He slowly drifted into consciousness when he felt morning sunlight brush his eyelids. Morning so soon? He snorted, mockingly indignant that the sun would think to rise this early and disturb his sleep. Ah, well! Who needed more than a few hours of rest anyway? He opened his eyes and blinked several times to awaken his drowsy mind. Then he parted his massive jaw and yawned, revealing a mouthful of dangerously sharp incisors to any who dared to look.

And now, he considered, feeling something pull his hair as he shifted his body slightly, it was time to comb his mane. It felt as if a branch had gotten tangled in it. He lifted his head to peer down at his tail which he wrapped around his body when he slept.

No. He hadn't caught his mane on anything. There was something sleeping in it!

Curious as to what manner of creature would dare approach a dragon unannounced and then presume to take refuge by his side while he slept, he outstretched his neck to inspect it. A human girl-child? He had unknowingly played nurse-maid to a little girl? Where had she come from? He sniffed her, wondering whether she was old enough to speak intelligibly when she awoke. Had she known what he was in last night's darkness or had she merely fallen asleep, mistaking his tail for a soft plant of some sort?

Hmmm. This day was already beginning to be rather interesting. Perhaps he wouldn't begrudge the sun for awakening him this morning.

He gently nosed the girl, breathing his hot breath on her face to coax her into consciousness. The chance that she had slept next to him knowing that he was a dragon was very slim so he had no desire to frighten the poor creature. Well-dressed weanling that she was, he doubted that she had very much experience in the forest and thus had very little experience with animals of any sort, sentient though they may be.

He smiled ruefully at this mental description of himself. Sentient animal. What would that make a human then? Sentient bug? He chuckled to himself, even though he had no inborn malice toward humanity, as he knew many of his cousins possessed. He liked humans. And he even liked children, mane-pulling fiends that they were. So now, finding himself in the possession of a girl, he nudged her again with the soft, almost fuzzy scales of his nose rather than proceeding to make dinner plans.

She awoke with a roar of sorts. Her fists splayed out, her mouth spread impossibly wide as she yawned and her eyes popped open. Then she stopped and looked at him.

For a moment, neither dragon nor girl moved, each wondering what the other would do first. The girl stirred first. "Kitty!" she exclaimed and she opened her arms wide to embrace the dragon's head and began babbling in baby talk. The creature was so taken aback by such a fearless action that he did not begin to search her thoughts for the meaning behind her wordless words for several moments. By then the girl's infantile mind was already filled with images of her running through the forest alone, images that she had not the vocabulary to explain. While an adult human might have had difficulty deciphering her, it mattered very little to a dragon, whose natural mode of communication was through mental pictures and emotions.

Ah! So she thought him to be a larger version of her golden pet cat. He supposed such an association was within reason, his kind were at times referred to as starcats, though the name had now been all but forgotten. He saw no reason to correct her assumption. She had undoubtedly heard horrific stories about dragons. A mere mention of the word might cause her to panic.

He wrapped his long sinuous tail around her body to keep her still and began to tenderly lick her tear-crusted face clean as she continued to babble on. He listened with only one ear. She had yet to explain how it is she came to be in the forest, much less a description of just what had frightened her so badly that she felt no fear of him, but he didn't bother directly asking her for that information just yet. It should be enough that the girl knew that she was safe with him. When she was clean, he gave her a snuffily kiss on the forehead and, uncoiling his limbs, scooped her up in his massive taloned hands.

"Claws," she said solemnly as she pointed to them and she did her best hissing cat impression.

The dragon smiled as he pressed her tiny body against his scaly chest.

"Soft kitty," she murmured as she rubbed her cheek against him.

The smile on his face lingered as he watched her. Yes, he was soft, as was all of his family. Humans were constantly amazed by this mere fact, as if they expected all dragons to possess dry reptilian scales and a back full of razor-sharp ridges. Not his family though. They had fuzzy scales and soft silky manes that were perfect for cuddling humans. It would not do, after all, to be a protector of mankind and yet be unable to be touched by one.

But humanity had forgotten his family, forgotten their sacrifice for their sake, causing his family to hide from man's wrath toward all dragonkind. Of course, he had more than sufficient power to eliminate all threats to himself, but the cost would be quite high. It would require the deaths of many, many humans, the deaths of many such children as the one he now held in his arms. Better to hide and be forgotten than to cause innocents to die.

He nuzzled the girl again in simple affection, then placing three limbs on the ground, stretched out his tight muscles as best he could. He even yawned himself, emitting a beautiful plume of crimson flames from his throat. The girl giggled when she saw that, associating the sight with that of the resident bard and his fire-breathing tricks. He ran his massive claws through her baby curls and then lowered himself onto the ground to begin a three-legged backtrack of her flight.

