Tempered Steel

The scenery blurred into an endless sea of fields- hills like sandbars and forests like islands- as Kisu kept the fast pace set hours ago in the mid-morning sun. Eyes focused on the road ahead, Piandao tried to keep his mind on the battle that awaited him in Ba Sing Se. Tried and failed.

Intense golden eyes much like a messenger hawk's loomed in his mind, intriguing and refusing to be ignored. They pulled his attention away from strategizing, away from the road, into memories he only reflected on when he could not keep his mind occupied. His mind's eye zoomed out, connecting the gold eyes to the round, handsome face they perfected. The snow white hair, odd for any citizen of the Fire Nation despite age, was pulled back into a tight, Army-standard topknot. No scars marred this memory's face; those would be added later, when the Admiral was no longer in uniform. This was how he had looked when they first met, before things fell into place and Jeong Jeong abandoned the Army.

To say that he felt at home in the barracks would be an outright lie; to say he felt like an outsider among his fellow soldiers, an understatement. Piandao had never felt like he belonged- not in the orphanage where his parents abandoned him when he was five and not in the Army where he was one of the few nonbenders allowed into the service. His rage from abandonment and his desire to prove his worth fueled him during longs hours of sword practice; the distraction he received from painting and calligraphy kept him from becoming bitter and depressed.

His skill with swords had first been noticed when he was ten and now, at age 22, he had finally been accepted into the Fire Nation Army. His parents, assuming they were still alive, should be both proud and ashamed. They had birthed a prodigy and then shunned him for not being a bender. He would prove to them- and everyone else that doubted him- that he was indeed worthy. So what if he wasn't a fire bender" He didn't need bending to be a great warrior; all he needed were a sharp mind and a sharper sword.

His intense practicing paid off; he was more skilled with a sword than any of the other recruits. He was able to keep up with the veterans, the self-declared weapons masters, and nearly beat them in practice. In close-quarters combat, he was able to best many of his fire bending comrades with strategy and agility.

Ensign Zhao noted his ability and took personal offense to the young sword master's prowess in battle. He claimed that a nonbender could not possibly defeat a decent fire bender in battle, that Piandao had only beaten novices who didn't know up from down let alone the first thing about battling.

"That's exactly the thing only pompous buffoons would say behind the back of someone they fear." Piandao replied, rolling his eyes. "And that makes you the exact kind of person that wouldn't be worth my time to fight."

Temper flaring, Zhao challenged him to an Agni Kai. Several of the men on his squad urged him to not accept it, as it wasn't fair to pit a nonbender against an experienced fire bender.

"Besides," One of them stressed, "An Agni Kai is only supposed to take place between two fire benders."

They all knew of the "great" Zhao- a prodigy of the art whose inflated ego was matched only by his temper- and his merciless nature in fights; they urged him to back down from the challenge.

"I will not accept such a dishonor from denying the challenge." He would prove himself to them and bring Ensign Zhao down a few notches as well.

They met in the arena that evening after dinner, a large crowd filled the stadium. Cheers and mixed jabbering filled the arena as the soldiers place bets on who would win and if the loser would die. Many of them were hoping Piandao would damage Ensign Zhao's ego; at least the sword master wasn't an arrogant bully.

Sword poised in a defensive stance but prepared to make first strike if necessary, Piandao stared his opponent down in quiet, strategically reflection. Zhao wore a cocky smirk, he was planning on a win.

One of the men, a soldier under Zhao's command, rang the gong, signaling them to begin the battle.

Zhao made the first move, fist swinging forward to fire a blast at his new rival. Piandao had expected as much and leapt to the side, easily avoiding the flame. Zhao took a step forward and shot another ball of fire as Piandao dodged and dashed forward, preparing to strike. The sword swung forward, Zhao pulled in his gut too quick and stumbled back as the blade narrowly missed. Piandao took this chance to stab forward, into the air to the left of Zhao's head as the Ensign regained his balance; this was an intentional blow to harm his pride instead of his body.

Zhao growled as the sword cut through his sideburn; he had just started growing them out a month ago with his promotion. Now he would be forced to shave the other one down and start over. He ducked under the next swing and leaned back on his hands, sweeping the ground with a flaming kick. Piandao was forced to step back and Zhao sprung back to his feet, studying his opponent for the first time since the match began.

