Testing the Waters

by Allison

Disclaimers: They're Aaron's, not mine. You know.
Rating: PG-13-ish.
Spoilers: "And It's Surely To Their Credit"
Archive: Go right ahead.

The note lay conspicuously in the middle of her desk, with her name written across the envelope in neat, clear, precise script. For a moment she had unpleasant flashbacks and her heart skipped a beat, but she firmly reminded herself not to be stupid and picked it up. The message inside was written in the same almost-too-perfect hand:


I was afraid I might not have a chance to talk to you today. It occurs to me that I don't know whether I'm stepping on anyone's toes by doing this, and if I am I'm sure you'll tell me, but I thought this was something you might enjoy if you're free next Wednesday.


Enclosed with the note was a newspaper clipping, an advertisement for a performance of "The Pirates of Penzance" at the Kennedy Center. A slow smile spread over her face as she fingered the clipping, remembering her argument with Lionel Tribbey and the senior staff's impromptu performance in her office of a song that was most definitely *not* from "The Pirates of Penzance." Trust Sam's sense of humor to -

The smile faded abruptly with a sudden realization. Next Wednesday was Valentine's Day.

He was asking her out for Valentine's Day? That explained the comment about "stepping on anyone's toes," but . . . he was asking her out for Valentine's Day?

Ainsley sat down hard behind her desk, still holding the newspaper ad. Valentine's Day. Not that it necessarily meant anything - maybe he was just asking as friends since he didn't have a date - hell, maybe he *forgot.* He was a guy, after all. But if he hadn't forgotten, and did intend it as a real date, well then. Not that she didn't like Sam. She liked Sam. A lot. She was ready to be honest with herself and admit that she had romantic inclinations toward Sam. But there was a big difference between admitting feelings for someone and being ready to sleep with him. Not that asking her out on Valentine's Day necessarily meant he was expecting sex. But he was Sam Seaborn, after all. He hadn't shown any signs since she'd known him of being particularly promiscuous, but the little incident with the call girl clearly showed he had some history of falling into bed with people on very short notice. Ainsley did not fall into bed with anyone on short notice. She seldom fell into bed with anyone on long notice, either. It took a while - time, and commitment. And she was definitely concerned that in Sam's mind an actual date included sex - particularly since they had known each other for three months.

She sighed. She was reading way too much into this. It was a little evening out, something he knew they both enjoyed, and his note was very deferential and completely not suggestive. He didn't even mention that it was Valentine's Day. And if he did go into this thinking she might sleep with him - well, Sam the Defender was definitely not the type to push her if she resisted.

She picked up the phone.

Sam looked up from his work to find Ginger standing in his doorway. "Hey," he said.

She leaned against the wall. "Ainsley called and said to tell you yes? Does that make sense to you?"

Sam smiled quietly to himself. "Yeah. Thanks, Ginger."

"Sure." Ginger looked curious, but she slipped from the room without asking.

When Toby had gone to lunch with two Midwestern senators and Josh had locked himself safely away with Donna and a stack of polling data, Sam ran down and knocked on the open door of Ainsley's office. She looked up and smiled when she saw him; the usual enthusiasm of her smile was not dimmed, but she felt a little awkward. They both did.

"So you didn't have plans?" he asked by way of leading into the subject.

"No," she replied cheerfully. He waited for more, but nothing was forthcoming.

"Great," he replied. He took a few steps into the room, wondering why on earth he was so nervous. It wasn't as if he'd never asked a woman out before, and this was *Ainsley.* "So, I was thinking we should probably not leave from work, just because -"

"No sense getting the rumor mills running already," she finished.

"Right," he said, looking a bit sheepish. He took a deep breath and leaned on her file cabinet, saying uncomfortably, "Look, Ainsley, I don't want you to think it's because . . ."

"Because what?" she asked, not following.

He gestured aimlessly. "Because I don't want to be seen leaving with you, or something."

"I thought you didn't," she replied, confused. "Isn't that what we just decided?"

"Yes. No. I mean," he ran his hand through his hair nervously, "it's not because I'm ashamed to be going out with a Republican or anything like that. It's just I know how people gossip around here. If I was going out with C.J. we wouldn't leave from the office either."

She had suspected that was what he meant, but she still felt a dash of relief at having him confirm it. "I completely understand," she replied. "I don't want people gossiping either."

"Good." He suddenly offered her a dazzling smile. "I thought maybe we could have dinner first. Can you get out of here in time for me to pick you up at home around six?"

"I think so," she answered, "if I plan ahead."

"Good." They stood there smiling at each other for another moment, and then he excused himself to return to work.

