Disclaimer: All Creatures Great & Small isn't mine.
Author's Note: This is my debut fic for ACG&S – I hope you like it! It's set between series 1 & 2 and written from James's POV.
THE LITTLE BROTHER
It was a pleasant gathering in the garden of Skeldale House and there was my beautiful Helen, the birthday girl, in the centre of it all. She was laughing delightedly, engaged in Siegfried's tale of an extraordinarily bad-tempered ram chasing me across a field.
I could feel a faint burn of embarrassment rising to my face as I cast my eyes around my colleague's audience and realised that quite a number of guests were rapt in enjoyment at my expense. Helen glanced at me and attempted to look apologetic for a moment, before bursting into giggles again. I stuffed a sandwich into my mouth.
One guest was the source of the loudest, girlish laughing. She was a pretty young thing with long copper-red hair that blazed in the sunshine. Her pale green sundress was of modest cut yet touched in the right places showing a well-defined figure. It was easy to understand how she had caught Tristan's eye.
Her name was Stacey and she was the youngest daughter of Harry Darlow, a quiet sort of chap who owned Sadleton Farm near Sorton. The elder three daughters were all married, leaving only Stacey and her brother, John, living at home with their parents. I hadn't met any of her sisters, but they were said to be an appealing lot, though Stacey had a certain unique sparkle about her.
Tristan had certainly thought so. He'd told me how he had gone out to assist Mr Darlow with a difficult calving and the young beauty had come skipping into the byre with hot water and a towel. She had made an immediate favourable impression on him and he'd intrigued her enough for her to stick around to watch him strip to the waist and get to work. I'm not sure how the lad managed to make having his arm lost inside a straining cow even remotely graceful. However, the girl had stayed to see the calf successfully delivered and passed over to the attention of its mother. She had lingered as Tristan scrubbed his arms and torso clean. It was then that Mr Darlow had wandered off to speak to his herdsman and Tristan had taken the opportunity to invite the girl to come as his guest to Helen's birthday party. She'd coyly fluttered her eyelashes at him and agreed.
I watched Stacey giggling between mouthfuls of cake and as she laid a hand on Siegfried's arm, I wondered where Tristan was.
I realised that I hadn't seen the young man for quite some time. He certainly hadn't been on the scene at all through the story about the ram, as he would've been sure to add in his accounts of the misfortunes he'd witnessed me having with the Saanen billies that we'd tackled together that morning. I couldn't recall him being present during the rounding renditions of stories from his brother's college days either.
With an unsubstantiated anxiety tightening my chest, I slipped away from the group and went in search of Tristan.
I eventually found him at the buffet table. He was looking down at the red-and-white gingham tablecloth and picking at a loose thread, his other hand clamped tightly around a glass half filled with cider.
"You all right, Triss?" I asked, laying a hand on his shoulder.
He turned to me, the movement causing him to topple backwards and bump against the side of the table. Jugs and glasses clinked together and I grabbed a hold of Tristan's elbow to steady him.
Glazed blue eyes gained a focus on my face, a smile of recognition breaking through. He raised his hand containing his glass and the cider sloshed against its sides. "We got anything else?"
"I think you've had quite enough." I kept my hand firmly on his arm as he swayed unsteadily.
"Oh no, no, not nearly enough, old boy," Tristan protested. The remaining cider disappeared in a series of rapid gulps. "I can still see them."
"See who?" I asked, but I had already guessed and he knew it.
"The damnedest thing is I can't even blame him." Tristan hiccupped, eyes blinking closed for a second. "He didn't try to steal her away."
I followed his inebriated gaze across the lawn to where Siegfried was now showing off the delights of the vegetable plot to a group of followers, the majority of whom were female. Right there at his side, staring doe-eyed and drinking in his every word, was Stacey. It was painfully obvious that a thought of Tristan hadn't passed through her pretty little head for a long while.
"You know how it is, James," Tristan continued dolefully, and I turned back to him. "He doesn't have to do anything, they just flock to him. Flock to him like a…a…great big flock of birds."
I sighed and pulled gently at his arm. "Come on inside, Triss."
He resisted, his eyes glued to his brother and his date, seeming to want to torture himself further.
I looked at Stacey again. The soft waves of her dazzling hair were as bright as ever, though this time I noted that perhaps her eyes were a little too close together, her nose somewhat on the overly broad side, and her hips almost certainly too flat. But I was probably just being pedantic out of sympathy for Tristan.
