Rooming With the CIA
Except that inside her apartment, the CIA was waiting for her.
When did all of this happen? When had they gone from being completely average overachievers, to starring in their own movie? And why had it been them? Why had it been Chuck? Her brother, her little brother, the one whose knee she had bandaged with a Spider-Man band-aid after he’d fallen off of his bike, was in the freaking Central Intelligence Agency. Three months before, she, Ellie Bartowski, had been an ordinary woman, and now she was rooming with an honest-to-God CIA agent.
Which, honestly, confused the hell out of her. Weren’t CIA agents supposed to be inconspicuous? Or at least be able to blend in? It seemed like Sarah Walker—if that was even her real name; it sounded to Ellie like it was kind of bland. She knew she herself would have picked something exotic, like Lolita Duchovny (damn Chuck for getting her stuck on the X-Files)—was more the type to turn heads and be noticed than to fade into the background like a wallflower. Ellie knew that much for a fact. She’d gone running with Sarah a couple of times.
It made horrible sense, what Sarah really did for a living. She’d never seemed harmless, even when she had been ‘portraying’ an out-of-work actress turned secretary. There had always been just enough edge to her natural reserve that spoke of some hidden danger. It hadn’t made any sense until Ellie had seen the way Chuck looked at her roommate. Definitely not like he was meeting her for the first time, which meant they knew each other, which meant government.
She hated the government.
And honestly, who the hell were they trying to fool? She’d graduated med school one place behind Devon, who was, as her brother often put it now, awesome. She wasn’t an idiot.
The living room and kitchen were empty when she used her key to open the front door. What had she been expecting? To see Sarah waiting for her with cocktails or maybe a tray of cookies? She’d sounded genuinely apprehensive when she had left a message on Ellie’s voicemail, but it could have been an act. Everything could be an act.
“Hello?” Ellie called, setting her purse on the front table. She tossed her keys into the bowl Chuck had made in shop class junior year of high school. Everything in the living room belonged to her, as Sarah hadn’t brought much with her when she’d moved in. Again, it made more sense now that Ellie knew she worked for the CIA. She probably usually lived in some swank place like Nice or Monaco, and everything she owned probably cost more than Ellie made in a year. Not exactly synchronous with an aspiring actress.
Of course, all of that would probably change. Or Sarah would just move out. That would be okay. It wasn’t like Ellie precisely needed a roommate or anything, given that she made more than enough money to pay rent on a nicer place. But it had been just a little too soon to move in with Devon, as they had only just reached a good place, and Sarah had seemed like a perfect fit. And to put it bluntly, Ellie didn’t like coming home to an empty apartment. Even with Chuck back, his ghost, the ghost of so many things that could have happened to him over the years, haunted an empty apartment so much more than it did whenever she had a roommate.
But it was fine, Ellie told herself. Chuck was back. Chuck was safe. He had people like that growly security guy and her roommate watching out for him. And he was now just a phone call away. She could pick up the phone and hear her brother’s voice at any time of the night, though if she called after three in the morning like she’d been tempted to on so many sleepless nights, he’d probably hang up on her.
She pressed her hand to an old pain just above her stomach.
Ellie’s head snapped up. Sarah stood just inside the arched doorway that led back to the bedrooms. She looked hesitant. In fact, her body language screamed of hesitation.
An act, Ellie reminded herself.
“Uh, hi,” Sarah went on.
She looked completely wrecked, Ellie saw. The clinical doctor’s eye that had pushed her to the top of her med school class took in details: loose, comfortable clothing that spoke of a need to relax, an exhausted slant to the shoulders, slackened mouth…red-rimmed eyes.
She’d been crying. Recently, too. Ellie pushed hard on the automatic need to say something, offer some support.
It could be an act.
So instead she moved into the kitchen to grab a glass of water. “Hey. How was your flight?”
“My…” A brief look of confusion. “Oh, right. My flight. Yeah, it was fine. Left a little late, but the headwinds helped and…” Sarah trailed off and moved a shoulder. “Sorry. Been a long night.”
“Mm.” It had been a long night at Madison Mercy, too. Ellie’s feet were practically sobbing in their closed-toed Crocs. She took a long drink of water as Sarah edged onto one of the island counter stools. Her hands were jiggling, Ellie saw. Nerves? Another act? It seemed pretty comprehensive, if this was all a show. But then, you didn’t join the CIA of all things unless you were pretty damn good at whatever it was the CIA did. Chuck was more than proof of that.
“Chuck wanted to be here,” Sarah said, and it sounded like she might have just blurted that out.
