Here we go.


Cover Art: Solace O' Autumn

Chapter 14


Willow was a generous woman. There was no other way to put it with how often she spoiled him, but after four days of living in the Schnee manor and performing for her in private renditions at least twice a day, Jaune was beginning to feel like an intruder in the household.

The serving staff seemed to like him, but then it was hard to tell when they were professional enough to be polite and friendly to everyone. Klein said he'd won some favour with them by making Willow relaxed, and if he couldn't trust Klein then who could he trust? The problem was the rest of the Schnee family or, more specifically, the Schnee children. Jacques hardly ever spent time around Jaune or his own wife.

Winter was absent too, but Weiss and Whitley were always in the manor and seemed to be getting colder to him by the day. Whitley had shown him around on the first evening with cheer and energy, but that had been sucked out of him, and while Weiss had never been friendly, she'd at least been polite enough to say hello to him when they crossed paths and ask how he was finding the manor. He'd gotten the feeling she didn't like nor dislike him, and that this was an achievement all of its own, but now she scowled at him when they crossed paths and Klein had pointedly suggested he avoid her.

It wasn't hard to figure out where their resentment was coming from, either.

"Jaune!" Willow approached with a huge smile and a warm coat over her shoulders. "There you are! I've been looking for you everywhere."

"Ah. Sorry, Willow. I still get lost in this place sometimes."

"Oh, don't you worry about that. I know how this manor can be. It's so cold and empty that even I feel lonely sometimes. Anyway, I've asked Klein to pack your bags with some of your new clothing. We're going on a little excursion."

"We are…? Where?"

"Why, to one of those tourist spots you wanted to visit in Atlas, of course. I did say I'd help tou visit them."

She had, but he'd expected she would fund it or maybe organise someone to take him there and back at a pinch. Willow obviously meant to come with him. Which… well, it wasn't bad per se, but it only made him feel even more awkward.

"It's a natural hot springs in the mountainous part of Atlas. They've made it into a rejuvenating spa with a high-class hotel. They have excellent masseurs and beauticians there, not to mention a wonderful restaurant, and simply breathtaking views. I've booked us rooms for the weekend."

"That sounds lovely." It really did, and he had the feeling he'd have struggled to afford it normally. That wasn't the problem, though. "Is anyone else coming with us?"

"Hm? Oh, there's no need for servants on this one, Jaune. The hotel has its own staff for that. We'll be driven there and back by limo, but our chauffeur will return to the manor. Security isn't an issue, either. The hotel is very exclusive."

Right. Staff. Willow would naturally think of that first when he asked if anyone would be accompanying them. He tried to convince himself that was just a factor of being so rich, and not something she should be criticised for, but it wasn't easy.

"I meant your family," he said, trying to sound casual about it. "I know Jacques will be too busy but maybe Winter, Weiss or Whitley would like to come along."

"Hm? Oh, are you worried you'll feel out of place as the only person there your age?"

That really wasn't the problem. "Yeah," he lied. "I wouldn't mind the chance to become friends with them, either. Your children seem like great people."

"Hmm." Willow hummed, distracted, and turned her head. "Klein, speak to my son and daughters, will you? Invite them along and make it clear they need to decide within the hour. I trust you'll handle arrangements if they agree."

"Of course, ma'am." Klein bowed, though when Willow looked back his way, Klein shot Jaune a brief smile and a nod. He was obviously happy with his decision. The butler slid away before Willow could speak.

"Why don't we rest in the gardens while we wait for them to decide?" she suggested. Her face lit up. "I'd love to hear your progress."

She'd love another hit of the drug that hiss Bardic Skills were fast becoming for her. Jaune couldn't tell if giving her it was the right decision or not. Calling it a drug made him think he shouldn't feed an addiction, but was it really that? It was music and it was inspiring her, making her feel happy and alive. Any music could do that. His just cheated to make it happen on demand. And it wasn't brainwashing her, either. It was reducing her stress and increasing her mood.

Isn't that what cigarettes do…?

Jaune brought up his skill once more and carefully inspected the fine print.

.

Bardic Skills:

Motivational Song – Encourage allies to increase their spirits and capabilities.

.

From an RPG perspective the word "capabilities" suggested he could buff people in combat, which was an application he hadn't had the chance to test because he'd avoided it altogether. The rest, well, it just implied that his songs would make people feel better. There was nothing about addiction, alteration, or side-effects. Which didn't mean there weren't any, but it implied any side-effects would be because the person chose them, not because he'd forced them. If someone decided they were so enthused by his song they'd quit their job and try for their dream career, that wasn't his fault in making them do so. It was just the way in which they expressed their inspiration from his music.

Hopefully, anyway.

It wasn't like he could say so. "Sure. I'll play a song for you."

/-/

"Sister."

