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Tactical Disadvantage

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"It's not like that," Jaime said, through the line the Scarab had opened with Brenda's phone.

"Don't say 'it's not like that,'" Brenda snapped. "It's like that, and you know it."

"It's not, though."

"You kissed me."

"Well, yeah, but-"

"No 'yeah, buts.' You kissed me."

"Yeah, but the Scarab said-"

"Don't blame this on the Scarab! It's not his fault you're a- a-"

"First of all," Jaime said, holding up his fingers to count out the reasons even though there was no way she could see them over the phone, "It's not a he. At least, I think it's not. I never really asked. And second, it said I had to kiss you."

"You did not have to kiss me, Jaime."

"It said we had to!"

"Oh yeah? Why?"

"The aliens," Jaime said weakly. When he said it aloud, it didn't sound as good as in his head. It never did.

"I don't want to hear it!"

"Look, can we argue about this later? I think my mom just got home with Milagro, and if she hears this, she's gonna have a heart attack. It was bad enough when I told her last week that I'm thinking about taking a full-time gig with the Teen Titans instead of going to college in the fall. I'm not sure she can handle me kissing you for any reason."

"Jaime!" Brenda sounded like she was still deciding whether she should be angry or horrified. "You have to go to college!"

"Oh, great," Jaime said, smacking himself lightly in the forehead. "You too?"

"Of course me too! I'm your best friend. You can't spend your whole life being a superhero."

"It's not like anyone ever gave me a choice about it. No one ever came and asked, hey, Jaime, do you feel like dressing up like a giant blue bug and saving the world? That sounds like fun, right? It's not fun! Do you know how many times I've been in the hospital in the last three years?" It was a rhetorical question, mostly, because Brenda did know. Because she'd been there every single time.

"You can go to college and be a superhero at the same time."

"That's easier said than done. Do you know how awkward it is to come up with new excuses to run off all the time?"

"We'll help."

"I thought you were mad at me."

"Doesn't mean I'm not your best friend."

Jaime sighed. "Okay. Okay. We'll talk about college later. And kissing."

Statement filed.

"Well, you're not helping," he said to the Scarab, which had apparently decided that this specific conversation was worth noting in its memory banks. Lately, Jaime wasn't entirely comfortable with how comfortable the Scarab was starting to feel giving input or interfering in his daily life.

"I am too!" said Brenda.

"No, I'm not talking to you. I mean- it's nothing. I'll talk to you later."

"Bye, Jaime. I'm not forgetting about this conversation, by the way."

"Of course you're not."

---

"Earth to Beetle," came a loud, buzzing, horrible sound from inside Jaime's head. Sometimes he regretted telling the Scarab to establish a direct line to Paco for emergencies. He especially regretted it when Paco abused the privilege, but he thought they'd given that up since he threatened to fry him with finger lightning. (A threat that would be probably much more credible if the Scarab hadn't immediately informed him that it would never carry out that order. He'd created a monster.)

"Okay, okay, I'm awake, Paco," he said, his voice flat and decidedly unenthusiastic. Superhero-ing should have regular hours. And actual pay. And compensation for injuries suffered on the job. And coffee breaks. "What is it?"

"You got incoming."

"Wait, seriously?" Jaime perked up, and his sensors started coming online before he could even start to think about getting into the bug suit. He wasn't sure if the Scarab thought it was being helpful, or if it was just antsy after not fighting anything for a couple days. Probably both.

"Seriously. Hey, Jaime?"

"Yeah?" Jaime asked, while he tried to climb out the window without making any noise. If he woke Milagro up again, he'd catch hell for it. He didn't want to hear his parents' opinion, either. It didn't matter that he was eighteen and finishing up his last few high school courses, he still wasn't technically allowed to sneak out the window in the middle of the night without telling anyone.

"Did you kiss my girlfriend last week?" The way Paco said it, it almost sounded genuinely innocuous. Like he truly didn't care one way or the other. Knowing Paco, Jaime could almost believe it.

"What?! No! I mean, yes, but it's not like what you think-"

"Whoa, relax. I don't think anything."

He could practically feel the way Paco shrugged carelessly,even over the phone, and he wasn't sure if he should wince or laugh. Alien invasion, end of the world, doomsday, last second to live, it didn't matter – Paco would be Paco. "You're not mad?"

"Why would I be mad? She said you had to."

"That's not what she said when I-" There were a lot of things Jaime wanted to say. Absolutely none of them were a good idea. He kept his mouth shut – right until he looked out the window and realized something had just exploded in the sky above El Paso. "… Wait. Wait. Paco, incoming what?"

