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Despite the mound of paperwork waiting for him Ellis left the now empty exam room with a goofy smile drawing confused looks from a passing nurse and any staff who had seen two others enter but not leave the room.  Of course he didn't care in the slightest at the moment and while it might make the rounds on the rumor mill it would soon enter the, 'yet another weird Freedom City Story' realm and fade from memory.  Even more astounding than the disappearing act however was managing to complete a shift with no effusions marring his clothing.  He finished up his shift on time and quickly exchanged his lab coat for a overcoat to ward off the crisp autumnal air.  A quick check of his slacks and sweater vest for any stray detritus and he was on his way arriving at the appointed meeting spot a few minutes early and walking past once so as to not appear too eager before returning and waiting once he convinced himself that was absurd and he was a grown man not some smitten teen.  

 

He sent another text off to his sister confirming he was indeed meeting a 'colleague' for a 'social engagement' and would be home a bit late as they had discussed earlier.  That done he tucked his phone away and tried to look casual, and likely failed to look anything of hte sort, as he awaited Steshas arrival.

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At 10:28 precisely, Stesha popped into existence on Earth Prime, disgorged from a knot in the trunk of an obliging chestnut tree. She looked quite a bit different from earlier, now clad in civilian garb and having benefitted from a very long shower to remove lingering sheep smells. After a short period of agonizing in front of her closet, she'd gone with pretty but casual, a long multicolored peasant skirt with a blue scoop-necked blouse and a trio of pendant necklaces. It made her look like a hippy, she knew, but for pity's sake, she had green hair and a crown of flowers. Everything made her look like a hippy, and sometimes it was just easier to steer into the skid. Anyway, it looked good. And she didn't even have to take that on faith, since the instant she'd asked one of her regular babysitters to keep Ammy for a few extra hours so she could go on a date, everyone on Sanctuary somehow heard the news. She'd had no less than four of her female friends and coworkers "happen by" to critique the outfit and give her advice. It was a relief to be off-planet! 

 

Smoothing her skirt and checking her hair one last time, she walked up to the restaurant, relieved to see Ellis already there. "Hi Ellis!" she called cheerfully. "I hope I didn't keep you waiting. This place smells delicious!" 

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Ellis perked up as he saw Stesha approach a smil sliding to his lips unbidden.  Shaking his head in the negative he complemented easily, "Well worth the wait and longer."  before opening the door and sweeping an arm to invite her within the small restaurant, "You look lovely."  he added earnestly and followed her in to take a spot at a relatively secluded table for two in the small eatery.  "Thank you for coming I know the late nights can't be easy."  he suggested with a twinkle in his eye as he added, "Particularly with all the morning chores I'm sure."  he teased mildly with a gentle laugh.

 

He glanced casually at the menu but had a good idea of the contents already and supplied readily, "I usually stick to the Wat on the lower end of the pain scale."  he suggested noting the spice intensity metric the menu used that seemed to mirror the popular faces used in the hospital for self reported pain levels.  He tapped another entry however to add, "But the Waadii is good as well, and if you're feeling adventurous I've heard good things about the kitfo."  he noted though the later depicted a crying sad face indicating very spicy indeed.

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"I have very little experience with Ethiopian food," Stesha admitted, "so I think I might go with the Wat. The sheep were enough adventure for one day!" She set her menu aside and spread her napkin on her lap. "But late hours don't bother me. As long as I get enough sunlight during the day, I don't really need much sleep. It still feels good," she added with a laugh, "but I can go without. Something about photosynthesis, I think, but I only have a bachelor's degree in biology. It's not nearly enough to start untangling the weirdness." She shrugged unconcernedly. "Can't argue with the results, though. So how was the rest of your shift? Anything else interesting crop up?" 

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"It is good."  Ellis reiterated with a smile, "just a little heat."  he shrugged with a small laugh, "I first came with the transplant team after a late night."  he explained then frowned slightly as perhaps most would think adventurous eating was off the table post surgery but transplants were ten hour surgeries sometimes.  He paused then shook it off it was said best to move on not dwell, "Anyway it's all night and serves coffee so pretty popular with staff sick of hte usual all night diner experience."  he explained quickly.  Despite his long shift he still seemed well rested himself and nodded, "Yes well fringe benefit to the whole sleep guardian thing is not needing it so much myself."  he said quietly with understanding, "good thing too never keep up with kids career and extracurriculars otherwise."  he joked lightly more comfortable now discussing his double life than in earlier meetings.

