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S.T.V.A.N

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Eleven months. It had been eleven months since the program was ordered, and even with most of the base system in place and plenty of spare parts that could easily be touched up and used for the piece, it had still taken him eleven months just to get to painting. Of course, painting was mostly Peng’s job, especially when it came down to the finer details, the ones that made it look genuinely lifelike, but at that point the project had been going on for so long that Chunghyeop couldn’t stop hovering, couldn’t stop checking and double checking that everything was going perfectly, as if he didn’t have other projects to work on. As if Yoonho didn’t need upgrades, as if Hosung wasn’t glitching out again , as if he didn’t have five other customers calling every three days to make sure that yes, their orders were going through, not to mention the mass marketed pieces that he was desperately trying to pump out at a rate that would allow demand to rise. Androids were expensive, but so were parts and so were bills and so was managing to keep the only assistant that he still had, so he felt halfway entitled to hover.

He’d been with Peng for longer than he seemed to remember. Almost as long as his oldest projects, or at least the ones that ever truly worked. The kid - or at least he had been a kid then, and it was still hard for Chunghyeop to process that he wasn’t, anymore - had given him extensions on payments, had given his best attempt at soothing words when the elder had freaked out over orders being late and time being short and just barely having enough to cover the water bill, so all he could give him was the only $50 that he had left, had simply raised his eyebrows with a bemused little smile when Chunghyeop had tried to apologize over and over. Had split that $50 with him, had gone shopping with him so that they could get the best deals on cheap meals that somehow managed to last them the week.

And now Peng was finishing brushing subtle highlights of ivory and rose onto their newest project’s cheeks and somehow years had already passed and Chunghyeop was still reeling when the younger man started snapping in his face to get his attention. “Hyung? Hyung.” It had been a long time since he had called him anything more formal.

Chunghyeop blinked himself out of his daze, making himself focus on the taller man. “Yes! Yes, sorry, yes, what’s wrong?”

Peng’s brow furrowed slightly, and Chunghyeop geared up to respond to the inevitable ‘what’s wrong with you ?’

“I think I’m done,” he said instead. “He looks okay to me, but what do you think?”

When Chunghyeop had zoned out, the bot had been a flat, fake-looking pale peach color on most of the left side of its face, but sure enough, now the shading had come to life, mimicking more intricate levels of depth than could be carved into metal with their resources and reflecting light almost imperceptibly less than a true human’s skin would. The polymer that they had coating the metal, soft and flesh-like but still new and honestly still in the works, seemed to have blossomed to life. If he didn’t know, he may have mistaken it for real.

“It looks great,” the elder reassured. The bot had been dressed in stages, as pieces were painted and double and triple checked, and it now stood in front of them in white sneakers and loose gray pants and a simple, dark blue polo, eyes closed and the barest hint of a gentle smile on its lips. Default position - quiet and friendly and non-threatening.

“Do you wanna test him out again?”

That was something that Chunghyeop had noticed a long time ago. When they had first met, when Peng’s Korean was still scattered and messy, he had thought that maybe it was a concept that was lost in translation, or that he was simply misremembering words, but he had since learned that to Peng, a bot was a he or a she or a they as soon as the last parts were in place, as soon as the programming was tested for the fifth time, at the latest. Before he so much as picked up a paintbrush to make it look real.

Then again, he supposed that he would have been like that at the beginning too, if he hadn’t learned better. He was glad that the younger still had enough confidence in their own work to feel that kind of connection. The confidence that came from not watching dozens of projects crash and burn before being operational.

“Ah, yes!” Chunghyeop finally chimed only after Peng whistled to get his attention back. “Sorry, let me just…” He pulled up the program remotely, took a moment to make sure that everything was set up correctly, and turned it on, his eyes darting up to the bot in nanoseconds so that he didn’t miss a moment. Sure, he had tested the program over and over again, but that certainly didn’t mean that things couldn’t go wrong at the last minute. Again.

