slept peacefully, without fear creeping into her thoughts and invading her dreams. It was the first of many, and the beginning of her real future, the future that she would finally find her actual happiness