A Heart Made of Stone

potassiumboron

~I'm drinking coffee on a trampoline~
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Monsters, supernatural, fantasy, romance, criminality, slice-of-life (modern or set in past, usually with some twists)
Situated amongst the snow-topped Arctic mountains and aesthetic rural fjords of Tromsø sat Hellebore retreat; a structure that seemed to effortlessly blend into its natural surroundings despite the sprawling modern architecture. Its conception, though modern in nature, had been deliberate and thoughtful, time seemingly having been taken in designing a building that stood to complement the area, rather than disrupt it and become an eyesore to the beauty it inherently possessed.

The building itself was as far from the towns of Tromsø as was physically possible, instead constructed amongst the wild sprawling hilltops near the northernmost point of the country, so there had been a moment of contemplation on Morten's behalf not to bother with putting too much thought into how the building that would go onto become Hellebore Lodge and Retreat would fit into its surroundings. What did it really matter if the only people in the vicinity were arriving for the sole benefit of staying at the Lodge itself? They would have to travel for hours just to reach it - and Morten doubted they would decide to make the arduous journey back to civilisation on the sole basis of disliking how his property had been designed.

Though Morten had never done anything half-heartedly - if he set his eyes on something, if an idea had been conceived, he wanted to see it through to the best of his ability, and though his work might have been easier if he had settled on something entirely basic, his adoration for fine details made that fundamentally impossible. No, he put his time and energy into ensuring his new business looked the part. It might have no philanthropic, kind-hearted purpose behind it, the business itself existing solely for his benefit alone, but that didn't mean he could allow it to exist and not fit his standards. He was at its helm, he was the reason for its conception and construction - just because no resident would actively get to meet him and live to tell the tale didn't mean he could allow them to think that the Lodge's owner was some plain, boring man with no flair; no style.

That said, he had limited himself a little in the design. As much as he might have wanted to splash every wall with deep colour, fill every space with a fine ornament and complement it all with interesting textures, he also knew that the Lodge had to be cliché in its aesthetic; tick the boxes expected of it. It wasn't a genuine practise -at least, he had no real intention to benefit the lives of the people that flocked to it for recovery and recuperation- but it had to operate on the surface as one. As such, his desires for vibrantly-coloured walls had been muted, replaced with soft creams and calming whites; his want for fancy ornaments had been replaced by inoffensive succulents and plants; surfaces were otherwise bare and open, not cluttered by the loud personality that Morten had otherwise wanted to colour the Lodge with.

No, Hellebore was sleek, wood-accented surfaces and bright, open spaces accentuated by floor-to-wall windows overlooking the Norwegian fjords serving the purpose of providing those that sought reprieve from the hectic nature of their lives a place to unwind and relax. Those that left the retreat alive often raved about its success in that regard, the environment, despite being of very little interest to Morten, somehow succeeding massively in providing everything it was, on the surface, purported to do. Even the strict nature of the Lodge's rules seemed to play a large part in the enjoyment derived from the experience, though those rules weren't in place to help customers.

The rules were in place to make Morten's life easier; to ensure he knew where the humans were at all times and what they were doing. It was an element of control that he had learnt to exert over his own followers, and placing it upon those that arrived at the Lodge made his tasks far simpler than they otherwise would be if everyone went about their day-to-day lives doing what they wished at all times of day. It was remarkable that that control seemed to have a positive effect on those adhering to it, but if it helped keep the truth of the Lodge's dark nature at bay, Morten could let the regrettable happiness of his clientele slide. After all, he wasn't the one who had to deal with the people; he didn't have to stomach the personalities that mingled within the Lodge - he only ever came into contact with them if he had chosen to pick them off and satisfy his hunger or, in rare circumstances, had taken a shine to them through his observations and daily updates and decided, sometimes abruptly in the spur of the moment, that they would stay at the Lodge and decorate the gardens as another of his prized statues.

It was a fate worse than death, the statues -all former living, breathing people- in place to remind Morten of the enormity of his power; it fuelled his narcissism, his megalomania, rather than stir up regret or emotional reflection. Frankly, the Gorgon didn't think he really had the capacity for those sorts of emotions; not these days, after all he had endured.

While he remained in the background, in a portion of the building separated from the rest, awaiting updates from his dedicated followers, Stasya handled the operations and the daily running of Hellebore. Having been a dutiful follower of Morten's for the best part of a decade, she was more-or-less a second-in-command, even if a) Morten would never vocalise such and b) she would never desire a level of power. In her eyes, Morten was the one who had power; the one who would lead them all from the world to a new one entirely, a greater, enriched existence free of pain and bitterness - she sought to follow, not lead, because seeking even a slither of power herself was to disrespect the man she had come to see as a God amongst men.

And when she knew of his power, the last thing she ever wanted to do was do him a disservice.

Not known for being an... easy person to communicate with, her characteristically stern expression remained in place at the sight of Hinata stepping into the warmth of the retreat. There was no welcoming smile to the newcomer, no twinkle in her eye to ease him into the new situation. If anything, her lips pursed a little as though the distraction from her work on the reception caused by his entrance was a personal insult to her.

"You are new-- Hinata, isn't it? You were due to arrive ten minutes ago. Don't make a habit of lateness. It won't serve you well during your stay here," she remarked, the heaviness of her Latvian accent still in place in spite of the years she had spent outside of her home country. Begrudgingly accepting that she couldn't wave her hand and dismiss Hinata, she set her pen down on the counter and reached for a sheet from within a drawer beneath it, gesturing Hinata closer with her spare hand in order to hand it to him.

"This is the schedule for today; you will receive a schedule every day outlining that day's activities. Breakfast, lunch and dinner occur at the same time each day and will be taken in the communal dining area with our other residents. Every activity is not optional; you will take part. Removing choice removes... stress," she continued in the same monotoned manner, each word arriving slowly to ensure the seriousness behind them landed. "If you have no questions, I will show you to your living quarters. You have twenty minutes to unpack before the next activity; you arrived in time for an hour of quiet meditation."
 

saturnia pavonia

perseus
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The last 48 hours had gone by in a blur and it wasn’t until he felt the contrast of the bitter outside cold to the warmth of Hellebore that Hinata realized just where he was and why. Bar the briefest calls and texts to his friends of where he would be for the next few months, he - for the first time in his life in years - could not recall the trip whatsoever but it would hard to forget why he was there.

