Title: The Most Adorable Army The World Has Ever Known
Warnings: None this time.
Summary: Young Merlin, Gwaine, Lancelot, Elyan, Leon and Percival vie for Teacher Arthur's attention. Here be knights, superheroes, ladders, epiphanies and an exasperated teacher who is not fond of his children in the slightest, thank you very much.
A/N: Thanks for the encouraging reviews, everyone, and a belated Happy 2012 to all of you!
Please note that this chapter is not a continuation of what happened in the last chapter. These stories will be posted in no particular order; they take place in the same universe and anything you learn will still apply in other chapters, but since the order is not chronological, some events may not yet have happened in future chapters.
5. Of Ladders And Lies
Merlin was stuck in a tree.
Merlin was stuck in a tree.
"He's stuck, Mister–"
"Yes, thank you, Gwaine," Arthur snapped, running a frustrated hand through his hair. It was only when he met with decidedly more resistance than usual that he realized his fingers were still covered in the green paint of Elyan's dragon – the one he'd thought would look good on Arthur's desk, and oi Mister Pendragon, should you be rubbing at that? You broke Puffy!
"Where's Geoffrey?" Arthur lowered his hand. "Elena, see if you can find Mister Origin for me." She nodded and ran off, blond hair trailing behind her. "And tell him to bring a ladder," he advised her retreating back.
Someone touched his hand. "How did he get in there?" Will was looking up at Merlin with a mixture of jealousy and awe on his face.
Percival's blush caught Arthur's attention. He snapped his head to the side, took in the boy's downcast eyes, his sheepish expression. "Percival?"
The blush deepened. "I helped."
"Of course you did." With a sigh, Arthur turned his attention back to the tree, estimating the distance between the ground and the lowest branch. Frowning slightly, he looked back at Percival. Sure, the boy was big for his age, but even Arthur couldn't reach the lowest branch. There was no way the boy could have helped Merlin into the tree, not unless Merlin could levitate, and that thought alone was preposterous. No, they'd somehow gotten their hands on the school's caretaker's ladder. Arthur was going to have a serious conversation with Geoffrey about locking doors.
And the boys were in trouble. Oh, were they ever.
"You are never going outside again," Arthur told Merlin loudly, putting one hand on the tree's bark. "Ever. You'll be spending the rest of this year's breaks inside. Perhaps next year's as well."
Merlin peeked down at him, his face barely visible through the leaves. "But Arthur–"
"–it wasn't my fault. Honest. And it wasn't Percy's either."
"Right. Well. Of course." Arthur shook his head. "I suppose you suddenly found yourself in a tree with no idea as to what happened?"
He couldn't be certain, but Arthur was fairly sure the dark-haired head bobbed up and down in response to his rhetorical question. Percy, too, was nodding.
"It's not okay to lie, Merlin," Arthur told the tree, no longer craning his neck to look up at his pupil. Looking up made his neck ache.
"But I'm not–"
"That's enough." Arthur didn't want to hear any more silly excuses. "Just make sure you hold on tight until Mister Origin gets here. Sit still, and whatever you do, do not fall down."
"Yes, Mister Pendragon."
The voice sounded so small, so submissive, that for a moment, Arthur wondered whether the boy really was speaking the truth.
"Mister Origin is coming. He's coming!"
Arthur took in the ladder under the approaching caretaker's arm, concern making way for relief and annoyance. Of course Merlin wasn't telling the truth. Children were often convinced they were right – generally believed their own tall tales, especially when other children encouraged those tales. He'd been witness to this process plenty of times. A few children would stick up for their friend, telling them they'd done no wrong at all, and suddenly, the child who'd just confessed to kicking a ball into another child's face believed he hadn't come near the ball in the first place. Other people's influence could be tricky at this age.
For some reason, pushing the image of Uther Pendragon's disapproving face from his mind was harder than usual today.
"Yes, thank you," Arthur said, taking the ladder from Geoffrey, motioning for him to take a step back as he swung the object around, moving it into a vertical position. "Do keep the door to the shed locked from now on, will you?"
