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Heart on His Sleeve

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 It's been three hours.

It's been three hours, it's been three long, awful, unbroken hours since Poppy went running off on this stupid suicide mission of hers in the first place, and so much can happen in three hours—anything can happen in three hours—she could be hurt—or sick—or even dead—or what if the Bergen came back, and found her wandering around out here, probably singing at the top of her damn lungs, and what if the Bergen captured her, too? What if the Bergen ate her?

Or maybe she got lost, or maybe a predator caught her—maybe a predator caught her, maybe she's being devoured painfully, right now, and Branch can't do anything about it because he was so stupid and stuck-up and waited thirty minutes before he left the bunker and started after her because he told himself he ought to make her wait, ought not to seem too worried about her—he should have just swallowed his damned pride and gone straight after her—caught up with her—made some excuse—said one of her was better than all two hundred of them, back in the bunker—

God, he shouldn't have let himself get so caught up trying to think of an excuse to follow her in the first place—he should have just done it, and damn the consequences—who cares if Poppy knows

Oh, if he could just find her—

A brief, bright flash of vivid pink, barely peeking out between two towering, lavender trees grabs his eye, and his heart does a funny little leap in his chest.

It's her.

It's actually her—he'd know those colors anywhere—no one else in the village, no one else in the world, can compete with her radiance—he rushes through the trees—the low-hanging limbs scratch at his face, and he shoves them out of the way—he doesn't have a second to waste—he doesn't—

Oh.

Shit.

Okay, so there are spiders. There are a lot of spiders. And Poppy—Branch doesn't even think she's conscious, lying there like she is, flat on her back on the ground, wrapped up in a silken web—her eyes are shut and from this distance, it's hard to tell if she's breathing, but she has to be—she has to be—spiders like their prey alive, or at least recently dead—they wouldn't come near her if she—but she's only been gone three hours, so maybe the spiders don't mind if—no, no, no, he can't think like that, he can't

Branch throws out a thick tendril of coal-black hair, and loops it firmly round the web, dragging the limp princess toward him.

The spiders go still, momentarily perplexed by the loss of such an easy meal—then, in eerie sync, they turn to look at him, their eyes glistening like jewels.

Fear rises up in his throat, scorching like fire, but he swallows it down, and pushes Poppy behind him—he's got something bigger than himself to worry about, someone more important to protect.

He's got a few knives strapped to his pack—grabbed them from the bunker before he left—he'd be damned if he went charging off to Bergentown, completely defenseless, just because Poppy had got it into her head to try and give him a heart attack—but looking away from the spiders is a risk he isn't brave enough to take; he reaches blindly for his pack—maybe, by some miracle, he'll grab one—and his fumbling fingers close around something cool and heavy and—and decidedly not a knife, but he's got no time to be picky about this. It'll have to do.

He hefts the frying pan up; the spiders don't seem to know what to make of it. Chances are, they've never seen one, and probably think it's a weapon—if he could keep them at bay through fear alone—if he was on his own, he'd chance it, but the unconscious princess makes him even more cautious than usual. He can't let anything happen to her, no matter what happens to him.

He tosses the pan at the spiders and, marvel of marvels, it actually hits one – strikes it full in the head with a satisfying, resounding clang, and for a minute, he lets himself hope—but the creature shakes off the blow, and takes a step forward, clicking its pincers threateningly.

Okay, shit.

No time for knives. No time for pans.

He ditches his pack beside Poppy's motionless form, and shakes out his hair; the dark, bristly strands respond immediately, lashing out at the spiders—driving them together, driving them back—for a second, he's almost elated by the easy victory—and then a flash of movement from the corner of his eye cuts his premature celebration short—he stops—turns around—his heart jumps into his throat at the sight of the spider, somehow broken away from the rest, dipping its head down toward Poppy, pincers clicking rapidly, and mouth opening as it prepared to—

"No!"

Branch charges at the creature, fury bringing his blood to a boil in his veins; he swats the spider aside—the force of the blow sends it halfway across the clearing—its hairy purple body slams against the trunk of a nearby tree, and it doesn't move again, and a sense of savage satisfaction burns in Branch's chest at the sight. Bet the rest of them will think twice now before getting too close to her—

Pain.

Grey skin splits clean under snapping, woolly pincers, and hot blood bursts from beneath, streaming thick and inky down over rough brown cloth—there's suddenly soft grass under his knees, and it takes him far longer than it should to realize he's fallen—there's a weird sort of sound in his own ears—like screaming—he thinks maybe it's him screaming, but his vision's going splotchy and white, and he can barely see a foot in front of him, and every breath is a new lesson in agony, so his screaming doesn't stop—can't stop—oh, God, please, just stop—he's going to die if it doesn't stop—no—no, wait, he can't die—he can't—he has to—he has to keep Poppy safe—keep an eye on Poppy—he has to—he has—Poppy—

Poppy.

He wrenches his eyes open—he can still see then, even if the world's blurrier than it should be—he looks around for the princess—there she is, barely three feet from him, still wrapped up in the web, her pink hair still peeking out the top of it, surrounded by spiders—surrounded by—surrounded by—no.

