“First aid kit, large blanket, two water bottles just in case, a couple of homemade sandwiches each…” Loveline listed things she put in her hiking backpack. On the bed, alongside a row of neatly arranged stuffed toys, laid the outfit she’d picked out. Evidence of how long it took to decide was strewn about the nightstand, a pile of opened fashion magazines next to a stack of bodybuilding and gardening ones. “A raincoat could come in handy… But I guess we can just transform if we expect to get wet.”
Love looked at the clock on her wall. It was 7:40, 20 minutes before Ariana was to show up. She smiled from ear to ear just thinking about it. Their first actual date! Love did some final checks. Emergency rope, a pair of torches, and an enchanted swiss army knife. With their powers, this should be plenty. Finally, she got dressed. Thick hiking boots and socks for comfort on the road. Short shorts to show off her legs (Cosmina’s idea and Love had to admit it was a good one). A plain white shirt and red zip-up hoodie to add some cuteness and style. And of course, hair tied into a flowing ponytail for practicality; can’t have it snagging on something!
Confident she was ready, there was nothing left for Love to check out the window and wait excitedly for the second star of the show to show up.
“Ariana! Have you packed?” Eve’s fist pounded the door, rocking the halls with a thunderous sound. There was no response from the room, although heads poked out from Becky and Huntsman’s rooms. “Ariana! Hey!” Eve grabbed her key ring. She had given Ariana’s door a lock as per her request, but she reserved the right to open the door if Ariana wasn’t responding. The door swung open to a messy room, littered with clothing and school books. Ariana was cocooned under her covers, alarm going off in a desperate attempt to wake her. Eve sighed and whipped the covers off. “UP, SOLDIER!” She yelled. “Wha- uhhhh?” Ariana slowly sat up, only to fall back onto her pillow and close her eyes in an instant.
“You’re meeting Love for your date in 30 minutes.” Eve reminded her. “I’m… oh shit!” Ariana rolled out of bed, flopping onto her stomach and scrabbling out to the bathroom. Eve sighed and rummaged through the drawers for clean clothes while she waited. Ariana returned from her quick shower to find baggy cargo shorts and a striped shirt. She was just finished getting dressed when Eve returned with an armful of stuff. “So, again, have you packed anything?” She asked Ariana. “Of course! I’m not stupid!” Ariana scooped up a duffel bag and opened it, revealing a hoard of power bars and a change of clothes, oddly with two pairs of underwear. “There’s room for improvement.” Eve handed over a length of rope with a grappling hook on the end, as well as a smaller roll of nylon rope. “Why two ropes?” Ariana asked. “One’s occupied by the hook. You can use the other for a tent, or making a spear, or tying Love up.” Eve said matter-of-factly, ignoring the rosey color Ariana took on. “I’m not- we won’t- that’s private!” Ariana yelled.
“What you do is private, but your health is my business. If you go down on one another, use these. I don’t care if she says she’s a virgin.” Eve tossed a stack of packages into the bag. Ariana peeped at the label. Dental dams? What were those? What was going down? She didn’t want to ask Love, but she especially didn’t want to ask Eve. “Oh, and throw them away if you don’t use them today, I got them cheap cause they’re nearly expired.” Eve ruffled Ariana’s hair and walked to the door. “Oh, and don’t forget your phone. It should work from another dimension after those upgrades, so call Huntsman if anything goes wrong. I’m going to be in Zimbabwe all week.” Eve blew a kiss and vanished off into the hallway. Ariana sighed and rubbed her face. Eve was so embarrassing! Ariana eyed the rope in the bag. She wasn’t even sure what she meant by tying Love up! Why would she do that?
A few minutes and one teleport later, Ariana was in London. A particularly nice part too. All the houses here were big! She looked at the map Love drew her, navigating deeper into the neighborhood until it came into view. The trees around it were the distinguishing feature, labeled as such on the map. Tall and bushy, they made it look a little more secluded than it was. A secret little lost world. She adjusted her baseball cap and hopped up the steps two at a time to slam on the door with all her might, announcing to anybody who was home that she had arrived.
Maybe a second after Ariana so gracefully announced her arrival, the door opened. A tall dark-haired girl stood in the doorway with piercing hazel eyes and a butterfly perched on her shoulder. "Ariana," Hazel said, pulling her into a hug. "Nice to see you. Come on in." She moved out of the way to let her in.
