“Is it just me,” Umi said, staring out of the car window at the shops either side of the wide intersection, “or does every other corner in this city have the same three shops over and over again? Because I could swear we passed this place three times in the last ten minutes, but the road numbers are still getting smaller? I think?”
“I was thinking the same thing!” Hikaru said from the driver’s seat, sounding relieved. “I thought maybe I was imagining it; I’m not really looking at the shops, just the road, but that has to be the eighth version of that supermarket on this road. I was starting to worry we’re going in circles, but I haven’t turned a corner in half an hour.”
“Not just me, then. …I think we’re getting closer to the hotel, at least that should look different. I hope!” She twisted about in the chair to look into the back of the car. “Hey, Fuu, got any theories why this city looks like a videogame where they just repeated the same scenery over and over?”
From the back seat, Fuu looked up from her diary. “Hmm? Oh - I think perhaps it’s because it was all built about the same time?” she offered, hesitantly.
Umi grinned. “You have no idea, do you.”
“It would make sense.” Fuu blinked out of the window as they passed what must have been the fifth iteration of the same gas station. “…Though it is somewhat disconcerting. “We are also used to older buildings breaking up the newer ones. It looks as though they design a facade for each chain and add it to each building they use, as well, so they look exactly the same as each other. Oh!”
“What is it?” Umi stared around, seeing nothing of particular interest, but Fuu was craning around to look out of the back window, intent on something.
“There was a stationery shop,” she explained, and turned back to show Umi her current journal. “I only have two pages left in this one. I would like to come back here tomorrow, if we can?”
“As long as we find the hotel tonight!” Hikaru said, nudging Umi with a free hand after stopping at the next set of lights. “What was the next direction? Have we missed it? We’ve been on this road for an age!”
“It’s ‘go left on fifteenth street’,” Umi read out, and flopped back into her seat. “We’re still in the twenties, it’s fine.”
They made it to the hotel - with only one wrong turn - and it was indeed a more distinctive building. It was fancy enough to have a swimming pool, which pleased Umi, and a restaurant which pleased all three of them even more. They’d decided to go a bit more upmarket for a few days as the weather got hotter and good air conditioning started to seem more of a necessity than a luxury, but also to get the ‘full range of experience’, as Hikaru put it.
Not too upmarket, though. They weren’t that flush, and they had to stretch their money another nine months - they hadn’t been near Europe yet. Europe was expensive. (Umi had caught Fuu looking speculatively at articles about Las Vegas and poker games, but unless something spectacular happened, their budget was only a little flexible.)
They even had separate beds, though one of those was a pull-out one which lay close to the floor, which Hikaru had claimed for her own. It was a luxury to stretch out without worrying about kicking anyone; between that and the hour-long swim, Umi was feeling plenty content with the world that evening.
Fuu, however, ran out of pages, and sighed heavily.
All three of them were making their own record of this trip, to take to Cephiro. As there would be no way to view something on a computer once they moved, they were all doing it the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper.
Umi’s journal was more than half a scrapbook, bits and pieces taped in wherever she felt like putting them, random thoughts scribbled down between receipts and museum entry stickers and tickets. Hikaru was creating a page a day like she was back doing a holiday diary for school - she’d laughed and said she liked it that way when Umi pointed it out - drawing a picture on most pages. She was also buying postcards everywhere they saw them, scribbling something about the place she’d bought it on the back and tucking it between the pages.
Fuu, meanwhile, was methodically chronicling the whole trip; she was even leaving space to stick the photos she took, once they were printed and she chose her favourites. It wasn’t the first notebook she’d filled; it wasn’t even the second.
“I want my children to be able to read it and know what it was really like,” she explained, when Umi poked her about writing so much, staying up into the night after Umi and Hikaru had gone to sleep so she could finish getting her thoughts down. “And… I don’t want to ever forget Earth.”
“…Well, guess I’ll probably be asking to read yours, too,” Umi told her, with a wry smile down at her own messy, random scrawl. “Not that I was thinking about having kids to read them - what have you and Ferio been up to?”
