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zuko grunted as the sound of his alarm filled his cluttered room. he rolled to the other side of his bed, farther away from his alarm as he covered his ears in attempt to block the sound. he heard it stop for a while, thinking that he could fall back asleep when another tone filled his room. he let out a groan as he searched for his phone, eyes still closed.

 

“hm?” it was all he could say.

 

“don’t tell me you haven’t gotten up yet.” the voice on the other line said.

 

“shhh.” zuko replied.

 

“don’t shush me! in case you’re forgetting that it's the first night of simbang gabi meaning ka—“

 

“katara.” the boy sat up immediately, unintentionally dropping his pillows onto the floor.

 

“exactly. now go shower and get your ass over here.” the other voice commanded.

 

“yes ma’am.” zuko saluted even though the caller couldn’t see him.

 

[ simbang gabi na naman ]

( it's simbang gabi again )

 

the boy draped his legs over his bed trying to compose himself. he took in a deep breath, reminding himself why he set his alarm at four o’clock in the morning today. it was the start of simbang gabi, a yearly christmas tradition of attending dawn masses. zuko was never a fan of it frowning up. his uncle always had to drag him out of bed every morning and nudge his knee throughout the mass itself. but last year zuko found a reason to willingly attend the dawn masses.

 

katara. he smiled at the thought of the girl.

 

he and his uncle were on their way home when the latter told the teenage boy to buy bibingka for their breakfast. zuko protested at first saying excuses like he wasn’t hungry and he didn’t like the said dish, but his uncle insisted. he stomped his way over to the closed stall he saw and rubbed his eyes as he said,

 

“two specials po.”

 

“bumbong or bibingka?” a voice said, causing the boy to lift his gaze.

 

“uhmmm,” he prolonged, captivated by the girl’s polite smile and kind eyes.

 

“zuko?” a voice said.

 

“sokka?” the sleepy voice asked.

 

“i didn’t know you attended simbang gabi.”

 

“yeah. uncle has brought me here for as long as i can remember.” zuko explained. “i never knew you guys had a stall here.”

 

“oh well it’s sort of a tradition that gran gran is passing onto us.” sokka smiled. “anyway, what are you getting?”

 

“i was kinda in the middle of that.” the girl interrupted.

 

“oh yeah, uhm sorry. bibingka.” zuko gave a shy smile.

 

the girl nodded as she opened what seemed to be styrofoam coolers with tape wrapped around them.

 

“here.” zuko said, handing her the money.

 

as the girl was about to accept it the other teenage boy intervened.

 

“no need. on the house.” sokka smiled.

 

“are you sure?” zuko asked.

 

“yeah. i’m proclaiming that you get free bibingka from us forever.”

 

“nah dude it’s fine. here.” the golden-eyed boy said handing him the money again.

 

“you don’t have to pay as long as you promise you’ll never buy from anywhere else.” sokka said, eyeing their fellow vendors.

 

“okay but you said it not me.” zuko chuckled. “thanks,” he said softly, moving his eyes to meet katara’s.

 

[ tayo gising na, patulog pa lang ang buwan ]

( as we wake up, the moon is just about to sleep )

 

zuko replayed the first time he met katara as he tidied up his bed with only the moonlight illuminating his room. he looked over at his clock and realized that if he didn’t move faster he would be late for the mass. he hurriedly grabbed his towel and entered his bathroom.

 

no time. he thought as he looked at the heater.

 

instead, he turned the faucet completely parallel to the wall causing the water to create a loud noise as it filled up the bucket. without thinking too much, zuko grabbed the dipper and poured the cold water over his head. he shivered at the first but slowly got used to the cool touch of the water. within five minutes he was back in his room trying to pick out a decent outfit. he spent another five minutes trying to make his damp hair look presentable and then he was out the door. he looked for his uncle by the living room where he usually waited but he saw that the older man was already waiting for him by the gate.

 

“let’s go?” zuko greeted as he opened their gate.

 

“trying to impress that katara girl i see.” his uncle smirked noticing the new shirt zuko wore as they walked along the sidewalk.

