The Space Between Us

20: I Was Surprised When She Asked

Tucking the neatly wrapped present that he held underneath his arm, Lionel slipped his phone out of his jacket pocket, his eyes scanning the street for any sign of anyone he recognised. He hadn’t meant to be early. With it having been a long time since he had spent any time with Amelia’s parents, or sister, the last thing that he had wanted was to arrive at the restaurant that she had chosen for her birthday dinner before she did, but when Amelia had called him, and told him that she would be arriving with her parents, he hadn’t been able to avoid it. He didn’t want to be late.

Thumbing through his contacts, he looked for Amelia’s name, only to jump when he felt a tap on his shoulder.

Nora grinned at him amusedly. “Waiting for someone?” she chirped.

Lionel let out a slightly bashful laugh, stuffing his phone back into his pocket. “I got here early” he replied “And I was just about to call Amelia and ask if I had actually got the right restaurant, but I guess I know that it is now, unless she sent you two to the wrong one, too” he added, greeting Victor, who stood a pace behind Nora, with a warm nod.

Victor smiled back at him, though it appeared a little forced. “This is the right place” he mused “Lia loves this place” he added.

Lionel just nodded his head in reply, allowing a moment of quiet to stretch between the three of them that was only broken when Nora gestured towards the restaurant’s door. “Can we go in?” she asked “We can grab a drink at the bar before Amelia and her family show up” she added.

“Lead the way” Lionel chirped, his voice a little too enthusiastic.

Nora offered him a small, comforting smile before she made her way inside, Lionel and Victor trailing after her.

For a few moments, the three of them didn’t say anything other than their orders to the bartender, but eventually, Nora turned to Lionel who’d settled in a chair across from her, another small smile on her face. “I didn’t know that Amelia had invited you” she mused.

Lionel shrugged, focussing on settling his glass on the table in front of him. “I was pretty surprised when she asked” he replied “Things have been a little weird between us for a couple of weeks, so I wasn’t expecting the invite, but here I am” he added, a bashful smile on his face.

Things between him and Amelia had been a little strange. Since they had had dinner together at the restaurant near her office, it had felt like Amelia was trying to put space between them again, and without knowing what was wrong, Lionel had no idea how to stop it. She had tried not to make it obvious. They still met up for dinner every week, and they still texted back and forth, but things felt different, and Lionel knew that Amelia knew that they both knew it.

Nora’s eyebrows lifted a fraction, but she didn’t say anything, busying herself with taking a sip of her drink.

“You and Lia are together a lot” Victor commented “Are you guys a couple or something?” he added.

Lionel shook his head without hesitation, offering a sidewards glance to Nora who’d spluttered on her drink. “No, we’re not” he mused “Just friends” he added.

Victor nodded his head slowly, his expression slightly sceptical, but he was stopped from saying anything else when Amelia, trailed by her parents, sister and brother-in-law, appeared next to the table. Lionel pushed himself out of his seat, watching as Nora and Victor greeted Amelia with warm hugs, before he shuffled forwards, greeting her with a sheepish smile as he offered the gift he’d bought with him out to her. “Happy birthday” he mused.

Amelia took the present out of his hands before she stepped into him, wrapping him in a hug that barely lasted a moment before she stepped back. “Thank you” she mused.

Lionel just smiled awkwardly as she stepped past him, leading the party towards their table. He watched as her parents stepped past him, greeting him with warm, but still stilted smiles. He reciprocated Asier’s polite nod, and accepted the hug that Alexa wrapped him in. He smiled when Nora squeezed his arm gently, and tried to ignore the look that Victor had sent in his direction, all before he followed them towards the table, not quite able to ignore the feeling that he was intruding on something.

Reaching the table, he watched as people took their seats.

Felicity next to Albert.

Alexa next to Asier.

Nora next to Victor.

Then, when his stare landed on the empty seat at Amelia’s side, he realised why he felt like he was intruding. It wasn’t supposed to be him in the empty seat.

“Leo?”

Lionel blinked a couple of times, his stare moving towards Felicity who smiled up at him gently. “Are you joining us?” she asked.

For a moment, Lionel thought about shaking his head, but when he glanced at Amelia, and found her looking back at him, he slowly nodded his head. Quirking an apologetic smile, he padded towards the empty seat and slipped into it, picking up the menu that had been laid in front of his place. Opening it up, he allowed the conversation to start up, distracting everyone else around them table, before he allowed one hand to slip beneath the table, finding one of Amelia’s which was fiddling with the napkin that was across her lap.

Twining their fingers together, he squeezed gently before he looked up, finding Amelia staring down at their hands, a small smile dancing across her face. “Are you OK?” he asked, his voice low enough for just her to hear.

There was a moment of hesitation before Amelia met his eyes, offering him a little nod and a small, genuine smile. “Yeah” she confirmed “I am OK” she added.

Lionel smiled back at her gently before someone around the table made a toast. With one hand, he lifted his glass, joining in the chant of ‘happy birthday’, and with the other hand he held Amelia’s, squeezing it gently to remind her that, if she needed him, he was there.