Willow Schnee could be considered by most to be lucky, especially with the circumstances of her birth. Heh, lucky indeed.
The daughter of a world-renowned philanthropist, a powerful Hunter and a brilliant businessman, beloved by people inside and outside the state. A person who also organized the world's largest corporation controlling the world's most strategically important resource, Dust. A person who also reached out to the faunus, who were among the first in line to propose such an incredible and revolutionary idea, equal wages for faunus.
Per capita, the largest concentration of faunus in the world, lived in Menagerie, approaching a hundred percent in fact. Not that Menagerie had laws restricting human immigration to the island state, but… Well, reality doesn't always match expectations.
The faunus rightly considered their corner of the world to be the most miserable of all, but it was their corner, and they defended it with zeal. Even if the line between defense and attack blurred in the process.
In actual population terms, though… It was probably Menagerie now too, actually. But, even five or ten years ago, let alone in her father's time, that would be Mantle. Not for the reason that the Schnee would be known for later, tarred by her husband's action, but because they genuinely wanted to live there.
The reason for this was her father, Nicholas Schnee. A charming gentleman, humanist and champion of justice, he was so perfect that reading solely about the dry facts of his biography could give the impression that you were reading a fairy tale for little children. Like a bald face lies only children, who were supposed to believe in a miracle, believe. It's like listening to bedtime stories about beautiful heroes and perfect role models.
Only, they were all true.
That's probably why he died so early. The gods do indeed take the best before anyone else.
Nicholas Schnee was a beloved father to Willow, a perfect role model, appearing before her eyes always with a sparkling smile, gallant manners, a delightful mind and infinite kindness. One could have called him a holy man…
When Willow's mother died, it was so long ago that Willow couldn't even say that she remembered what she looked like…
Or was it the years of alcoholic coma she'd endured to blame?
When Willow's mother had died, Willow had clung to her father as best she could, and her father hadn't pulled away from her. On the contrary, Nicholas had always looked after her. Trips to ski resorts, the finest dresses, or even her skills as a Huntress, underdeveloped as they might be now…
No, Willow didn't become a Huntress, she simply wanted to copy her Father's greatness, in the smallest way she could, not that she could even if she had ten lifetimes. Nicholas was one of the few singular geniuses, who managed to combine seemingly all the talents that should have been distributed evenly across his generation. He possessed physical strength, heroic charm, outstanding intelligence, inexpressible kindness and a flair for business.
Willow knew that her desire to become a Huntress was just a naive childhood dream, though Nicholas didn't put any pressure on her. He allowed her to grow and develop on her own, to spread her wings, he responded to her desires and taught her many things, Willow even knew how to handle a gun…
Once upon a time in the past, perhaps, when her brain matter and motor skills were not so damaged by copious amounts of alcohol.
Willow also even discovered her Semblance, a rarity. Indeed, Willow once thought that she would achieve greatness with that simple fact, her whole life would be a wonderful fairy tale filled with adventure, but… Reality soon comes crashing, dashing all her dreams
When Willow graduated from her preparatory school for future Hunters, old wounds seemed to return to Nicholas with renewed vigor, and she had to step up as the Heiress of her Father's business.
Nicholas was getting older, his body was weakening, even such outstanding talents and abilities could not keep time running and forever fend off the results of his self-sacrifices…
A noble trait for which he paid cruelly in the end.
If you pay fauna as much as you pay people, you set a precedent, paying faunus the same wages as humans means spending more money. But, if you don't offer better conditions to employees, they will simply move on to better jobs.
And, while gritting their teeth, the Schnee's competitors had to spend lots, and lots of money to compete with the Schnee. Add to that the people's love, control of Remnant's strategic resources, all the talent in the world?
Nicholas was too perfect for this imperfect world.
Nicholas had always sacrificed his own health for the sake of others, how many injuries had he sustained from the Grimm, freeing up deposits of resources for development? How many injuries had he sustained, while pulling workers out from under the rubble? How many attempts on his life he has survived, how many sleepless nights he has spent, how many things he has done for the people…
And in the end, for all his miracles, there was a price to pay.
