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It starts off with a crush.

The Blithe High cheer team visits the Pink Palace Middle School to give a pep talk about spirit and locally advertise their club to the upcoming generation. She's the captain in all her high ponytail and Barbie palette glory, and usually that kind of thing would make Coraline gag. But underneath the flawless skin, Coraline realizes, is a golden lion—some idiot (probably Alvin) whistles tauntingly when she steps up in their math class, and the way she sets her hands on her hips with her tongue in cheek reminds Coraline of a warrior.

"Us, as cheerleaders, are often objectified. Us, as women, are often silenced. But you know what? When we perform, we roar our throats out because we have voices, we launch ourselves into the sky because we have just as much athleticism as the football team does. And what do we get, catcalls? Are we cats? We're lions. And the female lions do all the hunting in the pride."

She pulls the air out of a room like a vacuum, and the glitter on her eyelids shimmer like bursting nebulae, and Coraline is under a spell because she's never seen a girl with so much strength before.

"That was your sister, right?"

"Huh? Uh." Norman seems a bit startled (for a fair reason: Coraline has always been seated in front of him in math, but never has she actually tried to talk to him, and he's been pretty sure his existence wasn't even known, as usual) and the tip of his pencil cracks against his notebook, scattering tiny bits of graphite across the page. "Y-Yeah, from the cheer team? She's—she's my sister," he says as he's reaching into his backpack to pull out a sharpener.

Coraline waits, but when his pencil is sharpened and he brushes the graphite off his desk and continues writing, she realizes he isn't planning to continue the conversation any time soon. He's never seemed like the type to engage in any kind of human interaction, but even Coraline can comprehend certain social queues. (Like when someone is interested in your older sibling.)

"Does she have a name?" she asks slowly, frowning a bit, because the cheer team probably had introduced themselves, but she hadn't been paying attention at that point.

He looks up again, and blinks is realization. "Oh. Yeah, uh, Courtney."

(Inwardly, Coraline smiles childishly at the fact that both their names start with C.)

The blue-haired girl doesn't miss a beat: "She got a boyfriend?"

And that's how it kinda starts.

Norman doesn't know what he did to deserve this, but Coraline ends up bothering him nonstop with the most trivial questions about his older sibling. Girl stuff already gave him a headache before, but this is just pushing it. He really just likes being alone, no one around him, and before long he's not even being subtle about it.

"Can you leave me alone now?"

Her attention is nailed to her phone, the vibrations rattling the lunch table with each new notification. "No."

"Don't you have friends of your own?" Norman continues to try, cringing at the fact that she's going through his sister's instagram. "That are, you know, girls?"

She turns her head sharply, blue hair whipping across her cheek. "Girls?"

"Uh. Yeah?"

"Girls."

Norman blinks. "D-Did I—am I saying something wrong here?"

"Do I have friends who are girls?" She sits back along the bench to cross her legs, looking up at the ceiling like she could spot her ideas as if they were the floating lint in the air, illuminated by the white afternoon sunlight. "See, if I had friends who were girls, maybe I wouldn't like your sister."

". . . Huh?"

"Because, well—girls are weird. Cool to like, you know, from a distance and all, but, like—that's why they call it a brotherhood. See, brothers have your back."

"There are sisterhoods, too."

"Yeah, but those are for weird voodoo witch crap. Which isn't the worst, but still. Boys don't judge, because at the end of the day, you're all equally gross."

Figuring all that's spewing from her mouth is just sheer mad nonsense, Norman sighs, his hands on the nape of his neck. "I'm just better off on my own, okay? I like . . . loneliness."

Coraline's face scrunches up. "Why?"

He stutters. "Because!"

Coraline holds her glare for a moment, then looks away and huffs. She stands suddenly, the whole table shaking. "Look, if I bother you that much, I'll leave. I'm only good with annoying parents. Like any kid. Ever."

"You're not annoying. You just have a crush on my older sister."

"This doesn't happen a lot with your guy friends? Or, you know, any other boy at this school? I mean, Alvin was the one who whistled at her—fucking dumbass."

