I'll be the first to admit, I am a large fan of Tom. As an aspiring business woman, he kind of speaks to my soul. And then he popped up again in the Dragons arc, and… There might have been fangirlish squealing from this 22-year-old woman.

And so, I may have read a little too deeply into the Laughing Jack plotline. Because, as Jasmine points out, it's really weird to think of Tom as being someone's brother, or that he was a somewhat normal kid once upon a time. But I can dig it.

Thusly, this short little thing happened. Because if Emily Rodda is good at any one thing, it's leaving a bunch of loose threads hanging out of an otherwise satisfying ending. :/


And Then, There Were Two


It was strange for Ava to be so far from the sea; she had lived the better part of her life right on the water, surrounded by the sounds of seabirds and crashing waves. She said it was everything she had hoped it would be.

Crowded civilization had never suited her. Tom had been grieved to see his little sister go so far away, but he had understood, and had never blamed her. He had never been a people person, either.

Yet they had both come to Del for the wedding. Tom had never thought he would find a good enough reason to close up shop for even a day—let alone a week! He had always imagined that such a reason would revolve around his siblings. And, in a way, this sort of did. Ava had insisted on going to the royal wedding, mostly because she was curious. And so, being the responsible older brother he was, Tom had grudgingly come to collect and take her, himself. It wouldn't do for a frail, blind old woman to go stumbling own the coast all by herself, and she clearly wouldn't be talked out of going.

And it wasn't all bad, he supposed. They were both well fed and lodged, and not being charged a pence for a second of it. The people were also kind to Ava, which was a pleasant change from their growing up. Tom sincerely appreciated it, and was glad that he could spend his forced vacation in peace, rather than constantly watching over his sister.

The looks of overjoyed surprise from the newlyweds had brought him great pleasure, as well. Of course, Lief and Jasmine hadn't expected to see him, because they knew him well enough by now. They hadn't thought to expect Ava, either, because the journey would have been impossible for an old blind woman. So when the two remaining Gant siblings appeared out of nowhere on the day of the wedding, naturally they were surprised. Jasmine had remarked later that it was the best wedding gift she had received.

Why they should be so glad to see him, Tom wasn't sure. The last time he had checked, the young king had despised him, and his lovely new queen didn't trust him. And they still owed him for a jar of fire beads and a bag of Peppermint Fancies. He had thought to be avoided like a plague. Instead, he had been welcomed as a friend. It made no sense to him.

But Ava was enjoying herself, so he didn't complain. However, it was clear that she was growing homesick. So, one evening, he took his sister for a walk down to the shore. It was hardly a mile outside of town; the sound of crashing waves and the taste of salt ere heavy in the air all around Del. That had comforted her at first, but now she was restless. She wanted to be back by the water.

"I want to see this new sea," she had told him as they walked. "This water I have never seen before. Being so close and yet so far away pains me, brother."

"Of course, of course, my dear," he had agreed lightly, soothingly patting her small, frail hand. "We will be there soon. And then, perhaps you will describe it to dear big brother, hm?"

Ava grinned. "And you will describe it to me."

"Ah, when has it ever been different?"

Tom hadn't always gotten along with his brother and sister. But being so separate troubled him sometimes. It was easy to forget just how much he missed them, even though they were never truly separate.

That had been a while ago. Now they were on the shore, watching the sun as it slipped lower and lower in the sky. Ava was sitting in the warm sand, relishing its texture as she gleefully crunched handfuls of it between her fingers. Tom was standing tall and straight with his hands in his pockets, facing the wind and tasting the fresh saltiness. He had never liked the sea; but he decided that it suited his sister well.

Ava was very quiet, gazing at the flashing waves, enjoying a scene which only she could see. She claimed to understand it well. Tom didn't know how she could, when she had no way of understanding what color was. Then again, she did, in a way. It was a thing he would never fully understand.

He was glad that Ava was enjoying herself, because he certainly wasn't. He had never liked the sea. Far too many things could go wrong. Far too many valuable goods could be lost so easily. For a humble business man, the sea mostly meant trouble. Also, he didn't like the sand, and how it got everywhere. He also disliked the burning sun, and the annoying seabirds, and the cold water, and basically everything about it.

