By: Lena (Airelle Vilka)
Rating: PG. Not a pairing of any sort.
By the time he became the darkest of the Djinn, Jafar of Agrabah was already very old. Years of traveling and observing and plotting had granted him the position of second-in-command, Grand Vizier to the Sultan himself. It was a cozy position that allowed Jafar to practice magic while remaining relatively undisturbed. Sometimes, he even practiced it on the Sultan.
The plump, trusting fool had been so easy to control; he eagerly drank in Jafar's every word. No man of such weak stature deserved the throne. In a way, he had practically begged Jafar to usurp power, begged him to contrive a scheme that would relieve the Sultan of his dreadful responsibility. Here was a cracked-up, bearded child who was content to spend the day in his playroom. Where, just where on the ladder of mental capacity was he, compared to Jafar? Jafar, with his tall, spidery frame and impaling gaze and ruthless vindictiveness and the tenacity of an Agrabah dog? Jafar, who had single-handedly manipulated the city's bellicose neighbors into submission, while its ruler sent them warm, fluffy greetings? Jafar, who had averted an economic collapse when the Sultan decided to grace the public with gifts from his treasury?
Who occupied the higher rung of that ladder? No question about it.
That being said, Jafar despised youth. Perhaps he had forgotten his own, tumultuous as it had been. Or perhaps he'd grown jealous of its physical vigor, its power and excitement. In either case, one thing was certain: his age had saved him, protected him from stupidity, made him wise and powerful and cunning. Youth, in contrast, had contributed only recklessness and scars. Jafar hated it enough to seek the ultimate escape from it: immortality. The power of the Djinn had granted him not eternal youth, but eternal age, forever growing and gaining knowledge, putting centuries between himself and the day of his birth. Perfection.
Despite his best efforts, however, youth came across his life in all guises, and he loathed them all: the horrid images of Princess Jasmine as a toddler, the Sultan with his mountain of wooden, painted camels, and of course--
Aladdin. Contrary to popular belief, Jafar had experienced few feelings of true hate for another person in his life; people of annoyance were removed too quickly for him to feel anything genuinely. But the street rat had penned a painful set of chapters in Jafar's long, careful life. He'd stumbled on Jafar's fortune, used it for his own gain, tricked the master into servitude within a dingy lamp… and all with the damned light-heartedness, the smile that never faded. Jafar really, really hated it, and everything that came with it.
And this hatred was his sole companion as he lay at the bottom of the well, stewing like dark tea.
Damn you, Iago, he cursed, remembering his other companion's sudden change of heart. Squawking a litany of rebellion, the bird had thrown the lamp into the depths of the well, and set off for Agrabah on his own. Jafar knew that Iago was untrustworthy, but the very idea of his freedom, juxtaposed with Jafar's own imprisonment, was intolerable.
Treacherous, wretched ball of feathers. When I get my hands on him…
Jafar's mind, disjointed in the smoke within his lamp, suddenly came into jarred focus. Then came the splash, and then the squeak of a rope being drawn up. The stale air shifted.
Someone's up there. Jafar could barely contain himself, in a manner of speaking. The lamp allowed him some leeway, he'd found; while he could not stray far from its confines, his powers allowed him to see the outside world quite clearly. He had not had much of a chance to practice, but the innate faculties of the Djinn told him what to do. It was almost like successfully navigating a maze blindfolded.
Anyway, his current situation warranted any and all use of his power. He concentrated, eyes glowing within his lamp, and felt his gaze drift through the black cage and upwards, past the crumbling stone that held back the ocean of sand around him. It was nighttime, and he saw the stars wink far above. In a flash of memories, he remembered being up there, feeling the strength of the universe as he juggled whole planets. That was moments before the lamp had shackled him. His only taste of true, unlimited power, and it remained like a bitter taste on the tongue. He'd overstepped his limits that time, went for the prize without thinking. It was a crime against his age, his supposed wisdom. Outwitted by a disgusting boy barely out of adolescence. It was humiliating, and Jafar cringed mentally.
But this was not a good time for reminiscing, he told himself. Now that someone had come close to him, he had to strike, swiftly and expertly like the snakes he so admired. After all, months of confinement in the accursed lamp had given him ample time to formulate his plan. And what a clever plan it was.
His view shifted downward, to the perimeter around the well. As his power was still new to him, the picture was blurry; he had clearly not held his magic in check, and it was disturbing his vision. Cursing, Jafar forced his gaze back down, catching a glimpse of a dark figure as he returned to the well. No face was visible, but the bucket was returning to its original position.
