While I know you guys like battles and action, I'm going to be switching gears for this chapter and the next one to develop the Toph/Marco relationship a bit more.


School had gotten out for the day, and I was making my way home from the street where the bus had dropped me off, shoulders as usual straining under the weight of a backpack that seemed to contain about twice my own body weight in textbooks and stuffed-to-the-brim-folders. (I can't tell you the number of times I've been tempted to morph gorilla, or at least chimpanzee, to make that part of the school-day grind simpler. If only.)

There's this one pale yellow house I go by on my normal after-school route, with a lavender-painted wooden fence surrounding the yard. The college-age couple that lives there have this utterly demented red chow/Chesapeake retriever mix called Sinbad. I swear, his eyes look like they want to suck out your soul whenever you look at him out in the yard.

Not that you'd have too much time to contemplate them of course. That's because instead of simply barking his head off like normal dogs do if you get too close to his turf, Sinbad tends to go in for suddenly charging the fence like a maniac, rearing and scratching the boards with his claws, savagely barking and just generally doing his best to make you wet your drawers. Sure gets my attention, I can tell you.

And right on cue, as I came by his yard, Sinbad leapt to his feet and rushed the fence, growling and barking what were presumably doggie threats and vows to eat out my lungs if I didn't leave fast enough.

This time though, I gave little more than a halfhearted flinch as the woman of the house opened the sliding glass porch door seconds later to yell, "Sinbad, you quit that! You hear me? Bad dog!"

Part of it was because I'd learned to expect this behavior as a matter of course from Psycho Dog, and partly because I was preoccupied about other things.

It wasn't surprising. I mean, who isn't preoccupied about what they're going to do over the weekend on a Friday afternoon?

Of course, as an Animorph, I often tend to find myself preoccupied with minor thoughts and matters that not even kids like the punks who shot up Columbine deserve to have to struggle with, like say, the fate of the human race, what if I'd been trapped in morph as that giant flea, if Visser One will-or God forbid, already has!-squealed to Visser Three about our true identities, and whether I'll end up going out as a bug or a gorilla.

My current thoughts could be boiled down to: A, how we were all going out tomorrow morning to hunt down and deal with the camouflaged monkey Controller swinging around in the woods, and B, Toph.

I'd decided that since I had it bad for this earthbending chick, and she was at the very least cool with having me around, I was going to take things a step further. Trouble was, how could I pull it off without looking like an idiot or that I was too eager?

Remember that scene in The Fox and The Hound where Tod blabs to Vixey that I'm-such-an-awesome-master-at-pouncing-on-fish-so-just-watch me...and he ends up totally blowing it instead? Yeah, that was the exact thing I did NOT want to end up doing.

Also, unlike Cassie or Tobias, I'm a pretty private person when it comes to my emotions, covering them up with smart, funny remarks or gestures. Fortunately-and ironically-I have this feeling that Toph is much the same way, except she just punches people instead.

Well, I guess we'll just cross that bridge when we come to it, I told myself, exhaling. Besides, we were talking about a simple offer to go on a Saturday evening date here. How hard could that be, especially with my prodigious amount of charm, wit, and good looks? Yes, I know that last part wouldn't exactly matter to a blind girl.

Our house is attached to a two-car garage, which has both its main and side doors locked when we're out for the day. The same goes for our house's front door.

Fortunately though, I knew where to get a key.

Soon after moving in with my dad and her useless ankle-biter, Nora had set up a heavy, Grecian-looking tan planter out in the yard to grow herbs in, and surrounded it with red rocks for a decorative touch. One of the red rocks though, is actually made of plastic, one of those nifty little spare key hiders you see advertised on TV or being sold at Wal-Mart sometimes.

I slipped the key out from the bottom of the fake rock, shifted it back into position, and walked up to the front door to unlock the deadbolt and another lock below, twisting it in both slots.

Naturally, with the same predictability of Hobbes leaping out at Calvin and tackling him like a striped demon as soon as he gets back from school, the moment he heard my footsteps approaching and the door being unlocked, Euclid came racing down the hallway, barking like he'd lost his mind and eager to either bite or jump on me.

"Arr arr arr arr arr arr!"

Remembering bitter, painful past experiences, I slipped my backpack from my shoulders and, holding it by the straps, positioned it in front of a very sensitive part of the male anatomy with my left hand before opening the door with my right.

