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uncast shadows

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Namjoon is nine the first time he really, really feels it. He’s at his friend’s house, Minsoo waxing poetic about the newest Pokemon game he just borrowed from his older brother. They’re in the living room when Minsoo’s mom comes in with a plate of cut-up apples. She’s been skinnier lately, Namjoon notes. Frail, less skin and more bones.

When she reaches down to ruffle Namjoon’s hair, he feels it. A little knot, somewhere inside her, like a hard stone.

He hasn’t manifested yet, his power still simmering under his skin for now. There’s usually a trigger, his pediatrician told his parents. Kids will manifest their power once they need to use it.

So Namjoon, nine years old and curious as hell, does what anyone his age would do. He pokes the knot.

It feels– it felt– it’s like every cell is his body is made of dynamite. It’s like he’s eating himself from the inside out, a pain so visceral and electric that he can’t even scream, can’t even breathe. He drops to the floor, convulsing wildly. His vision is white, black, red, white, black, red.

When he comes to, Minsoo is by his head, sobbing, and Minsoo’s mother is cradling Namjoon like a baby.

“What,” he croaks out. His throat is hoarse. “What happened?”

Minsoo just keeps crying.

Within a week, Minsoo’s mother calls his parents. They talk for a long, long time, leaving Namjoon up in his room to fester with guilt. Did she feel what he did?

When his dad comes in, he looks– the blinding joy on his face is almost too much, whiplash for nine-year-old Namjoon.

“Namjoon-ah,” he says, still smiling like every tooth in his mouth needs to see the light of day, “Namjoon-ah. I just got off the phone with Minsoo’s mother. She told us something really– just wonderful. She told us something amazing.”

Namjoon’s mother sits next to him on the bed.

“Namjoon-ah, you know what cancer is, right?”

Namjoon frowns, trying to remember. “I think someone in a book I read had it. Is it– an illness? A bad one?”

“Yes,” his mother says. “Minsoo’s mom had cancer. She was really sick. The doctors said they couldn’t help her with medicine and the healers were too expensive.”

“Okay,” Namjoon says, not really seeing the point.

“Namjoon-ah,” his dad says, and the smile has water behind it now, wet in his eyes. “When you touched her, you took it away from her. She’s going to live.”

“But–” There’s no way. “But it hurt so bad,” Namjoon says. His mother strokes his head. “Was it supposed to hurt?”

Namjoon finds that it is supposed to hurt.

“It’s not actually one power,” Dr. Kang, Namjoon’s pediatrician, explains. “It’s two powers that have kind of... intermingled. He’s got immunity, that one we already suspected, because he’s never been sick but... this must be some sort of absorption. He takes the ailment, absorbs it into his body, and then cures it.”

“And that’s why it hurts?” Namjoon asks. No one answers him.

To his parent’s credit, they never force him into anything. He’s heard horror stories of healer children kidnapped and forced to spend day after day just using their powers until they’re dried up.

Namjoon decides, in that doctor’s office at age nine, that he never wants to feel that way again. It’s a stupid, childish pact, but it rests in his long-term memory and, even in the depths of his own teenage self-hatred, he can’t make himself break the promise he made his younger self. In his memory, the pain seems to grow as time goes by, reaching an almost intolerable thing to recall.

After high school, Namjoon gets a nursing degree, figuring that even if he won’t make people better with his powers, he can learn how to heal them with normal medicine.

He doesn’t want to cure cancer.

He just wants a normal job and a normal life and to stop sensing everyone’s pain all the time. So he takes a job at a clinic in the Dongjak district in Seoul, where he conceals his abilities and holds hands with kids and stitches up the gash in their chin, thinking the whole time about how much easier it would be to just do it himself.

It pays well. He doesn’t hate it. He doesn’t.

He just wishes he could be brave enough to heal something that really, really hurts again, for someone who deserves it. If he was a misanthrope, he could assuage his guilt with the knowledge that no one completely deserves it. Minsoo’s mother left her family after she was cured, found her second wind and rode it to another country, another husband.