Perhaps it was time to test his limits.
He and his lamp were in opposition, wrestling for control, vying for escape and its prevention. Like all new Djinn, Jafar was strong and unused to being caged, so he fought fiercely. Older Djinn had long ago resigned to fate, but Jafar was determined that his first wish fulfillment would also be his last. Unlike many of the others, he had been human once, and planned to use his knowledge against his new masters. And against the damned lamp.
His eyes burned, and for a moment, he actually felt pain as magic thrashed inside him, searching for a way out. Focusing as only he could, Jafar channeled it into the vessel that held him prisoner, willing it to … MOVE. I COMMAND YOU. MOVE.
The lamp did not budge as the clunks of the bucket against the wall came from above. Jafar's desperation gave way to anger, but he held himself. If he had learned anything as a sorcerer, it was that patience was the best magic trick.
The lamp was resisting, glowing red, throwing his own magic back at him. Jafar refused to obey, and threw it back. His voice, inaudible to mortals, became impossibly soft as he felt victory. Perhaps the lamp wanted to be free as well. Or perhaps it had given up. Whatever the case…
The interior of the lamp was on fire, steam rising from beneath its lid, forming bubbles that hissed out of the water. And just as the bucket hit the bottom, Jafar struck, and the lamp jumped.
The dark Djinn allowed himself a smile as he felt the wooden bottom of his new vessel. Water trickled down the sides and splashed below him as the bucket rose once more. But this time, the rope's wielder was going to receive an unexpected surprise.
The squeaking stopped, and Jafar felt himself sway gently in midair. This trip had taken longer than expected, as if the person on the other end had become tired. Jafar's mind raced through his plans as the bucket was moved sideways; there was a moment of panic when the human's grip loosened, and the bucket lurched down. Fortunately, the fall was stopped, and Jafar almost sighed in relief as he was heaved over the rim of the well and onto the sand. He sensed that the amount of water in the bucket was painfully small, and very dirty—definitely not safe to drink.
There was a small, soft sigh. Apparently, the mortal thought so, too.
A splash, a noise of slight surprise, and the lamp was lifted from its watery grave. Jafar prepared for the right moment, the anticipated "What's this?" and the rubbing of the lamp's surface.
But it did not come. Instead, something was prodding the lamp, poking it and attempting to decipher its shape. Fingers, Jafar decided as the human turned the lamp over and over again, and attempted to pry the lid off.
Then, his soon-to-be master said something in a language Jafar did not understand. But that was not what made his huge eyes grow even larger. The voice was soft, barely above a whisper, but it was unmistakable. It was the voice of a child.
A child! Royally peeved, Jafar forced his thoughts into order. This was not a time to make errors. Surely children would be easier to manipulate than adults… unless an adult took the lamp first. Either way, he had to remain in control. They had to be awed by his presence… but if the child released him, it would be wise not to appear formidable. After all, a mistake of that nature could scare the child into throwing the lamp back into the well.
Thus, when the inevitable rub finally came, the Djinn emerged slowly, wreathed in white smoke that formed into a suitably fluffy cloud. Since his voice sounded naturally evil, Jafar forced it into a pleasant lilt. It felt like spitting up hairballs.
"What do you wish of me?" he asked slowly, taking in his surroundings. The small figure was still standing in front of him, cloaked and hooded. It had dropped the lamp, but did not run as Jafar had expected. In fact, it seemed to be looking at the ground sheepishly. A bone-thin camel stood nearby, apparently unfazed by Jafar's appearance. Clearly, it had seen much worse things. Other than the camel and the bucket, Jafar saw nothing-- although there was a somewhat disconcerting presence in the air that he could not identify…
There was a pause. The figure stepped forward and said something in its language, and Jafar swore mentally at every deity he could think of. The gods had been kind enough to grace him with a human who did not run, but how would he set his plans in motion if his master did not understand him?
In the back of his mind, a small, dictatorial voice kicked him. Phenomenal cosmic power, remember?
Clearly, the time in the Cave of Wonders and the well had dulled Jafar's common sense. With a sigh, he waved a hand (or in his case, an extension of cloud), and glowed briefly.
"Forgive me," he said kindly to the figure, who had stepped a bit closer, but still did not look at him. "What did you say?"
The child's head tilted, as if he or she were listening intently. Then, a small voice finally surfaced from the depths of the hood. "What is your name, Sire?"
