Branch looked around at the vast hall, packed with Bergens rhythmically pounding the tables in front of them, although he could hear no sound. A strange feeling of déjà vu lingered in the back of his mind and would not leave. Branch reached up to see if his ears were blocked or plugged and realized he couldn't move. As he struggled in place, the sound returned in a rush as if someone had flipped a switch; overwhelmed, Branch flinched back, only to discover that his feet were stuck in place. No amount of tugging loosened them and Branch could feel panic begin to flood his veins.
The cheering began to crescendo before reaching its peak when the huge, black double doors across the room burst open. Branch could've sworn that those hadn't been there before. He gripped the metal bars (where had they come from?) and watched as a giant Bergen shoved its way through the already wide door frame, pushing a cart in front of it. When the Bergen straightened, it locked its fierce yellow eyes on Branch and grinned, showing rows of sharp, pointed teeth.
Everything went silent. The Bergen said something, but it sounded muted and far away. Branch felt dread creep through his veins, knowing something bad was about to happen but unable to recall exactly what it was. (Because he swore he knew this from somewhere, right? This had happened, he was sure… Wasn't he?)
When the Bergen whipped the lid off of a large, blood-red pot that had appeared on the cart, Branch realized (remembered?) what was happening. The sound came rushing back as the Bergen reached into the basin and pulled out something pink and wiggling amid loud cheers.
"And for you, my king," the Bergen spoke, its voice warped and deep and terrifying. "Princess Poppy!"
Branch tried to scream, tried to reach out as if he could grab Poppy as she came into sharp focus, the look of horror on her face clear. Branch could hear a rushing sound in his ears, filling his head as Gristle took Poppy from Chef- because that's who it was, Branch realized now- and brought her up to his gaping mouth. His teeth were like daggers surrounding a yawning black emptiness and Branch could only watch as Poppy was brought ever closer to the king's maw, screaming and struggling, and suddenly the king let go of her and closed his mouth, biting down, and Branch waited for the crimson color to ooze from between the king's lips and suddenly Branch could move again so he lunged forward and-
Branch jolted awake when he hit the floor. For a moment, he sat there, gasping for breath and feeling beads of sweat run down his face as he tried to get himself under control.
Finally, he got his breathing in check and quietly got to his feet. He sat back on the bed and let his eyes adjust to the darkness before looking around at the nine other Trolls scattered around the room, still fast asleep.
Although it was now two weeks since the aptly-named Trollstice Treaty and many Trolls had at least pods if not proper furniture, Satin and Chenille had been so busy making tents for temporary shelter that they hadn't gotten around to picking out their own pod. Not wanting to let her friends feel alone, Poppy had invited everyone over to her pod for a sleepover. She had even managed to convince Branch to come (on the condition that he was left out of the sleeping arrangements, of course).
Now, sitting on Poppy's bed (which she had given up in favor of creating a 'sleep pile' with the twins, Smidge, and DJ), Branch watched them all peacefully slumbering and assured himself that it was just another stupid nightmare. He really shouldn't have come. He'd been having these nightmares for a week now and had so far kept them secret from Poppy and his friends. He was lucky his not-so-graceful tumble from the bed hadn't woken anyone up.
"Branch? What are you doing?" Cooper had never quite grasped the concept of an inside voice, and the pitch black silence of the night only magnified the sound. Branch winced. Great. You just had to say something.
Poppy murmured sleepily and blinked her eyes open. Fuzzbert, sleeping on Biggie's chest, sat up, which woke Biggie.
"Branch? What's up?" Poppy whispered, trying to untangle herself from the girls. Unfortunately, Smidge was using her hair as a pillow and snapped to attention when Poppy tried to sit up.
"Wha's goin' on?" she slurred. Suki, who had been leaning against her, started and looked around.
"It's nothing," Branch hissed, motioning for them to go back to sleep. Biggie sat up and Fuzzbert rolled off his chest to land on top of Guy Diamond.
"Ah!" Guy Diamond shrieked and shoved at the sudden weight. His yell made the twins, lying on either side of Poppy, stir. Branch covered his face. Perfect.
"Branch, what's wrong?" Poppy asked, finally managing to stand up and looking at Branch with concern.