Bad things don’t just happen to good people, Namjoon rationalizes. But he’s not a misanthrope. He’s optimistic to a fault, and that’s why it eats at him, the childish decision he made to never heal anything serious ever again.

Yoongi, Namjoon’s roommate, says he never has to do anything he doesn’t want to do, but all Yoongi can do is talk to cats, so Namjoon doesn’t put that much stock in what he says. Dr. Kang had estimated that there’s somewhere between 80 and 100 people with abilities like his in Korea. Twenty healers are in Seoul. Not enough.

Casual touch doesn’t come easy to Namjoon anymore, even though he can turn his skin on and off like he’s got batteries. It’s still scary, something he feels like a coward for trying to avoid. To make him feel better, sometimes Yoongi threatens to eat spoiled meat or stub his toe just to make Namjoon feel useful again.

“Namjoon-ah,” Yoongi says. It’s a Saturday, stale and hot. Namjoon doesn’t work Saturdays, isn’t a fan of the leftover Friday-night injuries worn by stubborn people who refused to go to the ER last night.

“Joon-ah. I have a papercut.”

“Hyung,” Namjoon says, putting down his phone. The news is blowing up, something about a fifth-ward villain stealing an armored truck. “You have a papercut, or you gave yourself a papercut?”

“Does everything need an origin story? Sometimes hyung just has a papercut, and sometimes hyung just wants someone heal his wounds before he gets sepsis,” Yoongi bites back. He’s lying in front of the fan, monopolizing the stream of cool air. He holds his hand out, dangling it in front of Namjoon face lazily.

Namjoon sighs.

“You know,” Yoongi says, “if we got a cat, I bet it would scratch me a lot. It would be nice to have you around, if we got a cat.”

“We don’t need a cat,” Namjoon says, grimacing as he grabs Yoongi’s hand in his and laces their fingers together. He can feel the skin on his own finger burn like its split. It barely stings. “Your boyfriend comes over all the time anyway.”

“He doesn’t count. I want a real cat,” Yoongi says with a pout. They don’t stop holding hands.

“Just start talking to the cats out in the alley again,” Namjoon says. “I’m sure they miss you.”

“They’re gossipy bitches, like furry little ahjummas. If Taehyung was here he would agree with me.”

“Why doesn’t he fly over, then?” Namjoon asks.

“Oh, when he was a sparrow last week, he almost got hit by a taxi. It was super scary. He’s taking a break from hollow-boned animals,” Yoongi explains.

When Yoongi introduced them the first time, he had described Taehyung as one of the most powerful people he’d ever met. Namjoon took one look at Taehyung, sprawled on their floor trying to sip out of a water bottle while lying down, and thought Yoongi was kidding.

“So, what can you even do?” Namjoon asked, more than a little bitchy.

Taehyung had grinned up at him and transformed into a shark.

In retrospect, transforming into marine life on dry land was a pretty good metaphor for the way Taehyung chose to use his powers. A waste, intentionally unnecessary and useless.

“Does he know?” Namjoon had asked Yoongi once, after watching Taehyung transform his arms into tentacles to clear out the garbage disposal. “Does he know that people would kill to do something useful with his power?”

Yoongi gave him a look so scathing Namjoon felt like he was frying. “You’re such a fucking hypocrite.”

So yeah, Namjoon gets it now. He gets what Taehyung is trying to do. Every day that he wakes up and chooses not to be brave or strong is a fuck you to the hero pipeline. Yoongi tells him it’s not that deep, but sometimes, when Yoongi is in the shower or late getting home from work and it’s just the two of them, Namjoon can see that Taehyung isn’t a slacker or a loser, like he’s sure Taehyung has been told.

He doesn’t want to be important. He just wants to be happy.

