Title: Falling Stars
Summary: Their love is like a falling star: bittersweet and spectacular. 50themes set gamma. A Vania of Conte/Zahir fic.
Notes: Thank you SO MUCH to Rosie, Isha, Cass and Griff for looking at different versions of this fic and helping me out when I was stuck!
Zahir feels the cool change in the air and smiles, because he knows it will take him back to Corus – and her.
As Zahir rides back to the capital he dreams of warm clothes, apple cider, bright parties and dances with a certain princess.
Vania is so thrilled when he arrives that she flings her arms around him; and as always, the moment passes too quickly, and he reluctantly lets go.
She giggles as she shows him a bracelet with charms of beetles on it - a gift from a suitor with bad taste.
Vania hands him a mug of the steaming drink sent by her sister in Carthak, and even though he hates it, he drinks it to make her smile.
The sky is dark when they finish talking, so she kisses him on the cheek and slips from the room, off to ready herself for the ball.
Zahir's heart aches as he watches his princess twirl and flirt, radiant in blue silk and completely unavailable.
Vania glimpses him standing by the large wooden doors, standing in a cluster of noblemen but watching her.
As Zahir sips his wine, he reminds himself how inappropriate any feelings beyond friendship are.
Wishing she were dancing with Zahir instead, Vania gives her most brilliant smile to the Gallan ambassador, and stomps on his feet.
She helps the ambassador to a seat, apologizing profusely; she straightens to look for Zahir and sees that he is already crossing the room to her.
He bows politely, and Vania is only too happy to accept his offer to dance, without a backward glace at the ambassador trying to arrange her marriage.
Zahir sternly tells Vania that he would like his feet to remain intact for the duration of the ball, and the sheepish look on her face almost makes him laugh out loud.
She asks him when he is returning to his dry homelands, and he shifts uncomfortably; he will go south when the King commands him.
Zahir is a wonderful dancer and Vania has no qualms about telling him so; he does not answer her, but she is rewarded with a small quirk of his lips.
He would never admit it, but he loves their verbal sparring, and the way her brown eyes glint mischievously when she tries to push the boundaries.
After two dances, Zahir reluctantly surrenders Vania to one of the ever-persistent Gallans, and contemplates going in search of food.
Vania almost giggles when the portly Gallan flinches under Zahir's dark glare, and wonders whether she'll need to step on any more feet tonight.
Zahir leaves the ball that night with a much lighter heart; Vania tends to have that effect on him.
Vania spends the next morning dawdling in the green hall outside her father's office, hoping to run into Zahir; eventually her mother catches her, and sends her off to do something useful.
Zahir attempts to distract himself from thoughts of her by spending the morning with Princes Liam and Jasson; too bad the only thing they want to discuss is the Gallan delegation's interest in their sister.
Sick of politics, Zahir finally excuses himself, wondering bitterly whether it is normal for brothers to take quite so much interest in a sister's potential marriage.
He is returning to his rooms when Vania corners him, and requests his protection for her shopping trip; when he asks why she cannot take one of her maids, she sweetly explains that shopping this close to Midwinter is very dangerous indeed.
The shopping is dangerous, but not because of the people; Zahir hates doing normal things with Vania, and fighting feelings that can never be realised.
Vania drags him around the stores, admiring the coloured globes and seasonal displays in the windows, until Zahir pragmatically points out that the Palace decorations are far grander than anything in the city.
Zahir momentarily loses her in the bustling crowd, and his stomach drops with fear; but then a moment passes and Vania is at his elbow, giggling and dragging him to the next store.
Vania stops in the street and hands some coins to beggar children; Zahir tries to stop her, but she just glares at him and resumes talking to the children in a low voice.
Zahir cannot help but be impressed with Vania's new maturity; gone is the outrageous flirt trying to anger her father, and in her place is a blossoming princess.
As they walk back to the Palace, he feels Vania wordlessly grasp his gloved hand; he agonises over whether to leave it or pull away, but before he can decide, they are already back at the Palace.
Stopping in a deserted hallway, Vania leans across and hugs him, thanking him for his protection and company.
She points to the mistletoe, and requests a kiss for luck; Zahir rebuffs her gently, explaining that she is already the luckiest princess he knows.
"I thought you cared," Vania says slyly, pretty brown eyes wide and innocent, "Don't you want me to have any luck?"
"I care," Zahir tells her firmly, glancing at the sleet falling outside, "which is why I won't kiss you."
Vania leans in to kiss him on the cheek; she pauses, her lips hovering only a millimeter from his skin, and whispers, "You'll change your mind," before striding down the hallway without a backward glance.
Zahir returns to his room, and takes out the gold rose-shaped brooch he bought the princess for Midwinter, wondering whether Vania was developing her own thorns.
Vania spends the next three days charming the Gallan delegation, impressing her father and leaving her mother wondering what the secret to her daughter's newfound dedication was.
Zahir is quick to realise that he is being avoided but slow to realise that the tight feeling snaking through his chest is hurt.
By the fifth day of silence his emotions have built up like the heavy drifts on the Palace grounds and Zahir isn't sure what he feels anymore.
As Vania prepares for the Midwinter Ball, she decides that she will end the wall of silence that night; her mother had once said you couldn't force someone to love you, and perhaps she was right.
Zahir doesn't take long to seek the princess out, and can't help but notice that she looks surprised and somewhat relieved to see him.
Vania accepts his offer to dance, her curiosity piqued by the firmness of his grip and the roughness of his voice.
As they dance, Vania realizes things have changed; she cannot look away from his dark, blazing eyes, and she isn't sure she even wants to.
Zahir is ready to give in; the intensity of his feelings have been growing since summer and he is struggling to contain them.
As they finish their dance, Zahir sees they have drawn the attention of the Gallans and Duke Gareth of Naxen; as he releases Vania to her next partner, he braces himself.
The Duke motions Zahir over, reintroducing him to the ambassador and his wife; the emissaries wear frowns on their fat, pale faces, and Zahir knows his presence is unwelcome to them.
The ambassador brags about wars fought in snow, with snide remarks about those raised in deserts; Zahir withdraws from the conversation, shaking with anger and praying the Gallan treaty would come to naught.
Zahir no longer cares enough to be cautious tonight, so he trades water for wine, and leaves the ball early enough to raise eyebrows.
She pays little attention to the knights speaking to her, making sure to smile and murmur at the right moments, while watching Zahir stalk out of the ballroom.
Eventually Vania excuses herself, feigning a chill; however as soon as she is out of the ballroom she goes in search of the Bazhir knight.
She finds Zahir in the library, and rushes towards him, tired of games; as their lips meet, he is drunk enough to protest, but sober enough to kiss her back.