She gets worse looks than worshippers of the Faceless Ones, both old and new. She gets worse looks than followers of Mevolent, how few there are. She doesn’t want to mingle or drink or dance, just wants to stand in the corner and turn invisible.
It’s relieving, at the very least, that the Ball is not held at Grimwood House, and never will be again thanks to the new glory of Roarhaven and the High Sanctuary. With all the love and detail she’s put into the occasion, one could be excused for thinking that China Sorrows had come up with the Ball in the first place. She weaves from idle conversation to idle conversation, from Grand Mages to figureheads to anyone worth imagining meeting, heads and shoulders better in position than she was on this very night ten years ago. Valkyrie only got a smile across the room from her when she arrived.
Good. She doesn’t want or deserve anything else.
Valkyrie navigates the many halls and sticks her head into many doorways, but it seems that there’s nowhere she can be alone. She’s fully aware that what she needs isn’t to be alone - it’s to have some very specific company. But he’s nowhere to be seen, and the only mentions of him have been from people also wondering where he is. Out in the main ballroom, Valkyrie sees the look on China’s face that no one else would be capable of noticing, and knows that the waltz being a suspiciously popular dance tonight is apparently supposed to draw him out to her.
Good on her for trying, at least. Valkyrie decides to call it early.
The Bentley is parked beside her car, which is nice to see but it’s not really worth paying attention to under the current circumstances.
“Come on…” murmurs Valkyrie as she nears her car, tyres slashed and missing a side mirror, some shards of which crunch beneath her flats. It looks like an idle attempt was made to break the windows, though nothing particularly concentrated. There’s just a crack on the windshield.
She hates that this has gotten to her, because it’s nowhere near the worst thing that could happen, neither is it all that unjustified, but she can’t help but feel a bit shitty about it. She was the one who had been a threat to the world, not the bloody car. Valkyrie reaches out and gently touches the dent in the door.
“Ah, now that’s unfortunate,” comes a voice - not just a voice, the voice - from behind her. “You’re lucky to know someone who can get that fixed it for you.”
Valkyrie looks back. “Thank god.”
Skulduggery tilts his head. “I tend to get that reaction out of people.”
“Where’ve you been all night?” asks Valkyrie. She brushes the mirror shards under the truck with her foot before patting the door one last time and going over to her partner.
“I could ask you the same thing,” he says as they head to the lift. “I’ve been doing some walking on the perimeter.”
“I bet the Rippers loved that.”
“They make for wonderful conversation.”
A moment of quiet as the lift rattles to life.
“Where have you been?”
“You don’t need me to tell you I’ve been hiding,” says Valkyrie, eyes fixed on the floor. “And you don’t need me to tell you that I don’t feel comfortable being here.”
“True,” says Skulduggery, “but you still came of your own accord. You still put yourself out there. That’s quite admirable.”
“Right. Say no more. Thankfully, your better half is here to save the evening.”
As infuriating as he is, he’s right, and Valkyrie feels much better with Skulduggery at her side. People still glare, but they know they wouldn’t be able to say anything and get away with it. There was a time when Valkyrie felt a little embarrassed by everyone always telling her that Skulduggery would do anything to avenge any wrongdoing against her, always thinking about how she could take care of herself just fine. The situation is different now. Someday she’ll get back to that high point she once stood at, but for the time being she has a ways to go, and so she feels somewhat content to have a vicious man on her side.
Not very healthy, she knows. But that’s how it is, and there’s no use pretending otherwise.
People have drunk enough so that they either don’t recognise her or don’t care, and a couple of familiar faces have been able to come out of the woodwork. Valkyrie forgets Myosotis as soon as they hug one another goodbye. Across the room, China has three guests sobbing on the floor in front of her. Skulduggery hasn’t danced with her - not that she’s directly asked. Omen had fallen asleep leaning against a pillar by the time his parents took him and his brother home.
