AN: This is one of those things where a scene bit, and wouldn't let go, and wound up taking up an evening to be written. I hope you enjoy it. I don't own Professor Layton. Thanks for reading! Much love!
Marked for Failure
When the school bell rang, the hallways were flooded by children of primary school age fleeing their classrooms as fast as their legs would carry them. School bags and satchels swang in dangerous ways, but somehow everyone managed to make it to the exit without any casualties.
Back in one classroom, though, a boy was still sitting in his seat, staring at the paper on his desk and the magenta marks scrawled across it. He did not look up or meet his teacher's eyes.
He did, however, wince as he was informed that his grades were slipping, even though they knew that he was capable of far better than this, and that he needed to have this note signed by a parent or guardian and bring it back.
He accepted the envelope without a word and stuck it and the graded assignment in his schoolbag. With a mumbled goodbye to his teacher, he left the classroom, tugging his blue cap into its usual place on his head as he left. His steps were slow, dragging until he got outside, when they picked up to something closer to their normal pace.
It didn't take him long to walk to his after school destination. He did not go directly home following most days in the classroom; he was, after all, an apprentice. It was something that a surprising number of his classmates were envious of. After all, how many students their age got to study under the guidance of someone as famous as Professor Hershel Layton?
Normally, he loved going there after school and learning about all the different things the Professor knew. Archaeology, history, puzzles…all those things that were so much more interesting than the stale mathematics and science lessons they received in school. Being able to pick up and touch an artifact from an ancient society was far more intriguing than reading about it in a dusty old textbook.
But today, he really did not want to go. He had been trying desperately for the last few weeks to pretend that everything was just fine, and the strain was starting to get to him. Now, with that magenta-stained assignment under his belt, marking him as a failure, and that letter burning a hole in his bag…
He just wanted to run away and hide.
But duty was duty, and he was nothing if not dutiful. So up the stairs he went to the brownstone, and in he went through the front door to meet his fate, whatever that was going to be.
He decided against his usual call to his mentor to alert said mentor to his presence. Instead, he kicked off his shoes a bit more haphazardly than he usally did, and walked into the office. He dropped the bag and his hat down next to the couch and flopped down onto the piece of furniture. He put his arms on the arm of the sofa, and pressed his face against his arms, wanting to just disappear for a while in the hopes that everything would go away.
"Ah, Luke. I thought I heard you come in." That was Professor Layton, as congenial as always. "You didn't call like you usually do. How was your day?"
There was a click accompanied by the soft sound of rattling metal. Luke knew from experience that it was a tray, bearing tea (in the winter, he would sometimes bring cocoa instead) and probably some sort of biscuit or other snack. Layton was a respected professional, but he knew a thing or two about making lessons fun and making history seem less an interest and more a vocation.
Luke tried to make himself sit up and greet his mentor and put that happy smile on his face. But after keeping that façade up for as long as he had, Luke was a bit surprised to realize that he couldn't do it anymore. He just didn't have the energy. So he just sat there, slumped over the arm of the sofa with his face hidden, waiting for the axe to fall.
"Luke?" Layton's voice again, more concerned this time. Footsteps coming quickly towards him, a warm hand touching his back. "Luke, my boy, what's wrong?"
Luke took a breath, and was surprised to feel it shake. Oh no, he was not going to cry. Not here, not now, not ever. He hadn't held it together for the past few weeks to break down and lose it now. Especially not in front of Professor Layton.
The hand on his shoulder gave him a gentle shake. "Luke, are you sick?"
Sensing and hearing his mentor's growing alarm, he shook his head.
"Then what's wrong?"
…well, he couldn't avoid it forever. And this really wasn't the Professor's problem, so it wasn't fair to make him worry like this. Taking a deep breath to swallow everything that was trying to well up, as well as to just steady himself, he sat up. Now he was sitting on the couch, shoulders slumped, hands clenched in his lap. This was probably not putting any of the Professor's fears to rest, but he was at lest making an effort, and he was sure that counted for something. Still wanting to avoid making eye contact, he studied the Professor's shoes.
At least, he did until Layton knelt down in front of him, beside the couch. Warm, strong hands found their way to his shoulders. "Luke, what's wrong?" Layton asked, his tone gentle and worried, like a father's. "You can tell me. Please. What's wrong?"
And for a moment, all Luke wanted to do was just abandon himself to the comfort that voice promised and blurt out everything. Finally, he sighed and reached for his schoolbag. He opened the flap and pulled out the envelope and handed it to his mentor. "I have to give this to my parents…" he said softly, relieved that his voice didn't shake at all.
