"I don't know..." Frannie Brosca pursed her lips as she stared at the counter. None of the treats neatly arranged upon it jumped out at her. She didn't know much about surface sweets, she knew even less about having extra coin to spend on trivialities.
The shopkeeper, a large doughy woman, cleared her throat. "Ma'am, for the last time: You need to take that," she gestured rudely at the dog, "out of my shop. It's scaring away customers."
Frannie abandoned her deliberation at the counter top to sling her arms around Chester's meaty neck. "He's expertly trained and perfectly harmless. He loves children."
"Well, we don't sell children here," the shopkeeper harped. "Only the finest pastries and sweets in Denerim. I don't need him slobbering or shedding on my goods."
Chester hung his head and whined.
"Oh, I know." Frannie scratched behind his ear and then looked back at the other woman. "Can he wait in the doorway? He'll sit and be good. I just don't want any of the local riffraff to try to take off with him or start trouble. Mabari are expensive."
The shopkeeper scowled and propped her hands on her broad hips. "If he so much and twitches a muscle, so help me you will pay for everything in this shop."
Frannie nodded. "Deal." One disapproving whine from Chester as he laid down by the doorway and she was headed back over to the counter. "What's the filling in that cookie?"
"Nuts," the woman said curtly with her eyes still trained on the dog. "Or if you'd prefer, you can get them filled with jam."
Frannie furrowed her brow. She knew about lichen bread, cheese, Dust Town piss-ale. All things that could be acquired cheap. Not that cookies were all that expensive on the surface, just foreign.
She pointed at another row, "What are those?"
"And they're shaped like men?"
The shopkeeper sighed. "Are you going to buy anything or just gawk all day?"
"No, just..." Frannie continued to scan the shop's filled counter tops. "Give me one of each."
The shopkeeper snorted, but she filled a paper bag with the store's variety. Frannie plunked the necessary coin down on the counter and then sat on the wood floor next to the dog. Chester cocked his head at her and wagged his tail.
"This is important, alright?" she told him. "I've never given anyone a gift. Not really, anyway. So I want to do it right."
She'd always thought that she'd find something nice for her sister. Something precious and meaningful to give to her as payback for all that Rica had both given to and done for Frannie over the years.
Rica, who was now living at the Royal Palace. Rica, who was mother of a prince. Rica, who had taken care of Frannie every step of the way and never asked for anything in return, but now that Frannie actually had the ability to repay her, it was completely unnecessary. She'd felt so stupid and out of place next to all the glittering baubles that hung from Rica's neck.
Chester was already sniffing at the bottom of the bag eagerly.
"Okay, okay." Frannie patted the dog's back and then pulled the first cookie from the bag, a gingerbread man. She bit off its head. "What do you think of this one?"
Chester gobbled his share without hesitation.
They went back and forth, Frannie and the dog, until the entire bag was empty. They ate their fill of pecan sandies, macadamia nut bars and chocolate chip cookies. Between the two of them, they determined that they preferred cream cheese frosting to any of the chocolate or buttercream piping and that the more elaborate the decoration on the cookie, the less impressive the taste.
Frannie went back and bought a fresh bag of the cherry-filled cookies dredged in sugar. Her quest complete, she exchanged coin for cookies just in time to escape the shopkeeper's wrath as Chester vomited up his snacks in the doorway.
Dwarf and dog ran as if darkspawn were at their heels until they had very nearly reached camp. Panting, Frannie leaned her hands onto her thighs. Chester took this as an opportunity to sniff at the bag in her hand.
"I see you've already forgotten what happens when you eat an entire bag of cookies," Frannie laughed. "These aren't for you."
Chester barked and looked up at her with big, brown eyes.
"No!" Frannie stood on tip-toes and stretched the bag as far out of his reach as she could. "This is important. I'll get you a big lamb bone or a pig ear or something, I promise, but this not yours."
The dog seemed to have understood that, because the paw that was pressing into her hip, the paw that could've easily been used to propel the dog as he climbed up his master, dropped back down to the ground. With a little rumble of disapproval from deep in his throat, the dog continued to trot down the beaten, dirt path toward camp.
Frannie sighed as she meandered past the budding elfroot that grew wild on the roadside. She'd have to point it out to Wynne or Leliana or even Morrigan. For now, she popped a small sprig in her mouth and chewed on the leaves until they made her tongue go numb. Everything had been so weird since leaving Orzammar a second time. Frannie had convinced herself from the moment that Duncan rescued her that she would return to the Dwarven capital to rescue her sister. She'd make sure Rica was safe, taken care of, make sure she was happy. What a shock that was, all that misguided sentiment.
