In retrospect, Ken's first mistake was assuming that conditions on the mountain would be more or less the same as they'd been the last time he'd been here. Seeing as the last time he'd been here, he hadn't been Murata Ken, and he wasn't entirely sure how long ago that had been.
"How can you not know?" Shibuya threw up his hands. "I thought you remembered everything!"
"Shibuya," Ken said, patiently. "You don't even remember the life you had right before this one. Trust me when I say it's more jumbled up in here" he tapped his head "than you can imagine."
"Hey, I can imagine a lot," Shibuya retorted. "I thought it might be like a huge rolodex in your mind. Or like a lot of stuffed folders. Or like a bunch of tapes in a video camera--"
"It isn't unlike a rolodex, I guess." Ken frowned. "But it's not like a video camera. There's no little timestamp in the corner when I remember things, and if I had to say my memories were organized at all, they'd be organized by what felt most important."
He could just hear Shinou now, preening. So I'm one of the most important, am I, old friend?
Christine wouldn't have thought so. Neither would some of Ken's other lives. They'd been very focused on the importance of their own present... or at least interested in plenty of things that had nothing whatsoever to do with the Great Sage.
Then again, they'd had no reason to be. Just as Yuuri wouldn't have needed to care about most of the things Susannah Julia had cared about in her lifetime if he hadn't been chosen as Maou.
"Stop saying things that don't make any sense," Wolfram said petulantly. "How are we going to get down from here?"
"Perhaps you can summon a dragon for us to ride, brother of my friend."
Shouri's thin layer of sarcasm was entirely lost on Wolfram, to Ken's amusement. "No one rides dragons. They're endangered! What kind of twisted practices do you think we engage in?!"
"He was joking," Shibuya said quickly. "You were joking, weren't you, Shouri?"
Shouri rolled his eyes. "It's as good an idea as anyone around here has had."
"Well, we're not getting anywhere just standing here," Ken cut in, before either Wolfram or Shibuya took offense. "For now it looks like the only way we can go is up. Perhaps we'll find an alternate path when we do."
"And perhaps we'll find the top of the mountain, brother of my friend," Shouri said dryly.
"A mountain is not a ladder, friend of my brother." Ken stood up, and Shibuya and Wolfram followed suit. After a moment, Shouri did as well.
"Let's look on the bright side," Ken said, as they ventured back into the thick wood that covered most of the mountain. "When was the last time you had a workout like this, brother of my friend?" There was something familiar about this path, but he couldn't quite put his finger on it yet. Maybe he was just confusing it with another part of the mountain. Things had changed, after all.
He remembered standing with Shinou, watching a bridge being built. With any luck, he'd said, children will be skipping stones underneath this long after we've gone.
Ken had stood in the same place in another time, as a teenage bard who remembered as clearly as he did now. The bridge was gone, and he'd wept at the sight.
"Mountain air is supposed to be really good for the health!" Shibuya was saying enthusiastically. "Those deep refreshing breaths you're taking might make you live five years longer, Shouri!"
Shouri grumbled something incoherent, and Wolfram sniffed. "This isn't a good workout at all. What he needs is to train his maryoku and endurance. We'd never accept someone so weak in our military academies!"
"Wolfram, not everything is about maryoku," Shibuya objected. "And besides, I never did any training and I manage, right? You should just start jogging, Shouri. I mean, not now, obviously. In between study sessions or whatever it is you do when you're not playing galge. Hey, did you finish that one you made me buy you yet? You never told me how you get the good endings where they confess instead of the ones where--"
"Yuuri!" Wolfram grabbed Shibuya's ear. "Are you cheating on me with those girls in boxes again?"
"They're not real, Wolfram," Ken said patiently, at the same time as Shibuya yelped "I'm not cheating!"
Shouri snorted. "I don't think I have the kind of games you want, Yuu-chan."