Some broken vases and… less than savory words were all that were needed for Hinata to be detained and essentially forced on a ‘rehabilitation trip’ as his mother so gently described it. It was that or jail and, given the fact his parents had a million times more influence, he knew there wouldn’t be any other options. Why? Because he broke some glass vases that he knew his parents would replace? Because he broke some trinkets above a shelf that did nothing but collect dust? The vases didn’t even have flowers in them.

All Hinata could do was comfort himself, insist that this would be time to focus on himself and reflect. Meditation was on the brochure he had been staring at during the entire flight and subsequent drive into the snowy fjords. The brochure was vague at best, keywords like ‘serene’ and ‘atmospheric’ drawing in the average eye. He took note of the lack of detail on... well, literally everything else but kept to himself, mixed with a confusing combination of exhaustion and the nearly constant buzz of energy he felt.

He had made friends in college, one of which was on her way to being a successful phycologist. She explained to him the concept of generational trauma, a term he had never really took into consideration as he mulled over his parents' actions and attitude. She also explained to him about anxiety and how that was most likely what the constant buzzing was, though he simply waived her off. He knew she was right but the idea of admitting to the crippling weight he felt every day by not only his parents but society as a whole was... too much to handle. This lodge would help with that, it was beautiful after all. Perhaps he could get some skiing in? He could -

Blinking into focus, Hinata found his cheeks flush red in embarrassment when he was able to finally take in Stasya. She was conventionally attractive and certainly had an air of superiority to her, he noted that he was certain his parents would love her. Clearing his throat, he meant to offer a hello but was left to instead apologize when he was so quickly and so sharply critiqued for his lateness. He wanted to counter her, explain it wasn't his fault that his luggage had almost been lost, though he knew people like Stasya - it was best to simply offer a nod and an apology. Was it sort of going against his whole attempt at being braver, more outspoken? Yes, but Hinata figured he deserved some slack after an eight hour flight, not to mention the drive.

"I... do have some questions, actually," he began, his own tone flat bar the subtle anxiety that coated it, "we have no choice in what we do? I... sort of assumed this would be, y'know, a... relaxing situation? I'd like a nap - y'know what? No, um... meditation sounds fine, yeah." He murmured, gripping tightly to the handles of his suitcases. He needed to be brave and outspoken but being troublesome wouldn't solve anything, would it? He offered a small smile in apology only to purse his lips the moment she wasn't looking at him. "Fantastic. Um... yeah."

Clearing his throat, Hinata said nothing more as he obediently trailed behind the domineering Stasya, taking in the interior with the first spark of joy in the last 48 hours as he took note of the design. It was a bit too light but the space was already a breath of fresh air compared to the cramped life of a New Yorker. His apartment wasn't small by any means in the sense of space and he enjoyed it enough but it was still a one-bedroom apartment and, while not a particularly materialistic person, it still felt as if he didn't have enough air. Perhaps it was New York City as a whole that left him so suffocating, but he could consider relocation once this whole little squabble with his parents was worked on.

"... Thank you, um... ma'am?" Hinata spoke once led to the door to his living quarters, his words laced in hesitance when he couldn't seem to notice any nametag. "Thanks."
 

potassiumboron

~I'm drinking coffee on a trampoline~
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Monsters, supernatural, fantasy, romance, criminality, slice-of-life (modern or set in past, usually with some twists)
Hearing a newcomer to the retreat express doubt at the severity and rigidity of the rules wasn't new to Stasya, who responded to the other's initial remark with a flat look, the seriousness of her expression concealing the irritation that had bubbled instantaneously beneath it. The rules were in place for a reason, after all; rules that Morten had encouraged for the benefit of their plans as a collective. Though the residents were oblivious to the inner-workings of the cult (not that Stasya recognised the fact she was in one), them choosing to openly question rulings made by Morten was a personal insult to her, and every time, without fail, she had to fight against herself in order to keep her barbed insults, in defence of Morten, at bay.

It was natural, instinctive at this point, for her to want to jump to defend his honour and support his genius. Having strangers arrive and question everything he had put into place, cast doubt upon the set-up as if they knew what they wanted for themselves when, in reality, Stasya tended to believe that their presence at the retreat was proof for the contrary - that they didn't know how to handle their lives as successfully as they perhaps ought to.

And certainly not to the extent in which Morten operated through life. His vision was remarkable; his methods intelligent and detailed. He was the reason Stasya was destined for a greater existence once their plans came to fruition; the reason she would be granted a life of ease and enrichment (or so she naively believed, at least). Anyone doubting even a slither of those plans, however inconsequential they seemed on the surface, only served to incur a wrath the woman had only realised she was capable of whenever Morten, however indirectly, was challenged.

To say she would physically fight for him was an understatement; she would kill for him if she had to.

Or more accurately, she would continue to kill for him if that was what he desired from her.

"Eliminating choice removes time wasted on unnecessary thought. Handing you a schedule, a set routine, frees your mind up to focus; re-centres you and encourages self-improvement and inner discovery. It's a process that has proven to work. Do not doubt it before you have tried it. That is not a healthy mindset to enter this space with."

Her eventual response, its cold, unimpressed delivery unsubtle, sounded after she had managed to push back much of her defensiveness, though restraining herself from sending a sharp look back at Hinata required a resolve she seemingly wasn't capable of in that moment. Being as dedicated to Morten as she was meant her defence of him was often the most vocal - and the most vicious. The fact she had composed herself enough to reduce it down to a single pointed glance was a miracle, though praising herself for it was an act she chose not to do; not when there were more important matters than self-congratulation, which she often took a dim view of under most circumstances anyway.

