Author's Note: When watching the end of the second season of ACGaS and the beginning of the third season, I keep thinking that there is a very slight, but interesting shift in how Siegfried and Tristan act around each other. Thus, this fic that explores how those subtle changes could have come about.
This chapter takes place after Ways and Means.
"James, you up for a few beers at the Drovers tonight?"
James looked up from the mortar and pestle he had been manipulating and blinked in surprise at Tristan who was standing in the middle of the surgery room. It wasn't the invitation that was so surprising. The Drovers was Tristan's usual haunt whenever he had free time and sometimes even when he didn't really have the time to spare. However, it had been a while since Tristan had invited him along or made an announcement that he was going himself.
"Sure, I think I can spare a couple hours," he said. "But just a couple hours, Tristan. I promised Helen I'd spend some time with her before I start covering evening call outs."
"Great," Tristan grinned. "After surgery then."
Footsteps marching in the hallway made that grin vanish from Tristan's face. He grabbed his bag of equipment and hustled toward the back door.
"Gotta go, James. Siegfried's already got me on all these pig inoculations and I just know he's got something else unpleasant in mind for me. So be a friend and tell him you haven't seen me."
Tristan darted out the back while still making sure to carefully close the door behind him so it wouldn't make a sound. Seconds later, Siegfried burst into the room, scanning it thoroughly before turning his attention toward James.
"James…have you seen my brother about?" he asked as he sat down onto the wooden chair in front of the desk.
Any squeamishness James felt about lying to Siegfried in regards to Tristan had long since been extinguished as he realized that it was necessary at times to keep the peace at Skeldale House.
"Um, no I haven't." Morbid curiosity about Tristan's accuracy in predicting his brother's behavior, however, never lost its fascination. "Did you need him for something?"
"No, not urgently," Siegfried mumbled as he studied some papers in front of him. "Mrs. Bond called and said something about how one of her less sociable cats is having a flea issue. Said the creature reminds her a lot of Boris. But that's nothing that can't be put off for a day or two."
James shuddered. He was convinced now that he had done the right thing, even if it was only delaying the inevitable. He also decided there was no reason to tell Tristan about this when they met up later to avoid putting a damper on the whole evening. After all, there was always the chance that Siegfried would forget about Mrs. Bond's latest feline acquisition. Although, James did not want to consider the possibility that he'd end up with that horrific chore instead.
A few hours later, James strode into the Drovers and found Tristan standing near the bar, an almost finished pint in his hand and his usual affable smile on his face.
"James," he called out. "Get you a pint? This new bitter they've got is superb."
"Sure," James said, not about to turn down this show of generosity from his friend. "I'll get us a table."
Tristan whirled back to the barmaid and ordered two more pints, making sure to flirt as much as possible as he did it. Which, with Tristan, was a surprisingly high amount.
"Oh come now, Mr. Farnon," the barmaid, Sally, said, swatting his arm playfully. "What would my Nick say if he heard you just now?"
"Maybe he'd come to his senses and stop neglecting the lovely maiden he has the privilege of courting," Tristan said, leaning onto the bar. "Or maybe you'll stop calling me 'Mr. Farnon' and my opportunity will come at last."
Sally gave him another light slap to the arm before handing Tristan his drinks. James chuckled as he watched Tristan blow her a kiss and snatch up the beers before shimmying over to their table.
"Cheers," Tristan said, taking a huge quaff from his drink as he sat down.
"Cheers," James said. He took a hardy sip and was pleased to discover that it was pretty good beer. Then again, he had expected that. When it came to beers, Tristan did know his stuff.
"Nice to see some things haven't changed," James added.
"Oh yes?" Tristan replied before draining his glass halfway down.
"Yes. I mean, you and Sally over there. I was starting to think you were taking a prolonged absence from that sort of thing after…."
James stopped, immediately regretting his words as he watched Tristan's face fall at the implied mention of Alice McTavish. It had been clear that Tristan had been quite smitten with her. Far more than his usual dalliances. At one point, James had suspected that it could get even more serious.
Then, all of the sudden, it seemed to have gone off. Alice returned to Edinburgh, and Tristan never mentioned another word about her.
Not that another word was needed. It was painfully obvious that the quieter, gloomier demeanor Tristan had had for the last couple of weeks had everything to do with Alice and the likelihood that their latest parting had been significant.
Helen had noticed the change in Tristan straight away. At first, James didn't put too much thought into her concerns, but it wasn't long before he had noticed a change in his friend too. He noted how Tristan accepted the worst jobs Siegfried could give him without complaint or even comment most of the time. Moments of playful ribbing from him or light-hearted blustering from Siegfried went unanswered with Tristan either staring silently at the floor or simply walking out of the room.
At one point, James tried talking to Siegfried about Tristan's behavior, but was stunned to find Siegfried remarkably reluctant to discuss it. Instead, Siegfried pointedly changed the subject and never brought up the matter himself.
