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Blue Bird Day

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"This is ridiculous," Arthur says. The look on his face is focused and utterly sinister, with that glint in his eye that usually means that the cold muzzle of a gun is about to be pressed to someone's head. "I refuse to be defeated by two long sticks of plastic."

"It is a mystery why you don't get on better," Eames contributes helpfully. "They could commiserate with the stick you've got up your arse."

Arthur's elbow lands in his side. It's not a hard push, but it's enough.

When Eames finally slides to a stop halfway down the hill, everything hurts.

He rolls over onto his back, groaning at the dull pain in his hip and shoulder. Snow melts in his mouth, tasting of clean water and the sharp, crisp tang of a winter day. At least he didn't lose his skis this time—he can feel them creak under the pressure of his weight, twisting his left foot at an uncomfortable angle.

The familiar swish-scrape of skis approaches, and Yusuf's concerned face peers down at him. "Anything broken?"

Eames sits up slowly, rotates his shoulder to test the hot, pulsing ache, but it just feels like yet another bruise. "No," he says. Nothing but his pride, anyway.

Yusuf is holding something knitted, and after a moment Eames recognizes it as his hat, which he didn't even notice he'd lost. Yusuf pats the snow off the gray wool and offers it to him. His smile is wide and benign and a little mocking—just a hint of smugness, nothing he could be called out on. Eames wants to shoot him.

"How are you even so bad at this?" Yusuf asks. He's just standing there, Eames notices grimly—just standing, as if there weren't two thin, slippery planks under his feet. He's not even propping himself up with his poles. "I thought you Europeans were into winter sports."

"England is not in Europe," Eames says viciously. He grabs his hat back from Yusuf and yanks it over his ears, wincing as a few specks of snow melt cold and wet into his hair. "And how come you're so good? Didn't you grow up in the desert or something?"

"Envy does not become you, Mr. Eames." Yusuf gives him a wide, sunny smile, drives his poles deep into the snow, and kicks off from the small ledge.

"I hope you trip on a rock and crack your skull," Eames shouts after him. It's one of his more immature moments, but he just fell down a goddamn mountain, he figures he should be cut some slack.

Yusuf raises a pole in reply, not looking back. His smooth trajectory doesn't even waver. Eames really wants to shoot him.

Clambering to his feet again is always a chore. But after a million tumbles down the damn hill, he's mostly figured out how to do it. He aligns the skis parallel to the slope—he's learned the hard way that if he points the tips downhill, he's just setting himself up for another spectacular fall. He shakes the snow off his poles, and begins the slow, clumsy trek to the lifts.

"Eames, that was great!" Ariadne calls down to him.

Her coat is a brilliant splash of red against the dark trees at her back; Eames can barely make out her face between the coat and her white knitted hat. He wipes a clump of snow off his glove, and squints up at her in utter disbelief at the praise.

It seems that after a moment of reflection, her train of thought aligns with his. "Well, or at least better!" she amends, her voice echoing in the snowed-in hush of the mountain. "You kept your balance for way longer this time!"

Eames doesn't dignify that with a reply. He just pulls down the T-bar, tucks his poles to the side, and settles back against the bar with a relieved sigh. His breath freezes in the icy air, billowing into a cloud of fine mist.

At first they only had one lift. But at the sight of their painfully slow, stumbling treks across the slope, Ariadne dreamed up a second one. It sprung into existence amidst a slim, winding band of small firs that dot the mountain.

The air didn't even shiver around the emerging metal structure, and a quick shower of twirling snowflakes later, it was just as caked in snow as the other lift. Eames has to admit that Ariadne is getting damn good at this thing.

It was also Ariadne who suggested this whole exercise, and who held her ground although even Cobb tried to wave her concerns away. The lowest dream level of the Fischer job would be a snowy mountain range, she'd said, and they would need a means of getting from A to B, and had any of them ever been skiing before?

It turned out that except for Ariadne herself, none of them had. From the determination that glinted in her eyes, Eames had known it was a lost cause even as he'd assured her that they'd just construct some skiing skill on the fly.

"You can't convincingly dream up what you've never done before," she'd argued. "That might work in normal dreams, but not in a mind heist as huge and layered as this. We don't want to miss our kicks just because we couldn't get up the mountain. This is too much of an unpredictable variable."

Unsurprisingly, it had been Arthur who caved first. Eames suspects that Ariadne had said 'unpredictable variable' with the express purpose of getting him on her side. Then it was only a matter of time until Yusuf's assistants set the timer—twenty minutes, four hours in the dream—and they all settled in around the PASIV.

Arthur and Yusuf hadn't really needed to come along, since they weren't going to be in that dream level, but Yusuf had just shrugged at Eames' querying look and said it might be fun.

Ariadne, who had begun to look a little less sure of herself at their collective grumbling, had given Yusuf a relieved, beaming smile. On the other side of the PASIV, Cobb had abruptly closed his mouth, and looked a little contrite at the uncertainty that flickered across her face.

And Eames had been left to ponder the persuasive power of very short architecture students and their big brown eyes. The thought followed him into the brief darkness behind his eyelids, and then to the dazzling brilliance of a sunny, snowed-in mountainside.

Of course, Ariadne has apparently spent all of her Christmas vacations flying down snow-topped mountains in the depths of Europe. She's alarmingly, frustratingly good at this.

Eames only saw her go down the mountain once, right at the beginning as a demonstration. But even though he knows nothing about skiing yet except that it hurts, he can recognize finely-honed skill when he sees it.

Brown hair whipped into a flurry, Ariadne had shot down the hill at breakneck speed, her poles pointing out behind her in perfect unwavering alignment, and she'd leaned into the wind with a whoop of joy.

