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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.

Chapter Text

The four hours pass by quicker than they thought. There's no timer or alarm or anything for them to know their time is up. But if they were to have an alarm, their alarm wouldn't be Eggs bumping his head on the ceiling of the bus as it drove up the speed bumps, or even the cut of the rumbling engine. Their alarm would be the ginger-haired girl struggling through the flood of students as she rushes up the aisle towards the four.

"Hey, um," Winnie says lightly, crossing her arms over her chest seemingly in unease. Or maybe it's just chilly. "Sorry, I just need to borrow Eggs for a quick moment?"

They all look to Eggs, who's staring up at Winnie as if she were a complete stranger. After a moment, he wears a puzzled, almost skeptical expression because after all this time, Winnie seriously chooses to talk to him now? "W-Why?"

Winnie sighs an impatient breath through her nose. "Eggs, please—it won't take long."

"Here, we'll just give you guys some space," Kubo offers, patting Eggs's shoulder twice before he gestures for the other two to follow him out. Winnie lets them by, sliding into a gap between seats, not looking up until she can watch them exit the bus. It's just the two of them now.

(They haven't spoken to each other in weeks.)

Eggs stands, shoulders awkwardly stiff, and faces her directly with his back against the side of a seat. "Winnie?"

"I wanna make sure that you understand me, Eggs," she says slowly, looking up at him without raising her head. "And that you understand where I'm coming from."

Eggs nods without certainty.

Winnie takes in a cold breath and looks at the boy straight in the eye. "I do not like what Alvin did to you."

(He's not sure what he'd been expecting. Winnie isn't exactly predictable—girls in general threw him off—but she doesn't tend to completely steer away from a problem. However, that seems to be exactly what she's doing right now.)

"This never happened before—not like this. It's like Alvin is out to get you and . . . I'm afraid for you, Eggs."

"You don't have to be—I'm fine." He really is. He's just genuinely confused because this is the last thing he expected when they literally had a fight a few weeks ago . . .

Winnie claps her hands, trying to shift the tense atmosphere into something lighter. "How about you come sit with my friends for a while?"

And Eggs is thrown off once again. "What?"

"Just to see if . . . Eggs, look, I'm just trying to look out for you. You'll like my friends, they're very—talkative. They'll always find some way to keep the conversation going. Don't worry. Let's go."

Winnie takes his hand before he could say anything, and the words he wants to say clog his throat. He remembers Winnie's chubby fingers, but something just felt weird about them now, like his hand had forgotten her touch and was struggling to recollect with the memories of them ever being friends.

Then, Eggs doesn't move when Winnie makes to walk them out the bus. The pull of resistance has her turning back to him, ginger curls bouncing around her shoulders.

She presses her lips together in an insecure line when she sees he's not looking at her. "You understand what I'm saying, right?" she asks.

He nods absently. "I do."

She tries to duck shyly into his vision. "Eggs?"

He could just bring up the fight, tell her that if anything is worrying him, it's the mess that happened before, between the two of them. But the Alvin thing . . . he can't find himself to care about that. And, yet, he can't bring himself to tell Winnie otherwise. He can't bring himself to do anything except look at her and force a tight-lipped smile, knowing he doesn't like this, the strain of the situation weighing down on him uncomfortably because he still wants to be Winnie's friend.

"Lead the way," he tells her.

When they're off the bus, Eggs catches the other three on the other side, deliberately distancing themselves from anyone else. He sees them, and they see him, and all he does is frown before looking down and away.

.

.

.

The day's already coming to an end—the bus arrived pretty late, so there's not much to do before curfew. It's dark outside, and the students are organized around dinner tables as the counsellors figure out some last minute things, collecting dorm arrangements and double checking allergies.

The counsellors introduce themselves. They aren't anything special. A few are rather eccentric and high-spirited, like how you would expect any other camp counsellor to be like. Most are just . . . there, to say the least.

However, there's this one counsellor with dark eyes and cherry red lipstick that sort of reminds Coraline of her own mom (or at least the vintage nineteenth century photos of her mom when she was a teen). If her mom didn't have shadows under her eyes from working on her gardening catalog, or if she just enjoyed the world a little more in general, her and the counsellor would probably be splitting images of each other. The counsellor's name is Bel, and she arrives at their little table of three with an offering of cocoa beetles.

"Cocoa—what?"

"They're not actual beetles, silly," Bel laughs, reassuring Coraline. Kubo and Coraline pluck one each from the box, and Bel bends down to whisper to the blue-haired girl, "They're from Zanzibar."

Coraline chuckles at the way she says Zanzibar—she's a bit disconcerted with the chocolate bug still, but she finds enough interest wondering what colour the counselor's lipstick is before Bel leaves to give some to the next table. Coraline breaks hers in half and tries to inspect the chocolate's insides.

"Eggs would like these," Kubo observes as he pops the beetle easily into his mouth.

"He would," Coraline agrees, glancing in the direction Eggs's table. Then she spots Norman out of the corner of her eye, and her face falls in tired disapproval. "Dude."

Norman's been staring at Eggs ever since they all witnessed Winnie whisk him away, and honestly, Coraline's starting to find it a bit unnecessary. Norman doesn't hear her the first time, so she ends up kicking him from under the table.

"Hey, Casper Hotline."

"—Ow."

"If you see a ghost by Eggs, I'd warn him now before he gets possessed. Unless you're trying to exorcise it with your pitiful gaze."

Pitiful—she used that word on purpose because their conversation about him (possibly; most likely) having a crush on Kubo is still stuck in her mind. Norman simply rolls his eyes and looks back at Eggs's table.

His reaction isn't very telling—at least, not as telling as Coraline would've liked it to be. So, she frowns, glancing back at Eggs's table herself. "He's been abducted," she states. "He's long gone now."

"He's always been friends with Winnie," Kubo reasons.

"Which is exactly why he's long gone at this point."

"I'm saying this should be good for them," Kubo explains. "They haven't spoken at all for a while and now they're finally talking."

It doesn't exactly seem like that though, because when they all look over to the table across the room, Eggs is frowning at the floor with his brows furrowed whilst Winnie and her friends talk delightedly around him. It really is possible to feel lonely in a crowded room.

"Yeah, real talkative," Coraline quips.

Kubo isn't really up to argue, and she does have a point, so he just sighs. "I could be wrong."

"You're not wrong," Norman says, and the other two aren't sure how to take that. He hasn't really spoken since they arrived at the camp, so his words abruptly cut to silence. Kubo shares a glance with Coraline, who shrugs like she doesn't know—she's got an inkling though, a silent one she keeps on her tongue—and Kubo looks back at Norman with deflating shoulders because he really can't seem to find a way around that shell Norman keeps himself in.

Kubo sort of leans forward in his seat, second guessing his words for a quick second before deciding that this might just be the most precarious thing to ask in a moment like this."Can you really see ghosts?"