And then his greedy, foolish brother had run off and gotten himself tangled up in the Enemy's affairs. Since then, the sea had become more wretched than merely annoying. In fact, Tom had spent a considerable amount of time cursing the mere existence of the sea, just because his idiot traitor of a brother had sailed upon it.

Now he was gone. Deltora was no longer plagued by the plague was that Jack Gant had become. Somehow, that made Tom hate the sea even more.

Yet Ava still loved it. If she had ever cursed the sea as he brother had, she had forgiven it long ago.

Ava signed and lifted her eyes to look at Tom.

"His young majesty is coming," she said without emotion. "He saw us leave the town, and has followed us at a distance. It seems he wishes to speak to you."

Tom shrugged. "Very well, then. Tom supposes it was bound to happen, if he hung around long enough."

Ava grinned that mischievous grin they shared. "Ah, but you always make yourself so easy to find. You have always wanted to be found. Always wanted to be seen and noticed. Not necessarily appreciated. Just noticed. It has always been a large part of who you are."

"Meanwhile, you have always made yourself nearly impossible to find. Mean older brothers can't bite you, if they can't find you."

Ava made a face, and lowered her blank eyes to the sand. "That is true… But he just wouldn't stop searching. No matter how hard I tried, he always found me. We see each other too clearly."

That was a painful truth. Tom had always known what devilry Jack had been up to, because Ava had always known. She had always been the one to keep an eye on him, and Tom had always been the one rushing to clean up after him. Even when they had been small, it had been the same: Jack causing dreadful trouble, Ava calling him out, and Tom making sincere apologies on his behalf.

He had always had to be the honorable, responsible one. One of them had to be.

Footsteps were crunching through the sand behind them. So, Lief had finally arrived, and had come alone. There were many things he might have come to talk about. Tom wondered what it was…

"You've taken your time, you majesty," Tom commented quietly, when he was sure the young man could hear him. Lief continued walking until he was standing beside the shopkeeper, and stood looking out at the sea. For the first time in days, he had shrugged off the fine clothes of a king and was dressed as if he were still just a blacksmith's son. It was the first time he had looked so himself.

"You knew I was coming, then," he said flatly. "No matter what I do, everyone always seems to know where I am, and what I'm doing."

"It's what happens, when one's sister sees so much. Now, why don't you tell old Tom what's on your mind?"

"A couple of things," Lief answered, digging in his pocket and pulling some coins out. "I believe I still owe you two gold coins and one silver. I'm sorry to have put it off for so long, but we've all been… Busy."

Tom considered the three shining coins in the king's hand, and his heart thumped instinctively at the sight of them. Almost immediately afterward, though, his heart softened a bit. Suddenly, he couldn't think of taking money from this young man. He pushed Lief's hand away, shaking his head.

"Now, now, call it a wedding present. Tom wouldn't dream of making the king of Deltora pay such a pathetic debt, especially not so soon after his own wedding. What is a jar of fire beads, or a bag of Peppermint Fancies, anyway? Tom can replace those on any day."

Lief stared at him in astonishment, perhaps wondering if the man was losing his senses. All the same, he put the coins back in his pocket, and then gazed back out to sea.

"Tom, are you alright?" he asked. "You don't seem yourself, recently."

"Of course Tom is not alright. His shop has sat closed and locked for five days, while he dallies here, in Del, with his demanding little sister. What's more, he has no fondness for the sea. Yet here he stands, with his bare toes in the sand, because she begged him to take her. Yes, Tom is quite out of sorts, and not at all himself, these days."

"Is there any reason in particular?"

Tom glanced at Lief, wondering where the boy was going with this. "Why so concerned?"

"Because a king should care about what his people care about. If there is something I can do to help you, I'd like to know it."

On the ground below them, Ava laughed slowly. "Poor Tom is out of sorts because he is missing someone," she said vaguely. "We are both missing someone…"

Lief looked out at the water once again, understanding filling his blue eyes.

"Ah. I see, now. I'm so sorry, Tom."

Tom snorted. "Don't be. Tom never cared for his idiot brother, even when they were boys. That Jack was always a dangerous mix of good for nothing, and up to something. And he never valued patience or good, hard work; always looking to get rich quick, he was. There is no reason to miss him."