He rips himself free of the spider atop him, its pincers still clamped firmly round his ribs—and another burst of burning pain races through him, but he clenches his teeth, tight so he won't scream, and forces himself to keep going—the skin tears further, and fresh blood rushes instantly to the surface—he rolls away when the creature makes another grab for him—its forceps close around air, and it swings around with a snarl, glittering eyes locking on him, but he scrambles over to Poppy anyway, plunging into the mass of spiders, tossing them aside with his hair, dashing them away when they try to get close, felling them, until the ground's littered with their motionless, hairy bodies, skinny green legs spread at odd angles, until he's gasping for breath.

He slumps to the ground with a soft cry—he can't keep it in anymore, hard as he tries—he lifts his vest to examine the bite—it throbs horribly beneath the fabric, pulsing an angry, vivid red—his dull skin looks even duller against all that scarlet.

Branch struggles to remember all he can about these sorts of spiders—he knows he's read about them—he recognizes the intricate patterns in their many webs—wait—wait a second—how could he have forgotten—?

"Poppy!"

She's—she's okay, right? She's got to be okay—the spiders didn't get close enough to actually start eating her—and she was safe, cocooned as she was in that web the entire time—but if something happened to her before she got trapped in the web—if she was hurt before that—

Branch pushes himself to his feet—he's not sure how—his ribs protest, and violently at that, every time he even breathes—but somehow—somehow, he makes it over to her side, and presses his ear against the silken wrapping, where her chest must be—he can't hear anything—he can't hear anything—what if she's—what if she—okay, okay, don't panic—don't panic—can't help Poppy if he panics—he can't help Poppy if he panics, and he has to help her—okay, he needs to get her out of the web—find a way to get her breathing again—she's probably suffocating in that web—

"Hang on!" His voice comes out weak, and hoarse from all the screaming, and the words burn on their way out, but they fill the silence, and that helps—silent and Poppy just don't belong in the same sentence, ever—and he'll never tell her to shut up ever again if she opens her eyes—never

He pushes the pain to the back of his mind, and bolts over to the other side of the clearing—that flower over there, by that tree—a nelda—petals like knife blades, just as sturdy and twice as sharp—if anything can free Poppy from the web, it'll be that—and glowbugs—glowbugs love neldas, don't they? Yeah, he can see a few on the tree trunk right next to it, scuttling up and down the mossy pale wood, buzzing and droning—the glowbugs can—the glowbugs should—he doesn't know, he's never tried—he's never had to try—but he's heard—he's read—he's read something about glowbugs, and how they can jump-start somebody's breathing—he repeats the instructions under his breath to himself—rub the bugs together—press firmly down on the victim's chest—as he grabs one of the needle-sharp pastel petals, and seizes the glowbugs by their rock-hard, iridescent shells.

The nelda's petal, when he returns to Poppy's side, slices neatly through the thick, strong silk easily as warm butter, and the sight of her in full has him letting out a breath of relief. She's fine—she's absolutely fine—not hurt—a little dirty, maybe—there's a smear of mud on her cheek, and some sort of greenish goo clinging to the hem of her dress—but she's fine, she's fine—she's not hurt—she's—but she's not breathing, either, and fear sets his hands to shaking so badly it's a miracle he hasn't let go of the glowbugs yet—wait—the glowbugs—

Rub the bugs together, that's how the book said you were supposed to do it, so he does, raking the creatures against each other by their soft, unprotected underbellies—if he wasn't losing his mind over Poppy right about now, he'd probably worry about how much this could be hurting the bugs—a faint, green-blue spark flares up momentarily between them, there and gone in an instant, but it's enough—press firmly down on the victim's chest—Branch jams the bugs, probably a little harder than he needs to, over Poppy's heart—her chest swells beneath her dress, blue fabric stretching taut for a moment, and Branch almost begins to hope—and then—and then she drops back to the ground, body slack as a doll—it didn't work—it didn't work it didn't—he didn't do it right—he messed up somewhere—maybe there's something else, something he's supposed to do afterwards—something to help her wake up—maybe he just missed a step—maybe he just forgot something—it's been a long time since he read the book—what else had it said—?

"GET BACK UP AGAIN!"

Poppy's awake.

Oh, God, Poppy's awake—she's awake, she's okay, she's singing—he should probably hush her before she can attract some sort of predator—he doesn't know if he's up to another fight so soon after those spiders—no, never mind, she's fine, she's not singing anymore, just looking at him—

"Branch! My man!" Her face lights up, the corners of her mouth rising into a dazzling grin. "You were right on time!"

Right on time? Wait a second, was she expecting him this entire time? Seriously? How can she have seen through him so completely? Does she—does she know? No, there's no way she can know—he's good at hiding things, like the stupid, funny little flutter in the pit of his stomach every time he looks at her, or the verses that write themselves when the sun catches her hair just right, or her voice carries all the way to the edge of the village where he can hear it, too. She can't know. Can she?

