Arthur Smith-Jones’ life followed the staid pattern of mundane monotony as often was a side-effect of working in the business of investing and business reporting. He wore a suit to work each and every day, tied his tie in a double Windsor knot, and wore patent leather shoes that creaked with every step.
Each day, he filed numbers, took clients and made their lives better, sifted through financial recommendations, stepped in to help audit the occasional client, and endured watercooler chat. Some days, the watercooler was the most difficult to bear.
Lately, all that Dom (who worked down the hall in pensions) could bear to talk about was Mallorie Miles. It was ‘Mal this’ and ‘Mal that’ and Arthur found himself staring at his wristwatch to politely excuse himself from the conversation every time the subject veered to her like a train off the rails – it typically took roughly ten minutes before Dom started to talk about what Mal was like in bed.
It had been a long time since Arthur believed in any kind of real love. He used to date a man named Nash and for a while, it had seemed pretty serious. They’d even moved in together and had begun to share their lives to the point that Arthur thought he was forever taken.
Nash was an architecture student who brought big dreams, good friends, and some flaws to the table. In the end, the flaws won out when Nash couldn’t remember small details about Arthur’s life, his day, their house and sometimes the details weren’t so small, like Arthur’s birthday. Still, if not for Nash, Arthur would never have met Ariadne – one of Nash’s better friends and now one of Arthur’s bestfriends.
The way Dom spoke about Mal as he sipped on imported water made it seem as though he was deeply, madly, utterly, and happily in love.
Arthur forgot what that was like. He woke up alone, ate alone, and other than brief visits from co-workers and friends in the evenings, spent his time alone.
He existed in a state of utter loneliness and was stubbornly stuck in his habits until the day that a file landed on his table from seemingly higher powers. Or, as Arthur discovered as he looked up, the higher power of Yusuf. Arthur peered at the flour-smudged manila folder and then at Yusuf curiously, wondering why he was getting bakery-stained wares. “Yes?” he politely coaxed out the explanation.
“Baker,” Yusuf replied. “He’s applied for financial and investment aid. Apparently, he funnelled most of his profits into the market and well,” Yusuf cracked a rueful smile as if to remind Arthur of what he already knew – that this baker’s money was well and truly down the drain.
“Didn’t we have a Wall Street trader account that needed assigning?”
Yusuf looked in the other direction, thereby avoiding Arthur’s eye-contact, which immediately roused suspicion. “Yusuf,” Arthur said with a tone that implied he had very little patience for whatever it was he was playing at.
“Dom thought,” Yusuf began with an apologetic flinch, “that you could bear to handle something a little calmer for once. You’ve been working nonstop since you broke up with Nash,” he pointed out.
“Maybe because I like it!” Arthur insisted, struggling to deal with the notion of being put on light duty because of Nash. “Besides, I’m the most senior employee here outside of Dom and Mal, it’s in my contract that I get first choice of whatever files are available,” he said, holding out his hand expectantly for a file folder not coated in flour. “So,” he continued, “Trader, please.”
“Fischer already took it,” Yusuf added. “I should have mentioned. The baker is the only file left, so if you do like to work and want a case for this week.” He wiggled the folder in the air until Arthur had two choices: take the folder and work on a case that would take him two visits, in all likelihood, or sit around the office and listen to Dom go on and on (and possibly on) about Mal.
“Give me that file,” he muttered and snatched it back from Yusuf to start preliminary notes.
He tried to pretend he couldn’t see the look of victory on Yusuf’s face as he walked away. If he had seen it, he might have needed to do something petty, possibly involving jell-o and some of Yusuf’s favourite cat figurines that littered his desk.
Arthur’s first impression of William Eames was that no living man should ever have that much flour smeared over his face, that no real person should have that many tattoos, and that no person in his personal history had ever made Arthur feel so suddenly off-kilter without even saying a word. He swallowed back his nerves – or whatever it was he was feeling – and cleared his throat. “Mr. Eames?” he called from across the counter.
He was, momentarily, distracted by Mr. Eames kneading the bread dough in his hands, slow and careful with dextrous fingers. Every crack of a knuckle made Arthur think about those hands digging into the muscles of his back and…
Maybe Ariadne was right. Maybe he needed to get laid.
