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I'm Not From Around Here!

Chapter Text

“Are we there yet?” Eames moaned.

“We literally just left. The curb is still in sight.” Cobb curtly replied.

It was. Eames rolled his head back to check, watching the snow-covered parking lot for a moment. The heavy snowfall obscured it quickly. Arthur narrowed his eyes from his spot in the back.

“Right you are. I just figured we might as well get that question out of the way. Now no one else can say it for the rest of the trip.”

Yusuf glanced over from the driver’s seat.

“I didn’t know there were rules about that,” His voice hid a chuckle.

“There are now,” Cobb leaned forward from his seat behind Eames. “If anyone else asks that, they get the trunk.”

The car took a hard right, slipping on the icy road. Everyone fell to their left, with varying exclamations and curses. Yusuf chuckled again.

“If that got to you, this is going to be a long ride indeed.”

***

It had been late when they left the gathering, and the snowfall was getting much worse. British Columbia, the radio had cheerfully informed them, was in for the worst snowstorm in at least five years. Yusuf had both the wipers and defrost on full blast, but they didn’t appear to be doing much. Or anything, really.

Eames thought it prudent to bring it up.

“I wonder if we wouldn’t be better off without the wipers,” He mused, earning a snort from Yusuf and a sharp sigh from Cobb.

Arthur said nothing.

“I mean, they aren’t helping, and turning them off certainly won’t hurt any.”

Arthur leaned forward at that, resting his arms on the center console.

“‘It’ makes a stupid point,” His voice was low, the identifying pronoun twisted in a way that turned Eames’s stomach. “If ‘it’ turned off the wipers and defrost,”Arthur nodded at Yusuf as he spoke. “The windows would fog and the snow would accumulate until ‘it’ resembled a snowball on wheels.”

Arthur leaned back to settle against his seat again.

And then they saw the moose.

It appeared on their left, not even ten feet in front of the car, and passed within arms reach.

“WOAH!”

“WHAT THE-”

“WATCH OUT!”

Yusuf said nothing, and made no sudden movements. His fingers turned white on the steering wheel and he grit his teeth as he focused on keeping the car on the road.

The moose disappeared into the snow as quickly as it came, gone before they knew it.

Eames scrubbed a hand over his face, chasing away the sweat that had sprung up at the sudden appearance of the savage beast.

“That was a sudden appearance. That savage beast almost killed us!”

His voice certainly did not break.

“Eames,” Yusuf’s voice was steady as a rock. It was also strained. “Calm down before you freak me out and kill us.”

“Calming down.”

“As well ‘it’ should,” Came the creepy whisper from the back seat.

Eames may also have seen someone punch someone else in the arm back there, but he couldn’t be sure.

***

They made it to customs without any more problems. The snowfall was still quite heavy, but it had let up a tiny amount. They could now see The little two-door pulled up into the border town and was stopped.
The border had closed twenty minutes ago.

“If you had only checked on your phone-” Cobb was shouting at Arthur, whose face was turning a lovely shade of red.

“I turned it off in preparation for the border! I didn’t want roaming charges on my bill, and cell service gets screwed up here all the time.” Arthur hissed, trying to keep his voice down for the sake of the close confines.

Cobb didn’t bother.

“You’re the navigator! We’re trusting you to get us from point A to point B without incident!”

“Without incident?” Arthur laughed, one big sound, and Yusuf flinched, the car skidding a little on the black ice blanketing the highway.

Arthur continued in a more subdued tone of voice, “‘It’ should look around. This is an incident already. Biggest snowstorm in five years? Deciding to start a three day road trip during it? Ringing any bells?”

“Plenty. Currently it’s ringing the bell about how you told us you knew the route. Including the time the border closed!” Cobb wasn’t quite yelling, but spittle from his outburst was definitely spattering on Arthur’s shirt.

Eames turned around in his seat, “Okay, Cobb, we get it. Let’s just find a hotel for the night and we can use their wifi to find the route. No need to bite his head off.”

Arthur glared at Eames again.

“‘It’ shuts up now.”