“He picked me up from the airport, and we…had a talk.” Sarah didn’t meet her eyes. “I thought it might be better to talk one-on-one.”
“Why’s that?” What right did this woman, who had lied to her from the beginning, have to come between Ellie and her brother?
“Because you’ll have questions I’m not comfortable answering in front of Chuck.” Now Sarah did meet her eyes, and it was a steadfast gaze.
Well, she could appreciate that much honesty, at least. Unless it was some sort of act to split up the Bartowski siblings? Divide and conquer?
“But if you’re uncomfortable with that,” Sarah said, “call Chuck. He’d be over in under two minutes, I think.”
Ellie narrowed her eyes. Was that a dare?
“And if you’re going to second-guess everything I say,” Sarah said, “this conversation is going to take ten times longer.”
Ellie reminded herself that being a CIA agent did not automatically come with super powers. Otherwise, her brother would have spent the entire past couple of days in a state of shock at the language she had been using to describe the government in her mind. But it was still a bit eerie, how Sarah’s eyes never left hers, yet she seemed to be so completely hyper-aware of everything in the room.
She sat down on the stool opposite Sarah’s, set her water down, and said, “You wanted to talk. So talk. If I want to call Chuck, I’ll call Chuck.”
“That’s fair.” Sarah leaned back on the stool. “I should probably start by saying that I’m sorry.”
That was…not how this was supposed to go. “Sorry?” Ellie asked. “For what?”
“For my cover being so shoddy that you were able to see through it.”
Ellie paused, the water glass halfway to her lips. “So you’re not apologizing for lying?”
“No.” Sarah looked down.
“Just that I found out because you were sloppy?”
“So if I hadn’t found out…”
“I’d have gone on lying to you,” Sarah said, and shrugged.
For a woman who prided honesty, emotional and literal, above all, that sort of stance just seemed completely alien. Ellie shook her head. “Why?”
“Because it’s the job.” Sarah traced a pattern on the countertop with a fingertip. “Whether you like it or not, when he campaigned to get the operation set in Burbank, and protection provided for you and the others in his life, you became the job.”
“And now that I know who you are?”
“The job doesn’t change. If you’re uncomfortable having me in the apartment with you, the government evicts your neighbors and I transfer my stuff there. Or John Casey does, and I move in with Chuck.”
Something in Ellie’s midsection tightened at that. This woman had admitted to her face that she would have happily kept lying straight to her, and now she was talking about moving in with Ellie’s open, honest brother?
“So your job…it’s to protect me?”
“Yes, but you’re secondary.” Sarah’s eyes cut up from her doodles on the countertop, just a quick flick up and down. “Chuck’s the primary protectee.”
“As he should be.” At least, that much was clear to Ellie. The government owed her brother one hell of a lot, and if he was carrying around the precious intel in his head that he claimed to be, they should be feeding his every whim and desire. “How come there aren’t more of you protecting my brother?”
“Because the more people that know about what he knows, the more dangerous it is for him.”
That made a scary amount of sense, but it terrified her at the same time. She felt a cold spurt of raw fear squirt through her midsection, freezing her sternum and the back of her throat. Whenever Chuck or Sarah talked like that, they seemed to just…assume that danger was there, that something would happen. Even if they didn’t realize it, they were both so completely blasé.
Why weren’t they freaking out more?
Why wasn’t she?
“What makes you so qualified?” Ellie asked. “Why you? God, you’re like…you look like you just graduated college.”
“I’m older than Chuck,” Sarah pointed out, and it sounded like she might be offended.
“Yeah, that’s a real qualification. This is my little brother we’re talking about.”
“And you,” Sarah said.
Ellie waved that away. “That’s not as important.”
“Chuck seems to think it is.” But Sarah shrugged again. “What makes me qualified is that I spent a year training with the secret service, I can kill a man at fifty paces with nothing sharper than a butter knife, and to put it frankly, I’m the best at what I do. Also, Chuck knows me.”
“I visited him. A couple of times.” Sarah’s eyes found Ellie’s and once again remained steady. “They had him in seclusion in Switzerland, and he worked remote tech support for my partner and me. I got to see him a couple of times. He’s a lot more comfortable with me in his situation than he would be with any of the other handlers the agency could send.”
“Don’t you worry about getting complacent?”
A frown pulled the left side of Sarah’s mouth down. “You learn not to get complacent.”
It wasn’t an answer. But Ellie could sense warning signs just as well as the next woman. She’d table that one for later.
She took a long swallow of water. “How was he?” she heard herself ask. “In...Switzerland?” If that was really where they’d been keeping him.
