Jayce’s joints ache.
It’s the first thing he notices as soon as he wakes.
The second thing he notices is that his body feels hot: uncomfortably so. There’s an intense heat that’s running across his torso and down the length of his leg—a burning, flesh-on-metal sensation—and Jayce’s right arm protests as he tries to push himself up and into a sitting position. After a moment of heated struggle, Jayce collapses back onto his side with a sharp cry of frustration, the pain in his shoulder borderline searing.
Deep breaths. His mind is still fuzzy from recent sleep, and Jayce tries again to push himself upright. Pain jolts up his arm once more, and Jayce curses hoarsely under his breath. Damn his useless body—what the hell even happened?
Jayce reaches across his torso to grasp at his burning shoulder, right hand scrambling to find the source of his pain. It’s with growing dread that Jayce finds nothing more than cold, quiet metal in the place of where his shoulder used to be, and his fingers run along the plate to find where it connects to his upper body: attached, transplanted, grafted.
Jayce pulls away his hand with a hiss, horror coiling thick in his stomach. The place where the metal met skin hadn’t been hot to the touch, and yet, Jayce’s hand still stings from the contact.
More deep breaths. Jayce swallows his terror and runs his hand across the metal shoulder that lies in place of his own, his fingers shaking as they trail a path down an equally metal arm. Jayce grasps madly at the wrist that lies at the end, and—when he tries to flex the fingers of his right hand—five metal digits jerk in reply. Pain again, and Jayce hisses, teeth clenched tight against the burning sensation that spikes up his side.
Jayce pulls in another couple breaths, these ones more labored than the ones before. Carefully, he runs his still-human hand tight against his right side: touching, grasping, clawingagainst the metal that he inevitably finds along his upper torso, his hip, his entire right leg. The sharply plated metal runs cold along his side, terrible and painful, and Jayce spits expletives as he catalogs each replaced body part in his mind.
His memory is still dark, his mind alight with sounds and images from the day—the night? the week?—before. He had been visiting the College of Techmaturgy—Zaun territory, his mind supplies—at the behest of his colleagues at the Academy. He had been working, conversing, researching, and then—what? His entire world had exploded into color before his eyes. Visions of green-grey smoke, fires and screams and red hot pain.
The sensory memories come rushing back, choppy and distorted as Jayce forces them to the forefront of his mind, and he grits his teeth, hand gripping at the sheets of his bed. The pain had been overwhelming, more overwhelming than whatever cursed tech ails his body now, and the memory of it leaves Jayce’s body shaking even more than it already had been, before.
Well—whatever happened, Jayce thinks, vision swimming and mind racing as he does his best to turn his head and observe the room around him, I’m no longer in the College now. The bed he rests in is unfamiliar and unwelcoming, its sheets a rough, stark white, and though the tables in the room are lined with medical equipment, the walls surrounding him are composed of a dark grey steel that belies any pretense of a Piltovian hospital. There’s a small window across from him and a door to his right, both made from the same grey steel, and the door looms large and heavy—a bit more intricately decorated than the rest of the space. Jayce stares at it, and can’t help but wonder if it might be locked.
He needs to get out.
He needs to leave, needs to wake up. The dark walls of the room press in around him and Jayce tries again to push himself into a sitting position, pain burning down both his metal and human arms. There’s no doubt in his mind where he is—the dark metal of the building screaming Zaun, Zaun, Zaun—and Jayce grits his teeth against the agonizing discomfort, pushing and straining as he tries to will his body into proper movement.
“Oh good,” a voice suddenly says, dark and terrifying in its familiarity. The sound snaps Jayce from his thoughts, and he turns to stare at the now open doorway, against which a figure now stands. “You’re finally awake.”
Jayce feels his heart constrict, anger and disbelief warring for dominance in his chest. “You—” Jayce hisses, watching the fiery candlelight of the room cast long, dark shadows against Viktor’s metal, emotionless face. “I should have known it would be you—”
Viktor blinks, the lights in his mask flickering briefly off, and he tilts his head towards Jayce as he walks to the other side of the room. “Indeed,” he murmurs, “it is me.”
“What did you do to my body—” Jayce spits, rage and despair bubbling up from his stomach just as hot as the pain that burns his flesh. He still feels delirious, yet Viktor’s presence brings with it a sharp, sudden anger that feels, all at once, like clarity. Viktor has turned away from him, his hands interacting with the contents of a table that Jayce—from his vantage point on the bed—cannot even hope to see, and Jayce bares his teeth at the other man’s back, words caught in his throat.
“I saved your life,” Viktor intones, his voice set at an annoyingly exasperated cadence, “and if I were you, I’d be grateful.”
“How could I be grateful for this?” replies Jayce, hissing the words under his breath as he gestures to the metal plates that Viktor has seared across his flesh. “I never wanted to be one of your experiments, never wanted to be a part of your glorious evolution—what in the world made you think I would?”