"That doesn't look too hard," Cobb had said, just when Ariadne stemmed her skis into a perfect V shape and slid to a stop down in the valley.

At the time, Eames had nodded, already a little bored with this exercise. It really didn't look hard: point skis in general direction of downwards slope, push off, keep balance, stop at the bottom, level triumphant superior gaze at teammates still stuck at the top. Well, alright, Ariadne hadn't done that. But Eames fully planned to gloat as soon as he mastered the art of skiing, which, as he'd estimated, would take twenty minutes tops.

Then all of them had failed spectacularly at imitating such a simple thing as sliding down a slope on two long plastic planks. By now, Eames' competitive spirit is roaring for improvement, even as a whiny part of him—the part closest to his aching bruises—kind of wants to unload a gun into everyone on this goddamn hill just so the whole thing will be over.

The only reason why he's not directing invisible mind rays of disapproval at Ariadne is that he likes her and she's lovely, and she's got a point about the whole thing. He can only imagine how fast the Fischer job would've gone belly up if they'd still been toppling all over each other halfway down the slope at the kick.

Eames gets off the lift, pulls his woolen hat a bit lower over his ears, and heads back towards the other side of the mountain with a defeated sigh.

Bunny slope, Ariadne had called it, the area where the incline wasn't so steep, and where she'd used her own skis to press tracks into the snow for them. Towards the opposite treeline, the mountain gets gradually steeper, until it leans down into a murderous, plummeting incline that Eames gets dizzy just looking at.

He's not even going to think about how bruising it is to his ego that the only part of the mountain where he can even stay upright is named after small furry animals.

"Back to the basics, good idea," Ariadne greets him, smiling up at Eames as he passes her. Her cheeks are flushed from the cold, and snowflakes have gotten caught in her dark hair. She's been mostly stationary at the top of the mountain, surveying her teammates' blundering technique as they hurtle down the slope, and offering praise, criticism, and advice when the lift has carried them up again.

She gives him a brief once-over, as if to make sure that there are no bone splinters sticking out of his coat anywhere. "Oh wait, your left binding's loose, let me just—"

She's next to him in an instant, kneeling down in the snow. Kneeling while on skis, and she doesn't so much as sway. It's like she was born with the things.

"It's fine, I'll get it," Eames says. But she's already pulled off her gloves and is reaching for his left boot—which does feel oddly loose, now that he stops to think about it.

Ariadne uses the tip of her pole to scrape off the caked-on snow. Then she expertly snaps his boot back into the bindings, gives his ankle a reassuring pat that he can't feel through the thick material, and stands back up.

She surveys the mountainside, hands on her hips, sliding back a little on her skis. "It's going well, don't you think?" Her smile still has a distinctly relieved tilt to it. "I can't believe how quickly Yusuf got it. You managed to stand up for about three seconds before you started flailing this time. And Cobb—"

As if on cue, there's a muffled crash, the creak of strained bark and snapping wood. Then Cobb comes tumbling out from between the trees in a flailing whirl of limbs and ski poles.

He skids to a stop in a fine spray of powdery snow that hovers over his fallen form like a cloud of smoke. One of his skis is sticking up. Eames can see the other one too, disengaging from Cobb's unmoving pile of limbs in a slow slide that quickly gathers momentum. The swishing sound grows quieter as the ski hurtles down the mountain and into the trees.

"Well," Ariadne says. There's a faint tremor in her voice, but when Eames glances down at her, she has somehow managed to keep a straight face. "I'd better go and check if he's alright."

She gives herself a nudge, and is off in an instant, sliding down to Cobb in a wide, weaving path to control her momentum. Her skis leave perfect glistening arcs in the powdery snow. Somehow, Eames doesn't want to shoot her. Perhaps it's because she fixed his boot.

Eames slowly makes his way over to the other side of the mountain. The trees are tall and quiet around him, muffling everything until the slip-slide of his skis is the only sound besides his breathing.

Ariadne made a track that runs the width of the hill; Eames just has to stick the skis into it and give them some forward momentum. His poles leave evenly spaced imprints in the snow as he pushes himself onward. This isn't so bad, actually—it's almost like walking, except it's easier if he pretends to take larger strides.

Through the spaces between the trees, the black of Arthur's coat flashes against the snow, periodically blocked by snow-laden branches like an image fading in and out on an old TV.

When Eames first opened his eyes in Ariadne's dreamscape, he'd thought for a moment that he would see Arthur in one of his impeccable suits. Instead, Arthur had dreamed up a winter sports outfit for the occasion. But somehow, every inch of him still manages to look ludicrously expensive, from his finely knitted gloves to the shiny, brand new clasps on his boots. The well-tailored black coat was probably woven out of the fur of orphaned kittens.

He's been tirelessly going down the hill again and again, no matter how often he falls. Eames suspects that he's working so hard because he wants to support the team morale or some-such nonsense.

Well, it certainly lifts Eames' morale to see that Mr. Legendary Point Man Who Always Has His Shit Together isn't much better at the whole thing than he is.

At first, it seemed like Arthur would be a natural like Yusuf—right up until he tried going down the steeper incline. One moment he was just gliding downhill, gaining momentum, and then he'd disappeared in an impressive splash of snow, both poles going flying as he tumbled down the mountain.

Arthur might seem like he's gotten the hang of it. But his falls always happen without warning, and are always spectacular. Eames didn't know it was possible to do so many snow-spraying mid-air somersaults without pulverizing your ribs.

But apparently bruises are the worst that Arthur gets, because he always comes back up. Sometimes with a muscle twitching dangerously in his jaw, but more often with a reassuring smile for Ariadne when she fusses over him. (Of course, Arthur gets fussing, and Eames gets 'congratulations, you managed not to fall flat on your face for three seconds'.)