 

“what?” the boy was suddenly defensive.

 

“no need to hide it from me nephew.” the older man let out a small laugh.

 

“whatever.” zuko said flatly hoping his uncle would drop the topic.

 

the two could have taken a jeepney but there were none around their area at that hour. they continued their journey to the church in silence with the occasional gush of cold wind.

 

[ ang simoy ng hanging dahan-dahan na humahaplos sa mukha ng bawat tao bumabagsak-bagsak pa ang mata ]

( the wind brushes against the faces of people with tired eyes )

 

they arrived at the church’s plaza fifteen minutes until the mass started. the two also spotted a few of their other neighbors who had just arrived. zuko observed as children rubbed their eyes while being brought down from the car. he also watched oh the local street sweeper was falling asleep against his broom. even the children who often approached mass goers to sell sampaguita were asleep on the floor. as they approached the food stalls zuko kept his eyes on a specific one where he saw his friends standing by.

 

“go ahead.” his uncle said from nowhere.

 

“huh?” zuko looked at him.

 

“go with your friends. just make sure you attend the mass and meet me back here after.”

 

without hesitation, zuko replied, “okay.” he began to take longer strides towards his friends.

 

“finally.” the girl said as zuko neared them.

 

“good morning to you too suki.” the boy mocked.

 

“what took you so long?” another voice chimed.

 

“i bet he didn’t wake up to his alarm.” a third voice said.

 

“i think aang answered your question already toph.” zuko noted.

 

“you better be grateful i called you.” suki smacked his arm.

 

“ouch!” the boy whined.

 

“oh boo hoo.” the second voice mocked.

 

“guys.” a gentle voice said. “let’s just go in already. it’s about to start.”

 

the group nodded in unison.

 

[ dahan-dahang kumislap ang mga ilaw ng tumatandang simbahan ]

( the lights on the old church slowly twinkled )

 

katara maneuvered her way past the burning clay pots and found her way next to zuko. the gang then made their way to the main entrance of the church following the strings of lights that stretched out from the highest midpoint of the church. despite the church being older than his uncle, the twinkling lights never failed to make the structure newer than it was. as they neared the big wooden doors, zuko couldn’t help but look at the girl walking beside him. he noted the small beads of sweat by her forehead and small specks of charcoal on the tips of her hair and her shirt—both results of her hours of cooking bibingka and putobumbong. but what stood out the most was how the twinkling lights surrounding them reflected on her tired eyes.

 

[ kung sa'n magkasama tayong nagdasal at nakinig sa misa de gallo ] 

( where we prayed and listened to the misa de gallo ) 

 

once inside the teenagers hurriedly found their seats on an empty bench. zuko rolled his eyes knowingly. as he and katara neared the bench where his friends sat, he extended his arm allowing the girl to sit first. as zuko was about to sit down he saw suki discreetly give him a thumbs up. side by side, the teenagers stayed silent as the mass went on trying not to let their tired eyes close. it wasn't that he was sleepy, zuko couldn't focus on the priest's homily because of how close he was sitting to the girl. he tried to focus but every time he tried to sit upright, his arm would brush against the girl's which made the girl look at him silently asking if everything was alright. before he knew it, the priest was already announcing that it was time to sing the lord's prayer. 

 

[ pagdating ng ama namin, ang oras huminto nang magkahawak ang ating mga kamay ] 

( when our father started to play, time stopped when you held my hand ) 

 

it was at this point in the mass wherein people held hands and sang our father. zuko wasn't sure if the girl was going to hold his hand, thinking that holding hands at this point in the mass was kind of old fashioned. but everything seemed to stop when the katara dropped her hand in between them and placed her palm against his. zuko felt embarrassed, suddenly aware of how sweaty his hand must be but the girl ignored this and raised their connected hands. the second their hands were in view, zuko was sure that he heard suki shriek followed by a shush from sokka. the nervous boy was still trying to process that he was holding hands with katara when the music stopped and he felt her stop their hands and slowly release the hold. for the rest of the mass, it was all zuko could think about. 