"Oh, right," Branch scoffs, and even rolls his eyes for good measure – she doesn't know anything, and so long as he just acts natural, it'll stay that way. "Like you knew I was coming." He realizes, as he says it, that he's still clutching the glowbugs—whoops, sorry, guys. He puts them back on the ground—they can find their way back to the nelda from here, he's sure. Nothing could keep them from the flower they love so much.

"Yes," Poppy says, breaking through his thoughts.

Horror floods him at her response—she knew he was coming—she's been counting on it, even—but there's no way she can know—no way she can have figured out—

"I figured, after the third hug time, getting eaten by a Bergen wouldn't seem so bad." She shoots him a small, snarky smile—well, snarky for her, anyway.

The panic drains away, replaced instantly by relief and something a bit like irritation—well, if he'd known she was just going to hand him a perfectly good excuse on a silver platter, he wouldn't have wasted half an hour agonizing over her smug, satisfied face when he did finally break and follow her. Okay, so she doesn't know. She doesn't know, and one more nasty comment should drive the point home.

"And I figured there was no way you could do this by yourself." It takes him about half a second to come up with it; he knows he's cycled through at least a dozen variations of that one by now, but she swallows it every time. He even throws in a smirk, and folds his arms over his chest—okay, okay, ouch, vest dragging over injured side, ow. "Guess we were both right." He should probably—probably tell Poppy he got bitten, right? He needs to get a better look at it—maybe wash it out, and if it's bad enough, break out the herbs and ointments in the front pocket of his pack—only if it's really bad, though, he can't go using that stuff left, right, and center—he needs to save it for if they really need it—on the inexpressibly slim chance that Poppy's friends are still alive when they get to Bergentown, they'll probably be badly hurt—and if Poppy gets hurt—no, no, he'll forego the medicines. He'll be fine without them. He can handle a little pain.

"All right!" Poppy doesn't look at all bothered by his previous comment—which, okay, fine, he should have seen that coming. She usually doesn't let him get her down for long, even when he's at his absolute worst. "Let's do this!" She turns on her heel and sets off between the trees—way too happily for somebody heading for certain death.

Branch moves to follow her, but his ribs throb again with the motion—he really should just tell her he needs a minute—it won't take him long to wash and dress the bite—but—well—he doesn't like it when anyone knows he's hurt. Even Poppy. He doesn't like anyone thinking he's—he's weak, or fragile—doesn't like anyone thinking he needs them, because he doesn't—and he doesn't like it when they try to help him, because he doesn't need that, either—he doesn't need anyone trying to help him—he doesn't want anyone to help him—he doesn't want people to be nice to him—he's worked so hard to make them hate him because that's what they should do—after what he's done, everyone should hate him—even Poppy—especially Poppy. He doesn't want her to help him, or be nice to him.

He can take care of the bite later. By himself.

Even overzealous, pink-haired princesses have to sleep sometime.

And speaking of overzealous, pink-haired princesses, this one is still skipping merrily on ahead of him, and he did not drag himself out of his bunker just for her to get into another life-threatening situation so soon after he got her out of the first one.

"The sooner we get to Bergentown," she chirps, her small form slipping between two close-growing trees, "the sooner we can rescue everyone, and make it home safely!"

The words set off more than a few alarm bells in his head, and he hurries after her, ignoring the pain this time. "Wait, wait!" He pushes between the two trees to keep her in his sights – she's moving so quickly, it's hard to keep track of her. "What's your plan?" Please let her have a plan, at least…

"I just told you," Poppy turns around to give him an incredulous look, like he's the one acting like an imbecile. "To rescue everyone, and make it home safely."

Or not.

This is going to be a long day.


"Do you have to sing?"

Okay, it comes out a little harsher than he really meant it to—and she's actually doing a pretty okay job of keeping it quiet—quiet enough that, on any other day, he'd pretend he didn't hear—let himself listen, for a few minutes, to her voice, savoring the sweet and silvery sound—but he's got a weird kind of pounding in his head, so bad he can barely think, so bad the soft, distant trilling of faraway birds is agonizing—and his side's been throbbing for the last hour, and he doesn't think he can handle her voice, beautiful as it is, on top of that.

"I always sing when I'm in a good mood!" Poppy objects.

Branch swallows back a groan. Of course she does. "Do you have to be in a good mood?"

"Why wouldn't I be? By this time tomorrow, I'll be with all my friends!" Though he's got his back to her, he can hear the soft patter of her feet on the ground, and knows she's close behind. "Ooh, I wonder what they're doing right now!"

"Probably being digested." He doesn't know why he says it – maybe it's just that he wants her to be quiet, and reminding her that all her friends are more than likely dead at this point seems a pretty good way to make that happen. Or maybe he's just a jackass looking to make her as miserable as he is.

Poppy huffs. "They're alive, Branch! I know it!"

All right, now—now he's pissed.

"You don't know anything, Poppy!" He turns to face her – she's closer than he expected, and he doesn't like it. How did she get near enough without him hearing it? "And I can't wait to see the look on your face when you realize the world isn't all cupcakes and rainbows! 'Cause it isn't!" Even the sound of his own voice makes his head ache anew, but he ignores it – he can't stand another second of this. He can't let her go on thinking like this—the way he did, before he lost the last person in the entire world that had ever mattered to him, and had to build a whole new life out of his own broken pieces.