At the bunny slope, Saito is skiing slowly in majestic large circles. He hasn't fallen on his ass once—just by practice, as far as Eames can tell. Saito simply doesn't move on until he's absolutely certain he won't fall. At this rate, he's going to be here for the rest of their four hours. On the other hand, Saito's way is certainly more dignified than Eames'.

Eames gets to work on the other side so as not to crash into Saito when he'll inevitably lose control of his skis. His problem is just that the skis so bloody narrow. If they were a bit broader, he might not teeter about as if on a tightrope all the time. But oh no, Ariadne gave them a lecture about grip and aerodynamics, and apparently the damn things don't come broader because it'd be blasphemy.

The first few seconds of Eames' four hundredth attempt are uneventful, a slow descent down the flattest part of the mountain. Eames dips his poles into the snow, pushes himself off and slides his foot forward like Ariadne showed him.

He wobbles only a little as he sinks down into a crouch. The cool air turns into a whistling bite with the built-up momentum, burrowing in through the tiny knitted holes in his hat.

The snow feels smooth and slippery, but his skis don't lose their grip. The left tip keeps skidding outward. Soon, Eames' thighs are aching with the effort of keeping the skis parallel. This is important, as he'd learned the hard way—as soon as a drifting ski spreads his legs, he's as good as gone. His poles leave deep grooves in the snow.

There are tiny uneven bumps down the slope. Once or twice, Eames flails wildly, the tails of his skis kicking up white clouds as he suddenly swerves sideways in an uncontrolled arc. But he doesn't fall. He's gaining more and more speed, absorbing the ground's vibrations with his bent knees.

The wind stings his cheeks and burns with cold when he breathes it in, and a manic grin spreads across his face. Forget the falling, the sprains and bruises. This right here, flying down the mountain with the trees zipping past in a blur at the edges of his vision, is brilliant.

The small valley at the bottom of the hill looks perfect for a skillful braking maneuver. Eames still remembers what Ariadne had done earlier, a move for slowing down that she'd called a snowplough—pushing the tails of her skis far apart to create a V shape, skidding to a stop with casual, snow-spraying ease.

It didn't look too hard, and he's already on a roll, and he has to stop somehow before his momentum carries him halfway up the gentle slope on the other side. He straightens his back, leans out of the piercingly cold wind with his arms held out for balance, and shoves his feet apart.

For a moment it works. The edges of his skis scrape audibly across the ground, the protesting tremble of pushed-aside snow rattling up his legs. Eames feels himself slow, and can only imagine how majestic he must look from the top of the mountain, sliding into a wide arc like he's been doing this all his life.

The air buffets him, snapping at his skin with icy teeth, and Eames laughs into the wind because he's got it, he can finally do this—

There's a small, unimpressive snikt sound when the tips of his skis cross, one slipping so neatly over the other that Eames doesn't even feel the vibration. Then hard, merciless hands seem to have shot up from the icy ground and yanked on his ankles, arresting his momentum so abruptly that it feels like a full-body blow.

The ground rushes up to meet him, and Eames only just manages to jerk up his arms to protect his face.

This time, when he opens his eyes, it's Saito who's gazing down at him, with a mild frown that would denote concern on anyone else. On Saito, it means that he thinks Eames is amusing, but really not all that bright.

Eames blinks white, glowing spots out of his vision. He's getting really sick of the sight of his teammates looking down at his spread-eagled fallen form. But he's pretty sure that Arthur and Cobb, the pedantic bastards, would have strong objections to Eames waking up their client in an ungentlemanly fashion.

"Patience, Mr. Eames," Saito advises. "It is a virtue most underrated."

Eames spits out snow, and slowly works his jaw to make sure the pulses of pain don't mean that the bone is about to detach from his face. "What fortune cookie did you get that from?"

Saito ignores him. He gazes out into the valley, the end of his expensive-looking scarf flapping a little in the crisp breeze. "What is that thing you people say? Arse over saucepan?"

"Teakettle," Eames says. "Go away before I shoot you."

Saito gives him that serene, shark-like smile that's probably meant to be friendly, but always looks a bit unsettling instead. But at least he doesn't gloat more, and skates off without another word.

When he finally grips the support strut of the drag lift in both gloved hands, Eames hates to admit that he's out of breath. He heaves a sigh of relief when some of his weight is taken off his left leg. His thigh, which had been pulsing with bright flares of pain, quiets down to a hot, dull ache. If this weren't a dream, he'd be black and blue tomorrow.

When they first started falling on their faces a couple of hours ago, he'd wondered why their tumbles down the hill weren't kicking them out of Ariadne's dream. But perhaps the moment of weightless falling isn't long enough, or the ground is too close to create a sufficient impact.

And while they all might've eyed the steepest slope longingly, in the hopes that a flying leap would create a long enough fall to get them out of here, Eames knows this team well enough. They're all way too competitive to give up now.

Snowflakes begin to trickle from the sky as the lift slowly tugs him back up the slope. He should probably practice the braking some more, but whatever, he's impatient as hell by now, itching to feel the cutting wind on his cheeks again.

Those few moments of wild, careening, addictive exhilaration—it was not unlike riding a motorcycle without a helmet, but closer somehow, more visceral, with the ground zipping past beneath his feet and the skis slashing crisp grooves into the snow.

"No, you have to squat," Ariadne is saying patiently when Eames gets off the lift. "Bend your knees, you'll be steadier. No, keep them together. Lower!"