Weiss nodded to Whitley. "Brother. Do you have any idea what this is about?"

"No more than you, I assume. Perhaps mother needs a break from father's crushing presence."

"I'm more surprised she remembered us in that case."

"Myself as well."

On a technical level, she and Whitley were rivals for any scraps their father might throw them, and her brother could be overly competitive at times because of it. When there were no such rewards on the line, however, he returned to how she remembered him – just another lonely soul trapped in a manor large enough for a family to feel like they lived in different kingdoms.

It wasn't uncommon for their mother to just "disappear" sometimes. Oft for a weekend, sometimes for longer, she would just up and leave and no one would realise it until her absence at the dinner table was noted. She always informed Jacques when she was going and where, but only ever via a message delivered by Klein or another servant. That was how Jacques preferred it, as it meant he didn't need to pause his work to deal with Willow's latest nonsense. Of course, he'd also fail to tell them, much too busy, and they'd only realise later their mother had up and left them with their father.

Usually, it was to de-stress or to get away from the family, and never mind the fact that any of them would have enjoyed the chance as well. Willow wasn't the only one living in this cold manor, and she wasn't the only one who felt like she had no choice. But, of course, they'd never been children she wanted. That much, Weiss had accepted before her tenth birthday. Winter had been the heiress, she had been the spare, and Whitley had been an accident.

And as sickening as it was to think of, she couldn't imagine what kind of accident would lead to Jacques and Willow bedding one another, seeing how little affection or even attraction they shared. Weiss wouldn't have been surprised if all three of them were conceived by artificially inducing pregnancy.

"You look disgusted," said Whitley.

"Believe me, you don't want to hear my thoughts. Thinking on mother and father."

"Ah. Spare me. Has Winter at least talked to you this week? I've had nothing."

"Don't feel left out. I've not had any responses to my messages either."

Whitley looked a little pleased, and Weiss fought hard not to snap at him. He's just relieved it's not him being ignored on his own, she told herself. They both loved Winter, or they had. Weiss felt that they both still did, but to have Winter storm out the manor and not respond to them, well, it felt like yet another person had up and walked out on them.

When they reached the gardens, the sounds of beautiful music tugged at Weiss' heartstrings, and she slammed down her lips into an arctic snarl. Jaune. She hated him as much as she hated the way his music made her feel, and both forms of that hate was unfair and, quite likely undeserved. He was a decent man in all honesty. Polite, charming, and Klein said the serving staff spoke well of him. He'd even played some music for them, and that was a kind gesture when he was her mother's guest.

He didn't deserve her anger.

But he damn well received it.

"Looks like mother is listening to her favourite again," Whitley sniped. "Good luck us getting a word in."

"Let's not be unfair. She did invite us this time. That has to mean something."

They walked out into the gardens together with neutral expressions, and the music washed over them as they did. Weiss had been told by some fans that her music had transformed her life, and while she never fully understood how (especially with how controlled her music was by her father and his chosen agents) she could at least understand the theory. Jaune's music had that quality to it as well, and it had obviously had an effect on their mother.

Some might say for the better. Weiss would say that too, reluctantly, but better for her didn't mean better for them. Nor worse, in all honesty, but seeing that Willow could be affectionate to someone only drove home how little she was with them. While nothing had realistically changed in their family dynamic, having Jaune fawned over showed them what life might have been like by contrast. Taunted them with it.

"Mother." Whitley took pleasure in interrupting the music. "We're here as requested."

"I can see. You could stand to learn some patience, Whitley, and wait until the song is over. No matter. We're visiting the Six-Peak Resort. Are your bags packed?"

"Yes mother. What brought this trio on if I may ask?"

"Jaune wants to see the various sights of Atlas."

Of course that would be the reason. Jaune wanted, so Jaune got. That was just the way things were now. If he wanted money, he got money. If he wanted clothes, he got a new wardrobe. Weiss had clothes aplenty, but she'd never once had her mother take her out and gush over outfits. It had been Klein and the serving staff who did that, and a faunus maid who taught Weiss how to apply makeup, and a human maid who helped her through her first period. But no. Jaune wanted to go see this exclusive resort, so they were going to see it.

"I hope he's grateful for it," Whitley mumbled.

Willow frowned. "Whitley! Apologise immediately!"

He froze, as did Weiss. Willow never took part in punishing them either, not that she was ever cognizant enough to notice if they did anything wrong. This might have been endearing once, but the fact she was only doing it because of him made it like a dagger of ice to the stomach.

"W—Willow, it's fine," said Jaune. "There's no need—"

"I did not raise my son to talk to people like that!"

"You did not raise your son at all!" Whitley hissed. "But fine. I am sorry, Jaune. I must have let my temper get the better of me." His bow was sarcastic. "Is that all? Can we go? Or shall Weiss and I politely back out so the two of you can enjoy your holiday together?"

