Author's Notes: Don't you just love how ff.n won't let you so much as put asteriks in stories anymore? Grr. Anyway, I took the liberty of cleaning up this story a bit, fixing tiny mistakes and replacing the "- - -" thingies with horizontal lines. Gah, I'm so horribly lazy with updates... I don't think I do this nearly often enough, so I'll do it now: thanks very, very much to all reviewers - not only are reviews nice confidence boosters, but they're very helpful as well. Soo... thankew! n.n

Chapter 8

It was Fall 7th.

Karen lifted her head from the ground and laughed ironically, loud and hard – so hard she thought she might vomit again. The strangest things always happened on Fall 7th. She would remember each and every 7th day of Fall she'd ever lived through for the rest of her days.

Three years ago, Fall 7th was the day Gray fell from his horse and lost his ability to ride. Later that day, Karen discovered that this was the first year the grapes lost their color.

Two years ago, Fall 7th was the day she danced in front of an entire crowd of people and was offered a job in the city. That same evening, her father actually hit her for the first time.

Last year, Fall 7th was the day she fell in love with Jack as he danced with her at the beach. She laughed so hard and so happily and was so overcome with elatedness she thought she would explode.

This year took the cake. On this day, Fall 7th, after weeks of constant vomiting and overeating and food that tasted like brass, after screaming at Kai that no, she had not gained weight when she knew she undoubtedly had, she finally realized she was carrying a child.

"HAH," she laughed and leaned against the fencepost, and mimicked in a high, familiar voice: "Imagine me, a mother!"

Of course she hadn't meant for this to happen. This was Kai's fault, he took advantage of her. Of course it was Kai. Stupid, idiotic Kai, who had fallen in love with a vixen. Moronic, simple-minded Kai, who made her realize she had to prove she could live without Jack by marrying another man. Foolish, ignorant Kai, who wouldn't decline her offer the night she'd drunken herself silly. He knew she was drunk, and still he couldn't refuse to lie down with her. Stupid, stupid, stupid Kai.


Would she have refused Jack, even if he wasn't in his right mind? Karen grimaced.

It wasn't Kai, she decided: it was the wine. She could have smacked herself for looking so hard for excuses, but at that time it felt so true. It was the wine she loved so much, the wine that had robbed her of her wits. It was the wine that drained whatever consciousness she had from her mind and thrust her into a drunken oblivion where she was trapped within herself, aware of nothing outside of her body. She concluded: It was the wine that had given her a child. A child. She could feel it already, she loathed this child who invaded her body so suddenly. And she hated herself for it.

But goodness, wasn't it funny?

She was trapped here in this village she hated so much, living on a dying vineyard, and she'd done this to herself. How funny. She'd married a man she didn't love and would bear his child in two seasons. Hilarious! Absolutely hilarious!

Karen was laughing again. This wouldn't have even happened if she'd left for the city. It was amazing, really – something as insignificant as a schoolgirl crush nearly ruined her. She was hooting with laughter now. "Karen, you foolish little girl!"

But it was so funny...

So funny she could cry.

It was Fall 7th.

As she browsed the racks of wine, John leered at her. "You're not really gonna drink any, are you?"

Truth be told, Sonya had no intention of actually drinking any wine, but she wasn't about to tell him that. "Maybe." She brushed her fingertips on each bottle, carefully scanning through each one, until finally stopping on one on the second shelf. She pulled it out of the rack carefully, and nearly doubling over under the weight of the bottle once it slipped out of place. She brushed the dust off the label, and John was surprised to see what it said.

"Last bottle of Door to Heaven ever made," Sonya said. "Made when I was six."

John shoved his hands into his pockets. "It can't be very good then."

Sonya scowled. "Well, you're awful blunt. For your information, my dad let me taste some earlier. I still think it's great."

John leaned against the wall tiredly. "Have you ever had the original?"

Sonya kept her eyes locked on the bottle. "When I was four..."

"Your parents let you have wine when you were four?"

Sonya frowned. "My grandpa gave me some."

John laughed, sliding to the ground. "I can't believe you still remember that."

"Well..." Sonya sighed. She couldn't remember the taste, or the wine at all – just her grandpa's bearded, smiling face as he tipped his glass to her. And even that memory was so far gone her mind had probably demented it.

"What's it taste like?" John asked her. She sat against the wall opposite him, the bottle of wine sitting in her lap, which looked to John like she was almost holding an infant.

"What, the wine?" She paused, rolling the bottle in her hands. "Why don't you try it for yourself?"

"I don't think so," said John. Sonya shrugged as if to say "your loss," and popped the bottle open.

"I still can't believe you're doing that," said John. "You're young. It'll screw you up."

Sonya shrugged. "Not really, only if you drink a lot."

John stood up from the ground, eyes on the bottle. Sonya watched him as he approached her and snatched the bottle from her hands. "Hey!" she cried.

