The crowd of kids that had just been released from class had finally filed out of the store, leaving Yifan alone with the buckets of salt water taffy and wrapped balls of sugar. It was these times that he enjoyed the most, when he could settle with his elbows against the glass counter and stare out the large window in the front of the store, where the newest chocolate bars were being advertised. The summer sun was pouring inside, sparkling against the shining green tiled floor before glinting into Yifan’s eyes, making him blink numerous times to make the burn disappear. When he opened them again, he found a familiar face staring into his own. “What do you want? I don’t think you should be eating any sugar,” Yifan groaned, pushing himself away from the countertop to stand at his full height, almost in a way to intimidate the man standing in front of him.
The black-haired man only grinned, tapping his thin fingers against the glass of the counter. “You know I don’t come here for candy.”
“Then go away, Tao.”
With a huff, Tao crossed his arms and stood at his highest as well, still coming short by a few centimeters. “I was going to take you out of here for awhile, let you enjoy some time away from the shop. But, oh well. Bye, Yifan,” Tao scoffed, turning on his heel and already walking towards the green, glass door, his shoes clicking against the floor. Yifan rolled his eyes. “Okay, what’s your proposition?” he asked, already regretting the words when the younger man spun around with a wide grin.
“You know that band everyone was talking about, right? The traveling one?”
“There’s a ton of popular traveling bands.”
“The robot one.”
Yifan scoffed, and at this point, he was sure his eyes would roll all the way back into his skull. “What about it?”
“They’re in town again. They’ve been in America for so long, everyone’s freaking out about them being in China!” Tao explained, intertwining his fingers as if he was in prayer, “Please go with me to see them. There’s a free show tonight, and I need to see them before they go out on tour again.”
“And why would I need to go with you? You’re a big boy, Tao,” Yifan chastised. He ignored the pout on the younger’s lips in favor of readjusting a row of fudge in the display case he was leaning on, though the trays were already straight.
“Yifan, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When have you ever seen a robot?”
Yifan stood up from his bent position, and gave Tao a look that dug right into his eyes. “Why would I want to see a robot? Let alone one made in 1896? There’s piles of metal, built to entertain people. That’s not exactly my cup of tea.”
Tao made a loud sound of disapproval before Yifan swooped down again to close the case. When he rose once again, Tao was wide eyed. “Why do you know the year they were made?”
Yifan felt every ounce of blood rush to his face, filling his tanned skin with a red glow. “I just-- They’re Victorian robots, everyone knows that.”
“You know the exact year, Yifan.”
“It was a guess.”
Tao picked up something on the counter, and Yifan could only register what it was when Tao held it up to his face. “You’re as red as licorice.”
The elder slapped his hand down, shoving the candy back into the jar before grabbing his light jacket from behind the counter. He threw a glare at Tao as he slipped his arms through the holes. “I’ll go with you. You won’t say a single thing about this at any point, and then you’ll shut up. Got it?”
“Got it,” Tao grinned.
The sun was glowing a dark orange from where it peaked over the low roofs, giving up its show in the sky for the moon to get its limelight. The gas lamps in the center of town were already lighting up the brick paved roads, leading Yifan and Tao to the platform in the front of the fountain at the center of the square. People were already gathered in any place they could squeeze into, and music spilled out over the crowd. From where Yifan stood in the back of the crowd, with his height towering over the other onlookers, he could see the stage as clear as clean glass. The three figures moved slowly, almost as if the movements were forced and painful--but Yifan knew that wasn’t the case. The one singing, right in the center, had the most static movements, sounds of machinery clicking into place barely drowned by the lovely music. The singer’s copper face glowed under the fleeting sun and candlelights, the metal blinding if the performer moved in just the right way. Around his eyes and down to the right side of the chin, a blue color poured over his metal skin, seemingly from years upon years of exposure to the elements. Spiraled white details ran out of the tips of his almond eyes, the color like a swirl of milk in a mug of coffee.
Yifan never thought a robot could be so pretty.
It wasn’t until Tao nudged him that Yifan finally focused on the voice of the automaton, staring the long distance to see how humanlike his lips quivered.
“Hello, goodbye. ‘Twas nice to know you. How I find myself without you. That, I’ll never know. I let myself go. Hello, goodbye. I’m rather crazy, and I never thought I was crazy. But, what do I know? I let myself go.”
How could a robot have such a beautiful voice?
“It’s so cool, right? These things are just programmed to do this,” Tao mumbled, nudging Yifan again.
