Left to his own devices, he might never have left that hill.
It had taken almost all of his strength just to drag himself over to the body cooling in the dirt and take the sword from it. The city was so close, but all Cloud could do was stare blankly at it as he slowly bled out, too weak and his mind still too blurred to move even an inch towards it.
He was still there when she arrived.
Her footsteps were so soft that he didn't even hear her approaching, might not have heard here even if he'd been entirely in his right mind and able to concentrate on his surroundings. He only knew she was there when she settled right beside him and gently touched his hand. "Are you all right?" she asked, then shook her head quickly. "I'm sorry, that was a silly question. But you're still alive, aren't you."
Slowly, with a great amount of effort, he managed to pull himself together enough to first blink slowly at her, then nod his head.
She smiled at him warmly, her eyes soft. Nobody had looked at him like that in... in... ever, maybe. He wasn't sure, memories seemed to squirm out of his mind and flee when he tried to reach for them. "I knew it," she said. Her hands skimmed over his body, finding his wounds and brushing lightly over them. Somehow they seemed to hurt less at her touch. "Do you think you could move, if I helped you? I could have helped more, once, but I'm afraid I've gotten weaker as I've gotten older and I don't have a medical kit with me to bandage you here. If you only had a few cuts I could heal them, but with wounds this bad there isn't much that I could do. We'll either need to get you to the city, where a doctor can see you, or I'll need to leave you alone while I go to the city and back to get supplies."
"I... think..." he managed to mumble, and slowly began to push himself up. As soon as his shoulders were off the ground her arm slid beneath them and she helped him up. There was surprising strength in her arm. He hardly needed to hold himself up at all, when he slumped against her she took all his weight with ease, and then lifted the Buster Sword with no trouble besides.
"It's been longer than you'd believe since the last time I held a sword," she told him companionably, like she hoped that chattering like everything was normal might take his mind off his pain. "I had the spheres for it, once, but I left them at home. Far far away."
She didn't look like anyone who'd lived in Nibelheim before he'd left, and since she seemed to be about his age he should remember. She didn't look Wutaian either, from what he knew. "Rocket Town?" he asked, his voice a tiny bit stronger than it had been. Somehow being near her, leaning right up against the numbing coolness of her body, made it a little easier to keep thoughts in his head long enough to voice them.
"Hmm?" she tilted her head to look at him out of the corner of her eye.
"Somewhere far away? Other side of the world."
"Oh! Oh, no. Further than that." Her arm twisted from where it was wrapped around him, until she could touch his hand briefly. "Don't worry about trying to figure it out. It's not a place you'll have heard of."
Moving in to Midgar was a slow and painful process, but she kept talking all through it, doing her best to keep his mind off it. She talked about traveling the world, on foot and ships and through the sky, though many of the landmarks she talked about seeing were things he'd never even heard of. She taught him scraps of a strange language--"Cgo, that's the sky, and, mm... cih is the sun."--making him repeat each word until he had the pronunciation exactly right. She only stopped speaking to him once they were in the slums and she needed to pause to ask every person they came across if they knew where to find a doctor, but those pauses were only moments long at a time. And gradually the steady stream of her words made his mind feel more solid, less like a pile of mush heaped into his skull, and a human being began to emerge from the wreck that had been left to die on the hilltop.
But somehow the opposite seemed to be happening to her. Her voice never wavered and when he looked right at her she seemed fine, but when he turned his head she seemed to flicker and shimmer out of the corner of his eye. He thought that it must be him, that it had to be; everything was so hard for him to hold onto that it wouldn't be much more of a jump for his eyes to start playing tricks on him. But he couldn't keep believing it when they reached the Sector Seven train station and she slumped to the ground, lowering him to the steps.
"I'm sorry," she told him, and sounded like she meant it to the bottom of her heart. "I can't go with you any further. I thought we'd find a doctor before I needed to leave, but this place... all the reactors... I can't explain why, but it's not somewhere I can be for long. But I'm sure this far into the city there are enough people that one of them will be sure to stop and help."
He didn't get upset that she was leaving. People always seemed to leave him. But before she could go he grabbed her wrist. "Wait. Who...?"
