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Flannel: A Love Story

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1.

Francois Plantier loves Arthur more than is probably necessary. His small shop on Rue Legrange in Paris is a tidy affair with round windows and gold lettering embossed above the simple blue door which bears only his name. As menswear tailors go, Plantier's shop is small. He has four employees and only two of them are allowed to handle the cloth. Of the two, only one is allowed to sew. Most of the work is done by Plantier himself, a cheerful old man with a beakish nose, a fondness for Saint-Félicien cheese, and a propensity to go into raptures whenever Arthur walks through the door.

Arthur is his most loyal client. Although his visits are not so regular as to set Plantier's clock by, Plantier has come to expect this serious young man to grace his establishment every six months or so in search of a new suit. Plantier doesn't ask what happens to Arthur's old suits that he needs replacements so often. Plantier loves Arthur too much for that -- for his politeness, for his patience when being measured, for his body that shows off Plantier's creations to their best effect, and most of all, for his prompt and generous payments.

Francois Plantier is a wizard with a measuring tape and a bolt of cloth.

Arthur doesn't have the heart to tell him the truth.

 


 

There are four people involved in this story, not counting Arthur. The first is Plantier, who dresses Arthur to the nines. The second is Arthur's aunt Millie, who is his mother's older sister and the widow of a pharmaceutical tycoon who has more money than she knows what to do with even after donating to her usual philanthropic causes. Arthur used to spend his summers at his Aunt Millie's place in the Hamptons, swimming and bickering with his horde of cousins. It's not something he really likes to mention to his extraction colleagues. He doesn't want the burden of being known as a pampered rich boy, even though it's strictly not true -- his own family was never rich, only their relations, but it's hard to explain sometimes the feeling of being a charity case even while you're eating shrimp on the patio of a beach house worth millions.

In her advancing age, Aunt Millie has, to the amusement of her friends and the horror of her relatives, rejected the genteel ladylike breeding that characterized her days as the wife of a socially elite man. These days she gleefully admits to her less than respectable pleasures. For instance, the habit of hiring handsome young men to run her household. Aunt Millie takes an especial pleasure in dressing them how she likes. Some of her employed boys walk around in nothing more than a pair of Speedos; others wear frock coats; still others parade around in leather.

Arthur supposes he's fortunate in that for him, Aunt Millie has chosen the theme of suits. Handmade French-tailored suits with silk ties and buffed shoes and silver cuff links that glint in the evening light. Arthur would much rather wear Plantier's suits than bondage gear, though if it was up to him, he wouldn't wear either.

It's not up to him though. Aunt Millie paid for his college education and his family's mortgage when Arthur's father had his heart attack and had to stop working. Arthur owes her.

 


 

Arthur's jobs are a good opportunity to wear Aunt Millie's suits. As a new technology, dream extraction can only be afforded by the very rich, and what the very rich like to do the most is snoop into the dreams of other people who are also very rich. All this richness means that in order to fit in, Arthur needs to be well-dressed. It also means that his colleagues, who tend to see him only during jobs -- as much as he respects Cobb, he doesn't exactly have the burning urge to take tea and biscuits with him in their time off -- has formed some untrue impressions.

Arthur doesn't mind wearing expensive suits that perfectly fit his body and show him to his best effect, okay. It's not a burden. But it doesn't mean that he's some sartorial genius either. He doesn't keep up with fashion, he doesn't spend hours in his wardrobe picking the perfect tie to match the perfect shirt, he doesn't care if he spills soup over his pants or loses a cuff link when he's vaulting a wired fence chasing after a mark. He's not going to weep an ocean of tears if he has to wear something that cost less than a thousand dollars and isn't made by virginal priestesses of Hestia on top of a volcano.

In fact, when he's off the job, he likes to kick around in jeans and a cardigan. Sometimes, if he's just walking down the street to buy the latest newspaper, he even wears Crocs.

Le gasp.

 


 

The third person in this story is Eames.

Eames is...well, the best way to describe Eames is this: if a poisonous snake somehow bit Eames in the penis and someone needed to suck the venom out, Arthur would do it but he would give long consideration first as to whether or not the world would be a better place without Eames. Or more specifically, whether his world would be a better place without Eames. It's true that Eames is fantastic in bed, and after a couple of beers even his smugness starts to seem shiny and charming, but when Arthur is sober he finds Eames insufferable. Every part of him. Including his penis.

The distressing thing with Eames is that Eames is starting to know details about Arthur. Important details, such as where he lives and what his college degree was, rather than how he likes to take his coffee or what the password to his laptop is (it's dream001, all right, Arthur doesn't pretend to be incredibly creative and he doesn't keep his porn on his work laptop anyway). Eames also knows about the Crocs.