"After dinner -which is at 7pm each night- you will have an hour for independent relaxation before retiring to your room at 9pm. That may provide you with the chance to do what you want with your time. Some like to spend it in the communal area, winding down with conversational reflection. Others choose to separate themselves and reflect on the day alone. I will suggest you choose to spend it in those ways, rather than wander about exploratorily, but it is your free time. We found that offering a slither of choice amongst our rules and regulations is... necessary," she continued begrudgingly, the lack of enthusiasm in her tone only suggesting that she wasn't too fond of the option. Ideally, restricting the paying clientele to a schedule void of any choice was far more beneficial to them as a group - it meant they knew where everyone would be and what they should be doing at any given time.

But Morten enjoyed offering the guests a slice of free choice; a measly hour among an entire day of restriction and regulation. He couldn't have them possessing that choice throughout their entire stay, that would be ludicrous and make his tasks difficult to accomplish, but providing them an hour to explore whatever they desired was entertaining to him. Through reports, he got to know the personalities, the driving forces, behind the guests - and could whittle them down accordingly, picking off the ones who served no purpose other than nutrition while maintaining the ones who had succeeded in piquing his curiosity (albeit often not enough for him to spare them a similar fate; their survival was prolonged, not guaranteed).

And as it was Morten's desire, Stasya obeyed it without objection or vocal disagreement, however irked she often was with having the guests wander about for that hour, uncontrolled and free.

Reaching a corridor of several identical doors, she made her way down to open one at the very end of it and held it open for Hinata - not out of politeness but necessity, the sight of his luggage making her realise that it was just simpler to hold the door for him, rather than waste time watching him struggle.

"You will be sharing with another of our guests - collectiveness and harmony with your fellow people here is encouraged. It's at the core of our teachings. I'm sure you'll come to appreciate it," she continued with a nod to the clothes set up on an exposed rack beside on of the two single beds within the expectedly bare room. No personal belongings were allowed, no expressions of a guest's personality encouraged. Instead, the basic necessities from the room's other guest were set up on the shelf beside their bed, thus maintaining the Lodge's overall aesthetic of sleek, open plainness.

"You have some minutes to set up before you are to arrive for meditation in the Valley Room. I recommend getting changed into the clothes provided for you, we require our guests to adhere to the dress policy. It encourages cohesion and harmony; ensures nobody is made to feel inferior or less than their peers," continued Stasya with the same matter-of-fact nature, barely bothering to even adopt a pretence of enthusiasm when a) these were words she had spoken countless times over the years and b) she didn't care to pretend to actively care about Hinata and his life, be it before the retreat or within it.

"Take a left at reception," she pressed on, peering back over at him,"-and head past the dining hall; the Valley Room will be on your right. Everyone will be there; don't take too long. It's not good practise to arrive late to your activities here. It disrupts the flow of the sessions."
 

saturnia pavonia

perseus
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The path of least resistance had been the way of life for Hinata for so long that it came as no surprise that the man could click into autopilot as he followed Stasya, silent in response to her scathing looks and cruel tone.

It was nothing he wasn’t used to in the past after all, nothing he wasn’t used to in his parents. He had learned to sift through the cruelty and receive the information he needed to keep and while he wanted to peel away from the habit of just falling into autopilot he knew it was probably ideal in that moment. He would keep his opinions to himself, because he had plenty.

For starters, the staff was clearly not there to create a welcoming atmosphere if Stasya was a good representation of that staff. Secondly, to have any sense of identity yanked away from him? Hinata had chosen this resort over jail or the mental health institute in hopes of being able to relax and take a vacation from the pressure of his parents. Sure, the gentle aroma that wafted through the air had it’s allure and he knew the lighting was softened for a comforting aura but he couldn’t keep a lip from pulling into a subtle grimace.

As comfortable as the environment was, he was certain sharing a room with a total stranger when he wanted nothing more than to focus on himself was far from ideal. He could deal with wearing clothes given to him and having a structured schedule was… okay, but sharing space like he was in college? There was a reason he took his parents’ offer of an apartment of his own without hesitation after his obligatory first semester stay. It was absolute hell, Hinata preferring his space over most things. He inhaled sharply and let his hands clench around the handles of his suitcases before shooting his own sharp glance at Stasya.

“Is if fair to assume that there’s no way to… have my own space?” He asked after a moment of pause, allowing the woman to offer her usual spiel that he was certain has been bitterly drawled out countless times before. “I am, um… shy. That’s probably obvious, ha…” he continued. Despite his attempt at confidence he was certain that the answer was no just given her energy but it couldn’t hurt to ask and he knew he had to start putting his foot down, right?

“Nevermind, it’s… great.” He lied, the snark in his tone something that came out without his intention. He didn’t want any trouble with this woman, not when she was just doing her job, but while he tried to appear indifferent or even happy he knew he couldn’t in this case. It caused the smile he offered to look pained as he finally shimmied off his coat to hang neatly on the rack.

Hinata would emerge from the room, more tense leaving than he had been entering after undressing with nervous glances towards the window every moment. The beauty of living on the 9th floor of his building meant he had no insecurities undressing. Who was going to watch him undress, the pigeons? The occasional window cleaner? No, his new roommate could step in at any moment and he would die then and there from embarrassment. The clothing themselves were comfortable certainly but even the soft texture and brief comfort it offered wasn’t enough to make him relaxed as he stepped into the hallway, it’s silence and emptiness causing his stomach to flutter.

At least he could enjoy the marble statues that decorated the hall, however… haunting they were. They were beautiful and shockingly realistic but they contrasted an otherwise modern and calming interior. He was no designer, he told himself. No, if he was then perhaps his parents would have respected him enough to listen to what he had to stay rather than force him here - though that wasn’t likely. He moved cautiously through the empty halls, taking Stasya’s directions obediently in hopes that he could possibly turn his brain off for a little while.
 

potassiumboron

~I'm drinking coffee on a trampoline~
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Stasya wasn't a person who found things... funny. No, she was immensely serious at all times of day, however aggravating that incessant stoicism was on both residents and colleagues alike. That serious outlook was for the betterment of the cause, her adoption of the de facto leader at the helm in Morten's absence behind closed doors encouraging her to lean into her natural sternness-- because it was inherent to her; it was who she was. She might ease into it for the advancement of the Lodge's purpose, to ensure everything ran as it ought to and as seamlessly as possible, but it wasn't a trait she had to force herself to maintain.