That question seemed to throw Sarah off. Or maybe that was just part of the act, which seemed to be multi-layered and more complex than anything Ellie had come across during her neurosurgery rounds, all those synapses and neurons firing. Didn’t it get tiring?
Apparently not. Sarah drew herself back. “It was probably the happiest I’ve ever seen him,” she said slowly. “He missed you. That much was obvious. But sometimes it’s…hard to put the Chuck we have today together with the man I met in Switzerland.” She looked as though she might have liked to say more, but she trailed off with the tiniest shrug of a shoulder. “Maybe ‘happiest’ is the wrong word. He was more relaxed. More like you.”
Ellie blinked at that. She and Chuck had been compared before, but it had always been a physical thing, back when they’d both been horrifyingly skinny, with mops of hair and the same thinnish features. But never personality—she was always the overprotective, the mother hen, and Chuck was usually the curious, inadvertent trouble-maker. They were more like two halves of a coin than anything.
“More open,” Sarah said, correctly interpreting the look on Ellie’s face. “I guess it’s a little hard to explain?”
Since the last question had been laced with desperation, Ellie took pity on her companion. Sarah really did look like a mess. Even careful makeup couldn’t erase the signs of a hard crying jag. If it was real, and not an act, Ellie wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Whatever that could make a woman like Sarah Walker cry had to be terrifying.
She rose to refill her glass and fetched a glass for Sarah, too. “All right. So you’re the best woman for the job.”
“Fine. I’ll have to accept that.” Ellie’s words left the unspoken for now out, but both women heard it. “What does it mean, you protecting me?”
“It means that I know where you are at pretty much all times.” Sarah at least had the grace to look apologetic. “I have, um, this app in my cell phone that lets me know where your phone is, so you’d need to keep that on you or near you at all times. And if you feel like you’re in danger, you tell me right away.”
Ellie set the water glass in front of her. “So if I’m in danger, and Chuck is in danger, like we’re both dangling off a cliff, which one do you—”
“Chuck.” Sarah looked down but glanced back at Ellie, just a flicker. She didn’t take the water. “It’s just the way it has to be, even though he’d never forgive me for letting you fall, if I did that.”
That made Ellie pause as she sat back down. How much of that was subterfuge? The statement was scarily accurate, but it made Ellie wonder.
Sarah cleared her throat. “As a courtesy to Chuck, I also, um, hacked Devon’s phone when he was over here one night, and he put a tracking device on Morgan’s cell phone. He just wants all of you protected. I promise that neither of us sits around and watches to see where you go. We just want to make sure you’re all okay.”
Ellie pushed all Big Brother references from her mind and made a noise in the back of her throat. She wanted that app on her own phone, just so that she could make sure everybody was safe and sound and where they belonged…but people never stayed where you put them.
Since that thought hurt, it was time to change the subject. “What did you want to talk to me about? Your voice mail was kind of…cryptic.”
“Occupational hazard,” Sarah said, one corner of her mouth twisting up sardonically.
“I wanted to let you know that I went behind Chuck’s back today. I flew out to DC last night to go take some lie detector tests—routine, I assure you—but when I was there, I also reported in about the conversation you two had at Stanford.”
At the term “went behind Chuck’s back,” Ellie froze, but she slowly forced herself to relax. Sarah stared at the water glass again, which made it a little harder to read her face. Not that it would have helped, really. Ellie had stopped knowing whom to trust five years ago when nobody had told her where her brother was. The pragmatic side that made her so good at her job chimed in before the emotional side could jump for Sarah’s throat for doing such a thing.
“Why would you do that?” she asked. Find the answers, then deal with the problem. A classic diagnosis.
Sarah looked up now. “Because I don’t want them using you as leverage against him. I would have been fine keeping your knowing about it a secret, but…look, I’ll be honest here. I’ve grown up with lies and double-talk, never being sure what to trust. I’m wired for it. But you and Chuck, you’re not, and something could happen. Somebody could say the wrong thing, and the higher-ups find out that Chuck is telling people and…” She grabbed the water glass and drank like Ellie’s kitchen had somehow become the Sahara. “Look, I don’t want to scare you.”
“No, go ahead. Just tell me.”
“The person who sent Chuck the intel was Bryce Larkin.”
That made Ellie rock back in her chair. “Bryce?” she asked, positive she had heard wrong. “Bryce Larkin is a spy? I thought he was…from Connecticut.” The last was added lamely, as she couldn’t think of a single reason for Bryce Larkin to not be a spy. He just had that suave, debonair air that spoke of James Bond and national secrets.