Surprised, Norman looks up and doesn't say anything for a moment, because despite all the teasing he gets, no one has ever really questioned if his ability is true. Everyone sort of just assumes he's a basket case. He wouldn't say he exactly goes along with it—he'll tell his truth, but he won't expect anything from it.

That being said, he's not sure what to expect right now. He'd be lying if he denied the anxious feeling Kubo's kindness still gives him. But he'd also be lying if he denied the small sensation of delightful surprise because no one's ever been intrigued by his power. "Um . . . yeah?"

"Like, dead people, right?" Kubo continues, becoming more animated with the sudden interest. "And you could speak to them and all that—?"

"I'll believe it when I see it," Coraline interrupts, but she casts a side glance to Norman like she's waiting to be proven wrong, like she wants to be proven wrong.

Norman just shakes his head, looking down at his lap because he could still feel Kubo's eyes on him. "It's really nothing," he tries to dismiss.

Coraline frowns at that response because there's a lot of problems with this conversation, and it's awkward on so many levels, and she's kind of exhausted by it. But she can't deny her interest in all the ghost talk. "Okay, if you really can speak to ghosts, how about . . ." She thinks for a moment, then snaps her poorly manicured fingers. ". . . you summon Bloody Mary."

"Like we're back in grade three?" Kubo quips, and Coraline shoots him a look.

Norman can recognize when Coraline is challenging him, but with his powers involved, he's just not sure. "I don't think that's a good idea."

"Why not?"

He grimaces at the memories he has of summoning her the first time. He's had better confrontations with the dead using his ouija board. "She's not really the friendliest person," he explains.

"You've met her before?" Kubo asks, curiousity sparking in his eye.

"Bullshit," Coraline exclaims before he can answer.

Norman sighs because he can already see the scheming in Coraline's eyes. "Not bullshitting you, but you seem to know that," he grumbles.

Coraline smiles because this is the most interesting thing that's happened all day, and her hopes are steadily rising that this trip won't bore her to death. "Let's see what you got, Casper Hotline!"

.

.

.

After a brief, awkward consideration, they decide to go with the boy's washroom, and Coraline allows herself to laugh at the urinals.

When she's setting things up to her own appeal (clearly more excited about this than the boys), Kubo goes to lean against the wall beside Norman. "You sure you wanna do this?" Kubo asks.

Actually, Norman isn't sure. He isn't sure at all, and he rubs the nape of his neck because he feels this sort of expectation knowing that Kubo is fascinated with his ability. "Not really?" he answers honestly.

"You don't have to if you don't want to," Kubo tells him before looking down and muttering, "I just think it'll be really cool and all, but, you know."

Norman raises a brow at the other boy's antics, laughing silently for a bit before gesturing at the blue-haired girl vandalizing the bathroom mirrors. "You think she's gonna let me out of this now?"

Kubo laughs in agreement to that. She's already in the boy's washroom. There's no stopping her.

"You know," Kubo begins, "I don't consider talking to ghosts to be the craziest thing I've witnessed."

"What've you witnessed?"

Kubo simply slides his fingers beneath his bangs and taps at his eyepatch. It's a mystery of how he lost his eye—he doesn't exactly talk about it, and seems reluctant to tell anybody about the event. He's like that cool movie character with the hidden backstory, Norman thinks. Even with Norman's powers, he can still easily say that Kubo's cooler than him.

"Seems traumatic," Norman says.

Kubo's composure doesn't falter in any way. In fact, he grins at the new direction of the conversation. "You wanna guess?"

"Can I?"

"You get three."

(So, it has to be crazier than talking to ghosts?)

"You encountered an evil villain with soul-draining powers. He—no, she—took your eye out of revenge because you stole all her black hair dye, and she wants the other one to complete her collection of children's eyes."

Norman smiles as Kubo giggles. It's the most comfortable he's felt during this trip, and he doesn't feel the anxiety he usually feels around Kubo. Maybe the sheer stupidity of his guess is uplifting somehow.

"That's what happened, right?"

"You have two more guesses," Kubo laughs.

"Alright, quit flirting," Coraline annouces, hopping off the sink counter. She'd stolen Bel's lipstick, and with it she'd written bloody mary three times on the bathroom mirror.

"What's that for?" Norman asks, his expression unimpressed.

"Show," Coraline says simply before queuing to Kubo. "Cut the lights."

The washrooms had those weird light switches where you had to stick something through the slit to turn it off. Kubo uses his origami paper to do so. And the lights cut, leaving the washroom completely dark.

The kids subtly huddle together in the dark, anchoring themselves with each other, none of them bringing up the fact that there might be just a little bit of fear in this situation. Norman says bloody mary three times, obviously being the least scared. If anything, he's just nervous about bothering another ghost that obviously has problems like this on a daily.

It's dark. The sink drips indecisively before stopping all together, leaving it densely silent for a few long moments . . .

". . . Nothing's happening," Kubo whispers.

Coraline huffs and switches on the flashlight on her phone, abruptly shedding the dark with a beam of white light. "Norman," she says in accusation.

"Maybe she just doesn't feel like showing up," Norman says in annoyance.

"You said you met her."

"I did."

"Then I don't get how—"

A bathroom stall door suddenly opens and slams against the wall, and Coraline's phone light catches the moment as the door slowly, gradually comes to a halt. Something is scratching along the tiled floors and the three kids are too afraid to even breathe.

Thin, long fingers curl around the corner as a figure emerges from the stall. Something unearthly and unholy topples against the wall, leaving a dark trail of presumably blood as it makes its way to the three. Its human shape is disfigured, head lolling precariously upon its shoulders, face covered by dark stringy hair. Norman narrows his eyes and steps in front of Coraline, a deep feeling of wrongness settling in his stomach as the thing limps closer.

Kubo catches Norman's movement and grabs at the boy's arm. "What are you doing?"

Then, it pounces suddenly at the boy in front before jumping onto the wall like an animalistic creature and running off on all fours. Coraline follows it with her light until it makes its way out of the bathroom entirely before blindly following after it. "It's getting away—come on!"

Kubo makes to follow her when he hears a something collapse to the floor.

"Norman?"

When he doesn't get an immediate answer, he rushes to switch back on the light.

Norman is shaking violently against the floor, eyes rolled into the back of his head.

.

.

.

Winnie's friends have formed a little circle around the back of the main camp building, and Eggs watches the glass bottle spin in the middle with absolute boredom. He doesn't think his attention has gone off the bottle ever since the game commenced. Then, something dashes from the corner of his eyes, and he glances up quick enough to catch a shadow running off into the forest.

"Eggs?" Winnie calls when he stands, for he was just about to run off. "You alright?"

Eggs looks back at Winnie like he completely forgot she was even there, then becomes a bit self-conscious when he realizes the others—Winnie's friends—are staring at him now, too. He barely knows any of their names—and he's good with names. "I'm just gonna check something," he explains.