Layton looked at the envelope. "What's inside?"
"A letter. They have to sign it," Luke said.
"What does the letter say? Do you know?" Layton asked, his tone still gentle, encouraging.
There was really no point in hiding it anymore. If he said he did not want to discuss it, the Professor would respect his wishes, without a doubt, but the knowledge that Layton knew something was wrong and was wondering about it and watching him for any signs would be far too much weight on thin, young shoulders that were already straining from the effort of walking upright.
Luke's heart was heavy, but there was nothing to be done. Particularly if this wound up affecting the Professor somehow. And so again his hand disappeared into his bag, this time withdrawing that awful assignment. He hesitated, then handed it over to the Professor and sat back and waited for the axe to fall, and the scolding to begin in earnest.
There was a rustle, and then…
"Luke…" Layton said. He sounded surprised. Had this situation been any different, any less awful, Luke probably would have taken some small amount of pleasure in the fact that he had actually been able to surprise his respected teacher. But now it just made his shoulders hunch further in shame. "Luke, what is this?" The question wasn't harsh, and his tone was still kind, but both were definitely confused. "You've always had wonderful grades. What happened?"
The tremors were starting again. "I haven't been s-studying much lately…" he admitted, ashamed to hear his voice shake that badly despite his best efforts to keep himself under control. There was no way Layton could have missed it. "I t-tried, but I c-couldn't. B-been hiding under my pillow…"
There was a soft rustle as the paper dropped to the ground at their feet, and the hands were back on his shoulders, giving him a very gentle shake. "Luke…? What's happening? What is it?"
He tried to answer, really he did, but the words were having difficulty coming out.
"Luke," Layton said firmly. "What is happening?
Finally, he took a shaky breath and spoke. "M-Mother and Father have been y-yelling a lot…" Luke barely got the last word out before the dam broke beneath the weight of the past few weeks and the stress of trying to pretend that nothing was wrong and the worries of that damnable letter and the horrible failed assignment, and the simple statement of fact faded into a sob.
He pressed one arm to his eyes in a vain attempt to hide the fact that his eyes were wet. It was shameful, really. He was too old to be crying like this, and in front of someone as esteemed and respected as Professor Layton? Surely gentlemen did not behave like this. He tried to steel himself as best he could for the rebuke that he was sure was coming…
Instead, one of the hands on his shoulder moved to the back of his head…and then he was being pulled forward and there were arms fast around him and he was engulfed in warmth and comfort and the familiar scent of tea and mint and soap…
"It's all right," Layton said in that same warm tone. "Just let it out."
That was all the encouragement Luke needed now, and he clung to his mentor's jacket tightly enough to leave permanent impressions of his fingers in the fabric, and he did as he was told. In the back of his mind he was sure that a rebuke was still coming, that he was going to get in trouble for ungentlemanly behavior and for his grades…
But for the moment, Luke really didn't care. He just wanted to get lost in the warmth and the comfort of his mentor's embrace and not have to think about whether it was proper or not. It was the safest he had felt in quite some time, and he was desperate to just stay there, like that.
Sadly, it could not last forever, and slowly he had to let go of the Professor and let go of that warm feeling and sit back, trying futilely to wipe at his eyes with his sleeve. His head hurt and his face felt hot and his eyes were burning and he just felt incredibly foolish.
"Here." A handkerchief appeared seemingly from nowhere, and Luke was thankful for it. It gave him a bit more of a reprieve, a little longer time during which he could hide his face from the world and pretend that there was nothing wrong. He took his time wiping his eyes and trying to make himself as presentable as possible, given the circumstances. But again, he had to return it to the Professor eventually and face the music.
"Are you all right?" Layton asked in that same kind voice.
Luke nodded mutely, still waiting for the rebuke to start. He almost wished that the Professor would just start yelling. At least he knew how to handle that. He knew how to block out the shouting.
Again, he was startled when Layton reached out and put a hand on his shoulder. "Let's go for a walk, shall we?" It was really a statement, thinly disguised as a request. But Luke nodded again and picked up his hat; it only took a moment to stick his feet into his shoes, and they were off, meandering down the sidewalk at a slow, leisurely pace.
They walked all the way around the block once without either of them saying a word. That was perfectly fine with Luke, to be honest. He was still shaky, and still trying to calm down. But as they passed by the brownstone and began lap two, Layton finally broke the silence. "You said your parents have been yelling a lot? Fighting?"