There was a pause while Paco checked something on his end. "I think aliens."

"We just did aliens," Jaime complained. He heaved a deep sigh as he climbed out the window and then started heading up towards the light.

"Can't choose your enemies."

"When did you start sounding like Gandalf?"

"English Lit 101. This college thing is cool. I actually learn stuff. Whoa, you might wanna-"

Just in time, and thanks to Paco's warning, Jaime swerved to avoid being hit by an entire alien spacecraft. A small alien spacecraft, but it still would have hurt.

"You know," Jaime said, while he ducked under a laser beam, "You totally can choose your enemies. It's pretty easy, actually. Take it from me."

"Don't need to. I've seen you make enemies. You're really good at it."

"Thanks," Jaime said dryly.

"Anytime, bro." Paco's voice started to fade in and out as Jaime swooped down between some of El Paso's taller buildings. "Hey, I'm getting some interference. See you on the other side?"

"You bet."

For a little while, the inside of Jaime's head was blissfully quiet. Sometimes, the sound of lasers and explosions was almost relaxing in comparison. Anyone who thought they wanted his powers had no idea what they were wishing for.

Query: Brenda/angry = Jaime/enemy?

"It's not like that!" Jaime insisted for at least the third time. He would have rolled his eyes, but the bug suit made it next to impossible to do that without looking crazy. Not that anyone was watching while he was a hundred feet in the air. "Why do you all think it's like that? Look. You do tactical stuff. That's what you do. I'll handle the people stuff, okay?"

Missile deployed.

The Scarab sounded sullen, and it didn't scare Jaime nearly as much as he thought it should have. The missile, at least, was indeed deployed. Jaime sheltered his eyes with his hand from the light of the blast. He didn't think it was necessary, strictly speaking, but he had a habit of doing it anyway. The Scarab had once said something about visual detector protection. Jaime might have listened more carefully if he hadn't been so distracted by the sewer monster they'd been fighting. Better safe than sorry.

There was a sudden crackling sound in Jaime's head, and he winced as Paco's voice came through again: "Jaime? Jaime, can you hear me? Is it over yet? I have class at 8 tomorrow."

"Paco-" Jaime tried not to snap. It wasn't fair to take out his frustration on his team, especially when they were up at stupid hours of the night helping him take down stray alien invaders. (He hoped they were strays. The last thing he needed this month was another actual invasion.)

"I'm just asking."

"Yes, it's over. I think? I hope."

"Ladies and gentlemen, our hero and savior, the Blue Beetle."

"I'm heading home," Jaime said, as he failed to roll his eyes at someone for the second time that night.

"Wait, before I hang up. Brenda wanted me to ask you something. You wanna come hang out with us? Say Tuesday night?"

"Yeah, okay. We planning that in advance now?"

"Usually for dates, yeah."

"For-" For once, Jaime was stunned into absolute silence.

"A date."

"For a date," said Jaime, as he started to recover - only to narrowly miss flying directly into a billboard advertising some kind of shampoo. "You can't just- invite me out on a date with you and your girlfriend-"

"We totally just did."

"Yeah," Jaime said. He tried to pass the anxious tension in his voice off as a cough, but he didn't think it was very successful. Taking a deep breath, he landed on the ground on his front lawn, only stumbling a little bit before he found his footing. "... Yeah, okay."

Tactical advantage: Paco Tejas.

"Shut up," Jaime muttered viciously.

---

"I said nice clothes. These are not nice clothes," he said, picking at the dirty t-shirt the Scarab had left him in after it folded up the armor, or whatever happened when it disappeared. He couldn't walk up to Paco's door dressed like this for their first 'date'. It was getting a little less weird to think about going on a date with both of his best friends. A little. When he didn't think about it very hard.

People stuff.

"Wait, are you still mad about that? That was three days ago!"

Orders - - obey.

"Since when?" said Jaime. "Anyway… look. Fine. You can help me with people stuff. It's our life, I guess. Our weird, crazy life."

As if by magic (although he knew it wasn't), his shirt and pants transformed into something much more suitable for a date. He picked at the dark shirt, then smoothed it over, satisfied.

He tried not to be nervous when he knocked on Brenda's door. This was normal. They were his best friends. Completely, one hundred percent normal. Everyone eventually started dating their best friends. Everyone who lived in El Paso and had an alien scarab grafted to their spine, anyway.

"You look nice." Brenda didn't sound even slightly sarcastic, standing in the doorway and eyeing him in a way that he wasn't used to. He tried not to gulp.

"Are we staying in, or going out, or-"

"Just come inside," said Brenda, holding the door open for him. "And stop making this weird. It's not weird."