Eames rolled his eyes as Arthur turned to face the blowing snow again. Arthur grumbled and made the mistake of looking up to the rear view mirror. Yusuf smiled at him, his eyes crinkled in the narrow mirror. Arthur glared harder for a moment. Then he pressed his pillow against the window and shut his eyes.

The sky grew darker until it was pitch black outside, the only light from the headlights reflecting on the snow. The fallen snow was difficult to look at, the glare coming off it was harsh, though intermittent. The snowfall, however, was almost hypnotic.
It fell at such a speed that when traveling through it with the car, it seemed to come down in streaks, blurring past the eyes to stretch back and back and far, far away.

“It’s like the Millennium Falcon,” Eames muttered, his chin propped in his hand, one knee up on the seat.

“Cobb’ll kill you if he sees your feet in the seat, Eames.” Yusuf was looking over at him, just tiny glances, spared from all the attention it took to keep at least one wheel off of black ice.

“It’s only a foot, none of this ‘feet’ business,” Eames drawled, prominently displaying one foot, resting on the floor.

Yusuf snorted and shook his head, “Have it your way then.”

Eames pondered the statement for a moment. He glanced at the back seat, and could see all four eyes in the back were closed. Then he frowned at Yusuf. Eames pulled both feet back down to the floor, and tilted toward the driver’s side.

“Why does Arthur keep saying, ‘it’?” He whispered.

Yusuf didn’t lean toward him, or even give any indication that he heard the question. Eames had opened his mouth to speak again when Yusuf whispered back.

“You shouldn’t have insulted him.”

“I didn’t know I insulted him!” Eames whispered furiously.

Yusuf didn’t reply. He merely raised one eyebrow.

“Don’t do that thing, Yusuf. That’s Cobb’s thing. It’s even creepier on you than it is on him.”

“Not making a great case for your innocence in the case of aggravated insult, Eames. If you can’t even convince me, Arthur’s going to see through you in a second.”

“I said I was sorry, what more can I do?”

“Watch it!”

Eames sighed, “You know I can’t.”

“It’s easy.”

“Well, it’s not like we have any reception here. Oops, and I had just enough data to stream it, too.” Eames’s sarcastic drawl lost some of its oomph when it was being whispered.

“Just watch it, it really isn’t bad. Hey, you might even like it.”

They pulled into the town of Grand Forks, and Yusuf parked the car outside the only motel with lights on. Arthur and Cobb jumped in their seats, waking up bleary and disoriented, Arthur’s hair stuck to the corner of his mouth with what might have been a bit of drool.

Eames hung back with Yusuf a just long enough for Arthur and Cobb to walk in to reception.

“But why, ‘it’?” He demanded, almost frantic.

Yusuf grinned, a shark’s smile.

“Just watch it, Eames. You’ll understand eventually.”

Chapter Text

The receptionist was a girl, just shy of fourteen, with a coffee cup she could’ve drowned in. Her fingers drummed out a staccato rhythm on the desk while she checked them in using a mildewed book. She grinned at Cobb’s raised eyebrow.

“My grandparents own the place. Gramma thinks computers are the devil’s work.”

She handed Cobb an iron key, and then disappeared for a moment behind the desk. When she popped back up, she was lifting a small device into view.

“Why do we need a flood lamp?” Eames politely inquired.

The girl giggled, “It’s not a flood lamp. This is your heater for the night.”

“I think we’ll stick with the room heater, thanks anyway.”

“Suit yourself. We don’t turn the heat on until guests are inside the rooms, though.”

They took the flood lamp.

***

Once the girl had showed them their room and gotten the heater running, she went back to the front desk. The four men looked at the two beds.

“So…” Eames trailed off, searching for the best way to phrase his question.

Arthur threw himself down onto one of the beds, his winter jacket still fully buttoned. Yusuf sat down next to him and began pulling off his socks. Eames shut his mouth.

Eames and Cobb sat on the other bed, removing hats and scarves and gloves.