Arthur isn't embarrassed about his plebeian fashion tastes, but he equates it firmly with Not Work and he hates it when the lines between Work and Not Work get blurred. Just look at what happened to Cobb.

Eames too needs to stay in the Work category. Never mind the raucous monkey sex.

 


 

2.

This story takes place in Canada. Actually Canada, not Vancouver-spliced-into-the-movie-to-look-like-New-York. Arthur has been to Canada and likes it there -- how can you not have some weird respect for a country that, of all the animals in the world to choose from, proudly announces its national animal as the beaver? However, he's quickly realizing that all of his previous experience in Canada was in the south. He's never been to northern Canada before, definitely not Yukon, and fuck it's cold there.

The mark's name is Jack Bigham and he's the fourth person in this story. Once upon a time, Jack was a high-ranking executive in an Alberta oil company, but then he had an epiphany and decided what he wanted most in the world was to exist in unison with nature. So he quit his job and moved to a cabin in the north where he now hunts for game, scavenges for vegetables, and lets his beard grow way out of control.

One problem: he took some important codes with him and won't give them back.

Cobb is vacationing with his children in Hawaii -- something about erasing the trauma of the recent past in their minds, though Arthur has his private doubts that the children will ever forget, you know, that time when everybody thought their dad killed their mom -- and they don't need any special sedatives this time, so Yusuf isn't around. Ariadne does design the dream but she has finals in college and besides, Arthur isn't always comfortable with her going into the dreams. She's still so young and untrained. Maybe after she's learned to use firearms.

Cobb has basically put Arthur in charge of the job, but it's not a one person gig, so Cobb has helpfully called up the best forger in the business. Hooray. Arthur suspects that domestic happiness is making Cobb evil.

Arthur rendezvouses with Eames at the Erik Nielson airport in Whitehorse. Eames shows up in sunglasses and a double-breasted Dolce and Gabbana suit, though Arthur only knows the latter because Eames says, right off, "I'm wearing a Dolce and Gabbana suit."

"Uh, that's nice," says Arthur.

"I figure it's one step closer to impressing you," Eames says cheerily, and Arthur is confused because is this mockery? It feels like mockery. But Eames is stepping really close to him in the baggage claim, running his fingers up Arthur's spine, and the two teenage girls beside them are watching raptly. One is not-so-discreetly taking pictures on her cell phone.

Arthur says, "Not that I don't plan to bend you over a moose and fuck you later, but we're working."

"Not yet we aren't," Eames says, and he licks Arthur's ear.

God help them both.

 


 

Jack Bigham lives in the wilderness about sixty kilometers outside of Whitehorse, so it makes it believable when Arthur and Eames show up at his doorstep pretending to be lost travelers. He invites them inside of his cabin and pours them both a shot of whiskey, which Arthur downs in a single gulp. It's still colder than he's used to, and whatever finery he and Eames are wearing doesn't matter when it's covered by a huge parka lined with three layers of fleece. Eames has on a woolen grey scarf that covers most of his face, and he unwraps it slowly to smile prettily at Bigham. Despite the frightening beard, Bigham is younger and handsomer than badly shot company photos would have led Arthur to believe. Not that he cares.

Being the excellent point man that he is, Arthur has timed their arrival at Bigham's cabin with a horrendous snow storm. When it hits, approximately half an hour after he finishes his whiskey, he says, "Uh oh. I don't know if we can make it back in this weather."

"No problem," Bigham says. "I've got a spare room you guys can use."

"A spare room?" Eames asks, looking around. "You get visitors up here often?"

"My mom, she likes to check up on me," Bigham says easily, and Arthur smiles a bit at that. Then, when Eames is distracting Bigham with a story of his own mother that is probably entirely fake, Arthur drugs Bigham's next shot of whiskey. Bigham drinks it while laughing heartily at Eames' anecdote about his mom and the washing machine salesman. Then his eyes widen, his throat bulges, and he goes out like a champion.

PASIV time. Arthur and Eames move leisurely. They don't need to rush this job. The snow storm isn't supposed to end for a few hours in real time, and neither of them want to be still stuck in the cabin when Bigham wakes up.

When Arthur hooks himself up to the PASIV, he glances over and sees Eames smirking at him. "What?" Arthur asks suspiciously. 

Eames chuckles. "I talked to Ariadne. She has a little surprise for you."

Please, please, please don't let it be bondage gear.

 


 

It's not.

It's--

"Flannel," Arthur says, looking down at his plaid shirt. 

"We're in the big bad north, my pet," Eames says. "We've got to fit in with the culture here."

