"Start at the beginning." Said the Judge calmly, "And continue until you come to the end, then stop." Alice in Wonderland

If only it were that easy.

.***.

Peter only stopped pacing when Mozzie pounded the wall with a closed fist so hard the dangling light above their heads wobbled. "Sorry," he said, sitting next to El and not meaning it at all. He wanted to pace again.

"Just go over it again," El urged, holding his hand and talking in that low, soothing voice that made the kinks in Peter's back automatically work themselves out. "You were with him after Organized Crime took off and then…"

"And then Neal's heart stopped," Mozzie spat, glaring at Peter from across the room. Four rows of chairs separated El and the FBI agents from the quirky con, but Peter could still feel the animosity rolling off the other man in waves.

"They got him back in the ambulance," El reminded gently, and Peter winced, remembering Neal's keening screams merging eerily with the whine of the ambulance as they sped through the city. He remembered the look on Neal's face as he begged Peter to just let him die. I'm so tired. He'd said, tears obscuring his brilliant blue eyes. Please, Peter.

"We nailed Organized Crime, though. And Organized Crime nailed Starks." Jones pointed out dully, scrubbing a hand over his face, trying to scare the image of Neal lying, bruised and battered, on the cold concrete, eyes staring at nothing at all.

"Neal's life isn't a price to pay for justice." Mozzie snapped. He'd been with Neal for years and never before had the man led such a dangerous lifestyle (and this was the same person who'd conned the titans of Wall Street.) A couple months with the FBI and suddenly his friend was thrown into Riker's (not a place for a little White Collar criminal like Neal) beat up by a bunch of cops (which only validated Mozzie's distrust of The System) and left out to dry by the very people he'd agreed to help.

He hadn't stepped in on Neal's request. Neal swore he could do this, that it would be alright, that everything would get better if they just let Peter nail Organized Crime so they could go on with their lives. Now he was regretting not breaking Neal out of Riker's and running when they'd had the chance. At least the kid would still be alive.

"You're right, Mozzie." Peter sighed, finally looking at the smaller man who was so tensed as he perched on his seat that he looked like the wrong word would send him on a rampage. "I never meant for it to get this far."

Mozzie opened his mouth, possibly to retort with something like how far were you going to let it go? But before he could get the words out a haggard-looking Dr. Watling took a detour into the little waiting room. And since they were the only ones there…

"How is he?" Peter asked, stumbling to his feet.

"He's hanging on." The Watling said, scrubbing a hand over his face. "But anything could happen tonight. The next twenty-four hours are going to be crucial."

"Can we see him?" El asked, looking over the doctor's shoulder as if Neal was just around the corner, waiting for them.

Watling looked at all of them there and sighed. He knew the FBI took care of their own – he'd been treating agents who'd been injured in the line of duty for over a decade – but if rumors were to be believed then the poor man struggling for his life in the other room had also been hurt by the people he'd been trained to trust.

If it wasn't for Peter, who looked so guilty you would have thought he'd stabbed the guy himself, he probably would have told them all to go home and leave his patient well enough alone for the night. But he couldn't stop looking at the senior Agent. He knew what it was like to feel responsible for the charges under you. And he knew what it was like to think you failed at everything a leader was supposed to do.

"Just for a couple of minutes. He won't be conscious." Lucky man. When Neal woke up, he'd be in a world of pain that would make the previous weeks' injuries seem like paper cuts.

Mozzie bumped Peter's shoulder as he went past. It had taken him years to build Neal into a suave, successful con artist and a genuinely good man. It had taken Peter just under a month to kill him.

El held Peter's arm. "Just go slow," she cautioned him. "This may take awhile."

Over Neal's bedside that night were the typical tears, and sobs, the typical heartfelt confessions and clashes between FBI and con. There was also the not-so-typical life story.

"Shouldn't someone call his parents?" Jones asked, looking at Mozzie who was leaning against the window, staring at Neal's heart monitor as if he needed the rise and fall of the needle as reassurance that his friend was still alive.

"Mozzie?" El murmured, and because Mozzie was genuinely fond of this woman he actually answered when she spoke to him.

"He doesn't have any parents. Orphan." This was before everyone knew that Mozzie was also an orphan, before they knew he grew up in a city orphanage. This was also before they knew that Mozzie was lying to them, that Neal didn't have a mother - she'd died in childbirth - but he had a father. That Mozzie was holding the information back because the man was one of the nastiest brutes he'd ever met.