By very careful planning and taking a great deal of work home Tuesday night, Ainsley managed to leave her office at four-thirty on Valentine's Day. Home by five only gave her an hour to get ready, but she had laid her clothes out in advance. Her dress got hung in the bathroom to catch the steam from the shower - the thrifty woman's drycleaning - and she took a long time showering, taking deep breaths and trying to calm herself. She knew she had no earthly reason to be this nervous - she and Sam had gone out together a dozen times. The only thing that made this different was that they'd actually planned it in advance. Which made it, you know, a date, rather than just dinner with a friend.

Or maybe it was just dinner with a friend. Planning did not necessarily a date make.

She felt just a little silly using the scented bath gel that she reserved for special occasions, but she did it anyway. She shaved slowly and carefully, not wanting to wind up bleeding all through the evening, and feeling eerily like she was getting ready for the prom. Part of her laughed at herself for putting on matching underwear - she had, after all, no intention of his seeing it - but she rationalized that there was no harm in feeling sexy even if she was the only one who knew it. Her very proper mother's lessons stayed firm in her mind, which meant that everything came before the dress - stockings, which she prayed would stay up (tugging at her thighs during the performance would most likely be unattractive), black heels, earrings, careful touches of not-too-obvious makeup. She fretted over her hair for a while before twisting the sides back and leaving the rest hanging down. With exactly five minutes to six, heart pounding in a completely irrational manner, she pulled the dress from its hanger. It was of the kind that dropped neatly down over her body, the silky lining making it slip perfectly into place. She stood in front of her full-length mirror to zip it up, twisting anxiously to both sides to examine the view. She didn't want to be underdressed, but she was leery of looking like a debutante as well. She'd chosen a simple black velvet dress, knee-length, that followed the lines of her body but wasn't tight or form-fitting. After a moment she decided it needed something and fumbled in her nightstand for a delicate pearl necklace her father had given her when she'd graduated law school. Settling it around her neck, she reached with trembling hands for the perfume she seldom used and dabbed it gently on her wrists and throat. Right on cue her intercom buzzed from the living room.

"Casual," she told herself firmly as she walked out to press the buzzer and let him in. "This is casual. Try not to act like an idiot. Or a prom queen." She heard his footsteps in the hall and opened the door, trying her hardest to keep her face calm. "Hey, Sam," she called before really looking below his face. Once she did, she had a harder time with casual. The man looked good in a suit.

And he was carrying flowers, which he handed her gallantly but not too theatrically as she stepped back to let him in the door. "Freesia," she breathed, lifting them to her face and inhaling the strong, sweet fragrance. "They're my absolute favorite."

"Really?" Sam looked thoroughly delighted with himself. "I was going to go with roses, but that seemed so cliche, and I liked the way these smelled."

"Isn't it beautiful?" she replied, forgetting to be nervous. This was just Sam, after all. "I'll put them in the living room and it'll spread through the whole apartment. Thank you."

"You're welcome." He stepped further into the apartment. "Let me help you get some water for them, and then we'll go."

She smiled broadly, still inhaling freesia. "Okay."

They reached her kitchen and Sam pulled down a small vase which was just the right size for the bundle of flowers. He filled it with water while she unwrapped them from the florist's paper and then held out the vase for her to drop them in. He suddenly froze and stood looking at her, totally forgetting to be subtle about it. Ainsley had no idea what had come over him, but the explanation was simple - he hadn't until this point seen her without either the doorway or the flowers in front of her. His eyes skimmed her admiringly, drifting over her modest but alluring dress and settling again on her face. "You look beautiful," he said without guile.

A light blush was the only indication that this meant something on more than a friendly level. "Thank you," she replied, managing to keep her voice even. Feeling his eyes on her and pretending she didn't, she took the vase back from him and carried it into the living room, setting it on a coffee table beside the couch where she'd thrown her coat. She turned back to him with a tremulous smile, picking her coat up. "Okay," she said bravely.

He took her coat from her and held it for her to slip into, then guided her out the door with a hand at the small of her back and waited while she locked it behind them.

They spoke little on the way to the restaurant, but once he brought up the topic of the operetta they were going to see the conversation loosened considerably. He told her all about being the recording secretary of the Princeton Gilbert & Sullivan Society, and in return she regaled him with stories about being the assistant stage manager of a production of "HMS Pinafore" in Chapel Hill while in college. It had been a long time since she'd done her take-off of the bizarre British director the company had brought in, but she found it hadn't lost its polish. Sam laughed so hard he almost choked at the story of how Ainsley and the other assistant stage manager nearly knocked over the set at the dress rehearsal by pulling in the wrong direction on the fake "waves."