He cleared his throat one more time. Instead of being a call for attention, this was to clear his mind, as though a good throat-clearing had ever been helpful when it came to shaking out the cobwebs. “I’m Arthur. Arthur Smith-Jones?” he introduced himself hopefully, trying to take his gaze off those capable hands, but when he did that, his gaze merely drifted up to the strong muscles of his arms and the ink that caressed his…
Arthur officially had to get laid and to stop reading romance novels.
“I’m from Incept Financials Incorporated? You filed for financial advice and I’m your planner,” he said, adjusting his double-Windsor knotted tie and standing up as straight as he could.
Arthur might have been swayed by the man in front of him – imagining him tangled between his sheets with the crisp black ink of his tattoos standing out in stark contrast to the sheets – but he still managed a grimace when the reply was, “Oh, good, because I’ve got a plan for that body of yours,” he growled lasciviously, giving the bread a hard knead.
“Very funny, Mr. Eames,” Arthur replied evenly. “I think you’ll find that I’m just like every other average mathematician and have very little in the sense of humor department if the jokes have nothing to do with pi,” he said with a tiny smile lurking around the corners of his lips.
Eames glanced up from the cloud of flour he created in sprinkling it over the counter, grasping a rolling pin and leaning his hip against the wooden table. “Cute and clever,” he admired. “What has the world wrought upon us? A clever, attractive, intelligent man who just wandered into my shop offering me advice,” he said, as if wondrously. “It’s a shame.”
“What’s a shame?”
“Well,” Eames remarked and turned towards him. Now, Arthur could see his face full-on. There was a faint hint of stubble lurking over his cheeks and chin, small laugh lines around his eyes, and his lips were stained red. Arthur pretended that they were sticky, too. Maybe from raspberry jam that he had sucked off the spoon earlier that morning when he was making his breakfast.
“Well?” Arthur coaxed along, clearing his throat one more time – this was to calm his libido and in the history of men, never had a throat clearing ever successfully accomplished that.
Eames grinned at him and began to push the bread into shape. “It’s a shame that the minute you see my financials, you’re going to realize I’m hardly good for anything and take that attractive body, that intelligent brain, and that beautiful wit and go elsewhere.”
Patience, Arthur reminded himself. It was good to have patience, especially when confronted with a pathological (he assumed) flirt. “Your files, Mr. Eames?”
Eames gestured to a table in the corner of the bakery. “Right this way, Arthur, I’ll have them for you straightaway.”
Eames’ financial records, letters of import, and files were in five disastrous boxes and he was fairly sure that every file bore a dessert’s mark. “Lemon meringue pie,” Eames contributed helpfully as he licked his thumb and used it to page through the papers. Arthur had protested that he didn’t require company, but Eames had insisted.
“You have no idea the state of my files,” had been what he’d said.
Arthur had thought that Eames was exaggerating. In his time with Incept, he had seen a great many disasters. He had even once fought a client’s dog for the record of taxable income for two years prior – he had lost and bore a scar on his palm to show for the battle. Still, Arthur was thoroughly shocked to see the boxes and the sheer state of them.
“I…” Arthur sputtered. “I don’t understand…” He shook out an old folder with a smear of neon-yellow on it and stares at Eames in confusion.
Which brought them back to ‘lemon meringue pie’.
Arthur tugged out the record of Eames’ charitable donations and wiped his thumb over a curious mark over the corner of the page in the shape of a thumbprint. He pressed his own thumb to it as if in comparison before looking up at Eames.
He looked to Eames before he looked to his calculator, as if avoiding Eames’ gaze would protect Arthur from lascivious thoughts about the man.
“Ah, fondue,” Eames said as he took a longer look. “See, I had the sheet out because I was adding the Gomez wedding to the list and they’d wanted a chocolate fountain,” he said with a fond smile, leaning over to press his thumb to the mark on the page, thereby giving it a perfect match and earning Arthur’s attention once more. He lifted his face and grinned at Arthur, while Arthur busied himself trying to ignore the fact that no one had smiled at him like that for a very long time.
“You seem to do quite good with your business,” Arthur said, flipping through pieces of paper and beginning piles in which to organize them. “Is there a reason you’ve become less than solvent, recently?”
“I gamble,” Eames admitted. “And I’ve stopped, but I lost a good deal of money on card tables. And then the market crashed and what I thought was my safety net evaporated. Thank god I still do well enough to make my payments,” he admitted in a heavy rush of a relieved laugh.
