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akin ka nalang (be mine instead)

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the tension in the room was palpable. beads of sweat dripped on the side of the boy’s face as he stared at his opponent straight in the eye. his chest was heaving, breaths more shallow now as he began to feel fatigued. at that moment, he turned his head to where the girl was watching. for the split second their eyes met he winked at her causing the girl’s cheeks to flush. he smiled to himself, his effect on the girl served enough reason for him to find whatever strength, endurance, and agility he had left to continue playing. 

 

the cheers and shouts that echoed throughout the gymnasium seemed to grow louder. he heard the whistle blow and his head snapped up, ignoring his opponent as he jumped for the ball blocking the opposition. he felt the rough surface of the ball at his fingertips and he huffed a breath when successfully possessed the ball in his hands. he sprinted to the other side of the court, mentally reminding himself he needed to dribble the ball as his ears were filled with the crowd counting down from ten. by the time he saw the curved line beneath his feet the crowd was at five. he took a small step back, making room for himself as he jumped up to shoot the ball.

 

please please please. he hoped

 

the buzzer sounded and for a second the gymnasium was dead silent, everyone holding their breath as they watched the ball arc in the air. and suddenly, the gymnasium erupted in shouts once again.

 

the boy smiled, boasting in his success. he looked back to where the girl—who joined in the sea of cheers—and pointed at her.

 

for you, he mouthed as he winked at her.

 

the girl shook her head in reply as she continued to cheer for the boy.

 

it was the final basketball game of their intramurals and everyone wanted to witness if the hotshot recruit was actually any good. everyone had their doubts, but claiming the gold during the intramurals seemed to erase these. the student body, excluding a majority of the seniors, celebrated the boy. they crowded over him, tapping him on the shoulder as a way of congratulating. he squeezed his way through the crowd, eyes fixed on the girl whose smile seemed to grow wider as he approached her.

 

“congratulations.” the girl said once he was close enough to hear.

 

“thanks, kat. the game’s easier when you have the best cheerleader.” the boy winked.

 

the boy beside katara murmured something to himself as he rolled his eyes at this comment.

 

[ ‘wag kang maniwala d'yan

di ka n'ya mahal talaga ]

 

(don’t believe him

he doesn’t really love you)

 

“hi to you too zuko.” the sweaty boy shifted his eyes away from the girl. “enjoy the game?” he asked, a boastful tone evident.

 

“it was okay i guess.” zuko shrugged. “considering you beat my batch.”

 

“don’t be such a sore loser.” the girl giggled as she stepped beside the sweaty player.

 

i am not a sore loser. the boy wanted to reply.

 

“you haven’t even congratulated him.” the brown-haired girl looked up at the tired athlete.

 

“congratulations jet.” zuko said, plastering on a fake smile.

 

“thanks, zuko.” jet replied as he wiped off the sweat from his forehead.

 

there was a silence that lingered between the three teenagers as if the gymnasium was not crawling with people. furrowed eyebrows and golden eyes were fixed on the girl whose bright blue eyes were looking at someone else.

 

[ sayang lang ang buhay mo kung mapupunta ka lang sa kanya ]

 

( you’ll be wasting your life if you end up with him )

 

he doesn’t deserve her. zuko thought as he moved his gaze upward to the boy just in time to see him wink at the girl again. if he were in a cartoon his head would be burning red and steam would shoot out from his ears.

 

[ Iiwanan ka lang n'yan, mag-ingat ka

Dagdag ka lamang sa milyun-milyong babae n'ya ]

 

( he’s just gonna leave you, be careful

you’re just adding to the millions of girls he’s had )

 

he’s gonna leave you katara. he wanted to say. he’ll win you over and then leave you when he finds some other girl. he’s gonna break your heart.

 

zuko watched as the couple gently intertwined their fingers.

 

jet felt a second pair of eyes on him. he turned his head to see golden eyes glaring at him. he chuckled, knowing that those golden eyes were always glaring at him.

 

“jet!” another voice called.

 

brown eyes scanned the sea of people looking for the source of the voice. his squinted eyes returning back to their usual shape when he saw a raised hand holding a towel. 

 

“yeah wait!” the athlete said loud enough for his teammate to hear.

 

“kat—“ he looked back down to the girl.

 

“yeah. yeah. the team is calling.” she said as she removed her hand from his hold. 

 

“don’t be mad.” jet stopped her fingers from slipping away.

