It’s hard to believe I only started following NCT in March this year. During the first days of getting into the K-pop boy group, my friend and I would caution ourselves not to get in too deep. I still remember how it started. It was the last day of February. I was hungover. I, for reasons I cannot remember, opened my laptop that day to a YouTube tab with NCT 127’s Highway to Heaven music video. I watched it and thought, Wow, why am I only watching this now? I sent the link to my friend. More NCT links got sent in our chat that day. The next thing we knew, we were choosing our biases.
During those early days, and before quarantine in mid-March, we would send each other links to YouTube compilations of the “vines that butter my croissant” genre. Late at night in Manila, I would laugh over videos like NCT vines that make me live longer, or NCT vines that overheat my phone, with my friend just beginning his day somewhere in Pennsylvania. These videos felt like foundational material to us, because they served as summaries to the years of NCT we’d missed (the group debuted in 2016). By the time quarantine started, we knew a handful of inside jokes in the fandom, ships included. By month’s end, we were emotionally invested in all three subunits of NCT (note: that’s 21 members).
We barely mentioned fanfiction then, except to express our ambivalence toward it. I remember seeing fanfic about NCT 127’s Johnny and Jaehyun and telling my friend, “I will not go there,” to which he replied, “Did we not learn from Larry (Stylinson)?”
I have a somewhat fraught history with real-person fanfiction (or RPF), particularly with One Direction’s Larry Stylinson or Larry (as Harry and Louis’s ship name was called). In between writing papers in my third year of college, I would read all possible Larry AUs (alternative universes) I could find on archiveofourown.org or ao3. But it got unhealthy when I started going through Tumblr blogs explaining how Harry and Louis had matching tattoos, or how they would glance longingly at each other on-stage (cue hundreds of slow-mo edits of them eyeballing each other at concerts), implying that they were really together in real life.
I thought nothing of it then, but now it seems so fascinating to me how tropes and lore in fanfiction could bleed into fans’ perceptions of celebrities’ real lives. Months after One Direction announced their hiatus, I saw someone say that fans’ insistence on Larry (see: “LARRY IS REAL!!!!” flooding comments sections of One Direction videos) actually drove a wedge between the two members, or at least made them awkward around each other. This was the kind of thing I didn’t want to be responsible for, getting into NCT. Real-person fanfiction seemed to me like a childish preoccupation. I didn’t think it would enrich my experience as a fan either, especially when there was an excess of NCT videos I still had not watched— from variety show appearances, to reality shows, to special YouTube series, to VLive backlogs. And besides, isn’t using real people as characters in a fictional story just plain weird anyway?
Jeno knows he’s completely fucked when Jaemin smiles at him in the hallway. It’s not an unusual occurrence; Jaemin’s done this about a hundred times since they became friends. It’s really not a big deal.
And yet in the last week of May, I found myself reeling in unadulterated delight from reading two 70k-word Nomin fics within the span of four days. Nomin is another NCT ship, its two halves being Jeno and Jaemin from NCT Dream. I don’t think I can narrow down my reason for finally taking NCT RPF seriously to just one thing. My friend had been sending me links to a Tagalog Twitter RPF featuring some members from all NCT subunits. By then he’d also been reading a 99k-word Renmin (another NCT Dream ship, this time with members Renjun and Jaemin) fic on ao3. It might be a little silly, but I remember thinking, Oh no, is this where our fan rituals finally diverge? It would’ve been a big deal for me — my friend getting into fanfic as I resumed with the usual Vlive and NCT Daily marathons and what have you — because since March we had been in sync. That my friend would get into fanfic felt like a small betrayal, especially when I told him I didn’t want to cross that line.
But then it was mid-May, and stan Twitter was getting unbearable. NCT Dream’s comeback had just ended to make way for NCT 127’s, so naturally there was in-fighting within the NCT fandom. So many Twitter threads about how the company favored one subunit over the other, about how certain members were more deserving and talented than others, about which comeback was superior. It was sheer annoyance that led me to ao3.
Choosing Nomin as the ship to search for was easy— Jeno is my bias and it’s the most popular ship he’s in. But selecting which Nomin fic to read was the trickier thing, and a fun process on its own. Scrolling through search results, I saw just how weird some fics could be, simultaneously remembering that I used to read Larry fanfic set in dystopia, or fics with them as warlocks or werewolves or fairies. It was also fun to see how fanfic had evolved since my days in the Larry hole in 2015. There were tags that suggested a ship or a dynamic was present “if you squint,” and there were AUs that were probably unique to K-pop (e.g. Korean royalty fics). After going through pages of search results that night, I ended up devouring two one-shot fics by the same ao3 author— one camping fic inspired by NCT Dream’s song Fireflies and another canon universe fic called Pyrite Heart, which touched on the pressures of being a K-pop idol. After those two, I wanted more.
The next day, I would come across @afterwordmin on Twitter and start reading her Nomin college AU, which by then had been 350 tweets long. Twitter fics were yet another new thing to me. In Twitter fics, what media studies scholar Judith Fathallah calls “multimodality” becomes even more palpable. Twitter fics, like many ao3 fics, are serial, meaning writers don’t drop the entire thing in one go. But what’s fascinating about Twitter fics is how writers would solicit comments through curiouscat and Twitter polls, modes that can be considered a notch above ao3’s comments section. Readers actually have the capacity to stir the plot, as polls often ask readers where they want the story to go.