Arthur glanced up from a raspberry-tinged smell of a stain on an old paystub. “You know, you don’t have to sit here with me. I promise, I’m good at what I do. The company wouldn’t have sent me over otherwise.”
“I know I don’t have to be here,” Eames huffed and suddenly Arthur had the feeling he’d said the complete wrong thing. “I wanted to be here.”
That doesn’t stop him from storming away and slamming the swinging door to the kitchen behind him as he went.
Arthur returned for his second day of advising to discover that Eames wasn’t even there and instead he found a man in a business suit. Considering the surroundings, he looked severely out of place in the very down-to-earth bakery. “I’m looking for Eames?” he politely requested.
“Mr. Eames will return soon,” the man assured. He was Japanese and very familiar and it was thanks to Arthur’s great knowledge of the financial markets that he quickly recognized the man as Saito, one of the richest men in the world. And here he was, tapping the buttons of his phone in a simple bakery.
Arthur cleared his throat to get Saito’s attention.
“Mr. Saito, I know this is presumptuous,” Arthur began, setting his briefcase down on the table in order to use his hands to back him up. “But you’re number four on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest men. You helped broker a deal that consolidated half of the world’s energy corporations, but maintained enough competition to avoid a monopoly. You once helped negotiate peace in Micronesia, what are you doing here?”
“Mr. Eames,” Saito began, “is a good family friend and was once on track to becoming one of my most trusted lawyers.” He turned to accept the white bag that one of the younger staff was holding out to him. “I trust him as much as I ever did. Perhaps, though, more with tiramisu than with torts these days.” He lifted up the bag and gave Arthur a firm nod. “Eames went to deliver a wedding cake. He will be back soon, Mr…”
“I’m Arthur. Arthur Smith-Jones, I’m helping Eames with his finances. He never mentioned he knew such a…”
“Potential benefactor?” Saito interrupted and shook his head dismissively. “I have tried to offer help. He refuses. I admire his pride as much as I lament it.” With one final nod, Saito left the store.
The bells above the door jangled merrily and Arthur sat, stunned, trying to put these pieces together. He was still processing them when Eames returned with an envelope tucked into a pair of ragged and worn jeans. “Drinks on me, tonight!” he announced to the staff cheerfully. “Arthur!” he greeted him with great surprise. “In your case, the drinks can literally be on me if you like.”
“You were supposed to be a lawyer?” Arthur asked, subverting ‘hello’ or ‘you’re being a lecherous pervert’ for the question.
Eames’ face grew cloudy at the mere mention of ‘lawyer’ and he slipped behind the counter, sliding on a pair of oven mitts and watching the oven like it held a great secret. In truth, the cookies in that oven had minutes to go and Arthur suspected he was being ignored. “I got into Harvard,” he admitted with a short laugh. “I applied on a whim. After you attend Oxford, they expect you to stay in the country, but Mum insisted I try. I did and my essay was…brilliant,” he admitted, a nostalgic look crossing over his face. “Christ, Arthur,” he exhaled. “I’ve never written anything like that since. I talked about changing the world and my plans to become a better person through my actions. On and on and on, I went, talking about all the chivalrous things I planned to do. I’m fairly sure at one point I even talked about saving puppies. So they let me in.”
“Then what happened?”
Eames shook his head and turned to Arthur, mitts tugged to his elbows. The frayed edges of them curled around the edge of his tattoos and Arthur’s gaze was momentarily struck by how much he wanted to touch Eames just there, at the crook of his elbow. “I met someone,” Eames admitted. “And every day, I would spend hours in a kitchen trying to put something together to impress him. He was in contract law and I thought that after a day of reading those ruddy things, he needed a pick-me-up. Well,” he remarked ruefully, “brownies and cookies became tarts and cakes and complicated affairs until I wasn’t baking for him. I was baking for my whole floor. Saito came by one day because Mum asked him to check on me, took a single taste of lemon chiffon tart, and wrote me a cheque. Do you know,” Eames murmured, “I think he understood my heart lay more with baking than it did with litigation, even then.”
“He’s a genius.”
“Don’t you go falling in love with my godfather,” Eames warned with an edge of something Arthur couldn’t decipher in his tone. “He already gets anything he wants.”
