Let Me Carry You
by Mackenzie L.
This one-shot was inspired by a line from Catching Fire, in which Katniss recalls moments she shared with Gale in the woods outside of District 12.
*The Hunger Games trilogy and all its characters are the property of Suzanne Collins.
He was sixteen going on seventeen. I was fourteen going on fifteen.
It was cold that day, the kind of cold that teeters undecidedly on the bridge between brisk and bitter. The hesitant beginning of a new spring. The forest was struggling to blossom, forcing out small, shy-colored buds on trees that were barely able to sprout leaves yet. I remember the sky being overcast that morning when I'd set out, a flawless white spread of smooth, endless cloud – like an unwrinkled tablecloth.
I hadn't planned to meet him that day at all. In fact, I'd been under the impression that he was busy with other plans that morning. I was not in the best shape, still fighting that numb, weak feeling that lingers in the body as it's recovering from a stubborn illness. I thought that if I denied the weakened state of my body, the groggy feeling would fade away. But it didn't. It was mostly for this reason that I didn't think it fortunate when Gale showed up unexpectedly in the woods where I was attempting to hunt solo.
My legs were aching from minimal exertion, but I forced myself to mask the pain in front of my healthy male counterpart. The idea that I could be so ashamed of being ill makes me realize how immature I was just two years ago. Looking back on it now, it almost seems silly that I was putting on an act. Maybe I was afraid that Gale would scold me for trying to hunt while sick. Or worse, that he would suddenly turn chivalrous on me, which was becoming a more common (and unsettling) change in his behavior. In any case, I'd always aspired to be like him, always wanted to appear tough and unaffected by pain.
I must have done a poor job at it, because he definitely noticed. He kept making comments about my uncharacteristic slowness, and my discreet grimaces of pain whenever I felt a muscle cramp.
"I'm fine," I repeated in response to every one of his concerns.
I knew he wasn't buying it, and this infuriated me. I tried even harder to push myself, to run faster, to hit more challenging targets, just to reassure him that I was indeed fine as I claimed. Every effort I put forth added weight to the lie, making me feel unpleasantly heavy and burdened by his presence.
As afternoon slipped into evening, harsh winds began to blow, thrashing the skeletal brown trees about in an eerie but beautiful dance. Any tiny leaves that had managed to make an early appearance this season were shaken from their twigs and scattered on the forest floor. It became so chilly that I took care to button up every last button on my coat, something I rarely did even on the most frigid days. It was yet another giveaway of my poor health.
When I'd finally filled my burlap sack full of lifeless rodents, I was downright exhausted. My breathing was so loud that I was scaring off every other woodland creature we could have added to our loot. I kept shifting the sack on my back, trying in vain to find a position that would alleviate the strain in my sore spine. I could feel Gale's suspicious eyes on me as I panted and wheezed beside him, pursuing a clear path in the tangled woods as I fought my way uphill. But I was still startled when I felt a firm tug on my shoulder strap.
"Here, let me carry it."
I was unsettled by his offer. There was something disturbing about it to me, how it shed rays of brilliant light on the difference between his behavior now and how he used to be. A younger Gale would have never done this for me. There was never a fiery touch of concern in his gaze when he watched me struggle to keep up with him. He used to gloat when he managed to outrun me. Now he slowed down, ever subtle, so that I could maintain his pace.
"Katniss, let me carry it," he repeated, his voice demanding and deep and full of compassion.
My throat tightened as I felt the strap loosen around my shoulder. I hated myself for savoring the sweet relief of having the weight pulled off of me. I could do nothing but stand there helplessly as Gale stripped me of my luggage – sheath and all – and hoisted the load onto his shoulders. His very young, very muscular shoulders.
I believe that was where I first felt the stirring of...something. At least, if that strange feeling had a place of birth, I think this is where it began.
It was his act of selflessness that caused it. The way he so readily – no, eagerly – took on my burden to relieve me of it. The way he sensed, without me saying a word, that I was not one hundred percent.
It left me frustrated, and confused, and flushed.
At sixteen years old, Gale was undergoing an unquestionable metamorphosis from boy to man. Meanwhile, I was still caught in that awkward slump between prepubescent and adolescent. There were times where our ages meant very little to us, but at this moment the two year gap between us seemed more like a chasm.
I fell quietly behind as he surged forward, clearing the way for me by kicking thorny twigs aside and flattening bushes of fern to the ground with his heavy feet. I had no idea whether to be grateful or resentful of what he was doing for me. As usual, my confusion manifest itself in aggression, and I made a show out of challenging his speed as we plowed through the forest.