 

[ at pagkatapos magsimba ] 

( after attending mass ) 

 

as the mass ended, the group of teenagers made their way outside of the church. 

 

"so guys, breakfast?' toph asked, suddenly wide awake. 

 

"as much as i'd want to it's my turn to watch the stand." sokka explained. 

 

"i don't mind!" aang chipped in, a smile on his face at the mention of food. 

 

"I'll join too." suki noted. 

 

"what you're having breakfast without me?" sokka placed a hand to his chest. 

 

"not my fault it's your turn to go help gran gran." suki remarked as she waved to the older woman. 

 

the whole gang laughed at the couple's banter. 

 

"i think i'm gonna go head home guys. i'm really sleepy." katara said, ending with a yawn. 

 

"i can bring you home." zuko said almost instantly. 

 

"zuko you live on the other side of town." 

 

"no it's okay uh, uncle asked me to buy something in that store near your house." zuko reasoned as he heard suki snort from behind him. 

 

"are you sure i—"

 

"zuko!" the old man said as he approached the group. 

 

"perfect. just in time for you to give me the money to buy supplies from the store." the boy widened his eyes, hoping his uncle would play along with his antics. 

 

"right." his uncle prolonged as he dug for his wallet inside his pocket. "here." 

 

zuko sighed, reminding himself to thank his uncle later. 

 

"now don't be too long. we gotta open up the shop soon." the old man raised a finger to the boy. 

 

"yes, uncle. i'll see you later." zuko replied politely before watching the old man walk away. 

 

"see. told you he needed me to buy something." zuko remarked as he faced the girl. 

 

"okay." the girl shrugged, too sleepy to argue. "bye guys see you tomorrow." she waved to the group. 

 

once the girl had turned her back, the remaining teenagers winked at zuko with their thumbs raised. the boy could only shake his head, before turning around and catching up to the girl. 

 

[ habang hinahatid kita sa iyong tahanan parang walang katapusan ang ating kwentuhan tungkol sa mga buhay ng isa't isa, ako'y nahalina ] 

( our conversations about each other's lives didn't seem to end as i walked you home, i was fascinated ) 

 

the two walked side by side as the sun slowly rose, the sky turning to a bright orange from its previous deep blue. 

 

"so how were sales tonight. you know, first night of simbang gabi and all." zuko blurted out. 

 

"just the usual." katara shrugged. "it increases as the week passes by." the girl explained. 

 

"must be really tiring huh?" the boy noted, noticing how tired the girl looked. 

 

"won't argue with that." the girl chuckled. "but it's okay really. if it's important to gran gran then it's important to me too." 

 

"how long have you been helping out?" 

 

"since i was around ten maybe. i just remember waking up really early one day and saw that she was on her way out. i cried my eyes out that day because i thought she was gonna leave us." the girl paused, reliving the memory in her own head. "but then she picked me up and explained to me that she was only going to sell bibingka at the church. of course, i didn't believe her so i made her take me with her. that day i sat on a stool just watching her do everything. she mixed the batter, cut up the banana leaves, fanned the charcoal, sliced the cheese and the egg, and she even grated the coconut. the next day i purposefully got up early and told her i wanted to help." 

 

the boy could only reply with a "hmm." 

 

"sorry." the girl said softly. 

 

"for what?" the boy asked. 

 

"i know i talk too much some times and—"

 

"katara." the boy stopped walking and placed a hand on her shoulder. "it's okay." he smiled. 

 

"you sure? because i'm almost home and you haven't said a word." the girl looked up. 

 

"yes i'm sure." the boy nodded before continuing the journey. 

 

a few more minutes passed as the two walked silently beside each other, their arms slightly grazing the other's from time to time. as they walked in silence, the city began to wake up. the smell of freshly baked pandesal was in the air as they passed by a bakery, the taho vendor smiled politely at them as they passed by, the man delivering newspapers seemed to pedaled past them in a rush and the street sweeper greeted them a good morning. it was half-past five in the morning when they finally reached the tired girl's house. 