Norman has to grin at that. "Yeah, well, Alvin is Alvin. You're . . . ambitious. In a weird way. And I just kinda wanna be left alone."

She rolls her eyes. "I hear you."

And (surprisingly) that's that.

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.

.

Norman kind of blanks out in biology, which is fine in his case because he's got the free time to catch up, until he unfortunately gets called out by the teacher. Something about how the cystic duct. Though he hadn't been listening, he has enough decency to try and remember.

Then, he feels the spiral spine of a notebook bump against his elbow, and the answer is written on the paper in Eggs's scraggly handwriting.

"Thanks," Norman whispers after he's delivered the answer convincingly.

"No problem," Eggs whispers back.

Norman then has to wonder why Eggs is seated next to him in the first place.

(Norman can't say he knows a lot about Eggs other than the fact that he usually sits next to a redheaded girl—Winnie, was it?—and that he's one of the smartest kids in school. Rumour has it he keeps dead things in his locker, but the same thing has been said about Norman, and it's not like he'd really judge either way. Admittedly, it would be interesting to question what Eggs might have been caught with to start that rumour, seeing how his fingers are almost always caked in dirt.)

"You have a bus partner for the bio trip?" Eggs asks later into the class. When Norman looks at him, the taller boy's got his head in his arms, a seemingly completed set of answers to the bio questions underneath him.

Norman had forgotten all about the trip, and he realizes that there's an uneven number of students attending. "I, uh, wasn't really planning on having a partner."

"So, you don't have a partner?"

"Not really . . ."

"Not really?"

(Just to be clear: not really is a strange answer to a yes or no question.) "Um, you don't have a partner?" Norman asks.

Eggs's face falls, wincing subtly. "Not really."

Something must have happened; Eggs is sitting beside him and not Winnie. That's bound to mean something. But that's none of Norman's business. So, he sighs subtly. "Guess we're partners?"

Eggs smiles a bit. "Thanks."

Norman shrugs. "No problem."

.

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.

Kubo had to get the porcelain masks they'd made in drama class for another scene, and he also really needed to drop off his shamisen because one of his group members had gotten way to 'curious' about it for his liking. This journey isn't suppose to be eventful—just a quick trip to his locker. But a group of boys gathered around some other student's locker, a black marker in one of their hands, just might change that.

A rooted feeling of irritation sprouts into Kubo's chest because he's seen this before—when people from his Aunts's show had a few words to say and spoke then through cherry red lipstick on the mirror of the women's washroom when he'd been too young to go by himself. There's a dark writhing snake in his voice when he asks, "Isn't that vandalizing?"

Alvin stops writing the A in FREAK and leaves it an upside down V to turn around and see a boy with only eye showing through his thick black hair. "Eh?"

"You shouldn't be doing that."

"Says who?"

"Says me?" Kubo shrugs, eyeing both ends of the hall in a mockingly confused manner to make his point. "Who else?"

Now, they look amused. "Or what?" Alvin recklessly grabs at his shamisen case, his large hand gripping the neck of the instrument. "You gonna hit me with your stupid guitar?" Alvin roughly jostles it around, and the smaller boy protests before falling to the ground from momentum, slipping out of the strap.

"What're you gonna do, Mr. Eye-patch? Turn me into stone with your one eye? Like some Medusa shit?"

(Alvin's friends share a look behind his back.)

Kubo stands, rubbing his arm. Medusa didn't have only one eye, he thinks because, wow, this kid is really dumb, and he suddenly gets the feeling that Alvin really is all talk with nothing to back it up. Like a bull without horns. Or just an unconventionally tall troll.

So, he smiles sadistically, because he's got a pair of horns himself. "I do only have one," Kubo says.

He lifts his hair, then the eye-patch, and Alvin starts screaming.

"HE REALLY IS MEDUSA!" Alvin shouts as he pushes his friends aside to bolt down the hall with his arms flailing and his tail between his legs.