“So,” Arthur said, barely noticing that the customers around them had begun to leave until it left just Arthur and Eames alone in the store while it began to rain, outside. “So, you were going to change the world.”
“Now I just pander to people’s appetites and I’m not sure that it doesn’t change the world quite a bit, one stomach at a time,” Eames finished with a heady grin.
The buzzer sounded on the cookies and Eames turned in order to slide them out of the oven, casting the scent of fresh peanut-butter cookies around the bakery and making Arthur remember sitting in his mother’s kitchen and waiting for the very same things.
“How did you…” he was speaking before he even realized he wanted to ask how Eames knew about Arthur’s favourite type of cookie. With one look at Eames, he also realized that Eames actively knew it was.
Eames began to slide a spatula under to loosen the cookies from the greased pan. “I’d tried nearly every other kind while you sat in the corner the other day and worked on my finances. The only time you so much as lifted your head was to look and see what I was doing when I was baking the peanut-butter cheesecake. I had a hunch,” he admitted, reaching down into the cupboard for a warmed plate.
For every cookie that went into the display, one went onto the plate.
Arthur stopped to consider, in that moment, that the strange and warm sensation tumbling through his whole body had nothing to do with the temperature of the bakery or any other extrinsic factors. Arthur had to consider the notion that he might be falling in love with Eames. He took one bite of a perfect peanut butter cookie and realized that he might have to do more than consider it.
When he looked to Eames to offer his approval, he was met with a sheepish grin and Eames’ cheeks lighting up in soft pinks.
“Eames,” Arthur breathed out, setting his half-eaten cookie down on his plate.
“Anyway,” Eames continued, looking aside to try and handily avoiding all eye contact, “I opened this place ten years back and haven’t regretted it since. Even if I’m shit with gambling and investments and that’s why I might be foreclosed on.” He shuffled away to start digging out mixing bowls and Arthur knew that the moment to tell him about his revelation was over. “But you’re here, now. You’re here to help with that.”
Instead of saying a word about peanut butter cookies and Arthur’s desire to see where those tattoos led, he forced a smile on his face and asked for some milk.
That whole afternoon, all Arthur could think about instead of cash flows and cash-value-profit statements was the mental image he had fostered of being the one that Eames baked for. His sensible and practical thoughts turned to daydreams of lazy days in bed with peanut-butter cookies and profiteroles and kissing icing sugar from off Eames’ lower lip.
Arthur left the shop at five PM with the strongest desire he’d ever had for pastries and tarts and all sorts of other varieties of sugary confections that could undo a man.
Arthur got the phone call on Friday afternoon just before he’d packed everything up for the day. “I just found some old records of RSP’s and stocks,” Eames said, sounding vaguely unsure of himself. “I know it’s last minute, but I’d appreciate if you dropped by this evening to take a look at them. I’ll just be upstairs in the flat. My employees will show you up.”
Arthur agreed and hung up.
Five minutes passed before he started to wonder what exactly was going to happen. He migrated over to the watercooler in order to get Cobb and Yusuf’s opinion. “He said it was RSPs and stocks,” Arthur said, trying to tamp down his anticipation and make it so that his hopes didn’t soar. “That’s just work, right?”
Yusuf and Cobb exchanged a look.
“After hours?” Yusuf pointed out.
“At his place?” Cobb added.
This was very bad for him. Arthur had relied on the hope that his coworkers would insist that nothing was going to (or could) happen. If nothing else, he had expected Cobb to haul out a speech about inappropriate client-employee relations, but then Arthur remembered that Mal had been a client at one of the banks before being hired to the company and Cobb had never been a hypocrite and so likely wouldn’t say anything.
Arthur lifted up his paper-cup of water and swirled it like it was made of something stronger, trying to dismiss his nerves. “I’m just going to go over there, figure out his potential dividends and compounded interest rates, and go.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it these days?” Yusuf cracked with a smirk.
Arthur finished his drink and crumpled up the paper cup in hand. He did not go phone Ariadne to ask for advice. He did not apply more cologne just in case, and he most certainly did not put on his nicest silk tie and change into a grey suit jacket that brought out his eyes. He took Eames’ file with him and did not give himself a motivational speech every step of the way until he arrived at Eames’ bakery, staring up at the sign and the lights like they were going to give him answers.
