The open expanse of the Calm Lands was jarring as they stepped out of the cool, dense maze of the Macalania Woods. Even as Auron hated it for its significance, he felt relief at the sight it made before them, sunny with gently rolling grasses and endless sky above. Everything felt brighter than it had in the forest, a trick of the sunlight no longer strangled by a canopy of crystalline foliage.
At his side, Braska seemed to agree with Auron's feelings, heaving a great sigh as he looked down at the gnarled scars that ancient battles had left behind on the earth itself. His gaze drifted upwards, into the heavens, towards the cloud-shrouded peak of Mt. Gagazet.
"We're almost there," Braska said after a moment, his strong voice breaking the silence of the still land around them. "After the Calm Lands, the holy mountain and then...Zanarkand."
"Unless you've given up on this pilgrimage thing?" Jecht asked from where he stood on Auron's other side, arms crossed over his bare chest.
It amazed Auron that the Jecht he'd come to know could ever be quiet enough to surprise him with his presence, but he had in the last few days during their second trip through Macalania. Braska had been too kind to mention it and Auron understood it too well to comment.
They both knew that the Calm Lands meant the beginning of the end of Braska's pilgrimage.
And of Braska.
The summoner let out a gentle laugh, sparing a glance toward his gruff guardian. "Surely, you've come to know me better than that?"
"Yeah," Jecht agreed. "But it was worth a try."
Auron cast his eyes over the plains, focusing on the Al Bhed travel agency that would be their last brush with civilization for some time. "It will take us most of the day to traverse the plains, my lord," he said to Braska. "If you do not require more rest, we should begin."
"You're right, Auron. Let's go."
The trek across the plains wasn't as arduous as some legs of the journey had been, but the fiends that littered their way mitigated any ease the landscape offered. Braska remained unperturbed by the obstacles they encountered and Jecht continued to keep his own counsel on his thoughts; and all the while Auron felt something in his heart slowly dying as each step drew them closer to Braska's death.
He'd always known, of course, how the pilgrimage would end, long before Jecht had even begun to realize the outcome of their march toward the mythical Zanarkand. But all that knowing didn't make it easier to face now that the course seemed sure. Braska would reach Zanarkand and he would deliver unto Spira another Calm.
Braska would die.
"You're thinking too loud," came a familiar, faintly amused voice from near his elbow, startling Auron. He cursed both Jecht's newfound fondness for stealth and his unerring ability to read what Auron tried desperately to hide.
"You're supposed to be in the lead," Auron replied, a jerk of his head indicating where their summoner currently outpaced them both.
"There isn't a fiend we won't see coming from here," Jecht told him. "Braska's fine." Then he nudged him with his shoulder, a friendly and informal gesture Auron still wasn't sure he was accustomed to. "So, why don't you tell me what's bothering you?"
Moments earlier, Auron had been staring at Jecht's broad shoulders as he'd walked at Braska's side but now he was there with him, maddeningly perceptive in the way his dark eyes watched Auron as he waited for his answer. Auron sighed. "What do you think? We've almost reached the end, and Braska..."
"I know. He'll die." Though his voice did not waver, Jecht flinched on the second sentence.
"Yes, and for what? For Sin to come back?" Auron shook his head. "It's not worth it."
"Aren't you basically blaspheming with all this talk?" Jecht asked. "You Yevonites are supposed to believe in this stuff without question, right?"
"We are," Auron answered. "We're supposed to have faith, both in Yevon and in our summoners." His gazed lingered on Braska, still walking ahead of them, back unbowed by the doubts that plagued his guardian. "But faith will do me very little good when my last friend in Spira is gone. Braska...is all I have left."
Jecht was silent for a moment, so long that Auron expected him to leave him without reply. Instead, he moved a little closer, so that every other step brought him into some kind of casual contact - the brush of arms or feet or shoulders as they walked. Finally, he spoke. "I know what it feels like to lose everything," he said, and Auron felt something close to shame as he realized his gaffe. "I don't wish it on anybody, but I don't think we could stop him if we tried. Do you?"
"No," Auron admitted. "I don't."
Jecht nodded a little. "Which means we've got to support him, no matter what. You know?"
"Doesn't mean it isn't difficult," Auron said at last.
"Where would be the fun if it was?" Jecht answered with a touch of his former humor. Auron felt another more-than-coincidental brush of their elbows. "We can do this, Auron. For Braska."
Auron felt something tighten in his chest, something that had little to do with his sorrow over Braska. "Jecht..."
