Disclaimer: I don't own Coraline. I don't own the movie rights, the characters, the person of Neil Gaiman, or anything to do with it at all, really. I also don't own the numerous other works that I'll blatantly rip off … that is, pay respectful homage to in this story. Heck, I barely own this disclaimer.

I'll accept any constructive criticism offered, and I'll do my best to respond to any reviews offered. That said, read on, and I hope you like it.

"Go on, smile."

"Dad, I don't do smiles for the camera."

"Well, just try to look sort of photogenic."

"The uniform kind of puts an upper limit on that. And it's a pretty low upper limit."

"Come on, fusspot, it's a bright new day. The sun's shining, birds are singing, and you'll start a whole new term at your new school. What's not to smile about?"

Coraline stared, completely deadpan. Then she said "I can never tell whether you're being serious or not, Dad."

It was a brisk, grey morning over the Pink Palace. The sun slumbered behind behind a pall of silver clouds, and wasn't shining by any measure. There weren't any bird calls within hearing distance. The repeated exhortations of "Dras, dva, tri, chetyri!" from Mr Bobinsky on the roof, coupled with vigorous callisthenics movements, did a good job of scaring away all birds within a half-mile radius. And the least said about Coraline's expectations of her school, the better.

She stood on the porch, holding her bag over one shoulder. She wore her school uniform, consisting of a dark grey blazer over a lighter grey shirt and dark skirt, with little enthusiasm. She had done her best to add a bit of colour in her orange-green gloves and black peaked hat, to little avail. In front of her, her dad eagerly brandished a camera. It was a tradition in the family to take a photo of her at the beginning of each new school year. This photo would join a chain which began with a smiling toddler ready for her first day at Frost Preschool and continued all the way through elementary school and the beginning of junior high.

"I have never been so serious about anything before," said Charlie Jones, hand on heart. "My serious about this can't be disputed. My seriousness has actually earned me several world records. So intense is my seriousness, that it actually sucks fun and spontaneity out of the vicinity. I'm like a walking black hole of seriousness. Stephen Hawking's written papers about my seriousness - "

That earned a quick smile and laugh from Coraline – and, quick as a flash, Charlie took the photo, catching the moment.

"Wha-? Oh, come on, Dad. That was sneaky."

"I'm an adult. We're allowed to be sneaky and unscrupulous by law." He put the camera away, and looked up at the brimming grey sky. "That definitely looks like rain. Are you sure you don't want to take the school bus?"

"Positive. Wybie's promised me a lift. He says he knows all the shortcuts into the town."

"Right," said Charlie, trying to keep the trepidation out of his voice. He had seen the Lovat boy and the motorcycle he drove at breakneck speeds around the surrounding countryside, with 'breakneck' being the salient term.

"He's offered to give me a lift back as well, so you guys won't have to pick me up."

"Okay. I'll be out in Portland for some deathly-dull meeting, but your mom should be here when you get back. She'll let you in, and you can -"

He was abruptly cut off by the sound of a air horn behind him, and Wybie came speeding and swerving up the road, enthusiastically hammering on the air horn as if the first time hadn't been enough to catch Coraline and Charlie's attention. The girl grinned and started forward, and threw herself onto the back of the puttering motorcycle.

"Hey, Mr Jones!" called Wybie, waving at Charlie. He had foregone his skull-mask and gloves but kept his fireman's coat, which fluttered out behind him. "You holding on tight, Jonesy?"

"I'm ready. Ah … doesn't this thing come with helmets?"

"Helmets?" Wybie seemed puzzled by the question. "Why would we ever need them?"

"In case we crash while you're driving?"

Wybie just looked confused. "I … don't think I understand the question. But anyway, no time for talking! See you later, Mr Jones!" He gunned the engine before Charlie could so much as loose a strangled yell, and blurred down the winding dirt road, Coraline holding on and whooping at his back.

Charlie could practically feel his hair greying and his blood pressure shooting up as he watched them flash off at a speed that left common sense rolling in the dust. Next time, he thought, she takes the bus.

He didn't judge the boy too harshly, though. Coraline seemed to trust him. It was good that she had made a friend here, Charlie supposed. He was also glad he was able to make her laugh again after the painful last month, where moving home and work had conspired to make them pay less attention to Coraline. But that rocky period had passed as soon as they had finished the catalogue – in fact, Coraline had greeted them warmly the very day it had been finished. It had been peculiar, but happy, and Charlie had accepted it gratefully.

Of late, however, he could swear that his daughter seemed almost haunted by something. She had seemed slightly more withdrawn that she had been before they moved – and she always seemed to be a little ill-at-ease in the living room.