"Bad things happen." He turns away from her – he's scared she'll see something in his face – and keeps walking. His ribs flare up with fresh pain, demanding his attention, but he ignores that, too. He can't stay still, not when he's thinking of…of… "And there's nothing you can do about it." He can still taste the lyrics on his lips, and hear her last screams echoing endlessly in his ears, crying out for mercy that would never come. Mercy that would never come because of him. Because he'd been stupid—he'd been careless—he'd been singingwhy had he been singing—?

"Hey, I know it's not all cupcakes and rainbows!" Poppy catches up to him easily, planting herself in front of him. "But I'd rather go through life thinking that it mostly is instead of being like you!" The way she says the last word, spitting it out like some kind of curse—now that kind of stings, to tell the truth. Not like he doesn't deserve it, though.

Another round of pain rips through him like a blade, fierce and sharp and sudden—every step sends a pang roaring through his ribs like fire, and he nearly goes to his knees—he's not sure he can keep going—he's not sure he can—no, he can still hear Poppy—somewhere beneath the aching in his head and the throbbing in his side, he can hear her—she's saying something about singing and dancing, and how he won't do either—he's got to hold it together as long as she's here. They'll make camp, and she'll fall asleep, and he can deal with it then.

Right. Okay. Now he's just got to keep moving—just—got to—keep—

He falls.

The ground is soft and mossy beneath his palms—he tells himself all he's got to do is give a little push, dust off his shorts, pretend it was only a stumble—he can do that—he can—he can—Poppy's here, and he's got to protect Poppy—he doesn't have time to be acting so weak—so frail—he's not weak—he's not frail—he's fine—he's fine

Dark spots dance across his vision, so big they blot out the sky—then the trees—

"—so grey all the time! What happened to—Branch? Branch, what's wrong? Oh, my god, are you okay? Branch? Branch—oh, my god—Branch—!"


There's lots of light.

That's the first thing Branch notices when he wrests his eyes open—they don't want to do it—they want to stay closed, mostly because it feels like someone's resting a few hundred pounds on their lids—but he makes them open anyway, because he's pretty good at ignoring himself when he doesn't want to do something—but he doesn't even get to feel accomplished, because there's lots of light, so much, and it's so bright, that his eyes start filling up, flooding with reflexive tears. He snaps them shut again with a groan he can't quite stifle.

He feels…weird, he realizes, after a second of thought. His head feels fuzzy, like somebody reached in through his ears and stuffed his brain with cotton—cotton soaked in molasses, maybe—that would explain why his thoughts are so slow—

"Branch?"

Wait! He knows that voice! It's beautiful, captivating, and he wants with everything in him to answer it—give it whatever it wants—the entire world—the sun, the moon, the stars from the sky, anything

He opens his eyes again.

Poppy's leaning over him—her face in shadow, so he can't read her expression— her body blocks the light, and it forms a kind of halo around her— a warm golden glow—it makes her look like—makes her look—

"Angel," Branch breathes. "Y'look like an angel."

Poppy draws back slightly, and presses her lips together. "Branch, what happened?"

He shouldn't—he shouldn't answer that, right? He has a sort of nagging feeling that he shouldn't answer it—that maybe he shouldn't want to answer it—but Poppy wants him to answer, and he wants to give Poppy everything in the whole entire world, and then he'll give her everything in the whole entire universe, and he'll get to see her face light up in that special way it does whenever she's really, really happy, and that'll be everything in the whole entire universe to him.

Except when he tries to answer—he can't.

"Y'look like an angel, Poppy," is what comes out instead.

Poppy looks, for a second, like she's going to shout at him—he hopes she doesn't, because the weird fuzzy feeling in his head is starting to fade, only that means his head is starting to hurt a lot, and he's pretty sure shouting will only make it worse, but he doesn't have the energy, or the words, to tell her so—and he knows if she knew how bad his head hurt, she wouldn't shout, because she's the nicest troll in the whole entire universe.

But then Poppy swallows, and says in a strange, tight, not-Poppy voice, "Stop it, Branch."

"You do, though." It's suddenly really important, the most important thing in the whole entire universe, that she knows this. "Y're so beaut'f'l. The most beaut'f'l troll in the whole entire univ'rse."

Now Poppy's starting to look, if he's reading her right, a little bit worried. "Branch, are you okay?"

"I think so?" Is he? He hasn't really stopped to think about it—his head's hurting pretty bad, and his side is, too—he thinks maybe his side is even bleeding—he frowns, rubbing lightly at his ribs—yeah, the skin is wet—a warm kind of wet, but wet nonetheless, and a little bit sticky, too—oddly bare—he looks down—oh—his vest is gone.

That should probably upset him. He's never liked seeing his skin—never really been able to stomach all that grey staring back at him—just another reminder of how hopeless and unlovable he is—but he's too tired to care all of a sudden—too tired to hide everything he's supposed to hide—

Oh, Poppy's touching him—she's put her hand, palm down, on his forehead—like how his grandma used to check his temperature when he was sick—her fingers are cool against his burning skin, and he presses closer—it's like he can't stop himself—how he loves to be touched

"Okay, buddy," Poppy smiles at him, but it looks forced, "you're—you're pretty warm, huh?" She takes her hand away again.