"I'm not making it weird. I'm not doing anything."

"You keep looking like you're about to jump. Relax. You're our best friend. It's not weird," Brenda said. She led him into the living room, and he tried to relax. Normal. Completely normal. They'd invited him here. Who was he to say what they were allowed to do in their relationship?

He took a seat on the couch near the end, but Paco edged him over towards the middle so Brenda could sit on his other side. Normal, he reminded himself again.

"So... what's on the agenda?" He looked back and forth between them. If either of them were nervous, they weren't letting it show.

"Old movies and popcorn," Paco replied, holding up the remote and nudging the bowl with his knee. "You know. Normal us stuff."

After a few minutes of an awkwardly stiff back and an aching neck, Jaime remembered that this actually was completely normal. He slumped against Brenda's shoulder, finally relaxing for real. He reached for the popcorn, prompting a grumble from Paco.

"Told you it's not weird," Brenda said, when they'd all been quiet for a long time. A quick glance at the clock told Jaime that it was already past midnight.

"Coming from someone whose entire life revolves around new and exciting ways of realizing he doesn't know anything about anything… this is just kinda new," he admitted.

"Bad new?" Paco asked. His mouth was half-full of popcorn, but Brenda had stopped scolding him about talking with his mouth full at least three years ago. Some things just weren't worth the effort.

"Just new."

Then Brenda was kissing him, his hand was sliding up the back of her neck and into her hair, Paco's hand was on his shoulder, and he wasn't thinking about weirdness at all anymore.

---

By their third date, Jaime was getting the routine down. Show up, survive a few minutes of awkwardness, hang out like nothing was different, make out. It was far from the worst routine he could imagine.

"We could go see a movie," said Paco, his feet dangling off the edge of his bed. His apartment was tiny, but there was (just barely) enough space for the three of them to hang out in his bedroom.

Brenda yawned. "We did that last weekend."

"Go to the park?"

"Too hot," said Jaime, idly flipping through the pages of a sports magazine Paco had left out on his desk.

"Well, this is boring." Paco lay back with his arms under his head, watching his fan go around and around above him.

"'Boring' is not a word I would use to describe our lives. Don't you have homework?"

"Did it already."

Jaime got up and joined the two of them on the bed, lying on his back and watching the fan. After awhile, it started to become mesmerizing. "Look at what we've become in our old age," he said. "Responsible citizens."

"It's okay," said Brenda, nudging Jaime's side with her elbow, "I'm sure something evil will attack again soon, and you two can go do your thing."

---

"So I was thinking," he said, looking down. Stalling for time.

"Okay," Paco said, nodding, while Brenda sipped at her milkshake across from them in the booth.

"I was thinking." Jaime took a deep breath. He'd rehearsed this in his head for two weeks. Two agonizing weeks of wishing that he could just be a normal person for awhile, so he didn't have to think about this kind of thing and he could just enjoy having fun with two of the people he loved most in the entire world. "You guys shouldn't stay here on my account."

"But we're your team!" Paco stopped eating his hamburger just to turn and stare at Jaime.

"I know you are-"

"Who's gonna save the world with you and kick bad guy butt? You need us."

"Yeah, I know, Paco, but-"

"How many times do I have to tell you not to say 'yeah, but'?" Brenda snapped, one hand on her hip.

To its credit, the Scarab didn't respond to Jaime's anxiety by threatening to deploy any weapons. If that wasn't progress, he didn't know what was.

"Yeah, Brenda-"

"Don't you dare!"

"I know," Jaime said quickly, holding up one hand. "I know. It's just, you're both going to college here. I know you wanted more than that, Brenda. And even if I leave, nothing is ever gonna be normal for me. This is my life now, whether I wanted it or not."

"This is our life now," Brenda said gently, "Whether we wanted it or not."

"For the record, I think it's awesome," said Paco. He leaned closer to Jaime. For a moment Jaime didn't know what was about to happen.

"Paco-" Jaime yelped as Paco pulled him into an awkward one-armed hug. And then kissed him firmly. Suddenly he thought he understood a lot about Brenda's life choices.

When he pulled away, he was smiling sheepishly. "It kind of feels like you guys planned all this. Not saying you did. It just seems like it."

"No way, man."

Not planned.

"Uh huh," said Jaime. "So convinced."

"We kind of... talked about it for awhile. You're our best friend, and everything we do sort of involves you," said Brenda, hesitating as she glanced at Paco. "We didn't know how you'd react."

"So you sprung it on me while I was fighting off aliens?"

"Seemed like the best time." Paco shrugged. "I mean, you said yes."

