Bitter

-An Aladdin FanFiction-

Written by Gale

Disclaimer - Nope, I don't own the characters, and this is going up just as I finished writing it. It's un-revised and needs a beta (thanks to Marisa at AladdinCentral for volunteering). This is just an idea that's been rolling around in my head for a while.

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"Six years. Has it really been so long, Street rat?" Strange that there wasn't any of the old disdain in his voice when he said it. Almost like he'd used the old insult for the sake of nostalgia. It had no emotional attachment to it like it had when they were much younger.

Aladdin shook his head and stood his full height in some attempt to appear more serious. "You know, that nickname is a bit outdated, now."

"Yes, I supposed as much. You and the Princess were no doubt wed years ago, and I have heard of her father's passing. Tell me, then, Aladdin: What is the Sultan of Agrabah doing outside of his own country and visiting the home of a national enemy?" Mozenrath paused long enough for all he'd said to register in the younger man's mind, but not enough for him to form an answer, "And don't tell me you were genuinely concerned for my welfare. The last time you saw anything of me, I was barely alive and you cared little either way."

Not that either one wanted the other's pity.

Of course, just by looking Aladdin knew this was not entirely the same person he'd squared off against so many times -- even if his old instincts bade him to remain cautious. Short of being clean and well-dressed, Mozenrath had always carried himself as someone who was starving to death. In the few struggles Aladdin had been in with him, it always bothered him upon reflection later on that he'd been so light and easy to move -- short of being just about as bony as one of his Mamlucks -- Of which there seemed to be very few at this point in time, Aladdin realized. It'd been horrendously easy for him to get up to the Citadel, even on Carpet. -- Mozenrath did not look so much like a skeleton under his fine robes. He observed that they were considerably less gaudy and did not conceal as much of his figure. A small but well-cut patch of facial hair on his chin and a few sparse signs of gray in his hair were other indications of his maturing. The look of petty scorn wasn't there anymore, either. He really was more healthy than Aladdin had ever seen him.

But he was still wearing the Gauntlet.

Aladdin shifted uncomfortably on his feet at the recognition of it, feeling something in his chest tighten. The tips of his fingers on the right hand tingled, and he had to flex and clench them to work the sudden tinge out of his system.

He hadn't seen it since he found Mozenrath here years ago, when he'd brought it back here. Part of him had hoped the sorcerer would make it back home all right. Mozenrath was entirely more cunning without his magic than anyone would have wanted to think, and Aladdin knew it. He was, as the sorcerer himself had just described, battered and "barely alive" after the lengths Genie had gone to keep him busy and out of their hair. When faced with him again, the boy stayed long enough to throw the gauntlet at Mozenrath's feet and flee.

Yes, flee. He fought against any inner urges to snarl at the very thought, which turned him sicker than the sight of the gauntlet had. As much as he tried not to show his distress, Aladdin discovered that it was twice as difficult to hide things from the sorcerer now as it had been years ago.

"Well, then."

Once again, Mozenrath did not give the other man a chance to reply or even consider what his comment entailed, minimal as it was. He merely slid the glove off his hand, revealing hard bone underneath, thankfully ignoring the shudder the younger man had to fight back. He quipped in the direction of his familiar. Xerxes swam from shadow to retrieve the object for his master. He afforded Aladdin little but a glare before flitting out of sight again.

Mozenrath rose from his throne and strode over to him, and Aladdin felt himself retreating reflexively. The older man still towered over him in height, but the added bulk of actual musculature made him all the more intimidating. If his hesitance to share space with him showed at all, Mozenrath did not let on that he knew. "You did not come here just to stand around and say nothing."

Aladdin didn't know how to explain that it was just sheer impulse. "I wasn't even sure you would be here when I came," he began.

"Always taking chances," muttered the wizard. He turned half a step before glancing back. "Even by air it had to have taken you some time to get here," he noted. "So follow me to the library." Which, by any other person's way of speaking, would have ended with And we'll sit and talk.

The former thief had to stop again before obeying, at first noting that some things never changed; Mozenrath, while always priding himself to be the more cultured of the two, would not extend any outward hospitality to an enemy -- former or not -- were it not by his own terms. Replacing ritual phrase and courtesy with short commentary seemed his best way of achieving that. Aladdin also realized, when halfway out into the hall, that in older days, Mozenrath would not have taken the trouble to walk. Of course, then he remembered, almost sourly, that the sorcerer had removed the gauntlet. Perhaps he wasn't capable of translocating without it.

"Actually, I am."

Aladdin's head shot up to catch the last strands of a glance in his direction.