Jafar was slightly taken aback, but caught himself in time. "My name is… whatever you wish it to be, my child. I am your… friend."
He thought he had been prepared for what came next. Of course, he was wrong.
"I can't have friends. They tell me the gods have cursed me."
Amazing, Jafar thought, even as his mind formed plans for manipulation. People said the same of me in my own youth. Aloud, he said, "Well… do not believe them. I promise, I will be your friend. What is your name?"
A girl, then. Jafar switched to his regular, smooth voice. "What a beautiful name. How old are you, Najla?"
The figure shuffled a bit, seemingly uncomfortable with the compliment. "Nine. And you… friend?"
The lack of any action that Jafar expected from a small, inexperienced child was beginning to disturb him. "I am…" He paused, savoring the moment. "I have no age. I am immortal, Najla. I am a Djinn."
Instead of being suitably impressed, the girl shuffled her feet in the sand some more. "Then I shall call you Khalid. Can you help me?"
Ah. This was more like it.
"Of course I can. I can give you anything you want, dear child. You just need to wish for it, but you must understand that—"
Suddenly, Najla's frame jerked. "Anything? Can you really?"
Jafar felt a slight tinge of annoyance. Children were not supposed to interrupt, but the abrupt haste in the girl's voice was driving her inexorably forward into the realms of impropriety. "Yes. Anything."
"Then I wish for some water. There is too little to drink in this bucket. Please, Khalid!"
Jafar's thoughts crashed in mid-flight. "W…what?"
"You can give me some water, can't you? Please, you said you were my friend! Please!"
His magic pulled at him, eager to grant the wish. Jafar could not believe his cloudy ears. All the power in the universe, and he was being asked for a bucket of water? For a small moment, he was tempted to turn the desert into an ocean and drown the girl, but her death meant more years of sitting in a hole with no chance of escape. So, he had to play the part. One wish would not hurt.
"Very… well, Najla," he said. "Do not be afraid."
The girl drew her hood tighter around her head. "I am not afraid, Khalid."
The cloud disguise proved useful. A simple rain-shower, and water drenched the patch of earth next to the well; it was sucked up as soon as it struck the sand, still hot from the daytime. The camel unabashedly made its way over and licked the ground before the water withdrew. Slowly, the bucket filled until it overran, but Najla made no move to pick it up, which annoyed Jafar even more.
"Well, child?" he prompted, his voice somewhat gurgly from the recent magic. "It is done."
"Oh," she said, as if yanked from a daze. "I'm sorry, Khalid, but… can you help me remember where it is? I have forgotten where I put it."
Jafar stared. There was the bucket, a few steps from the well.
"Can't you see--"
And at that moment, the girl removed her hood, and Jafar understood everything. His words caught in his non-existent throat and stuck there in a horrified barricade.
Her eyes were large, almost as large as his. The stars were reflected in the glaze of her pupils. But no understanding shone through them.
She was blind.
"It is… a few steps to your left," he finally managed.
"Thank you," was all she said, walking carefully in that direction.
His disguise had not been necessary, after all. Jafar transformed into his human form as Najla found the bucket and lifted it. He was surprised at her strength; it was certainly she who had raised him from the well. But what did she want with—
Jafar's eyes widened. Najla made her way around the well, to the other side, with the bony camel following and Jafar close behind. When he'd finally reached a point where he could see the girl again, his questions were answered. And the answers were not pleasant.
Leaning against the base of the well, head and shoulders propped up on the stone, was the corpse of a woman. Her hair was matted, her face haggard, her dark eyes frozen in a tearful stare. Jafar watched as Najla cupped water in her hands and brought it to the dead woman's lips.
"Here, drink this. My friend is here now, he can help us," she said reassuringly as the water spilled down the woman's torn clothes. "Mother, don't sleep now, you must meet Khalid. You said you'd only sleep a little, Mother, wake up!"
If he still had a stomach, the Djinn would have heaved. So that was the presence he'd felt upon his release from the lamp. It was the Valley of the Dead, opening for its next traveler.
"Your mother is no longer here, child," he said, perhaps a bit too harshly. But as a bringer of death, he had never been good at consolation. "Let her sleep."
Najla cupped more water, clearly not understanding. "But… but she said…"
"Never mind that now. She will not wake. And we must leave this place."
The girl's hands ran over the bucket's rim, awkwardly. As he watched her, Jafar found that the silence bothered him. This was not what he had expected upon being freed. This was all wrong…
Finally, she said, "I don't know where to go."