 

"Had an intern try to get me to sign off on an MRI for a supposed case of Kuru in a thirty year old housewife from Hannover."  he replied to her query amused then paused, "Ah Kuru is a rare disease almost exclusive to a few cannibal tribes in papua new guinea."  he explained then sighed, "so uh, he was wrong."  he looked down at the table, "Uhm, yea ER rotations are rarely exciting, She took her anti-anxiety meds with a glass, or bottle, of wine and was convinced ti was a stroke." he rushed the end of the story uncomfortably.  "I also filled out a lot of paperwork."  he offered with a shrug,  "So what about you you get the sheep out of the pit or...?"  he inquired not entirely clear what had been going on with her alternate world livestock situation but certain she'd rather hear that than another round of misdiagnosis theatre from mostly incompetent interns.

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"The sheep were not in a pit," Stesha corrected with a laugh, "we had to dunk them in a trough of pesticides and insecticides and whatever else before they could go out to pasture. Sanctuary's got a fragile ecosystem when it comes to animal life, so we have to be careful not to introduce any more pests than we can possibly avoid. So we shaved the sheep and washed the sheep and dipped the sheep, and in general the sheep were extremely annoyed with us by the time we finished with them. Plus we had to put little sheep sweaters on them to keep them warm because it's winter in New Jersey and they haven't got any wool anymore, so that's a little bit adorable. It sounds like we both end up doing a lot of wrangling in our jobs." 

 

She set aside her menu and picked up her glass of water. "How are the kids?" 

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Eyes twinkling above his glass as he took a sip of his own Ellis clearly was entertained by the tale of ovic woe.  "I had no idea moving livestock was such a production."  he revealed his voice still dancing with mirth, "I'm a city boy through and through."  he admitted and shrugged, "Though I imagine the nature of sanctuary makes such measures more vital."  he acknowledged somewhat more seriously he was somewhat curious how the internal microbiome was controlled but he realized before saying anything that was not polite dinner conversation to say the least.  

 

Setting down his glass a soft smile crept to his face at the mention of the children, "They are settling in well."  he explained easily, "I think Nicholson certainly makes the revelation of what their mother did,"  he paused uncomfortable for a moment before adding, "What I do, easier."  He grinned and looked to the side as he recalled some of Gabes most recent tales, "Gabe is still full of excitement about all of it and friends with occasional special abilities just make it better."  he offered with a shrug.  "Jenny."  he frowned slightly, "She loves the school and new friends, but is worried about fitting in without powers of her own, wants to take martial arts, and gymnastics, and,"  he raised a brow, "archery?"  he shook his head, "I don't know exactly what she is expecting to need to do to fit in but I'm not sure I'm ready for it."  he offered with a rueful laugh.  he grew slightly somber, "Neither of them like not telling Grace or Frank."  he added as an afterthought, "I really probably should I guess but the kids don't know to worry, Grace would."  he bit his lip and looked up at Stesha a smile creeping in despite the tough topic, "But all in all they are good, your advice was very good."  he added with a grin,  "How's Ami doing?  You know if you're goign to have her commute over for school or stay with the, creche?"He asked uncertain of the terms for a moment.

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"She's good," Stesha replied, always happy to talk about her little girl. "Honestly, the biggest reason I worry about taking her out of the creche is because she's been so happy there. It's like having a bunch of extra aunts, uncles and cousins for her. And that might be different next year when they start expecting her to learn some things," she admitted with a laugh, "but for right now it's nice to have a place where she can be that I know is good for her. Nicholson is a great school too, but it's not exactly the same, you know?" She waved her hands with a rueful smile. "I'm sure I'll probably be dithering about the whole thing right up until the enrollment deadline. 

 

The conversation paused long enough for them to place their orders with the waiter. When he'd gone, Stesha traced the rim of her glass thoughtfully with her fingers. "Have you thought about telling Grace and Frank the truth about what you do?" she asked. "I know it feels scary to tell your nearest and dearest the whole superhero thing, but sometimes it's better that way than waiting till something happens to spill the beans."