 

“i’m not mad.” the girl said softly.

 

“weh?” the athlete mocked.

 

“whatever.” the girl rolled her eyes as she released her fingers from his grip.

 

“i’m joking.” the boy said catching her hand back in his. “let’s have merienda after?” 

 

“actually katara—“ zuko said and the couple turned their heads to him.

 

“what now zuko?” the girl said wondering what he was still doing there.

 

“sokka said i should bring you home after the game.”

 

“i can make my own decisions just fine zuko.” she replied.

 

[ 'di naman ako bolero katulad ng ibang tao

ang totoo'y pag nandyan ka medyo nabubulol pa nga ako ]

 

( i'm not a playboy like some people

the truth is, when you're there i stumble on my words ) 

 

“yeah but—“

 

“bro she said she can make her own decisions.” jet chuckled.

 

“but sokka told me—“ zuko tried to explain but got interrupted once again.

 

“okay. just go do whatever first.” she turned to the brown-eyed boy. "i have to return the attendance sheet to the office and then i’m gonna go call sokka.”

 

jet nodded his head.

 

“and you’re coming with me and telling me exactly what my brother asked you to do because i remember telling him i don’t need supervision.” katara said as she pointed at the golden eyes boy who couldn’t finish a sentence.

 

“o-okay.” he replied plainly.

 

“i’ll see you in a bit.” jet said, winning the attention of the girl once again.

 

“see you.” zuko watched as her features softened and a smile appeared on her face.

 

before she should walk away the fatigued athlete bent down and placed a chaste kiss on the girl’s cheek. katara couldn’t help but smile at the action while the scar-faced boy rolled his eyes. 

 

“don’t miss me too much.” the boy added as he fixed the bag hanging on his shoulder.

 

the girl rolled her eyes trying to act as if the sudden act didn’t affect her. she turned away from the smug face of the athlete and walked towards the exit of the gym. she was a few paces away from him when she felt another presence on her right side. she turned her head to the side only to see blank golden eyes ignoring her.

 

“and katara!” a voice echoed.

 

the girl stopped in her tracks and turned around, eyebrow quirked at the brown-eyed boy once again.

 

“you look good in my jersey.” he winked before finally walking in the direction of the shower room.

 

[ malangis lang ang dila n'yan, 'wag kang madala ]

 

(he just good with words, don’t be swooned)

 

the girl shook her head in reply and continued to walk the opposite way. zuko noticed how she was clearly trying to suppress a smile. he ignored this as they maneuvered through the hallway where the students crowded. since it was the day of their intramurals, there were no classes and dismissal was earlier than usual. the students were also not in their usual uniform but in their batch colors. there were girls in green who sat on the sides of the hallway whispering to each other, an open pack of chips in between them.  there were students from lower grades running to their school buses with their noisy stroller bags. there was a group of noisy boys to their other side who were pushing around one member of the group—probably teasing him.

 

zuko saw this and turned slightly inward facing the girl while one of his arms hovered by her back preventing the rowdy students from hitting her. he stayed like that until they reached the door of the office.

 

“wait for me here.” blue eyes glared at golden ones, warning them.

 

zuko swallowed a lump in his throat after realizing how close they were to each other. he could only nod in response.

 

he felt the cold air from the office as the girl entered. he released a breath he didn’t know he was holding when he saw the door close behind her. he leaned on the parallel wall as he looked at his palms.

 

yup. definitely sweaty again. he let out a slight chuckle.

 

he was always nervous around the katara—scared to do anything that would cost him their friendship. it was one of the two major reasons as to why he has yet to admit his feelings to her and actually ask her out. the thought of him being in a relationship with katara always crossed his mind. there was always an internal battle between a voice that told him to grow some balls against the voice that listed all the reasons why he shouldn't. but ever since jet came into the picture, his chances of building up the balls and admitting his feelings to hopefully win the girl over went from incredibly slim to impossible.

 

[ Dahan-dahan ka lang, baka pati ika'y mabiktima

'wag naman san ]

 

( be careful, you might be his next victim

i hope not ) 

 

the spiky-haired boy seemed to always say the right combination of words and do all these small gestures to make the girl blush. it frustrated him to think that jet said the same words and did the same thing to all the girls he dated in the past—there were quite a lot based on zuko’s deep dive through jet’s social media. at first, he thought it was weird that he was scrolling through some random guy's social media accounts, but he reasoned that it was for katara's sake. 