Though he didn't finish the question, she understood. "My name is Yuna," she told him with a smile. She pressed her hand to his cheek and looked him in the eyes, like she was searching for some sign that it would be all right for her to go in his face. Her eyes were surprisingly bright for someone without the glow of mako in them; very blue, he thought at first, then a moment later very green. His mind wasn't yet clear enough to put together the conflicting information and come up with the right answer, so he just concentrated on the way her hand was soft and cool, and pain seemed to flee from the spot where it was held against him. "I'll try to come visit you soon, if I can. I don't know how long it will take me to gather up enough energy to get near the city again. These reactors would drain me dry, if I let them. I don't like doing it this way, but I need to get away quickly." She leaned forward and kissed him lightly on the forehead. "Please get better soon. I wish that I was still strong enough to do more for you. Good-bye."
He thought he must have drifted away then, to the dark place that kept dragging at his mind, because the next thing he knew she was gone and in her place the air was filled with nothing but the glimmer of mako lights, usually only ever seen over an open mako stream. Before he even had a chance to wonder at their presence they were drifting away on the wind, swept high into the air and out of town.
It had been five years to the day since Aerith's death. After so long the pain was finally starting to dull. He'd brought flowers for her from the church in Sector Five to the City of the Ancients, a tradition he'd kept every year, and for the first time when he watched them float away on the lake he was able to think back on the happy times they'd spent together instead of focusing on how he'd failed her and how Sephiroth had stolen her light from the world.
He should have been surprised when she sat down beside him, but somehow he wasn't. It felt like she was an old friend who'd only stepped out for a moment and whose return he'd been waiting for, not like she was someone he'd only known for less than an hour half-a-decade ago. A person that he hadn't even known he remembered until the second he saw her face and suddenly it jumped out of the jumbled memories of that day.
"You look much better now," she said happily. "I'm so glad!"
"Are you an Ancient, then?" he asked, and immediately felt like that was a stupid way to greet her. But he couldn't help it, he needed to know. "Nobody else should know about this place, and you remind me of one I used to know. I thought she was the last." It was true, he realized. Though their personalities weren't the same from what little he knew of Yuna--he couldn't imagine this girl ever trying to stick him in a dress--the way just her presence was enough to make his head feel a little clearer and his heart more calm reminded him of Aerith. Or maybe Aerith had reminded him of her, back when his mind was so twisted up that his memory of Yuna had been lost with his memories of Zack, and of everything that had happened connected with him.
But she laughed at the question, and shook her head. "You don't need to be one of the Cetra to know their city. It used to be the most important place in the world, years ago, and it's still one of the most beautiful. Records about it still exist, if you know the right places to look." She dipped her hand into the water, making little ripples spread across the surface. "Important places always seem to be in the North, I don't know why that is. Even when they fall they shouldn't be completely forgotten, so I come sometimes to remember it."
He frowned a little, trying to work out what that meant. "So you're an archeologist? Or a historian?"
"I'm a traveler, that's all. It's all I've been for a very long time." She drew her legs up to her chest and rested her cheek on her knee, her head turned so she could look at him. "You must have become one too, after I left you. I tried to go see how you were doing after a few months, but by then I couldn't find anyone who recognized your description and the sector I left you in was gone so I couldn't pick up a trail there. Mind you, I didn't have your name and 'he's a boy with glowing eyes' turned out to not be as distinguishing a feature as I'd expected when you're in the home of Soldier."
"'A boy'?" he repeated. "I'm older than you are." It was a little surprising to realize. In his memory he was sure that she had looked almost the same age as him, but now she was clearly younger, maybe twenty at best.
She laughed like he'd just told a fabulous joke, and asked, "Am I?"
And suddenly he wasn't so sure. Maybe it had just been the way the light struck her face before but suddenly she looked older, much closer to his age. Maybe even a little older. "I'm... sorry," he said, blinking at her. "I thought..."
"It's okay. I like being younger. Everything important that I've done in my life happened while I was still a teenager; it's a little sad to hit your peak at nineteen."
"You dragged me down off that hill to get help. That's important to me," he told her, then finally took her earlier hint and added, "My name's Cloud."