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"Well not to mention the commute to Nicholson."  Ellis joked lightly with an amused grin, "It's difficult choice though hardly final."  he acknowledged with nod, "There is something to be said to being introduced to the club such as it is earlier rather than later."  he did note with a wry grin his own inclusion in the ranks heroic a rather fumbling one initially.

 

He grew thoughtful at her question, "Well I have thought about it obviously."  he replied cheekily trying to keep the banter light despite the serious overtones of the conversation.  "I probably will have to before long,"  he admitted, "I knew that when I told the kids and frankly I welcome it in a way I suppose."  his eyes were downcast as the repercussions welled up.  He looked back to Stesha blue eyes piercing and intense, "They do deserve to know but retelling all of it."  he shook his head, "Plus Frank has these dolls all around his desk, Half the league, those kid heroes from a few years back, the Freedom Youth?"  he winced shaking his head, "I don't know I didn't follow these things before and now it just seems even more weird.  I mean those are people not just like characters they have lives, probably families."  he grimaced disturbed by the fan phenomenon.  "Then again I'm not so out of touch not to realize that is low hanging fruit as far as excuses go."  he added with a self deprecating laugh. 

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"Young Freedom?" Stesha guessed from the description. "I know some of them, they're good kids. Or not kids at all anymore, really. They're graduating from college, holding down jobs, having lives. I don't think the action figures bother them," she pointed out with a chuckle. "But when it starts getting really surreal is when you see little kids dressing up as you for Halloween. That's about the time I started wondering about all the life choices that had brought me to that point." She laughed and shook her head, the corners of her eyes crinkling at the memory. "Ammy has-" Stesha hesitated, then continued, "she has a plush toy of her daddy that lives on her bed with the bears and dolls." Amaryllis had never shown any particular favor towards her Dark Star toy, but he was there in the crowd, sometimes tapped for pillow duty or tea party attendance. "And for my last birthday, somebody bought me a Fleur de Joie action figure with a little ceramic pot that actually grows a seed when you water it. It was cute." 

 

A thought seemed to strike her, and suddenly she had a puffy marigold blossom sitting in front of her on the table and was rooting through it like a purse with both hands. "You'll probably have some merch yourself, depending on how long you decide to work, and how visible you make yourself. It can be hard to keep a low profile in this city, even with so many heroes. People make a hobby of spotting them." She glanced up. "Which is another reason you might want to tell them. If your brother-in-law is in the know, he might spot you one day, and it might hurt their feelings not to have known. Ah!" With a triumphal flourish, Stesha pulled her arm out of the flower and plunked her prize onto the table. The little Fleur de Joie action figure was not a great likeness, being built on the tall-and-skinny superheroine template, and with green tights instead of her sturdy green trousers, but the idea was definitely there. The familiar cowl, the green hair studded with flowers, the bright smile. "There, mini-me." 

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Ellis nodded with a laugh, "Yea that's the one."  and winced at his error, "There's a tiny white haired one he declared his muse."  he offered with a shrug, "He's trying to write a Young Adult Supers coming of Age story or something."  Ellis explained with a shrug, "But you're not wrong if I end up in the costume aisle he might put it together."  The dream guardian frowned slightly, "Though the costume is a fair departure none the less."  he laughed slightly at the thought of it all, "That is all ahead of the current matter certainly."  he rubbed the bridge of his nose and shook his head, "This is already pretty surreal I can't even imagine,"  he paused at the slightly stuttered words, "I'm sorry." he apologized at her commentary on the absent father and carefully took the Doll she had conjured to look at it curiously though commented at neither the inaccuracies nor how it paled in comparison to the genuine article.  He did however look up to her, "I don't mean to pry and wouldn't ask but to ensure I don't stumble again onto difficult topics but Amaryllis' father?"  he asked carefully, "I didn't realize he was in the same line of work."  he intoned quietly, "If you don't wish to discuss it I understand you owe me no explanation."

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Stesha blushed a little. "No, it's okay," she assured him. "I don't mind talking about it, I just... well, I sort of started to assume everybody already knows about it," she admitted. "The divorce ended up being so public, it seemed like anybody who'd stood in line at the grocery store knew about us, so even mentioning it started to seem..." She waved her hands again, "superfluous, I suppose. But you've had a lot more important things on your mind this past year, I should've thought about it." 