"While I had a love of using my power, and often, at one point in time, Aladdin, I have come to accept and appreciate that a simple walk up a flight of stairs will not kill me. Overusing magic while ignoring the exercise of anything else, however, will."

His mouth fell open, first in his attempt to form a dignified reply, but he could find no words ready. Since when could Mozenrath --?

"And no," the sorcerer stopped short so he could turn and face him, "I cannot normally read minds, but you must remember where you are and how long it has been since we last saw each other." His eyes narrowed. "Your thoughts would also be better guarded were you not constantly staring at me."

In spite of himself, Aladdin felt a blush rise to his face as his gaze shot immediately to the wall. He murmured an apology and trailed the wizard the rest of the way to their destination, keeping an eye up for any sudden movements, be they an attack or a change in direction. He felt almost ill for humbling himself so readily, whether ritual and decency demanded such things of a guest. While time and again, he had been able to stand up and call himself the better man when comparing deeds to the Lord of the Black Sand, Mozenrath never failed to rub it in hard whenever he was in the wrong. Quantity of goodness no longer compared. The difference between the two of them, he supposed, and in recent times Aladdin found himself more and more aware of his shortcomings, that he always felt eyes on him, judging every move he made. Mozenrath, on the other hand, had never cared what anyone thought of him, negatively, provided they reacted.

They came to the library, and with an invited gesture, Aladdin sat at the table in the center of the room. Mozenrath followed suit, taking a chair across from him.

Aladdin sighed, resisting the need to drum his fingers on his knees.

There were no words to describe how strange this was.

If Mozenrath felt the same, he was not sure. Damn his patience. With his calculating, almost lazy stare, Aladdin felt what confidence he'd come in with slowly drifting away. He wasn't sure why the older man's attitude bothered him so much. So little reaction. Like he was over everything they'd been through, and while that was admirable, it did not leave Aladdin in the best of positions. He'd come here hoping to smooth some things over, resolve some issues that had kept him awake in recent nights past. It just did not feel dignified to be the only one that had been mulling over the past.

To quote the sorcerer, it wasn't fair.

"Do you still keep the Genie? Or has it moved onto other things?"

"No," Aladdin looked up at him, feeling a stretch of annoyance quirking his brow. After all thoughts considered, he really was surprised and somewhat relieved to see Mozenrath going back to his old obsessions. Genie had always been one of his greater goals, short of decimating Agrabah. "He is still around. Why?"

Mozenrath regarded Aladdin as an adult might when a child utters their first curse, and at that, Aladdin knew he'd spoken wrongfully. He felt more ashamed that he'd jumped at the first opportunity to try to land a blow.

Again, infuriating as it was becoming, Mozenrath continued questioning unbothered, "And your wife is well, I'm sure. And your little menagerie?"

"All fine." Aladdin could tell that despite any outward calmness, the sorcerer was at some level growing agitated, likely because Aladdin was not trying so hard to get to the point anytime soon. He shook his head, feeling it best that he initiate eventually. Perhaps that might calm some of the anxiety. "You've changed," he observed, albeit pointlessly. That was more than obvious.

"Yes."

"Really, I mean."

"Yes, Aladdin. You have changed, too, you know."

While the statement caught him off guard, Aladdin knew it was not so illogical a thing to say. Even now, whenever he looked in the mirror he would stop and wonder who it was he saw. To see the world go on around him but never assume it effected him in any way. That was a safe place for him to be, mentally. However, it had become difficult to deal with; what with the former Sultan gone, Jasmine growing heavier with child before his eyes. To stand still amid all that just made them more difficult to deal with or accept as real.

"You don't believe me."

Aladdin's mind snapped back to the present. "What?"

"Never mind."

The former thief shuffled in his seat. "Jasmine didn't want me to come here. For obvious reasons." He paused. "Just so we're on the same parchment, here, you're not going to try and prove her right, are you?"

Mozenrath seemed to have to permit a sour smile to pass, "Some time ago, I would have jumped at the opportunity," he commented, "but then again, I would still stop and wonder if I really wanted to do anything to prove your battleaxe of a wife right."

Aladdin smirked back, reminded of their battle at Dagger Rock. While the way he'd worded it was somewhat crude, they both knew Jasmine was not one who liked to be underestimated.

Mozenrath sighed, his will to follow this path seemingly at its end, "Aladdin, whatever you came here to talk about, just say it. Stop rolling it over in your head and speak. I'm not one for pleasantries, and you're apparently in no state to take them anyway."

Gaping again, Aladdin grasped for any proper way to respond. A question, a statement, anything that could both satisfy his host but also his own restlessness. "How is it that you're still alive if you use the Gauntlet?" he asked. "I thought you told me it was destroying your body?"

