11: Busted

Tasha peered in the windows of Brenda's cabin for probably the twentieth day in a row. Despite Brenda's assurances she was taking that long overdue mental vacation, Tasha didn't quite buy it and couldn't help but worry. And, where the hell was she vacationing? It certainly wasn't her house!

"A week, Brenda!" she snarled. "You said a week! Not three!"

Her cursing slipped into Russian as she darted from window to window trying to see anything in the interior that indicated Brenda had returned. The house stood dark except for a nightlight she kept on next to the stove. All else was exactly where she saw it the day prior and the one before that, all the way back to three days after Brenda's announcement on the matter.

Tasha would be sending teams into the Tundra looking for her boss, if it hadn't been for the occasional text messages stating that Brenda was taking more time off.

The whole thing was out of character for the woman. First off, she never vacationed, like ever. Secondly, Brenda hadn't gone to the Tundra for more than a few days at a time, and, to Tasha's knowledge, gave up hunting three years back. This wasn't the time of year for hunting anyway.

She retrieved her net-set from her voluminous pocket and pressed the button on the side – well practiced at the maneuver with thick gloves on. No new notifications graced her inbox. The last message from Brenda came in three days prior. And the more days between messages the more frantic Tasha became for her.

One last Russian curse of frustration and worry left her lips before she began to turn away. That's when her ears caught a sound she wasn't expecting.

The squeak and trundle of a snowcat's treads reached her first, high and low octaves making oddly soothing sounds as it cut through the unexpected still of the winter night. Next came the growl of the diesel engine and the bump and clatter of the cab as the cat shifted and bounced over uneven ground. Tasha sprinted to the end of the veranda just in time to see the beast roll to a stop, illuminating the bulk of Brenda's barn in its halogen beams. A backlit, tall shadow piled out of the cab and worked the sliding doors open. When the entrance was clear, the machine lurched forward, disappearing into the interior. Tasha didn't wait for the occupants to approach the house. She minced down the icy steps and crunched through the snow towards the barn.

She swung around the edge of the barn entrance and just about ran over two figures who were approaching along the barn wall. Lurching back, Tasha squealed. The other party halted, seeming caught by surprise as well.

"Tasha?" a familiar voice inquired. "What are you doing here?"

Brenda threw back her hood, closed the three steps between them and latched onto her thick parka sleeve as if to draw her away from the other in her party. Tasha stood her ground, even as Brenda stripped her goggles and mask off with her free hand.

"It's you!" Tasha uttered, the fright making her voice higher. "Who's that…"

"Let's go inside," Brenda growled, cutting off the second question. "It's too damned cold to talk about things here."

Tasha tried to pry Brenda's grip from her upper arm, but relented when her struggle made the older woman slip on an icy patch. After that, she allowed herself to be herded towards the cabin. She peered over her shoulder, seeing the tall shadow hang back some before trailing in their wake.

Brenda let go of her in order to unlock and open her front door. Tasha continued to eye the second person, who remained in the snow beyond the steps up to the veranda – in the shadows. She wanted to determine the person's identity, but knew if she headed that way, Brenda would intercept her.

"Let's warm up," Brenda said next, breaking Tasha from her wary stare. "I'm freezing."

She ushered Tasha into the front room and insisted they get their outer wear off and hung on the already overloaded coat rack. Brenda removed some articles and stumped over to put them onto the armchair in order to make room for Tasha's things.

Dutifully Tasha stripped out of her gear and hung it. Smoothing down the frizz the hood put in her curly brown hair, Tasha closed the gap between her and Brenda.

"Where've you been?" she shrilled. "I've been worried sick!"

"Hunting," a voice came from behind, still muffled by winter gear. A thump followed the statement.

Tasha wheeled, finding the second in Brenda's party shutting the door behind them all. For a reason she couldn't readily pin down, nerves arose about the still shrouded figure. Her glance took in the heavy sack sitting at the person's feet. When a peek at Brenda gave no answers to the many burning questions in Tasha's mind, she eyed the person once again.

They pushed back their hood, then stripped the gloves, mask, and goggles off their person, exposing a familiar bearded face. He looked somewhat gaunt, dark bags shadowing his eyes, and the skin on his cheeks paler than she remembered.

"Jacob?" she said.

"Hey, Tasha. How've you been?" He asked this as he pulled off his parka and hung it on the rack along with everyone else's.

"Beside myself!" she snapped. A moment later curiosity left her asking, "You're still bunking up here?"

Lifting his hands, he laughed, "Busted."

With that single word, he resumed stripping out of his gear and parking his boots below the rack.

She came round to her previous line of questioning. "And what the hell are you guys doing hunting this time of year?"

Jacob just shrugged, and when she settled her glare on Brenda, her boss said, "Chuck's not selling, the store is out, and I needed some meat."

