Cobb didn't know how at the time, but in Arthur's very first experience in shared dreaming, the kid realized that something was wrong immediately. Not just quickly. Immediately. The very second he entered the dream. Arthur's eyes bugged out and the kid stood up so fast that his chair fell down.
"What? What? What?" was the only thing he seemed capable of saying as he looked around with such amazement on his face that Cobb was confused as hell. Cobb looked around too, wondering if he'd put something out of place into the bustling New York café that he'd created, but nothing was amiss. No, the only thing wrong was that Arthur knew something was wrong, which caused the projections to descend on him much faster than was normal. Cobb barely got the chance to explain that Arthur was in one of his dreams and didn't get the chance to ask why the kid felt the need to touch everything in sight. Arthur didn't even seem to care when he got his wrists slashed by a murderous projection. Instead he just looked at his blood like it was the most interesting thing he'd ever seen, a big, kind of goofy grin on his face, even through his pain.
At that point Cobb started to wonder if he'd missed something in Arthur's background check, some sort of psychosis or mental disorder that hadn't showed up in any test. He decided to let Arthur into another one of his dreams since they weren't even in Cobb's for a full five minutes before Arthur got himself killed. He constructed a less populated dream-scape, an orchard on a sunny day, and when Arthur arrived on the scene he still had that look of wonder on his face, but this time managed to keep his enthusiasm under control. He listened as Cobb talked and explained about the way shared dreaming worked, and all the questions he asked while he was coming to understand the mechanics of it all were good, intelligent questions, which made Cobb wonder what the kid saw that caused him to . . . not really freak out, in the first dream but . . . well, Cobb really didn't know what to call what Arthur did.
During the last half of the dream, Arthur's questions were very detail-oriented, and what Cobb would expect from a point man in training.
"What variety of apples are those?" was the first thing he wanted to know. Then he ventured a guess. "Red delicious?"
"I don't really know," confessed Cobb. "I didn't plan it right down to the variety of apple. This dream-scape was done on the fly. They're just the kind that my wife buys at the supermarket."
Arthur plucked one off of the tree and took a bite out of it. Another goofy smile that looks out of place on his too-serious face appeared. "Red delicious," he confirmed, looking happier than Cobb had ever seen him. Then, almost to himself, he added, "Now I know . . ."
"Just thinking out loud," was Arthur's answer. "What sort of grass is this? Any special variety, or –"
"Just normal grass," said Cobb. He felt a bit embarrassed now that he hadn't put that much detail into the scene and was now being called out on it. He considered himself a good architect, after all. The best, even, but who knew that his new student would care about the variety of grass he was walking on?
His other questions weren't as bad but looking back years later, Cobb would notice that they were all asked for a very specific reasons.
With all the attention that Arthur paid to details, Cobb was especially looking forward to entering one of Arthur's dreams and seeing what the kid could come up with. He was disappointed with what Arthur dreamed up. A grey stone house on a gravel lot, on a cloudy, overcast day.
Again, Cobb wondered if he screwed up choosing this kid, but again, Arthur's next attempt was better. He dreamt up an elaborate city-scape, in all its steel and glass and chrome glory, but this time the weather was rainy instead of just cloudy. His next dream looked like something out of an MC Escher print, right down to every line and detail looking like it was sketched in pencil on white paper . . . and Cobb had enough to figure it out by then, but didn't.
But if he'd even suspected it then, his suspicions would have been assuaged by the end of the week, when Arthur dreamed up a carnival, a literal riot of smells, and colors, and sounds, all sorts of animals, from tigers, to ostriches, funnel cakes and cotton candy, and clowns that Cobb gave a very wide berth. He noticed the smirk tugging at Arthur's mouth and told the kid to shut up, even though he hadn't said anything. He knew then that Arthur had figured out his secret. That he was irrationally scared of clowns. But he didn't even suspect that Arthur had a secret at that point, especially not one that he had just figured out how to disguise perfectly. In dreams at least.
In dreams he hid it perfectly, because in his dreams it didn't even exist. At least not anymore. In the real world, he'd been hiding it for years and no one was the wiser. He slipped up every now and then, of course. There was no way that he couldn't, but unless you looked at his slip ups in exactly the right context you still would never know.
Like the time Eames asked Arthur to pass him one of the blue highlighters, and Arthur tossed him a pink one instead. Or when Cobb, busy with about a million other things he had to do before rushing home on his wife's birthday, asked Arthur to pick up a dozen pink roses, and the kid came back with a bouquet of peach colored ones. He'd chalked those incidents up to Arthur deliberately giving Eames a hard time, and mishearing what kind of roses he'd requested. They were small things in the scheme of everything, so Cobb never thought anything of them.