“Umi!” Fuu laughed, cheeks flushed but her eyes crinkled happily.
The result of all this was some fairly strict criteria on Fuu’s part for acceptable notebooks. They had to have decent paper, something to hold them shut, a good durable hardcover, and a spine which wouldn’t fail when she kept opening it flat or further. Supermarket stationery was not really up to scratch. (They’d looked, repeatedly.)
The previous replacements had been lovely hand-made things, hand-stitching, local materials, hand-tooled or woven or whatever covers. But the first one had just been a decent thing from a middling expensive Japanese chain back home, so they didn’t all need to be fancy as that. Any good stationery shop, Fuu insisted, would be fine.
They drove up and down the same stretch of road for two hours the next morning, trying to find the stationery shop Fuu had seen.
“I don’t understand,” Fuu muttered, from the passenger seat. “It was on this road! It must be here somewhere - the street numbers were in the twenties, were they not?”
Umi, behind the wheel today, held herself back from thumping her head on the steering wheel - but only just. “I thought so when we started looking, but now? Who knows.”
“It was in one of these corner rows, with one of those ice-cream places, and one of those shoe shops,” Fuu continued.
“Yes, and we’ve passed three separate junctions like that!” Umi took a deep breath. “Hikaru, you still haven’t seen anything either?”
“I think it’s vanished,” Hikaru chirped helpfully from the back seat. “But I didn’t see it yesterday, either.”
“I know it was there!” Fuu pushed her glasses back up her nose. “Perhaps it was the next junction? Or only visible driving the other way?”
“When your future children read my diary they’re going to learn all about the day their mother made me drive the same bit of road ten times looking for a non-existent store,” Umi declared, and heard Hikaru smother a laugh in the back. “Look, can we at least stop and get some ice-cream the next time we pass one of those places?”
Fuu nodded agreement. “We can ask if they know where the stationery shop is.”
Hikaru interjected before Umi could start actually hissing. “There should be one on this next road - I remember there being on on twenty-first street.”
Two minutes later, Umi parked the car with a sigh, got out - and stared at the little stationery store she could have sworn wasn’t there when she pulled in, tucked right up beside the ice-cream place. “Fuu - Fuu, I think it’s haunted, I don’t think you should go in!” she called, as Fuu got out of the car, blinked, and made a beeline straight for the slightly dingy window.
“I don’t care if my diary’s haunted, as long as it’s nice!” Fuu called back, vanishing inside.
Hikaru got out and leant against the car beside Umi, both of them just staring at the shop. “…I’m not going in,” Umi insisted, clutching the car keys tighter. “That place was not there ten seconds ago.”
Patting Umi on the shoulder, Hikaru shook her head. “If a giant snake turns up, at least we know where to find our magic swords?” she pointed out, with a grin flickering at the corners of her mouth.
Umi shuddered. “We’re not taking a roadtrip with a basilisk! Or a dark lord! They wouldn’t fit in the car. And we can’t get the swords here, anyway.”
Snickering, Hikaru pulled her towards the ice-cream shop. “I’m sure we’d manage, if we had to. Come on, you’ll feel better with ice-cream.”
“If that shop eats Fuu, I’m finishing my ice-cream before I help,” Umi declared, and let Hikaru draw her away.
The shop didn’t eat Fuu. She found them quarter of an hour later, beaming as she showed them her lovely new hand-made notebook. “Don’t you think it looks like one of the spellbooks from Cephiro?” she asked them both, petting the binding.
Umi eyed it with suspicion. “Is that meant to make me trust it more? Because that doesn’t make me trust it more.”
“It’s just a notebook!” Fuu insisted.
It didn’t seem to do anything strange, then or in the next few weeks, while Fuu filled in the pages. Umi still eyed it suspiciously every time she saw it; the day Fuu declared she only had a few pages left, she started searching for a stationery shop before they even reached their hotel, until Fuu had found a nice - normal - new one.