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December 25th, 1889 — Mulciber House, Wellingtonshire
Ernest's Study
The past several days had been something of a blur—a blur of information, of emotion, of sycophantic well-wishing, of (private) hysterics. But today was Christmas, and as much as Rufina's first instinct was to opt out of the holiday and its cumbersome traditions altogether, but with all the uncertainty already plaguing the house, the socialite had decided she could not do that to Flora and Rufus (Merriweather, as he insisted upon reminding her, was a grown man, and so while Rufina would include him, she would not do it for him).

The first blow had come when a footman had borne not her husband down to join the family in the living room, but a note making his excuses. Anyone—especially the children—could tell that the smile plastered upon the witch's face as the Mulciber's exchanged gifts uncomfortably was altogether faked.

The second had come when Ernest had sent another note, this time stating he would take a tray in his study—where he had been holed up since Rufina had liberated him from St Mungo's—rather than join the family for Christmas dinner. While ordinarily she might have been understanding (might), she had already uninvited her parents and Beckett from dinner out of deference to her husband's trauma. The consummate hostess, this had pained her, but it had been her duty as Ernest's wife—and now he could not even be bothered to show up himself!

Rufina strode up the central staircase (would her husband ever stride anywhere again?) and veered left, taking the ill-traveled journey to Ernest's study.

Theirs was a shared life that dwelt altogether in different realms. He, sensibly, stayed out of her social sphere as much as she would allow, and she, similarly, did not interrupt his work unless the situation warranted it (usually to drag him to a social engagement he had no desire to attend). This, though, was a horse of a different colour, and so it was with apprehension that Rufina stood just outside the closed door, fist poised to knock, before she thought better of it and let herself in instead.

"And what shall the children be told, then?" she asked by way of greeting, half-heartedly waving his latest missive in the air between them.

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Ernest had never had much respect for healers — the human body, to his thinking, could not possibly contain within it the mysteries that the outside world did, and so confining one's study simply to fixing up broken things seemed to be a rather low profession — on par, perhaps, with a tailor or a tinker. It was less a profession and more of a trade, with a finite amount of things to be learned and a plodding, repetitive labor. That had been his perspective before having ever needed to be involved with healers for any length of time. Now, it was even lower. They had one job, which was to repair the bodies of men and women who had been magically injured, and it seemed they could not even manage that. How was this unfixable? What sort of a person just sat around with an unsolved problem and said yes, well, we've done all we can, no use trying anything else?

There was a way to fix it, he was convinced, and if only someone of any intelligence worked in the hospital — or, really, anywhere in the field of magical medicine worldwide — they would already know what it was. Because they were all blundering idiots, he would have to do it himself — and in the meantime, he was stuck being carted around by the servants like so much extra luggage after a holiday. How utterly dehumanizing.

While still at St. Mungo's and surrounded by morons, he'd ordered several books of anatomy and healing fundamentals from the library. They had been waiting in his study on his return home, and he'd retired with them, taking his meals at his desk and sleeping right there in the wheelchair. The only thing he left for was to relieve himself — or, rather, to be relieved, since that was something he was no longer able to do for himself. (The humiliation! When he found a way to fix this, he could take the healers who had inflicted this misfortune on him to court for incompetence).

Rufina's interruption was not a welcome one, but nor was it entirely unsurprising. He expected her to force her way into his study sooner or later. He could not, however, be bothered to consider her rather small concerns at a time like this. He had much more important things on his mind. With a half-hearted shrug, then, he merely said, "Whatever you like."
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   Aldous Crouch

She pursed her lips in an expression that could best be described as displeased, but which also carried with it hints of stubbornness and exasperation—and the conversation had barely begun!

"It is very difficult to convince them that you are not on death's doorstep when you insist on hiding yourself away," the witch pointed out. Rather than look at her husband—and his new wheelchair, which caused a queasiness to come over her each time she thought of it—directly, Rufina's gaze cast instead about the room, with it's opened volumes, an only partially-consumed breakfast tray, and it's faint odour of having been lived in. Though normally a distinguished space, there was nothing at all dignified about what it had become.