 

She took another sip of her water and collected her thoughts. "Most of the time I think of Ammy's dad as Derrick, but the public knew him as Dark Star. A friend set us up a little while after I moved to Freedom City, and we clicked right away. He was older than me, one of those heroes that don't age past a certain point, and he was more a cosmic hero who saves planets and solar systems than the typical Freedom City superhero, but he'd joined a team here and settled down a little bit, so I didn't really even think about it." Her smile was rueful. "I was really new. We got engaged and I got pregnant with Ammy, and we were both happy about it, but he was starting to be gone a lot. There was a war of some sort going on with the Lor, and the Stellar Khanate was causing problems, and a bunch of stuff in galaxies so far away that nobody on Earth has ever heard of the people who live there. But he felt called to help, and he was saving lives, and it's just really hard to keep track of time in the depths of space, I guess. I called off the wedding once when it was pretty clear he wasn't going to be attending, but he came back and promised to do better, so we rescheduled it and got married. That's what's called ignoring warning signs." Her shrug was humor and resignation and the lingering ache of regret. 

 

"Anyway, he was around a lot of the time till Ammy was born, and for a few months after, but the trips got more frequent, and longer. Eventually he was never coming home at all, just occasional calls when he happened to think about it. Ammy didn't know him, and I felt like I really didn't either. He finally came back to help out with the Communion Incursion, and we decided it was time we both just... moved on with our lives." Stesha pursed her lips, her eyes a little bit shiny. "It was as amicable as it could be, I guess, it's just sad when things are over. And the tabloids were a problem for awhile, they were always interested in our relationship, but that's pretty much died down." Her eyes widened for a moment as a new thought struck her. "Which, um, actually might be something for you to think about if we, ah, were to start anything. The League keeps the worst of the vultures at bay, but people might be curious about you and me." 

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Ellis offered a small smile, "I never put much stock in those publications."  he said voice hardening ever so slightly before he deliberately softened his tone, "I'd rather know from you regardless."  he said honestly.  He listened with interest to the somber tale offering small comforting noises but being sure to let her get it all out before responding.  He reached out to take her hand gently and offered a supportive smile, "Endings are often sad but they are the only way for new things to begin."  he replied with a small sigh and chuckled lightly, "At least that's what I have been told by incessantly optimistic well wishers."  he added with a wry shrug.  

 

More earnestly he met her gaze and spoke gently, "I'm sorry you were hurt."  he says honestly, "Even if he never intended it."  Ellis explained with surety.  "I think it can be easy to lose track of the self with,"  he nodded toward the small figurine of Fleur sitting betwixt them, "All of this."  he speculated and glanced back to Stesha, "As for Tabloids,"  he intoned his words and visage somewhat troubled, "I have experience enough with them and can gladly renew appropriate restraining orders."  the brutal murder of an upper class white woman and the automatic suspicions cast upon the husband were no less fodder for the trashier elements of the press than the more outlandish exploits of super heroic romance after all.  The worst of the vultures had been warned off from his house and children by legal action that would easily enough be reinstated if trouble seemed to be brewing on that front.

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"You're not wrong about that," Stesha admitted with a sigh. "Sometimes I think back on the last six or seven years and I can barely recognize myself. Which is both good and bad," she admitted with a touch of a smile.  "I've learned a lot, helped a lot of people. But sometimes I miss the me who barely had any responsibilities and whose heroic deeds were mostly brightening up peoples' gardens and weddings. It's a little like having kids, I guess. It changes you in all kinds of ways, but you wouldn't give it up. I wanted to be a parent enough to make the changes. Derrick loves Amaryllis, but he wanted to be a hero more than he wanted to change into a father. And I think that's his loss."  She squeezed Ellis' fingers gratefully and then released his hand as their food arrived. "Wow, this smells amazing, how do I eat it?" 