For the 20th time Fletcher tries to convince Valkyrie to agree to let him teleport Milista in, and she’s able to finally get him to shut up about it when she reminds him that they haven’t danced yet. She’s sober and won’t allow herself to be embarrassed by dumb teenage moves of the past, but their jazzy little dance is still fun, and she likes the 20s music that flows in and out of the halls as Fletcher teleports her all around the place every time they make contact. Enough of the spectacle takes place in the ballroom for Skulduggery to nod at.
“No longer mourning the loss of your beloved vehicle?” he asks as she returns over to him.
“Guess not,” she answers with a smile.
A mage with a green pigment to the tips of their fingers throws their drink on her. It splashes against her arm, more of an assault on the partially visible Merryn Sigil than Valkyrie as a whole, barely wetting her dress or her hair. But it still stings, because intent is what truly matters in situations like this. Valkyrie shrivels, her progress made over the night dying where the liquid hit her.
“Hey, what’s your--” Fletcher starts to say behind her, but he doesn’t get much further.
The mage must have hoped that they’d be able to escape into the crowd before Skulduggery got to them. They’d set their hopes too high. Skulduggery holds them an inch off the ground with one hand bunched up in their lapels.
The voice in her head wonders what would happen if she doesn’t say anything. If she just lets him do whatever it is he'd do. Darquesse isn’t here tonight. That thought’s all on Valkyrie.
Fletcher pops in and out at Skulduggery’s sides, behind him and behind the sorcerer, like he’s hoping that that will accomplish something. He calls for Valkyrie rather than attempt to speak with Skulduggery - he knows better than to think his word really means anything.
“It’s fine,” says Valkyrie, wiping her hand up and down her arm, up under the short sleeve of her dress and over her shoulder. “Let them go.”
She thinks she hears them hiss something about an attack dog as they scamper away. Fletcher steps away from Skulduggery. Valkyrie lets the silence hang a second too long before going out for some air.
The swinging music grows clearer for a moment as the front doors open and shut again.
“Are you done moping?” asks Skulduggery.
“I’m not moping,” says Valkyrie. “I just wanted to sit down.”
“And are you done sitting?”
She puts her hands on her knees before rocking herself back up to her feet. “Yep.”
“Oh, good.” Skulduggery adjusts one of his cufflinks. “I have someone who wants a dance with you.”
“We’ll leave straight afterwards.”
She considers this. “Alright.”
He wraps an arm around her waist and takes to the skies. They go high enough so that Valkyrie’s pretty sure that they’re not level with the Ball anymore, and he drops her off on an open balcony. The top of the Dark Cathedral is straight across, tiny lights from all over the Circle are below, and she has to wonder if the people who frequent this balcony are appreciative of the view. It certainly is a nice one.
“My god,” mutters Valkyrie. “This is a set-up. I can’t believe you’re trying to set me up with someone.”
Skulduggery looks ready to leave her there. “Do you trust me?”
“You’re very funny, but now is the time for a serious answer.”
“Jesus, you are trying to set me up. Okay - I do trust you, Skulduggery, but that doesn’t mean…hey!”
He drifts down, out of sight. Valkyrie grabs the railing and watches him disappear into the void below.
“At least tell me if they’re hot!” she shouts.
But of course he doesn’t respond.
Valkyrie doesn’t know if he’s planning on returning with her mysterious person, or if they’re going to appear on their own, and she gets tired of waiting very quickly. She turns sharply on her heel and finds herself glaring at her darkened reflection in the glass wall - and the sight of her own features looking back at her with even slight animosity is enough to make her stomach turn, so she tries to look more neutral. It’s an improvement.
When she starts to wish that her collar, sitting high on her throat, would choke her, she decides to stop looking and go back to the railing. Her vision fizzles and blurs as she activates her aura-vision, the range of which has been improving, and recently she’s been able to see dots of colours through walls. So while they’re tiny and dim, she can still see some down below, shades of orange in the Dark Cathedral, dancing in the High Sanctuary, sleeping in their homes. The white of her own aura is strange to look at in the dark, as it looks and feels like it should be behaving like a light source, but it doesn’t. Her eyes start to hurt so it’s time to turn it off, but before doing so she sees vibrant red, ascending. Not accompanied by any other colour.