“What am I doing?” he whispered to himself, trying to figure out what kind of lion’s den he was about to walk into.
Still, he walked into it willingly and thanked the blonde girl at the counter for directing him upstairs. He knocked, twice, and took a deep breath to remind himself that Eames was a client first and a potential crush that Arthur dreamt about at night second.
Though, at this hour of the evening, he supposed the two were to be switched.
“Come in! It’s open!”
Arthur took a deep breath and braved himself for whatever awaited him. He clutched the handle of his briefcase a little tighter and took a step into the foyer, inhaling what smelled like rich chocolate and richer sauces, to boot. If he were a cartoon, he might have inevitably floated his way into the kitchen.
“Should I take off my shoes?” Arthur asked, flexing the tips of his creaky leather shoes and knowing that if this was his home and Eames was over, he would want him to take the shoes off – and he probably wouldn’t want him to stop there, admittedly.
He would want to stand there and watch Eames in his foyer as he slid off his shoes, as he bent down to pry off his socks with sure and steady long fingers, to watch him unbuckle his belt and slide it away (the buckle clanking against the floor), to watch him pry his shirt off from the hem until it didn’t cover a single inch of…
“Sorry, do you like seafood?” Eames had popped his head around the doorway to interrupt Arthur’s runaway thoughts.
Arthur smiled warmly at that. “Love it, but I’m here to work.”
“You can multitask, can’t you?” Eames replied, almost disparagingly.
“Well, yes, but…”
“I mean, lifting a fork and reading a page isn’t exactly juggling,” continued Eames.
Arthur patiently nodded. “Yes,” he agreed, drawing out the word. “But…”
“And it’s not as if you’re going to suddenly forget how to crunch numbers if you try my salmon with a white wine sauce.”
Arthur wasn’t even sure how it would sound if he replied with, ‘how little you know’, and so he gave one more grudging nod to the positive. Eames was reaching out a pepper-sprinkled palm to him and Arthur reached forward to take it, led forward to a neatly-set-up table with candles, napkins, and good cutlery.
“I thought I was here to help you look at your current contributions to your RSP,” Arthur said, some sick sensation of anxiety, anticipation, and eagerness combining in his stomach. “This looks like you planned for a dinner date.’
Eames shrugged and stared at the set-up. “Well,” he admitted quietly. “I didn’t rule out the thought of you telling me at what age I can safely retire,” he conceded. “Over wine,” he added, lifting up a bottle. “Sit, Arthur. Put down your briefcase. Take off your jacket and tie.”
Arthur kept back a comment about how he would prefer if Eames helped with the latter. He did as was asked and draped them carefully over the stand in the front hall, slowly entering Eames’ apartment and taking the time to look around for signs of a significant other or for interests that Arthur could bring up over dinner.
He reminded himself that he had to at least attempt to make it about work and so instead of resting his briefcase in the hall, it came with him.
“Arthur, I told you,” Eames said, fidgeting with the oven mitts as he fumbled idly around the kitchen in order to continue cooking, “Put work away, just for now.”
“Mr. Eames, you said you wanted to do some good, change things,” Arthur reminded him, even as Eames ushered him to the nearest seat at the kitchen table. Arthur sat, powerless, as though Eames controlled his every move – even though the truth ran closer to Eames controlling every thought in his presence. “If you go out of business, you can’t do that anymore.”
“Let me change the world one meal at a time,” Eames said, his voice soft and careful. “And yes, I’m going to need financial help to avoid ruin and bankruptcy. Before that, though, it’s your turn to get the attention.”
Arthur closed the file on William Eames on a Tuesday.
He visited the bakery the very next day with a small box of chocolates in hand. After the dinner, things were so convoluted in Arthur’s mind and he was trying to put aside what he knew about Eames as a client and what he knew about him as a man.
He clung to the facts that he’d earned from Eames himself: Eames was almost a lawyer, Eames was a genius, Eames could bake a torte like no one in the world, Eames loved raspberries best of all, and Eames looked at Arthur like he wanted him.
He dropped off the chocolates to the blonde girl who said that Eames had already left for the day, but she’d make sure he got them. Arthur felt discouraged because in all his visits, Eames had never left for the day so early. He was always there until suddenly he wasn’t and Arthur didn’t know what to make of it.