Ever since the whole job started, Eames has had to bite back the urge to warn Cobb that his face is going to stick like that if he's not careful. With "that" being anything from frantic worry, to fatigue, to an alarming, vaguely homicidal kind of focus.

Right now, he looks constipated and uncomfortable. But he goes where Ariadne pushes him, down the track at the very back of their training grounds. There are probably worse ways for Cobb's face to stick, and so Eames says nothing.

Ariadne seems oblivious to the embarrassment that slowly reddens Cobb's face, just skis along beside him, keeping up a steady stream of corrections and encouragement. When they pass Eames, he sees that she's got one hand fisted in the back of Cobb's bulky blue parka, as if he were an unruly kitten.

He snorts out a surprised laugh, then quickly muffles it with his gloved hand and turns away before Cobb sees his grin. Eames isn't sure just what Cobb could do to him from his precarious perch on his skis a few paces away, but he's sure the man would think of something. A ski pole through the eye socket—something suitably painful.

The downhill slope stretches out in front of him, pristine white and glistening in the daylight. He can see the erratic, meandering tracks left from their bumbling attempts. The lift hums in the distance, the only noise that disturbs the still air.

When they first got here, Eames heard the occasional shrieks and laughter of children echoing through the quietude. Even now, the hill on the other side of the valley is dotted with Ariadne's projections, tiny dark shapes against the stark white snow. So far, none of them have strayed too close. Eames figures that since it's Ariadne herself creating the dream, her projections aren't too worried by the tangible presence of other dreamers.

The nearest lift disengages with an audible click. Eames looks over, and sees Arthur carefully inch away from the support beam, slipping his hands through the straps of his poles again. His movements are jerky with impatient determination, and the look on his face…

Eames smiles slowly, with sudden warm satisfaction. He knows that look. The cool, focused glint in his eye is one that Arthur usually gets right before he reveals the hidden trap doors in his plan, right before he produces a hidden gun from his swanky suit and calmly shoots the guy who's holding the rest of his team hostage.

It's his "oh, you did not just fuck with me" look, his "here's why I am the best point man in both hemispheres, enjoy your lasting trauma" look. And even back when they first met and could barely stand to be in the same room, Eames had grown inexplicably fond of it.

"Took a tumble?" Eames greets him cheerfully when Arthur's skis slide to a jerky stop next to his.

The glance Arthur gives him is filled with the promise of pain—not now, perhaps not even physical pain, but there will be payback some time. "I dreamed up a switchblade in the back of my boot."

Eames smiles to himself, leaning on his poles and idly sliding his feet back and forth. The tips of his skis are hanging in the air, just where the incline begins. "Ariadne might be upset if you mar her perfect skiing track by spattering my blood all over it."

"Who says I'd let you bleed out in the snow?" Arthur retorts, but Eames sees the tiny twitch at the corner of his mouth.

Arthur is capable of walking through a hail of bullets and come out on the other side with not a hair out of place, while everyone else is sweating through their clothes and tending to bleeding grazes.
Now, though, Eames is secretly thrilled to see him so rumpled, as far from his sleek professionalism as he ever gets. His coat is covered in snow, his left trouser leg has slipped half out of his boot, and his hair is in wild, snow-specked disarray. He'd had a hat earlier, too, but it must have sailed off into the trees during a fall.

Arthur nods at the faraway mountain range that they can just barely make out against the cool blue of the horizon. "Going again?"

"Spectacularly, I expect," Eames says, eyeing the mountainside himself. He has to give it to Ariadne—she's dreamed up the perfect practice ground for them. Even here, on the more dangerous side of the hill, it first slopes gently down before dropping gradually into a steeper incline.

Snowflakes stick to his eyelashes and melt on his cheeks. On a whim, he turns to Arthur. "Together?"

Arthur pauses in the act of tugging his gloves more securely over his wrists. He looks surprised, but not wary.

"Sure," he says, after a pause. He flexes his fingers in the black wool and grabs his poles again, wincing a little. His gloves are probably soaked through and slowly freezing his fingers.

"Alright," Eames says, shifting his weight onto the balls of his feet. Snow crunches beneath his skis. His thigh doesn't even hurt that much anymore, beyond a slight sting near his knee when he shifts experimentally. It's probably not even a sprain. "On three, then?"

Even from the corner of his vision, he sees Arthur's eyeroll, the exasperated quirk of his mouth. "Eames, it's not a race."

"Oh, alright then, if you say so," Eames says, drives his poles deep into the powdery snow, and is off with a kick, careening down the gentle incline.

Arthur shouts something indignant after him that gets lost in the wind, and Eames laughs, tucks his face close to his collar and risks a look over his shoulder. Arthur is right on his heels, driving himself forward with his poles, a little wobbly but steadier than he'd been an hour ago. The air whips his hair out of his face, his mouth pinched around a frown of steady, unerring focus, and if Eames is honest with himself, it's kind of the best, most familiar thing he's seen all day.

Eames' left ski hits a slippery patch of iced-over ground, and he's forced to throw his weight to the side. The air snaps at his cheeks, buffets his flank as though in protest, and it's only with a long, hasty scrape of his pole that he avoids plunging headfirst into a snowbank.

In a blur of black and spraying slush, Arthur zips past him, his skis cutting neat twin paths through the snow. He doesn't turn around to gloat, but even the set of his shoulders looks smug.

"You bastard," Eames calls after him, happily, well aware that Arthur can't hear him through the wind. He crouches down low, feels his body slice through the air like a knife through butter, and gives himself another boost with the poles, flying down the slope.

They end up side by side in their wavering descent. The wind is brutally cold at this pace, pricking at Eames' face and scalp with a thousand icy needles. His heart is pounding, pushing a fizz of adrenaline through his veins like potent sparkling wine.