"I feel insulted on the behalf of northern Canadians everywhere," Arthur says, tugging gingerly at his shirt. He can't say so out loud but it's so soft underneath his fingers. He hasn't worn flannel in years, not since his dad used to take him camping in their regular manly bonding trips -- the inevitable result, perhaps, of Arthur being the only son in a family of five sisters.

Arthur is wearing a red flannel shirt, patched jeans, and a heavy pair of boots. He's standing outside and despite the snow gathering in banks all around him, he feels warm. Especially his head. He lifts his hands up and discovers that he's wearing a brown hat with flaps over his ears. 

"You look good," Eames says. He's dressed much the same, but he's still wearing his grey scarf that draws Arthur's attention to the stretch of exposed neck at the top. "You look like a rugged he-man ready to take on the elements." He pauses. "Well, except for the part where you're still really scrawny."

"I can flip you on your back in ten seconds."

"Is that an offer?" Eames shows his teeth. Arthur feels a twitch of interest -- all right, more than a twitch -- but then Bigham comes ambling up the road with a rifle slung over his shoulder. He stops when he sees them, and they both put on their friendly innocent expressions.

"Hi, we're lost," Arthur says.

Bigham scratches his head. "I'm having the weirdest sense of déjà vu."

 


 

They move into Bigham's spare room as Ariadne's snow storm hits hard. It's suddenly a whole lot colder, but Eames starts the fire in the cabin, impressing Bigham with his how-to skills. Arthur tries to be unmoved but he's a city boy and Eames knowing his way around wilderness survival is kind of hot. Arthur spreads his fingers out in front of the fire and feels like he's wrapped inside of a giant hot dog.

Eames plops down on the couch beside him and scoots real close. Oh god, is he going to...yes, he is. He buries his nose in Arthur's shoulder, presses his knee against Arthur's side, and they are officially cuddling.

"Are you two...?" Bigham lets his voice trails off.

"No," says Arthur.

"Yes," says Eames.

"Ah, gotcha," Bigham says. "Do you want more whiskey or what?"

Eames doesn't move from where he's trying to become one with Arthur's side, but the three of them start chatting, getting more personal and intimate as the alcohol content grows higher. Arthur steers the conversation casually to the company codes when he can, but Bigham brushes it off each time. "Steady," Eames murmurs into Arthur's throat, and Arthur shudders at the press of his lips and stubble. It's getting increasingly warm inside even as outside the wind howls desperately. Arthur's flannel shirt is sliding up his skin every time Eames shifts. He swears Eames is doing it on purpose.

Bigham wanders off to piss. Eames traces his finger along Arthur's throat and says, "We're not going to get anything out of him easily."

"No kidding," Arthur says, but he smiles because he enjoys a challenge. It's why he got into this profession to begin with.

"We'll be here for a few days, dream time," Eames continues. "Have you realized that? It'll be like a vacation. You and me in a secluded cabin with a roaring fire and a bearskin rug..."

"And Bigham," Arthur replies dryly.

"I'm sure we can evade him if we need to," Eames says. Then he bites Arthur's ear. "Or not. I know you've got a kinky exhibitionist streak in you."

 


 

Days pass. 

Arthur learns how to deal with the lack of a proper toilet, proper shower, and no internet connection. He learns how to cook for three men when the only ingredients are venison, salt, and two potatoes. He learns how to deal with Eames pinching his ass when he is at the stove, making some comment about 50s housewives that sends Arthur chucking a foil-wrapped potato at his head. Then Arthur realizes that he needs that potato, so he says "oh shit" and goes scrambling after it while Eames laughs and laughs, the bastard.

Arthur also learns to deal with the contents of his backpack, which turn out to be flannel, jeans, a razor, and more flannel. Thanks, Ariadne. And while he tries to summon up the proper ironic feeling for dressing like a lumberjack each and every day, he knows that secretly he can't. Because secretly Arthur is still the little boy who watched his dad and uncles pitch the tents at camp and wanted to be just like them one day.

Well, barring the frustratingly tight-lipped Canadian nature enthusiast and the master forger who keeps trying to draw Arthur into blowjobs in the outhouse. Those were elements that young Arthur had not predicted for his future.

When the storm hushes into its peaceful patches -- which only last for an hour --, the three of them go behind the cabin and practice their shooting. Bigham's jaw falls open the first time he sees Arthur shoot the target from three hundred meters with the wind blowing snow in their faces. "I thought Eames was the outdoorsman between you, but I was clearly wrong," he says. "Where'd you learn to shoot like that, buddy?"

Arthur pockets the gun. "The army," he says simply.

"I didn't know that," Eames says.

"I'm surprised considering your mission in life is to stalk me," Arthur says. But Eames has a dopey little smile on his mouth and that night Arthur pulls him down on the bed and strips him of his clothes. 

