Crossing perpendicular to the flow of traffic to reach the shrine where Gabi told Neasa to meet him was difficult thanks to all of the people heading into the heart of the Dnipro region for the festival. At least Isaac showed some confidence in weaving between the groups of pedestrians so it was less frustrating than hunting alongside him. Gabi repeated his desire to meet with the tamer who was so supportive of Neasa and that was irritating to the young Elf. Isaac wasn’t supportive, he simply wasn’t trying to enslave her. It wouldn’t take too long to say, ‘this is him,’ and then be on their way so Neasa was going along with it. With one last dash they were free of the crowds and had an unobstructed approach to the clearing full of offerings.

Isaac wasn’t sure what to expect from this meeting. Neasa returning to their camp and informing him that she experienced a pleasant, chance encounter with another human was unusual enough. He was keeping his speculation to a minimum in order to avoid creating any false assumptions. One thing he wasn’t surprised by was the appearance of the boy. Ash blonde and fair skinned was a common set of traits in the Eastern half of the Sapphire League. He looked younger than Isaac in his features but he was a bit taller. His eyes were very bright, frosty teal and the joyful arch of his eyelids let a great deal of light reflect off their surface. That was a rather exciting feature.

The boy focused on Isaac’s face for just long enough for Isaac to recognize that he was being studied when a wide grin spread across the boy’s face and he shouted out, “Isaac! Mandy, look, it’s Isaac the wizard.”

The Oddtits wearing the brightly patterned shawl focused on the young man her master directed her to and she smiled brightly and sang out in a small voice, “Wizard!” This was enough for a rapid series of associations to spring up from Isaac’s memories and he recognized Mandy the Oddtits. He had cast the Penumbra cantrip on her while they were walking through these same farmlands during his first day of academy. She’d been with a different boy though, Gabby. No, it wasn’t Gabby…

“Oh, Mandy, um… It’s good to see you again,” Isaac said with acceptable confidence. How did this boy know him though? Also, “What happened to Gabi?”

Both the Oddtits and the boy she was accompanying looked confused for a moment and then the boy burst out laughing. He stopped quickly but there was still a lot of mirth in his voice. “Oh no, I’ve been caught.” He pulled out an electronic device, one much more bulky and weathered than the one Isaac was provided by the academy, and made a few quick gestures on the screen. The boy’s face turned bright red. “Oh geeze, I forgot this was when I was caught up in that fad… Oh well… Isaac,” the boy’s facial structure shifted as if the bones had suddenly become soft and malleable. It was now wider and rounder with distantly spaced eyes and disproportionately large ears. It was a face Isaac recognized. “I am Gabi. Gabriel Titto Vorona. This was me imitating a cartoon character for a few weeks and I had no idea we’d meet again.” Gabi’s face slimmed up and its quirky extremities became subdued. “I wasn’t trying to trick you, honest.”

Isaac could remember feeling like he was ignoring an obvious detail when he had first met Gabi. Now he realized what it was. He’d stopped focusing on Gabi because Gabi noticed and Isaac felt awkward staring. That must have been enough for him to not recognize the truth. “Oh, no. No problem. I’m just glad there’s a reason I couldn’t recognize you.”

Gabi laughed again. It was bright and boisterous and Gabi once more quickly suppressed the outburst before responding. “Yeah, yeah I’ve got a really difficult face to remember. So… I’m sure you’ve got questions. It’s fine to ask.”

Neasa blurted out her question first, “You’re not human?!”

“I was born human, and a boy. There was an accident when I was younger. I’ve got a lot of metamorphic pokegirl blood and I went through externally induced thresholding. But I became a Titto and just assumed the form I was used to. A boy. It took years to figure it out.”

Isaac still wasn’t putting together the whole story. “You said you lived here with your family though.”

“The Vorona are my family.”

Something clicked in Isaac’s head. “That’s why you said you have so many sisters.”

“Yeah!” Gabi looked delighted Isaac had made the connection. “I’m one of the few little brothers in the entire corps, so I get a little spoiled. The farm’s owned by the Wronski family and is one of the houses for pokekits who qualified to enlist. It’s hard work but safer than the ranches can be.” Gabi stood on his toes to peer over Isaac’s head.

