I was dreaming, that much I knew. The world around me fogged over in a haze. The colors blurred together in that way that only happened in dream. Happiness hummed through me and I purred with delight.
Somebody was holding my hand, pulling me along. We were in a field of flowers, which seemed odd, since I didn't overly enjoy being outside. I wasn't the outdoorsy type, I preferred to stay indoors instead and watch the world happen from the view of a window, curled up comfortably inside my home where it was safe.
The hand tugged, and I followed. I felt safe, loved, cherished. The person pulling me along came into view. They were young, maybe six or seven years old. And I realized then that I was in a child-sized body as well. But this was a dream, not a memory. The boy turned around and looked at me, eyes bright and shining. His smiled stretched across his face and freckles peppered over his nose.
“Come on, Eric. It's not so bad. I'll keep you safe. I promise.”
I knew him. I knew that voice.
My best friend. I hadn't seen him in over sixteen years, but that's who he was. My absolute best friend in the world. I still talked to him regularly, but my parents had moved us when I was seven from our human town to Vale Valley, where we lived now, when I’d started asking questions about being a cat shifter.
I’d had trouble remembering to keep our secret, and they wanted me to grow up in a place where I could shift anywhere, be accepted by those around me and not have to worry about hiding my inner animal.
I liked Vale Valley, but I missed Tony something awful.
“I can't,” I said in my dream. Fear crept in, chipping away at my happiness. Not fear of Tony, but of something else… something I couldn’t name.
“Yes, you can.” He tugged again gently. “Stay with me. Talk with me. Trust me.”
“I can't. I want to, but…” How did you tell your human best friend that you could turn into a cat?
No. There wasn't a place for Tony in my life, at least not physically. Not in the way that I wanted him to be.
I couldn’t completely let go of him. It might have been selfish, but I didn’t care.
The dream started to fade away as I was pulled back into reality.
I tried to hold on to it a little bit longer, moving my legs, trying to go back to him. I gripped his hand tighter, but it slipped from my grasp. The world dissolved around me.
“I’ll find you,” Tony shouted. “We'll find it together.”
“Find what?” I asked.
I opened my eyes. I was in my bedroom. Where else would I be? Certainly not in a field of wild flowers with my childhood friend. I sat up and rubbed my eyes with the heel of my hand and then stretched. Arching like, well, a cat, since that’s what I was.
I checked my watch. Quarter to eight. Damn. I had just enough time to shower, get dressed, and run down the stairs to the studio before my first session.
Much to my father’s worry, I’d rented a small building in bustling downtown Vale Valley. The first floor was my photography studio, name still undecided, and upstairs was my comfortable two-bedroom, one bathroom and tiny kitchenette apartment.
My budding photography business had slowly started picking up more clients. Today, I had a paternity photo session that would last several hours, then later I had a family session at the lake. It was still winter, but the lake stayed warm year-round thanks to magic. After that, I’d have a full day of editing on my computer, which I looked forward to. At least the editing I could do from home, curled up on my couch with some warm milk with maybe just a dash of chocolate.
I couldn't have chocolate in large amounts, because, well, I was a cat shifter, but just a little bit was good.
I didn’t have time for breakfast and wouldn't get a chance to eat until lunch. Usually my omega dad came by the studio with an extra sandwich that he just happened to have. He always made a tuna salad sandwich for me and my alpha dad. They were our absolute favorite.
I stood and padded my way into the bathroom and turned on the shower. I took a quick one because, well, I hated water. It was much easier to just clean myself in cat form, but that never transferred well when you shifted back, so I endured.
After my shower, I headed down to the studio, fired up my lights and my coffee pot and waited for my clients to arrive. The paternity session would be a first for me, and I hoped that it would spark some interest from the community in the photography services I could offer. The couple was a newly mated pair, expecting their first child. Ren was a reindeer shifter and owner of Sweet Bites creperie. Max was a snow leopard shifter, and I wasn't quite sure what he did. Carpentry work, or something like that. He kept to himself mostly. I knew Ren quite well because he was friendly, and I went to Sweet Bites regularly for his amazing crepes.
