It reminds her of dust-dirt-sand-rock, familiar in a way that's been burned into her eyes over the years. There was a time when she didn't know the color at all: gold couldn't tarnish on Prospit, and that's all there was, gold and gold and gold, stacking to the heavens. But then gold became red, and red became black, and when she finally blinked her eyes clear of crusted rust-red and black and tears, there was brown.
Brown is the hard-won transition. Brown is boring, dreamless sleep. Brown is nothing and everything in this new-old-different-same world, which is why it's the first stick of chalk that she decides to put to use.
She takes it to the side of the temple just to get used to the heft, the grain, the ideas that flow into her hand like a possession. The color blends in with the natural windworn stone, and she can't really see what she draws, but maybe that's for the best. She's a little scared about what might come out of her head now.
And when she looks down and sees her hands coated thick with brown, she has to swallow down the dust, breathe, and remind herself that it's not the right color.
The next night, she attacks the temple wall with the perfect stick of peach, surprised to see it paint a richer color than what the fading can labels might suggest. There's a sort of delicate ruddiness to it that separates it from the browns of earth and dirty yellows of sand--a hint of redness that speaks of pulse, of blood, of breathing and doing.
It's the color of those children, so those children are who she draws.
She doesn't know the form of them, so she draws them like she'd draw a Prospitian, severe angles and long limbs, but the color isn't the gossamer white or sun-baked black of any carapace she's seen: it's peach, it's delicate and fragile, it's like it could burst open if she so much as runs her fingers along the outlines. It changes the way she holds the stick; she takes to the drawings with a finesse she hasn't known since the days of royal courts and velvet-smooth paper.
So she rounds out the angles, makes them soft, until even the picture starts to sag under the weight of everything riding on those pale little shoulders.
The stick runs out before she can change her mind, before she can make the angles sharp again, make them strong, make them shining-hard like a carapace, and the suddenness--that there's no more color, no more, no more, no more--forces a foreign, choking sort of noise out of her lungs.
Is this what's going to happen? Will they run out too?
He watches her for two nights as she turns the wall into her canvas, churning through sticks of chalk and looking all the sadder for it when she claps the dust from her hands. On the morning that swallows up the second night, when she curls up in a dark, cool corner of the temple to sleep, he comes up with a plan.
It's the same sort of process he used for whitewash, when he needed to touch up the fence or keep dirt from building up in the porous stone walls of his kitchen. Chalk, slaked lime, binder. Chalk, slaked lime, binder. He bangs around in the stations, pushing buttons, prying open all the nooks and crannies he can find until he's exhausted all his options.
It isn't much: some cleaning supplies, canned food, splints, bandages, peroxide, a few yards of rope, and a small box full of nutritional supplements. It's all useful, but what would feel like a windfall any other day feels like a stab of disappointment now; no glue or flour or milk or concrete, nothing like what he used for whitewash, nothing to bind the pigment together.
But he hasn't lasted this long by never exhausting his options. There's a bottle of oil in the supplements with a label he can't read, but it's all he's got, and sometimes that just has to be enough.
He breaks off a small piece of white chalk, grinds it into powder, mixes it with the oil, and mixes, and mixes, until it thickens and sticks and smears against the metal like a glossy kind of frosting. He doesn't know if it'll dry right, or if it'll last, but it's worth a try. If it works, she might even smile. It's always worth a try.
He grinds up the rest of the chalk, mixes in the oil, wet and thick and perfect. It doesn't make a whole lot, but he doesn't have anything to dilute it, but there's--turpentine, and it's awful, and it smells, but it turns a little into more, and more, until it's a thin wash that soaks into the stone.
By the time she wakes up that night, he's just finishing the touches on a makeshift brush, rope that's been lopped and frayed until it's all loose fibers at the end. He thinks it's good. He hopes it's good. It's all he can do, and it's all he can offer, and maybe that's enough.
It's not much, but in a place like this, small things are everything. She pulls him into a tight, speechless hug, and spends the night washing the temple wall in the color of her carapace with a small smile on her face.
When the white takes to the wall and dries easily and the process proves itself, he turns the half-used stick of blue and teal into the same kind of paint. It takes time and they talk over the campfire while he works: he tells her about crops and seeds and working the earth, the feeling of life in his hands until the parallel gets too uncomfortable; she tells him about systems and strata, her beautiful golden moon, red tape and velvet ropes and the swell of pride in a job well done until that parallel gets too uncomfortable, too. And when there's nothing left to talk about, they sit in the quiet, him churning the paint and her watching his movements with a gun-shy curiosity.
And when it's done, she takes one end of the wall with her brush and he takes the other with his, shimmering peacock blue and moon and earth, and it only makes sense that where they meet in the middle turns into the sky.
They both agree not to use the red chalk, even far, far later, when it's the last perfect piece left in the cardboard box.
It has no place in the picture they're making together.
purple & gold
For a few nights, she doesn't do anything but sit and look at the wall.
He thinks, with a panic, that maybe she's done, bored, sad, tired, maybe all of them at once. Between fits of restless sleep and tossing and turning, he tries to think of a new plan, something else to make her smile--when finally she comes to him and asks, quietly, for paint in purple and gold.
And then he knows.
He breaks down the last two pieces of chalk that matter, churns out pale yellow and deep violet, and when the sun finally sets, they get to work.
For awhile, he just watches her. She stands on rocks to get the height she needs, painting golden spires that twist up into the peacock blue sky, fading out behind puffs of white clouds; she paints streets that wind through arches, that wind below bridges and buildings and nebulous architecture that she can't quite seem to remember. She takes dirt, rubs it between her fingers like she's deliberating, and then she smudges it into the painting; there would never be dirt, not on her beautiful golden moon, but right here, right now, it's the only way she can show the shadows, show form and value and movement.
He takes his paint and--doesn't know, really. For all the black of his carapace, his place was never on his moon, never anywhere but working on the earth, so all he can do is mirror her. The purple glides on like midnight, turns into dark copied shadow-spires that look sad and sagging next to hers; and when he's done all he can, she comes over with a smile, dips her fingers in purple and dirt until they look as black as he does, and shows him how to fill in the details.
And that's what they do. She fills in the details on the children, makes them more, makes them stronger; he gives them those soft tufts on their heads with black-purple and gold, because he's seen what hardness--what sameness--does and they need to be different, softer. They fill in the sky, the oracle-clouds, and all the parts of Skaia that aren't the checkered fields or the winding rivers. They work until dawn breaks, and the paint runs dry, and they're shivering from sweat in the desert night cold.
There's not enough paint left to do anything, but she's determined to scrape the most out of it, the same she's done with all her scavenged scraps over the years. She uses her hands to mix the last of the purple and gold, until it looks like thick, dark mud; a smile cracks her lips and she lets out a dusty laugh, rubbing her fingers together and looking for all the world like she's either going to cry or laugh until she breaks.
She does neither. She laughs still, but she takes him by the arms, leaves brown handprints over his carapace, smudging and dragging and laughing until there isn't white and there isn't black, but brown and brown and brown, the meeting of earth and moon and purple and gold.
Brown is the quiet after the struggle; brown is company, warmth and touch and feeling. Brown is nothing and everything in this new-old-same-different world, which is why it's beautiful.
When the laughter dies, they stand together, hands linked, smiling as the sun lights the side of the temple and all its colors. They don't know if it'll last, but it doesn't seem to matter; in a place like this, they have to find what they can in the little things.