Isaac was annoyed because if he hadn’t screwed up incorporating into the flow of time then he probably wouldn’t be the shorter of the two. Did that even matter in regards to a Titto though? The breed of shape shifters could grow up to six times larger or smaller as part of their transformation capabilities. Was it acceptable to think of Gabi as a Titto if he went around in the form of a young man?

Gabi disrupted Isaac’s contemplation by asking, “Where’s Jin?” His eyebrows dropped at the corners and the delight on his face receded into concern. “Nothing happened to her, right?”

“No,” Isaac hastily answered. Gabi seemed honestly hurt by considering that Jin could have been lost to him somehow. “She’s back at the camp. Neasa said you wanted to meet me and then I was going to go back after you two headed out.”

Gabi bounced up off his heels again to look in the direction Isaac and Neasa had come from. “Well let’s go get her, we can all go into town together. It’ll be more fun!” Gabi started to march that way and the three had no recourse but to follow.

Neasa darted up to walk with Gabi so she could ask, “You’re allowed to live like a human? Completely free?”

“Hm? Oh, I mean, kinda?” Gabi fell silent and pensive for a second; a demeanor that didn’t suit him. “I might get in trouble if I go off by myself somewhere because there’s always awful people who don’t care about the law. I always figured those places are no good to be in anyway.”

Neasa briefly put her hand where she slung her bow, but it wasn’t there. It was left unstrung with Elena for safekeeping. Neasa would need to rely on the plants if fighting broke out. Gabi was talking about men who existed in the abstract, anyway. “And it’s by joining this Vorona corps that you’re given this freedom? Aren’t you just a slave to them?”

Gabi nearly tripped over his own feet when he heard the word ‘slave’ but adroitly regained his balance. “Woah, slave… I never thought about it that way. I mean, legally they do own me but I signed the contract and the contract also requires them to allow me to resign if I find a human I trust enough to belong to or if I serve long enough to earn manumission. And really, at the Vorona corps we believe freedom isn’t just being able to do what you want. It also means accepting the consequences for what you do and holding yourself accountable. If you don’t, you’re really just a smart feral. I guess it’s all about teaching us to be our own masters.” Gabi slyly winked to the Elf walking beside him. He dropped his voice so it wouldn’t carry, “And helping us find humans willing to help us out. You were lucky to run into Isaac. I could tell when I met him he was a good one.”

Neasa’s back muscles bunched but she resisted balling her fists. She was lucky to run into Isaac but not because of anything special about him. It was because he was living with Elena and Neasa could trust her. Then the Elf thought about something and asked, “Is it difficult to find someone to,” she scowled before borrowing Gabi’s terminology, “help you? Because you go around as a… male.”

Gabi’s passive smile completely disappeared. “I’m still underage and luckily I’m not an early bloomer. It’s actually too easy, in kind of a scary way. The older Vorona boys, as rare as we are, warn us about it.” With no more than a short rest the farmboy Titto’s sunny disposition returned. “And no one I need to worry about comes around these parts of Dnipro. You walk by five fields, four of them are properties owned by the Wronskis or Vorona.” Gabi stopped walking because he noticed Neasa had dropped back behind him. “What’s wrong?”

Neasa gestured towards the massive and richly dyed yurt. “We’re here.”

Gabi’s jaw dropped open from how large his laughing smile became. “Woah, no way! This is Isaac’s?!”

“No,” a sultry and low woman’s voice slithered into his ear, “it’s mine. Isaac is staying with me.” A slate-blue skinned infernal dressed for city business stepped around the side of the dwelling. She was incredibly tall and powerful looking.

“Oh, sorry ma’am. You have a lovely yurt.”

Astoreth smiled in a way that suggested to Isaac she was thinking about something most people would consider unethical. “Thank you, what a delightful young man you are.”