He's leaving a patchwork of skid marks in his wake, and Arthur isn't much better, driving his poles into the glistening snow to keep his balance as they hurtle down the mountain. The trees and the lift zip past in a grayish blur. But although his thighs are trembling with tension, he hasn't fallen yet. Whenever they hit a bump, his skis want to skid apart, the edges digging and scraping into the packed snow, fighting the lean of Eames' weight.

Eames doesn't see what does it—perhaps an iced-over patch of ground, or a pine cone buried beneath the snow. But suddenly Arthur yells, "Fuck!", which Eames sees more than hears over the roar of air in his ears, and his left ski skids to the side in a cloud of kicked-up snow.

He flails wildly, spine curving as he fights to get his feet back under him. Without thinking, Eames flings out his pole, and manages to catch the base of Arthur's with his own, plastic and metal creaking under the strain.

The sudden yank of weight hits him, wrenching at his shoulder, and nearly topples him headfirst down the hill. Ice crunches alarmingly beneath his skis, and he feels a pop and sudden sting near his collarbone. But Eames just grits his teeth, wraps his fist securely round the handle of the pole, and leans to the side, cutting a wavering curve into the snow.

Arthur leans with him, clumps of slush spraying outward from the edges of his skis. Eames feels it when he regains his balance, a sudden steadying of the hurtling weight that pulls on his arm, and Arthur disengages the bases of their poles with a click of plastic.

He lifts his gloved hand in a sloppy salute, and Eames grins at him, the wind battering his eardrums. He flexes his shoulder, inexplicably warmed by the small blossoming ache, and digs both his poles into the mountain for another push.

The curve in their descent brought them closer to the treeline and the lift, to the murderously steep part of the mountain that only Ariadne has dared to go down so far. The slope seems to disappear from under them, with all the uncompromising abruptness of a cliff.

The ground drops into a steep incline, and the sudden, weightless drop punches the air from Eames' lungs.

For just a second, their skis hang suspended, the plastic hissing through nothing but air. His surprised shout mingles with Arthur's.

When they slam back into solid ground, the impact shudders all the way up Eames' body, and then they're flying, plummeting down the hill like two bullets out of a barrel, the swish-scrape of their skis suspending the snow into a fine mist that stings his eyes.

Eames' lungs seize like a fist around the icy, cutting air, and he's dimly aware that he's laughing, the sound torn from his lips by the wind. His hat has long since been ripped off, and he puts his head down against the wind and crouches low.

His heart is a rabbit-fast staccato in his throat, his whole body one trembling vessel of vibration, feeling each tiny shudder of ice scrape past the bottoms of his skis.

On a small hobble of uneven ground, his right ski skids outward, sudden and yanking and utterly without warning.

Snow sprays up in a glistening arc, carried by the tip of his pole as Eames flails wildly, cutting a meandering curve into the mountainside. Arthur is a blur next to him, closer than before, shouting something, perhaps a warning or a curse at Eames' sudden closeness.

It's just a single second that seems to drag by with syrupy slowness, but Eames sees the moment Arthur loses control too, his left pole sinking into an unexpectedly deep swath of snow.

Arthur falls like a toppled chess piece, goes down and under into a voluminous bank of snow. Then Eames' ski gets caught on the snowdrift's edge. The momentum tries to wrench his ankle in his sturdy boot, and then his leg, and for a second as Eames is yanked backward, he sees nothing but the pale, crisp color of the sky.

He doesn't know what he collides with first, Arthur or the mountain. For a second it's just painless pressure, sudden and stifling, the wind slamming into him like a living, breathing thing. Then the concussive force of impact explodes against his hip, his shoulder, the soft place just below his ribs.

His poles go flying. Arthur's skis get entangled with his, Eames' arm wedged somewhere immobile and uncomfortable. There's an audible click when his left binding disengages, the ski snapping free and suddenly untwisting his leg.

The mountain slams into them and kicks them up again, a dizzying, weightless whirl of movement. Then the weave of Arthur's coat is a sudden, rough pressure against Eames' cheek, a button digging in just below his eye. He feels Arthur's arms wrap around his head, and then a muffled impact, and a prolonged, cold slide until the finally grind to a stop.

After the wind, the silence is deafening. Eames' heartbeat is pulsing in his ears, their breathing shallow and mingled. Starbursts of color fade slowly behind his eyelids, leaving behind a glowing darkness. The powdery pressure of snow sits on his back like an unwanted passenger, radiating a persistent chill.

Once again, everything hurts. When Eames does a slow, experimental wiggle, hot patches all over his body begin to throb, a deeper ache than the bumps and scrapes from before. But at least there's no white-hot, screaming pain of broken bones, and after the fall they've had, Eames knows he should count himself lucky.

The rough fabric of Arthur's coat scratches his cheek as he lifts his head, blinking snow out of his eyelashes and squinting against the brightness of the mountainside. He's still got a hand wrapped tightly around Arthur's arm, and his fingers sting with cold when he lets go. His other arm is trapped under Arthur's back.

They're hopelessly entangled, a mess of bent limbs and skis and poles. Eames lets his forehead thunk back down on the reassuring solidity of Arthur's stomach. There's no way he's getting up—at least not until the trees stop spinning in slow, drunken circles.

"Arthur! Eames!" Ariadne shouts, her voice tiny and very far away, the echo bouncing off the snow-covered trees. "Are you alright?"

Eames worms an arm out of their painful tangle of limbs, and waves it in reply. The movement dislodges a small packet of snow that slips cold and powdery into the collar of his coat.

A small scraping sound catches his attention. Eames lifts his head just in time to see a single ski disengage from their pile of snow-caked failure. It glistens in the sunlight as it slowly picks up speed, and sails down the mountain, disappearing from view behind a tree.

