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Machinations of the Artificers

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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.

 

"Wow."

 

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.

 

"Ha!"

 

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.

Chapter Text

I learned a number of valuable lessons during my first month in Piltover.

 

The first was that, if I wanted anything from the Piltover board of Science, I was better off going through Jayce to get it. When a simple request for basic machinery had resulted in a group of Ethics and Planning officials to interview me for hours on end, Jayce had pulled me aside afterwards to tell me that he would “hook me up from now on”, in his own words. He had a certain way with them; I could see from their interactions that they saw him as an eccentric novice, but a promising one. Perhaps that made me a test subject for him; how well could the protege manage working alongside the big, bad Zaunite techmaturgist?

 

Still, the less interaction I had with these government officials, the better. I didn’t have any disillusions that I was going to be given complete independence to peruse my research as I pleased, but I hardly had the patience to deal with a commitee for every small request.

At the very least, it made Jayce useful-- something to offset the grating boyish enthusiasm he strut around the laboratory with.

 

The second lesson I’d learned was that Piltover actually had seasons, and I had come during its winter. Zaun’s weather rarely changed enough to warrant more than a light overcoat and an umbrella on the worst of days--something I hadn’t realized I’d been taking for granted when the winter chill began to set in.

 

Jayce, of course, had delighted in this information. Or at least, it was the excuse he’d given to rouse me from my sleep at sunrise to drag me outside and ‘see snow for the first time’, teetering on the balls of his feet as he waited for me to get up. It reminded me that I still needed to install a lock on my door.

 

It was unfortunate that he’d caught me between projects and in the time of my greatest susceptibility, because I couldn’t think of an excuse to get out of it in time to placate him. I heard him run down the hall, open a door, and swiftly turn on his heels back to my room. I had a moment’s notice before he threw me my coat, barely catching it in time to avoid taking it directly to the face.

 

Which was why I was in Piltover Central Park at eight in the morning, watching my lab partner make a snowman.

 

The very thought made me roll my eyes behind closed lids. We were both men of higher pursuits of learning, responsible for heralding in a new generation of innovations. Out in the unholy hours of the morning. Playing in the snow.

 

Remember Viktor, you could be back in Zaun.

 

The perspective eased my mind enough to take a deep breath and open my eyes; just in time to see Jayce stooped over and rolling a ball of snow. I clenched my fists, burrowing them deeper into my coat’s pockets. I could vicariously feel the sharp tinge of snow on my fingertips, and it sent a shiver rocketing down my spine. With a low groan of effort, I moved my weight to my right foot to tap the front of my adjacent boot against the ground; the telltale clink of metal at least signified my leg-brace hadn’t frozen in place.

 

Silver linings, and all of that.

 

He leaned over with a grunt and lifted the ball of snow, depositing it on the increasingly larger balls he’d already made. With a broad grin, he stuck his arms out, motioning towards it. I lifted an eyebrow, briefly pulling the lower part of my face from the confines of my scarf to speak, “I’d give you a gold star, if I had one.” I said, lips pulling back in a smirk when I received a middle finger for the joke.

 

Jayce reached into his coat pocket, pulling out a handful of stones and, to my shock, an entire carrot. Just how dedicated was the buffoon to the charade? I was not a child, eyes aglow at the magic of my first snow. It was entirely as I had expected: cold and unpleasant, but with a certain beauty to its stark calm. Why Jayce thought I needed to play in it to appreciate it was beyond me.

 

When he held his hands out to beckon me forward, I put a great deal of effort into not rolling my eyes at him.I knew he was showing kindness in the only way he knew how...in the same way a puppy might lick your face no matter how many time you push it away. With a silent sigh, I stopped beside him and his creation, expectantly waiting for him to finish it.

 

“Oh, no. This is your first snowman, you have to finish it.”

 

I could feel the strain on the back of my eyes as I turned to him and scowled. “This is childish.” I muttered, taking the handful of stones from him. Just over a month with the man had been enough to know how frustratingly stubborn he could be about trivial matters. He had heckled me to look at a picture of his old family dog for three hours only a few days prior, ignoring my demands to be left alone.

 

“To make up for a childhood without snowmen.” he retorted, as I set to work.

 

Two eyes, and a smile to placate him. My mouth pressed in a firm line, I motioned towards the snowman. “Good enough for your high standards of snow crafting?” I asked, scowling further as he merely held the carrot out to me, one eyebrow raised. I gave a loud sigh, snatched it from his hand, and shoved the base of it into the bottom-most ball of snow. “Ta-da.” I said in monotone, lazily shaking my hands at either side of my face for effect.

 

He lifted a hand in an attempt to ruffle my hair--that I knowingly ducked away from--and laughed. “And here we see the great genius Viktor, flagrantly making dick jokes in public.”

 

“It isn’t a joke.” I clarified, glancing up at him, “It’s a statement.”

 

“That statement being?” Jayce asked, one eyebrow raised as he regarded me.

 

I took a moment to think before speaking. “It’s a gripping take on the hubris of man; a memento, if you will, of the bleak narrative of pride that hunts us all. Must we project onto inanimate objects? Do we do it to stir within us a sensation of betterment? Are we all of us so absorbed in self-loathing that we must create alternative personas to represent the idealized versions of ourselves?” I said, doing my best to sound self-assured, despite knowing the absurdity of the words I’d slung together.

 

He gave a short snort of laughter, and I could hear him mutter, “what?” under his breath as he stepped away from the snowman.

 

As the silence dragged on, I began to realize that Jayce was actually puzzling himself over my words. I smiled into my scarf, laughing silently at his musing. The man had graduated from one of the top colleges in Valoran, and he couldn’t tell when someone was bullshitting him with verbose wording?

 

A part of me considered adding to it and seeing how far I could get before he realized my ruse. A stronger part of me was at its limits with the damnable cold. “Jayce?” I asked, lifting a hand to snap my fingers and draw his attention. “Still with me?” I asked.

 

He shook his head, turning his head to look at me again. From the way he peered at me, I could only assume he was trying to get a read on me. I returned his gaze with a stoic one of mine. “You’re full of shit, aren’t you?” he asked after a delay.

 

I chuckled, half-heartedly shrugging. “Either that, or very dedicated to phallus politics.”

 

His smile at my response was, as always, too sincere and warm for my liking. I pointedly turned away from it, stepping away from the oaf and towards the edge of the park. “If we’re quite done here, I believe I recall a cafe near here from that...instructive little tour of yours.” I said. Jayce’s tour had been closer akin to him dragging me across Piltover to see his favorite locations--the majority of which I had promptly ignored as silly little tourist traps--but it had granted me a rough grasp on the layout of the city.

 

“Yeah, coming!” The sound of snow crunching under his feet alerted me that Jayce was jogging to catch up to me; likely after removing my offending carrott, if I had to hazard a guess. A glance from my peripheral vision confirmed my suspicion,as he fidgeted with the object in his pocket.

 

I spared him the embarrassment of explaining himself; poor, compassionate Jayce and his misplaced need to protect the general public from my horrible offenses. To my credit, I made no mention of it during our walk to the cafe.

 

It was only when we reached the building that I realized I was a fool. In the span of the minutes that it took us to reach the cafe, I hadn’t considered that it would be heinously busy. Why had I not, in such a Romantic city as Piltover? Nothing was as cut-and-paste idyllic as warm beverages on a snowy day, and a quick glance around at the tables around me, and the myriad of people staring half-lidded at one another, confirmed that. I pulled a face, focusing my attention on the view of the street from the window beside me. Jayce had been...kind enough to offer to place our orders while I waited. I’m sure he had no more desire to have other Pilties gawk at my accent than I did.

 

At least the building was warm--which was roughly all I could say in its favor. In typical Piltover fashion, the establishment was a techmaturgical nightmare. Pointless cogs and gears turned on the high ceiling and walls, serving no purpose beyond looking mechanical. I had to wonder if half the people in this city were even interested in engineering, or only the aesthetic of it. If the number of cogs I saw simply glued to clothing were any indicator--the latter.

 

“Brooding again?”

 

I briefly gave Jayce my attention, before focusing back on the snow-laden streets outside.

 

“If I have to look at another frivolous cog again, I’m going to slice my own throat.” I muttered, leaning back in my seat.

 

Jayce chuckled quietly, taking a seat across the table from me. “Remind me to not take you to City Hall, then.” he said. I heard him reach forward and turned towards him, gently taking the cup as he handed it to me. I nodded my gratitude, wrapping both hands around the ceramic cup. The soft, sugary scent of the tea wafted around me as I pulled the cup to my face, letting my nose rest against the ridge to enjoy the sensation of the steam pooling around my face.

 

“Maybe you should. I would grimace at the decor and terrify your snivelling politicians in one fell swoop.” I said, pulling my cup back to sip at my tea. “What do I owe you, anyways?” I asked, peering at Jayce from the side of the cup. We were, I had learned, neither of us terribly well off. As it turned out, Piltover wasn’t terribly eager to allot a great deal of resources or wealth to our rag-tag team of inventors. Much as Jayce liked to pretend he could throw his money around and live the high-life.

 

He lifted an eyebrow, turning a half-smirk to me. “Nothing,” he said, to which I shot him a dead-pan glare and quirk of my own eyebrow, hoping to emphasize that he couldn’t fool me. He laughed, rolling his eyes and leaning into the plush of his own chair, “Seriously, it’s on me. We have to celebrate your first snowman.” he said, earning a groan from me.

 

“It’s hardly my snowman if you’re the one who made it.” I countered, tapping my index finger against the side of the cup.

 

Jayce scoffed, lifting a hand and running it through his hair--his stupid, perfectly coiffed hair, that apparently not even howling winds and snow could touch. “Now, now, Vik--”

“Viktor.” I interjected.

 

“Yeah, yeah, Viktor. Don’t sell yourself short! You were the artistic vision behind it. I just had to do the manual labor because of your weak bird arms.” he concluded with a shrug.

 

I balked, eyebrows knitting together at his words. How easily the boy tried to slip in insults! “Weak bird arms?” I whispered in a hiss, “I could have rolled your foolish snowman easily. Faster than you, even!” I challenged.

 

Jayce shrugged again, making a show of looking at the contents of his cup and swirling them around. “You sure? Because I’m not so sure they wouldn’t break on the spot, and I don’t know if there’s a doctor in Valoran who could fix those fragile twigs.” he said, looking up from his cup and finding my eyes.

 

The indignance quickly faded when I caught the slight, upward twitch of his lips. He was goading me. I bristled, but took a long breath. He was learning how to push my buttons; I had to be a step ahead of him, and learn to stop myself from letting them be pushed. “You are aware that most people in our profession look more like me than you, correct? Your...freakish beef arms are an anomaly, not mine.” I said, straightening my back.

 

When I saw Jayce’s eyes light up, I knew I’d made a mistake.

 

“Yeah, it was great back in college!” he said, a laugh parting his lips. “I could bench press all of my colleagues, no problem. Yearbook pictures were funny, too. You had these scrawny, unkempt nerds, and then me smack-dab in the middle.” he said, setting his cup back on the table. If he noticed me pull a face when he called his fellow students nerds, he chose to ignore it. “Wasn’t the best when it was cram time to finish our projects. ‘Jayce, life my metal framing! Jayce, I need you to hold this while I screw an adapter to it!’ And so on.” he said, circling a hand flippantly.

 

Of the few inventors I had met in my short month in Piltover, they had all been of the variety I was used to. My initial assumption that Jayce was a representation of the standard of inventors had quickly been proven false.

 

“Why exactly are you so…” I trailed off, motioning towards Jayce’s physique. I couldn’t quite bring myself to openly call Jayce ‘buff’. Heavens knew the boy’s ego was already out of control.

 

“What, attractive?” he asked, resting his arms against the table and smirking at me.

 

I met him with a flat gaze. “You know what I’m asking. You obviously work for it, but why, when none of your colleagues care?” I asked. “Piltover may be repressed in its views, but from what I’ve gathered, it measures people similarly to the standards that Zaun does. Those with intelligence and skill are heralded as the city’s heroes, yes? With strength and appearances falling by the wayside.” I said, motioning towards him with a nod of my head, “Why are you different?”

 

Jayce kept his attention on his drink for a time; I could tell from a subtle movement that he was tapping his leg as he thought. “What, I can’t just be the whole package?” he joked. There was a certain softness of his voice that belied his concern. I lifted an eyebrow, looking him over. I hadn’t expected there to be a serious answer to the question.

 

When he looked back to me and saw my confusion, he sighed, looking away just as quickly. “I wasn’t born in Piltover.” he said, a clear shame in his voice. It rendered me silent, waiting for him to continue. “I’m originally from a small town outlying Demacia’s reach. Technically just outside of Demacian territory, so call me Demacian and I’ll kick your ass.” he warned, lazily pointing a finger at me. I glanced from the finger and back to him, nodding in agreement. Assured, he continued, “Okay, good. Anyways, it was just...a different world. Kids played hard, and we all wanted to be the big heroes you hear about in stories. For most of them, it meant training with swords or bows. But me? I wanted to innovate. Found as many books on engineering as I could, made some rudimentary weapons and armory. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t some bookish nerd like...y’know.” he said, and I had the distinct feeling that he had nearly tacked ‘like you’ onto the end of the sentiment.