When Namjoon wakes up from a very sticky, sweaty couch nap, Yoongi is gone and the door to his bedroom is closed. Namjoon gets this restless, extroverted feeling, like he needs to be around enough people to feel the heartbeat of a crowd. It’s past seven and the heat of the day has finally broken, so Namjoon gets on his bike and heads out.

He takes the long way to the river because he can, because the fastest route passes in front of the children’s ward of the university hospital. The whole point of the bike ride is always to clear his mind and keep him focused, not... whatever emotional impact that would have on him.

But he always fantasizes anyway, of a Namjoon that could walk into the hospital and say, “I’m here to make everything better.” He could empty it out in a month. He knows he could.

He bikes under a tunnel, knows exactly where he’s going before his brain can even register it. He doesn’t know the guy’s name or anything about him, but he knows where he sleeps and he knows what state the guy is probably in. To his credit, he’s right. The man is tucked into the crack of the side of the tunnel, wrapped in a sleeping bag and a long coat despite the oppressive heat of the day.

He pulls over, parks his bike and approaches the man slowly, not knowing if he’s asleep.

“Hey,” Namjoon murmurs. “Hey, ahjussi, wake up.” He nudges the man a little, taps on his shoulder. The man groans. “Ahjussi, c’mon, please wake up. It’s me.”

“Yah, it’s fuckin’ four am, what the fuck?” the man grumbles.

“It’s 7:30, ahjussi, please wake up,” Namjoon says, crouching next to the man.”Remember me?”

The man nods.

Namjoon takes a deep breath. “You ready?” he asks, holds out his hand. The man stirs, eyes dull, but he holds out one of his palms. His hand shakes, like he’s just old, but Namjoon knows what it is and how it’s going to feel.

He grasps the man’s hand and pokes the knot.

Namjoon’s whole body starts to shiver and shake. The pain is exquisite, holding his tongue ransom in his mouth as he tries to scream but can’t, won’t. The burning in his side is intense, a red-hot knife shoved between his ribs and he tries and fails to keep his composure. He gags, dry-heaving and hyperventilating, letting the pain leech out of his body the same way it came in.

He settles down after a bit, feeling like he aged five decades in five seconds.

Curing cirrhosis is an exercise in futility. The liver has a good memory, and the man’s body is getting worn out.

“Ahjussi–” Namjoon croaks out. “You know what I’m going to say, right?”

“I know, I know. Thank you. I– thank you,” the man says. He doesn’t move, content to stay curled around himself out of the way of the wind and sun. Namjoon nods slowly, gets back on his bike and pedals away. He’s stupid to still expect that the man will get up and start doing jumping jacks but Namjoon hopes, god, he hopes. Stupid.

Namjoon wishes, not for the first time and certainly not the last, that he could cure mental illnesses like he can cure physical ones.


The clinic has been slow, slow, slow. It’s like the heat has kept everyone from doing anything stupid.

“Honestly, all I’ve done is give some stitches,” Hoseok tells him, rubbing his eyes with a pair of his hands. “Seokjin left at two.” He takes the other pair of hands and ruffles his hair, unsticking it from his sweaty forehead.

The clinic is pretty small, on the third floor of a building with only a couple in-window AC units. It’s fucking hot. In the summer, they stick bowls of ice in front of fans or just sit with their faces in the freezer for a while. It usually works.

Namjoon likes when he has shifts with Hoseok. He’s professional, patient, and puts on this cute squeaky voice with kids. He loves what he does with such full-bodied passion that sometimes Namjoon thinks that could be him as well. That he could just fall into loving this job the same way Hoseok does and just coast on the dopamine until he’s all full up.

He thinks maybe Hoseok and him could be more than coworkers if they got out of the clinic, but there’s a barrier they’ve both put up. Hoseok is professional to a fault.

The late afternoon shift passes without consequence, stale and routine. Namjoon does some stitches and inspects a rash he knows is an STI but doesn’t feel like healing. It’s an hour before close when Hoseok talks to him again.

“Fuck,” he says. “Check it out.” He holds out his phone to Namjoon, hand shaking a little.