Arthur's grip on the real world was better than anyone's that Cobb had ever known. The kid never seemed to be confused about whether he was dreaming or awake. He always knew immediately when he was dreaming, as soon as he entered the dream, without fail, and he always knew when he was awake in the real world as opposed to just having woken up from a dream that was in another dream.
Just the same, Cobb insisted that his protégé get himself a totem because he wanted the kid to have a fallback. Arthur was good at what he did. Soon he would be one of the best, actually, but Cobb had seen some of the best screw up right along with the ameteurs, and he didn't want the kid who was becoming like the little brother he never had deliberately running out in front of any cars or adding a ventilation shaft through his brain with a bullet.
The next day the kid showed up to work with a loaded dice that he proudly showed off to Cobb, who promptly palmed his face and asked "What part of don't tell anyone else its secrets do you not understand?"
"Don't worry," Arthur told him, a rare, playful smile on his face, like he knew something funny that no one else did, but was waiting for someone else to get the joke too. "The weight's not the real secret."
Whether it was the secret or not, Cobb still got annoyed the next time they were in a dream and he saw Arthur take it out. He wasn't playing with it. Just looking at it, but Cobb still told him to put it away. Arthur obeyed, but had still had a satisfied look on his face.
"What are you grinning about now?" Cobb wanted to know.
"Nothing," Arthur told him.
Cobb glared until Arthur spilled.
"Just that it's my favorite color."
"Red?" asked Cobb, a little surprised to learn this, because Arthur didn't own many red things. If Cobb had been going just by the colors he wore, he'd have thought that Arthur's favorite color was black, or maybe gray or dark blue. Definitely a somber color, one that didn't attract too much attention. Not a bright color like red.
"Red," confirmed Arthur. He added almost without thinking, "Yours is green."
And Cobb wondered how the kid could possibly know that and asked.
"It's my job to know," was all Arthur had to say, and he gave a small shrug.
If Cobb felt a little guilty then for not knowing his friend's favorite color, imagine how he felt five years later when he realized what the real secret was.
"Hand me one of the green pens, will you Arthur?" asked Cobb.
A black pen was slid across the table top toward him.
"I said one of the green ones," Cobb told him. "I need it for a color contrast on these blue prints."
"Oh. Sorry." He watched Arthur stare pensively at the assortment of pens in the pencil holder in front of him, then pick out a red one. "Here you go."
"I said green, Arthur," snapped Cobb, starting to get annoyed because he thought Arthur was just trying to mess with him. "Green. Not black. Not red. Green. Now stop being stupid."
Frustration creased Arthur's face and he slid the entire pencil holder across the table. "Here," he said curtly and turned back to his own notes.
Cobb frowned, wondering what was wrong with his point man, but took the green pen that he needed out of the pencil holder and turned back to his work.
And then he realized and suddenly everything made sense.
Arthur's first two monochrome dreams. The questions he'd asked back in Cobb's orchard dream-scape. His tendency to pick up things that weren't the color he'd been asked to get, and the real secret of his totem.
"Arthur," said Cobb, looking at his friend, trying to keep the incredulity out of his voice, "Are you colorblind?"
Arthur looked up sullenly then nodded just once.
"How did I not know that?" asked Cobb. Looking back, he realized that he should have figured it out much, much sooner. "Why didn't you say something?"
He knew the answer to that even as he asked the question. The reason Arthur never came out and told him was because that wasn't the kid's way. He never revealed any more about himself or his personal life than he absolutely had to and he never spoke idly. It was also more than a slight possiblility that he was embarrassed about it, since it could be considered a handicap or a weakness, but he'd hid it so well that Cobb never even guessed . . . until now.
"You never asked," was Arthur's curt, clichéd response as he looked back down at his notes. He looked back down at them, but didn't start reading them again. Cobb knew when Arthur was really reading something, and when he was only pretending. He knew him that well, at least.
"What type of colorblindness do you have?" asked Cobb, because he knew that asking outright was the only way Arthur would tell him. "Deuteranopia? Or protanopia?" He named the two most common color vision deficiencies since they were the only two he could remember.
Arthur put his papers down and stopped pretending to read. "Monochromacy."
"That's the one where . . ." Cobb trailed off because he couldn't remember for certain.
"I can't see any colors," Arthur told him. "Only black, white, and shades of grey. At least . . . those are the only colors I can see in the real world."
"So in dreams . . ."
A slight smile crossed Arthur's face. "I dream in color," he answered. "Now, at least. I didn't always."
"So that's why . . ."
"Why the first time I was in one of your dreams I spazzed out?" Arthur's smile deepened at the memory. "Yes. I was confused. But amazed. I hadn't realized anything could be so beautiful. I didn't know that was how everyone else sees all the . . ." He coughed, embarrassed, and picked up his papers again. "It was a new experience."