Valkyrie doubts there’s a second sorcerer in the area with that aura, least of all one that can fly.
She steps away from the railing in anticipation, giving ample room for a landing. Glances back at her reflection to check her hair.
“You’re ridiculous. You know you could have just bloody well asked me instead of being coy about it.”
Valkyrie’s not an Elemental anymore, but she doesn’t need to be one to know she’s not alone. And yet, she’s looking right at herself in the glass, and she’s the only one standing on the balcony. He should be here by now. The tiled floor turns hazy, and it’s like a smoke machine has been activated by the way it’s all appeared at once, rolling over itself in careful waves. The cold creeps its way up Valkyrie’s legs.
She looks back at Lord Vile.
He’s a black figure, standing as still and silent as a statue. From her time spent practicing Necromancy, Valkyrie knows that the shadows flickering off and around his armour is much more of an unconscious effort than one he’s actively thinking about. She thinks of the behaviour of the shadows during her time in Nye’s warehouse, how the only word she can think to describe them as being “eager”, and figures it’s no wonder why Vile was considered such a death sentence on the battlefield.
It’s quite a scary thought. Valkyrie is looking at a death sentence personified. She remembers all the people down below, remembers the whole city and how it has become a living, breathing thing on its own, no longer a rotten little town in the middle of nowhere. Not every resident is an avid hater of mortals, and even those who are are still people. People live here.
People will die here if she keeps just standing doing nothing. She closes the gap between them and looks up into the helmet, where she knows his eye sockets should be underneath.
“You’re not going to hurt anyone, are you?” says Valkyrie in a more authoritative tone than originally planned. It comes out more like she’s challenging him to dare defy her rather than a genuine concern, a desperate plea to just stay here and leave the murdering for another time. Hopefully that accidental tone is enough to do the job.
Vile reaches for her and she jerks away without even thinking about it - her feet still firmly planted but her body now all uncomfortably twisted into itself, like she can pack herself into a small space and be forgotten about. Eyes not wide with fear, rather half-shut preparing for a strike. But even so, no fear, she thinks. Vile keeps his hand hovering midair on its way to her for a moment, considering, then re-engages the reach and touches her cheek. Holds. It’s freezing.
Valkyrie relaxes her stance, muscles unknotting and unwinding as she reaches up and puts her hand over his. Like it’s a competition, a thin veil of shadows glove over her hand, down her wrist, to her elbow. Just grazing the edges of the sigil designed by high-ranking Necromancers long ago. Her fingertips go numb and she takes her hand away, shadows following, flexing her fingers and white sparks crackling to get the blood unfrozen and flowing again. Vile doesn’t flinch, just keeps standing and looking at her.
“Just want a dance, then?” she tries.
He tilts his head, and that’s him, that’s Skulduggery in there, and Valkyrie knows he asked his question for a good reason, and now’s the time to prove she trusts him. Vile takes his hand off her cheek and trails down to its new home at her waist. Valkyrie meets his raising hand with hers, and flexes the last of the numbness out of her other before laying it down on his shoulder.
Terribly, terribly cold.
The carpet of shadows that long since settled around her feet finally gets to serve its purpose as Vile lifts off the balcony. The little platform he made for her keeps her standing, follows every move her feet make to ensure she won’t drop out of the sky. It’s kind of unnecessarily flashy in Valkyrie’s opinion. There’s no reason why he can’t just settle for the balcony, but no, it just won’t do. Lord Vile won’t have anything less than a dance in the actual goddamn sky with another former Death Bringer.
Valkyrie has practiced enough to avoid being the worst dancer at the Requiem Ball, but she feels like an undisciplined shuffler when paired up with Vile. She still gets impressed seeing Skulduggery dance, so how’s she supposed to feel like she can keep up? But Vile ignores the infrequent missteps and isn’t even following every rule himself, so - that helps.