"Whoa there, Catnip! Smell smoke, do you?"
I swatted away a shield of ivy and dodged a low hanging branch in my attempt to keep as far ahead of him as possible. "Shut up."
His warm laughter stung my heart. "What's the rush?"
I honestly couldn't have told him even I'd wanted to. Part of me wanted to run away from him, and the other part wanted to linger back there, with his flexing muscles and friendly concern. I didn't answer him.
"Seriously, slow down," he said, his voice growing distant as I forged ahead. "You're gonna start a fire." Sober, with a twitch of humor.
I was so caught up in my churning thoughts and the aches in my body and trying to keep Gale out of range, that I just narrowly missed hitting my own head on another low branch. But what I did not miss hitting was my foot against a raised root in the ground. Down I went, just like one of the birds we shoot out of the sky. I found myself a second later crumpled up on the twig strewn ground, clutching my knee to my chest, my mouth wide open in a soundless wail of pain.
It took Gale a few extra steps to catch up because I was so far ahead of him. My eyes were still squeezed shut when I heard him gasp. That was how I knew he'd found me.
He cursed softly, the way he did whenever he missed a shot while hunting. Only this time he used a different word. One he'd never, ever said before in my presence until now.
I'd never forget the fleeting panic that brightened his eyes as he fell straight to his knees beside me, feeling around my stiffened body for broken bones the way our mothers taught us to do. He whipped his head around to direct a hostile glare at the spot where I'd fallen, as though the tree root itself had tripped me on purpose. Then he turned his attention back to my grimacing face and swallowed hard. I thought it was fascinating how his Adam's apple became more prominent when he was angry or upset.
"Look what you did now," he muttered breathlessly as he poked around. I didn't know if he was speaking to me, or to himself, or to the tree root. I never found out.
I moaned in wordless agony, regretting my attempts to stretch out my cramped knee.
"Where does it hurt?" He was using his demanding voice again.
All I could do was gesture vaguely to my right knee.
"Where? Where, Katniss?" His urgency spurred me to be more specific. My right hand curled into a paw, hovering directly over the knee that was stinging like something awful.
Even old Buttercup would have been impressed by the furious hiss I let out as Gale tried to lift my coat up. I swatted his hand away and hugged my leg protectively, tucking it back underneath my coat.
He huffed impatiently and snapped one of the buttons of my coat loose. "Let me see it."
"No!" I shook my head like a furious child.
I swore I could hear him struggling to cover up a laugh. "Come on. Let me look at—"
"It hurts, Gale!" As if he couldn't gather that.
I heard both his hands slap down on his thighs. "If I promise not to touch you, will you at least let me take a look?"
I don't know why I was so keen on resisting him. All he wanted to do was look and make sure I wasn't critically injured. I could tell from the way the stinging was slowly subsiding that it wasn't anything serious, but I had no way to assure him of that. He wouldn't believe me even if I did tell him out loud.
So I unbuttoned my stupid coat and just let him look.
"So?" I gritted my teeth.
"It doesn't look that bad," he assessed, cocking his head at weird angles to take in the sight of my lopsided leg. "You probably just twisted it when you fell. You'll be all right." For the first time ever, his voice was entirely clinical, devoid of any teasing or humor. I almost wished he would bring that nonchalant, boyish bruteness back. I needed him to tell me to tough it out, man up, savor the burn.
But instead, he asked in the softest, tamest whisper imaginable, "So now will you let me touch you?"
Hypnotized, I nodded my permission. For how firmly he'd tugged my backpack away from me earlier, I'd have never guessed his hands could be so gentle. He patiently helped me stretch my leg until I was able to flex it comfortably back and forth. He kept a tentative arm around me while I tried to balance myself on both feet again, and he never even came close to laughing when I failed.
"I can't believe this," I whimpered hopelessly. "I'm crippled."
Finally, I saw a smirk peeking out from his steady lips. "You're not crippled, Catnip. I've twisted just about everything before. Ankles, knees... It's nothing a day of good rest won't fix."
I groaned loudly. "A day?" I guess it served me right for trying to prove myself out in the wilderness when I was sick. I should have just stayed in bed.
"Don't worry, I'll bring you supper."
The sweet domesticity of his promise struck me, even though it was in jest. I refused to let him see me smile.
"You ready to try walking?" he asked.
