Later, after it took six of them to make one small president funny, after Toby sat through it all with a distracted hostility, after Josh and Donna grinned and made up, after way too much MSG and way too little CJ, Sam found Ainsley in the mess eating a peach over the sink.
She must have heard him come in because she looked up, her eyes wide and guilty, as if she had once been told that good Republican girls don't eat dicotyledonous fruits in Democrat White Houses.
"Sam!" she said, holding one hand up to her mouth in the way that people do when they're talking with food in their mouths but are polite enough to know they shouldn't.
"Ainsley," Sam nodded at her. "Still hungry, I see."
Eyes narrowing, she threw her shoulders back and chewed furiously, holding her peach up as a conversational placeholder.
She started talking as soon as she'd swallowed. "For your information, Sam, there is nothing wrong with a woman being hungry. It isn't a sin. It doesn't mean I'm depraved or corrupt or bad. It is not indicative of any kind of moral or emotional failings on my part. I can eat whatever I want, whenever I want, and I resent your implication that there is something wild or out of control about me because I have an appetite. I am just hungry, Sam. Is that okay with you?"
A few months ago, Sam would have been stunned by her outburst, but thanks to near-constant bombardment, he was used to them by now. Ainsley exploded about three times a day, delivering sharp, to-the-point lectures about whatever transgression she thought she'd caught wind of. She'd address the issue, state her main points, and then shame her opponent into agreeing with her. It was five years of law school boiled down into five harrowing seconds, and she was good at it, but Sam had gone to law school, too, and he knew all the same tricks.
"Um, I was just -- you had a peach," Sam tried to explain. Because that was how it'd happened in his head -- pretty lady eating a peach, say something cool. Except, after thirty years, Sam should have known better. He wasn't wired for cool. The best he could manage was a sort of dorky sincerity, or, at best, a dorky cuteness. There seemed to be an endless supply of women happy to say "oh, Sam, you're so cute," but the number of women willing to melt at his smile and demand "take me to bed" was significantly lower.
And then there was Ainsley, who, no matter what he said or did, was more likely to start a fight with him than anything else. He wasn't entirely sure what that meant, but if they had been twelve, it probably would have meant she liked him. But even that he wasn't too sure of. He didn't remember being twelve. There's a chance he was already in law school at that age, trying to be cool while tall, beautiful, frighteningly intelligent women laughed at him and told him he was adorable.
Ainsley's peach was dripping down her wrist. "Oh," she said primly. "Well, all right then. As long as we understand each other--" Then she stopped to lick the peach juice from her arm.
Sam wanted to say that they were a long way from understanding each other, that after thirty years, Sam still had trouble figuring himself out. For example, he still had no idea why he'd all but called Ainsley a sex kitten while in the company of the President of the United States. He could only figure it had seemed like a good idea at the time, because it wasn't something he'd usually say. It was the kind of thing that would get a normal man either slapped or laid, but Sam would just get a laugh and a peck on the cheek and the promise that he was darling.
But here, with Ainsley's pink tongue and the peach juice, he figured out where sex kitten had come from because Ainsley talked a lot and had strong opinions and could argue about practically anything and she wasn't afraid of being hungry and somewhere in Sam's mind that had translated into sexy.
He was just now figuring this out. He wondered who else knew -- because in his experience, he was usually the last to know about everything. So, yeah, probably everyone knew. Except maybe Ainsley, who worked so far down in the ground she practically needed a miner's lamp and a canary on a stick just to find her office. So there was a chance she might have succeeded him as last person to know. Because Sam knew enough about women to know that they only licked themselves in front of you if they wanted to turn you on or if they didn't care what you thought. Possibly everything women did was done with that dichotomy in mind. Except for Ainsley, who didn't seem to fall into that model easily, and Sam wasn't sure if he was supposed to feel turned on or ignored here.
"Sam?" Ainsley had moved back over the sink and was doing the complicated dance of someone with sticky fingers trying to push up their sleeves with their own elbows. "Sam, my sleeve, could you--?"
There was a counter between them, and Sam would have preferred to keep it there, but there was something about Ainsley's voice and the way she said his name.