When Nicholas first began to lean on his cane, Willow realized that her dreams of a grandiose career as a Huntress, travelling the world, defeating Grimm, and rescuing fair Princes, were not destined to come true. She would sacrifice it, not for herself, but for Nicholas, who had supported her to the very end, and when Willow unexpectedly applied to the Higher Academy of Economics instead of Atlas… It was the only time Willow had ever had a fight with her father.
He kept fending off her concerns and bragging that he wouldn't die before he danced at his great-grandchildren's wedding…
He died two months before her graduation.
Maybe that was the reason she didn't see the real Jacques Schnee behind his facade of kindness then? After all, she only has the example of Nicholas before her, a charming, witty, and strong rich gentleman, perhaps her perception of the world had initially been so deeply skewed? So skewed, in fact, that she had not sensed the falseness in the exaggerated 'heroism' of Jacques? Or maybe it was all about the fact that in those days she needed a shoulder, any shoulder she could cry into, now that her closest person was dead?
Willow Schnee was very lucky with her family, her pedigree, her money… And people are always wary of born winners.
Or maybe Willow was wrong to blame herself now for her naivety and stupidity. Jacques had always been able to achieve his goals, one way or another. He was handsome, charming and rich back when he first met Willow, he'd never had a shortage of ladies in his arms, and he had chosen Willow. Back then, she was just a naive girl with dreams of a great adventure, sheltered by the evils of the world by her great Father.
And so, as it happened, Jacques Schnee turned out to be Willow's first acquaintance, then friend, then lover, and finally husband. And so, her fate was sealed.
Jacques didn't turn into a monster overnight. And Willow didn't decide to pour her life full of hard liquor overnight. Everything happened gradually…
They were happy… For a while.
At least, Willow certainly was.
Now, years later, Willow could understand how stupid she had been then, but back then, she couldn't look into the future and know where that road would lead her.
Willow was so young and naive…
Jacques, what? You need the power of an attorney to sort out the red tape? Oh, you want a little internal control of the working environment? Yes, of course, I see your economic reports, indeed, Jacques, what would I do without you!
They did have a child for love, Jacques kept telling Willow how much he wanted an heir to their fortune…
Back then, it was still theirs.
Winter was the fruit of their love…
Or, at least, that's what it seemed to Willow at the time.
Winter had been born a healthy, sweet, strong girl, Willow had been immersed in the joys of motherhood for the first time then, but…
Jacques didn't seem to see anything joyful in Winter.
And then it seemed to Willow that this was… Normal.
Indeed, many people don't like the constant fiddling, diapering, powdering, the little worries and nightly howls of a baby, from being hungry, losing sight of Mommy and Daddy, or just seemingly for nothing. It's normal to not like that, isn't it? Of course Jacques loves their daughter, he just doesn't like what all other people don't like, the screaming, the crying, the daily demands for food…
It's perfectly normal, Willow. Isn't that what nannies are for? Of course, Willow, there's nothing wrong with that. It's better to just hire someone to take care of these problems, Jacques will then be calmer and everything will be fine. He loves Winter, doesn't he?
Day after day, Willow convinced herself of that. That she'd imagined that coldness in his tone, that she'd imagined the look he'd thrown, that she'd just imagined that he hadn't asked how his daughter was feeling in two days.
It was at that moment that Willow first thought about hiring a nanny, or maybe a caregiver for her daughter, someone who could help Willow and Jacques with all the difficulties that every parent in the world faced.
Then Klein appeared in their home, a short, cheerful and well-fed man in his prime, he seemed so strange and awkwardly ridiculous in the grand Schnee manor.
A professional butler, an educator, and a trained physician all in one, he seemed like the best person for the job. Someone who could help Willow with her problems, give Jacques a chance to breathe easy, and everything would go right back to normal…
But when Klein first started dealing with Winter, it seemed as if she had found such a good compromise and could reach out to Jacques…
And discovered that the distance to him only continued and continued to grow.
Willow tried to reach for Jacques, but he was gradually getting more distant, so unlike the whirlwind romance they had. And Willow… She tried to take her mind off it.
First a drink in one banquet, then a second, then an apéritif or a glass for a good night's sleep. And when Willow almost stopped communicating with Jacques, who had become so cold overnight and for no reason, going off into the night. Willow… Suddenly realized that she had forgotten what it was like to take care of Winter.
