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Holding On (By a Thin, Thin Thread)

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Neal Caffrey took as deep a breath as he dared and tried to tune out the cacophony of police sirens, crowd murmur, and whumpwhumpwhump of the helicopter that had just arrived overhead. He closed his eyes and wished, for the first time ever, that he had paid more attention to Mozzie's lessons in meditation.

“Neal!” Peter Burke's panicked voice carried over the horde of people, and his hurried footsteps pounded the pavement somewhere behind Neal, moving closer and closer.

“Don't, Peter!” Neal called out uselessly. Peter would never abandon him in the middle of the Rockefeller Center plaza with a bomb strapped around his neck, despite the danger inherent in a psychopath literally holding Neal's life, and anyone else's within a couple hundred yards, in his hand.

Peter came to an abrupt halt just barely within Neal's peripheral vision, but Neal was too afraid to move his head to get a look at his partner. He probably didn't want to see Peter's face anyway; he certainly didn't want to see his own.

“Please get a bomb suit,” Neal pleaded when Peter didn't say anything or even move for a full minute.

That broke the FBI agent out of his stupor, and Peter dropped to his knees directly in front of Neal. “If you're not wearing one, I'm not wearing one,” he said distractedly, as he studied the device around Neal's neck, and then the handcuffs keeping his arms above his head and wrapped around the handrail, which forced Neal into an uncomfortable kneeling position.

Neal could see the Christmas lights from the famous tree reflected in Peter's eyes, and a sharp pang of fear shot through him. “That's foolish and suicidal. Go put on a suit, Peter.”

Peter frowned and finally allowed himself to look at Neal. Naked terror filled his friend's eyes. “How are you doing?”

Neal raised his eyebrows, unable to believe that he was even being asked such a thing. “Peachy,” was the sarcastic response. “How about you?”

“Yeah, that was a pretty stupid question.” At least Peter could admit it. “What happened, Neal? Who did this?”

“Keller. He surprised me at June's and knocked me out. When I came to, I was here.” He lifted one wrist far enough to make the cuffs ding against the metal railing. He didn't know how long he'd been unconscious, but it was long enough for him to lose feeling in his fingers, which was why he hadn't picked or slipped the restraints. “He was here for a minute too. Gave me a melodramatic monologue about the bomb and how if I moved I'd go boom.”

“He does like the sound of his own voice.” Peter pulled out his set of keys and went to work on the cuffs.

A few seconds later, Neal cried out as his hands dropped to the cruddy sidewalk and blood rushed back into them. The pins and needles sensation was far from pleasant, but it was the fact that his body had startled and dipped forward for a moment that had Neal terrified. He squeezed his eyes shut and waited for... something to indicate that the bomb was about to go off. Would it beep? Would he just be here one moment and gone the next?

“Sorry, sorry!” Peter apologized and his own hands shot out, but he didn't know what to do with them. “You're okay,” he said, when he saw that Neal was shivering. Finally, he squeezed Neal's shoulders and rubbed his arms, trying to get the kid warm. Damn, how was it that he just noticed that Neal was sitting on his heels on cold concrete in nothing more than his suit pants and button-down in 35-degree weather. “Where's your jacket?”

“What?” Neal asked, voice breathy as he panted through the adrenaline rush from the scare.

Peter leaned to the side and called out toward the barricade, “Hey! Someone bring me a blanket or a coat or something. He's going to get hypothermia.”

“It's not going to matter much when I go boom.” Neal peered up at him through his lashes, still trying to get himself under control.

“You're not going to go boom. Don't talk like that,” Peter admonished.

“Keller's had it out for me for a while. He saw his chance to get rid of me for good, and he took it. I can't say that I won't do the same thing if all of this works out in my favor and I see him again.”

“Agent Burke!” someone from the barricade shouted, and Peter reluctantly got to his feet.

“I'll be right back,” he said, patting Neal's shoulder as he went. “Don't go boom.”

“You'd better come back wearing a suit!” Neal called after him.

~~!!~~

Peter hated to leave Neal alone, but he didn't have much of a choice. The Assistant Chief of this precinct had been beckoning him for the last few minutes before he'd finally resorted to screaming his name.

“What is it, Harry?”

“You have got to keep back behind the barricade, Burke. It'll be my ass if that bomb goes off with you in the blast zone.”

