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Tea is for Teacher

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Byleth hated tea.

It was quite unfortunate that she'd find herself surrounded by those her father called "noble brats" with an affinity for teas that cost at least a thousand (a thousand!) gold pieces. Whoever said you couldn't put a price tag on friendship had clearly never seen her marketplace receipts at the tea stand.

It would be much cheaper to build the camaraderie she needed for her army by upgrading her silver sword and to threaten them all to get along, or else - with more than enough money leftover to hire battalions, too. But her class of "delicate flowers," to borrow Hilda's words, were too fragile and pampered for the mercenary way. No matter what Leonie thought she was ready for.

It was perhaps lucky that Byleth wore a poker face so naturally that none of her students knew of her distaste.

Or what she had to do to balance the Golden Deer checkbook to fund their flavored water addiction.

Having a natural poker face was also very conducive for, well, poker.

There was something comforting about the underground, with its dim lighting and the smoky haze from cigars clouding the room. And no one drank tea here.

Jeralt had been the one to introduce her to the underground gambling scene once during a job, though it was another mercenary in the crew that taught her the subtleties of cards. Byleth had taken to card counting like fish to water. Her father didn't particularly approve of her skills - said it wasn't honest work, not like killing people for money, she supposed - but he'd turn a blind eye when she came back home with a pocketful of gold whenever the break between jobs started to stretch and belt buckles started to tighten.

"Hey, pretty mama." A man with a gap toothed grin leered at her. "Looks like this table's heating up."

That was the other reason that Jeralt never liked her coming down here. Not that he thought she'd be taken advantage of - but that she might accidentally cause a little too much trouble with her sword in retaliation.

Byleth unstrapped the dagger she kept on her and threw it on the table as her ante. She could've picked another table, but this man looked like he wanted to be parted with his money.

"Ooh, feisty," the pervert crooned. "I like a mama that's feisty."

Byleth didn't deign to dignify that with a response.

"Piss off, Ernie," a gruff voice said, coming up beside Byleth and armed with a dirty dish towel. "You, miss - beer's five pieces and shots of spirits are ten."

Now those prices were perfectly reasonable.

Byleth dropped five coins into his outstretched hand. That was rule number two, the mercenary had taught her - no spirits at the card table. They make you forget the cards too quickly, and after that, they make you forget you're losing.

A man with a hat grunted and folded. The other, the one with the coat, fiddled with the cocktail straw in his glass a moment too long.

"Ehh, pish off yourshelf," the gap-toothed man slurred. "She don't mind, do ya, mama?"

He didn't have any good cards, she guessed. Byleth had met men who played the misogynist to try and goad her into betting more than she should, but this one didn't seem to be of the type. He seemed too far into his drink to be able to play mind games.

This round was hers.

"I find a lot of pleasure from eating sweets," Lysithea said over a cup of her sweet apple blend.

I know , Byleth thought. She always had to prepare a full jar of sugar whenever having tea with the young mage, and that ran the tea bill quite a bit higher by approximately the cost of an iron axe. She sipped her own tea - black, but still too sweet because the brew itself was too sweet - and tried not to grimace.

Lysithea suddenly looked annoyed, for some reason.

"Thanks for having me. Feel free to invite me again anytime," Lysithea said promptly, dismissing herself. Byleth watched her go, bewildered. She had thought the tea time had been going fine.

Did she do something wrong? Was Byleth supposed to have laughed or nodded to Lysithea's comments about having a sweet tooth? Was she not supposed to sip her tea?

No sooner had Byleth thought about reaching for Sothis' powers to rewind time and bring Lysithea back to the tea for a second attempt at building camaraderie did Sothis' voice chide her.

"You dare use my powers to make up for your social shortcomings?" Sothis asked, affronted. "How would you ever learn if I let you do that? She clearly was hoping for some form of positive encouragement while you just sat there and sipped your tea."