"Check what?"

"I'll be back," he says, already rushing off into the woods, and Winnie watches him go. The boy really does worry her sometimes . . . One of her friends taps her on the shoulder to bring her attention back to the game, and she tries her best to focus.

The woods seem dense in the dark, claustrophobic. Eggs tries his best to listen, and he hears the crunching of footsteps that aren't his own, he heads in that direction and finds another person. The blue hair is undeniable.

"Coraline?!"

She whips around and her fist strikes his arm. Her knuckles are still bruised, but Eggs can tell she did not hold back. "Ow! It's me!"

"I know," she says easily. "That's for ditching us."

Eggs pauses to take her words in before wincing guiltily. "You guys mad at me for that?"

"Mad isn't the right word," Coraline says, but then decides it's not worth explaining, especially at a time like this. She really doesn't care anyways. "Look, it's whatever–I'm kinda hunting down freaking Bloody Mary right now, so if you could just—"

"You're WHAT?"

"Yeah, you missed out on a few things. Blame Norman, not me. Speaking of Norman," she says suddenly as the thought zips into her mind, remembering what Norman had said on the bus ride, remembering how he'd stared at Eggs and Winnie and Winnie's friends, "you should really talk to that kid."

"Speaking of Norman, where is he?" Eggs decides to point out. "Where's Kubo?"

She pauses for a quick second, as if she's just realizing this, her thoughts zipping back to what just happened in the washroom. "They're—slow," she stutters.

Eggs isn't completely sure how to react to the whole bloody mary thing, but he recognizes the situation for what it is and feels a tad bit unsettled by the absence of his other two friends. "Coraline, I may have missed a lot—even though it's literally just been an hour—but if you're chasing down something and the others aren't here with you—"

"I saw that thing come out here," Coraline defends. Eggs just looks at her pointedly. Through his eyes, he's telling her she made a mistake, and Coraline has to own up to the fact that she got too excited for her own good. "Shit," she sighs after a moment, massaging the bridge of her nose as her stupid decisions exhaust her. "Okay, I'm dumb, let's go."

.

.

.

The mirrors crack, red lipstick bleeding, smearing, walls trembling, and Kubo is panicking. What could this even be? Seizure? Attack? Is he okay? He's not okay, he can't be okay . . . !

(In reality—another layer of reality, a spiritual, supernatural layer—what's happening to Norman is something invisible to a normal human's sight. This something has intent, hovering over Norman head, setting her fingers over—through—Norman's skull as it rattles beneath her ethereal touch, and she sets his sight back, painting pictures in his mind that only someone like him could comprehend. The pictures only grow worse as the seconds tick by. She can't stay for long, she only has so much time before she risks being spotted. She would have to lead Norman away, lead him to the others, where he could figure something out. He's the only one that can help.

She releases Norman's mind from her fingers. Now she has to find where that troublesome body went . . .)

Norman's body relaxes against the floor, eyes closing before blinking back into reality, as if he's merely waking up from a dream.

". . . Norman?" Kubo says, voice stripped down to a whisper from the shock of the moment, and the tension in the air begins to ease. "Norman, you okay?"

Kubo tries, but as Norman sits up, his blue eyes still wander in space. Norman is thinking, trying to process what he saw as the charred ends of his vision mend themselves back into something real.

Kubo tightens his grip on the boy's shoulders, the panic still in his voice. "Norman, look at me."

He does. Norman finds himself able to focus on Kubo's eyes. The fog begins to clear from his mind. He can process reality for what it is—the walls still have their dark trails, the lipstick-covered mirrors are still cracked. But the girl's gone. Both of them are. "I'm fine," he reassures, hoping it sounds genuine. "Um, I'm fine, really—"

Kubo is shaking his head. "What was that? What just happened?"

"It's okay."

It's not easy to dismiss something like this. Norman knows this, but he still hopes he can just reassure Kubo enough to move on. But Kubo's gaze pins him there, dark eyes worried, a bit traumatized, but steady, and Kubo just has to know: "What happened, Norman?"

He does owe Kubo some kind of explanation. He just feels bad for the trouble it might bring. No matter the circumstances, Norman's always had his honesty. But secrets are good at breaking that.

.

.

.

Coraline has to pause, ducking her head, shoulders bouncing slightly.

"Don't laugh at me."

That's exactly what she starts doing—first in stifled squeaks, but then she really can't hold back the laughter.

(Something slithers through the leaves and dirt, unheard by the two.)

"We should really get going," Eggs pushes.

"Okay, but . . . you didn't know about spin the bottle?! Come on, Eggs, that's like—"

Coraline lets out a yelp as something trips her, pulling her to the ground, tightening its hold on her. She feels leaves on her face, the scratch of branches and twigs, but with the earth suddenly so close, she feels disoriented before she realizes something is dragging her across the dirt.

Panic shakes the air, and Eggs grabs her wrist. The bruises on Coraline's hand ache, but she locks her grip on Eggs's arm.

Coraline is shouting curses, and Eggs is freaking out because he can see the thing around Coraline's ankle—this tentacle looking creature, black as tar, anchored by a tree truck as if the tree's roots themselves sprouted from the earth and decided to pull Coraline under. "This isn't working—Coraline, this isn't working!" Eggs cries in panic, his heels collecting dirt, no no no, he's losing to this tentacle creature monster thing . . . !

Two more pairs of hands grab onto Coraline's arm, Norman and Kubo using all the strength they could muster to try and take Coraline back. For a moment, the tension is stagnant, balanced between both parties, before the pull switches direction, and the kids begin to win this tug of war—

Fed up, Coraline twists around and begins slamming her foot into the thing, trying to scrape the thing off with her heel. She feels its slimy texture on her skin, its suction trying to get break her skin, she knows she's bleeding but she doesn't care at this point, she kicks the thing no matter what.

It seems to squeal when one last kick breaks the creatures grip, and it squirms back into the dirt, beneath the roots, the tree shifting with unease until the thing is back underground . . . It's quiet as the leaves settle on the ground, the kids too in shock to say anything.

That is, until: "You left nail imprints in my arm!" Eggs exclaims.

Coraline looks to his arm, then to him, then blinks widely, indifferently, still processing the fact that she's alive. "Whoops," she says as she gets up and brushes herself off, checking her ankle. Dammit, she just keeps getting injured.

"Cut your nails!" he yells after her, before rubbing his arm and relaxing with a sigh, turning his attention to Kubo. The dark-haired boy is staring in space, like all that's needed is one more encounter like this and he might just lose it.

"You guys alright?" Eggs asks.

Kubo turns suddenly to him. "Um . . ." He looks past Eggs to meet Norman's gaze. Norman shakes his head. Don't say anything. "Yeah, we're fine."