Branch wants to ask her to keep touching him, and never stop, but he can't—he can't ask that of her—even with the murky haze in his head, he knows that—if she's not touching him, it's because she doesn't want to, and he can't blame her one bit—who would ever want to touch a grey troll—so instead he just says, "Guess so."

"All right, Branch," she drops down into a crouch until they're eye-to-eye, "I know you gotta be really tired, and you're probably not feelin' your best, and I'm real sorry 'bout this, but I'm gonna need you to tell me what happened to your side, okay?"

"My—my side?" Oh, right, yeah, his side is hurting. His side is bleeding. His side isn't supposed to be bleeding. Blood's supposed to stay on the inside. What happened to bring it to the outside again—? Oh. Right. "Sp'er's."

"Wait, wait," Poppy narrows her eyes, "the spiders? The ones back near—?"

"Mm-hm." Branch tries to nod, but his head hurts too bad. "One of th'm bit me. R'ly hard." He rubs ruefully at his side again. "It h'rt."

"Branch." There's something in the way she's looking at him that makes him wonder if he said something wrong, and her voice is suddenly strange and tight and not-Poppy again. "That was hours ago!"

"Mm-hm."

"What the—why didn't you say something?"

That's a pretty good question, now that he thinks about it. Why didn't he say something?

Oh.

Right.

"I was taking care of it by m'self."

"Taking—taking care of it?" Poppy raises her eyebrows, and they practically disappear into her bangs. "You passed out, Branch."

"Didn't mean to," Branch protests. His tongue is thick, and heavy, and so much slower than he'd like. "I was g'na take care of it." He's not—he's not really taking care of it, is he? He should get on that. Just as soon as he can sit up again. Just as soon as—just as soon as—but he's so tired—and his body feels so heavy—and the ground is so soft

"Branch!" Poppy's voice sounds like it's coming from really far away—like maybe they're standing at opposite ends of the forest—like maybe they're standing at opposite ends of the whole entire universe—but Poppy's calling for him, and he'll always answer her when she calls, no matter what—

He opens his eyes—he didn't realize he'd closed them in the first place. "Wh't? Wh't s'it?"

"You gotta just—you gotta stay awake for a few more minutes, buddy." She says it more seriously than he's ever heard her say anything in his entire life. "You gotta answer a question for me. You think you can do that?"

He's tired—he's so tired—more tired than he's ever been, except for maybe that time when he was awake for almost five days straight because the nightmares about his grandma were getting too bad—he's so tired—and now that Poppy's asked him to stay awake, it's suddenly the last thing in the world he wants to do—but Poppy wants him to do it—Poppy needs him to do it—so he forces his eyes to stay open, and he nods.

"Great!" She beams at him, and it makes him feel warm and nice and good all over—she's so amazing and incredible and good—an angel

"Can you tell me anything you know about those spiders that bit you? Anything you know that can help treat their bite?"

"The—the sp'ers?" Branch frowns. Why does she want to know about them?

"Yep, you got it! The spiders!"

"U-um…okay…" He does know stuff about them—he knows he does—he's pretty sure he read a book about them once—a book that mentioned their bite—he shuts his eyes again—he can see the page in front of him—little black letters on a clean white page—if bitten, follow these steps—he opens his eyes.

"W'ter…" He swallows, and starts again. He tries to speak more clearly this time, but his mouth doesn't want to obey. "Gotta rinse the bite with—with w'ter…then take s'm more w'ter…mix it with s'm…s'm salt…"

Poppy laughs. Incredulous, from the sound of it. Like he said something funny. He doesn't think he did.

"Sorry, what?"

"Salt," Branch says, and it actually comes out sort of comprehensible this time. "It helps—helps s'm'ne not die."

For a long time—long enough to be eternity, he's sure, long enough for the entire universe to live and die and live again—for a long time, Poppy doesn't say a word. Then—finally—staring at him like she can't completely believe what she's seeing—

"You're serious."

"Ab't—ab't the salt?" Branch frowns. What about that is so hard to believe, anyway? "What—what's wrong with salt?"

"It's—it's salt! You can't ask me to rub salt in your side, Branch! That'll hurt!"

"But I'm n't askin' you to…?" Where did she even get the idea that he was—?

"Okay, um," Poppy bunches the hem of her dress up in one fist, pink knuckles going pale around the soft blue fabric. "Um, what happens if we don't put any salt in it? Do you know what happens to the bite then?"

Branch tries to picture the page again. "Death, I think."

"And with the salt…?"

"Not death. St'l s'm weird side 'fects, tho'."

Poppy wrinkles her brow. "What kind of side effects?"

Branch has to think about it. "R'ly high f'ver," he says at last. "S'm p'pl act kinda giddy 'cause of the ven'm, but s'm of 'em just get really confused…s'm of 'em get really talk'tive—say stuff they shouldn't…" He's pretty sure there's more, but he just can't remember them all, and the look on Poppy's face makes him think it probably wouldn't be a good idea to recite them even if he could.

