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Machinations of the Artificers

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“He did what ?”

 

I kept my head lodged firmly between my hands, fingers rubbing against the bridge of my nose. “Please, don’t make me say it again.” I muttered, already feeling a coiling flash of shame settle in my gut.

 

Caitlyn looked me over, and I could see that she was doing her best to look concerned, but it was a thin veneer over the desperate hunger for information glistening in her eyes. “Then how did it happen?” she asked, steepling her fingers and leaning forward.

 

I did my best to keep my attention focused on the contents of my tea, swirling them idly as I considered my words. “We finally finished our project last night. Or...this morning, perhaps.” I began, tapping the rim of his cup. “We’d perfected everything. No more muscle degeneration, perfect nerve reception, zero percent rejection rate. It was completely done--and save Jayce’s hideous colorization, entirely perfect.”

 

“That sounds...good?” Caitlyn asked tentatively, raised brow emphasizing the question.

 

I chuckled, meeting her gaze. “Of course. We were absolutely ecstatic. Months of work finally coming to their conclusion, countless hours finally paying off? Jayce was stuck between cheering and laughing maniacally. If I hadn’t grabbed the oaf by his hands, he would have bulldozed our entire lab.”

 

“So you held his hands.”

 

I clenched my fists and refused to meet her questioning gaze. Too late. I’d seen her self-assured grin. I couldn’t backpedal my way out of this, much as I felt a burning need to do so. “Yes. And he...focused all of that energy on me. He picked me up--”

 

“--So nothing new?” Caitlyn asked, only smirking more when I turned a glare her way.

 

Yes, ” I hissed, lowering my voice, “He spun us around and...stared at me with that stupid grin on his face…” I tapered off, circling my hand to relay my point.

 

“...And he kissed you.” Caitlyn stated, as if it was as simple of a fact as the current weather.

 

I extended a hand at a sudden lurching panic and shushed her, glancing to my side to make certain, once again, that the other patrons were focused on their own conversations. I took a long breath and released it, pinching the bridge of my nose.

 

“In the heat of the moment, yes . It was over before I could even register what was happening, and then he put me down and went back to cheering. He got on the phone and started calling people. His friends, our patrons--I...wasn’t paying much attention.” I murmured, running one hand along the back of my head. I sat back in my chair and regarded Caitlyn, glad to see that she was finally done smirking at me.

 

“I can’t fault you for that. That sounds...shocking, even from him .” she said, genuinely focused on me.

 

“That’s what I thought.” I said, forehead going to my own hand and resting it there. Perhaps it was the exhaustion of three straight days of work without sleep finally getting to me, or the adreneline from finally finishing the project, but I couldn’t stop the nauseating, swirling sensation in the pit of my gut when I thought over what had happened. No matter how many times I tried to assure myself that it had been a simple act of excitement in the heat of the moment, my mind continued to torment me over the moment.

 

I felt my heart clench, and a swelling of bile push against the back of my throat.

 

I knew why my mind was tormenting.

 

Had known for some time.

 

“Viktor?”

 

Caitlyn’s voice pulled me from my thoughts, and I swallowed the lump in my throat. “I have feelings for him.” I blurted out, hands going white at the knuckles as I continued to clench my fists.

 

My mind was instantly asunder with regrets.

 

I derived some degree of pleasure in watching Caitlyn blink at me with unreserved surprise. It helped to stifle the blinding surge of nerves spiking  through me. She parted her lips in a half-gape, before it quickly turned to a smile. “Thank God. I thought I was going to have to tell you that.” She reached across the table to place a hand on one of my own, running a thumb over my knuckles. “It’s fine , Viktor. You shouldn’t feel ashamed for having feelings.” she said, gently retracting her hand and clasping hers before her chest.

 

“It isn’t fine . It’s stupid .” I muttered back, closing my eyes. “I’m a techmaturgist, not some...schoolboy flitting through the hallways, consumed with a foolish crush on his colleague.”

 

Caitlyn chuckled, “ Techmaturgists can have feelings, Viktor. I do dearly hate to tell you this, but all this does is prove you’re human .” she said. I opened my eyes when I heard the creak of her chair, and saw her leaning back.

 

“Disgusting.” I said, giving a brief, half-smirk at the joke. It quickly fell with a sigh. “But even if that is the case, he’s my lab partner. It’s...highly inappropriate.” I said, already feeling how weak my excuses were sounding.

 

Caitlyn took a moment to respond, hands clasped together as she looked me over. I hated when she did that--when she tried to analyze me the way she did the criminals she interrogated. “You’re being self-defeating. You don’t think you deserve this, or any of the happiness the thought brings you.” she stated simply, tapping a finger against the table.

 

My silence, I knew, was damning enough evidence for her.

 

She continued after a pause, “I can’t say where this will go, but I think you should enjoy the feeling.” she said, a relaxation of her furrowed brows and slight pull of her lips letting me know that she was done reading me. “Not many people get to spend every day with the man of their dreams .” She said, grin broadening when I visibly recoiled.