Coraline sighs heavily, guiltily, her head rolling back to bump against the bark. "I left you guys behind—"

"No, we're fine," Norman speaks up. He's already up on his feet. "We were just slow."

Coraline furrows her brows at that, and when Norman doesn't say anything else and starts walking back to camp, she looks to Kubo for an explanation.

Kubo takes a moment to offer one. "A counsellor caught us. We had to make something up about why we were out so late."

"Right," Coraline says, nodding like she believes it. She doesn't say anything else, but something about her vague expression shows that she's not about to buy that.

"At least we're all alright," Eggs says optimistically. After a pause, his face falls as the reality of the situation crashes onto him. "We just fought off a monster."

His statement is blunt, in slight disbelief, as he and the others are still trying to wrap their heads around the situation. But it's also pretty late, and they're too tired and worn out to really take in what just happened. So, Kubo decides it's the perfect time to sing them The 70s Show theme song as they trudge back to camp.

There could be better times to sing. But they're not the type of people to wait for better times.

Chapter Text

Alvin thinks he's committed the crime of the century.

Him and his friends are stifling their cackles, which are terribly loud in the early morning. But at the end of the day, boys who only want to cause trouble and light things on fire (and maybe hide rats in people's beds) don't care for staying quiet. They only care for disrupting what they sought out to disrupt.

But then, much to their inconvenience, a counsellor suddenly comes by, having heard their ridiculous giggles. With his arms crossed, he questions them, a stern look in his eyes.

Of course, the three destructive boys could only grin at each other, because it's only a matter of time until their plan succeeds . . .

At that moment, the door opens and Eggs walks out with a large furry creature squirming in his hand. "I found a rat in my bed."

Alvin, his friends, and the counsellor proceed to stare at Eggs with a mixture of incredulity and almost a loss of hope.

"What the fuck, dude?" Alvin then exclaims, officially pissed off that the plan he did not come up with concluded in failure. From the look on his face, it's clear that Alvin finds Eggs's inability to be frightened shitless by a rat absolutely appalling, and with a disgruntled flail of his arm, he stomps away, his angered footsteps like thunder against the hollow squeaky floors.

"You don't hold him like that!" one of Alvin's friends-the one with the red cap-scolds him, gingerly taking the creature into his own hands to show him and holding it carefully in a very specific way.

"Oh. Okay," Eggs says, observing attentively before being given back the creature, then letting the rat settle in his palm. "There we go."

"Freak," the boy snarls.

Eggs finds himself legitimately offended in that moment. "I'm holding him correctly now, aren't I?!"

"Later, freak," the other calls, saluting lazily to the air as they both make their exit, most likely to find their eye candy and come up with another plan for said eye candy to proceed with as his own.

After a moment, Eggs administers the correct way to hold a rat and carefully places his new friend atop his head. Now, he's like that guy from that movie, where the rat became a chef and everything . . . what was it called again?

The counselor is still there, and Eggs isn't sure what else to do but smile cheerfully as the rat crawls through his hair. In that moment, the counselor considers that maybe this really isn't the job for him . . .

.

.

.

Eggs makes sure he absolutely sticks to the sidelines. No one shall see him. He is invisible.

Although, being someone who isn't exactly a crowd favourite to begin with, it's hard to judge whether or not he's effectively rendering himself invisible. And being a part of a group of others who aren't exactly fan favourites either, it's extra difficult just to find said group, knowing he could potentially be caught by a certain someone before he gets to his friends.

Eventually-when maneuvering between breakfast tables begins to get dizzying-he figures out that his group isn't even in the dining hall. Confused, he decides to go somewhere that he would go in this situation.

That's where he finds them: sitting outside, claiming a wooden picnic table and tolerating the autumn-to-winter temperature.

"Why are you guys out here?" he asks, walking up to them, his words becoming a cloud.

"We're trying not to get caught for messing up the boy's washroom," Coraline explains. "The counselors here don't really pay attention, so hopefully this is all we have to do. And we seriously need to figure out what the hell happened last night before someone brings it up."

While Coraline's explaining this, Norman is look strangely at the creature on Eggs's head. "Um . . ."

Instead of explaining himself, Eggs just knowingly smiles, looking at the three as if he were waiting for the punchline of a joke.

"Hey, Eggs," Coraline calls.

"Yeah?"

She pointed at the rat as if she were a kindergartner pointing out a typo. "You have a rat on your head-"

"I know I have a rat on my head!" Eggs snaps. His shoulders then sulk in disappointment. "It's suppose to be joke, guys."

They all just blink, collectively sending the message that the joke, evidently, did not work. "Keep trying, buddy," Kubo encourages.

"Where exactly did you get a rat?" Norman asks.

"I'm pretty sure Alvin was trying to prank me," Eggs explains, taking the empty spot next to Norman. "Didn't really work, though. Hey, have you guys noticed Alvin's friends are kinda-"

"Hey, Eggs," Coraline calls again, using the same annoying tone as she'd used before.

Eggs isn't excited to here what she has to say this time. "What?"

"Why aren't you sitting with Winnie?"

With the emphasis on Winnie's name, she grins sadistically.

Eggs grows quiet at that, looking down to pick at his breakfast with his fork, his tongue in his cheek. "I'm just not," he mumbles frankly.

"Are you guys alright?" Kubo asks.

He nods his head--it's a microscopic movement. Either he's being shy or he doesn't want to disturb the rodent on his head. "Yeah, we're . . . fine."

It takes a moment before Norman asks the question they're all thinking. "Are you hiding from her-?"

"In my defense," Eggs says quickly. "I don't need to be there, there's no reason for me to be there, I just sit there like a potato!"

"Maybe she wants you to be a potato," Coraline teases.

"But I don't want to be a potato!"

Kubo continues with the teasing, his grin matching Coraline's. "What do you wanna be, Eggs?"

"I want to be Ratatouille, and I am Ratatouille, 'cause I have a rat on my head!" He looks across the table to see the blue-haired girl with a look that can be described as try again. "Don't look at me like that, Coraline."

She suddenly lurches back in disgust. "Ew, don't call me Coraline. You guys can't call me Coraline. Call me, like, my last name or something."

"What's your last name, again?" Kubo asks.

"It starts with a J," Eggs remembers.

"I have the most basic ass last name out of all of you and you guys forget it."

"Johnson . . . ?" Kubo attempts, but the look on Coraline's face as she twirls her fork between her fingers suggests that he's not even close. Kubo waves it off. "We'll find it."

"If she gets a nickname, I want my nickname to be Linguini."

Kubo shakes his head, but with a smile no less. "Still not working, buddy."

"You got the reference though this time!"

There's a pause before Coraline finally decides the subject should be switched. "Think we're safe with the washroom thing?"

"I'll go ask around," Kubo says, getting up from his seat and going into the crowd inside.

From the silence of his small little bubble, Norman looks up to watch him leave. Coraline catches this little moment.

