The picture that Clayton "Bear" Piatt used as wallpaper for his computer desktop was done in black and white. It showed Daniel Rodgers standing in the hallway of the house they lived in together, a look of carefully disguised surprise on his face. He held a box of chocolates in one hand, with the heart-shaped lid of the box in the other, which was resting over his own heart.
The photo itself was sweet, but the memory of what led to it wasn't.
Bear had just come back from the grocery store, having spent more time there than he intended to. There were only two days left until Valentine's Day, and he still hadn't found something for Dan.
Daniel had always been difficult to shop for - he didn't want for much, and commercial holidays meant almost nothing to him. Christmas was the worst, because his birthday fell in the same month, which made gift shopping that much more daunting.
After picking up several different foods, Bear was ready to give up on trying to find a good gift. He paid for his groceries and headed out the door, but stopped before walking outside.
There was a crane machine beside the door that led out to the parking lot, and it was filled with small toys, like stuffed animals and rubber balls. Bear's hand-eye coordination had always been pretty good - even when he was a young child - so he took a moment to mess with the machine, walking away five dollars poorer, but with a small stuffed dog in hand.
He looked it over when he got back in his truck, taking in the thin tufts of brown hair that covered its soft body, and its glassy, unblinking eyes.
"Hello, you sad, pathetic dog," Bear said with a wry smile. Then he set the dog in the passenger's seat, did up his seat belt, and started the truck.
Dan was sitting in the living room when Bear got back to the house. The television wasn't on, which was strange, since he was staring straight ahead, and he didn't bother to help Bear with the groceries when he heard him come in, which was even stranger. He always helped his boyfriend bring in the groceries. Even on the day that he had been sick with a hundred-and-two fever, and Bear had gone out to buy him some orange juice and chicken soup, he still made an attempt to let Bear help him carry the bags.
After putting the perishables away, Bear grabbed the dog, walked quietly into the living room, and snuck up behind Dan, wanting to surprise him.
"Hi, Daniel," he said in a cheerful, cartoony voice, walking the dog along the back of the black leather couch, before rubbing it against Dan's head, messing up the bright green spikes that were surrounded by hair that was a more natural black color. "Your wonderful, loving boyfriend thought he would bring me home for you. I said I wanted-"
Bear stopped joking around when he saw what Dan had in his lap - a small, gold-colored box, with a plain, white sticker on the lid that read in large writing:
Dan finally turned to face him, black almost eclipsing the brown of his irises, something that only happened when he was either incredibly turned on, or incredibly angry.
"You want to tell me what's going on here?" He asked seriously, his normally high voice deeper than usual.
Bear sat down beside Dan with a sigh, taking the box from him and reading the names on it once more.
"Fucking Dustin," he muttered through clenched teeth, closing his eyes for just a moment, and pinching the bridge of his nose, fending off a sudden headache.
"So I see," Dan tapped Dustin's name on the sticker with his index finger. "Why is your ex sending you things?"
"I have no idea. I haven't even heard anything from him in almost three years. I have no interest in him, and he knows it. For God's sake, he's married. And," Bear added seriously, "I love you."
Dan leaned back on the couch with a sigh. He was still bugged, but he knew when to leave well enough alone.
"So," he said, "are we going to eat these?" He ran his fingers along the gold of the chocolate box.
"Well," Bear spoke cautiously, hoping the truth wouldn't upset his boyfriend, "to be honest, Dustin's always had remarkable taste in chocolate, so it might be a waste if we don't eat them. . ."
"Alright then," Dan agreed easily enough, grabbing the dog from off his shoulder, and setting it in his lap. "But I get first pick."
On the morning of Valentine's Day, Bear awoke to find that Dan wasn't in bed beside him. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence, since Dan had always been an early riser, but he usually waited for his boyfriend to wake up before getting out of bed on this particular holiday.
The stuffed dog - which Dan had, for some inexplicable reason, dubbed "Putty" - stood evenly on his four legs on top of the dresser, beside the empty box of chocolates from Dustin. Bear and Dan had finished them before bed, feeding them to one another slowly, savoring the taste and kissing in between bites.
Although Dan seemed to have gotten over his irritation with Dustin for sending his boyfriend candy, Bear couldn't get the look on Dan's face out of his mind. Anger was a rare occurrence for him, and seeing the emotion spike so suddenly was always an unpleasant surprise. They didn't speak anymore about Dustin's gift, even while eating it, and Bear had thought this a good thing, at the time. But now that Dan wasn't with him, he reconsidered.
