"Trist?" Kellan called down the stairs. He didn't get a response, so he'd have to go down to pull Tristan away from whatever he was painting this time.
He did hope Tristan was working on one of his commissions instead of painting Kellan again. The last thing they needed was another portrait of him. No one ever wanted to buy a painting of a math teacher in his late twenties that they didn't even know, and Kellan refused to hang more than one of them on the walls. The other three Tristan had painted were hiding in Tristan's studio across town so that Kellan wouldn't throw them out.
He headed down to the basement where Tristan had set up a makeshift studio in favor of driving across town every day. In this case, "makeshift studio" merely meant a tarp on the carpeting where the dark-haired man had set up an easel and canvas and left all of his paints on the floor. Sure enough, Tristan was bent over his newest canvas intently, and Kellan was relieved to see that it didn't feature himself this time but instead a dark, twisted mermaid.
"Oi, Tristan. It's a holiday. Stop working. It's also 3:00. Connor wants us at his barbeque thing in an hour."
Tristan jumped as he was pulled back to reality and dropped the piece of cardboard he'd mixed paints on. "Oh, damn. I totally forgot. Sorry," he said, turning to Kellan sheepishly. "I'll go take shower."
"It's fine, Trist. I figured you'd forgotten. That's why I came to get you." Tristan nodded and headed up the stairs. "Remember to put on red, white, and blue!"
Tristan grumbled something unintelligible back and Kellan set to tidying up the area and making sure Tristan's paints wouldn't dry out while they were gone for the day. As soon as he was done, he headed back upstairs to pack blankets and snacks to take with to the fireworks show. It was the middle of summer, but the temperature still got pretty low by the lake at night, and concessions were far too expensive not to bring snacks.
Tristan reappeared, dressed in blue cut-off shorts and a white t-shirt deliberately painted with red just as Kellan tucked the last bag of candy in his backpack to cover up the meringue cookies he'd made for Tristan. Kellan looked up as he entered the living room. "Well, at least you didn't dye your hair this year."
"I was sexy with red hair."
Kellan snorted and shoved two blankets on top of the snacks. "Right. Well, come on. It's not a short walk."
Tristan picked up the backpack from Kellan and slung it over his right shoulder. He pointed at Kellan and said, "No swimming. Don't you dare get that paint washed off yet."
Kellan examined his paint-covered arms. Tristan had gotten bored that morning and decided to use Kellan's skin as a canvas, covering him in American flags and multi-colored fireworks to mark the occasion before Kellan exiled him to the basement. The designs were already cracking. "I look ridiculous. You're lucky I'm going out in public like this. What are my coworkers going to say?"
"Absolutely nothing. School's out of session for the summer. You can do as you please. You thought they were going to say something about you dating me, too."
Kellan grimaced. He was still surprised most of them hadn't. "What are my students going to say? I think the GSA is having a cookout, too. Skylar wanted me to come. We're bound to run into them."
Tristan considered this as he slung his free arm around Kellan's shoulders and led him out the door. "Your students are going to say that their teacher is awesome to go out in public like that, and that his boyfriend is an amazing painter." Kellan rolled his eyes. "And Skylar graduated this year, didn't he? Why is he still president of that club?"
"Don't ask me. I just sit in on the meetings and make sure they don't break any laws."
"Why is your brother even having a Fourth of July party, anyway? He's never had one before."
Kellan shrugged. "Ask him," he suggested.
"I think I will. Did you remember your medication?"
"In the bag, Tristan."
"Good," Tristan replied, letting his arm slide off of Kellan's shoulders and reaching for the shorter man's hand. "Are your parents going to be there?"
"No, why would they drive four hours just for Independence Day?" Kellan asked curiously.
Tristan's shoulders relaxed and he let out a breath Kellan hadn't realized he'd been holding at all. "Good."
Kellan eyed him carefully. "Trist, I'm sure Connor didn't invite anyone who's going to make us feel uncomfortable if he wants us there."
Tristan frowned slightly. "What about Christmas and Easter?" he muttered sullenly.
Kellan sighed and smiled at him good-naturedly. It wasn't like he didn't understand why Tristan didn't like his parents. "Those are family holidays, Trist. This isn't."