“So did Mal give you that?” Eames nodded at the colorful hat Cobb held. Cobb squinted at Eames as he threw the hat towards his winter jacket, hanging on the wall. The hat hit the jacket, which promptly slipped off its hook and slid to the ground. Cobb sighed and went to rescue it, gently cramming the hat into a pocket.

“She made it for me.”

“Ooh, kinky!”

Cobb squinted at Eames again, “How is that kinky?”

“I don’t know, but you probably do!”

“That doesn’t even make sense!”

“Hey!” Arthur interrupted Cobb’s spluttering, “I’m trying to sleep. ‘It’ shuts up now!”

“Since I’m our main driver, I think we should all be most worried about how I’m going to sleep,” Yusuf pointed out as he hung up his jacket. He looked down at Arthur, who was cocooned in most of the blankets. “How are you wearing all your clothes and still hogging the blankets?”

“I’m cold-blooded.” Came Arthur’s muffled reply. He had turned his face into the pillow.

“Well, I think it’s bizarre to sleep with all that on,” Yusuf muttered, unzipping his jeans.

Arthur’s head lifted from the pillow, “What is ‘it’ doing?”

“I’m taking my pants off,” Yusuf replied, doing exactly that.

Arthur popped out of the nest of blankets with horror on his face and bellowed, “‘It’ puts the pants back on!”

“I can’t sleep in my jeans!” Yusuf responded. He folded his jeans and frowned at Arthur, still horror-stricken, shivering in his snow clothes.

Yusuf crawled into the bed and under the covers with a contented sigh, pulling some of Arthur’s nest back over to his side of the bed. Arthur’s mouth was open, and he pointed at Yusuf, unable to form words. Eames sighed and shoved Cobb.

“The hell, Eames!”

“Cobb, sleep with Yusuf.”

Cobb blinked at Eames for a moment.

“Next to. Sleep next to Yusuf,” Eames corrected himself, shoving Cobb again.

Cobb stumbled over and blinked at the lump of blankets that was Yusuf.

Arthur hadn’t moved much, but he’d closed his mouth and turned his head toward Eames. That was a start. Eames stretched out a hand and beckoned to Arthur, calmly, as if this was a normal occurrence. Arthur considered the hand warily. He thought that Eames’s hand looked a lot like a serpent he’d seen at the zoo, patiently raising up into the air, considering the perfect moment to strike its prey.

“I’m not going to bite, Arthur. And I’m sleeping with pants on, so it’s better than the alternative.”

Arthur could hear Cobb getting into the other bed, pulling the covers up to his chin and settling down on the flat pillow. Arthur shook himself and finally moved toward Eames. Eames smiled and politely flipped the covers down just as Cobb turned out his light.

“After you,” Eames whispered in the semi-darkness. The curtains on the window were worn enough to let some light through, the hall lamps providing a slight glow.

Arthur got under the covers and pulled them up. Eames slid into bed beside him and turned out his light. They lay there in the dark until both Yusuf and Cobb were snoring.

“Psst!”

Arthur ignored him.

“Arthur!” Eames whispered in his ear.

Arthur ignored him again.

“You awake?”

Arthur groaned and rolled over to face Eames, “I am now.”

“You were awake. I could hear you breathing,” Eames’s whisper was triumphant.

Arthur frowned, “‘It’ is a little creepy.”

“What’s creepy is all this ‘it’ business. Why the nonspecificity?”

“I don’t think that’s a word.”

“Liar. Also, question dodger.”

“‘It’ would know if ‘it’ watched.”

“I can’t,” Eames’s voice was even quieter than a whisper.

“…Why not?”

Eames didn’t answer. The room was silent for a few minutes, save the intermittent snores coming from the other bed.

“What do you dream about?” Eames mused, his voice rousing Arthur, who had started to drift off.

Arthur attempted to say, “Come again?”, but what left his mouth was a half-formed, “Comgin?”

Eames chuckled and repeated himself.

Arthur blinked at him, his eyes now properly adjusted to the darkened room. He could see that Eames was looking up at the ceiling, his eyes mapping the popcorn ceiling. His eyelashes fluttered as he blinked, and then he was staring at Arthur.

