He’d started doing it as an act of survival.
No, not in a “if I don’t have anything new to show my subscribers by the end of the day, I won’t make rent this month and I’ll be kicked out onto the cold, hard, unforgiving streets! Please, have mercy on a poor man!” kind of way.
(Why did people keep assuming that? Was it what Shen Yuan—that asshole—kept calling his “pathetic face syndrome?” He had a job. He didn’t make that much bussing tables, but he’d been doing just fine even before he had enough followers to make any money off his videos. No one had ever accused him of having expensive tastes. It was called being frugal, even if Shen Yuan insisted on calling it “living like a rat.”)
He meant it was literally life or death.
At this point in the explanation Shen Yuan would usually roll his eyes and say something along the lines of “You’d think someone who used to want to be an author–” and excuse him? Who said anything about used to? He still had time! “–would know the difference between literally and figuratively.”
Shen Yuan did not believe that his brother would actually murder Shang Qinghua, but the intended victim knew otherwise. Every time he came over to the twins’ massive apartment—paid for by their parents on the condition that they live together to keep an eye on each other—to hang out, that vicious man would get this look in his eyes like he was contemplating the best places to hide a body, all because Shang Qinghua had dared to corrupt his precious, innocent younger (by seven minutes) brother with whatever trash show they were nerding out over recently (What kind of forums do you think they met on, Jiu-ge? It’s way too late for that).
But through his long years of association with the twins, he’d discovered the thing that would save his life. The evil twin (“Stop calling him that!” “Bro, everyone knows that one twin is always the evil one, and it’s pretty obvious here which one it is,”) had a weakness, his very own kryptonite: Shen Jiu had a massive sweet tooth. And luckily, Shang Qinghua knew how to bake.
So he’d bring over homemade treats whenever he visited, like an offering to a particularly capricious god, and this was enough to buy him his life for another day. See, he could be useful! No need to do any smiting today!
At first, it was nerve-wracking trying to figure out what Shen Jiu would like best. But then it was kind of fun, trying out new cute and tasty things to eat, and expanding his repertoire. He found himself watching some recipes that went viral on the newest video sharing app in his search for inspiration, and decided to make his own account, because it seemed like an easy way to keep track of all his attempts in one place. And… it kind of took off?
So he was a small-time internet celebrity now, for what that was worth. And his biggest (self-proclaimed) rival on the app was some kid named Luo Binghe, username BingBingBing. Self-proclaimed because… this kid kept calling him out? And it honestly left him baffled.
They weren’t exactly catering to the same audience. Yeah, they were both making desserts, but so were thousands of other people! And Shang Qinghua’s account was mostly about easy recipes that still looked and tasted good. He’d gotten on the app looking for things he could actually make, and that’s the kind of content he wanted to produce. Shen Yuan described his appeal as “utterly unintimidating,” which he took as the compliment he hoped it was intended to be.
(He didn’t even own a full-sized range. Why would he need one when a toaster oven and a hotplate did the trick, and took up way less space for a fraction of the cost? But if he wanted to bake anything larger than a small cake or a few cookies at a time, he had to borrow the oven at work after hours, which was happening more and more... Maybe it was time to look for an apartment with a bigger kitchen?)
Luo Binghe, on the other hand, was strictly a food porn account, camera always tight on the plating with only his hands occasionally visible, and he didn’t only do sweets like Shang Qinghua did, either. Everything he made looked phenomenal and set Shang Qinghua instantly salivating, but an ordinary schlub like him couldn’t hope to make anything like it in a million years. The appeal was the same as browsing homes worth tens of million of yuan on real estate sites when you lived in a studio apartment.
Shang Qinghua had no idea why Luo Binghe had fixated on him, but it seemed weirdly personal.
But it was like water off a duck’s back to him. So what? He was actually getting more followers because people were curious about this guy that BingBingBing kept ranting like a crazy person over while he presented his perfect dishes.
Shang Qinghua didn’t have to participate in whatever this was. Until, well. He started getting these DMs. On his personal Twitter (which didn't use the same username or his real name or have any pictures of him!) from some dummy account named Elsa1212.
Someone who seemed just as invested in this one-sided beef between the two of them as Luo Binghe was, but Elsa was firmly on Shang Qinghua’s side.
Mo Beitong looked up from his phone, hurriedly closing the app and opening the one he was supposed to be checking.
“He hasn’t posted anything since the strawberry and banana crepe yesterday,” he answered after a brief pause, despite already knowing the answer before he’d even checked.
“No! I’m not talking about that dumb hamster!” his best friend shouted, frustration making its way into his tone as he made a grab for the phone, despite his hands being covered in batter, but Mo Beitong merely lifted it out of his reach. “I meant Shizun! What did Shizun say?”
Mo Beitong restrained a sigh, before obligingly swiping over to the other account. His friend’s precious “shizun” was an older boy who’d briefly volunteered as a tutor at the public library where the then homeless Luo Binghe had spent his hours when he was out of school before his estranged father had come back on the scene.
Luo Binghe had been struck by Cupid’s arrow then and there, so grateful over how kind the utterly pretty boy had been to him, even when it had been clear that Luo Binghe had not been showering regularly and wore the same clothes everyday.
But one day he stopped showing up. The librarian, after giving Luo Binghe a dirty look that clearly stated her opinions on his obvious moral failings for having no access to bathing facilities, had informed him that the boy he was talking about hadn’t signed up for any additional hours and no, she didn’t know why. Volunteers were free to give as much or as little time as they wanted.
And then Luo Binghe was picked up by his father’s people, and he didn’t have time to wait all day around a library just in case his crush showed up again.