Unlike Chuck, who spoke of nerds and all-night Halo tournaments.
“Yes, he’s a spy, and it’s a long story. Bryce and I were partnered up before we brought Chuck on as our tech support.”
Why hadn’t Bryce found some way to tell her? True, she hadn’t seen him since Chuck’s graduation party up at Stanford, but…if Bryce had really been Chuck’s best friend, why wouldn’t he get word out to Chuck’s closest family that he was truly okay?
And when the hell had he become a spy?
“Bryce was the one who sent Chuck that intel, so the higher-ups are already suspicious that Chuck is in on it. And me, too, but I’m not as important.” Sarah finished off the water. “The thing is, we’re all under a hell of a lot of suspicion, Ellie. And for Chuck to tell you like that…”
“If you don’t tell them he told me first, it could lead to bad things,” Ellie finished for her.
“And he’s pissed.” Sarah rounded the island to refill her glass. Instead of leaving the pitcher in the refrigerator, though, she brought it back with her and set it between the two women. “He understands, but he’s mad that I told.”
Ellie shrugged. “He’ll get over it. He never stays angry very long.”
That only earned a nod. Ellie nearly blinked at that. She had expected more relief across Sarah’s features, but the woman had never exactly been predictable, so maybe she shouldn’t be surprised.
“It changes things, though,” Sarah said. She pulled one foot onto the stool and hugged her knee to her chest. For such a solemn conversation, it seemed completely out of place. “The fact that you know makes you an even bigger bargaining chip for the government to use against Chuck. And frankly, I don’t want that happening. He’s been through enough.” A scowl flashed across her face, just a brief flick and gone. “He doesn’t need to worry about you, too. This would have occurred to him eventually.”
The last thing Ellie wanted to do was to help the government conspire against her brother. She’d break the Hippocratic oath and burn whole swaths of Washington DC before that happened. Her face hardened into a scowl even more ferocious than the swirl of emotion she’d seen cross Sarah’s face.
“And how are you going to stop them from ‘using’ me?” she asked. “Excuse me for saying so, but this is one of those damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations.”
Why Sarah would laugh a little caustically at that, she had no idea.
“Trust me, I know. I spent the entire afternoon arguing on your behalf. Yours and Chuck’s.” Sarah took a deep breath. “They’re offering you a job on the team, working with Casey and Chuck and me. And I think you should take it.”
Well, that was…unexpected. Ellie said the first thing that came to mind. “I already have a job.”
“I know that.” Sarah paused. “This wouldn’t be a full time job. Sort of.”
Ellie rolled her eyes. “You’ve come this far, kid. Don’t play super-secret spy on me now.”
She could actually see that one throw Sarah off her stride as she decided if she wanted to be insulted or amused by that statement. “Kid?” Sarah finally said, her lip quirking at the corner. “Did you really just call me that?”
“You’re all but dating my younger brother,” Ellie said before she could really think about it.
She almost regretted the words. Sarah’s mouth formed a perfectly round “O” of shock. “You…you really just went out there and said it,” she finally said when she apparently got her voice back.
Ellie moved a shoulder. “You weren’t exactly being subtle.”
“Because I was trying to convince you that I was…interested.” Sarah ran her hand down the side of her head and blinked a few times, obviously trying to gather her bearings. “Can I at least tell you the job before we talk about that? I’d like to maintain a modicum of professionalism in some things, at least.”
It hadn’t been a denial, Ellie saw.
And maybe it hadn’t been an act.
Maybe it had been.
But that would have to wait. Ellie just gestured that Sarah should continue.
“They want you on the team as a neurologist,” Sarah said, seeming to watch Ellie very carefully.
Ellie frowned. “I’m not a neurologist. I’ve been denied for the fellowship too many times.”
"Yeah, that’s the thing.” Sarah took a deep breath. “If you take the job with Prometheus, you’ve got the fellowship.”
Prometheus? Ellie puzzled that over for about two seconds before the real impact of Sarah’s words struck her, almost like a fist to the solar plexus. She’d get the fellowship? It was insanely competitive, and even deep inside, she knew that there were other, more qualified doctors, who’d scored a fraction better than her on the MCATs or in med school. Those doctors would get this fellowship. Her receiving it had always been a pipe dream, even back when she’d first thought about trying for it.
She’d been ambitious as hell at thirteen. At thirty-one, not much had really changed.