Arthur choked on his spit, coughed quietly into his fist, and responded with the first thought that sprang into his mind.

“You.”

Eames’s eyes brightened for a split second, before Arthur recovered and continued.

“Yusuf. Cobb. Myself. And the road trip. I dream about what’s going to happen in the day ahead.”

Eames’s eyes weren’t as bright as they had been. Arthur felt terrible about that, but couldn’t see a way to fix things. He couldn’t see a reason to lie to Eames, and he really did have practical dreams.

“Sometimes I solve problems in my dreams. It’s like my dreaming mind knows what I want to do before my waking mind does.”

“So you play catch up with your dreams?” Eames was grinning again, and Arthur felt himself smile in response.

He shrugged, “Sometimes it feels that way, yeah.”

“Well, if you’re playing catch up, you should dream about something other than the mundane bits and bobs of your life.”

“You think my life is mundane?” Arthur frowned.

Eames shook his head, his hair brushing against the pillow. Arthur thought it sounded like wind through a corn field, the noise filling the still air.

“No, not that. Only…” Eames trailed off, his eyes solemnly searching Arthur’s.

Arthur waited quietly for over one minute, by his count, before asking, “Only what?”

Eames’s eyes flicked down to Arthur’s mouth, then back up to his eyes, so quickly that Arthur would’ve missed it if he’d blinked. Eames’s shameless grin, and the realization that accompanied it, left Arthur feeling like he was holding a live grenade.

“You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.” Eames whispered.

He then shut his eyes, and immediately fell asleep.

“Eames,” Arthur whispered. “Eames!” Arthur poked him with his foot.

Eames didn’t budge, apparently dead to the world.

“You aren’t asleep. Really?”

Eames was.

Arthur huffed out what should have been a furiously exasperated breath. It was actually a rather fond breath.

He closed his eyes and let his breathing even out, allowing himself to slip gently to sleep.

He dreamt of grenade pins.

Chapter Text

The room was warm by the morning, which was what woke Eames. He always woke gradually, regaining consciousness in tiny bits and random pieces of himself. His hands felt soft blankets and a warm body. His nose smelled the stale heated air of the motel. His bladder informed him that he should probably get up soon. Or now. Now would be preferable. He started to roll out of bed, but someone grumbled and grabbed him. Or rather, tightened their grip.

Eames looked down to see Arthur, cocooned in all the blankets and sandwiched sweatily against Eames’s side. He quietly chuckled at the picture Arthur made - hair stringy around his half-hidden face, sweat beaded on his upper lip. Eames tried to move again and Arthur frowned adorably, throwing his leg further over Eames’s body and continuing his limpet impression. Eames willed his body into stillness, and would’ve tried to go back to sleep immediately, if not for the deep chuckle from the other bed.

He glared over Arthur’s head to see Yusuf, propped up against the headboard with a book. Cobb was on the far side of the bed, draped halfway off the mattress and thankfully still dead to the world. Eames glared harder at Yusuf, who raised a finger to his lips and winked before returning his attention to his book. Eames glanced back down at Arthur, who moved his head in response, pulling free of his blanket hood and rubbing his face against Eames’s chest.

The sorely tested man looked up to the ceiling and took a few centering breaths before trying to relax back into sleep. His attempts were broken every few moments by his traitorous eyelids. They refused to stay shut and block out the sight of a sweaty, disheveled Arthur clinging to his chest.

***

Arthur woke all at once. He was instantly aware of every place he was touching another person. His memory told him something he cringed away from, and he slowly, carefully extricated himself from the bed without opening his eyes. Only once he was sitting at the foot of the bed did he allow himself to open them. The room was dim, with early morning light seeping in through the curtains. Arthur turned his head with infinite care, feeling all the while like an unfortunate cheerleader in a horror movie. He was fully expecting three sets of eyes on him, but when he finally faced the others, they were all asleep.