"Nothing," he insisted. "Go back to sleep. I just had a bad dream, that's all-"
"You had a nightmare?" Cooper asked, his voice obnoxiously loud. Branch resisted the urge to repeatedly slam his head into the wall. Idiot, he admonished himself. Why did you mention the dream?
"No! Well, yes, but I'm fine, it's fine," Branch stammered, feeling heat rise in his cheeks when everyone murmured in concern and Poppy took a step toward him. He stepped back. "It's nothing," he told them. "It happens all the time-"
"What?! You have regular nightmares and you didn't tell me?" Poppy said, looking concerned. Branch hated it when others pitied him, and the expressions on the faces of his friends were just that. Branch could feel his temper rising. Why did it matter to them? It was his business, not theirs!
"Why do I have to tell you?" he snapped, going on the defensive (he still wasn't very good at the whole 'sharing emotions' thing). Branch instantly regretted his words, though, when Poppy's face fell. She looked so hurt that he wanted to apologize instantly, but then he'd have to share his nightmare with them and he wasn't about to do that.
"I thought you trusted me," Poppy responded quietly. Well, ouch.
"What's your problem, Branch?" Satin interjected furiously. "She just wants to help you!" Smidge nodded, looking angry as well. Chenille, however, hesitated, sharing a glance with Guy Diamond. Branch was surprised; the twins usually agreed on everything.
"I do trust you," Branch told Poppy. "But I can handle this by myself." Before they could stop him, he strode over to the door and yanked it open. "I'm going home," he muttered before stepping outside and shutting the door behind him.
Poppy stared at the door in shock. What just happened?
"Don't take it too hard, Popps," Suki said. "He's still getting used to… this," she gestured to the group of friends and shrugged.
"That doesn't give him an excuse to be a jerk," Smidge said gruffly. Cooper shrugged but nodded.
"He's not used to sharing his feelings with others yet," Chenille argued. Satin looked offended, but Chenille kept going. "I think he's afraid to say anything because he doesn't want to seem weak."
"We should give him some alone time, Poppy," Biggie suggested, gently hugging the pink Troll with one arm and clutching Mr. Dinkles closely with his other. "Let him cool off."
"You're right, guys," Poppy said, smiling. Honestly, she wasn't that upset. Hurt, yes, and sad that he still felt wary around them. Surprised? No. He still hadn't even sung in front of the village yet (although he did attend the parties, so Poppy took what she could get).
"Well, we're awake now," Guy Diamond said brightly after a few moments of awkward silence. "Why don't we play a couple of rounds of Truth or Dare?" The mention of their favorite game cheered everyone up and they all agreed. Poppy was nominated to go first.
"Let's see…" she peered around at her friends. "Smidge, Truth or Dare?"
"Dare," Smidge said immediately.
"I dare you to do twenty push-ups in a row," Poppy began.
"Easy," Smidge scoffed, readying her hair.
"Ah, ah, ah!" Poppy said, wagging her finger and smiling playfully. "Twenty push-ups without using your hair." The smile slipped off of Smidge's face; she loved to lift weights, do push-ups, and exercise, but she primarily trained her hair. Twenty push-ups using just her arms would be tougher, but the Snack Pack cheered her on, confident in her abilities.
"Eighteen… Nineteen… Twenty! Ha!" Smidge grunted, standing proudly despite panting for breath. Everyone clapped and Smidge took a bow.
"My turn!" she declared. "Satin, Truth or Dare?"
"Um," Satin hesitated before glancing at her twin. Chenille mouthed 'Dare.' "Okay. Dare, then." Smidge grinned evilly and Satin gulped. Chenille looked apologetic.
"I dare you to separate from Chenille for three whole turns," Smidge said. Satin and Chenille both gasped.
"Smidge," Poppy said warningly. The twins were able to disconnect, of course, but they chose not to. They were so close, so inseparable, that many Trolls didn't even know they could separate. They went through everything together; sickness, heartbreak, sewing, matchmaking. They even stayed attached while sleeping. Poppy had only seen them apart a few times, one of those times being when they helped form Bridget's rainbow wig. Suggesting they split up was highly frowned upon among the Trolls who were aware of the possibility.
Satin and Chenille whispered furiously to each other while Smidge waited impatiently.
"You don't have to do it," Poppy began, addressing both twins.
"Yes they do," Smidge argued. "If they don't, we get to think of a punishment for them. That's how the game works!"