It opened its eyes slowly, not all the way, staying just hooded enough to be noticeable. Its eyes were delicately painted black, rimmed with the slightest hint of silver. Beautiful but blank, the only part of its body that wasn’t entirely lifelike. People took comfort in that. In having one way of being able to tell them apart from humans.

A tiny, warm smile spread over its lips, one that made those dead eyes crinkle slightly at the corners, that almost made them sparkle the tiniest bit, made them almost seem more human. Just barely pulled apart enough. “Good morning.” It was almost 4 o’clock, but starting the program up so late meant adjusting its internal clock. “May I help you?”

“Peng, ask i- Ask him to do something.” Chunghyeop was already fiddling with controls, trying to find the adjustment in his messy coding.

He could still see the look that the younger gave him out of his periphery, though, a clear why me as the bot processed the third-party command.

It took Peng a moment to come up with something. “Get me a glass of water?” There was no conviction in his voice, still looking at the elder skeptically.

Chunghyeop could nearly see the bot trying to process it, trying to figure out where things were and how best to approach the command, when he looked up to give the younger a tired look. “It’s a therapy bot, Peng.”

The Chinese boy groaned softly, before trying to think of something else. “Alright, nevermind. Uh… My girlfriend broke up with me last week.”

Chunghyeop’s fingers jumped in surprise as his focus went fully to the other, making the bot’s head twitch harshly to the side. “Ah…” He scrambled to fix whatever he had just messed up, but his thoughts were still centered on Peng. “You know, you shouldn’t just make something up. It- He’ll connect that story to you.”

“I’m… not making it up.” He sounded a little bit confused, and a glance up confirmed that his head had turned fully toward the elder for the first time. “Siyeon and I broke up last week. I told you that.”

Chunghyeop was left scrambling for any remote memory of the incident, of being told something so important to one of the few genuine friends he had at this point, and grimaced when he came up blank. “Sorry, I don’t… I guess I was just distracted.”

“You’ve been really-” Peng paused for too long of moment, enough to cause the man still fumbling with his tablet to feel increasing concern in his scattered mind even before the words came. “Hyung, his head is rotating backwards.”

“Oh, fffff…” Chunghyeop hissed through his teeth as he rushed to fix it, giving a soft breath of relief when it seemed that the bot was finally alright.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the bot finally said, soft, genuine, but not surprised or alarmed. “How long were you together?”

Peng shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck in a way that Chunghyeop had learned meant that he wanted to play his feelings off as more shallow than they truly were. “Six months. Not too long. It wasn’t that bad. We’d kind of been… talking about it.”

Fighting. They had been fighting and Chunghyeop had known that they’d been fighting and he hadn’t even been able to offer advice or condolence or anything more than distracted empathy as he frustratedly messed with Hosung’s controls for the second time that week. He couldn’t even remember what they had been fighting about … But then that was what this model was for. Listening to your problems, remembering them, offering genuine, objective advice when the humans around you couldn’t.

“I’m sorry.” It was so simple, especially in the soft way that the bot said it, but Chunghyeop could see how quickly Peng’s shoulders relaxed. “It couldn’t have been easy. Was it a hard breakup? Are you still friends?”

Peng shook his head, but his palm was still against the back of his neck. “Nah, it wasn’t hard. I’m not sure if we’ll still talk, but, uh… I hope so. We were friends before we got together. When stuff cools down, I… hope she calls me, or something.”

Chunghyeop almost offered to walk down the street and ask for her himself, but he had never been as close to her as Peng had been. He should have known that a relationship like that could only end as a mess. He should have known a lot of things, it seemed.

“I hope so, too.” The bot raised a hand, placing it gently on Peng’s shoulder. It was pale, broad, soft. Warm, comforting, large enough to apply weight if necessary but delicate enough that it could rest softly wherever it needed to. “Romantic relationships are wonderful, but friendships are just as important. I hope that yours wasn’t hurt by trying something different. But I’m here if you do need to talk about it at all. Is that okay?”

