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.
Posters were stuck to any surface possible, from wooden fences to store facades. The three faces smiled at Yifan as he unlocked the candy store, right at the height of his eyes on the green door. Bold letters told him the opening day for Steam Powered Rabbit’s first concert in China, just two weeks away. The colorful advertisement covered the sign signalling the store was opened, but Yifan didn’t mind as he trekked inside, his shoe heels clicking against the tiles that were polished just days before. It was going to be a peaceful day with people not aware that the store was operating, and Yifan greatly appreciated that. He wouldn’t have to turn the other way to Tao stealing samples or the shrill screams of children on a sugar high. He could take inventory and survey the store in silence, and perhaps, if he was lucky enough, sneak a nap in.
Of course, his thoughts of a lonely day were interrupted only a half hour later, the bells on the brass doorknob singing when the wooden structure swung open. Yifan forced a smile, though his bushy eyebrows gave away his agitation, and turned away from where he was refilling the wall of jellybeans. “Welcome,” he called out, only registering two bodies before turning back to the glass tubes attached to the wall.
“Wow, I never thought I would be seeing you again,” a voice rang from behind him, and Yifan took in a deep breath when he heard those metallic clicks following the quiet words.
The store owner finally turned, and his thick brows rose when he found Yixing. Without his John Bull top hat, clad with brass goggles that sat on the brim, his black hair was slicked into place. It looked so natural, with a healthy sheen, as if it had actually grown out of his scalp. “Yixing?” Yifan muttered.
“That’s what I was named, yes,” the robot hummed, leaving Yifan’s vision to go further into the shop, a human man trailing behind him. The man nodded his head in greeting to Yifan before a small wooden basket was thrusted at him by Yixing. “This is Jongin,” Yixing stated, picking one piece of taffy from each bucket and tossing it into the shopping basket. “He’s a Lee Robotics worker who takes care of me.”
“Lee Robotics?” Yifan questioned, not daring to move from his spot in front of the jellybean dispensers. Instead, he leaned against the counter.
“You don’t know?” Yixing turned to look at the owner. A smile played on his copper lips.
“Well, yeah, everyone knows Lee Robotics,” Yifan stuttered, a hand raising to scratch the back of his neck. The company was the biggest in robotics in South Korea, and the first to establish itself in China. Almost every bot and mechanical device was developed by them. Of course he knew. “I just didn’t expect you to be from Lee Robotics.”
“I was made when he was still a lone inventor named Lee Sooman,” Yixing chuckled, almost as if he was reminiscing, wandering to the counter with his loot of colorful taffy. He shot another smile at Yifan, who was immediately at the cash register, weighing the candy the moment Yixing handing it to him.
“Why are you buying candy? Can you even eat it?” Yifan asked, wrapping the purchase in a green-and-brown striped box. A sticker with Wu Sweet Shoppe was stuck onto the top.
A sudden steam rose from Yixing’s neck as he cocked his head with a grin. “I can taste it. I’m not as inhuman as your typical robot,” he looked down at the box before him, and rose to meet Yifan’s eyes again, “Mr. Wu.”
Yifan slid the box across the counter, and Yixing gently placed his coins next to it. “You really are just like a human.”
“Hmm. I think that’s the point. The more human I am, the more likely I am to just appear human.” Yixing took his purchase and waved an ungloved hand before leaving with Jongin, the bells singing their swan song as the door shut.
He was too human, Yifan thought, staring at the spot the automaton previously occupied. He was too human to be a normal robot, and Yifan didn’t understand why he was so fascinated by a human made of metal.
Yixing is a member of the troupe of singing automatons called Steam Powered Rabbit. He is the only robot from Lee’s original creations that has a Chinese influence, and, in turn, was the only one constructed by his hands in the country. Yixing was finished in October of 1896.
Read more about Steam Powered Rabbit, and its other members, Junmyeon and Minseok, here.