The blue-haired girl gestures to Eggs, who's rather perplexed at the gesture and puts up a look of suspicious caution before Coraline gestures to him again, this time kind of aggressively. She whispers something in his ear. Norman sees this, and definitely looks confused when Coraline flicks her eyes to him, nodding at Eggs.

Norman stares at the blue-haired girl skeptically. "What did you just tell him?"

"I told him your hair looks great today," Coraline chirps with such a bullshit smile that she looks like a different person.

Norman sighs, looking to Eggs. "What did she tell you?"

"That your hair looks great today," Eggs says like a parrot.

Norman rolls his eyes at both of them.

Kubo returns and reports his findings with a quiet, unsure voice. "They've haven't said anything. A lot of the guys saw it, too, and reported it to them, but the counselors haven't said anything. Nobody knows what they're planning to do."

"Maybe they're investigating privately?" Norman suggests.

Eggs shakes his head. "Even if that were the case, they'd still set out some kind of safety warning."

"Kinda weird . . ." Coraline comments.

"Think they're trying to hide it?" Kubo asks.

"Why would they try to hide it, though?" Coraline asks back.

Eggs tries to fill in the gray areas of the scenario. "It'd explain why they're being so quiet. Because if they're really trying to cover this whole situation, they'd have to know about . . ."

He trails off, but they all know what he's saying. The counselors would have to know about the monsters.

Then: "How are we doing here?"

Bel is by their table so suddenly that the group collectively jumps, spouting out answers such as great and other incomprehensible exclamations. Eggs is quick to get the rat off his head and hide the creature in his pocket, wincing when the rat's paws pull at his hair slightly.

"Yeah? That's good," Bel says, smiling like the eternally happy person she seems to be.

The counselor's about to leave, but then Coraline's face falls, looking at Bel's smile. "Hey, um," Coraline says, stopping her. The blue-haired girl swallows, unsure if she wants the answer. "I was just wondering . . . what colour's your lipstick?"

Bel takes out the lipstick from her back pocket to read the label. "London Telephone Red," she reads, then nudges with an equally bright red-painted finger. "I know some great places to get these, I'll come back to you with them."

Bel walks away to the next table, seemingly unaware of the seven eyes staring at her back as if they just saw a ghost.

Kubo is the first to speak. "Didn't you steal that thing?"

"I did," Coraline answers immediately, blue hair whipping across her cheek. "And I didn't leave it in the bathroom-I swear to god I had that thing before I went to bed."

"Maybe she has more."

There's a pause as they consider this, but the unsettling feeling doesn't deter in any way. They're all exchanging nervous glances. After those few long moments, Coraline stands from her seat, and the boys follow her as she rushes out.

They make it to the cabin quickly, and Coraline yanks off the comforter from her bed and checks all the sides of the bed frame, under the pillow, everywhere.

"Are you sure you didn't drop it in the woods?" Eggs suggests.

Coraline slams the night stand drawer shut. "I'm sure, okay? I know I didn't drop it because I used it to write whore on the bathroom mirror!"

"Of course," Norman mutters.

She marches to the bathroom and opens the door, releasing a flood of candy perfumes into the air. "My roommates saw it this morning, and apparently they freaked the hell out-"

When she slams the mirror of the cabinet door shut, what should be lipstick spelling out whore is actually a darker, dripping substance that spells out:

I SEE YOU

Coraline backs away and slams the door shut.

There's nothing but silence and tension and fear in the room, all four of them frozen like statues. Something about this moment-out of everything that's happened and what they've encountered-seems terrifyingly real.

"Shit."

.

.

.

Luckily, the activities help the kids clear their minds-a temporary distraction consisting of legitimate physical activity is enough. Coraline gets a football to the face, and although she's not sure if it was Alvin who threw it, she still whips the ball against the his thigh.

"Kubo, you got a partner?" a girl-Sienna or something-asks, walking up to him.

Kubo looks confused. "For what?"

"The walk to the cave. They're taking us up there group by group."

The one-eyed boy simply blinks at this new information. Then, he glances behind himself at Norman. "Um," Kubo says, watching the other boy who's trying with fervent effort to tie rope in the correct DNA strands. "Yeah, I do."

Sienna-if that's even her name-follows the boy's gaze. "Um . . . Norman?"

She doesn't say this is a particularly rude tone, but it's not a particular polite tone either. But her voice, for certain, is loud enough for Norman to hear, and he looks up with an oblivious look.

Kubo looks Norman in the eye when he says this, like there were other words beneath the ones he's saying, words only Norman could hear. "Yeah, he's my partner."

Norman quickly looks down at the mess of a DNA strand in his hands. Sienna says something before she walks away to her own friends, but Kubo joins Norman in the grass instead of listening to her.

"To be honest," Norman admits, toying aimlessly with the DNA, as his ambition to be productive has backfired on him, "I don't really feel like hiking up to the cave."

"Norman?" Kubo says, causing blue eyes to look up at him. Kubo's jaw locks, his teeth clenching with determination. "We'll figure something out."

Norman had told him something that he hadn't told the others, and there's weight to something like that. It's a secret and a promise, but he could only promise Norman so much. He looks into Norman's eyes and sees ghosts, but he's hoping those ghosts aren't Norman's, and that they can be separated with effort. That's what he wants to promise Norman: a moment in time when his brain isn't haunted, but clear. A moment when this whole mystery with Bloody Mary and the creature beneath the tree roots and possibly more monsters to come is solved.

The look in Norman's eyes doesn't believe in that promise.

The counselors return to take another group, and everyone rushes to try to be the next ones going. Coraline is trying to get away from Alvin and Eggs is trying to get away from Winnie, so they push to the front, dragging Norman and Kubo and Norman's poorly made DNA strand behind them.

When it's a guarantee that the four of them are going, Coraline immediately cuts into the elation and says: "Kubo, you're with me."

Kubo stops, looking to Norman, then to the blue-haired girl. "I was actually gonna-"

Coraline has a bruise on the bridge of her nose from the football, and it makes her look more troubled than she already seems. "I know, this hurts me, too. But this has to happen or I'm gonna lose my fucking mind. Blame Norman, not me."

Coraline pulls Kubo's sleeve and points to Norman. "You." She juts her head in Eggs's general direction. "Talk."

With that, she drags away a very disgruntled Kubo with her, and the one-eyed boy looks helplessly at Norman until he has to turn back so he could walk straight.

Norman knows that it's about the whole guilt thing he confessed about the other day. He hadn't expected a reaction from that. He hadn't really thought about how they would've taken it.

"Hey, bus partner," Eggs greets to Norman.

Norman smile-frowns, nodding towards his moving pocket. "Still got the rat with you?"

Eggs reveals the rat that is indeed still with him, its nose sniffing curiously at the air. "I named him Remy."

.

.

.