"Alright, we'll do it," Satin broke in. Poppy shrugged. It was their choice. The twins both took deep breaths before their hair began to retract, the strands uncurling from around each other regretfully and hanging limply.
"This feels so strange!" Chenille moaned, grabbing the end of her hair. Satin just glared at Smidge.
"I'll get you for this," she promised. Smidge shrugged, still grinning, and Satin ignored her in favor of continuing the game. "Guy, Truth or Dare."
"Truth," Guy responded after a few seconds of internal debate.
"Out of every Troll in the village, who are you closest to?" Satin asked. Chenille giggled and playfully nudged her sister, bouncing her eyebrows.
"DJ," Guy answered promptly, giving the dark pink Troll a high-five. At the mischievous look on the twins' faces, Guy quickly added, "But we're besties. It's a friendship, not a relationship. So don't get any crazy ideas." Satin pouted; Chenille blushed, but didn't look too upset.
"My turn!" Guy continued, choosing to ignore the twins. "Biggie!" The light blue Troll jumped. "Truth or Dare?"
"Truth," Biggie said. "No, wait, Dare! No, no, Truth. Yeah. Truth."
"If you had to eat four popberries one after the other to save Mr. Dinkles, would you do it?" Guy asked. Everyone winced. Popberries were harmless-looking blue-colored berries that grew on bushes that had red bark. They weren't poisonous, but if a Troll ate one they would puff up for about an hour or so, depending on how many they ate. Poppy had some experience with this and could confirm that it wasn't pleasant (in her defense, the Trolls didn't know about the side effects when she ate one).
"Well… I wouldn't be happy about it, but… yes," Biggie answered grudgingly. No surprise there. Biggie loved his pet. "Cooper," Biggie continued, facing the four-legged Troll. "Truth or Dare?"
"Dare," Cooper answered bravely.
"I dare you to spin around until you get dizzy and then walk to the door and back." Everyone laughed and Cooper grinned. He stood up and began twirling quickly in place, going faster and faster at his friends' encouragement. When he stopped and took a step towards the door, he nearly fell on his face. Poppy was laughing so hard that she was tearing up as Cooper staggered to the door, falling four times, and tried to turn to face them, only to end up in a heap on the ground. He got up, teetered back over to them, and plopped down, slightly cross-eyed.
"Done!" he announced proudly. After everyone had calmed down (and the world stopped spinning), Cooper got everyone's attention.
"Oh, Chenille, it's been three turns!" Satin exclaimed before Cooper could speak. She reconnected with her twin immediately and they looked much happier. Cooper glared at them, offended, before clearing his throat to continue.
"Poppy, Truth or Dare."
"Dare," Poppy said after some hesitation. Although choosing a dare was more risky, her friends had an unhealthy obsession with asking embarrassing Truth questions. Poppy still hadn't told any of her friends about the kiss she had shared with Branch a couple of days ago, even though it was common knowledge that they were a couple. That memory was still too special to be shared quite yet, and she had a feeling that she would have to tell it if she accepted a Truth question.
"I dare you to convince Branch to come back in here," Cooper said, grinning smugly. "I don't care how you do it, but he has to step foot in here within five minutes or you forfeit and accept a punishment."
Poppy huffed and frowned at Cooper but stood up anyway.
"Why do you want me to bring him back here?" Poppy asked suddenly, narrowing suspicious eyes at the four-legged Troll.
"Because I want to see him play Truth or Dare," Cooper answered with a grin. The rest of the Snack Pack nodded, similar malicious smiles growing on their faces. Poppy grinned and left her pod.
When Poppy stepped out onto the tree, she paused to breathe in the night air. The moon was nearly full and especially bright tonight, and there was a faint breeze that wasn't quite cold but wasn't warm either. Poppy loved to listen to the sounds of the crickets and the rustling leaves, and she loved the crisp scent of the cool air. She quickly shook herself back to the present and began walking along the wide, rough bough, heading towards Branch's pod hidden in a cluster of leaves.
A quiet voice caught her attention, however, when she was only a few hair-lengths away from her own pod, and Poppy looked around to see who was singing (although she had a pretty good guess). Sure enough, she spotted Branch sitting just outside the leaf-cave that sheltered his home. He was hidden in the shadow and Poppy only saw him when he moved slightly. She crept closer, straining to hear the song he was singing, and nearly laughed when she recognized it.