"Maybe I was under duress." It might have sounded more convincing if he wasn't leaning against Paco's shoulder, grinning like an idiot. He needed to work on that.

"Drink your milkshake," Brenda ordered.

---

"Are you dating Brenda?" Milagro asked, lying on the floor of Jaime's bedroom and watching him while he tried to sort out the perpetual mess on his desk.

"What? No! I am not dating Brenda." It was technically true. Sort of. He wasn't only dating Brenda. He thought he could feel the Scarab squinting inside his head, as if trying to figure out how to correctly categorize the statement.

"You are."

"Am not. Don't you have anything better to do?"

"No," Milagro said sullenly. She crossed her arms over her chest. "Guy said I could go to space with him, but then he said he's busy and we have to do it next week."

"Guy as in Guy Gardner. Guy Gardner is taking you to space now? Milagro!"

"What? You took me to space once."

"That's different!"

"Nuh uh."

"Stop acting like you're eight years old!"

"It's not fair. You get to have all the fun. I don't get to do anything! And you are dating Brenda, and Paco."

"This isn't about- and I am not!"

"It's okay, Paco told me. I bet everyone's gonna be happy. Mom likes Brenda."

"I give up," Jaime said. He threw his hands up in the air. "I give up! You're all crazy."

"Only because you are." Milagro stuck out her tongue.

Warning.

Jaime sighed. "Really?"

Warning.

"Can't a guy get one night off around here?" He was already suited up and halfway out the door before Milagro even seemed to notice, which was really a just a testament to how their family life had been since he came back from hanging out in space for a year.

"Try not to die or anything!" she called after him.

---

It was almost morning when Jaime found himself lying on his back in the middle of the desert, with Paco on one side and Brenda on the other. The stars were still out, which was nice. None of them seemed to be unconscious or seriously injured, which was also nice. The air was filled with dust stirred up by the teleportation spell, which was not so nice.

"You know," Jaime said, staring up at the sky, dazed, "I don't know if I say this enough, but I don't know what I'd do without you guys."

"We love you too, bro."

"Yeah, don't call me that anymore. It's weird."

"It's not weird."

"It definitely is."

"Is not."

"Yes, it is. Ugh, we sound like you and Brenda bickering-" Jaime wisely stopped there, when he felt Brenda turning to her side to glare at him. He held up his hands in surrender.

They were all quiet for awhile after that. Jaime's breathing was starting to even out, his heart rate slowing back down.

"Hey, at least it wasn't aliens this time," said Paco.

"Magic is way worse than aliens. At least the Scarab knows how to fight aliens," Jaime said tiredly. He wiped at some imaginary sweat on the armor over his forehead. Then he suddenly remembered something. "Did you tell my sister about us?"

"Huh? No. Well, I said you were gonna be busy on Friday night, with us, but I didn't say we were dating. Not... exactly."

"She said you told her."

"I may have used the word 'date'. Once. Or twice. Possibly."

Jaime sighed, but he resisted the urge to put his face in his hands. He didn't want them to think he was embarrassed about them. "I guess they had to find out sometime. I'm just not sure how much more of this stuff my family can take."

"Are you kidding, Jaime?" Brenda said, incredulous. "They handled you disappearing for a year and then showing up again. They handled you becoming Blue Beetle. They handled an alien invasion. They handle their son going out and putting himself in danger all the time. You think they can't handle this? No offense, but on the scale of shocking things that you've done, this is actually on the tame end."

"Yeah, you're right. My family's pretty cool." That was an understatement, but Paco and Brenda both knew that.

They all fell silent again. The sky was starting to brighten. They really needed to get back, but Jaime's aching, tired muscles were begging him not to move.

"You think someone's gonna come get us? We just saved El Paso. Again," Paco complained. "Least they could do is send a bus or something to pick us up."

"Nah," Jaime said absently. "They never come when I end up out here. I could fly you guys back."

"No thanks. I remember the last time. We can walk," said Brenda. She got up, dusting off her jeans, and then stopped when she saw the vast amount of desert between them and the very, very distant lights of the city. "… On second thought."

"Yeah, I thought so." Jaime tested his wings, making sure they buzzed the right way. Dropping Brenda and Paco in the middle of the desert wouldn't put him down in any record books as the best boyfriend ever. "You guys wanna get ice cream when we get back? The 24-hour diner near Paco's place is still open."

"Sounds good. Try not to drop us," said Paco, as Jaime wrapped one arm around his waist and the other around Brenda's, making sure they were completely secure before he lifted off the ground.

"I'll do my best," he replied. If he had a motto, that was it.