The wizard watched him a moment, seemingly gathering together all the details of the question, of Aladdin's face and posture, into his train of thought before forming an answer. "It was."

"But it's not anymore."

"Now, I have a better means of controlling it. I take better care of myself and do not rely upon it for every little thing. I have even trained myself to practice some magics without it for the sake of endurance. I eat better, I exercise often, and I try to keep a balance."

Aladdin shook his head. "So the gauntlet isn't killing you because you're healthy?"

"Is that really so hard to believe? You remember what I looked like."

"Yes," he returned. "If that was all it took, then how come --" Aladdin stopped himself, squeezed his eyes shut to banish the thought. His hands clenched on his knees to relieve some stress, and inwardly he cursed. He'd promised himself that he did not come here for that. "Never mind."

"You don't know magic."

Aladdin looked at Mozenrath again, at the way he boredly rested his chin against his left fist, elbow on the table. The fleshless fingers of his right hand clacked against the wood of the table in an almost rhythmic way, the only sign that he was growing annoyed.

The younger man stammered in spite of himself. "What are you --"

"Just how long were you using the gauntlet before you decided you couldn't handle it, Aladdin?" The expression on the sorcerer's face had gone from bored to downright grave, his bearing more rigid. At his old enemy's garbled attempts to defend himself, he barked in interruption, "Don't make excuses, just answer the question."

Aladdin bit his lip, tearing his gaze away finally. "Six, maybe seven months at the most."

The stillness in the room did not help the slow welling of pain in his stomach, the abject guilt -- though really, what had he to be ashamed of? Mozenrath was the one who insisted upon using the Gauntlet while they shared bodies. However, that thought did not encourage him to look up, and it was not until the other man spoke once more that he could even breathe.

"You're still in one piece and had the will to get rid of it. You had to have used it very little for it to effect you so lightly --"

"Lightly?" he found himself echoing out of sheer indignance.

"And you're damned lucky it didn't kill you, Aladdin!" Mozenrath sat forward, voice raising above its perpetual levelness for the first time since he'd arrived. He pointed a bony finger at him, "Doubly so if no one else was harmed!" Finding his audience stunned to silence, he went on, shaking his head in disgust. "In our last encounter, you discovered that your essence does have some mystical power, yes." He made a slashing gesture with his hand to stave off another interruption. "However, it was untapped. That was why you became drawn to the gauntlet in the first place. By itself, it is addictive. For someone like you, it is very dangerously so."

Aladdin shook his head. "I don't understand. Why for someone like me?"

The wizard sighed and sat back in his chair. "The gauntlet is not autonomous, not wholly. It merely boosts any magical potential the user has, oftentimes to dangerous levels. Because magic takes energy, both borrowed and internal, one who is too heavily augmented risks losing some of their life force in the process. That was the case with me, because I made no effort to balance it.

"With you, however, there was nothing trained or powerful enough to withstand some of the initial shocks. Short of your constant streaks of luck, you have no magical ability. So where there is no experience or intellect to guide it, the gauntlet worked straight off of your soul, instead. It ran the risk of warping your personality along with everything else, so those friends you put so much stock in could have died by your hand if you'd not brought it back to me sooner." He paused again before finishing, more of his old malice rising into his voice, "As it was, you were a fool for keeping it as long as you did!"

"You think I don't know that?" Aladdin demanded, feeling the need to respond despite the sudden weight Mozenrath's words bore down on him.

Mozenrath sobered, relaxing some then. "I suppose you do, now," he relented, in a tone that basically affirmed that he had a valid point, still. "And there is no point in my lecturing you. What's done is done."

And that brought some comfort. Aladdin knew, then, that when he brought the gauntlet to this place -- the last time he and Mozenrath encountered -- how it must have appeared to the other man. He felt stupid for thinking Mozenrath wouldn't have figured it out. After all, even back then, Mozenrath was a lot of things, but not stupid. Easily misled at times (if enough magic was dangled in front of his nose), but not stupid.

But even after discussing all of that, there was still a hole there. Something undone that Aladdin knew he couldn't leave without addressing. He just had to figure out what it was. "So what happens now?"

"What do you mean?" Mozenrath asked. "After this little chat, we're hardly friends. If you wish to linger on things over and done with, then we very well may still be enemies. However, the fact of the matter is that I look at you and hardly know you, Sultan. The street rat that I grew to despise would never have fallen. No diamond in the rough gives in to temptation, do they?"

Aladdin winced. "Well, obviously one did."

"Good."

He stared incredulously at that.

Mozenrath shrugged. "I thought you would never learn what true hardship is like."

