rachealninja10: This was actually kind of a challenge for me, trying to fit so much character development into only four chapters. The "four chapter" bit of it was hard, too…I tried to make it a one-shot, then I tried to make it just three, and then I realized that it wasn't going to fit into three…

chocykitty: No, you don't. I'm considering a sequel that does overlap into the second book…but really, I have enough on my plate already with Dear Fanfiction Writers, From Fanfiction Writers, Children of Fear, Legends of Awesomeness, Death's Embrace, and the upcoming sequels to Fighting Fire, Revenge of the Ice Prince, Death's Deception, Joyce's Guardian, Nico and the Crow…not to mention my original series of novels and my homework, which are, unfortunately, first priority.

koryandrs and ladybug114: Thank you!

I drew more crappy cover art. Blah.

The quality of my scanner and the image manage system makes me weep inside.

Disclaimer: Will never own PA. Unless I become Shannon Hale overnight, which probably won't happen.

Lyrics from 'Skyfall' by Adele.

Put your hand in my hand

And we'll stand

Let the sky fall

When it crumbles

We will stand tall

Face it all together

I awoke warm and comfortable for once. Well, relatively comfortable, that is — I could still feel each individual pebble on the ground through the thin fabrics of my clothes — but I was warm, and I recalled falling asleep in the arms of someone who did not push me away. Physical comfort didn't matter in the shadow of that kind of comfort.

Without even opening my eyes, I could tell that the jacket I wore was, once again, not my own. I had fallen asleep against a rock wall and Shade's shoulder and there I was still, there he was still. A light touch to the back of my hand convinced me to open my eyes.

"You're awake," he said quietly.

I tried to smile. "Apparently."

Shade's light olive cheeks tinged with a deep scarlet color usually associated with apples, and he coughed awkwardly. I couldn't help but laugh.

"Guess I'm feeling better," I muttered, groaning as I stretched out my legs. "My charming sense of humor has come back." My head still hurt, and upon examining it I realized that a certain someone had wrapped a crude bandage around the wound. But the greater annoyance right now was the hunger pangs. "Have anything to eat?"

"No," he replied. "That's why we're going back to Dan."

I felt my heart drop into my empty stomach. "Without the prince?" I knew Dan's type — he'd kill me, and probably Shade too just for the hell of it, if we returned empty-handed.

"They're the closest source of food that I know of, except for the villagers or the academy, and both of those are out. And I have some things to say to Dan before we leave him for good."

"We," I said. "You're leaving with me?"

"Of course," Shade deadpanned. "Why not?"

"Or rather," I asked, "why?"

He said nothing, only looked away, took a deep breath, and shrugged.

I asked him again on the way back, maybe a half hour into our journey. We were traveling the same road on which we had first argued about our ages.

"Why?" I inquired. "Why 'us'?"

He said nothing, didn't even look at me or even slow his pace, so I decided to add to it.

"Why me at all?"

He did not reply. I feared that he was just ignoring me, or that he didn't want to talk, but after a long time of silence, he stopped, sat down against a rock, bowed his head, and spoke.

"I had a sister."

I blinked. I had not expected that.

"Her name was Marita," he continued in a soft, almost rueful voice. "I was ten, she was almost six. She always wore her hair in two brown braids, tied with pink ribbons. She had a favorite dress that she wore almost every day — it was lacy and white and had pink roses all along the hem."

His voice was barely a whisper as he said the next words:

"She was wearing that dress when I killed her."

My mouth fell open, but no words came out.

Shade looked up but not at me, his eyes rimmed in red. "We were rich. My father was Vittorio Laterza, a captain in the Toscan army. He trained me with a sword since before I could read. I took my sword everywhere with me. It was small and silver, and it was my own." I could almost hear the accent of his childhood growing stronger as he spoke.

"Mari and I, we were adventurous children. One day, a week before her sixth birthday, we were playing in the garden when wandered away from the house and got lost in the woods. Then she wandered off from me, and I couldn't find her or my way back. The sun started to go down, and I became scared. I jumped at every noise and swung my sword at anything that moved. So when Marita came running up behind me, wailing and crying, I…I was so scared that I didn't think right, and I did what Father taught me.

"They found me and her eventually, but no one was ever the same. Mama refused to eat or drink and eventually just gave up the will to live, and Father pushed me away. He hated me for what I had done and made it known to everyone, everyone, that Dante was a murderer and couldn't be trusted. And I hated myself, because every time I heard those words I thought of Marita's eyes as she took her last breaths, all that trust I had broken.

"So I hid. I learned how to stay silent, unnoticeable. I only showed my face outside the house at night, when no one was awake. But inside the house, I couldn't hide either. Eventually I couldn't take it anymore, so I took a sword and ran away. I joined Dan's bandits only because I was as far away from home as I could get and couldn't think of anywhere else to hide."

