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Love is patient, but it also knows how to read a watch, Eames, honestly...

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Permanence, he has always believed, is death. Being locked into one self, one life, might as well be in jail. Permanence is a bloody contract, and Eames has never signed a contract in his life. It's for people who don't know how to make themselves a better offer.

It's a bit fucking terrifying, really.

Permanence is what has Eames clean-shaven and leaning against a hired motorbike in the best-fitting suit he's ever owned. He's a hundred meters from a bed and breakfast where everyone in the world whom Arthur trusts is waiting for Eames to arrive. It's a short list, one that includes Eames's parents and his sister but not Arthur's father. It includes Dominick Cobb, who, if Eames's eyes are not deceiving him, is standing on the front porch, looking up the road.

Eames is halfway through a pack of Marlboros even though he hasn't smoked for years. It would have been a bottle of cheap vodka, but one of the joys of travelling to a state where Eames is preparing to put his legal name on a legal document to legally tie himself to another man for so long as they both shall live is not being able to buy liquor before noon on a Sunday.

This is frankly not what he'd had in mind when he had propped himself up on his elbows over Arthur's naked body, drunk on sex and something like peace - but not on vodka then, either - and said, "Why haven't I married you yet?"

~~

After what feels like a very long time but works out to barely half a cigarette, Dom steps off the porch and starts down the street towards Eames and his exit strategy. Eames has the sun at his back, and Dom's wearing sunglasses that hide his eyes and mask his expression, but as the distance between them dwindles, he can recognize the tension in Dom's body and then the set line of his lips. It looks like his pockets could be hiding clenched fists.

It all adds up to a helpful reminder that Dom's never been his best mate. If it comes down to Eames versus Arthur, there's no question where the line will be drawn.

That's not to say that Dom is Arthur's best mate either, but Arthur had been at the Cobbs' wedding when Eames had barely been more than a rumour to them. Dom's the one with the most to lose if Eames breaks Arthur's heart and then Arthur decides to chuck himself off a cliff. If there's someone else with Arthur's talents and experience out there - unlikely, but theoretically possible - it's won't be someone who's willing to play second fiddle to Dom's ego.

By the time they're in speaking distance, Eames is halfway through his next cigarette and no one would challenge him if he claimed the nausea and the shaking hands were from the nicotine and the God only knows what else Americans adulterate their cheap tobacco with.

They stand there - lean there, when Dom takes advantage of the Jetta that Eames had parked next to - facing each other for an uncomfortable stretch of seconds. "I've just promised your sister that we're opening the bar in an hour," Dom says, "one way or the other."

In any other circumstance, that line would be Eames's cue for a quip. In most circumstances it'd be a quip calculated for Arthur's reaction, because, somehow, most of Eames's circumstances have come to include Arthur. Instead, Eames watches the smoke diffuse away from his cigarette, and concentrates on taking quiet, measured breaths instead of throwing up.

Dom sighs into the silence, in the restrained manner of people who spend a lot of time with children. "Are you going to be there when that happens?"

For his part, Eames doesn't sigh, and also manages to hold back an insult to Dom's intelligence, but he's got a feeling the look on his face is saying that if he knew, he wouldn't be standing in the street.

"Arthur doesn't know you're here yet. He just told your mother that you called to say you were stuck in traffic." Dom looks pointedly at the empty two-lane road. "I think she was just being polite by believing him."

The thought of Arthur chatting with his mother unsticks the words in Eames's throat. "Bless her, but I think my mother still believes that I'm an itinerant tutor. I'm sure Arthur was very convincing."

His next drag on the cigarette brings the ash close enough to the filter that he drops it to the ground next to the other six. Most of them are still smoldering, and its not hard to imagine Arthur's face if he ever gets a chance to notice that Eames's right cuff is faintly stained by cigarette smoke. He pulls another cigarette out for himself and lights it before offering the pack to Dom, who predictably declines. Today's Dominick Cobb doesn't smoke, doesn't drink, probably doesn't speed and definitely doesn't leave the continental United States. It's hard to imagine a man like this running on the wrong side of the law, and it's hard not to imagine that he was a great deal more interesting before he settled down with Mal and everything that came after.

On the one hand, Dom is the last person Eames should be asking about marriage. One the other, he's probably the best qualified person Eames knows for the situation Eames has found himself in. The question is how tacky would it be to ask Dom whether getting married is a mistake.

"How angry is he?" Eames asks instead, as his eyes flick over Dom's shoulder back at the house.

"Hard to say. I don't think he's tracking you yet, so he probably trusts you'll show up eventually."

"Or he's written me off as gone."

Dom shrugs his indifference. Even his lack of point is a fair one. It's unlikely that Arthur would be covering for Eames with his mum if he'd given up.

"So he's just disappointed," Eames says, and he looks away from both Dom and the house before he can read an answer in either.

"I've never regretted marrying Mal," Dom offers. It's a blessing of a statement that Eames isn't going to pursue, but he looks back long enough to meet Dom's eyes as best he can and nod his acknowledgment.

He knows Dom well enough to doubt that Dom's telling the truth, this isn't the time to dig into their marriage any more than he has already. It's easier and more selfish to take it as written and move on.

"Exactly. You were meant for it. You two wanted kids and a house and to grow old on rocking chairs." Whereas Eames hasn't spent more than two months in the same place - by choice - since he was 23.