 

“Don’t be vile.” I balked.

 

She allowed herself a soft chuckle at my expense, bringing her teacup to her lips and regarding me over the rim. “You make it so very easy, though.” she said, sipping her drink before placing it back on its saucer. “Have you talked to him since he kissed you?”

 

My shoulders tensed, “Not so loud.” I hissed, only untensing after a long breath. “And no . I left the lab while he was on the phone and came here.”

 

She nodded, sucking in her bottom lip before letting it out with a pop. “But you do have that party to attend with him tonight, yes?”

 

I had nearly forgotten. Jayce had bi-monthly parties with his old university friends, and had asked me to come to this one. They were going to celebrate our success with some games, or so I’d been told.

 

“Hmm. Perhaps that will provide you the opportunity to speak with him?” she said.

 

My chest seized. “I’d rather pretend it never happened.” I bemoaned, again pinching the bridge of my nose. “I’m going to make myself sick thinking about it. Can’t you...I don’t know, tell me a story about some horrible criminal you’ve recently apprehended?” I asked.

 

She winked, settling back in her seat. “Now that , you know I can do.”

 

----

 

“...His name is Brighthammer”

 

“Yeah, James Brighthammer.”

 

It was taking all I had to not audibly groan. I could only hope he appreciated how much effort it was taking to not poke fun at him.

 

I had been called a nerd with some degree of consistency through my schooling; they were right, to an extent.

 

But this? This was beyond my realm of understanding.

 

“Okay.” I said, taking a long breath and tapping my foot under the table. Be nice, Viktor, be nice. You just admitted you have feelings for the man, at least give this part of him a chance .

 

At least I was beginning to understand why Jayce never talked about his ‘nights out’ with his friends. I looked over the character sheet for this ‘James Brighthammer’, attempting to feign some degree of interest.

 

But it was just...just Jayce. In archaic clothing, wielding an enormous hammer. A glance at the character sheets of his friends proved little more assurance. What I had assumed ‘nights out’ had entailed had included drinking and...aggressive masculinity with one another. I’d assumed that was why he never invited me, at least.

 

I simply nodded, glancing back at the blank character sheet Jayce had given me. Alright. I could do this. I could...make an attempt.

 

The book was easy enough to follow, and the math simple enough.

 

I could do this. For him.



--------

 

Jayce’s friends hadn’t cared for Viktoria Bigstaff.



Or, perhaps, they hadn’t cared for my strict adherence to the rulebook and calculations that they were so lax in keeping up.

 

I refused to accept any blame on the matter. It was their game, and if they were going to bring me into it, I was going to play it correctly.

 

“You didn’t have to kill Geoffery’s character.”

 

Jayce’s voice attempted to hold some degree of determination, but the amusement belying it was far too obvious for me to take seriously.

 

“Geoffery was an idiot for pulling the entire mob. He got what he deserved.” I retorted, pulling my scarf up closer to my neck to stave off the cold. I craned my head to look upward; with so many lights and shining baubles constantly in motion, it was almost hard to tell that it was night time.

 

Jayce chuckled.

 

I tried to ignore his close proximity.

 

“Yeah, I’ll give you that.” He said. I watched him from my peripheral vision; watched the way his breath plumed in front of him, and the light cast off his face.

 

I inadvertantly met his eyes when he turned to look at me. “Next one will be better, I promise.”

 

“Not to offend, but I’m never doing that again.” I said with a scoff, pocketing my hands.

 

Jayce elbowed me in what I assumed was meant to be a playful gesture, but was enough to physically push me with his stupid strength.

 

“Not the game. Our next celebration, for whatever we make next?”

 

My mouth fell open in a slight gape, tongue running along the back of my teeth. I chuckled weakly, looking back to the street in front of us. “Oh? I wasn’t aware we had agreed to collaborate on any other projects. When did this happen?”

 

I was taunting him, and he was well aware. I carefully sidestepped another elbow, before trotting to fall back into pace with him. It was a mistake--I inadvertently winced at the pain that seared through my bad leg.

 

“Smartass. We’re collaborating again, don’t care what you say.”

 

I smiled--attempted to assuage it with a roll of my eyes. “If it stops you from dreaming up more frivolous toys , perhaps.”

 

Jayce beamed at me, smiling through the feigned insult. “ First of all, the mercury cannon isn’t a toy.” he said, extending an index finger, “ Second …” he trailed off, pursing his lips, “I don’t have a second, but fuck you again, the mercury cannon isn’t a toy.”

 

“Eloquent.” I retorted evenly, eyes falling to my feet.

 

A comfortable silence fell between us; I was grateful to enjoy the soft whirring of the cities mechanisms. It couldn’t last, and I knew it. There was too much to talk about--too much swirling in my own mind, pushing and prying at the corners of my mind to be let out.

 

“So,” I began, “I hear we’re going to be the headline of every paper tomorrow.”

 

Jayce chuckled, lifting a hand to brush the misplaced pieces of his hair back into place. “Barring an attack from Zaun or Noxus overnight? Should be.”