"Then why are we going to Connor's thing?"
"Because we like Conner and Roxie, and they aren't going to complain that we're in a relationship. Tristan, stop sulking about Mom and Da, okay? It'll be fine. You're just being difficult."
Tristan sighed and straightened out of his slouch. "I guess. Sorry."
Kellan leaned over and kissed his cheek. "You worry too much."
"Says the man with panic attacks."
Kellan scowled. "I'm working on that!"
Tristan smiled and squeezed his hand. "I know. You haven't had one in months."
At that, Kellan shrugged. "Only because you've been there to keep me calm."
"Oh, really?" Tristan asked with a skeptically raised eyebrow. "Because I recall being the cause of more than one."
Kellan flushed. "Yeah, but that was…" he trailed off, unable to finish. He wanted to. He wanted to tell Tristan that had only been because he'd been insecure back then. But he felt his throat shut down, and the words just weren't going to make it out.
"You made it!" Connor cried as he flung himself into Kellan's arms.
Kellan looked over his brother for a long moment, then looked around the park that Conner had set up his grill in, waiting for the fireworks to begin. He spotted Roxie's red hair easily and turned his attention to Conner's wife. "Did you let him bring alcohol, Roxie?"
"He smuggled it out of the house when I wasn't looking," she said, eyeing her husband.
"'S a holiday, Kel!"
Kellan laughed and pushed his older brother off of him. "All right, all right. I may as well give in now." Connor grabbed his wrist and dragged him over to a weather-worn table a few feet distant while Tristan sighed and collapsed next to Roxie.
"Why are they drinking at four in the afternoon?" he asked.
"Con wants to be sobered up in time for the fireworks," she explained, shaking her head.
"We can hear you," Kellan pointed out.
Tristan watched the two brothers as they slid into the benches at the picnic table and started pouring themselves drinks from a glass bottle.
Roxie laughed. "So how have you two been, Tristan?" she asked.
"We've been fine. I have a showing on Friday, so I've been mostly working on that. And yourselves?"
"Good," she replied. "I finally got Con to take down that horrific crucifix."
Tristan shuddered. "Thank God."
"Well, I think he mostly had it up for their parents' sake, you know?" she replied confidingly. "It wasn't that hard. Besides, he and Kellan have no idea how to decorate. Where would they be without us artistic types?"
Tristan laughed. "You have a point," he admitted. "Their house was pretty ugly when I first met them. That crucifix was the first thing I saw when I opened their door. Scared me half to death. It was as big as I was!"
"Well, excuse me for not being an interior decorator," Connor complained.
"I'm not an interior decorator, either," Roxie said.
"Our parents visited! And they gave the damn thing to me. Now I can blame its absence on my sweet wife."
"So," Roxie asked, turning to Tristan and ignoring her husband entirely. "Where's that showing of yours?"
The two of them passed a reasonably enjoyable time talking to each other, mostly uninterrupted unless someone wanted to thank Roxie for inviting them, or ask Tristan how his work was coming. Tristan had only seen a few of the guests from other nights out with Kellan's brother and wife.
He kept an eye on Kellan the entire time. Conner got even more visitors than Roxie did, and Kellan clammed up almost every time someone came over to them. But at least he was saying hi.
Then Conner pulled a portable CD player from under the table and turned it on.
"Please tell me they aren't going to do karaoke. That's embarrassing enough when it's on a road trip where no one else can hear," Tristan said, staring at it.
"Oh, come on, have you ever known them to pass on it?" Roxie said.
"Hope springs eternal," Tristan muttered. Kellan glanced over at him with a scowl, which Tristan returned with a sheepish grin. "Kellan, you can't sing sober."
"I am not drunk. I've only had two shots, Trist."
"Fine. Humiliate yourself in public."
Kellan rolled his eyes and joined his brother.
Tristan turned to Roxie after a few moments. "Am I the only one who finds it odd that a gay man and his married, Catholic brother are singing a song called 'Bad Girlfriend'?"
Roxie started laughing. Kellan threw his microphone at Tristan's head and hit him in the stomach.
"I'mma tell him today, Con."
"You're gonna tell who what now?" Connor asked, lying back on the soft green grass after the brothers had tired their voice out after karaoke.