“This just happened?” Namjoon asks. The bank is only a few blocks away.

“Yeah, just got the alert. Listen, I gotta– I just– Is it cool if you close up solo? It’s just–” Hoseok stutters. He wrings two of his hands together, a nervous tic that’s at the top of his nervous tics list. “I just– well, you know I don’t fuck with all that hero shit.”

“Of course, go, go, no problem,” Namjoon says.

Namjoon, as a professional in repressing trauma, can tell that Hoseok has some shit brewing under his skin, but he doesn’t poke the knot. Not even metaphorically.

He waits for closing alone, reorganizing the cotton swabs in the supply closet and throwing in a load of laundry. He’s elbow-deep in a bag of scrubs when he hears the tell-tale sound of someone coming up the stairs to the clinic. Their gait is uneven, ominously ragged in the silence of the stairwell outside.

The chime on the door jingles.

“Um, excuse me,” a high voice rings out. The vowels are a little slurred, either with an accent Namjoon can’t place or something else. He comes out of the back room to find a terrifying, almost comical scene before him.

The guy looks young, Namjoon’s age or maybe even younger. He’s got smooth skin, a youthful face that doesn’t totally jive with his body. From the waist up, he’s proportioned normally, but one of his legs is grotesque, easily five feet long and dragging limply behind him like toilet paper on the bottom of a shoe.

“Can you help me?” he asks, looking up at Namjoon with desperate, shiny eyes. Namjoon can see that he’s breathing heavily, eyes fluttering shut, and even more importantly, Namjoon can see the trail of blood that marks the path the guy made up the stairs.

“Yeah, shit, yeah of course, hold on–” Namjoon says, rushing to get the guy into a chair before he collapses. He drags over the guy’s leg carefully, and the guy whimpers in pain.

“Sorry, sorry, I just have to see what we’re working with,” Namjoon says, staring down at the misshapen, distended leg with thinly veiled horror.

“I stretch,” the guy says, exhaling and inhaling roughly.

“You what?” Namjoon is worried he’s going to hyperventilate, so he starts rubbing comforting little circles into the man’s other leg, like he does to kids. His heart feels like it’s beating out of his chest, his blood running through his body a mile a minute. He’s in over his fucking head.

“I’m– I stretch. I’m stretchy,” the guy grunts out, and with some effort extends the length of his fingers until they look like cooked noodles, and then snaps them back to normal. “But if I snap my leg back–” the guy grunts again, gesturing to his leg– “it’ll get all fucked up.”

“So why– why didn’t you just, uh, stretch the other leg out to match it so you could walk easier?” Namjoon asks, grabbing a pair of scissors to cut the fabric around the man’s leg. The guy laughs weakly, and Namjoon is sure with every cell in his body that this guy would have a nice laugh if he wasn’t losing a quarter of his blood right now. It’s warm and high, and it turns his whole face upwards.

“You’re smart, huh,” the guy huffs out with a blinding smile. “I’m– ah, I’m Jimin.”

“Oh, I’m–”

“Namjoon-ssi, right?” Jimin asks.

Namjoon gapes. “Are you psychic too?”

Jimin laughs again, and it pulls at Namjoon’s heart. “No, just got eyes.” He stretches one of his fingers to tap the nametag affixed to Namjoon’s scrubs. Namjoon blushes as the guy smiles again. Then he grunts, listing to the side in the chair.

“Namjoon-ssi, would you do me the honor of getting me fixed up?” Jimin chokes out. His face is pale, almost waxy. Namjoon finally draws his eyes off of Jimin’s face to take a look at the gash on his thigh. He balks. Through the layers of tight black fabric, he can see a cut so deep that he’s shocked Jimin is still upright. It would take at least seventy stitches, and they don’t have that kind of time and Namjoon doesn’t have enough lidocaine to cauterize a wound that big and–

“Okay,” Namjoon says, and takes a deep breath. “I’m gonna do something, but you can’t tell anyone.

