Chapter 24: The Unmasking

A/N: Hellooo my dear followers. I have returned, thankfully, after months of editing and cleaning up earlier chapters of this work. Unfortunately the whole process took longer than expected, due to the fact that my computer crashed and I lost everything. But I've managed to recover, and now here we are. As a way of thanking you all for sticking out my hiatus with me, this chapter is super long, probably my longest to date. Hope you all like it!

Oo0oO

Arthur did not immediately follow Cobb home that night. Instead, the architect felt an incredible need to be alone; to ponder all that had transpired somewhere he would not have to defend his thinking against the accusations of others. Not knowing (or liking) Paris well enough to have a particular destination in mind, Arthur simply walked.

He kept his pace calm, his head down. He did his best to just blend in, disappear into the crowds and let his mind disappear with him. Arthur tried to care about what so-and-so was wearing and who just broke up with whom, if only to clear his head for a moment. But of course, he couldn't. Jaw set and forehead wrinkled in frustration, he probably appeared more of a troubled scholar than an average Paris citizen.

It simply didn't add up in Arthur's mind. Why would Miles make those points? Why would he bring up such questionable topics just when tensions were already high? The old man must have known where saying such things would lead Arthur and Cobb's thinking. So why say anything at all?

The most logical conclusion, Arthur realized, was that which the extractor had come to. It made sense to brush off what Miles had said as baseless theorizing. Technically he hadn't said anything compromising; all he had done was suggest that the people the team were up against were running out of tricks up their sleeve. It was entirely possible that that was simply how the situation looked, to someone on the outside.

But, for some reason Arthur couldn't fathom why the whole conversation disturbed him. Why, why, why? Why had everything been said? And why did it bother him? Was it just the stress that accompanied the team taking on the final game? Just the possibility of losing? Or did Arthur really feel, somewhere deep within his core, that Miles was against them?

It was infuriating process for Arthur, who spent the time pacing back and forth over and interminable amount of space, muttering nonsense to himself and trying to hold on to his thoughts. By this point it was scaring some of the residents he passed along the way as well, who began to think him a madman. And seeing a foreigner holding his head and cursing to himself, who wouldn't think him or her mad?

Despite the desperation and frustration that had initially driven Arthur into this debate, eventually he cooled down. He had not answered many of his prevailing questions, as he simply did not have the information or imagination to solve them. Instead, he reached peace in not knowing. After all, all would be revealed after the last game. After the final play was made, the last dreamscape entered, all cards would be shown. If Miles was guilty, it would be made known to all. If not, the true perpetrator would be revealed.

Either way, the point man concluded that all questions did not have to be answered then and there.

Gathering himself, Arthur walked himself into the nearest café and ordered the first thing on the menu, as well as the first alcoholic beverage he found there too. He enjoyed a nice meal, hailed a cab, and went back to the hotel. The room was empty when he got there, as he much would have preferred it.

Calmly, the point man changed out of his formal suit, wearing a light tank top and briefs. Not caring exactly how late it was, he climbed into bed, and within minutes was sound asleep.

Oo0oO

The next day Arthur arose early, feeling surprisingly well rested. As he did so, he became aware of the other men moving about the hotel room as well, going about their typical morning routines. The only one completely dressed, it was clear that Nash had been the first one up, though this wasn't at all unusual. Though they had only been working together a short time, it was clear that no matter how early one awoke, they would always be behind the architect. The man who, at this moment, was also taking his usual cup of coffee, sitting on the rooms' balcony and overlooking the city. Arthur would have called the scene poetic had the man sitting on the balcony been anyone other than Nash.

The point man himself was the third one to arise, though it was clear he was not too far behind Cobb, who had started up the shower not a minute after Arthur had awoken. And of course, Eames was last; despite his professionalism always maintaining the tendency of sleeping in the latest in the morning.

Admittedly happy to be back amongst such routines, Arthur slid casually out of bed, moving over to the kitchen area to make his own cup of coffee. Out of respect for the forger, he did his best to be quiet, pouring himself a glass with caution.