Peter gave Harry his dirtiest glare. “I'm not leaving my consultant out there alone and…,” he dropped his voice but it didn't lose any of the fierce tone, “…scared. Until we figure out a way to get that damn thing off of him, I'm going to be out there. Now, if you have anything useful to contribute, call my cell.” He turned around and took two steps toward Neal before Harry's voice stopped him.

“Bomb squad got a hit on the device. It's a Gatling Model 45 Alpha. It can't be cut off or removed without disarming the detonator.”

Peter's chin dropped to his chest and he took a deep, steadying breath. “What's the detonator's range?”

“Five miles,” Harry replied. “Did your man have any ideas about who's doing this?”

“His name's Matthew Keller. Apparently, he's escaped from Supermax and wants to make our lives hell today.” Peter had a sudden thought and looked up, scanning all the nearby buildings as he turned around. “Keller likes to watch. I'll bet he's nearby. Somewhere that has several escape routes though. Have your men vet these buildings and narrow down a list of potential hole-ups.”

Harry snapped his fingers and one of the officers standing behind him took off a run, presumably to pull blueprints and get a team started. “Would you at least put on a suit before you go back out there?”

Peter shook his head. Neal was someone who needed both tactile and visual reassurances, and Peter couldn't do either in a bulky ordinance suit that weighed 60 pounds, at least.

“Boss!” Diana ran out from behind one of the fire trucks, holding up her cell phone. “We just got a call that someone triggered the silent alarm at Investment Savings and Loan on the 8th floor of One Rockefeller.”

Peter gritted his teeth and stalked over to her as he pointed in that direction. “Go. Take SWAT and any officers that Harry can spare. This is Keller. He's turned Neal into one big distraction so that he can hit the bank.”

Diana clearly wanted to ask about the logic behind all this, but she caught a glimpse of Neal's hunched form across the way, and turned her heel. She was shouting orders at all of the nearby officers when she disappeared from view.

He breathed a short-lived sigh of relief. Diana could handle the bank robbery, and maybe even Keller if he was foolish enough to be there in person. Peter doubted it, but anything was possible with this particular madman.

Before he could move through the barricade again, a medic ran over holding out a blanket and a bottle of water. “For your man out there. Is he injured?”

Peter shook his head as he accepted the items. “He probably has a concussion from being knocked unconscious, but he hasn't complained of any symptoms.” He couldn't voice that that was probably because there was a damn bomb around his neck, demanding his constant attention and focus.

The medic nodded. “We'll be standing by over here in case we're needed.”

“Thank you.” He turned once more to go back to Neal's side and found Clinton Jones in his path.

“What can I do to help, Peter?” He glanced over his shoulder at Neal and visibly shuddered.

Scrubbing his free hand over his face, Peter debated the question. He should really send Jones to help Diana with Keller and the heist, but he needed to let Hughes and Elizabeth know what was going on, and Neal needed someone to be with him. “Suit up with the Explosive Ordinance guys and take these to Neal. I need to make some calls.”

Jones took the blanket and bottle and strode toward Neal, blatantly ignoring Peter's first order.

~~!!~~

Neal despised being dependent on anyone else. He'd been pretty self-sufficient since he was a little boy, and his mother abruptly stopped the charade that they were a normal, happy family. Ellen had taught him a lot, and later, Mozzie had taken over that role. He should ask Peter to call Mozzie so that he could talk to him one last time. There were things, and hiding places, that Mozzie should know.

“Hey,” Jones' baritone greeted him a moment before a scratchy blanket settled across his shoulders.

Opening his eyes, Neal looked up at Jones as the man moved around to crouch in front of him. “It's really nice to see you, Jones, but I need you to go back to the barricade. I can't be responsible for your death too.”

“You won't be. That's all on Keller.” He twisted the lid off the bottle of water and held it out toward Neal.

“No, thanks.” Neal's hands twitched, wanting to pull the blanket closer around him but touching the bomb the first time had activated it. Who knew what touching it a second time would do. He couldn't risk it.

“The medics said that you needed some fluids. I can get them out here to start an IV, if you want.” It was a little fib for the greater good. While the medic hadn't said that to Jones, she might have told Peter. Besides, Neal's eyes were looking glassy, and there were lines of pain forming around his clenched jaw.