Predictably, I consumed what was then the 350-tweet monstrosity that was afterwordmin’s college AU in two days. I felt cheated when I found out it was an ongoing fic, and that I wouldn’t get the conclusion to Jeno and Jaemin’s story any time soon. Now the thread is at 384 tweets with no sign of an ending. That’s another thing with Twitter fics, I learned. Writers rarely seem to know when the story would end. The website affords a very free writing experience.
afterwordmin’s betrayal was how my friend and I found ourselves on ao3 again, browsing through the catalogue of Nomin fics, looking for at least one good fic with closure. What’s great about ao3 is how you can customize your search to easily find fics that would suit your taste. My friend discovered ao3 author Kihyunie this way. “I searched Nomin, sorted by kudos, and ignored the ones that had words like…anal in the tags,” he told me.
We often joke about how we’re prude fans, always on the soft side of the hard/soft stan divide. Even when I was reading Larry fanfic years before, I never ventured into smut. It felt like such an intrusive thing— to construct a very intimate dynamic like a sex life using real people. But then again, make out scenes have always been perfectly fine with me, so I have no moral ascendancy when it comes to these things. I’ve just come to accept that the ethics of reading and writing fanfic using real people will always be murky and never universal. I’m of the persuasion that it’s okay, as long as the real people featured in the fic never read it. How likely are Korean boys to read fanfic written in English, anyway? But elsewhere people have argued about valid concerns like invasion of privacy and libel. “Why not just change their names?” some people would ask. Any reader of RPF would know that it’s just not the same. It’s more than just putting a face to a name. How else would it make sense that AU Jaemin hates strawberry-flavored things? Only because real-life Jaemin hates strawberry-flavored things! Why does AU Jeno have bad eyesight? Because real-life Jeno has bad eyesight!
I pushed these concerns aside as I read Kihyunie’s one-shot college AU fic Take All That Is Yours, and — because I couldn’t get enough of her writing — later her multi-chapter fics called Gold Dustand We Can Be Braver. Downloaded as PDF, the three works would be around 450 pages altogether, which means I read a novel and a half within four days. I had read very few books at this pace since I started reading novels when I was 12. After the Kihyunie fic binge, my friend and I would call ourselves “Kihyunie stans”— and yes, I wrote to her on curiouscat — admiring her unadorned prose, her wonderful portrayal of teenage love, and her ability to write characters that felt whole and not just like caricatures of their idol personas.
It was obvious that she paid a lot of attention to craft. I remember reading one of her notes in the last fic— “I rewrote the first kiss scene about ten times and hope I got it right”— and thinking, Wow, that’s some real dedication for fanfic. I could see that she was a serious writer. She did a lot of research, for one, on the cities she used as settings in Gold Dust. She didn’t glamorize coming out in We Can Be Braver, and was even self-reflexive about some of her turns to flamboyance. But if the English language ever comes up with a commensurate translation to kilig, that would be the perfect word to describe what I felt reading her fics.
As we gushed about her writing, my friend and I even ended up talking about some adolescent puppy love shenanigans of ours— things we had never talked about before— leading us to reflect on how ridiculous being a teenager felt, and nonetheless how fantastic. It might sound dramatic, but reading these fics together made me feel closer to my friend, who is quite literally an ocean away. I don’t think I would’ve enjoyed reading fanfic had my friend not read it with me.
The question of ethics will always be there. I can always say that the versions of idols we read in fanfic are just as fictional, just as curated, as the idols we come to know through VLives and behind-the-scenes content. I can always say I’m mature enough to distinguish between what’s real and what’s fiction, that I’m not so delusional as to think my fanfic ships are real. But I also appreciate that I can have a complicated relationship with something like fanfic and K-pop, things people— and even myself months ago— often look down on as shallow, immature fixations.
I admire Kihyunie the way I would any writer friend of mine— I am sincerely rooting for her and her writing. She’s really raised my standards when it comes to RPF. In fact, I haven’t even read anything new on ao3 or Twitter since I finished We Can Be Braver. So please, let me know if you ever come across Nomin fic that can make your heart stutter out of time, because I would gladly devour it so quickly no matter the word count.
Jeno really wants to smile back but Jaemin touches his hand in passing, squeezing his fingers briefly, and Jeno just kind of loses it. Because this is real now, he’s said it out loud to himself yesterday, it’s true, he likes Jaemin. In the I like like you way. In the please kiss me way.
So Jaemin smiles like always and Jeno chokes a little because every time he does it, every time he throws his affection all over the place like it’s easy, Jeno is a little more starstruck. He feels like he’s completely made of jelly for the second that Jaemin’s fingers press against his skin and he prays to every deity that Jaemin doesn’t notice how he’s freezing up.
But Jaemin doesn’t seem to. He breezes past him with a laugh, vanishes in the stream of students and leaves Jeno breathless, his heart stuttering out of time.
Art by Koalanov
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