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The Stranger

Chapter 2


© FlameEmber

Chapter: 1 2


The Doctor's watch on her, and his corresponding security measures, had tightened considerably since her latest (and first) escape. Suddenly her door was barred, the window kept locked, and hardly a moment went by where he did not keep her within arm's length away.

Sally had soon discovered that her sole opportunity lay in the dead of night, when Doctor Finklestein lay in a sort of sleep that could rival the very corpses in the graveyard, slumbering beneath the earth.

Once she'd finally worked up the courage to pick the lock on her window and escape this particular night, it was two o' clock in the morning (not particularly late, by Halloween Town standards).

The house she now found herself awkwardly perched in front of was tall, crooked, and gangly, much like its owner, although it wasn't as if Sally knew of his exact identity yet. Ivy grew - and it was almost the only thing which grew untamed in this town - up the stone walls of the house, sneaking into crevices and warping itself around walls.

The Pumpkin King's residence.

She wondered who this Pumpkin King could be. Was he a fair and just leader? And more importantly, was he anything like Jack?

No, she hadn't forgotten about the Stranger Jack; in fact, scarcely a day had gone by that she did not think about the skeleton man in some way. She'd even spotted him a couple times, from the confines of her room - she'd nearly called out to him on each occasion, but the cry of hello always seemed to stick in her fabric throat as her cloth heart throbbed.

Was the Pumpkin King, perhaps, an anthropomorphic pumpkin? He must be, to have earned such a title. An image of a large orange pumpkin adorned with a regal, kingly crown popped into her mind, and she couldn't help but let out a soft giggle.

But still, however often her thoughts seemed to drift to that ever-elegant, strikingly regal skeleton man, the question remained: what was this Pumpkin King like? What made him stick out enough from the other inhabitants of the town to be crowned King? Wouldn't someone like Jack be better suited for such a position?

No, Sally reminded herself. That wasn't fair, not in the slightest; she hadn't even met the Pumpkin King yet, and yet here she was, making an uninformed opinion on his character without even the slightest shred of evidence to further it. What a terrible citizen she must be!

Shaking the thoughts from the bundle of leaves which must have operated as her brain, she turned her attentions back to the house in question with a heavy sigh, which couldn't help but be touched with a tinge of nervousness.

Casting a final glance upwards at the lopsided tower which clung for dear life at a decidedly unnatural angle (although, really, not many things could be classified as "natural" in a land of walking skeletons and animated ragdolls), she ascended up the great stretch of stairs to linger at the King's front door.

The door was certainly antiquated, with sharply peeling paint and a toweringly tall gothic stature that seemed to suit the entirety of the house it found itself a part of, or at what she could see of it. An odd contraption, resembling an eyeball, was placed beside the door, and appeared to be staring at her. Sally surmised it must be some sort of doorbell; there was even a small spider on a cord, which presumably would ring the bell if pulled.

There were still no pumpkins in sight.

Come to think of it, how on earth was a King of Pumpkins, or any sort of pumpkin for that matter, supposed to fit through that immensely tall, slender opening the King so obviously called a door? Only a very small pumpkin (or a very spindly king) would be able to pass through the door, or so she supposed. Would even she be able to enter?

How ridiculous! Frown quirking the arch of bright red stitched lips into a pout, Sally very nearly toppled off the narrow porch in her embarrassment. Who was she to presume she would even be allowed entry into the esteemed Pumpkin King's residence? How absolutely, utterly inane!

...Still, she was here for a purpose, and that was to at last meet the King of Halloween Town, and perhaps even be recognized formally as a citizen. Besides, apart from the civic nature of her visit, she couldn't help but be curious about him.

Taking a deep breath (while, simultaneously, questioning if she even truly needed to breathe), she straightened her patchwork dress with a cloth hand as she tugged on the spider cord (which screeched loudly as it withdrew) before she had any sort of a chance to change her mind, and awaited whatever might come next.

Her brief contemplative silence was interrupted by a flicker of movement from inside and the soft thumping of someone hurrying down stairs, not to mention the final soft creaking of a door slowly opening.

Sally opened her eyes, which she hadn't been aware of closing, and straightened her body into the sort of formal pose that was extremely uncomfortable but that was also the only suitable pose to be seen in by a king.

There he was.

"Mayor please, not at this time of the night..."

...Jack?

Spindly fingers wrapped around the door, he gave pause, blinking back sleep and cocking his head to the side slightly; a bemused look crossed his face before it swiftly changed to one of recognition.