“No!” Neal's voice rose with his panic level. He squeezed his eyes shut and quelled the feeling as best he could. “Please don't bring any more people out here.”

“Then, drink some.” Jones was holding the bottle close to his lips when he opened his eyes.

“I can't.” He hated to admit it but he added, “Nauseous.”

“Oh.” Jones frowned. He set the bottle aside and moved so that he was sitting cross-legged tailor style. “Did you finish your Christmas shopping?”

Neal let out a sound that fell somewhere between a sob and a laugh. Jones was settling in for the long haul and clearly had distraction techniques that he'd been hiding during their long stakeout nights in the van. “No. Think this will get me some extra time?”

“It's a pretty damn good excuse.” Jones smiled, clearly pleased that Neal was playing along. “Who do you think got Diana in the Secret Santa?”

“I'm hoping it was Grant,” Neal replied, naming one of their probies, who had the biggest crush on Diana. “And I'm guessing he gets her perfume or something equally girly that Diana won't know what to do with.”

Jones chuckled. “I got Peter, and I still have no clue what I'm getting him. Any ideas?”

Neal mulled it over while he scratched an itch on the tip of his nose. It took a moment for him to realize what he'd done, and he froze with wide eyes and a convulsive gulp of saliva. “Jones?”

“It's okay, Caffrey. The motion sensor isn't that sensitive. It'll only pick it up if you move away from your current position.” Jones had gotten a briefing from the Explosive Ordinance squad when he arrived on scene.

“Are you sure? Maybe you should head back to the barricade anyway.”

“No way,” Jones shook his head and reached out to pull the blanket tighter around Neal's shaking body. “You still have to tell me what Peter's gift is going to be.”

“Beer of the month club?” Neal himself had been struggling with Peter's gift. Even though his friend had told him not to worry about gifts unless his name was drawn in the Secret Santa, Neal wanted to get him something. Peter was always dragging his ass out of the line of fire, figuratively and literally. The least Neal could do was get him a Christmas present.

“That's not a bad idea. Anything else?”

Neal bit his lip as he thought about it, but he was drawing a blank. His head was hurting, and he'd started shivering hard enough to make his teeth chatter, so there were several things battling it out inside his body for his attention.

“Neal?” Jones called his name when he zoned out, staring into the distance over Jones' shoulder.

“Hmm?”

“Peter's coming back over.”

Peter stepped into Neal's field of vision. He scrutinized Neal for a long moment before speaking to Jones. “How's he doing?”

“I'm right here,” Neal interjected irritably.

Peter looked concerned, which didn't bode well for whatever had been going on back at the barricade, and he didn't bother to correct himself. Instead, he turned his gaze to Jones and waited for the reply.

“He's alright. Cold, but I think the blanket's helping.”

It was, but not as much as he would have thought. Maybe shock was setting in too. Just what he needed. “What's the latest on Keller?” Neal asked, lifting his hand just enough to grasp the hem of Peter's pants. It served its purpose, and Peter turned his attention to Neal.

“Diana's supposed to radio in and let me know. SWAT was still getting into position when I talked to her a minute ago. The heist is still in progress.”

“What's so special about Investment Savings and Loan anyway?” It was mostly a rhetorical question on Jones' behalf, but Neal's ears perked up.

“Did you say Investment? They moved in on the 8th floor here recently and just got a lucrative contract with a government-funded holdings company. There's probably upwards of two million dollars in their vault.” It was habit for Neal to keep abreast of all the local news of interest in his former and current lines of work.

“Keller's trying to skip town with a nice little nest egg,” Peter commented.

“Yeah,” Neal agreed, biting his lip to keep his teeth from quaking too loudly. He was so cold.

Peter's cell beeped causing all three men to jump. He read the message quickly and then dropped the phone back into his pocket. “Diana said she and SWAT are in pursuit of a man they believe to be Keller. There were two guys inside the bank vault dead from gunshot wounds to the head.”

Neal's breath stuttered. Keller had never hesitated to kill before, so it wasn't surprising, but he'd also never had such complete and utter control over Neal's life either. “Peter, take Jones and get behind the damn barricade right now!”

“We're not leaving you here,” Peter replied. “Stop ask-”

“Just go!” Neal shouted. “Elizabeth needs you, Peter. Your wife needs you to make it through today. It's Christmas Eve for Christ's sake.”