"Okay, well," she unclenches her fists and smoothes out the wrinkles in her skirt. "we'll, um…we'll deal with that stuff as we go, yeah? First let's get that bite taken care of."

Branch doesn't want to do it—he wants to shut his eyes, and go back to sleep—he's tired—but it's really not a good idea to leave his side the way it is—he really hates it when Poppy's right—he rolls over onto his knees—braces his palms flat against the ground—pushes himself to his feet—okay, ow

"What are you doing?" Poppy gets up, too; she's got her hands on her hips, and a disapproving little frown on her face, and for a minute, he gets distracted thinking about how much he'd love to lean in and kiss it until it turns back into a smile—no, focus, Branch.

"Taking care…" The whole world starts to spin, but he steadies himself, and continues speaking. "Taking care of this." He presses a hand to his side and whoa, the world's spinning even faster—maybe he's dancing round and round—no, that's crazy—he doesn't dance—

"Taking care of—?" Poppy's looking at him like he's crazy—and he'll admit the thought has crossed his mind before, but he's pretty sure that's just thanks to the weird, godawful panic that sets in when he spends too long thinking. "Branch!"

"What?"

"I meant—oh, my god, Branch, I meant I was going to take care of it!"

What the—?

"D'nt be rid'c'ls, Poppy." He has a nagging sense that he could probably win this argument if he could just speak a full sentence—oh, God, the world's starting to spin again—maybe he should sit down—just for a minute—just—just long enough to get his bearings—just long enough to—no—no, he's fine—he's had worse than this—he can handle this—it's only a bite—wait—hang on—what was he saying? Oh—oh, right—

"D'nt be rid'c'ls, Poppy, it's my probl'm, and I'll take care of it."

"You're the one being ridiculous!" She gestures at him. "You can barely stand!"

"S'not true!" Oh, he is kind of hunched over though, isn't he? He should probably fix that—maybe then she'll believe him—he stands up a little straighter and—oh, God, no—that was a bad idea—that was a terrible, awful—the worst idea he's ever had in his entire life—including the time he tried to survive on dirt and tree bark—oh, God—he doubles over, one hand still clamped over his ribs—and then his legs start to shake, and the world's spinning even faster, and he can't keep his eyes open any longer, and he can't stand up at all—he crashes back to the ground—he can't help it—Poppy's panicked cries echo in his ears—he wants to answer her—he just needs a minute—he just needs a minute, and then he'll get back up—and he needs to tell her so, but somewhere between his thoughts and his tongue, the words get lost, and nothing comes out at all.

For a minute, he lays where he's fallen, eyes screwed shut, and teeth clenched tight until the worst of the pain has passed—and he knows he needs to get back up—he knows he does—but—the silence—the stillness—it all feels so good

"So," Poppy's voice is so much closer than he thought it'd be, and he startles, eyes snapping open—she's standing over him, with her hands on her hips—she looks like an angel again, standing with her back to the light. She drops to her knees on the ground beside him, and raises her eyebrows. "You about ready to let me help you now?"

She doesn't look like an angel anymore, now that she's out of the light—but she looks like Poppy, and that's even better—she's just—she's just Poppy, just kneeling beside him, being Poppy, face all scrunched up against the sun, high ponytail drooping slightly to the left, stray wisps of rich, rose-colored hair glistening momentarily golden in the light—her dress has a little tear near the collar—her cheeks are smudged with dirt—and she's never looked more beautiful—never looked more like her—he's always dreamed of seeing her like this—not singing—not dancing—not putting on a show—not painting on a smile—not performing for anybody—just being Poppy—and it's the best thing in the world that she could ever be, and the sight of her like that, the sight of her just being Poppy, pulls words from his mouth before he even knows he's going to say them.

"I love you."

He doesn't really mind that he said it—not really—everyone in the village loves her—everyone in the world would love her if only they met her—he only wants to add his love to the pile now—while she's sitting there being Poppy, and no one and nothing else.

She stops.

"What?"

"I love you," he says again, but it comes out all weird, his voice too slow and slurred to really sound like him. Did it sound like that the first time? Is that why she's looking at him like that? Because she can't hear him? He swallows and says it again. "I love you." And then—just because he can—he says it again. "I love you." And it just keeps coming out, messy and garbled and the farthest thing from perfect. "I love you I love you I love you I love you s'much. I love the way when you hear a new song, you don't stop singin' it for a week—and you tell anyone who'll lis'n how much you love it, an' try and make everyone sing it with you—and I love the way you wrinkle up y'r nose when y're 'nnoyed…and the way y're so good to ev'ryb'dy—even me—even when I'm n't good to you—even when you know m'not g'na be good to you…and you inv't me to all y'r p'rties even when you know m'g'na say no—but you keep inv't'n me anyway—and I love the way you get all 'cited when you see a r'nbow in the sky, or a flower at the end of winter 'cause then you know spring's c'min'—an' I love the sound of y'r voice—even when I say I hate it—s'the nic'st voice in the whole village—an'…" He wants to keep going, but his voice gives out on him.