The elder didn’t respond to his comment, instead staring at the eyes of the singing bot, and how he never blinked his eyes at the exact time. His gloved hands suddenly moved, one held at the height of his shoulder and the other laying across his stomach, and the chorus began again. The guitarist stopped soon, his silver head bobbing and his knees bending. The other robot, on the singer’s left, followed the motions, his hands gripping the red suspenders in front of his chest. The singer was the last to go, a smile on his copper lips and a tip to his short top hat before the final steaming sound poured over, and he too, seemingly powered down.
The audience roared to life, clapping and hollering and whistling replacing the music that once poured from the automatons. Tao followed suit, and Yifan took that moment to look over at his friend, finding a look of awe on his features. Yifan was silent for a beat until he starting clapping too, just as the singer came back to life. Steam escaped his back as he unfolded himself. “Thank you for coming to our show,” he said, and he sounded just as pretty when he spoke. “We hope it was as good as you expected. Thank you for welcoming us back home.”
Someone from behind the robots stepped forehead, someone who was human. He had goggles hanging from his neck, and a black jumpsuit. There wasn’t a hair out of place on his head. “The bots will be resting for this next week until we’re sent out on an Asian tour,” he announced, and even the robots turned to look and smile at him.
“Why is there a human?” Yifan asked, stealing a glance at Tao.
“I thought you were a fan,” Tao teased, laughing under his breath under the elder shot a painful glare. “He’s their mechanic, I guess? You can’t just have robots out in the world without someone there to assist them. What if one of them broke during a show? Do you expect other robots to fix him?”
Yifan just shrugged his shoulders. Even with the metallic skin and stinted movements, they all looked so human. The singer especially stood out to him.
Tao pushed his arm suddenly, and Yifan realized the crowd was dispersing. “The show’s over. Wanna meet the band?”
“What? You can do that?” Yifan questioned, and Tao was already pulling him to the wooden stage. The mechanic was cleaning up, packing away the numerous instruments, while the three automatons chatted. The copper faced one, not the singer, was drinking something. Yifan could only assume it wasn’t anything a human would digest. “We really enjoyed the show,” Tao said to the mechanic, who was a lot shorter than he appeared on stage. “I’ve been waiting to see them for almost a year now.”
The man closed the guitar case before him and stood, a smile on his lips. With his jumpsuit so close, Yifan could see the logo of the band on the breast; a red rabbit with a gear behind it. Lu Han was sewn beneath it.
“It’s really great to see such a turnout,” he smiled, “But it’s a little strange that you two are the only ones to come up after the show. I guess, in America, they think the bots are masterpieces.
“Do they sing in English, in America?” Tao inquired.
Lu Han nodded his head. “They can have any language programmed into them. Tomorrow they’ll be getting Japanese for their next tour. I need to make sure they get Tagalog and Malay before we go, too. Of course, they already know Mandarin and Korean.”
The talk of languages went through one ear and out the other for Yifan, his attention turned to the automatons standing a few feet away on stage. He didn’t mean to stare up at them, and he honestly didn’t realize he was, until the silver-faced bot met his eyes. His skin was detailed in black, with geometric lines down his chin and around his cheeks, feeding up from thick, black eyebrows and disappearing under his fedora. He tipped his hat at Yifan, his silver hand bare, unlike the other two members. Yifan blinked and nodded his head in response. “I really enjoyed the show. At least, the little bit I got to see,” he stated.
Now, all three of them were looking down at Yifan, and he had never felt himself grow so weak before that moment. He could see every detail of the singer’s face, every smooth inch of his metal face. Then, he smiled, and Yifan just noticed the permanent dent in his copper cheek. “Thank you, very much, sir.”
Yifan smiled back. It was a strange feeling, at that moment. He had heard about this band many times before, constantly hearing kids and adults alike come into the candy store with the name on their lips: Steam Powered Rabbit. Seeing the automatons he had indirectly learned about in real life, however, was nothing he thought he would experience. He knew so much about them, and yet, they didn’t even know his name. “Are you a fan of the band?” the third bot asked, his build seemingly of brass. Yifan never thought a robot could have such round and full cheeks.
“Oh, um, I’ve heard of you guys a lot. I never had the time to listen to any music though.”
The singer bent his knees, and the sound was rather loud, being so close to the robot. In this position, Yifan was almost face to face with him. “I’m Yixing.”
“Yifan,” he responded, and a strange thought came into his mind: What does copper taste like?
Yixing stood up, slowly, and gestured to the others. He put an opened palm in front of the silver one, “This is Junmyeon,” and an opened palm in front of the brass one, “And this is Minseok.”
“It’s nice to put names with faces,” Yifan chuckled, and when Yixing bent down again, with his gloved hand in front of him, Yifan accepted the gesture and shook it. He could feel the cool nipping of the metal through the fabric, and he wondered if every part of Yixing would also be so cold. He was a robot, made of metal, after all.