Tasha wheeled toward Jacob. Storming closer, she whacked him with all her strength in the bicep. "And you didn't talk her out of that madness?"

She had to hide the wince at the pain that shot up her arm. Seems his muscles were still as rock hard as that night at the bar.

Humor wrinkled his brows and widened his smile. As he crossed his arms, he sighed, "Have you ever successfully argued Brenda out of anything, Tasha? Tell me your secret if you have. I tried and failed."

His statement shattered her protest. She swept it back together a moment later, snarling, "That's beside the point!"

"Tasha," Brenda stated softly. The woman didn't say more until Tasha returned her attention there. "Sorry to have worried you."

The apology disarmed Tasha, and she found herself blinking and unable to come up with anything more to say.

In that lack of sound, Jacob lifted the sack and crossed the kitchen on stocking feet.

"I thought you gave up hunting?" Tasha asked her, unable to help admiring Jacob's frame as he disappeared through the door.

"I did give it up," she answered. "Jacob did the hunting. I just showed him the best grounds."

"Jacob?" Tasha's eyes got huge. "Rich boy turned plant worker? Hunting?"

Brenda patted her shoulder. "Believe it or not he's pretty handy with a rifle."

It was a dissatisfying response. The line was one Tasha didn't quite buy, but she couldn't bring herself to call Brenda a liar.

"Your timing sucks," Tasha groused.

"Mental illness isn't convenient, Tasha," Brenda replied. "You are the one who kept insisting I needed it, remember?"

Tasha felt sheepish at the reminder.

Brenda went on, "Sorry to dump the store in your lap and all. I just needed the break."

"No." She waved the apology away. "No. That all went smooth. I was more worried things were worse than you let on."

"And one of the reasons Jacob is still staying here. I asked him to keep me straight."

Sudden relief flooded through Tasha at Brenda's admittance. Jacob returned about that point and Tasha cleared the space in three long strides, embracing him in a tight hug. "Thank you, Jacob!"

He remained stiff in her embrace, but said, "You're welcome? What'd I do?"

She leaned away, still gripping his upper arms. "For keeping Brenda company during her time off."

Jacob's expression crumpled, really only seen by the way his brows pinched together. "Of course."

After a few moments Tasha drew her hands away, rubbing them together to reduce their sudden chill. "Damn, Jacob, you're cold! Are you okay?"

He hooked his thumb over his shoulder. "I was in the reefer for a bit there."

"Oh! Yeah, that's right," Tasha replied. When she looked up, it was to find an emotion fleeing his face but too quickly for her to catch what it might have been.

They two of them convinced her to stay for dinner. And not one to turn down a fresh caribou dinner in the middle of a Qaanaaq winter, she took them up on the offer.

Over the past few weeks, Brenda had settled nicely into her previous routine. The normalcy proved a boon to her still mending mental state. Tasha encouraged her to take another week before resuming her role as owner of Qaanaaq's store, which made things that much better. Though after that week was up, she was very ready to return to work.

Tasha did an amazing job while she was away – even implementing a few improvements. Her trust in her worker, it seemed, was well placed.

As Brenda finished her dinner, she set her dishes in the sink and started a pot of water to boil with which to wash them. The water heater fritzed on her an hour ago, and it would be tomorrow afternoon before someone could come out for repairs. She'd checked all the usual culprits, the thermostat, the pilot light, the propane levels – nothing seemed amiss, yet the faucet gave her nothing but ice water no matter how long it ran.

With a sigh, Brenda plugged the sink basins, doused the dishes with the appropriate amount of dish soap, and waited for the water to boil.

About that time, a knock came at the door.

Checking her chrono, Brenda's expression brightened, lighting her weary face. Stumping over to the front entrance, she pulled the door inward and smiled up at the tall form standing on the stoop.

"On time, as usual," Brenda said, stepping back and waving Jacob through.

He ducked to the side so as not to hit her with the sack slung over his back. "Evening Brenda."

"Good evening to you."

Her friend set down the sack long enough to get out of his gear, before lifting it once more and padding across the living room.

She followed him through the connected kitchen and into the cold storage. "You know you don't have to keep doing this, Jacob."

He settled the sack on the table, grinning and nodding at her, before he delved into its interior and began pulling out sections of another caribou. "It's nothing."

"Well, I certainly don't think I can accept much more." She looked about the shelves, realizing she was close to capacity on caribou. "I've got other supplies to store in here, y'know."

"Sell it at the store?" he offered.

"Chuck would kill me if I cut into his business," she rejoined.

"Sell it to Chuck," Jacob laughed next.

"Well, I guess so," she grunted. "Suppose you could sell it to him as well, earn a bit of spending cash?"

"That's not a bad idea. I'll think about it."