"Is this what you do to all your stalkers?" Eames laughs. Arthur slides his mouth over his and shuts him up. The kiss tastes like cold and smoke, and Arthur runs his hands over Eames' tattooed forearms, trying to warm him up. The sheets twist beneath them. Arthur kicks out and gets tangled. Eames helps him out, still laughing, but it's a sweet sort of laugh, fond and open. It makes him seem so much younger. Arthur's chest squeezes and then he's moving down to drop a kiss against Eames' hipbones. Eames' breath catches when Arthur's mouth moves to the left and brushes the underside of his cock.

"Suck me," Eames says.

Arthur's tongue darts out, wringing a groan from Eames.

"No," Arthur says. And then he reaches for the lube that he found in the side pocket of his backpack -- thank you, Ariadne, you sly, disturbingly perceptive lady -- and slicks up two fingers.

He fucks Eames in short little jerks, his hips snapping back and forth. Eames' hands curl on Arthur's shirt and he clutches him as Arthur pushes inside. Eames uses his grip on Arthur's shirt to pull him all the way down until they're kissing again, and Arthur can see how blown Eames' pupils are. "Yeah, yeah, like that," Eames grunts as Arthur fucks him harder, sending the mattress into a paroxysm of creaks. It doesn't matter. Bigham already knows. It seems like everybody already knows. One of Arthur's buttons pop off and he comes in a blinding train wreck of nerve pulses.

Afterwards, he gives Eames the blowjob he wants. Eames' toes curl and then he's spurting into Arthur's mouth. Arthur swallows him down, the smooth heaviness of it. Eames groans one last time and yanks Arthur back to the mattress. He flops over him bonelessly. Both of them are pink from the heat and sweaty from the exertion. Eames drops his chin onto the front of Arthur's tangled shirt.

"Is this still work?" he asks.

Arthur says, "God, Eames, you know I don't--"

But Eames kisses him. "Yes, you just did."

Arthur is quiet as he thinks. Then he smiles tentatively and says, "I can't promise to be any good at this." But Eames is still smiling at him, all patience and desire, so he adds, just to see that smile go up a notch, "But I guess I'll try." He pauses for a second too long.

"You know you wanted to call me darling just then," Eames snorts.

"Dream on," Arthur replies.

 


 

3.

This is how they get Bigham to confess the company codes.

They just ask.

"You think I didn't know this was a dream and that you two are extractors?" Bigham laughs until his belly shakes. "Come on. I've been prepped for this sort of thing. Why didn't you think there were any projections around?"

"This is slightly humiliating," Eames said.

"No one must know," Arthur agrees. He turns to Bigham. "Why did you lead us on then?"

"It gets boring up here sometimes. The caribou aren't nearly so good at conversation," Bigham says. "And the two of you are way nicer than any of my ex-colleagues."

"Arthur's not nice at all," Eames informs him. 

"That's not true," Arthur says, and punches him.

Bigham smiles fondly. "You two are so cute. Makes me almost wish I had someone to marry."

"Marry?" Arthur echoes. He looks at Eames, who is suddenly fascinated by a piece of shrubbery. There is a ring on Eames' fourth finger that Arthur is sure was not there until today. "You've been telling him that we're married? You fucking asshole. I'm going to kill you!"

Eames bolts.

"You can't just run all the way back to Whitehorse!" Arthur shouts after him. Then he starts chasing him. Bigham hollers a goodbye but Arthur can barely hear him as he makes fast work after Eames, who is kicking up snow in his trail. Then they are just two flannel-clad men running through the northern Canadian wilderness, like something out of a special moments broadcast clip, and this too they will never speak of again. When Arthur finally catches up to Eames, he swings his backpack at him and hits him in the face. Then they're wrestling in the snow, trying to shovel it down each other's pants, somehow regressing fifteen maturity years in the process, but Eames doesn't care and after a while neither does Arthur.

 


 

Sex in the snow is a bad idea. 

"My penis," Eames whimpers.

 


 

4.

The next time Francois Plantier sees Arthur, he has brought a companion with him. "I'm not buying a suit this time," Arthur says, and Plantier's heart sinks five stories. It rises up again when Arthur says quickly, "But my friend here, I'm buying a suit for him. If you will consent to that."

Plantier studies Eames critically, measuring the width of his shoulders, the length of his legs, the curve of his spine. "Yes, he'll do," he says. Eames shoots Arthur a smirk that Arthur returns. Francois Plantier notes the exchange of expressions, wonders at it, and then forgets about it as he starts humming Edith Piaf and trying to remember where he left his notebook. There's work to be done.