She'd never quite understood why her sister had done what she'd done. Rica had always insisted that she worked so that Frannie wouldn't have to sell what was between her legs. Not that it mattered; Frannie developed a habit of giving that away freely. Partly out of boredom, partly out of irritation at how gravely noble it was of Rica to try to protect her. Many a night she'd spend with Leske simply because there was nothing else to do. It'd always start out like a game or some sort of challenge, then end awkwardly. Leske would inevitably talk about how pretty Rica was and ask if she ever talked about him and then Frannie would proceed to tell him in detail about all the nobles Rica spread her legs for. It would get weird, then they'd go rob some merchant and forget about it until the next time they got bored.
But Leske was dead now and Frannie had been pulled away by the latest rumor of the sacred urn of Andraste before she had even had the opportunity to catch a gander of the nephew she already knew she was madly in love with. Such was life, such were her obligations.
She probably wouldn't return to Orzammar again, not willingly, anyway. It was amazing what a simple brand two shades darker than her own skintone could do to erase any of the accomplishments she achieved elsewhere. It was too uncomfortable. It reminded her of too many things. Rica would understand. Bhelen and the princeling probably wouldn't care.
Chester was waiting on the outskirts of camp, his tail wagging furiously. Frannie could smell the smoke and burning wood of a campfire as she gave the dog a light pat on the head. There was a lazy sort of lull in the air, a sense of peace. Leliana was listening patiently to Zevran as he retold the story of Aveline to her, going into gratuitous descriptions of the female chevalier's body. The bard would politely correct Zevran's story afterward and then he would intentionally retell it just as incorrect and twice as improper.
Frannie tucked the bag behind her back and stepped past the cooking fire, past them. Far enough away so that he couldn't be considered part of the group, yet close enough to feel some warmth from the fire, Sten stood. His pale eyes tore holes in the stray rocks trapped in the ground. He said nothing.
Frannie smiled. "Hello."
Sten blinked once and then his gaze focused on her. She nodded.
"We've been traveling together for some time now and we've both been through a lot," Frannie said. "I know a bit about everyone else, because they all like to talk, but you, you don't talk all that much." She shifted the weight to her other leg and hefted the bag out in front of her.
"I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate that about you. You don't tell me constantly about what you think I should do, you know? You give me the time to think, let me make my own mistakes," she laughed softly, "trust my judgment."
Frannie pressed the bag into Sten's hands and pulled her arms away when he gave a single nod of his head. "I respect you. And I know with how little you talk, that when you do, it's important. So, here. I'm grateful to have you guarding my flank."
She took a few steps back as he stared at the paper bag in his hand. "So, don't say anything, because I know you won't, anyway. I just felt like it, because I think you needed it."
As Frannie walked back toward the fire, she could hear the rustling of the paper bag. The words, "thank you," made her stop.
She shrugged. "It was nothing."
Maybe it was Alistair's rose that put her in a giving mood. Maybe it was just Sten. There had been many an odd circumstance that made her feel remarkably close to all of her new companions where she would have otherwise considered them near strangers. Perhaps it had been that catastrophe in the Tower of Magi. Bizarre as it was to be a dwarf and in the Fade, it gifted Frannie with a glimpse of her friends' dreams and nightmares. Wynne had trapped herself with guilt and Alistair, a childish fantasy.
But with Sten? It was no trap. It was a pleasant memory and nothing more. It had been a simple thing for Frannie to break away from Duncan and Weisshaupt, because it was so extraordinarily unreal. A passing fancy that sounded pretty. Had the demon paused and examined her thoughts a little closer, it would have realized to place her somewhere more familiar, somewhere less wondrous. Had she inhaled the chalky, stale air of Dust Town or had she come face to face with the bleary, drunken eyes that Leske would get after too much time in the tavern, maybe Frannie would have stayed in the Fade forever.
Alistair would have his family, Wynne could take the time to grieve instead of constantly pushing herself forward. And Sten? Sten would know peace by relishing all the small moments with friends that he knew were dead. The Blight would swallow them all and they'd be too content in their misery and delusions to care.
Frannie shook her head and rejoined her friends at the fire. Leliana's face was animated now and her arms waved with a finely-tuned bravado as she told the tale of Flemeth. In the distance, Morrigan made disapproving scoffing noises, but anyone who knew the witch could see the distinct lack of crinkles around her unnarrowed eyes. Despite what she'd say to the contrary, she was intently watching and enjoying a story that was, according to her, lies of her mother's exploits. But Frannie was elsewhere.
As she closed her eyes, their voices became a low, unintelligible hum. She could almost taste the tarnished metal smell that hung in the air, feel the random grit and gouges in the tavern tables that had been broken and rebuilt countless times over. Someone was drunk and shouting for a fight, someone else was sick and crying outside. In the morning, she'd push on, continue to be the Grey Warden everyone needed, but for now her chest felt heavy and her throat felt raw and it was a nice sensation. Sten had the right of it.
"You know, duster, you'd almost be cute if you weren't so damn ugly."
"Leske, you're lucky you're the last man on Earth."