"Hello darkness my old friend. I've come to talk with you again. Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping, and the vision that was planted in my brain still remains within the sound-"
"Of silence," Poppy burst into song just beside him. Branch yelped in surprise and toppled over sideways. Poppy snickered, only laughing harder when he glared at her.
"What was that for?" he asked, climbing to his feet and brushing himself off, blushing furiously. Poppy shrugged, still smiling.
"Sorry," she said, sounding very much not sorry. "I just came out here to check on you and bring you back to the slumber party. I forgive you, by the way."
"Sorry," Branch muttered, looking at his feet. Poppy waved his apology away airily and looked pointedly at him. "What?" he asked.
"I said, I came to bring you back to the slumber party," Poppy said again, talking slowly and deliberately just to annoy Branch. It worked and he scowled at her, but it was quickly replaced by a tentative smile.
"You… really want me to join you?" he asked shyly. "I mean, I'm no fun at parties…"
"Oh, sure you are," Poppy cut him off. She grabbed his hand, ignoring his adorable surprised squeak, and began to drag him behind her as she trotted back to her pod and the rest of her friends. Branch didn't protest or try to pull away, much to Poppy's relief; she wouldn't have forced him to go back if he truly didn't want to.
Poppy burst through the door, pulling Branch in front of her triumphantly and announcing, "Done!"
"Good job, Poppy!" Cooper cheered.
"Wanna join us, Branch?" Guy Diamond asked, grinning.
"Join what, exactly?" Branch said suspiciously, letting Poppy tug him over to her spot and sitting down next to her despite his wariness.
"Truth or Dare," Suki informed him. Branch groaned and rolled his eyes but didn't move. He didn't let go of Poppy's hand, either, much to Poppy's delight (though she pretended not to notice, despite the pleased smile threatening to stretch across her face).
"It's my turn," Poppy told him, squeezing his hand. She acted as if she didn't see his cheeks darken slightly, choosing instead to pick her victim. "Chenille, Truth or Dare."
"Truth," the light blue Troll responded.
"Do you have a crush on anyone?" Poppy asked slyly. Okay, so maybe Poppy joined her friends in asking embarrassing questions sometimes. Occasionally. Often.
Chenille's blush turned her normally sky-blue face a surprising shade of violet. She covered her face with her hands but nodded. Immediately, she was bombarded by everyone asking her who her crush was, but she shook her head and didn't answer, still keeping her face hidden. Poppy noticed that Satin sat next to her sister with a smug smile and wondered if she knew her twin's crush. Probably. Those two shared everything.
"Do you know who she likes, Satin?" Branch asked the pink twin conversationally as if reading Poppy's mind. He hadn't joined in the eager questioning and instead chose to watch, somehow looking simultaneously uninterested and amused.
"Of course I do," Satin responded haughtily. However, no amount of coaxing (or threatening, in Smidge's case) convinced her to reveal her sister's secret.
"Okay, it's my turn now," Chenille finally said, speaking up and drawing the attention back to the game. She smiled mischievously and Poppy knew who her target was.
"Branch, Truth or Dare?" Chenille asked sweetly.
"Pass," Branch said, letting go of Poppy's hand to cross his arms over his chest. There were cries of "Come on!", "Don't be a spoilsport!", and "No passes!" from the circle of friends, but Branch's stubborn expression stayed put.
"Please, Branch?" Poppy wheedled, adapting the pleading look she knew from experience that Branch rarely refused. He hesitated slightly and Poppy went in for the kill. "For me?" That did the trick.
"Fine," Branch sighed. Suki high-fived Guy Diamond and Smidge fist-pumped happily. Cooper bumped Biggie with his shoulder and tapped Fuzzbert's foot with one of his. Satin and Chenille gave him four thumbs up, grinning broadly. Poppy threw her arms around Branch and kissed his cheek. Branch flushed a darker blue and smiled shyly at Poppy. Poppy squeezed him tighter, trying to resist the urge to kiss him soundly right on the lips. Why did he have to be so cute when he was embarrassed?!
"Branch, pay attention!" Chenille scolded. "Poppy, stop distracting him! He hasn't chosen Truth or Dare yet." Poppy stuck her tongue out at Chenille and pulled away from Branch reluctantly.
"Dare," Branch said.
"I dare you to let us wrap you in duck tape from head to foot," Chenille said. Poppy grinned.