"If this is the last bottle of Door to Heaven, your dad will get mad if you drink it," he said coolly.

"I don't care!" Sonya rose to her feet.

"You should," said John as he slid the bottle back into place.

"What's your problem?" she hissed, her eyes bright with fire. "I don't get..."

"Listen, Sonya." He cut her off, and he suddenly seemed quiet, his eyes were unfocused on the floor, and she could tell he wanted to tell her something.

"What is it?" she asked, though it was more of a command than a request.

"Look, I hear a lot of things..."

A pause.

"What?" she said.

"You know your mom..."

Sonya could have screamed; her mother was all people seemed to be talking about lately. But instead she held her temper and gritted her teeth, dreading what was coming next.

John was rubbing the back of his neck. "She really loved wine."

Sonya was only slightly taken aback at how little severity there was in the statement. "So?"

"No, I mean, she loved it," he continued. "She had a passion for it. She um..." He paused again, he seemed to be searching for the right words. "It kind of consumed her. It really messed her up."

"Oh, shut up!" Sonya knew where he was going. And despite the purity of his intentions, she couldn't help but feel brutally offended.

"Sonya, it's true!" he insisted. "I don't want to see you—"

Her eyes flashed. "Okay, first of all, you have no right to talk about my mom like that. Second of all, I don't see how you could even suggest that I'm gonna become some... some drunkard..."

"I'm trying to help, okay?" he said, nearly yelling. "If you think I'm just going to stand back and watch history repeat itself like—"

"What are you on about?! Whatever you think happened with her, it's not gonna happen again, all right?! You... How dare you even... You're so – you're so annoying!"

But John, to her surprise, said nothing to defend himself. Instead, he folded his arms and shifted his weight and leaned against the cellar walls, and his eyes bore ferociously into hers.

"And you're rude!" she went on, hoping to shove him out with insults. "And you're freaking nosy, and more importantly – you're conceited, waltzing around thinking you're better than everyone, thinking that everything's you're business, and feeling sorry for me all the time – I don't need pity, all right?! You're a nasty, big-headed idiot, and... and I can't believe you're just standing there!"

And to her annoyance, her insults were merely bouncing off of him. He looked, if anything, amused. Sonya's temper rose to a boiling point, and she shrieked aloud. "What is your problem?!"

He cracked a grin.

The idiot grinned.

Sonya thrust an accusing finger at him. "Oh, so you're smirking now!" she fumed. Her finger jabbed his chest, and he started... laughing.

She clenched her teeth, she could hardly stand how infuriating he was. "You think..."

He was still laughing just as hard, if not harder. Oh, was she angry with him.

"You think this is..."

...But why was she angry with him again?

"You think... you think this is funny?!"

...But wasn't it funny? It was rather silly, really, now that she thought about it: he bursting with laughter and trying to keep his balance against the wall, she with her finger raised pointed at him as if she was aiming a shotgun...

"You think you..."

Gods, this was funny...

And soon she found herself contaminated with his laughter, and she was backing up against the opposite wall, giggling insanely. The sight of Sonya actually overcome with laughter and her finger still raised in the air was enough to knock John over, and he was soon doubled up on the floor. "You're an idiot!" Sonya choked between laughs. "A – complete – moron!"

But John couldn't respond, all he could do was hack another round of laughs.

Several moments passed before Sonya was able to work up the strength to crawl over to John's corner of the cellar and whack his shoulder. "I hate you!" she declared, though she was still giggling like a fool.

But John took this as a very high form of a compliment, and thanked her promptly. Sonya, who had long since given up on trying to scare him away with offenses, fell to the floor, trying vainly to stifle her giggles.

Ah, my favorite day of the year, she thought to herself.

She stood at the dock, watching the ocean, listening as the waves licked the plank below. She breathed in the ocean air, relishing in the salty aroma of the sea. How she'd missed it. A ferry was sailing across the sea, she noticed. It was all that was to be seen: the sky was hidden beneath a blanket of cold, grey clouds, and surprisingly, there wasn't a seagull in sight, despite the fact she could hear their cries from wherever they were hiding.

She turned her back to the ocean, facing the small building across the street. She was about to do the thing that would make this Fall 7th stand out from the rest of the days of the year.

In the building, she approached the man at the desk. He was lanky, sleepy, and unshaven, half-reading a magazine.

"When is the next ferry to Flower Bud leaving?"

Her voice was rich, smooth and even as silk, pleasant to the ears. The man looked up from his magazine and into one of the most bewitchingly beautiful faces he'd ever seen. "The next boat?" he asked her, feigning puzzlement, just to hear her voice again.

"Yes," she said. "To Flower Bud."

"The last one just left a few days ago," he answered. She could tell he was unable to keep his eyes off her face. Her stomach clenched uncomfortably. "The next one won't be leaving 'till Winter."