"You're wrong about one thing, though." Jecht glanced back at Auron over his shoulder as he quickened his pace. "You'll still have me."
As he watched Jecht hurry to catch Braska and the ache in his chest only grew tighter, Auron couldn't be certain if Jecht's declaration made him feel better or worse.
He'd been right about their travel time, and they just reached the entrance of the travel agency as twilight washed the world over in blue, the ominous lines of Mt. Gagazet blurred in the darkness. Auron wasn't the only one who seemed preoccupied that evening, and Braska retired early, with Jecht not too far behind.
Auron tried to sleep but it came over him fitfully, time split between fruitless unrest and disquieting dreams that drove him from his room, out into the windy darkness of the plain's night.
He was greedy in the way he swallowed great gulps of air, enjoyed the wind from the mountains as it swept through his damp hair. Auron closed his eyes for a moment to try and center his thoughts. They still rushed around in his head, not unlike the wind whistling in his ears, and he wanted nothing more than to calm the maelstrom. As moments passed, he was granted a modicum of peace, but not enough to send him back inside. Instead, he skirted around the agency and settled on the crest of a hill where he sat staring out at where the sky met the edge of the plains.
Auron didn't know how long he sat there, watching the distant stars and the waving grasses before he felt a presence behind him, soft feet padding against the earth. There was only one person he knew who roamed the Calm Lands unshod.
"Still thinking, huh?" Jecht's voice was sleep-rough, even more gravelly than his normal growl. "I always knew it was bad for you."
Jecht was another problem his mind longed to solve, but he felt ill-equipped to add to his burden that night. "Go back to bed, Jecht."
The footfalls on the grass carried Jecht closer, not farther away. "Nah, I don't think I will," he said as he took a place next to Auron on the ground.
"Can't I persuade you, for once, to leave me in peace?" Auron wanted to know. The wind had left him cool after the stifled heat of his room, but Jecht so close offered another kind of warmth, tempting at such proximity. Auron blamed the desire to sink against him on the fatigue creaking in his bones.
"No," Jecht said. He paused, as if to gather his thoughts. "You want to tell me what's wrong?"
His words were soft, incongruously gentle until Auron realized that he'd been hearing that tone more and more in moments like this - moments between the two of them, quiet and dark and comforting.
It was that realization that made him answer, left bare by the implications. "You were right this morning," Auron told him. "I have doubts, doubts that I shouldn't have. I've dedicated my entire life to believing completely in Yevon, in the temples, our summoners, the pilgrimage. But I lost it somewhere along the way when I need more than ever."
There would've been shame with that admission to another Yevonite, and fear. But to Jecht, a man from another time and place, Auron could speak freely. It was another thing he'd come to depend on Jecht for.
"I'd be worried if you didn't have doubts, Auron." When Auron shot Jecht a confused look, Jecht explained. "Nobody should be able to watch his friend march off to certain death without some. It wouldn't be right, no matter what they've been taught to believe.
"A good person couldn't do it without something inside rebelling." He caught Auron's eyes with his own, dark gaze bright despite the night around them. "And you're about the best person I've ever known."
Those words were important, Auron knew. Even more important than how they sounded on the surface. Even if he couldn't quite figure it out, something inside him recognized it, responded to it. Jecht was solid and warm and real, his voice a comforting rumble, his eyes soft and searching. It all added up to something that made Auron ache differently from how he already grieved for Braska.
"When did you become so philosophical?" Auron asked, a familiar tease between them that lacked its typical bite.
"Since I started hanging out with you," Jecht answered, ducking his head to run an absent hand through his unruly hair. "You've been good for me."
Everything Jecht said seemed burdened with extra meaning and Auron couldn't resist the lure of truth it promised. "Did you mean it, what you said before?" he asked, so softly the wind would've carried it away had he not turned, filling his eyes with Jecht instead of a sea of grass and stars. "That I'd have you, after..."
Jecht drew one leg up to rest his elbow on an knee, the other curled under him as he moved a little closer. "I'm a lot of things but I'm not a liar. As long you'll have me, you're stuck with me," he told him. Jecht's breath was hot against the skin of his face, their bent knees touching.
His next words were almost a whisper but Auron felt them like a brand. "I won't leave, not if you don't want me to."
Auron still fought against the instinct to lean in, to give in to the part of him that had longed for this moment. But he had been burnt too many times to dance too close to flames so easily. "And what if you do find a way back to your Zanarkand?"
"If you really don't have anything to hold you here, you can come with me," Jecht said. One calloused hand reached up and every so gently threaded through the loose strands of Auron's hair where the wind tugged at it. "I'd like you to meet my kid. He's kind of a crybaby but he's got potential. I think he'd like you."