She had always been that way ever since she was a small girl. Her approach to the world was analytical, careful, with observations taken in through calculative, calm eyes. Nothing had changed as she grew into womanhood, the approach remaining as intact, as strong, as ever; if anything, it had heightened as she found herself involved in a role that insisted she remain serious and dedicated to the duties it asked of her.

And yet, in spite of it all, Stasya found herself wanting to laugh aloud at Hinata's suggestion for privacy. His discouragement at his surroundings, the dissatisfaction at what was being thrust upon him rather than offered, wasn't lost to her critical gaze, but she was quick to discount it entirely because ultimately? What Hinata though didn't matter to her at this stage. Unless Morten took in the reports and decided that Hinata was one of the unfortunate few who would get to leave with their life intact (because to Stasya, the real privilege was in a resident giving themselves up to Morten for the greater good), then Hinata was a doomed man; a dead man who she had no need to keep content.

Dead men couldn't leave five-star reviews on the Lodge's website to entice future clientele, after all.

Predictably, regardless of how humorous she found his naivety to be, there was no hint of a smile to be found on her expression: it remained deadpanned; unrelenting. Her laughter had to be suppressed, stifled, but she managed to accomplish the task without outward difficulty-- in private, when she was sure she was alone, she would allow a chuckle to sound, but now? In Hinata's presence? No, she had to remain outwardly composed - without the appearance she gave to the world, things would start to deteriorate; crumble from the usual efficiency that otherwise dominated Hellebore.

In sharp contrast to how Stasya had chosen to introduce herself to Hinata, the colleague at the helm of the meditation class greeted his presence with a bright smile and an accommodating wave, ushering him to take his seat. As evidence of the efficiency that the retreat boasted, to an almost creepy extent, a mat was already placed out for Hinata, his arrival to the Lodge and attendance to the meditation session already noted and prepared for.

"A new face! How wonderful! Come, come; take a seat, join us," urged the instructor as her smile proceeded to widen in continued encouragement. Her energy, her welcome, her brightness; all of it juxtaposed Stasya's approach, because fundamentally, the two had very different takes on how to handle the guests the retreat welcomed. While Stasya was content to wait until Morten made it abundantly clear what he wanted to happen with a certain guest, others, like the colleague leading the meditation session, thought it best to treat everyone with a smile and a welcome word; to build connections and forge understandings.

Because what better way was there to potentially welcome in a new member of their 'family'? Of subtly but surely introducing them to the ideals that Morten held? New followers of their ideology were, as far as most of the family were concerned, more than welcome - the more people that heard Morten's wisdom, the better.

"Would you care to introduce yourself to us all? You are part of a unique group; all experiencing, living, breathing together at this time. That is special, so special. So let us hear your name, yes? In your voice."
 

saturnia pavonia

perseus
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Genres
Fantasy, Mystery, Scifi, Romance, Yaoi, Yuri, Horror
Once stepping into the room it should have come as no surprise that Hinata froze, hands unclenched though subtly shaking now that all eyes were on him. This was supposed to be a place of relaxation, self-reflection, and peace yet here he was, already throwing a wrench into everyone’s plan-

No. There would be no self-pity on this trip. He had spent the last two and a half decades on that pity, he needed to take responsibility for his actions and feelings. This whole trip was to work upon himself, right? Working on himself meant conquering his fears, however valid they were in his eyes.

Moving nervously through the group of watchful residents, Hinata obediently took a seat on the yoga mat and let himself take in the room. It’s oddly orb-like shape offered no comfort, only pressuring him with a sense of claustrophobia as the blood inside him pumped in his ears. Next we’re the candles that, while didn’t solely light the meditation dome, they certainly took up a good amount of the lighting nonetheless and he watched the shadows of the fellow lodge residents move every now and then. It wasn’t until his attention was brought upon the instructor that he was able to center himself. His cheeks were ablaze almost instantly the more eyes that landed on him and, like most situations in which he should have spoken, Hinata found himself offering a stuttered bunch of babbles before clearing his throat.

Ideally everyone would have realized that this wasn't exactly the time nor was Hinata exactly the type for introductions. More often than not he would be introduced, often by whoever would do the same for his parents. It was such a simple task and he understood that but he couldn't stop the pounding in his chest at the mere idea of having to pull this 'first day of school' shit on his vacation retreat. It was inevitable though and, after a moment of silence when he realized everyone's gaze was unrelenting, he offered his best faked smile.

“You can call me Hinata.” He greeted quietly, his voice calm and steady despite fully expecting to have his voice croak and leave him to look a fool. He would offer a cool smile, let the waves of nausea that came with his rising blood pressure go away. The lodge so far had given off a... he hated the term, but a 'vibe', one he wasn't exactly keen on yet, but this room and this staff member were at least warm in their welcome, however poorly he reacted to it. A hand went to his neck, rubbing the stiff muscles there he desperately wanted to rid of - but he had a feeling that this little getaway wouldn't allow time for a massage. Perhaps they had baths? He could use a long soak in his allowed hour? "Sorry for interrupting, aha... but Hinata is fine, thank you."
 

potassiumboron

~I'm drinking coffee on a trampoline~
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The instructor was hardly oblivious to the nervousness and discomfort on display, able to visibly see it shrouding Hinata and every single movement he made even before he uttered a word, but that wouldn't dissuade her from encouraging the introduction from him. As sympathetic as she might be to the awkwardness that accompanied being put on the spot and having, in that moment, everyone's attention, she wasn't -and never would be- in the habit of allowing any resident within the Lodge to skip out on steps that would benefit their lives during their stay.

Some might be more comfortable seeking solutions to their problems at the establishment by focusing primarily on themselves and distancing themselves from what made them feel unsettled, but that wasn't how things were done at Hellebore. No, residents were encouraged to mingle, to push themselves out of their comfort zones and 'rebuild their dysfunctional sense of selves' in a community setting. Ultimately, the mindset behind encouraging the socialisation was for ease - it was easier to keep an eye on everyone if they were encouraged (or rather, forced) to consistently interact with their peers and attend the scheduled activities than it would be if everyone was free to do as they wished at any time of the day.

