Diego Brando has nightmares more often than not.
It’s always been the case, since he was a child. That fact isn’t something he’s ever shared with anyone else, of course. As "the prince of the horse racing world", as an aspiring politician, as a man of ambition and will and pride – he was above such things. He had no regrets to haunt him. He may not have accomplished his life’s goal, but he’d accomplished a significant victory nonetheless.
The question unfurls in the jockey’s mind as he stares up at the sky. He’s on his back, the cold metal of a train track pressing into his spine. The land spreads out wide to either side; his own blood and viscera pools just as wide beneath him. In front of him, a forest. Behind him, the sea. It’s a familiar scene, burned into his mind in vibrant shapes and colors and the smell of salt and dirt and iron. And it’s quiet. So quiet.
But this time it’s different. There’s someone else here.
Gyro Zeppeli, ever the force of chaos and disruption in Diego's final days, lopes casually alongside the train tracks toward him. A lazy grin pulls at his lips and exposes the harsh gold of his teeth. The shadow of his hat, cast by the unforgiving afternoon sun, cuts sharply across his face, hiding all his other features in darkness. There’s a sword in his hand, with a blade that glints wickedly in the light.
An executioner's sword, Diego observes. He's not sure how he knows; he's never seen such a sword before. But somehow, with a conviction that lives deep down in his gut–or what's left of it–he's certain that that's what it is.
“Oh, Diego,” the man says, wistfully, drawing out every syllable. It’s the same grating voice he'd heard in that stable, the first day he woke up on the Ark. Diego feels like he's hearing it from below water. A symptom of the blood loss, probably. “Isn’t it a shame?”
It’s not until he’s close, close enough for the blade of the sword to reflect the subdued horror in Diego’s face, that he can see the other man’s eyes. They’re distant and unreadable. Gyro drops down to kneel over the man on the ground, his hair cascading over his shoulder onto Diego’s chest. His free hand ghosts across Diego's cheekbone, something like a comforting caress. “Let me help you.”
The fingers slip down his face to tangle in his hair, tugging gently to ease the injured man up while Gyro leans down to press their mouths together. It takes only the briefest of moments for Diego to relax into the kiss with a shuddering sigh – how long had they been heading toward something like this, after all? There's no time left for vanity. He doesn't even mind the shitty green lipstick smudging across his own chapped lips. Diego lifts a bloodied glove to the other man's shirt to paw at him, to pull him closer, doing his damndest to ignore the white-hot twinge of pain below his ribcage that stabs as he moves.
But Gyro pulls away. Diego's eyes shoot open, and his scowl is met with a gaze that is hard. Determined. Cold. The twinge of pain twists and melts into a chill that creeps upward, spreading into his chest.
The man gripping his hair hasn’t changed at all, not in any tangible, material way, yet he looks like someone Diego has never seen before.
“Did you forget?” Stranger-Gyro asks, plainly, like he's chastising an absent-minded child. There's no hint of humor, no taste of teasing. Only simple certainty. “This is the end of the line, Diego.”
The wound of your slit throat…is the ‘line’ of the wretched world I was part of.
That's what he'd said to Valentine, all those months ago. Or...was it only moments ago? Diego frowns, shifting and craning his neck to look down the tracks, searching for a trace of the pink coat that'd be a sure sign of the President. His body should be around here somewhere...but, with how Diego's vision is swimming, he can't quite make it out. Fuck. Fuck! Where's that bastard gone?
Every muscle in Diego's body tenses when the cold edge of a blade presses against his throat. There's no fight or flight here. He can’t breathe, can’t move, can’t get away – his legs are gone, after all, cut off by the wheels of the train and flung someplace far away. Not for the first time, he's utterly helpless.
Diego had already known that he was going to die. It had been obvious as soon as Valentine had hooked his legs around his hips and used his own furious momentum against him. There was nothing he could do, then, but wait for the inevitable. It was like being thrown off a horse, or stumbling on the treacherous ground at the peak of a steep hill, or watching the shuttlecock hit the net in a tense game of badminton. There comes a moment when you realize that, despite yourself, you have no choice but to let gravity do its job.
He can take the falling. It's the helplessness now he's already hit the ground that horrifies him.
After a beat, Diego dares to turn his head, to look back at the strange man kneeling above what would soon be his corpse. Something just occurred to him, and suddenly he needs to know.
His voice comes out sounding strange and strangled when he asks: "Where's Johnny?"
What he sees when he looks at Gyro almost makes him wish he hadn't. Neither of them can break eye contact, even as the sword bites into the muscle of Diego's neck.
Diego wakes up with a burning gasp, like a drowning man finally wrenched above water.
His sheets are drenched. Sweat, tears…blood? His hand immediately rises to his throat and brushes against something wet – and it stings like mad. He pulls the hand back, the pooling horror returning to his gut as he takes in the evidence. Fresh blood smears all over his palm and down the front of his top. Notably, there’s dried blood under his nails – no, his talons. He’d started transforming in his sleep, and was clawing the shit out of the scar on his neck.
He thinks of the sight of Valentine, bleeding out underneath him, throat slit by the very same talons. It'd been so easy, like cutting through warm butter.
And this is the line that crosses over it! Me! The ‘line’ that brings this world into my hands!
A sort of hysterical panic sets in once he realizes the potential for real damage. The fact that dying here doesn't matter doesn't mean he wants to experience it again.
Before Diego knows what he’s doing, he’s holding his holophone up to his ear and listening to the drone of the ringing tone. The fingers of his other hand squeeze either side of his throat, some kind of vain attempt to keep more blood from escaping. Eventually, the call picks up, and an irritated voice asks him what he wants. Diego takes a shaky breath before answering.
“Listen – I need you over here. Bring your medkit.”
There’s a moment of silence, followed by an urgent question. Diego grits his teeth.
“Sliced myself in my sleep. Badly. Lot of blood. Might've hit somef- ugh, you know, important. Look, it doesn't matter, just get over here!"
There’s a sharp command issued on the other end of the line accompanied by the sound of some rustling. Then a door slam. Gyro wants him to keep pressure on the wound until he arrives. Okay, fine, already doing that. Diego croaks an acknowledgment and sets the holophone down, just for a moment, to search for a jumper he knows is just under his pillow. Rolled up, it'll probably do a better job than just his clawed hand.
They both stay on the line until Gyro arrives just a couple minutes later. Diego can't bring himself to look him in the eye, nor to vocalize the question that's been nagging at the back of his mind. Thankfully, once the doctor gets to work, he doesn't need to.