 

At least he was learning to curb his impudent tongue.

 

“I didn’t want to just create awesome things and give them to someone else to use. I wanted to create things I could use.” he continued. For my part, I bit back the desire to mention what a Demacian thing that had been to say. “I knew I couldn’t go any further where I was, so when I was thirteen, I applied to a school in Piltover. They accepted me, and here I am.” he said, motioning towards the space around us which, I could only assume, was meant to imply all of Piltover.

 

It made sense, when I mulled it over. The oaf wanted to be the big, Demacian ideal of a hero, with the Piltover standard of innovative genius on top of it. Hardly my idea of a worthwhile dream, but it did make sense for him.

 

Which, again, meant it was time for me to drill some degree of sense into the fool. “So you covet the spotlight, and squander your incredible intelligence to your own pride.” I stated. “Why, Jayce? You can offer the world so much more than some dog and pony show. Why do you let your upbringing stifle your potential?” I asked, hearing the exasperation in my voice. I doubted I could correctly count the number of times he and I had already argued about what we ought to strive for as inventors.

 

He moved back in his seat, lifting a hand defensively, “Dial it back a few notches there, weren’t we just having a simple conversation about how handsome I was?” he asked, chuckling as he shook his head, “At least wait until we’re back at the lab to take a stab at my life’s ambitions and upbringing, huh? Much as I appreciate the uh...weird insulty-compliments.” he said.

 

I looked around us, at the other occupants of the cafe, and took a long, relenting breath. Fine. I would hound him about his infantile ideals when we were back in the privacy of the lab.

 

A weighted silence fell between us, with me turning my attention back to the contents of my half-emptied cup. It was hard to explain exactly why Jayce’s insistence of focusing his attention on trivial matters bothered me. He was one of the few I could consider a contemporary in hextech and techmaturgy; perhaps I merely wanted to know that people such as he and I could strive to be more than what he saw for himself.

 

I closed my eyes for a moment--I had known the man for all of a month. It wasn’t worth investing my time and energy into forcing him to reach for more if he was determined to wallow in the chaff.

 

“Do you miss it?” I asked, finally settling on a question to break our prolonged gap in conversation. “Demacia, I mean. Or, just outside of it, as the case is.”

 

Jayce looked back over to me, chin resting in his upright hand as he regarded me. After a pause, he moved his head from side to side, considering the question. “No. Piltover has always felt more like home than it ever did. The only thing I miss is my mother, but we write each other enough.” he said, chuckling softly, “I usually don’t even like talking about it. Nothing puts Pilties off more than saying you aren’t from Piltover.” he said in an over-exaggerated whisper, motioning towards the various ‘Pilties’ that surrounded him.

 

I gave a short laugh. “For once, I can relate.” I said.

 

“What about you?” he asked. “Ever miss home?”

 

“You mean, beyond the complete scientific freedom to study and pursue whatever I please?” I asked, unable to suppress a smile when he rolled his eyes.

 

“Beyond that, yeah.”

 

It was my turn to look away, taking the time to consider his question. It was a weighted question, and I’m sure he knew it. Still, he had spewed his secret childhood to me, and that deserved some degree of honesty.

 

“I miss my team.” I eventually said, looking back to him. “The one I lead in making Blitzcrank. They weren’t as...lively as you, but they put everything into making our automaton. The countless days of tinkering and testing, putting ourselves in danger and losing sleep. Blitzcrank had been my vision--my desire to better the world--but they completely gave themselves body and mind to see it come to fruition.” I said, a dull pang echoing against my ribcage. I took a long, painful breath, wincing at the tightness of my chest. “I sometimes forget that it wasn’t just me Stanwick ruined by stealing Blitzcrank.”

 

I couldn’t stand the way Jayce looked at me with such concern. With a scoff, I looked away. “I’m not asking for your sympathy, Jayce. If anyone deserves it, it’s my team. I’m the one who failed to convince the council that Stanwick had wronged us.” I bit out, bile suddenly burning at the back of my throat.

 

The last thing I wanted was to be pitied by the likes of Jayce.

 

When he spoke, it was in a hushed voice. “You can’t really think that.”

 

I snapped my attention back to him, “Why wouldn’t I? Blitzcrank was to be my shining moment. I would have been elevated to the heights of my career, with my team boosted through the ranks as well. Instead, we were laughed at and mocked by every scientific authority in Zaun!” I said, forcing myself to lower my voice when I realized I’d very nearly begun shouting. “Do you have any idea how it feels to be responsible for ruining the careers of the brilliant people who gave years of their life to help you?”

 

“No, and neither should you.” Jayce said, exasperation evident in his voice. “Stanwick is the only one who should!”

 

I lifted a hand, heavily rubbing my thumb and forefinger against my closed lids. “You don’t understand. Be glad that you don’t, and likely never will. I answered your question, now leave it alone.” I said, sighing aloud. Jayce was an idealist; I could tolerate it on most days, but it was starting to grate on my nerves. Idealism could only go so far in the face of stark reality; and as much as Jayce clearly wanted to play the hero again and make this right, none of his simpering words could change the fact that I had failed myself and my team.

 

“What, you still think I’m some stupid kid who couldn’t possibly understand what it’s like to let people down?” he said, leaning closer. “Did you even bother to talk to any of them about it?” he asked, giving an incredulous laugh, “I’ll bet you anything there isn’t a single one of them that blames you. They’d probably be glad you checked in on them.”

 

I uttered a sharp bark of laughter, unwittingly drawing the attention of those nearest our table. “Clearly you are a stupid child, if you still can’t see how different Zaun is from your precious Piltover. Zaun is cutthroat--you don’t have friends that you go and check up on. There are only people who you keep around so long as they are useful to you in furthering your own goals. They were using me to tack their names onto my creation, and I them for their additional insight and manual labor.” I said, pausing to take a breath.

 

I had not mentioned them to get riled up; Jayce was, again, simply pushing my buttons. I unclenched my fists upon realizing that the knuckles had turned white, instead lifting both hands to run over my hair.

 

“Wait. You worked with them for two years, and you weren’t friends by the end of it?” he asked.

 

I scoffed, folding my arms. “Naturally.” I said. “Not everyone is you, Jayce.” There was a certain degree of barbed sarcasm to my words, and from the look on his face, they’d hit their mark. He briefly fell silent, moodily staring out the window.

 

“Not everyone is you either.” he finally countered, defiance clear with the stern gaze he fixed me with. “Even if you didn’t consider them your friend, I’m sure there are plenty who consider you theirs.”

 

I despised that his words caused a strange warmth to flourish through my torso--one that quickly dissipated when I considered what it meant if he was speaking the truth.

 

“Is that supposed to help?” I asked, scoffing, “If that’s true, it’s infinitely worse; I would have let down people who looked to me as a genuine source of camaraderie, and not a mere stepping stone for their careers.”

 

I could see the gears turning in his mind, just before he muttered a quiet “shit”. Oaf.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean--” he cut himself off, shaking his head, “I only meant that you’re the only one blaming yourself. I wish you could see that.”

 

I sighed--with every sentence he spoke, I could feel myself becoming more weary of our conversation. “What are you hoping to prove, Jayce? That I’m too hard on myself? That I need to let go of my resentment?” I asked, moving one hand to rub against my temple. “Yes, I’m aware that they all hate Stanwick at least a small degree more than they hate me. Is that good enough?” I asked.

 

To my shock, he pursed his lips and nodded. “Yeah, I guess.” he said. He slowly broke out in a smile--no doubt when he saw my confusion, “Look, I’m not trying to solve your life’s problems or force some redemption on you, if that’s what you think this is.” he mentioned, swirling the contents of his cup. “I just don’t like to see my friends being hard on themselves. Saw enough of it through college to last me a while.”

 

I let out a sputter of a laugh, viewing him with a raised brow. “You think we’re friends?” I asked, incredulity thick on my tongue.

 

He scoffed, “Naturally.” The mimicry wasn’t lost on me.

 

“Hardly.” I stated simply, folding one leg over the other. “I tolerate you--which is more than I can say about many of my previous lab-mates, granted--but consider yourself lucky that I even do that.” I said, tapping my foot against the leg of my chair.

 

“I don’t know, Vik. Tolerating each other? That sounds like the budding stages of friendship to me.” he said, a sing-songy lilt to his voice. I let out a long breath that he abjectly ignored. “Trust me. I’m going to take a shot in the dark here and say that I’ve probably had more friends than you.” he mentioned, lips spreading in a shit-eating grin.

 

“That’s hardly much of an accomplishment.” I retorted quickly.

 

He fidgeted in his seat--not unlike an overeager puppy--and leaned forward, “No, but it really is, you should hear about some of the crazy friends I’ve had.” he said, the strain on the end of his words an obvious plea for me to ask him to expound.

 

I fixed him with a dull stare, before eventually taking a silent breath. Fine. If it meant he’d leave me to my work when we went back to the lab, I would suffer his trivial stories. “Do tell.” I said, feigning the minimal amount of interest I possibly could.

 

Jayce, utterly undeterred, launched into a story about a young girl from the town he’d grown up in. I paid only vague interest, more so focused on how animatedly he told his story. The way his eyes widened before pinching at the corners when he laughed, how he spoke with his entire body, completely and utterly without ulterior motives or any degree of subterfuge.

 

It was a...perturbing lightness I felt as I watched him tell his story. Had I ever been able to feel so at ease? Especially after speaking at length of the very failures that had hounded me for months? I was conflicted, but tried to force the feelings down. At least for one morning, I could afford to be at ease and simply listen to the buffoon’s stories. Especially when they involved a young girl chasing him with a stick while he cried.

Chapter Text

There was something comical--perhaps even domestic--in watching a man with the pomp and flair that Jayce exuded struggle to push himself and an arm-full of groceries through a heavy metal door.

 

I glanced up for a moment at the sound of the door swinging open, pulling the crackling soldering iron away from the piece of circuitry I'd been occupied with, and managed to catch the tail-end of him slipping through the doorway.

 

The top half of his face was just barely visible over the hulking bags, but I could still see the corners of his eyes crinkle with a smile as he regarded me. "Did you know there's a woman lurking in the alley across the street?" he asked, readjusting the bags in his arms. With a grunt, he lurched forward, caught his footing, and, pretending he hadn't nearly dropped everything, continued towards the fridge in the back.

 

I gave a noncommittal hum, turning my focus back to my project and squinting at the circuit through the magnification lens. "Mine or yours?" I asked, gnawing at the tip of my tongue as I applied the resin to the iron. I could hear the oaf shuffling through the contents towards the back of the room, laughing with some deal of effort.

 

"Yours, I think. She looked official; had a clipboard and everything." he called from the back of the room. I clicked my tongue, chuckling under my breath. It was a fun game we played: why it was we were being watched on any particular day. Was it more fans or journalists looking for the charismatic, up-and-coming inventor, or yet more pathetic attempts at 'spies' attempting to discern whether or not I was selling secrets to Zaun.

 

I scoffed under my breath. What did they think I could tell Zaun that they didn't already know? Pretentious little fools, assuming they had some marvels of science that Zaun didn't already know. The most I could feasibly give my home state was my lug of a companion's appalling eating habits.

How a man who subsided off of only so much junk food and various meat products was certainly beyond me.

"Of course, you would know that if you ever got out of the lab."

I jumped at the proximity of the voice; he had managed to situate himself right beside me while I'd been distracted. He didn't bother to hide his laughter at my reaction as he scooted closer, pushing the magnifying lens away from my face in what I had been forced to recognize as him demanding my attention over the months we'd been together.

 

Hopefully, the exhaustion I felt towards him showed in my face as I turned to look at him.

 

"Seriously. Five days, if you haven't been keeping check." he joked, reaching a hand forward to wipe away the matted bangs sticking to my forehead. I silently prayed it was as clammy and unpleasant to touch as I imagined it was to spite him. "Do you even remember the sun? That shiny thing in the sky? Nice, warm, sustains life? Good to go outside and spend time under?"

 

With a grumble, I pushed his hand away, leaning back in my chair. I winced at the sudden, cramping pain it caused in my lower back. Loathe though I was to admit it, I was feeling the familiar ache in my joints and tension to my nerves that tended to mean I needed a break.

 

Though that was nothing I planned to let him know. "Bah. Good for you, maybe. I missed four days of work because of it." I grumbled, setting the iron back in its cradle.

 

"And now you know about sunscreen." Jayce quipped back.

 

"And what about you? I seem to recall having to force a pillow under your head /every night/ last week because of that little project of yours." I asked, refusing to give the lout an inch.

 

"First of all, the arc suspender was hardly a 'little project' and you know it." I allowed myself a faint smile--sensitive, sensitive boy. "Second: this isn't about me. Do you know how many rumors I have to dispel about you being a crazy mad scientist that hisses at children and drinks blood at night?"

