"This is absurd," Fraternité grumbled, not particularly quietly as things went, for he rarely spoke quietly; he was not built for it by breeding nor inclined to it by nature. But it was at least not his normal full-voiced boom; while it startled Javert from his half-doze, it did not bring anyone running to see what he wanted.
Javert, when he had pulled his head from beneath his wing and considered the words, did not know quite how to answer him in any case. A part of him wished to agree; it had not been so long, after all, since they had been at war with Britain, and there was no disguising the third of their company - if he could be called such, miserable shirker that he was. It seemed almost unwise.
And yet it had been ordered; his captain had been quite clear on that: Escort Jean - the indignity of such a name applied to a dragon, even this dragon, rankled in his thoughts - escort Jean, unharnessed Longwing, to the Marais d'Opale Breeding Grounds, remaining on guard at all times for attempted escape. To bring a dragon of unmistakably British stock so close to the Channel, whether he had been captured in the shell and hatched respectably in France or not... He shifted uncomfortably in the grass, twitching his withers as if his harness sat badly, and settled on asking, "What is?"
"All of it," Fraternité said promptly, waving his foreclaw at the lanky, dejected-looking pile of wing and scale where the Longwing sprawled, then jerking his nose towards the town into which his crew and Javert's own had betaken themselves for a meal before the evening's flight. "Wasting time flying him all the way from the coast; stopping here for so damned long; flying so late into the night - sorry - him in general. Refusing harness, refusing to serve when he is badly needed."
The scorn in his voice echoed in Javert's heart; he fixed on it and did his best to ignore the subtle tang of sedition and of insult. Fraternité was a Grand Chevalier, after all, and had been in service a decade longer than Javert had; he could speak as he liked, surely; he had earned that right. "He is absurd," he agreed, for on that there could be no doubt, "but they will make him serve his duty one way or another, I think, or else why move him?"
"Certainly not for pleasure," Fraternité said, though he refrained from grumbling more about the weather, which had grown steadily colder and damper as they had flown north and had been, until that day, his main topic of conversation. "He refused to breed as he refused to fight," - this Javert had not known, having been only lately arrived in the south and not yet privy to the relevant gossip - "but they'll have eggs from him yet. Out of an Honneur-d'Or, I expect. Vérité retired to Marais last fall after her captain took sick; that'll be the cause of this. They should have assigned her to Toulon instead of this makework."
"They'll have had their reasons," Javert said, eyeing the Longwing with distaste and no small amount of irritation. He was tired still, and his already-grim mood had only worsened at knowing for certain that rest and respectable company awaited Jean at the end of their journey - instead of the chains and labor that he knew were made for humans who would not do their duty. And flying through the evening as they had been doing for the last week hurt his eyes; he had an evil headache yet, though he knew that the night hours were just as hard on Fraternité and would not have complained even had he been inclined to. "But I'll sleep, if you don't mind," he said instead.
He waited until Fraternité said, "No, no, go ahead," before tucking his head back beneath his wing and drifting off again.
A few hours later - the winter afternoon was fading rapidly but still bright enough to make him wince the moment he opened his eyes beneath the shelter of his wing - he woke again to the sound of Fraternité' voice, this time at full parade bellow.
He jerked to attention before he realized that Fraternité was shouting for his captain. Half a second later he saw why: the Longwing had vanished. He did not waste words asking where he had gone - no doubt if Fraternité had seen he would have stopped him - but leapt immediately into the air. Within the half hour it would be dark enough that they would have no chance of finding the Longwing aside from Javert's eyes; there was no time to wait for the crews to return from the village. M. Chabouillet would understand; he had always approved of Javert taking action when it was necessary.
Circling, his eyes squinted against the light, he gained altitude rapidly; he did not see any sign of the escapee immediately, though with his coloring and size it would be impossible for him to hide long, and running at all seemed impossibly foolish. When he had enough speed to soar briefly, he did, holding steady and straining his hearing for the now-familiar limping pattern of those too-long wings, but there was nothing besides chaos in the town and Fraternité's damned roaring.
He turned aside, sweeping out away from Montfermeil proper and beginning a search pattern. Javert at least would surely have felt the disturbance in the air had Jean attempted to fly away, asleep or not; he must have walked out from under Fraternité's nose, and in that case he could not have gotten far, not through the thickets and wood that surrounded the town.
But he found nothing; in fifteen minutes or so Fraternité joined him in the air, snorting so angrily as he flew that Javert could barely hear his captain as the man shouted across to him that Chabouillet and the others were searching on the ground and that he should continue as he was.
Not long afterwards the setting sun forced Fraternité uselessly back to the ground; Javert climbed higher, the quickly-fading twilight finally easing the strain on his eyes, and circled at last past the end of the town, beyond an inn set out at the edge of the road, and over the forest beyond - and there at last he saw a betraying flash of brilliant orange through the branches.
The trees were too thick for him to land properly - there was a small clearing quite near, but it was too narrow for his own wingspan, let alone Jean's - and so he banked silently away and landed at some distance, hurrying with hunched shoulders and tight-furled wings along a narrow path that led back towards the clearing. He would be certain of what he had seen before he called for the others - and he would make sure Jean knew that Javert had caught him, that though he might have been sleeping he had not been fooled.
He was nearly there when he froze, one forefoot poised in the air, at the sound of speech: Jean had been terse and close-mouthed the entire way (no poor trait in a Longwing, he had to admit, but still infuriating) and Javert was only half-certain it was him after all, for the voice was unfamiliar and the words made no sense.
"I'll carry it, if you like," the voice said. It was certainly deep enough to be a heavyweight's.
There was a slight pause, in which Javert held his breath and slowly, carefully put his foot down, and then - a hesitant little laugh, and a second voice, reedy and high-pitched: "But how can you?"
Slowly he crept forwards, staying low to the dark, rutted ground of the path to keep his silhouette from standing out against the snow to either side. There was a child in the clearing - he was no expert at guessing human ages, but it looked barely out of the shell - a little, ragged thing no bigger than a sheep, with a large bucket in its hand, its back to him, facing the woods on the other side.
"Oh, I think I should manage," the deeper voice said again. Its owner was infuriatingly concealed by thick brush and a tall stand of pines, and Javert had no way to maneuver for better visibility without giving away his own position.
The child swayed indecisively, swinging the bucket. "But," it said, "monsieur, you have- you have no hands."
Javert smirked, teeth bared in victorious revelation, and stood tall, readying himself for the perfect moment, the perfect entrance-
"Well," Jean said, before Javert had quite worked out the best words to catch him with, "well, then; I shall carry you, if you'll allow it. Yes, as far as you'd like."