"I'm going to murder someone," Eames says, muffled.

Arthur grunts in reply, his arm flopping a little before he drops it back into the snow. "Get off. You're leaving a face imprint on my coat."

Eames carefully wiggles one leg, and sighs in relief when his other ski comes free, taking the strain off his ankle. "Well, tough fucking shit. I've got a mountain imprint on my everything."

"Your face is not a shape that I want imprinted on my clothes," Arthur says muzzily, and Eames wonders for a moment whether he hit his head on a hidden rock coming down.

Arthur's hand does go to his head when they finally sit up. He feels around at a reddening patch of skin on his temple, but only winces a little, so his collision with the hill can't have been that hard. Eames rotates his shoulders, moves his knees, and sighs in relief when the movement is met only with a dulling ache.

They just sit there for a moment, blinking owlishly into the brightness of the sunlit mountainside. Their fall left a haphazard scattering of snow-caked skiing supplies in its wake, poles and gloves and Eames' hat. They're going to have to pick all of that up again. He sighs deeply, squints at a black speck halfway up the hill and wonders if it could be one of Arthur's gloves

The swishing of approaching skis cuts through the snow-muffled silence. "Yard sale!" Yusuf shouts, the wind ripping the words from his mouth as he flies past. His skis spray both of them with slush as he cuts a jaunty little curve in their direction.

"I'm going to murder him," Eames decides. He rubs both hands through his hair to get the snow out, shuddering when the pack of cold in his neck melts little trails of icy water down his back. "Yard sale?"

"Skiing term," Arthur supplies, because of course he did an unhealthy amount of research before even this simple training exercise. He waves a hand towards the mess they've made down the hill. "When a skier leaves a trail of equipment behind when they fall."

The mountain looms over them, tall and quiet. From down here, the slope looks even steeper, a speedy, uncompromising drop.

Eames' shoulder emits a low burning hum, and his ankles ache despite the stiff cover of the boots. But he still finds himself grinning slowly, staring up at his and Arthur's wavering tracks and skidmarks.

Something giddy and awed turns over in his chest, something that he doesn't feel that often anymore in his line of work, bubbling up on the other side of the incredible adrenaline rush. He kind of can't believe they just went down that.

The smile falls away when Arthur climbs to his feet. Eames looks at Arthur's boots, and realizes that it must be him who's missing the ski that disappeared into the trees earlier. He sighs yet again, finally reaches back to pluck the snow out of his collar, and stands as well.

Slowly, they collect their equipment from the mountainside, Eames hobbling along on one ski while Arthur takes careful side-steps and has to flail wildly for balance a couple of times. At some point it stopped snowing. There's a fresh sheen of powder on the untouched snowdrifts near the treeline, glistening and pristine.

Eames is still missing his hat fifteen minutes later, when they're back on the lift. He lets himself lean back, settling some of his weight against the bar. The hum of the lift is almost soothing, a static background noise that laboriously pushes itself through the crisp air and is swallowed up by the snow.

Arthur has his post-mission face on, the one where the terrifyingly pedantic, ceaselessly working computer in his brain combs through each second and parses the good from the bad. It's a face that tends to annoy the living shit out of Eames, because it usually gets him prodded at with biting little lectures on recklessness and safety concerns and sticking to the plan. Now, with the lift pulling them up the mountain and various aches and pains clamoring for attention all along Eames' body, he's not quite sure what to make of it.

Finally, without preamble, Arthur says, "That could have gone better, but—"

Eames groans. "Really? That's your conclusion? Your brain amazes me. I never would have guessed."

Arthur gives him a flat look, as always thoroughly unimpressed with being interrupted. "—it could have gone better," he finishes, "but not by much. Do you realize how far down we managed to go, even on that side of the hill?"

That gives Eames pause, and for a moment the only noise is the faint, rhythmic clanking of the lift. "Well, yeah," he acknowledges. It's true, after all. It must have been the speed, he thinks—when he's going fast enough, the skis will forgive a lot more uneven, icy patches of ground.

Arthur's brow furrows in thought. "A bit more practice, I think, and we'll be good to go. Perhaps we won't be winning Alpine skiing tournaments, but it should work for the job."

"Always such a perfectionist," Eames says. He's a little surprised, but not altogether dismayed at the odd fondness that sneaks into his voice.

"Someone has to be," Arthur mutters, but with none of the testy impatience with which he usually responds to the light teasing.

It seems that it's an unusual afternoon for both of them. Arthur adjusts his grip on the lift and glances up towards the trees, but Eames doesn't miss the tiny smile nestled in the corner of his mouth.

When they get off the lift, Ariadne and Cobb are still milling about at the treeline. But this time it looks like it's time for another test run. There's an intent, eager glint in Ariadne's eyes, the one that she's probably used to steamroll her fellow students during the preparation of group presentations.

Next to her, the tips of his skis hovering in the air where the mountainside plummets into a slope, Cobb is staring down into the valley like he expects it to leap up and swallow him.

"Go on," Ariadne says, determined. There's a kind of amazed amusement about her, like she never thought she'd have to reassure Cobb about anything when she first took the job. "You're ready, I'm sure."

It was probably just meant to be a friendly nudge, a brief brush of her elbow against the rustling waterproof fabric of Cobb's blue parka. And just like with Eames an hour ago, it's enough to send Cobb careening down the hill in a mad flail of limbs.

"By the way, that was an accident earlier," Arthur says quietly from beside him, half-distracted by Cobb's echoing, lengthened wail of 'fuuuck!'. "I didn't actually mean to push you."

