Arthur was just straightening from checking Mathew's pulse when the most violent explosion yet rocked the sidewalk beneath him, tossing him to the ground face first. He was vaguely aware of a cry of surprise either from Matt or Francis though he couldn't tell which. Maybe himself? It certainly wasn't Prussia. He was flying high as a kite after they pumped him with sedatives to calm him back into a...non-demon state. He had enough drugs in his system to kill an elephant twice over. That only happened after he snapped a paramedic's arm like a bloody twig. Poor sod.

"Heilige schiße, zose are some awesome firecrackers." Though apparently not high enough to form words. Stupid words.

He glanced over to find Mathew and Francis staring at the building, eyes wide with shock. Flames had sprouted behind the windows, smoke beginning to violently roil out of the openings. The entire roof was gone, collapsed somewhere within. The humans around them were screaming and terrified. Texas had thankfully come up with an explanation when the police, SWAT and an ambulance all arrived. Picking himself up, Arthur headed for the building, grabbing Francis off the ground as he went. "Come on, frog face, we can't just bloody well leave them in there!"

"Oui!" Surprisingly, the French bastard was on his heels almost instantly.

They were partway to the opening in the wall where they entered when water came gushing out in a horizontal geyser, dousing the room inside just enough for them to slip in past the clouds of dense black smoke. It was coming from the busted plumbing pipes in torrents. The gas fire still roared on the far side of the room, but they had just enough time before it mingled with the water to find the two still inside...possibly three if that smug arse Creek nation had survived. God, he honestly hoped he hadn't made it. He'd never wished death on another nation, but he was making an exception for that bag of cocks.

As soon as he took a few steps deeper into the room, Arthur knew Creek nation would no longer be a problem. He lay at the edge a crater, his head hanging by a few lumpy remains of his neck. The rest was splattered across the room. His body was twisted at crazy angle over the edge of a chunk of concrete and arm-sized chunks of wooden seating rest embedded in his chest. Dark eyes stared at nothing from over a slack, half-crazed grin. A bullet hole gaped just above his brow. God, there were pieces of the bastard everywhere.

He heard as Francis fought down the impulse to gag at the smell of blood and the rotted-sweet odor of cooking flesh. "Zere!"

A large pile of debris was moving and shifting. Then Alfred's head came up like he was coming up for air after a long swim. And then, like water, the debris started shifting away from him. His back was covered in shrapnel and black soot as his chest heaved for air. That's when he saw the dangling arm sticking out from under a beam. Gods, Dixie. Alfred had covered her with his own body, but even then, then damage was…significant. Her entire arm was twisted out of the socket, protruding from beneath her. Arthur and Francis rushed to pull the debris off of them. Shit, Alfred looked beaten up. He was covered in still-healing burns, and there was hardly a scrap of uninjured skin on him. His eyes were open but only halfway and glassy-looking even beneath the shattered frame of his glasses. Blood seeped from a massive wound in his shoulder where muscle was just beginning to reform, his clothes practically ripped from his body.

After what felt like hours, they managed to get Alfred pulled out, but he was automatically trying to get back in to get to Dixie.

"Oh, merde," Francis whispered.

"Christ."

She had obviously been te closer of the two when the blast went off. Most of the skin on the right side of her face was gone or badly burned. Her arm was indeed twisted up behind her and the arm itself looked like it was shattered. Protruding from her chest was a warped metal beam, her shirt covered in blood. Both legs were at funny angles, the knees ripped to shreds by the low-lying explosives. She…she was dead. But as soon as Alfred started moving her, those dark blue eyes shot open and she screamed. IT didn't sound human. It sounded like her throat was sizzling in the back of her throat. Arthur paled and tried to get Alfred to let go, but he shoved him away and managed to get her upper body on his chest. There was so much blood.

"Get a stretcher in here!" Arthur screamed. "We have two survivors!"

Dixie started to cough violently, her lips moving sluggishly. "D-Did...is he...?" she managed.

Arthur nodded and knelt next to her, moving her hair out of her eyes. "Yes, love, you got him. Everything's alright now. It's over. You can sleep."

"You did so well, belle," Francis said as he stroked her hand gently. Tear tracks were already visible amongst all the soot on his face. "You did better zan anyone of us could 'ave."

"Shut the fuck up!" Alfred snarled like a raving animal. "You shut your fucking mouth! She's staying awake!"