The more he thought about it, the more confused James became as he was convinced that Siegfried was every bit as worried about Tristan as he was. If not more so. Normally, when Siegfried was concerned about his brother, it was a constant source of conversation. It only got more confusing as it slowly occurred to James that Siegfried seemed to be acting out of guilt as much as concern.
"Yes, Alice," Tristan said quietly, his smile still firmly locked onto his face. "Well, best to brush yourself off when things don't work out, you know." He took another large gulp of his pint and waved for another one.
"Yes, probably so," James said awkwardly. "Still…sorry about that, Tris. I know you really liked her and…."
"Liked her? I dare say I loved her, James," Tristan replied. "Still do."
Sally brought over a fresh pint, and Tristan finished his current one off and grinned at her as she took the empty glass away.
James looked down into his own beer, feeling increasingly uncomfortable. "I guess it wasn't meant to be then," he tried.
Tristan took another big swallow and then stared at him. "No, I suppose it wasn't. But it could have been, you know."
"What do you mean?"
"I was planning on marrying her. I'd asked Siegfried to let me run over to Edinburgh to do just that."
James gaped at him. "You were?!" Then a suspicion took root in his mind. "How did Siegfried take that?"
"Oh every bit as well as you'd expect him to," Tristan said with a hollow grin. "I told him that I'd move there after we were married and that I would give up veterinary school to work in her family's hotel. I'm sure you can imagine how well he took that."
"I certainly can," James nodded emphatically. He took a long swig of his own beer, suddenly needing it. As he drank, it occurred to him that he now had a possible reason behind Siegfried's odd behavior of late, and it made his heart drop.
"What about Alice? I take it she…well…."
"She did her best," Tristan shrugged again. "Gave me the whole 'let's not rush into anything with a war coming' speech, but it wasn't hard to figure out what she was thinking."
"I'm sorry, Tris," James said again with even more sincerity. "I really am."
Tristan finished his glass and nodded at him. "Thanks for that, James, really. But it wouldn't have worked anyway, you see. She couldn't leave that hotel and I can't leave here."
"Tris," James said, hesitant. "If you were serious about a change…."
Tristan laughed. It wasn't a happy laugh which made James even more uneasy.
"I was serious," Tristan replied. "You know that, Jim? For a day or two there, I really was serious about throwing everything over so I could run off with her." His face fell again. "But later that night, after she left and all, I started to think she did me a favor. Maybe that's what she intended all along. I don't know."
James nodded and sipped some more at his beer. He could believe that. Alice had seemed responsible and sensible. Maybe she had left just so Tristan wouldn't act in the heat of passion. Problem was, the way Tristan was talking gave their relationship a grim finality.
"Did you know that I've lived with Siegfried for most of my life?" Tristan suddenly added.
"Um no, I didn't," James said weakly, startled by the abrupt change of topics. "I guess I assumed that you started living with him when you started up with veterinary school."
"Hardly," Tristan said. "He took me in when I was still a kid. He'd just become qualified a year previous and was working as an assistant in someone else's practice. I was only eleven when he did it."
"Really?" James said, genuinely surprised. "I'm amazed he'd want to take on a burden like that." He immediately realized how that sounded and cleared his throat. "I mean, it's a lot of work when you're just starting out. Even more so, I'd imagine, if you had family to look after."
"Yes, it really is," Tristan smiled. Then his voice became strangely distant. "I still remember the day he took me in. After Father died and Siegfried went off to school, Mother and I lived on our own for a couple of years. But then it got to be too much for her and we moved in with a cousin of hers, Nellie. Then a year or so after that, Nellie got married to her sweetheart, Jack. Jack and I…we didn't get on very well."
James felt his uneasiness increase again as he finished his beer and nodded attentively to show he was listening. Although, at that moment, he wasn't entirely sure if Tristan was even aware of him.
"Jack never wanted kids in the house, you see," Tristan continued. "So he made sure to let me know just what he thought about having me around. He'd yell at me a lot, and it wasn't like how it is with Siegfried, either. He was putting me in my place. Mother never heard the worst of it because he made sure she wasn't around for it. But then…once in a while…it moved beyond just words."
James felt the breath in his throat catch. He could already tell where this was going and even though it had all happened years ago, he hated to think about his best friend being treated that way as a child.
"That day, Siegfried was coming to visit us for the weekend," Tristan said. "Back then, I wasn't very clever about hiding things. It didn't take him long to find me and see the black eye I'd gotten the night before."
Tristan paused and for a moment, James thought he was finished with his story. He started to struggle to find the appropriate words when Tristan started up again.
"Siegfried, he didn't say a word. Not one. He just took me by the hand, marched me to my room, packed my suitcases and took me out to the car. He went back in for a minute, probably to talk to Mother, and then he came out and we took off."