Cobb was snoring, but the sound was muffled due to his head and torso having fallen off the mattress. Yusuf was sitting up with an open book, but it was laying on his chest, and his head rested on the wall behind him. And Eames?

Eames was currently snuggling into the warm spot Arthur had left on the mattress, shivering a little. Arthur guiltily realized that he had taken all the blankets with him. He quietly pulled them off and flicked them out over the bed one by one. Each one drifted down to cover Eames, who stopped shivering after the second blanket. Arthur tucked them in around Eames’s body anyway, just to be sure.

When Arthur had gone into the bathroom, Eames blinked and looked over at Yusuf. Yusuf grinned back at him from his slumped position against the wall, until his neck made a distinct popping sound and he winced. He sat up and put his pillow against the wall, leaning back into it with a contented sigh. Eames hissed at him and nodded toward the bathroom. Yusuf rolled his eyes and held up three fingers, counting down with a whisper.

“Three. Two. One…”

The shower turned on.

Yusuf smugly turned back to his book while Eames whipped the blankets off his body. He flung his limbs away from his body, attempting to lose body heat as quickly as possible. He was sweating like crazy, and the sweat-drenched sheets weren’t helping anything. Nor was his bladder. Eames carefully got out of bed and went to the bathroom, ignoring Yusuf’s amusement.

“Hey! ‘It’ gets out of the bathroom!” Arthur yelped from the shower stall. The flimsy plastic curtain twitched, and hands appeared on either side, holding it taut to cover as much of the stall as possible. It wasn’t very much.

Back to ‘it’? Eames rolled his eyes.

“Relax, Arthur, I’ll be out in a minute.” Eames walked over to the toilet and stood there for a moment of silence. He was feeling quite awkward by the time he flushed. Of course, at that exact moment Arthur yelped loudly and leapt out of the shower, the plastic curtain wrapping helpfully around his waist.

“Watch it!” Eames’s words went unheeded as Arthur landed, one foot on the tiny bathroom rug, one on the slippery linoleum. Arthur’s feet went in opposite directions and he pitched forward into Eames.

His face ended up mashed against Eames’s chest, Eames’s hands holding him up by the upper arms. It was similar to how they had woken up, Eames thought for the split second that Arthur was still. Arthur yanked backward almost instantly, his feet starting to slip again. Eames lifted him into the air to stop them both from collapsing to the ground.

They stared at each other for a moment, both stunned into stillness, the shower now happily spraying freezing water all over the bathroom. Then Eames began to laugh. He gently lowered Arthur to the floor, unable to stop laughing.

“I’m sorry, but,” He managed to wheeze out after a few seconds. “This is just ridiculous. How?” He couldn’t finish his question, another spasm of laughter forcing its way through his body. Eames finally saw that Arthur was embarrassed, his ears bright pink against his dark hair. He managed to reign in his laughter, just as Arthur’s mouth twitched.

One tiny dimple appeared beside where his mouth was twitching. Eames smiled at it, and then they were both laughing helplessly. By the time the laughter had run its course, the spray from the shower was warm again. Arthur was shivering, Eames realized. He pushed him back toward the stall, letting go of his arms.

“Finish your shower, darling. You’ve still got shampoo in your hair.”

Arthur shook his head with a grin and gingerly stepped back into the stall. He stood there for a moment with the curtain wrapped around himself, then looked up at the curtain rod. Only half the hooks were still attached. Eames chuckled again and left the bathroom, locking the door on his way out.

Yusuf didn’t comment until Eames had changed clothes and the shower had shut off. Eames stared him down until he looked up from his book. Amusement was written all over his face, but he didn’t speak. Arthur exited the bathroom, carrying the much abused shower curtain.

To Yusuf’s questioning expression, Arthur merely commented, “I slipped.”

Yusuf nodded solemnly, but Eames could see him quivering with the effort of holding in his laughter. Arthur chose not to see him shake.

When Cobb wandered into the bathroom and started complaining about the quality of the motel, Yusuf finally lost it, laughing until tears rolled down his cheeks.

Eames was sure that Arthur’s ears were pink again.

