A/N: Since watching the fourth season, I've developed an inexplicable fascination with Ellen—particularly Young!Ellen, as portrayed by the wonderfully talented and sadly underrated Sprague Grayden. This will be a series of short stories, all about the ways Ellen looked after Neal when he was growing up.
The sun had gone down hours ago. The small waiting room of the U.S. Marshals' D.C. office was illuminated by the dim, warm glow of the lamps that adorned the four corners of the room. It was nearly empty, save for three people.
Kathryn Hill sat pensively, her elbows propped on the arms of the chair, her chin resting on her laced fingers as she watched the toddler in front of her happily playing with his toy cars on the floor. Poor Neal was so little, so innocent, and completely unaware of the tragedy that had befallen his family. Lately, every time he had asked where his daddy was, his mother had told him that James had gone to fight bad guys somewhere far away and that he would be back soon. Kathryn knew the lie wouldn't hold up for much longer.
Her eyes drifted upward, across the room, where Anna Bennett was pacing anxiously. Anna had not, Kathryn noted with concern, been herself since James' arrest. Of course shock, anger, and heartbreak, among other things, were completely normal responses after what they had gone through. But not like this. It was like Anna wasn't even there anymore.
Kathryn sent up a silent prayer for Neal, hoping against hope that the Marshals would place her close to the Bennetts in WitSec, because if Anna didn't snap out of this soon, Neal was gonna need somebody to look after him.
She glanced down again. On the carpet at her feet, Neal yawned and rubbed his eyes. It was way past his bedtime. Abandoning his toys, the three-year-old climbed into Kathryn's lap and laid his head on her chest.
She smiled at him. "Hey buddy. You gettin' sleepy?"
"Mm-mm," he murmured with a small shake of his head, his drooping eyelids betraying his denial. Five minutes later he was fast asleep.
The sight of him, sleeping peacefully, exhausted from a long day, nearly broke Kathryn's heart. This sweet little boy's whole world was about to be turned upside down, and he had no idea. She wrapped her arms around him and held him close, stroking his dark hair as tears began to form in her eyes.
She thought back to the video message she had recorded for him the previous day, and the promise she had made reverberated inside her head. I will do everything I can to keep you safe.
Anna silently walked over to them and sat down beside Kathryn. She reached over and slid her hand into her son's. The sleeping boy reflexively closed his fingers around hers.
They sat there for several long moments before Kathryn finally broke the silence.
"What are we gonna tell him?"
Anna shook her head numbly. "I don't—I don't want to think about it."
"Well we need to think about it." Kathryn's tone sharpened slightly, just enough to get Anna's attention. "He's gonna keep asking where his daddy is. What are we gonna say? And as he gets older, he'll start asking questions about when he was a baby. He'll want to see pictures—most of the pictures in his baby book have his name written underneath. How are we going to explain why he's got a different name now?"
Anna gave a tired, frustrated sigh. "All right. Um...for starters, I don't think we should tell him we're in Witness Protection. As soon as the Marshals give us our WitSec identities, we'll start calling him by his new name. And we can move all of his baby pictures to a different album. He's young enough right now that he might not remember his birth name in a few years."
"Why don't you want him to know?" Kathryn asked.
"He's too little to understand why it's so important to keep it secret." Anna said. "He might let something slip to a classmate or a teacher. They'd ask questions...it could complicate things."
Kathryn pursed her lips, hesitant, then finally nodded. "That makes sense. But we should tell him when he's older."
"We can tell him his real name when he turns eighteen." Anna agreed. She took a deep breath. "But I don't want him to know the truth about James—ever."
"Anna—" Kathryn started to object.
"I don't want my son growing up knowing that his father was a murderer!" Anna's whispered exclamation carried a tremor, and she quickly brushed a stray tear from her eyes before it could escape.
"So what, then?" Kathryn frowned. "You're gonna lie to him?"
"It's for his own good." Anna said defensively. "I'll...I'll tell him James died a hero—taking down a bunch of bad guys. A little boy shouldn't have to grow up with the burden of knowing his father was a criminal."
"And if he asks me about it?" Kathryn murmured. "If he wants to hear me tell the story?"
"You'll tell him the same thing."
"I can't lie to him." Kathryn shook her head.
Anna met her friend's eyes. "Kathy...you know you're family. And you know I absolutely want you to be with us in WitSec. But I have to ask you to respect my wishes on this. Please."
Kathryn drew a deep breath. "All right. I will. But it's up to you to make up the details. And I'm not lying to him unless it's necessary; if he asks me what happened to James, I'll corroborate your story, but that's all I'll do. If he gets curious about why I won't go into detail, I'll tell him that I don't like to talk about it because the memory is too painful. That part at least will be true."
"All right." Anna nodded. "I can work with that. It wouldn't be fair of me to ask anything more than that from you."
Across the room, the door to the back offices swung open, and a uniformed Marshal stepped out, holding two manila envelopes. He walked towards them and handed one to Anna. "These are the new identities we've given you and your son. And this—" he handed the other envelope to Kathryn "—is yours."
Anna slid her fingernail under the flap to break the seal, and pulled out a few of the papers inside, "Rebecca Brooks." She read her new name aloud, then sifted through the papers to find the name they had given her son. "And...Daniel Brooks."
Kathryn loosened her hold on Neal—no, she thought, Daniel—so she could open her own envelope. "Ellen Parker."
"We've got a car waiting outside to take you to a hotel for the night." The Marshal informed them. "Tomorrow morning you'll be flown out to St. Louis, Missouri."
Anna's eyes shifted to Kathryn. "All of us?"
The Marshal nodded and pointed to one of the papers. "If you look at the addresses there, you'll see that you've been placed in a suburb a few miles outside of the downtown area. And you—" he turned to Kathryn. "—will be right next door."
Kathryn's eyes lit up. "That's wonderful. Thank you."
The usually stoic Marshal smiled. "Everyone here loves you guys. Go on. They're waiting for you out there."
Anna rose from her chair and bent down to collect the scattered toy cars on the floor. Kathryn hefted the sleeping Neal and stood up, and the two women locked eyes, their expressions turning suddenly somber.
"Are you ready for this...Rebecca?"
"As much as I'll ever be." They started walking towards the door. "Let's go, Ellen."