When he went home that night in order to eat dinner alone and to fall asleep – also alone – he began to realize that maybe he, Arthur Smith-Jones, didn’t want to do those things on his own any longer. Maybe he was ready to let someone else sit at his table and share his dinners with him. Maybe he was ready for Eames’ lewd jokes and his ridiculously bright smile as they polished off their plates and drank down good wine.
He knew he was more than ready to climb into a bed already half-full with the weight of promise and safety. He was ready to wake up in the morning with his lips pressed to a tattoo that he could only partially see – the tree and not the forest.
He went home ready to take a new step, but it looked like someone had beaten him there.
There was a man on his doorstep with a plate covered in aluminum foil in his hand and it didn’t take longer than a single second for Arthur to realize it was Eames. Arthur could smell the scent of sugar and chocolate and wagered a guess that they were, “Brownies?”
“Close,” Eames replied, leaning his weight against the wall. He was dressed in new jeans and wearing a white button-down. There was a stain on the sleeve of bright yellow and it looked like it might have come from a lemon-meringue pie. “Peanut-butter and chocolate brownies with M&M’s. I thought you could use a little color in your life,” he said, holding out the plate.
As soon as Arthur took the plate, Eames turned in order to descend the stairs and leave. Arthur clenched the plate tighter in his hands as he watched Eames walk away and envisioned the rest of his night stretching out in front of him. He saw his dinner alone, watching the television idly while he read a book, and he saw himself getting ready for bed and waking up curled only in the comforters and without another body to seek warmth from.
“Eames,” Arthur got out, sliding his key in the lock and letting it drift open, putting the plate down on the front table and his briefcase behind the door so that he could have his hands free. “Wait,” he insisted.
He hurried out into the hall with the fear that Eames would already be gone, but he had stopped and was waiting there for him at the top of the stairs. He didn’t have a single smudge on his face, which threw Arthur off because he was used to seeing flour on his cheeks and brown sugar underneath his nails.
“Did I forget to clearly mark my contributions to my tax-free account this year?” Eames joked.
Arthur didn’t bother to dignify that with an answer. His days were long and filled with work and the other night at dinner reminded him of what he could have again if he bothered to try. He took long strides forward in the hallway and cupped Eames’ cheek with one of his palms, the other grabbing his back hard to haul him close so that Arthur could kiss him.
There were no fireworks. There was no heart-stopping moment. In fact, Eames got slightly over-eager and bit Arthur’s tongue, which hurt quite a bit.
It was the moment after that Arthur cared about.
It was when he eased back and could feel Eames’ breath on his cheek. It was when he could feel their bodies pressed together and the warmth radiated between them like an old and safe security blanket. It was when he finally chanced a look up into Eames’ eyes and searched for rejection and only found acceptance.
“Christ, I’ve wanted you to do that for over a week,” Eames exhaled, tucking his palms into the back pockets of Arthur’s trousers. Arthur closed his eyes and listened to Eames take in a deep breath that wavered unsteadily on the exhale.
Arthur shook his head, not daring to move, even if his neighbors were probably already spying. “You could have made the first move. I’ve noticed that you’re slightly forward,” he pointed out wryly.
“Saw that, did you?”
“Just a little,” Arthur agreed, finally opening his eyes. “Why didn’t you?”
“Well, you’re my financial planner,” Eames said and he made it sound so simple that Arthur wondered if that was on a major list of ‘Reasons Not To Kiss Arthur’ that was circulating out there. “You closed my case today, right? That’s what they said when I called in to ask about your availability. Arthur Smith-Jones,” he recited, “has just completed his most recent case and may be available for the work you intend to provide.”
Arthur leaned forward and pressed his forehead to Eames, not really caring anymore about why they hadn’t kissed sooner because they had and that was the most important thing. “We should go inside,” Arthur said decisively, gesturing to his open door.
“Do you have plans for me?” Eames asked, delighted.
He had the sort of plans that involved Eames in his bed, Eames at his table, Eames in nothing but his boxers and drinking Arthur’s coffee. He had plans. He had plans that he was going to start the moment he took hold of Eames’ hand and tugged him along to start a new routine in his life. It was going to be a life filled with smudges on his reports, stolen kisses, and it might not work out, but Arthur was ready to give it a chance.