***

They left as early as they could. Eames was the first one packed and ready to go, with Arthur not far behind. Yusuf took a little longer, packing his clothes and books as carefully as ever. Cobb took forever to pack up.

This time, the border posed no problems, and the little red car resumed its southward trek through the beautiful state of Washington. The day was rather uneventful, for a road trip in a snowstorm. The snowfall let up quite a bit, at least on the portion they were driving.

The four men hit a small snafu in Spokane when they couldn’t find wifi to download directions. Yusuf was convinced that they needed interstate ninety west. Cobb was adamant that they should keep going south instead. The map they eventually bought confirmed Arthur’s knowledge, and they turned to face the west.

Yusuf read his books while Cobb talked his ear off and drove. Cobb didn’t need very much input to keep going with whatever he was rhapsodizing about. In the back seat, Arthur and Eames sat silently, neither one wanting to break the comfortable silent they had fallen into earlier that morning.

Eames, predictably, was the first to break.

“Ever played the alphabet game?”

“What did ‘it’ say?” Arthur replied, staring out the window at the drifting flakes. The snow was falling slowly but steadily, fat flakes floating gently on the breeze. The car left eddying flurries in its wake, the delicate shapes being pulled along its path like petals on a stream.

Eames sighed, “‘It,’” he motioned to himself, his hands flicking up and down his chest. “‘It’ wants to know if you know the alphabet game, Arthur.”

Arthur shook his head, and Eames’s eyes lit up.

“It’s a road trip game, and you play by finding the letters of the alphabet on the car and trucks and signs around us. From A to Z, mind you. None of this Z to A nonsense.”

Arthur looked skeptical, but turned his head to look outside. Eames saw an approaching car, and when it passed, he called out, “A on license plate!”

Arthur nodded to himself, starting to understand the game now. A massive truck passed, and Arthur called out, “A in Banter. B in Banter.”

“Nope,” Eames interrupted. Only one letter per word or license plate.”

Arthur glared up at him, and Eames shrugged.

“A in Alligator,” Came Yusuf’s voice from the front seat, breaking through Cobb’s soliloquy on dreams and their meanings.

Sure enough, an ‘Alligator Moving Van’ passed them next.

“It’s on,” Eames vowed, clenching a fist in anticipated triumph.

***

Forty minutes later, tensions were running high.

Yusuf and Arthur both mentioned repeatedly that they didn’t feel very safe playing the game in the snowy conditions. Yusuf’s eyes had wandered from the road often and on more than one occasion, the car nearly followed. When they stopped to get gas, Arthur started driving. Of course, as soon as Yusuf fell asleep, his pillow propped on Cobb’s shoulder in the back seat, the conditions worsened considerably. And all that was before Arthur got to ‘q’.

Eames decided to speak up when he had to resist grabbing the wheel for the third time in five minutes.

“How about I help you?”

“What did ‘it’ say?” Arthur’s voice was distracted, his eyes darted between the road and the passing vehicles. He was looking everywhere but at Eames.

“I’ll help you. I’m stuck on ‘q’ as well. Why don’t we do it together?” It seemed a logical conclusion to Eames, even though he had purposefully held himself back. It seemed unfair that he could pay complete attention to the game when Arthur could only spare a few glances every once in a while.

“I don’t need ‘its’ pity point,” Arthur sniffed, and he straightened in his seat for a moment before he resumed his hunched over driving position. The radio, which had been giving half-inaudible reports on the steadily worsening conditions, finally went all the way to static. Eames turned the dial until he hit a mostly audible ‘Nineties to Now’ station.

“I think it’s more of a safety point, by now,” Eames replied easily. He hid his nervousness in his white knuckles on the seat cushion.

Arthur scowled. His next sentence was delivered flippantly, “If we perish, we perish.”

Eames’s nervousness finally went somewhere. It poured out as laughter, insane giggles spilling from behind the hand covering his mouth.

Arthur’s scowl twitched into a smile, and he continued, “‘It’ knew the risks when ‘it’ started this game.”