Gabi blushed and rubbed the back of his neck but otherwise was unfazed by the towering predator licking her lips. “Ah-haha, thank you. I’ve never been called ‘delightful’ before.” Other figures emerged before the interaction could escalate and Gabi recognized two of them. “Jin! And…,” Gabi’s expression flickered to one of concentration, “Elena. She was Isaac’s legal guardian.” He muttered that last bit mostly to himself before counting all of the pokegirl heads and then turning his attention towards Isaac. Gabi didn’t say anything but Isaac caught a flicker of an expression, a goofy relaxed smile with smug acknowledgement in his eyes.

Gabi then turned back to all of the gathered females and clearly stated, “Hello everyone, my name is Gabi and this is my girl Mandy,” Gabi pulled the Oddtits in close to himself by her waist and she artfully looped her arms over Gabi’s shoulders and posed against him. She even kicked up one of her heels like the heroine of an ancient film. “If you’d like, I’ll be showing Neasa and Isaac around the festival today and you can all join in as well.”

Mandy let go of her male and gracefully and humbly bowed to them. “We would be happy to celebrate with you.”

Jin set off one of her pyrotechnic smiles. “Hey! You speak in full sentences now, that’s awesome.”

Mandy’s deep and dark green skin flushed even darker but her cheeks dimpled prettily and she responded with crisp and cheery annunciation. “Thank you.”

Isaac suddenly remembered, in a vague abstract way, an instant where Astoreth pressed her lips so close to his ear she was nearly chewing on the lobe as she spoke. At the same time the infernal’s telepathic voice entered his mind. “You should introduce us.” The infernal’s eyes were narrowed to slits with an approving arch to them as she sent the psychic message to her man.

Isaac’s habit was to withdraw from being the center of social situations but in this case it was his role to play. Mostly because he was the one who knew everyone already and also he was the figure this current social group revolved around. Everyone was already split up into their respective groups as well so it was really only a matter of going down the two lines. “Well, like he said, this is Gabi and Mandy. I met them a few months ago. They live on one of the farms here. Gabi, Mandy, you’ve already met Jin and Neasa. Then there is Elena,” the Grandelf dipped her head in greeting, “Chandrakanta,” the Megami’s low curtsy gave a deep view down her cleavage, “Astoreth,” Astoreth pressed her lips together in a tight smile and shifted her posture to be slightly more open before twitching her head in a nod, “and Oleksandra.” Oleksandra was watching everything with curious uncertainty. Her only reaction was to focus on Isaac when he spoke her name and then Gabi and Mandy when she discerned they were the subject of Isaac’s attention.

Gabi’s smile was as bright and wide as it ever was. “Wow, you went from one girl to si- five, in less than a year. That’s incredible.”

Everyone but Neasa and Isaac accepted the assumption in good humor. Isaac floundered to deny the misattributed admiration. “Oh, no. Only Jin and Oleksandra are my girls.” Chandrakanta frowned theatrically and placed her hands over her heart as if she had suffered a wound there. “Elena, Chandrakanta, and Astoreth all knew each other before Elena took me in and…” How the hell could he explain away their involvement with him? “They… they’ve been watching out for me. Neasa is staying with Elena so that’s why she’s here as well.”

Gabi studied Isaac’s face longer than he would if he accepted Isaac’s statements at face value. Gabi made the same sort of sly, knowing, and jealous expression he had when first seeing all of the gathered pokegirls but merely responded with, “Oh, I see I see.” He clapped his hands together and took a long step towards the city. “Well, come on, we don’t want to waste any more of the day here, there’s a celebration to get to!”

The main road into town was a river and all of the other farm paths were the tributaries. People flowed and converged into one solid stream of humanity and it made Isaac feel crowded and unsafe. He wished the pace would pick up so he didn’t have to stay pressed into this throng anymore. There was just too much noise and motion to pay attention to and Isaac could never not pay attention to masses of unknown people. He just didn’t trust them enough not to, it was part of his own personal dysfunction. It made attending large public gatherings difficult for him.