Kellan kicked him. "Tell Tristan how I feel 'bout him!"
Connor blinked at him in confusion. "I thought he already knew you loved him."
Kellan scowled and looked up at the cloudless sky. "Yeah, but I gotta tell him!" he insisted.
"You never told him you loved him?" Connor asked, as incredulous as he could be with half a bottle of whiskey in his body.
"Well," Kellan replied hesitantly. "I did. But in the five years I've known him and the two we've been together, I have only told him twice, and both times I was hysterical. So it really doesn't count. Like when Mom and Da first met him, I was upset and kind of freaking out and…and stuff." He'd had less to drink than his brother, but Tristan certainly wouldn't have trusted him behind a wheel at the moment.
Connor pondered this. "I didn't know tha'," he said.
Kellan nodded firmly. "'S true."
"Mom and Da don't run your life anymore, Kel, you know?"
"Yeah, I know, but I still gotta deal with 'em, right? If they ran my life, I'd be a priest. They figured if I had to like guys, then I should go into a profession where I couldn't do anythin' about it." Kellan laid his head in his knees.
"I remember that. But…wait…does telling him when you're drunk count?"
"I'm not tha' drunk, Con. I'll be totally fine in a few hours."
"So, wha's supposed to be so different about tonight, then?"
"I don' know," Kellan admitted. But it would be.
The blond turned to look in the direction his name was coming from and his eyes landed on a familiar dark-haired teenager. "Go 'way, Skylar!" he protested cheerfully.
"No! You have to come say hi to everybody! Come on, Kellan, the club's expecting you. You already refused to stay the whole time. Ethan's making hot dogs."
"Nooo," Kellan insisted.
Skylar grinned. "Bring Tristan! A lot of the members haven't met him yet!"
"Hey, Tristan can hear you two yelling!" Tristan interrupted, still sitting a good thirty feet or so away.
Skylar grinned and waved at him before disappearing. Kellan stumbled to his feet and offered his hand out to Tristan. "Shall we?" Tristan rolled his eyes, stood, and took Kellan's hand in his own.
Kellan grabbed a soda from the cooler by Conner's grill before they left, hoping the caffeine would help counterattack the effects of the alcohol. Tristan was one thing. He shouldn't be drinking around his students.
Kellan didn't remember coming to school events during the summer when he was in high school, but clearly things had changed, considering the number of familiar faces at the cookout for the GSA.
Skylar spotted him almost immediately, and left his place by the grill to run over to Kellan "Hey, guess what? We have some people who are going to be freshman, and they wanted to meet you."
Kellan sighed. "And meeting me in September innit good enough?"
"Why wait?" Skylar replied, pushing his former teacher over to an unfamiliar young teenager with brown hair. "This is John. John, meet our club advisor, Kellan Stanton, and his partner, Tristan Evans."
The boy stared at them. "Hi?"
Kellan should have known that Skylar wanted him to come to the cookout so he could force him to talk to people.
"Hi," he said, offering his hand to John.
"Wait," one of the older students interrupted, pushing his way next to Skylar. "You have a boyfriend, Mr. Stanton?"
Kellan bit his lip and looked at Tristan instead of his student. Tristan grinned back. "How d'ya not know that by now?" Kellan asked.
"You don't talk about him much. I wasn't even sure you were gay."
Tristan scowled at that. "Yes, Kellan, why don't you talk about me more?"
"Tristan!" Kellan complained.
Tristan sighed and held his hands up in apology.
They stayed with the students for another hour before heading back to grab dinner from Connor's "shindig" (as Connor insisted on calling it) and pick up their things. The fireworks were to start in an hour and half and they wanted to find a good spot to settle down and watch.
"Well, that was fun," Kellan said as they left.
Tristan shrugged. "The only person there I knew was Skylar. And I guess I've met Ethan a few times when Sky's dragged him to church."
Kellan frowned. "Sorry…"
Tristan turned and looked at him curiously. "What for?" he asked.
"For…dragging you along, I guess." The teacher leaned his head against Tristan's shoulder and inhaled.
Tristan kissed the top of his head lightly. "Don't be. They're good kids and all. As long as I get you to myself for a good part of the evening, I don't care."
