It's a few weeks later – only a few weeks, but enough time to lose Karone a second time – that Astronema is standing alone during a battle.
Carlos kicks aside a quantron and looks about. Andros has run off chasing Darkonda. TJ is keeping Ecliptor busy. Ashley and Cassie are dealing with the monster of the week; some kind of fish alien from the Decklar system. Zhane, as usual, is not present, being with the Rebels on the other side of the galaxy.
Astronema is watching TJ and Ecliptor. Her back is to Carlos, her attention on the fight. It's the most perfect set up imaginable. He couldn't have made it better if he'd planned it. She's not aware of him, and there's a line of trees shielding him from Ecliptor's view, so the android can't shout a warning. The quantrons are too dumb to warn her, even if they had voices.
He twirls the lunar-lance in one hand, considering. Part of him is thinking of Karone's nervous smile, and her sweet uncertainty when faced with the rangers' friendship. But another, larger part of him is thinking of Andros, and how much it will destroy the red ranger to kill his sister. It will happen eventually, Carlos knows, no matter what Andros believes and what the others pretend to believe. Astronema won't stop unless she's stopped, and the job will inevitably fall to the person who loves her the most, who has already sacrificed so much for her. Killing Astronema will kill Andros.
Karone wouldn't want that.
Carlos takes slow, careful steps forward, boots silent on the soft grass. This is a black ranger's job, the purest distillation of his work. He does the nasty, underhanded jobs that the others can't or won't touch. Andros won't forgive Carlos for this, but Carlos would rather lose a friendship than a friend. At least after this it will be over, and Andros will be able to grieve and move on without this pale mockery haunting him with his sister's visage. Carlos shifts the lunar lance to strike. One quick lunge, a strike to the neck, and this will all be over. He can already feel the relief.
He remembers the crack of his nose breaking and stops.
That hesitation saves his life.
Astronema swings suddenly, bringing the wrathstaff around in a sweeping, vicious arc. The diamond edged tip passes inches from Carlos' stomach. If he'd been any closer, she would have gutted him. He scrambles backwards, and finds himself giving ground, fending off her blows with his lance. Each impact jars up his arms and into his elbows. Their weapons lock together, and Astronema yanks him in close.
"You think you're the only one who works in the shadows?" She hisses against his visor.
He recognises the way she shifts her stance and jerks his head to the side. Her fist flies harmlessly over his helmet and he yanks his weapon free. It only takes her a moment to regain her balance, but he's already rolling to his feet several meters away.
Astronema tucks her chin in, considering him.
"Impressive," she says. "Have you ever considered switching sides?"
It startles a laugh out of him, but her face doesn't shift from its stiff lines. She's serious. His laughter trails off into uneasy silence.
"Think about it," She says when he doesn't answer. "You know where to find me."
She disappears into a shimmer of purple light.
He stares at the space where she'd been standing and has the fleeting thought. Out my depth. He's out of his depth here. He's swimming in the dark and there are things out here with teeth. He hadn't been listening when Karone tried to teach him that day. It had taken Astronema to hammer the lesson home.
He curls his grip tighter about the lance, and thinks of freckles and pink hair clips and a soft voice outlining brutal lessons.
He will remember.
Carlos coaches a soccer team on Sunday afternoon. He and Ashley go for pizza and ice cream after. It's a more-or-less steady thing.
Carlos doesn't seem distracted to her, not at first. He's as dedicated and attentive with the kids as ever. If his tongue is less sharp, if his hand absentmindedly touches a shoulder more often, if he frowns more when he thinks nobody is looking, then she's seen this happen more and more in the time they've known each other. They're growing up and they're growing up fast, and Ashley knows that.
Ashley also knows that Carlos curls over these changes as if he's trying to hide them from the world, as if he's trying to hide the worry she knows is there under the boy he was a year before, so it doesn't even register that he speaks less than usual on their way to the boardwalk, and what he does say is short and snippy under the deadpan.
She does notice when he's still silent when his half of the large pizza is gone, and she notices that he plays with the straw in his drink. By then he would usually relax, but he's quiet and moody.
She's silent for a moment too, watching – he has one knee drawn up and he's staring aside, at the sunset and the children playing outside – and then she leans slightly across the table to cover his hand with hers.
"Hey," she says, "what's going on?"
He turns to her at the touch, and by the last syllable his other hand is on top of hers, warm and dry and loose. "I'm glad we're friends," he says.
"Yeah," she replies with a smile. "Me too."
The next morning, Carlos never shows up to school. None of them shares a class with him on Monday so they don't realize anything is off until lunch break, and they don't realize anything is wrong until he doesn't show up when they fight Astronema's new alien that afternoon, and they don't realize how terribly wrong everything is until the shadowy figure they never saw sneak onto the battlefield clips TJ in the side.
The shadowy figure that is tall and broad at the shoulder, more human-like than your average alien, and carries a lance.