"Cloud," she repeated, then bowed slightly from her sitting position, her hands forming an odd empty circle in the air. "I'm glad that we're finally fully introduced."
He frowned at her again. "Where are you from? You never said, and I've never seen anyone do this before." He copied the gesture she'd made while bowing.
"Didn't I tell you that you wouldn't have heard of it?"
"Try me." Maybe she'd mistaken him for someone who'd never seen much of the world, though just the fact that he was in the Ancient's city should have disproven that, but by now he was pretty sure that he knew every little scrap of land in the world.
"Well, if you'd really like to know, I'm from the island of Besaid. In Spira. You don't need to say anything, I know you wouldn't have heard of them."
He had to admit that she was right, which didn't even seem possible. "I didn't think there was anywhere left I hadn't been to. Is that near Mideel?"
She shook her head, smiling like she was enjoying a private joke, but she didn't seem at all mocking when she said, "Don't worry, nobody who isn't from there knows about it. They used to, but it's a lot like this city; people have forgotten all about it because it's been out of contact with the world for a long time." She leaned back, staring off into nothing, and added, "I could tell you a story from there, if you'd like. Then you'd know a little about it."
"If you want," he said, looking at her. She looked a little sad, he thought, and he wondered how long it had been since she'd been home to her island that to world had forgotten.
"Once upon a time..." she started, then added, "It was long enough ago that it needs to start that way. Once upon a time there was a man who did a terrible thing. He said that he did it to help his people, but I don't know if he really believed what he said, or if it started that way but his motives twisted later, or if it was only an excuse to begin with; by the time anyone knew what he'd done he was too far gone to ask. Whatever the case, many many people were hurt because of his actions. And once upon a time there was girl who was the one that finally stopped him. But she knew that one day someone might repeat what he'd done, if everyone ever forgot how terrible it was and anyone ever rediscovered the techniques he'd used to do it. She couldn't stand the thought of that horrible history repeating itself, or of how much pain it would cause to her people, and in the end she decided that even if the rest of the world wanted to put everything that happened behind them she couldn't let herself rest. She'd let the rest of the world forget and have their peace, and in exchange for their happiness she'd remember forever and be there to step in if anyone ever started following in that man's path. Wherever her people went, however far, she would be there. She'd never abandon them."
He looked over at her, and she was smiling sadly off at nothing. "It's a nice story. The idea that somebody's out there, looking out for you. But it doesn't tell me much about the place you're from."
"Doesn't it?" she asked, and laughed again. "I think I've given you enough clues to make a guess, if you thought about it long enough. But it should tell you something about me, at least, if you've ever wondered why I'd stop to help a random stranger who'd obviously gotten himself involved in something most people might want to stay out of."
"Because it's the type of thing your home town hero would do."
She closed her eyes, then pushed herself to her feet. "Are you hungry at all? I know a building here which still has a nice kitchen I could make something in, and we could talk more comfortably. If enough time's gone by that you'd feel comfortable talking about it, I've been curious for five years about exactly what went on that day before I found you. If it hasn't, we can just get to know each other at last, like we should have years ago."
He looked back at the lake for another moment, wondering if he should go. He was there to remember Aerith, everything that she'd been, everything that she should have been allowed to remain for decades to come, and it didn't feel right to let himself be lured away from that. But at the same time there was a part of him that felt like if he let Yuna go on without him she'd end up vanishing away again like she had that day in Midgar, and this time it might be much longer before they found each other again.
And Aerith was Aerith. Even if he felt like he should be busy mourning her, he could imagine her as clearly as if she was standing before him rolling her eyes, planting both hands against his back to shove him along, and firmly telling him that he shouldn't waste his day moping when he could be solidifying a new friendship. Five years ago he would never have been able to think that. Even one year ago he wouldn't have been able to picture her as the bright, laughing figure that she was, encouraging him to live his life, instead of as the pale corpse sinking into the water. Not on that day, at least. Time really was finally healing that wound.
"I don't mind. It wouldn't be the first time I've shared the story," he said, standing up. "I guess this one could also start 'Once upon a time there was a man who did a terrible thing.'"
She fell into step at his side, her attention fully focused on him as he went into the story of how that terrible thing had changed his life for good.