A bit of advice given too late, Byleth thought, now annoyed herself. She didn't notice Sothis chiming in to share her wisdom until Byleth had already done something wrong… with something as simple as drinking overly sweet tea that cost her more than it should. (The merchants were practically robbers for refusing to give her a discount for purchasing tea in bulk!)

Reading people in the underground was easy. Reading these students of hers though….

Byleth wasn't sure she'd ever understand them.

"Though you do work tirelessly to earn their trust," Sothis allowed, thinking over it slowly. "Perhaps if that seedy gentleman who calls you mama were ever to get lucky and take these children's tea money, that would be an appropriate occasion to turn the hands of time."

Byleth rolled her eyes. It wasn't likely she'd need to turn back time at the poker table. She knew how to account for a loss there.

"Or perhaps you can just fix the situation with your sword," Sothis mused. "That might be for the best."

I think I'm rubbing off on you, Byleth thought in response, snorting.

And that sentiment efficiently offended Sothis back into silence.

No one was better at haggling than Ashe, but even Ashe couldn't turn the allowance of three thousand gold pieces to cover this month's weapon upkeep and seals for her students to certify into a new class. And Byleth had no idea what Raphael did to leave his gauntlets in such poor shape, but they were so pitifully worn that neither her nor Ashe had the heart to haggle with the blacksmith's steep price for repair.

Let alone all the tea she needed to buy to keep their spirits up after Miklan's… transformation thing. Shit, how much tea did she have to buy until Sylvain would stop pretending that everything was fine?

( Shit , Byleth realized. How much tea would she have to force herself to drink ?)

"Going back to the underground?" Sothis asked, picking up on Byleth's stress.

Byleth looked at her calendar and shook her head. She'd have to, but this month's schedule was already running tight. She'd have to find a few evenings to sneak out between lesson plan preparation.

"You could always take the class to rout the bandits in the area. Their pockets are always heavy," Sothis suggested.

"Not so soon after that mission, I can't," Byleth said softly.

Sothis hummed, picking apart Byleth’s feelings. "You fear that forcing their hand to take more lives now will jade them to price of death," she observed.

Byleth nodded to herself. It should always hurt a little when one took a life, she thought.

They should at least resent death more than she resented tea.

She stood and pulled on her cloak. She'd just get a head start on the month by chancing her luck at cards tonight.

"What's your deal?"

Byleth looked to the speaker sitting beside her. The oversized man beside her made the poker cards look small in his hands.

She often didn't bother with a cover story. It was easier to avoid getting caught lying if one didn't talk at all. As a mercenary, she was constantly traveling anyways, and so forming connections in any one city's underground was unnecessary.

But now that she was stationed at Garreg Mach for the foreseeable future, it might be better to provide something . The air of mystery that came from an absence of backstory could garner more attention than she wanted.

"Tell him you're a bandit," Sothis suggested. "Oh, I know! You can be a mercenary. You wouldn't even be lying!"

Byleth ignored Sothis. "Fell in a bit of a rough patch recently," she said simply to the man beside her.

"Rough patch!" Sothis exclaimed, laughing. "Is that what you call being a professor at an esteemed institution? Yes, for you who are so accustomed to the independent ways of the mercenary, I daresay it is!"

The oversized man didn't share in Sothis' amusement and merely grunted. Most everyone in the underground was there for a similar sentiment. "At least you're not one of those fools in here hoping to scrape some money without knowing how to play the game."

For a man as big as he was, Byleth was surprised to find that he was a conservative better. There was always something odd about the underground in that the better company Byleth found someone was, the less she cared to sit beside them. They were less willing to part with their money, and Byleth was less willing to take it from them.

The hours passed, and at last the man beside her groaned and gathered his remaining coins. “Lady Luck isn’t smiling upon me tonight in this dark corner of the world,” he grumbled. “Good on you though, wager there’s a full bullion in there.” He nodded at the small fortune that piled in front of Byleth.