Viktor pauses what he’s doing, Jayce’s words making his shoulders go taut. He turns his head, looking at Jayce through sharp, backlit eyes, and Jayce suppresses a sudden, cold shiver that runs down his spine. “You misunderstand,” Viktor says tightly. “I know that, and you aren’t.”
“Then why is the entire right side of my body gone?” Jayce spits, furious as he cranes his neck in another vain attempt to sit up. Knowing that it was Viktor who did this to him—who changed, mutilated his body like one of his drugged up lackeys—makes the pain all the more difficult to bear, and Jayce grits his teeth as he continues to push himself upright.
“Stop straining yourself, or the pain will get worse,” Viktor replies, looking down at Jayce from the other side of the room. “And I don’t know exactly what happened—I just know that the College was attacked. I operated upon you afterward, but I can assure you: I wasn’t the one to blow you up.”
“Small points in your favor, then,” Jayce spits, some perverse part of him angry that he can’t blame that on Viktor, too. “But whether it was you or not, you still had no right to operate on me in the aftermath!”
“It wasn’t like I could get your consent when you were already half-dead,” Viktor replies with a sharp sigh. Jayce snarls back, another disagreement on his tongue, but he bites it down as Viktor turns away from him, bile rising in his throat at the dismissal. There’s the sound of liquid being poured, and when Viktor eventually turns his attention back to Jayce, there’s a small glass of water and a wet rag held tightly in his hands. He moves as if to walk to Jayce’s bedside, metal soles echoing heavily against the metal floor, and Jayce immediately pulls back, both mentally and physically, from the approaching man.
“Don’t touch me,” he hisses, his sides burning as he tries to push himself up against the wall to his back, “don’t you dare come near me.”
There’s a short moment when Viktor doesn’t reply, his body stiff. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says, his voice curiously low.
“No more than you already have?” Jayce sneers, and Viktor makes a noise like he’s sucking in a breath, gloved fingers tight around the glass in his hand. Jayce laughs, then, the sound rough against his dry throat, and Viktor stands there, watching him through darkened eyes, as Jayce hacks out a set of brittle coughs, less than a second later.
“It was not my intent to cause you pain, Jayce,” Viktor says, short and sharp. “I had one goal, and one goal alone: to keep you alive.”
“Well you sure fucking managed it, didn’t you?” Jayce snaps back, the question laced with as much venom as he can muster. Viktor begins to reply, but Jayce cuts him off, voice sharp. “Though—I might as well be dead. After all, I can’t imagine the afterlife would be any worse than this.”
Viktor snarls then, the noise sharp and angry as it releases from the divots along his metal face. “Fine, Defender—” he growls, spinning his heel and stalking back to the countertop behind him. “If an argument is what you want, then that’s what you’ll get.”
Jayce barks out another laugh, sides burning as he continues to force his body up against the wall. “Fucking try me.”
Viktor breathes out, slamming the glass of water back atop the counter hard enough that Jayce hears the ceramic crack. “Those halfwitted scholars at the Academy might be willing to put up with your pompous attitude, Jayce,” Viktor snaps, “but I saved your life yesterday, and if there’s something wrong with that, then that’s news to me.”
“Valoran be damned,” Jayce hisses back, “there’s something wrong with this entire situation! I’d held out hope that you’d learn something about fucking consent within the past few years, but here you go again—modifying my body when you had absolutely no right to.”
“I did nothing more than provide you with an adequately functioning arm, leg, and lung,” Viktor snaps back, “because, in case you don’t recall, you were already half dead.”
Jayce breathes out heavily as he finally gets himself propped up against the wall behind him. His right side still burns, but he pushes the pain to the back of his mind, focusing instead on the roiling anger that sits within his gut.
“And how am I supposed to know that’s all you did?” Jayce demands, once he gets his breath back. Viktor laughs—the first real laugh that Jayce has heard from him in years—and the sound sends chills down Jayce’s spine.
“That’s the only reasonable question you’ve me asked thus far,” Viktor snipes, “and I’m beginning to regret not making additional modifications, because it seems your brain could have used it.”
“You’re such a bastard,” Jayce says, voice cracking as he does so. “After everything you knew of me, what the fuck made you think I would want this?”
“What would make me think you’d want to live?” Viktor counters, voice low and incredulous. “Is that even a question? I’m not a doctor, and I couldn’t have gotten you to a competent enough surgeon in time—I knew you wouldn’t like this, wouldn’t appreciate it, but by the gods, Jayce, what else do you expect me to have done?”
“You could have let me die.”
Jayce spits the words—sharp and painful as they roll off his tongue—and Viktor stops cold in his defense, bright eyes blinking once. There’s sweat dripping from Jayce’s forehead, and his single, yet-human hand shakes as it clutches at the white sheets of his cot. He knows he’s being unreasonable, knows he’s an absolute wreck in the state that he’s in; and yet, there’s a tight, disbelieving fury that trembles in his heart, and he knows there’s nothing Viktor will be able to say to make it go away.
“I see,” Viktor replies, after a quiet moment filled only by Jayce’s ragged breathing. His voice is measured—dark and vicious—and as he approaches Jayce’s bed, Jayce flinches away from him, his heart beating fast.
