Edited: Jan 15 '09

Firestarter

Inspired by the novel by Stephen King.

Avatar the Last Airbender characters are property of Nickelodeon.

Zuko

July 19th, 1998

Dr. Long Feng stood in the centre of a small, sparsely furnished room, waiting to receive his charge. He wanted to sit, but the room contained only one chair, barely large enough to accommodate a child. Even if it had been large enough, Long Feng would not have used it. With cloth restraints attached to both its arms and legs, it seemed unwelcoming even to him.

The doctor considered leaning on the low, stainless steel table in the centre of the room, but dismissed the idea. The surface was covered by a metal tray, heavily laden with wood chips, and Long Feng was loath to disturb it. Besides, there was a chance that the observation staff was waiting in the room next door, watching him through the one-way glass that covered the leftmost wall. They would most likely find it more professional if her were to remain standing.

The door opened, and a young boy with pale skin and yellow eyes entered the room. The child was seven years old, but he was small for his age; too short and too thin. Three grown men, all dressed immaculately in business suits, filed into the room behind him. Without looking at them, the child crossed the room to the chair and sat down cross-legged in the seat, tucking his feet underneath him.

Watching as one of the other men wordlessly lifted the boy up from the seat by his armpits, Long Feng remembered the term that one of his co-workers had used to describe this sort of behaviour: passive resistance. The boy didn't struggle, but he was limp and unhelpful as the second man took hold of his legs and pulled them out from underneath him. Once the child was seated properly, with his feet on the floor, the second man proceeded to strap the boy's ankles to the base of the chair with fire-proof restraints. They left his hands and arms free.

Once the child's legs were secure, they all left the way they had come, closing the door behind them and sealing the doctor and the boy inside.

"Zuko-"

"I want to see my dad." The boy said – for what must have been the thousandth time. It had been, without fail, the first thing out of his mouth each time he and the doctor encountered each other for the past month, and he repeated it at every given opportunity, as if it were a mantra.

"I think you're forgetting which one of us is in charge here." The scientist said irritably.

"You're not the boss of me." Zuko shot back, petulantly.

Long Fang and the boy regarded each other with absolute contempt, their empty words hanging in the air between them. Even after almost a month of enduring such childish behaviour, Long Feng still did not know how to counter it. He was a scientist, not a psychologist, and the psychologists they had on staff had proven useless so far.

"I'm not the one shackled to a chair." Long Feng said, in what he considered a reasonable tone.

Zuko just stuck out his tongue in response.

Long Feng rubbed his eyes, already feeling tired and frustrated. The sister hadn't given him any trouble at all, so why was this one being so difficult?

"You know," he said, using the friendliest tone he could manage, "I gave your sister a Playstation yesterday, for being a good girl. Wouldn't you like a Playstation?"

Zuko scowled, staring down at his sneakers in silence. The soles were still white and remarkably clean, much like the rest of the facility. They had never been worn outdoors.

Suppressing a deep sigh, Long Feng did the same thing that he had done once a day, everyday, since Zuko had been brought to the facility. He pointed at the tray of woodchips on the table and instructed the boy to light it on fire.

Usually Zuko would refuse, or pretend that he didn't know what he was being asked to do, or simply wait in silence until he was left alone with a degree of patience that was entirely unnatural in a boy his age. Today he looked down at the tray uncertainly, then back at Long Feng.

"I guess I could do that," he said.

The simple response took the doctor off-guard. He cast a quick glance to his left, at his own reflection, wondering what the observers made of this new behaviour. He could imagine them eagerly leaning forward in their chairs, believing that they had finally made a breakthrough. The doctor returned his gaze to the boy in the chair, regarding him suspiciously. After all this time, did he dare hope?

After a long pause Zuko said, "Can I have a match?"

"Don't start with me, young man!" Long Feng barked back irritably.

The man's shouting had lost its effect on the child weeks ago, and one look at Zuko's impish grin told Long Feng that the child was unimpressed. The urge to slap that superior expression off of his face came upon the doctor like a fever.

