Chapter 36:

Walking Different Paths, But Still Side by Side

Sweet like Honey

When I read the email, I felt a mixture of hope and trepidation. The former feeling, in particular, was a sensation that I hadn’t felt in a long time, aside from when I optimistically launched this project to help Shirley become a VTuber.

“My advisor…he’s leaving the university for another position overseas.” I stared at the email, unable to believe my eyes. “And he’s asking me if I can take over his class for the next semester. At the same time, he’s suggesting that I give the program another shot…that I shouldn’t give up and I should take one last chance to rewrite it over the next year.”

I raised my eyes from the screen of my smartphone and to Shirley. “I…probably should discuss with my parents.”

“Before you do,” Shirley said. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know,” I replied hesitantly. “I loathe walking out on Honey Café. I owe them so much for taking care of me, and they still need my help…”

“I’m asking you what you want to do,” Shirley interrupted. “Not Honey Café.”


“You know what I think?” My girlfriend clamped a hand over my mouth before I could protest. “Whenever we’re together, you don’t really talk about Honey Café. You don’t talk about sweets, brewing coffee or creating new recipes. However, when we talk about your hobbies and likes…you’ll inevitably talk about manga and anime. Helping me with my Vtuber channel with anime character designs.” She smiled. “That’s the Junior I love. Your passion, your motivation and your enthusiasm whenever you get involved with media projects or something you read or watch. You have never shown the same interest in café sweets and beverages.”

She pulled back and stared at me, hard. “So I’m asking you, Junior Yuan, what you want to do personally.”

“Personally?” I didn’t hesitate. “I want to give it another shot. I like teaching, and I like reading. It’ll be awesome to get to teach Japanese popular culture again. And…” I glanced down at my clenched hands, feeling warm and fuzzy in my chest. Hope. It was a foreign feeling to me, after so long. “I guess I never really wanted to give up. I still want that PhD.”

“Then go for it.” Shirley nodded. “No matter what your parents say, state your intentions clearly and convince them.” She paused. “I think auntie will be more difficult to persuade, but from what I can see, uncle will support you.”

“Yeah.” I took a deep breath. “Thanks. But there’s another thing we should consider.”

First of all, we were now living together. It was easier for Shirley to stay here, and she had given up her lease at the share house to come live with me in the studio apartment. It was small, but with only the two of us, we could manage. She didn’t have to go anywhere after streaming and could immediately rest or go to bed, while I did video editing and uploading.

Secondly, if I were to accept going back to my PhD program, it would mean the end of my contract at Honey Café. Technically, I wasn’t allowed to work elsewhere if I was employed as a teaching assistant at the university, and even if I was, I had no time and energy for that because I would be devoting everything to both my teaching classes and rewriting my dissertation.

From scratch, too.

“You’ll figure it out,” Shirley assured me with a smile. “We’ll continue living together. There’s no problem with that. I prefer to stay around and look after you – I know you tend to overdo it, and it’s better if I’m beside you. And I’ll need your continued support – not as a video editor or manager, but…just you being beside me is doing wonders for my mental health and motivation to continue singing.”

“That’s great to hear.” I smiled back at her. “Thanks. It really means a lot to me.”

“Also, you don’t have to worry about the channel. We have Fan Wong, and to be frank, he’s more familiar with the social media and marketing aspect than you are. He’s also better at video editing, from what I can see. Since he no longer has to do as much work with electronic music software because I’m doing more covers, we can leave the video editing to him. You can occasionally work on character design, but only if it doesn’t affect your studies.”

“Hey,” I said with a chuckle. “I’m studying popular culture as part of Japanese literature. Manga and anime are related to my studies.”

“Including drawing them?” Shirley scoffed. “I wasn’t born yesterday, you know.” She sighed. “And additionally, even though Fan Wong has proven himself, I still can’t bring myself to trust him. I don’t want to be alone with him. Whenever he comes over to help out with the channel, I will feel more comfortable with you being present as well. That’s why I want you to continue living with me.”

“Yeah, I completely understand.” I nodded. “I’m glad we gave him a second chance, but sometimes…scars just don’t heal overnight. You need some time, and he needs to prove himself further.” I closed my eyes, knowing that Helen Huang probably felt the same way about me. And I didn’t blame her. She decided to express that trauma through revenge, and along with Victor, went too far, but it wasn’t as if I didn’t sympathize with her.

“Thanks.” Shirley leaned over to give me a quick kiss. “I appreciate it. I know it’s a really big ask because you’ll be busy with your own dissertation and all that, but…”

“No problem. I will manage fine.” I assured her. “But this is a big decision. I’m still…taking it in.”

“Just sleep on it for tonight,” Shirley told me. “We’ll share the news with Bernard and Honey tomorrow.”

