Juno Pryce turned twenty one that day. Her mother, sick as she was, had baked her a maple cake- her favorite. It was just the two of them, her mother and her, after Juno's father was killed on the job. Her mother had taken ill sometime after and was forced to quit working. Trying to survive off of her father's death benefit was, Juno would soon learn, next to impossible, so she'd started working as soon as she was able. Nothing substantial: cleaning houses after school, babysitting children on the weekends, singing in local pubs years before she should have legally been allowed in. But she made enough that she didn't have to ask anything from her mother, so she counted it as a win.
Her mother had insisted she not become a lumberjack like her father before her- "too many deaths!" she'd said. So Juno got a steady job as a waitress as soon as she graduated. She'd never taken a sick day. She'd never shown up late.
As it happened, she was off on her birthday this year. So, before her mother went to bed, she stroked Juno's hair, bent down and planted a kiss on the crown of her head.
"Why don't you go out and be young for a night, June Bug?"
She tried the usual arguments: the sun is already setting, I have nothing to wear, who will look after you while I'm gone? and none of it worked. Juno's mother, she had learned long ago, had a habit of getting what she wanted in some form or fashion. So, try as she might have to get out of it, Juno found herself wearing her reaping dress- the only dress she owned- and walking into one of the pubs she used to perform at when she was younger.
She recognized many of the faces; a few of her schoolmates noticed her and she smiled politely and waved back to them. She took a seat there, on the end of the bar. Her game plan was simple: stay for a drink or two so that her mother would be appeased, then go back home. She was well into executing said plan when the stranger with a familiar face took his seat next to her.
He was older than her, around the same age as her mother, but pieces of his youthful attractiveness still clung to him around the edges. His eyes were cunning and blue, and he smelled nice. She'd only ever seen him standing on stage in front of the whole of the District during reapings. Mayor Bryson Ripsaw.
He noticed her lingering gaze and smiled at her; she smiled back. She smiled back, and everything changed.
A casual conversation turned into buying more drinks, which led to a walk in the park, then a kiss on her doorstep, then an invitation into her bed. She wasn't the type to believe in love, but everything felt so easy with him. Natural. She'd fallen asleep in his arms and woken up alone. And when she tried to see him again, when she went to the same bar and waited, when she tried to schedule meetings with him in his office, nothing ever came of it. Like a ghost, the most important man in the district disappeared from her life as quickly as he had entered it.
It was only a month later, when she vomited at the mere smell of eggs cooking one morning that her mother asked if she might have been pregnant.
Juno Pryce insisted that she had zero regrets keeping the twins. Even if it meant raising them alone, even if it meant scraping by. Because their father had already left them, and if she chose to as well, maybe she was no better than he was. The idea of her children suffering in some orphanage, wondering where she was, growing to resent her for never showing up- it was never really an option for her to give them up.
So she had them: a little boy and a little girl, and they were so alike in some ways and somehow completely different in others. They would hold contests to see which could be louder, she thought, and they both had a habit of sucking their thumbs. They both slept best on their left side, neither liked tomatoes, both were allergic to strawberries. But as they grew older the girl, Maxine, had more trouble holding her tongue. She was all fire, and the way she saw it: if she was upset about something, everyone around her deserved to feel the same. And Mackenzie was quiet, sneaky. Always thinking, plotting, the brains of the operation. If Maxine was the fire, Mackenzie was the gasoline and matches.
She caught them once when they were five trying to run away because she'd forced them to eat spaghetti. Mackenzie was quick to shed the blame, to point the finger at Max, but she knew better. Maxine would've happily walked out the front door with nothing but the shirt on her back and called it a day, but this: pillows situated under their blankets to look like bodies, sheets tied together and flung out the window, backpacks full of clothes and cupcakes? Come on, honestly.
For a while, though, things seemed to be as good as she could have possibly imagined them. Hard, yes, and messy as all get out. But her mother watched the kids when they were out of school and she had to work and they made enough money to put food on the table every night, even if it was a lot of beans and cabbage and pasta. The kids always had one another to stay occupied, she invested in a pair of earmuffs so she was getting plenty of rest- it wasn't much, but it was functional.
And then her mother took a turn for the worst, and while she was at work one day a peacekeeper came and found her and told her the bad news. Maxine had found her, thought she was napping in the floor. It was only when she didn't wake that the young girl connected the dots and ran to tell the neighbors.
Mackenzie, by some miracle, had stayed late at school for basketball practice. She was glad that at least one of her children was still oblivious to staring death in the face, at least for a while longer, and she hated that the other one knew exactly what it looked like first-hand. It was, in her opinion, her first and largest failure as a parent, and not a day went by where she didn't look at her daughter and worry that it set her on a different, darker path to know so early in life that usually, a person's dreams do not come true.
Growing up, Mackenzie harbored a lot of anger, as one would expect. The exact thing Juno feared about her children feeling toward her, should she have given them up, was directly wholly at their absent father. It was directed at all men for a while- they never knew who was to blame and their mother hadn't ever given them a name. It wasn't until their first reaping, Mackenzie and Maxine standing next to each other with the other twelve year olds when Bryson Ripsaw made his way onto the stage and Max made the connection.