 

he snapped out of his thoughts when he felt a hand slap his shoulder. 

 

“okay, what did my brother tell you.” katara crossed her arms in front of her chest.

 

“he just told me to bring you home after the game because, and i quote, just because there’s intrams doesn’t mean it’s not a school day.” zuko tried to say as calmly as he could, feeling the daggers that came from the girl. 

 

katara scoffed.

 

“oh and he told me to remind you that on school days you can’t—“

 

“yeah i know i know.” katara interrupted him. “no going out on a school day.”

 

“yeah.” zuko replied softly looking at the girl.

 

"he really was serious about making you keep an eye on me ever since he transferred schools." her arms were still crossed, her foot now tapping on the floor. blue eyes never left golden ones, as if they were having an unspoken conversation. the boy watched as the girl battled herself in her head.

 

“fine.” katara exhaled sharply, dropping her arms to her sides.

 

the boy smiled, a genuine one. “let’s go then?” he asked, pushing himself off the wall.

 

“i’ll just text sokka first and ask him if jet—.”

 

zuko tried to hide his nuisance at the sound of the athlete's name, but the girl could read his face.

 

“what do you have against him?” she blurted out.

 

“who?”

 

“oh please, zuko." she rolled her eyes. "you know who we’re talking about. why are you so against jet and i?”

 

“nothing.”

 

[ 'di naman sa sinisiraan ko ang pangit na 'yan ]

 

( it's not that i'm trying to ruin the image of that ugly guy )

 

“yeah right.” katara let out a slight chuckle. “you scowl every time you see him or even hear his name."

 

“no i don’t.” the boy began to walk hoping the girl would drop the topic.

 

“zuko,” katara caught up to him. “i know you too well so there’s no point in trying to deny it.”

 

“it nothing.” the boy replied, keeping his eyes on the floor as he increased the distance between them.

 

“the more you deny it the more i’m convinced that it’s not nothing.” the girl said loud enough for other students to pry on their conversation.

 

he doesn’t deserve you katara. he wanted to say but chose to keep silent instead. he could hear her steps getting closer and closer.

 

“zuko.” the girl grabbed his arm, forcing him to face her. “you're basically my second brother,”

 

brother. the boy closed his eyes at the sound of the word. is that all i’ll ever be to you?

 

“so whatever you have to say—i wanna hear it.” she said, placing her hand on his forearm.

 

agni why do you have to be so affectionate? the boy exhaled audibly. this is really not helping with the whole move on the girl you like has a boyfriend thing.

 

“it doesn’t matter what i say.” zuko shook his head, avoiding her eyes.

 

“i can decide whether or not something matter to me thank you very much.” katara responded matter of factly. “just tell me.”

 

“like i’ve been saying,” the boy’s golden eyes met pleading blue ones. “it’s nothing.” he emphasized on the last word.

 

“fine.” katara retracted her hand. “if you won’t tell me then maybe sokka will.”

 

the boy’s eyes widened. being best friends with the older brother of the girl he’s liked for years has never backfired until this moment. he stood there, facing her back as he watched the girl tap her foot on the floor waiting for a voice on the other line.

 

“hi big brother.” the girl greeted with a grin plastered on his face. “so i’m here with zuko and—.” she turned her head, sending a glare in the boy’s direction.

 

“yes he told me that he was going to bring me home.” her shoulders slumped as the boy sighed in relief. “i was actually going to have merienda with jet.”

 

“cmon sokka! it’s not even four pm yet.” the girl whined.

 

katara walked a few paces to her side, not wanting the boy to hear her whine to her brother.

 

as she stepped out from zuko’s view, the golden-eyed boy spotted the group of juniors who had just won at the other end of the hallway. his eyes landed instantly on jet who was standing alarmingly close to a girl zuko didn’t recognize. he looked back at katara and saw that she was arguing with her brother—he could tell by the number of hand gestures she was making. zuko shifted his gaze back to the group of athletes. the boys surrounding jet had all sorts of reactions. one of them was holding in his laughter, another boy kept hitting jet on the shoulder while the others just stared adoringly at the mystery girl. zuko’s eyes trailed back to jet who was at the center of the group, smirking at the girl. 

 

“okay bye.” he heard katara say, causing him to avert his gaze from the athletes.

 

“my brother says hi.” the girl said as she stepped back in front of zuko, covering his view of the brown-eyed athlete. “and that if jet can bring me home after merienda before dad gets home, then i can go.”