Valkyrie can’t stop the grin spreading across her face when he twirls her out from him, and they hold for a second just by a hand each, then back in to meet again. She chuckles into his armour as she collapses back into it. Shadows come off Lord Vile like steam, but rather than rise they just brush into Valkyrie, lingering wherever they land on her skin.
A breeze picks up and Valkyrie’s hair flies, and she laughs at how Vile’s lack of reaction is a reaction in itself. He decides to take business higher up, and pulls Valkyrie further into the sky, her shadowy platform becoming stairs as she attempts to follow on her own. Like he’s interested in seeing her try, he releases her and keeps going up, watching her stop - test that the shadows are still following beneath her, shake off the fear of falling and hike her dress up to run after him.
It occurs to her that maybe Vile wanted this to take place in the sky because it was on this night, ten years ago, that he met and fought Darquesse, and their battle across Dublin was like a dance of its own. Valkyrie stops chasing him, and almost as soon as she settles in her stance the platform brings her up so she’s back beside him, and it’s no different to where they were before except the wind can’t get them.
Learning about Abyssinia did some recontextualising for Valkyrie about how Lord Vile sees things. It has previously occurred to her maybe he’d liked Darquesse, or at least been fascinated by her in the way Skulduggery described himself as feeling towards Abyssinia. Valkyrie feels a pit in her stomach and hopes beyond hope that this isn’t just another case of someone seeing her as the lesser version of Darquesse.
Which - you know, she feels like she is.
“I miss flying,” she chokes out, and hopes that that’ll be enough to communicate what she’s thinking. With Skulduggery as himself, it might be. But he’s not right now, not really.
Vile sweeps her off her feet and they’re back to dancing, which is a significant improvement to standing around midair. In a few twirls Valkyrie feels like laughing again and she’s leaving the bad thoughts behind. Vile lets the strength of the shadow platform dim so Valkyrie can drop for a half-second, long enough for her to exclaim and cackle and for him to pull her in closer. One of her flats slip off her foot, sailing down to the street below. Valkyrie mutters indistinctly about the loss, glancing down and immediately regretting it. She doesn’t have vertigo, but the reminder of how high she is pairs itself with how she couldn’t save herself if Vile let her go for real, and it’s not great.
When her legs wobble a shadow rises to steady her, then rises still to her hair, and the wispier shadows aren’t brushing by anymore, it’s more like they’re clinging. Valkyrie feels like the dance is just about over - not having music to go by is tough - and unclasps her hand from Vile’s and puts it on his other shoulder. Vile moves his newly freed hand around to her back and the dance stops, but they can’t part just yet, because now he dips her.
A nice little finale, Valkyrie has to admit - and then every shadow around turns the deepest possible black, and they all totally engulf her. She blinks in the darkness and sees nothing, nothing at all, and though she still feels Vile’s hands on her it’s also like her entire body is being held in every possible place, supporting her while she’s not properly standing. It’s so, so cold - up to now she’s been bearing it fine but this is getting to be excessive. She can breathe, but the air feels thick and she’s closed in and it’s too much and too little at the same time and–
His skull appears as a startling white beacon in all the black, and the hand on her back goes behind her neck, lifting her head. He meets her halfway with his teeth pressing oddly on her mouth, and Valkyrie blinks and breathes and her arms wrap around what has to be his neck for more support, and then she realises, oh - he’s kissing her. Right. Of course.
Valkyrie feels kind of silly as she pecks Vile back on the teeth. She plunges back into the dark, but it doesn’t stick around long, and all the shadows and yes, his armour too, unravel off her - and she can see the stars again. She’s been dipped long enough that she feels a little dizzy, and ungracefully staggers up into Vile. He just secures his arms around her, a shadow playing with her hair as he brings them back down, down to the balcony.
The tile greets Valkyrie’s bare foot as they touch down. She grunts and struggles out of Vile’s grip - he doesn’t seem to want to let her go - to fuss over herself and the loss of her shoe.
“Just one thing after another, isn’t it?” she asks herself, suddenly shivering now as the breeze, warm in comparison to Vile, returns.