Jaune winced, and Weiss felt a little bad for him. It was obvious he was aware of the atmosphere and didn't like it, and he'd never really signalled that he wanted this. Willow had simply plucked him off a tree branch and brought him here, then decided this was the way things would be. Perhaps she could give him the benefit of the doubt.

"I'd gladly have done just that," said Willow, "but Jaune specifically asked for you both to come along."

Or not. Was he pitying them now? Was this his brand of sympathy? Weiss scowled and turned her nose up. She was Weiss Schnee, future huntress, and she did not need the pity of a man whose only redeeming factor was being able to play the guitar and woo cold-hearted old women over twice his age!

And, of course, it was just another reminder that it wasn't even Willow inviting them on this. Yet again, she'd have walked out on them without so much as a word. Weiss was tempted to let her, and just enjoy having half the manor to herself.

"We'll be thrilled to come with you," said Whitley, far too pleased for her tastes. He was as angry as she, so she knew he had something in mind. "After all, it wouldn't do for rumours to begin when Willow Schnee is seen in the company of a young man. I think Weiss and I should spend some time with Jaune instead."

Ah, so that was his plan. Spite their mother by monopolising the time of her plaything. In truth, Weiss had no idea if she was bedding the boy or not. It was creepy if she was, given he was the same age as her. Underage in legal terms, but since when had the law mattered to the 1%? Jacques Schnee broke laws left, right and centre, and their legal teams could bury anyone who tried to suggest otherwise.

Still, is this to be a holiday or an expedition to "cock block" our mother.

What a pain.

/-/

There was nothing quite like being in the centre of a family argument to make you feel alive.

.

Through performing for a crowd, you have gained +1 Charisma!

.

And that, too. Saphron and Terra had uploaded another video, and he was receiving the sporadic notifications deep in his head. Not regular enough to be painful, but annoying enough to compound with Willow's attempts to speak with him while ignoring her children and said children's efforts to interrupt any conversation they might have.

It was never so blunt as to be rude. Passive-aggressive was the term. Everything was so casual and so relaxed, and yet Jaune found himself hemmed into one side of the limo with Whitley on his right, Weiss on his and then Willow being kept as far away as humanly possible. The message was clear. He was not a part of his family and should not let himself think he was.

And that was fine, because he hadn't and didn't, but how was he meant to convey that to Whitley and Weiss? Getting any time alone in the Schnee manor was hard when Willow wanted his every waking moment to be with her, and the two of them were actively avoiding him. He could have tried to send a message through Klein, but the butler was loyal to them and not him. Klein had made that clear on more than one occasion.

Taking a limo up a mountain was a nightmare, too. The elevation was bad enough, but the road twisted and turned with hairpins with sheer drops of several hundred metres onto rocky oblivion. The chauffer, experienced as he was, handled it all like a mountain goat, but that didn't help when one look out the window showed they were on an icy road with gravity teasing them toward certain death. They passed a ski resort that Willow told him was for the "common people", and then another that she told him was for "those with more means".

Naturally, they stopped at neither and kept going up past a gated area manned by security and into a far more exclusive resort where there was but one other vehicle. Brightly smiling women who must have been freezing solid waited for them with warm towels and white robes and welcomed them to the Six Peaks Resort.

"Willow Schnee with Jaune Arc and guests," Willow said to the receptionist. Jaune winced and did his best to pretend he couldn't feel the absolute fury of Weiss and Whitley behind him.

"Two rooms, correct?" asked the receptionist.

"Yes, I—"

"Jaune and I will be sharing a room," Whitley interrupted. He shot an apologetic look to his sister, confined to share with their mother, but Weiss simply took a deep, calming breath and nodded her head.

"It's only reasonable," she said. "Boys and girls should sleep apart."

"I'm fine with that," Jaune said.

"Of course. Of course. You're welcome to use the private or shared springs. Please be aware the shared springs require swimsuits, while the private ones do not. You're all booked in for a massage package tomorrow but allow me to show you to your room and then the hot spring. If you would like food or snacks delivered to you, you need only signal down a member of our team. There will be one present in the hot springs at all times."

Jaune stayed quiet and followed the woman, taking in the old-money look of the resort. It wasn't as ostentatious as the Schnee manor, but it was a more understated sense of wealth. There were artworks and statues, wood-panelled walls and more staff than guests. A lot of empty room, as well. Wasted space. In a large area for dining, there were but two round tables where there could have been ten. That was the point, though. If you were wealthy enough to stay here, then you expected to be given more than enough space to dine in private. This wasn't like a common restaurant where they wanted to cram as many people in as possible.