Ren’s belly was growing by the day and today I hoped to capture a few sweet moments between the two in both their human and shifted forms to commemorate the experience. Ren wrapped me in a big hug when he arrived at the studio. Max walked in behind Ren, hands in the pockets of his jeans. He nodded at me but didn't say much.
I let Ren pick out whatever props he wanted for the session. Ren stood in front of the pale gray backdrop, cradling this belly. He lifted a hand and waved his mate over, practically bouncing where he stood.
“Come on. Come on. Let's get this going. The faster we get these done, the faster I can see them.”
It was hard not to smile at his excitement. I just hoped that whatever photos I took met his expectations.
I took a few shots with them in their human forms standing together, cradling Ren’s belly, kissing, being immensely in love. We even got Max to get down on his knees to kiss the belly. I could tell that the two of them were going to be great fathers.
“Do we know the gender yet?” I asked.
“It's a girl,” Ren said.
“Congratulations.” I smiled, but it took some effort. I wanted to slap myself for being jealous of a couple who deserved all the happiness in the world, but that didn’t stop me from wanting what they had. Love. Vale Valley was a place that only those seeking love and a home could find. Apparently, my mate was taking the scenic route.
Thinking of love always made me think of Tony. And after my dream this morning, he was fresh on my mind anyway. I’d debated inviting Tony here, but how in the hell would I explain shifters to him? Even if he could find the town, would he accept it? Accept me? Logically, I knew that if he found Vale Valley, that would mean that he would accept me as I was. Magic protected the town from outsiders. But my heart couldn't take it if it turned out that he couldn't find Vale Valley. That would mean that he wasn't mine and we weren’t meant to be.
After I took a few pictures of Ren and Max in their human form, Max shifted into his snow leopard and I took a few with him as a snow leopard and Ren as a human. Then I took several with Ren in his reindeer form. I couldn't wait to put these on the computer and start editing.
Being a new, small business meant that I could edit them today, instead of having to wait a few days while I edited other photos. If I worked well into the night, I could even edit these photos and the family session I had later. If I provided a quick turnaround, then word would spread and soon I'd be so busy I wouldn't know what to do. I doubted that would happen, at least not overnight. I knew it would take a while to establish my business, but I could dream.
Ren wrapped me in a big hug when we finished.
“Thank you so much,” he said. “I can't wait to see these and as soon as she's here, you'll be the first one we call to do the newborn session. Would you be willing to come to the hospital and take pictures of the birth?”
I couldn't contain my surprise. “Um. That… Um… I’m not sure…”
Max spoke up. “Ren, we really don't need anyone else in the delivery room.”
Ren sighed and rubbed his belly. “I guess you're probably right. But newborn session for sure.”
“Yes,” I said. “I can definitely do that, no problem.”
Dodged that bullet. I wouldn’t say no to the gig, but that didn’t mean I’d look forward to it either. The only birth I wanted to attend would be my own child’s.
My omega dad showed up later, he brought me my favorite tuna salad sandwich. We sat in my apartment upstairs.
“How are things going at home?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Same old, same old.”
“You guys miss me yet?” I’d only just moved out on the first of the year, and it was the first of February now.
“Of course we do,” he said. “But this is good too. You need to be on your own. And your dad and I could use some time to ourselves.”
“You’re not being struck by empty nest syndrome?”
My omega dad smiled at that. “A little bit here and there. Honestly, it's more your father than me. I think he would feel better if you were mated.”
I rolled my eyes. “Don't you think that I would feel better if I was mated too? But you of all people know you can't force that kind of thing. I'll meet my mate sooner or later.”
He raised an eyebrow at me. “Been practicing that speech?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It's the same one you've given me for years. I'm hoping that if I throw myself into my business and building that up, then it'll take my mind off the fact that I haven't found him yet.”