They spent the next forty minutes wrapping the meat in butcher paper to keep it from going bad or dripping everywhere. Despite her protest about his continued generosity, she set aside several choice cuts for the next few days. The rest they moved into the freezer section to fatten her overwinter stores.

When they completed that task, Brenda moved to the couch, plopping into its cushions. Jacob chose to lean on the back of it, not seeming keen to sit with her.

She glanced back at him. "How's the cabin treating you?"

"It's perfect, thanks," he responded. "You sure no one's going to care?"

"It's my damn hunting cabin. I can do with it as I please." She shifted, settling her shoulders into the already sculpted padding. "And it pleases me that you can use it when I can't anymore."

Their earlier trip back from the derelict was spent discussing at length what to do with Jacob, considering his state of being. He didn't want to leave – Brenda didn't want him to leave, but handling his return would be tricky.

They thought perhaps he could reapply to the factory and become a citizen of the town once more. They shot that down, due to the sure to arise awkwardness. How were they to explain that he would never eat with them, that he kept opposite hours from everyone else?

If they took that route, the act could only be done so long before people started noticing the anomalies. Brenda offered him her little cabin on a plot of land in prime caribou territory as an alternative. Wasn't much to the place, a place to lay his head, rudimentary facilities, but Jacob didn't seem to mind.

"Well, I appreciate you, once again, putting this listless, lowlife up. Wish I could pay you rent or something."

Brenda laughed, the tone changing in response to the two halves of his statement. "You're more than paying me back in caribou meat."

"Your water's boiling, Brenda," he interjected, already turning to take care of it.

He moved over to the stove, turning off the burner and dumping the boiling water into the sinks. At the same time, he turned the cold water on to tone it back to less than scalding heat. By the time she had made her way to the counter, he was already working through the small pile of dishes.

Rather than kicking him off the job, she spun and leaned against the counter next to him. A comfortable silence fell as Jacob finished up the dishes and set them on the rack to dry. Finished, he slowly spun and mirrored her pose.

"Do you mind if I stay a day or two? Not as much of a recluse as I like to think I am."

Like clockwork, Jacob paid her a visit on her day off each week. Every other visit there was a bag of game in his possession which he contributed to her larder. Sometimes he stayed a day, sometimes a couple, depending upon the time of his arrival. He was later than normal today, so making it back before sunrise was a gamble he wasn't willing to take.

She smiled up at him – his company always appreciated. "Of course. The room's always ready for you."

Yet, Jacob didn't move from his spot, seeming content to be in her proximity.

Brenda glanced over at him, working up the nerve to broach something she'd noticed. Now or never. She drew a breath and spoke.

"Half the 'bou, eh?" she sighed, side-eyeing him.

His gaze darted to her face. "Huh?"

So, she'd caught him off guard. Good. He'd have no time to work up a lie for her.

She turned towards him, her left hand propping her up on the counter. "Don't think I didn't notice, Jacob. The last three visits, you've only brough half a 'bou's worth of meat. I know you're not eating it."

Color left his already paling complexion.

Between the season and his condition and running around only at night, his skin was becoming porcelain with only fine rust-colored dots and his dishwater blonde beard and mustache to break it up.

Despite the body language, he didn't confess to what she suspected.

So, she spelled it out. "When you sent me away that night, you said you were 'fulfilling your promise.' Did you?"

Jacob didn't answer. Which was her answer.

Indignant, she growled, "You sent me away so I wouldn't find out you spared Enrique. He's still alive, isn't he."

Still, he didn't cop to it.

Brenda dropped a heavy sigh, her expression pinching in frustration. "He'd better not become a problem again, Jacob."

His lips pursed, before he shot her a pointed look.

"Alright," Brenda muttered, a hint of betrayal burning behind her sternum, "I'll trust you on this one. You'd better be right."

Jacob smiled at her, stringing his arm around her shoulders and pulling her into a quick hug. If Jacob trusted Enrique was no longer a threat to Qaanaaq, then she would place faith in Jacob's judgement. Still, she pushed out of his show of affection, feeling increasingly uncomfortable by his proximity.

He released her without argument, and she stumped over to the couch and returned to her perch on its cushions. Turning on the Vid, she pretended the conversation didn't happen. Didn't do to dwell on it, she knew. As Jacob sat down to join her watching what he called "unpolished local programming," she smiled.

Despite it all, Brenda felt as if her wounds were finally closing enough to move forward.


A/N: Okay here we are at the wrap up. I will freely admit that this is fresh off the press, and I'm not quite certain about a couple of areas, so feel free to point out anything you think is a bit wonky for me! :)

Thank You to EVERYONE who took time to read this! Thank you to Frankannestein and Blackdawn for your reviews and feedback! I really appreciate it!