A satisfied smile makes its way to Kubo's lips watching the tall troll retreat in fright as Alvin's two friends make their relatively casually exit.

At least, until Kubo calls after them: "Hey."

They turn back to him.

"Why follow him?"

One scoffs. "He's the eye candy," he jokes.

"We've all got reasons," the other says, and tosses lazy fingers over his shoulder in a half-assed goodbye. "Later, freak." And they both exit.

Later, the bell rings and the hallways flood with traffic as everyone tries to escape home. Norman's got three textbooks he needs to bring home, and Kubo never did get the porcelain masks for his drama group, but despite all that the first thing that comes out of Norman's mouth once he sees a shamisen case parked at his locker is, "Um."

Pausing in his attempt to clean the black marker off with damp paper towels from the washroom, Kubo turns, and blinks in realization. "Is this your locker?"

Norman nods shyly. "You—you don't have to do that. It's okay."

"Okay? This isn't okay," Kubo says, and it's such an earnest statement that Norman's face colours itself pink.

"I-I mean, it's no . . . big deal." He watches his feet, his toes squirming in his shoes. "I'll take care of it. I don't wanna trouble you. And I've got a spray bottle in my locker just in case, you know . . . this happens. It helps."

Kubo eyes him with something that resembles disapproval, and it's not like that look is really foreign to Norman. It's just never been applied to these kinds of circumstances, and he's not sure how he feels about this. The one-eyed boy steps back, allowing space for Norman to reach into his locker and pull out the spray bottle. Kubo still comes up beside him to help.

"How often does this happen?" Kubo asks.

Norman feels his throat tighten. "I guess . . . a lot? I mean, it's occasional that it doesn't happen."

Kubo lowers the paper towels in his hand to look at the other boy. "And you just put up with it?"

The marker is pretty much gone. It's not perfect, but Norman still moves to put the spray bottle and rag away so he can hide his face behind his locker door. ". . . Yeah."

Kubo's hand comes up to gently push the locker door away from his face, just enough to see him clearly. "I think you should still tell someone."

"Everyone already knows," he says, hastily locking back up his locker. "It's kind of a thing, but . . . I—I gotta get home."

"Wait, uh." Kubo struggles to get his shamisen case over his shoulder before coming up to Norman's side once again. "Which direction do you live?"

"Um. South of here."

"Oh." Kubo awkwardly bumps his fists together. "I live north," he sighs. Norman doesn't really say anything, so he continues. "Uh, walk down the hall together?"

He doesn't know where these people talking to him are coming from or why he's suddenly of interest. It's not like anything's changed. He's still Norman. He's still the weird kid that talks to ghost. With that thought, he realizes it's better that Kubo—who was clearly going to offer to walk home with him—lives the other way, because he's not sure how he would feel to have Kubo see him talking to ghosts.

(Then he wonders why he cares.)

"Sure."

They walk down the hall together in the orange afternoon light, and Kubo asks him random questions like the courses he's taking. They're both taking drama, they're just in different classes, and Norman has to laugh at the comment Kubo makes about Mrs. Henscher's hair.

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.

Kubo comes to sit beside him the next day at lunch, and suddenly the whole I like to be alone excuse sounds petty. It's not like he predicted these people to suddenly start talking to him, let alone having someone worry about him. But that's the thing: Kubo worries now. His intentions are pure, a heart of gold and all that—so why does it make Norman feel sick?

"The four types of tissue are epithelial and . . . I forgot the other three."

"Muscle, connective, nervous." He taps the zombie head eraser bud against the messy biology notes sprawled along the cafeteria table. "Out of all of them, you remember epithelial?"

"I dunno. Bio just messes with me sometimes."

"Speaking of bio," says Coraline as she walks up to their table, the tilt of her head causing blue hair to fall in her face before she swipes a strand behind her ear, and both boys look up from their bio notes to stare up at the tall girl. "Norman, you're my bio partner."

"I already have one."

"Are you still super annoyed of me or are you serious?"

"You assumed I didn't?" he asks, and he's honestly only asking for the sake of questioning her.