 

I rolled my eyes at his exaggerations. "Let them think that. I don't have time for foolish children jumping at bedtime stories."

 

He laughed aloud, chin jutting forward and allowing the sound to fill up the laboratory. He briefly covered his eyes, shaking his head in amusement at my expense. "Are you trying to sound 60 years old right now? Because you sound 60 years old right now." he said, crossing his arms as he continued to look down at me with one eyebrow raised. "I think I'd have an easier time digging up my grandfather's corpse and getting him moving than I would you."

 

I lifted an eyebrow, gently pushing the chair backwards and swiveling it to face him. I folded my arms, allowing myself a long breath to regard him. "That was dark, for you." I mentioned, almost finding myself surprised at the macabre statement.

 

"Not as dark as the bags under your eyes." he muttered, extending a finger to lightly jab me under the eyes. I flinched away from it, again batting his disgusting meat fingers away from me. "I have a cream for that, you know. Might help you to not look like you just crawled out of a grave." he said, waggling his eyebrows at me.

 

"You aren't usually this persistent." I eventually said, pinching the bridge of my nose in frustration. Normally he gave up and simply waited for me to give in of my own relenting will to go along with whatever he had planned. "What's the occasion?"

 

A moment of silence fell between us. Eventually, the look he shot me said clearer than any words that there was some occasion I had forgotten about. I used a thumb and forefinger to rub my eyelids, sighing. "Don't think you can sit there and reprimand me like some child because I've forgotten whichever foolish thing you're determined to drag me to this time. Unlike you, I have important inventions that require my attention."

 

"Heimerdinger's party? Ringing any bells?" I removed my hands, looking at him incredulously. What in Runeterra would that yordle be having a party for? And why did it matter if... ah. The realization must have shown on my face, as Jayce gave a chuckle. His admission into the League of Legends. An enormous celebration, with all of the best and the brightest of the city attending. I had been the one insistent that we go; there were too many opportunities and potential sponsors to /not/ go, even if meant subjecting myself to the torture that was a Piltover party.

 

"So. We’re going suit shopping for you, and to dry-cleaners for me." he said, standing from the desk and working his way to the stairs of the main housing, "And in the process, people see you having a life outside of the lab, we maybe stop and talk to a few other techmaturgists. Sound good? Because you’ve got ten minutes to get ready, or I’m carrying you out as is."

 

I waited until he was out of earshot to aptly ignore him and return to my project. My hands shook as I worked, trying ignore the budding anxiety flowering in my chest, head mulling over the Hellish day I’d set myself up for.

 

--------

 

Why do I ever doubt my intuition? Was it some intrinsic need to prove myself right over and over again? Some desire to reaffirm that I don't know how to gracefully maneuver a single conversation?

 

We hadn't been twenty minutes at the party and I could feel my tensions flaring at every turn. I was busily trying to maintain a professional, aloof composure despite the raging anxiety playing havoc on my nerves. I wondered if I looked as out of place as I felt. Shopping with Jayce hadn’t been particularly better, either. How many stores had he dragged me to, just to get fitted for the “perfect” suit? There has been some solace in Jayce footing the bill for it (an early birthday present, he’d said, despite not knowing my birthday), but not enough to make me feel anything other than out of place and terrified at this trifling soiree.

 

Stop this, Viktor. You are no longer the boy with trembling knees stammering his way through his university application.

 

Though university applications, at least, had been in my realm of experience. Those had made sense. What didn't make sense were all of these people laughing too loudly in their too-expensive finery, toasting to a man they scarcely knew. What made even less sense was all of the children in attendance. I apparently hadn't read the notice on the invitation that mentioned the party was a family-friendly event.

 

The way they just...touched everything. The food table ought to have been condemned and quarantined with how many of their filthy fingers had rubbed over all of the dishes. I let out an involuntary gasp as I saw one young girl dip her hand--her entire hand!--into a bowl of some gelatinous food.

 

An elbow in my side pulled my attention, and I looked up to see Jayce again at my side. I could feel myself breathing a sigh of relief--what a miserable day, that I would find relief in his bothering me.
"Yeah, looking at children in disgust isn't doing a lot for the 'I'm not a mad scientist who's going to destroy the world please believe me' thing we were talking about." he whispered.

 

I felt the muscles of my face relax when I put effort into it, running the side of my hand against my brow. "They're touching everything" I reiterated for him. "It's putrid."

 

Jayce followed my line of sight before smirking, turning back to me. "Okay, Vik, really--"

 

I interjected with a stern glare, "Viktor."

 

"Viktor, you were born and raised in a city where you literally dump toxic waste in the streets that you let children play with."

 

I pursed my lips; he had a point. Zaun was a lot of things--clean was not one of them. "I wouldn't want to be near those children either." I muttered, lifting a hand to run through my hair. Jayce's hand on my wrist stopped the motion, looking at me with a quirk to his lips. I was half-way to feeling indignant when I recalled the...gratuitous amount of 'styling product' Jayce had so 'graciously lent me' to keep it flat. I furrowed my brow, suddenly aware of how compact it felt.

 

It had been years since I'd been to such a celebration, and never one since I'd been in Piltover; longer still since I'd put this much effort in appearing 'stylish'.

 

Connections, Viktor. You're here to make connections. And grating as Jayce was on any given day, he did know how to connect to people. I'd spent more than enough time helping Jayce with his inventions, it was all fair-due that he would be the one to spearhead this.

 

At the very least, he hadn't abandoned me. Though it had meant being dragged into a conversation with every idiot who put a few gears on their outfit and called themselves an 'inventor'. Zaun would have eaten people like this alive.

 

"There's Caitlyn! I've been meaning to introduce you."

 

I was well aware of who the Sheriff of Piltover was, contrary to Jayce’s underestimations on my knowledge extending past the doors of our laboratory. I was not aware that he had any personal connection to her. She wasn’t in the usual patrol of cops through our part of the city--but I reminded myself with a smile in her direction as he waved her over that Jayce’s personal life remained a mystery to me.

 

Perhaps he’d lead a life of crime before my meeting him that had acquainted him with her. It would certainly explain why the city had stuck a ‘promising graduate’ with someone they still felt compelled to spy on nearly half a year after inviting him to the city.

 

“Jayce, it’s good to see you. And you must be Viktor, yes? I’ve heard a great deal about you.” she said, the thin, arid tone of practiced civility in her voice.

 

“I would imagine so, when you have as many people following me as you do.”

 

I felt Jayce stiffen at my side, and didn’t need to glance at him to know he was looking at me with something akin to horror. There were a great deal of people I planned to be courteous and flagellate myself for at this party; she was not one of them. Stanwick had made me...rather less compelled to concern myself with superfluous people.

 

Her eyes widened for a moment, before she clearly calculated her own reaction and pulled her features into a bemused neutrality. “It isn’t every day we get defectors from Zaun.” She was reading my every reaction--analyzing every movement of every muscle. I could feel myself becoming hyper-aware of each tic of my body under her scrutinizing glance. Hardly surprising that such a woman--one who made me feel, with two sentences, that I was under heated interrogation--would be the Sheriff.

 

“Defector? What is it with this city and that word? I no more ‘defected’ from Zaun than your beloved Heimerdinger is ‘defecting’ from Piltover simply by leaving it.” I said, watching her closely for a reaction.

 

She was on guard, but I could see the slightest tug of her eyebrows towards her hairline that indicated her shock. She tapped her bottom lip with a forefinger, he eyes adamantly locked onto my own. “Oh? You still feel allegiance for Zaun, then?” she asked, her words carrying a lightness that belied her excitement. I’d seen it enough in Zaun--a hunter stalking her prey, carefully maneuvering around the underlying meaning of the conversation and her weaponized words.

 

From the corner of my eye, I could see Jayce fidget, lift a finger in an attempt to interject. I swiftly spoke before he could, “You misinterpret me. I’ve simply never understood the pettiness of national pride, and it’s that very lack of concern that makes it impossible to have defected. I have never worked for Zaun, and will never work ‘for’ Piltover. I work for techmaturgy and the betterment it will bring to the whole world. And I will station myself where I am best fit to do so,” I explained, the underlying ‘where I will be appreciated and respected for my work’ went unsaid. I cleared my throat, adding in a succinct, “And that, presently, is in Piltover.”

 

A terse silence hung in the air over us, wafting its tendrils of unease around in a mire. We both watched one another for a reaction, pretending to ignore Jayce shifting from leg to leg and glancing between us. She, looking for any sign of a lie or ulterior wording, and I refusing to give her anything.

 

“See, didn’t I tell you how funny his accent is?” I, still trying to maintain a blank visage, shut my eyes at the jolt of irritation the oaf’s words struck in me. “Don’t worry, Officer. I’ve got my eye on him.”

 

Then, I felt it. His arm wrap around my shoulders. His stupid, beefy arm slink around me like I was no more than a child. My shoulders shot up to my ears, fury bristling in every inch of my skin as I shoved him off as quickly as he had tried to pull me close. He laughed at the action, scratching at the corner of his jaw and looking away from me.

 

My mind was screeching at me to harm him for belittling me during such a battle of wits, but her gentle chuckle managed to quell the seething violence pulsing against my veins. “So I see.” she said, and when I opened my eyes, I saw that all traces of the hungry predator had vanished as she spoke to Jayce.

 

I felt...deflated, seeing the corners of her eyelid crease in a genuine smile. But after a pause, she simply chuckled, lifting one hand to cover her mouth.

 

What was happening? Why wasn’t she taking her victory? “You know, I think you two will be good for each other.” she said, gingerly crossing her arms and looking the both of us over. It was my turn to look between them. Was there something going on I didn’t know? An ebb and flow of perturbation came upon me; the sensation of having failed a test, as if something was flowing directly past me and I’d only caught the tail-end of it as it passed.

 

“Well, I believe I see Lady Tibauld waving me down.” she said, motioning with her head to the side. “Pleasure to see you as always, Jayce. And Viktor?” she cooed, turning a knowing smile to me. What did she know? Uncertainty crept in on me without my realization. I settled on simply nodding at her address. “It was good to finally meet you. Try to keep Jayce from doing anything terribly stupid, hmm?” she said and, with a soft pat of my shoulder, strode past.

 

Jayce let out a long breath of air, shoulders sloping down as he whistled softly. Seeing him relax reinvigorated the spike of irritation that had briefly gone dormant. I turned to him, pointing a finger into his chest.

 

“You will never do that to me again. Do you understand?” I hissed under my breath, taking a step closer to him. As mad as I was, I had enough sense to not start a scene.

 

The spike of irritation boiled into outrage when he had the audacity to look amused. “Me? Really? You want to run that logic by me? Because from where I’m standing, you just made yourself out to be even more sketchy than you normally are to the head of Piltover’s police force.”

 

I had a retort on the tip of my tongue, but before I could launch a tirade against him, a handed grasp Jayce by the shoulder and pulled his attention. I forced my mouth shut as the figure stepped into my view--and shot the petulant teen an unamused glare.

 

“Jayceeeeey! My man with the plan!” Ezreal called, clapping Jayce as forcefully on the back as he could. He, as always, ignored me for the most part. We hadn’t gotten off on the best of footings, after he’d barged into the lab and asked if I was the creepy ‘Zaunie” Jayce was babysitting.

 

There was a distinct possibility my inventions had begun to coincidentally malfunction much more often when he was near them him in the aftermath of that. A few zaps had taught him to stop speaking to me.

 

Seeing Jayce’s face fall as it did was gratification enough for me. I folded my arms and took a step back, relishing the brief look of panic he flashed me at the realization that he was being abandoned to the void that was conversation with Ezreal.

 

I heard the boy mention something about an expedition as I turned my back to them, maneuvering my way through the crowd.

 

There was something relieving about traversing the social scene without Jayce glued to my hip--few dared to approach me without him. It allowed me a moment of calm, at the very least, and I used the time to make my way to the far railing of the courtyard. I pressed my arms against it, swallowing in the tepid night air. To its benefit, Piltover was certainly more...habitable, than Zaun. I hadn’t realized it had been remiss of the choking smog until I’d moved, and understood what good a few months of unpolluted air had done for me.

 

And the stars? As I stared up at them, smiling faintly to myself, I realized that I couldn’t even count them all. Coupled with the twinkling lights emanating from the lamps around the courtyard, I did have to admit that there was a certain beauty to the city. I remained for a time, eyes lazily roving over the night sky and the quiet city it blanketed, thoughts of my tensions with Jayce and Caitlyn dissipating. I could hear the dull murmur of the party-goes moving and speaking behind me, but it merely added to the silent loftiness I felt surround me.

 

After a time, I felt a hand gently brush against my own. I scarcely registered it, almost believing I’d imagined the sensation. I turned my head, quirking one eyebrow when I saw Jayce smiling down at me, leaning against the railing.