Granted, the truth behind that mindset wasn't readily handed out to the guests, grand justifications of 'building support systems' and 'encouraging self-growth as a collective' instead constantly -and even eerily- parroted by Hellebore's staff.

"Well, Hinata, it's a pleasure to meet you! All you have to do is follow me through some simple poses; nothing too difficult or complex," she encouraged with another beamed smile, one that didn't seem to dip or ease out. The positivity that radiated from her wasn't forced in any aspect - it was genuine in its intensity because, as far as she was concerned, what reason did she have not to be so positive when she was in a position of such immense amazement? She was one of the privileged few brought in to the secrets behind Hellebore; part of the circle under Morten's grand leadership, party to the wonder that he was and communicated to them. She had experienced through her presence in the 'family' that the universe held secrets nobody else had an understanding of and was destined, as a result, to transition to a greater existence, a plane of richness and peace.

How could she go through each day without positivity when, with every fibre of her being, she believed that she was on the path to true eternal contentment?

It was all bullshit, all lies constructed by a manipulator who sought only his own comfort and ease, but nothing could dissuade her from believing in it.

And as such, her smile remained fixed in its place as she proceeded with the class, the gentle silence only broken by her gradual, soothing murmurs of encouragement to the group following her physical instruction. At the class' conclusion some forty minutes later, she stood with her hands clasped together in front of her, a -characteristically- wide smile on her lips as she took in the now complete group of guests before her.

"That was wonderful, everyone; truly wonderful! I hope you're all feeling a little more relaxed, a little more receptive to finding yourselves. Collect yourselves a small cup of green tea and enjoy it in these last five minutes; let it soothe your souls, calm your minds before you head to your next activity, which I think is an art session, yes? How fun!"

"...They sell the shit out of these activities, huh? Can't see they don't work hard for the thousands we're dishing out for treatments here," a voice muttered from Hinata's side, a lopsided grin on the face of its speaker arriving shortly after the critically-edged words. The man, vastly taller than Hinata, peered down at the Lodge's newest resident in thinly-veiled amusement - not at Hinata but at the situation he seemed to have been thrust into. The bewilderment was one that Niko had experienced when he had arrived and been thrown into the rigidly-scheduled activities so he understood it - and couldn't pretend not to be entertained by it.

"You'll get used to it - the outpouring of upbeat energy, the schedule, the 'peace, zen, soul-searching' mantras they peddle out. Eventually. Bit jarring when you first get here but you'll get accustomed to it," he continued as he retrieved a small clay mug from the nearby tray, pouring himself out a serving of green tea with a faint nod and smile to the other members of the group awaiting their turn.

"Anyway," he continued as he leaned against the wooden countertop and gently blew into the cup to cool the steaming tea as best he could - given they had a mere five minutes to enjoy the small break before heading to the next activity, he wanted to be able to enjoy the brief break, and the tea that came with it, as much as he could. "They encourage this, by the way. Talking. Bonding, they call it. Becoming linked. Sucks if you're not the talkative type; they don't really take that into consideration but, uh-- don't complain about it. Doesn't go down too well to kick up a fuss when we're here for relaxation, y'know?"
 

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As uncomfortable as Hinata was at the eyes being undoubtedly all on him, he would be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy at least the last fifteen minutes or so; when he was almost certain there were no drifting eyes his way, at least none that he could see. It had taken him nearly a half hour to finally relax and in those last few minutes of peace, of quiet - both mentally and physically - it was nice to simply let his mind go a little mushy.

This has been what he wanted, after all. He wanted some quiet time to himself, time where he could spend dedicated to himself and himself alone. Letting his mind rest after the threats from his parents followed by nonstop travel was a treat he didn’t want to end. Sure, he wanted to work on his art - and hearing the mention of some art class to be next on the day’s list of activities reminded him of that - it was nice to simply shut everything off for a little while. No worries if his parents’ companies, no threats of arrests, just…. A nice pleasant hum in the back of his brain, he’d compare to the purring of a cat.

In those fifteen minutes of peace there had been no thoughts, none that mattered enough to ruminate on at least. When he opened his eyes to see everyone seemed to do the same, he even dared to let the smallest of smiles creep onto his lips, however small. It was certainly the largest genuine smile he had made in over a month. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end though, the meditation session included, and once again had the anxiety returned as he watched others get to their feet. His mind had focused on the general movement so much that he hadn’t even noticed Niko.

Hinata jumped at the sudden voice, all semblance of calm now gone and replaced with embarrassment as his cheeks burned red. He was exhausted and the last thing he needed was to be scared because he could quite easily see himself having a heart attack what with how he felt physically and emotionally. After a brief moment to relax his beating heart, he pushed from the pillows to obediently follow suit and grab a mug of tea that he cradled.

“… so you’ve been here long, then?” He eventually spoke up, his voice rough before taking a hearty bit of tea to calm his throat. “I’m Hinata - I mean, y’know, you heard the woman introduce me. Or, uh - I guess I introduced myself - a-anyway. I’m Hinata, literally just got here so… I would have preferred a nap or something but meditation isn’t too bad. You are…?”

The man spoke quietly, nervous murmurs and babbles that only left Hinata all the more embarrassed. Not to mention taking note of this stranger and just how cute his lopsided grin was, it would come as no surprise to someone who knew him that the man would babble out his words.
 

potassiumboron

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The unnecessary introduction, more or less made through awkwardness, only served to make Niko grin to himself in thinly-veiled amusement. It wasn't one born from ridicule, or from a desire to laugh at Hinata, but rather stemmed from a place of light-hearted enjoyment - there was something surprisingly enjoyable in Hinata's nervous energy; something to be fond of, especially when compared to the confidence and even arrogance that stemmed from some of the members within the group, with their inherent belief that they 'got' what the Lodge represented far better than their temporary peers having driven Niko to physically bite his lip to keep his annoyance at bay.

