Lydia didn’t believe in little victories. Little victories only meant that bigger and worse losses were on the horizon.
Like the small mercy that when Ortega showed up that day in that shitty diner, her cake had been half eaten. He had ignored it. She’d been able to ignore it. Too many emotions and too many stringy lies to focus on unraveling and, frankly, just too much Ricardo sitting there. Too much Lydia, sitting there. Not dead. She hadn’t even started the engine in the very familiar train of thought. Instead she had jumped in a cab with him and proceeded to make one of the best (worst?) decisions of her new life, letting him slip just a touch into her existence.
It was the same silver lining when she had finished “helping” Lady Argent. Same. But vastly different, because in the small room it wasn’t some gum snapping, bored waitress who couldn’t even be bothered to have a brief thought of gross—no, instead it was Ortega, handing her a chocolate bar. And there was no way for Lydia to know if he had the thought. Those thoughts. She’d nibbled on it, feeling nauseous with his eyes on her, but forcing the revulsion down because there really was no way to know and she didn’t want to start a fight. At least not right then. Because then they were embracing, Lydia had started it that time, and the static of the interaction pushed whatever thought had been starting to wake up back into bed.
But there was no small mercy about it when it was Lucas hanging out with Ortega, grabbing some powdery health smoothie, or bitter black coffee or. Sometimes it was actually breakfast after boxing and those days were the worst. Because Lucas, tall and lean and well-muscled, handsome, Lucas, could just sit there and eat and have a conversation with Ortega. And Lydia was forced to, every few seconds or so, remind herself to make him take a bite. It should have been easy, but old habits died hard. It was hard and it hurt to remember that people weren’t going to stare at him while he ate. Nobody was going to shoot a glance over their shoulder if Lucas decided to get pancakes instead of a fruit salad. There wasn’t going to be any shadowy thoughts, not from everyone not by a long shot but just enough and just loud enough to make her feel mortified, judging Lucas for what he was eating. Lucas didn’t have to feel that little zip of shame if Ortega happened to look up at him when he took his next bite.
Lydia usually felt it, anyway. Endured it and blunt forced her way through, trying to find some enjoyment in the company rather than dread.
The closer Lydia and Ortega got, the fewer and further between those mercies became. Ortega liked taking her out, “treating her”, a fact which made Lydia’s skin crawl in ways both good and bad. He also liked using her presence, a civilian who didn’t have to keep up a regimen (at least not one that he knew about), as an excuse to indulge in the sorts of things he really shouldn’t.
There were times when it felt like he knew what he was doing. Like when they went for coffee not long before Lydia’s first appointment with Dr. Finch.
Without really meaning to Lydia had been getting edgy, slightly more flighty as the date approached. Screening Ortega’s calls and returning them only when she could figure would be most inconvenient. Trying to only leave messages and never actually having to talk with him. Ortega picked up on it, because of course he did, and urged
“Come get coffee with me. Just a quick cup and I’ll be out of your hair,”
“You’re never out of my hair,” because it was the truth.
“I just want to check in,” and Lydia didn’t fight it. Not hard, anyway. Went to get coffee because it was often so much easier to just play along with him than not. If she said no, he would’ve just asked questions. Pushed harder.
He got coffee and she ordered water, pointedly turning to look out the window at traffic to avoid the light something in his gaze. She felt those eyes stay on her as he added on an order of coffee cake and turned an award winning smile to the waitress. The girl couldn’t have been more than twenty, a slight thing with bright eyes and a broad, pretty face and her quiet delight was a punch to Lydia’s throat, mostly because hot on its heels came the ‘what’s he doing with a woman like that?’.
Being intangible would have been a pretty useful talent, Lydia mused, still not making eye contact with Ortega—she could have used it to sink through the shitty upholstery and suffocate herself in the booth.
“I know you’re nervous about it,” well. Out in the open then. Lydia let out a sound more like a bark than a laugh. It only made Ortega frown softly. “It’s okay to be, you know,”
“Sure,” Lydia sighed, rubbing her hands over her legs to try and keep them from standing her up and walking out the door. Then brought them on to the table. Folding them over each other, fingers playing with themselves. Did she look suitably nervous? Did she look nervous for the right reasons? “Just…just not sure what I’m getting myself into,” the smile was forced. Badly enough that Ortega scooted forward in his seat, reaching across the table to rest his hand on her forearm.
“Hopefully something that will help,” the place where his hand rested felt sunburnt and it took everything in Lydia’s power not to brush him immediately away. It was meant to be a comfort; Lydia wished it could be. Wished that when his thumb stroked at her through the thin cloth barrier it could make her feel anything other than shivery and repulsive.
It wasn’t entirely her own thought, she realized with a tiny spike of anger. The waitress, watching them as she drew back in with their order. Watching him touch and hearing him speak gently and finding it just a little bit gross that it was Lydia, of all people, receiving the attention.
Lydia knew her body had changed since her debut as Entropy, but Lydia also knew that she had been designed to be not only forgettable, but to be just slightly unattractive. Undesirable. Not remarkably ugly, but.
Her face wasn’t anything remarkable. Her eyes were programmed to be just a little dull. And. Well. How many studies were there that showed how much people disliked overweight women? Pitied them. Found them gross. Tried to forget that they were there? Enough for the people writing her genetic coding to toss it on in—no amount of exercise or protein shakes or starvation could change that.
“Anything else I can get for you?” Not ‘you two’. Only directed at Ortega but not deliberately malicious. Lydia could feel the way the girl’s thoughts jumped when Ortega smiled at her again and told her that they were good for the moment.