Cobb smiled too, because now he saw all of Arthur's reactions in a new context. "I wish I'd known then. Watching something like that and knowing what I was seeing would have been amusing."
"Yes, my very favorite thing," said Arthur, a bit tensely, and definatley guardedly. "Affording other people amusement at my own expense."
"I didn't mean it like that," Cobb quickly clarified. "I meant I would have liked to have shared in the excitement."
Arthur's expression softened again at the memory. "It was amazing."
"I'll bet. Hey, let me see your totem."
Arthur obliged and tossed his die onto the table in front of Cobb. It came up as a four. Cobb picked it up and tossed it again and got a one. His next roll came up as a five. He picked it up again and felt the edges to see if they'd been rounded, but all the edges were sharp and smooth. Arthur's loaded dice wasn't really loaded at all.
"So the real secret about it . . ."
"Is that when I'm awake, it looks black to me."
Cobb tossed the dice back to Arthur who pocketed it. "That's how you always know when you're dreaming, or when you're actually awake. Everything you see is your totem, not just this dice."
Arthur nodded, and with that nod gave Cobb the power to completely mess up his mind and send him into a downward spiral of confusion that could drive him mad, but that was something Cobb would never do.
"Don't you ever tell Eames that," said Cobb, because he knew that was exactly the sort of thing Eames would think was a great joke, and if Eames did anything to compromise the sanity of his protégé then Cobb would have to smash his head in, and that would ruin a perfectly good working relationship.
"Of course not," said Arthur with a touch of indignity. "Aside from me there's only one person in the entire world who knows that I'm colorblind."
"You mean aside from me too?"
And Cobb was touched, because he knew that Arthur probably couldn't say it in as many words even if he wanted to, but he just told Cobb that he trusted him with his sanity, which Cobb knew he valued even more than his life. He tried to think of something to say, but couldn't think of any way to respond to an admission of trust that great.
Surprisingly it was Arthur who spoke again first. "Thank you."
"For what?" asked Cobb, confused.
Arthur, never one to waste words, just raised an eyebrow, and Cobb knew. Arthur was thanking him for giving him color, for literally letting him see in a whole new way.
One night, several years later, after Cobb's entire life had been shaken and turned upside down, and he was wondering if maybe Mal had been right and it would be better just to take a swan dive and hope that he woke up in a dream, a bottle of beer was placed in front of him. He knew immediately who had put it there the moment he saw the label. Killian's Irish Red. Arthur's beer of choice.
"Thanks," he muttered and took a sip.
"You looked like you could use it."
Cobb was glad that Arthur was there, because he knew Arthur wouldn't let him get too drunk and/or do anything stupid and destructive, and he was grateful for the company because Arthur was the only family he had left now.
He watched his friend take a drink from his own beer bottle and wondered if Arthur had liked Killian's before red became his favorite color, or if he'd only taken it up after. And he wondered if Arthur had ever really seen his favorite beer in a dream and knew that it was actually a dark amber color instead of red.
But he didn't ask because there was another, much bigger question that had moved to the front of his mind. One he probably wouldn't have asked if he'd been completely sober.
"Which do you like best?"
"Which what?" asked Arthur, confused but tolerant, given the state that Cobb was in.
"Which way of seeing things. Do you like dreaming best, because you see in color? Or do you like monochrome vision best, because you know it's real?"
"I like them both best," Arthur told him. "I deal in dreams. They're my job and I love what I do. But I also love always knowing what's real."
"You like them both best," muttered Cobb, trying to understand how that could be possible. Then Arthur said something that put it into perspective and Cobb could understand.
"I wouldn't know what I was missing from one without the other."
"You're pretty smart, you know that, Arthur?" asked Cobb, feeling a pleasant buzz from the Irish Red. He grinned at his closest friend and Arthur returned his smile.
"My college professors all thought so. But my kindergarten teacher thought I was an idiot."
AN:This is just something that popped into my head in the middle of the night and I had to write it because it wouldn't leave me alone. And it's 2 am now, but I'm still running on EST, so it feels like 4 am to me, and I need to try to sleep now that I've gotten this out of my head. Sorry for any sloppy editing mistakes that I missed when I was looking it over. (For some reason this story kept wanting to be written in the present tense . . . go figure)
And in case you were curious about what Cobb was asking Arthur when he asked what type of colorblindness he had, there are actually different types or degrees of colorblindness. Some people just have trouble seeing certain colors. Those types are actually pretty common. Monochromacy is the rarest type of colorblindness, where, like Arthur mentioned earlier, people can only see black, white, and shades of gray.
anyways, I'm really tired now so I'll see if I can finally get some sleep now that the story has been written. I hope you liked it. Please let me know what you think!