Wash me down in all of your joy
But don't drag me through this again
I've heard all your sad songs I can hear
It's another day older in these exiled years
-These Exiled Years, Flogging Molly
November 1, 1981
She was crying in the bathroom again. It happened every month.
Dunstan Birtwhistle stood outside the door, listening to the muffled sobs of his wife of nearly ten years. She wanted a baby. More than anything, Gemma wanted a baby, but it seemed to be the one thing they couldn't do together. They'd been to nearly every Healer in Great Britain, and had been told the same thing over and over. Separately, neither one was terribly fertile. Together, they were completely barren.
They had tried to adopt, though Gemma hadn't been as enthusiastic about not carrying the baby herself. In the past three years, they'd had two birth mothers change their minds at the last moment – the second one just after she'd given birth. Gemma had been absolutely heart-broken. The nursery had been ready, and she'd told all their friends they were finally about to be parents. She hadn't been able to face telling everyone there would be no baby after all, and it had fallen to Dunstan. The sympathy had become overwhelming even to him, so much so that he almost hit someone at work who expressed condolences. After that, they couldn't cope with going through the adoption process again, couldn't face the prospect of another wrenching failure, and Gemma had thrown herself into trying to conceive with renewed desperation.
None of his friends had this problem. Molly and Arthur Weasley were up to seven, which Dunstan privately thought was absolutely insane. Petula Ockham had popped out three, one after the other, right after getting married, and then declared herself finished. Hattie Habbershaw-Smythe was pregnant with her third. All of Dunstan's brothers had at least two. Everyone had children, it seemed, except them.
At first, Dunstan hadn't minded. He hadn't really cared one way or the other if they had children for the first few years. He'd only wanted them for her. Gemma had wanted them so badly, and for so long. After a few years, he'd started to realize his pain at their inability to conceive wasn't just feeling Gemma's despair, but his own as well. He wanted to see her fully happy, yes, but he wanted a child for them as well. When the second birth mother had sent the adoption coordinator out to tell them she was going to keep her baby after all... Dunstan had not known he could feel that much pain.
Only one, and we'll never ask for anything again, he'd addressed the sky a few times, hoping some benevolent god might smile on them and give them the baby Gemma so desperately wanted.
But every month it was the same. No baby. When she started her cycle, she sat on the floor with a towel pressed to her face and cried, and Dunstan had no idea what to do to help, so he stood outside the door and waited for her, his eyes burning with unshed tears.
When she finally emerged, he held her close, whispering comforting nonsense that neither of them really listened to. Tears still clung to her lashes when she looked up at him.
“I'm sorry, Dunstan.”
“I'm sorry too.” He leaned down to kiss her, wishing there was something else to say.
But there wasn't, not to his wife, anyway, and so he fled that afternoon to his best friend's house, seeking a refuge or asylum, he wasn't sure which, but he needed to talk to someone.
Petula Ockham lived down the road from them, her house larger and more chaotic than Dunstan and Gemma's small cottage on the outskirts of Upper Flagley. Petula's eldest son and Dunstan's godson, Richard, was at Hogwarts now, and Dunstan found he missed the boy more than he'd expected. Richard was as close as Dunstan might ever get to having a son.
The youngest Ockham child, Charlotte, opened the door when he knocked.
“Uncle Dunstan!” She flung herself at him, arms around his waist. “Did you hear? Are you so happy? My dad's got a whole box of Dr. Filibuster's fireworks to celebrate-”
“What's going on?” he asked, reluctant to intrude on their happiness with his problems.
“Harry Potter!” Charlotte chirped. “Didn't you hear? MUM!” she added in a bellow while Dunstan was wondering who the devil Harry Potter was. “Uncle Dunstan's here!”
The middle Ockham child came rushing out ahead of his mother, and shoved his sister aside roughly to yell at Dunstan, “Uncle Dunstan! Did you hear? Can you believe it? He's finally gone!”
“What?” Dunstan asked, unconsciously touching his ear. Jeffrey might one day learn to control his volume, but today was apparently not that day.
Petula Ockham, Dunstan's best friend since his Hogwarts days, leaned over her children to hug him. “I'm so glad you came by! Isn't it wonderful? Why isn't Gemma with you?”
“What the hell's going on, Petula?” he asked irritably.
She gaped at him for a second, then shook her head in amazement that he didn't know. “Dunstan, he's gone! You-Know-Who, he's been defeated, finally.”
Dunstan was speechless. He felt his mouth drop open, but no sound came out.
It had been over a decade of terror, death, and destruction at the hands of the most feared dark wizard of all time. And now he was gone, just like that?
“You heard of the Potters, didn't you?” Petula said, beginning one of her rambling explanations. “They worked with Molly's brothers, you remember Gideon and Fabian, they were Molly's younger brothers, twins, and Aurors, both of them. So sad.” She clucked a moment over the deaths of their friend Molly Weasley's brothers, and then went on, “Well, the Potters had a little boy named Harry, you know, and last night, You-Know-Who tried to kill him-”
“A little boy?” Dunstan repeated, aghast that anyone could kill a child. “How old was he?”
