AN: Can you believe it? This story and I are alive! I am so, SO sorry it has taken me this long to update. It's really inexcusable and I wouldn't blame any one of my wonderful reviewers if they didn't come back to read this. However, it was precisely because I was browsing through the latest reviews and saw how many people liked this story that I decided to start working on this again. Thank you all so much! I hope you enjoy this chapter, which has been several years in the making, haha. Does anyone have any guesses as to who the Watchers are, by the way? If you even remember them, since it's been so long! I've given them all names now (bit of an Easter egg for my fave commenters) but please let me know if I've made a mistake and named too many or something. And thank you, thank you, thank you again for all of your kind comments!

Disclaimer: Final Fantasy VII and all related characters are © Square-Enix. The only thing I've got are the Watchers, and I think I'd trade them for Aeris and Sephiroth…

Chapter 19

Aeris blinked and took a breath before she realized where she was, and a huge gulp of water choked her. She gagged and screamed underwater, feeling the pressure of tons of liquid squeezing down on her. Frantically, Aeris sat up and pushed from the sandy lake bottom, kicking her feet with as much strength as she could muster.

It's too deep! I'm going to die again!Her mind screamed as her arms flailed, groping, desperate.PLANET!

There was a wordless song of joy inside her head, an explosion of happiness. Beneath her, the water churned and surged upwards, propelling her up to the surface. She was thrown several feet into the air before landing back in the water with a splash. Aeris coughed violently, spitting up as much fluid as she could, before wiping her eyes and looking around.

She was floating on a bed of froth and foam, spluttering, weak, but alive. The buildings of the Ancient City glimmered on the near shores. The brightness of the sun burned her feeble eyes, unused to real sunlight as they were. The cool wind blew on her cheeks, tangled in her hair.

I'm alive…She inhaled, her first breath of air as a living girl again, and laughed from the pure simple joy of it.

A dull, throbbing ache in her lower chest told her that might not be such a good idea. Aeris looked down at herself curiously, and couldn't help the agonized moan that escaped her lips.

The fatal wound that Sephiroth had dealt her, on that day so long ago, remained. Blood fanned out across her dress, slid down her stomach.

Aeris whimpered and pressed her hands against the gash, feeling warmth gush against her fingers. Sephiroth wasn't here to get her out of this one.

"Cure," she gasped, her mind scrabbling for the threads of power that connected her to the Planet. There was a moment of numbing fear, and then a welcome wave of strength surged into her body, gathering around the hole in her abdomen. The Planet hummed and lent her its power. Aeris could feel her flesh regenerating and skin mending beneath her fingers, an odd sensation to be sure.

The girl sighed in relief as the glow faded; the injury was completely healed. And perhaps even more importantly…

Planet, Aeris said. A happy, low-pitched thumming answered her, and soft colors of blue and green embraced her mind.

I've missed you so much! Tears sparkled at the corners of her eyes.

The Planet has missed you as well, last daughter, came the soothing reply, in the warm and ages-old voice of her guide and greatest friend. A piece of her, lost for so long, was back where it should be. The Planet wrapped her in a warm breeze, almost an embrace.

Sitting on the bed of foam in the lake of the Forgotten City, exhausted, bloody, and alive, Aeris wept.

Soon, though, with a gust of cold wind, the reality of her situation hit her. She was cold, tired and alone, with no food or warm clothing. If she wanted to survive, she had to reach civilization. And if she wanted to make sure her friends survived, she had to find Sephiroth.

The Planet nudged her towards shore with gentle, lapping waves. Her feet touched the cool pebbles and she gasped, almost overcome by the simple sensation. They felt so good, so wonderfully solid beneath her bare toes.

Wait, bare…? Aeris wiggled the appendages and cast a look back at the lake. Her big, clunky brown boots were gone—worn away, perhaps, or eaten by underwater creatures. In fact, she was probably lucky to be wearing anything at all, she realized, plucking at her thin pink dress.

Aeris wrung out her long chestnut hair and piled it in a bun on top of her head, already shivering in the cold. She rubbed her hands together, savoring the simple sensation of skin against skin. Even the cold breeze that sent goosebumps up her arms was a welcome change from the nothingness that the Promised Land provided. Shaking off as much water as she could, Aeris allowed the Planet to seep to the back of her mind as she took in her surroundings. The Ancient City looked exactly as it did when she died: aloof and silent but for the whispers of her ancestors and the steady throb of the Lifestream.