The cave is a narrow pathway of rock, almost claustrophobic. It's uncomfortably silent. The counsellor doesn't attempt at small talk like the other ones due, and the two kids aren't sure whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

Kubo is certainly hesitant in this silent, taking several minutes to decide if he should speak. He hadn't expected to be spending this uncomfortable silence with Coraline.

". . . Are you worried about him?" Kubo finally asks.

Coraline is holding up her own flashlight, and she's extremely set on the path in front of her. "Who?"

"Norman."

Her mind rewinds back to the conversation she had with Norman outside the boy's washroom, and how he thought Kubo pitied him. "Why would I worry about him?"

The question causes a spark of thoughts in Kubo's mind that he can't quite decipher on the spot, so he says the first thing he's certain of. "I'm worried about him," Kubo admits.

"I know," Coraline says, something soft in her voice. "You really don't have to be, Kubo."

It's not the response he expected, and he can feel his defensive side gearing up. "He's bullied."

"We're all bullied," Coraline retorts.

Kubo goes ahead to face her, walking backwards. "He's their main target. He's the one they're always after. Even with the whole situation with Eggs-he could be right about them only going after Eggs because of the whole bio partner thing."

Coraline really doesn't like talking about this, and her eyebrows knit together like she's stressed. "So what?"

Kubo stops walking, but Coraline doesn't, so the incredulous look in his eyes meets her peripherals. "You don't find any of that worrying?"

"He doesn't like being worried about, Kubo!"

"I'm not saying he isn't, I'm just saying, like-" Kubo sighs in frustration. "What am I suppose to do then?"

"What you're 'suppose' to do is just let him be!"

"I'm not gonna let him be!"

"Why not?"

"Because-"

The counsellor reminds them to keep walking. The two kids would be more uncomfortable arguing in front of the counsellor if the adult didn't give off such an indifferent vibe to begin with.

After a long, weighty silence of more walking, Coraline says, "Look, if you tell me what really happened yesterday, maybe I'll have a reason to worry."

Kubo almost stops walking again. Yesterday's events evade his thoughts like a spider crawling over his brain, making his skin clammy. He sees Norman on the floor, thrashing violently, and Kubo could only watch as his friend's mind is manipulated in ways Kubo barely understands. All he knows is that whatever's out to get the four of them is haunting Norman the worst, and Kubo can't do anything about it but keep his secret . . .

If that's the one thing he can do, there's no way he's letting himself slip up.

So, Kubo squeezes his hands into fists and says, "I can't."

Coraline is quiet for a moment. "Then there's nothing to worry about."

They continue walking, this time with a bit of distance between the two as Kubo's thoughts weigh him back into contemplation. He's not really one to put a lot of thought into his actions, but in circumstances like this, it's all he could ever do. He loses himself to his thoughts, asking himself every question he could and praying to forces above that he'll get the answers he wants.

Coraline decides to break the silence when Kubo's dwelling becomes too noticeable to ignore. "Look, partnering him up with Eggs is the most worrying you'll see me do. If the whole bio partner thing is still a problem, they'll talk it out."

Kubo furrows his brows and catches up to her. "So, you are worried about him?" he wonders.

"I'm not worried about him 'cause he's gonna be just fine," Coraline snaps, cutting him with a rather sharp lingering look. When she finally looks away, her voice is significantly softer. "He'll be fine, Kubo."

.

.

.

"How's Winnie and her friends?" Norman asks.

Eggs's eyes trace back to his shoes, and he kicks a rock in his path. "They're . . . her friends." There's a pause before he continues, "She thought that by hanging out with her, Alvin would leave me alone." He says this with a bit of a tired laugh, as if the whole situation is just a collection of memories for now.

Norman mouth presses into a thin line. "She's right, you know?" He feels like his words don't fit; like they're too big for his throat. The rock tumbles into Norman's path, and he sends it further down its journey through the cave with a scruffy tap from his converse, careful not to hit the counselor ahead of them. "It's my fault that Alvin bullied you-is bullying you. And maybe Winnie is onto something-"

"They were playing spin the bottle, I'm not going back there," Eggs says suddenly. "Winnie's got her friends and I got mine. That's just how it is."

"What about Alvin?"

"What about Alvin?" Eggs asks back. "Alvin's Alvin. And, well-I think people are always gonna have something to say. All they want is a reaction, and I've learned not to give people like him that kind of satisfaction. Nothing Alvin does matters anyways."

Norman really sees the maturity Eggs possesses in that moment. He's never met anyone with this kind of maturity at their age. But that kind of maturity can only come from experience, and that makes Norman all the more guilty, even if he knows how unreasonable his guilt is in this case.

"I just think . . . I dunno, you'd be haunted by less monsters and potentially evil counsellors by hanging out with Winnie."

". . . Maybe." Eggs kicks the rock. "But I already had my chance to be friends with Winnie. I'm not messing up my chance with you guys."

.

.

.

The cave shadows them in an arching dome, crystal peaking through the rock. It's a starry night sky without the sky or the stars.

The darkness breaks, and there's a sound of rushing water overtaking the cave. Kubo laughs with excitement and rushes towards the light. The cave ends, and outside, the cliff side stretches around in a semi circle, a waterfall to the side, and a river not too far below.

"Watch the edge," the counselor warns, but that statement goes relatively unheard.

Kubo is too mesmerized to be cautious; too taken to fear for his own safety. The trees stretch out for miles-nothing but green and mist. It's like the forest itself is beneath him; like he's looking at the world from the sky. "Guys, check this out!"

"He means you," Coraline says, giving Norman's back a push-like pat.

Now aware of the whole Norman-And-Kubo thing, Eggs can't help but smile knowingly. But when he looks to the boy, his face falls. "What's wrong?"

Coraline frowns at Eggs's tone, but before she can look at Norman's face herself, he runs forward before she can see him.

Norman's running, then he clutches at Kubo's shoulder and swings himself around so he's between the one-eyed boy and the cliff's edge.

Kubo seems a bit startled at the sudden action. "Norman?"

Norman is looking at him like he's trying to tell him something, but he says nothing. He almost looks scared, and when Kubo tries to take a step towards him, Norman stops him with a hand to his chest.

Then, Norman utters a single word that adds volumes to the look in his eyes. "Go."

Nobody has time to even process what that could mean before Norman heels hover the edge, he's carried off the cliff, and he's falling.

Kubo shouts out his name, reaches for him but grabs nothing of him. Norman disappears over from the cliff and into the water. The other two kids rush over to where Kubo is standing, and in panic Kubo turns to the counselor in absolute distress, because Norman just-he just fell-he's gone-and-

The counselor has a gun.

The counselled shoots.

Slow motion begins when Kubo is shot: Coraline sees a spray of blood, the armed counselor, and Kubo is gone from the cliff and down into the water. The counselor adjusts his aim, and Coraline doesn't think when she reaches for Eggs and yanks him away until the second shot goes off and both of them fall from the cliff's edge . . .

