"Hmm?" Margaret finished her carrot stick and pushed a piece of hair behind her ear.
"Where are they?" Carole repeated.
Margaret plucked another carrot stick from her purse and cocked her head. "Where are who?"
Carole shrugged. "Everyone."
Margaret considered. "Well. Josh, Sam, CJ, Toby, Leo, and the President are in the Oval Office. Donna, Joey, and Kenny are sitting in the polling center in the dark. Mrs. Bartlet is at the reception. Ainsley Hayes is in the steam pipe trunk distribution venue. Charlie is wandering the halls, and Mark Gottfried is on television."
Carole nodded and sat back in CJ's chair. Margaret, perched on the edge of the press secretary's desk, offered her purse to Carole. "Carrot?"
"Did you plan on robbing the reception, or was it an impulsive thing?"
"I did not steal these. I asked the caterer."
"He gave you permission to pack away the carrots?"
Margaret crunched her carrot. "He doesn't speak English. But if he did, I'm sure he would have given me permission to sustain myself with a healthy snack."
Carole shrugged and accepted a carrot. "Healthful," she corrected after a moment.
"A healthy snack is a snack that exercises and takes its vitamins. You want to use healthful in that sentence."
"Am I about to speak on live television?"
"Tonight? Who can say?"
"No one can speak tonight," Margaret said.
"I thought the President did all right," Carole reminded her.
"Yes, he did. But about an hour after the state of the union, everyone suddenly lost the ability to speak."
Margaret nodded solemnly.
"Who lost the ability to speak?" Carole asked.
"Didn't you hear CJ with Mark Gottfried?"
"I thought she did fine," Carole protested.
"She did do fine."
"Then what are you --"
"They're all doing fine. They're speaking beautifully. Except no one is quite sure--"
"Aah," Carole realized. "What the story is."
"Except me. I'm having no trouble speaking."
Margaret stared her down for a moment and then hopped off the desk. "I'm going back to the reception."
"Are you going to steal anything else?" Carole asked, following her out of the office.
Margaret looked at Carole over her shoulder as she walked. "I need celery," she admitted.
Carole stopped suddenly. "Wait," she said.
"Do you have celery?"
"No, but I'm missing a button."
"What kind of button?"
"From my jacket." Carole scanned the floor around her desk and then ducked back into CJ's office. A moment later she returned. "It isn't there."
"Are you sure?"
"I have extraordinary vision. It isn't there."
"Where else have you been since the last time you buttoned your jacket?"
Carole considered for a moment, then answered. "I've been at the reception, at the polling center, in Toby's office, in Leo's office, in Josh's office, in Sam's office, at Mrs. Landingham's desk, in the restroom, in the kitchen, in the residence briefly, and out to my car."
"Well," Margaret said. "Would you like another carrot stick?"
"Let's start with Toby's office."
Ten minutes later they had worked their way to Leo's office. "How long have the guys been in the Oval?" Carole whispered, nodding toward the closed door to the Oval Office.
"CJ's there, too," Margaret said.
"You called them the guys."
"CJ's not a guy."
"I meant the gang."
"How long have they been in the Oval?"
"Do you know what they're discussing?"
"Probably something more interesting than button-hunting."
"Well," Carole said. "If they don't come out of there soon, I'm going to have to reschedule CJ's briefing. The press expects numbers."
"Any power yet at the polling center?"
"Beyond batteries and frayed nerves? None."
Margaret started to say something else; just then the door to the Oval Office flew open and Josh came barreling out. He tripped over Margaret and nearly landed on Carole, caught his balance, grabbed a folder off of Leo's desk, and careened out of the room. "Sorry!" he shouted over his shoulder.
CJ started to follow Toby and Sam out the other door, but she saw Carole and changed her course.
"Show time," Carole said, and moved to meet CJ. Margaret headed for Leo.
"Margaret. I need to speak with Nancy McNally. She's going to want to come down here tonight and be a part of this. Oh, and CJ! Keep your people as far away from this end of the building as is legally and/or forcibly possible!"
"Yeah," CJ called over her shoulder, already past Leo's office and practically running for her own.
"CJ. You have a briefing in fifteen minutes," Carole said.
"Push it back. I don't have polling numbers and that's all they think they're getting."
"You've also got Sloan to deal with."
CJ nodded. "Mm. Keep the briefing where it is. Keep the press where they are, too, and if you so much as catch the scent of Katie or Danny in this area, shoot to kill."
"Got it." Carole stopped at her desk and CJ charged into her office. The phone was already ringing.
"CJ Cregg," she answered it.
"Danny, seriously. My staff has orders to kill you on sight, so wherever you are --"
"I'm in your press room."
"Should I call you George?"
"I'm hanging up now."
CJ rolled her eyes. "What do you want, Danny?"
"Is there something you're not telling us about one of the officers honored during the speech?"
"I'm going to be in the briefing room in seven minutes."
"What does that have to do with one of the officers --"
"Good-bye, Danny." CJ dropped the phone into its cradle. It rang again instantly, and she jumped and let out a little scream.
