She remembered the very first time she saw Isaac's real smile.
They were at Colosso and the final round had just concluded. A warrior kneeled in front of Isaac, panting, grunting, with sweat collecting on his cheeks. She recalled, as she ran up the steps beside Garet and Ivan, seeing a look of wonder pass briefly over the man's face before he slouched and grumbled something filthy under his breath.
Isaac's back was turned to them. As they flew up the stairway jubilantly, he moved around slightly to regard them. The air hung still for a moment, and the crowds hushed, and then the sun was a gleaming halo behind his head. One of his arms slipped down and slapped the stone pavement, but he kept still somehow, and his eyes began to squint a little. They knew something was happening and slowed. He looked at them strangely, and the edges of his lips twitched. He was heaving; his whole body moved and shuddered in pain, and in his moment of triumph he started to collapse. But he held their gaze and his mouth parted, his lips came up over his teeth and he grinned dazzlingly.
And then he fainted.
That moment was preserved forever in her memory. It represented something about him that could not be corrupted or taken away. In his battle, alone, without his friends, he faced an enemy much bigger than himself. When he knew that he could conquer something, that was when he allowed himself a secret pleasure. She and Garet and Ivan had witnessed it; they treasured the incident.
He had let them experience a part of himself by smiling then. They knew his power and they respected him for it — it wasn't a trivial thing that they called him leader. Isaac had a way of setting people at ease. Elders were charmed by his youth and taken by his generosity. Youth admired his bravery and single-minded strength. Especially his companions recognized the light inside him that gave off little sparks of goodness.
So the next time he opened up... she knew that through the intensity of the situation Isaac perceived a miracle, and it awed her and made her jealous.
At the time, no one really paid attention to Isaac standing there. They didn't even take notice of themselves. Their eyes were all riveted on the edge of Venus Lighthouse, where Sheba had slipped and Felix had leaped. Although they vaguely realized that Felix committed an act of bizarre heroism, they couldn't seem to comprehend the plunge from such a height. As it was, the wind was battering them, their faces were growing numb from the cold; a strange and beautiful green light soared like a supernova of Psynergy nearby and the imperturbable lighthouse had been fractured unevenly into quarters. Yet even though the world was ending, they managed to speak.
Ivan, with his hair windswept and eyes wide with innocence, was the first to define and question the situation. "Felix didn't dive into the sea after her, did he?"
"I can't believe he did that from so high up!" Her voice was husky with shock. Mia held a hand to her heart.
"You idiot, Felix!" Garet punched the air. "I can't believe he said he'd light the other beacons."
That was when she noticed the odd look on Isaac's face. His expression was all twisted up, like someone had kicked him in the stomach and left him, and he very nearly looked like he was going to double over. The grief in his eyes faded out, though, and he seemed to understand Felix. Her breath caught in her throat when he smiled expansively, and she nearly gasped at the pain of not comprehending. It was enchanting to see him grin and be the only one, but it was a smile for a dear childhood friend, a furtive, fleeting thing of youth and clarity. She knew he was thinking of someone else, but it still touched her.
In the swift moment, Ivan's voice came out thickly, "We would have had to fight him if this hadn't happened..."
Her small insight into Isaac's mind gave Mia courage, and sympathy. She said slowly, "But he sacrificed himself to save Sheba." She paused and glanced at Isaac. "He's not like Saturos." He met her gaze, and nodded in agreement.
That was the second time she had ever seen him smile so.
As it was, Isaac was a serious young man, so it wasn't often that he laughed or expressed delight. When he did, his friends were thoroughly impressed, and encouraged the behavior. They knew that his lack of cheerfulness wasn't because of a moral burden so they didn't worry him about it, but it was nice all the same to witness his happiness. He was the kind of person whose attentions were endowed with a shy, thrilling magic.
And that perfect smile... It was gold among silver, and was something that they could all endeavor to see always... just once more.
The third time she saw it was, in her opinion, the most beautifully confused moment of her life.
They arrived at the Apojii Islands in a weary but excited state. Rumors circulated on the continents that told of a small tropical paradise, with wild and friendly natives and thousands of waterfalls. They found only a small, jovial village bordering Gaia Falls, and a neighboring island that housed a watery landscape.