After that, they didn't need to ask their mother; they only needed to tell her there was no use in lying for him. And she didn't: when they said they knew, she'd just sighed and told them she hadn't ever wanted them to find out. Because maybe their dad could have otherwise been a good man. Maybe he could have died when they were young, and maybe he had always wanted to be there. Or maybe he was taken from them against his will, sent off to the Capitol to work as an avox. Anything other than: he was a man with every advantage and a huge amount of indifference.
She told them she doubted he knew they even existed, so they hated him.
By the time he was fourteen, Mackenzie was using that strategic mind of his for personal gain. He'd come up with an entire story about how he and Max were doing a project in school, how they would really appreciate an interview with the mayor to discuss politics and some made-up rumors regarding his abuse of power. He thought they'd be lucky to get a couple minutes in his office, so when Bryson's assistant told him that he and Max had been invited over for dinner, he was beyond proud of himself.
They went into his house, two angry teenagers wanting answers. He couldn't speak for Max, but Mackenzie was hoping to find some reason. A sickness, or an alcohol dependency. Something that would've made his leaving feel more like a selfless choice, something that would benefit the pair of them in the long run.
He sat down on the couch, pen and paper in hand, started the interview just as expected. Max excused herself to the restroom so that she could snoop through his things: nothing. A front entrance and a back, two stories, three bathrooms, six bedrooms. A lot of lovely artwork. A couple bottles of scotch in his study, covered in a thin layer of dust, some cigars in his desk drawer. But nothing to tell them what they wanted to hear: that he did want to be with them, but that he simply couldn't.
So, they used what they did find, and broke into his house two nights later, stole some of his shit and pawned it for bill money. Least he could do. the way they saw it.
It was freeing in a sense. His hatred gave him something to prove, forced him to strive better, to make better grades, to start working as soon as he could. Anything to ascend, so that he could look his father in the face and show him what a huge mistake he had made.
But in the same respect, it was the opposite of freeing. He was chained to his hatred: a heavy weight on his shoulder that he was forced to drag around with him everywhere he went. He kissed people he did not like, told them he did. He went to parties and didn't come home, left his mother worried sick. Because why should anyone care in the first place? An inch of success was ultimately worth nothing when any one mistake could send him flying back to the start line, and by the time he'd become a senior, he had stopped trying to be something more, because he'd realized that Bryson slept well every night that Mackenzie stayed up wondering what if?
Things have a strange way of happening when one least expects it. Just when he'd given up, when he had accepted that he would live his life in the woods, chopping down trees for wealthier people to burn for warmth and build houses from, he was reaped. Even though he and Max hadn't held hands, as was their superstitious tradition: never hold hands, or something will try to pull us apart.
Being reaped put him on the very same stage as Bryson, who tried to shake his hand. Didn't seem to recognize him from that night four years prior, damn sure still didn't recognize him as his son. Mackenzie didn't shake his hand. He only stared at Bryson with the eyes he'd passed down to him in the first place.
It felt good. He and Max had made plan after plan to kill him off, but ever since robbing him, nothing had happened. It had become a simple pass time, dreaming up different ways they could hurt him. Not shaking his hand was almost as good as kneeing the old man in the gut right in front of all those people, which he managed to refrain himself from doing, even though he recognized already that he would likely die soon and never have the opportunity again.
And that was the rub of it: he never expected to survive. He never thought in his wildest dreams that there was not a universe where someone like him- someone thrust away from the very start, someone raised in a house with a tin roof and a hole in the floor they couldn't afford to fix- could ever possibly win. But it didn't mean he would not try.
And he never expected to find people he cared about. He never expected to see his sister's eyes in Faline, or his sister's courage in Wynter. He'd never expected to see home every time he looked at Ike Tate. But he did, ripred rest his soul. And he found himself fighting for them time after time again, risking his own life- something he had sworn to Max and his mom that he would not do- to save someone who would have to die in the end if he was going to live.
And he didn't know if it was worse that he did try to help them and failed- thank you, friend and his finger tips only inches away from Faline's and making his first kill a second too late to save Ike- or if it would have been worse to leave them all to fend for themselves.
He thought, for a long time, that the wrong person had lived. He thought, for a long time, that it wouldn't ever be possible for him to live again. But time had a funny way of fixing that, even if it was with a scruffy-haired miniature version of himself, or a ghost with green eyes looming in the corner, or a girl who broke his front door down when he wasn't there to answer, or his mother who had sacrificed everything and his sister who had vowed to never leave or a fellow victor or two to help distract him from the pain or even the nurse whose smile sometimes felt more than friendly. He got better, after all.
Now, if he wanted, he could really look at his father in the face and laugh, because he was not angry with him anymore.
MACKENZIE MY BABY BOY!!!!! you never fail to breathe rich life into the backstories of your characters and this is such a perfect example. these are even more reasons why we all root for a remarkable boy from seven who didnt start out with much and still gives everything he has to offer to everyone else, even when he got it all. i love mickey and you so so so much!!!