Piltover--city of progress, peace, and home to some of the brightest minds Valoran has to offer. Or, that was what the flier had attempted to persuade me of, at the least.
As I stepped off the platform and onto the dock, pulling the collars of what I was beginning to realize was an incredibly non-Piltoveran coat closer to my face, I could only reflect on how little I truly knew of the new city before me. The city I was meant to call 'home' now, I suppose. The thought sent a tremor through my spine. I'd never been particularly enamored by Zaun, but I'd never actually left the city, either.
The cities may be but a boat-ride away from one another, but this place...it seemed an entire different world. The faded pictures in the books did nothing to capture the eyesore I beheld. The sun had never shone so brightly over Zaun--even on days when the clouds didn't cover the mass of the city in a fetid blanket, it was as if no light dared entreat on such soiled grounds. Here...even with a hand over my eyes, the glare forced me to squint. My lips pulled back in a grimace; all of that metal and glass reflecting the light! Surely it was foolish to prioritize opulence over function? But as I took a quick glance around, I felt my stomach lurch when I saw the idle glances cast my way from those on the platform.
I removed my hand, straightened my tie, and tried to ignore the blossoming headache and minimal field of vision as I pushed my way through the crowd.
What little I knew of Piltover, I had glimpsed only through the lens of Zaun's heavily (if not amusingly) biased narrative. The land of the pretentious and weak--of science limited by petty regulations, hindering true progress. Zaun's school of Techmaturgy wasn't particularly well known for their history program, but I do seem to recall getting perfect marks on the section regarding Piltover. None of which mattered, I was starting to realize. Dry words in a tome did nothing to explain the confusing city I now walked. It was so...immaculate! I stepped from the platform and to the sidewalk, suddenly conscious of the presence of my bulky suitcase, I paused just to watch the movement of the street before glancing to the nearest street sign to begin navigating the directions I had memorized.
It was nice, I had to admit, to not be constantly accosted by the foul stench of shimmer seeping from every sewer grate.
Ha! If my fellow students could only see me now, traversing the polished streets of Piltover! I was certain more than a handful would have some choice words for me. Pride in Zaun was a staple of its techmaturgists--a pride in a city that allowed them to pursue their own paths with no restrictions.
I briefly wondered, my gaze cautiously lifted towards the clear sky, if I had ever been among their ranks. I paused at a street corner, looking back down to the family standing before me. Two young girls cheerily arguing amongst themselves, each holding one of their father's hands as he waited for the signal to cross the street. That was something you didn't see much of in Zaun either, I thought with a wry smirk. Children either ran rampant in filthy packs, or stayed locked indoors to avoid being lulled in by the nearest organ merchant lurking in the alleyways.
I continued across the street when I could, readily avoiding the sparse handful of glances I received as I walked. I could almost hear the inner machinations of their minds trying to piece together what I was. Piltover, no doubt, had its fair share of tourists. Demacians, Noxians, Ionians, perhaps even a few from the outlier city-states. But Zaun? I ran my tongue along the back of my teeth, turning my attention to the vehicles that passed. All so painfully Piltover in make. I wondered if it was my own bias that had me muttering under my breath over their glistening exteriors and strict adherence to the speeding laws.
A thought nagged at the back of my mind; I was overwhelming myself, trying to take it all in at once. Perhaps if I was only a tourist, I wouldn't feel my heart shuddering against my chest. But as I looked over the magnanimous buildings and again internalized that this was my new home, my throat constricted with a dry discomfort.
Shaking my head in an attempt to force myself back into reality, I pulled open the written directions I had, apparently, begun crushing in my hand with my engrossment on the world around me. I let myself focus on those, following the street signs and keeping my head downturned during the long walk.
I only stopped when the address imprinted in my mind matched the one on the building before me. I uncrumpled the parchment in hand, looking over the written directions. There was some comfort in the act, despite how futile it was; even without an address, there was no doubting this was the building I was looking for. It, at least, was somewhat similar to the Zaun laboratories in structure. The tall, domed atrium on the leftmost section was certainly the 'shop' portion. I felt a strange heaviness settle on my chest; certainly that couldn't be for myself and another person? It rivaled the size of the laboratory my entire team had created the steam golem in.
I tried to ebb down the sensation of pride at the thought--I did not have the luxury of hapless assumptions anymore. It was, no doubt, all they had left to stick a Zaunite techmaturgist of no renown in. As glistening as that metal frame may have been. I was consoled by how unimposing the living segment seemed to be. A mere tumor on the rest of the building; those, at least, would be reminiscent of the cramped dorms myself and the other students had been forced to occupy during our research.
I pocketed the paper quickly; no use trying to will an answer out of an inanimate building! I steeled my resolve, twisting open the door before my will could falter. For better or worse, this was it for me, and damned if I was going to back out when I'd made it this far!