Right on cue, Euclid bounced into the air and launched himself at me in a Superman pose, aiming for my groin. But he just harmlessly ricocheted off my backpack and dropped back to the floor. I swear he looked disappointed.

Still, he continued to jump around like Tigger on meth, bark at me, and just generally be a pain in the ass as I extracted the key, shut the door behind me, and headed to the kitchen.

"Tirate a un poso," I growled at him. It's an expression I picked up from my Uncle Rufio, basically meaning "throw yourself in a hole."

I ignored his attempts to trip me up as best I could while I got a box of cinnamon graham crackers from the cupboard, poured myself a glass of milk, and sat down to enjoy an after school snack. It might be a bit messy, but seriously, is there anything better than the taste of cookie moistened by cold milk?

Once snack time was over, I reluctantly got the leash out of the entryway closet and clipped it to Crazy Dog's collar before taking him outside for a potty break and then taking him for a quick walk around the block a couple times before I put the key back and headed back inside. Not at all for the first time, it struck me how jarringly surreal all this normal, day-in-day-out stuff was now, when compared to the Animorph part of my life.

Really, it's crazy. I mean, who hasn't stood outside on the lawn with the family dog at least once a day, impatiently tapping your foot or staring off into space while you wait for the pooch to either empty their bladder or squat to do number two? And yet, next morning I was going to turn into a wolf to help my pals take down and rip apart a dangerous apelike beast from outer space that had a Yeerk slug in its skull, controlling its every move.

I headed upstairs to my room and popped in a Jamaroquai CD before hitting PLAY on the remote control, taking out my science textbook and planting myself at my desk, hoping I'd be able to read and absorb enough information about clouds and air masses and air pressure, blah blah blah, for the pop quiz I suspected Mr. Kuhl would gleefully hit us with next Monday morning. He's got to be the ugliest-looking science teacher I've ever had.

Nora came home about an hour later, greeting Euclid with simpering, excited exclamations of "There you are Euclid! Did you miss Mommy while she was gone? Well she's back now! Yay!"

I decided not to be too antisocial and wandered over to the top of the stairs to give a shout-out.

"Hey Nora," I said casually, briefly raising my hand.

"Oh, hi Marco," she replied, looking up from where she was still scratching Euclid's nape. "How was the rest of your school day outside my class?"

I shrugged. "Muddled through it okay, got yet more homework to deal with. Gym was a pain, as expected. So same old, in other words. Dad called to say when he's coming home?"

Nora nodded. "He'll be here in about half an hour. He's going to be making a stop by Kentucky Fried Chicken to get dinner."

The very thought of the red and white striped boxes got my gastric juices flowing.

"Awesome. Can't beat the Colonel."

While we often like to eat out on the patio, it had become too dark for that by the time Dad showed up with the grub. It was fall though, so what can ya do?

As we sat around the dinner table and gnawed on chicken legs, with Nora periodically stopping to tell Euclid that he had perfectly good Alpo in his bowl to eat, so quit begging, we all chit-chatted about our respective day.

I decided to go out on a limb, risk the ribbing, and tell them about the latest development in my so-called love life while Dad was complaining to Nora about how some ass-clown in a Range Rover had cut him off when he was trying to get on to the freeway exit ramp.

"Uh Dad, you know how I haven't had the best success with girls, right?"

"Yeah," he replied, glancing up at me before frowning. "Which is really sort of a shame, since you have a great wit and personali-"

"Oh, you're telling me nothing I didn't know about myself already Dad," I grinned, giving a dismissive flip of my hand. "Thanks for the recognition of my immense amounts of charm though," I added, causing both him and Nora to laugh.

"Anyhow though," I went on, corners of my mouth curving upwards in pride and pleasure, "it looks like my luck there just might be changing."

I saw my dad's eyes light up with understanding, then wry amusement, over his slightly hooked nose. My dad has a lot of Polish blood in him.

"So a romance is starting to blossom between you and some attractive senorita, I take it," he grinned.

I nodded, maybe a bit bashfully.

"Way to go bud!"

"That's great to hear Marco!" Nora said eagerly, brown eyes lighting up. "What's her name?"

"Zhenzhu Beifong," I replied, my cheeks getting a bit heated for some reason. "And yes, she's Chinese," I added automatically.

"Zhenzhu," Nora said thoughtfully. "Huh, I've never seen her name on any of the school records," she commented, forehead creasing as she frowned.