 

“Cold?” he asked, glancing downwards. I’m certain my features must have contorted to express the idea that I didn’t have any earthly idea what he was talking about, as he continued to clarify, “Your neck is covered in goosebumps.” I turned my attention to my body, and was surprised to see that he was right--if I was cold, I hadn’t consciously registered it. Ah, the pitfalls of human biology.

 

I shrugged offhandedly, scoffing at the man, “It was never this cold in Zaun.” I muttered, certain that I had said some variation of the sentiment every day for the past month.

 

“Sure, but you don’t get to stare wistfully up at the stars like a tragic book character in Zaun.” Jayce countered, waggling his eyebrows at me in that shit-eating way he favored so much.

 

I rolled my eyes at him, “Perhaps if you spent less time reading your fantasy and more time on your inventions--”

 

“I’d be the one leaving to join the League and not Heimerdinger, yes, dad, I know.” Jayce chided. I was silent for a moment, casting him a knowing glance that I could only uphold for a moment before giving up the ruse and relenting a soft smile, chuckling under my breath. He beamed back at me, laughing whole-heartedly and playfully elbowing my shoulder. I returned it with less enthusiasm, turning around to face the heart of the party, where someone had taken the platform to begin speaking. It was all praise for Heimerdinger’s accomplishments and prowess as a hextech innovator-- the usual pomp and glamor of these celebrations, seeing everyone clapping at the right pauses.

 

“Viktor.” Jayce whispered to me a few minutes into the speech I turned back to Jayce, glancing down to the hand he was extending to me. His overcoat--was the buffoon really trying to offer me his coat? I shot him a look to, I hoped, express this thought, but it only served to make him force it into my hands. “Humor me. You know I have a hero complex.” he said, lips quirking up into a half-smile.

 

I’d told him the very same once, when he’d left his own experiment at a crucial moment to rush a particular tool over to me; and again when he’d taken a day off work before a critical review to babysit a friend’s daughter. I relented; I was finally beginning to feel the cold, and I’d learned how stubborn Jayce could be when he insisted on helping.

 

None of which stopped me from shooting him a glare as I draped it over my shoulders, wrinkling my nose as the particular pungent scent of his cologne hit me full-force. He chuckled, before turning his attention back to the stage, and clapping politely. I followed suit, clapping as Heimerdinger took the stage. I did my best to pay attention, but the new warmth of the thick coat coupled with my earlier fatigue left me missing most of the speech, attention set on the wide chasm of night overhead.

 

When the speeches had ended and the previous roar of excited conversation had turned to a mellow hum, Jayce and I finally used the time to meet with potential investors, and have a number of surprisingly intriguing conversations with a number of our fellow inventors. With a number of business cards now filling our pockets, I was willing to overlook the initial dread the party had filled me with and call it a success.

 

Forgiving the fact that I’d made myself a flagrant target for the city’s Sheriff, of course.

Chapter Text

In one moment, I had watched a month’s worth of research destroyed before my eyes.

 

I was immediately reminded of a time I had incorrectly labeled two polymers in an experiment, and subsequently ruined the entire semester’s worth of work my team had done. I was...ten? Perhaps 11 at the time, and thought that I had ruined my entire scientific career.

 

I would’ve rather suffered their accusatory stares a hundred times over than another moment of wallowing under Jayce’s pitying gaze. Try as I might to find a scathing comment to send him away, shame kept me quiet. What could I say? There was nothing that could change the situation, or assure him that it was anything other than exactly what it looked like.

 

A month of perfecting my first privately commissioned invention thrown to the wind because of my fucking leg.

 

It would be a simple fix; both Jayce and I knew that. I had not simply forgotten everything I’d done, and the early drafts of my blueprints were close at hand. A simple fix, yes; but I didn’t make these kinds of mistakes. I laughed at Jayce when he inadvertently dropped something or clattered into some machine with an armful of weaponry. It was a pattern the both of us had grown accustomed to.

 

Jayce busied himself with picking up the ruined pieces of my invention, casting sidelong glances my way as if he wanted to say something, before thinking better of it and going back to work. I pretended not to notice for both of our sake’s, muttering to myself to cover the enveloping silence that blanketed us.

 

The burning sensation pulsing from my knee had me clenching and unclenching my hands, teeth burrowing into my bottom lip to distract from the pain. Uncertain hands attempted to rewrap the bandaging, pretending that somehow that would alleviate the pain. It was something to do, at least; after five minutes of that, however, I ran out of the will to keep fussing with it, and leaned back in the chair.

 

I was awarded a few moments of blissful isolation, focusing my attention on the dull thrum of pain. Jayce was somewhere further in the laboratory, busying himself with...something metallic, on my side of the shop. I cracked an eye open, glancing over. He was fiddling with the parts of my broken invention, prodding about for some solution. I didn’t have the energy to demand he stop--he always had to be the damn hero, fixing everyone’s woes, pinnacle of the good of man and friend to all. I closed my eye again, forcing it from my mind--I didn’t have the energy or will to focus any amount of ire on him.

 

Sometime, likely soon, Jayce was likely to chastise me again for not making finalized blueprints earlier. “I know, I know.” I muttered to myself, running a hand down my face.

 

“What?”

 

I opened one eye again, regarding Jayce as he came closer.

 

“Nothing.” I said, taking a long breath and tapping a finger against the arm of my chair. Blessedly, Jayce dropped the matter, coughing some sort of weak affirmation.

 

A terse silence passed between us and, for once, I missed Jayce’s usual tendency to fill silence with idle conversation. As I was trying to wrack my mind for an explanation to give, Jayce stepped forward, extending the arm holding my leg brace towards me without a word. I took it silently, casting a glance to his face in expectation for the question I knew he was dying to ask. When it didn’t come, I pulled the leg of my pants back down, and gently re-attached the brace.

 

“Are you alright?” Jayce asked, all visage of subtlety shattered with three words. I allowed myself to feel the pressure of my eyelids straining before I opened them, attention going to Jayce. As indignant as I felt, I couldn’t muster the energy to chastise his question. I’m sure from his position, watching your colleague’s leg give out on them and send priceless mechanics clattering down the stairs wasn’t particularly pleasurable. Were our positions reversed, though, I wondered…

 

“I’m...fine.” I asked, uncertain what to do with his misplaced concern. “This is hardly the first time my leg has given me trouble.” I explained. I felt I owed him an explanation, but lacked the ability to do so without fumbling over my words. “I’ve used a brace since I was a boy. I should have expected the cold to have an affect on my leg; there’s nothing to blame but my own failure to plan ahead.” I explained, hoping the underlying message of ‘so stop hovering’ would be taken.

 

As always, Jayce failed to pick up on the subtlety, or decided to ignore it, “There’s nothing you can do about it?” he asked.

 

“Short of cutting off my leg and using a prosthetic? No.” I said, giving the brace a light pat for emphasis. “We aren’t all of us fortunate enough to be born with perfect physiques. Or hair.” I joked, hoping to ease the tension that had fallen between us. Jayce had proven to respond well to jokes in the past, at least.

 

He did smile, chuckling under his breath as he ran a hand through his hair. “Hey now, that isn’t fair. You know how much work goes into this.” he said, using his hands to motion towards the entirety of his body. I did, unfortunately--no matter how early I woke, he somehow managed to already be awake and working out in his room.

 

“I’m aware.” I relented, glancing back towards my leg. I circled my foot on the ankle, taking note of which parts hurt with which motions.

 

“Y’know, we actually could make something.” Jayce said, drawing my attention back to him. “Leg armor, that stabilizes and supports its user. We could make it for arms, too. You know, use something sturdy, but lightweight to take pressure off the er… damaged limbs.” he said. I gave him a look--every day he found new ways to surprise me with his lack of tact. “You know what I mean.Think about it! How many people have injuries that medicine or magic can’t fix? Why shouldn’t techmaturgy step in and do what they can’t?”

 

I opened my mouth to retort, but wound up running my tongue along the back of my teeth instead, finding no biting cynicism to give. Why shouldn’t it, indeed? I’d spent the entirety of my time in Piltover thus for researching and inventing things the city commissioned me for to keep them complacent and out of our hair--had I not paid my dues already? I thought back to when I’d arrived, how I had stuck my nose up at Jayce’s invention and lauded my plans for making inventions that would change the world. What had I done since then? Drafted a breathing apparatus to deal with toxins (no doubt to help in the Institute of war), and a number of other projects that were clearly meant to be luxuries for the wealthy.

 

I chuckled at the thought, lifting a hand to rub at a closed eyelid. All the talk I’d done, and I’d let myself been cowed by the Piltover government. It was all things I had considered before--imagined, even, Stanwick laughing if he could see what I’d done in the last months. The self-assured Viktor, how far you’ve fallen. You go from creating an absolute marvel to tucking your tail for for the Piltover dogs?

 

No matter how many times I tried to assure myself that this was a temporary measure until they trusted me, I could never shake the feeling that I’d been cheated. I’d been promised a new start to show my ideas to those who would listen, yet I’d been the one forced to listen to them.

 

I turned to look at Jayce, smiling that trademark smile of his that reeked of confidence and a certainty that he had already won. I could only roll my eyes, and bite back my irritation. One of the wealthiest sponsors we’d connected with had proposed backing a project that the two of us collaborated on. As the wealthy are wont to do, it was with the clear indication that she was interested in seeing what a bright young Piltover star and a ‘ever-so dark and mysterious’ Zaunite could create together. Vaguely insulting as it was, the monetary and social advancement a partnership with her promised trumped the underlying anti-Zaun sentiment.

 

The more I thought on it, the more I realized that I didn’t want to refuse. How pitiful--when I’d first arrived, I had expected to be out of here and in my own laboratory by now. I’d been offered a number of smaller venues, and summarily refused them all. None of them had the selection of equipment Jayce’s had. Not to mention, they all lacked the presence of my only acquaintance in the city. I wasn’t eager to lose the company of Jayce. Grating as he was, I’d learned well that my mental state didn’t… particularly thrive terribly well when left in long periods of isolation.

 

He also came in handy when those Piltover government goons came sniffing by. I registered that I ought to have been at least a bit ashamed that I was excited by the prospect of working with Jayce. The reality that he had selected a project that would benefit me wasn’t lost on me, either.

 

“If this doesn’t go well, you’re taking the fall.” I finally responded, folding my arms and tilting my head to look up at him.

 

“And if it does go well, you get the credit, I’m guessing?” he responded.

 

“You are learning.”

Chapter Text

With Jayce’s persistence and assurances that what we had in mind wasn’t with the intention of weaponizing, the city of Piltover’s scientific committee signed off on our experiment. I had elected not to attend--something some of the members took issue with, but had eventually conceded to Jayce given his reputation. I was glad to have missed him prostrating himself to a room full of self-dignified pencil-pushers.

 

He’d come back that night with the signed papers, practically kicking down the door and vaulting down the stairs to me. I managed to put down my tools in time for him to hoist me in the air and spin me around as if I didn’t weigh a single pound, before setting me down and shoving the papers into my face.

 

I glowered at him for the action, half-tempted to reprimand him for it, but settled on simply straightening my clothing he’d unsettled.
“It must be good news, if you’re willing to chance invading my personal space.” I said, folding my arms as Jayce continued to laugh, hands triumphantly going to his hips.

 

“Come on, you didn’t think there was any chance I’d fail, did you?” he asked, beaming down at me.

 

I made a show of rolling my eyes at him, but relented a smile. I truly hadn’t known what the outcome would be. Creating artificial enhancements for damaged limbs sounds innocuous enough on paper, but then, so did many inventions before someone learned how to attach a cannon to them and turn them into yet more tools of destruction. Not that Piltover was entirely against such inventions, what with their involvement in the Institute and continued military fear from Zaun, but I was well-aware that they were less than eager to grant funding and permission for anything in that realm to an Inventor still fresh from the academy, and one from Zaun.

 

I looked over the papers as he continued to speak, regaling me with the story of what had happened and how he had won them over. I paid as much attention as I thought necessary, eyes roving over the legal documentation he’d acquired. Everything seemed in order--the typical rules and guidelines, along with the signatures of those on the Council. I reached the bottom, where Jayce had signed his name in large, sprawling cursive, next to the blank line with my name in print beneath.

 

I snapped my fingers, “Pen.” I muttered, continuing to inspect the fine print. I heard him pause his story with a mumbled, ‘oh, yeah.’, and after a moment of shuffling through the nearest drawer, procured one. I scrawled my name beside his and took a step back, admiring the sheet. We could officially begin our first collaboration.

 

Jayce stepped beside me, staring at the paper with no small degree of pride. “Let’s go make a brighter tomorrow.”

 

He ignored my groan.

 

------------------

 

The following days soared past in a flurry of events; equipment was delivered, reporters interviewed us, and one councilwoman even came down to take a picture for the paper. Jayce beamed through it all, shaking all of the necessary hands and putting on the show-and-dance he was so apt at. I’d managed to avoid everything that wasn’t a direct question to myself, and relied on Jayce to divert any reporter who’s attention lingered too long on me.