 

"thanks again for walking me home zuko." the girl turned to him. 

 

"it's no problem really uncle needed me to—"

 

"it's okay zuko. i know he didn't really ask you to buy anything from the store, considering it doesn't open for another two hours."

 

the boy felt the sudden warmth on his cheeks again. 

 

"it's really sweet of you."

 

"i can hear a but coming." the boy noted. 

 

"i don't think i'm the kind of girl you think i am." 

 

"what's that supposed to mean?" the boy's eyes furrowed. 

 

"just that i'm not really the courting type of girl. i don't really like it when people do things for me just for me you know. i also tend to make them wait to long that they all just give up at some point. you can ask my brother, quite a few have tried." the girl let out a slight chuckle. 

 

"katara," the boy stepped closer. "i don't mind waiting." he smiled. 

 

"heard that before." a sad smile spread across her lips. 

 

"i know you're worth the wait." zuko winked, causing the girl's cheeks to heat up. 

 

the girl giggled as she stepped back. 

 

"thanks again zuko." she said as she entered their gate. 

 

"katara," the boy called. "same time tomorrow?" 

 

"maybe." the girl shrugged her shoulders, mocking the boy before finally closing their gate. 

 

true to his words, the boy woke up early again the next day, made his way to the church, and volunteered to bring the girl home after the mass. katara didn't know why the boy kept insisting after she had warned him, but after the second day, she stopped trying to argue with him. every day as he walked her home, the two would talk until they reached their destination, neither of them running out of things to say to the other. zuko learned that it was only gran gran who watched over katara and her brother after their mother passed away and their dad left for his job as a seaman. katara learned that zuko lived with his uncle after rebelling against his controlling parents. 

 

[ natapos din ang siyam na araw ng simbang gabi ang sabi ko sa sarili, baka ito na'ng huli ] 

( the nine days of simbang gabi had passed and i'm telling myself maybe this would be the last ) 

 

it was the final night of simbang gabi, and zuko couldn't help but feel sad. he knew that there were other ways and opportunities wherein he could hang out with katara, but he knew those were very limited. in his mind, zuko thought that the final mass was probably the last time he was gonna see katara for a long time. he decided to get up earlier that day just so he didn't have to rush his shower—although it did help wake him up. he opened his closet doors and pondered what he should wear. after choosing to wear a flannel over his shirt, thinking he should dress up nicer that day, zuko made his way out of his room.  

 

"good morning uncle." the young boy greeted as he opened their gate. 

 

"woke up on the right side of the bed today i see." 

 

"just ready to make the most of today." zuko smiled before starting their journey to the church. 

 

unline the previous days, there were more people on the church plaza when the boy arrived. he told his uncle that he would meet him later, as they did the previous week, and walked towards the direction of the bibingka stand. 

 

"good morning." he greeted with a wide smile but the girl was too busy scurrying around the small area, gathering up orders for the line of customers. 

 

after a few minutes of observing the girl, she finally looked his way. 

 

"hi sorry. extra busy today." she noted as she adjusted the bandana keeping her hair neat. "gran i'm just gonna hear mass okay?" 

 

"sure sweetheart. good morning zuko." the old lady smiled. 

 

"good morning. good day for business today i see." 

 

[ pero mula nu'ng unang ama namin na ang iyong kamay ay hinawakan 'di mo na binitawan ] 

( but since the first father that i held your hand, you didn't let go ) 

 

katara rolled her eyes as she quickly intertwined their fingers and pulled the boy towards the direction of the church. zuko was caught off guard, not expecting the girl to hold his hand outside of the mass. they managed to squeeze their way into the church, find a spot to stand by the side entrance. the boy expected her to let go of hid hand, but the girl proved otherwise. the only time she separated her hands was when zuko offered his flannel to her again, just as he did the first day. after that, katara kept their fingers intertwined for the whole duration of the mass. 

 

[ nagsiawit ang mga anghel sa langit at ang unang gabi ng pasko'y sumapit ] 

( the angels sang in the heavens as the first night of christmas came ) 

 

zuko didn't know why, but he surely was not going to let go. as the mass ended, they made their way outside. 