Once she inside, Hazel put an arm around Ariana. "So, you and Love are off on an adventure. I hope you're gonna take care of her out there." She squeezed tight. The hall Ariana found herself in had several exits. A door to the kitchen and dining room on the left, the exit to Loveline's garden straight forward, and the living room on the right, slightly before the stairway leading to the second floor.
"Love and Arthur should be ready by now. We can wait in the living room for them to come down. Or, if you want, you can up and say hi right away! Just go up and right toward the window, Love's room is on the far right. The one with the flower on it."
In the room Hazel described, Loveline looked herself over in a vanity mirror one last time. It was time! She grabbed her backpack and she was ready.
In the room opposite Love's, Arthur, who'd been doing something at his computer until Ariana shook the house, tossed off all his around-the-house clothes and quickly put on his casual day out clothes. Jeans and a white long-sleeve shirt with a wolf painted on. He was chaperoning the girls to his world while also giving them enough space for their little adventure. Balancing that was going to be fun. Ah, right, he couldn't forget to bring the gift he'd prepared for Valery or she'd have his head.
“Hi Hazel!” Ariana met Hazel’s hug with her own, scooping her off the ground. Hazel got a rough squeeze before being dropped. “Uh, I think she can take care of herself.” Ariana blushed a little, but she did like the thought. Fighting in the front line, taking hits, that’s what she was good at. Protecting Love like that… it felt good. “Oh, I want to see Love’s room! I’ll go visit her!” Ariana ran past her, skipping right up the steps to run up to Love’s room. She banged on the door, a little less violently than the front door. “Looove! I’m here!” She called.
Hazel watched Ariana hopping away. She was worried her sister would get hurt, and not just physically. Ariana was a bit... Dim. But perhaps that was a good thing. If anyone was going to take a bullet for Hazel's sister, it would be her. And Love seemed happy.
Upstairs, Love was startled by the knocking. She wasn't expecting Ariana coming up here! She didn't tidy up her bed yet or put away her magazines. Well, okay, this was Ariana. She probably wasn't going to mind. Love opened the door. "Hey, Riri! You look... Nice as always! Dad should be ready soon, wanna wait for him on my bed?" Realizing what she just said, her face turned the color of her hoodie.
Ariana perked up when Love opened the door. Oh no, she was cute! Ariana’s eyes flicked to her legs. “Nah Love, you look great! I’m just in some old shorts.” Was she supposed to dress nice? Did she already mess the day up!? “Oh, sure!” She was relieved when Love changed the topic, flopping readily onto the bed. It was comfy! Eve was cheaping out on mattresses, she knew it! “Love? You okay?” She asked, noticing her face. Did she do something wrong? She looked right past the magazines, ignoring everything in favor of Love.
Love appreciated the compliment Ariana gave her. "Old shorts are perfect! We're gonna get dirty and Eve would kill you if you got new clothes ruined, I'm sure." Well, maybe a bit more effort wouldn't have hurt... But Love wasn't going to hold it against her, especially considering she noticed Love's own effort! Oh wait, does that make her offer even more forward!? Okay, no, stop overthinking it. Ariana was going to get nervous for no reason. "I'm fine, I'm fine," Love laughed it off. "I'm just excited, you know." She went over and sat down next to Ariana, crossing her legs.
"I never went in any of those ruins, so we're gonna be discovering one together. I've got all kinds of things ready just in case we can't use our powers for some reason. And most importantly, we've even got lunch!" She looked at Ariana's duffel bag. "You seem ready, too! Are you sure a duffel bag won't get in the way though?"
“Heh, yeah, Eve would flip. Still make me wear them after too, she’s not sinking an investment that easily!” Ariana giggled at the thought. “Oh boy, I just brought snacks! As for my bag, uh…” She shook it, relatively empty sack rattling. “Well, I could fit what I brought into a backpack, but I don’t have one. Eve got this for a buck at a garage sale and tricked Kate into patching up the holes for free.” Ariana rolled her eyes. She didn’t mind it for school. Hell, she thought it looked cool. But it was a little bulky, wasn’t it?
"That sounds like her." Loveline shook her head at Ariana's story. "If you want something less clunky for the adventure, I can lend you my backpack." She pointed to the one leaning on her magazine-cluttered nightstand. "We just need to dump all the books and it'll be ready."
"Did someone say ready?" Arthur said, leaving his room, a wrapped present under his arm. "Because I know I am!"
"In a minute, Arty," Love said and looked at Ariana. Would she take the offer or was she ready to go?"