And then he sees she's staring at him. She's staring at him—and she's completely still—and she's not moving—she doesn't even look like she's breathing—and he wonders, for a minute, if maybe she didn't hear him this time either—if maybe she needs him to say it again—'cause he will—he'll say it all again—every word—if that's what she wants—he'll say it all again—and he opens his mouth to do it—but—

"What?" Her voice comes out quiet—and breathless—and uncertain—more uncertain than he's ever heard it—more uncertain than he's ever wanted to hear it—and she's looking at him like she's never really seen him before—like he's something new, and unknown, and a little bit frightening—and he doesn't know why—but he knows he doesn't like it—and he knows she must have heard him—she must have—did he do something wrong?—he's always doing something wrong—always saying things he doesn't mean—but he meant this—he meant it more than anything—

"I…" Poppy swallows. Leans back. Leans away from him. "I think maybe your fever's getting higher." And she smiles at him again but it's not really a smile—it's all forced and twisted and wrong—she doesn't believe him—she doesn't believe him when he says he loves her—why doesn't she believe him—why doesn't she believe him—?

He'll just have to say it again—say it better

"I love you—I love you s'much, I—

"Branch." Poppy isn't smiling anymore, not even that forced, twisted, wrong smile. "Just—just stop it—please, just stop."

"But I do." Why doesn't she believe him? Everyone loves her—they can't help but love her—and she might think he's different but he's not. "More than anyth'n'. I love…" He has to think about it for a second – he wants to be specific, but it's so hard to pick just one. "I love y'r eyes," he finally settles on. "Y've got…y've got the most beaut'f'l eyes I've ev'r seen—like—like two pools—so deep—'f I dive in—I'll n'ver come up f'r air." Okay, he didn't mean to repeat that stupid poem—definitely not his best work and he knows it—but maybe Poppy will finally listen to him now—finally believe him. "And y'r smile—the sun 'self turns j'lous…r'fuses to come out from beh'nd the clouds—

"Okay!" Poppy's voice sounds much higher than it should, and beneath her freckles, her cheeks look pinker—is she getting a sunburn? She should put some cream on that—wait a minute, did he even pack the sunburn cream? "Okay, so, um, you need—you need to stop talking! Save your strength! Am I right?"

"No, wait…" He doesn't want to save his strength—he wants to tell her about how her smile is the brightest and prettiest smile in the entire world—how she's the brightest and prettiest troll in the entire world—how he wants to hold her hand and braid her hair and hug her and pick her sunflowers because they're her favorite—and he wants to tell her how he only started planting sunflowers in his garden in the first place because she said they were her favorite—and he wants to tell her he was lying when he told her he only planted them because of their medicinal properties.

"Water!" Poppy grabs his pack up off the ground—he doesn't know how he didn't see it—she lifts the flap and starts rummaging through it. After several seconds, she pulls out one of the small brown canteens he'd thrown in there before he left, and it sloshes loudly when she sets it down. "Water! Right? To rinse the bite? Yeah! Water! Yes! Okay!" Even for her, the aggressive exuberance is more than a little over the top—and she can't seem to keep a hold on the canteen—she fumbles with it—drops it on the ground a few times—

"H-here," Branch smothers a cough, and reaches to pick it up for her—her soft, smooth pink fingers brush briefly against his own callused grey—and she snatches her hand back like he burned her—her cheeks are even pinker now—almost red—he really hopes she takes care of that sunburn—it's getting worse—

"Thank—thank you." She takes the canteen from his hands, but she won't look at him. "Let's—let's get a look at that bite now, okay?"


"Hey! Feelin' better?"

Before he's even opened his eyes more than a fraction, Poppy's chirping out the words like some kind of overexcited, early-morning songbird—not that he'd tell her that—she'd probably just take it as some kind of compliment—oh yeah, she asked him a question—didn't she—wait—what does she mean—?

"What happ'ned?" His voice sounds weird—kind of slurred—and there's a godawful pounding in his skull, and a dull sort of ache in his side—like a couple Bergens used him for a kickball—but he forces his eyes open anyway because he needs to hear the answer—and—

And Poppy's leaning over him—way over him—really, really close to him—her nose is practically touching his nose and he can count every glimmering freckle on her face he can count her every eyelash he can feel her warm breath on his neck and her lips—her lips are so close to his lips—he can still make out a faint, shiny smudge of pale pink gloss from the party the other night—before the Bergen attack and all and—

The Bergen attack. The other trolls in the bunker. The way to Bergentown. The spiders—

His memory shorts out, and gets fuzzy a few minutes after that. He got bitten by the spiders—he got Poppy out of the web—and they kept going—and then—and then Poppy—Poppy stood over him—her back to the light—looking like—looking like—

"Angel. Y'look like an angel."

No—no—God, no—he didn't

"I love you I love you I love you I love you s'much."

No—no, there was no way he actually said that, right—?

"…Like two pools—so deep—'f I dive in—I'll n'ver come up f'r air…"

Oh, God, he did.

