Blue as He's Painted
Something tickled Balfour's nose and he brushed it away irritably...only to feel a familiar sense of shame and loathing wash over him in response to a sudden cacophony of masculine laughter (plus one giggle) from above. Belatedly, he registered the wetness of the hand that he'd stupidly touched to his face. There was a faintly sweet scent in his nostrils, and the only saving grace was that it didn't smell of piss. He never would've imagined that a greater intimacy with other men's piss would be one of the prices he'd have to pay in exchange for being the Esar's airman.
The laughter didn't seem as though it would die down anytime soon, so he gritted his teeth and forced himself to open his eyes. The full complement of airmen, save only Adamo, ringed his bed, but Balfour's eyes were drawn to one man in particular.
Rook smirked down at him. There was a long feather on Balfour's nightstand, very close--suspiciously close--to Rook's hand. More disturbingly, there was also a basin of blue paint on the bed, right between Rook and Balfour.
"And here I thought it was only your blood that was blue," Rook said mockingly.
Balfour cringed inwardly at what had to be Rook's twentieth dig at his ancestry. He wasn't the only airman from a good family by any means, but distinctions of rank often mattered most between those who were almost, but not quite, coevals. While there were other airmen who were very well-placed in the world, Balfour's family placed him even higher, and Rook seemed determined not to let anyone forget it.
Unfortunately, Rook's comment also opened the floodgates for a stream of increasingly dreadful puns about his blue nose. By the time Evariste got to "I knew you were homesick, but I didn't know you were so blue about it," Balfour was more than willing to risk further indignity if it meant that he could make his escape.
He shifted the basin of paint carefully to the nightstand--it would only make Rook's victory that much sweeter if Balfour ruined his own sheets--and pulled the covers aside with his clean hand. Derisive hoots greeted the sight of his nightshirt and bare legs, and Balfour felt his face go hot.
Mockery aside, the airmen trooped after him readily enough when he headed for the door, without so much as a single word from him. Despite their obvious lack of respect for him, his body, and his possessions, not a one of them would dream of offering the slightest threat to his dragon. This principle extended even to their proving unwilling to enter his empty room. Balfour often felt torn between indignance that they'd managed to prank him so well and often when they were operating right under his nose, and helpless gratitude that, no matter what they might do to him, at least he didn't have to fear for Anastasia.
He locked the door behind himself and made his way to the showers. It was his day off, and he had put himself down on the schedule for that morning: a lucky thing, since he might otherwise have risked sneaking a shower anyway. The other airmen dispersed, their entertainment temporarily on hold, with one notable exception. Balfour pretended that he couldn't feel Rook's eyes burning into his back as he walked down the hallway.
A quarter of an hour later, Balfour discovered the true breadth of Rook's vindictiveness: the paint wouldn't wash off. He scrubbed with the washcloth until his hand and face were covered in a soapy lather several inches thick, to no avail. And the worst of it was that it was his day off. He'd had plans to go into the city and pretend for at least a little while that moving to Thremedon was an opportunity, an adventure, rather than a hideous mistake.
That was all spoiled now; it was impossible to contemplate going out in public as he was. His glove would cover his blue right hand, but there was nothing to be done for his nose. He did have a box of face powder that he kept very carefully hidden in his room. (While Rook's favorite insult was claiming that Balfour's presence in the Corps was due to family connections and old money rather than talent, his second was calling him Cindy, and Balfour had no desire to fuel that particular accusation.) The face powder was meant to correct minor flaws, however, not camaflouge a nose that looked like a large, pointed blueberry.
Finally, he set aside the washcloth resignedly and reached for his towel. Ghislain would be pounding on the door in another minute if he didn't hurry.
He passed Adamo in the hallway, and the Captain blinked at the sight of him. "I expect you already know that you look like a woad-painted barbarian," he said levelly.
Given what he'd seen in the bare two weeks since he'd become an airman, Balfour wasn't surprised at Adamo's equanimity; if the man couldn't handle a blue nose, there was no way he'd be able to deal with the real stresses of his position.
"Yes, thank you," Balfour responded with as much dignity as he could muster. A snicker from Ghislain, who was approaching to take his own turn at the showers, conclusively demonstrated the inadequacy of his attempt. Balfour set his jaw and went back to his room, where a shelf of romans offered distraction...the closest thing to comfort that was available to him at that moment.
Balfour had half-wondered if they'd use a different color paint this time, since blue was the airmen's color--maybe green to match Thom's eyes--but either Rook didn't want to buck tradition or, more likely, he had a stockpile of blue paint in his room that he was getting rid of one hazing at a time.
He didn't know if Thom had chosen to ignore his warning or simply forgotten it; whichever it was, the sight of him with a blue handprint on his face brought back the same stomach-churning feeling that it had prompted when he had been the prime target of Rook's enmity, leavened with a healthy measure of guilt. If he couldn't actually gather the courage to stand up for Thom, the least he could do was make his warnings more forceful.
At the same time, he couldn't help but notice that Thom seemed less ashamed and more determined as a result of the incident. Perhaps it was simply that he had nowhere to go, but he didn't try to hide, either his painted face or himself.
It would likely only cause Thom more hurt in the end; presenting Rook with a challenge was like dangling a mouse in front of a cat's nose. Nevertheless, Balfour couldn't help crossing his fingers--once he'd ceased using them to twist his gloves together--that Thom could win the respect of the other airmen, as he himself had never quite managed.