"Of course he never blamed Amy for anything, but I've always suspected that was because he thought we were the same person," Ainsley cracked. "He just stood there very indignantly in the center aisle yelling, 'Miss Hayes, in the name of God Almighty, are you trying to knock the entire cast unconscious?'" Sam laughed appreciatively and she added, "And that wasn't even the worst part . . ."

"Oh, no."

She nodded. "The worst part was that the morning of opening night one of the dancers in the chorus fell and sprained her ankle . . ."

"No way," Sam guessed, laughing even harder.

"Oh yeah," Ainsley replied. "I was a big enough disaster backstage, can you imagine what a smashing success I was as chorus girl number three?"

"Obviously you survived," he quipped.

"Barely," she replied. "Plus the girl's costume didn't quite fit me, so I couldn't lean over on stage."

"Too tight?"

"No, way too loose." She gestured toward her neckline. "If I bent over you could see all the way down to the floor."

"That could have been exciting."

She pretended to hit his arm across the table, and he added, "Imagine the reviews. 'We were particularly impressed by the - provocative performance of chorus girl number three . . .'"

She tried to hit him again, but she was laughing too hard.

"Come to think of it, I don't remember chorus girls in 'Pinafore,'" he commented.

"It was a loose interpretation," she replied, smiling.

By the time they reached the Kennedy Center and were settled into their seats, they had both relaxed considerably. They combed the program together, chatting amicably and never noticing the admiring looks of several older couples around them. When the pirate overture began and the lights dimmed, they stopped talking and nearly forgot each other's presence, becoming completely engrossed in what turned out to be an excellent production. They remained companionably silent until one of the singing daughters caught Sam's eye and he leaned over to whisper, "I think daughter number four has visited your costume designer." Ainsley saw the girl he meant and stifled a laugh, whispering back, "Not even mine was cut that low."

When next he leaned over to comment on something, some aspect of the staging, without conscious thought he took her hand to get her attention and held it even after they had stopped talking. It was a completely casual, unintended gesture and it took him several moments to realize he still had her hand - but when he did realize it he only smiled to himself in the dark and rubbed her palm with his thumb.

When the lights came on for intermission he managed to avoid awkwardness by simply pretending there was nothing unusual in his holding her hand; he squeezed it gently, meeting her eyes and saying, "Why don't we go out and have a drink?" She nodded brightly and followed him out into the lobby.

The second act started uneventfully. He was hesitant to take her hand again, even though he wanted to, because he was afraid it would seem too contrived. She desperately wanted him to take her hand and at the same time didn't, because she was still hiding behind the idea that if this stayed casual it was safe. Finally around the middle of the act he saw her stifle a yawn and shift in her seat and a little smile crept over his face. He very nonchalantly slipped his arm around her and, when she looked up at him in surprise, tugged her toward him and settled her head on his shoulder. At first she was stiff in his arms, but then she relaxed and he felt her sigh gently. He stroked her bare arm lightly with one fingertip, enjoying their closeness - despite the advances in their friendship, it had been a while since he'd held her like this. Her hair was soft against his cheek, her scent was almost intoxicating, and he felt that he had very little to complain about at this particular moment.

Applause saved them from embarrassment; they had to separate to stand up and clap and this allowed them to do it without facing each other right away. They chattered excitedly about the production as they walked back to his car and drove to her apartment, Sam thinking all the way how right Leo'd been when he commented the other day that Sam and Ainsley were more alike than either would like to admit. At her building he walked her up to the door of her apartment, and then they reached a standstill.

She stood on the step above him and said, "I had a great night, Sam. I'm glad you thought of it."

"Me too," he replied, smiling. He took an almost imperceptible step closer, and sudden panic made her turn her head and pretend to look at her watch.

"It's late," she said nervously. "Are you going to fall asleep in a staff meeting tomorrow?"

"No," he said, retreating. Then she met his eyes again and he saw something there that made him take her hand. Shaking his head very slightly, he whispered, "It doesn't have to mean anything, Ainsley," before coming up to her step and leaning toward her.

"It doesn't?" she asked softly.

"Okay, that's not what I meant," he corrected gently. "It means something. It doesn't have to mean anything for tonight."

"Okay," she replied quietly as he bent down and pressed his lips carefully to hers. Feeling that she wasn't pulling away he deepened the kiss slowly, slowly, reaching with his free hand for her waist and tightening the other's grip on her fingers. When they separated a deep blush spread over her face. She met his eyes nervously and whispered, "I really want to ask you in."

"But you don't think you should?" he replied.

In reply she only smiled wryly.

He smiled back. "You're probably right." Pressing one more gentle kiss to her lips he said, "See you tomorrow," and started back down the hall. Halfway there he turned around and called, "Happy Valentine's Day."

She watched him go with a pleased smile, leaning against the doorway and fingering her necklace thoughtfully.

The End!

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