I hugged him.

He hugged me back gently.

Something hot and wet slid over my cheeks. I realized I was crying.

“Oh no,” Doolittle murmured and patted my hair. “No, no, none of that now. If you do that, I’m going to tear up and I’m too old for that.”

I let him go and sat down. He cleared his throat.

“This chair, Kate, it isn’t a bad thing.”

“But you can’t walk.”

He raised his hand. “Hear me out. Before this injury, I had never been seriously ill. I’m a physician who understood what it’s like to be sick but had never personally felt the impact of a life-threatening disease or experienced a significant injury. This chair made me a better physician. It has given me a new perspective. Tell me, when you see me rolling toward you in the hall, do you see me or do you see the chair?”

“I see you.” Of course I saw him. He was still Doolittle.

He smiled. “My point exactly. I’ve come to believe that the word ‘disabled’ is a misnomer. ‘Disabled’ implies that you are broken beyond use. No longer functional. I’m quite abled. I may no longer participate in field operations, but I’m a better teacher now. I require additional arrangements to negotiate a flight of stairs, but I stop to smell the proverbial roses more often. I’m fortunate to have bowel control, and while my bladder requires occasional use of a catheter, I refuse to be defined by which functions my body can or cannot perform well. Quite frankly, I’m more than the sum of my physical parts. I’ve come to terms with my new life and achieved personal happiness. Whether or not I will recover pales in comparison. Does that make sense?”

“It does.”

I poured him more tea and poured myself some.

“I should’ve been dead,” he said. “I have no prior experience with this specific injury on which to base my judgment, so I don’t know if this partial recovery comes because Lyc-V is repairing my body or if this is the result of what Hugh did, an extended residual healing. I believe that every time the magic wave comes, it heals me a little more, but it’s not something I can measure. Ascanio should be dead as well.”

“But he isn’t.” I still couldn’t quite believe it. As soon as I had a free minute, I’d go down to the med ward and beat the shit out of Ascanio for his wendigo heroics. Assuming there was anything left of him after Andrea and Martina were done with him.

Maybe I was dreaming. Maybe all this was just wishful thinking.

“He’s remarkable,” Doolittle said.

“Hugh?”

“Yes. I’m a powerful medmage, but he is truly gifted.” Doolittle looked at me. “He’s a miracle worker.”

“Sometimes. Mostly he’s a butcher.”

“I’m trying to understand why.”

I sighed. “Voron, my adoptive father, found Hugh on the street in England. Hugh was seven years old. His mother died when he was four and somehow he ended up begging instead of being sent through the system. The homeless fed him, because he could cure them. When Voron found him, he was borderline feral.

“Voron took the boy to Roland, who determined that Hugh had an enormous magic reservoir at his disposal. His raw power is staggering, and Roland saw an opportunity. At the time Voron served as Roland’s warlord, but Roland knew he would need a replacement. Voron had no magic power. He was a supreme swordsman and strategist, but his time was at an end. Magic was growing stronger and stronger and Roland realized he would need someone who could use it. Hugh was in the right place at the right time. Roland gave him to Voron and my adoptive father forged him into a general the way one would forge a sword. He did an excellent job and that’s how Hugh became the lovely psychopath we all know and want to kill.”

Doolittle’s eyes widened. “He could’ve been anything. He could’ve saved thousands over his lifetime. The amount of good he could’ve done. What kind of twisted mind would look at that miracle child and make him into a killer?”

“That’s how Roland works. He sees the hidden potential in people.”

Doolittle drew back. “That’s not potential.”

“Yes, it is. Hugh enjoys what he does. He’s frighteningly good at it.”

Doolittle shook his head.

I rose. “Look out the window.”

Doolittle rolled his chair up to the window and looked down at the courtyard for a moment.

“What did you see?”

“People working.”

I turned to the window, glanced down briefly, and then turned my back to it. “Left tower, four people, two men on top working on the scorpio, a woman in the second-floor window with a crossbow, a man on the balcony. Courtyard left to right: two women in the far left corner working on a Jeep; Jim, talking to Yolanda and Colin, who are his trackers; a man and two teenagers carrying beams, probably to reinforce the gate. The man has a knee injury and favors his left leg.”

“Three teenagers,” Doolittle said. “One caught up while you were talking.”

“This is how I was trained. It’s part of the skill set I needed to survive. This is what I do. If I had to, I could go through that courtyard with a sword and cut my way through them. It would cost me, but at the end I would kill or maim all of them and on some deep level I would enjoy it, because I would be doing what I’m good at, what I’ve been trained to do. Hugh is like me. You look at him and see the special child who was diverted from his path. I look at him and see a man who revels in what he does. Hugh could’ve healed thousands, but he would’ve never been as happy as when he slaughtered the Order’s knights in their own chapterhouse.”

“It’s not always about one’s personal happiness. Sometimes it has to be about the obligation we have to others. A duty to pay back for the gift you were given.”

“Is that why you became a physician?”

Doolittle sighed. “I was already a physician, a very freshly minted one, but still a physician, when I realized I had medical magic. It came together with the shapeshifting. That last bit I had kept to myself. I wasn’t sure what to think or how to handle it. At that point, medical magic was new, and to have someone with the capability who already had medical knowledge was very rare. I was one of two physicians with medmage abilities in our graduating class. Jim’s father, Eric Shrapshire, was the other. We both found ourselves in a delicate position. There was a lot of pressure to go into research. We both received offers to go private, catering to a single family on an exclusive basis. A lot of the offers were very lucrative and I was seriously considering some of them.”

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