Kellan smiled. "Of course."
"Good. I'm hungry. What did Conner cook?"
"I have as good an idea as you do," Kellan said, leading them back to Conner.
After taking a few hot dogs and sodas and waving good-bye to Connor, Roxie, and a few of Connor's friends, Tristan grabbed the backpack Kellan had packed earlier that day and they went to stake out a spot before all of the good ones were taken.
"There are too many trees in this town," Kellan complained. "Everywhere we look there's one that's going to be blocking our view."
Tristan smiled and ruffled his hair. "Stop worrying. Look, if we sit down over there, there won't be anything in our way." He pointed to a spot nearly on the rocky shoreline that outlined the marina without any trees, and, miraculously, without too many people.
Kellan and Tristan made their way over and sat down. Opening his backpack, Kellan took out one of the thick blankets he'd packed earlier and spread it on the ground in front of them, smoothing the dark blue fabric against the grass before Tristan ruined all of his efforts rolling on top of it. "The fireworks start in about forty-five minutes."
"And?" Tristan asked, pulling Kellan close and draping the second blanket around them.
Kellan leaned against him, "Just thought I'd mention."
They sat in silence for a while, enjoying each other's company and people watching. Kellan found himself watching Tristan more than anyone else and wishing that he hadn't sobered up yet. After a few minutes of Kellan's intent gaze, Tristan turned to look at him and smiled, quirking an eyebrow up curiously.
Kellan felt his pale cheeks redden. "Tristan?"
"Hm?" Tristan asked, studying his face calmly, waiting ever patiently. Kellan had no idea where the patience his boyfriend usually displayed for him had come from. The man certainly hadn't had any when they'd first met. Apparently, leaving to attend the Art Institute in Chicago had a good effect on him.
"I—" Kellan began, trying to figure out how to start. It was normal to just tell someone you were dating you loved them. Why couldn't he do it? He did love Tristan.
"Never mind," Kellan said finally, exhaling harshly. Dammit, why wasn't his voice cooperating?
Tristan frowned at him slightly as he watched Kellan's expression carefully. "Uh, okay…"
Kellan turned his gaze back to the rapidly darkening sky. It would be dark enough for the fireworks any minute now. "Tristan?" he said after a few minutes to regain his resolve.
"Why…why do you even want to be with me?"
Tristan stared at him as if he'd just grown another head. "Because I love you."
"But why?" Kellan asked with a sigh.
Tristan shrugged and let one arm slip around Kellan's waist, holding him tightly. "Just do, Kellan. I can't explain it. Being with you makes me happy. So I want to be with you. What else do I need for a reason?"
Kellan let out a laugh that was more of a breath and smiled. He hadn't been asking for a laundry list of things to love about himself. Somehow, Tristan always knew what he wanted. "Most people would want a whole lot more, sweetheart."
"Yeah, well," Tristan said. He dug into the backpack, looking for something to snack on and pulled out a bag of barbeque potato chips. "Here." Kellan took them from his hand.
"Keep looking. There's something in there I think you'll like." Tristan watched him suspiciously for a moment before returning to the bag and rummaging through it with more enthusiasm.
He eventually pulled out a small plastic container and opened it. "You made me meringue cookies?!" he asked excitedly. Kellan smiled in response. Tristan leaned over and kissed him. "Thank you. I love you, too."
Kellan started. "Too? But…I didn't say…"
Tristan rolled his eyes and took a cookie out. "Sure you did. You spent hours this morning making complicated cookies from scratch for no reason other than that I happen to like them. What else do you need to say?"
Tristan sighed. "I know you don't say it very often. You don't have to. Things like this," he said, holding up the cookie in his hand, "say it much better, anyway."
Kellan frowned at him. "Then why do you say it?"
Tristan shrugged. "I don't need to hear it. You do."
Kellan didn't reply and looked down at his feet. He heard the first few fireworks explode, and looked back up at the sky. After a few moments, he finally managed, "But I want to tell you."
Tristan leaned over, pulled Kellan against him, and kissed him. "Don't worry so much, Kel."
Kellan nodded and managed a genuine smile. He leaned back and rested his head against Tristan's chest and returned his gaze to the sky.
He would say it. One day.