“It'll happen,” my omega dad said.
“I know. This time of year is just a little tougher than normal. Everywhere I turn, there's a newly mated couple expecting their first kid. And now with Valentine's Day.” I rolled my eyes. “Everyone's in love.”
“Yes. That's what Vale Valley is all about.”
“I know.” I sighed and stared off into space for a bit.
I must have started off for longer than I thought because my dad cleared his throat. “Everything all right?”
“Yeah.” I shook my head to snap myself back into reality. “I just had a weird dream last, night about Tony.”
“Your friend from when we lived in Portland?”
“How’s he doing?”
“Fine. Better than fine. He’s jet-setting across the world. He just got back from Australia I think, and he’s going to Egypt next.”
My omega dad put his hand over mine. “I know you miss him. You care about him an awful lot.”
“Yeah, but I haven’t seen him in person is nearly sixteen years.”
“Let's change the subject. What are you and Dad’s plans for Valentine's?” I asked.
He looked like he might have pushed the issue, but decided not to. “That's like two weeks away. How am I supposed to know what our plans are?”
“Do you think he's planning something fun? This will be your first year without me in the house. It’s Dad’s favorite holiday. Surely he has something exciting in mind.”
“Whatever it is, I'm sure it'll be amazing as always. Remember that year he prepared every meal in something heart shaped? Heart shaped pancakes for breakfast, heart shaped noodles, and a heart shaped pizza for dinner?” Dad asked.
I grinned at the memory. “Oh, I remember. I was ten and thought it was so fun to help in the kitchen. Two hours into making the homemade noodles, I wanted to quit.” It had been amazing though. My omega dad had been surprised, and most importantly, he’d been happy.
“So, how did your morning session go?”
“Good,” I said between bites. “I'm really happy with the shots I got, and Ren wants me to do a newborn session when the baby arrives.”
“That’s great! What do you have this afternoon? That family session by the lake?”
“Yeah. They want to do a few pictures by the gazebo and then go down to the lake for a couple more. Should be interesting.”
“What family is this?”
“Rafe Montgomery, his daughter Grace, and his two mates, Jason and Chris.”
“That'll be fun. I didn't know he was mated now.”
“Yeah, his two mates came stumbling into town around Christmas time,” I said. Lucky bastard. He had been mated before, but his mate had passed away and he had been alone with his daughter Grace.
My dad touched my shoulder. “You'll find yours, too, Eric.”
“I know,” I said. “And I'm happy for him. He deserves it. Him and his daughter both. I think his omega mate is expecting too, but I'm not sure.”
“That’s exciting.” My dad gathered the empty Tupperware containers that he’d brought our lunch in. “I’ve got to get going. If you need anything, just let me know.”
“All right. Thank you for lunch. You know you don’t always have to bring me food, right?”
He smiled. “I like to bring you lunch.” He looked at his watch. “And now I need to bring your dad lunch, too.”
“Good idea.” I waggled my eyebrows. “Get a little afternoon nookie.”
My omega dad rolled his eyes. “That's inappropriate.”
I barked out a laugh.
He gave me a hug and left, and I was alone again in my apartment. I checked my watch, I had exactly thirty minutes before I needed to head out the door to the next session. I downloaded the images from the morning session and got a new memory card to put in my camera for the afternoon. I also grabbed fresh batteries. I might as well arrive a little early. I could snap a few landscape photos for stock footage. Those always came in handy.
When I was finished for the day, I closed the studio, grabbed my laptop and trudged upstairs to my lonely, empty apartment. I turned on the kettle to make tea, then picked up my favorite cozy blanket and snuggled on the couch. I figured I could get a solid two hours of editing done before I'd let myself turn on the TV. Then I could work while watching some sappy movie on Netflix. Surely there were plenty of romance movies up for Valentine's since it was only two weeks away.