The counselor walks over to see the river rushing beneath him and nothing else.

Chapter Text

The counsellor speaks a single line into the walkie talkie he'd kept on his hip: "It's done."

It's not clear as to what the counsellor is referring to, nor is it clear as to who he's talking to in such a cryptic manner. What is clear, however, is the fact that he's wrong, because if the plan had been to have these four unfortunate middle school students fall into the river, the two holding onto a branch looping from the cliff's edge would constitute the plan as a failure.

Coraline struggles to keep quiet, maintain her grip on the branch she'd caught with one hand, and support Eggs's weight with the other.

The counsellor walks away from the edge, unknowing of these two children--unknowing of their struggle to make it off the cliff and onto grass.

The counsellor's name is Mr. Pickles.

It's such a ridiculous name that Coraline wants to laugh, but she can't. She can only breathe harshly into her hands and stretch her imagination beyond its confines to see if having such a ridiculous name would grant him any ounce of her empathy.

She can barely imagine empathy as a concept by itself at this point.

Meanwhile, Eggs fears that his brain is being uncontrollably overwhelmed with information, which has never exactly been a problem for him. "They should still be out there, right? They can't be too far away." Him and Coraline are on a level sloping beneath the high point of the cliff, and from here, Eggs looks to the river. He suddenly feels the pull of the water, feeling the dread sink into his gut at the thought of that very water having claimed two of his friends only moments ago.

Coraline doesn't answer him anyways. She only pulls her compass out from beneath her shirt and silently steers them in a direction. They have to make their way down the steepness of the hill before they can truly be at the water's edge, and by then, Eggs is still waiting for an answer.

"Ar . . . Are we not gonna talk about--?"

"No, we're not," Coraline snaps, though the usual edge in her voice is dull. "They're out there. And they're fine."

Eggs feels a sliver of relief knowing Coraline feels much like herself to be snappy. Trauma hadn't hollowed them out--though it might still have its chance to. He doesn't want to be in this situation any longer to watch that happen.

(Besides, he's always been the hopeful one.)

.

"Hey," Eggs says, elbowing her gently.

There's a body just a bit further up near the river's edge, facing up, as if someone had laid him there. His heels just brush the water's edge.

Coraline is frozen in her steps, but Eggs doesn't wait. He rushes past her, quickly making to drag the body further away from the water. The scene replays itself all too vividly in Coraline's head, and she splays a hand across her lips when the sickening feeling rides much too high up her throat.

"He's still breathing."

Coraline gawks at this revelation, her eyes practically popping out of the sockets. "He survived a gun?!"

Eggs inspects the wound. "Rubber bullets," he concludes.

Coraline walks forward to see. There's a gash in Kubo's temple.

She looks up to Eggs. His eyebrows are knitted together in focus--a hard expression resembling a doctor trying to diagnose a patient. It makes the boy appear sober, almost stoic, which seems ridiculously inhumane set beside Coraline's borderline panic.

Eggs must not have seen what she thought she saw.

She grips her jacket sleeves, knowing her hands must be shaking. Eggs keeps looking, but Coraline soon grows frustrated because she isn't sure what he's looking for, or what he has to look for. There's a bloody hole in the side of his head--and not dead-center, contrary to what she thought. That thought makes her even more anxious than she already is. After a moment, Coraline inquires, "Rubber bullets?"

"They're usually used for crowd control and things like that," Eggs explains. "Non-lethal, and they aren't suppose to penetrate."

"This one did," she points out quietly. Even if the supposedly non-lethal bullet had left nothing but an ugly bruise instead of this bloody mess, a gun was still pointed at her friend.

"Sometimes they do . . . but I guess, rubber bullets mean he wasn't trying to kill us?" Eggs offers, crossing his arms, his shoulders hitching up to his ears.

"How thoughtful," Coraline mutters bitterly. "You know CPR?" She's not completely sure if that would even help, but Kubo had been in the water, so it makes some sort of sense.

"I missed that class," Eggs says. "Do you?"

Coraline pauses. She did not miss that class.

This is the moment many do not anticipate for, because it is not a pleasant moment. It's the moment Coraline realizes she is indefinitely in some really deep shit. She looks down at Kubo, and his eyes are racing beneath his eyelids, and one could only imagine what could be going on inside his head to make him oblivious to Coraline's misfortune.

Well, it's not very pleasant either . . .

.

Kubo is dreaming.

(A group of children run in circles, tagging one another as the day stretches endlessly. They don't know north from south, west from east. They just know trees and sky and laughter. Who's watching over them? Most likely their greatest threat.

A woman finds them and stops their fun, asserting her authority. She's met them once, but that was yesterday, when she offered them chocolate and candy.

The children grow sad. Their fun is ending. They could play tomorrow, but tomorrow seems so far away. Why must their fun end now? Why now?

The woman smiles, eyes full of affection before her body tears in half, ripping away until her bones are askew, her two legs replaced by eight, her eyes falling from her head until she resembles a crooked doll.

The children run away.

One of them trips on a fallen branch and falls into the mud. The monster shadows them, heart pounding in a shattered ribcage. The child looks up at her in fright because he's never been this close to death before. The child wants to be brave; wants to conquer this monster and tell tales of the epic battle. But he's just a child and he's scared and he's much too young to die.

"You have to go," says a voice, as the monster grows blurry, morphing into a boy he met not too long ago. "You have to get out of here."

But if the child knows one thing for certain, it's that he's not going anywhere. Not without his friend.

And neither are the other children: they're just running in circles, around and around. Because the monster will always catch them.)

.

Kubo awakens in a fit of coughs, his small frame rattled. He rolls onto his side, curling in on himself. He feels the cold grass and mud against his skin. His clothing is thoroughly soaked, and there's a funny taste in his mouth. There's also a rather blunt pain in his chest, as if someone had just punched him.

"You could've killed him again . . ." Eggs mumbles from beside him. "Is that what I missed in the CPR class?"

Coraline rolls her eyes even though she knows Eggs is being sarcastic for the most part. She feels a bit guilty for slamming her fist into Kubo's chest--but the fact that it worked shrinks her guilt significantly.

Eggs helps Kubo sit up, rubbing his back in comfort. "Easy, buddy."

"Shit." Coraline hesitates at the sight of Kubo's injury. Then, she takes off her hat and flattens it against the bloody mess.

Kubo hisses through his teeth.

"Sorry, it's--" She shakes her head because something about this is fucking stupid--it's not like they have bandages or anything--then she snatches Kubo's wrist and places his hand over her hat, so he's the one holding it there. "Okay. Okay." It'll clog the bleeding. Everything's fine. Okay.

As his coughing calms, the situation at hand slowly pieces itself back together in Kubo's head. It takes him a moment for his brain to regain traction and the tension to build up back up in his chest. "Wait . . . the counsellor . . . did you guys--"

"We're fine," Coraline says, her voice precariously contained. It sounds unnatural to be so calm under these circumstances, but Kubo figures panicking won't do them any good.