That image of the sorcerer coming out as the more mature of the two of them was slowly fading. Was he trying to pick a fight, now? Aladdin felt one of his hands tighten into a fist at his lap, but he made some effort to keep the anger off of his face.

True hardship? The man spent half his time indicating that he was lowborn and he had the nerve to tell him he knew nothing of adversity?

"You're wrong, there," he said. "Or perhaps you're forgetting who the street rat among the two of us is."

"Don't hide behind that, Aladdin," Mozenrath drawled. "You yourself must admit that you led a charmed life, even for a homeless boy. How many other children like you, from your childhood, either wound up dead or handless by the time they reached adolescence, all because they had to steal for food?"

"And I've had to fight for every ounce of happiness in my life, Mozenrath."

"But it was a battle you would always win! Note you came out of all of that -- years of turmoil -- without a scratch on you and a country and a lovely wife and the perfect existence to show for it. And how hard did you really work for any of it? What have you sacrificed?"

Aladdin stopped, not sure whether to be angered or saddened by the situation. That was what this really was about, where Mozenrath's hatred came from, and part of him always knew it. Mozenrath, while powerful, did not get any of what he had by simple means, and with as many cockamamie schemes as he'd come up with, there was really no denying that. His right hand was even better proof of it. And it wouldn't do to just state that Fate frowned upon him for every bad deed; even Aladdin knew that there were evil men in the world that thrived.

Partly, Mozenrath was right. Enduring the gauntlet was the first thing that he'd ever thoughtlessly jumped into and found himself too weak to pull out of. He'd been ill for weeks after he gave the gauntlet back. Half the time, he knew he'd been at risk of ruining his relationship with Jasmine and a number of his friends because of the mood swings alone. Because no one else really understood what he was going through, it was the first time that he could not confide in anyone, not even Genie. Even before he met Jasmine, he'd had Abu to watch over him for a long time. Perseverance, in the end, was the only thing that saved him, and barely so.

"I don't want to get back to that again," he said finally, remembering that he hadn't answered the sorcerer. "We've been civil up until now."

"And I did not ask to get a rise out of you. I only want you to think."

He nodded. "And you are right. The gauntlet brought in a dark time in my life. So I understand why you were always so angry." A glance, then. "I'm glad to see you've made some good of yourself. Though I haven't seen much aside from a change in appearance. Have you been by yourself here all this time?"

Mozenrath smirked. "Aladdin, just because I don't have dealings with Agrabah anymore does not mean I am a complete shut-in." He motioned away from them. "I travel when I feel the need to and for that have opened trade with others like myself. I make and export potions at times, just for something to do. I study, I interact from time to time, and I just generally live."

"Do people come here?"

"Not really. The Land of the Black Sand will have a reputation long after I've died, Aladdin. No one comes here unless I expressly invite them, and most of those know well enough."

"What about the Mamluks?"

He shrugged. "What about the Mamluks? I don't really use them anymore. Or did you not notice there weren't any patrolling the streets anymore? Maybe fifteen to twenty in all. I haven't made more in about three years, and those ones are for emergencies."

"Should you use them at all? I mean, they're still --"

"Shells, Aladdin. They're soulless corpses. I still practice necromancy by trade, and I have to keep a few running around, lest I lose the ability to use that kind of magic entirely." He quirked an eyebrow. "What? Did you expect for me to grow your level of moral fiber along with everything else?"

"No, I suppose not." He chose not to dwindle on the subject much longer, grasping for something more pleasant. "Have you considered allowing people to settle here?"

"How many people do you think want to, Aladdin?" Mozenrath shook his head again, then pushed on the table to boost himself to his feet. "I have thought on it, or at least going elsewhere. But this is my home, and I like the quiet. It's better for my studies, anyway. When I desire company, I will usually seek it." Another smile, "Or, as is the case here, it tends to come and find me." He stared off at something behind Aladdin, and nodded to himself. "We must do this again some time." He strode toward the archway again, then stopped himself just before he passed the table entirely. "Not that we're suddenly friends or anything. But I'll admit I can tolerate your presence. You'll forgive me if I insist you be the one to make the journeys for now. I do not think your friends and family will welcome my presence."

"No, I understand." Aladdin rose then. "But in time --"

"In time," he bowed his head, "perhaps. Now," Mozenrath brought his hands together in front of him. "if you'll find your carpet, I can send the two of you back to your city and save you the trip. I think it is best these meetings be kept short to start with."

It sounded reasonable. Best they did not test one another too much in one sitting.

END

Dedicated to Jonathan Brandis (RIP Nov 12, 2003). I hope you still look back on all that you've accomplished and strive ever, ever on. May you be at peace, and may the Powers that Be give you strength and our messages of love and well-wishing on your journey to greater things.