"That's cause she goes to a different school than mine," I glibly lied, hoping that Nora wouldn't bother to take the effort to check the current records of our district's other educational prison facilities later on for evidence that Toph was actually attending one of them or anything like that. "She's also two years younger than I am."

"So you would've met her around town then, I presume," Dad said.

I nodded. "Yeah, I first noticed her at the mall while Jake and I were having some waffle fries with cheese together," I 'revealed,' making a mental note to tell Toph about this so-called 'backstory' I was constructing for her later on so that we could both be consistent in how we lied to my own dad and stepmom. It made me feel like crap, having to do that. "And well, this cute, pretty Chinese girl just caught my eye," I smirked, shrugging.

My dad has a tendency to break into song sometimes whenever something reminds him of a song's lyrics, and now he randomly began singing, "Some enchanted evening/ you may see a stranger/ you may see a stranger/ across a crowded room/ And somehow you'll know/ you'll know even-"

"Dad!" I said sharply. Not only were we getting off topic, he-as much as I hate to admit it-can actually sing better than I can. It's just not fair.

"Sorry about that," he said, snapping back to the topic. "Got distracted. At any rate, she caught your eye, huh?"

"Yep," I smiled. "To make a long story short, I took a chance, moved over to her table, introduced myself, and began talking with her. We hit it off, and I even ended up sharing some of my cheese fries with her. Jake had the good grace not to mind," I added.

"Well that was very nice of you Marco," Nora smiled approvingly. "Have you seen Zhenzhu around since then?"

"Several times," I replied. "Not only have I met her again at the mall since then, I also know where she lives with her foster mother, and I've stopped by to pay her a friendly visit a few times already."

"Not to do anything unseemly I hope," Dad said gravely.

"No!" I yelped indignantly, shrinking in on myself. "Geez Dad, that would never even cro-"

"I'm kidding Marco," he assured me, chuckling at my consternation as my cheeks heated and Nora gave him an irritated look. "You knew that, right?"

"Peter, quit doing things like that to him," Nora sighed halfway under her breath.

"Um, yeah. Of course," I lightly smiled, trying to recapture some dignity and hide my roasting cheeks by casually taking another sip from my can of Pepsi. He'd gotten me good that time.

"Sounds like you've truly become fond of her then, Marco," Nora commented as she took a bite of mashed potatoes.

"Yep, I have. She's from a whole other planet, this girl," I said with exaggerated dreaminess, inwardly laughing at my own private joke.

Although he couldn't have known just how literal my last statement truly was, my dad gave a quick, brief chuckle of amusement anyway. "Well, it's great to hear that now you have someone else who's important in your life besides just Jake," he said in a half-relieved tone. "Not that he's a bad kid to hang with or anything," he hastily added to placate me.

If only you knew of the big connection between both of them, I thought.

"Well, anyway," I proposed, screwing up courage, "I'm seriously thinking about taking the next step with her tomorrow night. You know, the 'D word,'" I clarified, making air quotes.

"Ah, the 'D word,'" my dad reminisced happily. "I've captured women's hearts on a few of those," he said suggestively, smiling as he turned to regard Nora, who smiled back. I know it doesn't make sense, but I always feel in some way like he's dishonoring my mother's memory, cheating on her, when he does stuff like that with Nora. "But if you're saying you want one of us to take both of you out to have dinner or something, sure, I can do that. Or Nora can."

Nora nodded. "I'd be glad to. Any place in particular you want to bring her?"

I stopped to ponder that for a few minutes. A movie? Although she was blind, she could always do a partial human morph and watch it with me that way. Certainly, she could be trusted to behave a lot more appropriately in the theater than Ax had at that Star Trek one.

In the next moment though, I discarded it. Having been blind all her life until she'd gained the ability to morph, and coming from a society much less advanced than ours, a movie would probably confuse and overwhelm her more than anything else. And from there it could very well be see-you-later-Marco and no-thanks for the awful time.

A concert? No, the loudspeakers would just be pure hell on her sensitive ears, I realized. And if it was one that featured the classical, more hoighty-toighty stuff...well, I'd been there and done that, with disastrous results already. I'm a major follower of the dictum "Once bitten, twice shy," after all.

Inviting her to dinner?

Yeah, that was the stuff, I decided. Simple, foolproof, generous, and just a plain fun time. And I had the perfect place in mind.