Yifan ignored the link at the end of the page and instead slid through the gallery of photos, each one of Yixing from different concerts and shows. He could see the progression of the bot, and how his face slowly changed with discoloration over the years. While the rusted blue color of his copper features was concentrated on his left cheek, it still ran down his face, dripping down his neck. The outfits Yixing wore during performances always resembled the time from which he was made, always black with red details. Yifan’s tablet almost fell out of his hands when the door to his apartment slammed open. He closed the explorer and shoved the device onto the coffee table, just in time to see Tao barging into his abode. “So,” the younger started, slumping down onto the loveseat adjacent to the couch Yifan was situated on, “How did you enjoy the concert? You left without saying bye to me.”
“It was fine,” Yifan replied, not adding anything else.
“I heard you talked to the robots. Aren’t they cool? Were you scared? I heard they were all made out of steam boilers.”
“They’re… nice, I guess.”
Tao sat up from where he was sinking into the cushions, shooting Yifan a look. His hands rested on his knee caps and he leaned forward, like a child telling a secret. “So are you a fan yet? Will you come with me to a real concert?”
“No. You heard my rules from last night. We don’t talk about this, and you shut up.”
“Yifan, come on, I saw how amazed you were when they were singing. They’re going to be performing so many more songs during the tour. Don’t you want to hear the range they have?”
Very much, Yifan refrained from saying. He wanted to hear Yixing’s voice, and just how talented the robot was. He wanted to hear every pitch and octave, and he wanted to hear any language pour from those metal lips, even if Yifan could not understand what he said. He just wanted to hear Yixing.
Perhaps, a little too much.
Instead of continuing on with the subject of Yifan’s desires, the elder directed his words at his friend. “Maybe you just want to see that mechanic again. You were flirting with him.”
Tao scoffed and threw himself against the back of the seat. “Him dominating the conversation and just talking about programming the robots? Yeah, definitely flirting.”
“He was cute, at least.”
“He definitely wasn’t your type.”
Yifan stood up then, picking up his tablet and giving one last glare at Tao. “Anyway, do you have a reason for barging into my house without any invitation?”
Tao jumped up and smiled, “No. I just wanted to ask you to come to the concert. I’ll even pay for your ticket. It’s extra for a ‘Meet and Greet’ ticket. I’d even pay for that if you went.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“What are you, a mom? Say yes or no.”
“Yifan, oh my God-”
“Fine,” Yifan groaned, interrupting Tao before he could start with a rant about how Yifan is a terrible friend and won’t even accept a bribe, what kind of a person doesn’t accept a gift like that? Certainly not any friend of mine. Yifan had heard the same rant so many times, he could recite the words on a stage. “I’ll go with you.”
“Then,” Tao smiled, and acted as if he had a hat to tip, “I’ll see you in two weeks.”
The brick steps echoed when Yixing walked down the short stairs, his heels clicking loudly in the night. In his cold hand, he gripped Lu Han’s cell phone, the smooth texture of his skin making it difficult to hold tight. In the night, the automatons were kept under Lu Han’s watch rather than their personal Lee Robotics workers, those human leaving the factory and its grounds to live their lives at home. Of course, Lu Han couldn’t just keep the bots stuck inside all night, and Yixing’s small smile and fluttering lashes made the human sigh and pull his phone from his pocket. “You can pay with my phone for whatever, okay?” he had said, before Yixing waved him off and skipped outside.
Yixing’s mouth hung agape as he stared at the slab of technology in his hand, refusing to look at the bored clerk that was progressively getting more annoyed. “Sir, you’ll have to move on if you can’t pay.”
If Yixing had blood in his body, it would have all ran up to his cheeks and stayed, pouring red over his face and chest. He opened his mouth again but couldn’t find his words, especially when someone behind him put their purchase on the counter. “I’ll pay for his,” the person said, and when Yixing had the heart to look up, he found Yifan showing his own phone to pay. At the gesture, Yixing felt as if something in his body had been dislodged, like a tube had been split and oil was filling his gut. It was a running feeling in him, almost, like a bird was fluttering around where his heart should have been.