"What are they fighting about?"
Luke sighed. "Anything and everything, I guess," he said, keeping his eyes down. "I try not to listen too much." There were far too many evenings spent with his head crushed between his mattress and his pillow, reciting everything from multiplication tables to poetry in his head to try and block it out, and only being marginally successful.
"And this is why you're having difficulties in school?" the Professor asked. "You can't study while you're there because of the fighting?" It was bordering on the infuriating, how Layton had that calm demeanor about him and that kindness and the gentle voice that just made a person want to tell him everything, up to and including their deepest, darkest secrets.
Right now, that aura (for lack of a better word) was dragging everything out of his apprentice.
"I tried, Professor. I really did," Luke said miserably. "But having to listen to them…"
"So this is what's been bothering you?" Layton asked. "You haven't been yourself for quite some time now." At Luke's startled look, the Professor went on, "I noticed that something was wrong, but it didn't seem that you wanted to talk about it, so I didn't know if I should ask."
So Layton had noticed? It was a surprise to Luke. But there was one other thing bothering him, and he decided to take the risk. By now, he was sure that Layton wouldn't laugh at him or belittle him for his concerns. He bit his lip. "And the worst part…"
"The worst part?"
It was a fear that he had been harboring for a while, and finally decided to just let it out in a very small voice. "What if…what if they won't let me come here anymore?" The idea terrified him. He adored the Professor, and he loved coming to the office after his normal schoolday and learning from the man and their lessons and the adventures they went on.
Layton was quiet for a moment at that. By this time, they had come back to Layton's office for the second time, and Layton stopped at the walkway that led up to his front door. "Let's go back inside," he said with a gesture towards the building. Luke nodded and followed obediently.
As Luke was taking off his shoes once again, Layton picked up the fallen papers from the floor and studied them for a moment. Then he asked, "Do you have schoolwork to do tonight?"
"Get it out. Let's take a look at it. I'll warm the tea," he said, regathering the tray.
Luke was startled. "But don't we have things to do?"
"Nothing that can't wait another day or so," the Professor said with a casual wave of the hand. "It's a simple question of priorities, my boy. That's all." And he began walking back towards the kitchen with the tray in his hands.
Despite the fact that his head was still both spinning and aching, Luke obediently gathered his schoolthings and opened them across the desk where they usually worked and had their lessons (and the occasional puzzle night). By the time he had things out and organized, fresh tea had appeared, and in a relatively short time they were sitting across the desk from each other, nursing cups of tea and diving into the wonderful world of mathematics.
Now that it was in the open, Luke was completely honest about just how far behind he was. And judging by the look on the Professor's face when he saw all of it, the problem was worse than Layton had initially thought. There were a good many unfinished assignments to be made up, as well as the current ones. But they buckled down and worked hard. By the time they were ready to call it a night, the sun was sinking dangerously low in the sky, and a good number of the backlogged assignments in Luke's folder were completed, along with the homework that was to be turned in the following day.
"Thank you for everything, Professor," Luke said as he gathered his things and prepared to head home. He was already trying to mentally steel himself for what would happen once he got home. He already knew that it wasn't going to be pretty. But at least everything was done for tomorrow, as well as some of the missing things, so there was that to be grateful for. He could face his teachers at school for another day, and that was no small thing.
"It's no trouble," Layton said. His expression grew serious for a moment. "Luke, I want you to make me a promise." He put a hand on Luke's shoulder, the weight warm and comforting. "If something is bothering you, I want you to promise that you'll tell me. Because I will help you however I can."
For some reason, Luke suddenly felt very ashamed of himself. "I promise."
Now the smile was back on Layton's face. "Good. Now I think you'd best be getting home. And Luke?" He gave the boy's shoulder a squeeze. "If you have more schoolwork, bring it with you tomorrow. Our regular lessons can wait a while longer."
Luke hesitated, then lunged forward and threw his arms around the Professor's waist. It was a spur of the moment gesture, completely impulsive and probably very silly, but he couldn't really think of any good verbal way to convey anything he was thinking or feeling right then.
Hands came to rest lightly on his back, and he heard a low chuckle. "You're welcome." A softer voice as one of the hands patted his back. "It's all right, Luke. We are going to get you through this. Everything is going to be just fine."
And really, no matter what was to come when he got home that night and presented the letter to his parents and weathered the storm that would undoubtedly accompany it, he felt better. After all, Professor Layton did not break his word. He said it was going to be all right.
And that was all the reassurance that Luke needed then.