The foyer itself was more reminiscent of a noble's estate than the inner-workings of a laboratory, but the portraits depicting various inventors and scientists lining the hallways betrayed its purpose. I eyed the large, metal doors at the far-end; there was no doubt that they held what had truly brought me to the city. My footfalls resounded heavily off of the wooden floors as I made my way without hesitation, throwing the doors open.
It was...beyond my expectations, and the unease of my heart was quelled upon seeing the spacious laboratory and the large machines dotting the workfloor. I found myself smiling; the invitation from 'Professor Heimerdinger' to work for Piltover had mentioned that I was being put up with another inventor, and would be sharing their workspace. I'd worried for nothing, then; in such a space, I'd have no need to even cross paths with another inventor!
My moment of blessed silence was obliterated when I heard the clatter of tools from somewhere within the recesses of titanic machines; that would be them, then. I closed the door with more force than was necessary to ascertain it slammed shut, and was rewarded with the sound of something metallic clattering to the floor. I heard the tell-tale noise of wheels sliding against wood, and someone standing from the creeper they'd been lying on.
"Sorry, didn't hear you knock!" came an all too-masculine voice for my tastes. I made my way down the sizeable staircase as he weaved his way through the machines towards me, standing at the bottom step when he finally approached.
How could I explain him? Precisely the opposite of what I might have expected a "partner in the pursuit of invention" was supposed to look like? When I thought of techmaturgy and hextech in Piltover, I had always pulled to mind ancient men and women with their silly goggles and draping lab coats. The image of a young man, muscled enough to throw me across the room with a single punch and clearly so enamored with his own appearance had never crossed my mind.
He barely looked a day over 25, if he was even that. He was a child--a muscly, charismatic (if that disgusting welcoming smile were any indication) child. He looked like something out of a calendar; some fit young man forced into a grease-smeared shirt and welding gear, and told to pose with a blowtorch. The reality of Zaun had been a selection of lanky, exhausted people with unkempt hair and permanent, heavy bags under our eyes.
Ugh, and that smile. If he was trying to impress me, it was certainly failing. He reminded me of the peddlers on Zaun's streets, trying to hawk their goods with a grin.
His smile only grew when he looked me over.
"Hold on, you're Viktor, aren't you?" he asked, laughing as he extended a hand. "Jayce. This is my lab!"
Crude of an introduction as it was, I did my best to return the expression, shaking his hand. "It's nice to meet you." I said, hoping my words weren't as uncertain as I felt.
He lifted an eyebrow, looking me over a second time.
I looked back at him in turn, struggling to hold back a sigh, "What?"
"Does everyone in Zaun sound like that?" he said without missing a beat, taking a seat on the desk nearest him.
Ah, of course. How foolish I had been to assume there was even a minute chance I might wind up working with someone I could tolerate. "Does everyone in Piltover have your level of social ineptitude?" I snapped back, before I could think to reel in the flash of anger.
The fool merely smiled back at me, chuckling under his breath. "Calm down there, Vik, not taking a stab at you." he said, pushing off the desk and coming closer. "I like it. Foreign. And… weird, sure, but a good weird."
I took a long breath. Patience, Viktor, even in the face of such an insufferable child. "Viktor will do fine." I said, words strained as I attempted to find some excuse to digress. "Have you been here long?" I asked.
Jayce turned to where I was looking, glancing around the space of the laboratory. "Hour or so, I guess. I had to help a friend in her lab before I came...." he trailed off, looking back to me. Ah, there it was--the recognition that he'd misunderstood my question. I gave him a pointed look, urging him to continue, "Oh. You mean in general. Yeah, used the last of my savings to get the place after I graduated. Got it for a steal, too. But...that might be because the last lady who owned the place defected to Zaun under everyone's noses." he mentioned flippantly. I was glad, in that moment, that he had turned away from me and managed to miss my reaction. "Works for me, I doubt anyone else in my class is working out of anything this fancy." he said, missing yet another eyeroll from me, "And if what I've heard about you is true, then all the better for me."
Well, finally something he'd said had piqued my interest. I met his gaze when he turned back around. "And what have you heard, exactly?" I asked, wondering if my apprehension showed.
The boy shrugged; I could almost see the gears turning in his head as he tried to back-pedal, "Just that you were the one who made that sentient automaton that Stanwick took credit for. Old Professor Donger was keeping track of the whole thing, went straight to the Piltover Council of Techmaturgy as soon as he heard about what happened, said--" Jayce cleared his throat and, to my horror, adopted the voice of a yordle, "We have a rare opportunity here, ladies and gentlemen! We have so many bright, young minds here, but what we lack is perspective! And here we have just that--a brilliant, new perspective, no doubt suffering from the theft of his work and yearning for a new start-- a new community of like-minded individuals who will value his work!" Jayce laughed, looking back over his shoulder at me. "Or, something like that. I wasn't there. I just know the Council is throwing a lot of money my way to put you up."