But they listened to Mozzie's lie and nodded, thinking it the truth. "They died when he was young. Car accident. Neal's alone in the world."

It was sobering to think that everyone who cared about the man lying in the bed was there in that room (with the notable exception of June, who would be there two days later, taking a cab from her plane directly to the hospital to cry over Neal as the convalescing man reassured her over and over that he was alright.) It made it all seem more serious, somehow.

"What do we do now?" Jones asked near dawn. This was going up on his list of the longest days of his life. Was it only twelve hours ago they were assuring Neal they would watch his back? Had it only been eight hours since the stabbing?

Peter vetoed the idea of leaving Neal alone – after what he'd done with Riker's, after everything the guy had been through the in the past weeks, he could only view that as cruel and unusual punishment.

"Mozzie and I can stay with him during the day," El said, patting her husband's arm, "Go home, get some rest. He'll be right here when you get back."

"That's what I'm worried about," Peter said, kissing her lips as he walked out the door.

.***.

Explaining to Hughes about Organized Crime was a lot easier than Peter thought it would be.

"Jones already gave me a heads up." Hughes sighed, looking at the clutter on his desk as if he had no idea how it got there. "At about midnight last night." There was a pregnant pause, and then Hughes rustled some papers and snorted. "Damn shame. He's a good kid."

"So the Bureau will pay for his hospital expenses?" Peter asked, his voice hard and allowing room for nothing but a yes.

Hughes finally put down the papers. "What happened, Burke? Really? I got a cursory summary from Jones but I'm getting the feeling he left a couple details out."

So Peter told him. All of it. From when Organized Crime tried to use Neal as a bargaining chip the first time to his wrongful imprisonment to the rape (he debated on this point, not wanting to reveal what to Neal was highly personal, but Hughes had to know the magnitude of this mess) to the cops' beating to the hospital to the stabbing to the hospital and by the end Hughes was looking at him, mouth open. "I can't believe it."

"It's terrible, sir. He'll need…two weeks' leave at least. And I think assurance from you that we will never put him back in prison," At Hughes's look he raised his voice slightly, "Never go back to a prison he obviously doesn't belong in. Like a maximum security. Like Riker's. I think if you told him that it would go a long way, sir."

Hughes tapped his fingers together, pondering, contemplating. "Damn shame." He murmured again, then met Peter's gaze. "When will he be up for visitors?"

.***.

One week later, Peter was sitting with Neal in the hospital. They'd shooed everyone else away – in addition to Mozzie, El, June, and an assortment of FBI agents, Neal had attracted the attentions of so many members of the nursing staff that it was occasionally hard to move around in his room without bumping into a woman in scrubs.

But today it was just them. Neal was sitting up, looking healthier than ever, but there was something in his eyes, a knowledge of pain, that hadn't been there before Peter had gone on vacation (he would never go to the Florida Keys again.)

"We'll deal with this, Neal. No matter what the outcome." Neal just nodded, a jerk of his head, barely acknowledging Peter's words. "And Neal…Neal. Look at me." The con's eyes flicked to him for a second and he winced. His face was still covered in yellow and green bruises.

"You're not any less of a man. You're not a bad person. There's nothing wrong with you." Neal looked away, unbelieving. "Hey," he said, his voice only very slightly louder but Neal winced as if he'd been shot. "You're not any less of a man. You're not a bad person. There's nothing wrong with you." He enunciated the words, laying down each syllable carefully until Neal got it.

Neal looked at him. Really looked at him. "Thank you," He said, his voice low and warm and heartfelt, like there was a lump stuck in his throat and he wanted to get it out. "For everything."

"You have nothing to thank me for," Peter said, thinking of all the times he'd let Neal down in the last month.

"You came back for me," Neal said, squeezing Peter's hand. "Not many people would have done that."

Peter's lips twitched into something like a smile, and he patted Neal's hand as he turned towards the door, ready for whatever information was about to come through it.

.***

the end.

what? not much of an ending? what happens to neal? does he have AIDS? dunno. write your own ending. perhaps we'll write a semi-sequel and post it, but we don't want to mess with whatever realities you craft for yourself after reading this. maybe in your world neal dies of AIDS within the year. maybe he doesn't have it and he and peter go on to do all the interesting and amazing things they do on the show.

but it's completely up to you. this is life, guys. write your own ending.