She had forgotten what Winter herself was like, from a toddler in her arms Winter had become a young girl who knew nothing of her mother, and Willow herself knew nothing of her daughter.
She had missed so many silly and important little things, the first tooth that fell out, the first grade in school, the first question about why the sky was blue… She had missed them all.
And Willow started drinking more, when she drank there was no boredom, no feeling of abandonment, no thoughts of Winter… Willow wondered then, between the first and fifth bottle of wine, how things had turned out this way.
After all, everything had been so perfect, because when Winter had first been born, Willow and Jacques had been so happy together.
At least, that's what it seemed to Willow.
So she decided to… Ha-ha, save the marriage.
A second child was supposed to fix things, wasn't it? Of course, all they had to do was have a second child and everything would be right again, this time Willow wouldn't make her past mistakes and Jacques, her good charming Jacques, would definitely be back, and everything would be fine.
Why did she even think it was a good idea?
Of course, Weiss couldn't save, or even resuscitate, a long-dead marriage. Unlike Weiss, Willow and Jacques Schnee's happiness was stillborn.
One by one, she drowned herself in another bottle. And so Willow failed as a mother twice.
Weiss and Winter… Her two daughters barely knew what she looked like, and gradually, glass by glass, Willow herself began to forget what they looked like.
At some point, she just… Stopped trying.
Stopped fighting, stopped making up excuses, stopped communicating, stopped paying attention to everything in this world, stopped attending social gatherings and stopped watching economic summaries… What's the point?
Oh yes, Willow knew she was going downhill, that her drinking wasn't going to stop, Willow wasn't stupid or blind. She saw that she was going downhill, but…
But she didn't have the strength to stop.
Willow was weak, she was so weak and stupid, trying to stop drinking only superimposed awareness of her current situation on the symptoms of her withdrawal. Willow needed strong motivation to stop her dependence on alcohol and… She failed as a mother a third time as well.
Whitley has a right to hate me. He should hate me more than anyone else. Winter was born as proof of my love with Jacques, Weiss was born to rekindle my love with Jacques, and Whitley was born because I needed motivation to stop drinking… Ha. Ha. Ha.
And even that didn't work.
Willow managed to stay sober, for the duration of the pregnancy, but…
The more sober I get, the more clearly I understand why I started drinking.
The first time Willow was discharged from the hospital, Willow went to the private bar at the Schnee mansion, whose main occupant was her ninety percent of the time. And got so drunk that she still couldn't remember the exact day she saw Whitley's face for the first time…
He was, I think, a month old then?
Day by day, day by day, she kept drinking, and she lost her sense of time. Until her naturally white hair began to glisten with silver gray, until the days merged into an endless series of glasses, shots, bottles. Until the whole world around her merged into one white noise somewhere on the periphery of her eternally wandering in alcoholic vapor consciousness.
Jacques no longer deigned to even touch her, or try to get her institutionalized or even worse, at least he had the tiniest grain of compassion in him. Or was it simply because it would damage his image? She wasn't sure.
When he found that Willow had given up, he didn't arrange an 'accident', or mock her, he simply cut off her remaining contact with her father's legacy, satisfied in leaving her to die slowly, choking on alcohol.
Political squabbles, news events, if the Gods descended on Remnant again tomorrow Willow Schnee would be the last person to know about it, if she ever learned of it at all.
Jonathan's emergence, Glenn's elevation, Winter's admission to Beacon, the rise, and fall of Jacques Schnee, all these events passed her by in a succession without notice, hidden behind an alcohol-fuelled haze.
Until one day the rebels from Mantle broke into her mansion.
Willow even missed the revolution in Atlas and Mantle, not noticing the moment when Winter, having achieved success, took a job as a teacher at the most prestigious and famous Hunters' academy, as she drove Weiss and Whitley away… Winter tried to evacuate Willow away as well, but she was then so dead drunk, as usual, that she couldn't be evacuated from Atlas for her safety.
At least, she hoped that it was so, and not that her children hated her so much that they left her to die… Or that they had forgotten she had existed in the first place, it was only fair, after all.