Eggs scratches sheepishly at his cheek. "We got a little hung up."

At that, Coraline glares at him, bugeyed at the wordplay. The kid has a knack for horrible jokes.

Luckily, Kubo doesn't regard it any further, and instead asks, "Where's Norman?"

Coraline gives him a look. "Good question, considering he should've washed up somewhere by you, but he's literally no where in sight."

"I mean--" Eggs looks away, brows furrowed in thought. Then, he seems to change his mind mid sentence. "He can't be too far away."

"Then let's go." Kubo is up on his feet, his clothes still heavy in water, but that doesn't slow him from rushing away.

Coraline hadn't expected that kind of immediate action, especially after someone just shot him and he almost drowned and he almost died. She's suspicious before she's concerned, and it's a shame to think she's still wary of this kid. He really hadn't done much to cause her slight mistrust for him--she's just developed this weird protection over Norman.

And yet, Kubo is just Norman's other half in a lot of ways. And she kind of has to wonder if it's her place to even be concerned at all, because her considering Kubo as a friend could just be due to Norman.

But that's really all irrelevant. They're all in danger.

"Hold on," Coraline calls, standing up to rush after him. Kubo's wringing some of the water out of his jacket, and he looks back at her in confusion. She suggests, "How about you guys keep following the river, and I'll go get some help."

Kubo shakes his head, his hair sticking to his cheeks. "I don't think we should be separated."

"What other choice do we have?" Coraline is pretty set on her plan, and she knows Kubo is going to argue with her, so she gets her word out quickly: "Look, whatever the hell we're doing out here on our own is not gonna get us to safety. We're kids. We should get into contact with an adult that doesn't want to shoot any of us in head. And they'll find Norman much faster than we ever could."

"But it's not only the counsellors that are out there," Kubo points out.

Admittedly, she hesitates at the implication and reminder of the monsters in these woods. She and the boys don't have much of a clue as to what those things are and why they're out here, and Kubo suddenly bringing that up is questionable to say the least.

Now, she's bitter, and she doesn't care if her only comeback to that is, "So, what's your plan?"

"We find Norman and we all go get help together."

"Norman should've washed up by you. He's literally nowhere in sight. We don't know how far down the river is, and I genuinely think we have a better chance of finding him if we have an adult with us."

"Last time we were separated, you got attacked--"

"And why exactly were we separated again?"

Her underlying accusation pins Kubo to his spot, seemingly drawing the air out of him--which is a horrible metaphor in this case, but it's accurate. He sort of pales in the evening light, because there's so many reasons for Kubo to worry about Norman right now, and Coraline has singlehandedly unearthed many more reasons to raise his panic.

Kubo considers breaking the promise he has with Norman and actually tell them what he knows. Their lives are in danger. They all have narrowly dodged death. But then, Kubo decides to wait until he knows Norman is okay--is standing before them, uninjured and safe--to suggest the idea of telling Coraline and Eggs what's really going on. It's ridiculously hopeful, but it's the only thing offering him any kind of comfort right now.

Until then, his lips are sealed.

"Eggs?" As a last resort, Kubo chooses to rely on Eggs's critical thinking to resolve this mess of an argument that's clearly going in too many directions. "I trust your judgement."

"Gee, thanks," Coraline mutters. "He hasn't even been listening this entire time."

It's true. Eggs has his mouth gaping open like a lost fish--his attention seems to have been on the river itself. It seems out of character for him to just stare into space, but it's really not his fault. They are victims of trauma at this point.

"Sorry, I'm just . . ." Eggs trails off, pulling anxiously at his ear, clearly unwilling to share what's on his mind.

They're all in their own worlds right now, Kubo realizes. They all have different priorities. They may have somehow indescribably banded together under the false pretense that they were stronger--or just less vulnerable to social backlash--together. But they really and truly couldn't be more different.

It's discouraging to Kubo. They could've been some kind of dream team. The underdogs fighting the system. But they weren't any of that. They were just kids.

Kubo sort of walks past Eggs and towards the river, unsure of what he's planning to do with his soaked clothes, or how he's going to cope with the chilly temperature, but he's certain that he wants the space to reflect.

Eggs is guilty in that moment, but Coraline doesn't give him the time to really say anything to Kubo. She gestures him over, glancing heedfully at Kubo before making sure that they're just a bit out of his earshot.

Seeing how Kubo isn't even in the mood to argue anymore, she tells her plan with finality. "I'm going back to get help. You guys follow the river and try to find Norman if you can."

"What . . . What help are you gonna get?" Eggs asks, attempting to get back on track with his thoughts. They don't have all the time in the world for all this introspection. "The only adults that are close by are the camp counsellors and we can't trust any of them."

"What about the teachers?"

"They're even more unlikely to listen to us." He says this out of obvious experience--he hadn't realized how quiet the whole Alvin thing seemed to be outside of the student body. Maybe half of that is his own fault, but he's sure that potato incident would've drawn the attention of any teacher walking by.

"Then it's gotta be a student," Coraline concludes.

"Winnie." It's almost reactionary to think of her. "She'll get her dad on the case, which will probably be all the help we need."

Sounds promising. Coraline nods. "Okay."

Then, "If Winnie is getting involved, I should be the one to tell her everything," Eggs says as his offer to go back to the camp instead of Coraline.

As much as that sounds good for Eggs and Winnie, Coraline hesitates. She feels like she's just breaking up all the couples around her, which is the exact opposite of her intentions in the first place. She takes another glance at Kubo and knows she can't get around this either. "To be honest, Eggs, Kubo needs someone right now. And I think he'd find more comfort in your presence than mine."

One day, she'll make the effort to ease the tension between her and Kubo. But for now, Eggs is the symbol of hope in their group, and Coraline feels the need to utilize that hope so none of them are stuck in a depressing rut. Eggs and Kubo obviously have a healthy friendship going, and that's all that really matters.

Considering them all, maybe they just don't fit together as a group and they're only realizing this now.

Maybe the absence of Norman has a greater impact on them then they could ever perceive.

"Keep following the river," Coraline says. "I'll be back."

When she's completely out of sight, Eggs goes up to Kubo--who has his jacket hung up on a low branch and has wrung out his sweater as much as he could--and offers his coat so the smaller boy doesn't freeze.

"I've got two sweaters on," Eggs says when Kubo mildly protests. "I'm more than fine."

They're both exhausted enough to let the situation be, with Kubo huddled in Eggs's coat and Eggs watching the sky gradually grow dark in the surprising warmth of two sweaters. They don't attempt to specify any further on the plan--how this plan will come to fruition, what exactly that means for them, and so on.

As they head down the river, Kubo knows something they don't. And he hopes with a passion that his dream didn't mean anything, because that would be terrible for them.