"What about Arthur makes you think he's going to force you to live with him in the suburbs?" Cobb says. It's a fair point, even if Arthur's lifestyle does tend to lend itself to a steadiness that Eames's doesn't. They've spent most of the past two years in hotels, but Arthur has had a home in Boston, close enough for his family to check up on, for longer than Eames has known him. Eames doesn't like it there. He'd rather not know his neighbors.

"I can think of thirty countries in which we're likely to be killed in the next five years," he says instead. "In none of those countries will it do a damn bit of help whether we have a piece of paper from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In a fair number of them, it would hasten our death."

"Or you could be hit by a car crossing the street tomorrow in Boston, and it would mean the world to Arthur for him to be able to take care of you without having to evade hospital security or local law enforcement."

Dom sighs again, less subtly than before, and squints up at the sky like he's trying to read answers there. "Look," he says. "He'll let you go if you want him to, You know he will, and you know you'll never see him again. You're past the point where you can get out of this gracefully. He thinks he knows you." He shakes his head, correcting, and holds up a hand to keep Eames from interrupting. "He believes he knows you, and he won't forgive himself being wrong about this, even if he forgives you doing it."

It's a reasonable thing to say, but reason has been taking a diminishing role in Eames's thought processes ever since he'd woken up that morning. "Can I see him?" Eames asks.

"Do you need to?" Dom counters, still largely expressionless.

The answer is yes, of course, but it's perhaps not the answer to what Dom's asking. The fact that he needs to see Arthur - not his mother, and, frankly, not Dom - should be enough to tell him that he's really going to marry Arthur today.

"He already knows that you're," Dom looks at his watch, "thirty-five minutes late. If I tell him that you need to talk to him before the ceremony, is whatever you're going to say to him, or what you're hoping he's going to say to you, worth making him worry more?"

It's a fair point. Arthur's prone to walling himself off at the best of times, and slow to recover. Eames would be a particular sort of idiot to keep chucking hurdles in Arthur's direction. Surely Arthur already has reason enough for doubt to cloud the memory of what's meant to be a celebration.

"I think I ought," Eames says.

"Philippa has inflated the role of flower girl to impressive proportions. I'm not sure if I can get you past her and I probably won't be able to distract her for long."

Eames drops the rest of the pack of cigarettes on the ground beside the bike. "Best get on with it then, yeah?"

~~

Seeing each other before the ceremony might not be bad luck, but as late as he is, it is most certainly going to seem a bad omen, so Eames gives Dom time enough to locate Arthur and clear anyone else into the back garden.

When he opens the front door, Arthur's standing by himself near what functions as a reception desk. His Eames in greeting is clipped; with luck, the wall in front of his emotions hasn't calcified, but it's definitely there.

In their brief tour of marital traditions, they'd agreed that they were each their own to give away, and that they'd walk down the aisle together. If Eames can still manage to make that happen, there's a chance that this disappointment will only linger in Arthur's memory, and that Eames will have the time to make up for it. It's uncomfortable, this practice of inviting people into his private life, particularly detail-oriented people with long memories.

Arthur hasn't turned entirely to face him, and he's fiddling with something flat on the desk, a notepad perhaps. Eames is mid-swoop in to plant a breezy kiss on Arthur's cheek when the look on Arthur's face pulls him up short.

Bluster plan A aborted, he tries again. "I thought I could just parachute in at the end, y'see; skip all the tedious bits and show up for the kissing and the party, but I've been reliably informed that that's not an option." It doesn't spark either the smile or the disparaging remark he'd hoped it might, and he moves closer to stand next to Arthur at the counter.

"What's that, then?

"Reminding myself of my vows," Arthur says, more quietly than the empty room warrants. "Revising them."

It could be a joke, would have been last night, but Arthur looks stoic rather than sly and though Eames can't quite read the words in Arthur's tiny script, he can see that the lines don't all track straight across the page as they ought.

Arthur nods at the page. "I've been going over it since dawn," he says. "Needed to make sure they're true."

It's a typically Arthur choice of words, not right or wrong but true or false, but whether the sentiment is the same or not, Dom's he thinks he knows you echoes in Eames's head.

It's hardly like they've had a whirlwind romance. They've both had more than enough time to think. Eames is quite sure that for every thought he's wondered, Arthur's had three, and has followed all of them to their conclusions, logical or otherwise, and filed them away, whereas Eames had apparently swept all of his into a bin, where they were just waiting for the worst moment to overflow, or possibly catch fire and explode.

"Any chance of your forgetting I was late, love?"

"If you left me waiting like this on a job, it'd be the last one we ever worked together."

"Ah, but I'm worth the wait." It's such a glib response that Eames is already disappointed in himself before he checks how it was received. Not well, is the answer, but then Arthur's always demanded creativity, originality, and to the extent it was appropriate, honesty from Eames. He picked a hell of a day to cease living up to Arthur's expectations.

Apparently determined to pile failure on top of failure, he says it again. "I'm worth the wait, Arthur. I swear it."

Arthur still looks shaken, and he doesn't do shaken up unless it's his own mistake he's having to compensate for. "It's all a bit of a mess, isn't it darling? I love you, though, I do" Eames says, "Shall we sort it out?"

He takes a step back from the counter and holds out his hand for Arthur to take, or not, as he chooses. When their palms meet, Eames lets out a breath that he was entirely conscious of holding. He takes a few more before he trusts his voice to speak. "Marry me?"