"I did," Geoffrey started, but Arthur cut him off by raising his hand.
"Yes, of course you did. If you wouldn't mind holding this thing while I climb up?" He put the ladder against the tree, making sure it was secure before tentatively putting his feet on the first rung.
He was aware of his children's eyes on him as he climbed up. Gwaine and Leon had come to stand beside Geoffrey, their small fists encircling the ladder's wooden legs. Arthur wasn't sure why their presence made him feel safer. Surely their arms weren't strong enough to support the ladder in the undesirable event something went wrong?
"You can do it, Mister Pendragon," someone who sounded suspiciously like Elyan cried out. Affirming sounds were made, and Arthur did his best to ignore them, though the corners of his mouth tugged upwards a little.
He could see Merlin more clearly now; the rungs leading him through the branches and leaves and bringing him closer to where the boy was sitting.
Merlin's arms were wide open and waiting for him. They slid around Arthur's neck like it was the most natural thing in the world. Of course the little idiot had let go of the trunk in order to do so – something Arthur specifically ordered him not to. It was a good thing Arthur was up here to help his pupil in case he decided to do more stupid things. Fortunately, Merlin was relatively safe at the moment, his arms wrapped around Arthur's neck and his legs secure around his waist. Getting down was going to be tricky, though. While Arthur appreciated the boy's trust in him, he highly doubted he'd be able to make it down the ladder with Merlin in his arms.
Unless . . .
"Get on my shoulders." He helped a flailing Merlin onto his shoulders, positioning him so his legs dangled on either side of Arthur's neck, and put the boy's hands on his head, pressing down hard for a moment. "Whatever happens, do not let go. Do you understand me?"
He felt rather than saw Merlin nod.
"All right." Arthur took a deep breath. "Okay. Here we go."
Merlin's fingers moved unexpectedly, almost causing Arthur to lose his balance. "Merlin."
Merlin froze. "Sorry." He was silent for a moment. "There's something in your hair."
"Oh. That." Arthur moved down a rung, his hands gripping the ladder even tighter. "It's not permanent, Merlin."
Arthur sighed. "It's not meant to be green. Now stop talking."
Mercifully, Merlin did just that.
When Arthur's feet hit the ground, he swayed a little, the adrenaline leaving his body at full speed. Doom scenarios of Merlin falling down or, worse, Merlin falling down because of something Arthur did had been playing through his mind the entire way down, and now that they were both on the ground again, anger was quick to replace his concern again.
This day was one heck of an emotional rollercoaster.
"If I ever," he said slowly, making sure to look every single child in the eye before continuing, "see one of you in this tree again, there will be severe consequences."
It was silent for a moment.
"Am I clear?"
"Yes, Mister Pendragon."
"Good." Arthur nodded at Geoffrey. "Thank you for the ladder. Would you mind putting it back where it belongs?" Without waiting for a response, he turned his attention on his children again. "Inside, all of you. You should have been in your seats five minutes ago."
No one spoke as they made their way back into the building, his grim expression warning them not to open their mouths.
"Mister Pendragon's a hero."
"He saved Merlin."
"Saved his life, he did."
"He climbed all the way up."
"And then boom."
"And then he saved him."
"And Totally Spies."
"I really don't know how I got in the tree. But I'll never do it again."
Arthur sighed, glanced at the clock and put down his pencil. "Merlin, where is your mother?"
Merlin blinked. "Outside?"
"Shouldn't you be going outside then?"
"But . . ." Merlin bit his lip. "I know you don't believe me. But it's true. I didn't climb up. I didn't. And I want you to . . . I want you to believe me."
"I want you to trust me."
Arthur stared at the boy, mouth opening and closing a couple of times before deciding on a compromise, hanging half-open as he stared at his pupil. "I do trust you," he eventually managed.
"No. You don't." Merlin shrugged. "I get it. I'm just a child."