Willow had missed the moment when Jacques Schnee was arrested for attempting a coup d'état. Missed the moment when Schnee's mega-corporation was taken over by the Atlas government.
The fact that she hadn't seen Jacques Schnee in years wasn't unusual for Willow.
Until one moment Willow opened her eyes only to see Raven Branwen wiping the blood off her blade, standing in front of her in her mansion, looking at Willow herself trying to wipe the stomach juice off her own lips. She was definitely sobered up after that.
Day after day, week after week, she was forced to confront the news she had missed, along with her going cold turkey… And it wasn't pretty.
Information about the revolution, the attack on her mansion, the evacuation of her children, even who Raven Branwen really was returned to Willow's mind much later. It took days for her to at least awaken from such a long alcoholic coma…
And months to overcome the withdrawal.
Willow couldn't deal with her alcoholism on her own. No matter how many times she'd tried to do it in the past, Willow had no doubt that she wouldn't be able to withstand a similar challenge this time, either. Willow wasn't a strong woman, she didn't consider herself one.
She was just an old drunk woman, unworthy of the title of mother.
But this time it wasn't Willow who controlled the process, she wasn't her own overseer, and she didn't determine how long her abstinence would last. No, instead, Willow's condition, her gradual treatment and subsequent rehabilitation was being handled by Glenn's doctors, who had access to miracle cures not available outside the closed Glenn Government Clinic, and they were rehabilitating her consistently and…
Without regard to Willow's objections.
It was probably even right of them to do so… She was in absolutely no condition to deal with her own problems. If she had the choice, it was unlikely to stop her from imbibing the intoxicating liquid, even to follow her children. Or even to stay sober to escape an attempt on her life by a murderous mob. She couldn't even stay sober to save the legacy of her beloved Father!
Willow realized, somewhere deep down inside, that escaping her alcoholic captivity would only lead her to have to face a reality in which there was virtually nothing positive about her life. She was an old alcoholic, with no family, no heritage, no friends… So she was ready to drown herself in alcohol.
But Glenn reached out to her… And grabbed her by the neck, forcibly pulling her out of the whirlpool, in which she hoped one day to just drown without regaining consciousness and forgetting about all the difficulties of her life.
Willow… Was grateful for that. Now she couldn't stand the sight of alcohol, the smell of it, much less the taste of it. For two years now, she couldn't even bring herself to look at a traditional buffet at a social function without a gagging feeling rolling up her throat as she looked at the alcohol being served. Willow considered it a victory and was, no matter how exactly it was done, grateful to Glenn and Jonathan personally for managing to force her through all the stages of her kicking the habit…
But that didn't mean that the hell she was going through in the first few months of treatment was any less hell for her.
Some of Willow's problems… would never be cured.
The list of medical problems that developed from her endless alcohol consumption could have filled a textbook in itself, the Aura she inherited from her father and the training to develop it made her hardy…
But this only resulted in her body suffering from so many ailments that even a tenth of them would have put a civilian six feet under already.
Multiple scars in her lungs from constantly developing aspiration pneumonia caused by respirating not fully expelled vomit. Dozens of ulcers throughout her gastrointestinal tract, partial loss of sensation in her limbs due to nerve deterioration. And this was not even a hundredth of what Willow inherited from her once so appealing and simple escape from the world.
Of course, with Glenn's miraculous medical abilities, advanced science seemingly decades ahead of the world, and Jonathan's personal patronage…
At the very least, as the political bargaining chip needed to legitimize keeping the Schnee Corporation under Atlas' control. At least without having to put it under the control of a political opponent in the form of Vale, who now has Winter on their side.
Willow could have healed her injuries, her illnesses, corrected all the years of a mindless alcoholic coma without consequences, but…
Exactly, without consequences.
Willow didn't just want to forget the horrible reality she'd found herself in through her own fault, through her own weakness, choosing the most shameful path of all, or to be more precise…
She didn't think she deserved it.
Willow had realized that she had done the unforgivable. She had ruined her own life, her children's lives, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people when she allowed Jacques to take control of the Schnee Corporation.
And that was her burden.