Her stance straightens. "Well, I was trying to accommodate to your impeccable loner nature by sacrificing my social life for your lack of one."

"How generous," Kubo mutters, as he really isn't getting the best first impression of Coraline right now.

Her attention shifts to him. "You his partner? No, wait—" She holds up a poorly manicured finger, recognition in her eyes. "Kubo, was it? Weren't you asked by, like, seven different people?"

Kubo's shoulders seem to rise in unease, and he meets eyes with Norman when he answers, "Kinda?"

"Did you accept any of them?" Norman asks.

Kubo shakes his head, smiling awkwardly at the odd amusement of the situation. "It's hard to accept when they all kinda ask at the same time."

"What, were they all girls?" Coraline kind of laughs and kind of scoffs at the same time. "Or were they guys who thought you were a girl? Or, better yet, the gay alternatives?" she says with a peppy swing of her arm.

Kubo has to laugh at that, just a bit at least. "No, just . . . people." Kubo shrugs. "Not my kind of people, I guess."

He's popular, Norman thinks, to put it simply. And why wouldn't he be—he's an avid music and drama student with cool hair, and well spoken enough to appeal to the majority of the student population as well as the staff. Plus, he's got an eye-patch. Plus he's bilingual. Plus, the fact that the average student would know these things and Norman's only formerly talked to him since yesterday, means he's popular.

The question is: why would someone like him hang out with someone like Norman? Why would someone like him not have a partner yet?

Coraline pulls at the straps of her backpack, plastic enamel pins of weird hipster symbols and sayings rattling faintly at their needles. "Right, look, I'm not really up to being on a waiting list, dude. I got shit to do." She looks to Norman curiously. "Wait, so, Norman who's your partner."

Norman juts his chin to the crowd of students. "Eggs."

"Oh, box boy?" Coraline asks curiously, looking out into the rest of the cafeteria in search of him.

"Thought he didn't wear that box anymore," Kubo says, his eyes searching as well.

"He doesn't, but it's the only way I remember him."

And it's the timing: they find him in the crowd, and it looks like he's tutoring a seventh grader when Alvin walks by and slams a fist against Eggs's tray, sending mash potatoes into his face. He stands immediately from the table as chunks drip heavily off his hair to sweater to splat against the cafeteria floor, and Alvin and his friends freaking guffaw at their handiwork.

"Well, if you're gonna be named after food, you know?" Alvin laughs, continuing on his way, his friends by his shoulders. " 'Cause you're Eggs! Like the stupid breakfast shit!"

Coraline glares, blue eyes boiling. "Alvin."

Norman suddenly feels a jolt of guilt because he knows why this is happening, and he reaches for Coraline's sleeve when she takes a dangerous step forward. "Don't."

"Why not—?!"

"Don't make it worse."

Norman knows Alvin is more stupid than he is threatening, and really isn't worth the energy trying to fight at the end of the day. It's in Alvin's own dimwitted nature that he taunts people, and the other students don't approach simply because they find something in his lack of censorship atrociously hilarious. Norman can't find it in himself to be bothered when it's himself on the receiving end. But when it's someone else, the last thing he would want is to make a scene and probably quadruple their embarrassment. Especially when it's under circumstances like these.

(Eggs has never been bullied by them. Not like this. There were rumours and such, things that were hidden from him, but never was there anything like this.

That is, until he became bio partners with Norman.)

But maybe that's just his own way of seeing things, because the blue haired girl huffs a breath of annoyance. "Look, you don't have to do shit. But I'm killing him." She tears herself from his grasp and stomps over there, and Norman doesn't know what do to.

He feels Kubo stand up beside him, and Norman looks to see a growing smile on his face. The dark-haired boy meets his eye then, and it's the first time Norman's seen him look so menacing. "I want her to do it."

They turn back to see Coraline turning Alvin's shoulder and colliding her fist with his nose. A sharp crack resonates through the room.