"Where is your home?"
"It has been… burned. My father told my mother and me to go far away, across the desert. But we were separated from the caravan. And I…" Najla buried her face in her hands, her little shoulders trembling. "I don't know how to…I don't understand…"
At her words, Jafar's anger flared. Did the girl's father actually believe anyone would aid them in time of need? That the caravan's leaders would search for a blind girl and her sick mother if they were lost? That they would survive the stifling days and cold nights of the desert, on a camel that was no better than a bony sack on legs? Even on his travels in search of magic, Jafar had rarely braved the expanses of sand on his own. Najla stood no chance. A day or two more, and she would succumb to thirst and join her mother.
The shadows in his mind sprung into life, reminding him of his own callous nature. Some people were destined for a short life; it was the way the world worked. He owed nothing to the girl, or any mortal. It was not his problem if she died.
Ah, but it IS your problem, said a small, nasty voice in his head. She is your master and your only way out of this miserable hole. Like it or not, you must help her.
Jafar scowled. No one helped me when I was young.
The voice was undaunted. Just what was he arguing with, logic—or pity? No one could ever help you, not then, and not now.
It was right, of course. His own experiences could not be held against Najla. But Jafar decided that the thought had no bearing on his future actions. He would save her, yes, but because he needed her. And only because of that.
Nevertheless, his long fingers reached out to pat her back as she cried. The girl flinched at first, but then relaxed when he squeezed her shoulder in a way that seemed reassuring to him.
Her own small hand closed over his, her fingertips memorizing the contours of his knuckles. "Please stay, Khalid. I don't want to be alone."
Jafar, unsure how to react to her gesture, kept himself very still as Najla inspected first his hand and then the sleeve of his robe. For reasons that he could not fathom, being scrutinized by the small, innocent child made his soul tremble. He told himself that these were merely demons of uncertainty, and steeled himself against the wave of any humanity he had left.
But even he, notoriously selfish and stubborn, could not ignore the courage with which Najla had approached him. All his life, small children had feared him, as if sensing the darkness within his heart. And although Jafar considered it beneath him to harm them, still they ran from him. All of them, except Najla, who could not see him for what he was.
One part of him, a large and dominant one, planned to use that fact to his advantage. But another, a very tiny section in the bowels of his immortal mind, appreciated the grip of her hand on his sleeve. It had been a long, long time since someone had touched him willingly.
"Your hand is cold," she whispered, clutching at him as if he were life itself. "But it only means that your heart is warm."
Ridiculous, he thought. And perhaps… not so far from the truth. My heart is warm, indeed… but not with any feelings you know of. You probably don't know how to hate yet, hated as you already are for your blindness. But you will learn… if you survive me.
"Will I see my mother again?"
"Yes," said Jafar, not unkindly, disengaging her from his sleeve and taking her hand. "But not today. Now… do you know of a city called Agrabah?"
"The streets are so wide!"
Najla's newly conjured walking stick tap-tapped against the ground, occasionally roaming over fruit and pottery stands and unnerving the merchants who, grateful for her passing, did not pay much attention to the camel that trailed behind her and pilfered items from their trays.
"I think it must be beautiful to look at, Khalid…"
Jafar squeezed her hand in silent agreement as he led her through the marketplace. Walking beside her, invisible to all, he was surprised at how adeptly the girl used the stick to learn about her surroundings. When they had appeared outside the city after she'd made her second wish, Najla had told him about navigating her home village and performing complex tasks with objects she could not see. The feelings of frustration she described reminded him of his own battles for power within the lamp. He was also new to the world of the Djinn, and like, Najla, had groped in the darkness of their powerful magic.
"It becomes easier as you get older," she said in between bites of an apple. A piece of it had remained on her cheek, and Jafar found himself with a distastefully pressing urge to brush it away. He'd seen parents do it, and was particularly disturbed by his own unspoken wish. The sooner he relieved himself of the strange girl, he decided, the better.
"Does it indeed?" he asked.
"Oh yes. It becomes… natural." Thankfully, Najla had felt the offending piece of apple and disposed of it on her own. "Like… like if you find yourself in a sandstorm, and know which way to turn before the wind hits your face. Then you are not afraid, because you know what's coming."
Jafar nodded. His own experiences as a human had taught him the same thing, especially when he became involved in politics. How and when you said something mattered as much as what you said. His success as Grand Vizier had rested in knowing what was going to happen, and making sure that others didn't. Despite himself, he was impressed at the conclusions Najla had drawn from her predicament. The same wisdom had taken him years to achieve.
