"No, thanks. I'm gonna walk."
"'Cause my car's just right over there."
"No. Thank you, Sam."
A second's silence, and then, "I'll walk with you." Sam fell into step and tucked his coat a little tighter. It was already starting to get cold.
Leo glanced sideways at Sam and back at the cracked white pavement in front of him. "What do you need, Sam?"
More for something to say than because he really thought Leo cared, Sam announced, "We're keeping the penny."
Leo looked at him again, his eyes a little wider than usual. "Good."
"Aren't you going to ask me why?"
"We're keeping the penny because Illinois wanted to." Sam shrugged appreciatively. "You gotta love that."
"If you say so."
The wind was dying down, and Sam thought their steps were suddenly loud in the quiet. He didn't know why he was walking with Leo. There was a car behind him with a perfectly functional heater, and his bones were cold out here. But Leo's were colder and he knew it, so he walked.
"We would miss pennies," Sam said. "If we got rid of them."
"We would no longer be able to throw them into wells."
"Gee, I know I would miss that," Leo stated tonelessly.
"And what of the people who wear penny loafers?"
"The people who wear penny loafers are to be pitied whether or not they have pennies." Leo wasn't lifting his gaze from the sidewalk, but his voice sounded perfectly fine.
Sam noticed, too, that they weren't walking to Leo's, that they were just walking, but that was okay. The pavement was whiter and colder than usual. The air had gone dead-still and somehow the lack of wind made the temperature drop. But that was okay.
"My father wears penny loafers," Sam said. "Then again, my father is to be pitied."
Leo did glance up, for just a second, out of some habit of giving a damn about the personal problems of his staff. But his gaze dropped back to the sidewalk, with its cracks, like a map, like rivers and roads and dams looked like on a map or if you flew over them slow enough.
Leo knew Sam was walking with him because he had guessed there was something on his mind, but there was no way to talk about it. And because they couldn't just walk without talking, Leo said, "'A nickel for your thoughts' doesn't have the same ring."
"So there's a reason I can give to Congress." Sam nodded in fake seriousness and made a visible mental note. Sam was the only guy in the world who could make visible mental notes. He screwed up his forehead in just such a way that you could practically read the details there.
And he had distracted Leo for a second, and that was something.
"Sales tax would probably cause some difficulties," Sam said after a minute.
"And stamp machines," Leo agreed.
"You said that one already."
"Charity funds. You're less apt to toss a nickel than a penny into the jar by the register in the check-out."
"Another thing that doesn't have the same ring is 'A nickel saved is a nickel earned'," Leo mused.
Sam shook his head. "'Nickels from Heaven'."
"'Nickel Marshall.' One of my all-time favorite actresses."
"'Nickel Lane'," Sam countered. "One of my all-time favorite songs."
And Leo realized his mind had actually stayed for a full minute on nickels and pennies. Props to Sam, with his suddenly knowing when to distract. Leo was out walking at night, thinking about pennies, and how he used to keep this jar of them on his mantle, ages ago, decades ago, when he was hardly more than a kid and he was leaving for a war where he followed orders and did the wrong things and couldn't identify who he was killing and had no reason to try. His gaze plummeted to the sidewalk and he stopped thinking about pennies.
Sam stayed silent for a little while, every few steps shuffling to try to keep warm. After a few blocks the quiet was too cold, and he looked at Leo.
"Nickel for your thoughts?"
Leo cracked a smile but shook his head. "I'm going home."
"I'll walk with you."
"Nah. Go back and get your car. It's freezing out here."
Sam studied him. "Okay."
"Thank you," Leo said. It was vague, but they both knew what he meant.
"You bet," Sam replied, and left his boss studying the sidewalk while he half-jogged back to the White House.
Once there he realized there was no reason not to go back inside and get his sweater. He wouldn't need it just going to his car, but it might come in handy in the morning. If the temperature kept dropping, Christmas was going to get here soon.
It didn't surprise him, upon entering the building, to find desk lamps sporadically burning. It was practically Monday, and people had work they thought they had to have done by morning.
It did surprise him, mildly, to find Donna at her desk, since he thought he'd actually seen her leave for home.
"You're still here?" she asked him, looking up at the sound of his steps.
"I just came back to get my sweater."
"I thought you'd gone home."
"What?" She looked up again. "No."
"Is Josh still here?"
Donna looked at the closed door of Josh's darkened office and shook her head without teasing Sam for his lack of attention. Sam watched her closely; she looked almost apprehensive.
She looked at him again, purposefully. "Hey, how'd the thing go with the penny?"
Sam perched on the edge of her desk. "The penny is saved."
"And, I guess, earned, incidentally." Her gaze kept flicking toward Josh's door, but her voice sounded perfectly fine.