“Oh, wait. Let me contact my parents first. I do need to let them know.”

As it turned out, Shirley’s prediction was spot on. My mom wasn’t very pleased when she heard that I would definitely be in the city and away from the countryside for at least another year, but my dad told me to go for it.

“You’ve spent seven years chasing this,” he told me bluntly. “It’s a waste to give up. Don’t let all those years go to waste. Just make one final push and get that PhD. Go for it…it’s not even something you should think about.”

He patted mom’s shoulder and led her away.

“I’ll persuade your mom for you, but for now, focus on getting that dissertation done.”

“There’s still the defense, but…” I nodded wearily, unable to keep the grin from spreading across my face. “Thanks, dad. I will do my best.”

And with that, I had the blessings of my parents. My shoulders sagging, I leaned back in my bed, and Shirley snuggled next to me.

“You’ll get this done,” she said. “I know you will.”

“Yeah.” I sighed. “But what’s going to happen to Honey Café?”

Nothing, as it turned out. Instead, I had to worry more about myself. When I arrived in Honey Café the next day, I immediately spoke to Bernard and Honey about it. Bernard, in particular, had a grave expression and was crossing his arms in front of his broad chest as he listened. When I finished, he nodded once and spoke a single sentence of judgement.

“Junior, you’re fired.”

“Excuse me!?”

I gaped at him. Honey smacked the back of his head.

“Honey, don’t scare him like that! Explain it to him properly!”

“R…right.” Bernard rubbed his head and complied, looking meek despite his wife being much smaller than him. It was like watching a bear stoop down and obey a honeybee. He cleared his throat and forced his gruff face to look gentler.

He failed miserably.

It didn’t matter. I was long used to his expression, even back when I was a customer. No matter how intimidating Bernard might appear, deep down inside he was always the same kind and gentle soul ready to reach out with honey milk or honey coffee. Like how he saved me all those years ago…and also a few months ago, when I was in despair.

…damn. I really didn’t know how to repay him. I could feel the tears welling up, but I bit my lip and forced them back. I couldn’t break down. Not here.

Bernard seemed to notice, and he placed a heavy hand on my shoulder.

“We won’t extend your contract beyond the spring,” he declared. “When summer comes around, go home. Accompany your parents. Spend summer in the countryside. After that…when you return to the city, go back to graduate school, get your PhD once and for all.”

“Thanks.” I steeled my resolve. “But what about the café?”

“Young man, we have been running the café for years before you joined.” Bernard chuckled. “Even though we’ll miss your help, we’ll be fine without you. The most important thing is your future, and you pursuing what you want to do. I don’t want you to feel indebted to us. I want you to follow your dreams. That’s what will make us happy. Not tying you down to us.”

“In return,” Honey added with a wink. “You’re to visit our café frequently and return to being a regular customer. We’ll be expecting you to buy drinks and pastries from us, instead of us paying you!”

I couldn’t help but smile.

“Yeah. I can promise that.”

“Until then, I’ll be working you to the bone, so be prepared.” Bernard patted me in the back. “Now go get changed.”

“Yes, sir.”

It wasn’t long before I changed into my uniform and emerged from the staffroom to see the café being opened. I took up my place at the counter and smiled brightly as the first wave of customers began coming in.

“Your smile looks a lot better.”


When Shirley showed up, she grinned and stopped beside me instead of proceeding to her usual seat at the corner. She leaned in and gave me a quick kiss before withdrawing and nodding in approval. I raised a quizzical eyebrow, my cheeks slightly red.

“Your smile,” Shirley repeated. “It’s finally authentic. Not a façade or a professional mask you put on to serve customers…but you really are happy now.”

“Oh.” My hand rose to my lips, and I relaxed. For the first time in a long while, I could feel genuine hope. “Yeah. I guess I am.”

Despite my previous failure, I found myself looking forward to the future. there was no guarantee that I would succeed, of course. But I had a second chance once again, and I was going to grasp it with both hands and do my best.

Move forward, without looking back.

Shirley squeezed my hand encouragingly, still lingering near the counter instead of heading to her seat. I turned to her, and was once again blown away by the beautiful lady next to me.

She wasn’t beautiful simply because of her appearance, though she was undoubtedly lovely physically. No, I was attracted to her because of her passion for singing, as well as her determination to stand beside me and support me no matter the trials. Whether it was standing up for me against the likes of Victor Tang and Helen Huang, or encouraging me to pursue my dreams even though it meant I could no longer support her as I used to…

I really love her.

We might be heading down different paths, but we would still move forward in life side by side and continue to support each other every step of the way.

I honestly couldn’t wait to see what the future held for us.