The relaxed look that came made Arthur's heart drop into his shoes. He recognized that look. He'd seen it one too many times when dying men accepted and embraced the death that was coming for them. He had seen it in every war and every conflict. He saw it up close too much. Now it was on the face of one of his own. She was about to give up. She deserved it. Dixie had seen so much war. So much heartache and pain and suffering. She was born of war, and—as many nations like her—had lost more than she ever gained.

Just as her eyes began to flutter, they shot wide in shock and terror, all of this was aimed at Alfred. She started grunting and pushing against his chest weakly, trying to get away from him. God, the poor thing was probably in shock, thinking Alfred was Creek nation. Alfred just pulled her closer, glaring at the floor.

"Alfred...Al...s-stop. Stop it! You'll kill yourself!" she croaked.

"Don't care."

Both Francis and Arthur stared in shock as her wounds started to heal. But…Dixie didn't have that much power. Even as a nation, she couldn't have pulled this off. But, then, why was she still alive? Why hadn't she passed while they'd been digging them out or instantly after the blast?

She looked panicked as she stared pleadingly at Arthur. "H-He's...giving me too...too much life f-force."

Without hearing anything further, Arthur savagely jerked Dixie out of Al's hands and pulled her away by her twisted, shattered arm. The screams from the both of them were like something from his conjurings. If Alfred gave her too much, he'd end up dying, only slowing her death. Then the country they both loved would go down in flames. He was too important. Dixie's life—though important and obviously loved—wasn't worth the fate of the world. If America went down, everything would change, and not for the better. Economies would crash, wars would start, crime would spike, terrorism would become a petty crime. They needed the superpower to survive, or else the entire international infrastructure would collapse around them. Dixie realized that and was willingly throwing away her life.

"No! Stop! Let me, dammit!" Alfred snarled as he struggled to get her back from Arthur.

"A-Alfred...sweetie," she choked out with a watery smile and equally watery eyes. Arthur got down and put pressure on the flesh around the warped, still-warm metal. "It's gonna be okay...it'll be okay."

"No!"

The paramedics were pulling Alfred onto a gurney. A second gurney came for Dixie, and not a moment too soon. She was barely conscious, blood dribbling from her mouth and coloring her lips andteeth a deep, almost black shade of crimson. The blood coming from her wound was slowing. Her heart was giving out. Arthur thought of Alfred as a son, and the terrified, defeated look in his eyes just then...this girl was special to make him have that look. Arthur looked back at Dixie and swore. Her eyes were dull, lifeless. She was…she was gone. A paramedic was climbing onto the gurney to start CPR. It was no use. She was too far gone. Only…

Arthur's eyes lit up as he saw the fading magic on her chest. That was her only chance now. Sighing, he reached out as he gathered magic in his fingertips, brushing them over her arm as he pretended to walk past the gurney. She jerked against his touch as life-giving power shot through her. A gasp rattled through her chest. Arthur looked back just in time to see surprised blue eyes gawking at the ceiling as she struggled to fight off the medic. Her eyes slipped shut again only moments later, but she was safe now.

"Consider this my birthday gift to you, lad. I never could manage to do you right. Hopefully I've redeemed myself here."

-/-/-

"Louise? It's Dixie."

"Oh! Dixie, dear, what a surprise!" The woman was clearly smiling on the other end of the line; that was a good sign. "How are you? I haven't seen you in months."

"I know. Sorry 'bout that. I been...busy." A brief pang of guilt flashed through her chest. She had promised Louise support if she needed it and then gone gallivanting off without so much as a warning. Necessary, certainly, but not a very nice thing to do. Then there was the two months of healing. And hse still wasn't anywhere near healed enough.

"Is everything okay? You sound like you've got a rattle in your chest, sweetie."

"You'd be surprised." Honestly, it seemed like everything and their dog was lodged somewhere in her. They had just gotten the last of the metal from her right lung. Taking a deep breath, she got down to the real reason she called. "We got 'im, Louise. We got the man who killed Malachi."

Silence hung heavy on the line for several long seconds, and Dixie began to rethink the wisdom of sharing this information, opening wounds that had barely begun to heal. But she needed the closure. It would help her heal. Like it was healing Dixie.

"…Oh…." Her voice was shaky, the unmistakable tremor of someone holding back tears. "Oh my….t-the man who…."

The guilt returned, gnawing at Dixie's gut like some kind of animal. "I'm sorry. I know it's painful." Swallowing hard against her own emotion, she pressed on. "I just...thought ya should know. That you'd want-"

"Who was it?"

There was no mistaking the firm resolve in her tone. "…a man who did a lotta bad and very little good."