There was a deep yawn, a fluttering blink of eyelids in front of empty sockets.

"... Sally? I apologize, I went to bed early this evening... but what are you doing here? It's late, surely you should be sleeping or doing whatever else you occupy your nights with?"

...Jack?

What was Jack doing here? Perhaps he was a servant to the Pumpkin King - yes, that must be it (after all, kings had to have servants, surely?).

But, more importantly than that - why, oh why hadn't she realized to give a thought to the time? Despite the active nightlife of the town as a whole, it was late - far too late - and surely the King would be angry with her for waking him! Banish her, even.

Before she could do anything more than open and close her mouth in an impressive impersonation of a fish gasping for air, the skeleton before her cut her off, as he was apparently wont to do.

"No matter; please, come in! You'll have to give me a moment to get changed, however."

She only then took a glance towards his attire; still rubbing sleep from his eye sockets, he was clad in only a taupe pair of pajamas, complete with a long nightcap, the tassel of which was nearly dragging on the ground. He looked... well, the only word Sally could find for his appearance was cute. The throbbing in her chest made itself known once more, quite painfully. Clenching a fist over her fabricated heart, she nodded, vaguely attempting to squelch down the sensations but ultimately failing.

He ushered her inside quickly before he was gone, presumably to change, but that was all she needed.

The door was wider than it appeared at first glance, and she found that she was able to gain entry to the house quite easily; she supposed then that the odd visual illusion of the door being too small was most likely only there to keep certain people (like the mayor) out.

Standing awkwardly in the entrance hall, Sally then found that she wasn't quite sure where to go from there, though, and so settled for simply perching herself daintily on the sofa. The library (or living room, or whatever it was) was nothing short of enthralling to her; her cloth fingers longed for nothing more than to reach out and linger upon all of the books lining the crooked shelves - she yearned to read, to learn.

It would have been extremely rude, however, to go through the Pumpkin King's private collection of books, and so she only sat carefully with her hands clasped tightly in her lap, as if afraid she would break something with her mere presence or with the slightest of actions.

It wasn't long before Jack returned. She thanked every deity she could name (and many she couldn't ) that she was not alone for long, as her nervous state seemed to escalate with every solitary moment in this massive, silent, macabre house.

As it happened, though, she didn't need to worry about that. Within a matter of minutes, her charming skeleton (since when had she started thinking of him as hers? They barely knew each other!) had raced down the stairs, glowing bundle of sheets lightly barking at his heels, lantern nose illuminated with excitement.

The Pumpkin King must be a kind and benevolent ruler, if he allowed his servants to keep pets, she thought briefly as she greeted the apparitional canine.

"Hello, Zero. It's nice to see you again."

She straightened then, sweeping her long autumn-colored hair out of her eyes with a hesitant hand as she turned to address Jack.

"I am sorry if I woke you."

A casual flick of a bony hand swatted at her worry as if it were a bothersome insect. "I'm used to being awoken at unusual hours. It's usually the mayor's doing, unfortunately. I suppose it's all part of the job, but I do wish he'd learn to respect one's personal hours."

She'd met the mayor before; he was a small (any impression of tall stature he had was simply an illusion cast by his towering top hat), stout, worried little man who (quite literally) fit the bill of a "two-faced politician." She supposed his heart was in the right place, but even with the limited time she spent outside the tower she called a room, she could tell he could come off as quite overbearing.

"So, what can I do for you, Sally?" Jack exclaimed at last, every trace of his previous sleepiness having vanished with the transition from his pajamas to his usual pinstriped suit, dapper bat bowtie and all. He looked rather dashing - and at this thought she felt the cloth composing her cheeks warm slightly. The heat in her fabric face, coupled with the sharp pangs in her chest, did nothing more than increase her concern over the state of her physical body. She must be ill - oh, how she hoped she would not infect Jack or the Pumpkin King! Some dampness from the outside world must have settled, must have taken root inside her leaves - oh, the Doctor must be right; however much she might yearn to leave the lab, she was simply not ready for the sort of excitements promised by the outside world!

"Sally?"

Jack's voice breaking her out of her reverie, she blinked feverishly, gulping lightly. No; she was fine. She'd just stomp down these feelings - repress them - and surely whatever ailment was affecting her would subside!

"Oh! Sorry... I had hoped to see the Pumpkin King, but I realize it is too late now. I sincerely apologize if I woke either of you; would it be better if I came back tomorrow?"

Jack only stared, blinking feebly before he finally opened his mouth.

"You came... to see me?"