Instead of acting on his instincts, Long Feng kept his fists balled up in the pockets of his white coat, took a deep breath, and reminded himself of the progress they had made with the boy's sister. Azula's regular displays of electrokinesis had gone a long way towards convincing the sceptics involved with the project that the children's abilities were real, so he wouldn't have to put up with this for much longer. Another few weeks of this and the psychologists would finally break down, drop their silly humanistic charade and recommend a more direct method of securing the boy's cooperation. Until then, he had to stay professional.

"So," Zuko started in a conversational tone, "when can I see my dad?"

"You can't see him now."

"Why not?"

"Make a fire, Zuko." Long Feng's voice was firm and authoritative, but he knew it didn't matter. Zuko wasn't going to do what he asked him to. He was just going through the motions until he had permission to change tactics.

"Why won't you let me see my dad?"

It was starting. The routine that had been slowly surely wearing away at Long Feng's nerves for weeks now. The doctor imagined himself knocking the wind out of Zuko's lungs in the midst of one of his ridiculous demands. The thought made him conscious of his hands, slick with perspiration, still clenched inside his pockets.

"Because. Do what I asked you to."

"But I want to see my dad."

Long Feng did not respond, and removed one hand from his coat to rub at his temples. God, but Zuko knew how to give him a headache.

"I want to see my dad."

The boy's voice was picking up volume and becoming more insistent. Long Feng knew that the boy didn't really expect to be reunited with his father and that the entire purpose of this production was to wear at the doctor's nerves, but that didn't stop it from working.

"I want to see my dad!"

Pressing his fingers against the bridge of his nose, Long Feng reached the conclusion that his headache was rapidly escalating into a full-scale migraine.

"Hey!" Zuko slammed his hands into the table, knocking the tray of woodchips off the table and scattering its contents across the floor. "I'm talking to you, old man! I SAID I WANT TO SEE MY DAD!"

"Would you just-

"I WANT TO SEE MY DAD! I WANT-

If the child got any louder, Long Feng was certain that his ears would start bleeding. He could feel the last, tattered remains of his restraint finally giving way, bent under the weight of the frustration that had been building up for weeks.

"Zuko. Stop it."

"TO SEE MY DAD I WANT-

"I'm warning you, you little shit!"

Dimly Long Fang heard the door opening behind him.

"MY DAD! I WANT MY DAD I WANT MY DAD I WANT-

"BE QUIET!"

"Doctor, I think that's enough for today,"

"I SAID SHUT UP!"

"DAD! I WANT DAD! I WANT DAD! I W-

"Doctor! That's enough!"

"DAD! I-

"YOUR FATHER IS DEAD!"

And just like that, the noise stopped.

The kid looked like he'd just been kicked in the stomach. For one brief moment, Long Feng felt more satisfaction than he had in almost a month. And then he noticed the hand on his shoulder, and he turned his head and saw, for the first time, the assistant who had been trying to get his attention standing behind him with her mouth hanging open. She looked almost as surprised as the child did.

He'd been warned not to let the boy know what had become of his father, as it was sure to make the boy even less willing to use his ability. He was going to be written up at least, maybe fired. If he hadn't had such success with Azula, it was quite possible that he would have been murdered. A man of Long Feng's profession could not afford to make mistakes.

"Liar!" said Zuko, finding his voice. "You're lying!"

Dr. Long Feng considered taking back his words, but it was useless. He knew the words were out and the damage was irreversible. The last thing he felt like doing was reassuring the insufferable little brat that his last great hope was still alive. Instead, he turned his back on the boy and left the room before he could lose his temper again.

Zuko shot to his feet, but his ankles were strapped to the chair and the chair was bolted securely to the floor.

"If I burn something it'll be you!" he yelled at the open doorway. "I HATE YOU! I SHOULD KILL YOU!"

The boy had threatened to burn him before, but he'd never gone through with it. The doctor was unperturbed. Long Feng had concluded long ago that the reason they weren't making progress with him was because Zuko was gutless, far too afraid of his own abilities to be a threat to anyone.