Focused on steadying his hand, Arthur was a bit surprised when he heard a grunt, and he looked up to find himself directly in Nash's gaze. Seeing he had gained the point man's attention, Nash waved him over, turning his view back towards the city before he could see Arthur's reaction. The point man, startled but not undeterred, shrugged to himself. After filling his cup completely, he joined the architect on the balcony, sliding hesitantly in the seat beside him.

"You called?"

Nash nodded once, still not looking at him. "Cobb asked that I talk to you."

In an instant, Arthur felt all of his supposedly resolved anger rush back to him. "Look I don't need-"

Nash held up a hand, turning to face the point man completely. "I'm not here to grill you about what happened."

"…I'm sorry, what?"

Nash shrugged. "I don't care. He told me of course, to say this and that to you and to try to explain things to you in a different sort of way, but that's a lot of bull crap. Cobb just doesn't want to admit that he doesn't know how to deal with you at times."

Arthur blinked, too stunned to speak.

The architect continued. "Honestly, I don't know how to deal with you a lot of the time either. Not before, and especially not with all of this Ariadne business. So I'm just going to be frank with you. It doesn't matter. You could easily be right about Miles somehow being involved, but you just as easily could be wrong. But at the same time, it could just as easily be up against Michael fucking Myers. The point is, we don't know."

"I understand." Arthur said back dryly. Of course, he had come to the exact same conclusion last night on his own. He didn't see the point of having it reiterated to him by Cobb through Nash.

"Good. Then you're not too in your own head to accept his apology."

"Apology? Wait, Cobb's? He's apologizing?"

Nash nodded. "He wanted to admit that he overreacted yesterday, that he got too defensive. He said he should have considered it from your point of view before spouting insults at you like that. Hence the reason he's not saying this to you in person now, he knew you wouldn't listen to him."

"…Wow." Arthur couldn't think of anything else to say. What could you say to something like that? After all, it wasn't everyday a man like Cobb apologized.

Nash meanwhile had turned back toward the city again, apparently having fulfilled his promise to Cobb. "Just don't get too mushy about it. You know how he is."

Arthur just nodded, not caring whether or not the architect caught the motion. He stayed on the balcony with Nash for a few minutes after that, saying nothing, yet not feeling at all uncomfortable in the silence. It was soothing, and it allowed him to ponder his own thoughts.

The two men sat beside each other until Cobb emerged from the shower, fully-dressed, and left to grab some of the complimentary breakfast downstairs. At that time, Arthur stood up slowly, moving across the hotel room and claiming the shower for himself.

Perhaps 20 seconds later, Eames sat himself up in bed. Not in a drowsy just-woke-up sort of way, but at a measured, fully-aware pace.

"That was rather considerate of you," he inserted, looking knowingly at Nash through the screen door.

The architect shrugged. "I didn't want to risk an actual fight breaking out. Besides, it's not like it hurt anyone."

Eames made a noise of agreement. "I'm amazed he bought the whole apology thing though. He knows Cobb would never."

"He's distracted." Nash affirmed. Then, after a pause "Why do you care so much anyways?"

Eames just smirked. "No reason."

The architect gave him a doubtful look, but decided to drop it, returning to his view. Truly, it was a beautiful Paris morning.

Oo0oO

A few hours later found the team fully-dressed, standing patiently beneath the powerful black beams of the famous Eiffel tower. Unsurprisingly, they found themselves amidst a flood of tourists, most of whom were snapping pictures of the tower from "exciting, unique angles". Though honestly, viewed from directly below, the Eiffel tower wasn't anything special. Just a crisscross of metal beams, which gave off a vaguely kaleidoscope-like feel.

Amazingly, the team had managed to arrive at their destination without any further tension arising between team members. Upon reuniting, Arthur and Cobb said nothing about what had transpired the night before, coming to a sort of unspoken agreement about it. Eames and Nash were also wise enough not to stir it up again; additionally careful to mention nothing to Cobb about what had been said that morning. So altogether balance had been restored, and the men found themselves waiting patiently for the arrival of Vira.