Piandao's eyes were closed, face focused, calm. This only proved to be further irritation to the seething officer. His fists flew forward, intense flames extending and separating from them. Piandao stepped back, to the left, ducked, rolled out of the way. His eyes opened as he regained his footing and dove forward, aiming for Zhao's shins.

Zhao's eyes widened as he stumbled back and, unable to keep his ground, fell with a lack of grace, his head hitting the ground hard. He glared up at Piandao as his vision refocused; the swordsman step forward, weapon pointed at him. His glare hardened when the tip poked into his neck, breaking the skin and drawing a small amount of blood.

Feeling his point was made, Piandao pulled his sword away from his fallen foe and returned it to the sheath tied to his hip. Loud cheering erupted in the stadium and he turned to bow to the crowd. A harsh cry caught his attention and he glanced over his shoulder to see Zhao preparing to unleash an angry fireball at him. He readied himself to dodge out of its path when a wall of fire rose behind him and blocked it.

"That's enough, Zhao." The wall dissolved into the air, revealing a stern man standing at Zhao's side. Piandao quickly identified the man as Admiral Jeong Jeong, one of the greatest benders in Fire Nation history. He was surprised to note that the Admiral didn't appear to be much older than he, five years difference at most. He found himself amused as the Admiral continued to chastise the angry Ensign, "You must learn to take your defeats with honor."

Zhao growled again and stormed off to nurse his bruised ego in private. Admiral Jeong Jeong gave Piandao a look over and the swordsman was caught off guard by the intensity he found in those eyes. They pierced through him, burning into his soul, branding his memory. Humbled under the gaze, he pressed his fist into his palm and bowed to the Admiral.

"I apologize for my pupil's disrespect." Gruff and unapologetic, Admiral Jeong Jeong turned to leave. Piandao straightened and, unabashed, stared at the retreating figure. There was something about the way the Admiral carried himself, something about the blunt way he spoke, that commanded respect from all those around him. "You are gifted, Piandao. Do not let your skills corrupt your thinking."

"Yes sir. Thank you, sir."

Admiral Jeong Jeong marched off, head high, shoulders back, into the setting sun. Piandao felt incredible pride swell through his being as his squad mates- along with a large crowd of soldiers he didn't know- surrounded him, cheering for him and clapping his shoulder as they offered their congratulations.

For the first time in his life, he felt like he belonged.

The sun blazed high in the sky over the coast, blanketing the shore in hot rays to counter the cool tide. They were making good time and could afford a break before starting across the vast sea that separated the nations. Piandao pulled back on the reigns and Kisu slowed, stopped. He dismounted and led the eelhound into the shade of a grove of palm trees lining the coast. He loosed one of the bags from the saddle and opened it, pulling out a large wooden bowl and the leather water bag. He pulled the stopper out and poured the cool liquid into the bowl before offering it to his steed. Kisu lapped it up and gave his master a chirping bark of gratitude.

Piandao smiled and scratched the scaly skin behind the creature's tiny ear before returning to the satchel and removing his lunch. He tossed the apples in the pack to Sifu; apples were the eelhound's favorite treat.

"Rest easy, boy. We'll begin traveling again after we eat." He sat, leaning against the trunk of one of the larger palms. Kisu curled up to his left, watery eyes observing the water as he ate the apples, core and all. Piandao took a bite out of the roasted sparrowquail packed for his meal. If they kept this pace, they would reach Earth Kingdom shores by nightfall and arrive at the Chameleon Bay before dawn.

He closed his eyes as the sea breeze circled him, his sleeves billowing in the slight wind. He knew that when he saw the ex-Admiral again, he should expect changes. He knew there would be wrinkles on that noble face now as there were on his own; they were both growing old after all. He hoped, prayed, that those beautiful golden eyes had not lost any of their intensity over the years. Jeong Jeong wouldn't be the man he admired without those eyes that peered through him, electrifying his senses with their stubbornness, forcing him to adore them. If those eyes were dull and soft now, he would mourn the loss of the man he had once fallen for.