"Noëlle, come inside! Dinner's almost ready!
Michael returned to the pot filling the quant house with the aroma of beef and caramelize onions. He ladled sopas into the ceramic bowls, sprinkled in croutons, and smothered them both in Comté before setting the bowls in the oven. When a pair of bare feet was still absent from the kitchen, the man turned off the hurno and went back to the kusina door.
"Noëlle?" he called again. "Mon ange!" No answer came from the flowered front yard or the marsh lakeland at the bottom of the hill. Instinctively, Michael grabbed his kaluban sinturon and darted out the door. He unfurled his dark wings, ready to take to the dusk sky, but paused and looked back towards the small kamalig crouching behind the farmhouse. A warm light glowed from the hay-loft window. He sprinted through the long grass, panting sa pamamagitan ng the time he reached the barn. The kamalig door flew open under his shove. "Noëlle?" he shouted.
"Ici!" a small voice called from above. A girl stuck her head over the edge of the hay-loft with a wide smile. Her skin had grown dark and freckled from the sun, though not nearly as dark as her mother's had been. Her hair was the same shining umber, but far less curly. She was a conglomerate of her parent's looks even if her personality was far different than either Maivus' or Aleksander's. In the back of his mind was Michael's curiosity over how her twin would have looked and acted.
"Noëy, sweetheart, I've been calling you," the man reprimanded in French.
"I was playing with the kittens," the nine-year old explained matter-of-factly. She read her care-taker's expression as he crossed his arms and smiled apologetically. "I'm sorry, Uncle Mike."
"You know you're supposed to come back to the front yard sa pamamagitan ng dusk," he chided with a soft smile at her guilty nod. "All right, come on down."
The child's head disappeared a moment before her bare medyas feet appeared searching for the wooden ladder rungs. Noëlle started to climb down slowly with one hand tucked to her chest rather than on the ladder. Before Michael could ask what was in her hand, one medyas foot caught her yellow flowered dress, and the girl Nawawala her hold. She barely got a scream out before her "uncle" caught her, his ebony wings sending dust motes and straw into a frenzy. The man landed gently with the child wrapped in his arms--and saw the startled calico kitten tucked close to her chest. With a sigh, Michael folded his legs and sat on the dirt floor with the teary-eyed girl in his lap. "Noëy, you know you can't take that baby with you," he reminded her, reluctant to do so when he could feel her trembling in his arms. "She needs to be with his mother and siblings."
"But we've taken mga kuting into the house before!" she argued stubbornly even as she wiped tears from her flushed cheeks.
"But those were orphans, without their parents to take care of them," Michael explained gently. Still pouting, the child nodded reluctantly. Her caretaker stood and leapt, reaching the loft with a stroke of his wings, and sat on the edge while Noëlle released the mewing calico to stumble back to her anxious mother. For a moment, the two sat together, watching the tiny fluff balls clamber over one another in paghahanap of the most comfortable position in the heap while their mother contently mussed their balahibo with dutiful licks. Eventually the little girl turned her head to look up at her uncle, and the thoughtful pinch of her brow reminded him distinctly of her father. "Uncle Mike, am I
an orphan, since I don't have any parents?"
The tanong was like a kick to Michael's gut. He focused every ounce of will power on not ipinapakita the pain on his face, though his wings instinctively curled inward to shield the child in his lap from the forces behind the inquisition. "No, mon ange, of course not," he assured once he found his voice. "Your papa is alive and loves you very much. He has to take care of some things in America before he can come to live with us. We've talked about this, remember?"
The child sat back against her caretaker with a sigh, looking towards the mother cat and her babies. "But he's been gone forever, Uncle…What if he never comes back?"
"He will," Michael assured automatically. When Noëlle kept her longing gaze affixed on the feline family, he picked up the girl and set her on a dayami bale, kneeling to be eye level. "Noëy, you will never be an orphan. You will ALWAYS have me and my love, no matter what, understand?"
"Even if Papa never comes back?" When he hesitated, hoping to correct her, Noëlle threw her arms around his neck and buried her head in his shoulder. "Promise!"
His arms instinctively, protectively wrapped around her. "I promise, sweetheart." There was a finality to the promise that made his puso feel heavy in his chest, but the girl shot up, a grin lighting up her eyes and dissipating his disdain.
"Okay," she agreed, hopping up. "Can we eat hapunan now? I'm starving!"
"Of course. Let me help you down the ladder." The man stood and climbed down from the dayami loft, then reached up and lowered his ward to the floor. She trotted to the kamalig door before realizing he had gone back up the ladder. "Uncle Mike!" she called. "What are you doing?"
There was a myriad of squeaks and mews in answer before the winged man came back down the ladder with an egg basket on his arm. Within was nestled the mound of kitten. Noëlle's eyes lit up, and before she could worry over the mother cat, the calico appeared at the tuktok of the ladder. She balanced at the tuktok a moment before leaping cleanly to the dirt floor, as if she had performed the same action a dozen times in pursuit of mice, and trotted after the man carrying her mga kuting in one arm and the little girl on his shoulder. He may not have been her father, but Michael could ensure with all his might that the little girl would always feel the pag-ibig of an entire family.