Having everyone else helped his anxiety though. His pokegirls, unofficial guardians, and a few acquaintances served as a buffer between him and the unknown. The presence of the group and its offer of security probably was also helping Neasa and Oleksandra. The two pokegirls born and raised in the wilds weren’t fairing much better, if Oleksandra could be considered to have received an upbringing at all. The Battle Angel was on full alert with her ears stretched as high as they could as they swiveled constantly to focus on sounds. The Elf was trying to make herself smaller and hidden in the shadows of her fellows. Everyone else was in spirits that matched the bright and warm colors of all of the ornaments though, even if Astoreth’s good cheer could only be deciphered through the delta bond with her.

If the roads leading into town were decorated then the city itself was plastered. Wreaths and sheaves of grain stems and flowers, autumn colored banners, and bright, ripe gourds piled in bushel baskets and apples spilling from cornucopia. The majority of people were dressed in traditional Slavic attire, filling the streets with bleached white, rich black, and vivid red outfits. Everything converged in front of a massive old church built to evoke the architectural splendor of ancient Byzantium. The building was maintained through the Thousand Gods Heritage Foundation and kept open for community use.

The northern crusades, communists, and the cataclysm of pokegirls entering the world had all changed the traditions of the harvest festivals but never erased it. The agricultural secretary of Dnipropetrovsk came out to speak first in order to express his gratitude to all of the farmers in the oblast. The gathering was large enough that the group Gabi led into town could only hear through the speakers that were set up along the streets. The bureaucrat wanted to keep those he served happy today though so he kept his speech short and focused. For a politician.

The tradition of Dozhinki and all related harvest festivals was one of recognition for the farmers. With the competitive nature of pokegirls it had transformed into awarding farms that excelled in productivity or set themselves apart in some novel manner. Gabi exploded with cheers when the largest turnip received its ribbon. Mandy didn’t hesitate to follow his lead but the rest only joined in when he turned to them to shout, “That’s our farm.” Isaac couldn’t remember what the estate name had been, he was keeping his attention on Oleksandra’s behavior out of the corner of his eye. She was staying calm, probably because he was. She was fixing her attention on him every time the crowd broke into applause.

Once the final prize had been given the bureaucratic secretary invited everyone to the community feast. As the column of people started to move again it forked in front of the church steps and the flow of bodies was split left or right. Wooden picnic tables with white cloth over their tops and benches were set up along the crossroads and volunteers were breaking the condensed foot traffic up into distinct groups and leading them to a table blocks away in order for everyone to be seated efficiently. There was a practiced procesional feel to the slow but steady movement.

Every table had a multitude of pitchers and pans containing fruit toppings of every type of berry that was grown or grew naturally in the region along with other syrups, sauces, and creams. Every volunteer server carried a platter laden with pancakes that were being fried inside the church. Thick and hearty potato pancakes, thin pancakes resembling crepes along or rolled around savory fillings, and some pancakes closer to what Isaac associated with the food type made from buckwheat or plain wheat flour. He wasn’t worried about Oleksandra acting unpredictably anymore. She didn’t seem to have any intent beyond devouring pancakes. “Oleksandra,” she looked up when she heard Isaac speak her name, “don’t eat too much, okay?”

Her right ear flopped to the side as she tilted her head ever so slightly. “How much is too much?”

Isaac tried to think how the feral born might understand this easiest. “Don’t eat so much you can’t run.”

Oleksandra’s ears dropped back and she stretched upright, her sudden alertness putting several other nearby pokegirls on edge as well. “Do we need to flee? Is there danger?”

“No, no I don’t think we will need to run but we can also have more pancakes later.”

The Battle Angel settled back down on the bench slowly and once her weight was firmly planted her ears popped back up. She smiled at her fork before stabbing another wedge of fluffy pastry stack. “Pancakes.” An observer might find her simple, but she was also eating with silverware for the very first time based solely on studying the objects and observing how the others utilized them.

Isaac hadn’t thought much about it but he felt the traces of awe from across his bonds with Elena and the gushing admiration from Chandrakanta. He’d received a message from Astoreth earlier, maybe he could send one as well. That would allow him to ask his question without having to include those outside of the delta bond web who would no context to follow along anyway. He focused on the two targets for his message and tried to do exactly what he felt Astoreth do, unintentionally loading the same intimate subtext with the thought.