Will you always be bested by children? a voice in his head taunted. Even as an immortal?
He scowled, dark eyes narrowing into slits. Shut your trap. If it weren't for your inane ranting, I would never have provoked Iago into betraying me.
The voice sounded shocked and confused. So now he was provoked? Since when have you admitted fault?
Jafar withdrew from his mind, feeling more than a bit shaken by the realization. What was happening to him?
Najla smiled, but there was concern in her tone. "You are quiet. Did I upset you?"
"No, not at all," he said, too quickly for his own liking. They had reached one of the main streets, from which a panorama of the Sultan's palace was visible. As the memories flooded back, Jafar felt somewhat more in control. His hatred for the palace's inhabitants helped him focus, made him plan better. Soon, Aladdin would die, and everything would be back where it belonged. And of course, Jafar needed to be free for this to happen.
With that locus of thought, he turned back to the girl. In his confusion, he had almost forgotten why he was in Agrabah.
"Najla," he began, "I think—"
"I know," she interrupted. The rapping of her stick had stopped as she learned against a wall, just inside an alley. "You have been very kind to me… you saved me. But I know that you cannot stay. No one does, for long. You have already done so much… and now, you want freedom… because I burden you."
Jafar was so surprised that he shed his invisibility, appearing beside her as the sunset turned the city red. The way she had misread his intentions was truly awful, even if said intentions had not been good in the first place. But it was made even worse by the fact that long ago, the young Jafar had also known that no one would stay beside him, either. He had accepted his fate, and as he aged, had embraced his aloneness, elevating it to a status of prestige. Jafar the Untouchable.
But seeing someone else do the same broke his human spirit, the one that kept him fighting against the prison of his lamp. He was not used to kindness. In his experience, everyone always wanted something in return. This girl wanted to give him freedom at her own expense—him, a man (or formerly a man) she barely knew, a man who'd destroyed hundreds of lives for the sake of power… and now, he was lifted up by the powerless. If she'd crossed his path years ago, he'd probably have kicked her.
"You are wrong, Najla," he said, and it sounded like he was trying to convince himself that the sun was blue. "When I am free… I can still help you. I can give you sight."
Her blank eyes turned up at him, and she smiled. "Why would you?"
The Djinn shrugged. "Because if you can see, you will know what's coming. You will survive."
Najla giggled, as if Jafar's answer was terribly ridiculous. "But Khalid," she said, "you don't understand. I already can see. My mother said I could see better than anyone in my village, because I did not need a torch to walk in darkness."
At that moment, Jafar knew he was defeated. And for the first and only time in his life, he accepted it. His knowledge of the world, decades of it, had granted him sight. Najla's nine years had granted her vision. He had feared darkness so much that he had become one with it. And Najla walked in it, forever fearless.
At that moment, a part of him, one thought long dead, would have given anything to be like her.
"Forgive me, child," he said. "I was mistaken."
A blush crept over Najla's cheeks. "There's no need, Khalid. You're a kind, gracious man, and I'm glad that you were my friend. But now… I think it is time for you to be free of me."
Jafar barely had time to utter a word as the blind girl made her third wish.
I don't believe this. I just—gods—I don't believe this.
He wanted to rip the world into shreds. He wanted to kill the next living thing that passed by. He, at the very least, wanted to swear.
But somehow, he couldn't. Not because it wasn't within his power, but because the very idea of what had happened was so—so frustratingly crazy that he couldn't even bring himself to…
How could she—
Why didn't he say something in time?
The child had freed him. Oh yes. She had freed him from her company the only way she knew how.
She'd sent him home.
I wish for you to return home, where you found me, and never see me again. Thank you, Khalid, for everything.
In the middle of the desert, the well shook with Jafar's fury.
The stupid little—
But she wasn't stupid, was she? In her ignorance, in her desire to help, she had given Jafar exactly what he deserved. The world seemed to be laughing at him. Some ageless and powerful Djinn.
And in the tide of his emotion, the human part of him began to laugh with the world; genuinely, as he had not laughed in years.
In the West, they said that Justice was blind. But now, Jafar knew that Wisdom was, too.
Author's Note: In Arabic, the name "Najla" means "Of wide eyes," and "Khalid" means "Eternal." I thought they'd be fitting to the characters. Oh, and another thing— if Jafar is out of character, I take full responsibility. Feel free to flame or hex or burn an effigy. Toodles!