I was silent for a very, very long time. I do not think I could have said anything even if there had been something to say.

"She was my sister, she trusted me, and she was you."

To his surprise, I sighed and sank down beside him. He'd given me such a fragile piece of his shattered heart, and it was all I could do to repay him with a piece of mine.

"I had an older brother, too," I began, still not entirely sure in what I was doing. "His name was William, but everyone called him Will. He looked exactly like the prince. That's how I knew that I would never be able to kidnap him."

My voice was very small, almost like a child's.

"My parents were both Hibernian. My father was a bandit, my mother a pickpocket. When they met, it was like butter and toast, and they couldn't help but fall in love. My mother's betrothal ring was stolen right off the duchess O'Carrick's finger."

A small smile quirked at the left corner of Shade's lips.

"I'm serious," I said. "They were a wonderful team. When they had Will and me, they brought us up and trained us as thieves. And we were good at it, too. We'd go on 'family missions' together — I was a cute little kid, so I'd be the distraction while Will, Mother, and Father went ahead and stole anything they wanted.

"Then, one day, we were in the capital city of Rilamark and my parents wanted to teach me how to steal from above, as we called it. I was nine at the time, and Will was twelve. They removed a few roof tiles and lowered Will down on a rope, and he grabbed the crown without being seen. But it was afterwards, when we were trying to get down, that it got bad. Father slipped and fell, and Mother and Will were only able to grab him and the rope. I managed to grab the other end, but I was the only one on the roof and…only a girl, I couldn't hold them up…"

My breath hitched in my throat.

"I let them go, and…that was it."

My vision blurred with tears. It was hard for me to hear even my own voice now.

"So I just bore the past and pushed on. And then…you came, I saw Will and Mother and Father, and the past took over."

It felt good to let down my burdens for the first time.

"That's why."

It was obvious that Shade had been trying to avoid acknowledging this topic. His abysmal eyes filled with something unexplainable, and he looked at his hands to hide it from me.

"That's why," he repeated quietly.

And so there we sat for a very long time, the girl with the eyes of a wolf and the boy made of shadows and shards of ice.

No longer alone.

Two gaunt, bedraggled figures entered the abandoned mine shaft that served as a bandit group's hideaway, escorted by two burly bandit guards. One of the two figures, the small, short-haired girl, was being nearly carried by the older and taller one.

Dan stormed up to us, eyes searching for a prince but instead finding two defeated thieves. "What happened?" he bellowed. "Where's the prince?"

I lifted my head. "At the academy," I dared to reply. "We couldn't get him. Too many guards. It was a miracle we survived ourselves."

"WHAT — "

"Dan," Shade interrupted. "We don't have time. She struck her head on a rock when she fell. We need water, bandages, and food."

Dan was frozen in shock for a few moments, then he yelled at some people to get us water and food, but not bandages, because why in the world would bandits have clean bandages lying around? Shade let me sit down against the wall, but that was a mistake. It meant that Dan could push Shade aside, kneel, and yank my head up so that I could look at him as he spat.

"Listen, girl," he snarled, spraying spittle into my face. "When I tell you to come back with a prince, I mean that you have to come back with him or not come back at all. I don't care if you'll be in danger, or won't have enough time to do it subtly, but if you go back to that blasted academy and don't come back with the prince, I will assure you that you will never leave this mountain."

"We're never going back to the academy," I said.

Dan's face grew livid and the grip on my hair tightened to a much more painful level. I gasped in pain, but I kept my eyes on his as he spat the next words into my face. "You will go back to that academy and get my prince, and I don't care how much you want to back out of it."

"It's not necessarily how much she wants to back out of it, so much as it's how much we don't want to work for you anymore, Dan."

Dan froze at the voice that sounded like ice, and did not dare move again, lest the silver blade that rested almost casually against the side of his neck break the skin and separate his head from his body. "Shade," he said as calmly as he could manage, which did not hide the quaver in his voice. "You have taken the side of the thief." It wasn't a question.

"Let her go," said Shade, as simply as if he was asking for a drink of water.

Dan released my hair, and I fell backwards. The other bandits were glaring at me and Shade with equal ferocity, their hands on their weapons. But none dared draw them. Shade had the upper hand here. He flashed me a rare smile, and I took this as my cue. I stood up.

"Where's that food you promised?" I called to the other bandits.

Bob, the lanky and empty-headed bandit, was pushed forward. He held a bag in his hands, the bag that they stored all their food in. Hands shaking, he gave it to me. "No water?" I asked, one eyebrow raised.

Someone shoved two canteens full of water into Bob's hands and he also gave these to me, still not meeting my eyes.

I gave him my wolf smile. "Thank you."

He yelped and scrambled back.