"And where is he now? Prison?"

"The morgue." Taking another deep breath, she continued. "I got the autopsy report in fronta me now. He's gone for sure."

"Then the bastard won't hurt anyone else ever again." Dixie blinked in surprise at the fire in the older woman's tone. "I hope you gave him hell, dear. It's what he deserved."

"I gave him nothing but it til the end, ma'am." She shifted uneasily, grimacing at the tugging sensation in her sides. "I hate ta cut this short, but I'd rather not say too much more on the phone. I'll swing by the café as soon as I'm able. Alright?"

"Make sure you do, dear. I look forward to seeing you." The friendly tone was back, seeming distinctly out of place after her miniature tirade. "And bring Stonewall and Ulysses with you! I miss those two terribly."

Hanging up after saying her goodbyes, Dixie settled back and picked up the photos Alfred had left behind when he left to grab her something to eat. One photo, of that bastard's head and shoulders on the autopsy table, showed his eyes as closed. Tucking the others behind it, she focused on that one. She was still sitting up in her hospital bed, the sheets up around her waist as she went slowly, methodically, through the autopsy report included with the pictures. Her own pulse and the hiss of oxygen were the only background noise.

"You keep staring at those pictures, and I'm going to start wondering if you're really as okay as you say you are," Alfred said from the doorway.

"It's just...hard ta believe it's over," she murmured, turning to the second page of the report. "I was on the run fer long enough, was stressed over it fer long enough, then fer it ta just…end. Seems mighty anticlimactic."

"I know."

Looking up, Dixie gave him a half-smile as he shook a protein shake and stuck a straw in it before offering it to her. She took a long sip and savored before swallowing. "So we gonna go back to the usual arrangement? I watch yer back, insteada the other way around?"

"No way; I'm still watching you." He grinned. "We've still got a much bigger job to do, you and I." He sat near her legs on the bed as he pulled the table over and sat the report down after snatching it from her. "I'm just glad you're okay."

He leaned forward to kiss her, his hand brushing against her neck in what was meant to be a comforting gesture, eliciting a grimace. IT was still hard…embarrassingly so. Alfred snatched his hand away looking like he stepped on a baby.

"Fuck! Shit! Sorry, I'm sorry!"

There was a brief pause between them before she laughed, shaking her head self-depreciatingly. "I'm fine. It's just gonna take time." Her smile widened. "You shoulda seen the look on yer face."

"Forgive me for worrying," he muttered darkly, his hand dropping to his side. His glare only lasted a moment before his expression softened. "But it's good to see you smiling again."

"I could say tha same for you. According ta Texas and Louisiana Purchase, you've become quite the taskmaster while I'm outta commission." He smiled as she ran her fingers through his wheat blonde hair, leaning into her touch. "You should go get some sleep. Ya look like shit."

"My thoughts exactly. Though you and I both know it's so much easier for me to relax when you're around."

Dixie smiled and carefully shifted to give him a bit of extra room as he stretched out beside her as she reclined the bed. Cautious fingers explored the bandaging littered across her body with a light touch, his head resting on her good shoulder. He pressed a kiss to her forehead, and this time, Dixie let him. She was tired, and she had pressed the button to administer more morphine. "I'm lucky to have someone who's so understanding when I do stupid shit like drug their drinks."

Dixie laughed quietly. "Someone has ta put up with yer bullshit." Tilting her head back to look up with him, she brushed her nose against his. "Not to mention make sure ya do yer work, stay outta trouble, don't accidentally set yerself on fire, don't get yerself shot-"

He snorted. "You've made your point. I've got a lot to thank you for, and a lot to feel lucky about." Pulling back just far enough that he could look her in the eye, he hesitated, sudden nervousness sending tingles down through his chest and arms. "And being someone that doesn't always know how to express himself properly...This is kind of difficult for me to say, but…." His smile came out lopsided and sheepish. "All that looking out for me…it's one of dozens of reasons why I love you."

He had the pleasure of seeing a rare, full smile spread across her mouth just before Dixie initiated a brief, innocent kiss. "That's good. 'Cause I'm fairly certain that I love you, too. I doubt I woulda followed you all this time if I didn't." The quiet hospital room, the silence, the stillness of it all…it only helped to drive home the last relieving fact. It was finally over. She was finally safe. She was hardly recovered though. She doubted she ever would be, but she and Alfred would work through it. Like they always did. Her fingers curled together with his, the heartbeat resonating from her chest keeping time with his own.

Safe.