 

It wasn’t until Jayce was set to return from his last lunch with a final reporter and come back to the lab that a truth settled in on me: I wasn’t particularly certain how one-on-one collaborations worked. I hadn’t ‘partnered’ up with anyone outside of simple classroom experiments when I was a boy, and had grown accustomed to either working alone, or leading teams.

 

My shoulders tensed as I heard the lab door screech on its hinges, shortly followed by the sound of Jayce giving a victorious shout. I looked in time to watch him throw himself bodily to the railing of the stairs and slide down. He landed with practiced ease, taking a few quick bounds to reach me.

 

“Can it be? No more politicians who need a picture? No more forms to sign? Can we actually get started?” he asked, wide smile plastered in place. The oaf hadn’t stopped smiling since we’d agreed to collaborate.

 

“You’re still pretending you hate it?” I asked, enjoying the slight droop of his smile at my teasing. I gave a smirk of my own, folding my arms as I leaned against my desk. “Yes, do tell me all about how you loathe being in the limelight. This time with feeling.”

 

Jayce released a breath of air with a ‘pfft’ noise, hooking a leg around the center of my chair and pulling it out. He turned it around and sat in it backwards, resting his arms against the top. “Yeah, I’m the fucked up one for enjoying human interaction, I get it.” he said, idly turning side to side in the chair. I watched as he did a wide visual sweep of our lab, pausing on our new equipment. I felt a twist in my stomach as I watched him; it was hitting him too, wasn’t it?

 

“Shit. It was hard to focus on anything out there when I knew it was keeping me from this.” he said, turning his eyes back to mine. “You really haven’t started yet?” he asked, suspicion clear in his voice.

 

I had sworn to not to start until Jayce had finished dealing his ‘official’ duties.

 

I had, but he didn’t need to know that. Nor the embarrassing boyish enthusiasm I’d felt when drafting out the preliminary designs. “Of course not.”

 

He eyed me cautiously, smirking knowingly. I wasn’t excited to admit how capable he’d become at reading me over the span of a few short months.

 

“Good. It wouldn’t be very Piltoveran of you to go back on your word.” he said, snickering to himself. He continued to do so when I reached out to pinch the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger to scold his sarcasm. He gave an amused laugh, half-heartedly batting my arm away.

 

“And it isn’t very Demacian of you to be a smartass.” I quipped, beaming widely when I briefly saw his expression fall. I had been sensitive to Jayce exposing his past to me--for a time, at least. When I’d learned just how it rubbed him the wrong way, well...I’m only human.

 

He rolled his eyes, in what I could only assume was an attempt to pull attention from the fact that he was actually insulted. “Cute.” he said in a deadpan, folding his arms. “But seriously, I hope you didn’t do too much yet. I might have told some of the council some...specifics. And--don’t look at me like that! It was just to keep them satisfied and out of our business.” he said.

 

I shut my eyes for a time, straining the sockets as I rolled them behind closed lids. I was growing tired of the damn politics that constantly came into play. I couldn’t so much as hold a wrench without some sort of ethics committee breathing down my neck and demanding I sign something.

 

“Look, it wasn’t anything bad, don’t freak out.” Jayce said, exasperation permeating his voice. It sent a tinge of loathing spiking up my spine, knowing that his exasperation was at my frustration, and not the foolish politicians. How he could be so...complacent about these invasive rules and regulations, and find my derision to them to be annoying was far beyond me.

 

“Oh? Did you have to swear our limb augmentations wouldn’t be used to step on kittens and puppies? Is that it?” I asked, contempt burning at my throat.

 

“No, no. I mean, I did have to swear you wouldn’t weaponize them. Or…we wouldn’t weaponize them. But that’s it!” he said.

 

“Don’t try to coddle me, Jayce.” I said, trying to ebb away the latent disappointment I felt. Whether it was in his boyish adherence to the ‘rules’ or his desire to protect me from the ignorance of his council, or some degree of both, I wasn’t certain. “I’m nothing more than another mad scientist ready to destroy the world in the name of innovation to them. The sooner we both accept and learn how to work around it, the better.” I said, one hand flat against my worktable as I leveled my full attention to him.

 

Jayce at least had the decency to look away sheepishly, scratching at his shoulder as he took a long breath. He took a few seconds to respond, before turning back to me. “We’ll show them how wrong they are, Vik. I promise.”

 

Guh. I recoiled slightly, back stiffening to force me to stand straight. It was becoming harder and harder to ignore the jolt of electricity that ruptured through my chest when he was so utterly heartfelt. I scoffed audibly, lifting a hand to push an errant strand of hair back into place. “Tone it down, you don’t need to burst into city hall defending my honor.” I said, hoping to lighten the conversation once more. “Just tell me what you told them.”

 

Jayce nodded, folding his arms. He glanced towards the ceiling and back to me, one eyebrow lifted in thought, “Most of it is what we’d already discussed. Basic functionality and design--things like that. Stuff that’s obvious, like who it’s supposed to help, some of the basic mechanics and materials we’d be using. That you’d probably head the neurological part of it and work out how we’d get the augmentations to receive the brain signals before the appendages even do since that’s out of my expertise, and I’d focus moreso on the engineering of it--”

 

I raised a hand to cut him off, eyes wide, “What? How is that my area of expertise?” I asked, voice an octave higher at the shock of his words.

 

He lifted an eyebrow, evidently as incredulous as I was. He chuckled, one eyebrow lifted, “Uh. I’m not sure how to tell you this, Vik, but you created a sentient robot. I’m not sure how much more you have to do become an expert in neurology if you can literally create sentience. ” he said, one hand moving to perch casually on his hip.

 

It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. Ah. This was going to be a fun conversation. I sighed, gently rubbing at the skin under my nose. He wasn’t entirely wrong--I did have some degree of knowledge in neurology. It had always interested me in school; but engineering had always been my forte. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

Jayce squinted at me, mouth going ajar. “You...didn’t mean to?” he parroted.

 

“No.” I said, leaning my head back. “I didn’t mean to make Blitzcrank sentient.”

 

Jayce immediately laughed, “You’re shitting me.” he said, looking me over. “You…accidentally created sentience?” he asked, eyes scrunching together as another bout of laughter overtook him. “What, you just dropped some nuts and bolts and ‘whoops!’ guess the robot’s sentient now?' ”

 

I shot him a look, folding my own arms as I regarded him. “No, you oaf.” I said, sighing before I spoke. “When I was making Blitzcrank, I wanted a golem that could respond intuitively. Pure robotics can only respond based on the algorithms of their programming. It...works for most situations. You simply input the commands, and the robot follows them, unwavering. They clean, they shoot criminals--simple functions for simple jobs. That wouldn’t work for Blitzcrank.” I explained, circling my hand on my wrist as I spoke. “It was meant for jobs that would require split-second decisions to be made circumstantially, when no one else would be around to issue it commands.” I paused, making certain that Jayce was following.

 

When he nodded, I continued. “Most people regard sentience as some mystical, spiritual thing--that we think and feel the way we do simply because. But you and I know that isn’t the case. We are who we are, and act the way we do because of chemical and electrical messages relayed by our brains. It allows us to make those split-second decisions based on the input of the precise moment we’re in. I attempted to emulate that.”

 

Jayce chuckled, leaning forward. “Too well?”

 

I relented with a sigh, “Too well, and not well enough.” I said, “I designed Blitzcrank to be able to take in input and make its own decisions. That is the sentience you see. It can, for all intents and purposes, ‘think’.”

 

“But?” Jayce asked, correctly identifying my reluctance.

 

“It can’t feel. At least, I don’t believe it can. I didn’t equip it with the capability to do so. I...hadn’t thought that its ability to process information in a more ‘human’ way would give it the ability to become autonomous.” I chuckled, looking back at him, “So my poor golem must exist in a state that both is, and is not, sentience. Stuck somewhere between human and machine.”

 

Jayce lips pursed as he mouthed a silent ‘wow’, giving a low whistle. “Geeze. I almost feel bad for the little guy.”

 

I lifted an eyebrow, “Blitzcrank is easily double your height and weighs a metric t--”

 

“Figure of speech, Vik, forget it.” he said, leaning back in his chair. He regarded me for a time, and I met his gaze. I waited for him to speak first, to gauge his response.

 

“Is all of that why you keep calling him an ‘it’?” he finally settled on.

 

I quirked an eyebrow, one side of my lip pulling back in a grimace. “No, I call it an it because it is an ungendered golem, Jayce.” I shot back, almost irritated that that was the part he saw fit to question.

 

“What? Oh, come on, ‘it’ is too impersonal. Everyone else says ‘him’ when they talk about him.” Jayce argued.

 

I shot him a glare, motioning towards him with exasperation. “Everyone else is an idiot. It’s my creation. Unless Blitzcrank itself personally kicks in our door right now and tells me to refer to it as ‘him’ or ‘her’, it will remain an it.” I said, pausing before I added, “And we’re getting off subject, anyways.”

 

I didn’t want to get any angrier than I already was about discussing Blitzcrank.

 

“Yeah, sorry. It’s just...a lot to take in. Ever since he...it was revealed, I’d thought its creator had intentionally made its sentience. I followed the whole case and read all that I could on its creation. Which was, y’know, an unprecedented feat of science and challenged the very nature of humanity, absurd leaps in innovation and all of that. And you just...accidentally did it. You have to understand how crazy that sounds.” he said, shrugging noncommittally.

 

It was my time to fall into an abrupt silence. He looked at me as I processed what he had said, brows knitting together in question. “What?” he asked.

 

“When I first came here, you acted like you barely knew anything about me or Blitzcrank.” I said breathily, and with an incredulous tinge.

 

I saw his brows shoot up towards his hairline, lips pressed in a firm line. Oho, it’s too late, Jayce. You’ve been caught in your own lie.

 

“Well, I just thought you were probably trying to escape all of those memories. I assumed being around someone who wouldn’t judge you on that standard would help you adapt to Piltover.”

 

A clever try.

 

“Mmm. I’m positive it had nothing to do with wanting to look ‘cool’ in front of an inventor you looked up to? The proverbial ‘whatever’ to retain an air of aloof composure, like you were above caring about my business?” I asked, face slowly splitting into a smirk, “It’s alright, Jayce, you can admit it. I won’t think less of you for seeing me as a mentor.” I said.

 

Jayce hadn’t even waited for me to finish my statement before he sprang up from his chair. He was on me in two quick strides--I only had enough time to knock my hip against the edge of my workbench in shock, a futile attempt to get away. He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and pulled me into his chest. I tried to elbow him in the ribs and squirm my way out of his hold, but he held me fast. His knuckles found purchase on the top of my head, sharply rubbing against my scalp. A dull throng of pain issued from the assaulted flesh, and I gave a sharp yelp as I attempted to kick at his ankles.

 

I had seen him do the same to Ezreal once, and called it a ‘noogie’. Ezreal had laughed; I had an instantaneous fantasy of cutting Jayce’s hand off where he stood. He finally released me, laughing heartily as I scrambled away from him

 

“Little bit small to be a mentor, aren’t y--oh shit!

 

The moment he had released me, I’d shot my hand into the drawer of my desk to pull the handheld laser from within. While its usual functions included little more than cutting details and shapes into metal, zapping Jayce was a noble secondary function.

 

He yelped when I shot him square in his right buttocks. He moved a hand to the cover the area, briefly falling to one knee before he was up again and attempting to run. I managed two more shots to his calf and side, grinning to myself at the long trail of laughter Jayce left in his wake.

 

I heard him pant to catch from deeper within the lab. “Playing dirty isn’t very Piltover of you, either!” he called to me.

 

I gave a soft tut under my breath, returning the laser to its proper spot and reclaiming my chair from where Jayce had left it. “Running away with your tail between your legs isn’t very Demacia of you.” I called back, taking my seat.

 

“HA-HA” Jayce yelled back, any insult he might have actually felt minimized by the laughter that followed it. “Alright, I’m going to start my work now if you’re done brutalizing me.” he said.

 

I gave a casual hum, pulling my own blueprints back out. “Work? Is that what you call that dawdling around that you do?”

 

“Laugh all you want, you chose to collaborate with me so that says as much about you as it does me!” he said.

 

I couldn’t help the amused smile that pulled at the corners of my lips. As much as I dearly enjoyed our heated arguments and debates, there was something that stuck with me more to these playful bouts.

 

After a moment, I heard him shuffling through papers and opening his drawers. I found myself almost curious what he would envision for our project; I had no doubt it would be garishly Piltover in his designs, but perhaps some degree of the intelligence he stifled to adhere to their rules would show itself.

 

“Hey!” he called. I leaned back in my chair, glancing down the distance of the hallway to see him doing the same. “You can do the neuroscience part of the augmentation, right?”

 

I scoffed, “Of course I can. I was just clarifying that it wasn’t my area of expertise.”

 

A sullen weight pooled in my gut. I didn’t like the research I’d done for Blitzcrank finding its way into my new creations, but I firmed my resolve. This was different--would be different. I was just making augmentations--not a new being.

