Raquel dipped her hand lazily into her Oncle Emile's backyard fountain, her eyes traveling over to see Antoine interacting with his parents. A soft smile touched her lips. It certainly was good to have him back again.

Half the neighborhood was at his house right now, celebrating at his graduation party. Here and there she saw his aunt, a good family friend, his grandfather on his mother's side, and so on. All were milling about, talking and laughing. She grinned and stood gracefully, ambling over to a table covered with a vast assortment of sweets and delicacies.

"What do you think of it all?" Antoine's voice came behind her.

"They really outdid themselves," she replied, pivoting slowly to face him and leaning against the table.

"Yeah, I know." He made a face. "Don't tell them I said so, but it's almost too much."

"Your parents are just happy to have you home is all. Enjoy it." She beamed at him, looping her arm through his. Together they walked over to a stone bench.

"So, have you thought of where you're going to go from here?"

He pursed his lips. "Well, I'm probably going to start with some freelance stuff, and try to sell it to a gallery. It's the only way I can come up with to get my name out there."

She nodded. "That's a good idea. Then you'll work up from there?"

"Exactly. And who knows? I might get a commission from some important person one day!" The young man's eyes sparkled with delight.

"That would be perfect!" she breathed. "I can see it now—you painting, your sit-in: the king!"

Antoine laughed, a hearty you've-got-to-be-kidding-me sort of laugh. "Um, that won't happen. It's nice to dream big, but… I have my hopes grounded in reality. Just someone of social standing would be enough for me." He watched her as she played with a small flower she had plucked, considering whether or not to ask her the question that was burning in his mind.

"I could do it, to start you off," she murmured abruptly, and he started. That was what he had wanted to ask her!

"Would you?" he replied softly, eyes wide.

She glanced up to see his earnest expression and giggled. "Of course! It would give us some more time together, too. You were gone for eight years, after all." Her eyes danced with suppressed amusement.

"I'd like that," he smiled. "Begin tomorrow?"

"I'll be here," she returned.

"There you two are!" Colette's voice broke into their thoughts suddenly. "Let's go, it's time for you to cut the cake!"

Antoine groaned audibly, but stopped at the sharp look from his mother.

"It's your celebration. Now come, be celebrated."

And that was the end of that discussion.

xxxxxxx

They started on the painting in the morning. Raquel showed up at nine, looking beautiful as always, Antoine thought. She was wearing a lovely crimson dress that accented her rich chocolate tresses and laughing dark eyes perfectly. He had already set up his easel and paints when she swept into his studio area, which he had shown her the day before.

"Is this alright?" she asked, indicating her outfit.

He glanced up sharply, drew in a swift breath, and looked back down, appearing to busy himself with preparations. "Perfect," he replied softly, saying no more. But in the next moment he was spitting out directives. "Now, just sit here, and pull your hair over like so—yes, just like that. Hands in your laps, okay, okay, yes. Perfect, thank you."

She tried to stifle a giggle. "If I breathe, will it mess you up?"

He shot her a withering look. "No. Once I get the general outline, you'll be fine. But—" He cut off some comment she was about to make. "You have to sit very still until I get the outline. After that, you can do just about anything you want. To a certain degree, of course."

She sucked in a deep gulp of air and looked up at him.

The young man chuckled. "If that's how you want to be painted—" He let the statement drop.

Raquel deflated at that, and dissolved into giggles. Her laughter was infectious, and Antoine soon found himself laughing, too.

"Alright, I'm painting now," he grinned. "Hold still."

And thus began the first day of a long project.

xxxxxxx

"Stop moving!"

"I'm not trying to!" Giggles. "Stop making that face…" Giggles. "…and I might be able to stop…" More giggles.

"I'm going to wipe this brush right across your forehead if you don't stop!"

"Oh, that would look wonderful. Somehow, I don't think a bright blue streak on your subject's head would exactly be an advertising campaign for your work."

"I'd omit it from the painting itself, you goof." Antoine rolled his eyes.