The village was amiable, with an atmosphere of, if not boredom, self-importance. People of Apojii resided in short, sturdy huts, the long slats of wood sheltered by massive leaves — and the villagers were not unwilling to brush aside a long leaf-door, step into the doorway, and invite Isaac, Mia, Garet, and Ivan in. They were entertained by tales of foreigners sailing too near Gaia Falls and were often reminded of their inevitable demise. The villagers took a kind of perverse and morbid pride in telling about these deaths.
In exploring the village together, the four swatted away broad palm leaves, fighting their way through the tropical jungles. They were showered with phosphorescent bright greens, patches of dark emerald, and the occasional shaft of light... the luster and stickiness on their faces was as established as the general feeling of lively allure. They'd rub hands against their faces to find more sweat replacing itself on their cheeks, like the tenacious drops of rainwater in creased leaves. And the more steam they sucked in the clammier their lungs felt, though the muggy air couldn't be helped.
That first night, they stayed in the local Inn, sitting in comfort by the golden lamps and their transient flames. There were two high bunks in the room, providing a single bed for Mia, a shared one for Isaac and Ivan, and clean-swept floor for Garet. Discussing their plans with the relaxed intonation of travel-weary warriors, they set up a schedule for the next few days. Ivan declared loudly that he would be most productive investigating the beach, which was surprisingly accepted by his peers; Garet was to be put to work scouring the community for clues of Felix's whereabouts; Mia and Isaac were to explore the neighborhood attraction, Aqua Rock, for potential Psynergy. This decided, they promptly put out the lights.
Leaving Ivan to make sandcastles the following day, the more thoughtful half of the group sought Aqua Island. They sailed all through the morning, and arrived shortly.
She and Isaac were greeted by white sand sculpted into stone, and a row of grim, unseeing heads that the natives called "moai". They were lined up to intimidate the tourists, though the fifth one rocked and swayed indecisively. From their eyes came the creased, sunken lines of savage cheeks, and water poured perpetually from their mouths. The two treaded carefully across the wet labyrinth and followed the serpentine trail to a cliff. Scores of moai drooled a torrent of water on the staggered precipices, and Mia looked at Isaac to gauge his reaction. He shrugged and began to climb the chipped footholds.
It was well after noon by the time they made it to the top; in fact, the sun was steadily dipping westward. And there they seemed to come to somewhat of an impasse. After a more comprehensive search, they discovered an ambiguously tear-shaped cerulean rock, and when Mia cast Douse on it, a light rain started up. They found another nearby and repeated the action.
Isaac and Mia returned to a clear, reflective lake that they had passed earlier. The young woman stepped up to the edge, looked down into it — it was so transparent that she could to the very bottom of its depths, and the sheer blue was calming and sincere. With white borders to mirror light beneath, the spring gained deepness and angles, with the quiet images of stepping-stones across the top.
Isaac led the way, and when he crossed to the middle, there was a pulsing whirlpool and sparkles. He dropped into it.
Mia followed and found herself in a small, dim cave. She turned around and the azure water that ran across the wall fairly shimmered. A few steps led to a doorway, which revealed a contemplative Isaac. She stood silently at his side.
The two of them looked out across the room for a few minutes. Water, pure, crystalline, lapped gently at their platform, inviting and honest. More stepping-stones spotted the pool, though the path was broken in some places.
The Mercury Adept was about to go forward, but Isaac held his arm up and murmured, "Don't." She halted mid-step. He considered her with the absolute patience of a leader. "I have a feeling that we should leave this place undisturbed."
She nodded in acquiescence; he had been saying that a lot lately. Usually the entire group was there, and though they obeyed, funny glances were sent his way and maybe a few grumbles from Garet.
She and Isaac withdrew from Aqua Rock. When they emerged in the world, the sun had dived in the sky, and nighttime was nearing. Mia smiled appreciatively as Isaac affirmed that they deserved a rest. They set up a modest little camp by the pond and settled in to watch the colors in the sky fade.