Following his lead, Sothis began to stir in Byleth’s mind. “It’s late,” she yawned. “Don’t we have classes in the morning?”

A full bullion , Byleth thought. A decent amount of coin for any normal commoner, but it wasn’t even enough for that rose petal blend that Lorenz and Hilda loved so much.

With a sigh, Byleth began to stack her coins as well. Maybe she could talk to Rhea about making this next month’s mission a journey to the town outside the monastery, where her students would have to learn how to balance a checkbook on a commoner’s paycheck.

Almyran pine needles were Claude's favorite. Byleth had a guess as to why, but she was not dumb enough to bring it up.

Of all the teas she's had to sample, this bitter herb blend ranked among her favorites. She still didn't enjoy it, though, and forced herself to take a polite sip.

"I'm glad you invited me here, Teach," Claude said, leaning in with his elbows on the table. Something about the way he took up space made every conversation with him feel oddly intimate. "I have to confess, I snuck a peek at the ledger while you were out to lunch."

Byleth recoiled. She kept the book of class housekeeping in her rooms, which meant the bastard -

"It was all I looked at, I swear! I wanted to see if we had any leftover budget to throw a surprise feast." He flashed her a winning smile. "You know, get people's spirits up, thank you for being such a good professor…"

Byleth's eyes narrowed. If this boy thought he could charm his way out of sneaking around behind her back…

Claude readjusted his stance. Byleth could practically see him shifting the gears in his head. "He has promise as a tactician," Sothis commented vaguely, noticing the same thing. "He could learn a lot from you."

He plowed onward. "Anyways, I noticed that some things in the book didn't add up." Ah , Byleth thought. He's moving onto the attack now. "But oddly enough, money wasn't being funnelled away. It was being funnelled in. "

"How odd indeed," Byleth agreed mildly. "I'll have to double check my numbers."

But Claude wasn't done with the conversation. He swung his chair to the other side of the table to sit beside Byleth, his knees knocking against hers. "I've also noticed you disappearing at odd hours of the night," he said in a low voice before brightening and saying, "Come on, Teach. You know you can trust me."

Sothis giggled. For someone who claimed to have Byleth's best interests at heart, Sothis sure did enjoy chaos, Byleth thought bitterly. "Well, well," she said, delighted. "It seems like one of your students has done their homework."

Come to think, if there was one of her students who would do well in the underground, it would be Claude. He was already a fairly calculating and perceptive person, if the mock battle was anything to go by - though she'd have to wrangle out his propensity for cheating. Really, Byleth was concerned that he'd do too well.

Was this how her father felt about her when she'd taken to the tables?

Byleth speculated. She had just been complaining that she hadn't the time this month to make as many trips underground for supplemental income. It might even be good for him, given how averse Claude was to leaving things up to chance. Maybe he'd learn to be a little more flexible with losses. Maybe...

"Claude," she said, "what do you think I'm thinking right now?"

Claude furrowed his brow, green eyes scanning hers. "This is a test, isn't it?" 

Byleth rewarded him with a smile. "So it is," she acknowledged. "Congratulations, Claude. You've signed yourself up for some private tutoring."

She started off easy as they walked through the courtyard together.

"While staying by my side,” Byleth instructed as they slowed to a stop, “point out to me someone who is lying right now.”

Claude looked to her in surprise. Whatever he’d been expecting for private tutoring, this wasn’t it. But he quickly schooled his face back into an effortless smile and rolled his neck, saying, “Just one, Teach? You didn’t take me seriously when I told you to take it easy on me all those months back, did you?”

He winked at her. She ignored it.

“Do it subtly,” she reprimanded, even though she doubted that she needed to tell him that.

To his credit, Claude didn’t respond to her nag. His eyes scanned over his classmates in the courtyard, flitting between groups speculatively all while maintaining a blasé posture, hands folded together behind his head and leaning against a stone pillar.

“Well, there’s one,” Claude says, “if he counts.”