Heads turns instantly, a light crowd gathering in a matter of seconds, and Kubo says quickly that they should help her before they both scramble over the table and shoulder their way through. There's not much to see since Alvin's two friends are holding him back ("Don't hit a girl, man!") and his nose is a bloody mess, dripping down the sides of his mouth in thick red lines, like it caved in on itself. Definitely broken.

Norman looks to Coraline and her bruising fist, and despite Norman's previous attempt of holding her back, he admittedly finds respect in her ferocity and lack of hesitation. He's never had that and probably never will, but he does see it in Kubo, though, as he tries to hold her back as well. Even Eggs had stepped in to contain the situation—he's dripping with mash potatoes and still has more confidence than Norman right now.

Norman feels dumb for just standing there amidst the crowd.

"You know what? You're all freaks," Alvin shouts then, a thick hand hovering around his thick nose. He sounds like he's sick, like his nose is stuffed instead of bleeding. "Fucking box baby freak. Fucking water witch freak. Fucking Medusa freak."

They're all standing there, the three of them, in some freakish abnormal spotlight, a red-seeing Coraline held back at the arms by two boys with stiff jaws and shoulders lined with disdain. They're all glaring Alvin down, and still, Alvin turns to find Norman there, hidden before the students clear around him like he has the plague as they follow Alvin's gaze, and Norman's glaring at the floor. It's always him. There's always something that separates him, even from the people that have actually talked to him (or at least tried) because they're standing over there and he's standing over here and somehow he still feels alone; somehow he is alone.

Alvin's words feel like he's ripping open a gash in Norman's throat. "Looks like you're fucking contagious, Goober."

"Leave him alone, Alvin!" Coraline shouts, and Norman can't look up to see everyone staring at him because he might just lose it. It's welling up in his chest now—all the emotions and guilt. His fists are shaking by his sides. He never asked for this. He never asked for this.

Then, he feels a hand on his wrist, and it's like the sun boiling pavement in the summer, heat waves riding up his arm. "Come on, Eggs. Let's get you cleaned up," he hears Kubo say before the hand closes completely around his wrist and Kubo leads them all out.

The crowd parts for them.

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.

Coraline is the only one out of the four that can't enter the boy's washroom, and they really don't trust her enough to leave her alone, so Norman waits outside with her as Eggs gets the mashed potatoes out of his hair.

The air is rigid, since Norman's glare hasn't left the floor and Coraline's knuckles are steadily growing blue. This is the day that Norman learns that Coraline truly is shameless.

"Do you like Kubo?"

It takes several seconds to process that idea through all the crappy, sad thoughts in his brain, and when it finally reaches, the emotions in his chest drain rapidly and are replaced with feelings of what the actual fuck?

"Huh?!"

His eyes finally detach from the floor to stare at the blue-haired girl, and her eyes aren't even on him—they're initially on her hand, examining the wound. "It's mostly just a feeling. I like to think I know about these types of things—you, of all people, should at least have an inkling as to why. Not to mention, you didn't give up on trying to push me away no matter how 'ambitious' I was and, yet, he's a VIP to closed off loser circle of no one."

"You have a crush on my older sister," he decides is enough of a reason.

"What can I say? I'm petty."

Norman groans and buries his face beneath the collar of his hoodie. How did they get from breaking Alvin's nose to this?

"Why would you even think that?"

"So, you like him?"

"No."

"You sure?

"Why would I not be sure?"

"Because maybe you don't know."

"I think I would know."

"Do you?"

"Yes."

"So, you do like Kubo—?"

"No!"

It's amuses her how they're just going back and forth and he still gets annoyed.

"Okay, maybe I'm wrong," she says. "Maybe it's the other way around."

"It's the what . . . ?"

"The other way around. As in: Kubo likes you."

There's a one or two second delay in his answer; the hesitation as he takes that in. And in that delay, Coraline allows herself to grin knowingly at him. "No that—that wouldn't be it," he stutters.

"Why not? He's the one trying to hang out with you when he's got, like, ten million other friends."

". . . That's not liking someone." He stares up at the ceiling, his thoughts muddled and incomprehensible because Norman's not sure if someone like himself is allowed to feel disappointment. "That's just pity."