 

I nodded, uncertain of what to do with the peculiar feelings swelling in my chest. Excitement mingled with dread; anxiety coursing through the whole of my body and numbing my fingertips.

 

“Do you truly think they’ll mention me?” I asked, the words too breathy and weighted for me to pretend they were anything other than what they were: fear.

 

“What? Of course.” He said, laughing softly.  “I told everyone that we worked together on them from the start. Why would you think they wouldn’t mention you?”

 

I bit down the sardonic laugh. Why?   I refused to believe he could spend so much time with me, see what the reporters said about me, and still be so willfully blind“Because you’re an attractive, brilliant inventor from Piltover, and I’m...only one of those things.”

 

“What, attractive?”

 

I could hear the shit-eating grin in his voice without needing to look over. I elbowed him, tried to ignore the sharp pain from inadvertently knocking our elbows together, and continued, “ Jayce .” I scolded, sighing under my breath, “Few in Piltover are like you . Few are willing to overlook where I came from.” I said, attention down-cast. I tried to focus on the methodical noise of my brace. “They will laud your achievements. ‘Pretty-boy inventor makes wonderful invention despite intervention from crooked Zaunite. Read more on page 10’.” I said in monotone, casting him a look.

 

Viktor. ” Jayce returned, shooting me the same glance, “I hate to tell you this, really, I do, the victim look suits you so well, but the entire city of Piltover isn’t after your blood.”

 

I scoffed, pulling a step away from him. “The vast majority isn’t enough?”

 

Jayce sighed, running a hand through his hair and, to my silent amusement, knocking his bangs back into his face in the process. “Come on, Vik. I won’t let them do that. Look, I have an interview tomorrow. I swear on my grandfather’s grave, I won’t talk about anything but you. Alright?”

 

I sighed in turn, shaking my head and cementing my mouth shut.

 

Jayce would never understand; eventually, I would have to come to terms with that. He would never understand the sensation of being overshadowed by someone thoroughly enough as to be made out to be a saboteur on the project, instead of equal collaborators.

 

Even if, by some miracle, I wasn’t written off as a hindrance to Jayce’s creative process, I would have half the attention Jayce received.

 

And it never seemed to matter how many times I told myself how little I cared for the attention, and that this was all for the sake of furthering techmaturgy and humanity… I wasn’t as above it as I liked to think.

 

I couldn’t think of how to relay this to Jayce.

 

Didn’t want to relay this to Jayce.

 

The man had worried after me more than my own mother ever had.

 

“Don’t be an idiot.” I instead settled on, smiling with what little strength behind it that I could muster. “Then they’ll just say I’ve brainwashed you with my ‘scary Zaun magic.’” I said, waggling my fingers for extra effect.

 

Jayce snorted with laughter, folding his own arms. “What, you’re a mage now too? Gonna cast some of that scary Zaun magic on me?”

 

Idiot.

 

“I already tried to cast a stupidity spell on you when we first met, but you were apparently too stupid for it to even work.” I muttered, smiling despite myself.

 

“Oh, ouch , calm down there, Warwick.”

 

I quirked an eyebrow, lips pulling back in response to his befuddling statement. “Warwick isn’t a mage , he’s a crazy wolfman who was experimented on.”

 

Jayce pursed his lips, and I could see him working the thought over. “...Huh. Alright, Singed?”

 

“Inventor.” I deadpanned, rolling my eyes.

 

“Janna?”

 

I opened my mouth to retort, glanced around the alleyway, and eventually closed it.

 

“Hah!” Jayce explained, leaning over enough to ruffle my hair. “Got you there.”

 

It was beginning to grate on me, that I didn’t hate his physical contact as much as I should have. “Fine. Yes, I’m Janna, can’t you tell by the...drapey underwear and illogical hair?”

 

That made him laugh; it helped to set my nerves at ease.

 

He eventually took a long breath, rubbing the tip of his nose and blowing warm air into his hands.

 

I was glad for the silence that again passed over us, letting my eyes fall shut to enjoy the abandoned streets. The wind pushed small droplets of rain against my face, working past my hair and into the space between my scarf. It was almost possible to pretend that I wasn’t in Piltover; I could be in the woods of Demacia, or on any coastline--

 

“Hey.”

 

I opened my eyes again, motionlessly turning my attention to Jayce. I felt a flutter of nerves seize control of my gut, silently begging this to not be about the kiss.

 

“I just want you to know that...whatever comes next, I’m proud of what we made together.” he said, the tone of his voice only further emphasizing the awkward uncertainty of his expression, “And I hope this opens all the theoretical techmaturgical doors we could ever ask for.”

 

I felt myself smiling at his sincerity before I could attempt to level it. Oaf. Stupid, sincere oaf.

 

“Save it for when we get home. I know how much you love toasting mundane words.”

 

He laughed, and continued speaking, but my own mind had come to a standstill. My own words had torn at my thoughts, pulling them until they felt like so many shredded slips of paper.

 

Home .

 

Our home.