"CJ Cregg," she answered again.
"CJ. We're not going to have numbers for a while," Josh said in his most exasperated tone.
"No lights?" CJ asked.
"And no computers," he agreed. "You're gonna want to postpone the briefing."
"I've got to tell them about Sloan," she said.
"Ah. Right. Keep it where it is, then, but if they ask about the polling numbers, feel free to, you know, send them to California to knock on people's doors."
"And keep them off the DEA thing till we have something solid to tell them."
"When will that be?" CJ asked.
She could practically hear Josh shrug. "Whenever the President gets his voice back."
"What do you mean?"
"Weren't you listening in there? He doesn't know what to say."
"It's a tough situation."
"You know what else is a tough situation?" Josh asked.
"Being trapped in a dark room with Donna Moss and Joey Lucas."
"Yes, Josh," CJ said, "because I would imagine your worst nightmare is to be stuck in a shadowy room with two of the most beautiful women on the planet."
"They aren't exactly the best of friends, you know."
"I'm hanging up now."
"Okay." Josh dropped the phone.
"We're fine friends," Donna said, and Josh jumped and let out a little shout.
"A warning wouldn't be out of line," he told Donna.
"I spoke, Josh. That should have been enough."
"She's going to talk about Sloan."
"Wouldn't it be nice if we could watch on television while she did that?"
Josh frowned. "Do you see it as part of your job to torture me?"
"It's called positive encouragement."
"And what exactly are you positively encouraging me to do?"
Donna waved a pencil. "I had an interesting conversation with Joey Lucas while you were away discussing things you won't tell me about."
Josh's eyes widened. "No, you didn't," he hoped.
"She's a very sweet woman."
"Sure she is, considering she's put the weight of the world front and center on my shoulders."
"You could use an electric blender and still mix that metaphor less than you already have."
"It's not like she made the lights go out, Josh."
"She's really quite charming."
"Okay, but --"
"She is sitting in the next room."
Josh sighed. "Really."
"Go and ask her."
"I already asked her. She said the numbers wouldn't be ready as long as the power continues to fail us."
"Ask her out."
"Donna, I am not going in there!"
"Is it 'cause you're chicken?"
"It's because I'm not psychotic. What is this?"
"It's a jar of rubber cement."
Josh frowned at the jar he'd been idly scooting around the table. Abruptly he pulled his hands back to his sides. "No, not that," he said, but already he'd lost the nerve to finish the sentence.
"Go in there," Donna said.
Josh dropped his head onto his folded arms and sighed.
He stayed that way for a moment, and then he felt something wet against the back of his neck. Wet, and cold. A drop of rain? Yeah, 'cause storm clouds oftentimes formed inside polling centers. But what else –
"Yaaah!" Josh shouted as he leapt out of his chair. Joey Lucas doubled over in laughter as Josh tried to escape the ice cube she'd put down his back.
He peeled off his jacket, and the ice cube clattered to the floor -- where he promptly stepped on it. His feet slipped out from under him and he toppled backward. The ice cube skittered away under the table.
Joey, Kenny, and Donna were were cracking up. They gasped for breath as Josh sat up, bewildered, and surveyed them from beneath a mass of unruly hair.
"You could star in Swan Lake," Joey said and signed, and Josh smiled back without humor.
"What's up?" he asked.
"It's dark," Kenny interpreted for Joey.
"Is it? I thought I'd just forgotten to take off my sunglasses."
"You're going to be a smart-ass while lying in a puddle of water on the floor?" Joey asked aloud.
Josh considered. "Yes."
Josh looked from Joey to Kenny, and then his gaze rested briefly on Donna. The expression on her face was baffling.
"You look like an idiot," she offered, deadpan. Josh slowly got to his feet.
"I'm going to go track down some coffee," Joey announced.
"Make sure she gets coffee, Kenny, and not anything cold or small enough to go down my back," Josh said as he settled back into the chair he'd so abruptly departed. Joey smacked him lightly on the back of the head, and passed him in favor of the door.
When they were alone again, Josh turned to face Donna. "What is this?" he asked again.
"What is what, Josh?" She didn't meet his gaze, and pretended to be interested in the jar of rubber cement.
"Your, I don't know --" he started to say something about her intense desire to see him ask Joey Lucas for a date. Somewhere on the way to speaking, though, his sentence changed. "The look on your face," he said.
Donna looked up abruptly, and their eyes met. He frowned, and cocked his head a little as he studied her. She stared back at him with an expression he'd never seen before.
"It's because I always think --" she said ...
...and then the office was flooded with light.
A loud cheer erupted among the crowd of pollsters who were now heading back to their phones. Joey Lucas raised her voice, and then Kenny started speaking for her. And after a long moment, in which they silently agreed this conversation couldn't happen yet, Josh and Donna broke their gaze and got back to work.
Josh's cell phone rang. "Josh Lyman," he answered.
"We need you back," Sam said.
"We've got a call. Plus Nancy McNally's on her way. CJ's briefing went straight to hell, and there's no way we can sidestep the press regarding re-election, because somebody brought it up with Mark."