“Ooh, a secret,” Jimin mumbles, his eyes closing again. He lists to the side again, almost falling out of the chair.

“No, no, Jimin-ssi, c’mon,” Namjoon says, grabbing his face before he keels over. “Stay with me, c’mon.” He pokes around inside Jimin, looking frantically for the knot. He finds it, some tangled ugly thing he can see behind his eyes.

His last thought before he pokes it is, I will not let myself piss my pants in front of this beautiful boy.

The pain is searing, burning through his bloodstream. He can feel every nerve in his leg split, fray and tangle back together just as quickly. He wills himself not to make a sound, just bows his head and breathes heavily through his nose as the pain washes over him. He doesn’t want to show it on his face, needs to look tough and strong and capable in front of someone else even though he’s the farthest thing from it.

The worst of the pain passes after a few seconds, and when he looks up, the gash on Jimin’s thigh is gone, leaving behind a faint pink line and a few bloodstains.

“Holy shit,” Jimin breathes out. “What the fuck, you can heal?” He starts reeling his leg back in until it matches the other. Now that Namjoon has the time to look, he notices that Jimin’s thighs are really fucking nice. In fact, with his cheeks pinking back up and life in his eyes, Namjoon realizes Jimin is probably the hottest person he’s touched in a really long time.

He jerks his hands away from Jimin’s face like he still hurts to touch.

“I have to– I’m sorry, every time someone comes in with a wound like that we have to do mandatory reporting– it’s this dumb new thing–” Namjoon stutters out, puttering around the clinic until he can find the file cabinet where they keep the forms. “Prevents unlicensed heroes from– well, you know. Since we’re not an emergency room.”

Jimin looks a bit shifty, the lowlight of the room casting wavy shadows on his face. He stands up shakily and walks over to Namjoon. “That really isn’t necessary right?” Jimin leans one shoulder against the filing cabinet, closing the drawer with his hip, and looks up at Namjoon with a sly smile. There’s this taunting look in his eyes, like he knows Namjoon is going to say yes and he’s just waiting to hear it.

Namjoon can feel his heart start to beat faster, whether from the prospect of lying to his supervisor or the way Jimin’s only showing half his teeth and none of his cards.

“It’s just–” Jimin pauses, exhaling slowly and puffing his cheeks out– “Well, am I right in thinking you also know what it’s like to keep secrets, Namjoon-ssi?”

Namjoon looks down at Jimin, at his ripped-up tight black clothing and black leather gloves and the little scar on his face that looks freshly healed and something dull and heavy thuds into place in his head.

“So, so you– the bank–” Namjoon stutters out.

“–I didn’t rob it, if that’s what you want to know. I didn’t,” Jimin says. He looks at Namjoon different, searching his face for any sign of deceit. Namjoon feels like an open book with very thin pages, just a bundle of tracing paper fixed together with old, brittle thread.

The open expression on his face must tell Jimin everything he needs to know.

“I feel like I can trust you, right? Like we can trust each other,” Jimin says with a wink. Namjoon knows winks are cheesy, the lowest rung on the ladder of blatant flirtation, but his heart beats all weird anyway.

“As long as you didn’t hurt anyone, I don’t wanna know,” Namjoon says. Jimin smiles again, lets Namjoon see all his teeth.

“I like the sound of that, Namjoon-ssi,” Jimin says. “And, I won’t tell anyone what you just did for me, because that’s how much I appreciate it.”

“O-oh, yeah, please don’t,” Namjoon says. Jimin holds up his pinky, and Namjoon is distraught to see how small and chubby his fingers are.

“You wanna do a pinky promise?” Jimin asks.

“Oh, sorry, I... I don’t really... touch people...” Namjoon stutters out. “I don’t like finding out someone is gonna die or something.”

Jimin’s face falls slightly, but then his eyes get wide and he says, “I’ll just do it for you, then!” He hooks his pinkies together and looks Namjoon dead in the eyes. “There.”