“It’s a bribe,” her mouth said, and Ellie blinked to realize that she was the one talking. “This is some kind of government bribe to buy my silence, isn’t it?” Fury began to clear away the shock, tainting what had been misty with coppery hints of red. “You think that after everything they’ve done to my brother, hell, everything they’ve done to me, they can just buy me off? Give me your boss’s number, I’ll tell him exactly where he can shove it. And why the hell are you smiling?”
Sarah quickly banished the smile. “You really are a lot alike.”
“That was Chuck’s first reaction, too, that’s all.” Sarah leaned forward on her elbows, not in a conspiratorial fashion; just a regular movement. “And yes, it’s a bribe. But it’s also not a bribe.”
That one threw Ellie for a loop. “How is it not a bribe?”
“Because if you take the fellowship, you’d be using those skills for Prometheus.”
“Wait. Prometheus? What?”
“Oh.” Sarah’s brows drew together. “I thought Chuck told you? Prometheus is the name of the operation. It’s a three-person team, but you’d be admitted as a fourth member. You’d have less to do, but you’d be given agency status and your own representative like Chuck has.”
“And the fellowship?” Ellie blinked. Agency status? A representative? What the hell? She’d come home expecting to have a smack-down, drag-out fight with her slightly-terrifying-beyond-all-reason roommate, and now she was being not only offered the fellowship of her dreams, but a government job, too?
They had fantastic healthcare.
And a chance to work with her little brother. Sarah and this Casey person, she wasn’t so sure about, but maybe, if she took this job, she’d know a little more. She could prevent them from taking Chuck away from her again.
Or maybe the government would take them both.
And Devon would be left holding the bag once more. She didn’t deserve him, not when she’d let him down all those years ago. He didn’t deserve this.
She shook her head. “What happens if I say no? Do I already know too much?”
“My bosses say that’s not the case,” Sarah said, but her face told an entirely different story.
Ellie swallowed hard. “So I’m basically backed into a corner?”
“It’s…kind of standard operating procedure.”
Again, something flickered across Sarah’s sympathetic expression, just the slightest anomaly that made Ellie want to question her, and find out exactly what was in the woman’s past that she would feel that way about CIA recruitment. How had they found Sarah Walker? They’d probably plucked her off of a runway or from some ritzy university. Ellie knew the other woman had a brain in her head. No matter how many times she’d tried to play airhead, there was just something about her uncanny ability to remember the location of everything in their apartment, and the way she’d sometimes forget to look confused when Ellie and Devon were debating something in medicalese. But maybe, seeing that spark of something off that had crossed Sarah’s face, there was a little more to Sarah Walker’s background that met the eye.
She pushed all of that to the side. “Why does Prometheus need a neurologist?” A thought occurred to her, and she half-rose out of her seat in alarm. “Oh, my God! Chuck’s not sick, is he?”
“What? No. No, Chuck’s fine. The job would just be neurology-related.” Perhaps not realizing it, Sarah reached out and grabbed Ellie’s wrist before she could go tearing out the door to check on her brother. “Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much more than that.”
“Because it’s classified and neither of us is any help to Chuck if we go to prison.” Sarah frowned and let Ellie’s wrist go. Ellie decided to hold off the freak out—for now—and sank slowly back onto the stool. “But I promise you, Chuck is as healthy as he can be, considering that he’s adjusting to an environment that’s filled with a lot of people and noise after five years of being in seclusion. He’s not sick.”
She sounded sincere, but Ellie was going to nag Chuck into getting a check-up the first chance she could, anyway.
“So I take this job, I get this fellowship, and then what? The agency owns my soul for life?” she asked, focusing back on Sarah.
“No. You would sign a contract, just like any other job.”
But it wasn’t like any other job. She didn’t even know what the job was, and she could already see that. “How long is your contract for?”
Another hesitation, this time barely tangible. “I’m…kind of a special circumstance,” Sarah said at length. “The CIA isn’t just my employer. They’re kind of my bodyguards, too. They gave me a new identity when my old one kind of proved too dangerous.”
That would be a juicy tidbit to mull over when she got the other millions of things that had happened already out of her mind. “So if I do this, if I join the CIA—”
“NSA,” Sarah interrupted.
“You’d be NSA if you did this. They’d give you a fake military rank, I think. I’m not real sure about the details yet.”
“Why not CIA?” She wanted to be in the same agency as her brother, after all.
“Because Chuck and I are CIA, and Casey is NSA, and since the project is a joint project, it’s better to balance out the numbers. Since Gwen Davenport’s FBI and outside of the jurisdictions anyway, it doesn’t really matter which agency you join, but on paper you’ll be NSA.”