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Ellis retracted his hand as she released it and nodded agreement, "It certainly does."  he spoke softly now his words careful around difficult terrain.  "It is a mistake many men make for lesser reasons."  he finally offered comfortingly, "though still a mistake."  he felt the need to reaffirm.  He thanked the waiter politely as the platter of thick stew was set before them and grinned at her question as he tore a swath of one of the flatbreads served along side the hearty melding of meat, vegetable, and spice.  Rolling the injera into a makeshift spoon in his right hand he scooped up a mouthful of the slowly simmered lamb and delicately offered her the bite with a faint smile, "You simply scoop with the Injera."  he indicated with a nod as he steered the fragrant bite towards her lips.  The staff grinned at the couple as he did so a few whispered words in their native tongue gossiping about the doctor's action spoke to the significance in Ethiopian food culture of the motion whether he knew it or not.  "Oh and right hand use of the left is considered rude from what Dr. Cutter has told me."

 

"Balance is hard I think regardless of career."  he offered further on the earlier topic though drifting to less personal space, "I have known no small number of colleagues who have had such stumbles." 

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Stesha grinned and leaned forward to accept the bite, licking sauce delicately off her lips. "It's good!" she decided. "Definitely got a kick to it." She picked up a piece of her own bread and sampled from her bowl. "It must be hard for doctors, finding time for yourselves and your families while you've got this skill that is so needed, and the hours you're expected to work are so long and weird. Not needing to sleep has got to be a big advantage! I know it pretty much saved my life when Ammy was a baby." She laughed. "Honestly, I don't know how anybody handles it any other way. So, what did you wind up telling your sister about tonight?" 

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"It certainly is a big help in the hospital as well."  Ellis agreed with a smile as he took a few slow bites of the succulent stew.  "It can sneak up on you too."  he added quietly, "nearly burned myself out first time I came, but I'm a lightweight."  he offered with a congenial wink.  He paused at her question, "The truth more or less."  he said after a moment, "I told her i ran into a colleague at the hospital and was going to grab a bite after my shift,"  he explained with a hint of a smile as he held back his reasoning then with a smirk elaborated, "I find it best to inform her of more romantic meetups when I am more prepared to answer her bevy of questions about them."  he took a slow sip of his drink and added with a laugh, "Well I hope it's better."  he shrugged, "The woman needs some girlfriends to gossip with or something because I am too long in the tooth for the third degree about my date."  he explained using the singular as he didn't go on enough of them to justify plurality, maybe after this one though he wasn't sure how it conted, well it probably did, though what date that made it was questionable, did the coffee meetup count?

 

Rather than focus overmuch on that line of thought he moved back to the very pleasant present.  "Though she probably has sussed it out already if I'm honest."  he admitted and glanced down at his plate as he murmured, "She claims I have a look and a voice for when I'm seeing you."  he cleared his throat perhaps revealing more than he intended, "Ah, so, what have you been up to other than the livestock and answering calls for help from out of their depth doctors?"

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"You seemed to have the situation well in hand," Stesha demurred with a smile. "But I've been keeping busy, getting winter supplies laid in for the three villages, integrating the new doctor we just hired, making sure everybody has enough warm clothes, things like that. They're predicting a mild winter here on Prime, but the weather doesn't always translate exactly from here to there. I'm hopeful though," she added, scooping up another bite of stew. "We could really use a warm winter and not too many storms. Pity I've yet to find a weather controller who wants to relocate!"

 

She gestured with her bit of bread instead of eating it. "And the League comes knocking sometimes with work to do or appearances to make, and Ammy's always got something going on. We're making cookies this week for her to take to school, to demonstrate Christmas cookies for all the children who've never seen them before. What's your family got planned for the holidays?" 

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Ellis smiled at that, "Well the help was appreciated none the less." he reiterated with a wave of his hand.  He was still trying to fully parse the ease with which Stesha discussed both photo ops with the freedom league extradimensional recruiting and holiday cookies though he did manage to rather seamlessly respond to her query, Ah well when the kids are out of school they are going to stay with my parents for the vacation, I'll be down for the few days before and after the big one."  he explained with a shrug, "Can't leave them alone at the hospital for too long they may actually give the injured hero his pain meds without me on watch." he nodded sagely in mock solemnity.  "I let Grace take over the kitchen and cook up thanksgiving, she usually invites a few friends that can't make it to family engagements."  he paused a little uncertainly, "Actually was a bit of tradition Barbara and I started in college, she hadn't much family so we just had friends over, family you choose and all that."  he explained with a hint of sadness lingering still, "Grace took over as her and Frank and their friends had long been part of it as well in the end."  He tried to rescue the morose turn of conversation with a witty self deprecation, "I'm useless in the kitchen so I must rely on the kindness of strangers, I have but the one dish from the picnic to use ot impress the ladies and a masterful list of excellent take out and delivery establishments."

