I. Mild Stomach Poison
Claude von Riegan is many things, but he isn’t stupid.
The label on the vial Teach finds in the bushes is freshly pressed on, but the corners have been artfully peeled away so as to look as though it's faded.
Perched out of sight, Claude watches her inspect her prize. It’s not really a poison; if she had a chemist’s nose, she’d recognize the scent of stale water mixed with ground-up growths from the garden. It may not be his most creative endeavor, but it’s worth it, really worth it, to watch her indecision melt into surety and – trust?
“Teach!” He feigns shock when she presses the vial into his hands, not but a few hours later. “I’ve been looking everywhere for this; thanks for finding it.”
She raises an eyebrow, but most importantly, she smiles (and Claude doesn’t realize it, but his answering expression is the most open and honest she’s seen him since they met, even as he thinks his tongue is soaked with lies).
II. Fatiguing Infusion
Hilda talks him into the next one – or, at least, that’s what Claude tells himself. He slips the fatiguing infusion into his cup of tea while Teach has her back to the classroom. He knows that if he’s balanced his recipe right, he should be lightly dozing before she finishes her latest thoughts on the detriments of siege warfare.
(And it’s not that the lecture’s boring; it’s more that her gaze has been drifting lately, landing on Leonie and Sylvain, their Blue Lion transplant. If she’s not going to look in his direction, then hey – all the more fun for him.)
The infusion tastes like grass. He nearly chokes on it, but swallows while Hilda sucks laughter between her teeth.
The room doesn’t immediately go sideways. Ten seconds in, though, Teach’s voice starts to slur. Hilda’s quiet giggles start to slam against the side of his head.
(When he wakes up, later, it’ll be to find Teach sitting over him in the infirmary. He’ll ask her how she moved so fast, because he remembers: she was in motion before he could hit the ground; her fingers carded through his hair before the world went dark.
She won’t answer him, his Teach, but her eyes will be back on him, and that’s really all that matters.)
III. Noxious Poison
The night before the Battle of The Eagle and The Lion, Claude doesn’t sleep. When he comes to the early morning rendezvous, he has mushroom fibers beneath his nails, purple bags beneath his eyes, and a grin plastered onto his face.
Teach takes a single look in his direction and holds out her hand, unimpressed. It stings, it really does, but some small, sad part of him delights in the full force of her disapproving attention.
“Ah, come on – you think they’re not going to pull a stunt of their own?”
His victorious grin slips as she sighs.
“One day, Claude,” she says, voice firm but soft, “you’ll be able to walk into battle with nothing but your friends at your side and know that you’ll come home safely.”
(It’s not true. He’ll never walk onto a battlefield without a vial of something in his pocket, but whenever his fingers brush it, he’ll have to guiltily ignore her voice ringing in his ears.)
IV. Aging Potion
Five years from now, he’ll still debate whether or not slipping his latest experiment into a Knight of Seiros’s anonymous flask was a good idea.
At the time, it goes like this: Byleth on his right, Hilda on his left, and Jeralt halfway across the dining hall. The knights raise a toast, and Jeralt takes up a flask that’s not his own with a laugh.
A sharp chuckle comes from Alois, but it turns nervous as Jeralt’s gentle rumble falls silent.
Claude had nearly missed the last time Byleth had looked anything less than composed; she’d been shaking when they brought Flayn up from the Death Knight’s tomb, and he’d had to stop himself from taking her hands in his.
Now, she stares at her father, his ginger-brown hair streaked with gray; the fine wrinkles around his eyes deepening, and – are those smile lines?
There’s an uproar, and someone calls for Manuela while Jeralt himself tries to suss out his reflection in a spoon. Claude remembers his laughter as Manuela starts to fuss, but remembers better the way Byleth’s warmth had left his side, and she’d gone to sit by her father’s knee for the rest of the evening.
(It’s the only time, he realizes, in the days-months-years that come later, that she’d be able to see her father age; it’s that, more than anything else, that keeps his regrets at bay).
V. Calming Draught
His hands don’t shake as he works into the night. It doesn’t feel like he blinks. Whenever he does, he’s struck by the sight and scent of mint; of Teach – Byleth – stepping out of the void, back from the dead to save her precious fawns.
Bile pools in the back of his throat. Claude swallows it down alongside his panic and waits for his latest concoction to rise to a simmer.
In truth, it feels like he should offer some of the calming draught to her; it’d been Byleth, after all, who’d been stuck alone in towering darkness; Byleth who’d fought her way back to them when, for weeks, she’d been a walking ghost mourning a beloved father.
But Claude’s never claimed to be a selfless man. He drinks the potion down and waits for his heartbeat to slow; wonders if enough would ever stop it and leave a hole like hers resting in his chest.
VI. Invigoration Draught
“At least the Emperor was kind enough to give us a two week warning; there wouldn’t have been time for breakfast, otherwise.”
Claude stares out of the dining hall’s open windows, a false smile pinned to his face. Next to him, Raphael tears into the last of his stack of hot cakes, while down the table, Lysithea only plays with her food.
Byleth meets his eye and tries – tries – to smile. The bags under her eyes match his; it’d be romantic if he wasn’t so damn scared.
He passes her his mug of coffee along with a vial tucked into his palm. When she touches the glass, her eyes widen, just a fraction, but she takes it – takes it, and for the first time in a fortnight, Claude feels the weight in his chest start to lighten.
VII. Dreamless Sleep Potion
He doesn’t see her go over the cliffside.
He doesn’t see anything, really; there’s blood dripping down from his forehead, into his eyes, but he’s still shooting, desperately retreating with Dimitri at his side as Garreg Mach Monastery starts to fall.
In the aftermath, though – well, it’s impossible to notice that not only is Rhea gone, but Teach (the indestructible Ashen Demon, his Teach) no longer walks among the living.
Someone – quiet, broken, probably Marianne – weeps. The remaining Golden Deer huddle close to one another alongside caravans of refugees who are quick to flee the monastery.
That night, Claude’s hands still don’t shake. But he returns to the recipe that knocked him out cold and modifies, modifies, modifies until it’s right enough to send him keeling into a darkness without dreams.
(And maybe, maybe he feels her hands in his hair again, but that might be Marianne, just like the tears on his cheeks may not be his own.)