Then they know, though Ashley won't quite believe it for a while more.
It's a game between them that he perpetuates, even though he knows he shouldn't. The game amuses her, even though – he thinks – she knows she shouldn't as well. Ecliptor glares, if he catches them at it, and he replies with a blank stare. Darkonda frowns, and he smirks back.
The game used to be this: he follows her, and she schools him. Now it is this: he follows her and pounces, and she schools him. He's getting better, and her teaching becomes appropriately harsher. He's learned that it's so, in this life: the better you are, the more severely you are punished. He accepts this the way he accepts everything else: with blankness and a nod and, if he judges it appropriate, a "Yes, Princess."
They shouldn't do this, because Ecliptor worries and Darkonda disapproves, and one day Ecliptor might try to end him or Darkonda might try to use it against her. They shouldn't do this because it's a rough game, and neither of them can afford to be in anything less than peak condition.
They shouldn't do this, because they're learning each other. Because this is the top of their game, and one day there will be no more surprises left. The thought terrifies him occasionally, and he pushes it back down, together with the name no-one calls him by anymore.
He doesn't forget the fear, and he doesn't forget the name. There are screens of shadow and darkness pulled in his head and he uses them to his best advantage, hiding and lying. The name and the fear are ghosts in this play of shadows, and a ghost is what he means to be.
The lights in his room are turned to 30%, and so Andros almost misses the blade that someone had placed on his pillow. The blade is triangular and flat, roughly three by three inches, and so it disappears into the shadows of the crumpled fabric. If Andros had missed it and cut his hand on it he'd be dying now, because it's an Onyx blade and poisons are worked into the very polished gemstone it's made of.
It's an Onyx blade and so Andros' heart hammers and his knees are shaky as he sits down on his bed, holding the blade between his thumb and index finger. Someone had gotten to his room, his room on the Megaship. Someone had punched – no, cut – through all the careful, wary defenses. Someone could have been lurking in the shadows holding this deadly weapon, instead of leaving it to be found.
Anyone who was enough to execute a threat like this would also be good enough to deliver on it.
The blade rests between his thumb and his index finger. Shaped like a flat arrowhead and polished to thin, body-temp perfection, it is a high-grade throwing -blade. It fits in Andros' hand perfectly, so its owner's hand must be the same size.
It takes long minutes for the perfect opaque blackness of the blade to register. Onyx blades are always black and always opaque, so much so that they might be a piece of the interstellar darkness itself, and so it takes some time for Andros to truly notice that and then to consider it together with how it sits in his palm.
It takes him time to consider the possibility that the blade is not a threat but a gift and a promise and then he has to put it down before he drops it from suddenly-trembling fingers and rest his elbows on his knees and his face in his hand as the implications unfold in his mind and the ice that's been in his chest for weeks cracks and melts, and Andros breathes raggedly against the tears.
He keeps the blade, and he does not breathe a word of it to anyone.
He's all too aware of who he acts like when he tries to sneak away in the night, and the knowledge is also there on Ashley's face when she catches him just as he is about to teleport away, and in his standing frozen as she approaches him and closes a hand over his wrist, over his morpher, holding him faster than any chain.
Her lips form a Don't and she shakes her head, but she doesn't make a sound. It's in her too-wide eyes and in her expression, and Andros' heart breaks at the sight.
"Don't leave," she says. The me at the tail end of it is silent, but Andros hears it anyway.
"Ashley," he says, half-whispers, and his voice cracks on her name. He lifts his hand and hers with it, weaving their fingers together. "I have to. It's my du…"
She puts the index and middle fingers of her other hands against his lips. Her tears rise fast. "To hell with duty," she says. "See what it brought us."
She's never blamed him for Carlos before and he isn't quite sure she does at that moment – surely there'd be more venom and more anger in her voice if that was the case – but as Andros is about to leave her, about to leave her too, and who knows how the battle will end, he gives her the secret he's been keeping all this long.
"He never betrayed us, Ashley." It takes three times to unlock the words. She jerks away, pulling her fingers from his lips and her hand from his. Andros reaches reflexively to hold her and pull her back, and she doesn't quite resist even if she tries to hide her wariness not at all.
"How do you know?" she asks, every syllable cracked dry with long-lost hope.
"He's left a token," he replies, and does not say how many weeks after.
She only nearly asks Why you? and he doesn't explain, because they both know why: he's the Red, the leader, and he is the only one on the team who could see Carlos as their Black first and their friend second.
He doesn't expect Ashley to throw her arms around him and hold him tightly, fiercely, but it's instinctive to embrace her as tightly in return.
"Come back," she says into his shoulder, "both of you."
"Ashley, I…" he begins when she draws back, and he would've broken code and said I love you except Ashley silences him with a finger to his lips, and repeats, like a promise or a blessing, "Come back."