It was curious, and Charlie knew that he probably wouldn't be able to explain it. He put it from mind, and went inside to put the camera away.

If Charlie fretted over his daughter's safety on the motorcycle, then he would have to do it for two people. Coraline was elated. She had never felt closer to flying.

"I have to get one of these," she shouted into Wybie's ear over the rattle from the engine. "Where did you get this?"

"Built it myself," he said with barely-concealed pride. "Borrowed old engine parts and wiring from my uncle, read a few books on basic mechanics, read a couple on more advanced mechanics, and knocked it into shape with duct tape. Lots of duct tape. I think I did quite a good job, really. It hardly ever explodes now."

Coraline was only half-listening however, with most of her attention on the sights around her. The speed of the motorcycle turned the landscape to a blur of greens and browns, and the long grass flanking the dirt road slapped at the bike's sides. Skeletal trees rustled reluctantly in a hard breeze, and beyond them, Coraline saw the rising buildings on the outskirts of Ashland.

"So what's the school like, anyway?" she asked Wybie, holding onto him with one hand while she held onto her hat with the other. "Usual mixture of jerks, jocks, geeks, the whole thing?"

"Derleth Middle School? Oh yeah, it's suitably stereotypical in that regard." Wybie gunned the motor, eliciting an extra burst of speed and an alarming gurgle from the motorcycle. "Hey, I'm sure you'll fit right in. New kids come all the time. Most of them leave shortly after arriving, admittedly, but that's not the point."

"Right. Out of curiosity, where do you fit on the school spectrum?"

"Oh, I exist beyond it. Nobody messes with the Wybster," he said cheerfully, which Coraline mentally subtitled Ultra-geek. So geeky, other geeks beat him up for lunch money.

But what the heck, she'd mostly been an outsider at her old school anyway. If she had to join Wybie on the periphery, then so be it. Besides, what could happen that would give her more hassle than the Beldam? What did she have to worry about?

Dealing with normal life after what had happened to her with the Beldam would practically be a relief.

Dirt roads faded to slate-grey concrete, and buildings began to spring up around them as they entered Ashland proper. The school was on the town's edges, so they only had a short way to go through the streets before they reached the building. It was a single old brick complex, surrounded and enclosed by a high metal fence, within which groups of other grey-clad students milled and chattered. All of them wore the hideously dull uniform, Coraline noted. Wybie was the only one there who wore anything besides the grey blazer on the outside. His firefighter's coat marked him out as much as Coraline's blue hair. They got a few distant, dispassionate glances from other students, before being dismissed from mind. Coraline waited while Wybie stored the motorcycle in the school's bike sheds.

"What homeroom do you have?" he asked.

"It's the one in … room seven," she said, consulting the timetable her mom had picked up for her the day before yesterday. "Which one's yours?"

"Room six. But I'll catch you at interval, okay?"

"Sure thing," she said, just as the bells in the building trilled, and the mass of students began trudging in.

Coraline ended up being one of the last to reach her homeroom. The twenty or so other students already there looked up briefly as she entered, stared at her hair, and then turned back to their own conversations. Coraline settled herself at her own table.

The teacher at the room's front, who was so round and small as to resemble Miss Spink minus twenty years, cheerfully ran them through the Pledge of Allegiance, made a few dull announcements, and concluded by rounding upon Coraline.

"We've got a new student with us for the new term, come fresh off the boat from Michigan," she trilled. "Introduce yourself to the others, dear."

Coraline inwardly thought a rude word, resenting being broken out of her isolation, and turned to the others, who were watching with only token interest.

"I'm Coraline Jones, from Pontiac," she began. "And just to clear up any preconceptions you might have held about Michigan; no, we're not all car mechanics, fishing isn't our state sport, and I won't be violent at the drop of a hat. Two hats, at the least."

One boy chuckled, to be polite. There was a kind of collective shrug from the others.

"Well, Caroline..." the teacher said brightly.

The day inevitably went downhill from there.

Sixteen hundred miles away, a girl ran. Her feet hit the floor in a percussive beat, and her breath came out in ragged gasps as she fled up the endless tunnel.

She was alone, here under the city. The tunnel stretched to darkness ahead and behind her, the glamour over it peeling away even as she ran. The red brick of the walls darkened and slicked over with mould and moss and scraps of faded paper, the floor under her feet shifted and grew metal rails and wooden ties. She fought to keep her footing on these, a stumble here could twist her ankle and make escape impossible.

She ran on, praying that she could outrun what lurked behind her. She knew she had little time. She knew she would be followed.

In her own echoes, she could already hear the slow, easy steps of her hunters.