This is my first Avatar fic, and it's going to start up quite open-ended. I goanna decide about keeping it "cartoony" or changing it into dead serious angsty material later, depending on what you reviewers think. Also, if I've made any continuity errors go ahead and tell me about them, but I probably won't change anything unless it's serious.

This fanfiction sets out from the series 3 episode "the beach," and will then probably diverse wildly from the actual storyline.

Disclaimer: I don't own Avatar: The Last Airbender

He hesitated.

Ozai suddenly exploded from the chair in a whirl of flame, blasting him back. The spear of ice shattered like glass, renting the air.

Yet Ozai came on without mercy, without respite, sinews taut and eyes blazing, and unleashing an unending hell-storm from which nothing could escape...

Some weeks before...

"We're being followed," Toph said suddenly.

"That's impossible," said Sokka resolutely, "no-one could have any reason for following us, everyone thinks the Avatar's dead, remember?"

"He's still there though," Toph insisted. "I can feel him coming. He'll be here in less than thirty seconds."

"She looked to the others for a decision. Finding none present, she adopted a fighting stance. "I'll get him out the trees-"

"Wait!"

"What is it Aang?" Katara interjected when Toph showed no sign of dropping her stance.

"Look," he said, "I know this sounds a little crazy, but how could he have kept up with us unless he already knew we would be here, and he was waiting?"

It was a frightening truth. Appa was still saddled. They had been on the ground less than a minute.

Sokka seemed to suddenly grow a lot more attentive. "Who d'you suppose he is?"

"I dunno," She shrugged. "You've got the working eyes here. But he's tall and slender, but stepping quite hard for his size."

"Which means," Said Sokka with a look of deep concentration, "that he either doesn't know you ca feel vibrations, or he does know and wants to make sure he's found."

"He's stopped!"

"What?"

"He's circling the trees; I've had enough of this, I'm going in after him."

"No hold on," Aang said, running over, "he might be friendly."

"Yeh," Sokka muttered, " 'Cause we have a talent for always meeting the friendly people."

Katara suddenly interrupted again, "What if it's that guy from a few days ago? You know who I mean."

"Combustion man!" Sokka breathed, apparently thinking up the name on the spot.

This stopped the whole party dead in its tracks. None of them wanted him to jump out at them.

When he suddenly burst from the tree line all four of the kids seemed to be stunned into action. But it wasn't Combustion Man.

"You'd better move right now!"

The group momentarily dropped their fighting stances-, which could have been a terrible mistake.

"Come on, go!" he persisted, "your metal friend will be here any second. You must leave!"

"That's impossible," Toph was whispering, but in the deathly silence it was clearly audible, "I would know if he was coming, he makes so much-"

Her face went pale.

"What happened?" Aang cried, louder than he wanted, "is he here."

The clearly was simultaneously filled with a thunderous roar and a blinding, searing light; several trees suddenly ceased to exist.

From the charred remains a huge, muscled man came- a metal man.

There was another flash and an explosion. Aang had dropped to the ground just in time to avoid being blown completely apart.

"Everyone on Appa!" He screamed, the noise of the previous explosions seeming as loud as ever.

There was an ecstasy of scrabbling as the group hauled themselves up the furry beast while also keeping their eyes on Combustion Man.

Toph stopped at Appa's foot and hurled several boulders- as huge as she could manage in a second's opportunity.

A third explosion; the boulders were spontaneously crushed and melted like a tin mug in a furnace.

Their first arrival, whom they had totally forgotten existed, suddenly leapt into action. Throwing himself in, he threw a clenched fist, lighting the air with flames. Combustion man moved aside without a millisecond to spare.

"Get on!" Aang shouted to him above the chaos.

Sokka, who was already aboard, turned from Appa's head and grabbed him. "Don't let him on, he's fire nation!"

"So?! The Fire Nation thinks I'm dead! If we leave him he'll be killed."

Aang tried to turn to help, but Sokka swung him back by both shoulders. Aang could see and feel the light and heat erupting intermittently from below.

"Just stop and think, will you! Why would a Fire Nation be following us unless he knew you were the Avatar?"

Toph had just clambered up the tail, "What's the delay?"

"There isn't one!" Sokka shouted back above the noise and confusion and clambering back onto Appa's head. But Aang was already gone.

Barely feet below, the clearing had been turned into a battlefield. The air was filled with smoke and soot and burning leaves that fluttered about on the wind as they disintegrated. Not a tree had been left unscarred.

Aang's attack took Combustion Man completely by surprise. Aang dropped to the ground easily, hurling a blast of air with his arms and ripping up the ground in a deep crevasse.

He sidestepped one but the blast caught him, hurling him back against the base of a tree. The stranger seemed to know exactly what was intended by the move. Without a word between them he spun on his heel and ran up Appa's tale, dropping into the saddle where he was surrounded by wary eyes. Aang jumped up barely a second later. In less than five they were a hundred feet in the air, then higher, once again leaving a trail of destruction in their wake.

They flew gently for several minutes in absolute silence. The newcomer seemed to be sizing each of them up just as they were him. The tension set everyone on edge. Even Appa and Momo seemed apprehensive.

Finally, the tall, slender stranger spoke. "Thank-you for saving me back in the clearing. That man is not someone you want to have on your tail."

"Still, it is good to have finally caught up with you. I have been searching for some time. My name is Lu Ten. I'm a firebender."

On the ground, Combustion man watched the distant speck slowly fad against the horizon, and his deep-set features formed into a wisp of a smile. The seed was sown. He would soon have them all.

End of Chapter 1.

Okay, so any of you dedicated fans will probably know who this stranger is already, but that's fine. Read and review please. Tell me how serious I should make this fic.