Had they been in a different mindset, they might have been concerned that, for the first time, they were the ones to arrive before her. However, anticipation gripped the men too tightly for them to consider minor details. Indeed, it seemed this detail was inconsequential anyways, for not two minutes after their arrival the blonde woman in question approached them from the crowd.

This time however, she was not alone, accompanied by the same bulky, dark-skinned man they encountered back in London.

"Good of you to arrive on time," she said curtly, her cold, harsh personality returning in the presence of such company.

Wisely, the team said nothing.

Tossing her hair slightly, she moved past them "Follow me."

Obediently, the team did so, keeping close so as not to lose her in the throng of people. The man who had accompanied her, meanwhile, moved behind the team, not unlike he had the first time the team had been led to a game location. Though slightly unnerved by the return to such a formal escort, the men remained in silence as they made to their destination.

This destination, as it turned out, was an unused apartment complex located a few blocks away from the tower. Though it would under normal circumstances be strange for such prime real estate to go unused, it seemed the building was undergoing renovations, and all current residents had been temporarily relocated. Which of course, had made the complex a perfect spot for a game location.

Vira lead the way slowly up to the surrounding fence, which was deep ebony in color and intricately designed. Pulling a lone key from her pocket, she slid it into the lock, which clicked softly before giving way. She then smoothly moved the postern off to the side, pushing ahead onto a small concrete path that lead to the main building itself. There, she had to unlock yet another door, though this time using a key card, as part of the renovations dealed with replacing the old lock system of the complex with modern appliances.

From there, the woman then led the group through a short cluster of hallways and staircases, having no difficulty navigating where Arthur and the rest of the team felt lost. Eventually they arrived at their designated room, which Vira promptly unlocked before holding the door open for the team.

"Make yourselves comfortable," she said, a small smirk sliding onto her face now that she was out of view of the other escort.

Obediently, the team moved in, finding themselves in a plainly furnished, all white room. It was dark inside, and the stuffiness gave off the impression that, even before the current apartment residents had been relocated, the room had been vacant. Further reaffirming such a statement was the presence of plastic tarp over the carpet floor of the area, perhaps there due to the renovation. However, incongruous with the rest of the room were five plain hospital beds, which had been dragged into the very center of the room along with a small coffee table. On the table, the PASIV sat open, IV chords running from its center to each bed.

"Hm." Eames offered, observing the room strangely.

"What?" The second escort was the one who spoke, sounding suspicious.

"Kind of lacking in fanfare, don't you think?" he responded slowly, poking the plastic tarp suspiciously with his foot. "I mean, this is supposed to be the last game, where's the party streamers and balloons?"

The man's eyes narrowed dangerously. However, before he could comment, Vira cut in. "I think you'll find the dreamscape more than makes up for the…lack of decorum."

"I should hope so." Nash added slyly, unable to resist the urge to jump in.

Sensing that things weren't going in the direction they needed to, Cobb quickly interrupted the episode. "Gentlemen, I believe it's time we kick this thing off."

"Right," The point man affirmed quickly, aware of a slight waver that had suddenly appeared in his voice. He swallowed purposefully in an attempt to mask it.

However, the rest of the team took no notice, and in an instant each man had claimed a bed, settling in and grabbing their respective IVs. Once everyone had hooked themselves up to the machine, they paused, waiting for their customary pre-game pep talk.

If it could even be called that.

Regardless, Vira cleared her throat slightly, her tone changing in that way people's do when they're about to recite something.

"Now that you are all ready, the final game will begin. However, because this is the last game you will be playing, things will proceed in a different manner from the previous games. As usual I will not be telling you anything about the game before you enter the dreamscape. But how things proceed after the game is a completely different story."

Here she paused for a moment, indicating that the team should pay close attention.