Eames shrugs. "Forgiven and forgotten, darling," he replies. Apparently, crashing into a tree together has made them both magnanimous.

Ariadne has her hand clapped over her mouth, eyes wide. She looks over at the two of them, startled and contrite, and all of a sudden, Eames is reminded that she hasn't been with them for that long. She's been hitting her stride with them more and more, and she's so focused and whip-smart that it's easy to forget she's really just a kid, compared to the rest of their ragtag band of brilliant crazy criminals.

Right now, she looks scared that she's overstepped some invisible boundary, no matter how accidental. In a way, Eames understands. She's so young, just an architecture student from Paris who has suddenly found herself working with a bunch of gangsters. It's no wonder that she's worried about finding her place in their midst.

But in Eames' expert opinion, she's doing quite a good job. And well, pushing their leader down a mountain is in fact the best way to ingratiate herself with their team.

Cobb doesn't fall. He meanders his way down the hill, a bit unsteadily, kicking up sprays of snow with his poles and skidding almost sideways along the slope, his left arm waving wildly for a moment. But then he leans on his right ski, hunkering down until he can steady his weight with his flexible knees, and his descent fans out into a wide arc.

Eames narrows his eyes, zeroing in on the patch of blue that is Cobb's parka, burning an afterimage into his vision amidst the glaringly white snow. He's weaving, trying to get his momentum under control, and doing quite a good job of it. Snow sprays up around him, smoothed into oddly flat, glistening planes by the scrape of the edges of his skis, but it's working—Cobb is not nearly as fast as Arthur and him were earlier.

He's actually in control of his trajectory—or at least he was, right up until he gets too close to the trees.

"No! Cobb! Left!" Ariadne shouts, hands cupped around her mouth. She's all but bouncing on her skis (and still completely steady, what the fuck ever). "Left!"

With the wind whistling in his ears and pure adrenaline pumping through his veins, Cobb doesn't hear her. A snow-laden branch hits him in the arm with a cloud of white powder, and Eames sees Cobb look over his shoulder to stare at it in surprise and indignation.

Then he knocks one pole into a deep snowbank. His weight sways to the side under the unexpected give of the ground, and he goes under in a spray of slush.

Puffs of fresh snow explode into the air as Cobb tumbles down the mountainside, engulfing him in white. His momentum carries him into the treeline, and there's an audible thump when he finally crashes to a stop against the patient, waiting bark of a large fir.

"Bloody ow," Eames mutters, grimacing. That must have hurt quite a lot. Ariadne winces in sympathy, her wide eyes utterly dismayed.

But next to him, Arthur's expression cracks. He lets out a surprised sputter of laughter, and quickly turns away, shoulders trembling.

Eames rolls his eyes, but starts to grin anyway. Halfway down the mountain, the tree still shudders from the impact, a couple dozen branches shaking off their load of snow. A lone ski is sticking up out of the pile, glinting wetly in the sunlight. It probably shouldn't be funny—his teammate could've gotten seriously injured. But this is just a dream, and anyway, Cobb's half-buried form is already stirring again, so he can't be that badly hurt.

When Arthur turns back, he's carefully composed, save for the minute twitch of his lips that he can't seem to suppress. "Cobb, you okay?" he shouts, the echo of his voice carrying through the crisp air.

The heap of snow moves more decisively this time. After a moment, Cobb emerges, the snow heaving weirdly as he rearranges his limbs, and then cracking open around him when he gets up on his knees.

"Yeah, I'm fine," he calls back, and spits out snow and pine needles. His cheeks look red and raw where branches were whipped into his face, but Eames can tell even from this distance that he's not bleeding.

All things considered, that is more than any of them can say about the kind of training exercises they usually get up to. This point, Eames acknowledges, not at all grudgingly, goes to Ariadne.

It turns out that Arthur and Eames aren't the only ones who somehow managed to hoard enough experience to stay upright for more than a couple of seconds at a time. Cobb already seems to have forgotten his fall when the lift dumps him back on top of their slope, and he tries a second time right away, shoving himself off the ledge with a decisive push of his poles.

He makes it all the way down this time, although he does sink himself into a controlled fall at the bottom of the valley. When he comes back up that time, he tells an excited, proud Ariadne that he just didn't know how to stop.

From where he's standing, sorting out his poles and idly sliding his skis back and forth, Eames has to turn his head and stare at the two of them. He doesn't think he's ever heard Cobb sound sheepish before. Focused, pissed off, worried, determined… but not this, self-deprecating amusement and superficial embarrassment layered all on top of each other to form something new.

Ariadne laughs at him, a friendly, silvery peal that makes Cobb tip just a quirk of a hesitant smile in her direction. Then he skids away to the middle of the mountain, where the incline is not quite as steep.

Eames stares after him, narrowing his eyes. But no, that's definitely a slight bounce in his sliding steps. He's just witnessed Cobb actually enjoying a training exercise. It's enough to give a man pause, and question his own soundness of mind.

He goes down the hill two more times, once alone, and once with Arthur and Yusuf. They don't fall—in fact, Eames manages to steer himself away when he realizes his left ski is getting within range of Yusuf's poles, and Arthur executes a wobbly snowplough in the valley.

Scowling reflexively, Eames sails past his smug little smile. Then he realizes that yeah, actually, he shares Cobb's problem—he doesn't know how to stop.

With both Yusuf and Arthur's eyes on his back, Eames knows better than to try to imitate the snowplough move again. In the end, he just kind of slides up the opposite hill, and comes to a stop on his own when it gets too steep.

He's just about to launch into a clumsy, pole-flailing maneuver that'll turn him around again. Then a small patch of snow cracks under his skis, and suddenly, Eames is sliding back down.

