Zuko doesn't travel much, which is probably why he doesn't recognize her gear at first.
But then the history and geography lessons kick in and he's scrambling to pull at the grate while she watches impassively from below.
He'd stumbled upon her before she'd done too much damage.
She watched him impassively from below as he wrenched the grate free from its hinges. She stood, arms crossed just under her chest, on a sheet of ice. She'd pulled the water out of the sludge, keeping herself unstuck and clean. She'd also used some water to cut into the bars, clearly hoping to cut her way out.
She's not a threat, he knows that, even if their people don't interact all that often. The Sun Warriors and the Foggy Swamp have no conflict with each other.
(He'd have a conflict with her father if the man could read Zuko's thoughts he was desperately trying to corral.)
So Zuko's not really surprised when she doesn't except the hand he offers.
Instead, she gathers the sheet of ice up into as large a pillar as she can make so as to launch herself onto the lip of the trap door. She scrambles up, hair in disarray, and Zuko carefully doesn't notice if it messes with the arrangement of her clothes.
"Thank you," she begins, a little stiff and clearly not in the mood to swoon in gratefulness. She keeps glancing at his arms though, and bare chest, which is nice. "Why is that even there?"
"Invaders," he replies, with a throwaway shrug.
"I'm not invading," she snaps back.
He shrugs again. "The traps aren't sentient. You stepped wrong. I'm sorry, but we're not going to change things for tourists."
"I'm not a tourist." She crossed her arms again, and Zuko locked his eyes on her left ear.
"Pardon me for not being a mind reader. Why are you here?"
Her fight suddenly deflated and she shrunk in on herself. "I'm just passing through with some friends."
Zuko immediately cocked his head and met her gaze head on. "Hold up. That sounds exactly like a spot of tourism. And you're telling me there are more Swamp benders running around in my home?"
"We didn't know anyone was here!" She matched his volume with ease.
"And how lucky for you I was! How long do you think you would have been stuck there if not for me? Your friends are no where to be seen!"
"They're somewhere. They would've found me! I could've broken out."
Zuko laughed, right up until a slap of water snapped his face to the right.
That brief moment of pain was worth it, especially as he could watch her self-satisfied and arrogant expression quickly turn to surprise as he kicked at her twice, once to knock her on her back, the other to spray a jet of flame over her head which he quickly corralled into a net to gently pin her.
She squeaked lightly in surprise, but not in pain.
"Did your master teach you any manners? Don't start fights with someone who helped you. Don't throw your bending around just to show off." He paused, re-focused to keep the flames far from her skin, and spoke again. "By the way, my name is Zuko. What is yours?"
She glowered at him through the fire briefly, before relenting. "Katara."
"Nice to meet you."
That was when a slight woosh warned Zuko of something coming airborne. He let the fire fall away and immediately dived on top of Katara, throwing his arm over her head to protect it.
A thunk sounded, and Zuko was rolling to his feet, scanning for whoever had thrown the missile, only to stumble back towards Katara as a massive thing hurtled towards them, several human figures on its back.
He took two backward steps, a deep breath, and took up a defensive stance in front of Katara. There was no cover to run to, not on the wide courtyard, so Zuko slashed a quickly fading line of fire across his body, a warning and half a prayer to Agni that he'd live.
He'd finish the prayer in battle if he needed to.
Just when Zuko was succumbing to the reality of a fight, ready to strike first and end this, Katara pushed past him waving wildly.
Immediately, the great beast eased his approach. Zuko stared in confusion as the six-legged creature heavily landed before the two of them. Katara immediately ran forward, meeting in a hug a man as tanned as she. There was a brief stab of jealousy that he quickly stamped out.
"Sis! Where have you been?" The larger man easily slipped his sister behind him and turned to Zuko. "And who are you?"
As a boy in an orange tunic floated through the air to rest next to the tanned man, the later continued, "And what were you doing throwing fire at my sister?"
"She attacked me first," he replied, calm as a candle by a window.
The man snorted, but Katara hit him gently from behind. "He's telling the truth, Sokka. I was dumb. Would you let some arrogant stranger knock you around?"
Her brother looks over Zuko, stiff, still angry, but he murmurs, "I'll go find Boomerang," and he wanders off.
Katara turns on a bright smile, and Zuko recoils a bit in surprise. "Zuko, that was my brother, Sokka. We both grew up in the Foggy Swamp. This is Aang. He's… he's our friend. Appa, the flying bison, he belongs to Aang."
"Eh, he's like my friend. He's not really mine. He doesn't belong to me any more than the wind does."
An interesting expression crosses Katara's face, like she's eaten a straight lemon, but she says nothing in response. Instead, she glances up at Appa's back, where a brunette in green is climbing down.
"That's Suki, she's traveling with us. There's also-"
"Oi! I get to introduce myself!" A black-haired girl, also in black, awkwardly climbs off the beast, but once she hits the ground she confidently strides over to Zuko and looks up at him. Her silver gaze is locked on his earlobe, but she smiles and says, "He'll do. Hi, Sparky, I'm Toph. The greatest earthbender you will ever meet."
"The only earthbender I've ever met."
"You're missing out."
"I imagine they're not all as great as you. I suppose when I meet my next earthbender, I'll be disappointed they don't live up to your standards."
She laughs. Sokka, returning with a bent but sharpened piece of metal, looked vaguely worried, the kind of worry of one trying to avoid childish pranks.
Toph turns to face the other four. "Well, we found what we needed. Let's go."
"What?" Zuko and Sokka exclaim at the same time.
The boy speaks for the first time. "I need a firebending teacher. And you used fire like a net, without hurting Katara. That's clever. I'm a little angry you used it on her, but you also ended the fight, and then protected her. That's honorable. So will you teach me?"
"I'm not a master."
Katara is looking conflicted, like she wants to pack up and leave but also maybe not. Sokka seems affronted that the guy who beat up his sister gets an invite. Suki, still silent, is considering him like a piece of meat to be butchered. Toph is the only positive one, and Aang looks like he's half a breath from begging when a simple hunter's horn blows.
Zuko turns towards the mountains. "I have to go. So do you."
Aang deflates. Toph seems disappointed, too, but she covers by loudly demanding help back onto Appa. Both Suki and Sokka consider Zuko as they help shove the smaller girl onto the animal.
Katara follows them, glancing back regularly to watch Zuko as he stands there, resolute.
"We'll be back for you," Aang suddenly declares, startling both Katara and Zuko.
"I had a vision. You're supposed to teach me firebending. For whatever reason, you're the best one for me. We've been looking for you. Well, I have. I kinda didn't tell everyone else until now."
Zuko snorts. "Sure, kid." He watches Katara settle in before adding, "Now get out of here before you're eaten by a dragon."
"Dragons are extinct," retorts Sokka.
"So are air bison," he replies, finally remembering history lessons.
As the company slowly lifts off, to leave for what he assumes is forever, Zuko turns to leave himself. He allows himself one glance back.
He meets Katara's unflinching gaze until she's too far away to make out.