Frankly, adding someone like Hinata into the mix seemed like a positive, even if he had very little to go on to justify that initial opinion besides two nervous introductions - but, believing he was an inherently good judge of character (and finding himself almost desperate to believe that this wasn't another new member of the group who would go on to drive him mad with their self-indulgent chattering), Niko chose to trust his gut and seize the chance to potentially align himself with someone who was -thankfully- unlike some of the others in the group.

"Oh yeah, I gathered that your name was Hinata; you said so enough times when you arrived," he remarked playfully in return, the teasing quip not intending to be mean-spirited or malicious in nature. On the contrary, light jibes and playful jokes were Niko's preferred method of breaking the ice; of introducing levity and easing off awkwardness - if he wasn't handing out the jokes about others, though, he was more than happy to turn the energy on himself and venture into self-deprecation if he had to.

"Niko. Nikolas, technically, but Niko's fine. It's my-- god, my fourth week here. A month, yeah. It's a decent chunk of time, huh?" He eventually answered with a snort, releasing a puff of air through his lips as he reflected on just how long it had been since his own arrival. To say the time had flown by wouldn't be accurate -there were days were time felt like it was slowing down because of how bored he had been- but it definitely hadn't felt like a month since he arrived at the Lodge's doorstep, unsure on what to expect when he entered the property.

He wasn't exactly a convert to the Lodge's philosophies, certainly wasn't one of the members that was considered to be a potential inductee into the cult at large, but the fact he still had his life, was still breathing, was fortunate - he just, naturally, wasn't quite aware of how lucky he had been thus far, or how long that luck would continue to be on his side.

"Only have another month 'til I'm out of here. I guess I could leave at any time, but-- better to endure the meditation and the awful tea than pissing off the people who paid for me to come here by leaving early," he shrugged, aware that he was perhaps being vague in refusing to elaborate on his reason for being at Hellebore in the first place but offering up his life story after quite literally meeting Hinata wasn't how he wanted to engage with him. "...I'm not a fan, obviously. Not a, uh... a believer in this shit, put it that way."
 

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Oh, Hinata's face could not get any redder at this point as he locked eyes on his reflection in the green tea, the pools thaf formed when he made even the slightest of movements being disorienting combined with how tired he was.

He distinctly remembered the traditional tea ceremonies his father made him learn and practice as a part of his culture. He remembered the guilt he felt when he messed up, imagining just how disappointed his grandparents would be if they saw his failure despite being despised by them without him knowing. They had no contact after all so all he could picture was the image of what a normal child’s grandparents would be like; loving, doting, caring. He didn’t dwell on those thoughts though, not when hd realized he finally heard Niko’s name.

Niko. Nikolas. It was a simple name enough, one he was certain to memorize as he recalled his first interaction with his best friend and ex-lover, the two being not too dissimilar as he recalled the light taunts and jabs. Oh how his blush raged on and finally did Hinata allow himself to test the tea… only to find himself making a face in disgust. It wasn’t bad, just ridiculously over brewed if the hours of focus on the traditional tea ceremonies he had been taught were anything.

“So you didn’t come here on your own volition either, huh?” Hinata confirmed, still holding the less than worthy tea in his hands for some warmth. His eyes drifted to Niko, a brow rising in curiosity. Was his situation not as uncommon as he thought? A guilt landed in his gut once realizing his circumstances weren’t special, not that he planned to brag. He knew he ought to take comfort in knowing he had met someone suffering the same fate but it only left him feeling bad; bad for Niko’s situation and for feeling as if he was any bit special.

“It’s…” the young man paused, taking in the group as they chatted amongst one another, “not my favorite, no. I enjoy my privacy, y’know? Like, I’m a human being and I, y-y’know, sometimes want to do things alone so sharing a room will be a nightmare. It’s also very spartanesque in the bedrooms - but… I’m babbling.” He offered an attempt at a laugh but it sounded warbled and confuse. “Tell me when to shut up, Niko”
 

potassiumboron

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If his grin wasn't evident at the sight of Hinata's features pulling together in disgust at the tea, then it became more obvious at the other's eventual question. He didn't intend on answering questions regarding his presence at the Lodge to anyone - Hinata being a relative stranger didn't mean he was held at arms' length, trust needing to be developed, familiarity registered, before Niko could even consider parting with more personal information about himself. On the contrary, he had barely shared much about him to those in the group he had spent almost an entire month with; a month in which he was actively encouraged to talk, converse and share.

No, he preferred to keep his reasons to himself; to decline opening up a discussion about what had gone in his life beyond Hellebore for him -or rather, his family- to throw an intervention and 'gift' him a chance to recover and recuperate. He wasn't naive to the fact that his story wasn't wholly unique to him; that others in the Lodge may have similar experiences that could prove helpful to whatever recovery he was deemed, by the Lodge and his family back home, to need.

He just... didn't find it entirely necessary to venture into details that made him uncomfortable; to share them to people he didn't care to get to know beyond polite small talk and daily pleasantries. Perhaps it was rude to disregard an option for friendship, to push aside a chance to lean into the Lodge's embrace and build himself a place of support and nurture - but when he found its teachings ridiculous, its lessons unhelpful, why be dishonest and pretend? The fact he bit his lip and complied with the lessons without openly mocking them was an effort in and of itself to be a decent person - but doing more than the bare minimum? No, he wasn't equipped with the patience or the stamina for that.

None of which explained why he found himself willing to share a slither of that personal past with Hinata. He surprised himself with the desire, but eventually justified his decision.

Hinata, for now, seemed normal, able to see the place as what it was without bias. If sharing something with him helped keep things that way, maintained his status as a potential ally, who was Niko to turn it down?

"Oh, yeah, no. Got home from work one day and had the entire family sat on the couch, staring up at me intervention-style. Plane ticket on the table, suitcase packed, all of that. Next day, I was here," he shrugged as though indifferent to the hurried nature of his arrival. In actuality, the shock of it had registered initially as anger but had now settled into pain and hurt; a bitter sense of what he could only describe as a betrayal. He hadn't, as his family hoped, come to see their intervention as their desire to help him but rather a way for them to distance themselves from him; pretend that his problems and issues weren't happening.