Pulling more determinedly at the young man's arm, I steered him away from the buffet table and towards the house.
Tristan's steps were ungainly, his feet either not going where he told them or him not remembering where he put them. He raised a hand to his forehead with a groan and covered his eyes from the glare of the sun. I wrapped an arm around his waist to steady him better and carefully manoeuvred him up the step and through the back door.
We made it through the kitchen, then I nudged open the sitting room door with my foot and deposited Tristan in an armchair.
"Pour us a drink, James, there's a good chap." He waved a floppy arm in the general direction of the decanters.
"No," I said firmly. "I brought you in here to sober up."
"That doesn't sound like fun. I'm not altogether sure I agree with that idea." He raised a decisive finger, head nodding drunkenly. "In fact, I know I don't."
I rolled my eyes and headed off into the kitchen. "I'm getting you some coffee."
"That's the problem with you, James. No sense of propriety. Always ready and willing to inflict the unkind world of sobriety on a friend. A cold-hearted taskmaster with…wait, no, that's my brother. Oh, my brother, my perfect brother… He always was your favourite, wasn't he? Everybody's favourite."
I peered around the door. "Tristan, what are you going on about?"
"Oh nothing, nothing, James. Just the cruel injustice of life."
I frowned and went back to the kitchen. Tristan was suspiciously quiet as I stood before the stove waiting for the water to boil and I glanced uneasily towards the door. When I returned with the coffee, I expected to find him drowning himself with alcohol. However, he was sat where I had left him strewn across the armchair and he looked more deeply thoughtful than should've been possible in his state of intoxication.
Tristan stirred from his reverie and I handed him the coffee.
He peered into the steaming mug without enthusiasm. "I really do think brandy would be better."
I ignored his comment and sat down on the sofa. I regarded him for a moment, watching him blow across the surface of the coffee. He looked awfully miserable.
"What's bothering you?" I asked gently. "She's just one silly girl."
Tristan gave a short, humourless laugh. "It's not the first time this has happened and it won't be the last."
"I'm sure you've charmed a girl away from your brother before."
"Me?" Tristan bit his lip and shook his head. "Siegfried's the one with all the charm."
I laughed at the incredulity of it. "You've as much of a way with the ladies as he does!"
"Do I?" He didn't seem to believe it and my amused reaction had only deepened his misery.
"Yes!" I exclaimed. "Barely a week goes by without you adding another nurse or barmaid to your collection."
"Now you're making me sound like a stamp collector." There was a ghost of a smile hovering around his mouth for a moment. Then he scowled. "But damn it, James! What if she'd been the one?"
"The one what?"
"You know, the one. The woman I fall madly and deeply in love with, marry and make lots of little Tristans with."
"Stacey?" I couldn't help but laugh.
Tristan glared at me. "Damn it, it's not funny!"
I guiltily stopped laughing. "Sorry."
"And I don't necessarily mean Stacey. But at some point I hope to meet that special girl, you know. And what if we never make it to the aisle because Siegfried smiles at her and she goes running off with him without giving me a chance? Where will that leave me, eh?" He gazed gloomily down into his coffee.
"Well, if she was 'the one', she wouldn't go off with Siegfried," I reasoned, "not if it's meant to be." I smiled optimistically and added, "And maybe it still is."
He looked up with a frown. "What do you mean?"
"Maybe Stacey will get bored of Siegfried and see what she's missing."
"I get my brother's leftovers, you mean," Tristan said sourly. "Thank you very much."
"Oh, Triss, that's not what I meant!"
"I need a proper drink…" he muttered, staggering to his feet. He plonked his mug down on the coffee table in disgust and a good deal spilt over the sides.
"Triss," I pleaded, but he refused to look at me as he passed the sofa.
Tristan was proficient at adopting the appearance of a kicked puppy and was doing so. However, there was bitterness in his expression too. He slopped brandy over the cabinet, some of it managing to fall into a glass.
I went over to him. "I don't understand what you're getting so worked up about."
"No, you don't, do you? You're not taking this seriously at all," he accused, cheeks flushed with alcohol and anger. "I might've lost my one true love this afternoon and you don't care in the least."
"Oh come off it, Tristan." I snatched the glass out of his hands. "You said yourself, she's a looker but there's little more to her than that. Just a bit of fun, you said."
"Stacey might have hidden depths!"
I sighed impatiently.
"Just because you married a woman with substance, doesn't mean everyone else wants to!" Tristan was infuriated and it was making him even more unsteady on his feet. "Not everyone is like you, or Siegfried."