“He's only a baby, really, poor little dear. The Potters were both killed, God rest them, but little Harry – he survived! A Killing Curse, and he lived! And You-Know-Who is gone! Defeated by a baby, can you believe it?”
“How?” Dunstan managed, unable to believe Petula's story.
“No one knows,” came a deeper voice, and Thomas Ockham appeared behind his wife. “He just up and died, and the baby lived. It's incredible, but there you have it.” Thomas cocked his head at Dunstan. “Where's your wife? Hadn't you heard about Harry Potter?”
“No, we hadn't heard a thing. She's, erm, having female troubles...” He didn't want to say more in front of the children, but Petula and Thomas seemed to understand instantly.
Thomas's smile dimmed, but he said jovially to Charlotte and Jeffrey, “Come on, kids, let's go let off a few fireworks in celebration, eh? We'll let your mum and uncle have a wee chat, shall we?”
Dunstan smiled gratefully at his friend as Thomas herded the children into the backyard, and Petula gave Dunstan a sympathetic pat and led him into the kitchen.
“I'm so sorry, Dunstan,” she said with a sigh as they sat down at the small table.
“She was still crying a bit when I left,” he said dully, then felt compelled to add, “Sorry to interrupt your celebrations.”
“You should be celebrating too. The entire wizarding world is celebrating today, I expect.”
“Not the Potters,” Dunstan said.
Petula nodded. “Yes, you're right. Poor little boy is orphaned now. Molly says there's an aunt they're sending him to live with.”
“At least he's got family, that's good.”
Petula made tea, and they both sat in silence during the first cup, listening to the muffled sounds from the backyard that marked the Ockhams' celebration of the end of the war: small explosions and shrieking children.
“I should let you go to your family,” Dunstan said reluctantly.
“Don't be ridiculous, I'd much rather sit here in the quiet,” Petula told him. “Do you think I want to watch fireworks going off? Or watch Thomas hand them over to Jeffrey to light? It's amazing no one has lost a finger. That boy hasn't the sense he was born with.”
He smiled ruefully. “Jeffrey's just boisterous.”
“That's easy for you to say, you don't have to live with him. Molly and Arthur were over last week, and Jeffrey hit one of the twins with a Quidditch bat. They're only three!”
Dunstan, who had met the Weasleys' little twins, raised an eyebrow at her. “Hmm. What was the boy doing to Jeffrey?”
She gave him a severe look. “They're only babies. He didn't mean to break Jeffrey's favourite toy, I'm sure.”
“Well, Jeffrey's young too...”
“You always take his part,” Petula complained, but then she smiled. “You're no better than Thomas and Arthur. Arthur said 'boys will be boys', and Thomas just laughed.”
“Well, it's true. Boys will be boys.” His smile fell a little, thinking of Gemma at home crying, and that they would never have boys of their own to hit other children with Quidditch bats. He wanted to have to apologize to his friends because of something his son had done, how mad was that?
Petula saw the change in his face, and she let out a long sigh. “It isn't fair, is it? You'd be a lovely father, Dunstan, and Gemma...”
“I know. She'd be perfect as a mum. It isn't fair,” he agreed. “I never even realized I wanted to be a father until I was told I never would be.”
“I'm so sorry.”
“Thanks, Petty,” he said, summoning a grin, trying to make the best of things.
She pulled a face. “I hate being called that, you know.”
“Yeah, I know.” He stirred the last bit of tea in the bottom of his cup, wishing his problems could be swept away as easily as the dregs of rosehip tea. “What should I do?” he asked finally.
Petula leaned forward and kissed his cheek. “Go home to your wife. Hug her, tell her you love her, and then tell her about Harry Potter. It might take her mind off things for a while. Come back over and celebrate with us if she's up to it.”
“All right. Yeah. No more You-Know-Who, I'm not even sure I can wrap my mind around that. It's been so long...” The war had been going on so long, it seemed; he could hardly even imagine a world in which there was no Dark Lord bent on murdering anyone without pure blood. Now he thought about that more, he couldn't wait to tell his wife what had happened.
“I know.” Petula stood and gathered up the teacups.
Dunstan reached out and grabbed her hand as she was lifting his cup, and she returned the squeeze he gave her, then shooed him out the door.
Gemma was lying in bed on top of the covers with a book when he arrived home again. He crawled over next to her, scooting close enough to lay a kiss on her shoulder.
“Have you listened to the wireless today?” he asked, and she gave him a strange look. He knew very well she holed up for days, not speaking to anyone, pretending the world did not exist, when she began her cycle.
“What are you talking about?” she asked suspiciously.