Eames’s laughter filled the car, bouncing off the foggy windshield and warming Arthur’s ears with its sound. Arthur shifted the car into low gear as they began to descend a long slope.

“I just know there’s a ‘q’ in one of these trucks,” Arthur went on, pretending to ignore Eames. “Something to do with the weight?”

“QTE?” Eames queried, his memory sparked by Arthur’s musing.

“Yeah!” Arthur’s voice was certain. They were both wrong about the definition of ‘QTE’, but they wouldn’t figure that out until a long time later.

A truck passed them, and Arthur pointed at it triumphantly, “Okay, there’s a ‘q’ on there.”

Eames looked it over as it disappeared into the whirling snow, “What? No there isn’t.”

“Yeah, in ‘Patterson’,” Arthur replied, pointing at the next truck in the string of vehicles snaking its way up toward them.

“There’s no ‘q’ in ‘Patterson!” Eames was fully turned toward Arthur now, bewildered.

“I already got the ‘q’ from the truck!” Arthur’s reply was not accompanied by any eye contact. He steadfastly stared out at the road, his mouth twitching.

“No you didn’t! You didn’t find it!” Eames laughed the words out, completely flummoxed by Arthur’s insistence.

Arthur, in response, turned up Nirvana.

Chapter Text

Arthur drove all the way to Idaho, stopping only once for gas, a trip to the bathroom, and snacks and drinks. Cobb saw all the junk food Eames and Yusuf bought and gave in just as they were checking out. He rushed through the dinky store, grabbing gummies, chocolate, chips, and three entirely different energy drinks.

When he got to the counter, juggling the rustling packets of food, Arthur gave him a distinct look.

“Don’t start,” Cobb warned, pointing a finger at Arthur while the clerk totaled up his snacks.

Arthur’s look changed from ‘Really?’ to ‘Don’t even.’

“I’m desperate, Arthur. I haven’t had any of this stuff in months.”

Arthur raised one eyebrow. Eames was watching the conversation like a tennis match, his head whipping from Arthur to Cobb and back again. He decided that Arthur’s singular raised eyebrow was much more tolerable than Cobb’s.

“And don’t tell Mal either, any of you,” Cobb pointed his finger at each of them in turn as they left the store. He had to pause to wrestle the door open before pointing at Yusuf, and when he pointed at Eames he slipped on the icy pavement, but he made his point.

They all clambered back into the car, Arthur and Eames holding the seats up so Yusuf and Cobb could crawl into the back seat again. Having both car doors open had made a sort of channel for the bitterly cold wind, and it howled through, making it difficult to remain upright. Arthur breathed a sigh of relief once he got inside and shut his door. Eames’s door slammed itself shut as he sat down, and he yanked all his body parts inside just in time.

“I nearly lost a foot!” He yelped, slipping his shoes off and rubbing his feet to check they were still attached.

Yusuf snorted and Arthur shook his head with a tiny, fond smile. Cobb was lost in a rustling, gaudily-packaged, chemically-scented pile of snacks, and made no sign he had noticed Eames’s distress. He popped open one of the energy drinks and slurped noisily.

“Ohhhh,” He moaned, causing the other inhabitants of the car to wince. “That’s the stuff.”

Arthur shook his head again, less fondly, and started the engine. He let the car idle for a moment, warming the windshield so it wouldn’t fog over. Cobb was telling Yusuf how Mal had forced him into a health program, when Eames realized that the pairs had been set since the night before. All four of them seemed to be instinctively moving in set pairs - Yusuf and Cobb, and Eames and Arthur. Eames certainly approved, and he decided not to mention it for fear of inciting change.

The drive was much more bearable with Cobb’s mouth full of sour gummy worms. He only made the occasional appreciative sound, and even offered his hoard of snacks to anyone who wanted some. Arthur was attempting to eat an apple, but the blizzard was forcing him to keep both hands on the wheel. The time for semi-distracted driving was past.