There was a drawn out silence where neither of us made a move or said a word. Then suddenly Gale spoke to me in a slow, careful way, "You know you can hold onto me if you need to."
I knew that very well. But truth be told, I was downright afraid to take advantage of the offer, even more so now that he had mentioned it. "I want to try it on my own first," I told him defiantly.
"Fair enough." He stepped back to give me some space, and I immediately collapsed to the ground.
"It seems gravity is smitten with you today," he said, his words punctuated by catching hiccups of laughter.
Now he was sounding more like his old self. I could have smacked him.
He bent over to tuck both his hands beneath my armpits and lift me to my feet again. I felt like a puppet. I didn't like it one bit. As a fourteen-year-old, my legs were still wobbly and scrawny to begin with. Having a twisted knee certainly didn't help. As much as I hated to admit it to myself, it was obvious I was going to need Gale's help to get back home. Lots of help.
But damn it all, I was too proud to say it.
"I'm gonna go again now," I warned him, my foot already poised to take a shaky step. His hands were still awkwardly clutching in my armpits. I realized with some surprise how big his hands were. They made me feel small and light.
"Careful," he cautioned me, hands still in place. This time he didn't back away.
I performed a bit better the second time around, but walking the rest of the way home like this was out of the question.
Before I could apologize for the slowness, Gale voiced my thoughts out loud. "Do you think you can move any faster now?"
"I'm working with one knee here, what do you think?" I snapped, knowing deep down that my anger at him was completely misdirected. I was truly only angry with myself.
"So...you want me to carry you back?"
The first response that popped into my mind was an enthusiastic, 'Yes, please!' An instant later, my most potent thought was a vicious, 'How dare he?'
Forget smacking him. I could have punched him.
Instead I scoffed and tried to push his hands out from under my arms. "Gale, I am going to walk home on my own." As I said this, I stumbled forward and had to right myself with the aid of a nearby tree trunk. My already chapped hands got bitter red blisters from the rigid bark.
Gale was appalled. "You're kidding, right? At this rate we won't reach the fence until tomorrow morning!" His tone was rough, but the barest touch of his signature humor was still in there somewhere, keeping me warm inside.
I defied him one more time, knowing my next step would turn out to be my final provocation. Sure enough, the tip of my boot barely grazed the ground before I was being raised up into the air.
I yelped in delighted protest as he adjusted my weight across his sturdy arms. His expression was hardened by duty, but softened by the edge of a smug smile. I didn't struggle against him because it would have hurt my knee even more. And I'd convinced myself that was the only reason.
We stared at each other, face to face, for an amusing few seconds. He looked down at me, pityingly, and I looked up at him, resentfully. "Put me down," I whispered, utterly insincere.
"No, Katniss. Let me carry you."
As if his offer to carry my bags and weapons wasn't threatening enough, now he was offering to carry me.
I knew it was useless to fight him.
I also envied his ability to walk without falling.
His arms tightened around my body, tucking me closer against his firm chest. Without another word, he began to soldier his way through the woods.
It was at this moment when the world around me took a full, luxurious pause, giving me a plethora of things to notice that I'd never noticed before. The changing shape of his jaw. The fullness of his lips. The length of his eyelashes. The darkness of his eyebrows. The pretty, pinkish vein that protruded along the side of his neck. The way his jacket made that crushy sound whenever he moved, and how I secretly found it soothing.
The exertion quickly made him flush. Faint splotches of red formed on the skin of his face and neck, like little kiss marks from the cold. I likewise felt an intense heat spread throughout my entire body – which I promptly blamed on my fever. I was still ill. I was allowed to feel this way. Weak. Warm. Trembly. It had nothing to do with the fact that Gale was carrying me uphill, through the cold woods, with at least a hundred and fifty pounds of extra weight on his person. It was not effortless for him. Not back then. In two more years it would be. But neither of us would have known this at the time.
I adored him for it. Every breath he took, every grunt, every heavy step upward and forward. And yet I simultaneously despised him for being so heroic. It made me feel selfish and useless. I didn't want to like him in this way. I didn't want to stare up at him, to count the number of times he blinked, to watch those beautiful beads of perspiration glisten on his determined brow, to worship every puff of white steam that bloomed from his full, chapped lips.
I pushed all those feelings and observations deep inside my gut and suppressed them. Promised myself never to let them roam free for as long as I lived.
This was not the way I was supposed to feel about my best friend. Even at fourteen years old, I knew that.
But I still let him carry me home.