I wonder where Sephiroth is, and how he's doing…She thought, before catching herself. I'm sure he's fine. I've got to worry about myself first. Nonetheless, Aeris bit her lip and hoped that he was far, far away from the Watchers. Though they didn't seem to want to hurt him outright, like they did her, they certainly had proved themselves manipulative and deceitful—two traits that had fooled Sephiroth in the past.

So perhaps I really should try to find him first? Aeris worried. If I awoke here, then he must have awoken at Northern Crater… Her muscles protested at the very thought that she was strong enough now to attempt getting to the Crater; monsters aside, the cold alone would probably kill her. If she were to hurry, though, gather clothes and provisions soon, she could head to the Crater tomorrow or the day after and hopefully intercept the General. It hurt, but she couldn't go to her friends right now, no matter how badly she wanted to see them again. As odd as it sounded, Sephiroth would need her help—whether he wanted it or not.

To Bone Village it is, then, she decided. Hopping from one foot to the other to keep the blood flowing, Aeris Gainsborough, once the last Cetra, began walking barefoot down the overgrown path to home.

It took all day—from the path of the sun across the sky, Aeris estimated six or seven hours—to reach the village. The Planet, overjoyed at having its friend back, did what it could to speed her journey: making sure she took the easiest path, as well as advising her on the locations of monster nests, edible berries and the like. It still was hard going, and by the time Aeris broke out of the cover of the trees, she was exhausted. The soles of her feet ached, her calves burned and her head swam. The rapidly-approaching dusk reduced visibility and caused her to stumble more than once.

Weariness dragging her down like a lead-lined cloak, Aeris made her way to the first tent she spotted. The Planet trilled in her mind, reassuring her that the archeologists here would help her.

"Hello?" She said, then cleared her throat. "I hate to bother you, but I'm a…traveler who has lost her way…" The girl waited a moment, then leapt back in surprise when a head popped out of the tent flaps before her.

"Missy, what in the world are you doin' here?" The grizzled old miner asked her, not maliciously but with concern. "And dressed like that? You'd hafta be a darn fool to try travelin' in that!"

"Umm," Aeris defended herself. The man's head vanished back within the tent. Aeris's brows knitted; her tongue felt heavy and she wasn't quite prepared to deal with a man like this, so soon after her resurrection.

The miner reappeared, this time stepping fully out of the tent, carrying a sleeping bag as well as an oversized sweatshirt, jean overalls, thick socks and a pair of boots. He grinned at her, kindly brown eyes twinkling.

"But I'd be a darn fool if I turned you away," he said. "You wouldn't last though the night, not in this weather. Besides, we don't get many visitors up here, not since that odd band of people came passin' through a coupla years ago."

Aeris's heart sank. "Were they led by a man with Mako-blue eyes and blond hair?"

"Sure were, missy," the miner said as he ushered her over to an empty tent. "You don't ever fergit a group like that! They were nice enough, though. We may not have a lot here, but we already try to treat strangers well." He dumped the supplies in her arms.

"You can have this tent; there's some crates inside but there's more'n enough room for a twig like you to sleep." He paused. "Where did you say you were travelin' to again?'

Aeris bit her lip. The man would think she was crazy if she told him Northern Crater. "Midgar," she answered.

"Missy, you're in luck! We got a loada supplies comin' in tomorrow or the day after from Midgar. I'm sure they wouldn't mind takin' you with 'em!" The miner smiled. She smiled weakly at him.

"Thanks." That's what you get for lying!

"M'name's Jacob," the miner said. "Call me if you need anything, and don't worry, the other guys won't bother you. Breakfast is at 5 a.m. sharp." He tipped his hat to her.

"Thank you, Jacob," she murmured, watching the man grin and retreat to his own tent. It was only as she slipped into the socks that she realized he had never even asked for her name.

It's reassuring to know that good lives on in the hearts of humans, Aeris thought, closing her eyes. After experiencing bits of the darkness that the Watchers possess, this is…nice. All the more reason to stop the Watchers from destroying them…a race with so much potential.

Nix had been right in his assessment: the Watchers were scattered far and wide. However, unlike Aeris and Sephiroth, they anticipated the details of their resurrections much better. Already six of the Watchers, almost fully recovered from their dip in the Lifestream, had assembled in Nix's laboratory. The other two were on their way from across the continent. Only one hadn't found some way to get in contact with him, and he wasn't surprised at who it was.