"Uh, I'm thinking I'd like to take her out to that Black Angus steak house at the mall," I said. "She's kind of a big meat-eater," I divulged, leaning forward.

My dad gave a small, wistful smile. "Your mom was the same way too. She could go through a foot-long slab of ribs in less than fifteen minutes you know-and somehow manage to stay as clean as a nun's robes."

The mention of my mom was like a sick jolt, a kick to the gut as I remembered the last time I'd seen and talked to her as Visser One's host body, looking horribly like an overcooked steak herself, or maybe more like Chucky in Child's Play after Andy gave him a makeover with that match in the fireplace.

Right on its heels came that tooth-grinding, volcanic swell of rage, filling me up once more with that savage desire to find as many Controllers as I could and do things to them that would leave even Chucky or Freddy impressed.

Maybe it was just as well then that our cordless phone rang at that moment to distract me.

My Dad reluctantly decided to be the one to get out of his chair and walk a whole ten feet to grab it from its cradle.

It turned out to be Cassie. Naturally, my stomach clenched and my ears went erect. News from a fellow Animorph was seldom good. But I kept my cool as I accepted the phone from Dad, wondering if I was going to hear from her that Toph had gotten herself and/or Bird-Boy or Ax killed in a second gung-ho attempt to kill this crazy-ass ape Controller, if Visser Three had decided to hedge his bets by sending out a few more of these things into the forest, if there was some sort of emergency/golden opportunity that translated to all of us needing to go out and kill this thing right now, among other possibilities.

"Hey there Cassie," I said, signaling to Dad and a mildly irritated Nora that I'd be back in a few as I cleaned the chicken grease off my hands and moved to a handy armchair that felt a lot more comfortable than I did. "What's up?"

"Nothing bad, I can tell you that," she replied smoothly.

So it didn't seem like anything involving battles, death, or getting additional Yeerk-related crap piled on our already strained nerves and shoulders was in my Magic 8-ball's viewing portal at the moment, save for next morning's expedition. That was a very good thing, and the hairs on the back of my neck lowered a bit as I felt something like relief flood through me.

"Well, that's a new one there. Seen any pigs flying the friendly skies recently?" I quipped.

I heard Cassie lightly laugh.

"No-but I did just find out that the woods are safe for hiking in again," she replied.

I understood immediately. The ape creature was dead. Finished. Several reactions rushed through me at the same time.

One was major excitement that it was dead, as well as vicarious relief that now Toph and Ax could once more use the forest in safety and peace, and that I wouldn't have to risk my neck tomorrow morning possibly fighting it. I like not having to risk my neck any more than I have to.

The second was surprise. Barring the faint, hilariously ironic chance that the ape beast had fallen to a real, genuine dangerous animal out in the woods, that meant either it had decided to go after Ax and paid the price, or more likely, that Toph had decided that for some reason she just couldn't wait until tomorrow for a grudge match and finished what she'd started. Considering that it'd come within a whisker of killing her before, that was awfully ballsy. But I had to respect that.

"So that escaped baboon's bitten the dust, huh?" I said in hopefully-vague code talk. While there was always a chance that any Controller who was tapping the local phone lines might realize what creature we were truly talking about, I wasn't terribly worried.

You see, here in California, there are lots of people who have exotic animals like monkeys, bears and big cats as pets because of the warm climate, and having one break loose every so often isn't uncommon at all. Sometimes when this happens, either because they're worried about lawsuits or that their animal buddy might get shot by the cops, the owners don't dare tell anyone that their exotic pet is at large. Doesn't stop any sightings and rumors though.

"That's right. I've heard that a mountain lion got it," she said conversationally.

Yep, that was Toph's doing. She must've played her cards awfully well, to be able to get close enough to grab it a second time.

"Well, I guess that means we won't have to worry about having it jumping out of the trees at us or our pals ever again."

"Yeah. That cougar sure did everyone a favor, huh?"

"I'd say. How's Zhenzhu doing, by the way?"

Translation: Did she get out of it alive?

"She's doing great. Jake and I paid her a visit with that friend of ours that's way into birds after school ended, and we had a nice talk with her."

More like Jake stormed over to demand what the fuck was she thinking and brought you and Bird-boy along to keep things from exploding, I thought.

"Anyway, just thought you'd like to know."

"Uh, thanks for telling me Cassie. Well, see you later."

"You too. Have a nice, free Saturday morning," she said, then hung up.