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"I like your style." Stesha saluted him with her bit of bread. "Everybody's got things they're good at, and a smart person learns how to work around the rest of it. Like me, I'm a lousy driver, but I can teleport. And when I do need to take a car, I get a taxi or a friend. It's better that than doing something I'm not only bad at, but have no real reason to try and get better at. Maybe you'll get lucky and one of your kids will be a genius in the kitchen. Until that time, Freedom City's got a ton of good takeout places. Have you ever ordered from Mercutio's in the Theater District? They have calzones that I can't even describe." A short discussion followed on the merits of various takeout places, while they both ate and relaxed after long days. 

 

"Wow, this is really nice," Stesha decided, taking a sip of her tea. "I was really nervous coming in tonight, wondering if this was going to work out. Sometimes I still get really weird about everything that's happened, you know? But I just like spending time with you." 

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"No I'll have to add it to the rotation."  Ellis replied with a smile before exchanging a few gems of his own, mostly in the north end like this and a few nearer his home in Kingston.  He was at ease relaxing into his chair as they shared hot tips on kids menus, leftover storage, and where carried apple juice as opposed to fruit punch.  "It is."  he agreed as he set his own cup aside and sat up a bit straighter, "Well I'm glad you did come."  he said with a gentle smile, "And yea, it's a bit odd to try to jump back into this whole world."  He agreed easily and grinned, "But if there is one thing I have learned in my time with you it is that the odd is commonplace for you."  he joked lightly and gentled as he glanced down at the table a slight blush rising to his cheeks, "I enjoy your company a great deal as well Stesha."

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"The odd kinda sneaks up on you," Stesha admitted with a small laugh. "The first really weird thing you get involved with just bowls you over, then you get used to it, then you start getting wrapped up in it, and the other odd things that come along with it just gradually start seeming more and more normal. And... and eventually your world is so full of magic and giant fire-breathing bees and world-saving that suddenly you run into a real world problem and you just have no idea how to deal with it," she admitted pensively. "I had a good lawyer, one familiar with metahuman family law, if you can believe that's even a specialty. But even just finding a business suit and taking a cab to a courthouse was just... alien. It was all so weird. I was glad to get back to Sanctuary, for a lot of reasons." 

 

For a moment there was worry in her face, and it looked like she might say more, but instead she shook it away. "You really will get used to it," she promised. "It's a balancing act. And speaking of which, I should probably get going, I have a sunrise meeting in Mayberry so we can get the wheat in before I have to go to work." She gave the waiter a meaningful look, who soon approached with their check. "You know you can call anytime." 

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Ellis was sure to intercept the check and pay as there were a few things he definitely remembered about dating still and paying certainly edged it towards date and away from 'friends sharing a meal'  "I know."  he replied with an easy smile, "And any time now I'll come up with the courage to do so without a lame excuse about school paperwork or possible demons in my OR."  he suggested with a grin and stood offering a hand to help her to her feet.  Once she stood he looked down at her with a small smile, "I Really did enjoy this."  he said once more and paused hesitantly, "I like you alot."  he repeated again wincing as he heard his own repetitive wording and let out a sigh before rushing out the words, "I'd like to see you again, soon, dinner, maybe dancing?"  he asked the words running together as he nervously pushed them out and looked away pinching his brow, "Sorry I don't..."  he trailed off not even sure what to say but feeling distinctly like he'd done this wrong somehow.

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Stesha kept hold of his hand after she stood, just lightly with the tips of her fingers. "It sounds like fun," she told him. "It sounds like the nice kind of normal. Give me a call when you know you're going to have a free evening, and I'll see if I can work it out as well. Two people with hectic schedules, it could be pretty tough. But I think we can set something up." She walked outside with him, pausing by the large potted tree next to the front stoop. "Tonight was nice." Leaning upward, Stesha gave him a light kiss on the cheek. "I'm glad they hauled that guy into your emergency room. Give my best to your kids." 

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