The pictures of Ren and Max turned out beautiful. I managed to capture the love between the two of them. It wasn't that hard, considering that it practically poured out of them.
I picked out my favorites, did some lighting and effect changes, then posted sneak peeks on my website so they could check them out. I selected a particularly good one of Max in his snow leopard form, huddled close to Ren in his human form and decided that I'd use that as a print in the studio. I only had a handful of sessions with actual clients, so the studio was a little bare as far as portrait displays went. I needed photos to fill up the space.
I was taking a sip of my tea when a knock sounded at the door. Who in the hell was that? I looked at the time, it was just past nine o'clock. I checked my phone, no one had called. So, who was visiting? I ran down the stairs and stopped dead in my tracks.
There was my childhood friend, Tony, standing outside my door. All grown up with a wide grin across his face. He waved his hand like a madman.
“Let me in, Eric.”
I hurriedly flipped the lock, and let him in.
“What are you doing here?” I said, then threw my arms around him.
He hugged me back, squeezing me tight.
“I just needed to see you. I thought maybe you needed to see me, too.”
I pulled him inside, then locked the door again. “How did you find me?”
“Well, I knew you lived in Vale Valley and you just opened up the studio. It wasn't that hard.”
That was an understatement. It had to have been extremely hard. Vale Valley was literally invisible to anyone unless they needed a home. The fact that he had found it so easily meant he needed a home. Or love. “Is everything all right?” I asked.
“Yeah.” he shrugged. “Got laid off from my job, but that’s no big deal. Just means I have some free time before my trip to Egypt at the end of the month. So, I felt like now would be a really good time to come see you.”
I laughed. “Well, that's great. Not about being laid off, that sucks. But I'm so glad to see you.”
I wrapped my arms around him again and hugged him. It felt so good to be in his embrace. We’d video chatted so many times throughout the years, but this was the first time I’d seen him in person, and I wanted to rub my face on him, mark him with my scent. Mark him as mine. But I knew that wasn't my place. But maybe…
If he’d found Vale Valley, that could mean…
No, I was getting ahead of myself. There was a lot more to talk about before we could go down that road. And likely we’d never go down that road. Too many road blocks in place. I wasn’t the only unmated omega around here, just because Tony found Vale Valley didn’t mean that I was his love.
“C’mon upstairs, you must be exhausted. Are you hungry?”
“No. I grabbed some food a while back. I am tired, though. I've been driving for like twelve hours. I think I lost track of time.”
The fact that it should have been a twenty-two-hour drive from his home to Vale Valley, told me that something magical was definitely afoot. I doubted that he’d driven that fast. Had to love the magic of Vale Valley.
I sat him down on the couch, went to my kitchenette area and grabbed a plate of banana bread. I went back to the couch and sat close to him.
“I'd give you a tour, but this is pretty much it. You saw the studio, which you can see in the morning in better light, but this is my place.” I shrugged.
“It's wonderful,” he said. “I love it.”
“It's home,” I said. “Most importantly, it's not my dads’ house. They’re awesome, but I needed to live on my own.”
“How are they doing?” he asked as he grabbed a slice of bread.
“Good. I still see them just about every day. It's not like I moved very far.”
He grinned at me between bites. “It's so good to see you,” he said. He stared at me, eyes flickering between my eyes and my mouth.
I smiled, and my gaze lowered from his eyes to his lips. I wanted to kiss them so badly, and I had a feeling that he was having the same thought.
“It's good to see you, too,” I whispered.
I didn't have to wait much longer, he seemed to have read my mind. He melted against me as he brushed his lips over mine. It was the briefest of kisses, but it set my skin on fire and my lips still tingled when he sat back. His eyes widened in surprise and he looked away, toward the television.
The menu for Netflix covered the screen. “So, what should we watch?”
I shrugged. “I don't know. Something sappy?”
“Sounds great.” He leaned back and put his arm around my shoulder. I leaned against him, and rested my head on his shoulder, then hit play.