I walked back to the kitchen and put the phone back in its cradle before sitting back down to my mashed potatoes, already planning out how I'd ask the conquering heroine out for a feast of steak.

"What's this about a baboon?" Nora said in confusion.

"Oh nothing," I lied glibly. "Cassie and I were just taking a poke at Leo-you know, Drake's brother? Hey, everyone knows he's a jackass though, so he deserves it," I added as I saw her mouth start to turn into a disapproving frown.

"Reminds me of how you talk about Bernard sometimes Peter," Nora said, giving my Dad a sidelong look, referring to one of his more unpopular coworkers.

"I'm a bad influence and proud of it, Mrs. Torgeson," my Dad snorted in amusement as he grinned back. "Anyway Marco, how much money do you think you'll need?"

"I'm guessing thirty, forty bucks," I replied. "Steak dinners aren't cheap, and I'm actually going to be a gentleman this time and pay for both of us."

"Well that's sure nice," Nora said approvingly.

"Looks like I did a better job of raising you than I thought," my Dad lightly grinned, giving a brief nod. "Still, you know you'll actually need to do some chores between now and then before I fork over the dough, right?"

"A sad reality of teenage life," I shrugged, sighing melodramatically.

As tends to be the case with most things involving my life as an Animorph, it didn't escape my attention how completely bizarre and insane this all was.

I was drafting up plans to take a blind girl out for dinner tomorrow evening that looked like she was Chinese, but was actually a member of an alien race that just happened to bear a striking resemblance to Asian people and could psychically manipulate dirt, stone, and metal with just her mental energy.

But yet, crazy as it might've been, it also just felt so satisfying. And right.


Toph's side trip to acquire morphs from her own world, courtesy of the Ellimist, had been wonderfully successful. She'd laid hands upon and taken up the genetic blueprints of a whole menagerie of beasts; crested bobcat, boar-cu-pine, boar-crocodile, giant finback lizard, giant eagle, marsupial saber-tooth, komodo rhino, baboon-cassowary, mantis shrimp-gator, giant rat, horned jaguar, snake-whale, hyena-possum, hippo-dog, ground sloth bear, and platypus bear, among numerous others.

Once the earthbender had felt she'd acquired a sufficient number of morphs from her own native planet, the Ellimist had sent her back to her cave and then left as randomly as he'd come.

She'd been much too excited to sleep of course. So naturally Toph had killed some time by morphing some of the strange-by-Earth-standards beasts she'd just acquired and then prowling around the nearby woods, taking each body for a test run as it were, gleefully imagining the reactions from the Yeerks when she morphed them in battle. She also dearly hoped Visser Butthole would be there to see it too.

But after several bouts of this trial morphing, the mental effort and strain of the process had become too draining for her to handle, and so Toph had returned to her furnished cave, shed her hyena-possum body for her natural one, then gone back to sleep.

As per usual, the dawn chorus of birds woke Toph on that Saturday morning.

She stood up and stretched, took a good drink from the metal pail, and snuffed the fire out with her earthbending before going out to relieve herself. Once that was done, she morphed Red and headed into town at a casual, seemingly aimless trot to deceive any observant Controllers. Her objective was of course, Olivia's house and the breakfast she knew the droid could and would quickly whip up for her.

Alerted by the earthbender's thought-speak greeting as Toph approached, the Chee greeted her at the back door and wasted no time in doing just that after letting Toph inside.

It wasn't long before Toph found herself working on a stack of Chinese-style pumpkin pancakes with wonderfully sweet strawberry syrup, hair hanging loose as she told the droid about last night's adventures with the Ellimist and how she'd subdued the various creatures for acquiring with her earthbending between bites.

"Yep, I just bent out a shallow pit for the horned jaguar to fall into like the others, then compressed the dirt around her legs," she confirmed. "Being a cat though, she was a lot slipperier then the boar-crocodile though, and she twisted herself free right as I earth-surfed right up to her. Then she lunged at me almost before I could react."

"Did she get you? Claw you up or something like that?" Olivia asked with a mixture of concern and suspense.

Toph lightly laughed. "Nah, Metal-Dog Lady, she didn't. I just proved again how awesome I am by lunging at her myself! I grabbed her horns, those top two thicker ones I told you about, and focused to induce the trance, which stopped the cat in her tracks-though I'd like to think she actually came to her senses about trying to use the greatest earthbender in the universe as a chew toy," she smugly smiled, which got a laugh out of the Chee as well.