"Huh?" Shibuya and Wolfram paused in their argument to blink uncomprehendingly at Shouri. For a moment, their expressions looked almost identical, and Ken had to stifle a laugh. "What do you mean, Shouri? Are you saying I'm too stupid to go out with the girls in Tokimeki Memorial?!"
"Why do you want to go out with the girls in Tokimeki Memorial?!" Wolfram yelled. "Where is Tokimeki Memorial, anyway? I won't allow you to go!"
"Judging by your fiancé I think you might have better luck with Tokimeki Memorial Girls' Side, Yuu-chan. I'll let Mama know."
"You know, there are such things as BL games, brother of my friend," Ken couldn't resist adding.
Shouri glanced at him. "And you would know, I'm sure, friend of my brother."
Shibuya colored. "I told you, I like girls!"
Everyone ignored him.
"Well then, he doesn't have anything to be jealous of, since Yuu-chan never goes out with girls." Shouri sat down on a mossy rock as Wolfram flushed and turned the other way with a little 'hmph!'. "Go on ahead. I need a break."
"A break? But we just started walking," Shibuya objected. "We should at least wait for the next clearing up there!"
"What do you think we're going to find up ahead?" Wolfram said suspiciously. "We already have all the herbs and flowers that Gisela asked us for. It's not about getting to the top."
"But if we're at least a little higher than this, we might be able to see different routes that we could use to go down," Shibuya said. "You know, for visibility?"
"That's not a bad idea," Ken chimed in. He was particularly in favor of anything that gave him time to rethink the mountain.
"Fine. Yuuri and I will go up to the clearing. You," Wolfram pointed at Ken. "Stay here and watch Yuuri's brother."
"Were you just appointed my guardian, friend of my brother?" Shouri shook his head wearily as they watched Shibuya and Wolfram hike up the path. "You didn't even think to plan for avalanches."
"There wasn't as much snow in the past," Ken said mildly. "Not on this mountain, at least. Though it did always get cold at night."
"I know I've found out stranger things are true. But somehow, coming from you, friend of my brother, I find it difficult to believe there are thousands of years of life experience swimming around in that head of yours." Shouri crossed his arms and gave him what Ken imagined Shouri must think of as a penetrating stare. It was really more like a constipated squint. Cute, really.
As if he could tell what Ken was thinking (in fairness, Ken didn't bother with much of a poker face) Shouri scowled. "One of these days I think you might just admit you're making most of it up as you go along."
Ken grinned. "Maybe I will, brother of my friend." He glanced into the wood, and all of a sudden it hit him why this was so familiar. "But today is not that day. Oi, Shibuya! Wolfram! I found the way back down!"
The two of them had gotten far enough up ahead that Ken couldn't make out the specifics of their reaction, but Wolfram was definitely complaining vocally about something. Looked like Yuuri was offering a more optimistic perspective, as usual.
Funny, how Wolfram had Shinou's looks but not at all his nature. Most of the time Ken was glad of that. Trying to repeat the past never ended well in his experience. And one Shinou, however incorporeal, was more than enough even now.
Shouri frowned again when Ken indicated where they should go. "I still don't see a path."
"Oh, it's not a path. Not really. But it should be safe enough if we watch our step. I've done it before."
"Don't tell me," Shouri said dryly. "In one of your past lives you were a mountain goat."
"Shouri!" Yuuri shook his head. "Don't be rude."
"This used to be a very popular spot for young lovers!" Ken said cheerfully. "One time I was here with a girl, and we got a little carried away and rolled right off the path and had to find our way. So that's how I know."
Wolfram blushed hotly, and Shibuya sighed. "That's really more than we needed to know, Murata..."
Shouri rolled his eyes. "And I suppose you were very well liked by the ladies in this particular previous life."
"I did all right," Ken said modestly. "I was the only woman in the village who could fry reptiles properly, so..."
Shouri turned even brighter red than Wolfram.
"Is anyone else hungry? I'm starving!" Ken hummed a tune he'd known as a bard, leading the way down.