With his free hand, Shade grabbed the collar of Dan's tunic and yanked him up to his feet. Slowly, warily, we began to retreat to the entrance of the quarry, Shade's sword still at Dan's throat and our provisions in my hands. It would be more than enough for the journey to the nearest town. However, I wasn't done. I reached over to Dan's belt and deftly untied the bag of gold coins that had been meant for a reward.

"Thank you," I told him with a smile when he glared at me.

"This isn't over," Dan hissed. "I will find you!"

We were out in the sunlight now, free of the mineshaft. The bandits still lurked warily inside, waiting to see what we would do with our hostage. I was kind of hoping that Shade would push him off a cliff or something — I did not appreciate being sprayed with spit by a man who probably hadn't brushed his teeth since…ever — but instead, my new ally released Dan's shirt and withdrew his sword. Dan whirled on us, his face twisted with rage.

"Sure," I told him with a smile. It was not a comforting smile.

Dan yelled something incomprehensible and flew at me, fists flailing. Before I could even reach for my dagger, though, someone shoved me backwards and I saw a flash of silver. Dan stumbled and fell to his knees, hands held in front of him. Blood dripped down his hands, borne from two thin, straight slices, one on each wrist, that stretched from the bases of his palms to the middle of his forearms. Not fatal or even deep, but painful. He'd be wearing bandages for a few days.

Shade stood impassively between the bandit and I, sword in hand. Calmly, as if he did this every day, he touched the tip of the blade to Dan's chin and forced him to look up into his eyes.

"Mercy," Dan managed to choke.

Shade was silent for a long time, and when he spoke, his voice was like ice. "You have my mercy today," he said. "But when your time comes, I can tell you this: that whether you beg mercy from the gods or the devils, you will get none."

And then he withdrew his sword and Dan's face lit with relief, until Shade's foot slammed into his chest and sent him flying backwards onto the ground. Shade stepped back slowly, then held his hand out to me. In the hand that did not hold my dagger, I accepted it.

And, with our weapons still drawn, Shade and I walked away from the bandits and down the mountain pass.

"So what now?" I asked.

We had stopped on a small hill for dinner, underneath a tree and on a ground of hardy mountain grass. From the view, we could see the last remnants of sunlight streaking the darkening sky and, to our right, the faraway princess academy. It was lit bright by torches — tonight was the night of the ball when the prince would meet and choose his future bride, Shade told me. I didn't tell him that I wondered what that would be like, to wear beautiful dresses, to eat a king's feast, to dance with and fall in love with a prince. I cannot say I never envied royals.

But, when I looked at the stale piece of bread in my hand, and at the young man sitting next to me, with his tangled hair and frayed black clothes and the starved face that might have in a different world become noble and proud, I wondered even more. Would I trade places with one of those princesses if I had the chance? Would I replace rags with a dress, stolen bread with a feast, a bandit with a prince?

I decided that I liked it right here.

Shade picked at the stem of his bruised apple and shrugged in reply to my spoken question. "We get off the mountain."

I frowned. "Of course, yeah, we have to get off the mountain. I mean after that. What then?"

He was quiet for a while, then said, "I don't know. What would you do?"

"You mean, if I was alone?"

He nodded.

I hesitated. "Well," I replied, "I would usually get as far away from this country as I could. Maybe I'd steal the queen's bracelet and pay for passage across the Stormwhite Sea, stop off in Teutlandt maybe, but winter's coming and inevitably with it, the winter storms. So I'd linger in Asland until spring, I guess. Then, once the storms were clear, I'd be off again to cause mayhem in a different country."

"Then why not?"

I looked at him, then at my hands. I did not know what to say.

"I mean…" He hesitated, unsure of how to continue. "What we did in the princess academy, we could do more than that, maybe even succeed. Why not?"

I was quiet, and when I spoke again, my voice was low. "I don't know."

"I don't see why not, then."

"Neither do I."

We were both quiet. I imagined I could hear the swells of music from the academy as I gazed up at the wispy clouds and the quickly fading glow of light blue on the furthest horizon. The cool autumn breeze was the air rushing past my face as I danced among the stars.

"Come on," said Shade quietly, standing up and holding his hand out to me. "We have a long way to travel."

I took his hand and stood up, my eyes still on the sky. I looked at the academy on the cliff one last time and thought. Of the would-have-been soldier whose hand I grasped, and of his little sister who would never see her sixth birthday. Of my mother and the glittering betrothal ring, and of my father and his crooked smile and crooked nose. Of the prince who let us go, and of my brother and his beautiful, kind eyes.

"Goodbye, Will," I said.

Bridget D'Arcy and Dante Laterza set off into the night.

"We don't have to be defined by the things we did or didn't do in our past. Some people allow themselves to be controlled by regret. Maybe it's a regret, maybe it's not. It's merely something that happened. Get over it." — Pittacus Lore

And that's all for now, folks!