An unbreakable weight on her soul that she would henceforth have to bear forever, knowing that no one in the world deserved more censure than she. It was a burden she was to carry forever more, knowing that she could no longer and never again return to the way things were. That there would be no more motherly intimacy with her children, no more love with her husband, that she had failed to protect the legacy her father had entrusted to her.
That Willow Schnee had failed the whole world by failing to turn out to be anything but an old abandoned drunkard, spending day after day in her manor, watching the world move on, drowning her stupidity and weakness in booze.
Willow slowly opened her eyes, then slightly propped herself up on her sheet, looking up at the ceiling.
"Madam, breakfast in bed!" A cheerful voice came from behind the door leading to the room, causing Willow to look away from her previous thoughts before she heard a knock.
"Klein, you don't need to knock on the door every time, and stop calling me madam!" Throwing on her négligée and pulling it down a moment later, Willow made her way to the door of her room before opening it, letting Klein in.
"I'm not a madam anymore, the name of the Schnee itself doesn't mean anything anymore. Even you are no longer my employee."
"And I beg to differ once again, madam." A moment later a silver tray appeared from the ajar door, covered with a hood, and behind it is the perpetually cheerful face of the only surviving loved one in Winter's life, "As long as one who carries the Schnee name is alive, that name has value. At least the value you put in it yourself."
"As long as you're alive…" At these words, Willow shifted her gaze from the always cheerful Klein's face to the tray and allowed herself the smallest smile she was still capable of, "What's for breakfast today, Klein?"
"Oh, the cooks decided to try their hand at traditional Menagerie cuisine this morning! You know… The number of Menagerie restaurants in Atlas is growing exponentially lately…" Klein paused, before looking over at Willow after a moment. "And by the looks of it, with madam already out of bed, I imagine I might have trouble to provide you breakfast in bed…"
"That's alright, I'll just have breakfast in the small dining room." Willow said this and then glanced at the tray, at the unfamiliar foods on it. "Are the cooks any good?"
"There's no doubt about it, madam, I'm sure the breakfast will be excellent!" Klein smiled momentarily before nodding.
Willow, watching her friend's exuberance, allowed herself a faint smile again, before shifting her gaze from the tray to Klein and then somewhere in the distance, over Klein's shoulder. Thinking about something far too distant and now out of Willow's reach.
At least… At least something in this world was still good.
Winter paused for a moment, frowning, before she swiped her pen and red ink over the surface of the piece of paper once more, re-evaluating the re-read sentence.
"Using my superior mobility and overwhelming firepower, I propose to launch a massive fire strike on the Grimm cluster first…"
Winter reread the sentence again, checking to see if she was, in fact, beginning to see mirages before her eyes or worse hallucinating. Perhaps from the strain and from reading the student's thirtieth reflection on the task at hand, but the lines before her eyes had not changed to another. The student had indeed written exactly that.
Winter picked up her red pen, then with a quick and clear movement crossed out the student's answer completely, before she froze in a moment where she had to give an explanation for her decision to reject the student's answer.
What, in fact, was she supposed to write in this case? She gave a free-response problem on the topic of tactics for organizing the defense of a settlement in the event that an evacuation cannot be organized, and the student literally wrote to her, 'I'm too cool to fail'. That he would simply defeat the Grimm horde heading the settlement's way on his lonesome.
What was she even supposed to write as a response in this case!?
Winter put her pen over a piece of paper, prepared to write a caustic remark about how he should have been writing the solution to the issue given to him at the moment, rather than engaging in self-congratulatory essay writing? That he had mixed up the literature and the tactic's lesson? That he… That he…
Winter put down her pen, forcing herself not to write a bold line about how this student represented perhaps the dumbest student in her memory, before she came to her senses. She stopped her hand before she lapsed into insulting her students, which was completely contrary to her very nature as a lecturer at Beacon Academy. She tried to think of an excuse, another version of the sentence that she could write while delivering the same points…
Before she realized that, all that was going through her head were caustic sarcastic remarks about the level of intelligence of the student in question. That in lieu of possible options for balanced answers that pointed out the fundamental incorrectness of the answer, she was coming up with insults.
Winter thought for a moment, then strained all her moral-intellectual reserves to come up with something decent as an answer. But before she could, her concentration was thwarted a moment later by the sound of a knock at the door, causing Winter to look away, putting aside her pen without ever writing a word. "Winter, are you not finished yet?"