Peter's hand dropped onto Neal's shoulder and squeezed hard enough to elicit a groan of pain from his friend. He crouched so that they were nose-to-nose. “Stop! You think that I don't know what I'm doing out here? How close I am to an explosive device that Matthew Keller has all of the control over? You don't think that I don't need you to get through today? You're important to me, Neal. To me, and to the Bureau, and to our team. We. Are. Not. Leaving. You. Here.”

Neal stared defiantly back at Peter for a moment before deflating. He'd never seen Peter that passionate about anything, and he'd never heard that tone before. He couldn't even describe it, but it stirred something inside of him – a want, a need to survive this. He took a deep breath and slowly moved his hand to cover Peter's. “This thing has to have a signal that transmits to it from the detonator so that it can be armed or set off. Have Cyber track down the signal and see if they can jam it. If they can do that, then we can get figure out how to disarm it and get it off, right?”

Peter smiled a genuine smile for the first time since this whole mess began. The Caffrey brain was kicking into high gear. “Jones, would you go relay that to Harry and our Cyber Crimes team? Ask the EOD guys about it too. Have them pull up their specs on this thing.”

Jones nodded and took off toward the barricade at a run.

“It's going to be okay, Neal,” Peter said, squeezing his shoulder one more time before letting go.

~~!!~~

It took a surprisingly short amount of time for Cyber Crimes to hack the signal and block it from being accessed. Peter was coaxed away by Jones as the bomb squad moved in to disarm the device.

Neal held his breath as they worked, trying his best to stay focused on not squirming away as they took a pair of bolt cutters, a handheld torch, and some wire cutters to the metal collar. An eternity passed before he felt more than heard the lock disengage, and then he was abruptly pulled backwards by one of the bomb disarmament techs. There was shouting as he tried to get his feet under him so that he could run with the tech, but there was no time. As he stared at the man left behind to secure the bomb, a light flashed to life on the collar and everything exploded.

~~!!~~

Neal groggily woke later, wrapped in overly warm blankets. Drugs had dampened the pain, but it was still there, mostly in his head. His room was dark, but he wasn't alone. Someone was holding his hand.

He tried to speak, to ask where he was and what was going on, but all that he managed was a moan and something that sounded vaguely like a “Wha?” to him.

“Neal?” His name was muffled, but he recognized the timbre of the voice. Relief filled him; Peter was okay and was here with him.

Before the medication carried him away again, he felt a smaller hand on his head as fingers gently carded through his hair.

~~!!~~

Peter and Elizabeth watched Neal succumb to sleep again as they sat on either side of his hospital bed. His eyes were bandaged, damaged in the blast, but his breathing and heart rate slowed enough to indicate rest.

Peter hung his head, feeling like a failure. There was nothing that he could do to help Neal get better, and he dreaded the moment that his friend was aware enough to realize that there was something wrong with his vision and his hearing. His eardrums had been ruptured but would heal soon. However, the doctors were being cagey about the prognosis for his eyes, which, in Peter's experience, was not a good sign.

To make matters worse, Keller had escaped with six figures worth of the bank's money. Diana reported that he'd literally jumped off the third floor of a parking garage into a dumpster. She'd gotten a few shots off, but he'd hopped into a waiting car with his loot in a pair of duffles and taken off. Clearly, he'd planned out the escape route, but the more noteworthy piece of intel was that he had a partner driving the getaway car. Peter had Diana and Jones working that angle from the office while he supplied them with hourly updates on Neal's condition.

“Hon,” Elizabeth's soft voice was enough to raise his head, “he's going to be okay. Everything's going to be okay.” She was more than a little worried about her husband. Physically, he was a little bruised and scraped from the explosion's shock wave and debris, but emotionally... She was concerned.

In a rare moment of defeat, Peter asked, “How do you know that?”

She smiled the knowing smile of a woman, of a wife, of a friend. “Because he's Neal and you're you, and we'll all get through this together.”

Carolers were making their way through the hallways nearby, singing about tidings of comfort and joy when Peter moved to his wife's side to pull her up and into a hug. He didn't know what he would do without her, nor did he know what he would do without Neal. They were both such big parts of his life, and he hoped that she was right, that they would make it out the other side and leave this Christmas as a distant memory.

~Finis (but to be continued in a sequel story)

Thank you for reading!