Sneaking through the Dark Fortress takes time, and so by the time Andros makes it to the holding bay everything is over: Astronema and Ecliptor are both dead at the feet of an unmorphed Carlos.
Or almost over, because Carlos says "No," and it isn't directed at Andros – who is still hiding, still fighting the instinct to kill Carlos where he stands because duty be damned, Astronema was Andros' to kill if anyone had to – and it's flatter and harder than Carlos' expression, and filled with fury.
It's Zordon who replies. "I am afraid you must," he says, grave voice echoing off the metal walls.
"We went through all this to save you," Carlos says, "to rescue you. Shattering the tube will kill you, Zordon. Don't you think I know that?"
"Yes, shattering the tube will kill me. The energy that will be released will wipe all Evil in its path. It is the only way to end this war, Carlos."
"No," says Carlos, and it's flatter and harder and fast turning to brittle. "Zordon, I -" he closes his eyes and breathes in deeply. The opaque stoniness of his expression doesn't break or melt but it cracks slowly, as Andros prays for his demorphing to go unnoticed, as he furiously searches through his pockets and then lines up his shot. There is anguish all over Carlos' face, because Andros knows and Carlos knows that Carlos would probably have been able to explain the last few months and might have been able to explain Astronema – to explain Karone – but there would be entirely too much distrust for the team to take his word on Zordon.
Andros thinks that all of them know that if Carlos shattered Zordon's tube, he would drive that lance through himself next.
So Andros throws the blade instead.
When the light passes almost everything is as it was before, except Andros can hear how silent the Dark Fortress is around them, Ecliptor's body has turned to a pile of ash, and Carlos' face is stone again and he is in a battle stance as he barks: "Show yourself!"
Andros straightens, holds his hands up with the palms facing forward, and walks ahead slowly.
Carlos' eyes widen at the sight of him, but otherwise he does not move.
"Carlos, it's okay," he says, suppressing a wince as Carlos startles as the sound of his own name. "It's okay. I know."
"What do you know?"
"That it was you who left me the Onyx blade," Andros says, taking a careful step forward, and then another with each sentence: "What you meant to say by it. What it was all for. What Zordon just asked you to do."
Carlos swallows at the last once and then finally drops the battle stance, his lance falling to the floor. "Did you…?" he asks, and the jerk of his head substitutes for the words he can't bring himself to say: Did you just kill Zordon?
"Yeah," Andros says and takes the last step forward, grabbing Carlos' shoulders and pulling the other Ranger in.
It's not surprise that Carlos holds on to him like a drowning man, and it's no surprise that the first words he says are: "I'm sorry. Andros, I'm -"
Andros shakes his head reflexively, even though Carlos can't see it and it's awkward with the way they're holding on to each other, and then says: "It's all right," even though it isn't yet, and: "You went above and beyond your duty," because that's the closest he can come to saying Thank you and I'm sorry.
"They must hate me," Carlos says and this time when Andros shakes his head Carlos can see it, because Andros is pulling them apart. They need to land the Dark Fortress.
"Ashley doesn't," he says in the wake of the head shake.
"She doesn't?" Carlos asks, and Andros' heart breaks a little more at his expression.
"Yeah," he says. "She never did. They'll forgive you, Carlos. You know they will."
Andros believes it like he believes everything else he's ever bothered to believe in – wholly and unquestioningly – and Carlos' features default into a mask, but Andros knows he'll need to see it first, and maybe even then.
There really is nothing to fear anymore, though, and so Andros doesn't.
They stand in a wary half-circle as the Dark Fortress touches down and the ramp descends slowly and in an eerie silence.
The two figures that step down are both human and both male, walking shoulder to shoulder. The shadows fall back as they come closer and Ashley can see that the shorter one is Andros, a dead Astronema in his arms and heartbreak on his face, and the taller one is Carlos, the morpher on his wrist as glaringly obvious as the way he seems to try and disappear, try to be anything but tall and imposing.
She can feel the rest of the team tense and so Ashley is completely aware of what she's doing as she runs forward and catapults herself, throwing her arms around Carlos.
Andros will understand.
It takes Carlos a moment to hug her back but when he does the tears are quick to follow and within seconds he's sobbing into her shoulder and she's rubbing circles into his, saying an "I know" to every "I'm sorry."
She makes herself ignore the light but then Cassie says, "Ashley, look!" and there's only wonder in her voice, so Ashley pushes herself and Carlos a little apart without letting go and turns to look, and sees Karone waking up in Andros' arms.
When she turns again and sees Carlos' hand pressed against his mouth and his eyes so wide, she knows who it was who's killed Astronema, understands what happened a little better, and her eyes well up with tears.
Then TJ is there, clamping a hand over Carlos' shoulder and nodding at her, and Ashley nods back and steps forward to lay one hand on Andros' shoulder and one on Karone's where they embrace, him kneeling and her half-prone.
Finally, none of them is alone, anymore.