 

zuko’s eyes widened at the mention of the girl’s significant other. he couldn’t help but slightly lean to his side to check if the athlete was still there—more importantly if he was still with the mystery girl.

 

“hello?” katara snapped her fingers in front of the boy’s scared face. “did you even hear what i said?”

 

“huh? yeah.” the boy replied not taking his eyes off the athlete who now had his back turned to zuko. the group of athletes, along with the girl began to walk in the other direction. 

 

“what are you even looking at?” the girl asked as she turned around.

 

at that exact moment, katara’s hair flicked zuko cheek causing him to wince. with her focus on familiar-looking athletes, she saw one of them drape their arm around a girl. by the time zuko had recovered, the team had turned the corner and disappeared from his sight.

 

was that— he didn’t get to finish this thought because when he looked down he saw katara’s shaky hands clenched.

 

“katara.” he said softly, placing a hand on her shoulder.

 

[ 'huwag ka dapat sa'kin magduda ]

 

( you shouldn’t be doubting me )

 

the girl shrugged off his hand from her shoulder and turned to face him again.

 

“let’s just go home.” katara said flatly.

 

the boy could only nod, his brain still searching for words that he could string up to form into a sentence.

 

in silence, the two teenagers walked side by side for the remainder of the hallway. once at the gate the security guard bid the girl goodbye as he always did but failed to get a response from the usually cheery girl. instead, zuko gave him a weak smile before exiting the school premises.

 

[ hinding-hindi kita pababayaan! ]

 

( i won’t leave you )

 

once outside, zuko moved to katara's left side making sure that she walked on the safer side of the sidewalk, farther away from the road. as they walked to where the cue for the jeepney was, zuko often extended an arm to prevent any of the pedestrians’ belongings to hit her. just as zuko thought, the line already reached the end of the block. the two teenagers stood in line, the boy never looking away from the girl.

 

[ akin ka na lang, akin ka na lang

iingatan ko ang puso mo ]

 

( be mine instead, mine instead

i'll take care of your heart )

 

he watched as she kept her eyes on her feet, her mind probably still trying to process what happened.

 

he’s stupid to flirt with that other girl.zuko sighed catching the girl’s attention.

 

her sad blue eyes met his golden ones.

 

i’d never do that to you katara. he wanted to say.

 

"a-are you okay?" he said instead. 

 

"yeah, why wouldn't i be?" the girl shrugged. 

 

[ akin ka na lang akin ka na lang

wala nang hihigit pa sa 'yo ]

 

( be mine instead 

there's no one greater than you )

 

"katara—" 

 

"it's okay. really. it's not like we ever put a label whatever it is we were, so i guess it wasn't that serious." the girl sighed. 

 

don’t worry katara, it’s his loss. he’s the one who can’t see how amazing are. you’re so kind even if you’re bossy i know it’s in the right place. you go out of your way to help all your classmates who ask for help. you even give some of your snacks to the street children who beg near the school. you’re also so smart like how are you not struggling in your chemistry class? i literally almost failed chem. and your beauty? immeasurable. the way—

 

zuko snapped out of his thoughts when he heard the barker shout from the front of the cue. he looked to the front, making sure he wouldn’t hit the person in front of him but when he looked back at the girl her eyes were back on the ground.

 

[ akin ka na lang

liligaya ka sa pag-ibig ko ]

 

( be mine instead

you'll be happy with my love ) 

 

i can't tell you how many times i imagined you holding my hand when we’re in line for the jeep like this and how we won’t be like those annoying couples in the jeep who don’t move to make space. i’m sure you’d ask me to hang from the outside if there was an old person who couldn’t find a seat.  i also imagined how we’d go to the fair during christmas time with your brother and suki. i know you love the fair. i’d give you space when you need to study because i know your grades are important to you. but of course i’d occasionally bring you food because you also forget to eat when you study. i imagined your eyes looking at me like how you used to look at jet’s, with so much love. agni i’d do anything for you to look at me like that.

 

[ akin ka na lang

wala nang hihigit pa sa 'yo ]

 

( be mine instead

there's no one greater than you )

 

the boy sighed once again, golden eyes still watching the girl.

 

if only i could actually ask you out these thoughts won’t only be a figment of my imagination. if i wasn’t too scared to lose the friendship we already have then maybe,  just maybe we could be together