Not for the first time, the knowledge of having someone whom she could speak freely with in her native tongue warmed and pleased Toph. Apparently due to some complex little gadget made out of metal that had been inserted into his very brain, Antelope Boy was able to understand her perfectly well whenever she spoke her mother tongue, but could only reply back in thought-speak. Sunshine had also taken it upon herself recently to learn some Mandarin for the earthbender's benefit, and that was great, but the black girl only knew the most basic phrases and words. Hardly enough for a fluid conversation.

A further delight for Toph was to hear from Yzark that, according to what a couple other Chee had found out and transmitted to all their fellow droids, the corpse of the four-armed ape creature she'd killed the day before had been discovered in the wee hours of that morning by a team of human-Controllers with tracking dogs. As a result of hearing that the experimental Controller had been seemingly killed by a native predator, Visser Three had been livid. Thankfully however, he'd decided that at the very least, he was going to put his plan to bring more of the naturally rare ape predators to Earth on hold-and was even likely to suspend it indefinitely! It filled the earthbender with relief and pride.

Once breakfast was over, and she'd put her dishes into the sink to be washed, listening to the odd sound of her soles slapping against the linoleum, Olivia asked Toph if she'd like to go out and take both Simon and Cinnamon for a walk with her a bit later. Toph had no problem with that, stretching her legs.

So an hour later, having been coaxed into taking a warm shower and exchanged her leotard for an orange sweatshirt and a pair of khaki jeans, brown contacts placed over her eyes and hair tied in a ponytail, she stepped out the door as Olivia shut and locked it behind her, holding Simon's leash.

Through her sandals, she felt the jarring seismic traces of cars and trucks periodically passing by, insects walking over or through the ground, the footsteps of both dogs and others in their yards or kennels, people and kids working or playing outside, and even the hushed steps of cats as they prowled about while she walked down the sidewalk with her gliding gait.

They weren't quite at the halfway mark of their walk when suddenly, she both felt and heard an inexplicable buzzing, droning sound, originating from the Chee's left hip, which filled her with alarm as she stopped in her tracks.


"Oh Oma, there's a widow hornet nearby," she said unhappily, her body tensing. "Is it coming toward me?"

"Nah, that's just my cell phone buzzing, letting me know someone's calling," Olivia replied as Toph felt her pluck the phone from her pocket and bring it to her ear, producing an audible snap as she opened it to become longer.

"Hello?" the Chee enquired into the device as they both began to walk again. "Oh hi Marco! Yes, Zhenzhu is with me. Oh, we're just walking two of the dogs together. Yes, hold on a moment. Marco wants to speak to you," Olivia said, turning as she offered the phone to her.

A surge of eagerness and pleasure swelled within Toph as she carefully took it, experimentally holding it up to her left ear like she'd just felt the droid do.

"Uh, hey there Smart Aleck, how's it going?" she asked, keeping her voice neutral even as her cheeks became warm.

"Going great," he replied as she briefly recoiled at the sound of his disembodied voice. "For one thing, I've actually been able to sleep in for once instead of having to prepare for one of my usual...outings, with Big Jake."

So he too, knew about how she'd killed the ape beast. He seemed both relieved and faintly incredulous.

"And talking to a beautiful girl such as yourself only further helps improve my mood," he added charmingly.

Now the blush expanded to cover half her face, even as she rolled her eyes.

"Wow, you practically made me feel flattered there with that one Smart Aleck," Toph replied, her tone falsely patronizing. "A few more weeks of practicing, and you just might be able to pull it off. Might be."

"Really funny," he said dryly. "But surely you must know that I, the Magnificent Marco, have no need to practice my innate skill of being cute and charming?"

"Some might beg to differ there."

"Anyway," he went on, "to the real reason behind this call. Now, I like to make things short and simple."

"That's pretty much how I roll too."

"Um, good. Well, uh, I'm just calling to ask if you'd like to go to this steakhouse at the mall with me this evening and enjoy some nice tasty cow parts for dinner. You interested?"

The beautiful, galvanizing realization exploded through the earthbender as her sightless eyes lit up underneath the brown contacts and her face fully, furiously blushed a few moments later. She was both ecstatic and disbelieving all at once.

Oh great Tu Gong, by Avatar Kyoshi, he's asking me on a date! her inner voice screamed. Me!