That soft, warm smile was back, crinkling the corners of his eyes while his brows furrowed in hope and concern. Or what they appeared to be, at the very least. It was convincing. Still stiff, still single-minded, and still certainly lagging slightly, but almost life-like nonetheless.

“Uh… Yeah.” Peng’s hand lifted up to rest on the bot’s, giving it a tiny, awkward pat at an even more awkward angle as an uncertain little smile tugged at his lips. He was always a little too… easily moved by them. “Yeah, that’s fine. Thank you.”

“I’m glad. I’m sorry, I didn’t get your name.” The bot pulled his hand back, his smile growing slightly, warming.

“Peng. Jang Peng.” His smile seemed to warm slightly, in return, something that Chunghyeop still didn’t see nearly as much as he felt that he should.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Peng.” The bot spoke formally, but lightly, a soft tilt of honor that echoed his apparent place in the social ladder. A friend, but a subordinate. Only trying to be human. “I’m S.T.V-”

“Geumhyuk,” Chunghyeop interrupted, making the pair both focus on him for the first time. “Sorry, I thought I put that in your internal info. Your model name is Sympathetic Therapeutic Vexation and Anxiety Negator. Your name is Geumhyuk. Geum for today, Hyuk for bright. You’re going to be making someone’s day a lot brighter.” It was a little cheesy, sure, and Peng rolled his eyes for the upteenth time, but Chunghyeop could see that hint of a smile on his lips.

A gentler, but wider one appeared on the bot’s face, a smile that should have made his eyes warm, but the metal remained as cold as ever. “It’s a very nice name. Thank you.”

Chunghyeop laughed softly, finding himself relaxing at the mere tone of his voice, as well. “You’re welcome. You’re doing a great job, by the way. You handled that really well.” Though Chunghyeop seemed to need to handle it himself, later.

The bot blinked, one flicker too many in the even pattern set into the design. Its head tilted to the side, taking too long to process the information. It wasn’t made to receive compliments, only to give them. Though, considering where he was going to end up…

“Thank you.” He straightened out, giving another of those warm smiles that should have made his eyes sparkle. “I’m glad that I’m doing well.”

It was simple enough to make the speech pattern so much more relaxed, but Chunghyeop was immensely glad that he did. It made all the difference, especially when trying to comfort someone. “So am I,” Chunghyeop admitted with a soft laugh, his smile half-relaxed for the first time that day. It worked. He worked. Now all that was left was testing the final product…

“You seem stressed,” Geumhyuk said before the human could get another word out, head tilting barely five degrees to the side again. “Are you alright?”

Jesus, still ? Chunghyeop swallowed hard and let out another laugh, this one shakier, seeming to prove the bot’s point much too easily. “Yes! Yeah, I’m fine.” Or he was at least beginning to get there. “Although… What made you ask?”

“Your shoulders are tense.” There wasn’t a moment of hesitation, of thought, no considering products into a vague, instinctive sum like for humans. No, things were clear and pointed and Chunghyeop wasn’t sure how to feel about that. “Your chest is moving only slightly when you breathe, most likely because your muscles are too contracted to allow enough movement. You’re holding yourself rigidly. Your smiles aren’t reaching your eyes. … You seem stressed.”

Oh. Maybe it wouldn’t be so easy to fool him. Not with the way that he was looking at him so analytically, so sure that he had been correct. That was… good. Mostly. Just not right then.

“I am stressed,” he finally admitted after several long moments, unable to meet any eyes, human or robot. “But… it’s okay! Because you’re working really well and that’s all that matters.” It was certainly helping him a bit, at least.

Geumhyuk’s voice box vibrated in a sound like a hum, just the barest hint of static that Chunghyeop supposed he would also have to try to fix before the bot was sent off. The weight of the metal made soft thumps, clear enough to let Chunghyeop know that he was walking toward him even without looking at him. He still didn’t expect the hand on his shoulder, though, and hated how it made him flinch slightly.