I again fought the urge to bristle at the flippant disregard. "Or something, indeed." I said, taking a long breath to steady my voice. "Well, it seems you already know enough about me, what of yourself? Any astounding accomplishments?" I asked, walking forward and past Jayce, making my way deeper into the workspace. "Or have they sent me to someone fresh out of the academy? Am I to take you under my wing, so to speak?" I asked, stopping before an impulse magnetizer. I ran a finger over the bronze surface, pulling back my finger to inspect the fine layer of dust. The boy clearly had a well-stocked laboratory; that, at least, was something in my favor.
He scoffed, but I kept my attention on the machines as I walked. "You think you're smarter than me, don't you?"
I exaggerated a shrug, sparing him a glance over my shoulder, "Unless you manage to prove otherwise. Given your current record, I don't have high hopes."
His footsteps sounded closer to me, but I paid them no heed. Just another silly inventor with an unwarranted sense of self-accomplishment. There were more than enough in Zaun for me to put up with.
"You've known me for five minutes, you have no idea what I'm capable of."
I let out a low hum, "Really? All you seem to be capable of is painful conversation and getting your precious ego deflated so far."
I stopped when I heard his footsteps abruptly halt. I finally turned, one eyebrow elevated. He kept his eyes averted, but there was no mistaking it: I'd hurt his pride.
"I can show you." he said. Without waiting for a response, he turned from me and darted out of sight. I remained where I was, busying myself with the machine closest to me as I waited. I had to admit, I was curious what he would bring out. Perhaps a machine capable of creating muscle mass? That would certainly explain a few things. Or, if I was lucky, a pair of advanced ear plugs to make these...however many months I was stuck with the boy, more tolerable.
I turned around at the sound of his return, watching as he unceremoniously placed what looked to be a piece of armor and a number of blue-prints on the metal table. He stood victoriously with his hands on his hips, beaming at me.
I feigned a gasp, speaking in monotone, "How could I have questioned you? Look at this marvel of hextech innovation. If only our ancestors could see us now, making things like metal armor. They would surely quake in fear." I failed to keep the smirk off of my face, and he shot me a glare for it.
"Smart-ass." he muttered, still smiling at me despite the comment. "Just watch." he said, plucking a remote up from among his scrap, and turning the dial on it. A low hum filled the room, the familiar whir of something moving--something working--that I hadn't heard in so long. I relished the noise without meaning to, watching as the brass chestpiece he'd brought with him began to exude a dull blue aura around itself.
"Now, if anyone tries to shoot anything at you with this on? Bullets, magic, you name it. No effect." he said, the excitement clear in his voice. He took a step backwards, pulling a pencil from his pocket and tossing it at his creation. With a loud pop of electricity, a bright light filled the room. I covered my face with my hands, taking a few steps away from the explosion. When I again looked, the armor was still shining blue, and Jayce was motioning towards the wall closest to us. I looked and, to my dismay, found the pencil lodged halfway through the wall. Our wall. My wall.
"See? The gravitational field around it alters and harnesses the momentum of anything coming at it, and sends it flying away. Or, If I turn the dial again, it changes to a stasis field. Anything fired at it gets caught. Good for actual battle. You know, if you don't want your repelled projectiles to kill your friends."
I took a step forward, to actually inspect the thing. His explanation was entirely unscientific, but a quick glance over the armor showed that he did, it seemed, have the scientific knowhow to make it in the first place. It was terribly flashy--were all things in Piltover made only with appearances in mind?--but I could see the mechanics within the husk, all working in unison to create the repulsion field.
None of which, unfortunately, made it impressive.
"Useless." I muttered, facing him.
He scoffed, waited a moment for me to explain myself, and shook his head. "You're kidding. Right?"
I laced my hands behind my back, stepping away from the device and towards him. "Why would I? It's useless."
He looked at me as one might a book written in another language. "All the wars that have happened, all the battles at the Institute of War, and you don't think a full body suit of this stuff would change anything?" he asked, exasperation in his voice.
Good. I liked seeing that cocky smile fade.
"Oh, it certainly would. But what then? Someone on the enemy side either finds your armor on a corpse or steals it and reverse engineers it. Your side must make new inventions to counter your silly breastplate. Those inventions get stolen, Ad infinitum. Useless. Anything made for war serves no purpose." I muttered, motioning out to the workfloor. "You have all of this equipment; why not use it to make something that will truly change things? Not some piece of fancy metal to strap to some brainless incompetent to die in, but something that will truly revolutionize the world?"
"Like your golem?"
The question sent a prickle of pain through my chest. One of the fellow students I had worked with in Zaun had commented on my speeches--how surprising it was to see someone become so passionate when speaking at length; how I truly seemed to lose myself when I went into them. I hadn't realized how true the sentiment had been, until I felt those words entirely deflate me. I kept my gaze towards the laboratory, but I had little doubt he knew the effect of his words.