“Why weren’t you with your helper? That Jongin guy?” Yifan asked after leading Yixing back to the candy shop, where they ate their later dinners at the counter. The lights in the store seemed so dim in the night, with the assistance of the natural shine of the moon and streetlights through the windows. With the low visibility, Yixing couldn’t determine why Yifan was staring at him so intently, but he was quite fond of it.
“All workers go home at eight o’clock,” Yixing replied, setting his sandwich on the paper bag it came in. “Jongin doesn’t take care of me at night. Lu Han does; he takes care of the three of us at all times.”
“Then why wasn’t Lu Han with you?”
Yixing smiled up at the man, who was still rather tall even from where he leaned on the counter. “I have a certain charm to me to help me get my way, don’t I?”
“That’s for sure,” Yifan chuckled, and then he was smiling at Yixing with that same grin he always gave.
The automaton fidgeted under his gaze and turned his head away, revealing the blue rust of his cheek. “Why do you look at me like that?”
The comment made Yifan shoot up, his tanned face fully red. His long fingers gripped around the edge of the green marbled counter. “I didn’t realize I was staring. I just… You’re really captivating.”
Humming, Yixing followed the length of Yifan’s arms, to his broad chest covered in a button-up and a green vest hanging open, and finally to his face. He smiled the same way Yifan would, which seemed to send another rush of red over the human. “Are you blushing?”
Yifan’s hand went up to his own cheek, and he laughed, embarrassed. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“Does it feel strange? Is it warm?”
The taller furrowed his eyebrows and looked into Yixing’s eyes when he said that, and then it was like realization hit him. “You don’t have blood to blush, huh?”
“Oil runs through my veins,” Yixing nodded, tapping his metal fingers against the countertop.
“I almost forgot,” Yifan muttered, then shook his head slightly, “Almost forgot you weren’t human. You just have such a personality, it just makes you seem…”
“Real?” Yixing supplied. He smiled when Yifan nodded his head. “Well, I’m very real. I’m just made of metal and wires, not flesh and bones.” He took hold of Yifan’s wrist, wrapping his thin, metallic fingers around the warm flesh, and pulled the other’s hand to his cold cheek. “See? You can touch me. It’s real metal.”
Yifan swallowed and nodded, and Yixing decided he liked the bashful side of Yifan the most.
When Yixing arrived back at their quarters at the factory, he was immediately interrogated by the two shorter robots. He didn’t even have the time to remove his leather shoes before they were both pulling him onto the sofa in the center in the common area. “Did you see that human again?” Junmyeon asked, sitting on Yixing’s right.
“You did go to the shop next door like I told you, right?” Minseok added, from his left, looking like a child who just found his hidden Christmas gifts.
“I did, calm down. I did see him.”
“Did you feel it again?” Minseok questioned, his voice hushed. Yixing could only assume it was because Lu Han was sleeping in the room next door, but why the elder decided now was the time to be quiet was beyond him.
Yixing shrugged his shoulders, acting indifferent though his chest was still aching for the human. “I suppose I did. I don’t know. It’s just such a strange feeling. Like someone lit a boiler inside me. I just… I don’t know what it is.”
“Can we ask Lu Han?” Junmyeon suggested, rubbing his silver chin.
“Like Lu Han knows anything about us other than programming and repairs. He’d just think Yixing’s malfunctioning. Which, I doubt is it.”
Yixing stood up from the couch without a word to his band members, walking towards the room assigned to him. All he heard was the two bickering as he shut the door. Yixing let out a heavy breath, seeing a small amount of steam escape from his lips before he collapsed on the bed he didn’t need. He wanted whatever he felt inside of him when seeing that tall human to leave his system; it was as if a virus was attacking him whole. It was surely a virus, he decided, as he was always told robots couldn’t feel anything but electricity.