Elena brought her hand up and pressed her napkin to her lips to suppress the inappropriate sound she was about to let escape. Her other hand gripped the edge of the bench between her knees to catch herself after suddenly feeling too weak to resist gravity on her own. Astoreth had been in the middle of taking a drink and, fully understanding the context of what had transpired thanks to her psychic insights and telepathic rubbernecking, sprayed cider out of her nose when she shut her mouth to not spit the drink out in laughter.

Isaac was oblivious to what exactly he had done to the Grandelf. He only knew that he tried to send a simple telepathic query, ‘What are you two impressed by?’ Now Elena was aroused, using the richest definition of the word he could imagine. Angry, embarrassed, and nearly overwhelming desire bordering on a need, all directed at him. And extremely frustrated that Isaac had no idea why.

The Grandelf coughed into her napkin before folding it up and setting it on the table as she stood. “I’m going back to the tent,” was her curt announcement before she teleported away.

Astoreth stood up as well. She had cider laced with mucus running down the front of her jacket and exposed skin. “Good thing I didn’t wear my best… I need to get out of these things so I will go help her out.” She grinned wickedly at Isaac. “Well done.” The infernal teleported away as well. Isaac had foolishly awakened a terrifying creature and Astoreth was excited for the rare chance to contend with her.

“What happened? What did I do?” Isaac asked Chandrakanta, the only one present who could still possibly answer.

Even the Megami was feeling giddy excitement and flushed a lovely rose color. “Oh, it’s not my place to say. This is between you and Elena.” Isaac could feel a guilty sense of conflict in Candi’s heart. Not a very deep one, but the issue was putting her loyalty to Elena and her loyalty to Isaac at odds with one another.

Oleksandra wasn’t very invested in the behavioral mystery, but she was interested in one particular outcome from it. “May I have her pancakes?” Much to the rabbit-eared steel type’s pleasure, the pancakes continued to flow for nearly an hour longer. Then it was time to fry up the final one, the last part of Dnipro’s Dozhinki tradition. They couldn’t see it well from their table but a gigantic griddle was brought out and an Iron Chef fried up an especially broad and flat pancake that they then held up like a sheet. The agricultural secretary was brought up to the stage and everyone gathered erupted in cheers when he stood behind the upright cake and couldn’t be seen at all.

Gabi explained the arcane practice to the guests. “It used to be that the last of the wheat to be gathered was used to make that pancake and if it was big enough for the guest of honor to hide behind it, it meant we’d have a good harvest the upcoming year as well. It’s really hard not to be able to make the pancake big enough though, with an Iron Chef, so now it’s just fun.” He looked towards Neasa. “I think we should have made you the guest of honor and then the pancake she made might actually taste good, since it could be so much smaller.”

Neasa had absolutely no idea how to respond to the joke so she started to get a little angry out of habit. “I am not small. For an Elf.”

Gabi put his hands up to wave in front of himself defensively and laughed before responding. “Haha, no. No you’re not but you are smaller than the secretary is. Especially around the middle. Anyway,” Gabi announced loudly for the sake of everyone seated, “now they’ve got a band set up in the park and there’s going to be a huge dance in just a few minutes. Hurry up and finish!”

Isaac was too heavy from eating and too awkward from his history of relative isolation to feel excited about dancing so he offered up a convenient excuse. “Oh, I don’t know how to dance.”

For most people that would be enough to leave the wallflower alone. However, Jin liked this particular wallflower and she also liked dancing. “Come on Isaac, you need to learn how to dance.” She jumped up and tugged on his sleeve as she spoke.

“You do need to learn how to dance.” Neasa said with a condescending smile. Isaac was so surprised to see her smile that he didn’t really process the teasing.

“I do not know how to dance either,” Oleksandra stated around another forkful of pancakes. She’d slowed down drastically but was determined to finish her plate.

“I would love,” Chandrakanta articulated every sound in the word ‘love’, dramatically and intentionally, emphasized every lip and tongue movement, “to dance with you, Isaac.” She stared deeply into his eyes and Isaac felt like he was suddenly swimming in supportive emotion. He couldn’t refuse now.

(-[|]-) End 8.2 (-[|]-)