Arthur shook his head. "You are not just a child, Merlin. You are a child, yes, but no one is just a child. And I do trust you. It's just that sometimes . . . people lie. Be that purposely or without meaning to."
Merlin's eyebrows scrunched together. "I don't understand."
"No, you probably don't." Arthur sighed. "I believe that you believe you did nothing wrong, Merlin. And that's enough for now. But I never want you to endanger yourself like that again. Am I clear?"
"Yes." Merlin was still frowning. "Do you lie, Mister Pendragon?"
Taken aback, Arthur leaned backwards in his seat. "Right now, you mean?"
"No." Merlin's stared at him, blue eyes wide and unblinking. "Just . . . sometimes."
"Huh." Arthur had half a mind to throw Merlin out of his classroom, the way he usually dealt with Morgana when she started prying into matters that didn't concern her. "Yeah, I guess I . . ." He stopped talking abruptly, mentally kicking himself. He was Merlin's teacher; how could the boy even think of trusting him if Arthur told him he lied occasionally?
Except, if he told Merlin he never lied, then that would be a lie as well, wouldn't it?
"Everyone lies at times," he said slowly, "to protect themselves. Or others." He thought of Morgause's words. Of Tristan's. Of the lies of all those people who tried to keep other people safe, offering sanctuary, getting the soldiers off their back. "It's generally frowned upon."
"Yes," Merlin said. "Yes, you frown a lot."
Arthur laughed at that. "I've had a lot of practice. Listen, Merlin." He closed the file on his desk, covering the letter he'd been writing to Vivian's father. "I think your mom's getting impatient outside. Why don't you go tell her all about your adventures today?"
Merlin wrinkled his nose. "I shouldn't. She'll worry."
"Rightly so." Arthur shook his head, remembered the feeling of panic spreading through his chest. "And you definitely should. What did I just tell you about lying, Merlin?"
"I won't lie to her. Just . . . not tell her everything," Merlin said slowly.
Arthur fought back a smile. The boy was smart. Too smart for his own good. "Some people consider withholding information a lie as well."
Merlin took a step back. "I should go."
"Yes. Yes, you should." Arthur gestured at the clock. "Your mother's waiting for you."
Merlin took another step backwards. "I'll see you tomorrow." He raised his hand, waving it around a little.
Arthur stared at it, then raised his own. "Yes, you will." He nodded in the direction of the door. "Now run along."
Merlin was about to walk out of the classroom when something made him stop and turn around. "Mister Pendragon?"
"Yes, Merlin?" He didn't sound exasperated. Did he?
"Thank you for saving me."
"Yes. Well." Arthur found it hard to look at Merlin suddenly, diverted his gaze instead. "You're welcome." If Merlin were an adult, he'd tell him he owed him one – that it was Merlin's turn to save Arthur's life now. But he wasn't sure Merlin would get the joke, and the thought of Merlin taking him seriously scared him more than he cared to admit, even to himself.
He didn't look up until after Merlin had left the room. And when he did, he could still feel the boy's eyes on him, silently studying him, taking him in.
Shaking his head, Arthur re-opened his file and stared at the words he'd written. They felt alien to him now. Untrue.
Keeping his words to Merlin in mind, he crumbled the letter into a little ball and reached for a new sheet.
Perhaps Vivian's parents deserved to know their child was not a narcissist, not yet, but that she was well on her way to becoming one if they did not stop spoiling her the way they did. He hadn't meant to lie to them, merely hadn't considered the issue big enough to mention it before, but all big problems started out small, and if honesty could lead to fewer problems in the future, who was he to judge which issues should be raised and which shouldn't?
Teaching was a funny experience, Arthur thought as he rephrased himself, the tip of his pen briskly moving over the sheet in front of him. He'd always thought he was here to teach the children all he knew, but perhaps there were things he could teach himself as well.
Things his children could teach him.
That thought ought to be frightening, would have been exactly that at some point in his life, but at the moment, right here and now, Arthur was pleased to discover he could feel reassurance washing over him in waves, calming him, soothing his restless mind.