Minutes passed. He was just considering just how far a young girl could conceivably run alone and in the dark when he came across wolf tracks. He sniffed them suspiciously. Sure enough, his thoughts were confirmed. They had been tracking the girl. They had split up and had been prepared to encircle her when she had stumbled upon him. The wolves, wisely deciding to let a sleeping dragon lie, had immediately abandoned their prey when they saw that, between a wild "kitty" and a pack full of wolves, the girl was more than willing to bet on generosity of the former. He, sensing no danger from either a pack of wolves or a little girl, had continued to sleep when she had snuggled next to him, first for safety, but then for warmth. He nuzzled her again and quietly bespoke her, telling her what a brave and intelligent girl she was for finding and then staying with him during the dark. She giggled at the compliment.

He continued backtracking for several minutes, pausing here and there when his size was too great to slip through a narrow pass, causing him to encircle the area and then hunt for her trail again. Finally he heard a faint voice, calling out a name, the distance making it unintelligible. He walked toward the voice until he could make out a name.

"Aurora?" he whispered quietly to the girl. "Is that you?"

She nodded, wide-eyed that her kitty could speak aloud.

He continued staring at the girl, forcing her to maintain eye contact. No mere human could break away from a dragon's stare. A little girl was no exception. His green eyes continued boring into hers as the rest of his body emitted a soft golden light. His eyes flickered away, gazing toward the approaching call of many humans.

"K-kitty?" Aurora tentatively said.

He looked down at the girl still nestled against him, albeit his now human arms. He smiled reassuringly at her. "Yes, little one," he said simply and lightly stroked her curls with his free hand.

She looked at him and blinked, too shocked to say anything at first. Then she was jostled back into reality when he hoisted her a bit higher and began walking toward the ones searching for her. She began to babble as she had been previously doing, taking no more consideration that her kitty was now a human.

Traveling through this part of the forest was much easier for him this way, walking two-limbed rather than three, but her weight, slight though it was, was much more prone to throw him off balance as he traversed dangerous fallen tree limbs since he now lacked a balancing tail. The sacrifices that were made for humanity, he mused to himself.

What he would give for the opportunity to land in the midst of these humans while bearing this particular burden! But that would be foolishness; undoubtedly they would assume that he meant to eat her, the logic behind such a thought when he would be returning her, quite alive, to her nesting place was escaping him at this point. Then they would began assaulting him with all manners of crude weapons, resulting in either his fierce retaliation or in the child's injury.

He was sighing again over the fallacies of humanity and of his distant relations, the cause of such prejudice, when the girl, Aurora, he firmly told himself, shrieked out, "Auntie!" Being able to hear the calls himself, he had been ignorant in recognizing the distance from which a human would be able to hear them and thus had been unprepared for the shriek in his ear.

He sighed again. At least he knew that he wouldn't be returning her to child-thieves.

"Aurora?" The voice called out again, doubtfully hopeful.

"Auntie!" she shrieked again, but this time he was prepared and held her away from his ear. She began squirming in his arms, wanting to be let down, but he silenced her whining with a thought. "I've brought you this far," he told her quite severely. "Do you want me to now see you get hurt on those sharp sticks?"

"No, kitty," she said shame-faced.

The man-who-was-a-dragon snorted as he approached the nearing voice of her aunt.

"Aurora? Where are you, honey?"

He broke through a particularly thick mass of brush into a small clearing of sorts where he observed a small group of humans evidently searching for signs of this wayward soul he held. "She is right here," he stated firmly but quietly, watching as everyone whirled around in surprise at his sudden appearance. He carefully set her down and then watched her as she streaked a few steps away to one particular person, a lady dressed in riding leathers with golden skin and long black curls haphazardly caught up in a pony tail. Her aunt bent down and tightly embraced her with a mother's ferocity, murmuring all manners of words in her ear and then reluctantly pulled away to stare at him. She crossed the short distance between them in a few steps and then caught him in an equally fierce embrace.

He was so startled that at first he instinctively moved to nuzzle her neck, but recognizing this as inappropriate behavior for a human, he instead wrapped his arms around her and held her against his body. Mmmm, he thought to himself as he half listened to her gregarious thanks, this human smelled delicious. Perhaps she would enjoy returning to his lair and mating with him.

You are Draconian! An indignant thought came out of nowhere. You do not merely copulate; you mate for life!

Indeed, another thought responded.

To this, there was only silence.

He was drawn back from his thoughts when the woman abruptly pulled away from him, hastily wiping tears of gratitude from her face with the palms of her hands. "Come; my father will want to meet you." Without another word, she grabbed his wrist, and Aurora's, and began dragging them both toward the sound of more humans calling for the lost girl.