"Isaac," Mia said quietly, watching the moon peer around a wraithlike shroud of gray clouds.
There was no response, but she knew he was listening.
"Isaac, I can't believe how far we've come."
A silent acknowledgment.
"You and I have been together for so long. It's been nice."
She could almost hear his timid, Yeah.
"We've done a lot. Like, we've stopped in so many towns, and met so many people... You even won Colosso once. Remember?"
"And we've come really close to catching Felix. I can imagine the day when we finally stop him, and show him that what he's doing is wrong."
Isaac turned away from her; she couldn't see his face in the moonlight any longer.
"Isaac, what was your hometown like?"
The silence was empty and filled with memories of nights staring at the sky like this, and sneaking past the priests, pretending to be the sun and the moon. "It was friendly. People there were cautious, but they liked travelers."
"Was it pretty?" Her eyes glistened.
She smiled. "What was it like?"
"Well, we lived near Mt. Aleph, so Vale was kind of hilly and rocky." His arms left the warmth of the blankets, and she could see the black outlines of his hands making points. "The weather was moderate, not like Imil. The air was always cool because we were in the mountains."
"That sounds beautiful, Isaac."
"Good night, Isaac."
"Good night, Mia."
When the sun rose, Mia found that the spot beside her was empty. She looked around, and though the stone was rosy with the sunrise's reflection, there was not an Isaac to be seen.
Clutching her robe around her — the air was still humid, but not quite so hot — she staggered out across the stony ground. No Isaac. She went across the lake, no Isaac there. She made her way down one of the natural ladders of jutting rock, carefully gripping the edges. Mia squinted at the moai's waterfalls, bathed in red light.
A dark figure stood within one. She trudged toward it, running her hand sleepily over her cheek. The air smelled of minerals, earth, and the ocean. As she neared, she realized that this was a personal scene. The landscape around her blurred blue and the cascade slowed to a gleaming ice sculpture. The person inside didn't move. She knew it was Isaac, knew it with all her heart and loved him for it.
When she trailed closer, invading his solitude, she felt no guilt for it, just a blurred longing to be near him, like a line of direction that had been smudged but still hypnotized and commanded. She got near enough to him that she could tell that his back was turned. She continued to ghost forward. She was behind him a few paces. Water came down all around him slowly, running over all his body and dangling from his fingers and clothes. His hair was gleaming and his scarf was positively gold, and the little diamonds of light that shone on his back sparkled. His clothes looked violet and dark blue from the wetness. He just stood and let the stream course over him, and she imagined that he had closed his eyes, and that serenity was passing down him.
He finally turned to face her. He put a hand up to shield his eyes — the flow came down in a watery curtain around the sides, and he stared at her. Then he stepped out of the waterfall. "Mia, I have something to say to you." His voice sounded unused.
"Good morning, Isaac." She blinked with heavy eyes, wondering if the person in front of her was a dream or not. The hand on her shoulder wasn't a dream.
"Mia." He was looking right at her. "I think I understand something."
"Mmm, yes?" She was too busy focusing on the clear drops that rolled down his nose and eyelashes.
"I've figured out why we can leave this place alone. Because we don't have to fight. We've already won this battle." And then Isaac appeared to be content, and he lowered his head.
Mia let out a delightful laugh uncomprehendingly. "That's wonderful."
"Yeah." When he looked up, he did something that she didn't expect.
Mia felt all the blood rush out of her face — it was one of the true smiles. With his face lit up like that, she believed he could charm the stars right out of the sky. She took his arms to make sure he was real, and gazed at his face and memorized every feature as if she were going to forget it all if she looked away; she didn't fidget when he looked right back. And then she felt the full weight of the honor, and was humbled and gratified and nearly burst into tears that she was the one he was staring at.
He wasn't smiling because of her, of course, but that's what she thought and he sensed this. Isaac hugged her, feeling her arms come around him, too, and soaked in the feeling of an embrace in the hazy morning twilight, and the half-dawn unreality.
When she dozed peacefully against his shoulder, he stepped back into the moai's glittering waterfall and regarded the rising golden sun.