“Oh, I can use your backpack!?” Ariana gasped like it was some sort of sacred oath. “Sorry Arthur, I’ll be just a second!” She called as she removed the books from the backpack. She paused a second to scan the magazines. Woah, those people had huge muscles! She flexed to compare and shrugged at the result. Well she didn’t quite match up, but she’d get there! She opened the duffel bag and quickly transferred everything within to the backpack. “Okay, I’m ready! Who’s the present for?”
"Oh, this?" Arthur looked at the gift. "It's for our host. She likes getting souvenirs every time I show up. Luckily, chocolate is enough to placate her usually." Arthur answered before pulling out a small green rock. "Gather up now, we're going!"
"Get ready, Riri," Love said. "The first few times usually make people nauseous."
As she spoke, the stone started glowing and room around them started twisting and warping until it was just a mess of colors. Then the direction of the warping reversed and the world unwound into a completely different location. They were on a straight dirt road, trees with different-colored leaves bordering it from the tall metal gate behind them to the small wooden house in front of them. Strange flowers grew beyond the trees toward the brick fence encircling the estate. The house they were going toward was rather simple compared to its environment. It was a wooden cabin with a plaque above the door. Two swans with touching beaks to form a heart were engraved on the plaque, and a wolf head was engraved between them. Arlon and Valery figured it was a neat way to combine their sigils for the Cygnus/Cromwell estate.
"And here we are! You okay there, Ariana?" Arthur asked.
“Nauseous? I can handle that!” Ariana had teleported before. This couldn’t be so much worse. Her eyes crossed when the world around her became a mushy rainbow. Bile tickled the base of her throat and her head spun, but soon she was on solid ground again and grinning. “See, I’m… I’m fine!” She shook her head and looked up into the trees. “Huh… hey Love, you know about flowers, right?” Ariana knelt by a tree, studying the plant life. “None of these are earth flowers?” It was more a fairy world than the crazy alien world she expected, but that was still cool!
Love went over to where Ariana knelt. "Well, mostly. Arthur had some earth plants imported a while back." She pointed toward tulips and roses growing near the walls. "But a vast majority are different. Usually do weird stuff too! Like this one," She pointed at an orange flower that seemed to be wilting, it's free cuplike petals dropping toward the ground. "It's called the phoenix flower, in English at least. It doesn't produce children nor does it ever actually die. When it gets old, it just retracts into the stem and starts growing like new flower again. But if a powdi bird or some other animal removes the head..." She turned a nail into a sharp claw and beheaded it. The petals fell to the ground and turned into dust. "They basically inseminate wherever the dust lands. And the original flower still regrows afterward! They're practically immortal! Like a Phoenix!"
"And they can become worse than weeds in the wild or in an unattended garden," Arthur added. "That's the reason why only rich people keep them around. Actually killing them when they spread too much is really hard and really expensive."
"And there are other weird flowers. Like the Drup flower that can easily knock a person out if they smell them. You won't find those here though. People aren't allowed to grow them, they're only allowed in some gardens, like the royal ones. And of course, some plants aren't really magical so much as just look cool." She pointed at the tree Ariana was kneeling under. It seemed pretty regular aside from the fact its leaves were raspberry red and two-pronged.
"Indeed. We can give you a grand tour if you want. Thought that could take the whole day and your adventure would become more of a botany lesson," Arthur said. "In either case, we should at least say hi to Valery first."
When Ariana and Loveline were done gushing over flowers, the trio walked over to the door and Arthur knocked. After a few seconds, Valery Cygnus opened the door. She was a blond of average stature wearing a simple t-shirt and sweatpants and a broad grin.
"So, the wayward student comes again. If I didn't know better, I'd say you almost miss me." She bumped Arthur on the shoulder. "And Love, sweetheart, how are you?" She gave Loveline a hug.
"I'm fine, Val. We're here for the big adventure with Ariana." Love moved out of the way to show Ariana.
"Ariana, right. Nice to meet you finally." She extended a hand for a shake. "I've heard a lot about you. You weren't too bothered by the trip, were you? Oh, and you two are carrying your backpacks? Arty, you idiot mage, you're not supposed to let a girl carry her bags on her own! Have I not thought you anything?!"
Ariana happily listened while Love explained the flowers. She didn’t absorb a whole lot, but she loved hearing Love talk about something she cared about. “What? No! Not botany all day! I’m already failing biology, I don’t need more of that!” She whined. When they approached the cabin, her back went straight as a pole and she tucked in her shirt. “Hello Miss Cygnus, I’m Ariana Harper.” She spoke with a short bow and the utmost courtesy. “Uh, I can carry my own bag, ma’m.” Ariana got a baffled expression when Valery said Arthur should carry them. He wasn’t gonna be there all the time, and she needed it right on her back!