"I have her!" she happily called to anyone within hearing. Within moments there were echoes of 'she's been found, return to camp!' throughout the forest. They stumbled into a chaotic campsite within a short time. A good deal of the supplies had been destroyed and trampled on, the other half was being sorted and loaded onto carts and horses.

A man with a substantial gut, dressed in fine clothes appeared to be the leader of this particular rabble. He immediately greeted the woman and Aurora with nothing short of pure joy on his face. "Aria! My precious Aurora! You've found her!" And he embraced them both.

"No, Papa," the Lady Aria said, "This man brought her to us!" She motioned toward him.

He secretly wished that he dared to transform at this point, simply to see the expression on their faces when they realized that a dragon had returned a child intact, but it was too late; they had seen his face. He would be recognized should the occasion warrant his return to these lands. The reputation of his family's name was now at stake. "My lord," he bowed extravagantly. "I can hardly take credit for your granddaughter's cunning. It is she who found me."

"Is this true, Aurora?" her grandfather asked her in astonishment.

She nodded and began to tell in baby talk of her adventures. Only a few words were intelligible to mere humans unable to seek her mind for the mental images behind them. "Bad doggies" "run" "kitty" "warm" and "sleep." Her grandfather gravely listened to her, nodding when appropriate. When she finished, he shifted his grave expression to him, eyebrow raised in a silent request for sensible delineation.

"Your granddaughter was apparently being chased by wolves, milord." There was a collective gasp from the growing audience surrounding them, but he continued, "I found evidence of their chase when I was backtracking here. She caught sight of my campfire in the darkness and sought refuge by my side, though I was bone-weary because of my travels and continued to sleep as the dead and did not discover her presence until I awoke this morning. The wolves wisely decided to abandon their hunt and sought easier prey. So you see, milord, I can hardly take credit for the child's good sense."

"That true, Aurora?" her grandfather said gruffly. "You ran to this man's side?"

"Kitty!" she exclaimed and at once outstretched her arms and leaned precariously away from her grandfather in an attempt to reach him.

He rescued the girl from an imminent meeting with the hard ground. "Kitty," she murmured in complacency and buried her face in his neck. He remained completely unperturbed by her actions but he immediately saw from the spectators' expressions that it would require some form of explanation. Well, he could transform, he thought offhandedly. "She has a pet cat?" he saying the statement so that it would appear to be a question. He glanced at her aunt's face for confirmation.

Aria nodded almost imperceptively and said, "Goldie." Then she grinned and said, "Yes, I suppose your hair is the same color as Goldie's fur."

The lord of the household cleared his throat and stated magnanimously, "You may not have found her, but you nevertheless escorted her back to safety in addition to inadvertently saving her from a most cruel ending. To whom do I owe the debt of my granddaughter's safe return?"

"Damian Mondraconian, milord Godfry," he answered with an elegant incline of his head, being hindered by his present burden from performing a full bow. Humans thought such sign of obeisance to be necessary. It was a nuisance and he was secretly thankful that he held Aurora in his arms, having already properly bowed once.

"Mondraconian!" Lord Godfry bellowed. "Lad, we've not seen a Mondraconian in years!" He good-naturedly clapped his back.

"That is because, milord," Damian said with a slight smile. "We have had no need to ever enter your fair domain. My grandsire often noted that Hell would freeze and Heaven would rot before injustice could ever be found within the borders of Whitestone."

At that faithfully recounted compliment, Lord Godfry guffawed and was joined by the excited murmurs of the crowd. "Ian!" he called to a servant. "Ride ahead to the castle. Have a banquet prepared for our return and in honor of our guest, Lord Mondraconian!"

The servant was already out of sight when Godfry turned to him. "You are returning to Whitestone with us, are you not? I shall summon my tenants. You can personally verify your grandfather's astute observation."

The corners of Damian's lips upturned in a wry smile, but he quickly masked it and pretended to consider the matter, though he knew that that social convention had already bound him. "Yes…I believe he also made mention of the beautiful women of the house. I shall have to personally inspect such a claim." When he heard the Lady Aria's indignant snort, he added, "The gracious presence of your daughter leaves me with very little thought that I shall be disappointed."

He shifted the burden in his arms ever so slightly so he could catch the lady's eye. He smiled kindly at her, hoping that she had not instantly associated him with petty human womanizers because of words meant to impress her father. Strange how he wanted this human's approval. He could not ignore his first instinctive reaction to her. True, he searched for a mate, but never had a female's physical presence actually stirred such a longing within his heart. This lady, Aria, he would have to watch. Perhaps he would eventually bring her to his lair.