It wasn't the first time a guy had asked her on a date before, of course. But they'd all been opportunistic parasites who she could sense right away had been more interested in her family fortune and the associated fame instead of her as a person. There was no spark to be had with those leeches, and she'd given their offers a rejection they'd never forget anytime soon.

But Smart Aleck didn't care about those things. His interest in her was pure and sincere, and that touched her. Still, the idea certainly brought out her bashful side.

"Uh Toph? Hel-lo? You still with me?"

"Of course Smart Aleck."

"Whew! I haven't managed to scare you away after all," he joked. "So, do you want to have some steak and quality time with Don Marco? We can get dessert at Cinnabon after that," he added temptingly.

"Well, I guess I can put up with you for an evening," she replied wryly.

"Wow. You mean that?" he asked, voice both delighted and incredulous.

"Of course Smart Aleck." Saying the words was like something out of a wonderful dream to her.

There was a pause of a few seconds. Toph could just imagine Marco grinning like the Koudian Cat as he pumped his free fist in a silent "Yes!"

Toph found herself grinning too. She realized then that she was deeply flattered and pleased to have a guy actively, honestly take an interest in her, to have one ask her out for a dinner date. She'd only dreamed of such a thing ever happening to her, and the reality of it staggered the earthbender.

"You've made me one very happy tenth-grader just now, Zhenzhu," he sighed in giddy satisfaction. "This-this is too awesome! And Rachel always says I'd be lucky to get a girl just to slap me," he chuckled. "Well, in your face Xena!"

She laughed. "Anyway, when should I be ready, Smart Aleck? And what are the plans to get from here to there?"

After a few moments Marco said, "Well, I'm thinking we'll get to the steak house at around seven-thirty. My dad said last night he can drive me there, and also pick you up at your place along the way, so you should probably be ready by seven."

"All right."

"Well, see you later then my outstanding dining companion," Marco finished. "And have a nice afternoon until then. Now I'm going to go call up Rachel and brag about this to her," he declared gleefully.

"See you later Smart Aleck," she smirked.

"Zai jian," he replied before "hanging up."

For a few moments, the earthbender just stood there, blindly staring at the cell phone, lips curved.

Suddenly she burst out laughing, an ecstatic, victorious sound. "Hah hah hah!"

"What?" Olivia asked, faintly amused herself as she took the odd device back. "Marco being his typically funny self again?"

Toph shook her head. "It's more than that," she grinned. "He actually just asked me out on a date to go eat at the mall tonight!"

"I knew that he liked me," she continued, chuckling. "I knew it! I did it! I am so awesome! Finally, I got a guy not just to fall for me, not just to pay attention, but actually offer to go out with me, even though I'm blind and only fourteen! Who's the best?! Who's the queen here?! That's right, I am!" she exulted to the universe.

"Well, well. That's great to hear," Olivia agreed happily.

For Toph Beifong, the rest of the walk with the droid and her dogs was less of a stroll and more of a hardly restrained, giddy run. Oh Oma, was the prospect of a real romance exhilarating!

Her lips curved upward as she wondered what sort of reactions her students would have if they knew right now that their hard-driving sifu was going on a date with a guy who could well end up as a future boyfriend.

Moo-chi, aka The Dark One, would most likely mutter something about how love always led to nothing but trouble, and that she should watch her step unless she wanted to end up like Renshu and Jiayi did. But hey, it was her life and happiness she was risking, not his.

Ho Tun would be pleased for her though. He'd agree that this was wonderful, give her a thumbs up, ask what this guy was like and if he could meet him some time, maybe be a little envious and/or disappointed that he didn't have a special someone of his own.

As for Penga, Toph was pretty certain that she'd just hit the roof with girlish excitement, squealing "Oh, by the spirits that's so romantic!" before peppering her with empty-headed questions like "Is he handsome Sifu Toph? Does he dress good? Does he have a younger brother? Can we meet him? Is he a bender too?"

The prospect of having to face the mall again that night, with its carpeted floors, jarring noises, violent, headache-inducing vibrations and unfamiliar chaos was something that the master earthbender wasn't especially looking forward to. All the same though, the idea of a fun time and a steak dinner with just Smart Aleck ensured that any amount of sensory overload or culture shock she'd experience during this second trip to the mall would be all worthwhile indeed. More than worthwhile.

Zai jian means goodbye in Mandarin. Next chapter will be the actual date!

As always, I love them reviews as much as I love ginger snaps. :)