Jecht's eyes followed the movements of his hand while Auron watched him. "And your wife?"
It was desperation that made him ask, one last line of defense against the madness that had infected them both. A handful of days before their summoner's death and their last night among civilization; it was not a night meant for splitting open secret desires and dragging them into the moonlight. But Jecht followed no rules but his own, Auron had learned long ago, and there was no mistake in his intent, not with the way his eyes drifted up to meet Auron's, a longing in them that, for once, wasn't for home.
"I think we both know that I'm never going to make it back," Jecht said. His hand in Auron's hair trailed up until his knuckles brushed Auron's cheek on every stroke. "You're the best thing I found here, you know. Even if I did, I wouldn't want to leave without you."
The hand buried itself in his hair, a more forceful caress as Jecht used it to guide him closer. But for all Jecht's boldness, the action was still hesitant, waiting for Auron to meet him halfway. And he felt the pull, the irresistible gravity of Jecht, his own fingers reaching out tentatively, so close to the solid muscles of Jecht's bare chest.
But then Auron pulled back. "No, Jecht." He shook his head. "I can't."
Jecht dropped his hand back to his side, but his expression pinned Auron in place more effectively than brute strength could have. "You can't trick yourself out of caring. It won't work." There was a huff of a faint laugh. "Believe me, I've tried."
Auron couldn't find his voice to answer, but it was all trying to claw its way out of him: his pain, his sorrow, his fears, his desire and longing and love for this man who had vexed him for so long. Just one more person he would lose to Sin and mourn over when all was said and done.
As if he could read Auron's most inner thoughts, Jecht spoke words that cut Auron to the core. "Will it hurt less if I die tomorrow if we don't admit it?" Jecht touched trembling fingers to Auron's hand where it lay between them on the grass. "Because I don't think it will."
"I think it won't matter if we never see each other again. It'll still cut your heart out. Cut my heart out. Again."
"Jecht..." Auron's voice cracked on the name, as unsteady as Jecht's hand had been a moment before.
Jecht must've sense weakening because he abandoned hesitance and instead drew as close as he could, hands sliding up Auron's arms until he had him in a loose embrace. Against all the doubts in his mind, Auron reached for him, hands once more creeping along the scarred skin of Jecht's side.
But then Auron's hand stilled.
"Hey." Jecht's stubbled cheek was against Auron's as he whispered in his ear, breath hot and steady until Auron shivered. His lips roamed from his ear to his cheek to the corner of his mouth, light sweet brushes that promised more - and there was no denying that Auron wanted it. "What have I told you about thinking so much, huh?"
Auron felt it inside him like a tree splintering under a bolt of lightning or the hull of a ship cracking under the strength of a tidal wave as his resistance fled. He melted against Jecht, doubts silenced and replaced only by his desire. His hands resumed their earlier quest across Jecht's skin and he felt tension bled from the strong body he held in response. Jecht's arms tightened around him and he finally brought their mouths together in a kiss.
The night had long become too cool, but they created a cocoon of warmth where they huddled together, wrapped in each other's arms. It was Auron who broke off the latest careful kiss between them to bury his face against the hollow of Jecht's throat, content with nothing more than simple touch. The day had been long and tiring and he was starting to feel its effect in a way he hadn't a few hours before.
Jecht, still maddeningly perceptive, sensed his fatigue. "Come on," he began, rising to his feet and pulling Auron up with him. They stood chest to chest, Jecht's hands sliding over Auron's arms. "You'll be even more cranky than usual if you don't get some rest. Let's go."
Jecht took a few steps forward before he realized that Auron hadn't moved. He turned back, a brow quirked in inquiry. "What?"
"Sin always comes back, Jecht. Braska's death won't change that."
Jecht's features softened as he strode back to Auron's side. He grabbed for one of Auron's hands and laced their fingers together, his grip strong and reassuring. "We've still got some time, right? We can figure it out."
"We can?" His doubt was palpable. "Where no one else has for a thousand years?"
Jecht squeezed his hand. "We'll find a way to stop Sin once and for all. I've got faith in us."
Auron hoped Jecht's faith would be enough for them both.
End Notes: ...and then Jecht became the fayth, Auron became an unsent and went to raise Tidus in Zanarkand, blah, blah, then they both died and it's all very depressing, the end. I'm not a fan of writing this tragic, never-to-be kind of story, but for the love of Jecht and this pairing, I couldn't help myself. Anyway, I hope y'all enjoy.