She placed a sum of money on the counter and said calmly, "I want a ticket for that, then."

He slid a ticket towards her, purposely brushing his hand against hers. She withdrew her hand immediately, a pleasant smile adorning her face and a dangerous look behind her eyes.

"Thank you," she said, turning to leave without a second glance. As she stepped out of the building, her copper hair whipped about her face and her jacket was swept to the side. The salty ocean air, sweet and alluring, beckoned her. She turned her head in the direction of the wind and wasn't surprised to see it was blowing towards Flower Bud Village.

"Where's John?" Ann asked Jack as she tied her hair up.

Jack yawned over his cup of coffee. "I dunno," he droned, scratching his neck tiredly. "Didn' you see him?"

"Nope," Ann replied, weaving her hair together.

"'Salright," Jack said. "He prob'ly just got up early or sumthin'."

Ann sighed and shook her head, amused. He truly was a different person in the morning.

There was a knock at the door, and Ann promptly rose to answer it. At the door was Mint, showing a smile as bright as ever. "Aunt Ann, can I ask you a favor?" she asked sweetly.

Ann leaned against the doorframe. "Sure, honey. What is it?"

"Well, Daisy just gave birth, right? But the problem is that we don't have any more room for cows in the barn right now. So Dad was wondering—"

"I'll take care of the calf for you," Ann laughed.

"Thanks!" Mint chirped excitedly. "I'll bring her over right now!"

Ann made her way back into the kitchen to see Jack washing his face. "We've got another mouth to feed," she said casually.

Jack jumped, dropping the cloth in his hand. "Wha?!"

Ann giggled, hoping that that had brought him to his senses. "The cow at the ranch just gave birth and they need us to take care of the calf," she said.

"Oh." Jack slid into his seat. "I thought you meant..."

Ann giggled again, taking her seat next to him. "Well, looks like John's got one more chore to do around here. Where is that boy, anyway?"

There was a tree. A tree, dead center in the middle of a wasteland, empty, silent, alone. It was nerve-wracking, never before had he seen such a desolate place. It was barren and hollow, completely devoid of any life. It chilled him. It stretched for miles, the wasteland – the only thing in sight was that tree, but even that seemed dead to the world. What else could he do but approach it?

And so he did. His footsteps made no sound, and a certain realization dawned: there was no sound in this place. He couldn't hear anything. He was positive it wasn't his own ears: this place was so dormant, it couldn't even produce noise.

He touched the bark of the tree. It was cold, dry and ridden with dust, it felt as dead as it looked. He scraped off a flake of bark noiselessly, and it tumbled lightly to the ground without a sound. Nothing.

And suddenly there was a woman. How she got there, he didn't know – but there she was, sitting lazily atop the decaying branches of the tree, a milky leg dangling over the dry twigs and swinging softly like a pendulum. Her hair, more like satin than human tresses, spilled over her shoulders in a stream of violet, her eyes danced behind a sly smile, and she was gazing at him as if to say, "I know something you don't know."

He wanted to ask her what, but he knew speaking was worthless in this place.

Her secretive smile widened to a toothy grin, and he somehow felt as though she was daring herself to open her mouth entirely and spill out all her delectable secrets to him.

He wanted to speak. He couldn't.

It happened quite unexpectedly: her jaw flung open and she giggled. He heard her giggle – it rang musically, her voice alone was so celestial it sounded more like she was singing than laughing. It was the only sound within this place, and it resounded against the treetop, came at him all at once. The voice wasn't coming from her, it was springing from everywhere. And it stopped just as abruptly as it started.

It was then things began to become strange. Her eyes shifted, from the palest to the brightest of blues, wide and bright and alive.

Who are you? He couldn't hear it, but he knew she knew what he was thinking it.

Her eyes changed once again, this time to a deep emerald, cat-like and alluring in a strange sense. Where had he seen those eyes before...?

And why did he hear barking?

John's eyes fluttered open, and the woman's face vanished before his eyes. He could have placed those eyes if he'd just had ten more seconds...

There was an irritating scratching at the door, and a pitiful whimpering sounding from the other side. He turned around to meet the source of the noise, and when he spotted Sonya lying motionless on the floor with her back to him, his insides suddenly turned to lead dropped. He quickly collected himself and scrambled off the floor, rushing to the other side of the cellar (Goddess, he was still in the cellar?) and opening the door.

He was ambushed immediately as a little brown dog, no taller than his shin, tackled him and forced him to the floor. The little animal clambered over his stomach and attacked his face with its tongue. John was grateful, but he was in no mood to play with his dog right now, for he had just realized it was morning.

Sonya was grunting from behind him; she was stirring from sleep. He had to get out. Now.

He jumped to his feet (effectively knocking the disgruntled dog off his chest) and hastened out the door, shutting it as quietly as he possibly could, and raced off the vineyard, the little brown dog at his heels.