"…Yet you do. He was your brother. He was part of who you were, and now he's gone. That must be hard for you."

Tom didn't like to admit it, but Lief was right. The world had been a much darker place with Jack Gant in it; yet it was difficult to imagine the world without him. And it was, indeed, as though a significant part of himself had vanished, leaving only a gaping void in Jack's place. Even when he had betrayed his people and turned to the Shadow Lord for power, at least he had still been there.

"It used to give us hope," Ava commented sadly, eerily putting Tom's thoughts into words. "Hope that as long as we knew he lived, and was running around somewhere, doing heaven only knows what evil, there was still a chance. That perhaps, while he had life to spare, he might still turn away from that darkness and return to us. He went so far away from us… We missed our brother terribly. We feared that we would never see him again. And, indeed, we did not. It makes our hearts very sore."

There was a long, mournful silence. Lief broke it awkwardly by clearing his throat. "So, what do the two of you intend to do now?"

Tom took off his glasses and brushed the sand-flecked lenses against his vest. "We will return to our humble shops, and do business as we have always done," he answered, placing his glasses back on his nose. "Now that the roads are better cared for, Tom has more business than ever; and sweet little sister does her fair share of trading with the ships, nowadays. Best of all, we shall do so from now on without constantly having to worry over foolish Jack. It will be refreshing."

"As easy as that?"

"Certainly. There is absolutely nothing stopping us now. Tom must admit, young man, though he had his doubts about you in the beginning, he always had a feeling that meeting you was far from chance, and that we would surely meet again. You were a gullible and overly excitable youth, but you always had a look of destiny about you. Something buried, which would come to light with wisdom and experience. And now, Tom is pleased to say that he sees it now. He always did say that you were a discerning customer."

"Thank you… I think."

"You shouldn't worry yourself over poor old Tom, young man. What with dragons, and belts, and quests, and fatherhood looming on the horizon, you have much bigger things to worry about. If all else fails, Tom always has Ava, and Ava always has Tom. We shall take care of one another, because we are a family. That's all there needs to be."

"That is all there ever has been," Ava added. "Jack was never particularly on our side in the first place."

They were silent again, reflecting on her words. At length, Lief sighed and slowly shook his head.

"I know you say it's nothing, but… Still. He was your brother. You must be very sad."

Tom looked down at the sand, and took his glasses off again to rub his hand tiredly over his face. Pretending not to care had seemed like it would be easy. In practice, it was a terrible drain.

He nodded slowly.

"Yes, Tom is sad," he said quietly. "Relieved, and very sad."

Below them, Ava hummed thoughtfully to herself. "It is a sad and funny thing," she said slowly. "Three fine, clever children, and not one of them to carry on the family name. The name of Gant has always meant curiosity—an all-seeing eye, a string of luck, and lightning which never strikes the same place twice. It has been a long and glorious name, and it will die with us. Tom and Ava are the last two of our line, and there will be no more."

Lief looked over and gave her a smile, which she couldn't see but surely could. "There's always hope."

Ava shook her head. "No. I see it. What I shall do without my brother, I have no idea. But… We shall meet again, in the end. In a place where, perhaps, even poor misguided Jack can be redeemed. I hope that is so. I should like very much to meet him without fear or anger."

Tom smiled vaguely at the thought. "Tom would like that very much. He might even like it more than gold or silver."

"I've never seen you this way before," Lief commented. "I kind of like it."

"Don't get too used to it, your majesty. It is only a season, and it will soon pass. Tom has never been one to change his ways."

"That's a pity. We shall just have to enjoy it while it lasts."

"That is probably wise. If you are ever in the Plains, feel free to visit Tom's shop and give him a bit of business. He will be quite himself again, and all will be back to normal."

Lief gave him an exasperated smile. "As much as I'm going to miss you like this, it will be nice for everything to be normal. We are all quite ready for a better normal."

"A better normal…"

Tom gazed across the sea, thinking it over, and decided that he was excited. A better normal, where customers came and went by the day instead of the week, where he and his sister could thrive in peace, and they could both become richer in every way. For the first time in his very strange life, he could really be happy.

"Yes, a better normal is just what Tom needs. He looks forward to it.