Claude made no motion to point at anyone - thankfully - but also gave no indication of who he was talking about. “Who?”

“Here’s a hint,” Claude said, grinning. “He goes around the battlefield saying I am Ferdinand von Aegir .”

It was such a good impression of the redheaded noble from the Empire that Byleth let a bit of a laugh slip before she remembered that she was a professor and probably shouldn’t encourage her students mimicking other students. It was too late, though, and Claude’s grin widened, turning to look at her.

“Huh,” he mused. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you laugh before. It’s pleasant.” He leaned back into his hands. “You should laugh at my jokes more, Teach.”

She fought not to roll her eyes. “I’ll keep that in mind when next I hear one,” Byleth said dryly. “Now, how is he lying?”

“You see how he keeps looking at Petra as she’s training?” Claude said. “He claims that it’s to observe foreign fighting techniques, which might’ve been true at some point, but now he’s just lying to himself.” 

That… was not at all what Byleth was expecting. Still, she’d let him ride out this train of thought. “How can you tell?”

Claude shrugged, trying to put intuition to words. “There’s a difference between a critical eye and a look of admiration,” he said. “Around Petra, he wears the latter.”

Byleth fixed her gaze on Ferdinand. Yes, he was watching Petra’s technique most astutely… but his eyes didn’t cling to the form of how she held her blade, or the steps of her footwork. Rather, his gaze flitted between it all, as if appreciating the overall effect of her fighting style instead of learning any specific component.

Byleth wondered how long Claude had noticed this for. It was impressive that he’d identified a lie in someone who didn’t know they were lying.

“All right,” Byleth said. “Come around my room next week. I trust you know where it is, since you’ve apparently welcomed yourself in before.”

He looked chagrined at that, scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “I’ll revisit on invite only, I promise,” he said.

She doubted that, but said anyways, “See to it.” The Golden Deer house leader subscribed to the philosophy that closed doors were there to keep everyone else out, but he was smart enough to keep a reputation that didn’t involve sneaking into women’s bedrooms.

“And Claude?” she called before turning away. “Don’t bring tea.”

He arrived a few minutes early and mercifully empty-handed. “No tea,” he said, holding his hands up.

Byleth welcomed him in. She’d pulled her desk from its spot against the wall so that they could sit on either side of it. It left very little space to otherwise maneuver around, so she had to slide on top of the desk and swing her legs around to get the other side.

“Whoah, Teach,” Claude said, noticing the bottle of scotch that she’d put out on the desk. “Is that for tonight?”

She’d purchased the bottle shortly before being made a professor from her spare change working as a mercenary. It was a nice bottle, aged and pleasantly peaty - costing nearly as much as just one pot’s worth of tea leaves - that she’d kept hidden from her father, solely out of fear that Jeralt would drink it all if he found it.

She used to pour a glass from it after a particularly tiresome battle. She rarely partook from it nowadays.

“Inviting me to your room at night for extra credit, getting me liquored up…” Claude winked. “You didn’t have to go through this whole pretense if you just wanted to have your wicked way with me.”

Well, there goes that . Byleth immediately poured herself a glass and wondered how in the world Claude could send her running to her whiskey in two sentences when otherwise it would have taken several armies of organized bandits.

“It’ll be the last invite you’ll see if you keep this up,” Byleth warned.

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.” He took a seat across from her, elbows on the table and leaning in like in one of their tea times. “I appreciate you having me here.”

That was the thing about Claude, Byleth had since realized. At times he seemed to take little seriously, but then there were these occasions when they were alone that he showed a bit of sincerity.

She hoped she wouldn’t be killing that sense of sincerity that sometimes slipped forward.

“There’s a game that the mercenaries used to play,” Byleth said, refilling her own glass and then pouring Claude his first, “that I thought we could try.”