 

"ready to go home?" the boy asked. 

 

"uhm actually," the girl's voice trailed off as she looked over to her grandma who was catering to a new line of customers. "i think i should go help gran and you should probably head home with your uncle."

 

"no it's fine. i'll wait until you're done."

 

"zuko—"

 

"i did tell you that i don't mind waiting right?" the boy looked into her eyes. 

 

[ kay ganda ng harana ng tinig na sumasabay sa ihip ng hanging ] 

( how beautiful is the serenade of your voice that is flowing with the wind ) 

 

the girl giggled and it was better than any of the songs sang during the mass. slowly, their fingers detangled and the girl made her way back into the stall.

 

"i see christmas came early for you this year." a voice said from behind zuko causing him to turn around.

 

"very funny suki." the boy replied. 

 

"in all seriousness though, congratulations."

 

"thanks." 

 

[ ang sabi nila... bil'han mo na siya ng bibingka ] 

( they said to buy you bibingka ) 

 

"you know what would be cute though?" 

 

zuko raised an eyebrow.

 

"if you went over there and bought her a bibingka."

 

"from their own stall?" zuko clarified. 

 

"no from their competition. of course from their own stall!" the feirce girl said. 

 

"that sounds kinda stupid." zuko noted. 

 

"it sounds cute." suki defended. "and i don't think i've seen her eat a single one of those delicious rice cakes since the start of simbang gabi." 

 

"oh?"

 

"and plus, it would be the perfect breakfast for this fine christmas morning." suki smirked. 

 

"okay fine." 

 

the boy made his way to the end of the line, counting ten people ahead of him. he thought of hiding behind the people, thinking it was a good surprise but he remembered that katara probably won't look at him until he's the one at the front of the line. tugged on the edges of his flannel, not really knowing what to say exactly. 

 

you're just going to buy something, you idiot. he imagined suki getting mad at him. 

 

he shook his head as the guy in front of him walked away from the stall.

 

"zuko?" katara asked, a shy smile on her face. 

 

"hi uh, two bibingkas please." zuko grinned. 

 

"what is this about?" the girl quirked her eyebrow in suspicion. 

 

"can't i just buy the best bibingka around here?" the boy extended his arms.

 

"hmm." the girl glared at him but prepared his order anyway.

 

 "here." zuko said flatly, handing the girl his payment. 

 

"i think you're forgetting that sokka granted you a lifetime supply of bibingka." 

 

"no i remember. i just want to pay." he smiled. 

 

"okay. whatever." the girl shrugged and handed him his food. 

 

"hi zuko." katara's grandmother greeted. 

 

"hi gran! so glad that you're here. i was wondering if katara could take a break." the boy smiled, ignoring the glare the girl was directing at him. 

 

"oh sure." the old lady smiled. 

 

"but gran—"

 

"it's okay katara. there's only a couple people left anyway. i can handle it." her grandmother reassured. 

 

katara sighed in defeat walking to the side of the stall. 

 

"what's this about?" she asked. 

 

"here." zuko said handing her the rice cake. 

 

"why are you giving this to me?" the girl felt her cheeks warm.

 

"uhm," the boy scratched the back of your neck. 

 

"zuko," katara prolonged the last sound, glaring at the boy. 

 

"i thought it would be cute?" he shrugged. 

 

"cute? you thought this was cute?" the girl's eyebrows scrunched. 

 

"yeah? us eating breakfast together on christmas morning is kinda cute i guess."

 

"so you waited in line and paid for something you could've gotten for free just to give it to me?" katara asked again, still skeptical about the boys actions. 

 

[ dahil ikaw na ang aking tadhana ] 

( because you are my destiny ) 

 

"i don't know how many time i need to tell you this, katara. i don't mind waiting." the boy smiled at her. 

 

the girl could only shake her head taking his hand in hers and pulled the boy to the nearby bench. there they sat facing each other, the freshly cooked bibingka between them as the sun rose up in the sky.