"Why would you want to do that?" Branch asked blankly.
"Because it's funny, silly," Poppy told him. "Now, stand still."
"Whoa, whoa, hold on," Branch protested while everyone but Poppy and the twins rushed off to find as much tape as they could. "I didn't agree to this."
"You don't have to," Poppy told him cheerfully as Smidge, Fuzzbert, and Cooper returned bearing at least a dozen tape rolls. "We're doing it anyway. It's a dare."
"No, you're not," Branch snapped, stepping away from the advancing Trolls. Poppy and the others halted, startled by the harsh tone of his voice. Poppy watched as Branch scowled, flushing slightly, and folded his arms over his chest in a defensive gesture. Something in the way he held himself made Poppy pause. What was wrong with him?
"Alright, I think this is enough!" Suki said excitedly as she ran into the room with Guy Diamond and Biggie hot on her heels. The three stopped in their tracks and stared at the scene in front of them.
"What's wrong?" Biggie asked uncertainly.
"Branch refuses to do his dare," Smidge complained.
"Because it's stupid," Branch said. Poppy didn't think that was the only reason.
"Branch, we've all done it," Poppy told him, and it was true: that dare was a popular one, and every member of the Snack Pack had been subjected to it at least once. They liked to try to tape each other to the wall, with varying levels of success. "It's fun! I remember being taped to the wall for, like, an hour," Poppy told him, smiling at the memory as her friends all chimed in to reassure and convince him. This didn't seem to comfort Branch at all.
"I'm not letting you duck tape me to any walls," he growled. Poppy saw something flash across his face and frowned. Did he… was he scared? Why would he be scared of being taped to a wall, though? Poppy wondered. Then it hit her. Of course.
"Branch, are you afraid?" Poppy asked softly. Silence fell in the room, but Poppy was focused on Branch and barely noticed. He didn't respond, but the look in his eyes spoke volumes. Poppy could all but see the metal bars reflected in his eyes, heard the distinct click of the lock echo in her mind. Guilt rose up like a wave inside her and Poppy cursed herself for just forgetting about the traumatic incident of two weeks ago. What kind of girlfriend was she?
"I'm sorry, Branch," Poppy said, reaching out for Branch's hand but hesitating, unsure how he would react to being touched.
"There's a word for it," Branch responded, his voice barely above a whisper. He was staring at Poppy's outstretched hand and Poppy held her breath, as still as a statue. Behind her, the Snack Pack didn't move or speak.
"Cleithrophobia," Branch continued, his fingers brushing against Poppy's. "It's the fear of being trapped." Poppy's confusion must have shown on her face because Branch added, "I was curious to see if… if it was a real thing."
"I'm sorry," Poppy repeated. Branch just looked at her and smiled tiredly. With that, the tension drained out of the room. Poppy took a deep breath and gingerly took Branch's hand. When he didn't pull away, Poppy stepped closer and hugged him. Branch tensed, but when Poppy kissed his cheek gently he relaxed, melting into her embrace and letting out a shaky sigh. The Snack Pack didn't even hesitate, surrounding the two in a group hug (although they were careful not to crowd Branch, of course).
"It's okay to be afraid," Poppy whispered in Branch's ear. "I'm right here. I won't let anything hurt you."
"Promise?" Branch asked, his voice muffled slightly. Poppy heard the note of truth in the teasing tone and hugged him tighter.
"Promise," she told him firmly. He laughed, still mostly joking, but Poppy felt his relief in the way he smiled against her neck, the way his shoulders dropped and the breath he let out in a puff, rustling her hair and tickling her neck. "Love you," Poppy added.
She felt him blush and smiled to herself.
Later that night, the small group of friends were sleeping soundly, still huddled together in one big group cuddle. Poppy's head was resting on Branch's chest, and they were holding hands.
Even later, in the early afternoon, the group would wake up reluctantly, grumbling and complaining about various aches and pains from the sleeping arrangements, still sleepy despite themselves. Poppy would roll off of Branch, grouching about the crick in her neck while Branch listened with fond amusement, privately reveling in his dreamless sleep.
For the first time in a very long time, Branch would sleep soundly, with no nightmares to interrupt him.
And maybe, just maybe, Branch would think to himself, things will be okay.
He would watch Poppy stretch next to him, yawning, and smile.
We'll be okay.