"Should you succeed, we will keep our end of the bargain. Your weapons and other supplies will be returned to you, and you will be reunited with your companion. Additionally, our boss will reveal himself to you and promptly turn himself into the authorities, providing full evidence as to his crimes."

Though Arthur flinched slightly at this explanation of the 'victory' he said nothing, doing his best to listen intently.

Vira, meanwhile, plunged on without hesitation. "If however, you are to lose the final game, the cards are in our hands. In such case, you will have to work for our boss as contractees until it is determined your work is complete."

"And what sort of work would that be?" Cobb questioned, his tone cautious.

"If you are to lose, you will find out." It was the other man who spoke, his jaw set in a way that made him look like a wild dog about to attack. Seeming to sense this, Vira shot him a look that implied he had over-stepped his bounds.

While this interaction occurred, however, Arthur stumbled across his own last minute question. "And, what would happen to Ariadne then?"

Though she did her best to mask it, Vira's eyes suddenly went cold at the question, her expression becoming carefully blank. Arthur didn't want to acknowledge it, but he knew it was the sort of look that only occurred when someone was masking the presence of an extremely intense emotion.

"In the event that the last game is lost, she will be considered no longer relevant to our boss's cause. In that case, she will be disposed of without hesitation."

While the team had been fully prepared for such an answer, silence feel heavily in the room after the statement. Anticipation and excitement alike were abated, as each team member was forced to come to terms with a truth they were hoping they wouldn't have to face.

More so than before beginning any other game, Arthur was struck with the horrible reality of the situation. If he did not succeed, she would die. If the team couldn't keep it together for just one more game, he would lose the person that meant the most to him in the entire world. Her blood would be on his hands, all because he couldn't win a stupid little game. Both internally and externally, the point man shuddered.

Taking the silence as a sign that the discussion had ended, the dark-skinned man stepped around her, moving over to the PASIV on the center table. After doing a quick check to make sure everyone was properly attached, he activated the strange machine. Almost before he was truly aware of what was happening, Arthur was out cold.

Oo0oO

When Arthur came to again, he found himself surrounded by gray. Not the gray skyscrapers of a city or any other definable location, but simply gray. Thoroughly confused, it took him only a second of complete consciousness to realize that he was simply in a windowless gray room, and not actually – as he had for a split second believed – dead.

Now that he was fully aware, the point man was able to recognize why he was so confused. Save for himself, the room was completely bare, lacking even differentiation between the material that made up the ceiling, walls, and floor. In fact, Arthur almost came to the conclusion that the room was wholly empty when he noticed a door handle sticking out of the wall directly in front of him, seemingly existing without a door to open.

Another closed room game then, Arthur thought to himself, sighing internally as he grasped the situation. Though it would technically follow the pattern set up until this point, he had sort of been hoping for another city-wide race against time. It may have seemed ridiculous, but in the past the team had fared much better in those situations as compared to these more conceptual games. But given that he was in no condition to complain, Arthur went along with it.

Reaching out, the point man clasped the door handle, turning it completely counterclockwise with only slight difficulty. As he did so, the outline of a door appeared on the previously blank wall, before a section of it pulled away and he found himself standing before an opening. No longer fazed by such strange game beginnings, Arthur moved inside without hesitation, finding himself now in a much wider, pure white room.

He barely had time to adjust to his new surroundings when his eyes fell on a lone table in the very center of the room. On the table was an unlabeled black box, the contents of which he was not currently concerned with. Arthur instead found himself a bit more distracted by the two lone chairs on opposite ends of the table. More specifically, he found himself distracted by the person sitting in one of the chairs, facing directly towards the point man with a sly grin on his face. When they met eyes, the grin widened.

"Hello Arthur." The man said amiably, in a voice the point man was all too familiar with. "Interested in playing a game?"

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A/N: Can anyone say cliffhanger? Tee hee. While you wait for the next chapter, feel free to review! Every comment keeps me going, and I love you all so much!

XOXOXO

-Dez, who is finally back from the dead