 

I was glad when Jayce spoke again, pulling my mind from the parallels. “ ‘Kay, great. Oh, and Viktor?” he asked.

 

“Hmm?”

 

“When you have a sec, show me those blueprints you definitely didn’t already get started on while I was out.”

 

I would have rolled my eyes were he within clear viewing range. I let my eyes roam over my own blueprints, taking in the smooth lines of ink and the fluid design of the leg and arm designs. The sleek metal and golden inlays of the surface covering the complex and intricate engineering within; the power of the external visage that would strengthen the weak flesh within. I found myself lost in the thought for a time, until a whistle from Jayce reminded me that he was waiting for me.

Chapter Text

Remember, just smile! Oh, and don’t do any of that weird stuff that you do? Blah,  blah, blah, just be charismatic and perfect like I am and blah, blah, blah, punch me in my stupid, pretty face.


I couldn’t remember Jayce’s exact words--that would have required listening to them in the first place--but I dwelled upon them as I waited on my company. I had initially been irritated to find the teahouse full of occupants, but I’d found a certain comfort in the steady thrum of quiet conversation and clinking of spoons against porcelain. It was a quaint store; had my invitation not included directions, I doubt I would’ve been able to find it on my own, tucked into a remote corner of the downtown district as it was. As far as I could discern, it was done in an Ionian style--little thatI knew about Ionia, the graceful columns and stylized wall paintings gave it away.


I worried my bottom lip and forced myself to stop tapping my foot, instead turning my attention to the murky contents of my tea.


She would be here soon. Much as I tried to push away the tension that knowledge brought me, it only intensified as the moments drew closer.


I had expected to hear from Caitlyn at some point. I’d known others of her caliber in Zaun--unrelenting, predatory sorts with no qualms against lying in wait until an opportune moment presented itself.


What I couldn’t fathom was why she wanted to meet now. As far as I knew (which was to say, what I knew from Jayce’s continued crusade to keep me informed of public opinion), there had been nothing but positive press about our project. Well, aside from one tabloid that claimed I could easily manufacture the limbs to include microchips that spied on Piltover’s citizen’s, but that could hardly warrant a police investigation.

 

Could it?

 

I buried my face in one hand, rubbing heavily at the corners of my eyelid. The letter had been cordial enough, which made it all the more untrustworthy. Jayce had assured me that Caitlyn was trustworthy, which was even less comforting.


I looked up when I heard the familiar chime of the door opening, and attempted to steel my nerves when I saw her top hat peek through the door. I did my best to keep a flat expression when I noticed the way she had to stoop her head to even get the monstrous head-wear through the door-frame. Don’t laugh; even if Piltover fashion is a joke. I saw her give the room a visual sweep before settling on me. I gave a courteous nod that she returned, making her way to my table.


“Viktor. I trust you found the place alright?” she asked, taking a seat across from me and folding her fingers together.


I’m physically here, aren’t I?


“Yes, thank you.” I returned evenly, leaning forward. “And how are you faring, Sheriff?” I asked.


She smiled, lips pulled back with a certain disquieting evenness. “Wonderful, thank you.” she said, slowly unfolding the delicate cloth napkin and placing it in her lap. A server stopped by our table, halting our conversation as she greeted Caitlyn by name. I did what I could to appear less impatient than I was as they briefly chatted, before the server set down the platter of tea she’d been holding and strode away.


Caitlyn watched her until, I assumed, she was out of earshot, and turned back to me. “Sorry about that. How are you doing, Viktor? I’ve heard you and Jayce are doing well on your collaboration?” she said.


I smiled, grinding my back teeth. I wished we could skip the pleasantries and get this over with, but I wasn’t willing to back down from her game. “We’re making great strides. The academy has already sent over a volunteer to test our first prototype.”


Caitlyn’s expression didn’t change when she spoke, “Almost unprecedented, from what I understand.” she said.


“Keeping tabs on us, Sheriff?” I asked.


She chuckled, glancing down at her tea as she stirred in, to my shock, four spoonfuls of sugar. I could feel my lips pull back in a grimace before I could stop myself, but she remained focused on her drink. “To some degree. Most of it comes from Jayce’s…” she trailed off, circling one hand in thought, “Enthusiastic boasting.”


The look she shot me said, clearer than any words, ‘you know what I’m talking about.’


I genuinely chuckled despite myself, shaking my head as I brought my own heady tea to my lips. “I didn’t know you two were close.” I said, the words leaving my mouth before I’d had time to think about  them.


From the lift of her brow, she was as off-put by them as I was. She chuckled politely, lifting a hand to cover her mouth, “Jayce and I?” she asked, leaning forward, “Close may be an exaggeration. He’s my friend, of course, but we have a professional relationship.” she said, a thick sigh parting her lips. She rolled her eyes, and shook her head as she shot me a look, “Despite what the tabloids might have you believe.”


It was my turn to quirk a brow, leaning forward and forcing my voice to a whisper. “Oh?” I pried, hoping I didn’t sound as delightedly curious as I was.


She grinned in turn, sucking in her lips as she almost imperceptibly shook with silent laughter. “Excuse me one moment.” she said, standing from her seat and making her way to the front of the shop.


She came back holding a newspaper, already flipping through the pages when she sat down. I waited until I heard a softly exclaimed ‘ah’, followed by her clearing her throat. “Oh, this is a good one.” she said, glancing briefly back to me to smirk before she continued. “Leaders of the future, or leaders of love? Avid readers have once again reported seeing our outstanding sheriff secretly meeting with up-and-coming inventor Jayce. No conversation could be heard, but one reader reportedly witnessed Caitlyn placing a hand on Jayce’s arm and laughing for an ‘inordinate amount of time’, presumably at a joke he’d told.” she said, tutting under her breath and briefly looking back to me. “Very salacious, it’s true.” she said, looking back to the paper, “Is it merely discussion between two of Piltover’s brightest, or something romantic? Send in your thoughts while we wait for new developments. Here’s what some of our readers think…” she trailed off, eyes scanning the rest of the page.


It was all meaningless gossip, of course. Utter, trifling nonsense that was entirely beneath me.


I waited with baited breath for her to pick something entertaining enough to share.


At a sudden, broad smile and widening of her eyes, I knew she’d found her winner. “Vivica, age 47, writes:” she began, “I’m here to tell you that this is utter hogwash.” she said, looking up to me and mouthing the word ‘hogwash’ at me again before continuing, “I frequent a cafe that I regularly see the inventor in, and I can tell you, without a doubt, that Jayce only has eyes for the dark, brooding Zaunite he lives with.”


I felt myself physically balk, shoulders going stiff. Why. Why.


Caitlyn continued, unperturbed, “If you saw the way he moored over the man, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. I’ve never seen a man more enamored. It’s certainly made my mornings more exciting!” Caitlyn said, an over-exaggerated enthusiasm placed on the final sentence.


She looked at me expectantly.


I closed my eyes, shaking my head. “I’m never going outside again.” I muttered, taking a long breath. A flame of shame licked up the base of my spine; I’d take a hundred articles speculating me being a double-agent for Zaun over the single paragraph I’d just heard. At least the former had enough respect to focus on my skills in techmaturgy, and not my…


I shook again, unwilling to even think the words ‘love life’.


“Well, at least not to that cafe.” Caitlyn muttered.


The crinkling of paper was a relief, and I was glad to see the blasphemous piece of journalism folded to the side. “I have a list of places I can’t go to anymore, if it’s any consolation.” she muttered, hands going back to her tea-cup.


I sighed again, rubbing at a temple, “Some.” I offered, leaning back in my chair.


She chuckled, her attention focused on her drink, “You know how Piltover covets its intelligence. So, if you’re smart and attractive? I’m surprised they haven’t asked Jayce to be their posterboy yet.”

 

It was with a great deal of effort that I didn’t sputter into my tea-cup at the idea. “I see enough of him on a daily basis without having to see posters of him, thank you.” I muttered, placing my cup down .


“Hmm.” Caitlyn hummed, idly stirring her tea, “Still, there could be worse accusations than being the object of Jayce’s affection.” she said.


I blinked slowly, running my tongue over my bottom lip, “Like being a traitor void-bent on attaching microchips to all of Piltover’s citizens.” I offered.


She shrugged, though her pulled lips made clear her understanding of my vitriol, “Well, I was thinking more about the one that claimed you were the one pining after Jayce, but that applies as well.”


She was, I was aware, goading me. I was beginning to understand why she and Jayce were friends, despite their clashing personalities.


I scoffed, finally setting my tea back down and folding my arms. “I’m hoping you didn’t ask me here to make fun of what the papers say about my...relationships.” I responded, folding my arms. Any desire I’d had to be subtle had quickly vanished with the topic at hand.


There was a noticeable, physical shift in Caitlyn at my words. The amusement quickly ebbed away, she sat up straight and her face returned to a still neutral. “No. Perhaps another time, though.” she said, carefully setting her own cup down before leaning forward, hands interwoven before her. “I’m here to thank you for your assistance in uncovering a great treachery against Piltover.” she stated, so utterly simplistic and straight-forward that I had no doubt her intent was to throw me off.


Which, to her credit, utterly worked as I gawked at her in absolute confusion. She waited a beat to continue, one side of her lips curled back into a smirk, “Do you remember what you said to me at Heimerdinger’s commencement celebration?” she asked


I didn’t even know it was called a commencement celebration


I nodded slowly, urging her to continue.


“You accused me of stationing officers to spy on you. At the time, I thought you were just being paranoid, but when I sent my personal officers to scope out the area, they reported that you were telling the truth.” she explained, voice dropping to a whisper. “Which meant that someone in my squad was going under my nose and positioning spies without my knowledge.” she said, tapping her index fingers together.


“I’ll spare you the details. In the end, I learned that one of my captains was selling Piltover secrets to an associate in Zaun, and was planning on framing you for it.” she stated, again with the sort of simplicity that undermined the true gravity of the situation.


“Oh.” was the only overtly intellectual response I could think to give.


Caitlyn chuckled, eyes glued to me, “Well, the whole thing concluded with a high-speed chase through most of downtown, and me having to shoot him out of the sky when he attempted to board an airship. It was extraordinary, really.”

 

I turned away for a time, an uncertainty dawning. “Why wasn’t it in the news?” I asked slowly, turning back to her in time to see her look away.


“It...won’t be.” she said, taking a deep breath. “Which is why I asked to meet with you privately. The higher-ups have decided that it’s best to keep the matter of a traitor in their police force in such a delicate time a secret. Uncertainty in those you trust to protect you could thrust Piltover into chaos.” she explained.


“Ah.” I muttered, nodding my understanding. “So, no key to the city, then.” I deadpanned, feeling a surge of relief that this was all Caitlyn had wanted to meet for. Government cover-ups were nothing too surprising; Zaun’s politics completely revolved around keeping things secret from it citizens. That Piltover--great, glowing gem of a city, Piltover--was apt to the same failings was more relaxing than anything.


I could tell my words had caused a similar relief in Caitlyn, “No, unfortunately not.” she said, unclasping her hands. “But you do have my personal thanks, and appreciation.” she paused, before adding, “And respect. There aren’t many who can go toe-to-toe with me the way you did.”


I levelled her with a gaze, trying to discern any underlying intent. If she was just trying to get on my good side, I couldn’t think of any good reason for it. I couldn’t think of any agenda she might have; if anything, she was more likely to bring negative attention to herself for associating with me.


Which, of course, meant that she was being sincere. Which was altogether more unsettling than thinking she wanted to use me; at least that I knew how to deal with.


“I could say the same to you.” I said, wondering if the words sounded forced. I was barely getting used to Jayce’s degree of sincerity, and figuring out how to respond to it. At least Caitlyn’s version was more calm and serious--easier than Jayce’s upfront ‘i’m going to hug you now and you have no say’ variety.


She smiled politely, “Thank you, Viktor.” she said, turning back down to her cup. “It’s too bad Jayce ruined our discussion, isn’t it?”


Now that… that made me grin. “As that oaf loves to do.” I muttered, folding my arms. “Any time I think I might try and take him seriously, he does something like that.”


Caitlyn sighed, “The very first time I had to work with him, he interrupted me while I was speaking with a member of senate to tell a joke.” she deadpanned, shaking her head. “And don’t get me started on the second time I worked with him.

 

 

“Caitlyn.” I said, leaning forward to meet her eyes, “I would love nothing more than to hear whatever embarrassing stories you have of Jayce.”


There was a glint in her eye as she leaned forward, launching into her story.

 

---


It wasn’t until I brought my cup to my lip and felt cold liquid meet my lips that I realized we’d been sharing stories about Jayce embarrassing himself for over an hour. We parted ways with my promise to join her for tea in a week, and I made my way back to the laboratory in a significantly better mood than I’d left it.


I didn’t even remember how worried I had been when I’d left, until I saw Jayce jump out of his seat and stare at me with wide-eyed anticipation when I entered the laboratory.


“Well?” he asked, half-jogging closer to the stairs, worry-lines creasing his brows.