Skiing backwards, it turns out, isn't as goddamn impossible as Eames would have thought it'd be, if he'd ever been cheerfully masochistic enough to entertain the suggestion at all.

There's one not very professional moment when he windmills both arms wildly, heart jumping up into his throat, his back prickling madly as if it's already feeling the concussive impact of the hard, iced-over mountainside.

But then he bends his knees, the joints protesting the combined pressure of his weight and the effort of holding the skis steady. He curls his toes into the thick, cushioned soles of his boots and holds on.

"Smooth," Arthur comments wryly when Eames slides to a wavering stop beside him, surreptitiously digging his pole into the snow to arrest his momentum.

"That's me," Eames agrees, with a bland smile to disguise the relieved pounding of his heart.

By the time the dream is almost over, even the ever-cautious Saito has left the bunny slope for a few smooth rides down the mountain. Of course his strategy worked out perfectly. He's practiced so much that he only loses his balance once, and even then, he manages not to somersault down the snowy slope. He just kind of sits on his skis and waits patiently until they stop on their own. Then he gets up as if nothing happened, dusts the snow off his coat, and slides over to the lifts.

A rosy, golden hue is slowly creeping across the sky when they finally converge at the top of the mountain again. The bruises that Eames has acquired over the course of the afternoon still throb a little, and he's just grateful that this is a dream so he won't wake up in a world of pain tomorrow.

His body feels warm and loose from the exertion, not unlike after a day at the gym, and there's a pleasant buzz coasting through his blood. When he first went down the mountain head over feet, he never would have guessed that he'd end up enjoying himself so much.

"Alright, that went well," Ariadne says, sweeping all of them with an assessing gaze. She's the only one who doesn't have melting snow stuck in her hair, and whose gloves aren't dripping wet. "You picked it up way faster than I thought you would."

"We're versatile," Cobb replies, smiling down at her with some kind of pride, as if the afternoon's generally successful outcome was solely Ariadne's doing. Just like Eames, he's lost his hat at some point, and his hair is in wild disarray. But instead of bedraggled or tired, for once, it just makes him look relaxed.

Ariadne flushes a little, a pretty dusting of pink along her cheekbones, and smiles back up at Cobb. She's relieved, Eames realizes. The tentativeness, the uncertainty—of course she's relieved that no one instigated a mutiny when they all kept collecting bruises. There's probably a part of her that is amazed at how no one scoffed at the greenhorn university kid who insisted that they learn how to ski.

Yusuf is grinning broadly at all of them, with a simple happiness that everything went well, and that he's the one who's had the most fun with the least amount of bruising. He digs between his glove and the thick, padded sleeve of his coat, until he can check the face of his watch. "We should still have enough time for one last ride. Who's with me?"

Eames looks up, and unexpectedly meets Arthur's gaze. Then they both turn to look at the slope, washed out and colorless in the fading daylight, still bearing their meandering skidmarks. The trees cast looming shadows down the steep mountainside. It seems more sinister somehow, less inviting—a gray, lifeless expanse, promising pain and cold if they stumble on the way down.

When Arthur glances back at him, it's with a raised eyebrow and a challenge. Eames gives him a sunny smile. Then he tightens his grip on his poles, and kicks himself loose from the ledge without warning.

For a split-second, his skis touching nothing but air, until they crash back into the snow under his weight.

It turns out that going down the hill all at once doesn't lead to as many collisions as Eames had thought it would. Arthur's next to Eames in a heartbeat, skidding through a small snowdrift that engulfs him in a powdery cloud.

The treeline blurs to a streak of gray, bracketing his vision, and it takes Eames a moment to realize that it's not just from the speed.

The trees are breaking apart, ancient trunks groaning under the strain as fissures split the ice-caked bark. Snow trickles and slides off the pine needles, thick branches cracking open to show bright splinters of wood. Their time is up.

Yusuf is the first to hit the valley, Ariadne hot on his heels, and she slides around the wobbly V of his skis in a graceful loop. Cobb crashes to a snow-spraying stop next to them, but this fall looks controlled, like he just didn't know how to brake and chose the next best thing to arrest his momentum.

Up ahead, the gentle hill is suddenly empty of projections. Patches of snow explode into spume, pockmarking the hillside with impact, their waking minds erupting into the dream like an earthquake from far below.

For a moment, everything seems weightless, pulled slowly apart. Even the wind goes silent, and Eames feels like he's drifting and far away, like a spinning radio dial catching only snippets of sound.

Then the dream yanks him back one last time, digs the rattling friction of his skis on the snow into his bones. The icy air shoves itself back into his lungs like a living thing with teeth. His vision is pulled back into focus, to Arthur right in front of him, the black coat filling his sight in a stark contrast to the snow.

With an otherworldly groan of frozen, shifting earth, the ground billows upwards. Spidery cracks split the hillside. Eames' skis get caught in the widening crevasses. The last remains of the dream's gravity yank him almost casually off his feet and straight into Arthur.

Eames' face is slammed into the rough weave of Arthur's coat for the second time today. It's pure instinct that makes him wrap an arm around Arthur's chest, but it's too late—Arthur is already falling, toppled by Eames' weight.

The mountain heaves and bucks like an unruly horse, sending them both flying. Arthur's flapping, snow-drenched hair is suddenly glued to Eames' cheek as gravity spins with them, tosses them like a child flinging away discarded toys. Uprooted trees and thick clumps of snow plummet towards the cracking sky, as if the ground had spit them out at the slate gray fissures between rosy clouds.

Arthur's hand wraps around Eames' wrist, his grip steely and sure even as their dreamscape collapses. Eames lets the hurtling weightlessness of the fall pull him awake.