Truck horns blared as they drove by, and every time Arthur had to fight a flinch. The trucks kicked up a thick sheet of snow, which hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity, engulfing all the windows in a white mist. After the first few, Arthur would let his foot off the gas for a long time before the trucks passed. Eventually he simply slowed down to half his previous speed. His knuckles on the steering wheel matched the snow outside, and he gave up all thought of food.

That is, until he smelled a strong, spicy, smoky scent. It came from just beneath his nose. His eyes flicked downwards, unbidden, and saw a thick strip of beef jerky. His mouth, dry with fear at the terrible conditions, instantly began watering. He had kept his eyes on the road for all but that split second glance, but his peripheral vision told him that Eames was holding the jerky out to him, watching him with what was probably a smug grin.

“Here you go,” Eames cheerily offered, the bright tone of his voice at odds with the massive truck they passed. Arthur didn’t answer until the truck and its ensuing whiteout had gone.

“Thanks,” Arthur’s answered was soft, a distracted mumble, and without thinking, he opened his mouth to take a bite of jerky.

It was tangy and sweet, but still had a harsh bite of spice, causing Arthur’s nose to start running a little. He swallowed his first bite and took another, but the strip he attempted to tear with his teeth wasn’t cooperating. Eames chuckled and reached over to help, ripping the strand from the rest of the jerky with his hands. Arthur blushed when he realized that Eames had been feeding him. He was finishing his mouthful and still had no idea what he could say to Eames when he bit into a peppercorn.

He cringed as he waited for the overwhelming spiciness of the peppercorn to invade his senses, but it didn’t fall apart. He cautiously moved it out from between his teeth, but it didn’t attack his tongue either. Arthur rolled it around in his mouth, trying to figure out what the thing was, if not a peppercorn. A thought crossed his mind, was dismissed outright, and then immediately brought back up as a probable answer.

“Take the wheel,” Arthur instructed. Eames took it, nervously steering the car around a corner, Arthur’s feet idle on the pedals. Arthur spat the thing into his hand, and looked at it for a moment before passing it under Eames’s nose.

He took the wheel back with one hand and said, “Is this what I think it is?”

Eames took the thing and held it up, confused. “What the hell? Is this… This can’t be buckshot.”

Arthur nodded, poking his tongue around his teeth to check for damage.

“It is buckshot,” Eames wondered aloud. “Why is there buckshot in the beef jerky?”

“Someone must’ve shot the cow with buckshot,” Yusuf contributed.

“Helpful,” Cobb muttered, his voice muffled around his mouthful of cheesy puffs.

“But why on earth would someone shoot a cow with buckshot?” Eames was flummoxed. “Especially if you intend to eat it afterward.”

He held the rest of the jerky up for examination, and saw that a good quarter of the remaining jerky was pebbled with tiny round bumps.

He sighed, “So much for the local specialty. Sorry, darling. When I picked my snacks, I didn’t have poison in mind. Poison just… Happened. You know how it goes.”

Arthur didn’t respond, but Eames could see the beginnings of his smile.

They sat in companionable silence for a while, watching the blizzard ebb and flow around them. They had just reached the end of a long flat area, the ground cover unidentifiable under their blanket of white, when the blizzard suddenly took a break.

In between one blink and the next, it had vanished from around their car. What they finally could see out the windows was awe-inspiring. There were towering, snow-covered, craggy-peaked mountains stretching off into the distance. With the blizzard still raging in the distance, the sight was stunning. The trees were covered in snow, but little flashes of bright green poked through the drifts. There were massive mountains on either side of the road, and the car entered an are with trees stretching high overhead, blocking the sight of the distant blizzard and mountain range. Instead, the trees formed a kind of canopy, with the occasional rocky wall breaking through. It felt like being in a tunnel of trees and mountains, wood and stone - not claustrophobic, but comfortable.

The whole thing was absolutely terrifying.

Cobb was mumbling to himself, sweating up a storm. Yusuf had his head pressed against his small corner of window, eyes up toward the hidden sky. Eames was making bad jokes about tree huggers and hugger trees, his voice strained with fear. Arthur simply drove, hands like manacles on the wheel, shepherding them safely through the dangerous terrain.