Sally immediately shook her head, flurry of auburn hair cascading over her shoulders with the quick and abrupt movement. She'd intended to meet the King - but no, she didn't want Jack to believe, even for a second, that she was unhappy to see him!

"N-No, the Pumpkin King... But please, Jack, don't think that I didn't want to see you! I only wanted to meet... the ruler of our town... I do hope he won't think badly of me for calling at such a late hour!"

The poor skeleton man remained dumbfounded for a moment, scratching his skull with a bony hand, until the line between the dots was drawn. She couldn't have realized - what reason would she have to know? - that Jack Skellington and the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town were one and the same.

The silence in the room was palpable for the span of a few brief seconds - until Jack laughed, outright laughed, squeezing his eyelids shut in mirth. His lean frame shook slightly as Sally only watched, as confused as she'd ever been in her short life.

What? Why was he laughing? This didn't make any sense, not unless he was -

Oh.

Oh.

Her cheeks turned scarlet as she realized her error - oh no, she could not possibly have made such a grave mistake! She immediately forced her body into an odd bow, clasping her hands within her dress as long locks of hair the color of autumn leaves hung over her reddening face.

"I-I'm sorry, sir!"

The skeleton only shook his head, resting a (hopefully) reassuring hand upon the ragdoll's shoulder.

"No, no, no, it's still Jack. The fact that I'm the Pumpkin King doesn't change anything, you know. And I'm sorry; it's just that that hasn't happened to me for such a long time. Usually everyone fawns over me when I so much as step out into the street! You are a refreshing breath of air, Sally, I must say."

Hearing him confirm it - that he was, indeed, King of Halloween Town - caused her to sink her teeth nervously into her lower lip, but his reassurances did help to soothe her nerves, even if her cheeks inexplicably flared crimson at his last sentence.

"W-Well, you're welcome then, Jack... I'm happy to have helped you." The ragdoll found that she liked helping the skeleton - that little smile lighting up his round skull was worth any trouble she might have gone through, and she couldn't help but match it with one of her own.

"Well, since we're both here, would you like some tea?"

Before she could answer him, though, he'd disappeared with an exclamation of "Make yourself at home, Sally!" into the kitchen, where the telltale sounds of rummaging could be heard followed by a loud clatter and a satisfactory shout; he'd evidently found whatever he was looking for, presumably a teapot.

Soft smile curling the corners of her lips, she couldn't help but find herself drifting towards one of the many book-cluttered tables present in the expansive room. Surely - surely - if Jack was the Pumpkin King, he wouldn't mind if she had a look at some of these?

One in particular caught her eye; it appeared to be a normal book like any other, with a hard cover a shade of blue that bordered on gray, the words "A History of Dancing" emblazoned upon the side in gold lettering. It wasn't particularly long, nor impressive, but she longed to read it.

The first page she turned to sported a rather elegant portrait of a couple quite obviously engaged in some sort of... well, dance. They were evidently human, with fleshy skin and rosy cheeks and frames which suggested the presence of organs that were neither leaves nor withered. The female figure - whose flowing red dress elicited a appreciative gasp from the ragdoll - appeared to be having the time of her life, but the male... now, that was another story. With a sharp grin which could not be erased, his arm was wrapped tightly around the female's waist, the other hand clasped tightly around her fingers. Now that Sally peered closer, she could see that the female's free hand rested on her companion's shoulder.

Unable to keep from smiling at the painting, the living doll was just as helpless to escape the feelings and daydreams which quickly overtook her.

The breathtakingly beautiful female portrayed in her imagination was her - red hair swirling around, fancy dress which was neither old nor patchwork twirling about her feet as she giggled, swept around by a mystery man.

Or perhaps Sally's mystery man wasn't such a mystery after all, for she couldn't help but imagine him with a slender, willowy frame and a skeletal grin upon his round skull.

The ragdoll, still perched upon the arm of the sofa in Jack's living room, gasped, shaking her cloth head furiously. How, how, how could she ever allow herself to think of the Pumpkin King in that way!

What were these feelings anyway? She'd seen something similar to them described - in the farthest recesses of research books and laboratory notes.

Love.

She was falling in love with Jack (she knew it, and probably had known it for some time), and that fact absolutely terrified her.

She was nothing, and he was King.

Sally's heart ached with a sense of finality even as a resounding clatter, which suggested Jack had just dropped the tray of tea, sounded in the kitchen, and she heaved a long sigh as she resolved it would never happen.

It was simply never to be.

Chapter: 1 2

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