There’s a moment when Jayce thinks that Viktor might really kill him, his body still and silent and radiating with fury, but then something clicks, and Viktor’s third arm drops, slow and careful, and he places the leaking glass of water—the one he’d been trying to bring to Jayce, before—upon the small side table at Jayce’s right.
“Well then, Defender,” Viktor finally murmurs, staring down at him as he steps back, “I’m truly sorry that I didn’t.”
His voice is low and quiet, vicious in its sincerity, and Jayce stares down at the cracked glass of water as Viktor begins to turn away.
“Be sure to rotate your joints before you sleep,” Viktor says as he reaches the door’s threshold. There’s little to no intonation in his speech anymore—not at all like there was before—and Jayce finds the silent roboticism of it almost more unnerving than the fury.
“Small circles,” Viktor continues, staring back at him, “flex your muscles, and no quick motions. Do it all again the next time that you wake, and your pain will have eased up, by then.”
Before Jayce can think of a smart remark to make in reply, Viktor has already swept himself from the room, his thin, dark red cloak billowing out behind him.
Jayce breathes raggedly into the empty room and grits his teeth, adrenaline still pumping through his veins.
He hacks out another cough a moment later—the world around him feeling dizzy, unreal—and Jayce stares at the door that Viktor just exited out of for one quiet, solid minute. He breathes in and out, then in and out again: working his lungs—real lung and imposter lung—with each breath that he takes. The air in the room is fresh, unlike most of the air in Zaun, and Jayce wonders, his thoughts snide, just how much it must cost to keep the air quality in Viktor’s lab this decent.
As Jayce’s adrenaline levels slowly continue to drop, the pain in his side begins to return full force, and Jayce curls back down in his cot—eyes shutting tight against the reality that stretches before him. His entire right side is mechanical now—that much is certain. From his right foot to his upper right shoulder, Jayce’s body has been fused with dark, empty steel. And to top it all off, Viktor—the insane, immoral, bastard of a man, Viktor—had been the one to orchestrate it all.
It’s been years since he last saw Viktor, yet the weight of his betrayal back in Viktor’s old laboratory looms large in Jayce’s mind. Years of having studied together, having worked together, having lived together had made the betrayal even worse than it might have been, and for weeks, Jayce had been left in a state of denial. After all, the Viktor he’d fought that day had—in so many ways—been different from the Viktor of his youth. They’d both had their differences, surely, as all individuals do, yet their relationship had been one of mutual respect, understanding, and ingenuity, and the change that Jayce had seen in the other man back at his laboratory that day had been unthinkable. Incomprehensible. Terrifying.
That small bit of denial had stayed with Jayce over the past few years, and he’d held out hope that Viktor would one day come to understand the immorality of his actions and return to Piltover stronger for it. Jayce had always hoped that Viktor was capable of reforming, and that hope had stuck with him—small yet simmering—for years after the fact.
Jayce thinks of that hope now, and desperately wants to laugh.
If there had been any chance for redemption, any chance that Viktor could have mended the rift that he’d made between them—then that chance had surely vanished.
Humans are fickle creatures: individuals that think and act of their own free will. To stifle that individuality, to remove the blessing of choice—even at the behest of progress—is to condemn humans for what makes them human. Viktor had always understood that, yet, for whatever reason, he had still felt as though human emotion was a shackle towards true progress.
What is innovation without empathy?
Jayce repeats the question in his mind, and shuts his eyes tighter against the pounding in his heart.
Jayce had always felt that Viktor was the more empathetic of the two of them, yet his blatant disregard for human feelings in the face of human existence had always felt baffling. How could a man who cares so much for human life so fully want to cut out the aspects that make that life good?Jayce grinds his teeth, jaw stiff as he tries to relieve the incessant pounding in his head.
There’s no way that Viktor could have asked Jayce what he’d wanted while he was passed out, delirious—half-dead, he’d said; and yet, to not understand or sympathize with Jayce’s want for choice, with Jayce’s anger at lack of choice? It’s disgusting, inhuman.
Jayce pauses, mind reeling. Is Viktor even human, still?
He isn’t sure if he wants to know the answer to that.
All that Jayce can be certain of is that he is here, in Viktor’s laboratory in Zaun, with a half prosthetic body that won’t move the way he wants it to, and a simmering anger at a decision he wasn’t given—a betrayal that feels just as painful as the first.
Fuck, Jayce thinks. What a fucking mess.
He curls up further in the stark white cot, his body still shaking. He pulls the sheets tighter over his body, and—as pain continues to burn its way down his side—Jayce tries for once to stifle the spiraling thoughts that his mind continues to provide. Perhaps, he thinks facetiously, this is all just a dream, and tomorrow he’ll be back in his lab in Piltover: all thoughts of Viktor buried with the reality in which his body is no longer whole.
Jayce lies there—fully trembling, doing his best to shut off his mind from a reality that threatens to overwhelm him—and slowly, almost quietly, he wills himself to sleep.