Before allowing himself to panic, Bear walked out of the bedroom, (absentmindedly patting Putty's head on the way), assuming maybe Dan was in the shower or something. This theory was disproved quickly, however, when Bear walked past the bathroom to find that the door was open, and the shower wasn't on. There wasn't even steam in the air - Dan hadn't taken a shower yet.
He wandered into the living room, but Dan wasn't there, either. Nor was he in the kitchen. The coffee maker was on, though, so he had been here recently.
Bear's mind flooded with thoughts that maybe Dan had left in the middle of the night. Maybe he didn't believe his boyfriend when the man said that he hadn't heard anything from Dustin in years. Maybe he got dressed, made himself some coffee, and walked out.
But no. That couldn't be the case. Dan wasn't one for acting irrationally, no matter how much something had upset him. If Dustin's gift was still bothering him, he wouldn't just up and leave in the middle of the night - he would have gone into the living room with a book, sat down on the couch, and read until his head had cleared enough for him to be able to talk to Bear about it. That was just how he was. Drama had never been Dan's forte, and it was one of the things Bear loved best about him.
This thought helped to stem the torrent of anxiety that was building up, and Bear was able to take in the rest of his surroundings, noticing the draft coming from underneath the door in the kitchen that led out to the garage. The draft only happened when the garage was entered through the kitchen, which meant Dan had to be in there.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Bear opened the door and saw Dan in the back of the garage, with the help of the light the man had turned on when he entered. Now that the door was open, Bear could hear Dan playing a song on his keyboard. He wasn't sure what it was, exactly, but the tune was quiet and somber - the kind of thing he liked to play on rainy days, or when something was bothering him.
So he was still upset about Dustin's gift.
He was in his pajama pants, shirtless, with a small heater that Bear had purchased last year turned on and sitting inches away from his bare feet.
The song got slower and quieter as it came to a gradual end, Dan's fingers pressing gently on the keys. As he played the final notes, Bear heard him sigh sadly, and that was it. Bear knew he had to find a way to fix this.
After spending a couple hours playing songs on his keyboard, Dan turned off the heater and walked out of the garage, ready now to speak to his boyfriend. He knew he had overreacted, and he needed to apologize.
"Bear?" He called out as he shut the door to the garage. The coffee maker had been turned off, so the man had obviously been in the kitchen at some point, but Dan received no response.
He passed through the living room, but Bear wasn't there. He walked into the bedroom - no Bear. Checked the bathroom - nothing. He wasn't in the house. Where could he have gone?
Dan went back into the bedroom and got dressed, debating going out to find his boyfriend, until he realized that, if Bear was gone, so was the truck. He really did need to get his own car.
Pulling on the black beanie he had taken from one of his drawers, Dan went back into the living room and dialed the cellphone he had grabbed off the dresser. Just as the other line started ringing, he heard the garage door going up, then down, and the door opening and being slammed closed.
He ran into the kitchen, speaking even before he made it all the way there, his voice going high from the panic he felt,
"God, you scared me! Why didn't you tell me-"
"I'm sorry." Bear cut him off, speaking rapidly, and Dan saw then that he was holding something behind his back. "I'm sorry about Dustin. I swear I had no idea he was going to send me that crap. I promise I haven't heard from him - I wouldn't lie to you about that. I got you something. Here."
Bear moved his hands from behind himself, and Dan saw that he was holding a box of chocolates. This box was bigger than the one Dustin had sent, and it was in the shape of a heart, a little black ribbon in one of the top edges, and a pattern of diamonds marking the lid.
Any anger or anxiety Dan had been feeling melted away when he was faced with the look in Bear's eyes - the man looked hopeful, but scared, as if afraid Dan was going to reject him.
He didn't, though. Instead, he smiled and took the box from him. Knowing that a joke would help to calm any negative feelings his boyfriend was still harboring, Dan asked,
"Did you get me bribery chocolate?"
Thankfully, Bear smiled back.
"Maybe. . ." he said, then added, "and, if you'll notice, this one is better than Dustin's."
"Yeah," Dan spoke quietly and moved to stand in front of his boyfriend, still holding the box in one hand as he kissed him on the lips. "Yeah, this one's much better."