Sam unbuttoned the collar of his coat. It was hot in here. Even stuffy, and he wondered where all the drafts had gone. Which made him think about the early draft of the arts council speech and how he needed to go over a few things with Toby. Tomorrow. Right now he needed to grab his sweater and go home. Except that Donna's gaze kept flicking toward Josh's door and she was readily making small-talk about the penny.
"You know, it's a little hard to figure what sort of effect dumping the penny would have on charity organizations," she said.
"I mean, you're less likely to drop a nickel or a quarter into that little tub in the drive-thru at McDonalds."
"But we don't have to worry about that now, do we? 'Cause Sam's the man."
"The penny keeps its place of honor," Sam assured her. "Like Pluto."
Donna grinned at him, but her eyes couldn't hold his gaze because she kept looking impuslively behind her. It was stuffy and airless in here, and she thought about going outside until she remembered how cold it was tonight. Too cold to sit dead still for an hour, but they had. Beside that fountain for an hour, and she'd wanted to throw in a penny, but she couldn't even formulate a wish.
Hell, the journal wasn't full of secrets anyway. Just reflections. Sleep-deprived and in scribbles and written through every emotion across the board. Flipping through it when it was back in her hands she thought about how it would look to somebody else, to a man, to a Republican. About how it would look the night the entry was tear-stained for no other reason than there were no new messages on her machine. About how it would look the night it was dry and neat and in paragraphs when the President was sick and the world was falling down.
"We'd all be penniless," Sam said.
"Join the club." Donna didn't miss a beat. "Listen, I'm happy for the penny, and all, but it's midnight, so. I'm out of here."
Sam obediently stood up and re-buttoned his collar. "Have a good night."
"Do you need a ride?"
"No." She grinned briefly at him. "Thanks. I'm fine."
"Good night." Donna shrugged into her coat and didn't look at Josh's door again.
Sam watched her go before he headed for his office. Halfway there he saw his own desk lamp on. He could hear a pen scratching and then a fist slamming down on a legal pad, a sound he could auditorily distinguish from any other noise.
He expected Toby, because the sound of fist on legal pad belonged to Toby and nobody else, but it was Josh he found, trying to write something that was quite obviously beyond him.
"Do you want me to write that?" Sam asked.
Josh jumped a mile and the pen flew out of his hand and clattered against Sam's desk organizer. Josh snatched it up again and shook his head quickly. "What are you doing here?"
"This is my office."
Josh shook his head again. "Right. I'll get out of your way. Just let me --"
"Nah. Don't bother. I'm just here for my sweater." Sam looked around, picked up the garment from the back of the chair where it had been draped for three days, and held it up triumphantly. "Sweater."
"Okay." Josh nodded, and his attention went back to the legal pad. He was chewing on the end of his pen, but not a lot was getting written.
"Seriously," Sam said. "If you want me to write that, I will."
"You -- don't even know what it is."
"Has that ever stopped me?"
Josh laughed a little. "Sam --"
"Why are you here?"
Josh lifted a hand above the paper. "'Cause -- I'm writing --"
"I meant, why are you here?"
"You meant why aren't I in my own office?"
Josh looked down again, as though he could escape the sound waves of the question if he just ducked his head fast enough. "I -- it --"
"Okay. Hey. Did you eliminate the penny?"
"I did not. I rescued the penny."
"And Illinois sighs in relief, right?"
Josh frowned, distracted for a moment. "What's in Tennessee?"
"Copper." Sam dropped into a chair and unbuttoned the collar of his coat.
Josh looked up slowly and surveyed Sam's new position. "You -- have your sweater?" he asked.
"Are you kicking me out of my office?"
"I've just got to write this -- ah, screw it, it sucks anyway." It was late enough, and he was frustrated enough, that Josh was lapsing into high school speak.
"What are you writing?"
"It -- I -- forget it." Josh ripped the top page off the legal pad and smashed it. He didn't have time to keep a journal anyway. He stood up. "Here, you can have your office. I'm going -- I'm going." Josh started for the door.
"She's not there."
Josh turned quickly, and frowned. "What?"
"Donna. She's gone home."
Josh shrugged a little. "Okay. Why did you --"
"I just thought you'd want to know."
Josh let it go. "Fine. I'm going home."
"Yeah." He shook his head and walked away.
Sam sat in his office, listening to Josh's footsteps fading, and somewhere else somebody's voices raised in a midnight argument. That was CJ, who usually only argued with Toby this late, so, really, nobody had gone home when they had planned. Sam walked around his desk to turn off the lamp and ended up sitting down at his desk instead. After a while, the voices went quiet. Footsteps clicked purposefully away, and then the whole great building, or at least this side of it, was as silent as the wind outside, and no longer stuffy, but hollow.
Sam dug out the draft of the arts council speech and started making notes along the margin. He spent three full minutes deciding between "ubiquitous" and "omnipresent", and thought about deciding by flipping a coin.