Luo Binghe would have sighed and given his “shizun” up as the one who got away, keeping a fond memory of him warm and alive in his heart. Except, years later, he’d found him again. Or rather, he found his account on a new video sharing app.
One look was enough to make him fall in love all over again, and Luo Binghe knew that Shen Yuan was the only one he could ever love. No, he wasn’t being dramatic, Mo Beitong. The ONLY. ONE.
Luo Binghe would have killed to see his shizun smiling, laughing, frowning, crying, sharing the intimate details of his life through the screen like just about everyone else on social media seemed to have no reservations about doing. But the account, ShenGeReviews, seemed to be devoted to exactly one thing: reaction videos to another account, AirplaneBro, which posted videos of some nebbish looking guy making baked goods.
That was it. Every single video was just his shizun eating pastries or shaved ice or candied fruits or sweet puddings and reluctantly reviewing them in response to teasing questions asked by whoever was behind the camera. And if it wasn’t bad enough that he was eating someone else’s recipes, it was clear that he wasn’t just making them for himself after watching that hack AirplaneBro’s videos. Because AirplaneBro was in some of the videos, delivering the food! He was in his shizun’s home. They knew each other!
This AirplaneBro, whoever he was—Luo Binghe could feel his knuckles go white as he imagined throttling his romantic rival—was stealing his shizun! Was trying to seduce him with mediocre food!
Everyone knows the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, and was not Luo Binghe the superior chef? So he’d take this AirplaneBro down, whoever he was. He’d show his precious shizun, his Shen-ge, that the only food he should be eating is Luo Binghe’s!
Mo Beitong’s voice broke through his reverie. “He said the flavor of the fruit was lovely but the crepe was a little soggy.”
Luo Binghe immediately bounced to attention. If he’d been a dog, his eyes would be pricked upright and tail been sent wagging. “Ha!” His eyes gleamed. “That hack can’t even make a perfectly crisp crepe? I’ll show Shizun what a real crepe should look like. Better yet, I’ll—”
Mo Beitong rolled his eyes, tuning his friend out. Angling his phone away, he opened Twitter again, switching to his side account, and quickly finished typing out a private message to the only account he was following.
A little warm feeling spread through his chest as he hit send. If this was how Luo Binghe felt about his “shizun,” maybe he could understand it after all. So did he feel bad about betraying his best friend to his “rival?” Not in the slightest.
Then he went to rewatch the video where AirplaneBro got chocolate on his fingers and sucked and licked them clean one by one again.
“Brooooooo, another message from Elsa,” Shang Qinghua shouted, waving his phone.
“What does it say this time?” Shen Yuan asked curiously, leaning his head over the armrest of the couch and putting his comic down on his chest.
Shang Qinghua frowned. “She said Luo Binghe is putting up his own crepe video,” he rolled his eyes, “and...to make something with winter squash if I want something he won’t just replicate?”
“Why squash?” Shen Yuan sat up, comic sliding off him and falling to the floor with a sad flap of pages.
“I guess he’s allergic? Like, the break-out-in-hives-if-he-even-touches-it kind of allergic.”
“I dunno,” Shang Qinghua said. “This is starting to feel a bit…much.”
Shen Yuan scoffed. “This BingBingBing guy is harassing you for no reason. Who cares how she found out? Just accept that sweet insider information for as long as she’s willing to give it.”
He then flopped back on the couch, stretching. “I dunno if Ge likes squash, though,” he added thoughtfully, stifling a yawn.
“It’s not like I’m throwing it on a plate, bro. Give me some credit. I’ll make it into bread or something,” Shang Qinghua murmured, tapping a fingernail in thought against the message on his screen, before clicking to bring up the profile.
Elsa1212 didn’t follow anyone but him. Never posted anything. No profile picture. But her location was listed, and she was in the same city as him. So far he’d never responded to any of her messages, since he thought she was some kind of troll at first. But she had warned him every time BingBingBing was putting up a new video, along with the dish he was making, way before he posted it, and she’d never been wrong. Even if he’d never done much with the information because he did. not. want. to participate.
But now this.
He quickly typed something out, hitting send and closing the app before he could second guess himself. “And if your scary brother doesn’t want to eat it, you can just do it, since you’re the one who wants me to make it so bad,” he added, tossing a look Shen Yuan’s way. “It’s not like anyone on the account you made for him would be able to tell the difference. You both have resting bitch face and look exactly the same when you scowl.”
He ducked and laughed as Shen Yuan sent a pillow from the couch sailing his way.
“Of course we look different! Ge is very elegant and cool, while I prefer a more casual and relaxed style.” Shang Qinghua snorted. Yeah, if ‘casual’ meant wearing the same clothes throughout the day that you wore to sleep the night before, ‘because I’m not planning on going out today,’ as he put it. Shen Yuan could make fun of Shang Qinghua’s cheap-ass everything all he wanted, it didn’t change the fact that while Shen Yuan was a prep in public, he was a total slob when at home.
Shang Qinghua shoved his friend over to the side and picked up the comic he’d knocked to the floor to flip through, trying not to think about the phone burning a hole in his pocket. He wanted to know why Luo Binghe hated him so much. He wanted to know why Elsa was so interested in helping him. It was all kind of funny at first, but lately it didn’t seem as funny. It seemed kind of serious.
And he didn’t want to get his answers from someone without a face and with an obviously fake name.
Mo Beitong heard the little ping of a notification on his phone, and when he pulled it from his pocket to see the little bird icon flash up on his screen, he felt his heart stop dead in his chest before starting up again at three times its usual speed.
He read the message. He read it again. He read it a third time. AirplaneBro wanted to meet. In person.