It had been two weeks since that first day. Two weeks of pure bliss. The painting was coming along splendidly, when they were actually working on it, that is. More often than not, they were laughing over what this maid said or that friend did, exchanging stories from the years they had been apart.

Antoine couldn't remember being so happy since—since he didn't even know when. Laughter is like medicine, he mused to himself. I just wish— He paused a moment and glanced over at the young woman, her face lined with joy. Since they had begun this painting, he'd had plenty of time to try and figure out what terms they were on now that they had grown up. So far, he hadn't come up with much. Obviously, things couldn't go back to where they were, but where they were going to go from here was still in question.

Sometimes, he would look over at her and find her studying him. And he knew he was guilty of sneaking glances himself. It was just—just getting more…interesting, he decided at last. Trying to sort out how exactly he felt about her was complicated. She was beautiful, sure. He had always been somewhat attracted to her, even as a boy.

But this was different. Late at night, when he should be asleep, he found himself mulling over what she might have meant by a certain comment, or laughing silently at a sarcastic comment she had made; one that probably wasn't even that funny, but he had found it hilarious. And the more he tried to push thoughts of his interest or their relationship out of his mind, the more they warred within him.

He nodded at a detail he had placed on the canvas. Interesting might be an understatement, but it would have to do for now. There were other things that he should be focusing on.

xxxxxxx

He liked her. She knew he did. The way he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, the way he laughed at everything she said, the way he gauged her reaction after he'd made a witty comment—it seemed pretty obvious.

All of those events, though, nagged at her and caused her to seriously consider how she thought about him, as well. If he wanted more than friendship, how would she respond? Was she interested? A small smile began to form at the edge of her mouth. Well, she might be. He was pretty good-looking, as far as that went. She loved talking to him and sharing teasing banter. It was just that she'd never really considered it before. After all, he was her friend.

And then there was the matter of the forty-year-old nobleman her mother was hinting would make a good match. She snorted audibly, then glanced up quickly to see if he had heard. The young man registered no response, and she returned to her thoughts. If it came between Señor Franco and Antoine, she would choose her friend any day. Hopefully, however, during this time of uncertainty, it wouldn't come to that.

xxxxxxx

"You drink coffee?" She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "How can you stand something that smells like it's burning?"

Antoine laughed. "It only smells like it's burning when it actually is, just like anything else. It's tasty, though. You want to try some?"

She stared at him like he'd grown another head. "No thanks. Enjoy your dirt drink."

"It doesn't taste like dirt!" the young man protested.

Raquel raised her eyebrows. "You're trying to tell me that the first time you tried it, you didn't think it tasted like dirt?"

He shook his head slowly, eyes wide and innocent. "I like it."

"Well, suit yourself," she muttered, though her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.

"I will," he replied, grinning.

They were sitting in a small café about two blocks from his house, chatting over a meal and, in Antoine's case, coffee. Raquel preferred her warm chocolate drink.

"Well, we're over halfway done with the painting," Antoine began, to change the topic. "In fact, I wanted to meet here to sort of celebrate the job well done so far."

"You've been doing all the work," the young woman returned around a mouthful of sandwich. "All I do is sit there."

"Oh, I know. But you've been very cooperative. A cooperative subject is imperative if the artist wants the painting to be their best."

She appeared to consider this, then smiled and lifted her mug. "To a job well done, then. May we end stronger than we began."

Antoine grinned, too, and also lifted his mug. "I'll second that. You're pleased with the piece?"

She nodded enthusiastically. "Very. And I look forward to seeing what it will look like when you're finished!"

The young man chuckled. "I hope you're not disappointed."

"I won't be," she responded, her tone wholeheartedly sincere.

They sat in silence for a few moments, each lost in thought and consuming their meal.

Abruptly, Antoine spoke, shattering the stillness between them. "Raquel?"

She glanced up to meet his eyes. "Yes?"

"We've talked about everything else, but—" Oh, heaven help me. "but what do you think about us?"

It was an inopportune moment for Raquel to have taken a sip, and she almost spluttered the liquid all over the table.

"Us?"

Thank you again for reading! Thoughts?