“You won't believe what's happened,” he said, and told her what Petula had told him about the Potters and You-Know-Who.
Gemma's face was lax with astonishment. She looked just as speechless as he'd been, and he leaned forward to kiss her.
“No more You-Know-Who. No more war. It's a whole new world now, isn't it?”
“I suppose it is,” she said in wonder. “I hardly know what to think. It's really all over?”
“It really is.”
She turned to him, wrapping her arms around him, and he kissed her again. They held each other, celebrating in their own way, and Dunstan couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so easy and free while with his wife. No more war, she'd said, and there was something different in her this time, something he couldn't quite name. Change never sat well with him, it took him time to get used to things, but he thought he could get used to this new world.
“Maybe we should stop,” she whispered sometime later as he lay in her arms. She was stroking his hair, staring at the ceiling.
Dunstan looked up at her. She didn't look angry or depressed. There was only a sad sort of resignation on her face.
“We've been trying for ten years,” he said cautiously.
“Yes. And I'm tired. My body is tired, and my mind is tired, and I know you're tired too. I think we should stop trying and just let what happens will.”
He didn't think he could imagine a world in which they were not actively trying to become parents. But then, he wouldn't have been able to imagine a world with no He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and yet there they were. “What will we do?” he asked, feeling rather stupid.
Gemma shrugged. “We'll just enjoy each other instead of worrying about what will come of it. We can take a second honeymoon. Celebrate the end of the war, properly.”
Dunstan rubbed a hand over his face. “Are you sure that's what you want to do?”
“Yes. It is.” She smiled up at him, and there was too much honesty in her sadness. He kissed her so he didn't have to see it, hoping he wasn't failing her again.
A few weeks later
Things had been very easy, and far more relaxed than Dunstan could remember them being, since they'd decided to stop their desperate attempts to get pregnant. Gemma still looked wistful quite often, but she was less sad than before. Giving themselves permission to consider not becoming parents had taken the pressure off, and though he still thought wistfully of it on a daily basis, it seemed to be growing easier to accept.
He was not a father. He would like as not never be one, either. And maybe that was okay after all.
They sat in the parlour one afternoon, peacefully reading, when Dunstan heard the front door open and the sound of his best friend's voice calling their names.
“Dunstan? Gemma? Are you here?”
There was a strange yipping sound accompanying her words, and Dunstan exchanged a look with his wife, and they both leaped up from the sofa. She beat him to the door.
Petula was in the foyer, and Gemma let out a squeal of delight when she saw what Petula had brought. Dunstan groaned inwardly.
“They're Yorkies,” Petula was saying. “Aren't they adorable? Oh, hello Dunstan, there you are. One of Charlotte's friends gave them to us, their dog had some lady trouble at obedience school, can you imagine? Thankfully, the culprit was the same breed, but still, what a nightmare. Well, they didn't know what to do with the litter, of course, and Charlotte told them we'd help them – I suppose she thought I'd let her keep one, I don't know what goes through that girl's head sometimes – but of course Jeffrey is allergic to dogs, and I thought of you immediately-”
Dunstan tuned Petula out, staring at his wife with the two puppies on her lap. They were jumping all over her, licking every bit of skin they could reach, and she was laughing. She was laughing, and smiling like he hadn't seen her smile in years, and damn it all, she looked so carefree and happy. From bloody puppies.
“We'll keep them,” he told Petula.
“Oh good, I'm so glad. They haven't been named yet, so you can call them whatever you like. I'm fairly certain they're not housebroken either – Charlotte had no idea, and I didn't get a chance to Floo her friend's family; Jeffrey was wheezing something awful because of course he was holding one, honestly, he hasn't any sense at all. Anyway, I had to get the little things straight out of the house.”
“It doesn't matter,” Gemma said, still smiling as she cuddled the puppies. “We'll train them. They're perfect, Petula, they're such darlings!”
“They are sweet, aren't they?” Petula agreed, bending down to pet one of them. “It's really a shame Jeffrey has allergies. Are you sure you don't mind?”
“I love them,” said Gemma firmly. One of the puppies was chewing on her robes.
“Excellent,” Petula said brightly. “I've got to run, Lord only knows what those children of mine are up to while I'm out. Enjoy the puppies. Come over for dinner tomorrow.”
And with that, she bustled out again, leaving only the sound of yipping puppies in her wake.
Dunstan looked down at his wife, who was cuddling the puppies as they licked her face and nibbled on her fingers. She set them down, smiling contentedly, and the two little dogs turned their attention to Dunstan's shoes. He watched them try to chew on his toes with a smile. They were rather cute, he had to admit. He looked up again and found his wife smiling at him.
“Oh, Dunstan,” she sighed. “Do you think we can get more puppies?”
“You can have all the puppies you like. We can breed the damn things if it makes you happy,” he said gruffly, and she stood and flung her arms around him, just as one of the puppies turned in a circle and widdled on the carpet.
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