He said it—he actually said it—and Poppy's—Poppy's still here—of fucking course she's still here—she's too damn nice for her own good—she probably wants to leave, but she won't—she wouldn't—Poppy's here—Poppy's here, and she's really, really close to him, and he can barely think with her this close to him so okay get her away from him get her away from him—he meets her eyes—and he refuses to think of all the stupid shit he must have said with that spider venom in his system—if he thinks about that, it'll be impossible to hold her gaze—and he needs to keep looking at her—needs to make her think he's not embarrassed even if his cheeks are burning—needs to make her think he's not scared even if he's going out of his mind.

"There's this new thing going around." His breath hitches, his voice threatens to give out, but by some miracle, he manages to keep it together. "Called personal space. Maybe you ought to try it."

Poppy huffs out a laugh – not the reaction he was expecting – but she leans away from him, and sits back on her heels. "Guess you are feeling better, huh?"

No, actually, he's kind of dying inside, considering how last time he was awake, he made a complete ass of himself and told her he was in love with her—God, he can't believe he actually said the words—recited his goddamn romantic poetry to her—probably with a stupid grin on his face the entire time—and what the hell is he even supposed to do now? Should he—should he say something—should he say something about—about it—?

No, no, no, no, no, there's no way he can do it, no way he can look her in the eye and remind her of all the stupid, sappy shit he said—even if it's just to apologize for it—even if it's just to tell her he didn't mean it—no—there's no way he can do that.

So—what, then? Don't say anything? Pretend it never happened? Just keep going like everything's fine, like everything's totally normal, like he didn't tell her all the things he told her—oh, God, he can't believe all the things he told her—she probably can't, either—she'll probably try and bring it up—what if she tries to bring it up—?

Okay, no, wait, he can handle this—he can handle this. He can do this. He won't say anything, and he'll pretend it never happened, and he'll just keep going like everything's fine, and he'll be awful to her, he'll be so awful to her—worse than he's ever been—and by this time tomorrow, she'll have forgotten everything he said—and if she remembers, she'll write it off—she'll never believe he meant a word of it if he just makes himself as horrid and unforgivable as possible—

Okay, yeah, he's fine. He's got a plan, and he can work with anything the world throws at him if he's got a plan. He pushes himself up on one elbow. "We should get moving." Pretty good start – short and sharp, no room for a response. Now he just has to make her absolutely hate him, and everything should be fine. He struggles to sit up—he smothers a gasp at the sudden flare of pain in his ribs, tearing through him like a lance—

And then Poppy—

Poppy reaches out, and puts her hand on his chest—she tries to push him back down—and he's pretty sure he should be fighting her, but under her hands, his every last ounce of strength deserts him—just take it easy, Branchyou've still got a low feverand you don't want to make the bite any worse—and he's pretty sure he should be arguing with her, too, but he can't stop staring at her fingers on his skin long enough to listen. He hopes to hell and back that she can't feel how hard his heart is beating all of a sudden.

He lifts his eyes to hers—it takes so much more effort than it should to look away from her hand, and when he finally does, she's right there, so close to him, at least as close as she was when he opened his eyes—closer, even—he could swear it—he can see the smudged gloss on her lips again—and he could kiss her right now—he really could—oh, God—she's leaning closer—she's actually leaning closer—this is really happening—he doesn't even know how to kiss anyone—he never has—he should stop this—he has a plan—he has a plan, and he should stick to it—he swore he'd never tell her—he swore he'd never—but God, he wants to

Poppy's mouth is barely an inch from his own when she speaks. "Branch…"

"H-huh?" Oh, God, this is really happening—this is really happening—they're really going to—

"Did you—?" She's so close to him. "Did you mean—?Did you mean what you—?" She stops—she doesn't finish the sentence.

But Branch hears the last word, as clearly as if she'd spoken it aloud, along with all the others.

Did you mean what you said?

He already knows the answer—he can feel it rising readily to his lips—yes, all of it, every word—behind his lips the truth burns to be spoken—and he—

He swallows it back.

"No." He shuts his eyes – now that he's not looking at her, it's so much easier to breathe. Now that he's not looking at her, it's so much easier to remember why he can't tell her the truth. "Definitely not." All right, maybe he didn't need to add that last part—it's one thing to lie—to say whatever it takes to get her to believe him—whatever it takes to put her at ease again, to get her to relax—whatever it takes to spare her feelings—even if it means burying his own—he can't imagine how she'd feel if she knew he actually—somebody like him—and somebody like her—and—no—just no—even in his wildest fantasies he can't—

"I didn't think so!" Poppy leans away from him—as far away as physically possible. She scoffs again, and laughs a little. "Of course not!" Something in her voice sounds off—and when he looks up at her, there's something in her eyes—in her face—in the way she's smiling—in the way she's looking at him—something just doesn't add up—but she's laughing—and she sounds nothing short of relieved—so—

"Yeah," Branch sits up again, and this time, she doesn't try to stop him. "No."

"Totally not!" Poppy shakes her head emphatically, and laughs again—she's making this so easy for him—swallowing down every word without even hesitating—

He should be over the fucking moon.

But—

"Right." He nods. "Yeah. Exactly."

"Exactly!" Poppy echoes. "I—I mean—ew! Right?"

—he isn't.