"I know you can, sweetie." Valery patted Ariana's head. "But you're going on an adventure. You should conserve your strength until it starts, no?"
"Hey, it's not like it was a long trip for them. And they're gonna be leaving fairly soon, right?" Arthur asked the girls.
"Oh, yes. I just wanna say hi to Fang first. And if Ariana wants, she can get a tour." She smiled at Ariana, before turning back to Val "Uh, can she get a tour if she wants?"
"Of course. My house is your house, remember? Of course you do. Now did you have enough standing around here? Come on in." Valery let the group inside. The first obvious thing about the house, aside from the smell of freshly baked cakes, was how much bigger it was on the inside. The hallway they found themselves in was probably as wide as the building seemed from the outside. A passage on the left led to a set of stairs and a toilet underneath them, while going forward led into a living room connected directly to a kitchen with all the modern appliances one could find on Earth. On the right were two doors leading into guest rooms.
"Well, you heard her," Arthur said. "You can do whatever you want, just make sure you check in with me before you leave. I have something to give you. Which reminds me, here you go, you slave driver." He handed the present he brought to Valery.
"Oh, my favorites, I hope?" Val rubbed her hands together before taking the present.
"Yep, two boxes of Aphrodites. Let's try not to eat them all right away this time, shall we?"
"Oh what's the problem, we'll just do the super intense training to burn away all the calories again. Hopefully without actually burning this time."
"That's what I'm afraid of..." Arthur made his way into the living room, shaking away the memories of the last training course. He could still feel his toenails burning...
“Sure, let’s see the cabin!” Ariana agreed. She didn’t even blink at how much bigger it was on the inside. Eve had hired mages to do the same to the tiny office they lived in. Turns out it was cheaper than just paying for the extra real estate. She sniffed the air, enticed by the odor from the kitchen. No! It would be rude to ask for cakes! “Uh, Love! What’s cool here?” She asked, then thought. “Oh, and who’s Fang? That’s a pretty cool name!”
"Here?" Love asked. "As in, here here? In the cabin? Honestly, it's just a fancy house. Fang's really the only cool thing around! So we're going to go visit him right away! Come on!" She grabbed Ariana's hand and pulled her along through the living room, into the backyard.
While the backyard had some more flowers, they were mostly along the edges. Most of the backyard was plain grass. The reason why became obvious after Loveline whistled. Some trees in the nearby woods shook before a giant wolf came bounding out onto. He ran straight at Love and almost buried his nose, which was slightly larger than her head, into her stomach, but she raised a hand to stop him.
"Not today, big guy. Maybe later, actually. Right now, I want you to meet Ariana." She gestured toward Ariana with both arms spread apart, showcasing her like something precious. Taking the hint, Fang moved to Ariana and started sniffing her.
Ariana blushed when her hand was grabbed. It felt nice, but it was so sudden! “But who is Fang?” She asked again. Love didn’t have to answer. He showed up the next moment. Leaping and bounding through the trees, the giant wolf seemed set to bowl Love over. “Wow! A giant wolf!?” Ariana didn’t hesitate, immediately rubbing Fang’s nose when he sniffed her. “Hello wolfy! You’re the biggest good boy, yes you are!” She giggled. “Okay, this place is the coolest. I want monster pets!”
"Thank you, my lady." A deep voice boomed in Ariana's head. "But I can only take the title of good boy for there are bigger than I." The wolf turned his head and rubbed his cheek against Ariana for more rubs.
"Fang is a very good big boy, that he can't deny," Loveline said and rubbed his other cheek. "But as you can see, his name isn't particularly original. That's how you can tell Arty's the one who named him."
"Would you like a ride today, Lady Loveline?" Fang asked, his giant eye turning toward Love.
"Oh, gladly! Riri, you wanna ride on his back, too, don't you?"
“...is the wolf talking to me?” Ariana gawked at Love. “Oh wow you talk!” Ariana hugged his head, scratching his ears. “We can ride you!? Yes! Yes I want to!” She was ready to clamber up, but paused. “Oh hold on, give me a sec.” She pulled her gem from her pocket and with a flash, became her Gem Girl form. “Eve would want me to be in my tough form if I’m doing something unsafe like riding a wolf!” She crouched and sprang, landing easily on Fang’s back. “Come on Love!” She reached one arm down to pull her atop the wolf.