"Blitzcrank was...supposed to be a beacon for science. Something to show the true extent of what we can do and be..." I trailed off, not entirely certain why I was attempting to explain myself to this idiot.
"Instead, they use your research to bring back the most loathed Noxian general to continue his reign of terror. To continue fighting on the Institute of War's battlefield now. Something I'm sure they'll keep doing to all of their beloved generals."
I turned back and opened my mouth to speak, but he abruptly cut me off, "So, both of our inventions are being used to perpetuate the endless cycle of war, then." he said, lifting both hands as he shrugged, "You'd do yourself a favor to just accept that someone, somewhere, will always find a way to bastardize anything you make, no matter your intentions. I could make a machine that... saves orphans from dying, and someone would find a way to make it enslave orphans for their orphan army instead."
I folded my arms, a genuine chuckle escaping my lips, "Orphan army?"
He scoffed, stepping into my space to briefly ruffle my hair, "Analogies aren't my strong suit." He moved to the table, hoisting his powered-down armor and blueprints in his arms. "Weapons, armor, and power-sources are my forte. Charming people, too." he briefly smirked at me as I shook my head at him, "But my point still stands."
I ran my hand back through my hair to fix it into its proper dishevelment, keeping in pace as I followed him through the winding halls of machinery. I tried to not let show how shaken up I still was over the mention of Blitzkrank. "What's a poor inventor to do then, hmm?" I asked, my eyes wandering over the machines we passed. The machines, I reminded myself, that I would be working with soon.
That, at least, gave me some degree of hope. Along with my growing lack of disdain for the boy. He was a fool, that was certain, but he was clearly more interesting than I had pegged him for initially.
He glanced over his shoulder, the same grin etched on his features, "Do our best, hope our inventions aren't used for too many deaths, and enjoy the nice bit of fame our sort get here in Piltover."
I met his eye for a moment, rolling my own at the sentiment, "When we aren't building orphan enslaving devices, you mean."
He gave a sharp bark of a laugh, "Careful, or I'm not taking you to dinner tonight."
The statement sent an odd pang through my torso. I swallowed it, shaking my head to clear the sensation, "You're taking me to dinner?" I asked.
Jayce stopped suddenly, depositing his armful on a wide worktable full of other half-finished devices. "Of course I am. It wouldn't be very considerate of me to send you into a city you don't know to eat alone, would it?"
I scoured my mind for something clever to respond with, but found myself unable to think of anything.
"Besides, I want to hear about things in Zaun. We hear the tales, but I want to know what it's really like straight from the mouth of an actual defector."
He paused, licking his bottom lip in thought, before adding, "What do they do about defectors from Zaun, anyways? Spies? Assassins? Anything like that?"
The thought had crossed my mind before I'd left--of course it had. Zaun was ruthless; even as far away from the politics of it as I had been with my nose always in my experiments, I knew Zaun kept its morals close in line with Noxus'. I took a long breath and let it out, "I don't know. If I was someone of note, they'd send assassins after me. They may still send spies, but they won't risk turning the ire of the Institute on themselves over one mere inventor." I reasoned.
He nodded, pushing away from the desk and dusting off his hands. "Don't worry. Anyone coming for you will have to get through me first, anyways." he said, lifting an arm and giving an over-exaggerated flex of it.
This boy was going to kill me with his cheesy bravado before any assassin could. "Well, perhaps your gaudy armor will be of some use after all, hmm?" I retorted.
He laughed again, and I was beginning to find some appreciation in the sound. I had enjoyed those I worked with in Zaun, but our work had always been stoic. I couldn't place my regard for him. He was the type I'd pin as a soldier--burly, arrogant, charming--but here he was, sharing a workspace with me. I had expected things to be different here but this...him? I couldn't wrap my mind around it.
The conflicting thought was only made worse when he wrapped an arm around my shoulders. If I hadn't been aware of how tall he was before, I certainly was now. "I like you, Vik. Let me finish showing you around, then we'll go eat."
I pulled myself out of his hold, straightening my jacket, "I have to unpack first."
He only gave me a lop-sided smirk, those thick eyebrows of his raising towards his hairline. "Save it. You have a whole city waiting to be explored first!" he exclaimed, "And the best tour guide you could ask for."
I sighed aloud, but that only seemed to spurn him on. He placed his hand back on my back and continued leading me through the maze of machines, babbling about the various machines and the 'amazing things' he was going to show me around the city.
I couldn't tell whether I was dreading the time ahead or excited for it; all I could say with any certainty was that it was bound to be more interesting than spending every day in my single-room apartment in Zaun, too depressed to leave my bed most mornings.
Even if it meant spending time with this buffoon.