Her sister, Weiss, then entered.
Winter shook her head slightly as she examined the student's essay again carefully as she rose from the table, choosing the need for the occasional distraction over the need to continue her work. All the better, so as not to snap at the students who did not understand the task at hand. "As a matter of fact, I am. Is dinner ready yet?"
"Yes, Whitley has already portioned it out," Weiss replied after a moment, glancing over her sister's shoulder at the stack of essays, answers, and solutions, and then, recognizing the look on Winter's face, gave her a mournful, sorrowful face. "Essays again?"
Winter merely nodded at her sister's reaction, but, no longer wanting to dwell on her students' failures, she instead decided to ignore it, for now, over dinner. "It seems to me that every time I give tasks and then have to grade them, I lose faith in Remnant's future…"
"They can't be completely horrible, can they? Surely you have had found some good answers too, haven't you?" Weiss tried to shift Winter's perception of her students and focus on the positive examples.
"Yes, there have been," Winter seized on the thought, nodding, her confidence boosted by the good answers she had received in the past, which faltered soon after by just how small of an amount it truly was.
"But the exceptions only confirm the rule. True, I am beginning to think that my very idea of trying to lead students instead of memorizing facts to form tactical thinking and a general level of understanding is a failure from the beginning…"
"Don't worry, Winter." Weiss, not quite catching the tone of Winter's statement, tried to support her sister, rather achieving the opposite effect. "It's just that not all people are like you…"
After a moment, realizing the awkward wording, Weiss tried to correct the situation. "Smart like you, I mean."
"Without the additional clarification, it sounded better, sister." Winter could only sigh at Weiss' inadvertent dooming of her future students, before stepping into the kitchen, which was combined with the dining room in this house, and inhaling the aroma of cooked food.
"Dinner today… Curry?"
"As best we can make it, at least." Whitley tossed as he busied about around their dinner table, without turning to Winter, so as not to be distracted from the important business of trying to distribute equal portions on three plates. "I don't know if we succeeded, but we tried."
"So it's not hopeless, I see?" Winter smiled slightly at Whitley's words as she made her way to her seat and crouched down on it before covering her eyes, enjoying the atmosphere as her siblings busied about.
A curry prepared by the hands of those closest to her… It was for moments like these that Winter lived.
"Whitley, sit down when you eat! You're not a barbarian!" Weiss, taking her seat at the table, glanced at her younger brother who was still standing behind the kitchen counter beginning to eat his own portions. To which he reacted instantly, picking up two plates and making his way over to place their portions in front of the hungry housemates.
Winter looked at the food placed in front of her, which really looked like a nice homemade curry, only smiled, if a bit strained, it didn't look half bad? She then glanced at Whitley, who had sat down on one of the chairs with his own portion in front of him. "You decided to cook it yourself?"
"Weiss had been buzzing my ears to do it." Whitley rolled his eyes, causing Winter to smile slightly at his childish behavior, while Weiss herself began to interject indignantly. "I didn't force you into it, I just suggested it!"
"You didn't even participate in the cooking," Whitley's snide comment made Weiss light up.
"You both did well," Winter resolved the conflict between her siblings after a moment, then allowed a slight smile to settle on her face.
I wonder if mother also…
Winter's errant thought, one that floated to the surface, was instantly extinguished, taking with it some of both her joyful mood and her enjoyment in observing such a domestic picture.
What a difference. She's gone, Weiss and Whitley have only me now.
Winter looked away from the now squabbling siblings, still casting heated glances at each other, as she focused on her own portion of food and smiled.
And there's nothing in the world I wouldn't do for them, be they dealing with stupid students…
Winter picked up the cutlery and busied herself with her portion.
Or becoming the Winter Maiden.
For a moment, information about what was going on in the world rose in Winter's mind in a wave, an association with her new state. Information from Ozpin about Salem, the evacuation of the Winter Maiden from Atlas, the process of getting powers… And what happened to transfer the power to her.
But Winter suppressed her emotions and thoughts with an iron will, returning from her distracted musings about the future to the reality of what was happening at the moment, and returned to her food.
Because she would never be like Willow.