“I have a day to pack my things.” I said in a flat voice, having barely even realized that I’d made the decision to trick him the moment I’d recognized his concern.

 

His eyebrows shot toward his hairline, lips parting in a gape. “She can’t--no, they couldn’t. There would have to be a trial for something like this.” he said, chuckling breathlessly. “What did she say? What possible charges could she have?! You don’t even leave the lab unless I make you! ” he nearly shouted, one hand clenched into a tight fist. Jayce teetered back a step, leaning against the closest work-table and running a hand down his face. As quickly as he had sat against the surface, he pushed himself out, eyebrows knitting together with what I had come to understand as ‘impassioned dedication’, and was usually saved for the last days of a project’s completion. “No. I’m going to Caitlyn right now. I’m not letting them do this.”

 

Caught somewhere between amusement and guilt, I sputtered a laugh and held my hands up to stop him. “Oh calm down, you oaf.” I muttered, making my way down the stairs. “I was joking. I’m meeting her again for tea at the same time next week.” I said, coming to a stop at the last foot of the stairs, eyeing him with one brow raised.

 

I watched as it took him a moment to collect himself, and finally deflate with a loud groan. He chuckled as he stood back up straight, trying to regain his composure and his, as I liked to call it, ‘aloof indifference’. “Real funny, Vik.” he said, folding his arms. “If techmaturgy doesn’t work out for you, you should try comedy.” he muttered.


The scathing sarcasm wasn’t lost on me. “Hmm, I’m sure. I appreciate the concern though” I returned, taking a misplaced sheet of paper from the base of the stairwell and looking it over as I passed him. I paused long enough to pat him on the shoulder as I passed. “Good to know I can rely on your steadfast dedication if your police force ever does try to drag me away.” I teased, taking a seat in my own chair and swiveling it back around to face him.


“Sorry, one time pass for me getting up in arms for your sake. And you just wasted it on a joke.” he said, folding his arms and regarding me with a half-smirk. I returned it with one of my own, mimicking his pose as I leaned back in my chair. I let his joke linger between us for a moment, before ending it with a chuckle.

 

“Fine. Make any new breakthroughs while I was away? Preferably ones that won’t blow up in my face when I inspect them?” I asked, which earned me a heavy roll of Jayce’s eyes.


“Yes, and that was just one time.”

Chapter Text

His name was Stanley.

 

Jayce had taken to calling him Lee after a time, having struck up something of a friendship with him. I certainly didn’t understand it, and hadn’t bothered speaking to the elder beyond the compulsory questions needed after testing. Jayce called me surly for it--I called him sentimental for bothering.

 

Stanley had been sent to us from the Scientific committee--a family friend of someone, who had eagerly signed on to be something of a ‘test subject’ for us. He had a degenerative joint disease, and one leg severely bothered him. He was...certainly not a flashy test subject, motley old man that he was. He’d lost a hand in some ancient battle, and wore a hook in its stead--something he showed off with great gusto, and which Jayce had eagerly asked him the story of. For my part, I actually did the work and testing needed for the experiment, while Jayce squandered his time.

 

The technology had been simple enough to figure out in theory; the problem had been finding a way to stop the muscle tissue from degenerating further once the enhancement had been attached. The hextech leg worked too well. It connected to the nerves beneath the skin, moving as an actual leg would in response to Stanley’s neural commands. The response timing and power of it were far better than anything organic--a marvel, to be certain, but one that made the actual flesh and bone beneath it obsolete. After extended use, the actual leg would waste away; a useless filling for a superior, techmaturgic shell.

 

It was maddening; especially in having to watch the old man limp around without it on. He begged us to let him take the armor with him when he left for further testing--there was little doubt from either of us that he wanted the relief of it and damned be the future consequences. It was true that Stanley would likely be dead and buried long before he ever had to worry about such an extent of degeneration of muscle tissue led to complications, but that did little for us in completing a perfected invention.

 

As Stanley left the laboratory, detaching the leg from the adapter we had implanted on his leg, Jayce waved him off before heading back to me. I was surrounded with...I could scarcely count how many papers, all with diagrams and notes scrawled over them. It was growing harder to tell what I had scrapped, and what I had merely creased the edges of in frustration.

 

It wasn’t until I heard Jayce’s footsteps approaching that I realized I’d been staring listlessly at the papers for a time.

 

“Let’s go out.”

 

I tried to mull over his words, but eventually just turned to him, stupefied.

 

“What?” I asked, watching him come to a stop before me. He lifted an eyebrow at me, half-smirk playing at his lips.

 

“Outside? Maybe for food, or a park? Anywhere other than this lab so we can get some air?” he clarified, chuckling.

 

I scoffed, swiveling my chair to face him. “You may wish to consider your words better, Jayce. You attempted to court Caitlyn last week with those very words.”

 

Jayce gave a loud bark of laughter, “Don’t you worry. I have better romantic timing than to ask you out after ten hours of work.” he said, leaning against my desk. “And so you know? No one calls it ‘courting’ anymore, Vik.”

 

“Viktor.” I clarified immediately, well used to his chiding by now. “And good. You haven’t shaved in days. I wouldn’t be seen courted by someone so unkempt.” I said, always glad for an opportunity to deflate the man’s ego.

 

He brought a hand to his chin and rubbed his stubble, relenting my point. “Alright, alright, you win.” he said, pausing long enough to grin toothily before adding, “Can’t be worse than the bags under your eyes.”

 

I scoffed. It was a familiar song and dance of ours, trying to figure out who was more over-worked than the other. “Those are a constant,” I reminded him, leaning back in my chair. “But I can’t. I have to figure this out.” I explained, motioning towards the mess of papers that littered my desk. “We’re close, Jayce. So damn close.” I muttered, eyes briefly falling shut as the exhaustion of those words bore down on me. How many months had we been so close, now?

 

“Which is why we’re taking a break. Come on, some fresh perspective would do us well.”

 

I sighed, not bothering to hide my exasperation. There was only so much banter I could take with such an important invention looming over me. “I can’t! It may be easy for you to forgo your responsibilities, but this matters to me!” I shot back, feeling the familiar surge of irritation spike through me. I was too frustrated to deal with Jayce’s foolish shenanigans; how could he want to leave when we were so close?! And how could he expect me to do the same? Still, I knew he wasn’t likely to give up, smiling that foolish, charismatic smile and using all of his wiles to goad me into it.

 

When I looked back up to him, I found nothing of the sort--he was frowning at me. He scoffed, shrugging with one arm before turning his back on me. “Fine. Remember to turn the lights off before you go to sleep.” he instructed, a monotone in his voice I had never heard before.

 

Without another word, he ascended the stairs and walked from the laboratory door.

 

I was rendered speechless as the door clanged shut after him, echoing in the chasm of silence he’d left. That was...certainly a first. Had I insulted him? In every argument we’d had, he’d either entirely lost his calm composure, or spent the entire time smiling as if he’d already won. This silence was disconcerting, to say the least.

 

After a moment of waiting--expecting him to barge back in and demand I go with him--I glanced back at the papers. I tried to focus on the writing of the sheet closest to my hand, but found I couldn’t focus, eyes re-reading the same sentence over and over again.

 

I did what I could to ignore the lingering notion that I’d done something wrong, reminding myself that this--this invention that could revolutionize the medical field of prosthetics--was more important than fixing whatever I had done to upset the oaf. It was, and I knew it, but the guilt clung desperately to the back of my mind. I managed to jot down a page more of notes, hoping that the feeling would leave with enough time, before I finally pushed my chair bodily from the table.

 

I’d scarcely been able to think of anything, beyond a hastily strewn-together set of apologies that culminated into, ‘I’m bad with people and that isn’t an excuse but please forgive me’. In...what I hoped was less pitiful fragmentation. I walked briskly to the door, grasping my coat from the rack before pushing into the frigid night air.

 

A gale of wind immediately hurried past me, whipping the unkempt strand of my hair against my face and bringing a surge of heat to my cheeks. I had very nearly begun to allow myself to enjoy the warmth of summer before the chill of fall had immediately descended upon the city. I shivered, fastening the buttons of my coat while I made my way up a set of cast-iron steps to the shuttle station. In there, at least, there was some protection from the jarring weather. As I waited, I wrapped my coat more firmly against my bad leg, tapping it incessantly until the shuttle arrived.

 

It was nearly empty, thankfully. I took a seat near the door, and finally managed to relax enough to even my breathing. This was progress. This was doing something, at least. The Sheriff’s office was only twenty minutes away. And then I could...ask.

 

I grimaced at my own plan. Caitlyn and I were hardly close; we had tea every week, and had come to a quiet agreement on the matter of Jayce being a charming idiot, but I still wondered if we could be considered friends. I had a certain level of respect for her, and had enjoyed the conversations we’d had. She was calm, and calculating--she thought deeply before she spoke, with each word considered carefully and chosen for her own specific purpose. It kept me on my feet--something I’d found I enjoyed.

 

Yet she was also the only person I knew that Jayce spoke to consistently. I had assumed, initially, that Jayce had a large circle of friends with the way he exuded charisma--I had been amused to learn that he had scarcely fewer meaningful relationships than I did. She was my best bet, if he’d told anyone. I wasn’t about to shuttle my way through the city, checking every area he frequented. If Caitlyn didn’t know, I could say I tried, go home, and get back to work with a clear conscience.

 

I congratulated myself on the plan, and waited in silence as the shuttle continued its trek.

 

When it pulled into my stop, I stood with a slight wince, my joints sore from sitting in the cold. When the ache passed, I quickly made my way down the steps. The walk to Caitlyn’s office was blessedly short, and the building warm. It washed over me, causing me to shudder at the sudden temperature change.

 

It wasn’t hard to pinpoint her trademark top hat--ugh. How long had I been here, and I still couldn’t begin to fathom how hideous Piltover fashion remained. At the very least, she was talking to her secretary near the front desk. That saved me trying to fabricate an excuse for why I urgently needed to see her to the skittish secretary. Her eyes found mine after a moment, smiling cordially and nodding her recognition. I smiled back and stood in place, waiting for her to finish her conversation.

 

Like nearly any building in Piltover, the interior of her office building was covered in brass instruments and piping, with a number of hextech gizmos puttering around. I couldn't tell if they were decorative, or served some purpose; knowing Piltover, likely some combination of both. I was briefly reminded of Jayce’s ridiculous tooth-brushing machine that took more work to simply turn on and keep properly aligned as it did to simply pick up a toothbrush--amusing as it was to hear Jayce’s muffled ‘ows’ emanate from the bathroom at night.

 

Movement from the desk caught my attention, and I turned in time to see Caitlyn motion her head towards me, instructing me to follow her. I kept pace behind her, silent as she opened the door to her office and let me in.

 

“Viktor.” she said, a calm, yet pleasant greeting, “Always a pleasure to see you.” she closed the door behind me, face buried in an envelope in her hands as she paced back to her desk.

 

“And you, Caitlyn.” I said, clearing my throat, “I...hope I am not interrupting.”

 

Caitlyn looked up, gentle smile playing at her lips. “Well, my work is never done.” she mentioned, chuckling softly, “But a friend is always a welcome distraction.” she said, leaning against the front of her desk and setting her folder down. “Besides, I understand congratulations are in order.”

 

“I’m...what?” I asked, finding the wind thoroughly ripped from my sails. Any momentum I’d had to ask for her help ground to a stop at the mention of congratulations.

 

She lifted an eyebrow. “The anniversary of you coming to Piltover? Isn’t that today?” she said, pulling a small black book from her desk and rifling through it for a moment. I stared at her, contemplating her words. I tried to scan my mind for the passage of time, but I had never been terribly concerned with dates. I could only imagine she was right--it had been roughly a year, insofar as I could tell.

 

“Ah, there it is.” she said, looking back up, “Viktor’s anniversary--Jayce mentioned it earlier this week. Quite excited about it, too. Asked me for help deciding how to celebrate.” she chuckled, shaking her head at the thought, “He wanted to take you back to Zaun for a day. As he explained it, so you could show him your home city since you’ve seen so much of his.” She cracked a wider smile, “I told him that you would likely loathe nothing more, and told him to just take you to dinner. I know how you inventing types tend to panic at the very thought of a vacation with a project nearing completion.”

 

I closed my eyes, groaning under my breath as the proverbial ‘oh shit’ of realization flooded over me. Of course. Why wouldn’t Jayce, hero of the world, want to celebrate something for me? And of course, why wouldn’t I be short-sighted enough to blow him off?

 

I lifted a hand to pinch the corners of my eyelids, and heard her mutter an ‘oh’ of realization. “You forgot?” she asked. I kept my hand in place, nodding slowly. She was silent for a moment, before speaking again, “And that’s why you’re here, and not out celebrating.” I opened my eyes, but still only nodded in response.

 

She was quiet, looking to me for an explanation. Somehow, I felt small under her gaze; a boy back in Zaun trying to explain to his mother why he’d been sent home from school. I took a long breath, running a hand through my hair. “Jayce, he...asked me to leave the lab with him, and I refused.” I said, exasperation laced in my voice, “There’s so much to do! I thought he was just being an idiot again.”