At least there was the small mercy that Ortega waited until the waitress had left before scooching the plate more towards the center of the table. Lydia regarded it with a caution usually reserved for grenades missing their pins. Waited while Ortega took a bite to chase his coffee. She sipped at her water and hoped the cool feeling might help ground her. Instead she felt it sliding icy down her throat and settle hard in the pit of her stomach.
“I’m proud of you for agreeing to go,” Lydia must’ve let the surprise show on her face. It was Ortega’s turn to sheepishly look away, playing with a crumb of cake with the tine of his fork.
“Don’t count your chickens. I haven’t made it there, yet,” she grumbled.
“Sure,” and Lydia could tell even without being able to see his thoughts that he was deliberately echoing her. He made a vague gesture of surrender. There was a dangerous gleam in the way his eyes smiled. Lydia tried to ignore the way it made her hair stand on end. “It’s good,” Lydia blinked at him. “The cake,” he raised another piece on his fork as if displaying it, “try some,”
“Not hungry,” the words threw elbows in their desperation to get out of her mouth. Ortega gave her a look. Close to a pout.
“One bite,” and. Yes. There was an edge to it. ‘Quiet cup of coffee’ her fat ass, this was a challenge. Goddammit. It wouldn’t be worth the argument. It wasn’t an argument she could win, not right then, and it would only get worse because that particular argument was going to be one Ortega wouldn’t let die easily. “I thought coffee cake was one of your favorites,” he poked, clearly trying to test her reaction.
Dammit, she wished she could get a read on exactly what he was thinking.
“Sure.” The word was laced with a great deal more venom than Lydia meant it to. It made Ortega’s eyes harden slightly. Lydia winced, a bit dramatically to try and drive it home. “Sorry. Sorry, I guess thinking about having to finally talk with someone makes me more nervous than I thought,”
The lie stuck its landing. There was a flash of something related to guilt, then,— “It is pretty good, you know,” but his tone was more reproachful. It was obvious he’d only ordered it with her in mind, and probably ordered it without meaning for it to start something. Probably.
It was a small bite.
But his eyes were on her, expectant. Wanting a review.
Watching her chew. Lydia had to look down at the plate to escape the gaze otherwise she was sure she would choke. It was good; a little too sweet to be eaten with just water but it would have balanced out a bitter cup of coffee nicely.
“Good?” he prompted.
“Fine,” she shrugged and forced herself to lay the fork down instead of throwing it.
“You’re such a shitty liar,” but there was a sly grin on his face.
“You were making The Face,”
“The hell are you talking about? What face?”
“You know, the face?” Ortega paused and leaned back, smug look only poisoning the teasing words more. “You get this little…I don’t know, face, when you eat something you really like. You actually look close to happy,”
Lydia felt bile rush up her throat. Fuck, she was going to be sick.
“Whatever. You’ve got crumbs in your mustache, grandpa,” she said, instead of jumping up from the table to vomit in the bathroom. She made a face? Worse, far worse yet, god fucking dammit so much worse, he’d watched her eat often enough to know she made a face.
Somewhere eighteen million miles away, just across the speckled tabletop, Ortega was brushing at his mustache and cursing softly in Spanish about not being old. He was saying something else, but Lydia didn’t quite catch it. She was busy trying not to run out. Making sure she didn’t start crying. To not draw any more attention to herself.
God. How many times? How often had she let her guard down for him to be able to pick up that she made a fucking face?
“Lydia? You still with me?”
The snap back to reality hit harder than usual. Fuck, she really was going to be sick, wasn’t she? She was holding her own hands tightly enough to turn the knuckles bright white—she only noticed because Ortega’s hands, warm and sending a low level crackle over her skin, folded over them. Stopping them from. Christ, she had been shaking.
“Sorry,” it was all she could think to say and it felt every bit as slimy as she did. “I’m alright,” she continued, hoping Ortega would take his hands back. Her stomach rolled. “Thinking about tomorrow, that’s all,”
That seemed to do a good enough job. Concern was a bad look for Ortega, and he still wore it plastered over his face, but it was softening. His hands stayed. Moved. But stayed. Curled around to properly hold hers on the tabletop. The coffee cake served as the halfway point between them.
“It’s gonna be okay,” he offered. “And if it’s not, if it turns out to be bullshit and you hate it, I’ll still be here,” a kind sentiment, if it were true. There was no way for Lydia to really know. His thumbs rubbed small circles over her knuckles and it was.
A little too intimate, suddenly.
“Hey. Let me get this one, yeah?” Lydia reclaimed her hands, doing her best to ignore the lingering buzz in her joints. Ortega blinked back at her, the sudden change obviously throwing him a bit. No need to be psychic to see him searching for the words.
“…All you had was water.”
And that fucking bite of cake, she doesn’t say.
“So I don’t feel like I owe you so much?” is what made it out of her mouth and every line in Ortega’s body seemed to soften at once.
“Oh, mierda, Lydia is that was this is about? Me footing the bill for your–,”
“It’s not. Really,” and despite herself, Lydia found herself placing her hand back on Ortega’s. “It’s not,” It wasn’t. She just wanted any excuse she could find to get out of there as quickly as possible without making a scene. “Just. I want to. Let me get this?”
“I won’t fight you for it,” he agreed and the smile is close to genuine. Maybe it actually was. Then, “Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to take you somewhere nicer in the future,”
And even though she knew it wasn’t, the wink he sent at her felt like a threat.