Tristan started to raise his hand to signal for more beer, but then started to draw circles on the tabletop with his index finger. "We must have sped down the road for an hour before he finally pulled over and spoke to me. He told me that I was not going back and that I was going to live with him from that point on. Then he asked me if that was all right. Well…I knew I'd miss Mother, but…."
"But you were only too happy to say yes," James finished for him.
"Yes, very," Tristan said with a sad smile. "I've lived with him ever since. And you know Siegfried, Jim. He's impossible, always yelling and coming up with ridiculous ideas. But…I've never regretted it. Going to live with him. Not once."
"Tris…I'm sorry," James said again. "For…you know…."
Tristan blinked in surprise and looked over at him. The smile was still sad, but it was genuine. "It's all right. It wasn't always that bad with Jack, you know. And it was so much better once I started living with Siegfried. He was always busy with work, so I'd help out wherever I could with chores and things. It was absolutely potty at times, but I really was happy."
"Your brother is a good man," James said somberly.
Tristan nodded. "I owe him everything. If he hadn't taken me away from there…."
He brushed that thought away with a wave of his hand and signaled for another drink. This time, he popped up and fetched it himself. He was already sipping it by the time he sat back down.
"I could have married Alice and I would have loved her. But…I don't think I would have been happy. Not really. Not if it meant not being a vet and leaving Siegfried behind."
James signaled for another drink for himself and nodded. On the surface, it was hard to fathom Tristan longing to stay close to Siegfried given how volatile their relationship could be at times. Then again, James had also been around the two of them long enough to know that there was a deep bond of affection behind all that bickering.
Still, this was the first time he'd heard Tristan be so direct with his fondness for Siegfried although given what he had just learned about Tris' childhood, James could understand it.
"Turns out Alice is the same way," Tristan added. "Having something she really wants to do and not being able to leave her family. So you see, it couldn't have worked out even if we do love each other."
Tristan peered down into his glass. James got the uncomfortable sense that Tristan was still trying to convince himself of that and wasn't sure if he should assist in it or not.
"Tris, if there was a way," he said cautiously. "A way for you to be a vet and marry Alice…I'm sure Siegfried would want you to be happy."
"It's not that, James," Tristan said with a soft laugh. "Well it is that, but it's not just that." Tristan's words were starting to slur, a sign that the bitters were finally starting to have an effect.
"He'd never say it," Tristan said with an emphatic shake of his head. "If I left and joined someone else's practice…he'd never say it hurt him. He'd probably act like it was all his idea. That's just like Siegfried, you know. But it would have, James. You know it would. It's why he hasn't hired another assistant even though I'm not qualified. He's planned it for years. My being here, being a partner."
Tristan leaned forward, waving an unsteady finger as he did so. "Think about it, Jim. When was the last time you've heard my brother mention something he wants? Not for the practice or the household or anything like that. I mean, just for himself."
James blinked in surprise. He hadn't really thought about it before, but now that Tristan mentioned it, it was rare for Siegfried to spend much time dwelling on personal desires aside from wanting time to himself. Siegfried usually turned his attention to taking care of others: him and Helen, Tristan, the farmers and clients who needed him.
However, one thing that Siegfried had mentioned to him privately more than once was his eagerness to make Tristan a junior partner in the practice. James had agreed with it, of course, but it wasn't until now that he understood that it wasn't just about balancing the workload or shoring up business.
"I know it means a lot to him," Tristan said, seemingly reading his mind. "And I can't take that away from him, Jim. I can't. Don't get me wrong, it means something to me too. I just forget about that once in a while is all. And I'd miss him terribly if I left. But don't you dare tell him that or he'll be even more impossible to live with. You know he would be."
"Your secret is safe with me, Tris," James laughed. Tristan grinned back at him, and James was relieved to find the tension in his friend starting to drift away.
"I did love her, and I'll miss her," Tristan said. "But maybe, someday, I'll…." He stopped and laughed again. "You know what, James, I feel like getting drunk right now."
"I'd say you're already most of the way there," James said with another laugh. "Come on, Tris. Let's have these be our last ones."
"Nonsense, I'm good for one more," Tristan protested. "Or even three more. And if you're worried about Siegfried…he won't mind."
"Three more? Absolutely not," James said. "And you know very well that he would mind if you show up to breakfast tomorrow with another hangover."
"Yes, I suppose he would," Tristan said. "But I can always hope, can't I? Come on, James."
"Siegfried is not the only one around here who's impossible," James said, smirking at him.
Tristan stuck out his bottom lip in an attempt to pout, prompting James to laugh again. It probably wouldn't hurt to let Tris have one more pint. After that, he could steer Tristan home and hope that there wouldn't be much of hangover tomorrow.
"All right, one more," James said. "And then I've got to get home to Helen."
Tristan grinned at him and got up to get another set of beers. James was certain that Tristan needed more time to get over what happened with Alice, but at least now he felt confident that it would eventually happen.
Especially now that he knew for certain that there was nowhere else Tristan would rather be.