"Whaddya think happened to Constantine?" Raze asked for the twentieth time, lounging against a dissection table. Nix fought the urge to roll his eyes at the bearlike man and instead busied himself by preparing another injection.

"The fool probably daydreamed himself off a cliff," Shaina laughed harshly. "He always had his head up in the clouds."

"I don't think he ever wanted to be one of us," Raze said thoughtfully, his face almost childishly innocent. Shaina scowled.

"Where does desire come into it? We didn't choose to be Watchers any more than we choose to take breath," she snapped. "The Planet decided that fate for us. We do this now for the Planet because it is only right. After seeing what these pathetic humans have done to the Planet, how can we be content to guard a King and Queen who squander their power and remain leaders of a dead race in the Promised Land?"

Raze had picked up an empty beaker and now toyed with it carelessly. "I dunno…I guess I've always thought we all have choice in what we do. Without it, we're just animals living until we die, right? And that maybe one choice is never better than another. I think."

"Well, good thing we don't need you for your thoughts," Shaina sneered.

"Hey!" Raze glared at her. "That isn't very nice!"

"Quiet, both of you!" Nix suddenly growled, turning to face them. "This is not the time or place for a philosophical discussion!" His flat black eyes fairly glowed within the depths of his hood and other Watchers quickly fell silent.

"Nix…?" Rari tried.

The head Watcher looked at their expectant faces and realized that they were waiting for him to make a decision. They were all humming with pent-up, nervous energy. After being so long dead, they were ready for action, for the battle, for glory. Nix smiled. Though he himself was one of the younger Watchers, having ascended to the Promised Land decades (or in some cases, centuries) after the others, he had trained them well.

"We waste time hiding here," Nix said with finality. "We can't wait the others to arrive. Our powers are strong enough without them. So. We shall go to Northern Crater and find Sephiroth there, no doubt. We will sway him to our side."

"All of us?" Raze asked. "But what about—"

"Constantine can join up with Noa and Morriga," Nix said, naming the two in-transit Watchers. "They should be more than enough to handle the Queen. She lies in Ajit, to the north."

"But can he be trusted, Nix?" A female Watcher, Vinaes, butted in, hand on one hip and blond-streaked brown hair falling over her shoulders. "You've had doubts about his fealty before." No one questioned Nix, powerful as he was. Yet though she was almost a head shorter than every other Watcher, Vinaes was close to his level of strength. She alone had mastered healing without depending on the Planet's magic, but instead by stealing the life forces of others—making her a vampire of sorts. He respected her for that, and so allowed her question.

"Constantine knows what he must do," Nix said. "Any life he had before the Watchers is over now."

"I will go to the Crater with Shaina and Rari." Nix continued. "Luthien, you take Vinaes, Ave and Raze. Procure us another headquarters, somewhere inconspicuous in Edge. Begin gathering as much material as you can, and continue monitoring Strife and his merry band. But make no move yet."

Luthien nodded curtly, his long black hair bobbing with the motion. "It will be as you say."

"It truly is a pity that the Queen is so averse to us," said Ave, toying with a feather braided into her hair. "With the Half-Souls joined and under our power, all would easily be under our dominion."

"One Half-Soul is better than none at all," Nix replied, though a frown flitted across his shadowed face. "Naturally, I would much prefer to keep her alive. However, if she refuses to cooperate and remains a…civilizing influence on Sephiroth, she will have to be disposed of. With the Queen dead and without his Mother, Sephiroth will be hollow, easily manipulated…"

I can't help but feel that we underestimate her…the others did not interact with her as I did. Her determination, as well as that pure heart, make her a Queen truly to be reckoned with. Rari adjusted his glasses and looked down, but kept his thoughts to himself. Nix, I supposed, knows best. He has proved himself time and time again.

The Watcher in question turned to Shaina. "Contact Noa and Morrain and give them their new orders." The blonde nodded and whipped out a sleek black cell phone. Raze gaped at her.

"Where'd you get that?"

"I picked it up before coming here. Don't you remember? We were all supposed to do that." Shaina said, before muttering, "Moron," under her breath. She dialed and waited for a moment before a husky "hello?" rang in her ear.

"Morriga, change of plans…"

Nix turned to the rest. "Now," he smirked. "You all know what to do. We fly."