The farther away he was, the more they could accurately pretend that all was well. At least, that was the impression he was left with.

"I'd offer to come share a room with you if you wanted. My roommate's fucking-- really into all of this. I don't think I can survive another night hearing him pester me to 'meditate' with him," he snorted with another mocking roll of his eyes, his smile, characteristically lopsided, pulling at his lips once again. His eyes did momentarily shift away from Hinata at the door to the sparse room opening, his smile subsequently dipping at the sight of a typically unimpressed Stasya seemingly present to guide them to their next activity.

"I won't be asking her though," he muttered under his breath as he set his cup aside, managing just the briefest and subtlest of nods to Stasya to contextualise his remark. "She's the worst, huh? I've only gotta breathe and she glares at me like I've commited the worst of all sins."
 

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"My situation isn't… very far off. One day living your life the next you're being flown across the world to 'work on yourself and your bad behavior'," Hinata replied, his voice deepening and his chest puffed as he mocked the caricature of his father. His chest deflated quickly though as a creeping smile, however small, grew on the shorter man's lips.

He wouldn't pry, just as how he would never want to be pried upon. The idea of sitting down with someone he had just spoken to and explain the soul-crushing case of his family situation was more than just a little embarrassing. He figured Niko wasn't too dissimilar and like hell would he want the same for a man who seemed to be kind enough to get to know him… even if the teasing could be less than desirable. It was comforting though, given the fact his former partner was not too different than Niko.

He distinctly remembered the way Ezekiel had relentlessly teased him that first day of their Introduction to Art class, an initial throwaway course he managed to slip in under his parents' noses. It had been his first time interacting with other people his age, getting a feel for proper social skills with people who didn't have ulterior motives. It was the first time, the first real moment, where Hinata was in his element and embracing something he loved without the watchful eye of two people who had controlled every other aspect of his life. To have freedom, to have good social influence in his life? The situation was similar with Niko, being a warm force in an otherwise strict and cold environment.

"We're a bit too old for sleepovers, right?" Hinata attempted to tease, though his voice was hushed - childish, meek, as if what he had said was the most disturbing joke he had ever made. He hid his smile behind his tea even if he had no intention of taking another sip as his blush softened to just his cheeks.

His eyes slowly moved to Stasya, an awkward dread settling in his stomach. Nonetheless he tried to approach the situation like Niko; with a feigned air of confidence. He set the handmade cups down carefully before resting his hands behind his back instinctively. A neutral, 'respectful' pose as his mother drilled into him.

"I was hoping to come here to relax and focus on myself, I wasn't expecting such militant routine but… it isn't much different from home, I guess. I'd rather be enjoying some good tea and a warm bath but.. guess we're doing whatever we're doing next, huh?" Hs continued, his voice just above a whisper.
 

potassiumboron

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"You're never too old for a sleepover, my dude. You're telling me you've never crashed at a friend's place for the night, watched shitty movies and had cold pizza for breakfast the next day? You haven't lived properly if that's the case," shrugged Niko casually in response, the same confident smile residing on his lips even as a slither of discomfort made its way through him, settling uncomfortably and unwelcomingly in the pit of his stomach.

It wasn't his intention to say something hurtful or potentially trigger something in Hinata to make him upset. As much of a bombardment as Niko's teases could sometimes become, their quickfire nature often teetering the edge into aggravating, he never intended to be malicious or cruel. As negative and as critical as he could be, he was never... mean, certainly not to those that deserved to be protected from that bleakness - and from what he had seen from Hinata so far, he definitely wasn't the sort of person who ought to endure cutting, curt comments, picking at who he was and what represented him.

And yet, entirely inadvertently, Niko was left with the impression that he had put his foot in it. Despite not intending to say something hurtful, despite the teasing tone to the words delivered with an unmistakable lightness and unseriousness, what if Hinata took offence by the implications within Niko's dismissal; became hurt by his suggestion that he hadn't 'lived'? It was a joke, a potentially thoughtless one, but the further Niko contemplated it, the less comfortable he was with having said it. It didn't take a genius to see that Hinata was... awkward, certainly sheltered and withdrawn.

He didn't make a habit of making assumptions about people, particularly those he had just met, but he tended to believe that Hinata, perhaps, hadn't had much of an opportunity to fully explore himself and his desires.

Making a shitty joke referencing that lack of activity, however innocent it was when lacking in context, only compounded Niko's guilt and, had he had the time to apologise before the potential for him to be hurt by it fully sunk in, Niko would have hurriedly attempted to atone for it.

Unfortunately, Stasya's frown, with her single, judgementally arched brow pulling together the entire unimpressed look, stopped him short.

"Did you drink all your tea?" She questioned curtly to the two, apparently seeing no need to propose the same question to the other members of the group who gradually filed from the room after a Lodge member. Her lips pursed as she awaited an answer, her eyes darting to the nearby cups just too far from her sight to see whether they still held liquid within them. "It is important you drink it. It is part of the programme. Every part of the programme must be followed without complaint. Without rejection."

"We get it. We drank the tea. Every single, unbearable drop."

The remark caused her frown to deepen in her annoyance, Stasya's jaw visibly clenched as she fought back the urge to reprimand Niko on the spot. No, she would hold herself back and instead lean into satisfaction, into enjoyment, when parts of him were cut, grilled, seasoned and consumed for her Master's benefit.

At least then Niko would serve some sort of purpose; as of right now, all he did was make ridiculous quips and prove to be little more than a thorn in her side.

"That is good then," she blandly opted to remark, her eyes instead resting on Hinata who, though (in her eyes) dull and boring, was at least, for now, compliant and seemingly open to the programme. "Your first session went well then, yes? Meditation is a large part of our teachings. You are out of luck if you don't enjoy it."
 

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“My parents had offered me a very, um… “ Hinata paused, his eyes darting away in contemplation. Why was he trying to defend them? Why was he trying to defend two people who had been open about their lack of paternal love, two people who had made it clear without words that they wanted nothing to do with him if it didn’t further their purpose to have an heir to the company they had built from the ground up?