Josh sighed. "Is there any way we're going to get the DEA agents back, safely and quietly, within the next few hours?"
"No," Sam said.
"This won't help his campaign."
"That's the last thing we should be thinking about."
"I know." Josh sighed, and then added, "We've got power here. I'm going to get what I can in the way of numbers and I'll be back there."
"Just --" Josh sighed. "Nothing. I'll be back there."
"All right." Sam hung up.
Sam," CJ said, leaning around the door frame.
"Arthur wants to know why Nancy McNally's here."
Sam looked up, alarmed. "How does Arthur know Nancy McNally's here?"
"He rear-ended her in the parking area."
Sam's eyes widened. "You're kidding."
"Nancy's calling her insurance company. Meanwhile Arthur wants to know why Nancy's here."
"I suppose it'll seem implausible if we tell him she's visiting family?"
CJ rolled her eyes and left him alone. In her own office, she found Carole pulling apart the sofa cushions.
"CJ!" Carole stood up and spun to face her.
"Are you ... looking for someone?" CJ waved her hands.
"I lost a button," Carole explained.
"Well, you're doing better than I am. I lost an entire pair of slacks. Do you know how difficult it is to get paint out of quality material?"
"I've never tried."
"I have. This isn't the first time I've sat in paint."
Carole hid her grin. "I know."
"You'd think by now I would start watching for those signs. Or wearing different clothes."
"Of course, I suppose when I sit in paint I could always wash it off by falling into a pool."
"I look good in red."
"Are you ready?" Carole asked.
"Mrs. Bartlet and I differ somewhat in size, but I do look good in red."
"You've got senior staff in five. Nancy McNally."
"A little encouragement wouldn't be out of line --"
"You look great in red, CJ."
"Thank you." CJ launched a button at Carole.
Carole raised her eyebrows. "Thank you."
"I have extraordinary eyesight," CJ said.
Carole left CJ's office and waved to Ginger. "Will you let Toby know they're meeting?"
"Nancy McNally?" Ginger asked.
"Sure." Ginger spun around and went back the way she'd come. She found Toby sitting at his desk staring sourly at the television, where one of the MSNBC reporters was having a party with speculation.
"Senior staff," Ginger said. "Nancy McNally's here."
"Yes, and I know that because she got into a fender-bender in the parking garage. How does this stuff happen to us?" Toby asked.
"We're Heaven's gift to the news cycle, Toby. You've got three minutes."
Toby grunted in response and stared at the television some more. Two minutes later, he stood and headed for the Oval Office.
In the hall, he joined Donna and Josh, who were arguing, for reasons unfathomable to Toby, about whether ice cubes were a funny joke.
CJ, in Abbey Bartlet's ill-fitting, stunning red suit, met them from one direction as Sam, straightening his tie, came from the other.
At Mrs. Landingham's desk they found Leo, who managed to meet all their gazes at once.
They fell silent one at a time, and then they entered the Oval Office together. The door fell shut behind them.
Three hours later, the door slammed shut behind the President as he plunged into the rain. "Dammit!" he shouted, clenching his fists, and all the while noticing how clean and good the rain smelled. Misleading, that good smell, when the sky was about to fall.
Rain. It had rained three years ago, when he had made his deal with Abbey. His promise, whatever. Not to put politics before the things that were important to the both of them. This was their life. It was his Presidency, but it was their life, and tonight he had let her down completely for the first time.
And he couldn't be thinking about this now. And there was nothing else worth thinking about.
Bartlet did not turn around. "Yeah," he said to Leo.
"Abbey called from the residence. She's waiting for you."
"We've got to make a deal," Bartlet said.
"No, sir," Leo answered. "Toby's right."
Now the President turned, and met Leo's gaze, and found the same distant horror he was feeling.
"Then we have to go the other way," he said.
"Yes," Leo answered. "We do."
Bartlet sighed, and turned around to stare into the rain for just an instant. And it bothered him that the clouds kept him from seeing Cassiopia.
"I don't know what to say," he muttered. Then, louder, "Can you live without me for half an hour?"
"Go see Abbey," Leo agreed. "This thing is on hold until we straighten out specifics."
"Call me the minute you think you should," Bartlet said.
"I'll be back in half an hour."
"Take your time."
Bartlet shook his head. "I'll be back in half an hour," he repeated.
He walked away slowly. Each step took him closer to the woman of his dreams.
Abbey Bartlet looked up suddenly as her husband entered the room. She had planned things to say, and she had memorized them while she sat there. But when she saw him, none of that was anywhere close to her mind.
"Jed," she said in something kind of like a whisper.
"I'm sorry," he answered, stepping close to her.
"I'm really sorry," he repeated, and she put her arms around him. His coat was damp from the rain.
"I really do know," she said again, and her husband nodded. She held him at arms' length for a second and then led him to the sofa.
"What's going on in the world?" she asked quietly, and he met her gaze. It was nothing but encouragement, and at last he was able to speak.
7 February 2000