Vile tilts his head, then looks down at his hand. Valkyrie can feel the concentration emanating off him from a step and a half away, like he’s trying to remember something long-forgotten, find something after years of having it lost. Or something. She’s aware that she could be wrong. Maybe this is the part where he stops playing around and kills her.
He snaps his fingers and now a flame burns in his palm. Valkyrie realises that she wasn’t all that far off. With one hand stretched out towards her so the flame can keep her from freezing to death, he strips away the armour with the other, piece by piece, just letting it fall and pool into blackness, like it’s changing from solid to liquid as it falls. Valkyrie puts her hands up to the fire as he keeps going at it, and in bigger pieces she sees more of his suit, flashes of bone. She grabs his wrist and the flame burns out, and she yanks the gauntlet off. Tosses it over as Skulduggery kicks off the last of the armour, and puts it in tiny case he gets out of a pocket in his jacket, returning it there almost as soon as he took it out.
“Your lack of consideration for the health of others continues to astound me, Valkyrie,” he says, prattling straight into conversation as if no beats had been missed, sweeping imaginary dust off his sleeve. “You could have taken my hand off with that force.”
“You looked like you were in a hurry,” she replies, biting the inside of her mouth to keep the smile getting too out of control.
“The transition between states is always awkward,” he admits with mock-solemnity, nodding. “Best to get it over with as quickly as possible.”
“I get you.”
“If not you, who else?”
Valkyrie feels like she’s been hit. “Oof.”
“Too honest?” He sounds amused.
“A little bit, yeah.”
“A horrible transgression, never to be repeated.” Skulduggery waves his hat out from wherever it was that he hid it. Because of course he’d want to have it on-hand immediately. “I’m glad we agree that it’s much better when I keep my more sensitive thoughts to myself.”
“What? No! Oh my god, Skulduggery–”
Tilt. “I’m kidding.”
“Not an excuse! You be as real as you want, alright? It’s only fair.”
Skulduggery offers his arm and Valkyrie takes it. In no time she’s picking her shoe up from where it landed in the street. She feels some Cinderella-y vibes as she does so, and chooses to keep that thought to herself rather than open it up for analysis.
Halfway back to Grimwood, Valkyrie decides it’s time to talk. “So,” she says, and hears Skulduggery sigh, “you had someone who wanted a dance with me.”
“Darquesse wanted things independently of you, don’t forget.” He delivers the response like he had it lined up for hours in preparation.
“Yeah, yeah. You’re right.” She’s quiet for a moment before speaking again. “He, you - Vile - knows that…I’m not her. Right? Does that make sense?”
“Yes that makes sense, or yes the other thing?”
She relaxes in the passenger seat. “Okay. Thank you.”
When they’re outside her house, she apologises for needing him to take her there, especially after she made a specific attempt to avoid it happening. But Skulduggery doesn’t seem to mind. He says he’ll have her car fixed and back with her as soon as possible, and she believes him, doesn’t even think it needed saying.
Xena will be asleep, but Valkyrie is looking forward to cuddling her. Looking forward to people forgetting the Ball and going back to their regularly scheduled lives, in her case Arbiting with Skulduggery. Finishing off the stolen property investigation, but still hopefully staying away from the really gruesome things - at least for a little bit. Sometimes some idiot getting their actual, literal house stolen is enough excitement.
But she’s getting better. Right?
She asks Skulduggery and his response, “You’re already the best,” is somewhat comforting.
“Thanks for the dance,” she says, opening the passenger door.
“I didn’t–” he says. Restarts. “I wasn’t–”
“Yeah, I know.”
He nods. “You get me.”
“If not me, who else, eh?” She leans over and pecks his teeth, to which he does nothing, then gets out of the car. “Goodnight, Skulduggery.”
“Goodnight, Valkyrie,” he says.
The Bentley stays put until Valkyrie is at the front door. She turns and waves, and watches Skulduggery pull out of the driveway and go off into the night.
Valkyrie sleeps under two blankets, with Xena curled up on her feet.