 

Caitlyn gave me a knowing look, her lips quirking into a smile for a moment, before she quickly forced her face back into a neutral.

 

“He left without trying to force the matter.” I said, the implied ‘as he always does’ lingering beneath my words, “I...believe he was offended.” I questioned, lips pulled back in a half-grimace as I looked at her for a response.

 

She was silent, only the tapping of her foot giving away the fact that she was pondering over my words. “And you assumed if he were to tell anyone where he was, it would be me?” she asked. I relented her point with a wry chuckle, nodding. When she said it out loud, the ludicrousy of my plan was laid bare before me. It had been a far stretch that she might know where he’d be, but it had been my only chance. I took a long breath, rolling my eyes behind closed lids. Fool. Petulant, absurd fool.

 

“Well, it works in our favor that our mutual friend is predictable then, hmm?” she asked, a certain coy tone in her voice, her lips turned up in a barely-noticeable smirk. I returned it, the plummeting sensation in my gut finally loosening. She was right--Jayce had his favorites. If I was to have any hope of finding him, I could at least narrow my search. I silently ran the list of names through my head, grimacing as I made mental note of his favorite comic book store--ugh, nerd--and took a long breath. I’d need to run all over the city to check them all.

 

“Viktor? Have I lost you?” Caitlyn asked, pulling my attention from my thoughts.

 

“Sorry.” I said, running a hand through my hair, “I’m...trying to decide where to look first.” I said, hoping that she wouldn’t catch on to the dread that loomed over me at the idea of having to travel around the city alone.

 

Caitlyn raised one pointed eyebrow, face blank as she slowly lifted a hand, and motioned towards the phone at her desk. I had the vague inclination that I should have felt insulted at her sarcasm, but was too relieved to let it make too much of a dent on my pride. With a small grunt, she reached beneath her desk to pull out a well-worn phonebook, slamming it onto the tabletop with a resounding thud. She let out a breath of air, lips pursed as she held her hands before it, and tapped her fingers in thought.

 

“I...thank you, but I can make the calls--” I offered, before she cut me off with a raised hand..

 

“This is an official police investigation now, I can’t let you tamper with what might be evidence.” she said, matter-of-factly. I saw her attention flicker over my shoulder before meeting my gaze, leaning forward and whispering, “If I’m busy helping a case, someone else will just have to take on the duty of authenticating reports, hmm?” she said, a sly smile on her face. She opened the book, running her finger over the various names and businesses before stopping on one. She tapped the page, made a small ‘a-ha’ noise, and plucked up the phone.

 

I, uncertain of what was expected of me, took a seat in the chair across from her, hands wringing together as she spoke to whoever picked up. I busied myself looking around her room, feigning a particular interest in the crown moulding on the walls. I tapped my thumbs together as she went through number after number, each ending in failure. As I sat, silently, I considered how foolish this was--the Sheriff of Piltover wasting her time because I was worried I had hurt a grown man’s feelings. I briefly found myself glad that I was no longer in Zaun; such pithy matters would be greeted with outright scorn.

 

Although, the idea of an inventor of my stature being close enough to someone to warrant a search in Zaun was perhaps too absurd a notion to even consider. We were all of us too focused on ourselves and pride in our own work to form anything beyond alliances of convenience.

 

How much time had passed, I couldn’t say--nearly half an hour, if I had to wager. My eyes were glued to the window when a ringing from Caitlyn’s phone jolted me back into awareness. Caitlyn shot me a strange glance before picking it up and giving a formal greeting. Within seconds, an amused, barely restrained smile crept its way onto her face.

 

“Let me get this straight, Jayce. Viktor is missing?” she asked, and I immediately closed my eyes, eyebrows furrowed together as regret and shame coursed through me. Her smile widened when I opened my eyes again, and I could see her shoulders shaking with silent laughter. “Hmm. You came home and he just wasn’t there? No, you’re correct, that doesn’t sound like him at all.” she said, a certain exaggerated tone to her voice. She nodded silently for a moment, and I began standing from my chair, shooting her a pointed look. “No, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Zaun stealing people away in the night.” her eyes met mine and I could tell with the way they were pinched at the corners that she was still repressing laughter.

 

I rolled my eyes at her, sighing audibly as I pushed her door open. She lifted a hand to stop me, finally descending into a polite laughter, “Viktor, wait, I’m sorry.” she said. There was a brief pause, before she was chuckling, attention back on the phone conversation. “Yes, Jayce, Viktor is safe and sound in my office. Looking for you, as chance would have it.”

 

I could feel a dull throbbing in my temples as I closed my eyes, rolling them behind their lids. “If it’s all the same to you, Sheriff, I believe I’ve reached my daily quota for embarrassment.” I bit out, teeth gritted. As considerate of a person as Caitlyn could be, I had forgotten she took all manner of sadistic joy in watching those around her squirm. She smiled at me and nodded, lifting a hand to wave and turning her chair to the window to continue her conversation with Jayce. “Tell him I’m on my way.” I muttered, turning up the collar of my coat and making my way swiftly from her office, pointedly ignoring the saccharinely sweet parting words the secretary gave me.

 

I took to the stairs of the station as quickly as my leg would allow, making it to the station just as the train arrived. I entered and slid into the first seat available, keeping my eyes glued to the floor and repeatedly tapping the heel of my boot against the front of my seat. It wasn’t enough that I’d been made to feel a fool, was it? I had to have reacted precisely as an ignorant child would, to top it all off. I rubbed against my closed eyelids heavily, enjoying the dull ache. Time dragged on as the apprehension built in my chest, acutely aware that I likely looked the mess I felt to be. Bile surged in my throat as I wrapped my hands around my forehead to block my view to the other passengers. I didn’t need to worry myself over the Pilties judgement on top of my current predicament. Torn between wanting to figure out exactly what I ought to say to Jayce and wanting to pretend that nothing whatsoever was wrong, I settled on mentally tormenting and berating myself for the remainder of the ride.

 

The robotic voice announcing my stop was a welcome relief from my own thoughts. I stood quickly and walked with purpose for the door. I walked as quickly as I could to the laboratory, worrying my bottom lip all the way. Like a diver about to take a plunge, I held my breath as I opened it.

 

...And swiftly released it, floored by what I immediately saw on the workshop floor. Two of our drafting tables pushed together and covered in a tablecloth, with...with candles, of all things, and a spread of food waiting.

 

I stumbled over my bad leg as I stepped forward, taking a sudden grasp of the railing.

 

“Come on, it isn’t that impressive.”

 

I felt myself involuntarily glare at Jayce as he came from the direction of the attached housing. He only grinned further, depositing another armful of platters on the table. As soon as he’d set them down, the buffoon trotted to the stairs. My shoulders hunched together, legs bending at the knees as he darted up and, predictably as an untrained puppy, pulled me into an embrace. I wrapped a stiff arm around him, if only to stabilize myself as he pulled me off the ground.

 

“At least let me buy a nicer tablecloth if you’re going to be falling all over yourself.”

 

“Yes, yes, tee-hee, humorous as always.” I muttered, still feeling that there were a million eyes on us, watching him humiliate me despite our isolation.

 

I was thankful when he set me back down and gave me a hearty pat on the shoulder. I, as always, did my best to pretend it didn’t hurt, and returned an awkward smile to the man. I didn’t have the slightest inclination how to broach the subject, but forced myself to meet his gaze.

 

No matter how small it always served to make me feel.

 

“So. You thought Zaun had come to steal me back?” I asked. Humor, at least, I knew Jayce responded to.

 

He flashed a sheepish smile in my direction. “It was a better explanation than ‘Viktor willingly went outside’.

 

I stepped past him and into the workshop, brushing the remnants of snow off of my jacket before taking it off and draping it on the back of one of the chairs. A strange, surging sensation settled in my chest as I walked closer to the makeshift dinner table. We’d never had need of a dining room table; both of us tended to eat while we worked at our workstations. For him to have gone to these lengths and set this up...it was with an uncomfortable pleasure that I took my seat, as a child might be attending their first tea party.

 

“You could have told me what the occasion was.” I said, turning my head to address him as he circled around the table. “Had I known you were being foolishly sentimental, I might have gone to have a laugh at whatever cliched toast you gave me. ” I chided, unfolding the napkin and placing it in my lap.

 

From the snort of laughter he gave me, I could only assume Jayce had rolled his eyes at me.

 

“I thought about forcing you out of the lab and out to some ritzy restaurant to surprise you.” He said, barely audible over the sound of his metal chair scraping loudly against the concrete, “But then, you know? I thought about it, and this is your celebration, so I should celebrate it the way you would want to, not me. So? Voila!” He explained motioning towards our surroundings.

 

I lifted an eyebrow, and made to question it--but resigned to his point, and nodded as I glanced around. He was right; a familiar setting, far away from the crowd of a public space, and where I could get back to work once we concluded our meal? It was ideal, and he was well aware of it.

 

I wasn’t about to let him relish that victory. “I do still expect my cliched toast, however.” I ordered, leaning back in my chair.

 

“Give me some credit, Vik. I have big plans for the night.” He said, flashing a wink.

 

“Lucky me.” I muttered, folding my hands on my lap and quirking an eyebrow at him. A pregnant silence fell between us as I waited for him to catch my hint. His eyebrows shot up, mouth forming an ‘o’ shape before he cleared his throat and reached for the wine bottle.

 

Oaf.

 

I watched him pour the amber drink into both glasses, watching him with veiled amusement. Charming as he often imagined himself to be in public, he was a bumbling child when it came to the finer points of social graces. I made no move to mention my thought--stones and glass houses, and all. I smirked to myself, noticing the way his hands shook just noticeably enough to break the ruse of charisma he wore so well. He was nervous.

 

I was nervous as well, but that had less to do with putting on a noteworthy anniversary celebration. That was Jayce’s problem to deal with, and mine to enjoy for the time being. He passed me my glass a bit too quickly, nearly sloshing the wine onto my hand. I shot him a pointed look that he abjectly ignored, coughing into his hand and extending his wine glass towards me.

 

“To you, Viktor, and our one year partnership.” He said, pausing to smile at me. I could see him visibly calm himself. “I grew up hearing tales of Zaun’s mad scientists and fearing what sort of immoral, entitled people came from such a place. When the Scientific Committee told me I’d be working with someone from Zaun, I really did think they were trying to punish me for something I’d done in college.”

 

I pushed my lips into a thin line, lifting an eyebrow at him and waiting for him to continue.

 

“You know what? They probably were trying to punish me, but I was too damn excited to even wonder what they were mad about. Every other inventor I knew either had their own lab, or had partnered up with someone they’d always known. But me? I was going to get to pick the brain of someone who knew things I’d have no way of experiencing, and ideas completely different than anything I’d ever experienced. I thought we may clash and end up hating each other, but no matter what, I’d get first-hand experience of what Zaun’s sense of science and progress that no one else would.” He spoke slowly, coming to a certain ease with his speech. It might have been impressive, had the extent of it not been explaining that I had been an effective test subject for him.

 

“Don’t expect to hear me say this again, but I was wrong. And I can’t be happier about it.” He said, tipping his glass towards me. “You’re an amazing inventor and an even better friend, and there’s no one else I’d rather collaborate with to create robo-legs with.”

 

Ugh. Robo-legs. He’d been calling them that for the last month. I could only hope that the look I shot him broadcasted that that name wasn’t to be spoken outside of this room.

 

“So...yeah. Here’s to this last year, and the many more that I hope follow it.” He said, with some degree of hesitation in his voice, eyes finding mine and imploring me for some input.

 

I looked from the glass to Jayce, a warmth coming to rest on my skin. For once, I spoke without considering my words. “In Zaun,” I began, leaning forward and tapping one finger against the neck of the glass. “The only thing worth celebrating are your accomplishments. You get toasted for completing a project, or discovering something groundbreaking.” I said, letting my attention fall to the tablecloth. “I tell you this because I’ve never had, or even been to, an event just to celebrate something as simple as spending a year with a person. I’ve had no reason to; there wouldn’t be any meaning to it.” I said, finally beginning to cycle through my thoughts and decide how to best articulate them without making Jayce any more sappy than he already was. “What I’m trying to say is that I’m thankful I can understand the meaning behind it now.”

 

When I looked back up to him, I could see a fair margin of confusion on his face. I bit at the inside of my cheek; I wasn’t the best at expressing my thoughts, and Jayce was hardly the best at picking up on subtleties. I chuckled softly. What a pair we were.

 

To spare him an awkward explanation, I extended my glass towards his.
“To you as well, my friend.” I said.

 

The smile he gave me was the only thing I needed to know he at least vaguely understood. He let the rims of our glasses clink together, a soft chiming noise swallowed by the great expanse of our laboratory. I pulled the glass back and took a sip, looking at Jayce over the rim of it, the corners of my lips twitching up into a smile.

 

I could handle a few more years of this.

Chapter Text

“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.