Sothis stirred somewhere within her. “I will try my best not to question your tactics tonight,” the green-haired girl said in a tone of voice that guaranteed she would be chiming in with unwanted input throughout the evening, “but did you see the way the boy’s eyes lit up when you said the word game ? I fear that you do not realize what you have bargained for.”

“The rules are simple,” Byleth plowed on, ignoring Sothis. “We alternate sharing something about ourselves, and the other guesses if it’s a truth or a lie, taking a sip from their drink if they’re wrong.”

“That’s it?” Claude asked, when Byleth said no more.

“That’s it,” she confirmed.

He grinned. “Sounds like it’ll be a short evening for you.”

“That’s a lie,” Byleth returned, and Claude laughed and threw his hands up in mock surrender. “I’ll start. The first time I threw a weapon, I was a toddler. A mercenary had thrown a dagger that hit my stuffed bear, and I was so angry, I picked it up and threw it back at him.”

Claude whistled. “Did you hit him?”

“I was a toddler,” Byleth said. “Of course not. He just laughed.”

He hummed to himself, thinking over the story and tracing his finger of the rim of his glass. “I desperately want this story to be true,” he said, “which makes me think it’s not.” He threw his hands up in the air and shook his head. “But you’ve gotta fight for what you believe in, right? I say the story’s true.”

Byleth raised an eyebrow but remained otherwise motionless.

Claude shifted in his seat uneasily. “It was a lie, wasn’t it? Was I wrong?” His hand was already bringing his glass to his face, ready to take his sip. “C’mon, Teach. Don’t leave me hanging here.”

Sothis laughed in her mind. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you,” she said.

And you’re enjoying my amusement , Byleth pointed out before finally giving in. “You were right,” Byleth acknowledged. “It’s your turn.”

“I knew it,” Claude said, even though he evidently knew nothing given his nervous monologue moments ago.

A sigh that wasn’t her own echoed in her mind. “He’ll need to learn to school himself better in moments of anticipation,” Sothis observed, disappointed. “I had thought he would know better.”

He’s comfortable with me, Byleth reminded Sothis. He’ll realize his mistake soon enough.

“I’ll share a childhood story then as well,” Claude said. “I took my first steps not walking towards anything, but running away from something. I’d been caught smashing a clay pot in the garden and tried to escape from the scene of the crime.”

His grin was lifted higher on one side than the other as he leaned back, one arm slung around the back of the chair and the other resting on the table. It was his complete ease that told Byleth he was lying.

“Partial truth,” she said.

Claude tilted his head in acknowledgement. “So it is,” he agreed, impressed. “I was running away from having to take a bath. How’d you know?”

“Your shoulders tighten when you’re being honest,” she told him. He looked a little abashed at that, so she decided to continue. “It’s endearing.”

A flush colored his cheeks. Byleth supposed he wasn’t used to being called endearing. “See right through me, don’t you?” he said.

“It’s my turn.” Byleth surprised herself with how much she was looking forward to having Claude try and pick apart her lies. “I think Hilda is the laziest student at the monastery.”

Claude snorted. “Well, that’s just fact.”

“Drink,” Byleth said, leaning forward. “I think Linhardt is the laziest student at the monastery. Hilda puts effort in to be lazy.”

Claude cursed a little under his breath as he took a sip from his drink and hummed in appreciation.

“Drink,” Byleth said, relaxing back. “That last line was the real lie. Linhardt applies himself in his interests, but Hilda avoids responsibility altogether.”

“Wha - “ Claude sat up in his seat, affronted. “You can’t do that! Do you mean I just took a sip for being correct?”

“You drank pre-emptively is all,” Byleth said, smiling. She pretended not to notice how Claude always smiled whenever she did as well. “Always be hunting for the lie with this game.”

He leaned in - fingers folded, elbows on the table again. “Well, now that I understand the game,” Claude said, a smirk playing on his lips as he took a sip from his whiskey, “I hope you’re ready to play.

This, Byleth thought, was much better than tea time.