No matter the intrinsic warmth of the polymer coating it or the thin layer of clothing between them, the metal was heavier than human, the gentle touch carrying too much weight. Still, that shouldn’t have been enough to make his muscles tense further, to make his chest seize… Dear God, he just needed to breathe ; why couldn’t he just relax?

“If you need to talk about anything, I’m here,” Geumhyuk promised, his words soft and soothing but his eyes - when Chunghyeop mustered up the strength to look at them - still blank. Still inhuman. This was his programing, not an actual person thinking about him, caring about him, and okay, he needed to stop .

“Thank you.” The human managed a convincingly grateful smile, as he stepped away from the touch. “But for now, let’s test out some bugs!” His voice went up, a too-strong, too-pushed expression of happiness mixed with a forced breath of relief as he turned to his computer, to access the full programming. This would help him too, after all. He just needed a distraction. Just needed to feel like something was going right, like he could fix what was wrong…

He didn’t notice the concern in Peng’s eyes, and the younger didn’t open his mouth to share it.

 

- - -

 

For the most part, Geumhyuk’s programming seemed to be running smoothly. There was the occasional kink, but nothing complicated, nothing that took Chunghyeop more than a few minutes to sort out, with Peng’s help.

The elder’s smiles were coming back to genuine, slowly, his shoulders relaxing, a soft laugh falling from his lips at one of Peng’s ridiculous deadpan jokes. He was okay. For now at least, he was okay.

It took an hour into working for the younger to complain about the silence - admittedly, longer than Chunghyeop had expected - and beg to put something on. And several hours of friendly bickering and switching between playlists later, one of Peng’s overly excitable, overly loud songs was still echoing throughout the room.

 

Set it on fire, on this stage

Set it on fire, toward your heart

Set it on fire, let’s all play

 

Honestly, he was amazed that the volume the younger blasted his music at had never harmed a single one of the bots. It was hard enough for him to concentrate… But he knew that if he needed to, if he asked, the other would gladly turn it off. It was honestly nice, doing something simple enough that it allowed for him to play something. He’d been focusing too hard on things lately. He could use all of the distractions he could get.

“Hyung.”

Still, the simple word made him jump, throwing his hands out to avoid hitting the keys and messing something up again. “I- Yeah?”

“It’s almost six.” There wasn’t any annoyance, any pointedness to his voice, just an edge of… something too soft and gentle for him.

“Oh, sh… Yeah, it is.” Chunghyeop sighed when he looked at the time, before his eyes went back to the string of commands he had been typing up to test. “Um… You know what? You go on home!” He certainly didn’t want to make the younger stay there so late with him, but he really did want to get more done… And while Peng was a huge help, he had things that he could run through without him. “I’ll head out in a little, okay?”

“Yeah?” There was too much hesitation, and Chunghyeop was just about to turn around and make sure that he was alright when the younger continued. “I mean, if you say so. But you better actually go home soon, okay? Don’t stay here until 2 again.”

Chunghyeop laughed, like he hadn’t done that for most of the past week. He just… needed to get things done. And didn’t want to go home to an empty apartment. Again. “I won’t, promise.” He didn’t have that much to do… And he was exhausted enough that falling asleep the moment that he got home wouldn’t be an issue, so it wasn’t as though he would have to suffer the silence for long.

Chunghyeop felt more than heard Peng walking away, felt the absence of presence behind himself and ignored the pit that began to open up inside his chest as he continued to stare at the words on the screen.

 

Shake it like you’re crazy

What are you doing, move however you want

Before this night-

 

The sound suddenly cutting out as Peng got his things together seemed to amplify everything, the rustling of the younger’s belongings and his fingers where he had forced them back to the keyboard and the empty hum of machinery. This time, at least, when he heard steps coming toward him, he expected the hand on his shoulder - human and rough and overly large, squeezing the joint gently.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” the younger asked, and Chunghyeop knew that this wasn’t how it was supposed to work, that it wasn’t supposed to be the younger comforting the elder, but he couldn’t bring himself to care, right then.