"Go sit down." I pointed an ordering finger.
Tristan's shoulders slumped and he wobbled back to the armchair and dropped into it. He rubbed a hand over his face.
"I'm sorry, James," he said once I'd sat on the sofa again. "I'm just feeling a bit low at the moment that's all."
"You can't seriously think that you'd lose the love of your life to Siegfried, surely?" I watched him closely as he leant forward to pick up his mug of coffee.
He took a sip. "Can't I?" There was something bitter and hurting in his words. "It's not always easy being little brother to the great Siegfried Farnon MRCVS, you know."
"This isn't just about women, is it?" I asked quietly.
Tristan lowered his eyes. "My illustrious brother never failed his exams – not one." His voice was a little choked. "Always passed with flying colours, even that term he got influenza."
"This is about failing your finals?"
"James, stop trying to cut and dry it. This is about many things." Tristan took a long drink from his mug.
I shifted uncomfortably on the sofa, unsure how to handle the conversation. Tristan usually held the enviable philosophy that everything would turn out all right for him in the end. I was the one that fretted and wavered, while he was the one that calmly blew out a wisp of cigarette smoke, handed me a drink and told me to relax.
Looking down at the glass in my hand that I'd snatched from him, I contemplated giving it back. Maybe a drunken stupor was what he needed. However, it was only a fleeting consideration – a horrific hangover would add to his unhappiness later.
Tristan's self-doubt was unfounded. The lad would make a brilliant vet one day; he learnt easily and quickly, his practical skills were superb and the clients liked him. He just had to get over his disastrous nerves in college examinations.
Yet, I did understand. Siegfried was a hard act to follow. But, although of different character, the two brothers were both remarkable and it was clear that the same charisma and genius ran through Tristan's veins as it did Siegfried's. I've always felt privileged that I had the good fortune to meet and befriend them both.
"Honestly, Triss, you have nothing to worry…" I petered out at the sound of the French windows being opened from outside.
"There you both are!" Siegfried cried cheerily, as he entered with Stacey on his arm.
I glanced over at Tristan to see him smile painfully in response.
"James, Helen's looking for you. And you, dear little brother, you really must pay more attention to your lovely young lady," Siegfried admonished, though only mildly accusative. "It's not gentlemanly to abandon her without a word."
Tristan struggled not to scowl. "Oh, I'm sure you looked after her splendidly, Siegfried," he said tightly, falsity clear in his added, "Thank you."
"Quite," Siegfried replied carefully. "It was my pleasure." He smiled at the girl on his arm, "Right, my dear, I'll leave you to my brother's affection."
"Must you?" Stacey looked imploringly up at Siegfried. "I was hoping we could talk some more."
Siegfried laughed uncomfortably, glancing at Tristan who couldn't hide the hurt caused by the girl's thoughtless rebuff. "Stacey, I…I don't think –"
"Oh no, by all means, go ahead," Tristan cut in. He stretched his lips into a smile.
"Okay…" Siegfried said slowly, a concerned stare trying to read his brother. He paused a moment. Then he turned to Stacey, "Go back into the garden, I'll join you in a moment."
The girl pouted slightly. "Please don't be long."
Siegfried smiled reassuringly and she finally left.
Tristan was staring down into his coffee as if he wanted to fall into it.
"Tristan, where do you find these tiresome silly girls?" Siegfried sounded annoyed.
"I'm sorry," Tristan spat, "is the company of my date boring you?"
The elder Farnon seemed to realise he'd said the wrong thing. But it didn't stop him following it with the equally erroneous, "You look dreadful. I do wish you wouldn't drink so much."
"Oh, do you?" Tristan stood up, furious.
"Is there something wrong?" Siegfried asked, still not quite dropping the accusing tone in his voice.
Tristan didn't reply as he brushed passed to get to the door.
"Where are you going?" Siegfried hurried out into the hall after him.
I followed and saw the young man almost trip on the stairs, trying to climb too fast for his drunken state.
"What's wrong?" Siegfried yelled after him, exasperated.
"Nothing. Why would there be?" Tristan didn't look back.
"Oh, Tristan, don't be stupid!"
I silently watched the young man go. His brother huffed at the foot of the stairs for a moment before wheeling around and heading back out into the garden.
I'd realised that it didn't matter much what I said. It was Siegfried's approval and reassurance that Tristan needed.
And that might take a while in coming.