She continued, "And besides, Annabelle says it is best to return to normalcy as swiftly as you are able."

Though the St Mungo's healers had preached the virtues of rest, her sister had given advice that Rufina found far more appealing.

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His wife's appeal reached his ears but did not go much deeper. He answered it first with a weary sigh, then responded in a plodding tone, "None of the children are quite stupid enough to believe something without evidence indefinitely. They will doubtless become convinced that I am not on death's door when I fail to die in a timely fashion."

As far as what Annabelle thought, he wasn't sure he should even bother to answer. His opinion of his wife's sister, first as a woman who worked and second as a woman who worked as a healer specifically, was not incredibly high — but for the sake of his wife he had always refrained from voicing anything of the sort (just as he refrained from making any comment at all on whatever it was Marcella Weasley was doing with her life), and he was hardly looking to start a petty fight with her now, when he was in the middle of investigating what he considered a matter of life and death — or life and life-as-a-cripple, which was much the same.
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   Rufina Mulciber

"It does not need to be indefinite to ruin their Christmas, Ernest," she chastised harshly.

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Her response irked him, and he frowned prodigiously at his desk. Why did she think he cared a bit about what the children were doing today? So it was Christmas — so what? The fact of the holiday did not change the situation he found himself in. No Christmas miracle was restoring to him the use of his legs. He was still just as crippled as he had been the day before — as he would be tomorrow, and the next day, and indefinitely, until he fixed this.

"You'll understand if I'm not particularly feeling the Christmas spirit today, Rufina," he answered, just as harshly.
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   Rufina Mulciber

She let out a huff at that, but did not respond immediately. What could she say to a man who had, in effect, lost his freedom? It would be foolish, Rufina knew, to expect him to feel particularly celebratory—Merlin knew she didn't, and she was not the one who had been crippled!—but he was so exasperating nonetheless. Ernest had endured a terrible ordeal and, by all accounts, had months (if not years!) of adjustment ahead of him. So too, though, had his family. The very least he could do was make an effort.

"And who does it serve, Ernest, your hiding away in here?" Rufina asked after a long moment. "Certainly not your children, true, but I daresay even you do not benefit from it. To what end, then, must you be so obstinate?"

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"It will serve," he insisted hotly, "When I've found the damned solution to all this. I cannot possibly be reconciled to the fact that we — a magical society that has existed for centuries, who can travel at will throughout the country and create magical artifacts whose magic endures for generations — some even capable of creating that blasted fog, of all things — that we cannot manage to knit back together two measly inches of a man's spine," he declared indignantly. "It's human indolence, human ignorance that has seen me thus confined, and I will not accept it."

And there it was. Frankly, Rufina felt rather foolish not to have realized sooner that her husband's encampment was out of necessity, yes, but also out of desire—a desire that had always been far more intense than their desire for one another. He was, after all, a man of Mysteries; she should have easily concluded that he would be looking for a fix for his predicament. She softened.

"Some time away from your research would allow you to return to it with fresh eyes and a clear head," Rufina tried again with a bit more patience, though still resolved. She did not tell her husband that his mission seemed to her a fool's errand, that if a number of healers trained in the workings of the body hadn't found a patch for his condition in decades, centuries, he was quite unlikely to do so before he shuffled off the mortal coil. "We are often blinded by our proximity to our fixations, after all."
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   Ophelia Devine

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That was, perhaps, the most logical thing that Rufina had ever said to him. It made him no less inclined to actually act on her words, but it did mean that for a moment he had nothing to use as a direct retort.

"Fine," he said after a moment. Dinner, he supposed, wouldn't hurt. His concentration had already been interrupted, and he could come back to this immediately after the dessert plates were cleared. "I'm not dressed for dinner, though — you'll have to send someone up."
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   Rufina Mulciber

She had not thought her husband could surprise her. Plainly, Rufina would need to grow more accustomed to being wrong.

A neutral expression fixed itself on her face as she replied, "Of course," with grace and dignity and not the teeniest sign of gloating or triumph. She might have won, Rufina knew, but it was a battle not the war itself—and truces could be fragile creatures.

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