“Yeah, see you tomorrow,” Chunghyeop promised, twisting his neck to look over his shoulder and give Peng a warm smile. Whatever that slight drop of worry in the younger’s voice was from…. He hoped that a good night’s sleep would help it. “Don’t stay up all night playing video games, alright?”

The Chinese boy snorted, pulling his hand back. “Like you’re one to talk. But yeah, I’ll sleep if you do, okay?” A moment’s hesitation, his expression unreadable. “Text me?”

They’d had each other’s phone numbers for a long time, but it was rare for them to use them, with how often they saw each other… “Yeah, okay.” Chunghyeop couldn’t help the tug of worry at his chest. Why would Peng want to talk to him badly enough to ask…

“Cool.” A lopsided little smile, though the elder still couldn’t read his eyes. “But yeah… see you.” It was more awkward than normal, a touch more tense, and that worry pulled harder, as the younger turned around and began towards the door.

Chunghyeop almost called out, almost asked directly, but… If he wanted to speak about it specifically over text, there had to be a reason, right? “See you.” His voice was still warm, despite the concern in his eyes as the younger walked out.

He sighed deeply, turning back to the screen. The silence was already pressing, the dull echoes of sleeping machines hitting his ears with a hollow ringing. He pulled up his own playlist, embarrassed by how quickly he let out a sigh of relief, as the first note struck.

 

Shh

 

He focused on the screen again, fingers pressing on the keys lighter, more quickly, as he allowed the music to sink into his bones, to overwhelm and ease his thoughts. It was… soothing to him, the same way that Peng’s music was energizing to the younger.

 

It’s a secret

It’s not time yet, It’s not

It’s my hidden feelings

I still don’t know you

 

But of course, just as Peng’s music sometimes made him too excited to focus, sometimes Chunghyeop could feel his shoulders beginning to go too lax, his eyes reopening too slowly after a blink…

He shook his head, snapped himself out of the drag as Geumhyuk’s words caught, the same phrase looping in a broken cycle as Chunghyeop switched systems and opened a part of his programing, eyes darting as quickly as his exhaustion-addled mind would allow them to in order to find the issue. It may have barely been six o’clock, but he had hardly managed to sleep last night - or for the past week or two - and the deprivation was catching up to him quickly.

 

It’s so obvious

You can see it so clearly

Stop burning me up like this

 

Another sigh of relief, as the song drew to a close and he found the piece of text, the tiny, overly specific error that broke the pattern of recognition, and set out to fix it.

 

One step 더 가까운 my heart...

 

Chunghyeop let out a soft yawn but shook his head again, fixing the error quickly enough, if he could just… focus. He should probably turn the music off, if that wouldn’t leave him in silence again…

 

One step 더 가까이에 너

On a day where I miss you a lot...

 

There, it took a minute, but that was… done. He fixed it. He just needed to run the command again and make sure that it worked alright this time.

 

After the long wait

The moon that shines on me, look here

The secret I kept

 

It didn’t. The same glitch happened again, and Chunghyeop heard more than made the tiny, irritated sound that vibrated in the back of his throat. He switched back, rubbing at his eyes as he squinted at the text. He had to figure out where it was, what it was. It couldn’t be that hard…

 

더 가까운  나는 더 가까이있어 나는 더 가까이있어 나는 더 가까이있어...

Hug me and take me 너에게…

 

It… couldn’t be that hard, if he could just get his brain to work…

 

내 울음 소리  들을 수있어?

 

If he could just get… his brain to…

 

I am having a long dream on a late night oh...

 

He blacked out sitting up, hard enough that he didn’t so much as notice his cheek slamming into the keyboard, a string of letters and numbers appearing unbidden on the screen in front of him.

He certainly didn’t notice Geumhyuk’s fingers beginning to move.