Their private rooms were similarly large, easily enough to fit a whole school on a field trip. He and Whitley had their own little bedroom areas cut off by sliding partitions they could draw across to form thin walls. There was a balcony as well but, because of the cold outside, it had a pair of doorways, almost like an airlock system. Jaune could see a hot tub on the balcony itself, along with a pair of deck chairs, though anyone sunbathing out there would probably die of frostbite before they got a tan. The room was warm enough anyway, with heating pumped up from the floor below, maybe even from the spring itself. A huge TV screen was attached to one wall, while the seats were massage chairs made of leather.

"Are you sure you and your sister wouldn't prefer to share a room?" asked Willow.

"I am quite sure," Whitley said. "We shall see you in the hot springs soon, mother!" He closed the door to an inch, then added. "Good luck, sister."

The door sealed with a click.

And Jaune felt like he was in great danger suddenly.

.

Through performing for a crowd, you have gained +1 Charisma!

.

Not for that reason.

"I'm sorry if I'm making things weird in your family," he said. "I didn't mean to. I only agreed to come here because Willow offered to pay me for the gala you have coming up and—"

"You can stay quiet," said Whitley. Jaune's mouth clicked shut. "I – we – do not hate you." The words felt dragged out of him. "Don't take any of this personally, but Weiss and I would greatly appreciate it if you did not stay long after the gala."

"I hadn't planned to stay forever. I'm looking to travel Atlas—"

"Where would you go in Atlas that my mother wouldn't find you?" Whitley glared at him. "Anywhere you'd go, she'd be there. Do you want money? I'll give you money. I'll give you enough to leave and explore the kingdoms without ever having to worry about it."

Jaune sighed. "This isn't just about money. I want to explore more of Atlas, and I can't do that if I leave because you and Weiss want me to. Atlas is 25% of the world, practically. I'm not cutting myself off from a quarter of Remnant to make you feel better." That came out a lot more confrontational than he meant it to, so he dialled back. "Look, maybe you should all take this as a cue to try and fix your family dynamic instead. I'm not the problem here."

"Our family dynamic is fine!"

"Is it?" Jaune tried not to sound too disbelieving when he said that. All the Charisma in the world couldn't force it, however. "I may not be as rich and famous as you, but I come from a family where we all love one another, and I'm not seeing much of that in yours."

"And that's our fault?" he hissed back.

"No. You're not to blame for what your parents do, and I do mean both of them. It's not just Willow—"

"Do you think we don't realise that?" Whitley laughed. "Do you think we believe our father cares? That we're so naïve? Don't mock us, Arc, and don't pity us either! We may not have been born knowing the love of a family like you, but that doesn't mean we're so stupid that we can't realise the fact we're unloved!"

Jaune winced. "I didn't mean it that way."

"It's easy for you to come in and say what we should do. Easy when you're on the outside. I wouldn't come to your family and preach to them on how not to be poor, and you shouldn't come to ours and do the same." Whitley sneered. "Do you really think mother cares for you at all? If not for your musical skill, you'd be a nobody to her."

"I know that."

"She's only using you, and once she's tired of you there won't be any welcome here anymore. She'll throw you away like a used rag."

"And I'll leave," he said, "but that's the problem, isn't it? I won't be unhappy if and when Willow gets tired of me. I'll pack up and continue travelling. It's not the same for you and Weiss, though. You have to live with her. Whitley…" Jaune forced a smile. "Let me help. We don't have to be enemies. We're not even rivals."

For a second, he thought he might have gotten through, but then Whitley snarled and stormed to the bathroom.

"Get changed. Mother will expect you in the shared springs soon. Weiss and I will be there as well, but we're neither expected nor wanted."

The door slammed shut behind him.

Damn it.

.

Through performing for a crowd, you have gained +1 Charisma!

.

"Not now," Jaune said, waving the message away. "Damn it. How did I get myself caught up in this mess? I just wanted to come explore Atlas."

He couldn't blame anyone, really. Not even Willow. She'd invited him here to listen to his music, not for him to get wrapped up in her family drama. Neither had Weiss or Whitley. And yet now he was stuck in the middle feeling like he should do something.

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NEW QUEST: The Schnee Problem

You are caught in the middle of a family drama that has been playing out for the last fifteen years. Fix the problem no one else has been able to, and bring about a happy family dynamic where everyone loves one another. Fail, and you may just drive a greater wedge between them.

Success: +EXP. +Rep Schnee family. +Fulfilment. +Title: Relationship Counsellor

Failure: +EXP. -Rep Willow Schnee. -Happines Willow Schnee. +Broken Relationships. -Sponsorship of Schnee family. +Homelessness.

.

What…?

No, no, no. Quest not accepted! Quest not accepted! Cancel! Object! Refuse!

But it remained there.

Mocking him.

"Damn it!"


Quests, Son. Quests.


Next Chapter: 10th March

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