When she'd kicked his ass all over Capitol Beat, she'd been poised and just haughty enough to ensure that Sam would at some point develop a crush on her. It wasn't until later that he saw her at her whiny worst, which thankfully curtailed the crush, but might have started something else.
When she was arguing with him, she sounded like the educated woman she was, but when faced with something she didn't want to deal with, she turned into a foot-dragging little girl. She'd whine, and say his name in that way that made him want to throw his head back and groan in exasperation. In short, she'd beg, and he would give in. Because there was just something about the way she said his name.
"Saaaam," she whined urgently.
"Careful there," he said, rounding the counter. "Wouldn't want to get peach juice on your FBI sweatshirt. They'll kick you out of the academy for sure."
The sweatshirt seemed to be about three sizes too small and the sleeves weren't interested in moving. Standing behind her, he grabbed her wrist to hold her still and tugged her sleeve up.
She giggled and bumped into him. "If you must know, I dated an FBI agent for a while last year."
"And he fit into this sweatshirt? Ainsley, what section was he working for? Midget Fraud?"
Excited, she turned around, elbowing him in the stomach and nearly dripping peach juice on his shoes. He caught her hand and held it over the sink.
"The FBI has a Midget Fra-- Sam, you made that up, didn't you?" She looked strangely disappointed in him. "What are you doing down here, anyway?" she asked, frowning.
Turning her back on him, she pulled her arm out of his grip and returned her attention to the peach. "Was it just to make fun of me? Because, if that was your goal, you have done a fine job and can now return to your people."
"My people?" Sam repeated.
"Your people. Your smug, know-it-all, Equal Rights Amendment people." Her chin lifted. "So, if you could just leave me to finish my peach, I would be much obliged."
If he'd gotten used to her outbursts, he still got whiplash from her mood swings. She could slide from assured to self-doubting quicker than any human being he knew. She was bossy and headstrong, but there were times he could see how uncertain she felt about her place in this administration.
"I wanted water, I think," he said. She pointed at the cooler wordlessly. "I didn't know you were down here," he added. She sucked a drop of juice from her thumb and didn't say anything.
He didn't like it when she was angry at him. Especially if he hadn't even been trying to make her angry. "Come on, Ainsley..."
"No, that's fine, Sam. You've had your fun."
"It was a joke, Ainsley. You know, a joke?"
She turned to glare at him. "How would I know, Sam? You've already, today, implied I have no sense of humor. Also, possibly, that I was some sort of a, a voracious Republican anti-feminist naif!"
"I also called you adorable," Sam pointed out, getting better with her mood swings.
She sniffed and turned around so quickly that her hair fanned out just like the women in the shampoo commercials.
He'd either pissed her off irrevocably or she was trying not to laugh at him. "Uh, Ainsley?"
"What is it, Sam?"
Sam tried to -- "Are you, um, very mad at me?"
She leaned over the sink and took a bite of her peach.
"All-night pastry chef," she muttered. Then giggled.
"Hey." Sam protested. "Hey!"
Ainsley spun around again, and Sam realized they were standing very close in the space made by the counter and sink.
"Gotcha," Ainsley said, and smirked.
"Oh," Sam squeaked, "so you weren't mad. That's good. That's, uh, that's good. That you weren't -- I mean --"
Ainsley cocked her head. "Aren't you adorable?" Then she did a small hop and tossed her peach pit over his shoulder and into a garbage can on the other side of the room. It fell in with a clank, and Ainsley pouted and said, "I'm still hungry, Sam."
Sam nodded carefully. "Okay."
"What time is it? I want pancakes. I think you should buy me pancakes, Sam."
"Okay," Sam said, smiling down at her.
"Reparations in the form of pancakes, Sam. To make up for all the injurious remarks and-- 'Okay'?"
"Sure, pancakes at," he glanced at his watch, "two in the morning. Not a problem. Because if you're hungry, you should eat."
Ainsley smiled, a big bright smile, and Sam thought he'd never been smiled at in quite that way before, like he had done a simple thing correctly and was being rewarded. So he added her smile to the list of things that made him like her. The way she said his name, the way she smiled. The way she grabbed his hand and pulled him from the mess with fingers that were warm and only a little sticky and, he was completely certain, smelled like peaches.