Even now though, he wanted to defend them. He wanted to make excuses for them, say that their intentions weren’t malicious - but while that wouldn’t be a complete lie it certainly wouldn’t be as honest as he wanted to be with it. His experience amongst others outside the very firm bubble he had been put in was limited for his age but he still had gotten a taste of freedom in the form of his friends, however much his parents despised them - and like hell would he let them know the truth, the details of those relationships.

“They offered me a very… ah, sheltered childhood.” Hinata decided as he tapped his fingers against his side absentmindedly. He opened his mouth to continue to speak - perhaps not trauma-dump in that instance but certainly offer some details into his experience and express how desperate he was to experience what seemed so normal for Niko. Of course, he was cut off quickly by Stasya’s aura almost instantly, her gaze not too dissimilar to his own mother’s.

“It… was a bit over-brewed,” Hinata dared to comment, however quietly, as a sly smirk grew on the shorter man’s lips. He did his best to avoid glancing at Niko, to see if he had done the man right in his attempts at a little deviousness. It wasn’t a joke and it certainly wasn’t delivered in the same sarcastic drawl as his new acquaintance but it still showed some confidence - confidence he no doubt would not have without Niko’s encouragement. His smile did falter once the woman’s eyes landed on him. He tensed, those tapping fingers now a pair of clenched fists.

“… I enjoyed the meditation, yes. I’ve done it before, alone, but… it’s been awhile,” he admitted after a clearing of his throat. Any benefit the meditation offered him was absolutely gone now, Stasya’s gaze alone returning him to that tense state. “Never did it in a group setting, aha….”
 

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The awkwardness that Niko had silently feared he had (inadvertently) created didn't seem to exist, if he was reading the arrival of a smirk on Hinata's lips correctly. Unlike the other, he didn't hesitate to send him a glance once the remark landed, his expression brightening in what could only be described as pride - after all, he hadn't, after gathering together what he knew of Hinata in the short time they had interacted, come to believe that this was someone who might share his vocal criticisms of the Lodge.

In private, away from prying eyes and eavesdropping ears, perhaps criticisms would be aired from Hinata; perhaps then they could engage in sharing the bitterness that stemmed from the unfairness of their arrivals at Hellebore, thousands of miles from their homes. That wasn't unhelpful, the hope that he could actively share how he truly felt with someone being a lifeline to get him through the entire experience that Niko was more than happy to cling to - but he couldn't deny that it would be more helpful to have someone confidently expressing how they felt in the same vein he had adopted; someone who wasn't afraid to voice a critique amongst the sea of compliments.

He hadn't anticipated that person being Hinata. Granted, his criticism was hardly scathing, voiced politely and quietly, but it was better than nothing, certainly far more critical than any member of the current group Niko had been stuck with had ever been.

As such, it wasn't easy for him to disguise the extent of the grin that rose on his face as a result, the initial smile brightening the more he digested Hinata's effort - and acknowledged what possibilities that sort of open honesty could have for them both during their stay. He doubted the Lodge's workers would be too thrilled with the criticisms, but he didn't care - it was easier on him mentally to be open and not bottle up how he felt, or flat-out lie about it, and wasn't that what they wanted? For him to get better?

Niko might have been overjoyed by the connection forming with Hinata but Stasya? Oh, she was furious with it, her jaw clenched tighter than was normal as she struggled to comprehend the depth of her anger. The connection was something she, on the surface, was expected to appreciate, given the encouragement from all at Hellebore to the guests to do just that - interact, socialise and connect.

But that was only encouraged if what they were destined to share was a consensus on how wonderful the Lodge was; how remarkable its attitude to tending to the needs that they didn't even realise they had until they arrived at its door. Only then were shared words encouraged, given how vastly useful it was to have everyone thinking and feeling a similar way. It wasn't quite as helpful to have two people forming a connection over their negative view on Hellebore, not when it heightened the possibility for that negativity to spread and drag in more people.

Niko wasn't dangerous alone, his pessimism having fallen on deaf ears - but now he had Hinata on side, was it unreasonable to fear the possibility that a third would be tempted to agree with them? A fourth? A fifth?

"New experiences aren't to be feared or avoided. You'll come to realise that there are benefits to the systems here. You will if you don't... engage with the wrong sort, at least. I encourage you to make the right choices, Hinata, or you won't get anything from your time here. And wouldn't that be a shame to those back home who care so deeply about you that they organised your stay here? I know I'd feel horrible if I didn't make full use of everything Hellebore has to offer. A true disappointment," muttered Stasya sharply, her eyes, intensely enflamed, locking directly on Hinata. The manipulativeness at the core of her comments wasn't fair or pleasant - but Stasya didn't describe herself as either of those things. No, she was determined, loyal and fierce - and would do anything she could, however cruel, to ensure things went as smoothly as they could at the Lodge, for Morten alone.

And quietening discerning voices, ensuring they didn't gather support, was one issue she recently discovered she had to contend with, with failure being no option.

"With that settled, make your way down the stairs to the lower floor; your art session is taking place in the Stille Room. I'm sure you can make it there yourselves," she continued without bothering to disguise the derision seeping into her words, a brow raised in challenge as she stood to the left of the stairway leading to the lower floors. "If you truly need my assistance, I'll lead you there, Niko. But you have been here ever so long, I'm sure you know you're way around by now."

"...Yeah. I know the Stille Room. We can manage," returned Niko with a false smile, one he didn't attempt to hold for longer than a second as his irritation soon took over, flooding his face alongside a furious grimace. He wasn't blind to the tactics Stasya used, but it didn't mean that being on the receiving end of them didn't hrut and outrage him in equal measure. Only when she was out of earshot did he peer across at Hinata, hoping the sight of his new acquaintance would help him overcome the burst of anger in his chest.

"God, she's such a-- are you alright? She didn't upset you too much, yeah? She just does it to-- get the upper-hand. It's all a power thing; keep us beneath her. Don't let it work."