Coraline frowns at him. She takes a breath to say something, but when the door to the boy's washrooms opens, she catches herself and gazes back at the screen of her phone as if the conversation never existed.

Her phone screen is black. She doesn't even bother turning it back on.

(Kubo asks to see Coraline's bruised fist and begs her to be his partner. She says she'll think about it.)

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Just getting on the bus for the trip is eventful.

Norman tends to pull eyes like a two headed beacon no matter how quiet he tries to be—and, seriously, he tries. He doesn't want attention. No matter what people say about him being an attention-seeker, he'd be more than glad if they just decided to forget he even existed. Yet, their eyes are on him, disdainful and intolerant, and his eyes are on the school bus floor.

Then, Eggs's hand is on his back, easing him to keep walking. "Don't worry. It's not just you they're looking at."

That just makes the guilt piling in Norman's stomach drive his shoulders higher. He didn't mean to bring them into his own social mess like this. The students got their eyes on all four of them now as they walk down the aisle of the bus like a line of asylum patients; a bunch of crazy people moving to the back of the bus where they'll be isolated from the rest of the student biology class population, and Norman really can't help but think this is his fault.

Whispers about a water witch begin to accumulate as Coraline passes by, and it's pretty loud when Alvin mutters, "More like water bitch," and in between the responding laughter, Coraline says, as clear as day through the morning fog, "Fuck off, Alvin."

The students erupt with immaturity, and Norman finds himself rushing to bury himself beneath the ruckus and make his way swiftly to the back of the bus, running away from Eggs's hand. There, he brings his knees to his chest and tries to his best to not feel everything coming at him like a wave.

"Norman?" he hears Kubo say, and the worry in the boy's voice makes him nauseous.

Why hasn't Norman said something yet? Why can't he just yell at them to leave him alone? He wants to be left alone. He doesn't want to feel guilty. That's what he wants to say.

But he doesn't. Instead, he just grips at his jeans where they bunch up at his knees and says, "They're all staring because of me."

"Not everything about you," Coraline quips as she slides to claim her window seat, then helps Kubo secure his shamisen case in the corner. She gives said boy a quizzical look. "Why're you bringing this thing with you?"

Kubo shrugs. "I'm weird."

"You're the least weird one here," Norman says, craning to see the other boy. At least he can say this much. "You could've chosen anyone to be your partner. And you chose Coraline."

"Wow," is all Coraline says.

"I just—I don't get it. It's like you don't wanna be popular."

Kubo shrugs again as he sits beside Coraline, and this time with a small little smile as he looks Norman in the eye. "Maybe I just like you guys."

From Kubo's view, he wouldn't be able to see Coraline kneeling on the seat, mouthing the words I TOLD YOU in Norman's direction.

(Eggs is very confused by that.)

Norman's face colours and he turns to watch the back of the seat in front of him and chokes out, "Okay, cool," in response to Kubo's cheeky declaration.

"Um." Eggs, settling beside Norman, is still confused about the blue-haired girl's actions, but he still wants to say something. "I think . . . we're all back here for our own reasons. And, personally, I'd prefer to be here than the mess up there."

It really is a mess: kids screaming and cussing and wrestling, and several projectiles of paper and eraser bits were flying through the air. Chaos is just bursting everywhere, like the shaken up fizzy pops that someone has successfully snuck onto the bus. And this bus isn't even full like the first one in front of them—a good six pairs of empty seats separates the isolated four from the catastrophe that is the front of the bus, and they could've swore one kid was just about to fall out of a window just now.

Norman realizes there's always been a reason he likes being alone. Maybe part of that reason is that he's never found his kind of people.

"How long is this trip?" Coraline asks, breaking their collective stupor from being just captivated by all the idiocy before them.

"Four hours," Kubo answers.

She sigh-groans dramatically. "Four hours to kill."

Norman faces the window, the early November chill fogging up the glass. Four hours to kill.

In exactly four hours, he's gonna wish he had more.